Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Game Review: A Tale of Two Kingdoms

A Tale of Two Kingdoms is another example of "games by gamers" - a freeware adventure game modeled after the sort of old-school types I've mentioned before (ie: Sierra's Quest line). Of course, unlike its contemporaries at AGD Interactive (all of which I've enjoyed), "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" isn't a modern remake: Crystal Shard built this game from scratch. On the one hand, that's an impressive accomplishment given how smoothly the game looks and plays. On the other hand, there are more than a few bumps along the way.

Let's start with the good stuff: the game world is beautifully designed, with visually stunning artwork. The "overworld" is a bit small due to the story premise (more on that in a bit), but there's an advantage to that because you don't have to travel far when you go from point to point - and, of course, this being an adventure game, you do quite a bit of legwork in the course of your progress. The music deserves special mention, as the soundtrack has some truly lovely themes that add a lot of atmosphere.

The story starts out well enough: the prologue details how King Vortigern, ruler of Theylinn, conquered the southern kingdom of Qualinem only to be overthrown and forced into retreat by mercenaries under the command of Maeldun Whiteblade and his lover Branwyn. Unfortunately, both kingdoms - weakened by the prolonged conflict - are now threatened by a goblin invasion, forcing Vortigern to invite Maeldun and his troops to Theylinn as a precursor to an alliance. Obviously, neither side is particularly happy about the circumstances. And then an assassination sends things spiraling out of control.

So far, so good. But things take an awkward turn halfway through, with the introduction of the faeries and their kingdom of Thierna na Oge. Most of the political subplot gets shunted aside while an unnamed villain pops up out of nowhere and starts messing with you. The game's multiple-choice system also presents a specific problem - oh, it's hardly the first game, or even the first adventure game, to have more than one play-through route, but what usually happens in those cases is you get a complete, intact narrative regardless of which path actually plays itself out (ie: the "Silent Hill" serise). But "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" doesn't really do this, partly because very little attention is called to the possibility of random events - one side-quest, for example, relies on you knowing when a specific character isn't present at their usual location... but if you stumble on a different puzzle first and solve it, you'll never be able to complete the former. It's very easy - too easy - to get to the end of the game with huge chunks of the story missing (such as the identity of the assassin). Which means that if you want anything even remotely resembling a coherent story, you need a walkthrough. And that's... kind of a drag. Especially since even the best ending has what TV Tropes would call a We Will Meet Again moment.

So... yeah. It looks lovely, and it plays well, and that says a lot about these talented individuals at Crystal Shard. But "A Tale of Two Kingdoms" doesn't make the most of what it's got, particularly in the story department.

Friday, September 26, 2008

First Impressions: Wolverine and the X-Men

The X-Men are animated again, after the '90s cartoon and the more recent (and, in my opinion, better-executed) "X-Men: Evolution". As I understand it, this new series isn't scheduled to air in the States until next year, so I'm not going to discuss it at length, but I got a chance to see the three-part premiere last week and two things seemed noteworthy.

First, there's no introduction to any of the characters: the show assumes, right from the start, that you know who the X-Men are. In fact, the second episode depends heavily on the viewer knowing that Rogue has links to both the X-Men and the Brotherhood. It's a strange approach given that "Wolverine and the X-Men" doesn't seem to follow anything that's come before: not the Singer/Ratner movies, not "Evolution", not the comics. It's fine for me, but I can easily see this show appealing to a wider audience and the lack of exposition might problematize that.

The other noteworthy aspect is that the series takes its premise from a very unusual starting point: one year ago, the Xavier Institute was destroyed by a mysterious blast, Charles Xavier and Jean Grey disappeared off the face of the Earth, and the X-Men have scattered to the four winds. As all this is going on, Senator Robert Kelly gets the Mutant Registration Act approved, mutants are being targeted and arrested on sight, and the Sentinel program is speeding up.

Broadly speaking, it's the opening act of "Days of Future Past". The X-Men have lost, and they're trying to regroup, with Wolverine leading the charge. I have to admit, it's an incredibly unorthodox way to start the story... which makes it all the more intriguing, no? As of the third episode, the team still isn't fully assembled (with former teammates flat-out refusing to return), so it all feels a bit more open-ended than X-Men adaptations usually go. We'll see where it goes...

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

First Impressions: Spaceballs - The Animated Series

In a word?


I want to be absolutely clear here: "Spaceballs" is one of my favorite parodies of all time. It still makes me laugh today, twenty years after its release. And you can make the case that Mel Brooks isn't entirely too late to the party here: the Star Wars prequels are still the butt of many, many jokes, so there's definitely a place for a "Spaceballs" sequel.

Except... this series isn't funny. At all. Not even a little bit. The writing's weak and lacks the sharp wit of the original - and what's worse, it doesn't even stay on topic, because the second episode is a "Lord of the Rings" parody, of all things. The level of humor takes a step down: they're making boob jokes, for God's sake. Boob jokes.

And the sad thing is? Mel Brooks is still voicing Yogurt and Skroob, Daphne Zuniga's back as Vespa, Joan Rivers is Dot Matrix. This should have worked. It really should have.

But it doesn't.

Monday, September 22, 2008

First Impressions: True Blood, Merlin, No Heroics

Just some quick notes:

"True Blood": Too stupid to live, IMO. The central innovation - that the world knows about vampires - doesn't overcome this series being one big mega-cliche made up of a bunch of little cliches that interlock like those lion robots on "Voltron". You had that abominable Ricean thing with vampires being hypersexualized to the point where seeing one gives a pure-minded virgin all sorts of nasty thoughts, and how vampire blood is the new cocaine (plus it makes you frisky, since everyone knows the undead just exude sex appeal). Plus, the inane soap scenario where everyone has unrequited feelings for everyone else: Sam loves Sookie loves Bill , Tara loves Jason loves Dawn loves no one in particular but herself... Ugh. Pass.

"Merlin": I was ambivalent about this at first - Anthony Head is Uther Pendragon, I like - but after watching the premiere again, I've got to give it a pass; it certainly looks good, and while Colin Morgan's performance didn't get my attention he's hardly offensive... it's just one of those situations where the parts don't add up to a good enough sum. It might be that the Arthurian legends are particularly "set" in my mind, and I find it hard to accept deviations that aren't especially interesting: Arthur and Merlin being the same age, Arthur being such a negative figure (at least initially), Guinevere as a servant to Morgana, and that annoying Great Dragon with the cryptic Secret Destiny talk... none of that works for me, not just because of the divergence but because, based on the first episode, these changes don't seem to lead anywhere I want to follow.

"No Heroics:" Quite amusing, maybe because it takes the X-Statix approach to superheroes as fame-hungry media whores whose powers are comically useless. I can see how the premise wouldn't support a full-length series, but it's certainly amusing to watch a hero whose only power is the ability to see a minute into the future - it's a repeating punchline that practically writes itself. Clever!

First Impressions: Supernatural S4

"Because God commanded it."

Pardon the pun, but...


I have this pet peeve about overt religion invading my entertainment. Joss Whedon did good with the Buffyverse by sidestepping the whole issue of God - and by extension, the Devil (well, there was the First Evil, but let's leave Marti Noxon out of this, shall we?). If there were higher powers along the lines of Judeo-Christian faith, nobody knew for sure or was inclined to find out.

Now, I'll admit it seemed like "Supernatural" was heading this way for a while, though the one time there seemed to be an angel it was just a holier-than-thou priest's spirit playing vigilante. But yeah, then they had that episode where Dean is trapped with a demon and she basically spills the Lore of Demonkind, which is that Lucifer is real, which - in a roundabout way - confirms the existence not just of God, but of the Biblical God (whichever version had the bit with Lucifer's rebellion, I suppose). And, see, for me that's the point where suspension of disbelief goes sour. The supernatural is one thing; demons and the existence of a Hell (rather than THE Hell), okay, fine. I don't even mind the use of Latin exorcisms, because someone (Gaiman?) did this thing once about how the rituals you use against demons work because you believe they'll work, and it's that faith which does the job - the words are empty. But if the show's going to try and convince me that God and angels exist, and that they just sat on their collective arse while a demon army broke down the gates of Hell and escaped into the world two seasons ago... well, no. That's just going a bit too far. Here's hoping it's a feint? Again?

And while I'm bitching about the premiere: against all hope, long after you've given up, your big brother is released from Hell and comes back to you, alive and well. Jared Padalecki's reaction? Painfully understated.

Movie Review: "Boy A"

It's taken me a bit longer than usual to put up this review, mainly because I've been crying so I can barely see the keyboard. "Boy A" broke my heart into little pieces.

Jack Burridge - played to perfection by Andrew Garfield - is a sympathetic young man trying to start a new life, having spent most of his childhood and teenage years in prison for a terrible crime. He gets a job, makes friends, falls in love, all with the wide-eyed amazement and gratitude that comes with having a second chance. But deep down, he's still scarred by his past, and by his constant fear that someday it'll catch up with him. In that sense, he's traded one prison for another.

In my opinion, this movie isn't so much about the question of criminal rehabilitation as it is about the things people do to each other, good and bad. Chris drugs Jack without his knowledge - it's a friendly gesture on his part, but it leads to Jack losing control at a point where he's desperately trying to pull his fragmented life together. Zeb destroys everything simply because Terry loves Jack more than his own son. Philip is a victim who became a victimizer.

In fact, of all the characters in the movie, Jack's the only one who doesn't do anything wrong. One of the most heart-rending scenes is when his secret is discovered, and he breaks down crying that he's "not that boy". This is where Garfield's brilliant acting comes in: he's so sweet, so easy to love, so grateful for the simple kindness people show him, that you want him to be right, you want to believe that whoever he used to be died in prison and he's someone different, someone with a clean slate. Tabula rasa. But, of course, it doesn't - can't? - work that way.

It helps that the film is ambiguous as to whether Jack actually committed the crime he was accused of... but then, ambiguity is something "Boy A" uses very well. Certain questions are raised that go without answer: what really happened to Philip? Was Michelle there on the dock, at the "end of the line", or did Jack just imagine it - wishful thinking for the life he almost had and then lost? And what really happened to Angela Milton that day under the bridge? We don't know, because there are no easy answers.

A powerful film, all in all. I salute director John Crowley and the cast of "Boy A" for putting together a superb drama. I'm less happy that my eyes are all red and I look like Puffy the Vampire Wailer, but it was worth it.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Must... Get... Umbrella...

A thousand curses on the man who sent me this.

I'm telling you, it must be some kind of military experiment to see how many repetitions of a specific musical sequence can drive a person bat-shit insane.

Movie Review Double-Shot: "The Incredible Hulk", "Iron Man"

I guess time really does heal all wounds. If you'd asked me a few years back whether a Hulk movie could work after Ang Lee Set Up Us The Bomb, I'd have been skeptical at best - it took the Batman franchise almost a decade to bounce back from Joel Schumaker (you'd think all that rubber would've made it easier), and Batman's A-list; the Hulk may be popular but he's hardly Marvel's most visible property.

To be fair, it's not that Lee's approach was wrong on a conceptual level - the psych angle was the foundation of Peter David's seminal 11-year run, so it pretty much proved itself in that respect. But the execution was sluggish and sedate: not enough adrenaline to be considered an action movie, not enough complexity to be considered a psychodrama. It fell between the cracks and that was pretty much the end of it.

"The Incredible Hulk" is much more traditional: Bruce/The Hulk runs around a lot and soldiers run after him. Simple, yes, but that may be exactly why it works so much better than its lethargic predecessor. There's so much energy here - even Liv Tyler steps up from her usual Thorazine-like state, and the action sequences (particularly the chase scenes) are exciting. Casting was particularly good: Eric Bana was way too hunky to work the nerd archetype, but Ed Norton pulls it off while maintaining his usual cuteness. Tim Roth creeped me out. William Hurt was precisely the kind of Obnoxious Military Guy you want to slap until his face falls off.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this movie was the way it dealt with the backstory in the first few minutes, getting it out of the way as quickly as possible. It's been a pratfall of comic-to-film adaptations that you can't really help using the origin story as the basis for the first (and, in many cases, only) movie; think of "Batman Begins" and "Spider-Man", for example. They're complete in terms of their own internal plots, but with regards to the characters' larger storylines they only really cover the first act, so to speak. "The Incredible Hulk" gets past this very easily: Bruce Banner experimented with gamma radiation, he was in love with Betty Ross, he mutated and accidentally injured her and her father, and he ran away. That's really all you need to know. And the fact that the story moves past that point so quickly lets things move along at a much better pace.

Ultimately, "The Incredible Hulk" doesn't reinvent any wheels; it doesn't need to do that. It's fun superhero action that hits every mark it's aiming for, and that's good enough.


Marvel was two-for-two this week, because I wasn't expecting much out of "Iron Man" either and I ended up being pleasantly surprised again.

My enjoyment of "Iron Man" comes down to a single factor: Robert Downey Jr. I've never been much of a Tony Stark fan, especially given the most recent turn as a mega-fascist douche, but Downey's portrayal makes the character charming, funny and compelling. When we talk about specific roles that specific actors were "born to play", it's Downey as Tony Stark that seems to be the strongest example of that elusive connection between an actor and the role he plays: the look, the body language, all the little tics Downey threw in, it all works perfectly.

It's nice to see that Jon Favreau understood the way "Iron Man" should be about the man behind the tech and not the tech itself - the movie could've easily turned into another hollow special-effects gallery a la "Transformers", but this is still Tony's story, and it shows with every little "wake-up call" he gets that bring him closer and closer to that last revelation.

And there are actually a lot of amusing moments, which I honestly didn't expect; I mean, the movie opens up with an abduction in Afghanistan, not exactly light-hearted stuff. But we also have Tony's hilarious field-testing of the armor and its components, and the dialogues with Pepper, JARVIS and Rhodes have a swift, comedic touch. It makes for a nice blend of laughter and excitement.

Of course, the scenes where the Iron Man armor actually does its work are duly impressive; we get to see multiple incarnations of the familiar design in rapid succession, which sells the idea of Iron Man as an identity that evolves even as Tony himself is evolving. And, as tradition dictates, the final showdown is suitably action-packed and dynamic.

So I can definitely say that "Iron Man" is deserving of the praise it's received; like "The Incredible Hulk", it doesn't really do anything that could be considered ground-breaking by comic book standards... but what it does, it does very well.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Season In Review: The Middleman S1

I mentioned a while back that the "Middleman" pilot left me ambivalent but willing to see more; I ended up sticking around for the whole season, and I'm glad I did. "The Middleman" is a razor-sharp, clever, funny show (so naturally, I'm not expecting a second season).

Keeping in mind that I've never read the comics this show is based on, "The Middleman" seems to be a response to "Heroes" in that the latter is modern superheroics seen through a modern perspective, whereas "The Middleman" is decidedly more old-school: we're talking Bob Kanigher-level craziness like Corleone-inspired gorillas and flying zombie fish and murderous alien dictators moonlighting as a boy band. It'd be on the verge of crossing over into Adam West Land and going completely insane... except that our protagonist-focalizer, Wendy Watson, has a cynical, nonchalant viewpoint. It's basically the 21st century poking fun at the Silver Age without ripping it to shreds in the process. There's an implied acknowledgement that these things are ridiculous, but they're still fun. And there's a wide array of threats ranging from mystical to alien to mad-scientific; the variety spices things up because you're never really sure what'll happen from one episode to the next.

Turns out Matt Keeslar was the right choice to play the Middleman after all; the character requires a certain level of... I don't want to say shallowness, because that's not what I mean despite the fact that it's the opposite of depth, which is what I do mean. Keeslar's never really had the kind of range or gravitas to hold the audience's attention, but the character of the Middleman doesn't need any of that to begin with. Plus, the Mirror Universe Middleman spent most of his time shirtless, in leather pants. Thanks, Javier! Much appreciated.

I really, really hope this show lasts longer - with "Heroes" coming back next week, it'd be nice to have a lighter-hearted counterpart that doesn't descend to Superfriends antics or talk down to its viewers.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Book Review: "Avalon High" by Meg Cabot

By the time I got to the end of this book, I had only one comment.

"Where's the kaboom? There was supposed to be an earth-shattering kaboom!"

Either I missed the point here, or Meg Cabot did. "Avalon High" starts off with a very transparent intent to rewrite the King Arthur stories in a contemporary high school context. Fair enough - if you can pull that off, you demonstrate that there's a human core to the myths that still holds up today (ie: the love triangle, Arthur's burdens, etc.). Cabot doesn't even try to hide what she's doing, what with the constant references to Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" and giving her characters names like Jennifer and Lance (gee, I wonder who they represent). To be honest, it's a little too obvious for my tastes, especially considering Cabot's cast are shallow stereotypes: Arthur/Will is the pure-hearted, universally-adored and blindingly beautiful golden boy, Lance is the hulking, monosyllabic best friend, Jennifer is head cheerleader and Queen of Popularity. And, of course, the first-person protagonist Ellie is an outsider who's just moved to town and falls in love with the aforementioned golden boy. I don't know, is there a point where something goes so far beyond cliche that it's original again? Like "it's so bad it's good"? If so, I don't think Cabot got that far.

But, okay, even taking all that into account, the story still works at this point. Then, about halfway through the book, Things Get Seriously Weird. It turns out the characters are literally reincarnations of the Camelot crew, and they've been repeating the same patterns over and over throughout the centuries, while Merlin keeps trying (and failing) to save Arthur from the unnamed Forces of Darkness that constantly kill him before he... saves the world, or something. It's not very clear. Everything pretty much goes sideways at that point and never really recovers. And the ending is surprisingly anticlimactic - I say "surprisingly" because it's the first time I've ever read a take on Arthur that didn't at least try for a big finish. The whole thing just goes flat. Flatter, I guess, since it doesn't manage to break the mold in the first place.

It might be that I'm not the target audience for this one; I'm guessing younger readers would be much more comfortable with the standard high school formula. I went into this hoping for a bit more than that, and I didn't get it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Game Review: Grim Fandango

Okay. Well... that was different.

I'd heard about "Grim Fandango" for years, but never had a chance to play it until very recently. Historically, it's noteworthy for being one of the last adventure games created by LucasArts, before they started focusing exclusively on "Star Wars" material.

Which was a shame, because their adventure line was full of fun games with quirky humor, amusing characters and challenging puzzles. They tended to be more forgiving than Sierra games, because you could never die or get trapped in a losing scenario; while that might make things a little less exciting, it's nice not to have to save your game every sixty seconds (these were, after all, products of the pre-autosave days).

But "Grim Fandango" stands out even among its sister games like "Day of the Tentacle" and "Sam and Max Hit The Road". For starters, it's in 3D (as opposed to the more typical 2D format), and the game's plot and visual style mixes quasi-Mayan mythology, noir and Mexican imagery, a combination I've never seen before. "Grim Fandango" looks different, and that counts for a lot. The story is simple but perfectly balances comedy and a Casablanca-esque atmosphere: Manny Calavera is a travel agent for the Department of Death, responsible for helping freshly deceased souls start their four-year journey to the Other Side. Unfortunately, after an unexplained fall from grace, Manny constantly finds himself with people who can't "afford" (by whatever currency is valid in the Land of the Dead) much more than a walking stick, as opposed to tickets on a luxury train or a car. The story proper begins when Manny meets Meche Colomar, a kind but mysterious woman whose good deeds should have earned her passage on the prestigious Number Nine Express, but has nothing going for her. Suspicious of internal tampering, Manny investigates and ends up chasing Meche on his own four-year journey, through nightclubs and port cities and across the open seas. I should note here that I loved the witty banter between Manny and Meche - kudos to the voice actors for doing a superb job.

Unfortunately, this golden oldie has some mold(ie). After years of using a perfectly dependable mouse interface, LucasArts designed "Grim Fandango" with an incredibly uncomfortable keyboard-based system in which the arrow keys move Manny around, and objects of interest can be examined or used once Manny is close enough that his head turns towards said objects. Normally, this wouldn't be a big deal, except... well, remember the 3D environment? It makes navigation downright obnoxious because the directional keys aren't absolute - "up" means "forward" no matter which way Manny is facing, and it can get very frustrating because he doesn't turn smoothly either, so just moving from one screen to another can be a chore.

So it's very much a "story vs. gameplay" situation, but I think the creative merits of "Grim Fandango" compensate nicely for the problematic mechanisms.