Review: Birdshot

Birdshot (directed by Mikhail Red, and written by Mikhail and Rae Red) is a fusion of magic realism and film noir. It’s a dark, tragic coming of age story. It’s a tale of innocence lost in the face of violence, corruption, and abusive authority–innocence of not only Maya (Mary Joy Apostol), the farm-girl protagonist, but also Domingo (Arnold Reyes), a young police officer who is a major viewpoint character.

Maya and Domingo are both paired with gruff older men who expect them to learn about and adapt to the harsh realities of the world to survive. Maya’s mentor is her father, Diego (Ku Aquino), caretaker of agrarian land adjoining a national wildlife refuge. Domingo’s mentor is the thoroughly corrupt and violent partner he’s paired with, Mendoza (John Arcilla), who’s more concerned about pleasing their commanding officer than delivering justice.

Maya is trained by her father to use an old rifle to hunt birds. She’s initially reluctant, but she wanders into the sanctuary to follow a strange call. When she sees a Philippine eagle, she shoots and kills it, inadvertently committing a crime. Meanwhile, Domingo is eager to find out what happened to an abandoned bus and its missing passengers, while his mentor is insistent that he drop the case and focus on the seemingly trivial matter of the missing eagle.

Police corruption is demonstrated on two levels. On the intimate scale of the film’s main events, the officers are called off a major missing persons case and both eventually become comfortable with violence, maiming, torture, killing. On a broader level, higher-level law enforcement and operators of sprawling haciendas are implicated in the exploitation of tenant farm workers and the suppression of protest.

The film hints at magic realism, though it doesn’t go all-in. There is a figure that follows Maya when she is alone; one is left to interpret that figure in a variety of ways. Her grandmother tells her stories about the spirits speaking to the living during the full moon, which frames how much of the film’s events are viewed. In contrast, Domingo seems to encounter a ghost who turns out to be the family member of a missing worker.

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The framing of that moment is great. The police station shuts off power after-hours. Domingo sits at his desk, exhausted, out of leads. He lights a cigarette and sees a ghostly apparition down the hall. We see his surprised face, illuminated by the cigarette. Then we cut to a perspective behind him, looking over his shoulder, framing him faintly in the foreground, with the stark, mysterious figure down the hall; with the cigarette blocked by his body, we only see its smoke, wrapping around the hall like tendrils of mist, or like spectral apparitions of their own. Even once we have a human face for the woman, the lamp Domingo uses gives her a ghastly pallor. She is a ghost, of sorts, a ghost of loss and grief, a voice of the dead.

There are so many moments in this film with beautiful, powerful images. Maya is typically clad in white and red, a none-too-subtle reminder of the violence that stains her innocence (and that is echoed by her own bleeding when she starts menstruating in the middle of the film). Red by blood or cloth or firelight, corpses of birds and people, deep darkness especially in scenes with the police, and the digging of graves (or symbolic graves, as when Diego and Maya attempt to hide the gun) are just some of the symbolic visuals incorporated into the film. So many scenes are loaded with powerful imagery and unearthly sounds breaking silence. So many shots would work just as well as still photography (the cinematographer is Mycko David, but in reviewing the film’s credits I’m reminded that so many people play a role in the creation of a scene and a movie that I feel a little guilty not simply listing everyone here).

The plot is also twisty, winding back on itself in subtle and obvious references to earlier events and dialogue. It slowly builds layers over a straightforward police investigation. It’s simple to follow, but it rewards reflection. My wife and I are still drawing connections and having light-bulb moments days after the film.

Like most great noir, the film ends in tragedy and loss, the protagonists futile against institutional power. Perhaps most shocking to me was the moral collapse of one character only midway through the film. But having not expected a noir film when I began, I was not expecting the conventions of the genre, which were in some ways adhered to and in other ways subverted.

This was powerful, thought-provoking cinema, and I’d highly recommend it. And for now, it’s readily available for streaming via Netflix.

Review – Jurassic World: The Evolution of Claire

The Evolution of Claire (Jurassic World)The Evolution of Claire by Random House

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Evolution of Claire is fairly small in scope, intimate even, especially for a title set in the Jurassic Park–excuse me, Jurassic World–franchise. Author Tess Sharpe details a nineteen-year-old Claire Dearing’s summer internship on Isla Nublar for the Masrani Corporation, in the final months before the new park would open. While there are many misadventures and some moments of wonder as the interns interact with dinosaurs in the park, the central focus of the novel is Claire’s budding romance with another intern. A B plot is a series of mysterious happenings around the facilities that seem somehow connected with a fabled class of Phantom Interns from the year before. The central culprit behind those happenings is a spoiled, mysogynist intern who is so obviously villainous and yet so obviously not the true antagonist that he’s basically Red Herring from A Pup Named Scooby Doo.

So it’s a YA novel with dinosaurs. It was a fun read. There were issues with continuity that sometimes annoyed me. I would have enjoyed more about the creation of the dinosaurs (Sharpe seems aware that mosquitoes alone would be insufficient for this resurrection miracle, yet never references potential alternative DNA sources–even Crichton’s original book, and the recent game Jurassic World: Evolution, at least refer to bone fragments and other potential alternative sources). Isla Sorna is mentioned, and it’s suggested that most if not all of the animals were to be moved to Isla Nublar (after several had been thinned out by poaching), but this plot thread still feels nebulous. The interns freely hop between radically different assignments, like security, genetics lab work, and vet work, though most of them are not qualified. The interns themselves seem rather young for such a selective and intensive program, having only completed a semester of undergrad, although maybe that’s commonplace among the hyper-competitive. There were some good dinosaur moments, but I wanted more dinosaurs in general; Brachiosaurus and Triceratops got spotlights, Tyrannosaurus had its moment, and there was a big showdown in the climax with an angry Velociraptor, but other genera had fleeting glimpses or name drops if they appeared at all. With so many dinosaurs to choose from, so many dinosaurs we know were at the park, it’s disappointing that the author settled on the highlights of the original film. And while Claire is no specialist and therefore doesn’t necessarily know how to interpret what is happening, there’s a general lack of detail that is disappointing in contrast to the rather specific world-building found in the Crichton books and Spielberg films (the latter show that depth does not need to bog down the story with exposition). So there are things that I would have preferred to be different, but nothing that ruined the reading experience.

There’s a good deal of melodrama, particularly in the last third of the book, but there’s also a lot of authentic depiction of trauma and grief in those moments as well. I’m not sure that I would have made the decision to have yet more death at this park before it even opened if I were making narrative choices here, yet it does do a lot to provide a clear character arc for Claire that extends through both of the films in which she appears. Over the course of the book, we see her go from an ambitious, bright-eyed optimist who is truly amazed by the creatures she encounters to a hard-edged, jaded young woman who sees protecting people from those same creatures as a driving purpose. It’s more complex than that; I was truly impressed with the character development, which really helped explain who Claire was and made clear why she would make the decisions that she did in Fallen Kingdom. Most surprisingly, the book does a lot to renovate Dr. Wu’s appearance; he’s driven, but his ambitions are motivated at least in part by his coping strategies for the loss of close coworkers at the first park. It’s a more effective portrait than the mad scientist of the Jurassic World films.

All in all, this isn’t a bad book by any means. It’s light and enjoyable. It’s not really what I would want out of a book in this franchise. But it does character development better than Crichton ever did. With expectations accordingly set, the average Jurassic World fan should be able to appreciate the experience.

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Review: The Haunting of Hill House

I’m not really a fan of the horror genre (though several exceptions come to mind). Nonetheless, I was quite entranced by Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House, created by Mike Flanagan. That’s largely because it’s just as much a family drama and psychological thriller as it is outright horror, and the hauntings are often just as metaphorical as they are literal, as the central family is haunted by grief, trauma, and mental illness.

Ghosts are everywhere in this show. Sometimes they lurk ominously in the background; sometimes, they’re clearly visible on the screen, looking lively and human, and these ghosts are often only registered as ghosts by audience and protagonists after the fact. (On that note, the final few episodes offer some mind-bending twists that skew perception of earlier episodes.)

In this version of the story, a family consisting of a house-building husband, an architect wife, and their five kids moves into a dilapidated old mansion so that the couple can renovate and flip the house. They hope that this rebuild and sale will be the project that finally allows them to finance their dream forever home. Things fall apart quickly, and the youngest children in particular begin to be harassed by ghosts; in the end, their mother kills herself in disturbing and confusing circumstances. The kids grow up traumatized by the event without ever really knowing what happened, as their father refused to talk about it. In the present, they are brought back together after the youngest daughter returns to the house. The show cuts between past and present throughout.

I never read Shirley Jackson’s novel, but I know enough to recognize that show and book are rather different. I liked the show a lot. If there was a misstep, I’d say it was including The Haunting of Hill House in the show as a memoir by the eldest son. It’s unsettling to me that the show’s creators removed the female author and replaced her with a male–and that they took a work of imaginative fiction and reframed it as a work inspired by reality (that latter element makes the book a little more mundane, at least to me). Bizarrely, they even name one of the children Shirley, although she is vehemently opposed to the writing of the book.

Besides that, the show felt pretty close to perfect. The acting–in both scenes from present and past–was phenomenal. The writing was excellent, and the show explored the nature of ghosts and hauntings in a variety of ways. Ghosts and what they mean in relation to fear, hope, observing and being observed, and even how we think about time were examined in depth. Mental illness and its relationship to the hauntings was a prominent theme, but it never seemed to be for spectacle, or treated in a casual or disdainful manner.

Dread was prominent throughout. But the show had very few jump scares. It was brooding and ominous and sometimes terrifying. But my typical feeling was that of anxiety and foreboding, rather than of fear. Even if you scare easily, you should be able to get through the show reasonably well.

If I can get myself to focus on this more, there’s a lot that this show touches on that I’d like to discuss in more detail. We’ll see if that happens. But The Haunting of Hill House is an excellent show, and I strongly recommend it. Even if horror’s not really your thing.

Review: Dinosaur Summer

Dinosaur SummerDinosaur Summer by Greg Bear

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I won’t claim that Greg Bear’s Dinosaur Summer is necessarily the best book that I’ve read over the past year, but it is decidedly my favorite.

Dinosaur Summer starts with the premise that the events of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World more or less happened. The world discovered still-living non-avian dinosaurs, which understandably caused something of a disruption. Circuses full of these prehistoric survivors are popularized as more and more adventurers swarm the Venezuelan tepuis; movies like King Kong never really catch on when people have access to the real thing. Eventually, though, public interest dwindles, and most of the dinosaur circuses fail, the owners never really understanding the beasts in their care, who die off and sometimes eat the audience. The Venezuelan government closes off the colossal tepui on which the dinosaurs may be found, for a variety of complex political reasons that we learn more about over the course of the novel. Eventually, dinosaurs largely fade from the popular consciousness, and only one dinosaur circus remains.

This is where we start the book: June of 1947, as the last dinosaur circus prepares for its final show. We’re introduced to this world through the eyes of Peter Belzoni, a high school student with a love for words and a lack of confidence in all things. He’s unsure of himself. He’s inclined to think that he might become a writer, following in his father’s footsteps, though he doesn’t have his dad’s easy ability to string together the written word. But his father, Anthony, is reckless and irresponsible; he was a geologist, but following traumatic combat experience during World War II, he became prone to anger, his marriage fell apart, and he drags his son across the country to pick up scattered jobs as a freelance photographer and journalist. Peter’s mother is overly cautious and reserved; she retreated to her own mother’s home, leaving Peter to his father, only occasionally keeping in contact.

Anthony picks up a job to follow the last dinosaur circus from its final show to a return to the campgrounds in Florida. Peter is to come along to write up his own perspective. Or at least, that’s what Anthony tells Peter. The mission ultimately becomes one of returning the dinosaurs to their Venezuelan home, and that’s where the real adventure begins.

This is a real treat to read. It’s a dinosaur story. It’s a classic adventure story. It’s a Bildungsroman. It’s loaded with memorable characters, most with clearly defined motivations, goals, hopes, and fears that transcend and intersect with the mission at hand. It builds on the lovely adventure of The Lost World, updating its dinosaurs to fit with current scientific depictions (seriously, this was published in 1998 yet still reads as cutting-edge compared to even contemporary paleo-stories) even while demonstrating speculative evolutionary developments to craft interesting new creatures, portraying those dinosaurs with personalities as varied and sometimes endearing as the humans themselves, creating an ecosystem that can be more plausibly explained, removing some of the more racist elements (i.e., the depiction of natives) and trimming the weirdness of the proposed primitive men in the original, and inserting a postcolonial narrative that treats indigenous people seriously and as full humans. It also has a lot of fun alternative history; for instance and most significantly, Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen, never able to succeed in a world that prefers the real thing over stop-motion, are documentarian protagonists on the expedition.

It’s also a really well-written book. It’s compelling reading, packed with vivid descriptions of characters and creatures and settings. Foreshadowing is used to great effect throughout the book, and there’s a mounting pace that accelerates as the adventure gets deeper and deeper.

I love this book. It’s an instant favorite.

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Review: Manic

This is different fare for what I’d normally share on here. I think that Manic is a worthwhile read, though, and I found my reaction to the book to be complicated. I’m not trying to be an “advocate” or an “ally” with this post, and I won’t speak for others, but this book made me confront some of my own biases and gave me a little better insight into loved ones with mental illness. For that, I think it’s worth it to read, to share, and to discuss.

Manic: A MemoirManic: A Memoir by Terri Cheney

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading Manic is a good way to try to understand bipolar disorder from the perspective of someone suffering from the illness. There is a lot of dark and troubling subject matter–there’s sexual assault, domestic violence, several suicide attempts. It’s also shockingly funny at many points. Terri Cheney seems very self-aware about her illness, and that awareness seems to have taken decades to develop. I think it’s an empowering and reassuring story for those who suffer from, or love someone with, bipolar disorder. No matter how dark things get, one can always eventually find normal, at least briefly, and it’s a fight worth waging. The book is also a churning, disorienting experience, sliding between episodes of mania and depression, hopping between anecdotes, disconnected from chronology.

At the same time, all memoirs walk a thin path between being intimately revealing or becoming seemingly narcissistic. I think a lot of how any memoir is perceived comes down to the reader’s own preconceived biases and preconceptions, so I would certainly not want to accuse any memoirist of being self-absorbed. Still, I must confess that the narrative leaned that way in my perspective.

Part of it’s the nature of the disease. Depressions, with a deep hopeless pain that clouds out everything else. Manias, with compulsive, irrational, selfish excesses. To recount the life and genuine emotions of a manic-depressive involves more than a little bit of self-absorption. The illness seems to make one’s tortured self the center of everything.

Part of it, though, is that the narrative reads a little like the author wishes to convince the reader of how she should be absolved for her own sins. I find it hard to forgive someone for atrocious actions against others, even if those actions are due to an illness. That’s something in me, and I’m not saying it’s right, but it makes it difficult for me to fully sympathize. I often felt more for the others in the story that she hurt, directly or indirectly. Of course, when she was in deep depressions, or when others hurt her, I didn’t seek out a reason to blame her for what happened–where I could be “on her side,” I was. I suppose it’s just part of my own framework for seeing the world, as someone who is not manic-depressive but who has loved ones suffering from bipolar disorder.

I also was left wondering more about Cheney’s relationship with her mother. So much time is spent on her father, but her mother, who seems to have been the more supportive force, is virtually absent. I would have liked to understand her relationship with her mother. I understand that memoir is not strictly autobiography, that we aren’t meant to see every aspect of the author’s life, but I suspect that her mother might have had a more critical role in her coping with her illness. (The acknowledgments conclude, “To my beautiful and courageous mother, who has lived through everything I’ve written about and then some, and loved me nonetheless. And to my father, for everything.”) In fact, there are other tiny elements, threads left unpicked, that suggested to me that a considerable amount of her relationships were excised to emphasize her isolation. It’s probably authentic that she often felt alone, removed, disconnected, unsupported. But–and I have no firm evidence to support this–I do imagine that she probably always had more support than she let on.

In general, Cheney seems to have had a fairly privileged life. She had, it seems, loving and supportive parents, though she may have been a child of divorce (I don’t think this is ever addressed). She had a great education and a great career. She had a lot of money to blow through in her manic states. She could take ample time off work. Her illness nearly destroyed her many times, but she had more of a social and financial safety net than many sufferers of severe, chronic mental illness possess. I would not wish that her life was rougher, but she has lived such an apparent life of privilege that I found it difficult to relate at times. This is significant and an insightful reminder in and of itself, of course: mental illness can consume anyone, can ruin anything, regardless of one’s status. Mental illness doesn’t care about class.

I think I’ve learned things from reading–sometimes specific things, like the significance of controlling weight and eating for some with the illness, but also in a broader way, in considering how I view the illness, where my own biases still lie, and how I interact with and think about people with mental illness.

In short, Manic is easy to read but challenging to process.

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Little Frustrations Cafe

Another post on Little Dragons Café. (Only partly because I haven’t exhausted bad wordplay in the headers yet.) This time, it’s more about my frustrations (get the title? GET IT?).

I had my wisdom teeth extracted Wednesday evening, so I took a few days off to make sure I’d go back to work fully recovered. Seems like it was an overcompensation, as I’ve felt great basically from the morning after, but it’s let me waste time on things like my little fantasy café. Unfortunately, the more time with the game, the thinner it feels.

My biggest complaint is that the game’s flow begins to feel repetitive, threadbare, and even tedious the more you engage in it. As my dragon remained a child and I continued to progress through the story, the day was a yawning void to be filled with café help during lunch and dinner rushes, broken by ingredient collection during the days. The game world had grown somewhat with my dragon’s new powers, but the extent of exploration was swiftly exhausted. There was not enough to do over the course of the day. It was beginning to feel boring.

Then my dragon grew. It’s an adolescent now. We can fly now. It should be great fun. But I’m beaten down by the new demands on my game time. The café reputation continues to increase alongside the story, so it keeps getting busier. Lunch rushes start earlier and end later, sometimes bleeding into the dinner block. Final diners are sometimes finishing their meals at almost ten at night. My character typically follows the staff to bed right after. I have to rush most of my ingredient collections into the morning hours.

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Ingredients now matter a lot more. With the influx of customers, certain heavily used ingredients can quickly run low or run out. I have to be prepared to scrounge far afield to collect adequate ingredients to scrimp by. Sometimes, I’ll just rotate out menu items, sometimes even putting in lower-rated meals just to cut back on ingredient demand. I always avoided using rarer ingredients, but now even fairly common ingredients like flour or salt can quickly run out. I have to think more about the menu composition, avoiding repetition of ingredients so that there is less drain on a particular ingredient across many dishes. This element actually suggests a level of business management and required strategic thinking that I didn’t recognize the game possessed, and I should like that apparent layer of depth, but it’s just another tedious challenge, another diversion in my increasingly limited time (that’s a slight exaggeration–player cooking and menu prep happen in paused game time, but the search for ingredients is, as I’ve said, something that eats up more and more of the mornings and sometimes late nights).

In short, I went from feeling bored to busy. Too busy. Now, there’s so much more to explore on the island, so many things to find and collect, so many interesting views to see. But I can’t take the time to do it without feeling like I’m abandoning my responsibilities.

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And when I don’t micromanage, bad things happen. If I’m not there, I know that my staff members will slack. Billy the laziest elf will play guitar in a corner. Ipanema the wild aggro-waitress  will sulk against a wall, overcome with rage. My character’s twin will sweep away slowly at the same spot to avoid work. Even the effervescent orc chef Luccola would suddenly be overcome with the need to sway with his inner music, rather than cook the piled-up orders. Customers seemed to become more irate and impatient, too, ready to storm off–sometimes even as I walked over, food in hand–if they felt they’d been kept too long. While out adventuring, I’d received urgent messages in yellow, indicating that the staff was slacking or that ingredients were running low. I could always hit the minus button to warp back to the café, ready to deposit my collected ingredients in the food storage and to chastise my staff into working alongside me. But then my day would be sucked into management mode, and even if I decided to head back out, I’d be starting back from my doorstep instead of whatever distant vista I’d reached.

There’s still no sign of failure in sight. Sure, whether I’m helping or not, I get more days with Okay ratings instead of Satisfactory or better. But it feels more like heaps of busywork to keep me distracted from what I really want to do–exploring the island, flying high, being buds with my dragon. What’s the point of a pet dragon if you keep him stashed by the hen-house most days and spend your bonding time in purely agricultural and foraging pursuits?

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The game is loaded with messages ideally suited for that 8-to-12-year-old, fantasy-loving crowd: welcome diversity, practice empathy, believe in yourself, don’t let biases get in the way of trying new experiences and meeting new friends. Each new visitor has a story that involves self-discovery and ends with a succinctly stated moral. Amid all that, I sort of suspect that the increasingly stressful gameplay is intended to instill a subtler moral: as we age and mature, we have increasing opportunities and increasing ability to follow our dreams, but often the constraints of adult responsibilities simultaneously limit our scope. We have the freedom to do anything, but our commitments to our loved ones and community can keep us pinned down.

This limitation is somewhat illusory in the game. If I can’t really fail, if my presence in the café only slightly improves performance, then why not just go exploring with my dragon bud? Sometimes, even for a couple nonstop game-days at a time, that’s what I’ll do: abandon responsibilities and romp. It’s easy to justify when I’m collecting plenty of ingredients while out. Even that, I suppose, offers a message: sometimes the restraints we place on ourselves are largely imagined, and the only thing holding us back from doing what we want is our own preconceived notions.

Is that what the game intends? Or is it just bad game design, replacing genuine flow with unceasing busywork? I’m inclined to go with the latter theory, for there are other design flaws in the game.

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One of my other big gripes: the controls are rather unresponsive. They don’t always do what I want. Sometimes I’ll mash the jump button over and over and over before my character actually leaps that fence. Same with taking and sustaining flight. Even more routine tasks seem to have a slightly laggy, imprecise feeling. This isn’t an issue with the Switch controller, I think. I’ve had some experiences with other games where distance from the console has resulted in lag or unresponsiveness with a Joy-Con, but in general, I’ve felt that controls have been tight and precise with other games. The lag excuse doesn’t work here, either, since I almost exclusively play Little Dragons Café in handheld mode.

The issue seems largest with exploration features, as though everything about exploration was considered an afterthought (instead of, you know, a core and essential element of the game). My dragon seems either occasionally dull or defiant, too, ignoring my commands until a few button presses have passed. This is especially troublesome when the command is something urgent–like, say, hunting a monster that’s about to tackle me and steal one of the dragon’s prepared meals.

This leads into another issue: the AI is just plain dumb. When unmounted, the dragon loosely trots behind me, sometimes taking initiative to do some task like shaking a tree or mowing some grasses. The action it chooses is almost never something I really want. It does not seem concerned about my character or its meals; unless I explicitly command it, it will do nothing to stop monsters that are attacking me. This resulted in one of the most frustrating experiences in the game, in which a pack of Zucchidons cornered me, repeatedly tackling me until I was without any meals, and because I was trapped, their attacks eventually pushed me up onto their backs. They couldn’t tackle me anymore, but I couldn’t get down. Most of the time during this experience, I didn’t have any context-sensitive button options, but when I did, it was to attempt to fertilize a bush next to us. Not helpful. All the while, my dragon simply stood nearby, watching, doing nothing. My own controls were useless. I couldn’t pause; I couldn’t order the dragon to hunt; I couldn’t warp back to the café. Going to the Switch home screen and then resuming the game didn’t help. This was after a day-and-a-half of adventuring, and I wasn’t looking forward to restarting the game and losing my progress (you only save at the end of the day, after you have gone to bed; if you skip going to bed, no save). After a couple minutes, I somehow just fell off and sent my dragon to work headbutting the punks. But it was infuriating. Shouldn’t my dragon be a little motivated to help out on its own?

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Stuck.

The staff is similarly worthless. I’ve been cornered by a character as they attempt to take an order or collect a plate, pinning me between chairs as I wait to carry out my own action. They’ll pass through each other, but they’ll push me back if they run into me. And they will run into me, their pathfinding so very limited, pushing me back as I attempt to drop off a dirty dish or deliver a meal. They’ll slam into me even if I had the right of way, even if they just rose from a seat to go charge off and finally start working. Luccola is spared my ire here because, as the cook, he just stands by the stove. And Luccola only has the task of cooking. But the other characters will tackle chores and tables at random. This results in delays, as they’ll just randomly assign themselves a task. I can move a little faster than them, as my character always runs everywhere, but if I get to a task before them, they’ll stand around dumbly or even move to a corner to wait, even while there are orders to take and meals to deliver and dishes to clear. Worse, I’ll take time to talk to them, only to sometimes find passive-aggressive remarks, like my twin complaining that I should help in the café now that I’m done with collecting ingredients–even if I’d been working alongside her, doing more than her, covering for her as she fell into some time-wasting activity. Even the most harmless of comments can easily be read as passive-aggressive when supported with audiovisual queues indicating grumpiness, and as this is a pretty anime-influenced game, those queues are not subtle.

There are two easy solutions for a lot of the café troubles.

First, I should have a party management system, like in an RPG. I understand that the staff aren’t great at their jobs, that they often waste time, that they’re still growing as people–that’s part of the story. But the story also emphasizes that we’re a found family, that we care about each other. Being pushed around, and watching customers storm out because orders just weren’t being collected and food just wasn’t being delivered as my staff chased after dirty dishes, is antithetical to that message. If I could just assign a general task list, the characters could then focus on particular jobs. Ipanema could take orders, the twin could deliver meals, and Billy could clean dishes–or whatever combination I settled on. Then my character could focus on making sure they were working and dart in to help wherever there was a pile-up.

Second, there should be a separate “talk” button. Executing talk commands through the context-sensitive button results in a lot of frustrating situations. Instead of taking an order, I end up talking to a nearby loafing server or served patron. Instead of getting Luccola back to work, I enter the cooking minigame. Instead of convincing my twin to stop sweeping, I end up walking outside (through yet another loading screen). The Switch has plenty of buttons. Some of them aren’t getting used. Dividing talk from everything else would make things a lot easier and cleaner.

My final complaint for now is that the cooking system is underdeveloped. The meals have cute little descriptions, and the artwork makes every meal look delicious. But meal prep is wasted with the simple mini-game, especially when you can just throw a bunch of random ingredients into a dish so long as they fit a broad class. I know that the cooking ultimately is a fairly small portion of the game, but it would be fun to have recipes that you could almost follow in real life (like Cooking Mama), or at least to have a codex of all unlocked recipes, with an actual, real-world recipe that you could follow for each dish. It’s not a major flaw, and I don’t spend a lot of time cooking in the game, but it’s a missed opportunity, especially where cooking has such an integral role in the plot.

I believe that I’m over halfway through the story, and at this point, the chapters of characters coming and going from the inn are admittedly feeling overly formulaic, but I’m still enjoying the characters (when the game mechanics aren’t fighting against their characterizations), and I honestly want to see where things go with my dragon and our protagonists’ mother and new found family.

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Little Dragons Time

I’m currently playing Little Dragons Café on the Switch. It’s a cute, peaceful game–a great game for a relaxing weeknight hour or for whiling away a lazy weekend afternoon. The premise is straight out of a children’s fairy tale: the mother of twin children falls into a mysterious coma, and a strange old wizard arrives to watch over them, providing the kids a dragon’s egg. He says they must raise the dragon, while tending to their mother’s café, as doing so will restore her to health. Over the course of the game, the children draw a crowd of eccentric staff members, gruff regulars, and bizarre outcasts who stay briefly in the upstairs inn.

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The game feels like a mashup of Studio Ghibli films, the Pokémon RPGs, Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale, and Stardew Valley. That last reference is of course actually to the Harvest Moon games, as Harvest Moon designer Yasuhiro Wada was director of the Little Dragons Café team, and Stardew Valley was influenced by Harvest Moon as well. But I never played any of the Harvest Moon games. It’s interesting to realize, as an adult, that I could have have enjoyed that series. Maybe the slow pace of a farm-life simulator would have bored me as a kid, or seemed obviously trivial, but the genre’s become as much a form of escapism for me now as sci-fi shooters or fantasy RPGs ever were.

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The game looks lovely, like a hand-drawn storybook. That extends from the brush-stroke aesthetics on the character models to the clumpy trees and the whimsical designs of the animals. That whimsical design element extends to the characters and even the resources (for instance, you harvest chocolate and cream sauces directly from certain shrubs in the woods).

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The Switch tells me that I first played this title 8 days ago; it hasn’t yet estimated the hours, and if I were to ballpark it, I’d say I’m a dozen or so hours in. There’s still a lot of things to do in the game, and I appear to still be quite early in the story. My dragon’s hatched its egg and grown from baby to child; it can still search small holes, but it can also mow down shrubs with its tail, bash through small debris piles, tackle aggressive animals, and push boulders. My ability to explore the island is still somewhat limited by a text reminder that I should not stray so far from home, but the dragon’s abilities have allowed a lot more vertical creep into the interior. It’s clear that further growth will result in even better exploration options.

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Exploration remains appealing, even over a small island range. It’s also vital; one must return to old spots to continue to collect more ingredients, and there’s also the possibility of finding fragments of a recipe washed up on a beach or hidden behind a debris pile in the woods. The game is almost completely nonviolent. So far, there are three exceptions to this (besides the harmless and exaggerated interactions of some of the staff members): there is a type of goofy, bulbous bird on tiny wings that barely keep it aloft that, when you “tackle” (i.e., touch-tag) it, disappears in a poof and leaves behind meat; there is a type of aggressive, pudgy wolf-like creature that will steal one of the meals in your inventory if it “tackles” you; and the aggressive creature can be poofed into meat in turn if you get it to run into a rock, or if you command your dragon to hunt (and “tackle”) it. But there’s no actual violence committed, the concepts of fighting and biting and killing instead becoming abstracted to the point of near-non-existence. Even worrying about those aggressive Zucchidons is never more than a low-level stress; at worst, you lose a meal.

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The story has actually been the most engaging element for me so far. The characters are goofy and flawed, and the plot (after the initial life-saving-dragon bit that sets everything into motion) is largely focused on those characters over epic fantasy tropes. They just happen to be people who inhabit a fantasy world. Besides the twins, the café swiftly becomes staffed by a lazy dreamer who left his town with music career ambitions, a talented waitress who is regularly overcome by anger, and a fabulous orc who intends to become a famous chef. The story is broken into chapters that reflect the dragon’s growth and the rotating cast of characters who stay at the inn. By that metric, I’m probably three chapters in, having made it through the prologue of the dragon’s early years, then the stay of an anxious boy who claimed to be a warrior, and most recently the stay of a bigoted witch who found herself suddenly without magic powers. Each chapter has a mini character arc for the visitor, as the staff members are given room to grow themselves–along with the dragon, who is often referred to as a sort of glue between the disparate personalities and an influence for good. The fantasy world as of yet does not have a very cohesive vision, as it largely seems to draw from scattered fantasy cliches to fill its lore, usually to humorous effect (the game is often funny, typically in rather subtle, ironic ways–if you play it, make sure you watch how the names given to different visitors change in dialogue blocks).

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This game would probably be perfect for the 8-to-12-year-old range. A fairly literate and imaginative child with a fondness for fantasy could get a lot out of the game. It’s also an easy, forgiving game that would require effort to fail. The most challenging sections are the rhythm-based cooking mini-games, which are largely optional, and even those would require you to deliberately ignore multiple queues to do too badly, I would think. There’s a story section in your menu so you can see where you’re at and to give you rather clear hints about what to do to progress it further (especially helpful when the trigger is time-and-location-based). Each day, you get a summary of the café’s performance, and during the rush hours the game will give you a notification if the business requires closer attention (ingredients running low or staff slacking off). There’s a lot to micro-manage if you want, but very few user interfaces or menus or statistics to have to interact with. And if you’d rather just wander the countryside all day, you can do that too. It’s engaging, but not exactly challenging.

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Let me make it clear: I’m having a lot of fun with the game, and as it drops more and more of its training wheels and lets me do more, there’s more than just the story to keep me occupied. It’s still really early on, but I’m enjoying my time so far, and the game seems content to let me progress at my own pace. It’s casual fun for fantasy and sim fans of any age.