Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Dragon Age: Origins review

    In the months leading up to the release of Dragon Age: Inquisition, I've decided to do a retrospective series of reviews on what I think of as my second favorite fantasy setting after the Elder Scrolls. I refer, of course, to the Dragon Age series by Bioware. The spiritual successors to the Baldur's Gate series, Dragon Age incorporates much of what I loved about Knights of the Old Republic and transplants it to a mostly-original fantasy setting.

    I say mostly-original because Dragon Age, like Mass Effect, wears its inspirations on its sleeve. The Darkspawn have a place in the setting similar to Tolkien orcs (with their theme even resembling the one from Peter Jackson's movies). The role of mages and their relationship to the Fade is similar to that or Warhammer's magic users. Also, it's still a fantasy setting where the predominate races are elves, dwarves, and humans.

    And you know what? I like it that way.

Quite a few fascinating stories for each of the Grey Wardens. Sadly, they have little effect past the beginning.
    There's nothing new under the sun and I have no problem with continuing the tradition of fantasy established by Tolkein before being popularized by Dungeons and Dragons. I've played D&D for twenty-years and have no intention of stopping now. If this is a D&D setting then it is a very good D&D setting. The writing is fun, crisp, and full of humor as well as drama.

    So what more do we want?

    In my case, nothing.

    The premise of Dragon Age: Origins is that you are a Grey Warden. Somewhat similar to the Night's Watch only infinitely more respected and cool, the Grey Wardens protect the continent of Thedas from the Blight. The Blight is a combination Orc/Zombie plague which results thousands of mindless evil monsters rising up from underground to kill everyone they encounter.

The combat system is fun yet sometimes clunky.
    The player character comes from one of six origins (Mage, Human Noble, Dwarf Noble, Dwarf Commoner, City Elf, or Dalish Elf) to join the Wardens before things go off the rails. Each of the Origins is unique and I recommend playing them all, even if they have little effect on the game past the opening Act.

    Gameplay wise, Dragon Age: Origins functions like Dungeons and Dragons with turn-based combat that is done in "real time." You control both your main character as well as a party of four supporting characters which he or she leads. You rise in levels, stat your characters, and equip them with ever-increasingly good weapons that will make your charactrs tougher as well as able to dish out more damage.

    It's a fun system but grew tedious after time, constantly shifting weapons and armor for slightly better examples thereof. Worse, some of the equipment and armor, particularly the hats, are hideous. Your character is more likely to wear the best armor, regardless of what it looks like, than appear as you want them to.

I love the characters. All of them.
    The big appeal of Dragon Age: Origins, though, is definitely the characters. This is a game filled with dozens of incredibly memorable NPCs. The best ones, of course, are your companions who are incredibly deep and well-written. I can't think of a single party-member in Origins I didn't find to be fascinating. Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana, Wynne, Sten, and others were all delightful. My least favorite was Zevran the Elf Assassin and I still liked Zevran. All of them have plot arcs and stories which make me think this would have been just as much fun to read as a novel as it would have been to play.

    The storyline is very well-written with lots of intrigue, morally ambiguous characters, and twists. The character of Teryn (Duke) Loghain, his daughter Anora, King Calian, and all the intrigues thereof were as interesting to me as the larger story of the Blight. The game is divided into several "zones" each with their own overarcing storyline. These zones can be completed however the player character likes and that sort of freedom is enjoyable to have. Different party members will have different reactions to events so the game has replay value too.

    One of the elements which makes the game great is it's widely believed, and justifiably so, to have had the best romance system in Western gaming. While I don't play video games for romance, it's a basic part of storytelling and it's nice to see the interaction between the characters rising above "rescue the Princess." Alistair, Morrigan, Leliana, and Zevran are two straight and two bisexual options that offer humorous yet touching story arcs. You can even marry your way into monarchy if you play your cards right.

The Archdemon, who serves as the main villain, leaves much to be desired. It lacks any dialogue and is nothing more than a large ugly dragon.
      The protagonist of Dragon Age: Origin isn't voiced and you can only respond in text but the breadth of choice deserves to be applauded. You can play an evil schemer, a freedom-loving mage, a hateful racist elf, a snooty dwarf noble, or a greedy assassin all with each validity. Some choices are questionable as I can't imagine anyone picking the werewolves over the elves, for example, but I still liked they existed. The epilogue shows a shocking number of choices have consequences and not enough games do that anymore.

     In conclusion, Dragon Age: Origins is one of the best RPGs I've ever played. it isn't as original as it could be but the worldbuilding, characters, and storytelling more than make up for it. I've replayed the game three or four times, which I never do other than in Skyrim so that says everything which needs to be said I think.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Afflicted review

    I hesitate to reveal anything about this movie because one of the major surprises of the story is one I didn't figure out from the trailer. Thus, before I continue this review, I'm going to say the movie has a lot going for it. You should see it if you like horror movies which are still serious but light enough to be enjoyed with your non-horror friends. It's not an instant classic but it does what all horror films should: it's scary, you care about the characters, and the movie kept me entertained the entire way through.

    So, yeah, recommended.

    The rest of my review will deal with a spoiler. If you don't want the reveal spoiled, then I suggest you don't read further.

    Still here?

    Okay, good.

    It's a vampire movie.

    The fact it was able to keep this element secret is something which is a credit to the developers. I watched this movie on the basis of its strong trailer and was surprised to find out it's about a guy who is transformed into a vampire and his dealing with the consequences. It's probably the straightest, most un-ironic, non-metaphorical treatment of vampirism I've seen in years.

He's fine! He just needs blood.
    The movie is a "found footage" film in the manner of the Blair Witch Project. Bluntly, I didn't think this worked as well for the film as it could have. The question of who would be editing all of this together is never answered and a lot of events are things our characters would never reasonably film. Despite this, the camera work is good enough to feel "authentic" in a way which a more staged depiction wouldn't.

    Best friends Clif and Derek decide to go on a European vacation for the last probable year of the latter's life. Derek is dying of an inoperable brain condition and wants to go out with a bang. After an encounter with a French girl his friends interrupt because they're colossal jerks (seriously, who would do that? Even if their friend wasn't dying), they find Derek has developed a sudden allergy to sunlight and no longer can digest food.

Never trust French girls into the geeky guys. They're vampires. All of them.
    This is the audience's first clue that something weird is going on but things get weirder as Derek starts to develop superpowers. These include the ability run ninety miles-an-hour, smash through solid stone, and climb walls like Spiderman. Gradually, they figure out Derek has become a vampire about the time a person in real-life would deduce that was the only "sensible" explanation. The authenticity of this and the friendship of the two as they struggle to figure out how to feed their friend is the best part of the movie.

    It's a very rare film whose emotional heart rests on the friendship between two straight dudes and their willingness to die for one another. The fact Clif disappears from the film in the final act is a disappointment and lowers the enjoyment factor significantly. Still, by this time, I was invested enough in the plot to see it through.

Documenting a friend dealing with vampirism would have made the movie better but it's pretty good now.
    It's a rare film I can say is a "realistic" take on vampires but this feels about as close as you can come in our post-modern world. Getting blood is hard, you'd do it only after exhausting all other options, and suicide would be contemplated the moment bodies start to drop.

    In conclusion, I recommend this film. It's got some flaws but they're small in comparison to the overall serious treatment of vampirism, likable main characters, and the fact things go in unexpected directions.


Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Byzantium (film) review

    Neil Jordan created one of my favorite vampire movies of all time in Interview with a Vampire. He didn't make any sequels, though, and left the genre until now. The heart of what made Neil Jordan's work good, however, was that he focused on what made the vampires tick as opposed to violence. That's very true in Byzantium, which is probably the first feminist interpretation of the vampire myth I've seen on film.

    Feminist interpretations of vampirism is nothing new. The use of early authors to make the vampirism as a metaphor for unchecked or quote-unquote *finger wag* deviant sexuality made it a perfect subject for getting points past the censors. Vampirism has been used as a way to liberated female sexuality, homosexuality, sex outside of one's ethnicity, and other attitudes which would have never made it to screen otherwise. There's nothing quite like Byzantium, though, which both hurts and helps the film.

    Written by Moira Buffini, Byzantium is something of an odd duck because it's not really interested in vampirism as a metaphor for sexuality. Byzantium is, instead, a metaphor for the loneliness and isolation independent women have suffered throughout history. It's not a happy movie where vampirism represents a liberation but, instead, depicts undeath as an incredibly difficult road to walk.

A warning: this movie is surprisingly violent for such a touching character piece.
    The premise of the movie is Clara (Gemma Artertron) and Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) are a mother-daughter pair of vampires. Clara works as a stripper and occasional prostitute, our introduction to her being a private dance for a disgusting client. Eleanor, by contrast, spends her time writing about her experiences with the all-but-stated frustration no one will ever read her words. Both are on the run from other vampires for reasons which gradually get revealed through the course of the movie.

    While Clara's opening dance and subsequent chase scene in lingerie serves as fanservice for the heterosexual male members of the audience, her profession is used as a bait-and-switch. Clara is a very intelligent woman whose choice of profession is implied to be due to trauma from her past life and the fact there haven't been very many legitimate occupations for women throughout history.

    Eleanor plays a somewhat Claudia-esque role in that she is stuck as a perpetual teenager, better than a twelve-year-old, but perpetually treated with a veneer of condescension. Clara is content with survivor but Eleanor longs for a life she can never have doing anything other than keeping her mother company. It's a very nuanced relationship between these two and the movie doesn't shy away from its dysfunctional elements. They make a rather one-dimensional set of villains and I consider them to be the film's weakest link but still serviceable in their role.

It's rare scenes like this that highlight the beauty of immortality versus the seediness.
    The supporting cast of Byzantium is interesting with the three major male characters (all three having love interest roles) reflecting different sides to the male experience. Noel (Daniel Mays) is weak and pathetic but, frankly, the nicest man they've dealt with in centuries. The fact he's unwittingly let in a pair of vampires into his home while trying to help a mother-daughter pair of unfortunates is an irony the movie doesn't miss. He's aware he's being used but, on some level, doesn't care about a woman like Clara is pretending to like him for a time. It's probably the best time of his life.

    Midshipman Darvell (Sam Riley) is a strong romantic figure but his refusal to step in against the injustices perpetuated against our heroines wears down any sympathy he might have. Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) is full of unrealized potential which only Eleanor seems to appreciate. Then there's the Brotherhood, a collection of vampires who refuse to create women because they consider them inferior. They're also snobs. Clara, being both a woman and a former prostitute, offends them doubly so. Frankly, none of them paint a particularly flattering light of the male sex but perhaps that's the point. They only really reach their potential once women are introduced into their lives.

    Ultimately, my biggest problem with Byzantium is that it's not a terribly fun movie. I know not all vampire movies are supposed to be fun but the movie has long periods of depression which can weigh upon an audience. For those sensitive to abuse, watching Clara and Eleanor have to endure so much on their way to freedom can be heartrending. Clara also prefers to appear passive, when she's anything but, which can make her character seem weak. Much of the movie depends on Eleanor presenting a more modern independent woman (even if she is 200 years old).

Eleanor is the most mature character in this film--to her eternal frustration.
      There were times I had to stop the movie or fast forward it because some of the subject matter was simply too ugly for me to endure. I'm a big softie, however, and I'm sure plenty of viewers who are made of harder stuff will be able to enjoy the movie for it is. I think softening the movie a bit would have improved it, though. So take this hypocritical attitude of a horror aficionado for what its worth.

      Overall, I rather enjoyed the artistry of Byzantium. It's a story of vampirism as a struggle for independence and freedom from society's norms. Eleanor and Clara are wonderful characters with their stories depicted beautifully. The fact it is based around a mother-daughter relationship is rare enough in horror cinema that I think it deserves a point for the novelty alone. While I don't think Byzantium will ever reach the level of fame or appreciation that Interview did, I think it should serve as an inspiration to other vampire movie filmmakers in the future.


Saturday, August 23, 2014

Deep Black Sea review

    One of the most well known ways to do a horror story, at least in Doctor Who, is the "base under siege." Basically, there's a bunch of likable protagonists who are trapped in an enclosed place and find themselves under attack by whatever sort of monster the storyline is based on. It can be in space like Alien or a cabin in the woods like, well, The Cabin in the Woods.

    Deep Black Sea is a "base under siege" story, though the simplicity of the narrative should not be confused for lazy storytelling. David M. Salkin weaves a good story which distinguishes itself from its counterparts through fun characters and unconventional monsters.

    The premise of Deep Black Sea is sadly unbelievable: a pro-science U.S. President takes away money from the military for a large-scale research project. I mean, zombies I can buy but this is just ludicrous.

    Just kidding. Sort of.

    Anyway, a team of competent deep-sea researchers are assembled and sent down four-miles underneath the water where they're expected to spend the next year. When they're down there, they find something unpleasant.

    Things go from there.

    I like this novel because it's a story which simultaneously is more plausible than most science-fiction horror, taking time to give reasonable-sounding explanations for the events within, but doesn't take itself too seriously. Deep Black Sea keeps a balance between humor and horror, and drama quite well. The heart of any story is its characters but the ocean researchers here are all a fun bunch of guys and girls, reminding me a good deal of the characters from Alien.

    I think part of what I liked about the protagonists is they reminded me very much of many RL oceanographers I've met. They grouse about their jobs, take their circumstances less than seriously (until it becomes dangerous), talk about sex, and constantly rib each other. People used to more Star Trek-like sanitized depictions of scientists will be in for a rude surprise dealing with this crew.

    I like how David M. Salkin manages to capture the mind-numbing tedium of actual research. Having worked with many of RL researchers, I can say with some authority they come up with very inventive ways of distracting themselves from how boring a lot of it can be.

    All of the characters love their area of special concern but there's really no way to dress-up the fact real-life science mostly consists of, "put sample under glass, watch it for twelve months." There's no romances per say in this novel but in a mixed group, it's unsurprising quite a few debate who they'll be sleeping with to pass the next year.

    I enjoyed that.

    I won't spoil the "monster" of the book but while I sincerely doubt anything like it exists in reality, the fact it seems like it could exist makes the book work much better than it might have otherwise. The author has done his research and the techno-babble seems less forced than it does in other science-fiction I've read. I don't quite buy the villain of the story's motivations but that' a small complaint in an otherwise entertaining story.

    In conclusion, I think Deep Black Sea is an excellent example of genre fiction. As much as I love vampires, zombies, and werewolves--it's nice to take a break from them for something different. I don't think there's much room for a sequel but if the author chooses to do one, I'd love to see both characters from the original novel as well as the creatures within. Which is about as good a recommendation as I can give.


Friday, August 22, 2014

Star Wars: The Old Republic: Imperial Agent Storyline review

   I short of fell off of these and I'm sorry for that since I intended to review all of the main character quests but ended up only doing the Sith Inquisitor and Sith Warrior. I actually finished the Imperial Agent awhile back but didn't find time to review it until now. I need to get around to playing the Republic side sometime but I'm troubled by the fact I seem to be definitely on the side of evil in this MMORPG.

    Which is weird because I play Light Side Sith.

    It's like I'm not satisfied being a rebel against tradition, I have to be a double-sized rebel  
    Anywho, is the Imperial Agent storyline worth completing?

    You bet. 

    The Imperial Agent storyline is a strong contrast to the Sith Warrior and Sith Inquisitor's because you're not one of the Sith's ruling class but one of the Empire's citizens. Unlike the Bounty Hunter plotline, where you're wholly out of the power structure, this means you often have to deal with arrogant Dark Side wizards. Thankfully, you're allowed to behave more like Grand Moff Tarkin than Admiral Motti.

For those of you reading this who are not Star Wars trivia nerds, Admiral Motti is the guy Vader force choked in the first movie for disrespecting the Force.
    The premise of the Imperial Agent is you're James Bond (or Jane Bond if you prefer). The smooth-talking, elegant, and hyper-dangerous Cipher Nine is in the employ of one of the few civilian-controlled branches of the Empire's military left. As expected of a group living in a police-state controlled by evil wizards, they're ridiculously paranoid and don't use their real names even when dealing with each other.

    Morale is low in Imperial Intelligence, as to be expected when you're under the command of people who can execute you at will. Despite this, the soldiers of Imperial Intelligence believe the Empire is worth defending and even if most of them don't like the Sith (not that they'd ever admit to it), they carry on in hopes of protecting the Empire's citizenry. I appreciated this viewpoint because it's entirely rationale and reflects a lot of RL dictatorships. The folk at Imperial Intelligence aren't even villains per say but determined to keep the casualties on their side at a minimum.

    Which is hard when so many Sith are so ****ing STUPID (a fact backed up by the Sith Warrior and Sith Inquisitor storylines--those two are, quite possibly, the only two capable Sith Lords in the entire Empire). The Imperial Inquisitor spends a great deal of time cleaning up after the Dark Lords, to the point it becomes an incredible relief when you're finally in a position to start showing the spoon-benders that Muggles can do it better.
The SNARK of the Imperial Inquisitor almost rivals the Sith Inquisitor.
    Interestingly, while the Imperial Agent is quite capable of killing lesser Sith and even Sith Masters, the game makes it clear this is a very rare skill. Likewise, the Sith Inquisitor is required to make use of puzzle elements in order to face against more powerful Dark Lords. I liked this as it helped demonstrate the most dangerous element of the Imperial Agent is their mind. By the end of the main quest, the Imperial Agent will have left a high enough body count that any Sith Lord who doesn't respect them as an equal is a fool

    The romance options for the Imperial Agent are some of the best in the entire game, at least the parts I've played, giving you numerous opportunities to seduce or befriend NPCs in the game. I actually liked my characters flirtatious romance with Watcher-2 (pretty Imperial professional) more than I did with my Companion romance options. Admittedly, one of them is a bit creepy as the "Voss" romance can end horrifically, but otherwise it's easy to say the Imperial Agent is the sexiest guy/girl in the galaxy.

I'm a sucker for a girl in uniform.
     I think the part I liked most about the Imperial Agent story was the Voss infiltration mission, where you are forced to impersonate a member of an alien species. The fact you have to get close to a family of reasonably nice sentients (who one of your colleagues murdered the father of in order to impersonate) gives a real sense of spy-work absent from most espionage media let alone video games.

    In conclusion, I think the Imperial Agent is one of the more fun storylines I've played in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I think fans aching for something different will find there's a lot to enjoy about being the Sith Empire's clean-up crew. I didn't much care for a plotline involving brainwashing toward the middle but the ending more than makes up for it.


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Only Lovers Left Alive review

    I can't believe this one slipped under my radar. Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton as vampires. With John Hurt and the girl who starred in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland too! Really, I should have been all over this movie from the very beginning. Anyway, kudos to Mrs. Phipps because she's the person who recommended this movie to us.

    So what do I think?

    This is the best vampire movie I've ever seen, or at least one of the best. Which is surprising because this movie actually has no plot whatsoever. It reminds me of my old Vampire: The Masquerade games where the sessions would consist of the player characters sitting around talking for hours rather than doing anything of note. Despite that, this movie is really-really good. I'm not exaggerating.

The casting is perfect. I could buy them as vampires in real-life.
     The premise of the film are Adam and Eve (all-but-stated to not be their real names) are a pair of married vampires who live apart. Adam is a professional rocker who lives in Detroit and has seen said city go from being the music capital of the world to, well, Detroit.

     Eve is a much older vampire who has seen the rise of modern civilization as a blessing rather than a curse. Adam is suicidal, contemplating taking a wooden bullet to the heart, so Eve decides to do an emergency intervention and rush to his side.

    And that's the movie, actually.

    There's a subplot about Eve's sister Ava coming to visit but it's really about the development of these two characters and how they deal with the ennui of immortality. It's a character piece whose subjects just happen to be vampires and I'm impressed with that. Not since Interview with a Vampire have I seen a vampire movie so interested in the concept of what it is to be undead.
    What I really liked was the social commentary of the movie. While I use the term Gothic Punk liberally, this movie does a nice subdued version. Adam is disgusted with the human race's lack of progress, their general stupidity, and their unwillingness to fight for anything beyond their own egos. He's known some of the greatest artists in history and is irritated when they're forgotten or misrepresented (Christopher Marlowe, hilariously played by John Hurt, is representative of this).

Tom Hiddleston oozes charm every moment he's on screen.
    The use of Detroit is perfect for a vampire's home city as it's a city with some of the greatest music history in America but to say it's hit hard times would be an understatement. You can feel Adam's pain as he looks to see the poverty, suffering, and hopelessness of a city he has come to have great sentimental attachment to.

    There's even a minor environmental message as many vampires have died of blood poisoning due to the amount of pollution and other toxins humans have put in their veins. Drinking "straight" from the vein is hazardous to your health now.

    Tilda Swinton's Eve is a great character as she has managed to keep an optimistic view of the world despite living through the Black Death, Crusades, and much-much worse. I liked the film's viewpoint on why she's more successful at immortality than Adam. Adam gets attached to things and can't move on while Eve is always moving around, absorbing new things, and learning. Charles Darwin gets called out during one of their conversations and it's true, evolution is about adaptability.

    The supporting cast for this movie is great with the aforementioned John Hurt and Mia Wasikowska being vampires who add quite a bit to the storyline. There's not that many characters in the movie, five or six total, but they each lend a different perspective on immortality.

Fangs for the memories!
    Ava is a perpetual child, refusing to grow up and yet probably being better adapted to the modern world than Adam. John Hurt's Christopher Marlowe attempts to nurture new genius in the next generation, showing a concern for the world which may one day leave him behind.

    Even the movies props and costuming department tell a story. The vampires lives are reflected in their possessions or lack or possessions. Rather than simply making them obnoxiously rich, though they are, they tend to accumulate things which are emotionally precious to them. Their clothes also reflect where they last stopped caring about their styles with Ava, for instance, being slightly out of date while Adam still dresses like it's the Seventies.

    Hell, I haven't even gotten into how funny the movie is despite its weight subject matter. I laughed aloud at least a dozen times. I won't spoil any jokes but everything from "Soul Dracula" to Ava's bratty teenage-daughterness makes this movie awesome.

    Only Lovers Left Alive is a great-great film. Every vampire fan should see it.


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Interview with C.T. Phipps (Me) on Illustrious Peeps

Fellow author and blogger James Crawford was nice enough to interview me for his website Bloodsoaked and Writing.

He asked me about what it felt like to have six or seven other Charles Phipps in my genre (and why I had to be known as C.T. Phipps instead) and plenty of questions which allowed me to talk about all sorts of nonsense.


Please check it out!