Review: Zero Time Dilemma

xxmq2geutqmj4wjfo2ek

This review assumes prior knowledge of the entire Zero Escape series and contains huge spoilers for a fantastic series. 

Usually, before I review anything I search around the internet for other people’s opinions to see what new I can add to the table; not to be contrarian, but to see what else I can add to the discussion surrounding a certain piece of media (whether I’m at all successful at this is highly debatable). When looking for people’s opinion on Zero Time Dilemma (henceforth ZTD), I generally found that my opinions lined up perfectly with the consensus; the game starts off well, has some real highlights in the middle, then falls apart towards the end, when the answers that are provided become unsatisfactory and the answers that aren’t provided become a source of frustration. Ultimately, most people view it as the weakest in the Zero Escape series. Nevertheless, even if I don’t have some new, exciting ‘hot take’ on this game, that doesn’t negate me from writing in-depth about it, so here I go.

Let’s start with the element of the Zero Escape series that has always seemed to take a backseat to the story; the gameplay, but as the director of the series, Kotaro Uchikoshi said; You can’t have Zero Escape without puzzles (as much as a certain iOS port would beg to differ). Luckily, the puzzle rooms are pretty good in this one. Not perfect, mind, but some are significantly cleverer than I was expecting. Take, for example, the healing room, which cleverly puts a button on the wall that allows you to change not just the wallpaper, but also some of the features of the room itself. Or maybe the Pod room, where the room itself is a sliding block puzzle, like a Zelda game (except instead of a heart piece, your reward is the dead body of a heart eating serial killer.) It’s a shame, then that the actual puzzles within the undeniably clever puzzle rooms are so dull and easy. I still had fun solving some of the slightly more ingenious uses of the architecture or visual clues within the rooms that informed how to open a safe or reach a key, but every time I saw another sliding block puzzle, or Tetris-like construct-a-shape puzzle, my heart sunk slightly, in the way that it does when I see similar puzzles in Professor Layton, an inferior series to Zero Escape. It would be false to say that this problem is confined to ZTD, but I certainly noticed it more here than I ever did in VLR or 999.

 

zero
Hold me closer, tiny Carlos

 

While the presentation of the puzzle rooms is basically unchanged from Virtue’s Last Reward, the presentation of the story is not. ZTD presents its story through film, rather than the traditional text-based visual novel format that its predecessors conformed to. I was initially excited for the change; an innovative means of story-telling befits an innovative game series, but the finished product leaves a lot to be desired. The animation work is the most obvious and instantly recognizable negative, and all it takes to notice this is a cursory glance at a trailer for the game. Characters move in unnatural ways, their lips don’t even attempt to sync up to what they’re saying (even in the original Japanese), and the hair of some of the female characters seems to have a restless mind of its own, a mind content to ignore the laws of physics and the boundaries of character’s bodies. I understand that this game had a small budget, and screenshots don’t look awful, but I can’t understand why they would drop the simple but effective story-telling method of the past for a new one that is at best, only slightly better, and at worst, downright distracting.

The budget could be one reason why the film sections fail, but they are far from the only reasons; the concept has its own innate problems that the game fails to address. One of the joys of a visual novel or book is being able to control the pace through button clicks. This serves two purposes that I feel aren’t properly credited. Firstly, it gives the restless hands of the tense video game player something to do; this may be a problem only I had, but unlike watching a film, where I can easily remain still for a few hours, while playing ZTD on a small screen, only occasionally expected to do anything, I found myself slightly bored, clicking the shoulder buttons for my amusement. Here we see the second benefit of the standard visual novel format; it allows for the skipping of extraneous dialogue. Face it; a visual novel is much longer than a film and even some books, and not all dialogue needs the same amount of focus and attention as others. Fast readers or those who are just annoyed at the oft-repeated dialogue from Zero will inevitably get frustrated by not being able to control the pace of the writing, and that’s more annoying than you’d expect. What makes it even worse is this; aside from a few sections, the films are very blandly directed. Extended talking sequences in films have a danger of becoming dull, but a well-directed film (see the drone-based thriller Eye in the Sky for a recent example) can turn long dialogue scenes into exciting things to watch. ZTD does not do this, and certain sequences are just dull to watch. Others are much better, some of the death scenes are great and other scenes have the emotional heft in the writing to pull them through. Unfortunately, for a lot of the game, this is not the case.

 

tumblr_o5y62ywjxs1te1iano1_1280
Bloody hell, Carlos

 

But enough about how the game plays and is set -up, what really matters to most fans of the series is the story. The story in ZTD is not linear, however, so it becomes a little tricky to talk about. The setup is instead that the story is broken up into small fragments that are not to be played in chronological order, but instead all spin off from different timelines created by an initial decision involving a vote at a computer. This seems initially like a great idea, and at first, I thought it was working great – I felt, much like the characters, lost whenever I started a new fragment, and yet I knew that all would eventually make sense, as indeed it does. But gradually it dawned on me that in practice this idea far from practical, at least in so far as the game’s new mechanic; ‘Decision Time’ is concerned. When I had to make my first proper decision, in terms of who to vote for, I was genuinely troubled, and for the first few decisions after that, the game had me stressed and questioning my moral judgment, just as I imagine it intended to. However, at one point, wherein a decision must be made in an incinerator room, something clicked. I could just easily go back and reverse my decision. In fact, in order to complete the game, I had to. Suddenly, the magic was gone. None of my decisions had any impact, in the short or long term, other than being necessary for seeing the true ending. At least in VLR and 999, the linear nature of the storyline meant that any decisions made would have an effect for that whole playthrough of the story. Here, the impact was lost completely, and I have never felt more disheartened. Anyway, the fragmented nature of the story means I’m going to have to tackle it in a different way, so I’ll break it down into what worked, what didn’t, and then sum up with my final thoughts about ZTD as a whole.

I’ve been pretty negative about ZTD so far, so let’s start with what worked. Luckily, Uchikoshi has retained his knack for writing convincing characters, and the new characters all bring interesting new dynamics to the Zero Escape franchise, while the returning characters are, for the most part, still entertaining to be around. Carlos seems like the new face of ZTD, but he’s a little boring. Those around him keep referring to him as the ‘good guy’, and this is never subverted, so his firefighter personality only really works because of its contrast with the other members of C-Team, a gloomier Junpei, and a slightly infuriating Akane. As such, Carlos is a nice balance (although I wish his sister subplot had gone somewhere other than giving him an unneeded creepy edge). Diana is undoubtedly the best of the new characters, her ending with Sigma being one of the best scenes in the entire franchise and actually gives this game the memorable moment that in past games were provided by the final twist. The rest of D-Team basically retain their personalities from VLR, which is fine, considering that the Sigma Phi banter was and remains completely watchable. Q-Team is the only team made up entirely of original characters, and luckily I liked them all. Sean is one of the few well-written ‘child genius’ characters I’ve seen in recent memory, and I had a soft spot for Eric, especially as a rare completely normal person in the Zero Escape franchise (it did get on my nerves a bit that everyone in VLR had some kooky secret). Mira’s character design is hilariously bad, and her serial killer nature hilariously exaggerated, but I was never annoyed by it, and the team dynamics worked, so who cares? I’ve also got to give credit for a successfully darker tone; Zero is seriously threatening in this game, and the violence is fantastic although, like most films and games, most of the real horror comes not from the gore, but from those moments right before, and the best way to tell that the tone is a success is the tension felt when you’re asked to push a button that could kill everyone else, or pull a trigger that might kill Sigma.

 

zero-escape_-zero-time-dilemma-trailer-1-1080p-mp4_snapshot_00-51_2016-03-17_18-12-01
Pictured; a rare shot of complex motives at work

 

Before we end, it’s worth talking about the ending, because it’s one almost universally disappointing feature in the whole game. Going in depth would require much too much writing, and we’re already 2,000 words in, so I think I won’t bore you with an in-depth interpretation of the Delta reveal and how this affects the series (or why Kyle’s absence means he must be Gab), because there are many more places on the internet where you can find that discussion. Instead, I want to talk about the effect the Delta reveal has on the player of ZTD, and why it left such a sour taste in the mouths of myself and others. The first thing to say is that, yes, this was hinted at before it was revealed, but not in a very satisfactory way. In 999 and VLR there was also unsatisfactory vague hints to the big twists, but they felt more earned. Let’s take VLR’s twist as an example to compare against the Delta reveal. The first, most obvious thing to say is that Delta, unlike Sigma just sort of comes out of nowhere. We don’t know his character (more on that later), instead, he is just introduced as the surprise villain. These surprises work best when you know the character; that’s why in Murder on the Orient Express, the murderer can’t just be someone from the outside that no one knows. If that’s the case, then what’s the point of establishing characters and threatning the audience with the fact that one of them could be Zero. In VLR, we know Sigma. In fact, we control him, so the twist is shocking, but also ultimately in character. Talking of character, Delta isn’t really one. We know him for all of fifteen minutes, during which time he reveals his motives to be ‘complex’. Right. Everyone’s motives for most things are complex and just stating that is boring. Why should we care about his motives if they aren’t told to us. When we do learn that it’s all to do with some bio-terrorist, this is so removed from our experience that there’s once agani no reason to care. In VLR the motivation was to stop a terriorist organiztion as well, but we had a physical link to that organization in Dio. Here, Delta might as well be talking about trying to stop McDonalds and I’d be more invested. At least I know more about McDonalds. So Delta as a character is dissapointing. But even if he were as fleshed out as the rest of the cast, the reveal itself is so far-fetched it still wouldn’t work. Uchikoshi really expects me to believe a tenth person was there all along. Yes, I know some people make vague references to him, and you can sometimes see his shadow or hear his voice, but really? This is a bigger pill to swallow than the twists from the last game, and because Delta is an unknown entity, and an uninteresting one at that, it feels forced down your throat, and that’s just painful and disappointing.

So, Zero Time Dilemma. I think that looking back on it, my thoughts have been soured by the ending. There really are some wonderful moments in this game, as there are in every Zero Escape game. But while the highs are just as high, the lows are some of the lowest in the series, and as it ends on one of these lows I can’t help but feel disappointed looking back at this game. As an ending to one of the best series in gaming the impact of this is huge, but it shouldn’t stop this series being recognised as the tour de force of storytelling it is.

I’ve glossed over some areas of ZTD in this review to cut down on length, so if you want my thoughts on anything else to do with this game or the series, just ask in the comments. The Platinum review will come in a few days (I promise), but I’m bogged down in work so be patient!

Advertisements

Quick Review: Ghostbusters (2016)

ghostbusters-2016
Cue Ray Parker Jr.

Mild spoilers ahead

I just want to first preface this by saying that I hate everything surrounding this movie. I hate the internet cry-babies who don’t want women in their Ghostbusters, I hate the people who prejudged the films on trailers which, by the way, are unrepresentative and I therefore also hate (most of the jokes in the trailer aren’t even in the film, or severely taken out of context). The marketing for this film had been awful, the backlash and subsequent anti-backlash has been awful, and it’s a shame because underneath it all is a pretty decent summer blockbuster.

The original 1984 Ghostbusters is my favourite film (judge away), so while I was initially opposed to a remake, I was still excited to see a new team back on the big screen. For the most part, it works, primarily down to a fantastic cast of new Ghostbusters, enough jokes and moments that land and a sense of downright fun that gives it a unique flavour apart from the funny, but never overly joyous 1984 version. The cast is the main selling point here; Kate McKinnon is the obvious stand-out, a character the likes of which the GB ‘universe’ had never seen, but Leslie Jones’ Patty gets her fair share of funny lines and Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig provide the film’s emotional core. While Wiig and McCarthy get a pretty predictable arc, and McKinnon gets a defined role as the team’s kick-ass engineer, Jones feels a bit like the odd one out, her biggest skill being her knowledge of New York history, but apart from a few odd tidbits, she never gets a satisfactory conclusion to her character’s skill set; a fight scene near the end of the film that inexplicably takes place in old New York seems like it should have some connection to her character, but never does (perhaps this was cut from the finished film). Apart from that, however, the team manages to capture the chemistry of the original team, while not being comprised of character re-hashes. The best new addition, however, is probably Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin, who is so over the top stupid nearly every word out of his mouth is comic gold. The brilliance that is the cast being able to click cannot be overstated; I was grinning almost every time they were just hanging around together, and that’s a harder feat to pull off than one might think.

ghostbusters-marsh-183070-640x320
Ugh, burned marshmallow ghost

The problems with the film only really start to emerge in the third act. Here, the film seems to misunderstand what Ghostbusters is really about, and that is only to its detriment. I am talking, of course, about the drawn out fight scene between the Ghostbusters and the historical ghosts controlled by Rowan, the film’s antagonist. The original Ghostbusters was never an action film, and that’s because it wasn’t about action heroes, but about scientists. Unlike the new team, their proton beams only trapped ghosts, unlike the variety of weapons that, clearly designed for sale as toys, now seem to somehow kill/disable the ghosts. Ghostbusters was never really about that, and while a new spin on the franchise is fine, the fact that the action scene is so boring speaks clearly to the fact that this wasn’t the right direction to take it. In fact, the third act seems to mostly abandon comedy completely. Aside from a few jokes, it takes itself much too seriously (a dance number in the credits should really have been in the main film); the point of the giant Stay Puft was that it was funny; even if Bill Murray hadn’t said ‘he’s a sailor, he’s in New York; we get this guy laid, we won’t have any trouble’, the pure visual comedy of the giant grinning marshmallow man stomping around New York is still funny. An evil version of the Ghostbusters logo is clever, but not funny.

The new Ghostbusters isn’t great. Bits has been noticeably cut (like, why was Kirsten Wiig separated from the other Ghostbusters?), some jokes don’t land, the villain is not funny both dead and alive, and the third act is kind of a mess. But the new Ghostbusters have enough chemistry and the film has enough of a sense of fun that everything kind of works. And hey, it’s still better than Ghostbusters 2.

The Toatali Guide to Modern TV Comedy

If there’s one thing I know a lot about, it’s modern TV comedies. I’ve spent way too much of my life watching 20-30 minute TV sitcoms, and while I haven’t seen them all, my knowledge is pretty extensive. So, today I present a small guide to what you should be watching if you want to get into the now flourishing world of (mostly American, I admit) TV comedies. Before we begin, though, a few ground rules.

  • No rankings – This isn’t me telling you what the best and worst shows are, it’s more of a series of recommendations, depending on what you want to watch. Obviously, all of these shows are great, or I wouldn’t be recommending them, but don’t take the order I put them in as some sort of ranking system.
  • What is modern? – Any show that finished post 2013. This is pretty arbitrary, but such is life.
  • My favourite show isn’t on here… – Tough. Maybe I haven’t seen it, or maybe I didn’t like it. If you want, put a show recommendation in the comments, and I’ll try and get round to watching it.

What to watch if you want awkward comedy.

the-christ-nail-01-1024

Maybe putting Curb your Enthusiasm under the label of awkward comedy is a disservice to the show so let me calm your fears – if you hated Meet the Parents, there’s still a good chance you’ll like this. Curb is often called one of the best TV comedies of all time, and while I don’t think that’s the case, there’s still a lot to be said for it. The show hinges on the performance of Larry David, who plays a fictionalized version of himself. Each episode sees him getting into another dilemma, that he handles (mostly) extremely badly. Where the show succeeds is in the relatability of these problems. While most of them you won’t run into unless you’re a successful Jewish comedian living in L.A., you almost always side with Larry, and that makes the situations he gets himself into even funnier than they might otherwise be. Larry is an annoying guy, but seeing everything from his perspective is seeing a different Larry to the rest of the characters in the show.

The supporting cast also excel; Jeff Garlin is perhaps my favourite of them, but Cheryl Hines also pulls her weight as Larry’s exasperated wife. The semi-improvised nature of the script allows more more natural conversations than any fully scripted show would give. I talked in my review of The Grinder about how characters didn’t speak like normal people, but here they do, and it was the right choice for this style of comedy. The show may too often divulge into screaming, but this isn’t really noticeable if you don’t binge watch, and instead take your time. Curb Your Enthusiasm was recently renewed for a ninth season, 5 years after the last episode aired (which just makes it eligible for a spot in this list), and if you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend watching all 8 brilliant seasons to prepare.

What to watch if you want a Netfilx dramedy

960

Yes, Netflix dramedy gets a spot on this list. With shows like Master of None; Love; Grace and Frankie; Bojack Horseman, as well as non-Netflix shows in a similar vein, this genre has become the new big thing. As a comedy fan and a Netflix user, I’m glad to see this uptick in odd comedies supported by a major streaming service. However, not all of these really hit the spot in what I’m looking for. Master of None probably came the closest (perhaps because of my innate Aziz Ansari bias), but I don’t know if it would have deserved a spot on this list. Then along came Lady Dynamite, created by Mitch Hurwitz of Arrested Development fame (another show you should really check out), and Maria Bamford, of strange stand-up semi-fame. Lady Dynamite edges out those other shows because its actually really funny, as well as building a convincing character portrait thorough a clever structural device of three timelines that chart Bamford’s fall into mental illness to her recovery.

Lady Dynamite is extremely surreal, with buildings having names on them (Maria’s house has ‘Maria’s House’ written on it), and talking pugs, but this fits with Bamford’s often manic personality and surrealist humour. The show mainly focuses on Maria’s attempts to work her way into Hollywood fame, first by trying to capitalize on her eccentricities, then, after her breakdown, by trying to avoid this. In a way, the show itself provides an epilogue to the events that take place inside the show; in making Lady Dynamite, Bamford has manged to make the perfect show the fictionalized version of her dreams of creating. Thanks, Netflix.

What to watch if you want to laugh

9601

Unfortunately, TV comedy these days isn’t primarily concerned with making you laugh. It wants you to think, to cry, maybe to chuckle inwardly at the strangeness or the awkwardness of a situation, but very few shows simply put the jokes first. Then there’s Angie Tribeca, which puts the jokes before everything else. The plot is paper thin; it’s a spoof of cop shows, and the characters are one line stereotypes. But it doesn’t matter. At all. Because Angie Tribeca is really, really, funny. It succeeds in creating what one reviewer called ‘an atmosphere of comedy’; not every joke is funny on its own, but the sheer volume and speed means that by the end of each episode, you’ll be belly laughing. (It’s worth noting here that the second series is much better than the first). Rashida Jones plays the title character, and while her deadpan tone might lead you to believe that she plays a ‘straight man’ role, you’d be mistaken. Angie is just as silly as the rest of the cast, but like them, she doesn’t take any notice of the absurdities that are going on around her. Because of the joke based nature of the show, it’s hard to write much about, so please, just watch it.

What to watch if you want a musical

9602

A lot of the shows on this list are ‘character studies’. This is a natural consequence of TV shows that take themselves more seriously, and are usually headed up by one main comedian/comedienne. Ensemble casts seem to have, for the most part, disappeared. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is another ‘character study’ show, but this one has a big difference; it’s a musical. Really, it’s the songs that carry this one into a place on this list. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend follows Rebecca Bunch (played by Youtube star Rachel Bloom), as she moves to West Covina (California (Only two hours from the beach (four in traffic))), in order to win back her summer camp love, Josh Chan.

Vulture called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend their best show on TV right now, and while I don’t agree with that (you’ll see what mine is later), it’s pretty damn good. Rebecca Bunch is an amazing comic creation, a product of Disney films who imagines musical numbers in her head that spring off from songs and genres we all recognize (much like Flight of the Conchords, which sadly missed this list by about 4 years), and reveal a fascinating look into her psyche. The supporting cast, much like the viewer, is drawn into Rebecca’s quest to win back Josh, including her new best friend Paula, who reveals herself even more damaged than Rebecca in her mad-cap schemes to get Josh. But perhaps the best thing about CEG, is that it doesn’t rely on you reading too much into it. It throws everything to the surface in its musical numbers, which even without a knowledge of the plot are simply enjoyable. It’s not the best show on TV, but it comes close.

What to watch if you can’t stand dips in quality

9603

These titles are getting a bit crazy now… Anyway, with most long running shows, there’s often a noticeable dip in quality towards the end (see Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, Friends etc). It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has been going for 11 seasons now and each season has at least a few classic episodes. Even in its latest season, where you can see the show runners following one of their character’s advice (“Well, I don’t know how many years on this earth I got left. I’m gonna get real weird with it”), it still had some really great episodes.

I said that the ensemble comedy was slowly dying, and this show is the only real one on my list. Luckily, it takes the ensemble cast model, which is often used for ‘cosy’, friends living together type shows, and makes it a dark comedy about a group of friends who run a bar together, and the various despicable schemes they get up to, all funded by Danny DeVito’s Frank Renyolds, who supports the strange ideas of Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney and Glenn Howerton’s characters, who drag along and abuse Kaitlin Olson’s birdlike Dee Renyolds. The various schemes would be funny by themselves, but the way the cast play off each other and the way various rifts between them pull their ideas apart really makes each episode click. The other good thing about IASIP is that none of the characters change, or become better people. This may seem like a downside from a story-telling perspective, but IASIP only works because of the character dynamics, and the writers know that old adage ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. The character’s various flaws become more exaggerated, but only to expand on pre-existing traits and mine them for comedy. Plus it’s all on Netflix, and perfect for binging. So there’s that!

What to watch if you want something British

35b740eb-47a1-4903-915f-7b131829275c

As an Englishman, I should really be more supportive of modern British comedies, but aside from a few stand out shows (Toast of London, The IT Crowd), America seems to be dominating the sitcom right now. The best British comedies tend to be panel shows; I love Would I Lie to You, and Have I Got News For You is great satire in the British tradition. But the one British sitcom that really stands out among the crowd is Peep Show. Known for its unique first person view, the show is much more than a visual gimmick. In a way, Peep Show functions as a combination of many of the shows I’ve talked about here; it borrows some of the awkward comedy from Curb your Enthusiasm (although that’s probably a side effect of David Mitchell’s exaggerated British-ness), the dark schemes of IASIP, and the deep character studies of awful people from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.

Dream team David Mitchell and Robert Webb play Mark and Jeremy, two mates who live together, but whose lives are mostly failures. Mark works at a dead-end job and is always trying to win the affections of some women he creepily stalks, and Jeremy is a wannabe musician whose endeavors are mostly failures. Sometimes it hurts to see the odd couple fail in such spectacular ways, in a similar way to the UK version of The Office (I still find it hard to watch the book launch for Business Secrets of the Pharaohs), but the show so rarely misses the balance between horrifically unwatchable and funny, that it often manages to reach the heights of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s masterclass of comedy. Anyone who liked that show or wants to check out something that encapsulates what many people think of as ‘British’ comedy should definitely check out Peep Show.

What to watch if you are a human being

9604

It’s ReviewReview is not just my favourite modern TV comedy, it’s my favourite TV show, full stop. If you haven’t seen Review, read this at your own risk, because what I would advise is to leave this blog post right now, and go and watch both seasons. If your life isn’t changed for the better having watched a spectacular piece of television whose ambitions seems to rival that of a groundbreaking drama like Mad Men, but told in the form of small sketches rather than hour long mood setting smoke-a-thons, then I’ll forfeit my job as a critic.

For those who still need convincing (really?), Review centers around Forrest MacNeil, played by comedic genius Andy Daly, a man who reviews various life experiences for his TV show, from eating 15 pancakes to blackmailing a person. The show’s genius revolves around how each review (there are usually three an episode) changes and shapes a part of Forrest’s personality – try as he might, he cannot separate his life from his reviews, or his reviews from his life. Gradually, they start to destroy him and the lives of the people around him, but without him really ever noticing. The menace of the show Forrest runs creeps up on him as it creeps up on the viewer, but it never becomes another omnipresent character like Veridian Dynamics in Better Off Ted, because the show is so tied up in Forrest himself, even when he tries to convince himself there’s a true bad guy behind the operation. Review deals with a multitude of topics, from the problems with being a critic, to the problems of being Batman, but the show links each little thread back to the quilt that is Forrest’s messed up life, and if that sounds too dark for you, don’t worry, because it still manages to be funny. Some reviews go so over the top or deal with such silly things, that even at it’s darkest it still reminds you that this is a comedy. Andy Daly has always explored unassuming characters with seriously dark sides, but here he buries it so deep and plays it so perfectly that it’s no wonder Forrest is his only character to make it to a full TV show, instead of just a guest appearance on Comedy Bang Bang! I love Review, and I’m sure anyone who watches it will too.

So there it is. My guide to modern comedy. I wish I could have written for longer on each of these shows, but then this post will have really overstayed its welcome, and I don’t want that. Thanks for reading, and I hope anyone who did got something out of it.