My Thoughts On The Controversial Updates To YouTube’s Monetization Policy

Over the last 24 hours there has been a stir online surrounding a memo from YouTube regarding some impending changes to their monetization policy.  The memo in question, titled “Additional Changes to the YouTube Partner Program (TPP) to Better Protect Creators”, has received both defense and criticism from some who describe it as yet another means by which YouTube is attempting to drown out smaller channels.  This is an accusation that has be levied at YouTube’s parent company Google before as the Internet’s most popular video hosting platform has been reported as a loss leader costing possibly hundreds of millions of dollars to operate with little boost to Google’s bottom line.

One speculation ties this with a recent push by Google to feature more featured, paid content from major creators as well as the questionably-successful YouTube Red subscription service.  By that, it is reasonable to assume Google is trying everything they can to keep YouTube around and make it profitable.  It’s undeniable that Google isn’t exactly hurting for money at the moment with Alphabet, Inc. stocks on a steady incline in value, however things aren’t as simple as “They have a lot of money.”

The precarious anvil that has been looming over YouTube’s already aching head over the past few years comes in the form of controversial YouTube channels and a few high-profile creators finding themselves in headlines and hot water.  If you were to ask me, most of the outcry surrounding otherwise innocuous creators like JonTron, Pewdiepie, and most recently, Logan Paul, is a distraction at best; fallacious at worst.  It’s difficult to believe there is a massive influx of vile people on the rise in YouTube because of a few incidents (most of which were entirely overblown, yet a few were certainly questionable).  However, this argument that one has to take sides because of “reasons” utterly escapes me.

So, a quick rundown of YouTube’s policy changes indicate a few details.  First, the article points out troubling issues in YouTube that have been ongoing.  Immediately, the recent controversies about bizarre Flash animations featuring Disney characters and Donald Trump in compromising or even horrific circumstances (that are apparently part of an AI-generated video scheme to hijack YouTube’s algorithm to capture views via auto-play program), to an increase in creators advocating support for things as horrific as pedophilia both come to mind.  These are the “bad actors” that I imagine being a real sore spot for YouTube.  Even more broadly, the requirements for the YouTube Partner Program have been strengthened and now require not only 1,000 subscribers at minimum, but also a cumulative 4,000 hours of watch time over the past 12 months with a 30-day grace period.  These changes are slated to take effect on February 20th, 2018.

All of that sounds reasonable enough, but there is a spot where things start to get a little hazy.  The article refers to “bad actors”, “abuse” and “harm” but never really explains what any of these mean.  It then hotlinks to the article on YouTube’s Community Guidelines which is equally vague but at least provides some examples of what could constitute a policy violation.  To make things even more concerning, if a channel does manage to achieve the requisite subscription base and view count, these creators then have to submit their own channel for “review” to finally get permission to monetize their content.  The problem with this process takes me back to the nebulous terms like “harm”.  Is there any way a video reviewed on such a basis can be done so objectively?  From the way it sounds in their own post, even if a channel is big, whether or not the creator can monetize their own creation is entirely at the subjective whim of a handful of thus far unidentified reviewers.  I find this to be suspicious and believe it will likely contribute to much of the content that made YouTube famous leaving for good.  Some video hobbyists may be forced to reconsider whether or not it is even worth suffering the slings and arrows of the video streaming giant’s new terms to even justify putting in the effort.  As for myself, I do not know if I really even want to start going down the YouTube path.  I simply do not have the time, hence the infrequency of posts on my own damn site.

I felt compelled to weigh in on this a little bit as I want to do a little more editorializing on news and events surrounding popular culture as, while lists and reviews are certainly more fun to write, I also would like to share some thoughts about other goings on in the world of entertainment.  That said, I plan to have another review up in the next few days so here’s hoping I can keep up some momentum…

An Arbitrary List Of A Few of My Favorite Free-To-Play MMORPG’s

The MMORPG has come a long way since Ultima Online and Runescape.  Even though World of Warcraft continues to lead the genre, at the same time they have been steadily losing players since the release of Cataclysm in 2010 and I think a fair case for this is the rise of free-to-play alternatives.  I have made the argument before that any company who continues to charge a subscription fee to play MMO’s is doing so at their own risk.  Thus far it has worked for WoW as well as the excellent Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, but how long will this last?  Even games like Guild Wars 2, which has an up-front cost to buy the game but no subscription fee to play, are on the rise.  So, with that I decided to list some of my personal favorite free-to-play games.  This is somewhat of an impromptu article but this is something that has been on my mind as we are starting to see a massive resurgence of single-player experiences dominate the gaming landscape as well as an overwhelming portion of the online market shifted towards competitive-focused MOBA’s like League of Legends and arena shooters like Overwatch.

So, without further ado, let’s begin:

TERA

Launching as a subscription title, TERA attempted to break new ground by focusing on fast, real-time action combat that centered primarily around engaging giant beasts.  The world is populated by mobs of monsters and is designed to pit you against little, regular enemies that you can easily dispatch in a few seconds of hacking and slashing as set dressing for the fights that really count.  The gameplay for TERA still holds up even against arguably superior action MMO experiences like Guild Wars 2 as TERA’s high level of customization rivals even the most sophisticated MMO’s out there.  The only downside to TERA , really, is its player base.  It is a generally low-population game, so finding players who are willing to regularly engage in skirmishes with the tougher monsters in the game can be difficult, especially around the mid levels.  Still, Bluehole Studio and En Masse have done a good job of keeping the content coming, with new classes being released and additional expanded content added with some regularity.  Add to the mix a dynamic and fairly complex and rewarding crafting system and some occasionally-entertaining story missions and you have a fun, fast and often challenging MMO for more experienced action RPG players.

 

Wildstar

Speaking of hard….  Wildstar may be the toughest MMORPG on the market right now.  I say this as someone who has played several of the classes and gone through much of the first half of the game (but need to get deeper into things, to be honest).  It’s complexity comes in the form of the combat, which focuses on abilties that require thought, timing and precision.  Unlike a lot of titles where you can simply spam your strongest skills, many of Wildstar’s class skills are utilitarian in nature, forcing you to save them for the right moment and think your way through engagements.  Wildstar also puts a lot of focus on exploration of the environment, themed on exploring an unknown planet, you can choose from specific jobs that range from documenting life forms to navigating the rougher terrain to scout out new settlements.  It’s a deep game with a lot of things to do, the only downside being its limited class customization.

 

Dungeon Fighter Online

DFO is probably the simplest game on my list in terms of design, but it’s also one of the most addictive.  Put simply, it’s an online equivalent to an old-school beat-em-up a la Final Fight or Streets of Rage.  Instanced levels with boss fights at the end are a staple for many of the lower-budget MMO’s out there but DFO handles things well by being fast and fun.  Classes are varied and have a fair degree of customization considering how simple the combat is.  The only downsides are the fact that its age is starting to show compared to some other games, and the implementation of “charges” that limit your playtime unless you are either willing for dungeon charges to replenish over time or are also willing to use or buy items to replenish them from special drops or the cash shop.

Eden Eternal

I honestly have not picked up Eden Eternal in a while.  I had thought about getting back into it, too.  This is a really fun MMORPG with a surprising turn that sets it apart in the genre.  It allows you to create a character and freely change classes as you see fit.  Think of it as something akin to a Final Fantasy or Dragon Quest game that uses a job system.  You can change your classes, which change the equipment loadout, skills and function of your character and as you level individual classes and combinations thereof up, you unlike more complex and unique classes down the road.  The ability to switch jobs makes Eden Eternal pretty interesting as it motivates you to be a little more experimental in your approach.  The downside to Eden Eternal is the gameplay is very dated.  Eden Eternal launched in 2011 and it feels like it.  While I did enjoy it the last time I played it, I’m sure I’d find some fault with it at this point just on these grounds, but that will remain to be seen.  That said, I have fond memories of Eden Eternal and for its time, I would say it was a pretty smart take on the classic MMORPG formula.

 

Dragon Saga

Yet another action MMORPG, Dragon Saga puts you in control of a chibi anime hero as you traverse a vivid 3D world fighting through hordes of enemies and chaining together ridiculous combos for bonus loot.  Dragon Saga is as simple as it gets with its beat-em-up style that is similar to DFO’s only with a little more complexity in the classes.  However, unlike DFO, Dragon Saga is not entirely locked to a HUB town connected to instanced dungeons.  Instead, there are field areas populated by other players and within those are special dungeons you can choose to enter for quests and loot.  The quests are pretty standard “kill 10 wolves” type-missions but the fast, addictive combat helps to elevate much of the repetition.  Dragon Saga is also a good “starter MMORPG” for those gamers who are intimidated by the vastness and complexity of many of the prominent games in the genre as it focuses primarily on fast, accessible action gameplay opposed to dense character micromanagement.

 

Rift

When World of Warcraft launched it was a demarcation point of sorts.  It’s difficult to understate what WoW did for gaming as a whole.  That said, I believe it has been on a steady decline of quality over the past eight years.  I do not want to call it a “bad game” since I haven’t played it since a few patches into Cataclysm, but I think it’s safe to say it has been greatly simplified to the point of having little to know feeling of control over the development of your character.  Controversial as this opinion may be to some, I feel the changes made to WoW around February of 2011 were the beginning of the end.  The game still does well but it appears to be in many cases that the players aren’t so much sticking around as they are being replaced by a younger crowd.  Enter Rift….

Rift is my favorite MMORPG of all time.  It’s not everyone’s first choice for sure, but I feel it being effectively a clone of WoW, captures everything Blizzard had done so right for 5+ years of running the dominant MMORPG while expanding upon those ideas and not taking countless steps to undermined the flow of the game and progress of long-time late-game players.  Rift’s world is nowhere near as large as WoW’s, but the game is primarily focused on large-scale public events, bringing players together as zones are overtaken by hundreds or even thousands of enemies, forcing players to defend the towns and hub areas of the map while closing the Rifts from which they pour and clearing a series of quests to spawn a massive raid boss and saving the day… at least for a time.  On top of the scale of these events is the fact that Trion Worlds does not make you wait until you are at the level cap to be able to participate in these events.  Rather, from the starting areas you have an opportunity to take down big raid bosses for special rewards, joining public groups to clear Rifts and exploring challenging and unique dungeons.  Lastly, Rift only has 5 classes, but each of these classes has a list of sub-classes of which you can choose 3, and each sub-class may play very different from another.  As a result you may have ranged-caster-warriors, melee tank mages and rogues that operate as healers.  It allows you to experiment with ideas and explore new ways to play your classes.  It also allows you to break up the monotony of churning out the same DPS rotation over and over again to take down a boss.

If you are like me and have grown disenfranchised by World of Warcraft and want to share in a similar gameplay experience with depth and engaging character progression, I give Rift my strongest recommendation.

Please share and let me know what your favorite F2P MMORPG’s are.  Maybe they’re some I haven’t played!

Anime Review – A Place Further Than the Universe: Episode 1

Youth is said to be an adventure, and anime can occasionally capture ideas of youth quite well.  A Place Further Than the Universe is a slice-of-life anime series from Madhouse with writing and production from creators of shows like K-On!, Steins;Gate, Nichijou and Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi.

The first episode, entitled “One Mwillion Yen For Youth” (‘Million’ is misspelled in the actual title; I’m not sure why but if anyone knows, please comment below) follows a 2nd-year high school student named Mari Tamaki who longs for adventure but can never bring herself to take the leap, always backing out at the last minute with a new excuse every time.  Everything changes, however, after a serendipitous encounter with a strange girl at a train station.  This mystery student dashes past her and in her rush drops an envelope containing one million Yen!  Mari, who picks the envelope up and unable to resist peeks inside.  Mari is immediately met with a giant moral dilemma.  Resolving to do the right thing, she finds and returns the money to the strange girl, named Shirase, and through their new friendship it is discovered this detached young woman has been saving money for years to travel to Antarctica to search for her missing mother.  In the end, Mari resolves to join Shirase and they embark on a spontaneous and probably dangerous journey to one of the harshest environments on Earth.  The first episode ends as the two teenagers embark on a barge to begin their long journey across the ocean to a moving score.

From what I can tell so far from this 23-minute introduction is A Place Further Than the Universe is a light drama that has a lot of warmth.  I think, however, this series is going to lean more towards the teenage girl demographic than my taste can really endure.  That isn’t inherently a bad thing, but I doubt there will be much to relate or attach to for me here.  I did enjoy the gentleness of the first episode though, the animation quality is top-notch (as to be expected considering it is a Madhouse production), and the opening to the series is also pretty good.  I will definitely give the next few episodes a watch, hoping things pick up a bit more.  However, if you are already a fan of saccharin, girlish charm, you will probably like this one more than me.

My Top Ten Favorite Video Games of 2017

It’s 2018 and looking back at 2017, I would say despite a few notable controversies, it was a pretty solid year for games.  It was certainly a diverse year!  First-person shooters are back in force, MOBA’s continue to take over and multiply (for better or worse), the war between Western and Japanese RPG’s is back on and it’s like the 90’s all over again (and if you remember, that little war gave us Chrono Trigger and Diablo II so… Yeah, imagine what could be around the corner), and there is a concerted effort to bring back classic genres like run-and-gun shooters and 3D platformers to the mainstream!  Things are looking up!

So, here is my list of the ten video games from 2017 that I played and truly enjoyed the most.  You’ll notice an absence of a few titles from this list almost immediately and I’ll tell you, it’s because I haven’t played Super Mario Odyssey and the Wii U version of Breath of the Wild did not land at the best time for me, so while I played some of it, I haven’t played all of the way through it yet.  I plan to give it another go once I pick up a Switch, which I definitely intend to do in the not-too-distant future.

Until then, let’s begin….


10. Ever Oasis (Nintendo; 3DS)

Going into Ever Oasis completely blind, I did not expect to enjoy as much as I did.  It is a truly rewarding feeling as the game doesn’t just show your progress via level numbers, stat points and story progression, but you get to watch as your Oasis expands and becomes an even more complex and vivid town.  The mix of dungeon crawler action/RPG with some simple crafting and city management is actually pretty interesting, and it is a very solid introduction to these genres for younger gamers who look to get into more challenging titles but seasoned gamers will find little challenge here.  Still, it was a fun game and I would honestly not mind giving it another playthrough.


9. Forza Motorsport 7 (Microsoft; Xbox One)

I’ve been a fan of the Forza Motorsport series since 2005 on the original XBox.  To this day I am partial to the Forza franchise over the other key racing simulation competitors.  It’s an engaging, challenging and rewarding game that offers a lot more than just standard races, and the car selection is just phenomenal.  The only thing that keeps it from reaching a higher ranking on my list is it is yet another entry in the long-running series and outside of new cars and some new features, it is just another Forza title.


  8. Destiny 2 (Bungie; PS4)

The long-awaited Destiny 2 hit shelves in 2017 and, at least for me, it didn’t disappoint.  I was hoping it would at least live up to the first game and it did that and more.  I was impressed by the sheer frequency of public events and while they often did lack in variety, I went into Destiny wanting to shoot aliens, and that’s what I got!  The new weapons are fun to use and quite varied, especially compared to its predecessor, it looks great, and the multiplayer really works as you do feel like you are contributing to a greater fight through much of the game.  Also, the last act of the story campaign is just one of the coolest levels I’ve ever played through in a first-person shooter.


 7. Dragon Quest Heroes 2 (SquareEnix; PS4)

Okay, okay… I’m kind of cheating putting this one on the list.  I imported Dragon Quest Heroes 2 in 2016 shortly after it’s Japanese release date.  However, it did only get released in the US in 2017, so I’m counting it because it’s my damn list!  I loved DQH and the sequel is a worthy successor.  Adding two new heroes to the lineup as playable characters and bringing back the likeable cast of the first with some fresh-yet-familiar faces, DQH2 lands a fun action RPG brawler that mixes free-roaming exploration and tactical, large-scale, Warriors-esque battles.  It plays well with the characters offering a variety of skills, unique perks and a rewarding crafting system.  I own both a Japanese and NA version of this game on the PS4.  It’s a truly solid title and for those of you waiting to play it on PC, here’s hoping the port turns out alright.  I may pick it up on the PC too just to review it with a comparative lens.


6. Metroid: Samus Returns (Nintendo; 3DS)

Super Metroid is my favorite video game of all time.  Period.  That said, I have a somewhat rocky history with the Metroid franchise as a whole.  I actually am not a fan of most of the games, including a few of the 2D titles.  There have been a few I’ve enjoyed through the years though, and after seeing the trailer for Samus Returns during Nintendo Direct, I was thoroughly excited to play this one.  I was not disappointed.  Samus Returns is flashy, it plays well and while it does veer from the Super Metroid controls I’m so very used to quite a bit in terms of the flow and speed, I really give Samus Returns a glowing recommendation.


5. NieR: Automata (SquareEnix; PS4)

Action RPG’s are where it’s at for me.  If the action is varied, fast with a few insane boss battles thrown in for good measure, then all the better (see #1), but NieR: Automata checks all of these boxes and then goes a step further adding a flair and feel that only a Japanese action title can bring.  While every attack is brutal in its strength, every little touch in NieR’s broken world is delicate and well thought out.  There is a degree of freedom in the combat but the game is built for speed, and it is a fast game.  A sudden hard turn in the game shifts the moral compass and mood of the entire experience as well and adds to the complexity of a game that makes you question your role as a hero in past games where you were encouraged to carelessly polish off hoards of nameless enemies.  NieR: Automata is a commentary on gamers, their attitudes towards games, and the way the games themselves may perceive us.


4. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (Naughty Dog; PS4)

Of course Naughty Dog would make my list for 2017 and Lost Legacy, while not being nearly as good as the masterpiece that was A Thief’s End, was a fun, well-written and beautiful game with some solid action set pieces.  Chloe Frazer makes a great lead and the game does her justice after her absence from the 4th chapter in the series.  It also ties things together with the inclusion of characters from the predecessor and filling in some history at the same time.  The only thing that keeps it from being higher is it is just another entry in a series that never disappoints, but evolved so much with Uncharted 4 that Lost Legacy really does feel like DLC.  Nevertheless, the reduced price point was an acceptable bargain considering the package you got.  It isn’t a long game, but it is a complete experience and a solid standalone entry with solid female leads and an absolutely excellent villain.


3. A Hat In Time (Gears for Breakfast; PC)

I had just tried this one on for size (for lack of a better phrase), and I must say, ‘I’m impressed’.  This little Kickstarter gem came up to the surface in 2017 on Steam and just surprised the Hell out of everyone.  A Hat In Time is a charming, heartwarming little 3D platforming throwback to the heyday of the genre in the early 2000’s.  The controls are solid, the world is full of things to explore and places to see, the hats add a variety of gameplay ideas and the focus on platforming over combat makes it a welcome return to a classic genre that has been seeing a legitimate comeback in recent years.  I’m glad I played Hat In Time soon enough to add it to this list!  It’s the best 3D platformer I’ve played from 2017 (so far).


2. Cuphead (Studio MDHR; Multi [PC])

Cuphead!  It’s already legendary.  It has already become the latest speed-running staple.  This instant classic has been brewing around the Internet since its announcement years ago at E3.  A game that was announced at a conference out of nowhere and it was instantly unlike anything I had ever seen in a game, hearkening back to classic 1930’s animation and looking just damn-stunning the whole time.  Finally, in 2017 I got my chance to pick this one up and oh boy did it feel good to get the unpalatably-bitter taste of the betrayal that was Mighty No. 9 out of my mouth.  Cuphead is a polished, deliberate, precise platformer/shooter in the vein of Contra with a dash of Mega Man-X.  Insane boss battles and a twisted-yet-brilliant sense of humor come together to form a game that is full of memorable moments and a few of my new favorite boss fights of all time.  I still occasionally pick Cuphead up and fight a few escaped souls here and there, hoping to beat my best time.


 1. Horizon: Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games; PS4)

I had high hopes for Horizon since its PS4 premiere a few years ago at E3.  It looked like a fun game from a pre-rendered trailer and when I finally got a chance to play it, I could not describe just how good everything was.  Horizon turned out great and while Guerrilla Games could have just made a competent open-world, action RPG and got by with a few handshakes and high sales, they instead made a game so good that it raises the bar for the entire genre.  Throughout 2017 I was reflecting on what made Horizon work so well and it’s really hard to narrow everything down to just one aspect, but I would say it is the inclusion of a powerful and truly likable new heroine in Aloy and a vivid, stunning open world that rivals any other I’ve seen in lush beauty and creativity blended it with pinpoint gameplay and rewarding and fairly attainable character progression.  Then there’s the combat.  Oh!  That combat!  Fighting in Horizon is some of the most fun action I’ve ever experienced in a game.  I would count Horizon among the ranks of my favorite video games of all time now, knocking back a few gems that I still hold in high regard, but Horizon is destined to become a modern icon of the medium.


 

Well, that about does it for 2017!  I thought about doing a movie wrap up but 2017 was such a dead zone for movies I decided not to even bother really.  I did see a lot of movies in 2017, but very few of them (besides Coco and The Disaster Artist) really blew me away.  Please tell me what you think of my game picks in the comments section.  Did you like my list?  Did you hate everything about it?  Do you want me to set my PS4 on fire?  Please share and try to get the word out and I hope to start picking up the pace with writing again.  Things had just been hectic like you wouldn’t believe for me.

Happy 2018!

Pop Thoughts: Where ‘The Last Jedi’ Lost the Plot

It is to be expected in modern cinema for a movie franchise to bloat then implode like a giant stellar body; crushed under its own weight.  “The Force Awakens”, despite its derivative structure, gave long time-fans of the beloved Star Wars franchise hope that a rebirth in the Universe they love could be imminent.  However, the backlash to “The Last Jedi” is palpable and there may be an objective storytelling explanation to this…

I feel the issue with “The Last Jedi” is it fails to really land on any of the plots laid before it.  It feels almost disjointed from Episode VII entirely and transforms into a series of branching subplots that flow more similar to one of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien adaptations than any cohesive Star Wars adventure.  In the Original Trilogy it was common for characters to be split up then reunite.  It had become a trope of the series, but all causes seemed united in the end.  Even Luke, who abandons the Rebellion to pursue his Jedi teachings and to confront Darth Vader alone as part of a greater calling, ultimately returns to fight alongside his allies by the third film.

In Episode VIII it seems like they wanted to follow the same path but without any guidance or endpoint.  The big climax of the movie is a short, almost lifeless battle that, while beautifully shot on a planet covered in salt, is a ripple in a puddle instead of the needed tidal wave.  Most of the characters are out of the action and the events feel motionless and without spirit.  It all unfolds with no gravitas; no explosiveness.  Despite urgency, hurriedness and the illusion of a fatal threat, at no point is any real danger properly conveyed.  I think this is where “The Last Jedi” really falls flat.  There is so much going on that none of it feels like it really matters.

The cluttered events of the film all overshadow each other, resulting in no one character really having a moment of great strength.  Instead, the movie is flooded with superfluous characters, one of each archetype, and none of them have actions that are all that impactful.  A touch that made Star Wars so relatable was that the heroes were not super-soldiers; They were hermits, farmers and criminals.  They were not established icons of the galaxy who did their jobs well; They were regular people who rose to greatness.  “The Force Awakens” had this and was (for the most part) successful in how it developed Finn and Rey.  In TLJ, neither of these two characters contribute much on their own and instead the writers egregiously gave several heroic sacrifices that would have been great turns for lead characters to faceless new “heroes” we did not know or care about because the writers (and probably Disney) did not want to risk killing off a named character.  This toothlessness is a massive weakness to this movie.

Lastly, I think the biggest problem with TLJ is Rey.  As a character, she’s fine; and Daisy Ridley gives a solid performance when she is actually given a chance, but she is used so poorly that it ultimately becomes a waste.  The writers give her no flaws, they give her no real moments of weakness and the one turn that could have been amazing (occurring when she confronts Kylo Ren in person) is avoided because she has to be good.  Not only is she good, but she is spectacular at everything.  Luke Skywalker had this problem, too.  He was a solid shot with a gun, an ace pilot, and a Jedi savant but at least he did appear to work for most of this, especially when it came to the Force.  Rey is just good at everything for no reason and because of this massive writing flaw, everything on screen acts against her or happens to her and she is always outside of the action, even when she’s in it!  It’s a trope that is common in movies that I and some others call “Lead Character Invincibility”, where nothing too gross or horrific can happen directly to a character if the writers feel it is essential to make them pure or perfect.  Rey’s been labeled by fans a “Mary Sue”, but I’m not even sure if that’s entirely accurate.  She’s more like an avatar.  She exists in the movie as a perfect Jedi hero for fans to project themselves onto.  As a result she must be a blank slate.  She can’t have too much personality or too much of an apparent emotional connection or turn, otherwise it can be hard to sell her as an action figure.

..and that’s the the major issue isn’t it?  The heroes and villains in “The Last Jedi” are all just action figures.  None of them feel solid.  They all sort of flop around and do their action figure things in their action figure vehicles.  There are great action scenes but we aren’t talking about set pieces, we’re talking about characters.  They’re all self-insert shells to set up moments of greatness that never really pay off for any one character.  The only moments where any of the characters actually come across as living things in this Universe are when the badass pilot Poe Dameron takes out an array of anti-cruiser cannons from a ship all by himself and when the villain Kylo Ren (a character that steals the show thanks to Adam Driver’s great performance) is faced with a moment of conflict when facing Rey.  Everything else is set dressing.  Even Luke Skywalker’s triumphant return is executed lazily and blandly.

I do not think Episode VIII is a bad movie.  It’s certainly an entertaining action film but it is not a strong entry in this franchise.  It is too lacking in character or personality to really matter.  Everything is shallow and lifeless, like a scene in one of the many Star Wars coloring books on sale right now in your local grocery store for just $2.99!

Film Review – Coco (2017)

Coco (2017; Disney/Pixar) I will often sleep on a movie before writing about it to clear myself of any immediate emotional reaction and give a truly honest review. I wasn’t sure what to expect going into Coco. I knew it was going to be a visual spectacle based on what I’ve seen. I recalled it is themed after the mythos surrounding the Mexican tradition of the Dia de los Muertos, there’s a boy and a guitar… and that was about all I knew. I just hadn’t stayed abreast of the movie. I generally enjoy Pixar’s work (with a few exceptions), but I asserted right after leaving the theater, and still believe as of writing this review, that Coco is Pixar’s best movie yet.

The story centers around Miguel, a boy who is growing up in a family of shoemakers, a tradition passed down through three generations inspired by his great, great grandmother who so hated music that she banned it from her home. Think Rev. Moore from Footloose, except with a little less depressing motivation. No, she was so angered by her husband leaving the family to pursue his career in music that she decided it was never to be part of her home. She raised her daughter to pass down this hatred of the art and it had worked for years, only now there is a problem; Miguel is not just a lover of music, but an aspiring musician himself, driven by his love for classical Mexican actor and singer Ernesto de la Cruz.

All that is the setup and what happens from there is both insane and inspiring. To make a long story short, Miguel needs a guitar to enter a talent show and out of last-minute desperation, he steals the guitar from the tomb of his favorite actor believing he is the star’s heir and a as a result, he becomes cursed. He is trapped in the world of the dead on the Day of the Dead and while he can see his family, they cannot see him. He crosses over into the afterlife being the only living person in a massive city that spans miles and miles and towers into the sky. Here he must receive a blessing from a family member to return home. He teams up with a lowly, nearly forgotten spirit who is desperately trying to connect with the other side before he fades away for good, and thus begins their adventure.

Coco is about family, tradition, defiance and forgiveness. It is, hands down, the most heartwarming, well-crafted story in Pixar’s repertoire There was an inspiration here; I do not know what it is for certain, but there was a drive in Coco that surpassed the cynicism of modern movies and delivered a beautiful, powerful and moving adventure that is actually for everyone. Unlike most modern family movies that still lean more towards the kids, this is a film that really should be passed down as a timeless classic alongside The Goonies, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (and yes; I am saying it’s as good as those movies). In fact, I think I would say Coco is the best movie of 2017 and possibly the best movie so far this decade.

Everything you see is crafted with care. The little touches of light, the subtle facial movements, the voices, the traditional style that mimics classic films by directors like John Houston and Michael Curtiz, and just the modernized-but-still-classic story. The arc is painted perfectly and while I did see a few of the beats coming, when it all comes together it is a satisfying, albeit a little contrived, conclusion.

Coco’s animation is crafted with such astonishing detail that it makes one wonder how what they did was even possible. Every piece of fabric is tactile, it’s textures are drawn threat-by-thread, the one moment where water really makes an appearance is so convincing that it feels almost too real. Each character could have been rendered as flat, cartoonish caricatures but instead have fine details around the face giving that traditionally-Disney style a dramatic makeover that can probably only truly be appreciated on the big screen. Every wrinkle, hair and fold of fabric moves, adding a dynamic and naturalistic visual tone to the every scene. Even the dead, with their painted skulls, are not simply colored patterns painted on white, animated bones, but the bones themselves have texture, variations in color, and the paint is rough along the surface of each face, as though it wasn’t just slapped onto a piece of plastic. All of these seemingly-minor details add depth and further meaning to the world.

While Coco is not technically an animated musical, it is about music, so there are a few songs here and there where characters perform in front of crowds, on stage or even just for one another in lovely character moments. I play guitar casually, so I can tell you that each chord, movement of the hand and pluck of each string is unbelievably masterful in its execution. The moments of bombast in the few big song numbers are reminiscent of old westerns and the classics of the Golden Age of Mexican cinema.

See Coco. See it in theaters. See it where it counts because this will not be the same on Blu-ray, even if you are sporting a 72” 4K monstrosity in your living room. That is not what this sort of movie is made for. This is a theatrical film through and through, and everyone should be in the seats. Coco topped the box office this opening weekend and appears to be on track to become one of Pixar’s big successes, and it deserves every penny.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Movie Review

Thor: Ragnarok (2017; Marvel Studios)

To say the Marvel Cinematic Universe has had highs and lows is an understatement, but Thor: Ragnarok, despite being at one point the highest-rated Marvel movie to date on the “infinitely reliable” Rotten Tomatoes (*scoff*), is a baffling exercise, the meat of which resembles the floor of a Golden Corral after it is raided by an Oprah studio audience that had been infected with the Rage Virus from 28 Days Later.  I walked away from Thor 3 not so much angry but rather confused.  I was entertained in the moment, for sure, but upon some reflection I realize just how indescribably-bizarre a specimen this movie really is.

Thor: Ragnarok follows the titular Norse icon as he finds himself in a strange new world and must fight his way out to return to Asgard and save his home before Hela can overtake the throne.  He is forced to face off with his old ally the Hulk in gladiatorial combat, team up with his selfish and deceitful brother Loki, and partner with a former Valkyrie-turned-slaver to defeat the embodiment of Death and rescue the people of his homeland.

In terms of the Marvel films we’ve seen so far, Ragnarok is more “Guardians of the Galaxy” than “Winter Soldier”.  It is filled with classic rock tracks and slow-motion montages and has a neon flair that is reminiscent of Gunn’s adaptations of the cult comics.  Where this does work is it sets a consistent tone for a movie, the problem is it sets that tone for a completely different film than the one you are watching.  The best way I can describe Thor: Ragnarok is, if you took one of the better, non-comical MCU movies from recent years and at the end of every seminal moment you insert a clip from The Family Guy.  Nearly every scene in the movie, including those that are supposed to have some weight to them, is punctuated with a splash of completely unnecessary humor.

To make matters worse, we aren’t talking Mel Brooks levels of comedy here, either; The man who wrote a chase scene involving a six-foot blunt has far too much pathos for this.  This is bad, sitcom-levels of comedy.  Thor is filled with half-written stinger jokes and pointless rambling dialogue that serves no purpose other than to pad the movie out and shutter a scene because the writers and director didn’t know how to end it; so instead of a resolution or smooth transition, we get a one-liner or a pratfall.  It is also painfully obvious that the director, Taika Waititi, thinks he is a whole lot funnier as a comedic director than he really is and the end result is embarrassing and completely cringeworthy.

A positive I will give Thor is the acting is pretty good, albeit occasionally goofy.  I am about 90% certain that most of the worst acting moments of the movie fall into the laps of the writers and director more so than the actors, though.  Hemsworth still makes the perfect Thor and Tom Hiddleston as Loki is still pretty solid, though he spends some parts of the movie trying to come off as badass and it really does not suit him.  Mark Ruffalo reprises his role as Bruce Banner and Tessa Thompson brings the classic character Valkyrie to the screen in style.  Jeff Goldblum plays the almost Messianic leader of a decadent and debaucherous hidden civilization and has some of the best lines in the movie delivering them as only he can.  Cate Blanchett plays the Lady of Death Hela with confidence, but takes the camp a little too far at times for my taste.  Idris Elba also returns as Heimdall but is barely even used in the movie.

These are our main players, and every other character is a punchline or an obnoxious comic foil.  Korg (voiced by the film’s director, Taika Waititi) is an unforgivably-annoying character.  He enters the scene running off dialogues that seem to go on forever.  He shows up and delivers lines as if he was riffing the movie he was in, completely disconnected from the events happening on screen or their impact.  The final scene in the movie, one that should have been powerful and a visual spectacle is suddenly stopped so we could get a stinger from Korg, who painfully mumbles a predictably-unfunny commentary on the very thing we are looking at.  I was in a packed house with people of all ages (including quite a few kids) and nobody, I mean nobody, was laughing at this alien annoyance.  He sucked the emotional presence out of every scene he was in and ground the movie to a needless halt in a way that Chris Tucker wishes he could aspire to.

As an action movie, Thor looks good.  It is not as claustrophobic as the previous Thor movies and has a good sense of scale.  Characters look like they belong in their world and everything has a consistent and admirable visual tone.  There really wasn’t much to hate on in the effects department except for the inclusion of Korg and his buddy, which look like a 2nd year computer animation student did them in a weekend in Unity and sold them to Marvel Studios to be included into the movie.  Other moments are bright, vivid, well-composed and you could actually see what was going on in the action scenes; a marked improvement over other CGI-fest thrill rides.

In all, to me Thor 3 looks like a movie-by-committee.  Previous Thor movies have been mostly-underwhelming, so I’m sure some suit at Disney said something to the effect of, “We need to make this one work.  What was the last movie that made us all of the money in the Universe?  ‘Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2’?  Good.  Let’s make that.  How much is Gunn charging these days…  How much?!  Oh, Hell no!  Who can we get for about… 10% of that?  The guy that made a mockumentary about vampires that nobody saw?  Sounds good.  Somebody get me my checkbook.”  This movie reeks of production-by-committee and cynical Hollywood marketing tactics.  Say what you want about some of the lesser Marvel movies since Iron Man 2, but at least there was visible effort and an honest attempt to recreate these worlds.  Thor: Ragnarok spends a majority of its running time on a world that was ripped right out of The Fifth Element only so we could have the creations of a self-indulgent director shoved down our throats.  To make matters worse, this universe and its goings on seem to have no consequence to the rest of the worlds we’ve encountered so far in Marvel’s big movies.  It’s there so we can see how “quirky” and “zany” Waititi is and that is it.  The term self-indulgent comes to mind, but I don’t think that quite nails it.  It’s more of an attempt at a strange self-aggrandizement mixed with an effort to recreate the laziest sorts of gags.  I can say, if you want to see it, it’s harmless enough, but this is not one that I will likely sit through again.

Comic Review- Batman: White Knight #2

The Batman series has always been somewhat of a deconstruction of the superhero.  As the series progressed we’ve seen Batman as a noble father figure, a guardian of justice and as a vengeful, bitter and violent man.  All of these are reflexive of the writer at the time as while Superman is always good and always on the right side of things, Batman is a little more of a malleable character.  It’s possible to get away with writing a story where Batman is enraged and even outright dangerous and because of his character, we can believe it.

Right now, I’m seeing a few different iterations of Batman in my pull list.  One is the absent-yet-caring father of Damian, the brilliant and defiant Robin; the other is a distant, angry figure who will stop at nothing to take down the Joker.  The latter is the focus of Batman: White Knight, an eight-part series which puts Batman in the spotlight in an entirely different way.

After shoving a bottle of unknown medication down the throat of the Joker at the end of a violent and destructive pursuit, Batman has finally gone too far.  Only, instead of the Joker’s subsequent overdose killing him, it instead has cured him of his madness.  He vows to atone for his crimes by becoming an upstanding citizen activist to take down the corrupt government of Gotham and the GCPD in the process.  He also promises to rid the city of the vigilante forces of Batman and his allies while preserving the wellbeing of those caught in the middle.  White Knight #2 centers on the Joker returning home to Harley and things take a surprising turn.  As he sees his world flipped upside down he resorts to drastic measures to set things right in Gotham city… or, at the very least, his version of “right”.

Unlike a many typical superhero comics, White Knight is not a black-and-white story.  White Knight #2 has no real action, there’s no epic battles or sweeping action set pieces, either.  The story is captivating enough on its own, though.  It is infused with a sort of gray-area approach to modern themes of individualism, justice, fairness, corruption in government, and just trying to put one’s life back together.

The art is solid, taking the rougher edge of modern Batman art and blending it with the style of the legendary Animated Series.  This is, in fact, a sort of spiritual successor to that version of the world.  It is a love letter to what is arguably the greatest animated TV series of all time.  It is a story that showcases the niorish style of Batman with a serious edge and contrasts page to page to reflect the tone of each scene.

White Knight #2 is a good chapter that succeeds in keeping me excited about this limited series.  As it stands, it holds up quite well to thought as it is more politically-ambiguous than you might think, and the issues that are raised can be seen any number of ways.  This way it feels more like real life, where things are as simple as A or B.  There is thought and effort in this story that is a real credit to writer Sean Murphy.  It is taut, suspenseful and has a few surprises for long-time fans and lovers of the animated classic.  This is a comic that is written for the older reader, those of us who grew up on comics in the 80’s and 90’s and features a mood and tone that is sort of a deconstruction of that period.  I recommend giving Batman White Knight a read if you’re looking for something a little different, but good luck finding a physical copy as these books are flying off the shelves at a record pace with fans getting truly excited about new comics with well-executed stories.

Cuphead (2017) Review

For a few years now we have been in a sort of Renaissance for classic-style video games.  New games are being released mixing new technology and trends with old-school gameplay and design.  In many cases, this has been great.  Hands-down the most well-known occurrence of this trend is Shovel Knight, an excellent, stylish platformer that feels timeless.  Cuphead is the next major entry in this time of rebirth and rediscovery, blending traditional platforming elements with sleek HD graphics.

Immediately upon picking Cuphead up the amazing visuals stand out.  Resembling a 1930’s cartoon with fluid animations and beautiful watercolor backgrounds, It creates an atmosphere that is unlike anything I have ever seen in a video game.  Visually, everything is just perfect.  It revives a style and theme that we just haven’t really seen in video games and it is a welcome change from rough-edge soldiers and anime chicks.  Every one of the unique bosses are interesting and well-thought-out, having their own design and individual twists.  Nowhere in the game are there reused enemies from level-to-level.  Everything is original and even the many references to famous enemies from classic games put a unique spin on their design.

The gameplay is tight, responsive and as close to perfect as you can get with a platformer of this type.  The closest game I can compare the feel to is Mega Man X.  Cuphead has all of the elements that worked for that masterpiece so well but tailored to fit its own hyperkinetic world that rivals that of the famous Maverick Hunter in design and variety.  It’s a refreshingly-skillful work of game design from a crew of relative newcomers to the titanic industry.

Now, one point of controversy surrounding Cuphead is its divisive difficulty.  This game is not easy; It’s not casual; It’s not for the faint of heart.  Cuphead will test your skills to an extreme degree.  There are three major components to this level of challenge from my observation: First is the progressively-chaotic boss fights that add more and more challenging components as the battles go on, leading up to an enrage phase that acts as a final gauntlet for each fight.  Then there is the rule that you have to beat each boss on the Regular difficulty to progress the game, with the optional Simple mode being nothing more than basic practice.  Then there’s the RNG, which deserves a little paragraph of its own…

The one and only complaint I have with Cuphead is the RNG.  For those who do not already know, RNG is a common speedrunning term meaning “Random Number Generator”, and references randomized events in games.  For instance, the variable damage your attacks can do in an RPG, or the chance of getting a solid gun drop in Destiny 2.  In Cuphead’s case, RNG comes in the form of enemy positioning and movement.  This manifests more commonly in the non-boss gauntlet levels, but it’s there across the board nonetheless.  It is a common problem in many games and can make parts of Cuphead frustrating.  However, it is in many areas manipulatable with a little skill and so far I have only found a few places where the RNG is particularly egregious (“Perilous Piers” being a gruesome example).  Randomized enemy placement and attack timing seems to be overwhelming at times and appears more manageable if you simply rush through the gauntlet stages, never really stopping to fight.

The bosses are where Cuphead shine and they are the focus for the game.  Most of the stages involve interacting with an animated feature on the explorable world map, the initiation of which takes you straight into a battle with one of the games many creative big-bads.  Most bosses follow a traditional video game 3-phase battle with a few exceptions.  The first few phases are a warmup to the enrage, where the boss changes form and the fight gets more frenetic.  In a few cases, the enrage phase changes the dynamics of the fight entirely from the previous phases.

There is a little bit of progression in the form of purchasable upgrades in the form of weapons, abilities and charms.  These determine which of the two weapons from your loadout that you can carry as well as the effects of your dash, your ultimate attack and one other optional boost that you can equip.  These upgrades are purchased with coins obtained in the non-boss levels.  It is possible to play through Cuphead never getting a single coin or a single upgrade.

In closing, Cuphead is a masterpiece of modern gaming.  Critical reviews claiming it’s “too hard to be fun” are missing a key factor: This game is not for everyone.  This is really an appeal to  nostalgia for the much-harder 16-bit era of gaming with its pace and design and older players are more likely to get the majority of enjoyment from this title.  Do not be fooled by its cartoonish aesthetic, Cuphead is brutal and will require every bit of gaming skill and acumen gamers such as myself have accumulated over the past few decades.  Cuphead is fun, challenging and worth the miniscule $20 price tag.  This is a game that I predict will be ageless and just may become the next big speedrunning game, so members and fans of the running community can look forward to thousands of cumulative hours across many Twitch channels of frustrated gaming veterans cheering upon finally beating their PB!

A Little-Late Game Review: Ever Oasis (3DS)

Ever Oasis has been out for a few months but I’m just getting a chance to bite my teeth into it.  A cursory glance of the game implies it is a cutesy anime-themed ARPG/dungeon crawler, and while this isn’t untrue, after logging some time into it I can assure you that there is a surprising level of depth in Ever Oasis.  It is its unique elements that elevate it above your typical dungeon-crawler.  In many ways, I could say it’s similar to Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (which, if you haven’t played, you really should).

The world of EO is a vast desert.  Greenery is scarce and the only respite comes from a Seedling meeting with a Water Spirit to form an Oasis.  After escaping your brother’s oasis during a battle with a dark, corrupting force, you wander until you meet a lonely, tired water spirit named Esna who is waiting patiently for a Seedling to join her to create a great oasis.  You arrive, a Seedling and a water spirit are united and together create the Oasis!  

The goal is to grow your Oasis by increasing its population.  Each day there is a chance a visitor will arrive and if you do quests for them, they will become permanent residents, expanding your empire.  Some residents will allow you to open Bloom Booths, which is a shop from which that resident can sell specialty items and earn money for the settlement.  Other residents provide essential services like party management and assigning tasks to idle villagers.  As you add more Bloom Booths, NPC’s called Noots will arrive.  They exist to spend money which returns to you in the game’s currency called Dew, which you use to buy items, upgrade equipment and expand your Oasis.  As your population grows, your Oasis levels up, opening more building room for new booths, thereby further accelerating its expansion.

So, how do you keep your booths in business?  You fight things, of course!  The action gameplay of Ever Oasis is not particularly-innovative, but it is effective.  Monsters and farming spots in the maps outside your Oasis give you items used to craft gear and help booth vendors restock so they can keep the revenue coming and the more the inventory stays full, the happier your villagers are.  You can bring up to two residents with you and you can switch between them on the fly in and out of combat.  The partner AI is surprisingly good!  The characters you aren’t controlling are generally pretty smart and do a good job of staying out of danger…  Most of the time.  Some residents even have special skills like mining and digging (just to name a few) and bringing these guys along can help grow your inventory by finding more items and even sometimes accessing previously-unreachable spots.  These residents will also offer quests to delve into caves and dungeons and these can often lead to some pretty great Legend of Zelda-style boss fights.

There is a crafting system as well but it is fairly rudimentary.  You just need to get the required number of the specified items, spend the dew and boom, you can upgrade your gear!  But the item upgrades are not varied and new recipes roll in very slowly for much of the game as crafting is not the primary focus; the primary goal here is to grow your Oasis by doing quests, progressing the story and helping your villagers out to keep things sunny!  

I barely scratched the surface of Ever Oasis in this review.  I was honestly surprised by the depth and variety here and I would say that fans of action RPG’s should give this game a shot.  It isn’t going to revolutionize the genre, but it is a fun diversion for a genre that has gotten pretty dark in tone over the last few years.  If you have kids with a 3DS and would like to get them into RPG’s as well, this is a good choice for them.  It’s nice, PG-rated fun with none of the elements being too difficult for younger gamers to get into.  The bar for action RPG’s was set pretty high this year by Horizon: Zero Dawn, but for a lighter, simpler game with some old-school flavor, I say Ever Oasis is a solid alternative for players wanting a softer touch.

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