Steven Universe The Movie Review

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I realise I’m late to the party on this one, but I still want to talk about it. I was late to Steven Universe the series too, but its mix of humour, emotional gut punches and commitment to being extremely queer wrapped up in excellent musical numbers and an overarching theme of acceptance, forgiveness and friendship made me catch up with it rapidly. The movie came out in September, I caught up on the last episode of the series to get ready for it, the one that wrapped everything up with White Diamond, and so here we are. Better late than never.

Two years after “Change your mind”, a now sixteen year old Steven lives a happy and content life in what he explicitly dubs, in song no less, a happily ever after. New Homeworld is nearing completion as a home for displaced gems, the Diamond authority is stepping down even if they are a tad too clingy for Steven’s liking, insisting he come and live with them, and there are no more people to fight. Until one shows up: a mysterious, stretchy limbed gem who knows the Crystal Gems by name and swiftly poofs them with an energy scythe, declaring that Steven’s human side is “No match for [her] Injector” and striking him several times before he finally poofs her. When the Crystal Gems come back, they’ve mysteriously reset: Pearl is back to being part servant, part status symbol now sworn to serve Greg Universe, Garnet is back to being a Sapphire and her Ruby guard, and Amethyst is a blank slate. Steven has all his memories but his Gem doesn’t work, so he has no physical powers to speak of, and the mysterious attacker reverts to her original form: Spinel, a 20’s cartoon character and perpetual clown who’s glued to Steven’s side as his new best friend. From there it’s an attempt both through action and musical numbers to help Pearl, Amethyst, Spinel and both halves of Garnet remember who they are and stop whatever Spinel’s Injector is doing to Beach City. Unfortunately most of the runtime is dedicated to characters we’ve known for several long seasons of television going back to being who we already know them to be, and while seeing them relive their transformation into who they are now is nice and the cast do a great job with it, it doesn’t add anything to the story as a whole. The film starts with a brief recap of the story thus far, but doesn’t explain nearly enough to act as a jumping on point for newcomers, so the whole recapping each Crystal Gem’s turn from who they were to who they are thing feels like filler, as much as the initial concept of them being reset is a strong one, which it is.

Fortunately, newcomer Spinel is solid gold throughout. Her clown form provides further insight into how the gem hierarchy, in particular the Diamonds, operates, and the subtle hints and foreshadowing about who she is and what made her who she is culminate in a heartbreaking reveal of her backstory. Her villainous side is unique among her peers in that she’s fuelled entirely by emotion; she’s a mess of grief, rage and despair who simultaneously wants to be reasoned with and believes that peace was never an option. At one point I wondered if she would be, in this show filled with anime references and homages, Steven’s Legato Bluesummers, and I while I won’t spoil whether I was right, I will say that I felt satisfied with my answer. She’s relateable, she’s threatening, she’s unique for the show and I love her.

The songs are uniformly good, as is to be expected. The film is a musical, which at times can slow down the pacing a little, but it’s not a big problem. The film looks great, again as to be expected, there’s not much to say on that front really: it looks like the show, it sounds like the show, it sings like the show, just at feature length.

Overall, Steven Universe The Movie is a good time. Personally I think the time spent getting Pearl, Amethyst and Garnet back to who they are isn’t the best use of a film, but the set up that resets them is good, and the transition itself is handled well. It is, however, all worth Spinel, who steals the film and every scene she’s in. Its mix of recaps/redos and just presuming you know what’s happened before is frustrating, but it’s a good time, it hits hard and, again, Spinel is a wonderful addition to the canon.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

MediEvil Remake Review

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Back when I was a wee bairn MediEvil was one of my favourite games. A tone and level design that combined a light fantasy touch with a darker edge, Metroidvania elements and an exquisite soundtrack have all made it stick with me for years now. It was, however, bastard fiddly at times and I never finished it, instead using cheats to see the end, which is the 90s equivalent of “Time Saver” DLC, in a way. Anyway they’ve only gone and bloody remade it, haven’t they? Crash N Sane Trilogy style. I didn’t review that because it didn’t feel as good as the originals in a way that made me feel depressed and old and I wanted to just move past the whole thing. I am reviewing this, however. Join me, won’t you?

You are Sir Daniel Fortesque, renowned as the King’s Champion and hero of Gallowmere, who having lead a charge against evil sorcerer Zarok immediately died via arrow to the eye. Now revived as a jawless, one-eyed skeleton by Zarok’s general “Raise the undead and brainwash living people” spell, Dan’s got a shot at redemption by traversing Gallowmere and putting Zarok down. The story stays that simple throughout but is peppered with bits of lore now and then about sealed monsters, great heroes residing in a sort of Valhalla-type gaff and what remains of the battlefield Dan “fought” on. Dan doesn’t really have much of a personality to speak of outside of being worried or getting annoyed when people sass him, and the only recurring characters within the levels themselves are exposition goblins. Every now and then another character will pop up for a quick chat but they’re all brief: for the most part you’re on your own. The story itself is far less important than the journey, and fortunately that part is well done, and holds up. Every level has a gothic charm to it, the Kingdom being made up of ornate graveyards, moody farmland, eerie marshes and forests, as well as more unusual levels like a crystal cave and a flying pirate ship manned by a literal skeleton crew that comes out of nowhere near the end. The art design was one of the original game’s strongest suits, and it holds up well here apart from one slight personal issue I have with it.┬áIn the original, the lack of draw distance meant everything was surrounded by an endless black void. Here the entirely re-done PS4 graphics mean every outdoor level has a light night sky, which removes that slightly sinister atmosphere of isolation. The game looks lovely though; everything looks like it used to and the original, varied art style survives intact.

Gameplay wise is where things perhaps should have been changed a bit. The combat is light and floaty: there’s no real transition between moving and fighting. There’s a button that locks the camera behind Dan but it only works in certain areas, and another that locks Dan on rails so he’s always facing forward, but it’s on the same side as the shield button so it’s awkward at best. Mostly it’s just running around loosely, swinging wildly at any enemies with little sense of impact. There are a variety of weapons both melee and ranged, all of which are unlocked from the aforementioned Valhalla-style “Hall of Heroes”. Kill enough enemies in a level and you can collect its chalice, which lets Dan converse with a statue of a legendary hero who taunt or encourage him in a variety of accents and bestow upon him their signature weapon. Or cash. Or health, it varies. Each hero’s first time is always a weapon though. The game’s biggest issue, though improved since the original, is platforming, which being based on PS1 technology is often frustrating. As I said it is improved from the original but it can easily go wrong. As I said at the top of the review there’s a touch of Metroidvania to proceedings: the map used to select levels has branching paths, important story items are placed among them for reasons that make sense in the story but don’t really complicate proceedings. Admittedly I remembered where things were and I don’t know how someone going in blind would do, but it’s a fairly simple, well signposted game, with the Metroidvania elements just adding some spice really.

Oddly the game has a mixture of original and new voice acting, to equally mixed results. Some characters just straight up use the original recordings, albeit possibly remastered, which don’t match some of the new, more fluid animations. The one new piece of voice acting I’m not a big fan of is Dan, in particular a certain damage noise he used to make that’s now absent, but that’s a personal thing, and there’s nothing wrong with his new voice.

So then, as a big fan of MediEvil, I had a good time with the remake. For me its best points were always the art design and music, so the mediocre combat doesn’t really bother me, though it’s worth mentioning considering how far third person action has come in the intervening years. A pleasant trip down memory lane that didn’t make me realise I’ve been an idiot for liking such shite, but I’m not sure there’s enough here for a newcomer. Having said that, do please buy it so they’ll remake MediEvil 2.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

The Outer Worlds Review

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“It always comes down to the Hunters’ helper to clean up after these sorts of messes.” After Bethesda didn’t so much drop the Fallout ball as slam it into the Earth’s core, it falls to Obsidian to make us all feel better with a spiritual successor of sorts. Having said that the game is not, as I had heard, basically Fallout in space. It does, however, have enough New Vegas about it to be noteworthy, and while it’s unfair to judge it entirely on those standards, it’s too explicit to not make comparisons.

You are a future colonist frozen in suspended animation, aboard a ship called “Hope” filled with Earth’s brightest and best en route to Halcyon, a human colony in space. Unfortunately you’re being thawed out seventy years too late by a mad scientist who needs you to deal with the absolute shitshow Halcyon has been turned into by its rulers “The Board” and their various corporate entities. Far from a blank slate on which to write the next chapter of humanity, Halcyon is a nightmare of scrutinised, micromanaged corporate bullshit in which people are required to start conversations with advertising slogans, debts to The Board can legally be covered by forced organ donation, and the whole system is on the verge of collapse because it’s being run by people for whom profit is the bottom line, everything else be damned. Subtle it isn’t, but that’s by no means a bad thing. Commandeering the name of recently deceased smuggler captain Alex Hawthorne (though you can still tell people your real name) and his ship The Unreliable, you and a gradually built crew travel around the Halcyon system getting into scrapes, helping people out and taking any opportunity to kick The Man (the proverbial Man, not Becky Lynch) in the bollocks. The overarching plot of the Captain helping their new ally Dr Welles thaw out everyone else on the Hope so they can turn things around for Halcyon is largely just a frame on which to hang the more personal stories and sidequests found in the system. Towns with problems that need solving, leadership disputes, sides to take or peace to broker, local criminal elements to get involved with, that sort of thing. As well as the obvious Fallout comparison the game often feels like a less militaristic Mass Effect; you select your crew the same way when you leave the Unreliable, they all have loyalty missions you can do, and the moving between space ports and planets filled with either hostile wildlife or people in need of a competent space adventurer feels a lot like Bioware’s series. The writing is universally good, the quests are universally solid even if they’re not all stand-outs, and the crew are all great; particularly adorable, asexual, queer, mechanic Parvati and drunk, soulful, savvy hunter Nyoka.

The New Vegas comparison is most evident in the gameplay, in particular the skills, flaws and dialogue options. Flaws are negative effects that pop up naturally in response to events; things like being scared of robots, addicted to drugs, scared of heights, that kind of thing. They all offer a perk point in exchange for a debuff, and can be taken or left as you see fit. There’s a wide range of skills pertaining to combat, as well as hacking, lockpicking, mechanics, stealth and medicine. They all have effects on gameplay and dialogue to open up alternate routes to your objective, both physically and by talking your way into, out of and around things. Taking this a step further is New Vegas’ “Speech” option being split into three separate categories: Lie, Persuade and Intimidate. In practice this is largely superfluous and entirely down to personal preference, but it adds depth to the role playing. Despite the focus on first person shooting, in a way that felt to me like a plasmid-free Bioshock what with all the shooting and rooting through cupboards and the like, this is an RPG, and besides the fights with marauders and alien creatures you can talk your way out of anything, particularly when combined with the game’s disguise mechanic. As long as you have the correct ID you’ll automatically equip a disguise upon entering a restricted area. It runs on a time limit, but once one of the four bars empties and nearby guards take notice of you, you can talk your way into having them leave you alone again. Perks are mostly just useful augments to existing skills; carry more, do more damage, that sort of thing. A little boring and safe compared to New Vegas, but they’re useful. Speaking of New Vegas, Outer Worlds’ V.A.T.S equivalent is the ability to slow down time, which becomes especially useful once you’ve upgraded your ranged weapons skill, at which point slowing down time and aiming at an enemy lets you cause various status effects depending on where you shoot them, from obvious ones like crippling a leg or maiming an arm, to more interesting ones like temporarily blinding them or, my personal favourite, knocking them out briefly to be bombarded with further attacks. The way skills work encourages you to branch out rather than stick to a narrow focus: they come in groups of three, and you put points into each group until a skill hits fifty, at which point you have to top them up individually.

So that’s all good, but are there any problems? A few, but they’re mostly subjective. It’s quite a short game for its type, and surprisingly easy; gunfights are easily won with the right equipment (which isn’t hard to obtain) and two companions, and putting points into the three speech skills will get you past the majority of things that don’t come pre-aggro’d. That said there is a super hard difficulty with factors similar to New Vegas’ Hardcore Mode, so maybe that evens things out. Less subjective are the frequent, not inconsiderable load times that break up travelling. They’re more irritating than anything else, but still worth mentioning.

Overall The Outer Worlds is great. Obsidian clearly know what they’re doing and have filled the void left by Fallouts 4 and 76 with a consistently enjoyable action RPG with great writing, characters, a wonderful anti-corporation viewpoint and a dedication to alternate methods of problem solving. Top notch.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18

 

 

 

Death Stranding Review

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Death Stranding is the long-awaited first game from the new-look Kojima Productions, having parted ways with Konami in favour of Sony. It’s been hyped for years both due to the context surrounding Kojima and its collection of weird trailers ripe for analysis. Having seen a few of those trailers I decided to eschew any further preview materials to go into the game somewhat blind, and as a result wasn’t sure what to expect besides a few key points. It finally came out recently, and I’ve beaten it, so here we go.

So the titular Death Stranding is a catastrophic event that caused the land of the living and the land of the dead to become connected. Now when people die their souls leave their bodies and travel on a journey, Ancient Egyptian style, to a place called their “Beach” on the way to the afterlife. America is a lonesome wasteland and most of its surviving occupants live in shelters to avoid the two primary threats in this new world: Timefall and BTs. The former is some bizarre effect that makes rain and snow cause whatever they hit to fast forward in time; turning people old and ruining any inanimate object not reinforced against it. The latter are ghost-like entities caught between the two worlds, who if they come into contact with living people cause a massive explosion called a Void Out. Terminally ill U.S President Bridget Strand has a plan to salvage the country by connecting what’s left via a “Chiral Network” that allows the exchange of information and access to incredible 3-D printing, and seeks to enact this plan with the help of Bridges, her organisation. You are Sam, a man raised by Bridget and a legendary courier who takes on the Chiral Network job to rescue Bridget’s daughter Amelie, with whom he’s very close, who set out on an expedition but was kidnapped by a terrorist group. That central plot of stringing the network through what’s left of America acts as a constant base on which to hang the more immediate, interesting parts of the story. Each chapter is dedicated to a character and their research into the situation and attempts to help speed the process along. These sections are where the meat of the story lies, and where Kojima and Yoji Shinkawa get to flex their writing and design muscles respectively. To name a few: Lea Seydoux as Fragile; head of a private delivery company, with a dark past and thought to be in league with the very terrorists who kidnapped Amelie, and with the best look I’ve seen in a game since V in DMC5. Guillermo Del Toro’s likeness with Jesse Corti’s voice as Deadman, a slightly goofy but reliable and friendly support character who has Sam’s back from the off, and Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff, who it’s hard to talk about without spoiling things but provides some of the coolest, most visually striking moments in the whole game. He steals any scene he’s in. Kojima’s always excelled with supporting casts, an art he honed with the Metal Gear Solid series, and Death Stranding’s is its strongest asset. The story itself goes to some interesting places and is set up and paid off well, its only issue is the various explanations tied into the lore can weigh everything down, particularly whenever it becomes apparent that Kojima did a lot of research on a subject and really wants to make sure it all makes it into the scene. Fortunately that never detracts from the strong character work, and is mostly kept in optional reading material. It’s best to go in knowing as little as possible, so I’ll leave it there.

The gameplay is where people might be put off, but hear me out. The majority of the game is being a courier; strapping cargo and useful items like climbing ropes and collapse-able ladders to Sam and trekking through fields, over mountains and across streams to get people what they need and convince them to join the network. Weight limits play a factor, you need to ensure the cargo isn’t damaged in transit, Sam’s balance needs to be maintained and items like different leg frames that increase your carry limit or let you move at normal speed over rocks and through thick snow help. Now I don’t know how that sounds to other people, but I took to it instantly and genuinely enjoyed it throughout the game. There’s a steady supply of items a la MGSV, the extra details like balance and weight limit add a layer of depth, and it just clicked with my brain in a way that’s hard to put into words. The rest of the game is more traditional third person combat and stealth. The aforementioned BTs are invisible but can be detected with something called a “Bridge Baby”: an infant with an equal link to both worlds and attached to Sam’s suit. If they find you and catch you, you’re dragged into a newly formed lake of tar filled with scattered buildings emerging from the earth to fight some giant beast, and it is genuinely harrowing. There’s not a whole lot of horror, not as much as I was hoping for after the whole Silent Hills incident, but it’s here. More accurately, it’s lurking out there in the world waiting for you to slip up. BTs are exclusively encountered in Timefall, their outlines hanging eerily in the air as BB nervously whines and points them out as best they can. It’s all very atmospheric. There are also human enemies in the form of “MULEs”, who’ll try and steal any cargo you’re carrying, and the previously mentioned terrorists, who’ll just straight up try and kill you. There’s melee combat with a surprisingly useful parry and smashing people over the head with cargo containers, which is never not satisfying. There are also guns, which control a lot like they did in MGSV and can be loaded with bullets laced with Sam’s blood, which is harmful to BTs. There are boss fights, most of which are rather good and then there’s the game’s USP; persistent, online, hands-off co-operation. Social aspects in games are nothing new of course, but how it works here is that things like ladders and ropes, as well as constructed objects like bridges and Timefall shelters exist in your world when built or left behind by other players. Lost cargo found in the world can be delivered to its intended destination, or entrusted to other players. Co-operation and just generally doing something kind for someone who might come through the same area after you is encouraged and easy to do, and the amount of player-created objects dotted throughout the map is helpful without feeling intrusive, and ties into the game’s overarching theme of people coming together to help each other.

I really enjoyed Death Stranding. It’s not for everyone, but its mix of engaging, satisfying package delivery, combat, strong character work, intersting, varied lore and horror came together in a way that really worked for me. I recommend trying it if anything I’ve said here has piqued your interest, and I thoroughly look forward to whatever Kojima Productions does next. Preferably a full-on horror game to realise the promise of P.T, but whatever it is I’m on board.

By James Lambert
@jameslambert18