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2017-09-21 11:45 am

Marvel’s The Defenders (Netflix, Season 1)

“Tell me again how you punched a dragon to get your magic hand.”

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Overall: I kinda wish they could have cut the drama and upped the snark in a couple of places; and this was an interim piece the same way Age of Ultron and Civil War were, even if it was a better-organized one. It's fun and doesn't feel stretched the way the other series do, but it also lacks some of the pathos because we can't concentrate on any one part.
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2017-09-17 09:22 pm

Lego Star Wars: The Force Awakens (PS3)

Star Wars! / yah-dah-dah Star Wars! / yah-dah-dah Star Wars! / Yah-da-da-DAH

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Overall: This follows the same formula as the other Lego games. We beat it in about 10 hours and didn’t feel much need to go back and find all the secrets; we just don’t have that kind of time at this point in our lives. Perhaps in a few more years, ARR will be able to join us for these games.
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2017-09-17 03:09 pm

Grandia 2 (PS2)

A mercenary (“geohound”) named Ryudo is hired to accompany Elena, a songstress of Granas, in sealing the remains of the evil god Valmar. Unfortunately, the sealing does not go according to plan, and they both end up on a quest to find the other pieces of Valmar before he revives are destroys the world.

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Overall: There's plenty here. The systems are complex but understandable, the plot is decent and the dialogue is nicely done. The PS1-era graphic system drove me nuts. On the whole, I don't think it's much that I couldn't get from a KEMCO game--and the latter is portable and costs a buck. I apparently should have played this ten years ago rather than letting it sit on my shelf. Despite some decent concepts, it hasn't aged well.
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2017-09-15 11:08 pm

The Magicians (TV Series, Season 1)

Harry Potter starring depressed millennial grad students instead of children. And boy oh boy, it’s another adventure in terrible life choices. Every character is like Barry Allen.

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Overall: If you like “superpowered characters making extremely poor life choices” as a genre, this is one of the purest examples I think I’ve seen.
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2017-09-13 12:49 pm

Steven Universe (TV Series, Seasons 3 and 4)

The main plotline about the Cluster from season 2 is wrapped up, then we have a season where Jasper is the real concern; then we get much more into a saga with the Diamonds, rulers of the Homeworld Gems.

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Overall: It irks me that Season 4 ends on a cliffhanger, but I think I'm going to wait until Season 5 finishes airing before I hunt down and watch that. This series has turned into something made for marathoning.
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2017-09-09 07:01 pm

Marvel’s Luke Cage (Netflix, Season 1)

Following the events of Jessica Jones, Luke has recovered and is working as a janitor and dishwasher up in Harlem. At a nightclub owned by criminal mastermind Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes, who is connected to several sinister forces from Luke’s past.

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Overall: I’m not interested in Daredevil or Iron Fist, but I did want to watch The Defenders, and I wanted to watch this first to keep late-arrival spoilers to a minimum. I enjoyed it more than I expected to.
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2017-09-04 10:44 am

Book Capsule Reviews (Mostly read while on vacation)

Scrappy Little Nobody by Anna Kendrick - I kinda wish I could have dinner with Anna Kendrick, but like, random pizza at a mutual friend's house low-stakes dinner. Because she seriously seems like such a fun person. And I realize that she's got an editor and was being diplomatic, but it's impressive she can be so grateful to the Twilight series for paying her rent while she got the rest of her career of the ground. And what she says about Stewart and Pattinson cements my theory that they were a great cast of people who were trapped in hell together. Though I think my favorite of her stories was about attending an awards show stoned off her face. I really enjoyed this book; it was a fast, enjoyable read and really funny.

I Did NOT Give That Spider Superhuman Intelligence! by Richard Roberts - A side-story to the Supervillian series, my initial impulse was that I didn't like the mostly-immortal Team Tiny as much as our usual middle-school protagonists; and that didn’t change much. Honestly, Irene isn't a terribly likeable character. She's taken it upon herself to be shallow and immature in her advanced age, and it's irritating. The story overall is uneven, and the ending is a bit of a whimper, as we don't even get to see the big fight between the truce-enforcers and the killers, not to mention the actual takedown of the Bad Doctor. And a bunch of bits either don't make sense or you have no idea why they're important unless you're up to date on the rest of the Supervillian series. I thought this was the weakest of this author's books that I've read.

How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now by James L. Kugel - Fascinating and blasphemous deep-dive into how the Hebrew bible has been interpreted, how we currently think it was constructed, and how much historical validity we can trace to the events therein. This is a very long and very dense book, and about a third of it is footnotes. (It probably could have used another editing pass--there are a bunch of repetitive bits in different chapters, and the “ancient interpretation / modern interpretation” formula breaks down in places, and the Kindle version screws up a number of the footnotes.) I was familiar with a bunch of the concepts, like the documentary hypothesis (JEPD etc. as different authors) but this gets into significant details of the history of that theory and its evolution. Also, I didn't realize how many of the Genesis characters directly related to later historical nations and people. (Cain and the Kennites was the one that really caught me off guard. But also the sons of Israel's tribulations and their relation to the historical fortunes of the corresponding tribes.) There’s a lot of material here—it does cover the entire Hebrew bible, after all—but if this author did a corresponding book on the Christian bible, I’d totally read that too.
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2017-09-01 07:24 pm

2017 European River Cruise

We took a Viking (brand name, not actual Vikings) river cruise down the Rhine, starting in the Netherlands and ending in Switzerland, though the only part of Switzerland we saw was the airport in the wee hours of the morning. We did have a lot of lovely excursions before that, though. I had already written up much of the blow-by-blow in emails to my parents, so I only need to slightly clean them up for posterity:

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Overall

I found this all very restful and relaxing--there's a lot to be said for having no real responsibility for a period of time. (And I've eaten a ton of cheese and sausage and my insides haven't punished me for it, which likely says a lot about the impact of stress.)

We were definitely the youngest guests on the ship. I wasn't expecting us to be the youngest people on our ship, but I was expecting it to skew older, and that's been okay. I've always been good at impressing people's parents.

We’d totally take another Viking cruise and recommend them.
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2017-08-23 09:44 am

You Know What Else is Dangerous? BundleStars – Part Thirty-One: Mega Pick 'n Mix Bundle 3

Slash or Die - The name is misleading, implying that some amount of slashing would, in fact, prevent your death. It will not. You will die, many many times, regardless of your ability to slash. Fortunately, your experience and gathered souls remain every time you die, and you can use them to upgrade your hero so as to hopefully survive longer next time in this mouse-driven slash-em-up. Repetitive, but moderately fun.

Fenix Rage - A puzzle platformer game with some Sonic inspiration. Jump/dash/go fast to collect cookies and avoid enemies in small, self-contained puzzle levels. I was underwhelmed, as there's certainly a puzzle element (which way you go, how you dash, etc), this is mostly dependent on your twitch reflexes, which I don't really have.

HassleHeart - A pixelated arcade-style game in which you play a rapidly-discharging robot. You need to lure various sorts of humans with power-ups that attract them (drugs for junkies, sushi for soccer moms, cash for bankers) and then punch them and steal their hearts to use for power. It’s cute, but very one-note.

EvilMorph - Balls-hard puzzle platformer with the gimmick that you turn into enemies you kill (in each stage), gaining their powers. To give you a good sense of the difficulty, I'll note this gives you achievements for dying a lot. It's strangely more fun than it warrants, but I did eventually get tired of pixel-perfect blind jumps and “gotcha” traps.

Obulis - An interesting take on the falling-marble puzzle game: The marbles are suspended by chains that you need to cut, in the right order and with the right timing, to get them to fall or bounce into the correctly-colored holes. I didn't find it particularly entertaining because the timing matters so much; even early on, being able to see a solution didn't necessarily mean you could implement it without half a dozen tries, and that's frustrating.

About Love, Hate and the other ones - A puzzle-platformer starring Love (a blob who can attract things) and Hate (who can repel them). Similar to Obulis, I give them credit for coming up with a new twist on a standard puzzle setup, but my brain didn't really click into it and I lost interest quickly.

Crazy Pixel Streaker - I guess this is a “dodge-em-up”? You're a streaker at a soccer game, and you need to attract fans to join you and fight off the players and security guards trying to stop you. From there it's pretty much a standard arena-fighter, of the variety you often see with hoards of zombies. Funny concept, not much game behind it.

VolChaos - A fun little puzzle-platformer without a lot of bells and whistles: You play an explorer who lost everything important to him in favor of just grabbing gems and outrunning lava. And you spend the game doing exactly that. Each level is timed and everything (especially the rising lava) is trying to kill you. Not much beyond that, but good for what it is.

Button Tales - A match-3 game with the twist that you can “flip” the buttons over to reveal other buttons, and those flips don't count as moves but can still make matches. You have limited moves otherwise, and there are an assortment of limited-use power-ups that you receive over time; and there are the usual assortment of goals that change for each level. And a framing story about rebuilding the button kingdom, but whatever, that part's forgettable. This requires a bit more patience than some other match-3 games (you really need to take the time to flip if you want to get anywhere in the later levels), but it's fun. I may play more of it over time.

Moorhuhn: Tiger and Chicken was also in the bundle, but I couldn’t get it to run without crashing.

Overall: This ended up being a decent collection of “that was fun for half an hour, now I’m done” sort of small indie games. Nothing I'd strongly recommend unless you're really into that genre/style, but entertaining for the price.
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2017-08-22 09:15 pm

You Know What Else is Dangerous? BundleStars – Part Thirty: Mystic Reboot Bundle

Mad Bullets - This was the standout of the bundle: An arcade-style Old Western shooter to be played with your mouse. Procedurally-generated segmented areas so playthroughs aren’t always the same. Plenty of sub-missions to undertake. Doesn’t take itself seriously. Only mildly racist (as per the genre). Quite a lot of fun, really.

Elliot Quest - A clearly NES-inspired Metroidvania, featuring elements of Zelda 2, Metroid, Kid Icarus and Castlevania 2. It's got a world map that separates the action areas, a town, alternate endings depending on your actions, lots of good stuff. Unfortunately, it also has NES-level difficulty, and without a game genie, that's too much for me to deal with. (You have infinite lives, but lose XP every time you die. And dying is very easy, especially as you get past the first dungeon or two. So, yeah.)

Year Walk - There’s a fine line between, “mysterious and atmospheric” and “nonsensical and obtuse” and this is well into the latter. It’s an exploration game based on the Swedish myth of going on a “year walk” to try to divine the future. And there are puzzles that you can find and, if you thought Myst was easy, you might even be able to solve them.

Earth Overclocked - A ¾-view action/roguelike in which you have a limited time to gather the pieces of your time machine from “Distorted Earth”, where everything is trying to kill you. After it killed me—very quickly—several times, I decided to leave the world as it was.

Zombie Vikings - A delightfully tongue-in-cheek side-scrolling beat-em-up starring (you guessed it) zombie vikings, sent to retrieve Odin’s eye which was stolen by Loki. I thought it was okay, but I suspect the co-op multiplayer is the real meat of the game and I don’t have much interest in that.

This bundle also included Bloodsports.TV, Rack N Ruin, GemCraft - Chasing Shadows, which I already had from other bundles.

Overall: I got my money’s worth from Mad Bullets, and the others were fun to try, being reasonable guesses at things I might like that mostly just missed the mark.
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2017-08-21 09:49 am

Book Capsule Reviews

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi - Scalzi's first novel, which apparently has been republished over and over as his other work continues to be popular. It's not quite as brilliant as some of his other work, but there are a lot of clever ideas. Some parts are trite or absurdly glossed-over, but they’re often different from the usual ones, so that’s nice. It's fun, it's funny, it's a fast read.

Skipping Towards Gomorrah by Dan Savage - Part travelogue, part informational, large part fuck-you to various hypocritical conservative pundits; the rough theme of this is Dan Savage looking at the seven deadly sins and writing a chapter of the current state of each in America. Really, it's a series of articles about things that interested him; interspersed with explaining exactly why Bennett, Bork, GW Bush, etc are sexist, homophobic and hypocritical assholes; and held together with a rough framework that's mostly an excuse. It feels dated to me, and I suspect it would be really weird for someone who wasn’t conscious of politics circa 2002. I thought The Kid was a much stronger book.

The Witch's Vacuum Cleaner and Other Stories by Terry Pratchett - A collection of Pratchett's earlier works (from when he was a teenager), intended for young readers. The description that kept coming into my head was, “Pratchett writing Just-So Stories,” though that's more about the tone than the content. They're cute, but fairly shallow and the best bits are the footnotes he clearly inserted later. I think this is only for the completist fan.

My Drunk Kitchen: A Guide to Eating, Drinking, and Going with Your Gut by Hannah Hart - Hart is a Youtube star who I've follow on Tumblr for years; I enjoy her humor (generally off-the-cuff drunken wackiness) in measured doses. That said, the book is less a book and more a thrown-together series of long-form rants with a vague food theme. Each segment tries to vaguely drive towards a bit of positivity or a life lesson of some sort, but the progress towards it is scattershot at best. Sometimes there are puns; sometimes there is inexplicable hatred of vegetables. At basically no point is heat applied to food. This is entertaining, but leaves no lasting impressions.
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2017-08-15 11:11 am

Random Life Notes

- We had planned to try to go to Central Park for the They Might Be Giants concert on Saturday, but the weather report said it was going to storm, so we took ARR to Liberty Science Center instead. He had a fine time, but it neverdid actually rain, which was annoying. Ah, well, there will be other concerts.

- As Jethrien noted, we watched Moana with ARR on Saturday, to mixed success. I thought the movie was a lot of fun, on par with a lot of recent Disney fare. And I also loved the really stupid chicken.

- On Sunday night, we tried the pop-up Lutze Biergarten, which is really a collection of tables and food carts. The “frosé” (a frozen wine slushee) was fun, though hit me more than I expected. The food in general was decent, and I was crazy enough to try a bacon-wrapped sausage covered in bacon mac and cheese, which my GI system informed me several hours later was a terrible idea. Tasty, though. (ARR enjoyed the soft pretzels and peel and eat shrimp.)

- I watched the first episode (really a two-parter) of the new Ducktales series, as it's free-to-watch on Youtube. It was absolutely delightful. The characterization is stronger, the voices are less annoying, and the humor is faster-paced than the original.

- ARR has multiple cavities, which is frustrating because we've been anal about the tooth-brushing and there was no indication of this six months ago. So now we have floss picks and fluoride chewables and multiple trips to the dentist to get the cavities filled. The dentist also wants his soy milk consumption reduced (in favor of more water), so we're trying that only at breakfast for now. (I bought ARR several new rescue bot toys as incentive to get through the dental work—each two cavities he successfully gets through, he gets a new bot.)

- I've seen a bunch of doctors lately, trying to address why I seem to be increasingly tired and unmotivated over the past few months. Granted, some of it is clearly stress and depression, likely brought on by reading the news. But apparently I also have low testosterone. It's not low enough that my doctor wants to put me on hormone therapy for it (apparently the side effects can be rather unpleasant), but I've been advised to exercise more and try various over-the-counter supplements and see if that helps. I'm also going to try the Breathe-Right strips just on the odd chance that helps me sleep better. Yay, pharmacology.
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2017-08-14 02:02 pm

Netflix Low-Budget Sci-Fi Movies

Time Lapse – Three friends discover a camera that shows their future, one day at a time. I'll admit that one of the draws here was Danielle Panabaker (who plays Caitlin on The Flash), who does a nice job with what could have been a one-note character. Does this fall into some horror film tropes and occasionally run on stupidity? Yes, but it's also on a small enough scale and featuring characters who aren't supposed to be geniuses (they don't invent anything; they just happen upon it and spend most of the movie running on guesses), which makes it work reasonably well. And the twist is telegraphed just enough to feel earned.

Paradox – A guy sent forward one hour returns warning that everybody's dead in the future. The thing is, this could have been a much better movie, working from this premise. It's clearly an exploration of the predestination paradox, where knowing about the future and attempting to stop it is what makes it come to pass. But in practice, they needed the crunch of the killer in a gas mask to actually make it all work; and a better movie could have avoided that. There's a clearly-telegraphed bit where, early on, somebody's head appears in the time machine, and it was mentioned that you need to keep your arms close when you time-travel because things outside the machine's field don't travel. Okay, duh, he's decapitated by the machine. But while this would have worked better as an accident of panic and fear, instead they just have the killer wrestle him onto the machine. Between time travel (within a one-hour window), building paranoia, and lack of information, you can totally end up with a room full of corpses. And a proper exploration of hubris and predestination, rather than an attempt that turns into a standard slasher flick.

Listening – Two guys create machine telepathy. It ruins their lives and then the government gets involved. I feel like this movie's big problem was one of scale: Part of that is, two-thirds of the way through, it changes the entire premise from “small-scale garage work” to “running a government black site,” which feels like they ran out of one movie so they grafted on half of a different one. The other part is constantly offering the threat of implanting commands the the government's “real” goal. There's plenty of danger in just “listening” that the movie displays perfectly well! The thought police don't need write access to be terrible; and to imply that it “isn't bad enough” to require action is doing your entire premise a disservice. (Also, they clearly had no idea what to do with their female characters, as Jordan seems to change motivations in every scene and Melanie is a one-note harpy.)

Synchronicity - A scientist opens a wormhole to the future, but complications arise when he tries to open the other end, and a mysterious woman walks into his life. This would work out better if the people involved acted like humans, rather than set-pieces who do whatever the plot require of them at the moment. Jim and Abby have no chemistry and Abby's motivations (even after the reveal that Jim-2 has been interacting with her) indicate that the writer doesn't really understand women or romance. There's no good explanation for how Abby's journal reflects Jim's life as closely as it does (even if she's been following his work up to that point) and the twist that he's in an alternate dimension rather than being screwed by a predestination paradox...doesn't really work. Really, this tries too hard to be clever and instead just manages “disjointed.” And someone should point out to the filmmakers that there are colors other than blue that appear on camera.
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2017-08-10 10:45 am

Crockpot Experiments

I had a bit of a rough week last week*, so I bought myself a cheap slow cooker. I've never had one before, though I've done a bunch of the higher-heat recipes in my cast iron dutch oven. B's mom was talking up making stock in one, and that idea intrigued me.

So, the first thing I tried was putting the carcasses of two roasted chickens in on low overnight (~10 hours). The result was a very rich broth that wasn't terribly complex. I think it worked as proof of concept, but next time I need to throw a few carrots, celery stalks and onions in with the chicken.

I tried a slow-cooker bread with a very standard part-wheat recipe. It cooked (on parchment paper, which made life easy) for about 3 hours on high, after doing the first rise by hand. The result was a dense, soft bread with very little real crust. I'm glad I tried it, but it's more work for no quality improvement versus just using the bread machine. (As opposed to versus baking in the cast iron, which produces a much better boule.)

Yesterday, I put in a pot roast at 6:30am before I left for work—london broil, red wine, beef stock, tomato paste, bay leaves, thyme, carrots, onions, celery and garlic. It cooked on low for 12 hours and the meat was totally falling apart at the end of it. The sauce didn't reduce at all in that time, though, as I'm used to it doing when I make this recipe in other ways. It's convenient for a weeknight, but for a showstopper dinner I need to use the cast iron so I can sear the meat, brown the veggies, and reduce the sauce.

I definitely want to try pulled pork, I'm tempted to try a chili, and the idea of slow-cooker cake has been brought to my attention. I have yet to hit on anything that I would argue was better than my existing method, but I think there's a convenience factor to be gained, here.

* I had fights with my mother and sister; several longtime coworkers who I rather liked got fired very abruptly; we were briefly afraid ARR had a UTI (he didn't, phew); I have cavities that need filling; and there's another surprise insane step in the continue saga of my house's elevation certificate.
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2017-08-10 09:14 am

Voltron: Legendary Defender (Netflix, Season 3)

After the team defeated Zarkon, Shiro vanished. Now, they need to find a new paladin to pilot the black lion so that Voltron can continue to defend the galaxy from the threat of the Golra.

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Overall: This was only a 7-episode half-season and I marathoned it in two days. But the series as a whole continues to delight.
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2017-08-08 09:25 am

Sense8 (Netflix, Season 2)

We continue to explore the psychic connection of eight people from around the globe, as they're hunted by the agents of BPO and the evil Whispers and also deal with their personal problems.

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Overall: Though this series has its flaws, I think it's had some really cool ideas and some fun moments, too. I suspect it's for the best that they're wrapping it up, because I suspect a lot of the gimmicks are already getting a little old. But I'm excited for the finale movie.
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2017-08-07 01:59 pm

Steven Universe (TV Series, Season 2)

Steven and the gems recover from the fallout of the homeworld gem attack at the end of the first season and go on with their lives. Some new supporting cast members appear and old ones get fleshed out more. There's an absurd and inexplicable crossover with Uncle Grandpa. Good times are had by all?

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Overall: I think this show has improved as the continuity has gotten stronger, but it also creates a lockout for new viewers who wouldn't want to start from the beginning. I suppose I'll see what season 3 is like.
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2017-08-05 03:28 pm

You Know What Else is Dangerous? BundleStars – Part Twenty-Nine: CATastrophe Bundle

Shooting Stars! - This is a goofy shoot-em-up in which you ride a hoverboard and fire lasers at various celebrities and use memes for powerups; I played (and loved) the Android version of this and totally recommend it.

Nyan Cat: Lost In Space - A delightful 2D platformer runner game featuring a decade-old meme. I suspect most people would find it annoying, as it’s repetitive as hell. I rather enjoyed it.

Fort Meow - Build a furniture fort to repel flying cats so you can read in piece. It’s somewhere between a puzzle game and a pseudo-tower defense game, as you try to arrange piles of chairs and mattresses in the right order so that the cats get deflected, rather than landing in your lap.

The Purring Quest - Short, purrfectly respectable platformer with a story that's trying to be Up, except you play the broken-hearted old man’s cat. It’s fine, nothing special.

MouseCraft - A Lemmings-like puzzle game in which Dr. Schrodinger (the alien cat) must get mice to cheese by rearranging blocks. Credit for a solid tutorial, but it didn’t win me for long.

Pix the Cat - An arcade-style action/puzzle game that plays like a combination of Pac-Man and Snakes. You need to collect eggs, which become ducklings, which you much then deposit into nests, without running into ghosts or your tail. (I also had to manually copy DLL files from other games to get it to run. Oy, Windows.)

Beyond Eyes - An “artistic” exploration game in which a blind girl goes searching for her lost cat. It's absolutely beautiful—the watercolor world draws itself as you get close enough to hear or feel it, and reacts to the girl's fears with environmental effects. That said, the entire game is just slowly walking around trying to figure out where to go, and the scenery gets awfully repetitive very quickly. I'd love to see the “drawing the map on whitespace” graphical effect in a game that's more of a game.

Hot Tin Roof: The Cat That Wore A Fedora - An action/Puzzle/detective story starring a “Blockian” detective and a sarcastic cat. Very “satirical noir.” Cute concept, clearly a lot of work went into it, but it didn't interest me.

Samudai - A co-op 2D arena fighter played as cat-samurai. Meh?

Cat on a Diet was also in this bundle, but it would not run and I wasn’t interested enough to fight with it.

Overall: There’s a lot of “there’s nothing super-special here, but they’re perfectly fine examples of their genres that happen to revolve around cats.”
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2017-08-03 07:30 am

Android Games Reviews: KEMCO Holiday Sale #6 - Destiny Fantasia

You're a humble lad living in a humble village with your grandmother. There's a mysterious shrine in the caves behind the village, but nobody cares much about that. Then, after you go to the big city to find work, your home village is destroyed by a warmongering empire, and emissaries of a strange cult spirit you away and reveal what the shrine already knew: You're the heir to an ancient power that might save the world.

Read more... )

Overall: A perfectly respectable 10-hour jrpg. The story is fun once you get past the terrible translation and the difficulty level is generally just right. Upper-tier KEMCO game.
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2017-07-30 07:27 pm

Century Eggs

We checked out the new 99 Ranch Asian grocery store that replaced the Pathmark near our old apartment, and among other things (so many different types of dumplings and noodles and I am super-excited), they had preserved duck eggs, also known as "century eggs". I had never had these before, though I'd heard about them and that they were an acquired taste. But I never back down from weird food.

...Yeah, I have not acquired this taste. You know, when you have leftover roast turkey in a tupperware and the juice kinda turns into a jelly in the fridge? That's what the white of the egg looked and tasted like. Turkey jelly. The yolk, on the other hand, was blackish-green and while the texture was very much that of a soft-boiled egg, the taste was "egg with sulfury, smoky and vaguely meaty overtones." Which was very much not the taste I expect from soft egg-textured things, and the color didn't help.

Short summary: I'd eat them if I had to, but I'm not buying them again.