One Piece : Romance Dawn

I debated putting up a review for this, but our scope for reviews is labeled as book and media, and well, I needed to tell someone about how disappointed I am. Because I’m needy like that.

For those of you (likely quite a few of you) unfamiliar with what a ‘One Piece’ is, it’s an anime. In this case, it’s the latest installment in the relatively successful gaming franchise springing from that anime.

While I’ve drifted away from that particular interest since I was younger, I still enjoy a few shows and a whole lot of games. I’m just not a big fan of slapstick comedy, which a lot of stories engage in.

Anyway–

Let’s talk about Romance Dawn.

When I read the back of the package, I was excited. One of the labels boasted, “Experience the first One Piece RPG! Level-up your crew, improve their abilities, and craft new items and accessories!” It sounded like a pretty well-rounded game with lots of things to do.

The box is lying. 

Sure, those features are in the game. They’re just mind numbingly flat. I was tired of the crafting system in less than ten minutes. About every level or so, you get a blueprint to make one thing, you make it, whoo.

You spend points to level abilities. Behold, Zoro stabs people in a slightly modified pattern of sword swings. Is it not glorious? Are you not impressed? (Guh.)

But perhaps the most obnoxious feature is the way they guide you through the storyline. For people who’ve watched One Piece, the story is a bizarrely vague outline with no context. Most of the details that would accompany a half-decent narration are gone, and while there are a few cutscenes from the anime, they’re few and far between. This leaves the player to watch icons of the characters banter in dialogue that is often disembodied, causing yet more confusion. You may find gems to the effect of a sourceless,

“Hiya!”

“What did you kick me for?!”

Who? What? Where? What’s going on???

The gameplay is also incredibly linear. In this respect, it’s a lot like the straight line dungeons in Final Fantasy XIII, without any of the graphics, events, or interaction to keep it interesting. There’s no world exploring. Just dungeon map after dungeon map. No NPCs, just mindless button-pushing.

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That’s it. That’s the game.

I’m very, very close to giving up on this game entirely, because I got to the Baratie stage, and the developers saw fit to give players the gift of a ridiculously overpowered fourth boss. Everything else in this game has been a cakewalk. You go in with your party, you beat some mook down, profit.

Then they throw you at Krieg with one player and laugh while you die horribly. I did an internet search to see if I was doing something wrong. All suggested ‘strategies’ involve running for the hills and using a truly insane quantity of healing items, because while most battles in the game are turned based, Krieg ignores everything, poisons you, and then hits you over and over for a disgustingly excessive amount of damage before you can say, ‘bull’.

But really, there’s no reason for me to feel as frustrated as I am by this game, because there’s no point to it. After maybe fifteen minutes of gameplay, I felt like I was wasting my time performing some useless task. I’d rather play some village management game on my phone, it’s more rewarding and infinitely more interesting.

Also less repetitive attack yelling.

This game was such a major disappointment after all the other OP games I’ve played and enjoyed. The ones I’m still playing, because they haven’t gotten old.

1/…eh. I don’t even care.

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Lucy

All right, I’ve been having mixed feelings about writing this review, which is coincidentally exactly the same way I feel about the movie itself. I’m talking about Scarlett Johansson’s recent action(?) film, “Lucy”.

I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s action. There was a lot of gunfire and car pileups between loopy science and squicky stuff, so we’re going with action. Why not?

We begin with the titular character and her jerk boyfriend, and I use the term loosely. I don’t think they’ve been together that long, or else Lucy might have noticed that her boyfriend was doing some less-than-legal business in his silly cowboy hat.

Don’t worry. He doesn’t stick around long. (Guh.)

While the beginning of the movie accesses some very real adult fears (the film is about a woman who is kidnapped abroad and forced to become a drug mule), it seems to shove the audience into a spiral of science fiction-y confusion pretty quickly.

Don’t get me wrong.

I really enjoyed the first part of the movie.

The increased brain function Lucy receives through her misadventure is, at first, the source of some real insight into human feeling and a little bit of humor. I loved watching her break down and diagnose her roommate’s medical conditions with a helpful little fact sheet.

I enjoyed that first suggestion of an increased capability of interacting with the world.

…But then it got creepy.

Soon after achieving higher percentages of brain function, Lucy becomes superhuman in an eerie way, seemingly beyond human emotion. After that, it was pretty much an hour or so (?) of watching Johansson kick butt and break things in monotone.

And then we get to the dissolving and evolving weirdness, with a nice dash of the space time continuum and a handy dandy flash-drive. I was confused. I didn’t know if I enjoyed it.

I’m still not sure if I enjoyed it.

The ending felt like “2001: A Space Odyssey” crossed with the closing narration from X-Men United and American Beauty. It indicates that “Life was given to us a billion years ago. Now you know what to do with it.”

No, I don’t!

I don’t want to be kidnapped and have wacked-up pregnancy chemicals sewn into my stomach, I don’t want to rapidly lose touch with humanity. I don’t want to kill a bunch of people and go on an automotive rampage on the streets of France, and I definitely don’t want to do whatever it is she did at the end when she somehow became Hal.

 

WHAT AM I SUPPOSED TO LEARN FROM THIS, LUCY?

 

I’ll be honest here.

It was…entertaining to watch? It was something I didn’t mind spending the money to see, but I would only rewatch it to see the reaction of whoever I saw it with.

Scarlett Johansson did a great job with a frankly unsettling script, and for that I’ll give “Lucy” one extra point.

3/5

“The Testing” by Joelle Charbonneau

It’s easy to critique today’s education system, from the woefully underpaid teachers to the financial inaccessibility of higher learning. Not to mention the competitiveness behind scholarships, grants, and just getting into college (let’s not even start on the subject of loans…). But Joelle Charbonneau takes this idea of competition to the next level, painting a gruesome future in which your grades can make all the difference between a life of glory and a gory death. It’s a frightening thought that, to an extent, is all too real today: what if everything depended on how well you scored on your next test?

The Testing is one of many YA dystopian stories to come out in the last decade, and in some ways, it sticks to the formulaic plot-line of its predecessors: there is a “strong” (more on that in a second) female protagonist, Malencia “Cia” Vale, who is tasked with fighting a corrupt system that threatens the safety of her family and friends. She has a love interest with ambiguous moral coding… but he’s a fairly bland character whose main contribution to the story involves praising and supporting Cia. And of course, like with most YA dystopians, the backdrop to The Testing consists of poverty, starvation, and murder.

The aforementioned protagonist, Cia, is a smart, 16-year-old girl who has just graduated from school. Like many recent graduates, she has no idea what she wants to do with her life. Well, that’s not entirely true – she would love to attend University and become one of the leaders of society, like her father. But each year, only a select few students are invited to attend The Testing, where they compete for one of these prestigious higher education slots. No one from her colony has been chosen in ten years, so it comes as quite a surprise when Cia and three other students are whisked off to attend. None of them know what to expect, but her father warns her to prepare for the worst.

Quickly, Cia realizes the true depths of what it means to be a Testing candidate – if you get something wrong, the government is unforgiving. They have no room nor patience for anyone who doesn’t fit their idea of leadership, and those who fall short are dealt with through unconscionable means. Fortunately, Cia aces test after test, from written exams to more hands-on challenges. But many around her are not so fortunate, and Cia is forced to watch friend after friend mysteriously disappear, or die right before her eyes.

Cia’s reaction to the brutality around her is very muted, and her father’s one warning does not account for how well she contains her emotions, nor does it explain how easily she understands the design of The Testing and what is expected of her performance. Several times, she seems to survive simply due to a lucky guess, one that is erroneously attributed to her intelligence. And when her success is directly linked to her figuring out some psychological puzzle, Cia seems far too intelligent in comparison. But if you’re willing to suspend your disbelief concerning a government that murders hundreds of students each year, you might as well do the same for Cia and her off-the-charts-knowledge-of-everything. If you can do that, you’ll find that Cia is very likable. In fact, many of the characters have a charm to them that makes you root for their success.

Despite my criticism, The Testing is a pretty enjoyable read. I read the book in one sitting, then finished the sequel that same day – there’s enough suspense and fun characters to keep your interest, even if the story follows several tropes of other YA dystopians. The thing is, these tropes aren’t bad, just overdone. If you’ve liked them before, you’ll probably like them here.

I give The Testing 3 stars out of 5. I’m doubting it’s a score that would go over well in Cia’s society, but for me, it’s a passing grade – certainly not an A, but definitely worth a look.

“Howl’s Moving Castle” by Diana Wynne Jones

Sophie Hatter is a sensible girl, reasonably kind and not necessarily unattractive. The problem is that she had the poor fortune to be born the eldest of three daughters. All that awaits her beyond the doors of her family shop is failure and an awful lot of noise. She’s content to grow old this way, trimming hats by candlelight—until the Witch of the Waste decides to speed the process.

To break the curse, Sophie seeks the aid of Wizard Howl, a powerful man rumored to devour the hearts of lovely young girls. He turns out to be a powerful man indeed, if not necessarily the cold, monstrous creature of rumor.

All right—by now, a lot of people are probably quite familiar with the title—it was made into a beautiful film by Hayao Miyazaki and the talented staff over at Studio Ghibli. It also happens to be one of my absolute favorite pieces of animation, but enough of that.

I first found out about the novel because of the brief ‘based on’ byline citing the original work, and for years I wondered about it. Was the book any good? Did it explain the—admittedly numerous—things that the movie threw at viewers with absolutely no explanation?

The answer is a resounding yes.

Howl's Moving Castle by D TAILOR

Spoiler : It’s smaller on the inside.  (Photo credit: DrJohnBullas)

If you’re a fan of the Studio Ghibli adaptation, you need to read this book. The characters are just as (if not even more) lovable and far more well-rounded, the action is more detailed and fulfilling—in fact, the plot line of the book veers off very pointedly from the plot of the movie, resolving into a far richer experience and a deeper understanding of the universe’s development as a whole.

If you’re not a fan of the Studio Ghibli adaptation, guess what? You still need to read the book. I went in expecting a slightly more detailed account of what was going on with all of the falling stars and paper doll people that popped in and out of nowhere for absolutely no reason, and I was not disappointed. The book took my expectations for a brief foray into a flower shop and gave me a cotton candy fairy world of explanations and a whole mess of new plot and wonderfulness that even now makes me want to pop but I can’t because I have to write this review IT IS THAT AMAZING.

            To begin, Sophie is a brilliant heroine. Though initially resigned to her lot in life, she is not in any way a weak character. Once challenged by the witch, she exhibits her first spark of self-confidence, which propels her through the rest of the novel. Transformed into an old woman and no longer sensitive about, well, anything but her aching bones, she becomes a force of nature.

During her stay at the castle, her relationship with each resident allows her to build that confidence and use her innate charisma and kindness to bolster their interactions. She is clever and takes absolutely no nonsense, quickly forcing her way into a ragtag family that is instantly better for her inclusion. Sophie’s relationship with Howl, also, expands and gains new life. There is inter-dimensional travel, jealousy, and housecleaning most foul in a sort of domestic circus that leaves you with a smile on your face and laughter ringing in your ears.

I was enamored with the development between them in the book–of watching Sophie observe and understand Howl and, as a result, him beginning to understand himself. I won’t spoil it for you–but the final result of all of their back and forth in the book culminates in a much more understandable relationship for all parties involved. And no schizophrenic hair morphing just for giggles.

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If teenage girls could dye their hair as much as the characters in this adaptation…

The castle’s residents, too, receive far more development in the book, rather than their prescribed ‘sidekick’ roles from the film.

I fell in love with the characters, thanks to this book.

The Witch of the Waste receives far more depth and intrigue, taking a much deeper and darker turn than the one displayed in the film—as well as a decidedly better motivation. It was as if everything suddenly became much better rounded!

On that note, I wanted to point out that the supporting characters—Lettie, Fanny, Sophie’s stepmother whose name escapes me but whom I would readily look up if I knew where exactly my copy was—they are all such wonderful, well-used characters. I wouldn’t want to spoil it, but it becomes very obvious to the reader that Hatter women—no matter their age or order of birth—are simply not a lot to be messed with.

This book, beyond being an amazing and engaging fairytale perfect for any age, comes equipped with the best rolemodels ever, more sass and magic than you can shake a walking stick at, and a fire demon! What’s not to love?!

You may well disagree, but for me, curling up on the bed with my copy was an experience that reminded me of when I first became really involved with reading. I loved every word, every new twist and turn, and every twitch of Sophie’s bony fingers.

This is one book that needs to be read by every person who has ever carried a fairytale in their heart, by each and every one who’s ever wondered what it means to learn, with a little bit of magic, what it means to be unapologetically true to oneself.

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And yes, this still happens.

Final Rating : 5, a very nicely trimmed 5.

If thou be’st born to strange sights,
Things invisible to see,
Ride ten thousand days and nights,
Till age snow white hairs on thee,
Thou, when thou return’st, wilt tell me,
All strange wonders that befell thee,
And swear,
No where,
Lives a woman true, and fair.

–          John Donne

“Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

“Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.” —Anorak’s Almanac, Chapter 91, Verses 1–2

In our age of technology, communication and relationships are being redefined by MMORPGs, social networking sites, and online dating. After spending dozens of hours plugged into a computer, it can be difficult to distinguish these virtual realms from reality. But in Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, this blurring of “real” and “kind of real” takes on a whole new level, asking what is worth living, loving, and dying for, and what it means to embrace a virtual life as your real life.

Ready Player One centers on Wade Watts, an 18-year-old “gunter” who lives with his aunt in a “stack” of mobile homes. He spends most of his time online in a virtual game called the OASIS, where people can participate in almost anything: school, church, even recreations of iconic tv shows. The deceased creator of the OASIS, James Halliday, left behind his enormous fortune in the form of a hidden Easter egg. Wade, along with other gunters, scours the online world for this prize, needing to attain three keys and open three gates before his avatar, Parzival, will be deemed worthy enough to win it.

It has been years since the competition started, and no one has even come close to solving the first clue. But Wade’s extensive knowledge of Halliday proves invaluable when he figures out its meaning; a race ensues between him and his fellow gunters, including his best friend Aech, and his romantic interest Art3mis. But the situation nosedives when a vicious group known as the Sixers catches wind of Wade’s accomplishment; if they find the egg, the OASIS will be destroyed. And Wade cannot allow that to happen.

Ready Player One is full of esoteric references that might go over your head, but they certainly won’t distract from the story. If you’re a fan of ’80s culture, you’ll get a gracious helping of tv show, video game, and music throwbacks. And even if you don’t like the ’80s, Wade and friends are sure to keep you entertained. I give this book 4.5 stars out of 5, and I encourage you to add it your shelves right away. It’s time to enter a world of excitement, danger, and bravery: Are you ready, Player One?

“Meeks” by Julia Holmes

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Meeks is sleeping in the park again, under the cruel statue that he was named for. Ben barely sleeps at all, with the looming threat of Autumn. (If he doesn’t become a Husband—he can’t even afford a Bachelor’s suit!) One Brother of Mercy wakes with a fistful of dynamite and a plan.

Julia Holmes’ Meeks is a book that will affect your sleep. The strange society she fabricates, dominated by the shadowy monolith of Captain Meeks—who was he? what did he do for us? what did he do to the Enemy?—is frighteningly simple to understand, but it will keep you up thinking.

The War is definitely over, and the government has turned its attacks in on its own population, but no one seems to have noticed. The young men still go off to War, where they patrol endlessly, without ever encountering the Enemy, and when they return they become Bachelors—seeking a fiancée during the Summer, so that they can marry in the Autumn and begin producing bouncing baby citizens in the spring. If they fail to mate, they’re relegated to the factories, where the lucky ones die of exhaustion instead of being crushed in a grinding of gears.

Like the entire situation, Holmes’ humor is absurd. It’s also vaguely Russian. Meeks reads like lighter Dostoevsky. Ben’s been compared by other critics to the Underground Man, but Holmes is taking a look at a character whose isolation is the result social constructs, not some intellectual quagmire. How should Ben communicate when his language is atrophied by dogma? (“The Captain said it, and so it would be!”) If he stammers and stops, perhaps it’s because he’s the only person really trying to say anything.

Meeks builds to a powerful climax on Independence Day—marking the beginning of Autumn and the end of a way of life. If Holmes falters anywhere in the book, it’s on the last two pages: there’s an ambiguous quality to the ending that seems unintentional. Regardless, Meeks finishes strong, with an ending that’s less inevitable than it may seem.

The Mad Room

If you think your family is dysfunctional, let Ellen Hardy offer some perspective: Did your brother and sister kill your parents? Were they sent to a mental institution over 10 years ago and recently released into your care? Have they started killing again?

The Mad Room, a 1969 remake of Ladies in Retirement, stars Stella Stevens as Ellen Hardy, fiancée to the wealthy Sam Adler and live-in secretary to Sam’s widowed step-mother, Mrs. Armstrong (played by Shelley Winters). Mrs. Armstrong, convinced that Ellen is out for Sam’s money, searches for any reason why the pair should not wed; two pretty-darn-good reasons appear in the form of Mandy and George, Ellen’s younger, murderous siblings.

Of course, Ellen makes no mention of their murderous past, instead telling Mrs. Armstrong that they lived with their uncle, now deceased. But her lie can only last so long, and shatters completely when Mandy requests a “mad room.”

What exactly is a mad room? It’s a place where George and Mandy can let off steam, a place where they can feel safe, calm, and confident… So what’s the mutilated body doing there?

Certainly, some belief needs to be suspended when watching The Mad Room – seriously, why did Ellen let her siblings move in with her??? – but if you can do that, you’re in for a treat. The movie was quirky, full of talented stars playing some surprisingly creepy characters. Not to mention the twist ending, the romantic side plots, and the dark humor that pervades every scene.

Is the twist expected? Yes, very. But does that take away from the viewing experience? Not at all! The Mad Room is twisted enough even without the ending, and you’d be mad not to give it a shot.