Wheeling Through the Galaxies — Styx’s “The Mission”

At long last, after 14 years, we finally have a new Styx album. As a longtime Styx fan (“Stygians,” is that what Styx fans are called?), this is a pretty exciting time for me, as it marks the first time in my life when I can get excited about a new Styx release, considering “Cyclorama” contained at best one good song (here’s looking at you, One with Everything). What’s more, “The Mission” is a concept album, and while this might be upsetting to former vocalist Dennis DeYoung, who’s prog proclivities put him at odds with his bandmates, “The Mission” is proof that Styx can still do what they did best in the late-70s — condense expansive, progressive concepts down into accessible, digestible chunks, and still make some damn fine records. While “The Mission” never reaches the emotional highs of “Paradise Theater,” the ingenuity of “Pieces of Eight,” or the pomp of “The Grand Illusion,” it’s a worthy entry to Styx’s 45-year catalog and a testament to the talents in this band, both old and new.

Like any concept album should, “The Mission” begins with a track called Overture, which, like everything else on the album, is short and to the point. Relative newcomer Lawrence Gowan (with “relative” meaning “very relative” — he’s been in the band since 1999) doing some great synth work and providing the only vocals on this track. However, as is often the case with this album, the spotlight is stolen by drummer Todd Sucherman, an absolute showman — he wouldn’t fit in in Styx were he not — who joined the band after the sad passing of their founding drummer John Panozzo in the ’90s. Overture swings right into Gone Gone Gone, a jaunty, ridiculously upbeat tune that served as the album’s first single. Guitarists Tommy Shaw and James “JY” Young keep the groove moving with the able assistance of Sucherman, and while Gowan has the primary vocal credit on this one, the real joy comes from the full vocal harmonies of the chorus, which are so reminiscent of early Styx it’s almost ridiculous. It’s hard not to think of Rock & Roll Feeling or You Need Love when listening to Shaw, JY, and Gowan in the chorus, though the fun ends nearly as soon as it starts. This ends up being a common thread through “The Mission.” While not necessarily a bad thing, half the songs clock in under 4 minutes, with only a few tracks fully realizing the great ideas put into them. It’s almost as though the band came up with some great hooks, but didn’t know how to expand upon them, and this is evident in both Overture and Gone Gone Gone, as well as several later tracks.

Next is Hundred Million Miles From Home, putting Tommy Shaw behind the microphone for a great turn on a tune that’s reminiscent of some of Shaw’s best slower songs from the ’70s like Lights and Crystal BallMiles is a pretty simple track, but it shows that even with Dennis DeYoung’s notable absence in the band, Tommy Shaw is as much an able lead singer as he was 40 years ago. A weird, talk-boxy guitar solo permeates the latter half of the song, but the catchy chorus and ever-present harmonies make Miles one of the best tracks on the album. Trouble at the Big Show is a bluesy turn for the band, and Sucherman’s bombastic swing drums would take the center stage were it not for the inevitable once-an-album welcome appearance of JY’s turn as main vocalist. He shows he’s still got more than what it takes as a singer, but has a lot more interesting work to do as a bluesy interjection to Shaw and Gowan’s chorus than the anger and grit he used to display during his vocal turns. And, I must say, it works quite well, as brief as it is.

Locomotive is a contemplative, acoustic powerhouse featuring — nay, showcasing — Tommy Shaw, the arguable star of Styx post-DeYoung, and it works as a soft, emotional break from the rockers preceding it. Shaw hearkens back to his earlier, softer work like Boat on the River while still coming up with an interesting take on his usual love song — this one’s from a father to his estranged son in space, and he manages to capture that sense of longing even better than Elton John does on his famous song of a similar subject. The guitar solo near the end is one of the best things Styx has ever made (honestly not sure if it’s Shaw’s or JY’s). Next comes Radio Silence, my current favorite track on the album, and all but an outright sequel to Man in the Wilderness, one of Shaw’s best songs. While promoting this album, the band often compared it to 1978’s masterwork “Pieces of Eight,” and Radio Silence is the song that really cements these comparisons as valid, as few would argue that that album was what confirmed Tommy Shaw as a powerhouse addition to the band. Shaw once again takes center stage alongside JY’s cutting guitar and the band’s tight, crisp harmonies in the chorus that make this an instant Styx classic.

The Greater Good is perhaps the cheesiest song on the album (just look at that title), but it really wouldn’t be Styx without it. A conversation between the two lead vocalists, and, by extension, the two main characters of the album’s story, takes center stage here, and Gowan gets to display a little bit more reservation than he’s previously shown. This coupled with his flamboyance on previous tracks, allows him to firmly cover the gap left by Dennis DeYoung once and for all. Shaw and Gowan both drip emotion in this song’s verses, and the subdued piano and drum parts alongside the fantastic guitar solo at the bridge keep this one from getting too silly despite its rather silly chorus and message. Time May Bend puts Gowan back in the driver’s seat for a brief, excellent resurgence of most of the themes from the overture. There’s not much to the verses, but the swinging, sweeping chorus is some of Gowan’s best vocal work on the album. It’s followed by the even briefer Ten Thousand Ways, a sort of extension of Time May Bend with some synth ambiance, subtle piano, and vocal harmonies that serve as a lead-in to Red Storm.

Red Storm is probably the second-best track on the album, and shows Styx at perhaps the proggiest they’ve been since the ’70s, and it’s a triumphant return to form for them. Everyone is at their best instrumentally here, with certain parts being reminiscent of Aku-Aku, and Shaw’s vocals over top, while sometimes out of place, give more credence to the album’s otherwise fairly subtle story, and the constantly present piano and steel guitar give the song an exotic, other-worldly feel fitting to a song about, well, Mars. Post-fantastic guitar solo, Gowan and Shaw give some more of the excellent harmonies we’ve become accustomed to, and the closing synth through the fade leading to some light piano noodling textures the piece with mystery. Khedive is pretty much an excuse for Gowan to show off his piano virtuosity, and it gets the job done with gusto.

The Outpost pairs a suitably computerized-sounding verse with a rollicking, catchy chorus, and the way the two work together makes this track somewhat reminiscent of a Queen song. Gowan’s vocal work is, once again, on point, and JY’s thick-sounding guitar work through the chorus makes The Outpost’s hook one of the most memorable of the album. Additionally, Sucherman’s drumming is, once again, superb. The album closer Mission to Mars is a simple, ELO-esque track featuring all of the vocalists in those trademark tight harmonies of some fun, sometimes goofy lyrics documenting the story at large. While not a particularly cerebral song, it’s a good time, and works well as the ending to the album.

While “The Mission” certainly isn’t the most ambitious or interesting Styx album, it displays a lot of musicality and ultimately serves up a welcome return to form for the veteran rockers, and shows that life after DeYoung truly is possible. Relative newcomers Lawrence Gowan and Todd Sucherman earn their stripes and show they can more than match the pomp and flamboyance of their bandmates and tell a pretty good story with their first concept album since the oft-maligned “Kilroy was Here”. While many of the tracks feel truncated or not fully-realized, there’s enough here to make a full album’s worth of really solid pseudo-prog, with Red Storm serving as the possible exception to this moniker. Like some of the best concept albums (“Clockwork Angels,” anyone?) the concept is subtle and somewhat buried, which means that the songs work as well on their own as they do as a cohesive unit. “The Mission” demonstrates that these guys aren’t done yet, and we’re the better for it.

Like Some Pilgrim who Learns to Transcend — The Similitude of a Dream

I discovered Neal Morse by way of Mike Portnoy, the founding drummer of prog metal group Dream Theater and one of my very favorite drummers of all time. Over the past 20 years, Morse and Portnoy have collaborated on plenty of albums over several projects, from the prog super group Transatlantic with The Flower Kings’ Roine Stolt and Pete Trewavas of Marillion to Flying Colors, a prog pop-rock group with Steve Morse and Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs and vocalist Casey MacPherson, to numerous solo efforts of Morse’s that tend to be more religious in nature. These two guys get around, and many consider them (with good reason) the Lennon and McCartney of modern prog rock. Their newest project, the Neal Morse Band, brings in longtime collaborator bassist Randy George (who’s worked with these two guys performing a number of covers, sometimes under the banner of Yellow Matter Custard, a Beatles-oriented cover group, and otherwise simply as Morse Portnoy George), and two welcome newcomers in keyboardist Bill Hubauer and guitarist Eric Gillette, both of whom are excellent vocalists as well.

Their first effort under this flag, 2015’s The Grand Experiment, showcased some fantastic prog with touches of religion here and there, and while there were a couple of missteps (Agenda, primarily, or at least its music video), there were touches of brilliance in the 25-minute epic Alive Again, the 10-minute opener The Call, the more religious-themed New Jerusalem and Doomsday Destiny (which gave us a taste of Bill Hubauer’s substantial vocal chops), and their sweeping cover of MacArthur Park that signified that there was more greatness to come from this band. And that’s exemplified in The Similitude of a Dream. Based on the first several chapters of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the extended title of which lends this album its somewhat florid title, The Similitude of a Dream is the sum of its parts — and then some. A concept album packed with religious symbolism but decidedly tighter than 2007’s Sola Scriptura and catchier than 2003’s Testimony, Similitude can truly be enjoyed from both a secular and religious standpoint, and is really just some fantastic prog.

Similitude begins humbly and delicately with thirty seconds of a string quartet introducing us to one of the more pervasive musical themes on the album, the “Long Day” theme. Morse portrays either a worn out Christian, the protagonist of Bunyan’s work, or Bunyan himself, who delivers his entire story under, well, “the similitude of a dream.” As the opening continues, Morse depicts a true sense of longing and need, with the final words “I’ve got to go” bringing us directly into the sweeping overture. The overture, as is to be expected, is instrumental and introduces many of the other musical themes we’ll be hearing over the course of the album, perhaps the most easily identifiable of which are the central musical conceits of The SloughSlave to your Mind, and The Battle. The overture is, simply put, a gorgeous display of musicianship, especially on the part of Portnoy, who seamlessly navigates the ride, splash and hi-hat, and Hubauer, whose various keyboard parts (perhaps there’s some of Morse himself in there as well), some of them nearly siren-like, tie the whole piece together and help to bring it to an exceptional swell of a conclusion.

The Dream sets up Bunyan’s character (and indeed Bunyan himself) with an almost Steven Curtis Chapman-esque acoustic melody interplaying with Morse’s vocals. While perhaps not as exciting as the overture before it, The Dream sets up well the journey to come, simply depicting Bunyan’s “dream” and shifting the focus to the character of Christian and his learning of what he must do. This continues into the rollicking City of Destruction, which finds Christian in distress and dismay, emphasized by muted chords and stamping feet. Christian laments that “my family thinks that I’m insane” as a voice (ostensibly Bunyan’s Evangelist) calls him to leave his home and travel to the Wicket Gate. This voice is represented in the chorus by Eric Gillette’s excellent, John Elefante-esque vocals. City of Destruction is the album’s central impetus, doing for Similitude what The Temples of Syrinx did for 2112 — introducing us to our protagonist and his dilemma, while setting him up for the journey ahead and providing an excellent, tight piece of music to boot.

We Have Got to Go is another lighter, acoustic tune (to begin with) that shows Christian unsuccessfully attempting to convince his wife and kids to come with him on his journey. We never directly learn that he fails to do so, but it’s quite obvious that he has by the repeating, tortured-sounding musical theme that follows and becomes more complex thanks to Hubauer’s synth riffs as it continues. Shortly thereafter, Christian departs, and recounts how “the awakening dead” (ie. his neighbors) come and laugh at him while trying to convince him to stay in the City in Makes No Sense. Realistically, Makes No Sense serves as a sort of filler song in a narrative sense, but gives us the welcome vocal addition of not only Eric Gillette, but also Bill Hubauer, whose soaring vocals are more than a little reminiscent of Genesis’s Peter Gabriel, making this song hearken back to some of their early progressive work, especially Selling England by the Pound. I’m not complaining — and one of Similitude’s greatest successes is the utility of all of these guys as vocalists, because they’re all very, very good.

Draw the Line introduces yet another vocalist in Mike Portnoy, giving him one of his few moments to shine vocally, portraying the character of Obstinate, who comes to at first plead with, then to berate Christian, once again portrayed by Morse. Indeed, Mike Portnoy’s vocal work here is actually quite good, and as a drummer myself I recognize how difficult it is to sing and play at the same time. Unfortunately, this is one of the few times we hear him on Similitude, and while understandable, it’s still a tad disappointing, as I do quite like his vocal work (check out Flying Colors’ Fool in my Heart). While Portnoy’s Obstinate is unimpressed, his companion Pliable is more, well, pliable (Bunyan was either completely void of creativity or an allegorical genius), and seems to be portrayed by the whole band at once in a sublime harmony, with some of the higher bits being tackled ably by Gillette alone. Unfortunately, Pliable’s journey with Christian is cut short by the Slough of Despond, and the instrumental track The Slough serves essentially as a short-form version of the overture, with the keyboard work once again being a highlight, especially about halfway through the song when it switches from a synth to a piano proper for one of the more serene moments of the first half of the album.

Back to the City shows Pliable’s angry return to the city, this time played mostly by Morse, who insists that this first hardship is a bad omen for the continued journey. Christian, unsuccessful in his attempts to convince his companion to stay, is despondent, and the mournful and desperate riff repeated by the guitar and keys (first seen near the end of the overture) exemplifies his struggle in the mire. Hubauer gets another shout-out here for his excellent vocals representing Pliable’s excitement to return home. The theme from The Dream briefly appears here as Christian nearly meets his end in the Slough before being saved by an unnamed companion (whom we know from the book to be called — wait for it — Help). Following is The Ways of the Fool, a spectacular track which borrows from Queen and ELO quite extensively, especially Turn to Stone. Hubauer is the lead vocalist here, and the track almost seems to glide along thanks to his piano and lilting vocals as Mr. Worldly Wiseman, who convinces Christian to go a different way, insisting, “trust me, I know I’m right.” Well, Mr. Worldly Wiseman turned out not to be right after all, but The Ways of the Fool is still one of the best songs on Similitude. The song ends with Christian reassuring himself that this new path is a good choice, and slows down into a gentle and somewhat dangerous-sounding rendition of the main theme of the album first introduced in the overture.

So Far Gone is next, and begins with a similar guitar riff to the one from City of Destruction, and gives Eric Gillette the reins again as lead vocalist, who does an excellent job showing Christian’s turmoil and disbelief that he managed to mess up as badly as he did by following Mr. Worldly Wiseman’s advice. So Far Gone is mostly straightforward rocking, which certainly isn’t a bad thing, and gives Mike Portnoy a chance to expertly utilize a cowbell. Luckily for Christian, Evangelist returns at the bridge, slowing down the piece and having Hubauer explain that he’s not, in fact, too far gone. Morse returns to the role of Christian, somewhat in disbelief that he can still find the right way, but luckily he gets back on track and reaches the Wicket Gate by the end of the first disc.

Breath of Angels closes the first half of the album with the most gospel-sounding tracks here. It’s pretty straightforward, swelling gratuitously throughout with a full-on gospel choir near the end, but it’s no less an enjoyable track that signifies the end of the first part of Christian’s journey as he walks through the Wicket Gate onto the house of the Interpreter.

Slave to your Mind opens similarly to The Slough, but ends up as one of the most musically and lyrically complex pieces on the album, as it chronicles Christian seeing various “emblems” at the house of the Interpreter. First among these is a room full of dust into which a woman brings water, followed by a fire, with one man attempting to put it out with wet blankets, and another hidden behind it feeding it with oil. Understandably, these symbols aren’t necessarily expounded upon in the song, but the general gist, as Hubauer recounts from Bunyan’s point of view (“I saw in my dream …”) is that the man attempting to put out the fire is the devil, the other god, both of whom use the phrase “slave to your mind” in different ways (one discouraging, the other encouraging). The middle of the song features a fantastic keyboard solo, and Randy George’s bass work, while ever diligent, shines specifically in this track as well. At this point the album diverts a ways from the book for obvious musical reasons, and Christian leaves the house of the Interpreter and continues on down the road.

Shortcut to Salvation is an almost jazzy tune, brought out especially by the vocal harmonies, the delightful saxophone solo, and the piano. Christian comes across two men who evidently “jumped the wall” rather than going the proper way through the Wicket Gate, and Christian reviles their attempts to convince him to “join their merry band.” A simple song, Shortcut is nonetheless quite a fun little track, and shows Christian becoming decidedly more resolute in his mission. Shortly he meets with The Man in the Iron Cage on a track that gives Eric Gillette’s guitar some excellent attention. This man, in Bunyan’s work, is one of the symbols the Interpreter shows to Christian, but here (at least as evinced by the artwork with the album) seems simply to be a wayward soul in the midst of the path. The song follows a similar narrative structure to So Far Gone, with the titular man’s anger shining through with Morse’s vocals and his angst with Gillette’s, providing an excellent counterpoint and showing once again that these men are truly meant to be together in a band. Similar to So Far Gone, the track ends with a quiet bridge in which Christian informs the man that he is not, once again, too far gone, but it does end on a somewhat sour note with Christian ultimately giving up and leaving.

The Road Called Home is almost an instrumental, with the first half giving Randy George some great solo work, and the second half echoing the beginning of the overture’s frenetic synth wanderings. Finally, the song once again reprises the Dream theme, albeit much faster, and shows Christian coming across two men asleep by a mill — Simple and Sloth. Sloth might be the weakest track on the album — which is surprising, because it’s still exquisite — seeming mostly to be a breather in the story wherein the Sloth character slowly and amusingly (“nothing makes me grin / more than sleeping in”) showcasing his pride in his lazy lifestyle. I must admit I probably like this song simply because of Eric Gillette’s astonishingly sublime reprisal of the Long Day theme at the end of the song, with Christian assuring Sloth he has to continue.

Freedom Song sounds almost like a bluegrass track, with some truly great country-esque guitar work backing it up throughout. This track and the next show Christian finally getting rid of the burden that initially set him upon his journey (which in Bunyan’s original work happened immediately after leaving the Interpreter). Freedom Song is a jaunty tune and again shows some gorgeous vocal harmonies, and feeds directly into the more up-tempo I’m Running. This song opens with one of my favorite drum fills on the album, with Portnoy the whole track borrowing more than a little from Keith Moon. Once again it’s a rather simple tune, and the last breather before the climax of the album, but special recognition should be given here to the horn parts that punctuate and liven up the proceedings. Once again, Randy George has a fantastic, dare I say Geddy Lee-esque, bass solo in the middle.

The Mask opens with a fantastic, serene, and somewhat foreboding piano solo from Hubauer which is definitely one of my favorite parts of the album. The song then transitions into a dark, almost scary interplay between Morse’s vocals and Hubauer’s piano, wherein he recounts his journey thus far and explains the threat that he’s about to come face to face with, punctuated by brief moments of chaos where they’re joined by the rest of the band. The Mask bleeds seamlessly into the climactic Confrontation, which, in conjunction with the instrumental The Battle, showcase Christian’s fight with the demonic Apollyon, and also show off some of the finest musicianship, making up some of the best moments on the album from every band member.

The last track, Broken Sky / Long Day (Reprise) shows a final culmination and as masterful a conclusion as I’ve ever seen on a concept album since Thick as a BrickBroken Sky brings out the “I have seen / I have known” theme seen several times through the album, as well as the “broken sky” vocal conceit we’ve been hearing from every angelic figure. Then, Eric Gillette once again brings out the Long Day theme for the last time in a truly beautiful musical moment that feels earned in a way few swells like this have in past musical finales. Finally, Morse singularly closes out the proceedings with a simple vocal part showing Christian’s finality in a way reminiscent of his earlier gospel work.

Simply put, The Similitude of a Dream is a masterpiece. Whether you’ve read the book or not, whether you’re religious or just a fan of good music, you’ll gain something from listening to it a few times and appreciating it for the flowing, sweeping work of art that it is. The Neal Morse Band is more than just another Morse/Portnoy project, with every band member getting multiple moments to shine and being smartly integrated (especially on the vocal front) in the band in a meaningful and profound way. Truly, The Similitude of a Dream isn’t just one of the greatest progressive rock or religious albums of all time, it’s one of the greatest pieces of music of all time, borrowing from so many great musicians across all genres, representing a centuries-old work, and creating a new piece of music with something to say while doing so. After you listen to it, you’re sure to be left with something that will be with you from this world to that which is to come … under the similitude of a dream.

Top Ten Games of 2016

Here we are once again, counting down the top ten games of the year as we always do. This year’s list, like any other, was a difficult list to compile and pare down to only ten, but I’ve managed to do it just in time for the end of the year. Here’s to 2017, and here’s the list.

Honorable Mention: The Witness

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This list will once again have an honorable mention in The Witness, a charming puzzle-solver from veteran indie developer Jonathan Blow with a beautiful game world full of intriguing secrets. Unfortunately, I haven’t devoted nearly as much time to this game as I would need to to feel right about accurately placing it anywhere within this list, so I’ll have to settle for at least giving it a mention in passing. Now onto the list proper.

10. Ratchet and Clank

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Ratchet and Clank has always been a solid contender in the 3D platforming genre, and its steady stream of releases over the past decade or so has sort of cemented it as Sony’s Mario, or at least the closest thing they have. This year’s installment manages to recapture some of the best moments of the better games in the series, and still introduces more new elements to breathe new life into the familiar landscapes and settings of the first game. Ratchet and Clank is technically based on a movie, the underwhelming Ratchet and Clank movie released in April, but is in effect a reboot of the franchise that simultaneously manages to innovate and indulge, with some of the absolute best visuals of the year and clever voice work that wouldn’t be out of place in a high-budget cartoon movie.

9. Doom

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Continuing with the reboots, Doom is a refreshingly simple and to-the-point FPS murderfest, with your only real goal being to, well, kill everything. Fortunately, Doom supplies us with enough crazy weapons, gory finishing moves, and trinkets to find secreted away in its hellish landscape to be more than entertaining enough without forcing us to use too much brain power. Doom excels at making the player feel stupidly powerful without ensuring that every encounter will result in victory. There’s a pervading sense of tension as you scavenge through hell looking for more health or armor to survive the next demonic onslaught, and that tension clinches the feel of the original games in the series without looking anything like them. Sure, the reds and oranges of hell are still there in all their glory, but no longer are our enemies pixelated and goofy-looking. Now they’re beautifully rendered and goofy-looking, and I love it.

8. Uncharted 4

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Those of us who’ve been following Nathan Drake and Co’s adventures over the past seven years have something of a guilty pleasure in A Thief’s End, the fourth and ostensibly final installment in the groundbreaking cinematic platforming series. Almost all of our favorite players are here, with primary love interest Elena and best friend Victor “Goddamn” Sullivan thankfully still in play, and new characters like Nathan’s brother Sam and the slew of enemies, each more compelling than the last, keep the banter fresh and amusing as we trek through Uncharted 4’s downright gorgeous landscapes and environments. More important than the tight platforming/shooting/puzzle-solving gameplay, expert voice work, or beautiful visuals is the story, which manages to cap off our journey with Nathan Drake in a satisfying and meaningful way, indulging us by giving all our favorites their own happy endings regardless of whether they actually deserved it. Of course I’m excited at the prospect of a new Uncharted game (which PSX has confirmed for us in a spin-off), but I’m satisfied to never see Nathan Drake again, knowing that his story has been effectively ended.

7. Pokemon Sun/Moon

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I didn’t expect to be putting a Pokemon game on this list, well, ever, but somehow Gamefreak and company have managed to also breathe new life into this 20-year-old franchise, a common thread among this year’s entries. (In fact, now that I think of it, there’s at least one other game on this list that’s also here for that reason.) Pokemon Sun and Moon bring us to Alola, the blatantly Hawaii-inspired new region where things are different, but the same. The central mechanics are still there in general — find Pokemon, catch Pokemon, train Pokemon, beat other Trainers, fill your Pokedex, etc. — but other things have changed, not the least of which is the Pokemon themselves, many of whom have different forms and types here. Gone are Gym Leaders and the city-route-city-route routine that inevitably became tedious. Instead we have the “Island Challenge,” a more RPG-esque style of gameplay progression that puts the player through various puzzles and legitimately entertaining gauntlets to test various aspects of their ability as a Trainer that extend beyond just the strength of their Pokemon. Gone are HMs, the tedious, difficult-to-unlearn moves we’d usually have to heap on a poor, unsuspecting Bibarel to carry around as our designated “HM slave”. Instead, we have the Ride Pager, an admittedly stupid but still fun way to call on various Pokemon to use outside battle. Also, the Pokedex talks. Luckily, all of these changes are smartly implemented, and apart from the hand holding that pervades the game (for which I can forgive them — not everyone’s been playing these games for over a decade), almost everything works here.

6. XCOM 2

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2012’s XCOM: Enemy Unknown brought back this veteran tactical strategy series with force, and XCOM 2 manages to top it in terms of scale, difficulty, and depth. XCOM 2 takes place in a timeline where you failed in the first game (which is an accurate representation of my many times through that game), and now you’re not fighting off an invasion, you’re resisting the aliens already there. This changes the tension and feeling of each mission, and also affects the choices you make between missions in subtle ways. You have to fly your aerial base between outposts to defend what you can, but you obviously can’t do everything at once. XCOM 2 demands a lot of the player, and while you’re rewarded for making smart decisions, chances are that’s not going to happen a lot, and you’ve just got to deal with it. Which is pretty realistic, honestly.

5. Civilization VI

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When the Brave New World DLC was released for Civilization V, I and many others said that this was effectively the full realization of all the potential the base game had. BNW and the previous DLC, Gods and Kings, managed to add complexity without complication, make the victory conditions more logical and attainable, and make the late game enjoyable. Civilization has accomplished all this and more right out of the gate. The first proper sequel to Civ V in 6 years, it was most assuredly worth the wait, as nearly every aspect of Civ VI lands perfectly and makes the players feel in charge of how their civilization will develop throughout the ages. While 2014’s Beyond Earth never managed to get that “just one more turn” feeling out of me, Civ VI grabs on mercilessly and won’t let go for hours at a time. Like it should.

4. Fire Emblem Fates

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I absolutely adore the Fire Emblem series. It could be the most ruthless series Nintendo has ever produced in terms of difficulty, and no other game series makes you care as much about its characters as Fire Emblem manages to. Fates took the Pokemon route this year, releasing not one, not two, but three completely different versions of the same game, each taking a vastly different story route resulting in completely different decisions to be made, characters to be met, and battles to be fought. And it is glorious. While Fates may falter a bit in areas where previous installments like the nearly-perfect Fire Emblem Awakening (2013 GOTY) shone, it makes up for these by showcasing the sheer complexity, quality, and quantity of content Nintendo is able to pump into its three versions, Birthright, Conquest, and Revelations. While Pokemon’s different versions have always felt a little like a cheap cash-grab, Fire Emblem Fates assuredly deserves three versions, and I recommend all three to anyone who wants a compelling story attached to some absolutely brutal tactical strategy.

3. Titanfall 2

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From my review: “2014’s Titanfall got a lot of things right, as far as I’m concerned. The gameplay was fast, nuanced, and well-balanced, the level design was decent, and the action itself was varied and enticing enough to bring me back time and again … Titanfall 2 improves on essentially every aspect of the original by speeding up the gameplay even more, making traversal more instinctive, improving the campaign tenfold, deepening the customization, and, most importantly, adding a grappling hook.” Months later, Titanfall 2’s community still seems to be going strong, and it’s still just as enjoyable and tense as ever.

2. Dishonored 2

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Like every year, figuring out which of my final two games would take the number one spot was agonizing (last year’s decision between The Phantom Pain and The Witcher 3 nearly killed me), but I always force myself to pick a clear winner. Taking the respectable number 2 position this year is Dishonored 2, a smart first-person stealth game that makes the player feel more powerful than I think any other game has before. The player has the option at the start to choose to play as either Corvo Attano, the grizzled protagonist of the first game, or his daughter, the empress Emily Kaldwin. While this choice has a small but still important impact on the story, it impacts the gameplay greatly, with each character having a unique ability set conducive to playing the game in slightly different ways. The thing is, those slight differences have massive impacts, as Dishonored 2’s missions have a dizzying amount of different paths to take and ways to complete them. Do you want to ghost your way through and be as nonlethal as possible? Go ahead. Do you want to straight-up murder everyone? That’s fine, too. Every option in between is also plausible, and has its own consequences on the story. Finally, a shout-out to the fantastic Clockwork Mansion mission is necessary. Buy this game.

And now it’s time for my number one game of the year …

1. No Man’s Sky

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No.

 

 

1. Overwatch

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As soon as I settled on what was to be my number one pick this year, it seemed so obvious. My in-game stats tell me I’ve played 153 hours since this game came out in late May, which is already a lot even when you don’t consider the fact that I’m a full-time student who ALSO works part-time for NASA and ALSO played enough other games to have a difficult time narrowing this list down to just 10. So yeah, I really, really dig Overwatch. Blizzard has proven once again that they are genius game developers, taking some of the most enjoyable aspects of MOBAs and other multiplayer shooters to create the most colorful and unique shooter I’ve ever seen, giving its 20+ playable characters even more distinct personality and style than TF2’s, which any TF2 player will know is saying something. Simply put, Overwatch is an absolute triumph for multiplayer gaming, and will most assuredly stand the test of time and be as much of a blast in 10 years as it is today. Cheers, love.

Through that Timeless Space — Rogue One

[The following review may contain spoilers. You’ve been warned.]

If The Force Awakens had a heavy burden to bear being the culmination of over 30 years of fan theories and speculation, Rogue One has an equally heavy burden, purporting to bridge the gap between prequel and original while simultaneously managing to tell a compelling story on its own without overstepping its bounds. Luckily, it succeeds on all fronts in this endeavor.

Rogue One is labeled “A Star Wars Story,” not an “Episode” proper, and it establishes itself apart from the regular Star Wars canon in a few ways — some cinematic, some dramatic, some thematic — and it is in these differences that Rogue One excels. There’s no opening crawl explaining the situation, no sweeping John Williams soundtrack (which isn’t to say that Michael Giacchino doesn’t handle the task ably — he does), no Jedi bringing a mystical air to the proceedings, hell, there’s not even a proper “I have a bad feeling about this” (but only just). However, Rogue One does give us things we haven’t seen before in a Star Wars Episode — a flashback, a time jump, helpful notes on the screen telling us where we are and why it’s important, and, most importantly, actors we’ve actually heard of before, and not just because of Star Wars movies.

The most important difference noted above is assuredly the absence of Jedi and, by and large, Sith (though the appearance of Darth Vader, once again voiced by the eminent James Earl Jones, is much appreciated and powerful in its brevity). While we still have staunch believers in the Force here (most notable is Chirrut Imwe, played fantastically by Donnie Yen), we don’t have any prominent Jedi characters in the film. Realistically, it makes sense, as we’re smackdab in the middle of Anakin Skywalker annihilating nearly all of them and his son realizing his power. At the time of this film’s story, there’s only two Jedi out there — Yoda and Obi-Wan — and both of them are in hiding. The lack of Jedi really brings out the “science” in science fiction, and thus really brings out the “wars” in Star Wars. Without these mystical, powerful players on the table, what we’re left with is gritty, character-driven all-out battles between soldiers, and the fact that it takes place in the Star Wars universe can become easy to forget even amidst X-Wings and TIE Fighters zipping about and the newly-constructed Death Star looming overhead.

The main hero of our story is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), daughter of engineer Galen Erso (a fantastic Mads Mikkelsen), who worked on the construction of the Death Star somewhat against his will, and who may hold the key to its demise. Jyn is a sort of Han Solo-type character, or at least what Han Solo was supposed to be — an antihero who’s really only dragged into the proceedings against her will or for her own gain. In her case, she’s brought on by Rebel Alliance leaders Mon Mothma and Bail Organa, both of whom are back from the prequels and give excellent ties back to that trilogy without dredging up too many painful memories of Gungans or pod racing. Jyn is tasked with finding her father, and to that end teams up with the morally gray Rebel pilot Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and the repurposed Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) in order to locate the Rebel extremist Saw Gerrara (Forest Whitaker). All three of these characters are stand-outs to me, with Andor and Gerrara highlighting the moral ambiguity of the resistance, previously untouched in the Star Wars franchise which decidedly favored their cause, and K-2SO being the main source of humor with his terse commentary reminiscent of a clash between Threepio and Marvin the Paranoid Android. Tudyk goes a long way to give this character depth and the CGI used to depict him is able to stand right up there with the practical effects used elsewhere.

On that note, however, there are other CGI characters who don’t fare as well as K-2SO does. Both Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing have been recreated with CGI for this film, with Cushing having passed away years ago and Fisher’s face being largely comprised of silicon these days. Fisher’s cameo is mercifully short, but Cushing’s Governor (not yet Grand Moff) Tarkin gets way too much screentime to be comfortable, and for a film with such great CGI elsewhere he just looks clunky, disjointed, and quite frankly terrifying. It’s not quite as bad as Tron’s CGI Jeff Bridges, but it’s not nearly as good as Ant-Man’s CGI Michael Douglas.

Jyn’s mission is fairly simple — retrieve the plans to the Death Star to aid the rebellion in its destruction — and the conflicts she finds herself in serve very well to highlight just how bad the Empire’s reign was. There are several brutal fight scenes (including a spectacular one featuring Donnie Yen’s martial arts skills) and one particularly well-done moment showed a young child caught in the crossfire. This is just one example of how well Rogue One sets itself apart from the Episodes, all of which focus on important figures and powerful players in the conflict. Rogue One’s characterizations are nothing short of outstanding, and relationships like Cassian and K-2SO, Jyn and Saw, and Chirrut and best friend Baze (Jiang Wen) are at the heart of this like they should be in any good war movie.

Rogue One is perfectly suited as a standalone film, but that doesn’t stop it from tying itself into the franchise in very satisfying ways. There are plenty of fun cameos, most of which make sense (except for one which was fun but unequivocally stupid), and the aforementioned Darth Vader is able to punctuate the film with his foreboding presence, lent even more gravitas by James Earl Jones’s still powerful voice acting. It was a marvel even in 1977 that such a (let’s face it) silly-looking character could be a dark and even frightening presence, but he manages it yet again here. Additionally, the film ties itself into the first film (A New Hope these days) spectacularly, ending mere minutes before the 1977 original begins.

Don’t come into Rogue One expecting too much of a happy ending. After all, we all saw Episode IV and we know what state the galaxy is in. What Rogue One does, and does extremely well, is answer a simple question that we never bothered to look at from the rest of the franchise — how did they know where to hit the Death Star in the first place? Where did they get those plans? They got them from Jyn et al, apparently, but unfortunately (and undeniably realistically), nearly every single character in this film paid the price for them to get it. It’s nice to know that their labors paid off and the Death Star was eventually destroyed (twice!), but it is of course a shame they never got to see it. But you can, and you should.

Emotional Feedback — The Astonishing Live

As anyone who has ever read anything here or met me in real life can attest, I’m a giant Rush fan, both literally and figuratively. As such, an admiration for prog metal gods Dream Theater seems only to be a natural progression (NPI). Their latest album, this year’s The Astonishing is their second concept album, and their first double concept album, and on top of both of those, it’s essentially a two-hour love letter to 2112. So I love it. And seeing them perform it live is even more awesome.

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Straining the Limits of Machine and Man – Titanfall 2

2014’s Titanfall got a lot of things right, as far as I’m concerned. The gameplay was fast, nuanced, and well-balanced, the level design was decent, and the action itself was varied and enticing enough to bring me back time and again. Unfortunately, it didn’t have this effect on many, and the multiplayer game became nearly barren withing a few months of release. That said, Titanfall still managed to retain enough of a following to warrant a sequel, and I sure am glad it did. Titanfall 2 improves on essentially every aspect of the original by speeding up the gameplay even more, making traversal more instinctive, improving the campaign tenfold, deepening the customization, and, most importantly, adding a grappling hook.

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Top 10 Underrated Rush Songs

On this, the anniversary of this blog’s inception, it seemed fitting to go back to one of the primary reasons I started it in the first place — I like writing about weird stuff. This time around, I’m gonna be taking a look at the ten Rush songs I think don’t get enough time in the, er, Limelight, if you’ll pardon the pun. For whatever reason, these ten songs never got much notice from the general populace (being Rush songs), or even from Rush fans, at least from what I’ve noticed. Obviously, it’s a highly subjective list, and what I consider to be underrated may be considered by another Rush fan to be given exactly what it deserves. Nonetheless, let’s kick off this anniversary celebration with song number ten …

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My 10 Favorite Sitcoms of All Time

In my Twitter bio I describe myself as a “sitcom fetishist,” which is perhaps a bit of a misnomer considering I don’t derive pleasures of that nature from watching sitcoms (though perhaps Kelsey Grammer’s voice could be considered close), but it is most certainly an art from that I think has fallen to the wayside far too much. This isn’t to say sitcoms aren’t still around — they certainly are — but I feel that today’s sitcoms are somewhat unable to capture the magic that some of my favorites have through the years.

So, this list will be comprised of my 10 favorite sitcoms of all time, not the ones that I’m calling the greatest sitcoms of all time, since if I were to do such a list someone would probably expect classics like Seinfeld or Friends, neither of which I think are very good (sorry). Additionally, this list will only be comprised of straight-up sitcoms, which means comedy shows I love like Rick and Morty or Monty Python’s Flying Circus that aren’t strictly sitcoms won’t be counted. I’ll also only be counting shows of which I’ve seen every episode, for fairness’s sake. So great classics like M*A*S*H or Taxi, which would most likely be here, will be absent since I haven’t seen them in their entirety, and recent hits that are still ongoing, like The Middle, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, or Always Sunny, will be absent as well.

With all those rules you’d think it’d be difficult to come up with 10, but in fact I still had difficulty paring this list down to a solid 10. That said, you can rest assured that because of this, these are the 10 sitcoms I consider to be the cream of the crop, and some of the best comedic entertainment available. So, without further ado, my top 10 favorite sitcoms of all time.

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R20 – Caress of Steel

Moving on down the line, we have my #15 ranked Rush album, their second album from 1975, Caress of Steel. Their third album, and the second to feature Neil Peart on drums and lyrics, Caress is about as Rush as Rush ever got. It’s very proggy, very high-concept, and very, very strange. With only five songs, and the first to feature a sidelong epic in The Fountain of Lamneth, Caress of Steel simultaneously paved the way for their future success and nearly destroyed them as a band by being their most commercially disappointing record to date. The subsequent tour was deemed the “Down the Tubes” tour, as they expected a quick demise following the low record sales. That said, Caress of Steel has good parts, and while most of it is a bit verbose or pretentious, it’s still worth an occasional listen.

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Astral Nights, Galactic Days — No Man’s Sky

Hype is kind of an awful thing, when you think about it. It basically ensures that every game, or at least every major one, is going to be a disappointment to some degree, especially in the age of Twitter and the like spawning armies of keyboard warriors ready to crap all over everything you love. I think No Man’s Sky is a game that’s suffered greatly from being overhyped. There’s really no way it could’ve ever lived up to the sky-high expectations laid out for it by E3 and other press conferences and videos that came out pre-release. And, naturally, it doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t by a long shot. It’s not a great game. Honestly, it might not even be a good game. But you know what? That’s okay.

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