What I’ve Been…Playing: Persona 4: Golden

I love games based around story – some of my earliest memories of gaming are of sitting down to play Karateka on an old system (Apple II I want to say?) with my uncle, and only wanting to know about the motivation behind what was going.  Forget the controls, why is that guy hitting that other guy? What’s the deal with that bird?

It’s something that has persisted with me all these years.  Gaming has informed my interest in being a writer, and I have developed an appreciation for the unique opportunities and limitations games bring when it comes to storytelling.

RPGs have always been a key part of this interest in story; specifically Western RPGs.  For whatever reason – and I’m honestly not sure what it is – I’ve bounced very hard off of Japanese RPGs, or games in general. Hell – and I feel like I should probably hand in my nerd credentials just saying this – the only anime I’ve ever really enjoyed was Macross/Robotech and Dragonball Z, and I’m pretty sure that last one was more ironic enjoyment than anything.

I appreciate from afar, but generally Japanese media hasn’t done it for me.

And yet, Persona 4.

This strange mix of dungeon crawler with Pokemon-esque turn-based combat, high school relationship simulator, and examination of the human psyche, is simply amazing.  I spent 80ish hours over a few weeks absolutely absorbed in the Golden edition of this game on my Vita, marvelling at every twist and turn of the story.  I grew to love the characters and the relationships you build with them, and incredible soundtrack, solid voice acting, and unique visual style – particularly the creature designs – kept me going back. I even learnt a bit about Japan along the way that led to me doing some additional reading and research.

Not since Mass Effect has a game sunk its claws into me and refused to let go like Persona 4: Golden did.  Not only has it made Persona 5 a guaranteed sale for me, but it also has me trying to source a copy of the previous game in the series, and even watching the (gasp) anime based upon the game!

If you have a system capable of playing Persona 4, you owe it to yourself to try it.  It starts out a little slow, but it quickly strikes that perfect balance between tension and bouts of goofy shit that makes it the most charming game I’ve played in years.

What I’ve Been…Watching : La La Land

My thoughts on La La Land? I am tempted to post a photo of me shrugging and leave it at that, but I won’t.  What I will say is that this is a movie that seems to do a lot of things well on the surface:

There’s the extremely talented cast who play their roles well, both in terms of character work, but also with the singing and dancing required of a musical. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are both excellent, and the few supporting roles that aren’t there for the ensemble musical numbers are good as well.

It nails the visual style of the old musicals it is emulating (more on that in sec), and the s0ngs are all certainly listenable, even if none of them really stand out as amazing numbers in their own right.  So too the dance numbers: some visually distinctive things happen, and the movie uses modern film making techniques to break away from the old timey feel on a couple of occasions in some (very) interesting ways.

So why did it not remotely click for me?

Partly, I think, was that there was only the thinnest skein of story on top of all the pretty people dancing and singing prettily in pretty locations with pretty, over-saturated colours.  The actors themselves give engaging performances, but nothing at all that they are doing is really all that interesting. Even for a genre where plot typically takes a backseat, it is noticeably absent here, as is any depth to the characters beyond the Act 1 journey from snarky arseholes to madly in love.

I referenced it above, but the film is not so much a loving homage to old musicals as it is directly lifting from them, the only difference being the time period the film is set in and modern day nods to visual and audio effects, as well as diverse casting (and I say nods here, because the supporting roles are almost non-existent, and the two main characters are white). The issue with emulating that old style so slavishly is that you have to be at least as good as – and, crucially, as memorable as – the movies you are mimicking.

La La Land is nowhere near as good as those musicals. The story and characters are not at all memorable, but worse than that, neither is the music.  A few of the dance numbers go places with their visual effects, but that is a small bright spot in an otherwise completely bland film.  The most notable thing about La La Land for me was how sadly mundane the whole thing was.

What I’ve Been… Playing: GOTY 2016

In one format or another, I’ve done a Game of the Year list each year for quite a long time now, so why should 2016 be an exception?

Without further ado:

Game of the Year 2016

10. Total War: Warhammer

The game that finally made Total War click for me, Total Warhammer (because, seriously, how is that not the actual name?) combines the massive scale of Total War with the hilariously grim and over-the-top fantasy setting of Warhammer in a way that was great.  Nothing quite matches the sight of a Vampire riding a zombie dragon massacring hordes of terrified goblins.

9. Stellaris

Combing a space-based 4X strategy game with the storytelling of Crusader Kings II was an inspired choice. Stellaris is an easy game to pick up, and lends itself well to guiding your newly space-faring civilisation to an end that is more about the journey than it is the victory conditions.  This game is at its best when you’re focusing more on playing peacekeeping in the civil war between factions of sentient clouds than it does deploying massive fleets (although that is fun too).  Well worth picking up, especially with the most recent expansion adding in some additional scenarios to discover.

8. XCOM 2

Apparently the entire bottom half of my list consists of strategy games.  XCOM 2 was not quite everything I had hoped it would be as a sequel to XCOM (and especially after the amazing experience that was the Long War mod), but it was still a phenomenal game that addressed many of the flaws in the first game.  The idea that you were playing as the resistance against an alien occupation force and their human allies/thralls was an inspired one, and the gameplay almost always matched up.

7. Superhot

SUPERHOT IS THE MOST INNOVATIVE SHOOTER I’VE PLAYED IN YEARS!

SUPER! HOT! SUPER! HOT! SUPER! HOT! SUPER! HOT! SUPER! HOT! SUPER! HOT!

6. Gears of War 4

More Gears of War.  Honestly, there isn’t a great deal else to say – the Coalition have begun a new trilogy that looks great, plays like the old games (which I have generally loved playing through with my wife), and includes plenty of fun nods to the old story and characters while trying to walk its own path…even if that path is super derivative of the previous games.

5. Hitman

This came a shock.  I’d never enjoyed playing the previous games, but the consistent stream of entertaining videos of Giant Bomb playing the new episodic Hitman game convinced me to give this a shot, and I was not disappointed. It hits the perfect mix between robust, serious open-world stealth assassination game and being goofy as hell, and I love it to bits.  Probably the best example of episodic game content ever as well.

4. Hyper Light Drifter

Probably the most stylish game on this list, as well as the one with the best soundtrack, what truly captured me was how sublime the gameplay is, effortlessly combining the exploration of an old, top-down adventure like A Link to the Past with Dark Souls-esque combat built around pattern memory, reflexes, and an understanding of exactly when and how to strike.  I was obsessed by Hyper Light Drifter when it came out in a way that few games ever capture me these days, and the new 60fps patch has sent me back in for New Game+.

3. The Banner Saga 2

The original Banner Saga is one of my favourite games of all time, and its successor is more than worthy as a sequel.  Gorgeous to look at, challenging to play, and featuring a wonderfully hopeless tale of the end of the world as experienced by travelling caravans of fantasy vikings and their immortal, giant allies, the Banner Saga 2 is every bit as good as the original game.  I would have liked it to push the envelope a little bit more than it did, but the familiarity doesn’t take away from the immense quality of the experience.

2. Titanfall 2

Titanfall was a very cool game that sadly never achieved the popularity it probably deserved, another promising FPS put in the way of the Call of Duty steamroller and promptly flattened.  The sequel…actually appears to be suffering the same fate, which is a real damn shame because this game is so damn good! Not only does it feature a single-player campaign that is legitimately one of the best I’ve played in years (not since Half-Life 2 I’ve I come across a story mode as innovative, though Titanfall 2 is a much shorter game), but the multiplayer takes all the free running, pilot and giant robot tag team action of the original and amps it all up. Titanfall 2 would easily have been the best FPS I’d played in a very long time, except, well…

1. DOOM

Who the hell (hah!) saw this one coming?  Not I.  Doom 3 was, in my opinion, a garbage fire of a game.  The last good thing id had put out was probably Quake III.  Wolfenstein: The New Order was great, but also not actually made by them.  When all the rumours came out about Doom 4 being this story-based, Call of Duty-esque tale of marines fighting a demonic invasion force on Earth, I was completely ready to write it off.

Apparently, so were id.

Going back to the drawing board, they got back to what made Doom DOOM, and in the process may well have started a paradigm shift for the genre.  Fast, stupidly violent, incredibly satisfying to play, and possessed of a wicked sense of humour, DOOM is everything I had ever hoped for as a fan of the old games, and something I never would have expected.  Also, there’s a multiplayer mode, but who gives a crap about that?

 

The rest…

So that just about does it for my top 10 games of 2016.  However, there are a few other mentions I’d like to give as well:

Honourable Mentions

Pony Island – great, dumb concept and a fun little experience

Darkest Dungeon – Fun game, but never quite hooked me the way I expected.

Furi – Really like this one, but just haven’t had time to sink my teeth in.

Tyranny – Promising concept, but failed to hook me after the first act.  May go back to it.

House of the Dying Sun – Very fun, X-wing-esque gameplay, but not a lot of meat to it.

Enter the Gungeon – Super enjoyable rogue-lite shooter, but just a little bit too hard.

 

Dishonourable Mentions

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided – Honestly, perhaps the most disappointed I’ve been with a game since – funnily enough – Deus Ex 2: Invisible War.  Feels like the same game as Human Revolution, only somehow less fun and with a much worse story.  The more open hub area was a great idea in theory, but in practice just made the game tedious, an impression that was only reinforced by the rest of it.

 

Mentions

(for the games where my opinion is not overly positive or negative, but just a long, drawn out sigh)

Brigador – has everything I like in games, except actually being fun to play.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4 – Acts 1 – 3 were each very cool and unique. 4 was certainly unique, but did not capture me at all.

The Division – great concept, fun for a few hours, boring and samey from then on.

Rise of the Tomb Raider – I really enjoyed the reboot, but the sequel has left me cold.  Decent to play, but not at all engaging.

 

May have made my Top 10 if I’d played them for long enough before writing this

Civilisation VI – I really like all the Civ games, and this is meant to be a good one. No brainer.

Dishonoured 2 – The first game was great, and I have a feeling this could scratch the itch that Deus Ex so spectacularly failed to reach.

Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun – I can pretty much guarantee that, barring a catastrophic failing in the second half of the game, that this would have scored highly indeed.  A Commandos-style real-time stealth puzzle game, Shadow Tactics is amazing and should hopefully serve to revive what has been a dead genre.

Battlefield 1 – stupid name aside, I’ve liked the Battlefield series in the past and WWI (or the weird, fantasy interpretation of WW1 here) is a really unique setting for a game that I’d like to dive into.

 

No idea if I’d actually like it but really want to play it anyway

Thumper – Rhythm violence seems a perfectly apt way to describe this game.  I get weirdly tense just watching and listening to it – playing it seems harrowing in a way I can totally get behind.

 

Most played old game

Rainbow Six: Siege – Got me back into playing multiplayer shooters after a long absence and has kept its hooks in me.  The varied character classes, slow, methodical gameplay, and extreme tension all make it a very unique game to play, although it is one I can only handle in small doses.

 

Most time spent watching someone else play a game

Hitman – Giant Bomb’s pretty much constant coverage of every new Hitman episode (and many of the Elusive Targets) is what finally got me to pull the trigger on this awesome game.

Shenmue – I finally got to experience this hot piece of garbage again after watching the Giant Bomb Endurance Run.  It was every bit as terrible as I remembered it being from playing it when it first came out, although I can definitely appreciate just how revolutionary some of its concepts were back then.

 

What I’ve been…

…watching at the movies (again!)


Rogue One (spoiler free)

Oh…oh my. That movie was amazing!

I freely admit that I’m a Star Wars tragic. I’ve been one ever since my mum showed me A New Hope as a child. I loved everything about those movies and even the godawful prequels couldn’t hurt me too much.

However, the thing that really captured me the most was the setting itself. Jedi were cool, and the space battles were cooler, but what I loved were the little glimpses of the day to day in this amazing universe. I loved how lived in it all was, how weird the aliens were, the glimpses at what society was like under the oppressive Empire.  The Extended Universe got into a lot of this stuff, but it had only ever been captured on film as incidental detail around the hero’s journey of Luke and his friends.

Rogue One is everything I ever wanted from a Star Wars movie.

This isn’t a story about a single hero rising up and saving the day. No, Rogue One is not about that, despite what trailers might have hinted at.  This is a war movie and a heist rolled into one – a gritty look at a rebellion against an oppressive government across multiple and wonderfully varied locations and what rebelling actually means; what it costs the people who are fighting and doing what might be considered bad things for what history will hopefully show were good reasons.

This is not a hero’s journey. Rogue One is dark without being dour. Adventurous without being trite.  Serious, but with that sense of humour and hint of hope that typifies Star Wars. It wasn’t a perfect movie – characterisation was a bit slim at points, I kind of hated Forrest Whitaker (not something I’m used to saying), and there were a few uncanny valley incidents that took away from certain scenes.

But overall?  This is Star Wars like I dreamed it could be. As much as I liked Force Awakens, it was a retread – A New Hope with a new coat of paint.

Rogue One is not a retread.  It is new and different and gorgeous and glorious and the standing ovation it got in the cinema I watched it in was well deserved.  I’m not sure yet where it will sit in my personal canon of Star Wars movies, but I’m pretty damn sure it’ll be high on the list.

An easy 5/5 for me.

 

What I’ve been…

A not-at-all creatively titled new series of posts I’ll be doing about the various things I’ve been reading, watching, listening to, writing, etc.  Let me know what you think!

…watching at the movies

I caught Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them over the weekend. I’m not a huge Harry Potter fan- I read the books quite late and thought they were decent but unspectacular (I enjoyed the later ones the most), and feel much the same way about the films. I’m not immersed in the Potter-verse, and knew basically nothing about Fantastic Beasts heading in.

I’m not normally a fan of spending a paragraph qualifying, but it feels necessary in this situation due to the simple fact that I really enjoyed Fantastic Beasts.

It was a fun story in a really interesting setting (1920s New York), well-acted and gorgeousto look at – I particularly liked Scamander as a lead and enjoyed the little nuances Eddie Redmayne brought to the role, but all the supporting actors were great as well, even where the characters were a little bit shallow.

There were some fun little call outs for fans of the series, but this is an excellent standalone piece of fiction in its own right, completely watchable for anyone who isn’t hugely familiar with the preceding movies/books.  It felt like a darker (but not grim) tale than Rowling’s previous work, but still retained the sense of whimsy and wonder that is missing in a lot of modern fantasy.

In short, it managed to tickle me just right despite my non-existent expectations, which is always my favourite experience when I go to the movies. At a time of year where the only hotly anticipated movie I’ve got left for 2016 is Rogue One, this was an awesome surprise and one I definitely recommend.

Have you seen Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? What did you think?  Let me know in the comments.