An attempt to review Ring Fit Adventure

I was a fan of Wii Fit Plus for a while, but it was never really a fan of me. The game didn’t work great as a fitness regimen, with a smattering of fitness activities and minigames that could be done in any order, without any particular rhyme or reason. There wasn’t much structure to these bite-sized activities. The game worked reasonably well at tracking metrics, recording how good your posture and balance were and keeping record of your weight. But the fitness element itself, despite the use of Balance Board and Wii Remote motion controls to accurately convey (most of) your physical inputs, did little to generate much real activity for me. I’d often give up on the game and return to it at a later date, at which time it would bemoan how much weight I’d gained or some other defect on my part. Rather than encouraging more activity in my sedentary lifestyle, it ultimately discouraged it. But there were some minigames that promised something more, like Island Cycling, where you’d step in place and lean controllers to guide a virtual bike along a course over an island you could ride freely on, or Obstacle Course, where you used your body’s movements to navigate a platformer level that could have felt appropriate for a Mario game. The promise of using your body in an active way to control movement through a virtual world was very appealing to me.

Ring Fit Adventure delivers on that promise. Released for the Nintendo Switch just about a year ago, Ring Fit Adventure is an exercise video game that works both as exercise and as video game. It’s made me considerably less sedentary, prompting changes to my behavior and diet more generally as small ripple effects out from the game itself, and in the 20 or so minutes a day I spend in the game, I get a good workout in an engaging fantasy world.

I’ve now spent 30 consecutive days playing Ring Fit Adventure. The game does not do anything to demand consistent playing. It in fact advises taking breaks–both in the form of encouraging you to quit for the day after a certain amount of activity, and in the form of tips that suggest taking days off from training. But I don’t need a mandate; it’s fun and rewarding to come back again and again. Keeping to the relatively short activity times suggested by the game, it’s no problem at all to return day after day. But I know if I needed to miss a day or two for whatever reason, it would be okay; I wouldn’t need to feel guilty, and the game wouldn’t chastise me for it.

My total stats after my workout as of today’s post. My Switch records 20 hours or more in the game; the time listed in the image refers only to the periods in which the game tracked actual exercise activity.

The game offers a range of difficulty settings, initially set by a short quiz that tries to assess your current level of fitness. I’m very sedentary through years of engrained habit, and my various attempts to develop a fitness habit usually begin to fizzle after a couple weeks, so the game started me at level 13. I’ve worked up to 18. There are plenty higher difficulty levels above that to continue challenging me as my level of fitness and comfort with the ever-increasing variety of exercises improve. Comments and reviews online suggest that people from a wide variety of fitness levels, including those with an already active lifestyle, have found benefit from the game–at least as a supplement to other activities, for those who already have a decent fitness regimen. But I think I’m the target audience for the game: someone with a sedentary lifestyle who loves video games and has never had much talent or interest in sports. Ring Fit Adventure is, in a way, a sport for those who don’t care for sports: it’s a fun way to get moderate to intense physical activity in, working toward a goal and oriented around accumulating various types of “points,” bound by the rules of the game. If you’re already a regular pickup basketball player or you hit the tennis courts a few times a week, you don’t really need this game. But I’m not that person, and I’m still amazed to find a fitness video game that emulates that level of “fun activity” for a sedentary person like me.

Ring Fit Adventure plays like a traditional roleplaying game, with turn-based combat against a variety of enemies that you encounter as you make your way across individual levels, which are in turn selected from a course charted across several world maps (really more like region maps, but the Level and World designation is pretty classic Nintendo). Within the traditional turn-based combat structure, you use sets of exercises to defeat the enemies. Exercises, navigation through levels, and a variety of other activities are all performed through physical movements by the player, tracked in the game by use of the Joy Cons, one slipped into a leg strap peripheral and one clicked into place in the Ring-Con, a high-tech Pilates ring. These peripherals work great, and the motion sensitivity, with a few occasional exceptions, works exceptionally well and is easy to reset if, say, the aim gets a little off.

As the game progresses, you gain new Fit Skills, or attack/exercise sets, with different effects. Early in the game, you gain access to Color Coding, which means that Fit Skills in the same color group as an enemy do more damage. Fit Skills are divided into five groups: Red (arms), Yellow (core), Blue (legs), Green (yoga), and Recovery (a later, non-combat addition that restores health). Your defense is defined by Ab Guards, where you slightly bend your legs, flex your abdomen, and press the Ring-Con controller into your belly, or occasional Mega Ab Guards, where you squat while taking the other steps of an Ab Guard to ward off an exceptionally powerful boss attack. You also gradually build a large catalogue of clothing to wear (with a variety of permanent buffs, augmented further when a full outfit is worn together) and potions to produce (providing typically short-term buffs, like increasing a specific color attack power or restoring health, and created by combining harvested ingredients and then squeezing them to make smoothies, soups, and drinks).

The plot is fairly simple so far. Your avatar (masculine or feminine, with customizable eye and skin color) is tricked into breaking the seal on a magical ring, releasing the imprisoned dragon Dragaux. Dragaux carries a dark influence that corrupts him and those around him, making them selfishly pursue their inner desires at the cost of everything else. The ring, simply named Ring, is actually a sentient artifact and former trainer of Dragaux, pre-possession, who enlists the protagonist in a quest to stop the dragon and the dark influence. You go from region to region, battling Dragaux’s minions and attempting to undo the effects of the dark influence along the way, meeting a variety of goofball characters in the process.

The narrative is always a little campy, and the dialogue is typically very self-aware and paronomastic. While the story broadens, it (so far) hasn’t gotten much deeper than what I’ve presented above. But that’s okay; the story keeps giving me clear objectives to push forward, and I love/hate Dragaux and have been charmed by many of the other supporting characters I’ve encountered. The silliness is energizing, and the fact that the game presents a solid RPG adventure at all, with all the typical accoutrements of the genre, is quite impressive for a fitness game. I could strike that–the game’s impressive, and while it might be a forgettable but fun diversion without the fitness controls, with those features it feels remarkably fresh and inventive. It is a good game, not just a good fitness game.

You’d think that 30 days of daily playing would be enough for me to have finished a game, or to at least have a good idea of all elements of the game. But that’s not the case here. For one thing, 15 to 20 minutes is a lot less than one or two hours of gaming on a weeknight or much more than that even on a weekend. (First behavior change: Ring Fit Adventure convinces me I’ve had plenty of “game time,” so the amount of time I spend playing video games altogether has decreased sharply.) As a result of this fairly limited approach to play, I’m still uncovering new gameplay elements regularly. It took me a few days to unlock Color Coding, and a bit more than that to unlock the ability to paddle over rivers, and a couple weeks more before the skill tree was opened to me, and nearly a month before the skill tree was expanded for the first time, and there’s still a steady trickle of new Fit Skills being unlocked as I play. From what I’ve read in forums, it looks like the skill tree should expand at least once more. And even when I finish the full quest, there are apparently new-game-plus modes.

Some of the newly unlocked content has a direct impact on gameplay from day to day; for instance, there are new enemies appearing, and enemies work together in new ways that create unique challenges in levels. The best example of this happened just today. The game had gradually introduced me to Skuttlebells, enemies with powerful claw attacks, and showed me in earlier boss fights that Dragaux would lift them up for extra damage. It also added in Matta Rays, enemies that could heal their allies by sliding under them. And it most recently added Megaphauna, which can provide buffs to their allies or call in more support as my enemies are vanquished in a fight. The most recent boss fight against Dragaux, who perpetually retreats after defeat, had him using Skuttlebells while supported by a Matta Ray and a Megaphauna. While I normally would have targeted the Skuttlebells first, I focused on the Megaphauna, to shut off any buffs or additional enemies; then I turned to the Matta Ray, taking it down in a group attack that also weakened a Skuttlebell; then I focused on the Skuttlebells directly; then I finally fought Dragaux himself. He often launches into a mid-battle special attack, and this one was a familiar form, hurling boxes at me for me to shoot down before impact, but it was still freshly challenging because he was now hurling a few boxes at a time, spread out across the screen, at pretty high speed. I’m not suggesting that the game requires strategic thinking, but it was nice that I could put a little thought into a battle plan more complicated than attack-attack-attack, and this is hardly the only example of engaging and different battles.

I’ve said almost everything that I could about Ring Fit Adventure, but I want to emphasize that the game is super-encouraging. Ring cheers me on and gives tips on better form. The game praises me for showing up and for working out. It celebrates milestones in activity and rewards me with titles. It’s very wholesome and holistic in its approach, focusing on the positive, encouraging me to think positively because I’m putting some work into this, suggesting I don’t overextend myself by pushing too hard or too long, providing healthy lifestyle tips at the end of the day, reminding me to drink water in between sets, and recommending a guided dynamic stretching session at the beginning of every workout and a static stretching session at the end. While I haven’t missed a day yet, my understanding is that the game never calls you out for time away, instead always focusing on how good it is that you’re back for another day. And I can speak directly to what happens when you lose a battle: the game still counts your reps, awards some experience, and lets you pick right up where you left off. I lost to Dragaux once, and the game gave me the option of skipping the course leading up to him to start my fight directly with him; I opted to instead go through the course again, but it was nice that the game doesn’t punish you for defeat. It’s not a hard game, and even if you have little gaming experience or struggle at first with some of the boss fights, it’s not going to punish you for losing. Even a “loss” is a moment to gain experience, recover, and push forward, both in the game and in reality. This positive and continual reward for engaging is a powerful motivator.

It’s hard to say how long I’ll stay with Ring Fit Adventure. But I have no desire to let up at this point. I’m excited to get to the game each day. And even when the campaign is well behind me, I imagine I’ll still want to jog through certain beautiful courses, or take part in some of the custom workout routines you can build with accumulated Fit Skills, or dig into the more recently released rhythm game addition that I’ve barely touched so far. There’s a lot to engage with, and I hope it will be a long while before any of this begins to be boring or stale. For now, Ring Fit Adventure has made exercise a fun, daily part of my life, and I’m grateful for that.

If you can find a copy of Ring Fit Adventure for its original price, which was easy enough when I bought it a little over a month ago, then this is definitely worth it for anyone hoping for a fun and fantastic way to make exercise a part of your everyday routine.

Review: Dishonored 2

That Arkane Studios bundle continues to pay off. Dishonored 2 is both sequel and soft reboot to Dishonored, and it offered a bigger, better, improved experience in just about every way.

The biggest improvement for me is in characterization. Instead of another silent protagonist, you plays as a fully voiced returning Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector to the Imperial Throne, or his Empress/protege/not-so-secret daughter, Emily Kaldwin. You’re partnered early with the mysterious, one-armed, one-eyed smuggler Meagan Foster, who takes the place of Dishonored‘s boat pilot Samuel, now deceased after the 15-year narrative gap between the games. Considerable time is spent in establishing your cast of allies and enemies. Even the best have their flaws; even the worst have their virtues, however small.

The plot is largely a repeat of the original game (and, as it turns out, its two narrative DLC extensions). The protagonist’s loved one is captured by the leader of a violent coup, and to save them and restore the rightful ruler, the protagonist must first perform several missions involving surveillance and the elimination of high-profile targets responsible for the current state of affairs. Later missions lean more into the occult with a focus on investigating and defeating a rejuvenated witch coven headed by Delilah Copperspoon, who is the principal agent behind the coup, claiming to be the half-sister of the deceased Empress Jessamine; Delilah seeks to bend the whole world to her will, motivated largely by a deep sense of betrayal from her youth (a story arc and an antagonist straight out of The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). Dealing with a decomposing empire and navigating the gap between the most destitute and desperate on one side and the sheltered but paranoid elite on the other tonally matches most of the original game. And once more, you can chart a course between High Chaos (death and destabilization) and Low Chaos (mercy and nonlethal solutions). Something new is that you actually get to pick between Corvo or Emily as the protagonist to play through the game.

Maybe I would have enjoyed Corvo more this time around, now that he’s done with his implicit vow of silence, but I picked Emily. I’m glad I did. Otherwise, the echoes of the original story would have felt merely redundant and derivative. By playing as Emily, the game felt more like a story about legacy. Emily must deal with the legacy of her father, an infamous figure who has taught her in the arts of defense, stealth, and assassination, and of her mother, whose death has created a void in her development. The young ruler we are reintroduced to at the start of the game seems like the perfect action-fantasy heroine, someone born of privilege and entitled to rule but deeply bored with the role and with the requirements of courtroom protocol, instead preferring to sneak out and explore the city. Rather than an admirable trait, the game gradually shows us that this is actually evidence of a ruler who failed to rule. While she was well-intentioned, she inadvertently allowed great suffering and inequity in her empire because she failed to pay enough attention. In my (predictably) Low-Chaos run, Emily’s choices led her to gradually understand the importance of real leadership–and that she had to earn the right to rule; she was not just entitled to it.

As is now the standard for Dishonored games, the setting was incredible. While the beginning and ending missions are spent in Dunwall, most of the game takes place in Karnaca, the capital city of Serkonos, a city known as “The Jewel of the South at the Edge of the World.” Both Corvo and the assassin of former Empress Jessamine hail from Serkonos. It’s significant to the world, exporting its culture, foods and spices, and most significantly its silver to the rest of the Empire. Where the rest of the world has become overly dependent upon whale oil, which is at this point in the game’s history declining in availability, Serkonos benefits from the use of wind energy, with wind turbines large and small powering a variety of devices throughout the capital city. Karnaca nonetheless finds itself in decline. Where the former duke was well-beloved and worked to improve equality, his son is decadent and self-indulgent. He has stripped away the burgeoning rights of workers in the silver mines, and he taxes heavily to fund his personal projects. His interest in the occult led to the resurrection of Delilah, and he is the main political supporter of the coup and placement of Delilah on the Imperial throne. Karnaca is a place full of bitter, desperate people as a result. Serkonos and Karnaca are apparently inspired by southern Europe and the Caribbean, producing a very realistic yet unique culture. The corrupt and brutal Grand Guard roam the streets, extorting shopkeepers and assaulting strangers. Fishmongers and butchers and whalers work along sloping cobbled alleys with bloodied water seeping down to the docks. A former sanitarium juts from the rocks off the coast. The upper classes live in colossal estates along the periphery. Black market shops operate in abandoned buildings. The horrid buzzing of bloodflies (an oversized combination of mosquitoes and tsetse flies and those flies that cause myiasis) fills filthy apartments overrun with the flies’ mud-dauber type nests and blood amber-infused hives. And as per usual, journals and notes and book excerpts and newspaper articles and graffiti are found everywhere, providing further insight into the state of the city and the world. The city feels alive, seedy and hot and exotic and miserable.

While artwork has always been another tool that Dishonored has used to further detail the world, I was really impressed by many of the paintings I came across. Paintings in the game seemed to encompass parallels to Neoclassical and Romantic art in our world, except for the energetic, colorful, at times slightly abstracted works by the magically gifted Delilah. Many of the more traditional paintings found detailed little myths and legends that added to the tone of the game though never appearing anywhere else. And there were, of course, drawings by children–or the childlike, including one rather bad self-portrait by the conceited Duke of Serkonos.

The game offers some gameplay and design improvements over the original. There is more movement allowed when peering around corners. There are far more nonlethal take-down options, and a Low-Chaos play style that is focused on aggressive incapacitation of opponents is quite viable. Instead of having to get any upgrades or equipment purchased at a central hub between missions, black markets provide options in each level. And Dishonored came out in 2012, while Dishonored 2 released in 2016, so it goes without saying that the sequel looks much better and feels more realistic to navigate. It’s really fun to play, much like Dishonored–perhaps even more so than the original. I played on Hard mode because it was described as tailored for those familiar with Dishonored. This was accurate. The game never felt unfair or insurmountable, and I’m glad I picked the slightly higher difficulty setting.

I mentioned much earlier that Dishonored 2 was a soft reboot. I make that argument because while it builds out from a Low Chaos-ending to the original game and its DLC extensions, it does not really require any understanding of what came before. And by echoing the plot of those earlier stories, it basically tells a more intimate version of those same stories, only this time with more voice-acting, more explicit plot developments, clearer themes, and more diversity in representation. Normally, the choice to do the “good” or “right” thing is very easy to make in video games, but here, many of the antagonists are so awful that it is understandable to want to kill them. By choosing another option, by finding another way, many of these people still meet cruel fates, but it still requires an active performance of mercy, if not forgiveness, and greater effort to produce the nonlethal solution. Learning more about the politics and personalities of Serkonos and the Empire made decisions matter more. And the opaque occult realm of the Outsider is explored in greater detail, making it ever more complex and bizarre. Even simple concepts implied in the original are made explicit in the sequel; just as one example, the supernatural heart used to provide helpful hints and to detect occult items in the original makes another appearance, but while some of the musings of the soul within the heart and the voice used were the only things to clearly suggest that it contained the soul of Jessamine in the original, it is explicit in the sequel and her residual spirit is a major plot point. (The original also made Corvo seem a tad uncaring to rely heavily on this device without ever attempting to converse with it, while playing as Emily in the sequel provided an opportunity for closure with her mother. It would be interesting to see how a voiced Corvo reacted to the heart in this game, though maybe not interesting enough for me to do a Corvo run through the game.) The original threw out a lot of ideas that were not really explored, and the sequel picked up those ideas and ran with them.

I should note that I finished playing Dishonored 2 over a week ago. Since then, I returned to Dishonored to play the DLC, to try to learn more about the past of Meagan’s alter ego, and to try to understand Delilah more. I got some answers, but the adventures of the assassin Daud within the expansion are not vital to the story of Dishonored 2. Certainly the sequel builds on the framework set down by the DLC, much like it builds on what the original game provided, but familiarity with the DLC story is not required. Most interestingly, it is clear that Dishonored 2 actually took and improved upon a lot of features from the DLC, new ideas in gameplay that weren’t present yet in the original. I’ve also started Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, which so far feels like a tighter, slightly simplified version of Dishonored 2 that is heavily dependent upon an understanding of the earlier game’s story to be fully appreciated. In fact, Death of the Outsider leans more heavily on plot points from the first game’s DLC as well, and as a result, it feels like a game made particularly for the fan of the franchise’s lore. Certainly the gameplay could be picked up by anyone, but the attention to lore might make this somewhat inscrutable to someone new to the Dishonored setting. All that to say, Dishonored 2 is easily the game I’d recommend for anyone who wanted to give a Dishonored title a try. Thus far, I’d deem it the high point of the series, while working well as a standalone title.

Retrospective: Dishonored

I actually got Prey in a bundle of games from Arkane Studios, so with that title completed, I spent the past week with Dishonored. It was very interesting to go from Prey, a game released in 2017, to Dishonored, released in 2012. I’m actually amazed by that time jump. I remember hearing a lot about Dishonored when the first game came out, and that’s now about 8 years ago! It seems like it was just last year. Anyway, the interesting thing about taking this leap of 5 years back in time between games is that it gives the impression that features are being stripped away. Of course, that’s just a result of the developers building on features they’d already established, taking advantage of their existing foundation and newer advances in technology to build a better game. Yes, I think Prey is the better game. I absolutely loved my time with it and greatly enjoyed the story, characters, and setting. But I do see how much Prey owes to Dishonored, from the basics of stealth/combat/superpowers defining divergent play styles to the presence of an evolving world divided into zones.

The highlight of Dishonored, for me, was the setting. Dunwall is an interesting city, clearly inspired by a steampunk take on nineteenth-century London. The presentation of a city, and a nation, struggling with the spread of an epidemic against the rise of a violently oppressive dictatorship certainly feels timely, as well, even as it fits naturally within a setting inspired by English history. The glimpses of a larger world, largely dominated by a scattering of islands that have submitted to the rule of an Empire based out of Dunwall, with a fabled Lost World landmass that has defied colonization across the sea, feels fresh yet familiar. We are offered a unique fantasy world, vividly portrayed through environmental narrative (clothing, technology, architecture, art, the wear and tear on the city, the contrast between the remaining wealthy enclaves and the crumbling poorer districts overrun with those infected with the plague) and the usual copious excerpts from books, essays, maps, audio logs, and so on. It is clear enough that the industrial-fantasy world of Dunwall is directly responsible for the eventual creation of the radically different, retro-futuristic world of Talos I.

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We also see the same sort of moral choices in Dishonored and Prey. The moral system of these games can be boiled down to the presence or absence of empathy. If you work to save survivors in either game, your actions are rewarded in the long run. Dishonored has a greater emphasis on sparing your opponents and finding alternative solutions to eliminating targets that avoid killing. I tend to prefer the Good story paths in games anyway (I suppose part of my escapist power fantasy is being able to make the world a better place, to make good and principled decisions even in horrible situations), but I really enjoyed how pursuing less-violent paths encouraged engaging with the game’s systems and levels more. I went out of my way to explore the map to pursue nonviolent, or at least nonlethal, approaches.

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On a related note, while I wasn’t afraid to kill in the game, I generally tried to avoid it. I actually never finished a mission without taking a life, but I definitely tried to avoid a large-scale battle. One could certainly play the game in the manner of open combat, if they were seeking a more chaotic world and darker ending. But the nonviolent approach to any situation was typically more interesting and challenging. In fact, I saved frequently, and many of my copious reloads were not because of player-character death but because I’d triggered a large fight and ended up killing a lot of guards. Finding another, better way–which sometimes just involved careful timing and generous use of the protagonist’s special powers–was almost always quite satisfying.

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The powers themselves have a firm narrative purpose for existing. Similar to Prey, they have sort of an ominous origin. Instead of being cultivated from a ravenously destructive alien species, they are given to the hero by “the Outsider,” some sort of supernatural entity who mostly seems motivated by amusement in the conflicts of mortals. A major faction in the game, the state religion, was largely organized to root out practitioners of the dark arts provided by the Outsider. The hero is simply gifted these powers that many others commit terrible rituals to obtain. While at first it’s easy to view the church’s opposition to the Outsider’s followers as nothing more than a fantastical version of the cruel witch hunts of Europe’s actual history, the apparent evilness of so many of the Outsider’s most devout disciples becomes more apparent later on. By the end of the game, I didn’t particularly care for those who followed the major religion or for those who practiced black magic, and the Outsider himself seemed bored with and disgusted by many of his own purported adherents. More than just a magic system, the powers in the game were connected with some very murky thematic waters.

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The actual plot and characters, however, were weak points. You play as the always-silent Corvo, Royal Protector to the Empress, who starts the game returning from a failed diplomatic mission to the other islands. There is no known cure for the Rat Plague infesting Dunwall, and no aid is coming. Corvo is greeted by the precocious young Emily, daughter to Empress Jessamine, and passes by several other royal advisors who prove important to the plot. Upon delivering his news to the Empress, who is clearly quite fond of him, assassins with special powers arrive to disarm Corvo and assassinate Jessamine. They abduct Emily, and Corvo is framed for regicide. Much of the game is spent dealing with one or another group of conspirators, clearing Corvo’s name, and saving Emily. Some of the twists and turns of the plot are interesting, but it’s largely conventional and reliant upon some tired tropes. Characters come and go, and the recurring ones don’t really interact enough to develop particularly memorable personalities. Still, the fun in this game is actually playing it, experimenting with the tools at your disposal and bouncing strategies off the level design and enemy AI.

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There’s certainly the opportunity for a lot of replayability. There are various collectibles in each level and challenges of remaining undetected and avoiding any kills. Then, of course, there are the different endings to the game and the smaller fluctuations to each level dictated by who lived and who died in earlier levels. It’s not the sort of thing that excites me, but there’s certainly an open invitation to return to the game again and again, down to the option to replay a level immediately after its completion as you view your final level stats. I spent a mere 15 hours making my way through the main campaign (in contrast to the 31.4 hours in Prey).

I had fun with Dishonored. I don’t know whether I’d appreciate it more or less without the context of how it was the foundation for, and was ultimately surpassed by, Prey. But it was worth the time.

BMO’s The Sheriff Now

I wanted to take a quick break from the absolutely stupid amount of Jurassic World: Evolution I’ve been playing to say that the new Adventure Time: Distant Lands – BMO was an absolute delight. It was exactly what I’d hope for an extended episode focused on BMO: silly yet melancholic, delightfully weird, cute and dark. And the ending offers a twisty reinterpretation of where this story sits in the timeline–I didn’t anticipate it, for sure.

I don’t think the episode alone makes even a month of HBO Max worthwhile though, if that’s your only reason for it. But I think it would be a great idea to wait for the full four episodes of Distant Lands to come out and to then pay for a single month’s subscription (or take advantage of a free trial, if available). As for me, I’ve enjoyed HBO Max’s lineup, and while it’s not my favorite subscription service, it’s at least making it easy for me to catch up on years’ worth of prestige television I ignored when people were talking about it. Hopefully new original content will make an ongoing subscription worthwhile, but for now I definitely prefer the functionality of HBO Max for those older shows in contrast to what I always found to be a clunky user interface with Amazon Prime.

Review: Onward

Onward‘s trailers didn’t seem very funny or interesting to me. But it came out so quickly on Disney+, and enough people seemed to enjoy it, so my wife and I watched it over Saturday afternoon. I haven’t been so surprised by a film in a while; it was a cathartic, emotionally satisfying, delightful movie that I didn’t expect in the least.

In a very broad sense, Onward is to tabletop roleplaying as Wreck-It Ralph is to video games: an animated family film that takes a pop culture subgenre and builds a mythology around it. Both movies also become stories about sibling relationships (one a found family, one by blood), told over a quest narrative full of zany adventure. I feel that Onward is the more heartfelt film, perhaps because it is a more tailored tale that doesn’t fixate too much on winking references to its pop culture subject matter.

In the world of Onward, the fantasy setting of games like Dungeons & Dragons is the actual history of the realm. Magic was a powerful tool, a gift only present in some and difficult to master. Developing technology made things easier for everyone, however, and magic was gradually phased out. The film’s story picks up in something resembling our modern world, if it was built atop such a rich fantasy setting and populated by elves and cyclopes, goblins and trolls, manticores and minotaurs, pixies and centaurs, unicorns and dragons. The big tabletop RPG of this world, Quests of Yore, is if D&D were a historically accurate wargame.

The protagonists of this alternate-universe story are awkward high-schooler Ian (Tom Holland), his uninhibited (and Quests of Yore-obsessed) older brother Barley (Chris Pratt, in a role that can best be described as early aughts Jack Black), and their supportive mother Laurel (Julia Luis-Dreyfus). The family has done its best to adjust since father Wilden passed away even before Ian was born. However, on Ian’s sixteenth birthday, Laurel brings down a gift from Wilden that had been stowed away for the day when both of the boys had come of age. That gift, it turns out, is a wizard’s staff, an elemental enhancement known as a Phoenix Gem, and a spell that should allow Wilden to return for one day.

After Barley fails to get the spell to work, despite his encyclopedic knowledge of magic from Quests of Yore, the family dejectedly moves on. But Ian inadvertently discovers that he has the magic gift; since he’s untrained, the spell only works halfway, bringing back the bottom half of their dad and destroying the Phoenix Gem. Barley and Ian team up on a quest using Barley’s old van to track down a new Phoenix Gem and complete the spell so that they have at least a few hours to see their dad. Laurel soon gets involved when she returns home to find her sons missing, and her urgency increases when she learns that the gem they’re hunting carries a lethal curse. The movie deftly juggles between the boys and the pairing of Laurel with The Manticore (Octavia Spencer), a former warrior turned frazzled restaurant owner. Added to that mix, Laurel’s new centaur boyfriend, a bland, middle-aged cop named Colt Bronco (Mel Rodriguez) finds himself thrust into the middle of things.

The movie possesses a basic quest frame narrative, and so achieving or failing the quest is of course its central focus. The boys will either succeed or fail; since it’s a family movie, it should be no surprise that they succeed, although how exactly they succeed, and how the movie resolves its various plots, is far more surprising, heartfelt, and interesting than I ever would have expected. The brothers grow a lot and learn more about their own relationship. They both are tested in different ways to prove themselves. Ian becomes a really cool wizard (and learns how to drive!). Barley is a really cool mentor. Laurel is a true warrior at heart.

We had a lot of fun watching the movie, which is genuinely touching and hilarious in equal measures. I laughed a lot. And something about the movie’s emotional heart got me to cry several times throughout. It was a beautiful family movie and just what I needed. I hope you get something special out of it too.

Guest Essay: On Coffee Talk

My wife, Samantha, has her own blog/podcast (link here) in which she discusses her struggles and triumphs in dealing with mental illness, advocates to reduce stigma and encourage active engagement in addressing mental health concerns, and shares stories from others. She has also become incredibly addicted to indie visual novel game Coffee Talk (developed by Toge Productions). I’ve watched her play this game for hours and hours and hours over the past few weeks, and I asked if she’d be willing to write about her personal experiences with this game. Without further ado, her response follows.


For quite a few people, the ability to sit down in their kitchen with a hot cup of coffee in the morning is one of the most serene, comforting, and refreshing things that they can do. It’s the best way to start the day off on the right foot, including for myself. To have some perspective, there is always a box of k-pods in my desk drawer at work that I restock on the regular. So what is it about coffee culture? Especially for those that drink coffee in the afternoon or night?

While the game Coffee Talk doesn’t give an answer, it gives us a peek into what a piece of this culture could be. Particularly, those who are regulars at a local coffee house. 

I was introduced to Coffee Talk (CT) by a tweet from someone in the mental health community of Twitter. 

“Play this game!”

“It’s perfect for those who have anxiety!”

“It’s not stressful at all!”

At first, I thought that these claims MUST’VE meant that the game was boring, but after a serious anxiety attack I had, I gave in and purchased the game on the Switch. I then was drawn into the recursive storyline and lives of the Toge Production team’s characters: Baileys and Lua, Hyde and Gala, Aqua and Myrtle, Hendry and Rachel, Jorji, Neil, and finally Freya. It’s a big cast of characters, but the pacing works well enough. There is clearly an arc that wins out over everyone else’s, and that arc is the Love of My Life arc with Baileys and Lua. This is outside of the frame story of Freya’s novel-writing.

I don’t want to give spoilers because the story is the game. CT is kind of like a visual novel, except the results of the conversations and ending are totally dependent upon your drink-making. If you don’t make quite the right beverage, it will affect the ending and your friendship level with the characters. That being said, probably the “most stressful” times are when you are making new drinks for people, especially when you don’t have a clear recipe, but it still manages to be low stakes. This is because you are caught in what we can assume is a time loop (THAT IS ALL I’M GOING TO SAY ABOUT THE ENDING) and you get the chance to fix any mistakes you may have made. I wouldn’t say that it’s intuitive that you know to restart with the same file, but the game explicitly has at the end of the credits that the main story has been completed but there is still more content to discover. I still haven’t 100-percented it, but I’m pretty close. It’s a short game after all.

So on top of the peaceful lo-fi music and comfy coffee shop design, I found the arcs pretty compelling. There are a total of six arcs; Jorji is mostly used as comic relief and as the wise black man. Here’s a breakdown of the arcs:

  1. Baileys and Lua: An interracial relationship with disapproving parents
  2. Hyde and Gala: A friendship between a vampire and a werewolf, and the werewolf’s struggle to control the damage that he could cause
  3. Aqua and Myrtle: Another interracial duo that we can assume is in a developing lesbian relationship
  4. Rachel and Hendry: A father-daughter relationship dealing with growing pains and the loss of a loved one
  5. Freya: Just a girl trying to finish a draft of a novel in three weeks
  6. Neil: the alien on a mission

Each of these pique my interest with regard to mental health: grief, acceptance, PTSD, anxiety, self-harm. My favorite? The Hyde and Gala arc because it is quite explicit in the representation of self-harm and PTSD. The only thing lacking in this arc is how Hyde fits into the picture in the present-day.

The cast of characters work so well together. They begin to interact outside of their bubbles, and you see a community being built. It demonstrates the power of a safe space for people. Whether it be a local pub or a coffee house. But in the case of the coffee house, the drinks, including coffee, tea, green tea, milk, and chocolate, are meant to soothe and comfort an individual. It allows the characters to relax in a way that alcohol from a pub could never do. Barriers are broken down. People advise, motivate, commiserate…It’s its own biome.

If you have the patience to do-over the same scenes and dialogue, the game is pretty fun. I enjoyed figuring out the drinks and discovering new dialogue. I would go as far as to say that the repetition of the game is soothing and anxiety-reducing. You are comfortable with the story because eventually it becomes predictable…that doesn’t particularly seem appealing, but one of the most important things that someone with anxiety needs is consistency. Anything that is out of the norm disrupts everything unless an individual has a good handle over their anxiety.

That said, Coffee Talk isn’t everyone’s cup of tea (or coffee), but it has been a fulfilling experience for me. Give it a try, or just enjoy the vibes of the game as you watch someone play it. If anything, I guarantee a chill experience.

For a quick chat about Coffee Talk, you can check out my podcast episode “Coffee Talk “Review””.

On playing Divinity: Original Sin II

I’ve been playing Divinity: Original Sin II on the Switch. It’s a game that often frustrates me, and I love it. It’s a big, sprawling RPG with so many options to approach just about any scenario, and those options spin out into other consequences down the line, yet it still focuses heavily on combat and confines you to (quite large) sub-regions to explore rather than a totally interconnected world. It’s been a long while since I’ve tried to play a traditional CRPG, and this isn’t traditional exactly, but it’s clearly one example of what the genre has grown into, and it also happens to be an excellent example of the genre as a whole. (It’s therefore not at all surprising to me that Larian Studios is developing Baldur’s Gate III).

Many of my friends absolutely love this game, and their high opinions of it got me to eventually try it. I’m glad I did, because it really does stand up to the hype, even though this type of CRPG isn’t usually my cup of tea. So it might not be the tea that I like, but it’s exactly the sort of tea that can make someone reach out of their comfort zone and experiment with something new. That said, I still suck incredibly at it. I’m not much of a tactician, and even playing at the classic difficulty setting, the game kicks my ass all over the place. Thankfully, it’s very generous with saves (auto-saves, user-created quick-saves, and traditional saves at almost any time), and I’ve adapted my playstyle to save early and often. I quick-save during battles so that I can jump back to a moment in time when the luck of the draw is in my favor, or to test a particular tactic and reset if it all goes south. The turn-based combat system encourages thoughtful battle strategies, but the slightly randomized, stat-dependent outcomes and freak occurrences mean that it’s hard to be sure of what will happen next. I like experimenting with powers and abilities, taking advantage of splitting up the party to place units stealthily before a fight, or exploiting (or creating) an environmental effect. But I’m still just not very good at it. (Yes, you can retreat from combat, and I have done so, but fleeing isn’t the easiest thing, and if I fled from every battle going south, I’d just end up with depleted resources and little progress.)

The game is thus frustrating for me. But I keep coming back to it. Often, taking a break has been beneficial, as it gives me time to approach a difficult encounter fresh. For example, there was a particularly horrid witch named Alice Alisceon. This monster could easily one-hit-kill my party. No matter what I tried, even after consulting strategies online, I couldn’t get the fight finished successfully. So I gave up and left the game for the longest time yet: a couple of weeks. When I finally came back to it this weekend, things clicked into place for me, and I had some particularly lucky occurrences, and while it still required a lot of luck and reloading, I finally managed to beat her. This was immensely satisfying, though the effort left the unpleasant side effect of having the battle cry “Bubbling skin and burning knuckle” burrowed into the memories of my wife and myself.

It’s not just combat that can be tricky. I approached a ferryman shortly after. Okay, he was undead and offered shady assurances that he could take us safely through an incredibly lethal type of poisonous fog, but I trusted the video game to only give me the option to ride the ferry if it wasn’t going to kill me without a choice. Sure enough, the game took me across the lake–but dropped me to minimal health, dumped paralyzed on the opposite shore’s dock, with an extended bit of mocking dialogue from the ferryman. And only then did I die. Wow! The game openly antagonized me for metagame thinking–good for it, honestly! But I did not expect the game to let me go that far down a path that led to an instant death without any chance to fight back from it. I like that, and I was annoyed by it at the same time…

I will say that the constant death and retries take me out of the roleplaying. It’s hard to stay on top of motivations, or even to act in an internally consistent manner, when I’m doing something over and over again and dying repeatedly to get through it. It’s weird when I have to arbitrarily turn around or make what feels like an out-of-character choice just to avoid an option that I know leads to certain death. It’s kind of a shame because I actually really love the members of my party (though I’ll save a discussion of them for a later review when/if I finish the game).

I think my experience with the game will continue to be a continued love-hate balance. After finally defeating Alice, I spent way too many hours playing through more of the game, struggling through more battles, over this weekend. It’s why I’m posting so late today. It’s definitely why I decided to write something about it. It’s exhausting and it demands a lot and I keep wanting to feed it. I don’t think it’ll reach my Top Ten of All Time list of games or anything, but I can totally understand why this has become a favorite for so many people.

Charles Dexter Ward

I do try to post something every Sunday, and not just an episode reaction. But I don’t think I’ve got anything for today, and we’re almost at the end of the day! My only note: I heard about a podcast adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and started listening to it today. It’s really quite fantastic! It’s available through BBC Sounds, and the premise is that a fictional true crime podcast begins to investigate the strange disappearance of a young man who is implicated in a gradually unraveled occult conspiracy. It’s a great update on the Lovecraft story. Episodes are available here. I’m through episode 4 at the moment.

Not sure that I’ll write on it again, but without anything else to say, I figured it was worth a shout-out.