28 November 2012

#2LR - Game Review, "Final Fantasy XIII"

If anyone has been wondering where I've been for the most part, it's been a cocktail of "busy at work" plus "packing and cleaning for holiday" plus "five-day holiday visiting family including 18 hours of driving".  I am back though, and on tap is a few favorites including the Lord of the Rings trilogy plus The Muppet Christmas Carol.  I have also been watching "Soul Eater" recently through episode 10, though I'm not really able to collect enough thoughts for a blog post as of yet.  There's also a possible review in the offing of the latest "Pixar Shorts" collection, though I may put as much effort into the review as they put into the collection -- namely, very little.  However, I figured I'd take a page from Megane 6.7's book and delve into video game reviews.

While shopping at GameStop over the weekend, I scored one of the games that I've played through rentals and library lending... "Fortune Street", for Wii.  For a mini-review, it's quite like Monopoly except you have the Mario people and the characters from Dragon Quests from the NES years through DQ8 (Jessica, Angelo, young(??) Yangus).  There are a few differences between "Fortune Street" and Monopoly, namely that you can "buy houses" immediately, that anyone can buy you out for five times the current value of the property (including the value of the houses), and that you can now purchase stock which is computed via the values of the properties and the number of times players buy in / sell out stock in the same set of properties.  The other key to this game is that you have to get to certain spots on the board to "pass Go, collect $200", but the board is not an absolute straight line, it gives you options to go in different directions.  This game is a very good game for people who are into the "Tycoon"-type games and/or enjoy Monopoly.

But, you probably didn't click on this to find out my opinions of "Fortune Street".  At the same Gamestop, there was a sale on used games, buy two get one free.  After picking up "Fortune Street" and my wife finding a cheap copy of "Assassin's Creed", I also found a rather cheap copy of "Final Fantasy XIII".

I have a love-hate relationship with the series.  It stretches all the way back to the very first Final Fantasy, with my balanced team of Fighter, White Mage, Red Mage, and Black Mage.  Yes, I have exceedingly fond memories of the Bonk Branch.  I played Final Fantasy IV and VI, otherwise known here as FF2 and FF3 on Super Nintendo, and managed to beat them both.  Final Fantasy 3 was the game that I would rate as the best on SNES, with Crono Trigger coming in at a very close second.  Final Fantasy 7 was the whole reason that I purchased a Playstation.  FF7 also doubled as the last Final Fantasy game that I finished.  I played 10, 10-2, and 12 as well, bringing 10 all the way to the end but just not keeping enough interest in the game to finish it.

So, that's what brings me to Final Fantasy XIII.  I have only completed two hours of the game as of yet, and it happens to be the prologue... and it seems that I'm still in it.


What to say about the plot so far?  It's almost as if they took The Fugitive, crossed it with Saving Private Ryan, and even threw in young comic relief to boot, evoking a very vague and tenuous connection with the immortal Pauly Shore vehicle, In the Army Now.  The other thing that this has a tenuous connection to?  Itself.  All the plots don't really even touch each other yet.  There's what looks like a funkadelic 70's team, purely based on the semi-Shaft-like afro-and-goatee-wearing sidekick to the main protagonist, who happens to be a female version of Cloud Strife -- she's a former soldier (not from SOLDIER, mind you), and carries the sword in this game.  The second plot concerns a refugee from "Street Fighter" or "King of Fighters", a kind of cross between Ken Masters and possibly Clark Still (KoF/Metal Slug/Ikari Warriors).  Better yet, the dude fights with his fists and the occasional hand grenade.

The final set though is what sends it over the top.  In the middle of battle, we manage to find the last oblivious valley girl, Vanille.  She and "Hope" (Hope??) make up the final third of the plot for the time being.  Better yet, they take off and get lost -- just like In the Army Now!  Despite being oblivious to both the fighting all around them and having Hope force-feed her plot because of her denseness, Vanille happens to be the longest-charging but definitely most damage-inducing character.  She can bring down some of the tougher enemies all by herself in two turns, more than even Afro-dude can claim.

They managed to all find a floating temple.  What it is... I dunno.  What it does... I also dunno.  Plot is VERY thin in here, though the spot that I managed to find myself in (Ken-Clark "Terry" Bogard going through the temple) points to a very heavy Harry Potter-type influence, when the stairs and platforms all flop down at the flip of a switch.

[[Spoiler space closed.]]

The "Final Fantasy" series has been a long meditation on the ability of youth to overcome people wanting to gain power.  Youth, you see, has the ability to ignore their station in life and dares to change things that older people take as given.  In this series, it is very little different... there is always a slot for an older character (the various Cids, including from 4, 6, and 7, Auron, Balthier, all the way up to my buddy Strago,) but in this situation, it seems so far that this spot is Sazh's, and he needs a long way to go to live up to this lineage.

It'll be nice to get to the plot at some point too.  I feel almost as if I'm on the third prologue of a Clive Cussler book, where nothing really relates to anything else I've read up until now.  It's not as if I won't be joining a separatist movement though, that's a fairly familiar ground they've stamped out as well.

In the next installment, when I have much more studio space to explore, the topic will be how Final Fantasy occupies the opposite side of the spectrum from "The Elder Scrolls".  If one is like going to a new playground for the first time, the other is like living out the inside of an intricately-plotted movie.  You will bounce off a wall or two in Final Fantasy, but you know (or HOPE) that the writers within will make the journey worthwhile.

17 November 2012

Kind of quiet...

but there's a reason behind it.  Thanksgiving will be on 22 November, and we will be travelling about 500 miles to visit family for the season.  So, we've been busy getting the house into order prior to our departure, cleaning our vehicle, packing, and as for myself, fixing the back bicycle tire that was popped a couple days ago.

As a result, while there's a lot to get through and into, nothing's actually been accomplished.  I am unsure if the schedule will open up at all over the holidays either, but I will definitely get back into the reviewing swing soon.  Thanks for your patience!

13 November 2012

Assassin's Creed 3 & Series Review

Before I played Assassin's Creed 3, I decided to replay the first two games and speak of my experience with the entire series as a whole. I can't speak for the quality of any internet online play as I don't play online. (Warning: Some spoilers for all Assassin's Creed games follow...)

- ASSASSIN'S CREED: Okay, I admit the side quests in this game are repetitive but a good story and interesting visuals carries it through and the mechanics of leaping from rooftop to rooftop and up the walls was a whole lot of fun for me. Despite its repetitiveness, I still enjoyed replaying this.

- ASSASSIN'S CREED 2: Improves on the original in almost every way, great environment for a game, interesting to look at and explore, and it features a very strong and likeable protagonist and support cast for Desmond. Speaking of which, Desmond doesn't get a lot of story in this one but that's okay because Ezio Auditore's story is far more interesting anyway. The ending does tend to dismiss Ezio a bit as the story's focus goes back to Desmond for the final scenes but still this is overall, my favourite of the series and definitely worth checking out even if you haven't played the first game.

- ASSASSIN'S CREED: BROTHERHOOD: Now, unlike the first two installments, I didn't replay this or Revelations before playing Assassin's Creed 3, partly because I didn't want to be burned out too soon. But I have played Brotherhood through a couple of times before and I can say that I didn't enjoy it as much as 2. One of the main reasons for this was the introduction of the Full Synchronization gameplay mechanic... let's just say I HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT, HATE IT!!!

From this game on in the series, with every mission you do, you receive a score depending on whether you did certain things in a certain way or within a certain time limit, etc. You can complete these optional requests or ignore them, but if you ignore them, you are subjected to an obnoxious red coloured 'FAILED FULL SYNCHRONIZATION' message that made me feel like I failed the entire mission even when I succeeded.

I wouldn't have had as much of an issue with it if you could turn the mechanic off but since you CAN'T, it's extremely annoying to me and rather demoralizing after beating a tough mission only to get that 'FAILED FULL SYNCHRONIZATION' because I didn't finish the mission exactly the way the game wanted me to.

The second reason I hate this mechanic is because it hurts my overall immersion when I'm constantly reminded that I am, in fact, playing a game. Finally, one thing I admired about previous Assassin's Creed games was that how you went about completing an assassination was entirely left up to you with a variety of methods and approaches to use. Forcing you to do things a certain way or be subjected to the RED TEXT OF FAILURE destroys the feeling of complete freedom I had in previous games.

"Nothing is true, everything is permitted... but if you don't do it our way, you obviously SUCK!" ^_^;

- Now there were a few new elements added to Brotherhood, but for the most part, it felt more like an expansion than a sequel, despite its length, and near the end, I just wanted it to be over and done with as opposed to 2 where I couldn't wait to replay it and discover new things.

- The new Assassin Recruit mechanic was fun for a while and it was cool to see the ceremony that make them full fledged assassins but the whole mechanic gets too repetitive after a while and got more streamlined and pointless with the next two Assassin's Creeds.

- To be fair, Desmond's story does pick up more in this one and his supporting cast continue to be entertaining. There are a few exciting sequences for Eizo such as the chase through the church roof and he finally get to use an Apple to kick some ass, but ultimately, it wasn't enough for me to replay this title again.

- ASSASSIN'S CREED: REVELATIONS: I only played through this game once and frankly, that was enough. While I appreciate the fact that Revelations brought some closure to Altaïr and Ezio's stories, and gave a little more background into Desmond, the sequences on the beach with Subject 16 were just painfully dull and Ezio's world had more than worn out it's welcome by this point. Again, it tried a few new things and this time most of them were a complete bust. The bomb making was completely pointless, the vertical Tetris sequences were just stupid and punishing. Finally, the hook mechanic just seemed out of place somehow and I'm not surprised they dropped it.

And now we come to the latest game in the series...

- ASSASSIN'S CREED 3: We have a new ancestor for Desmond and a new setting to play in. For all my griping about Ezio's story and Italy getting old and tired by Revelations, he was still an interesting character and great fun to play as so any replacement for him would have their work cut out for them.

So we're introduced to Haytham Kenway, a well-spoken yet menacing character in a similar vein to Altaïr from the first Assassin's Creed. We follow this guy for the first few chapters, which has a slow and deliberate pace, too slow at times for my personal tastes, but it serves its purpose as we get to know the character or what we think we know of him.

Then abruptly there's an admittedly cool twist with Haytham that I didn't see coming, and before you know it, we end up getting introduced to a whole new character named Connor to play for the rest of the game. You know, cause that idea worked SO WELL for Metal Gear Solid 2. ^_^;

Now granted, Connor isn't nearly as whiny or annoying as Raiden but his character is so straight and rigid, it was hard to take him seriously and it hurt the story a lot. If there's one word I could use to describe Connor, it would be STIFF. You could argue that because English isn't his first language it would make sense that his English sounds stilted and wooden but if that's the case then it still hurts the story because it makes it nearly impossible for me to get into his character when he sounds like such a tool. Some of Connor's interactions with famous historical figures makes him seems more like Forrest Gump than the assassin he's supposed to be.

I honestly wish we'd stayed with Haytham for the entire story as playing a character from his point of view instead of the Assassins would've made for a compelling story and given an interesting and fresh new twist for the series.

Desmond is almost as bland as Connor, though that's the usual MO for him, and he's outshone once again by the supporting cast, especially Shaun who is undoubtedly the funniest character in this series. We are introduced to Desmond's father, William, voiced by John de Lancie, but unfortunately he isn't given much to do with the role. After one tense argument with Desmond early on that turns physical, he apologizes and... that's pretty much it. He mostly just stands there saying stuff like 'We have to get back to work' and expressing regret for being a bad father. It might have been more noteworthy has Desmond not met the fate he did in the game. Honestly, I felt it was kind of a waste.

- One thing I've always enjoyed about the Assassin's Creed series was the historical settings they took place in and the Revolutionary War, while not quite as interesting to me as the Italian Renaissance, is still compelling. The vast amount of detail and historical content given to you is amazing, especially with Shaun's hilarious snarky editorializing and blatant pro-British bias with his descriptions of various people, places and events. However, if you're not a history buff like me, you'll probably be unimpressed if not bored to tears by all the educational content here and it may be a bit too much for some people's patience if they prefer action above all. Also, I have to say that I was disappointed by the music in this game, especially compared to Jesper Kyd's scores in previous titles.

- Another thing that I'm seeing more and more that has me concerned and disappointed is the continuing trend of dumbing down sequels to popular game series in order to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Assassin's Creed 3 dives into this trap headfirst with simplified yet awkward controls and gameplay.

One glaring example of this is the Assassination Missions. In previous Assassin's Creed titles, you were given a mission to kill someone, the reason for the killing was explained to you in detail. Once the mission starts, you first had to track the target(s) down with your Eagle vision in a yellow circle and then you usually had to overcome some extra difficulties such as getting to the target behind a row of guards or killing them without being detected and/or you had to kill them within a certain time limit. It made for challenging and enjoyable gameplay.

In Assassin's Creed 3, you're told to kill five people. No reason is given other than they're Templars. You go to each target and... you kill them. No searching an area, no guards to get past or time limit to beat. You just kill them and you win. That's it. It's easier, yes, but it nowhere near as fun.

- Another one is combat, which is smoother and more dynamic than previous AC titles but a bit too easy at the same time once you've learned the enemies patterns and it won't take long, believe me. You can easily defeat almost any enemies you face right from the get-go and there's no armour to buy and very little variety in decent weapons. I ended up buying one sword and using it for the rest of the game along with my standard assassin blade. I think I fired my musket two or three times the entire game, and one of those was during a tutorial. The interface, despite being simplified, is more clunky than previous games as well switching around several of the controls that I'd gotten used to in previous AC titles and it just seems unnecessary.

- One of the new elements introduced in Assassin's Creed 3 is hunting, although really it's been done before in games like 'GUN' and 'Red Dead Redemption', though I will give AC3 credit for letting us SKIP the skinning animation unlike RDR. You investigate clues that enable you to determine if an animal is in the area to hunt, though really if you wander around these spots, you more often than not run into these animals casually sauntering by anyway.

You can then either be methodical with your trapping or just try to run them down and through with your blade. Some of the animals fight back, resulting in a quick time sequence to defend yourself or put them down. You skin the animal and sell its various parts for cash or for a scavenger hunt mini-game. I guess it does it's job and maybe it's just I have little interest in hunting animals but I lost interest in it quickly.

- Naval Missions were one of the best new additions to Assassin's Creed and I wish more had been done with it as it was a blast commanding my own ship and having sea battles blasting ships into splinters in both calm and rough weather. I was a little confused as to why I didn't earn any money for most of the missions though but regardless, this was my favourite new addition to the series and I hope this type of mechanic can be used again in future AC titles and expanded upon, rather than dumbed down for a change.

- Homestead Missions were just sort of there, not bad but not really interesting either. The characters were too one dimensional to get attached to with the exception of Achilles. Completing their missions gives you resources which you can buy and sell for money but I couldn't figure out how to get that mechanic to work for me more than once. The in-game manual provided is sketchy at best and needed a lot more fleshing out. Apparently the historical data got top priority. ^_^;

- Assassin Recruiting Missions the same as previous two AC titles except even more streamlined with no armour or weapons to buy and no ceremony when an assassin reaches his peak. It's just busywork, like most of the side missions I found.

- Abstergo, despite us being told over and over again in previous games how powerful they are and how they virtually control the world as it is, seems so bush-league, especially here. The character of Warren Vidic has always come off as a middle management villain at best and yet he continues to be the face of Abstergo and makes them look weak and pathetic.

I realize there was a reason why they were keeping Desmond alive for a while but once it was clear that things had gone wrong, Vidic should have called in death squads with machine guns and attacked the Assassins with everything they had. Instead we get more generic useless security guards with pistols that might be able to kill Desmond if you stand still long enough, not to mention the fact that they were using these pistols against Desmond earlier in the game BEFORE Vidic gave them authorization to kill him. Oops. ^_^;

- But even more pathetic than Warren Vidic is the newly introduced character of Daniel Cross. We are told that Daniel was a former Assassin turned Templar who nearly wiped out the Assassin Order in the past. However his best days are clearly behind him as when you meet him, he's a drunk screw up and virtually no threat to you at all, even armed. This may be a more original concept for a villain but it doesn't exactly make him a compelling adversary, especially when very little is told of him overall and you kill him later in the game almost as an afterthought. Honestly, he seemed more like filler than anything else. Maybe future DLC will explain him better but I really don't care at this point.

- Getting back to Desmond, his final confrontation with Vidic, while admittedly awesome from a badass and poetic justice point of view, was just so simple in its resolution that it was ridiculous. Likewise his final fate at the end of this game was almost comical in its casualness. The conflict he is confronted with is tense and compelling, make no mistake, but his reaction to it reaches almost David Duchovny levels of blasé. All jokes aside though, I truly believe the series lost something when Lucy was killed off and it never quite recovered.

Perhaps it's best the series start fresh with a new protagonist that's hopefully a little less bland, and an ancestor to follow that's a LOT less bland in future Assassin's Creed titles.

- Before I played Assassin's Creed 3, I heard people griping about the ending and I braced myself for another Mass Effect 3 disappointment but no, the story's ending did make sense and set up the next game well enough. There was a bit of a WTF moment at the very end of the epilogue missions but it ended up being another mini-game, this time earning cheats to use in replays of the game, so I doubt it was meant to be taken seriously.

- Now that I've talked about the game's mechanics for a while, there's something I need to address that further hampered my enjoyment, and that's the bugs. And there are a LOT of them.

This is probably the buggiest game in the entire AC series and despite installing the Day One Patch (and really, having a Day One patch is pretty telling in itself) the game crashed on me several times, the sound skipped in cut scenes and sometimes didn't play either music or voices at all, I actually fell through the floor in a couple of spots and there were a few infuriating moments when a mission simply refused to trigger due to a character or object not being where it was supposed to be and I had to run away from the area and then run back until it triggered or reset, which kinda takes me out of the whole experience. ^_^;

- Horse-riding was a great deal more frustrating than previous AC titles, I was constantly getting caught on scenery in town and in the wilderness, making my horse jiggle like crazy and become unresponsive until I had to leave him behind. Levels that involved racing through the forest became a real chore and I found myself running on foot more and more often, despite taking longer, because it simply wasn't worth the aggravation. I had similar problems with riding horses in Red Dead Redemption but this game took those frustrations to a whole new level.

- So, can I recommend this game? As a rental, probably, but as a buy? No, I really can't. It didn't have much replay value for me and while I did want to see the story through to the end, I didn't want to play anymore when it was over and I don't really care about any future DLC either. There are some bright spots to be sure, the Naval missions alone make it worth a rental and if you find the Revolutionary War period interesting, you'll probably get a big kick out of it and Shaun's snarky descriptions. Overall though, I feel there's simply too much wrong with this game to be something I want to add to my permanent collection.

10 November 2012

#2LR - The Hunger Games Plus Rifftrax

"Of course it's the Hunger Games, Woody Harrelson's got the munchies."

So, tonight's Too Late Review is of The Hunger Games, which was one of the movies that was the most highly anticipated of 2012.  (See, I can be semi-recent!)  As a bonus, tonight's entertainment was accompanied by the Rifftrax treatment of this film.  Warning, spoiler space IS below.

In the beginning, there was Artemis.  Oh, wait, wrong mythology.  In the beginning, there is Katniss.  She's already a crack shot with a bow, failing on a headshot to a deer but managing to nab a pigeon before the Empire of Panem's huge dirigible comes flying overhead.  We get to meet Gale, her mother, and Primrose through the next couple scenes, and then comes the Reaping.

The Reaping is really a big national lottery for contestants to play "The Hunger Games", a reality show that has nothing, really, on The Challenge.  As the literal sacrifices submit to nationwide DNA sequencing and likely fingerprinting (one of the few good ideas that this show produced, if that's what was in the book), they all stand in the town square in their Sunday best to see if their names get picked out of a fishbowl.  If they do, they get to participate in this reality show, where the winner is the one that remains alive.  Subsequently, you find out that the fishbowls can allow for choices ranging from eight-year-old girls to twenty-something men, which makes for really awesome battles n' stuff.  (This was *all the kids* from the *entire district*?  There'll be like a population of about 500 people in a couple short decades.  This is NOT how to grow your labor force.)

Anyway, Katniss' younger sister Primrose is pulled from the fishbowl on her very first chance.  That's when we find out that they actually do allow for volunteers, and that "Katniss is the first" from District Twelve.  Really?  In seventy-four years, there's not been one psychopathic teenage boy that was told that if he volunteered he'd get food AND the chance to kill other people?  Afterward, Peeta ('cause, see, he makes bread.  Peeta... bread... whoo) gets chosen as well, but as near as I could tell I hadn't even seen him up through now.

They clamber aboard the Shinkansen where they meet up with Foppish Lizzie Banks and Woody Harrelson, method acting because... well, I really imagine Woody acts just like this in real life, so I suppose it's not really acting.  Woody's now Peeta and Katniss' mentor because at some point in the past he won the Hunger Games, as near as I can tell.  He's pretty clearly self-medicating, though the movie thankfully skips his backstory for the time being.

When the get to the capital.... ehh, it was boring until they found Lenny Kravitz hanging out being a fashion designer.  Kravitz manages to get Katniss and Peeta into a couple spare X-Men black jumpsuits (or perhaps the one Scarlett wore for The Avengers after hosing the Jeremy Renner stench from it).  The movie CGIs in some false flames behind them, while the crowd oohs and ahhs.  As if they hadn't tried this fashion before... it looked like Whoville exploded in there as it was.

The contestants are whisked around for interviews with Katniss busting out the false flames again, this time next to flammable furniture as well as what looked like a highly flammable television presenter.  I couldn't quite figure out if the movie intended for the viewers to think that those were real or an effect of the clothes themselves.  Afterward, the contestants all have to impress a bunch of nattering rubes.  The contestants had a bunch of training dummies set up in front of them, and the chatty bunch were up above on a sort of balcony-type apparatus.  The very instant that it was shown that there were no windows, you could tell what was going to happen next... Katniss, the bird-killer, would definitely wow them by shooting a target in amongst all the people.  When the stereotypical pig with apple showed up... it was almost like staring deeply into a screenwriter's soul.  See, I was almost wishing that there was a dude with a cigarette, almost like the "Whip It" video, but with arrows instead of a whip.

As Woody keeps harping to Katniss about sponsors, before you know it... or, really, sixty-five minutes into the movie... they actually get ready to *have* The Hunger Games.  Everyone's flown out to the Killin' Woods, they all man a Jetsons tube, and finally we get to see them cull the cast.  Within the Games themselves, about half the contestants die within ten minutes.  Then the Games completely lose all that momentum as all the contestants either band together in alliances of convenience or go completely to ground to hide from everyone.

So, with that being said, what does everyone DO during this time?  If this thing is in a kill-dome as they intimated, where do the wild animals for them to cook come in from?  Is this all being carried live, or is this shown highly edited on tape delay?  So, about ten minutes into the Hunger Games part of The Hunger Games, people with highly advanced computers create fireballs to shoot at everyone, and Katniss ends up getting hit.  After about two seconds of sucking on her lip to pretend-hurt and developing a less than half-assed limp, she gets found by the main alliance of do-baddies and gets treed just as surely as Santa Claus did.

In the meantime, there's cameras everywhere and Woody finally decides to get undrunk enough to want to help Katniss.  (Didn't she have sponsors though?)  He manages to get One-Day Majic Burn Salve parachuted directly to her tree.  After Katniss' thigh heals, for some reason the eight-year-old girl who got chosen from one of the other districts is in a nearby birch.  What are the odds?  (And why the HELL did she show up right next to the camp of do-baddies?)  The girl points out the Death Wasps <TM> on a higher limb and Katniss cuts them down, getting stung in the process.  The do-baddies are routed and the ones left alive run.

Katniss hallucinates another flashback (they're everywhere in this film) and comes back to hear the eight-year-old tell her that she's been out for two days (?!?!).  This prompts that question above... if the Hunger Games are televised live, they must SUCK, and I can't imagine how the play-by-play guy and the color announcer fill all that dead time.  Additionally, I reject that they'd let her lie there for two days instead of sending more fireballs, AND I reject that the girl managed to hide herself AND a comatose Katniss from the do-baddies for such a long time too, especially since there weren't that many people left.

Katniss and the girl hatch a cockamamie plan to blow up the supply depot that the do-baddies are guarding and Katniss allows the girl to decoy everyone with a series of bonfires.  If you knew there were explosives around the supplies, why not just try to decoy the do-baddies into running into the minefield?  Absent that, why not just try to activate the minefield while the do-baddies were nearby, so they'd get just as shaken from the explosion as you got?  (Did you know, by the way, that when one mine goes off that they ALL go off at the same time?  After all, why bother trying to demine a field anymore because if you hit one, they all explode shortly afterward?)

After the girl gets speared in the gut and Katniss shoots the spearer dead, she ends up next to another stream and manages to find Peeta... how is a mystery, just like it's a mystery how he managed to find both camouflage netting and a good enough mirror to do a full makeup job on his face to blend in perfectly with the rock right next to him.  It turns out that he got injured something fierce too... and Katniss manages to find the best cave in the whole forest, right next to the water, where a pair of lovebirds can snuggle while everyone up top fights for supremacy.  But she ends up leaving anyway to get more magic salve for Peeta's leg, almost dying in the process.

Toward the end, Woody Harrelson's changing as many of the rules as he can while Katniss and Peeta run away from bulldog panthers that the computers can create.  So, WHOA.  If your computers can create bulldog panthers that end up taking out Ivan Drago's illegitimate son at the end with their very real teeth, why can they not mine in District Twelve, do the farming everywhere, etc.?  Only by reading the Wikipedia article do I get the idea that these mutated animals are real, just released in strategic points in the forest.  That begs another question, why didn't this country just do human experimenting with their mutation skills to get workers that they needed?  It's not as if they have that many more scruples.  Once Drago Ivanovich gets eated up by the bulldog panthers, the bulldog panthers saunter off peaceably, and Katniss and Peeta are left to commit double suicide.  The games get called with two winners, everyone goes home, the end.

--spoiler space over, review below--

Whew.  The Hunger Games won, and my suspension of disbelief has been speared through, knifed, burned, and left for dead.  I know that the movie does not equal the book, but I can unquestionably say that The Hunger Games series of books is not one that I will be reading anytime soon based on... well, this.  I try my hardest to try to pull a message, thoughts, or anything else from what I see and hear in movies and anime... and while I can see the author saying, "See?  This is what happens when you get too callous!", it's just... well, non-effectual.  There's just too many holes for me to get lost in.  I need a tighter narrative, one where things aren't getting telegraphed and where I'm not getting sidetracked wondering why the holy hell the do-baddies didn't set a watch for Katniss while she was up the tree, nor why they didn't attempt to just smoke her out (or burn the tree), or so many other unexplained things.

My rating for this movie is a dismal 1.4.  If the screenwriters are this lazy in many regards, I'm not going to go out of my way to do their work for them.  I suppose someone could accuse me of missing spots due to the Rifftrax, but I was not exactly emotionally invested in this movie regardless.

The rifftrax, though, was good.  Mike, Bill, and Tom did a good job of filling in the dead time with riffs, and they had more than a couple good zingers.  It's not my all-time favorite Rifftrax, but I would get the movie based solely on being able to see the Rifftrax again.

My rating for the Rifftrax version of the movie is 2.7

08 November 2012

#2LR - Too Late Reviews - "Working'!!" Season 2

  In the first series of "Working!!", the regional manager of the Wagnaria restaurant, Otoo, enters the scene every few episodes or so.  There's actually two reasons that he's out and about so often.  One is that, well, he's a regional manager for what is presumably a franchise restaurant, so he's probably at the other franchises inspecting their books as well.  As a reason, this works perfectly fine... but the show operates on two levels, so there's another reason he's in view occasionally.  The other reason is that Otoo's searching for his lost wife.

  After watching this whole series, I feel that Otoo's character and motivations do a very good job of summing up the two-pronged approach of the whole series.

  The first prong is that there is a mundane reason and a wacky reason to everything in the show.  The manager Kyoko can't work because she's lazy... but she's also a glutton that manages to suck down ice-cream sundaes pretty much four-an-hour yet it's never reflected in her figure (nor, for that matter, does her face ever get dirty).  The floor manager Yachiyo is pretty much the sweetest person in the show, excepting possibly Popura... but carries a katana on her at all times and manages to scare the customers.  Souta, the head chef, is aloof and maintains an extremely cool exterior, but in one of the more relatable "wacky" reasons, pines after Yachiyo and is not collected enough to ask her out.  The other cook, Souma, always has a smile on his face yet manipulates people and delights in their misery.

  The trick to all of this is to be able to balance the mundane and the wacky so that there's enough wacky to balance out the mundane, but that there's not too much wacky to make it non-relatable.  I really do believe that the show does a terrific job in this balance, and I felt that it delivered at least one or two laughs per episode for me.  I quite enjoyed the relationship between Souta and Popura, and despite the fact that Takanashi's "quirk" is a bit on the skeevy side (which many of the characters comment on), he's still sympathetic enough to be a good protagonist.

  Which brings me to the second prong of the show's approach.  Otoo's search for his wife in season one of "Working!!" is paralleled by another introduced character in season two of "Working'!!".  The character's name is Yamada, which happens to be the same surname chosen by the new character alluded to in the second review of season one.  The new Yamada is looking for his sister, and one of the episodes details Souma's travels with the female Yamada in trying to throw the male Yamada off of her scent.

  I bring this up because the show is continually searching for family.  There are already families depicted, Takanashi's specifically, and in a couple of appearances, Inami's family as well.  However, the blood family relationships are not all smooth; Inami's wacky reason, her androphobia, is caused by her father specifically. Takanashi's older sister Kozue creates the most strife for him outside the house, as she will come to the Wagnaria restaurant in order to drink alcohol and embarrass Takanashi (and make him pay for it).  This isn't to say that Takanashi and Inami hate their family, but just that the most friction for them comes from these sources.

  However, and possibly unlike "The Office", the employees of the Wagnaria restaurant seem to coalesce into a family.  Takanashi risks life and limb to help Inami with her challenges, Popura bears the brunt of the teasing with exceedingly good cheer, which helps the other employees with their stresses, and the restaurant continues to run with older brother Souta as the anchor in the kitchen.  It's almost as if the show is saying that while you may be looking for pieces of your family elsewhere, you never know where you might find more of your family... such as in the "family restaurant" Wagnaria.

  This show was absolutely in my sweet spot, and I will give it a 3.8.  As stated above, "Working!!" has enough of real life in it to be relatable but enough humor in it to be really funny.  It's also got soul in the under-the-surface family struggles and triumphs.  The best part is that when I go to rewatch episodes of "Working!!", no matter which season, I could pick any episode and I would be able to enjoy it immensely, rather than rewatching two or three really good episodes without watching the rest of the so-so episodes.

  A couple last notes, one on-topic and the other not.

  --Matsumoto, the silent waitress, gets lines in the finale of season two.  It makes me wonder if this show goes to a season three whether or not this will be a running joke, that she'll only be seen until the last show and then heard only on the finale.

  --In the course of the past couple days, I've had my back bicycle tire go flat (my main transportation to work, even now in November) and my email hacked by someone who sent virus links to my contacts and deleted the contacts shortly afterward.  I thought that I'd finally escaped the majority of my recent stress because a major project that'd been running since August had been completed last week... but the project resurfaced again on Wednesday.  My sincerest apologies if you happened to get an email from the person in Peru with the bogus links, and thank you for your patience as I try to get things back to an even keel.

03 November 2012

#2LR - "Working!!'" Season 2, episodes 1-6

Stories, in any medium, run on conflict.  After all, there can be no resolution to a story that doesn't have something to resolve.  Since stories and television shows only have a limited amount of "studio space", this means that the characters pretty much have to bring the conflict to the table.

This means that there are only a couple different characters that pretty much act as blank slates.  The first type, practiced for millennia, are the straight men.  The straight man is a blank slate mostly because he or she has to be normal in order to show the vast gulf of difference between a random person and the madcap zany main character (say, your Jim Carreys or your Jerry Lewises).  Giving the straight man any quirks not only takes away from the camera time of the zany half of the duo, but it lessens the gulf between them and gradually normalizes the zany main character.

Another type of blank-slate character has been practiced for ages, but has shot up in popularity quite a bit in recent times.  Having the main protagonist as the blank slate allows the protagonist to be humanized in much the same way as the straight man, and allows your readers to connect to the story easier, almost being able to subsume their characteristics into the main character and therefore live out the story.  The Harry Potter series does a very good job of this, introducing a main character that's so hard put upon by his family that in the beginning, the character is pretty much "different from everyone else" and "not at all like the loathsome people around him", and oh by the way "has a secret talent that no one knows about".  If that doesn't describe more than 90% of humanity, I'm shocked.

Today's ode isn't about either one of them.

Today, I want to sing the praises of the ignored background characters.  The ones who chew up eight minutes of screentime shooting at Captain America, keeping him pinned down and unable to help Iron Man.  The ones who get sent on away missions purely to act as cannon fodder, to allow the stakes to rise for Captain Kirk to come up with a more dramatic decision later.  The ones who are surprised when the Nazgul ride up and end up knocking down the walls of their village.

There's a variant at work here in the second season of "Working!!'"  To begin, the characters are arrayed with two primarily running the food prep in the kitchen, and four (Takanashi, Poplar, Inami, and Todoroki) running the floor.  A fifth character is added, Yamada -- this was alluded to in the previous review -- who also works the floor.  A *sixth* character, Takanashi's younger sister Nazuna, even pitches in on occasion.

The problem though is that there's conflict to be had, and while Takanashi is the primary protagonist of the show, he has his own quirks and hangups and definitely does not qualify as a blank-slate character.  As a result, the show introduced another character in Ep. 13 of the first season and gave her a couple quick lines. Matsumoto desperately wanted to be "normal" (a new one, a yearning to *be* a blank slate?) but was given a quirk anyway, of being clumsy.  Even with the quirk and even with the lines, through six episodes she can be seen only when the animators wanted to show the restaurant running "as normal", and for some reason one of the other six characters just can't be bothered to go out on the floor.

The oddest thing is that the floor is the only way you see her.  She does not show up even a second in any of the character conversations, not even as scenery.  She's not even anywhere near the kitchen window to pick up food, or drying dishes, cleaning the back rooms, on break... nothing.

I don't quite think that it's boredom on my part that I really enjoy seeing these random characters... on the contrary, I can only imagine how much richer the show could be if these random characters were allowed to grow their own quirks and idiosyncrasies.  After all, if not for characters who start as new but gain familiarity, how would stories in that specific setting even take place?  (Such as Lord of the Rings generating from a character that didn't even exist in The Hobbit?)  In Matsumoto's case, is this significant in that we see people "at work" all the time but without the connection of work, they wouldn't exist otherwise?  Or should I even attempt to read so much into it?

With all that said, I quite enjoyed the first half of the second season of "Working!!".  They pumped up Takanashi's quirks to put more conflict into the show, and that definitely helped the proceedings.  They gave more screen time to the manager, who evidently runs a gang on the side, as well as Takanashi's sisters.  Takanashi gets his foot into his mouth far more as well, and while it's sometimes really jarring to see him act so differently in five minutes than he acted in the previous twelve episodes, it does help a viewer to realize that he's not head-and-shoulders above the fray, he's an active participant in the scrum.

The final seven episodes await, and so far I have not been disappointed... except, I suppose, in meeting Matsumoto and figuring out how she enters into the equation.  (Null set, I'd guess.)