Guns N’ Roses (London Stadium) – Review

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This concert has been a long time coming. I’ve been a fan of Guns N’ Roses for many years: they were the band that got me into heavy metal when I was a teenager, half my lifetime ago. But for all the countless concerts I’ve been to, I’ve never seen them live. I’ve always regretted the fact I was just a little kid during their heyday, and for one reason or another I never went to see the recent incarnations of the band, even though they gigged quite a lot during the Chinese Democracy years. I’ve always admired Axl’s musical ability and vision, but the acrimonious climate that surrounded the band all these years put me off seeing them.

So, like millions of others around the world, I was delighted last year when legendary guitarist Slash returned to GnR along with original bassist Duff McKagan for the ‘Not in This Lifetime Tour’ (named after a reply given by Axl some years ago when asked when a potential reunion might take place). The tour has been going for almost a year now, and at time of writing has grossed around a quarter of a billion dollars. The massive commercial success of the tour speaks to the enduring enthusiasm for the band’s classic albums, as well as the excitement generated among the band’s loyal fanbase at the prospect of seeing a reunion between Axl and Slash. In an ideal world, it would be nice to see guitarist Izzy Stradlin participating in the tour in some capacity, as well as former drummers Steve Adler and/or Matt Sorum. But the world we live in is so far from ideal that it feels churlish to get hung up about this. Just seeing Axl and Slash playing together is something few thought would ever happen again, and having Duff McKagan involved is the icing on the cake. In a world crying out for happiness and good news, I was determined to grab this with both hands, cynicism be damned. As far as I’m concerned Axl and Slash should be credited for putting their differences to one side for the sake of the fans, a gargantuan payday notwithstanding.

Tickets for the London date seemed to sell out as soon as they were released; but a second date the following day was announced within minutes, so T. and I eagerly snapped up a couple of standing tickets for £100 each. In all honesty, I would probably have paid significantly more if I’d needed to. It helped that the general vibe coming off the early tour shows in the States last year seemed to be overwhelmingly positive. Axl also received generally great reviews when he stood in for AC/DC last year, and the prevailing narrative seems to have changed a bit, with a lot of the engrained critical hostility towards the band, and Axl in particular, dissipating. Without wanting to disparage Chinese Democracy and all the work that went into that – and the work that Axl and other musicians have done to tour for GnR fans over the years – you can’t help but feel this tour was needed to eliminate a lot of the rancour, and restore Axl and the band’s reputation and legacy.

The concerts took place on consecutive days at the London Stadium in Stratford, East London – the only shows they played in the UK. According to the website the venue’s concert capacity is 80,000; the Saturday didn’t look sold out, but the crowd was still very respectable, and had a pretty good split of people from their early 20s to middle age. It also seemed pretty evenly divided between men and women: no surprise as the band has always appealed to both genders. The venue opened at 5pm, with a couple of support bands before GnR were scheduled to take the stage at 7.45pm. The band’s tardiness when hitting the stage back in the day is legendary, but a lot has changed since then, and this is a much more professional, mature, and sober operation. So, I wasn’t surprised when they started on time.

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The set opened with a couple of unarguable classics from Appetite, “It’s So Easy” and “Mr Brownstone”. I’d been looking forward to the concert a lot, obviously, but I wasn’t prepared for the rush of euphoria when it actually started. It wasn’t just me either: everyone around me basically went nuts, and I’ve never been at a concert where so many people were singing along to so many of the songs with such gusto. This concert seemed like a cathartic experience for a lot of people. Right from the get-go, the songs sounded just like they should, and that was a feature of the night in general. Axl’s voice is pretty much as good as ever, though I thought he seemed a little gassed at points during “It’s So Easy” – no surprise considering how much running around he was doing on stage. The guitar tone also sounded spot-on, which was particularly important during ballads like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Estranged”. I don’t know whether this can entirely be attributed to Slash’s presence – most guitarists at this level should be able to get the right sound – but it certainly didn’t hurt.

The third song was “Chinese Democracy”, and there was a much more subdued reaction to it than the opening songs. I don’t think this was due to hostility so much as the fact a lot of people didn’t recognize it – I needed T. to tell me what the song was. I was actually a bit surprised to see them play it with Slash and Duff in the band, but I shouldn’t have been. The song actually sounded fine, as did fellow CD song “Better”, which they played after “Double Talkin’ Jive” and… “Welcome to the Jungle”.

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“Estranged” is my favourite Guns N’ Roses song and probably my favourite rock song, period. It’s even more special to me because it’s also my fiancee T.’s favourite Guns N’ Roses song. This is even more meaningful to us as it’s one of the band’s less popular ballads. So, we were hoping against hope they would play it, but weren’t sure they would (and had avoided seeing setlists ahead of time for fear of ‘spoilers’). Seeing them play it live in a perfect rendition was a singular experience, and I confess this was the first of several times the concert moved me to tears. It was an enormous emotional release, and I felt then (and still do) overwhelming gratitude to the performers and everyone associated with the concert for making it possible. I’ve been in bands, promoted shows, and attended hundreds of gigs, but live music has never come close to affecting me like that before.

“Estranged” was followed by “Live and Let Die”. The cover is one of the better songs on Use Your Illusion 1, and it was a really enjoyable number and a needed change of pace from the intensity of “Estranged”. It was followed by “Rocket Queen”, another one of my personal favourites off Appetite, and it was fucking awesome. Unfortunately they didn’t have anyone doing the sex sounds during the song, but a lot of people in the crowd tried to supply them anyway. “You Could Be Mine” followed, one of the best songs of UYI 2, rounding off the best hour of live music I’ve ever witnessed.

It has been uplifting to see Axl somewhat liberated over the last couple of years, and as a frontman he now does an extremely professional and engaging job. He didn’t spend too long chatting with the crowd but what he said was simple and sincere (and included an endearing reference to his pet cat). He still has arguably the best voice around, and delivered an engaging and entertaining performance, switching between about ten different outfits over the course of the near 3-hour set. Slash and Duff were on great form, and to do them credit, both of them looked in amazing shape. Slash looked jacked as hell and could have passed for someone 20 years younger, while Duff was something of a revelation, lean and muscular, looking like a heavy metal version of David Bowie. It was good to see him taking over vocals for a couple of covers in the middle of the set. The other band members, mainly holdovers from the Chinese Democracy tours, did a great job, and here’s hoping things hang together like this for a while.

Rose has got a lot of stick over the years, some of it justified, most of it not. For all that he hasn’t necessarily helped his public image much of the time, as an artist he remains misunderstood (sometimes willfully) by much of the musical fraternity. It’s also his misfortune to have been out of sync over the last couple of decades with the dominant smartass hive-mind that overtook a lot of musical culture, something he gives the impression he neither understands nor cares for. He’s continued to do his own thing, to the mixed amusement, bewilderment, and frustration of a lot of observers, but what has never been in doubt is his artistic vision. I’m starting to feel like he has been in the right a lot more than I and many others have given him credit for.

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The middle part of the set was a bit more subdued, with some comparative filler in the way of lesser-known covers and songs from UYI like “Civil War” and “Yesterdays”. They played “Coma” – apparently the song is a regular on this tour, the band having not played the song since 1993. It has always been one of my favourite songs off UYI 1, largely because of the intense and emphatic vocals, particularly towards the end. It didn’t quite have the oomph that I would have liked, but that could have been due to the venue’s sound (which wasn’t perfect) or just because it’s a long song that fell during a natural lull in the set. Still, it was nice to hear them play it at all.

“Coma” was followed by a Slash solo, which segued into a cover of the Godfather theme (apparently a staple of shows back in the day). This led into “Sweet Child O’ Mine”, probably the very first GnR song that caught my attention as a teenager. It was a joyful, lungbursting experience, followed by “Out Ta Get Me”. It’s probably one of the weaker songs off Appetite, and the one change I would have made to the setlist would probably have been to swap it for “Think About You”. A cover of “Wish You Were Here” led into “November Rain”, yet another high point in an evening full of them.

The sun had set by this point, which felt somehow appropriate. The mood started to get a bit more reflective, not least as we knew we were pulling towards the end of the marathon set. The band did a cover of the Soungarden song “Black Hole Sun”, a tribute to the late Chris Cornell, and the theme of paying tribute to departed friends and family continued with a heartwarming rendition of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door”. The cover is not one of my favourite songs off UYI 2, but it shone in the stadium setting with everyone singing along, not least with Axl explicitly connecting it to lost loved ones. The mood then lightened again somewhat with an explosive rendition of “Nightrain”, before moving into the encore.

“Don’t Cry” won a prize for most ironic title of the evening, as by this point a lot of people were really struggling to fight back the tears. The emotional rollercoaster continued with an uproariously upbeat cover of AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie”, which was very well-received indeed. It was an excellent version of the song; the association with AC/DC undoubtedly seems to have helped invigorate Axl. Inevitably, the set finished with “Paradise City”, which was one last opportunity for everyone to sing their hearts out. I’d completely given in to my emotions by this point, trying to make the most of a transcendent and once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Guns N’ Roses have long been one of my favourite bands. They were a gateway band for me – the band that got me into heavy metal – but they’re also much more than that. I discovered debut album Appetite for Destruction around the age of 16, and the energetic, masculine romanticism of the music as well as the lyrical themes themselves helped give me confidence as I entered adulthood. For better or worse, it helped shape the way I approached the world, and my personality. Aside from the great music and hellraising motifs of sex, drinking and drugs, one of the things that always appealed to me about the band was the emotional sincerity, and the surprising penchant for reflection that accompanied the bombast of Use Your Illusion. My disillusionment with GnR over the last decade or more has really hurt, and been like a loss; so this whole experience felt like a massive healing process. Who knows where the band will go from here, but the tour has already shown there’s reason to hope the future has more in store than bitterness and recrimination.

One of the ironies of Not in This Lifetime is that it might actually go a long way towards enhancing the reputation of the Chinese Democracy album. The album attained memetic status before internet memes were even a thing, becoming a byword for excess and self-deception. By the time it was released, an underwhelming reception was almost guaranteed due to the widely entrenched views about the band and Axl’s personality. I confess to having been completely biased and barely listened to it at all, dismissing it out of hand once the critical reviews confirmed my negative expectations. But now, having heard several songs played the other night, I was surprised to find they were actually pretty good. And having listened to the album four or five times since the concert finished, I’m astonished how good it really is. There may not be anything on the album to rival the iconic songs from Appetite or Use Your Illusion, but its an underrated gem with great vocals from Rose (naturally) but also some inspiring composition and guitar work. It definitely seems more consistent than UYI. Hopefully the album will get a bit more of a hearing now. It certainly will in this household.

10/10

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Blame! (film) – Review

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Maybe it’s just me, but I find Netflix’s rating system to be pretty useless. Lots of woeful content seems to inexplicably maintain a five-star rating, while really solid shows and movies get stuck with two or three stars. Blame! is the latest one to confuse me, the full-length anime movie debuting recently to a 2.5 star rating. I don’t know whether this is due to pissed-off hardcore fans, or low ratings from people who just hate anime, but I thought Blame! was pretty good.

Blame!: the movie is based on a 20-year-old manga, set in a (naturally) dystopian world dominated by a vast megastructure known as “The City”. The City was once controlled by technologically-advanced humans, but they eventually lost control, and humanity came to be viewed by the City as a disease which needed to be exterminated. The City therefore unleashed a variety of hi-tech entities, collectively known as The Safeguard, to wipe out the remaining humans (hints of The Terminator, then). With humans no longer in control, the City has expanded uncontrollably, and it’s hinted that the structure could have reached the size of a star. It’s an interesting concept with a great deal of potential, and Blame!’s setting is well brought to life by an impressive art style.

I’m a little surprised that they chose to make Blame! as a movie rather than a series, like fellow Netflix original Knights of Sidonia, as the scenario seems well-suited to the serial form. The movie’s plot covers the interaction between main character Killy, who is on an odyssey to find the “Net Terminal Gene” that could help regain control of the City, and a small community of humans known as the Electro-Fishers. The community is on the brink of starvation, and their immediate struggle to survive provides the kind of clear narrative hook needed for a film of this length. T. commented while we were watching it that Blame! does the same thing as Mad Max: Fury Road, using the silent loner character from a wider world to introduce a largely self-contained story. I found Killy to be a bit underdeveloped, but at least the supporting cast are varied; what’s more, characters you might expect to be completely useless actually end up contributing to the story, which kind of subverts your expectations. Blame! leaves you wanting to see more of its world, and I would certainly be interested in seeing a follow-up movie or, even better, anime series.

Visually, Blame! is really good, with solid animation and an appealing and coherent style. The art and animation reminded me a lot of Knights of Sidonia, and apparently they were made by the same people. I thought the sound effects were pretty good too, especially the satisfying clunkiness of the Electro-Fishers’ weapons and armour. The film’s main problem is probably its pacing: although it starts out very well – the opening sequences are breathtaking – its 106-minute run time is probably 15 minutes too long, and some sections could have been shortened or edited out. I found the repeated extreme close-ups of Killy to be somewhat naff, but fans of the source manga might be more tolerant of this.

Overall, then, Blame! is worth a watch for anime fans. It reminded me a lot of seeing Gantz: 0 a few months back – both times I went in knowing nothing about the source material, but was pleasantly surprised by the films and really enjoyed them. Here’s hoping we get to see more of Blame!’s unsettling world in the future.

7/10

Pokemon Sun/Moon (3DS) – Review

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2016 was the year of the Pokemon. Pokemon Go was one of the cultural phenomena of the year, the free-to-play mobile game generating an exceptional level of interest that briefly captured the public imagination. Of course, Pokemon Go was developed and published by Niantic, rather than Nintendo, but Nintendo still benefited from the massive exposure their franchise received. Pokemon Go’s runaway success undoubtedly helped sales of Pokemon Sun/Moon, the fully-fledged Pokemon RPG released for 3DS last year. Nintendo shipped over 12 million copies of Sun and Moon in 2016 (over 15 million at time of writing), making it the best-selling game of the year, two million clear of Fifa 17.

The Pokemon bug got me too. Before Sun, I hadn’t played a Pokemon game since the one that started it all, Pokemon Red/Blue, almost twenty years ago. Although the series is often associated with the famous catchphrase, “Gotta catch ’em all!”, there is more to Pokemon than an addictive compulsion to catch cute monsters. The Pokemon games – at least the main-series RPGs released on handhelds, if not necessarily all the spinoffs – have always been robust and well-crafted, even if (by all accounts) few have recaptured the perfect balance and pacing of the originals. Sun/Moon were generally well-received by critics, and with their cheery aesthetic and legions of cute monsters, this is a hard game to dislike. But while it reminded me why I have such fond memories of the franchise, it never quite lived up to my hopes.

Pokemon Sun/Moon are set in the archipelago Alola, a new, Hawaii-influenced setting for the series. This establishes a bright, sunny and colourful tone, likely to prove appealing to all but the most morbid of players. Alola also features quite some biodiversity, and there are about 300 monsters in the game. This means not all of the 800 or so creatures in the franchise are present, but there are still some new ones in addition to “Alolan” variants on familiar creatures. The quality of the monster design varies a little, and like many people I strongly favour the “original” Pokemon cast; but I suppose there needs to be some variation, otherwise I might as well have just played Red/Blue again. As a solo player, I was irritated to find some monsters won’t evolve without trading with another person. Believe it or not, as a man in his 30s I don’t know many people who play Pokemon, and I can’t rightly start hanging around outside schools asking people to trade. Thus I was never able to evolve the likes of Machoke and Kadabra into their final forms. I get that playing and trading with others is part of the game, and the developers want to get you interacting with other players in the world; but I just found it a shame not to be able to get the evolutions I wanted.

For a game as aesthetically cheerful and upbeat as Pokemon Sun/Moon – the closest thing to a holiday without actually taking one – the gameplay mechanics are surprisingly liable to frustrate. Wild monsters can summon a partner to help them in a fight, and you can’t throw a Pokeball to catch a monster unless it’s on its own. Monsters can also summon a partner on the same turn you take one of them out, leading to a near endless supply of reinforcements you have to eliminate (which can make you fell pretty bad, too, like you’re killing a bunch of wildlife for no reason). Of course, Pokemon can also break out of a Pokeball, and you often need to make several throws before a successful catch. This means random fights in the wild can go on for much longer than you would expect, at least if you are bothered with trying to catch new monsters (and who isn’t?) At the same time, the actual story progression for the first 20 or so hours is really easy – even boss fights feel trivial – and I didn’t find the artificial “challenge” derived from the frustrating and random catch system to be very rewarding.

As far as presentation goes, the music is chirpy but some themes can become a little grating. On the other hand, the graphics are impressive: as well as being bright, bold and full of colour, they’re surprisingly crisp and detailed. It’s a joy to see such a nice-looking game on a handheld, and it’s a tribute to Nintendo’s 3DS hardware. To get it running smoothly they’ve dispensed with 3D effects – a move in line with the recent release of the 2DS and 2DS XL. I still think the 3D effect is quite cool when it’s used, but Nintendo ditching it does encourage you to think of it as something of a gimmick. It’s funny now to read game reviews from five years ago which criticize inadequate or unimaginative use of 3D, when the Big N themselves seem to have abandoned it.

As for the 3DS’s other features, the bottom screen is mainly used for a world map, but it’s annoying that about half the screen is taken up with the googly eyes of Rotom Dex (the Pokemon who lives in your Pokedex). You can use the touch screen for selecting commands, or for stroking your monsters after battle to reward them, cure status ailments, and increase your affinity. I tended not to do that much just because it made me feel guilty for playing a game instead of bestowing affection on my actual cats. That said, the relationship between people and animals is at the heart of the Pokemon experience, and if the game helps nurture childish affection for animals, then that can only be a good thing. It’s also nice to think of children being able to spend time with Pokemon as surrogate pets if they’re not allowed or able to have real ones at home.

This is a game heavily marketed at young kids, of course, perhaps explaining the very low difficulty (a shame Nintendo didn’t adopt the same policy when I was a kid). Only towards the end do you have to deploy much in the way of strategy or grinding, and the rock-paper-scissors elemental system is quite straightforward. The main story is quite short and simple, clocking in at just over 30 hours. There’s a fair bit left to do in the post-game, but unless you’re really into context-less Pokemon battles and filling out your Pokedex, it’s unlikely to grab you. The game also has lots of little side mechanics – like developing little islands to house your Pokemon – but none feel very compelling, or are well-integrated into the core gameplay, meaning they’re easy to ignore.

I noticed a couple of other curious things as well. One was a literal way the game has of describing your actions after you acquire an item, explaining each and every time that you “pick up an item and put it away in the item pocket”. It soon felt like a bizarre pastiche of Hemingway. I was also put off by Team Skull, the rival faction you encounter over much of the game’s story. Team Skull are a bunch of generic ne’er do wells who are cruel to Pokemon and engage in various low-level crimes and disorder in Alola. They have a very “ghetto” style, wearing gangbanger outfits and using a rap music motif. The weird thing is, although Alola is an ethnically diverse place with lots of light- and dark-skinned people, every single person in Team Skull is white, giving it the profile of a racist gang. I don’t know whether this was conscious, and whether the developers were scared of being accused of racism if they had non-white members indulging in stereotypically “gangster” behaviour. It may just be an accident because the Team Skull “grunts” (as they’re called) all have the same character model.

In the end, Pokemon Sun/Moon is an enjoyable game with a good heart, and one that’s worth playing. 3DS owners are, of course, spoiled for choice when it comes to Japanese RPGs, and there are plenty of other games that can offer better and more sophisticated stories and gameplay. But there aren’t many that can show you more love.

7/10

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The Sopranos (season five) – Review

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T. and I approached season five of The Sopranos with some trepidation. The show’s writing started to tank after season two and I thought season four was pretty awful. So, I was pleasantly surprised to find I enjoyed the first few episodes of season five, wondering if perhaps the show had turned a corner. The season begins with an injection of new blood, as several mobsters get released from jail around the same time, so there are several new faces. These include Steve Buscemi as Tony Soprano’s childhood friend, Tony Blundetto (known as Tony B.). The new characters give the show a bit of oomph, and it also helps that Tony and Carmela are no longer together. We’re therefore spared the inane family melodrama that dominated seasons three and four… for a while, anyway.

Season five initially sees a renewed focus on the FBI and their efforts to take down the various Mafia families in New York and New Jersey. This storyline drives much of the season’s better action, just because it’s interesting to see how the federal police plan and execute operations like this. Other shows have since done this sort of thing much, much better – think of The Wire, or even Sons of Anarchy – but nevertheless, The Sopranos’ fifth season has some good moments early on. Unfortunately, the season’s early momentum comes to a screaming halt by the time of episode six, “Sentimental Education”. This is one of the first Sopranos episodes written by Matthew Weiner (creator of Mad Men – not a favourite show in these parts), and it marks a new low for a show that had already served up some pretty poor episodes. From this point onwards, narrative complexity is largely abandoned in favour of a straightforward story centred around Tony’s personal neuroses.

I’ll admit that for a while I thought Tony’s psychological problems provided an interesting frame to view the goings-on of the Soprano crime syndicate. But they are not enough to sustain a drama for this length of time. By this stage, Tony’s psyche and personality are as overexposed and repellent as his corpulent physical form. Just as Tony’s sessions with Dr Melfi go nowhere and cover the same ground ad nauseam, so too does the storyline repeat itself; simply with new characters performing the same narrative function as the likes of Richie Aprile and Ralph Cifaretto before them. Side characters are never given any time to develop, merely being used as triggers for Tony’s rage or depression, and the show relies on a procession of “star power” to maintain any interest in its cast. Like with Tony, series regulars such as Carmela and Chris Moltisanti are so one-dimensional and over-familiar that you just don’t want to see them on your screen any more.

A show like The Sopranos has such an aura around it that people explain away things that would elsewhere be called out as downright bad or incompetent. Season five fails to maintain a basic level of storyline continuity and credibility. In the space of a few minutes, Tony B. inexplicably abandons his deeply-felt plans to “go straight” which had been built up over six hour-long episodes. Halfway through the season a ranking member of Tony’s crew is caught sucking off another man in a car park; nothing more is said about it. Another character accidentally sets themselves on fire making a sandwich. Then there are the editorial decisions that only the most over-indulged show can get away with, such as Tony’s interminable surreal dream sequence; a laughable reminiscence montage when Tony is thinking about a childhood friend; or a “mic drop” freeze frame after Carmela dumps someone that would have felt cheap on Sabrina the Teenage Witch. None of this is helped by the fact that Tony’s main rival for much of the season is the singularly dull, unthreatening and effete mafia “boss” Johnny Sack. As unconvincing mobsters go, he rivals even Andy Garcia’s cringeworthy performance in Rob the Mob. How did we go from Brando, De Niro, and Pacino, to this?

The last couple of episodes of season five see some basic competence restored to the storytelling, albeit brought about in an abrupt and contrived manner via the police acting as a deus ex machina to move events forward. The sections of the show which follow the police tend to be the more interesting, as are the all too rare occasions when we see how the mafia try to cover themselves or, you know, actually conduct their business. As countless police procedurals and historical dramas have shown, the ways people operate in the world tend to be of wider and more lasting interest to viewers than summoning forth the obscure goings-on from inside someone’s mind. For all that its first two seasons were very, very good, The Sopranos has a lot to answer for. Not least the way it helps legitimize this kind of introspective claptrap as a form of serious entertainment.

4/10

Beyond: Two Souls (PS4) – Review

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Beyond: Two Souls is a sort of spiritual successor to Heavy Rain, the brainchild of writer and “director” David Cage. Two Souls keeps the heavily narrative-driven style of Heavy Rain, so much so that it’s arguably more an “interactive drama” than a video game as such. Originally released for PS3 in late 2013, it was remastered along with Heavy Rain for the PS4 last year. The critical reception for Two Souls was somewhat harsher than for Heavy Rain: although, for me, it’s a superior experience overall, by the time it came out the novelty value of these kinds of games had started to wear off. Moreover, Two Souls came out a few months after The Last of Us: another PlayStation exclusive, and one which not only matched Two Souls for graphics, but surpassed it in story and gameplay.

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It probably didn’t help that Ellie in The Last of Us strongly brought to mind Ellen Page – a point seemingly not lost on the actress herself. Still, played now out of its original context, Beyond: Two Souls is a pretty worthwhile experience. The story is told in the form of episodes from main character Jodie’s life: when she was a young girl, a teenager, and a young woman. Jodie was born tethered to an “entity” she refers to as Aiden. Aiden is invisible and can float and shift through walls and objects, but can only move a short distance from Jodie. He can interact with the physical world, and though quasi-autonomous is bound to Jodie and generally co-operates with her. As you’d expect, Jodie’s relationship with Aiden causes all kinds of social and developmental problems for her and she is entrusted to the “care” of the military while still a small child. As she gets older, Jodie tries to assert some level of independence in the face of the military’s demands, while managing her relationship with Aiden, and also navigating the challenges of adolescence and early adulthood. She has a tough time of it and you can’t help but feel very sympathetic towards her, even if the character never really shows the kind of growth you would like and expect.

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Two Souls showcases sophisticated motion capture, and excellent facial animations, which allow it to do justice to strong performances from Ellen Page and Willem Dafoe, the latter portraying government doctor/researcher Nathan Dawkins. The young Jodie is also really adorable. However, the game proves that actors and technology can only take you so far without a good script. Although the plot is for the most part compelling, the dialogue and characterization is lackluster. The main characters lack depth, and scenes which should resonate often fall flat. Jodie endures some terrible ordeals over the course of the game, but it is only right at the end that the script really allows her to respond to her experiences in an emotionally convincing way. The game regularly provides you with options about how to react in various situations – such as being honest, evasive, or lying – but when you realize that “honest” and “evasive” answers can be virtually indistinguishable, it tests your investment in the story.

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While Two Souls rarely plumbs the depths of bathos seen in Heavy Rain, it still relies too heavily on socially unrealistic situations and behaviour. There are long passages in the second half which see Jodie amid a homeless community, and then staying with a Native American family. These seem to have been included just to remind us what a good person she is, but they’re shallow, unconvincing and superfluous to the plot. Throughout the story, people swing from one emotional extreme to another at a moment’s notice, and are willing to go along with ludicrous plans without hesitation. That includes Jodie, and the contrived way that the narrative tends to lurch forwards is irritating in a game which likes to pretend you have a degree of control over what happens.

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On the other hand, I didn’t expect to enjoy the action scenes so much. Two Souls has some really well-directed cinematic sequences which reminded me of James Cameron films like The Abyss and Aliens (no doubt in part due to the blue-heavy colour scheme), which was a pleasant surprise. These sequences are especially good when you’re controlling Aiden. Jodie can hold her own in combat, too – thanks to her CIA training – and is often called upon to defend herself in various situations. There is actually a fairly robust third-person stealth system which is, disappointingly, only used in one or two very effective sequences. Otherwise, the gameplay in these sections mainly involves moving the right analogue stick in a certain direction, in line with Jodie’s limb movements. In theory, it’s an intuitive system, but in practice it can be frustrating as it’s not clear until too late which body part you are supposed to be following. It’s hard to fail these sequences outright (I don’t think I got a game over at any point) but messing up too many times might result in an outcome you’d rather avoid.

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Two Souls is longer than I expected, clocking in at between ten and twelve hours depending on how leisurely your play style is. Replay value is limited but, while it may have been hard to justify a full-price purchase when it first came out, it’s fairly well discounted now and a decent pickup for a tenner or so. I really enjoyed Two Souls’ first few hours, and although the second half contains some overlong sequences that really should have been cut, things come together in time for a dramatically satisfying and quite moving conclusion. As much as I found Heavy Rain to have been overhyped and undeserving of much of the acclaim it received, Two Souls is probably an underrated experience that most fans of narrative gaming and sci-fi would appreciate.

7/10

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Warlock (film) – Review

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Warlock is a campy 1980s Gothic horror film, featuring Richard E. Grant as witch hunter Giles Redferne and Julian Sands as the eponymous villain. The film’s plot bears a certain resemblance to The Terminator, as Sands escapes from the clutches of witch hunters in 1691 Boston and enters the present day  – well, 1988 anyway – in search of pages from an ancient grimoire which has the power to destroy the world. He’s followed through time by Grant, who sports a hilarious hairdo and silly outfit. Both of them really give it a go, and the film is well-served by having two such capable actors in the main roles. It helps elevate some otherwise silly fare.

The film also stars Lori Singer as Kassandra, who acts as Redferne’s reluctant helper and guide in modern America. The warlock casts a sadistic curse on Kassandra which makes her age 20 years each day, which obviously limits the amount of time she has to lift the curse. Allegedly, Singer didn’t want to wear the facial prosthetics designed to make her character look older, and this results in a somewhat unconvincing ageing process.

Sands is great in the title role. Films about witches aren’t that common – compared to, say, vampires, zombies, and ghosts – and films about male witches are pretty rare. But Sands’ character is as evil as he is powerful (read: very), and is established early on as a huge threat. Although the special effects are lacking, this is by no means a no-budget film, and it’s surprising to see some relatively gruesome content here reminiscent of so-called “video nasties”, which managed to make me wince. Sands is an effective villain and he carries out shocking and despicable acts in a matter-of-fact fashion.

Warlock reverses the normal trope of the witch hunters being evil: in this case, the witch hunters are completely in the right, and God help us all if Redferne is unsuccessful. Apparently writer David Twohy attempted to write a movie about the innocent victim of a witch hunt “escaping” to the present day, where he faced the same sorts of problems and biases as he did in the 1690s. However, Twohy gave up because it was too complicated, and so we have this instead. It probably worked out for the best, as Warlock is a really entertaining movie: it’s fun, well-paced, and you’re unlikely to tire of it before the end. The special effects look very, very bad these days, but this adds to the film’s undeniable camp appeal. It’s definitely worth a watch for all aficionados of horror and 1980s “style”.

7/10

Stake Land 2: The Stakelander (film) – Review

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2010’s Stake Land was a refreshing take on the vampire genre. It went against the grain at a time when franchises like Twilight and True Blood were going all-out to make bloodsuckers teen-friendly, glamorous and sexy. By contrast, the vampires in Stake Land are a brutal, feral breed with low intelligence but unmatched viciousness and ferocity. Set in a world ravaged by the vamp-ocalypse, Stake Land was a flawed but effective film that brought to life the sort of world familiar to fans of Fallout, The Last of Us, and The Road. The story was derivative, but felt substantive and well-paced enough that it made you care about its characters, and the end result delivered scares but also reflected on human relationships. Specifically, the film was a moving tale of the difficult necessity of maintaining links with other people even if the world is dying around you.

Stake Land earned a solid reputation and a decent following, and so a sequel was always a possibility. The daftly named Stake Land II: The Stakelander was duly released earlier this year on video-on-demand, and now finds its way to Netflix. Sadly, it turns out this is one of those cases where a sequel wasn’t really needed. The writers don’t seem to have anything new to say, and the film mainly consists of an inferior re-hashing of the events of its predecessor. The first big problem is that Stake Land 2 immediately negates the upbeat ending of the first film, callously killing off Martin’s family again in an apparent effort to recreate the dynamic between him and his erstwhile mentor. Hoping for revenge against the vampires who killed his family, Martin seeks out the vampire-slayer and general badass known only as Mister (Nick Damici). The script suggests the world is an even more hopeless place than it was a few years earlier, but the disappointing cinematography doesn’t really bear this out. Cannibalism is now rampant, and the closest thing to an organized human force is The Brotherhood, a far-right Christian outfit who are in cahoots with the vampires, who they think have been sent to “purify” mankind or something.

Mister has continued his one-man crusade against vampires and the Brotherhood since the first film, but it’s a losing struggle. Moreover, vampires themselves now seem to be developing a knack for organization and strategy which bodes ill for the few remaining human settlements. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t take this anywhere. Although in the first film the vampires felt tough and menacing, they don’t have the same effect here, partly because of how they’re filmed. They hardly ever go straight for their prey: normally preferring to knock people over, then scream in their faces for a few seconds, or however long it takes for someone to stab them in the back. Doing this once or twice is fine, but when it happens over and over again, it becomes really annoying. The lead vampire also makes liberal use of the head tilt, surely one of the laziest and most overused horror gimmicks around. In fact, the look and feel of Stake Land 2 reminded me of nothing more than 30 Days of Night, which is not a flattering comparison. That film was shit.

One of the big dangers in making a sequel like this is that it brings to light latent problems you couldn’t quite see in the well-liked original. As well as ruining the ending and sullying fond memories of the first Stake Land, Stakelander also has some troubling implications for its treatment of women. The main female character here is probably the vampire leader, who doesn’t have any lines, and who spends most of the film screaming and head-tilting; and, well, you can probably guess her fate. The other female character is an improbably well-groomed and attractive feral human who was supposedly raised in “the wild”. Mister and Martin sort of adopt her after rescuing her from some cannibals who were treating her as a pet/slave; she then bonds with Mister like a cat would with its owner. She doesn’t have any lines, either. The actress isn’t exactly given much to work with, but even so, it’s a pretty cringeworthy performance in a pitifully bad role.

One of the only things that Stake Land 2 has in its favour is its short length. It would be wrong to say it doesn’t outstay its welcome, because the film doesn’t have a good reason to exist at all. But a run time of 85 minutes goes by pretty fast. Even so, this is a hard film to recommend. Fans of Stake Land will likely be disappointed, and could find that this outing mars their enjoyment of that far superior film. And if you weren’t a fan of the original, why would you consider watching Stakelander in the first place?

4/10