The Trace Is a Sterling Whodunnit (That’s Too Short)

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There’s no shortage of murder mystery games on iOS, so any new entries in the genre will have to do something pretty new and do it well to get attention. The Trace came out just a few days and immediately started attracting buzz on blogs and on the App Store, so I decided to give it a look.

Arriving at the scene of the crime.
Arriving at the scene of the crime.

Continue reading The Trace Is a Sterling Whodunnit (That’s Too Short)

Agent Alice Brings the Annoyance of Freemium to Hidden Object Puzzles

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Ask any serious gamer about what they disdain most in the industry and at some point they will probably mention hidden object puzzle games and freemium pay-to-win games. And that’s with good reason. Hidden object games are fundamentally kind of lazy with not much of a gameplay element, and what gameplay exists is often ridiculous (why exactly do I have to point at a raccoon, a fedora, and a keychain before I can examine the bloody glove?). And freemium games are despised because they look like a bait-and-switch with a not-too-transparent cash-grab. So a game like Agent Alice which combines the two genres would not seem to hold much promise at first glance.

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Well something is certainly disastrous.

 

I’d like to tell you that Agent Alice does better than expected, but it doesn’t really. I can actually see some potential here, but the irritating freemium aspects of the gameplay just don’t work. And there aren’t enough other good qualities to get me to keep playing.

The story is more or less a murder mystery told through cutscenes and static dialogue boxes. Whatever else you might say about the game, the art really is quite well done. Characters are well-designed, and there’s never any trouble seeing anything.

Freemium games generally use two tricks to get players to pony up cash. One is to put some obstacle in the way which requires an item or a certain rating in order to pass. Theoretically the player could come up with the necessary requirements by grinding away at something, but many would prefer to just pay cash to get past it. The other freemium trick is to set a timer that counts down and which the player must wait out before proceeding (for example, building times in Farmville and the like).

Agent Alice uses both of these tricks in its efforts to get money out of you. Most actions in the game require stars to perform, and you earn stars by completing timed hidden object puzzles. Doing a hidden object puzzle itself requires energy which slowly replenishes over time. And then some tasks just outright require you to wait a while before you can complete them unless you want to pay money. The actions are part of the story of Agent Alice’s investigation, but they all tend to be very small and mundane such as “read the letters” or “talk to the witness.” Meanwhile, the wait times can sometimes go on for literally days.

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Spending a hard-earned star to “Patch Wanda up” will take all of ten seconds, if that.

All of this would be fine if the story was worthwhile, but it really isn’t. Dialogue is very sparse, and characters are completely flat. There simply isn’t any emotional investment in what’s going on. You talk to a witness and get a completely functional line like, “She was in love with her co-star” and that’s it.

The thing is I can actually see a way to make this format work. Agent Alice is free, and if the cash-grabbing was less blatant, I would even be tempted to throw a few bucks at it in exchange for a few hours of entertainment. But instead the game just reaches for too much. As a business model, I would call it an interesting experiment. As a game, it’s not worth recommending.

 

What You Should Know About iZombie

Tonight is the premiere of CW’s latest show based on a DC comic: iZombie. If you never heard of it and didn’t know that there was actually a comic book series, don’t feel bad. It wasn’t widely publicized and only ran for 28 issues. But to prepare for the pilot episode, I’ve read the entire series run. I’m not writing this as a review of the comics (but if you want one, you can start here). It’s more to give you my observations about the comics and how they might apply (or not) to the TV series. For starters…

There are more creatures than just zombies

The iZombie comic series contains a whole host of undead creatures besides zombies. There are also ghosts, vampires, werewolves, and at least one mummy. In keeping with the overall tone of the series, though, most of them just want to hang out, live their undead lives, and be left in peace. The comics often come across as a slice -of-life story until the main plot involving a dastardly villain trying to destroy the world kicks in.

It’s not clear if the TV series will include any of these other undead, but if it doesn’t, that would be a shame because…

Continue reading What You Should Know About iZombie

Does Jewelry Get Outdated?

The Apple Watch has been fully unveiled with a launch date and price point. Lots of pixels are being spilled about whether it’s going to be successful, whether we should buy it, and whether wearables really are the future of technology. As I said last time I talked about the Apple Watch, it’s a device that I can see the utility of and that I certainly want. Just not now.

One of the big pieces of news coming out of the show yesterday was the price point ranging from $349 for the basic model to $10,000 for the limited edition 18k gold model.   Understandably, that bigger number has gotten a lot of attention. The gold Apple Watch Edition is clearly a product for the very wealthy who wouldn’t think much of dropping a year’s worth of car payments on a status icon.

Except the thing is the Apple Watch Edition is now essentially a piece of jewelry. And people usually buy jewelry as an investment or as a family heirloom that’s going to last decades or even generations. So how does that work with a piece of consumer electronics which will eventually grow obsolete?

It’s not that the Apple Watch will necessarily have a yearly lifecycle like other iOS devices do. By this time next year, the Apple Watch will still keep time, count how many steps you take, and talk to your phone. It won’t have whatever new features the Apple Watch 2 has, but it will still be viable.

But what about five years from now? Will an Apple Watch you buy today still be able to sync up and work properly with an iPhone 9? Is there going to be same way for Apple to switch out the innards and update the software? Or is the Apple Watch going to end up much like the iPhone 3g — ultimately disposable. I don’t know that the public is going to be convinced that a watch is something they can switch out every two years. It makes more sense to me that Apple will instead introduce new Watches to appeal to different segments (maybe a kids’ version or a version specifically designed for medical professionals).

These are all issues that I’m sure Apple has considered. It will be interesting to see what their solution is.

Where Have You Been?!?

Yep. I’ve been missing in action. I needed to take some time to figure things out.

You see, my episode recaps just weren’t working. In order to get them out in a timely manner, I would have to spend a lot less time and thought on them, and that’s just not the way I write. Moreover, for some episodes I just didn’t have that much to say. And finally, I just plain don’t like some of these shows, and it’s a little wearing to write about them. I’m doing this all to practice my craft, after all.

Arrow has been a mess since the beginning of this season. I’ve often written about what a mistake it was to kill off Sara Lance, and it didn’t help when they brought her back as a hallucination in order to essentially say what the viewers are thinking (that Laurel is terrible at being a superhero and that Sara didn’t have to die to put her in the role). The storylines have also been a complete mess, and it’s all too obvious that the writers start with the end result and work backwards from there. Thus, Laurel will become the Black Canary, all logic and suitability for the actress be damned. Oliver will end up working with Malcolm and alienating his friends regardless of whether that actually makes sense. And Thea’s opinion of different people seems to switch every episode.

Meanwhile, Agents of SHIELD continues to demonstrate that only hard-core Marvel fans should give a toss about it. The characters are still poorly sketched out (nobody really cares about the agent who died). And this current plot is an attempt by Marvel to get us to care about the Inhumans even though there’s nothing about them that’s particularly interesting or noteworthy (the Inhumans are similar to the X-Men except without the relevant social commentary. There’s a reason most of us can name several X-Men but can’t name even one Inhuman off the top of our heads).

There just isn’t much joy in writing about these shows, and if you really want timely recaps for them, there are other places to look. So I’m going to stop. For now, the shows I review will be The Flash and Gotham with occasional commentary for other shows if I see something interesting to say. And I’ll also be reviewing iZombie. Look for a preview coming soon because I have been reading through the original comics that the show is adapted from.

And I also want to get back to reviewing games, so this new schedule should free up a lot of time for me to do that. I’ve got a few in the works that should appear in the next few weeks.

But first, let’s talk about a tech announcement…

Arrow S03.E12 — Uprising

If we assume that Malcolm Merlyn really can teach Oliver to defeat Ra’s Al Ghul (which is a huge assumption that I’ll get to in a moment), then both Oliver and Felicity are right. Felicity is right because Merlyn’s crimes really are unforgivable and it should turn anybody’s stomach to work with him. He can claim that he was trying to protect his city all he wants, but he murdered numerous people and drugged his own daughter to get her to commit another murder (of Oliver’s friend and lover, no less). Felicity’s parting words (“I don’t want to be a woman you love”) were rather hurtful but also contained a lot of truth. Oliver goes through lovers at a rather alarming speed, and they tend to end up dead.

On the other hand, what is Oliver supposed to do? Ra’s Al Ghul killed him last time they fought. He has to be realistic about his chances when the League of Assassins tries to enter his city again. If Merlyn offers the only chance he has, then he has to take the bitter pill.

That last part struck me as rather silly, however. Only the student can best the master and therefore only Merlyn can teach Oliver how to defeat Ra’s Al Ghul? How exactly does that work? I teach martial arts, and there aren’t very many of my students who could beat me in a fight. Nor would I do very well against my grandmaster, and my students certainly wouldn’t learn how to beat my grandmaster from me. I suppose the justification is that Merlyn will understand Ra’s Al Ghul’s sword tactics and that Oliver will be able to discern a weakness in the technique by learning them. But even assuming that’s true, why not just have Maseo teach him? And besides by this logic, Merlyn would be able to defeat Ra’s Al Ghul himself.

So it all seems like a bit of a forced dilemma, but I suppose I’m ok with it for now as long as the show isn’t trying to force a Merlyn redemption arc. The flashbacks reveal a pretty sympathetic Malcolm Merlyn who is lost and doesn’t know what to do when his wife dies. His first kill was rather heartbreaking to watch. And John Barrowman’s hair to indicate his younger self was hilariously awful.

But he killed hundreds of people! And he brainwashed his own daughter into killing another person, all the while claiming to love and care for her. He’s just not redeemable. And I’m a little afraid that this seems to be where the writers are taking the show given how various characters talk about how Malcolm Merlyn truly cares. Roy, of all people, shouldn’t fall for that line.

On another note, I was rather happy to see Sin make an appearance. One of the things about Sara Lance’s story was that it was detailed enough to make its own TV series. It was so rich in fact that she had her own secondary characters one of whom was Sin. I was wondering if the writers were just going to pretend that Sin never existed and that Sara had never made a promise to Sin’s dying father. I’m glad to see Sin wasn’t just tossed aside and forgotten. But it still highlights what a stupid and insulting idea it was to kill off Sara’s character.

Last thought: that street brawl was an impressively big scene and well shot. But the two armies have some pretty strange tactics what with both sides lining up opposite each other and charging into melee range despite the fact that they both have firearms. Diggle was carrying an assault rifle!

Thoughts on the Legend of Zelda for Netflix

You may have heard by now that Netflix is developing a live-action Legend of Zelda series. I have always had mixed feelings about all the efforts to adapt the Legend of Zelda games into a film or TV series. On the one hand, I’m a major Zelda fanboy. I spent a year writing a very long fanfic based on Ocarina of Time. I have purchased and played every console game, and I’ll finally get a Wii U just to play the next Zelda game. I ought to be part of the prime audience for this series.

On the other hand, the games have never seemed suitable for adaptation to me. The Legend of Zelda series is renowned because of its gameplay, not its storyline. Even the more narratively complex Skyward Sword had a pretty simple storyline when you boil it down to the basics. There’s an anonymous boy in a village, he’s called to action, and he fights evil while saving Princess Zelda. The games are a pretty basic interpretation of Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. There usually isn’t much in the way of character development either. Most of the characters have basically one personality trait. And the main character is so blank that he literally doesn’t speak. He’s just an avatar for us to project ourselves onto, after all.

So is this series going to be any good? Well, first of all we should keep in mind that Netflix has only announced that they are developing a series. Nobody has been cast, and the whole project could yet stall. But if everything does come to fruition, I would say the choice to do it in live action is a very risky choice. The Legend of Zelda games have an animated sensibility about them, and not just because they are aimed at a family audience. Link’s movements are faster than any actual human is capable of since he’s supposed to respond instantly to player commands. The world is bright and colorful. And then there are all the inhuman creatures who will probably be rendered in CGI. If you’re going to do a family-friendly Game of Thrones story as the article suggests, I don’t see why you wouldn’t do it as an animation.

Still, it’s not impossible that they will get the look of the show right. What then? Hopefully, the writers will move beyond the typical captured princess story and come up with something richer. Since it’s a Netflix series, it does not have to follow an episodic formula as most network and many cable TV shows do. Instead, it can just tell a long, multi-episode story. I personally would like to see an exploration of the origins of Hyrule and a lot of world-building. Anything coherent will do. We all know that Nintendo has been pretty much making up the history of Hyrule as they go along, and I very much doubt that they really do have an official timeline plotted out that explains all the apparent contradictions. That’s ok for a videogame series, but I would enjoy a more comprehensive mythology for this series.

And yeah, I suppose Link will have to talk. That’s ok, too. But I think his role will mostly be to play the straight man against all the other characters, much as he does in the games. That means casting him will be tricky since he’s inherently a much less interesting character and his actor will have to bring a lot of substance to the role. It doesn’t help that judging by cosplay pics, women are much better at playing him than men.

But nothing is set in stone yet, so who knows? I’ll keep an open mind about the project. But I’m also not getting my hopes up.

Arrow S03.E11 – Midnight City

In my view, this whole season of Arrow has been about the show making the best out of a really bad, insulting decision (namely, killing off Sara Lance and making her sister the Black Canary). This episode continues the trend. In itself, Laurel’s continued development into a costumed vigilante is not terribly done and even makes her kind of interesting sometimes. But it’s still the result of a stupid plot development that should never happened.

Laurel is pretty bad at this fighting business, it turns out. And she never really gets better throughout the course of this episode even as people keep reminding her that she’s not her sister. I can’t help but feeling like there’s a little behind-the-scenes subtext there: “You’re also not Caity Lotz.” Katie Cassidy can’t really help that she needs a stuntwoman and camera tricks to pull off her fight scenes, but it still makes me miss Caity Lotz. In the show, they acknowledge that Laurel’s inept superheroing has real consequences such as the death of a city alderman. It will be interesting to see how Oliver deals with her new hobby when he comes back. It’s pretty clear to me that Laurel is barely functional as a fighter and not even really able to take on the average street tough.

The ruse to fool poor Detective Lance is getting ridiculous. He really deserves a better storyline than this, but what else can they do when Laurel is predestined to be the Black Canary? The actors are actually making the best they can out of the storyline, playing it all without a false note (even Katie Cassidy is doing well). But it’s still a stupid story.

At least Brick is turning out to be a worthy adversary. I’ve always enjoyed seeing Vinnie Jones on the screen even if he always plays the exact same character. I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be super powered or not, though. Unlike his comic book counterpart, he seems to be a normal human. But his gimmick is that bullets don’t bother him. And then again, Roy can still hit him with an arrow. So what gives?

Meanwhile, Oliver is recuperating, and it turns out that he and Maseo rescued Tatsu. That’s great and all, but I still wish she hadn’t been reduced to a pawn for people to trade around. In the comics, she is the superhero Katana and one of the premiere martial artists of the world (she trains with Batman). But I suppose at least she has super healing skills in the modern day that allow her to bring Oliver back.

Oh yeah, that douchey DJ is still there. And he’s still sexually harassing Thea. I’d advocate for her to dropkick him out a window, but at least his last scene reveals that he’s tied to the League of Assassins. Malcolm Merlyn is not going to be happy to find out about that.

Agent Carter S01.E04 — The Blitzkrieg Button

I’ve been trying to write this review for a while. I keep staring at my computer screen waiting for words to come. And they don’t.

This is the first episode of Agent Carter in which the previous energy just didn’t seem to be there. Oh sure, it was kind of surprising when Dottie broke that guy’s neck. But not really. I said before that you don’t just bring in Bridget Regan to play a one-off nobody. And I guess watching Peggy Carter clean up after Howard Stark’s womanizing in much the same way as Pepper Potts will do for Tony Stark was kind of amusing. But that was just a little too cartoonish for me, not least because Howard Stark’s actor is no Robert Downey, Jr. I just don’t believe he’d be able to talk his way into a woman’s bedroom within minutes. And even with Tony Stark the directors would take a few moments to show her flirting with the woman and working his considerable charm before they got into bed.

Oh yeah, there’s a rift which has developed between Carter and Stark because he lied to her. I’d feel the betrayal more if I cared about the lie, but I really don’t. So he had her steal some of Captain America’s blood. So what? We know nothing will come of it because in the modern day Steve Rogers is still the only super soldier left. And we know Carter and Stark will eventually found SHIELD, so they’ll patch things up sooner or later.

And Souza will find out about Carter’s secret. At this point, I’m ready for him to just get on with it.

Every TV series has a slow episode, and at least this one is setting things up for the future. But I still feel that it could have been a lot more memorable than this. Oh well. Onward we go.

The Flash S01.E11 — The Sound and the Fury

This episode was all about introducing a new member of Flash’s Rogues Gallery. In the comics, the Pied Piper plays a special flute which he controls with such precision that he can hypnotize unsuspecting people into doing whatever he wants. He can even become imperceptible to people by hypnotizing them into not noticing him. He also dresses like a court jester.

The TV show has followed their usual strategy of adaptation by getting rid of the sillier, campy elements of the character and turning up the danger and menace. There were a bunch of interesting choices here. The most notable was that the writers made the character gay. This had the potential to backfire really badly since the evil homosexual is one of those old Hollywood tropes that has come to be rightly reviled in the modern day. Here I think the writers managed to strike the balance. Hartley Rathaway is gay, but that’s just one fact about him which is mostly incidental to his motives (unless you think he was in love with Harrison Wells, which is not out of the question). Of course, as a straight man, I am probably less sensitive to these things. All I can say is that it seemed to me that the writers felt comfortable enough to make a gay character who is the villain.

They also made him a pretty irredeemable asshole. Whenever a villain gets extra characterization, the typical trick is to give him a sympathetic backstory that explains if not outright excuses his behavior. Not so in this case. Part of his story is actually sympathetic (he was disowned by his parents when he came out to them), but we see in the flashbacks that he’s a totally unlikable jerk. He may have drawn a tough lot in life, but that doesn’t excuse the way he treats his colleagues.

And yet despite all of that, he was still right in the end. He warned Wells not to turn on the particle accelerator (although I personally think Wells deliberately created the disaster in the first place in order to give Barry his powers in order to save some unspecified future timeline).

Speaking of Wells, we now have confirmation that he has super speed. And that his powers are unstable and come from tachyon particles somehow. It still makes me wonder how he pulled off the trick of appearing in two places at once when he confronted the Reverse Flash. I also wonder incidentally why he called out Iris at his press conference. Was he trying to do her a favor? Or was he trying to avoid a question and assumed wrongly that a cub reporter would go easy on him?

Some people have found Iris’ story unbelievable, but I actually don’t find it so hard to swallow. No, she never showed an inclination for journalism before, but that doesn’t mean she can’t start. And she has no background at all in traditional journalism skills like interviewing people, double checking sources, and confirming timelines. She is simply a blogger who got lucky. But it’s also pretty clear that she wasn’t hired on because of any journalistic inclinations, and her mentor is right to be resentful of her for that. Iris is coming to the realization that the only thing her editor wants is Flash exclusives and he couldn’t really care less how well she writes otherwise. That doesn’t seem so unbelievable to me. And besides, have you seen who they’re allowing to write for newspapers these days?

My last thought is about how the confrontation between the Flash and the Pied Piper played out. When The Flash crossed over with Arrow, Oliver made a point of showing how tactics and strategic thinking could overcome inherent advantages. It looks like Barry didn’t totally learn that lesson because he charged headlong into the fight with Rathaway without an obvious plan other than run really fast and strip away the weapons. Rathaway anticipated this the second time and planned accordingly. If it hadn’t been for some quick thinking from Wells, Barry might have died. This is what is going to make the Pied Piper a very interesting adversary going forward. He’s actually not all that inherently powerful, and without his gadgets he’s just an ordinary human. But his intelligence is what makes him dangerous.

By the way, you can’t actually vibrate a human apart by hitting the body’s resonant frequency. We’re not rigid enough, and by the time you’ve put enough force into your sound waves to damage us, you’re probably creating an explosion anyway. Oh well.