Onward Review

Pixar’s Onward has one of the more unique premises in the animation studio’s history. While Pixar has proven to be one of the world’s most consistent sources of making excellent movies – animated or otherwise – most of their concepts can be summed up in one brief word: toys, cars, fish, etc. But in the case of Onward, we have a high fantasy world in the vein of Tolkien or Dungeons & Dragons, but placed in a contemporary suburban setting. With this concept, Onward takes the premise of a fantasy adventure, and turns it into a kind of road trip buddy movie. The end result is one of Pixar’s finer accomplishments of recent years. One that fits nicely into the studio’s acclaimed repertoire of entertaining and touching films.

The world of Onward is littered with the usual races of high fantasy: elves, goblins, trolls, dragons, and so on. But in this world’s history, as the art of magic proved hard to master, it eventually went by the wayside in favor of the accessibility of technology. So the present day of this world isn’t too dissimilar from our own, save for the fact that we have the aforementioned fantasy creatures in place of humans.

What once might have been brave warriors going into battle on their mighty steed are now your everyday, blue collar workers riding public transport. And magical creatures such as unicorns are now more akin to “pests” like raccoons or opossums, knocking over trash cans for food. And fearsome dragons are now common household pets.

It’s a fun premise that could have come off as a bit gimmicky under less capable hands. Thankfully, while certain other animation studios may have used the premise predominantly for gags and parody, Pixar has proven very reliable with keeping such things in check, and instead use their premises for the benefit of a story, as opposed to cheap laughs. And that’s as true here as ever.

The story revolves around two elf brothers: the younger brother Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland), and his older brother Barley (Chris Pratt). Ian is the shy, awkward type, while Barley is something of a fearless goofball, and is obsessed with the magical past of his world (and the tabletop games it inspired). Their father Wilden passed away when Barley was very young, shortly before Ian was born.

On Ian’s sixteenth birthday, his mother Laurel (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) presents him with a surprise from his late father. This particular gift was to be given to both boys once they were both over sixteen, and not even Laurel is sure of what it is.

It turns out this gift is a wizard’s staff. Laurel mentions that when her husband grew ill, he “got into some strange things,” and it seems the old magic of the world happened to be among those things. Along with the staff is a spell, created by Wilden, which will allow him to be resurrected for a twenty-four hour time period, so that he may see who his sons grew up to be. As Barley notes, a spell that powerful would need a catalyst, which Wilber has included with the spell and staff in the form of a rare Phoenix Gem.

Barley tries for hours to get the spell to work, to no avail. Eventually, Ian – longing to meet the father he never knew – gives it a shot, and it begins to work. Slowly but surely, the spell is bringing Wilden back to the world of the living. Barley busts in and tries to help his brother, but the distraction, along with Ian’s lack of confidence, ends up making the spell go awry. The Phoenix Gem is destroyed before the spell can finish, leaving Wilden only “half-resurrected.” And by that I mean only his lower torso has returned to the realm of the living, which ends in a kind of blue vortex where his upper half should be connected.

Ian loses face, seemingly botching his one chance to meet his father. But Barley recalls a quest from one of his tabletop RPGs (which, in this fantasy world, are based on historical fact) that tells of a way to claim another Phoenix Gem. And so, following Barley’s knowledge of the adventure, the brothers – with Dad-legs in tow – set out in Barley’s van “Guinevere” on a quest to claim the Phoenix Gem so they can complete the spell before the twenty-four hours are up, so that they can see their father. Meanwhile, Laurel is on her sons’ trail, trying to keep them out of danger, where she is eventually allied by “Corey” the Manticore (Octavia Spencer).

It’s actually one of the more touching premises of the Pixar library (which is saying something), and again, under less capable hands this plot may have floundered. If one were to judge Onward from its marketing, after all, one wouldn’t be at fault to think – with the brothers disguising the living legs of their deceased father as a person – that it was some kind of kid-friendly version of Weekend at Bernie’s. Had this premise been under the umbrella of certain other CG animation studios, an emphasis on gags may have turned it into just that.

What makes Pixar stand out is that – despite their whimsical premises – they always try to put story and characters at the forefront. They don’t always succeed, mind you (The Good Dinosaur happened), but their track record is second only to Studio Ghibli in the world of animated features. And Onward is one of Pixar’s better films in recent years, if maybe not quite on the top echelon of the studio’s works.

The subplot with Laurel and the Manticore could have been given an extra scene or two, as it often seems forgotten for long stretches of time. But on the plus side, the main story is consistently delightful. The film does a great job at making both Ian and Barley into relatable, sympathetic characters. Perhaps this is giving me bias in favor of the picture, but I couldn’t help but see parallels with me and my oldest brother with Ian and Barley (Though my  brother is much smarter than Barley, and I’m not nearly as competent as Ian). And the story revolving around these brothers just wishing to spend a day with a deceased parent is quite touching. Pixar has a strong track record when it comes to making their stories feel personal, and Onward feels among the most personal of all of them.

As stated, the main plot successfully takes advantage of the film’s setting and premise by merging a fantasy adventure with a road trip buddy movie to surprising effect. It’s delightful to see how the filmmakers weave these two genres together. You get the feeling that the folks at Pixar must’ve had some fun figuring out how a fantastic journey translates with contemporary life. It’s a lot of fun.

The animation, as you would come to expect from Pixar, is top notch. The contemporary scenery like gas stations and freeways may seem to subdue the fantastic elements of the movie somewhat, but that’s kind of the point. This is a world where magic only just exists anymore, it makes sense for the fantasy element to be underplayed, visually speaking. Though with that said, I still hope Pixar delves deeper into a fantasy world for a feature down the road, since it allows for endless possibilities that aren’t attached to a specific motif (think of how limited the world of the Cars movies feels, because it’s a limiting premise. Going full fantasy would remove such shackles entirely and could set the animators’ imaginations loose).

Point being that Onward is a captivating film to look at, even if it may not reach the peak of the studio’s visual splendor (that honor still probably has to go to Inside Out which, no surprise, featured Pixar’s most abstract concept). I do wish the character designs for some of the background characters and creatures would have received a little more love however, as it seems the elves are the only prominent fantasy race Pixar managed to make their own. Though extra credit in character design has to go to the final obstacle of Ian and Barley’s quest which, without spoiling too much, is one of the more humorous giant monster battles in movies since the Ghostbusters faced off with the Stay Puffed Marshmallow Man.

Onward is a splendid film that further extends Pixar’s legacy of quality animated features. It tells a compelling story about brotherhood with its two memorable lead characters, and uses its unique premise in both fun and emotion to great effect. Onward is another shining (Phoenix) gem in Pixar’s crown.

 

8

Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the Perfect Game for these Times

Like virtually everyone else, it seems, I am fully onboard the Animal Crossing bandwagon right now. Admittedly, this isn’t the first time. I obsessed over the original Animal Crossing on GameCube back in the day, as well as Animal Crossing: New Leaf on the 3DS (the Nintendo DS and Wii entries were also nice, but didn’t connect with me in the same way).

But there’s something unique about the timing of New Horizons that makes it all the more special. Something that I don’t believe I’ve ever really seen with a video game release.

It’s timely. But timely in a way that couldn’t be planned.

We often talk about movies with timely messages and themes (elements that can also be translated to games). That’s great and everything, but it’s usually intentional, with surrounding world events often inspiring or influencing the direction the creators take with their work.

But Animal Crossing – a video game series all about every day life and normalcy – comes at a time when such mundane affairs now seem like rare gifts.

As we’re all stuck in our homes during this COVID-19 pandemic, longing for the return of normal life; when we can go shopping, hang out with friends, go to movie theaters, and just do anything outside of our homes, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is giving us that sense of normalcy through escapism.

Even under normal circumstances, Animal Crossing: New Horizons would be a great addition to the series, as it adds enough new content and depth to the proceedings to make such a simple series feel engrossing all over again. But the fact that it has been released now, during this topsy-turvy time, makes it feel like something really special.

While Animal Crossing: New Horizons was always planned to be Nintendo’s big release for the first quarter of 2020, no one could have predicted that it would end up meaning a whole lot more than simply being a big seller. But with the world feeling more and more upside-down by the day, Animal Crossing: New Horizons feels like a rare treasure. I can’t remember the last time any work – let alone a video game – felt so timely, so unintentionally.

As we’re all stuck in our houses, wishing to go back to jobs and school (admit it, you miss them), longing to hang out with friends, and just continue our usual routines, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has given us the opportunity to bring a little normalcy back into our lives during an incredibly abnormal time. It’s not just a fun game, but Animal Crossing’s simple premise of a Nintendo-ized version of real life has never felt more welcome, or more blissful.

Final Fantasy Adventure Review

*Review based on Final Fantasy Adventure’s release on Nintendo Switch as part of the Collection of Mana*

Originally released on the GameBoy in 1991 as Seiken Densetsu: Final Fantasy Gaiden in Japan, and later released in the west as Final Fantasy Adventure (US) and Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest (Europe), this Final Fantasy spinoff would eventually spawn the Mana series of games, dropping the Final Fantasy name entirely.

It was with the second entry in the series, Seiken Densetsu 2 – more widely known as Secret of Mana – that the series would really come into its own (and, in my opinion, established itself as Final Fantasy’s better). But the seeds of greatness were planted here in Final Fantasy Adventure on the GameBoy. Though the GameBoy’s limitations do mean that this original entry in the Mana series hasn’t aged particularly well, its ambitions for the time and hardware are nothing short of commendable.

Some fans bemoan the Mana series for its lighter emphasis on story in comparison to Final Fantasy, but seeing as these are video games, I feel that gameplay is the far more important feature. And in that regard, the Mana games stand tall over Final Fantasy with ease. Take the story out of the old Final Fantasy titles, and they are, admittedly, the ‘vanilla’ of RPGs. But by implementing Final Fantasy’s RPG mechanics into gameplay inspired by the Legend of Zelda series, the Mana series feels more distinct and refined as a game. Though, as stated, that mostly applies to the second and third entries of the series, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure attempted such a feat on the original GameBoy as early as 1991 is an impressive feat in and of itself.

Unlike later entries in the series, the player only directly controls one hero character, though a second, non-playable character will join them from time to time. The layout of the world and control is reminiscent of the original Zelda on NES. With the top down perspective, similar gameplay, world and dungeons. But your character also gains experience points, levels up, gains new weapons, and can improve different stats as the player sees fit, as in Final Fantasy.

In concept, Final Fantasy Adventure had a lot going for it. Remember, this was five years before Pokemon was released in Japan, and two years before Link’s Awakening. To have an adventure of this scale on the GameBoy was unheard of. At the time, it’s easy to see why Final Fantasy Adventure would have been considered a classic. Unfortunately, Final Fantasy Adventure aims higher than the GameBoy would ultimately allow, and its lofty ambitions feel restrained by the limitations of its hardware.

For example, it’s often difficult to tell when you’re being hit by an enemy. Your hit points are displayed on-screen via a number, but it’s easy to lose track of it during gameplay. Your character doesn’t react to getting hit by an enemy, like in Zelda, so amidst all the chaos of combat you may not realize when you’re low of health until its too late. At least it’s clear when you’re hitting enemies, so it’s not abhorrent in the same vein as Hydlide, but it definitely doesn’t help the game stand the test of time.

“Okay, I can see where I am. But where am I supposed to be going?!”

Then there’s the simple matter of the game being way too cryptic. The map screen itself is confusing, with the world map being presented as a squared grid, with the player’s current location being represent by a blinking square, and the towns being represented by houses. Other than those markers, you have no clue where anything is. And with how vague the NPCs are with their advice, you’re often left scratching your head as to where to go next. Even if someone gives you something of an idea of a location, you have no idea where it is because the map is just non-specific squares.

Unfortunately, this grows to become a pretty big issue. There are just too many segments in the game where you’re left wondering what the hell you’re supposed to do. And while the core gameplay is decently fun, it goes without saying that Secret of Man – being a Super Nintendo title – more than perfected the formula.

That’s not to say all is bad in Final Fantasy Adventure, however. As a huge bonus, you can save your game at any point during gameplay. How a GameBoy title achieved this while RPGs on the PS2 still demanded players to find specific save points is both a testament to how the Mana series tended to look towards the future, and indicative of how the RPG genre on the whole took a while to move forward. And the soundtrack to Final Fantasy Adventure is one of the few GameBoy soundtracks that still sounds great even by modern standards (that main theme is just lovely).

Final Fantasy Adventure is simply too grand of a journey for the GameBoy to handle. For its day, Final Fantasy Adventure was quite an impressive feat. Unfortunately, like so many titles released on the original GameBoy, timeless appeal ultimately wasn’t one of its strong suits. Still, I suppose when most GameBoy games felt like they compromised so much quality for the sake of accessibility, the fact that Final Fantasy Adventure’s biggest drawback is being too ambitious to be properly realized on the GameBoy is a testament to what it did manage to achieve.

 

5

Another March Update

I know, I know. I said I was done with filler posts. But as I’m quite sure you’re aware, we are in a very unique time period right now, so I figured I’d give a small update, given the circumstances.

Suffice to say I’m in the same situation as many other Americans (and people around the world). I’m cooped up in my house, and with a lot of free time. So hopefully I can use that time to get a little more productive, whether that be through this site or other means, but I admit that, so far, this whole situation has done no favors for my depression. So if you’re wondering why I was getting through my video game awards pretty quickly, and then they suddenly stopped for a week before I did my Game of the Year, well, it’s simply because I wasn’t in the emotional state to write. Sorry if I’ve been slow at getting to things around here.

Hopefully, as I get more accustomed to these bizarre circumstances, I can use this time to be more creative.

Here’s some of what I hope to write about in the near future.

With my annual video game awards out of the way, I will of course follow suit with my top 10 films of 2019. I may do some additional movie awards as well, and it’s something I would definitely like to make an annual thing here at the Dojo. But I’ll for sure be doing my top 10.

Also, I managed to see Pixar’s Onward before all this craziness went down, and it’s actually the only 2020 release I’ve seen so far other than Sonic the Hedgehog. So expect my review of that soon. I figured I’d also use this time to catch up on other movie reviews I’ve been meaning to write. Amazon Prime, Netflix and Disney+ are great friends right about now.

Of course, I also have some video games to review. So far, my 2020 video game purchases have been limited to Dreams on PS4 and Animal Crossing: New Horizons (which I’m still waiting to have delivered), so I’ll get to those as soon as I can. And much like the case with movies, I have some old/older video games I’d like to get around to reviewing. I’ve been playing through Dark Souls 2: Scholar of the First Sin Edition lately, so that will probably be my next “big review” for a game. But there are some shorter retro titles I hope to get to soon.

Anyway…yeah. I know, a filler update. Just thought I’d make it clear that, despite slowing down in the second half of this month, I still plan on getting to writing those things I talked about before.

Take care, stay safe, and stay home.

2020 Video Game Awards

Here you can find all of my 2020 video game awards (celebrating the best of 2019) in one convenient place.

First, the Introduction

And the awards themselves.

Best Sound

Best Music

Best Visuals

Biggest Surprise

Best Remake/Re-release

Best Content

Best Gameplay

Best Indie Game

Best Multiplayer

Best Handheld Game

Best Platform

And of course, Game of the Year.

Top 5 Video Games of 2019 (Game of the Year)

And now, here we are, the big one. Game of the Year!

2019 was a pretty strong year for video games. Not quite as strong as 2018 or 2017, admittedly, but it had its share of highlights.

Let’s skip the fanfare and get right to the meat of things. These are my top 5 video games of 2019!

 


Continue reading “Top 5 Video Games of 2019 (Game of the Year)”

Video Game Awards 2020: Best Platform

Now’s the time when we take a break from awarding the games themselves, and instead award the platforms we play them on. Or at least, award one of them as the most consistent of the year.

Part of me doesn’t want to do this, as I don’t want to feel I’m fanning the flames of any console wars, which are dumb and in actuality non-existent (fanboys just like to pretend it’s a thing). But at the same time, I’d feel bad about not acknowledging the merits of a console in a given year. So here we are.

 

Winner: Nintendo Switch

I admit 2019 wasn’t the Switch’s best overall year, but with the likes of Luigi’s Mansion 3, Yoshi’s Crafted World, and even *begrudging groan* Pokemon Sword and Shield, it was definitely the place to go for exclusives. Couple that with the seemingly endless barrage of indie titles and classics that are always making their way on the platform, and the Switch’s continued strong third-party support, and the Nintendo Switch had another strong year, even if it didn’t have a Mario Odyssey or Smash Ultimate equivalent.

Playstation 4 also had another strong year, but I think, if I had to pick, 2019 leaned a little more in the Switch’s favor.

 

Runner-up: Playstation 4

 

Past Winners

2014: Wii U*

2015: Playstation 4*

2016: Playstation 4

2017: Nintendo Switch

2018: Playstation 4

 

*Retroactively awarded.