Review: Onward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TCW 7.7: “Dangerous Debt”

This episode is an action-packed extended prison break and chase sequence, with a lot of visual and musical references to the classic films. It feels very Star Wars, and it’s fun to watch, even though not all that much really happens, and our heroes more or less wind up back where they started.

Sure, now we can see how things might lead back to Mandalore, and Trace and Rafa reveal more about their tragic backstory (although Rafa’s narrative felt bizarrely scripted, as though she was reading an especially florid bit of prose from her diary). And I enjoy the dynamic between Ahsoka, Trace, and Rafa so much that I sure don’t mind spending more time with them. But this episode, while fun to watch, felt like the show was spinning its wheels. If I learned anything from The Mandalorian, though, it’s to trust that even a seeming filler episode can pay off in the long run.

The Jedi Academy Reopens

I was quick to pick up, and play through, the Nintendo Switch ports for Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast and Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. Outcast was a title I’d never really played before and didn’t have much of an attachment to. Academy, on the other hand, was the game I had played a lot in high school. It didn’t get as much multiplayer time as the Halo games or Far Cry, but I thoroughly enjoyed the lightsaber combat and the sense of deep immersion within the Expanded Universe.

I had great fun with both games in their new lives as current-gen console ports by Aspyr. But my nostalgic connection to Jedi Academy made this the game I was more excited to revisit. I found that the lightsaber combat was a little more frustrating than I remembered, although after spending so much of Outcast without a lightsaber, it was great to come into the game with that signature weapon and some basic Force powers readily available. And I have evolved as a person and as a Star Wars fan, so while I still liked the cute references to the old continuity, I wasn’t as enraptured by these nods and winks, and I focused more on the story itself. It’s too bad, because the story is very mediocre.

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Academy hits many of the same beats as Outcast. You’re improving in the use of the Force while hunting down a band of Dark Side cultists preparing to take over the galaxy. There is a pivotal duel with a secondary antagonist in which the protagonist must wrestle with the temptation of the Dark Side. There is a final battle within a temple as the primary antagonist attempts to tap into an ancient power. And there’s weird stuff about pulling the Force from people/places. The secondary antagonist of Outcast even becomes the primary antagonist of Academy. Plus, Kyle Katarn remains sarcastic and bordering on the edge of having a real personality, though he moves from protagonist to mentor/support character.

Academy mixes things up by focusing on customization and choice. That plot point about facing the Dark Side is actually a player choice in Academy, resulting in a Light or Dark ending–which had been a feature of Outcast’s predecessor. (I don’t think I’ve ever played through the Dark Side ending, because the choice is either killing an unarmed and pathetic former “friend”/rival or sparing him.) And the larger plot is told over just a few bigger levels, with the majority of the game coming in the form of available missions that you choose from. Before each mission, you pick your starting weapons and level up Force abilities. And you can choose to complete all the missions within a given chapter of the story or skip the last one to go onto the next big story quest. These choices are meant to provide a sense of customization and non-linearity, but they result in only trivial variation in order rather than real impact (and as far as I can tell, you’re just missing out on an extra Force point by skipping a mission).

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The biggest player impact on how the game appears is through customization of the protagonist. You can choose the gender and species of your character, Jaden Korr; can select from several face, torso, and pant options with clothing trim color choices; and can pick a lightsaber hilt and color. Later on in the game, you can even choose to dual-wield lightsabers or carry a double-bladed saber. But while your lightsaber choices at least feed into combat, the other choices are purely aesthetic. And for that reason, it’s very bizarre that the game limits you to certain races for men and for women. You can be a human male or female, but you can only be a female Zabrak or Twi’lek, while you can only be a male Kel Dor or Rodian. On top of that, there’s only one male voice and one female voice. This means that, when I played through the game this time as a Kel Dor, the wry, clear voice of a human male was jarringly inserted, without any sort of filtration or mechanization, over the blank staring of my protagonist. With Plo Koon’s deep, muffled voice in mind, it was quite the disconnect to hear a voice apparently unrestrained by the respiratory apparatus over Jaden’s mouth, and a lot of character moments were oddly muted–especially since the graphics don’t allow for any expression of emotion in the character’s brows. If you’re going to just assign the same voice to every race of the same gender, why limit the race/gender pairings at all?

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This game feels very much of its era, down to female characters in skimpy and outrageous outfits, including a Zabrak woman wearing boots with heels as displayed in many of the loading screens. As one might imagine, hetero teenage me didn’t mind that so much, but now, it’s some uncomfortable baggage.

But importantly, even with my critiques, and even with my occasional frustrations with a particular opponent or scenario in the game, I still had a lot of fun. I liked playing a Kel Dor hero. I liked exploring planets from the movies and the EU. I liked the references to Luke’s early students like Corran, Tionne, and Streen. I liked the goofy weirdness of the plot and its insistence that players be familiar not just with the previous game’s story but with a dozen other stories and characters as well for maximum appreciation. The New Jedi Order series ended in the same year that Jedi Academy came out, so this was the peak for wild, weird, edgy, self-referential Star Wars, at the very edge before I finally got burnt out. I was reminded of that feeling and that setting when I played the game again. And I got to swing a lightsaber a lot, so it was still worth my time. If you’re already a fan, you don’t need me to sell you on it. And if you’re not a fan, the loose controls, dated graphics, and casual density of background lore might not be appealing. I guess this post was just for me, and others like me, who maybe could use a little escape into nostalgia during a particularly dark time for America.

TCW 7.6: “Deal No Deal”

I’m really liking Trace and Rafa. They’re more interesting and three-dimensional characters than I was expecting. Trace is pure-hearted, overconfident, and desperate for something more in life. She shares that last attribute with her sister, who is amoral, manipulative, and always out for the next get-rich-quick scheme–even as her debts pile higher and higher. But Trace is a little foolish and rash, and Rafa seems like someone genuinely protective of her sister, so it’s maybe not as simple a dynamic as I initially thought, and it promises to continue evolving. It looks like theirs was a slowly fraying relationship by the time Ahsoka showed up, but she’s certainly added to their dysfunction, and I’m not sure yet if she’ll push them apart or actually manage to mend their fractures and put them on a path that’s different than their scrounging, scrabbling lives lurking on the periphery of the galactic underworld.

I like the structure of this arc within the season, too. It’s a little more character-focused. It’s certainly less brass and violent and loud so far, even with the action scenes that have been interspersed throughout, as we’re focusing on the forgotten members of everyday galactic society, civilians just trying to make ends meet as the war rages elsewhere. This episode in particular felt rather like an early adventure for an RPG party. The heroes are now assembled, and they finally have an operational ship that can broaden their horizons, but their first job is a simple delivery mission. Until, of course, they overthink it and it all goes to hell.

The additional emotive expressiveness on the character models goes a long way to selling their interactions. And the emotional weight of every scene is heightened by a score in this episode that represents some of the best musical accompaniment in the whole series.

In one of my favorite moments of the episode, Trace takes her new starship into a military lane over Coruscant, ignoring the frenzied guidance of Ahsoka and Rafa. They are soon contacted by a familiar voice: Admiral Yularen. He assumes they’re just a bunch of amateurs taking stupid risks and intends to deploy some troops to arrest them. But Anakin, aboard Yularen’s Star Destroyer, asks what’s up, and when Yularen explains, Anakin reaches out with the Force and senses Ahsoka’s presence. He tells Yularen to let them pass. It’s really sweet, another great emotional moment from this final season, and it’s of course also a nice nod to Anakin and Luke’s Force encounter over Endor in Return of the Jedi.

The season is forming into a perfect brew of great ingredients, and I’m so happy for it. It’s a fun weekly escape.

TCW 7.5: “Gone with a Trace”

At some point, my episode descriptions for this season of The Clone Wars can all boil down to some variant of, “I loved it!” Same is true for this episode, which picks up with Ahsoka after she left the Jedi Order. The Order doesn’t exactly have a severance package, and she’s down-on-her-luck with some small reserve of credits and a broken-down speeder bike the only things left to her name.

Ahsoka sees more than ever what the state of affairs looks like for those left behind by the Jedi when they went off to fight their war. And she also finds that there are kind, good people still trying to do the right thing even at the bottom of the heap.

My favorite moment in the episode was another single line, when Ahsoka admits that she learned how to fight from her “big brother.” It’s a nice enough cover, if a bit flimsy, but her delivery sells me that that’s exactly how she viewed Anakin. Heartbreaking, especially knowing not only what came before but what will ultimately become of their relationship.

Final thought: the sibling relationship of older, unreliable scoundrel Rafa and younger, goodhearted Trace reminds me rather strongly of Mission and her big brother Griff from Knights of the Old Republic. And I get the feeling that Rafa is bound to let Trace down in a big (or even bigger) way, too.

Guest Essay: On Coffee Talk

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


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

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

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

“Play this game!”

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

“It’s not stressful at all!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TCW 7.4: “Unfinished Business”

This was another episode in which I lost it over a single, character-defining line:

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Over the course of The Clone Wars, we saw Anakin come to embrace his role as war hero. Violence became the easy answer. An early example of that can be found in “Voyage of Temptation” (season 2, episode 13): Obi-Wan and Satine hesitate to stop a traitor, saboteur, and terrorist sympathizer as he taunts their noble ideals. The villain even mockingly asks, “Who will strike first and brand themselves a cold-blooded killer?” At that point, Anakin handily shows up to stab him in the back. Under the disapproving gaze of Obi-Wan, Anakin retorts, “What? He was going to blow up the ship.” Then, in the season three Citadel arc (episodes 18-20), Anakin is introduced to Tarkin, who challenges him with the idea that the “Jedi Code prevents them from going far enough to achieve victory, to do whatever it takes to win,” which Anakin finds he agrees with based on his own wartime experiences (season 3, episode 19, “Counterattack”).

Following Ahsoka’s departure from the Jedi Order, Anakin is left reeling, doubting more than ever his relationship with the Order and the inherent rightness of its ways. In “Unfinished Business,” Anakin is close to unhinged, willing to do anything at all to achieve victory. Even though his actions are intended to save lives, it’s clear enough that the Dark Side already has a strong hold on him. And yet he gets results, and he remains a hero to the Jedi and the Republic, rewarded for the lengths he’ll go to. At this point, Anakin sees the virtues of the Jedi as weaknesses, hindrances. It’s not a far moral step from what he does to Trench to his disarming and beheading of Dooku. Another reminder that The Clone Wars did (and still does) an excellent job of deepening the characters and better illustrating their moral journeys from Attack of the Clones to Revenge of the Sith!