Archive for May, 2013

“Rootwork” iPad Game Review: Into the Woods

Wednesday, May 29th, 2013
The autumn colors are all right with me. It's the shadows I worry about...

Hard to see the forest with all these trees in the way…

Within the last few weeks, I have taken on the challenge of mastering Rootwork, a new solitaire-style card game on the iPad with a unique, creepy atmosphere.  The gameplay is good on its own, but I have become more interested in following the story the game tells through the art depicted on the cards and through the movies unlocked after completing successful hands.  It all adds up to a palpable combination which I am quite happy savoring a little bit at a time.

As I said,  the story behind Rootwork is the main reason I keep playing.  After all, it drives just about everything you do in the game.  The basic premise is that you are lost in a dark, mysterious, fog-enshrouded forest filled with weird creatures, unsettling stick sculptures hung from the trees, and ruled over by an omnipotent being simply referred to as “She” who narrates all of the movies you see throughout the game.  Whoever “She” is, this entity does not want you to survive this night as it keeps sending powerful monsters your way and manipulating the very woods themselves to trip you up.  Fortunately, a nice father and son who were already consumed by the woods before you (which begs the question: How did they survive?) teach you about a special kind of enchantment called Rootwork (What are the chances?) which utilizes objects you find lying around in the woods to beat back the baddies and get out of the forest alive for one more night, at least until you wander back in again for another hand.  As you keep winning hands and escaping the woods, “She” tells you stories about the various creatures you encounter and how they came to the sorry state they are in, with the ultimate revelation apparently being who exactly “She” is (I haven’t gotten far enough in the game to find this out yet, but I hope it will be worth my while).

This drama plays out on a more basic level when you start playing the actual game.  With each new game, you are tasked with escaping the woods by finding three “Milestones” (familiar landmarks) before all of the time cards at the top of the game screen run out or before the monsters in the woods consume you.  Using your “Survival Cards” (the cards you put into your hand each turn), you match up the four colored symbols on your cards to those of the monsters and Milestones.  With each Milestone, you need to match up two monsters or “Sticks” as well as the Milestone itself, a goal which is often easier said than done.  Some cards need only one symbol to be matched while others need two of that type and are a bit trickier to deal with.  Some of your cards have one or two symbols as well which can help or hinder you depending on if they are the right colored symbol.  If they aren’t the right color, you can play them face-down to tick off half a symbol on a monster or Milestone, but trust me, you don’t want to get caught in a situation where you have to play four cards you wanted to save for later hands face-down to get rid of a two-symbol monster.  You only get to carry five cards in your regular hand as well as two or three more in Freecell-type holders off to the side, but if you can’t get rid of a “stick,” it will take up the space of one of those holders, preventing you from using it and reducing the number of cards you can keep in your hand.  With so few cards to work with, you might be able to get the right symbol combinations you need to advance, but chances are you will not have those, in which case you need to be diplomatic about which cards you want to use up in stopping the monsters and which ones you want to keep in your hand for the next deal.  It is this continuous balancing act and the ramped-up tension that accompanies each new hand that you must learn to deal with if you want to become a true survivor of Rootwork.

At first, I  lost more games of Rootwork than I won.  I hadn’t quite gotten the feel of managing all of the symbols I was given.  On top of that, I was working against the high levels of memorization required to succeed in the game.  You have to memorize where each Milestone you want is first in the four decks of “Site” cards you draw them from, then what six monsters and “sticks” comprise your opposition for that particular game.  If you don’t know where each “bad” card is and can’t bring up the cards you need to get rid of it, you could have a very tough time winning the game.  I remember losing five games in a row precisely because of this factor, and it only ended when I started paying attention during the sixth game.  Of course, the luck of the draw needs to be on your side, too.  Many of the games I have played so far have hinged on drawing the right cards at the right time and learning how to hold onto important cards for later hands.  Sometimes the draws work out in my favor, and sometimes they don’t.  Successfully moving cards between my hand and my holders and getting rid of cards that were taking up valuable space became one of my keys to victory after a few days.  Now, while I still lose some games because of the action on the playing field getting too out of hand for me to deal with, these losses are starting to become few and far between.  The path out of the woods is still treacherous, but at least I know how to look for the bumps in the road.

At the end of the day, the biggest success of Rootwork in my view is in terms of creating a suitably unsettling environment.  The backgrounds and card art provide illustrations of dark, gloomy forests, swampy terrain, slimy denizens, and other things designed to make you think twice about where you’re stepping.  The game’s soundtrack wonderfully compliments this weird imagery with sounds of crickets chirping, soft thunderstorms, gurgling swamps, atmospheric New Orleans-style zydeco music, and occasionally a taunt or two from “She” goading you on toward your possible doom.  The movies you unlock add considerably to the dark mood, mostly because they tell the sad stories behind many of the cards you play with.  It amazes me that all of the cards I encountered in the game was utilized in some way in these stories, making their appearances in the regular game much more meaningful for me.

Rootwork is a solidly built, psychologically disturbing, yet strangely inviting game.  True, the hands can get short once you know how all of the mechanics work, but for me, the age-old story of learning how to survive in a strange wilderness is a big part of this game’s appeal and the reason I want to keep running into the woods.  Maybe one day, I’ll find out who “She” is and fully understand the rhyme and reason why everything is chasing after me.  Then again, maybe I don’t really want to escape.  Why else would I keep running back into the forest?  Maybe “She” has already trapped me forever, and I don’t really care what happens next.  Only time will tell.

If you’re interested in Rootwork, you can currently find it on the Apple App Store (iPad, iPhone, iPod Touch owners, take note).  I bought it for about two dollars and I think it is a premium-quality game at an inexpensive price, an excellent value if you can manage it.  If you have played Rootwork, I would like to hear from you what you think of your experience with the game.  What do you like or not like about the game?  Do you have any tips or strategies for escaping the woods safely that you have picked up on?  Leave your thoughts in the comments.

[One last note: don’t let “Her” get the best of you!  You start each game with the “She” card in your possession.  You can use it to obtain one Milestone without the fuss of matching up all the cards in your hand, sort of like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card in Monopoly.  The catch is, if you use “Her,” “she will  sometimes cause a lot of bad cards to come your way, and she will negatively affect your character’s appearance for the rest of the game, and sometimes even beyond that.  I’ve never actually used “Her” in this way, though; I just play “Her” face-down so “Her” effects won’t kick in.  Besides, there’s an achievement if you win 1,000 games without playing the “She” card face-up (Why not face-down, I wonder?), so there’s not much of a point to using “Her” anyway.  If you want to use “Her,” though, just remember that “She” comes with a steep price.  Good luck!]

Random Top Five: Favorite Lines From Disney’s “Bolt”

Tuesday, May 28th, 2013

I caught the last few minutes of the Disney movie Bolt the other night and, having nothing better to do at that particular moment, I decided to watch the heck out of those last few minutes.  This film about a talking TV dog named Bolt, a cynical cat named Mittens, a Bolt-obsessed hamster named Rhino, and their cross-country mission to reunite Bolt with his owner, Penny, has become one of my favorite movies of all time, and my mom really likes it, too.  If I see it playing on TV, I’ll tell my mom about it and we’ll watch it for a few minutes.  It certainly helps that the movie is full of clever and funny dialogue that I often find myself quoting when I am bored.  Here’s five of my favorite lines from Bolt that I’m sure might get stuck in your head as well.  If you want some more great lines to pull out of your pocket anytime, check out Bolt‘s WikiQuotes page.

5.  “This greatly irks me, I am irked!”  (Dr. Calico)

At the beginning of the movie, the viewer is treated to an “episode” of the TV show Bolt stars in.  The plot basically involves Penny’s father being kidnapped by the evil Dr. Calico and Bolt and Penny racing off to save him.  When Calico receives the news of Bolt and Penny’s actions from one of his henchmen, he says the quoted line above.  For some strange reason, my mom and I find this line incredibly funny, even though the movie acts like it’s no big deal.  I think our appeal for this line stems from the fact that Calico says “irk” twice, which is thoroughly unnecessary and absurd.  I view it in the same manner as the classic Monty Python sketch where everyone in a restaurant keeps repeating the word “Spam” in conversation.  It’s unusual to hear the same word repeated multiple times in a row, so I definitely notice it when it does happen, and considering the movie has been very serious in tone up to this point, this line turns on the funny faucet full blast for me every single time.

4.  “I know this dog…no, no, I don’t know.  I thought I knew.”  (Pigeons)

When Bolt begins his journey to find Penny, he is still trying to figure where to go and why none of the superpowers he believes himself to have are working.  Seeking help, he tries talking to a group of pigeons.  The birds, although well-meaning, do not provide much assistance.  In fact, they struggle to even remember Bolt at all, even though they appear to be familiar with him in some way as the above quote alludes to.  Throughout the scene in which the pigeons appear, a series of buses drive by, each having a billboard for Bolt’s TV show on its side with the dog’s likeness prominently featured.  The pigeons fail to notice these, even as it seems they are just about to have a moment of recognition.  These pigeons are some of the funniest characters in the movie, and they turn into a running gag as the movie plays; no matter how many clues are around them, the pigeons don’t ever recognize him.  This is some great, simple stuff that is just plain funny.  What more can I say?

3.  “Now I’m concerned on a number of levels.”  (Mittens)

Mittens is a black-and-white stray cat who joins Bolt early in his trek across the United States.  She tries her hardest to make Bolt reconcile his superpower delusions with reality, often to little avail.  Her attempts in doing so are further fouled up with the addition of Rhino, a hamster who watches Bolt’s show religiously and has become an unabashed fanboy for his favorite hero.  When Bolt and Rhino first meet each other, they become fast friends, formulating plots to get back at Dr. Calico (at this point in the film, both the dog and the hamster think Penny has been kidnapped by the show’s main villain).  Mittens, the most sane member of the main cast at the moment, expresses her unspoken thoughts about the mental state of the group with the above quote.  It’s a blunt statement and based mostly on first impressions, but I appreciate its “in-your-face” nature and how it showcases Mittens’s personality so effectively.  She does become a much nicer, more forgiving character as time goes on, but I think this is my favorite moment with her.

2. “What?  What is this red liquid coming from my paw?””  (Bolt)

As I mentioned earlier, Bolt’s perception of reality is greatly flawed throughout most of the film.  He has existed in a “bubble” for most of his life, never venturing outside of his TV show’s fictional world.  Therefore, it comes to him as a great shock when, after making a reckless jump off a moving truck, he experiences great pain.  More evidence of his mortality emerges when one of his paws apparently starts bleeding (it’s hard to tell since the movie never actually shows the bleeding paw, or any blood for that matter).  This is a great surprise to him, causing him to deliver the above line.  It’s not the line itself that makes me like it so much.  It’s the way that Bolt’s voice actor, John Travolta, delivers the line that makes it a winner for me.  Travolta’s voice registers surprise and a bit of wooziness due to Bolt’s slow recovery from the fall he just took.  He sounds adorably dopey for the few seconds he says this line, in a rare moment of quiet between a big stunt and further plot development.  It’s one of those “blink-and-you’ll miss it” moments you only get in animated films, and one that always gives me a little smile whenever I see it.

1. “Ring, Ring.  Who is it?  DESTINY?!  I’ve been expecting your call.”  (Rhino)

Rhino, the hamster, is my favorite character in Bolt, hands down.  The things he says throughout the film are some of the funniest, wittiest, and most memorable lines I can ever remember hearing for the first time and instantly liking.  There’s a handful of lines from him I could have put in this spot (his “Let it begin!  Let it BEGIN!” is one I’m particularly partial to), but if I wanted to sum his character up with one line, this one would be it.  He takes the mission of saving Penny quite seriously and fancies himself as a secret agent of sorts, the kind you might find most often in the movies.  Naturally, this role entails delivering cheesy dialogue on occasion, something this line does very well.  It’s funny, serious, somewhat cliched, and amusingly original, all at the same time.  Definitely a line worth keeping on hand in my view.

Have you ever found yourself quoting your favorite movie or TV show?  What are your favorite lines and why?  Leave your lines and your stories in the comments.

“Superman Unbound”: A Classic Super-Tale

Tuesday, May 14th, 2013

Last week, I wrote about Iron Man 3, a superhero film which I thought was absolutely fantastic.  There’s another film coming up in June, Man of Steel, featuring a new version of Superman which I am gung-ho about seeing.  I’ve seen the first two Superman movies with Christopher Reeve in the title role, and if the new guy can perform as well as Reeve did, I think we might have a new hit franchise on our hands.  I sure hope this film is as good as Superman Unbound, a direct to video animated movie I purchased last week which I feel presented a great classic Superman story with a few new wrinkles tossed in to keep the character attuned to modern sensibilities.  It feels to me like the original superhero is making a big comeback, and this animated film certainly does seem big in my view, even if it is a bit on the short side (about seventy-five minutes to be precise).

Superman Unbound is a loose adaptation of a recent storyline from the Superman comics, but you don’t have to read the original story to understand what is going on; I didn’t even know it was based on a comic before I started watching, but now that I have, I think I’ll check out the comic version to see what’s different between both versions.  The basic story is a retelling of Superman’s first encounter with the evil alien android Brainiac.  It also concerns the “Man of Tomorrow” having to deal with two very important women in his life, one being well-known reporter Lois Lane and the other being his cousin from Krypton, Kara Zor-El, better known as Supergirl.  It’s a simple tale with fewer elements to it than Iron Man 3‘s story has, but it still delivers a big message in the end, is generally a great story, and finds a nearly perfect balance between serious and campy.

I was fascinated by the way the film’s producers took classic elements from past Superman stories and gave them slight tweaks to give them interesting updates.  For instance, the film’s version of Brainiac takes some cues from his classic appearance from the 1950s and ’60s with green skin and purple armor, but also has beefy-looking muscles popping out everywhere on his body, making him look, I feel, like a crazed space-faring bodybuilder, definitely the type of great menace I’d like to see Superman going up against.  Lois Lane has gone through some changes, too: she is not a “damsel in distress” but rather a self-confident, defiant person who is just as strong emotionally as Clark Kent’s super alter ego is physically.  Speaking of Clark Kent, he and Lois are actually dating at the beginning of this movie.  This stuck out to me immediately because I do not recall ever having seen Lois and Clark dating very often before, not even in the comics; they have had their fair share of candlelight dinners in the past, but I usually see a relationship at the beginning of a comic or movie where they are  just getting to know each other or at the end after they have gotten married.  The “in between” phase shown in this movie adds many interesting new dimensions to their relationship I would like to see more of in other Superman depictions.

Another classic element which plays a big role in Superman Unbound is the bottle city of Kandor, Krypton’s capital city in a bottle which was shrunk down by Brainiac and placed in a bottle on his ship before the planet exploded.  I thought it was a somewhat laughable concept in the comic books, but it is treated respectably in the movie.  At times, it even becomes a metaphor for how Superman treats Lois and Supergirl, keeping both of them in figurative “bottles” of his protection, even though they repeatedly prove they are capable of fending for themselves.  I thought this was an unorthodox parallel to draw; it didn’t actually come to me until after I heard the filmmakers talking about it on the movie’s audio commentary.  Once I started thinking about Lois and Supergirl’s situations in this way, though, I was glad they made the extra effort to utilize Kandor in a way beyond just being a weird sci-fi prop.  Incidentally, considering all of the “bottled up” stuff in this movie, I think it could have been called Superman Uncorked or UnbottledUnbound just sounds too generic to me.

Superman Unbound tells a fine tale of classically defined super-heroics and doesn’t overstay its welcome.  If you can’t make it out to the theaters to see Man of Steel or any other movies this summer, I’d highly recommend giving this one a try.  You can find Unbound on DVD and Blu-Ray for a pretty inexpensive price; I went for the Blu-Ray/DVD combo pack for the ability to watch the movie two different ways. Both formats offer extra features including mini-documentaries on the history of Brainiac and Kandor which I feel are worth a look if you’re curious about seeing how those evolved through comics and TV appearances leading up to the Unbound movie.

Between this post and the Iron Man entry, I’ve definitely got superheroes on the brain!  Do you have any favorite superheroes?  Why do you like them?  Would you be interested in seeing them take part in new adventures?  Leave your super-thoughts in the comments below.  Up, up, and away!

Iron Man 3: Reflections on Robert and Tony

Monday, May 6th, 2013
"Yes, I am Iron Man. I am also IN FRONT OF Iron Man. Think about that now, huh?"

Robert Downey Jr. promoting the first “Iron Man” film in 2008. He subsequently suited up and flew away from the red carpet, screaming out the “Money” theme from “The Apprentice” as he flew away.

The title of the movie may have been Iron Man 3, but I came away from it feeling that it could have also been titled Tony Stark: The Movie.  I went with my parents to see the newest comic book movie blockbuster last Friday and was naturally blown away by the special effects, but more than anything else, I was fascinated by the evolution throughout the film of Robert Downey Jr.’s character, Tony Stark, as he reevaluated what he had done with his life.  I don’t usually see this kind of exploration in superhero movies, or in most movies I like to watch, but here it was truly something special.  I am not going to spoil anything too deep about the movie’s plot for those of you who haven’t seen it yet.  I just wanted to talk about an aspect of the movie I thought was worth bringing up if you want to go see it and one which I felt was simply outstanding when I reflected on it afterward.

Robert Downey Jr.’s fifth go-around as Tony Stark (fifth if, in addition to the Iron Man series, you count his cameo appearance in The Incredible Hulk and his co-starring role in Avengers) is once again a masterful performance which is stronger than just about any other performance in a superhero movie I’ve ever seen.  Robert and Tony have both been on the comeback trail for quite a while, and this film, in my view, represents both of their finest hours to date.  Robert’s performance has taken on an extra dimension; his character is no longer completely self-assured, but there’s still enough of his trademark confidence and swagger left over that it is still fascinating to me to see him in action.  Robert looks more comfortable in Tony’s shoes than he has ever been.  Tony says several times during the movie that it is virtually impossible to separate Tony Stark from the Iron Man identity; in the same light, I believe that it is clear that Robert and Tony are by now largely one and the same person.  I can’t really keep them separate in my mind.

I was glad to see a little teaser after the credits stating that Tony Stark (and Robert in the same role, I hope) will appear in future Marvel movies.  I think this is a great move considering that, in the comics, in addition to his association with Iron Man, Tony is just as well known for creating all sorts of fantastic high-tech stuff, particularly for SHIELD, the Avengers, and other big peacekeeping organizations.  I would like to see this role extend into the next set of Marvel movies, with Robert becoming across as a character between Howard Hughes and Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown from the Back to the Future movies.  He could be an eccentric inventor who gets on everyone’s nerves a little bit but makes up for it with cool and practical technology.  This kind of role could keep Robert busy for years in a position similar to Dame Judy Dench as M in the James Bond movies.  In my opinion though, Tony Stark seems a lot more fun to hang out with than Dench’s M; what do you think?

To me, Iron Man 3 was more about Tony Stark than it was about Iron Man.  Tony was the one who had to solve the most problems and he did so admirably.  Sure, Iron Man’s battles were fun to look at and very impressive on screen, but I was more interested in Tony’s personal story.  I’d like to see where both Robert and Tony go from here; it should be an engaging ride.

I highly recommend you go to see Iron Man 3 in the theaters.  It’s a big, action-packed, hilarious romp and one of the best “feel good” movies I’ve seen since Christmas.  It is an excellent end to an endlessly entertaining superhero movie saga, and I am interested in seeing if anyone can top it.  If you go to see the film, be sure to come back here and leave your thoughts about it in the comments.  I felt very happy and satisfied after seeing this film, and I hope you will, too.