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Saturday, 30 April 2016

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress E3


Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
Episode 3
Prayer Offer



To be honest, this episode could have been titled 'Mumei causes a steady stream of PR disasters because she doesn't comprehend the situation she's in', and that's - annoying. We'll talk about how annoying that is, as this show rapidly runs down all the reserves of good will it built up in the first episode, in a moment.

Having revealed themselves to be kabaneri, human-kabane hybrids with a kabane body and a human mind, Ikoma and Mumei agree to be confined to the boiler car until the Kotetsujou reaches Kongokaku, a stronghold of the shogun. When the train stops for water and the people on board begin a funeral for their dead, Mumei leaves the boiler car, tracking a kabane that she senses. Meanwhile, after a small band of citizens come after the kabaneri, Ayame executes a daring plan to prove their loyalty - only to find herself in deadly danger from Ikoma.

Okay, let's talk about Mumei. The episode is basically just a long string of her alienating people and making them more afraid. She openly threatens to kill everyone multiple times, promises not to leave the boiler car before leaving it twice, and plays with children only to immediately and openly ask for blood to eat. If Mumei had meant to be somebody who had never interacted with another human being before, that would make sense, but we've seen in the past two episodes that she spends most of her time around people and seems to be at least a known figure at court, so why is this only a problem now?

Kurusu, one of the few tolerable characters.

Not to mention, there are far better ways she could have achieved all of her goals. She wants to ride on the train? Well, calmly and reasonably explaining her situation and making that promise to stay in the boiler car earlier would have saved her a lot of strife. She senses a kabane and needs to find them? Why not open a door, call for a guard, and have them fetch either Ayame or Kurusu? Once they knew about the kabane, she could have been escorted through the train by Kurusu and a few trusted guard. She needs blood? Again, call Ayame. Explain the situation to her. 

It's not like Ayame isn't willing to listen, nor does it seem like she has anything better to do.

Mumei's antics are the cause of ninety percent of the conflict in this episode, and it all feels so false - and, from a writing standpoint, is it even necessary? Instead of having Mumei cheerfully tell people she needs blood, why not have her abrasively tell Ayame and Kurusu, and have a guard let it slip to the people? Why not have her sense imminent danger from a kabane and react rashly because of that, instead of having her seem perfectly calm as she breaks her word and goes roaming through the train?

It's just all so, so unnecessary.

A sad kabane.

Ikoma's branch of the storyline isn't much better, either, because Ikoma is about as interesting as a block of wood at this point. I was interested in when he first showed up, but at the moment he seems to be a very one-note character - he doesn't like kabane, and that's more or less it. 

He's possibly meant to be reminiscent of Eren Jaeger, who was also single-mindedly obsessed with his monster of choice, but the difference is that Eren had a very large supporting cast to balance him out, and his obsessive nature often brought him into conflict with their more balanced, reasonable approaches. Ikoma has Mumei, Ayame, and Kurusu, and Mumei barely has a personality other than 'annoying and mysterious.'

(The best part of this episode, without a doubt, was Kurusu and his sister(?) arguing with each other. It's about three seconds of a dialogue, but it stands out, as it humanises Kurusu, who is otherwise a very flat, one-note 'angry bodyguard' type character. Actually, can we just get rid of Ikoma and Mumei and have the show be about Ayame and Kurusu? That'd be great.)

So many warm tones in this series, it's nice.

The episode ends on a slightly creepy (and not in a good way) note, as Ikoma apparently goes zombie-crazy as a result of being stabbed, and pins Ayame down while trying to bite her. There are overtones of sexual assault abound, and it's a very uncomfortable few seconds that's sure to lead in to a very uncomfortable beginning to the next episode. Yay.

According to the preview, the next episode will also see a kabane attack on the train, which might, if we're lucky, get the show back on track. At the moment, though, we're nearing the end of my supply of good will, and we're getting to the point where I'm going to start actively disliking this show if it doesn't pick up in quality.

Egh.

Friday, 29 April 2016

Legends of Tomorrow S1E13: Leviathan


Legends of Tomorrow
Series 1, Episode 13
Leviathan.



Okay, so before I say anything, I want to point an accusatory finger at Arrow for their final scene this week, a scene at Laurel's funeral which we'd previously seen before as a flash-forward. In this version of the scene, as with the flash-forward, we saw Barry speeding away, thus killing any dramatic tension in The Flash right now. What makes this really baffling for me, though, is that this week's Flash episode gave the Arrow writers an out for this, by having this week's episode open with a What-If spot where we see Barry zooming around as if he still had his speed. Presented with a golden opportunity to cash in on that and maintain dramatic tension by just having Barry walk away, revealing the flash-forward to have been subject to a similar What-If filter, Arrow chose not to do that. For shame.

Okay, mini-rant over, let's talk about Legends of Tomorrow.

In this week's episode, the team arrives in London, three days before Rip's wife and child are due to be killed by Vandal. Setting out to capture Vandal as he leaves a speech, the team fail, but uncover something of interest: A bracelet on the wrist of Vandal's lieutenant, which, having belonged to Kendra in her first life, can be used to kill Vandal. After capturing the lieutenant, revealed to be Cassandra Savage, Vandal's daughter, the team splits into different roles: As Kendra melts down the bracelet to cover Carter's mace so that she can kill Vandal with it, Len attempts to convince Cassandra to turn against her father, while Ray prepares to take on the Leviathan, a giant nuclear-powered robot that Vandal has sent to retrieve his daughter. But when Vandal reveals another ace up his sleeve, Kendra is faced with a difficult choice.

Ninety-nine percent certain we saw this set in another episode.

Not an impossible choice, I should note. In fact, I think that it's actually a pretty obvious, if very painful, choice, and that was one of the things that grated on me about this episode. The choice Kendra is given is that if she kills Vandal - thus saving Rip's wife and child, as well as untold others, I should note - then Carter, who Vandal is brainwashed, might forever be lost for her. It's noteworthy that Carter reincarnates, and there's nothing to suggest Vandal's brainwashing of him would survive that reincarnation process, nor is there any suggestion that Vandal is the only one who can break that brainwashing.

Even if Vandal was Carter's only way back to sanity and Carter would definitely still be brainwashed in his next life, it still would be an obvious choice, because the lives of two innocent people - including a child, I should note - will always outweigh the life of one innocent person. That's an assessment that's a lot easier to make when you're watching it play out on television instead of actually experiencing it, I will grant you, but it's still true. 

Apart from that, though, this was a good episode. Post-apocalyptic London is painted in fairly broad strokes, with the team spending most of their time either outside the city (in fact, I'm pretty sure that particular clearing has shown up multiple times as different locations across time and space by now), inside buildings with no or very few windows, or, at one point, on what appears to be a slightly dressed up Star City 2046 set. It's a bit lazy, but it works, especially as the city they're in being London doesn't really have any bearing on the plot.

All told, it's just nice to see a 'last holdout against world domination' that isn't in America.

Seriously, just stab him in the leg, it'll make things easier for everyone.

Leviathan was set up as a convincing threat, and while Ray growing huge to fight him did kind of come out of nowhere, it made for a very satisfying, tokusatsu-esque fight scene. So too was Kendra's battle with Vandal pretty satisfying: After a series where Kendra has done regrettably very little, having her have a one-on-one duel with the series' main villain was wonderful, and seeing Vandal so thoroughly lose was even better.

The dynamic between Cassandra and Len was also interesting. I grant, it was fairly obvious from the moment she mentioned Per Degaton releasing the Armageddon Virus that her turn to good was going to come from Len showing her that Vandal gave that order, but it was still a nice moment. That said, how did Gideon even get that footage? I mean, she can access anything that's public record, as I recall, but I doubt Vandal recorded himself ordering the deaths of most of the world's population and then proceeded to make that recording publicly available.

So, a good episode, all in all. God knows we needed one. The preview for the next episode is vague, but seems to show that Vandal had wanted Rip to capture him all along. Presumably, we're going to find out that Vandal has some shady scheme involving acquiring the ability to time travel, especially as we hear him screaming 'I am a master of time.' Dead giveaway, that one.

Thursday, 28 April 2016

No Post Today


Hey, guys, I'm swamped by other work today, so I'm going to skip out on doing today's post (which would have been a Ghost review). What I'll probably do is reschedule that post for Tuesday of next week instead.

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Flash S2E19: Back to Normal


The Flash
Series 2, Episode 19
Back to Normal



Okay, now it's becoming clear why, when Barry had his back broken before, they didn't have him spend an episode or two without the ability to walk - if they had, then this current storyline, which is having Barry remain without his speed for several episodes, would feel redundant and like a rehash of an earlier storyline. I can understand that, even if it does make the decision to have Barry's back broken at all seem a little foolish.

I also find myself wondering what they're going to do about Wells once this series is done. The show is clearly very keen to keep Tom Cavanaugh on it, and it's not difficult to see why - in an already excellent cast, he is by far the best actor, with a charisma and acting talent that drags the attention of every scene he's in to himself. But he's also made it clear that a condition of him staying is new and interesting acting opportunities, and it's difficult to see how Wells will have those once the Zoom storyline is done.

Maybe they'll have Earth-3 Wells appear. Just an endless procession of different Wellses.

Anyway, in this week's episode, with Caitlin kidnapped and Barry unable to help her or Central City without his speed, the entire team is losing morale. As Wells heads off to find Jesse, he ends up captured by Griffin Gray, a teenage metahuman whose power gives him enhanced strength, but at the cost of aging him every time he uses it, who's desperate for a cure. Running out of time before Gray kills Wells, the team must find a way to defeat Gray without using Barry's speed. Meanwhile, on Earth-2, Caitlin tries to escape Hunter/Jay's prison, encountering both the Man In The Iron Mask and Killer Frost as she does so, and forming an uneasy alliance with the latter.

Iris West as Ms. Barely-Appearing-In-This-Episode, which is a shame because
Iris is great.

I'm glad they decided to keep Barry without his powers for an episode, and I'd actually like to see them stretch that period of powerlessness out to two or even three episodes, if they can (although it looks very much like he'll have his powers back by the end of the next episode). Had he gotten his speed back immediately, it would have made the previous episode feel cheap, especially since there isn't the shock factor that Hunter breaking Barry's back had.

It's also great to see Jesse back, and great to see Wells getting a bit of a focus episode. 

In general, this episode had a lot of stuff going for it, even if, structurally, it was very much following the formula of early episodes of this series, or even the early episodes of series one - metahuman shows up, team has to find a way to beat it, team tracks it somewhere, Barry goes and beats it. Griffin's not the most interesting metahuman the show has had either, with a relatively boring powerset and a relatively uncharismatic actor.

Still, it's a formula that works, and while it would have been nice to see one of Barry's recurring rogues come back - so, I mean, Weather Wizard, basically, because the Trickster wouldn't really work for this plot, and Len and Mick are off time traveling, and Lisa's not that cut-throat - Griffin serves his purpose just fine.

Barry and Joe visiting an amusement park for fun and profit.

The subplot with Caitlin and Killer Frost was also very interesting. I did hope we'd find out who Iron Mask was, but no such luck - my current theory is that he's either the real Jay Garrick (if such a thing exists) or he's Eddie. Since Killer Frost has been both an enemy and an ally to the team before, it was genuinely tense and up in the air as to whether she would eventually turn on Caitlin, especially since they seemed to be bonding, and when she did eventually betray Caitlin (saying that if Caitlin's alive, Hunter won't need her), it actually felt like a betrayal, and not just Caitlin being naive.

Incidentally, why does Hunter seem to have the uncanny ability to always know when one of his subordinates is betraying him, so that he can speed in and kill them? He keeps doing this. Every time one of them tries to murder someone he wants to be kept alive, he's there, murdering them to death. I'm starting to wonder if he doesn't have surveillance cameras up everywhere.

Hunter comes off as especially crazy this episode, insisting that Caitlin will learn that he's not all bad before very nearly immediately deciding he's going to conquer her world. He really needs to decide if he's going to be serial killer crazy or megalomaniacal world-conqueror crazy, because he seems to swing between them at the drop of a hat.

Barry, who's having a bad few days.

Anyway, with Barry getting his speed back via particle accelerator explosion, I'm predicting that we're going to see Wally become a speedster sooner than I might otherwise have thought, via the team somehow managing to sap Hunter's speed, and Wally injecting himself with it in a moment of heroism, because - I dunno, they don't manage to sap all of it before he gets wise to what they're doing, and he's still faster than Barry, cue Wally injecting himself and becoming a speedster, Velocity-9 blue lightning and all. But we'll see, there are a lot of places the rest of this series could go.

I did really like this episode, though. Next week, we apparently have Earth-2's Dante Ramone, the supervillain Rupture, coming to Earth-1 to wreak havoc. Should be fun.

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Volume.


Hey, we have another game today that I've Let's Played - I swear this isn't intentional, it's just that I'm finishing a lot of series lately.


Volume.



I've had cause to review a lot of games that I've just finished Let's Playing, lately, as in a space of about three weeks I've finished short series Never Alone; episodic game Minecraft: Story Mode's fifth installment; and longer series Undertale and, now, Volume. That's a trend that's only likely to continue, as well, with the last episode of The Walking Dead: Michonne coming out today and another episode of Minecraft: Story Mode due to come out soon-ish.

In Volume's case, I started playing it after seeing Jim Sterling showcase its gameplay. Being under the mistaken belief that this would be a short game that could be rushed through in just a few parts, and not being aware that it actually has ninety-nine levels, I started Let's Playing it, only to realise later that not only was it a lot longer than I thought, but also that it probably wasn't that interesting to watch.

Set in the same universe as Thomas Was Alone, a game revolving around emergent AIs, Volume follows Robin Locksley, a young man who has hijacked Alan, a 'Volume' - an artificial intelligence designed to create accurate battle simulations for use in training soldiers, who many years earlier was used by businessman and politician Gisborne to train an army that he used to take over the United Kingdom. Set on dismantling Gisborne's empire, Locksley, with Alan's help, simulates infiltrating key Gisborne facilities and stealing the items there, and streams his endeavours to the web, intending to provide a roadmap for other people to commit his crimes in real life. It isn't long, though, until he draws Gisborne's personal attention, who dispatches soldiers to find him.

Triangles.

The gameplay is - hm. It's reminiscent of the VR sections of the Metal Gear Solid games, deliberately so, and that's a solid base that Bithell Games have clearly tried to build off and improve upon, but it never quite achieves greatness. It runs smoothly, the difficulty is sometimes frustrating but never impossible, and it knows how to introduce new abilities and new obstacles in an organic way that allows players to adjust to them (although there was, later in the game, almost a routine of 'gain a new ability, have two or so really easy levels to get used to it, then have a difficulty spike with a new obstacle added in'). The AI of the enemies isn't very bright, to the point where quite a lot of the time you can get away from them by just shuffling around a block until they give up, but since they're kind-of-sort-of meant to be robots (even though they're simulations of actual living people) that makes sense - although it does introduce some storyline problems that we'll get to in a bit.

The big problem with the game, mechanically, is the fact that it's ninety-nine levels long. It could have been fifty levels long and had just as much meaningful content, just without the padding of a few nearly identical levels that feel more like frustrating time-wasters than anything else. In a game that can sometimes feel like it's punishing you for not being completely precise, that can get very grating.

Squares.

The story, meanwhile, could definitely use some work, primarily because it doesn't make sense. The 'oh and Robin's streaming it all' was clearly put in both to justify the scaled down graphics and because Bithell Games really, really wanted to appeal to streamers and Let's Players (the game even opens with a little chunk of text encouraging people to stream and Let's Play it), but it doesn't actually work in-universe. 

Apart from the obvious problem that Robin comes off as a tremendous coward by essentially encouraging others to take all the real risks, he also comes off as an idiot, because in real life, people don't have clearly marked out vision cones and won't forget about you if they can't see them. In real life, not everybody will find the perfect high-tech gadget lying around the place they're trying to rob - I mean, are these available from stores? Can someone just buy the Veil from their local Argos and go running about invisibly? In real life, sometimes people have updated their security in the past however-many-decades since Alan was last active?

Other shapes.

The game very briefly tries to address this, having one of the people mimicking Robin die, and Alan shut down the stream in response. But then it just kind of - brushes it away. Robin keeps playing to the end of the simulations, and then he scarpers and leaves a message that he's now going to take what he's learned and put it into action personally, something that will surely get him killed in about six seconds.

In a nice turn, and one that ties into Thomas Was Alone quite well, Alan reveals that he's uploaded his programming to all Volumes, and that they, a new faction of AIs, will be watching with interest to see how the war turns out. Which is great and all, but doesn't do much to get rid of the bitter taste the rest of the ending leaves.

Overall, probably not my favourite game, but if you like stealth games, then check it out. It's probably a lot more tolerable when you're not trying to make videos out of it.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Game of Thrones S6E1: The Red Woman


Game of Thrones
Series 6, Episode 1
The Red Woman



This one sneaked up on me a touch. I knew that Game of Thrones would be starting soon - having reviewed it as an ongoing for the past two years, it'd have been a little silly for me not to - but until about half a week ago, I had no idea exactly when it was starting. I am excited, though, because as the series moves past the books and thus gets room to diverge from canon, we should be seeing some better pacing, and quite possibly some interesting and unexpected plot turns.

(This also sets us up well to have a Game of Thrones: Brotherhood type deal later down the line, where the books are adapted again, this time with complete canon fidelity.)

Picking up shortly after the end of the fifth series, series six sees the Night Watch falling under Alliser Thorne's control after Jon Snow's death. As Davos and Melisandre arrive, the two hole themselves up with a small band of Snow loyalists - but as Dolorous Ed heads out to get them help to take down Thorne, Thorne grows increasingly impatient, and Davos must come to terms with the idea that Melisandre, distraught and confused after her visions told her that Jon would battle at Winterfell, may be the only one who can get them out. In Braavos, Arya works as a blind beggar - but a Faceless Man in the guise of the Waif continues to torment her. At Winterfell, Ramsay, under threat of being disinherited by Roose, sends a hunting party after Sansa and Theon, only for them to encounter somebody they hadn't counted on. In Dorne, Ellia and her Sand Snakes depose Prince Doran, while in King's Landing, a devastated Cersei and Jaime make a pact to take revenge on everyone who wronged them. In Essos, Tyrion and Varys struggle with rebel activity in Meereen, while Daenerys finds herself on the wrong end of Dothraki marriage laws, which state that as a widowed Khaleesi, she should live out a life of pious servitude in Vaes Dothrak.

You'll catch your deaths of cold.

So, one great thing about this episode: Actual plot movement! Quite a lot of it! In almost every plotline! One of my biggest complaints about the last two series was that the plot was often in a holding pattern, with nothing really happening in the majority of plotlines, while one or two inched forward bit by bit every episode. Here, we have important plot developments happening at Castle Black, Winterfell, Dorne, King's Landing, and Essos.

They're not always great plot developments, admittedly: Daenerys' plotline makes me squint with confusion a little, because apart from not really sounding like something the Dothraki would do, it seems massively out of character for Drogo to have not mentioned that to Daenerys, even if it was in the vein of 'oh, by the way, this is something we do, but don't feel like you have to.' Instead, this seems like a weirdly regressive move for her storyline, dragging her kicking and screaming back to her character arc in the first series by once again making her an unwilling part of a Khal's horde.

This isn't the first time Benioff and Weiss have been weirdly regressive with their plotlines - Sansa's storyline famously veered into 'wait, didn't this already happen several series ago' territory last series, and hasn't quite managed to get out of it yet, although with her joining up with Brienne and Podrick, and setting out for Castle Black, hopefully she's well on her way to getting her storyline back on track and becoming the Queen in the North.

Arya's having a bad few years.

(Even though Jon's probably going to come back to life next episode and, now freed from his vows on account of dying, take up the Stark name.)

The King's Landing scenes were brief but great, even if they were mostly carried by Lena Headey's acting. While she's arguably one of the less appreciated members of the cast, Headey is a genuinely stellar actor, and while she only has two short scenes (one of which has no dialogue from her, but is arguably the most powerful scene in the episode), she brings her acting chops to both of them, making them powerful and moving.

(There was one other King's Landing scene without her in, which mostly involved Trystane getting stabbed. Oh, Trystane, we barely knew you. Or Myrcella. Or your father, for that matter.)

King's Landing always looks lovely.

Dorne, meanwhile, has one brief scene where Ellia and her Sand Snakes kill Doran, presumably taking Dorne for themselves - and thus setting the show up for a Dorne vs King's Landing war. Since Dorne clearly can't do that without allies, it'll be interesting to see who they try and team up with. Will we see a Dorne alliance with the Iron Islands? Will they try and find Daenerys and reforge that old alliance? Dorne and the North, maybe? Who knows.

I'm actually quite disappointed that Doran was killed off. He was one of a handful of reasonable people in this show, and he was played by one of my favourite actors of all time, so that's - a little disappointing for me.

The Castle Black stuff is mostly about Thorne taking over the Night's Watch - I had to pause the episode for a moment, actually, because as he loudly boomed that while he had killed Jon, he never disobeyed a single order, because while that's technically true, I feel like 'don't stab me over and over again' was probably an implicit order - and establishing set-up for what will almost certainly be the Wildlings storming Castle Black and killing Thorne.

Just - take her back to Meereen, for god's sake.

Castle Black is also where our dramatic final scene was, of Melisandre removing her choker (and all of her clothes ... for ... some reason ... ?) and revealing herself to actually have been an old hag all along, which is not as shocking as I think Benioff and Weiss maybe believe it is? What's the shocking thing to take away from this scene? That Melisandre lies? We knew that already. That Melisandre uses magic? We knew that as well. That Stannis actually had sex with an old woman one time? He's not exactly a spring chicken himself, but more to the point, since that act was entirely about spawning an evil shadow monster to murder his brother, we kind of already knew that was a bit sketchy. 

It says a lot about Benioff and Weiss that the dramatic reveal at the end of the very first episode, where a writer would be expected to bring their dramatic A-game, is 'this woman is actually not physically attractive.' That's - that's really not that shocking or dramatic, guys. It's definitely not any kind of game changer.

Next episode, we see Bran back, Ramsay rather foolishly suggests storming Castle Black (the Wildlings are going to be there soon, Ramsay. Melisandre already is there), and Cersei and Jaime are making waves in King's Landing, with the aid of Cersei's zombie bodyguard. She has one of those, remember. Just in case you forgot that she had a zombie bodyguard. Because she does, she - she has a zombie bodyguard and I'm just still not sure what to do with that knowledge.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress E2


Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress
Episode 2
Never-ending Darkness



So here's a thing I learned: Chinese subs that have then been translated again into English aren't, broadly speaking, very good. The original Chinese subs are probably fine, but once you start putting things through two layers of translation, both into wildly different languages from the original language and each other, things start to go a bit awry.

Having defeated a Kabane with his nail gun and saved himself from the Kabane infection, Ikoma is now faced with a whole new set of problems. Boarding the armoured train Koutetsujou with the help of his friend Takumi and the mysterious and dangerous Mumei, things rapidly go wrong for Ikoma when the people on the train see his heart glowing with molten iron. Thrown off the train for being a Kabane, Ikoma struggles to follow them, intending to save them when sabotage by the Kabane leaves the Koutetsujou trapped at the station's bridge.

I admit, I didn't like this episode as much as the first. A small part of that was because it was much less Attack on Titan-y, which means I can't make the 'steampunk Attack on Titan' jokes anymore (for now), but a much bigger part of it is that this episode is where the show's little flaws start to show. The animation's slightly odd shiny quality, and the way some characters appear to barely fit in with the world around them, starts to show; the brief moments of not-brilliant CGI are all the more obvious; Tasuku Hatanaka's voice work as Ikoma starts tipping over from 'endearing' to 'irritating' every so often; there are a few odd pacing moments, a few strange dramatic beats that don't quite work, a few soundtrack choices that are a bit too Sawano, a few really odd design choices.

By 'a bit too Sawano,' I do mean 'techno techno techno techno'.

It's not a lot. It's little things, here and there, but the episode is positively riddled with them. In another series, it wouldn't bother me so much, but after an incredibly strong debut for this series, it's a little bit disappointing to see it drop in quality to something that's still good, but perhaps not stellar

It doesn't help, either, that in a lot of ways this feels like a transitional episode - the show doesn't really take advantage of the fertile opportunity given to them by an entire town being under siege, instead merely using it as an excuse to get characters from one situation to another: The people from the town onto the train, Ayame from the daughter of the local lord to being the local lord, Mumei from operating in secret to operating in public, and Ikoma from well-meaning engineer to Kabaneri. 

The episode does so with remarkable aplomb, don't get me wrong, and there are multiple dramatic scenes, like Mumei fighting the Kabane and Ikoma struggling his way to the lever to lower the bridge, screaming about how the people on the train will have to live with the shame of being saved by someone they exiled (even though I doubt that they'll feel all that ashamed - they were doing a pretty good job of justifying it with 'lol crazy Kabane' at the time), but the sense that this is just a way of shoving the characters to the next important plot point pervades the entire episode.

Ayame and Sword Dude.

It's an odd thing, and makes the episode seem weirdly like filler, despite the fact that it's pretty decisively not

That said, these first two episodes have done a great job of setting up one feature of the setting that's probably going to be important later on: The panic and mob mentality that seems to pervade the station's people, both the commoners and the Bushi. We saw it last episode with the Bushi being happy to kill someone who may have been bitten, rather than locking them up for three days as the law dictates, and we see it with the commoners here, who are more than willing to throw Ikoma to the proverbial wolves. You can't really blame them, given how horrific the Kabane are, but at the same time, that's going to cause some problems if Ikoma stays on the Koutetsujou.

(Which he will, because it's literally in the show's title.)

Dignity.

In brighter news, though, we actually got a proper opening for this episode! Leaving aside that every single song that EGOIST has ever produced sounds exactly the same (you could substitute it with Psycho-Pass' endings and I doubt anyone would notice any difference), it's pretty fun, with a lot of Industrial Revolution imagery and shots of the main characters murdering steampunk zombies. Apparently Ikoma's never going to find a shirt, which bothers me a little, because he looks ridiculous, but never mind.

It looks like the third episode is going to have us finding out a bit more about Ikoma and Mumei (which is good, since right now he's just Sir Screams-A-Lot and she's Generic Anime Mystery Girl), along with Ayame trying to stab Ikoma for ... reasons? Presumably it has something to do with how he's half steampunk zombie. Should be good. Looking forward to that. Love a good stabbing.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Legends of Tomorrow S1E12: Last Refuge


Legends of Tomorrow
Series 1, Episode 12
Last Refuge



You know, I think it's time we talked about the mechanics of time travel in this show - not just because it's a show that heavily features time travel, but also because it exists in the same universe as The Flash, which also has time travel as an important element, and the two are starting to contradict each other in a big way.

In this week's episode, a forty-five minute Terminator homage, the team race to find and protect their younger selves before the Pilgrim can kill them. Helpless against the Pilgrim's powers to manipulate time, the group finds itself repeatedly on the back foot - and things only get worse when the Pilgrim gets wise to their scheme, masking her transit through time and later taking their family members hostage, threatening to kill them unless Rip hands over his own past self.

Okay, so, time travel. Perhaps more than any other episode of Legends, this episode hinges on the mechanics of time travel in the Arrowverse, because its central conflict is so intrinsically tied to cause and effect: The Pilgrim goes back in time, kills people's younger selves (which, purportedly, she can only attempt once, or else risk doing irreparable damage to the timeline), and this causes them to die of the same injuries in their current time.

Basically Mary Poppins.

Apart from the fact that that doesn't make much sense - Why would Ray suddenly start gaining internal injuries? Shouldn't he just vanish, because having been killed he could have never joined the mission in the first place? If he doesn't, shouldn't he just turn into a rotted cadaver in an instant? Why is 'we have to race against time to stop this' a thing when time travel is involved? - it also directly contradicts the time travel rules that have been established in The Flash, where the idea of 'timeline remnants', people paradoxically surviving despite their younger selves or ancestors being dead, is a major part of the plot.

(It really shouldn't be, but that's a ramble for another time.)

The Flash also introduced us to the idea that time paradoxes cause either singularities to form or Cisco to die, and there's nothing more paradoxical than 'killing someone's younger self because of something their older self did thus preventing their older self from doing the thing that will cause you to go back in time and kill their younger self.' Why aren't singularities forming? Why isn't Cisco coughing up blood in every episode of The Flash?

The time manipulation is cool, though.

(This is something that other shows handle a lot better - Doctor Who, for all its many flaws, actually isn't too terrible at keeping its time travel mechanics straight, largely because it's always very, very vague in how they work, replacing logic with flapping a hand and saying something vaguely catchy - so it's baffling that Legends is struggling so much with it.)

If it seems like I'm harping on about time travel mechanics over-much, it's because this episode doesn't give me much more to talk about. It feels more like filler than anything, because the Pilgrim doesn't make an especially compelling or effective villain, being so bland and lifeless that you could replace her with an evil lamp and it probably wouldn't affect the plot much. The confusing and inconsistent time travel mechanics are distracting, and since we all know the show won't kill off one of its main cast by having them suddenly and undramatically expire in the present, there's no dramatic tension. 

The B-plot and C-plot (Jax trying to save his father from an IED and Kendra and Ray having more relationship troubles) didn't manage to sustain my interest very far either. Franz Drameh's superb acting could really only take Jax's plotline very far when the show was only willing to devote about five minutes of time to it, and Kendra and Ray's romance is incredibly, deeply boring, and I would dearly like it to go away now.

Young Mick, having his 'fire is great' moment.

The introduction of a home for future Time Masters, run by a Mary Poppins-ish governess, was actually a really nice one that I enjoyed a lot, but it was really this episode's only redeeming feature. I admit, it had never occurred to me to be even remotely interested in Ray's past, but finding out that he was a cutpurse was a nice touch, one that made him a somewhat liminal figure in the team - heroic-ish like Jax, Stein, Ray, and Kendra, but with a criminal past like Len, Mick, and Sara. 

Next episode sees the team going to Savage's invasion of the world, the time period where he'll eventually kill Rip's wife and child. It's all very dystopian looking, and also there's a giant green ... wait, is that a robot Captain Atom? That's - I'm just not sure what to think about a giant nuclear robot, guys. I just don't know.

Anyway, should be a fun episode - god knows that between this one and the last two episodes, we need one. 

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Undertale.


While I forgot to add this to the post earlier, I do actually have a full Let's Play of Undertale, so go check that out.

Undertale.



Here's a review I've been putting off because I'm not sure where I'd start with it. Undertale's a critical and fan darling, topping a dozen Best Games of 2015 lists, massively well-received by players with a gigantic fandom (to the point where even if you've never played it, you probably know at least something about it), and quite possibly the most Let's Played game on Youtube, I say as someone who jumped on that particular bandwagon (albeit rather late) and Let's Played it on Youtube. That's a little intimidating to review, actually.

Set in an underground kingdom of monsters, Undertale follows a child who falls down into the Underground from Mount Ebott, a mountain from which it is said that nobody returns. Seeking to leave the Underground, the child sets out to reach the Barrier, located in the castle of King Asgore, where they might be able to pass through and out into the human world. Along the way, they meet a colourful array of monsters, including the motherly Toriel; the skeleton brothers Sans and Papyrus; reclusive scientist Alphys; hot-blooded royal guard Undyne; and Flowey, a sinister and malevolent flower who, nearly unique among the Underground's residents, is aware of the child's ability to manipulate time with the power of 'SAVE.'

Leaves.

We'll start off with the gameplay, because that's probably where we'll find the most problems. In the overworld, you can walk around, solve puzzles, shop, and talk to people. In battle, Undertale functions very much like a typical top-down turn-based RPG with bullet hell elements - in your turn, you can use items, attack, or use skills; and in your enemies' turns you must control a floating heart, evading their attacks. 

The bullet hell segments can be pretty frustrating, with the difficulty spikes for bosses often meaning you have to play a boss ten to twenty times before you defeat them - and while some playstyles will see you become powerful enough to one-shot everything in your path, most players will find themselves in frustratingly long boss battles where all they can do is try to avoid attacks.

Mitigating that frustration slightly, gameplay is mixed up with the use of blue and orange attacks (which you don't avoid but instead negate, either by not moving when they hit or by moving as they hit) and, in boss battles, with the use of soul colours, wherein a boss will turn your floating heart from red to another colour, bringing with it a change of gameplay. When playing as a blue soul you cannot float, only jump, turning bullet hell segments into platformer/endless runner sections; when playing as green you cannot move at all, only turn to deflect magical spears away from you with a shield; when playing as purple your movement is limited along a set of strings; and when playing as yellow you can fire shots of energy, turning your battle into a Space Invaders knock-off.

I remember you! I usually run away from battles, but you were mandatory.

But what people really love Undertale for is its story, and it is a genuinely good story. While the game's slight preoccupation with being 'quirky' doesn't do it too many favours (although the barrage of jokes is funny more often than it isn't, and there's no shortage of genuinely hilarious moments - it's just that there's also plenty of jokes which fall flat), there's a genuinely deep, interesting, and thoughtful story here, one which is not only adept at producing an emotional reaction, but also plays with the medium of video games in interesting ways.

There isn't a lot I can actually say about the storyline without spoiling it, and it's a story best experienced unspoiled, but I will say that mixed among the laughs there were moments which were genuinely touching and, moreover, moments which were actually quite sinister and frightening. The game feels like a modern day Alice in Wonderland - warm and friendly, but with a few slightly unnerving edges to it as well.

The library.

On the technical side, the game is pretty simple. The game mechanics are pretty simple, the graphics are very simple, and while it does some interesting things in its coding and programming, it mostly does so through innovative uses of programs and technology that have existed for well over a decade. The game doesn't have any voice-acting for me to praise, but it does have an excellent soundtrack, probably easily one of the best game soundtracks of 2015, and even if you don't play the game, I'd probably recommend finding the soundtrack if you need some music to listen to.

Undertale is a game that, in a rare turn given the relatively flat, emotionally lacklustre state I was in when I played it, managed to actually produce some degree of emotional response - laughter, a bit of sadness, a lot of being creeped out - even when my old favourites and standbys were failing me in that regard. For that reason alone, I am possibly unreasonably fond of it, but it's a game that is not only solid and well-made, but also startlingly unique and interesting. It's earned its hype, and given how hyped people were and still are over it, that's fairly high praise.

Wednesday, 20 April 2016

The Flash S2E18: Versus Zoom


The Flash
Series 2, Episode 18
Versus Zoom



Okay, so there's a key problem with the cliffhanger to this episode, and it's a problem that was set up all the way at the start of this year's Arrow. In that episode, we had a flashforward to a funeral - which we now know was Laurel's funeral - and its aftermath, which had Barry speeding in and then speeding away. Since that hasn't happened yet - in fact, can't have happened, since the reason Barry wasn't at the funeral was because of an immediate problem with Zoom, making it seem like this chunk of episodes is why he'll miss the funeral - we now know that not only will Barry regain his speed, he'll regain it very soon. 

Kind of shot your own dramatic tension in the foot there, guys. And yes, obviously Barry wasn't going to be permanently de-powered, but now we have a time frame for him to get his powers back in.

Leaving that aside, though, let's review the episode as it was given to us.

Just after returning from the universe of Supergirl, Barry discovers that the tachyon enhancer has made him four times as fast as he was - fast enough to defeat Zoom. As the team researches how to open the breaches, they slowly come to the conclusion that Cisco might be able to open them using his powers. At the same time, they discover that Jay was a notorious serial killer, Hunter Zolomon, before he was given super-speed. Armed with this new knowledge, they open a breach, only for things to go horribly wrong when Jay captures Wally, using him as a bargaining chip for Barry's speed.

Team 'This Could Go Horribly Wrong But Let's Do It Anyway.'

My rambling about spoiled dramatic tension aside, this really is a pretty good episode. Zoom always makes any episode he appears in tense, lively, and fraught, and that's apparently no less true now that we know who's under his mask. Teddy Sears (who apparently was really hoping the writers would change their mind about Jay being Zoom) does a great job of portraying Zoom as somebody truly unhinged, combining elements of his Jay Garrick performance with elements of Zoom's snarling, monster-y manner. 

As was the case with 'Enter Zoom', 'Versus Zoom' doesn't actually have the cast clash with Zoom until the latter part of the episode - instead the majority of the episode is about the team trying to open the breaches and dealing with their own character conflicts over whether doing that is the right thing to do. The Flash is pretty good at doing that kind of quiet, character focused drama, although I admit that I did roll my eyes a bit when it turned out that Cisco wasn't afraid of letting Zoom run rampant in their world, but rather of turning into a supervillain. It's not even that that particular character conflict doesn't have a place in the show, because it easily could, it just feels like an odd place for it to crop up.

(Wells' conflict, meanwhile, is dealt with in a single conversation with Joe - and I get the parallel that these two are both protective fathers, both to daughters and to Barry, but at the same time, that felt awfully abrupt.)

Wally seems upset.

Unlike in 'Enter Zoom', though, Zoom is a constant presence in this episode. The episode opens on a flashback of Jay's abusive father (dressed, very noticeably, in Jay's 'fake Flash' costume) murdering his mother, with the strong implication (made explicit shortly thereafter) that he then committed suicide. For The Flash, which is usually pretty happy-go-lucky, that's fairly dark, and it sets up the entire episode to come, putting not just Jay's actions as Zoom but also his entire Flash persona (he's running around in the clothes his father died in, after all, or a very close recreation of them, while presenting an idealised, heroic image of himself to the world) into a new and unnerving light.

The show probably could have easily devoted an entire episode to Jay's backstory, and I'm admittedly a little sad that they didn't.

I admit, when it came down to Barry giving Jay his speed, I was half expecting the cast to reveal some kind of trick, and while the surprise that Barry did actually lose his speed wore off pretty quickly - see the earlier point about knowing for a fact that he'll have it back within the next few episodes - there was a moment of shock that the show let Barry be de-powered, especially since they went to pains to show it in a fairly visceral way, with Barry collapsing shortly before being nearly throttled by Jay.

I like the little gold trim on his suit, it's nice.

So, I'm pretty glad that The Flash is back, and this was a great episode for it to come back on. Hopefully we won't get any other three week hiatuses before the end of the series, because there's not all that many episodes left anyway. Next episode, it looks like Jay is abducting people left right and centre, and Barry is going up against someone whose main superpower seems to be the ability to punch people, which would probably be a lot less threatening if he hadn't lost his powers.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Supergirl S1


Supergirl
Series 1



I won't lie, at this point the words 'Greg Berlanti and Andrew Kreisberg write a series based on DC comics' are enough to sell me on a series. There's a good reason for that as well: Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow have all been a lot of fun, after all. It is a bit of a shame that Supergirl isn't on the CW and so isn't fully part of the Arrowverse, but that's just one of its many problems - all of which, it seems, arise less from its writing, characters, or production values, and more from the fact that it's on CBS.

Set in National City, Supergirl follows Kara Zor-El, Superman's cousin who was sent to protect him, only to be knocked off course into the Phantom Zone, arriving on Earth only after Superman had already hit adulthood. Now in her early twenties, Kara works at Catco professional media while carrying on a double life as Supergirl, a superhero who works with the DEO, a government agency dealing with alien threats, to fight crime and the forces of evil. With National City beset by attacks by alien escapees from the Kryptonian prisoner of Fort Rozz, Kara must battle against them - and their leader, her aunt, General Astra.

So, once again, I feel like Berlanti and Kreisberg have managed to capture the sense of fun and whimsy and lightheartedness inherent in superhero properties while also managing to have serious plot beats. Supergirl never feels oppressive, or grim, or like it's embarrassed about its comic book origins (looking at you, every live-action DC film) - it's bright and chirpy and happy, and it balances that well with both action-adventure arcs involving evil aliens and some pretty serious arcs about the nature of the law, shifting public opinion, and family.

It also has a great cast mostly composed of women and ethnic minorities,
which is always nice.

It has a pretty stellar cast of characters, as well - Kara is a joy to watch, with enough depth to easily carry the show, but her supporting cast are also all charismatic, interesting, and layered, and - perhaps unusually for a Super-family show - they're all regularly useful, often even instrumental, in dealing with the villain of the week. The show's biggest misstep with characters comes with its villains - specifically, the writers made a terrible mistake when they killed off Astra, having her replaced by her far less engaging husband, Non. 

(There's also a smaller misstep in that sometimes Cat Grant's 'real talk' goes from 'charmingly stupid' to 'actually quite alienating and wrong', but luckily she stops doing that after about four episodes.)

The pacing is good, the action scenes are strong, and the soundtrack is superb, with Blake Neely (who composes for Arrow, The Flash, and Legends of Tomorrow as well) clearly having a whale of a time composing tracks that draw inspiration from the Richard Donner Superman films.

Laura Benanti pulls double duty as Alura Zor-El and Astra.

So, it's a pretty strong series, and it doesn't have many flaws for me to pick at. It's biggest flaw, really, is that it can never seem to figure out where it fits in a wider superhero universe. Superman is referenced constantly, but is conspicuous in his absence, with episodes occasionally having him show up in blurred form, or having him appear in the distance (or, at one point, showing only his feet), which just makes all of his appearances very frustrating for the audience. Batman is briefly, obliquely referenced and then never brought up again. The show is oddly skittish about defining Kara's place in the larger world, and that doesn't work in its favour.

In this respect, having the series actually take place in the Arrowverse would have worked out a lot better for her. As a very public superhero who endeavours to be a symbol of hope, she would have stood in sharp contrast to the relatively secretive Flash and the relatively dark, unapproachable Green Arrow. It would have allowed her to be defined against those two characters, and since Legends has hinted that Superman and Batman were once heroes in that universe who are now absent, it would have been easy to set up Superman not being an active hero anymore, thus keeping him firmly out of Kara's business.

Cat has a pretty good character arc.

(It doesn't help that Supergirl did get a crossover with The Flash, by way of 'oh no I crossed into another universe', and it was one of the best episodes of the series, much as it did feel like well-written fanfiction.)

So, I did really enjoy this series - I'm certainly enjoying it more than I'm enjoying Arrow this year, and I'd say it's most definitely the equal of The Flash, which readers of this blog will know is one of my favourite television series. That said, it would have benefited greatly from being an Arrowverse show, and I'm a little disheartened that it isn't.

We don't know yet whether it'll be returning for a second series, but forecasts are good, and we'll find out for sure in May. I'm deeply hoping that it does. 


Monday, 18 April 2016

Editorial: 5 Characters Who'd Make A Great Teen Titans Team.


Editorial: 5 Characters Who'd Make
A Great Teen Titans Team.

As the work I have to get done today piles up, it looks like today's going to be a fluffy editorial day. After the barrage of reviews last week, I imagine you guys might like a quick break for a lighthearted list of potential Teen Titans members as well.

For those who don't know, the Teen Titans are DC's premier teen superhero team, the inspiration for both Young Justice and Marvel's Young Avengers. Typically consisting of Robin, Kid Flash, Superboy, Wonder Girl, and Raven, along with a handful of others depending on who's popular at the time, they're perhaps best known from the Teen Titans television show, which aired from 2003 to 2006. 

With a recent uptick in popularity thanks to the popular Justice League vs Teen Titans film (which made the roster Robin, Raven, Blue Beetle, Beast Boy, and Starfire), it's not a bad time to take a look at which five characters I'd put on the team if, for some baffling reason, DC asked me to tomorrow.

In all honesty, this list could have been twice as long, so expect a part two in the next few weeks, I guess?


Batman II / Terry McGinnis.



Unpopular opinion: Robins are only really become interesting when they stop being Robin, and sometimes not even then (hey, Tim, how're you doing).

But, if we sidestep Robins altogether, we do have another promising option for a Batman representative. Batman Beyond, a popular cartoon series set twenty minutes into the future in a time where Bruce Wayne has grown too old to effectively fight as Batman, introduced us to Terry McGinnis, a wisecracking teenager who became the new Batman under Bruce's tutelage.

The series and character were popular enough to spawn a spin-off series, to be continually referenced in Batman video games (and as recently as 2015), and to have a comic series based on it that has run on and off since the series' end to the present day, so it's fair to say that Terry would be a popular choice for a Titans member.

Time travel would have to be involved, obviously, but it's the DC Universe, time travel happens all the time in it.


Supergirl / Kara Zor-El.



Superboy is typically the member of the Supes family who ends up with a Titan membership, which is a shame, because while I do like Superboy, Supergirl brings with her a bunch of interesting plotlines and character development opportunities, just because she, unlike nearly every other member of the Supes family, actually remembers Krypton.

Introduced in the Silver Age, Supergirl is one of the few survivors of the Great Super-Thing Deluge, in which DC's writers would randomly slap an 'S' and a cape onto literally everything (thus leading to such things as the Super-Horse), because unlike ninety-nine percent of the new super-beings introduced at that time, Supergirl actually managed to capture audiences' attention.

Popular enough to get her own film, her own TV series, and a recurring role in several other television series, she has a popularity that arguably comes close to rivaling that of Superman himself. She'd be a popular choice for a Titans series, especially given that her popularity has only increased in recent years.

Also, there's really only so many times we can see Superboy go through the 'I'm a clone of Lex Luthor does that make me evil' character arc before it gets old.


Blue Beetle / Jaime Reyes.



Jaime is a rare thing, a legacy character who is better known and more beloved than the superhero he was originally based upon, and part of that is probably because his backstory and powerset are way, way more interesting than Ted Kord's. A boy from El Paso, Texas, Jaime becomes the Blue Beetle when the Scarab, a biomechanical alien symbiote, fuses to his spine, granting him a voice in his head and access to a suit of adaptive power armour.

Later plot developments would link the Scarab to the Reach, an invasive alien empire, which means that any series that includes Jaime also gets access to a villainous army of cybernetic insect aliens for free. That's not a bad deal.

While Jaime has never been a staple member of the Titans, he looks set to become one, having been featured on their roster in the recent Justice League vs Teen Titans film, and recently inducted into the group in comics, as well, as well as having had an important role in Young Justice's second series.


Raven / Raven Roth.



Popularised by the Teen Titans television series, Raven, the magic-wielding daughter of the demon Trigon, is one of the Titans' breakout characters, having shown up in almost every iteration of the Titans, and usually having a fairly major role. She's also one of the only Titans members to be a playable character in Injustice: Gods Among Us, but that's a dubious honour at best.

In many respects, Raven is inseparable from the Teen Titans brand, being one of their most prominent and well-known members, so it only makes sense to include her. Besides, the inclusion of Raven also opens up a wealth of plotlines by bringing Trigon, one of the DC Universe's best villains, into the fray.


Spoiler / Stephanie Brown.



Much loved by fans and yet consistently mistreated by DC's writers and editors, Stephanie Brown has been Spoiler, Robin, Batgirl, and then Spoiler again. The fact that DC's editors keep trying to write her out of existence, either killing her off (and then having her never mentioned again) or just trying to keep her out of DC's rebooted comics for as long as possible, and keep having to cave to fan pressure and add her back in anyway is a testament to how popular she is.

Moreover, as arguably one of the most experienced teen heroes in DC (she's the only character ever to have been both Robin and Batgirl, after all), as well as being a generally sunny, upbeat person, she'd make the perfect leader for the Teen Titans.

While she arguably fits into the same Batfamily niche as Terry, the fact that she has her own distinct identity and links to the supervillain Cluemaster means that she can comfortably stand apart from him.