Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Episode 1 | HuniePop | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Now that's what you call a diverse line-up!
TV review - The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, Episode 1, "New World Order"
Episode summary: Sam Wilson and Bucky Barnes realize that their futures are anything but normal. (IMDb)
With a ten-minute action scene opening up the series, there's a clear distinction between The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (shortened to FAWS going forward) and WandaVision. Despite a breathless opening, this episode then slows right down to let us get to know both characters in far greater depth than arguably their entire screen-time across every MCU movie they've appeared could ever allow for.
We get to meet Sam's (Anthony Mackie) family and find out about their financial struggles following 'The Blip' (still hate that name), including what I felt was a pretty blatant scene about systemic racism that lots of other people - white people, to be clear - missed the intent of or just ignored the message. Which is worse? Either way, it provides an issue to deal with in his personal life to add to his 'heroic' life...
Namely, he gives up the shield given to him by the aged Steve Rogers at the end of Avengers: Endgame, believing only Steve was worthy of it. He comes to regret the decision by the episode's end and sets up what should be a very interesting plotline concerning a different type of systemic racism. It's going to be interesting to see how many people continue to overlook/ignore the racial issues going forward.
As for Bucky (Sebastian Stan), he's having nightmares about his time under HYDRA's control and trying to make amends for his past actions, either bringing down those who benefited or doing his best to help out those who suffered. All his scenes carry a heavy weight to them as Bucky tries to deal with who he is and who he was - it'll be interesting to see where he ends the series.
Lastly, it's odd that there are probably more specific questions about what's going on in FAWS than after WandaVision's opening double-bill, but they feel a little distant at the moment to the point of lacking some urgency. After one episode of WandaVision, I was desperate to find out more about what was happening, but that's very much not the case here - that really has to change next time out.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier starts off strong, with some great action and even better character work. Weirdly though, it doesn't feel quite as intriguing as WandaVision did despite posing arguably even more questions - although that could be just due to whiplash going from magic and wizards to a much more grounded, tech-based premise.
Game review - HuniePop
Game summary: After a pathetic attempt to try and pick up Kyu, a magic love fairy in disguise, she decides to take you under her wing and help you out with your crippling inability to meet new women. (Steam)
First off, HuniePop is the exact type of game you'd expect from its art style - a dating game where a whole array of gorgeous girls have nothing better to do than date or have sex with you. That also makes this a game very much for adults only, even if it is officially censored on various storefronts (it's stupidly easy to un-censor it), as it's still highly sexually explicit.
Not just on the visuals front either, which can be eye-openingly adult in nature, but also in the sound design - and I'm not just talking about the array of moans and groans once you finally get a girl back to your place. These ladies are all fully-voiced and can be as crude and foul-mouthed as anyone else, so make sure there aren't any kids in viewing or hearing range unless you want to scar them for life.
It should be said that the women - desire to date and fuck you aside - are actually pretty diverse in character and the performances of the voice-over actresses are pretty great too. For a game with such a lowbrow premise, it's funny how much better written these women are than the majority of female characters in other games and just how different they are from each other.
Even though it makes no difference to the gameplay, you can choose for your character to be male or female - making all of the women bisexual by default, I guess? - and there are lines of dialogue that reflect your choice. Again, for a game that seems intended to indulge the basic of desires, it's an enjoyable level of care and attention to detail for a game that could've been churned out make money on its visuals alone.
As for the gameplay, you play a matching game in a grid when on a date, trying to line up three or more of the same icon - ideally reflecting your date's preference - and meet a certain target to decide whether the date was a success or a failure. You can influence this by buying gifts for the women and attaining items to help you out at this stage, but it's also down to a lot of luck.
And that's where HuniePop fails for me. I'm not overly a fan of the game's look or music choices, so the gameplay has to do a lot of heavy and... it just can't. Success is just too random for me to enjoy, even if you can try and influence things when dealing with the admittedly very well-written and performed women outside of the date gameplay, so - unless you like the art style from screenshots - this can't be recommended too highly as a result.
HuniePop is a fun enough game - and seriously, it's for adults only - but the core gameplay part feels a little too random to be truly satisfying. What is surprising for this game is how well realised and varied the female characters are in this game, with them all being fully-voiced and having distinct quirks and personalities of their own, even if they do share the desire to date and sleep with you.
Audiobook review - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Book summary: The armies of the Dark Lord Sauron are massing as his evil shadow spreads ever wider. Men, Dwarves, Elves and Ents unite forces to do battle against the Dark. Meanwhile, Frodo and Sam struggle further into Mordor in their heroic quest to destroy the One Ring. (HarperCollins)
And just like that, the War of the Ring is over. No, wait a moment, there's the coronation of Aragorn as King and the journey for the hobbits back to the Shire. No wait, now there's the scouring of the Shire and a final confrontation with Saruman, then it's over. Hang on, then it's time for even more goodbyes as the story finally comes to an end. Then the lengthy appendix to the story starts...
There were plenty of jokes about how many endings the movie version of The Return of the King had, but the book - written and audio - has it beat, although it doesn't feel quite as drawn out here. Adding the scouring of the Shire to the movie adaptation would've been far too much, but I think a difference in pacing between the first two parts of the story and this final third make all the difference in the book.
To be more blunt: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King absolutely flies along in audiobook format, absolutely whipping past in comparison to The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers. This makes any extension welcome, as it means you can spend more time with the characters you've come to know very well over the previous few dozen hours.
As for the appendix - Annals of the Kings and Rulers - I'm both happy it's here as more material to listen too, but also disappointed the other appendices are missing, as they contain a lot of information about not just Middle Earth, but the characters featured across The Lord of the Rings and what happened to them. It feels like a bit of a cheat that the audiobook doesn't contain the same material as what's in the physical edition.
Aside from that, some of the same issues with the audiobook format as the previous two instalments remain - one narrator not being enough for so many characters; so many songs and poems that can be a pain to skip - but the pace of this final part and the very little world-building required now that the story has reached it's conclusion more than make up for them.
The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King is probably the most pleasing of all three books in audiobook format and, as a result, is possibly the most enjoyable of the bunch. To be fair, it benefits from the character work and world-building of the first two parts, but this concluding piece of the trilogy practically zips along in comparison, even with the scouring of the Shire extending well past where the movie versions ended.