Restaurant Review: Le Baratin

Details: Located at 26 Greenwich Ave, New York, NY 10011. Official site is http://lebaratinnyc.com/.

Le Baratin is a French restaurant specializing in your average French fare (i.e. bistro style food). It reminded me a lot of Le Parisienne which I reviewed some time go.

The space was small (maybe twenty seats) and cozy. The menu was short as well, but I usually interpret that as a good sign. To me, it means they are good and focused on what they make and don’t waste time trying to make a million different things.

They had a prix fixe menu which we all went with. We ordered the Pate Maison (comes with salad and cornichons), the Bavette Frites (steak with french fries), and the Cordon Bleu (comes with mash potatoes).

Everything was really good. The steak was tender and the sauce was delicious. The fries were nice, but it doesn’t take a genius to do french fries. The Cordon Bleu… tasted like Cordon Bleu.

Score: 6.5/10 Pretty good. A nice, casual place for dinner.

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TV Show Review: True Detective (2014) Season Two Episodes One and Two

The first season of True Detective conveyed very specific things to viewers. It gave a glimpse at the gritty, lower levels of Louisiana society. You got a great character study on McConaughey’s and Woody Harrelson’s characters. You got a freaky crime mystery. And most importantly, the tone of True Detective season one is unique, somber and often terrifying.

True Detective season two does not feel unique. It feels like a series trying and failing at recreating what was great about season one. And they are trying, it’s just not working right now. I think a big part of the reason for this is that it the casting. McConaughey and Harrelson were perfectly cast for season 1. Season two… isn’t as good. There are a lot of core characters versus just the two in season one and I’m not sure they spend enough time with each. There isn’t enough character development. There are also some snippets of Los Angeles and the criminal aspect of that society, but it doesn’t give me the same kind of poignant feeling that rural Louisiana did.

I will give this season some credit. After what happened in episode two, it is clear that this season will try to be a little more unpredictable or shocking than the last.

Score: 5.5/10 This is just a preliminary score. Who knows where the rest of the season will take us. I feel bad for comparing this to the masterpiece of season one. It isn’t as good, but it’s still a satisfactory show.

TV Show Review: Suits (2011) Season Five Episodes One and Two

After these last four seasons, I’ve figured out what I love most about Suits. I love scenes with Lewis and Donna. I love the humor. I enjoy watching Jessica mentor, protect, and smack down the rest of the cast. I enjoy some legal drama, but that isn’t the core of this show to me. I love these characters and how they interact. They’re a family; a work family and what I love about suits is about watching the drama between such close coworkers.

What I don’t like about Suits was the whole Mike conflict where every episode someone was going to figure out Mike didn’t go to law school. It was an interesting idea for the pilot, but after four seasons you’re just beating a dead horse. I’m very glad they left that plot line behind. I also tire of seeing the predictable cheating/love triangle that every piece of mainstream entertainment includes just for the heck of it. Love triangles are predictable, derivative, and — in my opinion — just muscle memory for writer to include into a story line. I don’t enjoy them and I’m very happy they left that stuff behind. The closest thing to cheating and breaking up is Donna going to Lewis and I love that plot line.

I feel this season is finally the season that gets it exactly right. These first two episode leave out all the crap from the other seasons I did not enjoy and gets right to what I love: the legal work drama, the humor and the heart of the characters. Harvey and Lewis fight like brothers. Donna and Harvey are not lovers nor are they brother and sister, but the separation is still poignant. A little legal jargon is welcome, but it doesn’t need to be an existential crisis each and every time. Mike is with Rachel and everything is fine… for now. I hope it stay that way. Leave cheap love triangle plot devices out. Discussion of prenuptial agreements is fine and apt for a legal drama. More jokes are great and I love any scenes with Lewis and Donna.

Score: 7/10 Great opening. Had everything I loved about Suits in these opening episodes. Looking forward to the rest of the season.

Video Game Review: The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings Enhanced Edition (2011)

Details: Played on PC for about twenty eight hours.

The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is an action, role playing game released back in 2011. The Enhanced Edition was released in 2012.

As I played through the game, it was clear that the developers tried to create something many games try to: they tried to create a large, complex story that gave the player choices with real consequences. They also tried to make it so that there were no correct choices. Whatever you choose, there will be consequences both good and bad. Consequences will not be what you expect them to be. In this regard, the Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings is a resounding success and wonderful adventure.

That’s not to say there aren’t flaws. The primary flaw is unfortunately related to this games greatest accomplishment: its story. There is just so much story and the Witcher 2 does not spoon feed you its lore or its story. It instead throws you into the deep end head first. So many names and countries come your way that it is easy to get lost and to feel apathetic to everything going on. You really have to try to care and remember what things are and — if you do — you will be rewarded with a deep story and a detail oriented world. I did not play the first Witcher game, but I imagine that would have also helped in immersing myself in this world. There are also a series of books the game is based off of if you want even more immersion.

With that said, the story is pretty great. It’s all very Shakespearean/Lord of the Rings-y/Game of Thrones-esque with all the blood, guts, nudity, and sex you’d imagine. There are numerous choices which branch out in meaningful and distinct ways. One decision in particular during the first act/chapter drastically changes the whole story for the rest of the game. To truly get the full experience from this game, you would have to play through at least twice so as to make both decisions and see how they play out.

It’s an impressive and daring way to design a game. Most games of this genre often have choices in them, but build into the game a canonical story line. This is sometimes called the “true,” the “complete,” or the “perfect” story line which the player only achieves if he makes the “right” choices and completes all the necessary quests provided in the game. The Witcher 2 does away with that by creating a story line where bad and good things happen regardless of the choices you make. There is no right choice in this game, no “perfect” course of events and that is an amazing things. When I played this game I played it a little like real life; I made my choices to the best of my ability and I lived with the consequences. Some players might play the game twice so that they can see everything, but I did not. I treated my choices and this story with respect because the game treats the gamer with respect. There is no definitive right or wrong in the world of Witcher 2 and no matter what you choose, things often don’t turn out the way you expect.

Also worth mentioning is that this isn’t an open world game. This is a linear story and you travel to new locations as you progress through this story with no option to return to prior locations. There is some element of exploration, but it is very minor.

As for gameplay, the Witcher 2 is an action RPG somewhat reminiscent of Dark Souls/Bloodborne. You run around, swing your sword, do a dodge role, cast magic, lay traps and throw bombs. It’s all very fun and maybe a little simplistic. There is certainly some difficulty involved and the player is expected to treat the combat like they would treat the story: with respect. With that said, all I really did was hit the dodge button, roll around, attack, rinse and repeat. The gameplay could use some tweaking.

The graphics and art direction are amazing. Easily the best part of this game. It is a very detailed, gorgeous world and pleasure to look at. The only thing that bothered my were the shadows. I thought something was wrong when I saw them but, after searching the internet, it turns out they were intended to look that way. They look kind of cross-stitched at times. I mostly forgot about it as I progressed through the game.

The music is wonderful. Large orchestral pieces as expected of the fantasy genre. The more action-y parts were well scored, too.

Score: 8/10 Great game. Hyped me up for The Witched 3: Wild Hunt. I will probably get Witcher 3 sometime in the future, after the two expansions are released.

TV Show Review: Star Wars Rebels (2014) Season Two Episode One

Details: Airs on Disney XD.

All you need to know about this episode is one thing: Vader.

The most surprising thing about Star Wars Rebels and this episode especially is how much of the actual Star Wars movies and canon is involved in this show. If you don’t know, ever since Disney purchased the Star Wars franchise, all the past Star Wars stories (books, television, video games, etc.) were confirmed to have nothing to do with the movies and were decidedly not part of the Star Wars canon. Everything that comes afterwards however (including television shows and comic books) is now part of the official canon from the movies and is all being overseen by a Star Wars brain trust somewhere in the Disney corporation.

With that understanding, this episode becomes that much more amazing. Historically, the use of Darth Vader has never been permitted to a certain extent. This episode shows that now he can be. In fact, Star Wars Rebels goes ahead and writes new history for the Star Wars franchise and — miraculously — it all resides within the same universe as the Star Wars movies.

Accordingly, we can now understand that the Clone Wars television series is part of the official Star Wars canon as well as the character Ahsoka Tano. All the characters in the show: part of the official canon. The possibility exists that we may even see them in the movies one day!

To further reinforce the idea of how official this show is now, actors from the Star Wars films reprise their roles for this episode. James Earl Jones actually does the voice of Vader. Billy Dee Williams reprises his role of Lando Calrissian. And I’m happy to say Ashley Eckstein reprises her role of Ahsoka Tano. Given this cast, the episode was a real treat.

As for the story, it was tense and exciting. Vader takes the role of master schemer and formulates a plan similar to the one in A New Hope (tracking device, then ambush). He also presses the tension by becoming something like the Terminator; an unstoppable force that you can only defend against and flee from. The best parts of the episode are seeing the protagonists get ambushed by Vader and try to escape his wrath. You truly get a sense for how powerful he is and how feared he is in the Star Wars universe.

Score: 7.5/10 A fun episode that introduces possibilities for future episodes. Will we see Mark Hamill reprise his role as Luke Skywalker? Hamill has become a legendary voice actor in his own right for his work as the Joker. Less likely is Harrison Ford who is still exclusively a big time movie actor. Only time will tell and — as this episode expresses — anything is possible.

Discussion: Why Mass Effect 2 Is One of the Greatest Games of All Time

To this day, I think most people will agree that Mass Effect 2 was amazing. This is true even in spite of the controversy with Mass Effect 3’s ending. In my opinion, it is in the same category as Final Fantasy VII in terms of legendary role playing games. It is Mass Effect’s The Empire Strikes Back. Mass Effect 2 is, in my opinion, an unparalleled masterpiece and there are so many reasons for this. Spoilers ahead.

Graphics, Music, Voice Acting

Let’s get the basics out of the way. At the time of release (2010) Mass Effect 2 looked amazing. It still looks amazing and holds up surprisingly well (as you can tell from the trailer). The music is great. It’s the exact kind of electronic-classical space opera-esque music you look forward to when approaching this kind of science fiction. The voice acting was also top notch and includes some familiar and experienced voice actors.

Gameplay – Combat, Character Progression

While the visual and audio elements of Mass Effect 2 were clear improvements over the first Mass Effect, whether or not the gameplay improved is debatable. The action was not original, but it didn’t need to be. It was essentially Gears of War-ish third person shooter with a similar cover system. Biotics added another element to the combat. I think most people were okay with this; the real problem was the simplified leveling. I can see how some might feel that it dumbs down the difficulty and removed strategy and planning from the game. Personally, I enjoyed the simplified stat allocations and equipment. It let me focus on the story and the action rather than the mathematics of leveling up. I can understand if some feel otherwise and desired a more complex leveling system though.

Character Creation

Mass Effect 2 was one of the first games which allowed a male and female protagonist in the character creation. Both the male and female protagonist were fully voiced. It was a thoughtful inclusion and greatly appreciated by many who did not want to be forced to play as a male character.

Story/Narrative

Now we get to the good stuff. Mass Effect 2’s story is essentially that of a bank heist movie. You have this big job you need to pull off (head to the center of the galaxy and defeat the Collectors) and you need to assemble a crew of multi-talented individuals to fill the roles needed to pull this job off. It is a tale that has been retold many times in mainstream media, but works wonderfully.

Every time you meet a character you’re left wondering if this person is someone who will help you or someone your gonna have to fight later on. You’re never sure. You see familiar faces from the first Mass Effect and you hope they join your crew. Some do. Some hate you and don’t. It’s a surprising story and there are many twists for who joins your crew and how they join your crew.

After you assemble your crew, then you’re encouraged — but not forced — to do a favor (a loyalty mission) for them in order to build camaraderie and morale. Additionally, the missions for each of your crew members are some of the best missions in the game.

For instance, Garrus’ (who returns from the first game) loyalty mission requires hunting down someone Garrus wants dead. Eventually, you find your target and Garrus tells you to go distract the target while Garrus sets up a sniper rifle to pick off the guy. During this sequence, you see things from the perspective of Garrus’ sniper scope and — depending on your decisions — you can convince Garrus to spare the person or let Garrus kill him. There are times during this mission where you can step in front of the sniper scope in order to block the shop and protect the target. It’s a creative and tense mission that at the same time empowers the player with the choice of killing or saving.

Mass Effect 2 is an intimate story. Very much like how the first Star Wars movie’s main accomplishment was the establishment of this vast world, so too does the first Mass Effect game. Now we get to the emotion and intimacy of the characters. Now we get The Empire Strikes Back; we figure out what makes our characters tick. Mass Effect 2 brought color to an otherwise conventional science fiction narrative.

All these elements lead to — what is in my opinion — the most monumental aspect of Mass Effect 2 and what puts it into the class of legendary games like Final Fantasy VII or Shin Megami Tensei Persona 4: the ending.

That damn, amazing ENDING. OF COURSE THERE’S SPOILERS. 

So you’ve assembled your crew. You’ve upgraded your ship. You’ve gathered all the clues you needed from the main plot line and you’re ready to launch the final (and likely suicidal) assault on the Collector’s main base in the center of the galaxy and defeat them once and for all. Everything you’ve done in the entire game was for this. Save your game. This is the final mission. This is spectacular.

The final mission is broken up into multiple phases. First is your arrival. You’re ship jumps through the Warp Relay and arrives in Collector space. There is debris everywhere. You’re ship is crashing into just about everything. Turns out, the Collector’s home base, the center of the galaxy, is a space ship graveyard. Among the debris are enemies and they come to attack and board the ship.

It is here that you get your first real wake up call. A laser from an enemy fighter clips through the ship and — if you upgraded the ship armor like Jack told you those hundred times — you would be fine and you’ll survive. If you DID NOT UPGRADE THE SHIP ARMOR, then JACK WILL DIE. Permanently. All that time spent fighting/leveling along side her, bonding with her and uncovering her past, and possibly pursuing a romance with her ARE NOW OVER BECAUSE YOU DID NOT UPGRADE THE DAMN SHIP ARMOR. And now you realize, if you did not spend the time to do every damn thing that your crew has been telling you to do the entire game, someone is probably going to die for it. Someone you care about. It is a stark moment and — if Jack died — a moment you realize that everyone on this mission may very well die by the end of this game. At the very least, we know that Jack ain’t coming back for Mass Effect 3.

So we get through this. We fight off the enemies and crash land at the Collector base. Here we come up with our plan. First, we need to pick a tech specialist to climb through a vent and open an door. After watching Jack die, you now realize you need to be fracking careful and pick someone who is ACTUALLY A TECH SPECIALIST and who you’ve DONE THE LOYALTY MISSION FOR. It’s Tali or Legion. And who knows, whoever you send is probably going to die anyway. Legion it is. Next you need to divide into two squads: a diversion squad and your squad. You also need to pick leader for the diversion squad. It’s gotta be Miranda. I totally romanced the crap out of her, but she’s loyal and genetically predisposed to lead so I’ll take that risk. If Bioware decides to disintegrate the entire diversion team, so be it. I’m tired of Bioware’s crap. At least a loyal Miranda will increase the likelihood they survive. You then pick who is in each squad. Of course I pick the people I would like to live the most (I’m looking at you Tali) into my squad. I send the people I don’t care for, ironically the toughest looking guys into the diversion team and into their likely deaths. Hmm… maybe they’ll live after all. Oh well. Now we disembark and I tighten my butt cheeks for whatever comes next.

From this point onward, WAVES upon WAVES of enemies will attack you until you reach the final boss. It is endless. The level is also incredible. Platforms rise and fall and the terrain constantly changes. Harbinger, the big baddy who has been trolling you this entire time, continues to TROLL YOU by possessing a random enemy and becoming super powerful. And you have to kill all these dudes and survive the endless onslaught.

But priorities first: someone’s gotta go into that damn vent and unlock a door. So Legion gets into the vent and screw him because he’s just a walking iPhone. You fight waves of enemies and unlock valves blocking Legion and — to my surprise — Legion makes it. He gets out of that death trap of a vent and unlocks the door. As you run inside and Legion is closing the door behind you, A RANDOM ENERGY BLAST FROM NOWHERE HITS LEGION AND HE FRACKING DIES. WHAT THE HELL. He survived the vent only to get hit by some random gun blast and DIES?!?! ANYONE CAN DIE AT ANY TIME. NO ONE IS SAFE. Damn you Bioware… my anus is now perpetually clenched.

So we get through and now we split up. Diversion team holds the line while me and my team go kill the big bad boss. We say our goodbyes and I silently acknowledge that I will likely never see any members of the diversion team ever again. Goodbye Miranda. Our love was short, but at least I have Ashley/Liara still waiting for me somewhere.

We come up to room of pods with people in them and find — thank goodness — our old pal Kelly in one of the pods. Unfortunately, we can’t get her out fast enough and she GETS LIQUEFIED IN HORRIBLE AGONY. WHAT THE HELL BIOWARE. ARE YOU JUST TROLLING FOR FUN?!?! Anyways, we save half the crew while the other half dies in horrible agony. Dr. Chakwas is happy to be alive but mad at us for not saving everyone. I read somewhere later that if you came to the final mission the moment it became available, you would’ve saved everyone. FRACK. I just had to do that last side mission. Sorry Kelly.

So we send the survivors back to the ship along with one of my crew mates. I have no idea if I’m sending the surviving crew to their deaths or saving them so I send someone at random. Bye Jacob. We get to the next part and we need a biotic to put up a force field against clouds of locusts so we can progress. Thank goodness I kept Samara because if not, sending Jacob back with the crew would likely have been the death of us. We fight our way through and Samara looks drained. I’m fully expecting Samara to die even though I killed her daughter in that loyalty mission and gained her damn loyalty. Luckily, she lives. Phew. Thanks for letting someone live Bioware.

We progress through another room and meet with the diversion team. Miranda gets shot, but lives. I read somewhere later that if the leader wasn’t loyal, they would die. Further, if the biotic from the last part wasn’t loyal, the biotic (Samara in this case) wouldn’t die, but the poor bastard protecting our rear would be CARRIED OFF BY A SWARM OF LOCUSTS. Thankfully, I don’t remember anyone dying here for me.

Again, you now pick a team to hold the line while you go kill the big boss. I pick my favorites: Tali and Miranda. The rest hold the line led by my boy Jacob. Jabob’s loyal, which is the best I can do for him. Now we go and fight through waves of enemies and make it to the final boss. It is a giant human shaped Reaper. This is why Kelly was liquefied in agony; to make flesh for this giant killer robot. Which we now have to kill.

Before going further, you need to know about the M-920 Cain. The M-920 Cain is essentially a mini-nuke. It has very little ammo, can be upgraded for even more damage, and you will likely kill yourself with it. From the moment I found this baby, I have wanted to use it. However, there has never been a good time; no enemies strong enough to warrant a nuke and never enough ammo to use it haphazardly. Until now.

The moment I saw that giant human-sized reaper crawl up and into its final form, I fracking knew. I knew that I carried this piece of crap gun throughout the entire damn game just so I could use it on this bastard. I spent all my fracking minerals upgrading this ridiculous gun to maximum damage just so I could hit this guy with it. And that’s what I did. It wasn’t easy; the gun needs time to charge up and there is also the travel time of the rocket. Missing is commonplace. But somehow… I shot this baby and it landed right in between the big bosses eyes. And you need to understand, I had no idea how much damage was going to be dealt. I never fired this gun before. So when it hit, IT KILLED HIM IN ONE HIT. I freakin’ one-shotted him with a NUKE. Like David and Goliath, except I used a NUKE. Damn, it felt so good. Ecstasy.

The rest is a blissful blur. The survivors and myself run back to the ship. I read somewhere that your companions from the final fight can die as well as the protagonist. Luckily, there were no more deaths in my play through and I was grateful.

It was a massive mission and we took heavy casualties (sorry Jack, Legion, Kelly, and half the crew), but we won.

In Conclusion

I loved, loved, loved this game. Afterwards I played through it again on New Game Plus mode and this time, everyone survived. It was a nice change to that terrifying first play through. But man oh man, what a play through that first one was. Ultimately, Mass Effect 2 is an experience I will likely remember for the rest of my days. My hope is that future Mass Effect games can in some ways replicate the tension, the fear, and the joy produced from this game.

Great job Bioware, you trolls.

Sorry for not upgrading the ship armor, Jack.

Restaurant Review: Two Boots

Details: Located at 201 W 11th St, New York, NY 10014, among other locations. Official site is http://twoboots.com/

Two Boots is a pizza chain with many store fronts around the city. It’s decent pizza. They have numerous kinds of specialty pizza. It was all decent.

The main reason I came here was because a friend is a level eight vegan and they felt that the vegan pizza at Two Boots was acceptable. So really, that is the only reason to come here. That and maybe convenience.

Score: 4/10

Video Game Review: To The Moon (2011)

Details: Played on the PC for about four hours.

To The Moon is a PC game released back in 2011 using the game making program RPG Maker XP. It looks like the old school games for Super Nintendo.

The game can take anywhere from one hour to three hours. No action or anything since it’s an adventure game or visual novel. You just walk around, look for things, and interact with them.

The music is nice with some SNES style imitation music and some actual piano. There’s also a voiced music track. The music definitely adds to the atmosphere of the game.

The story is interesting. I’ve read a lot of reviews saying how big a tear-jerker it was. I appreciate the story but the old school visuals do take away from it in my opinion. With that said, it was nice and nostalgic seeing a game using that old pixel-y style.

Score: 5/10 It’s an interesting game. I can easily see how some people might love this game with it’s story and graphical style. It’s on sale now on Steam’s summer sale for $2.49. That is exactly the price point I feel this game is worth. Maybe a little less.

Movie Review: Princess Mononoke (1997)

Details: Over two hours long. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

After watching When Marnie Was There and the disappointment that came with it, I decided to go back and watch some of the old Ghibli movies again. I started off with Princess Mononoke and enjoyed it thoroughly.

Princess Mononoke was released back in 1997. It seems to take place in feudal Japan (or further back) and tells the story of a young boy poisoned by a demon. The boy leaves his village to learn more about the affliction and meets a girl (Princess Mononoke) raised by the Wolf god.

The art is lovely as are most animation from Studio Ghibli. The music was fantastic with sweeping orchestral music. Although I prefer Japanese with English subtitles, I watched an English dub and found the voice acting just fine. It did not distract as English dubs often do and if you look it up on imdb.com, you’ll see a lot of familiar voices in the cast. I always appreciate when translations are done with competent or talented voice actors.

The film is told and structured like a fairy tale and has many themes running through the story. The primary theme is one about protecting the environment, which I think is a good message no matter your age. Might not be true if your the CEO of a company that mines, deforests, fracks, etc. Aside from the environmental theme, it is a magical story with talking animals, demons (Asian variety, not Western so more like monsters than biblical demons), princesses, and a heroic peace-seeking protagonist.

Of note is the violence. There is some limb tearing, blood letting, and decapitating going on. I’m sure there are more censored versions which omit those things if they concern you. However, keeping that kind of violence is part of the story in my opinion. The cruelty and danger humans pose to other humans and to the natural world are a core theme in this story. The protagonists constant effort to protect everyone reinforces the idea that a true hero desires to hurt no one. But the protagonist does inflict pain and this is because he is also human being. Despite his efforts, he is not an outside observer, but a participant. The violence helps express this conundrum.

Score: 7/10 It’s a good story and I think expresses a lot of good ideas to children. Whether you want to watch the original version or a censored version is up to you. I prefer to watch it in its entirety, but parents may feel otherwise.