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Review: Chilling Adventures of Sabrina ends run with disappointing finale

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Our favorite half-human/half witch teenager took on eight timeless menacing entities to avert the apocalypse (again) in the final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I’ve championed this weirdly captivating supernatural horror show from the beginning, and for three seasons the strengths have always outshone the occasional weakness. Unfortunately, S4 turned out to be the weakest of all, despite including one of the best episodes of the entire Netflix series, and what should have been a strong unifying narrative arc. It’s still pretty entertaining, but there was just a little too much pointless fan service and sloppy plotting this time around for S4 to really work.

(Spoilers for prior seasons below. Major spoilers for the series finale are below the second gallery. We’ll give you a heads up before we get there.)

As we’ve reported previously, the show was originally intended as a companion series to the CW’s Riverdale—a gleefully Gothic take on the original Archie comic books—but Sabrina ended up on Netflix instead. The show retains some of the primetime soap opera elements of Riverdale, but it incorporates more full-blown horror without bowing to the niceties imposed by network television. As I wrote last year, “Ultimately, the best thing about The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is how gleefully and unapologetically the show leans into its melting pot of the macabre. It’s quite the high-wire act, exploring serious themes while never, ever taking itself too seriously—and never descending into outright camp.”

In the S3 finale, Sabrina (Kiernan Shipka) transformed a trio of unholy artifacts into a medieval spiked ball and chain known, appropriately enough, as a morning star. She used this to create a time loop, enabling her to go back and correct the grievous errors she made over the course of the season. So there are now two Sabrinas. The original Sabrina Spellman returned to her life in Greendale, while her alternate self, Sabrina Morningstar, took up her rightful throne as Queen of Hell. They’re supposed to always stay within their respective realms, but, well, what are the odds of that happening with such a headstrong heroine? Meanwhile, in the final scene, a now-mad Father Blackwood (Richard Coyle) performed a summoning ritual to call forth the “Eldritch Terrors” and told his loyal acolyte Agatha (Adeline Rudolph) that they will bring about “the end of all things.”

Showrunner Roberto Aguirra-Sacasa hinted that S4 would go full-blown Lovecraft. It’s really more of a fun Lovecraftian-influenced homage, starting with the title of the first episode: “The Eldritch Dark.” That’s an allusion to sci-fi/horror writer and H.P. Lovecraft contemporary Clark Ashton Smith, who wrote a 1912 poem with that title, although Lovecraft himself included a similar entity in his group of Outer Gods. Sabrina‘s version is a strange darkness (and accompanying sense of despair) called The Darkness that descends on Greendale and begins to spread—the first of eight Terrors called forth by Blackwood, each the focus of a separate episode. It takes both Sabrinas, plus the full coven, to defeat The Darkness.

Next up is The Uninvited, an entity that emerged during the creation of all things when he was turned away from a warm fire. Now he wanders through Greendale, knocking on doors, and ripping out the hearts of anyone who doesn’t invite him into their homes (because they’re heartless, get it?).  It seems to be loosely based on Lovecraft’s short story, “The Outsider.” When The Uninvited crashes Aunt Hilda’s wedding to Dr. Cerberus after being excluded from the festivities, the two Sabrinas defeat the entity through trickery. I honestly felt a little sorry for this Eldritch Terror, but you can’t have a zombie-like figure ripping people’s hearts out all over the place just because they failed to show a bit of hospitality.

The rest of the Terrors make their appearance one by one: The Weird—an octopus-like entity likely inspired by Lovecraft’s most famous creation, Cthulhu—who is a parasite with a collective consciousness that takes over Sabrina’s body; The Perverse, whose reality-warping powers are called forth by a gold imp statue (a nod to the Edgar Allan Poe short story, “The Imp of the Perverse”); The Cosmic, in which the various realms start to merge, with disastrous consequences; The Returned, in which departed loved ones return from the dead; The Endless, possibly inspired by the Lovecraftian deity Thasaidon; and finally, The Void, which existed at creation and will bring about the end of all things.

(Warning: major spoilers below the gallery. Stop now if you haven’t finished the season.)

Let’s start with what worked this final season. The cast remains phenomenal, with everyone turning in exceptional performances despite being given some very silly material to work with at times. In particular, Michelle Gomez as Lilith/MadamSatan, and Miranda Otto and Lucy Davis as Aunt Zelda and Aunt Hilda, respectively, have long anchored the show, and continue to do so in S4. The aunts even get to play opposite their counterparts from the 1996 TV series, Caroline Rhea and Beth Broderick, in the penultimate episode, “The Endless”—the aforementioned standout in the series,

In order to keep the realms from colliding, the two Sabrinas agree to inhabit separate realms. Sabrina Spellman remains in Greendale, while Sabrina Morrningstar goes through a mirror portal to a parallel universe, and finds herself on the set of a popular TV sitcom. The entire realm is comprised of the set, and everyone is in service to the star: Sabrina’s feline familiar, Salem, aka The Endless. Sabrina’s aunts are played by Rhea and Broderick, with Otto and Davis playing their understudies, reduced to sleeping under the beds of their counterparts at night.

The set is a nightmare realm of the longest-running sitcom in the universe, where people can be fired after three slight missteps, and sent to the “green room,” never to return. The entire episode is deliciously meta and very clever about weaving in industry in-jokes and poking fun at the Netflix series’ more ludicrous elements. Case in point: Sabrina Morningstar’s former consort, Caliban (Sam Corlett), prefers to work backstage in props where he won’t be so gratuitously objectified—and then proceeds to remove his shirt, because it’s “his choice.” But even The Endless will be wiped out by The Void, which soon arrives and consumes this alternate world. Sabrina Morningstar barely manages to escape, plunging through the mirror back to Greendale to warn Sabrina Spellman of the imminent threat. The effort costs her life. At least there’s now only one Sabrina again.

As for the cons, did we really need a hellish “battle of the bands” where every cast member has to perform a pop song? That reeks of fan service and a rather crass marketing ploy. Some plot developments just seem like lazy writing: Mambo Marie (Skye Marshall), the Haitian voodoo witch who’s romantically involved with Aunt Zelda, is actually Baron Samedi; Roz doesn’t just have the Sight, she’s been a witch all along; and Robin Goodfellow (Jonathan Whitesell) abandons Theo (Lachlan Watson) to return to the faerie realm, but then changes his mind and comes back. Don’t even get me started on Lilith’s baby. None of these developments seem to serve any real purpose, other than give the relevant characters something to do.

Furthermore, most of the Eldritch Terrors don’t come off as particularly terrifying, perhaps because they are so easily defeated. These are supposed to be incredibly powerful, timeless entities. Yet we’re supposed to believe that Sabrina and her pals can drum up sufficiently powerful spells and magical objects to counter each Terror, like they’re some paltry second-tier demon. I mean, The Uninvited gets tricked into being imprisoned in Sabrina’s enchanted childhood dollhouse. An Eldritch Terror should really be a little more savvy than that.

“The Endless” set up what should have been an equally sharply focused and emotionally powerful finale, particularly in light of Sabrina Morningstar’s demise. Instead, the plotting flounders, reeling from one implausible moment to another and never quite meshing in a satisfying way. Unlike some fans, I have no issue with the controversial decision to kill off Sabrina Spellman as well; the character has been associated with reverse Christ-like imagery from the beginning, so of course Sabrina would end up sacrificing herself to save the world. A similar plot line worked spectacularly well in the S5 finale (“The Gift”) of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, when Buffy sacrifices herself to save her sister (and the world).

But Sabrina’s sacrifice just doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. It feels rushed, like the writers were in a hurry to wrap things up, so we never really get to linger on the enormity of the loss and its impact on Sabrina’s friends and family. There’s a perfunctory funeral, and then we cut to Sabrina in the Sweet Hereafter, where she is soon joined by her boyfriend, Nick Scratch (Gavin Leatherwood), who went swimming in the “Sea of Sorrows” so he could be with her for eternity. Translation: he committed suicide because his girlfriend died. That’s an oddly distasteful note on which to end.

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina has been a wild and crazy (if uneven) ride. As I’ve noted before, the show’s strategy of throwing every mythological figure and literary trope into the mix and seeing what sticks, works more often than not—in large part because of the gifted cast. It’s too bad that even such an amazing cast couldn’t rescue the series finale.

The final season of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina is currently streaming on Netflix (along with all the preceding seasons).

Listing image by Netflix

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Valve Anti-Cheat’s “permanent” bans now have one major exception

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Enlarge / Elias “Jamppi” Olkkonen, seen here at Dreamhack’s 2019 Winter Open, may be allowed back in Valve-sponsored events despite a VAC ban.

If you know just one thing about the Valve’s Anti-Cheat system (VAC), you probably know that a ban issued through it lasts forever. As Valve’s support page lays out clearly, “VAC bans are permanent, non-negotiable, and cannot be removed by Steam Support.”

Now, apparently, there is one sizable exception to this rule, at least when it comes to esports. A post to the Counter-Strike: GO blog yesterday notes that some VAC-banned players will now be able to participate in events surrounding the game’s next Regional Major Rankings (RMR) season.

The CS:GO team notes in the post that its event guidelines were initially written around the game’s 2012 release, when “all CS:GO VAC bans were relatively recent.” Now, though, the team has decided to update those guidelines to reflect the fact that “VAC bans can now be more than eight years old.” As such, VAC bans older than five years, as well as VAC bans that pre-date a player’s first participation in a Valve-sponsored event, will no longer be taken into account when assessing RMR event eligibility.

That’s a pretty big change for a system whose defining feature is consequences that are supposed to be “permanent” and “non-negotiable.” And those other VAC consequences—including the loss of a player’s purchased game library, achievements, tradable vanity items, etc.—will still remain in place. “The only change is how they influence your eligibility to play in Valve-sponsored events,” the blog post notes.

Cheater bygones?

For years now, Valve’s zero-tolerance approach to VAC enforcement has suggested how seriously it takes evidence of cheating in the hundreds of games that use the system. One verified cheating infraction was enough to ruin your in-game credibility across Steam forever, with no exceptions even considered by Valve’s enforcement team.

When it comes to CS:GO esports, though, Valve apparently now thinks suitably old evidence of cheating should be considered as some sort of youthful indiscretion that shouldn’t be held against current players. It’s a surprisingly stark and specific carve-out for a policy that was previously inviolable.

Some CS:GO watchers suspect the rule change might be targeted to affect players like Elias “Jamppi” Olkkonen, who received a VAC ban back in 2015, when he was 14 years old. Olkkonen has claimed that the banned account in question had been lent to a friend of his at the time of the alleged cheating. He sued Valve in Finland in 2019 over that ban’s impact on his professional esports career, including its role in preventing him from signing a contract with pro team OG.

A Finnish court ruled in favor of Valve in that case last November. And in February, Olkkonen seemingly gave up on CS:GO entirely and signed on with Team Liquid as a pro-level Valorant player (though the “CSGO” name still appears in his Twitter handle). “Thank you everyone who has supported me during my past years in CS, lets start the new road in [Valorant],” he wrote at the time.

Yesterday, though, Olkkonen wrote a Twitter “thank you” for his “Officially… Unbanned” status in CS:GO. Olkkonen’s father Petri added via Twitter that Valve’s legal counsel had confirmed to him that “due to the time that has expired since the infraction happened it will no longer affect [Elias]’ eligibility to be invited to a Valve-sponsored esports event.”

Back in 2016, Ars contributor Rich Stanton wrote in depth about the crowdsourced process used by the CS:GO community to reliably identify cheaters. It’s a process that involves multiple experienced human investigators agreeing on recorded evidence of cheating, Stanton writes. It’s also a process in which investigators “presume the suspect to be innocent” and where “never being wrong is more important than always being right,” Stanton wrote.

“The surety demanded by the Overwatch system creates a small slice of cases where you’re convinced the player’s hacking, but you can’t say for sure—and if there’s any doubt, you have to let it slide,” Stanton continued.

It’s unclear whether this new CS:GO policy suggests Valve might further loosen its system of VAC consequences in the future (a Valve representative has yet to respond to a request for comment from Ars Technica). In any case, this is the first visible crack in a system that had previously served as an impenetrable shield against cheaters.

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NPD: PlayStation 5’s first 5 months are best ever for a US console launch

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Enlarge / The PS5 is bigger than Xbox Series X in more ways than one (at least, in the United States).

Sam Machkovech

While we’re still waiting on exact sales numbers for last year’s newest video game consoles, select stats have begun to emerge that, at least in the US, give a clear lead to Sony’s PlayStation 5. As it turns out, the lead is historically significant.

The NPD Group, a longtime retail analyst, has confirmed via brick-and-mortar and digital sales figures that the PlayStation 5 sold more units than any other console sold in its first five months in the US.

NPD rarely confirms exact sales figures, and stitching together an estimate of PS5 sales in the US thus far is therefore a bit tricky. In early 2018, Nintendo claimed the title of fastest selling console in US history at a mark of 10 months, by which point the company had sold “more than 4.8 million” Switch consoles.

At that time, Nintendo’s announced span of sales figures included both its March 2017 launch and its subsequent holiday 2017 period. Any more granular understanding of how many of those 4.8 million Switches sold in the US in its first five months is guesswork on our part, since Nintendo otherwise lumps Switch sales in “the Americas” for its investor relations announcements. (At the 3.5-month mark, the Switch had sold 7.81 million units throughout the entirety of “the Americas.”)

And launch numbers only tell some of a console’s success story. Even the Wii U had gangbuster sales out of the gate, with a global tally in its first two months of 3.06 million. That global number for Wii U also makes me wonder: did the PS5 sell so many consoles in the US because Sony chose to prioritize the region over Japan, Europe, and other major PlayStation territories? The NPD data doesn’t say. (The same question goes for Microsoft, whose Xbox Series X/S managed to recently top India’s console sales charts—a territory that has long been known for loving the PlayStation.)

Number hunters might note that the NPD announced last month that the PS5 was the fastest-selling console in “total dollar sales” but not units; at the time, the latter was still in Nintendo Switch’s favor as a $300 console, compared to the $500 disc-based PS5 and $400 discless PS5 model. One month later, the PS5’s leadership in the first five months of sales counts for both dollar sales and units sold.

Friday’s announcement, as posted by NPD Executive Director Mat Piscatella, did not include any sales estimates for the Xbox Series X/S hardware. When we asked, Piscatella noted that the sales of both Microsoft’s and Sony’s newest consoles “lean heavily toward the disc versions,” but he did not provide additional clarification, such as percentages.

Marching toward March sales madness

Piscatella’s latest monthly report mostly screams good news for video game hardware, software, and accessory sales. The Switch is still the number-one selling console in terms of units, both in the month of March and the entire first quarter, while the PS5 claimed the highest “hardware dollar sales” for that three-month period. Americans spent $680 million on “video game hardware” in March, beating the month’s prior high of $552 million in 2008. And year-to-date hardware spending in the states is 81 percent higher this year compared to last year in the same span of time, totaling $1.4 billion.

Beyond those numbers, Piscatella’s Twitter thread breaks down digital and traditional retail sales figures for Xbox, PlayStation, and Switch games (albeit without Nintendo’s precious eShop digital sales data for its first-party games), and it points to one other interesting note about the PlayStation 5’s apparent health: the PS5-exclusive DualSense controller is the best-selling accessory “in dollar sales” for the first three months of 2021.

Kyle Orland contributed to this report.

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Resident Evil 4 VR announced for Oculus Quest 2 as a first-person remake

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Capcom

On Thursday, Capcom announced that its megaton horror series Resident Evil will soon return to virtual reality. But instead of adding a VR mode to the upcoming Resident Evil VIII: Village, slated to launch next month, the game maker threw horror fans a curveball. The project, as it turns out, is Resident Evil 4 VR, a wildly revised port of the 2005 classic, and it appears to be an Oculus Quest 2 exclusive.

You read that correctly: Quest 2, as opposed to Rift or other PC-VR platforms. No release date or estimate has yet been confirmed.

The VR port was announced as part of the latest announcement frenzy otherwise dedicated to May 7th’s RE8, and it confirmed that Oculus Studios and Armature Studios (made up of ex-Metroid Prime developers) are leading the VR port’s production. Because of Armature’s recent ties to Oculus, in terms of releasing exclusive VR games for its Rift and Quest systems, that collaboration points to this game remaining an Oculus exclusive.

Representatives for Oculus and Facebook have so far only described the port as a product for “Quest 2,” as opposed to a more generic platform description that might hint to the “Oculus Link” system, which streams PC games to the otherwise portable Quest headset family. If Facebook wants to clarify any additional ways to play the game, we’ll have to wait for next week’s Oculus Gaming Showcase, which will premiere on Twitch and YouTube on Wednesday, April 21.

The port appears to heavily revise the original game, which launched on Nintendo GameCube in 2005 as a third-person, over-the-shoulder adventure—and one that revolutionized how the series would play for years to come. Some of that action, particularly the twitchy gun-driven combat, will likely be a solid match for the first-person view of a VR game, but RE4‘s cinematic scenes and massive bosses are another story.

Thursday’s debut trailer avoided clarifying exactly how the original game’s more ambitious moments will translate to VR. Instead, Armature and Oculus took the opportunity to show some basic combat, including a moment where the player held a knife in one hand and a pistol in the other, along with a VR-friendly inventory management screen, a puzzle that required turning a lever with hands in virtual space, and some “reload a gun using both hands” gimmickry.

Amusingly, this port serves as a reminder that the game’s original 2004 announcement came as part of a “Capcom Five” press conference of exclusive games for Nintendo’s then-struggling GameCube platform. Months later, Capcom was forced to clarify that RE4 would indeed launch on the era’s dominant PlayStation 2 after all, and it wound up being ported to roughly 4,000 other consoles in the 16 years since.

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