Sunday, September 28, 2014

Blackwell Unbound

Developed and published by Wadjet Eye Games

     I've played several Wadjet Eye games now, and they all fall into the same category – retro-styled point-and-click adventure games with extremely strong, serious stories. The Blackwell series, the masterwork of the developer (with 5 different games, Unbound being the second) is no different.
     A prequel to the original, you play as Lauren Blackwell (Dani Marco), a medium who, along with her spirit guide Joey (Abe Goldfarb), has to help ghosts move on. This game features 2 different cases, a man who won't stop playing the sax and a woman who believes she's still in her apartment, and naturally, the more things go on, the more it seems the cases may be connected somehow.
     While this is an adventure game, it doesn't have puzzles in the traditional sense. Which is to say that your inventory exists, but rarely will trying to combine everything with everything result in anything. There's only a handful of inventory puzzles throughout the game, even. Instead, the puzzles revolve more around the dialogue. You have to use each new little piece of information to figure out how to get the next piece, and so on. You might have to look up a name in the phonebook, or combine two clues to get a new one, all so you have a new topic to ask someone about. It can sometimes feel like you're wandering around without a clue, but once you get that clue, the pieces quickly fall together.
     And having everything based around dialogue means that you're constantly invested in figuring out the mystery. You want to know who these people are, how they died, and what you need to do to help them move on. By tying the game so strongly around the story, you're that much more interested in the story. It's a loving care that shows throughout the game. The graphics are spectacular, showing so much detail with so little, and small details (Lauren will pull out a cigarette when she's not doing anything) give the game a lot of life. It's a fairly short game (2 hours max), but it's satisfying to play through. My only complaint is small, but still fairly striking—the voice acting occasionally have microphone pop. Again, it's a small thing, but it takes you so thoroughly out of the game that it's very disappointing.

     In a way, Blackwell Unbound is like an episode of a TV show (maybe not surprising, considering the series was meant to be 10 games long). It's short but engaging, with a strong story that makes you want to come back for the next one.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

My Top 10 Favorite Movies

A list of my favorite movies can seem near-impossible at times. The list fluctuates so much and can easily change depending on what I've seen most often and how I'm feeling that day. If anything, consider these my desert island movies at least, the ones I could watch a hundred times and not get tired of them. I've also tried to be representative of different directors/creators to avoid filling this up with Pixar and Ghibli movies.

     10. Sherlock Jr.
As a general rule, if somebody likes silent films, they lean towards either Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. There's little middle ground here. To me, Chaplin's stories are always better...but Keaton can run around him a million times in terms of comedy. Sherlock Jr. is brief in its runtime (less than an hour), but filled to the brims with great comedy moments. Keaton's wild ride on the handlebars of a motorcycle is one of his best stunts, and his trick pool shots around an (in-story) explosive pool ball would impress Bugs Bunny. Short but flawless.

  1. Beauty and the Beast
It's incredibly hard for me to choose one Disney animated movie here. Lion King, Aladdin, and Bolt could easily take this spot. So why Beauty and the Beast? Because it's filled with plenty of flawless songs, gorgeous animation, and one of Disney's best reimaginings of a fairy tale (the servants being turned into talking objects? All Disney). Disney has had their highs and lows over the years, but it rarely gets anywhere as high as this.

  1. Up
Another one that could easily be replaced by...well...throw a dart at Pixar's pre-Cars-2 lineup. But I come back to Up every time for showing how Pixar's pure skill in their craft. Few movies put as much plot into them as Up has in its famous opening montage. And as you dry your tears from that, you're thrust into a world where a house can fly using balloons and one of the main characters is a talking dog. There's never any mood whiplash here, just a pure range of emotions, tied together with a catchy leitmotif and a villain who's a dark reflection of the main character, a perfect example of showing the dangerous path that he's on.

  1. Singin' in the Rain
My musical of choice. No matter how many times I see it, it takes seconds to start enjoying the songs and choreograhy, to smile at the historical premise turned as ridiculous as possible. I find myself having trouble coming up with things to say about it, possibly because it's just a pure feel-good pick-me-up movie, but it is the feel-good movie for me.

  1. Airplane!
One of my favorite jokes in Airplane is when the control tower says “They're on instruments!” Cut to the crew playing instruments raucously. It's ridiculous, it's simple, and it makes me laugh. Where so many parodies feel the need to wink towards the camera, Airplane has its actors straight-faced in a world where the absurd is a step away. And where some movies carefully set up a big joke, Airplane fires them off so fast that by the time you're done laughing at one, five more have just happened. A movie that rewards rewatches and is endlessly quotable.

  1. Pulp Fiction
What exactly has drawn me to Pulp Fiction is so hard to say. In theory, it's a movie about almost nothing. Three events happen. At the end, half the cast is dead and the other half is changed. But that's where Tarentino's script changes things. The sudden and dark violence happens around conversations about religion, redemption, and yes, what they call a quarter pounder with cheese in other countries. While some movies make everything seem so big, Pulp Fiction's events ultimately feel just like another day in the life. Somebody getting shot in the head and somebody else overdosing on heroin is the chaos breaking up business as usual.

  1. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Let's get it over with: there's about a thousand versions of A New Hope out there, and there are some people who could argue for ages about whether Han shooting first or not matters. To me, it doesn't. Ever since I was a kid, what's gripped me about A New Hope has been its witty dialogue, its great atmosphere, and its stunning alien makeup. Some movies you look at and immediately know that the alien is CGI, the planet they're on is a greenscreen. When I watch Star Wars, I still have that belief somewhere in me that George Lucas flew off to Tatooine and filmed a real Jawa. His later actions aside, the vision on show here remains epic close to 40 years later.

  1. Princess Mononoke
Generally, when I think Ghibli, I think lighthearted, fun movies that mix their melancholy with magical worlds and optimism. But there's a few exceptions to that rule, and Princess Mononoke is a big one. There's no fun fantasy world here. There's darkness, there's violence. There's a classic fight of man vs. nature here. But there's no quiet acknowledgment that the right side is going to win. The further it goes, the more doubtful it becomes that nature will remain, and that even if it gets defeated, man will still be alive afterwards. Miyazaki's darkness is unleashed here, and it's powerful.

  1. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Most creators would use Who Framed Roger Rabbit as a chance to parody the film noir genre, turn it to absurdity. Robert Zemeckis instead used it as a fitting tribute, taking classic film noir themes (the hardened detective, the femme fatale, the over-the-top villain) and injecting it with fantastic animation. There is never any doubt that Bob Hoskins is actually talking to a cartoon rabbit. Its jokes consistently work on every viewing, and its smart storyline is so well crafted that the rumor it started as a Chinatown sequel is doubtful (the dates don't add up), but always believable.

  1. City of God

When I first watched City of God, that was when I knew that whatever I did later in life, it would have something to do with movies. Nothing in my life before then told me that you could have three scenes leading up to the same scene--one of which just being a single shot telling the backstory of the apartment where the scene takes place—but once I saw it, I knew it was right. Its narrative hops over time but never loses you. And as much as it loves its style, it hits hard with its story. The dual narrative has one man looking for the glimmer of hope in a dark and violent world, while the other embraces the violence and creates a cycle that seems unbreakable as the movie goes on. One of the few movies I could actually say is perfect.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Bicycle Thief/Bicycle Thieves

Directed by Vittorio De Sica
Written by Vittorio De Sica, Cesare Zavattini, Suso Cecchi D'Amico, Oreste Biancoli, Adolfo Franci, and Gerardo Guerriri
Based on the novel by Luigi Bartolini

     If you like dark and depressing movies set in postwar Italy (because they were filmed in postwar Italy), then the Italian neorealism movement is for you. The Bicycle Thief went on to win an honorary Oscar for good reason, showing off how the movement could be both thought-provoking while creating downright hopeless stories.
     Antonio Ricci (Lamberto Maggiorani) gets a job putting up posters around Rome, but he needs a bicycle to do it or he'll get fired. When his bicycle gets stolen, he and his son Bruno (Enzo Staiola) are forced to look all over Rome for it.
     The plot seems almost simplistic, but it's the interactions of the characters that develop the richness here. Antonio is a desperate man, and he so badly wants to do right for his family with this job. He has these small sparks of hope that get destroyed as he gets beaten down by a world he simply cannot win in. And while child actors are always hit-or-miss, Staiola is perfect as Bruno. His expressions tend towards being flat, but the directing makes sure we know exactly what's going through his mind. The more he has to look for the bike, the more he begins to realize that it's hopeless and the more he loses his respect for his father. Wordless scenes still show so much by his simple actions. De Sica actually chose him by how he walked, and it's a simple thing that brings a lot to his character.
     And while we focus on Antonio and Bruno, the movie does not give protagonist focus. This is not a movie where the protagonists alone have some bad luck. This is a movie where we simply focus on two people who happen to be experiencing problems everybody is experiencing. The scene where Antonio gets his job has other men complain that they didn't get a job. A powerful early scene has Antonio's wife Maria (Lianella Carell) trading in the family's sheets so they can get back the bicycle—and we see hundreds of piles of sheets all stacked up. We're always reminded that the protagonists aren't alone in this world, and the tragedy is that Antonio never realizes it. He pushes and bothers people who have their own problems, people praying in church to get meager food afterwards, bicycle sellers trying to make a living. Antonio is in a bad place, but he's one among many.

     The Bicycle Thief is stark and can be a hard watch. There's little lightness here and the ending is bleak. But then, considering the state of things at the time, it creates a completely understandable picture of postwar Italy.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Metro: Last Light

Developed by 4A Games
Published by Deep Silver

     There is something to be said for games which are deeply immersive. Not just attempting immersion, but putting elements into every part of the game. Last Light drops you in the middle of post-apocalyptic Russia, and you never stop feeling it.
     Taking place a year after the events of Metro 2033 and following that game's bad ending, the Dark Ones have been destroyed and the Rangers have taken over the former military bunker D6. However, the news that a single Dark One is still alive leads Artyom in pursuit of it—and along the way, uncovering enemy plans to take over D6.
     Where Last Light immediately hooks you is in much the same way that the original game did so. Your objectives are shown on a clipboard that Artyom carries, allowing you to pull it up at any time (and turn on your lighter in the dark). Trips out on to the surface require gas masks and air filters, and you have to wipe water and gunk off your mask if you want to see. It brings you into the game before you even get to the superbly crafted gameplay. Running and gunning is certainly a tactic, but not a satisfying or smart tactic unless you enjoy dying and watching your resources run out. Meanwhile, it's much more fun to sneak around, turning off lights, hiding in the shadows and darting past patrols. Stealth here is fun and rarely frustrating. If it seems like you can't possibly get past a group of people without getting caught, chances are you just need to look more to find the way on. And it also rarely requires killing.
     Which is good for people trying to get the good ending because, as with the previous game, it's extremely difficult. Even if you do every good action you come across and try for a pacifist run, it's still very likely you'll get the bad ending, thanks to the laundry list of morality points you need with many well-hidden. It encourages exploration and thinking to get them all, but it can still be annoying when you play the game, look around plenty, and still find the bad ending at the end. There's also some serious flaws in the story, the biggest one being Anna. When you first see her, she's a pure badass that immediately became my favorite character. Naturally, she quickly gets shunted to being a secondary character who by the end has completely just fallen into a woman for the male gamers to stare at. Even when there's a big final battle towards the end, she gets left out for the all-male generic soldiers. I get used to games being male-centric, certainly, but it just really rubbed me the wrong way here. This, combined with the often rambling nature of the story (at times it feels like you're just going from location to location), made me enjoy the gameplay more than any time that focused on story.

     Metro: Last Light is worth playing for the top-notch stealth gameplay and atmosphere. It's just a shame that, with a game so obviously built around a story, the story is more cringe-worthy than anything.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Tomb Raider (1996)

Developed by Core Design
Published by Eidos Interactive

      I'm a pretty big Tomb Raider fan, but only a recent one. I've surely committed one of the fandom sins by only coming in with Legend. While I played the originals a little when I was younger, I didn't get them and quickly became disinterested. Playing the original Tomb Raider now, it's easy to see why young me didn't enjoy it: it's slow, methodical, and precise. And that's why it's so much fun to finally play it.
     The plot is there, but not exactly meaningful: Lara gets hired by Natla to retrieve an artifact for her. The little advancement that happens is through clunky FMVs between the acts. It's there for one reason: to provide an excuse for Lara's globetrotting adventure. Taking you from Peru to Greece to Egypt, the environments stand out as a high-point in the game. They feel unique, with the snowy cave of Peru opening into a hidden jungle, and Greece going from a temple to a giant coliseum. The game is limited by only having interior environments, but only “limited” in the sense that you're never outdoors. The levels are huge, sprawling, and atmospheric. There's no witty quips from Lara or cuts to cinematics. It's just you, all sorts of animals trying to kill you (a good alternate game title would be Lara Croft: Endangered Species Killer) and plenty of exploration along the way to the next level.
      The controls can feel odd at first. You don't run and press the jump button right as you hit the edge. You'll just fall if you do that. Lara won't hang on to ledges unless you tell her to. And she'll freely run off ledges unless you're holding down the walk button. It is very easy, especially early on, to find the muscle memory of modern platformers killing you left and right. But then it clicks and suddenly it's perfect. The basic rules of the game never change, meaning that it's easy enough to figure out “Oh, as long as I press jump and then forward, I'll do this kind of jump”, and that will get you through many situations. And once the game starts throwing traps at you, you've gotten the feel for things enough that the traps are tough, but fair. Oh, you'll die plenty, but there's only a few times when you'll die to platforming because the game didn't work right.
     And I want to emphasize “to platforming”, because while the controls have aged well in this charming, clunky way, the combat is awful. Trying to run around enough to avoid enemies while dealing with the tank controls is near impossible. At some point, the strategy is either “stand on a ledge and shoot” or “shoot and keep jumping backwards”, because otherwise you either die quickly or spend plenty of time shooting at walls. In the quiet immersion of most of the game, combat is almost always just a frustration.

     Tomb Raider may show the flaws that a game nearing 20 years old is going to show, but it also shows the big dreams of the time: environments as packed with puzzles and platforming as with action, a heroine able to take down almost any foe who comes her way, and an around-the-world trip without having to leave your computer. For someone who only knows the newer games, it's a lot of fun to see how things were when everything began.

Friday, September 19, 2014

State of the Stuff (aka "Is This Still Updating?")

      It's very likely you may have noticed a sudden lack of content for about a month now. Between starting a job and a general lack of anything within my interest coming out (I seriously haven't gone to the movies since Guardians of the Galaxy, and haven't particularly wanted to with the crop of movies out there), I've definitely used it all as an excuse to slack on content.
     However, don't think at all that I want to stop doing Devi Reviews Stuff. I'll take the last month as a hiatus, but now I'm going to go back into full gear. And I do mean full gear.
     For when, I want to get back into what I was doing when I started the site: reviewing every movie I watch and game I play. I'm still not going to put up a review that I'm unsatisfied with, but I'm at least going to try reviewing things and if I find myself running around with nothing to say, I'll drop it, whereas earlier I simply haven't even tried at reviewing more difficult things.
     The other thing I want to start doing is setting a schedule. At least twice a week, I'm going to be putting up reviews (and hopefully more often than that). And on Wednesdays, I'm going to put up either top lists or opinion pieces. I've always wanted to keep things focused on reviews, but I also want to provide content that can hopefully also give a better look at me and my tastes, starting with going over some of my all-time favorite movies, shows, games, and more.

     So short version: sorry for the delay, but get ready for plenty of reviews and more on the way.