Adventure Time: Obsidian is even better than BMO, delivering an even more emotional story that continues to show the healing relationship that Marceline and Princess Bubblegum continue to work at. I was surprised and delighted by how clearly, unmistakably queer and romantic their relationship was here (where it was only subtly implied through most of the show), and by how normal that relationship was portrayed as (you know, the weird part being that one’s a vampire/demon and the other’s a sentient candy avatar).
Obsidian also really showed how both Marceline and PB had grown and overcome many of their earlier traumas. They were more mature and able to adapt to tensions and stressors to become stronger together by the end. That’s not to say that this is purely focused on emotions and relationships (though there were some tearjerker moments for me); there were some excellent action sequences throughout and plenty of weird and imaginative characters and creatures.
I really want to scream about the implications of the appearance of some characters at the end of the episode, but since I’m rounding up a few short reviews here, I’ll keep that spoiler-free. But oh boy, there are some interesting questions raised.
Soul was a really good movie about what it means to find purpose and meaning in life, offering up a bit of introspection in the context of a unique portrayal of the spiritual realm. The film tracks a middle-aged music teacher and aspiring jazz artist (portrayed by Jamie Foxx) who dies just after landing his big break. Determined to get back to his body and fulfill his perceived purpose, he escapes the imminent Great Beyond and falls into the Great Before, where souls’ distinctive traits are forged. He eventually encounters an old soul (Tina Fey) who refuses to ever leave for a life on Earth, and they agree to work together so that he can go back and the old soul can stay out of living for good. They both figure out some things about themselves, about what makes life worth living and fighting for, and about when you have to let something or someone go. It’s a Pixar movie, so I sobbed hysterically at the end. My wife and I realized that the last time I’d cried so hard at a movie, it was Inside Out. But then I also cried at Onward and Coco and The Good Dinosaur just in the last few years, so I guess the point is that (A) I cry a lot and (B) Pixar movies are crafted in a way to really hit me (and I think most people) right in the gut. If you have Disney+, watch Soul!
Wonder Woman 1984 was fun to watch, it had a strong theme (unchecked desire leads us to lie to ourselves and warp the best of intentions to bad ends), it had some good fight sequences, it had a couple of emotional moments, and yet it was troubled by some head-scratching plot beats and an over-liberal usage of deus ex machina.
There was a particular type of perceived problem, however, that I didn’t feel actually existed in the film. I’d seen concern expressed on social media about apparent racist undertones to the movie, particularly a vilification of men of color in favor of a narrative about white women’s empowerment, but I felt that those concerns were overstated and somewhat misleading in favor of generating outrage and controversy. I recognize that as a white man, I have blind spots to issues like race and gender, but the concerns raised seemed to inaccurately characterize what happened in the movie.
I thought the film’s very transparent examination of desire was interesting. Set in the consumerist excesses of the ’80s, Wonder Woman’s biggest battle is not with an enemy but with desire, her own and others’. She makes a desperate plea at one point to not give up her greatest love again, declaring that she gives so much and she deserved this one thing. She must ultimately make that sacrifice nonetheless to be the hero she needs to be. I thought that was an interesting opportunity to hold the mirror up to our own lives, how we tell ourselves that we deserve something or other because of all we do, how commercials often suggest that we have earned a special reward or convenience we can purchase simply because we exist and do the things all humans must do. It gives you something to chew on after the movie, I suppose, but it’s hardly a revelatory concept, and I imagine the point will be rejected by many (and is more than a little ironic in an industry context, given its method of delivery in a major blockbuster superhero movie that will serve as escapism for many and primarily exists to generate profits for the studio and its corporate backers).
My wife loved the movie, but she’s not the one writing the review. I thought it was fine, though I get what appealed to her about it. I’m sure this movie will continue to generate a lot of reactions, if not a lot of deep thought or serious conversation. It’s not a vital film, but it remains entertaining throughout.
It came on me so suddenly that I didn’t realize it until the weekend in which I would accomplish it: I was going to beat Ring Fit Adventure. Last night, I knocked out three mini-boss fights, just so I’d be prepared to devote today to defeating Dragaux one last time. And that’s what I did this afternoon, in a roughly 25-minute activity session devoted to the final level alone.
After growing accustomed to some repetitive gameplay and level design over the last several worlds, I was shocked to experience how refreshing this final level felt. There were interesting combinations of platforming challenges, as the game tested the variety of skills built up over the course of playing through the adventure; I zip-lined, stair-climbed, flew, paddled, sprang, and jogged my way to the final stadium battle. And that final boss battle was appropriately challenging, a proper synthesis of every fight with Dragaux before, reflecting how far the dragon and I had come. He used every tactic present before (blessedly free of any supporting enemies), which included hurling boulders and barrels, using a debuffing glare and a super-powered attack requiring Mega Ab Guard, and holding one of each main attack color’s special challenge attacks–that last set brutally delivered in quick succession here, one after another. Then, of course, defeating him the first time, knocking out a few full bars of health, only led to a Final Form battle against a Darkness-consumed version of Dragaux, requiring several more rounds to finally KO the dragon and free him of his curse.
The game ended in its charmingly cute, chatty, and blunt way. Dragaux released the Four Masters and was in turn released of the Darkness. Reformed, he was penitent and ashamed, but Ring convinced him that he should work with the Four Masters in opening training stadiums across the land. The end, for now. It’s a nice setup to the new adventure, a new game plus mode that promises more powerful enemies and more training gear to collect as I journey back through the land. I look forward to having Dragaux as a friendly rival and trainer, rather than an enemy, as I find him rather charismatic in his dorky way.
I’m a long way away from my ultimate weight goal, mainly at this point because my dietary changes have been more gradual than my activity changes. But I have lost weight, and more importantly for now, the last few months have seen me grow in strength and endurance; I feel good, and I have more energy. And I can see the results when I look in the mirror. It’s been a wonderful fitness journey, and I plan to continue it. Amazingly, I haven’t missed a day since I started, and that’s a wild achievement in and of itself. Fitness is now built into the fabric of my life, and I look forward to exercise every day with this game. Even back in August, I couldn’t imagine that I’d ever be this excited to get a workout in on a daily basis.
Ring Fit Adventure is not a perfect game. Its level design is great but not diverse enough, so levels become quickly repetitive even with mix-ups to atmospheric effects and enemies encountered. Monster design is fantastic and imaginative, combining classic RPG monsters with exercise equipment to create fresh, new, and often very cute opponents, but even so, the limited variety makes these feel somewhat stale after a while. The story is fine, but it’s elevated by cute and campy dialogue rather than a particularly compelling plot. For that matter, NPC assets are quite limited, so you see the same faces again and again when chatting up townsfolk in town for bits of info or side quests (in turn, overly formulaic and dependent on tired tropes like the classic fetch quest). Still, while other components may be less than excellent, the core of the game, the platforming and combat, remained stellar and engaging throughout. All these features come together strongly to provide a compelling gameplay experience, part platformer and part RPG but really something quite different and new. It’s a fitness game that offers both good fitness and a good game. I just can’t get enough of it, and while I look forward to the new adventure content and the jogging and custom exercise programs once I run out of story eventually, I certainly hope they consider making this into an ongoing franchise.
Yes, Ring Fit Adventure is not a perfect game, but it’s a perfect fit (pun intended) for me, offering a cute and colorful world, charming characters, and an addictive balance of (physical) challenge and advancement. And it gifted me a way to truly enjoy exercise, like never before, without skimping on actually providing a real work-out. This game might be my favorite of the decade for what it’s given me.
Happy holidays, everyone! If you’re looking for something different to watch instead of or in addition to the old holiday classics, might I suggest The Lego Star Wars Holiday Special? It’s heartwarming, cheeky, and fun. Its time-traveling shenanigans don’t make a whole lot of sense, but Star Wars, especially its Lego alternate version, doesn’t always make sense. No deeper analysis here; this was a cute little movie appropriate for the whole Star Wars-loving family, and it’s far more watchable than the non-Lego version.
Young Justice (the TV show) has some pretty obvious parallels with The Clone Wars. They’re both animated series providing some fresh storytelling in established pop culture franchises. They’re both aimed at younger audiences, but they still provide long-form storytelling around a core team of protagonists with shifting and evolving relationships, and they both explore dark and mature subjects like death, loss, the risks of abandoning your principles in pursuit of victory, and alienation from people you care about. And they also had near-miraculous renewals from cancellation after years of fan lobbying. The Clone Wars ended its Cartoon Network run in 2013, and “The Lost Missions” of the sixth season were released on Netflix in March 2014, but that show didn’t return to the screen, this time on Disney+, until February of this year. Young Justice, in contrast, only got two seasons on Cartoon Network before cancellation, ending its run in March 2013, and it only got revived again for DC Universe in January 2019.
I don’t remember how I first came across Young Justice. It must have been on Netflix. I do remember binging its two available seasons and falling in love with its setting and characters. I’m a sucker for a show that provides a sense of built-in history from the start. We didn’t have to stick around for an origin story of one or two heroes before the show could broaden its focus to bring more in. Instead, we jump right into a setting where Robin, Aqualad, Kid Flash, and Speedy have already been fighting crime for their hero mentors for a few years. Rather than spending time on how they got into these roles, the show kicks off with a moment of setback and disappointment for the sidekicks: they think they’re finally being inducted into the Justice League, but they quickly learn that they basically have honorary memberships at the public Hall of Justice, rather than true membership and access to full team resources and the top-secret Watchtower HQ. The show goes on to introduce characters from the comics, twists on those characters, and new creations entirely. We do see some heroes starting out, but it feels natural and organic, never like the seeds of a spinoff for a new series (looking at you, Arrowverse) but rather merely the result of new metahumans and other determined do-gooders taking up the mantle of superhero as they follow in the footsteps of those who came before them. We also see quite a number of personae from the comics appearing to pick up legacy identities–by the third season, there have been two heroes using the Flash identity, two as Kid Flash, three as Robin, three as Blue Beetle, and so on. Characters actually age, retire, die. Relationships are at the core of the show, even as the cast of young covert operatives working under what becomes The Team in the Justice League’s shadow continues to grow. Death of a hero is rare and quite permanent in most cases, and when a major team member dies in the second season, the fallout from that and characters’ efforts to move on (or cling on) becomes central to the emotional arc of the third season. Stakes matter; it’s not just soap opera melodramatics (again, looking at you, Arrowverse).
Now’s definitely the time to watch Young Justice if you haven’t already. I just re-binged seasons one and two and finally watched the third season for the first time now that it’s on HBO Max. DC Universe was too niche in its streaming content, and I read comics too rarely, to justify the continued subscription for me, so I dropped that before I’d had the opportunity to watch Young Justice: Outsiders there; having so much DC content rolled into HBO Max is excellent, and the breadth and depth of content in this streaming service makes it look likely to be the biggest rival to Disney+ moving forward, at least for my viewing time. So, if you subscribe to HBO Max for any other reason (its extensive collection of movies, including more classics than on most of the other big streaming services, or the back catalogue of HBO television series, or the original HBO Max content, or the availability of all Studio Ghibli films in one single streaming service, for instance), then you’re ready to watch Young Justice.
The third season continued the dramatic and mature storytelling of the earlier seasons. It also continued the show’s progress in substantially diversifying the cast. There are more and more female heroes and people of color, as well as people of varying cultural/ethnic backgrounds and even sexual and gender orientation. There are some stumbling blocks, though. Presumably because the return to DC Universe was meant to target hardcore Comic Book Fans in particular, the show’s become a little edgier, with more brutal violence. I was mostly okay with this, but one new hero, Halo, took the brunt of the violence, given her ability to resurrect after death. This meant watching several graphic depictions of her death again and again and again. It especially stuck out to me that this particular character was of Middle Eastern / North African decent (though her particular nationality is fictional), identified as nonbinary (I’m using female pronouns because she and her friends continued to do so), and continued to adhere to certain cultural traditions like wearing a hijab though she did not identify as Muslim in her unique post-empowerment identity. So we see this person of color, appearing female and identifying as nonbinary, and portrayed as culturally connected to Islam, killed repeatedly. That did not sit right with me. The story also introduced Cyborg, providing his origin story and having him go through a horrifically disfiguring accident and repeated rounds of excruciating pain before he could fully embrace his heroic identity. Building people of color into superheroes by repeatedly, graphically torturing them is a bad look and a bad trope and suggests that more diverse writers are needed in the writing room. At the same time, by the third season, we already had a large and diverse cast, and the third season itself continued to add an array of new characters with a variety of backgrounds. Heck, it even revealed this version of Aqualad, now Aquaman (and a person of color), to be bisexual, providing a surprising and welcome example of LGBTQ representation in the series.
The third season did manage to bring the story to new heights, wrestling with the fallout of the previous two seasons. I love that there’s always a time gap in between seasons, providing the characters time to respond to what has happened and grow, giving some space so that we can see clear developments whenever we return to them. The show doesn’t document everything, leaving plenty up to the imagination–and given that it didn’t start with an origin, this style of storytelling has been there from the beginning.
While there is still a core cast of characters–at this point, probably Dick Grayson (currently Nightwing), Aqualad, Miss Martian, Superboy, Artemis Crock (currently retired), and Will Harper (that one’s completed)–each season brings more into the fold and explores characters otherwise left out of the spotlight. Zatanna has had a significant arc throughout the series, and Roy Harper has certainly had a complicated and important story in the background. Season two brought the focus to Blue Beetle, Impulse, and Beast Boy, while season three sent Geo-Force, Terra, Halo, Forager, Cyborg, and Black Lightning to the forefront. And that ignores a great number of characters who have significant supporting roles and who have their own full character arcs playing out in the background. The show also keeps bringing in interesting new takes on villains. In comparison to most of the antagonists, the Joker’s brief role in the show actually makes him one of the less-interesting characters, even compared to The Riddler, which is remarkable. The chaos agent in this show is Klarion the Witch Boy, an actual Lord of Chaos in this interpretation, and he’s so evil and yet so silly, truly chaotic and unpredictable. Klarion’s bizarre sayings are memorably iconic. “See you later, armadillos!” He’s just one villain, though. Most remarkably, Sportsmaster takes a major role as the chief enforcer for the big bads for much of the show; he’s the ex-husband of disabled former assassin Huntress, father of vigilante Artemis and assassin Cheshire, and a formidable foe who can go head-to-head with any of the heroes with strength, agility, cleverness, and an assorted toolkit of weaponry and gadgets that makes him something of a working-class and villainous Batman. Plenty of other villains weave in and out of the story, and as it goes on, it becomes clear that most are motivated by greed or vengeance or honor or a misguided belief that they are doing good for humanity, even if that means adhering to a harsh brand of Social Darwinism, while few (Klarion or Joker, for instance) are truly antisocial or psychopathic. The status quo keeps changing, and the show mines deep for characters to bring in as heroes, villains, rogue actors, and “normal” civilians.
The show itself is no longer static, either. Not only did we get that third season, but a fourth one is coming! I’m looking forward to it: flaws and all, Young Justice is my single-favorite version of the DC superhero setting.
[Warning: plenty of spoilers for The Mandalorian.]
I really rather enjoyed the finale of the second season of The Mandalorian. It was action-packed, it had some great tense sequences in which I was really dreading what would happen and entirely unsure of how it could be resolved, and then the ending was so bittersweet and hopeful, delivering some quiet character development. I thought it was a good cap to the season and, for that matter, to the overall story arc of the first couple of seasons, even while being a clear signal that future content is on the horizon.
Of course future content is on the horizon. Ten Star Wars series and a couple movies planned for the near future? That’s too much Star Wars! I’m not even keeping up on the books, and I gave up a couple years back on even trying to track the ever-increasing glut of comics being released for the new canon. Mixed feelings as usual here about this development: (1) more Star Wars gives more opportunities for new creators to dabble in the universe, for new stories to hook new fans, and for plenty of different characters and settings and subgenres so that everyone can probably find something they’ll like; (2) more Star Wars means that it will soon be unmanageable for most people to get a good footing in the universe, especially as it’s leaned more into MCU-esque winks for hardcore fans, like including Maul in Solo or Ahsoka in The Mandalorian, which at some point will surely begin to alienate people not already obsessed; (3) more Star Wars means I’ll have plenty to read and watch in my preferred sci-fi/fantasy setting, which is great, but it’s not so great to have me so insularly focused on one massive franchise when so much great independent sci-fi and fantasy has been and continues to be published; (4) more Star Wars means more talented writers writing for an existing property instead of exploring their own ideas, while also meaning that Star Wars becomes less of a thing defined by George Lucas’s vision and more of a bland product produced by committee; and (5) more Star Wars means that a monolithic corporation within the ever-narrowing band of oligarchic entertainment companies is going to tighten its grip even further by giving plenty of people reason to only watch/read/play/listen to (and thus pay for) its particular intellectual property, IP that in this case it just went out and bought after the fact rather than having any role in creating (as though IP law wasn’t already so corrupted toward longstanding corporate interests).
But enough of that. I actually just wanted to yell about Luke and Boba Fett.
Boba’s interactions with the “real” Mandalorians in the finale were fascinating. It’s easy to see why he remained such an isolationist outsider throughout his life, as he faced bigotry as a clone and a refusal by purists to accept him as a member of Mandalorian culture. Bo-Katan’s hostility toward his use of Mandalorian armor, despite his rightful claim to it, is somewhat ironic given her own wariness toward the extremist sect that Din belongs to. It’s interesting to see a lot of different Mandalorians in this diaspora all finding ways to identify themselves as “real” Mandalorians in the wake of the loss of their homeland, often creating identities in opposition to other ideas about what a Mandalorian can be. All that aside, that post-credits scene was some sweet Boba- and Fennec-badassery, and I am intrigued to see what The Book of Boba Fett does to further develop these characters. There are certainly plenty of subjects to explore. Why did Fett want his armor back now, and why did he not reclaim it earlier? Why was it important to him to claim Jabba’s palace? Does he plan to start his own criminal empire, or a new bounty hunter’s guild? Does he plot to build a coalition to retake Mandalore and rise as its ruler? Or perhaps does he want to assemble a warrior society of his own, an outsider group that rejects the formalistic traditions of Mandalorian culture? And now that he’s more of a team player and working with others, does he make any attempt to reconcile with the “friends” and mentors he’s had in the past, like Bossk or Dengar? I’ve never been great at speculation, so who knows if the story even follows any of those leads, but I’ll be interested to see what they do. Boba’s still not my favorite character, but I like this take on an honor-bound, brutal warrior who seems to be doing a tightrope walk of reflecting on and honoring his father’s heritage while facing and accepting rejection from the culture his father was raised in.
Then there’s Luke. It’s incredible that they really brought Luke into the show as the Jedi to respond to Grogu’s call. It was also incredible fan service to finally show Luke at the height of his powers, easy dismantling a platoon of super-soldier droids after we’d seen a single one of these Dark Troopers nearly pummel Din to death. I haven’t particularly been interested in the Disney Gallery series for The Mandalorian, but I’d love to see some behind-the-scenes discussion of how they got Mark Hamill’s younger voice and likeness spot-on for his appearance. Obviously most of the time, he was silent and hooded, and it’s not hard to figure out that you’d have a stunt double in any sort of sequence like that, but we have some extended periods where Luke is interacting with the Mandalorian posse.
Will we see more of this younger Luke? Will we finally see him starting his own Jedi Academy? I’d love to get more of that story. It’ll be interesting to see where Grogu goes; I suspect that, like Ahsoka, the little guy will find a way to escape the upcoming Jedi Purge (just as he did the original, come to think of it). And, though this is somewhat surprising to me, I’m really eager to see not just what comes of the potential conflict between Din and Bo-Katan, but also what exactly Boba Fett is up to.
If I could say only one thing about the expansions for Jurassic World: Evolution, I would say, “Buy Return to Jurassic Park; it’s worth it.” That one expansion was a stand-out, balancing nostalgia with new features, building on the solid foundation of the base game, and focusing on story to a greater degree than any other campaign mode in the game.
There’s a lot more to say about Return to Jurassic Park, but I want to discuss the other expansions first. I’ve now had some experience with all the existing DLC for JWE, which includes three added campaigns (Secrets of Dr. Wu, Claire’s Sanctuary, and Return to Jurassic Park), four expansion packs of additional dinosaurs (the Deluxe Dinosaur Pack, the Cretaceous Dinosaur Pack, the Carnivore Dinosaur Pack, and the Herbivore Dinosaur Pack), and one purely cosmetic addition (the Raptor Squad Skin Collection). Nothing really disappointed me, although some were better than others.
There’s nothing remarkable in the dinosaur content packs, but I liked having even more dinosaur options to add to the park, even though there’s largely a focus on existing clades, such that, at least with some of the new additions, they’ll feel more like new skins rather than truly new animals. Frequent additions to my parks have included the Styracosaurus from Deluxe (a ceratopsian I love about as much as Triceratops, given its appearance in Crichton’s sequel novel and its charismatic and dangerous role in “Last Link in the Chain” of Xenozoic Tales, not to mention the genus’s metal-as-hell skulls), the colossal Dreadnoughtus from the Cretaceous pack, the Proceratosaurus from the Carnivore pack (a small carnivore whose comfort in packs and ability to coexist with larger predators makes a helpful addition to boost ratings, especially in a certain carnivore-only challenge!), and the wide-jawed and small-for-a-sauropod Nigersaurus from the Herbivore pack (she’s too goofy-looking not to love). Dinosaurs in these packs, the campaign expansions, and some of the free content updates further round out the prehistoric life from the Jurassic Park novels, movies, and games that had previously been missing from JWE, although any marine life is still absent entirely. All that said, I liked adding more dinosaurs to the park, but you’re not missing anything vital if you don’t get these content packs. Furthermore, none of the dinosaurs break the balance of building a park, as they are unlocked over the campaign by building up favor with the different park directors, same as many of the already existing features in the base game.
The only thing that feels truly frivolous is the Raptor Squad Skin Collection. It’s only a couple bucks by itself, or less if bought discounted, but it only provides Velociraptor skins so that your raptors can look like Blue, Delta, Echo, and Charlie from Jurassic World. Since I have the pack, I’ve used the skins frequently; it adds a little more variety, and those skins are more dynamic than many of the other options available in the base game. But it’s a purely cosmetic choice. I can take it or leave it.
That gets us back to those campaign expansions. Unlike Return to Jurassic Park, the first two expansions, Secrets of Dr. Wu and Claire’s Sanctuary, are overall enjoyable, though largely forgettable.
Secrets of Dr. Wu serves as something of a conclusion to the base game’s campaign. All the secrets, plotting, and inter-division politics that never really went anywhere in the base game provide the platform for what happens next: Dr. Wu enlists your character to help him further his research into genetic modifications, taking you to new locations on the islands, including a top-secret research site. At first, you’re still juggling the interests of the Security, Entertainment, and Science divisions along with Wu’s requests, but the chief geneticist’s interests eventually become paramount. Wu’s research initially produces access to some new dinosaurs in a new park dubbed Muerta East. When you’ve met his initial objectives, though, he requests that you join him at his private lab, the Tacaño Research Facility. Here, you’re blessedly free of competing division contracts, but the scope is also fairly narrow. You help cultivate a new line of hybrid dinosaurs, culminating in a break-out and dino-to-dino battle before settling into a bland grind to increase the ratings of dinosaurs for export in the final mission. The base campaign’s story now feels more “complete,” but it still never really goes anywhere, and you’re still involved in deeply unethical activities without any real consequences.
Jurassic World: Evolution and Secrets of Dr. Wu are functionally alternative sequels to Jurassic World. While Claire’s Sanctuary is another alternative sequel, it also acts as a happier timeline in which Lockwood’s promise of Sanctuary was real and Claire is successful in relocating several dinosaurs. No Gothic horror shenanigans, no final dino release onto the mainland. Its narrative is rather subdued as a result, and the main challenge is dealing with the use of an ever-increasing Hammond Foundation fee while making sure your Sanctuary can both house happy dinosaurs (with an interesting new Paleobotany element requiring you to have the correct mix of plant life for different dinosaur types) and draw in a profit from tourists. (Yes, that means that it’s not so much a nature preserve as it is yet another island zoo, and yes, that’s a tragic compromise, but the game spends little time on this theme.) The standout mission is before you start your Sanctuary, however. You lead a team to set up a small research outpost on Isla Nublar. The map chosen winds from a valley up onto the slopes of the volcanic Mount Sibo. It’s a truly massive map, and dinosaurs roam freely in their own social groups. It captures the adventure-safari spirit of The Lost World and the first act of Fallen Kingdom quite well. I enjoyed driving across the island, photographing and observing the dinosaurs and providing medications to treat a new disease. The mission is very story-focused, so I concentrated on the story objectives and the setting, free from contracts or the demands of tourists. It was a delight, and I would have loved a whole game about exploring and researching this prehistoric preserve while attempting to prepare for, or even undo, a predicted tragedy. Some of my fondest memories of this level are of dealing with an ornery stegosaur herd near my base camp, which often attacked my perimeter fencing and sowed chaos among the researchers on the ground. It was an interesting experience, trying to find a way to coexist with these animals. The final moments of the mission also stood out as tense and horrific, as I had to choose which dinosaurs we’d be able to transport off the island in time, and dinosaurs began dying off in the chaos of the volcano’s imminent eruption. Sacrifices must be made.
Finally, there’s Return to Jurassic Park, yet another alternative sequel but this time to the original film, picking up shortly after the evacuation of Hammond and the other survivors from Isla Nublar. In this alternate universe, Hammond has convinced Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm to return to Jurassic Park, to start over and try to do things right. Hammond walks a line between his friendly tycoon persona and the born-again naturalist of The Lost World, as he is eager to build a park that is safe yet profitable, with dinosaurs who are well-cared-for, although sometimes his contracts darkly indicate that he’s still a little bit short-sighted and too profit-motivated. Hammond is aided by a young version of Cabot Finch, the PR manager from the base game. This Finch proves himself to be loyal to Hammond, even though he’s still ambitious and self-serving. He is the only central character not from the films, and the story largely focuses on Hammond, Grant, Sattler, and Malcolm (while Sam Neill, Laura Dern, and Jeff Goldblum returned to voice their roles, Richard Attenborough of course passed away a few years ago, and his voice actor delivers at best a decent imitation, at worst a whinier and more nasally knockoff).
Contracts became far more tolerable to me in Return; instead of competing against everyone, the divisions are headed by people possessing more or less mutual respect, all with the goal of presenting as-accurate-as-possible dinosaurs in humane enclosures with safe exhibits and facilities for park guests. You still have to complete contracts to raise your reputation with a division and to unlock more features, but you’re not risking reputation decreases or sabotage by focusing on one division’s contracts over the others (after all, petty infighting and anything intentionally done to risk the safety of the guests and dinosaurs would be intensely antithetical to these characters). Contracts are also in line with the ethical, reasonable personas you’re working with, so don’t expect contracts to have dinosaurs fight each other or to sell off certain dinosaurs. The contracts also have more interesting overlap in interests: Grant’s are focused on expeditions and the creation of more authentic dinosaurs; Sattler’s are focused on the wellbeing of the animals and observation of them in their natural habitats; Malcolm’s are very focused on security, and rather than independently increasing a separate division score for himself, completion of his contracts improves your reputation with Grant and Sattler; and Hammond’s and Finch’s are focused on expansion of the park, improvement of guest facilities, and profit growth.
The story is simple and derivative but entertaining. We first have to get the dinosaurs on Isla Nublar contained again. We then have to address what went wrong and work out a solution to the breeding problem (sadly, as far as I could tell, dinosaurs are not self-reproducing in the game even before the fix, and they’re still reliant on concealed feeders even in natural habitats). This involves a side trip to Isla Sorna, where we get the production facilities back online; in the campaign mode only, all your dinosaurs are shipped to Isla Nublar from Isla Sorna, creating a fun variation in how you stock the park with new attractions that unfortunately is not carried over into the Challenge modes. Finally, back on Isla Nublar, you work to grow the newly opened Jurassic Park, attempt to stop a bit of corporate espionage, and use your Tyrannosaurus to end yet another Velociraptor outbreak. The returning characters voice their concerns with attempting this reopening, but the game doesn’t try very hard to explain why they’d agree to come back to this site of death or why they believe in Hammond’s mission; if you can accept that Hammond intends to try again and has convinced the others that working with him from the beginning could keep dinosaurs and people safer, then you don’t need a deeper explanation. The story doesn’t really offer anything new, either; it just ties up loose ends (mostly loose ends that didn’t really need tying) and provides enough of a narrative structure to explain how exactly we’re all back at Jurassic Park. As a huge fan of the movies, I had more than enough to satisfy me.
In addition to the new story, we get a couple new creatures, as well: Compsognathus and Pteranodon, which have both had significant roles in the first two sequels. On top of that, many of the dinosaurs present in the Jurassic Park trilogy now have specific skins modeled after their appearances in these films. Once you unlock the new creatures and skins in the expansion, you can use them in any other mode; same goes for the Jurassic Park aesthetic and park economy.
I found the gameplay to be the best in this mode, and it’s not just nostalgia speaking. Certainly, nostalgia plays a role: park staff are dressed like their counterparts in the first film, the visitor center is more or less a duplicate of the original, visitors arrive to the island by helicopter, you have the classic cable fences and electric Explorers, the dinosaurs are movie-accurate, the guests are dressed like nineties tourists, and the additional park facilities feel like natural extensions of the design aesthetic of the first park. But management just feels simpler, more straightforward, more focused on providing lovely enclosures for the dinosaurs. For starters, the needed infrastructure is greatly streamlined: helipad to arrive at (placed by you, instead of the default monorail locations), visitor center that houses all the R&D departments as hub add-ons, geothermal power plant to provide electricity, only two types of visitor attractions (the car tour and a self-contained Pteranodon aviary), and only five types of visitor-needs buildings (restaurant, restroom, gift shop, emergency bunker, and hotel) that can all be clustered around a single attraction entrance point. It’s easy to chain along the ride through multiple enclosures (or around them, in the case of carnivore pens). Even the dinosaurs are simplified, in a way: while the expansion does add more animals to all game modes, any Jurassic Park-themed park has a reduced roster of era-appropriate dinosaurs. It’s a more focused experience, though there’s still plenty to manage properly to get your park to five stars (especially when playing in challenge modes).
My Challenge mode attempts tend to use the Jurassic Park setting. The combination of tight park-building gameplay and heavy doses of nostalgia makes this my preferred Jurassic World: Evolution experience. Over two years ago, I described the base game as flawed, fun, and slightly disappointing. Frontier Developments has added so much to it since, so it was already an improved experience, but Return to Jurassic Park has transformed the game into something truly special.
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.
I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a potential review. This puts me in the uncomfortable position of writing a review that is ultimately unfavorable, even though it’s more likely than usual that the publisher or, even worse, the author might read this. I don’t think I was the target audience for this book after all. If you like legal thrillers or law dramas, I think you should stop right here. My review isn’t going to do you any good! You might well enjoy this book, especially as a breezy weekend read! But if you tend to find your tastes might align with mine, then feel free to continue on. (Note that some spoilers will follow.)
The eye-catching synopsis on the back of the book begins, “Two bullet-riddled corpses. Two attorney brothers. Two sides to the story.” One would anticipate family rivalry, high drama, courtroom antics, and perhaps a morbid tale of murder and moral compromise. But the book sketches this in only the broadest strokes, and at the end of the day, there is really only one side to the story.
The two brothers are Jake and Travis Lynch. One’s a prosecutor, and the other’s a struggling attorney handling mostly pro bono work in private practice. They had a falling out over ten years ago because of the events surrounding a capital murder investigation and trial. Now they’re forced back together, as Jake prosecutes the cringingly named “Rich Kid Murders” and Travis defends the kid from the other side of town charged with their deaths. The book is basically split between the perspectives of Jake, Travis, and the alleged murderer, Sam. Its central tension revolves around two mysteries: who actually killed the “rich kids,” and what happened between Jake and Travis? As you might imagine, a novel hung on mysteries that are easily answered by the three viewpoint characters reads as annoyingly drawn out. And it’s not much of a mystery about the murders, as we have everything that happened but who pulled the trigger early on, and Sam is an unrepentant sociopath. So my primary motivation in reading was to figure out what exactly happened between Jake and Travis.
Here’s the thing, though. Travis is presented as a moralistic crusader who refused to compromise his conscience even though it cost him his family. But the truth is anything but that. Spoiler: as a law clerk, he began to doubt the justification of the death penalty, and he used that doubt as its own justification to unethically obtain and conceal evidence from his brother to fruitlessly attempt to prevent the conviction and execution of an irredeemable sociopath. Ten years later, he once more finds himself handling another irredeemable sociopath, having decided that this was somehow important and uniquely his responsibility. Never mind that he has never prosecuted or defended a capital murder case in the intervening years, or that he seems in way over his head, or that he desperately needs paying clients and his pregnant wife is increasingly anxious because he’d rather devote himself to every pro bono cause (to the point that he puts off a scheduled appointment at one point because some non-paying walk-ins showed up!), or that there are surely better choices for a defender in Austin. And by the end of the book, without much reason to do so, he finds himself questioning his opposition to capital punishment after all, while dropping his self-enforced exile from his family and considering getting into the family business. In other words, the final moments show that he’s been engaging in a bit of poverty tourism for a decade, living in a poor part of town by choice and forming romantic notions about the lives of the impoverished, only to be prepared to jump right into the benefits of his family heritage as soon as anyone from his family makes more than a half-hearted gesture to bring him back into the fold. His bitterness about his family’s lifestyle chafes even more in retrospect, knowing where he ends up by the end–especially since he also spends quite a bit of the book denying the substantial privilege of his upbringing that even a life of pro bono work simply would not erase.
You’d think that I had something against a person like Travis, or that I’m perhaps fervently pro-death penalty. No, I have my own family drama, and I too can be a bit of a bleeding heart with an opposition to the death penalty. But Travis’s pigheaded, narrowminded perspective made him a drag to read.
On the other hand, Jake is initially presented as a raging asshole prone to heavy drinking. He is those things, but he’s also a devoted husband, father, and son. He’s clever, he’s analytical, he’s good at seeing through motivations. He’s surprisingly willing to see the talent in others, including a transparent ass-kissing lackey in the office and even his own brother. By the end, Jake had become my favorite character. Still, I was tired of the toxic masculinity oozing from Jake, Travis, and Sam. They all were arrogant, overconfident, and prone to expressing only anger openly.
The moments where Jake and Travis interacted with their family were probably the best in the book and felt the most honest. Family dynamics are complicated, even when they shouldn’t be, and author Don Hartshorn does a good job of portraying that. But even though they are the most interesting and have the most emotional stakes, they unfortunately don’t occupy as much of the novel as sections engaging with local politicking and the murder case.
Hartshorn almost inadvertently wrote two potentially very interesting women. One is Christine Morton, a hard-as-nails reporter who unfortunately is mostly described as blonde and attractive, even as she does a great job as an investigator, and she is treated with hate and derision by both brothers, although the novel never provides a great motivation for that hate. Toward the end, Christine and Jake almost become allies, and I imagined a more interesting relationship for them in which they were professional rivals (bloodhound journalist versus prosecutor with an iron grip over his office) but had a reluctant, almost weary respect for each other. That never quite materializes, and even though Christine helps Jake, she’s left to seem “foiled” by him in the end. The other interesting woman barely appears at all. Bonnie Wong occupies a single scene as a defense attorney for one of the other kids charged with the murders. She’s presented as antagonistic, at least from Travis’s viewpoint, but she offers a good if obvious strategy, while Travis enters the meeting apparently deciding the best way for his client to win is to simply blame everything on the co-defendant without much support. Bonnie doesn’t like Travis. She clearly views him as an inferior attorney. She remembers how he withheld the evidence, and he obviously hasn’t made any waves since then. But she still tries to treat him with courtesy and tries to extend an olive branch to build a better case for both defendants. She’s not actually allowed to do anything else in the book, though, as her defendant quickly exits the picture for reasons I won’t disclose here, one of the few twists I won’t touch on in case you do decide to read this.
Most of the other characters are forgetful, though I mostly remember the women–unfortunately, especially the brothers’ wives–as deceitful, manipulative, and interested in vicarious power and wealth. Not great. There are other problematic moments. Hartshorn, who is white, largely writes white characters, but he has depicted Sam the killer as Korean. We don’t get to know Sam that well, and we don’t really understand his family background; his parents are supposed to be sympathetic, and yet they somehow raised not one but two sociopathic criminals who end up entangled in the criminal justice system for crimes they gleefully committed. Hartshorn makes awkward choices in how he describes Sam, for instance having Sam observe early on his “unmistakably Asian features in the rear window” of a car. More broadly, Hartshorn seems interested in making stabs at complicated issues like socioeconomic and racial inequities and the imperfect nature of the justice system, but the only one really taking any time to reflect on these issues is Travis, whose views are remarkably shallow and self-centered (as I’ve described above), and the individuals allegedly crushed by an unfair society who are now lashing out in rage are both portrayed as sociopaths with no particular motivation for their violent lifestyles.
Another bizarre element is that the book almost feels like a 2000’s period piece, even though it appears to be in the present day. The law offices are very reliant on paper still, for some reason, and at one point a character literally closes a cell phone, like it’s an old flip phone. The bizarre, amorphous time period stuck out to me. But it doesn’t warrant more comment than that.
The Guilty Die Twice isn’t painfully bad; while I didn’t often have much motivation to keep reading, it wasn’t a struggle to turn the pages when I made time for it. But its weak points crowd out its strengths, and when we all have such limited attention spans and so many sources of potential entertainment, I just don’t think that I can recommend this particular one.