Thursday, June 28, 2012

Second Opinion - Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

As I have stated before, Episodes One and Two of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness are very enjoyable and are among my favorite games. However, Hothead Games, the developer of the first 2 episodes, decided to cease production of the series in pursuit of other projects, leaving the story only half-finished and Jerry Holkins, the writer of Penny Arcade, to create a prose version of what would have happened in Episode Three (I have yet to read it). Fortunately for fans of the games, the series would later be picked up by Zeboyd games, developer of Cthulu Saves the World. After a four-year wait from Episode Two, the switch to a 16-bit graphical style from 3D graphics does not stop the game from being an entertaining installment in the OTRSPOD series.

Though you are not involved in the events of OTRSPOD 3, the story is still very engaging as it focuses more on Gabe and Tycho after the first two Episodes (you still get a mention as someone who helped them defeat two evil gods). In addition to being able to control them, you also get to control their roommate Jim and a new character, Moira, through various new and old locales on a quest to defeat a third dark god, Yog Modaigh, Lord of Doors. Along the way, you learn some interesting facts about the Brahe clan and how their involvement with this sort of nature is crucial to Yog Modaigh's motivations.

The combat is different this time around, but I found it to have a good amount of depth. Rather than moving in real time, each character (including enemies) is represented on a bar in the corner, displaying who's turn it is at what time. Because everyone moves down the bar at different speeds, this can create situations where you have to really think about how you want to defeat the current wave of enemies. The game also features a  well-done character class system, where giving one of your party members a Class Pin obtained during gameplay grants them access to a whole new array of abilities, which grows bigger the more they level up. The fact that each character is able to wield 2 Class Pins also greatly adds to the variety of moves you can perform, given that you have enough MP to use them, letting you think more about how to approach certain situations in combat.

While this installment may be different from the ones before, the normal Penny Arcade humor remains intact. At various points in the story, someone (mainly Gabe or Tycho) will say something that helps lighten the dark tone of the narrative a bit before it becomes serious again. Whenever you target an enemy in battle, some of which are clever visual references to earlier Penny Arcade strips, you also get to see a description of them, which most of the time will say something funny about them, especially when it relates to the situation. There's even an entire section that switches to a more 8-bit graphical style that parodies older RPGs at every opportunity.

Out of my entire experience, the only issue I have involves something being carried over between games. I'm not talking about the lack of a character creator, but rather a key that is given to you by Dr. Stripes in Episode Two. Throughout the entirety of OTRSPOD 3, as much as I enjoyed it, I was half-expecting that key to come into play so I could see what he forgot he had in his safe deposit box. This could be attributed to the shift in developers halfway through the series, but in any case this bugged me a little.

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 is a game that any RPG or Penny Arcade fan is sure to enjoy (as long as they are of age). Those that have played the first two games from Hothead will not want to miss out on the long-awaited return of OTRSPOD, and knowledge of the first 2 games is not required for anyone that wants to hop on the bandwagon. As a plus, this game only costs $5, which is a great deal for 12 entertaining hours of gameplay.

Penny Arcade's On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3

As stated before, we here at the blog are fans of not only Penny Arcade, but also the Hothead Games series Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episodes One and Two. As soon as we finished playing them, we were gravely disappointed to find out that the other half of this four-part series was cancelled. Later on I found out that Jerry Holkins, the writer of Penny Arcade, was going to finish the story through prose chapters on the webcomic's site, but I never got around to reading them (not that I wasn't interested). Much later, I heard that the games sold extremely well when it ported to iOS devices, at the same time having the fires of hope for a third Hothead-made episode snuffed out. Then later still, it was announced that the reins would be handed over to Zeboyd games, an independent developer known for making the faux retro RPG games Breath of Death VII and Cthulu Saves the World. Knowing that this third episode would be done in a 16-bit graphical style, I was even more intrigued as to how this would be accomplished. With the release of Episode 3 on Monday, I can happily conclude that the four-year wait for a new installment is definitely worth it.

Having defeated Yog Sethis the Silent One and Yog Kathak, God of Gears, Gabe and Tycho of the Startlng Developments Detective Agency are called to handle the third of the Four Below -four evil gods that killed the four good gods- known as Yog Modiagh, God of Doors. The very power of Yog Modiagh threatens to destroy the universe itself, forcing the duo to work to prevent his summoning. Simultaneously, they need to take care of Dr. Raven Darktalon Blood, a man who wishes to speed up the process by gathering specific paintings together in one spot. On this journey, the past comes alive and new information is gained about the Brahe clan that may ultimately spell disaster.

The plot of On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness is still very fascinating. While the stakes still are certainly high, the mysteries introduced in the previous episodes are expanded upon here in a way that makes them even more intriguing to see unfold. New characters are introduced, notably the exclusive detective character Moira, and their connection to the Brahe clan introduces new mysteries that bring the events of the games, and Tycho himself, into a new light. Keeping the Cthulu elements of the story helps to keep the dark atmosphere present, but I feel as if the story is a bit more serious this time around, which only suits the many things that go on. It's a very engaging narrative that managed to elicit all of the right reactions during play.

The most notable change this time around has to be the combat. Since Zeboyd Games went in the direction of a 16-bit RPG, the combat system needed a complete overhaul to match. Where the previous installments had a very modern system with some throwback elements, Episode 3 is the complete opposite; it is a throwback system with some more modern elements.

To begin, combat is turn-based, but goes about it in an interesting way. At the top of the screen is a bar representing who performs an action at what time, be it an ally or an enemy. When an ally silhouette hits a certain point, the player is able to give them a command, which is then carried out when the character reaches the end of the bar, thus taking their turn. Character speed is to be taken into account, since a fast enough enemy can cut in line and take their next turn much quicker, adding some urgency to the system. When actually issuing a command, the player uses a drop down menu similar to the Final Fantasy games, with different sections to use items or actions, as well as an option to defend. It's a very good framework to base an entire combat system on, since you can even interrupt a turn, a special command that comes at the cost of an ally's turn, in order to push their place in line backward depending on where they are on the bar when the command is initiated.

What makes this system even better is another deeper subsystem regarding character classes. While characters do have a class that they begin with, Brute, Scholar, Necromaster and Gumshoe, you can give the characters additional classes that allow them more commands or passive abilities to work with. The additional classes are gained through Class Pins, which can be equipped in a similar fashion to weapons and accessories. These classes all offer something completely unique to the gameplay and are gained in sets at two specific points in the game. Some of these range from the Tube Samurai class, which uses stances for different powers, to the Cordwainer, which has the power of shoes. Some of these classes can even add abilities to the bar that repeat themselves by having their own turns until a command replaces them with something else. A great example would be the Apocalypt class, which places a prophecy with its own lengthy turn on the bar and can be stacked with various positive and damaging effects that will all simultaneously trigger at the end. And the best part about this class system? Up to two pins can be equipped, which means that all allies can have three different class setups, creating some incredible depth to the combat.

My personal setup. There are still more classes than this.
Modern elements include the fact that your health and items all regenerate at the end of each battle. So instead of having to purchase new items all the time, you purchase "Upgroids" that will allow additional uses in combat. However, if you're good enough in your tactics, you may never need to use the items all that often. It is because of these conveniences that combat is more like a puzzle, the solution being the combination of abilities you use to take down opponents. For example, with my setup I had a few base strategies to suit certain enemy configurations and adjusted what I did to suit the variables. All of this makes combat very fun and exciting, even with a couple of annoying fights toward the end.

Another great thing about this game is the enemy design. They are all very creative and suit the areas they are in perfectly; there are also quite a few references to a lot of the earlier strips from the original comic that are translated to 16-bit very faithfully. All of the attacks can present a different challenge to overcome and have interesting visuals. Groups also get progressively more difficult at a very good pace, with a small spike a couple of times that could still be surmounted with the right actions falling into place. It's always satisfying to finally see the victory screen and any rewards, with defeat only serving as a motivation to try again.

A reference to Rex Ready; one of my favorites. (Click for better view)
One of the best things about the game though would be just how well it preserves the humor of Penny Arcade. Every dialogue exchange, aside from the more serious conversations, has at least one line, usually from Gabe, that caused me to laugh hard in front of my laptop screen. This includes descriptions of enemies, which either explain something briefly about them or take a jab at something about them. There's even an entire section of the game where it shifts to a more 8-bit graphical style down to the music and swims around for a bit in a clichéd RPG setting that pokes fun at itself whenever it possibly can.

Aside from the humor, I also really liked the music. Not only does the score match the events and graphical style, it's also extremely memorable to the point where I found myself humming it during my regular breaks. How often these breaks happened though was a little inconsistent since the game is very engaging. So engaging, that when I decided to check on how long I had been playing, about two or three hours would have passed.

While I love the overall product, there are a couple of small annoyances. I'm not annoyed by the fact that you can't create your own character anymore, since recreating it in 16-bit would probably take up a lot of time to program and freeing up a character slot does help move the narrative along (plus, you are at least mentioned as a mysterious third party that helped them out). The only thing I did find wrong however was the fact that a key that you can collect in Episode 2 is now rendered completely useless, despite the fact that it was said to be usable in Episode 3. However, I suppose this can be attributed to a change in developer and Hothead dropping the project entirely. Still, I feel bad not being able to know what exactly was in Dr. Stripes' safe deposit box.

Penny Arcade's On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness 3 is an amazing product. It's gameplay is extremely well made and the humor is something that it almost never faults on, which helps it feel like a genuine Penny Arcade experience. I had a blast during my entire 12-hour playthrough and was wanting more when I finished. Plus, the cliffhanger at the end of the campaign now has me counting the days until the final episode is put out. Any fan of Penny Arcade, Zeboyd, or RPG games in general should definitely pick it up. And if I haven't convinced anyone outside of that circle to give it a try yet, then consider the fact that it is ridiculously cheap at only $5.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Stubs - He Walked by Night

HE WALKED BY NIGHT (1948) Starring: Richard Basehart, Scott Brady, Roy Roberts, Jack Webb, and Whit Bissell. Directed by Alfred L. Werker and Anthony Mann. Produced by Bryan Foy and Robert Kane. Screenplay: John C. Higgins, Crane Wilbur. Story by Crane Wilbur.  Music by Leonid Raab. Run Time: 79. Black and White. USA. Film Noir, Drama, Crime

Last stop on this year’s Summer of Darkness tour is He Walked By Night, a small film noir film starring Richard Basehart. Unlike many film noir, there really is no femme fatale or even a woman featured in the cast. This is a male dominated film from start to finish.

Based on the true and violent story of Erwin Walker, a disturbed World War II veteran and former employee of the Glendale Police department, the film may seem like a movie long version of the old radio and TV series, Dragnet. There is even narration that is reminiscent to that of the series. The semi-documentary approach to the filmmaking lends to its sense of realism.

The movie is a character study of Roy Martin/Roy Morgan, though it never tells us what motivates him to become a criminal, even when he is offered a legitimate job with the possibility of profit-sharing in the future. But Roy is still interesting to watch as he methodically figures out what to do next, even as the police close in on him.

Like many films in this genre, this one involves murder and in fact starts with one. Early one morning, Officer Robert Rawlins (John McGuire), a Los Angeles beat cop, on his way home from work, stops a man he suspects of breaking into a radio store. For his trouble, Rawlins is shot and mortally wounded. But before he lapses into a coma, Rawlins manages to crash his police car in the burglar’s getaway car. When police arrive on the scene of the shooting, they find the trunk of the car filled with an arsenal of navy surplus equipment and Lee Whitey (Jack Webb) finds nitroglycerin in the glove box. And despite the officer’s description of his killer, the police have few other clues to go on.

After their investigation at the scene, two detectives, Sergeants Marty Brennan (Scott Brady) and Chuck Jones (James Cardwell) are assigned by Captain Breen (Roy Roberts) to catch the shooter.

The police throw out a dragnet and pull in any man who might fit the description. But even though they find some parole violators, including Pete Hammond (Frank Cady) they are no closer to finding who shot Rawlins, who finally succumbs to his wounds and dies.

The suspect, whom we later learn is named Roy (Richard Basehart), flees and hides in his Hollywood bungalow and listens to the police calls on a specially built radio. He shaves off his moustache which had been one of the features the police were looking for. His only companion is his little dog.

Brennan and Jones go to the Crime Investigation Lab, where Whitey demonstrates the nitroglycerin or “safecracker soup.” Other than that the evidence is quite limited. There are no fingerprints on the car, except for the man it was stolen from, or the tools. Lee tells Breen, who joins the detectives that he thinks the suspect is scientific and knows electricity. That gets Breen to call the Captain in charge of burglaries about cases where a pick lock was used. In what might be a comical shot by today’s standards, they show Sgt. Brennan looking into the Modus Operandi files, which is an old punch card computer system. But that only narrows it down to a couple of hundred possible suspects.

Speaking of suspects, next we see him ours is changing license plates on a stolen car. Using the alias Roy Martin, he has been consigning revamped and improved stolen electronic equipment through Paul Reeves (Whit Bissell) at Reeves Electronic Laboratories. Reeves wants Roy to work for him, but Roy declines. He has other plans. Reeves does talk to him about a particular piece of equipment Roy is working on, a TV projector that can show a 12 foot image (not bad for the time). Reeves already has a customer lined up for it.

But after Roy delivers it, the customer, Mr. Dunning (Thomas Browne Henry) recognizes the projector as one he himself had built, but which had been stolen and calls the police. Breen assigns Brennan and Jones to follow up. They think there might be a connection between Roy Martin and the Rawlins' case. Brennan and Jones have Reeves tell Roy that he sold the projector and for him to come pick up his money at 8:30 that night.

But Roy comes for his money before seven and even though there are police already set up, he manages to get past them. Reeves is acting nervous, which Roy picks up on. When Brennan closes in, Roy hides and gets the jump on Brennan, knocking him out. He then gets into a shootout with Jones when he comes to his partner’s aide.

Jones manages to shoot Martin, who flees and back in his bungalow, removes the bullet from his side.

With Jones in the hospital paralyzed from his wounds, Reeves is brought in by the police, but he cannot identify Roy from the photos they have. He doesn’t know much about Martin, only that he picked up some of his knowledge about electronics while he was in the service. They let him go, but put a tail on Reeves and someone to watch his house.

Meanwhile, Roy changes from burglaries to robbery and wearing a variety of disguises (eye patches, glasses and bandaids) strikes the liquor stores known as “bottle stores” in what is described as an one man blitz. Martin, has also found a quick and easy mode of getting away, using the vast network of storm drains that run under L.A. We’re told there are 700 miles of them and that some are wide enough to drive two cars down at the same time. The narration also tells us that the storm drains are a place to hide and to stash weapons.

Back in the Crime Lab, Whitey shows Breen that the bullets that killed Rawlins, paralyzed Jones and were fired at a recent liquor store robbery are all from the same gun. This leads Breen to round up all the robbery victims to put together a composite of the robber. Using an overlay of various slides showing hairstyles, eyes, chins, noses, etc. the police are able to put together a likeness of Martin, which Reeves is brought in to identify. The likeness is then printed and sent out to prisons and government agencies around the country, but no one recognizes the face.

One night, even though there is a heavy police presence, Roy is waiting for Reeves to come home. After beating him up, Roy takes whatever money Reeves has, but tells him to get more for the equipment of his. Reeves tells the police he wants to run, but Breen tells him that they’re using him as bait. He even chastises Brennan for letting Roy get in and out of the house he was supposed to be watching.

Breen wants to take Brennan off the case, and tells him to take two weeks off. The next day, Brennan goes to see Jones in the hospital. But Jones already knows Brennan is off the case. The two partners discuss the case, but Jones makes Brennan see that the suspect knows how the police work and might have worked for a nearby police department, which sends Brennan back on the hunt. After looking through pages and pages of photo IDs, Brennan finally finds someone who recognizes him as a former police radio dispatcher who worked there before the war. Based on a letter turning down a job offer after the war, Brennan finds the signature of Roy Morgan matches the signature of Roy Martin on the back of one of the checks from Reeves.

There is a Hollywood address on the letter, which prompts Brennan to talk to the postal carriers for that area. One of the postmen (Wally Vernon) recognizes Roy and Brennan sets a trap. Disguised as a delivery man for Arden Milk, Brennan rendezvous with the postman, who tells him Roy’s in unit number seven. Outside the apartment, Brennan purposefully drops a milk bottle breaking it. The commotion brings Roy to the door so that Brennan can get a good look at him.

Having made the identification, Brennan and Breen set up a plan to capture Roy. Once Roy returns home, the plan goes into operation. However, Roy is expecting them. His dog seems to sense when police are nearby giving him warning. We watch as the police slowly tighten the circle around Roy’s apartment. Inside, Roy grabs a gun, a flashlight and a jacket and waits. His dog’s bark alerts him that there are police outside and when he looks out through the blinds in his door, he sees one of them changing his location. He escapes through a trapdoor in his closet out onto the roof. He eludes police, once again ducking down inside the storm drain.

But the police dragnet finally catches up to Roy, keeping him from making a quick escape as they move to block the drains. Breen then leads men down into the drain. The police are slowly cutting off Roy’s escape routes as they come after him from both directions. But Roy isn’t through. He has one stash of weapons that he gets to ahead of his pursuers. He can see the policemen advancing by the beams from their flashlights.

Roy tries one final manhole, but the cover has a patrol car parked on top of it. Using tear gas, the police flush Roy out into the open where he is finally shot dead. And the movie ends there.

This is the movie that made Richard Basehart a star. Variety, at the time, noted with his performance that “Basehart establishes himself as one of Hollywood's most talented finds in recent years.” Never a major star, Basehart was nevertheless a good actor. Perhaps best known as the Admiral in television’s Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Basehart usually gave a solid performance in any role he took. A good example of this is Tension(1950), previously reviewed on this blog. He also appeared in Fellini’s La Strada (1954).

When I was watching this film again, I kept thinking I had seen the actor who played Det. Brennan before. He reminded me of the actor in Born to Kill (1947). Only after watching it did I find out that Scott Brady was the younger brother of Lawrence Tierney, who starred in Born to Kill and many other films. Brady is like a lightweight version of his older brother, but his quiet determination is perfect for the role he’s playing in this movie.

As noted before, Jack Webb would go on from this movie and create Dragnet, first on radio and then on television. It would run on radio from 1949 through 1957, but also on TV from 1951 to 1959 and again from 1967 to 1970. He Walked By Night is a blueprint for the series, which follows a police procedural from crime to arrest. The trial and its outcome was already a foregone conclusion and tacked on at the end of the show.

But the real star of He Walked By Night, is the cinematographer John Alton. The use of shadow and light is breathtaking (see examples below). My personal favorite scenes are those in the LA Sewers, where you see the flashlights in the long dark tunnels. This is what black and white cinematography is all about: crisp whites, deep focus and sharp blacks. Film noir is a genre that is all about living in the shadows and this film handles them as well as any film I’ve seen. Alton is famous for his work on film noirs, such as T-Men (1947), The Amazing Dr. X (1948), Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Mystery Street (1950) and The Big Combo (1955). He also shot Father of the Bride (1950), its sequel Father’s Little Dividend (1951) and Elmer Gantry (1960).

An example of the light and dark in the Sewer Drains

The cookaloris certainly got a workout

Roy (Richard Basehart)  looking out from the shadows

It is a compelling story that is well told. While Alfred L. Werker, who was active from 1917 to 1957, is credited as the director, Anthony Mann, who does not receive screen credit, apparently took over the production. Unlike Werker, Mann is well known as the director of such films as T-Men (1947). Raw Deal (1948), Border Incident (1949), Side Street (1950), Winchester ’73 (1950), The Naked Spur (1953) and El Cid (1961).

He Walked By Night is a film that has a lot to recommend it: a seminal storyline, good acting, good directing and a look that will stay with you long after you’ve watched it. The film is worth viewing and should be included on any serious survey of the film noir genre.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Second Opinion - Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two

Since the first episode was such a hit, a second was sure to follow, and Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two is a great one at that. It picks up from the ending of the last game, with the player character finally settling into a new home, only to have it demolished by Gabe and Tycho. The duo recruit you to help them track down the giant robot from the end of the first episode, and the journey toward slaying the elder god controlling it is filled with high hilarity and a keen sense of the webcomic's style. The adventure is very well written, with a dark and expansive world in 1920's New Arcadia. If there's one thing I've always enjoyed about these games, it's the plot and how it incorporates various ideas from across the entire history of the comic into the fold.

While the graphics may not be all that different, and the sound is still good, the most improvements come from the combat. It's easier to time blocking attacks, even on Insane mode where the "Block!" prompt doesn't even show up, and enemies feel more balanced, but this deteriorates toward the end of the final act. When you finally go to the fair, the enemies there are able to attack at least a couple of times before you can even charge the attack you want, balanced by having them deal a little less damage than they probably would have. That's not to say that combat is a cakewalk, but the improvements are very welcome to help keep a certain atmosphere. While I'm not sure how to feel about the fetch quests the game has to offer, it still holds an interesting combination of Adventure and RPG elements that create a new breed, and it isn't that bad at all.

On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode 2 is a very solid follow-up to the first episode, with plenty of laughs to help wipe away any feeling of tedium that may occur at times. There is also a small amount of replay value in the form of Insane mode, which has its own reward that makes it worth it. I would recommend this to anyone, especially fans; you'd get a kick out of it anyway even if you haven't been keeping up for the last decade-and-a-half.

Now, on to the long-awaited Episode 3!

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two

Following the success of Episode One, Episode Two of Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (OTRSPOD) was released in late 2008, months after its predecessor. Hothead was once again the developer of this project, creating half of a planned four-game series. This second installment brought some improvements to the first one's formula, creating another worthwhile and unforgettable experience (for anyone of age).

When you finally settle into a new home, Gabe and Tycho of the Startling Developments Detective Agency end up wrecking it again, forcing you to once again look for a new abode. As it turns out, the two are still investigating the giant robot from the first game, at which point you join them. As the search for clues goes deeper, you learn more about Tycho's family and how another dark force relates to all this.

The graphics appear similar to the first episode, since they are only months apart, but they still perfectly emulate the then-current art style of the Penny Arcade webcomic. The game itself is still extremely hilarious, with several hidden jokes spread throughout each area. There's even a few more series' of jokes to be found, among them describing a singular painting and a continuation of the Eggplant Lincoln jokes from Episode One. Much like in the last game there's plenty of collectibles to be found amidst all the humor, and obtaining all the hidden concept art earns you another funny exclusive Penny Arcade strip.

What I can comment on without repeating my points on the first episode is that there are some improvements made to the combat system. For starters, it is now much easier to block against your attackers, in addition to  enemies not being able to repeatedly spam attacks before you are able to even get a hit in (at least until the last act). Another welcome change, though purely cosmetic, is that there is now more of a distinction between who is currently attacking. To elaborate, whenever a character battles, the name of the attack appears at the top of the screen. In the first game, all of these labels were white text on a red backdrop, but in this episode your party's attack names are on a green backdrop, making it easier to tell which side it is in an instant.

If there's one complaint I have with the game, it has to be the final boss. It's not that he's too difficult or anything, but rather that you don't really get to actually fight him. Just as the battle begins, when you've been preparing for it in the last act, it abruptly switches to a minigame in which you must defeat your opponent with the correct combination of commands. This seems somewhat anticlimactic to me, but at least it ties up one part of the narrative that occurs closer to the end.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode Two is an excellent addition to the series that should not be missed by anyone, including Penny Arcade fans. Those that have played the first game first will also receive a special benefit from it, since playing both episodes in order earns you both halves of a support character for use in battle.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Second Opinion - Quantum Conundrum

I am a big player of puzzle games, among my favorites being the Bejeweled, Tetris, and Portal franchises, so naturally I became interested when Quantum Conundrum was first announced. It seemed somewhat similar to Portal with different gameplay, though this can be attributed to its creator, Kim Swift, having previously been involved with Portal 2. (Comparing the two games is inevitable due to this similarity in presentation.) In any case, I found the idea of switching between different dimensions to solve puzzles in a first-person view to be interesting. Having played the game through a Steam pre-order, I felt somewhat satisfied with the finished product, though it falls short in some areas.

The idea that you are a 12-year-old boy rescuing your uncle, Professor Fitz Quadwrangle, from a pocket dimension by dimension hopping with a special device sounds rather interesting. Unfortunately, for the length of time that the game lasts, there really isn't much in terms of exposition. Aside from more information regarding Quadwrangle's current predicament, the only things we really learn about are your relatives and a strange creature named Ike. Ike is downright adorable and some of the dialogue is funny, but the narrative didn't do enough for me. By comparison, the script for Portal 2 had a bit more wit to the dialogue and the backstory of Aperture Laboratories was made very deep and interesting. However, this is probably due to Quantum Conundrum having a much lighter atmosphere than Valve's Portal games.

The dimension-based gameplay is also rather interesting, as you can travel between 4 different dimensions on top of the normal one to help solve environmental puzzles. In turn it becomes more complex than that of the Portal series, since rather than trying to figure out portal placement, you have to think about how to best utilize a Fluffy (10 times lighter), Heavy (10 times heavier), Slow-Mo, and anti-grav dimension, especially when your choices are limited. The puzzles you are presented with can also get fairly elaborate, sometimes to the point of becoming infuriating, though sadly the difficulty sort of tapers off when it gets closer to the end. However, like any good puzzle game, it's all about trial and error in the end.

Though this game has its share of flaws, one thing I would praise is the voice acting, even though only one character speaks. John de Lancie does a good job as the voice of Professor Quadwrangle, giving him a more inviting voice even at times when he insults the player character. While he may not be as funny or interesting as GLaDOS, he still manages to display somewhat of a good-natured yet harsh personality. I also liked the sounds that Ike makes, in that they make the creature even more adorable, though hearing these noises in the Slow-Mo dimension is either creepy or funny depending on your perspective. Despite the fact that he looks cute, the lacking narrative mentioned earlier makes it seem like that is Ike's only purpose, aside from occasionally handing you a battery that allows access to a new dimension.

Quantum Conundrum is a puzzle game with an intriguing concept, but at times it comes up short. Despite this, I would still recommend it to anyone searching for a good puzzle game, especially if you are already familiar with the two Portal games. While it may not be as strong as those games, the good qualities of this game still outweigh the bad, making it one that is definitely worth a look.

Brave - An Arrow That Lands Off-Center

As I've stated on this blog before, I am a fan of Pixar movies. They've been able to make great movies throughout their entire span, which still hold up even after a few years have passed. Then along came Cars 2 and for the first time I became worried that the studio may have been losing their edge. While I was looking forward to Brave anyway, I had my reservations based on the ad campaign (which seemed to have a "Lol, Scotland" feel at times). After viewing it today, I can say that while Brave isn't exactly perfect, it's at least a  step in the right direction for the studio.

Not all is well in the Castle of DunBroch (which, if my research is to be believed, translates to Castle CastleCastle). We open with the main character, Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald), receiving a bow and arrow as a birthday present in her youth from her father, King Fergus (Billy Connolly). As she grows up, Merida becomes increasingly adept as using this weapon, but also becomes annoyed by her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), teaching her how to be a true princess at an equal rate. When she is to be betrothed, Merida sabotages the event for the suitors and runs off on her horse Angus after a disagreement with her mother. In the forest, she follows a trail of Will O' the Wisps to the hut of a witch/wood carving enthusiast (Julie Walters), where she strikes a deal: in exchange for a pendant and the purchase of every wood carving, she would receive a pastry that will change her fate. When Merida returns to the castle, she offers it to her mother, with the most unexpected results.

As the movie went on, I felt as if this was a tale I had heard before, with some similar execution. There were some plot points that, after a while, I could predict a little, something I didn't feel that much in other Pixar films. I understand that a movie can have a plot done before but have a very good execution, something that doesn't ring as true here. The characters aren't as intriguing as the ones in, say, The Incredibles. In The Incredibles, there is a very interesting family dynamic that the audience gets to see multiple sides of and we learn a great deal about how everyone lives and interacts on a daily basis in normal situations. In Brave, the deepest character relationship we get in the mother and daughter bonding tale is that Elinor asks Merida to do something and Merida doesn't want to do it. Fergus comes off as the weird, supportive, dad and the triplets run around without any meaningful dynamic to speak of. They are willing to help their sister in a time of need, but not much else is taken from them. In a sense, Brave does what it can to get through its plot in a similar manner to other Pixar features, but it felt like there was something missing in the end and it didn't feel quite as original as others the studio has put out in the past.

If there's one thing Pixar never disappoints with however, it would be the absolutely stunning visuals. There is definitely an amount of painstaking detail put into the scenery and the stylized character models to bring the world to life. In fact, I heard that because of this, Pixar had to rewrite their animation program for the first time in 25 years. What impressed me the most about it though was the hair, especially with regards to Merida and Angus. There is an absolutely insane amount of detail with a lot of very realistic physics to raise the bar on what can be done in CGI. I also liked the effects on the fire and water, which seemed very real in a fictional world; it's a very nice combination. Unfortunately, no matter how good the visuals are, it can't completely carry the story to its conclusion.

As for the humor in this movie, it isn't as strong as other films in Pixar's past. I did laugh a couple of times, but it isn't as witty and contains humor focused on butts, and a snot joke, that didn't feel entirely necessary. I also couldn't really get into the fact that there is some modernity to this 10th century Scotland, such as the way certain characters behaved and the witch having, of all things, a potion-based answering machine (instead of pressing a button, you pour a vial into a cauldron). It doesn't completely bog down the movie, but it's a little distracting that they would include such anachronisms that feel very out of place. I would have preferred them to stick closer with the time period.

Brave, while a good movie, isn't as strong as other Pixar titles. The amazing visual impact can't completely make up for the somewhat unoriginal execution of the story, duller humor, and more hollow character development. I can safely recommend fans of other Pixar works to see it, but I feel that it will be a lot more appealing to kids (if the audience I saw it with was any indication) or parents that want a movie to see with them. I'm glad that Pixar is still on its feet, but this is the point where I feel that they are losing their creative edge.

On the bright side, it is a vast improvement over Cars 2.

The Incredibles - A Superhero Movie With a Heart of Gold

As stated previously on this blog, Pixar is an animation studio with a very impressive track record. With at least one exception, every movie they have made has been heavily praised to some degree, especially in regards to the Toy Story trilogy. This weekend is the studio's new movie, Brave, which I look forward to seeing. In the meantime, I have decided to watch one of Pixar's older movies, The Incredibles, that also happens to be one of my favorites from the studio. Though I've seen it numerous times since it first released in 2004, I never get tired of it.

Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is one of many superheroes (referred to as "supers" in-universe) that exist in the world, protecting civilians from various supervillains using his super strength. When we first meet him, he is performing hero duties, such as rescuing a cat and facing a villain named Bomb Voyage, while still making time for his wedding, where he will marry a female super named Elastigirl (Holly Hunter). After the wedding, however, Mr. Incredible is sued by injured civilians as a result of that night, which ends up causing a domino effect on all the other supers. This leads to the creation of the Supers Relocation Program, in which supers will not face charges for past actions so long as they behave like average citizens. Though Mr. Incredible, aka Bob Parr, has a wife and three children, he still craves for the old days of the supers. After he is observed during a late night rescue with his friend Lucius (Samuel L. Jackson), who was formerly the super Frozone, Bob receives an invitation to relive his golden years, which he takes advantage of. Though he keeps this a secret from his wife Helen (Elastigirl), he later realizes the importance of his family when he faces a villain named Syndrome (Jason Lee), who, it turns out, used to be his biggest fan.

Though the movie is all around good, I believe I should still break down why it is so. For starters, the story is very well-written, neatly combining elements of a family movie and a superhero movie with a revenge plot. The concept of a world in which superheroes are turned into normal people by the government isn't new, having been done before in the graphic novel The Watchmen, but The Incredibles puts a spin on the dynamic by focusing on a family with superpowers instead of an unrelated group of people, aided by the lighter atmosphere of the product compared the heavy tones of The Watchmen.

Then there's the animation quality. It was impressive for the time it came out, and amazingly it holds up after 8 years. Free-flowing hair moves very realistically on the character models, and even those with shorter hair see a lot of detail. Character movement is also very fluid and there is a wide range of facial expressions that accurately convey what everyone is feeling by way of subtle movements. This is supported by strong voice acting all around and a musical score that perfectly matches each scene. At times the music takes some cues from James Bond, though they are integrated rather well and don't feel out of place.

This being a superhero movie, it is also important to bring up the action. Whenever a character uses their powers on-screen, you will often see some sort of creativity with how they are utilized, especially when two or more supers are working together. An example of said creativity is when, after helping his friend Bob rescue people from a burning building, Lucius is able to use his ice powers against a police officer after drinking a cup of water. While there's plenty of enjoyable fight scenes to go around, Bob's strength powers also make for good comedy, such as when he gets frustrated while trying to exit his car.

The Incredibles is a fantastic movie that I think anyone would enjoy, if they haven't seen it already. The movie has a strong message about the importance of family and the inclusion of superheroes makes for some really nice action scenes along the way. Overall this is a very smart and funny movie that should not be left out of one's DVD/Blu-ray collection.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Quantum Conundrum - Brain-Teasing In An Entirely Different Dimension

Puzzle games are the sort that I am not immediately attracted to, but one that I am willing to play. I feel this way especially about 3D puzzle games, or least the ones that emphasize puzzle solving rather than have it as a feature. Games like Catherine which utilize this as core gameplay in the third person are interesting, but it seems that puzzle gaming in the first person makes us exercise our brains harder; our own timing and environmental awareness are integral to solving the puzzle. So when I had first heard of Quantum Conundrum and the fact that it uses dimension-based puzzle solving, I was looking forward to it. In fact, I began playing as soon as my pre-order on Steam unlocked, simultaneously playing it with my equally interested brother. After my time with it, I feel very good about playing it, if a little disappointed.

In all aspects, the game draws many comparisons to Portal. This is inevitable due to Quantum Conundrum attempting the same sort of result, but also in part to the lead designer, Kim Swift, having worked on Portal 2 beforehand. Because of this, my discussion will mention Portal, but mainly talk about this game on its own terms.

The premise involves a 12-year-old boy who has visited the mansion of his uncle, the scientist/inventor Professor Fitz Quadwrangle. As the result of a failed experiment, the professor disappears shortly after the boy's arrival. To rescue him, the boy is allowed use of a special prototype device that allow him brief access to various alternate dimensions. This will enable him to solve the various rooms of the manor to activate the device that will hopefully accomplish this end goal. Unfortunately there isn't much of a narrative beyond that simple explanation. While we do get to find out more about Quadwrangle and a creature named Ike, that's pretty much the bulk of it. It's not as deep or thought out as Portal, though it seemed as though the potential was there for something more, especially when we are given at least some kind of mystery. The characters are likable and the writing is done properly enough to suit the existing dynamic, but the plot feels there for the ride, and the most disappointing part is that I found the ending to be a little underwhelming for what you go through to get to it.

The actual gameplay on the other hand is brilliant. You are given a glove called the Interdimensional Shift Device (ISD) that allows the user to access one of four different dimensions. In these dimensions, you can either make everything ten times lighter than normal (Fluffy), have objects be ten times heavier (Heavy), create an anti-gravity environment, or make time pass by at a twentieth of its normal speed (Slow-Mo). This concept is very original and, fortunately, is pulled off with the capability to keep the player going through the good times and the bad. The rooms of the Quadwrangle mansion are designed to introduce the player to each dimension at a good pace and display their unique traits in a way that gets you to think beyond traditional methods. Having to manipulate multiple dimensions at once then becomes a very thought intensive process at times and gets you to stretch your brain in new ways.

Fluffy Dimension
While the concepts may be gradual in introduction, the difficulty of getting through each room at times brings about frustration from multiple failures, but like any good game these failures are at the fault of the player and motivate you to try again and do it the right way. Quadwrangle even gives you a helpful tip once in a while, and these hints can be extremely valuable when the room seems daunting. Even so, at least a couple of the puzzles are annoyingly constructed and death is only inevitable in later stages, especially ones that involve incredibly precise midair platforming and quick reflexes in terms of both movement and dimension swapping. This is when the carefully placed checkpoints feel like a godsend. Indeed your brain will be flipped upside down, but the satisfaction of discovering the solution and going through the exit door leaves you with a sense of empowerment and is what makes the adventure worth going through.

Then there is the humor of this game. As I kept playing, I noticed how much the game tried to take on a playful and inviting atmosphere through comments made by Quadwrangle about himself and whatever paintings you come across. While plenty of the jokes are funny, a lot of them are also puntastic, sometimes based on a pop culture reference ("Everyday I'm Shovelin'" immediately comes to mind). I chuckled on occasion, but it didn't feel as clever or witty as the Portal series. While the good scientist has his presence known mainly through a disembodied voice, he can't beat the hilarity that comes from GLaDOS. Granted, Portal had an excellent writer, but on its own I feel that Quantum Conundrum could have tried just a bit harder; I feel there was some unused potential considering who they got as the lone piece of voice acting in the game aside from Ike's critter noises. Of course, I still found plenty of humor in the death screens; when you die, the game tells you what the boy will never live to see.

Of course the game does have really good sounds. I liked the music, which suits the playful mood well, and the voice acting. To elaborate on my earlier comment, the only character with a speaking role is Fitz Quadwrangle, voiced by none other than John de Lancie, best known for his role as Q in Star Trek (and perhaps Discord from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic). His talent brings a lot of personality to the character and helps the game feel more engaging as well, since the absence of it would probably have taken away from the tone this game wanted to have.

I do like the occasional brain-teaser, and Quantum Conundrum definitely delivers. Its unique gameplay mechanic is, for the most part, put to very excellent use and forces the player to think in ways that they never have before. While some may find the overall product a little less polished than it could be, it's still a rather interesting game that should not be ignored. Despite some frustration at times, the euphoric eureka moments you'll no doubt encounter will definitely be worth it in the end.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Second Opinion - Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One

Penny Arcade, the world's first gaming webcomic, is kinda popular. Through its relentlessly professional update schedule over the course of 13-14 years, it has remained consistently funny and has even expanded itself with a charity and convention. Among the many games created around the series, one of them was a video game, this one specifically, developed by Hothead Games and released in 2008. While originally intended as a four-part episodic adventure, the studio decided to move on to other projects after only two were produced, leaving the remaining episodes in jeopardy until its cancellation. But with Zeboyd Games finally launching an official third episode after four years, I returned to OTRSPOD, in what must be at least my fifth playthrough, and still found myself laughing.

The story is excellently written. While it starts with a simple tale of revenge, and a new home, with the help of  Gabe and Tycho, it eventually involves elements of the Cthulu mythos and Penny Arcade series to form a unique atmosphere that manages to have an identity all on its own. The webcomic's style of humor is also brilliantly displayed in both the dialogue and descriptions of whatever is in the game world, allowing your experience to be a never-ending stream of laughter. Penny Arcade's unique style also resonates within the overall visuals, which are stylized to resemble Mike Krahulik's art style in 2008. This translates very well in 3D and the 2D interstitials are amazing in motion. In this sense, through making no missteps in preserving a signature style, Penny Arcade Adventures is right on the mark.

In terms of combat, this is where I had mixed feelings. Don't get me wrong, I liked the combat system; It mixes really well with the game's RPG standing, using real time combat in the vein of Final Fantasy while also using contextual button presses to carry out each character's top level attacks. My only problem was balancing against the enemies. True I played the game this time on Insane Mode (again), but it gets a little tiresome when they can get in at least two attacks before you can do anything about it aside from blocking quickly enough, even if they don't have a speed buff in use. This is especially prevalent with the penultimate boss, who might as well be broken for his incredible speed, almost non-existent blocking window, and having one abused attack initiate a strength debuff if not blocked properly. Fortunately this challenge is not insurmountable provided you have enough items at your disposal, which can be found in the world with relative ease if you know where exactly to look.

An early example of combat (click for better view)
When all is said and done, Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One is a very good downloadable title. Its humor is excellent, the style is utilized to its fullest and the combat is very solid. Combine that with an excellent story and quest design and you've got an adventure just waiting to be taken. Fans of Penny Arcade will definitely enjoy it, but even newcomers will be pleasantly surprised and end up having a good time.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One

For those of you who are unaware, Penny Arcade is a highly popular gaming webcomic by Jerry Holkins (the writer) and Mike Krahulik (the artist) that began in late 1998 and continues to this day, updating every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. This comic is most certainly not for children, but in any case it is very funny and the art has greatly improved over time. Due to the strip's popularity, it has since expanded to include a charity called Child's Play, a convention called PAX (Penny Arcade Expo) that runs twice a year, a few card games, various forms of merchandise, and a video game, which I will be talking about. Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness (OTRSPOD) is a planned four-part game series starring Gabe and Tycho, the main characters of the webcomic, with Episode Three coming out next week. The first two installments were made by Hothead Games, both released in 2008. And now without further ado, here is a review of Episode One, released early that year.

After a giant robot destroys your house one day, you not only seek revenge on whoever did this to you, but also a new place to live. At the start of your quest you meet Gabe and Tycho of the Startling Developments Detective Agency, who are also investigating the giant robot. Together, the three of you dig deeper into the mystery and discover that some darker force is behind it all, one that threatens to silence all of existence forever. Though the story sounds simple enough from my description, it actually gets more complex as the game progresses, though in a way as to not be confusing. After you play it more than once though, hints dropped in earlier parts of the game start to make more sense and you get a better understanding of the greater workings of the OTRSPOD universe.

The graphics of this game are really well done, with character models that perfectly translate the art style of the comic (at the time) to a 3D plane. During conversation with an NPC, the game pauses for an interactive comic panel to appear at the bottom of the screen, reverting to the regular 2D art of the webcomic. This is also done during cutscenes, which switch scenes much like comic panels and gives the player an idea of what Penny Arcade would be like in motion. Overall visually, the game looks really impressive and it shows that the developer took great care in keeping with the feel of the comic on which it is based.

I have gone this long without mentioning that OTRSPOD is an RPG, so a couple things deserve mention. Firstly, there is a moment before you start playing where you get to customize your character's appearance and name. There isn't an expansive amount of options available, but even with the pool you are given there is still a multitude of combinations that you can create to give yourself a unique look. The other item of note is the combat system. I'm not very experienced when it comes to RPGs, but I thought the real-time battle system used was really well done, and at times I had to really think about what I wanted to do when faced with a swarm of enemies. However, a couple things did actually bug me about the combat, namely the fact that enemies can sometimes attack you multiple times before even a single basic attack in your party has finished charging up, in addition to a boss closer to the end of the game that was particularly difficult to take down.

Outside of combat, save for a few situations, the usual Penny Arcade style of humor truly SHINES in this game, more often than not turning it into an unforgettable laugh riot. Throughout each area there is a vast number of things to look at, often including jokes in the description about what it is you are learning about. There are even series' of jokes that form bigger jokes, including an eggplant shaped like Abraham Lincoln (referencing an early strip), sinister-looking mailboxes, and a Mr. Bear's Hell Circus (which even combines with another series of jokes), among other things. There's also a wide range of jokes that can be made, including a good deal of lowbrow humor, but that doesn't stop the game from being any funnier.

There's also a number of extras to be found in this game, including concept art and music tracks from the game. These extras are pretty well hidden, so unless you look up where they are you may find yourself searching every nook and cranny of each location for them. In the end, locating all of the concept art is worth it, since it will also allow you to access a Penny Arcade strip exclusive to the game.

Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness: Episode One is a game that no one should pass up, especially if you are a fan of Penny Arcade. Much like the comic, this isn't exactly a game for younger audiences, but I can still guarantee that you will have an amazing time. Those who don't like real-time combat in an RPG might like this game a little less, but the story and humor alone are reason enough to give this game a try.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Stubs - Beetlejuice

Poster of Beetlejuice

BEETLEJUICE (1988) Starring: Michael Keaton, Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, Catherine O’Hara, Jeffrey Jones, Glenn Shadix, Sylvia Sidney  Directed by Tim Burton. Produced by Larry Wilson, Michael Bender, Richard Hashimoto. Screenplay: Michael McDowell, Larry Wilson, Warren Skaaren. Music by Danny Elfman Run Time: 92. Color. USA. Comedy, Horror

It may be hard to believe, but there was once a time when Tim Burton made movies that weren’t based on comic books, children’s stories, or weren’t remakes of other movies  or television shows. And there was a time before he worked, exclusively it seems, with Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

Apparently, 1988 was that time. Fresh off the success of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure (1985), Burton chose this off kilter comedy as his next project. While the film was a success it really isn’t all that scary, it is usually, but not always funny.

A happily married, calypso-loving, but childless couple, Adam (Alec Baldwin) and Barbara Maitland (Geena Davis) are on a staycation in their home in rural New England. Adam, whose hobby is making a model replica of the small town where they live, needs a few supplies and the couple rush off to town for what should be a short shopping trip. However, on the way back, Barbara swerves to avoid hitting a dog in one of New England’s classic covered bridges and the couple fall to their deaths.

Only, they don’t know they’re actually dead. That is until Adam leaves the house and just outside is a hellish desert with sand worms that scour the sands for food. Adam narrowly avoids being food. A strange book has also shown up, a Handbook for the Recently Deceased, which is a puzzling guide to the afterlife. But while they intended on spending their next 125 years on earth in their idyllic home, they are not allowed to rest in peace.

The village real estate agent, who had tried unsuccessfully to get the Maitland’s to sell, gets her chance and sells the home to Charles (Jeffrey Jones) and Delia Deetze (Catherine O’Hara), who have a daughter Lydia (Winona Ryder). Charles is a former real estate developer who wants nothing more than to relax in the Maitland’s house. However, his wannabe artist wife, can’t wait to change things. She brings Otho (Glenn Shadix), an interior designer hyphen ad nauseam to help redecorate. He transforms the farm house into a gaudy structure.

The Maitland’s turn to help from their afterlife caseworker Juno (Sylvia Sidney), who informs them that they will have to scare the Deetze’s out of the house. However, that attempt only makes the Deetze’s want to stay with thoughts of turning the house and surrounding village into a paranormal exhibit.

While the Deetze’s can’t see the Maitlands, Lydia can and they become friends. However, the Maitlands are determined to get rid of Lydia’s parents. Even though Juno had warned them against using him, the Maitlands call for Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) who advertises himself as a bio-exorcist, which means he gets rid of humans. However, he turns the couple off with his crude behavior and they decide not to use him after all. The Deetze’s continue with their plans to make the house into a tourist attraction and Charles invites his boss Maxie Dean (Robert Goulet) to their house for a presentation and a meet and greet with the ghosts. Though Lydia asks, the Maitlands refuse to participate. However, Otho, who claims to be a paranormal expert, armed with a stolen copy of the Handbook for the Recently Deceased, knows just enough to summon the Maitlands against their will in a séance. But he doesn’t know enough to stop things before he starts destroying them.

Lydia, in an effort to save her friends, makes a deal with Betelgeuse. She agrees to marry him in exchange for his help. After successfully chasing Dean and Otho away, Betelgeuse expects Lydia to keep her end of the bargain. While he manages to thwart the Maitlands attempts to stop the ceremony, he goes too far, banishing Barbara to the sands. This allows Barbara to commandeer one of the Sand worms which she rides back into the house to devour Betelgeuse.

Betelgeuse ends up in the afterlife waiting room where he angers a witchdoctor, who shrinks his head.

In the end, we’re shown that the Maitland’s and Deetze’s have found a happy way to coexist.

Despite its subject matter of the afterlife, the movie manages to be funny. The funniest moments belong to Michael Keaton, who was just coming into his own as a film actor. He supposedly ad libs a lot of his dialogue and delivers it like a standup comic. The film deals with some pretty gruesome ways to die: being burned to a crisp, bus crashes, being cut in half, being run over with a steam roller, etc., with a certain amount of humor. How this film deals with the macabre could be seen as a precursor to future films like A Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), which Burton would produce, but not direct; and Corpse Bride.

While Keaton deserves a lot of the credit for the humor, the supporting cast is strong. The Alec Baldwin we see here is the way you think he’d want to be remembered. Thin and good-looking, Alec manages to show that he is more than just a pretty face. Geena Davis, who had made her mark in the off-beat TV sitcom Buffalo Bill, was also on her way to becoming a movie actress. She had appeared in Tootsie (1982) and The Fly (1985), but was still evolving as an actress. Her Barbara was what people liked about Geena Davis: quirky, pretty and funny, a combination that would suit her well throughout most of her film career.

Burton at this time was at the beginning of his career. Beetlejuice was only his second feature film. This would lead to Batman (1989) also with Michael Keaton as the lead. The next year, Burton would join forces for the first time with Johnny Depp with Edward Scissorhands (1990) and the rest they say is history.

Also notable, is the music of Danny Elfman, former leader of the rock band Oingo Boingo. The music sometimes sounds derivative of Bernard Hermann’s work on Psycho (1960), but Elfman was truly at the beginning of a career that has seen him become one of the most sought after film composers in Hollywood.

I have to admit that the first time I saw Beetlejuice I really liked it. A second viewing and the story was starting to age almost as badly as the special effects, which look downright primitive. The sandworm is almost laughable by today’s standards.

Beetlejuice is one of those films that you should see, like Caddyshack (1980) and Stripes (1981), not because they’re great films, but because they are films that you’re going to hear about over and over again. You have to see them to see what all the fuss is about. While they might not make your list of all-time favorites, they are at least worth a viewing.

Beetlejuice is available at the WB Shop:

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Darksiders - The Apocalypse Begins, And It's Awesome

In preparation for Darksiders II, to be released August 14, I took it upon myself to play the original Darksiders. I'll be honest, the first time I played this game a couple of years ago, I started playing and never got around to finishing it. I believe it was due to outside circumstances, but I regretted not being able to finish it. So on my second go round, and for the 200th review of this blog, I began my quest anew and found myself drawn into a fascinating and enjoyable 16+ hour game that's got me excited even more for the sequel.

The apocalypse has broken out on Earth, aka the Kingdom of Man, and War, one off the Four Horsemen, is there to fulfill his duty. However, it turns out that the end of days was set off prematurely, and the Charred Council blames the horseman for it. Out of the seven seals that would need to be broken to kick things off, one remained intact. While the council wants to execute him to death, War asks to find the one responsible for summoning him early, declaring that he is innocent in the matter. The council accepts his request, sending him back with a companion named The Watcher to keep track of his whereabouts and actions. It turns out that a century has gone by, and to find the one he seeks, War will need to strike a deal with a demon named Samael, who craves the still-beating hearts of the Chosen.

A really great way to describe the experience of Darksiders would be to say that it feels like a combination of multiple game franchises. In my case, I would describe it as a mixture of God of War, Devil May Cry, and Portal; I've heard others also state The Legend of Zelda as a big influence on the overall design, but since I'm one of those people that has yet to play a single game from that franchise, I feel unqualified to agree. Even so, while they might say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I feel as though Darksiders is much more than a cheap imitation.

The God of War influence I spotted was in the combat. God of War's classic two-button layout, where Square is for light attacks and Triangle is for heavy attacks, fits in with the game's absolutely perfect control layout and allows War to make the battle seem more visceral and gives the player the feeling of ultimate power as one of the horsemen of the apocalypse. Heck, the Circle button is even used to display a unique  finishing move for each enemy, just like Kratos himself. Where this game decides to introduce its own spin on the formula is how instead of a heavy attack, the appropriate button will use a secondary weapon instead, allowing for varying attacks to help easily clear an area of enemies. In addition, he can access an array of extra abilities in the vein of God of War's magic, as well as access a Chaos form by filling up a gauge through battle in a similar fashion to Kratos. Despite the similarities, I feel that the combat was executed very well, with plenty of enemy variety and additional tactics to keep players on their toes and get in the zone.

On the subject of weaponry, this is where I form my Devil May Cry comparison. This is not in the actual weapons themselves, but rather the amount of weapons available. While Dante definitely isn't short on weapons in his career as a professional demon slayer, War seems equally capable at gathering an impressive arsenal. While his Chaoseater blade never leaves his side, other weapons like a Scythe and Tremor Gauntlet can be interchanged to help suit an individual's play style. He can even use a bladed boomerang or a gun with limitless ammunition when locked on, among other useful items. I enjoyed the array of weapons available and experimented with different combinations to find what would work best not only in combat, but also what would have the best application for the next part of the level.

But why Portal, you might ask? Well, in a later portion of the game, War acquires a device called the Voidwalker, which is essentially the Portal Gun, down to firing orange and blue portals on a specific surface, which appears here to be stained glass circles. The only difference is that momentum doesn't transfer between portals unless you charge the shot and you can actually fire portals through portals to extend your reach. This is essential for some of the puzzles, which is also where my connection to the franchise comes from. The puzzles in this game are very creative and can even stump you for a moment as you try to figure out exactly what you'll do. While some of the complexity made a level or two feel a little long, I still enjoyed solving them and feeling a strong sense of satisfaction upon completion.

On a technical note, I thought that Darksiders looked pretty good. The graphics may not be the best in gaming, but the detail achieved and the intricacy of the characters models had me impressed. Everything looked stylized with a carved edge and a smart angular appearance that still allowed everything to flow organically. I even saw a pretty good smoke trail from The Watcher and flow in the long hair of some of the characters.

One aspect I'll readily praise is the sound quality. The game has an amazing score that perfectly captures the feel of the events, even during the most mundane things. Voice acting is also top notch, featuring memorable performances from such names as Liam O'Brien, Phil LaMarr and Mark Hamill. I enjoyed hearing the characters interact, especially when thinking of some of their other roles, and felt that everyone sounded just right.

If there's one area the game doesn't feel right in, it would be the story. While the tale is very intriguing and original, I couldn't feel myself getting invested in the entirety of the events, part of which is due to the apocalypse not being given an appropriate scale within the context of the event. If there was a much larger scope to show the gravity of the situation and what exactly hangs in the balance, then maybe I would have cared a little bit more instead of feeling a little indifferent. Nevertheless, there are some interesting character moments and twists set that are worth seeing, plus a world that I would actually like to see more of with its depiction of mythology.

Darksiders is one of the more unique experiences that I've had in gaming. While a lot of its core concepts are indeed borrowed from other franchises, the way that Vigil Games used and combined them shows that they are not only passionate, but also creative in their ability to build upon their inspirations. Save for a couple of things, this game is one that I would readily recommend people to play if they want a well made action-adventure title to satisfy their hunger, especially since it ends with a great cliffhanger that teases a lot of potential for a sequel.

Now its time to wait a little bit and see just what they'll do with that potential.

Stubs - The Asphalt Jungle

THE ASPHALT JUNGLE (1950) Starring: Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Jean Hagen, James Whitmore, Sam Jaffe, John McIntire  Directed by John Huston. Produced by Arthur Hornblow Jr. Screenplay: Ben Maddow and John Huston. Based on the novel, The Asphalt Jungle by W.R. Burnett. Music by Mikos Rozsa. Run Time: 112. Black and White. USA. Film Noir, Drama, Crime

Next, on my Summer of Darkness survey, is the classic The Asphalt Jungle. This film is both an example of not only film noir, but also of the caper film. We see in great details how a crime is planned and committed. While this may not be one of the first examples of the caper film, it is one of the best.

Unlike a lot of other film noir, The Asphalt Jungle doesn’t have a real femme fatale, though Marilyn Monroe, who has a supporting part in the film, is certainly a woman to die for. Rather than a woman toying with the lives of men, The Asphalt Jungle concentrates on what happens when the best laid plans go wrong. There is really no one in the film that you want to root for, after all this is a criminal enterprise, you do come to know some of the men well enough to at least be drawn in by them. You might not like them, but you do see how they are all victim of circumstances, just trying to get along the best they can.

John Huston once did an intro that is used on the DVD release by Warner Bros. of this MGM film, wherein he talks about the film as being about vices, whether it’s betting on horses, drinking, young girls, or the good life. The Asphalt Jungle (subtitled The City Under The City) is about how vices drive men to do what they do and how they can be their downfall.

The main character is a guy named Dix Handley (Sterling Hayden), a country boy in the big city. He is a petty criminal who uses his ill-gotten gains to bet on the horses. When the film opens, Dix is picked up in a seedy coffee shop run by Gus Minissi (James Whitmore) for a stick up and put into a line up which includes William Doldy (Strother Martin), but the witness, a Night Clerk (Frank Cady) gets intimidated by Dix and doesn’t identify him even though Dix is the obvious choice.

After the failure of the lineup, Police Lt. Ditrich (Barry Kelley) is called into see Police Commissioner Hardy (John McIntire).  Ditrich is a corrupt policeman, whom the Commissioner doesn’t like, but who he can’t prove as corrupt. Hardy chastises Ditrich for the crime in his district and for failure to permanently close the gambling houses. Hardy brings up the fact that under Ditrich’s supervision, a recently paroled gangster managed to slip the detail tailing him and is running loose in the city. Hardy gives Ditrich one more chance to make this right.

Meanwhile, the criminal mastermind Hardy spoke of, Doc Erwin Riedenschneider (Sam Jaffe) takes a cab to see Cobby (Mark Lawrence), a bookie who runs the betting parlor that Dix happens to use. Doc has not been idle in prison and is anxious to get on with his next big plan, a jewel heist. But he needs money and came to Cobby to introduce him to Alonzo Emmerich (Louis Calhern), a crooked lawyer who is known in the joint as being willing to help with such ventures. Into the room bursts Dix, upset that Cobby has cut him off from gambling. And even though Cobby raises his limit, Dix still feels boned by him, especially in front of someone else. But Dix does make an impression on Doc.

Back at Gus’s diner, Dix tries to retrieve the gun he left there, but Gus won’t give it back to him. Gus has taken a liking to Dix and doesn’t want to see him run out and rob someone. He offers to help him. Dix needs $2300 to pay off Cobby. While that is more money than Gus has on hand, he promises to come through for his pal. Gus calls Louis Ciavelli (Anthony Caruso) for a loan. At first, Louis tells Gus that he has his own issues, a wife and new baby, but in the end he does say he’ll help him out.

Back at Dix’s apartment, Doll Conovan (Jean Hagen) shows up with a suitcase. Doll has lost her job at the Club Regal, referred to as a clip-joint (strip club) after the police raided and shut it down. No job means no money for rent and Doll has been locked out of her apartment. She’s come to see if Dix will put her up for a few days. While it is obvious they have a past, their relationship is undefined. Dix offers to let her stay, but warns her not to get any ideas.

At the riverside house he uses to keep his mistress Angela Phinlay (Marilyn Monroe), Emmerich listens to Doc lay out his plan about robbing Belletiers jewelry store. Doc tells him he needs the $50,000 to pay for three men he’ll need to do the job: A safecracker (referred to here as a boxman), a getaway driver and a hooligan. The reason for the hooligan (and that word is used over and over again in the movie) is because “they are unfortunately necessary”. Instead of cutting them in for a share of the proceeds, Doc wants to pay them for their services: $25,000 for the safecracker, $10,000 for the getaway driver and $15,000 for the hooligan. The next issue they discuss is how to fence the jewelry and Emmerich himself offers to do that, telling Cobby and Doc that he knows a lot of important people who would be willing to help with something like this.

Emmerich not only promises to help, but tells Doc that Cobby will see to it that he has a place to stay, money for living expenses and phone numbers for female company. It is apparently well known that Doc likes the young girls. Doc even tells Emmerich that he plans to go to Mexico after the heist. “Mexican girls are very pretty. I'll have nothing to do all day long but chase them in the sunshine.”

After his meeting, Emmerich goes into another room to find Angela lying on the couch. This was a star-making role for a young Monroe. She calls him Uncle Lon, as if she is his niece, a 50’s euphemism for mistress. Angela is obviously attractive, but she is also rather simple. After she tells Emmerich that she’s ordered in his favorite breakfast food, salted mackerel, she goes off to her private bedroom. This is the 50’s and there was a production code after all.

When he’s alone, Emmerich calls a private detective, Robert Brannom (Brad Dexter) who he wants to collect about $100,000 that is owed him by his debtors and former clients. Emmerich doesn’t want to know how Brannom gets the money; he only wants to see results.

The next morning, Dix wakes up on his sofa to find Doll has made him coffee. She has spent the night in his bed alone. She has over heard Dix talk in his sleep about the “Corncracker”, which Dix tells her was a tall black colt. In his dream, Dix manages to make his father and grandfather proud with this riding prowess. He confesses in real like the colt bucked him off right away leading his father to remark “Maybe that'll teach ya not to brag about how good you are on a horse.” Dix’s real dream is to return home to Kentucky and buy back the homestead the family had to sell after his father died.

Doc is at Cobby’s when Dix comes to pay off his debt. Cobby tries to warn Dix about betting indiscriminately and even offers to cut him next time there’s a fix in. Doc is impressed by Dix’s reputation as a hooligan, but Cobby tries to dissuade him telling Doc that Dix is strictly a small time hood.

Doc tells Cobby that the woman he dated last night told him that Emmerich is broke, but Cobby doesn’t believe him. After all Emmerich has two houses and six servants. While Doc is still there, Ditrich comes by and when he sees Doc, the man the commissioner told him to be on the lookout for, he backs away. Cobby follows Ditrich to the door. Ditrich tells him that there is pressure on him and that he needs to raid the betting parlor and put Cobby in jail. But Cobby bribes him and agrees to shut down for a couple of days.

Emmerich is visited by his PI Brannom who tells him that none of his debtors came through. Emmerich admits to Brannom that he’s broke and needs to get out from under his own debt. He also tells Brannom that his plan is to double cross the robbers and take the jewels and leave the country. But he’s still short the $50,000 to put his plan into action. Brannom asks for a 50/50 split with Emmerich for the suggestion that Emmerich get Cobby to put up the money. He tells him that Cobby wants to be a big shot and will do it.

With Cobby already agreeing to act as paymaster for the operation, Doc interviews Louis, the same man Gus called for a loan. Louis is an experienced box man and agrees to take $25,000. Both Louis and Cobby recommend Gus for the getaway driver. To round out his crew, Doc picks Dix to be the hooligan.

In a rather quick scene, the assembled gang listens to Doc as he maps out the timing of each step in the heist.

That evening at 11:30, the plan goes smoothly. Louis climbs down a manhole, walks along a tunnel to the designated spot where he tunnels through the wall into the Belletier’s. He next climbs up the basement stairs to the street, deactivates the alarm and opens the door for Dix and Doc. They next go to the main safe, which is protected by an electric eye. After sliding on his back under the eye, Louis then picks the lock on the gate and drills holes in the safe door. Using his own nitroglycerin “soup”, Louis manages to blow the door off.

From this point on things start to go wrong. The force of the blast has set off alarms in the surrounding businesses and police are starting to show up on the scene. But the burglars finish the heist and Doc puts all the jewelry in a suitcase. The crew jumps the first policeman through the door, with Dix knocking him out. But when the cop drops his gun, it goes off and the bullet hits Louis in the stomach. When they get him out to Gus, Louis refuses to go to the doctor, and insists on being taken home.

Doc and Dix go to the rendezvous with Emmerich and are not too pleased to find Brannom there. They are also not happy when Emmerich tells him it will take longer to raise the money than he thought. They refuse to let him hold on to the jewelry in the meantime. But Brannom won’t let them leave, pulling his gun on the pair. But when Doc throws him the suitcase, Dix manages to pull his gun and kill Brannom. However, Brannom did manage to nick Dix with a bullet in his side.

While Dix wants to kill Emmerich, Doc prevails. He tells Emmerich to approach the insurance company about buying the jewels back at 25% of their value. Emmerich agrees to do it.
At Louis’ apartment, Gus tries to convince Louis’ wife Maria (Teresa Celli) that the doctor will be there soon and that Louis will be all-right.

Emmerich, meanwhile, disposes of Brannom’s body in the river. Dix and Doc take refuge with one of Cobby’s friends at Donato’s grocery store. There Doc gets a call that the insurance company agreed to pay for the jewels and they just have to wait through the weekend.

With publicity about the heist and a reward offered, the taxi cab driver who took Doc to Cobby’s comes forward. Ditrich is then dispatched to Cobby’s with a search warrant. Through strong arm techniques Ditrich gets Cobby to cooperate and fink. The police then start to pick up the crew, arresting Gus and then going after Louis. But they are too late and the box man has already died of his wounds.

Next the police, with the commissioner in tow, descend on Emmerich and Angela. While she had once provided Emmerich with an alibi for the night of the crime, Emmerich tells her to recant her story and tell the truth, which she does. When Emmerich goes to call his wife, he sits down and instead starts to write her a note, but he tears it up before he finishes it. And before the policeman standing guard can stop him, Emmerich kills himself with a gunshot to the head.

Doc and Dix leave Donato’s but run into a policeman who recognizes Doc. When he asks to look into his briefcase, Dix knocks him out and the two escape, though Doc has gotten a slight head wound. The two go to Doll, who is apartment-sitting for a friend. She puts the two of them up and they nurse Doc back to health. Doc plans to take a cab to the edge of town and then pay them to take him to Cleveland, but before he leaves, he borrows $1000 from Dix. It is only after Doc leaves, that Dix’s wound starts to bleed again.

Doc catches a cab and finds the driver is a fellow German, named Franz Schurz (Henry Rowland) who agrees to take him to Cleveland for a $50 tip.

Meanwhile, Doll buys a car for Dix, who even though he’s bleeding, plans to go back to Kentucky. He relents and lets Doll go with him.

Franz and Doc stop for food at a diner on the edge of town. And even though Franz is eager to get going, Doc is infatuated with a young girl, Jenny (Helene Stanley), who is there with two boys. Doc can’t resist watching her dance one more time, even putting up the money for the jukebox. It is while he is watching Jenny that police arrive and see him through the diner’s window. Once he steps outside, he is arrested.

Dix and Doll keep driving, but Dix is weak from loss of blood and collapses at a train crossing. Doll takes him to Dr. Swanson (John Maxwell), but Dix regains consciousness and overhears the doctor on the phone to police about a gunshot victim. Gathering up all his strength, Dix races out and he and Doll drive away.

Surrounded by reporters, the police commissioner gets a little preachy about how there are more good cops than bad and that people need the police when they’re in trouble. He tells the assembled reporters that everyone is in custody, with the exception of Dix.
In the final scene, Dix makes it to his boyhood home, where, with Doll trailing after him, he falls to the ground and dies surrounded by the horses he loved.

Many past reviewers have commented about the film’s naturalistic style, but this not a documentary on crime nor is it presented as such. Nothing shows desperation better than black and white photography. The lines between right and wrong are all gray here. None of the main characters are hero material, but we find ourselves caring about Dix nonetheless. Dix is a prototype of what became to be known as the anti-hero. Actors like Al Pacino made their careers playing them.

Sterling Hayden, perhaps better known as Brigadier General Jack Ripper in Dr. Strangelove (1964), gives a lot of depth to Dix. He is not really such a hooligan, but more of a fish out of water. He robs so he can bet on the horses, but it’s really the horses themselves that he longs for, not the money. Hayden would also appear in another film noir caper movie, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956). While he said he didn’t like acting, Hayden did appear in dozens of films throughout his 40-year career, including Johnny Guitar (1954), Suddenly (1954), Crime of Passion (1957), The Godfather (1972), 1900 (1976) and Nine to Five (1980).

Louis Calhern also puts in a great performance as Alonzo Emmerich, the seeming successful lawyer who has more than just a slimy side. He is dirty, but he has no honor. His plan is to rip off the burglars and live on the jewels they steal. He cheats on his wife and he asks his mistress to lie for him. There is little to like about Emmerich, but still we want to see what he’ll say or do next. Calhern’s Emmerich is a far cry from his performance as Trentino in the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933) and it shows the range this actor had.

And the last actor I wanted to mention is Sam Jaffe as Doc Riedenschneider is what holds the film together. It is his master plan that the criminals are trying to carry out. He is an older man here, who letches after younger girls, even to the point of his own capture. Still, the audience is willing to watch him watch young Jenny’s moneymaker, even as the police slowly tighten the noose around him. Jaffe’s 50-year film career spanned from 1934’s The Scarlett Empress to 1984’s Rio Abajo. In between Jaffe would appear in such classics as Gunga Din (1939), Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947) and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Blacklisted in the 1950’s for being a Communist sympathizer, Jaffe would also appear in Ben-Hur (1959) and TV’s Ben Casey series which ran from 1961 to 1965.

But even with a great cast, a film needs great direction as well. John Huston certainly came through here again as well. Huston has been discussed on this blog in the review about The Maltese Falcon (1941), but he deserves note here again. Huston presents a dark world where no one is really ever on top and never for very long. Almost everyone has a weakness or a vice that leads to their downfall. Huston manages to tell a story with a lot of characters which still manages to let you see who they all are. And while you don’t get to know them really well, you know them well enough to understand their motivations, even if they aren’t always law abiding men.

If film noir shines a light on the darker side of man’s endeavors, then The Asphalt Jungle is certainly one of the better film noirs ever made.