Wednesday, May 25, 2016

88 Chances: 88 Films' 2016 BURIAL GROUND Blu-ray (Review)

UPDATE TO THE INDIEGOGO CAMPAIGN:

All of the stretch goals have been met! Pledging 45 Pounds ($67 USD) will get you all four titles with exclusive slipcases, guaranteed. That's less than $17 per title, shipping included. Their "Italian Collection" BDs are usually £20 for the first-press (ie: with slipcase) and then drop to £12 for the standard release once that initial run sells out, which basically means you're getting the limited edition for the price of the standard edition. No matter how I slice it, this is a pretty sweet deal.

These guys aren't buttering me to shill their campaign, either. I'm just excited to see lovable trash like Absurd and Massacre in Dinosaur Valley on Blu-ray at all.


QUICK PSA BEFORE WE BEGIN THE AUTOPSY:

88 Films is currently running a new INDIEGOGO "ITALIAN COLLECTION RESTORATION PROJECT" CAMPAIGN, with the explicit intent to create new HD masters for Joe D'amato's ABSURD (funded), Michele Massimo Tarantini's MASSACRE IN DINOSAUR VALLEY (funded), Lucio Fulci's AENIGMA and Joe D'amato's BEYOND THE DARKNESS.

Regardless of what I have to say about the following Blu-ray release, if you care about any of these films, take a look at the campaign and consider contributing. I plan to myself, and if you legitimately want to see more vintage Italian exploitation films released on Blu-ray, you probably should too.



The day has come, friends - I've finally gotten my copy of the 88 Films Blu-ray of Andrea Bianchi's BURIAL GROUND/La Notti Del Terrore - a month late due to a forwarding address apparently having been expired, but hey, who's counting!

For those who don't know, 88 Films secured the rights during, and offered a restoration as a bonus stretch goal to their Zombie Holocaust remaster campaign through Indie Go Go. They were quiet on the subject for a little while, and the reasons behind it became clear when they decided to release a random sampling of A/B/C comparisons of "tests" they were doing with the available materials. You can see them HERE ON FACEBOOK, if that's your jam; the short version was they were left four options, each a little more pleasant than the last.


* Media Blasters' effectively useless HDCAM master, which is such a mess I've written extensively on it - to summarize, massive chroma noise from a poor scan, frames missing at literally every single cut resulting in a notably shorter runtime, and outtakes have randomly been inserted back into the film incorrectly - and that's on top of it having been delayed for nearly a year! (In short, this was the Eurohorror release so shockingly bad that Media Blasters never even bothered to do another one.)


* The only known surviving English language 35mm "Grindhouse Print" which - while more or less complete - looks just as blown out, faded and filthy as you'd expect. We'll talk about that later, rest assured...


* A 16mm Internegative - presumably the same film source that all DVD masters in the last 20 years have been made from, which is badly out of focus.


* The original 16mm camera negative, which - while the very best material available -  evidently required a ton of work to restore every individual cut of the original film to its proper place.

Now, I have a theory, as imperfect as it all is; Media Blasters' transfer claimed to be from the "Original Negative", as does 88 Films' remaster. 88 Films even went as far as to provide some context for the fact that the negative they were offered involved "Undercuts" - in other words, the original 16mm A/B rolls where the editor marked the end of the shot by marking the first frame he didn't want with a big "X" scratched into the print itself... but, before we get into the nitty gritty of the transfers themselves, I can say (with one dubious exception) that every single frame is here.

Which means that either the Media Blasters transfer was made from some other film source entirely - maybe a 16mm reversal-negative with warped splices? - or else they really did go back to the same negatives, and were so shockingly sloppy re-creating the finished negative that they managed to lose frames completely at random because whatever film lab did the work was literally just that amazingly terrible.

None of it really adds up either way, and I've reached out to 88 Films for clarification, but they're taking their time in getting back to me. Without wanting to throw either party under the bus, I'll leave the details and explanations given by their respective parties as they are for now, and will happily update this if anyone's willing to come to light with more details.

So! Confusion and potential behind the scenes drama aside - how is the presentation?


THE GRINDHOUSE TRANSFER:

Much like the uncut version of Just Before Dawn that Code Red released a few years ago, this is a gloriously nasty source print that's been given absolutely minimal preservation efforts; for this transfer each and every scratch, scuff, stain, pop and blob of dirt has been retained in its untouched form.

How does one even qualify a transfer like this, I wonder? While I've seen some truly impressive transfers derived from 35mm release prints, this has gone out of its way to not correct any color grading mishaps, to not process out any of the tinny hiss - to call it "raw" would be an understatement, and considering what a cheap little slice of exploitation this particular title is, I would imagine that anyone who legitimately has an affinity for it - particularly anyone who was lucky enough to own an original VHS copy before the various DVD releases, or even see an equally-grotesque 35mm transfer at a revival showing (both of which I myself am guilty of) - won't feel their black, shriveled hearts grow three sizes just spending a few minutes wallowing in this unfiltered stretch of nostalgia.














From a technical standpoint... I really have no complaints. The 15.76 Mb/s bitrate is adequate enough to keep the fuzzy grain structure from looking like AVC soup, and the very rough-and-tumble nature of the whole makes the usual expected problems sort of blend into the constant grimy insanity of the content itself.

The Grindhouse Version ain't pretty. It's exactly as it should be. It's kind of ironic that despite being an ass-ugly source print, there's really no technical complaint to be had.


THE NEGATIVE RESTORATION:
THE ORIGINAL(?) ELEMENTS

Here's where it gets a little more complex... but, the good news is that I can emphatically say that the title has never, and may never, look better than it does right now. Whatever quibbles and misgivings I have for the transfer as a whole are absolutely drowned out by the fact that, in the pantheon of low-budget and schlocky Italian horror films to have been brought to Blu-ray, this is far from the worst. It's not perfect, which is a shame, but what can I say? If the $35 I paid as part of the Indie GoGo campaign led to this, I'll live with it.

First of all, the restored version - one oddity I'll explain later aside - appears to be complete. The Media Blasters' release before it lost frames at each individual cut, an issue that is mysteriously not an issue on this virtually-complete presentation. This alone is worthy of praise, considering another Italian zombie trash classic - Hell of the Living Dead - has suffered the same fate in High Definition as the previous Burial Ground master before it.

There's little in the way of notable debris, scratches or damage in general to complain about - there's minor scuffs and dust that hasn't been completely scrubbed away, though it's never to the point of distraction. The original 1.66 framing of the Super-16 negative is preserved in full. The English titles have been sourced from what look like 35mm archival elements, and while I would have liked to see the Italian titles, even just as an extra, I have no complaint over "Burial Ground" being the on-screen title rather than "La Notti Del Terrore".

What 88 Films promises is a 2K scan of the "Original Italian 16mm Negative" has a slightly muted, drab look when compared to other releases I'm familiar with - no contrast boosting here, that's for damn sure! - but daylight scenes have a fairly natural, golden hue and the juicy gore on display is a healthy crimson, with the poorly lit fleshtones tending towards a natural - if slightly sickly - hue. Black levels are quite solid, and overall the restores presentation's clarity and definition is dramatically better than the fuzzy, uneven blobs of high-contrast film grain hovering on top of the Grindhouse Transfer.

The English audio has been transferred in its original mono at 24-bits, as has the original Italian audio. They both sound fairly clear without any obvious hiss, flutter or other analog distortions, though it's obvious the English track has been given a pass of digital noise reduction, while the Italian track is more prone to clearer highs and slightly more distinct separation between music and dialogue - though it tends to hiss and crackle a bit more as a result. The slightly more "raw" Italian track sounds slightly more appealing, and I don't think any of these actors spoke a word of English on set anyway - but neither is really a disappointment.


THE NEGATIVE RESTORATION:
THE DIGITAL TRANSFER

What needs to be discussed is... well, the general texture of the transfer. Make no mistake, the Media Blasters master was a horrendous abortion of constant, distracting chroma noise that in no way represented the original film elements - 16mm or otherwise. For that reason alone, this release wins hands down - I had intended to do a full 1:1 comparison with that eyesore, but at some point I must have had a stroke of pure sanity and seem to have either sold it, given it away or burned it in a toilet fire.

But is what we have here actually good? I tend to think it's ultimately on the upper-end of the transfers Blue Underground and Arrow Video were releasing early on, before it became en-vogue for them to the scans themselves from scratch; there's noise floating on top of a soft and somewhat smudgy image, a minor-to-moderate level of DVNR that comes and goes (but is especially heavy during the opening zombie attack), and it has that unfortunate, tell-tale artifact of fast-moving objects like swinging weapons having sharp, defined grain while the rest of the image looks somewhat smoothed over.

Perhaps the best comparison I can make is the 2K remaster of Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2... that is, the LVR/Blue Underground remaster, not the superior Arrow Video transfer sold as Zombie Flesh Eaters. If you were fine with that, you'll probably love this. If, like me, you found the Blue Underground release of that lacking... well, you're not exactly in for a treat.













To get a clearer idea of what I'm talking about, open both the "Grindhouse" and "Restored" sceenshots 7 and 11 in different tabs. Notice how "off" the grain looks on moving faces? And notice how despite the numerous other problems on the Grindhouse version, the grain looks... y'know, normal?

[Kentai Films Protip: When you have an especially noisy scan, don't use temporal DVNR! The result always warps during fast motion, and with old CRT scanners the issue is less the presence of noise itself, and more that it seems to exist outside of the underying celluloid image. A far better method is to gently apply a spherical blur until the noise loses its "sharp" look and blends back into the film image proper. No, it's not replacement for a scan with better quality optics, but helps you avoid... whatever it is we should call what we're looking at today. No chroma smearing, no irregular grain patterns - just subtle a softness no one would ever suspect without a direct comparison.]

Do keep in mind that - while I stand by by BU Zombie comparison on all technical merits - the budget and artistic intent behind this film is... well, it was minimal, to put it bluntly. Comparing Lucio Fulci's camerawork, light staging, editing and artistic direction to Andrea Bianchi is like comparing Baz Luhrmann to Christopher Nolan. The 16mm negative stock, terrible on-set lighting, and frantically moving whip-pans all lean me toward wanting to forgive 88 Films' clearly well-intentioned transfer, but... I've got to be honest here. It's just not that good. It pains me saying that, too, but it's just not very good at all.

My opinion was a lot more positive the day the disc arrived, when I could wallow and revel in a stable, watchable HD transfer of archival materials, but the more time I spent looking over different scenes with different intensities of grain management and faded, sickly color that leaves skin an odd, almost gray mass of nothing, the less enthused I became with it. It's never anywhere near as miserable as the 2011 Blu-ray, and it's still a substantial step-up from any SD presentation, but one need only compare the two transfers present on this very disc to know that something just isn't right on what should, in every way imaginable, be the superior presentation.

Had this come out through Shout Factory or NSM Records, pretty much anywhere else that didn't have the fanfare surrounding the restoration itself? I'd just shrug, say "Well, it's better than a bunch of other shitty Euro Horror discs on the market." As someone who paid to see both this and Zombi Holocaust restored... I'm honestly not sure how I feel. Disappointed, maybe, but even that's giving these flaws a little more attention than they probably deserve. I'd bet money this was carried out on the same Cintel hardware LVR has had chugging along for a decade, and it's unfortunate that no matter how hard the staff of any lab might try, they can't magically make garbage hardware they spent a quarter-million dollars on magically "good" - instead they listen to complaints, and adjust their internall processes accordingly, even if the ultimate end result is "add noise reduction so clients don't complain about video noise". It's panning water, not plugging the leak, but that's the situation we tend to find ourselves in...

But high personal standards aside, let's face it - Burial Ground getting a mulligan at all was a goddamn miracle, and if this is as good as it's gonna' get... well, I don't have to praise it to the heavens, but I can say that I've seen, and own, far worse. I'm happy I have this release. I don't mind that I paid $35 to fund it. I just hope this isn't seen as the high watermark when 88 Films themselves have released better looking transfers from other licencors, as they've proven they're capable of much more when their HD tape masters start from a better place than this.



ANY NEW BONUS FEATURES,
OR UNEXPECTED ADDITIONS?

As far as original "Expert Commentary" goes we get a feature length commentary by John Martin, and a 27 minute video interview with Mikel Coven*. I've not watched either, and to be honest, I don't know if I will any time soon - not that I doubt they're amusing and chock full of interesting information, I just don't have the energy to watch another 2 hours' worth of Italian schlock bonus features right now.

Ported from the Media Blasters release are the films' trailer under the title NIGHTS OF TERROR - not only is it poorly upscaled, but it appears to be a PAL-to-NTSC conversion, deinterlaced, and upscaled to 1080i 29.97. Brilliant.

There's also 10 minutes or so of Deleted Scenes presented as-discovered, without sound, which run the gamut of being amusing to erotic to kind of dull, as is often the case. Frustratingly, the Media Blasters incorrectly re-inserted a few of these outtakes at around 00:25:41 on the 88 Films Restored Version. Footage that was supposed to be included in the film proper is still included in the Deleted Scenes reel, but the outtakes that are presented as part of the feature on the Media Blasters Blu-ray - including some additional exploding lightbulbs and a longer scene of two lovers flirting and kissing by the fountain - are nowhere to be found. A minor loss, but a slightly frustrating one all the same.

While the initial print-run comes with an "O-Sleeve" style slipcase, all releases also come with a booklet featuring new writing by Calum Waddell (who also moderates the commentary). Finally, the package includes a collectible postcard featuring the original Italian poster art, as well as a two-sided cover with both classic American and Italian designs. All of this has a sort of bleeding, super-saturated look to it, but there was clearly some effort put into the design, and as a fan of the oft-insane posters for vintage trash films the attention to providing multiple options is deeply appreciated.

*Fun Fact: The interview is interspersed with what looks like the super-noisy footage from the Media Blasters BD.



IS THERE ANY FOOTAGE MISSING?

This is an interesting case. In short, the version on display per the Negative Restoration appears to be the exact same version released on every DVD going back to the Japan Shock release:

At around 00:42:45, James slams the shutters closed after tossing the lifeless body of the maid to the zombies below. In the Restored transfer, he begins to turn towards the camera, and there's a jump-cut to the bloody hands of zombies picking at the corpse below. The music has a jump cut as well, though with the weird, grinding soundtrack over this film it's a little more difficult to tell than normal.


This shot as it appears on the "Restored" version. 

If you go to roughly a minute earlier on the Grindhouse print (due to the truncated title sequence), you'll find that this shot actually runs about 6~7 seconds longer; James leans his head against the shutter, clearly horrified by what he's just done, before it smash-cuts back to a close-up of entrails being clawed at:


Why yes, that does appear to be print damage on the side of the frame.

This specific oddity confuses me. If this was pulled from the original camera negative, the footage would still be there as it was on the Media Blasters HD master - though I suppose it's not unthinkable that the English language 16mm IP that was used for the audio was missing this short sequence, and the raw footage was trimmed to match - rather than the Italian audio being used to fill in the gap, which would have been preferable? One could easily argue that MB never touched the negative - they did, after all, claim to be "working from the negative" on Buio Omega, only to later reveal what they meant was they had a new IP made from said negative - but the fact that Media Blasters unearthed about 10 minutes of never-before-seen footage implies they had some poor sap digging through the archives for the earliest-generation material available.

And yet, the same old footage known to be MIA from the 16mm IP is - once again - trimmed from the 88 Films transfer. Is this master really from the original camera negative, or perhaps a 16mm back-up negative used in place of the unusable OCN the licensors are now treating as one if the same? If not, what the hell did Media Blasters use for their 2011 masters? Don't misunderstand the tin-foil, I want to trust everyone involved here, but as the similar confusion over exactly what materials were used between both Blue Underground and Arrow Video's competing 2K restorations of Zombi 2 have established, either one side is lying... or both are being lied to.

If 88 Films wants to clarify any of this, I'd love to know and will happily update the write-up. I'm not angry, as the scene was (to be fair) a largely inessential reaction shot and it's included on the disc in one form or another. I'm just... confused. And I don't like being confused.


TRUTH TIME:
IS IT WORTH THE UPGRADE?

If you own any prior DVD copy and want a notable HD upgrade? Yes. If you own the Media Blasters HD transfer and want a proper, effectively-complete version of the film? Absolutely. If you like having raw, un-restored 35mm "Grindhouse" transfers to ogle in High Definition, as I occasionally do? Hell Yes! If you just want a cheaply made movie looking fantastic on principle? I'd recommend you move on.

All that said, I still plan on contributing a wad of cash to the current Italian Collection Restoration Project. I'm not blown away buy the results here, but I'd still rather see Aenigma and Buio Omega brought up to this standard than to languish in the inferior presentations we currently have at our disposal. It's all a matter of degrees at this point, and even at its worst, Burial Ground commits the cardinal sin of being no-better than average.

I guess if that's the best future I can hope for, I'm fine with it. We live in a time where Michal Mann approved Blu-ray transfers have SD inserts, because at this point sales on physical media are so weak and "old" B-movies do so poorly that nobody fucking cares - not even guys like me. If you need further proof, take a look at the Indiegogo Campaign and realize that despite over 20,000 pounds having been raised, that's still less than 500 backers in total.

Five years ago, when I was adamant that we could - that we should do better, there was still reason to have hope. These days, if a release isn't appalling... that's pretty much yer' lot going forward. If "Average For An Italian Exploitation Film" quality is all we have a chance for, I'd rather take it than not at this point.

Just do me a favor and keep including those chewed-up Grindhouse Prints, won't you? If I can't have a proper looking "perfect" restoration at least let me torture my monitor and headphones with the ugliest, most organic presentation possible as an alternative!

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Black Shadows and Blood Red Shoes: Synapse' TENEBRAE Blu-ray Transfer

Alright, let's cut the bullshit; there's nothing more to say about Dario Argento's celebrated 1982 post-modern thriller TENEBRAE that hasn't been said a hundred times by people far smarter than myself. Let's skip to why anyone's interested in me talking about this flick.

I could go on for a thousand or two words, trying to explain the subtle difference between the European "Wild Side" master and the new Synapse corrected version... but why not just sum up the difference in a pair of screenshots?


2013 UK BLU-RAY (ARROW VIDEO - REMASTERED)


2016 USA BLU-RAY (SYNAPSE FILMS)

...and now for the thousand or two words. Damn, I never make this easy on myself, do I?

For those unaware of the full sitiation, the following screenshot is the worst instance of automatic digital scratch repair (DSR) artifacts to be found on the various instances of fast-motion through the film, with this particular gaffe - around 00:37:38 on the Synapse disc - being, by far, the absolute worst offender, but as the booklet proudly gives timecodes for, there's plenty of other, less galling instances throughout that have been manually repaired, effectively by using the clone-brush in Photoshop and averaging out the data manually, as opposed to letting Skynet flip its shit at the slightest bit of confusion.

For those who may not be aware, scratch repair filters basically try to calculate drastic, high-contrast shifts in color over a small area of the frame, and when they identify a high contrast "blip" they assume it's either a stain, dirt or similar, and fill it in with an 'average' of the frame before and after. This removes thousands of instances of small nics and stains and scratches, normally without any major, obvious consequence aside from a slight softening of the image... but it also has the potential to fuck shit up when it can't tell the difference between a hand savaging an envelope and a large emulsion stain. These sorts of artifacts are actually not that uncommon in industry-standard HD masters, but most of the worst are "fixed" - either by creating a garbage matte from the unprocessed source, or simply shoopin' dat woop' - before the consumers ever see anything quite that nasty.

Unfortunately, anyone expecting a perfect presentation absolutely free of DSR artifacts might be setting their hopes a bit too high; the problems are baked in, and often very subtle, resulting in small details distorting or smearing straight out of existence. While it's difficult to find a way to do this that doesn't feel like it's shitting all over the label releasing the title, this could well be an educational moment for many of you, so let me direct your attention to some minor details that struck me as fairly standard examples of DSR artifacts:


In this shot, the bobbing, spiral phone cord is getting marked out as a scratch and has a random chunk smudged into oblivion, a little below the countertop to her right. As you can see, the scratch repair filter is actually trying to fill the cord in with the pattern of the drapes behind her, which is pretty normal behavior when an object like a cable is bobbing around in front of a static background.


This shot is substantially less obvious, but pay attention to the glasses; despite Anthony Francoise being shown to wear tortise-shell specs, the frames have basically become transparent jelly in the handful of frames in which they move along in his hand, only to return to their normal color once he stops moving. His hand is a smeared mess, too - and while it's true that motion blur is always a factor, the fact that his fingers have formed a sort of deformed flipper is a pretty common issue when DSR is set way too high, as it clearly was during the original telecine.


And here's another, perhaps more "obvious" example if we pay attention to Dario Nicolodi's fingertips; the averaging has left a ghostlike impression in the background where her hand only lingered for a single frame, but kept the fleshy color from the frames where the overall "average" was consistently the same color. The artifact is subtle, particularly since her arm is moving the whole shot, but if you've been dealing with this shit as long as I have, becomes somewhat unmistakable.

I want to stress that this isn't meant to rain all over Synapse's parade. The artifacts were baked in at the source level, and while I'd rather have a certain level of scuffs and stains over digital artifacts, the fact is most highly-praised and celebrated HD transfers have some level of minor digital wonkiness due to automated processing that most people - myself included, depending on how severe it is - simply shrug off as normal motion blur or peculiarities of the original camera and film stock.While I admit, a fresh scan from an archival 35mm element would have been preferable to patching over the digital problems that already exist, the presentation is still much improved over the prior version, which was already a HUMONGOUS STEP UP from the virtually unwatchable 2011 Arrow release, which - once and for all - proved that my bitching and moaning about all those weird, noisy transfers coming out of Rome weren't just me expecting too much from limited film elements. Depressingly enough, the far superior French release is actually older than that awful initial Arrow Video master, but since Wild Side was mostly re-releasing Argento movies to DVD at the time I didn't know about it until several months later. Still, having long insisted that something was seriously wrong with the HD masters coming out of Rome, it was nice to finally be validated... even if it took Arrow and LVR shitting out that wet-sandpaper textured 1080p abortion to convince the world that, y'know, maybe I had at least half a clue what I was talking about.

Ah, memories...

Going between that initial gnarly LVR master and the imperfect-but-pretty-damn-good Wild Side transfer, you can likely understand how easy it was to forgive the fairly minor sharpening artifacts that appear as edge-ringing on the 2010 HD master; yes it's there, and it's a shame, but it's such a minor point of contention compared to the initial Arrow HD master I honestly couldn't be arsed to give a fuck then, and several years later I feel as apathetic towards its presence now as I did the first time I laid eyes on it. The only way to downplay the sharpening is to try to blur edges away using spatial interpolation, and while you can get away with that on a crumby looking LD transfer of relatively simple content - say, 16mm sourced animation? - it would likely be a disaster on a source like this. Like the scratch repair gaffes they're just in it for the long haul, and similarly their presence is a minor point or two off of the whole, rather than anything to be especially grouchy over.

I briefly considered doing a full A/B comparison between the 2010 Wild Side Video release from France - which was, after all, the original presentation of the HD master all 3 versions are based on - but knowing that the Arrow Remastered transfer is essentially the exact same thing with a lower (and I assume, correct) gamma... there's not much sense in taking the time. The CAPS-A-HOLIC COMPARISON between the two tells you everything you need to know, namely that the Synapse transfer has warmer mid-tones resulting in brighter, more realistic skin tones, but the highs lean more towards a cool blue that leaves what were once white, clipped highlights looking slightly minty fresh. Generally daylit scenes look totally natural on the Synapse grade, though as you can see, interiors are a bit of a gamble, depending on how dramatic the original lighting was.

It's clear that effort and consideration has been put into adjusting the overall tone of the Synapse release, but the fact is it looks better in some ways and worse in others. Both seem more or less consistent with the vast majority of restored home video presentations and with Argento's demand for an over-exposed film in which the titular "Shadows" are an ironic absentee, and with each having its ups' and downs' I'm not confident to say the grading is conclusively "better" than the other. If I had a gun to my head I'd say I prefer the fuller reds of the US release, but it's literally a case of personal aesthetic preference, not mathematical or even historical accuracy.


How the fuck have I never seen this one-sheet before?

Perhaps the most interesting part of this disc is that, despite being based on the Wild Side transfer, it does also include the alternate "English Inserts" - and it does this via Seamless Branching, which is a feature we rarely see on Blu-ray discs. See, while the film was shot almost entirely in English to start with, various close-ups of the Tenebrae novel itself, the notes the killer leaves for Peter, and even the meticulous book-keeping the killer does of his victims were shot in close-ups in both English and Italian. It's similar to the alternate takes Kubrick did for the "All Work And No Play..." pages in The Shining, I suppose, but with Tenebrae taking place primarily in Rome, it does raise some questions as to why the killer would have English language newspapers in the first place...

The French and UK transfers only present the Italian credits, presumably since the transfer was pulled entirely from the Italian OCN. The Synapse release actually used an archival 35mm print to transfer the English titles and text inserts from, and the quality - perhaps largely due to 35mm opticals always looking a bit ropey anyway - match the rest of the film pretty much seamlessly. Perhaps the most interesting example is at 00:51:55, when Laura Wendel starts reading the newspaper clippings about the murders; the image is only slightly soft and with a bit more debris than the main feature.

While the inclusion of the English inserts are certainly a cool little bonus - and one I don't think have seen a home video release since the Israeli VHS release some 30 years ago, at that! - I'm not gonna' lie. I'd have been way more into seeing the "English" version as its own transfer, warts and all. As far as I know the English "UNSANE" prints still had Italian credits and were mostly complete, sans a few trims to the overt violence to satisfy the MPAA. Oddly, the American prints were cut by another 10 minutes - not by the film distributors, but by Fox Hills Video, who decided that trimming the film would let them get away with releasing a T-30 tape in "EP" mode.

That said, Synapse loses a point for not including the Kim Wilde song Take Me Tonight as the default end theme on the English version. Yes, I've listened to the Argento commentary - yes, I know he hated it. But if you can look me in the eye and tell me that Kim Wilde doing the theme song wouldn't have made this film so amazingly 1982 it hurts... I just don't know that we can get along at that point.

With that in mind, sure, I can forgive Synapse for skipping on the American VHS edition entirely, but... to have an archival 35mm print, do telecine work, and then not transfer the entire print? Synapse could have called this "The Grindhouse Presentation", done literally no work at all, and idiots like me would have been thrilled. Shockingly enough, we are getting the Americanized version of "Creepers" in their next hefty-priced Argento themed steelbook, so I wonder what the deciding factor here was? Cost for a new telecine rather than just having select reels scanned? Bandwidth concerns? What's the deal with not giving fans who have been wallowing in thrilling resotrations the chance to now let them wallow in the scratchy, poorly-graded reality of yester-year? Especially with a film with an intentional a look as Tenebrae, I'd love to know how a "real" vintage 35mm print holds up to the 20 years or so of creator-approved restored prints held up back in the day.



Speaking of bonus "Grindhouse Experiences",
I haven't forgotten about you, old friend...

I find myself torn on how to feel about this one. On the one hand I won't deny that the Synapse BD is hands down the best visual representation of the film, with the most interesting special features, a newly remastered CD soundtrack, and a shiny limited edition Steelbook. The presentation is absolutely top-notch, and as sicj the $50 or so asking price isn't outrageous - certainly not compared to some of the more insanely expensive giallo BDs out there... but is it worth the hefty asking price when the Arrow Remastered edition - "Region B" lock aside - can be had for about a third what this'll set you back? Money is no object, and blah-blah-blah... but fuck me, even I can tell when I'm making a bad decision. And that's where I find myself hitting a brick wall on actually recommending this release to all but the absolute die-hard fans.

While I certainly cringed at the price tag attached to the one-two assault that was Demons and (especially for) Demons 2, I felt they were absolutely worth every penny. The UK transfers for those two films were abysmal, and with the Japanese release being nearly as expensive as Synapse's offering - and with only a slight improvement to Arrow's grubby presentation - the Synapse release was an absolute no-brainer. For fans of that glorious thrill ride and its lesser sequel, the upgrade was effectively mandatory. And I have no doubt that once Phenomena is up for grabs, the Synapse presentation will again be like night and day between the current HD offerings on the market.

Here, however, the differences - however appreciated they are - are all fairly minor, even on a side-by-side comparison. That one shot of Peter's hand is a hell of a lot better... but I can't in good conscience say that fix is worth the price of two typical Synapse BDs, much less three from many of their competitors. Pity this'll be by far the low-point with the definitive edition of Phenomena and their 4K remaster of Suspiria being next in the line-up, but they can't all be worth the premium, I guess...

If the Yellow Fever documentary interest you, if you don't already own the Simonetti soundtrack, the price tag is absolutely worth it. If not, I'm tempted to say stick with the prior Arrow Remastered release - or, if you just want the best looking presentation and can't swallow the cost, just wait 6 months for Synapse to inevitably change their tune from there being "no plans" for a non-limited edition to there being an Amazon pre-order for less than $15.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Shadows Fall Over Synapse Films: TENEBRAE LIMITED EDITION Pre-Order


Paura...

For those who might not pay as close attention to these sorts of things as I used to, a quick heads-up; Don and Jerry over at Synapse Films are now taking pre-orders for their Limited Edition of Dario Argento's violent, clever and strikingly shot 1982 giallo, TENEBRAE. The release date is "officially" the 23rd of this month, but seeing as how they're literally waiting for the manufactured copies to arrive, it may get to you even sooner. (And since I rarely have a reason to pimp his stuff, kudos to Synapse for giving the coveted cover work to Silver Ferox Design!)

If you kept up with the Demons releases from a year or two back, you know the drill; it's $46 shipped, you get a nice steelbook with a DVD and a Blu-ray (plus a remastered CD this time), and most importantly, dozens of man-hours have been put into taking the best elements available and fixing what - in this case - both Arrow Video and Wild Side did not. It seems the now-infamous scratch removal artifacts that plagued the European BD releases have been repaired(!), and Don May himself has given the entire master a shot-by-shot color grade. Mercifully this is a film that's never had the intense controversy surrounding its home video presentation it as, say, Suspiria or The Bird with the Crystal Plumage, but it's got such a unique and difficult to handle "look" by design that the varience of all prior releases have only raised further questions. I have little doubt that however the

The new release also boasts some interesting bonus features, including a seamless branching option to see the now-virtually unseen English language insert shots from "Unsane", along with the feature length Yellow Fever: The Rise and Fall of the Giallo documentary, plus a handful of other goodies that are a bit less over the top. Good stuff overall. I was a bit disappointed the entire "Unsane" print wasn't included as a bonus, but Synapse has since explained that the American 35mm prints were uncut (MPAA trims aside), while the 90 minute VHS release was seemingly just butchered to use a cheaper T-90 cassette. At that point, fuck it, just make it complete and move on.

Again, if you remember the Demons releases, this also likely means that a substantially discounted but bare-bones Blu-ray is sure to follow in a half-year's time despite Synapse "having no current plans". I can't fault Synapse for wanting to play both sides of the market here, and seeing as how they've yet to sell out of either Demons tin, they probably made the right choice giving those as many sales as humanly possible. This is very likely to be the best 1080p presentation this 34 year old thriller's going to get, so if - like myself - you want to be done buying and comparing releases of this fucking movie once and for all, consider the price more a peace of mind tax than anything.

To be honest, it's not my favorite Argento flick. It's good - damn good, at times - but it had the nasty habit of being made after both Profondo Rosso and  Suspiria, but before Argento would lose his mind in an experimental way as he would in Phenomena and Opera, only to lose his absolute shit in the years that follow, but... let's not get into all that. Not now, at any rate. In the end Tenebrae is one of those films you can show "normal" people to explain why you like Italian thrillers and this one is expensive and well produced enough that they can see the appeal without having to forgive the usual shortcomings of the cheaply-made and fetishized entries that make up the bulk of any genre's outings. It is what Princess Mononoke is to Japanese Animation, or what Jackie Chan is to Hong Kong movies in general; it's actually pretty damn good, but it's such entry-level stuff that's been over-analyzed to the point of parody that actually talking about it now seems pointless. Yes, the crane shot remains as jaw-dropping as ever, and yes, Argento casting doubt on his own motives as an artist is a clever touch, and yes, parts of the soundtrack are amazing... anything else to add?

No? We're good? Cool, let's just buy it and move on for a couple years.

With a certain Dario Argento superfan no longer offering commentary on non-Arrow Video transfers, you can bet your ass I'll probably say something once this sucker comes in, if only on principle. Odds are it'll be a lot of good things with Synapse's track record, but hey, we'll just have to wait and see!

No release date or pre-order yet, but supposedly Synapse is authoring Phenomena as you read this. That's the Argento film most desperately in need of careful repair work (aside from Suspiria, which Synapse is also working on), so while I expect the Synapse Tenebrae Limited Edition to be quite good, I don't think it'll be too full of surprised either.

Phenomena? I'm sure we'll have plenty to talk about once Labyrinth's darker cousin comes out to play. Code Red is also working on a new 2K scan for Opera, go figure. But screw that, one fourty dollar domestic Argento Blu-ray at a time, please!



Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Shed It, Baby: Mondo Macabro's A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN


While I don't think I'd ever peg A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN/Una Lucertola con la Pelle di Donna as my favorite Lucio Fulci film, I would hold it up as one of his more interesting and polished films before he descended into the sticky pop-madness he'd become so famous for largely in hindsight; despite being yet another "animal" themed whodunnit in the wake of Dario Argento's Bird with the Crystal Plumage, the soundtrack, location, and even the way it's shot are all an interesting contrast to the more familiar spaghetti-thrillers of the period. It's a little nastier, a little more dreamlike than many of the period Italian murder-mysteries I've seen - which, admittedly, is but a taste of a veritable banquet. I can probably name between 15 and 20 giallo I've actually seen, but Italy was cranking these films out to the tune of over two-dozen a year at the height of their popularity in the early 70s, and with the concept so firmly entrenched into the country's cinematic landscape we're still seeing throwbacks like the short Yellow from 2012, and the feature-length The Strange Color of Your Body's Tears as recently as 2013.

Regardless of where it may sit in the pantheon of its contemporaries,  A Lizard in a Woman's Skin remains a comforting reminder that Fulci was more than capable of simultaneously logical and increasingly dreamlike films, in which the substance was just as high a priority as the style; the film's combination of schizophrenia and psychedelic drugs not only give Fulci an excuse to go for broke, but it allows him to use the uncertain state of the heroine's mind to let those increasingly surreal and dangerous images build with the audience experiencing, first hand, that her heroine's own sense of self and reality are falling apart before her eyes. It never gets close to the heights of violent and nonsensical insanity that would cement the director's fame in the next decade's "Trilogy of Death" - three films I absolutely adore, but admit are accidental masterpieces, the result of an angry, petulant artist throwing whatever dumb idea he could come up with at the screen and not particularly caring what stuck - but this was absolutely a precursor to the mounting visual representation of fear and dread that Fulci would gradually allow to consume his films whole.

It also serves as a fascinating counterpoint to Fulci's follow-up, Don't Torture a Duckling/Non si Sevizia un Paperino. A Lizard in a Woman's Skin is, at its core, an examination of morally upstanding blue-bloods in the lap of luxury being threatened by the hedonistic ways of the hippie, while Duckling is about small town simple folk needing to face the realization that they themselves are more than capable of causing their own destruction. Florida Bolkan stars in both, playing mirror opposite characters in films that stylistically couldn't be any less alike, and the contrast between the two makes both films somewhat better as a result. I won't get into why Duckling has a lot to say - to even hint at the central theme of the story would be to betray its ending to anyone who hasn't already seen it - but suffice to say I'm excited knowing that a BETTER THAN EXPECTED Blu-ray release of this is already out in Austria... too bad the only current release is an absurdly over-priced "Leatherbook"  collector's edition that was priced at over $100.

Speaking of overpriced European imports, a combination of unexpected bills and a bad sense of timing, I completely missed my window to get the French Limited Edition via label Le Chat Qui Fume, so for the time being we'll just have to take Michael MacKenzie's word* on the European presentation being decent, but flawed in a number of ways. He does a good job of summing up the surprisingly complex myriad of DVD releases - I think the only one I've kept around is the Optimum UK release, which is both the best looking and most complete SD release we'll likely ever see - and while minor differences have already cropped up, it seems the bulk of the Optimum DVD, Mondo Macabro BD, and French BD are all sourced from the same HD transfer crafted by Studio Canal.

Mondo Macabro has gotten into the habit of doing a "Limited Edition" of 999 copies through their own Big Cartel store front for pre-order, to be replaced by a wide release once that's sold out. A LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN was no different, and while the disc contents will be identical between the two, the now sold-out LE gives you two reversible alternate covers to choose from, an opaque red plastic case and an 8 page booklet featuring an essay by Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci and his Films. Each copy is individually numbered, too. It's a nice incentive to buy straight from the source, but as the Amazon price is about $10 cheaper and contains unique artwork not found in the Limited Edition in any capacity, I won't fault anyone for waiting it out for the wide release version. Especially not if they're waiting for reviews, as I was tempted to do but didn't, because God knows I hate having money.

And yes, it really does say that along the bottom of the cover.
At least the superior UK VHS "B-side" artwork is less obnoxious.


If for some reason this is your first visit to my little corner of Internet Hell, I'm not really into "reviews" in the traditional sense. If you want someone to tell you the transfer is "very good 8/10" and go into how much fun the bonus features are... that's not really what I do. I do somewhat more in-depth analytic musings of the transfers, effectively looking for problems, because Blu-ray is (good lord) a decade old. I shouldn't need to be the guy who points out when IRE levels are fucked up or when to junk a 15 year old film scanner, but hey, somebody's gotta' be hated by all the labels he loves so that they might learn...

Mondo Macabro have opted for a BD-25 at an average bitrate of about 22,992 kb/s (ie: 23 mb/s). I mention this largely as a footnote, though - I'm sure nobody would complain about a higher bitrate, but as we've seen for years now when it comes to raw bandwidth on H264, "bigger" doesn't instantly mean "better", and there's really nothing to complain about in terms of banding, macroblocking or any other common compression woes. Don't get me wrong, I'm a firm believer in keeping bitrates high as more of a safety-net than anything, but this is a perfectly acceptable transfer as-is, and from the looks of things, it's better than the

To be fair, I found exactly one scene with visible compression artifacts but the combination of being dark, having several optical effects, and those macroblocks being in the darkest areas that most reasonably-close-to-calibrated displays will crush out entirely leaves them so minor I won't even point out where they are. Leave a comment with the timecode I'm talking about and I'll owe you a cookie or something.

Both the original English and Italian audio options are available as 16-bit PCM mono tracks - calling either a "dub" would be a bit of a misnomer, so the option to watch either-or is nice - with a third audio commentary as a 192kb Dolby Stereo mix. Clear, white English subtitles are available for both the Italian dub (which are often quite different from the English track) and a secondary track to subtitle a scene that was seemingly new dubbed into English at 00:26:35 - anyone with more than a passing familiarity with gialli will likely know what they're getting into. Another scene at 00:31:18 is in Italian and NOT subtitled - though the dialogue is clearly inconsequential, and curiously, the music and effects present here are completely different from the Optimum DVD version of the scene.

The English track sounds surprisingly good, with only a low level hiss during silent sequences; the Italian track isn't bad, but it's clearly been filtered to compensate for unwanted analog noise, leaving the track sounding slightly thin and metallic by comparison.

From a technical presentation, there's really nothing to complain about... but what about from an archival standpoint? Mondo Macabro is the first to present the "complete" version of this film in HD, but at what cost does that preservation bring to a high-fidelity presentation?

David "lyris" MacKenzie has done the mastering for this title, and he's not been shy on the Blu-ray.com forums that over a minute's worth of uspcaled footage had to be used to present the most complete version of the film available. We've seen this a handful of times in cult HD releases, most notably the various European iterations of Dario Argento's Four Flies on Gray Velvet - a process that was done so poorly in the Shameless UK that a German label Koch Media later did an entirely new scan of the scenes they could, and re-upscaled the scenes they couldn't from scratch. I'm very happy to report that the Mondo Macabro presentation - compromised as it may occasionally be - has much more in common with the latter than it does the former.

The Mondo Macabro transfer runs 01:43:57 in total, and makes a proud claim on the package to be the longest version of the film available. The fact that this is being used as a selling point when the French Blu-ray is known to be missing footage, however, isn't exactly a comforting direction for this conversation to start from. It's entirely possible, I suppose, that I've missed some additional sequences, but the following 3 scenes upscaled from what appears to be a PAL Digibeta source:

* The shot of Anita Strindberg kissing down Florinda Bolkan's neck at the end of the
first dream sequence, followed by a close-up of Blokan's face (00:04:24 ~ 00:04:51).

* A full montage cutting between the Hammond family dinner and Julia Durer's
orgy next door, starting with the close-up of Jean Sorrel cracking walnuts,
and ending with a closeup of Strindberg's face before it cuts
back to Bolkan (00:08:40 ~ 00:09:18).

* Two shots of a couple making out on a glass table,
which cuts to a whip-pan (00:09:51 ~ 00:10:04).

All in all,that's about 68 seconds of footage, and roughly in line with David's prior warning of what to expect. It likely goes without saying that several scenes typically cut from prior prints - such as the scene of Strindberg putting her fingers under her skirt before it cuts to the aformentioned shot of Sorrel cracking nuts - are retained in their entirety, in HD, where applicable.

It's unfortunate, but this all ties back to the observations that Michael made about the French Blu-ray being incomplete, which leaves me with no other option but to assume that there simply is no HD version of this footage available. An oddity, to be sure, but having heard second-hand accounts from film labs that would cut a few seconds here or there because of an audio issue or a bad splice they didn't want to freeze-frame around, it's not exactly shocking either.

Do I wish Mondo Macabro would have found another solution - presumably paid to do a new HD telecine for these 68 seconds? You bet your ass I do! Particularly since the SD footage was clearly culled so recently there's little reason to assume that the 35mm element itself isn't still within reach. But it's entirely possible the licensor doesn't want them to disturb the film materials again, and it's even more likely that the cost involved to do so would far outweigh any potential additional sales this particular title would generate in the first place. Lucio Fulci's best known for movies like Zombi 2 and The Beyond - by comparison his gialli are mostly a footnote to careers like Bava and Argento, films that are generally liked by aficionados but have never been a huge commercial success, to the point where Bill Lustig all but guaranteed he'd never bother purchasing the rights to Don't Torture a Duckling in HD. The only reason that fans are so willing to buy this particular film on DVD multiple times is because each release has been such a fascinating clusterfuck in the first place, and I'd wager that most fans who put up with murky, VHS-quality copies to see something even resembling an "uncut" version before will put up with this compromise without much complaint.

It's frustrating, sure, but compared to having the footage simply missing, jump cuts and? It's a compromise I can live with. At the very least it's clear every effort was made to keep the footage looking as close to the HD master as possible, and kud to all involved for doing a job so good, even I don' thave much in the way of suggesting ways to improve it:


HD Native Footage



SD Upscale Footage

I don't have any real insider information here, honestly - I'm simply going to guess that the source used here is the same decent-enough PAL Digibeta the Optimum UK DVD was made from, likely with some additional color correction and filtering to make it match as closely as it's ever going to. Ultimately it's disappointing, but the difference in quality is subtle enough that I suspect a lot of less obsessive fans won't even notice. To put this another way, if "grain structure", "edge ringing" and "chroma subsampling" aren't things you tend to worry too much about, odds are you'll be more than satisfied with the whole transfer.

And it's a shame I've spent so much time talking about this 68 seconds, because most of the other hundred-plus minutes look pretty damn good! Insofar as a low-budget Italian thriller shot on location from the early 70s will ever look, of course. The print used could well be the OCN for all I know, it's certainly in fine shape with nothing to bitch about in terms of scratches, flicker, staining and so on, and while I have no doubt an intensely expensive and carefully corrected 4K master could theoretically yield superior results, I rarely found myself wondering what could be, and instead being surprisingly content with what is now.


One slight annoyance is the presence of some funky chroma scaling issues. Notice the solid white gap between Leo Genn's shoulder and the red curtain behind him, or the almost electric outline of the flower in his lapel;  reds in particular have a slightly diffuse, blotchy look I initially thought was the result of DVNR processing, but the more I see, the more I think the conversion from 4:4:4 color to 4:2:2 went slightly awry and introduced some ugly sharpening artifacts that make the otherwise subdued color information look a bit wonky around the edges. It's a very minor problem, mind - more an academic curiosity than something I'd actually ever get my panties in a twist over.

There is a lengthy oddity though - from about 01:05:37 to 01:08:20, starting with a shot of a cardboard cutout of Strindberg's body on her bed and ending just before Bolkan walks out of her father's office in black, the image quality takes a pretty notable hit; heavier grain, more frequent scratches, density flicker and an odd loss in color fidelity that makes the faces in the crime scene look somewhat sickly and jaundiced. It's pretty clear that for one reason or another the negative was simply unavailable for this footage, and a lower quality dupe element had to be used in its place. Considering how rough the film has looked in the past on DVD, I can't bitch too hard - the slightly funky color timing in the first half of this elemental substitution looked much the same on the Optimum DVD, so I can only assume this has far more to do with physical film limitations than any sudden loss in technical competence.

Also worth noting; there's an odd jump cut at 01:08:20 just after the line "If something doesn't happen, I..." The Optimum DVD is identical, and if there is an extra scene that's supposed to follow here, I've not seen it on any of the various English or Italian language prints floating around. I can only guess this was a last-minute editorial decision that was never properly smoothed over circa 1971.

There's a number of smaller scenes that look similarly rough - for example, a close-up of the reflection in Bolkan's eye at 00:47:29, as well as numerous shots in the following scene of Bolkan speaking at the jail - but looking them over a second time I can only suspect that these scenes involving difficult-to-film reflection effects were simply optically printed to the negative, making the color oddities and grain a natural part of their creation. Whether or not dated optical effects "should" be manipulated with cautious grain removal to make them match the rest of the film is very much a personal call; personally, I'd rather they not bother and let the rough edges show than try to sand them off and potentially do more damage.

Now I'm just nit-picking, but at around 00:08:29 there's a bit of an odd instance of blended frames during the split-screen shot of the swinging party at Strindberg's flat set against Bolkan's more understated dinner... the nature of opticals make such things hard to judge, but could this be a stray deinterlacing artifact? It's not uncommon for European Telecine work to be finished at 1080i 25fps, but not knowing the history of these materials like the back of my hand I can only guess.


Protip: Technical Errors requiring discussion and extra work
happen during nude scenes about 100% of the time.

Another annoying niggle I'll be damned to not mention; the English credits appear to be over-matted to about 1.95, which have actually cut the original copyright information in half. Yes, I've seen actual prints projected in much the same way. Yes, I rolled my eyes and growled under my breath there, too.

The bonus features are quite impressive, culling the best material from essentially every previous release and including a host of new material, too. The only obvious missing piece is the inclusion of the old US print called SCHIZOID for American audiences, which was notable for some bizarre optically printed "dream wave" censorship, along with having . I'd never recommend anyone watch the English cut over the complete composite version offered here - I merely recommend it as a fascinating curiosity, the same way that I'd recommend anyone with a sincere interest in the Lone Wolf and Cub series try watching SHOGUN ASSASSINS, if only once.

At the end of the day, I'm slightly frustrated, but mostly satisfied. Mondo Macabro has been pretty honest about what we're getting, they've done the best they can with a title that's had a long and difficult history on home video, and with this never having been a big hit in Germany I can't see this having a repeat of Four Flies on Gray Velvet; the release is what it is, and knowing what it is, I can say it's absolutely worth the price. It eclipses every prior DVD release in every way possible, and a compromise between an incomplete and a consistently high-quality presentation was made in what I can only describe as the best option available. It's not quite perfect, but the odds of this film getting a better release in the forseeable future look slim, to put it kindly.

If you want to support Mondo Macabro's fine work, pick it up through their BIG CARTEL. My copy is in the 700s, but as far as I can tell they still have a handful available, proving how every single sale really does count for niche titles like this. I don't get any referral money so don't click it on my account, I just think this release is as good as expected, and think anyone interested in it should buy straight from the source. If you're cheap, I get it - Amazon is taking pre-orders for 02/09, which is a fair breath between the initial LE and the wide release. Screw Amazon, Diabolik DVD is notably cheaper even if you have Prime.

And yes, friends... It's good to be back.

* Foot Note: A pity that him moving on to do QC work for Arrow Video will ultimately nullify his spot as one of the handful of reviewers I trust out there; he was a hard man to please, and his penchant for finding quantization problems on discs I'd call "perfect" are admirable, if not potential signs of the OCD.

Still, I can't blame anyone for not wanting to (directly or otherwise) trash talk their own competition, and it's a big part of why - even after all of these years - I still post under the pseudonym "Kentai"... frankly, whatever input I can offer seems less and less useful as labels have become either self-sufficient every step of the way, or willing to release whatever crap they're handed the competition won't touch, with very little in-between. At this point I'm mostly writing this out just to appease my morbid curiosity. And totally not to justify the $28 I've spent on a movie I've bought on DVD at least three times.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Phantoms, Pain: Elegia for METAL GEAR SOLID V

WELL... THAT WAS BULLSHIT.

Warning: I must be off my meds again. This shit's gonna' get real angry, rambly and up its own ass in the vaguely-analytical side of narrative. We might talk about the "game" part another day, once I've cleansed myself of anger and sorrow, but... well, Phantom Pain has a lot to answer for in the story department, and that oddly enough has an adverse effect on the gameplay itself as a result. Like I said, we may revisit this if I end up actually caring enough to come back to it.


Pictured: A scene not in the finished METAL GEAR SOLID V.

Despite two and a half years of hype from that jaw-dropping "Red Band" E3 trailer, METAL GEAR SOLID V: THE PHANTOM PAIN fails to deliver on the heavy promises that series creator, director, and 28 year franchise auteur Hideo KOJIMA had promised as far back as 2010. Despite rave reviews and sales topping 3 million copies sold in the first week, long term fans of the franchise have been pretty vocal with their frustrations and disappointments, not the least of which has seen websites like Eurogamer and Polygon publish soft-addenda articles, standing by their "9.9/10" "Game Of All Time" "It's Literally Better Than Sex On The Third Realm Of Consciousness" scores, while simultaneously acknowledging that something is seriously wrong. The argument that Hideo Kojima himself hasn't been given the time or NDA release to explain what "really" happened is as solid an argument as you're going to get at this point, but with Kojima having stood by this as his final game and his magnum opus for the last year, it's... well, it's fascinating to see where it all went wrong, but that doesn't actually make the game I paid $60 - plus $20 and change for the prologue, METAL GEAR SOLID V: GROUND ZEROES - any more complete or satisfying.

I'm honestly not mad anymore about it. I was for about a weekend. At this point, I'm just disappointed on two levels - one, that Kojima could have fallen so hard in a mere decade between METAL GEAR SOLID 3: SNAKE EATER and this abomination, and on the other, that whatever might have been salvaged from the flaming wreck of what's clearly a compromised and bashed-together narrative might have been "okay" were it not for the public-yet-mysterious breakup that happened behind the scenes between Kojima and the game's publisher, Konami. Japanese business culture suggests we'll never actually know what went down behind the scenes, but based on what little we can piece together of our own accord, it probabl goes something like this;

Kojima, who had served as Vice President of their console game division for the last 5 years, has been effectively obsessing over Metal Gear Solid V as his big going away blast. Konami in those last 5 years have been pulling away from console game production to focus on mobile development, casino games and non-video game investments like health clubs. After tallying up the money spent since the production on the Fox Engine started in 2010, Konami's top brass pushed Kojima to release the game in whatever state it was in; not wanting to compromise the entirety of it, they split the game into a "Prologue" and a "Full Game" to meet the launch of the PS4 and show off the power of the Fox Engine. Whatever was going on behind the scenes was only making Konami worry even more, which prompted Kojima to make a stand and refuse to compromise by setting a date on a project that wasn't even close to being ready. CEO Satoshi SAKAMOTO clearly wasn't amused, at which point Kojima was basically fired from his position as VP, but was kept on contract for another year to finish the sprawling project for a release date Konami themselves set - after all, if this is the state it's in now, one can guess that had Kojima and his team bailed outright, the retail release could be dramatically worse. Kojima Productions has already been disbanded, and Kojima will leave the company at the end of 2015, with this... "game" being the last project he'll work on under the banner of the ol' UUDDLRLRBAS.

Yeah, this is mostly guesswork and reading between the lines. But until either side is willing to make more than vague assurances that "Kojima is still supporting Phantom Pain, we'll see you next METAL GEAR!", that's about all we can really do.

It's not a bad game, mind you. My 150-and-counting hours with it should attest to that without issue. The general world design, stealth mechanics, gunplay and seemingly endless ways to trick, misdirect, confuse, fuck with, and straight up murder a billion Soviet and Central African PF soldiers is truly a joy to play with, and while I won't lie and pretend the game has endless variety or a lack of filler - any game this big is going to get a bit repetitive if you're digging your heels in for 100% - the fact that the game keeps track of your playstyle and then shifts the AI strategies and equipment to compensate, effectively modifying the difficulty to match you, speaks to the brilliant core of one of the finest game design crews in the industry today. As a living, breathing, beautiful piece of interactive technology, MGSV:TPP is second to none, and it's basically locked in a three-way tie by default with FALLOUT 4 and THE WITCHER 3: WILD HUNT  as inevitable "Game Of The Year" status, though as all three of these games have dramatically different aesthetics, mechanics, concepts and goals, picking any of them will ultimately come down to the gamer's own personal preferences anyway.

That said... wow, Phantom Pain is a mess. I started writing a long-form piece, but find doing so mostly irrelevant, since George "Super Bunnyhop" Weidman covers about 90% of my biggest concerns in the following 35 minute(!) academically minded review... it should go without saying that, not only does the video itself, but the rest of this post is going to spoil not only all of the secrets that Metal Gear Solid V holds, but by extension the ending to pretty much all Metal Gear games in the seemingly endless and sprawling franchise that built up to it. It's impossible to even try to discuss what went wrong without just diving into the gory details, and so I'm going to roll up my sleeves, stick both hands deep in there, and hope the guilt from what I find doesn't drive me to madness...



METAL GEAR SOLID V:
DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER

While I do think Weidman's points are almost entirely valid, I'll confess there's a few things that bugged me either more, or less, than they did him - but that's to be expected from a franchise that finds appeal and love  for a hundred different reasons at once. Case in point, while I adore the polished and seemingly bottomless gameplay -  and was more than willing to keep going after 150 hours, until the code decided I could eat a back of dicks for daring to test of a fucking internet rumor was true - somehow the game still feels... well, not only incomplete, but wholly lacking in obvious thematic and narrative structure. Such basic and simple beats in storytelling that I'm, quite frankly, shocked that Hideo Kojima was capable of missing them. Meticulous, overwrought melodrama propelled by reactions the players are naturally drawn to take part in is kind of Kojima's "thing" so the problems on display seem to be two fold; not only is a big chunk of the narrative simply not present, but the remains of what wasn't jettisoned were hastily re-arranged in a rough, skeletal manner that gives the vague appearance of closure without actually closing anything.

While Weidman does a damn fine job explaining the biggest leaps of faith in Kojima's final chapter in what's easily the medium's most important and unique attempt at serialized story telling - drawing as much from American superhero comic continuities as it does American-pop action cinema, Japanese science fiction absurdity and random scientific texts digested, understood, and then promptly disregarded for maximum dramatic effect  - there's a few things he didn't touch on that have left me with no choice but to consider their odd and, in some cases, galling absences that I'm sure are largely being overlooked less because they aren't an issue, and more because... well, when the publisher sells you the first act separately and then cuts half of the third act completely, it's easy for the smaller things to fall through the cracks, I guess.

I can't stress this enough, but MASSIVE SPOILERS FOLLOW. Not only will this ruin any surprise the game might have had, but odds are it won't make much sense unless you've already played it - and most (if not all) of the games in the series before it, anyway.

I feel like I shouldn't have to explain that, but y'know. If you wanted to be surprised by any Metal Gear game, don't read any more. Also, if you haven't played the actual games, odds are none of this will make sense anyway. "Explain Metal Gear" is such an impossible feat it's a meme unto itself. Hell, I've played through METAL GEAR SOLID 4: GUNS OF THE PATRIOTS and even I'm not convinced I have a clue what's going on.


THE PAZ PARADOX


One of the more intriguing things that the trailers hinted at - well, one of those intriguing things that are actually in the finished game, anyway - is the reappearance of Paz Ortega Andrade, aka Pacifica Oceana, a double agent who infiltrated Militaires Sans Frontieres at the start of the "Peace Walker Incident" in 1974, and eventually took control of Metal Gear Zeke with the intent to bring it to her true master, Major Zero. In meta context it's clear that Paz was an excuse for Kojima to include a cute blond "teenage" girl on Mother Base without it feeling as inappropriate as it should have - let's face it, METAL GEAR SOLID: PEACE WALKER was, despite decent gameplay, largely waifu bait PSP bullshit, there's no other excuse for Cécile Cosima Caminades to exist - but, narrative wise, it was about right; Big Boss wouldn't trust a Soviet scientist, but if he came bearing a literal symbol of war-torn atrocity to distract him, why would Boss suspect the cute kid who just wants to sunbathe and play with the base kitten of being the real mole? (Not that she was the "real" mole, but... well, Miller's complicated relationship with Cipher is irrelevant for the time being.)

While a number of small oddities always cast the canon status of Ground Zeroes into doubt - Chico freaking out and not recognizing Snake for no real reason, captive MSF agents being shown Skull Face's horrifying visage but not being able to remember it, Miller playing dumb about knowing that Paz was a Cipher infiltrator, the bizarre lack of Big Boss' typical banter or affinity for cardboard box loving - a pet theory of mine was that the Camp Omega mission was real in some capacity, but that the mission we saw was "wrong" in some fundamental way; maybe the whole thing was a propaganda film produced by Cipher. Or maybe this was Chico's incomplete, PTSD-worsened recollection of the events. Or even in the context of Phantom Pain, perhaps this is the hypno-therapy "memory" of Venom Snake, itself both incomplete and based on second-hand testimony of how the events went down by the limited survivors of MSF. Any of these explanations would have been enough to explain why Paz - despite having had two bombs inserted into her body, with organs removed to make room(!) - could have "died" during the events of Ground Zeroes, but come back in The Phantom Pain, looking essentially the same but still bearing the large "V" shaped scar.

"V", as we later learn, was a code name given to Big Boss' body double, a plan that wasn't even put into motion until after the events of Ground Zeroes took place. In other words, the shape of the scar itself was a meta-textual hint that Ground Zeroes wasn't what we thought it was. Simply put, there's too many unexplained coincidences for Ground Zeroes to be anything BUT a fantasy... or, more accurately, a nightmare.

Phantom Pain warms us up to the idea that Ground Zeroes went down differently than we (the player - ie; Venom Snake) remember it, and send us on a quest to find not only the surviving MSF soldiers who haven't completely lost their minds, but return with photos of happier times, each photo giving us a pleasant visit with Paz... who's stuck in a temporal loop of recessive memory and amnesia, waiting for Peace Day, which will clearly never come. Once you collect all 10 photos, the final photo is waiting outside of Paz' room... and once you give it to her, she tears herself apart in a bizarre moment of body horror, with Venom Snake waking up on an unfinished platform, grasping at a ghostly butterfly that was never really there. Comparisons made to Silent Hill are perfectly valid here, and more importantly, even the final tape Paz "gives" you establishes that she's gone, and nothing you can do will bring him back.



Junji ITO himself was going to be working on Silent Hills.
FUCK YOU, FUCK ME, AND FUCK EVERYTHING.


In a sense, this might be the one instance of Venom Snake getting some legitimate character development that isn't him silently reacting to Miller and Ocelot railroading him on a quest for revenge he seems oddly distant to; Venom Snake was an MSF medic before Mother Base was razed by XOF, and the guilt he felt for failing to save Paz haunted him, even with his memories having mostly been erased through a combination of brain damage and hypnosis. It's the only time in the finished game that Venom Snake is shown to react to anything resembling guilt or the effects of PTSD, and while it's heavy handed... it works. You feel awful realizing that Paz is just a phantom of Peace Walker's distant memory, and seeing the one cute, good natured thing on Mother Base turn out to be a lie only justifies the distant, cold tone that flows through characters like Miller and Emmerich.

So where does the paradox kick in? The biggest issue is that Ocelot and Miller INTRODUCE Paz to Snake. Ocelot has been known to experiment with hypnotherapy to trick himself from revealing his true goal in MGS4, and it's implied in "Episode 46" (we'll get back to that later) that he's doing the same here. Could Ocelot have planted those seeds in his subconscious, knowing that Venom would react? Maybe. I guess. I mean that's a stretch, even for Metal Gear, but this is the guy who hypnotized himself to believe he was possessed by the soul of Big Boss' dead clone by grafting an arm onto his body, so sure, fuck it, whatever. The issue is that Miller is a patsy in all of this - he was never brain washed, and if Paz were really alive, he'd demand answers.

This leaves us with two possibilities, neither of which make a lot of sense:

1) Miller and Ocelot were never in the non-existent room with Snake. The whole thing was a hallucination on the part of a man suffering from memory loss, PTSD and mental conditioning. This is the most likely answer, I admit... but it opens up a whole new can of worms, which we'll get into momentarily.

2) Paz was real, and this was all meant to tie back into content removed during production that would allow you to bring her memories back full circle, at which point Paz would join your Mother Base crew. It isn't as good a fit, thematically speaking, but it's what I'm willing to wager was the original plan. Otherwise why bother having Ocelot or Miller there in the first place? Let Venom figure it out on his own terms.

If we assume "1", that leaves us with the notion of an unreliable narrator... and holy shit, does that open up the flood gates in regards to Quiet.



QUIET PHANTOMS

So holding aside all of the carefully crafted controversy bullshit surrounding Quiet... ah, who am I kidding. I'm being an analytical crazy person, may as well talk about some vidya tiddies while I'm at it. Truth be told, I like Quiet, and not just because she is to boners what MSG is to Chinese food; not necessary and it makes you feel a little upset at yourself when you get it, but it's still always always a welcome addition. I actually find she's the only original character in the game to have a decent story arc or a satisfying sense of character, which in a franchise mostly remembered for its iconic bosses and supporting characters... kind of sums up what a failure Phantom Pain was as a narrative experience, if not a sandbox game.

Quiet is a badass, the blatant sexualization only becomes borderline parody if you choose to spend time with her and get your Buddy Level up to 100% (meaning you're the creep, you rascal you!), and while I admit the camera zooming in on her bazongas which are bare because of nanomachines parasites and crisped up lungs is over the top - even by Kojima's standards - it's about the only time this fucking mess remembers that it's a Metal Gear game, and it's supposed to be doing cuh-rayzee and eye-roll inducing bullshit. Was it clumsy and awkward? Yeah, more often than not. But if the rest of the game is going to take itself so fucking po-faced, fuck it, I'll let this be awkward.

Let the sort of people who are legit mad over this shit get triggered into a coma. Maybe they'll finally stop bitching about George Kamitani being good at drawing sexy girls, moaning that nobody bought a mediocre game with a largely wasted memory-rewind function, and stop blindly donating to Kickstarter charlatans who are literally giving speeches at the UN about how arguing with subjective criticism is not only harassment, but that legal measures should be taken to stop them, while quoting 15 year old reports that call Pokemon "Satanic" and argue that violent action games turns young boys into "killing zombies". I fucking wish I was joking about any of this.

Anyway. The bigger issue here isn't the fact that Quiet can't speak, or doesn't wear pants: It's actually a small detail that took me a while to put my finger on. During Chapter 45, Quiet speaks English to save Big Boss - releasing the English Parasite and rendering her a danger to Mother Base and the entire English speaking world as a result - and then she wanders into the desert, never to be seen in the game again. Much like Aerith in Final Fantasy VII or Magus in Chrono Trigger, once she's gone, she's fucking gone. Considering this is end-of-game stuff, it means that clearing out the remaining Side-Ops without your sniper backup is going to be a bitch, so you'll feel the sting through gameplay as much as you will cut scenes. Much like the whole Paz "twist", it's actually a nice touch and is one of the few successful times the game communicates the loss that Venom - and, by proxy, the player - must feel despite having rebuilt Mother Base from scratch.

But what was that small detail? The simple fact that once Quiet leaves, the photo of her in the ACC (Air Command Center - or "Pequod") disappears. Keep in mind that every other photo, including those of Huey Emmerich - a literal traitor who's responsible for the deaths of countless Outer Heaven soldiers in two separate bases - remain where they were. That's odd, isn't it? That Boss would take down the photos of his best sniper and even potential love interest, but would keep the scumbag who knowingly rebuilt a nuclear death machine so a bunch of crazy kids could steal it, and mutated a parasite on Mother Base with the intent to sell it back to your enemies, forcing you to kill your own men - and then tries to make you feel bad about it? What kind of sick, self-hating sociopath would keep photos of THAT dingle berry and ditch the pictures of the sexy lady who could kill an entire platoon in 10 seconds flat?

The logical explanation is so simple, it's literally all over her face:


Must... Resist... Obvious... Bukkake... Joke...!

Butterflies in Metal Gear lore were tied specifically to the Peace Walker incident. For those who don't remember, Peace Walker was a story in which Big Boss - a man who was given that title for killing The Boss, and rejected it for the guilt and shame he felt having had to pull the trigger on his own mentor - and the excuse he uses for being in South America is that he's looking for something; a blue morpho butterfly. This all ties back to MGS3: Snake Eater, when - after losing his eyes to Volgin's torture - Naked Snake tries to "catch" a butterfly, realizing that losing his eye has permanently fucked his depth perception. Even his eye was a minor loss.

Tying this all together, the last photo you get for the Paz storyline is... wait for it... the elusive blue morpho. See a pattern emerging?

When Quiet is angry and ready to get her blood on, the skin on her face changes tone, and a butterfly "appears" on her face, like adorable war paint. The only way to prevent Chapter 45 from appearing in your Missions List - and thus, Quiet from leaving Mother Base - is to customize your PF's emblem using the butterfly as your centerpiece. All of Quiet's weapons are named after butterflies. You get the point, I'm sure. Quiet has replaced The Boss as that elusive force that drives Snake to his inevitable fate, and if Paz and The Boss are anything to go by, butterflies are something you can't catch...  far more than the Skulls, they are truly "those who don't exist".

So what the fuck is up with the scene where Miller is torturing Quiet, much to Ocelot's chagrin? This is such a clear, important moment that I'd say it's impossible for it to be non-canon... but the Paz Paradox complicates this, doesn't it? Either Venom is an unreliable narrator and everything he witnesses is open to debate as being "real", or what we see is what we get, and both Miller and Ocelot were capable of seeing Paz's phantom, too. In short, the Paz Paradox makes Quiet's very existence a potential figment of Venom Snake's retrofitted memory, and if she really WAS a fantasy, that actually explains the leering camera and the fact that despite not appearing to be an ethnic Navajo, she's able to speak it fluently with Code Talker; these logical leaps are literally made for you, the player, not for the literal, contextual narrative.

I hate to play that pretentious game in a narrative as clearly compromised as this - but obvious problems with the game aside, it's not an entirely unfair question. Metal Gear Solid 2 was literally a game *ABOUT* the pointlessness of sequels, and spent its entire final act  breaking the fourth wall asking the player if wasting their life away playing simulations and letting your "real" life pass you by until you have nothing else to show the world you existed. Metal Gear Solid V seems to be a direct inversion to this confrontational and somewhat pointed commentary - the game lets you quite literally make yourself in Big Boss' image, with the legend telling you in the game's final cut scene that you are as much responsible for his legacy as he is - but the fact that the game even has that obvious, tangible layer of memetic commentary means we can't rule the use of well-established symbols from the series out as trying to tell us something bigger.

In short, either Paz was supposed to be real or Quiet wasn't. Nothing in the game contradicts this notion, and until Kojima's NDA's break and he's allowed to tell us what the fuck happened behind the scenes between Konami and Kojima Productions, I'm unwilling to consider this oddity anything but intentional.


Pictured: A scene also not in the finished METAL GEAR SOLID V.

HE NEVER LOST CONTROL
(AND THAT'S... DISAPPOINTING)

Now before going further, we have to talk about the "cut" content and the messy implications that it leaves us with.

Rumor and speculation is still largely what we have to go on, but one thing is clear; a decent chunk of the footage shown off in the various pre-release trailers released by Konami starting in 2013 are simply not present in the game. Off the top of my head:

* Venom Snake wanders through a burned out village full of child soldiers, and later is shown falling to his knees and crying out in anguish. The village with charred corpses is in the game, but it's not actually a set piece.

* A scene at Masa Village in the trailer shows a fully grown soldier training the child soldiers how to use automatic weapons. Again, this is present in theory, but much like the "burned village" its presence is hardly worth noting in actuality.

* Boss covered in blood and standing in front of a wall of fire, his face slowly growing sad, is one of the most iconic shots in the "Nuclear" trailer. It's also nowhere in the finished game.

* Several POW's are shown being mocked, waterboarded, and executed at Camp Omega, an area that you were supposed to return to in Phantom Pain if you owned the prologue. Never happened.

There's also various "alternate" takes of Big Boss in the chopper from Ground Zeroes, as well as two extended versions of the "Hallway Walk" from the Diamond Dogs quarantine platform (including some amazing body-horror animation). With no more Camp Omega missions to speak of now, it's hard to say if this was hinting at something bigger or if they just re-framed/tweaked the final footage. I'm trying to give Kojima the benefit of the doubt here - I know "cut" content often finds its way into marketing materials since it's all edited and finalized long after they've sold it - but the overall lack of anything even resembling the tone on display here is what confounds me so much.


...except when they... don't?

This is also ignoring a veritable TON of "missing" dialogue tracks still hidden in the game data, such as Code Talker and Huey Emmerich singing birthday songs and additional dialogue from Skull Face implying that you could have potentially fucked with him during the now infamously awkward jeep ride, and even some straight up goofy bullshit like The Suth screaming "Yer' FIARD!!" and "CONSECUTIVE! C! Q! C!!!" Whether the implementation was cut as a conscious decision or due to a lack of time and resources, or they're just hanging out for some hilarity in MGO3 is really anyone's guess, but it's bizarre to see what should have been absolutely basic things, like menu sounds, somehow dropped for no concrete reason...

While I have little doubt that "Chapter 1: Revenge" was mostly finished - it has an actual arc, a journey unto itself, a couple of twists and turns along the way - it's still kind of a nasty mess. Those 30 Episodes (plus the hour-long "prologue" - which I loved, by the way, even if it ran just a little too long) have quite a bit of filler content and some big leaps in logic, but overall they feel like a complete, cohesive, if slightly underwhelming piece of entertainment. Phantom Pain Chapter 1 is still weak as far as stories go, ranking somewhere between "smarter than Peace Walker but not as substantial as Guns of the Patriots" - both of which are on the lower end of the Metal Gear writing cycle, as I'm sure we'd all agree -  but it's self-contained enough that if this is what I'd gotten, no more and no less... I'd sigh, shrug, and think, fuck it, at least I had fun right?

The problem is that after the credits roll we get a preview for "Chapter 2: Race". This is where the game doubles down on feeling rushed and broken and becomes a literal work-in-progress; the "19" missions presented in Chapter 2 are actually 6 new story missions, a dozen "Hard Mode" repeats of missions from Chapter 1, and a 'remix' of the prologue, which is as much an interactive cut-scene as it is anything else. It feels like a sampling of unfinished demo tracks rather than a full album, and while both Huey and Quiet get something resembling closure and resolution to their individual stories, Eli, The Third Child, Metal Gear Sahelanthropus, Code Talker and The Boss (in the form of the reconstructed Peace Walker AI Pod) simply do not. Zero and Strangelove appear in the form of audio tapes, but their loss is such an insult that I... honestly wish they hadn't been, to a large degree.

Exactly how much of the game was jettisoned during production is still up in the air, but the literal final boss battle - Eli piloting Metal Gear Sahelanthropus in the English Parasite infected island dubbed "Kingdom of the Flies" - was the narrative finale the game was begging for. The actual battle with Sahelanthropus in Afghanistan is pretty fucking underwhelming, and letting Eli fight his "Father" - while forcing Diamond Dogs to drop napalm on, and I can't stress this enough, an island full of live children - was exactly the big, dramatic gut punch that this whole storyline had been building up to. It was the next, logical extension after "Shining Lights" - arguably the one truly good thing about Chapter 2 - in which, having already had no choice but to put down his own men, Venom Snake has to extend that same nihilistic realism to the very people he tried to save from a life that was much like his own.

THE PHANTOM FINALE


You can argue how much content and what context is missing, but make no mistake; the fact that the "Premium Edition" of the game comes with an 18 minute(!) summation of the "Phantom Chapter" is proof that Kojima wanted us all to see how the game was supposed to end, knowing this is all bullshit...



THE PHANTOM CHAPTER:
KINGDOM OF THE FLIES

Imagine, for a moment, if RETURN OF THE JEDI featured the first half of the film exactly as-is, up until the explanation that HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS, THERE'S A DEATH STAR 2: SITH BOOGOLO... but then we never get to see it. Nor do we ever get to Endor. No speeder bikes, no Ewok religious idols, no Lando Calrissen  and Wedge Antilles bromancing up until the big ass cathartic explosion - literally none of that happens. Instead we just abruptly cut to Luke Skywalker on the Star Destroyer without ever getting back to the sub Rebel Alliance has a fucking Death Star to blow to smithereens. That total lack of closure, of anything resembling a grand finale is the only way I can begin to describe how this game ends, and any excuse to shrug all of this off as intentional - as giving the player a "Phantom Pain" by not fulfilling their basic desires for cohesive storytelling - is just wrapping themselves in needless layers of pretension and hopes of hidden meanings to excuse a fundamental failure to deliver a finished product.

To continue the torturous analogy, maybe a couple scenes get swapped around in the middle, so we still see Yoda die, we still get clarification that Leia is Luke's sister - you know, clarity for a few of the less important subplots - but instead of the catharsis the film actually ends on between Luke Skywalker surpassing his father and the Rebel Alliance working together to destroy the ultimate death machine, it just cuts from Palpatine taunting Luke to that whole "I am a jedi, like my father before me!" line with no final Vader duel... and then, hey, rolls credits. No redemption for Darth Vader, no thrilling escape as the Death Star implodes, no getting shitfaced and making poor decisions with mongoloid teddy bears; nothing. It reaches the thematic conclusion of heroism, but the narrative just... stops. There is no actual resolution at all. That's what The Phantom Pain does. It's fucking INFURIATING, and while you can talk for hours about all of the ideas that didn't make it into Metal Gear games going back to the first MGS, all of those games were at least organized to minimize these losses. MGS2 ends on a giant "WTF?!", sure, but even that was a carefully weighted risk that tied up the actual meta-narrative as much as was necessary. MGSV? Shit is as unfinished as it gets. It's like a movie just missing the final reel with the credits awkwardly pasted back in. It's fucking sad.

Not trailer related, I know, but it's also worth noting that the endless cut scenes showing off Battle Gear were intended to culminate in him being Phantom Pain's equivalent to Metal Gear Zeke - a customizable and upgradeable mech that, unlike Zeke, you were meant to take out into the field. All the time hyping this four-legged floating abomination turns out to be a tiny logo to send on "Dispatch Missions", which you can't even watch unfold via cutout figures like in Peace Walker. I honestly can't think of a more underwhelming waste for a literal flying tank. Kojima swears this was cut "because it made the game too easy", but considering the Chicken Hat and "A Rank or Lower" items still exist, I'm calling bullshit. It was cut because it didn't work yet, and they figured jettisoning the fun so they could try and cobble what little of Chapter 2 was in a usable state seemed like the lesser of two evils when the Konami Crunch left them with no more wiggle room to delay the game another month, let alone the year it likely would have taken them.


THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD

(BUT NOT THE DAVID BOWIE VERSION)

So what is that end credits freeze-frame in this already painful analogy? It's "Episode 46", The Truth: The Man Who Sold The World. A twist that's only a surprise if you're not a tinfoil hat wearing asshole who looked up interpretations about every seemingly relevant David Bowie song a year before the game came out. (Spoiler: The song is about doppelgangers. Flamboyant, pansexual doppelgangers...)

So let's get this out of the way: I don't mind the big twist about Venom Snake being Khan a body double cooked up by Zero as a way for the "original" Big Boss to slip through the world, undetected. It actually explains how Frank Jaeger could be imprisoned by "Big Boss" in Outer Heaven and still be on Big Boss' side in Zanzibar Land three years later. It also explains how Big Boss could be the leader of Fox Hound during Operation Intrude N313 while simultaneously running Outer Heaven without anyone being the wiser. It raises further questions, of course, but it's just clever enough that it fixes the continuity between the 1987 Metal Gear and the 1990 sequel, Metal Gear 2: Solid Snake, so it's... better than the twist we got at the end of Peace Walker, at the very least, and it was seemingly tailored to make Big Boss' endless speech at the end of Metal Gear Sold 4: Guns of the Patriots leave not only an ironic, bitter aftertaste, but makes his insinuation that "sometimes people can be used to play certain roles" all the more insidious.

What I DON'T like is how pointless and jarring the presentation all is. It's clear that the "big twist" was in the cards since Ground Zeroes has Kiefer Sutherland also playing the medic, who's face was very, very carefully hidden from view. This is all fine. The only issue I have is that, it just... appears. Out of nowhere. Done all the "Important" Side Ops? Cool, congrats, here's the true, super-secret ending for no fucking reason. PTSD and hallucinations were once promised to be a big part of the game, and are even a key component in the prologue, but they barely appear in practice otherwise. Could this have, I dunno, been tied to a bigger story mission that cuts back and fourth between a repeat of the fucking hour long prologue? The fact that this happens at "Chapter 46" - and isn't even treated as a 'Final Mission' is telling of how randomly this was pushed back into the unfinished Chapter 2 mold with little regard for how it all fit together with the rest of the game. Kojima admits there is no end by the very checklist you select missions from... I can't tell if that's incredibly honest or douchey. Maybe it's both.

But my biggest question is... well, why? Why now? What brought on Venom to remember that "Vic Boss" is really just Ishmael? The game has no narrative, or even thematic explanation; they've simply run out of game for you to play otherwise and already took Quiet away without really warning you about it, so fuck it, here kid. Have your big, shocking twist ending 4chan figured out a year prior. You've earned it... somehow, maybe, I guess...

Not to use Tumblr's favorite word in vain or anything, but couldn't this all be triggered at Mother Base by someone - maybe even Ocelot, the lovable rascal - playing "The Man Who Sold the World"? It literally opens the game, and stimuli - such as music, smells and sensations - are known factors in triggering things like flashbacks in PTSD patients, which the Paz Paradox suggests Venom likely is.

Shit, if there was no narrative explanation anyway, couldn't it have been worked into the mechanics? Maybe you got the tape after all of the other missions and then just listening to it on the iDroid actually triggers a cut scene? Could we do literally anything to make me feel like I'm part of the experience instead of just watching it unfold in the background while I wait for it to be ready for more actual gameplay? Imagine if the game opens with the Midge Ure cover and "The Truth" is only revealed if you hear the Bowie original... oh, what could have been...

Making this insanely important epilogue fit back into the broader game structure would have helped my good will by a bunch, and the fact that once you finish it, the game just kinda' shrugs and dumps a dozen unexplained, effectively impossible-to-be-real tapes in your lap. It's not all about Miller making a fast food resturaunt at Mother Base, either (which, by the way, is the best fucking thing ABOUT the game): It's stuff about Zero, Skull Face and Paz, long, rambling monologues hastily explaining all the deep seated lore away like it realized it had a bunch of scenes to show but just started reading the full script verbatim as a radio play and hoped that'd be "good enough" to satisfy... anyone. It just smacks of this all having been shuffled back into the game at the 11th hour hoping to salvage something resembling closure.

It doesn't work. The last reel is gone in this movie, and they've simply cut the build-up to it, hoping we wouldn't notice.


RHODESIA IS NO MORE


Another thing that's been irking me for a while is the fact that the Diamond Dogs logo, which hasn't changed since the initial Yoji Shinkawa art for Big Boss, feature none other than a Rhodesian Ridgeback. Data mining suggest that the brief appearance these pups make in Ground Zeroes - barking at Skull Face as he walks to Chico's cell - would have been a part of a larger gameplay mechanic, but like so many things it was removed before the game could be finished. Guard dogs were a feature in both Metal Gear on the MSX and MGS3: Snake Eater, so not having them in MGSV - particularly when they could have changed the whole dynamic of bringing DD, or in how enemies can track you during an alert status - is really a shame. There's even a QTE for tossing off wolves, so it doesn't seem like including them would have been that much more work... but I'm getting away from my point, which was narrative rather than mechanical.

Why is the Rhodesian Ridgeback important? Because Kojima stated, when the game had just been confirmed to be Metal Gear Gear Solid V, that race, culture and language - all as separate concepts - would be the driving theme behind The Phantom Pain, specifically quoting "Race and Revenge" as the game's two core themes. The last third of the game are under the banner "Chapter 2: Race", but "race" itself - skin color, the one thing that embracing a new culture can't change until a few generations of breeding happen - never actually factors in to anything.

Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, a country to the north of South Africa, but one that up until 1980 had a very similar British founded "White Government" that, despite only making up about 3% of the country's population, treated the native black citizens as a second class, enforcing apartheid laws that literally prevented blacks from entering "White Areas". The country was embroiled in some pretty nasty combat through the 70s and 80s, culminating in Zimbabwe declaring independence from their previous government that had ruled since the 1930s. Meanwhile, South Africa maintained their forced racial segregation and generally shitty treatment of black citizens until 1994, presumably due to South Africa having a nearly 9% white populace, plus a similar number of what the official government calls "coloured" - which, basically, implies that they're not anglo-white, but aren't necessarily african-native in origin, either. (How much things have actually improved in South Africa since, I can't say, and is getting off track anyhow. Learning about South Africa from Die Antwoord is about as useful as learning about Japan through Tsukamoto Shinya: Awesome, yes, but not especially useful.)

Plus, Sahelanthropus has a skull painted on its big, ugly head. The fucking obvious "final battle" after Skull Face escapes with Sahelanthropus would be chasing him down to an armored fortress on the South African border with the defeated Sahelanthropus' mechanical head as the keep's centerpiece. Throw a couple more skulls up and the "founding" of Outer Heaven comes full circle. But that's not the issue... well, it is ultimately, but it's not why I think it got mangled and re-written so heavily during production, at the very least.

I think a certain word is really blame. Ironic, considering the context of it all...


YOU WILL BE ASHAMED

OF YOUR WORDS AND DEEDS


Back when this was still "PROJECT OGRE" in 2010, Hideo Kojima promised us that his next game would deal with "taboo subjects", going as far as to say that if he messed up the way he handled them, he may have to leave the industry permanently. When he unveiled Quiet in 2013 and met nothing but scoffing and charges of sexism in the English language gaming press, he assured us that Quiet was the anthisesis of uncovered female heroines, and that when we knew the secrets behind her exposure, we would "be ashamed of our words and deeds". The Quiet thing was pretty goofy, no matter how you slice it - but that quote was alongside numerous promises that race was still a key component, and that the game would challenge its audience in new and thought provoking ways. Ironically, METAL GEAR SOLID V: GROUND ZEROES - despite having numerous burning questions that will seemingly never be answered - did a good job of doing exactly what he promised. Phantom Pain, well... I feel the game was courting something dangerous. Something profound. Something that very few games have ever touched on, and when they do it's usually a clunky, over-wrought version of it, like Spec Ops: The Line or The Last of Us. Something that makes YOU, the player, feel not only guilty, but justified in something some that, all things considered, makes you kind of a shitty person.

For what it's worth, I personally don't know shit beyond the absolute basics about apartheid Africa. Heck, most of why I know about it came directly from me being fascinated by Neil Blombkamp's sci-fi treatment of the concept in District 9. This isn't all meant to be getting into the political implications I'm largely unfamiliar with, merely point out that - much like the Jewish Holocaust - there's a lot of fertile ground for using it in a fictional context to draw attention and parallels to current events.

Ground Zeroes had the stones to use a fictional "black site" to openly show how brutal and unjustified the real-life events at Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq from the last decade have been, and while admittedly fictionalizing these events with the convoluted plot of a story of a cloned super soldier who fights nuclear bomb launching robots is probably not the most "mature" way to handle it, at least there was a legitimate attempt to focus on torture and giving the military limitless power over "non-combatants".

Phantom Pain stands on the edge of apartheid down to its very core, and refuses to directly acknowledge any part of racism in Africa despite that supposedly being the whole fucking theme of the game. If you're paying attention, you'll note that every victim of Skull Face's experiments in Angola-Zaire is black, poor, skinny and absolutely miserable. Skull Face himself seems to show no direct distaste for human ethnicity - merely their nationality, the fact that they're so willing to conqueror and manipulate those around them on unfair terms. Skull Face doesn't give a shit about blacks... but I'm willing to bet a lot of those predominantly white PF groups do, or at least the people hiring them. I wouldn't be shocked if one of the earlier focuses in the story was on Skull Face being backed by someone - likely someone not even in the game, at this point - who was willing to fund XOF's research on the premise that he develop Kikongo Parasites, and similar parasites that would specifically wipe out local tribal groups that they held responsible for the violence through Rhodesia and surrounding areas. Skull Face isn't racist, but with even Ocelot calling these parasites "Ethnic Cleansers" - and the obvious parallels between Code Talker's childhood to ongoing ethnic homogenization - it feels like a game that's never had trouble courting controversy is trying so hard to say it without saying it that it's painful.

So let me say it, Kojima: At one point your English script had some white asshole say something like "But who cares if we kill all the niggers?" This freaked someone high up in the chain at Konami the fuck out - perhaps not without reason, considering how absurdly PC the American and general English language media has become over the last several years - and this subplot got scrapped. Nothing else even begins to make sense, and considering everything *ELSE* we know got cut, suddenly removing a bunch of cut scenes from the early missions in Africa starts to hold a more intriguing implication. For one thing, this is a shame, since - while I'm of the personal opinion that hating anyone for their ethnicity, gender and religious or political beliefs over their behavior and personality is fucking stupid - tribalism and distrust of the "other" is very much a part of human nature, and an evolutionary necessity at that. People who grow up around what they see as their own kind are inherently suspicious, wary, fearful or angry as what they as something wholly separate, be those lines around race, language, class, even sex or political affiliation.

Sports are seen as a catharsis for so many people because it lets one group's "tean" go to battle with the other's, which - in centuries prior - would likely have just been an outright skirmish. Kojima clearly wanted to touch on some dark subject matter in this project, but after Ground Zeroes - by far the darkest chapter in Metal Gear history - he seemed content to cut any and all controversial elements that weren't Quiet's massive bewbs, leaving a game that feels like it's just on the edge of striking a nerve... and then never does. For fuck's sake, even The Last of Us felt more like a taboo breaker than this.

But there's a second reason this drives me crazy, and that's the fact that Rhodesia is - again - just north of South Africa. Why is South Africa important? Because that's where Outer Heaven is located! The logical conclusion here would have been Venom Snake invading a massive XOF stronghold on the Zimbabwe/South African border, conquering the shit out of it, and replacing one of their flags or something with the Diamond Dogs emblem. That's all it would have taken to make it clear that Phantom Pain really had come full circle with the founding of Outer Heaven, particularly with the novel version of MGS4 - which is more of a "rewrite" than a typical novelization, keep in mind - implying that Big Boss returned to Groznyj Grad in the late 80s to found Zanzibar Land in the ruins of Volgin's old stomping grounds. This would have legitimately brought the founding of Big Boss' empire full circle, but instead the game seemingly forgets its own continuity and just says, fuck it, Diamond Dogs in the Seychelles = Outer Heaven in South Africa eventually. 'Cause why the hell not.


HERE'S TO YOU,

CHICO AND BOSS


It's interesting that we didn't hear about Jim Piddock - the English voice of Major "Cipher" Zero - turning down the role until December of 2014. They had seemingly finished with Kiefer Sutherland, Robert Atkin Downes and the rest of the "main" English cast in 2013, yet the character who supposedly set up the entire "V" plan wasn't even contacted until the game would have, theoretically, been wrapping up production? Similarly the first implication that Strangelove - who winds up killed off screen, and in the final game only exists as a voice recording monologue in Chapter 2 - was a tweet from the Japanese actress, Yumi KIKUCHI, in July of 2014.

In and of itself, this isn't such a big deal; Chapter 2 may be a bloody mess, but with Skull Face having been virtually a tape-only presence in Ground Zeroes, it's hard to say if this was always by design or out of desperation once larger sections of the game had to be abandoned. In any case, the whole Strangelove subplot is just... bizarre. Huey was a lovable goofball in Peace Walker - effectively just Otacon in a wheelchair, when you get down to it - so while Phantom Pain's promise to show men becoming demons was ultimately fulfilled... it was by the one character who had every reason to not be a bastard. Ground Zeroes presented Huey as a twitchy liar who sold MSF out to Skull Face, but with a throw-away like about Strangelove having "left" not long before the XOF invasion, it seemed like they were setting it all up that Huey traded Big Boss' army for Strangelove's life. A crime of passion where the needs of one were seen as justifying the loss of many. In more focused and sensible hands, Huey's betrayal of Outer Heaven would have been tragic, romantic, even...

And in Phantom Pain he freaks out when she takes Hal away as he becomes Gendou IKARI 2.0, locks her away in The Boss' AI pod, and lets her starve to death like a dog. They discover her corpse which slumps out of the pod in a cassette tape. What the actual fuck, Kojima?! There's no way this was as it was written, and the more I think about it, the more I question if Huey's "betrayal" was scrapped and re-written entirely in the 11th hour. The whole thing just feels "off", and it's such a disappointing end to one of the more interesting Peace Walker characters I can't help but wonder if this was all ultimately done - if only in part - just to spite Konami's chance to use her in later games.

 Even holding aside how shitty a treatment this subplot is to both characters, it's also a total squandering of the fact that - beyond all rational expectations - THE BOSS LIVES! ...well, her AI pod - which, as Peace Walker established, isn't quite the same as the real thing - is still there, still remembers "Jack", and no matter how you slice it, could have been a valuable asset to the Diamond Dogs. They use her as a witness, and then just kinda'... forget she exists. If you wander around the RD platform she simply sits there, repeating bits and pieces of her final moments forever... locked in a living, infinite hell. Thanks, Venom! To be fair he does talk to the pod exactly once in the hidden "Final Ending" that's still locked behind the FOB stupidity that sounds like more fun than it actually is - but that's such a pointless after thought it actually makes Venom's character even more confusing than if they'd left it out entirely.

Hey, does anyone else remember how Kojima went to Normandy as part of the game's "location scouting"? Wouldn't that have been amazing, to see The Boss kicking ass with the Cobra Unit on D-Day through mind-jacking into the fucking AI pod? Wouldn't that have given us an actual justification to bring "The Boss" back - to see her legend, her gospel, renewed through the tragedy of seeing The Joy being an absolute fucking beast on the battle field, killing nazi's with The Sorrow and a big ol' Ocelot filled belly? Goddamn the thought of that game existing makes my dick hard... and instead she plays a bit part on a shitty episode of Law and Order.

Fuck. This. Game. But in the end, the biggest disappointment for me is, of all things, Chico. Hilarious, right? We were like a a budget extension away from VR Missions with the mother fucking Cobra Unit, and THIS is the final straw...

Don't get me wrong, nobody actually liked that annoying little shit - Ground Zeroes seemed designed solely to torture and humiliate the little bastard, and with the fact that he had a headphone jack embedded in his chest (which he could evidently listen to...?) was never explained in any way, shape or form still drives me nuts, since there's a LOT of weird and frankly interesting looking experiments going on at Camp Omega which all amount to fuck-all in the end. His Achilles tendons were destroyed, but with Phantom Pain's very title having an obsession with loss and irreconcilable damage to the self, what better character to explore this notion with did this franchise have but Chico? He never had a childhood that was free of the battlefield, and being forced to beat and even rape the girl he loved, and then still being coaxed into betraying MSF to spare them both further humiliation, puts him in the "damaged beyond fucking repair" category.

If the goal of Phantom Pain was to explore PTSD in any sort of meaningful way, to show the harrowing and miserable lives that veterans and even non-combatants have to suffer for the unbroken chain of perpetual violence. Forget Skull Face, ignore Miller, if there was ever a fucking case study for Metal Gear being an anti-war story, the 14 year old boy who was tortured, crippled, forced to engage in sexual assault to save both of them further violence and in the end sold his comrades out anyway was THE story to run with. Yes, I know a small, crippled, 20-something year old brown boy impersonating a 50ish Big Boss would have been a bit of a stretch, but goddamn, even that would have been a more fitting and interesting twist than "Big Boss is just some random brainwashed medic. Too bad those crazy kids Big Boss tried to save died or some shit".

For a year and change now I've been reminding self-important arseholes who are ready to write off Ground Zeroes as sadistic, misogynistic trash to wait until the actual fucking story was finished before pointing and making Invasion of the Body Snatcher noises as the "Women in Refrigerators" page on TVTropes. Metal Gear had a habit of not really killing characters, and considering this was the fourth mainline game to star the final boss who was killed in the original game, I had no doubt that even if Paz was gone, Chico's guilt and self-loathing would ultimately be a driving force behind Phantom Pain's raison d'être... and in the end, it's not even treated background noise. More time is spent trying to explain what the Boss' AI pod is, despite that having already gotten closure in Peace Walker.

It's really depressing when I pick this all apart and realize that despite Peace Walker being, by far, the weakest prior story for a mainline Metal Gear after the original, even that seems to understand what themes and character arcs and developments are. Peace Walker may have been Metal Gear Lite, but Phantom Pain is a bunch of sticky notes randomly shuffled together into a convoluted skeleton with no meat to speak of.

WITH QUIET DIGNITY


That's the real fuck'n rub here for me. Because at the end of the day, exactly one character in this game had a character arc, had personality, was likable through and through... and it was the one character Kojima just made to troll the whole goddamn world with.


"The whole world wants you dead."
What, you thought Ocelot was talking about Snake?

Quiet's story is a tragedy presented as a farce: She gets barbecued by "Ishmael" in the opening, has parasites injected into her skin to replace her lungs and digestive track, survives getting her brains blown out by "Ahab" but assumes he's the former, follows him to Mother Base ready to release vengeance through her voice... and in the end, she sacrifices herself to save Venom, not only releasing the curse of the English Parasite forcing her to wander the desert alone, lest she infect the world, but is never able to come to terms with her feelings for the man who convinced her to become a gun. Not for honor, but for love. It's poetic... in a brain-dead kind of way.

It's annoying that so much focus has been put on her awesome baps because at the end of the day, she's the only character in here I wanted to spend time with. She assists you in the field, she's treated like dirt by your supposed friends, she betrays her commanding officer because she starts falling for Big Boss, same as the rest of us. Other than the whole "silent" gimmick, she fits right into the series, and the whole "dur hur paruhsites make no sense 'cause THE END" shit needs to stop. Like, now. You guys know the old man still had lungs, right? Working, not-charred like jerky lungs? That's why he fucking snores. The fact that Naked Snake gets the ability to use sunlight when wearing The End's camo snuggy doesn't suggest that Quiet could wear the same, rather it suggests that The End's clothing - rather than his entire body - was filled with the chlorophyllic parasites. And that just opens up a whole bunch of new potential retcons, doesn't it? But nah, let's all be snarky and joke about a hundred year old man in nylons instead instead of actually paying attention to the pseudo-science.

These guys also realize that Quiet's roughly as dressed as Big Boss in Naked Camo, right? And that wearing this gives you ZERO tactical advantage over putting on a shirt, right? But nah, there's no way this optional outfit is Metal Gear sneaking in a little dash of manservice, gotta be part of that adolescent male power fantasy...


Admit it: You'd let him remind you of the basics of CQC.

What's funny is that Quiet wouldn't have been so out of place in any other Metal Gear game. Metal Gear 2 had a Soviet spy who was also a figure skater who didn't realize that she was dating Frank goddamn Jaeger, because "Frank Hunter" was such a clever fucking alias. Metal Gear Solid 2 had The Fortune, a forlorn girl in a one-piece bathing suit and combat boots who couldn't get shot to end her life, and I mean that oddly literally. Metal Gear Solid 4 had the Beauty and Beast unit, and they...


Yeah. If a line was ever crossed into "...well, this is fucked up", it was the Beauty and Beast Corps. They moan seductively as you tranq them, they crawl and straddle you if you whip out the camera, and every single one of them is about as naked as you can get with a second skin of latex. They all have horrifying, tragic backstories, and the fact that they react to extreme trauma by wanting to grind on what appears to be a 70 year old Snake is... unsettling. It's not the sexuality itself, which is just silly, it's the direct connection to trauma, torture and violence that makes it so off-putting.

But that's kind of the whole point, isn't it? That you can choose to be an asshole and act like it's a Playboy shoot is entirely up to you. When I played through the boss battles I fought them for real using deadly weapons, and frankly, the battle with Laughing Octopus (above) is such a weird John Carpenter-esque nightmare that if you're getting off to this, you're probably a bad person with fetishes that make people regret looking underneath your bed.

Not that I'm not a bad person myself, or think that being a "bad person" is anything to take too seriously when we're talking the realms of fantasy. I have literally argued with people over the definition of "rape porn" because they think movies or books or what have you with graphic depictions rape - regardless of presentation and goal of the work in question - is instantly 'porn' or a celebration of sexual assault. As a dedicated connoisseur of rape porn I find that notion offensive! There's a wide range between the rape comedies of the Hong Kong CAT III period and the brutality of my favorite Chinese Cartoon Girls which are, in no uncertain terms, made exclusively to beat off to. If you want to use the words "rape porn" and don't know what Legend of the Overfiend, Raped by an Angel or Thriller: A Cruel Picture are, you really have no business talking about a varied subject you clearly know nothing about, much less projecting your personal turn-offs on a work you'd otherwise have no interest in. And there's the rub, I think. Art - or entertainment, media, whatever you think movies and games and such are - are allowed to offend and make viewers uncomfortable, if that's the story and the tone the creator wants to make.

I guess if your argument is "overt and non-story centered sexualization is stupid", I can't completely argue against it. I happen to think light-hearted, eye-rolling fanservice can be fun. Sometimes it's so bad it's just cringe-worthy. Quiet straddles the line (giggidy), but when it all comes to a head (goo) it's just... dumb. It's not offensive. It's not even creepy. It's just stupid, and considering the one line from the game everyone remembers is a guy named Skull Face screaming "WHOOOOO?!" at the top of his lungs, meh, at that point I can't get too worked up over it. Metal Gear is a franchise about how ugly bipedal robots that launch nuclear weapons are the height of technological warfare and a human clone with advanced aging has to stop an AI cluster's plot to control the trigger of every major manufacturer's weapon through the use of nanomachines, who fights a different old man who only brainwashed himself to think he was possessed by the spirit of a different dead clone to try and stop a machine that's taken down by an 8 year old girl who stole the plot from Independence Day, and also there's a cyborg ninja with robo-high heels who fights a hairy chested bisexual vampire with hyperspeed boots and a 90 minute cut scene in which two old men who barely know each other dump anghsty philosophy on each other in a graveyard I SWEAR I HAVE MADE NONE OF THIS SHIT UP.

In other words, "stupid" is nothing new to Metal Gear. Either you're used to it, or you already went back to Mobile Suit Gundam and/or Splinter Cell.

If your argument is "KOJIMA IS BETTER THAN THIS!" and "PREVIOUS GAMES WEREN'T THIS DISGUSTING!" and "THINK OF THE CHILDREN WOMEN WHO FACE ENOUGH PUSH BACK FROM THOSE EVIL MISOGYNISTS GAMERS", well...







...you clearly haven't been paying attention for the last decade or two. Inappropriate and questionable sexual tension is part of the charm at this point, and to Kojima's credit, he's about half as liable to undress and objectify men as he is women. Bitch all you want, games media and pals, but Kojima himself stated that Raiden was specifically designed to appeal to a female audience that wasn't fold of Solid Snake, and if you decide that Big Boss is more into ruffling around Kaz' banana hammock than Paz' frilly things, hey, that's all up to you.

Is Quiet stupid, particularly the way she shoves her ass into the camera for no real reason? Of course. She is. Is she reduced to a sex object by the camera? Every chance it gets. And does that undermine her character? Nah. Not unless being crammed up Snake's ass has made him a sex-fantasy object, too. For a game where words are in short supply - both thematic and literally - Quiet's actions are almost universally stunning, If you're arguing that a character's looks are ultimately the deciding factor in how seriously you take them, you're being honest and I can respect that, but unless you constantly bitch about how non-functional the average Final Fantasy or Dynasty Warriors costume is, I also think you're just being a touch ridiculous about it.

Hell, a friend of mine - who's no prude - grumbled about the "dancing in the rain" scene. I reminded him that he adores Berserk, and the only real difference is that in Berserk the two of them didn't actually want to stuff each other's gully holes, which makes the whole scene even dumber in a sense. Not that you shouldn't love Berserk, but for fuck's sake, will I be happy when I never have to hear about Quiet's tiddies again. I'd much rather hear how she was the despised yet sweet natured badass the Diamond Dogs deserved, not the martyred matron they seemingly all needed.

Besides, the fact that the one time anything remotely sexual happens to her is A) an act of violence, and B) ends with her absolutely DESTROYING that little fucker's junk says all you need to know about Kojima's view of the world; ain't no crime rubber necking, but keep those hands where she can see them, boys. If that's too much for you to handle, fuck it, I really don't know what to tell you.

Metal Gear is fucking dumb and yet over-explains every part of its dumbness. That's why people like it. If this is news to you, I'unno what to say, dude.

IDENTITY CRISIS:
WHAT IF I'M A LIE?


If the plot were a mess but the characters themselves were engaging, this may have saved to some degree. Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots is a flaming trainwreck of an overall narrative, trying like mad to explain away the intentionally broken meta-narrative of METAL GEAR SOLID 2: SONS OF LIBERTY, but at least its dedication to giving all the characters their moment in the sun makes it feel... alive, by comparison. Even when MGS4 sucks, it's at least dedicated to fleshing out and walling in the rich and well-rounded characters the series had been building up to that point. By the end of it all, I find "Liquid Ocelot" just as likable and even sincere in his dedication to The Boss' will as Solid Snake is to defeating The Patriots; two sides of the same coin, violently barreling towards the same goal, despite never fully realizing it. It's sad, it's brilliant, and it's just dumb enough that I can keep rolling with it... even when we get to shit like this.


...yeah, MGS4 is pretty retarded. But somehow it's still more likable than Phantom Pain. And a big part of that is because by and large, nobody in this game has any real personality.

You remember Revolver Ocelot? The guy who convinced himself he was Liquid Snake and grafted the dead fucker's arm onto his body and then hypnotized himself into believing it was true? The guy who was shown to be an absolute nut even as a kid, twirling pistols like an old Western hero and dedicating hours of the day to creating increasingly convoluted hand gestures and mewling like a cat? Yeah. Ocelot was a fucking madman, and when he became the default antagonist of MGS2 and MGS4, he owned it. Ocelot is a back-stabbing sociopath who'd sacrifice everything to let Big Boss' interpretation of The Boss' Will come to fruition, but he was always a spastic crazy person getting there.

So who the fuck is the southern drawl cowboy played by Nolan goddamn North? 'Cause he sure as shit isn't Ocelot. He's a dull textbook of in-world information spouting off 2 minute chunks of backstory at the drop of a hat - his presence in the Paz introductions being the scene that clinched it for me; Ocelot is not the same character he's been in every other incarnation. It's not "a new take", it's "some other asshole they named Ocelot". Phantom Pain is trying so goddamn hard to emulate a po-faced Tom Clancy narrative that Ocelot simply doesn't fit within its fabric, so he's been modulated into a generic... nothing.

Benedict "Kazuhira" Miller comes off only slightly better; Robert Atkin-Downes plays his role as the bitter, vengeance driven general straight to the hilt, and I absolutely respect every ounce he poured into a role that steals every scene he appears in. Unfortunately, Generic Ocelot and you-know-who kneecap virtually every attempt Miller has at finally succumbing to the darkness that consumes him; Ocelot tortures as a necessary evil, but he's so blase about the whole thing you'd think he was simply doing it to shut Miller up. Miller, meanwhile, gets veto'd at every step of the way, being denied not only satisfaction against Skull Face, but Huey as well.

I mean, yeah, Huey winds up getting cuckolded to death by his own son. Still doesn't make up for the bullshit "punishment" he got. Miller should have cut his legs off and kept them as a trophy. Literally anything would have been better than that.

And that all filters back to the biggest void in the game: Venom Snake. I understand it, memetically speaking; Phantom Pain posits the realization that Big Boss' legend wouldn't exist without gamers being desperate and hungry for more, to see how the lovably autistic Naked Snake fell from grace as the greatest hero of all time to become the blood thirsty madman of the Outer Heaven Uprising. By making "us" Big Boss, Kojima finally rejects the fourth-wall breaking rejection of war games as anything but a waste of time in MGS2 and lets us have our power fantasy. We become Big Boss, the feared mercenary who gave birth to the War Economy. Feared by the general public, loathed by the "real" puppet masters, and beloved by those who's lives begin and end on the blood stained battle field, Phantom Pain is the ultimate realization of Peace Walker's knowing commentary of Big Boss' "downfall" being the logical conclusion of his journey towards what he always saw as The Boss' will; the monster who's sole purpose is to perpetuate violence and retaliation as a means to an end, giving every group who feels wronged or that they deserve more than they have the manpower to take lives... not for life, not for honor, but for you. Big Boss' descent into violence and villainy is your own military simulator. Always has been, and it was at the endgame of Peace Walker - when Mother Base's theme changed from the yellow of peace to the red of combat - that Kojima made everything as clear as he possibly could. Hell, the final speech in Peace Walker - the first time Big Boss says "Outer Heaven"* - has far more nuance and understanding of the morally ambiguous position that Big Boss and Mother Base hold than the entirety of the Phantom Pain.

* Yeah, yeah, he mentions "Outer Heaven" in passing METAL GEAR SOLID: PORTABLE OPS, despite presumably using Gene's money to fund The Patriots, which is why he has to start from zero (hehe... I miss laughter...) after leaving Cipher. Actually wait, is Portable Ops even canon at this point? Screw it, can I just ignore how dumb that Null stuff is and then pretend Portable Ops is The Phantom Pain?

So what "missing link" does Phantom Pain ultimately cover? It can't do much, because Kiefer Sutherland's silent, stoic take on Big Boss is almost completely devoid of personality, other than always being merciful and just and fucking perfect at every step. Huey betrays us a second time and forces you, the player, to murder your own troops... your judgment is to put him on a life raft with food and water and let him figure it out. You're hired to kill child soldiers by a warlord who wants them silenced; you take the injured kids back to Mother Base and open a fucking day care. The player can "Go Nuclear" by building nuclear warheads and even  growing a massive oni horn if he kills people and animals on a regular basis, but so fucking what? I hate to go full anon, but let's face it:

Big Boss Did Nothing Wrong. And that's bullshit. "Kaz, I'm already a demon." What? NO. No Venom, you're NOT! Even if we consider everything you did in Portable Ops and Peace Walker to be morally questionable (and it so is), what has he done? What honest thing has Venom Snake done to show the sort of self-loathing he shows when he rescues Kaz? Every line Venom gets seems to come out of nowhere - and that's when it comes out at all...

I don't want to get into the failings of Chapter 1 because, as weak as it was, I can live with it. It's only when you introduce the avalanche of unfinished, poorly executed and nonsensical clusterfuck of Chapter 2 that it all goes wrong, but the jeep ride with Skull Face sums up the impotence and misfires of MGSV almost perfectly. You create a bookend moment with the Ground Zeroes opening while Skull Face gives his evil villainous monologue, Big Boss sitting in silence and fidgeting like a hobo on the bus, and then once the villain has said his piece and you expect a quip, a threat, a question - for the hero to say literally fucking anything - instead, we get... well, just fucking look at it...




Such a lust for theme songs...

We get 2 minutes of awkward silence while Donna Burke's amazing theme song echoes softly in the distance, like an impotent firework farting musical brilliance along the ground where no one can see them. It's painful. If one moment in The Phantom Pain can sum up why the strong, silent approach was a horrible idea, and how low Hideo Kojima has fallen as an interactive storyteller, this sequence speaks louder than words ever could. And I LIKED the fucking ladder scene in Snake Eater! At least that served as an act break, and was a reprive of a theme that we already liked, not as stretching for time minutes before the final battle and blowing the Donna Burke load all over the sheets before you ever got your boxers off.

If there was a single moment where my minor doubts and frustrations turned to blackened, seething fury, Chapter 30 was it. A pity, too. Skull Face may have been a goddamn Saturday morning cartoon villain in the end, but White George Takei was more fun than anything around him. Had THIS cornball in a ten gallon hat had been the final boss of Peace Walker, maybe that game would have been the finale I always wanted and never realized.

DID YOU LIKE IT?


The saddest part in all of this is I'm starting to piece together what a desperate, angry act of bridge-burning Chapter 2 really becomes. Zero's put into a coma by the late 70s thanks to Skull Face's parasites. Paz, Chico and Strangelove are dead. Huey is a filthy traitor. The Boss is reduced to a broken record. Miller is a crippled, bitter husk. Ocelot is boring. Skull Face is killed in the least satisfying manner possible by an annoying little shit. Quiet's gone. Volgin's lust for revenge extinguished... Eli and Baby Mantis are MIA, but the Collector's Edition spoils what'll inevitably happen next, and anything that isn't properly explained in the game itself (ie: EVERYTHING) is either given an over-long audio cassette, or is brushed off as unimportant.

I'm not even going to dignify the fact that "Parasites" are the new "Nanomachines" and that, much like Midichlorians, they've retconned them back into things that were well presented enough that nobody who knows how to have fun even questioned it. Oh, that guy shoots hornets? Oh. Okay, sure. Moving on. Fucking parasites, man...

All of this was pieced together on the fly, but there's a single theme running through it all:

KOJIMA'S FINAL ACT WAS ONE OF SABOTAGE.
EVERYONE IS EITHER DEAD OR A TOTAL ASSHOLE.

You really want a game starring a bitter, unlikable Miller? How about that back-stabber, Huey? You could do a "Real Big Boss" game if you wanted to, fulfill all those hopes and dreams of seeing a loli-Sniper Wolf and a young Decoy Octopus, I guess, but who really gives a shit after Quiet effectively replaced her in all but name?  Venom Snake is a blank slate, but we know what he does from here; there's only so many more convoluted shenanigans Konami can cram him into, and the plot is so convoluted and full of retcons and contradictions that the far simpler answer would just be to hit the reset button. Arguably that's long overdue anyway, but Kojima spent so much time carpet bombing his own continuity that I can't help but think some of those little details - Strangelove and Chico dead, Huey being a scumbag, Code Talker being fucking useless, Quiet running off and being infested with deadly parasites besides - that a bit part of it was Kojima giving his employers as little opportunity to continue into METAL GEAR SOLID 666: OUTER HEAVEN RISING as was humanly possible.

That won't stop them, of course. Metal Gear Solid 6 will exist, and odds are it'll suck. But after the heartbreak of watching The Phantom Pain unfold and implode on itself form 60 to 0 in about 6 chapters flat, I don't know that it could be any more crushing. Phantom Pain had the potential to show the darker side of a man fans considered a hero, to really dig deep and wallow in the pain and misery that Big Boss' bloody revolution ultimately boiled down to. Ground Zeroes seemed ready and willing to walk down that path, but something - compromise, cowardice, maybe a little of both - ultimately keep this from being anything it needed to be to have a lasting impact.

Did I like it, Kojima? No, I fear I did not. I never thought I'd look at Peace Walker and think, man, the series probably should have quit while it was ahead, but that's where I'm at with this. It's a sad, wasted potential that only makes the rest of the Metal Gear universe worse by extension, and has for the first time in about a decade left me so furious that I want to write a fucking outline for the obvious conclusion that the teasers and promotional footage promised us, rather than the lies and misdirections we've been fed this whole time. I have no doubt that were Konami still in the business of actually focusing on console games this would have been less... broken, but the damage is already done, and there's no behind the scenes drama that can convince me that massive problems with the narrative are directly at the behest of Hideo Kojima itself.



"Remember when Metal Gear was still good?"
- No one, ever, when looking at this. Until now.


It's 1:30 in the morning. I have to get up for work in 5 hours. I've re-written parts of this more times than I can count, and if I don't hit "post" now I'll probably revise it another dozen times and add another five sub-sections referencing other reviews that hit points I've only touched on. I'm sure this write-up is as big a mess as the game it's brutalizing, but this is less a "review" and more a "purging", for my own sake. To put this all into perspective, I'm playing the Mad Max game to forget The Phantom Pain exists, even though the gameplay of the latter is infinitely more appealing than the former.

I don't understand what's happened. I just know this is almost as crushing and disgusting a feeling as The Phantom Menace was about 16 years ago. It's not that bad, no, but it's as big a wasted potential, with the Outer Heaven Uprising being the one last piece of the puzzle worth exploring only for this game to reference it for literally about 30 seconds in a fucking reflection of a mirror. Again, I kinda' like the ruse, but... how is THAT the focus of the game. with zero actual build-up?!

Realistically, in terms of "how mad am I", it's Prometheus levels. There's some admirable qualities and I could probably appreciate it if I wasn't already a fanboy, but I'm too close for this to be anything but rage fuel. But if these aren't made for fanboys, who the fuck are they for? Who else would put up with this bullshit, much less actually enjoy it?!


"We'll make diamonds from their asses." - Bad Boss, 1984
You'll never hear that line as anything else now. You're welcome.

Well... at least we can still mod the game, I guess. Here's hoping some bitter ex-Konami employee leaks the ever loving fuck out of the Fox Engine so someone can produce better closure than Kojima Productions was allowed to, in whatever form that takes.

Long live the man who sold the world... and may the memory of his phantom fade into obscurity.