Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Seventh Annual Russells

-The Final Girls
-The Good Dinosaur
-The Visit
-Turbo Kid

WINNER: Turbo Kid

-The Church Massacre - Kingsman: The Secret Service
-Jakku Escape - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
-Dubai Sequence  - Furious 7
-Return to the Citadel Chase - Mad Max: Fury Road
-Crossing the Boarder - Sicario

WINNER: Return to the Citadel Chase - Mad Max: Fury Road

-Adam Driver - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
-Idris Elba - Beasts of No Nation
-Oscar Issac - Ex Machina
-Abraham Attah - Beasts of No Nation
-Kurt Russell - Bone Tomahawk

WINNER: Abraham Attah - Beasts of No Nation

-Charlize Theron - Mad Max: Fury Road
-Daisy Ridley - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
-Taissa Farmiga - The Final Girls
-Laurence Leboeuf - Turbo Kid
-Alicia Vikander - Ex Machina

WINNER: Alicia Vikander - Ex Machina

-Furiosa - Mad Max: Fury Road
-Rey - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
-Ethan Hunt - Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
-Dommick Torretto - Furious 7
-The Kid - Turbo Kid

WINNER: Furiosa - Mad Max: Fury Road

-Immortan Joe - Mad Max: Fury Road
-Kylo Ren - Star Wars: The Force Awakens
-Ultron - Avengers: Age of Ultron
-"It" - It Follows
-Krampus - Krampus

WINNER: Kylo Ren - Star Wars: The Force Awakens

-Ex Machina
-While We're Young
-The Final Girls
-The Martian
-What We Do in the Shadows

WINNER: Ex Machina

-Mad Max: Fury Road
-Star Wars: The Force Awakens
-It Follows
-The Hateful Eight
-Turbo Kid

WINNER: It Follows

-George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
-Alex Garland - Ex Machina
-Christopher McQuarrie - Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
-Cary Joji Fukunaga - Beasts of No Nation
-Guillermo del Toro - Crimson Peak

WINNER: George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road

-The Last Witch Hunter
-Straight Outta Compton

WINNER: Straight Outta Compton

-Captain America: Civil War
-Hail, Caesar
-Kubo and the Two Strings
-The Witch
-X-Men: Apocalypse

WINNER: Captain America: Civil War

-Star Wars: The Force Awakens
-Mad Max: Fury Road
-It Follows
-Inside Out
-Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road

TOP 15:
15. Bone Tomahawk
14. Sicario
13. The Martian
12. Ex Machina
11. What We Do in the Shadows
10. The Good Dinosaur
9. The Final Girls
8. Beasts of No Nation
7. Crimson Peak
6. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation
5. Turbo Kid
4. It Follows
3. Inside Out
2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
1. Mad Max: Fury Road

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Top Video Games of 2015

Even though there are lots of great horror games coming out this year, there aren't a ton that truly give you the feeling of older survival horror games of the PS1/PS2 era. White Night gives you that feel in spades. This black and white noir tale is full of item hunts, fixed camera angles and tough resource management. I haven't finished the game yet, but I've really been enjoying soaking in the spooky style of this eerie tale.

This game might be what one would consider a 'walking simulator,' but that doesn't make it any less engrossing of an experience. The game features the enigmatic tale of a private investigator trying to find a child who has been taken under mysterious circumstances. While not explicitly a horror game, there is a good amount of Lovecraftian influence in the story, and some of the situations are pretty chilling. The very end of the game recontextualizes everything that happened previously, and gives you a lot to chew on while the credits roll.

This title surprised me when it popped up on the free list on Playstation Plus. I kinda initially rolled my eyes at the concept of soccer with cars, but I booted up the game and had a blast. Everything about it is so finely crafted, and I love how precisely it controls. I haven't dove into it as much as I would like to, but I get in a few matches every once in a while and always have a fun time doing so. The developers seem dedicated to supplying fans with fresh content, which is always awesome to see when a game takes off like this.

Multiplayer shooters aren't exactly my thing, but the concept of Evolve was too good for me to miss. The asymmetrical setup is perfectly balanced, and all of the roles seem equally fun to play without being too similar. The only real downside to the game is that the community for it has all but evaporated, making it tough to find a match online.

Going into 2015, this was easily my most anticipated game of the year. I loved all the previous Arkham games (I even have a soft spot for Origins), and this truly was a reason for me to get into the new console generation. For whatever reason, I was a bit underwhelmed by the whole thing. Even though the gameplay didn't feel as fresh to me and the tank battles ground the game to a halt, the level of polish put into the graphics and the story was impressive enough to make allow this game to really grab me. There were definitely some twists and turns that they did a good job keeping out of the trailers that kept me engaged the whole way through.

Like most horror fans, I really enjoyed Amnesia: The Dark Descent. While I wasn't exactly gripped by the story, the atmosphere they created grabbed me and didn't let go. This time around, Frictional Games created a smart story to back up the atmosphere. While the monster encounters feel less engaging and more like a chore, they are worth going through to experience the excellent story, one that brings up well thought out questions about what exactly it means to be human.

Her Story is the only game on this list that I can legitimately say is unlike anything else I've ever played. You play as a detective going through interview videos related to a murder case. The only way you progress is by taking notes and refining search terms to figure out the details you are looking for to solve the case. There are so many brilliant twists and turns in the story, and the performance by the lead actress is absolutely stunning. The less you know about the game going in the better, but if you want to play a game that really makes you feel like a real-life detective, Her Story is for you.

I feel like this game was built with me in mind. I love the Heavy Rain-style gameplay, and the slasher movie theme is one that's so rarely explored in video games. There's so many surprising and tense moments scattered throughout Until Dawn, and it truly feels that you could lose your characters at any time during the narrative. I hope Supermassive gets a chance to create another game in this mold, because I would love to play more like this!

For my money, Fallout 4 was the biggest video game story of the year. Everyone suspected that it was in development, but there wasn't any confirmation until this year at E3. For them to go from announcement to release in under six months is basically unheard of in this age of constant delays, and it feels so nice for developers to treat us with respect rather than worry about announcing games to early to please shareholderes. As far as the game goes, it's more Fallout. Plenty of things have been added, but it feels like the same experience, which is pretty awesome. There's some really cool story concepts introduced, and the main narrative feels a bit more engaging than in New Vegas, the previous Fallout game.

I almost didn't buy Bloodborne. I had tried Demons Souls ages ago and didn't take to it, but I was so drawn in by the style of Bloodborne that I had to try it. I couldn't be happier with my decision. The game is a triumph of not only gameplay design but wonderful world building and subtle storytelling. There is nothing else in gaming that can compare to the rush of finally beating a boss you've been trying to knock out for a long time. I got deeply into the game shortly after the cancellation of Silent Hills, so I think the deep and interesting mythology has taken the place in my heart that was reserved for Silent Hill, which hasn't really seen a great game since the PS2 era. The Old Hunter DLC for Bloodborne gave me the perfect excuse to dive back in, and I'm finding the experience even more rewarding the second time around.

Honorable Mentions: Skyshine's Bedlam, Mad Max, The Order: 1866

Games I Did Not Play: The Witcher 3, Undertale, Darkest Dungeon, Sunless Sea, Undertale, Beginner's Guide, Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, Star Wars: Battlefront, Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Life is Strange, Dying Light

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens - Review

Star Wars has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Despite the fact that I don't distinctly remember the first time I saw the films, their presence was felt throughout my childhood. 

My first memories of using the internet were using it to look up details about the characters and worlds I saw in the franchise. The Star Wars films do a great job of giving enough information about the universe without slowing down to tell you everything. My young mind was curious about everything and couldn't get enough of the creative world of the films, and it left a lasting impression on me. 

When Disney announced their huge purchase of Lucasfilms and the Star Wars franchise, I was cautiously optimistic. The promise of new movies wasn't exactly enticing after fans were burned by the franchise, but the fact that George Lucas would not be involved made me feel better about it. The announcement of J.J. Abrams as director was a neutral announcement for me, as his Star Trek films didn't do a ton for me. For whatever reason, I had very little interest in this new film until about a month ago. Then the hype started to hit. I rewatched the old films and remembered everything I loved about them. 

I saw the film on Thursday at a 10 pm show with a fairly large crowd, the exact right environment to see this in. There were a couple people in costume, and everyone was all-in on the experience. Once that "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away..." appeared on the screen, I was whisked back to the world I loved. 

The best thing about The Force Awakens is that it really captures the feeling of the original trilogy. Without giving away too much, the plot of th film very much follows the same mold of the original film, a New Hope, but manage to move the characters of the old films forward in interesting ways. Once again, you're dropped in the middle of a conflict with only an opening crawl to give it context, and getting caught up in it all feels exhilarating. 

 While the original characters play a pivotal role in the plot, it's the new characters that manage to stand out the most. Finn, Rey and Poe all play their parts wonderfully, but the one that stood out to me the most was Kylo Ren. The design of the new villain was something that looked unique while still calling back to the iconic design of Darth Vader. Actor Adam Driver brought an interesting level of menace and emotion to the character. 

The new designs of the ships and characters did a great job of taking elements from the original trilogy while giving it a modern coat of paint. The designs of the iconic X-Wings and TIE Fighters have been given tweaks, and the ship-to-ship battles are more thrilling than they've been in decades. 

One advantage the new film has over the prequels is that they are blazing a new trail rather than filling in the gaps, and that provides for a more exciting experience. While it was easy to see where the film was going, there were many moments throughout that surprised me. That classic Star Wars score swelled at all the right moments, giving me goosebumps at times. Maybe after seeing the film again, I'll write a more thorough, spoiler-filled review because there area  lot of cool plot elements that I would love to discuss. 

Disney has invested a lot into bringing this franchise back into the forefront of moviegoers minds, and I have no doubt that they will deliver in the future. With how well Disney is doing at pumping out high-quality Marvel films without making them feel stale, I have faith that they will be able to do the same with Star Wars. 

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Creepy Cardboard: Dead of Winter

Zombies reached their saturation point years ago, and the board game world is no exception. It seems like there are tons of games that just slap on a zombie theme and call it a day. But every once in a while, a game takes the tired theme and uses it to perfect effect. One such game is Dead of Winter. 

The set up of the game is simple. You are part of a colony of survivors that are just trying to survive the combination of winter and the zombie apocalypse. There are several different scenario that you can play that change the overall object of the game. Each player controls a set of characters, and throughout the game you move around to various locations and search for items that your group needs for survival. 

In addition to the main objective (and trying to stay alive), each round has a series of objectives that you have to complete. You'll have to make sure to have enough food on hand by the end of the round to feed all of the people at your colony, make sure your place isn't overrun with junk and fight off the zombies that are amassing at each of the locations. Each round also has a crisis that everyone has to work together to deal with. For example, your group needs to put X number of food cards in the pile by the end of the round, or they get extra zombies invading. 

Here is where the game gets interesting. While it is cooperative, each player has a secret objective that is dealt to them at the beginning of the game. This could be anything from "end the game with the most characters" or "have four food cards in your hand at the end." There are also objectives that make the player a traitor, only able to win if they cause the rest of colony to lose. 

You have a mix of traitor and regular objective cards that you deal out at the beginning of the game so that there is a chance, but not a guarantee, that there will be a traitor. This fills every round with tension and mistrust. Player 1 hasn't been contributing medicine cards, does that mean they need it for their secret objectives or they are trying to tank the group? When you adds cards to help resolve the crisis, you do it face down, so that if you are a traitor you can put in the wrong card. That mechanic really adds to the tension of the game, but also enhances the theme perfectly. It's the end of the world, so why should you trust others?

The other interesting mechanic this game introduces is the Crossroads cards. At the beginning of each turn, the player to the right of the player whose turn it is draws a card. This card has a conditional on it, and if the condition is met, the card is read. The Crossroad cards each feature a choice that has various consequences for the individual or the group. Again, it's a great mechanic that really adds an extra element of tension and matches with the game's theme. The little scenarios are often well written and feature interesting choices. For example, if you travel to the school and are playing as the teacher character, you could trigger a Crossroads card that says that you come across some of your former students in the school and you have to decide between letting them live and taking some damage or burning down the school and losing that location. 

The game may require a bit of a more advanced group of players, as confusion about the rules can lead to someone inadvertently revealing that they are the traitor. Also, some beginning players may not feel comfortable coming up with strategies where they have to lie to other players. 

I absolutely love this game. To me, games that really play up the social aspect are a lot of fun. In this game, you're not only trying to figure out the best strategy to beat the game, but you're also trying to read the other players to see if they are a traitor. That moment when you are going through the crisis cards and think you have enough to successfully resolve it, only to find someone put in the wrong kind of card is really sublime. You immediately have to start pointing fingers and trying to call out the traitor. The game is a bit fiddly, but as long as you have someone that knows the rules well in order to keep the group on track, you'll have a blast.  

Friday, October 23, 2015

Crimson Peak Review

In my opinion, there's no better way to get ready for Halloween than another horror film from Guillermo del Toro. Longtime readers may know that he's easily one of my favorite all-time filmmakers, so anytime he's got a new movie in theaters, I'm there, opening weekend. His movies generally fall into one of two categories: kick-ass action movies (Pacific Rim, Hellboy series) or creepy melodramas with a supernatural backdrop (Pan's Labyrinth, Devil's Backbone). No matter which type of del Toro movie you get, you can always bet it will be a gorgeous film filled with a painstaking amount of detail.

Crimson Peak definitely falls into the later category. Del Toro is very vocal about how this movie is a gothic romance set in a haunted house rather than a haunted house scarefest. The main character even goes as far as to say that the story she's writing is a story with ghosts, rather than a ghost story. The movie is about Edith Cushing, an aspiring writer who falls for Thomas Sharpe, an Englishman who is looking for funds to help harvest the resources on his family estate. Edith eventually moves back to England with Thomas and lives with him and his sister Lucille in their decaying manor. It doesn't take long before the manor's ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, complicate life for the characters.

While it takes a bit longer than expected to make it to the manner, it's worth the wait. Allerdale Hall is a once beautiful mansion that has fallen into disrepair. A hole in the roof allows leaves to slowly fall in the foyer. Red clay seeps up from the foundation, bleeding from the floor. Everything in it look absolutely authentic while still being lavish. Allerdale Hall really becomes a character in the story, one that has different effects on each of the characters.

The beauty of the location is only one portion of the amazing visuals of this film. You always know you're in for a visual treat when you watch a Guillermo del Toro movie, but this one is marvelous. Every detail is perfect, and you could print out almost any frame of the film and hang it on your wall. Despite being CG, the ghosts in the film are quite horrifically rendered, if underutilized in the film.

The plot, while well-realized, is very particularly surprising. There are mysteries in the film, but they all have relatively predictable outcomes. This isn't to say the film is poorly-written, but if you're looking for a ghost story that will have you guessing until the end, this is not it. There are a couple moments of shocking violence that did surprise me, but most of the plot goes how you would expect it to from the beginning. Despite predictability, there are some really wonderful moments in the film. One that jumps to mind immediately is a beautiful dance scene in the beginning where Thomas demonstrates the European Waltz for a crowd of people, with Edith as his partner. The characters in the film are also very interesting and do a great job of dictating the plot, rather than the other way around.

It's crazy to think that the last movie del Toro did before this one was Pacific Rim, as the two movies couldn't be any more different. The only think that remains constant is sharp, memorable characters along with an unparalleled attention to detail. I feel bad that the marketing made it look like a super scary horror film, because I think that's part of the reason that the critical reception for this one has been luke warm. I found the film absolutely wonderful. Be sure to check it out on the big screen, as the visuals are really worth seeing in the biggest format possible. 

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Creepy Cardboard: Gloom

I really like board games because they provide a more shared experience than video games. Video games are mostly solitary experiences, and even the multiplayer is now mostly done over the internet rather than sitting next to each other. One of the most fun type of games that can create a sense of camaraderie is storytelling games. There are still ways to win and lose, but the focus is less on the mechanics and more on working with other people to create a fun narrative.

One example of this genre is the card game Gloom, a favorite in our game group. In Gloom, each player has a family of creepy stereotypes, from the evil circus troupe to murderous aristocrats. Players have their five family member cards laid out in front of them and a hand of event cards. The goal of the game is to make your family as depressed as possible, then kill them off one by one. Event cards can come in positive and negative variety, and can be played on any family member. Negative events are things like "Perturbed by Poltergeists" and "Driven to Drink," while positive events can be things like "Found Fame at the Feast" and "Was Wonderfully Wed." The game ends when one player kills off their whole family; at that moment, the points are tallied, and whoever has the most negative score is declared the winner. The cards are transparent, except for their point value and flavor text, so when you play one on top of the other, it may block some previous points on that character, which plays into the strategy of the game.

While part of the fun of the game is really screwing with people by playing tons of positive points to block out their negative ones, the real draw of the game is the fun storytelling aspect. Since each of the cards are actual events, you work with everyone to create a narrative of the lives of these characters. How did Butterfield, the lurking butler, go from being mocked by midgets to finding love on the lake, only to be burnt by the mob? That's all up to you and your group of friends. While not everyone is in the mood for this all the time, it's probably something  that you can bring out after a few games where people want something a little lighter on gameplay and more heavy on social interaction. I've played several games where we all went a bit overboard trying to match our storytelling to the macabre, alliteration-focused card text, providing hilarious results.

This type of game isn't everyone's cup of tea, but it's a great introduction into storytelling games, as it has a more concrete mechanic than something like Once Upon a Time. There are a myriad of expansions that either add new gameplay, like Unfortunate Expeditions and Unexpected Guests, or new themes, like Fairy Tales or Cthulu, so if your gaming group is into this, there's tons more options to give this game a long shelf life.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Creepy Cardboard: Betrayal at House on the Hill

Since I'm a big Halloween guy, I thought I'd try to do some themed posts this month focusing on horror. I've been meaning to start writing about board gaming, a hobby that I've gotten into deeply over the past few years, so I figured this was a perfect time to jump in by writing about some of my favorite horror-themed board games.

One of the first board games that got me back into the hobby was Betrayal at House on the Hill. I remember seeing it on Wil Wheaton's Tabletop web series when I was just starting to get interested in board gaming, and everything about it immediately grabbed my attention. Betrayal can best be described as a 'haunted house simulator.' You play as a group of characters, ranging from an old professor to a high school jock, who all stumble upon and explore a haunted house. But don't get too comfortable, because one of the players is secretly a traitor that brought the others there for nefarious purposes.

The game is divided into two sections. In the first part, all the characters wonder around the haunted house trying to find items and attempting to survive creepy happenings. You are allowed to move a certain number of spaces based on your character's speed stat. When you travel through a doorway, you draw a new tile to find out what room is on the other side. This really randomizes the house, making each time unique. The room tiles have one of three logos on them: items, events and omens. When you go into an item room, you are allowed to draw an item card that can benefit your character in several different ways. It could be anything from a gun that helps your attack or a cursed set of dice that have different effects when you roll them. Event rooms make you draw from the event deck, where you get to read a little mini story that tests your character in some way, always involving a dice check against one of your stats. For example, you could see a ghostly figure walk through the room and disappear through a wall. You will then have to roll a sanity check, and the result of your roll will determine what this does to your character. The final deck is full of omen cards. This are basically more powerful items or companions for your character, but when you get one, you have to make a 'haunt roll.' You'll roll six dice, and the total of your roll must be higher than the total number of omen cards that have been drawn. If you fail the roll, the second phase begins.

During the second section, you find out that one of the characters is a traitor. You look at a table, and based on the room you are in and the omen you received when you failed the haunt roll, you will decide who the traitor is and what scenario you are playing. The most recent edition of the game includes at total of 50 haunts, all with different stories and objectives.  The person designated as the traitor will take a separate rule book from those who remain. Each team will take a look at the story for the haunt as well as their set up and objectives for the scenario. For example, the traitor may turn into a werewolf. His or her objective would be to either kill or transform all the survivors. This can sometimes introduce other monster characters controlled by the traitor or a countdown timer that makes things more difficult for the survivors as time goes on. There are even scenarios that have a hidden traitor or are every man for himself.

As far as gameplay matching theme, Betrayal is unmatched. Everything about the way things play out in the game perfectly matches the idea of wandering around a haunted house. If there's one criticism of the game, it's that the first part of the game feels a bit aimless, especially if you play the game a few times in one night. There are enough event cards to keep this section varied, but when new people ask me what exactly you're supposed to be doing at the start, all I can really say is 'walk around and try to find items until the haunt starts,' which doesn't exactly feel like a satisfying answer when it's all random.

When the haunt begins, that's when the game truly starts to shine. Each scenario has a great little intro for each team that puts you into the mood for the adventure. Even though many of the scenarios often boil down to making your way to a certain room and succeeding a certain number of dice checks, every haunt is unique. There are 50 haunts included in the game, and you rarely end up with the same one twice. We have played approximately half of them since getting the game. Here are a couple of my favorite:

-Dance of Death: A story that starts as a co-op where an evil fiddler attempts to enchant everyone drawing them with his evil tune. If you succumb to the fiddler, you switch sides and work against the groups attempts to stop him.

-The Guillotines: Everyone wakes up with guillotine collars around their necks in a Saw-esque scenario. One of the people is secretly the one that set up all the traps, and the everyone wanders around the house searching for the keys to unlock the collars. Each round, you have to make dice rolls to see if your collar goes off.

-Airborne: A gigantic bird picks up the house with the attention of bringing you to its nest. There are parachutes in the house, but not enough for everyone, and it's every person for his or herself!

The mechanics of this game are not what you play for. I'm not saying that the gameplay is no good (it's actually really fun), but the real strength of this game is the stories that come out of playing. With Guillotines, I taunted my friend into revealing that he was a traitor right at the start of the haunt, and it made for a crazy time. Part of what makes board gaming fun is that very immediate communal experience, and creating memories the way this game does is really what all games should strive to do. If you have a group of friends that all like to fully commit themselves to the theme, you can't go wrong.