Basque in the Horror: a review of Resident Evil 4 Remake (potential spoilers about both this game and the original)

Image from Gamesradar (In this Spanish villa, there is no mi casa es tu casa.)

I’m sure it hasn’t been overlooked by most that the best Resident Evil games coming out as of late happen to be top to bottom re-imaginings of classic titles in the venerated horror franchise. Sure, I muddle my point by the remake of 1999’s Resident Evil 3 being the worst of the new games (and possibly among the worst in the series), but if you were to put side by side the new Resident Evil 2 and 4 to the brand new numbered entries: 2017’s Resident Evil 7: Biohazard and 2021’s Resident Evil 8: Village, chances are good that people would lean towards the remakes.

This attitude about and the reality of video game remakes seems alien to those who are familiar only with remakes as pertaining to movies. Almost all the time are film remakes dismissed or made to conjure groaning on the public’s part for echoing a perceived or actual lack of imagination and risk-taking on Hollywood’s part.

Sure, there are remakes that have become respected even reaching classic status like the De Palma Scarface, the 70s’ Invasion of the Body Snatchers and to some Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Two of the three remakes of A Star is Born are well-considered including the recent one with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Nevertheless, a cinematic remake has to work a lot harder to gain favor compared to a video game’s.

It’s not that no scrutiny is given to VG remakes, it’s more so concerning whether it brings anything new to the table, can improve upon anything from the original or if the remake is actually anticipated, crossing fingers they won’t screw it up.

Remaking 2005’s Resident Evil 4, widely considered one of the best games of its series and one of the greatest and most influential of all time, must have been a frightening prospect to the Capcom team led by Yasuhiro Anpo and Kazunori Kadoi. How do you properly remake a game that some consider perfect, groundbreaking and compared to earlier titles, accessible still to a newer audience, not to mention more readily available?

Capcom’s higher ups were so very wise to choose the Resident Evil 2 Remake team to be the ones to headline Resident Evil 4’s return. They are provably the best group of developers working on RE now based on RE2 2019’s reputation. It also made sense for them to be the ones due to RE4 being a narrative continuation for two of RE2’s lead characters: rookie cop and narrow survivor of zombie outbreak Leon S. Kennedy and Chinese-American International women of mystery Ada Wong. Having the same people in charge of both the story and gameplay for these two continuity intertwined titles (say that three times fast) was wise and an opportunity that didn’t occur with the development of the original games.

To put it simply when it came to Anpo and Kadoi’s meeting the challenge, it is an unbelievable victory. During my first of what was certainly not to be few consecutive playthroughs, I was in something of a mild shock as I realized they were succeeding. I didn’t know how you could make a new version of a well-aged game from the oughts’ work nearly as well as what I was experiencing. Well, I say that in spite of this year’s excellent remake of 2008’s Dead Space. I think it’s way too early to declare this effort better than the original game save in one department but my God it’s shocking that I’m even in the position to think such a thing.

The story of Resident Evil 4 and this could be said of most entries in the series is a B-movie with a first class production and on occasion first class scares to boot. Leon has spent six years since his traumatic night fighting to survive and escape Raccoon City training to become a special forces agent for the U.S. of A. This version of events makes it clear that Leon was forced to put his life in further danger due to the things he’s seen being for a lack of a better word “classified” during the city’s fall and it could be insinuated that he takes the job for the government to care for his two fellow survivors: the other playable RE2 character Claire and young girl Sherry.

If the training was dangerous, the missions he went on, including one backstory significant one, put him nearly in as much danger of dying as the horrors he faced in RE2. Nevertheless, Leon endured and survived. He proved his talent to be more than a product of chance on one night in 1998. Now, he’s part of the Secret Service and his first day on the job is once again to prove a doozy.

His mission: To search and rescue the President’s missing daughter, last spotted somewhere in the most rural, agrarian, stuck-in-the-past part of Spain conceivable. The most powerful nation on Earth sends in one man (albeit a proven badass) escorted by two Spanish police officers and assisted over the radio by woman-in-the-chair Ingrid Hunnigan, a rarely seen but nevertheless fan favorite.

The brilliance of the Resident Evil series, especially in this particular re-imagining is taking a worn conceit of horror media and adding in genuine horror and suspense mostly due to how you the player must literally interact with that convention virtually rather than simply observe.

Even if much of what Leon faces seems overly familiar in description to a horror know-it-all or know-enough, that still doesn’t do justice when you’re there in the thick of it with the bishonen-haired gaming icon and his beloved bomber jacket. Leon upon entering the spookier than ever Spanish forest soon discovers that matters are terribly off and the horror he has to survive is of a quite different beast from anything in Raccoon City.

The villagers of this seemingly ignored part of Spain are taken by some madness that compels them to kill anyone, anyone, that enters their territory. The two policemen that Leon was with don’t last very long, barely longer than the original game and soon our hero is finding himself frantically looking for a safe place that isn’t there in a new take on the iconic village fight.

I detailed my thoughts on this famous video game sequence when talking about a scenario that acted as spiritual successor in a game that was itself heavily inspired by RE4, RE8: Village. There were deliberate nods to that original moment, of being trapped in a place full of monsters trying to break in and kill you. Even the resolution to that moment that is out of the player’s hands is played much the same way.

It may seem repetitive of Capcom to remake wholesale a game that was given a spiritual successor in 2021, but the truth is for all of RE8’s qualities, it still isn’t exactly RE4 nor was it really trying to be. It still had it’s eye on being the eighth Resident Evil at the end of the day. For all the changes one can list in this 2023 take, Resident Evil 4 Remake is still Resident Evil 4 at its heart. You know that is true as soon as a new Leon Kennedy enters a familiar only mildly altered village full of very angry….residents.

The sense of you and Leon being in seemingly never-ending danger is propelled through the game’s modernization of the idea and it is here where “modernization” is anything but a dirty word. The villagers are faster, more agile than last time. The ways they can attack and grab Leon are more varied and more likely to make you initially panic. Entering a building to bar off the windows and doors to fend off the horde gives you even less time this go around to catch your breath as in half a minute the house you’re in is breached and one of the townsfolk is bearing a very red-tinged chainsaw.

Old tactics I had to hold off the assault straight up did not work. Old avenues of momentary escape weren’t as reliable. Ultimately I knew that all I had to do was maintain, wait for the nearby church’s bell to ring which in turn ends immediately the villagers attempts to skewer Leon. In an even eerier trance, all of the townspeople up and leave through the town hall, utterly ignoring Leon as they chant religious tracts in Spanish.

Even knowing what caused the bell to ring and why the townspeople are the way they are for years does little to diminish how unsettling a moment this is and Leon’s more believable appearance and confused expression adds new weight to a classic moment. Then to top it all off, as the villager closes the door, leaving Leon all alone, he utters a corny yet no less valid one-liner 18 years after it was first said. Then the title flashes confidently onto frame. The rest of the game would continually reassure me, but it’s here where the veteran player knows that Resident Evil 4 is back. And it’s teeth are ever sharp.

Resident Evil 4, then and now, is partitioned into three distinctive acts, titled after the location you’re in. You start off in the “Village” region, which for many continues to be the part of RE4 that best defines it to this day. Then, you enter a massive Spanish castle, full of horror both macabre yet goofy, almost as if Sam Raimi punched up the script at this junction. Then it ends on the generally polarizing “Island”, more industrial and military focused and it’s here where RE4 forecasts its’ series future as action over horror for the next two main entries.

Resident Evil 4 for 2023 manages to do an incredible feat in maintaining the main story beats and locations while somehow making it less tongue in cheek camp silly. There are still moments that will remind you of how absurd the original game could end up being yet many will miss that side of RE4, considered by them to be one of the game’s defining traits. Personally, I was just too impressed seeing a game pull off a more grounded version of the one out and out wacky Resident Evil game that was embraced for that reason.

The writing and performances of all involved are convincingly believable, fitting with the same tone that has been established with the modern games. The Leon you knew from the new RE2 is back, a little gruffer, more world weary for reasons that are sorrowfully apparent. Nick Apostiledes’ take on Leon has now become my favorite version of the character and it’s not just that his and the writers interpretation strikes a chord that wasn’t there before but it’s the consistency.

Leon in the games he appeared in before the Remakes were voiced by three separate people and with it came drastic changes in personality. It’s kinda hard to connect with the old Leon over the course of the games he was in (RE2,4,6) because his manner and voice was too different each time. I get that a considerable amount of time passes between each of these games, but if you contrast those three voices, you may feel like I do that you end up with Three Leons.

One of the things I was hoping for if Capcom should risk redoing Resident Evil 4 was not just seeing Apostiledes’ take return in a follow-up story of some kind, but to create a better continuity in and of itself. That alone does not justify a remake of course but it was one area that could be explored and thankfully that was realized. By the end of this RE4 Leon now feels like he has a cogent arc going for him, how the events of this game really do reflect back on RE2’s.

It’s for that reason that the new Resident Evil 4 now might be one of the best narratively drawn up games when before it was a gloriously obvious excuse plot for cool, spooky and stupid set-pieces. It’s another reason why I’m somewhat down for Capcom risking another version of the oft-ridiculed Resident Evil 6 just to see what this Leon would be like in that game’s scenario. Oh and I’m an affirmed RE6 apologist, I even have an entry on this blog about that.

Another thing that makes the plot of RE4 more worth paying attention to than before is that more than a few characters go through re-characterization, some more drastic than others. The most noteworthy is the President’s daughter Leon is trying to rescue, Ashley Graham. The original Ashley has been widely lambasted by many for her annoying attitude and voice and for being more of a gameplay prop than a real character. For many sections, you would have to escort her through enemy territory and make sure she doesn’t get hurt, killed or re-kidnapped (at least, in parts where she isn’t scripted to be kidnapped back anyway). She has her defenders admittedly, some proclaiming the criticisms of her to be exaggerated and I eventually got so good at playing RE4 2005 that she stopped being a serious nuisance for me even in the infamously harder sections.

This Ashley on the other hand gets to be both gameplay mechanic and an actual character. She’s now not annoying at all, helpful in ways that are more pronounced in the story and the interplay between her and Leon feels more organic. Capcom probably looked at the many games where you have an (often) female companion to the player character like in The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite and the modern God of War titles and thought of implementing improvements from those games into this one.

Sure, you still have to be more mindful of Ashley’s condition than you would LOU’s Ellie and Lev or GOW’s Atreus (You don’t have to worry about Bioshock’s Elizabeth period) as this is still a horror experience and Ashley’s involvement means you now have to consider her safety on top of yours which was already harrowing enough a prospect. But unlike last time, where saving Ashley from a cultist whose grabbed her, you won’t think “sigh, I’ll save you” now it’s “Don’t worry, I’ll save you!” Ashley’s improved characterization and her own little story arc actually makes you forgiving of the moments where she could’ve literally been a challenge for you to overcome.

This could well be testing the waters for a remake of Resident Evil 5 but the expansion in character and role of Luis, the mysterious, supposedly dashing Spaniard ladies man and secret scientist, makes a case that maybe that game being reimagined from the ground up wouldn’t be so terrible. Luis is a Mauser-wielding man who Leon meets early on in the game. He soon becomes one of the very few that Leon can trust but even then there’s something about him that keeps our hero on guard.

Luis and his relationship with the setting of Resident Evil 4 has been made deeper, more considered which is in line with basic expectations if you wish to be more than a lazy 1to1 redo. His connection with this trapped in the past portion of Spain is more intertwined and he is even made to connect with lore from earlier in the series which doesn’t come across as a contrived retcon. Instead it makes more sense, hell, one of the underlying accomplishments here is making this game more sensical.

In the original game, Luis dies suddenly near the mid-point in a shocking moment that when you rewatch it is both an obvious reference to a moment from Aliens (who doesn’t ape that movie?) and has a (possibly) unintentionally lewd manner to it. In the new take, as the trailers had already revealed, Luis gets to live past the point he originally died. I won’t say anything about whether he survives this version, but the moments where you and he are teamed up against the infected villagers and cultists is not just an expansion off of the original game’s acclaimed cabin holdout section, it could be seeing how players respond to sections where you are not the only capable person on the field fighting enemies.

Resident Evil 5 introduced Cooperative play to the series and in doing so brought in the character Sheva as a brand new figure. Player 1 would control veteran RE hero Chris Redfield and player 2 would control her for the entire duration of RE5. When people think of positives to bring to the first unabashed non-horror main entry for the series, it’s function as a co-op action/adventure game with horror elements is seen as it’s greatest strength. People still on occasion play Resident Evil 5 to this day despite having been released back in 2009.

Playing RE5 by yourself (which has largely been my lot) is not nearly as fun nor does it showcase the entry’s genuine additions at all. You ultimately end up with a shorter, less impressive RE4 albeit with improved graphics which for the most part are still pretty sharp all things considered. Having Luis in RE4 23′ be an AI partner for Leon for a relatively lengthy section of the game seems to be a test run not so much for what new Co-op RE games could be like, but if it’s possible for an entire new game to work like that section.

Some would say that having a constant partner at your side detracts from the sense of isolation that horror games feed on. By isolation, I mean there’s no friendly faces at your side or at least not for long periods. That’s one of the points taken against 2013’s Dead Space 3, where it’s own inclusion of a co-op version of it’s campaign was seen as part of why Dead Space ending up dying as a series. For a time, thankfully. Ironically, like with REs 5 and 6, the best way to play DS3 was, yup, with a friend. It’s a strange paradox of things working and not working.

I’ll save my thoughts on what further remakes Capcom should or should not pursue until the end, but at least this probable testing of an idea also gave us a chance to spend more time with a character that honestly did leave RE4’s story a little too early.

In terms of further characterization, I’ll say mum for those who still haven’t played yet, but I will say that two major antagonists in the game have essentially new backgrounds and motivations. Almost new characters for that matter. There could be some lore purists that turn their nose up at these changes (not that I’ve heard them at all for that matter) but what I like about those changes is that they, one, make a little more sense within the context of what is occurring and, two, it makes Resident Evil 4 feel a little more tragic.

Much like how I said the slight narrative changes to the Dead Space remake increased the sense of tragedy and sorrow from the original, RE4R tweaks what potential sadness could be found in the game’s backstory and extends it to both heroes and villains. Leon himself as discussed earlier is a figure who in spite of his nearly unshakable stoicism and stronger courage is a man who has been though hell so much that he feels more weary than spooked.

This is something that a theoretical RE6 remake could touch upon and maybe even a new numbered title featuring him but more than anything else he is a man growing increasingly tired with the weight of surviving horror, again and again. Fellow protagonist Chris is also noted to have this growing fatigue as the series marches on, but with the new direction for Leon, the cracks, however slight, could be hinted at.

Sure, someone could make the watertight counterpoint that it’s Leon struggling to deal with PTSD from Raccoon City. This is actually in the text of the game as the opening monologue Leon gives shows how six years later, he can’t let go of the many lives he failed to save in Resident Evil 2. All the worse since he was a rookie cop and joined with the express intention to help others. Sure, he did manage to save some people like Claire and Sherry. It wasn’t enough.

Maybe both of these things about Leon and where he’s at mentally can be applied but what ultimately matters is that this is a Leon you feel sorry for, no matter how much fun you’ll ultimately have in his shoes. The original RE4 Leon was an utterly confident, unfazed badass that wisecracked because he could. He had conquered his fear and now he was almost kind of having fun half the time one could argue in classic RE4.

This Leon while more professional and weathered by past experiences feels more human, more willing to take the situation seriously because that’s how he stays alive. He still wise-cracks and wise cracks good, but this time it sounds more like letting off stress from stuff that would keep me up at night if I had first-hand experience with RE4’s monsters. This Leon is conquering his fear and his self-hatred for failing to be as much of a protector as he had hoped.

Now, let’s talk about Leon and a survivor of RE2 he suspected had lived but remained doubtful could have. Ada Wong, the ever red-clad femme fatale of the franchise has a reputation for being basically the Catwoman of Resident Evil. RE4 further emphasized it by giving her a grappling hook, which sure sounds like a Batman thing but whatever. Some players of the new RE4 have taken to harassing her voice actress Lilly Gao online for her supposedly tepid, bored performance, to the point she closed her Instagram account. Putting aside that I would not condone this even if her performance were lackluster or outright bad, she’s perfectly fine here.

She feels like an extension of the new Ada we were given with the same voice actress in the new Resident Evil 2 from 2019. The complaints probably extend more to how hostile she behaves when she comes to her interactions with Leon, fewer here than the original. Ada, while likely developing genuine feelings for Leon’s “good boy” personality and selfless actions, still played him as a pawn in her subterfuge mission to steal the virus that causes the hubbub that ruins Raccoon City.

In spite of her deception, Leon still feels sorry for her apparent death at the end of RE2 but a certain moment hints to him that she improbably didn’t die. Six years later do the fellow RC survivors meet again and unlike the original take on Leon and Ada where Leon is a confident hunk and Ada is a sultry spy wearing a cocktail dress in a quite mission-inappropriate fashion, Leon and Ada are mutually more abrasive to each other. If there’s any Batman/Catwomanesque flirting going on, it’s far more subdued but not necessarilly absent. Certain looks the two make can suggest something is still there.

It’s really for the best that Leon and Ada are framed this way. In Leon’s experience, Ada is a duplicitous agent that was trying to sell a terrifying medical creation to some likely spurious third party. She used Leon emotionally to get what she wants. Now, six years later, she’s back clearly trying to get something from the cult responsible for his current predicament. Leon is on guard, wondering how she’s gonna take advantage of him next. The tricks she used on him before won’t work again obviously, so what’s her play now?

It might be that upon returning to the narratives of RE 2 and 4, Capcom recognized how toxic Leon and Ada really are as a potential coupling, and in a more realistic take on the games, make Leon more cognizant of how unhealthy and possibly lethal it would be to really give her a chance. Leon’s sad connection with Ada adds to Leon’s tragic story as well. Considering how young he was during the events of RE2, between 18 and 21, this could’ve messed up his sense of trust when it came to relationships, romantic or otherwise. Sure, he probably has a tight connection with Claire and Sherry but he wasn’t with those two all that much in RE2’s story. He didn’t even meet Sherry until he was finally escaping Raccoon City.

So, no, Gao’s performance as Ada Wong is perfectly fine, a natural continuation of what she would be to Leon and vice versa if they were to meet again. Admittedly, Ada does seem to have less of a presence in RE4 23′ narrative then before but with the near inevitability of a future DLC containing her Separate Ways campaign (Leon even namedrops it at the end), we might get a deeper picture in time of Ada’s contribution to the story, let alone perhaps her true feelings about Leon and a nagging self-spite over using a guy that she actually likes.

Having replayed Resident Evil 4 2023 many times at this point in writing a review, I’ve come to realize that the new version is shorter than the original. Some think that classic RE4 is a little overstuffed here and there and the Capcom team likely heard those complaints and used it to make a new take that is still lengthy but more compact. This move is made justifiable due to how like with every modern RE the game encourages you to complete the game faster, under a certain time based on chosen difficulty, all to unlock rewards both useful and cosmetic for Leon and Ashley. If you want Leon to sport his 1930s’ Gangster look with tommy gun and Ashley her hilarious yet handy suit of armor, you gotta beat the game faster and better now, rather than just period like before.

Unlike my completionist streak I accomplished with RE2’s remake, I’m more doubtful I’ll ever 100% RE4 23′ content. Beating this game on the hardest difficulty under a certain amount of time will give me the adorable “cat ears” for Leon which also gives him infinite ammo for all weapons but considering that part of the appeal of a Resident Evil game is the challenge of maintaining your finite resources, I wouldn’t be keen on unlocking something that all but removes the challenge though, true, you have to work your Secret Service ass off to get it.

With the tightening of RE4 in this modernization comes the removal of certain moments, some that may hold a special place in veteran’s hearts. Entire boss battles are gone, though thanks to the potential Ada campaign on the horizon a certain boss that was notably missing from Leon’s journey could well become Ada’s opponent. The game’s lore even namedrops this tardy adversary so it may not really be an omission rather a rearranging.

RE4 23‘ does a lot with its rearranging or reconsideration of existing elements from RE4 05′. A section late in the Castle part acts as a chimera hybrid of three separate scenarios Leon once confronted. The clock tower, the giant statue of the Castle’s villain Salazar and the circular tower stairwell and elevator that gets you to fighting Salazar as a boss are now all in one. The clock tower before was a puzzle area where you had to shoot wooden boards blocking the machinery. Now, it’s all set dressing as Leon can’t affect the clock at all.

The Salazar statue has been drastically shrunk and no longer inexplicably starts chasing you in a manner that is one of the looniest in the entire series. Now, it stays in place but it’s head will rotate, bellowing fire out of its mouth as you ascend the tower. As for the elevator tower, that remains most faithfully kept though the Donkey Kong barrels the cultists would drop down the stairwell via lever have been replaced with giant spikey balls.

This amalgamation of disparate parts of RE4 is part of making the intended speedier runs for multiple playthroughs more practical to accomplish and it tightens the pace, correcting a long standing complaint that for me was more nitpick if even that.

Some areas are just plain gone, though they could have some manner of return for Ada’s campaign. Some are less likely than others like the brazenly nuts “Lava Room”, where RE4 really stops trying to be consistent, all for the sake of gameplay variety, which is a fair enough goal for a game from 2005. Part of me does sorta miss those moments, if only because it does make the new version feel shorter, even if there is a perfectly solid reason for it. To perhaps compensate, there are entire sections which are borderline one to one in layout from the original, which could stand as testament to how well aged those parts remain, how well they still mesh with Leon’s more agile control setup or because these moments are just so caught up in the game’s identity.

As for things that I really did miss though this is much rectified by the painless process of playing classic RE4 which is again much more readily available than older games, was the humorous interactions Leon would have with two of the game’s bad guys, Napoleon complex-addled Ramon Salazar and the main antagonist Osmund Saddler. Whether in person or over Leon’s radio, the often funny conversations Leon would have with these two feel like something really is missing in comparison to other cuts.

True, Saddler is a much different person in this version so the radio calls just wouldn’t work the same but I still think they could’ve had Leon and Salazar interact more. On my first couple of playthroughs, I almost forgot Salazar was in the game. The original really wouldn’t let you and Leon forget and that adds to the particular charm of classic RE4’s mid-section. Sure, when Leon does interact with Ramon now, it’s still not bad. The boss battle almost overcompensates with regards to Ramon’s manic frustration with Leon not dying by his hand. It’s great stuff albeit tethered to one of the remake’s more difficult battles.

As for whether it is actually more of a survival horror game, well I would certainly say in parts it is scarier. The new version of the segment where you control Ashley is nerve-wracking in new ways. It’s a combat devoid area that plays on being all but helpless against a kind of enemy I don’t want to give away. Sure, foreknowledge of the original game should already tell you what Ashley’s up against. But how it happens is different enough and scary enough where not only is Ashley more vulnerable than before you also have to solve puzzles amidst that anxiety.

The puzzles are overall more difficult, especially on the first couple of runs. Only a handful of puzzles from the original were difficult and even the hardest one has a solution so easy to utilize that it makes it a cakewalk once you remember it. Certain puzzles, particularly of an electronic kind late in the game continue to hassle me and one for an optional treasure can bust your brain good.

On the subject of treasures, RE4 incentivized replay value due to the presence of the ever mysterious Merchant, whose pirate like voice is doubled down on in the Remake though his voice is (controversially) softer. He’s also much more talkative when perusing his wares so I can imagine more than a few players getting annoyed with him. I like him nonetheless as not only does his appearence and his teleporting shop guarantee you’re in a safe place, it also gives you a chance to unwind: check your attaché case containing your weapons, supplies and ammo, save your progress, buy some new stuff, upgrade your weapons and sell stuff including the many beautifully realized treasures.

Five of the merchant’s locations have the returning shooting gallery, completely pirate themed and while it certainly is a massive tonal shift from this darker take on the game, it yet rewards you with challenging ranges to conquer, all to acquire tokens which when placed in a vending machine get you a grabbag “charm” to attach to your attaché case with a special benefit. To showcase that the developers really care, they’re all figurines modeled after characters, enemies and items from the original game.

It’s the Merchant and his services which is more or less the core reason behind RE4’s immense ability to make you return again and again. Even when the horror diminishes, the fun doesn’t or at least much slower. Certain weapons are kept out of reach until New Game Plus and even the unlockable weapons can be upgraded such as a knife that can’t be broken.

That segues into one of the Remake’s best additions, if not it’s best one. In recent years, parrying enemy attacks has become a more popular game mechanic due to how it naturally coerces the player to train their reflexes and to take even less dangerous encounters seriously. I don’t know which game started the trend of parrying getting big but one likely culprit to spark the trend was the Soulslike titles from…From Software. It’s more of a strong recommendation in titles like Bloodborne, Elden Ring or Dark Souls but it’s a necessity for Sekiro.

Save for the hardest difficulty, RE4 Remake allows you to not always be completely on the mark when pressing the button to parry. Some fights, like a plot significant one (or two) are more demanding of what you’ve learned through using your knife to ward off attacks big and small. The expanded use of the knife helps forge RE4R as having something distinct about it mechanically, not just from the game it’s remaking but in the series as a whole. It ties in with the background behind Leon as a survivor being trained to be an agent after Raccoon City and upon using the knife as a handy tool in close encounters it shows growth both for Leon as a character and as manifestation of the player’s own skill.

It’s more than just ensuring that an enemy attack won’t hit, if you time it right it even gets you the chance to counterattack and even instantly down the enemy. The innovation with the knife is proof that you’re not just getting RE4 again, you’re getting it back with a new technique that makes the combat loop even deeper than before.

In spite of the shorter length, RE4 Remake is still capable of wowing you with it’s implementation of enemies in their environments, in how they complement the player no matter what your status is with regards to ammo, weapons and supplies. Like the original, they are hidden exploits or tricks that can be used not only to make a potentially grueling section less so but to also make new runs in the future more viable for a game plan you formulate in your head.

In spite of the praise I’ve heaped onto the new RE4, and you better believe it’s already a strong contender for Game of the Year, I still have cold feet about declaring it better than the original. I say this and I haven’t talked about the strong new soundtrack where even brand new tracks sing and how some of the puzzles can themselves be used as weapons against enemies. The thing about the original RE4 is that it is a game that can’t be truly replicated in one respect: it’s groundbreaking position.

It would be far too much to expect any developer let alone Capcom to make a game that would change the industry like the first Resident Evil 4. In more or less one area, it’s use of an over the shoulder third person camera, it established a template that is still being used today as standard practice and I see essentially no reason why it should ever go away. Not unlike how Super Mario 64 introduced us to how to properly, freely navigate a three dimensional environment to the point that non-Nintendo games took note like GTA developer Rockstar, RE4 ensured that one of the go-to ways of controlling a character in a video game would be a variation of over their shoulder.

Gears of War, Uncharted, Batman Arkham, Mass Effect, The Last of Us, Dead Space and later iterations of already existing franchises would permanently adjust their use of the camera to be modeled after Resident Evil 4’s innovation. Games like these do not come around often, even less so than before.

That legacy being replicated was far too tall an order so Capcom did the smartest thing and refined and experimented on what Resident Evil 4 specifically did for itself as a video game, on its own stand alone merits. The intent was to take what worked 18 years ago and make it work within a modern game engine with a reworked script, vocal performances and a different tone regarding horror. That intent has led to what may be the best modern Resident Evil experience, even if it is a recreation of the game that shifted the series for a time from its roots.

It’s too early to call this better than the 2005 version, it’s too early to declare it among the series’ overall best games or even among the best games ever made. But it’s clear respect for a half serious, half absurd masterpiece makes it a masterclass for getting at the heart of what makes video game remakes so wonderful when done right.

Do I really want Resident Evil 5 or 6 to be remade? Half of me says yes, half of me says no, no, NO. There are ways I can see those games be more so “reimagined” than remade like the games we’ve gotten recently. Many would however say RE5’s not exactly sensitive or accurate portrayal of Africa might by itself be a dealbreaker, let alone that it’s plot out of all the games feels like an 80s Saturday Morning Cartoon with an R-rated aesthetic. I mean, it ends with you punching a boulder out of your way inside a very, VERY active volcano. All while fighting social Darwinist Johnny Bravo.

It’s a miracle that Resident Evil 4 could be restructured into something more sensical. I don’t know if you can take what I just described about Resident Evil 5 and make it even a quarter grounded. As for Resident Evil 6, my apologetics aside, it’s utter craziness is part of what makes it the game it is. It’s approach to combat and movement is predicated on it being the “foaming at the mouth” member of the RE family of games. Making that more serious or believable would involve a total reconsideration of what RE6 even is and could in turn make it essentially a brand new game all it’s own. That description actually does sound inviting I can imagine but would that in turn honor what RE6 actually got right?

Some have suggested two alternatives to RE5 and 6 getting the reunion tour. They could look at older titles that have not gotten remade like the much requested Code Veronica from 2000 to even a second remake of the very first game, redone top to bottom in the RE Engine that has fueled the series’ entries since 2017. The other option would be to stop at this point. After all, Capcom will soon be turning its attention and hopes to do the same to you with the tentatively titled Resident Evil 9.

Maybe it wouldn’t hurt for Resident Evil as a franchise to go on a hiatus after that, to give you, me and the possibly exhausted people at Capcom a reprieve from the series. Of course I’m not saying no new REs after 9 but a good couple of years to just let that world of survival horror rest.

Every franchise, especially a horror franchise, needs to release the tension eventually.

Survive like it’s 1998: A review of Resident Evil 2 Remake

Image owned by Capcom and from Den of Geek


Have you ever experienced nostalgia for something you were never part of? That’s the feeling I get from a lot of video games from the mid to late 90s especially on the PlayStation One. While I did play with my mom Command and Conquer: Red Alert and Sim City 2000 and 3000, the bulk of iconic pioneering video games were out of my grasp and more importantly out of my age range. I was between 4 and 6 around that time. I probably didn’t even know what a PlayStation was. And yet, when retroactively experiencing the original three PS1 Resident Evils along with the original Silent Hill several years back on the PS3, I have a strange affinity for the early 3D visuals and atmosphere, especially in the soundtracks and beautiful pre-rendered backgrounds which made these games look more real than they could at the time.

Video games age faster than any other art form I know and so the practicality of remaking a pre-existing game from the ground up is more appealing than with a film. The remake of the first Resident Evil from 1996, initially as a Nintendo Gamecube exclusive is for many the gold standard on how to completely recreate and if need be, reimagine an earlier experience. It didn’t hurt that series creator Shinji Mikami didn’t feel that the PS1 was capable of really nailing the feel for the survival horror scenario he had envisioned originally. If the first groundbreaking game could pull off the “remake” process, why not the second, Resident Evil 2, from 1998? Some still consider it the best game in the series twenty years later, especially for the series’ formula of horror, puzzles, strategizing and item management. It’s been in demand for a long time and it is finally here. Was it worth the wait?

For those who can’t easily look up the plot synopsis of a two decade old game, it goes as such: a viral outbreak has been unleashed on the unassuming American metropolis of Raccoon City. Yes, Raccoon City ( Well, if we can have a big city called Buffalo…). You play as two young survivors stuck in the city, Leon S. Kennedy, a rookie cop on his first day on the job and Claire Redfield, a college student searching for her missing brother, Chris, a protagonist of the first game. Shortly, after meeting up, they are then separated and depending on who you choose to play, make their way to survival at the Raccoon Police Department Station. Of course, it is no safe there than outside.

There are a certain number of differences Leon and Claire’s scenarios bring to the table aside from their unique reactions to plot points and characters. They have separate suites of weapons and items and they can go to parts of the station that the other can’t. The big difference however is their narrative arc relating to a certain character that only appears in their distinct play-through. Leon comes across and works alongside a supposed FBI agent called Ada Wong, a fan favorite Chinese American super spy as well as on again, off again love interest for Leon in the franchise. For Claire, it’s little Sherry Birkin, an adorable yet wise beyond her years elementary student trying to hide out from the assortment of monsters involving zombies, undead dogs and her own father, William, who is the head scientist for the Pharmaceutical company that started the whole mess in the first place, Umbrella.

Leon and Claire can also come across other survivors like Sherry’s mother, Annette, a fellow Umbrella scientist alongside William, Marvin Branagh, a wounded yet noble police officer and Robert Kendo, a despairing gun shop owner with a much different fate in store for him than his comically dark one from the original.A stand out example is Brian Irons, the corrupt police chief of Raccoon City who is in collaboration with Umbrella and is arguably the most evil figure in the game. While William Birkin’s slow yet horrid devolution into a monster is scary, it comes off as tragic. Irons is a psychopath and implied stalker/rapist whose only in it for himself and you will be cheering when he, like in the original, gets his comeuppance, that is if you’re not recoiling from his gruesome method of demise.

Resident Evil 2 is not shy about making the results of dying from any given foe truly graphic. You think dying from the hordes of zombies is bad? Well, you’re right but encounters from enemies like the infamous “lickers”, skinless monstrosities that have long, sharp tongues that can impale you with extreme prejudice are just the tip of the iceberg. All of the enemies, even the zombies in their own way, are intelligent, enough so that even on repeat play-throughs it is vital you do not become overconfident. They will knock you off your high horse and if you’re more squeamish than me, make you scream in the process. Whether it’s the zombies that suddenly lunge and get you front or behind, or how insanely fast the lickers can move against you, the game makes it hard for you to ever be at ease, as a good Resident Evil title should.

None are scarier or demand your focus like Mr. X. Essentially the Terminator of the Resident Evil series, he, along with the first game’s Tyrant and the Third’s Nemesis, is a huge, gray colored, humanoid pain train that WILL NOT STOP, EVER, UNTIL YOU ARE DEAD. Well, that’s not really true. Mr. X does not follow you into the save rooms, which act as small havens to save the game, sort out your supplies and enjoy the beautiful ambient music.While some moments are scripted, Mr. X feels more like an actual presence than in the original. In certain sections of the game, Mr. X will go on patrol and his loud thumping foot steps immediately make you consider what you are doing at the moment. Sometimes,  he doesn’t show up at all in a section of your trek through the station and beyond, sometimes he does. All you can do up until the end is either run or hope the weapon you have at hand is strong enough to put him down.. for like two minutes.

Resident Evil is at its best when it not only comes to making you afraid for your survival but also for its enjoyable framing of puzzles within a confined space. The first game, original and remake, had a mansion in the deep, dark woods. The second has three main areas: the police station, the sewers and the Umbrella underground lab. The mix of joy and trepidation in exploring and understanding deeply how the areas work when it comes to puzzle solving and traversal is one of the great highlights of the series. It’s amplified that these detailed, secret laden areas are full of threats that want to make your ass grass. Sometimes, it’s not the weapons and healing equipment you have that will save your life, it’s your understanding of where to go and when. It was true in 1998 and it is no less true in 2019.

If you beat Leon and Claire’s scenarios the first time, you have not really beaten the game at all. New “Second run” scenarios unlock for both in which you get to see the perspective, slightly altered for the other protagonist. To put it another way, imagine you play as Leon for the first go-around, Claire is still experiencing her own quasi-separate adventure. Switching to the “second run” for Claire instead of Leon is how it is supposed to work. You get to see perspectives and learn things about the narrative that one protagonist alone couldn’t.

Yes, that does mean largely repeating the same puzzles, encounters and moments again, but there is a silver lining that goes against the sense of repetition. Repeating these scenarios creates better understanding of how to play the game even better. There is incentive to do even better from unlocking new modes, weapons, items, costumes, concept art and character models. Resident Evil 2 Remake makes the absolute most out of a narrative layout which isn’t really that long. Just one of the four base scenarios can take, uninterrupted half a day. It gets even shorter the better you become. The game tracks your time playing and awards you a score based on how long you took. The brevity of an average Resident Evil game is not an act of laziness or like in the original years, hardware limitation. Actually the last part is likely true. The game wants you to finish as quickly as you can and rewards you for making a fast yet efficient race to the finish line.Of course, on your first run throughs, you should take it slower and easier so you don’t get trampled.

For series purists, the hardcore mode of difficulty is meant to really test you. Infinite saves, auto or manual are gone in favor of manually saving at a typewriter with a limited number of “ink ribbons.” The enemies are tougher and you, of course, are weaker.Even tactics to get past your foes like disabling their limbs with bullets and knives can be a crutch for so long until you run out or break your blade faster than usual.

As intended, Resident Evil 2 Remake is a survival horror masterclass in appealing to both the old fans and new ones. I’m in the middle as I have played the original RE2 and know what the classic experience is like. Yet, the graphics are not the only thing properly retooled for a modern era. The over the shoulder camera that the fourth Resident Evil helped popularize helps both appeal to a modern audience while helping focus on creative new ways to survive your stay in Raccoon City. Even the voice acting has largely been overhauled to make what was once a campy, groan inducing B-movie cast feel more real and human. There are still some moments when the infamous camp factor returns perhaps as callback, perhaps not, but it’s somewhat comforting that even a remake of an old Resident Evil can manage to make you empathize with your outbreak survivors rather than roll your eyes at them.

If you want something old and something new, with little to any negative disparity, then the denizens of Raccoon City will welcome you with open arms. Just..keep your distance.

Originally posted 2019-01-30 20:52:39.

The Best Films of the Year( that I’ve seen)

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Image taken from Consequence of Sound

It’s been a good year to watch movies, whether at home or at the increasingly obsolete institution that is the theater. If you were a comic fan like myself, your batting average favored you more than not and if you really enjoy watching features that pander to the land of pandas like China, then you must also really like shark films too. Here are my selections for the ten best I saw and if a film is missing, then well I haven’t seen it, it’s Oscar bait, or a combination of the two.

Tenth Best: Bumblebee

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Want yet another 80s nostalgia trip? Better yet, want a competently produced film involving a set of action figures? If either applies to you, then Bumblebee is a long needed turn of fortune for a franchise that made Fast and Furious seem intelligent. Seeing as how I didn’t exist in 1987, I have to rely on the pop cultural instincts of the decade to declare this a throwback film that balances the cliches of the time with the sincerity that director Travis Knight has both for the period and for those robots in disguise. Best of all, it expunges certain assumptions about Transformers as a film endeavor like the action should sacrifice anything else like character and basic plot structure and that comic relief can be both sensical and not overwrought in the juvenile. If this is a trendsetter for this franchise going forward, then so shall it stand.

Ninth Best: Ant-Man and the Wasp

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After two of the most cerebral MCU films to date despite one of them involving a one armed man swinging a sentient Raccoon alien around firing a assault rifle, the audience and the critics needed a break. Ant-Man and the Wasp is for 98% of the run-time that much needed break in tone for a fun, big and small romp around San Francisco. All so our titular heroes can chase down a stolen shrinkable and portable building. As the 20th entry in a cinematic universe, we all respond with “why not?” rather than “What!” If that is a sign of a universe still working its magic on us, than I don’t know what is. Some of the humor falls a bit flatter than normal, and in spite of being a post Infinity War palette cleanser, is often too busy for its own good. Still, it’s worth a watch, only to see more of Paul Rudd’s blue collar humility and some creative manipulation of size and matter.

Eighth best: BlackkKlansman

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Another racially charged Spike Lee movie? Starring Denzel Washington’s talented son? With Topher Grace as David Duke? And it’s a return to form for the aforementioned director? It’s all here and it’s all good. One thing that BlackkKlansman didn’t teach me was that racism was evil, I’ve thankfully known that for awhile. It did teach me that the Klan had operations in Colorado in the 70s and that one Affirmative Action-related black police officer played that same cell of the Klan for suckers. This is a real story, however dramatized by a director known for pulling off drama unforgettably. The message may be obvious but considering the Far-Right and white supremacist movement’s rise from the woodwork following Trump’s election, perhaps something blunt yet gracefully blunt is needed now.

It acknowledges our President’s embarrassing and even for defenders eyebrow-raising handling of the Charlottesville tragedy and the mourning for the victim of that tragedy, Heather Heyer. It’s not just about heckling and exposing the Klan in the past by those with the will to do it. It’s about having the same will and foresight to fight it now. Lee also suggests that fight can be won within the confines of the law so that is an inspiring message to take away indeed.

Seventh best: Incredibles II

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It’s not a superior sequel like Toy Story’s two succeeding entries. It’s not a drop in quality like Cars 2. It’s not an OK prequel like Monsters University. It’s the best non-Toy Story sequel Pixar has yet made. That’s something, how much I am not certain. Despite its impressive upgrading of animation since the 2004 original, the most,well, incredible feat of this installment is how paradoxically easy it is to fool yourself into thinking that almost no time has passed in between release of the films. It’s been fourteen years yet Incredibles II seems right at home in 2018. The film is more inspired in its handling of the superhero Parr family and friends than its overall narrative. Too much of it seems a repeat of the same premise as last time but with a twist. It’s not so distracting as to make the rest of the picture tumble under, but it seems like Brad Bird and the rest were interested in pushing the family’s taxing internal relationship more than new ideas for one of the most optimistic yet strangely uncertain superhero universes I’ve witnessed on screen. It still works and Pixar is absolutely on point in making the most resplendent CGI animation out there. It strikes both familiar yet fresh, but maybe not in the areas we were hoping for.

Sixth best: Deadpool 2

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Ryan Reynold’s raunchy renaissance in the hearts and minds of audiences and critics continues with a solid and occasionally brilliant continuation of the most beloved Canadian superhero.Well, aside from the one played by that Australian Broadway guy. Like Incredibles II, it’s not as fresh or for my money, as funny as the original, but it makes up for it not being a “repeat” type of movie, though considering the satirical style, they could have done well mocking that. Instead, it’s DP’s half sincere/half roasting take of the modern day blockbuster trend involving what constitutes family. If you’ve seen any recent Fast and Furious or Guardians of the Galaxy, then you know what I mean. One thing that did surprise me was how relatively restrained the film was in terms of the more R-rated humor. It’s still here, like in the crazy ‘Basic Instinct” parody, but perhaps Reynolds and company didn’t want to overdo it and risk tiring the audience with too much too soon. Save some more for the third one or even one day, an arrival into the MCU. It’s a good new entry for the merc with a mouth. R-rated superheroes are here to stay.

Fifth Best: Upgrade

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Upgrade returned to my mind after taking several classes at my latest semester in college. The concept of automation’s logical extremes and how much freedom we really have to look forward to in the not so distant future. Next Sunday A.D.  Joking aside, Upgrade is an eerily convincing display of a possible fusion of man, in this case Logan Marshall Green, and machine, the AI which when in control of Green’s body makes him nigh unstoppable. The movie tricks you into thinking its going to be a black buddy comedy between the bewildered human protagonist searching for retribution for his wife’s death and the straight-man, British voiced AI giving him calm,clear advice on how to do it. I still don’t want to give away the proceedings, but it goes to a dark place that isn’t so much about the shocking carnage of such “upgrades” as the film shows effectively, it is the willingness to hurt decent people and ourselves for reasons which seem necessary. They’re not, and not distinguishing a line of what should be permitted in this technological advance could be the difference in who becomes the lord of the future. Surely, it will still be man, right? Right?

Fourth best: Black Panther

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Blade is probably still crying to himself in the shadows. Not only was he a profitable set of R-rated superhero films, it had a black star to boot. Well, so did Spawn, but nobody ever looks at the 1997 Spawn in such a favorable light. Perhaps it was the scope, the almost entirely black cast and the jaw-dropping financial returns of Black Panther which makes it seem revolutionary. With enough money and the will, why can’t you make a film that seemed so risky earlier? The excuses of the past aren’t holding up any longer.

It helps that the film is good too. T’challa and his family rival from America, Erik Killmonger, are both relatable in their ideologies, with only the lengths one of them is willing to go becoming more than questionable. The film does not rest mercifully on a rigid cultural bias. Even the default “right side” assumption is flawed. It’s not merely the ageless question of what makes a good leader, king or otherwise, it’s what is the right decision for that good leader to make. It is this struggle T’challa tackles which prevents the danger of making the Black Panther too perfect, a “Gary Stu”. It also represents an idealized vision for Africa, while tragically far away in the real world, at least in ethical areas, to aspire to. It’s not just a vision for a better Africa, it’s a vision for a better world that T’challa wants. As blunt as this end of the film statement is, it is hardly wrong: walling away ourselves isn’t going to save us. It might actually do the opposite.

Third Best: Mission Impossible: Fallout

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There is an earnestness to entertain without too much digital fakery that makes the new set of Mission Impossibles since 2011’s Ghost Protocol so endearing. A franchise that was once dismissed even hated for crapping on the original 60s’ show’s characters and for being style but little substance is now all about trying to fuse style and substance. The action sequences in the sixth film, yes the sixth film in this franchise is among the most convincing since either Mad Max: Fury Road or well, the last Mission Impossible. You will be amazed at how willing you are to tolerate a set of characters that are mostly replaceable, except for Simon Pegg’s ever lovable Benji and well of course, Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt. That there is a somewhat hammy melodrama that is only saved to being married with the insane but credible action and some convincing plot swerves and twists that still manage to provoke a “huh”.

Maybe it’s the lack of CGI which makes moments that are all but impossible such as the compromised HALO jump over Paris and the amazing chopper chase through the Himalayas seem…possible. Since something was actually filmed on camera and Cruise managed to do those actual stunts which one day may just off Hubbard’s favorite son creates one of the easiest films to suspend disbelief. Rather than “They couldn’t do that.” as a resigned response, instead we get “How the **** did they do that ?!” Classic movie magic.

Second best: Avengers: Infinity War

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You have probably seen this film by now, more than once. Same goes for Black Panther, statistically even more so. Why bother hide the fact at this point that one of the biggest blockbusters so far released had the courage to let the heroes lose for once, and not in the same sense as 2016’s Civil War. This is a real defeat we got to witness for Earth’s mightiest heroes and the galaxy’s guardians. Of course, this year we will see how the surviving heroes of Thano’s gauntlet induced purge rectify that momentous occasion. After all, one of the deceased has a film coming out two months afterwards.

Until that moment comes, I reflect on how such a generally long film felt surprisingly short, how an enormous cast of characters didn’t feel overpacked, and how an entirely CGI villain felt real enough, to even inspire begrudging understanding. To think not even half a year before Infinity War’s release we were heckling another wholly CGI villain at the rival company’s beleaguered offering. Pun intended. It’s a film that is fun to watch just for the spectacle, and as it happens, for the other side of the Marvel coin: the characters themselves. The sign of a decent Summer tent-pole is if I am not bored when something meant to be exciting, action-packed or exploding isn’t on screen. Safe to say that was the case. Hope it is the exact same way this eventful April.

Number One: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-verse

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I had given up on Sony’s capacity to produce good superhero films, let alone involving Spider-Man. Who hadn’t? Spider-Man 3, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and now this year’s Venom. Why should an animated Spider-man be any different? Oh, it was different. In fact, difference was what mattered most in this year’s best film.

I can gush on end on how the truly new style of CGI animation makes not only a comic book come to life that feels fluid rather than stagnant, but how the idea of exploring the identity of the persona more so than just Peter Parker once again was a bite in the hand the IP needed after six live action iterations in a little less than 20 years. Miles Morales embodies the concept of being different, but in the right ways the same as Peter Parker’s Spider-man. They’re always constants when exploring the multiverse theory, and the constant that is tragedy is what hooks all the spiders together. It both makes the act of being Spider-man truly fun once more while also hitting you with the knowledge that it can also lead to a hard, even short life. It’s not just the visuals that are crammed with so much detail to evaluate over and over again, the themes and ideas in this film are to be applauded for being so deep and yet so easy to digest. It leaves you begging for more and one day we will get more Spider-people to meet at the cinema. For now, it is just the start of something amazing to marvel over, again and again.

Additional image credits to ReactionMR.COM, Besthqwallpapers, Lamplight Drivel, The New York Times, Inverse, Movie Nation, Digital Trends, MPAA, Deadline, and Newsweek.

Originally posted 2019-01-08 19:58:57.

The best games of the year (that I played)

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Image from Parksidetraceapartments

2018 was a good year to play a video game, especially if you had a PS4 or a Nintendo Switch. The Nintendo fans got the latest and reportedly greatest Super Smash Bros. in Ultimate and unlike the sorry state of exclusives for Microsoft’s Xbox One, Sony’s PS4 had a graphical remake of Shadow of the Colossus and the original Spyro the Dragon trilogy( that trilogy was available for Xbox One, however). The exclusives were on Sony’s side and again, last year proved I bet on the winning horse of the eighth console generation. Will that be the case for the steadily approaching ninth? I don’t know, but here are my honest thoughts on the best I ‘ve played.

I’m excluding Shadow of the Colossus and Spyro’s Reignited Trilogy in that they are faithful graphical recreations of games that have been around for decades at this point and are not different enough in presentation and game-play to count as a new experience save visually, like 2019’s Resident Evil 2 remake. I’m also excluding Hitman 2 as I have barely played any of Agent 47’s latest set of contracts due to playing and replaying Red Dead Redemption II, Spyro and Overwatch.

Fourth best: Spider-Man PS4

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Image owned by Sony, Insomniac and from GameRevolution

Just swinging and jumping through New York as the most photo-realistic webhead so far is one of the most accomplished components of Insomniac’s franchise revival for Marvel’s most marketable superhero. The story interwoven with the superheroics on offer for the player is competent, on occasion masterful in understanding the specifics needed to make a Spider-story work, like the unglamorous and miserable side of Peter Parker’s normal life. Add in some actually great story beats involving Otto Octavius and Miles Morales and you got yourself a virtual superhero playground that is just begging to be built up further in the much anticipated sequels. As overplayed as the activities become, especially for the completionist in most of us, it’s hard to ignore where Insomniac’s efforts successes overshadow their failings.  Keep the full experience from feeling like a chore too often and their is indeed a challenger on the horizon for Rocksteady’s beloved Batman Arkham saga.

Third Best: Far Cry 5

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Image owned by Ubisoft and from Wired

Let’s not beat around the bush here, in many respects I care about in a game, especially a game made in 2018, Far Cry 5 is very flawed. The story and themes of a large Montana county taken hostage by a militant, Christian cult is not the best realized or executed nor does having an inexplicably and entirely silent protagonist to challenge that cult help matters. The game’s notorious canon ending also made the entire, engrossing experience of liberating Hope County feel all for naught. To be fair, Ubisoft is actually addressing that needlessly nihilistic conclusion by having a full blown sequel this year set in the (spoilers) post-apocalyptic world that occurred, suggesting it wasn’t entirely fruitless. That being said, FC5 is a beautiful and chaotic world to explore, shoot, ride, sail, fly and fish in, with colorful characters, beautiful vistas and a whole bunch of creativity in how you go about,theoretically, saving the county from the Seed family. If you can’t get enough of what I think is Ubisoft’s best franchise, then stop worrying and hint hint, love the bomb.

Second best: God of War 2018

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Image owned by Sony and Santa Monica Studios and from OtakuKart

If ever there was a playable villain in gaming’s past, it was Kratos of Sparta. A man whose desire for power had him accidentally slay his family and go on a six-game quest to eventually topple the authority of Olympus himself, including his daddy Zeus. You liked playing Kratos, you probably didn’t like him. Not so in his Norse soft reboot, where he still hates the Gods, especially since he’s one himself. He wants to make his son Atreus not like him, no cat in the cradle. Yes, the gameplay is fresh, invigorating, and ramps up appropriately for those who really want to challenge themselves while father and son journey through the nine realms, all so they can spread a mother’s ashes at the right place. Like the game of the year up ahead, there is nothing necessarily groundbreaking about God of War, even though Kratos can actually break the ground while in combat. It is the consistent scope and narrative flair which takes advantage of a sort-of aging system to really impress as an epic should. Despite how absolutely varied the combat is, the greatest trick in making God of War worthy of Valhalla is that camera. which never enters a loading screen or transitions into a per-rendered cutscene. You are always watching from Kratos’ perspective and you are never disengaged from a story that is more engaging than anything in our anti-hero’s Greek days.

Game of the Year: Red Dead Redemption II

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Image owned by Rockstar Games and from IGN Nordic

Let’s get this out of the way first. RDR II is not perfect, even if in presentation it can make you think otherwise. The pacing and lack of variety, especially in the third act, can be a real drag, especially as the emotional weight of outlaw Arthur Morgan’s story nearing its end grips you. Rockstar have cultivated an “end of an era” parable that is no less effective than the acclaimed predecessor from 2010. Even as the story missions probably hold your hand a bit too much, especially for a gorgeous and obsessively detailed open world, just begging to be experimented on more creatively than it ultimately was. Rockstar’s vision of a sandbox period piece adventure, however paradoxically restrictive as it may occasionally be, is their own and they, shall I say, stand unshaken in how they think things shall be done in the here and now. I would ask for them to be shaken a bit in the real world though , so perhaps they don’t overwork the employees as has recently been revealed.

There is so much in Red Dead Redemption II to make it deserving of the highest honor anyway, from its well crafted spaghetti Western tale to its large amount of meaningful side content. Just the sheer amount of opportunities to break the law, uphold the law, hunt, fish and discover various points of interest make it a world which really feels like yet another breakthrough in creating real virtual lands. That’s a contradiction, of course, but you really stop caring after awhile. Even when the game bugs out, the results are,for the most part, too entertaining to get mad at. A game exists in its own right to see how many different ways you can make Arthur trip, fall, crash and get killed in general. Rockstar, in this senses, wants you to run wild with your imagination. Considering the length of development and the less than ideal conditions employees were put under, I feel like a jackass to dare say this could’ve been improved. Well, they’re areas for my best game of 2018 to have been improved in. Where it counts is where it works generally and like or hate the overall end product, Red Dead Redemption II is an interactive, flawed masterpiece that demands you don’t forget it anytime soon, if ever. Besides, there’s still room to further improve, and whether it finally be Bully 2 or GTA 6, Rockstar sees little reason to stop reaching for the sky.


Originally posted 2019-01-03 00:11:53.

Bee and Me: A review of Bumblebee

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It would be safe to assume that after an okay first live action Transformers movie and four subsequent,terrible Transformers movies, that the property just doesn’t work that well on the big screen. They are loud, devoid of coherent or consistent plotting and over time just an excuse for director Micheal Bay to masturbate to what he does best: Make over half the film seem like it’s occurring at sunset, objectify women and destroy stuff. Save for the “women” example, unless “Magic Mike” proved a double standard, there is nothing wrong with the elements Bay used to paint his garish portrait of the 80s cartoon/action figure icons. While perhaps artistic in its subjective nature, the films are in terms of symmetry what Jackson Pollock was for art. Not inherently bad, just badly implemented.

By the fourth and fifth films, it can be argued that Bay is self aware and is actively trying the audience’s patience rather than the critics, maybe so he can stop making them. If Travis Knight is the new trendsetter for this flailing franchise, then maybe we can go back to saying there is actually more than meets the eye. For now, it’s what we should expect from competent filmmaking.

Bumblebee is the most marketable Transformer yet, even more than Autobot leader Optimus Prime and Decepticon leader Megatron. As was intended in the original 1980s animated series, Bee was intended as the “kid appeal character”, the one who hangs out the most with the human audience surrogates like Spike Witwicky, his father Sparkplug (nicknames I hope) and the former’s eventual girlfriend Carly. That he is the only Autobot to consistently survive Bay’s series other than Optimus is no accident. Of course he would get his own movie! It’s marketing sense. The strange thing is how oddly uncorporate Bumblebee as a movie feels. Probably stems from Travis Knight of Kubo and the Two Strings fame, actually giving a f**k about the source material however chronologically vicarious it may be.

In the first of many new retcons for the storyline, which here seem more of a relief than a headache for reasons I will elaborate further on, Bumblebee is sent to Earth by Optimus from the Transformer homeworld Cybertron to recon for a new home. The Decepticons have all but won despite Megatron being conspicuously absent from the entire movie. The loyal Autobot, referred to at this point as B-127, obliges and lands on Earth. He immediately runs into John Cena’s Burns, a gruff military figure running a training exercise at the spot B lands in. Cena is surprisingly solid in his performance and is actually quite reasonable with the insane situations he is put in due to the Transformers. Of course, seeing a giant alien robot show up out of nowhere puts him on the offensive for the majority of the film. In due time, a Decepticon scout who looks like Starscream but very much isn’t for reasons made very apparent in the film, fights Bumblebee in the midst of the military’s chase and manages to take away Bee’s literal voice box. The damage from the fight also damages his also literal memory banks.

As well done as the rest of the film is, and make no mistake, compared to the fare we’ve received from Bay in the following decade, Bumblebee is nearly a revelation of what could have been in that time, Knight is a bit too liberal in borrowing elements from films of the past. If you have ever seen or heard of E.T. and the Iron Giant, then a lot of the beats will feel almost painfully familiar. Eventually, Charlie, the human female lead of the movie( Hailee Steinfeld), finds B in much the same way that Sam Witwicky did in the original, at a used car yard/junkyard and buys him to renovate.

I give some lenience to Knight in that he is trying to establish a nostalgic period piece for the 1980s and the popular culture it brought with it. In terms of fanservice for the era, it is well handled and not overwrought. Some of it is clever, such as the use of Stan Bush’s The Touch, the iconic song from the original animated film of that same decade. It is not used how you think it will be used and that is one of the more legitimate surprises Knight offers.

That being said, the cliches of movies from that era do still feel worn, even if done intentionally to suggest a bygone era from Hollywood. The mean girls, the dorky friend, the (possibly) brainless jock, the annoying younger brother, the deceased dad for the main character and the silly stepfather whom she hates. It’s all there and it can distract from how genuine if familiar the connection Charlie makes with Bumblebee. She does clear up why the Autobot would have the name of an earth-based insect. From B-127 to Bumblebee.

I would be lying if I still felt more engaged with the film when it came to the larger implications involving, you know, the Transformers, the reason you’re here. Two Decepticon hunters, both of which are brand new to the hundreds of robots to choose from,Shatter and Dropkick, are the antagonists searching for our big yellow hope. They are quite enjoyable in how unabashedly evil they are. Of all the things to carry over from Bay’s take on the franchise, Decepticon cruelty is one of the few worth keeping. It doesn’t hurt that Cena calls them out on their clearly sinister name when all the military humans consider a truce to hunt down Bumblebee.

I mentioned earlier that Bumblebee brings new retcons to the series. Originally, Bumblebee traveled to Earth in the 1970s to search for the first of many macguffins, the Allspark.  Bumblebee in this movie arrives in 80s America just to find a home for the Autobots to hide and survive. There are callbacks to the first Bay film, suggesting this is still the same universe as the prior films. Other moments suggest otherwise, perhaps an alternate universe take. If this was a reboot of the series containing elements from the original run, that would be fine by me. To be honest, the timeline for this series is so royally screwed, especially by bonkers and even offensive revelations in 2017’s The Last Knight (Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass as Autobot allies for starters), that Knight and his writers omitting, even rewriting the storyline without the really stupid stuff is fine by me.

Bumblebee, despite its hardly fresh story for Bee and his human friend, does feel refreshing for the film series as a whole. The action is clean yet thoroughly enjoyable, and I not once, ever got confused to which robot was which, which in turn was a constant issue with Bay’s Quintology. It suggests that a future lineup of Transformer movies without Bay’s direct involvement is no longer something to fear or worse be wearily resigned to, or better yet, to skip outright. The Transformers have got their touch back for the first time in what seems like forever and it is quite grateful to know a universe designed to sell toys can feel more than plastic.

Originally posted 2018-12-30 23:25:46.

If nautical nonsense be something you wish…: A review of Aquaman

Image result for aquaman 2018

Image owned by DC & Warner Bros. and from Variety

Aquaman is a joke, but sometimes the joke punches away from the man himself. I have periodically found the hero enjoyable and even well written, whether it be the new 52 take by Geoff Johns or his presentation in the Dini/Timmverse Justice League show. Then again, just about anyone from DC’s comic universe works in that animated series so in the right hands, we can laugh along with Arthur Curry rather than at him. Does James Wan’s film accomplish that?  Yes and no.

I will give initial credit that compared to the dull, dreary and overly serious experiences of prior DCEU films like Batman v Superman, Aquaman is trying its best to pop in expression and hold your interest in presentation. For all I will say of this film, I was never bored despite its length. For once, this ill-considered cinematic universe is earnestly trying to make you like its world and characters rather than halfheartedly like last year’s Justice League. In essence, Aquaman is Justice League but more consistent and better. It is still not great, nor reached that lofty position that Marvel Studios has down to a science at this point.

Like Spock from Star Trek, Arthur the Aquaman is of two worlds: the surface, our world, and the deep, Atlantis. Having lived most of his life in the surface, he’s prefers to live among us and stay out of the affairs of his mother’s underwater world. Why wouldn’t he? They killed her for treason to the throne, as well as having him with his land father. For those who remember the events of JL last year and you are to be forgiven if you hadn’t, there is some retconning in Arthur’s relation to his homeland below the water and with his love interest/partner in the film, Mera. In the prior film, Amber Heard’s Mera and Jason Momoa’s Aquaman know each other and even met and fought together against Steppenwolf in acquiring the Allspa..I mean Mother Box. The new film states that this is their first meeting. It’s narrative inconsistencies like that that are troubling for building a shared universe but then again, considering how lackluster the prior film is, it’s not the most anguished issue at hand.

Arthur’s half brother,Oram, the heir to the throne of Atlantis wants to unite the various underwater kingdoms to wage war against the surface for incredibly obvious reasons. If you know anything about our sorry state in caretaking for the planet, let alone the ocean, then it’s pretty convincing why Atlantis would want to raise hell from the depths on our sorry asses. Motivation aside, the biggest problem that sinks”ahem” the film for me is the strange yet careless tone and expository nature of the narrative. I mentioned earlier that this was a “more consistent” film than Justice League. I stand by it but it still has some problems. The visual style is where my praise for consistency begins and mostly ends.

Sometimes there’s an genuine attempt at emotion such as the melodramatic but heartfelt love story of Arthur’s parents( Temuera Morrison and Nicole Kidman). Then there is a short scene with an octopus playing drums. Like the Little Mermaid. It doesn’t help that line delivery by the Atlanteans felt more wooden and silly than even the Shakespearean excesses of Thor’s Asgardians. It didn’t hurt that Iron Man and the entirety of Thor: Ragnarok was there to mock it. Here, it is straightforward in its presentation of Atlantis and while you can congratulate it on owning what it is, you’ll still struggle to stifle laughter both at what you’re looking at, sharks and giant seahorses as steeds, and Patrick Wilson’s Oram proclaiming, “Call me…Ocean Master.” For the record, the audience laughed at these moments and I along with them. It didn’t help that Oram’s comic accurate helmet was hilarious. Like a flamboyant Nite Owl mask from Wilson’s prior superhero role in Watchmen.

Even more frustrating for myself was the uninspired exposition scenes which for a while seemed unending and occasionally, oddly placed like a heart to heart early on with the secondary antagonist Black Manta and his father, all during a high stakes raid on a Russian submarine that Aquaman eventually intervenes in. I know you have to explain to the audience the world and rules of Atlantis, especially for the first aqua-outing in this subseries, but it is inelegant to say the least, especially coming out of Willem Dafoe’s Vulco, a mentor figure for Arthur. It got funny, intentional or not, when these exposition scenes were constantly interrupted by a sudden explosion or ambush, as if the film was reminding itself not to risk boring the audience. By the third or fourth explosive interruption, I was giggling.

Another point against the cinematic Mermaidman is how uninspired and overly similar its story and themes are to other superhero or fantasy narratives. Some seem unavoidable and sort of earn them, like the very obvious connection to King Arthur. Then there is the film’s close narrative structure to this year’s Black Panther, except in reverse. Instead of the outsider heir being the bad guy like Killmonger vs T’Challa, we have the outsider heir being the good guy, Arthur vs Oram. It doesn’t feel fresh enough in execution and aside from the logistics of water being used cleverly as a weapon or source of (ironic) oxygen, it feels as if I’m watching an inferior take on the royal superhero, and that’s not even considering Thor and his movies. Oh, and the middle portion of the film becomes National Treasure: Atlantis edition.

I do feel as if I’m being too harsh all things considered. It is a watch that doesn’t really lag save for some straight up “stand and explain stuff” moments. Momoa does seem to be having fun playing Aquaman and his enthusiasm does help when his role as protagonist felt more reactionary than anything else. I also found myself astonished that out of all the film’s ridiculous images, I bought the image of him proudly wielding the iconic yet silly orange and green suit and yes, riding a giant seahorse.

DC isn’t there yet, but they are I suppose looking in the right direction. Hopefully they reach it before superhero craze’s bubble bursts, though honestly I hope that ain’t the case anytime soon. I will also give props,however loosely, for having a ginormous underwater sea battle in the third act that while overblown and nutty as hell, did seem paradoxically easy to follow what was going on. As loud, bombastic CG battles go, Aquaman is in the upper tier of the excessive variety, if only because it connects with the character’s central struggle ultimately.

I didn’t want DC to fail despite the vitriol I hold for past entries like BVS and Justice League. Even when Aquaman is at its best, my mind wanders back to the unfortunate reality about DC’s cinematic universe, a similar truth to the well received Wonder Woman. This universe is so narratively and thematically fractured at this point, thanks to a lack of care in thinking ahead and in how to adapt a cinematic universe on par with Marvel, I fear no amount of success will be able to make up for its past failings. Think Aquaman did the character and his world justice? Great, he still lives in a world which had Batman and Superman stop fighting over sharing a mother’s first name. Aquaman is fun enough if you can excuse its sillier moments and if you do find that hallowed emotional connection, all the better for you and the like-minded. For me, Aquaman is a mildly waterlogged example of too little, too late. Pardon my likely bias, but Marvel won and it has been doing victory laps for years at this point. Still, a C-worthy adventure.



Originally posted 2018-12-26 04:42:43.

The Spider with a thousand faces: A review of Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse

Image result for spider-man into the spider-verse

Image owned by Marvel and Sony/Columbia and taken from Seattle Weekly


We’ve had six Spider-Man films in this young century, from three separate series. We’ve had ups, like Maguire and Holland’s outings and we’ve had downs like Garfield and Maguire’s last outing. We have never seen an animated Spider-Man movie, though we have had plenty of animated television for the webhead. Take away the Spider-Man and even the superhero hook of the feature, you still have one of the most remarkable animation achievements in recent years, a style which utterly blurs the distinction between traditional and CGI style.

It is a beautiful, nearly overwhelming accomplishment that is far more successful and triumphant than anyone, myself included, had ever considered possible. I had dismissed any  independent Sony-Marvel project following Spider-man’s rightful reintroduction in the form of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Last October’s Venom, while financially solid, was seen as proof of Sony’s half-hearted desire to milk the webslinger in spite of the qualities Tom Holland has brought to the cinematic table. Into the Spider-verse reveals a new, artistic alternative to the lazy live action cash grabs Venom aspires to and shows that Sony can make good on their license in a way that doesn’t do injustice to Marvel’s most successful character. If anything, Sony’s latest Spider-film, animated or otherwise, is the best on-screen take of the wall-crawler ever made. It tackles better than even 2004’s Spider-Man 2 and 2017’s Spider-Man Homecoming what Spider-Man is as a character and what he reflects positively in the human spirit and more importantly than that as well, how appropriately flexible one can be in re-imagining such a universal archetype.

Despite my initial skepticism of a animated Spider-Man film existing at all, what with the countless prior TV adaptations dating all the way back to the 1960s, to Tom Holland having successfully integrated into the MCU, this seemed like a pale-faced cash grab from an animation company that gave us the most obvious and shameless cash grab ever: The Emoji Movie. However, Lord and Miller, the duo behind the better than expected Lego Movie, produced this film and their influence shows both in well conceived humor and understanding how Spider-Man works.

Focusing in on a popular, modern version of the character, the initially controversial black/latino Miles Morales, Into the Spider-verse uses this up and coming wall-crawler as both a surprisingly rock solid cinematic introduction to the character on its own merits as well as selling the concept that Peter Parker is not nor never again will be the only Spider-Man to think of popularly. There isn’t even just one Peter Parker.

I’ve always been keen to any property tackling the “multiverse” theory, that of countless alternate universes ,with who knows how many different imaginable deviations. Star Trek, Bioshock, Rick & Morty and Marvel , alongside rival superhero company DC, have delved deep into alternate universes as a crutch for clearing up continuity issues and creative storytelling. Rick and Morty’s core conceptual identity is about their being infinite universes and the existential horror that comes with that knowledge. Here in the Spider-verse, it’s a celebration of Spidey’s appropriate flexibility.

Tired of the Peter Parker you know, love and may be getting sick of on the big screen or small page? Well, there isn’t only a racially diverse new Spider-Man in Miles, there is an alternate universe Gwen Stacy with a dead Peter Parker as motivation, a 30s Noir  private eye Spider-Man voiced perfectly by Nicolas Cage with his own dead Uncle Ben. Let’s not forget an animeesque Japanese American teen girl with a mech suit evoking Evangelion and Overwatch’s D.VA and Looney Tunes inspired Spider-Ham with the same bonkers origin( a spider that is bitten by a radioactive pig). The hint of even more cool and intriguing Spider-individuals in future films makes this a prospective series for viewers for all seasons.

Despite the lustre of ideas which the film puts forth, it manages to stay focused on Miles’ as a compelling new take on the story and character. Despite miles’ ethnic and cultural difference from Peter, he is still relatable in confronting his high school and teenage life challenges as well as internal strife relating to his police officer father and more preferable and cool Uncle Aaron, voiced by Mahershala Ali. The film treats Miles seriously as its own thing rather than just another variation on Peter. He’s different enough but not so different to alienate Spider-purists.

I could dabble deeper into how the narrative, dealing with the character mythos connected with the worn yet oddly fresh enough “multiple universe theory”,congeals peerlessly, but that would be edging close to risking spoilers and Into the Spider-verse manages to do something else well that wasn’t expected: surprise you with what shouldn’t really be all that surprised by in hindsight. I am not referring to how the utterly idiosyncratic animation style, which is a seemingly impossible mix of CGI and traditional, works amazingly well. I am referring to narrative and character moments which are convincingly presented as shocking even if there are plenty of  well hidden clues which avoid the realm of “duh”.

About that animation. It is worth viewing the film multiple times just to look at it as well as for the monumental number of easter eggs hidden throughout, not all of them relating to Spider-man. There is, as expected, a poignant cameo by  Stan the Man, as well as many tell tale signs to tip you off that Miles’ universe is not our own. It is subtle fanservice and world-building at its best. Even when it isn’t, it still somehow works when it’s as subtle as one of Spider-Ham’s cartoon anvils.

The animation, though entirely CG, does make it look like a bewildering hydra of comic-dot style and rotoscoping which creates a movement that at times seems stop-motion or even claymation. It is miraculous in how it all works out from initially looking too bizarre to eventually seeming as natural a look as you could hope for in a Spider-Man film. As has been espoused already by others, it is like an actual graphic novel come to life. You know it works when you stop noticing what it’s going for and you’re simply enjoying it for what it is.   It is not like anything out there and its unique status isn’t lost on Sony. They’re trying to patent the technology used for the film so no one else can capture the look.

It captures the liberating feel of not just a Spider-man multiverse but a superhero universe. It’s about how the Spider-Man identity is not unique to just one man or even one version of said man: Peter Parker. Even if we never get the abilities of Spider-Man, we can all aspire to be as good as the man/woman/pig. Even Spider-Man himself can aspire to be as good again as his legacy suggests, such as an alternate, overweight and down and out Peter Parker, played forlornly by Jake Johnston, voicing the tired Spider-mentor to Miles. The film, despite its exuberant joy, never wavers from how harsh life for any web-slinging vigilante can be as the key ingredient to being the most optimistic hero is suffering through trauma. Loss  is part in parcel to all the Spiders in Into the Spider-verse and remembering that was the most important thing that had to be included in the many, many things included.

Peter Parker is not the only Spider-Man. And that is not just fine. It’s refreshingly spectacular.


Originally posted 2018-12-20 20:45:02.

Best Western: A review of Red Dead Redemption II ( mild spoilers)


Image taken from Windows Central and owned by Rockstar Games


This may not seem terribly surprising, but the makers of genre defining titles like the Grand Theft Auto series and the original Red Dead Redemption have done it again. There is nothing necessarily revolutionarily about Red Dead Redemption II. It is in context of gameplay and theme similar to its predecessor, but it inspires a new level in what we should aspire to in detail and level of quality.

Every sandbox-open world game that comes after RDR II will be under its shadow in terms of trying to capture a living world, where the artificialities which are still present feel and seem subdued and you soak up a virtual outlaw’s paradise in a way that feels almost uncannily real. It doesn’t hurt that this is one of the most earned melancholy stories the gaming industry has ever produced. No matter how much fun you can have in the large wild west world that Rockstar has created, the passing of time is heavy in the air. There can be no escape from the modernizing and ostensibly “better’ world that is encroaching on the outlaw gang you call family.

Mostly set in 1899 at the dawn of the chaotic 20th century, Arthur Morgan and the Van der Linde gang are on the run from the authorities after a botched big city robbery. Said authorities are now finally able to actually start enforcing law and order. As the story unfolds, you get the sense the gang and Arthur are also running from something even more frightening to them: who they really are as people and the inevitability of change. Arthur’s morality and to some extent fate will change on how well the player allows him to recognize this. Those who stay stuck in their ways are doomed, and those who do try to change tragically might not be much better off.

Over the really long journey across a beautiful, expertly realized recreation of several Southern and Western states that have for convenience sake been shrunk from the real thing, you will rob, kill, drink, eat, play, hunt, fish and do just about anything possible that was possible at the end of 19th century America. Your mileage in how you enjoy the activities mandatory or otherwise will vary despite how well thought out they are overall. The poker games and other such gambling options I suppose can be an awesome way to get money and some fun but despite an in depth tutorial, I never can seem to understand such games and this is not just a problem I have with Red Dead. It probably also stems from me being wisely wary of games of chance in the real world or it’s an unwillingness to try hard enough on my part.

Most of the time is spent exploring, shooting and riding your horse and Rockstar does all it can to keep the somewhat limited range of options of play varied and engaging. The extreme length of the story does mean that despite the very best efforts, the pace can slacken and it becomes at times a chore to once again engage in a shootout. Of course they’re ways to mitigate such a grind through the growth and experience that both Arthur and yourself can earn at mostly your own pace.

Your health, stamina and “Dead Eye”, the last of which is a special ability to slow down time and mark targets to shoot, can be all upgraded in ways which reward your commitment to not only the various interlocking systems of narrative, adventure and side activities but also to actually trying to put on a good effort in the moment to moment. With time, the basic mechanics of just everything can go from being efficient to something that through mastery can be truly impressive to engage with in the end. The game wants to make you the ultimate gunslinger, and not just in improving your levels but in your fashion sense and commitment to improving and upgrading your weapons. That too can be accomplished by buying, stealing and even crafting the necessary parts.

Two areas that helps accentuate Rockstar’s desire for you to get out there and experience their colorful world is both through the incredible amount of variations in interaction with its inhabitants and the the plants and animals to be harvested and hunted. There are over a hundred species of animals just waiting to be studied, tracked and skinned. It’s a completionist’s paradise and one that feels more rewarding than obligatory. Better yet, everything from items to find like cigarette cards, dinosaur bones and rock carvings to the various manners of hunting will give you a reward both monetary and through  further refining Arthur’s capabilities. It also gives you a reason to see all you can see without the excuse of ” just because”.

All of this doesn’t account for the game’s greatest strength being its grandiose yet oddly intimate narrative to tell and the aforementioned interactivity. Often, whether it’s with your fellow gang members or with the average frontier man or woman, you can choose to “greet” or “antagonize.” Arthur is written and voiced in such a way to make his behavior either honorable or dishonorable fit who he is. Greet someone to make friends, negotiate or defuse confrontations either purposeful or accidental. Antagonize to get them sad, piss them off or just show your own cynical interpretation of the world you inhabit. The number of types of encounters are so large and creative that even when they do repeat, they still feel oddly organic and worth experiencing or getting Arthur involved in. This system alone justifies Rockstar’s mission statement to make a “real’ virtual world. While it is not perfect, it’s so consistent and willing to course correct that even some notable hiccups are forgivable rather than an exposure of the figurative “man behind the curtain.” The people who made Red Dead Redemption II are still human after all.

What makes RDR II so successful is despite the considerable, maybe obsessive realization of the gameplay and technical systems, the game doesn’t forget that Arthur’s story matters, especially as it acts as a meaningful prequel to the first game. If you have played the first game which I strongly recommend as that is indeed in itself a masterpiece all its own, then you know that things are not going to go smoothly for the Van der Linde gang. Rather than suck the tension out of the experience, it instills in equal measure dread and genuine sadness. Characters who appear in the original are obviously going to survive the eventual collapse of the gang in this entry but their fates in the former are to put it bluntly, not of the “riding into the sunset” variety. As for those who are absent in the original like most notably Arthur, that would be a great disservice as well as brazen spoilers to tell. That being said, a growing realization that this can’t end nor should end in any blatantly happy way becomes the most powerful quality the story has. These are criminals we are following after all. Even if you attempt and succeed in the titular path of redemption with Arthur, I’ll just say that redemption comes with a heavy, heavy price. What that price is you should find out yourself.

It also acts as a great character study not just for Arthur but for the gang’s leader Dutch Van der Linde. As the situation deteriorates ever so gradually for his posse which includes women and children, you start to see the duplicity of the man who for both Arthur and the first game’s protagonist, John Marston, who acts as a non-playable member of the group, is a father figure. You will both look up to Dutch yourself and will also if you pay close attention notice the reality of who that man really is. It never explicitly illustrates and shoves down your throat what kind of man he is, it is something that sneaks up on you and more than just the pressure of the encroaching law enforcement on your heels, makes you truly question what you are doing. In the end, it is Dutch that represents the downfall of the Old West gunslinger: not so much the march of progress and a more civilized world, but the insidious hypocrisy of criminals thinking they are better than they really are. Arthur’s own story diverges upon either realizing that truth or refusing to do so.

Red Dead Redemption II wants you to truly embrace its morally grey world, it wants you to take part wholesale in its period piece odyssey. It succeeds due to its near unbelievable level of quality, that makes what comes next for games across the board daunting to live up to. In terms of a game that is made up of individual parts, RDR II is close to peerless. It is anchored by Rockstar committing wholesale to a prequel we didn’t think we wanted next from the series but now can’t imagine not being there.

Find a horse, rear that horse, and saddle up for a journey that despite being about the impermanence of the world, more-so the human world than the natural one, wants you to stop and enjoy the moment to moment as it likely was in 1899. Enjoy or if you desire make amends for a criminal lifestyle that was once common but is now alive only in legend. The Old West is dead. Long live the Virtual West.

Originally posted 2018-12-06 20:35:59.

Ocean Man: Stephen Hillenburg 1961-2018

Image from Consequence of Sound and owned by Nickelodeon

If Nickelodeon has a Mickey Mouse or Bugs Bunny, it is undeniably Spongebob Squarepants, still running after debuting 19 years ago. The show is also Nick’s Animaniacs in the same way Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra is their Batman Animated Series, though the former is lit much more brightly and differs thematically, in all fairness. Perhaps the greatest miracle of Stephen Hillenburg’s defining creation is how such an intentionally annoying figure like the titular Spongebob has endured in the hearts and minds of children and adults for so long, even after the series has long since peaked in quality, from its golden years of 1999 to 2005, in which Hillenburg worked as show-runner. The show received an award winning Broadway show, that must mean something has gone seriously right.

Hillenburg started off working for a Marine institute in Orange County, where in an educational comic for the Institute, the Intertidal Zone, a progenitor for his porous creation, was featured, as Bob the Sponge. Eventually, after working on an early Nickelodeon show, Rocko’s Modern Life, he eventually came up with Spongeboy, who would later become the aquatic icon we all know today. The rest is 11 seasons and counting of nautical nonsense of varying degrees of quality, a legion of internet memery that endures in popularity and applicability and even two critically and commercially films, with a third planned for 2020.

As his time working at a Marine Institute implies, he had a lifelong fascination with the great deep blue, and credits the famous undersea explorer, Jacques Cousteau, as an influence on his career. Spongebob Squarepants is deliberately absurd and inaccurate in its depiction of underwater life. For one, gravity as we land-based creatures know it exists to often humorous effect and the titular character is based not on an actual sea sponge but clearly, a sink’s. It’s a fun way to pique an audience’s interest in the ocean and its denizens, and save for Finding Nemo, no other piece of popular culture has been as successful. Suck it, Aquaman.

What perhaps ties up Spongebob’s enduring legacy is not so much the pseudo-realistic world of Bikini Bottom, but the characters Hillenburg placed in it. The main cast has been connected to a popular and even widely accepted by the cast and crew fan theory that seven of the cast, in this instance Spongebob, Patrick the starfish, Squidward, Sandy the Texan squirrel, Mr. Krabs, Plankton, and SB’s pet snail Gary, all represent the seven deadly sins. Comedy is often successful due to the flaws of characters sympathetic or otherwise, and the theory which Hillenburg suggested in the DVD commentary of the first season works very well.

Spongebob represents a nonsexual lust, in the sense he craves the love and respect of everyone in Bikini Bottom, especially Squidward. Squidward, often wanting to be left alone by everyone, especially Spongebob and Patrick, is wrath, apparent in his great anger and frustration that follows. Mr. Krabs, Spongebob’s boss at his job at the fast food restaurant, the Krusty Krab, is the easiest to guess, in that he is greed, due to his memetic love for money. His entrepreneurial rival, Plankton, wants the formula to Krabs’ coveted Krabby Patty formula, the secret sauce that makes the Krusty Krab a success. Plankton is envy. Spongebob’s best friend, Patrick, is incredibly lazy, despite his companionship with Spongebob and considerable strength. Though he is quite the eater, he represents sloth much more than gluttony. Gluttony goes to Spongebob’s Gary, who like most pets, loves you mostly for your ability to feed them. Gary is shown to be considerably smarter than other pets, which might imply that it is more than instinct that drives his hunger. Finally, there is Sandy Cheeks, a female Texan squirrel and the only non marine character in the show. She is shown to be fervently proud to be a Texan as well as an adventurer and often takes considerable risks for her ego. She is pride.

With exception to Plankton and maybe Mr. Krabs, none of the cast is necessarily villainous and that makes it all the more enjoyable when a show once dismissed as black and white kids’ fair or worse mindless entertainment, can convince with a comedic, all ages look at some of our own everlasting hangups. No show is ever memorable if everyone is perfect. Though not explicitly about screwing up, as is the underlying theme of the much more adult Venture Bros., it helps that something concrete and relatable is in Stephen Hillenburg’s legacy work, and perhaps as the decades continue on, Spongebob Squarepants will last because he made one of the most well known family shows of all time chaotic yet paradoxically concise. Paradoxes are often at the heart of some of the best things in life. For one, it makes life and its creations all the more interesting. Say what you will for the overall package of Stephen Hillenburg’s Spongebob, it grabbed and held your attention even if you were over the age of 15. That’s an accomplishment few do and ever achieve.

Originally posted 2018-11-29 21:09:00.

Stanley Stan Lee”the Man” Lieber 1922-2018

Image result for stan lee 1960s

Image taken from The Hollywood Reporter

Stan Lee created roughly 327 characters, mostly for Marvel Comics, over the course of his 95-year lifespan. A considerable portion of those have now appeared in cinemas, to say nothing of television live action or animated and video games. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has become in only a decade, the most financially lucrative  film franchise of all time, beating Harry Potter, Star Wars, and James Bond 007. And it’s all because the right man was at the right place at the right time in the early 1940s, when Marvel went by “Timely”.

They’re varying reports on how Lee actually began his revolutionary career in comic books from varying sources. This is not helped by Lee having been a master self-advertiser who controversially often kept the spotlight away from other critical figures in Marvel’s early 60’s renaissance. Figures like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Gene Colan, Don Heck, Robert Bernstein, Gil Kane, Don Rico, John Buscema, John Romita Sr., and his own still living brother, Larry Leiber. Much like Walt Disney  for his titular company in a sense, he went from being a creator to a decades spanning apologist for Marvel and the comics industry at large. He helped make what was once part of a considered disposable genre of popular culture into a leading aspect of our overall culture. The nerds, in time, won. Lee led the charge in the 1970s going forward into today, his porno stache’ along for the ride, though it eventually evolved into a kindly uncle/grandpa stache’.

Of the 327 characters I managed to source from wikipedia, the characters and their respective connected film series of Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, Black Panther as well as the teams like The Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy, can be traced back to Lee, though it’s debatable how much actual involvement he had with the original, obscure Guardians. The next MCU film, Captain Marvel, will be the first with no direct or indirect relation to Lee, as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies have had Lee’s Groot and (possibly) Yondu. He did help create the original Captain Marvel, the heroic alien Kree called Mar-Vell, which will be portrayed in the upcoming film by Jude Law, so I guess I should say that the film does have a notable connection to Lee after all, just not in titular character exactly.

Aside from honoring his legacy, most people are now fixated with what his final cameo appearance will be in the MCU, to say nothing of other non-MCU properties like possibly X-Men: Dark Phoenix. The fourth still untitled Avengers has been confirmed to feature Lee as has Captain Marvel. It’s uncertain if Spider-Man: Far from Home, the last Phase 3 MCU feature has an appearance by Stan the Man. Honestly, I feel his last appearance being in Avengers 4 would be the most appropriate, as the next Avengers is being signaled as the “end of the MCU as we know it”, not the end of the film universe period, but an end, nonetheless. Considering a big number of his characters will be signing off next year, including Downey Jr’s Iron Man, Evans’ Captain America, Ruffalo’s Hulk and maybe Hemsworth’s Thor, it would be a poignant conclusion in more ways than one.

Stan Lee will also very likely be featured at the 2019 Oscars’s “In Memoriam” section of the show, and it would be frankly insulting if he wasn’t. If I had to choose a clip to be used for Lee’s part of the Memoriam, it would be the final post credits scene from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, where Lee, in a spacesuit, panics as the bored alien “Watchers” leave him alone, tired of his tales. “I have so many more stories to tell! At least give me a lift home!” That would be Excelsior in remembrance. Nuff said. Ever.


Originally posted 2018-11-13 20:43:08.