Quickie Reviews #46

In this edition, I’ll be reviewing the first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Donut County, Rise of the Tomb Raider on PS4, and the first episode of Life is Strange season two. Let me know what you think in the comments below! Check out my other Quickie Reviews.

The Handmaid’s Tale – Season One

The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t your typical cable drama a la Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. While those shows deal with high concepts and dark subject matter, they go about it in a more approachable manner. The Handmaid’s Tale is a slow burn, which may be a turnoff for some viewers looking for a more engrossing story or big action moments.

But that isn’t to say The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t compelling. This is a truly unique television universe that has clearly been well-developed, even if we aren’t privy to many of the inner-workings quite yet.

Instead, this is a story about June, a mother and wife that has been essentially kidnapped and forced into a life of religious servitude and rape. I know, it sounds like a blast of a show.

But this is the world created when most women are no longer fertile. There was a religious usurping of the American government, and those that were unable to flee were subjected to this new culture that harkens back to Puritanical times. Women can’t work, read, write, or really do anything of consequence. Wives of the “commanders” have the most rights, since they’re allowed to at least run their own households. The rest of the women are either Marthas — essentially maids — or Handmaids, those few women that can still bear children.

Handmaids have it the worst of all, as their sole existence becomes bearing children for the commanders. They are raped as part of a religious ceremony, and if they do eventually give birth, that child is kept by the commander’s wife and they are moved onto the next household to start up the process again. Like I said, this is a dark show.

Beyond just the interesting (though incredibly messed up) setting, The Handmaid’s Tale works because of its casting. There isn’t much story in the first season other than establishing the world and characters, along with some vague references to a resistance and June’s efforts to join them. Instead, each episode relies on the actors to convey this sense of place and the complicated relationships formed by the servant/master setup.

There are times when the show goes a little too far in creating tension through silence, with long panning shots of walking or a slow zoom on June crying. This does give the show its own visual identity, which I do like, but it pushed the line on wasting time. I only feel this because there really isn’t much story to speak of in this first season.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a very unique show that covers some topics important to modern-day life, like gender relations, religion, racism, and a different kind of apocalypse. While the subject matter isn’t for everyone, and the show takes its sweet time building to the season one cliffhanger, The Handmaid’s Tale is highly recommended for folks looking for the next Breaking Bad or Sons of Anarchy. This one won’t be as action-packed, but it’s certainly just as interesting and well-acted.

9.0/10

Rise of the Tomb Raider

Rise of the Tomb Raider feels like a solid sequel to the 2013 franchise reboot. The gameplay is primarily the same, with a focus on light stealth and third-person, cover-based shooting and melee combat. The biggest change is that the game feels slightly more open world. There are still metroidvania elements (ie, you can’t access this area until you get the shotgun), but there are actual side missions to take on and a main hub area with NPCs.

Both of these elements feel slightly tacked on and not fully baked. The side missions are mostly fetch quests, the kind of repeatable time wasters Skyrim introduced several years ago. The hub area is more interesting, but there isn’t a ton to do there other than buy stuff and accept even more side missions.

The story also feels a tad like a rehash, with Lara again stuck in a hostile land with wintery and wooded areas, tombs to uncover, puzzles to solve, and crazed, cult-like baddies to murder. This rears its head most in the final hours of the game, when another other-worldly force joins the fray with even tougher enemies. There’s even a sequence where you’re storming a castle that literally feels the same as something you do in the first game.

Lara as a character hasn’t fully developed from the potential of the first game, and that’s a shame. Elements still border on torture porn, and she still comes across as too aloof and monotone to really care about what’s happening around her.

Rise of the Tomb Raider is a fitting sequel in that it tries a few new things, but the overall experience feels lessened overall. It’s one of those games that I’d describe as “fine,” since it’s hard to really work up much emotion about it one way or the other.

8.0/10

Donut County

Donut County was such a fun little surprise. It comes from the creative mind of Ben Esposito, former designer at Giant Sparrow Games, makers of The Unfinished Swan and What Remains of Edith Finch.

The best way to describe Donut County in simple terms is that it’s the opposite of Katamari Damacy. Instead of collecting things by rolling a ball over them, you’re trying to erase things from the area by swallowing them with an ever-expanding hole.

The game isn’t particularly long or difficult, but it’s still satisfying to completely wipe everything off the playing space as the chill music plays. The game often finds unique ways of shaking things up, like having to swallow fire to make popcorn pop, or swallowing water so you can move a fish from one area to another. The final area adds these things together for a sequence that begins to offer a small amount of challenge.

The humor in the game actually reminds me a bit of 2017’s Night in the Woods. Everyone is a millennial wit machine. That can be a bit grating for some people, but when it’s anthropomorphized creatures doing the chatting, it works for me. BK, the anti-hero raccoon causing all the chaos, is one of my favorite characters of the year.

In some ways, I wish the game was longer. I think there’s plenty more to be squeezed from the seemingly simple game mechanics. I also would have liked some optional levels that offer up more complicated puzzles.

But that isn’t really the point of Donut County. It’s a small-scale game you can play with your kids, but that clearly has something to say about society and changing cultures. It’s a grown-up kid game, if you will. The cute aesthetic, rad music, and funny characters just make it all the more memorable.

8.8/10

Life is Strange: Season Two – Episode One

Life is Strange has had a bit of a bumpy road. The first full season was one of my favorite gaming experiences of 2015. The follow-up — which to be fair was created by a different developer — was not one of my favorite games experiences of 2017. Then we got the one-shot “demo,” The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, which I found mostly charming, if forgettable.

But this is the true second season of the phenomenal series, and I was pretty pumped to check it out.

Overall, the first episode is a fairly slow start, with little involvement of the special powers we got to experience with Max in season one. And since you play as the older brother, there’s really no manipulation of the world.

Much like the first season, the main characters are deep and well-developed, and I connected a lot with the relationship of the two brothers. I definitely want to see where things go from here. However, most of the side characters are painted with an extremely broad brush. There’s the racist asshole neighbor, the racist police officer, the racist convenience store owner, you see where I’m going from here.

There are certainly several tough decisions throughout, and the choices feel like they truly matter and lead to a major confrontation to end the first episode. But from a gameplay perspective, episode one is very light. Without the time manipulation mechanics, there just isn’t much to do here except walk and talk. Even the one puzzle I can recall feels very straight forward, with only one or two options at any given time.

I’m still holding out hope that season two can nail the story of these characters, but I’m worried that the gameplay may not be able to hold up. The writing can be film quality, but without something interesting to engage with mechanically, this might as well be an animated television series. Even more alarmingly, there are over 100 days between the release of the first and second episode. It will be impossible to maintain story momentum if it takes more than a year for this entire story to wrap up.

8.1/10

Be sure to check out my other Quickie Reviews!

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