Review: Dead Mountain

Dead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass IncidentDead Mountain: The Untold True Story of the Dyatlov Pass Incident by Donnie Eichar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dead Mountain recounts the disappearance of the Dyatlov hiking group in February 1959, the subsequent investigation, and the author’s own attempt to find the truth to this unsolved mystery. I feel like I say some variant of this a lot (maybe it reflects the subject matter of many of my reading choices), but a book like this could go two ways: grotesque sensationalism or careful contemplation of the relevant data. I was impressed to discover that Donnie Eichar goes hard down the latter path.

Eichar wisely sticks close to the facts. He casts the hikers and their families in a sympathetic light, avoiding speculative melodrama. He is attentive to detail and is careful in crafting a narrative out of the events. He goes through the available theories as to what happened and implodes them one by one. He admits to remaining ambiguity but ultimately settles on natural infrasound produced by a Karman vortex street; the final chapter of the book is his reimagining of the hikers’ final night, applying this theory to the available facts. I was especially worried about the tone of the chapter, but once more my concerns were quieted: Eichar does not present it as a definitive interpretation, but as a buest-guess reconstruction, and his depiction of the hikers’ actions is tragic and heroic while fitting the data rather well, interpreting odd details and filling gaps.

I don’t think the case can be considered solved; as one of Eichar’s experts puts it, “What you’re really trying to do is reverse-engineer a tragic event without any witnesses.” Eichar does the best with what’s available, offering an interpretation that seems more probable than the other available interpretations out there. His attention to the actual reported dates of “fire orbs” in the skies (and matching them to information about missile launches in the area), his consideration of the slope of the mountain and consultation with an avalanche expert, his ability to reintepret the radiation evidence by way of yet another expert, and his emphasis on the lack of supporting evidence for basically any other theory out there helps to make the natural infrasound theory seem more likely.

The Dyatlov Pass incident is a compelling mystery in and of itself, but the echo chamber of the Internet (and the language barrier present between English-speaking Internet sleuths and the Russian source material) has resulted in a distortion of key facts and an over-emphasis on certain details and phrases that create the impression of a potential larger mystery that could implicate UFOs, secret weapons, and a Russian government cover-up. Eichar tears right through the distortions. So many “facts” about the state of the bodies, about sightings in the skies, about things said and seen, are put in their right place here. Things that seem bizarre at first glance have simple explanations available. Dead Mountain reads like a clever deciphering of the truth.

I didn’t like everything about the book. The interweaving of the story of the hikers, the story of the investigation, and the story of Eichar’s own involvement leads to some confusion and false suspense, as we keep cutting back between different events. Obviously the goal is to create an ongoing sense of mystery, but I do think it buries important information Eichar had, only revealing it (or putting it in the right context) toward the end when he draws his conclusions. Also, I could have used less of Eichar himself. The sections recounting his own investigation were the least interesting. I appreciate the research he put into it, and the emphasis on how many times he was relying on very little or no translation clearly shows how difficult it can be to research a book that spans not only countries but languages, but so much feels like a travelogue or adventure journal, with random tidbits of information that he found interesting (whether about gulags, Gary Powers, or the administrative history of NOAA) tossed in throughout. He also spends a lot of time worrying about why he chose to right the story. The reasoning is shallow: he came across the story while researching something else, he spent time reading about it online, and he had the resources to take a couple trips to Russia to gain access to informants and documents (and to take a largely pointless trip to Dyatlov Pass so that he could feel like he was replicating the journey of the hikers). His discomfort with why he’s researching the story and his recognition that it’s a bit silly that he thought he could just waltz into a foreign country to solve their decades-old mystery for them ultimately take up too much of the story and feel self-absorbed. He could have cut the focus on his personal life and the navel-gazing about his role as author, left in his interviews with the informants and experts, saved himself the money for the hiking trip, and probably would have ended up with a better book. As for justification, the Dyatlov Pass story is interesting but not well-covered outside of Russia, and that’s reason enough for a writer to tackle it. I know that others may feel differently–where I read self-absorption, others might see the self-involvement and self-reflection as an active attempt to insert the author as an active participant into the story, as all authors are to some extent. Whether this attempt at “literary nonfiction” (to use the book jacket’s words) succeeds on that count or not is surely subjective.

So much of the mystery of the Dyatlov expedition, and so much of the focus of this book, is not in how the hikers died but in why they would so desperately evacuate their tent to freeze to death in the elements. I have a mystery of my own now: not in how Eichar was involved in the story, but in what level of involvement his coauthors had. Eichar alone appears on the cover, but the title page does say that the book was written “with JC Gabel and Nova Jacobs,” and they get smaller blurbs on the back flap of the book jacket. In his acknowledgements, buried toward the middle, Eichar writes that without the “tireless editing, writing and research contributions” of Gabel and Jacobs, “the book would not have been possible.” How much of the book did they write? How much of the research did they undertake? Especially when Eichar spends so much time on his own research and involvement in the story, his neglect of his writing partners in the narrative is especially conspicuous. I guess that’s a mystery for another time, though.

If you’ve ever found yourself intrigued by the story of the Dyatlov hiking group, I would certainly recommend Dead Mountain as a careful, sober account of the events, the investigation, and the available theories. Unsolved mysteries invite wild speculation and dazzlingly improbable interpretations, and it is always refreshing when such a mystery is treated with serious concern, and when the central figures of the mystery–the victims–are treated with such sympathy.

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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!

Review: The Dragon Prince, Season 2

I liked the first season of The Dragon Prince. I had my qualms, mostly with the animation, but I liked the story and the characters, I was intrigued by the lore and setting, and I was excited to see more. The second season delivers. In truth, it’s an improvement on the first in just about every way.

One of the most impressive feats of the second season is that it makes the first season feel worthwhile and fundamental. The first ended with the dragon prince hatching from its egg, the core party of adventurers still far from their objective and with danger in close pursuit. Yet while the adventure may have progressed only a little, the characters have grown a lot. This is a story about the characters and their relationships and growth in particular. Sure, the core party of Callum, Ezran, and Rayla is central to this, but every character, whether hero or villain, is allowed a character journey and clear (though sometimes complex) motivations. Even the villains are operating from perspectives that you can understand, though you will hopefully disagree with them. The central antagonist, the king’s former adviser, Viren, twisted by years of dark magic and trapped into ever-more-desperate decisions in an effort to retain power, is still ultimately acting out of a misguided effort to protect his kingdom (though, grotesquely, not his former king and best friend’s children).

What I’m trying to say is that, even though the adventure plot had not advanced very far by the beginning of season two, the first season still felt like necessary viewing. It was a true first chapter, not just a prologue, and the inciting events and early steps on that adventure helped to define the characters and direct their motivations and passions. Ezran and Callum end up greatly changed by the experiences of season two, but they were already on that path thanks to the first season. And their close former friends, now enemies, and children of Viren, Claudia and Soren, are on especially interesting paths. Everyone is freed from the chains of perceived destiny, and now the young cast of key players, protagonist and antagonist, is left to make their own decisions about their fates. (By the way, when I told my wife what I believed Callum’s fate would be, she pointed out that his master-them-all potential path would be rather like that of the Avatar in The Last Airbender. Fair enough!)

The series also grew in depth, providing quite a bit of backstory at a well-timed moment that helped cement the state of the world, how it got there, and how even such a seemingly good and just king could be led down a path of darkness and violence.

The lore dripped out this season provides a gradual accumulation upon the stratum of the first season. The story continues to grow in tandem with and in benefit from that lore. It’s getting more complicated, but I’m rather enjoying the magic system of the world in particular, and I’m very interested to learn more about the figure in Viren’s mirror, who just so happens to seem a master of many of the schools of arcane art.

The show outdid itself in diversity. While it still seems to be a predominantly white world, there are still a variety of people of color populating all roles in the world, and the show has close to an equal balance of male and female characters, especially in speaking roles. Also, of the five human kingdoms, one is run by an incredibly clever young girl who is the orphaned daughter of two heroic queens. The homosexual relationship is presented explicitly, without comment, just as part of the story. Families separated by death or divorce are also central to the story. Beyond the deaf, and still badass, General Amaya, there are other characters living full lives with disabilities (there’s even a blind sea captain, and while he’s sort of a joke character in many ways, his capability as a sailor is never questioned, and his ability to man the ship blind is not even a subject of discussion–it’s just accepted). None of this is vital to the narrative, but none of it hurts anything either. The Dragon Prince truly shows how easy it can be to increase diverse representations of humanity. It is a great counter-example against anyone who claims that the inclusion of diverse characters is “forced.” This fantasy world is diverse, that’s just the way it is, it’s not a story about that, let’s move on. That’s great, and I’m sure it’s meaningful to many viewers to see themselves represented in some way on screen.

Finally, the animation seems greatly improved. The show still looks beautiful from moment to moment, but now the movements between actually look smooth. There were a couple times where a jerk of a hand or a walk seemed robotic, but for the most part things looked great in high action moments and in quiet character scenes.

Season two ends on a cliffhanger and with many threads left dangling. I’m excited to see season three!

Recommendation: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers

The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern PapersThe Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers by Henry James

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The more I am exposed to the writings of Henry James, the more he rises in my favor. I can strongly recommend both “The Turn of the Screw” and “The Aspern Papers”–and while I started this volume specifically for the former, it was the latter tale that proved to be my favorite.

“The Aspern Papers” reads sort of like a crime thriller focused not on a violation of law but rather of manners, complicated by an unreliable narrator and turned almost baroque by the leisurely summer setting in expat Venice and by the lovely, elaborate language. (The dense prose, the examination of the affairs of well-to-do socialites, and the dialogue that can be naturalistic or elaborate as the situation demands all hint at James’s status as part of a bridge between literary movements.) I was eager to see just how far the narrator would go in his pursuit of the titular papers of his literary idol, Jeffrey Aspern, a (fictitious) early American poet. The narrator is a critic and historian who has learned that Aspern’s lover still lives with her niece in Italy, in seclusion; she apparently has kept letters and the like from the late writer, and while she would never part with them in life, the narrator contrives to stay on as a boarder in the hopes that he might nonetheless find an opportunity to gain access to those documents. In his telling of events, the nameless narrator often seems to minimize his behavior or to emphasize his embarrassment at what he said and did, but his obsessive greed, regardless of the justification, is apparent. While the narrator seeks understanding for his actions and perhaps shared interest in his quest, it was the niece who most earned my affection. Middle-aged, lacking in many lived experiences or much education, stuck with her aunt in a too-big house in isolation, too meek to change things, Miss Tina is initially pathetic and lacking in agency. But by the end of the story, she finally gains some shred of confidence and independence, though it can be hard to see this through the smoke-screen of alternating pity and disgust that the narrator throws up around her (she can be plain or almost attractive, middle-aged or elderly, overly trusting or plain stupid, depending on his mood and the events surrounding the situation). She’s trapped on both sides by predators–by her dominating aunt, and by the manipulative new tenant with his secret quest for spoils. Only by the end is she given the opportunity to define herself. It’s interesting that the strongest character growth can be observed in a character obscured and misunderstood by the narrator, and I can’t help but imagine how fascinating it would be to see a version of the story that was centered on Miss Tina. (And the relationship between aunt and niece, fallen from a sort of nobility and living on in the corpse of a once-great dwelling, reminded me of the much-later documentary Grey Gardens.)

“The Turn of the Screw,” on the other hand, is an excellent ghost story. Set within a frame narrative of a holiday gathering in which this tale is allegedly being recited from a manuscript drafted by the haunted protagonist, a young governess finds herself in over her head on a new assignment in caring for two young children when she begins to see the glaring figures of a strange man and woman about the house and grounds. It is soon confirmed that the visages she sees match the descriptions of a deceased servant and the deceased former governess. The protagonist fears that the two have begun to corrupt the children and plan to take them away. While there is much debate among academics over whether the ghosts should be interpreted as literal or psychological, I found the story to be agnostic on the point, yet another disturbing mystery to ponder. There are many mysteries in the story, including just what exactly former tenants Quint and Jessel actually did. Certainly it is suggested that they had an affair, that Quint may have violated or abused or degraded many women, and while the sexual implications are only ever suggested, never stated outright, they certainly suggest a sadist of a man. How they implicated the children, and what they want with the children in death, is even more troubling. I have my own interpretation, and I’m sure there are many others. So much of the story is about ambiguous, disturbing events that invite multiple interpretations and explanations. And the end is far from happy.

Both stories are excellent. I don’t particularly care if you read this volume (although I appreciated the introduction by Anthony Curtis), but I do strongly recommend that you read these stories in whatever format you can.

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Abandoning Vampyr

Having wrapped up Little Dragons Café, I figured I’d finally make an effort to finish Vampyr. I overall liked the story, and I liked the game’s themes, even if I was frustrated with the gameplay and my own technical issues with the game.

Earlier this week, I booted up Vampyr. And the game immediately fell into a chugging pace. Even stepping forward caused substantial stuttering. It was a dreadful mess, a slog of choppy frame-rates just to get up the stairs of the protagonist’s hospital base. And I realized that it just wasn’t worth it for me to finish the game.

Yes, I gave five minutes or less and abandoned the whole project. But I just wasn’t willing to keep pushing through. I played through a substantial portion of the game. I had unlocked 50% of the game’s achievements. I had mostly found my time in the game rewarding. And I would like to see the end of the story. But it just seemed too painful and frustrating to push on through.

From the reviews I’ve seen, it would seem that I’m not alone in encountering technical issues with the game. I’d say that my experience has been in the minority and on the extreme end, though. It’s hard to say where the game’s issues end and where my own computer’s issues pick up. I’d say my computer still runs most things great, but I do spend most of my PC gaming time playing older titles. I built this rig in 2010, so it’s not quite a decade old yet–but that’s a fairly long time for a computer. I’ve upgraded parts occasionally, but the last significant improvement was probably four years ago.

The computer does what I need it to do. And I’m rather fond of it. I’m not going to build another one soon. I’m not going to buy another one soon. So I might finally be reaching the point where my days as a primarily PC-focused gamer are at an end, outside of exploring older titles that I missed or returning to my favorites. That’s fine. Even with my most recent lackluster Switch gaming experience, I’ve still at least somewhat enjoyed everything I’ve played on the console. Some of my favorite games ever have been on that console already. And I like the console itself rather a lot.

Maybe eventually I’ll get a more powerful console or a newer PC. But right now I’ll just allow myself to complete this pivot to Switch-focused gaming. There’s already quite the backlog of games on the console that I want to try out. And it just so happens that Vampyr is making an appearance on the Switch sometime in the second half of the year…Maybe I’ll pick it up for the console and give the game another try with some distance (and the hope that it will be optimized for the platform).

For now, I find that my thoughts after 36 hours in the game remain much the same as they did when I wrote my initial impressions: it’s fun, it’s flawed, and–if you don’t encounter frustrating technical impediments–it’s worth your time.

Closing the Book on Little Dragons Cafe

I did not write a blog post on Sunday because I was on a mission for much of that day. My mission, unfortunately, was to finish Little Dragons Café. While I have a feeling of relief at having finally closed the chapter on this game, I’m mostly disappointed by what could have been and frustrated with the tedious grind of the final third of the story. (If you haven’t already, please check out my initial charmed reaction to the early sections of the game and my reflection on my eventual disillusionment.)

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I was actually engaged for a good portion of the game. Even when I didn’t want to care for some of the characters, either because they start out as such unrepentant jerks or because they seemed like simple anime stereotypes at first glance, I ultimately found almost everyone who came through the cafe doors to be endearing. I loved Billy, Ipanema, and Luccola, and I loved the playful, teasing, sometimes mean yet ultimately loving dynamic between them. Poncho the cowardly child warrior is adorable and incredibly sweet once you get his whole story. Celis has a great arc, moving beyond her witch-supremacist, anti-human bigotry. Huey’s hilarious and energetic; Chou Chou, despite being a pop idol, deals with a lot of guilt and insecurity in the wake of achieving stardom when her other companions did not; Ginji is a badass master thief questioning his life choices. The runaway Rosetta was somewhat annoying to me, but her story had a nice resolution that left her in a better place after forcing her to reconsider past events–in fact, most characters are left in a better place after being forced to reconsider past events, typically through the combination of compassionate prodding by the cafe staff and one really good meal.

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But the final few characters were unappealing to me. Miere is a famed fortune teller whose fortunes are all obviously garbage. She believes the world’s ending. The most amusing and interesting thing about her is that she has supreme confidence in her fortune-telling ability because she predicted when she was young that all her predictions would be true. Miere doesn’t really have a resolution, though; she never really recognizes her flaws. She just decides that maybe she can change fate with enough good luck, and she decides to continue her fortune-telling. Lanche is a child vampire, a trope that’s been done to death and is always a little disturbing to me; rather than focus on how disturbing it is to be stuck as a child forever, her story is about coming to terms with her pre-vampire memories. In this way, Lanche is just like Maurice, a ghost from earlier in the story who must come to terms with the memories of his own departed past life. I didn’t like Maurice (his main character trait is being annoying), so to see the character type return didn’t improve things for me. And it meant that we’d had a ghost, a werewolf, and a vampire show up. Finally, Dr. Zeff is a mad scientist who must be convinced of the value of his own humanity, and of humankind in general; in this way, he’s just a freakish and grumpy repeat of Celis’s arc.

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I’ve talked about the characters a lot, and even the weaker, redundant character stories toward the end of the game will probably stick with me for a while. In a way, each character story was like an episode or small arc in an anime, representing side adventures that are only loosely connected to the larger story. That larger story never really built to anything here. For all the talk of draconic bloodlines, the game fizzles out in the end. The final chapter, in which you now have a fully matured dragon that can take you all about the island, is an incredibly boring series of fetch quests.

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The failings of the plot are really on display by the last section. Your journal tells you how to trigger plot developments, but it’s frustrating that the plot can only be advanced one day at a time, basically by being in the right place at the right time (augmented only by the collection of a recipe and preparation of a special dish for each of the visiting characters). By the end of the game, with my cafe reputation maxed out and all my attention on concluding the story, the plot was still advanced at a slow trickle. The story advice was basically a perpetual recommendation to go to sleep. I quickly gave up on the cafe entirely at the end, choosing to just sleep as soon as the day’s cinematic or island scavenger hunt concluded.

It’s not as though I really cared about the cafe by the end. You never really get much better at what you’re doing. Your staff doesn’t improve. Despite the magical growth of the inn, the cafe itself stays small and cramped. The controls remain frustrating (in all things, the controls remained frustrating, with substantial lag for tasks like flying or jumping). Your success and increased reputation is just marked by more customers, such that if you stay to help the staff, you can devote the entire day to the most tedious of grinding as you hop between taking orders, serving, and cleaning up. There’s very little strategy to it all; there’s no true management. You just hop in and develop a system for yourself and hope that you don’t have to interrupt your coworkers’ slacking all too much. In the final third of the game, my time in the cafe was a mind-numbing repetition of the thought cycle, Take Order – Place Order – Serve. It worked for me, and on days that I was there for the majority of the time, the customer base would often be satisfied or happy. On days I helped a little, customers would often be okay. If I skipped out entirely, to focus on the other mind-crushing reality of ingredient gathering, I’d often get reports that the customers were outright disappointed.

And I should emphasize that ingredient gathering never gets better or more interesting. You remain a perpetual forager. I developed a routine of hitting up spots that most consistently yielded needed ingredients, hoping for a good randomized production. Occasionally disrupting the routine to check for any newly washed-up recipe boxes was hardly all that refreshing.

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By the time my dragon was fully mature, I knew most of the areas with debris that couldn’t be destroyed earlier. I knew the one tall section on the mountain that I still couldn’t fly to. And I knew the one bridge I still couldn’t cross. I tried to do all the things I couldn’t do earlier, and it took me about a day in-game (I still couldn’t cross that final bridge). I had this powerful dragon with this amazing ability to engage in high-soaring flight, and there was very little for me to do with it.

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Closing out the game at the very end was anticlimactic. There was a lot of speechifying about the power of friendship and love–although there was still a lot of dry humor, with Billy in particular really lampshading the campy tropes and ridiculous coincidences used to reach an ending. The credits rolled (with game stills that reemphasized the canonical dragon of the game to be red, in contrast to my adorable blue boy). A handful of lovely storybook images showed the revival of the mother. Then you’re dumped back in the game with the ability to change the dragon at will between its sizes, by way of some new recipes. I tried the final bridge once more, and I still wasn’t allowed to cross it. I was burnt out on the cafe and the ingredient collection. I’d explored everything–well, if not everything, all that I wanted to see. There were presumably lots more recipes to gather (especially by way of combining dragon forms to get to tiny hiding holes in far-out places) and to then practice, but there was no driving reason to engage with any of that. I cannot foresee any reason to return to the game now. And while I mostly liked the story, I know that its final third is simply not worth revisiting again, and the rest is probably best just left as fond memories.

As I prepared to write this review, I tried to look into the mystery of the final bridge. Best theory seems to be that this bridge just symbolizes the mainland where everyone comes from to eat at the cafe. Given that the island across the bridge seems fairly small and the world around the island is mostly covered in water, this purely aesthetic insertion is mostly annoying to me and felt misleading. It’s the promise of more where there is none. That’s the whole game, really: the promise of more, and the failure to deliver.

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It turns out, I discovered, that the game probably feels emptier than it should be precisely because it is: many elements that would have given a fuller experience were cut. Lead designer Yasuhiro Wada told IGN that about seventy percent of what he had originally planned for the game was cut from the final version, adding that “there are parts that were cut out that feel like a waste to cut out from the game.” Those features include much greater customization of your cafe, your protagonist, and your dragon (including, it would seem, features that would have allowed the dragon to specialize in certain activities, which certainly would have made it more useful to me); a fuller experience for the cooking rhythm game; and additional characters and plot points. That last one really sticks with me: the story feels incomplete and rushed toward the end as-is. Wada wants a sequel that incorporates many of the above elements (and presumably even more); as much as I was disappointed by this game, I’d love to see a follow-up that more fully delivered on its potential.

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Hey, if nothing else, the return to the dragon-pal simulator got me in the mood for more dragon-pal fantasy, and The Dragon Prince Season Two is right around the corner!

3 Reviews: Heneral Luna, Kita Kita, & BuyBust

Back at the start of January, just over a month ago, my wife and I watched three Filipino films on Netflix: Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust. As I write this, the three are still on Netflix, included in the paltry “Filipino Movies & TV” category along with AmoBirdshot, and recent additions All of You (a romance/drama) and Goyo: The Boy General (a sequel to Heneral Luna).

Heneral LunaKita Kita, and BuyBust share the simple similarity of being Filipino films in the same way that GloryMy Big Fat Greek Wedding, and Dirty Harry all share the similarity of being American films. In other words, there’s nothing uniting them. And if I were writing these reflections closer to viewing, or if this blog were focused on film, then I would definitely give each film its own separate post with completely separate reviews.

As it is, I’ve been wanting to write up my thoughts on these films for a while, but I’ve put it off so long that I’m relying on faulty memory and my own brief notes, and this blog is far from a review site or film discussion platform. So here they are, all together, united only by national origin.

Kita Kita

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I’ll start with Kita Kita, as this was my favorite of the three, and I’d recommend it to just about anyone who loves fun or, well, love. Kita Kita, written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo, is a 2017 romantic comedy starring Alessandra de Rossi and Empoy Marquez. De Rossi’s character is a Filipina tour guide living in Sapporo, Japan, who develops temporary blindness after discovering that her boyfriend was cheating on her. Marquez is a dorky young man who moves in across the street, attempting to befriend her as she adjusts to her new life without vision. If that sounds ridiculous, it is, and the film just has a lot of fun without ever really laughing at itself. Marquez and De Rossi have excellent chemistry and are frequently funny. Absurd elements pile up in the background and foreground, including a silent banana sidekick, a subversion of the expected feeling-of-loved-one’s-face-to-see, a shockingly blunt third-act shift in plot and tone that revisits much of the film’s events, and a major plot thread hung on the fact that the Sapporo brewing company originated in and was named for the city of the same name. Yet the sillier it gets, the sweeter it gets, and I was touched both by the central relationship and the final moments of the film. I’ll admit that I read some moments of heightened sentimentality in an ironic way and enjoyed the movie for it; some might read it straight and find those same moments cloying (or at least cute rather than painfully, awkwardly funny). Kita Kita invites you to give in to fun and romance for an hour and a half, and whether you decide that it’s subversive and clever or absurd and stupid, you’ll probably at least laugh a few times. Oh, also, KZ Tandingan performs a version of “Two Less Lonely People in the World,” which is just great; she’s worth listening to even if you plan to skip the movie.

Heneral Luna

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In contrast, Heneral Luna (directed by Jerrold Tarog, who shares writing credit with Henry Francia and E.A. Rocha) is a 2015 Filipino war epic and biopic of the titular general, Antonio Luna (portrayed by John Arcilla). I thought the movie was campy and nationalist, heavy in symbolism but at best a modest success as a historical fiction or biographical production. I was only vaguely familiar with Luna’s life and only somewhat more familiar with his death, but my knowledge was enough to guide me through the dizzying whirlwind of factual and fictitious events depicted. I don’t think it’s meant to be read as pure history, either, as there are some surreal sequences that attempt to plumb his psyche and early years, and battles are played up for gallant heroism with the occasional grotesque carnage of war thrown in for emphasis. Seriousness is lost especially in every scene portraying the Americans, as the “American” actors dressed up cliche-filled dialogue in hammy performances and cheesy accents. General Arthur MacArthur is portrayed as such a goddamn cowboy general despite his pompous demeanor and portly body that it was tempting to cheer for the comic figure. The film teeters between cavalier depictions of violence and sentimental hero-worship, and Luna is presented as not just a hero but a doomed savior and martyr. I’d say that Luna was depicted as downright messianic, and there’s a strong argument to be made that Heneral Luna functions as a contemporary, nationalistic pasyon (while I don’t feel qualified to develop the argument much further than that, I’d be very interested to read any academic or film critic essays that explore that avenue).

BuyBust

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I did not like BuyBust. I hated BuyBust. BuyBust (written by Anton C. Santamaria and Erik Matti, with Matti directing) is the story of a militarized squad of law enforcement officers fighting the war on drugs, trapped in the labyrinthine slums of one neighborhood and killed off one by one as they mow down waves of drug dealers, enforcers, and virtually rabid slum-dwellers. Matti co-wrote and directed On the Job, and I loved On the Job. Matti is actually a critic of the drug war and of Duterte and speaks quite intelligently about what exactly he was doing with this film (“Usually, with these adrenaline-pumping action movies, there are lulls in the middle to give the audience a break, but for this one we wanted to try something where it just doesn’t let up. It just goes on and on — even to the point of people getting tired,” he told the Hollywood Reporter.)

Still, whatever the filmmaker’s intentions (and regardless of the general critical response, which seems to be mostly favorable), I personally read much of the film as disgustingly classist and authoritarian. There are corrupt cops, and it slowly dawns on some of the surviving civilians that law enforcement and drug dealers are dragging them into a never-ending cycle of violence and vendettas that do not serve the common folk that both sides claim to protect, and there are some last-minute reveals about higher-level corruption and a cover-up of the violence, but I don’t think it would be too hard for a film-goer to interpret the film as pro-establishment. (Matti adds in that Reporter interview, “I wanted it to be as clear-minded and as neutral as possible . . . . I don’t really want to take sides and be pro-government or anti-government.”) After all, the cops, weighed down in body armor and piles of guns and ammo, are treated as the victims for much of the film, unfairly assaulted by the impoverished denizens of this back-alley realm.

The indigent population of Manila’s slums is treated as a horde of savage, mindless, and brutish animals. They are easily persuaded to blame law enforcement first for the deaths caused by the drug lords and then for the deaths caused by the police killing in self-defense against the early attacks by other homicidal slum-dwellers. The “heroes” are generic soldier types, a couple given exhausted tropes in place of actual personalities, most with no personality at all. Most of the film is spent in dark, drawn-out action sequences, and grotesque violence is apparently relished, especially when targeted against the poor. These exceedingly long, exceedingly brutal, exceedingly pointless fights pad out the run time to just over two hours, but with the plot of an hour-long TV special. In many ways, the experience was like that of watching a zombie horror film, or perhaps playing a segment of a zombie horror game, set in genuinely claustrophobic, winding, gritty urban slums (this is hardly a unique observation; while I felt clever in drawing the connection, apparently just about everyone else did as well, and Matti himself talks about “the zombie film without zombies idea” in that Reporter interview–and honestly, the interview is rather fascinating, and I’d encourage you to skip the movie and read that instead, or at least to read it first before going into the film).

There are two “twists” at the end of the film that are both pedestrian and unsurprising. First, the surviving slum-dwellers reject both sides and demand that what’s left of law enforcement and criminals leave. Second, we learn–gasp!–that there were higher-level corrupt police officers who use the cycle of raids as a way to profit off the drug lords.

I will say that I would have been more interested in the civilians’ final decision of non-interference and independence if we hadn’t had to watch them be butchered by the dozens, often in horrifying ways, up to that point. While Matti apparently tried to avoid an anti-poor take, the film still reeks of it to me.

The most powerful moment of the film is the closing sequence, in which a news report says that a drug lord was captured with thirteen dead, while we know that the crime boss had in fact been killed, and the camera pans across the slums in the daylight, covered in the bodies of dozens of the fallen. That moment is dramatic and ironic and poignant, but it’s too late to course-correct for the brutal two-hour drag leading up to it.

In conclusion, I’d recommend Kita Kita, I thought that Heneral Luna was fine but not vital viewing, and I hated BuyBust.