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Rich’s Week in Geek for August 22nd

This week, I played a lot of Kingdom Hearts, and finally got around to watching an Amazon show I’ve been meaning to watch since it premiered in 2015. Hint: Rufus Sewell is in it, and so is that guy from The New Guy. It’s a shorter list this week, and as always, represents the highlights from my past week in Gaming, Movies, TV and Comics.

1. Kingdom Hearts Re:Everything

As anyone who listens to The Joy of Gaming can attest, my co-host and I on one heck of a Kingdom Hearts kick, bolstered in part by the recent announcement that Kingdom Hearts 3 now has a release date of 2018. And while that date is hard to take seriously in light of Square Enix’s recent track record, the Toy Story and Olympus Coliseum gameplay footage revealed during Disney’s D23 expo looks so beautiful and fun to play that I almost don’t care; I’ll be waiting at the game store with an accelerated heart rate and $59.99 whenever Square Enix deigns to release it.

And to think that just a few short months ago, I had no idea what Kingdom Hearts was really all about. Sure, I’d played KH1 up through Deep Jungle a few times on PS2, and tried at least twice to get past the Roxas intro in Kingdom Hearts 2 (without success), and yes, I had fun joining the chorus of lapsed fans and haters each year as they derided Square Enix for releasing yet another side-story game. All I really knew was that games like Re:coded and 358/2 Days were considered ridiculous and unwanted by series fans – judged at birth for the sin of not being called Kingdom Hearts 3.

Then last month I finally got serious, and picked up the Kingdom Hearts 1.5 and 2.5 Collection with my heart set on completing these much-loved Action RPGs. And for some reason this time, as I began to play Kingdom Hearts 1.5 Final Mix, its charm and addictive mechanics took a hold of me and haven’t since let up. All of a sudden the intro song – which in previous playthroughs sounded like the most petty, generic J-pop trite – sounded heartfelt and catchy, and I actually listened to the lyrics this time. I started to enjoy travelling to each new Disney world with Sora and company, curious to meet new characters, sure, but mostly for the new weapons, upgrades and mechanics that would be introduced. I even like the Gummi Ship missions (though I understand that I’m in the minority on that one).

I made my way through to the end of Kingdom Hearts 1.5 FM, defeating the final boss as well as many of my long-held preconceptions about this series. For example, I had no idea how deep and compelling the mechanics are. Did you know that each Keyblade in KH1 has a different length, recovery rate, critical rate, critical multiplier, etc.? I certainly didn’t. I also had no idea how swept up I would get into Sora and Kairi’s relationship; the sweetness of which provides an excellent antidote to the cynicism of so many other modern games.

I’m now deep into the second game in the collection – Kingdom Hearts Re: Chain of Memories – which features card-based battle mechanics that fans have always raved about, but were tough to transition to after playing so much of the first game. But now that I’ve finished the main Sora campaign, and am diving into Riku’s “Reverse/Rebirth” storyline, I can say that I like Re:COM almost as much as the original – yet another surprising outcome.

Kingdom Hearts is a journey full of happy surprises, and I’ve even set aside my previous rush to judgment and picked up Re:Coded and 358/2 Days to play on my 3DS when I’m away from home. And while neither of them is a great game in its own right, the warm glow of affection I currently have for Sora and friends is enough to keep me playing. And hey, maybe Kingdom Hearts 3 will release next year. If so, I’ll be ready.

For more on Kingdom Hearts, check out Jordan’s retrospective series, Unlocked Reminiscences.

2. The Man in the High Castle, Season 1

If there are two things that consistently make me happy, they are (1) high-concept science fiction, and (2) well-written TV, and The Man in the High Castle ticks both boxes with a beautiful flourish. It also has the added benefit of being based on a novel by Philip K. Dick (albeit loosely), and starring Rufus Sewell – a British actor I first discovered in Dark City and the short-lived US Version of Eleventh Hour, and who I continued to appreciate in BBC’s Middlemarch and more recently as Lord blah blah in Victoria (it was Lord Melbourne – I looked it up now). Here Sewell plays a brutal Nazi officer, but one with a family you actually meet, and a personality that goes beyond the stereotypical “I am Nazi Monster – beep, boop – Genocide, en-gage!” Don’t get me wrong – the character he plays here is a true monster – but a decidedly believable one.

The story is neatly divided between Sewell’s character, another guy named Frank Frinz (who I’m not sure yet if I like), and a pair of young, beautiful twenty-somethings on the run – Joe Blake and Juliana Crain – both of whom are likable enough to carry the show and provide a glimmer of hope that’s badly needed. That’s because in the alternate-history world of the show, America lost WWII and is and ruled with an iron fist by the Reich in the East and the Japanese in the West. Joe and Juliana each possess strange film reels that show a different outcome to the war and a better world, but what these films might actually mean is anyone’s guess.

I’ve now seen the first five episodes of Season 1, and am of two minds about it. On one hand, I’m really enjoying Joe and Juliana as characters, and their hidden agendas make for some tense and intriguing conversations. I also enjoy hating Sewell’s character to the core, while simultaneously marveling at the effectiveness of his tactics.

Unfortunately, however, my overall enjoyment of the show is marred by some clunky, false-feeling story beats, shoehorned in to motivate certain characters (Really? You killed his sister and two kids because you didn’t find out the truth in time?!? They were only there for leverage in the first place! C’mon, now). The artificial nature of these moments left me with little hope for well-earned plot revelations or triumphant victories to come.

And although the show’s trailers show primarily urban environments, much of the show is actually set in a wasteland environment in the middle of America called the “Neutral Zone,” and it’s there that our two charismatic could-be heroes chase their tails and lie to each other. The “all-important” film reels, meanwhile, have been relegated to mere McGuffin status, and I’m really hoping this will change in the second half of the season. After all, while I love rooting for an underdog, this show’s “resistance” is far is too benign and underpowered to enact meaningful change, and if these film reels are their best weapon against evil, then evil will certainly win.

And yet, I find that I want to keep watching The Man in the High Castle, even though it disappoints on a number of fronts. There is promise here, both in the high-concept premise and the pedigree of of the source material, and the excellent performances make the journey enjoyable for the most part. I will check back in after I finish Season 1, and hopefully I’ll be able to report that some of the show’s questionable early story choices will have borne delicious fruit by then.

Stay tuned for future Week in Geek Columns — my backlog is already massive, as is the ever-growing list of new shows, movies, games and comics on the horizon. Share your past week’s best media in the comments below and help me make my backlog even longer.