Ghost Detective Review

“Everybody dies. Nobody leaves.”

Private detective of sorts Myron Vale has good reason to be reclusive. Ghosts remain on Earth after someone dies. ALL of them. Myron is twice cursed by a lingering injury, as not only can he see and interact with the multitude of ghosts everyone else is unaware of, he can’t tell them from the living…

 

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Ghost Detective surrounds a strong hard boiled detective core with a fascinating supernatural concept. The blending of the two genres really works and the premise is well used. Little details, like Myron being a recluse, arise naturally and make things feel authentic within the extraordinary setup.

The story is a little heavy on plot convenient coincidence and a few things fit too neatly, but it’s still compelling overall, with logical progression and reasonably interesting characters and developments. This is a good opening book, and Myron’s adventures have the potential to be even better going forward.

Usagi Yojimbo Vol 31 Review

The Hell Screen is volume 31 of Stan Sakai’s samurai epic, Usagi Yojimbo. It’s another volume that benefits from having read Usagi’s previous adventures but also stands reasonably well on its own.

 

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For those who are new to Usagi, a comment from my review of Vol. 1 on Sakai’s choice of medium that has remained relevant throughout the comic’s long run:

“The use of amorphous animals as the characters might seem unusual to first time readers, but it gives Sakai more visual diversity and symbolism to play with, and is executed with such finesse that it quickly becomes impossible to imagine the book without this choice. Don’t mistake the presence of animals as people as a sign this is a ‘kid’s book.’ Usagi Yojimbo covers a period of war, political unrest, and an unhealthy level of danger and can get dark and bloody at times.”

 

The titular story is three parts long and features the return of one of Usagi’s most trusted companions in a murder mystery amid the backdrop of temple marked for possible redevelopment. It features a disturbing screen depicting Hell at it’s center, and various suspicious individuals with their own agendas and paranoias. The mystery honestly isn’t as compelling as usual this time, but the story was more about the themes of conflict and selfishness anyway and appropriately well told.

 

The trade is filled out with four shorter stories that similarly feature a mix of themes relating to desperation, consequences, and looking beyond the surface. The inevitability of fate is also looked at, from a couple different points of view. There’s a story of a town victimized during their struggle to survive a rainstorm and flood and a thoughtful follow up about the fate of one of the citizens at the hands of a monster, a contrast of debt and duty, and a tale of responsibility and sacrifice that sees Usagi escort a man and his elderly mother to see his father in the mountains.

The messages (both positive and negative) are a little heavy handed this time but fit with the ongoing narrative and Usagi’s character. The story with the greatest potential ended too quickly and in a predictable, unsatisfying manner, but there are a couple of gems here as well.

Overall this is another good installment in Sakai’s epic, if not quite reaching its usual standards in my eyes.

Evolve 91 and Progress NYC Live Review

August 12, 2017 in Queens, NY

Evolve returned Queens yesterday, but in a new venue at Elmcor Youth and Adult Activities Center, presumably to better handle the large crowd expected for Progress wrestling’s NY debut in the second half of the double header.

 

I want to spend the majority of this talking about the wrestling, so let me address this upfront: the venue turned out to be a horrible choice for the Progress event. During the Evolve event it was largely fine (although the floor seats and ring being down a giant set of bleachers was not at all disability friendly). But there were plenty of seats open for that event and no standing room fans. For Progress every seat was taken, both reserved and GA bleachers, and there were tons of standing room tickets sold. The arena became a suana, with no air flow at all and an unbearable level of heat. Cramming 1,500+ people into that space was irresponsible and dangerous. Two fans needed help from fainting.

Most disappointing has been the reactions I’ve seen, both from fans not at the venue and people involved with WWNLive. There’re undercurrents that it’s somehow wrong to “complain” about this situation because it could damage the company/business and that this type of things should be expected and just has to be accepted when attending indie events. Both are utter nonsense. People should not have to fear heat exhaustion nor fainting when going to an event they paid money for, nor should everyone have to rush to concessions to literally buy bottles of water in handfuls (which was only available on and off) to try and prevent such things. The venue was improperly ventilated and cooled, and way oversold. As fans we have to stop accepting this as normal, and call out those who dismiss valid concerns as “moaning and complaining.”

I would like to note that Progress has not yet made a statement about this (due to being busy with something else I’ll discuss later), and was extremely apologetic about the heat during the show. Also, the wrestlers (who were clearly suffering from the sweltering conditions themselves) ran to get water for a fainting fan in the front row and stood in front of him fanning him. It seemed they were doing everything they could to deal with the unfortunate circumstances. If they arranged the venue (which is unlikely considering it was a double header with an established company in this country), I hope they accept responsibility and do better in the future. If WWNLive did (which is probable), I hope Progress holds them accountable and takes steps to ensure a safer environment for their fans next time.

 

Alright, on to the shows themselves.

 

Evolve 91

The “Troll Boys” of Ethan Page and ACH came out together for the opening contest against each other, which was meant as punishment for not taking their last match seriously and goofing around. So they didn’t take this one seriously and goofed around, putting on a parody match poking fun at a lot of the current conventions in well regarded matches. Page is better at the comedy stuff than ACH, so this was uneven. The angle also appears to be backfiring a bit, as most of the crowd is highly amused by the petulant, selfish antics of these two and thus they’re getting over as FACES by being assholes. That’s not really good for any of the stories Evolve’s trying to tell. Hard to rate this. I didn’t like it and again if they’re supposed to be heels it was a failure, but in straight up terms of getting a crowd reaction it definitely succeeded.

 

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As expected, Darby Allin defeated Timothy Thatcher in their rematch by surprising the veteran with some nice grapple based wrestling to further Darby’s quest to be seen as more than a stuntman. Him pulling out the coffin drop to the floor again undercuts that sentiment, but overall the story was solid and Darby is improving in the ring (although I personally don’t care for his style). Thatcher of course played his part to perfection in putting the rookie over on what seemed like his way out of Evolve for a while. Shame, as he’s one of my favorite parts of the promotion.

 

EVOLVE Tag Team Champions James Drake & Anthony Henry are making quite a strong impression so far and looked very good against a surprisingly fun makeshift team of Fred Yehi & Jason Kincaid. Kincaid continues to really make the most of his gimmick and the slow burn angle of the zen master having trouble controlling his temper is progressing nicely.

 

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The Progress involvement in the latter half of the show was excellent, with a strong match between Mark Haskins and Austin Theory and a hell of a tag match between Chris Dickinson & Jaka and The South Pacific Power Trip (Travis Banks & TK Cooper). All six men involved in those two matches looked quite good.

The main event fatal four way for the WWN Title was as great as expected. There were nice threads running underneath the hard hitting action, such as bitter rivals Matt Riddle and Tracy Williams breifly working together to try to control their much larger opponents (Keith Lee and WALTER) to retain, Williams acting like a vulture constantly trying to take advantage of everyone else’s work to steal a win, and the two behemoths getting interrupted a few times before finally laying into each other. The strikes Riddle, Lee, and Walter hit each other with were unreal. One incredible spot saw Lee German suplex Walter while Walter was trying to do so to Riddle, sending the champ FLYING across the ring. In a somewhat surprising finish Riddle made Williams tap in the center of the ring with the Bromission, seemingly definitively dealing with his former stablemate without a singles match. Excellent stuff overall. Lee and Riddle have another tentative fist bump after the match, and it’s clear at some point Lee’s going to lose patience with coming up short to his friend and snap in spectacular fashion.

Good show from Evolve with a lot of strong action and a good look at some of the Progress talent which got me even more excited for the second show to come.

 

Progress

This was my first experience with Progress, and it certainly lived up to the hype. The atmosphere was INCREDIBLE, with the crowd going nuts right off the bat and launching into a “please come back” chant as soon as the show started. Jimmy Smallman was overwhelmed and extremely gracious and grateful. He addressed the topic on everybody’s mind right away, bringing out Pete Dunne who was scheduled to defend the WWE European Title against Jack Gallagher but was injured the night before and not cleared to wrestle. Dunne, who the crowd was thrilled to see at all, was masterful in getting them to boo him regardless and eventually stomped off when Jack came out to issue a challenge for a later date. Zack Gibson then came out to run down Jack to boos so loud he could barely cut his promo, and we had our replacement match. It was a treat to see Jack live and they held nothing back, putting on a strong opener with absolutely incredible heat.

The other bonus appearance of WWE contracted talent was next as Dakota Kai (the former Evie) teamed with Dahlia Black (who had seconded the South Pacific Power Trip during the Evolve show) against Jinny & Deonna Purazzo. A little rough in parts and Jinny seemed rather limited in the ring, but this was a very good tag match overall that got the crowd involved after energy dropped a little following Jack’s match. Kai’s past was acknowledged with healthy “Team Kick” chants. Good job and excellent effort from all four. Nice Progress debut’s for Kai and Purazzo.

In a contest featuring two of my personal favorites, Timothy Thatcher defeated Donovan Dijak in a number one contendership match for Progress’ Atlas Championship. Dijak is so smooth and fluid (especially for his size) he’s always a pleasure to watch. Really enjoyed this battle of Dijak’s agility against Thatcher’s ground game.

 

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The next match was said to be ending the first half because “there will probably be a lot of clean up needed” following it, and everyone knew it was tim for Jimmy Havoc’s no-DQ match against the debuting Joey Janela. In a crazy match featuring cinder blocks, tables, and Janela being dropped barefoot first onto thumbtacks, the most impressive spot was amusingly Janela being monkey-flipped out of a chair by Havoc, holding onto it, and landing STILL SEATED in the chair. This was great, and Havoc’s everything I’d heard and more.

After intermission, Smallman pointed out a fan in the front row that had travelled to see the show, and it turned into a marriage proposal to his girlfriend next to him. The crowd got into the happy moment and it was a wonderful thing to share in. 🙂 Really awesome of Progress to make time during their show for a special moment for a fan.

Then Mark Haskins and Mark Andrews came out for their previously advertised three-way with Zack Gibson. Smallman said it was advertised as a multi-man match, so that’s what we were getting, and called out a third man in the form of Austin Theory. Great choice, as not only is Theory an extremely capable rising star with good heat behind his current heel gimmick, he had some built in backstory from losing to Haskins on the Evolve show earlier in the day. But before they can start Smallman says it’s an important night so let’s go big and make it a four-way, and out comes Keith Lee (!!!) to a thunderous reaction. Excellent match, with everyone firing on all cylinders and the monstrous Lee once again demonstrating why he’s both incredible and crazy by throwing people around, attempting moonsaults, and taking Canadian Destroyers and reverse ranas. One jaw dropping spot saw a normal looking tower of doom arrangement turned on its head when Lee walked out of the corner carrying Theory in powerbomb position, who was STILL HOLDING Andrews straight up in superplex position. The strength and balance of all three men there is amazing. By a slim margin this may have been my favorite of the night.

 

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The big Progress’ Tag Title match seeing British Strong Style (Trent Seven & Tyler Bate) defend against The South Pacific Power Trip (TK Cooper & Travis Banks) was cut short early when Cooper injured his ankle on a corkscrew dive to the floor. Once the ref threw up the “x” and had people coming out to help Smallman explained that TK was injured and asked everyone to please be patient while they figured out what was going on. While this was happening a fan in the front row opposite had medical issues (apparently due to dehydration) and British Strong Style got him water and fanned him while Tk was being checked across the ring. The fan was helped out and TK eventually carried out by wrestlers. It’s been reported that TK dislocated his ankle, and the Progress crew was in the hospital with him last night after the show before heading to Boston for today’s. Smallman thanked the crowd for their patience and respect afterwards during the unexpected, unfortunate situation.

He then said that Banks was insisting on fighting, and while it’d have to be non-title, if we wanted to see it there could be a handicap match between him and the champs. Banks said now it’s “not about titles anymore, it’s about family.” They did a good job adjusting and putting on a decent little underdog match that saw Banks eventually use the champs’ numbers against them and neutralize the interfering Dunne to isolate one member and get a quick three count for the feel good win.

 

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Last up was Progress’ Atlas Champion WALTER defending the title against the man he won it from, Matt Riddle. After seeing the two of them interact during the WWN four-way title match I was hyped up for this, and it was fantastic. They hit the hell out of each other, Riddle bounced around as Walter showed his strength, and Riddle showed his own astounding strength tossing Walter and hitting THREE Bro-to-Sleeps throughout the match. Eventually The King of Bros locked in the Bromission to win the title back and send the crowd into a frenzy.

 

From the action to the atmosphere to the way they operated in difficult circumstances Progress’ NYC debut was a huge success. The hellish venue was unfortunate, but the show itself was incredible and a wonderful introduction for me to a promotion I’ve heard a ton about.

Japan Cuts 2017: In This Corner of the World Review

Japan Society’s annual Japan Cuts Film Festival for 2017 started on July 13th and ran through July 23rd. My thoughts on 2015’s festival can be read starting here and on last year’s starting here. This year I’ve previously seen and reviewed Mumon, Tokyo Idols, and The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue.

 

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Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms is one of my favorite manga of all time. Fumiyo Kōno’s tale of life in the shadow of the nuclear bombs during the following decades is thoughtful, informative, and masterfully told. So I was extremely interested when I found out that her other work about the war was being adapted into an animated movie, and pleased when I found out Japan Cuts would be screening it.

The scope of In This Corner of the World is likewise how the war affected everyday life in Japan, but this time Kōno presents a picture of gradual effects and changes, as well as point of view of average people, leading up to and during the war.

The focal point is a young woman named Suzu who goes through school, gets married, and joins a new family against the backdrop of increasingly dire world events. There’s a wonderful use of time passage to illustrate key aspects of the story. The viewers are given little glimpses of both significant and mundane experiences to establish the status quo of Suzu’s life at different stages. The careful balance of light, amusing moments and interactions of normal life, the adjustments forced by the background war, and the more heartbreaking, “gut punch” events and realities of war combine to form a genuine feeling, important look at a dark time in world history.

The knowledge of what’s going to happen to Suzu’s hometown of Hiroshima tensely looms over the movie and the lives observed. Seeing their everyday concerns and normal worries (including arranged marriage, growing up, self-doubt, etc) intermixed with those of life and death makes the war less abstract in an important way. As such there are certain things that can predicted (yet still have enormous impact when they happen) and others that are still complete shocks and upend the viewers’ expectations. The film is frank in its depictions without anything feeling exaggerated or exploitive. The reality of the war and dropping of the atomic bombs is more than horrific enough. The numerous effects, physical, emotional, societal, etc, all creep into Suzu’s life in harsh ways that are allowed to resonate with the viewer due to the film refusing to shy away from showing the impact they have on the attitudes and outlooks of those affected. The actual violence shown differs in graphicness, often focusing more on the aftermath yet occasionally presenting graphic details for emphasis in certain situations.

The animation is gorgeous and perfectly captures Kōno’s drawing style and adapts it for film and motion. The color palate is beautiful and helps to draw viewers completely into the narrative. Producer Taro Maki mentioned it was well researched to be historically accurate in the representation of scenery.  The contrast of soft visuals depicting often horrific and tense events and situations works quite well to highlight the themes and emotions the film means to convey.

 

Producer Taro Maki was excellent during the post viewing Q&A, responding well to sensitive topics (including the fact that the everyday citizens of Japan would have been informed by propaganda and not aware of larger world events, leading to the presence of points of view in the film some audience members incorrectly took as biased endorsements of Japan’s side) as well as sharing interesting insight into the crowdfunding aspects of the film’s production. His appearance was somewhat of a full circle for me, as I saw a screening of Millennium Actress many years ago that he also attended and held a Q&A at.

 

In This Corner of the World is opening for limited theater release in the US on August 11. It’s both excellent and important. I highly recommend seeing it if you can.

The Captain is Dead Board Game Review (First Impressions)

Here’s a “survive dire straits” scenario as the players are crew members on a damaged starship under attack by aliens and the captain has just been killed. Can a random assortment of lower level crew hold off the aliens and stem the damage long enough to repair the jump core and escape to safety?

 

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I wasn’t sure what to expect going into this curiously themed cooperative game, dripping with Star Trek homages and a combination of tongue in cheek humor and impending doom.

If ever there was a game that exceeded my expectations, it’s The Captain is Dead. The odd premise is incredibly fun and engaging from the moment the game begins, as well as being ingeniously integrated into the gameplay and highly engrossing.There’s a real sense of entropy that the players need to get ahead of to succeed.

The mechanics are solid and really conductive to the game’s feel of being able to respond just enough to the ever increasing pressure.  Little touches like random starting damage to the ship and distinct, useful player abilities contribute to the immersion. The implementation of the starships various “systems” is a fantastic hook. In general powered up versions of basic actions are available until/unless that system goes down. It makes it important to repair things and gives the players important decisions while still allowing a minimum level of effectiveness and choice when things are damaged/destroyed.

The group will need to react to the situation as needed, so there is the possibility of some players could have to to run a lot of “damage control” and end up doing the same things over and over. A willingness to adjust play style to what’s needed is key, so this admittedly might not necessarily appeal to players who prefer to be proactive and have total control over their role in the game.

The replayability for this looks to be incredibly high. The random elements in terms of the order of increasingly severe obstacles and a simple but deep card based approach to skills and actions provide great variability from game to game on their own. On top of that though is a variety of player roles with unique powers that have a big effect on gameplay. Changing just one of the four characters we were paying with would have completely changed our strategy and made for a significantly different experience.

With four players (three of us were new to the game) things seemed balanced at like the game would scale well to different player counts. With a bit of luck we survived by the skin of our teeth on “Veteran” difficulty (the exact middle of the seven possible levels), which seemed reasonable with a couple of seasoned gamers at the table. Success felt difficult but possible, which is exactly what a good co-op should strive for.

Great co-op all around. Maybe not something I’d want to play constantly due to its specific nature, but definitely one I want to revisit at some point. Highly recommended for anyone who’s ok with reactive gameplay and the quirky sci-fi setting.

 

Thunder and Lightning Board Game Review (First Impressions)

 

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Thunder and Lightning is a unique card game that combines hand management and elements from the classic game Stratego in interesting ways. The latter part particularly intrigued me. 

Cards are played face down on opposing sides in (up to) 3 by 4 grids. Your first row can challenge your opponents first row Stratego style, with the higher value winning and staying on the board while the lower is discarded. There are a lot of little details that add up to surprising depth, such as the number of actions a player gets depending on how many columns they have in play, specific card actions and abilities, and the ability to decided which cards are kept in hand versus on the table. 

All of it put together means the game has a rather steep learning curve with regards to strategy. The mechanics are easy to grasp, but I fumbled around during first game in terms of trying to win, only starting to get feel for how I should be playing towards the end. As such while I think I really like it, it will take more plays for a final verdict.

It’s nice that there are a few ways to play/win (such one player not being able to use all their actions on a turn), although finding the opposing ring/crown does seem like it’d be the game ender 90% of the time. I think the alternate conditions are there to prevent certain stalemates, which is good foresight.

 

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The art is beautiful, and the components of good quality. The player markers are nice but completely unnecessary, feeling tacked on to justify the asking price. I have mixed feelings on the oversized cards. It makes reading the text easier and emphasizes the aforementioned excellent artwork, but it’s really awkward for the (up to) 8 row setup and the powers are worded such that it’s often necessary to reference the rulebook anyway (which lessens the ease of reading advantage). I kind of wish the cards had been designed/printed horizontally instead of vertically, although that would have admittedly made the hand management aspect more difficult. 

Overall I enjoyed my first play of Thunder and Lightning and am looking forward to the opportunity to try it again and see if I have a better feel for strategy and how everything is supposed to work together.

 

Quick Thoughts: Century: Spice Road and Einstein

Some quick impressions on my first experiences with a couple of new games.

 

Century: Spice Road

 

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This is a decent little engine builder where you use various acquired cards to get and swap “spices” (colored cubes) in order to get the proper combinations to trade them for victory point cards.

 

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Not much to say positive or negative about this one. It’s accessible and solid but a little bland for my tastes and nothing about it stands out enough for me to be in a rush to play again. Would likely be a good gateway game though, and what it does it does well so it’ll definitely appeal to a fair number of gamers more than it does to me.

I’ve heard this compared favorably to Splendor, but I personally can’t speak about that as I’ve never played the latter.

 

 

 

 

Einstein: His Amazing Life and Incomparable Science

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That full title is a mouthful. Einstein is a quick, fun game that’s simple to play but has a nice sense of depth. Each player has the same number of four set shapes to play (representing different academic disciplines) but unique “ideas” (compound shapes) on cards in their hands that they are trying to create in the central play area. The catch is any basic shapes of your opponents’ that you use give them bonuses. The shapes fit together well and in interesting ways and a general pool of “major idea” cards that anyone can complete add nice options. Cool little light abstract.

 

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Will be back with more soon. 🙂