Wednesday, September 14, 2016

No Fear of a Blank Planet

I think I've finally figured out what's missing from No Man's Sky: danger.

It's supposedly a survival game, but there's very little threat. Aggressive animals are, in my experience, very uncommon. The sentinels will, by and large, leave you alone unless provoked. Hazardous environments can be easily negated by digging a shelter with a few grenades. Resources to replenish your defences and weapons are plentiful.

Last night, for the first time in several months - maybe a year - I played The Last of Us, picking up a playthrough on Grounded difficulty. It took three attempts to figure out all the controls; I'd forgotten how to stealth-kill, how to run and how to switch weapons.

I'm at the point of the game, for reference, where Ellie first gets a gun. (I don't think that's too much of a spoiler.)

It was immediately and unrelentingly tense. On Grounded, in addition to deadlier enemies and reduced resources you lose the "hearing" ability that allows Joel to track enemies without direct line of sight. If I couldn't see a threat, I didn't know where it was - but even when I did have a specific target in mind, moving around could expose me.

Obviously a crafted experience like The Last of Us has ways of turning up the tension that a procedural game never could - like specific placement of cover and planned enemy patrol routes.

But even after several varied but grisly demises, when I knew the exact layout and patterns of the whole space, it didn't get less stressful - it almost felt more dangerous, as the pressure was put entirely on me to remember and execute the plan in the right order.

No Man's Sky, a universe of nearly infinite variety, feels inert in comparison.

How does the vast, uninhabited unknown so completely fail to inspire any sense of danger? I'm an explorer, striking out into frontier worlds devoid of civilisation (though always, disappointingly, inhabited).

Stepping out of my ship's cockpit should be a gamble. What I find should have the chance to offer more than a temporary inconvenience every few minutes where I have to dig a hole or refuel my shield.

I want to stand on a beautiful, vast and unknown planet, utterly alone and scared out of my mind about what I might discover.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Hibike! Euphonium

Hibike! Euphonium

I've finally, months behind everybody else, caught up with the bonus 14th episode of Hibike Euphonium. It's a side-story that runs parallel to the finale of the main series, following Hazuki - poor, brave, heartbroken Hazuki - and the other nine members of the band who didn't make the cut for the big end-of-season competition. Most of the other Team Monaka members are background filler, but we also get a couple of great scenes with Nakagawa, giving sketches of her history just through body language and evasive answers. I hope we see more of her in the sequel.

It's reminded me of how amazing a series this was - truly incredible animation for a TV series, in places feeling like Kyoto's animators were just showing off. The plot is pretty basic sports-anime stuff; a rag-tag group of students get together with a seemingly impossible goal, and through hard work and just believing in yourself, they rise through the ranks to reach that final hurdle.

Where Euphonium shines is with its characters and their interactions; in particular Kumiko's reluctance throughout the series, both with personal and band matters, lends real dramatic heft to the points where she takes an active step forward.

Euphonium has a very careful line to tread with its second season, which begins airing in October. At the core of its emotional arc is Kumiko's relationship with Reina - which might be an all-timer, if the second season doesn't retreat to the safer waters of the source novels (obviously being held in reserve by the anime). I don't remember the last show that had a central pairing whose relationship evolved so naturally - maybe Planetes?

What a difference a few years make. If you'd told me, not too long ago, that my most anticipated show of the year was a Kyoto Animation series about a high school music club, I would have laughed in your face. But here we are, waiting for the second season of Hibike! Euphonium and it's not getting here soon enough.

Friday, September 09, 2016

Seven things I hate about Re:Zero, after 18 episodes

This will likely make little sense to anybody who has A. not seen any of Re:Zero or B. seen (or read) all of Re:Zero so far.

  1. The whole Light Novel schtick. Conversations that take three times longer to get to the point than even the slowest audience could possibly need; the endless digressions from the matter at hand; the tolerance for Subaru's inane interjections into matters he knows nothing about and has no business commenting on, by everyone including nobility. I hate this whole style of storytelling.
  2. The premise - genre-savvy nerd is pulled into an alternate high-fantasy reality - is lifted out of pure retread boredom by Subaru's lack of resultant special abilities, but he's such a demanding, entitled jackass that I don't care if he succeeds at any of his ridiculously stupid plans. I pray for his failure, that he might fucking learn something.
  3. Why in the name of God has it never occurred to Subaru to ask for someone to explain about the Jealous Witch? You'd think, after Emilia introduced herself with a cursed name the first time through and then the subsequent taboos around it, that he'd be curious enough to find someone - Betty, maybe - and ask, "hey, so humour me - what's the deal with Satella?".
  4. Subaru can't tell anybody about Return By Death, his Edge of Tomorrow-style time-reset/resurrection power. But you could still mention you're from a different reality maybe? Get people to cut you some fucking slack for a change.
  5. Emilia continues to put up with Subaru's perpetual creepiness, and borderline abusive attitude towards her.
  6. Rem's clearly Best Girl, but even she's fallen for the dubious charms of our "hero". I'm not even entirely sure why.

  7. I can't stop watching this show.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping

Calling this movie "a mess" could be seen as charitable, and certainly I'm a softer landing for the film's charms than a lot of people would be. I thoroughly enjoy a lot of The Lonely Island's previous output - both on and off SNL - and Andy Samberg's turn in Brooklyn 99 has won him a lot of good will in my book.

But the mockumentary style employed by the group's first movie foray doesn't feel used properly. Aside from inviting comparisons to This Is Spinal Tap - which will inevitably not work in Popstar's favour - it's implemented in a way that feels inconsistent, with no clear rules about where this documentary crew is supposed to be filming from. That said, the documentary style is justified by the insert interviews, with real musicians commenting on the career and music of the fictional Conner4Real, which offer some of the best gags in the film.

The music, too, is a mixed bag, but unlike their SNL and album tracks these songs are supposed to be bad. My favourite track, Finest Girl (Bin Laden Song), is borderline-offensive on the scale of Team America, but Popstar lacks the political position to give it teeth (for better or worse). Most of the songs get less than a verse and chorus to make their point - the only other song to make it into the film as more than a jingle is the deeply uncomfortable Equal Rights, though again its obvious textual shortcomings are excused by being a fake song by a fake artist making a point about homophobia.

The film's biggest stumbling block, however, is its lack of a clear point. Sure, it stumbles into a moral lesson for Conner by the end, but lacks a proper buildup. Conner's personality is at turns naive and childish, clear-headed and pragmatic, or entitled and overconfident - seemingly in whatever combination best suits the punchline to the scene in question. Taken individually, most of the sketches that make up the film are great, but they don't gel together and undermine some of the later scenes where we need to believe that Conner is an insulated narcissist for the emotional punches to land.

Even as a Lonely Island and Adam Samberg fan, I'm not sure I could recommend this film. It's the kind of entertaining curiosity I'd suggest catching on TV if you stumble across it, but it's unlikely it will ever end up on a regular ITV2 rotation.