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Return Of The Obra Dinn | Review

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Visionary Auteur game developer Lucas Pope has a knack for making the mundane exciting. Back in 2013, he took the gaming world by storm with his hit Papers, Please. This game put the player in the shoes of a border control officer of a fictional Eastern Bloc style dictatorship called Arstotzka. In the game you had to check the passports and eventually various other forms of ID of everyone entering the country. The premise sounds rather dull but is actually one of the most enthralling games you could ever play. Moral decisions need to be made whether you should support your family with wages or bribes and whether you should stay loyal to the state or help a terrorist plot. Papers, Please is basically a perfect game and it would be nearly impossible for a solo developer to top such an achievement. But Lucas Pope only went and did it…

Return Of The Obra Dinn has you take control of an insurance agent in early 19th Century England. Yet another dull premise for a video game on face value. You are sent aboard a ship that has mysteriously re-emerged after having been missing for a few years. On the Obra Dinn, you are tasked with figuring out the identities of each of the souls on board and what befell them.  To work everything out, you’re given a book which has basic details about the ship and who was on it and a magical pocket watch. This pocket watch shows you the last moments of someone’s life when you activate it over a corpse on the ship. Through these moments you need to pick up a lot of small but significant details that build up to make the brilliant and tragic tale of the Obra Dinn.

Lucas Pope’s second big game is his best…so far. It’s a masterfully created game that is an absolute joy to play and is so satisfying when you complete every step. Like a lot of detective based games, there’s a lot of puzzles to be solved in Return Of The Obra Dinn. Working out every fate is very tricky as nobody’s identity is very obvious except perhaps for the Captain of the ship. What also makes it even harder is that the game won’t confirm if you have anything right until you provide three completely correct answers. This means that when you eventually do get a set right you will scream and bask in your genius detective skills. It’s a rare feeling for a game to produce, especially in the days of constant shooters like Call Of Duty which, while fun, don’t really require much thought.

The graphics of the game will put off a lot of younger gamers. The visuals are a throwback to a bygone era of point and click adventures. There is basically no movement and everything is black and white (or Blue and green, depending on which setting you choose). This does nothing but add to the already hugely rich atmosphere of the game. Return Of The Obra Dinn would be ruined if it was made like a Rockstar game, with perfect face capture and realistic movements with true to life textures. No, the basic nature of the game adds to the mystery of the story and gives the game its unbelievable charm.

Where Return Of The Obra Dinn completely succeeds is its sound design. In each memory, you’re treated to a brilliantly acted and directed radio play that proceeds over a black screen with stylish captions. These are so atmospheric and engrossing and make you wonder why Lucas Pope hasn’t gone into book or film writing. Then when that’s over, the soundtrack explodes into your ears as you inspect the last minutes of the soul whose corpse you’ve selected. A great achievement of both Papers, Please and Return Of The Obra Dinn are their scores. They are such perfectly composed and addictive soundtracks that are such a joy to listen to even outside of the context of their respective games. It makes you wonder why you need an orchestra when one man can do something as good as a Hans Zimmer soundtrack alone on his computer.

Return Of The Obra Dinn is one of the best games of the last decade and definitely deserves your time and money.  It achieves so much with so little. Not only is it a perfect example of how to do a detective game, but it’s got a fantastic story to boot. The only problem with it is that you can only really experience it once. As when you know the fates of everyone, a second playthrough is a lot easier. So savour every last second and wait in anticipation of Lucas Pope’s next game. Which will undoubtedly be the best game of all time if his track record is anything to go by.

Return Of The Obra Dinn is available to download on Steam, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.

Freddie has a degree in Digital Film Production from Ravensbourne University London. He’s obsessive about many things but mostly Batman, Doctor Who and The Incredibles. To find out all of Freddie's film opinions go to his Letterboxd - TheDeightonator

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Jolt Review | Lacks Any Spark

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You know that feeling when you get so riled up and so angry that you just want to take your anger out on something or someone? Well due to a lifelong, rare neurological condition dubbed as Intermittent Explosive Disorder, Lindy, played by Kate Beckinsale, does just that in the new action-thriller Jolt.

Lindy is a beautiful and sardonically funny woman, but she’s been unable to live properly due to this condition that she keeps a secret from everyone else. Because of this condition, she experiences sporadic rage-filled murderous impulses. Whenever she sees someone being cruel, deceitful, abusive, or even just a little bit annoying, Lindy reacts violently, normally leaving them in a lot of pain. And there’s only one way that she can stop these impulses. Lindy’s physician Dr Munchin (played by Stanley Tucci) has created an experimental vest that Lindy can wear so that with the press of a button, it sends electric shocks to her brain that stabilizes her and stops her violent impulses.

The film, written by Scott Wascha, provides a really interested premise, one that you know will result in lots of violence. And that’s what happens. Lindy’s never been able to find love or companionship in the world because of her condition until one day she has a date with Justin (Jai Courtney) and she feels a strong connection with him. Unfortunately, she finds that he’s been murdered the following day. Heartbroken and enraged, she embarks on a revenge-filled mission to get to the bottom of it and find who killed Justin. All while being chased by the police who think Lindy is the prime suspect.

The film sets itself up with a lot of potential, but it never really fulfils any of that potential. It never manages accomplish any of the things it sets out to achieve. None of the action scenes are especially memorable. And that’s a big missed opportunity as a film about a woman who pretty much snaps and rages out of control at the smallest things should provide some really great action scenes. But instead, Jolt provides a few short action scenes that never really show much imagination or bring anything exciting to the table.

The film has a few funny moments and there are a couple of amusing juxtapositions as we do see brief glimpses of Lindy snapping and letting loose on people on a few different occasions, but the film is never funny enough to warrant it being an action-comedy. At its centre, the film is an action-thriller but there’s not tons of action and it isn’t particularly thrilling either.

As well as this, Jolt never really explores the character of Lindy that much despite the fact she could have been a character of great interest. She’s a person marked by an endless toggle between hope and despair as she can never experience love or normalcy and she’s trapped in a state of limbo, and yet the film never really dives into this or embraces this character fully so that she does just become a bit of a generic action protagonist. Yes, it’s nice to see a bad-ass female leading the film and Kate Beckinsale does a good job as Lindy, it’s just that the character is never treated with as much personalism as she should be.

To add to that, the film’s final act definitely brings it down another level. Firstly, the film has a bad and predictable twist that to some extent, undermines pretty much the rest of the film. What should be a really exciting action-packed final showdown ends up being quite lame and boring leaving you wanting, and expecting something a bit bigger and more exciting. And to top of the film’s bad ending, the final scene is just unnecessary sequel baiting that will look very out of place if a sequel is never made. Whilst the film does have a good premise, Jolt never inspires as much as it should do and it’s never entertaining enough to deserve a sequel despite the tagged on final scene setting up future adventures.

There was certainly a lot of promise in this film but ultimately it ends up being very bland and forgettable with inadequate entertainment value.

★★☆☆☆

Jolt is released on Amazon Prime Video July 23rd

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HORROR

Separation | Slow Atmosphere and Surprising Twists

Marriage Story.

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If you’re a horror fan, chances are you’ve heard of William Brent Bell. His disastrous 2012 found-footage gimmick The Devil Inside was nothing but an upsell to a [now defunct] website link showcased how the film’s “story” ended. The Boy (and its sequel) were also terrible but not as offensive as The Devil Inside. Bell has already made a name for himself with that 2012 film, but he’s back, with a vengeance this time around, with Separation. Aptly titled, the film tells the story of comic book artist Jeff Vahn (Rupert Friend), who is in the process of finalizing a divorce from his wife, Maggie (Mamie Gummer), and determining who will get custody of their child, Jenny (Violet McGraw). However, Maggie suddenly dies after being hit by a car, and Jenny’s custody reverts to Jeff. Maggie’s father, Paul (Brian Cox), believes Jeff had something to do with the accident, but more pressing matters are at hand as Maggie’s spirit begins to haunt Jeff and Jenny, with the latter having some spiritual “attachment” with her. And if you’ve seen Bell’s previous films, it’s no different here. Just a dull and dreary “atmospheric horror” picture with some of the worst acting of the year.

Separation'

Granted, the acting isn’t all bad here. Rupert Friend and Brian Cox manage to hold their own even when the script starts to (quite literally) shit the bed. As of late, Cox has been an expert in playing irredeemable scumbags, and he brilliantly implements the talents he developed from Succession here seamlessly. It doesn’t matter if he pretty much plays the same dickish character as in the popular HBO show; Cox is always entertaining and seems to be the only one that truly cares about whatever film role he landed in, whether good or bad. On the other hand, Friend cannot carry a lead role in any movie. That was apparent in Hitman: Agent 47, but he seems determined to do good in Separation, even if the material is rather hackneyed.

How is it hackneyed, you ask? Well, for starters, it’s not scary. There’s a fairly creepy (if you will) ghost-like figure of a puppet that bends itself à la Pennywise/It that’s somewhat effective, but it’s only featured when Jeff has nightmares. Most of the “scares” happening in the film are inside Jeff (or Jenny’s) mind, which results in a rather weightless horror film. Maggie’s reincarnated spirit is as scary looking like the nightmare fuel wooden puppet in Steve Barron’s The Adventures of Pinocchio, whilst incorporating Udo Kier’s looks from that same film. [Side note: if you want to traumatize the living hell out of children, make them watch that movie]. It’s the only type of comparison I can recall since the film is still highly vivid in my memory, and everything looks so unsettling here. That’s a good thing, though, since the film has some sort of artistic vision.

Separation Cast And Character Guide (with Ending Spoilers)

The problem is: Bell and writers Nick Amadeus and Josh Braun don’t do anything with it to make it interesting in any capacity. Maggie is just…there…and passively haunts Jeff or the babysitter, Samantha (Madeline Brewer). And the more the film progresses, the easier it is to tell how apparent it is that it has absolutely nothing of interest to say about anything. Instead, it needlessly fills its time through tedious sequences in which Jeff has “visions” of “The Darkness,” which will eventually become the inspiration for his next comic, or he’ll try (and fail) to communicate with Maggie’s spirit through an Ayahuasca trip that’s both visually drab and completely unengaging. Heck, a drug this potent merits something truly insane, embracing its dark atmosphere to the fullest extent. Yet Bell never cares about any of that and solely focuses on how the “spirit” quasi-communicates to Jenny instead. But since we don’t spend much time with her, there’s no legitimate emotional connection to her or any of what’s happening in Separation. Oh, poor Jeff, he must fight Maggie’s evil father, who wants to take Jenny away from him, while at the same time worrying about Jenny’s mental state as Maggie’s spirit takes hold of her. If you don’t find that interesting, how about developing a will-they/won’t they relationship between Jeff and Samantha? Feels so 2000’s, right?

It’s also interesting to see how truly cheap the film’s VFX is, which exacerbates, even more, its penchant for early 2000s horror made by large studios. I wouldn’t be surprised if the film’s script were plucked from a list of unproduced movies made around that time that the previously defunct OpenRoad studios decided to…go for it in the hopes that it would revive their business. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t. Once its “twist” on who murdered Maggie gets revealed, Separation never really recovers. I don’t want to give it away because curious people reading this review may want to experience it for themselves at least once in their lives. So I’ll say this: it’s wild. It’s something you half-expect if you’re paying close attention to it, but it still absolutely makes no sense in the broader context of the picture. There’s something Bell likes to do and does it well, craft some of the worst endings I’ve seen in horror. It’s either non-endings, in the case of The Devil Inside, or ludicrous “revelations” in the case of his The Boy films and Separation. Here’s some food for thought: this entire film is ludicrous.

Separation wants to impress with its “slow atmosphere” and surprising twists. Yet, its twist reveals nothing strictly but turns the film’s serious setting into an unintentional comedy, absolutely deserving of every potential Golden Raspberry it will get. If you want a unique cinematic experience and continue to observe how William Brent Bell destroyed Giallo-like endings with his horror movies whilst seeing good potential squandered in an endless cesspool of…nothing…then Separation might be for you. Otherwise, stay as far away as possible [and from The Adventures of Pinocchio too…yikes.]

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Animation

Space Jam: A New Legacy – Review | Sadly not a Slam-dunk

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As a child of the nineties, I’m gonna hold my hands up and say that I was onboard the hype-train for Space Jam: A New Legacy – the sequel to one of Warner Bros most bizarre properties. In the 1996 Space Jam, basketball player Michael Jordan (at the peak of his fame) gets pulled through a golf hole into the animated Looney Tunes world and must compete in a basketball game against some aliens in order to save Bugs Bunny and the gang from a lifetime of slave labour as nightclub entertainment… for real, that was the plot.

I would say only something as ridonkulous as Space Jam could’ve been made in the 90’s. But here we are 25 years later and we have WB’s cashing in on the nostalgia of 30 year old millennials like myself, bashing out a CGI-upgraded rehash – only with LeBron James heading to Toon World this time.

Does it posses the same magic of the first film? Let’s just say some ideas are better off left in the nineties. 

The plot of New Legacy sees Lebron pushing his son Dom (Cedric Joe) down the basketball path but Dom would rather spend his summer designing video games. After a father/son spat, LeBron and Dom are sucked into the Warner Brothers Serververse by a malevolent artificial intelligence known as Al G Rhythm (a gleeful Don Cheadle), where LeBron is forced to compete in a livestream basketball game with the Looney Tunes – which he must win if he wants his kidnapped son back. It’s not a copy-and-paste job of the first film but it certainly hits all the beats you expect it to.

Naturally the visual effects have come a long way in the last quarter of a century, so the film is more visually dynamic and detailed than the predecessor. But still, there’s an artificiality to New Legacy. It’s got the looks and the moves but it lacks heart. Sure, there’s fun sequences to enjoy – a trippy world-hopping scene, making pitstops at numerous WB intellectual properties is a standout but the final product left me feeling empty.

What gave the first Space Jam its distinct flavours was its epic soundtrack. To this day I still attest it’s one of the most underrated film soundtracks of all time. With its collection of smooth R&B tracks from Seal, Barry White, Robin S, and ahem R Kelly, it resulted in Space Jam having an unexpected amount of soul. I can’t say the same thing with New Legacy. The music choices are functional but the most effective were the nods to the previous film like 2 Unlimited’s Get Ready and Technotronic’s Pump Up the Jam. Everything else was merely background noise. 

LeBron James’ acting leaves a lot to be desired. It’s clear he’s giving the task of carrying a movie his best attempt but the audience is very aware that we’re watching a performance. A pitch-meeting scene where LeBron even says “Athletes doing acting never goes well” would’ve been funny, if it not for James’ inability to nuance his delivery of the line with some irony. Best stick to hoops LeBron.

What was even more surprising was the lack of personality in Zendaya’s voice work as Lola Bunny. Comparatively to Kath Soucie who previously voiced the spunky basket-dunking-bunny, Zendaya felt rather unremarkable in the role.

Also how does a film with a recycled plot manage to be almost half an hour longer than the original? Where the first film was a brisk 90 minutes, New Legacy certainly overstays its welcome clocking in at nearly 2 hours. 

Space Jam: A New Legacy proves that lightening doesn’t strike twice. There’s enough entertaining sequences and zany moments for kids to enjoy and adults are sure to get a kick out of the Warner Brothers Easter Eggs hiding in the mise-en-scène. Who knows, perhaps the 5 – 12 year olds of today will be speaking with fond nostalgia of New Legacy when they hit 30 but from the perspective of this bitter millennial this unnecessary sequel is merely a glossy and soulless cash-cow. 

★★☆☆☆

Space Jam: A New Legacy is in Cinemas worldwide on July 16th and also available on HBO Max in some regions.

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