Belated Reviews [Open Thread]

Here’s an attempt to take a chunk out of my review backlog, and post an open thread for the first time in a while. I’ve been seriously neglecting the blog lately, as part of a larger pattern of neglecting most of my personal projects in favor of general indolence. I have ambitions of getting back to posting regularly, but it will depend somewhat on inspiration, and the holidays usually disrupt posting anyway.
Lots of high ratings here, partly because I’m prioritizing items I’ve really liked recently.
The Prestige: A movie notable for casting David Bowie as Nikola Tesla, and for including the back of Josh’s head in the trailer (reports that he appears in the film itself are unconfirmed). The plot itself is centered around two feuding stage magicians in Victorian England who make escalating attacks on each other both within and outside their respective shows. The film opens with Borden (Christian Bale) awaiting a death sentence for the murder of Angier (Hugh Jackman), and the bulk of the story is told in (sometimes nested) flashback. The movie is intricate and clever, but it also telegraphs its secrets so that the alert viewer will figure them out before the final reveal. Still, the ending was well-done even if it wasn’t a surprise, and the film as a whole is nicely coherent and thematically dense. Rating: 4/5
Arrested Development – Season Two: Everything I said about the first season applies, only more so: it’s even funnier and more cleverly written this time around. The show takes its mastery of the running joke to a new level, and its self-referential humor gets even denser. This show builds up jokes the way a dramatic series builds up the plot, so that it just gets funnier as the season progresses. Rating: 4.5/5
Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria: I don’t know how Tri-Ace does it but I find every one of their games extremely addictive. (Except for the original Star Ocean, and Radiata Stories, neither of which I’ve played.) This game is no exception and devoured approximately 100 hours of my free time over a relatively short span of weeks. It’s a worthy successor to the brilliant Valkyrie Profile, maintaining the unique feel of the original while adding its own twists on the gameplay. The combat system in particular is much more sophisticated, and makes for very engaging battles. The side-scrolling dungeon exploration mode remains, but with a teleportation mechanic that allows for more complex (and sometimes maddening) puzzles. What it lacks compared to the original is mostly aesthetic: I found the music and art to be mostly inferior (although there are some expections); the beautiful 2D backdrops of Valkyrie Profile have been replaced by more realistic 3D settings (although, true to the profile concept, movement is still restricted to 2D). In certain locations, however, the graphics are truly spectacular and surpass any setting of the original. Overall, my aesthetic complaints are minor, and this is one of the best games I’ve played in a while. Rating: 4.5/5
Tad Williams: War of the Flowers: A rare standalone novel from Tad Williams, this one starts in familiar territory—present-day San Francisco—and then transports its slacker protagonist into the world of Faerie. Williams has imagined Faerie as having experienced societal and technological changes parallel to those in the human world; consequently his fairyland is an urbanized, deforested place in the midst of environmental and political crisis. An allegorical reading of the setting is straightforward; more interesting is the personal progress of the hero as learns how he fits in to this world. I found the prose a bit cumbersome, and the pace lags at times, but when it picks up it’s quite good, and the plot takes some nice unexpected twists. Rating: 3.5/5
The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America: Although it’s no secret that I like this album, my review of it is overdue. It’s excellent, just a notch below last year’s Separation Sunday (which was my pick for album of the year). This album is less like a story than its predecessor, with Craig Finn actually singing instead of just talking most of the time, and the songs relating individual vignettes rather than a single overarching narrative. The album starts out very strong with “Stuck Between Stations”; this and the next two songs are among the best on the record, along with “You Can Make Him Like You” and a surprise acoustic turn on “Citrus”. (“Chips Ahoy!”, which follows the first track, can be downloaded here.) The slower ballad “First Night” fell a bit flat, however, and I’m not wild about “Chillout Tent”. Even with these weak moments, though, the Hold Steady have once again recorded one of the best albums of the year. Rating: 4.5/5

11 thoughts on “Belated Reviews [Open Thread]

  1. Mason

    I really want to see The Prestige, especially given my recently heightened need for escapism.
    I saw Stranger Than Fiction last night and enjoyed it immensely. I’ll do a full review on my blog at some point, but it reminded me a lot of The Truman Show, which is a very high compliment. Also, Will Ferrell played his role completely straight and did a fantastic job. One of my favorite comments was the narrator referring to Ferrell thinking about the “ratio” [though I would use ‘function’] of his making an ass of himself versus how long he spends talking to a girl he likes. (I think I’ve heard the same narrator…)
    On the plane to England, I had a chance to see four episodes of Arrested Development. This included the series premier, but they were otherwise scattered. You and others were recommending this to me especially because of my own dysfunctional upbringing, and I definitely appreciated the sense of humor and look forward to watching more of it.

  2. Lemming

    I’m still looking forward to getting the ball rolling wrt watching Arrested Development. I want to be sure I have at least an entire season on hand at a time. That, and I’ll need to not be distracted by FF-XII at the time (it’s got its hooks in me bad).
    I’m actually sad to see your review of Boys and Girls in America. I love the talking-to-music style of the first album. Actually, I was a little bit put off when you called it “arrhythmic” at one point, but I may have just not understood what you meant. Throughout the album he strikes a great balance between the natural rhythm of the language and the rhythm of the song, with all sorts of play back and forth. Just because it’s not on the beat doesn’t mean it isn’t working with the beat. Sex for my ears.

  3. Josh

    Lemming: I have FFXII unopened under guitar hero 2. I know I should play it, and I hear it will be great… but that demo. After the gloriousness that was Dragon Quest VIII, playing that demo in the same box that DQ came in took my soul, ripped it out of my chest with stainless steel claws, pissed on it, and then raped it. I hear that the story is good and the graphics are sensational though.

  4. Zifnab

    Josh – ignore the demo. The beauty that is the gambit system was tarnished by placing it in a short environment like a game demo. The game itself is great, and the gambit system does what everyone has needed in RPG’s over the years but never known – all those trash mob fights, the guys you mow your way through on the way to the actual plot fights, you can handle without having to do the same exact selections over and over again.
    The plot is very interesting, I believe someone said reminiscent of Star Wars (Ep 1-3), but in a very good way (ie, done right!). The characters are some of the best in a FF game, imho, and i’m looking forward to the next sequences that explore their backgrounds.
    Now… on to other things… I too want to see The Prestige, but only vaguely so it’s been hard to actually go and do that. Watching movies is always hard for me to get on the priority list as I much prefer interactive entertainment.
    Also, i’ve got some book recommendations for Gazebo, as well as anyone else who might be interested.
    “Liquor”, by Poppy Z. Brite. I don’t normally read much non-SF/fantasy (besides textbooks/science articles), but this one was highly recommended by the Nielsen-Hayden clan and so we picked up a copy. It is an excellent tale, with chefs and murder and descriptions of food and cooking to die for. During reading it, make sure you are well fed otherwise you will likely be staring at nearby chairs/walls/bookshelves and wondering why you don’t live in New Orleans and can’t go get food like in the book RIGHT NOW.
    “The Android’s Dream” – John Scalzi. I’ve recommended other books by Scalzi (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades). This one is not from the same setting so you can read it without the others, and has a very twisted plot. The opening chapter serves as an elaborate setup for a fart joke which causes an alien nation to nearly go to war with Earth. Chaos ensues. The only solution to the impending war is a sheep. Yup, a sheep. A very particular one, and the finding of which and subsequent story diverged completely from my expectations to make a wonderful conclusion. (On a side note, there’s a side plot involving a religion, whose entire purpose is to make the religion’s prophecies come true. Those prophecies are completely made up. It’s a very interesting idea, how it plays into the whole story wasn’t apparent until very far into it.)

  5. Lemming

    Josh – I have an unopened copy of Guitar Hero 2, and it’s gonna stay that way until I’m finished with XII.
    Here’s something I just realized: I can use the Gambit system to stage mock battles between the characters. Hell, first thing when I get home, I’m going to set up two of them in plot-specific equipment, and have them fight to the death. While they duke it out, I’ll sit back on the couch and scream, “You were supposed to be the chosen one!”
    Man, it’s gonna be sweet. (No, the parallels to Star Wars don’t run that deep… not very deep at all, actually — they’re there, that’s about it.)

  6. Josh

    Z – I like the idea of mowing my way through the grunts when I’m overly powerful… but I doubt FFXII will top Valkyrie Profile 2 in accomplishing that. VP2 had a nearly perfect battle system in my book.

  7. Mason

    Lemming: Your last post here made me laugh out loud, and I can’t overstate how much I needed that at the moment.
    Um, so I’m in the mood for thoughtless, violent action movies. Drop me a line if you’re game. (Well, I will submit my paper first, but I can actually do that really quickly if I would only stop delaying it by reading Travis’s blog.)
    Also, I now have my new laptop (though I need a ride to take it home with me tonight). It arrived today while I was off at LMU giving a talk. I checked to see if Civ IV was out for the Mac either yesterday or Saturday (I’m currently feeling harrowed and can’t particularly remember which), so I’ll have that to keep me company soon enough.
    Anyway, I better stop delaying finishing and submitting my paper.

  8. Arcane Gazebo

    I haven’t yet played FFXII (or even the demo) so I have nothing to say about the particulars of its gameplay. However, what I’m hearing described (here and elsewhere) as its great innovation actually strikes me as a step in the wrong direction. From what I gather the gambits are a kind of scripting system that streamlines the boring and repetitive minor combats. But this is addressing the wrong issue: the problem wasn’t that I had to press buttons on the controller during these encounters, it was that they’re boring and repetitive, and I’m not sure it’s an improvement that the gambit system allows me to sit back and watch the minor fights. I want to play games that engage me even in the least important encounters.
    And, in fact, the trend in the better console RPGs of the last few years has been exactly this. Games like the Xenosaga series and VP2 have fewer minor battles, and give the player more freedom to circumvent them, but these encounters are dangerous, with powerful monsters using sophisticated tactics. As a result all the battles are interesting, and not just filler between the boss fights.
    Now I may be getting the wrong impression of FFXII, and I may enjoy the game regardless, but this is why I remain skeptical.

  9. Lemming

    Granted, my preferences here are a little funky, but let me clarify few things.
    XII has lots (and lots and lots) of potential minor battles. There are monsters all over the place on the (huge and goregous) maps, just walking around. You can easily sneak around them, sprint through them, or beat them up and take their silver points. Yay for seamless battles!
    As the game progresses, these fights do not get easier (well, going through older zones gets much, much easier). They get harder. Either a) each successive zone will take more and more interaction or b) you will program more and more elaborate gambits, and watch as your well-oiled machine goes to work. Actually, it’s a bit of both. When you’re fighting a couple of Behemoths and you get some Marlboro adds, you’re going to discover a whole new world of pain, and even the best-layed gambits will fall by the wayside.
    As the game progresses, you get more gambit slots (by levelling, sort of), and more specific gambits available (by progressing the plot, as you would spells or equipment). Early on, most fights are along the lines of “everyone hit it ’til it dies.” Then, you upgrade to “hit it ’til it dies, but stop to cure if you need to.”
    At this point, my whole party has ~16 gambit slots (the max), and I’d kill for a few more. The fights take a little bit longer, and they’re interesting to watch. I step in as necessary, but more than that I’m thinking about priorities and how to, if necessary, shift a few gambits around so that I can take the next batch of fights without so many casualties.
    For me (remember, I’m a programmer, so this is odd), not only have the gambits made combat less interactive (only in the realtime sense), they’ve made it a lot more interesting. I don’t know how well this translates to anyone else, and the other people I know who are playing have similar computational tastes (Z & M^2).
    I liken it to Armored Core — a flawed but simultaneously really fun game. The real game for me is the garage. Fighting through the missions is fun, but only insofar as it relates back to the garage. “I’m gonna need to swap out those quad-legs for a hover chasis if I want to catch up to that transport, and the extended ammo pulse rifle is a waste of both space and energy — I’ll favor ballistics instead, and I’ve saved up enough to suck up the additional ammo expense. Take 2!”
    You may still find the battles boring and repetitive, in which case the whole mechanism will ease the symptoms without treating the illness. I expect some people will feel that way, and it’s a fair opinion. I just find that not only has some annoyance been taken away, value (for me) has been added.
    The seamless environment makes for some nice touches that seem like they should have been obvious all along. When you’re trying to escape XYZ Dungeon of Doom and the entire local contingent of storm troopers is on your tail, they’re really on your tail, and will catch up and start beating you over the head if you stop to catch your breath.
    Here’s a short but telling anecdote. On Saturday, Mike^2 a’sploded my save file (the bastard!). Normally I alternate over a pair of save files, but I’d been slacking, so this act cost me about 10 hours of gameplay (from just a hair under 40 hours to 30 and change.) I wasn’t nearly as pissed as I had a right to be, and for the most part enjoyed it just as much as the first time around. (Being better prepared for the Mandy fight took a little of the fun out of it, though.)
    (Of course, what I’m really saying is “zomg I dig it!” not “zomg you’ll dig it!”, I guess. Though though though.)
    Oh, and mock battle report — the forces of darkness triumph!

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