The King of Fighters 14 review

In terms of sheer name recognition, the King of Fighters franchise has always lived in the imposing shadow of the ever-popular Street Fighter. But as of this moment, I’d much rather be playing The King of Fighters 14 than Street Fighter 5. SNK’s PS4-exclusive, 2.5D fighting game is a stellar addition to the genre, blending old-school style and smart sensibilities with fresh visuals and a host of new fighters in the massive roster. It’s fun, frantic, and remarkably deep, perfect for series beginners and KOF veterans alike. KOF 14 isn’t revolutionary, but everything it does, it does so right.

This sequel stays true to the KOF formula: players assemble a team of three fighters to spar in a sequence of consecutive one-on-one duels, sans any tags or assists. If you best understand the feel of a fighting game through Capcom’s hits, KOF 14 is akin to Street Fighter’s footsies, where spacing and knowing the range of your normals is crucial, mixed with Marvel vs. Capcom’s meter management, strings of super attacks, and breakneck speed (to a lesser, more manageable degree). But two particularly crucial mechanics give KOF 14 its own identity: MAX Mode, which spends a bar of super to temporarily enable EX moves and extend combo strings, and Emergency Evasion, which lets any character quickly roll forward or back to bypass fireballs or escape the corner at the risk of being thrown.

The biggest change in KOF 14 is plain to see: the switch from KOF 13’s gorgeous hand-drawn sprites to 3D renders fighting on a 2D plane. And while the anime-style visuals won’t appeal to the mainstream, I’m happy to say that they’ve been refined far beyond the plastic-looking, Barbie-doll-esque character models that were a major turn-off for many when the new graphics engine first debuted. Things like lighting and shading have been completely redone to give everyone a softer, more lifelike appearance, and fancy visual effects perfectly mimic old moves that are fast enough to be a blur.

Classic cast members like Kyo, Iori, and Terry Bogard look and move just like you remember, only now with an extra dimension, and the fluid animations complement the fighting’s frenetic pace. It’s highly unlikely that anyone will be amazed by the visuals, but KOF 14 commits to its unique graphical style with such panache that I’ve become quite endeared to it. Same goes for every aspect of the presentation, from the varied soundtrack full of hard rock, jazz, and blippy techno to the lovingly old-school (and often hilarious) exclamations of the announcers. I only have a few minor gripes with the new look: compared to the vibrantly shaded fighters, the somewhat muted hues of the backdrops don’t pop like previous games, and there are only four costume colors per character, as opposed to KOF 13’s wildly diverse palette options. 

Speaking of ‘wildly diverse’, KOF 14’s roster is absolutely excellent, boasting a whopping 50 fighters to master and combine as you see fit. Your old favorites like Mai, Kim, and Joe are all here, alongside plenty of creatively designed newcomers that accommodate all kinds of distinct playstyles. Some of my favorite additions include Meitenkun, a perpetually sleepy charge character who flings his pillow as a projectile, King of Dinosaurs, a T-Rex-costumed wrestler, and Sylvie Paula Paula, an electricity-flinging lookalike of real-world J-pop idol Kyary Pamyu Pamyu. The only new character I actively dislike is Xanadu, a bug-eyed, blue-bearded weirdo who can damage opponents by screaming in their faces.

You can play as these largely lovable misfits in a variety of single-player modes, including standards like Time Attack and Survival, or sets of character-specific Trials which are far less intimidating than the finger-torturing combos of KOF 13’s challenges. The marquee solo mode is Story, but it’s pretty much just a 10-stage Arcade Mode, peppered with a few generalized cutscenes starring the goofy antagonist Antonov (one of two unlockable characters). There are a handful of character-specific exchanges if the right fighters cross paths, and you’re rewarded with slideshow endings (packed with SNK references) depending on the team you piloted to victory. It’s by no means bad, just basic – especially compared to the branching single-player storyline in KOF 13.

There’s no need to be intimidated by the size of the roster, either: KOF 14 smartly implements a mechanic called Rush, which lets you bust out a short automatic combo by mashing Light Punch up close. Rush allows newcomers to pick up any character and do ok while still giving dedicated players the advantage, which feels like the perfect balance of accessibility. KOF 14’s four button layout feels great on an arcade stick or gamepad, though I highly recommend using a stick (PS3 or PS4, with a day one patch adding legacy controller support) due to the sometimes tricky motion inputs for certain specials and supers. That said, the animation-based timings for combos feel far more transparent than other contemporary fighters, which goes a long way towards learnability and makes KOF 14 feel more welcoming to players of any level. Meanwhile, experts will be enthralled by the depth of the combo system, where MAX cancels create absurd attack string opportunities for those with highly developed muscle memory, as well as the complex movement mechanics that can completely change your offense based on the angle and height of aggressive jumps. 

As with any fighting game, KOF 14 competition is best enjoyed via versus matches in person, but the majority of players will be sharpening their skills online. And fortunately for them, KOF 14’s online netcode felt rock-solid during all my matches. The connection speed of both you and your opponent will always be the determining factor of whether or not you’ll encounter lag, but the majority of my encounters were smooth, and even fights against people with a one-bar connection were merely sluggish rather than unplayable. A fantastic lobby system makes it easy to arrange (or spectate) friendly matches with strangers, while online warriors can enjoy the challenge of climbing up the Ranked ladder.

Sure, there will be plenty of people who take one look at The King of Fighters 14 and dismiss it for its less-than-perfect visuals. But if you’ll pardon the pun, gameplay is king, and KOF 14 delivers some of the most refined one-on-one fighting around. It hits all the right notes with its pacing and mechanics, showcases a wide array of charming characters, and shines with presentation that evokes classic SNK. When it comes to fighting games, KOF 14 is the complete package – which is more than can be said for some other fighters at launch.

Madden NFL 17 review

Madden 17 checks all the boxes of a proper sports simulator: Up-to-date rosters, accurate depictions of real NFL stadiums, and real-world TV announcers commenting on your every move. As longtime players have come to expect from the annual update, we’ve seen a lot of this before. But the familiar presentation and just-a-little-nicer-than-last-year graphics belie some dramatic and much-needed changes to how you actually play the game. 

Madden has always existed in a strange space between the real, sometimes boring NFL, and the high-octane insanity of NFL Blitz. The franchise bills itself as a simulation, but with game times sliced down by default, and an emphasis on the passing game that leads to huge scores, matchups aren’t nearly as strategic and plodding as they often are on the real NFL gridiron. 

Hoping to make these virtual contests more balanced without sacrificing the excitement of big yardage plays, Madden 17’s ground game has gone through a complete overhaul. Gone are the days where you point the running back in a direction, wiggle the stick, and hope for the best; you now have much greater control over the runner and can actively engage defenders with more variety than a simple stiff-arm or spin move. 

Once you’ve made contact with a tackler, you now have a real opportunity to break their grasp with some well-timed button mashing. It might sound silly, but in practice it leads to more realistic running plays, as modern NFL backs rarely go down at first contact, and frantically tapping on your controller to squeeze out a few extra inches for a first down can make even the smallest plays feel like a big deal. It’s a welcome change, and makes the rushing options much more appealing than in years past.

The passing game has remained largely untouched. Timing your pass to hit a receiver at precisely the right moment, avoiding the pass rush, and occasionally tossing the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack are all key to a successful drive on offense. Playcalling is a simple affair, with a half dozen sorting options to quickly find the play you’re looking for, or you can trust the AI coach and pick one of the recommended plays. 

For those who are less into the on-field grind and more into the meta of an NFL season, Madden 17 has made some solid upgrades to the love-it-or-hate-it Franchise mode. You pick your team and ride it through an entire NFL season, acting as an omnipotent football genius as you set a season goal, negotiate contracts, and even force your players to play through injuries. The new “lingering injuries” feature lets you push a player back onto the field after they’ve been given the OK by the team doctor, but before they are fully healed. Doing so puts the player at greater risk of reinjury, but getting a superstar back onto the turf can save a season. 

A neat addition to this year’s Franchise mode is the new Play The Moments feature. It’s totally optional, but allows you to take direct control of the outcome of a particularly pivotal play. Say, for instance, that your Wild Card playoff spot depends entirely on a 4th-and-goal play. Instead of simulating the outcome, you’ll be tossed into the game and given the chance to play that specific down, putting your team’s success or failure entirely on your shoulders. It’s a nice way to feel connected to the outcome of games even when you’re more focused on big picture decisions like signing players or managing your new practice squad. 

Madden Ultimate Team, where you buy player packs akin to trading cards, fill your roster, and play against others who may or may not have a much, much better team than you, is largely identical to its previous iteration. The pack-opening animations are new, and there are now fireworks, so at least that’s something, right? MUT is definitely for the most hardcore of the Madden faithful, and the payoff for building an unstoppable team is the ability to relentlessly destroy online opponents. 

Speaking of online play, Madden 17 continues the series’ recent tradition of typically lag-free matchups, though if you’re a particularly skilled player you’ll still often find yourself on the receiving end of a “Your opponent has disconnected” error message. There’s not much EA can do about those, unfortunately. 

But as solid as Madden 17 is, there are still a few issues that, like a pulled hamstring, continue to linger. The new announcers, like the old announcers, suffer from stilted conversation and cheesy dialogue. Listening to a pair of football gurus mindlessly banter during a real NFL game is cringe-worthy enough as it is, but when that same inane chatter is distracting you from picking your next play, it’s even more annoying. If the bad commentary is an attempt at realism, I think we’re better off without it. 

Then there’s the player animations, which will repeatedly remind you that you’re playing a sports game with digital, plastic players. When standing up from a tackle, players will often slide and pivot while their feet remain frozen, and after a group collision you’re likely to see at least a few of them lay flat on their back with their hands at their sides, waiting for other players to move so they can perform their own stand-up-and-walk-away animation. These are issues that have existed in sports games for many, many years, but if you were hoping for a more immersive and believable experience this time around, it’s simply not here. 

Those relatively minor niggles aside, Madden 17 makes a convincing argument that it’s not just another annual roster update. With sole ownership of the NFL license for over a decade now, EA’s Madden franchise has long since had any kind of real competition. In the time since acquiring those exclusive rights, the series has been occasionally accused of phoning it in and failing to make significant progress, year to year. With major changes to some of the game’s core mechanics, and an impressive revamp of the now marquee Franchise Mode, Madden 17 has done its best to avoid any such accusations, and succeeded.

Madden NFL 17 was reviewed on Xbox One.

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided review

I’m crouched in the lower vault of the Palisades Property Bank, Prague’s premier data security facility. It’s impenetrable, or so the unflappable receptionist would have me believe. My entry into one of its most secure areas says otherwise. I turn on my Glass-Shield Cloaking aug, rendering me temporarily invisible. Moving undetected through the laser tripwires, I take cover out of sight of the security turret. Using a multitool, I remotely hack a nearby door to the server room. Inside, I discover a large cable hatch that leads to the security booth. There’s a single guard, but taking him down would alert his colleagues outside. I press a button on the wall, and the windows tint, obscuring the view into the booth. Guard down, I’m one step closer to opening the vault and looting its valuable contents.

What’s great about Deus Ex: Mankind Divided is that none of this is mandated by the story. The bank has its place in the critical path, but I’m here of my own accord. And how I broke it open is specific to me. As with 2011’s Human Revolution, my augmentations and tools are my own, picked based on my preference for stealth and non-lethality. Someone else might hack the turrets and security robots to kill the guards on their behalf. Another player could run in, detonating the typhoon augmentation that has returning protagonist Adam Jensen fire out explosive projectiles in every direction.

It works because the level design anticipates the range of possibilities, and offers interesting paths for each. Often this means spacious, Jensen-sized vents to crawl through, but there are options for every main mission, side quest or self-made personal project. Do you hack a keycode into a back entrance? Do you use your mechanical arms to stack crates until you can use your mechanical legs to jump up to a ledge? Do you just walk in the front door and deal with the consequences? Mankind Divided, much like every Deus Ex game before, is about the joy of planning, execution and on-the-fly decision making.

The majority of the action takes place in Prague, a huge city hub comprised of five districts split across two open areas. It’s two years after the events of Human Revolution, and Jensen has taken a job hunting terrorists for a new Interpol taskforce. At the end of Human Revolution, augmented humans were driven into a 28 Days Later style rage. Mankind Divided runs with that thread, depicting a world that’s grown fearful of the augmented. Prague is at the extreme of this global phenomenon, and has begun to segregate augmented and ‘naturals’.

As civil rights allegories go, it’s a little on the nose. Still, Mankind Divided does a good enough job of exploring the consequences of these events. Human Revolution explored the darker side of human augmentation. Prague’s aug ghetto, Golem City, is this taken to its logical conclusion. The augmented CEOs and business leaders, meanwhile, are unaffected – busy constructing augmented havens away from the rest of the world. Throughout, moral decisions reinforce the hardships faced by augmented individuals, although rarely to any satisfying or particularly profound conclusion.

The biggest problem with Mankind Divided’s focus on discrimination is Jensen himself. Dialogue choices offer the option to relate to Prague’s augmented, but Jensen never experiences their plight. He’s augmented, yes, but different. Special. Some of his colleagues don’t like him, but never question his efficacy. His Interpol ID means he can happily walk onto a non-augmented train carriage and face nothing more than an angry cop checking his papers. And, unlike every other augmented human in the game, he doesn’t need Neuropozyne to stop his body rejecting his mechanical limbs. People hate Jensen in the way they hate Geralt in The Witcher 3, which is to say they need him too much to do anything but make derogatory comments. But where The Witcher 3 uses discrimination as texture to flesh out the world, Mankind Divided makes it the backdrop.

Far better is the slowly unfolding conspiracy at the heart of Mankind Divided’s action. Jensen has to find the perpetrators of a bombing at a Prague train station, and, in doing so, deals with an aug rights movements, a hacktivist collective, an augmented cult and more. This is the series’ bread and butter, and while it’s hardly original (the Illuminati are at it again), series fans should appreciate the ties to the original Deus Ex. It’s an enjoyable yarn to unravel, and even offers some limited agency to nudge the story in minor, specific ways.

An additional complication comes from the new, experimental augs found dormant in Jensen. An intriguing story wrinkle, it’s mainly a way to give him new powers. There’s some fun stuff to toy with, including long-range stun, remote hacking, short-range teleport and armoured skin. They’re all potentially useful tools, depending on your playstyle preference, and enhance the already entertaining suite of powers that return from Human Revolution. It’s a broad enough selection that your choice isn’t limited to just action or stealth, but to the specific method of either that most suits the way you want to play.

On top of that, Eidos Montreal adds weapon customisation and different ammo types. Mankind Divided offers both a broad toolbox, and a detailed, intricate environment. It’s a satisfying combination, and the result is a game that’s best enjoyed slowly and deliberately – picking apart Prague’s secrets and ancillary missions before driving the story forward by flying off briefly to some other location. Sure, it would be nice to have a second major hub, akin to Human Revolution’s Hengsha, but Prague’s size and detail makes up for that – as does the fact that subsequent visits take place at a different time of day, and with new side quests.

It’s much better looking than Human Revolution, too. Prague feels more like a real space, and Eidos Montreal uses the more powerful console hardware to offer larger areas filled with more clutter. And of course, it’s filled with plenty of Eidos Montreal’s absurd but striking futuristic design (read: triangles everywhere). Faces are more detailed and expressive, too, but also inconsistent – one of the most immersion breaking aspects of the game. Major NPCs are more detailed, which makes the minor ones look weird and out of place. 

In terms of story, Human Revolution probably retains the edge because it focused on Jensen’s character in a way that Mankind Divided doesn’t. This new chapter shifts the world and its conspiracies along, and as a result doesn’t have the same impact. But viewed as a series of systems and levels, Eidos Montreal has outdone itself. Mankind Divided is full of great moments, from the lengthy journey across The Throat of Golem City, to the simple pleasure of crouching in a Prague bank, wondering how next to proceed.

This game was reviewed on PC.

No Man's Sky review

No Man’s Sky is the hardest game I’ve ever had to score. Not in the same sense that stonemasonry, eye surgery or creating a near-infinite universe is hard – all I have to do is put some stars at the end of some words, after all – but more that it’s a sporadically brilliant experience that’s impossible to recommend without reservations. 

I’ve already gone into detail about the actual experience in my review diary, so you should already have an idea of what you do. The purpose of this review, then, is to decide if you actually need No Man’s Sky in your life. 

I like it. I’ve played it for over 30 hours, and will go home tonight and keep playing it. I’ve essentially been doing the same thing the entire time – scanning wildlife, unpicking alien language, giving planets stupid names – and that’s still the part of the game I love most. I’ve upgraded my warp drive to visit new types of star, but it’s conceptually the same thing, irrespective of what type of system I’m in. It’s the perfect game for a sleepy Sunday spent mining ore on alien planets. Immense, striking, unusual.

But as soon as the game tries to fill that majestic void with action, things go awry. At one point I was yanked out of warp space by a band of pirates. My shields went down almost immediately, and I struggled to save myself by navigating clunky menus and allocating resources to refill them. Struggled so much, in fact, that I was blown to bits. It’s a sticky system to use in the middle of fight, and if there’s an easier way of doing it, it’s never explicit. More than anything, it’s a jarring, unavoidable thing to experience when compared to the sedate business of mining and documenting flora and fauna. Whatever your expectations of No Man’s Sky, fiddly, mid-menu space combat must be low on the list.

Combat on land isn’t much better, but at least it’s easier to avoid. When I find myself on a planet with frenzied or aggressive sentinels, I usually just leave. With quintilions of planets to choose from, and rich resources in every system, there’s usually no reason to put up with harassment from angry floating robots. It’d be different if fighting was fun but No Man’s Sky ignores the established grammar of modern shooters. Simple failings, such as the need to manually reload your weapon, or the sporadic need to recharge everything through the menus, mean that fighting is uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. 

It can be a frustrating experience elsewhere, too. This is a space management sim in every sense. It says everything that increased inventory slots are the primary reward for progress in No Man’s Sky – the ability to carry more stuff is an incentive for upgrading your ship, exosuit and multi-tool. It’s a tricky thing to balance. Upgrades that improve your gear each take up one free slot, so your inventory can quickly become a tangle of stamina buffs, jetpack boosters and hazard protection. They can be built and discarded cheaply, but it’s tiresome distraction that stops you doing the fun stuff.

More generally, there’s an intangible sense of everything in No Man’s Sky being illusory. For its many moments of spectacle, it’s never nourishing in the same way as The Witcher 3 or Skyrim. At any moment, it feels like you could pierce the veil of space and see raw code. Instead of being liberating, the near-infinite scale actually makes No Man’s Sky feel strangely claustrophobic. There’s something reassuring about hitting the walls that surround most open world games – you can turn around and appreciate what’s actually there – but No Man’s Sky, by comparison, can feel hopeless, like being stranded in an endless sea. 

This sense of the unreal is most jarring when you’re between planets. As I mentioned in the diary, it doesn’t feel like a familiar representation of space – I felt more like I was floating in an endless soup of filled with vast, celestial croutons. It’s often beautiful, and always impressive, but does it feel like you’re traversing the cosmos? Not really. Some much-needed context comes from your interaction with aliens. This is all excellently written, and the history of the Gek, Korvax and Vy’keen is interesting enough to keep you searching out monoliths to learn more, but it’s a passive experience. Occasionally, an angry alien warrior will slap you for answering a question wrongly, but the threat is superficial. I loved the puzzle of deciphering alien sentences, but never enough to search out additional words if I got stuck. And because you encounter these aliens in similar locations every time  – identical space stations or samey planetary outposts – the only sense of place or personality comes from the (admittedly brilliant) text. It makes the universe feel thin, and somehow uninhabited.

Yet despite all these things, I’m drawn back to No Man’s Sky. The aliens may lack distinction, but there are many planets I fondly remember exploring. The promise of edging closer to the center of the universe remains compelling. It’s also a game to stop, enjoy and investigate. When you step away from the rush for materials and embrace the staggering scope, it’s possible to lose hours on a single planet. I know all the places I visit are variations on the same theme, but the process of discovery is still enjoyable enough to keep me exploring. 

In that respect it’s probably the best three-and-a-half star game I’ll ever review, and certainly the most ambitious. But that doesn’t mean it’s for everyone. Players looking for savage space battles will be frustrated by systems that simply aren’t up to muster; those desperate for peaceful study will struggle when it forces combat upon them; anyone wanting to meet other players will get lonely. Look past these limitations, however, and No Man’s Sky offers a timeless universe of quiet, compelling exploration. 

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV review

Had Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15 been released in theaters back in 2001, things would have been very different. Hironobu Sakaguchi, creator of Final Fantasy, might not have had to leave Squaresoft after sinking a huge percentage of the company’s cash into the absolute bomb of a movie known as Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. Squaresoft might have actually stayed Squaresoft rather than merging with Enix and embarking on a decade of creative wandering, longing to be a blockbuster production house but never matching the magic or its multimedia heyday on Super Nintendo and PlayStation. Final Fantasy might have turned into the massive, mainstream crossover success Final Fantasy 7 suggested it could be. Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15 might have made it all happen because here’s the thing: it is a great Final Fantasy movie, capturing everything distinct about the series that spawned it while also working as a thoughtfully executed action movie on the level of Dredd and Edge of Tomorrow. They finally did it. And best of all, you don’t need to know anything about Final Fantasy to love it.

Kingsglaive, within minutes of starting, does what Spirits Within and the other attempts to translate Final Fantasy to film and television like Advent Children and the abysmal ‘90s anime never bothered to: clearly define its world and introduce characters we can immediately identify and empathize with. The world is in a dire state at the beginning, but the stakes are clear. In a world weirdly similar to ours (they drive Audis and love hoodies) but wholly alien (militaries fight using guns, horrific tentacle monsters, and magic), the technologically powerful Niflheim empire has waged a decades long war for control of the world. The kingdom of Lucis, a monarchy whose military, infrastructure and lifestyle is rooted in magic power sourced from the last remaining crystal on a world where there used to be many, is one of the last holdouts resisting Nifelheim rule. When we meet Kingsglaive’s hero Nyx, voiced with charmingly put-upon stoicism by Aaron Paul, Lucis is reduced to little more than its capital city and the crystal-powered magic wall keeping out monsters, displaced rebels, and the overwhelming Nifelheim forces.

Familiar to anyone born in the past 500 years that’s happened to see Shakespeare’s Henry V, Star Wars, or even played a Final Fantasy game before, this political backdrop is a proven stock story tool that’s easy to understand and fits a plethora of sympathetic character archetypes. Kingsglaive elevates itself immediately, though, through elegant world building and sharp, simple characters. When we meet the Kingslgaive, a special force of fighters from Lucis that can actually use the magic sourced from the kingdom’s crystal and its king Regis (voiced by the ever lovable, ever doomed Sean Bean), the style of warfare is surreal but vividly wrought. The countryside is brutalized by angular warships dropping building-sized monsters that blanket the area with organic cruise missiles.

Nyx and the other ‘glaive fighters, meanwhile, dart about the landscape, throwing short swords that they can warp to while others support them with magic. While all the action could easily become incoherent, director Takeshi Nozue frames every shot in a way that carves a clear path between cause and effect. I understood instantly how the Lucisian fighters worked, what they could and couldn’t do, why it was such a struggle for defensive mages to maintain the force’s shields thanks to clear staging and subtle body animation. All of which made it easier to get lost in the Kingsglaive’s plight as they returned to a war-weary city and Nifelheim inexplicably retreated, clearly preparing some new subterfuge. This blend of clear plotting and strange fantasy eludes most movies that attempt it at all, let alone previous Final Fantasy films that were at best inscrutable underneath the mystic operatics.

If Kingsglaive were just an above average action movie with a smooth script it would still impress but the humanity of its principal characters also raises Square-Enix’s film. Everyone performs with real heart and while the stellar animation sometimes (if rarely) dips into the uncanny valley, the soul of the characters carries those rough moments. Regis is a classically stoic monarch and warrior torn between protecting the world from ongoing war and making painful sacrifices of the people he’s sworn to protect, but he’s also more, a father whose worry for his family makes it difficult to focus at crucial moments. Luna, royalty from a neighboring nation, political ally to Regis and fiancee to his son, also at first seems to just fill the role of knowing but powerless princess, but she reveals herself over the course of the story as an aggressively pragmatic person doing everything she can to prevent further bloodshed. 

And Nyx, the face of the Kingsglaive, is sympathetic beyond the stock capable hero who sees what’s really happening. As a refugee from the outskirts of Lucis that have been totally destroyed by the war, he’s conflicted: do I serve the king and protect these people or do I curse them for destroying my home through their power struggle? Even characters who only appear for a few minutes are as convincingly wrought and layered as these three, totally human people in a world where skyscraper-sized tentacle monsters are military ordinance but folks still drive Audis. 

Kingsglaive is a smart, well made movie but it’s also just good Final Fantasy. The series has always been a collage, sneaking away parts of Tolkein, Dungeons and Dragons, the early-20th century sci-fi of Edgar Rice Burroughs and vintage anime while building and rebuilding its own mythos in each new story. Airships, chocobos, summoned monsters, magic and familiar technology seamlessly blended; while each new Final Fantasy is its own entity, it stacks these themes and props in new patterns to maintain a distinct atmosphere. Nods to the series’ past pepper the movie–one major monster is yanked right out of Final Fantasy 4 for a mid-movie, mid-air confrontation that is astounding and there’s a Bank of Spira calling out to Final Fantasy 10–but it’s remarkable how Kingsglaive goes beyond just the cosmetic. The whole story and world takes the tropes of Final Fantasy and weaves them into the human story seamlessly and logically. Even when the action escalates to enormous, world-shaking, Advent Children scale, it makes sense with what’s already been established.  

Which I thought would have been impossible. Yet here’s Kingsglaive, the Final Fantasy movie that people have wanted Square to make since they got into making movies at the turn of the century. In 2016, the blockbuster action movie has been beset on all sides by mediocrity. The best action movie of the year won’t even see a wide theatrical release. It’s coming out on Blu-ray and as a pack in with the limited edition of a long awaited video game sequel. And it is, spectacularly, Final Fantasy.

David Brent: Life on the Road review

It takes a brave man to make a feature film out of a British sitcom – and a braver one still to make one out of a British sitcom that hasn’t been on TV for 13 years. Thankfully, David Brent: Life on the Road gives Ricky Gervais’ monstrous middle manager a decent curtain-call – even if it is a decade too late. 

Embracing the cult of non-celebrity that’s ballooned since The Office first poked fun at it in 2001, Gervais finds his alter ego pretty much unchanged. Still trying to be a weekend rock star and still stuck in a dead-end desk job, he jumps at the chance to bring a reality-TV crew along on his first music tour (around Slough).

 Operating without his old Office co-stars and attempting his own This Is Spinal Tap, Gervais shows almost as much moxy as Brent. The result is a corrosively funny but blatantly overstretched musical spin-off that feels a lot like an off-cut from the show.

As a comedy creation, David Brent is still a masterwork, and the film works best when the pathos hits as hard as the punchlines. But Life on the Road should probably be the leaving party we all thought had been thrown a few times already.

Suicide Squad review

Cast and crew gave each other tattoos. Writer/director David Ayer (Training Day, Fury), an ex-Navy man, used military tactics to reduce his cast to a state of physical and mental exhaustion. A psychiatrist was available on set. Cara Delevingne, playing a witch, was told to use her spare nights dancing naked in the pale moonlight (she did). Jai Courtney, as Aussie bank robber Captain Boomerang, went so deep into character he stubbed cigarettes out on his arm. And, like you haven’t already heard, Jared Leto, playing a Joker that somehow needs to prance out of Heath Ledger’s shadow, sent co-star Margot Robbie a dead rat.

Never mind Deadpool: Suicide Squad is the bad boy of superhero movies, a film that has proudly purported itself to be “unhinged”, “nightmarish” and “fucking insane” in promotional interviews. It’s Batman Vs Superman: Dawn of Justice’s nasty, narky little brother. It’s A Clockwork Orange with special powers. It’s… not half as badass as you want it to be, but rather a major studio’s idea of being dangerously screwy, with even its soundtrack – ‘House of the Rising Sun’, ‘Spirit in the Sky’, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – designed for mainstream airplay.

Things start off well, with government hard-ass Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembling Task Force X, a team of misanthropic misfits who can help protect national security now that Superman’s in the ground. “In a world of flying men and monsters,” she barks at her colleagues over dinner, “this is the only way…”

For those uninitiated with DC’s cult comics (and needing to be brought rapidly up to speed with a bunch of characters who have not previously seen live action), Waller flicks through their files, one by one: Deadshot (Will Smith, reminding us of his star power), the world’s most wanted assassin; Harley Quinn (Robbie), an ex-psychiatrist at Arkham Asylum who first fell for patient the Joker (Jared Leto) and then into a vat of toxic liquid; Cap. Boomerang, whose drone devices return to him; fire-spraying meta-human Diablo (Jay Hernandez); Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a man-beast being contained in a sewer-cell and who wants to be this movie’s Thing or Rocket Raccoon but is not as memorable; and aforementioned witch Enchantress (Delevingne), an ancient force who takes over Dr. June Moone (Delevingne again) when called upon, and whose physical-ethereal form, all billowing smoke and oozing embers, resembles one of Guillermo del Toro’s ghosts.

Led by ace military man (and Dr. Moone’s boyfriend) Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), they’re choppered into a burning Midway City to fight an unspecified, non-human, world-threatening evil, and to retrieve the equally mysterious HVT1.

Suffice to say they must first battle their way past an army of frog-spawn-suited minions that came to Ayer in a dream (and, like most nightmare-monsters, lose all power when presented to others) while Midway City burns with detritus all about. Yes, this is essentially Escape from New York with a squad of Snake Plisskens and a side portion of sadistic Joker. Leto’s grinning loon haunts the periphery of the action, but sad to say, proves as empty as his laugh. 

Early scenes are shot in tattoo-ink purples, gangrenous greens and electric blues, a palette that evinces Joel Schumacher’s Batman movies dosed with disease, though much of the action takes place in a world leeched of colour and forever soaked in rain. Frames shudder, edits jolt, and several images scorch the backs of eyeballs, not least Harley Quinn’s introduction – hanging upside down in a cage in the middle of a vast empty room, like some strip-joint Hannibal Lecter.

Once busted out, she goes on to be Suicide Squad’s best and brightest, Robbie playing it coy and male-fantasy sexy, cute and crazy. Sure, it can be argued that Suicide Squad puts gender issues back by 30 years – its guys are covered, its ladies all but unclad, with Harley squeezed into itsy-bitsy shorts and a tight T emblazoned with ‘Daddy’s lil monster’ – but Robbie at least owns her sexuality enough to make fools out of the gawping guys. Hell, she and her offensive costume are the only real anarchy on display.

But Harley Quinn aside, the bantz is blunt, the arcs predictable (all these “psychotic social freaks” just wanna have happy home lives, dontcha know?) and the Big Bad straight out of Ghostbusters – fine in a ‘normal’ summer movie, but lacking any of the real threat posed by the knife crime and terrorism in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight.

It’s to be expected, certainly, when the budget is in the (reportedly) $250m range, and serious kudos should be given for introducing new characters to the screen in a summer of sequels and reboots. But consider this exchange: “Outside, you’re amazing. Inside, you’re ugly,” says Boomerang to Harley, to which she replies, “We all are. Except him [points to Killer Croc]. He’s ugly on the outside too.” Now that’s the film we want to see. The film we were promised.

Abzu review

It’s difficult to discuss Giant Squid’s first title Abzu without bringing up either of Thatgamecompany’s contemplative PlayStation hits Journey or Flower. It’s not an unexpected comparison, as Journey art director Matt Nava’s first game with his new studio bears many of the hallmarks of those modern classics. Calling Abzu “Underwater Journey” is painfully reductive, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s trying to break free from the shadow of its predecessors.

Abzu is an ancient Sumerian word meaning ‘deep ocean’, describing the space between the underworld and the earth above, and according to mythology, it’s where the world’s source of fresh water originates. Abzu the game explores a lot of those mystical references, though thanks to its wordless narrative, the interpretation of its events is largely up to you. You play as a little diver person, plopped into the middle of the ocean with the bare minimum of instruction in the form of handful of button prompts. Over the course of its two-hour-or-so story, you’ll interact with sea creatures, explore the ocean’s depths, and solve some light puzzles on your quest to restore the ocean to its former glory.

When explained in such simple terms, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot going on in Abzu, but its biggest selling point is its simplicity, as it’s smart enough to get out of the way so you can enjoy how beautiful everything looks. Abzu embraces an aesthetic that takes the realism of a deep ocean documentary and takes a turn toward the abstract just enough to make everything on screen pop with the verve of an animated film. Every frame of Abzu, with its combination of angular lines, bright colors, and soft textures, could be turned into a painting, but when it’s in motion, the world of Abzu feels alive. 

Schools of fish churn and flow through the water, sharks feed on smaller animals, seaweed sways in the current. There’s an entire ecosystem at play here, and you can be a passive observer, watching from the distance or at one of several meditation statues, or you can swim right up to them and even latch onto larger fish and let them take you for a swim. Other than a few bouts of slowdown (caused while moving through larger whirlwinds of swimming fish), Abzu is a technical and artistic feast for the senses. 

Moving through the water is relatively painless too, as Abzu uses the right trigger to propel forward movement, while the analog stick navigates you up and down. Coupled with the fact that few things can actually hurt you, Abzu’s gameplay becomes less about figuring things out or outlasting obstacles, and more about the enjoyment of moving through its space and soaking up the sights. You do have a mission (which you’ll glean more and more of as you progress toward the finale) and things definitely start to get a bit weird by the third act. Despite this, there’s nothing pressuring you to continue forward other than your own curiosity – there are even a few hidden collectibles strewn around to encourage you to explore off the beaten path. Abzu revels in reflection, with Austin Wintory’s score providing a thoughtful soundtrack for your submerged adventures.

But here’s the thing: other than the shift from the desert to the sea, so much of what I’ve written about Abzu could be used to describe Journey, right down to the soundtrack. Abzu funnels you through rooms filled with murals and hieroglyphics that obliquely explain its lore, just like Journey. There are similar sequences where you’re automatically propelled through an environment toward the next area (here, you’re swimming through underwater currents instead of sliding down sand dunes, but the effect is the same). You can even tap the interact button to make your little diver chirp just like in Journey (but with no online multiplayer, it seems to serve little purpose other than to chat with the occasional mechanical drone you’ll find on your travels). It’s not just a similar art style or mood that Abzu tries to convey: entire swaths of gameplay seem to be cut whole-cloth from its predecessors.

Giant Squid’s unique authorial touch means Abzu is just as resplendent and as much of a joy to move through as Journey was. But by hewing so close to what made Journey special, Abzu feels like more of the same – only underwater this time – and its more profound moments fall a bit flat as a result. Taken on its own merits, Abzu is an enjoyable experience; a deep-sea dive meant to be soaked up rather than sped through. It’s different enough to be worth the journey, but it’s hard to shake that nagging feeling of deja vu.

This game was reviewed on PS4.

Preacher S1.10 review – Call and Response

“Why?” asks a young woman in Jesse Custer’s congregation on the fateful day he promised to make God almighty appear at church. She wants to know why bad things happen to good people. Everyone in all of Annville, Texas is there to watch Jesse deliver on his word, from magnetic, terrifying meat man Odin Quincannon to the dueling high school mascots that have appeared sporadically over the course of the season because, I don’t know, they’re goofy? Preacher doesn’t make clear decisions. Anyway, the young woman doesn’t get a satisfying answer. After the supernatural service ends, Jesse and his friends Tulip and Cassidy walk out to go get french fries at a diner while everyone else in town tears the church apart having lost all faith. In the midst of the show’s inexplicable, unfunny, narratively incoherent nihilism, I can only conclude that the woman’s question was metacommentary. If this is the way the whole season was going to end, why did anything in the previous nine episodes happen at all?

Every plot thread, disparate as they were, is wrapped up this season with the sole exception of Eugene’s rescue from the netherworld. Odin Qunincannon’s quest for control of Jesse’s church, the rivalry between Jesse and Odin’s right hand man Donny, Tulip’s quest for revenge against her and Jesse’s former partner in crime, and even milquetoast Emily’s relationship with the mayor and her subsequent murder of the poor sap is given a clean cap here in Call and Response, episode ten of a meandering, sloppy season. Given the uneven pacing and tone of Preacher up to this point, it might seem impossible for all these disconnected threads to have a satisfying conclusion. It is. Even though everything’s wrapped up in a neat little bow to send Jesse, Tulip and Cassidy off together on a new quest, it couldn’t be less satisfying. The showrunners’ answer to the problem of how to give Annville’s citizens a season finale is to end them all in one fell swoop. The town and everyone in it besides the principals is literally blown up.

How and why this happens is only one event in Call and Response that seems inexplicable in light of last week. In episode nine, we left Jesse and Cassidy as they dug up angel limbs to use a magic phone with a direct line to heaven so Jesse can prove to his flock once and for all that God is real and has a plan. At the start of this episode, however, Cassidy is somehow in prison getting interrogated by Sheriff Root, who’s dead-set on finding his lost, arse-faced son Eugene. Jesse meanwhile is hiding out from the law in Donny the Bully’s house because Donny had some kind of religious epiphany off screen since episode eight and he no longer wants to destroy Jesse. 

Finally, Tulip returns with old partner Carlos to ask Jesse to help her one last time and we learn finally just what he did that was so bad. Really, though Jesse and Tulip reconcile immediately after Carlos’ reveal and they beat the crap out of him together but don’t kill him. Which is what they could have done all along. All of these events don’t just feel like wasted time, they feel like back steps from the events of last week’s episodes. The only saving grace is that Jesse Custer has started behaving with confident consistency rather than as a sociopath but it’s far too little too late.

All of this takes place for no other reason than to clean up dangling threads and place Jesse with his closest compatriots in the church on Sunday, and they do indeed get there. For a brief moment in the middle of Call and Response, it feels like Preacher has finally settled into a consistent tone, something it can latch onto going into the second season. Mixing alienating absurdist humor with a grim setting and earnest characters that seemingly can do no good, there’s a balance in place as we see every character that appeared up to now in the crowd. The camera lingers on each and as Jesse starts the service only to be usurped by Odin Quincannon–Jackie Earle Hayley stealing one last big scene as the show’s best performer–all of the confusion and inexplicable story choices seem to be boiling to a specific point. When Jesse gets the phone to heaven working, that point seems clear and in sight.

The scene would have been an amazing centerpiece for, say, the second episode of a very different show. A ridiculous caricature of the Judeo-Christian god does appear on the line via heaven’s own FaceTime: Burning Bush edition and it looks like fire and brimstone is on the way for an awed crowd as Jesse and Tulip both start demanding answers to why life is what it is. When God responds to Jesse’s outburst by saying he has balls, it seems like Preacher’s even settling into its pitch black sense of humor for good. When Jesse realizes that this would-be psychopomp is less than he seems and uses Genesis, his power to command existence, to figure out what’s happening, Annville even seems to have a future as the permanent setting for the show.

For the first time, it seems like Preacher the show and Preacher the comic book have aligned fully in spirit. Jesse has revealed to his town that God has abandoned them and everyone else, including the wayward angels who’ve been stalking him all season and even the mysterious cowboy they pulled out of hell to get Genesis back from Jesse. After the false god shuts down the phone line and Jesse walks out while the crowd riots and Quincannon pulls down the cross behind the altar, I felt invigorated by where the show was going into the second season despite all the real, inexcusable flaws in the first. Where the comic was about a badass and his two best friends taking a road trip to track down the Creator of all things, the show was going to be an ensemble piece about a town trying to deal with an absentee deity while their chosen leader tries to find him. Different and poorly defined up to this point, but an intriguing set up with options from here on out. 

And then Annville blows up in a fart cloud.

No, seriously. This is how Preacher’s first season ends. The people of Annville, losing all hope after the reveal that yes there is a heaven but God’s not there and no one there knows where he is either, come apart at the seams. Quincannon sits in his office clutching a doll of his dead daughter made out of ground chuck, a gang of girls murder the pedophile bus driver from episode three, and the goofy mascots hang themselves. Even Emily, who made such an out of nowhere turn towards darkness last week, explains to her kids that it doesn’t matter if there’s no God in heaven because being good for its own sake is all that matters. After all this, the show cuts to the methane energy processing plant beneath all of Annville, fueled by the liquid waste from Quincannon’s livestock, which is now overloading with pressure and venting gas all over town. Then a lit cigarette blows everything up. A lit fart cloud kills every single character from the show except Jesse, Tulip, Cassidy, the cowboy, and the angels. It is simultaneously the worst joke the show has made and a slap across the face of anyone who watched this summer.

What was the point of everything? The time spent with Emily? The hemming and hawing over Quincannon’s ideological war with Jesse and his history with Jesse’s father? How about Hugo Root’s relationship with poor Eugene? None of it meant anything. It built, literally, to a giant fart joke. The town explodes and Jesse, Cassidy, and Tulip sit in a diner eating fries and deciding to hunt down God to either help him if he’s in trouble or kick his ass if he isn’t, but they could have gotten to this place together by the end of episode two or three. The creative team spent ten hours spinning in circles, developing characters and exploring their lives, for nothing. Any goodwill left for the occasionally inspired scene setting and performances evaporates in a mushroom cloud that shows up in the background as Jesse and crew drive off into the horizon for a second season that will have nothing to do with what happened for most of the first. This is raw nihilism. 

What’s most criminal about this is that even at its ugliest, the source material always had a moral compass. Jesse wanted to do right by the people he loves in addition to getting revenge–or at least answers–from the Almighty. It was about adventure and gross-out humor and friendship and gender; it was wonderful. Preacher the show is about nothing, and its season finale pats itself on the back for it. May the people of Annville rest in peace and Jesse Custer drive off never to return. Good riddance.

Pete's Dragon review

Largely dismissed as an artistic and commercial disappointment – despite landing a Best Song Oscar nod for Helen Reddy tearjerker ‘Candle on the Water’ – 1977’s Pete’s Dragon might seem an odd choice to receive a CGI makeover. But not half as odd as the Mouse House handing the directorial reins to David Lowery, the indie darling best known for Malick-esque crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Yet on closer inspection, connecting tissue can be seen between that 2013 noir and this wholesome tale of an orphaned boy who finds a protector in the form of a giant fur-covered dragon called Elliott. Both radiate a quiet air of homespun Americana, root their storytelling in a pared-down simplicity and make use of dialogue sparingly. Both films take their time, too: an aesthetic decision that, while crucial to Saints, ensures Pete is rather more plodding than a story involving an invisible fire-breathing wyvern really should be, all things considered.

Having lost both his parents in a car crash that simultaneously stranded him in the forest, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has evolved into a feral, loin-clothed tyke not a million miles from The Jungle Book’s Mowgli. (An early sequence in which Pete climbs trees, leaps across branches and takes a ride on his guardian’s back inevitably recalls Jon Favreau’s recent Kipling re-do.)

It’s only a matter of time, of course, before our hero’s existence becomes known to the world – or at least Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a kindly park ranger whose rash decision to offer Pete a home soon brings a curious Elliott into her backyard.

For all its faults, Don Chaffey’s original at least had Jim Dale, Shelley Winters and some toe-tapping musical numbers to embellish its slender narrative. Lowery’s version, in contrast, has only Star Trek’s Karl Urban as a logger determined to make Elliott a trophy, the prompt for a Free Willy-style second half in which Howard, Fegley and Robert Redford’s grizzled old-timer seek to spring him from captivity.

A fiery finale on a disintegrating bridge quickens the blood, as does a coda that makes fine use of the flick’s New Zealand locations. The fact that one key player spends much of the last third in a tranquillised slumber, though, is indicative of a yarn whose eagerness to sidestep generic fantasy clichés is likely to inspire a similar listlessness in its target audience. And that’s despite the glee they’ll feel elsewhere seeing Fegley cavort on the roof of a moving school bus.

Those with fond memories of a gentler era of boy-and-his-insert-critter-here heartwarmers are bound to welcome Dragon’s old-fashioned vibe. But it still feels almost perverse to place all of Weta’s hi-tech wizardry at the disposal of a film so stubbornly, studiously lo-fi.