Thursday, August 29, 2019

Star Trek Generations - Review

It's our mortality that defines us.

I find that one interesting trait about the Star Trek movies is that it's really easy to picture the design document that guided each movie. Going from one to the other in sequence as I have done now (or if you're doing a marathon at some point) you can also see where the people responsible have brainstormed to see what went well and not so well with each movie and how to proceed from there. Where the first movie went for an epic scope, all the movies after that acknowledged that Star Trek fans weren't after 2001: A Space Odyssey light, but more Star Trek. The second one delivered fully by grabbing a character from the series and continuing the story where the episode had ended. The third one needed to fix the lore "damages" made by the second movie and the fourth one was yet another successful try at Star Trek fun. The fifth one... ok I don't know what they were thinking for this one. I think that was less conscious thought and more trying to scramble something together from a broken production. The sixth one was built around giving the TOS crew their worthy goodbyes.

And here we are at the seventh one, Star Trek Generations, which is so obviously written around trying to bridge the step between TOS and TNG you can almost hear it whispered throughout the movie. It even has it in the title in case the hint wasn't huge enough already. It's odd really, because at the time of this movie's release, TNG had already been running for several years and was actually wrapping up. The movies were always quite a few steps behind the TV-series in this regard. You could argue that at this point TNG would already have proven to sink or swim with the fans and it's difficult to see what Generations was going to change or add. However that may be, Generations is exactly the kind of movie you would expect in advance of the launch of TNG, while also throwing in some fun for all the people who were already familiar with Picard et al (ie everyone).

In it we are not just presented to the new captain and crew taking over the rather big shoes from, mainly, Kirk, but we're also getting another and very final send-off from the TOS crew Kirk. It's not an easy task and the movie does a really good job making it work. In the desire to both legitimize the new characters and pay respects to the old ones some other key elements get lost however. The story is so busy with making Kirk and Picard a thing that pretty much everything else is secondary, like building a good narrative. The end result feels more like a tool to further a cause than a genuine attempt at telling a Star Trek story. The other movie that has this trait - Star Trek III: The Search for Spock - also suffer the same fate, they ends up being highly forgettable.

Men of the hour.

It's fortunate then at least that Generations isn't anywhere near as incomprehensive or boring as Search of Spock, despite it's weak narrative. This is of course exactly because it focuses on two of the strongest characters in the Star Trek lore, Kirk and Picard (while The Search of Spock tries to have a focus on Spock but without Spock, which works less well).

The movie starts with us following a very CGI bottle floating around through space. This doesn't make much sense until it suddenly crashes into a spaceship and breaks apart. The spaceship is the new Enterprise (since the old one was decomissioned as you'll rememeber) and Kirk is there as an honorouble guest. Everything seems to be going smoothly when suddenly some sort of gravimetric distortions appear. Caught in the middle of them are two space crafts about to be destroyed.

Harriman, the new captain, is a bit at a loss as to what to do and Kirk is required to step in. One of the crafts is destroyed before they manage to get to them and they decide to try to teleport the people off the other ship. Something stops working somewhere and needs to be fixed in order to continue the rescue, and captain Harriman offers to go first. Kirk tells him his place is on the bridge and runs off instead. They only get about a third of the people off the second ship before that too is destroyed and the part of the ship where Kirk was is hit by the distortion as well. Kirk disappears and is presumed dead. Among the rescued is a man, Soran played by Malcolm McDowell, who is adamant he wants to be sent back. We've just encountered the villain of this movie.

Fast forward 78 years and we meet the TNG crew for the first time in Star Trek movie history. It is particularly odd then that the scene that takes place is just absolutely bonkers, and unfortunately not in a good way. I'm not sure how to describe it, it really needs to be seen, but I'll give it a shot. Lt Worf is being promoted and for some reason they choose to do this by playing out 17th century pirates and navy in the holodeck. Everyone is on board a ship and Worf is being pulled forward as a prisoner. He is being made to walk the plank to catch his promotion. I... don't know what to say, honestly. Is it supposed to be funny? Is it a metaphor for something? Maybe it is just too many layers of clever for me because to me it just comes off as absurd and definitely not a good way to introduce the new crew who seem like a bunch of raving lunatics.

This might be a good time to reveal that I am not a huge TNG fan. Unpopular opinion time: TNG is not in my top 3. I've written a bit on why that is before, but the short version is that there are so very few likable characters in TNG. I pretty much don't like watching anyone but Picard and Data and that makes every episode about Riker, Worf and Wesley a chore. And there are plenty of them. Not to mention Crusher and Troi who also are huge snore fests (I was so happy when Crusher was swapped out for Pulaski, who is way better if you ask me. But apparently no one else agreed and Crusher came back). I could rant on about exactly why, but suffice to say I think the characters in the Animated Series look more alive than most of the TNG cast.

Fortunately, this movie decides to focus on the two captains, and rightfully so. In both series they are the star of the show, though in TNG the crew gets a lot more screen time than in TOS (which although the characters are badly written, I am all for).

The better doctor.

In the middle of the festive celebrations aboard the holoship Picard gets a message. As he takes off, they also get a distress signal from a Space Station orbiting the star Amargosa that is under attack. Picard is being very unlike himself, suddenly grumpy and aggressive, and let's Riker do the commanding as they go to Amargosa to find out what happened. When they're there they find Soran, who definitely doesn't look like he's 78 years older. Did he time travel, just not age or what is going on here? Soran quickly kidnaps Geordi Laforge and destroys the star Amargosa. Now why was that necessary?

Also, what was the deal with Picard? Well, he just got a message that his brother and nephew died in a fire so he's definitely got reason to be upset. He reveals to Troi his qualms about being the last in the line of Picards and this isn't the only thing that hints at the fact that there must be a series already behind this character for us to care enough about this kind of background information. The is a whole subplot about Data trying out a chip that gives him emotions, him trying to get rid of it and it getting stuck in him. It's all the episodes of us knowing how Data struggles with being human a la Pinocchio that makes this subplot interesting and worthwhile.

Well, Soran turns out to be an El-Auran just like Guinan, so he ages differently from humans. He also has not abandoned the idea of getting into the gravimetric distortion. Guinan tells Picard that she was among the crew who were rescued from the ship by Kirk and friends 78 years ago, and apparently the gravimetric distortion is some sort of paradise. It's not something you ever want to leave (though as this movie soon will make us see, Soran seems to be the only one who has experienced it and seems hellbent to return).

Soran's reasons for kidnapping Geordi are a bit unclear at first, but eventually he is going to send him back with his visor modified to allow them to spy on the Enterprise crew. Was that Soran's plan all along or was he just lucky enough that his kidnap victim happened to have a hackable visor? Soran is also collaborating with two Klingon women called Lursa and B'Etor. Sound familiar? Probably not. But because I am currently watching through DS9 I recognized that they are in the episode Past Prologue. Since they die in this movie, that episode must take place before this movie. Apparently they are also in some TNG episodes, but it's been too long since I saw them for me to remember them. Fun though that these sisters get a pretty big send off by being part of the main villain team in a movie like this.

Unfriendly sisters.

Picard and his crew manage to figure out that Soran's reason for destroying the star was to alter the course of the gravimetric distortion. This way they will pass close to a planet in the Veridian star system. By destroying that star the distortion will actually pass through one of the planets, allowing Soran to get back to them. The fact that one of the other planets is inhabited with millions of people who will die seem to not matter much to him. It is obvious that he needs to be stopped. The Enterprise chases after the Klingon Bird of Prey that Soran and the sisters are on all the way to the Veridian system.

Picard beams down to the planet where Soran is setting up the rocket that will destroy the star. The Enterprise engages the Bird of Prey in combat, and while the Bird of Prey has the advantage of being able to cloak, they are otherwise outgunned. Remember the Laforge spy though? Because of that the sisters can get the shield configuration which for some inexplicable reason is in the open on a screen in engineering. You'd really think one such vital piece of tactical information would be under quite a heavy layer of security somewhere, but no. With the shield configuration they can shoot right through the shields of the Enterprise, so you see? Really not something you should have out in the open. Worf, you have one job.

Everyone evacuates to the saucer section, and Enterprise is one of those ships that goes on these kinds of missions yet carries tons of children. I realize this specific mission wasn't exactly planned, but there really should be some rules regarding what kind of space ships children should be allowed to live on. Enterprise must've proven itself to be one of those ships that finds itself in a lot of trouble quite frequently. Through a cunning plan where they force the Bird of Prey to cloak, thus dropping shields, they destroy it. Unfortunately the Enterprise had already sustained too heavy damage to stay space born and crashes into Veridian III.

Some duct tape and she'll fly again.

And what a crash it is. It really looks quite spectacular and they have earned showing it from all the angles that they do. The hilarious thing it that it looks a billions times better than the same crash from Star Trek Beyond, but then nothing about that movie was particularly good... (but that is matters for another post!).

I haven't mentioned it before but you know what else looks really cool? The gravimetric distorsions. They are practically just swirly things rolling across the sky, but they're really well made. Whoever was the art director, hats off. Even though none of us has ever seen gravimetric distortions, these really give you the impression of looking real. In science fiction half the challenge is having people go "yeah, I guess that is how it could look/work". And they are beautiful.

So now that the Enterprise is stranded on the planet, let's get back to Picard. He tries to stop Soran but not so long story short, he fails. The star is destroyed and they are both whisked away into the distortion. In it we see him as a family man at Christmas, which apparently is Picard's version of paradise? It's been foreshadowed but it's so far removed from the Picard we see in the TV series it's both interesting and a bit unbelievable to think that this is what Picard wants most of all. Picard fights the feeling of being content and happy though and leaves his family. As he does this he stumbles into. He's as surprised as us to see her there, but she explains that she is the memory of Guinan.

She explains to him that just like a dream, he can pretty much decide what happens inside the distortion. Picard remembers that Kirk disappeared in the distortion and sets off to find him. Apparently one quirk of the distortion is that time doesn't pass. So when Picard gets into Kirk's slice of paradise, it's as if he just got there himself rather than that 78 years have passed. Kirk's paradise is his cabin in the mountain-woods, where some sort of Antonia woman he ditched "11 years ago" is still waiting for him.

This character never made sense to me.

I have a couple of questions regarding this idea of Kirk's paradise. First of all, is this Antonia woman ever mentioned anywhere else? If she is she's lost from my memory at the moment. Secondly, it would've been neat of them to throw in some mention of Kirk's son David still being alive in this version of Kirk's paradise, but nothing. Also, there is a tune playing while Kirk is riding around on a horse that sounds so much like the intro tune to Voyager. Or is it DS9? Well one of them at least. Same thing with the credits to the movie.

Either way Picard manages to convince Kirk to leave the distortion as well, to go "make a difference" rather than dreaming a pretty dream. It does fit with Kirk's character, so I don't have much trouble with the ease with which Picard persuades Kirk. But like I mentioned before, after Guinan made a big show of how this place makes you never want to leave, we've just got two examples of people who clearly didn't think it was all that. Maybe it has an extra strong effect on El-Aurans?

What follows is Kirk and Picard working together to redo whatever Picard tried and failed, but this time succeed in thwarting Soran's plans. The idea is to be respectful to both captains and also hand over the torch between them. I think it actually works really well. Kirk gets a nice self-sacrificing moment in which he... actually dies. Watching it, while I didn't cry, it really felt quite odd to see this character being ended then and there. It also means that since no one in the past knew he was still alive of sorts inside the distortion, according to actual Starfleet history Kirk died with the distortion 78 years ago.

The sequence is thrilling enough though and I try to not think of the plot hole that if they fail they'll go into the distortion again which would allow them to try to stop Soran again, and so on and so forth forever until they succeed. So either they are doomed to never succeed or they are guaranteed to succeed, there isn't just a one shot chance like they make it out in the movie.

Soran dies in an explosion, Kirk dies a hero and the torch has been successfully handed over to the new generation of Star Trek. That doesn't just go for actors and writers, but also for fans obviously. My first real venture into Star Trek was with Voyager in the mid 90's when I would've been around 10. I remember the feeling when a new episode was being aired, those times were holy to me. So while I had seen some TOS before that, Voyager is what got me to fall in love with the series. That is probably a big reason to why it is still my favourite of the lot. But no one got to follow their favourite captain as long as the hardcore TOS fans have followed Kirk. I can't imagine what it must've felt like when after almost 30 years of joining them on the adventures of him and his crew, Kirk dies. It's not just retirement and goodbye, it is ended. Kirk is no more.

Movies with such a specific check list to follow really have an unenviable task. "Generations" shows that it can be done with heart and respect for the source material however, without leaving the viewer confused and indifferent. The movie is not without its flaws though. The villain feels more like a tool (and I mean that in the writing sense and not in the derogatory sense) than a fleshed out character to care about. They do a brave attempt by tying Soran to Guinan to give him a bit more weight, but in the end we don't know enough about him or the distortion to make him a truly interesting character, like Khan. It is similar to what happens in Star Trek V: The Final Frontier when they try to make the villain more interesting by making him Spock's brother. If we still know nothing about the character it really does little to increase my interest. The Data subplot is a smart way to not make it all about the captains, and quite necessary because the lack of other crew would've otherwise been a much sorer spot for me.

I would've loved to see Kirk and Picard get more time together. I get that it's supposed to be the climactic ending of the movie, and I think that works too for the most part. But I can't help but think that it would've been a better movie if they had been able to play the two characters differences off each other for a bigger portion of the story, rather than just shoehorning Kirk in as an extra pair of hands at the end. Some potential was definitely lost there.

And that is also the feeling that stays with me when the credits roll. The writers were up against a heavy task and pulled some clever moves to bring us what in the end still is a movie with some really entertaining parts. But in the end Star Trek Generations will still leave your memory quickly, and the only thing that remains is the image of Kirk burning some eggs.

Who leaves eggs on the hob anyway?

Thoughts I had while watching this movie;
  • The first scene on the new bridge of Enterprise is pretty interesting because there are a lot of recognizable faces:
  • The new captain Harriman is played by Alan Ruck who also played Stuart in Spin City (and I know he was also in Ferris Bueller's Day Off) so I can't see him as anything but a goofball.
  • One of the crew is played by the woman who plays John Connor's stepmom in Terminator 2. That really threw me off because she looks exactly the same.
  • Tim Russ who goes on to play Tuvok in Voyager plays the operator of the teleporter - he gets brushed aside by Scotty because he can't do his job right.
  • There is an "Ensign Sulu" at the helm. Not Hikaru Sulu though, but a young woman. Interesting? Related perhaps? Yes, she is in fact Demora Sulu, daughter of Hikaru Sulu (who I think we briefly get to see in the background in one of the Abram's Star Treks if I remember correctly?).
  • Why is Dr Crusher treating Data for his emotion ship? Does she also have a PhD in engineering? I know Laforge is kidnapped, but surely they must have someone more qualified than someone who really isn't?
  • There is absolutely no attempt made at explaining what the distortion is or how it works. It was clearly just the first best thing the writers could come up with that would allow Picard and Kirk to cooperate, and then they wrote the whole movie around it.
  • Did they really have to kill Kirk? Was that the only way that character could go perhaps? I don't recall any other captain dying, so maybe he was the one that "deserved" the finality of that kind of ending.

Images from,,,

Monday, August 26, 2019

WoW Classic - I Can Barely Believe It's Really Here

Here we are. WoW Classic is almost upon us, although I don't think I will actually believe it until I log in for the first time and run around with my fresh little character.

I remember when I was little and thought about turning 18 and how cool that would be. It's kind of odd having a memory of yourself looking forward to something that is now already way in the past. Now, at 34, I also remember when I was younger and thinking about how weird it would be to ever quit playing WoW. Here I am years later and I am way passed both those milestones. I've even come some sort of full circle and am going to start WoW all over (too bad I can't be 18 again though, amirite)!

I've probably told this story a billion times, so just scroll past it if you've heard it before:
My original WoW journey started in 2005, when I had just turned 20. My brother, who had played from release, allowed me to create a character on his account (my very first character was an undead priest named Lahmia, but I quickly swapped to a night elf druid to play on the same faction as him). This would become a big source of argument between us until I got my own account somewhere at the turn to 2006. My first character on my own account was a human warlock, but I was quickly required to move servers because of overpopulation and somewhere in the spring of 2006 Zinn the undead priest was born. She was my first character to level 60 and she remained my main character all the way until I quit playing in Mists of Pandaria, April 2013 - 8 years after I had first started playing WoW.

And here I am now, a bit more than 14 years since I first stepped into the world of Azeroth and perched to do it again. It's difficult to explain what I am feeling. My attempt at creating my new characters probably illustrates it quite well;

At first I decided for an undead warrior and an undead priest. Then I thought I didn't want two undeads, and I also really wanted an orc warrior rather than an undead one. But the undead racials are pretty nice, Cannibalize can be useful when questing (thought probably less useful than I remember). Also I had remembered the orc racial wrong, thinking it would give me rage with no debuff, but apparently it increases damage and reduces healing taking and so makes it less useful for tanking.

While I was pondering these things, which I thought would take no more than five minutes, my 5 yo comes up behind me and wonders what I am doing. I explain it to him and let him tinker with making a character himself. He settles on a "bull-man transformer" i.e Tauren Druid. He wants the name Gojira but it's taken so we go with Gojera.

It hits me then that here I am, introducing my son to this game. At 5 yo I think he is still too young, mostly because without being able to read anything all he can do is run around and kill stuff, maybe (even probably) that will be enough for him for a while. But somehow I am so happy that I get a chance to show him this Classic experience first, rather than the modern version (the same reason we decided to introduce him to NES/SNES/MEGA DRIVE before PS4). I even hope he ditches Roblox for this. I hope that when we sit down to play something together, this will be one of those things. Being able to play this game with my own kid would be so cool.

Right now I've settled on an orc warrior and an undead warlock, and though that might still change before I start playing I feel pretty good about my choice at the moment. Professions will be mining and blacksmithing, herbalism and enchanting respectively.

My initial plan was to stay up past midnight to be able to log in as soon as possible, but I scrapped that plan almost immediately for many reasons.

First of all I doubt if I'll even be able to get onto the server straight away, these things just do not launch without major hiccups. I don't think Blizzard has launched any expansion without major log in problems even though they really should've learned by now. I noticed Blizzard has already added several new servers in the last few hours alone, so it seems they underestimated interest as per usual.
Secondly it's not like I can stay up several hours past midnight anyway, my kid has school tomorrow and my daughter does not care about my WoW playing and will get up at 6 am anyway. With what little time I can possibly squeeze in I'll only be able to get the starter quest anyway, so I'd rather just give myself proper time to do it.
Thirdly, related to secondly, I've got a lot of other things and plans tomorrow - life moves on even though it now contains Classic WoW. I need and want my sleep more than I want to play WoW. I want to be awake and fresh enough to be in a good mood for my kids way more than I want to play WoW.

Addons is another thing I've given some thought. To begin with I'm going to go au naturale, mostly because I am too lazy to tinker around with addons right now and also because I've been away from the game so long I feel like I need to see what it is I want to "fix". I remember a bag addon and maybe a UI addon being quite necessary, but we'll see if I think so this time around. It's not like I am going to sink anywhere near the same kind of time into this so I'll probably get away with not having to change too much.

You can rest assured that there are going to be a lot more posts coming on how this experience turns out to be for me. I am also going to be curious on what you think about it, if you happen to play it!

Thursday, August 15, 2019

WoW Classic Is Nearly Here And I Am Not Prepared

In a couple of days my son starts real school for the first time (as opposed to Kindergarten). But more importantly, WoW Classic is released (kidding. My son starting school is of course more momentous. Ahem.).

Considering the first 500 something posts on this blog were pretty much all about WoW and I played it religiously for 8 years between 2005-2013, I'm a bit surprised at myself that I haven't even mentioned anything about WoW Classic yet. I am in this weird in-between state of "extremely hyped" and "not really thinking about it". It's possible to combine the two, especially when you're a mom to two little kids. As long as they're awake I don't really have time or brain power to think about anything other than making sure they're not unhappy. As soon as they're sleeping though… I am usually still to brain fatigued to think about anything except how much rest and sleep I might hope to squeeze out of my way too short "free" time. On occasion however, the reminder that WoW Classic is a thing pops into my head and I am immediately extremely hyped.

Me in 2006.

There is no way to overstate the (overall positive) impact WoW has had on my life. In that sense WoW is by far the best game I have ever played. In that sense also I would say that WoW transcends being "just a game" to me. I won't shy away from calling it just short of a way of life. While it never interfered with my life must-do's (study and work, eat and sleep as it happened), for a non-inconsequential amount of time in my life I played WoW a lot. Both my children exist because of it since I met my SO through it. And as mentioned, the vast majority of that time was very enjoyable.

Of course I had my fair share of drama. There is just no way to spend that much time with such a vast variety of people and not have drama. I also may or may not be considered argumentative and maybe even aggressive at times. I definitely have trouble letting doodoo just slide, even when not letting it slide means conjuring more doodoo.

The reason I stopped playing however was wholly undramatic, maybe that was even partly the main issue. At the time I was expecting my first child and had also started working a lot more. None of those were main contributors, but that coupled with the fact that I had to move server because most people I used to play with had already quit or moved on to other things meant I was feeling quite lonely. WoW, at least to me, is all about the community. It's probably a decent game on its own, but I don't think it's comparable to what you get when you have the whole package. The guildies and whatever crazy stuff that went on in guild chat. The chats you had with the random people you encountered doing quests and dungeons. The scheduled hang-outs with friends to do raids/pvp/quests/dungeons/whacky achievements/farming/you name it. To me the game was a (albeit great) framework for the social aspect. When that aspect was gone, the game part just couldn't fill that hole.

I used to love to experiment with my healing output.

This became even more clear to me when I tried to play for a while in what might have been Warlords of Draenor and I still just felt lonely. Even more so since I played without a guild and no one seemed to talk to anyone anymore anywhere, not in any chats nor any dungeons I did. I didn't have time to invest in raiding so a huge chunk of what motivated me game-wise was gone. I never minded grinding or levelling alts, but that was because I could either talk to people I knew and enjoyed spending time with or knew that it was going to go into end game efforts. Having neither of those motivations left me having not much fun.

But up until I didn't have fun I had so much fun. I don't recall WoW ever feeling like a chore or a slog (there were parts within WoW that weren't 100% fun obviously, but in general). I don't recall logging on to raid and thinking "you know what, I'd rather do something else right now". While I don't long for those days to be back, I live a different life now, I am definitely sentimental about them. There are few days even now when some WoW memory doesn't pop into my head at the most random times. I could be building with Lego with my son and suddenly think about running around in Stranglethorn Vale. I can be playing in the sandbox with my daughter and suddenly think about fighting The Lich King. I'll cook food and think about when that BoE epic dropped in Hinterlands.

Me in 2010.

I've understood every change that Blizzard has decided to make to WoW and I don't recall raging too much about any of them. But the honest truth is that I miss the old world, the way it was before the Cataclysm. I believe the Cataclysm was a necessary change, if not exactly like that then probably something like that. In fact I even think it's a bit of a stroke of genius to think of remaking the old world into something new and fresh. It's just an inevitable fact that as soon as something is gone, people (namely me) will be pining for what has been and remembering it with rose-tinted goggles. People don't want what they want and they don't know what they want. If that statement makes no sense, neither do the wishes of WoW-players since the roll-out of the game.

Personally I found that a lot of things were made a bit too easy and too streamlined. I often opted out of using Heirloom gear, because I didn't want to level my alts too fast. I never used the "instantly max level character"-option because I always found that levelling a class and spec was by far the best way to learn it. But as mentioned, they were just that - optional, so they didn't bother me. Then they started changing things like how the skill tree looked and worked, they removed what I considered key features of certain classes like catching your own pet as a hunter and crafting poisons as a rogue. I understood these changes and maybe, probably, they were necessary. But I wanted to be able to experience things the way they used to be.

Me in 2011.

Just imagine if you could return to some of your happiest memories and relive them? Blizzard has essentially offered me exactly that. That doesn't mean I expect my re-visit to Azeroth to be exactly the same. But just like smelling a certain smell or hearing a certain song can bring you to the brink of being "there again", I expect myself to reinvigorate some of all those amazing memories I've made through that game.

I'm not entirely sure how I want to play WoW Classic. Do I want to recreate myself from 2005? I'm leaning towards not going for that approach, for several reasons. Firstly, it's impossible to entirely go back to what I did in 2005. I simply am not that person anymore and more than 8 years of playing WoW means I can't go back to being someone who is seeing things for the first time. Secondly, I don't want to tread on my old memories. I want them to be intact and untouched. This time, I want it to be what it has to be - an older me revisiting an old playground, both to remember but also to create new memories.

One of my most popular posts was about a floating cat head. The internet just loves cats.

Not too long ago I replayed Pokémon Red, some 20 years after I had first played it. I had the expectation that while I would still enjoy it, some of the QoL changes made to later games would sour the experience to me somewhat. But I was wrong. The game was still fun as hell and nothing about it annoyed me. It is difficult to go backwards in gaming I find, unless you are specifically after those differences. And I think I am when it comes to WoW. I am specifically after gold being damn hard to come by. I am specifically after being forced to talk to people, talk a lot, to get through dungeons and some times even quests. I am specifically after my caster having to drink after every single mob. Farming Souls Shards on my warlock. Farming lockboxes on my rogue. Levelling and feeding my pet on my hunter. Having to pay through my nose every time I need new ranks on my skills. Having to get rage at the beginning of a fight as a warrior tank, and hope people hold off long enough for you to keep aggro. Almost all of the little "annoyances" that I can think of, that they've slowly changed throughout the years of WoW, are things that I am looking forward to doing again.

My first real character in WoW was a holy priest named Zinn, and I stuck to her, keeping her as my main throughout all the years. This time however, I think I am going to go with a warrior tank, as I found that I really enjoy tanking somewhere in the middle of Burning Crusade (though initially it scared the hell out of me). We'll see, I've still got a few days to think it through. But I am definitely extremely hyped. Hope to see you there.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night (PS4) - Review

The king is dead. Long live the king!

Let's not beat around the proverbial bush here. Did you play Symphony of the Night? Did you love it? Are you secretly hoping that Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night will be a carbon copy of that game to fulfil your Metroidvania needs? If your answer to those questions are yes, yes and yes respectively let me just say that yes - Bloodstained: RotN is what you have been waiting for. Now that the TL;DR section of this review is out of the way, let's get to the meat and bones of what I actually enjoyed about this game.

Because of course it isn't an exact copy of SotN. We could just all go back and play that game instead then. But it is definitely close enough of a copy that if anyone else than the master brain behind SoTN and the Metroidvania formula, Koji Igarashi, had been behind this a lot of angry voices would've been yelling words about property theft. In fact, even though IGA and his teams have been clever enough to rename and rework everything just enough to avoid any lawful actions from Konami who own the actual Castlevania property, it is clear that names is pretty much everything that really has changed. In body and soul, Bloodstained: RotN is Symphony of the Night. If you ever wondered what "spiritual successor" means, Bloodstained: RotN is the dictionary definition henceforth.

In it you play as Miriam - a shardbinder who because of reasons needs to go after evil things in a big castle, killing everything she can set her eyes on to find a vast amount of weapons, gear and magic skills. On her journey through the castle she finds new skills that allow you to open up new paths, there are occasional secret rooms and walls here and there and a load of bosses to take down. Sound familiar? If you've played any of the Metroidvania, or as they really should be called, Igavania games between Symphony of the Night and Portrait of Ruin on the NDS you will recognize the concept.

And it is clear IGA has let himself be inspired by more than just SotN for this game, we see gameplay elements borrowed/reused from several of the games in the series that so weirdly teetered out into nothingness after the (frankly) not so good Order of Ecclesia. That game was released in 2008, so even though Order of Ecclesia wasn't as great as the other games in the series, fans have still eagerly been awaiting another instalment (I know for sure I have), scratching their heads as Konami seemingly just decided to let the property mold away in its loneliness somewhere. Why companies do this we will never know, but IGA seemed to think there still was potential in the concept when he left Konami in 2014, and we all agreed with him. When IGA took the idea to Kickstarter it was quickly one of the most successfully backed video games on there.

The shardbinding that Miriam uses is very similar to the soul collecting from Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow and thus comes with the same gameplay pro's and con's. On the one hand, finding new shards is fun throughout and they range from genuinely useful to truly whacky (one will let you summon a chair). On the other hand, once you've found ones that work for you, there is little reason to change and play around with your setup. Though I had loads of different shards to choose from I found myself using pretty much the same setup throughout the game. While I don't dislike this system neither in AoS/DoS nor Bloodstained: RotN, I am personally more fond of the card collecting from Circle of the Moon where I often found myself tinkering with different combinations to fit the situation I was facing. The shard collecting makes sense in Bloodstained: RotN however and in fact the entire story is built up around it - my only humble wish is that if (hopefully) IGA is encouraged to continue making these games, he'd explore one of the other or perhaps a completely new style of using magic.

Simple and flexible.

Running through the castle is fun though and it is monstrously (pun intended) large. You'll go through pretty much every kind of environment, from fire to water to ice to buzzing saws. Every enemy is not like any of the enemies in the Castlevania games and yet exactly like in the Castlevania games - they might not be called Medusa Heads, Axe Knights and Slingers but you know that's what they are and it all feels comfortably familiar exactly the way Shakespear meant it when he wrote "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet". Just like in the Castlevania games, Bloodstained: RotN reuses enemy models throughout the game. When you see an enemy you've killed before with another coloration, you know it's going to be a little bit harder. It never bothered me in any of the other Castlevania games and it doesn't bother me here, in fact I almost prefer not having to relearn enemy patterns for every new area of the game.

The bosses are varied and generally fun to fight against but I didn't find any one of them memorable like the Zombie Dragon in Circle of the Moon or Legion in several of the Igavanias. This especially is where I would've liked to see myself being forced to go outside of my comfort zone regarding the shards and maybe have to stack up on certain resistances or use certain weapons. On the other hand, the Igavania bosses are never meant to be road blocks or feel like insurmountable challenges à la Dark Souls and it's not like I feel like I can run into a boss room in Bloodstained: RotN without making sure I am properly prepared and saved. Except for the final fight there was only one boss that managed to kill me but they were generally sweaty challenges.

I mean… just look at it.

The game is on the easy side, but so was SotN. And while the difficulty of Circle of the Moon didn't bother me, one of my biggest issues with Order of Ecclesia was in fact that it was too hard in the not-fun way. And there are definitely areas in Bloodstained: RotN where I have to tread carefully and pray to find the next save room quickly because I have run out of healing items and am hanging on at the skin of my teeth. I find that overall the game has a good pacing where it alternates between giving you areas that are easier to traverse and some that require more effort. I wouldn't want the game to be more of either, it hits the right balance for me.

The game employs a variety of gimmicky skills to allow you to traverse the castle and some are almost criminally underused to the point where their inclusion almost feels pointless. Early on you learn that Miriam can direct her arm to interact with certain objects in the castle, to for instance move them out of the way. While the directing of the arm is used in combat, though I never found it practical enough to actually use it myself, the moving of objects this way is used in only one or two places. The whole hand-directing could've been removed from the game entirely if you ask me. The Reflector Ray is almost in the same camp. It's rarely used to get to new places and fills no other function in the game. The double-jump and inverse skill are much more thought through and practical and thus more fun. Whenever I have to dig out the Reflector Ray shard I just sigh.

Otherwise the inventory is one area where Bloodstained: RotN is an improvement over SotN, but that wasn't hard to achieve. The fact that you had to equip healing items like potions to use them in SotN was one of that games only flaws, and one that Bloodstained: RotN of course does away with just like all the other Igavania handhelds. Not only is there an abundance of gear to find, unlike other Castlevanias many of them show up on Miriam (otherwise it's only been the weapon that's changed). Miriam can tout some truly hilarious combinations of hats, scarves and masks that could ruin the immersion of the game a bit, especially in cut scenes, but to me it's definitely a fun and welcome addition. You can also change her hairstyle if you are so inclined, and it turns out I am. If I had to complain about one thing though, it's that I can't flip through the inventory lists with my right analog stick like in many other games, meaning that you have to scroll through some long list of items occasionally to find that one thing you need.

The game also allows you to craft items, disassemble items, cook food and enhance your shards so there is a lot of reason to pick up all those weird knick-knacks the enemies drop. All of these extras are well designed and fun to do, and their inclusion feels justified and not just like padding. I only had some issues with the cooking as I found it quite difficult to find some of the ingredients for the food I wanted to cook, but on the other hand once you've cooked something you can buy that finished dish in the shop. Considering that you can only carry 5 high potions at any time, being able to craft some high-healing food items soon becomes something worth investing your time in.

Often the larger enemies are less annoying than the small ones.

Graphically there is just no way to beat SotN, it is one of the most beautiful games not just on the Playstation but on any console, period. I've heard there were initial concerns about not going more 3D, considering this was supposed to be part of the new generation, but whoever made the final decision on art direction for SotN absolutely did the right one and proved any disbelievers wrong. To me Bloodstained: RotN can't come close to that and at first the sort of sheen given to everything in the game even bothers me. It looks like everything is a bit wet and since the first stage is literally on a boat in rain it makes sense, but as soon as you get into the castle it just looks weird. I don't know if that is a thing in modern games because I had the same issue with the Resident Evil 2 remake. As I move on through the game I quickly forget about this however and actually come to some truly gorgeous areas, the icy one being a feast on the eyes. Bloodstained: RotN is colorful and fun to look at and anything that irked me about the graphics the first hour of the game is completely set aside before long thanks to interesting and well designed areas and enemies.

The same goes for the music. Michiru Yamane returns to compose yet again and as always she does a tremendous job. The music in Bloodstained: RotN is atmospheric, relevant and good in its own right but has yet to become iconic like most of the music from SotN. This is an impossible task not because of Yamane's skills but simply because of how human nostalgia works. I fell in love with the music to SotN long before I even played the game and every time a new track comes on I just want to blast the speakers. The music in Bloodstained: RotN is lovely but perhaps a little less memorable and same-y sounding. I'm sure that is mostly my rose-tinted goggles talking though as this OST sports some truly great tracks.

I haven't said much about the story or anything about the characters because as with the Igavanias there isn't really much more to say. They are as interesting as they need to be and all characters fill their parts just fine. What motivation do you really need to go and slaughter loads of enemies to find cool stuff and skills? We don't play these games because of the story, but because of the fun gameplay and Bloodstained: RotN delivers all the elements necessary to fulfil that need. Not only are there loads of items to kill and collect, but also loads of secrets, side-bosses and optional quests to do. A handful of times I was lost and confused as to where to go next, but this has happened in every Igavania I've played at some point so it probably says more about me than the game design. I will honestly say though, there were two times where I know for sure I couldn't have figured out what I needed to do next to advance the game so I am glad internet is a thing nowadays.

I had some tiny technical issues, like words disappearing in texts, loot being uninteractable because it didn't drop properly on the ground or a hold-up when opening the menu specifically in save rooms for some reason. These were rare and never detracted from the fun of the game though.

Some of the critique pointed at this game has been that it's a step backwards and that the Metroidvania formula has evolved since Symphony of the Night was released. To me this is like pointing at a game like Shovel Knight and complain that the platform formula has evolved since the NES era. This game, and a lot of throwback indie games, are intentionally backwards in style because that is what people are after. People don't want the evolved style, they want the old one. And they can both exist without it making the one lesser than the other. Also Bloodstained: RotN is not an exact copy of Symphony of the Night, as already established. IGA has deliberately and carefully chosen the elements of all the Igavanias that he thought worked and blended them together in this throwback that is not just a delight to play but exactly what he promised all those people who threw money at him on Kickbacker.

What is it about cool characters and wearing deep red?

There is a saying - you can't step into the same river twice. I often hold Symphony of the Night up as an example of a game that is objectively good, regardless of what kind of genre you usually like. It is also greatness that is impossible to recreate. And Bloodstained: RotN makes the right decision in not trying to. However, while this game doesn't want to be Symphony of the Night it definitely wants to be part of the Igavania handheld series, and as such it fits the team just perfectly (Order of Ecclesia gets to sit on the bench though). It is so easy to forget it's not in fact part of the Castlevania series, but considering Konami doesn't want our money I am more than happy to give it to IGA who knows what to do with it. I think SotN to Portrait of Ruin are some of the best and most fun games ever made and Bloodstained: RotN is a worthy successor. It delivers on everything I hoped for and sets a standard for spiritual successors to come.

Images from Steam,,