Happy 2014, wobblers. I apologize for not writing as much in the last few months; I've got a good dozen half-written reviews that need to be finished, but for one reason or another I keep putting them off. I've got a lot to say on movies and games from the last year, but sadly didn't take as much time as I could have to say it. I hope to have regular updates going again soon! In the meantime, let's look at some of the stuff that made 2013 good.
2013 was a pretty big year for me. My nephew was born, several good friends got married, and my wife and I went on some fun trips. I released C. Kane, a monochrome RPG about businessmen, sharks, and hip hop, featuring an incredible soundtrack by the ever great 8bit and Glock. C. Kane got some nice mainstream recognition, and is the first game I've released commercially. Like all of my older titles, there's a freeware version available for PC, Mac, and Linux users, but I wanted to see how well the game would do as a 99 cent Android title. Turns out it did pretty well, all things considered! Several people gave it nice reviews, and that means more than anything else.
More recently, I recorded an audiobook based on a novella my father in law wrote. I'll put up a link to a streaming version once it's available. This is the first large scale audio project I've done in years, not counting doing minor voice work in games. Years ago, I was a recurring guest actor on an audio drama called Second Shift. I played some sort of vaguely eastern European fantasy grandpa, Targonone. It was fun to get back into voice work with the new audiobook, even if doing the whole project solo, without any director and without nicer equipment, was probably not the best move.
And now, reviews. The best beef of the year. Like last year's write up, these aren't arranged by quality. As always, I'm a complete amateur at writing about music, so don't expect much deep analysis in that section.
Dragon's Dogma: Dark Arisen - Dark Arisen is a touched up version of Capcom's 2012 action/adventure title Dragon's Dogma that fixes a few major flaws and adds a massive new dungeon with potentially dozens of hours of content. The original version of Dragon's Dogma was a solid but flawed game. Its fast travel was an expensive, sloppy system that ended up leaving you to spend hours walking back and forth between missions instead of exploring in a meaningful way, its end game content was far too easy after an initial spike, and leveling up took too long. Dark Arisen remedies all of these issues, and the result is a far more fun, less tedious experience that truly lets you enjoy the good parts of Dragon's Dogma.
Guacamelee - An incredibly polished, gorgeous puzzle/platformer by Drinkbox Studios, Guacamelee is my favorite game of 2013. Available on PS3, Vita, and recently PC, Guacamelee perfectly blends beat em up gameplay with Metroid-style exploration and some extremely challenging platforming. The game's designed so well and balanced so fairly that even extremely hard parts aren't too frustrating, since you don't lose much progress if you fail. Guacamelee is a perfect example of doing everything right; from its gameplay to its music to its visuals, each piece contributes to the whole in a way that's incredibly satisfying. It also has some well priced, nicely designed DLC. My only real issue with the game is that some of its background jokes are obnoxious and lean too heavily on internet meme recognition, but outside of those dumb jokes, the game's writing is pretty funny.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds - A Link Between Worlds is one of the best games of 2013 in addition to being the first Zelda I've really enjoyed since Link's Awakening in 1993. I had a falling out with the Zelda games since Ocarina of Time in 1998, and have never really enjoyed the last couple of decades of the series. It seems absurd to say this, but 20 years later, A Link Between Worlds has won me back. The game is bright, fast, funny, and wastes no time. It's an incredibly tight experience, with more compact dungeons than other modern Zelda games, but this works to its benefit; there's no wasted time, and everything just feels genuinely good. Combat is simple but fun, the puzzles are nice and feel fresh, and the world feels new in spite of being very heavily based on 1991's A Link to the Past.
Super Mario 3D World - A combination of the best parts of Mario games old and new, 3D World is a vast improvement over its 3DS predecessor, Super Mario 3D Land. Featuring four player game play with character abilities inspired by my all time favorite Super Mario Bros 2, 3D World combines the linear obstacle course stage design of classic Mario titles with a decent amount of free, 3D movement. I enjoyed Super Mario Galaxy but was lukewarm on the New Super Mario Bros series, so I was pleasantly surprised to see such a perfect new Mario title. This is a must own Wii U title and one of the best in the Mario series overall.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance - Revengeance is pretty much a dream game for me; Metal Gear is one of my favorite series, and Platinum is one of my favorite developers, so pairing them up would obviously result in something I love. At times, the game has the same "Should I be funny or serious now?" tone problems as many parts of the regular Metal Gear Solid series, but when its writing is good, it's perfect; the conversations with the final boss are some of the best and funniest bits of dialogue in a game this year and work as perfect satire of dumb action games. Revengeance's main flaws are that the game feels rushed, as its final acts are much shorter than what came before, and that it lacks the variety and strategy of Platinum's previous brawler, Bayonetta. Once you get good at parrying, you can coast through Revengeance pretty easily until its hardest difficulty level, but it's incredibly satisfying nevertheless.
Saints Row 4 - Saints Row: The Third was the game that showed me I could actually have a ton of fun with an open world game about criminals, a genre I've mostly been bored by. It was a goofy, brightly colored array of nonsense held together by nice voice work and some very well written characters. Saints Row 4 ups the nuttiness of the third game and adds super powers and aliens to the mix, resulting in the most fun I've ever had just messing around in an open world. The writing's a step down from the previous game and there's less music to listen to, but Saints Row 4's gameplay is so much more fun that it's easy to overlook that. The best writing in the game is in its Christmas-themed DLC missions.
XCOM: Enemy Within - Like Dark Arisen, Enemy Within is a revision of a 2012 title that expands upon its base game and results in a far better experience. 2012's XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a wonderfully designed strategy game, but it was extremely buggy no matter which platform you played on, repeated its maps and aliens too often, and didn't have a massive amount of branching to its tech trees. Enemy Within is a redo of last year's game, keeping the basic story and gameplay intact but adding far more missions, a much greater variety of equipment and skills, and some nice randomization options that make replays feel fresh. Enemy Within is less of an expansion and more of a do-over, which is kind of weird when the previous version was only a year old, but it's extremely good and elevates an already great game to even higher levels. Unfortunately, it still crashes a lot in certain missions, though less so that the previous game.
As sad as it makes me to say it, Pokemon Y is the most disappointing game I've played this year. It's not a terrible game by any means; it has wonderful art, the core Pokemon battle system is still great, and trading and fighting with other players online is now extremely well designed. The problem is everything else. The 3D models look great, but the game's frame rate chugs during battle. The music is completely forgettable. The story and characters are horribly written, and there's more dialogue to sit through than ever before. I don't need a deep story from a Pokemon game, but at the very least I expect it to be written as well as the cartoon series based on it. That's an extremely low bar, but the Pokemon cartoon at least has characters with personalities that aren't completely, exhaustingly boring. The game's campaign is messy and uneven, and its balance practically nonexistent. These have never been hard games, but this is the first one where I massively outleveled my opponents without even trying, just by playing the game naturally. On top of all this, the game has a couple of minigames that help you strengthen your Pokemon and they're all awful. I expect better than gutter-tier minigames from Nintendo.
American Hustle - David O. Russel's latest is a 1970's crime drama/romance/comedy that uses a fairly simple, straightforward plot to subvert genre expectations. It doesn't fit neatly into any genre, and features extremely strong performances by Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, and Jeremy Renner. The plot is almost inconsequential; what makes the film is the way it plays with genre and the way its principle cast plays off of one another. It's the most solid ensemble cast I've seen in a long time.
Catching Fire - The second movie in the Hunger Games series is my favorite blockbuster-style film of the year. Jennifer Lawrence is great here too, as is Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays the Game Master in this year's televised fight to the death. I wasn't expecting much when I first saw the original movie, but I'm hooked now in a way no other recent blockbuster action/adventure series has got me. I love the creepy retro-futurist fashion and art design, and I'm glad to see that retained in the new movie in spite of a change in directors between films. There's still a few little dumb moments, but I found both Hunger Games films enormously more entertaining than stuff like Marvel Studios' superhero films or DC's Man of Steel, if we want to stick to comparing big budget action/adventure films.
Her - Spike Jonze has only directed four feature length films, but he can do no wrong by me. His latest is Her, a film with a silly premise (in a near future world, man falls in love with his computer's operating system AI) that delivers the most authentic emotion of any film this year. It's an incredibly honest story about putting yourself back together after a loss and the need for acceptance. Most of the film focuses exclusively on Joaquin Phoenix's face, and he gives a great, nuanced performance, while Scarlett Johansson provides the voice of the AI in one of the better bits of voice acting this year. There's a lot to dig through even beyond the incredibly good surface, and the film's near-future setting is subtle but very well developed, playing on both the hopes and fears of modern American culture. If I absolutely had to choose, this might be my pick for the year's best.
Inside Llewyn Davis - With this film, The Coen Brothers show us an unromantic worldview of a destitute folk singer in the early 1960's. There are plenty of musical numbers and a good deal of references to the time period, but Llewyn Davis isn't about folk music. The folk setting provides a tone and a backdrop to the story of an angry young man trying to deal with grief after the death of someone dear to him. The title character, played perfectly by Oscar Isaac, is a drifter on a long odyssey to find his way home without really knowing what that home is. Both dark and hopeful, Llewyn Davis is another film that elicits incredibly authentic emotion under its obvious surface. Her doesn't need to be about artificial intelligence to work; likewise, Llewyn Davis would still work without the folk angle. The masterful blend of reality and unreality in both of these films works to sell their emotional cores better than anything this year.
Spring Breakers - I've written extensively about this one, from its fantastic use of color to its dissection of The American Dream as The American Nightmare to James Franco's phenomenal insanity playing the part of rapper/gangster/manchild Alien. Spring Breakers is to the new millennium what American Psycho is to the 1980's. A surreal dream scape at times both intoxicating and revolting, Spring Breakers is a grimy film that defies convention.
The Wolf of Wall Street -This film and Spring Breakers work well as companion pieces book-ending 2013's widespread theme of The American Dream as a hellscape which also includes Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, Michael Bay's phenomenal Pain and Gain (I hadn't seen Pain and Gain when I made this year-end list originally; today, it would absolutely make the list), and Sofia Coppola's The Bling Ring, among others. A revolting, hilariously funny film, Wolf's original trailer turned me off but I'm glad I gave it a chance at the recommendation of some friends. It's Scorsese's best film in years and is perfectly paced and wonderfully acted, with an incredible, insane performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. A scene at a country club as he attempts to get back into his car while under the influence of some mega drugs is the standout funny/horrifying moment of the film.
The World's End - The latest film from Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg, and Nick Frost, The World's End is the most straightly funny film this year, and another one that really defies genre. It's a film about addiction, depression, recovery, and relapse, bundled together with an buddy comedy, a drinking movie, and an Invasion of the Body Snatchers plot. Pegg plays lead character Gary King with an incredible amount of charisma, almost enough for audiences to side with him even when he's making clearly bad decisions. This is a film that gets better on repeat viewings, as there's a ton of subtlety to both its lead actor and its world. I really love that each of the pubs the film's cast visits has some symbolic value to the story, whether blunt or subtle.
It wasn't a film that was ever going to be something revolutionary, but I was still massively let down by Thor: The Dark World. I enjoyed the original Thor movie from a couple years ago, but found almost nothing to like here. There's a lot more action this time around, but most of it is far less fun than any in the first movie. The chemistry between Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman seems to have totally died between films. Instead of one comic relief character, we now have three. Tom Hiddleston does do a wonderful job as the vengeful trickster Loki, and looks to be the only person in the entire film having a good time. The Dark World is a bland, by the numbers sequel that didn't need to be made. There were certainly far worse films this year, but this one let me down the hardest.
David Bowie - The Next Day - Top Tracks: Where Are We Now?, Valentine's Day
The Next Day came out of nowhere. Released ten years after his previous album with almost no lead up, Bowie's latest album is largely conventional but masterfully designed. Its cover is an obfuscation of Bowie's 1977 album Heroes, but the content of The Next Day isn't as subversive as its artwork. That's fine, though; there are some great songs here, even if Bowie sounds a bit tired at times.
Deltron 3030 - Event 2 - Top Tracks: Pay the Price, What is this Loneliness, Do You Remember
Featuring the talents of Del the Funkee Homosapein, Dan the Automator, and Kid Koala, Event 2 is a direct sequel to 2000's Deltron 3030. In spite of the 13 years between albums, the group's sound has remained largely the same, but I think it still works just as well now as it did then. Del's rhymes are funny, mellow examinations on the past and future of humanity, mixed with a sci-fi story that spans both albums. This one's got some great guest vocals too, with Damon Albarn's appearance on What is this Loneliness being my favorite. The only weakness is the album's skits, which aren't funny at all. Two skits feature comedian David Cross and actress Amber Tamblyn badly improving together, and though I normally think Cross is pretty funny, these skits are dire and blemish an otherwise stellar album.
Eminem - Marshall Mathers LP 2 - Top Tracks: Bad Guy, Rhyme or Reason, So Far
Enimen's latest album is both a follow up to 2010's Recovery and a retrospective on his history as an artist. There's an almost unbelievable amount of callbacks to his older songs, and I think this is actually very effective. Eminem mixes personal retrospective with cultural; many songs feature heavy samples from classic rock songs, from The Zombies to Billy Squier to Joe Walsh. From its haunting opening track, which serves as both a sequel to 2002's hit Stan and as a symbolic attempt to kill off his Slim Shady persona, to its final track Evil Twin, in which Marshall finally reconciles his disparate personalities, MMLP2 is a dark, personal album with tracks ranging from horror to comedy to honest apology. The only song that's outright bad is the poorly executed comedy Love Game, though there are a few verses in the track Rap God that feel too pointlessly mean even if they fit with Eminem's Music As Horror Film style. If MMLP2 was Eminem's final album, it would be a perfect bookend.
Kanye West - Yeezus - Top Tracks: Blood on the Leaves, Bound 2
Kanye's sixth studio album is a tight 40 minute set that doesn't waste a single minute. While some songs are a lot stronger than others, the album works best as a whole, and its blend of minimalist noise-rock mixed with hip hop vocals creates a desperate, vicious feeling album that feels like Kanye's primal scream therapy. West trades the more mainstream sound of his previous albums for a darker, richer album. It would be easy to play it safe when you've hit his level of success, so in that sense Yeezus is a pretty brave experiment.
Lenka - Shadows - Top Tracks: Nothing Here but Love, After the Winter
The third studio album from Australian singer/songwriter Lenka Kripac is a sleepy, mellow set of songs. This album feels completely unique from the more pop-centered songs of her first two albums, and while it's not necessarily as fun to listen to as those two, Shadows is a very well put together, cohesive album. Lenka's one of the better live performers I've seen, and she brings a hypnotic energy to her new album.
Lorde - Pure Heroine - Top tracks: 400 Lux, Still Sane
The debut album from New Zealand artist Lorde features the hit song Royals, which became almost unavoidable earlier this year when it hit the internet and American radio. Even though Royals is overplayed, it's still a quality song, and the rest of her album is as good or better. This is an amazingly strong debut, without a single weak song. Lorde's sound is hypnotic and every song is completely filled with her presence, and I can't wait to see what she does next.
Kate Nash - Girl Talk
I'm a big fan of Kate Nash's first two albums and love her as a live performer, so when I heard that she was going to totally reinvent herself for this new album, I was pretty wary but open-minded. Unfortunately, Girl Talk is a mess. Nash moves from the bitter, pretty pop-rock-poetry of her previous albums to a loud, garish garage punk sound that she can't really pull off. The whole production feels so much more amateur than her previous work, and at time borders on feeling like satire of punk rock. Girl Talk rings completely hollow in a way Foundations and My Best Friend is You never did, and I hope her next album after this is a return to form.