Review: Dark Phoenix

I never listen to critics. I almost never agree with them. Nonetheless the buzz around Dark Phoenix was so uniformly negative that it did eventually dampen even my hype. It doesn’t help that the last X-Men movie, Apocalypse, was a bit underwhelming.

Promotional art for X-Men: Dark PhoenixSo even though I’m a huge fan of the X-Men movies, I went into Dark Phoenix with very low expectations.

I was a fool. The critics are wrong — Dark Phoenix is fantastic.

The film begins with the X-Men ascendant. They’ve achieved the acceptance Professor Xavier has worked so hard for, and they’re now a household name, beloved by mutants and humans alike. But the success has started to go to Xavier’s head, and after Jean Grey is nearly killed on a dangerous mission undertaken despite strident objections from Raven, events start to spiral out of control, threatening to destroy the X-Men and all that they worked to achieve.

It isn’t perfect. There’s a few minor things that made me do a bit of a double-take, and not in a good way. The writers definitely don’t understand how physics work in space, and I’m not sure I’m onboard the X-Men suddenly having Dragonball Z style power level meters.

There are times when Dark Phoenix does feel like it’s repeating the same story beats as the last take on this arc, X-Men: The Last Stand, but on the plus side this is a better movie than that was.

It also feels a bit rushed at times, and the ending feels a little too inclusive for my taste, but at the same time, “it left me wanting more” is kind of a good problem for a movie to have.

Dark Phoenix is not the best X-Men movie, but it does capture a lot of what is best about this franchise and its characters.

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey in Dark PhoenixWhat strikes me most about this movie is how human all of the main characters feel. Dark Phoenix shows Xavier at his worst — he screws up badly in more than one way — but his reasoning for all of his choices feels very understandable. It doesn’t feel like it runs counter to how virtuous he’s been in the past. Indeed, it’s his very optimism and desire to always do the “right” thing that trips him up.

Dark Phoenix is about Xavier making terrible mistakes, but at no point does he feel unsympathetic. He just feels human.

The same is true of Jean Grey. This movie also takes her to a very dark place — no pun intended — but again her emotions feel valid throughout. You still feel sympathy for her.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: This is what makes the X-Men special. No matter what powers they may have, they still feel like three-dimensional people, with flaws and vulnerabilities. They feel real in a way that most superheroes don’t.

Dark Phoenix is a movie that easily could have slid into the ridiculous with its godlike cosmic forces and sinister alien threats, but by focusing on nuanced characters and believable emotion, it manages to still feel grounded and relatable.

Another strength of the X-Men films that Dark Phoenix carries on is that it nails the tone very well. It’s ultimately a very optimistic movie; it’s about the power of love and compassion to conquer all. But it’s also not afraid to go to dark places when story calls for it. The victories feel earned because they come at a high price.

Professor Xavier and the X-Men in Dark PhoenixDark Phoenix also does an admirable if slightly imperfect job of maintaining another strength of the X-Men: its ensemble cast. The heart of the story is Jean Grey, but lots of other characters get their spot in the sun, too. There are a few I’d like to have seen more of — especially Storm and Quicksilver — but the film does do a pretty good job of giving every cast member at least one moment where they get to be awesome, whether it’s a powerful character scene or kicking ass in battle.

Beast, in particular, gets a lot of attention, and the movie is better for it. All credit to Nicholas Hoult for a very strong performance.

This is why I don’t listen to critics. I loved this movie.

Overall rating: 8.5/10

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Astellia Impressions

Astellia isn’t a game that’s really been on my radar, but the Massively OP staff were given a number of keys to the beta, and I’m always up try a new MMO, so I decided to check it out.

At least Astellia is prettyI won’t say it’s as bad, but Astellia reminds me of Trinium Wars in that it feels less like a real game and more like a parody of bad MMO tropes.

To start with, the tutorial is about 90% cutscenes and 10% gameplay, or at least it feels that way. I admire that the developers actually wanted to make story a priority, but they’ve mistaken more story for better story.

There’s not really an effort to explain the setting to you, to develop any characters, or to give you any reason to become invested. There’s very little context for anything. Instead you’re just bombarded by an onslaught of corny dialogue and ridiculous fantasy names — and this is coming from a guy who willingly and happily reads a series where the name “Celephriandullias-Tildorangelor” is a central part of the story.

As far as gameplay goes, the main selling feature of Astellia — and the source of its name — are the Astels, fey spirits you can collect and then summon to aid you in combat. Very much shades of Pokemon here.

Looking over the journal of potential Astels you can get, it seems there are more options later on, but the Astels available to me at the start were all in the form of seven year old girls. It’s exactly as creepy as it sounds.

My archer and her Astels in AstelliaAlso, one of them has a giant cup of tea on her head, and her abilities centered around buffing allies with “soothing tea” mid-combat. I acquired her whilst an army of demons burned my character’s home village, presumably murdering everyone she ever cared about, and the tonal dissonance was so whiplash-inducing my immersion never really recovered.

It’s also probably worth noting that the Astels didn’t really seem to do much. Maybe they feel more impactful when you’re in more challenging content and/or have leveled them up more, but in the time I played it felt like I could have ignored them entirely and nothing really would have changed. Not a good sign considering this feature is the Astellia’s chief claim to fame.

The graphics are pretty, but not so pretty as to make the game really stand out. The bar is pretty high these days, and Astellia isn’t going to compete with the likes of Black Desert, especially since there isn’t a lot of personality to its art style. I will say some of the character and mob design is pretty cool, at least.

Combat in Astellia is your standard tab target affair, complete with mobs that drop dead after a few hits and don’t seem to require any tactics to defeat. There’s an active dodge mechanic, but I didn’t encounter anything that actually needed to be dodged while I was playing.

Female armour is alive and well in Astellia

This is reasonable attire for an adventurer to wear into battle.

What surprises me more than anything, though, is how bad the animations are. None of my abilities had any kind of flair to their visual or audio effects, and it felt like they had no impact at all.

If there’s one thing you can usually count on Eastern games to deliver, it’s great combat animations, but in Astellia — at least as an archer — they were at best on par with those you’d see in a ten year old Western WoW clone.

This, at least, could be attributed to beta jankiness. This was a true beta test, not a soft launch, so there’s still time for combat to improved. A lot of the game’s other problems feel pretty deeply ingrained, though.

The worst thing is that without Astellia’s glaring flaws — its overbearing attempts at story-telling, the vague whiffs of child exploitation, and the like — it wouldn’t be memorable for anything at all. There’s really nothing about it that’s unique or interesting — it plays like it was built using a checklist of generic fantasy MMO tropes.

The classes, for instance, are as generic as they come. Warrior, assassin, archer… There’s not even an attempt at originality.

While it seems a bit arbitrary to me, the trend seems to be to compare Astellia to Bless Online, and for my money, Bless is a much better game. Bless had better graphics, a better story, better classes, and better combat.

My archer in AstelliaI’d still tentatively recommend checking out Astellia if/when it becomes free to play, but only as an exercise in kitschy silliness. This is definitely not a game I see as worth playing seriously. It’s all the ridiculousness and creep factor of TERA minus the good combat, which was about the only thing TERA did right.