2021 EOY

2021 Recap: Remembering I Actually Accomplished & Enjoyed Things

I’m not someone who’s great at positive reflection so I was caught off guard at just how much I’ve done this year. I spend a lot of my time on downtime activities and yet I can never fully shake the feeling that I need to be doing something productive. Why am I spending time playing a game when I should be writing for my blog? Maybe get a video off the ground again? Or hell even read a book? It’s a never ending nagging even though I realize I need to have at least some downtime after working a job for 40+ hours a week. Not constantly keeping up a modest schedule for the blog can always seem like a failure and I felt guilty everytime I left multiple weeks in between posts. Scheduling for hobbies across the board shifted and a few things got lost in the shuffle. It felt like I was doing something wrong, dropping projects that Emily and I had sustained throughout 2020. Once Life on Mars ended (cannot believe that was this year) our podcasting completely fell out. We still have plans to jump back into But Really Though, and even commissioned beautiful new artwork for it!, but our collective energy for it disappeared. I lost all motivation for creating new edited videos and I could never get myself to work on a new script even with the constant iphone reminders telling me to do so. The collective projects get  only modest returns in terms of views but I always have outsized pressure to keep things going. There’s a part of me that would love to do this full time and not devoting an outsized amount of time to it seems like my problem. The forces of capitalism though keep me firmly entrenched in a 8-5 job and it’s hard to fit things in around the edges. I also feel like if I don’t consistently work on things then they’ll completely slip away forever. I don’t want this diatribe to make it sound like I have it bad; I’m very lucky that I am gainfully employed throughout the pandemic in a remote position. The world is still dark out there too. Vaccine rollouts and getting Trump out of the White House was not the incredible lift that people hoped for as we’re still in the middle of a pandemic and a loss of momentum around progressive movements. Getting a vaccine is now a political standing, Democrats stopped pretending to support Defund the Police, government assistance completely dried up and we’re still waiting on any positive movements from a Democrat controlled Congress. I’m scared for what 2022 is going to bring us politically.

And yet, I can count many amazing positives from the last year. There have been tremendous milestones hit outside of any work. I’m getting married next year! A wildly exciting event that so far has been incredibly easy and fun to plan. Turns out planning events on your own terms can be really great! I’ve also grown a lot as a person this year and feel more confident in myself than I ever have. It’s been marked by dips in mental health but I’ve had renewed energy and focus towards working on it. I’m more resilient with the negative and scary thoughts that accompany life and am slowly getting better at realizing that change can be a good thing (still making progress on it atm). Also despite the bemoaning that accompanied the first paragraph, I’ve continued to work on my projects. I’ve published 26 blogs this year and I’m happy with at the very least hitting half of the weeks in a year. We concluded a rewatch podcast and kept up with another one for half the year! And even without scripted video essays we’ve recorded 5 different Let’s Plays, something I’ve been meaning to do for years. It’s nice to look back and recognize how well I’ve done and the things I’m able to do. Progress is personal and can be nonlinear.

With the theme of retrospection in mind, I’m once again going to do end of the year wrap up lists. I felt weird and indulgent writing them last year. Listicles are inherently easy content; as long as you can come up with your list it’s not too hard to write a brief paragraph about each thing. Wrap up lists are also seen as weird popularity contests; I hope my favorite made the list! On the positive side, it’s really nice to write a piece that’s dedicated to things that made you happy. Even making the outlines triggers happy emotions as I remember all the exciting art I engaged with this year. I get to look and think back to all the items I’ve enjoyed and get to relive my moments with them. It’s also a good excuse to write about things I never wrote about in it’s own blog. 

Really it’s indulgent but it’s my blog, I get to be! I get to plan out 5 weeks of content and make it easier on myself to get them done. I also get to play with the format a bit and decide what I want to highlight. Also even though these are all marked 2021 don’t expect them to cover new releases; these are instead things I’ve experienced this year regardless of when they came out (except for music). I’ve removed TV for this year because I just didn’t watch enough shows that I wanted to write about. Special shout out to The Expanse, a tremendous sci-fi show that we shotgunned within a month. The world and the slow ratcheting up of the plot are super engaging, plus the tech is really cool. It’s also a great example of a show that I like despite disagreeing with the majority of its politics (season 5 is a rough one because of that). Also special mention to Only Murders in the Building, a nice popcorn mystery show with 3 charismatic leads. Here are what I’ll be covering with my end of year lists:

  • Music
  • Movies
  • Books & Manga: The Printed Word
  • 4 Gundam Series & 1 Movie
  • Video Games (a whole hell of a lot of them)

The plan is to post one each week for the next 5 weeks. That may deviate a bit because life happens, but hopefully I’ll have them all up before 2022. Hope you’re all staying safe and enjoy the lists.

Video Game Playthroughs

The Shifting Narrative Structures of the Metroid Series

I’m going to say something very subjective and hyperbolic: Metroid is one of the strongest series of all time and is also criminally overlooked. I had no idea how much I would love this series after somehow deciding it wasn’t for me. I have held onto this weird aversion to games from the SNES and NES era, as if games from before my childhood were too difficult to try and pick up? This has slowly eroded in my adulthood as I’ve played modern homages to those games and found that I was extremely wrongheaded with my assumption (which was based on 0 play experience mind you). 2021 has been a year for remedying this and I’ll write a bit more about that in my year end wrap up. Suffice it to say that I felt much more confident in firing up Super Metroid for the first time in preparation for Metroid Dread’s release. I’m so glad I finally crossed it off my to do list and I played through Super and Fusion in quick succession. It was a great way to tackle a new entry in the series, being able to understand how the design has evolved to its modern iteration. The remarkable thing is that each game has completely different approaches to the Metroid template and shows how new designers attempt different techniques in balancing exploration and storytelling, in both cutscenes and the environments.

Super Metroid Kraid

Super Metroid is representative of how the priorities in game storytelling have shifted since its release in 1994. Aside from the opening text, the game communicates its story nonverbally. One of the great things that has been lost with the advent of more expressive technology and the move toward “cinematic” narratives is expressing emotion through 2d character sprites. The menace of Ridley and the tragedy of the baby Metroid are communicated only with movement, lighting and sound but somehow relay the emotion more effectively than most modern games. It’s something intrinsic to the medium that’s been lost on a triple A level but luckily is being reclaimed in the indie space. The story though is sparse and segmented story scenes are relegated to the front and back of the game. That same technique is used to communicate the Super Metroid’s progression as well. Before playing I had assumed the game was very open and that I would get lost trying to progress through the game. Super Metroid though is a masterclass in level design, it guides you to each new ability and boss fight through its environmental cues. The Metroid series established a widely used template; rooms with sealed gates that are only opened with certain types of abilities. Green doors can only be opened with Super Missiles so you are stuck only moving through blue or purple doors until you find the ability. The gates make the game surprisingly linear as you are fed through available doors until you seemingly stumble upon the ability or boss fight required to move forward. It’s more rewarding though because once you acquire the ability you as the player are then required to follow the breadcrumb trail back to the formerly inaccessible door. It feels almost like an ah ha moment, a feeling of finding a specific puzzle piece on your own even though it’s the game handing you the piece and subtly telling you where to put it. You’re rewarded for breaking with the game’s flow to hunt for secret power ups using your abilities. It makes Super Metroid feel less linear superficially even when you’re being funneled down a set path. It puts the agency of finding that path in the players’ hands rather than putting big arrows showing them where to go.

Super Metroid is the ultimate form of a vibe game, using an excellent score and environments to really give the unfamiliar planet a sense of place. The planet Zebes is hostile, filled with terrestrial creatures and inhabiting space pirates trying to kill you. Super Metroid isn’t scary, Samus is too powerful and health pickups are too common for you to feel a sense of complete danger, but it’s certainly eerie. There’s no safe place to go as you descend through lava, sand, and abandoned spaceships trying to retrieve the stolen Metroid. You get the sense that this planet is largely uninhabited as the majority of the environments are undisturbed natural areas. As such you’re an invading force and the creatures don’t take too kindly to your traipsing through their home. The extra terrestrial places are even spookier, unnatural metallic bases furnished by the invading Space Pirates. The ghost ship is a highlight and is the only environment to actively play tricks on you. It’s pulled directly from Sci-Fi horror as projections of Metroids appear randomly as you explore. The rundown technology also attacks you as you probe for its secrets. How did this ship end up here? What cargo was it carrying and what experiments were they performing here? The ominous music adds to the eerie environment, echoey drumming and synths soundtracking the ghostly apparitions. Really the whole soundtrack is filled with dark and ominous tones and it absolutely bangs:

Metroid Fusion B.O.X.

The next game, Metroid Fusion, continues to incorporate that eeriness but with adding new body horror. The environment moves to an expansive and abandoned space station named BSL, always a good move for Sci-Fi horror in my opinion. Samus had a bad interaction with a new creature, the X, that fused with her body. Her power suit is removed and infected leaving her with a mutated (and very cool) new body suit. It’s got razor edges and seems living, transforming Samus into an otherworldly being. Her Power Suit on the other hand becomes a living creature, SA-X, with its own mysterious goals. This new creature is an almost invincible enemy which must be avoided at all cost. It’s an incredibly cool twist even if it doesn’t amount to much other than a few segments where you have to hide or run away from the SA-X. Those sections are fun but since the locations are set there’s not too much horror attached to them. You know the SA-X will only appear when the game telegraphs it so you’re not worried about exploring the station. BSL Station was the ground for all sorts of bad experiments. The environments are filled with the remnants of this, whether it’s caged animals, broken machines or even a frozen Ridley. The backgrounds communicate a history of BSL and leave the story of what went down here vague enough for the player to fill in. 

Metroid Fusion SA-X

It’s a series highlight even though the actual plot of the game is lackluster. You’re constantly checking in with your computer to receive updates on the station and location of the SA-X. The whole time Samus is wistfully reminded of her old commanding officer and recounts “pleasant” memories of him consistently talking down to her. It’s really bad and the inevitable twist is that the computer is both a program of that commanding officer, Adam, and looking to preserve the SA-X lands with a thud. Good thing this game is still a solid Metroid so you can go on and ignore the story. Fusion has the same progression as Super with plenty of new ways to interact with the environment. The boss fights are all a step above and proved to be much more challenging than in the previous game (goddam that Spider boss). The only catch here is that the path is much more explicitly laid out. Checking in with your computer literally highlights where to go next so the feeling of open exploration, even if it’s not really open, is missed. I didn’t get those same moments of joy finding my path when the game was telling me exactly where to go.

Metroid Dread Map Room

And now 19 years later, a once cancelled Metroid Dread released and brought more modern gaming storytelling alongside its updated gameplay mechanics. It’s remarkable how the core loop of exploring and upgrading remains intact as MercurySteam adds more actiony elements to Samus. There’s the ability to free aim and with it more of a necessity to aim your shots. Movement speed is increased and comes with a new slide to duck and move through the map. It feels amazing to play and it’s by far my favorite playing game of the series. It felt so good to jump, dash, slide and spin across the environments as I poked for clues. Exploration is much less focused than Fusion even with a similar emphasis on communicating with Adam. Waypoints aren’t set whenever you receive a new objective and I welcomed getting lost and finding my way across the areas. Dread is also the toughest game of the bunch and throws in difficult boss battles. They were all extremely rewarding, riding that knife’s edge between difficult and punishing. Each boss has a rhythm and your first couple of times fighting them are all about learning patterns. Every time I messed up I could see how to improve and fitting all the patterns felt like a big accomplishment.

When the EMMI encounters work out, they really are exciting

Other updates though tend to drag the game down. Instead of the invincible SA-X, you’ll fight androids known as EMMIs. These robots are confined to specific sections and are invulnerable meaning you’ll have to run away and find the nearest exit. Only trouble is exits are closed off while the EMMI is on your tail so you have to try and sneak or hide from them until the coast is clear. Eventually you’ll find a one time upgrade to your beam so you can take down an individual EMMI. Unfortunately this requires you to use your beam like a Gatling gun and slowly wear down the shielding on its face and then charge up to take down the exposed core. You have to put a good distance between Samus and the EMMI in order to take down the shielding so you’ll once again have to run until you find a long enough corridor. These sections are a lot of trial and error and the spots where I died the most (probably at least a half dozen times on average). The respawn was forgiving though so I didn’t end up minding them too much. The EMMI felt more like speed bumps on the game’s flow more than anything.

All in on this background detail

Worse though is Dread’s new emphasis on cutscenes. The game makes its story much more explicit pausing gameplay to show you a brief clip of the plot. I missed the environmental storytelling piecing together Samus’ relationship to the creatures she stumbles across in her adventure. It doesn’t help that the environments don’t especially jump out and the backgrounds feel more like templates of alien planets. You’ll find a lava level, water, and abandoned tech places but they don’t have any details that make them feel lived in. They’re pretty to move through but that’s about it. The story itself is completely ridiculous and has wild third act revelations that feel so unearned. The twists feel like they’re tying up loose ends to a mystery plot that didn’t exist and I can’t imagine anyone was asking for this sort of backstory. It does lead to an incredible escape sequence and I love the big power fantasy of those two minutes. If you liked the overpowered gravity gun in Half Life 2 then you’re in for a treat.

Metroid Dread Travel

Even with my quibbles about each game they’re all amazingly good. There’s not a bad one in the bunch and I enjoyed playing through all of them. Also the best part, they’re all relatively short! I took the longest with Dread and the final tally put me at 9 hours. They’re all the perfect length of time and also what makes them endlessly replayable. There’s an emphasis from the gaming community on having longer games and that it somehow equates to getting your money’s worth. I’d argue that Dread is worth the full $60 and equating dollar value to length is an inane argument. Not every game has to be forever and it’s easier to make a more treasured experience with brevity. Here’s to Samus’ memorable and brief experiences and hopefully many more to come.

Video Game Playthroughs

Fantasian 2.0: Expanding on an Already Exceptional Template

Spoiler Warning for all of Fantasian. You can read my write up on the first release here.

Taking a break in an RPG is usually a death sentence. Prolonged periods away from a systems heavy game means completely forgetting battle strategies and how to proceed with ongoing quest lines. It’s a testament to how good the game is that I readily jumped back into Fantasian when the 2.0 patch released on August 12, 4 months after I had completed the first 20 hours that were released at launch. Mistwalker was hard at work during that period building out what turned into an additional 40 hours of gameplay for me (I haven’t even played the end game dungeon yet). I was expecting the new content update to be a “chapter 2” for the game, released with a recap or something to catch me back up. That turned out to be wrong; the game unceremoniously picks up right where I left off like I had just put in the second disc in a PS1 Final Fantasy. This won’t affect new players at all as they’ll just continue on seamlessly but it was a big adjustment for me. The first five hours of my 2.0 playthrough was re-learning the systems, map and story (most of which I had to review outside of the game). The Apple Arcade staggered release strategy always was fishy to me in ways that only benefit their subscription model rather than the game itself. After all, how do you build on the hype of the initial release? It’s much harder to get people excited about a patch even if it does mean the game is finished. I find it frustrating because it seems to have helped bury what is a really great JRPG and one of my favorite games of the year.

Fantasian Bubble Worlds

Once I got my feet back under me, I was once again enamored with the game. 2.0 changes the structure up with a more open world quest system. Instead of going from one storyline mission to the next, you’ll receive a handful of quests to complete around the world map.  You’ll recollect your party members, find new ones and help out random townspeople with tasks like literally herding cats. It’s very reminiscent of FFVI’s World of Ruin but with way more story and quests to pick up (this world isn’t bombed out like that was). Each party member also has a unique quest line that fleshes out their backstory. There are also new side quests that are placed throughout the map and run the gamut from fighting bosses to scavenger hunts across the cities (these were especially hard after a long time away from the game; it’s hard to decipher clues when you don’t know the map in detail). The World Map makes picking up and finding quests as easy as possible. You can fast travel to any zone you’ve been to before and each area will list if you have any quests to pick up. The map will also show where a quest is with an icon making questing a breeze. There’s not alot of organic discovery happening and feels on rails with all the icons and fast travel mechanics, but I enjoyed the easy checklist pace of picking them up. That doesn’t mean that these quests aren’t hard, the difficulty increases exponentially with this patch. There are still a few undiscovered areas that you’ll have to traverse and for those you get to pilot the luxury airship cruise liner! The Urza is absolutely a top JRPG airship and there are side quests to slowly fill out the ship with crew members and animals. 

Fantasian Metal Ribbidon

The quest design, while seemingly open in which you have the option to tackle them at any pace, has a more linear progression than I expected. Each quest comes with a minimum level recommendation and due to the difficult nature of the quests must absolutely be adhered to. Enemy levels are not dynamic like FF8 instead set at specific ranges based on the area or associated quest. If you don’t meet the minimum level, you may be without a necessary ability or the boss will almost immediately wipe your party. This meant I mostly completed each quest in level order except for one where I accidentally navigated the Urza into a void in the middle of the map. That triggered a quest that I was underleveled for and I couldn’t leave, which became something of a pain when I had to sit and slowly grind levels. I felt punished for breaking the path that the game set out for me. Otherwise quests are nicely doled out so that you’re adequately leveled to flow into the next quest line. These new quests can be absolutely brutal, most of them stacked with a final tough boss fight. Be prepared to spend lots of time taking multiple runs to beat a boss, regardless of whether it’s a story mission or a small side quest. Some bosses required me to spend multiple hours retrying battles until I was finally able to win. It felt great and required me to use my strategy brain in a way that a lot of other JRPGS don’t. It was really exciting to have to really push to beat these enemies after the relatively breezy time I had with the earlier quests. 

Fantasian Entrapped Zinikir

The bosses require you to really engage with the games mechanics and understand how to use your party. I had to memorize boss timing, moves and weaknesses and even then I barely scraped by most of them. The fights themselves are varied, requiring you to change your strategy to adapt each time. The boss to retrieve Zinikir is on a hidden time limit as he’ll be slowly surrounded with debris the longer the fight goes on. The debris field becomes so thick that you can’t hit him and he does more damage for each additional piece. Other bosses like Yim will have you trying to clear mobs as fast as possible before they can absorb them and deal damage for each one left alive. The fights can all be taxing in a way that makes them really exciting. Each new one I came across was a challenge and it felt so good when I put all the pieces together to win. A great addition to 2.0 is the FFX swap mechanic, allowing you to swap in and out party members during battle. This is key as each character has a unique move set and element. Some fights required you to use elemental weaknesses to win like Geo Nova were weak to dark forcing me to use Valrika (dark magic user). Other bosses require exploiting weaknesses to specific character actions, like the Infernal Mechteria Blob who was weak to Cheryl’s attack. She is the only character with a vertical striking attack which is where she drops a magic knight down from the sky. Other characters’ attacks move on a horizontal line (sometimes can be curved or straight) so they only do minuscule damage against that boss. The different attack patterns were neat and utilized the Apple touchscreen well. Magic and certain character attacks can be curved meaning you can hit numerous characters in a curved line. Those always felt good to line up.

Fantasian Lagrange Wind

Even once you understand the strategy behind each boss fight, you’ll still have a tough time getting through them. These bosses hit hard and take a lot of damage so you won’t be wiping any very fast. I’m very thankful for the active Reddit community who has helped coach me and others through some of the more difficult ones. The only downside for certain bosses is that they sometimes require specific abilities to beat them. Characters unlock abilities through their talent tree and you earn more points to spend on it each time they level. There were a few times where I hadn’t specced a character to have a specific ability and therefore couldn’t proceed until I had. Ez for example has a story quest line with a boss that requires you to use his vacuum ability to collect groups of bombs. The bombs surround the boss and by using vacuum you’re able to avoid hitting them, which almost instantly kill your party, and allow you to attack the boss. It’s a fun fight with the ability but hitting the wall without it led to me finding an area to grind until I unlocked it. The unfortunate side effect of the quest level gating also meant I couldn’t go pick up a new questline to follow. I would’ve loved FF8’s dynamic leveling so I could bounce around between quests whenever I got stuck.

Love the lights here too

Perhaps the most exciting challenge are Fantasian’s first-person mini dungeons. There are a set of 6 around the world map that are each based around a different element. You’ll navigate around a maze collecting treasure and fighting enemies and eventually face a boss to complete it. They’re a great way to break up the normal quest structure and require you to build your party and load out around the dungeon specific element. Each dungeon also contains enemies that have you try to build an item within a time limit rather than battling it. It makes the dungeons perfectly tuned so by the time you face the boss you’ll have built items that help you resist their attacks. The bosses themselves are also incredibly varied. One has you facing a tough Minotaur where another has you facing a hard hitting spell caster. The best part of each dungeon is that they only take maybe an hour to complete (depending on how many runs a boss takes) and feel like distinct stand-alone RPG experiences. They’re my favorite part of the game and I loved the new challenges and boss variety that each one brought.

Fantasian Jas Castle

The dioramas continue to be absolutely gorgeous. The new locales are all beautiful to trek through, ranging from snowy mountains to hidden islands to dimension connecting pathways. I have a camera roll full of screenshots of all the different areas. The snowy environments sparkle in the sunlight and frozen waterfalls glisten as your characters cross bridges past them. There are old stone ruins covered in moss that evoke ancient South American temple architecture. Hopping between dimensions looks like you’re working your way across neural pathways. The final area is a grotesque cathedral, with stone hands and people lining the paths that look like they’re trying to escape hell. The scale is tuned perfectly as your small character slowly moves across the vast landscapes (also worth noting, you can have any party member be your world map avatar). Accompanying your movements are Uematsu’s beautiful arrangements. There’s a few new songs to soundtrack your continued journey and they are just as lush and whimsical as the other tracks. The tones for different dimensions match the tone well like the choral singing found in the God Realm and synth wave found in the Communication Network. Notably the new tracks have a lot more distortion and we get blaring metal guitars soundtracking later boss fights. “At Wrath’s End” is repeated across three boss battles and it hits every time:

The story is a serviceable JRPG plot, turns out you kill God! Or at least A God. The characters though are engaging and the character specific questlines make their presences more impactful. Fantasian is about found family, dealing with loss and how you grow in a way that mostly hits. Everyone in the party has had to deal with loss, usually a family member or close friend. Their stories are affecting and the best stories explore that grief. Zinikir is specifically hurt by the loss of his sister and his close friend’s inability to move on from the trauma (his animated story pages are beautiful too). Other characters are left more unexplored; I would have loved to understand what Valrika’s life was like before her world was destroyed so that her grief over being spared would’ve been more impactful. Fantasian falls into bad stock plots though and the majority of the trauma is related to dead women. Tan’s may be the most egregious as his story consists of him being saved from a violent path by a beautiful woman, who sacrifices her life to protect him. Leo, Kina, and Cheryl all have dead moms and I also mentioned Zinikir’s loss of his sister. The story’s all work in a silo but it was an unfortunate pattern across all of them. I enjoyed all the fantasy trappings though and jumping across multiple dimensions proved to be very fun. The metaphysical nature of the “gods” was also a fun wrinkle; more of the Marvel type of powerful but fallible aliens.

Fantasian is a fantastic RPG from start to finish. The gameplay is perfectly tuned with the right amount of challenge to test you and quality of life enhancements to make embarking on quests easy. I cannot believe I spent as much time as I did as the hours spent tinkering with bosses and making numbers go up seemed to just melt away. The Apple only release seems to have unfortunately stymied some of the buzz around this game. Hopefully this will get a wider release so that more people can play it in the future.

Fantasian Falcion Bypath
Video Game Playthroughs

Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye: Hauntings and the Artificial Nature of the Stranger

Spoilers for the Echoes of the Eye DLC and main game of Outer Wilds

It’s clear from the outset that the Stranger is haunted. Small crops of slowly decaying wooden buildings are fitted with paintings and signs pointing to the culture that once lived there. Pictures of groups of beings photographed like early 20th century people hang in the empty structures. The problem is there are no signs of life, no expired food, burial grounds or corpses that would signify what happened to the population there. It’s immediately eerie, a space version of an old pioneer ghost town. The farther you probe into the mysteries of the game the more you realize how literally haunted the Stranger is. The Stranger’s inhabitants wander around a dream world, isolated in a prison of their own making. And much like a traditional ghost story you are trespassing are their domain. They don’t know who you are but they know that you are unwelcome. The DLC has been likened to horror games or at least a more horror-oriented approach than the base game. In a lot of ways it is, tasking you with completing puzzles while trying to avoid enemies in the dark. The enemies themselves aren’t trying to kill you however and your mission is ultimately one of connection with the ghostly figures of the Stranger.

Both Emily and I are not horror fans (I at least am much too chicken) so we were very cautious about playing Echoes of the Eye. We couldn’t not play it, we had such an amazing time doing our original Let’s Play! But at the same time we found the Stranger to be very spooky. I was also going into this Let’s Play completely blind (I had played the base game before we recorded the corresponding Let’s Play) so I had no idea what potential horror moments lay ahead. The new “Reduced Frights” option also gave us some pause, what would we possibly need that for? I think the option is a good addition though, any accessibility improvements to help players through the story is great to include. The DLC is perfectly calibrated to build dread. The music is eerie and the usual orchestral swell that accompanied new and strange information is switched out for dreary and downbeat folk music. The new lantern mechanic played on a big fear; moving around in the dark. Entering the Dream and having it be the dark of night made navigating it creepy. Who knows what lay around the corner! Where could I find the next candle to help me see ahead? The woodsy aesthetic of the Dream evokes dread similarly to the way Twin Peaks depicts being lost in the trees. What horrors lurk behind the trees? It plays on your imagination to build an anticipation that something could happen to you.

Submerged Structure

The DLC however isn’t as scary as it initially appears. The jump scare moments when trying to navigate past the Strangers inhabitants to get to an important vault of secrets aren’t quite the horror fueled moments that we had originally imagined. They are undead beings in a sense but inside the Dream they appear as just living beings. There were no monsters or terrifying creatures on the Stranger, only the digital consciousness of misguided people. The way the base game approaches meeting new species helps punctuate some of the fear. When you meet Solanum the Nomai on the Quantum Moon, it’s an exciting moment. You get to exchange information and learn more about this ancient civilization that you’ve been learning about. It was a moment of joy and excitement! So hilariously we approached meeting the new aliens with the same level of excitement. Running across the Shrouded Woodlands Dream area to meet the Stranger Inhabitant was a cool moment for us until they picked us up and blew out our light. Our naivety with how our interaction would go really helped punctuate any fear we had around them. We never had any to begin with because we wanted to meet them! Understandably they wanted nothing to do with us and took actions to remove us from the Dream. We interact with them as different beings and there’s no body horror or supremely scary features to make that unpleasant. We are trespassers, always have been, and we are working to uncover their deep and regretful secrets. Of course they want to protect it and remove us. It’s very in line with traditional ghost stories; hauntings are used to scare what ghosts see as trespassers out of their domain. Haunted houses contain the stories of how the ghosts met their end and the unfinished business that keeps them around. The Stranger’s inhabitants are no different, haunting the dream and preventing anyone from seeing their failure in following the Eye of the Universe. This understanding and their lack of demonic appearance prevents them from ever being seen as horrifying. It only adds to the tragedy that we can interact with them as individuals. That’s not to say we didn’t react to the jump scares, it’s surprising when you accidentally bump into them in the dark! The violin strings that accompany the sneaking in the dark moments also heighten the tension. Those moments though felt more like playing hide and go seek or the feeling when you accidentally round a corner and almost hit someone. You’re scared for a moment but quickly level out.


That’s not a bad thing though! It made me understand better how traditional horror is laid out in a way that was safe for a horror scaredy cat like me to engage with. Once the fear had dropped away I could see the mechanics of how they produced the anxiety in me and the thematic reasons that the horror existed. Realizing what the haunting actually meant retroactively helped me understand ghost stories. That new framing for the DLC, the more haunted house approach, is a bit of why I’m not as enamored with it as I was with the base game. That’s probably an impossible task; Outer Wilds as a full experience is absolutely incredible. The awe of experiencing the planets’ natural rhythms (Giant’s Deeps’ tornadoes, the corroding surface of Brittle Hollow) matched with the fear of landing and exploring an unfamiliar locale can probably never be bested. It makes sense then that Echoes of the Eye tries a different tact with a smaller condensed location nestled into the wider map of Outer Wilds. It preys on more everyday fears; fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of a creature attack. It’s effective at provoking horror but it’s not as impactful as the fear of being a miniscule object in a large universe. The more traditional horror isn’t as unique as having the ground drop out under you unexpectedly and falling into a black hole or entering a giant cavern for the first time. Echoes of the Eye is more in line with the anglerfish on Dark Bramble; definitely scary but in the more horror movie oriented approach. It’s not quite the vibe I come to Outer Wilds for; I wasn’t awed or humbled by the vastness of the natural world.

Slide Reel

I’m more than happy to report that the story and mysteries are really engaging. Exploring and following clues around the Stranger was very engaging even though the details are spread out more sparsely than before. The DLC relies more on you self navigating around the spaceship rather than laying out a more set path like the written messages did in the base game. We spent the majority of our playthrough having no idea what to expect but the sudden rush of figuring out one minor solution always hit. Echoes of the Eye doesn’t spell things out for you instead leaving you to interpret images. That meant that we could see a puzzle solution but not entirely understand what it meant. We see going through the door, but how do we turn off the lights? Figuring that last part out was always satisfying and usually netted us some exciting new information. There are some truly exciting puzzle reveals. I was blown away when we found out that we could navigate around the Dream and see the code like we were in the Matrix (I really wanted to title that episode “I know Kung Fu” but decided it might give too much away). The final puzzle solution of dying was genius and plays with the game’s usual idea of failure. Instead of trying to avoid death which would restart the loop, you have to die to finish the game. 

The story of the Stranger and its inhabitants is a piece with the rest of the game telling the story of a different alien civilization who also chased the Eye. They too were blinded by their ambitions but with much larger clarity than the Nomai had. The Nomai essentially turned lemons into lemonade establishing a home within this new solar system they were stuck in. They attempted to live in relative harmony with its ecosystem and used nature to their advantage. Their biggest and selfish reach luckily didn’t come to fruition; they were never able to cause a supernova. Instead they were unceremoniously wiped out when a stray comet exploded with ghost matter. The Stranger’s inhabitants by contrast were the architects of their own destruction and by proxy the Nomai’s. They destroyed their home planet in their zealous pursuit of the Eye. That piece adds to the uncanny environs on the Stranger, a replication of nature produced by the destruction of it. While the Nomai also chased and studied the Eye with near religious ferocity, the Stranger’s inhabitants worshipped the Eye. The churches and Eye symbols show their devotion to a godlike natural phenomenon. When they find that the Eye foretells their destruction, they can’t accept their failure and the consequences of their pilgrimage. Their covering of the Eye betrays their refusal to face their actions and they choose instead to live out their existence as ghosts within the Dream. It’s what makes your eventual meeting with the Prisoner so tragic. They were the one being who pushed for reckoning with their mistake and were summarily locked up for hundreds of years. They are left alone for an unending existence at the bottom of the cage. Their cry when you reveal the physical state of the Stranger shows their anguish over how far things have degraded. The final vision of you and them in a boat is a peaceful and tragic resolution to their long sentence.

I’m really glad we played through this and even revisited the original ending. It’s a really special addition that tries telling a different story but still fits right along with the world of Outer Wilds. You can find our full playthrough on YouTube now along with our full thoughts on the game in our final episode:

Video Game Playthroughs

Let’s Play: Outer Wilds: Echoes of the Eye

We’re already back in the world of Outer Wilds! We’ve started a new series playing through the brand new spooky DLC “Echoes of the Eye.” This time we’re both going in blind, both having to learn the intricacies of the new environment. So far it’s been scratching that same Outer Wilds itch; plenty of mystery and awe as we scrape together the story of what the game dubs “The Stranger.” It’s also seems more spooky and haunted so we’re a bit more hesitant rounding corners…

You can catch episodes 1 & 2 on YouTube, now with spoiler-free chapters (if you have any feedback regarding these please leave a comment!). We’ll continue posting these at least once a week going forward, maybe more depending on our recording schedule. We hope you join us and don’t forget to bring your lantern:

Video Game Playthroughs

The Great Ace Attorney Gestures at Culpability But Without Meaningful Consequences

Full game spoilers for The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures

Having finished “The Great Ace Attorney: Adventures” I can safely conclude that it’s all of the best parts of the Ace Attorney series but in an early 20th century setting. The new protagonist Ryunosuke Naruhodo is great, a hapless and inexperienced student who’s suddenly thrust into a legal career path. Susato is a fun sidekick too, a much smarter and less naive version of women characters in the series past. She’s so much more put together than Ryunosuke and the only reason she’s an assistant and not a lawyer is because of her gender. Herlock Sholmes, whose name is only switched because of copyright law in the US and is in fact very much the famous character, walks a fine line between savant and buffoon as his close reading of evidence often leads him down incorrect paths. The entire cast is stacked top to bottom with interesting characters and it’s exciting to see the rotating cast grow. The move to 3D models works wonders in courtroom scenes too; the characters are much more expressive with their movements and faces than they were capable of in 2D. The comedy is top notch and is matched across line reads, facial expressions, and movements. I loved everytime Baron von Zieks dramatically threw a glass or when the Skulkin brothers did their synchronized dance. The whole game seems like a major refresh for the series and like a new chance to try new modes of play and stories. In a big departure for the series chapter 2 doesn’t even include a trial and the new “Great Deduction” challenges are a fun way to piece together clues. The story even tries its hand at some pointed political topics, looking at how wealth and inequality affect the legal system. Chapter 3 especially embroils Ryunosuke in a compromised legal battle that stands against the usual “good” vs “bad” sides the courtroom drama usually takes. The ending of the game pulls some of its punches (it isn’t truly radical in its final message) but the game as a whole takes a more pointed approach than Ace Attorney games in the past.

Lord Stronghart
The shoe doesn’t drop on this guy, but he’s absolutely suspect from the beginning

Chapter 3 sees Ryunosuke and Susato finally arrive in London after a treacherous boat journey. Ryunosuke has committed to becoming a lawyer and fulfilling the purpose of his friend Kazuma (RIP, big time surprise that’s close in impact to Mia’s demise). He meets with the cold Lord Stronghart, the leader of the court system in London. He’s an intense man who runs on a schedule that’s planned down to the minute. Despite his sharpness he somehow acquiesces to Ryunosuke replacing Kazuma and gives him his first case. This is immediately suspicious but Lord Stronghart’s intentions remain ambiguous throughout the game. We see law enforcement implicated during the game but Lord Stronghart is untouched. He’s untrustworthy and I’m curious if this open thread is followed up in the sequel.  Nevertheless Ryunosuke just received his first client and the case begins in 15 minutes. He and Susato rush to the court and briefly meet the defendant; Mr. McGilded a well to do man in London. He’s on trial for the murder of a brick maker and was found in the carriage with the body. The story behind this isn’t entirely clear from the outset as the trial almost immediately begins upon the protagonist’s arrival. McGilded leaves relaxed and claims that they can’t lose the case. 

Fast forward the trial a little and Ryunosuke’s back is against the wall. This is keeping with the Ace Attorney games. Trials typically start with your client’s guilt already presumed and late reveals eventually lead to the truth and a not guilty verdict. McGilded’s trial is no different with the new exception of the jury system. Trials in this game are decided by a group of a half dozen London citizens from various walks of life (the characters are all really great). The case almost immediately goes to a guilty verdict as von Zieks presents decisive evidence. Susato reveals that the defense has the opportunity to try and persuade the jury to overturn their verdict before the trial ends. This new system is great as you expand your analysis for finding contradictions to 6 people. Once you find it you then have to play the jury off each other. You’re able to sow doubt amongst the jury and get the decision reversed. The case continues to wind until McGilded takes the stand. He explains there was another witness when suddenly a smoke bomb goes off and everyone is forced outside.

Gina Lestrade

This is where things start getting strange. The person who fired the smoke bomb was an orphan girl named Gina Lestrade. She’s a pickpocket who also happened to be the major witness. Her testimony matches McGilded’s and seemingly proves his innocence. Even stranger, when you go back to look at the murder scene (the carriage) there’s a new blood stain on the floor. Everything falls into place as you intuitively pounce on the new evidence. Van Zieks is shocked and angry, claiming the evidence is forged. It’s too late though, the momentum is firmly favoring McGilded. Ryunosuke tries to support van Zieks as he clearly sees that something is wrong. McGilded becomes enraged at Ryunosuke and changes character but he calms down once it’s revealed that there is no evidence that the carriage was tampered with. McGilded receives his not guilty verdict and you helped him get it. He cackles as the trial draws to a close.

It’s a dark turn for a game and series that has players trust that they are representing innocent people. The Ace Attorney games are never about having player choice and you’re funneled down a set path in your trials and investigations. Chapter 3 flips the usual script and forces players into a rigged trial. You are in fact representing the guilty party and you will help him avoid any ramifications. Mr. McGilded is a rich man who has power and influence and also positive goodwill with London citizens for his charitable donations. You also slowly learn that he’s a corrupt man who has manufactured the proceedings you’re participating in. The game then is reinforcing the hollowness of this trial by requiring your actions to be motivated by proving his innocence. The player is in a compromised position from the jump but you aren’t aware until it’s too late. You were never in charge of the trial and all the victories you accumulate (finding contradictions in evidence) were in service of evil ends. You’re in the same view as Ryunosuke, thrust into a bad situation without knowing it.

Mr. McGilded

The twisting of the usual Ace Attorney formula is reinforcing the game’s message on how the rich avoid repercussions and the people and systems that enable it. Ryunosuke is literally doing his job and defending his client. The game is able to keep him respectable by placing him there blindly as his first case in London and he realizes too late what is actually occurring in the courtroom. His job as a lawyer is not to find justice but rather believe and defend his client. Ace Attorney games usually make defending and justice one in the same; your client is usually innocent. You jump on every contradiction trying to slowly illuminate what actually happened that night. This is all from the perspective that your client is truthful and your job is to make everyone else believe that point of view. The McGilded trial twists this as you twist the narrative to suit him even though by the end he’s clearly guilty. Your actions, and the actions the game lays in front of you, make you complicit in his legal maneuvering. Every accomplishment or “a ha” moment the game feeds you is actually wrong. This is employed not to reflect on you the player but to have you question who benefits from the supposed “most advanced” legal system in the world. What is your role as a lawyer if the guilty can go free as long as they have the money to pay for it? It’s an interesting question that the Ace Attorney series has never really reckoned with before.

While chapter 3 takes some swings, the chapter ending and the rest of the game sidesteps some of those questions in favor of the more traditional approach (representing the more wacky and lower class members of society). McGilded is killed in a mysterious cutscene removing him and all the evil he represents to mostly wash away. It’s a bit of a let down, even if the final case is really fun and funny to play through. The game also guesstures at some of those questions around justice but merely drip feeds them as potential mysteries in the next game. The final case does implicate members of the legal system in crooked dealings, but the game is content to not really follow through on what those actions mean. They are there to add flavor to the case and it largely leaves it as that. The final moments with McGilded in the courtroom though are still very effective. The way he allows his mask to slip in his moment of victory works in making you feel gross and powerless. Both Ryunosuke and the player’s conception on how to interact in the courtroom are completely reversed to great effect.

Kingdom Hearts Video Game Playthroughs

Let’s Play the Entire Series of Kingdom Hearts!

This new series is very exciting for both Emily and I. I honestly couldn’t believe we hadn’t thought of it sooner, props to Emily for the suggestion. We both have some affinity for the series. She played 1 & 2 back in the day and is a big fan of all things Disney. I’ve kept a healthy obsession for the series since I first played it in middle school and it’s the series that got me into RPGs. I’ll be something of a lore guide, but our Let’s Plays will be spoiler free. It’s very fitting though that we’re both very hazy on the first one so we’ll be coming in with fresh eyes. We plan on going through the whole series though and we’ll be following release order:

  • Kingdom Hearts Final Mix
  • Re:Chain of Memories (technically this came out later but we’ll go buy the GBA games release date)
  • Kingdom Hearts II Final Mix
  • Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days*
  • Birth by Sleep Final Mix
  • Re:Coded*
  • Dream Drop Distance
  • 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue
  • Kingdom Hearts III
  • Melody of Memory

I’m not sure how well tackle both 358 and Re:Coded; both games only came out for the DS. At the very least we’ll do a talk over of the packaged cutscenes that come with our 1.5+2.5 set. We also won’t be covering χ, Union or Dark Road; all of those mobile games are very long. Maybe we can do a wrap up lore session on those when we get to it. We’re very excited to be launching on this journey and you can watch the first episode here:

Anime TV

One by One I Watch My Friends Disappear and I Wonder if the Psychic Gun Was Worth It

Spoiler Warning for the complete series and movies for Mobile Suit Gundam, Zeta, & Space Runaway Ideon

“Mobile Suit Zeta Gundam,” the 1985 sequel series to “Mobile Suit Gundam,” is notoriously bleak. The series strikes a much darker tone than the original, removing a lot of the ancillary comedic elements in favor of a more serious war series. The protagonist Kamille Bidan is a good encapsulation of Zeta’s change; he’s headstrong and way more aggressive than Amuro Ray. Zeta opens with him running away from school and immediately getting into a fight with army officers (including all time great shithead and Kamille’s series rival, Jerid Mesa). Kamille has a cantankerous relationship with his parents, specifically his engineer dad who we come to find is not only a leading Earth Federation worker but also a misogynistic adulterer. In the span of 5 episodes, Kamille steals the Gundam Mark II mobile suit from the Titan’s (the even more fascistic wing of the Earth Federation that essentially abuses power without repercussions) and runs away to the resistance group AEUG, only to have his mother killed in front of him (“accidentally” by Jerid) and later his dad (fleeing the AEUG to try to get back to his mistress, truly an all time bad dad). It’s a lot to take in and that’s even before the series starts to reckon with the political ramifications of the original series and the various failings of its two main leads. Zeta also has no compunction of killing its characters and its treatment of women is frequently awful. That’s not to say this isn’t a truly great series that earns a lot of its tragedy but Zeta does come with a lot of warning flags and a bit of whiplash immediately following Mobile Suit Gundam.

Unsurprisingly, Zeta ends on a big down note. The series factions come to a head over two dark episodes, where just about all of the characters meet an untimely end. It stands in dark contrast to Mobile Suit Gundam’s “the characters are all Newtypes now” ending, eschewing shared humanity for a darker exploration of sacrifice. I’m not opposed to a challenging ending but I found it less engaging than one of Tomino’s other works; “Space Runaway Ideon”. Ideon, the series Tomino followed up the original Gundam with, is a show that can be similarly dark telling a story of a group of people stuck in an endless battle trying to keep large institutional powers from acquiring a devastating weapon (one of my all time favorite shows now and I wrote about it last year). Ideon’s main series ends semi abruptly (it was canceled) with humanity being wiped out except for two babies. The 1982 movie follow up, “Be Invoked,” greatly expands upon the ending fleshing out the final battle between the Buff Clan and Solo Ship. Both Ideon and Zeta’s endings cover similar ground, but I find Ideon much more resonant and thematically consistent than its Gundam counterpart. It’s the way Ideon explores death that really sets it apart.

Zeta Gundam Reccoa
Hated Reccoa’s heel turn

The last two episodes of Zeta culminate in all three factions battling it out; our heroes in the AEUG, the ailing Titans and the ascending Axis (formed from the remnants of Zeon). The large-scale fight results in the aforementioned body count including the majority of the main cast. Zeta has a number of “doomed women” and the show’s rough gender dynamics culminate in back to back vignettes. Reccoa finally meets her doom on the other side of Emma’s gun punishment for defecting because she was entranced by Scirocco. Emma is then hit while piloting the Super Gundam which leads to her sustaining mortal wounds. After being pulled out of her suit, she speaks to Kamille about the power of the Zeta Gundam and passes on her life force. It’s a disappointing end for both women, who started out the show as strong individuals. To see them offered up as fodder for the special boy removes some of that core individuality. But the most shocking of death all isn’t a woman; Katz is unceremoniously destroyed when he accidentally crashes directly into an asteroid. All of these deaths plus the previous passing of Four and Sarah become significant, as the souls of these characters join Kamille to defeat Scirocco. The women and Katz allow Kamille to become the ultimate psychic gun to defeat the Titans. It’s a hollow victory as Kamille is left catatonic and his mind seems to be wiped clean. He’s calm and childlike as the Zeta cockpit transforms for him into a white liminal space. 

Gundam themes are often summarized as “war as hell” but are really much deeper. Zeta asks us to reckon with how political structures change in the aftermath of war and how passivity enables new, more fascistic regimes to subsume the old ones. Zeta also interrogates the cost of individual inaction; characters like Amuro stood aside and let the fascists take his place. Other people like Char failed to take a leadership role to fill the Zeon vacuum in the space colonies. What does this all lead to? The fascistic Titan regime on earth and the new Axis of Zeon repeating and creating new steps that harm people in their quests for power. Zeta stresses the need to continue fighting and that acquiescing to political structures leads to the same tragedies. And it all leads to others getting hurt, especially the women serving alongside. Zeta seems to say that these casualties are part of the machine to create the perfect weapon, in this case Kamille. The series highlights the roles these individuals play by showing how insignificant they actually are. What matters is Kamille and the Zeta Gundam and they were fodder for the psychic gun. In many ways the conflict is inevitable and the best we can hope for is a cause to rally behind.

Space Runaway Ideon Characters

Ideon takes a different tact in relating individuals to weapons of war. It’s viewpoint on destruction is also more spiritual; while Gundam often includes spirituality it doesn’t fully explore it in the way that Be Invoked does. Newtypes having a sixth sense and communing with the dead is one thing, but the “power of Ide” and our direct vision of the afterlife is much more overt. As I mentioned earlier, Be Invoked and Space Runaway Ideon as a whole can be pretty bleak. The story pertains to a group of space colonists from earth who accidentally stumble upon an ancient technological power; an interstellar spaceship (Solo Ship) and three vehicles that can form together to create a giant robot, the Ideon. They are forced to board these vehicles after aliens from the planet Buff attack them, the Buff believing that the colonists attacked one of their princesses, Karala (who incidentally is just fine and with the earthers). Before too long the colonists push back the Buff Clan and escape into space, finding that they are constantly pursued by the Buff army. The Buff soon starts to consider that these vehicles represent the mythologized “Ide”, an unlimited source of energy. The Ideon proves time and again just how powerful it is and over time begins to develop even more destructive powers.

Space Runaway Ideon

The series is essentially about how these colonists stay alive and keep the most destructive power in the universe out of the wrong hands. They’re constantly on the run as the show depicts how large ideological organizations misuse power and how their militaristic goals make them inherently untrustworthy. But the show is also concerned with how these same ideologies trap people into performing violent actions. There’s a strong feeling of “if they could only talk this out they wouldn’t fight!” running through this show but the Buff Clan’s warlike culture prevents them from ever having a productive or humanist conversation. The Buff Clan’s has a militaristic (also referenced as “samurai”) social hierarchy which rewards people based on military accomplishments. The Solo Ship acquiescing to them would mean handing a nuke over to an imperialistic force and the Buff would never back down from the perceived threat that the colonists possessed. And the colonists’ own home planet can’t be trusted; who knew the cultures between Buff and Earth would be so alike?

All of this fighting comes to a head in the final episode and movie where the power of Ide is invoked and all human life is extinguished from the universe, save for Lou Piper (baby on the Solo ship) and the unborn baby of Karala. Be Invoked expands the ending by depicting a larger final confrontation stretched out over 90 minutes. Be Invoked is often compared to End of Evangelion, which is fair for multiple reasons. First, it essentially replaces the original tv series ending. Second, both movies have a huge bloodbath as we watch as all of our main characters meet untimely ends. Both films culminate in an unknowable power being invoked but the two couldn’t be more different in their thematic intention. Both are hopeful, but Be Invoked finds hope in shared humanity where Eva finds hurt worth shouldering through.

Space Runaway Ideon Be Invoked Lou Piper

Be Invoked immediately jumps into the final battle between the Buff Clan and Solo Ship. The movie starts with the Buff Clan finally getting the Solo Ship on the ropes with their vastly larger space force. As the circumstances become more dire, the Ideon’s destructive power starts to increase. Both sides receive word that meteors have struck all their planets and colonies completely destroying their corresponding civilizations. The Buff Clan doubles down on the attack, sending an infiltration group including Kirala’s sister Harulu to board the Solo Ship. Harulu kills Kirala and her unborn child Messiah before being taken down herself. The Buff Clans boarding party opens the floodgates and waves of soldiers swarm the ship. One by one, our protagonists are struck down. The leader of the Buff, Doba, continues to order the attack even in the face of unspeakable destruction. The Buff Clan soldiers eventually execute him to stop the attack but it’s too late as the Ideon wipes them out. The power of Ide is invoked as all life is extinguished.

Instead of ending there the final moments of Be Invoked are spent in the afterlife. We see both Buff Clan and Solo Ship characters awaken and rejoice finding themselves free of the weight they carried in the living world. No more are they forced to fight, forced into situations designated by their civilization. Sisters Karala and Harulu no longer have to fight; the former being the deserter and the latter being the military leader hunting her down. There’s none of the baggage carried over and their spirits can once again connect on an unencumbered level. Ideon knows that these conflicts don’t take place in a vacuum; there’s important structures that force them into existence. When they lived, the Buff Clan could never let a powerful weapon be obtained by a different faction as it would threaten their vast empire. In death this no longer matters. The souls eventually fly off together to a new planet hoping to try again. 

Zeta Gundam Emma Death Scene
Emma’s final moments

I much prefer the Ideon’s depiction of relating human lives to destructive weaponry. The Ideon is uncontrollable even though humans try their best to. It’s mutually assured destruction and it eventually led to the end of all civilization. The show Ideon understands the ways in which ideology and society traps people and forces their actions. But it’s in its depiction of the afterlife we get the bittersweet message, how we’re not so different and how we’re all connected. We’re trapped now but on a metaphysical level we’re the same. Zeta’s more cynical ending doesn’t quite land the same for me. The psychic gun instead stands in for the destruction of war, the bodies piled up in the conflict. The protagonist wins, but at an immense cost to our crew. These characters are too trapped by their roles but Zeta’s more cynical worldview highlights the sacrifices over metaphysical exploration. It’s narrower focus is concerned with the immense cost of conflict. Ideon takes that one step further, interrogating the root causes of war amid the obvious connective tissue between people. Both understand why different cultures don’t understand one another and the polarization that power brings, but Ideon digs into the connections that are missed in conflict. Maybe it’s that Zeta was already part of a burgeoning series; ZZ Gundam began airing immediately after and continues the story (I’m currently watching, but still in the early goings). Ideon, with its definitive finale, grasps stronger thematic concepts that elude its Gundam successor.

Anime Movies

Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time Opens With a Moving Meditation on Community & Growth

After 9 years of waiting, Neon Genesis Evangelion has ended for a third (and hopefully final) time. Hideaki Anno has released another capstone to the popular series and the fourth and final film in the Rebuild movie series “Evangelion: 3.0+1.01 Thrice Upon a Time.” To my surprise, the final movie opens with the most beautiful hour of Evangelion, a slice of life character section that reckons with its theme about mental health and connection better than it ever has before. The series is notorious for being dark and tragic, chock full of moments where characters suffer great physical and mental harm. That doesn’t mean the series isn’t hopeful but it spends the majority of its time depicting the dangers of relationships, abusive behaviors, and what it means to suffer from mental illness. The Rebuild movies have been different though; they cover those topics as well but take a different tact. Starting with “Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance,” the series diverged from the original series’ plot points, character interactions, and narrative focus. That movie made time to have its characters exist outside the moments of mecha action and showed us them processing growing up, dealing with trauma and what it means to have healthy relationships. 3.0+1.01 smartly builds on this with its moving depiction of Shinji learning to trust others and love himself by coexisting through cooperative labor.

The downside to Evangelion’s previous two endings, the tv finale and the follow up “End of Evangelion,” were having Shinji’s growth tied to the more mystical aspects of the series. It’s easy to see Anno slowly iterating on how to depict the central theme of connectedness over the course of 25 years. The TV finale, episodes 25 and 26, are the start of that path but it’s incomplete. The two episodes are known for being a struggle to complete; Anno wavered on how the series should resolve, leading them to run up against deadlines and big budget cuts. The result are two abstract episodes, containing intercut clips, hand drawings and other visual art mediums, diverging from telling a more linear story. They both nonetheless finish on a positive note. Shinji realizes that he needs others and resolves to open himself up and rejects Seele’s Human Instrumentality Project to make all beings be merged together. Even if the plot is hard to parse, the themes are easy enough to understand; people’s individuality makes us special and opening ourselves up to others makes our lives richer, no matter how hard it may be. Fans hated this ending. The original Evangelion series contains a lot of mysteries that are not even close to being resolved by the finales. Not dissimilar to how negative reactions happen today, fans sent death threats to the studio and Anno.

Which eventually led to the two movies, “Death & Rebirth” (recap movie) and “End of Evangelion,” (EoE the promised final ending to replace the controversial TV finales). There’s a metatextual read that a lot of people make with EoE; Anno’s declining mental health, resulting from the fan backlash, led him to make an extremely dark version of the finale. That read has helped me salvage parts of it that I do like, that no matter how cruel people can be to us the path forward is always to keep yourself open. There’s a lot of thematic content about the movie that I really like and I think a darker take could help hammer down Evangelion’s exploration of loneliness. It’s too bad that the movie itself is so vile, almost 90 minutes destruction that starts with Shinji committing sexual assault (the notorious “I’m so fucked up” scene). From that point it’s hard to route for Shinji, who’s more comatose than ever as people are annihilated around him. The uncharitable read is that Anno is making the most negative choices for all of his characters as a response to the fan backlash. Moments like Misato using the promise of sex to motivate Shinji certainly seem like a monkey’s paw for anime fans. I think the more real read is Anno using the template of a classic anime, the stone-cold classic Space Runaway Ideon movie “Be Invoked,” to explore his pain and trauma once again. The result though is mean and gross in a way that doesn’t earn the damage it puts its characters through.

Evangelion 3.0+1.01 Kensuke & Shinji

3.0+1.01 has the exact opposite tone of EoE. It has a strain of positivity running through it that I don’t think has ever existed in any other piece of Evangelion. That all starts with its opening hour with our trio of protagonists in the village. After the beginning action set piece (my favorite action scene in the movie btw), we are reintroduced to Shinji, Asuka, and Alternate Rei walking along the apocalyptic scenery after the end of 3.0. They’re eventually picked up and transported to a small village. This village has started to regain some normalcy; the surrounding environment has recovered and they are able to farm crops and have access to drinking water (thanks to the technology from WILLE shown off in the opening set piece). We’re reintroduced to civilian characters that had disappeared after 2.0; Shinji’s friends and classmates Toji Suzuhara, Hikari Horaki and Kensuke Aida. These characters ground Shinji in a more real world. These characters don’t take part in the grander mythos of Eva having nothing to do with large robots, angels, or Human Instrumentality. As regular civilians they’ve had to deal with the after effects of these battles and learned to adapt to the apocalyptic scenarios the Earth faced. All three characters obliquely reference the hardships they’ve endured to survive, but all display an upbeat attitude. Their attitudes are the exact opposite of Shinji as they were never afforded the luxury to close themselves off. Essentially when their lives were altered they had to grow up fast and have learned to cherish the things in their lives in a way that the protagonists from NERV never did (they’re also the only ones to have physically aged as well). When acts of god are occurring all you can do is soldier on.

Their growth tied to material conditions in the real-world anchors Shinji’s and allows him to change in a way he never has in previous Eva media. He starts in a predictable mode; closed off, feeling a strong mixture of shame, regret, and self pity around how his actions have caused so much harm. Shinji has always had his decisions turn out horribly although that’s less of his fault and is actually from Gendo’s abusive manipulation of him. He still blames himself though and his response is close up almost to the point of being comatose. Being around the village is at first too much for him; he blames himself for how the citizens’ lives ended up and despises that his friends try to take care of him. He moves himself to the outskirts where the old NERV facility used to be like a cat running away to die. Alternate Rei meanwhile has ingratiated herself into the village and takes part in the cooperative labor of harvesting, finding a newfound happiness through the human connections she’s making. She learns how fulfilling being a part of a community feels and decides to help out Shinji. Alternate Rei’s growth is beautiful here but the movie does her a major disservice. You’ll notice I call her Alternate Rei; 3.0+1.01 makes a clear distinction between this genetic copy and the “real” version we last saw in 2.0. While Alternate Rei learns about shared humanity and cooperation, she inevitably gets removed from the movie by reverting her into a goop of LCL.

Evangelion Rei Farming

Before then though, she decides that she’s going to take care of Shinji and bring him food. Her routine of visiting him daily lasts for what seems like weeks in the movie. Eventually she gets through to him enough that he breaks down. He asks her through tears why Alternate Rei and the village continue to help him; she replies with “Because we like you.” It’s a tender moment, where Shinji realizes that even though he feels responsible for their suffering they still find redemption in him. Shinji starts to piece together that he needs to forgive himself first before he can bring himself back into the community of the village. This is the first time where Shinji as a character has been able to make this connection outside of the pivotal climax of Eva. He gets to learn through others actions, not large-scale metaphysical battles, that he’s worthy of human connection. Shinji gets to actually reckon with the abuse he’s suffered at the hands of adults and reckon with the trauma that came with it. After following the series for 13 years, it’s so rewarding seeing him make true connections. Getting to experience Shinji actually building relationships with people was truly gratifying in a way that the mecha action never surpasses.

Evangelion 3.0+1.01 Shinji & Rei

The best part too is that his growth is also grounded in the cooperative nature of the village. His return is marked by contributing to Kensuke’s work. Shinji begins to tag along with him for his daily tech operations to keep the village running and secure. Shinji’s redemption is tied to directly making contributions instead of feeling sorry for himself. He realizes that walling himself off won’t help attone for the shame he feels and that he can find fulfillment in actually helping improve the citizens’ lives. Shinji also realizes that he has a place in the world and that he can be a part of something. He’s been misled and failed in his role as protector before, but he finds a new commitment through working to understand peoples’ conditions. It’s the most open we’ve ever seen Shinji and he actually gets to work through his trauma with others. He’s never been afforded the chance to be part of something that is so spiritually enriching and connecting. Anno seems to finally understand how to illustrate that next step of wanting to connect with others by playing an active role in coexisting with them. Shinji returning the favor to the village by taking care of him grants him a new autonomy over his actions. He finally gets to feel in control of himself. I couldn’t have imagined a better send off for the character.

The remaining hour and half had no hope of reaching the same highs. The other piece of Evangelion needs to be dealt with and we get the return of the mecha action and convoluted lore. The Rebuild movies shift to CGI and ridiculously large-scale fight scenes have left me a little cold and this final one is no different. I’m also not really interested in the ridiculous puzzle pieces of mythology anymore so I got a bit numb to the proper nouns being thrown around (“Eva Imaginary,” “Anti Universe,” and “Black Lilith” to name a few). We also get a huge upswing of the gross “fan service”; lots of boob and ass shots of girls in tight normal suits. While Mari becomes slightly more of a character here (and is weirdly important to the lore?), we are also treated to many shots of her butt and her talking about her big boobs. 

The positivity from that first section is carried all the way through though; I’ve never felt a more powerful resolve in all of the characters before. Shinji himself is more confident throughout as well, knowing who he is and what he has to do. Comparisons to Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks the Return are warranted; Shinji is a character with a purpose. The forgiveness and tenderness Shinji displays to all of the characters he reunites with in the abstract last half hour are really touching. His growth anchors an almost perfect resolution to the series as a whole. The last section of waking up in a real-world Japan analogue is a bit hokey; I would’ve preferred he returned to the village. Regardless, I think the first village section ties a definitive bow on Shinji’s character arc and the Evangelion series as a whole. I don’t think anyone could top that piece of Evangelion and I hope no one tries.