Saturday Summaries 2018-09-08: Roundtable Edition

The site's big change this past week has been updating their review format to a more casual roundtable discussion between the various staff members who have played the game in question, which for this inaugural test run was Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man. It could be that we might see another for next week's Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and possibly (though my hopes aren't high) one for Valkyria Chronicles 4 towards the end of the month. Then again, the rare occasion of various staff members playing the same game might be something reserved for those games that tend to dominate the month that they're in; something no-one on staff can avoid playing, even if there are other releases to divide their attention.

Easily the game I'm most hyped for this month, though perhaps not enough to listen to a hour-long discussion on it.
Easily the game I'm most hyped for this month, though perhaps not enough to listen to a hour-long discussion on it.

There are definitely pros and cons for this new format. Starting with the pros: I've already seen this format work well elsewhere, in particular the way @thatpinguino and @zombiepie have broken down the Final Fantasy series (and, in ZombiePIe's case, breaking down just in general after too many Vienna sausages) with their podcasts. I know Giant Bomb's been considering ways of incorporating "second opinions" into reviews for those cases where more than one person has been playing, and the roundtable format is an ideal place for those. Another pro is that you get a much more comprehensive explanation of the game's features and strengths, as we all tend to fixate on different aspects in our individual reviews; personally, I'm way bigger on innovative game mechanics and tend to give art direction or the quality of, say, the voice acting a relatively short shrift so I can focus on some small (and relatively minor, perhaps) quality-of-life implementations instead. That comes from my academic background, and the power of reviews is that you're often awoken to a frame of reference that you never considered; whether that reviewer is big on aesthetics because they have a side-gig as an artist or a graphic designer, or prefers critiquing a game's narrative structure due to their English Literature degree. Both are valid venues for game criticism these days with how far the medium has come, and I find I appreciate the shifts in perspective.

The most obvious con is that a more informal discussion isn't going to be anywhere near as concise and rehearsed as a well-edited written review, and likewise getting a strong impression of a game and its qualities in a five minute read would be preferable to an hour-long podcast for those pressed for time. It's a large part of why I still stick to writing reviews and features; I appreciate that if I started some five hour stream on a game, that would be more of an investment for a prospective audience than reading a handful of paragraphs with a similar amount of information. The game critiquing industry is rushing to replace every arena of the written word with video, and in many places it's a less efficient form of conveying the same information. A Quick Look covers the broad strokes of how the game looks and plays, while a review is meant to succinctly summarize the experience, as well as certain aspects like significant gameplay changes that emerge in the mid- and end-game that would be difficult to portray in a Quick Look unless you were jumping around save files.

Conversely, I think GOTY roundtables work well because everyone's free to argue for or against the merits of a game as a whole, as the no-spoiler rule is temporarily lifted. The site's GOTY discussions could use some streamlining after last year, perhaps with fewer categories or a less wishy-washy top ten process, but it's one of the site's best recurring annual features along with its E3 coverage because you get those deep dives on games that would otherwise be too fresh to discuss in lurid, spoileriffic detail.

Giant Bomb will continue to fine-tune this new review format, I've no doubt. They've always promoted themselves as personality-driven and video-focused - it's how they raised themselves above the throng of lesser sites that decade or so ago - and this format is conducive to that approach to creating content. I'll probably stick to crafting and reading written reviews for the time being though; my time is already stretched enough between playing games and producing my own content.

Speaking of which, I can promise you that it won't take an hour to consume all the blogs I've prepared this week:

  • The Indie Game of the Week this time was Holy Potatoes! A Weapon Shop?!, a genial real-time sim game of the "plate-spinner" variety. You spend your time juggling weapon creation, buying or finding new components, making sure your employees are happy and well-rested, taking requests from wandering heroes, and feeding the smithy's mascot pupper. Despite the usual frantic rushing around that these games tend to generate, it's a reasonably serene time with not a whole lot in the way of stressful deadlines or debilitating failure states. It's more about going about tasks at your own pace and optimizing your time to the best of your ability. In other words, the amount of rushing around is contingent on how much of it the player wants to do. A little insubstantial and repetitive, but an affably silly, low-key game.
  • We're taking a temporary break from Raiden's HF Blades to revisit the 16-bit era for SNES Classic Mk. II: Episode XVIII: Jelly Boyz 2 Mega Men. This week is another platformer heavy episode, covering Capcom's Mega Man 7 (the sole "classic" Mega Man for the system) and Probe Entertainment's Jelly Boy (a colorful shapeshifting adventure released only in Europe). I thought both were pretty good, with Mega Man 7 edging out Jelly Boy in terms of originality (despite being a sixth sequel), but I found the latter to be more engaging in pure gameplay terms. If you've not heard of Jelly Boy, or missed out on the seventh Mega Man and its big changes to the series, give that episode a read.


TV: Other Space (Season 1)

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I was in the mood for another sci-fi show this week, as it is - along with superheroes and anime - easily the genre of TV that I've been neglecting the longest prior to this year, at least to the degree that I have several more of them left to watch. Plus, if this AV Club article is any indication, there'll be plenty more to add to whatever's left on the pile after the year is over. Other Space is an original creation for the ill-fated Yahoo! Screen service, in which the venerable web services provider tried their hand at some paid digital media distribution in the vein of a Hulu or Netflix. Though they only produced a handful of shows before dissolving in 2016, I'll be forever grateful to them for allowing Community to have its sixth season - a frequent in-joke of the perennially meta Abed was that the show would last "six seasons and a movie", though we're still waiting to see about that last part. Other Space is, similarly, another sitcom with an ensemble cast and a premise that endears itself to frequent "bottle" episodes: ideal for an internet show with perhaps not the biggest budget to go around but a surfeit of comedic talent in front of and behind the cameras.

Right off the bat, I wanted to commend Other Space's masterstroke of bringing on board Joel Hodgson and Trace Beaulieu, both made famous by the original seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000. They play similar enough characters here: Joel is Zalien, a veteran space engineer who's spent enough time around radioactive ship engines to be a tad non compos mentis, while Trace has a familiar role as his sarcastic and workshy robot sidekick Art (though actually housing the thought patterns of an Elon Musk-style futurist billionaire). The rest of the cast includes the meekly ineffectual but resourceful Captain Stewart Lipinski (Karan Soni, perhaps better known these days as Deadpool's frequently put-upon taxi driver companion Dopinder), his standoffish sister and second-in-command Karen, the frequently-ignored third-in-command Michael, the almost completely useless navigator Tina who Stewart only recruited because of a long-standing (and pathetic) crush, the unnerving science officer Kent, and the bubbly computer AI Natasha who was once little more than a glorified digital hostess for some sort of shady casino enterprise. The ship is meant to be exploring distant galaxies, but accidentally ends up trapped in another universe after falling through a cosmic ripple.

I'd heard ahead of time that the show is the more platonic ideal of an American Red Dwarf, certainly more so than the disastrous direct conversion attempt in the 90s, in that it mines most of the comedy from a sort of cabin fever simmering resentment between a group of incompetent survivors stranded in the depths of space with regular food, water, power, and air shortage concerns. Despite only being eight episodes long, it manages to flesh out its cast and their backstories, introduce a few clever and amusing episode ideas around classic sci-fi tropes (not too dissimilar from Red Dwarf or Futurama), find the perfect amount of screentime - not too much or too little, given they're ringers to be used sparingly - for Joel and Trace who frequently take up Greek chorus type roles, and gets close enough to emotional sincerity to care about the characters even if it then frequently undermines the more emotionally dense moments with their quiet disdain for one another. What's more, it presents a more realistic take on the utopian Star Trek future where technology has solved most of our concerns and we have, as a species, become more engaged with space travel: people tend to get bored easily, and so are often taken in by new fads, gimmicks, and gossip. The discovery that the ship was once used to stage an elaborate reality TV show - something that apparently had been outlawed in the years since for its deleterious effect on civilization - nonetheless manages to enrapture Zalien and Art for an episode as they quietly manipulate their crewmates into being more "reality TV interesting" via the show producer's shipwide controls.

If I had to commend Other Space on one aspect, and which happens to be the one virtue it shares most keenly with Red Dwarf and a number of sci-fi shows with close-knit groups like Cowboy Bebop, is how well it feels like a hang-out show. Nothing too flashy or a serial plot that moves a mile a minute; just checking with an established and likeable - or, if not likeable, entertaining to watch - cast of characters as they respond to new developments and interact with one another with a dwindling supply of patience and professionalism. I hope its creator, the frequently busy Paul Feig of Freaks and Geeks fame (and more recently a bunch of Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy comedies), figures out how to get another season developed without Yahoo's help.

Movie: The Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

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I'm still catching on my Andersons. The Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of his most kid-friendly movies to date: a stop-motion animated feature adapted from a Roald Dahl book about a sneaky fox who can't shake his past as a professional bird thief even after becoming a father. The film is actually the first of two stop-motion animated features by Anderson: the second being Isle of Dogs, released earlier this year (and, if I'm being honest, the main inspiration for choosing to watch this).

Naturally, since it's a Wes Anderson production, there's a lot more going on than the central story of a fox that regularly outsmarts, and is outsmarted in turn, by a trio of unpleasant farmers who run enormous poultry and cider businesses. All three businesses are within view of Fox's new house: a hollowed out old oak tree into which he moves his family, a wife Felicity and a son Ash, after deciding he was done living in a hole. A lot of the film's more quiet dramatic moments come from Fox coming to terms with his nature as a wily beast who can't help but come up with elaborate heists to steal fowl, keeping such details from his family. Similarly, his oddball son is a moody underachiever at school who is struggling to find his place in the world, especially as he lacks the talents that made his father so "fantastic". His resentment of his more prodigal (but quietly unassuming) visiting cousin Kristofferson isn't helping matters. There's also the neighborhood of other animals, including a badger lawyer voiced by Bill Murray and an otter coach voiced by Owen Wilson (because you knew those two had to pop up in a Wes Anderson movie somewhere; likewise, frequent Anderson villain Willem Dafoe shows up as a heavily accented rat with a switchblade).

I'm a big fan of the off-beat nature of the movie, especially its herky-jerky animations and how it'll momentarily forget that it's an animated feature for one quiet dialogue scene and then segue into a very active sequence where the characters tumble around or start digging ferociously. It's emotionally earnest too, perhaps to a fault, as characters outline their internal troubles and self-recriminate with an errant tear in their eye. It is refreshing for a children's movie (or rather, one suitable for children; there's a complexity to the movie's plot that might make it hard for a younger kid to follow, but the film deliberately goes out of its way to not cuss, for example) for everyone to be open with their feelings and admit blame when necessary, but it doesn't really feel true to Dahl's novels at all, which were frequently cynical and repulsive and very black and white in matters of morality (which were secretly a big part of the reason why they appealed so much to their young audiences). There is also the small matter of the movie's setting: it feels equal parts British (it's visually very reminiscent of Roald Dahl's rural home county of Buckinghamshire), Australian (especially the boingy music, another Mark Mothersbaugh soundtrack), and American (why would Mr. Fox have an opossum sidekick?).

All the same, I thought the film was excellent and I'm happy to have seen two of the director's most well-regarded movies for the first time this year, the other being Moonrise Kingdom back in June. I believe that just leaves Isle of Dogs for some future movie night, perhaps when enough time has passed for it to show up on streaming services. I'll probably go back to something louder and more violent next week though, such is my usual wont.

Game: Pillars of Eternity II: Deadfire

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I once again squeezed in a relatively small amount of time with Deadfire this week, though fortunately a lot more than the previous week. Enough to feel like I can write a more substantive update on how I've been getting on. A couple of topics this time:

The first is the game's excellent application of what I call the Yojimbo effect. Inspired by the Kurosawa movie of the same name, which was in turn drawn from Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest and would go on to inspire A Fistful of Dollars and Last Man Standing, the general Yojimbo story format involves a wandering nameless mercenary who gets involved with a feud between two or more factions. The smart mercenary decides to play both (or all) sides against the middle, earning several times the paycheck while having the bitter rivals take each other out in order to avoid committing to one side or the other, or being discovered by either as a double agent. Needless to say, there's something compelling about occupying a role like that; one that not only draws on the anonymous protagonist's apparently prodigal martial talent, at least to the extent that they have all the factions eager to recruit them for the edge they need over their adversaries, but also their resourcefulness and an appreciation of the fact that both factions are likely equally bad, or at least equally to blame for their animosity.

The Yojimbo effect is a frequently ripe vein for Black Isle and Obsidian RPGs, particularly in the hardscrabble and morally grey Fallout series. I always try to push working for multiple factions as far as it can go, until co-existence either becomes impossible or the player is forced to make a choice for some end-game scenario. It's how I navigated the mean streets and multiple crime families of New Reno in Fallout 2, it's why I kept both the Umpani and T'Rang alien races of Wizardry 8 in my corner to earn twice the income to spend on equipment upgrades, and it's been true of Deadfire so far as well, which in fact has at least four factions in an antagonistic quadrangle - the traditional local kingdom of the sea aumaua (shark-like people), their technologically advanced and imperialistic cousins the coastal aumana of the Royal Deadfire Company, the equally imperialistic but in a more subtle mercantile way Vaillain Trading Company, and the free-spirited but not particularly friendly Príncipi sen Patrena ("Princes without a Homeland", or to use a more accurate shorthand: pirates and privateers). I imagine at certain late points of the story questline I'll have to commit to one side over another, or rely on one particular faction to help me in the final quest; my hope, however, is that I can continue to work for and string along all four for as long as I can. Buying, staffing, and supplying increasingly larger ships is a pricey venture, after all, and I can only make so much from looting deserted islands and shipwrecks.

The other topic for today, and one that perhaps warrants an entire update to itself, is how the game handles its Infinity Engine-inspired tactical real-time combat. I previously spoke about Deadfire's new concessions to Pillars of Eternity's engine, in particular the way more fair "injury" format that replaced the unintuitive "double health bar" of the first game, but I neglected to get deeper into the sophisticated AI system the game uses. As modern RPGs continue to build on ideas introduced in the MMO space - for as loath as I am to acknowledge them as a single-player RPG diehard, World of Warcraft and its ilk are incredibly popular and have shifted the paradigm of modern RPGs in more ways than I can count - so too do those of a more throwback nature implement those concepts, at least as far as it makes sense to do so. Deadfire's no exception in that it employs more abilities that work on cooldowns rather than drawing from a finite stat resource that requires constant refilling like mana; most classes have an innate stat that accumulates in battle, either from dishing out damage or taking it, which can then be spent on abilities that can greatly affect the battle in their favor. Because these class abilities have effectively infinite use, the default AI program will incorporate them into their algorithms along with regular attacks. What the AI won't incorporate are the stronger abilities that only have so many uses per encounter, or per rest, which it will instead leave to the player's discretion. Thus, while your party can usually automatically handle any group of monsters with no significant threats - those labelled with a skull icon to indicate how much stronger than the party they happen to be - the player's input is requested for stronger foes that might need some tactical planning or the use of consumable abilities and items. It's an eloquent system, minimizing the player's involvement in battles that won't really challenge them, saving them from expending resources they'll need to eventually replenish in the process. If something mighty comes along, however, it becomes a fight worth micromanaging.

I don't think I ever showed off my character. She's a pure Cipher with a skillset geared towards being mechanically-adept and shrewd with people. In combat, she's an able enough pair of hands that prefers to let the tanks take point so she can whack enemies with debuffs. Outside of combat, she opens all the locked doors and chests and lets the more stealth-inclined ranger Maia (front runner for favorite PC so far) handle the burglaries.
I don't think I ever showed off my character. She's a pure Cipher with a skillset geared towards being mechanically-adept and shrewd with people. In combat, she's an able enough pair of hands that prefers to let the tanks take point so she can whack enemies with debuffs. Outside of combat, she opens all the locked doors and chests and lets the more stealth-inclined ranger Maia (front runner for favorite PC so far) handle the burglaries.

I actually find the game's pace to be dizzying at times, as your party of five and any number of enemy combatants throw themselves into a melee that is challenging enough to untangle when the game is paused, let alone when everyone is jostling for position and throwing around any number of abilities. At the same time, I've come to appreciate RPGs that have a more situational awareness aspect to the strategy gameplay; where you don't need to direct every single member, but rather the group as a whole. In the past I've commended RPGs that do this, like Mistwalker's The Last Story or Square Enix's Final Fantasy XV, because it feels more like you're the commander of a group of professionals that don't need to be told how to play their individual roles but might need directions on how best to work as a team. There's a sense of verisimilitude to that, as well as a reduction of the amount of administration the player is expected to contribute, though this may well be one of those "mileage may vary" scenarios. All the same, the option to micromanage every battle in Deadfire is available - you could switch the AI to only use standard attacks and handle those cooldown-based abilities yourself, or switch the AI off entirely - but for now I'm happy to let my team decide how they want to fight and step in whenever a greater threat deems it necessary.

That will do it for today's Saturday Summaries update. As always, let me know what you think about any of the above subjects, games or otherwise, in the comments below. If all goes as planned, next week will see the conclusion of the Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance playthrough and my real-time-ish reactions to fighting that rascally senator and his ponytailed henchman, as well as an Indie Game of the Week that I recently purchased on a whim for reasons that will probably become clear enough. See you then.