The Barbarian Bard

Tales and Musings by Michael A. Espinoza

Archive for the category “Review”

Testing My Might Against the Gate of Disability

A lot of you may be wondering why, of all things, I love Mortal Kombat so much. An equally large number of you probably wish there was a Chrome extension that blocked every post by me containing the terms Mortal Kombat, Carly Rae Jepsen, or heavy metal. No luck for y’all, but I’m happy to address the former question.

Why, you might ask, would an aspiring writer and a fan of complex, compelling plotlines in books, films, and games, be drawn to the maelstrom of gore that is Mortal Kombat? That question has many answers. First is that I must admit, my eyesight is getting worse. Not abruptly so, but I realize it the more I game, and the less I’m able to do so. RPGs and other games with complex menus, maps, and the like, become less and less feasible for me as years go by. I return to games I adored in my childhood, and find myself failing at things that my younger self would have never missed. I can’t describe how unexpectedly painful it is for me to miss a basic jump sequence in Spyro the Dragon, when I used to move over every world in that game with total precision. I know it’s just a game, but the loss of ability it portends is something I struggle with.

Enter, Mortal Kombat. It is not a simple game, and it is far from an easy game, but it is a sonically rich game. The sounds of feet scuffing ground, of deflected punches, and of blades on flesh, all in stereo, all trackable by my keen sense of hearing. In MK, I have found a place where my lack of sight does not too horribly disadvantage me. I’d likely do better against my sighted friends if I could see, but the fact that I can still handle a fight and come away with dignity in tact is heartening in a way I can’t describe. It makes me feel like gaming isn’t closed off to me. This isn’t Skyrim, where my extensive knowledge of lore and gameplay mechanics all amounts to aimless wandering because I can’t see a quest marker. Nor is it Tomb Raider, where my love of the plot simply cannot keep Lara from plummeting to her bloody demise. This is a game where, if I concentrate with all my might, I can keep up with my sighted peers. I may not always come out on top, but I never come away disgraced.

People talk about GamerGate, the frustratingly named-stop adding “gate” to every controversy and then coming up with an explanation later-conspiracy whereby male gamers actively strive to lock women out of the world of gaming. I do not doubt this malevolent conspiracy, nor am I targeted by it, being a male gamer myself. But there is a gate that effects me all the same. Not one maliciously erected, nor one held in place by the entirety of a single gender, but one inadvertently constructed by an industry that is, by design, for the sighted. Because visuals are an undeniable component to video gaming, I cannot expect this gate to be broken or surmounted en masse. Audio games exist, but they are ill-funded, and even more hit or miss than indie video games. I may not suffer from a gatekeeping conspiracy, but there is a wall between me and a subculture I love; a wall that grows higher as years go by. So, when I find a game like Mortal Kombat, that lets me struggle against that gate, that allows me to jam my foot in the door and refuse to be shut out, I cannot help but be overwhelmed and enraptured by the chance it offers me to throw all my might against the barrier that would otherwise cut me off from a world that I’ve embraced since childhood.

As for the lore of the Mortal Kombat world, it is true that you won’t find novels of expanded content, or prolific in-game text crawls that lay out a Tolkien-esque story of mind altering magnitude. However, that is not the type of game Mortal Kombat is, and such a lore system would feel tacked on, at best. That said, the series is possessed of a surprisingly rich narrative, brought to life by a diverse cast of characters with unique traits far beyond their move sets. And the openness of the lore is in fact one of the game’s greatest strengths. How will the fates of the various realms be decided? Will balance ever be attainable so long as they remain autonomous? On a more individual level: will Kung Jin’s sexuality be accepted by his teammates and his native culture? And what of the relationship between Takeda and Jacqui? There are numerous branches of interpersonal relationships and grand cosmic struggles to unravel, and I cannot fully express how joyous an occasion it is to find such a game, and to know I can actively participate in its community, and in the gameplay itself.

If you enjoyed this post, you might consider subscribing to my YouTube channel, where you will find videos of my experiences with video games and other such exciting things. You can also purchase my eBook Blades of Cairndale, for your reading pleasure.

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Review: Tinker Bell and the Legend of the NeverBeast

Let me start this review by saying that I am a grown man who typically enjoys action and horror films, alongside heavy metal music. That said, I was absolutely captivated by this offering from Disney. So, when I popped online to see others’ opinions on the film, I was dismayed to see how many folks panned this film as being a “downer,” or according to one reviewer, “dark and twisted.” So, from the objective standpoint of one who is usually not into this sort of thing, let me try and dispell some of the confusion and concern for potential viewers, be they children, parents watching with children, or just odd adults like myself.

THE PLOT:

Spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned. In this film, the animal-talent fairy named Fawn encounters a strange and injured creature in the forest. Because of her reputation for bringing dangerous creatures into Pixie Hollow, due to her empathetic nature, Fawn resolves to keep this large, mysterious, and intimidating beast hidden from the Scout fairies, who are already unhappy with Fawn’s prior antics involving a hawk. The beast, whom Fawn names Gruff, has a tendency to gather and stack rocks, thus shaping large towers of stone. Fawn helps in this activity, partially for fun, and partially to satiate her curiosity about Gruff’s intentions once his towers are done.

Meanwhile, Nyx, the stern leader of the Scout fairies, begins combing through fairy lore for references to Gruff, whom she only knows as the menacing shape she’s seen glimpses of in the wilderness. At last, she finds that this creature is known as the NeverBeast, who awakens every thousand years to call down a massive storm with his great stone towers, and thus destroy Pixie Hollow. What ensues is a tumultuous, catastrophic sequence of events wherein even Fawn begins to doubt Gruff’s gentle nature, when indeed the storm does arrive as foretold, and Gruff takes on a horned and winged form. But, in the end, it is revealed that Gruff is not the cause of the storm. In fact, he awakens every thousand years to absorb the energy of the storm, and thus keep Pixie Hollow safe. In a daring flight, he and Fawn manage to halt the storm, but Fawn is left near death, and Gruff revives her with stored up electrical energy from his body, restarting her heart. It is only then, once the fairies have come to know and love Gruff, that they realize he is utterly exhausted and must now go back into hibernation until the next storm comes, which will be in another thousand years. They will never see him awake again; by the time he awakens, they will all be dead. Each fairy, including the Scouts, thanks Gruff for his service, and Fawn bids her friend a last, tearful goodnight.

THE POINT:

The meaning of this film is multifaceted, and surprisingly poignant for a movie whose suggested viewing age is 4 years-old. First and foremost is the classic, but always welcome, moral that one should never judge a person’s heart based on their appearance. The large and intimidating Gruff is a kind soul, who puts himself in harm’s way to protect even those fairies that fear him. Meanwhile, Nyx the Scout Captain seems like a hard-headed bully, but it is imperative to remember that she is doing her job in the way she truly believes is best. She is not a villain, nor is Gruff. There are no “evil” people here, just mixed priorities, miscommunication, and dangerous presumptions that set good people (or fairies, as the case may be) at odds, even though they all have good intentions.

A secondary, but no less powerful moral, is the notion of sacrifice and loss. This film will make young viewers, yet unfamiliar with loss, ask some serious questions. With Fawn’s near-death experience, and Gruff’s one thousand year-long hibernation, children will have a few curious inquiries about what it means that by the time Gruff awakens, all of the fairies he knew will be gone. There will be teary eyes and sniffles for many viewers, myself included. But the concepts that this film leads young viewers to consider are utterly worthwhile, and they’re packaged in a delightful, amusing story that will bring more smiles than tears, and that will definitely be on repeat in some households for quite a while yet.

BOTTOM LINE:

This film is not dark or scary. There is a definite tone-shift after the first fifteen minutes or so, wherein the plot goes from a lighthearted frolic to a meaningful conflict of wills, but that is nothing to fear. If you are willing to take the time to sit with your children, watch this film, and answer the serious questions it may spark, then Legend of the NeverBeast will become a family favorite in no time at all!

Resident Evil: A little Cheesy, A Lot Scary

Well, it’s the month of Halloween, and I’d be neglecting my duties as a writer if I didn’t post some horror-related something or other. So here are a few quick thoughts on that classic horror game that made my youth memorable: Resident Evil.

First, are the old games cheesy? Yes, of course they are! Some of history’s worst dialog has originated from RE1. “Master of Unlocking,” “You were almost a Jill sandwich,” “I hope this is not Chris’ blood,” and “don’t open that door,” are just a few lines that come to mind immediately. (Note: Barry Burton is responsible for 75% of those lines, yet he gets to live?! Life is unfair.) So, let’s not pretend that a good chunk of RE dialog isn’t utter nonsense, and can’t even be blamed on bad translation.

Are the RE games scary? Well, let’s go back 14 years and ask 9 year-old me, who is huddled in his cousin’s darkened room with a bed pressed against the door because the power just went out during a play-through of RE2. His answer would be an emphatic yes. Unless, of course, he’d been playing RE4 or anything after it. Luckily, those games didn’t exist yet, so 9 year-old me was free to enjoy pure, unadulterated horror.

What did RE1, 2, and 3 do right? Pacing. Pacing, pacing, pacing. And no, I don’t mean zombies shuffling back and forth, that would be silly. I mean the nerve-wracking, nail-biting suspense of knowing something was shuffling, or worse, crawling its way around that next corner, and you had only a few shots left after that awful run-in with those skinless hounds. You’re hurting, barely able to walk straight, and that unknown foe could be a slow, stupid zombie, or something far worse ready to grind its jaws on your juicy flesh. All you can do now, is wait… But wait, why not look around the corner? Because the games’ use of fixed camera angles, set at some very peculiar vantage points, were brilliant from a cinematography standpoint. You could step around that corner and maybe get a better view, or maybe it would be too late and you would have stumbled into the clutches of a waiting… something.

Where they went wrong? RE4 and onward. Tense horror was traded for jump-scares. Limited ammo was swapped out for high-speed heavy weapons. Even RE 1-3’s most fast-paced moments were still better paced as far as suspense is concerned. This would herald the rise of zombie-blasting games that began to turn horror’s most viscerally scary monsters into fun practice dummies. Zombie games are now more about how much damage you can do, how many kills you can wrack up, and how many supremely blastable monsters can be fit on screen at once. (And yes, I know Doom 1 and 2 did this years before RE4, but they weren’t equipped to do anything else, they had no choice.) Gone is the jittery anticipation of the early RE days, gone is the heart-stopping terror when the enemy is slowly revealed, and most of all, gone is the fear for your life. RE was initially called “survival horror” for a reason: charging into battle was dangerous and almost certainly deadly. The monsters really could win if given the chance, you weren’t always able to just mow them down. Did the early games employ a few jump-scares? Sure, but they were well placed and artful. Glass might shatter for no reason, then just when you think you’re safe… well, I won’t spoil it.

To me, horror is not about explosions, loud guns, and Milla Jovovich pulling off Matrix-style moves to kill ten zombies within five seconds. That’s what action is for, and I love action games/movies with a fiery passion, but I also love my horror. Crossing genres is not bad, and I would never try to insinuate that stagnation is superior to innovation. (The RE1 Remake was in every way superior to the original.) But there is a difference between changing the formula for artistic reasons and changing it because it’s easier to pull off the latter than the former. Jump-scares are simple enough to execute, so use them, but use them sparingly. Let the true horror arise from the silence of a cold, dim corridor, the telltale scuff of a footstep in a seemingly empty room, or the perpetually looming presence of death. That is where the fear can be found…

Silversword: Modern Interface, Classic Atmosphere

Recently, I acquired a new game for my iPad, a fantasy title called Silversword. Being almost totally blind, my selection of games on a touch-screen platform–more specifically, games compatible with Apple’s VoiceOver feature–is fairly limited. Having read (on AppleVis) that Silversword strives to be as accessible to blind gamers as possible, I was eager to drop the $3.99 needed to pick up this fantasy adventure.

From a gamer perspective, Silversword is old-school in a great way. “Classic” and “Modern” game modes let you set up character stats by either trusting to the luck of the dice or carefully distributing an allotment of points between their various stats. D&D fans will recognize both styles of character generation, and those of my mindset will appreciate the latter far more than the randomness of the former.

Obviously, I can’t say much about the graphics. A small window allows you to see what your party sees and move forward, backward, or rotate left/right. A text output points out anything noteworthy in the space you occupy, or describes any encounters with NPCs. On an accessibility note, movement is made easy by VoiceOver, which tells you whether your current direction is passable or blocked, and if blocked, it (usually) says by what. I can see how hearing “Move Forward (East), Passable) or “Move Forward (South), Blocked by Water” may get repetitive after the 100+ hours of gameplay the game purports to offer, but that’s the price to pay for VoiceOver compatibility. I’m happy to live with that.

If I had any complaint at all with this game, it would be with the relatively dull sound effects. So far, I’ve logged only a bit over an hour of play, but have heard very little music, and sonically, battle is little more than a few grunts and clanging sounds, plus the occasional (neat sounding) bard song or prayer. (Battle itself is a fun exercise in turn-based, round-based, strategic action selection for a party of up to seven heroes.) I’m hoping the sound-scape will be different as I play on, and that not every character will have the same ogre-ish grunts in battle. That could get pretty weird.

Fans of classic RPGs, both pen-and-paper and PC, will undoubtedly enjoy Silversword. It is a very retro game, and for us low vision gamers, it’s the best fantasy experience one can hope for with VoiceOver. I hope a game developer takes some serious notes from this app and implements its level of accessibility into a game with slightly more modern sounds, but Silversword is a delightful experience and I can’t wait to explore the world of Tarnak!

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