Review — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I know, I know. There’s nothing I can say about this movie that hasn’t already been said. Most people hate it, a few people love it. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen any other movies recently, so this is what I’m going to talk about today. My perspective may have been a little different than most, so I’ll tell you what: regardless of what you may think about the movie, you’ll probably disagree with me. So, since it’s been several weeks, and nobody in the universe is going to read a review about a Star Wars movie at this point if they haven’t already seen it, there will be spoilers ahead.

Before I get into likes and dislikes, some background. My close family, (at least the people I spend the most time with) are all nerds. That said, I’m also the youngest of six, so sometimes I can be left out of the loop with things. Such was the case with the Star Wars franchise. The first Star Wars movie I watched in its entirety was Episode III: Revenge of the Sith in theaters. Before you bust out your pitchforks, though, know this: I was eight at the time, and while I knew vaguely about the characters and the premise, I didn’t really know anything. The literal eight year old I was liked the movie for the action, but since it was just one of many movies for me at the time, I all but forgot the entire thing within a year.

Fast forward to now. I’ve since seen every Star Wars film, and the first movie I got to really see and appreciate in theaters as a valid audience member was Rogue One. For as much as I liked it, I couldn’t give you more than two names of any of the characters in that movie. It was just too much, too fast for me. A solid war movie overall, and you can read my review of it here. (Plus if the entire movie was made just as an excuse to put the Vader scene in theaters, it would still be worth it).

Anyways, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, was the first time I really got to sit down and watch a new story unfold in this universe. I was ecstatic, and I’ll be honest, I loved it. I walked out of the movie theater thinking it was the best Skywalker film made yet. That isn’t to say it didn’t have flaws, but overall, the choices that were made in the movie worked really well for me. At the time.

I’ve since watched YouTube commentaries on the film, and have read up a bit on a lot of things, and it’s opened my eyes a bit to really see what the current trilogy is doing wrong. The Last Jedi is not a masterpiece. The side-plot with the planet only serves to further a love interest that I hated (which was my biggest gripe immediately after watching it) and narrative-wise makes things worse for our heroes, there were lots of silly character choices that were either meaningless or contradictory, and nobody in this movie ever learns anything.

But I did enjoy a lot of the scenes. The “silent scene” was astonishing to me, because everyone in the theater managed to be quiet, and it was a great moment. (It did make me wonder, though, why wasn’t that choice made half an hour ago? Or, heck, why aren’t spaceships used as missiles all the time? One cruiser for one flagship? Deal.) I actually really enjoyed Rey’s character arc, and the complexity of her character in contrast to Kylo Ren was pretty neat. It was an interesting new twist, and I liked it. I also didn’t mind things like Leia using the Force to save herself and the kid using the Force at the end. Sure, you can make the argument that nobody can use the Force until you’re trained to use it, but the Star Wars universe is a big place that encompasses a very long period of time. Lots of strange and unexpected things can happen. Besides, a character saying “This is impossible” in a story should not be taken as absolute, 100%, unavoidable truth. Things change.

As I said, the movie isn’t without it’s faults. There’s a lot of valid complaints about it, but I still think the movie is overall great, and certainly quite enjoyable. Maybe not for diehard fans that have trouble suspending disbelief for new content in familiar mediums, but still.

As for me, I’m just hoping that whatever trilogy what’s-his-name got approved to direct after Episode IX is an Old Republic trilogy. That would be sweet.

 

Review — Battle Chasers: Nightwar

It’s been a while since I’ve played a traditional turn-based RPG. I mean, my favorite video game ever is Dragon Quest VIII, which was released over 13 years ago, and I honestly haven’t played many games in that genre since. (Dragon Quest XI still has no western release date, but it’s on the agenda.) So here’s a (mostly) spoiler-free review of the game!

So when I got my hands on Battle Chasers, it was like an itch that hadn’t been properly scratched in a long time. The last JRPG I’ve actually put time into is probably the original Suikoden, and it’s been several years. Now I didn’t know much about Battle Chasers going into it, I just knew that the art was cool and some online people I enjoy praised it. When I found out it was a turn based I was delighted.

This game was just a blast from start to finish. The opening cinematic(s) did a great job establishing the personality of each of the characters, and it did some interesting role reversals that were cool to see. As I played it, I found that the game really had everything I wanted: a meaningful progression of power (leveling up is really impactful to the experience), a sense of exploration, rewarding the player for being investigative, a clear sense of what being a completionist would entail (meaning “what can I do to see all there is to see?”), and challenging them with optional puzzles and quests.

This game was also a lot longer than I expected it to be. It took me 45 hours to beat it 100% (not New Game+), and if I had the time I would have no qualms with going through it again. New Game+ is cool because, while it isn’t necessarily “harder”, you can much more easily get Legendary quality gear and feel powerful, even if the monsters you’re fighting are 6 levels above you (when the maximum level is 30).

My favorite thing about this game was that it had time to put in lots of unnecessary things. All of the dungeons are randomly generated, so the puzzles you see the first time will be different when you revisit it. (This is a double-edged sword I’ll get to in a moment.) It has lots of side quest type things that feel rewarding. There’s also lots of cool lore books that are interesting reads, and the narration in general can be pretty sassy.
Ex: The game gives you an option to throw money down a well. When you throw 1000g in (a good chunk if you’re about a third of the way through the game), the narrative replies with something along the lines of “You have enough gold to feed an entire village for about a month, but you decide it’s best wasted by throwing it into a well.” It’s neat because this game very much adopts the philosophy of “just because your character can do it, doesn’t mean it’s the right choice to make”. A lot of the game actually seems to be modeled as a Dungeons & Dragons type adventure.

 

 

I do have two problems with the game, though. The first is that it can be somewhat unclear with the consequences of something. When you find an artifact, the game makes a big deal telling you that they’re valuable, which implies you should keep them, even though you have the option to sell them for a different type of currency. What it doesn’t tell you is that this is literally the only use for artifacts. They’re meant to be sold. Don’t hold on to them. What’s more, some of the optional bosses can be encountered accidentally if you’re “adventurous” enough, and there’s actually no way to know the power level of what you might be getting into. (There’s a mini boss in one area that’s four levels higher than the monsters inside, and he has a passive of reducing the party’s healing by 50% when you’re fighting him. He’s no joke!)

By far my biggest gripe with the game is how the “random” tiles in dungeons are placed, though. There’s a random encounter in the first dungeon with a skeleton, and you can choose to help him or refuse. If you refuse, he attacks you. If you help him, you can find him (randomly, again) in a later dungeon, and he attacks you there. Here’s the problem. Neither of these events are guaranteed to spawn in either dungeon. And what’s more, you have to do the first dungeon at least twice in order to take both options, because in both instances he’s a unique monster. So in order to fight every monster, you have to do it multiple times. The worst part is it was bugged for me, so I couldn’t go back to the first dungeon to fight him after I helped him in my first runthrough. So I had to do New Game+ in order to complete my monster book. This is terrible game design!

But really, it’s a fantastic game. I expected to beat it within 15 hours, but it had over 3 times that content for me. Overall it’s great, and it can be very challenging if you want it to be. Also, it has fishing. In my experience, every game that has time to add optional fishing stuff to it is going to be a good game.

Review — Wildcat

I recently got through Wildcat, by JP Harker, sort of in between all the physical books I’ve been reading lately (I’m still in between books two and three of Lord of the Rings, and have been thinking about picking up a new series by Samantha Shannon). So I picked this one up and resolved to finish it before the end of the year, and I did! I’m pretty proud of myself on that front—while this is no Stormlight Archive, the book is pretty thick.

To my knowledge, this is the author’s debut novel, and I’ll admit it, it kind of reads like one. There’s a lot of choices made in the book that seemed off, and a lot of the plot can be called simple. That’s not to say the book is bad—it does have some awesome scenes that I thoroughly enjoyed—but it doesn’t knock anything out of the park.

I think a big part of the problem is the fact that really, I’m not the target audience for the book. I would have trouble pinning this one done to a genre, since some subplots get a lot of attention and the main conflict doesn’t come into the foreground until more than halfway through the book. There’s lots of action and threat of physical conflict towards the beginning and end, but it slows down a lot in the middle, and there were times where I wasn’t sure if this book was actually a romance in disguise.

The biggest problem is easy to diagnose, though: There’s just too many characters that are named. As in, 70% of the characters that this book considers “important” enough to name shouldn’t have been. It makes things really confusing for the reader when they have too many names to juggle. (I’ve found that the author often doesn’t see this because in their mind, the name is used as a label for a character they’re already familiar with. The reader doesn’t have this luxury.)

Imagine that every character name used in a story is a marble. Every time you introduce a name (even if its an alias of a familiar character), you grab a new marble, and set it on the table. Realistically, your table can see about thirty to fifty marbles (names). But eventually your table doesn’t have enough surface area to be able to lay them all flat across the table, so you have to get a bowl to hold all your marbles. Except, now you can’t see some marbles, so when you come across that name in the book, you don’t have any idea who it belongs to, because now the book assumes you remember.

I’ll use a quote from the book to show you what I mean: “The town was now heaving with people and Rhia saw that her Aunt Eleri and Uncle Aeron had arrived, along with her cousins Pryder and Merrion, and their wives Eluned and Kira. Cerridwen, their sister, was chatting with her own husband, Natan, who was looking as red-faced as Rhia felt after her climb up the hill.” Now, as both a reader and a writer, I know none of these characters are important. They’re just furniture. This paragraph of nine unique character names has eight too many, because the only one that matters is the protagonist’s. (Side note: if these characters had actually turned out to be important, and the author had expected me to memorize who was who, that would have been even worse, but thankfully that wasn’t the case.)

In all honesty, there were times where a character that was in the beginning of the book didn’t get any scenes in the middle, but became important at the end of the book, and I had no idea who they were. The name was so unfamiliar to me that I didn’t even know where their name had come up before, so I couldn’t even use the book as a resource to figure out who this character was. I’m not exaggerating when I say with full confidence that there are probably over 200, maybe 300 unique names in the book. No, I didn’t go back and count, but realistically there shouldn’t even be 100 different names, especially since scenes like the one I described only serve to confuse the audience.

That said, that’s the most glaring issue with the book. If you have a notepad and write down all the character names and a short snippet of who they are as you read the book, it’ll be much more coherent. It’s a shame, because there are some awesome moments in the book.

So, final thoughts? While the book isn’t the best, it shows promise. Having the willpower to see a book through from start to finish is no small feat, and especially with a book this long, it’s commendable. To me, that says “I’m in it for the long haul”, and I can easily see future books really starting to shine.

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.