Review — The Martian (Book & Movie)

I just finished The Martian, by Andy Weir. I had seen the movie a couple months back (and again just recently), and I have to say both are very well put together. The book for bringing so much humor and flavor into the genre of hard science-fiction, and the movie for creating such a perfect rendition of the book. They’re both impressive in their own right. So, since they’re both relatively recent, I won’t actually spoil any major plot here.

I’ve heard from multiple sources that all the science in The Martian is sound. Given all the technology the people could theoretically be equipped with at that time, everything happens the way it should, except the premise, interestingly enough. Mark Whatney gets stranded on Mars in the beginning because the dust storm his team got caught on forced an evacuation that went poorly, but in reality, Mars’ atmosphere isn’t nearly thick enough to house a storm as strong as was depicted in the book and movie. (In all honesty, though, I knew little of the science described in the story, so I wouldn’t know if it was real or not on my own. It’s not hard to grasp, though: both mediums do a good job explaining how things work without boring you.)

Mark Whatney’s character is pretty much the only reason the book is even good. He casts a lot of humor and sarcasm into his situation, and if he was less interesting, well, there would be no book, let alone a movie. In fact, all the characters in the book are compelling, and that’s a feat in my eyes. Even the people on the Ares III crew that got virtually no screen time in the movie became developed people with background and depth in the book.

As far as the movie goes, I was pleasantly surprised with how much justice it did to the book. Many scenes whose details were irrelevant to the plot were done word for word in the movie, and if I recall correctly, everything in the movie was also in the book, and with the exception of one scene in particular, everything happened in exactly the same ways, too. There were scenes that were scrapped for the movie, of course. Situations and obstacles were left out, but because they weren’t addressed in the movie, it wasn’t missing them, either. When I came across them in the book, I had new stuff to experience, because there were new problems Whatney had to face.

If I had to find any problems with the movie/book—and I’m really nitpicking here—it would be that the story is too static. There’s the threat of starvation that’s always ticking, and the longer Whatney stays on Mars, the more likely he is to die, but really, his position never changes. To address my writing acronym of TEAM (Teaching audience, Establishing rules, Answering questions, and Moving characters), there isn’t much movement in the book, as far as Whatney’s relationship with the conflict. He’s in a constant state of reaction, and when he succeeds, all it does is maintain the statis quo of him remaining alive. Now, this point is extremely arguable, but rather than remain on this subject too long, I’ll just move on. That’s pretty much the only flaw I could find in the story, period.

So, obviously I would recommend both the movie and the book. They’re both quite enjoyable, and while it’s very science-y, it’s not overwhelmingly complicated. It’s certainly no kids book, (there’s also lots of cursing, understandably,) but it’s accessible to the normal people as much as it is to science geeks. In my personal opinion, you should watch the movie first. Matt Damon fits the role of Mark Whatney pretty dang well, and since the movie is so good, it will not only help you visualize the events in the book, but it also makes those extra stuff that happens in the book bonus material, rather than being disappointed when the movie cut those scenes.

Review — John Cleaver Series

It’s been a while since I’ve actually read through the entirety of a book series, especially one longer than a trilogy. (The only other time I’ve done that in recent years was Sanderson’s Alcatraz series.) I’m no longer used to capital-‘C’ Conclusions, because everything I finish these days is a part of a series, be it podcast, YouTube series, or book. So, as usual, no specific spoilers, though I will give away the basic premise of the series as a whole.

The weird part is, listening to this series on audiobook as they were released, I had no idea this was the last book until I was already almost done with it, and even then it was only based on the context of what was being said. I think it also has to do with the fact that, as a fantasy reader and gamer, most of the things I experience progress in scale and stakes as you get more invested into it. The last book really isn’t as climactic as one of the books before it.

But I’m going on a tangent, here. Is the book series good? Well, it’s definitely different. It’s a little strange when the protagonist is arguably less human than the demons he is trying to stop. Dan Wells did a great job making a character that toes the line between hero and villain. The series has a macabre atmosphere the whole time, but it’s interesting because it’s also a mystery novel where the protagonist has to be clever in order to deduce the situation and figure out a way to handle it. I especially liked it because it doesn’t follow the typical rules of “who is the killer”. Instead, a huge focus of the books is “How is the killer?”

It makes more sense when you read it yourself.

It really does it’s job as a mystery series, though it does kind of cheat because of the supernatural element that the reader can’t predict ahead of time (because the clues can sometimes translate to strange conclusions).

My biggest critique for the book series as a whole is that there are remarkably few neat characters in it. In the entirety of the six books, I could count on one hand the number of characters that had enough depth and intrigue to interest me beyond their place in the plot. For example (not really a spoiler), his mom is a very typical mom, and doesn’t really have any qualities that make her stand out. And there aren’t many characters in the series that do. In fact, one of the ones I really liked died really suddenly, which made me upset because I wanted to know more about them! (Also not a spoiler because of course people die in this series!) It’s sort of funny how I like the series because of how unique the main character is, and yet I think its biggest flaw is how unique all the other characters aren’t. I suppose he just spent all his character building energy on the protagonist, which makes perfect sense to me.

As far as the ending goes, I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s the sort of ending that is both impossible to predict and blatantly obvious in hindsight. It’s that sweetspot authors have a hard time finding, but I think Dan Wells really nailed it. To be honest, I didn’t like the ending at first, because it seemed too easy. But after giving it more thought, I couldn’t think of any ways to close the series that would be more satisfying, so I’ve concluded that this is the correct one. Plus, giving it that much thought made me appreciate it all the more, because it wraps up and “answers” the theme of the series as a whole very well. Bravo.

Dan Wells has certainly earned his place on my shelf. None of his novels have disappointed me, and it’s a little peculiar that he isn’t even a fantasy author, which is usually my niche. I hope one day he fills that gap, but only if he can deliver on the standards I’m going to hold him up to, given everything else he’s published!

Review — Naruto (Final Thoughts)

I finally finished Naruto a few days ago, after having bought the last five books I had been missing for years. Now, I’ve talked about Naruto before, and while it was after the series was finished, it was before I had read through it myself. So, I’ve included a link to the original post, but this isn’t a sequel post to that. To be perfectly honest, I’m not even going to reread it. Alright, full thoughts on the story I’ve been following (literally) since childhood: go! (And don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything.)

I was surprised. Most of the reason I wasn’t in a hurry to finish the series was because it would mean leaving a huge part of my childhood behind. I was a fan of the series ever since Toonami started advertising “A cool new show about ninjas!” When I was maybe five years old. It’s how I got into manga, though to be fair that was probably an inevitability. Finishing the series and moving on would mean accepting adulthood, in a way.

Before I  finished it, my perspective on the series was that it was the best manga/anime out there, but even then I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody. It’s really long, and the first two hundred chapters/episodes are, admittedly, not great. That’s like telling your friend to watch a show and promising it starts getting good after season 12. Why bother? There’s way better uses of your time. It’s the same reason I have no interest in Game of Thrones.

So, what do I think now that I’ve finished it? Well, my reaction wasn’t what I expected. I’m almost completely indifferent. Nothing exceptionally shocking happened in the last five books (~50 chapters), and, once you get far enough, you can see how it will end perhaps eight or nine books in advance. It’s not bad, mind you, but it’s not overwhelmingly exciting. I’m just plain old whelmed.

When you finish a book series, you’ll often get that cathartic bubbling of emotion that says “Oh, no, it’s over? What now?!” But Naruto has been over for years now. I honestly think I was more emotional over hearing about the last chapter having been published than I was actually reading it myself. I had already moved on.

But is the series good? Has my perspective on it changed? Yeah, of course. The ending is satisfying, but it’s not exceptionally amazing. I don’t feel as though I’ve wasted my time, because it’s such a big part of who I am. The complexity of the characters and the world is something I really admire, especially since that doesn’t happen in anime/manga very often. Of course, most people don’t have the luxury of being able to write the same story for fifteen years straight, but you get the idea.

Naruto is “fine”. If you want to spend that kind of time, it’s good. But for me, when it comes to watching and reading, “fine” isn’t good enough. I look for the “great”s and “amazing”s. So while I thank Masashi Kishimoto for the journey and helping me become the person I am today, I don’t think I’ll be convincing anybody new to pick the series up. (Somehow I don’t think he’ll shed any tears over that, though.) I doubt I’ll ever even start reading Boruto, either. I need to diversify my exposure to media more than I have been, so while I’m sure it’s good, it’s not worth my time.

Review — Tsuro

Tsuro has always been one of my favorite board games. It’s so simple it requires basically no explanation, but there can still be a lot of skill incorporated into the game. It remains an old favorite of mine partly because I don’t own it, and thus I don’t get to play it often, but recently I bought it on my phone for $1. It is literally the game but on a screen (plus achievements, which I’m never upset about), and the only feature I think the app is missing is the ability to move the camera. The angle it gives you isn’t the best.

But anyway, I’ll talk a bit about what this game is before I really review it. Up to eight players set their pieces (called “Stones”) on the edges of an empty grid (the board). They each draw three tiles from the deck, and these tiles are just lines. There are two endpoints on each side of these squares, and when you place it on the board, the players’ Stones go along the path until it ends, and a new tile is placed on the grid (on their turn or another player’s). The most common win condition is “Last Stone Standing”.

That’s the whole game, but here’s where the strategy comes in. Each tile has four lines and eight endpoints. A placed tile will always affect every Stone whose path it adds to. You can try to avoid the rest of the players by skirting around the edge of the board, or you can actively seek them out and try to get their path to go off the board, or send them crashing into other players.

Since there are dozens of different tiles, and they’re all unique, this game has almost infinite replayability, and by it’s nature, it gets harder and harder to stay alive the longer the game goes on. This means you can mess with people early on, only to be thrown halfway across the board in one turn. It’s simple enough for everyone to enjoy, and skill almost doesn’t matter.

If I have any critiques for this game, it’s that a lot of it is luck based. There will be many circumstances where you will be forced to rely on drawing a specific kind of tile, and when you don’t get it, you just lose. More experienced players will win more often, of course, but this is one of those games that even beginners have an almost equal chance to win, regardless of what happens. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t inherently bad, but it’s not always what you want in a board game.

The other thing is also a double edged sword, and that is it’s simplicity. Many learned and veteran board game aficionados (go redundancy) will prefer games with a more complicated nature. Tsuro is not only easy to set up, but one game can also end in ten minutes, which is far sooner than most tabletops. It’s great for getting beginners into what board games can be like, but it’s not something you can really spend the whole night playing.

 

Review — The Two Towers

I finished the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy recently, and I have to admit, I wasn’t impressed. I don’t really know what our cultural consensus of the books is these days, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me as I read that Tolkien was not a writer–at least not one that would make it in today’s market. Don’t get me wrong, he was a genius in a lot of ways, and is a great storyteller, but his books are so different than the ones coming out in this generation, and at times I had quite a bit of difficulty getting through it. Plus, you can hardly blame him for all this, since he was, in a lot of ways, the ‘Father of Fantasy’. So, while there will be lots of spoilers ahead, I doubt many people would care because everyone (except me) has already at least seen the movies.

Before I get to my grievances with this particular book, however, let’s talk about the cool bits. For the most part, I loved Aragorn & Co.’s narrative. Following along as they pursued the captive hobbits, find Gandalf the White, and eventually fight Saruman’s Uruk hai was great. I particularly enjoyed the Ents’ involvement. And when the company got to the Orthanc and sought an audience with Saruman, Gandalf’s conversation with him was pretty cool. His argument was very persuasive, and I wanted him so badly to turn a new leaf and join Gandalf’s fight, but having known a bit of the story I knew it wasn’t meant to be.

I loved the first half of the book, and I think a huge reason for that is because when people talk about Lord of the Rings, most of the time they talk about Frodo and what happened with him. They don’t talk as much about Aragorn and that side of the story, so pretty much everything that happened was new to me.

But then the first ‘book’ ends and we transition to the second half of Frodo and Sam. I was really annoyed with that part because there really wasn’t a whole lot happening. Most of their trials were based on geographical and logistical problems, and as such it focused more on their character and reactions to the world around them (like what they think of Gollum and how they should deal with him). I hated it because I didn’t like either of them. As of writing this post I’ve actually realized that I really don’t like any of the hobbits, for various reasons. Simply put, though, they’re all incompetent, and it becomes frustrating because they are often the driving force of what’s going on around them.

The only thing Sam cares about is Frodo. He’s suspicious of everyone else, and he makes stupid decisions based on his loyalty and stubbornness. He’s apparently everyone’s favorite, but he doesn’t catch my sympathy. Frodo is nihilistic and stubborn. The only thing he cares about is getting the job overwith, and he doesn’t even care if he succeeds. I’m genuinely amazed that such a one-dimensional character managed to become so recognizable in pop culture. Of the three of them, Gollum is by far the most interesting!

The entire second half the book is consumed by gloom and dreariness, and it gets tiresome. My favorite scene in that part is when Frodo and Sam are talking about being the main characters in a story of their own, and not only is it ironic, but both of them manage to laugh because of how crazy it seems. It also specifically says (paraphrasing here) that that laughter is “the first time such a sound was heard in Mordor for [an indescribably long amount of time]”. And I think that characterizes exactly why this part of the book isn’t good. It should be a pair of fun-loving and merry people being juxtaposed against the black and smoky atmosphere. They can have dark moments, sure, but don’t make the entire subject of the second half of the book despair, because that will drain all the life from your reader, which isn’t what you want. This difference would have made the book a lot more like The Hobbit, which I think would have been an improvement.

As a last note, I’m sure this is in the movies, but Frodo kind of dies at the end of The Two Towers. Shelob poisons him, and Sam makes the choice to become the ring-bearer and carry on with the mission. If I had no prior knowledge of the story, it would have been a touching scene with lots of character growth, because it genuinely looks like Frodo is dead. It was an interesting scene, because I had absolutely no clue what Sam would do, but I was disappointed when he went back after the orcs came. Obviously it has to be that way because of how the story unfolds (Frodo will certainly die if Sam doesn’t help), but I think it was a great opportunity for a change of pace, which their line of narrative desperately needed. (To be fair, I don’t have a fix for how the story might unfold if Sam did continue on his own, because I don’t know how the story actually goes, but I think it certainly could have been done).

Now that I’m done with this book, what’s next? Well, not Return of the King. At least, not immediately, but I will get to it eventually. Here is the extent of my knowledge of what happens in the last book, based purely on my limited knowledge of the movies:

  • Minas Tirith is important, and I think Aragorn & Co. go there. There are probably at least two major battles, one where they fight oliphaunts (lazy name, by the way, Tolkien.)
  • Aragorn becomes king, because it’s like his book, right? No idea.
  • The Nazgul King is in one of the battles, and in the movies Eowyn kills him. I think that was specifically a movie choice, though, because Tolkien was notorious for only making male characters important.
  • Gollum comes back, though I don’t know when. All I know is that Frodo decides to keep the Ring when they get to Mt. Doom and Gollum fights him for it. Gollum and Ring end up being lava’d. Then they take the eagles back home where they eventually set off across the sea to the West.

Everything else in the book will be a surprise, so hopefully the narrative picks up the pace!

Review — Thief Town

Thief Town is a fun little party game that is sort of obscure, both because how simple it is and the fact that it doesn’t have much replayability. It’s got a retro style and some unique gameplay, though, so I think it’s worth a real mention!

This is a four player retro-style arcade game. It comes complete with two buttons (aside from four-directional movement), and is purely an arena where you fight your friends. The way that the game works is you and everybody else are a bunch of thieves trying to stab each other. The only trouble is, you, your friends, and a bunch of added non-players all look exactly the same. The only way you can figure out which one is you is by correlating movement on the screen with the input you put in the controller. (Keep in mind, though, walking around in circles will make everybody notice you.) Everybody, including the AI, walk around until one of the players decides to stab. If an AI is stabbed, they fall down dead and nothing happens (except everyone can see who the murderer was, if you’re paying attention). If a player is stabbed, they bleed out and die. Last one standing wins the round, and the first to a set number of points wins.

I did say two buttons, though. Depending on the sort of game mode you’re playing, players can have access to random one-time use abilities, like smoke screen, trap, or gun. They all have various uses, such as the gun killing everybody in a straight line and the trap revealing any player that steps on it.

The game also has a few modes. You can play with or without the abilities I mentioned, you can do showdown, where there are no AIs and you just have to rely on more skillful stabbing (sometimes while the players are literally invisible!), or you can do Sheriff vs. robbers, where the Sheriff player has to shoot the thieves while they try to remain hidden and act like AIs.

There’s more, but that’s the brunt of the game. All the music is 8-bit and the game itself is very pixelated. It allows the focus of this game to be the gameplay–hiding and stabbing. You can stab everyone near you or lie in wait for people to reveal themselves by stabbing.

My favorite thing about this game is that there is an element of luck involved. The last time I played, I won two rounds in a row only to come out with exactly zero points the third game, and not from lack of trying either. Sometimes your friends just stab the instant the game starts, and they kill you. Sometimes they try to stab somebody else and they kill you instead (or also). Sometimes a giant tumbleweed rolls onto the stage and flattens you before you can get out of the way. Is it fair? Not exactly, but games happen so quickly and it can happen to anyone, so what does it matter?

I believe the game is going for $8 right now. Even with three other people to play it with (and it does have couch co-op, as is kind of necessary), it’s still a lot to ask for. This is sort of the game where you play it for a few hours and you’ve had your fill. I certainly wouldn’t pay $8 for it because I don’t think I’ve gotten 8 hours worth of entertainment out of it, maybe even combined with the people I’ve played it with. There simply isn’t that much to experience in the game.

But if you don’t mind that, it’s certainly an interesting game to pick up, and it is a lot of fun for a short period of time!

Review — Titanfall 2

Titanfall 2 isn’t a new game by any means, but I hadn’t played the campaign until recently. The production of the game went into the multiplayer, as that’s what it revolves around, but my brothers and I nagged me about playing the campaign until I finally sat down to do it. I’ll talk about the campaign first, then add a little bit at the end about the multiplayer and the new mode: Frontier Defense. There will be spoilers ahead, but they will be more about gameplay than story. Honestly though, this isn’t the sort of game you should care to have spoiled. The fun of the campaign isn’t the story, it’s the map design and gameplay mechanics.

That being said, the campaign wasn’t what I had anticipated in the slightest. With my brothers wanting me to play it so badly, I expected it to have an epic adventure with plot twists and awesome characters. But really, it doesn’t have that. There are no interesting twists, and you can guess what happens at the end of each mission if you have enough familiarity with the action genre in any form.

But the Titanfall 2 campaign is awesome. It’s simply awesome in a way I haven’t experienced. It wasn’t Halo, that had you jumping onto a Scarab or looking for Cortana on a Flood-infested ship. It didn’t have insane moments. But the map design took heavy advantage of Titanfall 2‘s gameplay, where you can double-jump and run on walls. This game is by far the most fluid and mobile FPS I’ve ever encountered, and the campaign matches it perfectly.

And then the game throws you for a loop and introduces time shenanigans. You find a device that warps you back in time, and then you have an entire level where you can go back or forward in time at will. There are obstacles that bar your way that may not be there in the past/future, or enemies trying to kill you that might be in both parts of the timeline simultaneously. For about half an hour the game almost stops being a first-person shooter and instead shifts into a puzzle platformer. Now, the puzzles aren’t complicated, but it does require you to think a bit. Not to mention the incredible aesthetic change of shifting back and forth between pristine science facility and apocalyptic rubble looks amazing.

This one level makes the campaign worth playing.

It actually makes me a little sad that that idea isn’t used more. There should be an entire game based on shifting back and forth on a timeline. It could easily be implemented into a multiplayer system, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it actually has been done before. In the campaign it made me feel like a superhero. Way more so than any actual superhero game I’ve ever played. So I think that’s saying something.

So, enough about the campaign. What does this game feel like? Well, I will admit that it is a lot like the less socially acceptable games like Call of Duty and, now, Halo. You’re in an arena with some teammates and some enemies, and you try to shoot them before they can shoot you.

But Titanfall has two unique things going for it. First, the mobility I’ve already mentioned has a perfection I’ve never seen before in a game like this. If you’ve seen professional gameplay of somebody running around in Pilot mode, you can really see how quickly you can move across the map just by the mechanics the game has provided to you.

The second is the game’s namesake, and that is Titans. It’s amazing how they can give a player a giant robot and have those robots feel powerful while also making them balanced gameplay wise. The game has two different modes: Pilot and Titan. You can shift back and forth several times in one game, but you can also perform just as well with no Titan.

The new game mode, Frontier Defense, is especially enjoyable for me for two reasons. One, playing against other players is stressful, and with this mode being co-op, it alleviates that. It also lets you pick a very specific style of play and stick to it. The enemy AI won’t really adapt to it, so it could be easy, but if you play on harder difficulties you better be really good with the gimmick you’re going with! Frontier Defense, surprisingly enough, also has progression! You can level up your specific Titan and unlock new abilities, and I love that sort of thing.

So, all-in-all, the game is awesome. The way I see it, it is objectively superior to a game like Call of Duty in virtually every way, and it’s a fun experience any way you play it. I would certainly recommend it if you’re into first-person shooters.