Friday, 2 October 2015

Top 20 RPG Games PART 1

So I figured it was time to give one of these lists a go and with the rpg genre being the one I have spent the most time playing over the years it seemed a good place to start. I had a lot of trouble organizing these simply because all of them are good games and all have things about them which makes them stand out. the main purpose of this list is to highlight a few games which I feel didn’t get enough attention and point out a few which I thought maybe got too much… Here we go!

Any list like this is going to be inherently personal by nature. Nevertheless, I feel the need to get my most clearly subjective choice out of the way from the off. ‘Legion: The Legend of Excalibur’ lets you play as King Arthur as he fights to reclaim the throne from evil forces which have claimed it.

The gameplay is somewhat similar to ‘Diablo’ with you controlling Arthur and his Knights from an overhead viewpoint as they fight their way across locations to clear objectives. These ‘dungeons’ are broken up by occasional real time strategy-like sequences, where you have to defend locations by splitting up your team tactically.

So I played this game a lot when it came out and loved it. I went back to it recently expecting my nostalgia to be unfounded but found the game holds up surprisingly well. Now the reason I say this is a very subjective choice is that it’s very hard to exactly define what makes this game good unless you’ve played it yourself.

The game has lots of little elements which just feel really good. The combat is very visceral with each attack having a solid weigh to it. Every character has a different style of attack and each person feels unique, despite several of them looking very similar in terms of weapons and stats. The level designs are also very carefully laid out and feel strangely authentic for this imaginary universe.

My only real criticism with this game is that it can occasionally be very hard and you find yourself running away from enemies repeatedly to heal yourself and your party, which can get pretty annoying.

The King Arthur mythos is a surprisingly untapped resource for video games. ‘Legion: The Legend of Excalibur’ brilliantly shows the potential this universe has.

Matt Stone and Trey Parker have gone on record as having been disappointed by previous games made using the ‘South Park’ license. Therefore for ‘The Stick of Truth’ the creators of ‘South Park’ oversaw much of the production to keep the game to their exacting standards.

For that reason ‘South Park: The Stick of Truth’ may be one of, if not, the most faithful games made for a franchise. The storyline of this game completely feels like an episode of ‘South Park’ made flesh. Unfortunately this faithfulness is also the biggest issue with the game.

Taking a genre which typically spans hours of gameplay and merging it with a comedy show which uses brevity for its wit was bound to cause some issues. The funny moments in this game come far more from the cutscenes than they do the gameplay, with user interaction often killing much of the comedic timing. The actual gameplay also causes some issues, with the frequent turn based battles quickly losing what little comedic effect they had via repetition.

It’s not that the gameplay or the storyline are bad, both are strong but the combination of the two highlights the worse elements of each. How much enjoyment you will get from this game will depend on entirely how much you like ‘South Park’. If you enjoy the show there is a huge amount to enjoy in this game despite its problems. If not, it’s still a fairly strong rpg but as this is #19 on the list, there are certainly better ones!

So studio collaborations are not an unusual thing in gaming. Despite this, 'Ni No Kuni' turned a lot of heads when it was announced. Level-5 have made some of the most beautiful games ever released, so them working with the legendary Studio Ghibli animation company was bound to lead to something pretty impressive.

Well, as could be expected this game looks and sounds amazing. Studio Ghibli designed the world and Level-5 managed to convert those 2D drawings into 3D environments and characters without losing the charm of the original illustrations. Ghibli also handled the animated cutscenes and put in as much meticulous effort as they would on a feature film. Joe Hisaishi of Ghibli handles the score and injects into it the same level of passion which he had previously put into projects such as ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ and ‘Castle in the Sky’.

Unfortunately the gameplay was never going to be able to live up to the stylistic polish given to the sound and visuals. Under the hood ‘Ni No Kuni’ is a pretty standard affair really, neither particularly impressive or disappointing. The game features a monster fighting system which can become a bit dense as the game goes along but it didn’t put me off from playing till the end, or recommending the game to others.

This game was always going to have trouble living up to the hype but with Ghibli and Level-5 working on it ‘Ni No Kuni’ was never going to be a bad game. High standards are a rarity in the games industry and with both companies having a commitment to high quality output it’s a shame that ‘Ni No Kuni’ wasn’t able to combine and exceed both companies’ singular outputs.

‘Ni No Kuni’ is a brilliant gateway rpg for those who would usually avoid the genre. Despite having some issues as it moves forwards ‘Ni No Kuni’ is a very hard game to dislike. Hopefully Studio Ghibli and Level-5 will work together again; this last effort drips with sweetness and charm and is well worth consuming.

The Star Ocean series are notable for using a science fiction setting over that of a traditional fantasy world. Well that’s partially true at least as the Star Ocean games usually take place in a variety of different locations and planets, some of which are traditional fantasy settings.

When on a less developed planet, ‘Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’ feels very much like a ‘Star Trek’ rpg would.You have to dress up like the local inhabitants and go undercover to find whatever item/information the planet is hiding. The game even goes to lengths to explain that you have a universal translator to avoid any awkward questions about everyone speaking the same language.

In constantly meeting new races of people on different planets the game carries a real sense of exploration and wonder. The player character is experiencing these places for the first time, along with the player, which helps to avoid clunky exposition feeling unnatural.

The constant switching of location is a slight issue as the story can occasionally focus more on the storyline of the planet you’re visiting and less on the constant party members and overall narrative. In addition, to successfully tell these smaller stories you can spend a lot of time on a planet while side story unfolds. In occasionally spending a long time in one location the game loses some of its exploratory feel. Occasional spikes in difficulty also can slow down the pace as you find yourself having to grind to clear a planet.

Despite these issues, ‘Star Ocean: Till the End of Time’ is a remarkably good game. It would have benefited from being tightened up somewhat but the tremendous pull of exploration manages to shine through the clutter.

‘Fable 2’ was the first game I spent any time with on my Xbox 360, at the time I was really impressed with it and I assumed this was just because it was my first taste with the seventh generation. As I played other games on the system however I became increasingly aware that ‘Fable 2’ had actually impressed me on its own merits and was something pretty special.

‘Fable 2’ takes the style of a typical fantasy game but handles it in a very interesting way. In taking all the staples of a typical fantasy setting ‘Fable 2’ subverts your expectations in interesting ways. The general tone of the game is very silly but this silly tone is occasionally peeled back to reveal the darker underbelly of the game universe.

One, very memorable, quest has you travelling down into a Hobbe (Goblin) cave to rescue a child who has been snatched. Children taken by Hobbes are turned into Hobbes and as you journey deeper into the cave you realize just how horrible this procedure truly is. These moments make it feel like a Disney fairy tale is being occasionally interrupted with the darker Grimm original that it is based on.

Peter Molyneux has gained a lot of flak in recent years for some pretty terrible decisions he has been making on game projects. However Molyneux has been responsible for some amazing games in his career and is himself a truly distinctive designer. ‘Fable 2’ truly has that feeling of a project driven by a single personality, that of an auteur.

Some of these Molyneux-isms work better than others. The dog companion is quickly becoming a staple of video gaming but ‘Fable 2’ was the first major example of it. Having a doggy friend on your adventure with you is a really nice touch, even if it is somewhat over eager to hunt for treasure.

Other Molyneux driven plans don’t work out as well, such as the relationships with npc human characters. Farting numerous times to impress someone quickly loses any charm it started with and the binary nature of impressing or upsetting the townsfolk makes everyone feel like they’ve been copy/pasted.

Unfortunately the auteur approach to design is always going to have a mixture of brilliant and terrible ideas, that is the cost of creating a ‘unique’ piece of art. Now obviously there are thousands of indie driven games but 99% will never come close to having the polish of ‘Fable 2’. This game sounds beautiful, looks beautiful and has the solid feeling of a well-tested, professional project. For me ‘Fable 2’ was an experience which stayed with me, this is a pretty rare thing for a AAA studio project.

So ‘Persona 4’ is a fusion of both the detective and rpg genres. Your character, Yu Narukami, finds himself having to stay with his uncle in the country for a year while his parents are out of town. Shortly after his arrival a string of murders begin in the town. These murders are not the only bizarre part of Yu’s trip as he and his friends soon discover the ability to enter a bizarre TV world. Just what this new dimension has to do with the murders is up to the player to discover.

So ‘Persona 4’ is real mixture of different mechanics and play styles. The wider framing of the game is that of a social simulation game. The game passes in days and the player must decide how he wishes to spend them. You can choose to enter the TV world to fight through dungeons, to solve the murder cases or you can choose to hang out with your friends and build your Social Ranks with them.
Now building these friendships/S-ranks is important as they allow you to power up you Personas. You use Personas to fight for you in battle. This is another huge part of the game as you can combine Personas to create new and possibly much stronger Personas.

This huge assortment of different gameplay styles gives ‘Persona 4’ a lot of variety. However ‘Persona 4’ is a jack of all trades and doesn’t really master any of them. There are better social simulation games, better detective games, better monster breeding games and there are certainly better dungeon crawlers.

‘Persona 4’ is easily one of the most overrated games I have played. It taps into that extreme cosplaying audience of gamers who generally become fierce defenders of any game which gives them a costume to cosplay in and a set of obnoxious catchphrases to use, the ‘cake is a lie’ effect.

‘Persona 4’ has therefore been blown up by these people to being this god like work of genius, which it isn’t. It is a really good game however and a brilliant cast of characters/story do a lot to iron out the issues with some of the gameplay mechanics.

So ‘Arc: Twilight of the Spirit’ is pretty hardcore. The storyline focuses on two brothers, both half Deimos. One was raised by humans and wishes to destroy all Deimos; the other was raised by Deimos and wishes to destroy all humans. Now this would be a pretty typical set up for a storyline if not for two reasons.

The first reason being that the story doesn’t flinch from showing the inter species racism in full which exists between the two groups, nor does it avoid the horrors each side have inflicted on the other due to this hatred. The second reason this game stands out so distinctly is that you play as both brothers.
The story jumps back and forth between the two brothers as they hurtle towards each other with their respective teams, both are the hero and the villain of each other’s stories simultaneously.

The storyline of this game is brilliant and is easily one of the most engaging I have played in a game. The battle system is also really strong, as is the overall presentation. In fact this game should be in the top five of this list and would be… if not for one minor issue, the game cannot be finished.

Obviously this isn’t entirely true but it might as well be incompletable. This game has a really nicely designed difficulty curve, each boss and new enemy feels like a natural step up from the last. I reached the final boss of this game at around level 80, at least 10 levels higher than I had needed to be due to side quests and such. The final boss wiped the floor with me.

At this point I would have gone back to level up but the save point was directly after a suddenly locked door. That’s right you are locked in with the final boss, a boss that is apparently still difficult even with all your characters maxed out to level 100. Now If I had been correctly rotating my saves I could have grinded myself up to this maximum level but you would then be talking about hours of training purely to counter a horrible and completely unnecessary, spike in difficulty.

To see a brilliant game pretty much destroyed by one bad stat choice on a single enemy is horrifying. Nevertheless, the good parts of this game still manage to miraculously lift the game to being this high on the list. Play it, just remember to rotate those saves!

So ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ gets a pretty tough time of it really. It had to follow on from the smash hit ‘Final Fantasy VII’, which brought 3D roleplaying into the mainstream and was many gamers first taste of the series. ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ decided to change up the formula massively from ‘VII’ and many of these changes really didn’t work out.

The Draw system, which forced you to repeatedly draw magical power from monsters to power, or re-power, yourself up is pretty obnoxious. You are also required to buy ammo for gun based weapon attacks. However, despite the execution of these features being less than ideal the concept of them is brilliant. The entire theme of the storyline is focused on what you lose from war and fighting. To intrinsically link this concept of loss to the core gameplay is a fantastic way of immersing players in the world.

The plot follows a group of teenage soldiers from a military academy. These young recruits have to work through their fears and insecurities to fight an enemy who wishes to destroy the universe and time itself.

The storyline gets a lot of criticism for being very reliant on clich├ęs and plot conveniences. Although these criticisms are valid it’s worth considering that this plot direction were also deliberate and not a result of incompetence. Being based from a school, the storyline takes inspiration from Japanese high school dramas; complete with the twists and turns you would expect from the soap opera genre. I really like the storyline and characters. I particularly enjoy the focus on how the characters react to the world around them, instead of the characters taking a back seat to the wider storyline.

This focus on characters makes the cast of ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ one of, if not, the best known in the series. They are really well defined individuals who are built up slowly over the course of the game. I stand by the idea that the central love story of ‘VIII’ is one of the best in gaming; this would not have been possible without such good characters.

Regardless on if you’re willing to look past the, somewhat frequent, poorly executed game design or the more relaxed narrative style, ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ remains a truly unique experience. To be a truly unique game when it is the 8th in a series deserves a lot of credit.

As much as I’m opening myself up for abuse with the following statement, ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ is a lot better than ‘VII’ at its core. The tone may be a little more relaxed in ‘VIII’ but it is at least consistent. The battle system in ‘VII’ is better executed but only because it refuses to take any risks, instead using a stripped back version of ‘V’s’ job system.

‘VIII’ also beats its predecessor in mini games. The huge variety of terribly designed mini games in ‘VII’ are scrapped for several significantly more developed offerings. The card game ‘Triple Triad’ in ‘VIII’ could have easily been a game by itself and was so popular that it was brought back for ‘FFIX’

Hopefully ‘Final Fantasy VIII’ will follow in the footsteps of ‘VII’ and get a HD Remake, one which will show just how much potential this game truly had.

‘Dark Chronicle’ the sequel to the original ‘Dark Cloud’ follows an inventor Max and a princess, Monica, as they try to save the world. Max has a pendant which can transport him to the future and Monica has one which can transport her to the past. Monica arrives from the ‘future’ to enlist Max’s help in rebuilding the world in her time. A tyrant is destroying the future and rebuilding it in his own image by changing the past in Max’s time.

To rebuild the future you have to go to locations that will be significant later on and establish them. For example a giant talking tree was originally a source of great knowledge in the future. Therefore you have to plant a selection of tree saplings in the correct location and fill the location with magic. You can then travel to the future to visit the tree to gain knowledge from it and unlock the next area.
The building engine, which allows you to create buildings and plant trees, requires raw materials. To gain these materials you need to fight through dungeons. These materials can also be used by Max to invent new weapons. Unfortunately the dungeon crawling and material collection are what let down ‘Dark Chronicle’.

The dungeons are really long, too long. The game does a fantastic job of building expectation for the next area/change in the future. This constant trickle of rewards does a lot to make the dungeons more bearable but you get the feeling the developers were spending a lot of time apologising for the length of the dungeons and no time trying to shorten them. Once you have seen all the future reveals and experienced everything the story has to give this game will have almost zero replayability due to the chore of the dungeons, not that a 60 hour game really needs replayability.

As with being another game from Level-5, the music and visual design are fantastic. Certain tracks have stayed with me years after finishing the game.

‘Dark Chronicle’ truly builds that feeling of adventure in the player as you traverse dungeons finding yourself fascinated by what the future will hold the next time you visit it. ‘Dark Chronicle’ would be vastly improved by a ‘Dark Chronicle Golden’ style port which shortens the dungeons, as they are really the only thing holding this game back from being a true classic.

So horror rpg’s are a relatively small subset of the genre unfortunately. Good horror rpg’s are a considerably smaller section of this already small selection of games. Horror games can have an over reliance on using active threats to build fear in the player. Such games rely on building the idea that each corner could hold a monster which might jump out and kill the player. Far too few seem to use the environment and narrative to build the tension.

‘Shadow Hearts’ has turn based combat so entirely builds up the tension from the story. Everything about ‘Shadow Hearts’ has a distinct feeling of wrongness to it. The undercurrent of the game is that demonic forces are spreading through the normal world and that the majority of people haven’t noticed. This feeling is built up via the world design, each location and dungeon looks perfectly normal at first but further expectation reveals just how strange these places are.

One of the sadder trends in modern gaming is the death of pre-rendered backgrounds and the fixed cameras which came with them. In fixing a camera the game designer decides exactly what the player should be seeing. A slight difference in camera angle can make all the difference in selling a mood or idea successfully. Horror games in particular really benefitted from keeping camera control away from the player. ‘Shadow Hearts’ benefits hugely from being able to frame its weird environments exactly how they should best be framed to build atmosphere.

‘Shadow Hearts’ is genuinely scary in a very Lovecraftian way. The story serves the bizarre visuals by depicting a horribly fractured world, both from the demonic presence and due to the building tensions of the First World War. This fractured world is perfectly captured by the incredibly distinct soundtrack which mixes multiple styles of music and production to create a very unnerving atmosphere.

‘Shadow Hearts’ has a great story featuring great characters set in a rich and twisted world. The attention to detail is truly impressive and builds a world which feels truly lived in. If you like either the horror or rpg genres, check it out!


So there we go, 20 - 11 are done! Comment and let me know what you think and the second part should be going up in a few days, the link will be put here. :)

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Terminator: TSCC Season 2 Episode 22 ‘Born to Run’ Review

Sarah remains in police custody follower her arrest in the previous episode. Meanwhile Catherine Weaver wants to meet John Connor, what does she have planned for the saviour of humanity?

So here we are at the conclusion of ‘Terminator:TSCC’. Now I’ve been trying to avoid spoilers as much as possible while watching this show so I wasn’t aware of exactly how the show ended. I’d heard that the show ended in a good way, that’s about it. Having reached the conclusion I can say I don’t entirely agree with that statement.

So Sarah’s case is being handed by an FBI Agent, Auldridge, he wants to know the location of John Connor. Sarah persists that John died when the bank vault exploded. Sarah requests a priest, Father Bonilla from the opening of the series, to visit her in lockup. Sarah instructs him to pass a message onto John, telling John to leave her and escape with Cameron.

So while Sarah is being held by the police, John and Cameron are holed up in a motel. John is suspicious that Cameron’s power source may have leaked, giving Sarah cancer. Cameron strips and gets John to reach his hand under her skin to check her power source. Cameron and John have always had a sexual tension, which is complicated by us not knowing how human Cameron really is.

Upon verifying that Cameron’s power source is not leaking, the pair are visited by the girl who worked for the gang before, the one who didn't speak. She passes on new documents for them and passes on Sarah message about leaving her with the police. Shortly after her visit, James Ellison also arrives to pass on a message to John, telling him that Catherine wants to speak to him. Ellison also passes on a message to Cameron from Weaver, “Will you join us?”, which freaks Cameron out. The message is a repeat of the one that future John asked the machines in the future.

John and Cameron decide to break Sarah out. Sarah and John go to visit Catherine Weaver while Cameron sneaks in via the basement, where John Henry is. Weaver is in the middle of explaining to John that they are on the same side when her office is targeted by the drone that the Connors found before. Weaver manages to protect Ellison, John and Sarah by turning her body into a flying squirrel shape.

Upon reaching the basement the group discover that John Henry is missing, Cameron gave him her chip and John Henry jumped into the future. Catherine and John jump into the future to find John Henry/Cameron’s chip, leaving James Ellison and Sarah behind to attempt to prevent Judgement Day. John and Catherine find themselves in the future, but it is not the future that John expected. In this new timeline Kyle Reese is still alive, as it Allison Young. John finds himself in a future where nobody knows who he is, where it seems he was never born!

That’s it, that’s the conclusion; that’s how the series ends. The previous few episodes had clues which suggested that the creators knew that the show was unlikely to return. Yet we end the show on a cliffhanger which was clearly meant to be resolved in the third series. I appreciate that when they got the news of cancellation certain things would have been set in stone, story wise, but surely the ending could have been a bit more resolved.

It’s hard to rate this episode entirely fairly. As an episode in its own right it is pretty good, as a conclusion to the series it is rather lacking. Regardless of whether this was the finale or not the cliffhanger still feels a bit odd to me. I appreciate that taking John Connor, who is destined to be the saviour of humanity, and removing that destiny from his shoulders is interesting. 

As a stand alone episode I could see how this could show an interesting alternate universe, I just don’t see how this could work for multiple episodes. It is also far too convenient that John travels to an alternate timeline and just happens to run into Derek, Kyle and Alyson within minutes. This really gives the conclusion a ‘Wizard of Oz’ feel where John wakes up surrounded by his friends, “and you were there, and you!”.

‘Born to Run’ may not entirely land on its feet but it has a lot to recommend it for. We finally get to see Catherine Weaver fight a T-888 for example. We also get to see Cameron and John breaking Sarah out of Jail in an explosive shootout. The emotional weight of the episode is also high, with nice scenes between John Connor/Cameron and John Connor/Sarah Connor.

I wish that the conclusion has been a bit more developed but I can’t blame ‘Terminator:TSCC’ for being cancelled. Despite a few slightly poor episodes the show remained exciting, emotional and intelligently written throughout. I can understand why this show has such a loyal fan base. A lot of considerably worse shows have continued for far longer than ‘Terminator:TSCC’ and it deserved to be recommissioned for a third series.

I have a feeling that had this show been on TV now it would have had a better time of it. Fantasy and science fiction are currently doing brilliantly in terms of ratings and I think that ‘Terminator:TSCC’ would have fitted in quite nicely alongside shows like ‘Gotham’ and ‘Game of Thrones’. Hey, if we’d been lucky maybe we would have got a crossover where Sarah Connor and Cersei Lannister teamed up to beat robot dragons?... A man can dream.

Monday, 21 September 2015

Terminator: TSCC Season 2 Episode 21 ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ Review

The reunited Connor clan realise that the group targeting them is about to target Savannah Weaver. Meanwhile James Ellison finds himself under pressure once again.

The episode opens with Sarah, Derek, John and Cameron meeting at a graveyard, the graveyard that Kyle Reese is buried at. John informs the group that he found a phone on one of his attackers. On the phone was a picture of Savannah Weaver, who he recognised from Dr Sherman’s office. The group go off to find her.

At home Savannah is talking to John Henry when a T-888 arrives to kill her. While John Henry attempts to lead her to safety, John and friends arrive to save her. While they are escaping however Derek is shot in the head and killed.

How you kill off a regular character is always a problem. You don’t want to make it too big a deal or it will come across as breaking reality At the same time you don’t want it to feel like how any other death would feel on the show. Unfortunately I feel that the killing of Derek fits more closely to that second camp. Derek is walking down a corridor and he is suddenly shot, that’s it. Killing him off so quickly and in such a throwaway way is shocking but doesn’t leave you with much aside from a momentary shock.

Death is such a commonplace element of ‘Terminator:TSCC’ that Derek’s death just feels like one more to add to the pile. With Judgement Day looming Derek’s, comparatively worthless, life can’t be made to have much emphasis but just a little more weight could have been added without ruining the overall tone.

Back at Zeira Corp, the police, including a difficult FBI agent, have arrived to help with the abduction of Savannah. Catherine gives James the job of questioning John Henry. In the basement John Henry has been watching the security footage of Weaver’s house and has correctly identified Sarah Connor in the footage. Henry questions Ellison on why he lied about the death of Sarah Connor and why he continues to do so. Ellison says he is doing it to save Savannah as quickly as possible and that he needs to deal with Sarah alone.

John Henry is not the only one keeping an eye on Ellison, the FBI agent discovers that Derek Reese was once James Ellison’s suspect and just happened to escape under his custody…

Ellison manages to negotiate to meet Sarah and later persuades Catherine to meet with Sarah also in exchange for her daughter. However during this process Savannah mentions John Henry to John Connor, who manages to figure out exactly what Zeira Corp is keeping in their basement. Sarah is angry but wants the deal to go through as planned.

At the agreed transfer point, a cinema, Savannah is given to Ellison. Upon Sarah leaving the cinema she is arrested however, the police set a trap for her. Sarah is cuffed and led away while John, Cameron and Ellison watch powerlessly. Ellison swears to John that he had nothing to do with the ambush but John swears revenge on him before escaping. We end the episode with John and Cameron watching the news report on Sarah Connor’s arrest while Derek’s ashes are being buried in the same graveyard as his brother.

So ‘Adam Raised a Cain’ is obviously very dramatic. That is what you’d expect from the penultimate episode of a show such as this. With Derek’s death and Sarah’s arrest things seem bleak for John Connor but we leave the episode feeling that he has already planned his next move. Will he head for Zeira Corp for a showdown with John Henry or go the police station to rescue Sarah, or maybe both?
Derek’s death at the hands of a T-888 and Sarah's arrest at the hands of human authorities perfectly reflect the two forces that the Connors have to fight against to survive.

The remaining running time of a single length episode doesn’t seem enough to wrap us this story, that’s my concern at this point. However none of the 30 episodes so far of ‘Terminator:TSCC’, including this one, have truly disappointed me. Will the final episode be one last hurrah or the final nail in the coffin of a doomed show? I look forward to finding out.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Terminator: TSCC Season 2 Episode 20 ‘To the Lighthouse’ Review

While moving on to a new safe house, Sarah takes John on a road trip to meet an old friend. Meanwhile at Zeira Corp, John Henry receives a visit himself, one that may mean big changes for the AI.

So ‘Terminator:TSCC’ has always had its cancellation hanging over it. It’s difficult to watch a series slowly set up storylines when you know they will not have time to develop them properly. A lot of shows have the issue of receiving the cancellation news after they have finished filming. When this happens the show either ends on the original cliffhanger as planned on has to tack a small addendum on to clear up loose ends. Neither of these options are very satisfying for an audience.

Now ‘Terminator:TSCC’ had the fortune of receiving the cancellation notice mid-season, giving them time to come up with some level of conclusion for the show. Now this is obviously good news but the rush to conclude the series is not seamless in its execution. The pacing of this episode is notably increased.

For example, within minutes of the episode starting John Henry has been hacked into by a rival AI, one created by Cyberdyne Systems. The reveal of the overall villain being a separate entity to John Henry is pretty significant and almost certainly one that would have been saved for a later date in better circumstances. It’s not just the big reveals either that are starting to appear. Derek selling out the resistance due to torture was hinted at but never confirmed; now it is revealed in a throwaway line by Cameron.

You very much get the feeling while watching that the writers are trying to make the best of a bad situation and have decided to close every loose end they had created. A lot of these reveals would have hugely benefitted from being revealed more gradually but at least they are being resolved in some way.

So Sarah and John decide to go on a detour while travelling to the new safe house and go to meet Charley Dixon. Charley is living in a light house that Sarah set up previously and is not entirely happy to see Sarah arrive. Sarah has not visited for her own sake however but to help John. Firstly she brought John so that Charley could help him with the loss of Riley, Charley having lost his wife Michelle earlier in the season. The second reason Sarah brought John to Charlie was due to the large lump she discovered in her breast.

Sarah is worried about who will look after John when she has died and doesn’t trust Cameron or even Derek with the task. With John already having an established relationship with Charley, Sarah is hopeful he will take on the parenting task when she is gone. Sarah visits a doctor to confirm her hypothesis but discovers that the lump is in fact caused by tissue defensively covering a tracking transmitter put in her body by Ed Winston.

This reveal triggers a series of coordinated attacks on the Connor clan. Sarah is attacked in the hospital, John and Charley are attacked at the lighthouse and Cameron and Derek are attacked on their way to the new safe house. Derek is kidnapped and rescued by Cameron. Sarah manages to fight off her attacker and heads to the lighthouse where John appears to have escaped but Charley has been killed. This episode served as a fitting resolution for the character of Charley. He gets several nice scenes with Sarah and John and manages to go out like a hero.

The identity of the force trying to kill the Connor gang is revealed in John Henry’s side of the episode. While playing with Savannah, Henry is hacked into and taken over by an external source. He is powered down before he can do any substantial damage but the very process of powering down John Henry has perhaps caused the most damage of all. Due to the nature of computers and electricity, the feeling of powering down would have been felt like an eternity for John Henry. Upon powering up he simply states...

John Henry reveals that the external source is another machine like him, one who is doing everything possible to survive. Little hints have been given before that Catherine Weaver isn’t working for Skynet and this idea has all but been confirmed now that John Henry is being attacked by the machine from Cyberdyne. It will be interesting to see how this information is presented to the audience and how James Ellison will feel having been tricked into working for a machine; maybe he knew all along?

‘To the Lighthouse’ feels somewhat rushed but never uncomfortably so. Despite having to cover a lot of ground in the rush to form a conclusion for the series, we still get a lot of nice slow character moments woven in. One such moment being after Charley has attempted to instigate a heart to heart with John and all John can emotionally cope with responding with is a question about home security.

I don’t doubt that this series would have benefitted with more breathing room but even when it has its back against the wall ‘Terminator:TSCC’ still manages to hold its own. With two episodes left I have renewed confidence, purely from the handling of this episode, that this show will have a satisfying conclusion, I hope to have my faith rewarded.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Terminator: TSCC Season 2 Episode 19 ‘Today is the Day Part 2' Review

John Connor’s investigation into the death of Riley continues, will Jessie be able to escape her past actions? Meanwhile John Henry has been doing an investigation of his own, what does Zeira Corp have planned for James Ellison?

So this episode follows both John Connor while he hunts Riley’s killer and Jessie as she remembers exactly what happened to the crew of the USS Jimmy Carter.

Back on the submarine we follow the crew as they rapidly descend into mutiny. Some of the crew ignore orders to avoid the mysterious package and open it. In doing so they unleash a T-1000 who immediately kills a member of the crew, takes her form and melts into an air vent to escape. The T-888 Commander of the submarine, Queeg, instructs the crew to continue home as normal, much to their horror.

The crew rapidly become convinced that anyone on the ship could be the T-1000 in disguise and that Queeg is working for the machines. Jessie confronts Queeg and asks him to stand down and let her assume command; he refuses so, she shoots him. Jessie scuttles the submarine and while escaping with the remaining crew is approached by the T-1000. The machine gives Jessie a message for John Connor “Tell John Connor, the answer is no’.

Upon returning to the base, Jessie is confronted by Cameron. Jessie demands to know what the question was that John Connor asked the machines. What they were refusing. “Will you join us?” Cameron responds, confirming Jessie’s fears about John’s leadership. To add insult to injury Cameron, seemingly in frustration, informs Jessie that she has suffered a miscarriage due to the chaos on the submarine.

It’s good to establish why Jessie hates both John Connor and Cameron so much. Her motivation is well established but It’s also presented in a very personal way. Queeg refused to relinquish command of the submarine because he felt the mission was too important. For all we know Jessie’s decision to scuttle the submarine was what led to the machines refusing to work with humanity. Jessie has been driven by revenge and by showing the full story of the submarine we see that she may have been blinded by it. Her inability to see outside of her small viewpoint is exactly what separates people like her from John Connor.

This concept is brilliantly demonstrated by John’s actions in this episode. Jessie returns the hotel to find John Connor in her room. He explains that he was aware that Riley was from the future and he had been for a while. John tells Jessie that he had figured out Jessie’s entire plan but did nothing about it; he regretted that this had led to Riley’s death. Feeling as responsible for Riley’s death as Jessie is, he tells her to leave town.

John demonstrates amazing self-control in not getting revenge for Riley. Jessie proved that she was willing to do anything to get what she wanted, John showed that he wasn’t. John has been becoming more and more able to lead humanity as this show has gone on; this episode really demonstrates that fact. While Jessie is leaving the hotel she is confronted by Derek. Derek is disgusted by her behaviour, saying that she is not the Jessie that he knew; a statement that due to different time lines is correct.

Derek considers shooting Jessie but decides to follow John’s orders to let her go instead. John asks Derek what humanity think for him in the future. Derek responds that they would live and die with him but they are constantly looking for him to show some humanity, to show some weakness in front of them. We end the episode with John breaking down in tears in front of the only two people he can be vulnerable to, Sarah and Cameron.

John’s character has had a real boost with this episode. He has had to become the John Connor people expect him to be to cope. However John is still vulnerable and in crying with Sarah and Cameron he has shown just how important to him they are. With the inevitable death of Sarah; John’s attachment to Cameron in the future becomes far clearer.

At Zeira Corporation John Henry has moved on from playing with Lego to painting Warhammer figures. Weaver is happy to see his progress but is less happy with his questions about Zeira Corp’s files. John Henry has found fake documents to cover the tracks of former employees that Weaver killed. James Ellison has some of these documents prepared for him. 

John Henry is worried about Weaver killing his friend. Weaver explains that she does not wish to kill Ellison but that humans will “disappoint you”… If Catherine Weaver is the same T-1000 from the submarine is unclear at this point but it is increasingly clear that she has her own plans away from purely creating Skynet.

‘Today is the Day Part 2’ is one of the best episodes of ‘Terminator:TSCC’ so far. John’s journey to becoming the future saviour of humanity is almost complete. Unfortunately this transition has not been entirely positive for John; he has had to learn the weight of responsibility and has become more detached in the process. I like that the show has not shied away from showing the descent into misery that is commanding the resistance in the future.

‘Today is the Day Part 2’ has managed to not only build on the first part but also add to the overall lore of the show. I look forward to the conclusion of the show, with only three episodes to go it promises to be exciting.  

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Terminator: TSCC Season 2 Episode 18 ‘Today is the Day' Review

With Riley’s body having been discovered by the police, will Cameron be able to convince the Connors of her innocence. Meanwhile Jessie finds her mind wandering back to the past as the reasons for her distrust of John Connor begin to come to light. Away from John Connor, at Zeira Corporation, John Henry has decided to play a game with John Ellison.

So the discovery of Riley’s death understandably upsets John. Cameron professes her innocence and John is unsure if he can believe her or not. Sarah seems sure that Cameron is guilty, given Cameron's history of lying to John. Jessie attempts to use the death to her advantage, trying to convince Derek to join her cause in turning John against the machine. Derek however seems suspicious of how Jessie is reacting to the death.

So the death of Riley has reinvigorated a lot of storylines on the show. The ill feelings between Sarah and John have resurfaced via their dispute over Cameron. Jessie’s story has again gained momentum as she has found herself in the difficult position of attempting to frame someone for a crime she committed. Derek meanwhile finds himself being stuck between his new life with the Connors and his old life with Jessie.

In terms of Jessie’s past with Derek we get another flashback to her past in the resistance. We see her life aboard the USS Jimmy Carter. We have previously had a description of her life on the sub and the reprogrammed T-888 who pilots it. Being the first part of a two parter we spend this flashback setting up why Jessie distrusts both John Connor and reprogrammed machines so much.

We discover that the original mission of the submarine, to deliver supplies to Australia, was a cover story. The mission of the submarine is in fact to travel deep into machine territory to retrieve a package for John. The crew manage to find the package but they have to take it from a group of machines who were waiting to give it to them. The reveal that John has been working with machines in the future is interesting and goes a long way to establish why his command may have become so questioned in the future.

Away from the Riley situation, John Henry is causing problems for James Ellison. After Catherine refuses to play hide and seek with her daughter, Savannah, Henry decides to play with her himself. He manages to lure her down to the basement and convinces her to play hide and seek with him.
When Weaver and Ellison confront Henry, he says that they have to guess answers to his questions to receive clues for where Savannah is located. Having answered Henry’s question Savannah is located. 

Ellison angrily explains to John Henry that what he did was dangerous, that Savannah might have hurt herself and it would have been Henry’s fault (In a nice Frankenstein homage). Ellison makes a very clear point to explain to John Henry that choosing to lie could have endangered someone. This is clearly established to focus John Henry on the other thing he is covering up, the fact of Weaver being a machine. It will be interesting to see how long this particular secret stays between only Weaver and Henry.

We leave the episode with John discovering skin under Riley’s fingernails in the morgue and with Derek, Jessie and Sarah attempting to work out what to do with the increasingly erratic Cameron. 

‘Today is the Day’ has the problem of being the first episode in a two parter but it manages to build up the second part very nicely. it does this by building up the character tension and not focussing too strongly on the overall narrative. This two parter is focussed on the death of Riley and how it effects John and those around him.

In seeing the fallout to this we get a lot of nice character moments. For example we get a moment where Cameron explains to Sarah how each of them are a threat to John, because he cares about them. This has forced John to be a recluse in the future; he has to be alone to be safe.

‘Today is the Day’ is hard to rate entirely because my opinion of it may change once I have seen the second part. As a standalone episode it is pretty strong however and successfully makes me want to see what will happen next in the story. We shall see if the second part manages to deliver on what the first part built up.  

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Terminator: TSCC Season 2 Episode 17 ‘Ourselves Alone' Review

The damage to Cameron from the car explosion reappears via a malfunction in her hand. Meanwhile Riley’s cover story begins to falter; will John discover her secret at last?

While trying to remove a pigeon from the Connor homestead, Cameron accidentally kills it. Her hand malfunctioned and instead of releasing the bird she crushes it. Cameron enlists John to help her repair her hand. In the process of helping her, John becomes aware that Cameron has been hoarding spare parts from defeated Terminators. Cameron had been instructed to destroy any parts of future technology by Sarah but she has ignored that order, due to receiving an earlier order from the future John Connor to save some.

This bizarre order is interesting as it raises questions about the sanity of future John Connor. Jessie has come back in time to correct the path of John Connor as she believes that in the future he is making bad decisions, is she correct? John has always questioned his ability to lead humanity successfully, so it will be interesting to see how he reacts now that he is receiving evidence to suggest he was right to worry.

Cameron’s arm isn’t the only part of her to be damaged. John begins to notice that she is acting strangely again, such as asking for his help to repair herself when she doesn’t need any. He asks her what is going on with her and she is unable to give him an answer. Given his concerns she makes him a detonator, which is wired up to an explosive in her brain. As he leaves Cameron he finds another dead bird outside, showing that the repair on her arm was not successful.

Riley has returned to hang out with John again, following her suicide attempt. Sarah is worried about the lack of information she has on Riley and decides to investigate her. Upon visiting her foster home and ‘social worker’ (Jessie) she discovers that Riley has been screaming about ‘Bleached Skulls’ in the future. John insists that he didn’t tell Riley about Judgement Day but Sarah doesn’t believe him. A legitimate social worker then appears at the home to question the Connors, having been tipped off by a mysterious source.

John attempts to question Riley but she insists she didn’t tell the authorities. Cameron also confronts Riley and cannot decide whether she should kill her or not, worrying John about the decisions that future Cameron will make. Even if Cameron promised not to kill her, could she be trusted? After all, she promised not to kill the pigeon in the chimney.

While Sarah and John are distracted, Riley rushes off having realised that Jessie was the one to call the authorities. Riley figured out that Jessie’s plan was to split up Cameron and John by encouraging Cameron to kill Riley. Upon Jessie admitting the plan, Riley and her fight. Unfortunately Riley kills Jessie in the struggle. It will be interesting to see the fallout from this fight. Jessie’s original plan has fallen apart following the death of Riley so she will have to adapt her strategy. Will she frame Cameron for the death or come up with another plan entirely?

Riley’s death is not the only issue Jessie is facing. Derek had asked for Jessie help in grabbing a lawyer who may have ties with Skynet. Due to her fight with Riley, Jessie was unable to arrive to help him. Derek is likely to have some pretty serious questions about her absence, how will she be able to answer them?

‘Ourselves Alone’ finally moves forward the Riley/Jessie situation, which I am very happy about. At times this storyline has felt a bit slow and directionless. Whatever happens now there will have to be a resolution of some sort. It’s also nice to see Cameron’s bizarre behaviour questioned once again. 

This episode isn’t especially amazing by itself but it does move the story on in ways which are pretty interesting. There is a building feeling that ‘Terminator: TSCC’ is working towards something; I just hope that with only five episodes remaining the show runners managed to achieve what they wanted to do in time.