Thursday, February 24, 2011

Castlevania: Lord of Shadows

Castlevania was less a video game and more of an epic quest.

I've spent over a month playing through the game. I've ascended the peaks of Heaven, I've battled demons and vampires, I've unlocked ancient mechanisms, and I've done battle with the devil himself. At times, the game felt endless and I felt that poor Gabriel Belmont would never see the end of his journey.

Two days ago I finally saw the end of the game. And I'm really sad to see it go.

Zero Punctuation is pretty harsh on the game. Sure, Castlevania is basically a God of War rip-off, but originality was never the video game industry's strong point. At this point, GoW has been ripped off a dozen times, but never with this much style.

You take control of Gabriel Belmont, the (likely) progenitor of the legendary vampire hunting clan. We meet him as he's on the quest to rid the world of three darklords and avenge the death of his beloved wife. His journey takes him through many dark and exotic landscapes, from the spires of Castle Frankenstein to the very gates of hell itself. As your quest leads you deeper and deeper into damnation, you discover the terrible secrets linking the House of Belmont to their age-old adversary, the vampire lord Dracula.

I tend to approach most media, whether films, games, or comic books, from a slightly different angle than most people. I'm not a particularly visually-oriented person and I pay very close attention to the strength of the writing, but for Castlevania my standards were completely reversed. The writing is fairly pedestrian, which the level intro narration being florid and melodramatic, but the visuals of the game were absolutely captivating. From the opening scene of the werewolves attacking the Bavarian town to the wintery climb to the summit of the vampire citadel, I was completely entranced. Every environment, every enemy, and every weapon looks gorgeous. The game does a great job of immersing you in a foreboding gothic universe and I loved the sheer aesthetic joy of following Gabriel on his quest. There are tons of unlockables in the game but I made absolutely sure that I got all the concept art.

God of War-style play tends to fall under two camps: the people who can be measured and precise in their fast-paced combat, and guys like me who mash buttons frantically and hope for the best. Yet despite my utter lack of skill, I felt that the game kept pace with me. One of my big issues with most GoW games is that after awhile it becomes boring butchering enemies who seem to only exist to make you look cool, but Castlevania has enough variety in their enemies to make the game engaging. They attack differently, defend differently, and if you get cocky they can eat you alive. You gotta be paying attention and have fast hands to make it through, but it makes the victories all the more sweet.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been working on this game awhile. As I've become used to games you can knock out in ten or twenty hours, spending thirty-plus hours immersed in the haunted battlefields of Transylvania became much more of an undertaking. After awhile, I stopped feeling like I was playing a game and more like I was undertaking an epic adventure. Sure, Gabriel's angsty revenge drama is pretty generic, but it's played against such a mythic backdrop that I was completely sucked into the world.

I would recommend this game for people who like quest-themed stories with a darker age, avenging anto-hero types, and fans of good Gothic adventure. I've always had a soft spot for the Castlevania franchise but I enjoyed the hell out of this game from start to finish.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


My cousin fell off a chairlift when he was a kid.

My aunt and uncle live in Lake Tahoe, CA and they've been skiing all their lives. The way I heard the story, my cousin was leaning too far forward and just fell face-first off the lift. I used to think about that incident when I family went on skiing trips. The chairlifts in Tahoe never had safety bars and the weight of boots on your feet almost pull you out of the chair. I used to be terrified that I'd get tangled up in someone's boots or tilt too far forward and pitch myself off into the icy ground below.

Anyway, I didn't much care for Frozen.

Frozen tells the story of two dudebros and a girlfriend who get stuck on a chairlift. The rest of the movie is spent alternating between attempts to get down and moments of introspection. Eventually things work out and some credits roll.

I wasn't that big a fan off Hatchet, the movie that made Adam Green famous. It's a classic among horror fans, but I thought it was too derivative and playing too much to the crowd. I'd heard about Frozen when it first toured theaters, but I wasn't particularly interested. The whole premise sounded like the hoary old theatrical trope of a small group of characters locked in a room and being forced to confront the truth about themselves. To pull that old chestnut off, you have to really good at dialogue and characterization and those elements weren't Hatchet's strong points.

So I do have to confess to a bit of bias even before I sat down to watch the movie. But I didn't enjoy it all that much.

A couple of things really didn't work for me. First, the earlier parts of the movie feel like a low-rent MTV special. There's a lot of montage shots of the characters snowboarding around set to obnoxious pop-punk. The dialogue is really bad, especially in all the bits where Green is trying to establish the relationships between the character. One guy is all "you've changed, man" and another is all "dude, leave my girlfriend alone" and there's a bunch of resentful passive aggressive sniping and by that point I was playing scrabble on my laptop.

Ultimately, the movie relies on too many cheats. I had a hard enough time believing that the perfect string of coincidences could happen to get these characters trapped in the first place, and once the superwolves started their hideous siege (all filmed in tight close up) it kinda lost me.

It's basically a movie about three boring, unpleasant people stuck in a bad situation. I just couldn't bring myself to care.

This post is part of the Final Girl Film Club. For those of you who dug this post, welcome to my humble little blog. I'm a big horror fan and I like to apply my highly-honed bullshitting skills to the stuff I enjoy. I cover movies, books, games, and music. Welcome aboard!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dead Island Trailer

Our fine friends at Geekologie posted up two trailers for the upcoming game Dead Island. Yeah, I'm burned out on zombies, but this is really good stuff.


Sunday, February 13, 2011

Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare

I love westerns.

It’s ironic, because in the real world I’m not well suited to the genre. I’m not very outdoorsy, I’m not particularly tough or taciturn, and I’ve never been particularly good around cattle or horses. In short, I’m a city creature through and through. Yet there’s something about the old west that excites my imagination. The endless vistas, the lawless frontier towns, the conflict between civilizations, and the stern, capable people who populated these stories ignited my imagination. It should come as no surprise that I gravitated toward Rockstar Games’ Red Dead Redemption.

Red Dead Redemption is the (mostly) perfect western game. Its got sprawling landscapes, a hard-bitten hero, colorful sidekicks, and a perfectly engaging combat system. I knocked it out in record time so I could start digging into the Undead Nightmare expansion pack.

Taking place shortly before the game’s apocalyptic ending, Undead Nightmare tells the story of a zombie infestation in the territories. The lead character’s family becomes infected and in his quest to save them he revisits old friends, endures new challenges, and uncovers the sinister secrets of an ancient Mesoamerican death god.

I can’t quite tell if Undead Nightmare is canon or not. Red Dead Redemption, despite a few zany moments, plays things straightforward. Undead Nightmare looks, sounds, and feels like a grindhouse slasher film. Beloved characters pop up for cameos, say a few cryptically self-aware things, and then get devoured. Regardless, the story veers from dark comedy to nihilistic horror, remaining engaging and entertaining the whole time.

One of the things that I liked about the game is that it plays fair with George Romero’s rules. Most zombie games (Resident Evil, Dead Rising, Left 4 Dead) play fast and loose with the traditional rules, where the characters are suddenly invulnerable to zombie bites and several quick shots to the chest disable the walking dead. In Undead Nightmare, you have to shoot the zombies in the head and a single bite spells doom for John Marston. It makes game play much more tense and requires much more reliance on the dead-aim mechanic, which slows time down and allows players to line up their shots. Unfortunately, seeing as I barely used this ability in the main game, it took me a couple of hours to figure out just how useful it was. In the meantime, I wasted a lot of rounds on missed headshots and became zombie chow on more than one occasion. Until I figured out the practical application of the dead-aim mechanic, I really hated Undead Nightmare.

Like most zombie games, there comes a point where the gameplay becomes a little routine. Rockstar has a deep and abiding love for making the players do repetitive things, which in this case means you have go back and rescue previously liberated towns over and over again. If you want to use the fast travel system, you have to keep these towns free. Saving a town once is a challenging adventure. Saving a town two or three times feels like busy work.

Ultimately, a few return trips and a bit of busy work are minor negatives to a game that I greatly enjoyed. Red Dead Redemption created a world that I never wanted to leave, even as I sped toward the game’s conclusion. Even after Undead Nightmare resolved the story of John Marston in a grimly unique manner, I wanted more. I hope they keep going. It’s an alternate life I’d love to return to.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Slasher: A Horrifying Comedy by Allison Moore

I had a guest from my native San Francisco stay with me last weekend. He was a big Broadway fan and wanted to check out the shows in Times Square. While we were exploring the bright lights and garish ads of the heart of America, I took him to the Drama Book Shop. It's one of my favorite book stores in the world. It's full of young, hungry actors and old thespians with bored eyes. The shelves are chock-full of plays with blank covers and evocative names and I can spend all day browsing there.

Anyway, while he was flipping through a vampire paper doll book, I found a new play on the shelves. The cover was black and featured a screaming woman, a knife, and plenty of blood. Ten bucks later, I have Slasher: A Horrifying Comedy.

Slasher: A Horrifying Comedy tells the story of a broke young woman hired to take over a starring role in a low budget horror film. This doesn't sit well with her housebound mother, an embittered old hag with a host of psychosomatic illnesses and a persecution complex. As the daughter begins her movie career under the tutelage of a sleazy director, the mom schemes with a violent fundamentalist group to stop the production by any means necessary.

I wish I saw Slasher: A Horrifying Comedy performed live. It's an engaging story with interesting characters and some fascinating themes, and I'd like to see it performed. It's not a particularly long play and it's one of those very self-aware narratives where the characters seem to be doing as much commenting on the story as they are engaging in it, and I'd love to see how it plays live.

There are a couple of interesting ideas discussed in the play. First, the mother objects to the movie on feminist principles: horror movies degrade and commodify women and the makers are little more than vile sexist pimps peddling sleaze to an apathetic audience. As the play moves along, we learn that she uses her combative attitude as a way to avoid dealing with the world, but I found it telling that she allied herself with the bright young religious fanatic who firebombs abortion clinics. It's an interesting parallels for the way seventies-era progressive groups found their goals aligned with fundamentalist groups in their opposition of pornography. While their goals were ostensibly noble, they found themselves in bed with one of the most controlling and conservative groups in the United States.

Which is not to say that the poor people involved in the horror movie come off as a saintly victim. The director of the movie is an opportunistic sleaze with a darkly violent streak and the already beleaguered production descends into chaos. I can't tell if playwright Allison Moore is a genre aficionado with strong writing skills or someone who really doesn't like the genre, but the plays asks "who watches this stuff? Why do we find images of young girls being murdered so titillating?" As a life long horror fan, I'm used to a bit of finger wagging but this one is particularly sharp. I felt a little chided.

Anyway, if you dig Scream-style self-referential horror, gender and cultural themes, and a whole lot of grand guignol gore, give Slasher a read. I enjoyed the crap out of it.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The AV Club Presents: Ridiculous Horror Movie Adversaries

You know what the sad thing is? I know most of these movies. And Black Roses was actually pretty good. I have the original recording.

Anyway, take a break from work and enjoy this video.