I haven’t played the Last of Us games, which has made following discussions about the show difficult. Every thread is full of comments like, “The actors on the show blink, and the characters in the game blink. They thought of everything!” To be fair, it does sound like the show is a faithful adaptation of the game, but that doesn’t mean much to me. So when viewed as a show first, it’s… okay. The Last of Us is basically what The Walking Dead was like during its post Season 1 peaks. The Walking Dead was never an amazing show, though, and I don’t think The Last of Us is amazing, either. Sure, all of the pieces are there. Great acting (save for one freedom fighter leader who falls a bit flat). Believable apocalyptic set pieces and backdrops. Scary zombies. Tense action moments. And, of course, the classic message that “humans are the real monsters.” Oh, that message is hammered in so hard, you’ll end the show not really knowing who to root for.
And yes, I know, that’s the whole point. I don’t think you are necessarily supposed to like Joel, just understand his motivations given the state of the world. I guess what holds the show back for me is that a lot of the character development we should have gotten with him (and Ellie) is instead given to side characters who often only show up for one episode. You could approach this as more of an anthology series, where Joel and Ellie are merely the connective thread, and that’d be fine. But then the moments with Joel and Ellie that are supposed to pack a lot of weight… don’t. For instance, Episode 3 is definitely a standout episode that follows two dudes finding love at the end of the world. These two only had a passing relationship with Joel, though, and they never meet Ellie, so their story feels abruptly placed and inconsequential. Don’t get me wrong, I liked that episode, and I like a lot of the show’s other “pieces.” I just wish it all fit together better.
I first heard Half an Orange’s song, “Scared,” a few years ago and liked it a lot. I could never get into the rest of the band’s discography, though. I’d try again whenever “Scared” came up on a Spotify playlist, but nothing ever stuck. However, after they released the Mostly We Grow Old Trilogy that consolidated many of their EPs and singles, I figured I’d give them one last chance. And boy howdy, it all finally clicked. The lyrics in almost every song pine over the nostalgic days of video games and childhood friends. It’s hit me pretty hard, since—as someone nearing 40—I’m constantly looking back on better days myself. I don’t know how old the Half an Orange guys are. I assume they’re younger than me, because Halo is mentioned in the song “Time Travel Kool Aid.” But the sentiment is still painfully relatable.
I know it’s easy to score points with nostalgia these days, though, and the album has more to offer than just that. It’s generally very catchy electropop. I think what originally turned me off was the sometimes overly auto-tuned vocals. There’s so much more going on in each song, though, once you get past that. I can even hear hints of The Knocks and ODESZA at times, which is absolutely a compliment. It’s actually kind of hard to pick a favorite song. “Scared” would have been an obvious choice, but I’ve grown just as fond of “Old Friends,” “Sit Like a Flamingo”, and “Given Up.” The only weak link here is the last song, “End of the Moon.” It’s on the slower side and doesn’t do anything interesting, unlike an earlier song, “Buzz Lightyear,” that’s equally slow but offsets this with some great instrumental moments. “Buzz Lightyear” pretty much encompasses my overall thoughts: come for the lyrics but stay for the beats.
I hate to be “that guy,” but Stray is kinda overrated. The hype surrounding this game was huge. But here’s the thing… what people were raving about—getting to explore a post-human city as a cat—is pretty great. However, all these fans failed to mention that such exploration is only half the game. The other half is dedicated first to running away from flesh-eating aliens, and second to sneaking around security bots. Both of these seem like very weird elements to introduce to a game whose selling feature is “cute cat.” I can’t imagine anybody saw the somewhat misleading trailers for Stray and thought, “I sure hope there are aliens that can eat him!” I understand the aliens are integral to the story the developers wanted to tell, but there’s a way to make their presence known without making them a Game Over-able threat to the player. The alien sections (and, to a lesser extent, the security bot sections) are simply not fun.
Fortunately, the game is saved when it actually delivers on its promises. There are two sections in particular where you get to freely roam through a robot-populated neighborhood and solve environmental puzzles. I loved these moments. Exploring the buildings from the perspective of a cat is definitely fun, but it’s also interesting just to uncover the world’s mysteries and meet the various robotfolk. I only wish the game had double-downed on the cat stuff and not introduced a flying robot sidekick. Once this robot joins you, it no longer matters that you’re a cat. The robot translates and exposits everything for you to the point where the journey is more about him now than you. The developers could have told the same story exclusively through the eyes of the cat, and it would have been amazing. As is, I feel like their insistence on getting you to understand the plot prevents the gameplay from being able to truly shine.
I’m not much of a Smurfs fan. The “smurf talk” alone is reason enough to turn me away from most Smurf properties (and why I had to skip every cutscene in this game). The Mission Vileaf game, however, looked like a competent 3D platformer not unlike Super Mario Sunshine. You use a special backpack to clean the game world? Sign me the smurf up! And that really is the most enjoyable part of the game. The act of spraying weeds is admittedly a repetitive task, but it makes for a fun sub goal to clear an area. Cleaning up also frequently plays into finding secrets and collectibles. The collectibles, in turn, go towards upgrading your skills, so it all serves a purpose. By the end of the game, you can dash and hover to varying degrees, which lends to some fairly challenging platforming sections.
Unfortunately, the last stretch of the game soils a lot of this goodwill. Once you enter Gargamel’s lair, the game turns into a 2.5D platformer where it’s a lot more difficult to judge distances and a lot easier to get stuck behind objects. And if that’s not bad enough, you have Gargamel himself waving a lantern around like a stealth game spotlight. Getting caught in Gargamel’s light spells instant death, so you end up having to speedrun through a lot of sections instead of taking your time to nab the last few collectibles. I wouldn’t say the game was amazing up to this point, but it was at least mindlessly fun in its simplicity and tight controls. The Gargamel level feels like a completely different game, though, making it hard to recommend the game overall. So if you’re still interested, smurf with caution.
I’m a lifelong Nintendo fan and have dreamed of an animated, reference-filled Mario movie since I was a kid back in the 90s. My excitement for this movie was tempered, however, when it was announced that Illumination was helming the project. Illumination is, frankly, the worst of the big animation studios. In more capable hands, this could have been something truly special. Unfortunately, Illumination staples are ever present, like their gratuitous use of slow motion to punctuate silly action beats, ill-fitting pop songs, and lowest common denominator “jokes.” If the humor in the trailers didn’t do it for you, rest assured that the actual movie isn’t much better. One thing I was pleasantly surprised by, however, was the voice acting. The trailers made the voice acting sound awful, but in the final product, I thought everyone—yes, even Chris Pratt—did a pretty good job.
One reason why the voice acting works so well is that the characters hardly say anything. Luigi is barely in the movie, and Mario spends more time running and fighting in action sequences than he does talking to other people. And that’s really my main beef here. The story is extremely slim. There are zero character moments. It feels like you are basically watching someone else play a video game, because you have no connection to anything. And yeah, I get that the Mario games are not known for their deep plots, but this is a movie. You’re allowed to inject some “movie” into it! Instead, we are rushed from action sequence to action sequence with little to no context or justification. Mario enters the Mushroom Kingdom and is immediately greeted by Toad, who immediately escorts him to the princess without question, who immediately recruits him to help her stop Bowser. Like, can we stop and breathe for a moment?!
Nowhere is this frenetic pace more evident than in the soundtrack. Ignoring the pop songs, the soundtrack is a lovely blend of nostalgic Mario tunes mixed with standard movie epicness. But they tried to cram too much nostalgia into each song, and the same action sequence will mutate through 3-4 familiar jingles in a matter of seconds. Again, slow the eff down and let us enjoy things! This movie is undoubtedly going to do well and spawn at least one sequel, so some of these references, both physical and musical, could have been saved for later. They did not need to expend all 40 years of Mario in their first outing. But I get it. A Mario movie practically demands you fill it with Easter eggs. And these references don’t feel gimmicky at all, because they’re still part of the same universe. In that regard, the movie looks great and is fun to watch at a surface level. But there’s no reason why we couldn’t have gotten something even better.
Garden Paws feels like a culmination of Stardew Valley and My Time at Portia, both games I have sunk an unhealthy amount of time into. Garden Paws is essentially a farming sim a la Stardew Valley where you raise animals and grow crops to turn a profit. Like My Time at Portia, though, you also get many requests from the local townsfolk that involve crafting items into other items. But Garden Paws doesn’t just borrow from other games; it improves on them. Watering crops, for instance, is barely even a chore considering how quickly it can be done. This saves you so much time to explore the island and gather flowers or feed the wild animals in hopes of bringing them back home. There is often so much to do in a day that I frequently just let my character pass out at midnight instead of trying to rush home for a good night’s sleep.
The other side of that coin is that the amount of to-dos can be overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever had less than five active quests at any one time. My current quest list is so long that it runs right off the bottom of the screen. I appreciate always having goals to work towards, but some quests are given to you long before you can actually fulfill them. There are quests that require materials which don’t become available until a later in-game year, so the quest just stagnates indefinitely. You can always try your luck in the dungeon to speed up access to rarer gems, though. I like that the dungeon is purely optional, as opposed to My Time at Portia where story progress was often locked behind such combat moments. The “combat” in Garden Paws sucks, not surprisingly, but since it’s not required, I can’t complain.
My only real complaints with the game are pretty minimal. For starters, the UI is rather clunky. Managing items in your inventory is a hassle, particularly when you need to move an item from your backpack to your main task bar and vice versa. There are some glaring bugs in the game, too. When playing online, animals and cooking stations will suddenly become invisible for one player. And speaking of online, the game’s password system is completely broken, because randos can still join your session whether it’s password-protected or not. Any issues can be reasonably dealt with, though. The only thing that might be a legitimate turnoff for people is just how long it can take to progress in the game. You have to sell a lot of junk to be able to afford quest-related upgrades like the tree farm (60,000 coins, to be exact!). I don’t know if I’ll ever get the tree farm, but I’m still having fun with everything else the game has to offer.