Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden (2013 - PC)

Abyss is not necessarily poorly-crafted for a Hidden Object Game, but for reasons which I'll explain, I didn't enjoy it as much as some of the others I've completed (like Alex Hunter, Midnight Mysteries, and Samantha Swift). While I appreciate that HOGs are starting to incorporate more aspects from point-and-click adventure games to create more depth and challenge, it creates a nagging disparity when way more attention is lavished on them and the actual hidden object scenes take a back seat. In the case of Abyss, the HO scenes have a noticeably lower art quality than the rest of the game's style, and they are few and far between, and over with too quickly.

The artwork for the main scenes is nice, but the game's human character models are stuck very firmly in the nightmare-inducing end of the Uncanny Valley. I've seen people comment that the game's setting is ripped off of BioShock, which I've never played, but if that's the case, then it seems like both games owe something to Fritz Lang's Metropolis - the whole "Art Deco" style city that's under or built on top of water with a huge class disparity issue is all right out of that movie.

But the biggest problem is the baffling design choice of having you use an elevator to go between three floors of the city - repeatedly - with no way to skip the animation every time. This is especially annoying when you get stuck and have to go re-review every room to see where you've missed something. The game's bonus chapter is... Well, I was spoiled by the Alex Hunter bonus chapter that was almost as long as the main game. This one is pointlessly short.
Rating: 2.5/5


Blackwell Unbound (2007 - PC)

According to the game's commentary track, Blackwell Unbound was created by taking the flashback sequences out of another game in the series while it was in development and making them into their own game, so that the developer would have something to release in the meantime. That kinda shows. You play as a chain-smoking Janeane Garofalo-type who has a detective spirit helper that only she (for the most part) can see and hear. Together, they solve murder mysteries surrounding other ghosts that are hanging around 1970s New York City. Once they solve the mystery of the ghost's murder, the ghost is able to "disperse", as they would put it on The Real Ghostbusters.

While it's mildly entertaining and the voice acting is good, there's not a terrible amount of depth. Much like some other modern point-and-click adventure games I've played, much of the game is solved by simply picking the right choices in the dialogue and then using a notebook to combine clues the characters glean from the conversations. When the main focus of a game is the story, it's easier to put it up to scrutiny, and a few things here don't exactly need a magnifying glass to stand out as making no sense. For example: How does the New Yorker employee keep his job for 30 years if he never writes anything? How is it possible for the main character to get away with what she does in the ending?

Some people love this game, and maybe it works better as a connecting joint in the series. But for now I'm giving it a resounding, "Meh".
Rating: 2.5/5


Clockwork Tales: Of Glass and Ink (PC - 2014)

It seems suspiciously like Artifex Mundi saw The Clockwork Man games and said, "Hey! We can make our own Steampunk Hidden Object Game!" Only instead of a robot man, our heroine gets a robot bird helper! Whether or not this is how it happened, they did a better job. Clockwork Tales utilizes its Steampunk theme much more effectively, and the bird isn't just a thing that makes an already-easy game even easier. It's actually needed to solve some puzzles, which is a nice touch.

So, I liked this one more than Abyss, but some of that game's issues are still apparent in this one. Namely, that Hidden Object scenes don't look as good as the rest of the game and are very few and far between. Also, the more HOGs I play, the more I'm starting to see the same sort of puzzles repeat themselves. I keep seeing the same basic "fit the gears together" puzzle, the same "light beam and mirrors" puzzle, the same "turn the dials for electricity to flow", and so on. But Clockwork Tales takes redundancy a step farther by transplanting two puzzles from Abyss directly into it. I'm not talking about slightly different takes on the same basic puzzle, I mean that it's literally the exact same screen, graphics, solution, and all, right from the other game. (It's the sewer cap puzzle and the one where you make shapes by connecting tubes to a switchboard, for those who need to know.)

I don't know whether to accept this as homage, or a sign that the developers are starting to rest way too much on their laurels.
Rating: 3/5


Papo & Yo (PC - 2013)

Papo & Yo is a strange, surrealistic little puzzle/platform game with very heavy symbolism and an ultimately heartwrenching message. A little boy named Quico explores a strange South American favela after being enticed there through a magical chalk door drawn by a little girl. Her magic chalk can also be used to create other bizarre phenomena, such as make buildings fly around and staircases rise out of nowhere. The more Quico progresses through this environment in his pursuit of the girl, the less it seems like an ordinary favela and more like something with a life of its own. Buildings are stacked in improbable manners, some float in mid-air, and some parts look as though a divine being was creating the universe and didn't have time to finish it.

All the while, Quico is guiding a mammoth-sized creature, called "Monster", through this world in an attempt to find a cure for a strange affliction he has... Normally, Quico and Monster are friends. But whenever Monster eats a poisonous frog (and there are many to be found in the world), he flies into a fiery, uncontrollable rage, flinging Quico like a ragdoll through the air.

Although the developers didn't exactly keep the symbolism of this game a secret, I still won't spoil what Monster and the frogs and the little girl really represent. I can say that I feel the symbolism works because even if you didn't grow up in this situation, it can still be looked at as a general statement about how sometimes, you simply can't control the bad things in the world around you. And unlike some other attempts at putting difficult life problems into a video game that I've seen lately, Papo & Yo doesn't betray its medium. The developer knew that the way you get your idea across to a gaming audience is to still be a video game. Although Quico can't die, you can't progress if you don't solve the puzzles and don't perform the platforming required of you.

So, yeah, I can recommend this game. Just make sure to have a box of tissues nearby for the ending.
Rating: 3.5/5


They Breathe (PC - 2012)

Now for the weirdest game I've played all year, and that's really saying something. They Breathe is about a frog named Glenn (certain that's a Chrono Trigger reference) whose forest home has been somehow severely flooded, like way beyond the top of the tree level. We don't know how. Maybe the polar ice caps melted, or maybe God broke his promise and flooded the Earth again, whatever. Much like Orpheus in pursuit of Eurydice, Glenn plunges into the depths to rescue his fellow frog friends from drowning and/or being eaten by whatever horrors lie waiting in the deep.

And there are some very strange horrors, indeed, seemingly awoken from the bottom of a former pond. Many of the lifeforms Glenn encounters are jellyfish-like, but some of them look like swimming, underwater cows. For what it's worth, they even "moo". There's a strange relationship between the jellyfish, the frogs, and these cows that I won't spoil, but probably won't become apparent until about halfway through the game, at which point it will hit you in the face, and you'll likely do a "WTF??"

Now, when I first beat this game, it took only a matter of minutes, and I thought, "Well, okay, that was the worst game since 9.03m", but going for the achievements practically makes it a whole new experience. You don't have to actually save a single frog to win the game, you only have to beat the final boss. But if you go for the achievement that requires you to save them all, an easy novelty game suddenly becomes hair-pulling (yes, a little bit of luck doesn't hurt here). There's also one for beating the game without dying, which is also challenging to pull off.

They Breathe is usually only $2 on Steam, sometimes less during sales. If you want something that's unique, quirky, doesn't cost much nor take much of your time, and has a weird atmosphere, and nice opening and closing piano songs, I would recommend checking it out.
Rating: 3/5


Guardians of the Galaxy (Theater - 2014)

You know, when I look at the promo art for this movie, I see a lot of bright colors and vibrant scenery and stuff that generally looks like it came from the pages of a colorful comic book. But that screenshot up there is what the movie, for the most part, looks like. Some scenes are even darker, if that can be believed.

I realize this movie's fanbase doesn't care what I think of it, and that's fine. I know people in real life who never stop talking about how awesome it is. Some people love the music. I only remember the "O-o-h Child" song, and probably only because Chris Pratt sang it himself in the movie's climax (right before beating the villain with the Care Bear Stare). But the novelty of a wisecracking raccoon and a tree that can only say three words (which kept reminding me of Station from Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey) were trumped by my desire to walk onto the movie set and flip on a damn light switch.

I'll confess that comic book movies just aren't my thing. I'm sure those familiar with these characters who want to see them on the big screen will get the most out of it. To me, the plot seemed like another "chase the macguffin that can destroy the universe" thing. Only thing I do know is that if Glenn Close ends up looking any more like Mrs. Doubtfire, perhaps a sequel to that movie is still doable.
Rating: 2.5/5


Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Theater - 2014)

Whether or not you find the idea of 6-foot talking turtles with martial arts skills believable, at least earlier incarnations (and by that I mean the 80s/90s cartoon and the original movie and comics) had an origin story that made sense. Nothing, and I do mean *nothing*, about this version makes any sense (and why do we even need another origin story anyway?) Splinter is not a martial artist from Japan who got mutated into a rat, nor a rat from Japan that learned his martial arts from his master. This time around, he's just an ordinary lab rat who got mutated like the turtles and learned martial arts from a book. So, I guess the accent, hairdo, and mustache are because he's also a weeaboo.

The turtles are wanted by some evil corporation because the mutagen in their blood is a healing agent. Splinter has the same exact mutagen in his blood, yet not only does no one seem to want him, but his own mutagen (for no explained reason) does not heal him when he's badly injured, and he has to get a blood transfusion from one of the turtles. I'm no veterinarian, but I do know that it is probably not a good idea to give a rat blood from a turtle.

Other moments of stupidity include this really dumb "bucket" trick that only works on Shredder because he decides, for no real reason, to stop fighting the turtles and ignore them. And though I could ask the Blues Brothers for verification on this one, I'm pretty sure it's not possible to drive off a mountain and land in New York City.

The only real bright spot is Will Arnett. Seriously, what is it with this guy? I loved him in Arrested Development, but everything I've seen him in since I've absolutely despised. Up All Night was an unfunny, yuppie version of Raising Hope, and The Millers is so much like a bad 80s sitcom, I momentarily thought my couch had gained time-traveling capabilities.

Oh yes, where was I? Donatello is wearing Ray Stantz's night vision goggles. Screw you, Michael Bay, I ripped that off first!
Rating: 2/5


Walt Disney's Mary Poppins: An Original Walt Disney Records Soundtrack (1963 - Digital Album)

There are few musical soundtracks in this world that are as dear to me as Mary Poppins. Its iconic and enduring classics, "A Spoonful of Sugar", "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious", "Feed the Birds", and the Academy Award-winning "Chim Chim Cher-ee", are the types of songs that can make me fall in love with music and life all over again. It's hard to hear George Banks sing "Let's Go Fly a Kite" and not feel as much a new person as he did at the movie's end. I'm even very forgiving of Dick van Dyke's unrealistic cockney accent because, as someone once put it, it has its own charms.

Now, there is nothing particularly "wrong" with this soundtrack release, except that it is missing quite a few elements and better versions are available. To give some examples:

Pretty much all the instrumental score is absent except for the opening "Overture".

"Jolly Holiday" is missing the part where the penguins sing.

The "Pavement Artist" reprise (actually the same melody as "Chim Chim Cher-ee") that Bert sings after leaving the chalk drawing world is absent.

In one of the strangest omissions, the sound of the tambourine hitting the man on the head is missing from "Supercali...", making it seem like he says "Ow" for no reason.

So, if you want the full experience of Mary Poppins's Topsy-Turvy 1910 English world in your MP3 player, don't get this one. Keep reading...

Rating: 3/5


The Legacy Collection: Mary Poppins (2014 - Digital Album)

Now THIS is the Mary Poppins soundtrack you want to get! This one has all the instrumental stuff, except the end credits music (which is annoying, but still better than what we got with the original version). The "Pavement Artist" and the "Jolly Holiday" reprises have been restored, and yes, that elusive tambourine whack is now there.

And that's not all. This version has demo recordings by the Sherman brothers (the movie's composers). These are very interesting to listen to because they reveal a lot about the composition process. Did you know "Supercali..." was originally called "The Pearly Song" and was meant to be sung entirely by the Pearly Band? "I Love To Laugh" was originally supposed to be sung entirely by Uncle Albert, who was meant to have a Viennese accent (the actor, Ed Wynn, didn't even try any accents, he was just himself). "Chim Chim Cher-ee" and "Jolly Holiday" had slightly different lyrics.

But enough trivia about that, there's more. The Shermans had written a number of songs that didn't make the cut, and the demos for them, plus newly-arranged versions are included here. Admiral Boom, for example, had a song that got dropped. While it's obvious why some of these were cut (the quality is not up to par or they just wouldn't fit), it's still like the musical equivalent of finding unused stuff in a video game.

I bought the physical CD version of this after borrowing it digitally because I wanted the artbook that comes with it, as well as the third disc, which contains interviews. The digital version didn't have the third disc, it only had the interview from the second disc, which is an enlightening listen - it explains how the Shermans came up with some songs and why others were axed.

It's a magnificent package that is easily recommendable to any Mary Poppins fan. Do yourself a favor and make sure to see the movie (or see it again if you already have), too.

Rating: 5/5

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