Pacific Rim: Uprising – Film Review

The original Pacific Rim left a lot of room for improvement. The film had so much promise, referencing Godzilla and mecha anime, but with a big budget and recognizable actors. There were ideas at the heart of that first film — the whole concept of drifting, where two people merge their minds to pilot their mecha successfully, for example — that elevated it beyond things like the Transformers films. The world-building of Pacific Rim was unmatched. Unfortunately, it stumbled when it came time to drive a plot around that world. The end result felt like a mash-up of the anime Evangelion, and the 1995 US Godzilla movie. It was really weird.

Pacific Rim: Uprising brings nothing new to the table, nor does it manage to succeed at the basics of storytelling. Rather than build on the cool ideas established in the first film, it quickly acknowledges the ideas before going for the lowest common denominator. Continue reading Pacific Rim: Uprising – Film Review

Red Sparrow – Film Review

Watching Red Sparrow felt like deja vu. Just six months ago I was in a theater watching mother!, another poorly-received, Jennifer Lawrence-led film. Just six months ago I was watching Lawrence give, perhaps, a little too much of herself to a role. Both films show her character beaten, punished, disrobed, tortured, and gas-lit by men in power. In both instances, I wouldn’t blame viewers who thought it was all a little too much. Yet, in both instances I was also pleasantly surprised. I absolutely loved mother!, and Red Sparrow was far from the train wreck I was led to believe.

The film that some had hoped would be the Black Widow film we’ll never get, or another Atomic Blonde, is in-fact, neither. Red Sparrow is a graphic, deliberate, and convoluted spy fiction tale. The Sparrows are Russian secret agents that use their bodies to manipulate men in power. They are trained to find weaknesses and exploit them, all the while ignoring their own sense of shame or pride. Continue reading Red Sparrow – Film Review

My Favorite Games of 2017

As I said in my previous post, the games listed there could easily be someone’s actual top 10 list for 2017. It was getting so bad that I had a hard time believing I actually had ten more games to talk about that I liked even more. Yet now, with this list in front of me, it’s clear how the following games rose above and meant so much to me this year. Most of these games won’t just be the best games of 2017, they will go down as some of my all-time favorites. If you know me, expect to hear these names over and over whenever it’s time to recommend something. The following is listed in descending order, with my overall favorite game of 2017 at the bottom. Enjoy!

No one ever claimed that Dark Souls was too simple, but that didn’t stop Team Ninja from combining the structure and challenge of From Software’s masterpiece with a robust Diablo-style loot system, crafting, companion spirits, a weird clan system, multiple combat stances, and so much more. The crazy thing is that, although Nioh is complex and layered and brutally difficult, it all works. Nioh borrows many ideas from Dark Souls, but Team Ninja put a ton of effort into forging a unique identity. The world of this game walks a line between Japan’s feudal history and its spirituality, painting a somber world influenced by demonic forces that only a few powerful individuals can see. The total package is so good that it escapes the massive shadow of the games that inspire it.

Outside of giving a handful of indie developers their blessing, Sega does not deserve Sonic Mania. This loving tribute understands what made the original games fun, and it  even surpasses them with clever boss fights, retro remixes, and excellent new stages. I want to believe Sonic Mania is the doorway to a new era for Sega, where they give their franchises to talented fans that understand what makes the games so special. Yet, it’s hard to get too excited when Sonic Forces was released in the same year. Either way, we still got Sonic Mania. If this is the last great Sega game, that’s still okay.

Walking simulators get a bad rap — they’re often seen as short and cheap. What Remains of Edith Finch may be concise, at around 2-3 hours in length, but it is certainly not cheap. In those hours, developer Giant Sparrow lays out an ambitious journey through a series of vignettes. As you learn about the Finch family, you explore wildly different gameplay experiences and visual styles. The story of life and death is engrossing, but also quite dark and sad, its meaning open to interpretation. This is the kind of game you show your non-gaming friends and family.

Pyre fell deep into my backlog for many months. I picked it up again right before finalizing this list, and I’m so glad I did. This blend of mystical NBA Jam and a visual novel is filled with stunning art, heartfelt characters, and deep gameplay. The story is only possible in a video game, with tough choices that are seamlessly accounted for. When you reach the end, the game provides an epilogue for every major and minor character. Their circumstances are the direct result of choices you made along the way. The next time someone complains about the end of Mass Effect 3, or the lack of meaningful choices in Telltale games, tell them to go play Pyre.

On paper, Resident Evil 7 is not the scariest horror game ever made. The trouble is, Capcom made the brilliant decision to let you play the entire game from beginning-to-end in VR. The result? It is BY FAR the scariest video game I have ever played. I’ll never forget running from Jack Baker, ducking into a trap door with him inches away, and feeling the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. It’s a shame not everyone has the stomach for a VR experience like this, and I’m so glad I do. Resident Evil 7 isn’t just the best and scariest game in the series since the original, it’s the best VR game I’ve ever played.

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is easily the most flawed game on my top 10 list. The first few minutes are an incoherent nightmare, and it only gets slightly less confusing over the next couple of hours. But then something magical happens. Origins begins to coalesce. The story starts to come together. The new systems and combat stop feeling awkward. Every hour after the first is better than the last, such that by hour 70 I was in awe of what I had experienced. Bayek’s journey is the new gold standard for the franchise. The series’ present day conspiracy plot may be in shambles, but the story of the assassins’ beginnings is mature, heartfelt, and powerful. Egypt is jaw-dropping, and I want to spend more time exploring it. Bayek is better than Ezio — there, I said it!

Developer Ninja Theory has officially become one of my absolute favorite studios. Their take on Devil May Cry was right up my alley. Enslaved was no slouch either. More recently, the developer has re-organized with the goal of creating great B-tier games — games that look big and expensive but are made by a small team on a small budget. Hellblade is their first crack at it, and by far my favorite game of theirs. It tells an intensely personal story of love, loss, and guilt, filtered through the mind of a protagonist suffering from mental illness. Played with headphones, the game simulates the sensation of having voices in your head, seeing things that aren’t there, and so much more. The experience gave me intense empathy for Senua’s struggle, making every fight feel like a fight for her life. This exploration of mental illness accomplishes something truly special — it gives those who struggle to understand what their loved ones may be going through a brief window into their world.

I was so sure Cuphead was going to be a gimmick. It was in development for so long. When concerns that the game was just a boss rush surfaced, we were shown side-scrolling levels that looked terrible. When the game finally came out, it was a relief to be so incredibly wrong. Cuphead is a brilliantly-designed 2D action game from top-to-bottom. The game is, for the most part, dozens of boss fights. But they are all so multi-faceted and well-constructed that it doesn’t matter. Every death in Cuphead is a lesson. Yes, you have to die a lot to learn the patterns of the various bosses. And yes, there are times when the game can feel unfair. But every time I called bullshit on an unfair attack, I later realized there was a way to consistently avoid it. Bonus points: it may be the must visually-stunning video game…ever?

The Evil Within 2 was the biggest surprise of the year. I didn’t think the first game was nearly as bad as people made it out to be, but even I can see that EW2 is a massive improvement. Nothing from the first game is wasted, or tossed aside. Instead, this is a true sequel, revisiting characters and concepts from the first game, but improving on all of them. The gameplay is expanded with an open world element and satisfying stealth. The story is willing to poke fun at itself, but it is also deadly serious and earnest at the right moments. The Evil Within 2 is a huge game, and it would have been easy to lose steam towards the end. Instead, the last few hours are an emotional rollercoaster that left my jaw on the floor.

All year I put Horizon: Zero Dawn against a gauntlet of amazing games and every time it stood out as my clear favorite. It’s an open world game that refuses to waste your time with busywork. It’s a mainstream graphics showcase that gives players full control over their character, rather than stiff Arkham Asylum-style combat or QTEs. It’s a game about killer robot dinosaurs, but the sci-fi mystery behind their origin is one of the best game stories in years. It’s not afraid to stop the action for an hour of exploration and storytelling, nor is it afraid to kick your ass when the time is right. Horizon defies expectations, fires on all cylinders from beginning-to-end, and refuses to take shortcuts, providing a wealth of things to do that are all carefully crafted. It has the best qualities of big-budget games, without all the sterilizing and safe choices that so many triple-A games fall victim to. It is everything I come to video games for in one incredible package.

Why Some of 2017’s Best Games Missed My Top 10

The following games could easily be someone’s top 10 of 2017. It says a lot about the quality of games in 2017 that I have ten more games I liked more than these. The problem is, we all like top 10 lists. They’re fun exercises, and I had to make some harsh cuts. The following games all meant a lot to me. I want to honor them all with a shout out, but also explain why they missed the mark. I’ll follow up soon with my actual top 10 list. Enjoy!

Destiny 2
I wish I could bottle up my first few weeks with Destiny 2 and come back to them whenever I need a nostalgia trip. It truly felt like Destiny had started to realize its potential. But the more I played, the more I noticed the holes. Where were the cool secrets, like the Black Spindle quest from Destiny 1? When were we going to return to the stories of Eris, Variks, and The Queen? Where was the endgame? At this point Destiny 2’s situation has gotten much worse, with the controversy around microtransactions completely overtaking the conversation. But man, those first few weeks were really good.

Wolfenstein II
My love for developer Machine Games’ work goes all the way back to Chronicles of Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay. Needless to say, I was over the moon for most of Wolfenstein II. Unfortunately, the last act rushes to the ending, as if the team was suddenly forced to finish the story under duress. The tone and pacing was off in a way that cast a shadow over the rest of the game for me. I was distracted enough to take a more critical look. And if I’m being entirely honest, Wolf II just wasn’t very fun to play.

Nier: Automata
The biggest issue with Nier: Automata is that it’s a Platinum game that doesn’t live up to the Platinum pedigree. Platinum’s involvement was supposed to fix the flaws of the original Nier. Instead, we got a repeat of Yoko Taro’s revelatory storytelling…and a repeat of gameplay that can’t quite live up to it. For many, this was enough. For me, it was a bit too much déjà vu. If the collaboration ever happens again, I hope we get the same Platinum that made Bayonetta 1 & 2.

Zelda: Breath of the Wild
Breath of the Wild is a brave and unexpected game coming from Nintendo. It has more in common with Far Cry 2 than any previous Zelda game. It can also be incredibly boring and directionless if you wander in the wrong direction. Journey to a tower in the distance and it’s more or less guaranteed that it will start raining by the time you get there, preventing you from climbing it. The main quest often fails to capitalize on the systems-driven open world, drawing more attention to its limitations than its strengths. BOTW is so much more than these complaints, but these issues were enough to keep me from devoting hundreds of hours to it like so many others.

Mario Odyssey
Mario Odyssey goes for it. Few ideas seem to be off limits, and the result is a game full of incredible highs, and enough lows to keep it off of my top 10. New Donk City is one of Mario’s all-time great worlds, but you have to pass through a few pretty dry locations to get there. The Bowser encounters are incredible, but the Broodals are ugly and uninspired. The movement controls blossom into something incredible once you start combined long-jumps, dives, and hat-throws; but, they’re soured by bad, mandatory motion controls that are completely impractical in the Switch’s portable mode.

Splatoon 2
Nintendo’s platform is the biggest obstacle between Splatoon 2 and true greatness. It’s cute that so many people love the game as a “solo multiplayer” game, but that’s no excuse for Nintendo’s Y2K-Dreamcast-tier online service. When I did manage to get friends together to play (with voice chat courtesy of a Google Hangouts call),  Splatoon 2’s excellent gameplay rose above the hassle. Plus, it convinced me that motion controls can be truly great if done right.

Doki Doki Literature Club
Doki Doki Literature Club feels like generic anime wish fulfillment for a couple hours. And even when it suggests that there is more going on behind the scenes, there’s really no reason to trust it yet. When the turn happens, though, it’s brutal, upsetting, and reframes the opening hours with value and purpose. DDLC is a tough game to recommend outright, but if you’re interesting in a mindfuck, this is for you.

Player Unknown's Battlegrounds
Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds was a phenomenon I didn’t expect to experience in 2017. Luckily I got my hands on a capable gaming PC right at the end of the year. I get it now. PUBG introduces a level of tension and anxiety to multiplayer combat that I haven’t experienced outside of a handful of games. PUBG also represents the most time I’ve spent playing games with a mouse and keyboard since Half-Life 2. This game is cool, but personally, I’m more excited for the first console/controller-focused copycat.

Dirt Rally and Resident Evil 7 demonstrated that dense, fully-featured games can work in VR. Statik, on the other hand, is a reminder that a game that works within VR’s limitations can be just as satisfying. This puzzle game confines you to a chair with a strange device shackled to your hands, giving a perfect 1:1 sensation of sitting in a chair with a controller. From there it presents a sequence of really fun and creative puzzles with some light storytelling stringing it all together. The game ends sooner than I would have liked, but that also means that each puzzle is a wholly original idea.

This is where this list starts to give me some trouble. I loved Prey. It’s a game I intend to return to. My issues with it are minor. I even loved some of the things that people criticized it for — namely, the ending. Prey is a systems-driven game in the Thief-Bioshock-Dishonored-Deus-Ex-mold. It’s rumored that it may have been called System Shock 3 at one point, and it lives up to that distinction. It features a massive, fully-realized space station packed with possibilities. And while we got lucky with this sub-genre in recent years, these kinds of games are still rare, and they take a hell of a lot of work to create. Developer Arkane should be proud of what they did here.

Gravity Rush 2
My number 11 game of the year. Gravity Rush 2 is ambitious, unique, and refreshing. Exploring its world is an absolute joy. I didn’t want it to end. I was surprised by the strange and wild directions the story took. Sure, it felt like they threw in the story of Gravity Rush 3 just in case they never get to make another one (and they probably won’t), but that just made it feel like a true journey in the end. Most of all, Gravity Rush 2 had some things to say about class structures, wealth, and poverty, which it told through the open world and gameplay in an impactful way.

Destiny 2 is Failing its Most Important Audience

Destiny has always had ups and downs, and they’ve always been pretty predictable. You can set your watch to the times when its community will be praising Bungie or cursing them to the ends of the Destiny subreddit. A new content drop typically keeps the audience happy for a month or two, but then as the events taper off, the secrets are discovered, the content becomes stale, and the playerbase starts to discover the holes. Few games are as voraciously and thoroughly consumed by a large audience. The ones that are devoured like this tend to throw so much content at the players that even the most dedicated will struggle to see it all.

At its very best, Destiny has always felt content-starved compared to other games people play every day for months at a time. Take any MMO, even one just getting started, and it likely has more hours of actual unique content than all of Destiny and Destiny 2 combined.

Destiny started life as a highly replayable loot shooter. The fantastic gameplay was always there. Destiny is Bungie’s previous game, Halo, but powered up with new abilities and modern design. Both Halo and Destiny were almost infinitely replayable before monthly events and quarterly expansion packs were the expectation. I could boot up Halo: Combat Evolved on Legendary difficulty right now and have as much fun with it as ever, and Bungie has been riding that hook for over 15 years. Continue reading Destiny 2 is Failing its Most Important Audience

Annabelle: Creation – Film Review

Most people would say they go to horror movies and haunted houses for the same fundamental reason: to be scared. That said, I have to hope most people expect a bit more substance from a movie, and while Annabelle: Creation is an effective jump-scare delivery system, it doesn’t have much else to offer.

Set as an origin story for the Annabelle doll from both The Conjuring films and the previous Annabelle, Creation tells a story no one really needed to know, in a setting that couldn’t be more dull.

Set in small town America in-or-around the 1950’s, the film opens with the Mullins family — a father, mother, and daughter — living happily in their large, isolated house outside of town. The father, Samuel, is launching a new line of porcelain dolls, the first of which is completed just before a tragic car accident takes the life of their daughter.

Twelve years after the accident, Samuel and his now bedridden wife Esther take in a nun and several orphaned girls in attempt to bring some life back into their home. Of course, it’s not quite so simple, as the girls start seeing phantoms and the danger quickly escalates.

What follows is a by-the-book haunted house scenario devoid of fresh ideas. The creaky, isolated, 1950s house doesn’t leave much room for the kind of cool scares or creative kills that set one horror movie apart from another. Meanwhile, the plot treads well-worn horror territory while doing very little to surprise us with Annabelle’s origin story. The explanation for Annabelle feels like something writer Gary Dauberman was forced to come up with out of obligation — like some last minute homework thrown together on the school bus before class.

And yet, the jump scares are quite effective. I’ve often said a comedy can be about anything as long as the jokes land, and so I have to at least give some credit to Annabelle for being a horror movie with real scares. As dull as the actual plot was, as little as I cared about the moment-to-moment, as much as I felt like I’d seen it all before, I still left my seat a few times. I think that has to count for something.

That said, I don’t think jump scares count in horror the same way laughs count for comedy. Jump scares are a fleeting thrill, and without dread, psychological horrors, interesting plot, or compelling characters backing them up, I don’t think Annabelle: Creation is worth your time.

Logan Lucky – Film Review

Logan Lucky hit theaters with seemingly little fanfare — but don’t let that fool you — this is a clever heist film with an excellent cast and some crowd-pleasing twists and turns.

I went into the film with no expectations, sold simply on director Steven Soderbergh and a cast that includes Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig. I was surprised to find a spiritual successor to Soderbergh’s previous Ocean’s trilogy. It bears the same all-star-cast-centered-around-a-big-score premise of those films, but transports them into a blue collar setting.

If Ocean’s took its cues from James Bond and The Italian Job, then Logan Lucky shares more DNA with Breaking Bad. The film’s central heist has many moving parts, but they revolve less around fancy suits and casinos and more on homemade bombs and NASCAR. That said, the setting and cast is refreshing, and as implausibly brilliant as everyone seems in hindsight, it’s so much fun in the moment that it hardly matters.

The last time I spent serious time writing on Red Ring Circus I spoke about the importance of sticking the landing. I come back to that here because Logan Lucky’s third act highs put such a huge smile on my face that I’m still smiling thinking about it. The film takes it’s time getting there, but the story builds and builds to a perfect crescendo.

And that’s about as much as I want to say about it. There’s a lot more detail in the character motivations, and the film is about more than just a heist, but I’d prefer that you go into it almost as blindly as I did, because there’s a surprisingly great film to be watched — don’t miss it!

Game & Film Opinion by Joe Donato