Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Bridge To Terabithia (Revisited)

So, way back in 2012 I kinda-sorta didn't really review Bridge to Terabithia. At the time I said that I couldn't fairly rate the story and I was telling the truth. I couldn't then. However, I've given it some more thought and I think now I'm ready to do so.

Before we start, I'd like to talk about something called Cerebus Syndrome. Those of you who spend a lot of time on TVTropes already know what I'm talking about, but for those who don't, I'll give a brief description.

Cerebus Syndrome is when a story that starts out lighthearted and fun becomes darker and more dramatic over time, named for the webcomic Cerebus the Aardvark, a comedy with barely any plot that inexplicably and notoriously became unbelievably dark and depressing later on. There's also the less common Reverse Cerebus Syndrome where a dark story becomes lighter, but we won't go into that right now.

Cerebus Syndrome isn't necessarily a bad thing. Done well, it can add depth to a previously shallow story. When it's done poorly, though, this is easily one of the worst things you can possibly do. A poorly done Cerebus switch makes you feel like you've been cheated out of the rest of the story. You were enjoying it as it was, but now all of a sudden the story is about something totally different and everyone is dead.

This is the reason why I hated Bridge to Terabithia so much. I said in my previous post that I understand why the story is so beloved and, well, I really do. As I also said in my review of Dungeons & Dragons, it's possible to like elements of a work even if you admit the work as a whole is not good, and I kind of feel like that's what's happening here. The fantasy world of Terabithia is interesting and I think that's what most people remember and like about this story.

But then there's that twist. Yeah, spoilers-except-not-really: Leslie dies. I talked in my previous review about how it was similar to a vaccine - exposing kids to sorrow and loss so that when they run into the real thing they can handle it. I honestly hate when stories kill off nice characters at all, which is why I didn't want to rate the story back then because I felt like maybe the problem might have just been me.

The problem, though, is that this twist is not earned at all. In fact, I'll go a step farther and say my whole "vaccine" analogy was giving this bullshit far more credit than it deserves. Yes, that's right, I said bullshit because that's what this is.

As I said in that review, if the story had been entirely about exploring the concepts of mortality and loss from the beginning, if this had been set up in any way at all, then it would be different. But it's not. The story is all happiness and cool fantasy stuff for like 95% of it, and then all of a sudden we're watching a little girl drown and a little boy cry at her funeral.

The best I can say for this twist is that it's not just a cheap shot for feels. It was based on a real life event that happened to the book's author and it took her weeks to work up the courage to write it.

That said, all this really means is that the writer is taking out her personal pain on us. Yes, bad things happen, and if you wanted to write a story about loss and misery to work out your feelings that would be totally fine. But you didn't, did you? No, instead you baited us in with happiness and fantasy and then punched us in the nose with a brass knuckles made out of death, horror, and misery, because apparently your way of working out your pain is to force that same pain onto others.

Despite what I've intended to do for several years I've never really said this before, but for the most part all of my ratings have objective meanings. As a result, none of my ratings really work here. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it's honestly true. My current rating system is woefully unfit for this work.

In terms of storytelling and crafting the work is virtually flawless, which would normally earn it a rating of 5 - Great, but that twist is just so absolutely terrible it completely killed any shred of enjoyment I was having with the story. So you might think 4 - Good, as a good work that's held back by one glaring flaw. But I feel like this flaw is worse than that. FAR worse. This twist didn't just tarnish my image of the story, it annihilated it, to a level on par with a 1 - Horrible... but it's not a horrible story.

That's why I'm giving this story this rating: negative 5. This story is Anti-Great. It is a beautifully polished piece of shit. It is expertly crafted with the goal of pissing you off and obliterating any sense of joy. It is perfect anti-entertainment. Seriously, I've tried to avoid cursing on the blog of late, but fuck this book.

KR Rating: [-5] ANTI-GREAT

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Video Game Review: Darkest Dungeon

Games like this are the reason why I really wish Steam's "do you recommend" question had more than just two options. Here's why: because I would very, very highly recommend this game... to a certain breed of gamer. Let me explain.

First, the good.

Darkest Dungeon is a masterfully crafted game. The artwork is beautifully grotesque and animation is smooth. The game is balanced fairly well, even if it is balanced towards the "hard" end of the spectrum. Even in early access there is nothing about this game that feels sloppy or poorly considered.

The stress mechanic, in which your characters accumulate stress which can affect them in various negative (and sometimes even positive) ways, is a really interesting idea and something that you don't really see a whole lot in video games. The only place I've seen anything like this before would be the Cthulhu games, and I honestly feel like it's handled a lot better here.

Oh, and the fact that it's constantly auto-saving, while intended to prevent save-scumming, also has the effect of allowing you to quit and pick back up whenever you want without losing progress, great for people who don't have a lot of time to sit down and play a game.

The game wasn't my cup of tea (I'll get to why in a minute) but I can't honestly call it bad just because of that. It's not bad. In fact...

KR Rating: [5] GREAT

But wait, don't stop reading yet, because now it's time for the bad. As I said before, Darkest Dungeon is a hard game.

Well, no, that's not really accurate. Etrian Odyssey is hard. That's why I like that series, and it's why I thought I would like this game too. Darkest Dungeon is not hard, it's unfair.

See, you can be riding high one minute, dominating every encounter and getting a ton of good items from the various chests and cupboards (called "curios" in the game) that litter the dungeons. Then you get into that one battle. You know the one I mean. It's the one that doesn't even seem like it should be all that hard. It's the same enemies you've been wasting with ease this whole time. Except this time you do nothing but miss your attacks over and over, while they stack critical hit upon critical hit. Before you can even click the "retreat" button half your force is at Death's Door... or through it. It's a little like Dark Souls in a way.

And the thing is, that's not an accident. I said this game was masterfully crafted and it honestly is. This isn't poor game balance, it's the entire point. It's the underlying design philosophy of the game.

The developers never intended this to be a game where you train up max level badasses and retake the estate. There are no badasses in the Darkest Dungeon. There are no heroes.

No, this is a game where you recruit expendable idiots by the wagon-load (literally) and send them to die for the greater good. (This is also why there are so few levels of upgrades for your characters: so that restarting when your top character dies is easier.)

That's why I say, I really wish that Steam allowed more options than just "recommend" or "not recommend." Because, on the one hand, the game is very well made. It has become exactly what I feel the developers wanted it to be. It is a GREAT GAME.

But "great" and "universally enjoyable" are not the same thing. A lot of people don't like hard games. I do like hard games and even I was turned off by the unfairness and the inability to properly take care of my people.

If I really had to choose (and for the purposes of the Steam version of this review I kind of do) I would say that I don't recommend the game, if only because I think the number of people who would enjoy it are in the minority.

That said, if you're the type who thinks you might enjoy that then by all means buy the game right now. It's only $19.99 USD on Steam right now, and for that you get one Hell of a solid classic-style RPG with an interesting twist.

If you're more like me and you get attached to your characters and don't want to see them die (or if you just don't like hard games) then skip this one.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Actor Review Part 2: No Really, Adam Sandler Is A Talentless Hack

I said before in my review of Hotel Transylvania that I don't hate Adam Sandler, and it's really mostly true. It's not that I find Adam Sandler openly offensive so much as it is that I've just lost respect for him.

I first started to lose respect for him at the point where I realized that all of his movies were basically exactly the same, just with window dressing changed. Happy Gilmore, Billy Madison, 50 First Dates, Anger Management, Click... every single one of them follows the same plot: Adam Sandler is a selfish, stupid asshole who, with the help of a wacky sidekick, learns how to be slightly less insufferable and gets the girl. Only the details change.

Then I lost more respect when it occurred to me that even in the Sandler movies I enjoyed, Sandler himself was never a really good or even memorable part of the movie. The best part of each movie is something entirely unrelated to him. In Happy Gilmore it's the foul-mouthed Bob Barker screaming about how much Gilmore sucks at golf. In Billy Madison it's Chris Farley as the psychotic bus driver (followed closely by Steve Buscemi as the insane would-be serial killer).

And then he made Grown Ups and I kinda started wishing he'd get hit by a bus.

Okay, so maybe I was wrong about not really hating Adam Sandler. But I did also realize that Adam Sandler is basically the perfect mirror image opposite version of Robin Williams. No, really:

Robin Williams was an oddball nutcase who was difficult to relate to but in a way that's fun and, if you think about it, kinda genius.

Adam Sandler is an everyman that everyone can relate to, but only by virtue of being blandly generic and dumb enough to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Robin Williams was so hilarious and unpredictable that he stole every scene he was ever in.

Adam Sandler is trite and unfunny and constantly outshone by his funnier co-stars.

When Robin Williams realized his tendency to steal the show he attempted to rein it in, going so far as to demand to have his name removed from the advertising for Disney's Aladdin. (Disney refused his demand, however, and he eventually backed down.)

Adam Sandler always has to be the star of the show.

Actor Review: Adam Sandler Is A Talentless Hack (And Also Possibly Racist)

Recently a dozen Native American actors walked off the set of Adam Sandler's latest film production citing a list of complaints, specifically regarding disrespectful treatment of female and elder Native Americans, and even more specifically the fact that the movie features two female Native characters named Beaver's Breath and No Bra.


Because right now I can see you already scrolling down to the comments section, pounding angrily at the keyboard, furiously typing up a response to explain to me how I just don't understand that Native Americans are so mistreated, or that censorship is bad.

But see, neither of those things are the real problem here. They're not. The problem isn't that Sandler is a racist dick, or that overly sensitive people want him to censor himself.

No, the problem is that we're even having this conversation at all. The problem is that in this country, today, those two extremes are the only options that we believe we have available to us: that either we censor everything or nothing is sacred.

Obviously turning into the Taliban and declaring Holy Jihad against anyone who says something marginally questionable is really bad.

And obviously depicting an entire culture with a character named after a vaginal gas expulsion is also really bad.

But you know what? There IS something between those two extremes. It's called having some fucking CLASS. The reason Sandler's "jokes" are bad isn't because they're about Native Americans - if you think that's the problem then shut up, you're an asshole. It's because they're tasteless and insulting, and to the REAL people who are the butt of the joke it is absolutely a big deal. (And again, if you disagree with that then shut up, you're an asshole.)

Further, they don't even have the basic decency to be tasteless and insulting in a clever or unexpected way. That would at least give them SOME merit. No, Sandler committed the cardinal sin of race jokes: telling jokes that are not only racist but also unfunny and lazy. That right there is a deadly combination.

Now, the dumbest among you are right now screaming into the wind, "b-b-but, censorship! If you don't let people say whatever they want whenever they want then you're opressing them and taking away their rights!" But that's bullshit, and I can prove it: because right now, YOU'RE offended by me suggesting that your actions are offensive to others. You're thinking right now that I shouldn't have the right to say this, that someone should STOP me from saying this because you find my words to be offensive and threatening.

If you have things that offend you, what makes you think that no one else should be allowed the same courtesy? Oh yeah, because you're selfish.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Video Game Review: Desktop Dungeons

Let me start by saying I have nothing against the concept of blending genres. It can work and if done properly it can create a game far greater than the sum of its parts. Desktop Dungeons, a game which attempts to combine a rogue-like dungeon crawl with a puzzle game, could definitely have worked, if only the elements it chose to borrow from those two genres were actually compatible with each other.

Allow me to explain by way of example. As part of the puzzle aspect of the game, your hero only regenerates health and mana when exploring new areas, not when backtracking over old areas. Blind exploration is dicouraged, as doing so at full health means wasting precious healing. This forces you to think about where you want to go next instead of just going out willy nilly. I know it sounds like I'm praising the game and the truth is it could have been a good gameplay mechanic...

...IF you had any way of actually KNOWING where you should go next.

Unexplored areas are always completely blacked out, and since the dungeons are randomly layed out every time you have no way of knowing where you should go next. The fighter class mitigates this somewhat by automatically revealing the location of enemies that are your level or lower, but that hardly helps out the OTHER classes and even with this, you still have no way of knowing where to find valuable power-ups, equippable items, or spells.

The whole game is like that. In fact the greatest challenge in this game is not any enemy, but the game's own vague rules. I talked about this a little in my review of Windforge but it's even more true here: we really, really need to be given accurate, real information for a game like this to work.

For example, there's a speed stat that determines who attacks first in combat, but you can't actually see what your speed stat is. You can see that some enemies have first strike, but even enemies that don't have first strike and which you would expect to go after you in the combat order - like warlocks and zombies - can often end up going first... sometimes. Other times they go second, and since you can't actually see your speed stat or the enemy's the whole thing just comes across as arbitrary.

And that's why this game fails on both fronts. The puzzle aspects are too strictly demanding and the punishment for even one single misstep is too harsh, so the game fails as a rogue-like. At the same time, the rogue-like aspects add too much randomness and too much hidden information, so the game fails as a puzzle.

The worst part is the game has no idea. It demands care, but then forces you to go out blindly, and then punishes you harshly for doing so. It tells you it's all your fault when you fail (and you will) with condescending messages and taunts, but really it's no one's fault because everything is entirely luck-based.

Like I said, the idea of combining a rogue-like and a puzzle game is not entirely terrible. It could have worked, it just didn't in this case. Maybe some other game will come along and get it right. But this one ain't it.

KR Rating: [2] BAD

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Today, A Music Tribute For Veterans' Day

Warning: This post contains serious opinions and beliefs involving philosophy and possibly politics. If you can't handle that then skip this one.

Today, November 11th, is Veteran's Day here in the United States. In honor of that, I thought I'd make my own memorial to veterans, both here in the States and around the world. And what better way to do that then with something else I really like: metal! (Note that this is not actually a Top 5 list. Rather, these are 5 songs which help make the point I want to make this Veterans' Day.)

This post is dedicated to the two veterans closest to me: my father and my brother.

5 & 4. Star-Spangled Banner and Declaration Day by Iced Earth
While I do intend honor to everyone who has fought and sacrificed for what they believe and to protect their nation and its people, Veterans' Day is still an American holiday, so it seems only fitting to start us off today with Declaration Day and Star-Spangled Banner, both from Iced Earth's album The Glorious Burden. Now, on with the rest of the show.

3. Purple Heart by Sabaton
Freedom may be free, but the right to pursue that freedom without the influence of tyranny is not. That right has been purchased with the sacrifices made by countless veterans, both American and from all parts of the world. This song is in honor of that sacrifice.

Just because someone doesn't have a purple heart doesn't mean they haven't made that sacrifice. Often the cost is more difficult to see. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a very real thing, which affects many veterans. These people need support and understanding. They are not just making things up, nor are they ticking time bombs waiting to explode. They're people who are legitimately hurting and need help.

If you know someone with PTSD be understanding and try to help. If you can, why not make a Vet's Day donation to a group like Patriot Outreach or the PTSD Foundation of America?

2. Rise of Evil by Sabaton
I'm reminded of someone I knew as a kid who asked me to consider how much better of a place the world would be without war. I thought about it for a moment, as I was asked, and could only imagine a world where the United States never won its freedom from England, the Nazis ruled the world, and every person lived their lives in fear.

I believe that friend had it backward. If the world were a more perfect place, then there would be no need for war. But there is a need for war, because this world is not a perfect place. There are evil people, and some conflicts simply can not be reconciled.

Sabaton's Rise of Evil tells the story of the rise of the Nazi party of Germany, and serves as a reminder of why, in this broken world, war is an unfortunate necessity.

1. Survivor Guilt by Rise Against
I firmly believe in the power of violence. I have nothing against fighting or against the idea of killing for what you believe, and I absolutely believe in the power of righteous hatred as a transformative catalyst. That said, I hate war. When violence reaches that grandiose of a level, it loses its meaning. People forget why they're fighting, and they forget why they hate.

Violence is a powerful tool, and it should be used responsibly. War should be a last resort, but often it isn't. Sometimes these sacrifices are made in the name of some pompous aristocrat's own ego. Survivor Guilt by Rise Against is all about the evil of pointless war, when good men and women are asked to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others for meaningless causes.

To those who have given your lives, you are not forgotten and you are not hated.

To those politicians who order such deeds in their name of their own selfishness, may that bloody sacrilege stain your soul and curse you forever.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Video Game Review: Windforge, Why Aren't You Good?!

With a game like this, a game that seems like it should be so good, it's difficult to tell from reviews alone whether or not it's worthwhile. I knew going in that the game had a lot of negative reviews, but it was impossible not to at least give it a try and I'll admit, I really, really wanted this game to be good. I mean, it just sounds like it should be awesome. It's basically like Terraria, a game I currently have nearly 2,000 hours of playtime in, with the ship-building mechanic from Space Engineers, and set in a richly detailed steampunk world of floating islands and flying sky whales. There's no way this isn't the greatest game ever made. Right?

Sadly, it's not the greatest game ever made. In fact, it's not a great game at all, or even a good game, or even a mediocre game. Windforge is a game which is fundamentally, fatally flawed. By way of explaining how, and because lists are easy to write, allow me to present to you The Top 3 Things Wrong With Windforge!

3. The Graphics
Here's the thing about the graphics: some of them actually look amazing. The flying whales and the krakens that live in the lower regions of the world, and the larger objects like the giant balloons and clocktowers, are all lovingly rendered. The watercolor background is pretty nice too. It's obvious that the developers really worked hard on the graphics. So what the Hell is up with this?

Click the picture for a larger image.

It looks blocky and awful, like my house is built from stacked up Lincoln Logs. This is because there's no blending or tiling with the graphics, which is weird because even Starbound and Terraria have that. Also, there's an awful lot of these blocks. In Terraria your character is three blocks tall, and in Starbound it's four. Here? Freaking eight! These blocks are tiny is what I'm getting at, which makes construction and destruction a massive chore.

What else makes construction a chore? The painfully bad attempt at 2.5D graphics. Everything is in this weird 3/4ths view which I'm sure the developers thought was just so cool, but really it just gets in the way. It's hard to know what block you're digging at with your jackhammer when you're mining, and it's hard to see what you're doing when you're building on a ship or a home base.

Also, what's with my furniture? Look at that. It looks like it's just painted onto the wall instead of actually sitting on the floor.

2. What Do These Numbers Mean?
I'll admit, math was never my big thing. I mean, I'm not completely stupid with numbers, but it never came as easy to me as other things. That said, what the hell do these numbers mean?

My ship weighs 524 widgets, but I have 1,389 whatsits worth of lift and 30,000 doodads worth of buoyancy! That's worth at least 100 million bananas!

My ship's mass is only 524, and I have 1,389 vertical thrust, so shouldn't I be able to move up and down fairly well? No, I can't. For that matter, why is my vertical thrust only 1,389? My three propellers provide a total thrust of 13,500 (4,500 x 3), so how is that counteracted so greatly by a mass of only 524? And shouldn't my buoyancy of 30,000 totally cancel out the mass issue anyway? Honestly, it wouldn't be that big of a deal if I just knew what these numbers meant. Is my mass 524 kilograms? 524 tons? Who knows? The fact that there are no units given for these numbers just makes them all feel arbitrary.

And no, I'm not so stupid that I can't figure out adding a few extra propellers will let me move again, but I shouldn't have to guess at it. And if you DO want me to have to guess at it, then why bother giving me the numbers at all? It's not like they matter.

This issue doesn't only affect airships either. It's also a problem with armor, weapons, pretty much everything. Earlier in the game my character picked up a set of bronze full plate armor. I was excited because it gave her 30 more defense than my old set of leather-bronze bandit armor, so I put it on and went out to fight some people, and noticed that the bandits who were previously dealing 46 points of damage a shot with their pistols were now doing... 46 points of damage a shot. Seriously, what the Hell do these numbers mean?!

1. Movement
So, if I was designing a game about floating islands and airships, and I had to name what I thought would be the single most important aspect of the gameplay, the one thing that I absolutely had to make sure I didn't screw up no matter what, I would have to say that would be a good jumping mechanic. I mean, we're dealing with a game world where one missed jump means, at best, you fall and break your everything on the next floating island down, or at worst you fall all the way into the planet's core and burn to death. That's not a pleasant way to go.

That said, this game has what might just be the worst jumping algorithm of any game I've ever played. You move too fast, and it's too hard to control where you end up. Even walking is dangerous, as stepping off a slope means the jumping algorithm takes over and sends you rocketing over the nearest ledge straight to your death. I found that latching my grappling hook on to the ground was a necessary step whenever I was near a ledge, so that when I fell I would at least be able to stop myself.

Oh yeah, and let's talk about the grappling hook. I'll admit it's fun to swing around on and feel like I'm a steampunk Spiderman. Even so, the grappling hook isn't much better than anything else. It's too fiddly and too slow to fire, it never seems to connect when you need it to, or else it connects to the wrong thing. Even when it does connect right, it's too unpredictable; sometimes you just stop and hang there, and other times you spin around at high speed, usually straight into your airship's propellers.

That brings us to the last mode of movement: airships. Airship movement is... passable. It's a bit wonky sometimes itself, mostly due to inertia and the difficulty of making yourself come to a complete stop. (Seriously, Space Engineers had the inertial dampener system for a reason, Windforge developers.) Also, my ship felt like it had a weird desire to keep drifting upward which always made it very hard to dock properly. Of course, there's also the weirdness of the numbers which I mentioned before, where you always seem to have either not enough thrust so you can barely move, or else too much so you rocket across the map with a slightest touch of the buttons. It's a good thing repairs to your airship are free, because you will crash into things constantly.

KR Rating: [2] BAD

I find that the games I give a rating of 2 out of 5 are generally ambitious failures, and this is no exception. It's clear to me from the detailed nature of this game that the developer really wanted to do a good job. The artwork is great, aside from the afore-mentioned problems. The game world is very interesting and well thought out. (Seriously, just watch this video - this world is amazing.)

It's just a shame that the game they built around this concept is so poorly built. Like Dr. Frankenstein before him, the developer brought his creation to life as a shambling mess that can barely function and will probably end up being the death of us all - I know it's sure killed me more than a few times.