r6ZueZjnmZ7B2W9HGZxNVvrBtMg BDVR: November 2015

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Monday, November 30, 2015

Jupiter Ascending

Jupiter Ascending is a movie without a single original concept to its name. I don't think I've ever experienced a single work that borrows so heavily from other, better works.
As you can probably tell from the poster, this film comes to us courtesy of the Wachowski siblings, creators of The Matrix franchise, and contributors to such movies as Assassins, Bound, V For Vendetta, The Invasion, Speed Racer, Ninja Assassin, and Cloud Atlas. The only film they've made that I know for certain people like is The Matrix, the rest seems to be a mixed bag of good to bad reactions. I personally thought The Matrix Reloaded was a pretty good film, but Revolutions seemed like a good idea gone bad. Aside from this film and The Matrix Trilogy I've never seen any other Wachowski movies, so I'm not really able to judge this film in relation to the bulk of their body of work. Fortunately, I can still judge it as a film, and as a film, it's a bit confused to say the very least.
I remember hearing years and years ago that the Wachowski's were working on a new science-fiction franchise, thinking that it might be interesting, and then forgetting about it after not hearing anything about it for years on end. I didn't even connect this movie and that rumor from a few years ago as being the same thing until I looked this up on Wikipedia to do a little research yesterday. I also found out that this movie is a reunion for a bunch of previous Wachowski collaborators, with them bringing over crew from almost all of their previous movies, barring their first two.
Now, judging just from the poster and the cast, what kind of movie do you think this is? Because I can tell you what I thought it was when I first heard about it. Another adaptation of a young-adult novel in the vein of Divergent, The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and other movies that have come out in recent years. I was surprised to find out that it wasn't, because it certainly feels like a cut-down adaptation, considering how fast it seems to jump from one scene to the next with very little pause for breath or explanation.
So, let's go ahead and talk about the plot. The main character is named Jupiter Jones, and she's played by Mila Kunis. If the characters name sounds familiar, then you've probably read The Three Investigators books as a kid. (As explanation, one of the titular trio in that series was named Jupiter Jones) As soon as I remembered that, I couldn't get it out of my head. I just kept picturing a Three Investigators movie that takes place in space.
The fact that the main characters name is Jupiter implies that the title actually means something, and it almost does, but once the movie ends, you're left wondering what the hell the point was.
Anyways, Jupiter was born of the union between the son of a British diplomat to Russia, named Maximilian Jones, and some Russian woman who we don't know a whole lot about, named Aleksa. They met when Max was stargazing in the Russian winter, and apparently Aleksa kept him from freezing to death. The problem with that assertion is that, while Max is certainly under-dressed for the kind of Winter that brings in copious amounts of snow, he doesn't appear to be in much danger at all. And considering that his father is a British diplomat, there's no real reason for him to be out stargazing without enough clothes on during the Russian winter If Max had fallen into the water and Aleksa got him out, then I'd say this makes sense, but as it is, the narration doesn't match the events of the film.
Max likes the planet Jupiter, and wants to name his daughter after it. Aleksa doesn't want to name her Jupiter, but a what appears to be a SWAT team bursts into their home, steals a bunch of stuff and kills Max when he tries to fight them off. No, we're never given an explanation as to who this gang of renegade special-forces operatives are, or what they're doing running around killing people. But that's not even the half of it. After Max dies, his wife immigrates illegally to the United States before her daughter is born. This just baffles me, since if the son of a British diplomat was killed by a Russian gang, that'd be an international incident! MI6 would start investigating, the CIA would probably be involved, they'd be working with the Russian police, Russian Federal Security Service, all of these agencies would probably become involved.
And do you know what the worst part is? They don't even mention anything about where the murder took place, so for all we know, he could have been killed inside the embassy itself. Which would qualify as an act of terrorism!
And if he's not living at the embassy, why not? Why would he need to live anywhere else? They don't tell us anything about him having a falling out with his parents over his wife, or any other explanation, so we're left without any clue as to what the actual situation is.
And then we get to the fact that Aleksa traveled to the USA instead of, say, the UK, where she'd probably be able to get in without having to resort to illegal means. Or hell, legal immigration to the US probably would have been an option, since she's the wife of the son of the British ambassador to Russia. What I'm saying is that this movie seems to have been married to the idea of making Jupiter an "Illegal alien" as the opening narration states without actually explaining why. Also, Jupiter is born in international waters, having been the daughter of a British citizen and a Russian citizen, so I'm not entirely sure how the law treats that kinda thing.
Props to the casting team for actually getting an actress from the general area of Russia to play Jupiter. I don't particularly mind Mila Kunis as an actress, so I can't really complain about the casting. If nothing else, this movie has a damn fine cast. But then again, so did Batman Forever and Batman and Robin, and look how both of those turned out. Goes to show that a good cast doesn't make for a good movie.
Jupiter goes on to become a housekeeper with her mother. She gets up at five in the morning, scrubs toilets and tiles, dusts, all kinds of typical housekeeping things. This pretty much serves to establish her as a modern-day Cinderella-type, rather ham-handedly I say. She also looks at herself in the mirror while holding up jewelry and clothing that belongs to the rich people she works for, which serves as her "longing for more" sequence, replacing the standard Disney song and dance that princess movies usually have.
The movie then takes a massive shift in location, as we transition to a different planet with futuristic technology. Not that that's immediately apparent, since it's only when they mention Earth as a planet belonging to one of the snooty alien humans that we realize this isn't earth. I like to call these three "The Genocide Triplets". They're the heirs to some massive space empire, and their names are Balem, Titus, and Kalique Abrasax. The three of them brag about the harvest for a bit before getting into a verbal sparring match, which results in Titus attempting to scam Balem out of the rights to the Earth. Balem isn't having any of it, nor is Kalique.
This scene particularly bugged me. It's just that the thought of people "owning" the Earth while it's inhabited by people who don't know that they're part of some kind of empire is something which I don't like. It just feels like an incredibly dumb excuse, which allows a piece of fiction to have all the nice sci-fi technology while also having the fish out of water normal person along for the ride. Not to mention that it doesn't make sense from a logistical standpoint unless you happen to know for a fact, beyond the shadow of a doubt that you and your occupying forces can take the inhabitants of the planet in a fight. These people have their own laws, their own sense of morals, their own technological developments. If they somehow manage to figure out that they're being occupied, at the very best you're going to have an armed rebellion. At the very worst, they're going to win. Even if the occupying forces have superior technology, there's no way to control everything. It's possible that their tech would fall into the hands of someone who would then go on to develop weapons based on it. Weapons that would be better, and manage to get through occupying defenses. But they're not even occupying the planet, they just own it. They're not even really monitoring it, so for all they know, Earth could have developed FTL travel and a Starship named Enterprise and they wouldn't be much the wiser. Although that's more the fault of the film-makers than the characters, since they don't establish anything about the level of occupation that the human aliens have on Earth. This is turning into a running theme, isn't it? Them failing to establish in any way the fine details which would make the world more coherent.
We then cut to a group of mercenaries who all appear to have borrowed their costume-design from other, better movies. We have a woman who's dressed-up to look like Blink from Days of Future Past, some guy who looks like Deadshot from Arrow if he found Alastor Moody's Mad-Eye, and an incredibly skinny version of B.A. from The A-Team. Not-Blink rides around on a hoverbike that looks like a gun. This bike can apparently turn invisible, which is handy for covering up all the glowing lights it's plastered in.
They're here to do... Something. We don't really know what, except that they're hunting some bounty, and they determine that Channing Tatum's character, Caine Wise, is after the same bounty they're looking for. Really, all this sequence serves to do is establish Caine as a badass, since nothing in this scene appears to affect the later plot. When I first watched the movie I wasn't really sure how the file Caine looks for has any kind of connection to the rest of the film, but after looking through that scene again, I can tell what its purpose was.
See, later on in the movie, Jupiter Jones agrees to let some of her eggs be harvested in exchange for five-thousand dollars, and she uses the name Katherine Dunlevy at the same clinic that Caine breaks into, but we're never told how he knew how to get there, or why the mercenaries are staking out the clinic. Caine has heightened tracking senses, and the mercenaries talk him up something big, but this feels like a massive cop-out, especially considering the overall quality of the rest of the plot. And here's the thing, even though I now know what the direct connection was between the obstetrics clinic, Jupiter, and Katherine Dunlevy, it's still fairly badly executed.
I have this idea where if something doesn't make sense at first glance, you should probably go back and rewrite it. Sometimes that's not the best approach to storytelling, but it's a good guideline to follow unless you're purposefully trying to confuse the audience. The fact that I didn't pick up on that little connection is due in part to the fact that they don't really focus on the sheets of paper in the file. Given the fact that the mercenaries were talking about Caine's ability to track someone down from a single cell or some nonsense like that, I thought he was looking for birth records, so I didn't connect the file at the clinic as being related to Jupiter. But even then, she doesn't want to have her eggs harvested, so why does she have a file at the clinic, even if it's under an alias?
The fight-scene between Caine and the unnamed mercenaries is hard to watch. Hundreds of shots are fired, and nobody hits anyone, which wouldn't be too big a deal if they'd directed the action-scene better. With the amount of shots taken at the range they're at, you'd think that Caine would have hit someone, or someone would have hit him.
We're then introduced to Katherine Dunlevy, Jupiter's rich friend who she sometimes impersonates. The exchange they have is utterly pointless, since Katherine never actually shows up at any other point in the movie. Jupiter and Katherine discuss a guy Kat thinks is going to propose to her, and she asks Jupiter what she should wear. Spoiler warning, the guy never shows up on screen, so this is pointless as well.
Jupiter goes into Kat's massive freaking closet to get an outfit for her, and Kat gets knocked out by your typical bug-eyed grey aliens (Incredibly lazy design if you ask me) called "Keeprs" and they test her blood. Jupiter takes a picture of the aliens, and they find her, wiping her memory. Stupidly though, they don't think to check her phone for pictures. Although this raises another question; how did a girl as poor as her afford a freaking iPhone? They sort of mention her overspending later on, but I feel like this was just product placement from Apple. Also, as we later find out, Jupiter is the one they were looking for, and that raises the following question; why didn't the Keepers just test her DNA while they were there? It's obviously not hard for them, so why didn't they do it? They might have had the wrong girl, there's no way for them to know that, since the file in the clinic didn't have a picture in it.
After Jupiter's denied a loan to buy a telescope that was like her fathers (God only knows how she'd know what kind of telescope her father had, since it was stolen before she was born) she agrees to sell some of her eggs. She goes to that clinic Caine broke into earlier in the movie and is almost killed by a bunch of disguised Keepers before Caine jumps in and kills all of them. This action-scene is also pretty badly choreographed, but that's all down to the special-effects people, since the Keeper's are completely CGI as far as I can tell. Caine at one point kicks one of the Keepers, but Channing Tatum's kick obviously doesn't connect with the CGI model, despite the Keeper reacting as if it did. And the rest of the fight-scene just seems way too loosely choreographed. Star Wars this is not.
Caine takes Jupiter to some building in Chicago where he gives us the mind-boggling realization that humanity is not alone in the universe!
I'm sorry, what? How? Why? This is just downright stupid, since we've been fantasizing about there being other species from other planets, friendly and hostile alike, for well over a hundred freaking years! Did the Wachowski's miss all of that? Did nobody at Warner Brothers, or any member of the cast or crew think to put their hand up and say "Hey, this doesn't make any sense from a pop-culture perspective!"
What is one of the most popular entertainment franchises? Star Trek! What's it based around? Travelling through space, meeting aliens, doing battle with aliens, making friends with aliens, having aliens as part of the crew... At this point, it'd be a bigger shock if we were alone in the universe. And I don't buy for a second that someone who has an iPhone and internet access in the 21st century wouldn't know what Star Trek is! Or, for that matter, any of the other pieces of media based around aliens. What's worse is that they treat this like some massive revelation, so I blame this little plot-hole entirely on the the Wachowskis, whoever was editing their script, and also the actors for not bringing it up when they read it. This means you have to accept that Caine has no idea about Earth's popular culture, and that Jupiter doesn't know enough about it to point out the massive flaw in his reasoning for thinking humans wouldn't accept that there are aliens.
Another major flaw I noticed was that Caine gives his gun to Jupiter and tells her how to use it, which I find odd. He says it was to make her feel better, but she could have easily killed or severely wounded him, either on purpose or by accident. It doesn't matter if Caine has heightened reflexes and senses, a good shot to the head would still probably kill him. Or hell, she could have hurt herself. He'd be better off keeping all possible weapons away from Jupiter. Jupiter has also been given a new set of clothes, since she was only in a hospital gown when Caine rescued her.
After he finishes explaining that, he tells Jupiter that he's part wolf, and shows her his gravity-skates, giving some complicated technobabble answer as to how they let him fly around. These are essentially identical to Shadow The Hedgehog's rocket-skates from Sonic Adventure 2, the difference being that that game just said "Hey, we shoved a bunch of rockets into a pair of inline-skates! Is that cool, or what?"
Sure, it might be a massive feat of engineering to cram rockets into a form that would serve as a pair of skates, but I can believe that more than I can believe the technobabble provided in this movie. And at one point, Caine uses them to melt chains without any explanation as to why these gravity-skates serve to conduct any kind of heat. That's the absolute least of the problems in that scene, so I'll wait for that scene to come up before I talk about it anymore.
Caine calls a ship to come and get them, but instead of just hovering by the window, or landing on the little ledge next to the room in the building Caine is in. This, combined with the freaking slow tractor-beam they use instead of a transporter (Which coincidentally looks exactly like the tractor-beams used in Star Trek and Doctor Who.) allows Balem's assault team to blow up Caine's ship and causes a massive chase through Chicago, ending with a lot of buildings damaged and probably a lot of people dead.
Here's where we come to another major failing of the movie, the fact that The Wachowski's seem to think that, in this day and age, an uncloaked dogfight in the skies of Chicago would go unnoticed, even at night. Everyone's got a phone, everyone's got internet access, there would be a hundred videos up on YouTube before those Keepers could wipe any memories. People would be texting their friends and family, posting about it on Twitter and Facebook. Vines would be going up almost instantly.
See, this is the problem Transformers 2 and 3 had, it assumes that they could cover up something like this. Even with their ability to erase memories and repair damaged buildings at a rapid pace, the internet doesn't forget. Ever. You try and delete something? It's already been downloaded and reuploaded to somewhere else fifty times, and from there it's been backed up as well. An alien dogfight over Chicago would be international news before it was over. There's no way they could cover this up.
After that's over, there's a whole scene dedicated to Balem rewatching Caine's fight against the Keepers in the obstetrics clinic, then we meet up with Caine's old friend, Stinger Apini, played by Sean Bean.
This is where we get to what I think is one of the stupidest things in the movie. Stinger raises bees, and his bees form wings around Jupiter, which flap when she moves her arms. The explanation that they give is that "bees recognize royalty", but I know that's bollocks, since bees don't do that in real life. They don't explain why that's the case in this universe, so I would reckon that they were trying to work off bees actual recognition of queen bees. It's not like the recognize human royalty in the real world. And that's the thing, when a piece of fiction doesn't establish the rules of its fictional universe, we're forced to fall back on real-world science, and when that science says that things shouldn't happen the way they do in the movie, you wind up being forced to say that it doesn't make sense.
Sting and Caine are both what they call "Splices," specialized humans with animal DNA spliced into them. We're never actually told what kind of Splice Sting is, although Wikipedia says that he's part honeybee. We also never see Sting's wife, even though he has a daughter, who's apparently got some kind of terminal illness, despite appearing to be in perfect health.
Sting explains to Jupiter how humans aren't from earth, and how other humans killed all the dinosaurs and seeded the planet with human-beings. That's just idiotic, and I'm going to explain why. Later on in this movie, the other humans are revealed to be extremely long-lived, but that doesn't matter, since they pretty much used the least efficient method of colonization and breeding for their purposes. I don't care how long you live, if you want to breed as many humans as possible in the shortest period of time, especially for their purposes, why would you just let humans evolve over the course of a hundred-thousand years when you could just let them breed as is until they're ready to harvest?
Jupiter calls her home to try and tell her family that she's alright, but her cousin who convinced her to sell her eggs is the only one who's home. For some reason, he's playing what appears to be Dark Souls II. The problem is that he keeps taking his hand off the controller, which isn't something you do in Dark Souls. I haven't even played Dark Souls and I know that much about it. I also know that Dark Souls isn't a two-player game, but that didn't stop them from giving the little kid in the scene a controller as well.
The mercenaries and Keepers show up to kill Jupiter, but Caine and Stinger kill all the Keepers, and (for no explicable reason) the mercenaries kill one of their own people and abduct Jupiter. Caine sees this, and stows away on their ship. (Which looks like Slave I crossed with something from Star Fox.)
They fly all the way to another planet, where the mercenaries take Jupiter to see Kalique, who tells Jupiter about her peoples fixation on genetics, gives her a fancy dress, shows them the baths that let them go back to their peak of perfection and live for millennia (Giving us a nice view of Tuppence Middleton's butt), and shows Jupiter that she's a "Recurrance" of the Genocide Triplet's mother. Apparently they have laws regarding what happens when someone who is genetically identical to a previous person shows up. That begs the question, how do they deal with that when genetically identical people show up while the other person is still alive?
This thing about a pit of liquid bringing you back to your youth is rather obviously copied from the pit used by Ra's Al Ghul uses in the Batman comics to heal deadly wounds and bring him back to life. There are probably other things that did similar things as well.
Before any questions about the "genetic recurrence" thing can be asked or answered, Caine and the space-police show up to take Jupiter to The Entitled Hall to go through the legal process of claiming her title, giving Jupiter yet another change of outfit.
On the way to the , we get some innuendo between Caine and Jupiter, with Jupiter asking him if he wants to bite her (He lost his job with the space police because he bit an Entitled's throat out) and mentioning that she likes dogs, both of which could be turned sexual fairly easily, the latter of which could take a turn for the creepy if you think about it too much.
It's at this point where we shift from exposition to a montage of bureaucracy. Five solid minutes in the middle of the movie are dedicated to the main characters running around, doing paperwork, being given the runaround, and generally wasting the audience's time. They also introduce a robot character named Bob who never shows up again. He's a robot lawyer, and (like all of the male robots in this little department) looks incredibly effete. This little montage ends with an extremely slow scene, before we get the inevitable Sean Bean betrayal. Because if Sean Bean is in something, he's either gotta die, betray someone, or both.
Stinger turns Jupiter over to Titus Abrasax, the Genocide Triplet who hired Caine to track down Jupiter.
See, he doesn't need to do that. All he'd have to do is phone up Caine and ask him to bring Jupiter to him and boom, problem solved. It's only because of this Caine figures out that Titus is evil.
Titus appears to have a bit of an unhealthy obsession with his mother, bordering on an Oedipus complex. Yes, he's trying to manipulate her, but he still seems a little too into his goals, which is to marry Jupiter.
Titus goes on to give Jupiter yet another new outfit, he treats her to dinner, and then goes on to explain what the liquid is that they use to restore their youth. Spoiler warning, it's people. Yes, they literally copied that little twist from Soylent Green, and it's just as anticlimactic as you'd think it would be.
When that's revealed, Jupiter is holding a tube of the stuff, and I figured she'd drop it, and it would shatter. To absolutely nobodies surprise, she did.
So, as I said before, Titus wants to marry Jupiter, which gets creepier the longer you think about it. For one thing, she looks just like his mother. Second, she's genetically identical to his mother. Third, she's in her twenties, and he's thousands of years old. And Jupiter doesn't seem to have any kind of negative reaction to this beyond simple bafflement. This is the point in the movie that I declared that it was Twilight In Space. There's an immortal vampiric character competing with a dog-man for the affections of a bland woman who's important because...
Anyways, the explanation he gives is that towards the end of her life, his mother was attempting to preserve the lives of humans, and he was converted to the same cause. He says he wishes for her to inherit his planets to keep his brother and sister from harvesting them, but due to a poorly-explained legal system, we're never given an explanation as to whether he could have just put her in his will or if he needed to marry her. Apparently Jupiter studied up on the Galactic Legal System during the montage earlier, so I would presume that planets can only be inherited by spouses or children in their legal system. I'd also presume prenup agreements don't exist, since Jupiter never asks for one. Then again, she seems incredibly thick during this whole bit, not questioning Titus's motives in the slightest, or asking to see Caine before Titus has had enough time to kill him, or doing anything that would be considered smart in this situation.
Titus does the inept villain thing where he tries to kill Caine without actually killing him. He tosses Caine out the airlock (An airlock filled with emergency air-pods that are easy to activate) without taking off any of his gear. This allows him to use his grav-boots to blast off his shackles and grab an emergency-pod, which forms into a space-suit around him.
The Aegis shows up right at the end of his air-supply (Completely ignoring that he could have just grabbed another of the ten or twenty emergency-suits he knocked out of the airlock.) and they bring him back to full-health.
Caine confronts Sting, who tells him that he needed the Soylent Green to heal his daughter, and Titus gave it to him in exchange for turning over Jupiter. There are some comments about Caine's past with Sting (Mentioning something about breaking through a field of Warhammers, with no explanation given as to what those are) and after Caine asks Sting if he's got anything else that could be used against him, they go ahead and suit up in giant robots.
While they're doing that, Jupiter is getting ready for her wedding to Titus. This section of the movie has a fairly heavy saturation of stuff it's ripped-off. The clothing and general design of the wedding-chapel seems fairly heavily influenced by The Hunger Games, the robots clearly take a lot of influence from Mobile Suit Gundam, Power Rangers, Pacific Rim, Neon Genesis Evangellion, and let's just throw Voltron and Metal Gear in for good measure, shall we?
The drop-pods are copies from Pacific Rim, which copied that from Evangellion, the combining nature of the robots is from Voltron and Power Rangers, and the escape-pod stuck in the chest, plus the robots massive freaking wings is obviously taken from Gundam. The ships look like they're pulled straight out of Firefly, The Matrix and/or Alien as well.
Then we get to the rest of the scene, which rips off the ending of Guardians of the Galaxy, with a touch of Enders Game and The Matrix and Matrix Revolutions tossed in for good measure.
Caine and Sting bust through the barricade, bust into the ship, and stop the wedding. The give Jupiter another change of clothes, and head back to Earth. We're just going to ignore the fact that busting through the hull of a ship should start to evacuate the atmosphere for a second and focus on the fact that Jupiter immediately deduces that Titus was lying without much evidence for that idea. Yeah, he was holding her hand onto the thing etching the ring on her finger, but as far as she knows, he could believe that he's about to die, so he could be trying to give her the rights to his planets before he's killed.
Even though Titus was going to kill Jupiter, she doesn't want him to die for this reason, and just tells Caine to get her out of there.
Spoiler warning, neither of the first two Genocide Triplets show up after they're encountered by Jupiter, and we don't even know that Kalique had any malevolent intentions, since the only character who says the she does is Titus, and he's got plenty of reason to make Jupiter distrust Kalique.
Our characters go back to Earth to find Jupiter's family has been abducted by the last of the Genocide Triplets, Balem. They're told this by one of Balem's people that she needs to come with him and he won't kill her family. Thing is, they don't have any reason to trust him. And the condition for freeing her family is turning over all of her Entitled possessions to Balem. And the worst part is that she agrees to this! So she goes to his base on (Surprise) Jupiter!
Fortunately, she brings along an Aegis escort. Stupidly enough, she doesn't bring one onto Balem's ship with her, so the Aegis escort, along with Caine and Stinger, is left behind outside of Jupiter.
Caine takes one of the robots down into Jupiter, and barely survives the descent.
Meanwhile, Jupiter keeps delaying signing her planets over to Balem. Mind you, there's no indication that she's doing this on purpose, especially since she doesn't know she's got any backup coming.
Caine shows up, kicks ass, saves Jupiter from being killed, and for some reason, gives her his gun, despite him being the one in a position to cover her getting her family to safety. They also share a kiss in this scene, which isn't a smart thing to do in combat, and isn't something I would have included if I was making the film. Then again, there are a lot of things in this movie that I'd either shorten, change, or cut entirely.
After saving her family, Jupiter displays some hitherto unknown fighting skills as she beats up Balemm. They then get pulled into a hole, and into a tractor-beam. They fight some more, and Balem confesses that he killed his mother. Balem gets the upper-hand, then Jupiter gets the upper-hand. Rather stupidly, neither of them take the opportunity to kill the other when they gain the upper-hand.
Caine defeats the dragonborn he was fighting and comes to rescue Jupiter after Balem dies, and they reenact the ending of Big Hero 6 almost to a T, after wasting about thirty seconds cooing at each other while the portal that allows them to exit Jupiter's atmosphere is collapsing. If they'd have hopped to it, they could have gotten onto the Aegis ship with about ten seconds to spare, rather than having to ride outside the ship.
After that, Jupiter goes back to her boring existence of cleaning toilets and houses. I don't know about you, but if I owned the Earth, and I came from practically poverty, I wouldn't clean another house in my life. I wouldn't even clean my OWN house, I'd buy a freaking space-ship (If I hadn't inherited one) and take all my family and friends with me to that. Then I'd reveal all this to the world and show them all the cool technology we've got. I wouldn't go back to menial labor and an earthbound existence after experiencing FTL travel like that.
Caine and Stinger get their wings back (Their wings were taken after their courtmartial) and Caine and Jupiter spend their free time flying around Chicago. Then the movie ends.
All in all, this movie sucked, and not just because it was unoriginal. You could rip off everything, and as long as you just made a decent movie, you'd be fine. Originality isn't an issue as far as I'm concerned, if it does something well, I'm fine with it. Unfortunately, this movie is both unoriginal, poorly written, and poorly paced.
A complete summary of everything this movie has copied from would be pretty freaking long, so I'm just going to list off a few that I didn't mention already in the review. There are shots copied from Star Wars, the entire end seems to have been copied in equal parts from Tomb Raider, Assassin's Creed, and Uncharted, plenty of designs appear to be copied from Doctor Who, and the general concept of the movie just comes down to "Science-Fiction Cinderella Story"
That's literally all this movie is, Cinderella with a science-fiction aesthetic. Then we get to the characters, and hoo boy, are most of the characters unlikable. Jupiter Jones herself doesn't even really have any claim to main-character status, because she's equal parts stupid, and honestly, has no real purpose. Literally any other character could have served exactly the same purpose with zero change to the plot, and that's where you're faced with the dilemma of either cutting her out entirely, or giving her some kind of use. All she does is show the audience some cool stuff, and get rescued by Caine whenever she's in danger. And the one time she saves herself, it comes straight the hell out of nowhere, since she's never displayed any self-defense skills at any other point in the film.
I'll say this for it though, the effects were really good (When they weren't misaligning CGI enemies to Channing Tatum's kicks) and the music was freaking awesome. But that's a pair of small positive points compared to all the negative ones.
The inherent problem with the film is the same problem that Lord of Magna had, the back-story was way more interesting than the actual plot. The whole coincidental genetic replication bollocks just wasn't interesting to me. The society surrounding the industrialized genocide was a much more interesting idea, and they barely touched on that! Hell, the story of how Caine and Stinger got kicked out of the military would have made for a better movie. I'd have loved to see a movie about Sean Bean and Channing Tatum as space-cops! Maybe you want to make a movie about that instead?
In the end, I give this movie a 0.6*. I can't really tell what this movie was trying to do, or what kind of message it was trying to send, but whatever it was, they failed. The fact that the Wachowski's resorted to ripping off their own material at a few points in the film is testament enough to that.
Hopefully I'll be seeing you guys next week with Rodea: The Sky Soldier!

Image from impawards.com

Monday, November 23, 2015

Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven; Final Thoughts

 After three weeks of playing this game, I've finally come to what I suppose we could call "The end."
It's not what I would call a very good ending, nor what I would call a conclusion, but the credits were rolling and at the end it said "Fin" so I'd go ahead and say that that's the conclusion of the game. I might not like the end, but I like that I'm done with the game.
I went into Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven hoping that I'd enjoy the experience. While I didn't care for the plot at first, I started out having some fun with the combat, but over time it just got tedious. The smaller technical issues with the game just piled up over-time, and all enjoyment I had at the start of the game just fizzled out towards the end.
You know what? That pretty much describes the entire plot of the game, except for the fact that it the plot started out bland, and proceeded to dig a bunch of plot-holes.
Over the course of the game between what we covered two weeks ago and what we're covering now, they introduced a member of the party whose only purpose in the story is to provide exposition, they revealed that the weird sinister figure we fought earlier in the game was actually a hero, and had a more interesting background than the bloody main-character, who's only revealed to be more bland as the game goes on. Not to mention more proof that the main plot of the game should have been about Luch's ancestor who worked for Kaiser.
Let's sum up the plot in its entirety, shall we? I know I covered it a bit in the last part of the review, but I'm going to discuss it in more detail so I can pick apart the various failings of the story.
The main characters name is Luchs, he runs an inn out in the middle of nowhere, and he never gets any visitors except for his buddy Bart, who minds the inn while Luchs goes out hunting for crystals, which he then sells. While he's out, he finds a girl trapped in a massive crystal formation. Then, an earthquake happens and a bunch of monsters appear blocking his way out of the cave. One of them gives him a concussion, and a voice starts talking to him, asking him what he wants. He wishes to not die right then, and then the girl bursts out of the crystal and kills the monsters. Please note that this whole sequence takes about twenty minutes, and is entirely unplayable.
After that, the girl passes out, and Luchs has to haul her back to the inn. Bart then dresses her up in a maids outfit, and it's at that point we notice the hidden pun in the title. The girl's name is Charlotte, and she has amnesia, as I mentioned in the previous part of the review.
Something that bugs me that I didn't bring up during the first impressions review is the fact that the story gets kicked off by a massive coincidence. Luchs just happens to get up at the right time to meet up with Bart, who just happens to convince him to go out and collect crystals, and Luchs just happens to pick the crystal cave where the girl was in, and he just happens to get attacked by monsters. I've never been one to accept "destiny" as a decent excuse for why things happen in a game. Sure, happenstance can be a good way to kick off some stories, but this game tries to pass it off as some kind of grand destiny of the main character, since it's later revealed that he's descended from the guy who created the magical girls that flock to him. If he was just some kid who'd found the girls and the Lachryma (The bracelet that links them together) by total accident, that'd be better. That's a tale of a hero from humble origins, this is just contrivance.
Luchs and Charlotte go to the local farm to get some vegetables, and they find the girl who runs the farm under attack by the same kinda enemies they fought earlier. Keep in mind, this is over an hour into the game, and this is the first time you're actually allowed to participate in the tactical combat of this tactical RPG. This is why I spent so much time harping on about the pacing of this game in the first impressions review, because this game spent about twenty minutes before you got to anything remotely interactive, and then it took almost an hour to get to the actual combat. You'd think that this is the kind of thing that they'd only do once, but it's not. They actually did it around five times, and that's just counting the long stretches of exposition bookended by opportunities to save. It's probably more times if you manage to count all the times they bookend the exposition with a little bit of combat. The final battle alone has fairly massive cutscenes before and after it.
Later on, they run into the second girl on the list, Beatrix, who (surprise) also has amnesia, but the kind that starts breaking down when she meets her sisters. They sort of explain this, but it doesn't make a lot of sense from my perspective, and it just seems like a massive contrivance so they can not explain the plot all at once, which I suppose I should be thankful for, since it keeps them from spending five straight hours on exposition.
I took a liking to Trixie, and since this game has a relationship system, I went ahead and decided to shoot for a relationship with her. So after Luchs met her, they went on a date in the city, where they met the third girl in the game, a German girl named Elfriede, also suffering from that convenient version of amnesia. She's a tinkerer, and generally one of the best characters in the game, since her primary attack has a rather large area of effect and a damn good damage count. This is where I think they ran out of ideas for unique character mechanics, since the first three girls are the best in combat, while the other four range from utterly useless to annoying, to actually being fairly useful. As for character traits, I'm not impressed. The only ones that seem to be decently characterized are the first three girls, with characterization getting a lot lighter as they're introduced. The last girl pretty much only serves as Addy Exposition, telling Luchs about the back-story of the other girls. Granted, I wasn't able to put any major time into relationships outside of like two, but that's more the games fault than mine. In Fire Emblem Awakening, you built relationships between units by pairing them together in combat. In this game, you build relationships at random points in the story by talking to one of the girls with a heart over their head. This also builds up their powers. You can see the problem here. Tying the characters attacks to their relationship with the main character isn't really a bad thing, per se. But since you're not allowed to build relationships with the girls outside of when the game lets you, this handicaps your party. And since you're only really allowed to go all the way with one girl per playthrough, this prevents you from unlocking all of the girls powers at once. So you might as well just stick with the girls you like in combat and just leave the others to the side until you want to play the game again. Yeah, like that's gonna happen.
From about the time the fourth girl is introduced onwards (With a little before falling into that spot), the writing just seems like it was slapped together on the fly, without much care for consistency. For one thing, check out the screenshot to the left. What Gewalt says there makes literally no sense in light of things we find out later on in the game. You see, he's actually the son of the main villain, who we don't actually meet until about the halfway point of the game. Waaaaay back in the past, the king, Kaiser, waged a war using the girls as his main weapons. They were being mind-controlled by Kaiser, but Gewalt acts like they were willing participants in the fight. It wasn't their fault, and Gewalt knows that, so what was he babbling about?
That's not the only thing which doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The war the girls were involved in? Nobody remembers it happening. But Kaiser, the guy behind it all and the main villain of the game, looks exactly the same now as he did back then, and the reason why isn't actually explained until almost the end of the game. Gewalt looks pretty young as well, and he's been around for hundreds of years too. They say that's because of the false Lachryma that Kaiser wears, but that doesn't explain how Gewalt is still alive, and they didn't really establish the Lachryma as something which prolongs life. Not to mention the false Lachryma is the excuse they give for why Kaiser doesn't just die one of the four times he's killed. But if the false one is keeping him alive, why didn't the real Lachryma keep Luch's ancestor, Edhuard alive when Kaiser killed him? Plus, they state that the true Lachryma is supposed to override the false one, and yet Kaiser was able to order the girls to kill Edhuard. That's just... Weird.
And they suggest that Kaiser survives his many deaths through just sheer force of will, when I'm pretty sure that's not how it works. I should know, I've dedicated most of my life towards studying human anatomy. I might not have a degree, but I think I know enough about the human body to say that getting shot with a magical crossbow, stabbed and slashed with a giant sword, shot some more with a Gatling gun, punched with metal gloves, blown up with grenades, dive-kicked and beaten up until you collapse isn't something you walk away from. Unless you're Deadpool, or Wolverine. But at least they've got the healing-factor going for them, whereas Kaiser just has the fact that he's the villain backing him up.
Kaiser seems to fall into the category of villains who show up late to the party, showing up for one vague scene and then barely being mentioned for about half the game. He also falls into the category of villains who don't really have a good reason to be doing what they're doing.
Kaiser's wife, Sarine died during childbirth, and his best-friend, Edhuard refuses to bring her back using his god-like powers. He gives some weak reason for why he's not doing it, but he just comes off as a bit of a dick. However, Kaiser's reaction to this is to kill Edhuard and try to take the power of the true Lachryma for himself. That sounds like a bit of a massive overreaction if you ask me, but he then one-ups himself by waging a freaking war against the world that seems largely unconnected to the dead queen storyline. And he doesn't react immediately once the Lachryma resurfaces, he takes a while to do anything. And even then, he doesn't do anything sensible. Nobody remembers the war Kaiser waged, not even the girls who were the main weapons of that war, and yet he keeps trying to kill Luchs. Luchs is a nice guy, Kaiser could just walk up to his house and ask him to bring back his wife! As obsessed as Luchs is with doing good deeds, he'd probably jump at the opportunity to help out a person in need. And this might just be me, but I've never really saw any problem with using any means necessary to bring back a dead loved-one or friend. You know, unless that's making a deal with literal a literal devil that also breaks up your marriage. And yes, I am still bitter about Spider Man: One More Day.
Over time, the story just falls apart as the plot-holes begin to intersect. For instance, two of the girls almost literally fall into your lap out of bloody nowhere, and while it starts to get a little stronger after you launch a rescue mission for the final girl, it rather quickly falls apart. The amnesia plot gets dropped fairly soon after Addy shows up, even though the girls don't really get all their memories back, and the game starts ripping off The Heroes Journey in the laziest way possible, since the girls leave Luchs in the middle of the night, and he's not even forced to deal with their absence during any relevant scenario. The girls leave him during the middle of a cutscene, and then rejoin him at the end of that same cutscene, and it's at that point you start to wonder if Addy might be a bad influence on the girls, not that you can actually do anything about that. What do you think this is, a role-playing game? Oh wait.
During the rescue-mission,  Luchs dies and comes back to life, after going through some judgement from the girls, and a little flashback sequence involving the character Sarine, showing him why she exists and why Kaiser is a villain, as shown above. It's rather heavily implied that Sarine helps bring Luchs back from the dead (somehow) and that she's going to be an ally from there on out, but just wait, the inconsistency of the game is about to strike yet again.
After all that's over with, you storm Kaiser's castle and try to kill him. Take a look at the screenshot to the left, and look at the battleground. The flowerbeds are the outer-limits of the battlefield, with invisible walls hampering movement outside of that area. That makes the whole battle a lot less fun, since this is a tiny freaking place for combat, especially with the amount of enemies that spawn on screen at once. Plus, even though Sarine is set up as an ally of Luchs and the girls, she actually aids Kaiser in combat in this section. Luchs and his team succeed in killing Kaiser, but he comes back, and his son (Who he apparently loathes for killing his queen, which doesn't make a whole load of sense.) Gewalt has to destroy his fathers false Lachryma and kill Kaiser before dying himself. And you'd think this would be the end of it, and it should have been, but you'd be wrong. Before we get to that, let's address Kaiser's hatred of his son, both of which have been around for centuries. This much is confirmed towards the end of the game by Gewalt, but if that's true, why haven't they buried the hatchet by now? I refuse to believe that these two human beings, who have been around for hundreds of years wouldn't possibly have gotten tired of all this fighting. And why is Kaiser still apparently in charge of the country? You'd think that someone would notice that the country has an immortal king eventually.
So, Luchs and Trix go to the party the town is throwing for them for saving the world, and Luchs gets beaten up by the revived Kaiser. This is the point where what's left of the story starts falling apart, since this entire last section of the game doesn't need to exist from a storytelling perspective.
However, I will give the game this. The fight with Kaiser right before the final showdown is a good idea, since you're forced to work without using Luchs or whichever of the girls you wound up choosing to be with, which forces you to rely on tactics and units that you wouldn't normally use in combat. It's pretty cool, and I actually liked it from a gameplay perspective. However, from a story perspective, it still doesn't make sense.
After you defeat him a third time, Kaiser spawns a whole bunch of Sarines and absorbs them into himself. After that, his skin turns black and he transforms into a giant robot. No, I'm not kidding. And no, this is never explained.
Check out the gif on the left, this is the final boss, and it might have been a decent fight if not for the fact that the free-roaming combat system is broken when it comes to larger units. The last couple hours of the game are where Lord of Magna's largest failings become glaringly obvious. You've got the bad AI, the tendency of mobs of enemies to restrict their own allies movement, and a new bug that I found where if you pin Frenzied Kaiser between two enemies or even a single enemy and stay just outside his reach, you can just take pot-shots at him until his health reaches zero, and I found this out on the second attempt. I wasn't even trying to find any exploits when I was playing this game, they just showed up.
The Frenzy fight is just bland. Frenzied Kaiser has way too much health, and he's way too hard to beat legitimately, which is why I wound up exploiting his lack of movement. Up until that point, however, it was an okay fight. At least until he pulled out his ultimate finishing move five times in a freaking row! He only used it once in the first fight, but the second fight was downright unfair in the last half, for him and for me.
And after you kill Kaiser again, he still doesn't die! He comes back from the brink of death, again, and isn't going to stop, so Trix steps in and starts to stop him, possibly at the cost of her own life.
This is at the point where it super doesn't make any sense for him to still be alive, because he's been killed four separate times, and has pretty much used-up his entire life-force on massive attacks and spawning little helper enemies who don't actually help him out. This is the kinda situation that's utterly nonsensical, from both a gameplay perspective and from a storytelling perspective, since, by all rights, Kaiser should be dead at least four times over, not counting the amount of times that he should have died over the several centuries he's been alive.
The only way you can truly defeat Kaiser is by embracing Luch's god-powers. But once you do that, the game just ends. Cut to black, roll credits and start showing off sepia-toned screenshots from the game. Then they sort of try to explain why the game just stopped, but it's so incredibly weak that I can't take it seriously. Luchs just disappears and everyone's forgotten he exists except for his girlfriend. You're sort-of tricked into thinking there's any kind of legitimate post-game content, but it's really just a pointless trick that wastes the players time. Talk to everyone in the inn and then the credits keep rolling. Then the credits start pausing every now and again for dialogue.
And for some reason, everyone's sticking around after Luchs disappears, even though having no memory of him would remove any emotional attachment they have to him or his inn. Then all of a sudden, right before the rest of the credits roll, Luchs just shows up at the inn straight out of nowhere with absolutely no explanation as to why, just like how there's no explanation as to why everyone except for his girlfriend lost their memories of Luchs. Not his two best friends, not any of the townspeople he was a hero to, not most of the girls that he treated like part of his family, nobody except for literally one person. Like I said, no reason, no explanation, nothing.
After I finished the game, I started looking for details, and I couldn't find that many. I read some GameStop and Amazon reviews, and I looked around various Wikia wikis trying to find out if I'd maybe missed anything, but there's not really any actual documentation of the plot of this game. Not that I blame anyone for that, it's an incredibly boring story. The most I know now is that there are seven god-damn endings to this game to go along with the new-game+ mode. Presumably, this leads into some kind of true ending, but I'm not going for that.
I've sometimes wondered about making a game that pulls a fast one on the player, where the game is posed as something boring and generic, or maybe extremely bad, and then is revealed to be excellent later on, and I thought for a bit that this might be what this game is trying to do. But then I realized that if you did do that, you'd need to pull it off in (at most) the first hour of the game. Ideally speaking, you'd pull it in the first twenty minutes of the game. So even if this game was trying to pull a fast-one with the story, it failed. Even if the game magically gets better on the seventh playthrough, I'd be more willing to attribute that to Stockholm Syndrome than it actually getting better. Maybe you could call that "Pulling a slow one"
It took me forty hours of play spread across three straight weeks to get the ending I got, and I've got other games that need reviewing. And even if I didn't, I wouldn't want to. Like I've said before, this game has such a boring story that I utterly despise the time I've been forced to spend on it. Rather cunningly, the game has a speed-up button for the dialogue, but even if I were to use that, the rest of the game gets real dull real fast. The fact that it doesn't let you outright skip a cutscene by pressing Start is just odd. Plus, something I liked about Fire Emblem: Awakening was that you could press the R button and bring up a dialogue archive, which was useful if you accidentally skipped past something. Unfortunately, this game doesn't have any equivalent of that, and instead maps the dialogue-skip button to R, which led to me skipping some dialogue accidentally. (not like it mattered) Thankfully, you can turn that off. But once you've turned it off, you can't turn it back on again until you're back into an interactive section. And if you've turned it on, and switched it on during a cutscene, it keeps going in the next cutscene you see, instead of just resetting like it logically should, which has led to more than one accidental skipping. Industry standard is the Start button, why would you do anything else?
Then we get to all the technical problems. As we've covered before, the AI is dumb as bricks, and the game tends to slow down and freeze for a second or two when the AI is making decisions. What I've noticed since then is that the game suffers from enemy pop-in when a whole bunch are on one screen. Look at the screenshot and tell me that's not massively distracting.
Again, I don't know what the game could possibly doing under the hood that it can't render a bunch of teddy-bears and diamonds on screen without having pop-in or slowdown, since I've seen other, more complex games on the 3DS that don't suffer from these same issues. Plus, the game actually straight-up crashed on me twice in the same day. I spent quite a bit of time trying to figure out why that happened, but to no avail. It just crashed on me in the middle of combat and dialogue straight out of nowhere. That was last week, and it hasn't crashed on me since then. God only knows why it crashed, god only knows why it stopped crashing.
I know the slowdown wouldn't have been caused by the SD card I have the game installed on, since it's on a Class 10 card, not like it would do that anyways, media speed only affects the loading time of the game as far as I can tell, and all old3DS's are the same hardware-wise, so it's not like my CPU isn't fast enough or whatever. And I still don't have a New3DS to test it out on, not like that matters, since it's packaged and marketed as a game for the regular 3DS.
Over time, I noticed that they seemed to be married to the concept of the harem of magical maids being your combat party, because they're literally the only characters other than Luchs that you can use in combat, which stunts the game's potential to a rather large extent, since you can't just recruit other people to include in your combat team. If you could add Gewalt, Bart, Amelia, or literally anyone else to the party it'd liven up the combat a bit. Also, the limit of four party-members makes the game a little boring, since fights are an uphill battle unless you're massively leveled. I just prefer the tactical RPGs which allow you to have two massive armies going head-to-head.
The freeform combat system is a little hard to grasp, since only the movement range of a unit is shown when you point your cursor at it, and not the full threat-range. And there's no way to bring up a map of all possible enemy threat-range like you can in Fire Emblem: Awakening.
Then there's the movement on its own. Some enemies can move through each other, and some can't, but you can't move through your own allies, which is a little odd as far as I'm concerned. That, and the fact that a lot of enemies have massive mob-attacks breaks the old DnD adage of "don't split the party" since there are very few circumstances under which keeping the party together is actually beneficial, even when healing comes into the game. All you have to do is just walk your units a few paces towards Luchs and his AOE healing spells take care of the rest. That's literally the first thing I do when I start up a new combat scenario, I spread all the characters across the map.
Then there are the one-way passages that you can sorta squeeze through one way, but not another. There are also times when the gap between two characters or enemies looks like it's big enough to walk through, but it's not, and also times when a gap looks too small to move through, but you somehow manage to squeeze through. I'm not sure how to react to that, since I can't figure out why that would even happen
The more I played this game, the more I began to believe my initial thoughts on the game were correct, that this was a tech-demo that was released as a full game, or at the very least an unfinished game.
Smarten up the AI a bit, polish the movement mechanics a bit more, and definitely fix up the story a whole freaking lot, and you'd have a good game. Hell, some of these glitches should have been fixed up in the international version. They list a debug team in the credits, but I can't possibly see how they managed to miss this much. Granted, the game and its release-date was announced in January of 2014 and saw an initial release in October of the same year in Japan, having been about half-done at the time of announcement. That's something you don't do. Bethesda and Valve have this down pat, you don't announce a game or its release date until it's finished, that way you're not rushing to meet the public deadline. That's not to say you don't need a deadline, you do. But you definitely don't announce a release-date before the game is about 80% finished.
The funny thing is that they list Japanese debug teams and American debug teams, when I can't see that they actually did anything. Or maybe they did, and the original version of the game was unplayable. You know, from what I've been able to see in a lot of Japanese games, the international version irons out a lot of bugs from the original version, but maybe the rather lukewarm sales of the game led to XSeed not putting in a whole lot of effort.
As the game is, I can't recommend it at the price it sells for new. This game is not worth forty bucks, at the most I'd say it's worth between ten and twenty. I'm sorry to say this, I really am. I don't go into any of these reviews looking to trash a game, or to ruin other peoples fun. Sometimes I just have to put my foot down and say "This game sucks"
However, I do have a few positive things to say about the game. For one thing, it's got a kick-ass soundtrack, despite it sounding more like it belongs in Perfect Dark than it does in a Japanese Fantasy game. I'd love to get the soundtrack for this game on CD. I wonder if I could convince XSeed to reuse the soundtrack in a better game than this.
Another good thing to mention is that the 2D art is very well-made and well-animated. They're out-of-place, but they're nice. This game almost feels like it would have been slightly better as a show, given how little it wants to involve the player in the actual story. Hell, they have dialogue choices that have only one option, for some reason.
Here's what I say you need to do to fix the story. Erase the character of Luchs and have us playing as Edhuard back in the time he was working with Kaiser. Then, instead of Kaiser killing Edhuard because his wife died and Edhuard wouldn't bring her back, maybe have Edhuard die in battle against some horrible foe. Then have Kaiser gradually go insane over decades of fighting off the horrible enemy until they finally manage to seal it away for a few more centuries, and have him erase the memories of the girls to keep them from suffering from PTSD. He then finds that he can't do that to himself because his powers prevent him from doing so. Then you skip a while and you play as Gewalt as the terrible enemy comes back later on in the game (Having Gewalt either being a descendant of Kaiser or Edhuard) and have him finding the girls, finding out about the previous events, and then have him confronting the avatar of the evil force, who will turn out to be Kaiser, having been corrupted over the centuries by the terrible thing. Maybe have Kaiser be visibly regretful about his role in this, to make him a tragic hero instead of a nonsensical villain.
But unfortunately, that's not the game we got. But hey, if XSeed wants to hire me on as a story-writer, you can consider the above paragraph my story pitch and audition.
All in all, I didn't have that good a time with Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven. It was dull, repetitive, generic, and a whole lot of other synonyms for "not good"
In the end, I think this is a 1.4* game at most. And you know what, I'm not going to apologize for that. I didn't like the game in the end, and I don't really know how I could have liked it without making some fairly massive changes to it.

Game provided for review by XSeed. Screenshots taken by me. Cover image provided by XSeed, and edited by me.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Kickboxer (1989)

Jean-Claude Van Damme is one of those names that everyone just kinda knows. Even if you haven't seen any of his movies, even if you don't know who he is, his name is probably bouncing around in your head somewhere. Until this Friday, I hadn't even seen one of his movies. I guess he falls into that category of '80s and '90s stars that people just know of, even if they're not familiar with their work, alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger, Hulk Hogan, Steven Segal, Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren.
Van Damme has always been in the background of the slice of pop-culture I've had interest in. At different points in time I've been interested in seeing some of his movies, but I never got around to any of them. To be honest, I didn't pick Kickboxer up because it had Van Damme in it, it was because Stan Bush performed three songs on the soundtrack.
For those of you who don't know, Stan Bush is a melodic rock musician. Most of his well-known songs were featured in sound-tracks to movies in the 1980s, although he's done a few soundtrack songs since then. When you think of Stan Bush, you usually think of Transformers, thanks to what might be his most well-known song, The Touch, also known as the theme-song of Optimus Prime. Thanks to the use of The Touch in Transformers: The Movie, we also got another great Stan Bush song, Dare.
I'm a pretty big fan of Stan Bush, and I love to listen to his music during my workouts. They really get the blood pumping, and they serve to inspire me to push myself to my limits.
One of those songs I listen to is the theme-song of this movie, Never Surrender. I think it's safe to say that it's one of my favorite songs. Eventually, under the urging of one of my friends, I decided to watch Kickboxer. I had a little bit of free-time on Friday, I still haven't finished Lord of Magna, and I needed something straight-forward to enjoy.
Kickboxer might not necessarily be one of the greatest movies of all time, but it's well worth a watch if you're in the mood for a good action movie. It clocks in at around ninety-minutes, but unlike a lot of movies of that length, it actually feels like it was made to be as long as it is. I sometimes get the impression that some movies were cut down to reach their hour-and-a-half length, such as the first Men In Black, or The Pacifier, but thanks to a decent pacing, Kickboxer doesn't suffer from those issues. The start is a little rough, but it picks up pretty quickly, and I think it stays pretty good throughout.
For an action movie, Kickboxer is a little slower than you might expect, but I actually like that about the movie. For some reason, action movies these days feel the need to try and be as spectacular as they can be, packing in as much action as they can with nary a stop to take a breath. See The Expendables if you want a good example of a movie that has no idea how pacing works.
The calm moments in this movie serve to do a lot of showing, instead of telling, and what it does have to tell doesn't seem like it's entirely for the benefit of the audience.
Let me give you a quick synopsis of the plot, as spoiler-free as I can make it.
Eric Sloane (Played by actual kickboxing champion, Dannis Alexio) is the United States Kickboxing champion. After a winning-streak, he decides to travel to Thailand to challenge the also undefeated Thai Kickboxing champion, Tong Po. (Played by fellow kickboxer, former amateur Belgian boxing champion and good friend of Van Damme's, Michel Qissi)
Accompanying Eric is his cornerman and little brother, Kurt Sloane. (Played by Van Damme, whose martial-arts accomplishments are too numerous to count here, just check out his Wikipedia page if you want to see them)
Kurt is a decent kickboxer, but he doesn't have the same record as his brother. They get to Thailand and set up a match between Eric and Tong Po. Kurt is a little wary of the situation, but Eric shrugs it off and figures he can just power through the opposing style. You know, as opposed to fighting a few lesser kickboxers until he gets used to the local style and challenging the local champion when he's ready.
From here on, we move into spoiler territory.
Unfortunately for Eric, he gets knocked-out in the second round, and despite Kurt throwing in the towel, Tong Po keeps beating on him until he fractures Eric's spine and damages his spinal-cord.
This sets up the rest of the movie, which is Kurt's quest to take down Tong Po. He travels around Bangkok looking for a muay thai instructor who will help him hone his skills until he can take on Tong Po. He then spends the rest of the movie training to be the best he can be. Along the way we get some character development, (Though not a whole lot that you'd notice) some great action, and a lot of kickass music. Van Damme even gets to show off his dancing skills at one point in the movie.
While I've never seen Van Damme act in anything else, I think he did a decent job in this film. His character starts out as a nervous young man and ends up a confident martial-artist. There's a pretty massive change in Kurt Sloane's attitude over the course of the film, and there's no small amount of acting that goes into making that convincing. Van Damme's lawyer once said that he didn't get his roles based on acting ability, which may be true to a certain extent. But if you compare Van Damme to, say, pretty much the entire cast of Sharknado, he's freaking golden. What I'm saying is that you can do a hell of a lot worse, and at least Van Damme tries.
Even though you could make the argument that this is just a more hardcore version of The Karate Kid, I like Kickboxer a little more than I liked Karate Kid. Maybe it's the aesthetic, maybe it's the Stan Bush soundtrack. However it goes, Kickboxer has a significantly higher appeal to me than Karate Kid, and in the end, I think it's a good film. They don't make action-movies like they used to, I suppose.
You know what? It's nice to watch a nice straight-forward movie every now and again. It's a story I have a reason to care about, I can sympathize with the motivations of the main character, the love interest is actually a human-being, and do you know what the best part was? The villains were an actual threat. Not only is Tong Po a threatening villain, his associates are as well.
However, this brings me to the one small issue I had with the film. While the overall story and flow of the movie is pretty good, there's one thing that just sorta stuck out to me.
Towards the end of the movie, Tong Po rapes Mylee, Kurt's girlfriend. I don't have any direct criticism of the rape, personally. If they want to put that in there, they can. All I ask is that it do something. I'm not a direct follower of the Chekov's Gun school of storytelling, since I appreciate the idea of having red-herrings and little things that never get resolved, just like in real life.
However, I'd say that if the main villain of your movie is going to rape your protagonist's girlfriend, maybe you should have that do something. It barely affects Kurt, since he doesn't find out about it until the very end of the film, Mylee barely talks about it, and nobody really mentions it after it happens. You could cut it out entirely, change a couple lines of dialogue, and the movie wouldn't be changed in the slightest.
The only time it affects anything related to the story is when Tong Po brings it up during his final showdown with Kurt, who then asks his Mylee if it was true.
As it is, the rape-scene just goes to remind the audience that Tong Po is the villain. He's mobbed-up, he works for a warlord who regularly extorts money from the local townsfolk, and need I remind you, he paralyzed Kurt's brother. You didn't have to remind us why we hate him, he's pretty damn easy to hate.
Also, I thought that Never Surrender should have been playing during the end of Kurt's showdown with Tong Po, as opposed to after the fight was over. The music they play during the fight isn't bad, but I really would have preferred it if they had used Never Surrender when the fight turns in Kurt's favor.
Personally, I would have changed the ending slightly. Not a whole lot, just a little bit.
See, Tong Po's mob-connections kidnap Eric and hold him to ransom, telling Kurt that he needs to go the distance and throw the fight. Fortunately, Kurt's martial-arts instructor, and his friend Winston Taylor rescue Eric, and arrive at the fight to show Kurt that they've rescued his brother. That's the moment when Kurt knows he doesn't have to throw the fight to save his brother. After that, Kurt cuts off his arm-wrappings and beats down Tong Po. I'd have preferred it if the fight went on for all twelve (Or five, depending on the rules-set they're using) rounds, running right up to the end of the match. Let Kurt pull off a few good hits of his own and avoid some of the more grievous hits until the eleventh round, then in the beginning of the final round have Kurt get beaten almost to death. After that, have him see his brother in the crowd, cue Never Surrender, and then just have him wail on Tong Po. Maybe give Tong Po a little bit of a comeback before the end of the song kicks in, and then have Kurt knock him out. But hey, the ending was fine either way.
Even if you didn't completely change the ending like that, all you have to do to iron out the one real issue I had with the movie is cut out the rape-scene and change Tong Po's dialogue to him threatening to kill all of Kurt's friends and rape Mylee, and bam, you've just improved an already good movie.
All in all, I really liked Kickboxer. It's a straight-forward movie with a decent premise and some characters I actually have a reason to care about. In the end, I give it a 9.6* rating.
I was planning on going over the legacy of Kickboxer, but I'm running late on this article as it is, so I'm just going to finish up the review, and maybe cover the films legacy when it comes time to review the upcoming remake. I'll suffice to say that while I'm cautiously optimistic for Kickboxer: Vengeance, Kickboxer was already a good film, and it doesn't really need a remake. Also, if the remake doesn't have a significant number of Stan Bush songs on the soundtrack, I'll be most disappointed.

Image from Impawards.com

Monday, November 9, 2015

Lord of Magna: Maiden Heaven First Impressions

I know I said that the first review I was going to do this month was going to be Fire Emblem Awakening, but I haven't been able to put words to paper on that one yet, so I figured I'd give you guys my first impressions on this game from Marvelous and XSeed that I got in for review a while back.
I was hoping to have been done with The Princess' Heart by now, but apparently my PS3 controller doesn't want to work on my PC anymore, so until I get a new controller for my computer, I'll be sticking with console games for a while.
After I got done with Fire Emblem, I had a hankering to play another good tactical RPG, and since this was on my review schedule, I figured I'd bump it up the list a bit so I could try and get it done. Unfortunately, I don't think that was all that good a decision. While this is by no means a bad game, when you compare the two games, you get some pretty stark contrast. It's not quite on the level of comparing Alien Isolation to Slender, but it comes pretty close.
While Maiden Heaven is technically a tactical RPG, it's a lot closer to being The Legend of Heroes: Trails In The Sky than it is to being Fire Emblem Awakening. Not that that's a bad thing, necessarily, I liked what I've played of Trails In The Sky. But do you know what it had that this game doesn't? Characters I had a reason to care about. And a reasonably expedient opening sequence as well. Take a look at this screenshot.
The time-code on the first save-file is how long it took to get to the first part of the game that was remotely interactive. The time on the second file is how long it took to get to the action.
That's right, twenty minutes of opening sequence until you get to do anything, and then another twenty minutes to get to the combat of this tactical RPG. And that's not counting the length of the FMV that plays before the title-screen, and then plays again during the opening sequence of the game!
That wouldn't even have been that big a deal if I'd been at all interested by what was going on, but one of the major flaws I've been able to notice in this game is the fact that the plot is so bloody boring.
I wasn't able to find the writing credits for any of the three writers credited on the Wikipedia page, so I don't know if they've written anything other than this, but this is one of the most generic stories I've ever had the displeasure to experience.
The plot is that one anime harem plot. You know the one. Where the male lead has little to no personality, all of the girls are based on a single archetype apiece, and worst of all, all of the girls have amnesia. And it's that convenient kind of amnesia where those who suffer from it get their memories back over the course of the game.
See, the reason Fire Emblem Awakening got away with the amnesia plot was because the characters with amnesia never got their memories back. At all. Sorry to spoil that outside of the Fire Emblem Awakening reviews, but I had to bring it up to prove my point.
Amnesia as a plot-device has been done to death in games, movies, television, comics, books, etc. By now, everyone knows about amnesia plots, everyone's seen them done to death in everything we've seen. Hell, we've got an entire series of games called Amnesia for crying out loud. There was a game called Flashback made all the way back in the '90s which had an amnesia plot. Wikipedia has one-hundred and sixty-three articles on amnesia in fiction, and about forty on memory alteration and erasure in fiction. And you know what? I'm pretty sure there's a lot more than that. Episodes of otherwise sensible (To an extent) TV series with amnesia plots shoved into them during one season in an attempt to create mystique. Heroes did it, Ghost Whisperer did it, Lois and Clark did it, and I know others have done it. Amnesia has been done to death as the main driving force of the plot. If you want to use amnesia in your story, fine. Go ahead. But you need something else to drive the plot. Fire Emblem Awakening had the Days of Future Past/Terminator style goal of circumventing the apocalypse driving most of the story, with character interaction filling in the gaps, with the rest of the players time being filled with the combat. We'll be talking about that in a bit.
Comparing the first hour of this game to the first hour of Fire Emblem Awakening, from the moment you fire the game up to the moment you set it down an hour later, we see that FEA has an attract-mode FMV comprised entirely of original material, while LoM just re-uses the anime FMV that plays during the games credits-sequence.
Fire Emblem Awakening starts with gameplay, then introduces you to the characters, introduces the premise of the plot, shows you how to play the game when mechanics are introduced (And not before) and by the time you round out that hour, you'll know plenty about the story, the characters, and the world the story takes place in.
Then we come to Lord of Magna, which spends forty minutes talking and talking and talking until you're left wondering what the hell any of this needless blithering has to do with the story the narrator laid down earlier on. This is yet another Japanese RPG that starts out with a very interesting premise, and then goes on to tell a completely different story. Final Fantasy III did this, Final Fantasy VI did this, and for all it did right, Tides of Fate did that as well (Twice in fact. War of the Abyss did it as well).
It's fine if you go on to tell an interesting story, but if you don't follow it up with the same caliber of ideas you put into the setup, you'd be better off telling the story you laid down in your premise. You have to ask yourself when writing; "Is this the most interesting part of your whole story? And if not, why aren't we seeing that?"
The reason I replaced "Protagonist" with "Story" is because what passes for the main-character in this game is utterly bland. Yeah, he cares deeply about what he's doing, but we have no idea why he cares so deeply. Neither him nor us know much about the badass girls who start showing up in his path, but he treats them like part of his family. Yes, his father told him to treat his guests like family, but there's so little that's established about him, or his father, or anything really that the player has very little reason to give a damn about the story. And that's a rather massive failing for an RPG, since they're usually pretty heavily story-based.
And you know what? Before you even get to any form of combat, or even a combat tutorial you are shown the bathing,  shopping and relationship tutorials. Seriously, after the game gets done with the bizarre and unwanted maid-harem gimmick, it tosses up a bunch of one-page tutorial messages that jam a bunch of irrelevant information into your face. At this point, all I wanted to do was get down to some combat, but that was still about five-to-ten minutes away. That's almost an hour of the players time that gets wasted on a load of dialogue without any relevance to the plot.
And the worst part is that there was ample opportunity to stick a quick combat section in at the beginning of the game
Now, think back to the world-map from Fire Emblem Awakening. Can you name any landmarks? The volcano, the battle on the sea, all the spotpass areas, the arena, the snowy castle, the thieves hideout. So many cool areas that you can hardly name all of them, right?
Now, let's take a look at Lord of Magna's overworld. Keep in mind that this screenshot was taken before I unlocked a lot of the areas on the map, but I think it serves to demonstrate my point no matter what.
Oh dear lord, that's a lot of blueness. And as you can see, the continent lacks a lot of defining detail. The continent lacks texture, the ocean is just a massive dark-blue void, and the whole thing generally looks like it belongs on the title-screen of the Goldeneye remake. Not to mention the fact that the icons are incredibly generic. Plus, they get re-used numerous times around the map. Then we get to the fact that rather than allowing you to pan around the world as you wish, you have to select you destination from the menu on the left of the screen. This overworld would be more suited for a science-fiction game than a cartoony, colorful fantasy game such as this.
So if the story is bland and generic, what about the gameplay?
Well, like I mentioned before, the gameplay rather heavily resembles that of Trails In The Sky, but with a few major changes. Trails In The Sky had a rather rigid combat-system, where you could either move your characters freely, or attack enemies. If you attack an enemy in Trails In The Sky, you have to select each enemy in range without being allowed to roam around freely. Trails In The Sky's area-of-effect system functions similarly to that of LoM's, but Lord Of Magna focuses a lot more on busting up massive enemy hordes than Trails In The Sky does. For one thing, all enemies have the potential to inflict damage on their allies when they die. When mooks die, they fly a fairly long way away from their standing position, and have the capacity to either outright kill other mooks, or do some amount of damage to higher-level enemies. From what I can tell, it's like a turn-based Dynasty Warriors. I've wanted to get into Dynasty Warriors for a while now, and if it has the same focus on wanton mayhem that this does, I'd be interested in picking it up. Maybe I need to start saving up for that Wii U and pick up Hyrule Warriors. Or maybe I'll wait for the New3DS version, who knows.
Also, you can move freely around the map without using up your entire turn. And instead of mana, you get a "Tension" score after a certain point in the game. Your units accumulate Tension in combat by killing enemies.
Then we come to Action Points. As their name would suggest, they are a series of points which allow you to take certain actions, and units accumulate them by not taking any actions on their turn. I should mention that movement is not considered an action. As an avid player of Dungeons and Dragons, I would have liked the ability to exchange an action-point for more movement, or movement for another action.
Your combat-team consists of your avatar and up to three of the magical maids (Yes, seriously. This is one of the things the game spent forty minutes boring me to death with) who live in his inn. The default name of the lead-character is Luchs (Pronounced Lux) Edhuard, but since you can change his name, I decided to call him GalanDun.
As of writing, I've managed to unlock four of these magical amnesiac maids (Still not kidding) to take with me into combat. So far I've managed to identify which of the three are the most useful.
Guess which ones I like best? From left-to-right, top-to-bottom, Belatrix, Charlotte, and Elfriede. As you can tell in Gabriele's screenshot, she has very little range or field to her attack, and it does very little damage.
Then we get to her special-attack that she can perform when she has two action-points. Unlike the other three girls special attacks, it doesn't have any longer range to it, it doesn't have a wider field of attack, and it doesn't do a whole lot more damage than her normal attack. Since there are only three more magical maids to collect (Gotta catch 'em all!) I would hope that they're better in combat than Gabby is. I've already run into at least two of them, and they seem pretty damn competent. But since this is an RPG, they might get nerfed something ridiculous once they join the party.
Now we get to something which especially irked me. You see, the game is too easy on normal for my tastes. Having just come off of Fire Emblem Awakening, I wasn't expecting a game that was quite this easy. I know it's probably pretty unfair to compare the two, but this game just isn't all that challenging on the default difficulty, and it's rather unfortunate that you can't amp up the difficulty while in combat. And even on hard the game is a little too easy, made so by the fact that the AI seems to be, as we say in this business, pretty damn stupid. As long as you stay a decent distance away from large groups of enemies, they'll just stay put while you slaughter their allies.
Then there's their tendency to mob around each other and restrict their own movement enough for my squad to whip out their special-attacks and get ten or more kills per-attack. Or you could just let them restrict each other until you've managed to destroy enemy-spawners, heal your units, and boost up their stats.
Also, there's no unit perma-death, or even an option for it in the menu, so you wind up with the typical RPG issue of death being irrelevant, while restoring your units to full-health after the battle ends. So even if there's another battle right afterwards, they can still fight in it.
Another thing that makes the game a little easier than it probably should be is the fact that if you fail a mission, you keep all of the experience and items you gained while playing through the level. Unfortunately, this also means that any items you used during the mission are consumed forever. You can get around this by returning to the title-screen and reloading a save, but then you have to play through everything leading up to the point where you were, and I don't have enough patience to do that.
On the one hand, it allows you to gain strength and overcome the mission that's causing you problems while allowing you to grind in the level itself. But on the other hand, instead of forcing you to come up with a new strategy and approach to the situation at hand, it lets you keep throwing yourself at the problem until you manage to get to a high enough level that you can steamroll the program, even if you don't want to grind your levels up.
Once you retry a mission, your entire squad is locked-in, even if you chose them all by hand before the mission started, so you can't change them out for other members of your magical maiden army. Not that you'd necessarily want to in the first ten hours of the game, since I only had three that I liked.
That's another complaint I have. Ten hours in, and this game has a ton of dialogue, but very little that resembled a plot. In ten hours I could have finished Metal Gear Solid, and I probably would have had a lot more fun, because MGS actually has characters that are worth caring about, and a story that is actually interesting, original, and well-written.
Ten hours in this game leaves me just as perplexed as I was when the game started. This is something that tends to irritate me about a lot of RPGs, the fact that they seem to have a minimal amount of story that gets stretched across twenty to a hundred hours of gameplay.
In a lot of cases, the dialogue is anything from bland, to outright hilarious. Take a look at the gif to the left. That's some comedy gold, there. If I hadn't turned the irritating voice-acting off, it probably would have been even funnier to hear what they were saying.
That's the problem with voice-acting, if you don't have it spot-on, you're better off not using it at all. The random interjections of sounds and words, with the occasional use of full voice-over that usually comes straight out of nowhere.
Since we're discussing cutscenes right now, let's talk about the character portraits. They're beautifully drawn, and very well-animated. If characters shift from one pose to another, it's animated smoothly, rather than shifting from one pose frame to another the way games like Fire Emblem Awakening, Sonic Rush, Iron Man 2, and others do. It looks nice, and it's a nice touch. But the points it gains for that, it loses as soon as you look at the animation on the 3D models. Remember that comparison I made to Trails In The Sky earlier? Do you guys remember how smoothly animated the pre-rendered sprites they used for the characters and enemies were?
Well, all of the non-static models in this game have really choppy animation. Rather than moving smoothly from one pose to the next, the models tend to jump stiffly from pose to pose. Final Fantasy VII had better model rigging than this, and it's almost twenty years old!
And I don't buy for a second that it's because of any kind of technical limitations. The 3DS pulled off Ocarina of Time, Majora's Mask, Tales of the Abyss, Metal Gear Solid 3, Sonic Generations, and Resident Evil; Revelations, among other games with extremely smooth animation. Then you've got all of the games on the DS with smooth animation, so it's either a stylistic choice, or a product of bad animation. Either way, I don't care for it.
You remember how smooth the portrait animation is? Well, that carries over into the animated FMVs.
Unfortunately, the cinematics are few and far-between. I was under the impression that full-motion video was included in games to get around graphical limitations, but the FMVs in this game are at most around two seconds long.
I don't really understand this. Considering how bad the 3D animation is, you'd think that all of the cutscenes in the game would have been animated like this. But they're not. All they do is flash up a few seconds of animation before cutting back to the boring, chibi graphics.
This brings me to the chaotic nature of the battles. In most of the cutscenes, there's hardly anything on the screen. At most, you see at least four or five characters in the environment on one screen. During animated FMVs, the environment is usually a lot more detailed than it is in the game, and there are usually more characters present.
Then we get to the battles, where we can have upwards of fifty characters, NPCs and enemies at any one point in time. Sometimes this causes slowdown, sometimes the game freezes for a second or two, or sometimes nobody moves at all. I don't know if this is fixed on the New3DS, since I don't have one yet, but considering the nature of the graphics and environments, there shouldn't be all that much going on under the hood for it to slow down this badly. If slowdown is this bad, you should limit the amount of enemies that can spawn on the screen. As far as I can tell, the only limit the game has on the amount of enemies it can spawn is the amount it can fit onto any given map.
But, I will say this for the game. There are some awesome moments that can be had during combat, and it's pretty damn thrilling to fight out of a losing battle with only one character. It's somewhat diminished by the fact that the AI is a little dopey, but it's still a lot of fun in most cases.
So, what do I think of the game so far?
Well, all in all I like it so far. The story is pretty lame, and the AI is sometimes too stupid for its own good, but it's still fun. Here's hoping the story starts to get interesting later on in the game.
Thus concludes my review of the first ten-or-so hours of the game. Here's hoping I don't take three years to finish this game. Hopefully next weeks review will be on-time.

Game, cover image and a few screenshots provided by XSeed. Almost all of the screenshots were taken by me.