Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE

Tokyo Mirage Sessions

This game was incredibly frustrating for the first few chapters, because typical JRPG tactics no longer worked. You can’t just grind, level up, and power your way through battles anymore. You really have to be aware of your characters’ strengths and weaknesses and frequently use buffs and debuffs. Otherwise, enemies will wipe you out in two hits. But once I understood that, the game became really fun. I didn’t think Tokyo Mirage Sessions would be that strategic, though, based on how cheesy and silly the story is.

I normally don’t care for JRPG stories, anyway, but this one in particular is pretty hokey. Your characters are all TV/music idols with the most superficial problems in the world… except when monsters periodically attack the city. Even in battle, the cheesiness is ever present, as characters will sometimes perform “ad-lib” attacks that involve singing, dancing, and dressing up in cat costumes. If you’re easily embarrassed by cutesy stuff, you may have a hard time getting through this game without some serious cringing.

Thankfully, special attack animations can be skipped, and you can fast-forward through every cutscene. I appreciate the fast-forward option over outright skipping scenes, because it allows me to still get a sense of what’s going on. I do feel bad about ignoring the hours of Japanese voice acting it took to make this game, though. The production value here is impressive. But when it comes to RPGs, I’m in it more for the dungeons, and the dungeon designs and intense battles are some of the most fun I’ve had in any JRPG to date.

Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back

Journey to the West

I watched 2013’s Journey to the West movie with no foreknowledge, but the entire time, I kept thinking… this feels just like a Stephen Chow film. So I was pleasantly surprised when the end credits rolled, and it turned out that Chow was the director! After sitting through this sequel, it’s very clear how much of a difference a touch of Chow makes. The Demons Strike Back feels like a lower-budget, direct-to-DVD production in comparison, which makes even less sense when you realize that Chow still wrote and produced it. But he did step away from the director’s chair, an absence that hurts as much as the entire cast changing, as well.

Yep, nothing about this movie is the same. The new monk is not nearly as charming, and the new Monkey doesn’t feel at all mischievous or playful. He’s just a guy doing a dumb smirk through most of the film. The jokes are also pretty lame, the fights (particularly the final battle) are visually confusing, and the character progression is extremely forced. There was huge potential in the love-hate relationship between Tang and Monkey that was never delivered on, and Pigsy and Sandy often served no purpose or had nothing to do. Like so many other things here, they just felt like items on a checklist.

FreezeME

FreezeME

I’m suddenly craving 3D platformers, and I really thought FreezeME was going to fit the bill. It channels the 3D Super Mario games so well, after all. Each level is very open with several goals to achieve, and you can finish these goals in any order at any time, much like Mario’s star system. I also liked how there were sub-tasks to find special green coins, which often boiled down to helping the various pig characters accomplish certain tasks. That’s when the game feels like it’s borrowing more from Banjo-Kazooie than Mario, but hey… if you’re gonna steal ideas, steal from the best, right?

Unfortunately, while FreezeME looks fantastic as a 3D platformer and has some really fun level designs (and occasionally clever puzzles), the game falls short where it counts the most. The controls are just… terrible. I haven’t yelled profanities at a game this much in a long time. Coupled with a wonky camera and some spotty ledge grabbing, it’s very easy to fall off obstacles and have to start your ascent all over. Navigating through the game’s water or ice sections will surely test even the most patient of players.

Several times, then, I was very close to giving up on the game altogether. I got so sick of trying to make the controls work. But everything else about the experience really tickled my nostalgia for 3D platformers, and I didn’t want to end on bad terms. So I stuck with it to the end boss, and I think I’m glad I did, but it’s hard to recommend the game when the controls required so much forgiveness. Apparently, several other 3D platformers are due out this year, which means FreezeME will finally have some competition. But until then, I guess you gotta make do with what you have.

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

I think I’m starting to get MCU fatigue. As a standalone movie, Doctor Strange probably wouldn’t have been that bad, but the whole time I was watching it, I couldn’t help but wonder how much this is going to shake up the Marvel universe. Doctor Strange adds a huge amount of magic to the proceedings. Not that magic hasn’t been at play before, but past Marvel movies (especially the non-Avenger ones) felt at least a little more grounded. Poor Hawkeye might as well retire for good if he’s expected to fight alongside Doctor Strange.

And this late into the MCU, I’m getting kind of bored with origin stories, too. The last origin story I liked was Deadpool, because it played around with the timeline. Doctor Strange walks a very straight path from normal guy to magical dude, and his transformation isn’t even that fun to watch. Sure, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the perfect smarmy asshole, and we get the occasional Marvel zinger, but it wasn’t as relatable as I thought it was going to be. We jump right into, “Oh, I guess magic is real now,” followed by, “And here’s your generic villain to beat.”

So the story is pretty weak, but the movie is still fun for no other reason than the visual effects. This is like watching Inception through a kaleidoscope. Fights take place while entire cities fold in on themselves, and one scene plays out in real-time and backwards… at the same time. It’s the most impressive-looking Marvel movie to date. Of course, it’s also the weakest in terms of character development. I never felt like I understood why anyone was doing anything or why we should care about Doctor Strange as a person. I know he’ll show up in future Marvel movies, but unless he brings his effects team with him, I don’t really care.

Paper Mario: Color Splash

Paper Mario Color Splash

The first few hours with this game felt like one of the most disappointing things Nintendo has ever put out. Like Super Paper Mario before it, this is a big departure from the original Paper Mario mechanics. I wouldn’t even call it an RPG anymore, even though it still has turn-based battles. And that’s the truly disappointing part. The battles are really clunky and ultimately pointless. I was about ready to give up on the game until I reached the first main boss. By then, the battle mode made a little more sense, but they really should have just removed random encounters altogether. The only battles I cared about were the mandatory ones.

Even the bosses can be annoying, though, if you failed to bring the correct battle card into the fight. And yet the game so heavily telegraphs which cards you need to have beforehand that it makes you wonder why the requirement is there in the first place. You’re pretty much getting punished for not following directions. In this case, you can’t beat the boss, but there are so many other “gotcha” moments, as well. For example, if you don’t solve a hotel’s mystery quickly enough, you have to restart the level. If you don’t answer all ten questions correctly in a game show, you get kicked back to the title screen. This makes Color Splash an oddly difficult experience.

Nonetheless, I was still hooked once I got past that first boss hurdle. It’s not like there are a lot other games like this, games that combine such a variety of different elements (turn-based battles, platforming, painting, card collecting, puzzle solving) into one solid adventure. That’s what’s special about Color Splash; it really feels like an adventure. It may have a “world map,” but the game isn’t strictly linear, and every level offers something new and extra reasons to go back into them. Taken as a whole, this is a fun, unique game with plenty of humor and interesting scenarios. You’ll just have to be more patient and forgiving of the game’s bad first impression and come to terms with the fact that the Paper Mario series is never going to be what it used to be.

Luke Cage – Season 1

Luke Cage

At first, it seemed like Luke Cage was going to be nothing more than a mash-up of Jessica Jones (reluctant hero, super strong, doesn’t hide his/her identity) and Daredevil (up against a local mob boss). A few episodes in, however, it does start to differentiate itself, to the point where it had the makings to be the best Marvel/Netflix show yet. The cast and characters felt a lot stronger, especially the initial villains. I liked the mob boss here a lot more than Wilson Fisk, and I really liked how said mob boss didn’t always have the upper hand. It was nice to see some back and forth instead of always watching the hero fail until the very end.

But Luke Cage makes the same mistake that Season 2 of Daredevil did by introducing a much more cartoonish threat halfway through. When Diamondback arrived, grinning ear to ear and spouting Biblical nonsense, the show lost a lot of its heart and soul. And with no complex villain to hold things together, the cheesy dialogue and contrived situations started sticking out more. For instance, there’s a moment where the cops beat up a kid, so the corrupt politician holds a rally to convince the community that they need to arm the police with more powerful weapons to stop Luke Cage. Uh… what? Why would anyone in this universe buy that?

Unfortunately, there are many instances like that where something ridiculous happens for no other reason than to move the story forward. After a while, you get sick of seeing characters simply walk away from situations where they should have gotten caught. By the end of the season, I was no longer sure on how I would rank this among the other Marvel shows. Again, it’s very similar to Daredevil Season 2 in that it gets off to a great start and then squanders most of it, whether that’s because they tried to stay too close to the comic or they shot themselves in the foot by sticking with the long-winded 13-episode format. Even Luke Cage isn’t bulletproof to that.