Arrow: “Tribute” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.

It’s tough not to be frustrated with the general state of the Arrowverse this fall, with pretty much every series guilty of failing to capitalize on its respective cliffhanger ending from last spring. Arrow was as big an offender as any show with “Fallout,” proving that the impact of Adrian Chase’s final attack was far less dramatic than it could (and should) have been. Season 6 still has a long way to go before it can recover from that botched opening. The good news is that “Tribute” offers reasons for optimism, even as it juggled some fairly underwhelming story threads.

Unsurprisingly, this episode centered around last week’s big twist, the fact that someone has leaked an incriminating photo of the Green Arrow to Channel 52. Like I mentioned in last week’s review, I’m none too thrilled to see the series return to that secret identity well after the lackluster way it was handled in Season 3. It’s pretty much the worst case scenario for character like Ollie, and it needs to be treated as such. Sadly, this episode didn’t handle things much better. Ollie’s leaked identity once again proved to be another bump in the road rather than a massive, status quo-altering development. Once again, Ollie was saved through the power of plausible deniability.

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ELEX Review

If you’ve ever been on a date with someone who seems very interesting and pleasant, but suddenly goes on tirades about lizard people or how the Illuminati faked the moon landing, you have some understanding of my love-hate relationship with ELEX. It’s a sprawling, ambitious, Euro-style RPG in the tradition of series like The Witcher and Gothic, and there’s plenty to admire peppered across its more than 50 hours of adventuring. But while it spends about half its time making me want to sing its praises, it spends the other half making me want to pull every single hair out of my scalp.

The seamless open world is built on a strong foundation of detailed lore that feels unlike anything the genre has thrown at us before. There are dazzling sci-fi elements like super soldiers and radioactive mutants, but also a clan of woodsy wizards who shun all technology. There are exciting influences from Fallout and Mad Max, with sand-blown, post-apocalyptic ruins and gangs of mercenaries in biker leathers, but also a medieval-ish religious order that worships the god of machines. Somehow, it all fits together in a way that feels interconnected and believable. The sheer uniqueness always left me wanting to dig deeper and learn more.

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Wheelman Review

Wheelman premieres exclusively on Netflix on October 20.

Frank Grillo gets behind the wheel of a car, and for most of Jeremy Rush’s Wheelman, he never leaves. But this isn’t another low budget, one-location character study like Steven Knight’s Locke. Wheelman is Locke with a Glock, a high-concept car chase action-thriller that takes place mostly inside of a getaway car, for better and sometimes worse.

The driver, known only as Wheelman (Grillo), is working a run-of-the-mill bank job when, right after his passengers start pulling the heist, he gets a mysterious phone call, ordering him to steal the money. The thieves are going to kill him, or so he’s been told, so he waits until the cash is in the trunk and then he takes off, no longer knowing who to trust.

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The Snowman Review

The Norwegian detective Harry Hole (alright, alright, get that out of your system) is one of the most popular crimefighters in the modern era of mystery novels. But you wouldn’t know it by watching his first feature film. Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of the serial killer thriller The Snowman is a generic detective story that can’t even stand out against its own icy backdrops.

Michael Fassbender plays Harry Hole, a struggling alcoholic and famous Oslo detective with a supportive ex-girlfriend, Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), her teenaged son Oleg (Michael Yates), and nothing else in his life. When a new investigator at the precinct, Katrine (Rebecca Ferguson), tells Harry that a series of disappearances may be connected, and might even be the work of a serial killer, Harry dives in. And when disembodied heads start popping up on the top of snowmen, he realizes he’s in deeper than he thought.

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1922 Review

1922 debuts exclusively on Netflix on October 20th.

If movies have taught us anything it’s that no good murder goes unpunished. It doesn’t matter how clever your scheme is or how righteous you think you are. If you kill somebody, your uppance will come, and it will probably be as ironic as hell.

1922 is Netflix’s second Stephen King adaptation in as many months (Gerald’s Game was the other), and it fits tidily into the tried-and-true moral murder mold. It’s a solemn, disturbing drama about farmer Wilfred James, played by Thomas Jane with a voice that sounds like a low gear combine in desperate need of tuning. His wife Arlette (Molly Parker) is getting big ideas about independence. She wants to sell the farm and move to the city, and if Wilf isn’t up for it, she wants to get a divorce, open a dress shop, and take their teenaged son, Henry (Dylan Scmid), with her.

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Thor: Ragnarok Review

It took one of the most popular Hulk comic book stories ever, Planet Hulk, to make Thor: Ragnarok the most entertaining Thor movie yet. But in a story ostensibly about Ragnarok – the end of Asgard – a crazy subplot set entirely apart from those events and inspired by an entirely different hero’s story really shouldn’t be the best thing about the film, should it?

Thor: Ragnarok is as glib and cheeky as the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and embraces a deliberately ’80s space opera aesthetic and synth score (composed by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, providing the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s most distinctive original music yet). This makes for a fun and often hilarious romp, and a film that looks as vibrant and out there as an old Jack Kirby Marvel comic. But it also encapsulates the MCU’s increasing desire to go for the gag, to mock its own innate absurdity, even at the expense of the characters and settings Marvel Studios has spent years now establishing.

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South Park: “Hummels & Heroin” Review

Warning: Full spoilers for the episode below.

As much as this season of South Park has felt like a return to form for the series, there are still episodes that miss the mark. We saw it with the premiere, and we saw it again this week with Hummels & Heroin. This episode took a promising concept and failed to exploit it to its fullest.

It’s frustrating, because there’s a lot South Park could do with the subject of the US opioid epidemic. Here you have one of the greatest public health crises in the country’s history, one perpetrated by greedy pharmaceutical corporations, opportunistic drug cartels and money-hungry quack doctors. Surely a show like South Park would have a lot to say about the situation and the trail of ruined lives these corporations are leaving in their wake. But this episode never felt like it had much interesting to say about the subject. At best, Hummels & Heroin feels like a halfhearted retread of Season 16’s Cash for Gold, which offered a brilliant, scathing look at the never-ending cycle of exploitation that is home shopping networks and cash for gold pawn shops. That episode’s Jewelry Polka sequence still haunts me years later. It’s a shame this episode couldn’t reach similar heights.

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The Evil Within 2 Review

Innovating within the bounds of horror’s familiar tropes and rules is a difficult task, but one that The Evil Within 2 handles with grace. Developer Tango Gameworks cleverly introduces old-school horror design within the confines of a semi-open world that ultimately makes for a refreshing trip into a world of nightmares.

Picking up several years after the first game, we find the former detective Sebastian Castellanos in dire straits, still wracked with guilt over the loss of his family and haunted by his last visit into a nightmare version of reality. When a shadowy organization gives him the chance to set things right with his past and rescue his daughter from the dangerous and unstable world of Union, he willingly re-enters the haunting realm despite his residual trauma.

Right from the beginning, there’s a sense of deja vu as Sebastian wanders the eerie and unreal locations in Union. Despite being one of the few survivors from the first game, he oddly finds himself falling for the same tricks and set-ups that the world and its inhabitants lay out for him. While this could be chalked up to a simple retread, much of these instances make a point of illustrating some key differences from this game and the last.

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There’s generally more of an adventurous feel compared to the original’s isolated levels. With more side characters to interact with–opening up moments of dialogue that flesh out the story–and optional events scattered around the world, there’s a level of freedom and variety in The Evil Within 2 that was largely absent from the first game. However, there are a few notable sections where backtracking is required, which slows the pacing and sense of progression to a crawl.

Despite this, exploration is consistently enjoyable, rewarding treks to the places tucked away, where you can find details about Union’s history and meet other characters looking to survive the nightmare. With so many little details that add a lot to atmosphere, there’s a clear respect for The Evil Within’s world. The many nods to original game feel more impactful for it, giving a renewed appreciation for Sebastian’s previous adventure.

Compared to its predecessor’s singular levels in unique chapters, The Evil Within 2 possesses a more organic and interconnected set of places to explore–focusing on several large maps with multiple points of interest. While there’s still plenty of mind-bending and perspective-skewing set pieces, such as a tentacle creature with a large camera for an eye, the explorable spaces are the real standout. In many ways, it’s like traversing through a demented amusement park filled with hideous creations, forcing yourself to face past horrors. Adventuring to places not marked on the map often yields valuable resources, and also leads to some surprising encounters with obsessive ghosts and multiple unnerving, fourth-wall breaking events.

It takes more than just going for the head to take out some of the tougher enemies.
It takes more than just going for the head to take out some of the tougher enemies.

Over time, environments descend into chaos when Union inevitably grows unstable, turning a small town into a horrifying and unnerving shell of its former self. Streets vertically upend, and fire and blood exude from places they shouldn’t. The visual design of The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While Sebastian felt more like a mere sketch of a hardened and weary protagonist in his first outing, he feels better realized and more grounded in this sequel, giving a certain gravitas to his struggle. Showing bewilderment and confusion throughout the first game, he’s more confident and determined this time, even throwing in some fitting one-liners that poke fun at some of the dangers in the last game. The supporting cast of villains also feel more active in the ongoing events, and have a greater sense of place this time around–particularly with the eccentric serial killer artist who photographs his victims upon their deaths.

The Evil Within 2 successfully juxtaposes vastly different settings and aesthetics, and presents them in a bizarre package that illustrates the erratic and unpredictable nature of the world.

While there’s occasional moments of cheese and humor throughout–such as the inclusion of a goofy shooting range and collectible toys related to other Bethesda games–the levity never feels out of place, which is an accomplishment considering the game’s pervasive macabre atmosphere.

Putting a greater emphasis on the survival aspect of survival horror, The Evil Within 2 demands resource management and bravery in its relatively spacious world. While common enemies are fewer in number compared to the original game, they’re far more threatening alone and can easily manhandle Sebastian. There’s a thoughtful approach to engagement and progression this time around, which means you’ll have to think twice about whether or not to engage a group of enemies. With that said, you have a sizable arsenal of weapons and gear–including the return of the Crossbow with six different ammo types–to take on the enemies as you see fit.

Some encounters will pull out all the stops to prevent Sebastian from making progress.
Some encounters will pull out all the stops to prevent Sebastian from making progress.

Throughout his journey, Sebastian carries a communication device, allowing him to keep track of main objectives, along with points of interest and intel on the fates of side characters in the area. How you go about dealing with these characters and exploring is up to you. Similarly, whether you avoid conflict with enemies or take out as many as possible along the way is down to your preferred playstyle. The Evil Within 2 accommodates those that prefer action as much as those that like to be stealthy. Combat is robust, thanks to improved weapon handling and character upgrading that allows you to focus on the specific areas of Sebastian’s skillset to enhance stealth, combat, and athleticism.

Sebastian can return to the safe haven of his mind to upgrade weapons and skills, and review case files and intel on various characters. With the Green Gel collected from fallen enemies–and the new Red Gel that unlocks upper tier upgrades–the core upgrading system has been greatly improved. Going beyond simply increasing damage of melee strikes and stamina length, new special perks can be unlocked such as the ever-useful Bottle Break skill that uses bottles as self-defense items when grabbed by enemies. Along with the expanded weapon upgrade system, using only weapon parts, the systems of progression feel far more nuanced and open.

Sebastian will have to scavenge for supplies and other materials to make up for the lack of ammo boxes and health items. While this may seem like it can make things easy, efficient crafting can only be done at dedicated workbenches, whereas crafting in the field via the radial inventory menu should be done a last resort as it costs twice as many materials. This crafting element adds a bit of a survivalist feel to The Evil Within 2, where you’re scrounging around corners to find materials, all while avoiding packs of enemies looking to pummel you.

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Though the game is challenging even on its standard difficulty level, it’s not unfair, and there are options for multiple playstyles. The standard Survival difficulty mode is manageable, and you won’t find yourself hitting a way due to lack of resources. However, the Nightmare mode raises the stakes, featuring slightly altered combat encounters, harder enemies, and fewer resources to find. If you’re up for a challenge of a different kind, the unlockable Classic mode will disable auto-saves, upgrades, and limit you to a finite amount of saves. In addition to extra unlockables for completing the tougher difficulties, the experiences they offer is more in keeping with the true survival horror experience, where resources are hard to come by, and the enemies are deadlier than before.

There’s a clear respect for the horror genre in The Evil Within 2, with a number of references to classic films and games. The game channels that style and tone into combat that feels brutal and raw, stealth that has an air of suspense, and unsettling confrontations with dangerous, otherworldly creatures. The Evil Within 2 doubles down on the core of what makes survival horror games great: the focus on disempowerment and obstacles, and the ensuing satisfaction that comes with surviving a harrowing assault.

Though there’s some occasional technical hiccups that result in some particularly frustrating moments and weird pacing issues, this horror sequel elevates the tense and impactful survival horror experience in ways that feel fresh and exciting. What this cerebral horror game does isn’t totally new, but it rarely feels routine, and offers plenty of surprises. Coming in at a lengthy and surprisingly packed 15-hour campaign, the sequel does an admirable job of ratcheting up the tension and scares when it needs to, while also giving you the freedom to explore and proceed how you want. It’s a tough thing to balance, but The Evil Within 2 does it remarkably well, and in a way that leaves a strong and lasting impression after its touching conclusion.

Lore: Season 1 Review

Amazon brings Aaron Mahnke’s frightening podcast series to life with a chilling 6-part anthology series showcasing the hidden truths behind our most iconic nightmares. If you’re itching to watch something that’s both shocking and educational, then you won’t want to miss all the spooky goodness Lore has to offer.

In order to better illustrate these tales usually saved for audio listeners only, Lore uses a combination of animation, live action and voice-over narration provided by Mahnke himself. Mahnke’s monotone voice, along with graphic images from old press clippings heighten the already tense atmosphere as each story unfolds. The true terror is not what the legends evolve into, but how they began. It is a subject Mahnke is keen to explore.

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Stardew Valley Review

On the surface, Stardew Valley is a game about farming, but there are more adventures awaiting curious players beyond cultivating a rich and bountiful garden. From mining and fishing to making friends and falling in love, Stardew Valley’s Pelican Town is stuffed with rewarding opportunities. As modern day woes give way to pressing matters on the farm and within your newfound community, Stardew Valley’s meditative activities often lead to personal reflection in the real world. It’s a game that tugs at your curiousity as often as it does your heart.

Your journey begins in the field, cleaning up a neglected and rundown farm. Plotting and planning your garden requires care and attention to detail. What fruits and vegetables do you grow? How much room does each plant need? How do you protect your crops from nature’s troublemakers? You learn through practice, and while the basics are easy to grasp, you quickly need to figure out the best way to outfit your budding farm with new tools and equipment.

Upgrades help speed up essential tasks like tilling the earth and watering your plants, but advanced equipment becomes a necessity when the time comes to break down large rocks and stumps that stick out in your garden. The crafting menu also entices you with optional time-saving tools; automated sprinklers that water the crops every morning, artisan equipment to make preserves or beer out of your harvest, and refineries, such as a furnace for turning ore into metal bars. If you want something, you can make it, you just have to scour your environment for the necessary components.

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As your farm improves, you gain the ability to raise livestock. Animals are expensive to buy and maintain, and the barn they live in isn’t cheap either. You start small, with a barn just big enough for a few chickens and ducks. But if you run an efficient and bountiful garden, you can eventually afford to upgrade to a bigger barn and keep hearty livestock like pigs, cows and sheep.

You have to feed your stock every day, which can get expensive, but they will eventually begin to produce eggs, milk and other rewards for all your hard work. Beyond their monetary value, animals are simply endearing to be around. Give them a name and work a little petting time into your routine; before you know it, your commodities have become your friends. Like your crops, the goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.

The goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.

When your farm is healthy and your equipment set, Stardew Valley opens up and your routine expands: after you water your plants, feed your animals and tidy up in the morning, you get to head out in search of adventure and friendship. There’s a mine north of Pelican Town with a seemingly endless bounty of buried treasure, but also danger. Combat is simple–a plain swipe of a sword will brush back most common monsters–but the dangers you face grow as you delve deeper into the mine, pushing your basic tactics to the limit.

There’s a risk/reward relationship to seeking out valuable treasure, as it becomes increasingly more difficult to defend yourself from procedurally generated creatures the deeper you go. You hit checkpoints–in the form of elevator stops–every few floors, which both encourages you to keep going and to return in the future in search of grander rewards as checkpoints allow you to skip past the mine’s early levels. The precious gems you find can be sold for profit, donated to a museum that will conduct and share research, or simply hoarded in a chest to be fawned over down the road.

When you grow weary of toiling underground, you can also spend time fishing on lakes, streams and coastal beaches. Fishing in Stardew Valley is straightforward–you use one button to reel in a fish and let go when the line is tense–but it gives you a chance to soak in your surroundings and experience the joys of catching a wide array of fish unique to specific seasons and locations. It’s a calming experience at sunset after a long day that gives you a chance to reflect on your progress and daydream about adventures to come.

Stardew Valley constantly encourages you to explore, be it mining, foraging for fruit in the woods, or collecting seashells, and your curiosity is amply rewarded. Every hidden area you find, every train track you follow, leads to new sights and discoveries that add detail and color to the world around you. Yet as fulfilling as farming and exploring are, visiting Pelican Town’s community center pulls you ever deeper into your new life. Like your farm at the beginning of the game, the community center needs a little attention at first: you’re sent out on fetch quests to gather the necessary materials to fuel its reconstruction.

Outside of the community center, the rest of Pelican Town’s inhabitants also need your help. In working together to achieve small goals, you grow to understand your neighbors’ personalities and identify what makes them tick. Some are pursuing their hopes and dreams, while others fight day to day to overcome personal obstacles; others are quirky creatures of habit that round out the community’s overall identity.

Relationships are gauged by a heart meter, and getting to a certain number of hearts results in a cutscene that offer a closer look into your new friends’ lives. Offering gifts and completing tasks from a board in the center of town are easy ways to increase your connections, and slowly but surely you’re allowed in the inner circle of people’s otherwise private lives. You may befriend a father named Kent who’s dealing trauma after years at war. He’s working on his temper and trying to bond with his child after being away from home. The child, whom you meet in hiding in his parent’s basement, is quiet and introverted. But when you put the time in to get to know him, he reveals that he actually doesn’t mind being alone, even though he believes that he’s at odds with his parents. These personal moments are touching, and encourage you to spend more time getting to know the people around you.

And if you decide to enter Pelican Town’s dating scene, don’t be surprised if you end up with butterflies in your stomach. Giving your crush the right gift and seeing the joy on their face makes you genuinely happy, but you have to put yourself out there first. Sure, working with townsfolk in general is a good way to understand the ins and outs of potential suitors, but no amount of preparation diminishes the impact of anxiously delivering a heartfelt gesture. Because you’ve invested so much time and energy into forging relationships, you get nervous when you expose your feelings, regardless of the fact that you’re courting a pixelated crush. Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings: when your date shares his umbrella in the rain, you know he’s the one.

Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings

Romance often buds during community events that take place each season. In spring you’ll attend a dance and try to get someone to be your partner. At the summer luau you’ll have to bring something delicious from your harvest for the community potluck. At each of these events you’ll have time to get to know the people within the community and see them in a different light than usual. Although it’s lovely to see them outside of their usual activities, it’s a shame year after year the comments and actions of the villagers remain the same. Still, you can learn from previous years, adding better food to the potluck and finally earning the affection of your favorite dance partner.

Mastering farming and earning the affection of your special someone in Stardew Valley are fulfilling journeys filled with surprising and rewarding challenges. But when you have those accomplishments under your belt, it’s hard to know where you go from there. Divorce is an option, but if you put a lot of yourself into finding a spouse, dumping them merely to extend your game doesn’t seem like an attractive path. Besides, with your money-making farm, cash isn’t a concern either.

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Ultimately, Stardew Valley’s eventful world is so inviting that you may opt to simply start from scratch and forge a new life. For anyone who played Stardew Valley earlier this year when it launched on PC, the new console ports capture the same magic that made the game special all those months ago, and allows you to play from the comfort of your couch. Controls on console are essentially identical to what you get from the PC version’s controller support. Console versions also get the fully updated version of Stardew Valley, which includes the aforementioned divorce option, new farm maps that focus on different skills, and a handful of new mechanics that add appreciable wrinkles to life on the farm and about town.

The sheer number of things to accomplish in Stardew Valley can keep you interested beyond the original three in-game years you need to reach the end of your story–you may just want to start over rather than continue on. You’ll work quite hard to gather enough money for your first horse, so that you can quickly move to the mines to get a mineral to complete a bundle at the community center. It’s all centered around whatever it is you want to accomplish that day. And that’s truly what makes Stardew Valley such a lovely experience, it encourages you to go out and be the best you can be, in whichever task that brings you the most joy. Stardew Valley motivates naturally, with blissful optimism.

Editor’s note: After further testing, GameSpot has updated the score to reflect the Nintendo Switch version of Stardew Valley. – Oct. 6, 2017, 2:17 PM PT