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‘Pokémon Violet:’ A dream still working out the details

Few franchises have a better pitch than “Pokémon”: tame and trained magical animals battle each other, save the world with a team of them and ultimately become “the very best, like no one ever was.” 

Whether each game brings the player into this dream is a different question. The previous main series games, 2019’s “Pokémon Sword” and “Pokémon Shield,” are infamous for their failure to do so. Additional content for these games, however, quickly got back on track, and “Pokémon Legends: Arceus,” released in early 2022, truly makes magic. “Pokémon Scarlet” and “Pokémon Violet” aim to continue this upward trajectory, and in this reviewer’s experience of “Violet,” the game is a success, and it’s easy to see how the series can shine even brighter.

Catching, raising and battling Pokémon is as enchanting as it has ever been. The new battling mechanics introduced in this game are creative and allow for exciting possibilities, which this review will not spoil. The greatest issue with the system is the lack of a difficulty setting. This is a game for all ages, which means the adventure must be accessible, but there is no button to give opponents stronger Pokémon or more complicated strategies. Instead, one must create self-imposed rules to add to the game’s challenge, and even so, one cannot create new opponents. This is an easily remediable problem for the next “Pokémon” games, though.

“Pokémon Violet” is the first fully open-world game in the series and is a great first step into this new system of world design, with compelling prizes for exploration and a surprising degree of freedom in movement. There is a simple and powerful joy in climbing a mountain that seemed impossible to summit and finding a rare item or special event at the peak. There is still substantial room for growth for future games in this department, however, as the environments are mostly unmemorable (with one magnificent exception) and the human settlements are uninteresting. These cities lack distinct cultures, interesting populations or exclusive activities. There is also very limited interaction between Pokémon and humans in the cities, which is a shame, as bringing Pokémon into everyday city life could make these places attractions. Imagine a mountain city where flying Pokémon carry people between buildings, or a city with a parade in which Pokémon use their abilities to create a light show.

Most frustrating of all the game’s best elements, however, is a lacking technical presentation of this world. The game simply runs poorly, and its visuals are at a low quality.  Older “Pokémon” games with pixilated, two-dimensional overworlds and Pokémon battles used the power of suggestion to their advantage, letting players imagine the world in greater detail and conceiving something far beyond the technical capacity of any video game. As a three-dimensional adventure in an open world where one can travel anywhere, this game must depict its world as accurately as possible to satisfy players.  Rather than inviting players to join the game in fully constructing this world, “Pokémon Violet,” at its worst, invites players to imagine a better piece of software.

The story here, unlike many Pokémon games, is not a formulaic tale about an evil organization chasing a god Pokémon to realize its ambitions. Instead, the player’s character is simply a schoolkid in the Pokémon universe, whose friends bring them into the main adventures of the game. While these will not hold an adult’s attention throughout their duration, they are excellent stories for younger players about empathy. The three main supporting characters — Nemona, Arven and Penny — all have problematic aspects to their personalities and difficulties that define them. Nevertheless, the player finds the good and brings out the best in them. Our friends aren’t perfect, the game argues, but that shouldn’t be our expectation. Being human is about connecting with other humans in our brokenness, as our relationships can build us to be better. That is an invaluable lesson for players of all ages.

“Pokémon” is still working out the details of its dream, but “Pokémon Violet” is a wonderful blueprint for adventures to come, and a very good game in its own right. While its world needs more splendor and its adventure more flexibility, “Pokémon Violet” still has magic. It may not convert older players to following the franchise, but hopefully this is building up to the show that will sweep the world away, the long-awaited realization of the dream. But as it stands, it’s still worth letting “Pokémon Violet” cast its spell, even if the seams of the fantasy are visible.

Contact Ayden at akowals2@nd.edu.

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Blanc Daze: Notre Dame’s new band

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‘Dirt Femme’: A brave new world for Tove Lo

You’ve probably already met Swedish pop provocateur Tove Lo (pronounced “too-veh loo”). Her artistic thesis statement, “Habits (Stay High),” is a classic for a generation, and she secured some other hits in the middle of the last decade, as both an artist with “Talking Body” and a songwriter, working on Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do.” After this initial commercial success, however, she turned left off the road to pop superstardom, producing darker and more intimate explorations of substance abuse and relationships in her “Lady Wood” album series, which earned Lo this writer’s admiration, though, understandably, less Top 40 airtime. She followed these nocturnal odysseys with 2019’s “Sunshine Kitty,” an album that attempted to soften her narratives’ edges, thereby sacrificing their essential grit. She has since left her major recording label to release music independently, and fortunately, her newest work “Dirt Femme” demonstrates the frankness and songwriting mastery that makes her a unique talent. It also illustrates Lo as an evolving artist, whose increasing ambition doesn’t always bloom here.

The best moments on “Dirt Femme” are when Lo’s exceptional storytelling and pop aspirations align. “No One Dies from Love” is a euphoric, unapologetic synthpop about devastation, which could also be said of all her best work. The lyrics achieve this balance so perfectly, the best explanation is to simply print the chorus:  “No one dies from love / Guess I’ll be the first / Will you remember us or / Are the mem’ries too stained with blood now?” “How Long,” composed for HBO’s “Euphoria,” finds our protagonist pining over slinky, slippery arpeggios as her performance grows increasingly intense, concluding in some of her best vocal work so far. As it builds, though, she carefully changes moods across the song, bringing in digitally distorted background vocals as if the universe itself is taunting her at the end of the second pre-chorus and turning a bit playful in the bridge even as she aches, setting up the final, soaring chorus.

Lo deviates from this successful formula of narratively complex electropop songs to show new facets of herself as an artist as well.  While she’s starred as the anonymous guiding voice through massive dance tracks before, she hasn’t included one of these EDM songs on her albums in a while, and “Call on Me” with SG Lewis is one of the best pure dance songs she’s created yet. “True Romance” is a ballad set over a pulsating, swelling soundscape of synthesizers, a fantasia in which Lo’s narrator falls, terrified, into love, and it is by far the album’s most moving track and one of the highlights of her discography.  “I’m to Blame,” meanwhile, features her ritualistically repeating a heartbreaking verse over swelling acoustic production — a classic guitar and pianos striking at the sides of the stereo — before breaking out with a slamming club drum as the band production continues to blaze. It is anthemic in an unexpected way for her, the sort of song that will surely explode and transfix in concert.

Even the less successful tracks on this album have their earworms and flashes of conceptual genius.  “Attention W****” with Channel Tres is a wounded and entrancing dance track built off a hypnotic, pulsating bassline, and “2 Die 4” has an absolutely riveting pre-chorus, even if its beat drop doesn’t match the song’s energy. “Grapefruit,” another dance cut that is about an unspecified eating disorder, is uncharacteristically guarded in its lyricism, but it still features a hook that burrows its way into the listener. “Suburbia” has a fascinating narrative of a partying protagonist confronting the possibility of motherhood, but this story cannot be captured in a weightless pop song. Lo has already created short films to accompany prior albums, and “Suburbia” is a story best explored in a film or novella where she would have the space to fully capture the intricate situation. Both “Suburbia” and “Grapefruit” are strangely unaffecting, and maybe Lo did not choose the right art form for these narratives — or perhaps these subjects are difficult for her to confront with her full artistic power.

“Dirt Femme” is Tove Lo entering a brave new world as an independent artist, feeling like the first chapter in a grand new adventure for the generationally talented songwriter.  Her storytelling is keener and more ambitious than ever, leading to some of the best material in an already mighty catalog.  And still, it seems she is on the precipice of an even greater and deeper work, as new and powerful topics begin to emerge in this familiar pop world.  There’s something on the horizon for Tove Lo, and there’s no better time to join her on her journey.

Album: “Dirt Femme”

Artist: Tove Lo

Label: Pretty Swede Records / Mtheory

Favorite tracks: “True Romance,” “How Long,” “Call on Me,” “No One Dies from Love”

Shamrocks: 4.5 out of 5

Contact Ayden Kowalski at akowals2@nd.edu.

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‘Hot Mess’ : An EP for when your emotions are everywhere

Dodie is back. Releasing music for the first time since her debut album last year, the singer-songwriter is giving us a look at how the last couple of years have been for her. (Spoiler: a bit all over the place.) Filled with her signature whispering voice, layered vocals and relatable lyrics, we are once again able to find ourselves within Dodie’s songs.

“Hot Mess” the first song off the EP with the same name is about trying to get out of an on-off relationship. The song starts simple as Dodie sets the scene. It’s just the listener and Dodie’s crooning voice over plucked strings as she describes herself waking up, breaking up and dancing. But as her desperation grows to leave the relationship behind, the song grows with her. Layered hums, strings, drumbeats and chimes all get added as the song moves forward. The climax of the song comes as she repeats the line, “Let me go.” In the end she has to rely on the other person to do what she cannot — end the relationship for good.

“Get Weird” is a groovy song about the insecurities Dodie faces when she tries to date women. Featuring a prominent bass line and beats, she tries to figure out what the right way to behave is on a date. She sings over the bridge, “No one told me / ‘Course I stumbled / Where’s the reference?” and of course there might be some mistakes in dates with other women when there are no notable examples to follow. So, what do you say to explain away the awkwardness? Promise that next time it won’t get weird.

A prominent shift comes with the third song “Lonely Bones.” A throwback to the Dodie of old, the song feels simple and light, but its lyrics betray the sadness lurking underneath. Below the wavy back-and-forth beat, Dodie croons her lyrical motif, “Oh, lonely bones, have you forgotten?” again and again. While the listener does not know what the lonely bones might have forgotten, the vagueness makes the song more personal because you can fill in the question however you like. The song is good company for a lonely listener.

The last song “No Big Deal (I Love You)” completes this sadder second half to the EP. Dodie describes a relationship where love might have existed between two people but was never stated aloud. Dodie is backed by simple piano chords as she describes shared showers and a Sunday in each other’s company, but the bridge is the emotional highlight of the song. The chords transform into piano runs as Dodie confesses over the song what she cannot in real life – she loves the person.

While each song feels a bit disparate in theme there definitely is a string that ties them together — everyone in all of these situations could be called a hot mess. So, if you are feeling a little bit like you are being tied together by a fraying ribbon, this might be the EP for you.

EP: “Hot Mess”

Artist: Dodie

Label: The Orchard

Favorite tracks: “Get Weird,” “Lonely Bones”

Shamrocks: 4 out of 5

Contact Claire McKenna at cmckenn4@nd.edu