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

Backlog Review: Bored to Death Season One

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Knowing my love of detective fiction and American comedy, a friend recommended me Bored to Death, the Johnathan Ames show that had been on my radar for a while but I’d never gotten round to watching. He lent me the first season DVD and I watched it in less than two days. The elements were all there; detective theming; Zach Galifianakis; Ted Danson (starring now in the excellent The Good Place btw); Jason Schwartzman, and HBO, who have produced some of the best half-hour comedies of the last decade, from Flight of the Conchords to Curb your Enthusiasm. However quickly I worked through it, though, I felt like this show never really came together. It started awfully, and while it was admittedly much improved by the end, overall I never felt it was anything like as good as it should have been.

The show revolves around a writer named Johnathan Ames, played by Jason Schwartzman, who, recently single and struggling to write a second novel, decides to try moonlighting as a Private Investigator. Jason Schwartzman is a great pick for the role; equal parts cool and nerdy. However, his performance here leaves a lot to be desired. It never feels like he commits to his role either as a PI or a writer, and he has this bored expression on his face about 95% of the time (insert lousy ‘he looks bored to death’ line here). This does admittedly make his occasional breakdown (such as when he gets tased or runs from gangsters) all the more humorous, but it’s hard to care about a character who looks so detached. Another that annoyed me about John is a little more petty. I have a hatred for writers who name their lead characters after themselves, especially when it’s so obviously self-insert writing (for God’s sake, even the names of their novels are the same). This wouldn’t bother me so much if a large part of the final two episodes didn’t involve Johnathan beating up a critic who gave him a bad review – the critic, by the way, played by another writer-comedian John Hodgman. It just feels so… masturbatory, for lack of a better word. As Hodgman’s character might say, maybe next time he should try writing with both hands.

Ted Danson and Zach Galifianakis also don’t come out of this unscathed. Danson’s character starts off nothing but a weed obsessed millionaire and is only redeemed in the last few episodes when he gets something to do. I don’t mind a character that’s bored with life, but this only works when they’re trying to get out of it, not indulging in it.  When Danson puts on a wacky outfit to look young or accompanies Aimes on detective work just to have something fun to do, it’s funny. When he’s just smoking pot and talking about ‘life’, it’s no fun to watch, especially not when sober (although I can’t imagine it being much better stoned, either). The show’s obsession with pot again feels like Aimes shoving his world view down our throats. We get it, you like smoking weed and talking about how great it is. It’s boring to hear once, and repeating the same kind of scene once an episode is just infuriating. Galifianakis’ character Ray suffers the same problem as the other two. He’s bored, he’s pessimistic, he doesn’t emote much. Galifianakis is great at playing it low-key, but he needs some jokes in order to exercise that comedic timing I imagine you’d hire him for. Without that, he’s…boring me to death (sorry).

So far, not so great. Another failing comes in how it all looks. The direction in the show is bland, bland, bland; falling back on hoping we find the streets of New York or the interiors of empty looking apartments enough to keep our interest without providing anything of interest direction-wise for the viewer to latch onto. Take another HBO show, Flight of the Conchords for a good example of how to do this right. It also takes place in New York and doesn’t have too much going for it in terms of the direction in normal dialogue scenes, but it makes up for this through the music videos and cut-ins that give it some stylistic flair. More than that, FotC is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, while Bored to Death never elicited more than a few chuckles an episode, if it was lucky. Again, towards the end of the first series this improved, but not too much. What’s frustrating is that the whole premise sets itself up for stylistic flair; it’s based on noir detective novels, notorious for a very specific look. Apart from the occasional smoky bar or dimly lit avenue, however, it never makes good on its premise. If it wanted to show that being a PI wasn’t like in the novels, then fine. However, that isn’t what the show aims for. Aimes loves being a PI, but the show never embraces this like he does.

I’m being maybe too harsh. I liked the show as a whole; it had enough funny stuff and well-written scenes that I never quite veered into the realm of dislike. But a lot of it bored me; the characters are bored, the directors are boring, and this comes through. I have a feeling that the second season will be better if I get round to watching it, but this first season failed to lock-pick its way into my heart. (I think I’ll also have to console myself that I will never be as good at snappy lines as John Hodgman’s fictional critic…)

 

Review: Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Spirit of Justice

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For Toatali’s Ace Attorney review is about to begin…

This (massive) review contains major spoilers for the entire Ace Attorney series and both Ace Attorney Investigations games (and minor DGS spoilers). 

Before playing Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Spirit of Justice (henceforth Spirit of Justice), I had some assumptions about what this game was going to be like, based solely on the trailers and what I knew from past experiences as an Ace Attorney fan. I even had a rough structure in my head; first talked about what worked, then move on to the larger subject of what didn’t work and why, incorporating short and long term causes of the game’s failure. When I came to play the game, however, at around half way through the second case (The Magical Turnabout), I realised that not only did I like the game much more than I was expecting to; I thought it was perhaps the best game the Yamazaki team has made.

For those less well-versed in the behind the scenes world of Ace Attorney, after the creation of Apollo Justice Ace Attorney, series creator Shū Takumi went off to create Ghost Trick, and a separate team for formed to handle the creation of the Ace Attorney Investigations spin-offs; a team headed by Takeshi Yamazaki. Takumi would later return to the series to write Professor Layton vs Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney and Dai Gyakuten Saiban but Yamazaki’s team would take over core development of the mainline Ace Attorney series starting with Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Dual Destinies. Yamazaki’s writing style is certainly more pronounced than Takumi’s; I think anyone playing Yamazaki’s games would notice two distinct features. Firstly, Yamazaki tries to create a grand theme for his games in a way that Takumi does not, and this means that they often feature grand finales with spectacular, often political, ‘final bosses’. Ace Attorney Investigations and Spirit of Justice both end with you taking down a politician (Spirit of Justice actually has two (if you can call Paul Atishon a politician)), and Ace Attorney Investigations: Prosecutor’s Path and Dual Destinies both get final bosses whose takedown carries some political impact. Dai Gyakuten Saiban seems to be trying similar things, but this isn’t a Takumi hallmark as it is for Yamazaki. The other noticeable feature of Yamazaki’s writing is that it really drags. Points are repeated ad infinitum, and some cases become very hard to play because of too much teasing and not enough telling. This is one of the reasons that I’m less fond of Prosecutor’s Path than some other people; the third case and the final case are both so much of a slog to get through that it feels like a struggle to reach the (admittedly brilliant) final boss.

Link to a playlist of music for your listening pleasure

Yamazaki’s trait of overly long writing certainly comes through in the first case of Spirit of Justice; The Foreign Turnabout, which sees Phoenix take his first case in the kingdom of Khura’in, the setting for this game. And my god, is this case long for an introduction to Spirit of Justice; it takes forever before the culprit of the case Pees’lubn Andistan’dhin (the puns in this game are kind of next level so bad they’re good, including one that gets oddly self-referential) takes the stand. The problem here is not that the first case is long, but that the mystery that supports it is weak. Apollo Justice also had a long first case, but it had a killer twist (geddit?) and a great premise in taking up the defence of Phoenix Wright. The Foreign Turnabout’s mystery is alright, but could have taken up much less time, and this feels even longer when a camera pan is triggered every five minutes, in case you forgot that the crowd isn’t on Phoenix’s side. The crowd had been a fun part of Ace Attorney games prior, and can be used to ramp up the tension, but overuse leads quickly to fatigue, and this game sure loves its crowd work. The first part of the game introduces us to the Divination Séance, this game’s new mechanic (because every Ace Attorney game is now required to have some new feature in it). Luckily, the Séance is fantastic, easily surpassing Dual Destinies’ feeble Mood Matrix (more on that later). The Séance feels fresh for two main reasons. Firstly, it’s difficult. Yes, you actually get penalised for slipping up, but even if you didn’t working out the solution is often hard but always fair. Secondly, this isn’t a tool of one of the protagonists. In fact, when the game starts, the Séance is regarded as a tool for the prosecution to provide flawless convictions. Thus, reinterpreting the Divination Séance as a piece of unbiased evidence for the two sides to fight over feels triumphant, and an actual realisation in gameplay terms of the main theme of ‘revolution’. The Séance gets further expanded on brilliantly in the third case, so I’ll talk more about it there, but suffice to say, I’m a fan.

The second half of the case focuses on taking down the real culprit Pees’lubn, who gets a great visual and auditory testimony. This seems like a good a time as any to talk about the presentation, which gets a huge upgrade in Spirit of Justice. Although Dai Gyakuten Saiban still holds the top spot for Ace Attorney visuals with its hugely stylish Joint Reasoning segments, Spirit of Justice looks great; the character design is classic Ace Attorney, and the animations translate the fluid sprite artwork of Apollo Justice into 3D much better than Dual Destinies did. The music is similarly improved from that game, and I’ve included a playlist of my favourite tracks from the game to listen to as you slog through this review. One track, entitled ‘A Cornered Heart’ fills a role in Ace Attorney that no other track has filled, but works really nicely in a game of this scale and ambition.

 

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The closest we’ll get to an English DGS

 

Now is also as good a time as any to talk about Phoenix in this game. Despite being the titular character, Phoenix Wright is somewhat shafted in this game, which is actually not a bad thing. Yamazaki has stated that he wanted Phoenix to be challenged again by putting him in a fish out of water scenario, and for the most part this works. Sure, Phoenix’s inner monologue is too similar to Apollo’s, and his persona in Turnabout Revolution is so different from how he plays it’s almost absurd. However, the challenges of Khura’in are just enough to hold suspension of disbelief that such a skilled lawyer could be so nervous. Having Phoenix experience Khura’in before Apollo is also useful in that we can once again see Phoenix take up the mentor role just before Apollo leaves for good. Phoenix know Khura’in by the final case, so there’s a good excuse for Phoenix to act as the senior of Apollo, and makes Apollo’s takedown of Ga’ran without relying much on Phoenix even more impressive. By the way, not how this paragraph on Phoenix has shifted to talking about Apollo? Yeah, that’s because Phoenix has little to do in this game, especially in terms of character development. Yes, this is a problem that has been in play since he returned to court in Dual Destinies. Yes, I will try and address what they could do with his character going forward when I talk about the ending.

For now though, it’s finally on to the second case, The Magical Turnabout (slow progress… (A lot like playing the game, I might add)). This case is really what sold me on the game; it’s sort of like finally playing Apollo Justice 2, but with a better prosecutor, better villains and a really solid little mystery. Mr Reus is one of the best Ace Attorney villains to date, and even before his eventual transformation from Roger Retinez to full on scorned Gramarye (transformation of witnesses is something that happens a little too much in this game), he is still such an infuriating presence that the final confrontation feels extremely satisfying, even more so than the takedown of Ga’ran. Some have complained about Yamazaki retconning the Gramarye backstory to include Reus, but it didn’t really bother me; in fact, not having heard of Mr. Reus before this case actually makes a funny sort of sense and adds to his motivation of being pissed off that he’s ‘the forgotten Gramarye’. As for the whole prank storyline, this feels more far-fetched in retrospect, but the fact I never questioned it while playing is a point in its favour. The return of the Gramarye storyline also allows Trucy to get some much needed character development, and although her mantra rings a bit familiar it’s way better than her getting completely shafted as she did in Dual Destinies, especially as this game has such a focus on Apollo. (Let me just also add before we move onto talking more specifically about characters that the return of free-investigation is another thing that Spirit of Justice improves from Dual Destinies. I can’t believe how much I’d missed it).

 

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Oh yeah, the new judge – great guy; real mensch

 

Speaking of returning characters, Ema Skye makes her return as a fully-fledged forensic investigator. While this means that the Ema we see in Spirit of Justice is a happier Ema than the one in Apollo Justice, that’s about it for her development. New Ema brings with her new forensic technology, including amazingly tedious fingerprinting sections that give you a huge 3D object and finicky controls and ask you to find annoyingly placed fingerprints. One segment involving a suitcase in Case Five took me upwards of 20 minutes as the fingerprints weren’t placed where you might expect them to be, despite characters telling you to ‘look where you might find fingerprints on a suitcase’. Ema is also useful for this review in terms of providing a neat Segway into talking about new prosecutor Nahyuta Sahdmadhi, who she strikes up a reluctant friendship with. Nahyuta is a much needed improvement in terms of a prosecutor from Simon Blackquill. Whereas Blackquill had a needlessly complex background and a pretty predictable character arc, his biggest flaw was just how many different prosecutor concepts were shoved into him. A prisoner prosecutor would be cool, as would a Japan-obsessed prosecutor and a manipulative prosecutor (although we sort of already have one of those). Blackquill tried to be all of these at once, and he ended up a bit ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. Nahyuta is much simpler, at least concept wise. He’s a monk. He’s rude. That’s all you need to know, and it makes facing him easier to grasp. His movement from slave of the regime to secret rebel isn’t exactly inspired (Darth Vader, much?), but the writers play up how much under the thumb of Ga’ran he is that when he finally reveals the tattoo it’s a great moment. I’ll talk more about Nahyuta’s relationship with Apollo when I get to him, but it’s just different enough from Phoenix and Edgeworth that I didn’t mind it, and I almost like Nahyuta as a prosecutor more than Edgeworth, even though as a character he’s much shallower.

While The Magical Turnabout sold me on Spirit of Justice, The Rite of Turnabout was what made me really respect this game, and highlights what a leap has been made in terms of writing from Dual Destinies. This case features the return of Maya Fey, somewhat of a tragic inevitability for the series since the return of Phoenix to ‘protagonist’ role. Yes, I realise I might get some flak for this, but Maya’s story ended in the trilogy, and while in real life people’s stories don’t just end (and yes, someone raised that as an argument when I gave my views on the return of Maya), they do in fiction. Luckily, count me pleasantly surprised on how Maya was handled here. No, it’s not perfect, and she feels a bit tacked on given her strangely lacking amount of screen time, but it’s certainly better than I was expecting. Maya actually seems to have matured in between games, giving sound advice to Rayfa and talking with Phoenix about taking things more seriously, even if her trilogy character shines through sometimes. It’s simple stuff, but it’s good. Even Phoenix starts to feel older with his bouts of back pain. Given that Maya is either in prison or channelling Tahrust (in one of the creepiest moments of body horror I’ve seen since that episode of Monster Factory with Bart), most of Phoenix’s investigation time is spent with Rayfa Padma Khura’in, because even Back Pain Phoenix™ can’t keep teenage girls from swarming him at all times. That would be bad in and of itself, but it might be excusable if Rayfa was fun or interesting to be around like Kay was in Ace Attorney Investigations. Instead, the writers try and deviate from the standard fun sidekick, but unlike Susato in Dai Gyakuten Saiban, who is refreshing in her seriousness, Rayfa is just annoying. The best word I can use to describe her is tsundere, a trope from anime that has always infuriated me and I’m sad to see crop up in a series that can otherwise pride itself on the characterisation of some of its main cast. Nothing about Rayfa, from her introduction to her redemption made me care even a little, because her storyline was so predictable I could see each story-beat coming a mile away. I complained earlier that Nahyuta had some familiar elements to his arc, but at least him being held captive by the customs of the country was a neat twist. The closest Rayfa’s storyline came to surprising me was the revelation that Nayna was Amara, but that had little to do with Rayfa herself.

 

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Never fear – ‘Nngh’ is still in this one

 

Why do I like The Rite of Turnabout so much then? Well, because unlike Dual Destinies’ third case, it succeeds in getting across the problems with the legal system that the main cast is supposed to be railing against. While I do have a soft spot for the comedic sides of Turnabout Academy, nothing about the case itself screams ‘Dark Age of the Law’, instead it’s the characters who have to constantly remind us that it’s the ‘Dark Age of the Law’, in case the funny tone of the case made us forget for a minute. In The Rite of Turnabout, everything points the player towards the game’s central theme of overthrowing a corrupt legal system by actually seeing that corrupt legal system drive a sweet couple to murder and suicide. Not only that, but it also uses Farewell, My Turnabout’s trick of a central mechanic (in this case, the Divination Séance), being used against you by the true criminal. The first half of the case is a bit of a slog, but the second half wowed me. Neither Phoenix nor Tahrust have to constantly remind you that the legal system is wrong, because the player is seeing it first-hand. In the end, when Beh’leeb fully commits to revolution, it makes total sense.

The Rite of Turnabout also begins to hint at the final case, be it Maya challenging a man, the introduction of Datz Are’bal, or the revelation that Apollo and Nahyuta are ‘siblings’. Rather than satiate our appetite for more information, the game decides to take a left turn, most likely because it had forgotten the existence of Athena, and we get to experience the bizarre Turnabout Storyteller. In a way, this is fine; I like Athena and it’s more Ace Attorney, after all (bear in mind that without this case, the final case would most likely be split into two so as to make sure that the game had five cases). Still, I like this case, mainly because it treats Athena and Blackquill way better than Dual Destinies ever did. Having removed the ‘prisoner’ aspect of his character, Simon becomes simpler and better written. Plus, we actually get to see his psychological manipulation for the first time when he plays Uendo’s multiple personalities off of each other in order to get them to testify (see how easy it is to show and not tell – again, this is simple stuff, but it works in Spirit of Justice’s favour). I really like Athena as a playable attorney (unlike Apollo and Phoenix, she feels more unique to play as), and the Mood Matrix gets an improvement with a new feature that adds…penalties! (Hooray for less hand-holding). There isn’t that much else to say about this case, the actual mystery being pretty decent but nothing to write home about (good twists with the murder weapon and the Time Soba trick), but I will quickly mention the much welcome return of the Thought Route, even if it looks a little weirder this time around.

So then, finally we move onto Turnabout Revolution, and my complex motives emotions regarding this case. This case actually separates into two parts, one a civil trial (ish) which features the inevitable face-off between mentor and mentee, and the other a grand murder trial in Khura’in that sees the future of the revolution put on trial in the form of Dhurke Sahdmadhi. But before we can get to that, let’s have a quick look at the civil part of the case. Let’s be honest, this is pretty cool. Not only is it nice to see a civil case in Ace Attorney, Paul Atishon is one of my favourite witnesses/murderers to date. He’s hilarious, and his great theme and breakdown are just the cherry on top. As I mentioned before, facing Phoenix creates an odd disconnect from playing as him – why isn’t he this on top of things when I’m controlling him? – And the whole ‘Phoenix forced to stand in court because Maya is being held hostage’ is completely ripped off from 2-4, but I did get a bit of a chill when Phoenix outsmarted Apollo, and then when Apollo finally turns it around to save Phoenix.

 

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These photos have little rhyme or reason, but I’m tired and I just wrote 4,000 words so forgive me

 

You’re going to have to forgive me, but writing about the final part of the last case is a little tricky, because I have yet to formalize my opinions on it like I have for the other cases. The finale is pure Yamazaki; it goes on forever and has more twists than a slinky. Initially, I was disappointed that I guessed the Nayna is Amara twist, but that turned out to be just one twist on top of many. Certainly the most successful of the twists was that *gasp* Dhurke was dead the whole time (duh duh duh)! Yes Dhurke, leader of the revolutionaries and an oddly lovable character considering he just shows up at the beginning of case five in a poorly written intro to the character. Yet, because of Turnabout Revolution’s length and Dhurke being (as BoltStorm put it) ‘Such a dad’, the revelation that he was just being channelled by Maya, having died at Inga’s hands earlier is a real shocker that actually made me a little bit weepy. The less surprising twist is that Ga’ran, or little Miss Spider-Hair, was actually the big bad and both Inga and Jove Justice’s murderer. Ga’ran is a pretty weak villain, so cartoonishly evil it’s hard to overlook. Simon Keyes undergoes a similarly evil transformation at the end of Prosecutor’s Path, but the revelation of him being the mastermind is so shocking that it’s easier to forgive. I think, then, were Ga’ran to have stayed composed while being the prosecutor, it would have made more of an impact than her looking like Ursula the Sea Witch. Her breakdown is also slightly underwhelming, but it comes after the well-executed twist (yes, another one) that she is not the rightful queen.

You’ll notice that we’ve gotten to the end of the game without talking about its star Apollo Justice. That’s because he gets the silliest treatment of any protagonist in any Ace Attorney game to date. Spirit of Justice’s very premise is silly; Khura’in is cool but makes so little sense in the wider context of Ace Attorney and suddenly springs out of nowhere to provide a setting for the game. The idea of taking down a monarchy in a country made of spirit mediums seems like ripe potential for a spin-off, not a main series game. And yet, Yamazaki and his team have not only tied Maya and Phoenix to this country, but Apollo as well. The constant drip feed of Apollo’s many siblings and family ties becomes absurd about half way through case five, and is then topped off by a post-credits reminder that Phoenix has yet to tell Apollo and Trucy about their connection (making a comment by Dhurke slightly uncomfortable). Still, Apollo manages to brush this stream of siblings off to assert himself as an Ace Attorney in his own right. In his own game, Phoenix did most of the heavy lifting for him, while in Dual Destinies he was pushed to the side-lines in favour of a ‘courtroom revolutionary’. Here, he finally gets to prove himself, saving Phoenix Wright and becoming a literal courtroom revolutionary, as opposed to whatever Athena’s exclusive Mood Matrix did to the courtroom. Were Apollo not such a mistreated character by the Yamazaki team, I’d feel that his send-off here feels earned, but because this is the closest he’ll get to a full game where he’s the driving force, the ending becomes bittersweet. Apollo finally gets the character development he always deserved, but we know he’ll never get to bask in it like Phoenix, because he just doesn’t bring in the dough for Capcom.

 

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How silly this lawyer game is

 

This analysis has been a long exercise in me spouting my thoughts about the game, but has it actually gotten us anywhere? Did I like the game? In short, yes. But I think the impact of the game has been stifled by the old foe Dual Destinies. Before you complain, I do like Dual Destinies, but its impact on Spirit of Justice has done little but lower the overall quality of this game. A better Dual Destinies would have gotten rid of the need for the Athena filler case, and given Apollo more time in the spotlight to have his ending here feel deserved. Still, I can’t give Spirit of Justice any more praise than saying it is the best post trilogy game we’ve had (note that I consider Dai Gyakuten Saiban unfinished at this point). It gives Apollo a nice conclusion to his arc, sets up and demolishes a fictional country that it (luckily) never takes too seriously, handles Maya’s return well, improves on almost every aspect of Dual Destinies that it tackles, and is probably the funniest of all the Ace Attorney games. High praise, indeed then. Yes, of course it’s flawed, including in some major ways, but damn, it’s still good.

There is one question I would quickly like to address before this ends; where does Spirit of Justice leave the mainline series? Apollo could conceivably get his own game helping Khura’in, but I very much doubt that. As for Phoenix, he’ll probably remain on the box, but I’d like to see him become a pure mentor character, emphasising his traits as ‘Turnabout Terror’ rather than ‘Turnabout Unprepared’. A soft reboot also wouldn’t go amiss, but maybe the best thing would be to let the series lie dormant a while. We have Dai Gyakuten Saiban to keep us going, but I think the important thing is for Yamazaki (or Fuse or whoever it may be) to make sure the next step for the series is simple, and effective (yay for buzzwords)!

(Phew…)