KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Fri May 25, 2018 9:34 pm

Barry (S1) (2018)

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Basic Summary: A war veteran-turned-hitman tries to find a new life in an acting class, with mixed results.
Genre: Dark Comedy, Crime Thriller
Created by: Alec Berg, Bill Hader
Directed by: Bill Hader, Hiro Murai, Alec Berg, Maggie Carey
Written by: Alec Berg, Bill Hader, Liz Sarnoff, various
Starring: Bill Hader, Stephen Root, Henry Winkler, Sarah Goldberg, Anthony Carrigan, Glenn Fleshler
Episodes: 8 (30 minutes each)
Channel: HBO

For the unaware, Barry follows Barry Berkman, an Afghanistan veteran who's let himself be manipulated into the world of contract killing for several years. On a routine job to kill the lover of a Chechen mobster's cheating wife, Barry finds himself drawn to an acting class full of losers and weirdos, led by a notoriously bombastic and uncompromising coach. Despite having the acting chops of a wet cardboard cutout of Jai Courtney, Barry realizes this might be the path to an idealistic new life away from the violence that haunts him; unfortunately, that violence keeps dogging at his heels, with hilarious and horrifying results...

Spoiler: show
So far, this series might be the biggest television surprise of the year for me. I had no idea it was even a thing until a week before it started airing, and only thanks to an early-screener review that gave it a B+. The premise sounded decently compelling, and while I didn't have high hopes, the presence of so many actors I love in other things had me excited. Little did I know that the darkly comic premise would give way to one of the tensest, most nuanced little thriller dramas in recent memory -- and one with the potential to rise to even Breaking Bad's heights.

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The first and most notable thing to cover is our star character, Barry Berkman, as portrayed by Bill Hader. Absolutely no part of me expected Hader, a veteran mostly of goofy comedies and kids' movies, to have serious dramatic potential; I am, of course, always happy to be proven wrong. Hader gets three challenging facets to play -- the shellshocked veteran who wants a happy life, the cold and ruthless professional killer, and the struggling stage performer -- and he pulls them all off well seamlessly. His low vocal range and mostly stoic reactions might trick you into judging him unfairly in the early goings (though he ends the pilot episode with an impressively haunting and expressive monologue), but as the episodes progress, the layers peel away and it becomes increasingly clear that these are very deliberate choices. Barry is at times soulful and pitiful, the dorky underdog we all naturally want to root for and who's just trying to make his dreams come true; at other times, he's the most terrifying motherfucker in the room, doing his job with effortless efficiency even if he clearly isn't pleased to be doing it.

This is a man who is tired of what his life has become, and it was no surprise when I looked up the show's inception and found that much of it was based on Hader's own feelings toward a long stage of his career: the idea of hating something you're really good at and trying to find meaning in something you suck at heavily influenced Barry's character arc. This fundamental despair permeates his actions, and even when things start to get morally questionable, his need to get to a happier place keeps him completely sympathetic. Here's where the Breaking Bad comparisons come in. The protagonist being dragged into dark territory for sympathetic reasons until they can no longer be called the protagonist is one of my favorite storytelling tropes, but it's very easy to do it poorly, and it would be terrible if this just came off like trying to ape more successful predecessors. Thankfully, Barry is a unique character with a unique arc and motivation, and thus far, the moments where he crosses the line feel earned and come at a point where they can successfully challenge the viewer. I had no idea Hader had all of this hidden away.

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Unusually for my reviews, I'm going to get back to analyzing the characters in a moment, because this is a good opportunity to delve into the plot. As is typical for these types of stories, you can divide the plot into two arcs that occasionally intersect but are otherwise self-contained except for their effects on the main character: the "crime plot" (in this case, Barry's dealings with the Chechen mob) and the "civilian plot" (Barry in the acting class). For the first half of the season, I loathed most everything to do with the civilian plot, seeing it as a narrative dead end and a distraction from the material that was actually interesting -- the life Barry is trying to run from, and how he accomplishes that. The crime stuff is much more compelling, much more original, and much more consistently funny than what goes on in the acting class. This reaches its apex in the fourth episode, which spends far too much time on a house party loaded with painful cringe comedy, depriving us of the more interesting goings-on elsewhere. Save a few likable characters, I kind of wanted the season to end with the whole class piling into a van and triggering a Chechen car bomb.

But much like the lead performance that drives it, the story gets much better in the latter half. It starts with the introduction of a few important characters who rapidly shake up the conflict dynamics, in turn flipping Barry's plans upside-down and ratcheting up the tension. From here, Barry went from something I watched if I had time to something I made time for. The episode-to-episode plots get much tighter and carry a sense of proper weight and danger, and the crime and acting class sides of the story start to intermingle more smoothly in a way that benefits both. Emotional scenes are pulled off that actually carry real meaning and impact, especially a climactic chat in a car in the penultimate episode that's going to go down as one of the show's signature scenes and a highlight of Hader's career. The stakes are higher, lives are on the line, and I actually whispered "holy shit" to myself more than once. And through it all, it never completely abandons the black comedy aspect of its storytelling, often following up some fraught and intense introspection with an unexpected gag that's all the more hilarious for its context. The season wraps up most of its arcs conclusively and satisfyingly, but ends on a stunning bittersweet note, and I'm so excited to see where it goes from there.

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Returning to the characters, there's the main villains of the season, populating the organized crime side of the story and played by three of my favorite antagonistic character actors: Stephen Root (among many other things, the voice of Finn's jerkoff dad from Adventure Time), Anthony Carrigan (Victor Zsasz, one of the only characters on Gotham I consistently like), and Glenn Fleshler (known for many, many, many creepy serial killers on the big and small screens). These guys have wonderful chemistry and distinctive screen presences, and they're some of the most entertaining parts of the season. This being the first season of a dark comedy that's focused primarily on digging into its star, I can't exactly give you long breakdowns on what makes them tick, but here's a brief rundown.

Root plays Monroe Fuches, Barry's roommate who functions as both a handler and a surrogate father figure. Root excels at playing guys who use their charisma to make you constantly second-guess your judgement of them, and Fuches is no different; I reevaluated whether he actually cared about Barry or was just using his skills for money several times throughout the season, each time being a more definitive answer. He's exceptionally sleazy and hate-able though, regardless of his true intentions, but Root's sheer presence makes this a positive as I was never annoyed when he was onscreen.

Fleshler and Carrigan, meanwhile, star respectively as Chechen mob kingpin Goran Pazar and his right-hand man NoHo Hank. Both actors have the capacity to be utterly terrifying, but while they're shown to be serious threats on occasion, they're mostly played for great comedic effect. Goran is mostly putting up a thuggish front to distract from the fact that he's a schlubby stay-at-home dad who dotes on his young daughter, and NoHo is so genuinely friendly and chill that he comes off more like a quirky tech startup employee than a vicious enforcer. They're both just great, with NoHo in particular being one of the standouts of the season and a source for some of the funniest quotes in the season.

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On the acting class side, things are more... mixed. I adore two of the main characters of this arc, so this is mainly down to the remaining one: Sally Reed, the functional deuteragonist and Barry's love interest. Introduced as a passionate and driven but somewhat flighty and self-centered woman, she becomes one of Barry's anchors with which to pull himself out of his life as a killer, even before she knows about his feelings. Unfortunately, while I liked her a lot at first, I spent much of the season deeming her the weakest character on the show -- and it's for reasons that I'm still not sure were unintentional. That self-centeredness that's initially on the fringes quickly overtakes her entire personality, leading to many unearned displays of arrogance, pettiness, and downright cruelty toward both Barry and her classmates. Sarah Goldberg does her best with this material, and plays the unpleasantness to the hilt believably while also shining in scattered scenes that give her more depth (a mid-season scene dealing with sexual harassment being her absolute standout). She also goes through a bit of character development by the end that somewhat redeems her, so I know the flaws were supposed to be presented as such. I just have no clue whether I feel her arc is ultimately handled well, or if that development was pulled off successfully enough with a big enough impact on her core traits.

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I don't want to come off like I'm specifically piling on the main woman in the cast, so here's where I go into my absolute adoration for Janice Moss, the police detective who leads an investigation that threatens Barry's livelihood (she's thus involved with both sides of the narrative, but intersects more with the "civilian plot"). It's easy to fuck up writing the investigator character when your more protagonist is the fugitive whom we want to see succeed; separated from the particulars of the action but just immersed enough to be a problem, they easily run the risk being an obnoxious hindrance rather than a compelling rival. Fortunately, Moss succeeds where many others fail.

She's highly intelligent and observant, but all of her guesses and out-there theories are grounded in believable logic for her evidence, so it never feels like she's just stumbling on the right answers because the plot knows she's right. It's fascinating to watch her work and get closer and closer to the truth, even though you know her arrival there will spell disaster for Barry. And on the rare occasion where a dangerous encounter interrupts her investigation, she proves to be competent and skilled enough that she's established as a real threat. But there's also a rich human side to Moss that too often gets overlooked or mishandled by characters of her ilk (Mr. Robot's Dominique DiPierro is a recent exception I kept comparing her to), one that adds weight to her investigation without weighing it down, and she eventually gets involved in an unlikely romantic subplot that I thought I would absolutely despise for being unnecessary, but somehow ended up being a beautifully weird little side story that benefits both characters involved. Paula Newsome makes the most of her screentime despite usually getting less of it in most episodes, and I wish I had more to say about the specifics of her performance, other than it just being damn solid.

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And finally, the acting class's coach, Gene Cousineau, played by the indomitable Henry Winkler. It's tough to write a lot about him because while he's a significant character, he's mainly a device for Barry's self-reflection in the early goings on takes a while to get any material of his own -- and when he does, it's stuff that I don't want to get into for fear of spoiling too much of this very short season. That said, he still managed to be one of my favorite characters on the show, bringing out the effortless cool factor that made him famous in his younger days and blending it into the stock "eccentric, occasionally callous and unforgiving, but secretly well-meaning mentor" archetype to captivating effect. He's also, like NoHo Hank, one of the most consistent sources of hilarious quotes.

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I didn't think I would have much to say about the show's presentation early on, other than it being handsomely shot befitting an HBO drama. However, once the show gets slightly darker and more fascinating, the cinematography shoots way up as well. This seems to be mainly due to the directors in charge of each episode: the first three episodes are directed by Hader himself and the fourth by comedy director Maggie Carey, and are very well-shot and staged but not that noteworthy. Then the fifth and sixth episodes are in the hands of Hiro Murai, whom you may recognize for his fantastic work on Atlanta and Donald Glover's "This Is America" music video; Murai puts his best foot forward in ways that aren't noticeable at first, but gradually become more appreciable with various creative flourishes and a spectacular sense of pace, culminating in a stylish episode-ending cliffhanger that hits you like a bullet. Co-creator Alec Berg then handles the final two, maintaining Murai's energy and sense of craft so carefully that I almost didn't notice the switch, leading to a number of truly phenomenal sequences all complementing each other to build on the escalating violence. I'm not great at discussing direction in filming, so apologies if that was muddled nonsense, but I hope my general point came across.

All in all, Barry is one of the biggest surprises I've had this year, a very good dark comedy that rapidly grew into something truly great and will no doubt continue growing (if the show suddenly sinks next year and becomes a laughingstock, well, that's egg on my face). It may not have the blockbuster power of some of HBO's more widely discussed hits, but the more modest scale and unlikely star shouldn't dissuade anyone from checking it out. It's only eight episodes and the episodes are only half an hour, so it'll be a very easy binge watch if you have to catch up. Berg and Hader have established an awesome kickoff point for their show, and I absolutely can't wait to see how good it gets from here.

Rating: On Broadway
  • 4

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Sun Sep 30, 2018 5:23 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby Deathclaw_Puncher » Fri May 25, 2018 9:46 pm

Well BB-8 sure got himself into some weird shit.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Wed Aug 15, 2018 6:52 pm

Slender Man (2018)

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Basic Summary: A group of teenage girls is tormented by the mysterious internet boogyman they accidentally summon.
Genre: Horror
Directed by: Sylvain White
Written by: David Birke
Starring: Juliana Goldani Telles, Joey King, Jaz Sinclair
Length: 93 minutes, feels like 4 fucking hours



For the unaware, which is hopefully everyone, Slender Man follows Hallie, Wren, and Chloe, teenage friends who get way more than they bargained for after a stupid sleepover game to summon the Slender Man -- a notorious internet legend said to spirit children away and drive people insane -- by watching a weird video on a shady website. Against all odds and logic, the video works; one of their friends immediately disappears, sending each of them spiraling down the path to desperation and madness as they try to outrun a being who couldn't possibly be real...

Spoiler: show
See that cool, understated poster up there? That's far and away the best thing about this smoldering mass grave.

The prospect of a mainstream horror film about the Slender Man was always in the cards -- it was only ever a matter of which cynical Hollywood exec would want to cash in first. If anything, it's absurd that it took this long. Five years after the bizarre entity's peak popularity, and four years after two psychotic Wisconsin girls and a media cycle hungry for fresh fearmongering annihilated most of the interest overnight, this schlock finally seeps into theaters to the resounding response of "fuck, this is bad". And I wasn't even planning on seeing it, but I wind up getting dragged to a lot of shitty horror movies anyway (and sometimes I even enjoy myself if they're especially trashy; check out my The Bye-Bye Man review for a whale of a time), and this time was no different.

Now, full disclosure: I have never hated the Slender Man as a concept, no matter how overused he got and no matter what controversies ultimately soiled the brand. Classic web horror series like Marble Hornets had a profound impact on me as a writer and as an avid consumer of spooky shit, and the explosion in popularity of that one particular subject (and the sea of imitators that followed) helped develop the climate for the wealth of inspired, original psychological horror series on the internet today (gonna take this opportunity to once more plug Hi I'm Mary Mary and 2h32, because seriously). So I didn't come into this from the perspective of "LOOK AT THE SHITTY MEME LOL", but I also kept my expectations incredibly low because realistically, there was no way this could ever be good.

Why am I wasting so much time on the preamble instead of the actual review? Because I'm sorry, there's barely a thin, tangy gruel of loosely connected hackwork to talk about, let alone a movie. I guess we have to start the review now, though. Hold my beer, I'm almost old enough to wash the pain away.

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The story is as fine a place to start as any, since it's almost nonexistent. After an abrupt and poorly-justified inciting incident that feels like a first draft excuse (there's no more justification for the teens deciding to summon the Slender Man than "they're stupid and a boy was talking about it"), the movie slooooows down in one of the worst examples of poor pacing I've seen. Even though things in the plot are technically advancing at a lightning clip -- the video is viewed in the third scene, the first disappearance happens in the fourth, and so on -- the film trudges along aimlessly and endlessly, pushing even the most willing viewer's patience well past the breaking point. Scenes of nothing go on too long for no reason, scenes that might have been salvageable are rushed past and never revisited, and things that should be major developments often happen offscreen. There were multiple points in the agonizing slog where I contemplated walking out of the theater, something I've never done and only felt compelled to do a handful of times. After a long stretch of the same shit, the story just flops to an equally abrupt, half-hearted conclusion, and ends suddenly with some inexplicable narration I almost want to chalk up to having to patch together an end in the editing room because the resolution wasn't shot in time.

There are a few reasons for the godawful pacing problem that sinks the whole ship. Uninspired additions to the Slender Man concept, like the summoning video (which dampens the whole reason I find the concept appealing -- it's an inexplicable force that shows up apropos nothing and ruins your life) and a fondness for causing nightmares (which is just an excuse for a few "you thought something was happening, but WAAAH IT WAS A DREAM" jumpscares) turn the flickerings of originality into just another "demon punishes arrogant teens" story, so the entire plot gets mapped out in your head and everything then feels like it's going through the motions. There are no creative twists or interesting wrinkles that break up the monotony; the story feints a few times toward the monster being all in their heads because they're having a collective breakdown, but this device is snubbed at each instance and leads to no payoff, so it just feels like more padding. This is all tied together in a bow of editing so sloppy that you don't need to be paying attention to get frustrated by it, destroying any semblance of flow the story might have miraculously salvaged (apparently Sony cut a couple of scenes for being too similar to the 2014 stabbing, but I can't imagine it took up so much of the movie that the choppiness is directly resultant).

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As for the characters plodding through this muck? I honestly don't know how to write about them. Not since the 2016 Blair Witch have I had to write about such blank standees. Hallie is given no personality or even archetype beyond being a teenage girl, and has so little impact or agency in the plot that I genuinely forgot she was supposed to be the lead for a while. Wren at least develops the obsessiveness that's par for the course in a Slender Man thing, but it's only examined at the most shallow level and merely makes her take a bunch of stupid, pointless actions that ultimately lead to little of consequence. Chloe is just there to round things out as the painfully cliched sassy black friend, getting even less to do than Hallie before vanishing for a large swathe of the proceedings. None of the girls are terrible actors, each doing a half-decent job with what little they're given, but it's just not enough to save anything.

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Finally, let's look at the presentation and how it fails. Admittedly, the sound design has some good moments that should have been built upon: the scenes in the forest are packed with creaks and rattles which feel like they're slowly surrounding you from every direction, an effect that eventually grows stale but demonstrates clear potential for growth. Unfortunately, the cinematography doesn't pick up the slack, with uninspired camerawork and too many scenes that are so dark as to be incomprehensible. And if you were at least hoping for an effective monster design, you're out of luck; the mostly CGI Slender Man looks decent when standing still in the background or in shadow, but the film can't resist getting up close and personal in a lot of scenes, even though it's painfully clear (especially toward the end, when he actually starts melting into smoke and running around on his tentacles onscreen like fucking Doctor Octopus) that they didn't have the budget to do so.

In summation, Slender Man took an idea that many dozens of others with far smaller budgets and far less experience wrung solid work out of, an idea for which the template already exists to make a solid slow-burn psychological thriller, and punted it into the blood-soaked dung of a dying animal. It's one of the most derivative, deathly boring films I've seen in years, and it would be exactly so even if the Slender Man was a monster invented wholesale for this mess. Hard pass on this one; even if you're just watching to see how bad it is, there's so little trashy fun to be laughed at here that it's not worth it.

Rating: Where We're Going, We Don't Need Eyes To Be Bored Out Of Our Minds
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Last edited by KleinerKiller on Sun Sep 30, 2018 5:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Sep 23, 2018 9:16 am

I have a lot of reviews to catch up on. Also, this is the third time I've had to write up the first half of this review, so apologies if some of it's not my best work. It's still an amazing series even if I don't properly convey it.

The Terror (2018)

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Basic Summary: The men aboard a doomed expedition slowly succumb to starvation, madness, and a mysterious, bloodthirsty entity.
Genre: Psychological Horror, Drama, Anthology
Created by: David Kajganich, Soo Hugh
Directed by: Edward Berger, Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, Tim Mielants
Written by: David Kajganich, Soo Hugh, various (based on the novel by Dan Simmons)
Starring: Jared Harris, Ciaran Hinds, Tobias Menzies, Paul Ready, Adam Nagaitis, Nive Nielsen, Ian Hart
Episodes: 10 (42-56 minutes each)
Channel / Availability: AMC, Amazon Video, DVD & Blu-Ray



For the unaware, The Terror follows the expedition of Sir John Franklin, an 1845 voyage by two Royal Navy ships -- the HMS Erebus, captained by Franklin, and the eponymous Terror, captained by cynical alcoholic Francis Crozier -- to sail into uncharted Arctic territory and traverse the Northwest Passage. Tensions rise early on as Franklin refuses to heed Crozier's cynical warnings, and damage to the Erebus's propellor sets the crew on edge, but the situation fully spirals out of control when both ships become trapped in the winter ice and remain stuck when summer rolls around. Food supplies dwindle, and the discovery of a deadly contaminant threatens to drain them completely. With no help in sight and with men succumbing to illness and delirium, the sailors are forced to seek desperate strategies to escape. And then, with nary a warning, a beast none of them could have imagined emerges from the snowy haze, forcing their hands and breaking their minds as blood spills all across the ice...

Spoiler: show
A lot about The Terror feels like it's too good to be true. It's a slow burn horror miniseries that never dips into camp or social media-baiting plot twists, something entirely too rare in this TV landscape. It's a risky, niche appeal, high-budget period piece from AMC, who are just as known for skimping on set budgets and interfering with The Walking Dead as they are for pumping out Mad Men and Breaking Bad. And it's a series that has a big-ass monster devouring sailors in the Arctic, but it maintains such a constant intellectual and psychological edge that the gruesome violence complements the artistry, rather than shatter it. Let's get into what's thus far my favorite piece of television all year.

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Cold is one of the keys to The Terror's success; every scene reinforces that this environment is hellishly inhospitable to those who haven't spent generations adapting to it, and you really start to feel the chill in your bones. The ice field spreads out in all directions, ever visible and seemingly infinite, reminding you that no help is coming and profiling those who venture out as lonely silhouettes. The ships are quickly blanketed in snow, rendered marble white monuments to both human error and supernatural horror. Frost starts to form on the faces of crewman and captain alike whenever they're outside, clinically undercutting every inspiring speech or touching eulogy, and the thick mist that clings to the deck at night is so visibly freezing that it almost feels like sweltering heat. Even the warmest interiors of the ship provide no refuge, as the perpetual white light pouring in through the cracks feels like it's pressing into the safe places, rooting around for weaknesses.

The cold is overpowering and omnipresent. I've only seen comparable "ungodly freezing" effects on TV in Game of Thrones' scenes at the Wall and beyond, but while there it's usually set dressing for something else at play, The Terror never lets you forget that all of its characters are slowly being eaten away by the simple and fundamental absence of heat. It creates a crushing atmosphere that enhances every other aspect of the series, so strongly felt that the scant few flashback scenes to England come at you like knees to the gut.

minor contextual spoilers
The last few episodes primarily take place on King William Island, a slightly warmer climate by comparison, made up of dead gray sand shot through with ice rather than ice itself. Accordingly, it doesn't feel quite as soul-crushingly cold, and there are more scenes with characters dressed down (though they remain bundled up if they're outside for more than a few minutes and not planning suicide). This is a small bummer to be sure, but by this point, the atmosphere has been so well established and the tension ramped to such a point that I was able to accept it. The island itself a suitable replacement Hell: vast and bone-bleached, lifeless to an almost dreamlike degree, as though the world has already ended there and it's just taking a while to catch up to the sailors. And you see the ice in the distance once in a while, so it's not like you ever forget what's at stake.


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All of this to say that The Terror is visually splendid, and the cold effects are just part of it. The cinematography is consistently great, at times brilliant; it's less showy than some of my favorite mind-screw shows, but it's always a cut above. Every episode contains at least one or two sights that lingered with me long after the credits rolled: some intimate hallucinatory death sequences where the laws of the world briefly bend and break, the shadowy blot of an unseen threat on the horizon, an underwater sequence designed to trigger agoraphobics, even a heartbreakingly clinical framing of a mutilated corpse that reminded me ever so much of Hannibal. It all culminates in the season's bravura final shot, a hauntingly beautiful and completely wordless summation of the entire season's character arcs and themes which I still vividly picture weeks after having watched it play out.

Elsewhere on the presentation front, as one would hope for a period piece, all of the necessary practical things -- sets, props, costumes, etc -- are convincing, with a few lesser-known intricacies to match the source novel's meticulous research. And the CGI is some of the best I've ever seen on the small screen: I'll get to the massive monster in a minute, but a huge portion of that ice field and those cold effects I went on and on about? Completely computer-generated (most of the show wasn't even shot outdoors), but never once did I even contemplate that until researching after the show was over.

And the sound design is nothing to scoff at, either. It's far more understated than the always impressive cinematography, but audio is a vital component for horror that is too often overlooked. Marcus Fjellström's score is sparse and somber, used only as needed when the silence isn't enough, with a few memorable variations throughout the series (including the opening credits, which AMC shows always excel at). At key points in particularly disturbing scenes, Fjellström swaps out both ambient noise and conventional music for any number of intensely unsettling sounds that rarely failed to set my nerves on edge; the clear standout being a particularly stark death scene in the back half, which is built up with a faintly escalating buzzing thrum and then scored over with... something I can only try to describe as muted, delirious atonal chanting heard through a series of distant bells and wet pipes, and which I found indescribably disturbing, possibly more so than anything else on the show.

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So I've established the myriad ways this show brings its vision of pain and despair in the Arctic to life, but there's an important question left: why should you care? The overall outcome means every character is fated to die at some point -- it's historically known as "Franklin's lost expedition" for a reason -- and it's all too easy and common for a show to just revel in the extremes of misery all the time and expect to wring art out of it. The Terror is, despite all of its focus on inevitable death, not one of those shows. And it's not like it expects you to go in unaware that things are going to turn out somewhat poorly, as it establishes from the beginning (through both opening text and a haunting prologue, in which Royal Navy rescuers interview a Netsilik tribesman about the last he found of the dying sailors) that the entire crew were lost. Yet it still succeeds in building natural investment, at avoiding Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy.

One key way it does this is by ensuring that even the crustiest man comes from a place of sympathy, and that most everyone on board the ships are fundamentally good, likable men trying to ignore that they're slowly being eaten by despair, rather than everyone being a world-weary bastard. I'll get to them in a moment, but first, the other key thing, which has to do with the story itself and the tone it takes. The Terror's story traffics in death, like virtually every "prestige show", but where the vast majority of others use death as a plot device to keep things unpredictable, The Terror is about death. Throughout its run, it examines what it means to truly die, how it feels, the panic and fear and pain and even acceptance, all while trusting the viewer to grapple with this themselves so it doesn't slam headfirst into ponderous navel-gazing. No one ever launches into a long monologue about this; it's simply reinforced through dizzying camera tricks, surreal soundscapes, flashes of dying visions, and sheer tone and atmosphere. Death is treated both with immense fear -- being a gory horror series -- and with plain, naturalistic curiosity. Eventually, just being allowed to go with some peace and dignity feels like a happy ending.

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With this in mind, the story's slow march toward the void (and toward its finale, the deliciously titled "We Are Gone") still feels compelling and intense despite the basic outcome being known. And "slow march" really is the best descriptor, because it's a slow burn to start; the monster isn't even hinted at for a while, and even after it makes its gruesome debut, it only shows up sporadically. But it's the increasingly rare slow burn that feels deliberate and justified. There's no filler subplots or scenes that you could excise, and watching it never once bored me. Each of its ten episodes has a distinct meaning and impact that makes it great to rewatch, something even my all-time favorite shows often fail at (especially the most recent seasons of Fargo and Legion). Each new curveball, be it as dramatic as a supernatural intervention or as mundane as a test of food quality, ramps up the tension to new heights that rarely drop, until even the most calm and relatively safe scenes feel like they could be compromised at a moment's notice. This climaxes in a mid-season showdown that admittedly feels a bit silly in the moment, but works well as motivation to kick off the next half of the story.

The back half continues to dial up the tense atmosphere, while smoothly shifting its primary focus from the threat of bestial violence (which nevertheless remains present) to more earthbound horrors: madness, anxiety, disease, loss of faith (in oneself, religion, and humanity), and the like. The depths of human depravity turn a corner after being teased for a while, and the series maintains its maturity and grace in handling them, continuing not to succumb to the temptation toward misery porn and easy shocks. Manners collapse and chaos takes hold in ways big and small, but the tonal work done in the first half makes the despair feel grounded and earned. It certainly gets harder to watch in places, mind, but I was always glad I did. The final confrontations are as poetic as they are violent, and while the ending certainly isn't unpredictable or especially unique for this kind of tale, it's executed with such profound purpose and with such attention toward all of the thematic work that it works brilliantly, and I have a hard time imagining a more fitting conclusion.

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The characters of The Terror are a bit of a challenge to write about, for a couple of reasons. One is the obvious fear of spoilers; this is an ensemble piece that gives a decent portion of the expedition's 129-man crew time in the spotlight, so each supporting character necessarily fills a role that is best left to the viewer's discovery. The other is more complicated: this show induced some mild face blindness in me for all but a few of the stars, due to the vast majority of the cast being identically-costumed white British men with heavy accents and sideburns. This bothered me at first, but as time went on, I fell into a peculiar sync with that blindness. It forced me to consider each troubling sequence not as part of a character arc, but as part of a single inevitable human downfall; only upon rewatch was I able to discern that the man I'd watched meet a grisly end had been the same one a memorable sequence in the first episode had focused on. That isn't to say that the individual character work for the secondary cast is below par -- many are deceptively deep and the center for some poignant material, and they're each brought to life by great performances rife with individual nuances, but it took a second viewing for me to grasp much of it.

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I can highlight some of the prominent and distinguishable stars, though they'll mostly get shorter paragraphs due to how much the slow unpacking of their nuances reinforces the series' plot. Jared Harris is at the top of his game as Captain Francis Crozier, expertly conveying with every scene a lifetime of bitterness, spite, rejection, trauma, and general misery all wrapped up in a shell of drunken cynicism. However, like I said, almost everyone at least initially comes from a place of likability, and Crozier is no different. He's a legitimately talented sailor and leader despite his many flaws, and whatever dark places he goes to in his arc (of which there are many), it's clear that he loathes himself for behaving how he does and craves the friendship and admiration of his peers. His arc is one of many superb backbones that support the more abstract elements I've written about, and I loved every bit of development he went through.

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Sir John Franklin doesn't have quite the same amount of depth as his fellow captain, but he has surprising layers all the same. Despite being initially presented as so boorishly optimistic and arrogant that it's almost darkly funny, Ciaran Hinds brings forth a root of fatherly affection and genuine confidence in his men that keeps the captain from being little more than a naive catalyst. He and Crozier have a complex history outside of sailing together, and he has his own demons from his storied yet uneven career, both of which heavily influence why he's so blind to his party's mistakes and why he bristles so badly when Crozier tries to warn him off. I'm told he's presented as a much more hateable figure in the novel, a violently racist and self-aggrandizing git whom no one really likes, and I'm confident in saying that his presentation here paints a much richer picture for the whole show.

As for the last of the expedition leaders, it took me a lot longer to warm up to Erebus lieutenant James Fitzjames (pictured behind Franklin) than it did for Crozier or Franklin. I initially wrote off his stoic manner and vague glory-seeking as bland compared to his more compelling compatriots, and Tobias Menzies' performance, while solid, doesn't exactly shake the earth in the first few episodes. He comes into his own with enough prodding, though, and once it's revealed exactly why he's so stuck up and stubborn, he quickly rises and becomes a true highlight. The slowly shifting interplay between these three is tremendous on its own, but outside of that trio, there are a few other standouts I want to mention.

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Ship's doctor Henry Goodsir might be my favorite character on the whole show, which should go as high praise considering what I've written so far. He's the kindest man in the crew by a long shot, always trying to help the sick and willing to lend an ear to the Netsilik people many other sailors brush off. As a keen naturalist, he's even appreciative of the Arctic's beauty when it's slowly killing off everyone else over the course of many months. Paul Ready nails the line between "truly nice, honest, and curious man" and "too pure to believe in this context", imbuing him with a tender youth and vibrance that belies his experience. And fuck, does the show put this impossibly kind gentleman through the wringer.

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Adam Nagaitis's petty officer Cornelius Hickey emerges as an early standout, a wily, scheming troublemaker who nevertheless always comes off like someone you want to sit down and have a drink with. He sports a near-constant smirk and is always trying to talk his way into a better situation, even in situations when it's clear that talking is just making things worse for him, but there's something so honest and wanting in his interactions with the crew that he manages to be pretty likable even when he's kind of being an absolute asshole. Much like Fitzjames, things about his character slowly become clear that dramatically reshape him, but by the end of his arc, he's still a marvelous highlight.

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Lastly, the Netsilik tribeswoman who comes in contact with the crew and sticks around sporadically, whom the men dub "Lady Silence" because she refuses to speak to almost anyone. The horror and period piece genres have never had a fantastic relationship with indigenous peoples, as so many are featured solely as amoral mystics out to punish the naive intruders, even if they are portrayed semi-sympathetically. Lady Silence's apparent connections to, or at least knowledge of, the monster going berserk on the expedition initially threatens to dip into that territory, but her character and culture are treated with the same maturity and patient intelligence as everything else on the show, though I can't go into exactly how. Nive Nielsen has to spend the vast majority of her screen time voiceless, but she communicates tremendous amounts of character through physical acting alone; the caution and bitterness with which she treats the crew, the internal conflict over her part in the violence, her grief over an early loss, and so on. For the show's most enigmatic character, she's also one of the richest.

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But on that note, we come to the last thing I want to go over about The Terror: the monster I've referenced throughout the review. I've saved it for last because I really don't want to give much of anything away about its appearance, nature, or what have you. I won't even mention its name, even though you're told what the Netsilik call it pretty early on. What I can say is that it's used to perfect effect, despite the immense potential for it to be an unnecessary and stupid interjection into the rich character drama. The VFX work used to bring it to life isn't always completely up to snuff, but for the standards of TV CGI, it's practically Harryhausen -- it's never so bad at its worst that it brought me completely out of it, and at its best, it maintains a threatening sense of mass and physicality that keep you wary of its scattered appearances. And as for those appearances, it pops up just rarely enough that it stays mysterious and dangerous, but often enough that it never leaves the back of your mind when things seem a bit too quiet and peaceful. It's very much in the style of the shark from Jaws or the Xenomorph from the original Alien -- fitting, given that Ridley Scott is a producer on the show. And when it does pop up, it never fails to completely wreck shop, tearing men apart with a splattering violence so brutal and sudden that its every attack reshapes the status quo. It's an object lesson in how to fit a giant beast into an intellectual drama.

All in all, The Terror is one of the best things I've seen on television, and I sincerely hope my hyperbolic-sounding praise isn't cause for doubt: I'm a harsh critic, but I can't think of any other way to talk about this show. It expertly mixes truly scary horror, subtle drama, dark beauty, and bucketloads of character development into a completely self-contained story that runs exactly as long as it needs to, which shouldn't be so rare these days. Every aspect of it has been forged to near-perfection, and somehow it's never up its own ass about that. I was riveted the whole way through, and I can't recommend it strongly enough if any one element of this review has grabbed your attention. Time will tell whether the second season, which has a completely different subject matter and won't involve any of the same creators, will tank the brand, or I'll have just as much praise for it.

Rating: Cool As Ice? Terror-ific? Fuck It, It's Late And I've Been Trying To Write This For Weeks, So It's Just Great Okay
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Last edited by KleinerKiller on Sun Oct 07, 2018 2:56 am, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Sep 30, 2018 3:29 am

Tales of Xillia (2011 / 2013)

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Basic Summary: A mysterious crisis unites several disparate people in the service of a god on a mission.
Genre: JRPG
Systems: PS3
Created by: Namco Tales Studio
Directed by: Naoto Miyadera
Written by: Daisuke Kiga, Naoki Yamamoto, Itsumi Hori, Takashi Hasegawa
Designed and Programmed by: Yoshimasa Tanaka, Toyokazu Endo
Starring (JP / ENG): Miyuki Sawashiro / Minae Noji, Tsubasa Yonaga / Sam Riegel, Tomokazu Sugita / Matthew Mercer, Ryotaru Okiayu / Travis Willingham
Story-Gameplay Ratio: 4:6

For the unaware, Tales of Xillia follows Milla Maxwell, the earthly manifestation of the lord of all spirits, and Jude Mathis, a young medical student with some skill at hand-to-hand fighting. They live in Rieze Maxia, a realm in which humans have long evolved to naturally commune with spirits for various purposes. When a shocking discovery beneath Jude's city brings the unlikely pairing together and leaves Milla temporarily powerless, the two become fugitives and flee to Milla's place of origin in a quest to prevent a catastrophe that would threaten even the spirits -- meeting along the way a shifty mercenary, a shy child with a bizarre "friend", and several others. However, nothing is as clear-cut and cliched as it first seems, and Milla's dysfunctional group is about to unknowingly plunge into a terrifying conflict where the stakes are far higher than spirits, the most dangerous enemy is a man who loves his people, and any victories must come at a cost...

Spoiler: show
I don't think I ever would've checked out the Tales series if not for insistence from my dear friend Octoberpumpkin that I check out the entry I had already happened to come into possession of. I like me some traditional JRPGs every now and then, but the sheer time investment combined with the series' outwardly generic aesthetics kept me away from a number of well-regarded titles. But after quite a long time spent seeing it through, I'm very happy that I gave this one a look. Let's get into it.

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Let's get the presentation out of the way first, as I have the least to say about it. The graphics are solid JRPG fare most of the time; the character models are consistent, the cel-shaded aesthetic is nice to look at, and on a few occasions I stumbled upon a surprisingly beautiful vista that I was able to spend a few seconds appreciating (especially in the game's various major cities, each of which has a completely distinct design philosophy that not only speaks to the territory's culture, but is usually quite pleasing to the eye). I noticed no major graphical glitches, but there was significant slowdown during combat sequences with more than a few enemies and effects, which was usually easy to compensate for. Usually. And I certainly liked the few animated cutscenes, even if they're not at Persona levels of polish. As for the audio, the voice acting is fine if mostly unremarkable, while the music is nicely composed but not enough to prevent its most-used tracks from getting repetitive.

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As per usual in my game reviews (except in cases where the gameplay is just... the fuckin' worst), gameplay comes up before all the other aspects. The basic gameplay outside of combat is pretty standard: wander around the overworld, talk to people, complete occasional sidequests (which are mostly fetch quests / "slay X amount of monsters", but occasionally reveal more about the world), pick up treasures or hidden items, level up your stats, buy shit, sell shit, the works. There's a "skit" system where you can listen in on hundreds of optional conversations between party members, which is mostly just an excuse for lighthearted fun, not that that's a flaw. Enemies are thankfully not random encounters and all have models on the overworld, so if you don't feel like getting harangued twenty times per overworld section, you can fairly easily dodge them. The overworld enemies also have a nifty little system where the angle and circumstance you trigger the encounter from gives you a boon or a bust; sneak up on one to deal automatic damage and a brief stun to all enemies in the fight, get caught from behind yourself and you'll be surrounded from less-than-ideal angles. I could do with less backtracking prior to the fast travel unlock, but the overworld gameplay is good.

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That brings us to the main defining trait of the gameplay: the combat system. I spent the whole game playing as Jude because I didn't know I could switch, but you can indeed play as any party member; I did a bit of grinding as everyone else at the very end just to make sure, and while the core mechanics still apply, they all have such unique differences that to review the ins and outs of each one would extend this even past the length of my The Terror review. Luckily, I preferred Jude's fighting style out of everyone's, and his is the simplest since it focuses no-frills hand-to-hand fighting. Xillia's combat is real-time, and while I usually far prefer turn-based combat in my JRPGs because I like having time to plan and micromanage, this system is thankfully simple and intuitive enough that I enjoyed it right away, but also deep enough to reward experimentation and mastery (something I don't think I ever approached, but hey, I had fun with it).

The combat in Xillia is all about careful timing. You rush in for combos and powerful Spirit Artes (i.e. magic attacks) when you have the opportunity, and have to react quickly to pull off dodges, sidesteps, and teleporting parries that give you more of these openings. I instantly glommed onto this system: getting the timing right and dealing a staggering blow feels great, and after enough practice I'd gone from mindlessly mashing buttons and pulling off lucky dodges to stringing together powerful physical and Arte combos, though it remains fairly challenging the whole way through. You can also link yourself to any of your allies on the battlefield at any time, giving you a unique passive effect and access to a powerful dual Arte, both of which vary wildly depending on the teammate and, for the latter, what Arte you used to combo into the special move. It's a very good, versatile battle system, which is why it's a bummer on the few occasions when slowdown issues actually interfere with the flow and keep you from properly timing a critical hit. There are also wild difficulty spikes in certain boss encounters, only a few of which I would classify as simply unfair (in particular the final boss fight, which swamps you with dozens of rapid-fire unblockable attacks, status ailments, and distracting mobs, all while one of the bosses continuously heals the other and themselves to full health at critical junctures) but all of which took me out of the moment.

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But what would be the point of powering through the frustrating moments if the story wasn't worth it? Indeed, I was expecting very little from the plot of Xillia, but it turned out to be well worth the time invested. There are two campaigns, Milla's and Jude's, and while I picked Jude's for his gameplay style and to see parts of the grounded story Milla doesn't, the two are 90% identical and whatever you miss if you only play one can be easily looked up. Beginning in a place steeped in Japanese storytelling cliches, but executed with polish and promising something more through a couple of legitimately intriguing mysteries, it stays at a comfortable plateau for the first few hours while slowly building the party and developing character relationships. There are periods where it slows down to a level approaching sluggishness, gets lost in a side goal for a while, or what have you, but overall, it's pretty well paced for its simplicity.

Then, around a third of the way through the game, new pieces are placed on the board with increasing intensity, in particular a villain who completely reshapes the face of the central conflict. The situation becomes a lot more complicated than the initial goal of the quest made it seem, and while the broad framework of the issue isn't unique to this story, the way it's slowly unspooled in world-shaking ways just when you and the heroes think you're on top of everything gives it an effectively juicy punch. The darkest hours exploit their context very well, especially in a period after a climactic airship raid that kept me hooked well beyond the level I expected, and when the expected upswing happens for the final act, it feels earned and bittersweet. This is something I'm told a lot of the Tales series does well, so I'm quite pleased. That said, the final stretch is a bit rushed and the ending very pat for the serious moral conflict the game had done such a good job of unpacking, apparently a symptom of the game abruptly being rushed late in development, but it's satisfying and sensible enough that the better stuff before it isn't diminished.

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I won't analyze the entire cast, because it's a JRPG and we'd be here until the sun crumbles, but I'll highlight a few favorites in and out of the party. The main characters are archetypical, but well drawn and perfectly likable. Despite my mostly seeing it from Jude's perspective, this is Milla's story through and through -- she's the undisputed leader of the party at all times, she has the most personal investment in the initial stakes, and she goes through the most visible change of the two protagonists. For a depowered god who initially comes off cold and standoffish, she's able to mix her single-minded drive to complete the mission with an obtuse sense of humor that occasionally caught me off guard. It's pleasant to watch her slowly become accustomed to her friends and let off some steam once in a while, and the game does a solid job of keeping her from being just another defrosting tsundere. I was put off by her voice acting at first, as she's given a lisp that doesn't quite work in early dramatic scenes, but it grew on me after a while.

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Meanwhile, Jude is your typical anime everyman, charming and straight-laced and oblivious to the fact that his perky childhood friend wants to sit on his face, but he's not as obnoxious as I usually find these characters. He's actually quite intelligent and resourceful, which gets brought up and used in the plot on several occasions, and his attitude at least makes it somewhat believable that he sticks around the party at the cost of his career and lawful life. He doesn't get a lot of character development, but he still has a nice little arc. And while he and Milla obviously get into a romantic subplot, for once it's completely believable and doesn't come off as forced -- he falls for her because she's really hot and charismatic, she falls for him because he's really nice (and probably because he can somehow uppercut giant crab monsters despite being a teenage med student), and it goes from there.

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Alvin is the first guy to join the party after Milla and Jude meet, and I'm glad he's there for most of the game, because he's one of my favorite characters in it. The game does not try to obscure at all that he's not on the level -- he joins up under suspicious circumstances, rattles off excuses when asked about his past, leaves the group multiple times only to crawl back with his tail between his legs, and in general just seems way more vicious and pragmatic than the kind-hearted heroes around him -- but his true nature and temperament still pack quite a few genuine surprises. Beyond that, his brash, sarcastic "lovable dickhead" personality is entertaining, and the way he fights is refreshingly different when he's surrounded by stylish magic users. And for whatever reason, there's something I really respect about a guy who, in a fantasy world governed by JRPG tropes, refuses to submit to friendship and is openly just along for the ride for money.

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(Could not find a single good picture of her in-game model for some reason)

The biggest surprise in the party was Elize, because I normally loathe any tagalong kid in a serious story who isn't up to the par of, say, TWD's Clementine. Yet I actually quite liked this nervous, enigmatic little girl. I can't write too much about her because she doesn't talk a lot and there are associated spoilers, but she has a really good character arc as well, one which makes some really worn tropes work. I didn't care so much for Teepo, her bizarre friend who seems to just be a floating doll that's constantly glued to her side; I found his comic relief moments mostly screechy and predictable, and his deeper character remains mostly static even after some affecting revelations about his true nature and relationship with Elize. He's a minor annoyance on the whole, though.

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But my favorite character isn't anyone in the party: predictably, I gravitated most towards a central villain, and his presence was in fact one of the things that sold me most on the game. Gaius, beloved ruler of a significant portion of Rieze Maxia, is a stellar character and the only one of the story's many antagonists who genuinely worked for me. Put aside his overtly edgy design, and he's a legitimately cool and complex villain who provides some of the game's best moments and quandaries. His plan is legitimately in the best interests of his people, whom he loves and serves selflessly and who adore him in return, and it's hard to argue with him when you're sporadically working at his side against the larger threats who embody what he's fighting. Villains who would be completely correct and even heroic if not for their zealous refusal to see the other side's perspective are some of my favorite kinds; Gaius is one of the better examples in my recent memory, and as chaos cascades through the story both at his hand and against his wishes, he continues to be engrossing and compelling up to the very end of his arc.

All in all, Tales of Xillia was a surprising and worthwhile game I mostly enjoyed from start to finish, and it's gotten me far more interested in a franchise that I wish I hadn't slept on for so long. A slow start and a few gameplay hiccups don't keep it from being a great JRPG with a unique and compelling story, a rock solid cast of characters, and a combat system that stays fun from start to finish. It's no abject masterpiece, but I'm giving it a hearty recommendation to anyone else who's overlooked it and happens to be in the mood for a traditional JRPG with decidedly untraditional elements.

Rating: Spirit Art
  • 2

Last edited by KleinerKiller on Mon Oct 15, 2018 6:21 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby octoberpumpkin » Sun Sep 30, 2018 3:59 am

Hiiii

Xillia was my first Tales game as well and I was also expecting some standard JRPG fare. The plot twists were magnificent and really showed me that this series is more than meets the eye. They are extremely tropey, but they acknowledge those tropes and explore them in greater detail which I love.

One of my fav things about Tales (including Xillia) is how fleshed out the inter-cast relationships are. In a lot of games, the whole crew revolves around 1 or 2 central characters and the rest hardly interact. Tales does a great job of showcasing how everyone gets along. Leia tries to be a big sister to Elize, Leia and Alvin get along at first but form a very strained relationship by the end. In the second game they work to repair that and have this cute little co-op battle ending (which also brings up that even battle ending screens work to build relationships between everyone), Jude respects Rowen who takes a passive role in allowing the young man to grow in to his own, offering advice when needed. Etc. It's just so lovely to see them all interact and not just have their worlds revolve around Milla and Jude.

I am glad you like it and I look forward to seeing what you think of more Tales games :33
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby SandTea » Mon Oct 01, 2018 12:04 pm

Now I'm upset I don't have a PS3 anymore... :(
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Oct 07, 2018 11:41 pm

My Hero Academia (S3) (2018)

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Basic Summary: Shocking events threaten to set off a cataclysm Izuku and friends might be helpless to stop.
Genre: Shonen, Action, Comedy, Superheroes
Created by: Studio Bones
Directed by: Kenji Nagasaki
Written by: Yōsuke Kuroda
Starring (Japanese / English): (In addition to those previously credited) Akio Otsuka / John Swasey, Misato Fukuen / Leah Clark, Hiro Shimono / Jason Liebrecht
Episodes: 25
Available on: Funimation and Hulu
Source Material: Ongoing manga by Kōhei Horikoshi

This review contains some spoilers for the first two seasons of My Hero Academia, reviewed here and here.


For the unaware, the third season of My Hero Academia continues to follow Izuku "Deku" Midoriya, the once-Quirkless boy whose continued training and mentoring have shaped him into a force as powerful as he is fiercely intelligent. But in the wake of the Hero Killer Stain's rampage and defeat, the League of Villains has made its own rise as numerous powerful criminals emerge to carry on the twisted vigilante's mission, propelling the group from a gang of losers in a bar to genuine public enemies. Izuku and friends have little time to worry about this -- he's just recently managed to start utilizing his Quirk without shattering his body, and U.A.'s field training course looks to give him more opportunities to live up to All Might's high expectations. But the self-styled bad guys are already turning toward U.A. once again with renewed strength, and a titanic clash is due to begin, the aftershocks of which will echo through the world forever...

Spoiler: show
These are dark times, friends. Every day we're bombarded with disheartening and disgusting new events in the world, and oftentimes it seems like there's no hope on the horizon. Grimy villains crush the world under their feculent claws. Truth and justice are things of the past. What could we use a lot more of? Heroes. So let's get into the third season of everyone's favorite tropey-yet-subversive shonen, My Hero Academia, which just wrapped a few days ago.

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Starting on the presentation, things mostly carry over from the second season's dramatic visual improvements. Everything I said there still qualifies, though in the second half of the season, there is a bit of a drop for a few episodes where animation staff were pulled away to work on the recently released Two Heroes movie; it's not a huge drop and it returns to its former quality right before the important things begin again, but it is noticeable for a bit. The significant fights of the season are all designed and animated incredibly well, and background environments are still pleasing to the eye. Nothing much new to say; shit's just good.

I do have more to say about the audio side, mainly because the quality has wavered slightly. The memetic and inspiring "You Say Run" / "Jet Set Run" isn't used anywhere despite numerous moments befitting it, and the new OPs are a bit of a mixed bag: I warmed up to Odd Future after a few listens and now consider it my second or third favorite (that bass drop hits you like a goddamn train), but Make My Story never gelled for me and feels unfit for both the show and the collection of OPs it's joining. On the other hand, by far the best new songs to come out of the season are the theme of the biggest new villain (BIG SPOILERS in the video's title), a creepy-ass opera chanting number that plays to great effect in some of the season's most haunting moments, as well as this decidedly unconventional little number, which debuts near the end of the season to promise that the next villain's theme is going to be just as great.

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Anyways, the story: the meat of why I give this show seasonal reviews. The first season being mostly prologue for the sharp work to come, and the second season just taking the expected tropes and running with them in the most stylish and enjoyable way, the third season has a high bar to meet. And while it doesn't maintain the sheer constant highs of the second season, this is far and away My Hero Academia's most momentous and dramatic season yet when it gets going. It's also its most self-aware yet by a wide margin; I say "self-aware" only because I definitely wouldn't call My Hero Academia a deconstruction, as it's perfectly content to revel in the tropes of the genre, but Horikoshi and Studio Bones are incredibly aware of the works that inspired it and the cliches readers/viewers have come to expect, and this season contains the most welcome subversions of the well-worn tropes yet. Much as some decry the show as "Green Naruto", it is operating on a much higher tier. So let's get into the individual arcs.

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Opening the season is the Field Training Camp Arc, which is a fun little combination of a training arc and the Unforeseen Simulation Joint Arc that capped off the first season: Class 1-A goes to a secluded forest camp to do combat training (1-B comes along too, and actually does something for once!), some new villains immediately attack with swift and terrifying force, and everyone has to put their Quirks and cooperation to the test to survive. This arc takes a little bit to get going and then starts to drag slightly toward the end, and parts of it do feel similar enough to the USJ Arc to feel like repetition, but otherwise, it's a really fun and thrilling stretch of episodes that serve as a good penultimate test before everything flies into utter chaos. Izuku has a solid personal arc having to face a tough villain entirely on his own for the first time, and most everyone else gets some cool moments. And the arc's villains being a recurring and fleshed-out group gives it a more dangerous feeling than the USJ Arc, though in turn it misses out on the raw emotional impact of All Might's fight with the Nomu. An unexpected turn of events then rattles the status quo in a way pretty familiar to genre fans, raising mixed expectations for the next arc.

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But as for the Hideout Raid Arc... well, it certainly surpasses the expectations. This is the Shit Goes Down Arc, and it's by far my favorite arc in the season and one of my favorites in the show. The ending of the last arc brings a curtain of genuine melancholy and foreboding onto the proceedings, and things are already ominous enough before the titular raid happens and things begin to happen. The cliched path I was most worried about is defied with gleeful aplomb, only for the triumphant moment to be cut short by events that genuinely rattled me even though I'd already been spoiled by manga panels that something like it would happen. What follows is a battle so far beyond the proportions of anything that's come before it, both in contextual importance and in sheer scale, that it almost feels like it's happening way sooner in the story than it's supposed to -- and all the better for that. It's stunning, suspenseful, hauntingly atmospheric even in its most destructive moments. It all culminates in one of the series' unmatched high points, a jaw-dropping and profoundly bittersweet climax that heralds the end of an entire era for the story.

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And in that light, it's sad that the last arc of the season is just a rather dull battle royale arc. The License Exam Arc is a much-needed breather following the Hideout Raid Arc and its emotionally fraught bridging episode, but it still feels a bit odd to settle back into a routine after the last arc's intense drama, even though the point of the arc is incredibly vital to the storyline. The meat of the arc might even be my least favorite stretch of the series, as it's the only time thus far that the series has injected noticeable filler in the form of non-manga fights against scarcely interesting enemies. While it's always fun to see unconventional teams having to form up and beat some opponents, it just feels like a lower-stakes version of the USJ or Field Training arcs, and there were more than a few parts where I was repeatedly checking how far into the episode I was because I was just bored and unengaged. I initially couldn't fathom why the show chose to end the third season on this rather than springing for a 13-episode order and finishing up with the immediate aftermath of the Hideout Raid's groundbreaking events, leaving the next bit as the fourth season's lead-in.

Luckily, the final three episodes more than make the case for this pacing. The third-to-last in particular is a strong contender for my favorite episode of the series, even in the same season as the Hideout Raid material; it's a tight, focused, richly personal engagement that pays off on three seasons of subtle character work, serving up both a superbly well-choreographed fight and genuinely affecting character development that paves the road ahead for virtually anything to happen. This feels like a perfect season finale... so it's a bit weird when the show goes on for two more episodes, which both sort of feel like they belong in the next season. I understand why they're here, though, and I'm ultimately happy they are: in addition to introducing some fun new protagonists, they also provide an extensive tease of the next big arc villain, and set things up in a way that the threat should kick off right away rather than taking a half-season to reach like the Hero Killer or Hideout Raid Arcs.

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On the protagonists' side, all of the old characters continue to be as solid as before. Izuku is still one of my favorite anime protagonists ever and definitely my favorite traditional shonen hero; his gradual power increase feels earned without making him too strong for the story to work, he's growing more confident without sacrificing his vital vulnerability, and his analytical cunning remains just as critical as his oft-busted muscles. Ochaco doesn't get as much focus as I'd like for how interesting her character and Quirk are, but she has a few fun scenes in the Field Training and License Exam Arcs, and I'm pleased with how the story handles her increasingly obvious romantic feelings for Izuku without turning her into a clingy cardboard cutout; Iida is equally out of focus, but his presence is always entertaining and he plays a fairly critical role in the Hideout Raid. On the other hand, Todoroki is still a complex joy as core story events bring his grudge against his father into starker light, and he has plenty of screen time across all three arcs (though the License Exam catches him in a bit of dull filler). And all of the other colorful supporting characters in the class stay as delightful as ever and get plenty of opportunities to show off what makes them such a wonderful cast.

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The one among the unambiguous heroes I feel deserves the most written about him, though, is All Might. For the past two seasons, the cheerful and grandiose Superman analogue has been a clear standout, if not the standout. Season 3 puts a lot more emphasis on him than the second season, and he actually gets substantial character development across the season, as his long-teased past comes back to haunt him and he struggles to keep bearing the weight of the world on his shoulders as his powers start to wane. We're able to see how Izuku has inspired him in return, and how they've gradually gone from an unattainable idol giving a decent kid a chance to true equals, even surrogate father and son. This is basically All Might's season, and he remains one of the most complex and lovable paragon characters I've ever seen in general fiction, a walking lesson in how to write a great hero with fears and flaws without having to make them dark and brooding.

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On the other side of the moral coin, the League of Villains is finally fleshed out into something worth caring about by the injection of some potent new characters, and it turns out they're one of the most unique antagonist groups I've seen in a shonen action series. They're depicted as a surrogate family of sympathetic outcasts who genuinely like and care for each other, which makes their scenes finally feel worthwhile because it's more than a few losers hanging out in a bar; they're almost treated as a separate group of protagonists at times in spite of their evil actions, and I always liked seeing from their point of view. Tomura Shigaraki, in turn, finally feels like a threatening arch-enemy despite still being a childish sociopath, and the events of the midseason reveal much more about his significance while allowing him to come into his own. I can't highlight every new arrival, but of special note:

Dabi, the mysterious leader of the new League entrants who looks like a heavily scarred Izuku, gets a very compelling introduction but is relegated mostly to the sidelines after it. I understand why, but I hope the story delves into both his Stain worship and his potential connection to the protagonists in the near future. Himiko Toga is the archetypical cute-but-psycho little brat with a penchant for knives, but she's quite entertaining despite her basic nature -- and her Quirk, once revealed, holds terrifying potential for the future. Twice is mostly just a goofy Deadpool tribute with a neat cloning Quirk, but when we finally get to see him behind the mask late in the season, he turns out to be a painfully pitiable man whose near-insanity has a whole lot of weight behind it. And Magne deserves credit for being the rare portrayal of a transgendered character in Japanese media (or... well, any media) who's not treated as a freak, has her own distinct character traits, and is actively seen as the heart of her group.

There is one particular villain who enters the scene in this season, though, that I have to talk about directly after dancing around it for a bit. Who he is should be obvious to those who watched the second season, as well as the fact that he would be appearing here in some capacity, but nevertheless I'm going to put his entry in a spoiler tag -- not because I'm going to spoil his exact role, but in case anyone wants to maintain complete blindness.

the big villain
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All For One, Shigaraki's previously-teased master and the ageless supervillain who gave All Might his crippling scar, makes his grand entrance in this season. And he's... pretty good. Unlike Stain or a lot of League members, this guy is pure evil for the sheer sake of it, and by nature he's nowhere near as complex as those other characters. He wears a Darth Vader-esque mask to cover up the near-mortal injury All Might gave him, has a super deep voice and a menacing laugh, and has absolutely no potentially redeeming qualities (even his fatherly affection for Shigaraki is rooted in self-centeredness). But the show uses him just sparingly enough that rather than be a grating disappointment, his raw, oozing evil actually feels effective.

The sheer pleasure he takes in every minute thing he can do to piss All Might off, contrasted with the casual dismissal with which he treats every other character because his incalculable power basically turns other heroes into cutouts at a shooting range, make him an enemy you immediately want to see taken down. And because he's in so little of the season, he's not kept around so long that his seeming invincibility grows stale, like so many other hugely powerful anime villains. He's nearly a Satanic figure, and because of how well his threat has been built up, watching him in action is a chilling experience. There were so many ways to screw him up, but the fact that he was executed so well gives me even more faith in Horikoshi and the show's creators.


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With all of that said, there's still one last character I want to highlight, because this season's been so rich with character work. Of all people, it's Katsuki Bakugou, whom I heavily criticized in the first season's review and simply brushed off in the second season's. Bakugou's seemingly baseless hostility and impossible levels of arbitrary arrogance seemed to paint him as just another stupid anime rival, Vegeta by way of Sasuke, and he's always been a black mark on the otherwise nuanced cast. While traits like his ferocious intelligence and inferiority complex have been slowly unpacked to slightly color him in, this season has shown me that I was wrong all along, and that turns out to have been the intended reaction. Across the season's three arcs, Bakugou is given shocking depth and believability that completely changes the context of his earlier scenes. Horikoshi knew exactly how to play on the audience's expectations for the character, presenting all of the information up-front but trusting that we wouldn't put it all together, and I'm happy in this instance to have been played. I never thought I'd say it, but he's now one of my favorite characters in the show. I can't wait to see where he goes next.

All in all, the third season of My Hero Academia keeps the show's well-earned hot streak going, albeit slogging a bit in the last arc before pulling it back at the very end. I don't think I need to do much concluding pitching; I would hope that if you're reading the third season review, you're already into the show and may have already finished it. Regardless, with everything set up by the season finale and what little I know about the next arcs to come, the wait for the fourth season is going to be just as unbearable as the last.

Rating: Almighty
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Last edited by KleinerKiller on Sun Sep 15, 2019 8:43 am, edited 1 time in total.
"Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it." - Eclipse Phase

NEW REVIEW! The Sinking City (2019)
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Wed Jul 17, 2019 10:57 pm

Anyone want me to start doing these again?

Brief mini-mini-mini review that I might expand on later if I resume full reviews: FUCKING WATCH ATTACK ON TITAN. What was once a half-decent gateway shonen with a lot of problems (which then turned into something it was cool to hate because it was popular) has evolved into what I genuinely think is among the best anime of the modern generation. Every question has been answered in a satisfying and unexpected way, every plot thread has paid off. This past season was absolutely phenomenal. And as someone who's now mostly caught up on the manga, it's only going to get better. You don't want to miss out.
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NEW REVIEW! The Sinking City (2019)
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Sep 15, 2019 8:42 am

Aaaaand we're back. And as punctual and relevant to the current discourse as ever (don't expect an IT review for another week or two).

Scary Stories to Tell In The Dark (2019)


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Basic Summary: A cursed book brings its nightmarish stories to life to terrorize the teens who discovered it.
Genre: Horror
Directed by: André Øvredal
Written by: Dan and Kevin Hageman
Starring: Zoe Colletti, Michael Garza, Austin Zajur, Gabriel Rush
Length: 108 minutes


As per usual for horror movie trailers, this spoils a lot of the cooler setups and death scenes, so watch at your own risk.


For the unaware, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark follows a group of hapless teens in small town Pennsylvania: aspiring writer Stella, her dorky friends Chuck and August, and paranoid newcomer Ramon. On the night of Halloween 1968, a prank on a psychotic bully leads them to hide out in a local haunted house, said to be cursed by the spirit of the malevolent child-killer Sarah Bellows; there, Stella discovers Bellows' book of horror stories, the whispering of which were said to spread death and misery throughout the town. Unfortunately, it soon becomes clear that the book is still being written -- and each new story leads to the bizarre disappearance of its subject. As nightmarish beings begin to hunt them down one by one, Stella and friends desperately unravel Bellows' life story, in hopes of stopping the madness before they find their own names among the book's ancient pages...

Spoiler: show
As is the case with many kids of a certain age, my lifelong love of horror began with finding the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark books at my elementary school library. The stories themselves were usually nothing more than tame urban legends and old wives' tales, but Stephen Gammell's legendarily horrifying artwork -- detailed, drippy depictions of ghosts, corpses, and surreal abnormalities that seemed not just able, but eager to crawl from the page and into your home if you dared to take your eyes off of them -- struck permanent gashes deep into my young psyche that only further scares could fill. And now these madmen have gone and made a movie that gathers together some of the most iconic stories and visuals from those books, bringing them to life with slavish devotion to making Gammell's heart-stopping illustrations blend into reality. Did it work? Does it capture that old childhood feeling? Does the PG-13 rating get in the way? Let's discuss.

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Scary Stories'... story (ahem) is a mixed bag, but it's at least a meatier one than your average mainstream horror flick. The core sequence of events clearly takes a lot of inspiration from IT and its derivatives, as the group is set into action by a monstrous bully and then races around town trying to uncover secrets before the supernatural phenomenon gets them first, and while it proceeds mostly as you'd expect, it moves at a quick enough pace that it never feels bogged down in its many cliches. On the other hand, it has more to say than many of its contemporaries; the backdrop of Vietnam and the campaign / eventual election of Nixon is highlighted throughout the film, and much of the plot dwells on normalized racism and the ease with which the truth can cease to matter when it doesn't suit the powerful. This lends some thematic and emotional heft to an otherwise generic plot, and helps energize the rather limp final act with a few decent twists and a confidently bittersweet ending -- though the cheesy final narration, which really feels squeezed in at the last second to leave room for a possible sequel, leaves things on an off note.

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The characters are an equally uneven case, though most of the actors are good. I really liked Stella, archetypical Final Girl as she clearly is, and not just because I can relate to her dreams of writing. She wrestles with self-blame for her mother walking out on the family, and she gets some brief but surprisingly touching interplay with her equally downtrodden father (the always captivating Dean Norris, aka Hank motherfuckin' Schrader, in a bit part I'll nonetheless remember). Ramon is also quite good; while he initially comes off as merely a quietly likable vessel to showcase small-town racism, the film eventually reveals a layer that adds a lot to both his character and the narrative. On the other hand, Chuck and August are comparatively thinly sketched despite their prominent screen time, and Chuck's big sister Ruth is actively annoying outside of a few scenes.

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On presentation, the film is handsomely shot, but not enough that I'll remember the cinematography for a long time. It shines most when the time comes for the big scary setpieces, during which the camera tends to hold suffocatingly close on the prospective victim while providing unconventional angles from which anything could attack; otherwise, it's just good camera work. But if we're talking about the visuals of a Scary Stories film, it's not so much the framing of the victims that's critical as it is the rendering of the book's iconic horrors, and I'm happy to report that this aspect shines. While a perfect representation of Gammell's art would require an R-rating and a complete stylistic alteration (it might even need to be a high-budget animated movie), the monsters chosen for adaptation are some of the books' best, and all are faithfully brought to life with grotesque practical effects and just a dash of CGI, to truly haunting effect. There is one exception in the final threat, an amalgamation of a few different tales whose genuinely unsettling (and legitimately performed) contortions aren't helped by a lot of less convincing CG, but the rest are spooky feasts for fresh eyes and nostalgic ones alike.

I don't have quite as much to say about the sound design, though it's not bad and there are some highlights. Silence is used effectively when necessary, though the scenes in the haunted house feel like a bit of a missed opportunity, as they mostly lack the distant creaks and groans punctuating the silence that I enjoy from that type of setting. The jump scares tend to be on the very, very loud side, which only works well once (as the cap to a very memorable early death scene) and comes off as unfittingly cheap the rest of the time. And the music's nothing to write home about, though the film opens with a fun montage set to Donovan's "Season of the Witch", and now that song's been stuck in my head as much as any of the scares.

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But on that note, it's time for the most important element of any horror movie: is it scary? Well, like everything else about the film, it's a mixed bag. Outside of a couple of creepy moments here and there, the scares are mostly doled out in big distinct chunks when a new story appears, which simultaneously adds a great deal of tension to the next scene (the film wrings a lot of pathos out of the sheer inevitability that comes with being named in the book) but removes some key unpredictability from the film as a whole. You're not going to see a monster suddenly explode into what you thought was just going to be a normal dialogue scene. So it falls on these horror chunks to make the film worthy of its name and the legacy it's upholding, and your mileage will obviously vary, but I enjoyed most of them. I'll give a story-by-story breakdown of my thoughts below (I've kept them as vague as I can, but still spoilered in case you want to stay completely blind on the order and vague structure of each story), but suffice to say that outside of the final act -- which still has some demented energy, but loses a lot on horror -- they're about what I expected and wanted.

scary stories to review in the evening
1) "Harold": Very predictable, but nonetheless very good scene with a killer execution of one of Scary Stories' most infamous creations. The buildup is solid, but the real joy lies in Harold's vivid design and movement, as well as the conclusion: a legitimately disquieting display of body horror that genuinely made me more uncomfortable than a lot of R-rated horror movie deaths, despite its bloodlessness. Overall, a good starter.

2) "The Big Toe": I wish this one was a bit longer and more developed, because it could have been the best part of the movie. The lead-in to the scene is excellent, as is the patient build of tension for the monster's arrival, and for the brief time said monster is onscreen, it combines one of the books' most outright disturbing stories with the illustration that's haunted my mind the longest, to brilliant effect (the makeup work and the use of the reliably terrifying Javier Botet are to die for). But it's over too quickly for it to really sink in, with said monster only onscreen for a very brief time despite the effort that went into it, and the big payoff is... fine, but not as good as I feel it could have been.

3) "The Red Spot": Short, sweet, and to the fucking vomit-inducing point, just like its source material. This is easily the most faithful to its book incarnation, and while not necessarily scary, it's shocking enough -- especially if you haven't heard the story and aren't prepared for the payoff -- that it lands well. Made me want to hop in the shower right afterward, at least.

4) "The Dream": My favorite of the lot. The monster is a pitch perfect translation of Gammell's artwork, something so immediately and visibly wrong that it just sets off natural alarm bells in one's head, and its use in the setting is a neat variation on one of my favorite horror tropes. It exchanges the jump scares prominent in the other stories for a sense of rapidly bubbling helplessness, and while the conclusion isn't among the film's most shocking sights, it's a suitably surreal and uncomfortable ending to a surreal and uncomfortable sequence.

5) "Me-Tie-Doughty-Walker": There's a lot to like in this one, and I admire how much effort was put into the monster design and the execution of its movement, but it just doesn't come together -- so it's unfortunate that much of the final act hangs on it. While the buildup is great and the practical movement looks awesome, this section's a lot heavier on CGI and predictable action than the others, making it difficult to consider in the same spirit as its predecessors. How astray it feels from the stories it mashes together doesn't help, nor does the underwhelming payoff.

6) "The Haunted House": I'm hesitant to count this among the stories, because it doesn't follow the format of the rest and the ultimate confrontation isn't that scary at all -- not helped by the fact that it's the only story not to use its famous art (I'm at least thankful that said art got in elsewhere, but I can't help but imagine how well suited it would have been to the content of this scene). That said, for what it lacks in horror, it's at least a satisfying enough conclusion to the narrative and one of several good acting showcases for Zoe Colletti throughout the last act.


More generally, despite the PG-13 rating and broader intended audience, this is a surprisingly intense film; I don't envy any parents who brought Little Billy to the movies because he likes the books (especially not the dumb modern reprints with much, much milder art) only to be greeted by some awfully grisly body horror and in-your-face threats. I'm obviously not a fan of the reliance on jump scares, though it's just something I've come to expect from mainstream horror at this point, and there's only one of those ever irritating fake-out "friend jumps out" screamers. But those aside, I'm shocked at how much they were able to get away with on a PG-13, just because of the lack of blood when injuries happen. If you didn't click the story breakdown above, the first story ends with a genuinely shocking and distressing sequence that outright beats a lot of slasher deaths in terms of nauseating discomfort, and it doesn't let up much from there.

Ultimately, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark may not perfectly capture the nightmare fuel that it's based on -- I'm not sure anything else could, other than Gammell making a full animated feature -- but for what it is, it's a really good time. Those who grew up with the books will find a lot to like here as your memories of old nightmares resurface, while those who didn't will still appreciate some creatively horrific imagery and a genuinely solid, well-acted plot. It's not a groundbreaking horror revelation, as much as I'd have loved for it to be, but it certainly doesn't sully the books' good name.

Rating: Scary Good, But Not Quite Spooktacular
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NEW REVIEW! The Sinking City (2019)
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Re: KK's Great Big Random Review Thread

Postby KleinerKiller » Sun Sep 22, 2019 11:30 am

The Sinking City (2019)

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Basic Summary: A psychic detective solves mysteries in a flooded city to uncover the source of a spreading madness.
Genre: Investigative Puzzler, Action-Adventure, light shades of Survival Horror
Systems: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Created by: Frogwares
Directed by: N/A (the credits are unsorted and I can't find any information online)
Written by: N/A
Designed and Programmed by: N/A
Starring: N/A
Story-Gameplay Ratio: 6:4

For the unaware, The Sinking City follows Charles Reed, a Boston private detective and WW1 vet "blessed" with supernatural senses after a mysterious accident at sea that left him the sole survivor of his ship. With Massachusetts and surrounding areas slowly experiencing an epidemic of horrible nightmares and madness, Reed travels to the isolated city of Oakmont at the invitation of wealthy scholar Johannes van der Berg, believing the city to be the source of the problem. Unfortunately for Reed, Oakmont is a troubled place: cut off from the world by an apocalyptic flood that has left much of it underwater, grappling with an influx of refugees from the recently demolished Innsmouth, under siege by twisted monsters, and generally hostile towards any outsiders. Within minutes of stepping off the boat, Reed finds himself entangled in the web of gangs, cults, murderers, and supernatural phenomena that lurk at the heart of the ravaged city, and with his mind slowly cracking from the strain, he hurries to solve Oakmont's mysteries before it's too late...

Spoiler: show
This game is a busted-ass mess and it's one of my favorite games of the year. Yes, in a year that's given us such profound and polished hits as Resident Evil 2 Remake, Devil May Cry V, Outer Wilds, Judgment, Control, and Astral Chain, this fundamentally jank title from the minds behind the Sherlock Holmes games -- including the previously-reviewed The Devil's Daughter -- stacks among the most memorable and immersive experiences I've had. Admittedly, I'm in the perfect niche for this game. I love the Cthulhu Mythos and cosmic horror in general, and I've been waiting for a game set in Lovecraft's universe that doesn't suck ass. I've been a big fan of Frogwares' Holmes games, Devil's Daughter mostly aside. And I put a lot of stock in atmosphere and unique character, even if the experience that contains those traits is falling apart a lot of the time. So maybe I was predisposed to favor it, but let's see if I can turn your attention to it as well.

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Beginning with the gameplay, there are immediate improvements from prior Frogwares efforts. The core gameplay structure carries over from Crimes & Punishments and Devil's Daughter: walk around a crime scene or other investigation point examining evidence, highlighting things with your special senses, questioning relevant people, and gaining important leads and deductions. The "deduction board" mechanic I love so much returns as the "Mind Palace", but it's basically the same; gathering enough related clues lets you piece them together in a special space to create major breakthroughs relevant to solving whatever case you're on, eventually getting a deductive choice or two about where the evidence points (ex: "the murderer was self-aware" or "the murderer was being mentally manipulated") that leads you to one of multiple possible endings to the case. The first big change for the better is here: while you will get to the truth, there is no "right" ending to each case, and you won't get told whether your final deduction was good or not. Let a guilty man go free? Side with a potentially dangerous cult member over an openly dangerous gangster? Let some people die for the greater good? You just have to live with those judgments and moral decisions, and nearly every case ends with a really tough one.

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The open world is another fantastic improvement. I hated the attempt at an open world London in Devil's Daughter, which felt completely extraneous and failed to dissuade me from always using fast travel. Oakmont is Frogwares' open world dream realized, and it's one of my favorite open worlds in recent memory. The city quite literally oozes character, and navigating it on foot or by boat feels satisfying. The city's six boroughs feel distinct and varied, each telling a different story of the flood's ravages; walking through the wealthy Oldgrove or Advent feels almost welcoming, while somewhere like Salvation Harbor may as well be an Old West frontier town half submerged at every turn. It captures the feeling of being stranded in a Lovecraft story, a world beset by forces it can't explain and slowly collapsing into itself, better than either previous Call of Cthulhu game. And there are sidequests aplenty (I'll get there in a moment), varied NPCs to meet and talk to, tons of lore documents, and otherwise just great atmosphere to keep you from relying solely on warp points; especially in the early hours, I could sail through the flooded streets for the longest time, soaking in the immersion.

(I'd also like to quickly highlight how you navigate the world, as Frogwares have made what is in this day and age a radical decision: completely eschewing automatic waypoints, minimaps, and Ubisoft-esque map markers, with the most you get being a toggled compass. 90% of the time, Reed will be given a street address or landmark from dialogue or evidence, and you can just go into the map, hunt for that location, and place the corresponding icon yourself. This may be tedious to some, but I greatly enjoyed it for how much more involved it feels. If you want to take it even further down the immersion road, you can eschew the in-game map altogether and use a combination of the street signs themselves and the physical map that comes with certain editions of the game like a real goddamn detective would, but even I'm not that crazy.)

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The Devil's Daughter's awful random gameplay switchups are thankfully gone, replaced only by an occasional diving mechanic that's okay, even if it didn't often live up to its potential for me. Sadly, there's one major new segment of the gameplay that doesn't fare well at all, and that's the combat. It's what you'd expect, a melee strike and your average assortment of guns slowly unlocked over the course of the game, but it just feels bad. The melee is useless for all but the tiny monsters unless you manage to stunlock something for dozens of swings, and the shooting is extremely loose and lacks impact for how much precision it demands of you in close quarters. It's not too much of a problem for the sporadic human enemies, but fighting the game's beastly foes is a painful slog until you get enough skills and gear, at which point it swings around and becomes all but trivial. Ammunition, explosives, and health/sanity meds are a precious resource, and while the game is generous enough with the crafting supplies (provided you explore around) that I was rarely ever 100% empty, missing a few valuable shots because the aiming isn't tight enough or the monster dodged to the side at the last second is deeply frustrating. At least the shotgun packs a decent punch and has enough spread that the aim issues don't matter.

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Finally, there are quite a few side cases to tackle in between main cases, which is always an exciting prospect in detective games and a frustratingly rare one to see implemented; and the game does a good job guiding you to them, usually putting them in the obvious path you'll see on your way to a main objective. Sadly, while they're all worth doing for the massive XP and resource bonuses, most of them don't live up to the potential allowed by the setting. For many, they're just fetch quests that send you into abandoned buildings to shoot some monsters, which wouldn't be too bad if the combat didn't suck ass; these quests usually have clues or a conclusion that fills out that scenario's creepy lore, but your mileage will vary on whether it makes up for the tediousness. However, there are a few notable exceptions that you don't want to miss: "Assigned Reading" subverts its obvious fetch quest premise in favor of bite-sized doses of genuinely unsettling cosmic horror, "Field Research" makes up for its reliance on combat with tons of intriguing lore and a few investigation sequences, "A Delicate Matter" / "Through the Looking Glass" is a great investigation-heavy two-parter with a compelling mystery and a stomach-churning final choice, and "Silence Is Golden" sheds some light on a very interesting background character in the midst of a brutal phantom hunt. There are a few other decent ones that come with DLC packs I only saw on YouTube, but I didn't play them myself, so I don't want to comment on them.

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Now let's get into the story. Where Crimes & Punishments was an anthology in unlinked cases and Devil's Daughter made a floundering attempt at a better narrative, The Sinking City has a full overarching plot that is constantly hanging overhead even when the cases take Reed down some winding detours. And it's a pretty solid plot! The real meat is in the case-to-case stories, which I don't want to spoil except to say that they're all quite strong and morally conflicting, but Reed's descent into the depths of Oakmont is a compelling cosmic horror yarn. Tensions between various groups and knowledgeable individuals all making demands of Reed mean you never know who it's safe to trust until it's too late, even if some faces are more obviously untrustworthy than others. While much of the second act halts on a search for a missing person and sets up some predictable plot devices, the last few cases shake your perception of the story to the ground with a series of legitimately unexpected twists, closing several major threads in a variety of fascinating ways. Unfortunately, the actual finale is too rote and clearly budget-strained to be very satisfying after all of the hype, and the three possible endings are each kind of a letdown in their own unique ways.

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I have to compliment it for how it inserts itself into the Cthulhu Mythos proper, though; instead of layering on the Lovecraft's Greatest Hits album into a pseudo-original story that tries to pretend you don't know anything about Cthulhu, Dagon, et al, The Sinking City embraces the idea that all of the other stories happened and that some of them are known in-universe, and relegates the crowd-pleasing names to the lore while going for some really deep pulls and obscure references in its main plot. Setting itself up as a direct sequel to The Shadow Over Innsmouth is also a brilliant move, as it means the fish-faced Innsmouth immigrants are as unsettling and suspicious to the player as they are to the locals, creating a really interesting racially charged dynamic that permeates much of the early story and makes you constantly question whether the prejudices are actually warranted; it's obviously meant to parallel Lovecraft's own notorious racism and fears of miscegenation, itself the basis for the Innsmouth story, making this easily the most thematically accurate Lovecraft game to date.

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Since much of the game involves slowly piecing things together, I can't go into too much detail about the characters, except at a surface level (and even then, only three out of dozens). Charles Reed isn't much to write home about as a protagonist, fitting nearly every "noir detective troubled by visions" trait you can think of as is requisite for a Mythos story, though I do appreciate how perpetually tired and fed up with everyone's shit he is (and if given enough dialogue choices, you can certainly play him as a super snarky asshole). He doesn't break any new ground, but he accomplishes the task well enough. Johannes van der Berg, the man who invited Reed to Oakmont, is an interesting and creepy character who unfortunately doesn't get a lot of screen time, but works well enough when he's present. Lastly, Innsmouther-phobic philanthropist Robert Throgmorton (whose appearance I really don't want to spoil) is a real treat, condescending and menacing in equal measure but capable of surprising depth and introspection, and his interplay with Reed hosts some of the game's best dialogue. There are plenty of other interesting major and side characters, some of which are explored in depth and some whom I really wish got more focus, but that's all I can say.

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At last, we get to the presentation. When it actually works, the game's a visual and atmospheric splendor, boasting uniquely memorable imagery even without a AAA game budget. I already praised Oakmont as a great open world, and a lot of its heart lies in the unique touches: street signs lie half-submerged under flooded streets or are held aloft on buoys, citizens casually sail past you in crude barges, homeless people huddle outside monster-infested restricted zones wrestling each other for scraps, and nobody likes to talk about all of the distinctly abnormal coral and other growths sprouting all over the damn place. With high enough graphical settings, the fog is sometimes so dense that it brings to mind Silent Hill, always a great visual benchmark, and the near-constant rain throughout the day-night cycle is perfectly oppressive. Character models are a little on the rougher side, well textured but very stiff in the expression department, which is fine for Innsmouthers and monsters but not amazing for normal humans. And lastly, the game occasionally breaks into clunky pre-rendered cutscenes, most of which are a noticeable visual downgrade that point to reach far exceeding grasp, and which unfortunately dampens a few important moments.

On the audio front, things are pretty good. The sound design for the world is great, despite a lot of repeated lines from street corner NPCs (I heard "Extra, extra, all the news that's fit to print! Buy a paper, mister?" enough times to drive me mad). Oakmont's interiors groan, drip, and rattle with perfect pitch; the thrum of your boat's engine is almost soothing after some time in the flooded streets; and while the diving segments mostly disappointed me outside of a few great moments, they succeed in capturing the feeling of being at the bottom of the ocean with unidentifiable noises coming at you from every angle. The voice acting across the board ranges from good to over-the-top, sometimes in the same exchanges, though the hamminess was mostly charming for me; meanwhile, the monsters are just as guttural and unpleasantly squelchy as you'd hope.

All in all, The Sinking City is- oh yeah, wait, I forgot how I opened this review. Yeah, this game's a fucking technical nightmare by modern standards, clearly the product of Frogwares striving to make a great leap forward no matter how low their budgets are. Certain character models are prone to glitching out and sending loose parts of their clothing flying around or twisting into their bodies, not frequently or catastrophically enough to be a regular nuisance, but enough that it can be distracting at times. Pop-in for characters and entire buildings is awful, with the former sometimes spawning into existence as I started to run past them; occasionally, running fast enough on land for a long time will bring you to a patch of unfinished textures that then have to push you into a brief loading screen to accommodate for. And those loading screens, on the PS4 at least, can take ages to get through depending on what's trying to load in -- and you often get loading screens just trying to enter small buildings, which is normally meant to be a seamless transition. Even pulling up the pause menu / map screen can take a few seconds of frozen gameplay. Frankly, the fact that there was no major screen-tearing and that the game never crashed on me is miraculous given how busted everything else is. These technical problems obviously weren't enough to sour the experience for me, but you should be aware of them if you play.

All in all, The Sinking City is a brilliant little niche game that will be perfect for you if you occupy its niche -- if you love cosmic horror and specifically the Cthulhu Mythos, if you enjoy detective games and mysteries in general, if you're willing to put up with a lot of core gameplay issues and technical foibles to get at the juicy heart of a terrifically unique experience that I, for one, desperately crave more of. Of all the games I've played this year, few have gotten me so hooked so quickly as this scrappy little title, and I can't recommend it enough even with all that's wrong with it. If anything about it interests you, you owe it to yourself not to pass it up. The fact that I wrote this much about it should speak volumes.

Rating: In Strange Aeons, Even Jank May Fly
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"Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it." - Eclipse Phase

NEW REVIEW! The Sinking City (2019)
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