Monthly Archives: April 2016

Marvel Cinematic Universe: Phase 2 – A Review

Marvel-Cinematic-Universe-Phase-Two-Logo

Some people take weeks off from work to go on holiday, hang out with friends or simply relax. What I do of course is delve ever deeper into the marvel cinematic universe, watching the Netflix TV shows Daredevil and Jessica Jones and watching phase 2 of the Marvel movies, starting with Iron Man 3 and moving on to Ant-Man. I have a feeling Stan Lee was stretching for new superhero ideas.

So following on from my review of Phase 1, I will now give brief reviews of all the films in phase 2, which featured several sequels which mostly disappointed, as well as introduced us to some new heroes as we try to keep up with the amount of superheroes residing in New York. (I wonder if Marvel knows there are other places outside of The Big Apple).

Iron Man 3 (2013)

The Iron Patriot may well be even more annoying of a name than Captain America

The Iron Patriot may be even more annoying of a name than Captain America

The third outing for Tony Stark sees Iron Man fighting a fiery Guy Pearce and evil terrorist The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), as well as his own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder after the events of The Avengers.

A lot longer than I thought it needed to be with comedic elements that miss more than they hit, I felt Iron Man 3 was the weakest of the marvel movies so far. It felt unnecessary, more of a well this is something else Tony Stark did one week rather than adding anything to the overall marvel cinematic story.

I was surprised it got pretty good reviews from critics, with many praising the character of The Mandarin and the interesting twist in the story, but not being a fan of the comic books this reveal had no real impact on me.

Still there was fun to be had and it kept me relatively engaged, but once again too many robots (they just don’t do it for me) and I did think why are none of the other avengers helping him!

Iron Man 3: 4/10

Thor: The Dark World (2013)

A suitably epic poster

A suitably epic poster

Next up was Chris Hemsworth returning as Thor as he battles an alien Christopher Ecclestone, forming an uneasy alliance with his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and an easier alliance with his scientist love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman).

Once again Hemsworth’s performance as Thor is great, as he finds the right balance between serious and humour, and the continuing story between him and Loki is far more interesting and has much more depth than his love story with Jane.

The Dark World did well at mixing our world with Asgaard, and I enjoyed the London setting of the film, but its story was too convoluted and crazy like the convergence itself.

Although it was an okay follow up to Thor, I felt it lacked the energy or originality of its predecessor, and like Iron Man 3 really didn’t add anything to the overall story.

Thor: The Dark World: 4/10

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Captain America doesn't like people touching his shield

Captain America doesn’t like people touching his shield

America’s red white and blue super solider was back in Captain America’s first sequel, The Winter Solider, and despite the lack of personality for the titular character, The Winter Solider proved to be one of the better films of the marvel cinematic universe – and the best sequel to date.

Like The First Avenger, this film has a well told story with what feels like actual consequence. From the infiltration of S.H.E.I.L.D by Hydra, to the added depth to the character of The Black Widow, again played excellently by Scarlett Johannson, The Winter Solider is easily one of the best told stories by Marvel.

The addition of Falcon (Anthony Mackie), was well handled, and the surprise return of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) was a nice touch as well.

I did at times find the film a little hard to follow and the story slightly confusing (if Hydra had infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D all this time – why didn’t they do more to hurt them), but overall I really liked this film – if only the actual superhero was more interesting.

Captain America: The Winter Solider: 7/10

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Look at them - guarding the galaxy

Look at them – guarding the galaxy

The first Marvel film not to feature any of the Avengers, and quite possibly the best.

Staring an ensemble cast including Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper and a surprisingly funny and heartfelt performance from wrestler turned actor Dave Bautista, Guardians of the Galaxy is an excellent addition to the marvel universe.

The film is genuinely very funny, looks amazing and the action pieces in the film are wonderful, and the whole story is better crafted than the usual Marvel films.

It also nicely ties in with the universe, showcasing more of Thanos who will be a main villain in future films, and gives us more back-story to the infinity stones, which were briefly touched on during Thor: The Dark World, without it coming across as simply fan service and the references to the other films don’t feel clunky or forced.

But it’s the 80s inspired soundtrack which really separates it from the other movies and gives it it’s unique film. It works perfectly in sync with the humour and feel of the movie – and helps it standout compared to the usual safe alternatives of the other films – such as ACDC with Iron Man.

My only gripes with the film are it does generally rely on action more than it does character development, and the ending is a little bit corny. But this is really me just trying to think of something bad to say, and I really enjoyed this film.

Guardians of the Galaxy: 8/10

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Like this photo suggests - Age of Ultron is a mess of a film

Like this photo suggests – Age of Ultron is a mess of a film

For many people, possibly myself included, the first Avengers film is the best in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so I went in with very high expectations for this sequel.

But despite excellent performances from the likes of James Spader, adding his unique voice and tone to the main villain Ultron, this big budget film largely disappointed.

Age of Ultron jumps straight into the action and plot, which really doesn’t work, as it feels like you’ve missed key points, and if you haven’t watched the other films in the series you would be lost from the get go.

The film felt rushed and really drags on, which is weird because it is actually two minutes shorter than the first film, but feels so much longer, and for a film with so much going on and so many cool action sequences, it was rather boring.

The story was largely incongruous and hard to follow, with Thor’s random trip to London to visit some whirlpool really not making any sense – and the addition of The Voice seemed thrown in after so much build up.

But if you don’t think about it too much and just sit back and watch some superheroes fighting stuff, you might find yourself relatively happy.

Avengers: Age of Ulton 4/10

Ant-Man (2015)

Meet our newest Avenger

Meet our newest Avenger – Ant-Man!

The final film in Phase 2 was Ant-Man, ending with Marvel’s smallest superhero in a very fun film which may appeal more to younger viewers of the Marvel universe, with his helper ants and cute, adorable daughter Cassie a stark contrast to the blood and swearing in their TV shows like Daredevil.

Paul Rudd is a likeable leading man as our ant hero, and the film manages to stay on the right side of silly – but does stray occasionally into taking itself a little too seriously for a film about a fighting ant person. This may come from having two very different directors/writers – Edgar Wright who left due to creative differences, and then Peyton Reed – and this mish mash in styles is apparent – it seems unsure what kind of film it wants to be.

I did actually enjoy Ant-Man though a lot more than I did Avengers 2 or Iron Man 3. It has a spark to it, with Michael Pena really stealing the show as the comic relief, and hopefully Marvel find a way of keeping his character in future films.

The miniature sequences are excellent and inventive as well, like a bigger budget version of Honey I Shrunk The Kids.

The miniature action sequences really are excellent

The miniature action sequences really are excellent

The consequences of the action and the plot are on a smaller scale compared to the other films, which works with the character, and helps it stand-out and give the film its own life; you don’t need to see the other films to enjoy this one. Certainly worth a watch.

Ant-Man 6/10

So that is my review of the films of phase 2. Again I have to say I did enjoy following the story that is being built, even if it continues to get very convoluted and crowded with larger than life characters and superheroes and villains all over the place (mainly New York).

Phase 3 will be starting soon too with Captain America: Civil War hitting UK cinemas on the 29th April, and I have to admit it does look good. For the first time since The Avengers, I actually may take a trip to the cinema to see it. (It seems Marvel have made a fan out of me too…bugger)

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Battleborn Open Beta – Impressions

Battleborn Image 1

Who will you choose?

I’ll concede that, before playing Battleborn’s 10-day open beta on PS4, I hadn’t been paying much attention to this FPS-MOBA hybrid. I was aware it was being developed by Gearbox Software (the same studio who created the wonderful, irreverent Borderlands series) and published by 2K Games, but hadn’t seen or heard anything to get me overly excited for its release this May. However, as I had some free time in my gaming schedule, I decided to take a punt on the beta and was pleasantly surprised by what I found; a fun, immersive and challenging shooter, liberally garnished with the witty and humorous flourishes we’ve come to expect from Gearbox Software. Whether or not my experiences with this generous sample of gameplay will be enough to convince me to purchase the full release, however, the following passages will relate.

To set the scene (using information sourced from elsewhere on the internet, as there’s very little narrative exposition in the beta itself), the game’s campaign focuses on Solus, the last star in the universe, which is now a hotly contested battleground between two warring factions. On one side we have the Battleborn, a diverse group of 25 elite warriors, tasked with defeating the perpetrators of the catastrophe that destroyed the other umpteen-billion stars (Brian Cox could tell you the actual figure, whilst simultaneously charming your pants off) in the cosmos. Opposing this cadre of eponymous heroes, are the enigmatic and aggressive Varelsi, whose motives at this stage are far from clear. Only 2 missions are playable from the main campaign, both of which can be enjoyed individually, with friends locally (on the same system! Who’d have thought it possible) or with up to 4 other players online, with the difficulty of each mission changing, depending on the number of participants. After the controversy of Star Wars Battlefront’s homogenous, online-only set-up, Battleborn’s configuration will be a welcome change for gamers who desire a more varied FPS experience; one which allows them to explore the game and acclimatise themselves to its exigencies, before taking that first, bold step into the world of competitive online multiplayer. Even so, there are one or two facets of the campaign, as demonstrated in the beta, that suggested it might not be an entirely thrilling experience. Most notably, I found the missions themselves to be rather long and repetitive, orientated primarily around destroying waves of AI enemies in rather lacklustre locations that don’t feel as imaginative as games of a similar artistic style; I’ll go into more detail about the graphics and aesthetic further down. Regardless of these, personal, issues, Battleborn’s undeniably fantastic sense of humour, just about, retains the player’s attention throughout the 2 missions.

Ultimately, like the majority of online FPS titles, the biggest selling point of the game is its PVP capabilities. Though the final game will include 3 different competitive modes, only 2 were playable during the beta: Incursion and Meltdown. Incursion splits 10 players into two teams of 5 and tasks them with destroying 2 opposing AI mechs, whilst simultaneously defeating as many enemy players as possible for a better individual score. Suffering from the same pacing issues as the story operations, I nonetheless enjoyed Incursion’s highly tactical combat and emphasis on co-operative play; an important theme that permeates the entire game but is perhaps most noticeable here. Meanwhile, your objective in Meltdown is to lead groups of diminutive AI ‘minions’ (not the incomprehensible, yet unaccountably endearing one’s from Despicable Me – fun as it would be for certain people to see them incinerated) to machines located in pre-set areas on the map, at which they willingly sacrifice themselves to appease ‘the dark lord’ (not Sauron, Voldemort or Donald Trump – as far as I’m aware). The first team of 5 to successfully euthanise 500 of the poor little bastards are named winners and, like Incursion, receive an individual score based on enemy players defeated and minions sacrificed. Meltdown, on average, offers a more rapid experience than its counterpart, due chiefly to the condensed arena in which the action takes place. It’s also a more testing environment that makes it slightly trickier to overcome human-controlled foes; though to be fair, that could be I’m a personal issue based on my desperately average FPS abilities.

Battleborn image 2

The combat can be rather hectic

Moving on to the gameplay mechanics themselves, I was really impressed with the variety of playable characters and the customisation and development options available. Indeed, though the size of the character roster is impressive in and of itself, what excites most is the uniqueness of every single Battleborn. Each and every one has their own specialities and specific uses within the broader categories of melee fighter, healer, support and ranged warrior, allowing players to identify a play-style that best suits their skills. Finding a fair balance between new and experienced players appears to have been an important consideration as well if the multiplayer’s initial set-up is anything to go by. At the beginning of each online operation, every participant begins with a level 1 character and can only unlock additional abilities if they perform well during play, ensuring Battleborn veterans don’t enter each new match in an overpowered state, without actually handicapping them in an intrusive manner. That’s not to say there are no permanent records of your success or benefits to regular play. A command score chronicles your past victories and gives you access to a variety of titles as your general abilities progress, whilst individual Battleborn likewise have a general ‘affiliation’ level, giving you access to additional attires, taunts and ability buffs. Furthermore, your performance in battle is rewarded with a form of currency which can be used to purchase loot, which is in turn used to create a loadout composed of temporary buffs that can be applied during combat.

Before summarising my overall experiences, I think it important to clarify my earlier remark regarding the slightly uninspiring art design. Although I recognise Battleborn employs the same colourful style as Borderlands, managing to replicate the comic book aesthetic that Gearbox Software is known for (one which clearly suits this type of game perfectly), I nonetheless feel the results lack a sense of distinctness and visual impact, because of these similarities. Given the widely differing subject matter of the 2 IP’s, I would (perhaps unfairly) expect something more evocative, engaging and encapsulating of the inherent mysteriousness of space. Of course, this is only a small concern and, if the wonderfully written and performed dialogue is anything to go by (Cristopher Sabat – Vegeta from DBZ – provides the voice for Rath!) it won’t make the slightest difference to the majority of fans.

All things considered, though I had an unexpectedly good time playing the Battleborn beta, at heart I’m someone who prefers RPG’s and games in general which incorporate complex, character-driven narratives. So, although I would be happy to play this again in the future, it isn’t quite engrossing enough to convince me into parting with £40 upon its release on 03/05/2016. Notwithstanding my gaming proclivities, I would strongly urge any FPS or MOBA aficionado to pick up a copy as soon as possible; you’ll have an absolute blast.

John

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Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India (2001)

Lagaan

Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India – IMDb 241/250

From experimental French cinema to Bollywood today as I review number 241 on my IMDb list, Lagaan: Once Upon A Time In India, an epic sports film directed by Ashutosh Gawariker.

Lagaan tells the story of a small village in India during the reign of the British Empire, who have to pay an excessive tax, called Lagaan, to the overly confident and harsh British officer Captain Andrew Russell (Paul Blackthorne). This tax is impossible to pay due to a drought that has fallen on the village.

Due to his arrogant nature and propensity for wagers, Captain Russell offers the chance for the villagers to not have to pay their Lagaan for three years, if they can beat the English officers in a game of cricket, a sport unknown to the locals. If they lose, their Lagaan tax will be tripled.

Bhutan (Aamir Khan), a brave and righteous young man of the village, accepts this challenge, against the wishes of his fellow villagers, and the film tells the story of him convincing the village that not only can they learn the game, but they can win and help end Russell’s oppressive rule.

For people thinking early on, you know what, I’d love to watch an epic cricket drama, (perhaps you watched the T20 World Cup recently), I warn you now; the film is nearly four hours long.

Knowing this going in I watched the film in three parts, and to my great surprise, I really enjoyed it.

The film looks beautiful

The film looks truly beautiful

From the beginning I knew I would have never seen anything like Lagaan, as I hadn’t watched a Bollywood film before. The length of the film and your enjoyment of it will probably come from how much you can stand the singing and dancing that interjects throughout this movie.

At first I really enjoyed it. The energy, drama and excitement that came through these musical pieces are incredible, but to be honest after one or two they did begin to sound the same. If you love musicals I am sure you would enjoy this, but ultimately it wasn’t really for me.

Your knowledge and enjoyment of cricket may also affect how you feel about this movie. I myself am a huge fan of the sport, so when I heard this film culminates in a big cricket match, I was excited. Never before have I seen cricket used as a cinematic tool, and as a sports film Lagaan really worked. It had all the troupes of a good sports flick, with some added Bollywood passion.

The film would have been enhanced if they got David Lloyd to do commentary

The film would have been enhanced if they got David Lloyd on commentary for the cricket

Gawariker manages to build a real sense of excitement for this cricket match, with genuine repercussions surrounding the winner, so as an audience we truly root for the villagers. And unlike other sport films I have seen such as Mean Machine or Wimbledon, the actual cricket looks realistic, unlike the football and tennis in those films which looks very superficial.

Gawariker also does a wonderful job of given each of the villagers a unique personality and purpose, which isn’t easy when you have such a large cast of characters. From Bhuvan’s bravery to Guran’s (Rajesh Vivek) eccentricity as a prophet, each villager has a role not just in the team but in the film, making the movie more rounded and easier to invest in, which isn’t easy when there are people passionately singing about clouds.

However the same can’t really be said about the English cast. Paul Blackthorne is quite simply the troupe of an English baddie, well-spoken but brash and overly confident. Rachel Shelley as his sister Elizabeth plays a woman whose characters sole purpose seems to be to show that not all of the English were evil, which does give the film some balance but isn’t very subtle. The fact that every other Englishman in this seems to be aggressive and horrid really emphasizes this.

Overall though I have to say I was surprised by how much I did enjoy this. It had a fun cricket match, some fantastic vocal performances even if the acting wasn’t anything to shout home about, and for such a long film didn’t feel that much of a drag. (I would recommend doing what I did though – watch this in parts).

I don’t know if I would be in a hurry to watch it again, but is certainly worth a look for anyone who wants their first taste of Bollywood cinema.

My Rating: 7/10

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The 5 Most Absurd Pokémon

Today I’ve decided to write an article commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the Pokémon video game series; that most wonderful collection of JRPG titles created by Japanese developers Game Freak, which has become ever more sophisticated, deep and enjoyable over the past two decades. Entertaining as these games are, however, in this feature, I’ll be expressing my affection for the Nintendo exclusive series in the manner of a schoolchild on the playground i.e. by mocking it. The flaw I’m highlighting is one of the few facets of Pokémon that hasn’t seen the consistent improvement obvious in other elements of the series, which debuted in 1996; what I’m talking about is the design of the adorable critters themselves. Without any further ado, here are (in my opinion) the five most absurd Pokémon in the series.

  1. Vanilluxe – Pokémon Black and White 2010

Shaped like an ice-cream crowned with a water-flavoured flake protruding from the left-most of its two heads, Vanilluxe looks utterly preposterous and lacks even the minutest ounce of appeal. Worse still, given its positively unthreatening visage, is Vanilluxe’s inexplicably robust array of attributes. Boasting substantial HP, special attack and defensive stats, this unsettling frozen treat is a viable option for competitive online play. Ultimately, like many of the entries on this countdown, Vanilluxe is a prime example of the decreasing creativity and, dare I say, laziness of the developers.

Pokemon image 1

Dumb and dumber in Pokemon form

  1. Gulpin – Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire 2002

The oldest Pokémon on my list, Gulpin first appeared in the third generation of games which marked the jump in hardware from Gameboy Colour to Gameboy Advance. Essentially a sentient stomach, this poison-type pugilist is nothing but a gelatinous green sphere purportedly filled with extremely powerful digestive juices, that produce an overwhelmingly acrid stench. While the preceding portrayal describes an unpleasant, rather than a dangerous creature, if you think about it (which of course I do, incessantly) Gulpin must also have a rather difficult life given its lack of usable appendages, which make it less independent than a foetus and of absolutely no assistance to its trainer; after all, at least Vanilluxe can keep your drinks cool.

Pokemon image 2

Must have taken weeks to draw this masterpiece

  1. Klefki – Pokémon X and Y 2013

Though Klefki possesses the signature charm that suffuses the beautiful art design of the series, it is, nonetheless, a ridiculous creation. First introduced in the most recent generation of games (not counting the remakes of Ruby and Sapphire), Klefki resembles a floating key-ring with a penchant for collecting mislaid keys. You’d be hard pushed to find a less intimidating Pokémon even if you scoured the entire roster and, indeed, its description in the Pokédex reinforces this benevolent image. Detailing the strategy Klefki employs during battle, we’re told how it deters its enemies by ‘fiercely jingling its keys at them’. So unless you find yourself fighting an opponent with a key phobia at any point in your playthrough (there’s no scientific name for such a fear, I checked), it might be best to choose one of the other 721 Pokémon for the more challenging sections of the campaign.

Pokemon image 3

Klefki (left) paralysing his foe as seen here

  1. Klang – Pokémon Black and White 2010

Klang is quite possibly my least favourite Pokémon, though it doesn’t take the top spot for reasons that’ll become abundantly clear shortly. Klang is literally composed of two floating gears inextricably linked by some arcane force, that drifts around the world like the most complicated balloon animal ever produced. A steel-type Pokémon, this rotating oddity doesn’t even possess the electrical prowess of the admittedly similar, yet infinitely more elegant Magnemite, to mitigate its lacklustre design. On the plus side, it is easy to maintain; regular applications of WD40 should be sufficient to keep Klang spinning smoothly for years to come.

Pokemon image 4

A rare, shiny Klang. Still looks abysmal though

  1. Trubbish – Pokémon Black and White 2010

Less endearing than a bird-eating spider or Piers Morgan’s personality, Trubbish pushes the limits of affection to breaking point; simply put, it’s a bag of rubbish brought to life by radiation. Perhaps a subtle parody of traditional super-hero origin stories or a cheeky exercise to discover exactly what level of farcicality Game Freak can get away with, Trubbish is surely the most absurd creation in the long-running franchise. One can only hope that the progenitor of the species wasn’t, originally, the refuse of a 14-year-old boy with access to an unfiltered internet connection and a freshly opened box of Kleenex (if you’ll pardon the graphic expression).

Pokemon image 5

Everybody’s favourite thing – garbage!

There we have it, the most spectacularly ludicrous creations in the history of Pokémon according to me; though there are plenty of contenders who wouldn’t be out of place amongst this illustrious company. However, despite the increasing frequent examples of poor creature design (you’ll notice the majority of my selections are from more recent titles) Pokémon remains one of the most accessible and entertaining series in video games, beloved by children and adults alike.

John

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Three Colours: Red (1994)

three-colours-red

Three Colours: Red – IMDb 242/250

For the first time on my IMDb adventure we delve into the world of French cinema, or more specifically French/Polish cinema, as number 242 on my IMDb list is the final part in the experimental Three Colours trilogy, Three Colours: Red, directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski.

Due to my unrelenting desire of watching things in order, and the fact that the DVD I bought came with all three films, I did also watch Blue and White, which I will briefly touch on.

Three Colours: Blue starts the trilogy with Juliette Binoche starring as Julie, a woman who loses her husband and daughter in a tragic car accident. Supposedly created as an anti-tragedy, Blue is wonderfully filmed and as a piece of art I think it works beautifully, but I did find myself getting a little lost with the story, and some of it just felt unnecessary to me. Such as the random cuts to black – they really went over my head.

6/10 – though on IMDb it just missed out on a place in the top 250.

Three Colours: White, the anti-comedy of the trilogy, is the least highly acclaimed of the three, but probably the one I enjoyed watching the most. It tells the interesting story of a man who’s divorced by his wife in embarrassing circumstances, and his mission to prove to her how much of a man he is. I feel more happens in White and the story flows more succinctly, and is genuinely funny at times, with a much darker tone to Blue which I like. 7/10.

Literally just noticed all three colours make the French flag

Literally just noticed all three colours make the French flag – see how perceptive I am

But anyway, the colour that made it onto my IMDb list was Red, starring Irene Jacob as Valentine Dussault, a part time model who forms an unlikely friendship and bond with Joseph Kern (Jean-Louis Trintignant), a retired judge who now spends his days spying on his neighbours.

Three Colours: Red is described as the anti-romance film, with several relationships or potential romances being told throughout the film, such as the unspoken bond between Valentine and Joseph, Valentine’s phone conversations with her possessive and immature boyfriend, as well as the relationship between two supposedly unrelated characters Auguste and Karin, whose lives intertwine with our main characters.

This film is beautifully shot and clearly filled with imagery and meaning, such as the use of the colour Red, and the occurring scene of an elderly figure struggling to put bottles in a bottle bank (which happens on all three films), however I really could invest in this.

Perhaps I’m just not smart enough, but when a film is more about how it looks and its deeper meanings than the story, I always think something is lost. Though it is brilliantly acted, with the relationship between the two leads an interesting one, the overall plot is forgettable and it’s actually hard to argue there is one. (Perhaps that’s the point)

In fact when writing this review I struggled to remember what actually happened!

Disgust turns to friendship between Valentine and Joseph

Disgust turns into an unlikely friendship between Valentine and Joseph

I’m not someone who can’t watch a film where dialogue is more proficient than action, and the dialogue here, even with subtitles, is excellent. But if when a film ends and the credits hit and you think, well what was the point of that, you know your enjoyment is minimal.

Irene Jacob really holds the film together, and makes it certainly worth a watch, but the b story between Auguste and Karin, which only slightly comes into play at the end rather clumsily trying to tie all the three films together, felt pointless, and while the story is original it didn’t build to a satisfying conclusion and just sort of ended. A metaphor for life? Probably not.

But perhaps I’m just missing the point and French cinema is beyond my understanding. For me though, this is the weakest of the trilogy, but IMDb reviewers clearly disagree.

My Rating: 5/10

Paul

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Platinum Demo: Final Fantasy XV – My Impressions

Final Fantasy XV image 2

Noctis meets Carbuncle

30th March 2016 was a huge day for Final Fantasy fans around the world. During the Uncovered: Final Fantasy XV event in Los Angeles, we finally received a release date for the fifteenth instalment of the beloved series: 30th September 2016. After years of waiting for confirmation from developers Square Enix, excited fans were also treated to the announcement of a tie-in, CGI film starring Aaron Paul called Kingsglaive, a five-part anime series titled Brotherhood and, most importantly, a brand new sample of gameplay; the Platinum Demo: Final Fantasy XV.

Though much shorter than the previous demo (Episode Duscae), Platinum provides valuable insights into the full game, giving players a better understanding of what to expect upon its release this winter. Indeed, as someone who’s been longing for the immersive storytelling and fantastic gameplay that characterises the golden age of the series (entries six-nine, obviously) I feel increasingly confident that Final Fantasy XV will manage to recapture the unique brilliance that sets the franchise apart from other JRPG’s.

Set inside a dream world of protagonist Prince Noctis of Lucis’s creation, a setting which seems unlikely to appear in the actual game itself, the Platinum Demo offers almost no information pertaining to the overall narrative, whilst the absence of any other characters save Noctis means there’s a similar lack of development in this area. I don’t see this as a problem though, since there’s plenty of plot and character information available in trailers and other sources, allowing the Platinum Demo to focus on showcasing the new combat mechanics and the game’s undeniable technical prowess. That’s not to say absolutely nothing can be extrapolated from it. The complicated relationship between Noctis and his father, King Regis, is hinted at on a number of occasions, reinforcing the significance of their bond to the core narrative. Isolated lines of dialogue show the young Prince lamenting the dearth of time spent with his father during his childhood, conveying a certain degree of vulnerability in the young protagonist. This air of susceptibility, combined with the immense responsibility as exhibited in various trailers, augur well for a protagonist who is both multi-faceted and absorbing; something that’s been absent from the series for far too long.

Final Fantasy XV image 1

Noctis fights a familiar foe

As stated above, balancing this lack of story and character content is a highly enjoyable demonstration of the gameplay. In keeping with recent Final Fantasy titles, the combat is real-time instead of turn-based and seems to offer a far more satisfying balance between fluency and speed, reminiscent of Kingdom Hearts. A simple control scheme is employed alongside a streamlined HUD that manages to remain overtly Final Fantasy in style, whilst moving with the times. Overall I found the combat in the Platinum Demo less chaotic than Episode Duscae (the longer demo released in 2015), though as Noctis fights alone here, it’s difficult to say if this feeling will persist upon release of the full game. Other noteworthy features include the appearance of office block sized, semi-divine Eidolon/Aeon/Summon/Espers Titan and Leviathan, furthering the perception that these beloved creatures will play a major role in the final release. Likewise, the importance of vehicles is implied by the range of cars Noctis can drive throughout the middle stage of the demo, particularly as his father’s Audi appears to have a special place in the Prince’s early memories. It’s also possible to transform into strange, vaguely familiar animals at the very end of the demo; though it’s hard to see what, if anything, this implies for the finished product.

Graphically speaking, Final Fantasy XV looks absolutely brilliant both technically and artistically. The aesthetic of the various environments is reminiscent of the beautiful, immersive worlds veteran fans come to expect when playing a Final Fantasy game, whilst the technical execution results in a visual style which exploits every ounce of power eighth generation consoles have at their disposal. Everything from the rain effects to the urban environments at the climax of the game appears to have been carefully crafted to create settings which are believable and fantastical in equal measure. Likewise, the soundtrack (crowned by Florence and the Machines superlative rendition of Stand by Me) is a welcome return to form after a succession of acceptable but forgettable scores that have underwhelmed me personally from Final Fantasy X-2 onwards. Composed by Yoko Shimomura, the Platinum Demo promises a beautiful playlist to accompany Noctis and the player throughout the final release; pieces that will hopefully match the amazing work of former series composer Nobuo Uematsu.

For anyone who’s read this far, it should be obvious that my expectations are dangerously high for Final Fantasy XV, something I didn’t expect before the playing the Platinum Demo and the announcements on the 30th March. Before, I was concerned the combat system would be so far removed from the roots of the series as to be unrecognisable; just another, mindless hack n’ slash title. Now, however, this brief sample of gameplay has allayed those fears and, along with the character and plot information as presented in the numerous trailers, along with the gorgeous graphics and enchanting score, I can honestly say I’m as excited about Final Fantasy XV as I am Mass Effect: Andromeda; and that’s saying something.

John

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Life is Strange Review

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Protagonist Max Caulfield

2015’s five-part graphic adventure Life is Strange is, somewhat surprisingly, an outstanding game. Developed by Dontnod Entertainment and published by Final Fantasy creators Square-Enix, this sci-fi tinted teen-drama has an emotional punch few video games can match. With an endearing protagonist, fascinating story, gorgeous art-style and wistful soundtrack, Life is Strange manages to match the storytelling prowess of a Telltale Games title, whilst simultaneously reaffirming the importance of this increasingly popular genre in modern gaming.

Set in the quiet, fictional fishing town of Arcadia Bay, Oregon, during a picturesque autumnal week in October, the story is told from the perspective of 18-year-old photography student Maxine (Max) Caulfield as she struggles to acclimatise to life at the prestigious Blackwell Academy art school. The action begins during a seemingly uneventful lesson, much like any other, after which Max retreats to the girl’s lavatory to compose herself as she frets over a particularly important, upcoming project. As the demure young-adult collects her thoughts, her reverie is disrupted by an altercation between troubled fellow student Nathan, and an unknown punk girl with blue hair. During the argument as tempers flare and the situation gets out of hand, Max discovers she has the power to rewind time, setting into motion a complex chain of events with significant consequences for the inhabitants of the school and Arcadia Bay itself. Hereafter, over the course of the five-episode series, Life is Strange tells a twisting and immersive story following Max as she utilises her newly acquired powers to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of a former student and the cause of various, inexplicable natural phenomenon plaguing the town. Providing assistance is Max’s childhood best friend Chloe Price, whose confident and straightforward manner give her the confidence to pursue her investigations through to the end.

Throughout the course of the game, players are treated to a highly engaging narrative which expertly blends character driven drama and science-fiction, producing a story that is at times moving and thought provoking, but always genuinely humorous and wonderfully quirky; once the credits at the end of episode five have finished rolling, all but the most cold-blooded of gamers will feel a deep, sincere attachment to both Max and Chloe – to a degree few games can match. Aside from the undoubtedly intriguing and original core plotline, Dontnod Entertainment deserves equal praise for their ability to address complex themes such as identity, mental health problems in young people and the difficulties of growing up in modern society in a balanced and attentive manner. For example, both social anxiety and depression are presented as genuine illnesses that can be every bit as debilitating as any physical ailment, whilst the day-to-day life of a modern university-aged student is, in general, portrayed as stressful and confusing, focussing on relatable experiences the average young-adult would recognise as authentic.

One of the fundamental reasons the game has been such a success is, in my opinion, the relationship between Max and Chloe, performed wonderfully by Hannah Telle and Ashly Burch respectively. Their bond, increasing in strength over the course of the narrative, is full of witty banter and moving exchanges born from their wildly differing personalities. Max is shy, unsure and quirky while Chloe endears herself to the player through her entertainingly forthright and carefree attitude. Notwithstanding the odd line of appallingly cheesy dialogue that wouldn’t be out of place in The O.C, the relationship between these two reconnected friends feels as deep and authentic as any fictional pair you’d find in film, literature or indeed gaming. Most of the supporting characters are correspondingly well-conceived, each tending to represent a specific, recognisable problem most students could identify with, without devolving into the realms of caricature.

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Max (left) and Chloe (right) acting like hoodlums

Anyone who’s played a Telltale Games title such as The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us will be familiar with the gameplay style on offer; what I would call an interactive narrative. Using a third-person perspective, the player interacts with NPC’s and objects in exactly the same, simple manner as the aforementioned titles, though each location has more exploratory options available as well as a larger number of characters with whom the player can converse. Of course, Life is Strange differs most notably in the core mechanic i.e. the ability to rewind time. Though it’s not possible to rewind infinitely far back in time, the player is instead allowed to return a minute or so into the past to any of the specific, key points immediately preceding the present. At certain points, this is necessary to obtain information critical to Max’s investigation or to overcome particular obstacles that can only be conquered with a bit of well-placed time manipulation. Alternatively, the player can make use of the rewind power to learn more about Max’s various classmates, before using that information to connect with her fellow students. Initially, I was concerned Max’s time manipulating abilities would decrease the immersiveness of the experience, eliminating any tension inherent in choice-driven narratives. However what it actually does is allow you to evaluate your choices before progressing with the story, compelling you to think carefully before proceeding on your chosen path and forbidding you from appreciating the impact of your decisions until much later in the tale. This is even more effective because no choice in the game is black or white; at a very early stage do you realise no option in Life is Strange is obviously good or bad. That being said, not every feature of the gameplay is enjoyable. Sometimes the player will need to repeat the same conversation multiple times before achieving the desired outcome and there’s also an incongruous stealth section in the fifth episode that’s neither fun nor satisfying.

Before summarising my experience with the game as a whole, I think it’s important to emphasise just how impressed I was with the uniquely charming art direction and reflective soundtrack. The hand-painted art style is gorgeous; evocative and colourful, the stylised settings effortlessly capture the idiosyncratic tone of Life is Strange. It’s clear the developers spent a significant amount of time designing this aesthetic, and clearly want the player to take note of their work; hence the photography side-quest which cleverly draws the player’s eyes to the lovingly crafted settings as you’re tasked with capturing particular vistas. Likewise, the indie-rock soundtrack, composed by Jonathan Morali of the band Syd Matters, captures the mood of each scene perfectly, reflecting the characters inner thoughts and feelings throughout the story.

Profoundly immersive, quirky and unique, it’s no surprise Life is Strange was touted by many as the best game of 2015. Everything a narrative-driven game needs to stand out is present, from the characters and story to the graphics and gameplay. It’s not flawless by any means and I’m confident anyone who avoids combat-free games like Iggy Azalea eschews class is unlikely to be swayed by this title, but it’s nonetheless an absolute must-own for players looking for a magnificent, compelling story. 9/10

John

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