All Is Lost (2013)

One of my favorite things to watch is other people dealing with problems. They can be out of this world science-fiction problems or they can be terrestrial problems and All is Lost is more of the latter. Robert Redford plays an unnamed (“Our Man” in the credits) sailor on a solo sailing voyage. Unfortunately everything goes wrong. 

The hull gets a big hole. 
Our Man’s patch job kinda works? 
He hits his head.
The supplies are running low.

…and on and on.

This is a beautiful struggle and there isn’t much else to say. Redford does a terrific job in the role, and it is truly painful to watch him struggle to get out of the situation. 

Perhaps then the question is: Who gets to sail? Our Man’s boat isn’t the fanciest ship, but maintenance is clearly expensive, as are other fees, and Redford’s character could easily be a millionaire on his little voyage out of his element, but he clearly seems to know what he is doing.

I’ll never be rich enough to sail like this, unless some stroke of luck changes things, and I’m not sure I’d want to. So maybe this is a kind of voyage-fiction. It is alien to imagine myself on a boat at sea.

If I had to compare All Is Lost, it’d be to The Martian, but without anyone backing the protagonist up, it’s almost more dangerous to be on the open ocean than on Mars.

In that we can thank Redford for pretending to go out to the open sea so we don’t, and I sure wouldn’t want to after watching his struggles.

Rating: 4 out of 5.
video games

Safe House Review


Labs Games promises a marriage between Papers, Please, Sim Tower, and the adventures of James Bond in Safe House. It sounds like a fascinating concept to take a bit of the bureaucratic paper shuffling puzzles and themes from Papers, Please and put those within a building management simulation. That idea grabbed me when I first read about it. It could be very interesting to play the part of a CIA safe house manager in the fictional city of Kazataire.

From midnight each in-game night until ten in the morning I had to decide who to let in the front door of the “book store,” which deliveries to let in around back, who gets interrogated, and what missions my spies and soldiers would take. The side-on cutout view of the building looks like Fallout Shelter’s vault and the base of operations in XCom.

If you complete your management tasks correctly, and if your soldiers and spies complete theirs, you’ll earn cash to upgrade the safe house with different rooms that give you new tasks. Those new rooms can also be upgraded over time. Slowly transforming your safe house from an empty office building into a busy money-generating operation for the CIA.

The description for the game calls the tasks in each room puzzles, and they end up being the bulk of what you’re doing with your time in Safe House, so it’s important that they’re interesting to complete. Unfortunately, while there are a variety of those tasks to do, they lack the fun and polish other games apply to make those types of puzzles interesting. Sure, it sounds different to assemble the ingredients for an improvised explosive device in your safe house’s bomb making room, but the actual experience is just reading a list of random components and then clicking on each one in the correct order until you’ve assembled three bombs. The challenge here is that some of the ingredients have similar-sounding names so it can take a few moments to tell Trolite from Tritolone and Tritolite.

Bomb making instructions

In the infirmary a patient will materialize out of thin air. Here you would consult the instructions that tell you how to infuse the patient with the correct type of blood and a type of medicine to treat whatever problem they have. Each patient has three ingredients they’re allergic to, so you have another list to read with similar-sounding names until you find just the right one. If you give the agents that show up in the infirmary correctly typed blood, and the right medications, they disappear from the room the same way that patients you’ve failed will pass on.

The only difference between success and failure with any of these tasks is the dollar amount that appears briefly on-screen. The game never tells you what you did wrong with the tasks you fail, it just deducts the cash that you would have gotten from your safe house’s bank balance. The bombs you make don’t get used in the game. The patients you treat aren’t your agents that were harmed on missions, they’re just random nobodies.

When you deal with the spies that come in the front door, and you correctly identify the ones to let in, they don’t actually go into your safe house. They just depart with the same animation that spies you misidentify or kick out use to leave. Strangely, they disappear a few steps out of the door. That’s the most animation you’ll see in a typical night of managing your safe house.

There could be some way to make theses tasks less repetitive and more rewarding, but every job in the game is just as tedious. I want to see the results of the actions in the game. If I let the wrong person in the front door it’d be interesting to have them run through your safe house and steal a document or let a prisoner go, or mess with your dossier so that you can’t see some key piece of information for that day. Cascading failures make games like this interesting. In Fallout Shelter when something goes wrong it’s up to your survivors to fend off attacks or repair broken systems that your vault needs to function. The spies and soldiers you hire in Safe House move about in their room or barracks a little but they don’t ever walk around outside it or have any interaction with the other rooms.

There aren’t enough consequences to your actions in Safe House. Sure a monetary penalty is bad, but it’s not bad enough, and the experience of Safe House is playing these same droll mini-games over and over again until the night is over and you move on to the next day where you have the option to make new rooms or upgrade old ones and recruit or send agents and soldiers on missions.

Good lord

There’s a stereotypical 1960’s look and sound to games about spies that this game feels like it is leaning towards but doesn’t quite make it there. The audio is complete with the smoothest muzak from an elevator and a few audio brief notes to alert you to your success or failure and when it is time to see which one of the safe house’s rooms needs your attention for the next task.

From a small development team, I didn’t expect much in terms of graphical prowess, but the faces on the polygonal characters in your safe house just don’t make sense. The person that works at the loading dock has a permanent joker grin that looks straight out of the Batman animated series. When you get a barracks for soldiers or spy lounge you’ll see 2D character portraits for those characters that look a little bit like they’re from Penny Arcade before that comic turned into an unreadable mess thanks to PA’s creators being complete shitheads, but that style doesn’t really match the style of Safe House. The upgrades to the different rooms change each one a little bit, but that’s the only change you’ll see over time once each room in the building is occupied.

There are all sorts of software bugs within Safe House that get in the way of completing the campaign. Sometimes creating identification in the forgery room would fail for no apparent reason. The mission success reports often misspell words like “scientists,” “carriage,” and “comfortable.” I found about a dozen or so other issues I had with the game, none of these reset my progress but they all added up to a general sense that this game could use a lot more attention from the developer before it shipped.

The most disappointing part of Safe House is that it has an inkling of a story inside it about colonialism and American interventions on the behalf of business interests, with multiple endings, but it never earns the dramatic turns it takes. One time when Safe House turns in this direction your interrogation room that you thought was just for interviews is revealed to be a torture facility once it is fully upgraded. Your in-game avatar is shocked, other characters reveal who they actually are, and things change in the game. It could have been a very interesting turn of events if the game had an engrossing story from the start, but it never made me care about those characters.

Safe House has multiple endings, but after going through hours of repetitive tasks I didn’t want to play through the tutorial at the start of the game, and then 5 more hours of the gameplay Safe House had to offer, just to see each ending.

The premise of operating a CIA safe house is fascinating, there was clearly some thought put into style and sound design, but Safe House lacks the depth of other games that specialize in building a city or a tower, managing people, or old spy movies. The lack of polish is entirely excusable from a one-person developer, but the gameplay couldn’t live up to the concept. Papers, Please, Sim Tower, and James Bond are three ideas that probably can’t work together, but I really wish they had.

1 out of 5 Panic Rooms for Safe House. It’s $10 on Steam for Windows.

Happier times


Google AIY Voice Kit Review

AIY Voice Kit box

Google is selling a DIY smart speaker kit in the US through Target stores. They call it an AIY Voice Kit with the sub-heading of a “Do-it-yourself intelligent speaker.” Is it a kit that lives up to what the box promises for only $50? Let’s find out, together.

I’m not super fond of Google, they’re great at search but really make their money today by selling advertising space on websites. In my opinion, their “don’t be evil” motto has shifted as their priorities changed. There’s always the upfront cost of a product ($50) but with any smart speaker device there’s also the intangible cost of allowing a company to listen to, and process, whatever it can hear.

Ideally a smart speaker would only listen after a physical input, or most smart speakers also have a wake word to summon the device to interpret your speech and do something with it.  This kit has an arcade button on top for physical input if that’s your game.

The do-it-yourself aspect is mostly fun, you assemble the included bare speaker, wires, cardboard, arcade button, and a Raspberry Pi Zero WH with Google’s Voice Bonnet add-on board to make the smart speaker. It’s not very difficult to put this kit together, the instructions are clear, but it is missing two things you’ll need, and one critical component of the setup requires other tools or devices.

You’ll need a very small flathead screwdriver to connect the speaker cables to the terminals. I happen to have the right screwdriver, but these terminal screws are incredibly tiny. Your regular household tools aren’t going to work with them.

It only takes about an hour before you’re putting the included Micro SD card in and powering the speaker up, or you would be. If there were a power supply included. You get a USB cable in the box, but no power connection.

Why not include the power supply and the screwdriver in the box? The screwdriver is almost understandable, because you could own one already if you’re into technology. The power supply is just necessary for the device to function, it makes no sense to me that it isn’t included in a general-purpose kit.


There’s one other small issue with the connections inside the kit. The wires to connect the arcade button are not friendly to the color blind. I am only mildly color blind, so I can’t differentiate between some colors with red and green in them. The arcade button wires are blue, green, grey, black, red, and orange. I had a hard time picking out the green from the grey and the red from the orange.

Okay you’ve got the kit assembled, and you’ve found a power supply to turn it on.

How do you connect to the box so that you can get it on your home WiFi?

The Rapsberry Pi Zero WH included with the kit has USB, it has HDMI, but they’re all mini connectors that need adapters and a hub to connect a keyboard and mouse. The other option, and this is what I chose, is to use an app that is only available for Android devices to get the diy smart speaker onto WiFi and find out the IP address so you can connect to it via SSH.

Once you get that IP address, and learn SSH and the Linux shell, you’re in business with a shell prompt at a Linux terminal running a variant of Raspian that Google’s engineers modified to support their Voice Bonnet.

Finally, you’ve got a smart speaker, right?

This is the real thing that kills this project, it doesn’t include any kind of hot-word, or wake-word, detection. Just like hotkeys, hotwords like “Hey, Siri,” and “Okay, Google” tell our phones and other smart speakers to start listening. Ideally the processing for these prompts happens on the device so they’re not just uploading everything you say to Apple’s, Google’s, or Amazon’s, servers.

This AIY smart speaker box promises, on the back, a “…smart device that understands and responds when you speak.” I don’t think that is truthful. It is not at all a smart speaker that listens when you speak, you have to press the arcade button before the included Python code will fetch Google’s assistant to start listening and interpreting your words into a reply. It’s an infuriating experience to have to press that button, especially whenever Google’s assistant demands interaction.

Google’s assistant can play a MadLibs game with you. Just like the real game, you supply the nouns, verbs, and adjectives and the assistant fills in a virtual MadLibs sheet to make a silly story. Unlike the real game, you have to press the stupid button each time the assistant needs the next word.

The times when I’d press the button there was no guarantee the assistant would listen. Many times it would just ignore me and I’d have to press the button again. I ended up pressing the button about 25 times to get 18 words into the MadLibs game. I don’t think I will ever do that again.

This built-in python-based assistant code was just slow to react and frustrating to interact with.

It was also incredibly limited compared to other assistants and even the iOS version of Google’s assistant is easier to use. This smart speaker version of Google’s assistant can’t even access your calendar or other information tied to your Google account.

So, overall it’s a pretty disappointing device as shipped by Google. But this is a DIY thing, right? Well, I haven’t found much of an active development community around it. The forums for Google’s “AIY” projects are sparsely populated and the best use I’ve gotten out of the device was to load free software onto it that made the assembled device into a genuinely useful AirPlay speaker.

Some of the replies from Google engineers on these forums indicate that more functionality could come to the device soon, but I don’t think they have any plans to add hot-word detection.

The most surprising thing I’ve found on that forum is that there was an older version of this project that included hot-word detection. This was possible when version 1 was based on the more capable Raspberry Pi 3 single-board computer. Apparently this is version 2 of their voice kit.

I don’t understand a lot of the choices Google made here, but the most important question is: Why did they drop the hot-word detection? Why don’t they mention anywhere on the box that you need an Android device or a bunch of adapters so that you can get this device on the network?

Maybe parents buying this kit for teenagers (the box lists it as appropriate for ages 14 and up) were concerned about it listening to them all the time. That’s the only reason I can think of as to why Google decided to drop the smartest feature of a smart speaker, otherwise it’d just be down to cost. The Raspberry Pi Zero WH is about $10, the Raspberry Pi 3 is about $35.

When I first saw this project in the store I knew there had to be some limitations to hit that $50 price point, and it went lower than even my wildly low expectations. I don’t think most people would be happy with the device as a “smart speaker.” Years ago, when you assembled a transistor radio kit, you ended up with a radio. What you end up with here is a very versatile Linux computer kit with microphones and a speaker that could be incredibly useful in the right hands. I turned it into an AirPlay speaker without having to write any code at all, and I haven’t even remarked about the quality of the sound yet — it’s fine in general, but turn it up loud and you’re gonna get distortion — but without hot-word detection this kit is just too dumb to be called smart.

1 out of 5 HomePods for the Google AIY Voice Kit

video games

Super Mario Odyssey (Nintendo Switch) Review


1996’s Super Mario 64 was the first, and the last, 3D Mario game I completed before playing Super Mario Odyssey. 21 years separate these games but they are inexorably linked. I will never forget the first time I saw Mario 64 in motion on a Nintendo 64 kiosk at a major league baseball fan appreciation day. It was an unbelievable triumph of translating the 2D Mario games into a 3D world, even for someone who was in the process of turning into a jaded teenager,

Super Mario Odyssey is a complete continuation, and improvement, on that same exuberant, fun, platforming that impressed everyone, even that horrible teenager, in 1996.

It isn’t perfect, but there are very few meaningful caveats in recommending Odyssey.

The first issue is that while the story is told in fun cutscenes that don’t wear out their welcome, it is just a slight variation on the same tired plot that Bowser has captured Princess Peach, again.

This time Bowser wants to force Peach to marry him, and he has a crew of unlikable rabbits (the Broodals) working as his wedding planners. They’re the mini-bosses scouring every kingdom on the planet for flowers and everything else Bowser wants at the wedding with Peach. Mario has to stop the wedding with his new friend in Cappy, your living hat guy from a kingdom of living hat people. Cappy ends up replacing Mario’s iconic hat, and most of the ranged attacks that Mario would otherwise acquire via pick-ups. When Mario launches Cappy he’ll possess any enemies that aren’t wearing hats (and the occasional bystander frog) in the kingdoms that they travel to.

Mario and Cappy travel onboard a cap-shaped flying machine, the titular Odyssey. It acts like a flying RV on their journey to each kingdom where they will try and cut off Bowser’s minions before they can get everything ready for the wedding.

The Odyssey is powered by collectibles, moons, they’re hidden in each kingdom just like the stars were in Mario 64, except there are hundreds of the moons scattered everywhere. Just like in Mario 64 It’s still a delight to find each moon. My almost-2-year-old son absolutely loves the music and animation that plays each time Mario collects one. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about it, but that reaction epitomizes the Super Mario Odyssey experience. It’s almost all fun, mostly all of the time. You’ll only need a very few per-kingdom to move on but I constantly found myself collecting “just one more,” and before I knew it I had collected dozens to hand in to the Odyssey.

Mario is still on the hunt for coins, of course. Each kingdom that Mario and Cappy visit also has a purple currency specific to it. The inverted pyramid desert level has inverted purple pyramid tokens, for example. You can spend these at the shop in each kingdom and get new costumes, gear to decorate the Odyssey inside and out, and some power-ups. All of the costumes are charming and wonderful like the old Doctor Mario outfit, or more appropriate for the kingdom you’re in like the sombrero and poncho outfit pieces. In each world one of the costumes will unlock a special area with at least one moon, but you can also skip the stores if you’re not interested in Mario Teaches Capitalism Jr. It’s 2017 so I should say there are no loot boxes, premium currencies, DLC, or anything with real money besides purchasing the game.

The worst problem for Odyssey is that the motion controls are abysmal. You have to wiggle the controllers in a circle to get your cap to spin in a circle and slam into every enemy around Mario when he’s surrounded, or just aggressively shake them to get Cappy to home-in on a slightly distant target after launching it.

It’d be different if the controllers that come with the system, the Joy-Cons, weren’t attached to the sides of the Switch while you’re playing in handheld mode. But they  are, and it definitely doesn’t feel like you should be shaking the entire system. There is a work-around for the motion controls most of the time. You can spin the left analog stick in a circle, before launching Cappy, to get that spin attack without shaking your system. This takes a bit longer to perform the action but it still gets it done and is more reliable than the motion controls. Although the homing action is only necessary for some of the more advanced platforming areas, there isn’t any work-around for it that I’ve found.

This is one of the few games that also rewards exploration to the extreme. Launching Cappy enables Mario to perform a series of dives and jumps that can be used to ascend to places he wouldn’t normally be able to get to. I’m not that great at doing this, but if you are then you will find that Nintendo stocks all of these off-the-beaten-path areas with coins. The harder it is to get somewhere the more coins you’ll find, and it’s absolutely great that they do this.

More minor explorational feats are rewarded with moons, but you always feel smart just for finding one by instinct, even if it is really just good game design that lead you there.

Most of the kingdoms Mario and Cappy visit are terrifically designed, a few are bizarrely unexpected in a Mario game, and New Donk City ended up being my favorite. It’s very strange seeing Mario interact with a city of humans that look very different from his bizarro adult toddler form, but that level also goes places that I absolutely didn’t expect. There are things in many of these kingdoms that I wish I hadn’t known about going into them, because they’re so incredible and unexpected that I felt like the surprise was spoiled. I’ll say that even after rescuing Peach there is still more to do in the game, and I definitely have spent more time with it, and leave it at that.

I don’t feel like anyone else could have made Odyssey, there just hasn’t been another 3D platforming game that achieves half of what Odyssey does in the 21 years since Super Mario 64 was released. Almost every kingdom has unique enemies to possess and delightful puzzles to complete. I’m not the first person to say it, but, each kingdom feels like it could be the basis for an entire game that another developer would make and drive the mechanic into the ground before the game is finished. Super Mario Odyssey is a wonderful adventure that really made me happy to have the Switch. As a parent it was a fun game I could share with my son around. As an adult human in 2017 Odyssey is some fantastic sunlight brightening up a terrible year.

5 out of 5 musical Marios for Super Mario Odyssey

video games

Danger Zone Review (Xbox One)

Three Fields Entertainment’s Danger Zone is so close to what we want from a successor to Burnout’s crash mode.

You can skip this next paragraph if you’ve read the last thing, but just for anyone who doesn’t know the context around Three Fields Entertainment’s Danger Zone, here it is:

Burnout was a fantastic game series that I loved, it had arcade-style racing that rewarded you for driving into oncoming traffic (and other absurd stunts) in its races or crashing into as many vehicles as possible in the crash mode. Sadly, that game series is dead and the last big game in the series, Burnout Paradise, had a crappy version of crash mode that isn’t worth talking about.

Danger Zone is all of the good crash mode. You drive a car into an intersection, or series of intersections. Once your car hits a certain number of other cars you get a bonus that lets your car explode and then you can roll your car into more vehicles and more power ups, some of which let your car explode again. There is some thought you have to put into it when you figure out a path to hit everything just so. Do it right and you’ll get a great score by causing the most destruction. It’s a little puzzle of planning out pain.

That stuff, it’s almost all there in Danger Zone, the crashing, the rolling your car through the air to hit other intersections. What they’ve changed from Burnout is the virtual environment Danger Zone takes place in instead of the ostensibly real world that Burnout inhabited. Danger Zone trades cities and their highways for roads that appear to materialize before you after the level loads. All the cars you drive are emblemized to indicate that they’re similar to crash test cars. It’s a mix of the holodeck from Star Trek and the IIHS crash test videos.

The simulation of roads and vehicles lets the level designers get creative and make layouts that could never happen in real life. There are some truly ridiculous levels as you keep playing through the game. Intersections full of the smashbreaker rewards that let you keep rolling on to other roundabouts that float in the air.

Here’s an example of how ridiculous these Danger Zone levels get. In the last tier of levels you’ll find one that has taxi cabs hovering in the sky. They rain down and explode as you drive under them to add a challenge to getting just the right path for the highest score. It looks cool to see them hanging out above the ground with the stars above them, but it isn’t fun to avoid them. Your car’s handling is so close to good, but it ended up being incredibly frustrating to try and dodge these cabs.

The other levels in the final tier get even crazier with drives through the center of spinning roundabouts while you do hockey-checks and push cars into disaster.

As ridiculous as the environments can get, Danger Zone only really has two or three different styles for them, with a few different lighting conditions. There’s a virtual holodeck world in a huge metal box, there’s one with an outdoor open air skybox with a scuffed white paint job on the walls above the laser grid, and one final mode with the same holodeck as the first but with a starry night skybox instead of a boring warehouse ceiling.

It really makes me miss the urban disasters of Burnout and wish for something in-between. Without the simulated test facility vibe, it’d be incredible to play a similar game that featured these crashes in a semi-realistic environment of Burnout that gradually changed into a completely bent world with the same layouts that you have in Danger Zone.

Those ridiculous levels at the end of Danger Zone would be so much better if there were city blocks teeming with life spinning around the path you’re driving through. Or farmer’s fields with cows, or whatever. It could be an amazing trip, but the virtual environment ultimately detracts from the fun that is hidden in Danger Zone. Almost every roadway in the game has minimal or no barriers to prevent you from falling off of it, and then landing onto a grid that slowly eats your car and forces you to give up your progress and restart the level.

Just got a grand slam (all of the medals on the level in order) but your car is teetering on the edge of a road? Too bad, it’s going to fall off into the grid.

That grid, and the long load times to restart each medal attempt, really ruin the fun of trying to achieve the best score on each level. This game needs a more dynamic core that is capable of fast restarts when the game ends.

The camera controls are also incredibly frustrating, that the game doesn’t even let you tune the sensitivity for the right thumbstick is ridiculous. It can be incredibly difficult to pan around and figure out where you need to roll your burning wreckage next before the car just starts going without your input.

While I could spend some time trying to get better medals on each level I don’t think I’m going to try. It’s a fun game if you are looking for the most bare-bones experience and are incredibly desperate for some more crash mode without resorting to emulation or hooking up an old console. I hope that Three Fields keeps improving this formula, it’s so close to a fantastic crash mode game and already much better than their last attempt at it with Dangerous Golf.

3/5 burning limousines for Danger Zone

Danger Zone is $15 and available now on the Xbox OnePlayStation 4and Steam for Windows.