PacRim 2 Review: Eh

Look, I gotta be honest. Without Guillermo Del Toro at the helm, there’s simply no way Pacific Rim: Uprising could match up to the original. Del Toro grew up watching kaiju movies and mecha anime, and it showed through every shot of Pacific Rim.  It had its own set of issues, but it was a movie that was essential to see in theatres, on a huge screen with a great sound system. Del Toro understood what was great about those genres, and loaded PacRim with all that.

Uprising is thoroughly underwhelming in comparison. Spoilers ahead.

The original PacRim had underdeveloped characters. That was okay though. They were archetypes, characters you immediately understood the function and personality of. Still, I would’ve loved to delve more into the other Jaegar pilots’ histories, especially the Chinese triplets and the Russian duo. Newt and Hermann worked excellently as comedic relief characters, and Mako Mori and Stacker Pentacost were so thoroughly likeable. Despite their somewhat shallow nature, there was still emotional and comedic payoff. The stakes were understood. The sense of scale, the impact and weight of both the Jaegars and the Kaiju, an unforgettable soundtrack that, frankly, just gets me fuckin hype every time I hear it–all of it came together so well to form an action flick full of both hope and optimism and really good monster-robot fights.

Uprising understands almost none of that. Uprising is a skeletal copy of the first film, akin to the movies Quentin Tarantino puts out, all style and no substance. Heck, even style is barely there.

To be fair, Uprising was in a difficult position. It had to explain enough of the previous movie for those that hadn’t seen it while still introducing all the new stuff. Unfortunately, it results in a whole lot of breakneck pacing and expositional frontloading that leaves you overwhelmed and feeling nothing for its barely there characters. John Boyega does the best he can with an interesting role, but everyone else is immediately forgettable and have no real chance to be understood and developed as characters. Their relationships aren’t earned, the jokes aren’t earned, there’s no real emotional build up or catharsis, and the ending is anticlimactic and so sudden, I left the theatre not pumped up and ready to kick giant monster ass, but thinking, “That’s it?”

I couldn’t even be excited about my prediction that Newt was the antagonist. He was always a comedic side character, but even his relationship with Hermann and the rest of the Shatterdome felt real and solid. Uprising completely destroys his character. He’s pathetic and thoroughly unlikeable, an ugly little lackey of the Precursors.

It’s sad, because the basic premise of Uprising is actually pretty good! The drone Jaegars immediately reminded me of the Mass Produced Evas, and the most developed characters, Jake Pentacost and Amara Namani, have excellent foundations full of potential. A fused Kaiju is so self-evidently cool, like OF COURSE that was the next step up from Cat 5 monsters.

But that’s where it stops. The big boy critter is nowhere near as cool looking as the originals. Its component Kaiju are barely there. The new Jaegars have some cool gimmicks, but are otherwise pretty generic looking.

The worst thing though, is the movie doesn’t even sound good. Pacific Rim had amazing sound design with a deep, rhythmic base that sold every punch and slash and throw. The animation had an excellent focus on showing the sheer scale and weight of the robots and monsters. The Jaegars felt heavy; the pilots had to put a real effort into maneuvering them. The Kaiju felt strong, massive, beastly, an immediate threat.

Uprising throws its antagonists around willy nilly and the battles feel like little more than slapfights. There’s no impact, nothing that communicates the danger and destructive potential. Everything starts and ends so fast with no time to absorb it. I didn’t freakin’ care.

I can’t say I didn’t have some fun. It was better than nothing, and somehow still better than what I expected. But I wouldn’t tell anyone to go see it in theatres. Wait till it shows up in a Redbox, honestly. There’s a setup for a third movie, and I can only hope that Del Toro is able to direct it.

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Pokemon Crystal: The Greatest Video Game Sequel Ever Made

C_flyer_frontA bold title, but one I fully believe in. Furthermore, I will go on to say that Crystal is the best in the entire series. Crystal exemplifies the prime aspect that makes a sequel good: a response and respect for its predecessors while acknowledging forward movement and, heh, necessary evolution.

Especially so in the case of Crystal, in particular because of its themes, it’s important to place it within a historical context. Pokemon exploded in the mid-late nineties with the initial release of Red and Green in Japan, followed by the release of Red and Blue in the west (with these versions based primarily on the Japanese Blue version, their ‘third’ that in the west would be normally associated with Yellow, Crystal, Emerald, and so on). The games were a global cultural sensation, essentially extending the lifespan of the Gameboy into the new century.

With the release of the Gameboy Color, the first generation took advantage of colour palettes representing their namesakes, but it was not until the release of Gold and Silver in 1999 in Japan (and 2000 in the United States) that the series truly took advantage of an expanded cache of colours. This is of important note.

The original Red and Green versions are notorious not only for their bugginess, but for the wonkiness of their sprites. Compared to Ken Sugimori’s illustrations, these were highly exaggerated, sometimes barely recognizable as the Pokemon they were meant to represent. Personally, I adore them and find their goofiness endearing. Many were redrawn for Blue, those being used in the western releases, but still maintained a cartoonishness and playfulness to them, the limitations of sprite size an encouragement to experiment with straying off-model.

Gold and Silver present a more refined spritework. The sprites are cleaner, with more consistent proportions, and are better representations of each respective Pokemon. However, they are still often exaggerated forms. They recognize they are cartoons, meant not only as a literal 1:1 representation of a subject, but also of personality and mood. These sprites are doing the primary aesthetic heavy lifting in the games, and they burst at the seams with character.

Also of note is a further dedication to translating Sugimori’s unique watercolour style to 16-bit. Instead of start, highly saturated colours, Gold, Silver, and Crystal use a soft pastel palette. The games teem with soft pinks and purples, creamy off-whites and muted golds and warm blues and greens. The games are simply soft and pleasant to look at, like walking through a garden. They are friendly, reminding you that hey, this is a game. Enjoy yourself. Take your time. There is no need for such anger and aggression.

Crystal further plays with the freedom of the sprites to be joyful with their representations. It’s the first in the series to have animated sprites, each Pokemon having a short, unique animation when it first appears in battle to further express the character of each critter. It’s delightful.

It’s here that I must bring up the much-maligned third generation of games, Ruby/Sapphire/Emerald. Unfortunately, I have to continue in that line of criticism: I’m not a fan of this generation, in particular because of its visuals. The Gameboy Advance brought Pokemon into 32-bit, allowing for more detailed sprites, but at a loss of expressiveness. The sprites are aggressively on-model to Sugimori’s illustrations, stiff and devoid of personality.

Emerald’s animations go just as far as squashing and stretching the overall sprite like someone playing around with resizing in MS Paint. It’s boring and lifeless, and that inflexibility continued on to future generations. Of course there are certain constraints to consider, such as sheer processing power on the 3/DS for 500+ individual models, but it’s still disappointing after experiencing Crystal and just how much fun it is to look at and inhabit.

The pastels aren’t just visually pleasing though. Crystal, more so than even Gold and Silver, is a bittersweet love letter to Red/Blue/Green. Our memories, much like the towns and forests of Johto and Kanto, are rose-tinted. Crystal takes us not to a region more advanced, more futuristic than Kanto, but more traditional and rustic. It’s a region steeped in folklore, history, and culture. There are creaking, aging towers maintained by dwindling numbers of monks, a lone craftsman singlehandedly maintaining the art of crafting unique Poke Balls, dancers dressed in traditional garb, moving to the unmistakable sound of an ancient instrument, and local gods inhabiting every nook and cranny, caught only in glances if you’re not fast enough.

And then there are the people. There are Gym Leaders that are young and spry, and those that are old and hold onto tradition. There is Clair, part of a long line of respected Dragon-type users, a young and powerful woman that nevertheless respects ritual and lineage. There are the neo Team Rocket Administrators, desperate to bring back the glory reach of an old school mafioso, reluctant and unwilling to accept that those days are over, that even criminals must adapt to the changing times. There is Eusine, forever chasing legends told to him by his grandfather, centering self-worth and esteem in acknowledgement from that with which he grew up.

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And there is the player, you. Having played Red, Green, Blue, Yellow, any of those really, beating Clair, beating the Elite Four, and having the shock of many young Pokemon fans’ lives:

Kanto. You’re back in Kanto.

It’s the Kanto you knew, and yet, not. Things are different. There’s new construction. There’s new Pokemon. Some areas aren’t available. With Giovanni gone, Green is now the Leader of the Viridian Gym. You journey to Mt. Silver and battle Red, the very avatar you embodied in the original games. Kanto, a young player’s home, changes with the times. You can’t go home again. But that’s alright, because look at the adventure that took you close to it.

There are mechanical changes to consider as well. Gen 2 simultaneously expanding the competitive depth of battling while putting at the forefront friendship as critical to real growth with your team. The literal usage of time, events that you can participate in, people you can meet, a living ecosystem reacting to night and day. Cellphone contacts.

While Gold and Silver had all these, Crystal truly brings the generation’s thematic and mechanical elements to their conclusion. The games came out at the turn of the century, with Crystal in the 21st. Crystal looks back fondly on its past, tenderly and with love, while accepting that everything will move forward. How it changes, we may not always know, and like. But it will.

31 Days Of Horror Games: Day 15

Yeesh.

covetous

Covetous is a game I played years and years ago, that stuck with me on such a primal level that every so often I am jarringly reminded of it and have to seek it out again. I’m pretty sure that, outside of RPGMaker horror games, this was my first experience with games outside the traditional publishing structure. It’s short–it’s done in less than a minute–but it’s creepy, and full of malice.

Covetous can be played on Newgrounds. Flash is required.

31 Days Of Horror Games: Day 14

Here you go.

tomato.png

The Tomatoes are OK is weird. It’s a headache taking the form of a VHS tape run way too many times through the player. It’s also cute? I don’t know. There’s a pervasive sense of unease, from a very childlike perspective. There are rules you don’t understand as a child, tasks you are given but not explained. Death is something strange and far-off and shadowy, and a parent’s anger is a looming monster. It’s all a very distant memory, distorted by time and space.

The Tomatoes are OK is available on itch.io.

31 Days Of Horror Games: Day 13

Friday the 13th is upon us! Good luck to you all. I forgot to actually do Day 12 yesterday, so here’s another double feature.

I took a chance on Bulb Boy because there’s not much horror gaming to be had on the Switch yet, and the art reminded me of one of my favourite childhood illustrators, J. Otto Seibold. I was pleasantly surprised by a cute, funny, and occasionally pretty spooky little point&click adventure game.  The scenes can be grotesque in an irreverent, adolescent way, but they’re cleverly accompanied by a synths and industrial soundtrack. It’s a charming little haunted house.

Bulb Boy is available on Steam and Nintendo Switch.

Thumper is a game that needs to be felt. It’s not horror in the traditional sense; its a cacophony of light and sound and sensation. Its abstract world is hostile and demanding, pounding into you like the best sort of bass that rattles your chest until you feel like you’re dying. The trance state achieved in Thumper is violent and carnivorous. The game throws you into itself and never really stops for you. It’s one of the best rhythm games I’ve played.

Thumper is available on Steam, PSN, Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch.

31 Days Of Horror Games: Days 8, 9, 10, 11, & 12

Soooo sorry for the absence, habits are a hard thing to form. Here’s a little mix of old and new.

I can’t claim to know much about Taiwanese culture, especially 1960s Taiwan. That makes Detention all the more interesting a game to play. It draws from a bevy of Taiwanese and Chinese mythology  to create a hauntingly beautiful school setting that’s really fun to explore. Like the best sorts of horror stories, the scares here are ultimately internal, the pain of living with unending guilt and the fear that redemption might never be attainable. Detention meters this out masterfully, each scare truly earned until the end, which is heartbreaking.

Detention is available on Steam and PSN.

Resident Evil 6 is a hugely divisive game. Lots of RE fans despise it, claiming it took the series in the wrong direction with a focus on action. It certainly is much more action focused, but me? I love that. In a series spanning over twenty years, there’s room for different types of horror, and RE6 exemplifies that.

The four campaigns have you playing different perspectives of the same storyline, and this is channeled through the gameplay as well. RE6 takes a basic third-person shooter control framework, and through each campaign’s tone and pacing, creates a vastly different feel for it each time. It’s fun, it’s over-the-top camp, and it doesn’t take away from how good the original RE games were. And, well, Capcom’s shown it can still do real survival horror with RE7, so go back to this one and have fun with it. I really recommend the co-op.

Resident Evil 6 is available on Steam, PSN, and Xbox One.

Hey, remember Quake? Wasn’t that cool? Anyway, here’s Butcher. It’s an extremely lofi bloodbath massacre of a game. Honestly, it’s really impressive that you can tell what’s going on at all on the screen with how tiny everything is. Although 2D, it’s essentially in the spirit of old-school shooters like Doom and Quake, demanding twitchy reflexes while you mow down enemies to the tune of some really great industrial beats. It’s harsh, and you’ll die a lot, and it’s great.

Butcher is available on Steam, PSN, Xbox One, and, surprisingly, Nintendo Switch.

Okay, listen….Manhunt is a really intense game. It really, really isn’t for everyone. I say that as a warning, not as a some “oooh this is so hardcore and scary” kind of edgy thing. It’s a disgusting game riddled with a history of controversy.

It’s also really good. It’s a stealth-based murder simulator that has you sneaking and plotting as you meticulously kill various gang members, with nothing hidden from the CCTV cameras placed around the city. In 2017, it’s not exactly the smartest video game critique of voyeuristic violence, and coming from Rockstar its almost laughably ironic, but for its time (2003), it was a disturbing, titillating inward look at how violence and death are exploited by popular media.

Manhunt is available on Steam and PSN.

31 Days Of Horror Games: Day 7

Here’s one I almost missed, but ended up blowin’ my mind.

helltown

Helltown is exactly what you expect. That’s a good thing. It knows what it is and focuses solely on being good at that thing. That thing, more exactly, being a spooky little theme park romp through a town inspired by The Stepford Wives, The Shining, Call of Cthulhu, and the like, all funneled through the lens of an early PS1 game style.

It’s unabashedly goofy. You run around mazes, avoiding over the top monsters in order to collect runes and perhaps solve some of the mysteries of the town. There’s a few jumpscares, some campy 40s music and conventional horror beats, it’s all stuff you’ve seen before. Yet it fuckin works, and so effortlessly does it still manage to ramp up the suspense and scare the bejeezus outta you like a solid horror flick.

The low-poly style is, as usual, effective in simply suggesting grotesquerie and letting the player’s paranoia and imagination fill in the rest. It’s a masterful little joyride, one that shouldn’t be missed if you’ve ever played a PS1 or Nintendo 64 game and thought they were maybe just a little bit creepy.

Helltown is available on Steam.