Office Politics

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Before I begin, it’s worth saying how this post will likely draw some ire, so I think I need to do some major clarifications before I begin. First of all, this is by no means trying to be any sort of definitive ranking of the two series, because both have carved out their own niches enough that they can happily co-exist. I’m also not trying to find out which one I prefer more, because I already know that I prefer the original UK version of the Office. I think that’s worth putting at the front, because it serves as a useful lens through which to view the rest of this essay, but also because a large chunk of this essay hopes to prove why I feel this way in a slightly more detailed way than ‘I think this is funnier’. Hopefully though, fans of both series will be interested to see an evaluation of the differences between the original and the remake; what gives each its unique flavour, and what makes fans so passionate about defending one against the other. Both shows have been highly lauded and hugely influential, and exploring these titans of comedic pop-culture is always an interesting challenge. One further clarification should be mentioned. While I will be mentioning the Office UK’s Christmas Special, my focus will be on the main two seasons. What’s more, I will only be focusing on the US Office Seasons 2-5, with little mentions of the later seasons. This is mostly for the sake of fairness; most fans of the US Office agree the show went downhill in its later years, and comparing lesser episodes of the US Office to the UK Office (which was able to maintain a consistent quality thanks to its shorter length) would feel a bit wrong. Moreover, the first series borrows plots and scripts wholesale from the UK Office, which puts it in opposition to the tone and style the series would come to be known by.

Deciding where to start this comparison would always be tricky, but the most obvious place to start is with the respective show’s intros. I’m not talking about the pilots, but about the opening themes, which demonstrate neatly the shows differences in tone. Sure, both begin with shots of the city, but the songs used couldn’t be more different. The UK version is a melancholy tune, the opening video shows no characters, and the landscape it depicts is the grey and lifeless concrete blocks of the Slough trading estate. Meanwhile, the US version has a much more upbeat feel to it; Scranton isn’t all trading estates, it’s old clock towers and a (literally) welcoming sign. The US Office’s opening also introduces its cast within the opening credits, and when it does so, the tempo of the theme picks up (about 6 seconds into the opening). Characters aren’t shown doing as wacky hijinks as something like the FRIENDS opening, but it’s not all doom and gloom. The UK Office presents its mission statement as something quite quietly melancholic, whereas the US one welcomes you to Scranton and its colourful cast of characters. So, it’s a small thing, and one I’m sure many viewers will pick up on, but its worth commenting on nonetheless, because it instantly makes an impact on the viewer and informs them of the mindset to enter into when watching. The US Office compounds this in its second season (which marks the point it clearly breaks away from the UK mould), by introducing cold opens. It’s important to note that while the cold opens occasionally have an effect on the rest of the episode, or on the character dynamics, they are almost always comedy-focused. The most famous of the US Office’s cold opens is Dwight’s fire drill, which becomes the focus for the rest of the two episode arc, but is primarily focused on comedy first. That’s because the US Office is once again setting the tone for the series in its first few minutes. Neither of these things may seem as important as whether you like Michael Scott or David Brent more, but they are indicative of the show’s overall aims.

Both the US and UK Office are clearly very accomplished show, but it’s their success in achieving the tone they introduce with their openings where my central point lies. I think it’s important to lay out my central hypothesis as soon as possible, so that hopefully my other points start to make sense. In my opinion, the US Office, while being a fantastic show, never managed to escape the influence of its UK forefather, because it became shackled by the conventions of that show. To put it in a really clear example, let’s look at…

The Office as Documentary

In both versions of the Office, the show uses the framing device of a documentary in order to tell its story. While nowhere near the first mockumentary, the UK Office was certainly one of the first major proponents of the genre on TV, and the format became vital to the show’s feel and premise. David Brent is half the way he is because of his awareness of the cameras. So many of his lines and actions are directed towards the camera; he’s showing off, he’s trying to be funny, and that he’s so obviously performing for the camera makes his act that little bit more pathetic. When the series crossed to the US, the documentary style crossed with it, and the US show found a completely new way to make it an integral part of the experience. While Scott still plays to the camera a little, its main use is for the confessional segments of the show; where one person says something, and then turns to the camera and says a completely different thing for a joke, or for more heartfelt moments. Both shows have both parts of the documentary style, but each puts its emphasis on a different part. However, the documentary stuff in the US Office almost always feels unrealistic. It hasn’t really been thought out properly; the main use is for gags, and the show really feels like it often wants you to forget that this is a documentary. Instead, it wants to have its cake and eat it; it wants the cutaway gags and the occasional use of the cameras as a plot device, but it also wants to be able to do things completely unrealistic for a documentary (like go on for 9 years).

So here’s where I’m going to bring in another show; Parks and Recreation. Parks and Rec was created to be a spin off show to the Office, and its two creators were Greg Daniels, who was the show runner for the Office, and Michael Schur, who worked on the Office (and played the role of Mose Schrute). Parks and Rec does indeed have its cake and eat it. It uses cutaway gags in the exact same way the Office does, but it circumvents the problem of realism by never mentioning a documentary or documentary crew. Shows like Modern Family did the exact same thing; taking the part of the documentary format that worked the best for comedy, and leaving out the baggage because the audience doesn’t really care. The Office US hadn’t quite figured that out yet; from its start it had boldly followed the UK Office into the documentary style, but when its scope and tone evolved, the show was left with a few things from the UK Office that never quite worked. The documentary style is one, while the other is…

The Office as Cringe Comedy

The UK Office is one of the prime examples of a cringe comedy; a show that, at points, almost hurts to watch. It’s this aspect of the show’s comedy that often marks out the UK version of the show as the less popular of the two (not, mind you, the worse). It’s because cringe comedy is extremely divisive. It’s worth noting that the cringe comedy of the UK Office isn’t equivalent to ‘UK humour’ (if such as thing exists) – cringe comedy is universal, but the UK version of the Office certainly employs it more liberally than its US counterpart. Cringe comedy relies on a certain kind of comedic incongruity; that the character (here David Brent), is someone who completely sidesteps social norms and is incredibly egotistical and selfish. Cringe comedy relies on the viewer not being disturbed by this, but instead finding it amusing, while those who aren’t as open to this style of comedy will find this specific kind of humour annoying. It’s important to note that this isn’t a judgement on the show’s humour, nor on the people who either like or dislike this style of comedy. But it’s equally important to notice that the UK Office trades almost exclusively in cringe comedy. The US Office, then, when adapting the UK Office had to adapt this particular aspect as well. Much like the aforementioned documentary style, it’s a key aspect of what makes ‘The Office’ ‘The Office’. Nevertheless, as the US Office progressed, the show runners decided to play to their strengths with a broader style of humour. As such, while the more painful elements of the comedy are still present, they’re toned down and less divisive humour replaces much of it. Michael Scott is still an awkward, socially transgressive and egotistical boss, but the kinder elements of his personality are played up a lot more, and the series is as a whole less grounded in reality, meaning that the cringe elements are a lot easier to swallow. For many people, it’s this shift in humour that really makes the US version superior.

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However, it’s worth considering the effects this shift has on the US Office. I think for this purpose, we can look pretty much exclusively at the Series 4 episode; The Dinner Party. This episode has been constantly lauded as one of the US Office’s finest episodes, and I can’t help but agree with this. But it’s also worth noting how tonally inconsistent it is with the rest of the show. The episode plays up a lot of the cringe comedy elements to the point where it’s nearly unbearable, but it keeps itself on the right side of the line with enough laugh out loud moments to be worthy of praise as a tonal balancing act alone. But this episode really feels like it’s trying to cater to the UK Office’s influence rather than steak out its own path. The character of Jan, for example, is hilarious within the context of the episode, but her arc over the course of the series is a constant downer; it’s a showcase of a mental breakdown, and while it may be slightly exaggerated, it’s much more in the comedic style of the UK Office than the US show it actually appears in. I think characters like Jan and Ryan, whose life stories come very close to the depressing, are the US Office’s attempts to pay heritage to its roots. But deep down, the show desires to be more like Parks and Recreation, which it will eventually become. So the show has these two creative directions pulling it in opposite directions. The desire to remember where the show came from creates these interesting and depressing character arcs, as well as the more cringe moments of the show’s comedy. Meanwhile, the natural comedic instinct of the show’s creators are pulling it towards being something much lighter in tone, and more akin to Parks and Rec, Brooklyn Nine Nine or any of the other shows that were either created by Schur and Daniels or were inspired by them. Sometimes, as in the case of The Dinner Party, these creative directions will work and produce great episodes of television, but when viewed as a whole, the inconsistencies in the show’s tone start to show.

Close studies

Ok, so hopefully you know understand my general attitude towards both versions of the Office. With that done, we can now move onto some closer studies of specific scenes and characters that appear in both versions. This isn’t exhaustive, nor is all of it that enlightening. But I think it’s still a useful exercise.

The Fire Drill

The Fire Drill cold open is one of the funniest and most famous of the US Office’s cold opens, and in fact forms the basis for a two episode long arc. In the UK Office, the fire drill is pretty inconsequential. Let’s focus first on that one, because it highlights neatly the two areas that I was just rattling on about. Firstly, the documentary format is put to good use, because Brent constantly speaks to the camera, and brags about how, while the drills are required by law, he only does them because he really cares about the safety of his staff. His need to show off to the cameras leads into the cringe comedy moment, when he stops the disabled member of staff from leaving early because he needs to be the one to do the ‘heroic’ thing in front of the camera and lead her to safety. Eventually, the punchline comes in her being too heavy for Brent and Gareth, and them leaving her to ‘die’ on the stairs. It’s a neat little comedic moment that doesn’t play too heavily into any story moments, but reinforces Brent’s character while providing a few solid laughs.

The US segment also plays on the documentary aspect, but it’s not as crucial to character as it is to plot. Sure, the fact that Dwight would do such a thing is a neat and fitting character moment, but this could be communicated without the use of a documentary framing device. Brent wouldn’t be doing what he was doing (bragging, then intercepting the disabled worker) if the camera wasn’t there. Dwight would always be doing this, and the only use of the documentary crew is that it allows the show to have him talk directly to camera and explain his action. This is just another example of how the documentary is more integrated into the UK version than the US version. The comedy here is also indicative of the differences between the two. Instead of the cringe realism of the UK Office, the humour is bombastic and much more slapstick. It certainly delivers a lot more laugh out loud moments in its timespan; the cat falling from the roof; Kevin running into people; Michael trying to smash the window with a chair. Even Stanley’s heart attack is timed like a perfect punchline. This, is clearly the show the US Office aspires to be; it wouldn’t feel out of place in a later Schur show in its comedic styles, and it plays to the show’s ensemble nature by having each character’s reaction to the “fire” be both hilarious and fitting. I think this segment showcases each show’s individual stylings at their best; the UK Office playing on what makes it unique, while the US Office crafts a segment that shows the comedic styles its creators would become best known for.

A Prank in Poor Taste

In the very first episode of the UK Office, Brent pretends to fire Dawn for ‘stealing… thieving’ post-it notes from Wrenham Hogg. The point of view character (the new temp in the office) has been informed that David is going to play a prank on Dawn, but the scale of the prank isn’t really told to us. It’s hard to see the comedy in this scene, especially when Dawn starts to cry… but it is there. It’s present in the patronising way Brent says ‘good girl’, the lame excuse he gives as to why he’s firing Dawn. But I think to see this scene as primarily comedic misses the point. This is an extremely important character introduction to David Brent, and while we’ll talk more about his character in the next section, this is really all the viewer needs. It’s the perfect introduction to his selfish behaviour, and the show treats it as seriously as it needs to. The UK Office is as concerned with realism as comedy, and so a prank like this can’t get brushed off.

The US Office repeats this scene nearly word for word in its first episode as well, but because it’s so similar it seems pointless to compare. Instead, we’ll look at a scene from Season 5 Episode 26 (near the end of the episode – couldn’t find this clip on youtube…), wherein Michael Scott once again pretends to fire Pam when he has to decide about whether he should let her or Ryan go. Here the difference in comic approach couldn’t be clearer, because the heightened reality that the US Office takes place in allows for the prank to pretty much go off without consequence. Pam doesn’t seem that upset at being fired, and Michael’s prank is treated as the silly but forgivable joke of a little boy; the scene ends in a happy resolution, with Michael laughing and Pam happy at eventually getting the job. There’s a really solid joke in there about Michael pretending to hire Ryan, and him being really unhappy about not actually getting the job, but it’s crucial that the show doesn’t show that moment, but instead the moment with the happier resolution. It’s a shift in worldview on two accounts; the first is that a cruel prank isn’t condemned as harshly because as long as the resolution is happy it seemingly doesn’t matter. The second is that the crueller moments are no longer shown, but left offscreen and used as a spoken punchline. By this point, the US Office has shifted into a more comic semi-reality that many feel-good sitcoms take place in, and so it no longer needs to deal with the heavy consequences of a joke someone like Brent or Scott would play. Speaking of…

Battle of the Bosses

“We had to make Michael Scott a slightly nicer guy, with a rosier outlook to life. He could still be childish, and insecure, and even a bore, but he couldn’t be too mean. The irony is of course that I think David Brent’s dark descension and eventual redemption made him all the more compelling. But I think that’s a lot more palatable in Britain for the reasons already stated. Brits almost expect doom and gloom so to start off that way but then have a happy ending is an unexpected joy. Network America has to give people a reason to like you not just a reason to watch you. In Britain we stop watching things like Big Brother when the villain is evicted. We don’t want to watch a bunch of idiots having a good time. We want them to be as miserable as us. America rewards up front, on-your-sleeve niceness. A perceived wicked streak is somewhat frowned upon.”

-Ricky Gervais

I think this is really the area where most of the differences between the two versions have been written about, and I think it’s here where I’ve really had the most difficulty. But I actually think Gervais is wrong when he says things like ‘Scott… couldn’t be too mean’, because as the above example shows, Scott is exactly as mean as Brent, but the audience is never meant to feel that. It’s not a shock to anyone that much of comedy is all about action/reaction, but it’s always worth emphasising how important that second part is. Because even with Scott doing something as cruel as fake firing one of his staff members, it’s the reaction that tells the audience how we’re meant to feel about this. In the UK Office, we’re clearly meant to see Brent as the unfunny, insecure man he is when Dawn starts crying and insulting him. In the US Office, we’re meant to see Scott as just a little bit out of the loop and oblivious, and Pam’s reactions tell us that. So I’m not sure if Scott actually is a ‘nicer guy’, or if the people around him and the show are just slightly more forgiving of his screw-ups. I also don’t think Scott is necessarily more liked by his co-workers than Brent is. Over the course of 7 seasons, it’s natural that there are more moments wherein Scott and his employees get along than in the UK Office’s 2 seasons. But it’s wrong to say that Brent’s staff are constantly annoyed with him – scenes like the Mhana Mhana song and the guitar recital spring to mind, but it’s clear that neither boss is always hated. It’s true, however that Brent never gets the emotional moments of character interactions like Scott gets (think: buying Pam’s paintings). So is Brent or Scott ‘nicer’? I think Scott still has the edge, but hopefully I’ve shown that it’s not as clear cut as it seems.

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I think character development is also really important in assessing the two characters, and I think it’s actually here where Brent edges out Scott and becomes my choice for the better character. Both characters start from the exact same base point, if only because they use the exact same script for the first episode, and most of the same plots for the first season. And just as both start off as insecure, attention seeking idiots, they end up as much more tolerable people. I think Brent’s character development is problematic, however, as it’s poorly paced as all hell. Almost the entirety of it is consigned to the two-part Christmas special, and even there most of it is at the end. The Christmas Special devotes most of its energy to putting Brent through the ringer and making him suffer as much as possible before it can redeem him. This certainly makes sense; Brent is enough of an asshole that we need to see him suffer before he can be redeemed, and the only way for the audience to get on his side is by assuring us that he’s had his just desserts. But what this means is that it takes a long time for Brent to eventually get his redemption at the Christmas party; he’s finally allowed to relax with his date and, more importantly, he’s allowed to stand-up to Finchy. This segment is incredibly important and well constructed. His date hasn’t seen The Office, because it finally allows Brent to act himself and be relaxed in his own skin, no longer having to be the entertainer. We don’t see or hear his conversation with his date, and that’s quite important. Free from the documentary cameras, Brent’s body language relaxes and he seems to be engaging the person he’s with. And, having relaxed, he can finally stand up to Finchy, someone who he’s previously idolised, and even make his co-workers laugh. It’s not a full redemption – we don’t have people finally lauding Brent or him getting his job back. But it’s a start; a glimpse that a more compassionate man lies underneath Brent’s assholish exterior. The whole section is too short in the timeline of the series to be  fantastic character development, but it’s a sublime little moment within its own context.

There is, however, one advantage of Brent’s development consigned to the last episode; it means the show can never go back on it (unless you’re Life on the Road). Scott’s development is much more drawn out, and pretty inconsistent because of it. I think familiarity is often mistaken for character development in long sitcoms, but they really aren’t one and the same. Sure, over 9 seasons I get to know Jim Halpert really well, but that doesn’t mean he’s changed or developed as a character much. It’s easy to mistake our increased familiarity with Scott’s character flaws and motivations as development and character change. Our relationship with him has changed through exposure to more aspects of his life, but that doesn’t equate to him having changed. Now, it’s also important to say that character development isn’t necessary to make a good show (especially for comedies); none of the cast of It’s Always Sunny change too much over 12 seasons, but that doesn’t stop them from being a fantastic comedic cast. In fact, I still find the US Office’s characterisation of Scott incredibly well done. It’s always worth noting, though, that long running shows are so often too scared from changing their characters in any major ways (past ironing out the kinks of a first season or so, or the natural effects of flanderization). So, even if Michael manages to let go of his dream of making Threat Level Midnight before he leaves the show for good, in his final episodes he’s still making the same awful, corny semi-offensive jokes he always has. The difference is that his staff now laugh along with him. Again, I want to stress that I love Michael Scott as a character; I think he is one of the best things about the US Office – I think with the extra time they had they were able to fully explore this insecure and unloved buffoon and make him amazingly watchable and loveable. However, I don’t think the show ever managed the master stroke that the UK Office pulled in its finale.

Really though, the two characters become somewhat incomparable, because of one really important difference between the two shows; their length. I haven’t really talked about this before, because I don’t feel it’s been relevant until now, but the difference in the number of episodes really changed the approach of the two shows towards their respective leads. Scott was allowed time and heartwarming moments for the audience to warm to him, but it’s arguable that it wasn’t so much that he changed, as much as our relationship to him changed. Meanwhile, Brent is finally allowed redemption and a chance to change by the end of the series, but its short length means this is somewhat of a squished moment – it’s not quite given enough time to breathe. So both bosses are fantastically written characters that have an eventual redemption in the eyes of the audience, but the way in which this is handled changes because of the respective lengths of the shows.

Conclusion: The Office as a Love Story

Of course, the characters most affected by the change in length are the two lovers; Dawn and Tim in the UK version, and Jim and Pam in the US version. Here’s one section where I think the UK version trumps the US remake almost hands down. The thing is, much of what keeps the UK and US Office’s so amazingly watchable is the doomed romance between the salesman and the receptionist. In both versions their budding romance is handled brilliantly; the audience wants them to get together, and wants Pam/Dawn to dump Roy/Lee. In the UK Office, the second series ends on an all time low for all the characters involved; David Brent is fired, and Tim confesses his love, only to be turned down by Dawn. But in the Christmas Special, the two are finally allowed redemption; it feels earned, and a long time coming. A similar arc happens in the US Office; the two fall in and out of love with people we the audience know are wrong for them, but by the end of the 3rd season they are finally allowed to be together, and the two start to date. This is where the problem with the US Office’s love story starts; the show goes on too long for Jim and Pam to never get together, but without that romantic tension, the show definitely loses a dramatic edge. We see attempts to replicate this dynamic with Dwight and Angela, or Michael and Holly, but it’s not quite the same dynamic that worked so well before. FRIENDS knew this was pivotal, and while the Ross/Rachel dynamic is almost comedically long-winded, it’s a solution that works, allowing the show to continue for a long time without removing its most successful dynamic. Parks and Recreation is also so much more successful at sustaining this stuff because none of its characters were built with a will they/won’t they dynamic in mind, and so even when main cast members pair up, it doesn’t lose what made those characters so interesting and engaging.

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I started this essay by attempting to make the point that the US Office isn’t as successful as the UK Office because it’s hindered by being a remake, and I think that this last point should hopefully help to restate that fact. This morning, I was asking myself why I wrote this piece at all. Because while I prefer the UK Office and hope that this essay shows why… I still love the US Office, and I don’t begrudge anyone who thinks it’s the superior version. So I don’t really have anything to prove here.  I guess I can use the same reasoning that I do with all my comedy reviews; that I hope to bring a greater critical appreciation of comedy television. But with this, I think there’s something else I wanted to show. It’s that judging these shows isn’t just a measure of your taste in comedy. I think there’s still valid arguments to be made about the success of these shows that isn’t entirely based around whether cringe comedy is something you find enjoyable. I think both shows deserve to be lauded, and that both can happily co-exist, but it’s worth showing how each show differs, and why I feel one is slightly more successful because it uses its own original idea, while the other has been stopped from reaching its true potential by its nature as a remake.

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Persona 5

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Spoilers for the entirety of Persona 5 ahead. The other Persona games are not spoiled in this post.

Persona 5 is a game for Japan. It talks to Japanese people and it was made by Japanese people. It’s set in Japan, and it appears to address issues facing Japan today. I thought I should get this out of the way as quickly as possible, because when looking critically at Persona 5, it’s near impossible to escape the feeling that you just don’t get it. And it would be ethnocentric to assume that Persona 5 should cater to my own, Western-liberal ideas about society. This game is inherently Japanese-liberal, and so, while I cannot ever hope to fully understand it in the same way it was made to be understood by its target audience, I can at least give readers of this review the knowledge of where I’m coming from. With such a deeply political game, I think that’s necessary. That said, let’s jump straight into it.

A playlist of some of my favourite tracks from the game to accompany this post.

The opening act of Persona 5, is, to my mind, a near pitch perfect introduction to the game. Much like many recent JRPGs (Final Fantasy XV and Fire Emblem Awakening spring to mind), the game starts with an in media res action platforming section that simultaneously sets up the thrill of the game’s best moments while also establishing the game’s narrative as a series of flashbacks told in an interrogation room. The interrogation device is there really as a tone setting piece; its implications in the grand narrative are negligible, other than to provide a little clue as to the trick the Phantom Thieves end up playing on Goro Akechi. Once that’s done, you’re placed back in control of Joker, the game’s protagonist; a convict sent to live in Tokyo under the supervision of the grouchy but lovable Soejiro Sakura (it’s here where the Persona 4 comparisons start, but not where they end, sadly). The main conflict of the first act takes place inside Joker’s school; the PE teacher[1] Kamoshida is an exploitative bastard who preys on his female students and abuses his male ones. You know the time is right to stop him when his actions end up causing one student to attempt suicide, and one of your teammates is blackmailed into having sex with him. It’s a dire situation; one that makes Kamoshida perhaps one of the most hatable villains in any game I’ve played in a long time. It’s true that perhaps the game slips up in not naming Kamoshida’s most grievous actions, but that’s only notable because of how well the rest of the arc handles the themes of sexual assault and rape. It’s also a fantastic introduction to the theme of the game, which is ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’.[2] Some have simplified this to simply ‘rebellion’, but I think (most of) the game itself only seeks to deal with this particular aspect of the larger theme of ‘rebellion’. When you reach Kamoshida’s Palace, the game really kicks into high gear; the music is fantastic, the visuals are on point, the battle system is fine tuned Megaten fun and the dungeon itself is hand crafted; a huge step up from the randomly generated maps of previous games. While the puzzles may be simple and the action platforming not at all skill-based, the style that it oozes is good enough for me. The entire opening is incredibly confident and completely won me over. This, I was sure, was my game of the year.

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‘and I would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for you damn brats and your meddling cat’

Of course, we’re only 656 words into the review, so I’m sure you’ve guessed that it didn’t stay that way. Sadly, you’d be right. The next villain on the Phantom Thieves’ list is world-famous artist Madarame, who steals from and exploits his students, passing their work off as his own. This extends to his latest student Yusuke, who is to become the newest member of the Phantom Thieves. Madarame is simply a step down as a villain from Kamoshida. In stakes, he’s a step up; his brand is world-famous, and the number of people he exploits is far more wide reaching. By the end of the arc, we even find out that Madarame let Yusuke’s mother die, but by this point it’s too late for us to hate Madarame as much as we hated Kamoshida. Stalin was right when he said that ‘A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.’ As Persona 5 continues, its villains increase in scale, but this lessens their impact as villains. I find it hard to care about all the nameless workers Okumura exploits, but very easy to care about the attempted blackmail of Ann, one of my friends.[3] Of course, in order for the idea of ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’ to advance, the villains must grow in scale. But the game fails to effectively handle this, because we are often robbed of seeing the personal effect of these villains’ actions. We don’t meet an employee of Big Bang Burger and most egregiously we never really see people affected by Kaneshiro’s actions; he’s not even related to Makoto, whose introductory palace this is.

In a game of diminishing returns, it seems likely that Shido, whose evil deeds have the biggest effect on the largest number of people, would be the worst villain in the game. I don’t think that’s quite the case, luckily, but Shido is certainly underwhelming as a final villain. On the personal stakes, at least, he succeeds in being hatable. He has personally wronged us by accusing us of a crime we didn’t commit and has killed Futaba’s mother and Haru’s father, so while he still doesn’t quite reach the level of detestability as Kamoshida, he’s no teddie bear either. But on a grand scale, Shido never quite convinces as the poison for Japan he is meant to represent. Here, by the way, is where it gets tricky discussing this game as a Westerner. The truth is, Japan’s political problems are different from those in England and America. The scandals that Shinzo Abe gets into are certainly different from those of Donald Trump. So I must just remind you that I’m not a scholar on Japanese politics, but that the game focuses so much on them, that I still need to address the subject. Shido is bad for Japan because he is corrupt. He kills people, he has ties with the Yakuza, and he says one thing to the electorate but in fact, he cares nothing for Japan, imagining it as a sinking country where he is one of the few survivors. You could say that this is a similar situation to Abe, who campaigns on vague promises and statements in order to win an election and institute unpopular changes, such as his efforts to change the Japanese constitution to something more militaristic. I’ve seen a great comparison between a poster of Shido found in his palace to a poster of Shinzo Abe, showing that the game does indeed have some political satire and wit.[4] But ultimately, it fails to hit as hard as it could, because the game doesn’t quite have enough to say about politics aside from that corruption is bad and we should be more aware of it. Take the US version of House of Cards; the message there is similarly unclear and slightly without too much of a point behind it. But it does have a worldview to portray; a cynical and exaggerated look at the politicians who lead, and what really motivates them. Shido never really reveals his true ambitions to us. Most of his dialogue is standard evil guy monologues. The game also fails to portray a valid alternative to Shido. There is one obvious candidate for who the developers clearly think is what politics should be about; Toranosuke, a disgraced politician who becomes a fast friend to Joker and the Phantom Thieves. In his confidant story, we can see that he’s someone with integrity and passion, someone who sticks to his beliefs. We can see that this is the sort of politician to gun for. In a way, he becomes the Japanese Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn; not a perfect politician, but someone with a firm belief in their values. Except, of course, that Toranosuke has no values. His speeches are made up of the exact same meaningless platitudes that make up most of Shido’s speeches. Both seem to spout the exact same apolitical, bipartisan garbage about the children being our future and the key to making Japan great again. And yet Persona 5 berates the public for loving one and encourages the public to love the other.[5] I think, that despite making a politician the big bad, Persona 5 doesn’t have much to say about politics. This isn’t automatically a problem per se, because it simply uses politics as a way to explore its bigger themes, but I think it belies a larger lack of depth within Persona 5. [6]

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I think this leads nicely into talking about the game’s main theme. Persona 3 and 4 both had strong central themes explored within the main narrative and the social links. Persona 5 has a good concept for a central theme, but it falters slightly on the execution. I said at the beginning that the theme wasn’t just rebellion, it was more specific than that; that it was actually ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’. Well, here’s where it gets a bit complicated. That’s certainly the theme up until the end of the 7th Palace, at which point the scope widens to become ‘the individual versus conformity’ with the introduction of Yaldabaoth as the God of Control and the final boss. This is a similarly interesting theme, one explored by the Persona series’ main branch, the Shin Megami Tensei series. Those games are all centred around the choice between ‘Law’ (i.e. conformity) and Chaos (i.e. individuality).[7] In those games, the choice is up to you between the two paths. Neither ends in happiness, but both options are available. Persona 5, in the SMT canon, would be a chaos route story; the Phantom Thieves are rebels; first against exploitative authority, and then against conformity. While Shin Megami Tensei games give you the option to choose your path, Persona 5 chooses it for you. This is not a bad thing; Persona 5 has a point to make, and I’m more than happy to go along for the ride. The problem comes because the developers for some reason need to question the actions of their protagonists. Here’s an actual conversation from the game, taken from before Shido’s palace;

Makoto: What we’re about to do is just, right…?
Joker: Choice between (It is.) and (Yes, they’ll see soon).
Morgana: That’s right. Have we ever acted outside the scope of justice?
Makoto: You have a point.

Yikes. Consider the point of that conversation. The game seems to desperately want to appear to be raising some sort of problem with the Phantom Thieves’ actions, but can never bring itself to do it. So, the way I see it, the game has two choices. Firstly would be to ignore the actions of the Thieves altogether and just tell the player that they’re in the right. Secondly would be to properly explore the issue and convince the player that they’re in the right. The game does neither, but could so easily do either. Let’s start with the second option. If only there was already a character in the game that could serve as an ethical opponent of the Phantom Thieves. Maybe one whose role in the story started off that way but became a character that was completely under-utilised and instead used simply as a way to copy a more successful twist from Persona 4… oh wait Goro Akechi. Lots of people have complained about Akechi’s role in the story and I agree with pretty much all the complaints. Akechi has pretty much nothing to do once the twist that he’s been working for Shido is revealed. He turns into a hired gun with daddy issues and an annoyingly placed boss fight. His relation to the protagonist is aiming to be the same as the relationship between the murderer in Persona 4 and Yu (two sides of the same coin), but without the same context and build up from that game, the entire thing falls flat. Before the twist, however, Akechi has promise. He’s also a fighter against injustice, but believes in the rule of law to do so. If he continued in that way, then he could serve as a much better antagonist for the Phantom Thieves. Both are enemies of the injustice of the world, but they are opposed in how they combat it. Then, you can more fully explore the issue of whether what the Thieves do is just. If they just ignored the problem all together, that could also have worked; but the game might need to change its basic mechanics in order to do that. You see, Makoto in that conversation is correct. There is a problem in the actions of the Phantom Thieves. Persona 5 claims to value individualism, but only if you conform to its sense of good. In changing the hearts of villains, the Phantom Thieves strip them of their individuality. So, when I said that Persona 5’s theme was ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’, I think what I mean is that that is what the game’s theme should  have stayed. Persona 5 is not equipped to handle a theme like ‘individual versus conformity’ because its main mechanic of stealing hearts runs counter to that. So, because this has been a slightly complicated paragraph to write and read, I’ll try and sum up. Persona 5 is able to handle a shallow idea like ‘rebellion against exploitative authority’, because there isn’t too much to discuss there. There are predefined good guys and bad guys, and we don’t feel awful about changing a bad guy’s heart in order to stop exploitation and death. But when the game switches gears to hint at the idea of individual versus conformity, or when it hints at it even before the Prison of Regression, we see the inherent contradiction at the heart of Persona 5 – its heart stealing good guys are forcing conformity onto its villains. So Persona 5 cannot handle a deeper theme, even though it wants to. Remember how I said at the end of the politics chapter that Persona 5 has a lack of depth? This is yet another example of it.

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The game has other ways of making it look like it’s saying something deeper than it actually is. Most of this comes in the final hours of the game; The Prison of Regression and the fight against the Holy Grail, who is actually the “God” Yaldaboath playing a game with Igor. I think this section of the game actually does pretty well making its themes and ideas clear. The Prison of Regression is a well done visualisation of the idea of the stranglehold of conformity. Meanwhile, the idea of a God created by the desires of humanity is also a great idea for a final boss in a chapter where the theme focuses on rebellion versus conformity. Even this, however, has its problems. One is still the aforementioned contradiction of the Phantom Thieves’ ability to steal hearts; that it is its own kind of imposed conformity. The other is the creation of Yaldaboath itself. Yes, he is said to have been created by a human will for conformity, but the game falters about how much he has control over humanity. It’s him who is said to create the Prison of Regression; him who talks about his own subjugation of humanity; him who makes the deal with Igor. While he may have been created by humanity, some of that message is robbed of its power when he is talked of at all as autonomous. It’s still much better than Yaldaboath being completely autonomous, and this might seem a bit of a nitpick, but I do take some umbrage with the way that Persona 5 talks about the God of Control. Even that name is contradictory to the point Persona 5 wants to make. Surely ‘The God of Conformity’ or ‘The Created God’ would have been better titles to give it. At the same time, of course, I realise the need for Yaldaboath and Igor to have the ‘game’. That’s because Persona 5 references the myth of the ‘Trickster’.[8] In short, the Trickster is supposed to expose the shadow of man and spur change. It’s all based in myth and examined by Jung (whose influence is felt all over the Persona series) and it’s also much too intellectual for my feeble mind. Neverthelesss, I think that it’s here where the theming of Persona 5 is the strongest. Certainly, this makes sense in a way that spans the entirety of the game; the Phantom Thieves building fame and exposing the shadows of society, until they realise that despite the shadow being bought to the eyes of the people, they reject it, forcing the Phantom Thieves to steal the treasure at the heart of Mementos. But this isn’t something that is really tackled until the end, and it doesn’t explain away all the problems I’ve mentioned before. It’s where Persona 5 feels its most confident, but this confidence is a small part of a 90 hour experience wherein most of its other attempts at theming are less successful.[9]

Ok, so I think that’s most of the heavy stuff done, so let’s move onto what makes a heavy exploration of politics and rebellion tick; the characters. Persona games often develop their main themes within character arcs that can be accessed through confidant links, but Persona 5’s are perhaps my least favourite in the series. Bear in mind that being the lazy games critic that I am, i failed to play every single confidant story, so it could be that actually Shinya Oda’s would have blown me out of the water, but I can’t talk about that, so apologies on that front.[10] Of the 15 that I played (I completed less, of course (this also does not include Igor or Sae’s confidant)), I would say that perhaps 8 included a proper exploration of the theme, which is more than half, but disappointing nonetheless. Of those I did play, the worst is certainly Ann Takamaki’s – a strange exploration of the life of a model that has a disconnect in character between main plot Ann and confidant plot Ann. It also fails to recognise the more interesting story of Ann’s relationship with Shiho. In one particularly frustrating moment Ann and Shiho meet on the roof to discuss Shiho’s recovery, and Ann talks about how she will improve as a model for some reason I can’t quite figure out, but she seems to believe it will help Shiho… this entire confident story is a complete mess, so I’m not going to try and work out what they were aiming for, but its appearance in a game that’s had so much time and energy put into it is certainly disappointing. Other confidant stories similarly miss the mark. Makoto’s social link focuses mainly on a dilemma facing her friend, a character who is never properly fleshed out, or even given an illustration. Meanwhile, more interesting aspects of Makoto’s character such as her relationship to her deceased father, and her struggling with her sister’s high expectations for her, are only touched upon briefly. A few confidant stories I really liked are also present; Tae Takemi’s has a smaller stakes story about an abuse of power within the medical system, and Hifumi Togo’s story deals with the pressure of being a model far better than Ann’s; while also adopting the parental pressure to succeed story from Makoto. When talking about the characters, clearly the most important are the Phantom Thieves themselves. It’s them who we play as, and them who we’re clearly meant to bond with the most. Sadly, the Phantom Thieves have a team-building problem. These guys feel much more like a group of workplace proximity associates than friends. Sure, in their individual social links you feel like a friend, but together the team fails to gel. Characters really only get to shine during their individual arcs – once those are done they’re reduced to one-liners.[11] Haru loses her father over the course of the game, but by the end I imagine you’d have forgotten that. She doesn’t really seem to be all to phased by it, and this is true of every character. No matter what they’ve been through, by the end they’ve all become one-note. The opportunities for team-building are there; the Hawaii trip becomes a bit of a missed opportunity by relating most of your time to be spent with your romantic partner of choice, but where the game misses the mark most is in the text conversations. These read less like a group chat and more like an email chain between a bunch of very repetitive colleagues. No one ever has fun in these text chats; there are no funny photos sent between friends, or just casual conversation. It’s all the same stuff we’ve heard before and during every palace; ‘do you think this will work??’ ‘No idea, we’ll just have to wait and see’, repeated ad nauseam. Sure, some found the long goofball sections in Persona 4 boring and longed for the plot to continue, but this is why the text message system would have been such a good solution to this. Alas. The writing as a whole in this game is pretty dire. Everything is much too long, too repetitive and often poorly translated.[12] Once again, most of these cracks start to show themselves as the game continues. This, of course, isn’t a problem with depth. Instead, it’s part of a related problem Persona 5 suffers from; length.

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But before we move off the topic of characters completely, I think it’s worth giving a shout out to the returning feature of romance-able characters. As always, half of Persona concerns living the daily life of a teen, and that includes romancing your fellow classmates.[13] Starting a relationship in Persona 5 comes with a creepy new twist this time around; you can now choose to date some of the hard done by adults that make up some of your social links; including your teacher Kawakami. I don’t think this is a simple issue to address; I think this article (http://kotaku.com/persona-5s-sexual-relationships-can-get-complicated-1794282996) has a better stab at it than I could, but it certainly made me feel a bit uncomfortable, especially in how these women all seem to be at the lowest point in their lives. The issue of dating those older than you is a complex one, however; what isn’t complex is how dated Persona 5’s other sexual politics are. For a game about rebellion against social norms, for instance, why can’t I make my character be gay? Persona 5 has a member of the Phantom Thieves (artist Yusuke) be strongly hinted to be homosexual, but never allows you to take your relationship with him further than platonic. What’s worse is that the only other gay characters that show up are both perverted old men played for laughs. I’ve heard arguments that these men aren’t meant to be the be all and end all of gay people, and that judging them as such would be the equivalent of saying Persona 5 sees all straight men like it sees the rapist Kamoshida. But Persona 5 is filled with shining examples of straight men, and only 2 examples of openly homosexual men, both of whom are perverted gay stereotypes who prey on the main character and Ryuji. This is probably also a good point to mention how Persona 5 treats its female characters. Both Ann and Hifumi have confidant links involving a career as a model, while Kawakami’s involves her dressed up as a maid and calling you ‘Master’. Taken on their own, these wouldn’t be a problem; Japanese teen idols are incredibly popular, as are maid services. But Persona 5 has other slightly problematic portrayals of women. Only one of the Palace bosses is a woman, but she’s also the only one who isn’t really evil; she too is a victim of the system. In Persona’s world only men ever have the power to be able to exploit. Special mention should also be given to Ann’s Phantom Thief outfit, which blurs the line of good taste. Of course, she’s based off of the Femme Fatale character, but her poses and outfits seems more geared towards making the player stand to attention than putting the enemies off guard. I think any rebuttal to this argument can be put to bed by simply showing off her defeated pose, which is frankly embarrassing.

I notice I haven’t really talked much about the gameplay yet, so let’s make that the final topic of conversation. As always in Persona games, gameplay is split between dungeon crawling and living out the normal life of a Japanese teenager. Let’s start with the dungeon crawling aspect, seeing as its been given the biggest change since Persona 4. The battle system remains pretty similar; still fashioned in the mould of the post-Nocturne press-turn based gameplay. Some problems remain; such as the faults of the SP system that can be too easily broken[14], and the few unfair bits of palace design.[15] The palaces themselves are clearly a step up from the randomly generated dungeons of yesteryear, but they are also slightly too streamlined. Almost every puzzle you encounter is explained to you multiple times, which often takes the joy out of solving them for yourself. Worse, the game still thrusts you into Mementos, which are, to all extents and purposes the same randomised dungeon crawling that Persona 5 initially appears to have left behind. It just feels regressive, and makes going through Mementos more like a necessary chore than a pleasure. I know I said I was done with thematic discussions, but it’s worth mentioning that Palaces lack the internal logic of previous games’ dungeons. Every time the game wants something unexpected to happen, they can do it with the only explanation being that no one really knows about what’s going on so just suspend your disbelief and roll with it. This isn’t a huge complaint, but every time something happened that seemed unexplainable within a cognitive world, I found myself wishing for some kind of internal logic; especially when the game tries to fit itself into the heist genre, a genre which requires the viewer to know exactly what’s going on in order to appreciate the clever tricks the heroes pull. The out-of palace gameplay, however, really impressed me. It’s not too big a change from the activities found in previous games, but I was interested to see how they’d handle a city setting, myself being an inhabitant of a large city. The answer is; surprisingly well. Instead of creating an open world that would have always felt too small, you mainly travel in the same set of streets and locations. Because, of course, that’s how real life in a city works; you spend most of your time in the same few streets, and rarely go beyond the same couple of  destinations, except with friends. Aside from the texting problem, I think technology is handled very well in this game. You don’t often notice this, but being set in the 2010s this game had to recognise the importance of technology in the life of an everyday teen. Of special note are the surprisingly numerous number of internet posts on the Phantom Thief chatroom, that emulate internet speech much better than they have any right to.

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In amongst the gameplay lies the game’s fantastic visual design. This is a real treat to behold. It really speaks to my aesthetic sensibilities and is extremely fluid and stylish. I especially appreciate the way the main menu moves around, with Joker shifting into different poses depending on the option. I can understand that for some it feels a bit busy, but for me, it just works. That said, like the smooth and stylish jazz infused rock soundtrack, it does get old after 100+ hours of play. As much as I love the work of Shoji Meguro, when you’re still hearing the exact same 30 seconds of battle music 90 hours in, no matter how great the track is, you get sick of it. In fact, just so that I could avoid this problem, I bought one of the overpriced DLC tracks just to hear a different tune during the casino palace.[16] I think that it’s actually here we get to the heart of the issue, so let’s finally wrap up this review.

Persona 5 is a long game. A very long game. Being long isn’t by itself a problem. Lots of good games are long, including previous Persona games. But here’s the problem; Persona 5 is both longer than Persona 4, and has less to say. When you subject someone to a plot for that long, you have to have a plot worth spending that much time over. But as I hope I’ve already proven, Persona 5 is, for the most part, shallow. It values style over substance, which is a problem only when it’s this long and the style never changes. Persona 5 is still a fantastic game, brimming with smart design decisions and an enjoyable story. Some of its thematic devices work much better than others. But when it goes on so long, it invites you to peek beneath the surface; to think about its overall themes and the nuances of its story… and that’s when you find that actually, there’s not that much there.

Or maybe I’m just an ‘effin adult who doesn’t get it.


[1] ‘Those who can’t do, teach. And those who can’t teach, teach gym.’

[2] Of course, the game seeks to undermine my definition of its theme by calling all the villains ‘shitty adults’, but judging by the number of confidant links that show how adults are also held down by the system and those in power, I think the game merely does itself a disservice by having Ryuji simplify the message into ‘kids rule, adults drool’.

[3] This could be a cultural problem; karōshi (lit. death from overwork) is something that affects more people in Japan than in the West; it’s possible that the Okumura plot line works much better if you know someone who is a victim of an exploitative work environment. That said, the overall point of villains being more effective if they’re closer to you still stands.

[4] http://www.usgamer.net/articles/the-real-world-problems-behind-persona-5

[5] I’d love to give the game credit and say that the reason that both Shido and Toranosuke have similar speeches is because it’s message is cynical and anti-political, but judging from Toranosuke’s storyline I hesitate to give it that much credit.

[6] Bear in mind that this is all explicitly a problem with the English translation of Persona 5. For all I know, the Japanese version is more explicit in its political theming.

[7] As well as a neutral path, but that’s not really relevant here.

[8] For a more detailed and excellent write-up on this point, please see this series of reddit posts https://www.reddit.com/r/Megaten/comments/6ktsch /the_rebellion_concept_in_persona_5_part_four/

[9] I want to move on now, but something I failed to mention is the idea of the 8 Evil Thoughts represented by the 8 Palaces in the game. I think this idea has some potential, but it’s only really explored in the names of the trophies. The correspondence of each palace to its deadly sin is shaky at best; Sloth is attributed in the game to Mementos, but could also work for Madarame, who leeches off the work of others, or even Futaba, who hides in laziness rather than face her problems etc. So, the idea is strong, but the execution is lacking.

[10] It’s probably not a great sign that I’m having to do so much apologising and qualifying within this review lol

[11] Especially if you’re Ryuji.

[12] http://www.personaproblems.com/ This website is really good..

[13] Unless you’re me when I was at school

[14] With the Kawakami confidant and the Sojiro confidant you can make an SP restoring coffee most nights, and with the Tae Takemi confidant you have access to SP restoring patches that grant small boosts in SP after each move.

[15] I’m going to sound like a whiner if I put this all in the main text so I’ll relegate it down here; Akechi’s boss fight is awfully placed – Here’s the thing; it’s not necessarily annoying because it’s difficult, it’s also annoying because it’s always a sacrifice of a more interesting fight. If you knew beforehand that there would be two bosses to fight, then you’d approach the first one in a more conservative and thoughtful manner, which always leads to a more interesting fight. But by not telling you this, you’re basically screwed if you did what was the natural thing to do and go all out on a difficult boss – so punishing the player for doing what comes naturally to them. Which is just kinda shitty. The problem is that loads of RPGs do this, but it’s just an artificial and annoying way to boost difficulty that’s become normalised as a standard in the genre. Also when you get spotted by an enemy, often another one spawns in front that takes you by surprise, but I was never 100% sure what triggered this to happen, and it would often happen in tight corridors or places you couldn’t easily escape from. Combined with an enemy that can inflict despair on all party members and it becomes too high a punishment for being spotted.

[16] Maybe that was their plan all along.

 

Review: The Final Season

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This review contains massive spoilers for the final season of Review, and all the proceeding seasons. I urge you to watch the show (it’s only 3 seasons) before reading any further. You won’t regret it.

Review isn’t, at its core, about reviewing things. Sure, that forms the basis for the life work of ‘life reviewer’ Forrest MacNeil, but it is his life and his actions that the show primarily concerns itself with. It is a character study of a deeply fucked up man and his undying allegiance to a TV show. That said, to say Review doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about the job of a critic would also be to miss something. I think the latter two reviews in Locorito, Pet Euthanasia, Dream prove as much. In Review, Forrest constantly interprets the reviews he’s given according to his own desires. He interprets the review ‘what’s it like to put a pet to sleep’ metaphorically, refusing AJ’s suggestion to sing a cat a lullaby and instead giving it its standard definition; killing a domesticated animal. However, in the very next review of ‘what’s it like to live your dream?’, as if unable to give himself a single happy review, he interprets it literally and reviews recreating a dream he has while asleep. Review recognises that critics bring something of themselves to reviews; us critics (and I realise I’m tooting my own horn calling myself a critic) always bring our own experiences and tastes to what we review. The show Review, for example, is perhaps my favourite tv show ever made, and as such I may ignore any flaws it may have (similarly, when playing games or watching films in a series or by a director whose work I enjoy, I tend to be more lenient). Similarly, our experience of something will be heavily influenced by the conditions in which we experience it. Review pumps both these factors up to 11; when interpreting the review, it seems to only be in a way that will bring him the most misfortune, and when giving the final score, his personal experience is king, with no regard for finding any universal meaning in his reviews. I hope, that in reviewing the final season of Review I can aim to find some justification for why I regard this show to be one of the greatest TV shows I have seen in my TV-watching experience (which, at least in regard to comedies, is embarrassingly large). If, however, this review descends into unadulterated gushing, you’ll just have to bear with me.

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I was initially planning this post as a sort of ‘Review retrospective’, covering all three seasons. However, the final season alone deserves special praise for the way it finishes up Forrest’s saga, and I feel that in talking about this season I can properly express why I love the whole show as much as I do. Let’s start by talking about the first episode of the season; Locorito, Pet Euthanasia, Dream. The first review here is not too much more than a funny premise, but it also introduces some important details. The first is, of course, that although Forrest thinks of himself as some sort of academic, he’s simply a TV host, and here he is, having been saved from the brink of death, having to do some good ol’ product placement. Of course, he can never call any of his reviews frivolous or unnecessary. He’s already destroyed his life enough for the show that to invalidate one suggestion would open too many troublesome trains of thought for Forrest. The second, more minor detail, is that the review comes from a 6 month old, now defunct fast food chain, foreshadowing the lack of reviews caused by the severe decrease in viewership. All three of the reviews in the first episode, it’s worth noting, serve to re-introduce the viewer to Review by rehashing some of the key ideas from earlier episodes. Locorito follows the ‘simple review becomes needlessly complicated’ model; reminiscent of something like ‘Rowboat’ from season 2. (There’s also the idea of Forrest getting involved in a court proceeding while in a Review, an idea visited in ‘Being Batman’ and ‘Helen Keller’.) Pet Euthanasia, meanwhile, has echoes of ‘Quitting your job’ – Forrest getting too attached to something in a Review, but tragic inevitability means that you know the horrible ending to come. I’m not sure Pet Euthanasia has the sting of ‘Quitting your job’, maybe because it’s only Forrest who’s hurt at the end of it all, or because he is spared having to kill Beyonce, the more obviously tragic outcome. The sly glimpse of Grant though, is perhaps important in reminding viewers what a slimy bastard he is. He knows before Forrest, or the viewer, does the outcome of putting the lizards together, and he revels in it. The final review in this episode is ‘Dream’, which is a ‘Forrest misinterprets the review’ skit à la ‘Sleeping with your teacher’ or ‘William Tell’. ‘Dream’ serves the express purpose of reintroducing the viewer to Forrest’s relationship with Suzanne, which will play a huge role in the finale. That Forrest rents Grant’s garage is another funny detail that again reasserts Grant’s antipathy to Forrest. The first episode, then, re-treads a lot of old ground; it is a reintroduction to Review, but one that becomes necessary when viewed in light of the finale.

The second episode, Co-host, Ass Slap, Helen Keller, Forgiveness, is much more vital in its job of setting up for the finale. ‘Co-Host’, of course, teaches Forrest how to use AJ’s tablet, but more importantly than that, it allows the viewer to see the importance of Review in Forrest’s life. I’ll quote here from Emily Stevens, who writes ‘Looking around A.J.’s cheerful, happy dressing room, Forrest remarks on what a small role the show plays in her life. From that, he doesn’t conclude that her life is enviably full, but that it’s empty and insignificant—because without Review propping him up, Forrest is empty and insignificant.’ (Source) Forrest is a man who has become absorbed by his work over the past 2 seasons of Review, and Susanne herself remarks on this in ‘Forgiveness’; she tells him he used to do things for fun, whereas now everything is for the show. In the finale, Forrest’s dependence on the show is what will allow Grant to manipulate him into the Veto, but this segment gives the viewer the information that we need to understand just how committed he is. He believes himself to be an intellectual, and seeing his vision destroyed by AJ is painful to him. His belief is so strong, it even allows him to be completely selfish, talking directly over AJ’s voiceover (ironically in which she learns much more than he does, despite not actually doing the review). In ‘Helen Keller’, we finally get the resolution of the murder trial, dismissed in the unexpected way consistent of the show. Still, the moment Forrest’s inept lawyer calls Helen to the stand is horrifically hilarious, in that classic Review fashion. ‘Forgiveness’, however, carries on the main theme of the episode; that of Forrest’s selfishness. He goes to Suzanne for the show, and the same can be said of Grant. He doesn’t do it for them, but for the show, which, as mentioned, has absorbed his life in a way as to be synonymous with Forrest. There’s another aspect to the show that is touched upon in this season, and this review; that Forrest calls Review and it’s mysterious selection process; ‘The hand of the universe’. His blind faith in the show and it’s absorption into his personality is one aspect of what makes him such a twisted human being, but this has given him a blind faith in its ‘powers’. Although not perhaps religious, Forrest worships the show, and it is this that has allowed it to so easily consume him. I don’t think the show is making a point about religion (Andy Daly himself has shot down the theory that it is a retelling of the Job story), but the parallels are certainly useful in helping understand the twisted mind of Forrest MacNeil.

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And so we come to the finale. Cryptically titled ‘Cryogenics, Lightning, Last Review’ (perhaps the only time in the series history wherein the name of a review is not mentioned in the title (unless you count the mini-reviews from ‘giving six stars’ (this interruption was pointless))), this might be one of my new favourite episodes. I don’t think anything can top the 1,2 punch of ‘Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes’, but this certainly came close in terms of delivering a huge emotional gut punch. Forrest is likely spurred onto reviewing ‘Cryogenics’ by AJ saying ‘if I were you, I wouldn’t do it.’ Still desperate to regain his own perception of his work as important, Forrest now must do it, if only because AJ wouldn’t. This effect is sadly repeated after the revelations of ‘Cryogenics’ when AJ suggests a Veto to ‘Lightning’. The review of ‘Lightning’ is perhaps a bit poorly paced, but it only really needs to do two things. The first is the sight gag of Josh crushed under the lightning pole. The second is that Forrest does the review in the first place. The revelation he has in ‘Cryogenics’ is there, but AJ’s comments lead him to the wrong conclusion. While the answer is obvious to us that he should stop doing (at the very least) life-threatening reviews, he stretches the interpretation to allow him to continue with the show. It might be doubtful if Forrest believes that it really is the correct conclusion to draw; that it was putting himself in harm’s way that allowed him to get to one revelation, and doing it again will lead to another revelation. However, at this point it’s already too late. A long time ago Forrest dug in his heels to the show and now he cannot get out. He is trapped in a prison of his own making; a fervent belief that the show is ‘fate’ and will guide him correctly, and the absence of anything to fall back on (which can probably be traced back to his review of Divorce). And so Suzanne pulls out her trump card. She offers him an escape, which is to leave Review and come back to her. This is the natural end to Forrest’s story; a man who has lost everything because of his tragic flaw (in this case, the show), is allowed everything back. It’s a story of redemption. But I think two things prevent Forrest from being allowed back into Suzanne’s arms. The first is that along the way, Forrest has made enemies of a number of people, but none more so than his producer Grant. And Grant knows exactly how to push Forrest’s buttons. Grant is the one man who can tempt Forrest MacNeil back into Review, because, in a way, Grant has helped to create Forrest MacNeil, by helping pushing him ever further into the maw of Review right at the very beginning (remember that his first appearance was pushing Forrest to complete the review of Pancakes). But the more tragic reason Forrest cannot accept Suzanne’s review is because he’s already too far gone. Even without Grant, he would probably have reached the same conclusion, because by this point, Forrest MacNeil has risked everything for the project that he believes to be his intellectual life work, and he cannot let that go. And so he doesn’t. But, in the tragic twist of fate that is classic Review, the show betrays him. Were Review to simply be cancelled without the review of ‘What’s it like to be pranked?’ it would be tragic. I have no doubt that Forrest would kill himself as he threatens to do. But the writers of Review have it in for Forrest in the worst way, and so the show ends with probably the darkest ending of any TV show I’ve seen. The creator of the original Australian Review chimes in to ask Forrest ‘what’s it like to be pranked?’, and in such huge denial of the truth, Forrest is able to cling onto the only thing that gives his life meaning even though we, the viewer, knows that it’s gone. The ultimate dramatic irony. When Forrest realises that Review is, in fact, over, he may well kill himself. But to show us that is too much. Review is crueller than that, and leaves his awful fate to our imagination (it’s always worse when it’s implied). I guess the question every viewer has to answer is ‘Did Forrest deserve better?’. I can’t answer that for you, but I’m sure, as I do, you have your own answer for that. However, what is clear is that the Forrest at the start of Review did not deserve this. From the first episode onwards, we see the slow descent of a man from someone with a full life to someone with absolutely nothing. This descent is what is at the heart of Review.

I think the third season of Review manages to wrap up the show admirably. Each segment plays a part in contributing to the ending, which sends off Forrest MacNeil in one of the darkest ways possible. Hopefully in giving a bit of thought to why this season works, I have been able to put a small glimpse of an idea as to why I love the show so much. It’s a masterful tragicomedy. Both the comedic elements and the tragic core work off each other – both need to be excellent in order for the show to succeed, and, in my eyes, it works exceedingly well. Review is destined for cult classic status, but it should be recognised worldwide for the masterpiece that it is.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

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Medium story spoilers follow. I’d advise playing the game before reading this review, but I try to avoid spoiling anything major. 

I feel like I’ve come to Breath of the Wild a bit too late to add anything meaningful to the discussion, but this does at least mean that the inevitable backlash has already started. That doesn’t mean people are starting to think the game isn’t very good, because that would be silly, but people have at least started to reconsider what may and may not work about the gameplay. I myself (as always) will try and justify some sort of complex middle ground; my firm belief is that this game is a masterpiece, but elements of the gameplay remain very deeply flawed and need to be discussed in order to fully understand why the game has become a little bit more divisive. I think it’s also worth giving a bit of my background with Zelda; I’ve played all of the 3D titles, and my personal favourite is Majora’s Mask, something which remains true even after playing Breath of the Wild. I think that’s more because Majora’s Mask fits more nicely with what I love about Zelda games, as opposed to me thinking that it’s a better made game than Breath of the Wild.

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I think that this review should probably start with looking at the game’s starting area; the Great Plateau, and then expand outwards. The Plateau is one of the best starting areas in a video game, because it functions so perfectly as a tutorial without the player really realising it. It’s a locked off area, with set tasks to check off that give you your basic abilities you’ll use throughout, but the freedom it provides is enough that it never starts to feel like this is some chore you have to get through in order to start the game proper. Just leaving the Shrine of Resurrection teaches the player a lot. You wake up in a sci-fi looking room, and collect the Sheikah Slate. It’s the first thing the player is handed, which instantly signifies its importance. The room you’re in makes use of the Blue and Orange colour scheme that you use in the rest of the game to inform you when something has been activated. In the second room the game hands you some clothes in a chest, and by not equipping them instantly the game teaches you about inventory management, something that’ll become extremely necessary to know about throughout the adventure. When you get outside (while first having to learn how to run, jump and climb to be able to leave), the game wrests control out of your hands in order to show you a few things. The first is the sheer scope of the game world, the second an old man in the near vicinity, and the third a broken down church. Here we see three of the game’s main tenants; spectacle and freedom (which I’ll group together under the vague heading of ‘Hyrule’), story, and something we’ll call ‘atmosphere’. Two of those three things are what make the game into what I consider a ‘masterpiece’, so make a mental note of those, because we’ll be returning to them in a bit. I’ll quickly say a few more things about the Plateau before I continue, because I think it’s an extremely clever opening area. The game introduces you to so much in this small area; Shrines, Towers, enemy encampments, the four abilities, temperature variations, guardians, optional mini-bosses. The entire Mt. Hylia segment shows just how the game lets you approach challenges in a variety of different ways. I sprinted up the mountain after cooking some spicy food, unaware that a torch would heat you up, or even that you could get some warm clothing from the old man to make the challenge much easier. The Great Plateau has so much of my respect, I initially thought I could frame the entire review around this one area, and leave out talking about the others. However, that would do the main game a disservice, because there’s so much more to talk about that I’ve ended up feeling extremely overwhelmed.

Let’s use gameplay as a jumping off point for this review, because from there we can segue nicely into some of the main gameplay problems I have with Breath of the Wild (insert jumping off from the Great Plateau related joke here). I think what a lot of complaints have focused on is combat, but I think that’s the wrong area to direct complaints at. Yes, weapons break; but I feel that any focus on the negatives of that system remove an appreciation for it that I’ve gained from extensive play. You see, combat in other Zelda games was almost all sword play; the bow and arrow got some use, but it was mainly swinging around a sword. I think Skyward Sword was probably the best and most varied sword combat is going to get (even though that had its problems). Twilight Princess attempted to make sword combat more complex without motion controls, but there no enemies fully took advantage of the optional extra moves. Breath of the Wild manages to fix the staleness of combat in a few ways. Firstly; swords aren’t always the optimal way to go. Other weapon types may be more useful in a given combat scenario, from bows to shield parries to magic rods. You can also opt to not use weapons at all; upgrading the ‘stasis’ ability allows you to freeze enemies in place, while a well-timed bomb attached to an octo balloon and floated towards an enemy camp may mean you never have to get too close to the action. And I’m sure you’ve all seen the video of a Cuckoo used as a weapon. Breath of the Wild aims to emphasise freedom in all ways, and combat is no exception. When you do choose to use weapons, the game still finds a way to make combat interesting. Weapons breaking changes the flow and feel of combat; unlike in TP where no enemies took advantage of the complex moves; here all enemies take advantage of weapons breaking. They can break your weapon; you can steal theirs. The complexity and variety here comes from a frantic system of weapon exchanging. You also have to be aware of your environment. Because most of the fights in BotW take place outside, on craggy cliffs and near huge lakes, you have to be careful of falling off. Or, you could freeze your foe and blow them off the cliff with a gust of wind from a Korok leaf. Enemies are equipped with an astonishing AI that allows them to react to these different scenarios, and their designs are all filled with personality. It’s a shame that the variety of enemy is extremely lacking, and towards the end game, only a handful of enemy types pose any threat (namely, the Lynel, Stone Talus, Hinox and Silver variations of the standard enemy types.) The threat is even more reduced by the ability to duck into a menu and eat away at various healing items. I do wish the short eating animation was played during combat rather than in-menu. This would reduce time spent in menus and give eating an element of strategy. The complaints I mainly hear about combat are that good weapons break too easily and thus use of them is discouraged, limiting your freedom to use those weapons. I respectfully disagree with this notion, although I suppose if you play that way that cannot be helped. Personally I found myself never at a shortage for good weapons – and late-game combat so requires them that I was unable to ‘save my best stuff and never use it’. I would like to give a quick shout out to the problems of the Blood Moon. Cool idea – did it need an unskippable cutscene?

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I’m going to devote a separate paragraph to the Guardians, who are, in my mind, so effectively terrifying as a piece of enemy design. It isn’t a unique idea in open world games; an enemy that is extremely powerful at the beginning, but can be defeated with relative ease with the right tools, but BotW does it very well. Guardians are very creepy spider like creatures (apparently influenced by the design of the Octoroks from the first Zelda game), that can be seen from a huge distance, and target you with a deadly laser as you desperately try and run away. They’re this semi relentless force that pursues you until either you’re dead or have hidden well enough that it loses sight of you. Given that they mainly appear out in the world, the change in music they bring calls to mind the Silent Realms of Skyward Sword (which incidentally also had robots from the past named Guardians). It’s no wonder they’ve become a mascot for the game. I think, though, the Guardians are a perfect example of the problem of combat scaling in this game. The difficulty curve in this game seems to go strange ways. The game is perhaps toughest nearer the beginning. While defeating Guardians with a single arrow is satisfying as all hell, it makes other enemies (with the exception perhaps, of White Lynels), less threatening as a result. So the further you play, the more pointless combat becomes – which is a problem for progression. Luckily, before this becomes a real issue you’re in a position to face Ganon, and the weapon durability system does still add some needed excitement to post-game fights. But towards the end of the experience, it became more and more noticeable. That, I think, is why so many people love Eventide, because it strips back the player to the basics to make combat difficult again, even for those some way into the game. But I still don’t think it’s quite enough. I think this sort of weariness with the game structure is quite important, so it’s a theme I’ll revisit.

So with combat out of the way, let’s talk a bit about some of the other stuff you’ll be doing when exploring Hyrule. One thing that I noticed was a huge amount of ‘Nintendo polish’ when it came to animations. Link and other NPCs had a variety of animations for things that I wouldn’t initially think merited a separate animation (look at the number of ways you can mount your horse, or fall off a cliff etc). The world is clearly huge, and so a lot of thought has been put into how you move around it. There is, of course, quick travel for traversing large distances, but I found myself mainly shying away from that. There is more to be found by adventuring than simply warping from tower to shrine, desert to forest. Running throughout the map would be torture, however, and so there is an extremely well made system of animal transport. Horses are the main beast you will be riding, and as such it is with them you will spend most of your time. My first horse, named Aziz, (guess which stand-up comedian’s show I was watching at the time) lasted the entire journey and was an invaluable companion. The initial taming process is frustrating for a strong horse like Aziz, and they will often do their best to disobey you and run straight into the beam of a passing Guardian. However, past that initial hurdle the riding process becomes much smoother and more enjoyable. I’m not sure, however, if it’s worth the hassle of having to fully tame a horse and ‘max out your bond’ in order to ride properly. It doesn’t gain much extra realism, nor does it enamour me to my horse. I would have liked Aziz whether I had to go through his teenage phase or not. Other animals can also be ridden, just not registered; I rode deer, bears and skeletons during my time in Hyrule, and this variety was a novelty that didn’t wear off. One secret horse I found after waiting at the top of a mountain for 15 minutes on a hunch is one of many of the game’s best hidden surprises. Another movement issue I want to address is the stamina meter. This is laughably small at the start of the game, and the upgrades are simply not lucrative enough to be acceptable. Skyward Sword had a stamina meter of roughly the same size, but its world was littered with stamina fruit; its areas were much smaller in scale, and it had upgrades that could make it temporarily infinite. When climbing (a process that could have been boring, but instead becomes an oddly satisfying and relaxing endeavour), the stamina meter is a nagging concern when it shouldn’t be. Many people have also bought up the issue of rain, which is a real problem in certain areas, halting progress when it shouldn’t. It’s a shame, in a game so built around exploration, that movement is halted and frustrated by a core mechanic of the game, and something that could be so easily fixed.

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I think when we’re discussing problems, we need to talk about player motivation. I think that Super Bunnyhop’s video on this game explains a lot of this better than I can, but please, bear with me. Aside from the main objectives (that is, destroy Ganon and free the Divine Beasts), the game motivates you to travel around its map in a variety of different ways. The first of these I really like; the promise of something new and weird. Sometimes you stumble upon something that you’ve just never even heard of before; a scenic spot; a weird NPC with a story to tell; a massive dragon; a secret shop, or even a hidden mechanic (there’s a statue in Hateno village that allows you to swap stat increases, but the game just never tells you about it). This stuff is great because it all feels unique and exciting and natural. Even if the dragon will eventually become just a way to farm materials, for someone like me uninterested in that, it’s just an amazing spectacle that the game will never tell you about except in rumour. The problem is when we get to shrines, Korok seeds (and, to a certain extent, Divine Beasts.) I’m going to tackle Korok seeds first, because as you can imagine, there’s a lot more to say about shrines. There are 900 Korok seeds, all hidden around the world in small puzzles. When you see a suspicious area, there will always at least be a small Korok seed puzzle hidden there. But the rewards for this are diminishing once you reach a certain point and your inventory is big enough to be manageable. For bows and shields, I only really had to upgrade about 3 times before I was happy with my inventory size. At this point, the reward of a Korok seed becomes null. Shrines are a bit more complex, because a new shirine means an extremely clever new puzzle to discover. But there is something still a bit dull about finding a shrine past a certain point. Yes; the puzzle will be sure to be clever, and the reward inside useful. But the aesthetic of a shrine is always the same; and the same goes for the Divine Beasts, although at least they normally have some clever aesthetic gimmick (such as flying over an area, which appears to move around, or starting off shrouded in darkness). So doing a shrine quest to find a shrine may be fun, may be clever, may even be ingenious. But if a shrine is your only reward, then the focus is placed more on the discovery of the reward than the reward itself. Which, in a way, is fine. In fact, I think an emphasis on the puzzle, or the journey, rather than what’s at the end is a better solution than a dull or easy puzzle with some grand reward. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive for both. It might be much easier to create 120 identical looking Shrines, but for the player it makes the discovery stagnant. With the Divine Beasts, once again, making a smaller puzzle room rather than a sprawling dungeon may be easier, but it diminishes the excitement for the player, especially by their fourth beast. I think, then the big problem with Breath of the Wild is that there’s too much in it. Which is an odd complaint to level at an open-world game. Normally the complaint is the opposite. But here, one can’t help but feel that were the number of shrines and Korok seeds and side-quests[1] scaled down, but more focus put on making each one feel special and unique, the game wouldn’t start to stagnate as much as it does. Incredibly, the journey of travelling around to find things does remain interesting throughout, and it’s that I’ll get too next. But sadly, the feeling of discovery wears out its welcome far sooner than the game wants it to. And therein lies the fault at the heart of Breath of the Wild.

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But hang on – I introduced this review by claiming the game was still a masterpiece. So let’s turn our attention to what it gets right first. And given that we ended the negative section on shrines, let’s turn our attention to why Shrines are actually a good thing for the Zelda series. There are 120 puzzle rooms, and much like Mario levels, they often teach you a small way to solve a puzzle, then expand on that in multiple ways while increasing the challenge. The way the puzzles rely solely on your base toolkit learned in the Great Plateau means that the designers can have fun and play around with that toolkit in each shrine. What’s more, the puzzles can be solved in multiple ways. There’s often a “correct” or “intended” way, but that isn’t the way you have to complete it. Because of the way the shrines give you a situation and a goal, and aim for you to complete it in a variety of ways, they still fit within the game’s basic ethos, despite taking place in a mini basement room. The Divine Beasts are, in a way, more like giant shrines than proper dungeons, and while I complained about this earlier, I will say that they do what they aim to do incredibly well. Puzzles that allow you to manipulate the environment tend to mess with my head in the good way, and these often have very clever solutions. The structure of all of them is annoyingly similar, but I’ll take most chagrin with the bosses. Past Zelda bosses have been a mixed bag, ranging from the incredible (Koloktos) to the dull (Tentalus)[2], but the Breath of the Wild bosses tend towards the middle in terms of strategy, and towards the dull in terms of design. Their red-haired clusterfuck of a design is shared with the boss Calamity Ganon, but at least that is made up for with Dark Beast Ganon, which is a fantastic final boss. I will at least commend the Bosses for making use of the environment of the Divine Beasts, which you were forced to learn during the puzzle section.

I still haven’t quite nailed down what makes this game so good yet, however. In order to do so, we’ll have to turn to the big topic (literally) – Hyrule itself. Hyrule is huge, and yet it does maintain that balance of large open spaces and having tons of stuff to find. In the social media age, Hyrule had to be massive. The game developers knew that secrets would be easily shared across the internet, yet despite seeing some cool new Zelda detail on my Twitter feed every morning, I would find three more by myself while playing the game in the afternoon. Many people have filled their reviews with anecdotes, but I feel like that might take up a bit too much time, and really, isn’t as interesting to you as it is to me. But despite my talk of diminishing returns during end-game exploration, for those first few days (if not weeks, depending on your play-style), the magical feel of exploration is something unlike anything else in modern gaming. Exploration is aided by climbing, which transforms what would be an impassable boundary in other games, to just another route, or a shortcut, or the only path up a mountain, on the top of which lies a mini-boss that could have been left undisturbed even after months of play-time. Climbing also allows you to glide, which means that a certain amount of the flow is going up in order to move across. Forcing you up again means giving you more stuff to see and explore, and so the emphasis on vertical spaces actually expands the amount you see and find. The amount I was sidetracked because of this is laughable, even though the game almost weirdly discourages you from this with constant reminders that ‘Zelda’s power is diminishing.’, something I imagine most players will ignore.

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The open-endedness does actually contain a “proper” Zelda game within it, in the vein of modern 3D Zeldas à la Ocarina of Time. You see this during the passages to Zora’s Domain or the Goron village, where you’re slightly more boxed in that usually. Of course, there are still ways to circumvent the challenges faced along the way, but you can tell the game is more reluctant about you doing this at this point. I think I might divert a bit here to mention the story, something I was deeply unimpressed by. The characters are dull and uninteresting, the voice acting mainly awful, and during the main quest it all got a bit too repetitive. I liked the emphasis on the past, which ties in nicely with something I’m about to say, and the memory system made a good use of the player’s memories of areas to tell a story, but ultimately I felt rather unengaged. But the focus is so rarely confined to the story that for the most part it didn’t matter too much.

So what makes Hyrule in Breath of the Wild special? I don’t actually think it is that it is both large and full of stuff to do. No, I think what makes Hyrule, and to a large extent all of Breath of the Wild fantastic, is its emphasis on Romanticism. Remember at the beginning when I talked about the Great Plateau and asked for you to make a mental note of the three things that the game showed to you? Well, I think we’ve discussed two of them now; “Hyrule” and “Story”, with lots of diversions in between (see what I did there?) So that just leaves the third. In the introduction I called it vaguely ‘atmosphere’ and presented the Temple of Time as the game’s example of it. What I think it actually is, is Romanticism. Romanticism is an artistic movement from the 1800s, and a quick glance at the Wikipedia page for the topic shows a familiar image; Casper David Freidrich’s Wanderer above the Sea of Fog. The Romantic movement emphasised solitude among nature, and Freidrich’s image is a direct parallel to Link, back facing the camera, looking out towards Hyrule on top of a cliff, alone. The ruined Temple of Time is also Romantic imagery – calling to mind Turner’s Tintern Abbey or Wordsworth’s poetry tackling similar imagery. Nature is emphasised by the Ghibli-esque art style as well, with echoes of Princess Mononoke’s lush expansive fields (you can even ride a deer, and Impa looks plucked straight out of Spirited Away). Much of Breath of the Wild’s content stems from these two Romantic ideas. The player is often alone; there is no fairy or boat companion to guide you. Towns are spread far apart, and many of the main NPCs you meet are dead and forever confined to solitude. The past is clearly a huge influencer for the game; most of its important story takes place 100 years before the events of Breath of the Wild. Huge sublime man-made structures destroyed by time are scattered across Hyrule, many of them almost irrelevant to the story, but that help in creating a Romantic atmosphere. Even the technologic looking Sheikah towers; robots; shrines are actually inspired by Japanese Jōmon period designs, from around 300BCE. The idea of the past even resonates through the beautiful soundtrack, which feature broken up versions of familiar Zelda tunes.

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Note that this isn’t a concept unique to Breath of the Wild; other Zelda games have dealt with a similar theme; in fact, the Zelda series may be built around it. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask are two 3D Zelda games that stand out for not taking place in a completely destroyed Hyrule, and Ocarina changes that half way through while Majora takes place on the verge of one. Wind Waker features a submerged Hyrule; in Twilight Princess, Zant has taken control, and in Skyward Sword much of the land (that which will eventually become Hyrule) is taken over by monsters. Even the first Zelda is all about a lone wanderer in a destroyed looking world. Most of the people in that game hide in caves, forcing you to find them. So Zelda has always been a series obsessed with the past, but I think Breath of the Wild takes it to a new level. If I had to overstretch my welcome, I would say that it almost gels with Romantic preoccupation with the perceived threat of the industrial revolution; in that the Guardians are technological threats that become a threat to humanity and nature (perhaps this can be seen in the first great victim of Ocarina of Time; the Deku Tree). But even without pushing that idea to its limits, the Romantic influence on Breath of the Wild is the clearest it has ever been in Zelda, and it’s that which makes this game, for me at least, really special. Because the nostalgic fantasy Romantic adventure is an extremely appealing idea that has persisted for a long time, and this game feels like the natural embodiment and apex of that idea.

I do worry that in trying to explain the success of Breath of the Wild’s atmosphere I’ve veered too much into pointless theoretical discussion, but the idea of a game’s ‘atmosphere’ is both extremely important and extremely nebulous, so I hope I’ve at least made you look at the game slightly differently. There’s so much more to talk about here that I haven’t even scratched the surface with this review. But that’s partly the beauty and partly the curse of Breath of the Wild. And yes, I do think it’s too big and, towards the end, too familiar. But I also feel that to diminish its importance because of that is foolish. Yes – we need to examine a game’s faults, but focusing too much on them negates the underlying achievement made by Breath of the Wild. I hope then, that I have managed to, through this review, justify my position; that The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild is a flawed game, at times deeply so, but that it is also one of the best games that I have ever got to play.


[1] Again, Bunnyhop talks about these best, and I don’t want to get too much into them, but they are mostly very fetch-questy – i.e. go find x number of items for me.

[2] Both, interestingly, from Skyward Sword. That’s a game I’d quite like to talk about some day.

Review: The Good Place

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It’s very rare that a sitcom actually manages to improve so considerably on a second viewing – that re-watching really makes that big a difference. But The Good Place is a rather unique show, and as such demands a re-watch, and for fans to really reconsider the groundworks the series is based on. It’s for that reason that I cannot suggest reading this review without first having completed series one of The Good Place, because the spoilers here will be much more impactful to watching the show than for any other sitcom I think I’ve ever seen.

I think that really speaks to the scale and uniqueness that Mike Schur is aiming for in this show. Previously known for workplace sitcoms like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation (both great in their own right), Schur hasn’t really ever created something akin to this before. Let’s be honest – the reason for this is business based; workplace sitcoms without much of an overarching story are perfect for syndication, while a show like The Good Place which ends each episode on a cliff hanger, really isn’t. I guess that it’s only because NBC has Superstore and is trying to revive Thursday night comedy that Schur was allowed to be so experimental with The Good Place (but that’s complete speculation on my part). The premise of The Good Place is immediately unusual; it revolves around a woman (Kirsten Bell) who has mistakenly been put in ‘the good place’ by a fumbling deity-like figure played by Ted Danson. Of course, this turns out not to be the case – the real premise is that a malignant deity (played by Ted Danson) has trapped four people inside their own personal hell, playing each of their personalities off of each other in order to create a place of eternal torture. I think to see how impressive The Good Place is, it’s important to examine how each premise works on its own.

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The initial premise is the one that carries the series right up until the second half of the final episode on an initial watch, and so remains probably the most important in the minds of most casual viewers. The entire structure of the good place is immediately sketchy, however, and I did see people theorise that it might actually be the bad place from episode one. It’s important to note, however that the show does a good job of deflecting that theory, mainly by ignoring it and assuring constantly that not only is this the good place, but it must be because there is also a bad place (run by the amazing and always hilarious Adam Scott). All the problems with the good place are repeatedly asserted to be all Eleanor’s fault, which is a neat deflection, and one that creates an amusing premise within the fake premise. Speaking of Eleanor, both premises revolve around the four central characters (and Michael but more on him in a bit). These four are Eleanor (Kirsten Bell), Chidi (William Jackson Harper), Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jason (Manny Jacinto). Nicely, most of these are played by relative newcomers, and all of them play their parts well, with the exception of Jacinto, whose line delivery sometimes came across a bit forced. I also started off the series with a dislike for Tahini, but this is something that changed circa. Episode 3 or 4. These four are supposed to be ‘perfectly matched to torture each other’, yet this choice of characters somehow manages to work in the first premise as well. There’s great friendly chemistry between Bell and Jackson Harper but you can also see why they ‘torture’ each other, even if Chidi being a Kantian ethics professor facing a moral dilemma is a little bit on the nose. Once again, Tahani being so self-centred raises questions about the moral implications of the good place, but this is further stuffed under the carpet because the good place itself is so flimsily built for heaven. While we’re on the topic, the ethics of the good place are brilliantly specifically designed for comedy – and I urge everyone to screenshot any time some of the rules are bought up – there are gems a plenty. In fact, the entirety of the good place is funny – its plastic-y aesthetic really makes it a certain type of heaven; the one chock full of frozen yoghurt stands, to be precise. The initial premise, then, disguises it’s twist quite well, and a lot of that has to do with pacing – the series carries the audience from cliff-hanger to cliff-hanger, joke to joke at lightning speed, and we aren’t given much time to catch our breath and wonder about the problems of the good place.

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So yes, initially the show works well. But the show feels like it’s missing something right until the very end. Parts (like the giant insects) feel inconsistent with the rest of the show, and the whole thing feels like it should be a little funnier, that the characters should all be getting on more, and joshing about in the expanse of heaven. When I heard about a show about heaven from Mike Schur, I didn’t expect it to be quite as tense and quite as mopey for some of its characters. Of course, these fears are put to rest at the final moments, and during the subsequent re-watch. You see, the show isn’t aiming to be a traditional network sitcom, it has loftier ambitions. And these ambitions are revealed at the end of episode 13 by Michael.  And I’m not quite sure if I mean Michael Schur or Michael the architect. Clearly the name was intentional though, both are the ultimate creators of the universe the characters exist in, and both create the set-ups that lead to the torture of the protagonists. I’d like to give a special shout-out to Ted Danson, whose performance here is the performance of a career, simultaneously creepy and whimsical. And of course, there’s that smile. The final twist of the show manages to cleverly put everything into its rightful place in a way that I didn’t quite realise up until I’d seen the show again. It strikes a slightly false note that this elaborate set-up was made solely for four unremarkable people, but accepting that leads to an otherwise pretty perfect twist; guessable from the start, but something you’d never even consider. Of course, more is likely to be revealed in season two, so I’ll stop talking about it here, but it really is a feat of the kind I haven’t really seen in a sitcom like this.

I don’t think that The Good Place is a perfect show, mind. It could do with being a bit funnier, and some of the performances are a little off. I also have neglected areas of character development here, and focused mainly on the big picture (maybe I’ll go more in detail when it comes to season two), and that’s a shame, because the character stuff is where much of this show lives and dies. But I wanted to focus mainly on why this show is so special, so ambitious as to be worth talking about and worth remembering for years to come. Because it so is.

The Pokemon Sun and Moon Conundrum

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It usually takes me around a few weeks before I’ve moved on to my second playthrough of a Pokemon game. It took me until the start of January before I’d even finished Pokemon Sun and Moon, and this has nothing to do with the length of the game. Instead, it was constant stopping and starting: a loss of the interest that has pulled me through Pokemon games I consider much less accomplished than this one. In this review, I want to see if I can work out why Sun and Moon have caused such a roadblock for me. So, it might be better to think of this less as a standard review, and more of a personal process for my own interest. Have I just fallen out with the Pokemon formula, or is it something that Sun and Moon have done specifically?

I think it’s important then, to start at the core of Sun and Moon and see what, if anything, has changed there. As I see it, the three main aspects of every Pokemon game are battling, exploring and to a lesser extent, the Pokemon themselves. Yes, trading and social aspects are important to the experience, but I don’t see them as core per se. Let’s start with battling, because for the casual observer this has remained pretty static throughout the series. Pokemon Sun and Moon makes a lot of quality of life adjustments to the battling system that I really liked. The effectiveness system streamlines the process for those who have yet to memorise type-effectiveness charts, and the stat chart is just helpful for those not wanting to keep track of those things in their head. It’s nice to see Pokemon embrace what was standard in Pokemon Showdown for years. The biggest and most heavily advertised change to the battling system is the Z-Moves, and these sit less easily with me. In theory, they improve significantly on Generation 6’s ‘Mega Evolution’ concept, while still keeping much of the idea behind that. A held item that makes your Pokemon stronger is a good idea, because it forces the player to sacrifice the longer term benefit of a held item like a Rocky Helmet or a berry for a shorter term large advantage of a Z Move. Unfortunately, the Z Moves themselves are let down by a few crucial things. The most glaringly obvious is their complete disruption of pacing caused by long animations. These things are 32 seconds long on average, which is much too long to go without player input, and when you’ve seen the animation happen multiple times before. What makes this doubly frustrating is that X/Y already came up with a solution to this problem; when the game first starts up you see the full transformation animation, but subsequent mega evolutions skip that animation in favour of a much shorter one. Sun/Moon could have easily employed a system like this but fails to do so, and thus discourages the player from using a significant mechanic. I was also slightly annoyed that Z Moves weren’t that powerful. One hit KO moves would be silly and overpowered, but having to sit through that animation for a move that is ultimately not that powerful is more frustrating than anticipated. Of course, this is one of the more minor quibbles with the mechanic, which I regard as a step-up from Mega Evolution. I’ve seen Z-Moves get some negative press, and besides the animation problem, I don’t see them as anything but a good idea; just inventive enough to seem like a revitalisation, just not powerful enough to seem like overkill.

The battle system, then, isn’t that much of a problem. Trainer battles, however, are. It’s worrying when I can count on one hand the number of trainers I remember having a full team of 6 Pokemon during the campaign. Even in OmegaRuby/AlphaSapphire, some of the easiest games in the franchise, there was a trainer class (the breeder) which specialised in having full teams. That isn’t to say the game is too easy – some boss battles pose a challenge, especially the Totem Pokemon battles that you face at the end of every trial. Still, what this does represent is that the standard trainer battles are quicker and less involved, as well as simply easier. When travelling the region, they become less like fun challenges and more annoying roadblocks – a decrease in difficulty means that battling loses a lot of its draw. When battling trainers becomes an annoyance, there’s something that’s gone wrong. I did like the inclusion of trainer quotas on routes as a quick fix solution to this problem. The idea of this is that defeating every trainer on a route allows you to battle a stronger trainer, often with a reward at the end. This is a basic solution – and from a theoretical design perspective it works, but practically this does nothing to stop the core problem that battling becomes rote without a challenge. Yes, this game’s difficult bosses represent a step-up in difficulty from previous games in the series, and I respect that. However, in a game that fixes many of its predecessor’s problems, this is one that annoys me when not addressed in a meaningful way. Still, I got through those games so I doubt that this is my main problem with Sun and Moon. I think to address that we should move onto exploration.

There’s a lot to unpack in this one, so this might take a while. Alola itself is the new region that Sun/Moon take place in, and for all extents and purposes, it’s one of the best region designs for quite a while. The multiple islands lead nicely into a non-standard, less linear route path, and it helps that the islands themselves have routes that are twisty and curve around landmarks and cities to create fun paths that allow for different terrain and environment to naturally flow into one another one a single pathway to your destination. It also allows for route design with branching pathways and hidden secrets. It still relies perhaps too heavily on the old trick of a choice between grass or trainer battle, but the idea I talked about earlier of the ‘route boss’, means that some trainers are almost hidden out of the way. Some routes even incorporate small gimmicks, such as finding a number of hidden Snufful in the grass. It’s also worth mentioning how lovely Alola looks – the series finally returns to what feels like truly dynamic light patterns in the sky, so that the changes in time are really marked (I played Moon version, for reference). No, the route design still doesn’t match up to the lofty heights of Sinnoh, but perhaps what I was most impressed by was how natural the routes felt to traverse. In X/Y, the designers seemed to have made routes using the grid based philosophy that worked for the top down games on the DS, where routes felt boxed in by trees, but that was a necessary limitation of the system’s hardware. On 3DS, when those routes were transplanted into a 3D landscape it felt odd and boxy. Meanwhile, Sun/Moon’s routes actually manage to feel properly free from this – maybe due to the removal of the grid from the map. So not only do islands and routes feel more natural, you can explore them more naturally as well. So far, so good.

It’s a shame, then, that the game seems determined to hamper your enjoyment of its beautifully designed region with some of the most egregious progression blocks and markers I’ve seen in a Pokemon game. Literal road blocks prevent you from moving to certain areas (getting rid of any of the creative semi-excuses from previous games.) However, these road blocks have existed for a while in previous games, if less commonly. What I was more annoyed by were the flag checkpoints on the map, which have much to do with the game’s new found emphasis on telling a compelling story. Other Pokemon games have always given you markers as to where to go next; usually in the forms of the gym battles. Literal markers, then, much like literal walls, aren’t necessarily something new, as much as they are making a pre-existing feature less subtle. Nevertheless, the flag checkpoints are symptomatic of a creeping problem that I’ve been mentioning throughout the review series that I made; the sacrificial trade off Pokemon has been making by giving preference to story over exploration. This was at its most egregious in X/Y, where the story had nothing to offer, but here the story has really taken over – it’s the subject of each and every flag, and if it’s not a boring story battle against a number of Skull/Aether grunts, then it’s a boring story cutscene that aims to provide some semblance of character development to Sun/Moon’s expansive cast of characters.

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The story of Sun/Moon has received a lot of praise from critics, but I fail to see exactly why, except in terms compared too other Pokemon games. Yes, the story in Sun/Moon is miles ahead of any other Pokemon game. However, in my opinion it doesn’t reach the heights required to affect the gameplay in the way it does. Yes, Lillie’s arc is strong, but other aspects of the story don’t quite stack up. Lusamine’s story is fun, but rob her of enough agency that it robs some of the impact from her as a villain. In that respect, Guzma and Team Skull feel like the stronger villains – their slapstick routine isn’t as threatening, but it works just enough; when they were on screen I wanted to spend time in their company, whereas the Aether Foundation were nothing more than an obvious twist. The crux of the story, then, revolves around Lillie, who’s undoubtedly a likeable protagonist, but her plot also annoys me in its follow up effects. You see, we don’t play as Lillie, we play as bland smiley boy/girl who runs around chasing Lillie, and yet still somehow fights all her fights. The game, then, struggles to maintain a weird balance between gameplay and story, trying desperately to have two cakes and eat them both. Focusing fully on Lillie’s story might have meant a named playable protagonist, or at least a situation where Lillie could solve her problems without fighting. Instead you do the grunt work for Lillie while she picks up the emotional development, which feels less earned – a compromise. I think this compromise comes as a result of Pokemon being unable to leave the core of the past behind, while being content to change the edges. What I mean by this is that Pokemon will never stop being about a nameless protagonist wandering around a region, catching and fighting wild beasts, but that doesn’t stop the directors from attempting to enforce change that runs contrary to that core idea, the best example being the one of a story focus.

Those features, then, make up the core of Pokemon Sun/Moon, but the game is pleasingly stuffed full of content. Sadly, I’m not the sort of game reviewer to pore through every little feature, but I will give a cursory glance over some of the features that stuck out to me. The new Pokemon introduced seem exceptionally well designed – they all have a simple aesthetic and a priority on the animation of the 3D models to give them character, which works surprisingly well in game. Some of the Alola forms are a little questionable and I think they could have pushed the idea much further, but some work nicely as a proof of concept. The removal of gyms was touted as a ‘major shake-up’ for the series, but I’m not sure that it is. Instead, gyms are replaced by often annoying, mostly mercifully short mini-games which end in fun boss battles against super-powered Pokemon. Totem Pokemon are a welcome addition, but I’m not sure if the removal of gyms was necessary, other than to give a refreshing face-lift to the franchise. The best change is clearly the removal of HM moves, which is the sort of common sense move that should have been done ages ago, but inexplicably wasn’t. I think the only thing left to talk about is the Rotom Pokedex, which is a forgettable kind of annoying – a clear send up of the once more popular Yokai Watch.

So then, what’s the conclusion? Why couldn’t I finish Sun/Moon quickly? Let me be clear with one thing here – these are good games. In fact, I like these games. Probably a lot, when I think about it. I’ve spent about 2000 words mostly complaining, but the core Pokemon formula topped off with a multitude of clever quality of life upgrades and a few cosmetic changes that allow that core some room to breathe will always make for an enjoyable experience. No, they aren’t perfect Pokemon games (HeartGold/SoulSilver already did that) but they are good, a marked step up from X/Y.

Annoyingly, this still fails to get to the root of my problem with the game. If you’ll excuse me from getting a bit meta, I had to rewrite this review multiple times in the vague hope that I’d reach some sort of personal conclusion as to why I wasn’t the greatest fan of the game. Each individual aspect I could work out my feeling towards, but as a sum of its parts, I was left slightly clueless. It could be, and this is something I’ve seriously considered, a result of a fatigue on my behalf towards Pokemon. Whether that’s caused by a year of replaying Pokemon games for review, or a lifetime of playing Pokemon games for fun, seeing a game like this that makes mild but insubstantial steps to improving on a well-trod path isn’t maybe enough to pull me through. Which might be unfair on the game. I do sometimes think that perhaps the way I reviewed this is completely unfair; I focused a lot on the negatives, and framed this review in a negative light. Not that anyone looks to me for a critical consensus, but that I care some about how I present my views. Clearly all reviews of this nature will be subjective, that’s in the nature of a review, but that doesn’t mean a reviewer shouldn’t strive for balance when framing his argument. This review has caused me a lot of existential grief; in case you couldn’t tell. At least it came in a lot shorter than I originally had it…

Yeah, that was… a post. I guess. I think I rambled a bit towards the end there because I was so fed up with the whole process (I think I rewrote this review maybe 3 times in total?) Anyway, my review of The Good Place should be up within a few days, so look forward to that (Spoilers – it’s good)

Backlog Review: Bored to Death Season Two

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Annoyingly, my opinions aren’t always 100% correct all the time (surprising, I know). I’ll admit, it took me until half way through Season Two to properly get Bored to Death. I’ll fully take the blame on this one, but it’s interesting to examine why it took me so long to understand. For one thing, I think it was a sub-par first season. I re-watched parts of the first season of Bored to Death just to check if I’d completely screwed up, but alas no; that first season is still not very good. Mostly, the slip up (for yours truly, at least), came in the advertising. A detective noir show on HBO starring Jason Schwartzman, Ted Danson and Zak Galifianakis conjures a certain image to mind. That show is funny, quick and stylish; it focuses on the interplay between normal life and funny well directed detective stories. It also doesn’t exist quite yet. Parts of this imaginary show seep into the existing Bored to Death; it shares a cast, it shares some key ideas and even parts of a few episodes. Some of the characters, like Patton Oswalt’s crazy spy shop salesman, or Vikram the driver, come from this show, as does a stellar OST. The rest of the show is quite different and it’s this confused dichotomy that stopped me from fully understanding Bored to Death.

It helped with finally getting it, of course, that the second season of Bored to Death is just that much better than the first season. Some problems still remain; I continue to be creeped out by the self-insert nature of the Jonathan Ames character, especially as he starts to date his own student (although I do appreciate the real Ames casting himself as the crazy Jewish stalker). The characters still espouse the benefits of weed too much for me to care anymore, and Jenny Slate is still annoying for the parts of the show she’s in. Most egregiously, Jonathan Ames remains a bad character who doesn’t quite care or emote enough, something made a little worse in this season as the detective plots become a lot crazier. He’s also quite self centered, although this is utilised more for comic effect (one scene that comes to mind is when he uses the dominatrix as a therapist.) I do also still think the visual direction of the whole show could be a little better but it matters less now that the detective plots give a little visual flair by being in more interesting locations.

However, I did say I liked the second season a lot more, and I also said that I finally got the show. So what did I get? Well, Bored to Death seemed to be moving a bit away from the detective plots and more towards three chill guys hanging out and dealing with their problems, which become much more major. Jonathan and his wacky detective hijinks are now only a third of the ensemble, so even though I said those detective stories were becoming more interesting they’re also fading into the background a bit. More prescient is George’s magazine which has somehow contracted a bad case of the religious right and is now firing George and *gasp* conducting drug tests. George also has to deal with cancer, and while this turns out a red herring the emotional journey he goes through is very real. When George and Jonathan have a father/son moment in the hospital, I felt it because the characters this time were making a lot better written. George may still have a problem of making big speeches about the world but he also shows a lot more of his personal life and insecurities. Similarly making me care is Zak Galifianakis’ Ray, having relationship problems that hit hard because he remains the sappy but relatable character. I’m still a little sore he isn’t funnier, but I see again that’s just my expectations for Galifianakis rather than a fault of the show. The success he finds with his comic book is also nice but someone has to one day explain to me why anyone would ever read ‘The Adventures of Super Ray’ (maybe I’m just not much of a comics guy).

In fact, the chilling out stuff works so well I wonder why Jonathan is a detective in the first place. His cases often have some thematic relevance and give him something to do but they really aren’t needed. They make the show confused and it saddens me that I took so long to understand that at it’s heart Bored to Death is just about three guys chilling. Jonathan’s detective career is a smoke screen and isn’t nearly enjoyable enough to be worth keeping. Other shows have had elements that could easily be stripped away to reveal a simpler show underneath, but none so frustratingly as Bored to Death. I do now like this show butI keep the right to have my major reservations about it.

This is the shortest review I’ve ever written fyi (mainly because I already said much of what I thought in the review of season one). I’ll be back in a few days with a review of a comedy mystery show I enjoyed much more unconditionally; Search Party