A Tarisian Ronin

It’s no secret that Akira Kurosawa’s films had a massive impact on international cinema. Spaghetti westerns and Star Wars especially have pulled heavily from the Japanese film master’s work. Nothing new there. And they’re also great movies, so it’s always fun and engaging to watch one.

I’ve only very slowly started watching Kurosawa’s films. It’s not something that I really have much of a drive to do; it just happens occasionally. I saw Rashomon in college. I saw Seven Samurai in the past year. And I just watched Yojimbo this week.

I wouldn’t even mention it, but it was funny to realize not only how it influenced the original Star Wars film, but how its plot was basically transplanted into the Taris portion of Knights of the Old Republic.

Yojimbo‘s plot in a nutshell: a masterless samurai enters a town torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by a father and son; the other is led by the former right-hand man of the father, who split off when the son was chosen as the heir. The samurai plays the two sides against each other until they destroy each other.

The Tarisian section in a nutshell: a masterless soon-to-be Jedi enters a portion of the city-planet that is torn apart by conflict between two gangs fighting over turf. One gang is led by an old man; the other is led by his former right-hand man, after the elder gang leader refused to appoint him as heir. While the older man’s gang is depicted as fundamentally good and the younger man’s gang is depicted as degenerate and thuggish, there is still the option to play both off each other (even though the Light Side, presumably EU-canon version is that the eventual Jedi helped the “good” gang). Plus, since Taris ultimately gets wiped out via Sith bombardment, the hero’s meddling does destroy both gangs–from a certain point of view.

Oh, and there’s a subplot in film and game involving the capture of a woman by one of the gang leaders as a negotiating tool to gain power; said woman is freed at least in part by the efforts of the protagonist in both versions.

That’s all I’ve got. Funny to realize years later that a story I enjoyed is so indebted to an older source. It actually makes the Taris section, as mundane as it can be on replay as a bloated sort of prologue, rather interesting once more.

JW: Evolution appears to offer a finished story…for a price

I haven’t touched Jurassic World: Evolution in a while. I might not have even seen the newest game announcement if I hadn’t decided to look into its status following my Evolution of Claire review. So I was definitely surprised to see the news about the newest planned paid and unpaid updates to the game. You can read more about that, and see a trailer for the paid content, on Variety.

On one hand, I’m still impressed with the improvements offered by each round of unpaid updates. The new dinosaurs and the challenge modes of past updates were great expansions. Adding day/night cycles, better dinosaur feeders, expanded dinosaur behaviors, and new contract types are all great additions, as well.

On the other hand, my excitement’s tempered by two clear points. One, a lot of the unpaid update features represent improvements over a fun but flawed game–in other words, a lot of these features would have been good to have at launch. Two, the unpaid content pales in comparison to the paid content. And I’m rather annoyed at the prospect of paying any amount of money to actually see the conclusion of the story arc that was heavily developed and hinted at before being dropped entirely in the core game. (I griped about the story’s anticlimax in my original game review). This isn’t a sequel–this is merely a conclusion to the unfinished story, and they expect people to pay for that! That said, paying to be able to make zany dinosaur hybrids is tempting to me. (Yet again, the lack of ability to make custom, hybridized animals in the original release was a point I noted in my review.)

It’s great to see the team at Frontier continuing to expand and improve upon the game. But it’s also annoying to recognize so many of these improvements as features that would have made sense at launch. Adding them improves the experience, sure. But their absence made the game lesser than from the start. This isn’t a case of a complete game getting new add-ons. It feels very much so like the full experience is being doled out piecemeal, months after its official release. Is that an unfair criticism? I don’t know, maybe. So much of this is perception. I greatly enjoyed Evolution, and the new content does entice me to consider another return. This isn’t a great problem, but I guess news that should be sweet has an unfortunate sour note.

TCW Re-watch: Failings of the Jedi

Star Wars: The Clone Wars offered such a rich variety of stories that there are an endless array of lenses to approach the themes within the series, both those unique to it and those that elaborate on the subject matter of George Lucas’s six-film saga. I’ve gone into this re-watch with a few particular themes and contradictions on my mind, and the most current reviewed episode, “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” (1.18), touches on most of them.

Most interesting to me is the tension between the apparent necessity of the war in the moment in contrast to the audience’s foreknowledge that the Jedi’s mere entry into the war was the trap that doomed them. This narrative emerges clearly enough in the films with the end of Attack of the Clones, with Yoda’s admonition that “the shroud of the Dark Side has fallen.” Perhaps more subtly, that theme is present in the decision on the part of the Jedi and the Republic to assault a Separatist planet in the midst of heightened political tensions to rescue two Jedi and a Senator who had infiltrated that independent system to perform acts of political espionage, sabotage, and murder, and who were being punished under the laws of that system. While leaving the trio to execution would have been an unacceptable ending to audiences and would have seemed too merciless, and while viewers know that the Separatists were preparing their own attack on the Republic, interfering with the laws of another government via open invasion is a shockingly imperialistic act for a group of alleged peacekeepers. And, of course, that theme of loss merely through engagement sees fruition in the collapse of the Jedi and the Republic in Revenge of the Sith.

The Clone Wars readily acknowledges this burden. Yoda does a lot of wrangling with this moral crisis and imminent loss throughout the series. While that’s perhaps most emphasized in the final season’s episodes, the theme is present in moments with Yoda–and in merely observing what the war does to Jedi and clones alike–throughout the show. As Yoda says in “Lair of Grievous” (1.10), “To answer power with power, the Jedi way this is not. In this war, a danger there is of losing who we are.”

And this theme manifests in at least small ways in almost every episode. Returning to “Mystery of a Thousand Moons,” we see the Jedi once again putting innocents in harm’s way in an attempt to win a battle. In this case, Ahsoka, Padme, and several clone troopers are infected with a super-virus and almost die before Anakin and Obi-Wan can provide a cure. Padme’s a senator. Ahsoka is literally a child who is nonetheless invested with the powers of a military commander. And the clones have been manufactured to fight and–as Rex notes in the episode–to die, yet the Jedi were perfectly willing to enlist them and use them as though they lacked in personhood or choice (a damning decision no matter how many Jedi befriended them between battles).

Yet that super-virus is another example of the seeming necessity of the war. The recreation of the Blue Shadow Virus for biological war in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” and in the virus’s eponymous episode (1.17) is a shocking atrocity, intended to quickly wipe out whole ecosystems on hundreds of planets. In the same arc, the Separatists have blockaded a planet with a force field that kills anyone who tries to leave orbit, seemingly with the intent of preventing the export of the one raw material that can be used to produce a cure to the virus. Similarly, in “Defenders of Peace” (1.14), the Separatists intend to test a weapon that wipes out all organic life in its blast radius but leaves droids behind–and their intended target is a village of pacifists. Messaging consistently reinforces a pro-war mentality, at least in the moment. “Defenders of Peace” and its companion “Jedi Crash” (1.13) have no room for pacifists; the ideology is portrayed as too naive to actually survive without outside intervention by occupying defenders. Certainly there are historical precedents where passive resistance or acquiescence have not halted or appeased a bloodthirsty oppressor. Yet, to complicate things further, the “Jedi Crash” arc is immediately followed by “Trespass” (1.15), which actually provides for a scenario in which peaceful diplomacy is the ideal solution in contrast to aggressive interventionism.

If nothing else, the show highlights how messy war and conflict are. Moral solutions are not always apparent. The Jedi, even early on in the show, frequently cross the line of acceptable behavior, but that line-crossing often achieves results. For specific examples, contrast “Cloak of Darkness” (1.9), in which Ahsoka brushes off Master Luminara Unduli’s warning that “terror is not a weapon the Jedi use” because her threat, which does (momentarily) convince an imprisoned Nute Gunray to cooperate, “wasn’t serious,” with Anakin’s threat in “Mystery of a Thousand Moons” to kill mad scientist Nuvo Vindi completely failing to produce results (and actually giving Vindi another opportunity to gloat).

Lastly, one little item of head canon that I’ve been toying with for a while is that some version of the Mandalorian Wars and the subsequent Jedi Civil War of Knights of the Old Republic actually happened, and that this resulted in a radical shift in Jedi dogma. We at least have confirmation of a Mandalorian-Jedi War, but it’s the latter war that’s more significant to me. Revan and Malak rushed off to join the Republic in defeating the Mandalorians, in opposition to the Jedi Order’s mandate to stay out of the war, but their experiences turned them to the Dark Side. Revan’s later redemption was the only thing that could stop Malak, and he went on to pursue a larger threat outside of the galaxy. Other Jedi who went to war did not necessarily fall to the Dark Side. The Jedi Exile, for instance, chose a life of nomadic wandering following her actions at the Battle of Malachor (a battle that has been partially introduced to the canon, as well). Her eventual return to the major events of the galaxy stopped another festering Sith threat, and it is implied that she and her disciples helped rebuild a decimated Jedi Order. (Light Side decisions and their resultant outcomes in video games were typically perceived to be closer to canon during the run of the EU, and even in this canon-reboot era, that assumption seems to me a valid starting point for discussing the state of the old EU lore.)

The implications of the first two games are cast to the wind to enable the direction of The Old Republic and its companion novels, like Star Wars: The Old Republic: Revan, which conveniently wiped Revan and the Jedi Exile off the board. I’m not so impressed by the idea of Jedi and Sith joining together to combat a larger threat; it happened surprisingly often in the old EU, it seems counter to the core messaging of Lucas’s films, and it seems like something that exists in Star Wars: The Old Republic largely as a justification for players to join the Sith faction without necessarily being pure evil. So let’s set aside the implications of everything post-KOTOR II.

With that division of the franchise in place, I rather like the idea that Revan, the Jedi Exile, and their followers would have forced a radical rethink in Jedi philosophy. Perhaps the Jedi, over time, would have felt that earlier official involvement by the Jedi Order in curbing the Mandalorian expansion would have stopped a lot of cruelty and death–and would have prevented the rise of the Sith Lords that followed. The Jedi Exile, in particular, would have been a model for a more interventionist Jedi Knight. This change in doctrinal thinking could have resulted in an over-correction that could have made the Jedi all too willing to hop into aggressive pursuit of peacekeeping operations. The reform spirit of the Jedi Exile would have faded into institutional tradition over the centuries, such that the shift in Jedi mindset would have only served as another pillar of dogmatic thought for later generations of Jedi leaders. Such a mindset would have primed them to hop straight into the Clone Wars, before cooler heads (mostly a more reflective Yoda) could prevail, and with the assumption that they were fully in the right. I think The Clone Wars and its depiction of the last years of the Jedi Order provide some ammo for that theory.

(By the way, in my full version of this head canon, which veers hard into amorphously formed fan fiction, Bultar Swan offers a lot of storytelling possibilities as a potential Jedi who quickly sees the entry of the Jedi into the business of war as detrimental. I tend to imagine her getting the hell out of the Order and the war shortly after Geonosis, after seeing just what it takes to kill and seeing the Jedi leadership all too willing to keep going down that path. But that’s getting way off topic for this post.)

I don’t plan on regularly discussing The Clone Wars over the course of this re-watch, but I do suspect that I’ll have an occasional update as this gradual viewing continues. I’ve only watched the show in full once before, and this new trip through has been quite enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Team Star Fox

The hype around Starlink: Battle for Atlas has put me in a bit of a Star Fox mood. I’m somewhat surprised to find on checking now that I’ve apparently only mentioned the Star Fox franchise on here twice before–both times in passing. Not that there have been very many relevant opportunities as of late!

I’m pretty sure that Starlink will be my next game purchase. It looks fun, and what little I’ve read has consistently supported the idea that the Star Fox team is well-used in the Switch version.

I don’t actually remember how I first encountered Star Fox. I never owned any of the games as a child, though I suppose that Fox McCloud did feature heavily in even the original Super Smash Bros. But I do remember somehow playing it, then rediscovering it in my adolescence at the game room of my church’s youth group after services. I bonded with a socially awkward kid there who loved the game; we’d often engage in virtual dogfights together. Since college, I’ve slowly collected many of the Star Fox titles, though not all. I’ve never played the original SNES game. I’m not a hardcore fan. But there’s a lot of nostalgia and genuine affection invested in the franchise for me. When people my age think back fondly on the N64 era, they might focus especially on Ocarina of Time, but my special nostalgic title is Star Fox 64 (though it’s in constant competition in my thoughts alongside Super Smash Bros., Super Mario 64Star Wars Episode I RacerDiddy Kong Racing, and the multiplayer in Conker’s Bad Fur Day).

It’s not just nostalgia, though! It’s a fun game franchise! The arcade-style dog-fighting was the perfect Nintendo take on aerial combat. The characters popped with personality, and the presence of Fox, Slippy, Peppy, and Falco in each new release is almost as comforting as the familiar gameplay. Plus, the plot and setting and style pull hard from Star Wars and Top Gun and a whole slew of animated films featuring anthropomorphized animals. It’s weird and cool–and I can’t help but notice similarities in basic premise and style between Star Fox and Beyond Good & Evil, another game I love, even though the actual gameplay is markedly different. Okay, actually, it may not be all that different when Star Fox Adventures, the Zelda-like action-adventure title, is taken into account. No, that’s not a game that I want swept under the rug; I loved it, inserting the characters into a radically different situation, playing with the universe a little more, taking Fox away from his greatest strength (and adding dinosaurs).

I’d like to see future games do more things like Star Fox Adventures. Not Adventures exactly; a Star Fox game is space-combat-focused and should remain as such. But slight iterations on previous gameplay, rehashing the same plot over and over, are getting stale. In contrast, I liked the experimentation with additional gameplay features in Assault, and the fact that it wasn’t just another copy of the original game’s plot, though it was probably still a little too familiar and safe. It still focused on arcade-style starfighter combat, but it at least wasn’t just the same game with prettier graphics yet again.

At this point, I’d like a new story, but I wouldn’t mind a recap of the original game if it gave more depth to that tired narrative, especially if that relatively short game experience represented only the first act of a new effort. Star Fox 2 seemed especially innovative in form and progression of story, and with its release finally happening on the SNES Classic, I wonder if we could see that developed into a current-gen remake. Meanwhile, the franchise obviously affords the opportunity to deepen characters and lore, even if the games rarely take advantage of this; the opening cinematic to the critically panned and fan-derided (and personally ignored) Star Fox Zero suggested those possibilities, and in fan project circles, there’s the hilarious and endearing A Fox in Space.

In fact, Star Fox has an unfulfilled promise of depth that causes a rare itch in me, the urge to actually write fan fiction. I rarely write fiction at all anymore, and fan fic is really low down on the priority list for me, but if I were to write it, my attentions would be divided between Star FoxStar WarsThe Elder Scrolls, and Jurassic Park. All of those franchises offer areas of lore, or off-screen events, or underused characters, or just blank spaces for wild extrapolations that I’d like to see explored more.

But the bottom line is that I’d just really like to see more Star Fox.

Little Frustrations Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Stuck.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Little Dragons Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Hyrule Warriors

Hyrule Warriors: Definitive Edition for the Nintendo Switch is stupid fun. You can play a single level in twenty minutes, or spend hours going through the campaign or adventure or challenge modes, hunting for unlockable items, artwork, and characters. The gameplay is simple: button-mash strong and fast attacks for devastating combos against waves of disposable, idiot mooks. Take advantage of items and (mostly) heavily telegraphed weaknesses to fight overpowered, gigantic bosses. There’s a lot of repetition, but it’s a mindless bit of power fantasy with a steady drip of XP, power-ups, and mounting bloodless enemy casualties. I wouldn’t call it grinding; you just play for as long as you want, doing the same things over and over, feeling something close to genuine flow, until you don’t want to anymore.

I played one of the Dynasty Warriors games on occasion at a friend’s house as a kid. I remember it fondly. Hyrule Warriors is clearly tied to that formula: soap operatic story and wide cast of characters, simple hack-and-slash gameplay against hordes of enemies, medieval battles. I guess the graphics are better; maybe my nostalgia is overly favorable, but I wouldn’t say they’re better by much. It would be an unremarkable sequel if not for the Legend of Zelda deep cuts pulled for this game: the treasure chests (and items found in those chests), the boss battles, the deep roster of characters from across the franchise, the rupees as currency, the heavy-metalized versions of classic tunes, the sound effects…

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It’s in many ways just another Dynasty Warriors game, but it’s something really different for a Zelda game, and it’s fun.

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So far, I’ve completed the story (including the villain, Linkle, and Wind Waker arcs), and I’ve dabbled with the adventure mode. There’s still a whole hell of a lot of content that I haven’t even touched. There’s a lot to go back to, if and when I want to go back.

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Somewhat absurdly, my biggest criticism with the game is its story. Like, the gameplay is so light and fluffy and repetitive and, well, dumb. But that’s all fun and great to me! It’s that over-complicated, barely coherent story that bums me out. It starts off interesting enough: a sorceress, corrupted by the dark force she guards, turns an interest in the Hero of Legend into an unhealthy obsession, so she unlocks gates across space and time to access other shards of the dark spirit so that she can obtain enough power to control the Triforce and make the Hero hers. Sprawling battles for the fate of Hyrule ensue. Meanwhile, the Link of the core timeline has yet to come into his heroic identity, still a trainee nobody in the Hyrulean army. And simultaneously, the young woman Linkle hears of the threat against the kingdom and sets off (completely lost) to try to save the day, believing that she is in fact the Hero of Legend. Seriously, the addition of Linkle is such a delight. She was about as much fun to play as Link, and her bonus story arc provided a lot of levity. She might not be the Hero of Legend, but she’s his equal, and she’s awesome on her own.

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But the plot keeps expanding and expanding. The sorceress’s motivations change, her identity shifts, and by the end it’s not clear why she does anything at all. At the end of the main story, she apparently dies, fading away, having exhausted her strength, the dark side of a once-whole person now disappearing into nothingness. But then the expansions twist this–she only disappeared, and her light side kept looking for her, and apparently she’s not evil or even fully dark (there can be a dark version of this dark side), and by the end, she teams up with the heroes in a cinematic that feels a little like something out of Power Rangers or Captain Planet. Hell, the melodramatic story about friendship and love and loyalty, with the cast of diverse (mostly young) characters teaming up to face off against a Rita Repulsa look-alike, all accompanied by metal guitar riffs, is incredibly Power Rangers. But it keeps going on and on, meandering and without a clear direction, seemingly existing only to excuse more and more battles. Sadly, I was so close to enjoying the story at many points. There’s something salvageable in there, but there was clearly little time or attention given to this sprawling narrative. Let me just say this: I didn’t notice any writers listed in the game credits. Whoever was involved in writing the narrative must have had to link together a series of disparate level designs; it’s hard to explain how an otherwise linear story could have ended up so muddled.

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I had not played any of the previous versions of Hyrule Warriors. I’m not sure that this Definitive Edition would be worth it to those who have already experienced the game in another form. But it’s a big, dumb, fun experience that you should try, if you haven’t yet.

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