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Monthly Archives: April 2017

Adventure Game April: Syberia III

Nothing like having a scoop. A year or so after discovering the charming and memorable adventure games Syberia and Syberia II, I get the opportunity to play and comment on the long, long awaited third installment of the franchise when it’s fresh.

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To recap, Syberia I and II is the story of Kate Walker, an up-and-coming New York lawyer sent to Europe to oversee the sale of a factory specializing in automatons, clockwork robots that were once the envy of the world. Kate has to track down the last heir to the factory, the aged genius Hans Voralberg, famed for the quality, artistry, and positive humanity of his automatons. Befriending the automaton Oscar, Kate follows the trail Hans has left across Eurasia, working around intricate machines, mysterious ruins, and sinister enemies to reach the Youkol tribe, and beyond, the gateway to the island of Syberia, last stronghold of mammoths and Hans’ lifelong dream.

Perhaps more significant, however, is how Kate herself transforms by degrees from a superficial careerist into a passionate, starry-eyed adventuress, casting off the shallow life in the big city and seeing the world, believing in dreams and making her way in all sorts of surroundings.

Since Syberia III came out on Thursday, we get to continue Kate’s voyages. Having apparently returned from Syberia Island barely alive, Kate is recovered and nursed back to health by the Youkols, and she joins them on the fraught traditional migration of their herd of giant snow ostriches.

Okay, what? I though the Youkols’ culture revolved around mammoths, if only as a distant memory. Where the heck did snow ostriches come from? For that matter, what’s a snow ostrich? They sort of resemble prehistoric gastornithids, as rendered by Jim Henson. We already had the youkis, the bear-seal-dog hybrid creatures, but as something central to their culture, these seem out of left field. Whatever, if I can cope with mammoths, youkis and man-eating Arctic penguins in the first games, I can deal with snow ostriches. Moving on…

The traditional migration to the sacred breeding grounds of the ostriches is hampered with trouble, and Kate must overcome meddling officials who think the Youkols are riff-raff who should be made to settle down and become labourers and use her modern knowledge to help them steer through a Chernobyl-esque nuclear disaster zone. At the same time, Kate herself is pursued by a Russian colonel with his own agenda, and by Cantin, the private eye her old law firm sent on her track in Syberia II. She finds allies, like the old clockmaker, his granddaughter, a broken and penitent ferry captain, and the mysterious half-Youkol girl living almost wild in the ruins of an Olympic complex, as well as the Youkol shaman, and Kurk, the young, spirit-appointed guide of the migration.

With original Syberia auteur Benoit Sokal in charge, it’s easy to recognize the pattern of Syberia: a linear progression between different sites, solving puzzles and persuading characters to advance the quest. Having spent the past two games getting to know Kate’s character, we now have some little power to shape that character ourselves. The dialogue system works essentially the same way as before, with topics to go through to get all the information, but when you have to persuade or explain yourself to somebody, you’re given a Mass Effect-style choice of confrontational, gentle, or whatever others suit the situation. Using the blunt approach generally makes things harder to achieve, but as a character driven game, this little element of roleplaying both shapes Kate in your mind and makes the dialogue itself a bit of a puzzle.

I’m pleased to say the puzzles themselves are much better. Maybe it’s practice but I found Syberia III more intuitive than the last two. Each one is a little step in advancing your progress that is helped with a grasp of logic, physics and a little general knowledge. The controls are neat: rather than select, say, a screwdriver from your inventory and click on the screw to undo it, you actually have to spin the cursor to simulate turning the screwdriver! The game did warn me going in that a controller would make this easier than a mouse, but once I understood the basic tenets of the system, I found it easy enough.

The movement controls have changed. In the first two you moved Kate around by clicking and letting her walk to where you clicked, a la strategy games. Now you steer her around with the W-A-S-D keys. Admittedly, the mostly static camera positions are still there and can place Kate quite far away from you, and it can get fiddly if you move offscreen and then in the new screen angle the axis of movement changes, which can cause her to abruptly change direction if you’re not careful. But it’s no worse than the controls in Batman: Arkham Asylum. I just think Kate should run all the time. She walks so slowly that not holding the run button is pointless, but it’s also awkward to do.

That said, taking the time to enjoy the game environments is worthwhile. The Youkol camp, Valsembor on the lake, the ruined amusement park and all the others are just stunning, with the upgraded graphics engine working for it in a big way. Plus, when exploring, the game will subtly highlight interactive points and objects you get close to, so that you have to search carefully with less of the needle-in-a-haystack feeling of the first games. The environments are further enhanced by the music, which is better than the last games. The music in those wasn’t bad by any means, but it tended to crescendo during dialogue and drown it out, and I ended up turning it off. I left it on far more often in Syberia III. My Dad once joked that he must have been Armenian in a previous life, because of how moving he finds the sound of the duduk. I think I have a similar relationship with Mongolian throat singing.

My primary complaint is that the lavish environments – particularly Valsembor and the Olympic complex – are too big. This wasn’t the Obduction thing where the environment would load for half an hour and then crash after ten seconds, but in addition to taking up an astonishing amount of my hard drive, I periodically got lost in the bigger environments. I also had to take the graphics settings down a peg because they were making my processor wheeze a bit. One of the few times I had to check a walkthrough was because I simply couldn’t find an object I needed in the vastness. Being lavish and being tightly designed are not mutually exclusive – the Youkol camp in this game is gorgeous; Barrockstadt in Syberia I and the monastery in Syberia II bear out that premise. Some of the environments here seem huge in a way that prioritizes realism over practicality, and result in you staying in any one environment long enough to get a little sick of it. The music’s better orchestrated and less intrusive than in the previous games, but in the long stays in each environment, you listen to each piece an awful lot.

The only really bad habit that’s carried over from the old games is the puzzles can pile up. Getting the ferry going is particularly tiresome for this – the captain will tell you ‘go fix this so we can get underway’ and when you’ve done it and report back he’ll say ‘okay, now go fix this other thing I haven’t even mentioned.’ Each puzzle so bred is pretty clever, but especially in the ferry situation it felt like we were delaying the story rather than contributing to it.

The main complaint you’ll hear from the internet hive is regarding the lip syncing. The facial animations are pretty good, actually, but the mouth movements in dialogue are indeed very clunky – I think. I don’t know for sure if the lip sync is bad or just bad in English – Benoit Sokal is Belgian and developer Microids is based in Paris so maybe it’d look better if I reset to French. It would be petty to call that a deal-breaker, especially considering the plastic marionette look of the previous games. The cartoonishness of the character design has wound back to align with more realistic graphics. Kate, Kurk, and a few others benefit enormously – despite her overall resemblance to Lara Croft, Kate doesn’t have ridiculously huge breasts and actually dresses for the weather – but some of the more cartoony-looking characters end up in the uncanny valley somewhat.

I’m not really all that perturbed by how their mouths move so much as with what they’re saying. I have to grudgingly agree with the mob is that the voice acting is, at best, mediocre. The dialogue is good, to be sure, but the voice actors are speaking the lines without actually acting. Not all of them – Kate, thankfully, Kurk, Shaman Ayawaska, Captain Obo and some other performances are on par with previous games. But a lot of them speak flatly with no intonation – the Russian Colonel is really bad – like they’re reciting the lines but not reading them. Which might explain why nobody caught the occasional hiccup in the English translation. The voices themselves often don’t match the characters. Cantin returns having completely lost his New York accent, and Steiner, despite being old enough to have an adult granddaughter and a dodgy heart, has no roughness or weight of years in his voice; he sounds younger than I do!

The worldbuilding in this series was always pretty whimsical, like Syberia I blending clockwork, cossacks and cellular phones. I can detect a few oddities here, like Kate’s varying faculty with languages. The Youkols are the source of a lot of this – their puzzling physique, but also their lifestyle. Sokal might have benefited from an anthropology textbook or two. In addition to the ostriches coming out of nowhere, there’s little in their material culture that reflects their importance, and the Youkols’ lifestyle is depicted inconsistently; they’re described as nomadic, but the village in Syberia II looks permanent, like a Pueblo made of ice, and Kurk mentions that snow ostrich manure is used as a crop fertilizer. What crops? Nomads don’t grow crops, and even if they did, they wouldn’t do it in the high Arctic!

I’m not sure whether I ought to be offended by the Youkols or not. You’re not being invited to laugh at them, but they are a little ridiculous. I don’t have the faintest idea where Sokal got the idea that they should look like obese Inuit Hobbits. The townspeople call them thieves – standard irrational bigotry – but then I find a computer mouse among the Shaman’s personal effects for some reason. At least now they have more words in their language than ‘took-took.’ Plus they’re a mashup of indigenous cultures. Their dress, to my relatively untrained eye, codes as a mix of Inuit and Mongolian, the Spirit Mask in Syberia II looked like it was made in British Columbia, and they use dreamcatchers, a practice originating with the Ojibwe people of Eastern North America. All their talk of what the spirits want seems cliched. There’s also a bit of a white savior dynamic with Kate as the one who has to fix everything.

She still sounds skeptical about supernatural talk even now, which seems inappropriate given her own spiritual experiences and every improbable thing she’s heard about being true, but she does take her cues from the Youkols, she’s not leading them. There is great resonance in the scenario of the nomads being harassed, attacked or fenced in by modern borders, commerce and sensibilities, which has historical basis on both sides of the Atlantic and beyond, and there’s evidence of the harm done at the Olympic complex which is heartbreaking.

I would say that narratively the thing that bothers me about Syberia III is that it seems oddly disconnected from Syberia II, like there’s another story in between that’s missing. Kate found a temperate island in the high Arctic with mammoths, but that seems not to be important anymore. How did she get back? What was she doing where the Youkols found her? How does Syberia exist? She remarks that the Youkols have made her one of them, but it would have been nice if they’d said that at some point, given her an initiation or something. Maybe it’s me, ’cause I’m working on a fanfiction dealing with this exactly, but it feels like there was a lot of material supplied by Syberia II that Syberia III isn’t using.

The one part of her past that does seem to be relevant is the one that stuck out to me in Syberia I: she gets the contract signed before heading off on the quest with Hans and Oscar, but doesn’t send it back. I still don’t know why she didn’t just fax the damn thing with her resignation letter first. Now, it’s claimed, she’s a wanted woman for stealing the contract and causing mayhem on Russian soil, which rather reinforces the sense that she was kind of irresponsible.

Another interesting difference between this game and the last is that, in Syberia II, Kate was running toward something – Syberia Island – and now she seems to be running away. Whereas Cantin was never really a threat in Syberia II, and seemed to think he was trying to help Kate for her boss and family, he’s more obviously villainous this time: condescending to her and smugly tying her up at the first opportunity. This might represent an attempt to compensate for the negative reading of Kate’s actions in Syberia I: I have a hunch Cantin is lying about her being wanted. He claims Kate’s being sought by the US Department of Justice, but as Kate herself points out, the DOJ wouldn’t send a private detective. The way he and the doctors keep trying to insist she really doesn’t want to do this or that, and the fact that the doctors are in cahoots with both Cantin and the Colonel, suggest this is a bigger plot, and understanding and evading the pursuers seems to be more the focus of her story than the destination of the migration.

Kate continues her trend of asserting her independence and determination, not taking being locked up, tied up, gaslighted or hunted lying down for one second, using her wits and her good heart at every turn. At the same time, her pursuers cast their shadow, she’s left a lot of new friends in her wake with stakes of their own in what happens, and it’s implied that the consequences of turning her back on home and family, be they personal, political or legal, are still to be faced. Certainly they’re facing far darker times than the first games. There’s no combat in these games, of course, but what violence there is, even when Kate has to break a window to get a puzzle piece and cuts herself, becomes somehow more upsetting than a thousand defeats in XCOM or Mass Effect.
Like in the last games, I’ve grown to really care about Kate, Kurk, and the other characters. I think more dialogue would have done a better job, but the job is nevertheless done, and now I can’t wait to see what happens.

Because I don’t know what happens, and this is where it gets really bizarre. At the climax of the migration, just when they’re nearly out of reach of the bad guys, with Kate risking her very life to give the Youkols a chance…the game ends, cut to credits.

For a wild moment, I thought some kind of glitch had triggered the credits early, so I went back and tried again. Same result. We’d introduced the characters and conflicts and then ended the game just as they got rolling! Syberia I and II were originally intended to be one game, so probably Syberia IV will come along in due time, but Syberia I had a distinct ending that made use of everything that had happened in it, and this doesn’t.

I was having fun while it lasted. The game’s new, a bit buggy, but everything that made Syberia awesome was in place: beautiful environments, clever puzzles, good characters, excellent music and dialogue, and it’s a nice respite from games that contain combat. It has some of the shoddiness of troubled production, and seems longer and slower than needed – I can play Syberia II two or three times over in the time it takes to play III once – and the plot barely seems to get going before the game stops! I won’t be angry, because gamers spew enough hype-driven bile online already, but I hope Syberia IV can run with the potential I see in this game. So I shall resume waiting, and maybe play the series to date through again.

Bon chance, Kate Walker.

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Posted by on April 25, 2017 in Video Game

 

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The Last Express: A Train Long Gone

Well, it’s April, so I’m going to take another crack at my attempt last year at dedicating the month to Adventure Games.

While I wait on tenterhooks for Syberia III to make its appearance later this month, I sought out another old one I’ve had in my Steam account for some while.

Oddly, like my last-reviewed adventure game, the Journeyman Project 3, I first encountered the Last Express via a Myst game.

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The original CD-ROM edition of Myst we had included a trailer for the game, created in 1997 by Jordan Mechner, also of the original Prince of Persia game.

The year is 1914 and you are Robert Cath, called up by an old friend and fellow globetrotter, to join him on a shady journey via the Orient Express from Paris to Constantinople and thence on to Jerusalem. However, Cath gets aboard the train only to find his comrade dead, his room ransacked. Cath assumes his friend’s identity and has to find out how he was killed and walk a line between various factions among the train’s passengers: a German industrialist, a Serbian partisan fighter, a Russian anarchist, a mysterious prince, a beautiful and mysterious violinist, all of whom have their own reasons to deal with Cath, revolving around the mystical and priceless Firebird.

The game has a very noir-style story, and the bird-shaped objet d’art makes it clear that the noir classic the Maltese Falcon is a major influence. The other one, inevitably, is Murder on the Orient Express. Cath is not a policeman or detective – he claims to be a doctor but whether or not he’s just a con man isn’t totally obvious – and the murder becomes almost secondary to negotiating the clashing agendas aboard the train.

The gameplay is the standard look around and pick up things. These things can be used for solving various puzzles, or to get yourself in the good books of other characters – in particular the money meant for the arms dealer. For an additional twist, however, time is a factor. Time passes consistently during the game, about 5 times faster than in real life. This introduces issues like actually having a time limit to do certain things, such as having to get certain ducks in a row before you arrive at one of the cities on the Express route.

This creates a fascinatingly varied experience. Encounters with characters and what order you do some things is dependent largely on your own timing, cunning and luck. I had to rewind a long, long way back at one point in the game and ended up not having some minor encounters I’d had on the first pass, because the timing made other things take priority.

It also means that the game has a vast variety of endings – although granted almost all of them are failure conditions. You can get arrested almost at the start of the game. You can let Anna get to the train’s secret cargo before you and she ends up getting killed. You can keep Prince Kronos waiting too long and have his bodyguard knock you off. Or you can take the money and run at Vienna, and the Orient Express goes on its merry way without you. That is also treated as a failure in that the narrative says you regret it, and there’s no closure, but you survive.

Meanwhile, the story comes to you as it may by eavesdropping and snooping. Time your explorations of the train correctly and you’ll overhear conversations through doors and across tables in the dining car, and have a few of them yourself. The train is populated by quite the cast of characters: the arms dealer, the violinist, the anarchist, the Serbians, the senile Russian nobleman and his granddaughter, the chatty English businessman who is not what he seems, the young English diarist on a whirlwind romantic trip with a Frenchwoman, and the French family in the oil business whose son is obssessed with bugs.

The game does a grand job of capturing the lavish decor of the Orient Express, and the sense of scale of Europe on the eve of World War I. It hearkens back to a time when the world seems, in retrospect anyway, like a bigger, more varied and exotic place. It does rather unquestioningly imitate the Orientialist fetishism of the time, with the Turkish passenger with the harem of veiled women and the sinister but suave African-coded Kronos (he kind of reminds me of portraits I’ve seen of Haile Selassie) and his also-African lady-bodyguard. Nonetheless it’s a visual feast as well as an exercise in strategic thinking. The minimalist animation combined with rotoscoping also lends it an appropriately vintage look.

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Granted, it’s not perfect. The game’s a bit buggy, in such a way that if things don’t go in a way the game expects, like when a pre-scripted event kicked in just as I was hiding the Firebird, then the next scripted event didn’t happen and I had to rewind way back and begin again. The controls are a little fiddly as well. The cursor doesn’t have to move far to the side of the screen to make the ‘move forward’ arrow turn into the ‘turn around’ arrow, and sometimes I’d get stuck moving forward and go whizzing past my destination. Also, given the uniformity of design of train cars, if you do accidentally hit the turn-around button, it can take quite a while to notice. Plus, the baggage cars are weirdly hard to navigate in.

Beyond that, the game has lots of material, but it seems like it’s shallower than all this detail warrants. The Serbians end up being more serious antagonists than Kronos, who has vanishingly little screen time and no backstory to speak of, and is dealt with with strangely little ceremony. I sense the odd plot hole, like how Cath somehow goes from being invited by his friend on the trip to being determined to get to Jerusalem for his own purposes, and the way the game insists you get the gold doesn’t make immediate sense to me, and the role of the anarchist as anything but a side plot is unclear.

This isn’t helped by the solution to the mystery suddenly veering out of Murder on the Orient Express and into Raiders of the Lost of the Ark in a way that doesn’t really seem to reward a lot of your detective work, and is scarcely foreshadowed, since anything supernatural wasn’t really on the menu prior to that. Plus several supporting characters get a ‘rocks fall and everyone dies’ treatment and Cath and Anna’s shared arc seems to fizzle out, although the tragedy element of some noir does make sense there. I gather Mechner intended to spin this out into a franchise but it didn’t pan out. And as a result of trying to leave it open-ended, it comes across as a story half-finished. Holding back details like Myst does can create a sense of mystery and imply a bigger world, but this isn’t doing that, it just feels like a lot of the world, mythology and characterization is either missing or isn’t used.
It’s still good, mark you. The time element lends it replay value, and it certainly stimulates fascination with the time it’s set in, and interest in a colourful and diverse range of characters, but it lacks the intricacy and intelligence of the Journeyman Project or Myst. In general I get the impression that Mechner had high aspirations for this game and refused to accept the tools he actually had and make the most of them. Nonetheless, a fun time, and if the plot doesn’t have a lot of closure, at least my memory of that trailer has some now.

 
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Posted by on April 19, 2017 in Video Game

 

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Star Wars: Rebels, and Clone Wars a Little Bit

As much as I’ve said in the past that I’m a Trekkie first, there’s no doubt that Star Wars is firmly in the ascendant these days. I would have thought that both franchises were destined to stagnate and fade quietly away. Whether or not Star Trek: Discovery proves me wrong I won’t know for a while, but Star Wars has unexpectedly risen again with the release of the exhilarating the Force Awakens and gut-punch intense Rogue One.

Still, I can only re-watch them so many times. It was out of curiosity, and some unexpectedly good reviews that I ended up trying out the animated spinoff series: Clone Wars a while back on Netflix, and then, more recently, Star Wars: Rebels.

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Left to right: Hera Syndulla, Kanan Jarrus, Ezra Bridger, Zeb Orellios, Sabine Wren

Rebels‘ third season wrapped up a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve found myself quite enjoying it. Moreso than Clone Wars, although that didn’t stop me watching four fifths of it, too. I assumed that it would be very kid-oriented and shallow. A little unfairly, it turned out…

Star Wars: Rebels features Ezra Bridger, a street kid in the capital of the planet Lothal. The Galactic Empire is squeezing the planet for labour and resources and cracking down on dissent. Ezra is pickpocketing his way to survival when he gets caught up in a more ambitious Robin Hood-style action by the crew of a smuggler ship, the Ghost. One of them, Kanan, recognizes Ezra’s uncanny intuition and skill for what it is: he’s a Force-sensitive. Kanan was a Jedi student during the Clone Wars, and takes the brash Ezra under his wing. As they cause mayhem for the Empire on Lothal, they attract they attention of Imperial authorities, including the cunning intelligence officer Agent Kallus, his boss, the formidable Grand Moff Tarkin, and the Imperial Inquisitors, Force-sensitives tasked to hunt down surviving Jedi. Eventually, even the Inquisitors have to give way to their boss, Darth Vader. As the spark of the Lothal rebellion grows, inspiring others and drawing in other rebel cells, they become part of a larger movement that openly confronts the Empire, under the insidious and erudite Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Ezra becomes a member of a closely-knit crew of misfits: Kanan, the half-trained Jedi veteran, the exiled warrior-artist Sabine, sour ex-soldier Zeb, recalcitrant droid Chopper, and their feisty yet cunning captain, Hera Syndulla. Each of them brings their own skills and personal history and issues that drive them to oppose the Empire and stand by each other, however difficult that sometimes proves. Ezra struggles to fit into a crew, and family, and all of them try to cope with the growing scope of their role in the galactic conflict, as Ezra also begins to learn the ways of the Force and the perils of the Dark Side.

If that seems like a busy schedule, it’s because Rebels is built to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer model of a new Big Bad every season, although Thrawn isn’t out of the picture as of the end of Season 3. That can be a dodgy approach, as it was on Buffy or Legend of Korra because it can be hard to keep ramping up the drama from scratch. However, Rebels takes an in-between approach, where the story arc of gradually escalating the scope of the rebellion, and the Empire escalating its response in line with it by bringing in a succession of heavy hitters.

By and large, the escalation coincides with the show finding its feet. Personally, I didn’t find the Inquisitors, with their creepy eyes and overdesigned light sabres, all that scary. But you’d have to be nuts not to find Tarkin or Vader scary – especially after the latter’s exploits in Rogue One, and Grand Admiral Thrawn is chilling, although his sinister wait-and-watch habit arguably went on just long enough to seem silly before he finally brought the hammer down, but boy did he ever!

That said, I have to say that I still find the series somewhat toothless. A lot of shows listed on the TV Tropes wiki have a section called ‘Getting Crap Past the Radar.’ It usually lists things like dirty jokes or heavy content slipped into kid shows for the benefit of the more mature-minded. Batman: the Animated Series and Avatar: the Last Airbender have quite a lot of entries in theirs. It says a lot about Rebels by comparison that it doesn’t have one at all.

Rebels sort of resembles Firefly in that it features a created-family scenario scrunched into a slightly run-down spaceship doing crosses between covert ops and odd jobs. But somehow it still maintains a certain plastic unreality. The ship seems awfully clean and well-lit. Their food never seems to run low, enemy weapons only ever hurt them if the plot needs them to, they only have one or two episodes where fuel or money troubles vex them. And, like that old joke about the Enterprise, the Ghost doesn’t seem to have any bathrooms.

The characters themselves, meanwhile, are each interesting in their own right but the chemistry between them is a little weak. The show isn’t willing to do anything so brazen as have even subtextual romance subplots. Ezra seems to be trying catch Sabine’s eye for a while but nothing ever comes of it one way or the other. She doesn’t even just say ‘no,’ the subplot just trails off after a while. Kanan and Hera seem to have a thing for each other – she calls Kanan ‘love’ a lot – but it’s not clear what the story is there. And even during the tough times, very rarely do any of them break character in a shocking way.

The show is about war – it’s right there in the name and all – but like Clone Wars before it, the subject matter doesn’t really seem to be taken seriously. Not least because there’s a double standard about how shocking death is. In Clone Wars, the fact that the bad guys were bumbling battle robots made mowing them down seem unremarkable, notwithstanding some philosophical considerations concerning droid sapience. But now the Imperial stormtroopers are the enemy mooks, their bumbling and bad aim clash with the knowledge that there are actual human beings in that armour – although they very carefully avoid letting you see their faces whenever their armour gets stolen. It makes the death of any stormtrooper, especially one with a speaking role, or one who perishes with particular irony, quietly disturbing. And yet when death or maiming happens to someone with a face, then it gets regarded with shock by the heroes, even if it’s a bad guy, like the defector Tua or the Inquisitor who commits suicide in season 1 – presumably preferring that to having to report in to Darth Vader.

In general I think what makes me uncomfortable about Rebels is that it doesn’t consistently treat war as something bad but necessary, but as something awesome and cool. It makes for compelling battles and raids, though. Kanan is pretty good about speaking up for a more pacifistic angle, as well. And some episodes deal with the costs of war, like when Kanan gets blinded in season 2, Sabine’s schism with her clan, and the hideously costly battle at the end of season 3. Avatar had to pull punches as well, of course, but was somehow more consistent about it, and was more convincing about treating war as something you have to do but rather wouldn’t. The priority of action over character development also means that characters come through the fires of war but it doesn’t seem to cost them that much emotionally – they bounce back too easily.

That said, the toothlessness of the action is markedly diminishing, with characters unambiguously dying and the rebels getting set back big time in season 3. Given the Ghost and Hera’s very brief cameos in Rogue One, the bar for how far we can take this is promisingly high. And I do like the characters a lot. Ezra’s got rather more emotional range than average for the spunky young hero. Kanan has fascinating internal conflicts, and I like the way he subverts the standard Old Master character by being himself half-trained. Zeb has something of the shell-shocked veteran going on – he kind of reminds me of D’Argo in Farscape. Sabine doesn’t get as much character development as I’d like, but the premise of the scion of a martial tradition with the soul of an artist is quite charming. The level of sophisticated thinking displayed by Thrawn is well above average for a cartoon villain. My favourites are Hera herself, and Agent Kallus. Kallus has perhaps the most pronounced character arc of them all, keeping me guessing throughout. Hera’s interesting on a few levels. Arguably, she has the greatest emotional range and deepest backstory of any of the characters, especially since her father’s character carried over from the Clone Wars. But as a Star Wars fan, the coolest thing about her is that she’s a Twi’lek.

If you don’t know, Twi’leks are an alien species in Star Wars, almost invariably found in the context of exotic dancers and slave girls in the thrall of people like Jabba the Hutt. So to get one promoted to lead character is really cool. Besides that, she’s no one’s sex object. She makes those who assume she is one pay dearly in one early episode where she has to pose as a slave, and she dresses eminently practically, in something like Kaylee in Firefly’s work clothes. On a bigger scale, almost all of the human characters are discernibly non-white, so we’ve got actual representation and metaphorical representation as a garnish.

However cagey I’m being about character arcs, they’re a decided improvement over Clone Wars, which consisted of multiple, mostly isolated adventures. That aspect of Clone Wars is handy because no more than a passing acquaintance is needed to get the significance of legacy characters like Hondo Ohnaka, Rex the retired clone trooper, or Ahsoka Tano, who has her own supporting character arc as a former apprentice of Anakin Skywalker when Darth Vader enters the narrative. It also gives the galaxy a bit more sense of scale – they don’t effortlessly go just any old where with no sense of how the larger war is going, and they’re only one, not particularly powerful independent cell of a larger resistance.

As a Star Wars fan, the references to the larger canon are charming without making the series completely inaccessible. Canon characters like Darth Vader and Lando are recognizable enough, as are locations like Dantooine and Mustafar. Others like Thrawn, Saw Gerrera and Colonel Yularren – otherwise known as one of the dudes sitting around the Death Star’s conference table – are engaging enough even if you don’t know who they are. At the same time, the writers are pretty good at making sure that the story of our main characters is served by the appearance of legacy characters like Vader, Ahsoka or Obi-wan, without them stealing the show. Likewise, they never defeat the primary villains in a way that diminished their effect or menace.

I might be being a little too harsh in some of my critiques, since I have a bad habit of putting this show on and half-watching it while I wash the dishes and such. But while I find it shallower and more by-the-numbers than Avatar, Legend of Korra, or the new live-action Star Wars productions, it still has much merit. Apart from the cool factor of Star Wars, it has cool and diverse characters, charming dialogue, and a promising story arc that’s been getting better and better. The music is superb, making effective use of the classic motifs by John Williams. The voice acting it a big part of what makes it, with Billy Dee Williams, Forrest Whitaker and James Earl Jones himself reprising their characters from the live action movies. The versatility of Dee Bradley Baker, who somehow made all the Clone Wars troopers sound like different people with the same voice, and Steve Blum, who, if you know what to listen for, is half the supporting cast, is stunning. And some big names come to the party as well: Jason Isaacs as the first Inquisitor, Freddie Prinz Jr. as Kanan – and his wife, Sarah Michelle Gellar as another Inquisitor – Star Trek’s Brent Spiner as an Imperial senator, Kevin McKidd as a Mandalorian warrior, and no less a personage than Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor, as the mysterious Bendu in season 3! Sherlock fans may also recognize the chilling Lars Mikkelsen as Grand Admiral Thrawn.

With such merits, the show is most promising and a lot of fun, and a great way to spend a lazy afternoon.

May the Force be with us all.

 
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Posted by on April 7, 2017 in Television

 

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