Legion proves that Marvel shows can be about the Journey

Legion Lenny

Marvel shows (specifically Netflix) try to be about the journey. The majority of a season’s running time is devoted to character interactions, mostly revolving around discussing and reacting to major events. Many episodes take place in single locations devoting an entire hour to characters denoting their feelings on the current plot happenings. It’s important for shows to have downtime, but Marvel shows tend to overly traffic in that. Action set pieces only come once every 3 or 4 episodes, with the interim episodes dedicated to reacting to them. This type of television storytelling doesn’t necessarily have to be a negative, instead making the show ostensibly about the characters rather than the fights, but in Marvel’s case this becomes their biggest flaw. The journey the shows provide is usually pretty thin and the 13 episode count barely hides a story that’s been stretched thin. Another show to come from Marvel comics, Legion, proves to be their stylistic antithesis; a superhero show that is entirely about the characters that intrigues the viewer as it slowly teases out it’s plot. Legion’s odd-ball sensibilities prove that superhero shows light on superheroics can be interesting.

Marvels Defenders

Marvel’s Netflix series do a poor job of masking little story momentum. Most episodes following big pivotal moments are met with hour long episodes of major downtime. Luke Cage has an entire episode of him recovering in a tank, Daredevil is chained on a rooftop, and Jessica Jones faces a moral dilemma in her apartment. These episodes are frustrating as part of their own series, but when it’s an episode concept that’s repeated across all 5 (6 included Defenders) shows it becomes overly tiresome. It doesn’t help that these episodes are also incredibly thin; there’s nothing meaningful in the character dialogue. There’s usually some new heroic resolve (that Luke Cage can show weakness, Daredevil’s vigilante actions are only one step removed from murder, Jessica sacrificing family to do what is right) but this is arrived at through static shots of actors speaking lines to one another. I remember feeling that the original Daredevil season felt like it had some padding but by the time I was watching Jessica Jones season 2, the same season structure pushed me away.

Legion Syd Barrett
LEGION — CR: Frank Ockenfels/FX

Legion on the other hand makes episodes that might seem like filler exciting. In its current season, Legion dedicated an entire episode to probing Syd’s backstory to great effect. David traversing of Syd’s childhood, which means taking a break from the main overarching story, doesn’t feel like filler because it adds depth to the character not only through the real-world examples it provides, but also through David’s problem-solving in escaping Syd’s mind. What turns out to be a test from Syd shows her motivations as a character and creates a new thematic path forward. Syd communicates to David that while love can be a motivation for doing the right thing, your tragedies and experience are the tools in which to do enact it. This is all helped through Legion’s cool as hell style (more on that in a moment).

Marvel Defenders Hallway

The Marvel shows all tend to be cut from the same cloth, stylistically speaking. The descriptor of “house style” that people use for the Marvel Cinematic Universe also could apply for their Netflix shows. All of the shows tend to look just about the same, with minor changes in hue to differentiate (more purples for Jessica Jones, a dustier brown for Luke Cage). They all tend to have fairly boring locations to; rustic New York apartments and warehouses make up the majority. The one way they do vary is in their themes. The shows smartly play up what makes each superhero unique. Luke Cage is a commentary on being black in America (emphasized through his bulletproof skin), Jessica Jones is about finding female power against male oppression/abuse, and the Punisher ties his revenge to a story about being an Army veteran. These different themes prove to be enticing, especially during the better (early) parts of each of those shows. They really start to wear though when the shows quickly run out of ways to talk about these themes. Marvel shows tend to drag a lot towards the end for a reason; they have run out of ground to cover. Daredevil suffers more dramatically than the other 3 in this regard. It covers a lot of the same things that the Nolan Batman series did better; mainly what constitutes the line between being a hero and a villain. Vincent D’onofrio’s first season villain helped pave over some of the well worn territory with sheer acting ability, but the second season really suffered without a notable antagonist (it’s over reliance on Elektra and the hand while under utilizing Jon Bernthal being its downfall). The shows also have a problem of telling rather than showing. It’s one thing to have the characters verbalize the theme; it’s another to actually use the medium to visualize it.

legion fukyama

Legion on the other hand blows the other shows out of the water. The show explores the psychological effects David’s powers has on him and smartly visualizes his supposed “insanity.” The show obscures reality with its off-beat set design. The locales all take a cues from 70’s style, with lots of rounded edges and sunken rooms. Characters dress in jumpsuits and woolen athletic clothes with a pastel color palette. Modern and futuristic technology intermingle with this look, creating a place out of time. It’s hard to tell if these places are real at first; David as the protagonist is unreliable and doesn’t offer the viewer any footing. The psychedelic nature of the show really comes through in its non-linear story structure. The first season explicitly bounces around David’s past and present, while the second plays with time in a different way. Both these elements obfuscate the true nature of the story while using visual and auditory symbols to cement the style. Hushed voices are used to great effect and visual abnormalities such as a large monster and Minotaur highlight the thematic ideas. David’s telekinetic abilities thus become the very structure of the show itself. The unwieldy nature of peaking into everyone around mind’s are illustrated through Legion’s puzzling style.

Legion Oliver Dance

Marvel’s Netflix shows are sorely lacking in this type of cohesion. Instead they opt for a more bland, generic type of genre show where Legion takes superhero ideas and runs with them. Marvel shows skew towards one type of style and storytelling, making the shows more or less identical. It also doesn’t help that Marvel shows barely offer a payoff for the investment either. If we are going to continue seeing multiple seasons of the same type of Marvel show, they could do worse than start taking cues from other shows like Legion. Leveraging their superheroes unique identity not only leads to more fertile storytelling, but unique style of direction as well.

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My Commitment to Dota is Eating up my Schedule

Dota Tide Ultimate

My favorite thing about Dota is the investment. Dota’s large time commitment allows the stakes of each match to be huge. Your character, your team, your opponents, and even your role evolves as the match progresses. Match length allows for deep strategy to happen on a micro level that affects macro gameplay objectives; the largest one being how your character’s farm (how much experience and gold you bring in) effects battles and map control over your opponents. This investment is also easily the thing I hate most about Dota.

When I go to play a match, I have to make sure that nothing else can interfere. I have to strategically plan when I can play. Have to make an appointment in an hour? No way I can fit a match in. Meeting up with friends soon? Dota’s a no go. Get home from work and have to make dinner, go to gym, and get other chores done? Where the hell can I fit an hour match in? Dota requires you to make it priority number 1. It eats up entire evenings, afternoons, and mornings if you let it.

Dota 2 Sand King

Even if you do set aside just enough time to squeeze in a match or two (I rarely have time for more than one in a sitting) the physical investment is no joke. Matches require your full attention and leaves no opportunity for you to step away from your computer to do anything else. I usually run through a quick checklist before I start a match:

  • Am I hungry at all? Do I need to bring snacks over or make dinner before I start?
  • Do I have water nearby? Getting up to grab a drink could only maybe be an option 20-30 minutes from now.
  • Do I need to go to the bathroom? Will I need to go to the bathroom? Maybe I should just do a quick run to double, triple check

Besides the insane details listed above, the emotional investment is where Dota really becomes an exercise in masochism. The team nature of Dota requires all 5 players to actively play their roles well (or at least have one extremely good carry depending on MMR). You have to pay attention and have an understanding of the game that is frankly intimidating for new players. Knowing when and where to assist or take things for yourself is important for game objectives and team wellness. If even one player slips up, there goes an entire 45-60 minutes wasted. Defeats are agonizing (I’ve written about my experiences losing in Dota before) and are only offset by the extreme highs of victory. Having a run of defeats is demoralizing; I often have to stop playing Dota for months if I end up with a string of them. I also have to be energetic to play Dota; if I’m tired it shows. Lazy play on my end means a defeat for my team and a chat full of expletives aimed straight at me.

Dota 2 Earthshaker

So why play Dota? More importantly, why make time for Dota? That’s something every Dota and MOBA player is still figuring out. It’s those extreme highs really, the shot of adrenaline that comes with every strategy that succeeds, every play that comes out right. Now I just need to free up that schedule of mine to play it…

Ni No Kuni II: Variety is the Spice of Life (Part 1)

Ni No Kuni II Party Members

I was a little hesitant to pick up Ni No Kuni II. I was feeling burnt out on RPGs as I had dedicated a lot of time to them in 2017. I finished Persona 5 and Final Fantasy 6 (for the very first time!) and had sunk over 30 hours into Divinity Original Sin II. The thought of dedicating time to another long RPG seemed daunting at best. The mixed reviews from the first game didn’t help, especially since it supposedly turned into a late game grind. Good word of mouth of the sequel prevailed though and I ended up purchasing it based off those recommendations. And boy am I glad I took that advice.

I am currently about 10 hours in and loving it. I’ll save any discussion of story for another post as currently, as I am still early in the game and (in true RPG fashion) it has yet to really develop in a meaningful way. I’ll would much rather focus instead on the variety of mechanics the game has to offer. This variety has made the initial hours fly by as the game slowly introduces its surprisingly diverse systems (with still more coming my way).

Ni No Kuni II Thogg

The core of the game revolves around active time RPG battles. Rather than having a traditional turn based battle system, instead battles are more similar to a combination of Kingdom Hearts and Devil May Cry. You control one of 3 characters (you have the option to choose which character to control) that can participate in battles while the other 2 are controlled by AI. Each character has a light, heavy, and ranged attack and can also be equipped with 3 close-combat weapons. Each character also has a total of 4 magic abilities, which can range from casting fireballs to spinning sword attacks. You can cast your special skills at any time, but it is to your advantage to build up your different weapon meters. Weapons individually build percentages as you attack and when they reach 100% your special skills do extra damage. Ni No Kuni thus requires you to constantly cycle between your close range weapons to build percentages up to augment your special attacks. The game also has you recruiting (and eventually making) little spirit helpers called higgledies. These pint sized spirits assist in battle as well, providing damage or buffs to your party. They can also activate special abilities during battle, which include projecting a healing barrier or dropping a large dark orb on enemies.

Ni No Kuni II higgeldy

If this sounds a bit complicated, so far it really isn’t. The early parts of the game can feel a bit like training wheels as battles require little more than jamming on your light and heavy attacks. But the game has slowly increased the difficulty, requiring strategy in implementing dodging, blocking, and activating special abilities. Ni No Kuni also has what they call the “Tactics Tweaker” that allows you to invest points earned from battles that adjust your parties’ strengths and weaknesses. There are quite a few settings to tweak to advantages against certain enemy types, elemental affinities, and even higher drop rates for items. These settings are all tied to each other though. For example, if you choose to do more damage against blob-like enemies then you won’t do as much damage against fairy types. This system keeps your party from completely running over enemies as different areas will necessitate different affinities based on enemy and elemental types.

Ni No Kuni II Skirmish

Breaking up the RPG action battles are optional, more unit focused battles called skirmishes. Skirmishes take place on a wider map than the confined RPG battles do. They are much similar to Dynasty Warriors, where you maneuver across an open map. These battles have up to 4 squads of minions orbit around your main character and engage in fights with groups of enemies. These battles aren’t the same type of active as the regular battles; you won’t be pressing buttons to have your characters attack. Instead it’s all about placing your orbiting minions in line with enemies. Your minions then automatically attack the enemy troop until either you move them or one of the squads fall.

Skirmishes have a rock-paper-scissor style of troop combat. Troops are either one of 3 types: light (swords), heavy (shields or spears), and range (archers). Put a sword group against the ranged troops and they’ll easily win, but put them against a heavy troop and you’ll face casualties. Skirmishes are decided by reducing the opponents’ military might to 0. Taking down enemy troops results reduces the enemy’s military might so defeating all the troops is the only way to win. Player’s also has special abilities to activate during the match as well, but these cost military might so they have to be used sparingly.

Ni No Kuni II Kingdom Builder

The final piece of the gameplay puzzle is the Kingdom Builder. The main focus of the game’s story revolves around you creating a brand new kingdom, so Ni No Kuni II puts you in charge of it. You aren’t completely creating a city from scratch a la Sim City, but instead choosing what buildings, upgrades, and research to perform first. Your kingdom has specific areas where specific shops must be built so it is up to you to prioritize what shops to build and upgrade first. Shops all offer unique advantages; for example you can prioritize researching higgledies by upgrading the Higglery or bolster your military might in skirmishes through the Barracks.

These individual shops are also manned by NPCs that you place in each building. Each character has specific skills that allow for more complex projects and faster research. You’ll start out with a small number of NPCs to choose from, but you can collect more by completing side quests. This places a great incentive to complete side quests, something I have a hard time reconciling in other RPGs. The idea of not only receiving specific items as rewards but also having a new person join my kingdom makes me more motivated to put the main story on hold. Ni No Kuni II gives player’s like me who tend to stick to the main story quest path a reason to pick up side diversions.

Ni No Kuni II Sky Pirates

I was not expecting to write this much about Ni No Kuni II’s gameplay before purchasing. The cute fairy tale setting and Studio Ghibli animation houses a surprisingly complex RPG. The variety of systems at play keep things fresh and I can’t wait to see how all of these mechanics evolve throughout my time.

Dragon Ball Fighterz Makes me feel Like a Kid Again

Dragonball Fighterz FusionI haven’t been taken with a game quite the way I am with Dragonball Fighterz in a very long time. That doesn’t mean I haven’t liked or even loved quite a few games over the recent years, but this new obsession marks something deeper. I’m not playing the game everyday, only playing from time to time. I’m not even that great at it and am currently in a losing slump.  I can’t help but think about it constantly; I have been consistently coming back to it something I haven’t done since I picked up Dota over 7 years ago. I pick it back up in between all the other games I’ve been playing, hopping back in the lab to brush up on my technique. I’m even watching pro fighting tournaments again after I had become a fair weather Evo fan. Arc Systems has simply created something that is unabashedly up my alley.

It reminds me of the way I used to obsess over things when I was a kid. If something caught my attention, I was much more drawn into all the minutia about it. I would be dig deep into the details of the world, remembering places, times, or scenes where important events took place. I would latch onto characters not just because of personality, but their style and demeanor as well. I would run back scenes or events through my head remembering how cool or sad I thought something was. Dragon Ball Z was one of those obsessions. It’s the first show I remember having to watch as soon as it came on. I would draw the characters in a sketchbook. I wanted to be part of the world so badly that I would draw myself as one of the characters. I knew every storyline and every character and was very protective of my feelings over it.

Goku Black
Rose!

Obviously my nostalgia for DBZ plays a key part in my obsession with Fighterz. The art perfectly meshes Arc Systems’ 2.5D animation with the original series stylings. Character’s voices (and screams and trash talk) are all perfectly matched. Everything about Fighterz is lovingly recreated from original DBZ right down to the stunning dramatic finishes. I even feel a pang of guilt every time I fire up my team (Kid Buu, Goku Black, Gotenks) since canonically these characters would never fight together. DLC characters even have me excited to see what new team members will be pulled in from the shows’ deep bench of villains and heroes (hell I’m even excited about the new Bardock and Broly!)

I’m obviously not alone; the game leads this year’s EVO sign ups and with specific show lingo and canon from the tv show are an important part of the professional scene now. There’s something more to this game though something that years of Budoki and Zenoverse games never captured; an actual, honest to goodness, professional grade fighting game.

I have never felt so empowered playing a fight game like this since I first played Street Fighter IV (almost 10 years ago?!) which was the first fighting game that inspired me to buy a fighting stick. I watched tutorials online determined to get better at the game. I wanted to be the best dammit! (or at least very very good). Fighterz has filled that void that I almost forgot I had. Even when I lose a match, I don’t feel especially discouraged. The game’s mechanics even make onboarding a breeze; in hindsight I have no idea why I had misgivings about the auto combo system, which allows players to pull off long strings of hits by only pressing one button. That specific piece is an incredibly ingenious idea allowing players to perform cool moves without handing them a match. Everything command wise is a breeze to pull off (especially pulling off familial Kamehameha waves).

Dragonball Fighterz Gohan Super

I honestly just want to continue playing and obsessing over this game. The fighting game community’s embrace of it makes my interest seem rewarded. I want to keep fighting, training and getting better, and isn’t that what Dragonball Z is all about?

DBZ Goku Training

I’m Back, Baby!

Dale Cooper

Good news! I’m restarting this blog! Not that you’ve missed it, since you probably haven’t seen it! But let me explain myself first.

I started this blog to practice my writing, specifically about my interests in video games, TV, movies, and possibly music. I wanted to make writing a habit and slowly flesh out this site with interesting posts on whatever I was interested in. That obviously did not work out.

So 2 years later, I’m trying to make this commitment permanent. I am going to write and write and write on anything and everything related to the subjects above. It doesn’t have to be new or even relevant. It doesn’t have to be long deep dives into a single subject. It just has to be a certain measurable length and it has to be once a week.

Think of this post as a treatise, a statement of purpose for going forward with consistent new posts once a week. I have some good ideas to keep me on track too. I want to have start posting series, blogs that are all around a specific subject. I want to also write about anything new that pops up (Ni No Kuni II in the mail!) Maybe I’ll even branch out into those TV and movie areas I haven’t even broached yet! Mostly, I’m just going to stop being hard on myself. This is for fun; I’m using a free domain so how serious could this be? I’m going to get out of my own way and do the damn thing. I’ll keep this short and sweet, look for more soon!

Evangelion GIF

Dunking makes me feel good – my time with Pyre

Pyre Pass

Dunking is one of only few perfect things in this world. The art of the dunk, long sought after by many basketball players, is elusive yet o so rewarding. A perfect dunk has the rare accomplishment of being both artful and powerful. Players like Vince Carter epitomized the beauty of the dunk, how the balance of both jump height and rotation complexity can form a perfect union (the 2000 dunk contest is a thing of beauty). Vince Carter might not have been the first person on SuperGiant game’s minds, but the essence of dunking is flowing through their action/adventure game Pyre.

Pyre NightwingsLet’s take a quick step back; while Pyre has a lot of dunking that’s not really what the game is about. Pyre takes place in a fantasy setting where outcasts from the main society (known as the “Commonwealth”) compete in sports-like contests to achieve access back into society. These contests are known as “Rites” and are a spiritual ceremony and each team represents a different one of the eight mythical characters (“Scribes”) that saved their land from chaos. Your job as the player is to embody “the Reader,” one who has the ability to read what is known as “The Book of Rites” that provides you with strategy and background on how to win these rites.

If this all sounds a bit dense, it kind of is. Pyre is a game very heavy on story. The Book of Rites acts as a lore book for the universe. To the game’s credit, it slowly deals out these pieces as you progress throughout the various rites. The Book slowly fills up with passages on the locations in the world, opposing teams, backstory on the rites themselves, and much much more. There is a lot of information given in these passages but the games slow pace at which it doles the out makes it easier to digest.

Pyre Party

The gameplay in between the rites, which takes up the majority of the game, is similar to something like an adventure game. You will interact with characters in your party, choose what paths your party takes on the way to compete in rites, and eventually pick which rites to compete in. Luckily these passages are engaging as the story and writing are superb. All the characters, both friends and adversaries, have complex backstories about how they ended up outcast (or in the “Downside”) and motivations for gaining access back to the Commonwealth. Most enemies could not be classified as pure evil and even the most hardened competitors have sympathetic reasons for winning.

Pyre Dunk Gif
Dunk!

The rites themselves are really the best part though; this is where the dunking comes in. Each rite is a 3v3 match where your characters must take a ball (“Celestial Orb”) and move it into the opposing team’s “Pyre.” The player can only control one character at a time though, so positioning other characters is crucial. The characters each have auras, outlined fields around them that if an enemy comes in contact with will put them out of play for a duration of time (“Banishment”). These auras can also be shot at opposing players to banish them as well. Each character has different stats which effect speed, aura size, and point values for scoring. This means getting the orb into the pyre requires banishing opposing players or outmaneuvering them. Characters can also throw the orb from a distance, but it takes a charge up time, rewards you with less points, and can be intercepted. This leaves players to mostly rely on literally dunking characters into the pyre. I cannot stress enough how GREAT this feels. Outmaneuvering an opponent with a speedy character or wiping out an entire team with well-placed aura shots, leaves you with a great adrenaline rush. When you are able to dunk your character into the pyre, that’s icing on the cake. Matches (especially as the game progresses) become tense stalemates and one wrong move can leave you wide open. I cannot stress enough how good the rites feel and I never truly felt too powerful over other opponents. If you do though, you can always turn on extra modifiers that increase match difficulty and also give characters more experience.

Pyre Nightwing Score

Winning enough of these rites is the ultimate goal and eventually allows you to pick which characters to send back to the Commonwealth. This happy ending is only for that one character though, and once they are gone they are no longer available for your team. To make matters worse, only characters that have a certain amount of experience are allowed to ascend. This combined with Pyre’s strong writing make it an incredibly difficult choice. The reward is seeing these characters that you have grown close with achieve their freedom. It’s hard not to feel a bit twisted up sending a character back to their life on the other side of the world. After they ascend, other characters in your party also react to their absence making it sting even more.

It should come as no surprise that SuperGiant Games has knocked it out of the park again. Their writing is as strong as ever, as they showed in Bastion and Transistor, but this time they’ve been able to pair it with even better gameplay. And nothing (I mean nothing) feels and looks better than a dunk. Keep on dunking outcasts!

It’s Time to Rethink Star Fox

Star Fox 64Star Fox has had a rough go of it. The series hasn’t had a true hit since Star Fox 64, which is celebrating its 20th (!) anniversary. Currently, Star Fox stands as Nintendo’s sole blind spot as all its other flagship series continue to find success. Adhering to older game styles have proven to be successful with new games this year (see: Sonic Mania). Star Fox’s place as a top Nintendo series seemingly prevents a success like that; $60 is just too steep. With the series currently on hold with the most recent failing on the Wii U and Star Fox 2 finally being released as a pack in with the SNES classic, Star Fox’s path to success is by rethinking the series’ place as a AAA title.

Star Fox 2

Star Fox’s best games are enjoyable because of their single-minded gameplay approach.  The third person aerial combat provides Nintendo’s trademark accessibility through its simplicity; one button to shoot and one button for bombs. The game also had Fox and team never leave the cockpit of their respective arwings, landmaster, and blue-marine in both the Super Nintendo and N64 games. Further iterations attempted to have the animal heroes fight on foot with negative results.

This places the series in a tricky position. Fans want new games to adhere to the N64 formula while also expanding on it. This formula has not aged especially well though; while the gameplay is still engaging, the game is thin on content. One run through the star map (~7 levels) takes under an hour. Anyone familiar with how to navigate the star map can take the multiple run throughs necessary to see all the levels within a few short hours. This makes charging $60 for a new game a tough proposition. But this is where that change in mindset could benefit both Nintendo and fans; by moving Star Fox from console headliner to a more budget friendly downloadable game fans can get the Star Fox gameplay they want without having to tack on unnecessary modes or gameplay tweaks.

Star Fox Adventures
Remember this???

It would help to think of Star Fox as another modern-day game type; rogue-like. Indie games like Galax Z, Spelunky, and Dead Cells are a perfect way to reinvigorate the Star Fox series. While their gameplay is very different, these games offer tight focused single player campaigns that satisfies players much in the same way the original Star Fox games do. Their campaigns are segmented into discrete levels with each subsequent mission increasing the gameplay difficulty with a final challenge building on everything that came before it. These games are also meant to be repeated. Also like Star Fox, when you run out of lives you restart at the beginning. Rogue-like game feel complete with just this campaign as players receive a full experience by the time the credits roll. There is no need for a multiplayer component or larger variations on the core gameplay.

Star Fox Train Fight

Players also don’t feel cheated out at their smaller price point. This is the perfect area for Star Fox and a way for Nintendo to focus on a smaller number of levels to fill the campaign star map. No need for weird platforming sequences or on foot combat, keep the players and the animals in vehicles at all times. Include a multiplayer component if you must, but just don’t make it the focus of the game. There is also no reason for any shifts in control schemes either, just keep it to the two buttons and the joysticks. Star Fox fans would agree, we’re all happier when we’re fighting giant robotic ships in arwings. By moving away from thinking of Star Fox as a headlining act, Nintendo can effectively please everyone who wants a taste of that old nostalgia.