Finding Dory Review

Pixar has, for years, defined quality family entertainment.  Their art direction has been emulated in several other films, and there’s a natural maturity to the films that is relatable to the countless adults in attendance.  The films are “safe” for children, even if the source material therein isn’t exactly targeted at them, though the marketing is.  Pixar is capable of creating worlds that are enticing for everyone with a beating heart and a sense of joy, with rarely a misstep between releases.  It’s no surprise, then, that Finding Dory is absolutely fantastic.

When the film was first announced, I was apprehensive.  Pixar’s last sequel, Cars 2, was one of those rare missteps.  It was a film that existed solely to sell merchandise and offered very little substance beyond that.  Not that Pixar is incapable of crafting worthy sequels, as the Toy Story franchise has proven, but the story of Finding Nemo felt complete.  I wasn’t begging for a sequel; I took the journey and was satisfied with the conclusion.  I was afraid that a sequel would be an unnecessary rehash and a cash grab.  How wrong I was.

Finding Dory opens, like every Pixar movie, with an animated short.  This one, titled Piper, tells the story of a little bird that needs to get its first meal on its own.  It’s a simple premise that is artfully crafted into one of the most charming shorts I’ve ever seen.  The animation is downright beautiful with a beach that feels real enough to walk on.  From the frothy waves lapping up on shore to the individual grains of sand that stick believably to the feathers of little Piper, the world feels so incredibly real and believable that Morgan Freeman’s voice narrating this bird’s journey to independence wouldn’t feel out of place.  It’s a charming short that tells viewers, without speaking a single word, “You can do great things.”  The cynicism that’s blossomed within me over the years got some much needed weeding from the pure joy I felt during Piper’s short runtime.  Its theme is one that fits well with the film that follows.  It’s such a beautifully charming short capable of making even the hardest of hearts laugh, if only for a moment.

Piper was such a strong opening, I had high expectations from that point forward.  Finding Dory is more as much a prequel as it is a sequel.  The story opening with a very young Dory and her patient parents as they work with her and her memory issues.  See, Dory has problems with short-term memory loss and is easily distracted.  As a result, her parents have to use shells and rhymes to embed important things into her memory, with varying results.

Throughout the film, we’re taken back to these moments as Dory encounters something that triggers her memory.  It creates a non-linear narrative that encompasses the story that was told in Finding Nemo without relying too heavily on its predecessor.  Sure, there are various callbacks to Finding Nemo, and being familiar with the characters might help the world to feel a little more familiar, but there’s absolutely nothing in Finding Dory that would alienate new viewers.  It’s a film that stands on its own, despite living in an existing universe.  There’s only a handful of characters from the first film that make an appearance, and even less that are actually featured as main characters.

The majority of the film – aside from focusing on Dory, Marlin, and Nemo – is composed of a variety of new characters.  Joining the cast of characters is Kaitlyn Olson as a near-sighted whale shark named Destiny, Ty Burrell as a beluga whale suffering from issues with echolocation after a recent concussion, and Ed O’Neill as an ornery “septopus” who is looking for a ticket to a Cleveland aquarium where he’ll be able to live a secluded life in a box free from getting touched.

Hank is easily my new favorite character to make its way into an animated movie.  He plays the unlikely hero as he agrees to help Dory only in exchange for her tag – a ticket to Cleveland.  As he spends more time with Dory, he slowly begins to sympathize with the character, and even care about her.  It’s a fluid evolution as Hank never transitions from being a self-serving anti-social jerk to a compassionate hero.  Hank, by the film’s end, is the same as he was, at his core, when he first met Dory.  We’re shown right off the bat that he isn’t entirely heartless – in fact, he has three.  He also has a set of principles:  a deal is a deal and I’ll make sure I hold up my end of said deal.  If that deal sees him taking some unexpected detours, he’ll take them.

It’s not just his personality, though, that makes Hank stand out.  That helps, for sure, but the creative animation transforms him from being just an abrasive cynic to a truly memorable and even iconic animated character.  Hank is a ruby octopus – well, he’s missing a tentacle, so Dory refers to him as a septopus.  In addition to using his array of tentacles to walk, crawl, and sling his way around, Hank also has the ability to perfectly mimicking his surroundings with his camouflage.  This sets up some brilliant visual gags and makes the character that much more endearing.

All of the new characters, though, add something special to the mix.  From the territorial sea lions to Bailey and his use of the world’s most powerful glasses, each inhabitant of this wonderfully zany universe is memorable in his or her own right.  The dialogue is sharp and witty, and the talented cast breathes life into the characters with heart and impeccable timing.

Finding Dory is, in some regards, a similar movie to its predecessor.  You have a fish embarking on a journey to find a family that was lost.  At its core, however, it’s a much smaller, more personal tale that trades the ocean-spanning adventure of the first film for a more focused character piece.  The majority of the film takes place in a single location with only one brief scene spent getting there.  It’s less a journey of finding someone else, and more of a journey of self-discovery.  Not only for Dory, but for the characters around her.  The film poses the question of “who is Dory?”  By the time the film concludes, she’ll feel as much a part of your family as she is a part of the family she’s looking for.

While I felt that Finding Dory took a full act of its own before it really found its groove (possibly because of the impossibly high expectations I had following Piper), the story, characters, and everything in between was a joy to watch.  Finding Dory is another standout Pixar film with tons of heart.  For each moment you laugh, there will be another, perfectly fitting moment of heartfelt sincerity that yanks at your emotions.  It’s hard to find a film that’s contains such a perfect blend of contrasting emotional themes, but it’s handled with such grace that viewers will be finding Dory, her cohorts, and the heartwarming journey they take entertaining for years to come.

 

Good – 3 / 3

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Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows Review

The very idea of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a silly one.  Initially a parody of other popular comics in the 80s, TMNT would explode in its own popularity spanning a series of television shows, live-action and animated movies, and arcade and console games.  While it’s certainly not as popular nowadays as it was in its heyday, the fact that the four turtles are still recognizable to children over thirty years later is a testament to the brand’s appeal.  The Turtles are back in cinemas this summer in Out of the Shadows, the sequel to the 2014 reboot of the film franchise.  Is it worth a watch?

The film begins with an animated stunt sequence and a short break at a basketball game before diving into a little plot.  It’s fun enough, but serves little purpose other than a silly gag featuring the anthropomorphic turtles’ dish of choice:  pizza.  From there, audiences are “treated” to a gratuitous amount of Megan Fox doing that thing she does in movies.  The dialogue exchange between Fox’s April O’Neil and Tyler Perry’s Dr. Baxter Stockman is hammy and dumb, but it feels consistent with the overall tone of the film.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about the sequence that follows as April sheds her outer layer for a quick costume change to make sure the film gets in its requisite sex appeal.

The story is set one year after the last film.  Shredder has been defeated and is in prison.  Will Arnett’s Vern Fenwick is, according to an agreement made with the Turtles, regarded as the hero who brought down The Shredder.  And, thanks to this agreement, the Turtles are able to remain in the shadows protecting New York.

After our detour at the basketball game, we learn that The Shredder is being transported and there’s a plan to break him out.  This sets up a solid highway chase sequence with as many laughs and explosions as there are groans.  Some of the dialogue is just plain stupid but, most times, it works favorably for the film.  The actors know they’re in a silly movie and they appear to be having fun with that, chewing through some painful writing with a mouthful of cheese and a toothy grin.

The plot opens up after the highway scene with what could have been something awesome: Krang and Dimension X.  Unfortunately, exposition is not one of this movie’s strong points.  I’d like to say it’s formulaic in its plot progression, but that would be giving the film far too much credit.  It tries to be – it pretty rapidly moves from point to point to point, but each point is a misstep on a scenic route for about two thirds of the movie.  After it finally takes us somewhere we want to be, the film forgets the fact that an important item has gone missing so it can rehash some group conflict that was already covered in the first movie.  While the Turtles are caught up in their moody discourse and shunning of each other, the bad guys get to move forward with their evil plot.  It’s all good, though, because we need that to happen for that final boss fight – which is, sadly, less spectacular than it should be given everything that’s involved.

Out of the Shadows does a solid job keeping the Turtles true to their roots while keeping them updated enough so they don’t feel like they’re trapped in the 90s.  Contrasting this, you have Bebop and Rocksteady.  The character designs are perfect, even if the execution is a little off.  Despite how good the CG renders of the Turtles are, Bebop and Rocksteady never really look believable in this world.  Still, it is fun seeing them on the big screen – even if there are some missteps with how the characters are handled.  As if to make sure the film wouldn’t get a PG rating, the two need to check their nether regions to see how everything was changed after their mutation.  It’s a small thing, but something that doesn’t jibe with the rest of the film, regardless how messy it is.

The problem with the film isn’t the campy dialogue and one-liners – while some lines definitely don’t work and the script is quite a mess, the Turtles’ banter and Mikey’s quips are, more often than not, enjoyable.  The problem is the film’s nonsensical plot and incoherent editing.  I’m not expecting Shakespearean level art here, but staying focused on a single idea instead of pointless tangents would make the film a little more watchable (I can’t call them subplots, because these detours don’t have any plot).  Its few shining moments are far outweighed by the wasted potential, misguided writing, and shoehorned sexuality.  This could have easily been a great summer film anyone could enjoy.  Unfortunately, the end result is something that can be entertaining in short bursts, but offers little enjoyment as a whole.

 

Bad – 1 / 3

The Monkees: Good Times! Review

I was introduced to The Monkees as a kid.  Long past their days of the phenomenon they were in the mid to late sixties.  I had a cassette tape of their greatest hits my mom gave me, and that’s how I knew them.  I didn’t know they were a made-for-TV fake pop band at their inception.  To me, they were just a band.  I knew their names.  I knew their voices.  I knew their music.  That’s what mattered to me as a kid.  Not who played the instruments on their first two albums, just the music.

It wasn’t until Justus and the TV special episode of their show in the late 90s that I learned that they were, indeed, an assembled group of guys who were supposed to pretend to be a band.  Learning this didn’t affect my view of their music, but it did encourage my curiosity to know more about them.  I read more, listened more, and watched more.  I learned that while they may have had little input on their first two albums, they fought for and gained creative control over their music.  I learned that their third album, Headquarters, was entirely produced by the fake band that was previously called out for not playing their own instruments.  I learned about their psychedelic cult film Head.  I learned about how they’d eventually go their own ways, regain popularity again in the 80s, and make one last album in the 90s.  I listened to every song, every “missing link,” and every deluxe album.  I can hum and sing along with all their tunes.  They’ve become a part of me – defining my tastes and curating my sense of humor.  When Davy Jones passed away in 2012, I felt a sense of loss I can’t say I’ve ever experienced with the death of a celebrity, and I was sure The Monkees were over.

It’s been twenty years since the last Monkees studio album was released.  While the previous two reunion albums, Pool it! and Justus, attempted to be more contemporary with the music that was hot at the time, Good Times! takes a different approach by bringing the band back to their roots.  The new album features new tracks written specifically for The Monkees by a variety of talented artists including original Monkees songwriters Neil Diamond, Harry Nilsson, and Tommy Boyce & Bobby Hart.  Included in the new cast of writers is Andy Partridge of XTC, Rivers Cuomo of Weezer, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne, Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie, among others.  The surviving three Monkees didn’t just sit this one out and provide vocals, however, with Peter, Micky, and Mike penning three tracks on the 13-track album and, yes, playing their own instruments.

The album starts strong with the title track “Good Times.”  It’s a song that dives into the backlog of Monkees history with duet vocals provided by the late Harry Nilsson, who wrote the track, and Micky Dolenz.  It’s a great, energetic frame for the album that follows.  Davy Jones’ unparalleled charm is also brought back to life on Good Times! with the Neil Diamond penned “Love to Love.”  While the song may be familiar to some fans, the track never got a proper release, having only been previously included in one of the Missing Links collections.

Good Times! invites you on a journey through the past and the band’s evolution, and it gives you 13 good reasons to take that journey.  From upbeat bubblegum songs like “You Bring the Summer” and “She Makes Me Laugh” to more somber and thoughtful tracks like “Me & Magdalena” and “I Know What I Know” – both featuring Mike Nesmith on lead vocals – Good Times! has a solid variety of tunes that would feel at home on any of the band’s first 9 albums.

I’ve listened to the album several times now – each time with an ear-to-ear grin – and there aren’t any duds.  Some songs may not stand out quite as strong, but there isn’t a weak track to be found.  Having grown up listening to The Monkees, and having little hope that I’d ever hear new songs from them, it’s strangely emotional to hear this new material.  The experience of hearing these familiar sounds and voices in something entirely new is overwhelming.  Good Times! perfectly encapsulates everything that made The Monkees speak to me so strongly growing up.  It’s a striking return to form and a beautiful love letter to their fans and their legacy.  It’s an absolutely perfect way to come back… and say goodbye.

 

Good – 3 / 3

X-Men: Apocalypse Review

“The third film is always the worst.”  This pseudo self-aware line is spoken as a not so subtle nod to the less than stellar reception X-Men 3: The Last Stand received.  And, as painful as it was hearing this piss poor attempt at irony, it couldn’t be more true.

X-Men:  Apocalypse is the third film in the new X-Men timeline and follows the events of the X-Men sequel / reboot Days of Future Past.  While Days of Future Past had its faults, it still stood out as one of the stronger entries in the X-Men film franchise.  Sadly, the legacy of the excellent First Class does nothing to elevate Apocalypse above mediocrity.

The film opens strong enough with a thundering score and the titular En Sabah Nur (Apocalypse) and his four henchman marching to a ritual to transfer his consciousness.  We’re treated to a fun, if a little clumsy, action scene right off the bat before the film tosses up the title card… and then devolves into a muddy mess of mediocrity and wasted potential.

The majority of the film is set in 1983, over 20 years after First Class, and it does little to emphasize this point aside from a few period outfits and a Return of the Jedi marquee.  Despite the cast having aged only 5 years since this new (old) class of heroes was introduced, we’re thrust into yet another decade with little to no reason.  Really, the only cues we have, aside from the punk clothing and movies playing in cinemas, that any time has passed between films is the damage done in the last two movies is barely a passing thought to anyone in this universe and one of the characters has a family now.

With First Class, and to a lesser extent Days of Future Past, the characters felt new and refreshing.  Even if we had seen them before in these films, the new interpretations added a new layer of depth.  In the original X-Men film, we were given a glimpse into what turned Erik into Magneto.  First Class took us deeper into that character evolution with an extended look at Erik’s time in Auschwitz and Michael Fassbender giving us a Magneto that, in spite of his feelings toward them, is more human.  The relationship between Charles and Erik in First Class gives more weight to each instance you hear the line “old friend” spoken in the original films.  It’s a compelling relationship and one I’d love to see more of, but one that takes a back seat to some of the new gifted youngsters as Apocalypse tries desperately to bridge the gap between the old and new.

While Days of Future Past did little to develop that relationship further, being essentially another Wolverine movie, the characters in that go ‘round were actually fun to follow.  Apocalypse shifts its focus to follow Jean Grey, Kurt Wagner, and Scott Summers in their “first” appearance in the franchise.  I’ve never been a fan of how Cyclops has been presented in the film franchise, being a bit of a whiny douche, which is disappointing because he was always my favorite in the comics.  Apocalypse somehow manages to make the character even less likable than the James Marsden iteration of the character.  I understand, he’s going through some unexpected changes that are difficult to handle, but the stilted performance, cringe-worthy dialogue, and lack of chemistry do nothing to make those changes relatable – or even tolerable.

On the topic of dialogue, the script is downright terrible at times.  With a hodgepodge of graceless exposition, ham-fisted attempts at humor, and standard, impact-less “us versus the world” hero speeches, you’re sure to shake your head more than a few times at just how utterly stupid these characters can sound when they open their mouths.  That’s not to say that it’s all bad – there are moments with true dramatic weight, but I think that has less to do with the script and more to do with Michael Fassbender’s better-than-this-movie-deserves performance.  Each scene he’s in is mesmerizing, with one in particular striking nearly every emotional cord.  It’s a shame, then, that he’s such a small presence in the film.  Each scene with Erik is like watching a different movie.  A good movie.

The primary conflict in X-Men:  Apocolypse centers on the return of Apocalypse as he gathers an army of mutants to push the reset button on the world so the strong can survive and start anew.  It’s an idea with potential:  all-powerful being hell-bent on world destruction and domination surrounds himself with other, like-minded powerful beings to see that plan through.  Unfortunately, it’s wasted on unnecessary subplots and stupid characters.

Apocalypse keeps four henchmen nearby and, of those, only two are actually interesting in any way.  Olivia Munn as Psylocke is hard to watch – even if she is just a blip on the radar in the film – and the inclusion of Angel is downright baffling (I don’t remember him being in his forties in The Last Stand).  Alexandra Shipp’s turn as Storm is a vast improvement over Halle Berry’s, but she gets about as much screen time as Psylocke – which is a shame because she manages to be one of the few enjoyable characters in the film.  Apocalypse himself is bland and a waste of Oscar Isaac’s talent as the blue makeup and boring progression do a fine job of making him as unrecognizable as he is uninteresting.  There are brief moments where you can see a glimmer of what could be only to be pulled back down by a groan-inducing line someone managed to choke out.

There was an opportunity to build toward something bigger with ApocalypseDays of Future Past reset the timeline and created the possibility to do something new; instead, they went with another paint-by-numbers standalone superhero flick.  While some of the action is enjoyable and the time you get to spend with the Magneto subplot is absolutely worth watching, there’s little to nothing else in this film worth recommending.  It’s like a cocktail of one part good movie, two parts painfully mediocre movie, and one part absolutely horrible movie.  While it’s not downright terrible as a whole, it rarely ever tries not to be.

Meh – 2 / 3

RoboCop review

Remakes are always hard, especially if you are a fan of the original.  You don’t want them to mess with a great thing by ruining the story, but you also don’t want them to retread old ground.  You’re content with your “original” and feel like Hollywood should be working on developing new ideas instead of rehashing old ones.  Yes, remakes are bad and we all know it.  Reboots?  Well, that’s just a fancy name for a remake that bastardizes your fondest memories.

RoboCop was such a great 80s movie with its darkly satirical commentary and religious overtones contrasted by the ultraviolence of it all.  RoboCop is an incomparable piece of classic sci-fi cinema and remaking it would just be blasphemous, right?  I mean, the failed attempt at remaking Total Recall, another Paul Verhoeven classic, certainly doesn’t bode well for this modern retelling of the man in a machine – it doesn’t help that it bears the same PG-13 dumbing down that Total Recall received.  No, RoboCop as a modern film has to be a terrible idea.  Unless the idea is actually new.

Robocop3

I hate retreading old ground.  Adaptations, in general, fail to impress me if I’ve already experienced the story in its original medium because there’s nothing new – nothing fresh.  Films based on books are often punctuated with “the book was better” in the same manner that remakes are quickly branded as an uninspired rehash.  Let’s ignore the fact that there are several remakes that are considered “classic” films, because those were totally different.  I’m not saying that this year’s reboot of RoboCop is a classic, but it is definitely fresh.

robocop2In the original film, OmniCorp was already working on domestic grounds with the Detroit Police being under the control of OmniCorp as opposed to the city.  In the new film, OmniCorp has its drones and robots doing “peacekeeping” work in foreign territories while a bill is keeping them from patrolling domestic streets.  Michael Keaton plays a corporate Palpatine who decides to give one of his robots a face – something the American people can get behind – in order to expand his business and profits.  He’s a charming mastermind that presents himself as someone who is trying to better the world while all of his “behind the scenes” interactions paint the more accurate portrait of greed.  It’s a welcome update to the story and one that feels more relevant to our modern time.

We also see a very different Alex Murphy in the remake.  One who feels more “human” even inside the machine before a decision is made to override his humanity.  It poses some interesting questions about what makes us human.  Essentially, when you look at humans, they’re chemicals and electrical impulses – no different than a machine.  When you control those chemicals and impulses, is there still a soul underneath that?

robocop1

RoboCop presents a similar story to the original: a Detroit detective is murdered and reconstructed as a cyborg who is essentially controlled by his programming despite his human elements fighting for control.  It’s a story of what it means to be human interlaced with socio-political commentary, albeit a little more serious than its 1987 counterpart.  Despite telling a similar overall tale, all the other elements bring to life a completely different story.  One of corporate greed and politics.  One of human emotion and free will.  It’s a movie that is still darkly satirical, but it does it with a straight face – which just so happens to be the face of Samuel L Jackson.  Purists may leave the film disappointed, but after the TV series, the miniseries, and RoboCop 3, this fresh take on the franchise is a welcome breath of fresh air.

 

RoboCop: 3.5 out of 5

Fable Anniversary Re-Review

Fable Anniversary

It’s hard to think that ten years ago, now, I was taking my first trip to Albion – a curious land that would devour hours of my time and earn my devout allegiance.  Fable has never been known for a lengthy main campaign, but the games have always offered a substantial amount of side content and secrets that encourage players to invest more than the 10 or so hours it would take to just beat the game.  The franchise has been the victim of its own over-hyping, but nonetheless it’s a franchise I hold near and dear to my heart and I’m thrilled that I now have the opportunity to replay the first game, my personal favorite, fully remade.

Fable is an interesting beast.  As a friend of mine has described the games, “It’s very British.”  It’s a cheeky game with some great hit-or-miss humour but all wrapped in a charming package with a great story.  The storytelling in Fable has never been high art or anything of that sort, but the games always have a well-crafted, non-linear plot, something I appreciate.  The Fable universe has been keeping me entertained and intrigued for ten years now, and I’m pleased to say that the re-release more than does the premiere installment justice.

Fable Ann Compare 1I’ve really grown to appreciate how Microsoft handles their remakes.  While you see a ton of “HD” re-releases from the last console generation hitting the market from several other publishers, those games suffer from a severe case of “uprezzing.”  Little more is done with those titles than giving players new high-resolution textures and widescreen support to stare at – the visuals are still relatively unchanged from the initial game release.  Now new character models, no new particle effects, no new lighting, no new audio… it’s the same game but just a bit (and I mean a bit) shinier.

Microsoft Studios, on the other hand, completely remakes the game visually.  The original game content and experience is untouched (aside from maybe some new controller options) while the game’s visuals are rebuilt with maybe a healthy helping of new audio to go along with it (with Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary being a prime example of new audio really lending to the rebuilt experience).  It’s not just a high resolution copy of an already made game, it’s a complete visual reimagining of a world we’re already familiar with.  Perfect Dark and Halo really demonstrated that Microsoft was dedicated to nurturing its properties and giving fans more than just a recycled product.  Fable does the same.

While the gameplay may not hold up as well next to its more modern counterparts, the experience that I loved ten years ago is still there.  The belching, the farting, the questing… it’s still the classic Fable experience that so consumed much of my mid-to-late teen years and every moment I spend in the game is accompanied by a nostalgic high.  I love Fable and this is the game that always comes to mind when I think of revisiting Albion… I’m almost ashamed that it’s been so long since I’ve worked my way through the first game (which, I’ll admit, I haven’t played through since Fable II was released).  I’m not, though.  Playing through Fable Anniversary, in spite of the many, many times I’ve played through the first game, is, amidst the nostalgia, almost a new experience again since it has been so long.  It feels fresh, yet familiar and not just because of the visual update.

The visuals, though, are great.  It’s really nice to see that such a great amount of care went into rebuilding the world of Albion.  It is, however, hindered by the aged and clunky animations of the 2004 game hiding underneath.  While some things feel revamped and fluid, there are those awkward moments where characters will freeze and whip around robotically.  It’s jarring and takes from the experience ever so slightly – but as a whole, the game looks great and the love that went into recreating Albion is apparent in every screen.

Fable Ann Compare 2

I know I may be biased and looking at the game through rose-tinted glasses or whatever, but Fable Anniversary feels great.  Playing the game brings me some kind of gaming bliss and the new visuals should set a new standard for HD remakes – something I also said about Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary.  I feel like the folks working under the Microsoft Studios banner aren’t given enough credit for the work they do on their HD remakes – though that’s a topic for another time, I suppose.

Fable Anniversary is an old game dressed in new game clothing.  It’s as fun as it was ten years ago, but looks substantially better.  Giving loyal Xbox fans achievements to earn is another plus.  Fable is a piece of gaming history and this Anniversary re-release does it justice, it would be hard, even when not considering my bias, to not recommend this game… it’s just too much fun and the budget price makes it even more enticing.

 

Fable Anniversary: 4 out of 5

Mirror’s Edge 2 coming when it’s ready

Another EA reveal was the highly anticipated Mirror’s Edge 2.  The teaser is composed entirely of in-game footage and it looks absolutely stunning.  The DICE-developed sequel will be released “when it’s ready.”

White Noise: A Tale of Horror Review

Proper horror games are few and far between these days, and they tend to creep up more on PC thanks to independent developers and distribution platforms like steam.  Since its introduction, Xbox Live Indie Games (XBLIG) has been largely abused by a community of users determined to make their mark by releasing complete garbage or “me-too” knock offs.  There have been several solid releases in the XBLIG marketplace over the years, yes, but they’re constantly becoming harder and harder to find with each new day of unsolicited downloadable shovelware.  White Noise: A Tale of Horror is one of those shameless copycats… but it’s a very good one.

While I haven’t played Slender: The Eight Pages, I wasn’t completely ignorant to the fact that White Noise was a rip off; despite this, I felt starved for a good scare and decided to give White Noise a try… after all, it was only $1 (80 MSP).  I am pleased to say that it was a very worthwhile purchase.

Since I haven’t played Slender, I can’t draw comparisons between the two (though I have heard they are essentially identical games); instead, I will be reviewing White Noise based on its own merits.

White Noise is a simple game following a simple formula:  plop players in random locations in the middle of a creepy forest with nothing but a flashlight and the will to outrun a terrifying, shadowy creature set on making you dead.  Players are tasked with recovering eight tape recorders hidden throughout various creepy locations featuring run-down architecture and ominous noises.  There are few cues or hints as to where the recordings are located–static noises are used to indicate the player is close to an audio log, but the game doesn’t feature a HUD or any other markers indicating where the logs may be found.  It’s a bit of a cop-out to increase the game’s longevity by encouraging multiple playthroughs to acclimate one’s self to the game’s environment, but it’s surprisingly effective as the game rarely feels monotonous as the tension never seems to subside.

Being placed in random locations, it’s a challenge to get oriented from the beginning, and having the viewing area limited to only what the flashlight illuminates certainly doesn’t make things easier.  While it can be easy enough to get back on a familiar path, once players start picking up the audio logs, the shadowy figure begins making appearances, forcing players to run and (possibly) get lost again.  Audio-visual cues indicate when the creature is close (featuring snowy static around the border of the screen and fitting audio when the shadow figure is near), and a lot times it comes completely out of nowhere. White Noise is incredibly effective at the jump scare, and it manages to make that startling moment last with a sense of danger and tension after the initial startling revelation that there is a monster nearby.  There is no offense against the creature, players’ only option is to run away.  Running isn’t unlimited, either–and it’s certainly not fast.  I found myself tightly gripping the right trigger (used for sprinting) in desperation hoping that I could get away from the creature–it only worked sometimes.

Adding to the tension is the game’s beautifully rendered horror world.  Being mostly shrouded in darkness probably helps this game to be more visually appealing, but there’s no denying that it’s one of the best looking (if not the best looking) games on XBLIG.  The forest is genuinely creepy and the run down cemetery and crumbling monuments decorating the world help add to that feeling of uneasiness.

The sound design is equally effective.  The game’s score appropriately becomes more and more intense with each audio log the player recovers–adding to the heart pounding intensity as each note bursting through the speakers nearly shouts, “It’s coming to get you!”  The sounds of nature and other haunting noises are as misleading as they are cause for dread.

Story, on the other hand, is nearly non-existent.  The game begins with a text introduction before plopping players into the woods to gather audio logs they cannot listen to–they’re merely tokens of progress that can be used to unlock gameplay bonuses from the game’s menu.  I’m a sucker for horror as much as I am a fan of lore–that this game actually managed to frighten me and that it only cost a dollar are reason’s I’m willing to look the other way in regards to plot.  As much as I would have loved there to be an actual story, it could have also detracted from the experience if it were poorly written or thought out.

White Noise may not be a beacon of originality or the zenith of storytelling, but it’s a mighty fine horror experience.  The scares, as cheap as they may be, are genuine and lasting–this isn’t something that can be said about most of the AAA “horror” games out there now.  I’d love to see more horror content make its way to the Indie Games channel on Xbox Live and I think White Noise is a great first step in that direction.  If you are starved for a good horror experience, White Noise is well worth the dollar and time.

 

 

White Noise: A Horror Tale A Tale of Horror is currently available on XBLIG for 80 MSP.