Not Your Traditional Heroes

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Justice League: Gods and Monsters is the latest DC animated movie, and opens with a vision of a dying Krypton where a familiar villain interrupts a last ditch effort to save the species and contributes his own genetic material to the child’s makeup. With General Zod now the biological father of Superman, the world is a vastly different place. Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman still fight what they see as evil but their ideals, identities, and even their very nature, are a far cry from what we’re used to.

I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but I really enjoyed Gods and Monsters. The key is that tribute was paid to the ideas and characters being borrowed but they let the reimagining go where it needed to to tell a good story. This is not a what-if adventure where one small thing is change an the effects are examined. The tweaks to Superman’s origin are just the beginning, and in some ways are the least drastic of the changes in store. Some extremely important characters, concepts, etc. one would expect to see are nowhere to be found, because they wouldn’t have fit. I like the focus shown and the commitment to embracing this universe and this story instead of letting things balloon out of hand. There are cameos and nods to familiar faces and they’re well done, serving as nice nods for those who catch them without being intrusive.

There are strong themes of responsibility and nature vs nurture woven into the story without slowing down the action or getting preachy. The flashbacks break up the flow a bit, but they are interesting and allow us to really understand what’s driving these new versions of our heroes so it’s well worth the slight pacing issues. The animation has a sleek look, and is appropriate for the atmosphere and style of the tale. And I have to admit watching harder edged versions of familiar characters was captivating.

JL: Gods and Monsters is another great movie from DC’s animated catalogue.

PS – The special features discuss numerous classic alternate reality stories from DC comics as well as the inspiration and ideas behind Gods an Monsters, and were a nice little treat after watching the film.

Lost Dimension Follow Up: 2nd + Times the Charm

I reviewed Lost Dimension after a complete playthrough, then continued on in new game + mode. I’ve now finished two additional plays, and received the true ending. I’ll avoid spoilers but there is enough to talk about that I wanted to share some thoughts.

It’s impossible to get the true ending in one play, because you need to max out your camaraderie levels with everyone and it can’t be done for the characters chosen in the early judgements. So it will require at least two times through the game. I got unlucky and one character was an early traitor for me twice, so I needed a third complete play to get the ending.

The nice thing is the game carries over skill points and lets you redistribute them, so the team is pretty powerful upfront. Also dialogue you’ve seen before can be fast forwarded, so I completed BOTH subsequent playthroughs in less time combined than the first took me. The battle system is fun so I didn’t mind tackling them again, especially since hunting for traitors meant I was using different batches of characters each time.

The biggest weakness of the game in my first playthrough was some concepts and motivations seemed underdeveloped, which I chalked up to the fluid nature of the game and the traitor identities. This is actually disproven by the true ending. Everything is explained and it all makes sense within the story we’ve been following all along. While there’s a lot that remains mysterious until the end there were hints and I pieced together most of it as I completed all the camaraderie links. The ending wasn’t perfect but it was fitting , tied up all the loose ends and made sense.

So I have to say I love the game even more now. It’s hard to sell people on a game that requires multiple play throughs to get the story’s completion, but I don’t think it would be disappointing even if you stopped at once and the game does enough to make those subsequent plays enjoyable that I highly recommend giving Lost Dimension a try.

Ghost Stories: Black Secret First Impressions

Ghost Stories is one of my favorite cooperative board games, and I’ve played numerous times with a varying number of players, and with and without the White Moon expansion. While I wasn’t quite sure how things would work out having someone play the villain, the idea was intriguing and adding a fifth player had appeal so I recently picked up the Black Secret expansion.

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Gameplay:

As I alluded to above, the gist of the Black Secret expansion is that one player actively takes the role of Wu Feng and works against all of the other players. There are three main aspects to this:

  1. The Wu Feng player now controls the ghost phase, including where each new ghost is placed. Instead of placing the ghost, there are options to cast curses or summon demons.
  2. Curses are tokens played on a special board that harm the taoists. They are color coded and must match the color of the ghost the Wu Feng player is discarding to play the curse. They are played in a pyramid structure, with stronger curses available as you near the top.
  3. Demons are agents of Wu Feng represented by three plastic figures that roam an underground board that directly correlates to the main game board. The demons “dig” in the dungeon, searching for three relics that will unleash Wu Feng’s avatar on the village. As the demons dig they may find nothing, bonuses for their master, bonuses for the players or the artifacts they seek. If the demons are successful, Wu Feng’s figure is placed in the village, can not be attacked/beaten/removed, and can attack players every turn.

In return, there are a couple things meant to aid the players as well:

  1. Each time any player loses a life point, they place it on a card. When a certain number of points get placed on a card the players get that card’s bonus. There is a new villager tile that allows players to swap out the cards to get bonuses of their liking,
  2. When any player is down to one life, they get the power of the player opposite them as well as their own.

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Thoughts:

Black Secret is an interesting expansion, but one that tries a bit too hard. There are an almost overwhelming amount of new components and rules, and in the end a lot of them were a bit perplexing.

The Demons: The demons have a summoning mechanic, a whole new board devoted to them, unique plastic figures, a system connecting it to the main board using ladders that can be destroyed, a special phase of each turn for them, etc. And their entire purpose is to search stacks of tiles. That’s it. They can’t fight/hurt/hinder the taoists in any other way, and all a taoist has to do is be on the same spot to keep the demon from digging.

Now this is a problem for the taoists since there are often much more important things to be doing, and there can be several demons out at once. And if the demons succeed in getting to the bottom of the right piles Wu Feng’s avatar appears, which is major trouble because now it’s the taoists who can’t do anything about it. This is kind of the point of our issues – the Wu Feng player spent most of the game wishing his cool looking demons could do something besides dig, and the rest of us realized if the avatar came out what very little chance of success we had was pretty much immediately eliminated. This aspect would have been a lot more interesting if there was more give and take in each stage of progression.

Balance:

While the demon part could have been better, it wasn’t a deal breaker. The bigger issue was that in trying to justify the expansion and make sure the Wu Feng player had enough to do, things were moved too far from the rest of the players. Having the Wu Feng player in control of the ghost phase and adding the demon phase meant that on every players turn he had two phases, then the player whose turn it actually was got to move and take an action. With the full four taoists we were essentially waiting for 11 phases to pass before we got to do anything again, with 8 of those phases belonging to the Wu Feng player. Making things even worse was the fact that with things tilted in the favor of Wu Feng, there was usually an obvious best move to make, so our turn didn’t even feel like a turn when it did come around.  Our Wu Feng player wasn’t thrilled either, as after the game he remarked it was interesting but he got to the point where he wanted a break, as he was basically constantly playing for the full time.

Beyond play time the other balance issue with giving the Wu Feng player the ghost phases was difficulty. Ghost Stories is a notoriously hard game in the first place, and not being able to place ghosts in advantageous positions for fighting ramps that up even more. Obviously we probably weren’t playing optimally, but we didn’t find the benefits given to the taoists even remotely countered the added advantages given to Wu Feng.

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Overall

Black Secret expansion for Ghost Stories seemed to tilt things WAY too far to towards the player playing the bad guy, in both game advantages and gaming time. I really wish they had handled certain elements differently, as the core ideas are really good. Not the best first experience, but the game was still fun overall and I’d be up for giving the expansion another shot sometime.

Lost Dimension: Video Game AND Logic Puzzle In One

In the near future, the world is in ruin with just days left before total destruction at the hands of a suitably over the top villain who calls himself “The End.” An elite secret service group is put together to stop him, but only a handful survive the initial assault and make it into his tower. They all have special powers, but The End has a nasty surprise in store: there are traitors among them.

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At its core Lost Dimensions is a action/strategy rpg, and an extremely good one. There is a central hub where the characters plan between levels. Here you manage/buy equipment, get to know the other characters, learn new skills, etc. The nested menus are a little overwhelming, but nothing crazy and it doesn’t take too long to get used to them. Most importantly they’re functional and fairly clear despite being numerous. The skill system is pretty robust and does a nice job of keeping characters varied while making them all relatively useful. The first couple of characters you talk to during each interlude receive a camaraderie boost, leading to improved influence over them and personal discussions that flesh out their backstories.  The hub also has a key role that opens a bit into the game – gathering intel to identify traitors. I’ll discuss this in detail later.

The gameplay isn’t quite the dungeon crawler (well, tower climber in this case) that I might have expected, but absolutely no complaints. And it does have a bit of that feel during individual levels. The levels are self-contained mini-mazes with enemies that generally need to be wiped out. You generally field six characters, and can move them in any order each turn. Each moves freely within a circular indicated range, and then can attack, use skills/items, or even forfeit their turn to allow an ally to move again. There are other nice nuances, and the battles proceed quickly and are quite fun. I don’t think I’ve seen an action oriented implementation of squad combat like this that’s deep yet keeps things brisk. I enjoyed it immensely.

The story is fine. Nothing terribly deep and a bit cliched, but it moves things along and there’s a nice mystery that builds about the villain’s connection to our protagonist, Sho. The game’s key innovation also hamstrings proper story development a little. Let me explain – at the end of each layer of the tower The End makes you sacrifice a suspected traitor from among your group. This is done via in game vote, and there are numerous things you can do during a layer to get your teammates to target someone specific.

The cool thing is other than the first one on your first playthrough, the identity of each traitor is COMPLETELY RANDOM. There’s no way of knowing in advance whether it’s going to be your least favorite ally or the character you use for point on every mission. This can obviously have a huge effect on gameplay, depending on your choices. To help ferret out the traitor the player uses Sho’s special ability of clairvoyance to identify how many traitors are in a given combat group and then has to puzzle out who’s a prime suspect for further investigation (via a minigame with limited trials). I ADORE logical puzzles, and this is one of the most innovative and well integrated game mechanics I’ve seen in ages.

Of course there are always trade offs. Since the traitors can be anyone and they are preemptively killed, the reasons for them plotting to turn on you aren’t fully explained. This is the detriment to story I mentioned above. I felt the background details you could find out about each teammate by becoming friends made up for this, but it is a little frustrating to see your favorite character turn on you without more than vague hints as to why. Still I felt this was a fantastic element to build the game around, and overall was implemented very well. Erased allies also leave ability enhancing devices, making sure their key powers don’t disappear with them. You aren’t even forced to eliminate the traitors if you don’t want to, although that will have repercussions later in the game…

There is significant info dump at the end, a consequence of keeping the story mysterious. It makes sense though, and is a fitting reveal / endcap for the journey. The true end requires more than one playthrough, and there were a couple of obvious questions left ope n for that. But if I stopped after once through the game it would still be satisfying enough an end.

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Lost Dimension won’t be for everyone, but overall I loved it. At a point where it’s hard to come up with time to sit down and play rpgs, I can see myself revisiting this to get to know other allies, see how things turn out with different traitors, etc. It tried something quite different and despite not being perfect, the gamble paid off.

Foods of NY: Heart of the Village Tour Review

A good friend of mine from high school recently visited and gave me an excuse to do touristy things. 🙂 One of which was The Heart of the Village tour from Foods of NY Tours. It’s a 3 hour walking tour combining a cultural perspective on the area with tastings from some great restaurants along the way.

A few notes before I recount/review the tour in detail.

  1. We had 6 tastings. The website lists 7 for this tour. It does say subject to change, and the one we “missed” was tea, so nothing substantial, but the small discrepancy is worth mentioning.
  2. Our tour guide was Barri, who’s been doing this for years at it shows. Extremely knowledgable and friendly, she was a fantastic guide. A little obsessed with Bob Dylan though – he became a disproportionate amount of our cultural tidbits. 😉
  3. For anyone looking for the short version – this was awesome. Have no hesitations at all about doing a Foods of NY tour.

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We started out gathering at Monte’s Trattoria. It provided a nice place for people to sit as they arrived, but we actually didn’t eat there yet. Since Monte’s would be a sit down stop and one of the more substantial of our tastings, it was scheduled for third. Nice bit of planning.

The group was 16 people and seemed like the right amount. Any more would have been a bit much but as was the group could gather around the guide to hear everything and it was a nice shared experience. The first tasting was a couple spots down from Monte’s at Meltkraft, an artisan grilled cheese shops. We tried their Valley Thunder, which contained aged cheddar and brisket. It was phenomenal, likely my favorite of the day. You could taste the quality of the cheese, as the aged cheddar was so strong it had the impact of a bleu cheese or the like.

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We walked around a bit, with Barri pointing out some cool place where movies were filmed, etc as well as restaurants we wouldn’t be stopping at but were still worth checking out, then made our way to our second quick stop, Masala Times. The samples here were the Unda Bhurji roll and mango lassi. The rolls were made fresh while we waited (not long) and had egg and veggies with Indian spice. The spice was just enough to taste, giving it a mild flavor. I liked this and understand why we had something light and mild, but I’m much more interested in going back and having one of the meat dishes. The mango lassi was excellent, with a flavor that was subtle but still distinct. Mango flavor is usually to strong for me in drinks like this. Here it was perfect.

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We proceeded along, seeing more interesting landmarks with great context shared by our guide. We ended up mading our way back to Monte’s for a sit down tasting, a nice break after walking about. We were there for about 20 minutes, and had some fettuccine bolognese. Wine and other beverages were available for purchase, at whole dollar prices with tax and gratuity already included. This allowed everything to go smoothly and quickly without us feeling rushed. Both wine and pasta were good. The bolognese was light and flavorful, such that despite generally not eating tomatoes or tomato sauce I tried and enjoyed it.

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Next up was Artichoke Pizza, a well known pizzeria named after its signature slice. Said slice was determined to be too heavy for a sampling tour, so we were served a margherita pizza. Too much tomato here for me (and I had had my one exception per few years minutes earlier), so I skipped. Looked fantastic though and everyone else loved it.

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After getting loaded up with food at the last couple of tastings we spent a decent amount of time walking around Washington Square Park. Barri had numerous intriguing stories and facts to share about the park (and on the way there). It was fun to here both about the significance of certain structures and buildings as well as the various places famous musicians, etc frequented.

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Just as we were getting a bit tired out from walking around in the heat, it was time for our second sit down tasting. Cuba Ristorante served us two different types of empanadas, chicken and spinach, as well as sweet plantains. Everything was excellent and was my second favorite stop of the tour. Mojitos were available for purchase, and like at Monte’s it was an all inclusive price.

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We walked around a bit more with Barri frequently stopping us to point out/share interesting tidbits about the area, then concluded the tour at Francois Payard Bakery, where we had a classic style salted caramel macaron. Macarons have become a favorite dessert of mine, and I can say that it was extremely good here.

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So there you have it. The tour was excellent, perfectly balancing the information, sightseeing, and tastings. Our guide really knew her stuff and made the tour relaxed and fun. The restaurant choices were great both for quality and diversity. I’m very pleased with how this went and would totally be up for trying one of their other tours sometime.

Japan Crate September 2015

I’ve been extremely pleased with my Japan Crate subscription thus far. Let’s see what September has to offer.

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Another month, another box stuffed with unique and varied snacks from Japan. It also includes a mini-manga that explains what each item is and has instructions for the DIY kit and various additional context, pictures and promotion. The bonus item for the Premium Crate this month isn’t food, but a gashapon keychain of Gudetama, a lazy egg. A cute little inclusion.

Now let’s look at the 11 edibles.

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The Excellent

This month’s Premium Crate’s drink is Lychee Ramune, the first item I’ve gotten in Japan Crate that I’ve actually had before. It’s a great soda with a light flavor. Kawarinbo, another Premium exclusive, is a fantastic lollypop which is half apple and half grape, gives way to a sugary lychee center, and shares its final surprise when the sucker is finished as the stick itself is a wrapped stick of cola flavored gum. It tied for my favorite this month with Wata de coco Grape Gummy, lightly flavored square grape gummies made from coconut water.

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I’m discovering savory Japanese snacks have a fondness for corn flavor, and like the others I’ve had this month’s Sweet Corn Pretz were quite good and tasted exactly like they were supposed to.  Meiji Fran is the most decadent and rich version of chocolate pocky I’ve ever had. One stick is practically a dessert by itself, but good luck stopping there.

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The Decent

Konpeito is described as a traditional Japanese candy from the 16th century. It’s pieces of what’s generally called rock candy over here. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it in such small, relatively uniform pieces. The description of Calbee Potato Chips Seaweed and Salt claim “salt and seaweed flakes give thiese chips an unusual crunch not found in most ‘American’ chips,” but hyperbole these were essentially a bag of plain Lay’s. Good quality, but also the first item whose contents I felt I could have gotten down the street at my local supermarket. Glug Glug Want Chocolate is a taiyaki cookie with a airy chocolate filling.

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I’ve seen a LOT of weird food, toys, novelties, etc from Japan, but I have to admit this month’s DIY kit EASILY takes the cake. Moko Moko Toilet 3 (there were 2 others first?!) is kit where you make foaming candy from included mix in a plastic toy toilet that comes in four different variations based on different countries. Seriously. I got the American one, which is blue and has stickers to decorate the toilet that include the American flag, a hamburger, etc. The other countries used are China, Japan and France. It included three mixes to make – strawberry, cola and lychee flavors. The mix and some water goes into the tank, then the candy foams up in the bowl. The candy/foam/drink was fine, but the absurdity and amusement is the draw here.

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The Meh

Lemon Squash is quite interesting, as it’s a soft plastic bottle of a mild lemonade packaged like a snack. I found it bland, but it certainly will have its appeal among others. Fullgurt Candy are hard candies in blueberry and mango yogurt flavors. While the idea has merit and I enjoy both hard candies and yogurt separately, I didn’t care for the flavors here at all.

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Conclusion

A couple of things I didn’t enjoy, numerous that I did, and more weirdness than I thought possible. The Premium Crate exclusives continue to easily be worth the $5 upgrade, and three crates in and I’m still extremely happy with the contents of my monthly snack box. The variety nearly makes this worthwhile alone, and the quality is a wonderful bonus.

“I know how to get enrolled in school. I brought a raccoon.”

Nothing ever happens in Berke County, but with the exception of his best (and only) friend moving away D.J. Lim is ok with that. He’s totally average in a family of overachievers, but he’s good at being a friend. And the boy with no memory who just fell from the sky in a pair of silver underwear is going to need one…

Hilo, The Boy Who Crashed to Earth is a roller coaster of amusement from start to finish, with some important and touching theme woven in for good measure. Winick’s taken the same type of core concepts that made his Barry Ween series excellent, stripped away all the swearing and off-color humor, and ended up with a children’s book that I can recommend without reservation. It’s not super deep, but it does have layers, lessons, realistic feeling characters and a very odd little boy holding it all together.

Hilo is just plain fun. Can’t wait for book 2.