What’s New: Warrior Nun, Theros, Agents of Mayhem, and More

I find myself with a number of topics I wish to discuss — many of which I’d have devoted full posts to back in the day — but I am once again knee deep in my latest project for Dungeon in a Box, and I just don’t have the spoons, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to get the Coles Notes version.

Kinzie "Safeword" Kensington in Agents of Mayhem.Firstly, the last of the birthday presents I bought for myself have arrived. Among other things, I bought myself a bunch of D&D rulebooks, including the newest entry, Mythic Odysseys of Theros.

I was interested in Theros because of the Greek mythology inspiration, but it’s turned out to be far more compelling than I expected, even for reasons beyond the mythological angle. It’s a fascinating setting with tonnes of cool ideas and fresh takes on all kinds of standard fantasy concepts. The fluid line between thought and reality in Theros, in particular, is really exciting. I need more RPG writing projects like I need a bullet in the head, but I’m more than a little tempted to write an adventure or two in Theros — I already like it much better than Forgotten Realms in many ways.

Meanwhile, I’ve watched through season one of Netflix’s new series, Warrior Nun. Between the goofy name and the less than inspiring trailer, I probably never would have bothered with this show, save for the fact it’s brought to us by Simon Barry. Simon Barry also created Continuum, which is one of the best TV series I’ve ever had the pleasure to watch, so anything he’s attached has got to be worth a try.

It’s not Continuum, but I did enjoy Warrior Nun.

Here’s the thing: In most ways, this could be considered a pretty mediocre show. The plots are serviceable, but not remarkable, as are most of the characters. The series is almost entirely carried by the strength of its lead character, Ava, and the actress who plays her, Alba Baptista.

The incredible Alba Baptista as Ava in Netflix's Warrior Nun.Ava is delightful. The “ordinary person thrust into the role of hero” concept is a very common trope, but rarely is it executed effectively. It’s very hard to make a character both heroic and convincing as a normal, relatable person, but Ava nails that balance. From her dorky sense of humour to the palpable sense of joy she has at discovering what is to her a whole new world, she is incredibly relatable and overwhelmingly lovable, even when she’s thrown into the most outlandish of situations.

The are some other positives to Warrior Nun — most notably the character of Sister Beatrice, who is the only cast member who can share a screen with Ava and not be totally eclipsed — but let’s not mince words: Ava is what makes this show worth watching. I haven’t loved any fictional character this much in a long time.

Also on the subject of Netflix, I watched the Charlize Theron film The Old Guard recently. It was okay; a pretty by the numbers action flick, but it works. Don’t expect anything more than a popcorn flick, and you won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of disappointment, though, I also tried Netflix’s Snowpiercer series. I’d heard some friends raving about it, so I decided to give it a try, and… man, it does not live up to the hype.

Snowpiercer is a cartoonishly unsubtle parody of grimdark, post-apocalyptic, and dystopian tropes. It’s so over the top it’s impossible to take it seriously.

A shot from Netflix's Snowpiercer series.I realized I have the same problem with Snowpiercer I do with Star Trek: Discovery. They’re both really dumb shows that think they’re really smart. Being dumb on its own isn’t a dealbreaker; it’s the lack of self-awareness that ruins it. Lucifer is also a very dumb show, but Lucifer knows it’s dumb. It’s all presented with a wink and a nod; everyone is in on the joke.

With Snowpiercer (and to a slightly lesser extent Discovery), there is no self-awareness of how absolutely cartoonish and absurd the series is. It’s all presented with such deadly seriousness. With a few tweaks, it could work as a dark comedy, Tarantino style, but instead it’s a joyless, bleak slog.

On the gaming front, I’ve been working my way through a backlog newly bolstered by the last Steam sale. I recently finished an action RPG called Shadows: Awakening. It was decent, but could have been better. The setting and characters were interesting, but the plot never quite clicked the way it seems like it should have.

Gameplay-wise, it’s main gimmick is its unusual character-swapping mechanic. Essentially, it’s a party-based game, but you can only have one member of the party on the field at the time, so you’re constantly switching between them.

It’s a cool idea, and overall I liked it, but it could have been even better. I would have liked to have seen each character feel more complete and be a viable fighter on their own, making the choice of when to swap more about the tactical needs of the moment. As it is, the limited toolkit and long cooldowns of each character made it feel like the optimal way to play was often to simply cycle through all your characters, spamming all their abilities on cooldown.

Princess Evia delving Kogog'Aak in Shadows: AwakeningI’ve now moved on to open world shooter Agents of Mayhem. The reviews were lukewarm, so my expectations weren’t terribly high, but I’ve found it extremely addictive. It’s pure junk food gaming — thin plot, dumb jokes, mindless action, and an endless firehose of loot and rewards — but damn it, it works. It’s fun. It can be a bit repetitive, to be sure, but I don’t think it’s exceptionally bad offender on that front relative to similar games, and the moment to moment gameplay is so enjoyable it doesn’t really matter.

I didn’t realize it going it, but Agents of Mayhem actually has largely the same character-swapping mechanic as Shadows: Awakening, though I feel it works a bit better in this case.

I’m mostly playing Kinzie “Safeword” Kensington, a hacker focused on debuffing and mind-controlling enemies (apparently a carry-over from the Saints Row franchise, which I’ve never played). She’s full of personality, and her mind control ultimate is hilarious. I’m mainly backing her up with Braddock, a tanky ex-marine with a versatile toolkit, and Oni, a Yakuza assassin with an aura that debuffs nearby enemies.

I like the gameplay and aesthetics of Rama (a DoT-heavy archer) and Lazarus (an even more DoT-heavy nanite-wielder), but they’re both too squishy, and I like Daisy’s aesthetics, but she’s a bit of a one-trick pony mechanically, so they don’t see as much play. The other characters don’t really interest me much, though I will grant Hollywood’s ultimate is pretty fun.

As for what’s next after Agents of Mayhem, I still have plenty of other options in my backlog, but I’m also considering springing for Horizon Zero Dawn when it launches on Steam next month. What I saw of the gameplay during the brief time Moiren streamed it didn’t entirely blow me away, but the setting and aesthetic seems so unique I think I still want to check it out.

Combat in Agents of Mayhem.Finally, as I’m writing this I’ve just finished off the final season of Alice Isn’t Dead, the mystery/thriller podcast from the creators of Welcome to Night Vale. The ending felt a bit too sudden and a bit too simple, but overall I think the final season was probably the best. The way they shook up the formula really added new life to the show, I think.

Star Trek Musings: Picard’s Premiere, Discovery Season Two, and STO

Despite years of feeling like my Trek fandom has been left behind, I find myself quite steeped in Star Trek lately. There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get to it.

Picard:

The official logo for Star Trek: Picard.Let’s start with what everyone is talking about: Picard.

As someone who grew up with TNG, it’s hard to remember the last time any piece of media felt as much like an event as this does. I’ve been filled with enormous hope, but also great worry that they’ll screw it up. Truthfully, I just didn’t know what to expect.

The first episode hasn’t done a whole lot to clarify my feelings, honestly.

There is a lot to love. There absolutely is. It goes without saying that Patrick Stewart is absolutely flawless. He always has been, and even if everything else was bad, the show could possibly be worth it for him alone.

Thankfully, he’s not the only thing Picard has going for it.

For one thing, this is quite possibly the most beautiful, aesthetically masterful piece of television I’ve ever seen. Picard has the sumptuous production values of Discovery, but rather than being flashy and extravagant, it feels lived in and homey. Every shot feels like a work of art, and the soundtrack is stunningly beautiful.

Picard is amazingly rooted in what’s come before. As a fan of Nemesis, I feared it might be somewhat swept under the rug, being an unpopular film, but Picard is almost entirely a direct sequel to it. Even beyond that, this series is a love-letter to the fans through and through. Subtle callbacks and easter eggs abound, but even the major plot points are the sort of things that you need to have watched a lot of Star Trek to understand.

Jean-Luc Picard and Dahj in Star Trek: Picard.This could be a double-edged sword. Right now I’d rate the appeal of Picard for anyone who’s not a hardcore Trekkie to be pretty much zero. But on the other hand, it’s wonderful from the perspective of someone who does know and love that source material.

One small thing that maybe shouldn’t matter but which I really appreciated is that every single alien we’ve seen so far, even extras, are from pre-established species. Romulan, Tellarite, Xahean. It makes the Trek universe feel more like a real place, something Picard is already doing an excellent job across the board.

It’s not all good news, though. I do still see some cause for concern.

The first half or so of Picard’s premiere is pretty much perfect, but after that things start to slip a bit. It slides a bit more towards the kind of cheap shocks and sensationalism that have dogged Discovery. It’s nowhere near as bad as Discovery yet, but it does leave me worried.

Ultimately, this is a show that’s clearly playing the long game with its story. You can’t really rate the first episode individually. It’s just the first part of a much bigger picture. Future developments could justify what seem like missteps now… or just make them worse.

All things considered, Picard’s first episode does an admirable job of living up to the mountainous expectations placed on it, but my worries are not entirely erased. There’s still lots of room for this to go badly wrong, and modern Star Trek doesn’t have a great track record for quality.

Agnes in Star Trek: Picard.Speaking of modern Star Trek…

Discovery: Season two

I pretty much gave up on Discovery after what I will generously call a rough first season. However, I heard from enough people that season two was better that I eventually caved and decided to give it another shot. I finished up just in time for Picard to start.

In some ways, season two of Discovery is a lot like the first. But in other ways — in just enough ways — it’s quite different.

The main thing that Discovery’s second season shares with the first is that they are both — to put it bluntly — really, really stupid. Season two’s meta plot is crushingly convoluted and riddled with enormous plot holes, and it completely falls apart under any kind of inspection.

Season one was dumb, too, and worse still it wasn’t even an enjoyable story. It was a dull, lifeless slog full of cheap shock value and terrible, occasionally offensive story choices.

At times, season two slips back into that. The most egregious example is what they’ve done with the character of Saru. Once a highlight of the show, season two manages to nullify pretty much everything that made him compelling as a character.

Doug Jones as Commander Saru in Star Trek: DiscoverySaru was introduced as a member of a prey species who live in constant, instinctual fear. It was a really unique concept for an alien race, and as someone who suffers from chronic anxiety, I identified with Saru in a way I rarely can with fictional characters.

Season two reveals that Saru’s species are not the prey but in fact apex predators once they reach a certain age. Firstly, this completely sabotages what made his race different. Now they’re just Klingons with better manners.

Secondly, the idea that chronic anxiety is something you can just grow out of is breathtakingly tone-deaf and downright offensive. It’s akin to writing a story where a gay person realizes they were straight all along once they meet the “right” person. It’s awful.

However, offensive stupid like that is thankfully the exception in Discovery’s second season. The whole arc is dumb, but most of the time it’s fun dumb. There are worse sins for a story to commit than to be dumb. Discovery’s first season was stupid and boring. Its second season is stupid and entertaining.

As always, Discovery knocks it out of the park visually, with state of the art special effects, spectacular art design, and lots of battle scenes filled with eye candy.

But what really makes the second season work where the first didn’t is that it has heart. There are many moments where the characters risk life and limb to do the right thing, with no real motivation beyond the fact that it is the right thing. That’s what Star Trek is all about, and though Discovery gets so much else wrong, that’s the one thing it really needs to get right. The first season didn’t, but the second does.

Michael Burnham in Star Trek: DiscoveryAs of now, I would consider myself converted to Discovery. It’s still a long, long way from my favourite Trek series, and there’s still a lot wrong with it, but it does now feel at least worth my time, with occasional flashes of true greatness.

STO update

And while I’m rambling about Star Trek, I might as well give an update on my continued adventures in Star Trek Online (beyond what was already said in my recent column).

I continue to mostly enjoy my time there, somewhat to my own surprise. I’ve said before it’s a very rough game, and it’s not getting any less rough the farther into it I get.

I played through the starter stories for both other major factions — oddly, the Starfleet content is shockingly brief, and Klingons don’t fare much better — and returned to playing my Rommie full time. She’s now at level cap and delving into the faction-agnostic story arcs.

Turns out this game has a pretty sharp difficulty spike at max level. I’ve gone from waltzing over enemies to struggling to stay alive on nearly every fight. This might bother me more, except there doesn’t seem to be an real death penalty in this game (as it should be, IMO). That makes the difficulty less frustrating and more a problem to be solved.

I am hoping to upgrade my gear some. To my dismay, the main source of endgame progression in STO seems to be reputation grinds, which I consider the very lowest form of MMO content, but on the plus side the lower tiers of reputation aren’t too hard to unlock. It could be far worse.

Space station Deep Space Nine in Star Trek Online.I’m also still playing my Starfleet character, an Andorian science officer, here and there. I switch over to her for story arcs that feel more appropriate for a Starfleet officer, like helping out the Bajorans. One thing that’s really nice about STO is that you can play through the missions in any order, and everything has level-scaling, so I can hop between the two characters at will without repeating any story or worrying about falling behind. This is an extremely alt-friendly game.

I still half expect myself to drop this game at any moment, but for now it’s still keeping my attention, if only because I’ve got Trek on the brain these days.

On top of everything else, one of my friends is now forming plans for a Star Trek tabletop RPG one-shot…