Saturday, April 27, 2013

Dark Souls (2011) What happened after I lost my save file.

Initially my reaction was like this.  Then I kind of got "mad at dem eggs" and restarted with a new character.

Dark Souls during a second go through is a little easier.  The game still hates you but just knowing a few things about how the game works and what areas you can exploit and what items not to waste but it still hurts like a bastard to have lost the time, though not as much as it hurt to lose a big old stack of souls and humanity due to a stupid mistake.

Here's a couple of the things I learned with no spoilers and some friendly advice (even though apparently one isn't supposed to give advice about Dark Souls if you're "hardcore" - meh).

I changed my class from thief to wanderer, mainly because wanderer isn't quite as squishy as thief nor bohunky as warrior or knight.  Not that the class ultimately matters because you're going to be putting points into skills you enjoy/prefer.  The skill lvl cap is 40 and over-all lvl cap is over 150.  Still you don't want to waste time putting time and effort into a skill that will ultimately prove useless (e.g. Resistance).  Plus you don't want to waste precious points you'll need for equipment and skills.

I've a pretty simple PvE build Soul Level 38 Wanderer with a decent combination of range/melee and been hoarding resources for better equipment I know I'll be finding down the road.  I also bought a metric fuck ton of arrows and fire bombs to just range aggro enemies.  There are a couple of spots where you can plink an enemy from across a canyon and sometimes they will simply charge straight at you  (and thus fall into the ravine and die) instead of legging it the long way round to attack you.  Work smarter, not harder. 

The piddly little spell Aural Decoy has also become a fairly useful resource for triggering ambushes, sending enemies running off cliffs stupidly (or close to a cliff edge so I just walk up and bash them off), or giving me a few seconds of breathing room so I can run awa...I mean...tactically retreat. 

Being forced to restart has also allowed me to enjoy the game a bit more instead of running around screaming like a n00b on fire (or dying every other fucking minute).  There are some nice looking vistas and some interesting enemy animations and graphical touches.  I've gotten used to the controls and quick-changing through items is a breeze (learn from this Bethesda).  Not going to jinx myself because I'm dreading going into the new areas (if I can ever beat the boss I need to take down - son of a bitch just clobbers me) but I am digging the new pace of game play.  I still have to be cautious and alert (even crummy enemies can ruin your day if you're careless).

One downside to where I am in the game is that I am going to have to get some serious grind on in order to break through the current ceiling I have hit.  I'm just of wandering around, looking at stuff, and trying not to die.  I did, finally take down a baddie that was one-hitting me over (and over and over), through sheer lameness (cast Aural Decoy to lure him out of his hiding spot then fire bomb him, and wash and rinse and repeat over and over).  But this uncle-fucker of a boss demon is starting to piss me off to no end.  Sigh.  Looks like I'm gonna wander and loot for the next game-play session or two. 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Dark Souls (2011)

We're gonna take a trip down ye olde nostalgia gaming lane for a moment, bear with me:

Remember in the olden days when RPGs did not come with a map, or they came with a rudimentary one and you couldn't expect a full map from Nintendo Power for a few months?  When a game seemed to actively work against you to the point where you thought the game hated you, and you alone?  Secrets and hidden prizes were the reward for exploration and exploitation on a second play-through?  You had to grind through  mobs just to hoard whatever meager XP and GP they dropped just to get an advantage over the next dungeon?  Imagine a time when you didn't have to wait for load screens.  Imagine a RPG system you couldn't instantly nerf.  Remember when death brought a tangible cost to your character, not just in L33T perma-death mode?

Well, dear readers.  I think that I might have found such a game. Dark Souls kept me playing from around 2AM Saturday 04/20/13 to 5AM 04/21/13 - sober  (I played a couple hours of Puzzle Quest waiting for Dark Souls to download) and I think I've barely scratched the surface to this beast. I have checked no FAQs, no cheats, no hints (except for in-game), no game manual, and no one I know has played it.  

Dark Souls is not a loot'n'run, it is not Skyrim, it is not going to kiss your boo-boo when you fall off your training wheels.  Dark Souls doesn't give a fuck if you like it.  In fact, if you don't like it then you weren't gonna hack it anyway, so take a walk down wash-up lane.

Dark Souls can be summed up very simply, "Do it again and do it right this time."  But in a very Kafkaesque way, you are lost and somewhat scared  of what you're doing.

Do I have your interest?

I remember reading about Dark Souls on a couple of "hardcore" gamer and RPG junkie sites back in '11 but I got distracted by Skyrim and all that folderol.  It just slipped through the cracks until Saturday evening, while I was looking for a game to download and play.  For $19.99 I figured, "Fuck it.  Worse comes to worse it's an RPG I can tear through and review."

Load up, character class selection, etc etc, yeah I got this...

During the beginning of the game, what sparsely is a tutorial, I died.  Okay, not a big deal.  Wait, I died again?  Okay...learning a new game, it's a little different than Skyrim and Dragon's Dogma.  Ah ha!  Got the bastards that were killing me!  Huzzah!  What's down this hall way?  FUCK.  I just got one shotted in the "tutorial"?  A peculiar combination of rage and fascination came over me, the likes of which I haven't felt since my early days in EVE.  Okay.  I took a sip of my water and rolled the kinks out of my neck.  Then got killed again.  And again.  And again.  And again.  At one point the rage set in and I stormed in...and got killed again.  And then, the rage turned into, well if you've seen me hardcore game and bulldog a problem, or if you've seen me when I'm past anger and into calculation shut-down mode...that time I didn't die.

Then after I got through "the tutorial" I found myself in a land where everything hates me.  There are no mission markers, no map, no nanny NPCs, no explanations, and no crutches.  In a strange way DS immerses you in the game the same way Ico did.

I could write more about my experiences with Dark Souls but that would take away from yours.  What I have to say is that I haven't been this challenged by a game in a long time (besides some platformers which I suck at anyway).  I have a few problems with the mechanics but I can't tell if that's because of my character class choice (Thief) or just having a gaming experience that won't allow me to be comfortable.

Here's one thing I will tell you.  Every time you use a Bonfire - which acts as a hub for leveling, inventory control, etc, etc - all enemies (except for big bads) respawn.  Bonfires are few and far between, so a route you may have just barely cleared is now repopulated.  It's actually kind of brilliant and I figured out one nerf trick (figure it out for yourself) because you need to not only grind but practice survival.  I'm almost at lvl 35 and can one hit some foes, if my timing is right, but I got careless and swamped and died in no time flat.

Do I love Dark Souls?  Well, the game looks good and the voice acting is excellent.  Inventory control sucks.  For an action-RPG that focuses so heavily on combat I wish I had a few more moves in my play book.  Weapon shifting is awesome though and feels really natural (and vital in combat) between left and right hands.  I normally have a shield equipped on left hand with a bow in a secondary slot, sword and spear in right.  The maps are "small" but dense with exploration and enemies, you'll do a lot of running around/backtracking but through exploration and survival you'll discover links between areas to diffuse the backtracking.

Do I love Dark Souls?  Maybe yes, maybe no.  It is the first game in a long time which almost made me smash my controller into the TV.  I feel totally lost in some areas and it's only adrenaline, luck, and a touch of skill that has allowed me to survive.  I may not love it yet but I will dominate it.

p.s.  Remember in Fallout 3 the first time you beat a Deathclaw?  That satisfaction?  Imagine that feeling every time you defeat an enemy.

p.p.s. It took a strong force of will to write this post and not just play Dark Souls.   

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Django Unchained (2012) dir. Quentin Tarantino

Hold on to your pretty pink bonnets, dear readers...

Django Unchained is the first Tarantino movie I have thoroughly enjoyed since Jackie Brown.  I mean, from start to finish I had a good time and I'd be willing to watch it again, hell, right now.

Now as we all know, as I have soap-boxed at length, I have had a lot of problems with Tarantino's last couple of films.  I went into Django Unchained with arms crossed, a big bowl of snark-covered popcorn and a large piss'n'vinegar (easy on the ice), ready to take a big ol'grumpy dump on this movie.  Then as the credits began rolling and I laughed smugly at the use of Bacalov & Rocky Roberts' Theme from Django (1966) I realized this was a good opening shot.  Wait, Morricone did some original music for the film?  What?  Wait, is this starting out as a good movie?

Now don't get your hopes up, Joshua.  Inglourious Basterds started off brilliantly too...

As Django Unchained progressed I felt myself both surprised and drawn in by the film.  I am a Jamie Foxx fan and I really dig Christoph Waltz and their on screen chemistry just worked.  It felt like a natural rapport.  I think I prefer the first half of the movie over the second but that's just me.  The first half develops nicely at its own pace with a good number of moments where Tarantino and director of photography Robert Richardson put down some classic shots which reminded me of movies I grew up on (e.g. Jeremiah Johnson  [1972]).  I'm kind of surprised one or two cues weren't used from Jeremiah Johnson but, meh, less than nit-pick.  It is kind of amazing what Tarantino and crew can do when they can sit and enjoy a comfortable silence with their audience.

The humor of the first half, one segment in particular, actually made me laugh.  In a strange way the humor reminds me of a warped version of the first half-hour of Blazing Saddles (the rail-way sequence of that movie remains one my favorites in all film comedy - despite, or maybe because of the surreal and absurd racism).  One of the running jokes throughout the movie is definitely from the Brooks school.  Waltz himself proves to be an actor who knows that comedy hinges on delivery and timing.  His smooth talking bounty hunter (though with a decidedly bloody streak) has a pragmatic Germanic approach to his work and is hard not be taken in by.  Foxx was part of the In Living Color crew and Booty Call (1997) is damned funny movie.  Since the early 00s he's done far more serious roles and has developed into an outstanding actor.  His Django has a charm, humor, and playfulness to the character but Foxx tempers a great deal of comedy with the seriousness of his character's role.  He portrays a caring, charming man who must harden himself to survive at all costs.  Not at all an uncommon archetype in action films but Foxx doesn't come across as a Blaxploitation anti-hero or cartoonish.

The second half works well and is much more Tarantino-esque, dialogue and action-wise.  The bloody climax reminded me of Better Tomorrow II, which is not surprising but I thought Tarantino was going to go the route of the original Django (which has an ending that has to be seen to be believed, okay BTII also has one of the best endings to any action movie ever made).

There are a number of elements of the second half of Django Unchained which took me off guard:  Leonard DiCaprio's Calvin Candie and Samuel L. Jackson's Stephen performances, the impact of grotesque violence, Tarantino's ability to draw out tension, not necessarily through snappy dialogue building to a cathartic violence (which he does at one point but at that point it works) but waves of tension, slow boiling, and a fairly extreme feeling of righteous vengeance.

I knew DiCaprio was going to do a solid job - I've grown to like him as an actor over the last decade or so (hell, he's only three years older than me so I've seen most of his movies one way or another).  I was not expecting the malevolent glee he portrayed on screen and he was able to come across as not a caricature.  I was not expecting Jackson to deliver the performance he did.  Yes, I am a Samuel L. Jackson fan, you're a Samuel L. Jackson fan, we are all Samuel L. Jackson fans.  Yes, he given great Uncle Rufus-esque dialogue but what made him a joy to watch in Django Unchained was his body language, the way he chameleons his character, and the way he manipulates events.

There is one section of the second act (I should not be using halves as much as I should be using 'acts' for this movie) where Tarantino really lets the tension mount.  I have to admit that I was worried and rapt in my attention.  Is this it?  Is the shit going to go down?  At one point I said, "Don't do it.  Not yet."  I was seriously pins and needles like a motherfucker.

I was surprised by Tarantino giving a bit of depth of his violence and its impacts on his characters.  I have seen all of his movies and this is the first one which has a theme of revisiting horrific violence, things you can't unsee to use the modern parlance.  The key scene, which is revisited later in the film, is not so much gory as it is hard to watch.  Certainly it is one of those scenes which sets up the bad guy as a truly twisted fuck and mitigates the violence that comes to him in the end, however the protagonist cannot put it out of his mind, despite the other horrors and violence he has seen or he has perpetrated.  It is an interesting device that I've seen in other movies but nothing in mainstream cinema (that I can easily recall).

The violence visited upon the evil-doers in act three.  I tell you what, those motherfuckers deserve every ounce of it.  Wait, but, as an individual I do not condone the use of violence in any form.  Fuck that, this is a movie and those fuckers need to get dick-shot.  Django Unchained ends up being pure vengeance fantasy. Not to say this is a bad thing, movie-wise.  By the time I got to the climax of the movie I almost wanted him to go Nero Django.  This movie ends bloodily, at a few parts to the point of absurdity (some of the foley work during this sequence made me laugh, but again a minor nitpick), and fails to carry the weight of a movie like The Wild Bunch but Django Unchained is not The Wild Bunch.

I guess I should probably say something about the way "race" and "race relations" were handled in Django Unchained.  Then again, I'm sure there are all kinds of papers and articles about this movie out there which are better written than this post.  One question I keep going back to is how the movie would have been received if it had directed by a black man or woman instead of Tarantino.  Yeah, Tarantino has been controversial because of his use of racial epithets back in the olden times of the last century and?  If Spike Lee or Antoine Fuqua ot John Singleton had made Django Unchained (I love John Singleton movies, actually I could see Singleton making Django Unchained albiet with a less Tarantino-esque script) would the public response had been the same or different?  There are many points of conjecture and I could bring up masking, signifying, source something about Uncle Remus, and add in something about fashion and freedom ("You wanna dress like that?") but this probably isn't the time nor place.

One of the things I enjoyed the most about Django Unchained was that the movie is its own thing and not a collage of "hey cool movie reference after cool movie reference Tarantino onanism" (or maybe I just have not seen all of the movies Django Unchained is referencing).  However, there is one tiny section of dialogue between Foxx and Franco Nero (the original Django) - "The 'D' is silent."  "Yeah, I know."  For some reason that one line, delivered so dryly dismissive by Nero, works for me.  Thanks for acknowledging that we get your references, Mr. Tarantino, now keep making movies as good as Django Unchained.      

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Oz, the Great and Powerful? (Guest Post by Tink)

I was genuinely curious to see what Disney could do; Story, plotline, Character development. As for visuals, I expected nothing less than "Alice in Wonderland".

Disney has this problem of taking on massive projects and failing miserably. Ok, so Pirates did fare OK, but after the second installment, it began to lose steam really fast. by the end of the third, I was done with Jack and Barbosa and Will. Putting it bluntly, Disney goes too far, reaches too hig and often falls short. Just to give you an idea of where my expectations were, I knew that this could be good or it could be terrible, with only a little middle ground for mediocre at best.

Unlike most people, who want to be surprised and amazed, I watched every trailer and read several critiques on the film. As with any Disney LAF, they were mixed reviews. The trailers gave you stunning views of the CGI world of OZ, plenty of the action shots, and a touch of the "love story".

At this point, I was now ready to view the film for my-self, so I trucked my family to our Local Carmike 6 Cinema....I will NOT go into detail about the awful experience we had or the horrific service, just state that we will NOT be returning there to view anything. Ever.  MOVEING ON!

As best, I found it to be decent for anyone under the age of 14.  The story is about a 2 bit hack circus magician/con artist with a lustful eye for things beyond his reach; money, power, fame and women. He's thrust into a "fairytale" world  (by a tornado, no less) and meets up with Theodora.  Props to the Casting director for giving us a least some beautiful faces to look at - Mila Kunis is hot, and as her sister, Evanora, Rachel Weisz is wickedly sexy. The sisters are predictable, and so is the story. Boy meets girl, he likes her, she likes him, tells him too much, sister is jealous, plots and schemes to remove boy from picture and it goes downhill from there. In between is an adventure through this CGI world that is's not Alice, and it appears the spent most of their budget on the pre-tornado scenes. The faults are with the overuse of green screens and sadly, 90% of ALL movies fall prey to it. It's more budget conscious, this is true, but it lacks definition and the sense of TOTAL immersion you get from location shooting.

That being said, it's nearly impossible to make a fantsay movie without CGI, so it should be seamless. "OZ" is not. IN fact, that was the #1 gripe.

I find that the lack of continuity between character stories and overall plot direction is worse than glaring CGI errors. I can forgive visual artistry if the story is well composed, but this was not.

The directors used to many devices to push the weak story, and gave the audience information, instead of having us work it out on our own; they basically dumbed it down. Do they think us so lacking in invention, imagination, and intelligence? - YES!

Much to the pity of Mr. Baum's work, Disney has produced another "flop".

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