New job, same site, & other news

Surprising even myself, after a few contented years working in an operations administrative support role, I’ve stepped down from my management position to accept a new role in an Indy firm’s Social Security disability department. The transition happened midweek; I left my old job on Wednesday and started my new job on Thursday. But it was about a month in the making. I’m excited and anxious and interested to see how this goes. That’s big enough news in my personal life that I felt it warranted a post. It’s been a year with a lot of big personal events, including the death of our dog, the adoption of two dogs, the purchase of a house, a new volunteer pursuit, and now this. That all said, this site shouldn’t be impacted in any way. I’m already only posting once a week, which has been quite comfortable. While it means that I certainly won’t be increasing the frequency of posts on a regular basis any time soon, I also don’t have any reason to decrease or discontinue posting. I’ve enjoyed writing on this blog, and I fully intend to continue carving out time for it.

I have a few other, much smaller, updates that are more relevant to the focus of this blog, though. I’ve finished Cat Quest. I’ve actually finished it twice now, since it provides a New Game+ mode. That’s taken me a little over 10 hours of game time. I’m a little over level 100. I’ve cleared most dungeons (maybe all, but I wasn’t very diligent in confirming that, and I know I never found all the loot locations in some of the cleared dungeons). I’ve got some high-level themed equipment (a helm of Faith, the armor of Courage, and the weapon of Willpower, resulting in my hero looking like a near-naked enlightened monk). It’s been fun, but I don’t have any particular interest in trying out the other game modes or starting over again. My opinion hasn’t changed on the game, and I’d still say it’s worth the purchase. And compared to my game time spent with Desert Child (just a few hours) or Untitled Goose Game (about five), it’s still been the longest gaming experience among the indies I’ve played lately.

There are altogether too many games available on and coming to the Switch, and I haven’t narrowed down exactly what I’ll play next. That said, Vampyr will be released for the console a couple days before Halloween, so while it may not be the next game I play, it’s certainly one that I’d like to revisit, and the seasonal timing is just perfect.

It’s not much of an announcement, but I’ve realized in retrospect that I sort of gave up on The Clone Wars rewatch. It’s sort of a silly thing to say, because I can of course continue watching or start over whenever I want, but I’ve made no effort to keep up with the official posts for several weeks now. Watching almost any Star Wars film or show will be much easier when it’s consolidated on Disney+ anyway (though it doesn’t appear that the two Endor-based fantasy movies or the Ewoks or Droids shows are dropping there anytime soon). I have been watching other things, though. Sam and I finally finished Adventure Time; that final episode was absolutely fantastic. I’ve started the television version of What We Do In The Shadows, which is fun and tonally fits with the movie, though I’m not far enough along yet to say if it really feels like it’s doing its own thing–that said, I like the introduction of the Energy Vampire concept.

I haven’t watched any particularly memorable movie lately, and my pile of books remains as thick as ever; I keep adding more to read, quicker than I can get through them! Most of my attention is currently on Devil in the Grove by Gilbert King, about Thurgood Marshall’s defense of the “Groveland Boys” in Lake County, Florida.

While I could leave it at a week’s recap post for the week, I’ll still plan on having a more “normal” post tomorrow, though I’m not sure what about just yet. And if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. Either way, I’m looking forward to what is sure to be a very exciting, very different week for me.

Review: Cat Quest

Of the three quirky indie games I’ve played recently on the Nintendo Switch, Cat Quest (developed by Singapore-based Gentlebros) is by far the longest experience. That doesn’t mean it’s the best, of course, but it does mean that this is a game that I can return to over time. It helps that, despite the RPG-norm grinding, it feels airy, light, and casual, rather than consuming, endless, and bloated. I remain engaged, maybe a little addicted, to this oddball title. If I had to guess, I think I’m about two-thirds of the way through the main story, having completed a huge bundle of side quests and explored many dungeons; if the suggested level of one of the isolated island dungeons is any indication, leveling to the needs of the main quest is more of a floor than a ceiling. (As usual, I’m so behind the times that I’m getting to this 2017 game just around the time that its sequel has released.)

In Cat Quest, you are a cat. On a quest. In the most generic of RPG stories, your sister is captured by an evil villain, and you set out to save her and put a stop to his plans. Turns out that you have a special heritage and destiny, too, because this game lives on RPG tropes. You’re a Dragonblood, the most recent in a storied line of dragonslayers (yes, there are a lot of homages to Skyrim, among plenty of other pop culture mainstays). While the game isn’t quite a satire of these tired conventions, it does have a lot of fun lampshading them and laughing at itself.

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As I referenced, the game is obsessed with pop culture references. Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t get a lot of amusement out of them. Most of the references amounted to a sort of Family Guy-style allusion or simple parody, where the joke is simply getting the reference. Among other things, The Elder ScrollsStar Wars, Santa Claus, Arthurian myth, the Tomb Raider games, Game of Thrones, Lovecraftian horror, The Lion King, Robin Hood and medieval myth and legend, and even Santa Claus get references. The best of these references, to me, are ones that go with a lame cat pun.

There are a lot of lame cat puns. Some are kind of fun. Many are painfully bad. When you play a game called Cat Quest, you’d better hope that there will be cat puns.

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The game itself is fairly simple to play. Most of the game is spent on the overworld map. Exceptions are fairly small dungeons, which load mini-levels to “explore” down railroaded paths. It plays a little like a pared-down Zelda-alike at first, with you mostly pressing one button to swipe at enemies and another button to roll out of range of their telegraphed attacks (always indicated by a darkening red hit radius). You even have a pseudo-annoying pixie-ish “guardian spirit” sidekick to speak for your silent protagonist. Over time, you collect more and more spells and special abilities, which are toggled by additional buttons. I’ve only collected enough spells to fill out my mapped buttons, but while I haven’t had to be selective with spell choices yet, I have found that simply managing four spells plus the melee attack and dodge makes every tiny battle fairly dynamic and fun. Spells use mana, and mana is recharged by melee attacks. Enemies tend to be weak to a particular spell type or physical attack. Combining attacks while rolling out of enemy barrages is sometimes easy and sometimes hectic, especially when you’re suddenly surrounded by enemies. Virtually every battle is fast-paced yet manageable, with strong visual communication of what is happening at all times. Death doesn’t cost you much, so if you do find a challenge in which you are overwhelmed (and fail to turn tail and run quickly enough), there’s very little setback.

A lot of the quests orient around going from one place to another to kill monsters or collect items. Item collection is mostly triggered by reaching a certain point on the map, which is fairly dumbed-down but also makes fetch quests a lot less painful than usual. Some of the quests have interesting little stories, though they’re all heavily drawing from fantasy tropes and common RPG story beats. There are no conversation trees or branching quest paths here (outside of literal divergences in a physical path to a location). It’s all basically an excuse to go around fighting things while exploring more and more of the overworld. Improving in abilities and equipment is almost an afterthought–you run over XP and coins scattered across the land or dropped by enemies, and you collect equipment upgrades from chests. There’s a handful of different armor and weapon types, and whether using a blacksmith or completing a dungeon, equipment drops are randomized. If you get more equipment of a given type that you’ve already collected, this manifests as increased stats for that particular item. So while you’re progressing and improving, it never feels like work to do so; everything feeds back into the simple fun of the combat.

The oddball humor, fight mechanics, focused and honed simplicity, and even bright and colorful visuals remind me in many ways of Japanese indie game Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, and not in a bad way at all. Both games don’t try to be everything; both offer subversions and reinterpretations of fantasy tropes. I think that Recettear pushed the envelope a little further (the idea of running an item shop, stepping into the role of an NPC for any other game, offered a great deal of novelty), but the cute cat characters, open world, and silly puns of Cat Quest, and the lack of shrieking, “cutesy” anime characters, puts this feline RPG at a higher rank in my book.

Cat Quest is pretty, cute, addictive, and fun. It’s not a deep RPG. It’s not one of the greatest games I’ve ever played. But it’s easy to pick up, inviting, and enjoyable–whether I’m playing for a long session or a short one. Playing on a mobile device (or in the Switch handheld mode, which I’ve enjoyed), it would be a perfect option for a quick pick-up-and-play title to fill a commute or while away a Sunday afternoon.

A little here and there

I’ve had a lovely weekend. Today was really special in particular. It was a beautiful day. My wife and I put a lot of time and attention into training the puppy today, and it’s really shown off. We’re reinforcing learned tricks and introducing new ones and we’re happy with the pace, especially since she hasn’t been to obedience school yet. She seems so smart and picks up on things really quickly. Other than that, my day has been a little bit housework, a little bit yard work, a little bit of catch-up on my day job, and more than a little bit of leisure time.

If you can’t tell already, this is one of those meandering posts where I don’t have much to say but still wanted to check in. As per usual with these sorts of posts, I’ll at least briefly discuss the things I’m into that may or may not pop up on the blog in the near future.

After two months of homeownership, I finally pulled the Nintendo Switch and games out of storage in the guest bedroom. The first month was busy enough that video games were the last thing on my mind. The last month has been a little more focused on movies and reading, with admittedly way too much familiar TV thrown in. But I started getting the itch. Putting Desert Child on hold for a moment, I picked up Hello Neighbor. That’s a game that has an interesting concept but struggles in execution, and I’ll probably have more of a review when I either finish a play-through of the (relatively short) game or get exhausted by it, whichever comes first. For point of reference, I’m in the middle of Act 2 of 3. It’s a game where I wish I’d relied more on the available reviews. But of course, reviews are a subjective thing, and even a “bad” game can be something to be enjoyed. Just by way of example, I loved the simple action-RPG-lite beat-’em-up gameplay and branching story of X-Men: Destiny, even while recognizing that most of the complaints about that game were pretty valid (in fact-checking my memory of this game and reviews of the time, by the way, I was surprised to see that it had been de-listed from online stores and had unsold copies destroyed because of a legal dispute; now I really regret my decision to get rid of my copy, even though it was a game I likely wouldn’t play again and was taking up limited shelf space).

As for TV, I started The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance, which I can only watch when my wife’s not around (she hates puppetry, and stop-motion as well), and I’ve continued to slowly move through the quite fast-paced and bite-sized Adventure Time because I can only watch it when my wife is around (we were stalled for a long time because she just wasn’t in the mood, which is just baffling to me).

I’m reading too many things and moving too slowly, so I don’t have any interesting updates there. I did, however, learn from my wife that Netflix is going to release a series about Madam C.J. Walker, based on On Her Own Ground, in 2020, so that’s kind of a weird coincidence.

To close out my pop culture consumption, I don’t really have any movie updates, either. I’m mostly just eager to see The Rise of Skywalker in December (though weirdly I might be more excited for the next Jurassic World movie and associated TV series, even though I’ve still got quite a while to wait on both–I do love me some dinosaurs).

And…that’ll just about do it! Have a good week, folks.

Review: Detective Pikachu

Pokémon Detective Pikachu is fun, and it feels like a video game adaptation made by people who actually care about the franchise. That’s impressive–it’s at this point trite to note that film adaptations of video games are terrible as a rule. Even walking into the theater, excited by nostalgic appeal and the promise of what would at the very least be a colorful (if cheesy) adventure, I doubted whether I’d be fully on-board with the hyper-realistic depictions of Pokémon; this mood was not helped any by a pre-showing trailer for Sonic the Hedgehog, with the titular character living deep in the uncanny valley and dialogue that is somehow both campy and generic.

I was swiftly converted, however, by a beautiful early sequence depicting plausible Pokémon inhabiting the world. Even more important was the film’s tone, established quickly, which leans heavy into whimsy and comedy. This is evident from our introduction to Tim Goodman (Justice Smith, bringing a greater degree of bravery and emotional range to the character type he played in Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom), who is tricked into accompanying his childhood friend (Karan Soni, with a quirky comic persona for his one scene) to catch a Cubone. Tim’s friend thinks that they’d be a good match because they’re both “lonely.” We learn that Pokémon can only be caught if they’re willing to be partnered with a trainer. Tim, reluctant to even make the effort, attempts to befriend the Cubone by telling it that not many people could pull off wearing the skull of a “dead relative.” The tiny Cubone does not react kindly to this, to say the least, leading to a failed catch attempt, a hilariously short retreat, and a colossal wipe-out.

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Cubone fleeing before the tables are turned.

Justice Smith spends a good portion of the movie acting awkward or uncomfortable and running from CGI Pokémon threats, and I never got tired of it. After that introductory scene, he learns that his father Harry was apparently killed, and he takes a train ride to Rhyme City to close out his deceased parent’s affairs. Not long after reaching his apartment, he meets Detective Pikachu, who possesses the startling and unique ability to communicate with Tim, and who is amnesiac with only a deerstalker cap imprinted with the detective’s name and address linking him to Harry. Smith’s banter with Ryan Reynolds as the eponymous Pokémon sleuth is consistently fast and witty, and the relationship between Tim and his dad’s old partner Pikachu forms the heart of the movie. That’s a good thing–it’s shocking just how charismatic Reynolds can be as a voice applied to a computer-modeled electric yellow mouse. The effects were wonderful, as well, allowing for the feeling of genuine physical interaction between human and Pokémon, which proved critical for many of the action and character beats.

There’s also a low-level love interest between Tim and newsroom intern Lucy Stevens (Kathryn Newton), who team up to try to uncover the mystery that led to the disappearance of Tim’s dad and a rash of unexplained feral Pokémon attacks. (It just dawned on me in this moment that a good portion of this movie’s plot mirrors that of Zootopia). I’m not familiar with Newton, but I got the impression that she’s a good actor, and her film credits mostly support that. She’s very funny and expressive in this film, and she delivers hilarious lines of dialogue with not just a straight face but an inspired fervor. That said, her character’s not really given that much to do, other than tag along with Tim, exchanging barbs, providing sympathy, and occasionally almost-flirting.

I was impressed by the twists and turns of the detective story, and by the action sequences linking events together. I don’t think it would be too hard to predict at least some of those twists, and a lot of the revelations are dependent upon withholding information from the audience. To be fair, it’s information that the viewpoint characters don’t have, and I at least never felt cheated or bored with the mystery. I’ve never played the game, but reading the Wikipedia page tells me that the story and characters should be familiar to diehard fans, but with plenty of changes to keep them on their toes (and to condense story, tighten the connections between characters, and provide a greater sense of closure). Additionally, while I wasn’t particularly moved by Tim’s complicated family situation, especially given that the movie invested more time in action and comedy than quiet character moments, it provided a clear character arc for Justice Smith to work through (Lucy sadly did not get much of an arc), and the bond that formed between Tim and Detective Pikachu was touching and heartfelt.

It should not be surprising that this film is made for fans of the franchise and nostalgic millennials. But it’s a solid action-comedy movie nonetheless! It actually drops in some rules for the universe to explain how Pokémon and humans interact, making things a little more palatable for a hyper-realistic setting and providing some context for non-fans (there’s one scene early on that’s a bit too exposition-heavy, but it fits the moment). So no one should be unable to track what’s going on, even if they’re not too engaged by the parade of cute-yet-creepy, hyper-real corporate mascots. Despite the narrative friendliness to casual viewers, the film also leans hard into the weirdness of Pokémon, with its bizarre combinations of spirituality and science-fiction. While everything makes sense, I could definitely see those not already invested in the consumer cult of Pokémon finding themselves unwilling or unable to accept the radical events of the third act (thankfully, it’s still grounded in character, and I’m confident that even the most skeptical viewer can still depend on the anchoring bond between Tim Goodman and Detective Pikachu).

I also have to note that, while having no impact on the larger film, a small bit of exposition basically establishes some version of the events of the first generation of games (or the anime) as part of the canon of this Detective Pikachu film universe, which is an exciting bit of fan service. Less fan service, but definitely pandering to millennials, is a visual reference to Home Alone when Tim enters Harry’s apartment. I imagine there are other such references to millennial nostalgia that I’m forgetting or just missing.

Detective Pikachu is an entertaining, family-friendly action-mystery movie with a lot of humor. It’s also a great Pokémon movie and an excellent video game adaptation. (It might be the first video game adaptation to actually have a mostly positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, for what that’s worth!) For those with kids, and for those who are (or were) fans of the Pokémon franchise, this is a good movie to kick off summer early.

At any rate, between this movie and the Let’s Go games, now’s a great time for lapsed or new Pokémon fans to enter the fold.

Why not release Detective Pikachu on Switch?

So, Detective Pikachu comes to theaters in a month. And Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney Trilogy was just released for the Nintendo Switch. Yet there seem to be no plans to release any version of the Detective Pikachu game on Nintendo Switch.

The timing seems right, but nothing seems to be happening. Then again, it surprises me how quickly the time between some game announcements and releases has been for the Switch. Maybe Nintendo will still capitalize on the film release with a port, remake, or sequel of the game for the Switch.

I never played Detective Pikachu. But there’s a decent chance I would if it came to the Switch.

Either way, though the movie looks absurd, I imagine that it will be one my wife and I see in theaters. She’s really looking forward to it!

(P.S. Sam, I know that Yu-Gi-Oh! will always be the TCG closest to your heart, but these early-screening-exclusive booster packs for Detective Pikachu might just get you even more amped up for the movie!)

Let’s Keep Going, Pikachu!

I’m still playing Pokémon: Let’s Go, Pikachu! I’ve caught the Legendary Pokémon and beat the Elite Four and all the gym leaders again. I came across Pokémon trainer Green in Cerulean Cave and bested her in battle for Mega Stones that would enable an ultimate evolution for Mewtwo. I still have a Pokédex to complete, and I still haven’t beaten that darned Pikachu Master Trainer.

There’s a lot of endgame content here, beyond merely grinding Pokémon levels and catching every last one (though there’s certainly some of that now too). I’ve been surprised by all the new elements the game has continued to introduce since beating the Elite Four for the first time. And every time I think I’ve encountered every quest or unlocked every feature, I discover something new. It’s still fun!

One of the wildest features I learned about through the Pokémon website is that, upon beating six Master Trainers, you can challenge Red. And there’s an extra title for you if you can beat all of the Master Trainers. Now, I don’t know if I’ll have the tenacity to ever achieve that. And if I do, it’ll probably be with plenty of other games between then and now. Still, it’s an intriguing, if elusive, goal.

This is silly to say, because it’s a casual game that exploits a generation’s nostalgia for a children’s RPG, but this game has helped me better develop perseverance and persistence. It’s rare that I’m just okay with failure in a game. But here, I can lose a battle and still want to push on. I don’t simply reload from an earlier save. I never do that in this game. Because there’s always another opportunity, if I work hard enough for it. I learn from my mistakes; I don’t erase them.

The game’s given me some fresh perspective on where my life’s at and what I’m wanting to aim toward. It’s no longer about reaching a particular career goal, but it’s still important to have goals. I certainly have learned that those goals can and will change, often drastically, but if you don’t keep goals in mind, even if small ones aimed at how to be more engaged with a hobby or to more actively pursue a creative passion or to more consistently and significantly become involved in one’s community, then you’re just idling in place. Life’s a long and meandering path with many forks, but the point is not to reach the end of the trail; it’s to keep having a direction to walk toward.

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Review: Love, Death & Robots

I did not like Love, Death & Robots, but I’m glad that it exists. It’s incredibly genre stuff: scif-fi, horror, and fantasy. Some of the stories do interesting things and take risks. A lot of the stories seem to delight in the chance to be included in an “NSFW anthology,” leaning into gore, grotesque violence, graphic sex, and sometimes a combination of the three. Most of the stories are dark and despairing and macabre. Most were vulgar and crude and unpleasant. A few were not these things, and seem to have been included because of their ideas or their humor or their style rather than sheer edginess alone, and I liked these few best.

My favorite thing about the anthology as a whole was that each short film in the anthology was so different. Some were mostly live action, some were puppetry and/or stop-motion (or else convincing CG-based facsimiles), some were CGI animation (with some of the films within that category appearing hyper-realistic), some were apparently traditional animation, and one was a seemingly live-action film filtered with an over-saturated and cartoonish look and punctuated by text sound effects (this last one was the most visually arresting, but the story was a fairly bland time loop narrative with violence and hyper-sexuality). The drastic shifts between styles kept each new film fresh and distinct.

With 18 episodes averaging about 10 minutes each, it’s incredibly easy to binge the roughly 3-hour affair (even though the episodes range in length, they’re all still rather short). I know that I did. At some point, though, it became about finishing, wanting to put the show behind me. The amount of bad outnumbered the good.

I had my favorites. “Three Robots” follows, well, three robots who are touring a post-apocalyptic city; it’s funny and cute. “Suits” feels a bit like StarCraft fan fiction in the best possible way–it’s about farmers living normal lives except for the mech suits they must use to fight off Zerg-like aliens. “When the Yogurt Took Over” is just plain silly, and it’s one of the rare nonviolent stories in the bunch, serving as sort of a ’50s B-movie deconstruction with charming animation and a Vincent Price sound-alike narrator. “Lucky 13” feels like something set in the Halo ‘verse, but it’s essentially the story of a pilot’s bond with her craft, and it’s rather sweet. “Zima Blue” is an interesting sci-fi art story with a fun twist. And “Ice Age” is a whimsical story about a young couple who discover the old fridge in their new apartment contains its own lost civilization.

References and homages to other stories abound. In addition to the references I noted above, some of the stories felt like they were fan fics for Mass EffectDoom, a variety of werewolf stories of all things, ’80s toy-tie-in cartoons, and Pokémon (but with considerably more sex, violence, and gore, and set in a hard dystopian-cyberpunk setting). Fan fiction initially feels like the right term; they’re not officially licensed to play in those worlds, but the stories seem to work best when contemplating the universes and ideas they’re riffing off. To be fair, much of the source material for these short films outright predates the sources I’m pointing to; my lack of familiarity with most of the original short stories leaves me ill-equipped to say how much is contained in the originals and how much actually could be drawing from later sources. Sci-fi and fantasy are rather self-referential genres, after all, and the round of properties I’ve named are of course referencing dozens of other stories in turn. So to be more accurate: the anthology is a send-up of genre pulp of the past few decades. There are very few ideas that feel truly original or fresh–or even complete, without the context of the genres that they reside within.

While I won’t break down all the stories, I do have to point out that many of the shorts would have simply been easier to get through if they could have shown some restraint, focusing more on telling a consistent and notable story rather than focusing on maiming and killing. Just for example, consider “Sucker of Souls” and “Good Hunting.”

“Sucker of Souls” was incredibly gory and violent, which was a turn-off for me, but it felt a lot like a mature spin on Jonny Quest or something similar, spliced with a Castlevania-esque Dracula story, and it was just plain funny even amid the bloodshed; still, that relentless violence and blood splatter, and the ultimately futile ending, makes it hard to recommend as a comedy or parody. “Good Hunting” is The Witcher meets wuxia meets steampunk, but the grotesque violence against women and moral blackness of the setting (and a sociopathic, morbidly obese man’s tiny flopping dick) are hard marks against it for me; the setting was interesting but the story it wanted to tell was not what I wanted to see. I cannot overemphasize how much graphic violence there is in this collection–and how much of that violence is directed toward women.

Like with Black Mirror, I can appreciate the good episodes but don’t like having to wade through so much bad to get to the good. Like with Black Mirror, I feel like Love, Death & Robots is presented as an edgy, genre-pushing, radical reinvention of speculative fiction, but in the end they both feel like mere edgelord recycling of what’s come before.

That said, I hope that Love, Death & Robots can lead to more genre anthologies and more experimentation, on Netflix and other platforms.