Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Tuesday, 16 August 2022

RIP Wolfgang Petersen

News has sadly broken that German director Wolfgang Petersen has passed away at the age of 81. Petersen with best-known for his WWII submarine movie Das Boot (1981), but also directed several works of genre interest: The NeverEnding Story (1984), Enemy Mine (1985), Outbreak (1995) and Troy (2004).

Petersen with Brad Pitt whilst filming Troy (2004).

Petersen was born in Hanover in 1941 and grew up with a keen interest in directing, fuelled by a love of the American movies that flooded West Germany in the wake of WWII. He started directing plays in the 1960s and became interested in the medium of television. He worked on the TV series Tatort (aka Crime Scene) in the early 1970s, forming a good working relationship with actor Jürgen Prochnow, with whom he'd collaborate on several projects. His first feature film project was The One or the Other of Us, released in 1974.

Petersen attracted international attention for Das Boot (1981), his film about a German U-boat commander (played by Prochnow) at the height of WWII. Although shot as a movie, Petersen's economical shooting meant he was able to film much more material than was needed for the film. This resulted in the 149-minute theatrical cut, a 300-minute TV series (released as both a six-part miniseries and a series of three TV movies) and a 209-minute "long film" cut which combined the best elements of both, often called Das Boot: The Director's Cut and released in 1997.

The movie attracted international acclaim, including six Academy Award nominations, and launched the international careers of both Petersen and Prochnow (who subsequently played Duke Leto Atreides in David Lynch's 1984 film version of Dune). The film is widely regarded as the single finest submarine movie ever made.

Petersen directed the enormously successful The NeverEnding Story (1984), based on Michael Ende's fantasy novel of the same name. The film was the most expensive movie ever mounted outside the United States or Soviet Union (at the time), and seen as a risk because Michael Ende's novels were not well-known outside Germany. However, the film was shot in English and had impressive visual effects for the time. The film did very well and was critically well-received, but Michael Ende was deeply unhappy with the adaptation and was unwilling to discuss further adaptations of his work, resulting in no sequel being made. Ende's dissatisfaction also meant a mooted remake in the early 2010s was shot down. The film recently re-entered the public eye after its theme tune played a key role in the Season 3 finale of Stranger Things.

These successes led Petersen to shoot Enemy Mine (1985), a space opera movie featuring marooned human and alien soldiers whose worlds are at war who are forced to work together to survive. The film is often cited as an unofficial remake of the WWII movie Hell in the Pacific (1968), which has a similar plot. The film was not initially successful, but has since developed a cult following.

Petersen directed Shattered (1991) and then returned to major success with the Clint Eastwood political thriller In the Line of Fire (1993), the pandemic disaster movie Outbreak (1995), the Harrison Ford action thriller Air Force One (1997) and nautical disaster movie The Perfect Storm (2000).

In 2004 Petersen directed his most expensive movie, Troy, a large-scale epic about the Trojan War starring Brad Pitt, Sean Bean, Peter O'Toole, Brendan Gleeson, Diane Kruger, Orlando Bloom and Eric Bana. The movie had a mixed critical reception but was a box office success. A sequel, focusing on Sean Bean's Odysseus and loosely adapting The Odyssey, was considered for a while but was not made. For my money, this is an underrated movie which has excellent action sequences and an impressive scale, although the dialogue is a mixed bag and the film needed a more charismatic actor playing Paris.

Petersen rounded off his Hollywood career with a remake of The Poseidon Adventure, just called Poseidon, in 2006. However, the film was a box office bomb and attracted poor reviews. Petersen made one more film, a 2016 heist comedy called Vier gegen die Bank which was his first German-language film since Das Boot.

Petersen passed away on 12 August 2022 from pancreatic cancer. A versatile director with a keen eye for both spectacle and human drama, he will be missed.

Friday, 12 August 2022

Uganda to bid to hold the first-ever African WorldCon

The World Science Fiction Convention may be headed to Africa for the first time in its history. A convention committee has formed in Uganda to bid for the right to hold the 2028 convention.

WorldCon is the annual convention of the World Science Fiction Society and is the premier science fiction and fantasy convention dedicated to literature. The first WorldCon was held in New York in 1939, and left the States for the first time in 1948 with a convention in Toronto, Canada. The first European WorldCon was held in London in 1957. In recent years the convention has moved further afield with events in Australia, Japan, Finland, the Republic of Ireland and New Zealand (reduced to a virtual con due to the COVID pandemic). The first-ever WorldCon in China will be held in 2023, specifically in Chengdu. This year's convention will be held in Chicago.

If successful, the first African WorldCon would be called KampCon and would be held in Kampala, Uganda's capital city. The bid chair is Kabunga Michael, an author, artist and fan. Film director Anita Nannozi Sseruwagi is also supporting the bid as part of the committee.

The bid is currently unopposed, although this might change with time. Other currently-unopposed bids include Glasgow, Scotland for 2024; Seattle, Washingon, USA for 2025; Tel Aviv, Israel for 2027; Dublin for 2029; and Texas for 2031.

UPDATE: Brisbane, Australia will also be bidding for WorldCon in 2028.

For All Mankind: Season 3

1992. The United States and the Soviet Union are preparing for a new phase in their rivalry: a race to get the first people onto the surface of Mars. But they are joined in the fight by Helios, an independent company run by a charismatic, visionary founder who wants in on the action. The three-horse race to Mars gets underway, but political expediency may compromise the integrity of the mission.

Fifteen years ago, Ronald D. Moore had just delivered the first two seasons of Battlestar Galactica, arguably the two greatest seasons of science fiction television in genre history. Brilliant vfx, fantastic acting and strong writing had combined to deliver a show that could very comfortably go head-to-head with any of the A-tier "prestige dramas" airing on the likes of HBO. Season 3 started the same way, but quickly fell of a cliff: imaginative writing and storylines had been replaced by lowest-common-denominator soap opera drama (such as an overreliance on love triangles), the formerly well-thought-out worldbuilding had developed cracks through which you could fly a Mercury-class battlestar, and contrivance and convenience had replaced intelligent plotting.

Unbelievably, the same thing has happened again. The first two seasons of Ronald D. Moore's For All Mankind are brilliant, with superb writing helping deliver fantastic performances and clever storytelling, all supported by some of the best vfx ever seen on the small screen. Season 1 was excellent; Season 2 was better, by a hair.

Season 3 starts off in exactly the same vein with what might be one of its strongest hours. Polaris is a fantastic, self-contained disaster movie with several regular characters stuck on the world's first orbital hotel, which soon develops a fault. Unfolding like a cross between Apollo 13 and one of the best episodes of Thunderbirds, the episode delivers fantastic spectacle rooted in interesting ideas. The next couple of episodes speculate intriguingly on the politics and science behind an increasingly dangerous space race as NASA, the Soviet Space Agency and Helios all compete to get to Mars first, rather than safely. We get one more great episode out of this, Happy Valley, as the race turns dangerous with one of the ships developing a fault, forcing the others to argue about who is going to go back and rescue them.

However, there is a ticking time bomb in For All Mankind that was planted back in Season 2 which explodes with full force in Season 3. Back in Season 2 we got a brief burst of tedious melodrama with a spectacularly unconvincing love triangle subplot that was mind-numbingly dull and unconvincing, but at least was dealt with briefly. In Season 3 this plot is inexplicably brought back, even more inexplicably given massive prominence and then turns into some kind of surreal satire of itself as the season goes on, resulting in deaths, mayhem and explosions in a manner so contrived and unbelievable as to verge on the comical. Episode after episode, you just hope this storyline and the character it centres on, the selfish and utterly unsympathetic Danny, will just end and instead the writers double down on it. It's like watching a football team that's heading to win the World Cup but the coach benches all of his star players to focus on the least-talented players ever to set foot on the pitch.

Although this storyline is the most egregious example of the declining in both writing and plotting this season, it is not the only victim. Another storyline about a character being compromised by Russia ends with them being whisked off to the Soviet Union, presumably by the same teleporter used to capture Jim Hopper in Stranger Things. In another storyline, a character is swept up by a cult-like group who think that NASA is hiding...something. Their bananas ideology is never really explained and their goals and objectives are obtuse, so it's kind of hard to invest in this story or what's going on, especially as the ramping-up of their status from "minor annoyance" to "massive national security threat" takes place so jarringly abruptly that it, again, verges on being silly rather than dramatic. The worldbuilding is also iffy: the United States now has limitless energy thanks to the advent of fusion power, meaning some of the economic issues the country is reported as facing should be non-existent instead of major problems. It's also questionable if the Soviet Union should still be around and if North Korea should be as advanced in this timeline as it appears to be. 

Other problems are perhaps a bit too pedantic. This season mostly takes place in 1995, a full twenty-six years after Season 1, but very little effort has been made to make any of the characters look their age. Joel Kinnaman and Shantel VanSanten look amazing for playing people well into their sixties, whilst Nate Corddry is given some very unconvincing aging makeup (made worse by him having much better aging make up over on Amazon's excellent Paper Girls). It's one of those things you can forget about in a show that's otherwise firing on all cylinders, but here it accentuates the feeling of the wheels coming off the wagon whilst it's rolling downhill.

There are still flashes of greatness. The actors do their solid best with increasingly risible material and newcomer Lev Gorn has a great arc as the Soviet mission commander Grigory Kuznetsov, a hard-wired martinet who cracks (just slightly) to become an effective partner to Danielle Poole on the Mars mission. The political storyline revolving around Ellen Wilson (Jodi Balfour) becoming the first female President of the United States and facing a crisis when her sexuality (and her efforts to hide it) comes to the fore has a lot of legs to it, but is undercooked (and I'm not sure her resolution would really save her career). The show's energy and momentum lifts whenever Sonya Walger returns as Molly Cobb, making it a shame she's is so little of the season. Robert Bailey Jr. has a great subplot as Will Tyler, NASA's first openly gay astronaut, but again this is a story that's shunted to one side with almost indecent haste. There's also some excellent vfx, if not as flawlessly brilliant as in the first two seasons. 

For All Mankind's third season (**½, but ****½ for Polaris and Happy Valley) has some individually great episodes, especially early on, and some great performances, effects and ideas. But it also has some agonisingly painful dumbness in its worldbuilding, its plotting and its characterisation that drags what was one a fantastic show down to mediocrity. The finale does resolve some of the stupider storylines, hopefully permanently, and we can hope that the already-commissioned Season 4 will be a return to form. The season is streaming worldwide right now on Apple TV+.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Thursday, 11 August 2022

Subnautica: Below Zero

Scientist Robin Ayou is dissatisfied with the official reports about the death of her sister, Samantha. Samantha died on the remote planet 4546B due to "employee negligence," according to Alterra Corporation. With Alterra withdrawing all personnel from the planet for unknown reasons, Robin smuggles herself onto 4546B and finds an arctic zone teeming with life and unexplained mysteries, some alluding to the disappearance of the starship Aurora in the vicinity. Robin's investigations into her sister's fate leads her to meet survivors of other expeditions...some from a very long time ago, and not even human.

Below Zero started life as an expansion or DLC for the original Subnautica but, as is so often the case, developed over time into an original title. This leaves it as that sometimes confusing beast, the "stand-alone expansion," a game that is smaller and more focused than the original but is newer, so has somewhat shinier graphics and improved quality-of-life features, like a better user interface and expanded base-building options.

As with most expansions (standalone or not), it would be very easy to say, "if you like Subnautica, you'll like this," and leave it at that. That is, as far is goes, true. However, Below Zero is something of a different beast to its forebear, being both slightly more difficult and somewhat more focused on its narrative.

The original Subnautica had you (playing Ryley Robinson) as the sole survivor of a starship crash, left initially fending for survival in tropical waters and later having to find your way off the planet whilst also battling an alien infection. The narrative elements were light, mostly appearing only in PDA entries and voice logs. Still, these elements drew players deeper and deeper below the planet's surface, eventually finding a way of curing their disease and fabricating the parts needed to build an escape shuttle.

Below Zero has you arriving on the planet deliberately, in search of your missing sister, although your only way of getting there is to hitch a lift with a passing ship and bailing out when nearby, with no ultimate exit strategy. This time you land in an arctic region, which introduces a major new problem that Ryley didn't have to worry about: freezing to death. Sticking your head above water long enough to breathe is fine, but staying out of the water for a few minutes is an invitation to turn into a popsicle. Building a base and vehicles are therefore more urgent tasks than in the original game, since these provide a respite from both suffocation and hypothermia during your explorations of the planet. However, building materials have been changed slightly since the original game, making building up a base slightly more difficult. Titanium, in particular, is thinner on the ground since you have not got a thousand-metre long wrecked starship leaving a miles-long trail of titanium parts across the biome this time around. A Subnautica veteran will overcome these issues in short order, but newcomers may find a game with a tricky difficulty curve.

As with Subnautica, the early part of the game is spent building up resources and building your initial tools, starting with a knife and expanding to torches, a base-building nano-device and small vehicles, like a "Seatruck," which can be expanded later on with additional modules (thus combining the functionality of the both the Seamoth submersible and the giant Cyclops submarine from the original game). Acquiring more tools and more equipment allows you to dive for longer and travel further across the map, eventually discovering the various Alterra facilities your sister was working at. Finding clues in each base leads you to the next location of note. Below Zero's selling point is that at several points your mission will lead you onto land, onto the massive frozen landmasses that envelop the map around its northern edge. Avoiding freezing is even harder than avoiding suffocating, requiring you to use vehicles (like the trusty Prawn Suit, returning from the OG game, or the new Snowfox hover-bike) or make judicious use of spicy food or standing next to hot springs.

All of this is mostly fun. Things are enhanced by a larger array of base-building options, with large, multi-purpose rooms and control rooms (allowing you to control power distribution and the visual theme of the base better) now available. The developers have also dramatically upgraded the game's engine, with slightly better graphics, far less crashes and clipping and some nice new options, like the ability to pin ingredients to your screen to stay on top of the things you are looking for. A new handheld scanner also makes locating minerals easier, though its range is extremely limited.

The traditional Subnautica gameplay loop - find, build, explore, repeat - remains compelling, but Below Zero does have a few limitations which means it's not quite as exciting this time around. The first is that Below Zero is a smaller game. The area of explorable ocean and seabed is much smaller and it's not as deep a game. Literally. In Subnautica you could drop down about two kilometres below the planet's surface, but Below Zero barely reaches half that, and there's not much in the deepest areas that require you to stay down there. This combination means that there's no Cyclops super-submarine - it literally couldn't fit down the crevasses leading to the deeper biomes - commanding which was possibly the single greatest thing about the original game.

In addition, exploring the surface arctic biomes is initially a refreshing change, but rapidly becomes more tedious. It's too easy to get turned around and end up walking in circles, and the various hostile creatures you encounter (the Snow Stalkers and Ice Worm Leviathans) are more inconvenient than actually dangerous. It's also a shorter game, easily completable in under 30 hours, whilst the original game took at least 40 hours to polish off and there was greater encouragement to do optional tasks like building bases in every biome or exploring more for the sake of exploration. You can still do stuff like that in Below Zero, but the much smaller map means you'll exhaust the game's opportunities pretty quickly.

I did enjoy Below Zero's more present story. The original Subnautica could be very obtuse in letting you know what your next goal actually was, whilst Below Zero makes it clearer through voice logs and even (gasp) actual cutscenes and conversations with other characters what your next goal is. The same dual mission structure as the original game is in play here as well, with you originally having to cure an alien plague to shut down a defence system before you could escape the planet. In Below Zero you have to find out what happened to your sister, complete her mission and then deal with a secondary objective related to various alien ruins on the planet. Those who enjoyed the sparseness of the original game (where your character never spoke, unlike here) might feel the story more intrusive here, but in reality the game is still 95% you doing your own thing to 5% story, as opposed to the original game's 99% to 1%. I also enjoyed the fact that there's more friendly flora and fauna, like the Sea Monkeys who are an initial annoyance but later help you find resources.

Subnautica: Below Zero (****) is not Subnautica 2, but it is a fun, enjoyable game that takes the original game's appeal, sands off some of the rough edges and introduces some quality of life improvements that make the game flow better, as well as featuring a better story. However, it does also struggle with a slightly steeper learning curve than the original game, the absence of some fan-favourite creatures and vehicles, and a significantly smaller map. I would certainly recommend that newcomers start with the original Subnautica before moving onto this game. Below Zero is available now for PC, PlayStation 4 and 5, Xbox One and X/S, and Nintendo Switch.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

The Sandman: Season 1

1916. English sorcerer Roderick Burgess, distraught over the death of his son at Gallipoli, seeks to bind and imprison Death itself. His plan misfires and instead he captures Dream. Dream is unable to give Burgess what he wants, and eventually Burgess leaves him to rot in a glass prison in his cellar. During Dream's absence, his realm, the Dreaming, falls into disrepair and many dreams and nightmares escape into the world of the living. Some people also fall into a permanent sleep, a sleeping sickness that lasts decades and claims thousands. Eventually Dream escapes, and finds he must return his realm to order and reclaim the dreams and nightmares...even those who are prepared to do anything to retain their liberty.

Adapting The Sandman for the screen is a Herculean task. Neil Gaiman's 76-issue comic series ran from 1988 to 1996 and was collected as ten dense graphic novels, telling stories spanning thousands of years and involving a cast running into the hundreds. At the centre of it all is Dream or Morpheus, a non-human anthropomorphic personification of the concept of dreams. In many issues Dream doesn't even show up, or only has a brief cameo. The series alternates between epic story arcs and self-contained fables, and the tone can spin on a dime from comedy to tragedy to outright horror to fantasy to historical drama. Very minor moments in earlier issues can have massive ramifications fifty issues later.

There is also the legacy that Sandman has accrued. The series occupies a space in comics similar to what The Lord of the Rings does in fantasy novels, a dominant force whose sheer name value and beloved following makes tackling an adaptation a humbling and challenging task. Fortunately, at least in this case the original creator was on hand to help tackle the adaptation and guide it to the screen.

Netflix's The Sandman is an unabashed triumph, something that is a relief to say after so many recent streaming adaptations of beloved fantasy works were underwhelming, if not outright terrible. The one-two punch in recent weeks of Sandman and Amazon's splendid tackling of Brian K. Vaughan's Paper Girls may make one wonder if streaming services are turning a corner and are now producing better adaptations, but I suspect we will continue to see variable results moving forwards.

The Sandman works because it combines a talented cast of actors, directors, vfx personnel and behind the scenes crew with excellent judgement over how to develop the source material. Some episodes are lifted from issues of the comic almost verbatim, with Gaiman's almost-thirty-five-year-old material still feeling as fresh and engrossing as when it was originally committed to paper. Other episodes see the source material reimagined or tackled in a different way due to practical concerns, or cost, or not having the rights to certain characters or ideas, and in every case the judgement is sound.

The first season of the TV series adapts the first two graphic novels in the series, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House, constituting the first sixteen issues of the comic. In the former story arc, Dream is imprisoned, escapes and sets about repairing the Dreaming and recovering three of the symbols of office (a ruby, a bag of sand and a helmet), which involves confronting a murderous killer, tracking down a demon-hunter in contemporary London and descending into Hell itself for a tense audience with Lucifer. In the latter, Dream sets out to recover three missing inhabitants of the Dreaming who escaped during his imprisonment, as well as investigating the appearance of a "dream vortex" which threatens the fabric of reality.

The adaptation collapses these two stories into ten episodes (some of them surprisingly short by modern standards) and overlaps them a little bit more than in the comics, positing the Corinthian (a brilliant Boyd Holbrook) as more of an antagonist for the entire season. The result is a compelling pace, with excellently-crafted cliffhangers demanding you watch just one more episode. This is enhanced by brilliant casting: Tom Sturridge has a hard job playing the taciturn, oft-emotionless Dream, but he manages the impossible by nailing Dream's implacability but also giving him brief bursts of humour and charisma. Vivienne Acheampong is outstanding as the fussy librarian Lucienne, who keeps the Dreaming ticking over in Dream's absence, and Kyo Ra is superb as Rose Walker, the closest thing we have a to a "regular human" lead in the story.

Other actors appear just for one episode or so, but are fantastic: David Thewliss is chilling as John Dee, Jenna Coleman is suitably bedrazzled as walking human dumpster fire Johanna Constantine (a rights-enforced gender flip of John "Hellblazer" Constantine) and Gwendoline Christie is fire and ice personified as Lucifer Morningstar. Ferdinand Kingsley is also outstanding as Hob Gadling, an ordinary human whom is gifted immortality by the Endless on a whim to see how he handles it, and Kirby Howell-Baptiste imbues Death with the whimsy, humour, wisdom and depth of her comics counterpart.

Contained within the first season was the tricky mandate to adapt three of the greatest individual issues of comics ever published into live-action: "Twenty-Four Hours" (here realised as episode five, 24/7), "The Sound of Her Wings" and "Men of Good Fortune" (here combined into episode six, The Sound of Her Wings). "Twenty-Four Hours" had to be changed a fair bit, due to the absence of a narrating figure and limits on the amount of horror even Netflix can put on screen, but the end result is still fascinating (and horrific). But The Sound of Her Wings is flawless, taking the two vaguely related stories from the comic (the first in which Dream spends a day watching his sister, Death, at work, and the second in which Dream spends one day every 100 years meeting Hob Gadling, who may or may not be a friend) and combining them into a beautiful hour of drama.

Flaws are almost non-existent: Mervyn Pumpkinead's CGI feels a bit stiff compared to the flawless vfx elsewhere, and the utterly brilliant end credits (which vary from episode to episode) barely have a chance to start before Netflix forces them off the screen for the next episode. And that's really about it.

The first season (*****) builds to a suitably epic conclusion, with quiet moments that readers of the comics know will have a seismic impact further down the road, but ultimately leaves the viewer shocked that the team have managed the impossible: they have taken The Sandman and made a superb television series out of it. The hope now is that they can continue.

The first season of The Sandman is available to watch on Netflix worldwide right now and I recommend you avail yourself of the opportunity to catch up on it as soon as possible.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest

Menhir Forest is in danger. The Archdruid has gone missing and a horrible growth, known as "the Cancer," is spreading through the forest, consuming everything in its path. Corrupted, dangerous creatures are appearing. The druids call upon three allies to help investigate and solve the crisis: Aava, the Archdruid's daughter and a keen archer; Leonhard, the Warden, a mighty warrior with a mysterious past that he cannot remember; and Oiko, a renegade Red Priest who has rejected the evil ways of his former colleagues.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest is an intriguing game which mixes several influences: tactics games, like XCOM: Enemy Unknown and Final Fantasy Tactics; JRPGs, particularly the Final Fantasy series; and old-school games which rewarded tactical thinking and creative combinations of abilities, perhaps unsurprising given the same creative team worked on the throwback Legend of Grimrock series. It is more accessible than Legend of Grimrock, and can easily be summed up as "fantasy XCOM" (even if it's not quite as accomplished in that field as the Banner Saga trilogy).

The game proceeds from quest to quest with your fellowship assigned a primary objective, achieving which immediately ends the mission, and secondary objectives. Secondary objectives are not essential to complete the mission, but they are essential to acquire gemstones, which boost your abilities. You will very quickly learn that these gemstones are not optional and are urgently needed to make some of the later missions achievable in any fashion.

Each mission plays out in a familiar XCOM style, with a grid across which your characters can move and take actions. You can move up to an allowance and attack, but attacking does not end your movement, so can pop out of cover to get line-of-sight on an enemy, fire off an arrow or magical attack, and then nip back into cover, which creates lots of intriguing tactical options. One limitation is that if you are adjacent to an enemy, you cannot move away from them without triggering an opportunity attack (the same is also true for you), although several items and abilities do allow you to accomplish this.

You have a baseline of abilities and levelling up your character allows you to add new abilities. More important are the gemstones, which enhance the abilities you already have. These may allow you to add more damage or a status effect to an attack, or simply use the ability more often. Using abilities usually replaces an attack action, but some are free-to-use and can combine with attacks or movements to impressive effect. Your magic-users can utilised "Focus" to enhance their magical abilities, such as taking Fire from a single-target ability to an area-of-effect ability that can hit up to nine enemies if they are standing closely together (or if you manipulate or trick the enemy into bunching together). Oiko has an underrated ability to swap places with any unit in his line of sight (friend or foe) which allows you to increase the range of your melee characters' movement (Oiko moves up to his maximum, swap-teleports with a melee character who can then move to the maximum of their movement, allowing them to get into combat a round earlier than just waiting for the enemy to approach).

Progress is mostly linear, although at key points you have a choice of several missions to proceed with. You can also revisit previously-completed missions to gain more experience and gold, although the amount you gain each time you replay a mission dwindles with each playthrough. You can also only get bonus gems from any given mission once. This does allow you to sometimes complete a mission without getting the bonus objectives and then coming back later on once your overall strength has improved.

Graphically, the game is solid but not amazing and the music is pleasant, even if more than one tune only narrowly avoids have Square Enix's lawyers frowning and reaching for the telephone. The user interface is great and an "undo move" button is a welcome sight given how easy it is to accidentally move somewhere you didn't want to go. More annoying is the way that Oiko's "teleport" and "forcebolt" icons are very similar, meaning you sometimes end up swapping places with an enemy you meant to attack and vice versa.

In terms of story, the game is okay but the lack of any voiceovers at all feels a bit outdated (as much as it kept the game's budget down). There's also sometimes far too much dialogue before a mission starts, little of it interesting. The story is also a bit odd, one subplot where a character is possessed by a another being and stays that way for the rest of the game being weirdly under-explored. There's also a strange thing where you really (eventually) have five party-members, but to bring the fifth party member into the battle requires summoning them at the start of every mission. It feels like they should really have just been in the party all along.

Druidstone: The Secret of Menhir Forest (****) is not going to be winning any prizes for originality, but it is a tightly-designed fantasy tactics game with a nice story, interesting characters and some fiendishly designed missions. These make up for a sometimes confusing UI and a lack of voice acting in the game. The title is available now on PC.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Monday, 1 August 2022

Blogging Roundup: 1 June to 31 July 2022

The Wertzone




Atlas of Ice and Fire


Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Disney+ delays STAR WARS TV show ANDOR

Disney+ has delayed the launch of its next Star Wars TV series, Andor, by three weeks. The show will now launch on 21 September.

Andor is a prequel to the movie Rogue One and follows a young Cassian Andor as he takes up arms against the Empire for the first time. However, the film also has a more epic scope and follows Mon Mothma and other dignitaries on Coruscant as they take their first faltering steps in opposing the tyrannical government that the Galactic Empire has become. Other storylines span the Star Wars galaxy instead of the very tight focus on single characters from The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The reason for moving Andor is unclear, but there is speculation that it was to move it out of a crowded launch window which would have seen it going head-to-head with She-Hulk: Attorney at Law (17 August), House of the Dragon (21 August) and The Rings of Power (2 September).

Andor sees Diego Luna reprise his role as Cassian Andor from Rogue One. Forest Whitaker also returns as Saw Gerrera, a role he played in Rogue One and also in Star Wars: Rebels. Genevieve O'Reilly returns as Mon Mothma, a role she played in Rogue One and Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. Stellan Skarsgård also stars as Luthen. Adria Arjona, Kyle Soller, Fiona Shaw, Anton Lesser, Ben Miles, Robert Emms and David Hayman have unconfirmed roles.

Sunday, 31 July 2022

RIP Nichelle Nichols

News has sadly broken that Star Trek actress Nichelle Nichols has passed away at the age of 89.

Nichols was born in Robbins, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, in 1932. Nichols' father was a factory worker who was elected mayor of Robbins in 1929. Nichols became interested in acting at school and studied in New York City and Los Angeles, as well as at the Chicago Ballet Academy.

After a number of lower-profile stage roles, her big break came in appearing in Kicks and Co. on stage in 1961. Although the play closed early, Nichols attracted positive notices and also began a side-career in modelling. She continued acting on stage, attracting higher-profile roles in Carmen Jones in Chicago and Porgy and Bess in New York. Her acting in musicals also opened an occasional career in music, singing with the Lionel Hampton and Duke Ellington bands and later recording two albums.

On screen, she appeared in the 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess as an uncredited dancer, but achieved a breakthrough in Hollywood in 1966, appearing in the films Tarzan's Deadly Silence, Made in Paris and Mister Buddwing. Her first television role came in 1964 in The Lieutenant, playing Norma Bartlett in the episode To Set It Right (alongside Dennis Hopper). Nichols' performance impressed producer Gene Roddenberry, who held her in mind for a science fiction television series he was developing.

In 1966 Nichols was cast as Lieutenant Uhura, the communications officer of the starship Enterprise in Roddenberry's Star Trek. Nichols' role as a prominent African-American woman in a position of some authority on a starship was unprecedented and Nichols attracted significant fan mail, particularly from young black women who saw her as a role model. Despite the attention and profile, Nichols quickly realised that she was not likely to be the star of many episodes, as the focus shifted from an ensemble piece to a tight focus on the triumvirate of William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley as Kirk, Spock and McCoy. Due to her low number of lines, Nichols considered leaving the show after the first season to resume her career on Broadway and even handed her resignation in to Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry urged her to take the weekend to reconsider. At a charity event over the weekend, Nichols met Dr. Martin Luther King who told her he was an enormous fan and her work was inspiring to himself and to the Civil Rights Movement. He also told her she was hugely inspiring to the next generation of young children, particularly black girls, who otherwise had very few role models on television. Nichols agreed to stay.

Despite nearly losing her from the show, Roddenberry rarely gave Nichols a starring role in episodes. He did, however, cause enormous controversy by producing an episode in which Uhura and Kirk kiss, Plato's Stepchildren. Apparently the nervous director suggested they film a "backup" version of the scene without the kiss. However, Shatner and Nichols both purposefully screwed up the other takes, leaving the scene with the kiss as the only usable take. This is sometimes - inaccurately - portrayed as the first interracial kiss on American television, although it was publicised as such at the time and caused a certain amount of attention. In her autobiography, Nichols noted that she was romantically involved with Roddenberry following their meeting on The Lieutenant, although the relationship was over by the time she was working on Star Trek. She remained friends with Roddenberry and his later wife Majel Barrett, and sang at his funeral in 1991.

Following the cancellation of Star Trek in 1969, Nichols agreed to return to voice her character in Star Trek: The Animated Series. In one episode Uhura took command of the Enterprise, whilst she played a more prominent role in several episodes compared to the live-action show.

Nichols began to work closely with NASA, with a view to inspiring women and minority recruits to sign up to work with the organisation. The program was highly successful and credited with recruiting Dr. Sally Ride, the first American female astronaut, and Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut. As part of her NASA work, Nichols was invited as a special guest in 1976 to watch both the Viking 1 landing on Mars and the first flight of the American space shuttle Enterprise.

In 1979 she returned to the role of Uhura in Star Trek: The Motion Picture and reprised it in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989) and Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991). For her appearance in Star Trek V, Uhura infamously danced naked with only two strategically-placed fans and a phaser for comfort, which Nichols found amusing.

In 1994 she published her autobiography Beyond Uhura, which focused on all aspects of her career. She indicated that her greatest pride came from assisting NASA in the space program, which continued well into the 21st Century.

As an inspiration to younger generations, Nichols found herself being cast in later life in roles by fans, including reprising Uhura for a Star Trek fan production called Of Gods and Men in 2007. She also had small roles on Heroes (2007), The Cabonauts (2009) and The Young and the Restless (2016). She memorably played both herself and Uhura in episodes of Futurama.

Nichols had a significant number of awards, including a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (1992), a Goldene Kamera (1999), an honorary degree from Los Angeles Mission College (2010), the Life Career Award from the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films (2016) and the Inkpot Award (2018). She also had an asteroid, 68410 Nichols, named in her honour.

Nichelle Nichols passed away on Saturday 30 July 2022, whilst staying with her son in Silver City, New Mexico. She had been suffering from health issues for several years, including a stroke in 2016 and being diagnosed with dementia in 2018, which caused her to announce her retirement. She is survived by her son Kyle Johnson. An inspiration to many, Nichelle Nichols will be very much missed.

Nichols' passing leaves the surviving original Star Trek castmembers as William Shatner, Walter Koenig and George Takei.