Cheers (seasons five and six) – Review

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Warning – this post contains spoilers about Cheers season five.

Although I’m sure the pay and celebrity help make up for it, it must be hard work to write a sitcom for hundreds of episodes without it going to crap after a while. The first few seasons of Cheers were generally very good, often excellent, and had a winning formula; but nothing lasts forever. Either the show would end, or something would have to change. It seems like Shelley Long, the actress who played Diane Chambers, felt the same way, as she decided to leave at the end of season five. There are various explanations and theories about why she left – creative differences, ambition, worries that the show would become stale – but ultimately, a major change like that would have been necessary at some point.

So, Cheers’ fifth and sixth seasons are significant as the last to feature Diane, and the first without her. The relationship between Sam and Diane is, of course, the driving force of season five, and for the most part it’s handled well. The two constantly fight their feelings for one other; and although they can be alternately maddening (Diane) or sleazy and boorish (Sam), as with most good relationships they round the corners off each other, and make one another better and more likable people. That said, I felt there was a slight tendency to paint Diane as a more and more eccentric and unsympathetic version of herself, possibly in preparation for her exit. It’s not quite Vince McMahon turning Bret Hart heel before packing him off to WCW, but at times it has that sort of feel to it.

Most people watching today will know that Diane leaves and that, in the end, her and Sam don’t make it as a couple. Cheers was very popular during its run, and I wonder how people felt about this. For all her pretentiousness and fragility, Diane is a hugely endearing and sympathetic character, the sort of person who radiates a warmth and light which helps those around her live more fully and feel better about themselves and the world. I can only imagine it must have made a lot of people very sad to find out her story wouldn’t have a happy ending. The final episode of season five ends on a note of real pathos, showing what could have been between Sam and Diane, and it’s a beautiful sequence which surely ranks among the most poignant moments in television history: a painful but not unfitting end to one of TV’s greatest romances.

In a way, it would have been preferable for Cheers to finish at the end of season five, but with a happy ending instead of the one we got. However, that’s not the way these things work: Cheers was a lucrative property and there was much more money to be made. So, the show continued into a sixth season, albeit with a few changes. The main change was the arrival of Rebecca Howe (played by Kirstie Alley) as the new manager of Cheers. Not only has Diane left, but the show contrives a way for Sam to lose the bar, and he returns as a mere bartender. For some reason, Cheers has been bought by a large corporation, and Rebecca is employed as the manager. I wasn’t expecting it, but the season hits the ground running, and Rebecca is an immediately engaging and likeable character, different enough to Diane not to invite unfavourable comparisons. Initially, Rebecca comes across as a confident and assertive businesswoman, very much in the ’80s style, and she’s invested with personality and considerable sex appeal by the remarkable Kirstie Alley. Shelley Long was a bit before my time when I was growing up, but I do remember admiring Kirstie Alley, in particular her incredible voice (she even gives Kathleen Turner a run for her money). Against the odds, season six does everything right to get off to a good start.

Unfortunately, things start to go downhill rather quickly. With Diane gone, Sam regresses to sleazeball mode, and begins a campaign of weapons-grade sexual harassment against Rebecca which lasts throughout the season. Cheers is a show that, on the whole, has aged pretty well, but the incessant nature of Sam’s sexual overtures towards an obviously reluctant Rebecca are guaranteed to make most contemporary viewers uncomfortable. Rebecca’s characterization also tends to collapse over the course of the season, her initial self-confidence evaporating. This is in no small part due to professional sabotage by Sam, who is spiteful at having lost the bar and constantly being rejected. Finally, Rebecca is turned into an object of ridicule due to her comedic inability to convey her unrequited love for her own boss, Evan Drake, played by a moonlighting Tom Skerritt (of Alien and Top Gun fame). The cumulative effect is distasteful, and more than a bit misogynistic.

Season six is not helped by the fact it drags on far too long: 25 episodes is too much weight to bear for a season that lacks a single compelling, well-written arc. With the main cast failing to carry the load, the season relies heavily, but not enough, on Frasier and his partner Lilith. Frasier and Lilith have solid chemistry, are often hilarious, and their interactions go a long way towards redeeming things, but as secondary characters there is only so much they can contribute. Woody (Woody Harrelson) is entertaining and likable as ever, but receives little development. Instead, many of the episodes tend to focus on Norm and Cliff, but their screwball humour and “massive loser” schtick has worn thin by this stage. Carla’s character again sees no development and continues to stink out the show, and what’s worse is that two of her nightmarish teenage children start to make semi-regular appearances.

Cheers has eleven seasons in total, so I’m now just over halfway through the entire run. It’s starting to feel like the golden period is over, and I can only hope season seven shows some improvement against six. But with most of the major cast and storylines now in place, and with Diane gone, I’m not sure that’s a realistic expectation.

Season five: 7/10

Season six: 6/10

Tales of Berseria (PS4) – Review

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Tales of Zestiria was a massive disappointment. Conceived as the twentieth anniversary installment in the long-running and beloved JRPG franchise, Zestiria’s undoubted potential was undermined by a plethora of avoidable problems. The story suffered from an uneven script and poor pacing; the otherwise excellent combat was marred by an awful camera; and the myriad levelling and crafting systems were over-complicated and obtuse. Moreover, the game’s marketing pulled what has since become a notorious bait-and-switch, introducing someone who seemed like a main character before replacing her and selling her story as a paid DLC. Although Zestiria sold well, it riled up and alienated parts of the Tales fanbase, both in Japan and in the West.

So, a lot was riding on Tales of Berseria.¬†Released in Japan last summer on both PS4 and PS3, and landing in Europe and America in January this year, Tales of Berseria is a prequel of sorts to Tales of Zestiria. Set in the same universe as Zestiria but in the dim and distant past, its events and characters are known only to a few of those encountered in Zestiria. The story is completely independent, and there is no need to have played Zestiria in order to understand the plot, but the experience of playing Berseria did make me appreciate Zestiria a little more. Moreover, knowing the ultimate fate of some of Berseria’s characters makes the journey with them here all the more poignant.

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Tales of Berseria is an excellent game with a compelling and engaging story, and an exceptional cast of characters. Most of the main cast are well fleshed-out – those on your side as well as your antagonists – and you will find probably find yourself sympathizing with most of them in turn over the course of the game’s 70 hours. Berseria is pitched as a story of “Emotion versus Reason”, and the plot largely eschews a conventional good-versus-evil dichotomy, instead showing how people pursue goals in line with their own philosophies and value systems.

Berseria’s world is a low-tech one where demons run rampant, and humanity has been driven to a marginal existence, confined to a few hard-pressed enclaves. A hero, Artorius Collbrande, emerges who establishes the Abbey, an order of Exorcists who combat the demons by controlling Malakhim, a race of humanoid spirits (familiar to some as the Seraphim of Tales of Zestiria). But the game is largely told from the point of view of Velvet Crowe, a young woman who has escaped from a hellish island prison and who knows the terrible secret of how Artorius acquired his power. On the surface, Artorius ticks many of the boxes we associate with our heroes, with many of the trappings of an enlightened and self-sacrificing leader. However, it quickly becomes clear that Artorius is willing to do almost anything in order to achieve his ideal world, and the main events of the story show how the end does not necessarily justify the means. Artorius is a Puritanical idealist unwilling to tolerate any human weakness. For her part, Velvet and her associates embody many such weaknesses, but despite their selfishness and individualism they generally seem more capable than the Abbey of sympathy and humanity (which is ironic, considering that most of them aren’t even human).

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Velvet is motivated by a single-minded desire for revenge against Artorius, and she is possessed by this furious monomania for most of the game. Velvet is about as different as it gets from the milquetoast leads we’re used to in most JRPGs, and in particular she’s a sexy and dramatic counterpoint to Zestiria’s poor Sorey.¬† Velvet’s party is composed of an assortment of humans, Malakhim, and Demons, each with their own motivations and distinctive personalities. Tales games are known for featuring entertaining casts and good drama and comedy, but Berseria’s character design and script is still really stellar. Although main character Velvet is only 19, her personality feels much older, and most other main characters feel like they’re in their 20s and 30s: grown up people living with grown up problems. Berseria doesn’t pretend that our problems can always be fixed and, for all of Velvet’s rage, it teaches the value of acceptance. We see broken or damaged characters living with past trauma, the legacy of bad and shameful decisions, or ongoing pain, but also finding friendship and camaraderie; trying to make the best of their lives, and where possible trying to help others around them.

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The strong ensemble cast is needed, because for all that Velvet is a striking lead, her singular focus on getting revenge against Artorius limits the ways she can develop as a character. But the supporting cast of Eizen, Eleanor, Rokurou, Magilou, and Laphicet make up for it. For me, Eizen was a real standout character, but you could make the case for a Best Supporting Actor nomination for any of them. In addition to Artorius, your antagonists include Shigure, an affable and charismatic master swordsman with hidden depths; and the brother and sister team of Teresa and Oscar, who between them have 95% of the attributes you would expect to see in the heroes in most games. It’s a bit of a weird feeling when you have to beat the snot out of poor, gentle, noble-minded Oscar, but Berseria is full of moments like this. Berseria goes beyond humanizing your enemies, although it certainly does this, providing rounded opponents with lots of little touches that show their humanity. What is more unusual is that Berseria shows you that your enemies might also be better, stronger, or more moral than you; and they might even be right, while you’re wrong.

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Berseria is a great achievement, and in many ways it feels like the Tales series celebration that Zestiria was meant to be. Some of the game’s mechanics and bonus systems contain nods to other games in the series, such as sets of collectibles, or a card-game featuring familiar characters from other games (rather like the card game from Graces). The Tales team must have pulled out all the stops for Berseria, because (with a couple of notable exceptions) the production values are consistently high and the game feels quite polished. For one thing,¬† Berseria features an outstanding score, with some stand-out tracks capable of evoking a gamut of emotions. A couple had a bittersweet feel that, for me, were a nostalgic reminder of playing my first Tales game (Symphonia) circa 13 years ago. The graphics are generally very good, with some stunning vistas and topography, and some of the cutscenes feature intense and dramatic contrast and excellent animation. As ever, the battle scenes feature explosions of colour as well. Berseria attracted some criticism for its visuals, and although it’s true they’re not necessarily pushing the envelope as far as technical proficiency goes, the stylized graphics are still attractive and occasionally beautiful.

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Berseria’s active combat system does not feature the Armatization system of Zestiria, instead making use of a ‘Souls’ system. Characters can perform moves and spells based on the amount of soul power they have available, and can also perform powerful Break Soul moves which consume a soul crystal in return for high damage and the ability to chain together longer combos. Some characters (Velvet) have a more powerful and easier to use Break Soul than others (Rokurou), but generally the relative power and style makes sense. Mystic artes also make a return, and fights are generally very good fun. Performing well earns high Grade, the resource used to master skills from equip-able armour. Eventually you unlock the ability to chain fights together and build a multiplier that increases Grade, giving fights a satisfying and addictive rhythm that makes exploration and combat a lot of fun and rarely a chore. The difficulty is well-balanced, and the game is quite generous with how often you can pull off special moves.

As with all Tales games, the ability to play the game in co-op mode is a major draw, and it’s a real joy to be able to experience the whole story with someone else. Unfortunately, as with other recent Tales games, for some reason only Player One is able to earn trophies. I don’t know whether this is a deliberate decision or just an oversight, but it feels like the game could be optimized a little better for multiplayer. Moreover, the first eight hours or so is pretty much a single-player affair, as Velvet doesn’t really have any partners at that stage, so if you plan to play the whole game in co-op there will be times when someone is twiddling their thumbs. That said, the Tales series is still fairly unique among A-list RPGs in allowing you to play in co-op at all, and long may it continue to do so.

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Berseria is an outstanding game, so it’s a shame there are a few annoyances and irritations. Some of the dungeon design is uninspired, and there’s a bit too much backtracking and aimless wandering for my taste. The inventory system is also disappointing: performing well in battle can see you ‘rewarded’ with huge quantities of junk items, which are individually listed in your inventory. There is a limit to what you can carry, meaning you will need to dispose of stuff eventually, but because you have to sell every item individually, it takes ages. There is also a way to upgrade equipment, but it’s long-winded and, because you get new equipment regularly, pretty much pointless (maybe not if you’re playing on one of the top difficulties). Finally, although the script and dialogue are top-notch, some of the subtitles seem to have been rendered as a phonetic transcription of the English voice acting by someone who doesn’t understand English (or by a machine), meaning the subtitles sometimes don’t match what the characters are saying. Considering the overall quality of the game, and the obvious passion that went into it, it’s unfortunate that a few things like this subtract from the overall package.

Nevertheless, Tales of Berseria is a great game and one which I’m truly grateful to have played. It marks a resounding turn to form for the franchise, and should serve as a solid basis for the future development of the series. Many Tales fans breathed a sigh of relief when Hideo Baba, a producer associated with many of the series’ problems in recent years, recently moved on to a new job with Square Enix, and indeed by all accounts he had little to do with this game. If Berseria is anything to go by, the series now seems to be in good hands, and I only hope future entries will maintain the sophistication and emotional maturity displayed in the story here.

9/10

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Heavy Rain (PS4) – Review

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Heavy Rain was first released on the PlayStation 3 amid much fanfare in early 2010. It was a significant game for several reasons. The PS3 was still languishing behind the Xbox 360 after a disastrous launch, and the console needed exclusive games that showed off its latent processing power and superior graphics. Heavy Rain was conceived as such a game, and much was made of its sophisticated graphics, in particular its characters’ faces and facial animations. It was also one of the first games to go down the route of “interactive drama”, and (along with The Walking Dead) it helped inspire the proliferation of similar games over the last six or seven years. It’s strange to think now, but back in 2010 motion controls were all the rage (thanks to the Nintendo Wii), and Heavy Rain was also used to demonstrate the potential of Sony’s Move controllers. So, a lot was riding on the game, but it proved a commercial and critical success, and was re-released on PS4 last year, taking advantage of the current craze for remakes. You can pick it up in a bundle with Beyond: Two Souls, also from developer Quantic Dream.

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In short, Heavy Rain was an ambitious game that achieved what it needed to, but with the passage of time and divorced from its context, it now feels fairly unremarkable. Heavy Rain is a noir-ish thriller with a narrative structure that follows several characters as they attempt to unravel the mystery of a serial murderer known as “The Origami Killer”. The story is told through a sequence of overlapping scenes told from four different points of view; the player has a certain amount of control over what the characters do, and how they interact with their environment and other people. The game has quite a few possible endings, so some of the decisions you make matter and have consequences, but there are still quite a lot of scenarios where the game forces you down a particular path and makes you do something you really don’t want to. It’s not quite the illusion of choice for which Telltale games have become notorious, but it can still be a bit jarring at times.

The central story of Heavy Rain is well-paced and emotionally resonant, but it is also overwrought and prone to melodrama. Even by video game standards the storytelling is unsophisticated, and at times the script descends into outright bathos and Narm; indeed, T. and I took to referring to the game as “Chubby Rain”, in honour of the legendary B-Movie of the same name. Certain events that are integral to the plot depend on characters behaving in an unrealistic or moronic way, which tends to undermine the player’s immersion and investment in the story. The much-feted facial animations can lead to occasional unintended comedy when characters gurn inappropriately or make exaggerated expressions; and there were also a couple of nightmarish occasions when characters spoke without moving their lips. On the whole, the character models and facial animations are impressive, but Heavy Rain has long since been surpassed by the likes of The Last of Us and The Witcher 3 (which also happen to be fully-fledged video games rather than “interactive drama”). Heavy Rain “director” and writer David Cage also has a weird insistence on using extreme close-ups of the main characters during cuts and loading screens, which may have seemed original in 2010 but now just feels pretentious and odd.

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The interactive part of Heavy Rain involves exploring environments and engaging with people and objects, and many of the scenes and settings are well-designed and executed, even if most of them are highly derivative of ’80s and ’90s cinema. The game doesn’t have difficulty levels as such, but it adjusts the complexity of the button and motion controls based on your level of experience with games. While I found the button controls to be fine, for me the motion controls were poorly implemented and a cause of regular frustration. Moreover, although some investigations and conversations proved thrilling, too much of Heavy Rain alternates between the mundane business of opening and closing cupboards, or a procession of overlong and ultimately dull fistfights.

Although it doesn’t always get it right, some of the relationships between characters can be quite affecting, in particular that between main character Ethan Mars and his son, Shaun. It’s fortunate that Ethan’s character arc is quite strong, because the other three characters are not developed that well. In particular, the depiction of journalist Madison Paige is somewhat problematic. Paige is an effective and tenacious investigative journalist, but almost every scene she’s in sees her luridly depicted as victim, nurse, or helpless object of sexual desire. This is testament to the script’s ’80s B-Movie DNA, but it’s somewhat jarring and out of sync with the game’s popular and self-perception.

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The relative success of any game is inherently conjunctural, depending as it does on a variety of technological factors and cultural trends, as well as whatever artistry it can bring to bear. The original Heavy Rain took advantage of a certain set of circumstances to deliver a commercially successful, technologically savvy experience which also suggested a possible future path for video game design. But it hasn’t aged well. Although this remake helps to spruce up Heavy Rain’s graphics, it’s unable to do anything about its dated story and characterization, or its overly stylized and pretentious self-image.

6/10

Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey (DS) – Review

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If this looks like fun, don’t be fooled.

It’s not often that a game gets the better of me. In the last 18 months I’ve completed dozens of games, conquering a bad habit I’d developed of giving up on games halfway through. During that time I’ve forced myself to play through some real turkeys. Final Fantasy X-2 and Metal Gear Solid IV, in particular, stand out as duds I saw through to the bitter end, while I also gritted my teeth and completed Alien: Isolation, despite what I considered to be an unreasonable level of difficulty and frustration. The only game I haven’t gone back to and completed in that time was the original Dark Souls. One day, perhaps.

But ultimately, it’s important to remember why we play games, and if a game is really not delivering any joy, there is nothing wrong with giving up. In fact, it’s important to be able to do so. Most video games take a lot longer to finish than a movie, or even a TV series or a book, and RPGs in particular can take fifty hours or even more to finish. So, today I decided to put aside Shin Megami Tensei: Strange Journey, a 2010 dungeon crawling JRPG from Persona series developer Atlus. Strange Journey garnered solid reviews when it was released, and what I read about its central conceit was enough to spark my interest. The story begins with a scientific team being sent to the South Pole to investigate the Schwarzwelt, an anomalous phenomenon akin to a black hole which it’s difficult to penetrate and impossible to escape. The Schwarzwelt is growing steadily, with potentially dire consequences for life on earth.

Predictably, things go awry for the scientific expedition right out of the gate, and the player avatar is forced to investigate the Schwarzwelt largely on his own. As this is a Shin Megami Tensei game, the player can recruit and fight alongside demons, thanks to the ‘Demonica’, a funny-looking specialized suit designed to allow you to explore the Schwarzwelt. Initially, the setting is somewhat intriguing, and strongly evokes the story and feel of John Carpenter’s classic horror movie, The Thing. As a fan of Atlus games and sci-fi horror, I was therefore excited to get stuck in.

The problem is that Strange Journey is really not any fun to play, at all. Gameplay consists of exploring crudely designed dungeons in a first-person perspective, triggering random battles as you go. I found the dungeon crawling to be deeply unsatisfying and profoundly dated; playing this felt like a weird throwback to a NES game. At times, playing it even gave me an odd feeling of nausea. I haven’t got motion sickness while playing games before, but the four-directional first-person movement in Strange Journey didn’t sit well with me. Once you start a battle, it’s the usual sort of menu-based, turn-based combat anyone who has played JRPGs will be familiar with. Demons have strengths and weaknesses, and attacking a weakness can trigger extra attacks, but only with those demons who share an alignment (chaos, neutral, or law). Special attacks cost magic points: while you need to be careful not to burn through your magic points in a single fight, enemy demons aren’t constrained by the same consideration, and unlike you they can afford to spam powerful spells without having to worry about the next fight, which is fun. Even worse, you don’t know what your enemy’s strengths and weaknesses are before you’ve fought them several times – and worse still, the first time you fight a new kind of demon, you can’t even see it! It appears as a nondescript mass of blue pixels, and you have to defeat it before finding out what it was.

As with other SMT games, you can interact with many of the demons you encounter on your travels, and try to negotiate with them to get items or even to get them to join your party. However, the demon conversations have a tedious format whereby you have to answer two questions, selecting one of three answers each time. Normally you’ll have to get both questions right to recruit the demon, or it will attack you or leave in disgust. It’s hard to predict what the right answer will be: sometimes they make sense, but sometimes they’re completely counter-intuitive. Even worse, even if you get the questions right, sometimes the demons will just randomly decide they dislike you and refuse to go along with your agreement. All of this makes for a preposterously long-winded and deeply frustrating system, and the over-complication sucks any fun out of the mechanic, not to mention any wit the writers manage to invest in the conversations.

The opaque combat and demon recruitment systems are made even worse by the mind-numbing nature of exploration itself. The dungeon environments are crude and ugly, made up of larger or smaller corridors, and most of the time I found myself navigating by using the birds eye view map on the lower screen. Making progress often depends on finding hidden doors, which are invisible unless you’re facing the correct bit of nondescript wall so that the ‘scan’ command comes up. Later dungeons feature invisible holes in the floor, which can cause you to fall down a series of levels in a multi-storey dungeon. Other dungeons have entire sections where you can’t see anything and where you have to figure out the path by bumping against walls until you’re able to make progress.

This kind of game design went out of fashion almost entirely in the mid-1990s. I guess there are “diehard” fans out there who dig these sorts of mechanics, but it baffles me that Strange Journey was able to get such a good critical reception despite the laughably dated nature of its design. Thing is, I could probably have forgiven a lot of this if the story and writing was up to the standard normally associated with Atlus’ games. (Like when I recently played Persona 2: Innocent Sin.) Unfortunately, Strange Journey’s story and script are almost as bad as its abysmal gameplay. The growth of the Schwarzwelt is related to the pathological aspects of human society (greed, war, pollution, selfishness, etc), and the game has an irritatingly preachy and simple-minded approach to getting its point across. What’s worse, the dialogue and characterization are dreadfully simplistic and cliched, largely lacking personality or charm. This is really a surprise coming from a studio known for the quality of its writing.

Apart from its setting, the demon design is about the only thing that Strange Journey has going for it. As with other SMT games, the demons you encounter are varied and inventive, and some of them are genuinely disturbing. The demon fusion system also has some appeal, as you can fuse existing demons into new, more powerful companions. However, the difficulty of acquiring demons in the first place really limits the fun you can have with this system, unlike something like SMT: Devil Survivor where acquiring a demon is as simple as throwing a few macca at it. To conclude: Strange Journey is a very poor game which was a massive disappointment to me, and I’m just glad that I have finally allowed myself to give up on it. It took me almost two months to get not even halfway through its 50-60 hour story; and with a growing backlog of games featuring the likes of Xenoblade Chronicles X, Bayonetta 1 & 2, Yakuza 0, Fire Emblem Fates – never mind Resi 7, Breath of the Wild, Persona 5 and ME: Andromeda – Strange Journey can, frankly, fuck off.

Last week news emerged that Atlus are releasing a remake of Strange Journey for the 3DS later this year. Needless to say, I’ll be giving it a miss.

3/10