Thursday, February 28, 2013

Review: Far Cry 3

I love truly open world games.  I love any game that gives me the impression that if it gives me a goal and an idea of where I can find the location of said goal, it trusts me enough to come up with:

  • A way of locating the destination.
  • A plan to achieve the goal.
  • The skill to accomplish my plan.
Many games don't have that faith in their player base, and I often find myself thinking "man, wouldn't it be sweet if the game designers had done X" or "y'know, if I had more freedom, I would've used that background object to do Y."

Every now and again a game comes along allowing me to do whatever I can imagine doing with whatever happens to be lying around.  One of my favorites is Saints Row 3, which abandons almost all pretenses of having a story and rewards you for whatever you feel like doing during the time you're playing.

Want to drive around town with a ferocious tiger in the passenger seat?  You'll be rewarded.  Want to pick a fight with a Japanese game show mascot?  There's a reward for that.  Want to just strip naked and run around the streets terrifying old people?  Yup, there's a reward for that.  But, I'll give the game a deeper look later.

For now, we're going to look at a game that's a bit more recent:  Far Cry 3.


When I first heard they were making this game, I got really excited, because I was a pretty big fan of its predecessor, Far Cry 2.  I never played the original, but the huge open world the previous game gave blew my mind, and it felt like I was trying to maneuver through what really was a small nation.  The only other game that felt larger was Just Cause 2, but again, that's another blog post.

Far Cry 3 takes place on a small tropical island (Rook Island, if I remember correctly), where you, the main character, and your brothers and friends have found yourselves captured by a human traffickers.  You manage to escape, and vow to save your friends and take down the bad guys.  Overall, a pretty simplistic formula, one that wouldn't really be out of place in a Mario Brothers game. Where Far Cry 3 makes it special, though, is in three areas.

The first is the idea that you actually need to learn skills in order to survive.  If this were any other game, I'd be coming into gameplay with some remedial combat ability already under my belt, perhaps some basic military training or some hand to hand from living on the tough streets.  "No, no, no," this game says teasingly to you within the opening sequence, "you're a spoiled rich white kid who might be able to throw a single punch but knows nothing about real combat."

Now, you do simply pick up new skills as you "level up," but it is nice to see that the character is as inexperienced in life or death combat as I am, and as he progressed I felt like I was getting a better grip on the game myself.  I wouldn't try to pick a gun fight with a group of pirates in the real world, but seeing someone who has to stumble and trip as he runs away from bullets become someone who moves through the trees like a dangerous jungle spirit, picking off bad guys one by one before anybody realizes something is wrong is quite a satisfying feeling.  I'd find myself traveling through areas I already completed in order to get to the next destination, and I'd smile thinking how difficult it was then and how much I improved.

Now, this ties directly into the second thing that drew me deeper and deeper into the game, and that's the main character's mindset.  When the game starts, you have exactly two goals: save your friends, kill the bad guy.  However, the game pulls you in deeper, presenting a plot about the native tribe being chased to near extinction, a legend of a brave (white, of course) warrior who removes evil from the island, and a criminal enterprise much bigger than you originally anticipated.

Instead of just going "well, your goals have changed, now kill more people," Far Cry 3 makes you want to take on the additional missions.  Every encounter with one of the main villains, Vaas, left me more and more convinced that the man simply had to die.  While the edges of my character's sanity started to crumble as stress, pressure, and various hallucinogenic drugs wore him down, I could feel my own determination take deeper root.  Not only my character, but I would not be content until Vaas' dead body was at my feet.

"Have I ever told you the definition of insanity?"
It wasn't until shortly before my character himself started to realize what he was becoming that I stepped back, and went "wait, how did I get to where I am now?  I remember point A, and then a lot of amazing scenery, and suddenly I'm at point Q."  But as I retraced my character's steps and the events that happened to him, I suddenly became concerned for my own character's sanity.  I was trapped in a spiral, one from which I wasn't sure my character would ever be able to come back from.

Now, in some games (I'm looking at the God of War series), the motivation for the main character wading into a crowd and destroying everything that breathes loses a bit of value after the first game.  In Far Cry 3, you still knew that almost every person you met was going to try to kill you unless it was a friend or a freedom fighter, and you had to kill them first.  Things got worse for me, but I was still helping get my friends free from a terrible fate.  I just wasn't sure my character would be able to come back after everything he did, and I always wanted to see what happened next.

The last thing that kept me going was the fact that, with very few exceptions, the game allowed me to complete my missions as I wanted to complete them.  Liberating villages from pirates or catching and killing wild animals could be as basic as picking a few select guns and heading into combat, or I could employ stealth and take out my targets before they knew what happened.  If I felt like mixing it up while liberating a village, I could free wild animals (which sometimes came back to hurt me when, say, a bear that took out every single bad guy would then start hunting me down), or I'd decide the best way to take out a pack of wild dogs in a grassland was to light the entire place on fire with a flame thrower and let a nice cross breeze do all the hard work.

Now, certain story moments require you to do some things in a more basic manner.  A few particular bases you have to get into don't allow much in the way of "sending a few suicidal cassowaries in first to soften everybody up."  You can still employ stealth, however, hiding in the shadows while a group of troops run past and picking off the guy in back.  There were also a few moments where I'd spend five or ten minutes marking where every bad guy in a village was so I could sneak in and empty it before an alarm could be raised, just to have a large, dangerous wild animal wander in and wipe everybody out.



Why the villages didn't do a better job in building walls to keep out jaguars and tigers, I'll never know.

Once I got to a certain point in the game, it was very rare that I died, and more often than not my death was usually due to my own mistakes.  I lost track of the number of times I leaped off of a cliff expecting to land in a river below just to go "oh, wait, there's a ledge about fifty meters down" and promptly have my feet and my spine try to occupy the same place.  Other times I'd snipe a target and then slide down a hill to get away from gunfire just to land in a nest of komodo dragons.  I'd swim down to get treasure from the ocean floor, just to surface and find myself surrounded by shark fins.

I'm not a very good survivalist, or good at looking before I leap, I guess is my point here.

The graphics are outstanding and provide some of the most beautiful visuals I've seen in a game, the voice acting and script are top-notch with no moments where you're left wondering why a character said something either the way he did or just in general.  There's plenty of hidden secrets planted around the map to explore and discover, and overall it was probably one of my favorite games of 2012.

I recommend everybody try it, just be prepared for your mind to start thinking about going down paths you never really thought about before.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Ask Erik: Episode Eight

Here at Ask Erik, we realize there are questions that are so important, so integral to our culture that they need to be addressed in a forum outside the public eye, where honesty can be delivered in such a way as to be able to infiltrate society, plant its roots, and start a revolution.

And then there's questions about nerdy stuff that are just there to have fun with.



Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Reviewing is Magic: Episode 12

Let's talk about everybody's favorite character to hate: Scrappy-Doo.


I don't know a single person who loves this character.  Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, Scooby, sure.  I even know people who like Scooby-Dumb.  Hell, I'm a big fan of Vincent Price's character in 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (less to do with the show, more to do with the fact it's Vincent Price).

But man, Scrappy-Doo.

It's a little known fact that, if it hadn't been for this character, odds are there would be no more Scooby-Doo cartoons at all.  Viewership was slumping, the studios were debating pulling the plug, but at close to the last minute the show decided to add Scrappy to the cast, and kids loved the little rascal.  He got to be every child watching the show who knew that it wasn't a real ghost...but as people got older, the character simply got more annoying.

He would pick fights against creatures much bigger than him.  He would literally carry Shaggy and Scooby into dangerous situations without thought of what might happen.  He got drunk once in Tahoe and hit on Daphne before throwing up in the Mystery Machine.

Okay, maybe not that last one, but it couldn't make people hate him any more if it did.

How bad did it get?  Well, besides the fact that Scrappy-Doo turned out to be the (spoiler alert) villain of the first Scooby-Doo movie, trying to actually kill the main cast and steal their souls for no reason...unless you count the fact that they deserted him on the side of a road with a good chance he'd die...



There's also the fact that recent re-releases of series and movies that used to feature him prominently have been edited to reduce the number of scenes he appears in.

I mean, seriously, were there any MORE annoying characters that appeared in the Scooby-Doo franchi-


...well played.

So, we've established that it's not easy to bring in a relative to an established character, much less have them be popular.

So, let's take a look at Apple Bloom, Applejack's sister on My Little Pony.

The twelfth episode starts at the school for young ponies (foals? fillies?) learning about cutie marks (a topic I'm going to address further in another column), and we get one brief terrifying moment where we experience what happens when 80s fashions enter this universe.


We learn, through exposition by the most nasally-voiced, nerdy young pony I hope we ever have to suffer through, that a cutie mark appears when a pony realizes what it is that makes them special.  Apple Bloom, tragically (I guess) is one of the only kids in her class who doesn't have one yet, which makes her a target of ridicule amongst the other young ponies.


You remember Apple Bloom, right?  She was the kid who went off on her own to figure out what Zecora's deal was back when we covered zebra racism.

Anyway, Apple Bloom (and other "blank flank" nerd girl) is invited to a big party celebrating a classmate getting her mark, and she immediately goes home to complain to her older sister about how unfair life is.  Apple Jack tries to explain that she was the last one in her class to get a cutie mark, as was Big Macintosh and Granny Smith (you see how names work in this family?), which just depresses Apple Bloom further since it's apparently hereditary, like baldness or liking ugly cars.

Hope springs, however, when she realizes that everybody in her family has a talent involving apples, so if she helps out more maybe she can rush the discovery of her own mark.

Cut ahead to the next day when Apple Bloom is earnestly trying to help her sister sell apples at what I can only presume is the farmer's market in town.  Things go awr-


Oh, right, I need to mention this guy.  This is Time Turner whose sole job in town is apparently to turn over hourglasses.  However, because of a push by the fandom, Hasbro actually went and changed his name.  To what, you might ask?


So yeah, all of you Dr. Who fans out there, it appears we have a "canon" time lord in My Little Pony.  His description in the mobile game even states he deals with the "timey wimey stuff."  Don't think of it as simply the show being silly, think of it as a gateway show to get kids interested in the live action stuff.

And who knows, maybe we'll get an episode where Dr. Hooves actually gets to time travel and save the world.  Or maybe it'll just happen in the comic book, but I think those are supposed to be in continuity as well, s-

Okay, I'm wandering off track, where were we?  Oh, right.

Apple Bloom, in true "younger sibling" mode, manages to make a mess of things and causes Applejack to have to give away most of her apples just to make people happy.  She gets sent along to invite her ultra-nerdy friend to go to the party with her, sort of a "no cutie mark" group only to find that in the space of 24 hours, super-nerd got a cutie mark.

I'm not italicizing that just for effect. The show actually reveals the new cutie mark with a dramatic tone, as if it was showing a hockey mask and Freddy Kreuger sweater instead of just two peppermint sticks shaped like a heart.

So Apple Bloom winds up in the care of Rainbow Dash, who comes up with the brilliant idea of "making" the cutie mark appear by trying "as many things as possible as fast as possible" to locate that special talent.

In a rapid montage (one that's only missing a voice exclaiming Apple Bloom is "the best around and nothing's ever going to keep her down") we get to see Apple Bloom's attempts at: juggling, hang gliding, karate, kite flying, roller derby...

...waitEquestria has roller derby?

...I know I say this a lot, but this reality these characters exist in is insane.

So yeah, that doesn't pan out.  Nor does Pinkie Pie's attempts to help Apple Bloom earn a mark in "cupcake making," or Twilight's attempts at magically "forcing" one to appear.

Apple Bloom (through a transition I don't really understand) winds up at the party despite deciding it would be best to not show up,  She attempts a sneaky escape just to be foiled at the exit by the arrival of Applejack.  An attempt to bluff having a cutie mark is ruined, and right when we're about to get some harsh teasing from her classmates (girls can be so cruel)...



Two more "blank flanks" appear!  And who are these two, you might ask!  Well, on the left is Sweetie Belle, Rarity's little sister, and on the right is Scootaloo (I have no idea what that name comes from), who is...um... well, she hangs out with Rainbow Dash, but... ....y'know, I don't think they've introduced a single family member for her yet.   ...that's kinda dark, actually.

There's a brief speech about how not having a cutie mark doesn't mean you're no longer special.  Instead, it simply means that not having a mark shows that there's nothing but potential from any pony, and that they could grow up to be a farmer, a tailor, or a mayor of a city.  The same mark that proves the uniqueness and individuality of a character also limits the character in that they probably won't be able to suddenly change their mind and quit being a banker once they hit their midlife crisis and suddenly become a scuba diver.  Once you have your mark, that's it.  You're done.

...okay, I'm getting into my analysis of marks that I'm saving for another episode, so let's cut back to what's happening.

The three kids decide to become best friends and thus we have born the "Cutie Mark Crusaders," and we'll be seeing more of them later.

So.

Does Apple Bloom fall under the category of our other, more hated character mentioned in this article?  Does she, in fact, fall under the category of "The Scrappy" as presented by TV Tropes?

Honestly, I don't think so.

See, what ticked me off about Scrappy the most when I watched him was that there were never any repercussions for his actions.  Whether he got Shaggy and Scooby into trouble, tried to pick a fight with anything from an alligator to a bull to a "monster," he never learned anything.  He stayed constant, without growth, and unchanging.  Some things, like his love and faith in his "Uncle Scooby" were touching, but so much was wrong and something that another character really needed to sit down and talk to him about that it made me loathe what he was stuck as.

This show, however, is all about change and character growth.  Apple Bloom starts the show convinced that she's an outsider because she didn't have something that made her unique (which, ironically enough, did make her unique), just to realize that what separated her from a lot of other characters connected her to ones she never knew.  Apple Bloom does learn important lessons from her actions, and while some things will stay constant (the desperate hunt for a mark), she develops in other ways.

So, let's break it down, something I didn't do last time after my big focus on music.

The Good:

Apple Bloom really is a fun character, and while I can't think of many children who would plant apples in someone's bag and "hint" that they "didn't just magically show up there" before demanding payment isn't something many children would do, there's enough to the character that lets you realize this is a "young" character besides design.  Her deep breaths before explaining how her world is coming to an end because of a cutie mark, her single-minded focus on getting what she wants, broken up only be the mention of cupcakes, reminds me of a lot of children I knew growing up.  I approve of this character.

Plus, as we all know by now, I find anything that breaks down the rules of how this universe works to be fascinating, so the introductory lecture about how "cutie marks" happen in the first place was like sitting in a college lecture course.  Some notes might have been taken for future reference, just in case there's a quiz.

The Bad:

Some of the transitions on the show need work.  The fact that Apple Bloom, without moving, is suddenly in the middle of a party after talking to someone in another room is very poorly explained (I mean, sure, she was just in the next room, but we never see her leave the room).  I also rather lost track of just how much time passed between the start of the episode and the end of the episode, since at one point someone mentions trying to achieve a mark "in an afternoon" but I was convinced that at least a day went by.

Also, we'll get into this later, but I'm going to put it out right now:  Who the heck are Scootaloo's parents, and where are they?

Oh, and we also had one brief showing of Snails.  I wish the show had forgotten he exists.

While I do enjoy learning about the world, some things just left me with more questions.  One unicorn with a safety pin for a mark spent time doing nothing but popping balloons.  So, having a sharp horn makes him really unique?   That's it?  Or is he supposed to be the greatest there is at changing diapers in a hurry, or something?


Overall:

A solid episode, not my favorite, but not one I think needed a lot of work.   It helped flesh out multiple characters, some of whom we've seen before in background shots, others of whom are brand new, and even a couple who had speaking parts in other episodes.  Our usual main characters really took a back seat in this one to let issues around the rest of the village rise.

Plus, how can anyone not like an episode that establishes that horses don roller skates and beat the tar out of each other?  That's just brilliant, right there.


Monday, February 25, 2013

Review: Argo

Last week I came to the conclusion that I was putting off seeing certain movies for too long, and decided to sit and actually watch some of the ones that were making major headlines.  I had other blog posts prepared, but will have to adapt them accordingly for the rest of the week because one of the movies I just watched had the nerve to go and win Best Picture last night.  I mean seriously, off all the nerve.

So, here it is, my review of the movie Argo.



Now, we all know I love period pieces, those stories of a particular headline or moment in history plucked free from the river of time and placed in front of us with a spotlight on it.  Argo is certainly one of these movies, to a certain extent, but not a documentary since it's been well-established that certain parts of the story were "enhanced," since six people simply getting on a plane and leaving Iran with no troubles makes for a pretty boring movie.

Now, if I look at Argo for what it is, a "based on a story" movie, I can appreciate it much more than if it was being portrayed as an actual documentary.  There's another movie that was nominated, Zero Dark Thirty, which seemed to be trying to follow the same lines as Argo but, at least to me, came across as much more "documentarian" than Argo was in the ads and in the stories about it.

Of course, it's also hard to picture Ben Affleck directing an actual documentary, as opposed to Kathryn Bigelow.  He makes great dramas, but there's just something more "gritty" about her work.

Acting-wise, everybody in Argo gets the job done, some people better than others.  I was willing to accept Ben Affleck in the lead role, but the two people who shined most for me were John Goodman and Alan Arikin as the Hollywood crew he brings in on his mission.  There's a moment in the movie when a character exclaims "This is the part where we're supposed to say it's so crazy it just might work?"  Goodman and Arkin reached the same conclusion much earlier in the film, but know that, crazy or not, it really is the only chance the hostages have, so they go all out, having fun as they go.



Watching them, however, you pick up on a certain pleasant resentment (if such a thing is possible) towards the very industry they're part of.  They know all of the loopholes to get around problems in Hollywood, and while they aren't key players anymore, they have the connections to pull strings.  Both characters have seen it all and are long since disillusioned with the magic of Hollywood, but neither would ever dream of abandoning it.

As the joke about the actor shoveling elephant dung at the circus ends, "What, and leave show business?"

The scenes in Iran are tense, even though we know going in what happens to the six hostages.  To be honest, what I found most compelling were the looks at the people around the six hostages, seeing a country and culture so incensed at the United States that, not only does the hatred continue to this day (if the media is to be believed), but that they would be willing to blame every individual American for what happened.

Try as I might to imagine it, I don't think I could ever hate an entire country of people so much that I'd want to see every man, woman, and child die.  I didn't blame Iraq for the actions of Saddam, I didn't blame Afghanistan for the actions of Osama Bin-Ladin.  I don't blame Muslims as a whole for anything, nor do I blame all Christians for the extremists on their side.  But to see it happening, to see riots in the streets where you know that if anybody ever announced "I'm American!" there was no doubt they'd be dead in minutes...it's haunting, and I think that's the mental image that will last with me the longest.

I can see why the movie won Best Picture, with its relevance to today's political landscape and the job the team making it achieved.  I'll still take a small private thrill that Life of Pi won the most awards, but I'm willing to accept that Argo was a better picture than it.

However, I will pay solid American money to have someone make the actual movie Argo that was laid out in the film.  It would probably be better and a bigger hit than Jon Carter...though, that's not really hard, I guess.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

From Erik's Kitchen: Grilled Brussels Sprouts

With Sundays being my slower days to have readers pay attention to my little blog, I figured I might use this as a bit of an "experimentation" day, try out a few ideas, see which ones work or not.

Today, I'm going to post a recipe I regularly prepare.  I enjoy using ingredients or techniques that a lot of people would never list as their "favorite," but I always love trying new methods and flavors when I'm preparing foods to keep it exciting and fresh.

Today's victim of societal prejudice?  Brussels sprouts.




So, I'm not going to go into the history of the Brussels sprout, or focus on any of the interesting scientific information about them, but instead simply describe how I get them to taste like how I want to eat them.  This technique, by the way, was adapted from my favorite television chef, Alton Brown.

First thing first, heat up a grill or a grill pan while you prepare the sprouts.

Now, let's pretend you have one pound of sprouts, preferably about the same size.  Clean them of any blemished leaves on the outside and trim off some of the stem so all you have is "fresh" sprout.  Put them into a microwave-safe bowl, and microwave them for three minutes.

While that's happening, mix together two tablespoons of olive oil, one tablespoon of minced garlic, one teaspoon of dry mustard, one teaspoon smoked paprika, one teaspoon of salt (I use kosher for pretty much everything), one half teaspoon pepper. 

Now, from here, you can adapt the recipe to blend better with whatever else you're using.  I've tried (to varying success) to add in pinches of cayenne pepper, five spice, or ginger in order to convert it over to other cuisines.  Adapt the flavors accordingly, and don't be afraid to experiment.

When the Brussels sprouts are done cooking (and you can handle them), place them onto skewers, leaving about a half inch of space between them.  I can usually get five or six onto a skewer, but for larger sprouts I don't try to do more than four. 

Grill the skewers on the pan for about 8-10 minutes.  I tend to rotate them more than Alton recommends, but I like a nice even char on all sides.

Then eat and enjoy!  It's really that simple!

And hey, if I can get even one person to change their mind about Brussels sprouts, imagine what I could do for tofu.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Podblast! Vinyl Cafe Stories

Deep down I think most people would agree that a great experience is to have someone tell them a story.  I know that we all have televisions, video games, and the Internet, but when an actual, living being is simply telling you a story and letting your imagination fill in the blanks, it's a great experience.

There are so many different ways it can be done, too.  One version I'm sure everybody has seen either live or recorded is a stand-up comedian.  Sure, sometimes they're just telling one-liners or small set-ups with a quick payoff, but you also have comedians who build these huge stories, letting their words, inflections, and occasional gesture help your imagination picture extreme and outrageous situations.  For a great example of this, I recommend finding some of Bill Cosby's early works.

Another common way to find classic storytelling is in audiobooks.  I'm personally torn about audiobooks, because one thing I love doing is curling up and reading a good book, but having listened to a few biographies read aloud by the actual author (Tina Fey and Steve Martin are great examples), it does add a new level of comprehension, since you pick up which words the author was trying to emphasize.

Then, of course, there's the news.  Not the evening news on TV, which relies more often on describing pictures you're viewing, but radio news, such as on National Public Radio.  I know it's often parodied as slow and meandering, but when you listen to a story from a program like This American Life or an overseas reporter describing an event on The World, it does feel like you're being transported there.  The words paint a vivid enough picture in your mind that your imagination fills in all the holes.

Now, there's one NPR program I love to listen to when I'm able, and that's The Vinyl Cafe with Stuart McLean.  The show is almost pure storytelling, with occasional musical interludes from Canadian artists he enjoys.  But Stuart McLean has a voice that draws people in, and you find yourself wanting to sit in a comfy chair, close your eyes, and envision what he describes.

 

The show tends to follow a rather basic format.  Stuart starts each show with news and upcoming events he'll be at, and then leads in to a short story, usually about one of his own experiences somewhere he traveled to or an experience from his own life.  They're sweet, sometimes sad, and more often than not make you want to visit wherever he's talking about.

Next up is the story exchange, which I'll admit for me is hit or miss.  This is when he reads a story submitted by a reader, and the range of topics people want to write about are long and varied.  Any given week you might have a recollection of going fishing with a now-deceased father, or perhaps the story of buying a first car.  You could simply hear someone talk about a walk in the woods revitalizing their love of life, or simply remembering the world's worst cup of coffee.

Next us is the music section of the show, spotlighting a (usually) talented artist, famous or not, who maybe just does something unique with music but is still trying to find their voice, or is going back to some favorites they once performed to breathe new life into them.

Then there's "Dave and Morley" and that's where the postcasts start.

Now, it would be quite simply to simply link to the Wikipedia page that details how the stories work and who the characters are.  And I'm nothing if not a fan of convenience.  But what Wikipedia won't tell you is the subtle things about the stories that are absolutely wonderful.

To start with, many of the stories are read live.  This allows for brief moments where an audience member is laughing and Stuart addresses them kindly, frequently with a "don't get ahead of me" or "you know where this is going, right?"  The audience reactions encourage and support your own, as these are people listening for the same reason you are: to be entertained.

Stuart McLean's voice is warm, and never sharp.  Even when a character is angry beyond words, Stuart manages to speak for them in a way that doesn't push away the audience, but instead twists the anger around until it becomes an exaggeration of itself, helping you realize the futility of reacting that way.  The stories are often funny, but there's also a real sadness to some of them, and when you've listened to enough stories and you've heard of all the details from Dave and Morley's lives, when one of these characters is in pain, you feel like you're in pain.  You want to contact this imaginary character and let them know "it'll be okay."

Now, the podcasts are available from multiple sources (I use iTunes), and they are free.  Stories are also collected in book form and on CDs if that's more your thing.

If you want a taste, though, you can find one of the most famous stories told here, where Dave, in charge of preparing the Thanksgiving turkey, realizes the night before it's not even thawed.  Every time I hear it, I laugh.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Erik Reviews My Little Pony: The Mobile Game

I am extremely different from a lot of other people in how I view media.  However, I wasn't always.

There was a time, when I was younger, that the smallest change to a television series, movie franchise, or even a book storyline would infuriate me.  I took it extremely hard the first time Hulk Hogan lost to the Undertaker.  It wasn't that I was a big fan of wrestling (I watched sometimes with my father, and knew the characters) so much as I simply knew that Hulk Hogan was, at the time, the "ultimate good guy" and that the good guys were supposed to win.

I stopped watching Gargoyles when it became The Goliath Chronicles because, as far as I was concerned, the series was over and the major plots were wrapped up.  I stopped watching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers for a while when they replaced three of the cast members (I peeked back now and again, but the magic was gone).  It took me a while to get over the fact when Daphne Maxwell Reid replaced Janet Hubert-Whitten as Will Smith's mother in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

And don't get me started on the Spider-Clone, Batman's back, or Superman and Doomsday.

...and Bendis.  Don't get me started on Bendis.

Where was I?  Oh, right.  Nerdrage.

In recent years, I've realized that it simply isn't worth getting worked up over changes to things I enjoy.  It doesn't devalue the stories I already read or the episodes I already watched.  I don't own the franchise or product, and if I'm unhappy with it, I simply won't spend money on it.  While I might be disappointed in the direction something goes (or retroactive changes, *cough*thankyouGeorgeLucas*cough*), nothing really makes me go "well screw THAT, then."  I've simply learned to be more wary and leery before getting too excited about new things.

Now, when I read that there was a My Little Pony game for Android and Apple products, and it was free to play, I thought "hey, that would make an interesting blog post."  And then I looked at the reviews, and I saw a lot of the same things over and over again.

"This has nothing to do with the series!"

"This doesn't follow the storyline at all!"

"I'm so disappointed that this wasn't the game I expected it to be!"

...people, let me talk to you about the 80s and the 90s.

In those decades, video game manufacturers didn't care if what they were designing was faithful to the original content as long as they could make a dollar.  Now, I'll admit the storyline of the My Little Pony game does seem to be radically different from the show, but let's look at what's different.

In the series, the villainous character Nightmare Moon is defeated, gives up her evil ways, and becomes a kind, caring character trying to adapt to life again after being trapped in the moon for a thousand years.

In the game, Twilight Sparkle returns to Ponyville to find it gone, Nightmare Moon is back, and Twilight has to not only rebuild Ponyville, but also bring back its inhabitants while slowly reclaiming the land from eternal night.

...okay, yeah, pretty big difference.

But you know what?  It's still better than what I had to deal with.  At least in the My Little Pony game, every character is still a pony.  There was the 1987 Star Wars game where you fought Darth Vader at the end of every level (or sometimes a bone pterodactyl or a giant shark).  Except it wasn't Darth Vader.  It was Scorpion Vader.  And he turned into a giant scorpion.



I can't make that up.

Hey, how about a video game based off a comedy movie?  I mean, surely you could tell an interesting game based on, say, The Blues Brothers.


Yeah, remember that time in the movie when the Blues Brothers had to fight guys in warehouses with bottomless pits?  Or collect records to earn points?  Or were being attacked by birds while standing on trees at cloud level?

But maybe they learned their lesson and wouldn't do something like that to another musical-based comedy surrounding getting a giant show together, right?


Yeah, they would.  Enjoy fighting sentient evil musical instruments, folks.

 Seriously.  Evil sentient bagpipes.  Remember that from the movie?

So instead of complaining about what My Little Pony isn't, let's look at what it is.

Y'know, the characters at least look accurate.  That's a plus in my book.
 Having never played any of the Farmville-style games, I can't comment to how much this game might or might not rip off their styles.  What I can explain is that you start out with Twilight Sparkle and Spike and an empty grassy map.  You have to spend money to rebuild Ponyville, then assign tasks to the ponies who come back to earn more money, complete "missions", and earn special points to get rid of parasprites that occasionally infest an area.

Now, this isn't an overly complex game.  The most kind of "game play" it involves is either flicking your finger on the screen to toss a ball to a pony who bounces it back or making a pony run from one side of the screen to the other to catch falling apples.

Characters do "level up" which lets you assign them to bigger tasks, which brings in more money.  All in all, it's pretty basic, right?


Man, somebody's got a ton of ball-bouncing to do.
There's also a "minigame" where you can earn special items or even exclusive characters by spending crystals, and I'm rather proud to say I managed to earn "Dr. Whooves" (yes, Dr. Who fans, there is a time lord pony, it appears, but I'll discuss him later) as part of my crew.  I'm still holding out hope for Trixie, though.  However, it would likely take a lot of time to get the crystals you need to play the game enough to earn all those characters, but hey, you can always buy more!

And that's the other major complaint I read in the reviews:

"How dare they make me spend money to get past a certain point in the game without it taking a long time!"

People, the game is free.  If they don't earn some kind of profit, how do you expect them to make more games?  Do I think microtransactions are a slippery slope if you have difficulty with self control?  Of course.  But nobody's holding a gun to your head making you play this game.  And if you enjoy it, what's wrong with spending ten dollars as a "thank you" for providing something that gives you enjoyment?  The Angry Birds trilogy came out for major systems, and that was $40.  If you can't be willing to spend half that on a game that seems to be pretty open ended so far, then I think you might have a real destructive sense of self-entitlement.


Now, it's no Mass Effect or anything, I'll concede, and the graphics can be a little weird when a pony turns its head sideways, but I figure that's a graphics engine limitation.  Based on the videos I've seen, it appears they got the original voice cast for the main characters to reprise their roles for the game, and that's more than most modern game companies will do (fun fact: For the video game adaptation of Disney's Dinosaur, they couldn't get Della Reese to reprise her role, so they hired Billy West to do it.  You know him as Fry on Futurama.)

The game also has a few bugs.  After browsing through a few reviews (and one brief and slightly terrifying sojourn into the /mlp/ board on 4chan) I was able to connect to a small network of people to send gifts back and forth.  However, if I try to do more than one, the program tends to crash.  I expect people are working on that, and it appears to be a new issue, so it's not rage-inducing yet.

So, overall, the game is pretty enjoyable.  I feel a bit ashamed that it took me four days to figure out how to get big points in the ball-tossing game, and my lack of a big social network who might also play this game forced me to skip a few missions that involve having "friends" to trade things with (for those who are interested, I'm SkyScavenger in Gameloft Live).  I'll probably keep it on my own mobile device as a way to kill time when I'm bored.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Review: Downton Abbey Season 2

I'm starting to believe that I should just automatically dock five points from the score of any TV program or movie I watch when it doesn't include Maggie Smith.




So, as you can guess from the title, I got around to watching season 2 of Downton Abbey, and I can't really say for certain if I liked it less, as much as, or more than the original season.  The high points were higher, but the lows, for me, were a bit more glaring.  But before I nitpick, let's look at the series as a whole.

I'm not going to recap the entire series again, as I've already described it once in another post.  I'll simply say that the storylines, for the most part, pick up from where the first series ended and plunge us headfirst into the first world war.

The fact that this series takes place across the first world war is, frankly, remarkable.  Most historical period dramas seem to like to skip over this time period, ending at "pre-1900" and starting up again at "Pearl Harbor or thereabouts."  The way the family at Downton Abbey loses piece by piece of their old life is telling (which I cannot praise the writers and actors for enough), and is something I was waiting to see since the end of the first season.  New characters, and with them new ideas, bring a fresh flavor to what might be slightly stale, and interactions between characters who found themselves questioning the way things were to the way they could be was an intriguing philosophical debate I'd find myself having with myself some time after an episode ended.

One thing that was always missing from my history classes in school was a context for everything I read about.  It's one thing to hear about what happened in Country Y during a time and then later learn that, during the same time, something else was happening in Country Z, but it's programs like Downton Abbey that allow you to connect them, as characters reference events, historical figures, and even pop culture from across an ocean.

A few stories that developed this season I found extremely fascinating.  The youngest daughter's progression from society girl to nurse to outspoken independent thinker was great.  This allowed her to embody the changing times and force other characters to react to a face and personality, not simply news they receive through telegrams or rumors overheard from the wait staff.  I wasn't as fond of her relationship with the Irish chauffeur, but will find it interesting to see how it progresses to have a character stand at "middle class" instead of simply the "masters" and the "servants."

I was also eager for the development of Carson as a character.  He seemed so desperate to cling to the rules and decorum of how things "should" be, just to watch more rules get bent or broken as wartime stripped him of the essentials to do his job. His interactions with other characters were more developed as well, building on his relationships with family members and shaping just how protective of them he is, but also what lines he refuses to cross.

Of course, Maggie Smith was a delight every time she was on screen, and watching someone firmly rooted in the "old ways" having to react to having no control over major situations try and grasp hold of anything she could hold dominion over was also fascinating.  Along those same lines was the growth of Cora as a strong character able to take control of her household when Isobel (sometimes rightly) would grab it from her.

 Now, as always, there are flaws.

I guess I should start with the topic that drove me nuts the most:  It turned from a period piece soap opera to a soap opera happening within a specific period.  For me, it would be the difference between watching the Harry Potter franchise, which is steeped heavily in wizardry and witchcraft...and watching a rerun of Passions which I only remember existing because it had "a witch."

"Hi, I serve no real purpose and have no impact on the plot."


I found the unnecessary drama to be tiring, such as the middle sister's dalliance with a married man, the spontaneous romance between Lord Grantham and Jane was taxing, and for gods sake, we all know that Mr. Bates is the greatest human to ever live, so dragging out the storyline with his wife just feels like drama for the sake of drama.  While I was initially intrigued by the character of Lavinia Swire (the "new eyes" to Downton, much like Matthew did in the season before), the whole love triangle business became rather tired.  The resolution to said plot, though, left me torn, because while it was a well-placed use of actual historic events, having a character suddenly say "oh, I've felt this way for a while" with few to no real clues indicating such seems a bit of a cop-out.

I have to admit, I didn't mind O'Brien as much this season, and her full face turn from heel to overprotective figure for Cora is interesting.  Still hated Thomas, though, but I guess I'm just supposed to.

Oh, and then there's Daisy.  Having to listen to episode after episode of "I don't love 'im!" followed by episode after episode of her going "It was a sham" was Just. So. Tiring!  At least give us some personal motivation for why you can't accept that his family loves you because he loved you, regardless of how you felt for him, and maybe I'll care, but for now you're just so WHINY.

Okay, moving away from the characters, let's find a happy place again.  Storytelling-wise, it was interesting to see major events (such as the Spanish flu) creep into the plot.  It helps to know your history and be able to pick up on events that are either coming or will be mentioned as an aside.  The set designs were, of course, amazing, making me wonder just how big a budget this show has.

Overall...I'm torn.  I loved the development of this world, and can't wait for season 3 to be available (I'm also watching the Christmas special separately, so there will be a review on that later) so I can see what happens next on a major scale, but the show really needs to decide just how much it wants to focus on swirling soap opera drama, because I really feel like it's starting to hold it back from reaching a truly amazing status.

Now, there's still a Christmas special to watch, as well as season 3 that just came out on DVD recently, so I'll probably watch that as well, but if I feel that this series really is taking the dive into full-on soap opera and not "fictional but accurate account of changing times during a key shift in how the world looked at itself" ... I might not stick around for season 4.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Ask Erik: Episode Seven

Here at Ask Erik, we want to tackle the important issues that weigh on your mind.  That's why we take your questions, and our crack staff of researchers toil away, searching through archives, libraries, and the deepest holes of the internet to provide the intelligent and sophisticated answers your questions deserve.

And when that fails, we rely on animated gifs.

To Erik:  What did you think of Bob and George?

I knew I'd have to address politics one day.

Okay, the year is 1987.  Bob Dole announces his candidacy for president to a huge cheering crowd.  soundly defeats then-Vice President Bush in the Iowa caucus to attempt to determine who will run for the republican party in the upcoming election.  However, he is soundly defeated in the New Hampshire primary, thus paving the way for Bush to begin his ascent as- what?

...oh, the comic strip Bob and George?

...oh, well, um, hm.  Okay, I'm not really prepared, but let's see what I can do here.

Okay.  Bob and George is an online web comic that I used to read wayyyyy back in the early days of webcomics, when Keenspot rose supreme and sprite comics were all doing their best to be the next 8-Bit Theater.

And most of them were doing a terrible job of it.

And of those sprite comics, one of them was Bob and George.


See, the ongoing joke in those days was that if you could think of some jokes (they didn't have to be funny) but couldn't draw, then sprite comics were your ultimate outlet.  You could just grab sprites from video games, tweak them in Photoshop, and pose them in panels and bang out a few words to make people laugh, usually focused around either the jokes children made towards video games or making random pop culture references.

To their credit, Bob and George managed to avoid most of this during the time I read it (back when I had 40 webcomics I was keeping up on), but my interest waned when I realized there was no clear-cut end goal in the future.  I dropped most of the webcomics I followed sometime in the mid-2000s and the numbers really never got back up to where the used to be.

I will give them credit, they did manage to fill in some big plot holes that happened between the Mega Man games, and while I was almost always bored with the actual stuff involving Bob and/or George, many of the side characters were given some interesting depth and backstory.

Bob and George is probably one of the better sprite comics that existed, considering how many usually made five strips before the jokes about "Tails has two tails, so he has two buttholes" dried up and the creators gave up.

Looking towards the end of the archive, it appears the plot got pretty complex before ending up with the original characters being the only ones really mattering to the plot.  While I might, at some point in the future, be willing to scroll through eight years (!) of strips, that time is not now.

So, in the interest of filling space, why don't I discuss some of the other webcomics I've read through the ages?

Now, I've already mentioned Girl Genius,. and if you aren't reading this yet then I'm afraid science proves that you're bad and I don't like you and you aren't invited to my birthday.  You have one of the deepest plotlines I've read in a comic book much less a webcomic, one of the most interesting alternative history worlds I've ever seen, and characters who are both complex and three dimensional while still being able to be sources of major drama or humor.

Seriously, you have no excuse not to read it.  Go now.  ...wait, read the rest of this first, then go.

Okay, so how about some others?

How about a comic full of debauchery, sin, and some really straight-forward social commentary about equal treatment for women, politics, and finance reform?  A comic willing to poke fun at atheists and christians and zen bhuddists?  A comic that has Satan running a major corporation to tempt everyone to evil while Jesus kung-fu kicks things into good?  A comic where a perpetually horny young man, his almost constantly stoned pig friend, and a woman determined to not let society hold her back can have conversations with God himself (usually in hand puppet form)?


Sinfest (which last I heard was proud of its seven failed attempts to become a syndicated comic strip) is a black and white daily strip (with glorious color Sundays!) that tackles every topic you can possibly think of.  Sexism in Hollywood, where freedom begins and liberties end, bullying, an addiction to technology, the high and low points of religious beliefs, and many more are regularly
lampooned by the strip, but done so in a way that has you laugh and then pause and think about it.

It's definitely not for children, though.  The language and topics covered might not only be inappropriate for children to handle, but also difficult for them to understand in context.

One major theme in the comic is that things in the world just aren't "good" right now.  But despite the major flaws, there's an undercurrent of hope, faith, and even love that keeps the "darker" forces from completely winning.  Whether it's a "devil girl" realizing what it means to be human because one person is always kind to her, or an all-girl group on bicycles and tricycles fighting the "patriarchy," or even just the fact that Satan can never beat God, you get this overall sense that "things will work out.  Just relax.  ...y'know, unless we're telling you to panic about something, but even then, things aren't all bad."

...it's a complex message.

So, instead of that, how about a comic about stick figures?


Okay, so xkcd won't win any awards for artwork (although some of his early strips show signs of a keen artistic eye), but what it lacks in colors, 3-D artwork, and panels, it tends to make up for with some of the most intelligent jokes I've ever read.  The comic is a true nerd humor nirvana, where you can find humor about the Higgs-Bosun, Star Trek, early programming languages, or even dinosaur origins.  There's also a ridiculous amount of math and science through the series, but don't let that scare you, non-nerds!  There's also comic strips that simply comment on people and pop culture in general, like the following:


Or...


So, how about something with a bit more artistry, perhaps a few more panels, but possibly even less color?


Ah, Basic Instructions.  Another of my favorites, Scott Meyer has been able to milk a simple idea take a concept and turn it into a brilliant series that makes me laugh every time I read it.  His use of language distracts you from what might be an obvious joke that anybody else would tell and have it blindside you from an entirely new direction.  The artwork tends to be the same basic character designs every time, but since those old-timey postcards with phrases that make me seriously wonder what people aspire to anymore, I don't think it hurts the series any. 

Others I tend to read on a regular basis are Penny Arcade, Kevin and Kell, and Full Frontal Nerdity, and there are a few series I keep meaning to get back into, but those might be for another article.

And hey, maybe, one day, after a few too many drinks, I'll tell about the time I cameoed in a webcomic that was so popular, it had its own printed comic miniseries.  Wiigii.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reviewing Is Magic: Episode 11

Music.

"Well, gosh, Erik, that's great.  Could you expand on that at all?"

Music is important.

"Well, awesome.  I wonder if the Nerdist has anything new up on their websi-"

Music is fascinating.  This is an excerpt of an interview Neil Degrasse Tyson had with Moby on his podcast Startalk:

  • Moby: "Music is so ubiquitous you know. It is such a normal part of our lives but it can do so much. They play is at funerals, they play it at weddings. People play music to have sex, they play music to cry. People play when you're trying to get armies to march into war. And what's amazing about music to me, it doesn't exist. All it is, is air moving a little bit differently. But somehow air moving a little bit differently can make someone weep, it can make someone jump up and down, can make someone move across the country and cut their hair."
  • Neil Degrasse Tyson: "So what you mean here of course is that there is not a "thing" that you look at and say "that's music". It's a construct of our brain responding to moving air."
  • Moby: "Most art forms, you can put your hand on them. You can touch a sculpture. Music by definition doesn't exist and it never can exist. Like the moment that air hits your eardrum, it's done. It's gone. For that microsecond it affects you emotionally and the music is gone. We think music exists because you're like "what about CDs and vinyls?". Those are just delivery vehicles. Convenient ways of recording and storing electronic impulses that will move air a little differently.
  • Neil Degrasse Tyson: "So you're saying that music doesn't exist physically yet has the greatest power over our emotions than anything anyone has ever devised. That's scary. That's scary beautiful. "
Now, music is intrinsic to the package when we experience any kind of media.  Obviously it's present if you're watching a concert or listening to the radio.  Anybody who produces television and movies knows how key music is to the point that, when a modern comedy doesn't have music playing during a heavily emotional scene, it feels off.  It's like somehow something is missing, and it leaves you feeling unsettled.

In movies, of course, the soundtrack is a huge production.  The Academy Awards have multiple categories involved with the music to films, but they aren't always great.  Sure, when you have Hans Zimmer making your movie score it's going to have a huge impact, but for every time Elton John does something like The Lion King or a whole orchestra puts together Lord of the Rings, you get something like Cool As Ice or Space Jam.

Now, the last cartoon I really remember focusing on having music as an integral part of making an episode was Animaniacs.  Not only was the soundtrack itself brilliant for the minor things, but you had episodes that were parodies to huge musical productions, such as Les Miseranimals.

And, of course, everybody rightfully remembers such brilliant musical moments as this:


Now, I do remember Freakazoid doing a lengthy musical number that parodied Hello, Dolly, but since the show didn't last as long, it didn't have quite enough time to build up its musical library.  The Huntsman theme was great, though.

So what does all this have to do with ponies and friendship?

Just this: Animaniacs is my number one show for great music in a cartoon, be it silly or serious.  My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic is a close second and getting closer every time I hear a new song.

Now, I've glossed over a lot of the music so far, but it was for noble intentions.  Pinkie Pie, for instance, has several fun songs she sings across episodes up until now; I've mentioned both her Laughter Song from the opening two episodes as well as her song about Zecora.  She also has two songs in episode 3.

Mostly, I wanted to focus on one of the key songs of today's episode.  When I first heard this, it knocked my socks off because typically you really don't hear this kind of dedication to a cartoon series' songs anymore. But I don't want to spoil things early, so let's get started looking at the episode.

Not actually related to the storyline, but I thought it was cool.

The episode opens with an explanation of how seasons change in Equestria.  I know I keep saying this, but I would write a senior thesis paper in college on weather and seasons on this television program because it's absolutely fascinating.  See, in other parts of the country, ponies simply use magic to change the weather patterns over from winter to spring.  Keep in mind this is a world where a princess uses magic to make sure the sun rises every morning so, yes, it makes sense in this context.

Ponyville, on the other hand, having been founded by "earth ponies" (any pony without wings or a horn), has a several hundred year old tradition that involves no magic whatsoever.  This means they have to manually change the seasons themselves.  Now, there are few plot holes I noticed through the episode, but I'll get to those when they come up.

Now Twilight, being new to Ponyville, is experiencing this whole thing for the first time, so she's acting as our eyes and ears to witness the biggest manual labor celebration I think we'll see on television.  Ever.  We have three teams (weather, plant, and animal) which make up the entire population of Ponyville, and after a brief speech by the Mayor everybody breaks up to get to work.  But, as Twilight points out, she a) doesn't have a team vest, and b) has no idea what's involved.

So then we get our big musical number.  I'm not even going to try to describe it, I'm just going to link to it:


I've said before that there were certain moments where I knew I had to continue watching this series.  The first was Applejack's never-discussed brush with permanent brain damage.  Another was (you know what's coming) the appearance of a bear (say it with me) made of outer space.  However, it was this song where my brain promptly informed me "Damn it, you're a brony."

I hear the first step to solving the problem is admitting you have it, so there it is.

So, Twilight needs to find her job, but obviously there's a few things you're rather limited to when you can't use magic.  A quick discussion with Rainbow Dash rules out fetching birds or clearing clouds (no wings) ... which leads to my first plot hole.

If the whole thing is being done by "earth pony" tradition, then how do pegasus ponies fit into that?  I mean, obviously you need them to handle clouds and bird fetching duties, but is it just that the technology doesn't exist to let earth ponies do this?  We know hot air balloons exist, but I'm pretty sure physics wouldn't allow you to attach giant fans to them to blow clouds away.

To be fair, almost any job that could be done with magic could also be done with physical labor, so perhaps it really is magic that's just forbidden in Ponyville during this event.  I guess this is both good and bad, since it's great to have traditions, but it's important to not cling to the ones that are outdated or simply ridiculous to begin with.

But back to the show.  Twilght meets up with Rarity to try her hand at building bird nests...and this seems like a perfect point that someone could go "you know what?  It's great that we're making bird nests and all, but considering some magical ponies have the final motor control to pick every apple off of a grove of trees at once without snapping any branches, maybe we should let them whip through the nests quickly."

Instead, each nest is assembled by hand- er, hoof, and when you don't have thumbs or fingers I can only imagine the frustration.  It's no wonder Twilight's first attempt is horrendous.


I don't know why, but when Spike suggests the birds could use it as an outhouse, I choked on my drink at the time.  Considering that the subject of bathrooms is almost never discussed on this show, to suddenly be reminded that ponies don't just do it in the woods was startling.

So next we find Pinkie Pie whose job is probably the neatest.  She ice skates grid lines into the ice so it'll break up and melt faster.  That is simply glorious, and I credit the writers for thinking of it.  Twilight....also doesn't do very good at this job, either.


Pinkie, not wanting to be around flailing ice skate blades, suggests that Twilight helps out Fluttershy instead.  Her job is to wake up all the hibernating animals before spring arrives, which, the more I think about it, is kind of scary.  See, the last I checked, animals had a "natural" clock to wake them up based on the seasons, such as temperature changes, length of daylight, and other "unknown" factors.  Now, if the weather is planned and manufactured, like it is in this world, animals probably wouldn't be able to evolve that hibernation system, so all of the small creatures are completely dependent on ponies to make sure they wake up and don't starve to death.

I'm telling you, Equestria Climate And It's Effects 101 would be the best college course ever, and probably more useful than "The Strategy of Starcraft."

This also doesn't end well, having sudden encounters with snakes, bats, bees, then finally a family of skunks.



 Our last attempt to find what Twilight's knack for modifying environments comes with Applejack.  After watching this scene, I don't think I'm ever going to complain about snow shoveling or blowing snow from a driveway again, since at least I don't have to haul snow from a multi-acre farm so seeds can get planted.

Of course, it's mostly the rarely-seen stallions who seem to be doing most of the plowing and...I don't know the term here.  Horse-dozing?  Anyway, Twilight's attempts to help out with a bit of magic "on the sly" also doesn't end very well.


So, what's a pony to do when it seems you can't help out and your efforts get you in trouble?  Well, if Twilight's anything like me when I was younger, the solution would be to run and hide somewhere and feel sorry for yourself.



Well, I wouldn't have picked a snow-covered bush, but an "A" for effort, Twilight.

It turns out there's a massive lack of organization amongst the other ponies, and nobody's able to settle on when, where, or how projects are to get done.  For instance, all those bird nests that were supposed to be built?  Twilight's was so bad that Rarity's still trying to fix it.

(Dear Twilight, we call that "epic fail.")

So it turns out that Twilight discovers the one thing she's good at.  Namely, being bossy and nitpicky being organized and paying attention to details.  With her in charge, they're able to get everything together and whip the landscape into shape so that spring is able to arrive on time.

(Sadly, there is no animated gif that accurately shows the method all the clouds are cleared from the sky, but trust me when I say that the physics and meteorological implications of it are mind-breaking)

So finally, I've been able to address music on this program, and I'm able to check that off of my own, personal checklist of topics related to this program.  What's next?


Oh, right.  The "Scrappy-Doo Effect."

Monday, February 18, 2013

Review: Venetica

A short time ago, I discussed the movie Hogfather, featuring a woman who had the rather unique identity of being Death's granddaughter, with fantastic powers since "some things were inherited through more than genetics...some things were inherited through the soul...some things were in the bones."

Apparently I must have a thing for women whose link to Death makes your typical goth girl look like Amy Adams in Enchanted, because while skimming the shelves of some cheap games I stumbled upon Venetica, a story of the daughter of Death itself tasked with killing a necromancer.  Now, I'll insist until my last breath that I initially picked this game up because I saw it took place in Venice, and that was my favorite part of Assassin's Creed II.  


Of course, it doesn't hurt that it's a game featuring an attractive female lead.  Why?  I'll let Francis from PVP explain it:


 ...so I'm human.  Deal with it.

Where was I- oh, right.  So, this game.  ...man, this game.  Originally released in Germany in 2009, it first reached the states for the Xbox 360 (the system I picked it up for) in 2011.  It's rather startling how much progress a game can make in graphics and voice acting in two years, and this game embodies that.  The graphics are, at best, "adequate," and the character design is rather puzzling.  Actually, I want to amend that.  The graphics look dated for a 2009 game, with stiff models that jerk like marionettes when they move, but they aren't so bad as to ruin the game by itself.

The story starts with Scarlett, a young woman in a small village near Venice, essentially breaking up with her boyfriend because he's going off to study how to be a soldier and a hero, and she feels like she wouldn't belong in that world.  An attack by assassins quickly kills off a majority of the population of the village, kills your boyfriend, and fits into every other major RPG that happened in the 90s and early 2000s.

This is where things get a bit strange, as in your dreams you meet a person who claims to be your father (or perhaps your mother with a deep voice, it's hard to tell from the image).  He explains, pretty frankly, that "your time has come" and you need to "choose your path" and "save the world."

   
Of course, when you wake up, everybody around you immediately goes "well, that makes sense" and gets you ready for a grand adventure.  I have mixed feelings about this approach, as it does cut down on the build-up that tends to bore me when a game has you playing a main hero's life during the "before things get bad" stage for several hours.  On the other hand, it's just weird having every single person in town simply accept that "yes, everybody died because assassins came for you, but hey, we knew you were different so let's get you packed up and get you out of here before more assassins show up, mmmkay?"

And it's not like you're being kicked out permanently.  There are still people in town who like you, such as the blacksmith who helps you get a different wardrobe than the one you start the game in (a tattered white dress that's barely staying on).  Of course, the only other clothes in town, apparently, belong to his daughter, so he busts out his sewing skills to help them fit you, thus presenting our default costume:


I'm not sure if I should be saying "Shakira was right, hips don't lie" or pointing out that maybe sheer mesh and lace isn't the most practical combat outfit.  I enjoy an attractive outfit on an attractive character as much as any other guy playing video games, but I always feel a little weird when I realize that any time my character gets hit with a bladed weapon, there really shouldn't be anything keeping it from reaching my kidneys in one blow.

Now, I'm still playing it, so perhaps I should be calling this "initial impressions" instead of 'review."  I'm not too deep into the story, but the game does have a neat little skill tree to progress and learn through, letting you pick up new powers and combat abilities.  The inventory and equipment system is somewhat clunky, but my biggest complaint is that while it's great that the game cuts through the chaff and gets you right into the plot, it would be nice if there were any tutorials on how to do basic things like "sell items" or "heal myself" instead of blindly pushing buttons to see what happens.

The system also appears to be aping moral choice systems, as I've had several instances where I either get to make a choice that's optimistic and kind to a fault or lets me be the biggest bastard in the land, with the occasional "middle path" road.

One of the big ones so far is helping two brothers settle who inherits their uncle's estate.   One brother looks like a mixture between Vasco De Gama and a musketeer, but his brother's apparently a time-tossed Lex Luthor.


Your job, naturally, is to go into their uncle's house, solve a puzzle, and return with the will.  The brothers then ask you to read it to them, and you get to pick which brother gets the land.  Oh, and the twist?  Lex Luthor there wants to turn the old house into an orphanage, while the brother whose name is actually in the will is solidly of the opinion that what every town needs more of is ale and women and wants to turn it into a bar.

So, yeah, it's not Sophie's Choice, but what do you expect from 2009?

Combat in the game isn't really anything remarkable yet as to the time of this writing,  as the way to beat assassins seems to be "keep walking forward and swing sword wildly, then take one step to the side when they slowly try to hit you back."  Hopefully it picks up because, strangely enough, I find myself enjoying this game despite its faults.

This game almost reaches a "so bad it's good" level, with stilted animation, people clearly reading their dialogue straight from a script, and little glitchy moments where your character will suddenly slide sideways fifteen feet because of a misplaced tree root.  

There's enough interesting ideas in the game to keep it going for now, as well.  The one I'm most interested in exploring so far is a power where, should the energy bar to fuel it be full enough when you die, your body crumples to the ground but your spirit gets to wander around freely for a short time, allowing the bad guys to wander off before you get back up and stab them in the backs.  My guess is that there will be some puzzles or hidden areas that can only be accessed by the undead version of you, and I'd like to know where, exactly, the writers have in mind for that to go.

Plus, I haven't reached Venice yet, and that was the whole point of picking up the game.

I'll provide updates as I play if anything in particular leaps out to make this a brilliant game or makes me quit in frustration, but for now it's just a fun time killer.