Xenoblade Chronicles X

Xenoblade Chronicles X

An RPG’s battle system is more important to me than its story. That’s why 2003’s Baten Kaitos was one of my favorite RPGs. Coincidentally, co-developer Monolith Soft is also responsible for Xenoblade Chronicles X, which is quickly becoming another one of my top picks. The real-time battles here are very engaging and surprisingly complex as you dig deeper into them. I love that you can target and destroy a monster’s appendages, thereby eliminating some of its abilities. When you also take into consideration the size of the monsters and the fact that so many of them—hostile and otherwise—freely roam the world, Xenoblade starts to feel more like the game Monster Hunter 3 should have been. Yes, I know, Monster Hunter is different on many levels, but damn… Xenoblade is just so good at what it does.

The scope of the game’s world, for instance, is enormous. This feels like a genuine planet with its own ecosystems. Running around the world of Mira is like exploring a national park. The environments are gorgeous, and there are few limits as to where you can go. You can head straight into the most dangerous parts of the world during the first chapter if you so choose. I also appreciate that you can jump, which means you’re able to scale tall mountains and can sometimes find shortcuts to important areas with some clever ledge hopping. You will have to play with the Wii U gamepad, though, in order to fast-travel between locations. Running on foot may give you a better appreciation for the game’s details, but most missions require a good amount of backtracking, which can get tedious if you forget about the fast travel option.

The only thing I don’t like about the game is that, while certain “affinity” missions are completely optional, once you accept one, you’re required to finish it before you can continue the story. It’s the optional missions, though, that tend to send you out into the wilderness on a scavenger hunt for resources without giving you much guidance on where those resources are. I’m constantly needing to consult online walkthroughs for help. But I like taking on side missions, because it’s nice to have any excuse to explore more of the world. Seriously, Xenoblade is the most fun I’ve had charting a digital world since Wind Waker. Oh, but be aware that the text in this game is super tiny. I actually have to stand in front of the TV to play. It’s annoying, and I hope the developers patch it, but it’ll take more than that to keep me away.

F is for Family – Season 1

F is for Family

I’ll admit, the only reason I gave this show a chance was due to my love for Netflix’s other animated original, Bojack Horseman. But F is for Family is no Bojack. It’s much crasser, darker, and down to earth. If you were expecting something like Family Guy, you’ll be disappointed. It’ll probably remind you more of Married With Children (minus the laugh track). The father figure here, Frank, is yelly and belligerent, and his grievances are so relatable it hurts. This is a guy that feels like he’s barely holding it together, and Bill Burr does a great job voicing the character’s frustrations. The funniest moments come from the remarks he makes to his kids, like when Kevin ungratefully asks what’s for dinner, and Frank replies, “More free food. What are you bitching about?”

Being a sitcom of sorts, though, we do have to deal with the kids… a lot. This means suffering through boring and sometimes pointless B stories where the characters just aren’t that interesting. The majority of the cast—including the kids, their friends, and Frank’s co-workers—comes across as a little weak. I know we’re supposed to care about the family as a whole, but the show only worked for me when everyone was in the same household together. The union drama at Frank’s work was so forgettable, my mind actually started tuning it out. Not that the show has to be funny at all times. It’s not, even when the family is together. This is a more realistic approach to animated sitcoms, after all. Think King of the Hill with more anger and less propane. Have I name-dropped enough shows yet? The point is, F is for Family isn’t necessarily unique, but it’s good enough that I hope Netflix gives it a second season.

Skylanders: Swap Force

Skylanders Swap Force

I avoided the Skylanders series for a long time. I didn’t want to get sucked into buying a bunch of plastic. But now that I’ve dipped my toes into Swap Force, I finally understand the appeal. Yeah, you can think of the characters as nothing more than expensive DLC, and if you’re not careful, you could wind up spending hundreds of dollars on this thing. For collectors at heart, however, it’s fun to have a tangible version of an in-game character. The tech behind these games—how the toy and game sync up—really is impressive. Swap Force is particularly cool, because you can interchange the top and bottom halves of the characters, which works seamlessly and creates some interesting combos.

You do have to level up the characters a little bit, though, before they’re actually fun to use. And if you’re not willing to spend the money on extra figurines, you’ll be annoyed at just how much of the game is locked away. While you can still play the full story mode and discover a lot of secrets with the three pack-in characters, there are many more doors that only Skylanders with certain attributes can enter. The upsell is obvious, but I’ll admit that it worked on me, and I ended up buying three more characters. I drew the line there, though, because I know all I’m really missing out on are a few more mini-games and treasure chests. Still, Swap Force’s “swappable” nature does make it harder to resist…

As for the game itself, it’s a decent, kid-oriented action game that plays very similarly to the LEGO games. In fact, I think the game itself would be better off without the toy gimmick, if all of the character swapping was digital and instantaneous. But then Skylanders would be a rather forgettable experience. The cutscenes are annoying, the in-game puzzles are way too easy, and the platforming/jumping mechanics are barely functional. It’s mainly the combat that holds it together. Some of the characters’ abilities are a lot of fun to use. Which, again, makes Swap Force stand out from other games in the series, since you have a little more customization at your fingertips. Now if a future Skylanders adds interchangeable arms and legs, then I’m in trouble!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: Force Awakens

A New Hope is almost 40 years old. Not to discredit what Lucas originally accomplished, but it’s become a fairly dated movie. And so I didn’t mind that this new Star Wars followed a lot of the same beats. The major plot points and character types are very similar, making The Force Awakens feel more like a reboot or remake rather than a full-fledged sequel. But, man, Star Wars really needed a reboot. After the atrocious “special editions” and prequels, I’m just glad this franchise can be good again. The Force Awakens is a good movie. Because audiences have seen so many other sci-fi and superhero moves since 1977, though, the wow factor isn’t quite there. It’s not going to rock your world, but it should at least let you forget Episode I.

Seriously, this is what I was hoping Episode I would have been. If that turd had been as good as this, maybe I wouldn’t have grown into such a cynical adult. The Force Awakens was made for fans by fans. It rekindles the spirit of the original trilogy by not overdoing it with CG effects, but modern movie techniques certainly help out. The dogfights are spectacular, and the background aliens are fun without being goofy and ridiculous. In fact, while the trailer may not show it, The Force Awakens can be pretty funny at times, and that’s without resorting to fart jokes and characters stepping in poop! God, what a relief…

But I knew JJ Abrams and team wouldn’t make those mistakes. They know better. My only concern going in was Harrison Ford. He’s come across as bored and tired in the last 10 movies I’ve seen him in. Fortunately, he does a decent job here. The real accolades, however, go to all of the new characters. Yeah, they tend to mirror the same personalities we saw in A New Hope, but I actually think these guys are better. They’re more complex and interesting and less whiny! Plus, that BB-8 droid… I’m already preferring him over R2-D2. He is fantastic, and knowing that’s an actual prop makes it so much cooler. I already can’t wait to see what they do with the next movie now that the tone has been set.

Z Nation – Season 2

Z Nation

The first season of Z Nation took me by surprise. The show really had no right to be good, and on a technical level, it wasn’t. But it was fun in a silly, campy way and wasn’t afraid to take risks with the zombie genre that the competition (The Walking Dead) has been afraid of in recent years. That’s still true for Z Nation’s second season, but the show, unfortunately, has doubled down on the ridiculousness to the point where I’m not sure if I’ll tune in next time. In a universe where zombies are real, I guess I should be more open to things like Murphy’s ability to mind-control the dead and the fact that his blood and bite have supernatural properties. It can go overboard at times, though, and fluctuates between being unique and just being outright dumb.

But what’s strange about this show is that when it wants to hit an emotional beat, it hits it hard. This is what I like about Z Nation over The Walking Dead. Major character deaths are actually sad. They’re not cheap shots; characters die for believable reasons. And some of the situations they’re put in, like being forced to steal medicine from a peaceful community, are a somber reminder of what a real apocalypse could be like. Season 2 doesn’t have as many great ideas as Season 1 did, though. The only standout episode was number 6, “The Collector,” where Murphy stumbles across a crazy loner hellbent on documenting zombie culture. While the group did cover a lot of ground this season, most of the other storylines were either them dealing with one-off communities or running away from bounty hunters.

That said, there were some decent action sequences, but most of them had to do with humans fighting humans. Yeah, in a zombie apocalypse, it’s probably true that other people would be your main concern. Still, as a zombie show, I was expecting more… well, zombies. Maybe the money they saved on zombie make-up went towards everything else. Season 2 does feel like a slightly bigger and better production overall. Don’t take that to mean Season 2 is leaps and bounds above Season 1, though. It’s not. This show still has a long ways to go if it’s ever going to be taken seriously. Granted, the show doesn’t take itself seriously, which is kind of the point, but it could benefit from fewer zombie babies and mad scientists without sacrificing the humor.

Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 4

Ty 4

I’m really glad Ty the Tasmanian Tiger is still around. Even though the older 3D games were pretty average platformers, Ty is a fun character, and the games have had consistently great music. Calling this “Ty 4,” however, was probably a mistake. It’s not really a sequel and is clearly a big step down in production values. I feel bad for Krome Studios, because I’m sure they would love to do another full 3D game but no longer have the budget for it. While Ty 4 still looks good as a 2D game, the presentation is lacking overall. Much of the soundtrack is recycled, there’s absolutely no voice acting, and the character movement feels very amateurish. It kind of comes across as a fan-made game.

The spirit of Ty the Tasmanian Tiger is still there, though. The levels are refreshingly non-linear and full of secrets and side missions. It’s fun to see what’s traditionally been their 3D platformer setup condensed into a smaller 2D game. After a while, though, I began to question why I was needing to find so many collectibles. There didn’t seem to be any reward involved except for getting 100% and nabbing that final achievement. You can at least buy new boomerangs and costumes with the opals you accumulate, although the boomerangs given to you during the story tend to be the most useful.

The mention of boomerangs, however, brings about the game’s weakest aspect. Combat has never been the Ty franchise’s strong suit, despite the fact that every sequel has relied on it more and more. Ty 4 is no different. Hitting enemies with boomerangs is repetitive and boring. And when you factor in flying enemies and bad guys that throw projectiles back at you, it can veer on the annoying side. But if you were fine with that in the older games, you’ll be fine with it here. Ty 4 is, after all, meant for people who know this character. It’s not going to win over any new fans, unfortunately, but I hope people still give it a chance, because this series deserves better.