A Wrinkle in Time Review: A Lovely, Surreal Space Odyssey

 

Upon exiting the theater after watching A Wrinkle in Time, one resemblance came to mind: 2001: A Space Odyssey. For some, that’s damnable praise; as highly regarded as it is, 2001 is considered by many modern viewers as a plodding, confusing mess.

For me, the comparison is a compliment of the highest order. A Wrinkle in Time is different from most modern films. It strikes a magical realist tone, though some might see that as simply disorganized. The pacing is iffy; the beginning moves far too slowly before racing ahead at a breakneck pace, giving neither the characters nor the audience time to catch their breath.

But you know what? By the end of the film, I found that the issues I had early on in the film no longer bothered me. On the whole, A Wrinkle in Time is gorgeous, sincere, compelling, weird, and quite possibly the best movie I’ve seen this year.

A Wrinkle in Time, based on the seminal novel by Madeleine L’Engle, marks director Ava DuVernay’s first major blockbuster. She brings with her a character-focused sensibility well-suited to the source material. Meg Murry, her little brother Charles Wallace, and Meg’s friend Calvin set off on a journey across the stars to find Meg’s missing father. The child actors, especially Storm Reid as Meg, carry the film on their shoulders. While big stars like Oprah and Reese Witherspoon — playing the children’s guides — do a passable job, it’s the kids who make the story engaging. Meg and Charles Wallace manage to hit precociousness while missing annoying (a rare feat), and Levi Miller as Calvin captures the sweetness of young romance without becoming cloying.

It’s hard to overstate how refreshing it is to see a kids’ movie where the characters bear some resemblance to actual children. We get the standard dialogue conveying the importance of love and family, and for once I felt like the characters believed it. We see the love Meg and Charles Wallace have for each other, the unbreakable empathy that only two awkward, traumatized siblings can possess. And when the big bad — an entity of pure hatred and evil named IT — drives the two apart, it’s that chemistry which had me cheering for them to find each other, rather than wishing Meg would discard Charles Wallace like the annoying little punk he could have easily been.

The love between siblings is far from the most complex relationship in the film. That title belongs to Meg and her father, Alex, played by Chris Pine. Though we seem him primarily in flashbacks, Alex’s 4-year-long disappearance, naturally caused by IT, drives the film. At the beginning of the film, Meg both misses and resents her father. Most films would take the easy path — rescue Dad, hug and kiss, one big happy family again. Without spoiling too much, suffice it to say their relationship remains complicated right through to the end credits.

I’d be remiss not to mention the visuals of the film. There’s been some griping about the “lettuce leaf” creature which appeared in most of the film’s trailers, and … it’s not great. Its presence in the weakest part of the film — the colorful, conflict-free utopia of Uriel — doesn’t help matters. Still, aside from this stumble, I found the effects to be bombastic when needed but otherwise subtle. DuVernay uses color, costumes and perspective, more than overpowering CGI, to draw the audience into L’Engle’s universe. Despite the Disney-sized budget, this feels more like an art film than a blockbuster, more THX-1138 than The Phantom Menace.

So why the comparison to 2001, known for its sometimes laborious focus on visual effects? Because the films are surprisingly similar in how they approach storytelling. I’ve seen A Space Odyssey several times, and yet even now I’d have a hard time pitching a compelling plot summary. Humans find alien thing, guy goes into space, his computer goes wacky, he goes into Weird Space, he finds a space baby. Uh … the end?

While A Wrinkle in Time is not quite that inscrutuble, it is similarly focused on mood and theme over plot. If you’re looking for all the twists and turns of a Game of Thrones episode, or the nitty-gritty worldbuilding of an Asimov novel, you’re out of luck here. Meg’s otherworldly guardians might as well be fairy godmothers for as much of their backstory as we get. Mind-powered lightspeed travel is handwaved, and excised is the novel’s famous explanation about traveling between two points on a plane by wrinkling the space between them. (Curiously, this scene is highlighted in most of the film’s promotional material. I don’t doubt that the first act’s pacing issues are responsible for putting it on the cutting room floor)

Approaching the film from a magical realist lens, however, left me feeling astonished. In one of the movie’s final montages, Meg uses her mind to FTL travel (“tesser”) on her own, a feat she spent most of the film unable to achieve. If the other similarities weren’t enough, the resemblance of this scene to 2001’s infamous “Star Gate” sequence drives the comparison home. If you find the latter as enthralling me, you may end up loving A Wrinkle in Time as much as I did. I hope you do. Ava DuVernay and her crew have crafted as empathetic, as personal and as deliciously strange a movie as I’ve seen in years. She deserves the chance to do it again.

Relearn What You Have Learned

Comparing Criticisms of ‘The Last Jedi’ to ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

I don’t relish playing the “Pop Culture Defense Force” role. I really don’t. Star Wars is and probably always will be massively successful, and a bunch of dumb Tweets isn’t going to change that. I should just ignore them.

But.

I have a fanboy conniption when I see people say The Last Jedi is a betrayal of canon. If the movie didn’t work for you, fine. There are valid criticisms to be made about the pacing, the script, the effects. I don’t agree with those criticisms, but they’re valid.

What’s not valid is claiming The Last Jedi isn’t Star Wars, or that it doesn’t understand previous films. It understands. In fact, it understands so much it hurts.

But instead of diving deep into the character motivations and themes (gotta have something for future posts!), I thought I’d compare some of the common criticisms of The Last Jedi to The Empire Strikes Back.  After all, the latter is widely considered the best film in the series. Surely if The Last Jedi is such a black sheep, the best Star Wars film ever made will avoid its pitfalls, right?

Finn and Rose’s mission was a failure. They just made things worse!

This is an increasingly common hot take in the Twittersphere, and man, it’s one of the worst. Let’s start with the fact that ‘learn from your failures’ is one of the essential themes of the film. Yoda quite literally beats Luke over the head with this. Dealing with mistakes is an essential part of every single plotline in the film.

Comparing this to Empire Strikes Back, we see the same themes of failure. Luke’s arrogance makes him quit his training, face Vader unprepared and generally screw things up. Nothing he does in this film is successful, none of it helps the rebellion or hurts the Empire, and everyone would have been better off if he hadn’t done anything at all.

Han and Leia spend the entire movie running from the Empire, and in the end, they’re caught anyway. Han is turned into a popsicle while Leia and Chewie barely escape and end up worse off than they were the beginning of the movie.

Of course, everyone knows the Empire is not only engaging despite our heroes’ failures, but because of them. They inspire essential character growth that is interesting to watch as it happens and integral for the final chapter in the trilogy.

Likewise, Finn’s failure — and DJ’s betrayal — informs his decision to be “rebel scum” (a decision that he doesn’t quite fully understand, and one that Rose thankfully saves him from executing stupidly). He sees the cost of DJ’s ‘success,’ and he rejects it. He would rather fail than throw his conscience under the bus. That seems like a trite lesson, and it can be–except that most stories ultimately give the hero a win in the end, making the ‘lesson’ pointless.

Finn’s failure has consequences. It doesn’t secretly save the Resistance. It gets people killed. It would be easier for Finn to take DJ’s way out. To run. That he chooses not to is far more powerful than it would be if Finn had turned out to be the Big Damn Hero. Regardless of the plot boxes it ticks, the story provides crucial character growth.

Fine, but the story was still empty. Nothing happened!

Here’s what actually happens, plot-wise, in The Empire Strikes Back. If someone skipped from Ep. IV to Ep. VI, these are the essential plot points they would need to know:

  • Luke meets Yoda and learns that Vader might be his dad
  • Han is captured by Jabba.

“But wait!” you cry out. “That skips all of the character development! The romance! The new characters, the themes, the wounds!”

Yep, and ignoring the Canto Bight plot does the exact same thing. As I said in the introduction, I think criticisms about the editing, pacing, etc. are fair game. But the assertion that Rose and Finn’s subplot adds nothing is a fundamental misunderstanding of this film’s goals. To wit, without the Canto Bight plot:

  • Finn doesn’t join the resistance. Yes, some people may have forgotten this, but throughout The Force Awakens, Finn is not actually a rebel. In fact, the film never resolves the fact that he wants to escape the war entirely, and only joins the Resistance mission because he wants to rescue Rey. He begins this film immediately trying to get as far away from the doomed rebel fleet as he can. Without the Canto Bight plot, without meeting DJ, without seeing Rose’s strength and persistence, there is nothing motivating Finn to fight the First Order instead of running from them.
  • The Resistance doesn’t meet Broom Boy. Yes, I see you rolling your eyes. Who cares if they inspire some slave kids? Hundreds of resistance fighters died because of what they did! But Broom Boy is one of the most important characters in the story. The film ends on a shot of him staring into the stars, instead of on our heroes gathered in the Falcon, and this speaks volumes. This is the shot the filmmakers wanted to leave us with. This is the character they wanted us to focus on. Not the present, but the future. The future of the Resistance, and possibly the Jedi as well. Without Canto, we see none of this, and the Resistance plot becomes the same old “white hats vs. black hats” battle that was fun in Star Wars but has since gotten stale. The Canto Bight plot shows us the real source of rebellions: injustice and inequality, not death stars and tie fighters.
  • Speaking of good vs. evil, no Canto also means no DJ and no discussion of the war machine subtly present in all Star Wars films (including the prequels!) Though the film’s military-industrial criticism is understated, it is nevertheless meaningful. “Let me learn you something. It’s all a machine,” might be my favorite line in the movie. And I suspect we haven’t seen the last of DJ, or what he represents.

“Rey is a Mary Sue! She is strong enough to beat Kylo and a horde of Praetorian Guards without any real training!”

Let’s take a look at what training Luke had prior to his duel with Darth Vader (in which he at least held his own):

  • Used his lightsaber to play with a training remote on the Falcon for about five minutes
  • Trained with Yoda for somewhere between two weeks and two months. There is never any indication of any direct combat training in this time.
  • That’s literally all of it

By contrast, Rey at least knows the basics of combat from her time on Jakku, so her maneuvers against the guards are not surprising. But Empire makes clear that tangibly using the Force is not something that necessarily needs years of training. To some — such as Luke Skywalker — it apparently comes naturally.

What does require years of training is learning how to use the Force responsibly, which is where we come to:

Luke doesn’t act like Luke! He’s a different character!

Well, yeah. It’s been thirty years. He’s lived to see his nephew turn to the Dark Side and murder the rest of his students in cold blood. He’s seen the Empire he thought he defeated rise again, stronger than ever. He’s not the same person he was forty years ago. No one would be.

But anyone who thinks Luke’s mistakes in this story are out of character doesn’t understand Luke’s character. His big screw-up — sensing the dark in Ben Solo and igniting his lightsaber — is seen as some as a massive betrayal of the previous films. Luke would never do threaten violence! And to a FAMILY MEMBER no less!

Except … well…

 

Luke being brash, emotional and quick to violence in the face of the Dark Side is Luke Skywalker’s defining character flaw. “He has too much of his father in him,” Aunt Beru says, and while that quote didn’t originally refer to the Dark Side, George Lucas was certainly mindful of it when he wrote the words, “No. I am your father.”

In the Empire Strikes Back, Luke ignores his masters, rushes to face Vader, loses a hand and very nearly his friends (remember what I said in the first section about most ‘characters make mistakes’ stories pulling their punches?)

They could have given us a Master Luke who had mastered his emotions, who no longer had flaws. But that Luke would have been the same as Obi-Wan in The Empire Strikes Back. A ghost of the past who existed solely to spout platitudes and clarify some plot points so the important characters could act. He would have had no arc. Is that seriously what self-proclaimed Luke fans wanted to see?

And look, I get being unhappy with seeing Luke brooding instead of taking action. There’s that part in all of us who want to see our heroes wreck shop. There’s a reason one of the most pervasive images of Jesus, generally known as a peaceful guy, is him vandalizing a temple.

But, here’s the thing: blaming Rian Johnson for turning Luke into an exile makes no sense. It was The Force Awakens that put Luke on a deserted island, living a hermit’s life while those he left behind struggled. Johnson had two choices: turn Luke into Goku (“No, I’ve just been training in 10x gravity this whole time to become a Super Jedi, let’s go kick Kylo’s ass!”), or turn Luke into a broken man with unresolved issues.

If Johnson wanted Luke to be little more than a cameo, he could have gone with the first option. I’m happy he chose to make Luke a character instead.

There are too many people of color!

I’m just kidding. This is not something anyone said about The Empire Strikes Back. I’m happy it’s something a minority of assholes are saying about The Last Jedi. Racist tears are delicious.

Luke from 'The Last Jedi' grumpily drinking milk

 

NoteDarren Gendron beat me to the punch with a satirical article on this topic over at MovieTimeGuru. You should absolutely read it!

Lucasing the Joint – HERBIE (1965)

Like LOOK AT LIFE, Lucas’s next film, HERBIE, was made for a student film class. Compared with LOOK AT LIFE, HERBIE is much less ambitious. The film is short, only three minutes long including the credits. There are no actors (a trait Lucas might not have realized appealed to him, given his future comments about his distaste for the profession), few concrete images and not even any spoken dialogue, save for a line about improvisation, presumably spoken by the titular Herbie Hancock, that introduces the film.

As Hancock’s jazz piano jams in the background (one suspects Lucas likely didn’t have the rights to this music), the film shows the audience a series of blurry and bizarre images reminiscent of UFO sightings. Even well over halfway into the movie, we’re not quite sure what the lights we’re seeing represent. Is this a shiny black piano being tickled under stage lights? Is there anything real here at all, or is it pure cinematic trickery? It isn’t until the end of the film that we start to comprehend what we’re seeing. A door handle. A window. And then, as the images focus, a 1960s intersection, city lights and vehicles. Roll credits.

As a school project, it’s technically competent. The images have a logical progression. The cuts are well-done. The audio blends pleasingly with the visuals. While it’s simple, it doesn’t overstay its welcome. It doesn’t invite repeated viewings or philosophical discussions. It gives us a charming synthesis of lights and music, and finishes. As a film, there’s not much to recommend, though it does foreshadow an obsession with cars and visual effects in his future work. The film reminds me of a modern-day Lexus commercial, which seems like a damning statement, but in reality is a compliment. A student capable of producing an interesting and engaging advertisement is a talented one, and even in its brevity, HERBIE marks Lucas as a filmmaker to keep an eye on.

Next time, we’ll skip over some minor credits to take a look at FREIHEIT, generally considered Lucas’s first narrative film. See you then!

Lucasing the Joint – Look at LIFE (1965)

Background

Unlike his contemporary, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas did not grow up making films. His major at USC–cinematography–was something of a lark, as he needed something artistic but professional-sounding so as not to arouse the suspicions of his conservative father. He dived into the art form with zeal, however, and was disappointed to find that many of his early classes were more about theory than practical, hands-on filmmaking (those were the days when films was a limited resource!).

His first real filmmaking experience came in an animation class. Students were given a 1-minute section of film and told to run through a series of basic exercises with the animation camera. Lucas, ecstatic to finally have the opportunity to make something real, took it to another level. It’s the equivalent of assigning a spelling test and getting a fully-formed short story in return.

The Film

As a student assignment, it goes above and beyond what’s expected. Look at LIFE is a fully-realized film, clearly reflective of the social strife of the 1960s. As Lucas’s first film, it’s awfully ambitious.

Let’s not be too gushing, however. It’s impressive as a student project, but it’s hard to call it required viewing. It feels very much like the output of a young college man–raw, political, imprecise and a little bit nonsensical. Some of the images are powerful: Martin Luther King Jr. along with images of racial violence (at least implied; it seems likely to me on repeated viewings that several images are taken out of context, which is a sign of clever editing). Some are less striking: a random woman in a bra, possibly an advertisement, which doesn’t suggest much of anything.

In one of the film’s best moments, a haunting biblical narration contrasts love and hate. And then we’re helpfully informed of the film’s end by a cutout reading “END,” followed by an ominous “?” The punctuation is so trite that it’s tempting to read it as a sarcastic joke; but if that’s the case, the tone of the rest of the film does a poor job in helping the viewer reach that conclusion.

In the end, ‘Look at LIFE’ is an interesting beginning to the career of an interesting filmmaker. Like his future films, it’s political, but overly simplistic. It’s technically impressive, with moments of genuine emotion, but also moments of “…huh?”

In any case, it’s freely available online. See what you think!

Lucasing the Joint is a monthly dive into the career of George Lucas, from his early student films to his later behind-the-scenes roles.

Lucas-ing the Joint – The Beginning

Inspired by Brian Jay Jones’s excellent biography, “George Lucas: A Life” (which, if you haven’t read, you should), I’ve decided to do a deep dive into the filmography of Mr. Lucas? Why? Simply because he’s one of the most fascinating directors in existence. Note, of course, that ‘fascinating’ does not necessarily mean ‘best’ or ‘worst’ or ‘most genius’ or ‘most selfless’ or anything like that.

We’ll be starting in May with “Look at LIFE,” an animated tone poem, and George Lucas’s first student film. See you then!

The Fight Never Ends

I read, with some bemusement and a lot of frustration, an article asserting that President Obama “permanently” protected Planned Parenthood by executive action. It’s interesting to me that this piece was written prior to the election, but only went viral after Trump’s win, now that sane people are rightly horrified at the coming erosion of rights in the foreseeable future and looking for some reassurance. The unstated assumption is that Clinton would be elected and continue the executive action. Now that Trump is president, he can and likely will rescind the executive action — if he can stop jerking himself off long enough on his victory tour to actually govern, which hopefully is beyond his capacity.

So the idea that Obama has done anything “permanently” with an incoming Republican government is foolish. But beyond that, I get the feeling that my generation (Millennials, or as we’d call ourselves, 90s Kidz!!) lulled ourselves into a sense of complacency. For many of us, President Obama was the first President we voted for, the first time we were really politically aware. After galloping forward on gay rights, racial awareness and more for eight years, the idea that we could turn backward so dramatically was unthinkable. And the idea of Trump becoming president was basically an apocalyptic fantasy. So, we got comfortable. We stopped shouting. We ignored our racist family, we rolled our eyes and kept our mouth shut about our sexist coworkers. We ignored the oppressive laws being passed in our cities and states because, don’t worry, Obama will protect us from anything truly terrible. Our progress was often slower than we’d like, but at least it was solidified.

Flash forward to President-Elect Donald Trump. But actually, put him aside. This isn’t really about him. Yes, he’s abhorrent and dangerous in a hundred different ways that a generic Republican isn’t. But even a generic Republican threatens gay rights. Even a generic Republican  threatens reproductive rights. Even a generic Republican threatens to undo the already meager work we’ve done to beat back climate change. If victory on these issues is utterly dependent on electing a Democratic president in perpetuity, it’s not a real victory at all.

While Trump is particularly awful, the idea that any of our progress, ever, is “permanent” is hopelessly naive. For all the “gummint moves slowly on purpose!” nonsense were fed, you’d better goddamn believe the GOP can move quickly now that they’ve got a majority. We’re only ever one election away from undoing decades of social progress via laws and Supreme Court nominations. We’re only two or three elections away from plunging into a fascist, racist, Handmaid’s Tale-style hellscape. If you consider that hyperbolic, consider that our next president is THE standard bearer for literal Nazis.

Most of the people reading this are going to be both frightened and emboldened by this election. Good. Chase that feeling. Use it to fuel your activism in politics, social justice, charity. But don’t let it fade at the first sign of success. Donald Trump is set to enact a ton of disastrous changes. And then, sometime after–maybe 2018, maybe 2020, maybe later–the Democrats will have a great resurgence and you’ll feel your worry and fear start to dissipate. Don’t let it. Hold on to it. Don’t live in a constant of trauma–enjoy the world, enjoy art, music, family–but don’t ever forget that we’re mere votes away from a hard turn toward nationalistic theocracy.


Fascists and morons alike call us social justice warriors. Wear it as a badge of honor, but realize that the war is never over.

Will I “Give Trump a Chance?” Sure. Here It Is.

Over the weekend, liberal and conservative pundits alike were falling over themselves to implore us to give President-Elect a chance. A chance to do what, exactly, is terrifying to think about. But let’s assume the best. Let’s say we do give Mr. Trump a chance to prove himself. What would that look like?

Here’s a list of actions Trump could take before his oath of office to prove that he’s serious about governing as a president for all the people. Note that this is not all-inclusive, and there are still pages of policy proposals that I’d vociferously oppose him. These are just the issues that go above-and-beyond mere political disagreement.

  • Validate the ongoing protests with something like, “I respect their right to organize and their passion for our country’s future. I am their president too, and I hope to earn their trust in the coming years.”
  • Confirm that his stupid fucking wall was a pipe dream, and that any border enforcement will be much more reasonable.
  • Repudiate his running mate and confirm that LGBT rights will be protected in a Trump administration.
  • Revoke his promise to ban and/or register Muslims on the basis of their religion or nationality. Confirm that, while we will “extreme vet” anyone who enters regardless of origin, everybody who wants to come here will have the opportunity no matter their race or religion.
  • Unequivocally condemn the acts of violence and hatred against Jews, Muslims, women, gays and racial minorities that have occurred since his election.
  • Confirm that the US will remain a staunch ally to NATO, and that a Trump administration will categorically oppose the use of nuclear weapons.
  • Promise that, under a Trump administration, torture of enemy combatants will never occur.
  • Promise that not a single person will lose health coverage as a result of ACA change or repeal.
  • Assure us that he will accept the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s email server and apologize for the abhorrent threat to jail her.
  • Apologize for demonizing journalists and ensure an open a free press.
  • Follow up on his campaign promise to disallow lobbyists in a Trump White House.
  • Take back his call for a nationwide stop-and-frisk.
Why, as an opponent of Trump and everything he stands for, am I comfortable giving him this chance, especially given that most of them are highly reasonable requests that every other Republican candidate would have no issue fulfilling? Because he’ll never accomplish a single line of it. In fact, he’s already gone against several of them. He told hate criminals to “stop it,” but only along with the caveat that he didn’t think any of it was actually happening. He condemned the protests against him before offering a milquetoast walkback. He’s already hired several lobbyists on his transition team and defended the move because ‘gradual steps are needed.’ And worst of all, he’s hired Steve Bannon, a literal white supremacist, to be his chief adviser.
In the first seven days since the election, he’s already proved himself to be every bit as vile as his campaign. As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already given Trump his chance. Fascists don’t get a second one.

Craymer vs. Craymer: A Podcast about Politics, Pop Culture and Philosophy

Hey everyone, hold on to your butts! If you just can’t get enough of my musings, you can head over to craymershow.xyz and check out my new-ish podcast, Craymer vs. Craymer! It’s a discussion show I run with my cohost, White Locke, It’s generally half-comedy (we make fun of stupid startups and listicles) and serious topics–things like moral colonialism and the drug war.

You can check it out at the website above, or via iTunes! If you do use the latter, please leave us a review, and if you enjoy it, tell your friends! If you have a topic suggestion or comment, you can also contact us at craymershow@gmail.com.

That’s it for me this week. Have a good Monday!

Retro Review: Legend of Dragoon

I’m something of a retro game connoisseur, especially when it comes to role-playing games. But even I have blind spots. For the past month or so, I’ve been working though Legend of Dragoon, a game with the reputation of being a me-too copycat of other, better RPGs of the era, but which nonetheless has a huge cult following. To this day, you can find people on message boards asking for a sequel that will likely never come.

I played this game nearly to completion back when it was released. But given that it’s been so long, and that I never finished it, I thought it’d be fun to go back through and see how it had aged. The answer was evident pretty quickly.

The game is a mess.

Visuals

Let’s start with the best first. The graphics in Dragoon are top notch and easily stand toe-to-toe with their contemporaries (your Final Fantasies and such). The field sprites are surprisingly detailed, though it’s still a PS1 game, so don’t expect to be blown away. The battle animations are likewise decent, and technically more impressive than Final Fantasy VII, though they lack the flair to be infinitely rewatchable. Most of the backgrounds are pre-rendered, and while this technique is decidedly passé in the modern era, I still enjoy it quite a bit. 
Where the game stumbles is in its Full-Motion Video. These were basically a requirement for PSX RPGs, but the Sony studio had nowhere near the CGI aptitude of golden age Squaresoft. The cutscenes are choppy, busy and ugly, and the addition of horrible voice acting is incredibly distracting. 
At the end of the day, the visuals are Legend of Dragoon’s best feature. But even for all its technical achievement, the graphics lack the soul that made other games of this era shine.

Gameplay

Legend of Dragoon sports a fairly bog-standard PS1-era combat system. Three characters on your side, one to three on the other. Characters take turns attacking, using items, defending or running. That’s about it. In fact, as far as available options go, Legend of Dragoon actually pales in comparison to many of its peers. Any magic available to characters is locked behind limited Dragoon transformations, and the vast majority of these skills are simply elemental damage, with a few exceptions that heal or provide protection to your party.
Now, let’s be fair. Even in Final Fantasies where your spell list is stuffed full of options, a good 50-75% of them are rarely or never used. But even so, there’s a distinct shallowness to the battles in LoD.
The most talked-about feature is still the most fun, and that’s the presence of “additions,” damage-boosting rhythm mini-games that pop up every time a character attacks. While it does incentivize (some might say force) the player to pay attention to even the most straightforward battles, even these became fairly rote when you perform the exact same maneuver for the hundredth time.
There are a few other interesting twists, such as the ability for the Defend action to heal characters. Even this provides little tactical depth, though. In the early game, it’s absurdly overpowered, as it allows you to simply Defend each turn to fully heal your characters even in the toughest of boss battles. Later on, enemy attacks become far too fast and powerful for Defend to be effective, which makes it essentially useless.
Annoyances abound. The UI is lackluster, the absurdly small item limit constantly gets in the way, especially as you begin to collect non-consumable “repeatable” items which are useful enough in some battles not to discard, but generally just take up space. The game loves to force you to return to lower level areas, seemingly for no reason other than to pad the run time. Several long, unskippable story sections consist of running back and forth in wide areas, seeking out NPCs.
There are some silver linings. The level design is strong and the developers have included some interesting Quality of Life enhancements such as a random battle indicator. But even at its best moment, the game is never really a joy–it’s mostly just tolerable.

Audio

Abysmal. The music was composed primarily by a western composer I’ve never heard of, with no prior experience in video game composition, and it shows. Here’s the menu music, an example of a song you’ll be hearing a LOT of:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdzYsNLoeGY
It’s lazy, boring and tonally mismatched with the rest of the game, which describes most of the other songs as well. At best, I’ll say that a couple of the town themes are catchy. But aside from that, the music is so unmemorable that I fail to have anything meaningful to say about it. Put on literally any other PSX RPG soundtrack while playing this and you’ll have a better experience.

Writing

Bad, bad, bad. It’s trite from the get-go: the big, bad empire is burning villages, imprisoning people, yadda yadda yadda. Though it’s even worse than standard RPG fare, because there’s no political cohesiveness. No one in the world seems to care the the Empire exists, so there’s no rebellion; it’s literally just a handful of people roaming around getting into fights with the government.
And those people–the game’s cast–are no saving grace. The game is incredibly earnest about them, convinced that you’ll absolutely fall in love with them. You won’t. Part of it is just the horrific dialogue, but the design itself is nothing you haven’t seen before. Old (kinda perverted) Martial Arts Master. Slow-Witted Big Strong Guy. Boring, No-Personality Protagonist. Annoying Anime Girl.
And it’s worth talking about Shanna, the main female protagonist. The game’s treatment of Shanna is sexist as fuck, even for Y2K. Even beyond sexism, the game has no idea what to do with her characterization. Half of her lines imply some sort of weird will-they-won’t-they thing with Dart, the main character. The other half assume that the two are basically already married. It means that Shanna comes off as an insufferable nag with extreme memory loss. She has no other traits.
Dart, for his part, has no chemistry with Shanna. His only relationship with her is to scream “I WILL PROTECT YOU!!!” at random intervals. To say Shanna is objectified is an understatement; she might as well be Dart’s priceless family heirloom for all the interaction they have.
None of the rest of the script is any better. The dialogue is written like poorly translated anime from the 80s, complete with multiple exclamation points!!! After every single sentence!!! I haven’t created a full concordance, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more lines of dialogue ending in a bang than a period. Menu entries and item descriptions are often written in arcane Engrish better suited to Zero Wing than a big-budget, AAA role-playing game.

Shana: Ahh… ahhh… Ah…?
Diaz (Zieg): It’s been a while. Rose? Dart?
Dart: Father?
Rose (Dragon Campaign): Ahh! Zieg! Zieg!!
Rose: Oh, it cannot be!!

The story itself is completely incomprehensible. It is full of incredible twists, though, such as the main villain secretely being the protagonist’s father. Real innovative stuff. Oh, at one point you team up with the guy you’ve thought of as the villain up until that point. Pretty standard trope, until you remember that he outright murdered one of your party members earlier in the game. None of the other characters seems to mind that, though.

Conclusion

I never finished Legend of Dragoon as a kid, and as an adult I had fairly mixed memories of it. I remember laughing at the music, while thinking the battle system was novel. I had no idea, starting it up again, that it would have aged so poorly. There’s very little redeemable about the game. The idea that it warranted a sequel is silly, even with its small but vocal fanbase, given how slapdash and nonsensical the story is. If you, like me, are on a mystical quest to revisit the games of your youth, buckle yourself in for a slog. If not, skip Legend of Dragoon entirely.