Alien’s 40th

Alien released in theaters to American audiences on May 25, 1979. The franchise keeps slithering forward in myriad directions, and this year marks its fortieth anniversary. It is clear that 20th Century Fox plans to celebrate that, starting with a series of short films produced in partnership with Tongal and released on IGN. The six titles–“Containment,” “Specimen,” “Night Shift,” “Ore,” “Harvest,” and “Alone”–serve as an excellent representation of the larger constellation of films, novels, comics, and games: rough, uneven, curious, often fascinating and genuinely terrifying, and occasionally just plain disturbing. Additionally, Sam and I are both intrigued by the recently announced Alien tabletop RPG, which sounds quite promising to me. I can’t wait to be an underpaid, disgruntled space mechanic who gets swiftly killed by an alien!

One of the most unusual fandoms that my wife and I share is that of the Alien movies. Neither of us are fans of horror, but we both watch Alien with dread fascination at least every Halloween season, and we delight in the high-octane adventure of Aliens. More than the horror, and even more than the scary and very cool creature, set, and prop design, I really like the characters and burnt-out, working-class setting. I like the idea of a larger, drab, hyper-corporate galactic society. And I like that the xenomorph, for all its terror, represents one very horrible but isolated threat in a small, out-of-the-way part of that galaxy. The feel of the films is like Star Wars without hope (and with even more banged-up, retro-futuristic technology), except that instead of focusing on a great hero, we’re following the space trucker who’d refuel Tosche Station.

Because of that, I’ve lost interest in the franchise’s more recent shift toward increasing gore and body horror (though I’m not kidding anyone: from the very first film, that’s been an important part of the visual storytelling, tone, and even the themes of the film, so I’m not opposed to it on principle). I also could care less about the positioning of the xenomorph in the context of some greater mythos, some half-baked reconstitution of Chariots of the Gods with biological warfare. And sometimes, even when I really like what an Alien title is doing, it’s still just too scary and intense for me to press on with (I’m looking at you, Alien: Isolation).

These short films were, thankfully, very much my cup of tea, even though I didn’t love them all. They’re all small vignettes about working-class people trying to survive one very shitty situation after another. The basic premise is shared from film to film: xenomorph shows up, people die. But each film explores a different little corner of a much larger universe.

That said, I’d like to share my thoughts on those short films, in no particular order.

“Alone” is a fascinating premise–what would happen if a facehugger and an android are left alone together? The execution isn’t perfect, but it goes in some weird and interesting directions.

“Harvest” is a rather blunt story. Alien couldn’t be more obviously about sex, sexual violence, and pregnancy as body horror, and yet “Harvest” makes the implicit subtext explicit with the presence of a pregnant woman, with the title, and with the theme of procreation and preservation (at least through the eyes of the android). The title made the “twist” ending expected, and the flat acting and illogical actions of the party leader make it clear what she actually is all too soon.

“Specimen” is a creepy, intense survival horror set in a locked-off greenhouse. It kept me on edge throughout, the ending was satisfying, and it also introduced the idea of non-human androids. This was a cool episode and, I thought, had one of the better performances from its lead.

“Containment” is forgettable. Alien runs amok in closed quarters. Nothing we haven’t seen before. The title alludes to the crew’s efforts to keep the infestation contained when salvagers recover their escape pod. That’s…more or less the whole story right there. Much of the nuance, such as there is, comes in how the survivors react to their impending doom.

“Night Shift” is kind of fun, and the ending–with our protagonist momentarily victorious and momentarily secure in her locked-down storeroom even while a full-on alien infestation breaks out in the larger colony–is dark and fatalistic.

Finally, “Ore” is fucking amazing. The lead is an awesome, sympathetic, blue-collar hero. Tensions between management and mine workers are escalated not only by the alien but by the fact that management is actually an android company plant. The characters and their working conditions and lives are pretty central to the story being told. And the final scene, with the miners rallying together in the face of the alien threat, is incredible. If you only watch one, I’d pick this.

All told, as a series of fan films, I was impressed by the production and acting quality and the variety of stories told, even though I didn’t love every single one.

Review: Detective Pikachu

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

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

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Cubone fleeing before the tables are turned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Endgame

I didn’t really like Infinity War. I had some not-too-kind things to say about it and the state of the MCU at the time. If my neighbor hadn’t asked if I wanted to join him for Endgame, seeing the sequel to a movie I so maligned wouldn’t have been a priority, and certainly wouldn’t have happened so relatively soon.

But I’ve seen Endgame, only a week late to the conversation, and I found that I mostly liked it. It was a satisfying cap to not just Infinity War but virtually every MCU film that came before it. It provided a swan song for the original Avengers team, and it was a promise for new generations of heroes and new iterations of heroic legacies. And it tried its best to patch up some of my biggest complaints with Infinity War. The single biggest improvement: this film finally allows for genuine dramatic stakes with permanent repercussions. We see a lot of Infinity War‘s bullshit cliffhanger ending undone, though not so cleanly as I had thought, and not only do the characters deal with a lot of trauma and change, but not all of them make it through–and there shouldn’t be any redoes this time. (It’s refreshing to see that the MCU is finally doing what the comics won’t, acknowledging the passage of time and actually allowing an ending for at least some characters.)

Best of all, Endgame offered the best performances to date for the core Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic and really leans into the grief, trauma, and heroism of his role–though his characteristic snark seldom departs him. Scarlett Johansson and Jeremy Renner both pull everything they can out of the platonic bond of soulmates that their characters share; frankly, I’ve never cared much for Renner or his character, and yet Hawkeye’s arc in this film was one of my favorite things about it. Mark Ruffalo expresses a smug confidence that was so uncharacteristic and reflected how much Bruce Banner had changed between films. Chris Evans is sterling as ever as the always optimistic, pure-hearted Captain America. And Chris Hemsworth brings a lot of quirky neuroticism to the role of Thor, to mixed results, but my qualms are more with the script than the acting.

The movie was a whirlwind of an experience, and it was surreal to realize that three hours had passed as the credits rolled. I was engaged from start to finish. I can’t say that this would necessarily be a good movie on its own, but as heavily as it relied on the decade-plus of Marvel movies, and as many characters and events as it referenced, I never felt lost or confused. The payoff found in this movie was definitely earned. And while I was incredibly annoyed by the end of Infinity War, I loved how heavily the film leaned into allowing the characters to experience and process grief (well, almost all the characters–as I mentioned, Thor got a bad deal in his portrayal).

I do have some complaints, but to get into them, I have to discuss plot beats. I imagine anyone reading this has probably already seen the movie…still, SPOILERS FOLLOW.

 


 

First and foremost, I really didn’t like that the Soul Stone once again claims a female sacrifice. I actually thought that the tender moment between Hawkeye and Black Widow was lovely, and the fight to see who could self-sacrifice first was a fascinating way to work out the deep love and protectionism both characters share for each other. But first Gamora, and now Natasha. And both of these deaths are quite permanent.

Relatedly, while I liked that Gamora came back in some form, it felt like a cheap workaround of the permanence of death associated with a Soul Stone sacrifice. I’m not too bothered by it, though–a past version of Gamora on the loose in the present galaxy, with her sister and her lover holding feelings for her that she does not share in return, offers some interesting narrative possibilities down the line.

I also really didn’t like the depiction of Thor. I think this Tor essay by Sylas Barrett sums it up better than I ever could, but I didn’t like that his grief and trauma, and his associated weight gain, were used as recurrent gags. The other heroes all seemed to be annoyed by his mental illness, as though they felt that he should just man up and tough it out, as though everyone processes things the same way–as though Thor hadn’t lost all his family individually and then failed in stopping Thanos in such a way that he could feel directly responsible for it all. If nothing else, I’m frustrated that Marvel can’t seem to figure out what to do with Thor, and all the great character development and tonal shifts of Ragnarok continue to be undermined by what has followed. Still, I’m excited to see Thor join on with the Guardians of the Galaxy; his interactions with them in Infinity War were a highlight, and the quirky and colorful space opera of Ragnarok shares more than a little in common with the Guardians of the Galaxy movies.

To get really petty, I thought it sort of pathetic when, in the final battle, Marvel shows a shot of the female superheroes all rallying to help Captain Marvel get across the battlefield, only for their plan to fail in a couple minutes. It felt like Marvel desperately crying out, “Oh we have female characters, lots of them, we care about women for real!” And yet over Infinity War and Endgame, they killed present Gamora, past Nebula, and Black Widow, and they didn’t really give any of the female characters much to do. (Captain Marvel was great when she was present. Scarlet Witch had an excellent five minutes against Thanos. I’ve already mentioned how Black Widow shined in her scenes with Hawkeye. Nebula had a great heroic arc, even if she didn’t get as much focus as many of the other survivors. But for the most part, this was a movie focused on men.)

Finally, I found some of the patches for Infinity War to be rather weak. I know that Infinity War mentions that half of Asgard was killed, implying that half survived, and I’m glad to see that most of the characters I loved in Ragnarok made it through, but how exactly did that work? Weren’t all of the Asgardian refugees on board the ship attacked by Thanos? How come we saw no indication that they escaped when the ship exploded? Where did they go? If there were escape pods or something, how come Thor didn’t look for them? How come the Guardians didn’t detect them? And how did the refugees get to Earth? So it’s nice that many of them made it after all, but there’s no effort to explain exactly how that happened. That’s nothing compared to my frustration with Doctor Strange’s decision to turn over the Time Stone. Okay, so it leads to the only path that he sees where they win, and it allows for the Ancient One to trust the Hulk when he travels in time to collect it. But how, exactly, could that be the only way to victory? If Strange had let Tony die, and kept the Time Stone tucked away in whatever pocket dimension he held it, how exactly would Thanos have acquired it? Okay, so Tony gets five years of marriage and a daughter. But he still ends up dead in the apparently only win condition, and a lot of people suffered for those five years, and a lot of people will find themselves displaced after winking back into existence after five years. Just in general, the time travel mechanics and alternate realities rely on the audience trusting the filmmakers and putting doubt out of mind, not scrutinizing anything too hard, and I wasn’t willing or able to do that.

On the flip side, there were a lot of things I loved. I loved the arcs for Iron Man, Captain America, and Hawkeye. I loved Rocket’s reunion with Groot on the battlefield, as he dives on top of his newly recovered friend to shield his body from the falling missiles. That scene, along with Tony’s death and funeral scenes, brought tears to my eyes. I loved the arrival of all the heroes, old and new, on the battlefield. I loved the passing of the mantle from Steve to Sam, I loved Pepper in her own Iron Man suit, and I loved Black Widow’s time as the head of an Avengers team consisting of (if I recall correctly) War Machine, Okoye, Rocket, Nebula, and Captain Marvel. And I loved that most of the characters got at least a couple good moments in the film, even outside of the core cast of the original Avengers plus Rocket and Nebula plus Ant-Man.

This film was fun to watch and offered a final, and mostly satisfying, conclusion for many of the characters who have been around for the longest. It also offers the potential for a lot of exciting new stories to tell. I hope that we now see Marvel movies take more risks and break away from the Marvel formula (though of course, we already have examples like Guardians of the GalaxyAnt-ManBlack Panther, Thor: Ragnarok, and even Captain Marvel that offered something different). Time will tell if Marvel follows through on that potential. For now, we’ve reached an Endgame.

Captain Marvel continues Marvel’s excellent reinvigoration of space opera

As usual, I’m behind the conversation; over Avengers: Endgame‘s opening weekend, I went to see Captain Marvel. I had no particular interest in seeing it, but it was the end point of a leisurely walk along the White River and through downtown on a personal day. I don’t get particularly excited about Marvel movies anymore, and I have minimal familiarity with the Captain Marvel character. The trailers didn’t do anything for me, either. But this film was a surprising joy for me, and I’m glad I saw it.

There are many things to like about Captain Marvel. I like its refreshingly pure-hearted and good-willed protagonist as portrayed by Brie Larson. I like the introduction story here, less an origin (though it contains that, in flashbacks) and more a recognition of one’s true capability and the overturning of years of built-in cultural indoctrination. I liked the appearance of young(ish) agents Coulson and Fury. I liked the sci-fi story, and I liked the big twist, and I liked how it wasn’t just a big twist but actually helped with Carol Danvers’s character growth and full acceptance of her new, heroic, independent identity. I even liked how the potential display of how Fury lost his eye becomes a running gag and ultimately a solidly landed brick joke.

I especially liked that Captain Marvel leaned into being its own thing. Set in the nineties, with a hero character unfamiliar to the existing superhero community of Infinity War and with events that couldn’t have an obvious impact on the state of the world (because why wouldn’t we know about it already?), Captain Marvel seemed like it would be an exceedingly unnecessary and pointless film in a franchise already full of such unnecessary productions. But while Captain Marvel does actually have some nice connective tissue to the Avengers films and draws a direct path to Endgame, it largely succeeds because it focuses on big a good movie instead of another tangle in the web of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, the connections were there, but you could go into this fresh and enjoy a great superhero sci-fi story.

The sci-fi elements were especially fun, and I hope that this serves as a sign that Marvel will continue to incorporate more and more wild space opera into its films. We saw the faintest glimmer of what was to come in the original Thor, but Captain Marvel feels like a sibling of Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok in being so wildly, ridiculously over-the-top in its depiction of galaxy-spanning empires and alien cultures. It also feels like a movie that has spiritual roots in the eighties or nineties, with the premise of an Earth-born human hero clandestinely becoming entangled in an intergalactic conflict echoing Flash Gordon or The Last Starfighter.

I hope that Marvel continues to release wild, wacky, cosmic epics. I’d love to see a sequel to Captain Marvel that details her adventures taking down the Kree empire. But I also hope that we can see some other, original, high-quality space opera films come out. It’s a rare treat, and the plots are often a little half-baked, but I love the colossal scale and alien settings, and when these things have the budget for a decent cinematic experience, it’s truly wonderful.

Review: Love, Death & Robots

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Starlink

My initial impressions of Starlink: Battle for Atlas proved to be a pretty accurate indicator of how I’d feel about the game as a whole. It remained fun and colorful, and the act of exploring the star system remained a delight throughout, but it was not a perfect game.

As I mentioned in that first post, I opted to play through the game on easy mode, and this meant that combat was a low-risk, low-stress activity. Despite that, some sub-bosses (typically those guarding special relics hidden on each world) proved to be truly challenging, and those fights were the most interesting, largely because I was often encountering higher-level enemies earlier than I otherwise would, and because those fights were often in interesting environments that rewarded navigation-as-evasion in somewhat cramped spaces. But combat as a whole began to feel repetitive. There were certain strategies and weapons to keep in mind with certain types of enemies. The legions of ground troops (pun intended: the enemy robots are in an army known as the Legion) largely fell into only a few different types: fire, ice, and gravity-warping. Figure them out, and it’s a simple matter to address most fights.

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Big bosses were similarly limited in variety, although there was at least an interesting cycle to addressing them. Dreadnought starships are colossal vessels placed around the star system, which release Primes, huge arachnoid mechs, that attempt to corrupt worlds by activating and spreading Extractors, towers that extract valuable resources from the planet’s core. Extractors remotely transmit energy generated from the harvested materials to the roving Primes, making them bigger and more powerful; Primes pass on some of that energy to the Dreadnought stationed within their sector of the star system, thus improving its power in turn. The best route to take to free a sector is thus to clear out each planet in that sector one by one, shutting down Extractors to locate a Prime before moving on to the next world, eventually leaving the Dreadnought weakened. This balance of powers is interesting in concept but boring in execution, since you once more reach a point where you are just dealing with the same three recycled enemy types again and again: surface towers guarded by beam-emitting nodes and occasionally mid-to-high-level Legion forces, mobile spider-mechs (which do at least offer variety through their evolving forms as they grow in power, although this is a linear and repetitive trajectory too), and space battles against fighters and turrets followed by on-rails races to take out the power cores on the capital ships.

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Dreadnoughts will redeploy Primes as time passes, and (in the endgame at least) new Dreadnoughts will eventually enter the system to replace their defeated comrades. Apparently the spread of the Legion is determined by difficulty level, so a higher-difficulty play-through could make things more interesting (or maybe just more tedious). Each world can gain Alliance power, providing you more resources and better resisting the Legion, if you clear out Legion emplacements and build and upgrade structures. These structures are limited and serve specific purposes, like showing more of the planet map, generating revenue, producing mods for your ships, or increasing the defensive capabilities of the planet. The back-and-forth tension between Alliance and Legion provides one of the clearest sources of comparison to Mass Effect 3–though this system at least feels simpler and obviously involves a lot less territory.

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(Actually, Mass Effect feels like a heavy reference point for the game–see the lore entries below for further examples.)

Still, while the game does not offer an extraordinary strategic element, and while its combat and side missions are repetitive, it remained consistently fun. I really liked flying around as Fox. I liked the chatter between the characters on the Starlink and Star Fox teams over the comms. I liked scanning new creatures and discovering new artifacts. I enjoyed simply zipping through the skies of any given planet and observing the unusual terrain and towering biological, artificial, and geological structures rising from the surface.

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All the above fits in with my earlier conception of the game. There’s plenty of good with the bad, and the game itself does not get boring despite the repetition and simplistic elements. But the biggest letdown for me was in the development (or lack thereof) of the characters and story.

The game immediately introduces us to the core cast of the Starlink Initiative. They’re unique, distinctive, and likable. They all bring something to the table, and they all have a lot of flair and personality. When their leader, St. Grand, is captured by the cult that has taken command of the Legion, the team’s heartbreak is real, and I was totally behind their drive to recover this obvious father figure. Similarly, the Star Fox team is characterized such that each member of the team has a clear and unique personality and role: Fox is the pure-hearted leader who will always fight for good, Falco is the cocky ace pilot, Peppy is the overly cautious mentor who’s past ready to retire, and Slippy is the goofy tech genius and support character. They’re written and voiced such that they feel like they’ve actually known each other a long time and are a sort of family of their own; the silly back-and-forth between Slippy and Peppy was exceptionally delightful for me.

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But the characters don’t really evolve! Brilliant scientist Mason Rana, who designed the swappable Starlink tech, has the most presence on screen and is given the clearest arc, which makes sense; he’s the default pilot for the player. That arc is somewhat mundane, ultimately: he gains in confidence and steps out of his mentor St. Grand’s shadow to become a capable leader in his own right. Everyone else is largely in the background of this surrogate family, just glad to be along for the ride. But that surrogate family keeps growing, with more and more alien pilots, some of them having brief introductory interactions to explain their appearances, some of them apparently just showing up in the background of cinematic cutscenes. I didn’t know who everyone was by the end, but long before that I stopped understanding why so many of the new characters bothered to join. The game’s moving too fast and loose to bother nailing down these points.

The pacing of the plot doesn’t really lead anywhere, either. Here’s a very spoiler-heavy summary of the plot: the team recovers St. Grand, who was used by the Legion cult to make the rare refined fuel Nova (since he had rediscovered how and the secret was lost to most of the galaxy); St. Grand dies, apparently as a result of the side effects of the mind control he’d been briefly placed under; the team seeks to avenge St. Grand and liberate the star system; and at the end, the cult leader becomes part of some mech or something and a lone fighter shoots him a lot to save the day. I’m leaving out very little, mostly some side quests meant to dole out character background information, which for some reason is presented in cutscenes that are in a motion-comic style, instead of the cinematic scenes used for the main plot.

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Sadly, the Star Fox storyline is also abruptly rushed to a conclusion. Spoilers again: Wolf intends to build an army of Primes to take over Corneria, but Fox and friends figure it out and blow up his interstellar ship before he can escape, leaving him to flee in a damaged fighter with his tail between his legs. The team then decides to stay on with the Starlink group to clear the system of the Legion threat.

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The game ends all too quickly, and you’re allowed to keep wandering the star system, exploring more and clearing out remaining Legion encampments. Surviving Legion captains will continue to launch Dreadnaughts into the system to create a perpetual loop of combat scenarios. There’s stuff to do, but it all feels rather empty and pointless.

The thing is, these weaknesses are so predictable, at least in retrospect. It’s a toys-to-life, open-world game. The goal of the game is to provide a playground for kids to zoom around with their toy collection. It’s going to provide a variety of pilots and ships and weapons to encourage players to buy more and more of the toys, even if you don’t need to buy more to beat the core story. (Some of the elemental puzzles you’d have to unlock to 100% the game would require other elemental weapons or at least a lot of tedious transportation of canisters between sites). And because the game company wants you to buy lots of pilots and ships, they’re going to give you glimpses of those pilots and ships–really unique ship and alien designs can provide those glimpses without requiring a lot of time spent on characterizing these additional pilots in the story. This also means that there can’t ever be any real narrative stakes for the characters: killing a character or blowing up a ship can only happen if that character or ship won’t be available in the player’s toy box, to swap in at any time.

The open-world endgame feels empty because it’s there to let the player throw in different pilot and ship combinations without having to start the game from scratch. You can build on the RPG-lite leveling of pilots and ships, the modifications of fuselages and wings and weapons. And the ever-present potential for the recurrence of an external threat always presents the possibility of additional content to purchase in the future.

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This does not make the game bad. But it is unappealing to me. And it should have been obvious to me because that’s what the game’s basic design model would require.

So at this point, I don’t think I’ll play through the game on a higher difficulty. And I don’t think I’d increase the difficulty in my current save just to see what the higher Legion threat looks like in the endgame. I could see myself returning to Starlink at some point in the future, just to cruise about the system. For now, the 20-ish hours I’ve put in seem sufficient, and I’m not particularly hungry for more.

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That said, what I really want is to see an open-world Star Fox game that scraps the toys-to-life model and focuses on a meatier narrative set in the Lylat System. Starlink shows that this should work, and I think it also shows that good characters and good gameplay can only take a game like this so far; there still have to be engaging narratives (in and out of the main story) that make player actions feel worthwhile.

Starting Starlink

I finally started Starlink: Battle for Atlas. I mostly just wanted to make that announcement. It was back in October that I claimed that Starlink would be my next game purchase, and that did not end up being true. But I’m really excited to finally get to the game, and I’m enjoying it so far! It’s like an all-ages Mass Effect 3 limited in scope to a single star system, with a very light version of the exploration and scanning of life forms on colorful planets demonstrated in No Man’s Sky (no, I never played it, but I did enjoy watching game footage for a while), and inhabited by a rich cast of humans, aliens, and anthropomorphic animals such that it feels a little like a teasing glimpse of Beyond Good and Evil 2 (which is, after all, another Ubisoft title).

I started it on normal, then restarted it on easy, I’m embarrassed to admit. Two factors impact the difficulty: (1) it’s actually important to explore and do a little bit of “grinding,” though it doesn’t really feel a grind, on each world to level your pilot and craft; and (2) the weight of the docked toy ship and the tiny analog sticks of the Joy-Cons have combined to finally yield a situation where the Switch’s default docked control scheme doesn’t feel very comfortable for me. Well, okay, there’s a third reason: I’m getting older and suckier at games. Still, if I’d realized the first factor before restarting, I imagine I would have found normal fairly manageable most of the time, and I’m coasting through easy. Which is nice, in a way! I could always start another save slot later to inch up the difficulty, and I can focus for now on exploration, story, and characters. And I enjoy all that!

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It’s also fun to play as Fox McCloud on easy because he just seems that much more of an ace pilot even in my incompetent hands, ever the true hero. Playing as Fox from the beginning, I’m experiencing Starlink more as a Star Fox game than an original property. While having the toy model of an Arwing is fun, and I actually enjoy the swapping out of weaponry, I doubt I’ll ever really buy into the purchase of other pilots, ships, and firepower. So far, besides encountering the occasional gravity-based power-up that I can’t unlock with my current set of weaponry, I haven’t really been prevented from doing anything in the game. The toys-to-life concept remains a gimmick, but at least there’s nothing here requiring it to become an expensive gimmick.

Where the game really shines for me is in its rewarding exploration, distinctive characters and setting, and great use of the Star Fox property. The Star Fox team feels fully integrated into the game, even though playing primarily as Star Fox leads to the sort of funny result that this mercenary band has become involved in actively fixing the core team’s problems even more so than the original protagonists. And while I like the new characters, I really love the Star Fox team’s depiction in the game; Ubisoft nailed the right tone and team dynamic here. It’s hard not to see the game as proof-of-concept for a pure Star Fox open-world game. The free-range starfighter combat works great, a natural extension from the arcade-style flight of the Star Fox series, and I could easily see a lot of the same design applied to exploring the Lylat system.

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Having had the gradually worsening experience of Little Dragons Café in recent memory, I don’t want to get overly excited too early on. I can see some things that could get boring. The local missions you can request are of a limited variety. There are only a few types of megafauna on each planet, and the body types seem moulded around only a half dozen builds. But on easy mode, I’ve yet to have to spend so much time on a planet preparing for the next world to get bored. On a higher difficulty, the game would offer more rewarding combat challenges, which might mean the recycled mission structures wouldn’t grow tired so quickly. It’s hard to say at this point.

I think, unless something really sours me on the game later on, that this probably deserves at least two play-throughs. Yes, my first time is devoted to Fox, but a second experience that gives the core cast time to shine is probably needed. Even scooting everywhere in an Arwing as part of Star Fox, I’m still enjoying the camaraderie shared by the Starlink Initiative team.

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I’m sure I’ll have more to say before long!