Monsters and mazes and dungeons and dragons

Two kids’ cartoons I’ve seen and recommend on Netflix: The Dragon Prince and The Hollow:

The first feels very Avatar: The Last Airbender because it was created by two veterans of that show (writers or producers or some shit, I don’t really care about behind the scenes stuff for animated shows). The relationships between the three protagonists, the way the characters talk, and how they relate to their circumstances is just like Avatar – i.e., the characters banter zippily in teen American slang in counterpoint to the seriousness of their quest and in contravention of the accepted cod medieval language of fantasy epics.

Unlike Avatar, the story takes place in a more traditional Western fantasy setting of elves and knights and dragons. Humans and elves are at war, three kids go on a journey to bring peace, they overcome various dangers in each episode, there are exciting an action scenes, etc.

I found it a rather pleasant show to binge, especially since each episode is less than half an hour.

The Hollow is also structured around a journey, but “Lost for kids” would be the better reference point. Three teenagers with amnesia wake up imprisoned in an underground bunker, they make their way through a strange land of monsters and mysteries, weird shit flies at the viewer so fast you forget that a lot of it doesn’t make sense, and there’s a plot twist in the end that may or may not land well for you. There are bunches of jokes but most of them are dumb so I think this is being aimed at a younger audience than the first show.

For some reason it’s made to look like it was made in Flash, but the action scenes are too complex for Flash so I guess the creators just like that style. Maybe they were working within certain budget limits, or maybe they think modern kids have been trained to expect simplistic animation. The episodes are also less than half an hour so I got through the whole thing fast.

The second season for The Dragon Prince has just been announced, but hopefully there will hopefully there will also be one for The Hollow since I could do with more uncomplicated series with short episodes to binge on.

Anyway, this has been a review of Netflix kids’ cartoons shows as evaluated by a thirtysomething Canadian man.

What the hell is a xenonaut?

Damn Xenonauts. I was going to spend the weekend playing Skyrim but ended up playing this game instead. It’s just as compulsively addictive as the original X-COM from the 90’s, except with a little bit nicer graphics. According to the manual, the biggest difference I can see is that your soldiers will not get psychic powers. I wish they’d played up the Cold War 70’s aesthetic more, since it’s kind of neat that your alien-fighting organization is a joint Soviet/NATO operation.

Just like with X-COM, I’m mentally revising the dollar figures to add three extra zeroes at the end. A budget of $1.5 million makes no sense for running military bases on 3 different continents with fighter jets and helicopters and dozens of soldiers and scientists and engineers, but $1.5 billion is real money. Body armour at $28,000 apiece is peanuts to a bloated military budget, but $28 million per soldier for armour that can stand up to plasma rifles sounds plausible.

One criticism I have is for something that also happened to me with the original X-COM – occasionally there’s some weird glitch that lets enemies shoot through walls. It only happened the one time, and normally I just play on with troop losses since I like the feel of a desperate fight against an alien invasion, but that was just unfair so I reloaded the autosave.

I was originally going to recommend this game, but I’ve now reached the grindy part of Xenonauts where I’m scrambling jets and troopers every couple of days to repel alien incursions. All the missions are starting to look alike and I can’t tell if the latest city being terrorized by aliens is one I’ve been to before. Was 90s X-COM this grindy? My budget is perched on a razor’s edge and one KIA will put me in a downward spiral of fiscal and planetary doom. These spreadsheets will be my death.

A fantasy anime that doesn’t suck

Coronation of the emperor in Record of Grancrest War, which clearly takes after Jacques-Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon
Yes, they styled this scene after David’s Coronation of Napoleon

Say, Record of Grancrest War is actually a pretty solid fantasy show. The promotional material made it look like yet another crappy harem show where the main character shits himself every time an under-aged girl tries to give him a handjob but it’s not that at all. I can’t remember the last time an anime had two people who liked each other get together without any idiotic drama.

My biggest criticism is that it moves through the material a bit too quickly. Okay, there’s a world at war, aristocrats who drain magical powers from the rivals they defeat, vampires and werewolves and plucky allies and exotic locations and massive battles where actual characters die. Can we maybe have some time to dwell on each thing before we move on?

I assume this is because the anime is based on a light novel series. The studio probably was trying to squeeze as much as possible in.

But the animation is nice, the main characters are interesting, and it moves along decently. It’s a competently entertaining anime and it just recently ended so you get a complete story with no cliffhangers whose endings depend on the studio securing funding for a second season. I recommend it for your fantasy action fix.

Age of Wonders

Screenshot from Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic showing the game options available for a player controlling an elven army attacking undead foes

Remember when computer games had crappy voice actors? I do, because I’ve been playing Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. I got it for like $2 on GOG a while ago and it really does deserve to be listed there, as it actually is a good old game.

The whole thing is kind of like Civilization in a fantasy setting, or maybe a turn-based version of Warcraft. Like Civilization you pick a certain people to play as, you go out into the world, build outposts and cities, gain allies and make enemies, conquer villages, and massacre entire races.

Unlike Civilization, heroes play a big part in the game thanks to its fantasy roots (specifically Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). The player is not some disembodied will directing the manifest destiny of a nation, but instead you are a mighty wizard leading your chosen race to victory over the untermenschen of the world.

I assume you can play as evil races like trolls and stuff but I’ve only done one of the starter campaigns and the story was entirely told from the perspective of the do-gooder elves and halflings. Anyway, your wizard is a unit on the map that you move around, they cast epic spells that can change the face of the world, and they can get their asses killed if you screw up in battle. The best thing to do is probably to stick your wizard in a tower and have them cast their spells from afar.

The race you pick also determines your technology and units, but again with a fantasy spin. The technology tree also deals entirely with getting magic spells that are unique to each race. Elves can get spells to summon unicorns and fairies, for example. Elves also have archers and their higher units are nymphs and druids, while humans have crossbowmen and knights.

The fantasy RPG setting also puts a pretty fun spin on maps because you can send your armies into the tunnels of the Underdark to assault your enemy from the rear, or travel into the Shadow Plane and flank their armies that way. It’s also fun to find random fantasy stuff on a map, like a hidden elf city in a forest you thought you’d already explored or a dungeon you can clear out or an inn where you can recruit a hero or a city that will switch to your side if you rescue them from the demons that besiege them.

Voice acting aside, the game is actually a lot less clunky than you would expect for something from the 90’s. I don’t really notice the interface most of the time, which is pretty much how it’s supposed to work. It’s easy to get sucked in while you’re playing – for instance, I almost missed a social engagement over the weekend because I told myself I’d just finish a map before getting ready to leave. The game is just fun to play and being like 20 years old it’ll run on anything. I say check it out if you like this sort of thing.

An Introduction to Manga

Front cover of Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics showing a collage of various manga covers

Thanks to the Japan Foundation, I’m reading Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics by Frederik Schodt (and if you want to know what the Japan Foundation was like I tweeted about it here). It was published in 1986, well before the manga boom of the mid-90s. Or was it the late 90s? I can barely remember a time when manga wasn’t the default comic book format for the majority of readers, at least in terms of sales.

So the book was written in a time when only specialists in Japan and the most dedicated of comic book hipsters knew anything about Japanese comics. It therefore explains manga from the ground up, going through its history and providing examples of manga of each era and type (mangas from the 50s, boys’ manga, girls’ manga, etc). It does the same thing that many comic book histories do in locating the origin of this mass market disposable entertainment in antecedent forms with greater cultural cachet but weak connections to the medium (i.e., I’ve seen people arguing that the Bayeux tapestry is also comics in that it combines pictures and words to tell a story). I understand why the comics historians do it, they’re trying to impart greater respectability to their medium by connecting it to older and more respected media, but I dunno, I think it’s more productive to define the medium by its relations of production and it stops you from going down ridiculous formalist arguments about whether magazine cigarette ads count as comics.

Moving on, I hadn’t realized I knew so much about manga as I’d already heard of quite a lot of apparently obscure works, or at least they were obscure back in the 80s. Time marches on and Rose of Versailles, for example, has an anime that I watched on streaming a few months ago. And of course there’s the scanlation community, which has probably done as much to spread knowledge of manga as any official initiatives from various industry groups.

The last chapter deals with manga’s future and in hindsight it completely failed to anticipate the explosion of overseas interest in the medium just ten short years later. In fact, it basically says that manga will probably remain a mostly Japanese thing, instead of something French schoolkids save their allowances for and whatnot.

Anyway, it’s an interesting snapshot of a specific moment in time in manga’s history.

All You Need is (Sisterly) Love

Promotional still of the anime shamelessly ripping off the Abbey Road album cover by showing the characters crossing a crosswalk in single file

A Little Sister’s All You Need reminds me a fair bit of Oreimo (a.k.a. My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute) in that watching it reveals unexpected depths that are not captured by a mere plot synopsis or trailer. The bare facts are as follows: this comedy tells the story of a 20 year old light novel writer with a strong and irrational sexual fetish for little sister characters. He – thank god – does not have a little sister, but a teenage step-brother, a very small handful of friends, and an editor who rides his ass about meeting his deadlines.

Unlike Oreimo, the show does not even offer an incoherent defense of the protagonist’s turn-on. Every single character tells him that his fetish is disgusting. Despite that, they still associate with him anyway. I suppose he’s decent enough when he’s not loudly bemoaning not having a little sister to have sex with, plus of his three friends, one is a fellow light novelist who’s envious of his talent, another is also a light novelist with the same publisher who is an extreme fan of his work (enough that she’s very frank about wanting to sleep with him), and the last is a former university classmate who probably has a buried thing for him from days gone by. Which is to say that there are plausible reasons for this group of people to be hanging out and this setting is not an aggressively stupid harem anime setup.

Anyway, it’s hard to articulate what this show is and even harder to say what about it appeals to me. I had assumed it was just the latest nadir the anime industry had sunk to (a show about a guy who writes creepy stories about having incestuous sex with younger sisters), but there’s something there beyond the occasional chuckle the show gets out of me. There’s an undercurrent of unrequited longing – not necessarily sexual – that runs through the relationships between this circle of friends. Each of them wants something that they can’t have, and I’m hopeful that the show can continue playing out the trial of Tantalus in the context of Japanese twentysomethings going through life feeling that there’s just one thing missing and everything would be better if they just had what was lacking.

This is what I hope the show will be about, but I don’t actually know if that’s what the show will be focusing on as there were only two episodes up when I watched last night. In fact, I’m still not even sure what the show’s really about. What does it want to say, beyond that it wants to show what happens in the lives of this group of people? I have no idea.

So this is not a ringing endorsement of the show, but a qualified FYI. I think there could be something there and I hope I’ll be proven right.

Flameo, Hotman

I just got the Legend of Korra video game. Turns out it’s pretty short and I’m almost at the end. It’s sadly another so-so video game tie-in product. What’s frustrating is that I can clearly see the game it could be if enough time and money had been put in.

The story starts two weeks after the series finale with Korra fighting a new bad guy from the Spirit World, but that plot is basically just an excuse to have Korra fight the gangsters and Equalists that she did in the TV show. You  visit Republic City, Air Temple Island, the South Pole, and the Spirit World, but they’re all just environments for fighting in. There’s a separate pro-bending mode that you can unlock, but it’s more frustrating than fun to play.

Basically, the twin spirits of cheapness and half-assedness hang over the whole production. Everywhere I turn I’m confronted by the fact that this isn’t actually the world from the show, but a backdrop where I can sort of pretend I’m playing the Avatar. The streets are empty except for people trying to beat you up, and invisible walls prevent you from going anywhere except where the designer wants you. Just to drive home how lazy the design is, you actually break pots to recharge your chi – a cliche of game mechanics so old that if it were human it would already have kids old enough to talk.

However, it’s not like the game is actively awful, just rather disappointing when considering it against what a video game of this property could have been. The actual voice actors from the show are playing their characters and there are even original cartoon cut scenes (though not from the same animation studio used by the cartoon). The bending is kind of neat in the beginning and it’s actually rather fun the first time you have to fight simultaneously against three different types of benders.

There are enough hints of a better game scattered throughout this one that fans of the show will find themselves asking “what if”. What if this game had gotten a proper release? What if it had been an open world or semi-open world RPG like Dragon’s Dogma where you walk the busy streets of Republic City and talk to characters from the show and do Avatar quests to increase harmony and fight bad guys and jump from roof to roof laughing with glee at the powers you command? What if you had gotten all that? Because that would have been great.

Somewhere Out There

I recently finished the visual novel Out There Chronicles: Episode 1.

Screenshot of the female spaceship captain Nyx and the dialogue responses available to the player

In case you’re unaware, visual novels are a game genre originally from Japan that are essentially digital Choose Your Own Adventure games. There’s music and perhaps some simple animation, but otherwise the game part is just choosing out of a short list of responses or actions.

Being from Japan, most visual novels use the same visual style you would be familiar with from anime and manga and Japanese video games, and being relatively cheap to make, the vast majority of them are shit. The creative outlay, after all, is just still images, music, and text. You don’t even need any fancy programming as there are game maker programs out there where you can just drop your files straight into a framework and then it’ll spit a game out right quick.

Of course, there’s no reason that visual novels must inherently suck or all be about who’s dating whom in a fictional Japanese high school. I liked this one that I played. You, the protagonist, wake up from suspended animation a million years in the future on the planet America, home of what may be the last humans in the universe. You make your way through this strange society to find out what happened to your own colony ship, the Europa, while trying to hide what exactly happened before Earth died and everyone ran for it.

Screenshot of a spaceship flying through the sky over a rocky alien landscape

What did I like in particular? Well, the visuals are arresting and distinctive, not just for the look of the characters but for the environments they move in as well (the void of space, a futuristic park, a giant restaurant tree). It’s obvious how constrained the choices were but I didn’t feel as railroaded as I should have – the narrative was compelling enough that the choices presented were the ones I wanted to choose anyway just so I could see what happened next.

Anyway, this is only the first episode. There will be more to come. As with all serialized storytelling, the makers may shit the bed in later installments, but for now I’m anticipating the next episode. Thumbs up from me.

The power of friendship

I just finished watching The Defenders. It reminded me of a classic comic book crossover. Specifically, it reminded me of just how contrived comic book crossovers were and how they were mostly just excuses to see our heroes punching bad guys together in between punching each other.

You know that episode with the Defenders standing around in a large empty room yelling at each other? That was basically like half the scenes in Infinity Crusade. Plus Zero Hour had a lot of scenes where the good guys were standing around gaping at a computer screen, which we were at least spared in the show but instead got the exposition around dinner in a Chinese restaurant. Smaller crossovers seem to work better, at least when talking about the Arrow universe.

Anyway, I guess the punching in The Defenders was fun but otherwise we really need better narrative justifications for crossovers.

Games of yesteryear

I haven’t been playing video games lately. I think weeks might go by between gaming sessions for me. Maybe it’s because I’m reading more.

Anyway, I managed to finish Resonance, a point and click adventure game that had been on my computer forever. It looks like one of the old Sierra games, complete with pixels the size of coconuts.

I don’t know, I think I’ve reached my tolerance for nostalgia acts, or at least with this kind of adventure game. It’s the art that’s just bugging the hell out of me. Why does it have to look so pixelated? Sierra games only looked like that because of technical limitations. If they could have avoided this look they would have.

I installed another game from the studio, Shardlight, which looks pretty much the same in resolution and which I’m not super enthused to keep looking at. The last point and click adventure game I actually obsessed over was Memoria, and that actually looked really great, as you can see below.

Oh well, I guess I’ll stick it out with Shardlight and at least cross another game off my queue.