The Haunting of Hill House

Oh boy, this is going to be a tough one to talk about. I have very mixed, and somewhat polarized views of how this turns out, and as such, I'm struggling with whether or not I can offer a recommendation. The first five or six episodes are fantastic! After that, however, I really feel like the show peters out, begins to meander and run in place, and then kind of unravels in the end. Those first five or six episodes are so good, however, that I think I can recommend the series as a whole based on the strengths of its first half.

I can't discuss this show without getting into spoilers, so be warned that the further down you read, the more spoiler-y this will become.

A masterfully suspenseful start

Each of the first five or six episodes is told from the point of view of a different sibling in a family that is tormented by a summer spent in a haunted house. This structure creates a deeply textured and nuanced tapestry, in which each episodes recasts the events of the previous episodes in a new light. Giving each character his or her own episode provides us with a rich character study that helps us to understand each character's attitude when they all get together and the family drama gets rolling. All the while, the subtle supernatural elements create a building sense of intrigue as the mysteries surrounding Hill House, and the family's last night there, continue to mount and the plot continues to thicken.

Each of the first six episodes is told from the perspective of a different character.

I really love the camera work! Slow pans and zooms are used with excellent effect to draw out scenes and add tension and keep the scene mysterious. Sometimes, there's a creepy detail in the background. Other times, there's an ominous lack of anything creepy to see as the camera slowly pans from character to character across a room or down a hallway. In any genre other than horror, these labored camera movements would seem wasteful and pointless, but they really add to the atmosphere here.

The set design is also really great. The gothic Hill House provides an excellent and ominous set piece, but the other sets are also uncanny and unnerving in their own right, especially Shirley's funeral home. Around episode 6 or 7, I was really starting to struggle with reconciling the geometry of Hill House, and this is something that is paid off really well at the end of the series.

The geometry of Hill House becomes a source of unease as the series develops.

A meandering, incoherent ending

Unfortunately, the series faltered a bit for me after the sixth episode. At this point, all the characters are together in one place, and so no one character receives the focus of the narrative. The story starts to meander a bit here, while also running in place, as the intrigue that was so carefully crafted in the preceding episodes is squandered, new plot points and concepts are thrown at the audience, and old plot points and concepts just disappear.

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Doom (2016) - title

I never played the original Doom. I didn't get into PC gaming until the mid twenty-aughts, and even then didn't play much in the way of first person shooters that weren't the first two Call of Duty games. I was always more into SimCity and Civilization. So I was in no rush to play 2016's reboot of Doom, nor can I really look at it from the perspective of how it holds up against the original's legacy. I heard a lot of good things about it, and picked it up on this year's Steam summer sale.

Bethesda recently announced a sequel, so I thought I'd check this one out to find out if I should be excited.

I miss the good ol' days of game demos being available before a game releases.

I actually did play the free demo on the PSN months ago, which was an option for me because the game's been out for two years already (does this count as a retro review?). I miss the days when free demos were available before a game's release, so we could try it before we buy it. Sigh. Anyway, I had a lot of trouble with hitting enemies with a PS4 controller considering how fast and movement-oriented the combat is, but I definitely saw the potential enjoyment that I could have with the finer control of a mouse. So I went ahead with the Steam purchase.

Punch a demon in the face

Doom breaks from the cover-based mold set by most recent big budget first-person shooters by encouraging very fast, very frenetic, very aggressive, and very in-your-face action in a fashion similar to Bloodborne. Staggering an enemy allows you to perform a melee "Glory Kill" that provides you with a shower of health pick-ups and ammo. When your health is critical, the best course of action usually isn't to run away and take cover (like in so many modern cover-based shooters); rather, the ideal strategy is often to find the biggest, meanest demon, shotgun it in the face, and then rip its head off with your own bare hands. This keeps the player in the action, and mostly removes the need to backtrack through a level to find health kits and powerups. It's not quite as tactical or thoughtful as the dismemberment system from Dead Space, and some might argue that it's derivative of the chainsaw from Gears of War, but it does help to create a definite flow to the combat that helps it to stand out from other shooters of the era.

Charging an enemy is often the best way to restore your health.

The default move speed is faster than the sprint of most other modern shooter games. You can press 'Shift' to toggle a "walk" mode, but I honestly don't know why you would ever want to, and I never once used it after experimenting with the controls at the start of the game. Most enemies also charge at you with melee attacks or have actual projectile attacks (as opposed to hit-scan weapons). You don't avoid damage by ducking behind cover; instead, you can usually just side-step an incoming projectile or attack. Again, because of the fast speed of the character, the term "side-step" isn't really apt; it's more like a "side-sprint".

This all creates a very retro feel that [I assume] faithfully captures the spirit and fluidity of the original game's combat. It's an experience more akin to a first-person bullet hell game rather than the cover-based, whack-a-mole shooting galleries that define most modern shooters.

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A Quiet Place

I missed yet another theatrical sci-fi movie. The trailers for Annihilation made the movie look like kind of a dumb monster flick, so I didn't rush out to go see it. I only started to hear several weeks later that it might actually be a pretty good sci-fi film. Unfortunately, life happened, my weekends were busy, and I never made it out to the cinema to see it.

So instead, I was invited to see a new horror movie with some friends. A Quiet Place is also a monster flick, but its novel gimmick really helps to set it apart from other monster movies. The gimmick itself isn't even particularly original. Other movies have featured monsters that are especially sensitive to sound. It's the execution of A Quiet Place that sets it apart.

Much like last year's exceptional War for the Planet of the Apes, A Quiet Place's dialogue comes mostly in the form of subtitled sign language, which the family of protagonists already knows because the oldest child (Millicent Simmonds) is deaf. This leads to the movie being palpably quiet for most of its runtime. I say "most" because there's a few moments of punctuated loudness that work effectively. There's also quite a few moments in which artificially-loud noises, sound effects, and musical ques are used to create cheap jump scares.

That last bit was disappointing because when A Quiet Place is cleverly using its sound design to ratchet up tension, it works phenomenally. This comes through most clearly with the deaf daughter. The movie goes almost completely silent whenever it switches to her point of view, with a faint, high-pitched static being the only sound you'll hear. When this is combined with some depth of field effects that make it hard to see clearly what's going on, it really helps to sell the sense of powerlessness and lack of awareness of the character, which ratchets up the tension for the audience.

The daughter is deaf, so the family already knows sign language, and use it throughout the movie.

The diagetic loud noises, such as the toy space shuttle or knocking over the lamp at the beginning of the movie work really well to punctuate the silence and create momentary panic. It's when lazy, cliche horror movie sounds start to come into play that things start to feel cheap. I'm not sure whether to blame this on actor/director John Krasinski, or on producer Michael Bay. I lean towards the latter. It doesn't ruin the movie, but it does weaken it a little...

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The Evil Within 2 - title

Okay, I said I would give up on Shinji Mikami after the first Evil Within game, but here I am giving that IP a second chance. I had heard that the expansions for Evil Within were actually pretty good, and that they even made the base game better by filling in some of the narrative gaps. But I was so furious with the base game that I sure as hell was not going to shell out more money for DLCs. If they were that integral to the core game, then they should have been included with the core game. Now that my furor over the original has faded a bit, I was hearing that the sequel is also much better than the original game and leans more heavily in the horror camp than the action shooter camp. I was dismissive of the game's announcement, and I was skeptical of the claims that the sequel was actually good, so I picked up a [relatively] cheap used copy off eBay so that I could give it a chance over the Halloween week without necessarily giving any more money to Bethesda.

The Evil Within 2 - Kidman
I feel like I missed something...
Maybe I should've played the DLC?

Besides, Shinji Mikami isn't the director this time around. Instead the sequel is directed by John Johanas, who was the director of the [supposedly] good DLC expansion packs. The first game actually did have some good ideas and set pieces within, so maybe a different directorial approach could bring those ideas out to their full potential?

A more focused package

To Johanas' credit, the game, as a whole, definitely has a more "unified" presentation. The first game felt very scattershot with regard to how it wanted the player to play. It's early chapters (which were also the most enjoyable parts of the game) were focused mostly on stealth, with a few pursuit and escape moments thrown in. It was slow, somewhat atmospheric, and built incredible tension. But those mechanics were quickly dropped in favor of shooting gallery set pieces, constant scripted ambushes, set piece boss encounters, and frantic, funhouse-ish trap / puzzle rooms. The sequel, thankfully, is much more focused. I didn't feel like I was wasting my resources by putting points into Sebastian's stealth skills (a skill tree that was completely absent from the previous game), as you can actually continue to use them over the course of the entire game. Sure, there's still scripted ambushes and puzzle rooms, but the focus is much more firmly planted in sneaking around, exploring the environments, and generally avoiding detection.

Unfortunately, there's still a bit too much of a focus on frenzied action. It detracts significantly from any sort of horror or tension that the game might be trying to build up. The autosaves are fairly generous (even though there are also manual save points in each of the game's safe houses), so enemies come in hordes, hit very hard, and deaths are going to happen. Chapter 3 basically completely desensitized me to death and put me in the habit of just standing up and letting the monsters kill me if I ever screwed up the stealth.

The Evil Within 2 - learning curve
The early combat encounters are not gentle, as they put you up against hordes of enemies.

There's a greater focus on open-ended exploration this time around, and Chapter 3 is the first open map that the player is free to explore. There's basically two main paths through it: the hard one and the easy one. The easy path is basically a straight line due north from where you start, but the game throws some curveball objectives at you that basically encourage you to try the other paths that end up being much harder. You're told about weapon caches and NPCs that you're supposed to try to save. One such weapon is the crossbow, which is actually a pretty necessary tool (because, you know, every game has to have a crossbow). It's right off to the side of where you start, but picking it up can easily lead you down a much harder path to your actual mission objective...

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Stranger Things season 2

The first season of Stranger Things was a mysterious and intriguing piece of television that successfully channeled an eclectic collection of 80's and 90's nostalgia (from E.T. to Stephen King to The X-Files to Dungeons and Dragons). Instead of being a cynical piece of derivative nostalgia bait (or an outright cash-in on established intellectual property), Stranger Things somehow felt wholly fresh and original.

Unfortunately, season 2 lacks a lot of that mystery and originality that made it's predecessor work so well. Season 2 just feels too familiar. We already know about the Upside Down, and the Demogorgon, and Eleven's psychic powers, and the secret government research lab conducting shady experiments. None of that can really carry the show anymore. But that's about all that season 2 has. There's nothing very new. There's no surprises.

The introduction of a new girl creates tension within the group.

Compounding this problem is that plot points and set pieces feel recycled from last season. Most are inverted in some way, as if they are Upside Down reflections of the previous season's events. But that isn't nearly as clever as the wordplay might make it sound. For example, there's a sub plot of tension among the boys because a new girl has entered their group. This time, it's Max instead of Eleven, and it's Mike who's unhappy with the new dynamic of the group instead of Dustin and Lucas. Midway through the season, there's a set piece in which Will draws a bunch of pictures and hangs them up all over the house. It feels like a repeat of Joyce hanging up the Christmas lights, except that it's Will trying to communicate with the Upside Down instead of Joyce trying to communicate with her son. And the group even takes in another stray and tries to hide it; except this time, it's a baby demogorgon instead of Eleven.

There's a sort-of new monster in the form of the "Shadow Monster" that haunts Will. This shadow monster, however, doesn't really do anything, and we're left with only the army of dog-like demogorgons. It takes an approach similar to James Cameron's Aliens , in that it multiplies the number of monsters, gives them a "nest", and adds some big "queen" that seems to be controlling everything. This comparison is driven home by the shadow monster's resemblance to a ghostly xenomorph, and the inclusion of a scene that was basically pulled straight from Aliens (right down to the beeping motion detectors). But unlike Aliens , I never felt threatened by the surplus of demogorgons, and the Upside Down never seemed as mysterious as the xenomorph hive or their horrifying queen.

The "Shadow Monster" is a threat that never really pays off -- at least not this season.

While the first season didn't revel in sudden character deaths for the sake of shock value like Game of Thrones , the sudden death of Barb midway through the season did manage to raise the stakes for everyone else. Season 2 has nothing like that. There's no sudden or unexpected deaths of any characters who aren't obviously disposable from the moment they arrive on scene. And even among the cannon fodder characters, the death count is still ridiculously low...

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A gamer's thoughts

Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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