The Snyder Cut

Zack Snyder’s Justice League doesn’t need to exist, but I was impressed by it. The originally released Justice League was a light, action-packed superhero story by the numbers, the closest the DC movies have come to the Marvel formula. It was fine but forgettable. Snyder’s Justice League has stuck with me. It’s epic in scope and full of incredible action scenes, yet built on characters given the room to breathe and have full arcs. The best moments are often the slower ones in between the action. The film artfully has something to say about grief, loss, recovery, faith, hope…It genuinely feels like a blockbuster film with a true artistic vision, something there seems to be less and less of.

It’s still a blockbuster film, and some of what strikes me as artistic could also read to others as mere pretension. Snyder uses the same old tricks in all his movies, after all–especially the slow-motion action sequences that drag to a crawl to reveal a still shot that feels like a double-page spread in a comic book, which he returns to over and over and over again. (Maybe I’m just a contrarian–I find more pretension where most people find artistry in Christopher Nolan’s films, for instance.)

I haven’t really sought out reviews of the Snyder Cut, but I still live in a society, so I can’t help but pick up the generally positive reactions by many, even as others seemed quick to mock it. One of the few full essays I’ve actually read is this column by Owen Gleiberman on Variety, and it was one of those experiences where I was surprised to find someone having already put to word the thoughts still fomenting in my head, with much greater clarity than I could achieve. If you’re going to read anything about the new Justice League, it should be his essay. Not only do I agree with him, but I’m hungry for more films set in the DCEU. Justice League resolved its story arc well but set up a lot of new potential stories to tell, with explicit lingering narrative threads tugged at the end and a few references to DC characters waiting in the wings.

I didn’t get around to writing anything about the movie until over a week after its release, even though I watched it on release night, because I don’t feel I have anything vital to add to the general discourse, but it’s nonetheless a movie that’s stuck with me, that I keep thinking about and wanting to talk about. (Not to mention it’s pushed me back into a bit of a DC obsession again; seems I flip between just about half a dozen topics to obsess over.) I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was, but I absolutely was not surprised to find a film worth thinking over, even though I expected most people to hate it going in. You see, I really liked Batman v. Superman. It’s a weird thing for me to like, given that Snyder’s films have tended to become ammunition in the ongoing culture wars, and liking a Snyder project seems to ally you with some rather toxic, bigoted people. It’s understandable why, given that Snyder’s films have employed a leering male gaze and some racist tropes (I’m embarrassed to admit that high-school me loved 300 when it came out, and it took a few years for me to really understand what was wrong with it), and given that Snyder is clearly smitten with the problematic works of Frank Miller. Snyder’s take on DC characters is inseparable from Miller’s, after all.

But it would also be unfair to suggest that that’s all a Snyder film is, or that he can’t grow as a filmmaker or a person. Justice League focuses much of its emotional narrative on Cyborg and his family (though there’s a conversation to be had about how Cyborg is uniquely formed a hero out of great physical torment), and Wonder Woman has been an incredible fount of coolness, competence, and resolve since the moment she first appeared in BvS. I think that the new Justice League mostly avoids Snyder’s old pitfalls while telling an evocative story that builds on his previous two DCEU films even as it makes them more essential viewing. It’s a rewarding viewing experience.

Back when I started this blog, I salvaged a few blog posts from my days as a solo attorney. One post I opted not to carry over was a gushing review of Batman v. Superman (yeah, when I was writing a blog for my solo law firm, I sometimes had some weird content). Rather than jumping into more discourse about Justice League just now, I think I’d rather let the movie sit with me some more, maybe after re-watching it and the predecessor DC Snyder films. But I do think now is as good a time as any to re-share that older review. I’ll post it next week. Maybe, if I end up with something worth saying about Justice League, I’ll write more on it, but otherwise, I’ll leave the conversation at BvS.

2 reviews: The Star Wars and Dinotopia

The Star Wars by J.W. Rinzler

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


The dialogue is bad, the plot feels more like an arbitrary series of events, the characters are alternately cruel or cold regardless of whether on the side of good or villainy, and motivations and personalities shift without any clear character arcs to explain them. Jedi and Sith are just buzzwords without any clear philosophy. There’s a rebel kingdom, but it seems that the issue is less with the Empire and more that it conducts itself differently than the Empire that preceded it. And yet, this is a fascinating artifact, a fully illustrated chance to see what The Star Wars was at first, before George Lucas refined it and improved it with a collaborative team of fellow creatives. (Turns out it feels a lot more derivative, wearing the influences of Flash Gordon and Foundation and Dune on its sleeves without really synthesizing them into something truly new and fresh just yet.) How much of this miniseries is representative of that original draft, though, versus what writer Jonathan Rinzler did to adapt the story for a comic book narrative? Either way, while I found the resultant comic art to often be rather cold and sterile, I am still impressed with how illustrator Mike Mayhew managed to make the story feel familiar yet distinct, a combination of new forms and old concept art and familiar images from the films.

This isn’t a vital Star Wars story, but it’s interesting–charming, even, if you look at it in just the right way.


Dinotopia: A Land Apart from Time by James Gurney

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I adored this book as a child. Returning to the fascinating world of Dinotopia as an adult, I’m just as delighted and eager to escape to this hidden realm. Gurney’s beautiful fantasy art is the star, but his story of a father and son surviving a shipwreck and finding themselves now part of this land where the descendants of castaway humans have come to live with prehistoric creatures in harmony is quite delightful in its own right. The narrative device that this is the explorers’ lost journal recounting their adventures, with abundant sketches and calligraphic notes, serves the story and art well. And there are so many fascinating details about everyday life in this fantasy setting that Gurney manages to incorporate throughout.

The smallest of nagging thoughts crossed my mind at times while rereading this as an adult: how do the characters know, in the 1860s, the scientific names of dinosaurs that had not yet even been discovered at the time? Turns out, Gurney had the same thought when creating the book, and his explanation is contained in the insightful behind-the-scenes afterword he’s provided for the 20th anniversary edition: “After giving these concerns serious consideration, I had to sweep them away, because adhering to them would muddy the waters.” Given that we’re already dealing with a story on a nonexistent colossal island where dinosaurs, extinct mammals, humans, and more all dwell together and can communicate intelligently with each other, this is a pretty valid way to address it. We’re in another world anyway; surely in this alternate reality, they just happen to be a bit further along in paleontology than we were in our own reality. It’s delightful fantasy, is what I’m saying, and worth suspending your belief for–which is easy enough to do when looking at the beautifully conceived double-page spreads. And it helps to know that Gurney already thought through all the concerns one might want to raise (yes, he thought through quite a lot, and his process as remembered in the afterword makes this edition worthwhile). But it’s really beside the point.

The point is that Dinotopia is fantastical, delightful, inspiring, memorable, and worth your time.



View all my reviews

Breaking through Baldur’s Gate

I finished Baldur’s Gate: Enhanced Edition. I’ve tried to play the first Baldur’s Gate before, but never got very far; it’s the only game in the series I’d ever tried. Beating the campaign feels like an accomplishment. And especially once my party was around level 5, the game did start being generally more fun, the truly challenging battles more memorable instead of just another in a long slog of painful party wipes and reloads.

I knocked out the Tales of the Sword Coast content along the way; while nothing in that was vital, I thought that it represented a general improvement in storytelling, with a concentrated hub town serving as a springboard for a variety of diverse quests, from a variety of events related to delving into a truly nasty dungeon, to sailing for a fabled shipwreck on a distant island only to find yourself in the middle of lycanthrope tribal warfare, to putting down a cult dedicated to a powerful demonic enemy. (There were probably more Ancient and Terrible Evils in the quests of Tales than in the entire base game–it did start to feel a little crowded). Two very different elements represented my favorite components of the expansion. Probably my single favorite was uncovering the layers of mystery and deceit associated with the shipwreck and islanders; having the option to befriend a local islander and a long-lost mage and having them both help me in the final moments felt surprisingly organic for a game whose mechanics typically grind away all too visibly. Second favorite was dealing with some of the puzzles in the lower levels of Durlag’s Tower, which really helped develop the setting and the tortured mindset of the dungeon’s creator and long-dead lord. The dungeon wasn’t just dangerous and torturous; it was created by a man who had suffered great losses, and his psyche left a permanent impact on its design and implementation. Both of these examples of favorite moments highlight where characterization and environmental storytelling won out over heavy lore dumps and hackneyed, conventional plotting; the latter, unfortunately, constituted the majority of Baldur’s Gate. (While I liked some of the lore I picked up from the game’s items, I object to the idea of lore descriptions for items. How are the characters gleaning this detailed information just from inspecting it? Meanwhile, the in-game history books, mostly short chapters of larger histories, suggest there’s almost too much lore for the relatively straightforward story being told in the game itself. But that point probably has more to do with the Forgotten Realms setting in general.)

I don’t really want to focus on the bad, though. It’s an old game, and I don’t want to just pick away at it. Still, it must be said: the plot largely serves as a vehicle for advancing your character in power and exploring new map segments. It’s (mostly) serviceable, but ultimately mundane and uninspired. That said, even the base game had its moments. I liked exploring the city of Baldur’s Gate itself and learning more about its mercantilist government topped by oligarchs. I liked learning more about how the disparate pieces of the story fit together into Sarevok’s master plan–which was more interesting than any boring old stuff about a Great and Terrible Destiny for the player character. I think my favorite moment in the base game was when you encounter the doppelgangers who take on the aspects of Elminster and Gorion in the dungeons below Candlekeep. Before that, the doppelgangers are very transparent, often clearly searching for a weakness if not outright hostile even before they reveal their true forms. But these two, for a moment, had me wondering what was real. Could Gorion have survived? What “Elminster” and “Gorion” said sounded sensible. I hadn’t confronted doppelgangers putting so much energy into convincing me of their worn identities, and their answers were plausible. What if I had fallen under the sway of a powerful illusion? Forcing me to pick dialogue responses there really made me consider my decisions and how I reacted. I had to remind myself that everything I’d seen before indicated that these two were fake. And of course, they were. But the game made me doubt myself, and I was anxious and uncomfortable with the prospect of choosing to fight them, even though I felt it was necessary. Seeing them revert to doppelgangers to start that fight was a huge relief a little too soon, so it’s possible that the game could have pushed harder. Imagine if they’d stayed in their forms and used spells you’d expect a mage to have up until the moment of their deaths! But it was still a very good moment where the emotional stakes were raised, however briefly.

As soon as you defeat Sarevok at the end, there’s a closing cinematic, the credits roll, and then, in the particular version I have, you’re immediately launched into the opening cinematic of the 2016 Beamdog expansion, Siege of Dragonspear. That opening cinematic does a good job of establishing the setting and the new antagonist. Then you’re dumped into a new dungeon, where a quick game-engine cutscene shows that you’ve pursued the final holdout of Sarevok’s followers to a decrepit tomb. Already, there’s a little more dialogue, and the characters of my party feel familiar and comfortable together. The relationships largely built up in my head with little textual support feel reinforced by that opening. What I mean to say is, the story was already more interesting to me, the characters more alive, in just the opening 5 minutes. Kudos to the writers–of course, they’d had almost two decades to let the first game permeate, and they could take into account the elements of the second game and developments in game storytelling over time. Still, I’m impressed. I’ve sunk many hours into Siege of Dragonspear since when I originally started this post, and the improvements to characterization, pacing, and storytelling have remained sharp. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s a colossal leap forward when compared with the original game.

Review: Ghosts

Ghosts is a very funny British comedy about, well, ghosts. It’s currently available on HBO Max, which is where I watched it. And it’s only got two seasons–or series, I’d suppose they’d call them–of six episodes each. So it’s very easy to binge and definitely worthwhile.

The premise: a young couple, Alison and Mike, inherit an old, decaying manor. They fall in love with the idea of turning it into a hotel, so they quit their day jobs and move out to start live-in renovations. However, the house is haunted by several ghosts, who would rather not have a bunch of mortals in and out. They try to scare the newcomers out, but they’re not really able to do much– one can cause the smell of burning if walked through, another can cause lights to flicker, a third can (with immense effort) touch or gently push physical objects, and the others are more or less useless. The tactile ghost decides to give Alison a push at an opportune moment as she reaches out a window, knocking her to the grounds a couple floors below. She survives but her near-death experience gives her the ability to see ghosts. While this leads her to want to move out and sell the place, Mike has already taken out loans whose early payment penalties would bankrupt them. And so Alison, Mike, and the ghosts must find a way to tolerate each other.

The characters gradually come to be fond of each other–except for Mike, who remains scared of the dead people he can’t see–but the series thrives even more on a lot of cringe-inducing situations emerging out of their various self-sabotaging and conflicting actions. It’s all very, very funny. From the first episode, my wife and I were laughing early and often. But getting to know each of the ghosts and their pasts was another reason to keep watching, definitely. There are certainly some fun subversions of expectations and twists of perspective along the way.

The show also manages to poke a lot of fun at spiritualists and ghost hunters, drenched in the irony that the charlatans and fools are so close to being right in this case, even as they ultimately conclude that the house is in fact not haunted (due to the overeager, greed-motivated actions of Alison and Mike to put on a show for some visiting paranormal enthusiasts). So often, the show’s playful spin gives a reason for why ghosts would be so fickle, inconsistent, and unresponsive. Of course ghosts have trouble communicating–it’s exhausting trying to tap out responses when even tapping a key on a keyboard is a strenuous effort! Of course ghosts sometimes manifest and sometimes don’t–they’re people too, and they aren’t there to amuse you, if they’re interested in you at all! Whether you’re a true believer or a hardened skeptic, whether you’re deeply engaged in the paranormal or couldn’t care less, you’ll find something humorously rewarding in the viewing.

I’ve said enough though. It’s just twelve episodes! Watch it!

Review – Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

I finished the campaign in Dishonored: Death of the Outsider a few weeks back, spending under 20 hours with it. For the concluding chapter in the Kaldwin saga and a title that focuses so squarely on the bizarre deity at the center of its dark magic system, Death of the Outsider (DO) felt small and almost quiet, more like an expansion to Dishonored 2 (D2) than its own game.

The heavy influence of Dishonored 2 is obvious. Mission structures, black market shops, and the central city of Karnaca are all transplants from the preceding title. And the story itself wraps up dangling elements from D2, as Meagan Foster, readopting the identity of Billie Lurk, reunites with her former assassin master Daud and takes over his quixotic quest to kill a god, to put an end to the schemes of the Outsider. The game offers some new gameplay elements, with a newly tweaked set of powers that are all made available early on and the ability to talk to rats, although it plays more or less like every other game in this series, with the option for players to lean into stealth or assault, lethality or mercy. Ultimately, DO is to D2 as the Daud-focused expansions were to the original game, further cementing the character of this game as that of expansion title rather than a pure standalone.

While you still have the option to kill or spare characters (and as usual, I chose far more sparing than killing), your choices just don’t seem to matter as much to the texture of the game or course of the story. That said, the story was largely enjoyable, even though I often lost sight of objectives as I sunk focus into completing most of the side quests available in each level in the form of bounties.

The most interesting element of DO is that it feels like the world has broken a bit since the time-and-space altering events of D2. The magical realm of the Void has leaked out into the physical world, and Billie has somehow become a focal point for this change. She slips between two realities, one in which she lost her arm and eye years ago in a fight with a guard (reflecting her appearance in D2) and one in which she avoided the incident. Other details, like her appearance with former friends from her D2 backstory, also appear to slip between realities based on magical divergences in the timeline. Over the course of the game, the split realities seem to fuse together, but I never really saw much direct attempt to explain this. On the other hand, there was maybe too much explanation of just who and what the Outsider was. But even with the big focus on a literal deity, the stakes seem low for Billie: does she fulfill her mentor’s last wishes or not? Of course, the threat of death is ever-present, but there is nothing to resolve her history of many tragedies and losses; friends and loves and rivals are in the past, and she has only this god-killing objective before her, with nothing in sight beyond that goal. There is not much hope of her feeling like a more complete person by the end of the game, and if there was a big explanation for her role as a central figure in the timeline split, it was never made clear to me. To discuss a huge spoiler, I did feel that Billie and Daud made peace with each other and gave the world and the Outsider a fresh start by choosing to make him mortal again instead of killing him. Without seeing the other ending, I can’t say for sure how Billie or Daud would be left if they went through with the murder, but I think they’d be stuck in an unfulfilled rut.

All told, Death of the Outsider was a fun game, but its interesting premises were unfortunately executed in a somewhat muted way. Dishonored 2 remains the high point of the series for me, but I guess I’d put it this way: if you play only one Dishonored game, play Dishonored 2, and if you play that, then you might as well cap it off with Death of the Outsider as well.

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.