8 of Hearts: 2022 Games of the Month 2: PLEASE TOUCH THE ARTWORK

In the early years of the twentieth century, the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, who had previously focused on impressionist presentations of landscapes, was moving in a more abstract direction. Moving from the Netherlands to Paris in 1911, he was visiting his home country upon the outbreak of World War One, which made returning to Paris somewhat difficult. Already influenced by the new art style of cubism, Mondrian’s stay at the artist colony at Laren during the war allowed him to met other artists, such as Bart Van der Leck and Theo van Doesburg. The three artists, all moving towards abstract art, collaboratively began an art movement named De Stijl, or “The Style”, with a journal by the same name publishing essays on the movement and its theory of art, which Mondrian called “Neoplasticism”.

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8 of Hearts: 2022 Games of the Month 1: Praey For The Gods

Praey For The Gods is in some ways an extremely easy game to talk about. It is a Shadow Of The Colossus-like, a game where you find huge creatures scattered around the map at the direction of mysterious, disembodied spirits, climb to weak points spread around their bodies and slowly bring them down. Added on top of this is a winter themed survival system which mainly comes into play in the spaces between , which, with the breakable weapons, warmth mechanics, gathering mystical items to exchange in groups for either health or stamina, and a handheld glider for easy vertical movement, feels mainly based on The Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild. As a final small comparison, the somewhat sparse writing often has the cadence and feel, if not delivery method, of a Dark Souls game: the opening narration talks about a dying world ending with a repeated refrain of “Ring The Bells”, which immediately put me in mind of “Link The Flame” as a short, three word mission statement for your aims in the game.

I don’t think these comparisons to other games are unjustified. The similarities to Colossus in particular are so striking it is genuinely hard not to talk about the game in those terms, defining it primarily by how it follows or deviates from a now seventeen year old game, but I feel like I want to avoid doing so too much. Partially that’s just due to me wanting to try and flex at least some review muscles and not take the easiest route, and partially because I feel the game has at least earnt being examined on its own, merits and flaws alike. In many ways, it is an extremely impressive game, considering it was developed by No Matter Studios, a three person team. Initially developed part time, they were able to switch to full time following a successful 2015 kickstarter campaign that netted them $300,000, twice their initial aim. The game was first released in 2019 as an early access title on Steam, with the full version released in December 2021, making it eligible for the January slot of these reviews. (For reference, the curious spelling is due to Zenimax protesting No Matter Studios filling as Prey for the Gods as Zenimax argued it was too close to the game Prey. No Matter Studios, not wanting to go up against such a big company, changed the name)

The game’s biggest strength is its visual design. “Frozen wasteland” is a very easy setting to make visually really boring, giving the player endless identical white and grey vistas to run (or slip on ice, or slowly trudge through snow) across, but the game gets around this by having its environment be primarily vertical. The archipelago of the game’s setting is a well laid out collection of mountains, cliffs and plateaus, taking a limited palette and using it to create an array of visually distinct corridors for you to pass through, while the grappling hook and glider provide easy vertical motion to stop navigating the island from constantly feeling like a literally uphill slog through the snow.
It helps that a lot of the cliffs are, in fact, frozen giants.

These are literally background features: you rarely even find yourself climbing across them before the finale, but as well as breaking up the landscape, having these great icy figures either towering over you or desperately clawing at the bases of cliffs, trying to pull themselves out of the sea establishes the mood of despair, of being a tiny figure in a doomed land surrounded by the shades and bodies of those who came and failed before you, where even the giants who’s shoulders you may stand on are nothing but helplessly frozen wretches themselves. It is a good mood to set for a game like this where, armed with little more than some fragile, cold damaged weapons that cannot even scratch their hides, you must face down monsters once worshipped as gods. The bosses are, themselves, appropriately huge and morbid in design, creatures of bone, fur and stone bound by ropes and chains by those who have come to the islands before you. The appearance of the first boss, the Satyr, rising out of the snow in the first cutscene was what initially sold me on the game enough to complete it, the way a hill becomes a seemingly mobile corpse of a giant, its face ripped back to the bone, swinging desperately at your tiny figure. The bosses are similar enough to be obviously of the same nature, while each having at least some gimmick such as being a huge tower like worm spewing purple lightning at you, a charging boar who you need to stun by tricking it into slamming into a wall, or a giant half dead crow that you desperately cling to as it flaps through the sky. It is all design aesthetics we have seen before, but it is done well, and the game maintains this morbid, frozen, desperate atmosphere through to the beginning of the finale, which…goes places I both expected on one level given some of the obvious inspirations but I did not expect how hard it went.

Unfortunately the game is ultimately let down by its mechanics. I’d never say it drops below the level of mediocre, except for one notable and quite important exception, but the game is trying to do a lot and can’t quite stretch itself out enough to cover all it. The survival mechanics are, on one level, kind of obvious for the themes and atmosphere the game is going for. Having a warmth mechanic makes sense for a game about the end of the world triggered by an endlessly harsh winter, but the implementation is less lacking and more…minimal. There’s no recipes for food that I could find, just cooking and eating the meat and mushrooms you find across the island. The sleep meter rarely comes into play, at least on the default difficulty, as even a small amount of exploring will yield plenty of one use bedrolls to clutter your somewhat small inventory. The warmth mechanic is the closest the game comes to really engaging with these, since it is obviously linked to the state of the world, dropping faster in windstorms than in caves, and being controllable by making fires and upgrading your clothes (refreshingly seriously designed for a female video game character), but it still doesn’t *do* much, outside of the higher levels of the (admittedly impressively broad and clearly defined) difficulty levels. Those upgradable clothes are another example: while you can upgrade them with furs taken from hunt-able animals around the islands, the defence bonuses those upgrades provide are honestly less noticeable than the fairly subtle visual changes each part of the outfit goes through when upgraded. You can even find other clothing sets in treasure caves around the island, protected by puzzles that honestly tend to be impressive and enjoyable enough I wish they were a bigger part of the game, but these medium and heavy clothing sets still don’t feel important enough to really be worth focusing on. Hell, they are even called, in game, light, medium and heavy clothing.

Non-boss combat isn’t really much to talk about. There are very few enemy types, and it is rare to have an encounter with a minor enemy that actually feels interesting. The closest is probably the occasional puzzles where you need to trick tiny versions of the giant worm boss into powering mechanisms for you by standing behind the power conduits, which is less combat and more another puzzle, an area which, again, the game does well in general. The weapons do, of course, break, but the combat encounters are far enough apart and the weapons numerous enough that this was far less of an issue for me than it is in other, similar games. I suspect that in a more mook combat focused experience, the rate of decay would annoy me a lot, but here it is saved by it just not really mattering. The only things you need to keep an eye on is having a good supply of arrows, since they are useful for both some bosses and plenty of puzzles using classic “light torches with flaming arrow rules, and on higher levels, making sure you have a non-broken grappling hook on you at all times, since that is really the only weapon that feeds into the mechanical meat of the game.

Praey for the Gods is a game about climbing. Climbing up mountains so you can leap off them to glide to the bosses and start climbing up them. Vertical movement is key in this game, and while the grappling hook and the glider are pretty well handled, letting you keep a brisk pace up and down the side of cliffs, the core mechanic is climbing. And unfortunately it is probably the worst mechanic in the game. Not due to it requiring stamina: I think that’s a really good idea and fits this kind of boss a lot better than health as a limiter, since “can you keep going and climbing, or will you fall and need to start again” is a far more interesting limitation in a boss fight than “did you die and need to restart the rather long fight entirely”. There are some awkward bits in how the climbing controls in general, it being slow and kind of awkward to leave on command, but it is some specific but extremely common scenarios that cause the system trouble. For one thing, your character’s climbing animation will always point to a global up, and if she finds herself facing downwards, she will reorientiate herself so her head is always above her feet. The problem is you will find yourself climbing the arms, wings and other limbs of the bosses, meaning that you will constantly find your controls adjusting themselves with the movement of the bosses; you might begin climbing straight up along the arm, but then the boss lifts its arm, tilting the surface you are on ninety degrees and suddenly your forward motion is pushing you around the circumference of the wrist.
Even worse, when that boss lifts the arm, you may find your character struggling to hold on. This is hardly unexpected; you are climbing on giant creatures trying to throw you off, there needs to be some kind of mechanic that has you clinging on for dear life, but that mechanic is just spamming right click. It is an extremely boring mechanic, and one that you will find yourself doing a lot. Each boss has a number of metal sigils implanted in their body by the ones who came before you, which you need to reach on the body and ring by pulling out a central metal core and slamming it back in (The “Ring the Bells” action mentioned in the prologue, since doing so creates a bell ringing sound). Each bell takes three goes to ring properly, and both during each pull back and after each successful attack the boss will immediately start trying to throw you off, meaning that you will have to spam right click at least nine times each fight (the bosses having a minimum of three bells on their forms), not counting all the times you will start being thrown off while you are climbing the bosses. It’s a vital mechanic and it is just really badly done.

The individual bosses are impressively visually but are for the most part fairly standard fare mechanically, having a clear weak point you find and exploit to stun them long enough for you to start climbing. The standout for me is the fourth boss, a giant flying ribbon fish which avoids the climbing issue by spending the clambering over the boss stage of the fight either with you running around on its back and not needing to climb, or with you dangling from what is not the bottom as it flips over in midair, a fight that genuinely left me feeling dizzy and finding myself trying to mentally correct the rotation of my twitter feed having spent half an hour guiding a character as the screen’s contents rotates around me. There’s also a rather interesting sudden shift near the end, which I won’t go too far into here but at the seventh boss, which is notably the one that was released with the ending with the full release, the game suddenly introduces a new mechanic which becomes really important for the finale. Seven out of eight bosses is a bit too late to be introducing a vital new mechanic but I can understand why the team did it, given the development history.

The game is ultimately I think just over ambitious, adding too many mechanics in and not really polishing the core mechanics for the gameplay it is going for. With the exception of the climbing, nothing is done badly, but a lot of it is just the bare minimum in scope, reasonably competently executed. I feel like it would have been drastically been improved by a bit of focus, cutting some of the extra mechanics (I could do without the sleep mechanics at minimum even if the game kept the other survival meters) and really nailing the core boss climbing game play.

Alternatively, that focus could go into fleshing out the writing. While you do find notes scattered around the island, I finished the game honestly confused as to exactly why I was doing this. There’s some vague talk from three dead ladies you find under a shrine about it being a route full of sacrifices, and you can definitely make some conclusions with some fairly basic knowledge of norse mythology, but it did leave me wanting just a bit more actual text. Not explaining everything but explaining something, at least. As far as I can tell there wasn’t any really lore relevant to that in the notes scattered around the island, which tend to either be from one particular guy who also does not seem to know what’s going on and is very worried about this (and which, to be fair, does explain the state of the island as you find it), or function mainly as hints for the bosses or treasure locations. The writing is, for the most part, fairly average. Not bad, but not standing out particularly either.

Praey For The Gods is, ultimately, a reasonably serviceable game that, like the frozen giants it displays, is trapped while reaching for better things. It is an impressive feat for the number of people working on it, but its lack of polish drags it down. I did play through the whole game before writing this, which I think should be taken as an important indication that it is definitely not bad, and some bits are really enjoyable, but it is not at all everything it could be. Currently it is on sale on Steam for £25, which I feel might be a bit much, but if you enjoy Norse mythology and boss climbing gameplay, you might want to pick it up maybe a slight discount. If you don’t already know you like the look of the game however, I’d leave this one.

Honestly if you have access to a playstation console I’d say you might want to just go get a rerelease of Shadow of The Colossus. I know I said I wasn’t gonna bring it up but it’s still true.

7 of Hearts: A couple of thoughts on Collectathons and a few on Yooka-Laylee.

It is recieved wisdom that the collectathon genre of video games had its heyday back in the 1990s with games such as Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and the Banjo Kazooie series. As the name suggests, collectathons are a particular genre of games that revolve heavily around collecting various items scattered around the game, usually with a heavy emphasis on 3D platforming mechanics.

While the genre has fallen out of the limelight, it has definitely had a noticable impact on later games, particularly ones by Nintendo; both Mario Odsessy and Breath of The Wild (the latter of which I have a lot of thoughts on, good and bad) borrow heavily from the genre with their wide open areas filled with secrets to find. I’d go as far as to say that a lot of modern free-to-play and live-service games such as Destiny 2 use a lot of the same mechanics. The main difference between a live-service open world game like Fallout 76 or Destiny and Donkey Kong 64 is that Donkey Kong 64 didn’t drip feed you the content in order to keep you playing (and hopefully spending money on microtransactions).

The late 90s were also a formative period for me in terms of gaming; I was born in 1992, so collectathons (specifically Mario and Donkey Kong, but also all kinds of cheap and quick tie-in games, such as a PC game of Rugrats in Paris and a Gamecube game of Spongebob Squarepants the Movie) were some of my introductions to gaming itself. The genre feels nostalgic to me. They were also great for kids who might not be able to afford to buy many games, since the focus of them tended to be that they are big, and expansive, and crucially can take a long time to play.

There’s one crucial itch that collectathons scratch however, one that I think they really excelled at, and that’s giving the player a constant feeling of progress and completion. Because there are so many collectibles in the game, you are constantly getting that endorphine boost from obtaining them and completing objectives on the micro- (unlocking that door), meso- (completing a level) and macro- (completing the game) scales. This, combined with the general low difficulty levels, makes the genre really good for playing when you have depression (as I’ve been struggling with). It’s a task designed to be completable that provides clear feedback and a sense of accomplishment, and on bad days that can be really comforting.

I recently completed Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and so I was interested in finding another game that could fill in those days where nothing else is going to get done so I might as well lose myself in a collectathon, and so I picked up the game Yooka-Laylee on my Switch.

Yooka-Laylee (or Y-L from now on in this post, because I can’t be bothered to write out Yooka-Laylee all the time), like Breath of the Wild, was released in 2017. Published by Team 17, it was developed by Playtonic, a group formed by former developers from Rare, the company that made Donkey Kong 64 and Bango-Kazooie. The game is in general a throw back to the golden age of collectathons, as you might expect from the team that created some of the key games of that genre.

Honestly I don’t have that much to say about the game itself. It is very much a game spilt between two time periods. The characters all have weird, quirky designs, usually with a punny name attached to them, with the titular pair, the reptial Yooka and the fruit bat Laylee being a pun on ukulele. Sometimes this works nicely, like the World 1 boss Rampo, a giant stone face at the top of a ramp that you need to make your way up using the game’s main movement mechanic (a legimately charming move where Yooka rolls into a ball and Laylee runs on top of him, allowing the pair to move more quickly while making a fun squeeking noise). Sometimes it just feels weirdly stale, like the floating, talking clouds or the skeleton explorer.

Like, I can see where they are aiming but…I dunno, maybe it’s just because I’ve seen a lot of quirky games, and if I was coming to this fresh as a kid they’d seem really unique, but they still feel like the kind of designs people reach for often in this kind of game. And, for that matter, in quirky, brightly coloured children’s properties in general…except that brings us to the final class of character designs which are definitely not for kids, such as the character who you buy upgrades from who is a…Trouser snake. Literally, he’s a snake curled up so he’s in trousers named Trowzers. Then there’s the plants you meet (who are some of the few female characters in the game) who ignore you unless you are transformed into a plant, and then flirt with you while giving you tips. The game doesn’t seem to know what tone it’s going for. Are you appealing to adults or to kids? I think they’re going for both, but they don’t land it.

This tone problem carries on with the writing as well, particularly with Laylee. She’s abrasive and makes sarcastic and often cruel comments to other characters. I honestly kind of want to dislike her, but at the same time she is coupled with Yooka the chameleon. Yooka has no character. Well, I mean, he does, he’s the one who goes along with all the weird collectathon tasks that get thrown at them, which is technically a character trait I guess, but still. He’s so bland I prefer Laylee, the character who keeps making me go “…wait why am I doing this?”

Y-K is very self-aware, with a lot of references to the fact that it is a game; characters refer to levels, special moves, and the villains in particular are constantly mentioning “the next game” (which has been announced). The game opens with Yooka and Laylee relaxing in their new home, the remains of a pirate ship coincidentally directly outside Hivory Towers,  the corporate base of the big bad (a capitalist bee named Capital B). Their initial dialogue almost made me wonder if I was missing a game in the series. There’s no real introduction to the characters or why I should care, even by the standards of collectathons. I at least get why Donkey Kong wants his golden bananas back and to rescue the other kongs. The introduction to the game’s main goal, collecting the pages (or Pagies) of The One Book, is just that Laylee happened to find it in the pirate ship. She doesn’t know what it does, and honestly neither do I even now (there’s some vague mention of it being able to rewrite reality or something?), but off we go to save them from Capital B’s evil machine to suck in all the books of the world!

(Since I messed up the flow a bit by only mentioning Capital B in the last paragraph, I will say he’s a perfectly servicable villain for this kind of game. The parody of corporatism isn’t exactly subtle here; he is introduced in an actually pretty funny scene revealing a gold statue of himself in the lobby of Hivory Towers while berating his right hand man, Doctor Quack, a duck driving around in a gumball machine. I don’t get it either, but along with the saptient shopping trolleys in the third level, he’s one of the few designs I think really stands out.

While exploring the main hub of Ivory Towers, you sometimes get Capital B popping up and saying things like “Thanks for taking out that last minion, now I don’t have to give him a raise!”. It’s a nice bit of characterisation, but most of his lines could have easily come out of a particularly dull set of Dilbert strips. No, that’s unfair. I’m not going to compare the writers to Scott Adams, they don’t deserve that level of slam. And yes, I’m aware having a two paragraph long bracket break here also messes up the flow of the writing. I just don’t care.)

Still, all of this could be ignored fairly easily. I wasn’t coming to Y-K looking for deep writing, or even shallow writing. I was coming to it looking for fun platforming challenges that give me small bursts of that wonderful feeling of completing something.

Unfortunately, I don’t think Y-K actually fufils that very well. It isn’t bad, it’s just medicore. A lot of this is due to the awkwardness of the camera, which is definitely a throwback to the 90’s era of collectathons. This isn’t a good thing. Some of it is due to Yooka feeling overally responsive; there’s a lot of moments when I’m trying to do some precise jumps that get ruined due to what I think is a small change on the joystick, and that would be a small change in something like Mario, sending Yooka and Laylee skidding off a platform. Some of this might just be porting issues for the Nintendo Switch however.

The level designs are also not great. Part of the issue is that with the exception of the first level, they mostly just look the same throughout. Probably the worst one for this is the third level, set in a swamp that is supposed to be a maze, which has a constant murky green aesthetic and no real centrepiece for the level to help position yourself around. Furthermore, with the exception of the bosses, there’s no real variation in the enemies you face. There are bees floating around on metal platforms that shoot projectiles at you, there are jellyfish in the water, there are eyes which possess objects to attack you and every level has it’s own reskin of the default enemy, and that’s about it. The closest you get is some enemies wear hats, and they take two hits to kill. This adds to the feeling of homogenity the levels give.

It isn’t all bad. The second level features an area called the Icymetric Palace, a pun that actually really landed for me since the inside changes the game from a 3D platformer to an isometric viewpoint. Isometric games have a fixed camera position, angled away from all the axes of motion; up/down, forward/back and left/right, or the X,Y and Z axes. In Yooka-Laylee this is particularly welcome because it means you are no longer wrestling with the camera, removing one of the biggest issues with the game.

I do enjoy Kartos (“The God of Ore” as Laylee jokes), an old mine cart you can play a good old-fashioned minecart minigame with in each level. These are just really fun, simple games where you jump around collecting gems (again, with a fixed camera angle).

Another cool mechanic is being able to use Pagies to expand worlds. When you first unlock a level (represented by “Grand Tomes” that you can enter the pages of), you can’t access all it has to offer. However, if you have collected enough pagies, you can use them to expand the Tome, and thus open up new areas to explore, most notably unlocking the boss fights of the level.

I do feel this piece comes off as perhaps more critical than the game actually deserves. The main issue is a constant feeling of mediocrity. It has a lot of fun tools, particularly mechanically with the special moves you can unlock; both Yooka and Laylee get ones that play off their species, with Laylee getting ultrasound and flight based powers while Yooka can eat certain objects to gain temporary abilities like fire breathing, gets some tongue based platforming powers and of course, invisiblity. The problem is that the rest of the game just does nothing with them. The levels are compotent, but boring, like wandering around a town of identical houses. The enemies are bland, the writing just doesn’t quite get to where it wants to be, and the result is a game that I just struggle to care about even though it is of a genre I usually really enjoy.

EDIT: Added in the object possessing eyes to the list of enemies, and also remembered “oh yeah, I liked the Kartos bits!”



3 of Hearts: 4:17 am April 2nd

The time in the title is accurate as of when I start typing this.

I suffer from depression and anxiety, and tonight I’m awake at a silly time in the morning in no state to try to sleep, so I guess, given that at least here in the UK April’s Fools day has come and gone, I might look at the various ways that bits of media I’ve followed have decided to celebrate it this year.

There’s two major trends I think are worth looking at. The first is simply the existence of Patreon, a site that encourages a monthly release schedule by it’s very nature. A lot of creators drop their work at the end of one month and the start of another because that’s the deadline if you are using a monthly payment model. Patreon as a site is interesting for me partially because it’s an alternative to the standard method of monitization online, advertising, and partially because it has become another example of a business model that is highly sustainable but not one that’s going to enjoy repeated massive growth which is being torn apart by the demands for constant, exponential growth in the market, but that’s for a time that isn’t stupid o’clock in the morning. For our purposes, the position of April Fools at the beginning of the month simply fits in neatly with this existing timeline, encouraging material that is not simply a prank but is also worthy content in and of itself.

The second trend is the pushbacks against cruel pranks. Online content creators often rely on their own brand, and being unpleasant, even for a temporary joke, will reflect on that brand. Furthermore, the existence of this brand allows for an easy April Fool’s joke by pretending to massively change your brand, using it as a way to explore a style or a topic that you wouldn’t usually touch.

Anyway here’s a top…whatever list of April Fool’s for this year. I’m not even gonna edit that once I’ve finished and know how many there are.

1.) “Folding Ideas Pivots To Fortnite”, on Folding Ideas, Dan Olsen’s youtube channel, isn’t really an April Fool’s video. It sort of dabbles with it at the start, but that only really goes as far as the first five to ten minutes, which is a set up for the final idea about the use of Fortnite as a creative platform, and how it doesn’t really work. I don’t know whether I’d describe it as a pretend April Fools joke, or an April Fools joke where the joke is that you expect an April Fools joke and get instead a discussion on the game Fortnite and how it manipulates players to make money.

2.) A lot of larger corporations and brands go for the “Here’s a product we’d never actually create” April Fools. A stand out this year is probably a tweet from the official Doom account, crossing the violent demon killing shooter with Bob Ross’ Joy of Painting, a program that like Mr Rogers I have never seen but that a lot of American internet users tell me is super wholesome. Ross’ aesthetic, though simple, is iconic enough that even I got it immediately, but this one kind of sticks out because Bob Ross famously became the chill, laid back painter in the show because he was fed up of being a drill Sargent in the military, a job that involves shouting and being unpleasant, making the use of the aesthetic here either be a wink to his history, a humorous juxtaposition between Doom the ultra violent game and the laid back show (probably the intended reading), or kind of an awkward joke dragging the aesthetic of the show back towards the militarisation that Ross created it to escape from. I’m too sleepy to say which.

3.) There’s one advert that I saw which appeared to actually be a product that just happened to come out on April First, so it had to make clear “no this is real, we just had to do it now”. But I can’t remember what it is and Facebook isn’t showing me that specific ad again.

4.) In the “Jokes that aren’t really jokes” category, the insect loving Bogleech wrote a review of creatures called Squisherz, in a similar vein to his reviews of Pokemon and Digimon. The framing of the essay is that Squisherz is a forgotten ‘mon franchise contemporaneous of the former two, and the blog post makes repeated references to the show and more specifically the fandom reaction to it. Halfway through I was getting into it as a parody of pokemon in particular, assuming that Bogleech himself had designed the creatures. I was enjoying it, but some of the gushing about the bits of the designs he loves got a bit weird assuming he made them. Like how the book of the Never Ending Story takes a detour to talk about how fantastic the main character, and thus the author’s, imagination is once he starts to remake the world, it was getting tiresome.

Then at the end, he reveals that the joke was actually entirely different. Squisherz was designed by an artist friend of his for a game called Hyperspace Outlaw, and the piece ends with shout outs slash advertisements for the original creator. It kind of feels like the opposite to Folding Idea’s video; rather that examining how a piece of work is advertised and monitized, it is an advert itself, although yes there is a difference between an indie game on itch.io and what Fortnite has become.

5.) The most depressing April Fool’s joke this year comes from the webcomic Whomp!. The main character, a somewhat parody version of the writer Ronnie, is shown to have lost weight, changed out his colourful shirts for a simple beige pair, and now has a sunny, optimistic outlook on life.

Somehow, despite Whomp being regularly depressing, this is the most upsetting portrayl of Ronnie for me. I should probably ask why.

EDIT: So the next strip after that is the same but with thin Ronnie bleeding from the eyes and covered with glitches. So…make this a multi-part joke, getting steadily darker?

Anyway, that’s my list. If I remember I’ll come back when I’m awake and edit in some links. Happy April Wise day everyone.

4 of Hearts: A short (spoiler filled) discussion of Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (henceforth TTGL) is a 2007 anime created by the studio Gainax, most well known for the earlier anime Neon Genesis Evangelion. Having written this piece I realise that most of it kind of assumes you have already seen Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, hence why this is a discussion not a review. Honestly I could just link to or paraphrase the Wikipedia article on the series to describe the plot but I’ve already put the 4 of Hearts up there and I don’t wanna spend that much more effort on this piece.

One of the things I have always enjoyed is stories willing to just take their premises and run with it, and TTGL is definitely in that category. It is a series that is willing to just keep accelerating, relying on the vague notion of “spiral power” to just bypass the audience’s suspension of disbelief. It is a anime that relies heavily on spectacle and bombast, and that has enough moments in which that works wonderfully that I could fairly easily just list them here as “THE TOP 5 MOST OVER THE TOP MOMENTS IN GURREN LAGANN”, but I don’t think that would be fair. These are not the only good moments of the series, and, since we’re being fair in the sense that means honest and complete, there are plenty of things in the series that just don’t work.

That being said, the bombastic scenes are an important part of the series and it wouldn’t be fair to not mention them here. Kamina stealing a mecha by just climbing into the cockpit and kicking out the pilot, the capture of the giant battleship mecha Dai-Gurren, the defeat of Guama, the siege of Teppelin and the subsequent duel with Lordgenome that is the finale of the first act. Then in the second arc we have Yoko’s defeat of two mecha while on foot, the spontaneous creation of a wormhole to punch a guy out of shooting himself, the formation of Arc Gurren Lagann, Super Galaxy Gurren Lagann and the titular Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, the latter leading into a finale that involves mechas so large they use galaxies as throwing stars against each other. That is quite a lot of iconic moments for a series only 27 episodes long. The animation and the soundtrack carry these well; special shout-outs to the tracks “Pierce the Heavens with Your XXXX” (No I don’t know why it is called that, considering that the XXXX in question is a drill) and “Libera Me From Hell”, a song that takes the most over the top elements of opera and rap and slams them together.

The series also has excellent main villains in the form of Lordgenome and the Anti-spiral. Both have very understandable motives and are powerful enough to enable the ridiculous, fantastic spectacles I mention above.

The final bit of the series that work for me is the emotional core of Simon and Kamina. Kamina in particular is used wonderfully in the short time he remains in the story, and is a surprisingly deep character. While he is most recognised for his massively over the top personality and impulsive actions, my favourite moment for him is the quiet moment he has with Yoko where he explains that he views himself as essentially a cheerleader and source of courage for the far more reliable Simon. Simon’s character arc after his death is essentially Simon coming to realise this for himself, and moving on from his need for Kamina to motivate him, culminating in a very understated moment in one of the final episodes where Kamina’s ghost notes that Simon has finally grown taller than him.

That’s quite a lot of good stuff to write about. If I felt like it I could probably go off on a thousand word tangent discussing how the universe in TTGL, via the mechanic of Spiral Power, responds to depression and feelings of hopelessness verses determination on a level that is literally built into the world, and linking that to the earlier series Evangelion and my own mental health problems.

(Actually, I would like to do that, but I feel that setting the ground work of how I feel about Gurren Lagann is kind of needed for it, but not something I’d want to actually write in that piece.)

The problem is however, despite all of these excellent moments to the series…there’s just so much not particularly good stuff around them that my feelings on the show altogether are kind of neutral, if not negative. TTGL has a very large cast, and it really isn’t sure how to use them, best summed up during the lull that dominates the first part of the second act, when a large portion of the male supporting cast sacrifice themselves en mass in a pointless and not particularly engaging scene.

The female cast members get off even worse; out of the seven female characters, one is a mechanic who at least gets to help out by fixing and over-charging the mechas (a role that could have been used to match with Simon’s arc about how you need both motivation and reliability, but isn’t), three are first defined as being “Kittan’s sisters” and do almost nothing in the second act other than being love interests and one is a member of a pair of twin pilots who end up piloting the titular Gurren Lagann in the epilogue despite doing basically nothing in the series proper. The last two are Nia, who is introduced literally as a throwaway character (she was thrown away by her father Lordgenome), then gets possessed by the anti-spiral, becomes a damsel in distress, and then dies. It is only the last one Yoko who really gets anything to do, and even then the majority of the time she’s being used for fanservice.

It’s much harder to put the failings of TTGL into words than it is to put down the ways it succeeds. It’s just a mess of wasted characters, long boring moments, and tedious moments of perversion. It isn’t that there’s nothing good about it, but rather that they are like choice cuts of meat floating in gruel. If you can rescue them they are great, but I wouldn’t advise eating the whole dish.

On a final note, I think this is part of what made it so popular. TTGL came out right at the same time that video hosting, particular youtube, became popular online. It is a series almost tailor made for youtube; lots of great moments you can cut out of the series itself and just upload on their own. And honestly, I think that might be the best way to watch it. Find some clips of the best moments and enjoy them, divorced of the rather tedious context they are surrounded with.

7 of Hearts: Let’s Go Pikachu and the dichotomies of Pokemon.

The Pokemon franchise has been a long running and consistent companion for me from when it was first released in the UK back in 1998. The first choice of which starter to take (I choose Squirtle), opening my first booster pack of trading cards to reveal a shiny Zapdos, finally leaving Mount Moon after getting lost there long enough to have a Blastoise, first seeing the second generation games when a neighbour down the street had a Japanese copy of Pokemon Gold, first discovering online battle simulators in the fourth generation…honestly, that sentence was originally just going to be three points long but I just kept finding things to add to it.

Pokemon, for those unaware (however many there are left; one of the things I found funniest about the recent trailer for the live action Detective Pikachu movie was how it assumed everyone watching knew the world already), is an RPG game franchise set in a world populated by the titular Pocket Monsters, or Pokemon. It is a mainstay of Nintendo consoles, and is one of the company’s signature games along with the likes of Mario and Zelda, but it isn’t actually developed by Nintendo, being spilt between the companies Game Freak and The Pokemon Company. The player takes the role of a Pokemon trainer, journeying through the various regions of the world, catching Pokemon in devices known as Pokeballs and battling other trainers. The ultimate goal of each game is two-fold; to defeat the Pokemon League, the best trainers in that region (each game being set in a different location in the world), and to complete the Pokedex (an encyclopedia of Pokemon) by catching every Pokemon in the area; hence the tagline “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”. Usually along the way you must battle a team of criminals, with motives ranging from Pokemon trafficking to awakening Legendary monsters to boil the sea, flood the land and/or rip apart space and time, or in the case of the wonderfully pathetic Team Skull, not get beaten up by random children.

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9 of Hearts: ABCDEFGH – a sort of review of The ABC Murders (BBC, 2018)

Looking at an adaptation of a work you are familiar with into a new medium is always a bit difficult, particularly if it is a work you are very fond of. First of all, of course, there are some changes that are required simply because of the new medium; in the case of books being made into visual media, this is often the loss of the narration, whether it is from a character or a general omniscient voice. Beyond that, all manner of changes can be made. Thus, when looking at the adaptation, I find myself torn between evaluating the new work on its own merits, and evaluating it as an adaptation of what I am familiar with.

I try to do both, using three simple questions.
1.) Why adapt this work? What is being gained from the adaptation?
2.) What changes have been made, and what do I think they add or subtract from the work
3.) When examined as a standalone piece, what do I think of the adaptation?

With the first question, we are going to need some background context. I am rather afraid I am going to need to spoil the ending to discuss this, so I advise anyone unfamiliar with the story who doesn’t want to be spoiled to turn away here, and come back once you’re read it. If you either know the story or don’t care, click the more button below and let us continue.

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