Sunday, February 18, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)

Black Panther is beautiful. The story is elegantly told, the characters are phenomenal, the action is intense, and the music is fierce. It's so good that it doesn't feel like a two-hour movie. Overall, it's a powerful and refreshingly different entry into the Marvel cinematic universe.

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), who lost his father in Captain America: Civil War, is next in line for the throne of the isolationist nation of Wakanda. His ascent is marked by physical challenges (ritual combat) as well as increasing pressure against tradition, notably by his ex, the spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong'o), who argues that Wakanda's immense power should be used for good, rather than hidden from the world. Meanwhile, Ulysess Klaue (Andy Serkis), a ballsy thief and the only person who knows about Wakanda's reserves of the invaluable metal vibranium, pops up on the radar of General Okoye (Danai Gurira). T'Challa, Okoye, and Nakia set off in pursuit, which leads them to cross paths with the formidable Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan).

Speaking of formidable, Okoye kicks so much butt that she would easily be the MVP of this movie, if it weren't for the numerous other fabulous supporting characters. Nakia can throw down as well, but she also has a strong moral compass, and is interested in fighting for the oppressed rather than just against her nation's enemies. Shuri (Letitia Wright), T'Challa's younger sister, is a tech prodigy and the source of most of the film's humor ("WHAT ARE THOOOOOSE?" is a moment I would watch on loop). Finally, M'Baku (Winston Duke) is a scene stealer. And of course, Angela Bassett automatically makes every scene 100% better.

There are several impressive fights in Black Panther, all of which are driven by the story or the characters. My favorite is the final battle that pits Wakandans against each other, because that's when the Dora Milaje display their fluidity as a combat unit. Plus: armored rhinos!!! Vibranium capes!!! M'Baku!!! Okoye single-handedly stopping the nonsense!!! My least favorite fight is the heavily-CGI underground mano a mano between the Black Panther and Killmonger. It was hard to follow, and there was far less tension than the battle royale on the fields.

A minor digression--the chase scene (featured in the trailers) is significant not just for the inventive choreography and unexpected hilarity, but also because, according to my husband, it's when Black Panther passes the Bechdel test. I think that's true?

Anyway, as visionary as this film is, it still follows a familiar formula: the noble king triumphs against the hateful usurper. What makes this particular trope worth watching is the depth given to both hero and villain; it's made clear that Killmonger is motivated by a sense of thwarted justice, and his desire to use Wakanda to give power to the powerless is undermined by his methods. The final moment between the two rivals is both touching and inevitable.

In the end, Black Panther offers something new, both in-universe and to us in the audience: Wakanda, a black nation untarnished by colonialism. Its existence is realized onscreen with such beauty and reverence, and it's thanks to director Ryan Coogler, cinematographer Rachel Morrison, costume designer Ruth Carter, and production designer Hannah Beachler. In fact, the focus on Wakanda leads to my only teeny-tiny beef, which is that there's a musical cue for establishing shots of Wakanda instead of a soaring Black Panther theme (y'know, like Captain America and Iron Man have their own themes). Maybe that's on purpose? Unless--"Bagbak" is the Black Panther theme? If so, I withdraw my objection. Because "Bagbak" is dope.

TL;DR: Spectacular. Watch now.

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This post brought to you by spring weather in February!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Game Review: Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana (PS Vita)

Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of Dana is a solid JRPG, with terrific music, frenzied combat, delightfully absurd plot lines, and a refreshing focus on a non-bland protagonist. Experienced Ys players will be familiar, though no less enchanted, with the features and elements of the game, and there are a few new additions to keep gameplay exciting. Overall, it's worth the 40-ish hours it takes to fully explore the setting, finish all the side quests, and of course, save the world.

Ys VIII takes place on the Isle of Seiren, where passengers of the ship Lombardia -- including ginger adventurer Adol Christin -- become castaways. So players initially comb the island in search of other survivors, who eventually form a village where they set up shops according to their skills. How convenient! Having an apothecary, tailor, and a fully functioning forge on a deserted island inhabited by dinosaurs is just one of many absurdities served up in this game. Did I mention there's a serial killer on the loose, as well?

As Adol and his companions continue their exploration of the island, the plot thickens via his connection to a woman named Dana--when he sleeps, he sees her experiences as the Maiden of the Great Tree, back in the island's past. Dana eventually becomes aware of Adol, too, and becomes instrumental both in solving the mystery of the island and in helping the castaways escape it.

In fact, Dana becomes the protagonist for the latter half of the game, which is great because she actually has a personality. While he has some voice acting this time around, Adol is mostly nonverbal--he's a blank slate that players can project themselves onto by choosing dialogue lines. Whatever Adol says has no bearing on the actual progression of the game, but this isn't as annoying as it was in, say, I Am Setsuna (my review here).

Fortunately, the gameplay is so fun that it eclipses everything else. Exploration and fighting form the core of your strategy here, yielding materials needed to craft better weapons, equipment, armor, and even gifts that increase the castaways' approval of Adol. Their approval greatly improves Adol's performance during raids, newly introduced in Ys VIII, where players stop waves of monsters trying to overcome the village's defenses. During raids, the game's fast-paced combat becomes even more frenetic as players race to multiple spots to halt the enemy advance.

Also new in Ys VIII is fishing. Thrill-wise, it's closer to the simplicity offered by the Kiseki/Trails series, as opposed to the challenge of FFXV, but it's a pleasant diversion that also nets you ingredients for meals.

Proof that Dana is the whole package: she can lead, fight, and catch giant fish! 

This game is also very pretty! The vistas are stunning, character animations are smooth, and there's a wide variety of nasty beasts to be dispatched. Dungeons are equally diverse: there's a research tower one, a pirate ship, a raised coral forest, dark-ass cave, misty swamp, etc. Even your weapons' looks change when upgraded, but--

*****

CAVEAT EMPTOR: APPAREL
Your tailor is lying to you! She is not making new costumes for your characters to wear. Instead, all you get is a shift in the color palette of your characters' default clothing. Do not waste your materials on this scam! 

*****

--I had to get that off my chest because I was so disappointed that Laxia's "Pretty Lady" apparel was just her corset-and-booty shorts getup in purple. I wanted a full-blown noble lady costume with a hoop skirt or something equally ridiculous to match the insanity on the Isle of Seiren, but alas.

Anyway, just a couple more items to note: the soundtrack by Falcom Sound Team jdk is sublime, as usual. Standout tracks are the epic opening theme; the rock-infused battle themes "Red Line," "Smash Up!," and "A Footprint in the Wet Sand"; and the sweeping dungeon track, "The Leaning Tower of Baja." Meanwhile, "Ricordo," which plays to signal an emotional scene, is at least inoffensive, if not actually affecting. By contrast, "Whimsical Vacation," the faux-cheery comedy cue, is annoying. But hey, I'd say the soundtrack is a smash if only one of its 50+ tracks gets a negative reaction.

Sidequests are another great part of Ys VIII. They're quick, easy, and yield useful rewards. Honestly, this game's map makes everything almost too easy for the player, since it marks everything: sidequests, island views, item collection points, and where to go next to advance the main story. No bumbling around in Ys VIII, no sirree.

Finally, let me end by presenting you with some of the odder translation choices of NIS America, the company in charge of localizing this game. Most of the dialogue is fine, but sometimes, you get to read bizarre gems like:

"He's my Superior!"
"Let's overcome this place!"
"I'm sorry to put you in such a harsh situation."

The "Superior" line is particularly baffling, especially since the character is talking about a bird. Did she mean senpai? Because frankly, even "mentor" would have made more sense. Why don't these people hire me to check their work??? Anyway, the translation was apparently so bad that NIS America revised it/is revising it? More details on their blog here. As always, the comments section is the most entertaining part of the post.

*****

BONUS: LET ME EXPLAIN THE PLOT, AS I UNDERSTAND IT
When creation was brand-spanking new, the earth goddess Maia fell asleep and dreamed. She dreamed of evolution, a screening and selection process that was carried out by the Great Tree of Beginnings on the Isle of Seiren. Over millennia, the tree would choose the best individual from the ascendant species of the world and assign that being as a "protector of evolution"--and then wipe out the entire species. Dana was chosen for the people of Eternia, but she resisted by wiping her memories and sleeping until the new protector--Adol, obviously--found her. 

In the human era, the Isle of Seiren is notorious because ships that sail near it disappear/get wrecked. But Adol's shipwreck is the beginning of the end for the endless cycle of ascension and destruction that originates from the island, thanks in large part to Dana's intervention. In preparation for Adol's arrival, Dana plants a "tree of notions" (yet another regrettable translation) to rival the power of the Tree of Beginnings. By kicking ass in the final dungeon, Adol and co. make the tree of notions strong enough to disrupt the cycle, and Dana makes a final move that awakens Maia and ends her own current existence. Thus is the world saved. The world of humanity, I mean, who cares about the other species, amirite?

*****

Lastly, a tiny, amused warning: it took over an hour, and another boss fight, to conclude the game after what should have been the final battle. The final final boss looked like a cockroach mounted by a midget dolphin, a visual at odds with the gorgeous setting of the dawn over a primeval ocean.

In summary, Ys VIII is great. That is all.

TL; DR: Another solid Ys game, with plenty of improvements to the series' already excellent gameplay.

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This post brought to you by lack of sleep! Spoiler: it sucks!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Game Review: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (PS4)

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is absolutely bonkers, in a good way. This particular treasure hunting/murder spree adventure stars Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross, two popular characters from Nate Drake’s previous runs. It continues the successful Uncharted formula of dazzlingly gorgeous visuals, light banter, running, jumping, shooting, and puzzle-solving. My only beef is that it’s over too quickly, but hey, what a fun ride!

The game is set in India, where Chloe and Nadine are hunting for the legendary Tusk of Ganesh, said to be hidden in the capital of the Hoysala empire (10th-14th AD). As the duo head to their destination, the views are so beautiful that one almost forgets how absurd it is that premodern peoples went through all the trouble of building massive hidden cities with gigantic, elaborate puzzles to protect their artifacts.

Perfectly reasonable-sized gates to a city! Image from Gaming Central.

The story is impressively efficient, offering both an entertaining yarn and parallels to the character’s inner conflicts. Chloe’s daddy issues are at the forefront early on, as she pursues the same treasure that consumed so much of her archaeologist father’s time. Meanwhile, Nadine has issues in the same vein. Shoreline, the mercenary army she led in the previous Uncharted game, was inherited from her father—and her loss of command is a primary motivator for her teaming up with Chloe. At the same time, the game’s antagonist Asav twists the theme of legacy by using his bloodline—which he claims can be traced back to the kings of Hoysala—as justification for his bloody insurgency. Finally, the Tusk of Ganesh that everyone is after is based on the story of the elephant god losing his tusk while defending his father Shiva’s temple. So just…dads.

The gameplay is spectacular, with appropriate times devoted to the separate activities of exploring/jumping/climbing, taking out bad guys, and solving puzzles. Along the way, Chloe in particular absorbs an almost comical amount of damage, none of which slow her down. All the major gameplay elements will be familiar to Uncharted veterans: obvious ledges and handholds, freely available guns and ammo, and impossibly intricate setups that need to be resolved to continue forward. As fun as the puzzles were, driving the jeep, sneaking around for stealth attacks, and narrowly escaping certain death were equally enjoyable. Chloe can pick locks, too!

I also appreciated the minimalist approach to side quests, as in there is only one: collecting tokens scattered around the region to uncover an item that alerts players to nearby treasures. I was pumped about this new feature at first, because I’m a completionist, but it became very distracting after a while. Fortunately, my little spawn cuddled with me through some of my playtime, and I enlisted his help to find “the shinies.” (Real talk: he was not very helpful, but it did divert him from demanding that I find more cranks to operate.)

Also real talk: Fragrant Husband was appalled by my sheer incompetence when it came to gunfights. At the end, the game reported that I had 28% accuracy. Hubby had guessed much lower. :P

Moving on—the dialogue is frequently hilarious. Chloe dishes snappy banter, and has a lighthearted line for even the most stressful situation. In one instance, while being strafed by a helicopter and frantically looking for an RPG, she pops open a weapons container with a hopeful, "Do you go boom?" (Nope.) Nadine straight up reads everyone, friend and foe alike. Chloe gets the worst of it. At one point, Nadine asks her if she and Nate took turns, or just talked over each other. (Good question! Probably the latter.) She also drags Chloe for "wearing red in a jungle combat situation." The later addition of another Uncharted character keeps the humor going even as the tension mounts and the stakes get even higher.

Overall, Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is a compact, delightful game with an engaging lead. In one of the later chapters, Chloe exclaims, “That’s crazy! I’ll do it!” and it perfectly sums up the entire ethos of the game. Everything about it is ridiculous in the best way: the vistas, the structures, the tête-à-tête, the mayhem, the grievous bodily injuries, the invincible jeep...Like I said, bonkers. In a good way. I will be there with bells on if Chloe ever sets out on another adventure.

BONUS! Here's a great article from IGN about why it's so nice that Chloe and Nadine partnered up.

TL;DR: A breezy action-adventure for those with 8-10 hours to spare! 

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This post brought to you by 2018’s first impending snow storm!

Friday, December 29, 2017

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars: the Last Jedi is a terrific middle entry that features more growth for the next generation of heroes, as well as a bittersweet end to a legend. As always, the space dogfights and lightsaber battles are thrilling, John Williams' score is perfect, and plot twists provide shock and/or delight. This movie has me looking forward to the next one.

Rian Johnson wrote and directed The Last Jedi, and I'm an unabashed fan of his previous work, particularly Brick and Looper. Here, he places heavy emphasis on the evolution of the main characters, plotting out their respective journeys as the Resistance hovers on the verge of annihilation: Poe ignores orders out of his zeal to ensure the survival of the fleeing Resistance; Finn and newcomer Rose Tico execute an unauthorized plan to save the home team, and Rey receives lessons about the Force from the now-reclusive Luke Skywalker.

All the young 'uns become better for it in the end: Poe learns to puts aside his impulsiveness and aggression to observe and come to the correct conclusions; Rey becomes even stronger and more determined; and Finn is gifted this gem of wisdom by Rose: “That's how we're gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.” Annnd smooch. Kidding aside, that's a powerful line that highlights the difference between the light of the Resistance and the darkness of the First Order.

Meanwhile, the veterans play significant roles in imparting their wisdom to the new heroes. Leia is her usual self, formidable and sweet at the same time. She literally slaps Finn for being so hotheaded, and calmly weathers the First Order's attacks. Her second-in-command, Admiral Holdo, is similarly even-keeled, looming over a shouting Poe and quietly dismissing him. Finn and Rose learn a hard lesson from DJ, who promises to help destroy the First Order's ability to track the Resistance fleet through light speed. And Rey wrests the truth from Luke, and from herself.

Luke is the key in The Last Jedi. He symbolizes hope and power, and his self-imposed exile is the result of his self-loathing after what he sees as his failure with Ben Solo and his Jedi students. His lessons to Rey about what the Force is and isn't are stern and sometimes humorous...and highly effective. His conversation with Yoda is enlightening, too, proving that no one can out-master the little green guy. Once Luke absorbs his master's final lesson, he makes his decision and is at peace.

And boy, what a decision! Off Luke goes to confront Kylo Ren, who is slightly less whiny this time around. Kylo reveals that his goal is to wipe out both the Resistance and the First Order, and to create something new from the ashes. He offers Rey a place by his side, but she knows he's a complete tool and rejects him. When Luke shows up for the obligatory dramatic confrontation with his former pupil, Kylo predictably reacts petulantly, which the remnants of the Resistance use to their advantage. Luke's sacrifice allows Leia's people to escape, and thus the stage is set for the final reckoning between the forces of light and darkness.

Overall, The Last Jedi is a true epic, and I don't just mean the running time--the themes of good versus evil, self-discovery, self-sacrifice, forgiveness, love, friendship, and more are showcased to great effect by engaging characters and an entertaining script. The unexpected funny moments, like the Chewbacca-porgs interactions and Luke's snide one-liners, are very welcome. A lot happens, and it serves to propel the story--and the Star Wars series--forward in a new direction. And that's fine by me.

TL;DR: I liked it and I can't wait for the next one! Also, RIP, Carrie Fisher. You are missed.

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This post brought to you by subzero temperatures!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

2017 List: Book Recommendations

Ho! Ho! Ho! As Christmas approaches and Mariah Carey's power grows, I want to take a moment to remind you, my ducklings, that books are our friends. They take us away from all this. With the various entertainment options available to us -- Netflix, Buzzfeed, PS4, YouTube, judging passersby -- nothing is quite as calming as sitting down with a great page-turner.

Here are 12 great books to check out, if you haven't, based on your nerd type:

Space Nerd (Sci-fi)

Top Pick! Seveneves by Neal Stephenson (2015)
This book feels especially relevant as we longingly cast our eyes heavenward and dream of escaping this hell planet. In Seveneves, a thinly-veiled Neil deGrasse Tyson character sounds the alarm about an impending extinction-type event for humanity. A Hillary-type president oversees the global program that will send small groups of people off planet to weather out the cataclysm. Astronauts already in space will never touch land again. Power struggles ensue. Philosophical questions abound. Who deserves to live and pass on their genes? What's the point of it all? And, since this is my man Neal, walls of text are lovingly devoted to the intricacies of technology, and the unexpected happens regularly. Seveneves is an epic that deserves you, Space Nerd.


Another Top Pick! Existence by David Brin (2012)
There's a lot going on in Existence, but essentially it's about first contact events that converge with a worldwide conspiracy to control scientific progress. Brin throws everything and the kitchen sink into the mix--attached tech, smart mobs, near-total surveillance, autism, genetic experiments--and it works! The main characters are compelling, the twists are incredible, and one of the best parts is that all the future tech (circa 2050) he describes are plausible. There are tons of ideas this novel, and if you enjoyed 1990's Earth, I urge you to pick up the equally mind-blowing Existence as well.

FTW Nerd (Science, Nonfiction)
I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong (2016)
This treasure of microbiology liberally uses analogies so even the non-scientifically-inclined -- you poor dears -- become infected with Yong's enthusiasm for the sheer dominance and adaptability of the countless members of the microbial kingdom. Yong reveals to readers the bacteria in our bodies, in animals, and under the soil and sea. A terrific intro to the field.


The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic - and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World by Steven Johnson (2006)
A tale of how a terrible cholera epidemic led to an investigation that eventually validated the idea of waterborne disease transmission. Also a striking portrait of how London was both gross and awesome as an urban center in its early industrial days, before clean air and water became political priorities. Overall, a brilliant account about overcoming frightening adversity.

An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine by Howard Markel (2011)
Markel details the downfall and redemption of two prominent doctors who became addicted to the then-new pharmaceutical hotness, cocaine. In the process, he chronicles some of the horrors that accompanied medical practice in the 19th century, such as surgeries performed without anesthesia or hand washing. The point is, coke was awesome...until it wasn't.

Sophisticated Nerd (History, Nonfiction)

A History of the World in 6 Glasses by Tom Standage (2005)
Standage chronicles the rise of the beverages that played key roles in societal development: beer (the best!), wine (also pretty good), spirits like whisky and rum (yuck), coffee (*nods approval*), tea (flavonoids!), and Coca-Cola (ew). It's a very easy read, with each drink corresponding to a particular time period, region(s), and society(ies). Appropriately, he ends with a note about how water is the new "it" drink--how far we've come from throwing stuff in it and boiling it just so it doesn't kill us!  


Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing (1959)
This is a straightforward retelling of Ernest Shackleton's expedition to the Antarctic, featuring: ice! A shipwreck! Leopard seals! Pemmicans (protein+fat mush)! Lansing's work closely details how Shackleton and his men achieve such a breathtaking feat of survival in the most inhospitable conditions. Chilling stuff. *wink emoji*

Mystery Nerd (Mystery, YA)


Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson (2012)
This is a thrilling, fantasy-heavy take on social, religious, and technological upheaval in the Middle East. Alif is a hacker who comes into conflict with the head of state cybersecurity, and must rely on the secret book of the jinn, the Alf Yeom (The Thousand and One Days) to defeat his nemesis. Its characters are memorable, the pacing is on point, and each chapter ends on an almost lyrical note. A great read if you want something immersive yet fairly light.


Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)
A young thief is sent on a job where nothing is as it seems and everyone is hiding something. It's an enjoyable yarn, and another look into the darker areas of ye olde London. This was recently adapted into a movie set in 1930s  Korea (Park Chan-wook's The Handmaiden) that promises sexy lesbian time! I'm in.
    
Literary Snob Nerd (Award-winning fiction)

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James (2014)
Spoiler alert: it's not brief. Initially set in Jamaica, this Man Booker Prize winner is an epic fictionalization of the attempted assassination of Bob Marley in the seventies, and the move of the island's drug trade to New York in the following decades. It's dense and batshit insane and features multiple, often high (as in, on heroin, etc.) voices--and it's quite the experience. This is basically the book equivalent of Requiem for a Dream in terms of underlining the horrors of drug addiction.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
A fiery missionary transplants his wife and four young daughters to a village in the Congo in 1959. Told from the perspective of the women, it's a story of suffering, growth, death, political turmoil, and human connections. This book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Boeke Prize winner.

BONUS! The-Book-Was-Much-Better/Insufferable Nerd

Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote (1958)
Audrey Hepburn's iconic turn as Holly Golightly is most closely associated to Breakfast at Tiffany's, and I haven't watched the film so I can't really speak to how well she captures book Holly, but let me tell ya -- book Holly is nuts. She's an outspoken, progressive teenager who's up at all hours schmoozing with rich men to maintain her socialite lifestyle. Get it, girl!

In conclusion, happy holidays, and reading good books = time well spent. The next two on my reading list are Packing for Mars by Mary Roach and The Mismeasure of Man by Stephen Jay Gould.


TL;DR: Books! Read them!

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This post brought to you by subzero temperatures!

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Game Review: Eiyuu densetsu: sen no kiseki II / Trails of Cold Steel 2 (PS Vita)

Sen no kiseki II (Trails of Cold Steel 2) is a sequel that boasts many improvements over the original, notably the music, graphics, and combat. It picks up shortly after the cliffhanger ending of Sen no kiseki (review here), and resolves a number of mysteries from the first game. Overall, it's a terrific game with a couple of glaring flaws.

In the sequel, the chancellor's shooting ignites a civil war within the Erebonian Empire. As the Noble Faction pits its provincial armies against the imperial forces still loyal to the chancellor, protagonist Rean Schwarzer must reunite with Class VII, his comrades from Thors Military Academy. Together, they contribute to efforts to end the fighting and assist innocent civilians. Meanwhile, hidden forces plot an outcome that bodes ill for everyone, regardless of allegiance...

Sen no kiseki II is the seventh entry into the Eiyuu densetsu: kiseki (Legend of Heroes: Trails) series, which takes place on the continent of Zemuria. Characters from previous games/other countries make an appearance, such as Prince Oliviert from Sora no kiseki (Trails in the Sky, my review here), and [SPOILER] from [EXTREME SPOILER, my review here]. These cameos, as well as mentions of other states and international events, expand the scope of the game and remind players that everything is connected, so buy the other Trails games now!

The gameplay in Sen no kiseki II retains most of the elements of the original, with a turn-based combat system, tons of sidequests and hidden quests, character bonding events, and NPCs with elaborate backstories. Towns, monster-infested roads, and secret dungeons abound. The main story progresses in two Acts, with an Intermission, Finale, Divertissement, and Epilogue to further pad playtime. This allows the sequel to expand the world introduced in the first game, with a larger roster of playable characters, lots of mecha combat, and more locations available and easily accessible via airship.

A digression: the airship mechanic annoyed me. It’s fine if you have stuff to do or people to talk to on board, but actual travel, presumably the vehicle’s primary function, is a three-step process. THREE STEPS! Ain’t no one got the time to (1) get on board, (2) talk to the captain, and (3) select a location. It’s such a contrast to the teleportation function in towns/cities (press square, instant travel!). Grumble, grumble, I am old and cranky.

Fortunately, the shining gem of Sen II’s gameplay – the combat system – is so wonderfully broken that I’m willing to overlook most anything. Apart from the devastating special crafts (S Crafts, basically Limit Breaks), there’s the Over-Rise mode (essentially the Burst feature from Ao no kiseki), which unlocks when combat-linked characters fill a special meter. In Over-Rise, characters get extra HP, EP and CP, and spells are instantaneous. Then there’s Rush, which, as the name implies, is when multiple characters rush in simultaneously to attack enemies. But the core of the battle system is the combat links, wherein paired characters get special abilities that improve as their link levels rise, e.g. Arts or CP boosts, quick healing, EP recovery, etc. With my favored paired characters decked out with speed enhancements and other attribute boosts, by the end of Act 2, I was practically untouchable and could wipe the floor with supposedly difficult hidden bosses (Lindbaum didn’t even scratch me!).

The soundtrack is similarly outstanding. Every single track is worth a listen, and I was surprised at how familiar and nostalgic the Divertissement track was—those who played Zero and Ao no kiseki will know what I’m talking about. The music is so good that I get all pumped for epic boss fights, and dutifully tear up during emotional scenes. I am a puppet, I dance!

Another strength of Sen no kiseki II is the characters, although not everyone shines in this category. Despite having 21 playable characters, the core of the game is still Class VII, a group of nine youths assembled to overcome the empire’s social stratification (plus two added later for less idealistic reasons).

Top row: Jusis, Machias, Laura, Emma, Gaius; Bottom row: Instructor Sara, Fie, Alisa, Rean, Eliot, Millium, Crow


Rean is his usual lost-yet-determined self, quick to jump in with an inspirational and corny speech to change hearts and minds. Jusis makes a choice that makes him a true noble. Emma becomes less distant. Laura and Fie remain badasses, and Eliot is still adorable. The most unexpected improvement was Alisa, who shows that she’s observant, empathetic, and understands the burdens carried by her classmates. By contrast, in the first game, she was mostly defined by her terrible relationship with her mother (who is still not Mother of the Year, by the way). Only Machias and Gaius, whose backgrounds were covered in the original, stay flat and frankly, pointless. Be OP (overpowered) or get out!

Now let’s talk about the plot, which is both a strength and a weakness. There are two things going on here: the Erebonian civil war, and the machinations of Ouroboros, the hidden society whose members side with the Noble Faction to further their own ends. The Erebonian civil war is straightforward: nobles who want to preserve the social order are vying against the reform-minded meritocratic national army (and Class VII, which is a mix of the social classes).

Meanwhile, Ouroboros has been a mainstay of every single Trails entry, meaning they (and the developers) are playing a long game. The society has an ultimate goal called The Orpheus Final Plan, and their various projects leading up to it serve as the main obstacles to Trails heroes, e.g. the Phantom Flame Project from Sora no kiseki. In Greek mythology, Orpheus was a musician who tried to bring his wife back from the dead, so I’m guessing Ouroboros wants to revive the goddess Aidios, the oft-mentioned and sole deity in all Trails games. In Sen no kiseki II, Ouroboros’ project is the grandly-titled Phantasmal Blaze Plan, and it’s connected to events in Crossbell from the Zero and Ao no kiseki games. It's a hot mess, and thus weakens the plot: all the confusion takes focus away from the characters' growth.

Speaking of hot mess, what was up with that fake ending??? Here’s what happened, dear reader: I went into what looked like the final dungeon, defeated four sets of sub-bosses, whomped all three forms of the presumably final boss, and got rewarded by a predictable plot twist. And then came another plot twist, and the screen cut to black, a J-pop song blared, and credits rolled. I was like, “Nailed it in under 80 hours! Will wonders never cease!” AND THEN THE GAME KEPT GOING FOR ANOTHER BILLION YEARS.

I exaggerate, but there were two whole other sections that followed that “ending,” which NO. Just No. The only good news is that it leads into a wonderful callback to Ao no kiseki, where a certain scantily-clad lady shows off what a dancer’s legs look like (Muscular! Amazing!).

Speaking of scantily-clad, what happened to the rest of Fie’s civilian clothes? What, Nihon Falcom couldn’t just make her breasts bigger for the sequel, like they did with all the other ladies?
Fie: Still 15, now with 40% less clothing!

In conclusion, Sen no kiseki II is a strong sequel that requires a lot of time and commitment that perhaps could be lavished on other things, such as one's offspring, for instance. While I’m happy with the experience and shipped Rean and Laura as hard as I could, I will likely not be playing Sen no kiseki III  anytime soon because (a) it's on PS4, not Vita, (b) meaning I would have to create a new PSN account so I can play the game since there’s no localized version yet, and (c) I’d rather play the latest Ys, which has a far superior combat system and manages to create a sense of epic scale despite deliberately limited geography and a much shorter playing time.

TL;DR: Recommended for hardcore fans of the Trails series or lovers of excellent JRPGs.

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This post brought to you by water!

Monday, November 13, 2017

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok is a rollicking prelude to Asgard's end times. Headlined by the power antlers of Hela (Cate Blanchett), goddess of death, utter destruction has never been so appealing. In his third movie, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is determined to stop her and save his people...because that's what heroes do.

Humor is the standout in Thor: Ragnarok. There are so many quotable lines ("I have been falling for thirty minutes!"), absurd exchanges, and just plain goofy moments, like Thor's attempt to smash a window with an exercise ball. Jeff Goldblum is a riot as the Grandmaster, and Korg (Taika Waititi) is ridiculous. Even Hela will pause her murder spree long enough to make a dry observation. This movie is lighthearted despite its high stakes, and a lot of that is because of its lead.

Thor is uncomplicated. He's Odinson, the god of thunder, next in line to the throne, and a hero. He's sure of himself and his place in the world, and is as swaggeringly confident here as he was in his first movie. He is single-minded in purpose; the many beatings he receives only strengthen his resolve to save Asgard. He's a lovable lunk who's worth rooting for.

The supporting characters are similarly stellar. Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is up to his old tricks, and he's such a fun character because the tiny bit of goodness and decency he still has sometimes makes his actions difficult to predict. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is, as always, a formidable ally. And Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) is a welcome addition to the team. Her memories of Hela's defeat of her sisters comprise the most gorgeous scene in the film:


A number of themes from Thor are present in Thor: Ragnarok: family, secrets, ambition, responsibility, and the use/abuse of power. But this time around, Thor's nemesis is seemingly undefeatable -- how do you win against the goddess of death? Especially when she's played with gusto by a scenery-chewing Cate Blanchett and her eyeliner? The answer makes sense, and now other parts of the Marvel universe will be embroiled in the consequences.

TL;DR: Thor: Ragnarok is fun! Highly recommended, 3D optional.

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This post brought to you by what feels like an early winter!

Movie Review: Black Panther (2018)