Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Tekkonkinkreet Review

Tekkonkinkreet follows two street orphans, Black and White, living in Treasure Town, a crumbling district being fought over by scavenging mobsters and soulless developers. Black and White are aptly named, Black being violent and aggressive, while conversely White is innocent and peaceful. Black and White are urban Lost Boys in a town filled with pirates, fighting ever increasing odds to achieve their dreams. To summarise the film much more would ruin the experience, as this films narrative story is a relatively small part of the overall experience. Although featuring a relatively involved plot, the film focusses on the character stories that surround the larger narrative. We see how plot elements affect the characters, rather than how the characters affect the plot.

All films, if not all stories, should be led by character and in films without obvious characters, such as more visual works, the character can be an abstract such as a location or a feeling. For example, 'Koyaanisqatsi’s' lead characters are the world and humanity as a whole. 

The thing is, I can appreciate nice characterisation but if I can’t believe that the character has been characterised from living in that world then the story fundamentally fails and once a story has crossed that failure line there is narratively speaking, no going back. You don’t necessarily need a fascinating world for your characters to inhabit but you do need one that it is basically believable for your particular characters to exist within. You need a world built from a basic level of structure that makes sense. 

Art and craft are intrinsically linked and both should complement each other. Craft seems to generally be separated and receive the raw end of the deal, being viewed as the necessary evil that allows the artistic vision to come alive. The issue is that a well-crafted story is in itself an art, having good ideas and characters well elevate it massively but the structure alone can be beautiful, much like with an empty honeycomb. Character however, requires some degree of truth to function, a good character can elevate a bad narrative but it can’t even exist in a non-believable one.

Now the above rant was for a reason, it was inspired by Tekkonkinkreet. Tekkonkinkreet breaks almost every rule it can. The characters exist in a basically real world, one that follows the same scientific and mathematical rules as ours. That being said characters constantly break these rules, doing ridiculous things such as jumping hundreds of feet into the air and surviving the fall afterwards. The thing is that these rules are arbitrary, some characters can do impossible things and some cannot without any apparent reason given. This unbelievable world becomes completely believable however, when filled with the characters that inhabit it. The world is a mixture of unbelievable and believable, because the characters are themselves both insane and sane. The narrative form works with the character function and they work very well together indeed.

The story is about very abstract concepts, such as the universal balance of good and evil and these elements are worked into a symbolic story of brotherhood. The strengths of the characters seemingly exist in one reality while their weaknesses exist in our own, creating a subjective reality that we are presented with, to interpret as we wish.

The basic heart of the story is the relationship between the two orphans, the older raising the younger and the problems they encounter. The fact that their story remains emotionally strong and real, despite the problems they encounter including aliens and demons, is a real testament to how well the characters are handled. This is primarily because the entire story is focussed on this brotherhood dynamic and even when it is not focussing on Black and White, it focuses on the brotherhood of two Yakusa and the partnership of two detectives. This helps the story of Black and White as it allows other facets of their nature to be explored without changing their characters to do so.

Tekkonkinkreet is a very tonal film and it deals with a lot of interesting concepts. Black and White are completely different in personality but are unable to function without the other, Black is yin to White’s Yang. In addition it is heavily implied that Black and White are suffering from mental problems that make them so distinctly polar in nature. White describes himself as being “made broken”. The fact that they have both been abandoned alone at the threshold of society, along with the venerable elderly is a powerful message.

In addition to this, there is also a strong environmental focus to the film. Black is almost like a spirit of nature, wanting to stop the extensive redevelopment of what he calls “my town” and keep it the way it is. White dreams of moving out of the city entirely and living at the beach. Both of them are trying to grow an apple tree within the city and are upset at how it won’t grow.

Primarily the film tells of what it is to be human. Tekkonkinkreet questions what we have lost as a species by losing our connection to nature and to the mystic, to gain ‘progress’.

The animation is primarily what people reference when talking about the film and it is very stylised and impressive. The animation is very fluid, mixing seamlessly between moments of calm and hyper kinetic action sequences. The camera shakes as the action sequences build, like a drink that is about to explode before following the characters as if they had been filmed live action. That being said you can see where the budget of this film has been spent, the action sequences run at a far higher frame rate to those of the slower and although it creates a tonal shift it would have been nice to see some of these more thoughtful sequences looking a bit more visually realistic.

The designs of the characters are also very effective with each characters design aesthetic being based on their personality, down to the shape of their faces. The city is also very expressive, being a character in its own right. The detail put into the city, considering its size is incredible. It looks like a moving art book.

Tekkonkinkreet is a very interesting film. It asks a lot of questions and leaves it up to the audience to answer them. It is a beautiful film but one that is both visually and tonally, not for everyone. The balance between reality and the impossible is generally handled very well but towards the end does become fairly firmly rooted in the impossible at the expense of some of the emotional realism the film has portrayed up to that point. That being said the film is easy to recommend. Tekkonkinkreet made me think and feel more than any film has in a long time. Films about ideas are fairly common but good films about ideas don’t come along that often.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Doctor Who: 'The Caretaker' Review

Danny Pink is not an interesting character. So to devote a large amount of an episode, let alone an entire season to introduce him is ridiculous. I don’t blame Samuel Anderson for this, given that he gave a perfectly fine performance as Orson Pink in ‘Listen’ he can obviously act. With the kind of scripting that Danny Pink has, nobody could save this character and I really suspect Anderson’s doing the best he can with what he has to work with. The real issue is that Danny doesn’t have anything to his character aside from his soldier backstory. I can’t imagine what Danny does on his days off, aside from Clara or what music he might listen to, anything that make suggest he is a rounded character. 
Ok real talk, a character having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder should be handled with a bit more care. I don’t mean in terms of offending people, although I’m fairly sure it shouldn’t, I mean narratively.  If you’re going to pull from the big book of bad things, such as rape, murdered family members, PTSD and so on, it should be for a good narrative reason. Dark backstories are the narrative Pandora’s Box and once opened you need to be careful. When I say careful I mean that when used correctly you can make a good story better and handle the topic appropriately, when not...bad times.
‘Vincent and the Doctor’ managed to deal with the mental health angle with a reasonable deal of care and dignity. Not only that, but it managed to work the symbolic idea of an invisible monster into the actual plot that surrounded it. At this point all we know about Danny is that something bad happened to him when he was a soldier…that’s about it, if you’re going to make us feel sympathy for someone, we need to know who he is, what the war has done to make his life worse. I appreciate that some of this may be in future episodes but the back story was not introduced in future episodes, we have that now.
That being said the biggest issue with Danny is Clara, she agreed to go on a date with him within minutes of meeting him, despite seeing him have, what can nicely be described as a public meltdown. Now maybe she thinks he’s the new hotness and ignored the odd behaviour or maybe night terrors really turn her on. Now it’s possible that she feels sorry for him and is giving him a chance. Let’s ignore for a fact that she would be taking pity on him, which is a terrible way to introduce a disabled character. Why did she agree to a date? We didn’t see him do anything to show that he was a nice guy. We didn’t get a scene where she overheard him offering to help a student after hours or saving a cat or anything remotely to separate him from every other guy at the school, ignoring the ones who’d get her jail time from dating of course. Apparently she now loves him, so any more development isn’t really needed I guess? FYI Moffat, love doesn’t conquer all in fiction, we as an audience, without hormones to blind us, need to understand why they love each other. 
I think Steven Moffat has developed writing shorthand of assuming the audience has seen every cliché and established trope in storytelling, so he doesn’t bother to use any of them, leaving undeveloped characters and scripts full of holes. I hope that the Clara wuvs Danny arc is not more of this and actually has a conclusion for once…
For ‘The Caretaker’, Moffat was writing with Gareth Roberts, a writer who usually injects a certain level of comedy to his scripts. This episode actually made me laugh several times, and I laughed with it, not at it, which makes a nice change. The overall plot made sense and Peter Capaldi continues to give a brilliant performance as the Doctor, not the same Doctor he was playing in the previous episodes apparently but good all the same….Ok that’s the good stuff over with.

We open with a ‘Love and Monsters’ like comedy montage to show Clara’s double life, complete with terrible keyboard demo music. Clara’s plight is made worse when The Doctor goes undercover at her school to track a back massager like Digimon that destroys everything. The robot killing machine is terrible, even by Doctor Who standards, I appreciate it isn’t meant to be the focus of the episode but it’s huge and shoots lasers so I’m going to rate it as if it were.
When the idea of The Doctor’s invisibility watch was discussed, why was it not used as the basis of a story by itself? The idea of invisibility and the danger of that power would be a good start for a character led episode, loads of potential. Instead it is used as a throwaway story element, one I suspect will never be seen again despite obvious plot uses for such a thing in future episodes. The script in general can’t see the wood for the trees, if the point of the episode was the five minute scenes with The Doctor and Danny squaring off, make that the entire episode! You could have trapped the three of them in the Tardis and had a character discussion based episode. You could have actually produced something interesting in the process, just possibly.
Now I’m going to be honest, when I mentioned the successful use of symbolism in Vincent and the Doctor I was setting this episode up, I tricked you all and I apologise. Attempts are made to add symbolism to ‘The Caretaker’ but they are handled worse than most media college students would. We have a disrupted chessboard at the school once The Doctor has arrived and a mirrored Clara talking about her double life. Top tip, symbolism is meant to be subtle. It works better when the audience doesn’t notice it immediately.
 When the director wasn’t trying to work GCSE level art into the episode they were being distracted by the 1960’s Batman tv show. So distracted by Batman in fact, that they let the camera lean constantly back and forth, Dutch angle after Dutch angle, we get it! THINGS AREN’T HOW THEY SHOULD BE! THINGS ARE LEANING TO A DANGEROUS EXTENT! 
This episode is really messy and far too ‘New Who’ for its own good. I think if i'd watched this episode without having seen the Clara/Doctor/Danny build up in previous episodes I would have liked it a lot more. As a standalone Who story it really isn't that bad, it's just that the character build up before this point has been terrible enough to condition me against it/them. The episode has some really funny lines and this brings a great comedy performance from Capaldi. He alone is keeping this season going and he yet again manages to just about scrape an episode from being unwatchable. 

Friday, 26 September 2014

Disney Sleeping Beauty Review

Walt Disney took a gamble when putting together Sleeping Beauty, not only did he decide to shoot the film using a new widescreen 70mm format but he also chose to heavily stylise the film as if it were a ‘moving tapestry’. The long development times these decisions brought made the film the most expensive to date for Disney, which led to it being a commercial failure when originally released. The film also got mixed critical reception, with negative reviews criticising the story for a lack of character development. I decided to review Sleeping Beauty as, incredibly enough, it is one of the few animated Disney films I had never watched before, somehow missing it as a child.
Sleeping Beauty is a film led almost entirely by its visual design. That being said, where films such as Sucker Punch have beautiful design but very little else, Sleeping Beauty succeeds as a film. To be clear, this is not due to the story being a good compliment to the visuals as much as it is to the fact that Sleeping Beauty is such a visually beautiful film it distracts you from a lot of the conversely bland story content.
Stripping the visuals the story is very simplistic and aside from one MAJOR exception, the characters are bland and uninspired. Princess Aurora in particular has almost no character, her only traits being the gifts of beauty and song she was given as a baby. Prince Phillip isn’t a lot better, with his horse given more personality than him. We are only given the slightest pretence that Aurora and Phillip are in some way destined to be together, this is expected to be enough reason for us to believe that they want an immediate marriage to each other, despite having only spent 10 minutes together. This is the Disney trope of marrying someone you’ve just met at almost its very worst.
The major exception I mentioned earlier is the character of Maleficent, a villain who, with about 5 combined minutes of screen time, became Disney’s undisputed best villain. Eleanor Audley’s performance breaths fire into what could have been a throw away threat, giving multiple shades of black to a character that could have been easily one note. Vocal talent in the recording studio is coupled with the animation team’s sinister designs to create a distinctly unique character, one that for once, truly deserved a spin off.

The films Walt Disney personally produced are all beautiful, so for one to break away from the pack it has to be truly stunning. Every element of the design and animation of Sleeping Beauty is rich with the effort and skill used to create it. Nobody making the film could be charged with not doing their best on the project. If you compare Sleeping Beauty with a post Walt Disney, Disney studios film such as The Aristocats you can see the personal care and determination Walt Disney brought to the world of animation.
The film has a very clear design aesthetic throughout. Backgrounds are both visually complicated and muted, while characters are minimalist and vibrant. This makes the characters clearly pop, as if from a story book. This primary use of colour from the character is used on any element that is intended to draw focus, as with the green flames near the conclusion. Visual symbolism is rife throughout the film adding additional depth that is lacking from the majority of films, animated on not, produced even today.
The animation is still very impressive, particularly in the magical effects and movement of fabrics, they look almost digitally calculated. A lot of animated realism comes from the fact that Walt Disney chose to shoot the entire film live action as reference for the animators. When some films use rotoscoping for animation the characters look strange and it creates an unsettling effect. For Sleeping Beauty it is clear that this was used primarily as reference rather than as a tracing base, the characters move as animated humans would, not as humans actually do. You only need to see the ‘Once Upon a Dream” sequence to see how successful this is.

The story side of Sleeping Beauty has definite issues, the characters are mostly pop-up book in depth and the films relatively short running time makes the story pacing a bit rushed. That being said this is an outstandingly impressive Disney film and well deserving of the Disney classic branding. The animation and soundtrack is almost 60 years old but they would still impress on a film released today. I’d take ‘Once Upon a Dream’ over ‘Let it go’ any day.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Professor Layton and the Curious Village Review (DS)

Professor Layton, everyone’s favourite dot eyed, puzzle solving gentleman! If the DS brand had a mascot of its own, away from Nintendo’s overall Mario focus, it would be hard to think of a better candidate than Professor Layton. Layton represents the DS brand not only by his large volume of game titles but also by the genre that those games exist in, that of the puzzle game. Portable systems have a long history of being supported by puzzle games, due as much to the lower average computing requirements, as to the pick up and play nature of the genre. The Professor Layton games are a somewhat unusual member of the puzzle game club, because they give as much focus to solving puzzles as they do to storytelling. 
‘Professor Layton and the Curious Village’ follows the titular Professor Layton and his “apprentice number one” Luke Triton as they travel to St. Mystere to attempt to solve the mystery of the Golden Apple and end an ongoing inheritance dispute. Upon arriving, the Professor and Luke discover that the village is pretty curious and set out to discover why it is so strange. 
Reviewing a game such as this comes with the unfortunate issue that everyone playing it will have a different experience based on their ability and speed at solving puzzles, making criticism far more difficult to gauge. Most of the 135 puzzles are fairly good and work well. Having said this, the game has definite problems with a lot of its puzzles, problems which are hard to miss. 
For starters, many of the puzzles aren’t really puzzles, in the traditional sense. Many of them are simply maths questions, which require knowledge of, for example, how to find the area of a square but aside from having some basic knowledge of mathematics, offer no real challenge. In addition to this, many of the puzzles give descriptions that are purposefully written to be vague and open for interpretation. This wouldn’t be an issue if not for the fact that some of the puzzle questions are just badly written, meaning that emphasis on words or a lack of words in a description becomes impossible to spot. 
The game has an inbuilt three tier hint system. You use hint coins that you find in your travels to unlock hints for puzzles. The issue is that hint one, and usually hint two are painfully obvious, the first hint is quite often simply, ‘read the question carefully’. In order to therefore unlock hint three, which may actually help you, you have to spend three of the limited number of hint coins. This would not be an issue if not for the seemingly random complexity level of puzzle while progressing through the game. You earn Picarats for completing puzzles, the amount earned being an indicator of the difficulty of the puzzle, in theory. In practise a puzzle worth 20 Picarats may be far harder than one valued at 50 Picarats. 
The amount of Picarats attached to the puzzles seem almost arbitrary at times, particularly as the game has different types of puzzles which different types of people will find easier or harder. I for example found the wordplay based puzzles far easier than the purely visually based puzzles. The constantly fluctuating difficulty makes the budgeting mechanic of Hint coins somewhat useless. 

This is additionally frustrating as some of the puzzles are multiple choice and some require a written answer. This means that if you are willing to sacrifice points, some questions can be repeatedly retried at the expense of said points until successful, while other cannot. All this serves to do is to discourage you to seek the non-essential story progressing puzzles when low on hint coins. 
The storyline essential puzzle and non-essential puzzle system is a double edged sword. You can choose to play additional puzzles while progressing with the story or ignore them and directly progress as fast as you want with the story. This system would work if the puzzles were all of an equal quality, some of the puzzles are not as well designed as others and this quality split is divided evenly between both the essential and non-essential puzzles. This raises the inevitable question when playing the non-essential puzzles of why the good ones aren’t in the main story instead of the bad puzzles and why you would include the bad puzzles as additional content at all? 
Supporting these puzzles are the story elements which, generally speaking, work pretty well. The story is easy to predict but in a game like this the story is only a small part of the story telling experience. The world and characters inhabiting it are interesting and the way it is presented both graphically and sound wise is enchanting. The story and the puzzles don’t always interact as well as they might, someone will give you an important life and death mission but will want you to count and divide some sweets first so they stop panicking about the plight of some imaginary children they invented. 
The game makes an effort to explain that everyone in the village is obsessed with puzzles to explain the constant harassment from the locals but that explanation will only hold so much water, water that you must then evenly divide between three different sized cups before you can progress in the story. While playing I was wondering who this game was designed for? The storyline is too in depth for the short pick up and play session audience and too puzzle dense for extended play. I’d be curious to see what the characters of the Professor Layton universe would be like in a more streamlined simple puzzle experience.

Reading this back I’m coming across far more negatively about this game than I actually feel. While I feel that everything I have written is true, the overall experience of the game holds together surprisingly well. Presentation is an area it would be very hard to criticise Level-5 in. While the games they develop often have clear flaws, they present the overall experience with such a level of heart and polish it is easy to forgive and generally overlook the flaws. ‘Professor Layton and the Curious Village’ is a flawed experience but a generally positive one, clearly filled with a lot of energy and passion. At the price it tends to be these days it would be hard to not recommend ‘The Curious Village’ as a puzzle worth solving.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Disney Cars 2 Review

Now the first Cars from Pixar had a major issue for me, it doesn’t need cars in it. This may sound weird but bear with me. Toy Story is, at its core, about learning to accept what you are and your place in the world. Toy Story has a universal message but if made with human actors in a non-toy setting you’d lose the fundamental dynamic of being a toy in a human world and the added pathos that brings to the story. Monsters Inc needs monsters, A Bugs Life needs bugs. Each of these stories uses its non-human cast to help it by taking the elements of that world and using them to enhance the story and message of the film.
You could take Cars, change the cars to humans and have the exact same film. It would be the story of a race driver whose car breaks down in a small town and has to pitch in with the locals while his car is repaired, learning the value of life as he does. Having cars with human traits adds nothing to the film, the message of the film would, if anything, be enhanced by having human actors to empathise with. 
Anyways taking Cars for what it was, it’s ok. The story was fine, if nothing special and the film drove along at a fairly nice pace. I have no major issues with it or feelings towards it in any way. Now cynical people would say that Cars was only made to sell toy cars to Disney’s, at that point, limited young male audience and that if you wanted to keep selling those toy cars you’d have to make a sequel. Even more cynical people than the aforementioned would say that you should add more toy cars to any sequel, ideally with hidden weapons that can be fired. I’m honestly amazed they didn’t add robotic dinosaur cars made out of Lego. 

Now Cars didn’t leave much potential for a sequel, what with McQueen’s story wrapped up. So what do you do when you have no ideas? Parody! Cars 2 is a parody of spy movies and to be precise, comedy spy movies. This film has more in common with The Man Who Knew Too Little or Spy Hard than it does with James Bond. At best it’s a parody of Roger Moore era Bond, but with none of the charm or heart. The key rule of parody is that you affectionately mock certain, distinct, elements of the original genre. Once you are copying a copy, you stop being a parody of a spy film and become just a bad spy film. That being said the action and spying sequences are generally handled quite well, helped by an enthusiastic performance from Michael Caine. If the film had just been about following Caine’s British and Bruce Campbell’s American agents as they travel the world fighting evil cars, I would have liked it. 
This film is visually speaking one of Pixar’s most beautiful. The animation is amazing and the cinematography is outstanding. That being said the film has a strange air of cheapness to it, although it clearly cost a lot of money to make, it’s hard to escape a feeling of 3D assets being reused, the soundtrack also only seems to have three constantly repeated tracks on it.  The script also feels somewhat rushed. Exposition is handled in an almost comically clunky way, dialogue is obvious and painful and the eventual plot twist is one of the few manmade objects visible from space. 
This film has one joke, that joke being that Mater the tow truck is confused with a spy by the secret service and keeps being put in dangerous situations he doesn’t comprehend by people who think he is an amazing undercover agent. This joke is as old as comedy itself yet requires a certain level of care to be successfully worked. Without care you get lines like “Look out McQueen, I’m a bomb!” followed by “That’s right Mater, you are the BOMB, you’re great!”. This is basically how the entire film functions but they did manage to resist the urge of creating a master spy called Maytier who is identical to mater aside from a moustache, so that’s something.

Now there is a simple litmus test for if you will like the Cars franchise.  The test revolves around if you find Mater an amusing character. The great thing is if you haven’t seen either film you can still do this test! Simply jingle a set of keys in front of your face and see if you laugh or not. If you laugh you’ll think Mater is the funniest hype shit you’ve ever seen. Obviously someone at Pixar does because he’s on the screen for about 90% of this film.

You see Mater’s amazing friendship with McQueen, complete with stilted Rain Man like witty dialogue exchanges. You also see Mater fall in love with Holly Shiftwell, Shiftwell presumably being a car based double entendre. She thinks he is a master spy, which makes the fact that he keeps calling her pretty every five minutes, workplace sexual harassment. To be fair, since she doesn’t have a personality he has to keep calling her pretty or we wouldn’t get why he wants to Mater with her. 
Mater has a personal journey throughout this movie, he realises that being an idiot has ruined his best friend McQueen’s life and that he has to try harder. I think Pixar realised the lesson of ‘Don’t carry your friends with you in your adventures, they’ll ruin your life’ was negative so they tacked a scene with McQueen apologising for shouting at Mater and saying “If people don’t take you seriously, they need to change”….Much better.
In conclusion, this may be the most pointless sequel ever. Even more so than Highlander 2, at least Highlander had the potential for interesting lore to be exploited. I’m not even sure that if you liked Cars you’ll like this film. Imagine the drop in quality from Aladdin to its sequels and then that same drop distance from Cars to Cars 2. That being said, I honestly can’t think of a better sequel idea for Cars…aside from Cars 2: Junkyard?

UPDATE! I have had the argument presented to me that liking Mater may not be due to if you find him amusing but rather that you care for him as a character. I would counter this by saying that for a character to be truly cared about they have to be aware of their surroundings and the situation they are in. You care about someone primarily because you empathise with them. Mater is for 90% of the film unaware of what is happening to him and why. Even when he realises how the world actually sees him, as an idiot, this realisation does not change him and the world instead changes around him. You can argue that for the 10 minutes where he realises the truth about himself you can feel sorry for him. However given that his idiotic behaviour is adversely affecting those around him, he is the issue, not the world, so why should the world change for him?

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Dreamworks Spirit Review

Occasionally you experience something you can’t explain, something that makes you question your established place in the universe. I’m not exaggerating when I say that watching Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron is one of the weirdest, most confusing experiences of my life. The strange surrealist films of David Lynch and the Brothers Quay have nothing on Spirit. Most abstract cinema seems to be purposefully trying to be unusual and is unmistakably made by humans, for humans. Spirit seems to be made primarily for horses and to be more precise, 19th Century American horses at that. The very fact that the marketing team went with "A motion picture experience for everyone" on the poster shows they knew this was going to be an uphill struggle. 
Spirit loosely follows a horse, coincidently also named Spirit and his adventures against the MAN, in this case oppressive white frontier settlers, oppressive Native Americans and shitty humanity in general. The movie starts with an opening narration from Spirit. To be fair he narrates everything since he doesn’t ever talk but I have a few issues with this opening speech in particular, as I shall now explain. 
“They say the history of the West was written from the saddle of a horse, but it’s never been told from the heart of one, not till now” Why tell this story? Who honestly was sitting around waiting for this story to be told?  The great American horse tale finally brought to our screens! I guess those Fievel dollars finally dried up. 

“They say the Mustang is the spirit of the West, whether that West was won or lost in the end, you’ll have to decide for yourself” SPOILER ALERT! It was lost. This film is incredibly preachy, the West was lost and so were we. What the films preaching isn’t entirely clear, there’s the environmental message about the destructive spread of humanity but the horses are all shown to be equally as narcissistic and species self-obsessed as we are. There is an attempt made to show how the Native Americans were treated badly but then they go on treat Spirit in much the same way that the settlers do. Not only that but they make a point of showing how the main villain The Colonel has honour to him as well.
“But the story I want to tell you is true, I was there!” Ok, now when Fargo made the point of lying and saying that it was based on a true story people were brought in, it was a live action crime movie, this stuff could have happened. Why are you telling the audience that the stuff that an animated horse experienced is all true, when it clearly isn’t? Is this to add authenticity, people know that the old West happened, people know that wild horses exist, so what does this add?
ANYWAYS moving on, Spirit gets captured by the army who attempt to break him and make him an enslaved horse. The army also capture a Native American, Little Creek and are treating him in the same shabby way…subtle. They manage to escape but then Little Creek tries to break him and…wait what? Anyway Little Creek has a super sexy horse called Rain who Spirit falls madly in love with, the issue being that she has Stockholm syndrome and has fallen in love with Little Creek. Now with Spirit not being cool with an interspecies threesome he has to try and convince her to leave with him and move back in with his mum.
Basically horse based peril happens for another hour and it all works out ok, unless you like steam trains. 
I honestly don’t know how to rate this film, animation is really good, soundtracks ok. In terms of story it makes sense, although it’s really hard to get engaged with. I can’t say the overall experience of watching it was bad, in much the same way that I can’t imagine watching a fish bowl all day is interesting, but cats seem to love it. If you’re a horse, particularly a xenophobic one wishing for the good ol’ days, give it a watch.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Snatcher Review (SEGA CD)

I’ve always viewed Hideo Kojima with a certain level of distrust.  He has a reputation as an auteur which, stripping the French artistic filter, simply labels him as an author.  The thing is, having your work immediately discernible is as true of Steven Spielberg as it is of Ed Wood Jr. Being ‘auteur’ is not in itself a guarantee of quality, particularly as anything auteur and unique tends to immediately gain a fan base regardless of whether it has any merit to deserve one.  

My opinion was not helped by a rental of Metal Gear Solid 2 back in the day, my first foray into Kojima’s most notable series. Having only a weekend to play the game I found myself incredibly frustrated with frequent deaths and my inability to make any quick progress in the short time I had with the game. I made the decision that I’d seen all that I needed of the series and its creator and ignored both from that point on.

Now I may have continued to have this somewhat uninformed opinion of the man and his work had it not been for my chance discovery of ‘Snatcher’ while reading a Blade Runner forum. My discovery of a Blade Runner ‘Inspired’ game that actually looked cool, coupled with my unnatural love of terrible SEGA hardware drove me to seek it out the SEGA CD port and see if the hype was deserved.

Snatcher is a point and click visual novel in much the same style as the Phoenix Wright game series, although notably more adult in content. You play as Gillian Seed, a newly recruited Junker. Junkers have been given the task of hunting down cybernetic creatures known as ‘Snatchers’ (like the title), who hide their Terminator ‘inspired’ robotic bodies under human skin, taking over or, if you will, ‘Snatching’ unfortunate humans and taking over their lives and bills and such.

You fulfil this Junking duty in much the same way as you would fulfil anything in a point and click game, by pointing and clicking, then pointing and clicking another thirty or so times until you click them in the exactly ordained correct order.  I’m being a bit unfair in saying that however, as this was where Snatcher immediately started to peak my interest. With many point and click games frequent visits to Gamefaqs is an unfortunate requirement if you wish to get anywhere,  since even if you have solved the required puzzle in the game you will also have to solve the game developer’s puzzle of how they implemented the solution.

The puzzles in Snatcher makes sense, they work. I did get stuck a few times while playing but in all but one of those times, upon learning the solution, I was frustrated with myself for getting stuck rather than with the game. I’m also 99% sure that the other time was due to a translation issue. To solve puzzles using actual real world logic in a game in this genre is pretty rare, even a series as good as Phoenix Wright is near unplayable without a guide.

That being said the game is frequently not as straightforward as you might hope, falling back on unfortunate genre staples. For example it is fairly common to skip triggering the next section of the game by not investigating the correct object in a room or by not showing a piece of evidence to the right character. 
This design decision is made worse as it is also possible to repeatedly examine objects and ask people repeated questions, sometimes having to ask someone a question multiple times to further the story. One notable example was when I had to show someone an identification photo which they didn’t recognise until the third time they were shown it, the first two times saying that they’d never seen them before. This very quickly gets you into the mind-set of showing every item you collect to every character you meet, however tenuous the link and asking them each question again until they eventually repeat themselves. Although initially frustrating you quickly get into this way of working and it would be a lot more annoying if not for some of the interesting and frequently amusing responses you get from the characters during this process.

To break up the investigation sections the game has mini-game like shooting sequences. Typically your robot partner ‘Metal Gear’ indicates to you that his motion sensor has detected nearby Snatchers, this brings up a 3x3 whack-a-mole grid overlay to the screen and you have to tilt your d-pad in the direction of the segment that the enemy appears in and shoot. With the game having been designed for the limitations of the d-pad the target speed is mostly kept to an acceptably difficult level. That being said near the end of the game the difficulty of these sequences suddenly ramps up considerably and although still possible, they become unnecessarily frustrating for this genre of game.

The story of Snatcher is really engaging, although somewhat over reliant on well driven film noir and science fiction tropes. The actual plot holding the narrative together remains interesting and engaging throughout, despite approximately half way through when the game decides to take a narrative leap off of the nearest cliff before awkwardly dragging its carcass back to the top for the final act.
As with the best visually realised stories the real narrative meat is not in what’s written but in the world itself. The game oozes atmosphere, you never feel completely unwatched by Snatchers regardless of how safe the location looks. The characters also feel well realised and are easy to root for and, when necessary, against. Topping this all off is a really great soundtrack, the same one I’ve listened to twice while writing this alone.

Snatcher is a truly fun and immersive game, it is let down by some unusual design choices at times but none that would stop me from recommending it to anyone who would listen. As with any game in this genre they live or die by their story, in that regard Snatcher snatches you up and holds you from the opening sequence through to the end credits.

I wouldn’t say this game has converted me to a diehard Kojima fanboy, but what it has done is drive me to re-evaluate my opinion of him and his reputation as an auteur. Completing Snatcher has driven me to seek out other games from his portfolio to see what all the fuss is about. Bottom line, if you like the Phoenix Wright series this game plays very similarly. If you’ve always thought that the main things lacking from the Phoenix Wright series, aside from working gameplay, were decapitations/creepy shower scenes and let’s be honest who hasn’t, then give Snatcher a go, you won’t be disappointed.