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Kingdom Hearts III: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

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Like many people, I’d waited almost thirteen years to play Kingdom Hearts 3.

Technically, you could say that I’ve been waiting since 2012, when I beat Dream Drop Distance. But thirteen sounds more impressive, and it’s been that long since Kingdom Hearts 2 came out in Japan. And ever since then, we’ve all hoped to hear Square-Enix announce development on Part 3. Instead, we got hit with a number of smaller titles on different consoles. All have proven to be important to the story to varying degrees and I enjoyed playing all of them. (Well, except Coded. Sorry, Coded.)

But now, here we are. I can say that I beat Kingdom Hearts 3 at long last. Many have asked, and many more have their own opinions regarding this one question: was it worth the wait?

My answer: yes and no.

Kingdom Hearts 3 was an emotional rollercoaster for me, a lot of ups and downs. When it’s good, it’s phenomenal. It surpassed some of my wildest hopes and dreams. But when it’s bad…yikes. It’s worse than I could have imagined. I’m not even really trying to be dramatic here. That’s really how I felt as I played this game.

Let’s start with the high points.

Sora, Donald, and Goofy are back! These characters are the best that they’ve ever been. Their friendship is so strong in every scene, whether they’re teasing each other, reminiscing about past adventures, or having each other’s backs in battle. Donald and Goofy love Sora and they’re prepared to go anywhere with him to the bitter end. And while Sora is the hero of the story, his two companions got to have plenty of “awesome” moments all on their own. That was a pleasant surprise. 

The Disney worlds look, sound, and feel fantastic. They’re enormous in size compared to previous games and they’re all beautiful. Each location presents a unique environment to explore, from the lush forests in Tangled to the wide, open ocean from Pirates of the Caribbean.  The attention to detail is just wonderful and I keep finding new things to appreciate.

And best of all: the game has NPCs! Sora no longer runs through empty streets! You can actually see people in the cities and towns!

Unfortunately, while I adore all of Yoko Shimomura’s work in the Kingdom Hearts series, I have to admit that I came away with mixed feelings about the soundtrack this time. Kingdom Hearts 3 recycles and remixes a lot of music from the previous games, when I would have liked to have heard more new tracks.

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But I can’t complain too much because both the new and old music sound just as good as they always have. And I was extremely impressed by the new field and battle arrangements for each world. They each reflect the style of the scores from the original Disney films. If I hadn’t known better, I would have sworn that Alan Menken composed the music for Corona.

Now, you’ve probably heard that Kingdom Hearts 3 is too easy. Speaking as someone who’s not a very skilled gamer, I can confirm that these fans are correct. Most of the game is a breeze, even on the hardest difficulty level. Usually, I need to put in some level grinding at various points in a Kingdom Hearts game. Not this time.

Why is it so easy this time around? I suspect that a lot of it has to do with the number of options at your disposal when you’re fighting. As you attack with your Keyblade, you fill up a gauge that allows your Keyblade to change form and unleash more powerful attacks. Then, after a certain period of time spent fighting, you can trigger a joint attack with one of your party members, i.e. throwing Mike Wazowski at the enemy like a bowling ball. You also acquire Links, which are characters you can summon into battle using magic, i.e. Ariel and Wreck-It Ralph.

But wait- there’s more! On top of everything else, attacking certain enemies will trigger a type of attack called Attraction Flow. These attacks are designed to mimic popular rides at the Disney theme parks: a swinging pirate ship, the spinning tea cups, Prince Charming’s Carousel, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, etc. They are a lot of fun to unleash…the first couple of times. And they can be great for crowd control. But after a while, I got tired of using them.

And wait- there’s more! If you’re low on health, you might trigger an attack called Rage Form. Similar to Anti-Form, this turns Sora into a humanoid Heartless with faster, powerful attacks. His Rage attacks do significant damage at the cost of his own health.

Add it all up, and you can see why it’s not so easy to die in this game. I’d come close, only to trigger a slew of special attacks that allowed Sora to stay alive until the fight ended. Although you do not have to use any of these commands, you can’t disable them either, so they will keep popping up as you play.

Last of all, Kingdom Hearts 3 adds a very welcome option when you do fail at a battle or similar objective: “Prepare and Retry.” This allows you to access the menu before restarting a boss fight, so you can restock items you might’ve forgotten to equip, change your abilities or customize your spells differently. I hope that’s an option that’s here to stay for future Kingdom Hearts games.

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So, what didn’t I like about this game, besides the difficulty?  On paper, it doesn’t look like much.  However, the story has some problems and some of them bothered me so much that they almost tainted my feelings about the whole experience.

Granted, there’s actually a lot to like about the story of Kingdom Hearts III. The Disney characters get so many opportunities to shine. There’s a nice balance between worlds that strictly follow the plot of the movie and worlds that follow an original story that ties into the central conflict between Sora and Organization XIII. The Organization members have actual conversations with one another about their personal goals, their motivations, and their opinions of one another. One member gets a whole subplot that I won’t spoil, but it’s fantastic.

But, I reiterate: when this game goes bad, it goes bad. The biggest problem lies in the treatment of the female characters. It’s not a new problem for Kingdom Hearts, given that the games introduced us to dozens of engaging male characters and a handful of ladies. Yet many fans hoped that this would get rectified, especially for poor Kairi- the girl who is supposed to be one of Sora’s two best friends, but constantly gets pushed aside in favor of giving Riku more character development.

Kairi gets a couple of good moments in this game, but by and large, what Tetsuya Nomura decided to do with her was abysmal. I won’t spoil anything, but something important happens to her that left me feeling shocked, disgusted, and angry.  It’s not so much that I want Kairi to become a Strong Female Character who fights with a sword and doesn’t need a man in her life.  I just want Nomura to write her the way that he writes the male cast: as a person with her own goals and character growth, not an accessory to Sora.

To a lesser extent, there are twists in the game that seem to exist just for the sake of confusing/shocking us and getting the fans talking, not because they contribute to the story or characters. I know that some of this comes down to personal preference, and that if I want to continue with this series, I need to accept that this is how Tetsuya Nomura likes to tell stories. Still, I wish he’d stop pulling things like, “THIS character is secretly connected to THIS thing or person ALL ALONG!” When he just lets the characters play off of each other, Kingdom Hearts III shines. When he starts to go into the Lore, that’s when I begin to tune out.

I recommend Kingdom Hearts III to people who have stuck with this series for all of its installments. I would even recommend it to people who have never played a Kingdom Hearts game before. If you are willing to embrace the odd story and you think running around beautifully recreated Disney worlds sounds appealing, you should have a great time.

However, I do not recommend this game to anyone who has only played Kingdom Hearts and Kingdom Hearts II. Weird as it sounds, I think you’ll have a harder time enjoying it than people who have never picked up a Kingdom Hearts game in their lives.

Why? Because you know just enough about the world and its characters to find certain ret-cons and new characters/information all the more confusing. The game doesn’t offer a clear, concise explanation for why some characters have returned from the dead, like Axel. Whereas, if you’ve never played one of the games before, you don’t know that they’re supposed to be dead.

Overall, I rate Kingdom Hearts 3 a 7/10. It’s not a perfect experience. The treatment of Kairi and certain parts of the ending left a bitter taste in my mouth. Yet the game also provided a lot of joy and I don’t want to throw that away. Sora, Donald, and Goofy: thanks for the ride. I look forward to playing future installments.

Rurouni Kenshin: An Anime Review

rk3All anime gives the viewer different reasons to watch. Rurouni Kenshin is no different. It is an anime that shows that everyone can make a fresh start, no matter what they are battling.

Rurouni Kenshin started off in Shonen Jump magazines in 1994. The stories were created by and illustrated by Nobuhiro Watsuki. These stories then transitioned into a television series starting in 1996. The series closely follows the manga, even the American version, for the first two seasons. The show ran for three seasons. It has also had different variations created, even live action theater productions.

During the Meiji era in Japan there is a wandering man with a sword named Kenshin. He stumbles upon a struggling martial arts school.Through a series of events Kenshin becomes entwined with the school and the master of it. Kenshin finds a place not only to live but also to come to terms with his past. He finds people to protect and, maybe even, a future. His past actions do have consequences but now he doesn’t have to face them alone.

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The music of Rurouni Kenshin is an important part of the storytelling process. The score perfectly sets the mood for different scenes. It also gives the viewer insight into the characters.

Speaking of the characters they all have great designs. Everyone looks a little different. The characters all dress within the parameters of the historical confines of the show while being unique. The designs also help the viewer remember the time period in which the story takes place. The settings and the art style are also lovely. All of these elements come together to bring the viewer an anime that not only a great story but that is also visually stimulating. Rurouni Kenshin is a fantastic anime because everything comes together in such a seamless way to bring the story to life.  

I have always enjoyed this show. It was one more anime that my friends and I rushed home to watch. I would highly recommend it. The show is great for people new to anime or someone who just hasn’t seen this particular title yet. It has a great message and a well developed story.

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ALWAYS KEEP SPARKLING!

Review: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel

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The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel had me within the first scene. Not many shows can hook a viewer within seconds. However with The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel the humor and heart of the story comes forth in those first few seconds.

Mariam Maisel has it all. She has two children, a apartment with an elevator man, loving parents, a husband whom she adores and a sharp wit. She also has a tiny waist and can make an amazing brisket. Nothing could ever go wrong to someone so blessed. Something does go wrong though and it sets off a chain of events of things going wrong.

It is only when everything falls apart is Mariam able to find out something important about herself. That wit might be able to be molded into something more. She is able to mold herself into something different. By falling apart Mariam sees new ways to try to fit the pieces back together. In the process the audience gets to meet her very relatable, yet hilarious, family. The audience journeys with Mariam armed with humor and a can do attitude as her world grows.   

The sets for The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel are, well, marvelous. The elaborate apartments, the dark clubs and everything in between set the tone for each scene. The costumes tell the viewer so much. The outfits of each character let you know their social background. They also help the viewer become immersed in the story and the time period. Each character’s look and design is so unique. 

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The soundtrack of the show is also wonderful. The music frames very scene perfectly. The soundtrack is also comprised of fun and danceable music. While The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel is a treat to watch. It is also wonderful to listen to.   

I really enjoy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. It is a funny show that is also full of heart. The characters in the cast move the story along with more than just humor. Their highs and lows are a roller coaster ride that the viewer never wants to get off of. The storyline is full of twists and fun. It is empowering to watch these characters find themselves.

I would highly recommend The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel if only for the laughs alone.

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ALWAYS KEEP SPARKLING!  

 

Review: Escaflowne

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Escaflowne is one of the most gorgeous animes I have had the pleasure of watching. The series also has an interesting story and cast of characters. This is probably why fans enjoy Escaflowne so immensely.

The Vision of Escaflowne, it’s original title, first aired in both Japan and America in 1996. The series has had Mandy different directors for various episodes. The series was originally released by Sunrise.  Escaflowne was then licensed by Bandai Entertainment for release in other regions. Currently Escaflowne is licensed by Funimation.

Hitomi is an ordinary high school student. She runs track, has friends and other interests. Though, in reality, Hitomi isn’t quite as ordinary as it would seem. She has psychic abilities. After having a vision of a battle she is transported to a magical land called Gaea. There is a war raging and Hitomi maybe able to help.

The soundtrack of Escaflowne is lovely. It helps set the mood for the story being told throughout the series. It also gives the viewer clues about different characters and situations. The soundtrack is also fantastic to listen to on its own.

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The setting and character designs are really fantastic. The industrial, pastoral and modern settings are well animated as well as diverse. Each character has a different design. The costumes are a real treat to view throughout the length of the story. The battle scenes are also just really fantastic. Escaflowne treads the line between what most animes looked like in the mid-nineties and having a very distinct difference in animation. It really is a great anime to watch.

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It is safe to say that I really enjoy Escaflowne. The series is a total package for any anime fans. Great soundtrack. Interesting story. Fascinating characters with a little bit of romance. It was an anime that I would rush to watch on television. It was also a favorite in my group of friends, the series has clearly inspired our styles of art and storytelling through the years.

I would really encourage giving Escaflowne a try if you haven’t seen it yet. There is also an interesting, and slightly more grim, movie version that came out in 2000. 

ALWAYS KEEP SPARKLING!

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell

 

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I like weird movies. I like magic, dragons, faeries, and mysteries. I also enjoy period pieces and anything that can suck me in and not let go. You will find much of this in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on Netflix. I was just searching for anything random to watch and stumbled upon this image of a man in old clothing and a white wig. Well, let’s see what kind of period piece is this? A magical one! 

Bertie Carvel plays Jonathan Strange and does a superb job portraying a young man who wants nothing more in life than to love his wife, Arabella, and read and practice magic. He has such a love for it that he will do anything to keep learning more, until he realizes that may lose him what he holds most dear. Charlotte Riley is Arabella and she does a wonderful job trying to keep her husband with her and on the path she feels is right. All the while, Mr. Norrell (Eddie Marsan) is in the background silently messing everything up. 

Eddie is amazing at being this introverted magician who wants all the knowledge to himself while simultaneously wanting magic in England. He hoards books full of spells and stories of how magic was once there and is vehemently afraid of what would happen if he doesn’t have his books. He does everything in his power to make sure the books are safe with him and that magic is only what he thinks it should be. Gloriously ignoring what it used to be and what it could be again. That is, of course, til the end. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We foray through history into war scenes and zombies raised from the dead. We go to lavish parties and political meetings and all the while I’m thinking, wouldn’t it be great if magic was real and we got to use it like this? It’s more a practical approach to magic here. No flying on broomsticks or presenting kings with riches. It’s helping the military stay alive, healing the sick, and eventually trying to stay alive.  It’s entirely about magic coming back to England and making it better. 

My favorite part of this show is Lady Pole, The Gentleman and his world of Lost Hope. The Gentleman is played rather majestically by Marc Warren and Lady Pole by Alice Englert. I absolutely loved Alice in Beautiful Creatures and could not figure out why I loved her so much in this show until I read her IMDB profile. She is just an actress that can really get into character. Thanks to Mr. Norrell, Lady Pole lives half in real life and half in Lost Hope with The Gentleman and she really begins to lose her mind, but who could blame her. 

Lost Hope is through the King’s Roads on the other side of the mirror, or the rain. It is a fantastically dreary place where the ball never ends and everyone is at the mercy of The Gentleman. The Gentleman himself is a mysterious faerie who is only out to help himself. In the end, the only thing that can break him is the Nameless Slave, for not even The Raven King cares to get rid of him. 

Another person to watch for in this show is Vinculus, played by Paul Kaye. He may seem to be just a crazy homeless man, but really listen to the things he says and it all can become clear. Don’t worry, if it doesn’t, the end of the season will be sure to clue you in. This show was based on a book of the same name by Susanna Clarke in 2006. Seeing as it only took until 2015 for it to have a series air, one would have hoped she would have written a sequel by now. Alas, no such luck and therefore no season 2 to this marvelous show. No matter, I still recommend you watch this when you have some free time as it will draw you into a magical world of love, war, and friendship. 

Review: Ghost of Thornton Hall

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Fire so red, night so black. Dear sweet Charlotte, please come back…

If you like point-and-click adventure games and/or enjoyed reading the Nancy Drew books growing up, you owe it to yourself to check out Her Interactive’s Nancy Drew series. All of the games are playable on Windows, and everything from Trail of the Twister onwards can be played on Macs as well. There are even step-by-step guides on Her Interactive’s website about how to play the older games on updated Windows systems and how to play them on your Mac with the Wineskin emulator- a nice gesture on their part.

Each game follows more or less the same route: Nancy arrives at a new location, gets the initial scoop on the mystery, and starts questioning the suspects (usually 3-5 people). Sometimes everything starts out calm, and then after completing a task or two, the theft/murder/kidnapping/whatever takes place. After that, you follow the trail of clues, continue questioning suspects, and solve lots and lots of puzzles to crack the case.

The game that I recently finished, Ghost of Thornton Hall, begins with Nancy receiving a phone call from a paranormal investigator in the middle of the night. A woman named Jessalyn Thornton disappeared during her bachelorette party. It appears to be a kidnapping, but some believe that the culprit is a family ghost, Charlotte.

Charlotte died in a fire under mysterious circumstances, so Nancy finds herself solving two cases: who kidnapped Jessalyn, and what’s the story behind Charlotte? Was her death truly an accident? Is her ghost really haunting the family mansion? And what does this past tragedy have to do with Jessalyn?

Growing up, I loved playing the Nancy Drew series, but as I got older, I began to lose interest. I’m not sure if there was an actual drop in quality or a change in tastes, but Ghost of Thornton Hall felt like a return to form. In fact, it was even better than some of the classics that I’d loved to play.

Other games in the series would have a great premise, but then wouldn’t completely follow through with it. For example, as much as I loved Ghost Dogs of Moon Lake, you only encounter the ghost dogs once at the beginning of the game. When you venture out into the woods at night and hear the howling, it’s terrifying- at first. But after a while, you realize that the ghost dogs aren’t going to pop up, and that takes out a chunk of the tension.

In Thornton Hall, Charlotte’s ghost does pop up throughout the game, and you never know when she’ll show herself. Other times, you’ll hear eerie singing, or something will scuttle across the floor, or a statue will turn its head. The whole game takes place at night and the music is beautiful, but grim. Combine all of these elements, and you get a genuinely creepy game.

The suspects all have intriguing backstories and memorable personalities. I was constantly guessing who might be the culprit. Sometimes it felt like all of them could have done it, and other times it didn’t feel like any of them could have done it. I found the reveal satisfying. And while the culprit is always the same, this Nancy Drew is unique in that it has three possible endings.

It’s hard to gauge the fun and difficulty of the puzzles, as that’s going to depend on the person playing. The longer I game, the more I’ve come to realize that everyone’s brain works differently, and what seems so easy for one person is next to impossible to solve for another. I did find the final puzzle very frustrating, due to the fact that it was just a more challenging version of one that I’d already completed. But if you need help figuring out what to do, you can consult the Task List that Nancy keeps with her. In Amateur Detective mode, you can also select hints that tell you how to complete the puzzles.

I’m so glad that I played Ghost of Thornton Hall. It had the same magic as the classic Nancy Drew titles and then some. Now I want to check out some of the other recent titles that I missed!

Review: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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I have a confession to make. I devour a good love story. However, I’m not talking about a love story the way you think I am. Sure The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society ends in a love story and that makes you think the whole point of the movie was for Juliet to fall in love, but that isn’t it at all. This is a love story of an island, of a community, of family and books. This is the type of feel good movie that you want to share with people and I’m here to share it with you. 

Juliet is played by Lily James, who I am a big fan of, and she does a fantastic job portraying a young writer trying to find herself after World War 2. She’s lost parts of herself and is trying to live a life she thought she should. Find the handsome husband, write stories about love and women, and live a comfortable life. Then she receives a letter from Dawsey, played by Michiel Huisman, that throws everything out of whack. She decides to visit him and his society. In fact, she just doesn’t seem to be able to keep herself from leaving as quick as possible.  

This leads to a plot full of intrigue, books, and a family made on the island. She meets remarkable people on Guernsey. Some turn out to become family, others show how war can make someone hard and unreasonable. She chooses to see the bright side of things and do everything she can to help these new friends. I really don’t like giving away everything in a review because I want you to experience it for yourself, so let’s just say that, through flashbacks of the war, she learns a lot about these people and how they came to be who they are.  

Through this learning of how the war affected this island and its inhabitants, she starts to see how she wants her life to be. She realizes what is important in life and what she was just doing because she didn’t know what else to do. In the end, it is the love of books and the love of people that brings them all together and helps her to figure out what she ultimately wants out of her life. I like period pieces and I find this one to be very good. I would recommend it to anyone that loves a good story. That has a notion to read a different sort of love story and to want to share it with someone they love afterwards.