Tag: Reviews

Fell Seal

You know what game I've been enjoying lately? Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark.

It's from developer 6 Eyes Studio and publisher 1C Entertainment, and it's an unabashed homage to Final Fantasy Tactics.

I think that's an underserved niche. There are plenty of tactical RPGs (like Fire Emblem) and their close cousins, turn-based strategy games (like XCOM). But most of them don't feel quite like Final Fantasy Tactics or its predecessor, Tactics Ogre.

Fell Seal does. Its storyline isn't quite as complex or as epic as those games', and its soundtrack is fine but doesn't feel as inspired as theirs. (After a round of Fell Seal, I tend to find myself humming tunes from FFT -- though FS's tunes are beginning to stick in my head themselves now.) But its mechanics? Those are damned impressive. Especially from such a small team (per their The Team page, two leads and nineteen contractors).

As of this writing, I'm eight hours or so in. I haven't seen every map; I haven't unlocked every class. But what I've seen so far has kept me excited and engaged in that FFT "just one more fight" way. Every class so far has been useful; every skill tree seems well-considered. And look, FFT is one of my favorite games of all time, but it's not perfect; there are a whole lot of useless skills in there, such as most of the Archer class's "Charge +n" abilities, and Cloud's Limit Breaks for the same reason. Fell Seal doesn't have a charge mechanic; abilities all execute right away. And I haven't found a class yet with abilities that weren't useful (though I admit I'm not quite sure about Gadgeteer just yet). Beyond your basic classes (Merceneries are a well-rounded base class, Menders heal, Wizards damage from a distance, Knights damage from up close, Scoundrels are quick and maneuverable), you get some more interesting choices, like the Plague Doctor, who has debuff-focused attacks but also a base AoE ability that removes debuffs and heals a small amount of HP. There are useful passive skills, too: Wizards can learn an ability that prevents offensive magic from harming allies or healing magic from healing enemies; it's a major boon for any spellcaster.

I haven't even tried the crafting system yet.

It's not a perfect game -- I don't love the character graphics, and while I do love the environment graphics, the decision to go with hand-drawn environments means you can't rotate the camera, which is inconvenient on some stages (for example, when a character is standing under a tree branch and you can't see them). But it's a damned impressive game, that I've already derived hours of enjoyment from and expect many more. The game has some excellent granular difficulty settings, and while I'm enjoying it on the defaults, I'm also looking forward to playing it again on a harder difficulty sometime.

As of this writing, the game is in Steam Early Access. However, it's scheduled for a release sometime next month, and the version currently on Steam is nearly final; according to the release notes, the only things missing are the ending and a secret bonus dungeon. The price has recently gone up from $20 to $30; I believe that will be the final price on release but I'm not 100% certain. I'd still recommend it if the price went up to $40.

But whether you get it now in Early Access or wait a few weeks for its full release, I heartily recommend this game. If you like tactical RPGs in general, and especially if you like Tactics Ogre and Final Fantasy Tactics in particular, you should buy Fell Seal: Arbiter's Mark. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Fell Seal is available for Windows, Mac, and GNU/Linux, with Xbox One and PS4 versions on the way; I'm playing the Linux version. There's a free demo at itch.io, though I had some trouble with it (I couldn't get shops or guild halls to work, which left me short one party member on the second battle and made it much harder; I haven't had any issues with the full version of the game).

Buster Makes Me Feel Good

Last week I watched The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

I thought it was delightful -- albeit that uniquely Coen Brothers type of "delightful" that involves some truly horrifying and disquieting stuff happening at various points over a two-hour period.

One of the things I really loved about it was its format: it's an anthology movie, made up of six stories, each running around 15-30 minutes.

I wrote a blog post years ago titled Form and Function where I discussed how the Internet could, hopefully, eliminate some of the rigid page-count and running-time requirements we're used to in print media and on TV. Buster Scruggs doesn't do that itself -- it's a two-hour movie -- but it's a roadmap for how a TV series could do that.

I saw reports, on the film's release, that it was originally planned as an episodic series. That's not actually the case; Josh Rottenberg asked the Coens about that story in an LA Times interview and Joel said it was always intended as a movie. But the rumor about it being a TV series is believable. You could certainly watch the movie that way, switch it off at the end of each story and come back and watch the next one some other time -- the only thing stopping you is that boy, some of those segments are grim, and the Coens have wisely arranged them so that the nastiest stories are followed by something with a little more levity.

There's no reason you couldn't make a TV series where each episode resembled one of Buster Scruggs's stories -- do a fifteen-minute episode, do a thirty-minute episode, do whatever length the story calls for. Traditional TV requires that your story be told in a half-hour or an hour, minus commercials, but there's no such restriction to online streaming (and even basic cable has been tooling around with episodes that have some variation in their lengths, like Noah Hawley's Legion or Fargo -- say, there's another one that comes right back to Ethan and Joel).

Mostly I see this resulting in longer episodes -- maybe a show goes a full hour instead of forty-five minutes, or a full half-hour instead of twenty-two. But why not shorter? Why not fifteen minutes? Why not fifteen minutes one episode and thirty the next?

The new Twilight Zone series would be perfect for a format like that, but I suspect they'll be keeping it around the half-hour mark. Still, it feels like somebody is bound to start playing with the scripted TV format with episodes of wildly varying lengths, and the recent resurgence of anthology-style shows seems like a good place to do it.

Glaivin'

I don't play many new games anymore. I played Spider-Man because it came with my PS4, but since I finished it I've switched to something a couple years older: Final Fantasy 15.

I haven't been playing it long, just...*looks at save file*...Jesus, twelve hours? Anyway, I'm on Chapter 3. And so far I'm really enjoying it.

I dig the setting. Final Fantasy has been doing this "let's juxtapose fantasy with a quasi-modern world" routine since 7, and it's a lot more fully-realized here than it was then. Still not perfect -- city planning does not work that way, guys; you don't pass the limits of a major city and immediately find yourself off in a big empty desert with only an occasional gas station; the transition tends to be more gradual than that -- but still, the dissonance is a lot less glaring than FF7's transition from Midgar to a big empty overworld.

Actually, to a large extent, the dissonance is what I like about it. Taking things that shouldn't go together and then mooshing them together. This is a game that starts off with...well, I can't seem to get the intro to embed (I suspect a music rights thing), but if you haven't seen it, check it out on YouTube.

As I was saying: This is a game that starts out with a barrage of fantasy tropes -- the king in his castle saying farewell to his son, who's leaving to marry a princess to secure peace with the Empire -- and then cuts to the party pushing a broken-down car while Stand By Me plays. It is instantly one of my favorite video game openings ever.

The game doesn't retain quite that level of quality throughout. But even where it falls short, I like it, at least so far. I like ambitious failures. Here's how Brent described it:

As long as you keep the "FF15 has been in development for 10 years" fact firmly in mind the whole exercise is interesting from a how-do-you-make-something-mostly-complete-out-of-this aspect.

Did you notice the one part of the game where there was supposed to be a rad as fuck boss but they only got as far as modeling and not rigging the rad as fuck boss so they had you go and take a look at how rad as fuck the boss's model is and everybody comments on how rad as fuck the model looks and then you get a cutscene explaining why you don't need to actually fight the rad as fuck boss and then you just fuck off?

Not gonna lie, I love stuff like that. It's like the best kind of soup, the "if you've got it, just toss it in the pot" kind.

I love stuff like that too.

And you know what else is overambitious about this game? Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15.

Kingsglaive is a movie that occurs before and during the first chapter of FF15. It fleshes out some major plot points -- in a way that's, frankly, kind of ill-conceived, because there's at least one major scene in FF15 that lacks some pretty important context if you haven't seen the movie.

Spoilers for Kingsglaive and the ending of the first chapter of Final Fantasy 15 follow.

At the end of the first chapter of FF15, the kingdom of Lucis falls. And in the game, you don't really have a lot of context about just what the hell is going on. You've never seen the Emperor or General Glauca before, and you're given little context for who they are. Clearly the big spiky guy stabbing the king is a bad guy, but...you're given no other information on who he is or what his deal is, except that the peace agreement was a ruse and Niflheim has sacked Insomnia.

Do you even see the general again? I don't know. He kinda gets incinerated at the end of Kingsglaive, but maybe he gets better. I don't know for sure, but...it kinda looks like the game shows a scary-looking dude murdering the protagonist's father, never explains who he is, and then maybe he never appears again? That's...not great storytelling. That makes Kingsglaive less an ancillary cross-media spinoff and more an essential part of the story that is neither included with the game nor explained by it.

But I'm underselling just how baffling the entire endeavor is.

Because shunting a major, game-changing event off into a spinoff movie isn't the weirdest thing about it. It isn't even the weirdest thing about that scene.

Because the climax of Kingsglaive -- the betrayal at the signing ceremony, the fall of Lucis -- is intercut with Nyx and Lunafreya fighting a giant monster. And not just any giant monster.

Giant Purple Octopus

Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy 15
© 2016 Square Enix

That's Ultros. From Final Fantasy 6. This guy.

ULTROS: Mwa ha ha! Let's see if Maria can shrug THIS off!

Final Fantasy 3
© 1993 Square Enix
Screencap courtesy of Blastinus at Let's Play Archive

The movie cuts back and forth between the fall of Lucis -- guards being stabbed, bombs dropping on the city, the Emperor pulling a gun on the King -- and the octopus who tried to drop a 4-ton weight on an opera.

It is insanely, spectacularly wrong, and it is absolutely hands-down my favorite scene in the movie.

How did this happen? What was the thought process here? "Newcomers to Final Fantasy will just see a generic monster. But longtime fans will be wracked with the giggles!"

Obviously Final Fantasy is self-referential as all hell, and some of that was to be expected. But there's a pretty big difference between, say, playing the main Final Fantasy theme as background music early in the movie, and introducing Ultros during the climax.

But there's also something quintessentially Final Fantasy about it. This series is chock-full of sudden and inexplicable tonal shifts. I've talked about this before, back in my Final Fantasy 7 and Iconic Images post in 2011: FF7 goes from Barret's somber battle to the death with Dyne straight to chocobo racing. Bombs dropping while the heroes fight a tonally-inappropriate Easter egg? Just like the games!

And something that weird and singular saves the movie from being boring.

Because Kingsglaive is boring. It's very pretty; as a two-hour tech demo, it definitely demos the tech. But the characters are thinly-sketched, the villains' motivations and the plot twists don't make a whole lot of sense, and the climax feels like a Godzilla movie without the fun or the charm. It feels like the movie is focused entirely on showing really cool locations, monsters, and fights. It does that. But not much else.

In its own way, the Ultros fight is one more of those striking juxtapositions I like so much. Final Fantasy 15 starts out with high fantasy tropes and then immediately swerves into being a road trip movie. And Kingsglaive intercuts the serious and the silly. It doesn't really work, exactly, but I still love it.

There's an old Simpsons line where Marge tells Homer she doesn't hate him for failing, she loves him for trying. Whatever FF15's faults -- and I'm sure I'll find more of them as I get farther in the game -- they seem to be the result of overambition. And you know what? That's a good kind of failure. An interesting kind. Square Enix tried some things nobody else had ever done here. In some cases, at least, it turns out that there's a good reason nobody else has done those things. But if you're going to mess up, at least find a new and interesting and, perhaps, spectacular way to do it.

Hey, This Stephen King Guy is Pretty Good

I made it to my mid-thirties without ever reading a Stephen King book.

It wasn't some kind of hipster thing; I wasn't consciously avoiding him because he's popular. And it wasn't that I don't generally read horror novels, either, because of course he's got plenty of output in other genres. No, I just never got around to it, even though I've enjoyed movie adaptations of his work for years.

I read On Writing a year or two back, and a few months back I picked up the first three Dark Tower books at Bookmans and I've been working through those. And you know what? I think this guy's pretty good.

He's certainly got a gift for storytelling. And for words. And symbolism, and character, and he's got a real sense for how to juxtapose images in interesting ways. I've never read Ready Player One, or seen the movie, but from what I've read about it I have the impression that Ernest Cline was trying to mix together familiar iconography in the kind of evocative way that King does in Dark Tower, but simply doesn't have King's chops.

But more than anything, I think the reason King's so damn appealing and resonates with so many people is that it's so obvious he's having fun.

Mark Evanier told a story about Harlan Ellison shouting, "I have just written the greatest fuckin' sentence I have ever written!" before running out his front door and dancing naked on his front porch. Evanier mused that this was why Ellison's writing was so good: because he was the sort of person who was so enthusiastic about what he was writing that he'd dance naked on his front porch, and because that enthusiasm was clear in the final product.

I'm not aware of Stephen King ever dancing naked on his front porch. But he's got the same kind of enthusiasm for his work that Ellison did, and it's infectious.

The first three Dark Tower books are all I've got. I finished those and I'm going to take a break from the series before I pick up the rest. I've got plenty else to read -- I just started Good Omens, and I'm also chest-deep into a Valiant Comics bundle, which I'll probably have a lot to say about when I get to the end of it. But I'm glad I finally took the time to read some King. The guy's good, and his popularity is well-earned.

Does Whatever a Spider-Pig Does

I finally got around to seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

...actually, I saw it like a month ago, and that's when I wrote this post. But then I got some kind of flu or something and I'm only now just getting around to posting it. But hey, now it's timely, because it is now Academy Award winner for Best Animated Feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Anyway:

I finally got around to seeing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. And it blew me away.

Mothra on Brontoforumus described it as the best comic-book movie he'd ever seen. When I read that comment, I assumed he meant the best movie based on a comic. Now that I've seen it, I'm thinking he must have meant the movie that best translated the medium of comics onto the screen.

I'm inclined to agree. It does some really cool shit with comic-style layouts (like the new DuckTales opening titles, if they were two hours long). Where movies like Persepolis and Sin City are straight off the page, Spider-Verse adapts the page itself. In a funny way, I think the movie makes a good defense of Ang Lee's Hulk -- because you can watch Spider-Verse and see that this is what Lee was trying to do with those splitscreen tricks. He couldn't quite stick the landing, but I've always thought it was a fascinating approach -- and Spider-Verse takes those ideas and makes them work.

Plus, after 35 years of "Biff! Pow! Comics aren't just for kids anymore!" headlines, it's nice to see a movie that's finally unselfconscious enough to put sound effects up on the screen.

And the plot -- somehow, a movie that's packed with heroes, villains, and parallel dimensions manages to feel lean and tight. I think part of that is that the script (by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman) knows who to focus on (Miles > Peter > Gwen > the rest; Kingpin > Prowler > Doc Ock > the rest). It also trusts the audience: not only do Lord and Rothman trust that they don't need to explain who Doc Ock is; they trust that the very idea of a bunch of different versions of Spider-Man from parallel universes is a fit premise for a kids' movie.

They're right.

I took my seven-year-old nephew to see it. He didn't have any problem understanding the many-worlds premise. Granted, it's not the first time he's seen a superhero multiverse; both the 2003 and 2012 versions of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles teamed up with the 1987 versions at one time or another. But the point is, this is a kids' movie that treats kids like they're smart.

School of Wizardry

I've been listening to Jeremy Parish's interview with Robert Woodhead, the co-creator of Wizardry. It's a great interview and recommended.

I think about Wizardry sometimes. I first played it on the Mac.

If you pull up the original Wizardry on archive.org, or if you go looking for screenshots, here's the kind of thing you can expect to see:

Wizardry for Mac with lineart dungeon graphics
Via Hardcore Gaming 101, which has a great comparison of the various editions of the game.

You can get more detailed maze graphics by maximizing the window, but at 512x342 that comes at the cost of having to move other windows on top of each other to fit:

Wizardry for Mac with detailed dungeon graphics
I took this screenshot myself.

Of course, if you want to get fancy, you can try emulating a later version of MacOS with a higher resolution, and then you'll have plenty of room. Like these madmen here:

At any rate, I've gone back and tried some of the other versions of Wizardry, but I still think the Mac version is the best, with its GUI and its more detailed graphics. It's not perfect -- look how small the maze window is, even at its larger size; and why does the Castle window need to be visible when you're in the maze? -- but the game is well-suited for a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface.

The first five Wizardry games aren't currently sold for modern systems, but GOG and Steam both sell Wizardry 6 bundled with DOSbox. So why not sell the Mac versions of the earlier games and bundle them with Mini vMac? I guess I'm not sure what the legality is of distributing old versions of the MacOS; they might need a license from Apple in addition to getting one from whatever company owns Wizardry these days.

I've also often wondered why nobody's ever remade the original Wizardry for modern computers, taking the Mac version as a base and adding quality-of-life improvements. The closest thing I've ever seen is a Japanese remake of the first three games called Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga that was released for Windows (as well as PlayStation and Saturn) in 1998.

Wizardry: Llylgamyn Saga for Windows
Via Hardcore Gaming 101

Llylgamyn Saga is not quite what I'm talking about; I tried it a few years back and my impression was that it was a Windows port of a console game and its interface felt like it. It simply didn't handle as smoothly with a mouse as the Mac version.

What I'd like to see? Remake the original game. Use touchscreen devices as the primary platform. Copy Etrian Odyssey's mechanic of using the touchscreen to map the dungeon as you go, the way we had to use graph paper in the old days.

Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Etrian Odyssey Untold 2
Via Jeremy Parish -- him again! -- at USgamer

Using half a phone screen wouldn't be so different from EO using the DS/3DS touchscreen. The biggest immediate hurdle I can think of is fat fingers: Etrian Odyssey is designed for a stylus; drawing with a finger would mean the grid squares would have to be larger. Pinch-to-zoom would be a good idea, or just a toggle to zoom the map in or out. Build to accommodate different resolutions; there's no reason a tablet user should be stuck with a map that's sized for a phone. Of course you could hide the map during combat, menu navigation, in town -- anywhere where it's not necessary. Use a point-and-click, drag-and-drop interface similar to the Mac version; when you go into town, you can drag-and-drop characters between the active party and the reserves.

Add some modern quality-of-life improvements, too. Obviously the weapons shop should behave like it would in a modern RPG: compare a highlighted weapon to the weapon a character currently has equipped. (If it'll fit onscreen, show how it compares to the weapons every character has equipped.)

And allow users to toggle the oldschool rules. Let them play with original inscrutable spell names, or with simple, plain-English ones. Allow them to disable characters aging on a class change, or the possibility of a teleport spell going wrong and permakilling the entire party. Hell, allow a mode where players can navigate through the maps they've made and point to the square they want to teleport to, or even set waypoints so they don't have to do that every time. Maybe even allow them the option of seeing monsters, treasure chests, and other points of interest before walking into them.

Once you've rebuilt the first game in this new engine, it wouldn't be hard to do the second and third. 4-7 would require more work but would be possible. Probably not 8, as it abandons the grid format in favor of free movement.

Hell, open it up. Since I'm dreaming anyway, I might as well say open-source the whole thing -- but failing that, at least release a level editor.

Maybe the best way to go about this would be for a fan group to start by creating a game that's Wizardry-like but noninfringing -- similar D&D-style rules, similar generic fantasy races, classes, and monsters, but different maps, spells, enemy behaviors, etc. -- and then, once they've released a finished game, make an offer to whoever it is who owns the Wizardry copyrights these days to port the original games to the new engine.

A man can dream.

Creator-Owned Ditko

I've been meaning to write a post about Steve Ditko's creator-owned comics for quite some time. Ditko's recent death has me thinking about that, and so, here's something. I'd still like to write something a little more detailed later on down the line, but this should serve for now.

Steve Ditko stopped working for mainstream comics publishers in the 1990s, but he never stopped making comics. For the past 20 years, Ditko's comics have been published by his friend, editor, and collaborator Robin Snyder. Ditko has also written essays, some of which appear alongside his comics, others of which appear in Snyder's zine The Comics, and others in 9 small pamphlets called The Four-Page Series. Since 2013, Snyder has funded twenty Ditko comics on Kickstarter, with more to come; Snyder noted in a Kickstarter update last month that he and Ditko were working on two new titles, and a prior Kickstarter update discussed out-of-print books that Snyder intends to send back to press.

Snyder does not have a website, but Bob Heer's ditko.blogspot.com is an invaluable resource, and its Ditko Books in Print page serves as a catalog of what Snyder has available and how to order it.

Of course, merely seeing a list of titles can be daunting. Where to start?

The most in-depth article I've seen on this subject is Steve Ditko Doesn’t Stop: A Guide To 18 Secret Comics By Spider-Man’s Co-Creator, written by Joe McCulloch for ComicsAlliance in 2013. You should read that.

But if you want my opinion? You should start with The Mocker.

Of the Ditko books Snyder has on offer as of this writing, it's the most accessible, the one that feels the most like Ditko's work for Marvel, DC, and Charlton. It's a straightforward, tightly-told story of a costumed crusader fighting organized crime and corrupt police.

I only have one complaint about The Mocker: it was clearly intended to be printed at a much larger size. Ditko fits a lot of panels on each page, starting with 16-panel grids and eventually settling on 20. The comic was originally printed at magazine size; reduced to standard comic size, it's often difficult to tell what's happening and to tell characters apart, especially in action scenes. (Ditko sure draws a lot of men in suits and fedoras punching each other.)

After The Mocker, there are a few different directions you can go. The most obvious is Mr. A, Ditko's best-known creator-owned series -- if you're interested enough in Ditko that you've read this far, you probably already know who Mr. A is, at least in passing. My favorite Mr. A stories are When is a Man Judged Evil? and Right to Kill; both appear in a 32-page comic that's just called Mr. A -- which, sadly, is currently out of print. I'm quite fond of the whole series, though; there's good stuff in every issue. I believe #4 contains the earliest Mr. A material that's in print, while #24 and #7 are the two latest issues (in that order, and no, I don't understand the numbering) and include the two-part story The Knifer.

Alternately, I'm partial to Miss Eerie, one of Ditko's later creations and another masked vigilante in a 1930s setting. She appears in Ditko Presents and The 32-Page Series #3, #6, #14, #20, #23, and #26. The 32-Page Series itself is an anthology comic and something of a grab bag; it's a great, eclectic collection of Ditko's late work.

From there? Well, I was all set to recommend Avenging World, a collection of comics and essays that I consider to be Ditko at his purest -- but, sadly, it's out of print. Here's hoping that changes.

For my part, I have varying degrees of affection for everything Ditko did. His comics are often eccentric and didactic; his essays are often impenetrable puzzle boxes. But he always had something interesting to say. He was one-of-a-kind. I'm going to miss him -- but for now, at least, I can expect a few more new Ditko comics still to come, and older Ditko comics like Static to become available again.

Ridiculously Self-Indulgent

"Weird Al" Yankovic's Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour has come to a close. And now every show is available on Stitcher Premium. And they're DRM-free MP3s -- Stitcher doesn't provide a convenient "download this" button, but they're easy enough to download; view the page source and do a search for ".mp3". (There are probably browser extensions that will do this without having to muck around searching the source, but when I tried to find one I found a million extensions for downloading MP3s from YouTube videos and none for downloading just plain streamed MP3s.) It's not hard to sign up for a free month of Stitcher Premium, immediately cancel automatic renewal, and download the entire tour -- plus many other fine Stitcher programs, including Gilbert Gottfried's Amazing Colossal Podcast, WTF, and Black on the Air.

But back to Weird Al and the Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour.

I caught the Mesa show, and I'm glad I did. If this was my only chance to catch a Weird Al show like this, then I'm glad I got it. But I hope it wasn't.

While Al promoted the tour with self-deprecation, as its name implies -- as something nobody really wanted to see -- it's quite clear that that's not true. I sat in a sold-out house. I could hear the people a couple of seats over singing along with songs like Your Horoscope for Today and Why Does This Always Happen to Me? No, you wouldn't want to play a setlist like that at the Arizona State Fair (where you've got random fairgoers seeing Al's name on the marquee and walking in expecting to hear Eat It). But clearly there was an audience for the Vanity Tour, because it sold out venues all over the country.

I think Al could spend the rest of his career performing shows like the one I saw. And I hope he does.

I've seen Al's big shows -- at least six times. (As noted in my Weird Al in Concert post, I lost count at some point.) I love them. I love the costumes and the videos and the showmanship and the sheer precision.

But the Vanity Tour felt like something special.

Every time I've seen Weird Al, I've gone with my dad. And usually, when we leave the venue at the end, we talk about what a great performer Al is.

This time, as we left the venue, we talked about what a great singer he is.

Strip away the glitz and the hits and the fat-suit, and it lets you really focus on just how damn good Al and his band -- Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz on drums, Steve Jay on bass, Jim "Kimo" West on lead guitar, and Rubén Valtierra on keyboards -- are. Hell, when they played Why Does This Always Happen to Me?, I wouldn't have been able to tell Valtierra's playing apart from Ben Folds's on the studio original.

They didn't play every song I would have liked to hear -- of course not. The way I see it, that just means I can hope there's a next time, that I get another chance to hear some deep cuts. (Though I'm realistic and don't expect I'll ever hear a live performance of Hardware Store or Genius in France.) But another one of the wonderful things about this show was the sense of constant pleasant surprise.

You know what song I really enjoyed hearing? She Never Told Me She was a Mime. As Al himself noted before playing it, it's not exactly a fan-favorite -- but something about that made it more impressive. It's a song I wouldn't have requested, and I had low expectations -- and I think those low expectations meant I was just that much more impressed by how good it was. No, it's not one of Al's more impressive songs lyrically -- but hearing the band kill it, and hearing Al hit those high notes, helped me appreciate a song I didn't appreciate much before.

So sure, I'd have loved to hear Biggest Ball of Twine in Minnesota. And I hope some day I get a chance to. But I got to hear songs like Jackson Park Express and I Was Only Kidding and, yes, I was even blown away by lesser songs like She Never Told Me She was a Mime. (And because I avoided reading about his set list as best I could before the show, I didn't know he did one straight cover every night. At the Mesa show, it was Suffragette City; you can hear a few seconds of it in the YouTube video embedded at the top of this post.)

Weird Al is a great singer and a great songwriter, with a great band. The Vanity Tour underscored that, more than any other Weird Al show I've ever seen.

If this represents a new phase in his career, and this is what he does from now on, I will be a very happy Weird Al fan.

The Sorry State of Smartphones

It's disappointing that the smartphone market has turned into a choice between two OS's: iOS's walled-garden approach where Apple decides what software you're allowed to run on the phone that you ostensibly own, and Android's spyware panopticon security nightmare.

There are a few alternatives, none of them very good.

A few months ago, I tried switching from Android to Ubuntu Touch. Canonical abandoned Ubuntu Touch a few months back, but it's still under development by a small community-based group called UBports.

Here's what I wrote at the time (originally posted on Brontoforumus, 2017-07-03):


It's a pretty different idiom from Android (no ubiquitous three buttons at the bottom of the screen, though their functionality is there; swipe from the left edge of the screen to get a dock, from the right edge to get a Windows 7-style list of open programs, and the Back button is handled at the app level), but I could get used to it, and the list of available apps seemed sufficient for my day-to-day use.

The only real problem was that the phone didn't work.

I fucked around with the settings for awhile but all I managed to accomplish was to change what it said under "carrier" from "Sprint" to "none".

So I decided to give LineageOS another shot. (Well, technically my first time using it as LineageOS, but I used it plenty when it was Cyanogenmod.) It appears that I've mostly fixed the Sprint issues I had with it before.

But I thought Ubuntu was pretty impressive, and I intend to give it another shot someday. Maybe once they finish updating it to a 16.04 base.


I should probably update my post about getting Sprint to work on LineageOS (then CyanogenMod); I need to update the title and the links, and add the last step that finally got it (mostly) working.

I've managed to do okay without Gapps, too -- but maybe I'll get to that another time.

IDW's Transformers, Phase Two

Yesterday I talked about IDW's Transformers comics (which are on sale on Comixology through tomorrow, November 30). I mentioned a few favorites from their first few years (Phase One), but also noted that the series didn't really get good until Phase Two.

Phase Two kicks off with two series: More than Meets the Eye, by James Roberts and Alex Milne, and Robots in Disguise, by John Barber and Andrew Griffith (with various other artists involved in both series over the course of their runs).

There was also a trilogy of prequel miniseries, called Autocracy, Monstrosity, and Primacy, available as the Autocracy Trilogy (written by Chris Metzen and Flint Dille, with gorgeous painted art by Livio Ramondelli). I've only read Autocracy, which concerns the beginning of the war and Orion Pax's ascension as Optimus Prime. I really liked the art, but the story felt a little disjointed; it was released digital-first, with 8-page issues, and those short chapters really affect the pacing.

But back to the two main series: As our story begins, the five-million-year war between the Autobots and Decepticons has been finally, decisively won, by the Autobots. More than Meets the Eye tells the story of a group of Cybertronians led by Rodimus who set off in a ship called the Lost Light, nominally in search of the legendary Knights of Cybertron, but mostly they just get into trouble along the way. Robots in Disguise is a political drama, about Bumblebee's attempts to serve as leader on a resurgent but factionalized Cybertron, where an uneasy peace exists among Autobots, Decepticons, and so-called NAILs, Cybertronians who did not join either faction but are returning to their home planet now that the war is over.

Chris Sims wrote a great series of reviews at Comics Alliance, called The Transformed Man, where he followed both series for most of their run. It's worth a read, whether you want to read it as a companion piece as you read the series yourself, or want some reviews from a Transformers skeptic to see if these are the kind of books you'd be into. Sims is funny and insightful, and, for all his talk about being a Transformers neophyte, his tastes align pretty closely with mine as a longtime fan.

I plan on talking about these comics in more detail later on, but my take is this: read More than Meets the Eye all the way through, and then keep reading as it continues under the title Lost Light (with new artist Jack Lawrence). It's seriously one of my favorite comics of the last few years, and my favorite Transformers series ever, in any medium.

Robots in Disguise, meanwhile? My recommendation is to read up through the City on Fire arc (vol 4) and stop there. After that, volume 5 is mostly table-setting, and then both series cross over in an arc called Dark Cybertron. I haven't read Dark Cybertron, because it wasn't in the Humble Bundle I got most of these comics in, and because I hate crossovers (though I just bought it in the current Comixology sale, so I guess I'll be reading it shortly). Some important stuff happens that leads into "season 2" of More than Meets the Eye (beginning in MtMtE vol 6), but even if you don't read it, it doesn't take long to pick up what you missed. (I plan on getting into spoilers in a future post, but for now I'll leave it at that. Even though one of those spoilers is right there on the cover of MtMtE vol 6.)

After that, Robots in Disguise moves off Cybertron and on to Earth, and it loses my interest fast. There is some great stuff in there -- a highlight is Thundercracker enthusiastically writing screenplays and not realizing that they are terrible, and issue #48 is narrated by a dog and is amazing -- but in a lot of ways it's a continuation of the earlier, more boring Phase One comics that I didn't like that much. Your mileage may vary.

The Cybertron storyline, however, continues in two Windblade miniseries, and then the Till All Are One series, by Mairghread Scott, Sara Pitre-Durocher, and a few other artists. These series ably continue the story of political intrigue that Barber and Griffith started, and expand the scope by introducing other planets where Cybertronians have settled, including religious Caminus, militaristic Carcer, and Eukaris, the planet where all the Beast Wars characters live.

Lost Light is still ongoing. Till All Are One, sadly, has been cancelled, and its story will wrap up in Till All Are One Annual 2017, which is due out on December 20.

So there's my brief run-through of what IDW Transformers comics I like. In future posts, I hope to spend more time delving into why I like them, how Roberts and Milne have turned Megatron into my favorite character, and why it's a damn shame to see Till All Are One go and I hope that it's not the last we see of Cybertronian political intrigue.