The Orenda

The OrendaThe Orenda by Joseph Boyden

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was given this for a book club, and I am glad they chose it because I don’t think I would have read it otherwise. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction, and historical fiction based on Canadian history (the most boring type of history on the planet) just does not grab me. The Orenda turned out to be a gripping read, though, and lays out historical tribal life in brutal fashion, not sparing any details. If my history classes had been anything like this I might have actually been interested.

I was initially turned off by the first-person-present-tense and how difficult it was to tell which point of view we were following, but once I locked down on the fact that we were only following three different characters it wasn’t too burdensome. The ‘voices’ of the characters weren’t distinctive enough, and you had to wait until they observed something to orient you, or dropped a snippet like speaking to “my love” or “Lord” to figure out who the chapter was following, so I dislike the choice and I think it would have been easier to follow if it hadn’t been in first person. At many points the minor characters change names based on which viewpoint we’re following, the events that happen to name them, or even whether the person we’re following likes them right now or not. I was able to keep up, but I thought I would issue a warning that it’s going to require a bit more attention than usual.

I really liked how the story drew parallels between the three viewpoints we were following, but at no point did it seem to take a side. Each group had their beliefs and motivations which made sense to them and they acted appropriately within those beliefs and motivations, weaving a strong narrative as the cultures clashed. I think my only complaint would be that I wish the ‘magic’ had been more plausible, to draw a stronger compare/contrast between belief systems. It started losing me when they started having prophecies. Ambiguous visions and their interpretations of them is one thing, but literal visions of what is about to happen was kind of ehhhhhhh…

The book is nearly 500 pages and I don’t know that there is much else for me to elaborate on. I really enjoyed the journey through the story, but it might also be worth mentioning that it is not for the faint of heart or those who deal with depression.

Horizon Zero Dawn

I don’t know if I can say something about this game that would do it justice.  I didn’t even know it existed until I happened to see some comparisons between it and other games that were released around the same time (and the answer to ‘which should you buy’ is ‘why not all of them?’), but then I saw the main character was a female with a bow who primarily uses stealth and I was like “well… I guess it was made for me.”  I suppose we have Katniss Everdeen to thank for the “badass female with a bow” trope becoming more popular lately but as someone who always picks the archer when it’s available (even when it suuuuuccckkkksss), I’m pretty excited about this trend.

If someone were to take all of my favourite games and blend them together, the result would probably be something similar to Horizon Zero Dawn (HZD).  Post apocalyptic, stealth elements and tactical combat, collections and crafting, good dialogue and interesting characters, a plot that holds a lot of mystery and doesn’t let you down with the reveals… all it’s missing is terraformable terrain and economics systems to hit pretty much every one of my favourite games, so it’s probably not surprising that I loved it.

I had expressed some interest in it after reading a little bit about it, and I happened to be sick and confined to the couch, so my husband brought it home for me.  I spent the next 2.5 days piling tissues around the couch and binging through HZD until my wrists hurt from holding the controller.  My husband watched the first couple of quests and then decided he would play it after me, and it was brutal to not be able to talk about the plot points as I went through it (I had to settle for repeating “Oh my god it’s so good…” and he kept repeating “Well hurry up and finish it so I can play it, then.”).  He’s playing through it now, but he’s on very hard difficulty and dallying around doing all the side quests so it’s going to take forever *shake fist*.

For those who like a challenge, the combat offers plenty of ways to be creative.  I had it set to the easiest (“tell me a story”) mode, so I spent the majority of the game sneaking around being a backstabbing goddess of invulnerability… but even on the easiest setting I had to use tactics, set traps, duck into cover, and learn the weak spots of the enemies in order to expose their weaknesses and go in for a critical hit.  Being on easy mode meant I could be sloppy and just be like “fuck it” and flail away when things went wrong.  My husband is playing on very hard and when things go wrong it means he is swiftly dismembered and gets to start the sequence over againI expect a lot of cursing on some of the later bosses.

What did I like about HZD (besides everything?):  It’s got pretty standard open world gameplay (go to places, unlock travel points, collect plants, find quests, clean out the map of points of interest) but the world itself is interesting to explore.  You start out as an outcast, which is a well-done version of putting the player inside of a protagonist who doesn’t know much about the world, in order to learn along with them (not facepalm inducing like ‘amnesia’).  The main plot point is Aloy trying to figure out why she was outcast as an infant, so she works her butt off to earn a way back into the tribe and get some answers.  As a player, you’re just as invested in discovering those answers as she is, and the writers did a fantastic job.  The world feels real.

What really won me over was the writing, by far.  I loved the story and I’m still thinking about it a week later.  I went onto the wiki and re-read all the data points.  The plot zags when you expect a zig, and even though some elements may play out the way you expect, there are enough flourishes that it will still surprise you.  As the ending sequences played out I was watching it and trying to rank it against my favourite games of all time, and I was sitting there thinking “It’s REALLY REALLY good, but it hasn’t really made me cry yet, so I don’t know if I wou—… … … fffffffffffffffffffff okay I’m misting up now.”
I think my “story enjoyment” final ranking would be just above Mass Effect, but not quite to the level of Last Of Us.

So we’ve established that I love the game.  How about Criticisms?  I really only have one, but it’s kind of a big one.  The game spends a lot of time hyping up its strong female characters.  I have no problem with that—more games need to have badass, yet realistic females that have more depth to them than just their badassery.  When I think back across the characters you meet, though, I can’t think of a single male character who isn’t pathetic in some way.
The ironic thing is I can’t tell if it’s intentional or not.  The cast of characters includes (I presume quite deliberately) a hugely diverse cast of races and cultures, and yet every single accomplished character is female.  Every named male in the game is either a failure, or outright evil.  Many of the males who are failures need females to solve the messes they’ve made.  Many of the males who are outright evil are thwarted by females, and solely females.  Even among the scientists, the ones with the most screentime and the most showcased roles are females, except for the one who programs the questionable content, who is, of course, male.  Avad seems to be a strong male character on the surface, until you dig deeper into his story and find he’s actually obsessed with his (female) Military Captain.  That’s a pretty minor character point in the grand scheme, but if you were to apply some sort of reverse Bechdel test to the game, it would go back to a fail right there.  Meanwhile, there is precisely one female in the game I can think of off the top of my head who could be considered pathetic or evil… and it’s made abundantly clear that she’s just misguided and following her own values.  And even she comes around in the end.

I’m not sure if I would call it misandry, and I’m certainly not certain if I would call it intentional misandry, but it’s skirting a line that I think needs to be balanced a bit more.  It is ENTIRELY possible (if not preferred) to have a strong female protagonist without shitting all over males while you do it.  The whole “mother earth” theme is pretty strong throughout the game, so maybe it’s intentional, but if “males ruin earth, females save earth” is intentional subtext, that’s pretty lame, to be honest.  I’m hoping any sequels, should there happen to be some, will rectify the imbalance by continuing the trend of badass females but also mixing in badass males to balance them, along with some pathetic evil females to balance out the pathetic evil males.

That niggling detail aside… I love this game.  Once again I lament the existence of exclusivity contracts.  Everyone should have access to this game on whatever platform they choose, because it is a masterpiece of storytelling that needs to be experienced.

 

Republic of Thieves

The Republic of Thieves (Gentleman Bastard, #3)The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I started late on the Gentleman Bastard journey (thankfully? Since the fourth book has apparently been delayed, which is unfortunate) and it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. The first book was so full of promise—a few novice mistakes, but with characters so loveable that I couldn’t wait to see where the series went. The second was a disappointment, still full of promise but rushed and unpolished to an unfortunate degree. When I saw what a gap there was between the second and the third I was eager to see how the writing had progressed, because the potential here simply NEEDS to be fulfilled.

I have very few complaints about the third book, and I’m picky as fuck. At worst, I’d say I saw a few places where the characters did some things, then immediately turned around and explained all those things in detail to another character who wasn’t present, which smacked of bad editing. The plot maybe had some contrivances you could bitch about if you wanted to, but I chose not to because I could see the purpose of them.

It actually felt more like two books in one, which I’m not sure I like all that much. It’s got the time-skip stuff again which I disliked in the first books, skipping back and forth from the past and the present, but in previous books that mechanism was used to show the characters acquiring an item or skill which was then presented in the present, and it felt a little contrived. In this book, the past story and the present story are running parallel, and I kept waiting for them to converge and it never really did. The two timelines merely exist to show the relationship of Locke and Sabetha developing side by side. I think it works, but I would have been equally satisfied with two distinct books, and less distracted besides.

I also noticed a couple exposition dumps that I felt could have been handled a little better because I started drifting off in the middle of them, but I feel that’s a victim of the two timelines. You get invested in one story and then blam, dropped into an exposition dump for the other and you’re all “I don’t give a shit about this, I want to know what happens next in the OTHER story” and you end up skimming, which is bad for the story as a whole. I also felt like I didn’t really need to sit through everyone rehearsing their lines for the play, but maybe I started skimming and missed the point.

I think that’s the extent of my bitching. The characters were fantastic, the banter was fantastic, and I burned through it until I had eyestrain. Be warned, though, if you’re not already invested in the characters, you might find it hard to get into. I loved it BECAUSE I love the characters. The fact that the plots took a backseat to character development became an asset BECAUSE I love the characters. If you haven’t reached that level of commitment to the characters, you might be a little annoyed.

I don’t normally like to draw comparisons to other works, but the plot actually really reminded me a lot of Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, in that it was a battle of wits between two forbidden(ish) lovers. In Night Circus, the “battles” were fantastic displays of magic which were very pretty to describe but ultimately made no fucking sense because they never opposed each other, and that was kind of dumb. Locke and Sabetha oppose the shit out of each other with non-stop displays of wit and connivery and it is awesome. I think the snake rebuttal was where I decided it would probably get a five even if it went off the rails at the end.

I’m a little surprised at the sheer hate I see for Sabetha in some of the other reviews.  I suppose that’s the risk of leaving a character shrouded in mystery for two books—people will make their own expectations, and you will never, ever, live up to them. She’s a character driven by pride, which can be a little hard to swallow for some, but all of her motivations seemed logical to me. A little more communication would certainly help matters, but there are pretty clear explanations for most of those difficulties too.  She’s essentially a femme fatale who is not entirely defined by the male protagonist, and I enjoyed that.

I was a little annoyed that
WARNING: SPOILERS:
Sabetha fucks off at the end, because I was hoping she would stick around and properly join the team and we could watch her and Locke bounce ideas off each other rather than maintaining the status-quo for the series, but I remain optimistic she’ll return for the next book and not just vanish safely out of plot’s way for awhile, because that would be lame, especially with the ambiguous nature of her departure, which I am hoping will be revealed as a little bit deeper than seeing a painting by someone who she in no way trusted and getting butthurt about imagined implications. She showed herself to be more mature than that in her older years (if not, perhaps, her younger ones…) and there are few things I dislike more than the “I am not telling you why I’m doing this because I need to PROTECT you but gosh if only we had communicated a bit we could have solved all this shit by now huh?” trope.

And now I join the ranks waiting for the next book, I suppose.

The Other Side of the Bridge

The Other Side of the BridgeThe Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was a bit surprised to see that this book is newer than Crow Lake, because the writing didn’t feel quite as polished. Much like Crow Lake, though, the author excels at writing emotions… and it almost hurts the book because they feel so similar that you can’t help but compare them and find The Other Side of the Bridge to be the lesser of the two. It failed to grab me in quite the same way as Crow Lake and that could be equal parts less sympathetic characters (I found many of them to be flat, which was a shame after the excellent characters in Crow Lake) and just me not being able to relate to them in quite the same way, but it was still an interesting read even if it didn’t grip me and keep me up. A solid 3.5 stars.

The Lies of Locke Lamora

The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentleman Bastard, #1)The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this a lot more than I thought I would at first. The premise is that of a young orphan boy raised into the art of thievery, unfurling clever schemes and heists on a town in a medieval-style fantasy setting. My first impressions were that it was severely over-written, dripping with largely pointless descriptions and flowery language, even though the descriptions were certainly colourful. I… wasn’t really wrong. But the characters caught my interest quickly enough to keep me slogging through it.

In terms of flaws, the book has many. The author is definitely excited to show us the world they have created, and even though it’s described well it becomes almost tedious to realize you’re about to take an aside to wade into ANOTHER section where a dozen new settings and concepts will be introduced before we can get on with it. Too many times I was really into a sequence, and then it was like “And now, an interlude to introduce some backstory:” and I was like “Welp, I guess that’s enough reading for tonight.” It was irritating and made the book take much longer to read through.
Honestly though, I tried to think of better ways to do it and I can see why it was done this way. We take interludes to introduce Locke’s past and how he got to know the things he knows, right before stepping back into the present to watch him use that knowledge in the current scenario. Apart from creating a prequel series to introduce everything (which only your die-hard readers will probably read), or creating a Tolkein-esque encyclopedia of worldbuilding (which ONLY your die-hard readers will read, guaranteed. I don’t like it when a series requires a wiki to understand…), both of which then distance the link from the current plot… the back and forth time-skipping seems like a decent option, though I’m a ‘chronological’ sort of girl so I feel like I’d probably have preferred starting at Locke’s childhood and reading a book or two about that before getting to here.

There’s also the issue of a few ‘foreshadowy’ sort of pieces that annoyed me. There are a lot of different elements of the world that are introduced that end up having no bearing on the current plot whatsoever. That actually didn’t annoy me SO much, because it served as a sort of obfuscation that aided the plot in this case. There’s a little thing called Chekov’s gun that, when followed to the letter, ends up being a GREAT BIG REALLY OBVIOUS SIGNAL to the reader when something is introduced and you’re like “uh huh, well, that’s what’s going to happen.” and then oh look, guess what the big twist in the story is later! This book introduced so many little details that you have no idea what’s going to be important or not, and that WORKS for it because of the nature of the plot.
But then there are other little bits, like long-winded descriptions of things that don’t matter a goddamn bit when you’re busy trying to get things underway, or characters that are continually talked about and then never actually introduced, complete with vague lines like “She’s off doing whatever it is I told her to do.” That’s just a really obvious attempt at hand-waving. When things are getting lengthy and wordy and you find yourself flailing your hands around that much to avoid getting into details, just do us all a favour and don’t mention it at all.

The plot, though. “Clever” stories like this require a fair amount of plotting skill to pull off believably and boy did it impress me there. I thought I caught a continuity error or two but I actually wasn’t entirely sure, and I was so busy enjoying it that I didn’t even care. The details finally come together at the end and leave you satisfied. The characters, too, are all lively enough that you get attached to them, and they all have believable flaws. That’s the real trick with a plot like this: the protagonists aren’t infallible gods of perfection who have everything under control at all moments. These guys are getting themselves eyeballs-deep in shit at every turn through their own fuck-ups, and then using their wits to pull themselves back out of it. Sure there’s a few flashes of plot-armor, in that you ASSUME the title character will probably make it out of this alive even if it seems a bit dicey right now… but even then the body count is high enough that you’re never entirely sure what might happen.

I’m going to launch straight into the next book in the series and see what’s next. It’s a solid 4.5/5, and if it could stop being so goddamn long-winded it would be an easy 5.

Crow Lake

Crow LakeCrow Lake by Mary Lawson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really loved this book. It did an excellent job of tackling themes of trauma and abuse, and I felt the characters were portrayed very realistically.

I did a quick browse through the negative reviews and the majority of them mentioned that it was too slow. It is certainly guilty of that, but I feel the short nature of it helps to make up for it. I never felt like it was slogging on. There were plenty of points where it sort of meandered through a side story and you were like “This is all very interesting, but what is the point?” and then you get to the end and go “Ah. I see.” I felt like it all tied up at the end, although maybe lacking the ‘punch’ a lot of readers might have expected after all the foreshadowing hints that were dropped.

I did get a little annoyed by all the breadcrumb hints about “events to come”. Those are always meant to hook the reader and keep them going with a promise of something big later, and to a degree they work, but it feels cheap and sets up a book to be underwhelming. This book could definitely be accused of that, but I enjoyed the characters enough that I didn’t penalize it.

The other major criticism of the book is that the main character is unlikable and dense. If you’re holding that against this book, I’m afraid you’ve missed the point. The problem is, I think, that these characters will appeal a GREAT DEAL to people who can relate to them – that is, those who have felt snippets of how that sort of trauma can affect your personality, your worldview, and how you react to others. Everyone else will be stumbling along wondering why the characters are acting so strangely, perhaps because they’ve never been unfortunate enough to experience those sorts of emotions and mental states themselves. There are so many powerful scenes in this book that spoke to me because I know exactly how those characters were feeling as they acted that way. I could feel what they felt. It was beautifully executed.

I suspect this sort of book will not be ‘for’ everyone. It was definitely ‘for’ me, and I loved it.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 3)

Drifters' Alliance, Book 3Drifters’ Alliance, Book 3 by Elle Casey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m a little disappointed in Book 3. The ideas are still really solid and very engaging, but the book feels rushed and lacking polish. It needed to mature and develop a bit more to really hit the sweet spot.

We’re still following the ‘episodic’ formula, but this time it barely even felt like an episode. A few more ideas were introduced, nothing new was really resolved, and it ends on an unsatisfying cliffhanger. The action is fantastic, and the characters are amusing, but the ‘rushed’ feeling persists through everything from the lack of resolution to the slapstick comedy sequences. Chapters end in bizarre places, cutting sequences in half sometimes. The jokes even sometimes trip over themselves by repeating themselves or explaining themselves to you, almost as if it got a quick editing brush-over and something was left behind that was meant to be excised. It all could have benefitted from a bit more care and attention.

I still love the story, and the characters, and the universe, and I would like to know what happens… but at 5 bucks a pop, I’d be tempted to sit back and wait to see if an anthologized version is released that combines them all once they’re done. It’s almost a shame to read them now if they might get polished into a real blockbuster later.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 2)

Drifters' Alliance, Book 2Drifters’ Alliance, Book 2 by Elle Casey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Still enjoyable, but definitely not quite as solid as the first one. One of the things that really appealed to me about Cass was her balance. She was winging it and doing a good job of hiding how terrified she was inside. When shit went sideways your asshole clenched right along with her and you breathed a sigh of relief as she pulled it off and got out. In Book 2, she’s becoming a bit too in-control. We’re learning more about her training and now every time we need to know something, she’s studied it. When we need to do something, she’s been trained in it. Everything that happens to them seems to revolve around her past. It’s too convenient. The characters are a bit too slapstick, too. The humour is starting to feel forced, and I get the sense that the book was written fairly quickly and not polished as much as it should have been to tone down those burrs.

Still enjoying the series, but at 5 bucks a pop I really want them to have a BIT more meat to them.

Drifter’s Alliance (Book 1)

Drifters' Alliance (Book 1)Drifters’ Alliance by Elle Casey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A quick, light read that I binged in a couple of hours. It’s far too short, feeling more like a pilot episode to a TV series, which is somewhat appropriate as fans of shows like Firefly will feel right at home with a cast of misfit ship crewmembers who have been thrust together and bumble their way through misadventures. It does leave you feeling like the story is just beginning, though, which is a little unsatisfying.

Despite the brevity and lack of depth, I really enjoyed it. The writing is simple and crisp. I was a little worried in the first chapter when some of the descriptions were a little heavy-handed, but it quickly becomes primarily dialogue with lots of humour. There were tense moments with plenty of suspense that kept you hanging, and there was just enough exposition and worldbuilding to keep you intrigued and interested in the backstory of the universe without being either too much of an infodump or leaving things vague and confusing. Almost a perfect balance of information, actually. You get a sense of the world and the characters within it, and they all react in ways that feel genuine.

I’m impressed by the characters so far, but I tend to bias that direction. The main character is great. She’s a teenager, and she thinks like one. She’s constantly battling internal uncertainty and insecurity while putting on a show for everyone around her. It’s wonderfully insightful character building. The rest of the crew are animated and vivid characters with some real chemistry. I’m curious to see where the series will lead.

The Half Life of Stars

The Half Life of StarsThe Half Life of Stars by Louise Wener

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a tough one to rate, made ironic by the fact that I almost didn’t read this. I selected it, looked at the cover, hesitated, read the synopsis, and thought to myself “ehhhh I don’t think I’m in the mood for this right now” and then tried reading a different book which turned out to be god awful, so I came back to this and I went “Well, at least it can’t be THAT bad” and dove in. Silly me. This is why I shouldn’t break my rule of just diving into books and seeing what happens, judging them on their own merits instead of pre-judging them by their covers and synopsis and previous reviews!

I really enjoyed it, and I kept waffling back and forth between 4 and 5 stars. The plot was well done, the characters had real life to them, and the language was wonderful. And every now and then there’d be a big twist that made perfect sense but I didn’t see it coming and I’d think “okay this is definitely 5 stars”. Then there would be a badly edited sequence where words were misused (“I couldn’t bare to do it” came up a few times and I’m pretty sure this isn’t just a UK language thing, because it doesn’t make sense that you simply cannot get naked in order to accomplish this thing right now, does it? Or… does it…). I love heavy dialogue, especially when the characters are as vivid as this, but sometimes the dialogue was so poorly edited that you couldn’t tell who was saying what and I’d start to get distracted and lose the flow. Unfortunate. I’d give it a solid 4.5 stars and I’m still really torn on whether to round up or down.

You know what… it’s been sitting on 4 stars the whole time I typed this but, fuck it, I’ll round it up to 5. The writing and characters just had a brutal honesty that I could relate to. I hated her family, because they were too real. That’s worth 5 stars. The surprising plot that didn’t leave any threads was just icing.

Cruddy

CruddyCruddy by Lynda Barry

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is disgusting, disturbing, and fucked up… and I loved every minute of it. I had no idea what I was getting into when I picked it up. I read Lynda Barry’s illustrated syllabus and really liked it, so when I saw Cruddy I thought “Oh hey she writes books too?” Turns out she doesn’t write many books but what a book she wrote.

You often find a lot of authors are masters of one thing and then everything else is sort of propped up on that thing. Since she’s primarily a cartoonist, I thought maybe these books would be an experimental foray into something different, maybe a little threadbare or grasping. The imagery is incredible, and you might think “well yeah but she’s used to portraying things in a visual medium” but it wasn’t just that. I enjoyed every facet of her writing. Some of the word choices are things I would never think to make, but they were so effective. I was continually impressed by how vivid everything was. Vividly disturbing, with a whole extra layer of fucked up on top. It was really something to experience.

But it’s also bleak. Even though it has its share of black comedy, this is probably not a book to read if you’re feeling down. It’s a snapshot of a miserable world full of miserable people who are fucked up because of the shit they’ve gone through and they’re getting by as best they can because there’s really nothing more they can do—this is it. Addiction, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, child abuse… everything is laid out bare and unflinching in Cruddy, and the vivid descriptions bring it home in full colour.

I can’t give this book enough stars. It needs to be experienced.

Late Nights on Air

Late Nights on AirLate Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I greatly disliked this book at first, but it ended strong enough that I tacked an extra star onto it, almost out of pity. I ENJOYED reading it (mostly), but it annoyed me enough that it really should only have 3 stars. But then a sentence would float past and I would think “That was a really good sentence. I enjoyed that.” and then I would lament not having it on my kindle to highlight in order to go back and look at those sentences again later. There were enough of those moments that I do not regret offering the 4th star.

This book was far too in love with its setting. I’ve been to Yellowknife and hiked around a bit in the summer, so I enjoyed reading the descriptions, but I’ve always had this stubborn notion that books should have a setting and a plot, and it kept letting me down on the second part.

There was no plot for the first half of the book. It was all setting. Setting that characters talked to each other in, but each of the characters had the exact same voice (the voice of the author, I imagine), and I had to keep checking the names in the sentences to figure out who was saying what. The characters have backstories that are all painstakingly laid out for you in the first 100 pages of the novel in an awful display of telling instead of showing, but their personalities fail to come through until the very end. I could tell them apart by name, but they did not convey any of their personality through dialogue. I hated every single one of them except Gwen for a full 2/3s of the novel, and never really did warm up to anyone else by the end.

I did not care for the writing at all for most of the book. It was fragmented and rambling, constantly bringing up little threads of plot that abruptly end or just get dropped into nothing. I was continually annoyed by flowery descriptive moments where the writing dropped into an almost pretentious tone. I’ve never been a big poetry fan, and a lot of the descriptive passages twigged the same dislike in me that poetry does. And then the incredibly annoying habit of ending a section with something like “They didn’t know it yet, but this would be important later.” Stop telling me things. ESPECIALLY stop telling me things you haven’t even gotten around to writing yet. SHOW me things.

But then there were the good moments. A turn of phrase that strikes you as particularly beautiful or apt, or a character moment that makes you nod. The characters, for all their flat dialogue, were REAL. I loved that they all had flaws and behaved realistically. Some of the interactions were things I could really identify with, such as when Gwen is flabbergasted at being accused of being too proud or arrogant about her skills, when (to her own perception) she was barely stumbling along and hanging in there. It’s so true.

But at its heart, the book feels like a sappy romance, because that’s all there is for plot. This character is in love with that character but shouldn’t be. That character is in love with this character but doesn’t know it yet (but hey at least they will in the future! Look the author says so right here at the end of this paragraph.) Those characters are in love but it was never meant to be. Or was it? That’s really the entire plot. I was intrigued by the jacket cover description of a trek through the barrens, but it takes you 200 pages to even start talking about that trek, and then it’s over long before the book ends. I feel like the jacket should be sued for false advertising, but to be fair, what else would you advertise as a plot?

The barrens trek was by far my favourite part of the book because the characters finally had a purpose and a goal beyond just interacting with each other, and suddenly all the descriptions and character interactions held so much more meaning. That’s when the extra star got tacked on. If only the first 2/3rds of the book had been edited down a bit to have more direction, I might have enjoyed it that much more.

Dark Souls I and II

We spent probably close to 200 hours obsessively playing the first two Dark Souls games this month, and now I feel like I should tell you about it.  Normally I try not to bother writing about mainstream games (unless there’s something to bitch about), but I misunderstood the Dark Souls games and now I feel like I should try to ensure no one else makes the same mistakes.

I bought Dark Souls I a looooong time ago, when it first came out on Steam.  I spent a fair amount of time fighting what I called ‘the first boss’, which was getting GFWL to fucking work.  Once I got past that ‘boss’, I spent a fair amount of time on ‘the second boss’, which was getting the actual game to work by installing player made patches to fix all the bits and pieces that the people who ported the game over from console didn’t bother to do.  (The second ‘boss’ was much easier than the first ‘boss’.  Fuck GFWL.)  Then I ultimately died to ‘the third boss’, which was getting the controls to work.  There were TOO MANY BUTTONS and I kept swapping shit when I didn’t need to and jumping backward when I didn’t want to and… it was hard :(.  I was so exhausted from fighting the first and second ‘bosses’ that I didn’t get very far with the third ‘boss’, and I didn’t get very far into the game before wandering off.

My second attempt at Dark Souls went much better.  I made it all the way to the actual second boss of the game and spent some time dicking around trying to farm up souls and get some items before trying to actually fight it.  Which is about when GFWL took a big steaming shit and the game stopped working entirely.  Frustrated, I uninstalled the game and put it in a Steam category labelled “Broken because of GFWL >:(“.  It remained there for years.

Then they talked about GFWL shutting down and removing it from games that were fucked by it and my ears perked up.  And then they decided not to do that and I sighed dramatically and closed the “Broken because of GFWL >:(” category again (which was starting to collect more and more titles…).

Then I discovered that they had FINALLY.  FINALLY. actually properly removed GFWL from the game and I reinstalled it.  My husband reinstalled it at the same time (he had gotten much further than I did, but didn’t actually finish it).  THIS time the game worked beautifully, all the online integration was smooth, I still had to install the fan patches to make the graphics pretty but that was all smooth sailing as well, and because I didn’t waste 20 hours getting the fucking thing working, I was able to finally commit the controls to muscle memory.

And then we binged.  We binged so much that my forearms got sore from holding my shield block button.  And then the Christmas sale happened and we bought Dark Souls II, which my husband had actually already bought, but now it had the Scholar of the First Sin version which was all updated and shit so he upgraded to that too.  We completed Dark Souls and jumped straight into Dark Souls II.  And we binged.  Like seriously, my wrists are probably fucked from holding this controller, now.  But we “finished” the game, in that we completed the main story but there’s probably another 30 hours of DLC for us to go through still.  We are now very much looking forward to Dark Souls III, and we’re super pissed that Bloodborne is not coming to PC.  We cannot co-op when it’s on a console (unless we buy two PS4’s, I guess, buuuuuuut…), and the co-op together is what launched the games from “really good” to “fucking amazing”, so there’s not even any real point for us to buy it.  Shitty.

We had a really good combo going, for both games.  I went super-knight, with high melee and armor, and my husband went super-caster.  I was all “fuck magic” (mostly because I didn’t want to have to swap another button around…) and he was all casty explody.  So we’d team up for bosses, I’d piss them off, and he’d blow them up.  It was very effective.  On bosses that were difficult to melee, I’d just dodge the entire fight and try to keep it distracted away from him.  On bosses that were resistant to magic, I’d beat the shit out of them while he mostly tried to stay alive.  Good times.  Without the co-op I’m not sure how far I would have made it into the game.  The boss fights were challenging, but knowing you could team up and make it easier made even a hopeless fight seem worth tackling.  We only really stalled out on a couple of the bosses, and mostly optional ones that we tackled before we were really ready (we abandoned one of the DLC bosses in Scholar, which we DEFINITELY were not ready for.  But at least now that we’re at the end of the game we can just port straight to it and give it another whirl).

Dark Souls has a reputation of being incredibly difficult and frustrating, and I think it’s been misconstrued.  It’s challenging for sure, and the co-op helped a lot with that, but I was MUCH more frustrated with Diablo 3 than I was with Dark Souls at any point.  In Diablo 3 I was continually getting fucked by randomness that I had absolutely no control over (wrong kind of rift that you have no chance of winning?  Welp lose that keystone I guess).  Nothing felt random in Dark Souls, and I was far less frustrated as a result.  I died a lot, but I could always see exactly why, and learn from it, and then come back and try again.  It was kind of interesting because I am far more patient than my husband, so I was willing to creep forward and scout, and wait out the enemies to attack them, and I ended up doing far better in combat than he did.  But he was far better at memorizing the layouts of the levels, so I’d focus on the monsters and traps and whatnot I was dealing with and then get turned around and be annoyed because I couldn’t figure out where to go next, and he’d zip through the level and forget that there’s a monster around that cor—oops you died.  In some of the particularly terrible twisty layouts (Sen’s fortress, or Blighttown with the god awful toxic shit) we’d just co-op to make the exploration smoother.  I’d deal with the monsters and he’d guide me through the place so I didn’t get lost.

At first it seems super punishing because you lose all your collected souls (which are used as experience and currency) when you die, but you only lose them if you cannot collect them again.  In reality, you really only truly lost the souls if you were reckless.  I found it very easy to position myself so that if something went wrong, retrieval would be easy.  And often I didn’t even care.  You quickly progress to a point where the majority of your souls will come from boss fights and victories, and any you manage to preserve on the route there are just a bonus.  My husband referred to it as “exploration mode” and “farming mode”.  When you first bust into a new area and you have no bonfires lit, you’re in exploration mode and don’t even bother worrying about the soul counter.  Once you have them all lit, you can clear it out a few times and build some levels if you want.

One of the things I was really hesitant about when I started the game was the PvP aspect.  Other players can invade you and kill you.  But they can only do that if you are human.  The only time this was an issue was in a certain area we were trying to co-op in (you must be human to summon your buddy, which leaves you open to attack).  Also, it’s not even such a big deal if you die in pvp.  You don’t lose anything except a few minutes of time to run back to retrieve your corpse, and once they hit you once you’re no longer human, so you can’t be hit repeatedly.  Unless you’re trying to summon your friend in a high pvp area… then it’s pretty irritating.

The summoning your friend aspect could really have been smoothed out, though.  We had a LOT of issues with it in Dark Souls I.  We’d sometimes have to reboot the game a few times to try to end up in the same invisible ‘lobby’ to be able to see each other’s summon signs, and sometimes it was frustrating to get it working at all (ok I was wrong, Dark Souls did frustrate me quite a bit… but it wasn’t the god damn gameplay that did it :P).  Also, once you kill a boss, you cannot summon each other anymore, which meant we screwed ourselves out of co-op on a couple of exploration areas by doing things out of order, which sucked.  I really wish they had made it smoother and let you summon your friends preferentially, especially now that it’s integrated into Steam.

Dark Souls II DID improve the summoning aspect.  I was worried at first because they tightened the summoning restrictions.  In the first game you must be within a certain percentage of each other level-wise (usually ~15 levels worth).  In the second, you must be within 10 levels and a certain ‘soul memory’, AND they added restrictions for how long another player can be in your game, solidifying the “I’m just here to help with the boss” aspect and making it less of a co-op exploration experience (although you can now summon each other at any time, even if the boss is dead… so they both tightened and loosened that restriction).  But then they added a nifty little ring that lets you choose a god, and then you can summon anyone nearby who has chosen that god regardless of requirements (and also prevent people who have not chosen them from picking you up randomly, which was far more of an issue in II than it was in I, due to much higher player counts I suppose).  The ring made coordination MUCH easier, and the lobby problem seemed to be resolved in II as well.  The only issue we ever had summoning each other in II was the day the servers crapped out, which we finally figured out when we realized we weren’t seeing messages anymore either.  It could still be done a lot nicer, but at least they made it less horrible to summon each other.

The other thing I really disliked when I first went into II was that it seemed to punish you for dying.  This is DARK SOULS dammit.  Why the fuck would you punish the player for DYING??  In II, when you die you lose a % of your health pool permanently, and on top of that, the monsters can be permanently killed.  In the first game you always had the option of just going back and farming an area to regain the souls you lost.  In II, you could kill monsters, take their souls, and then die and lose them with no way to get those souls back.  They would leave your game forever if you failed to retrieve them.  This was stressful to me.

BUT.  As before, it ended up being not nearly as bad as I imagined.  Just like in the first game, the majority of your souls come from bosses, not farming.  Being able to perma-clear an area actually ended up being a really NICE feature because you could spend 10 minutes clearing out that annoying asshole monster that fucks you every time, and then never have to deal with it again for the rest of your playthrough, which could be a strategy for clearing out a tough combo in an area.  And the health thing was a non-issue, because we were playing co-op.  Going human or helping another player restores your health pool completely.  It was less of a punishment for dying, and more of an encouragement to step out of a solo game and help other players.  Even if you hate playing with others, the humanity restoring items were everywhere, and you can burn them to prevent people from invading you if you were super worried about that.

The Dark Souls games are unique, which is a difficult thing to claim nowadays.  There have been a few attempts at copying it (all of which my husband has jumped upon, and then quickly abandoned), but they utterly fail at capturing the magic.  Also the games are GORGEOUS.  Even in the first game which has kind of shoddy graphics, there are plenty of places you just look around and go “Wow.”  The second is even better.  And what I’ve seen of Bloodborne is incredible (too bad I can’t play it >:(.  Fuckers.)  They really accomplish something with their graphics and I am impressed.

Very excited to require wrist surgery once Dark Souls III comes out.

Xenoblade Chronicles X (First Impressions)

It seems a little silly to say “First Impressions” when I’m 50 hours and 10 chapters in, but this is Xenoblade so all my work thus far means I am finally allowed to start the story.

You may remember, or you may bother to scroll back far enough through my blog entries to notice, that I really really really fucking loved Xenoblade for the Wii.  One of my top games of all time, primarily because the story blew my mind.  I loved the characters, I loved the world, and the gameplay was merely okay but it was still cool.  The ending.  So good.  So naturally Xenoblade Chronicles X was a day 1 purchase.  I bought a Wii U almost solely for this game (also Mario but that’s a given).

Xenoblade X is… disappointing so far.  It’s still got a lot of potential and I’m eager to actually get this story rolling because they have me intrigued, but god damn can we get on with this already?  I’ve been playing for 50 hours and I’ve only really advanced the story once.  The rest has been what is essentially a tutorial.  That said, there are SO MANY FUCKING MECHANICS in this game that you NEED 50 hours of tutorial to get acquainted with all of them.  Is that a good thing?  … depends.  If you’re super into customization and tinkering with optimizations then you’ll like the systems at play here.  My husband finally gave in and abandoned Fallout 4 to start playing after watching me upgrading a million billion different things to optimize my team.  He loves that sort of shit.  If you’re just in it for the story, then I hope you’re patient.  I’m patient but this is really starting to test my limits.

The game feels like it is trying VERY VERY HARD to be a single player MMO.  If you enjoy MMO style gameplay and exploration, that might even be a good thing, but if you don’t enjoy MMO style dragging out of story and objectives… weelllll…

It’s even got online components.  Sort of.  You join a division and then certain tasks contribute toward your division getting points, and then everyone in that division gets goodies.  Not exciting goodies, but goodies.  And you feel kind of like you’re part of something, I guess.  You can also hire other player’s characters to join your party and come help you with stuff, and next time they log in they’ll have goodies waiting for them from that, too.  There’s also chat and achievement announcements and stuff but the very instant it popped up on my screen I fled to the settings panel and shut all of that shit down because fuck that.  Who the hell thought that was a good idea.

The problem is, almost nothing happens for 50 hours.  The game starts, the story is literally nothing but “Earth was destroyed and we’re on Mira now.  Go learn about Mira.”  You run around and explore shit (and the world is FANTASTIC to explore, with big epic creatures wandering around and cool formations and stuff), you learn about the factions within what remains of humanity, you find some cool stuff on the planet… annnnd nothing really groundbreaking happens. There’s a little blip of coolness in Chapter 5 that ups the ante a bit, but you need to get to Chapter 8 before shit starts happening, which is somewhere around 30 hours in.  I burned myself out on side quests in the first Xenoblade so in this one I skipped them all and rushed to unlock the story quests, wanting to dig into the story before I exhausted myself this time.  Turns out if you’re not level ~35 by Chapter 9 you get your ass handed to you repeatedly for an hour before you go hire a max level player to clear it for you (*ahem*.  Not that I speak from experience or anything.)  Now I’m kind of stuck.  I’ve almost unlocked the next chapter, but… maybe I should level a bit more first?  But… ugh.

See, the problem is, and this is fucking stupid: Once you take an affinity or story mission, you cannot take another one.  You’re stuck on that quest until it’s done.  And you cannot drop it.  I learned this the hard way early on when I took an affinity mission that led to a continent I had not explored yet (and therefore did not have a travel point to).  At a certain point in the game you get flying which would make travel there simple, but I was pretty far from that, so I looked up how to get there the old fashioned way.  Turned out the answer was to spend 40 minutes swimming across the ocean, and then run past a whole bunch of level 50 monsters until I got to my level 20 quest zone.  It was pretty awful.  But hey at least the game has auto-run?  :/

There are many questionable design decisions like that in this game.  Things that unlock before you’re ready for them are somewhat forgivable, but locking you into them is kind of shitty.  Even more shitty is the lack of options for sound and music volume.  If you read any review on the internet they’ll have mentioned this already, but, the music volume is really loud, and the music often contains spoken lyrics that are sung at the same volume as the characters who are speaking in a cutscene.  Fuck off.  NO music volume slider?  Really?  And then some of the music tracks are simply unbearable.  I will tolerate pretty much every kind of music except rap, and there are (at least) two rap-like tracks in the game.  One is the track that plays the entire time you’re in the main city which is a significant chunk of the game.  The other is the ground-combat track.  Which is a significant chunk of the game.  And they wouldn’t even be bad tracks if it weren’t for the inclusion of lyrics for god knows what reason.  WHY would you include lyrics.  You can listen to instrumental music for hours on end and barely notice anything but atmosphere, but if I hear that fucker singing “ON A WHOOOOLLE DIF-RENT PLAN-ET” during combat one more fucking time… at least the city track is just an irritating series of grunts and moans that you can largely ignore, even though you may be doing it with your face in your palm.  “YEAH YEAH.  HONH HONH.” I’ve turned the volume on my TV down to almost nothing, which really sucks because the REST of the music is absolutely phenomenal.  Although, there is also a different track when your Skell takes flight, which overrides whatever music is playing in your current zone (so needless to say, once I unlocked flying I started flying everywhere in town – but I probably would have done that anyway because flying), BUT, when you land on the ground it goes back to the zone track.  So if you do a lot of hopping around it’s actually really fucking annoying.

In summary: the sound designers for Monolith need to be fired for their monumentally bad decision making.

But ALSO.  I HATE the party management in this game.  HATE it.  You can have 4 peoples in your party at a time.  Certain quests require you to have certain people with you.  Certain quests require certain people to be with you and like you.  You can boot people out of your party at any time, that’s not an issue.  The issue is getting the fuckers back into your party.  As soon as they leave your party they fuck off to their preferred locations in town and you can go there to ask them to join you again.  The little tablet screen gives you a checkmark to let you know where they hang out, BUT there are plenty of other things putting checkmarks around which mean you have to click on the checks to see which are for characters.  AND, completing segments in town can trump the checkmarks and you’ll no longer know which symbols hide character locations.  AND.  Even when you can see the checkmark, the character location changes based on time of day.  AND if you’ve unlocked certain events, they’ll fuck off to somewhere new and wait for you there.  Will you know that until you hunt around for them and waste 15 minutes of your life?  Probably not.  I know it’s great to have characters out there using the world and things changing based on time of day is cool and MY IMMERSION and whatnot, but would it really be so awful to give me a selection screen to add them back in from wherever the fuck I want?  Make it from the barracks console only or something, I don’t care.  Or at least a menu where you’re like “I want this person” and it goes “Okay, they are currently located at…”  This system is irritating as fuck and it makes me skip affinity quests that require me to shuffle my party.  That is not good design.

And speaking of the party system… I have almost no justification to even use the rest of the characters so far because they are all gigantic assholes who have invited themselves to my party without my permission – in fact sometimes expressly against my wishes as laid out by my dialogue choices.  FYI dialogue writers: Illusion of choice in dialogue only really works if it’s ACTUALLY an illusion, and not a thin smokescreen.  Now, the thing I loved about the original Xenoblade was the character development, so I know these characters will all have deep and interesting backstories and they’re all being set up as superficial assholes to make those discoveries even more rewarding… BUT… you’re laying it on too thick, guys.  Seriously.  If one more fuckface walks up to me and is all “hey you, you seem like a pushover and I agreed to do this thing but I don’t wanna do it because I’m a dickhead so now you’re going to do it for me” and then I respond with “no, fuck you” (or the closest Nintendo equivalent which is not nearly as satisfying) and then they go “ha ha you’re funny let’s go get my shit” and then I just get the quest with no further complaint… fuck off.  Or worse, the character who literally betrays you as an introduction and then *bing* they’re in your party whether you like it or not.  What the fuck.  At least have a little more of a transition there…

But secretly I am worried that the characters will not actually have deep and interesting backstories at all.  Because the writing in this game does not seem very solid at all so far, and I am not nearly as confident as I was in the writing of the first game.  Very worrisome.

But anyway, I’ve bitched enough.  How about GOOD design!  I really love how the Wii tablet is used for the game.  The touchscreen on it isn’t quite sensitive enough, but it gets the job done and in a cool way.  Bonus marks for being able to play the game like a handheld if someone steals your TV away from you (but that’s just a cool Wii U feature in general).

I already mentioned I LOVE the world.  The creatures wandering around are epic and it’s great to explore.  I like that the monsters aren’t sequestered in handy level-appropriate chunks and you can wander through a kaleidoscope of creatures and difficulties to get where you’re going. It would be less cool if A) you couldn’t port anywhere you’ve been instantly and B) getting randomly stomped by a level 90 actually had any consequences, but since you can and it doesn’t, the world is awesome.

I also actually like the combat this time around.  In the first game the textures were muddy and strategy was difficult because you couldn’t really tell what’s going on.  In this one it’s much easier to see what’s going on (with the exception of the camera being ass.  The camera is slow and floaty and made of ass.  But I said I would stop bitching…), AND they added the incredibly handy feature of a little readout telling you where you actually are located around the creature.  So when you’re trying to get off a side or back combo, you don’t have to look at the alien blob on your screen and go “is THAT its back?  No wait this looks like a tail so… no, maybe not…”.  It’s so simple it really makes you wonder why the fuck the original didn’t have one.  Also combat combos are really interesting with a ton of variety, not just with your character but with everyone else.  The combos are complex, but not difficult to understand, so it’s not hard to set everyone up with complementary skills and make sure you focus on the right sorts of power-ups.  At least… so far.

I’m really hanging in there because it feels like the story is about to take off soon, but… it’s getting to be a bit of a slog.  And even worse, I know I’m only half-way to the level cap.  So there might be some exp grinding in my future before I can even tackle the story quests.  I dislike that… but I’m trusting it will be worth it.  I also like that it doesn’t hand-hold, even though it makes things seem super obtuse.  It may have 30 hours of tutorial, but at least you need them.  It also kinda has that “old school EQ” charm of “This took a lot of effort therefore it was worth my time to do it”.  Effort Justification, bitches.  Please stop designing gameplay around Psychology biases :(

October 31st Movie Reviews

I didn’t want to say ‘Halloween movies’ since none of them were even remotely halloween themed aside from being some sort of attempt at scary, but it’s a halloween tradition here to plunk on the couch and watch ‘scary’ movies after dark, and we made it through three of them last night.  Here’s the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Last Shift
Rookie cop spends the night alone at an old police station guarding some evidence that still needs to be transported to the new one.

See, the description for this movie was all “She meets the KING OF HELL” and I was like “this is going to be a laugh riot of a movie”, but it ended up being the best one we watched.  It does absolutely nothing new or unique; it’s all standard haunted house tricks.  The protagonist is so god damn stupid that you spend the entire movie yelling at her not to do things (but, y’know, horror movie.)  But the movie itself sets up a good amount of tension and uses sound and visuals well to set the tone.  The King Of Hell thing is not nearly as cheesy as the stupid description might have you believe.

We Are Still Here
An older couple lose their college-age son to a car accident and buy a new house to start a new life as they pick up the pieces.  Once they move in, they start to suspect the ghost of their son is still with them.

Not bad but it suffered a bit because it came after watching the much better first movie, so it paled in comparison.  Another pretty standard haunted house story, but with a few twists to keep it interesting.  I found it a little confusing though, too.  The ghosts really needed to make up their god damn mind about who’s side they were on.

Storage 24
A plane crash nearby traps several people inside a storage facility, and soon they discover the plane was carrying some deadly alien cargo that is now stalking them.

Okay, THIS is the movie I wanted to write bitch about because I spent the whole movie sending snarky texts to my friend, and it’s absolutely not because we watched some better movies first.  Needed MUCH LESS relationship drama and MUCH MORE aliens eating people.  Could you possibly write less sympathetic protagonists?  I was rooting for the alien really early on and it just kept disappointing me.

Here’s an ending spoiler, which you can avoid if you care (you shouldn’t care.  Don’t watch this movie.):
The whiniest fucker takes on a Gary-Stu style survival skills and ends up escaping the alien on, like, three different occasions for no god damn acceptable reason (camera cut!  Oh no he must be dead boo hoo ooohhhh look he lived how could this be!  Fuck off) and then slays the alien with his bare hands and escapes with all of the females.

At this point I sent a message to my friend saying “This movie will get two stars instead of one if the alien resurrects and pops out and kills them all right fucking now and that’s how the movie ends.”  Instead of that, though, he makes some flippant remarks to show how cool he is, and then they pan out to show alien ships landing all around the city.  Which is ALMOST, but not quite, what I asked for.  Okay sure the aliens are probably going to kill everyone but you didn’t show one blowing up this whiny fucker as it buzzed past, so now we can only assume he will run out there and melee all of them to death like the whiny badass he obviously is.  *BZZZT* you fail, collect 0 stars.

So, to summarize:
Last Shift was great and I recommend it, even if the protagonist is as smart as a bag of bricks.
We Are Still Here was passable and worth a look.
Storage 24 is a horror movie for an entirely different reason and thank god Netflix subscriptions essentially mean I watched it for ‘free’.  Bitching about it was highly entertaining, at least!

SOMA

Amnesia: The Dark Descent is my favourite game that I am too scared to play, so I was pretty excited when I discovered they were releasing SOMA, a similar style of game in a more sci-fi horror setting.  And it released just in time for us to be in a Halloween sort of mood, too!

The majority of the game takes place on a deep sea research station where you stumble from station to station trying to piece together what’s gone wrong and where everyone went.  It has a very Doom 3 sort of feel, actually, except you have no weapons to protect you.  In typical Amnesia fashion, the game has absolutely no combat, and you have to rely on careful movement to avoid notice, and occasionally running for your god damn life when you don’t.

Sadly it does not include hidey holes like the Amnesia cupboards, which were some of my favourite mechanics.  Sitting in a dark cupboard listening to footsteps and groaning outside and sllloooooowwwllllly opening the door to peek through a crack to see if it was safe yet was one of the things that really made Amnesia stand out, to me.  SOMA feels less interactive in that way.  Instead of being able to choose how fast or slow you want to open a door, most things are binary.  It makes sense since most of them are powered so it’s like connect power, open door, *whoosh* as opposed to turn handle, pull/push door in direction, but I feel like that was a loss.  A lot of the tension I gained from Amnesia (the brief amount I actually played it for myself as opposed to watching someone else, anyway) was from moments like peeking, or from dashing to a door in a panic and flailing away at it before realizing I had to pull it instead of push it and oh god I just wasted 5 seconds and it’s coming for meeee nooooooo pull pull open faster god damn you door nooooooo!  And not because of a struggle with controls, either. It just felt like I was fumbling with opening a real actual door because I was too panicked to think straight.

We chose to play SOMA (I say “we” but I suppose for the sake of accuracy I should say: I forced my husband to play SOMA because I was too chicken to do it myself…) on the big screen in the front room, for ease of spectatorship (and also fancier sound system), so he chose to use a controller from the couch.  I was pretty distracted the whole time by just how annoying the controller was to use, and I wasn’t even the one using it!  Every time he tried to interact with things I was thinking “This would be so much easier with a mouse”.  One of the most tense moments we experienced was entirely because the controller fucked us over.  We were repairing an elevator which was a fiddly bit of business, requiring you to put a piece here and then flip a bunch of switches in order, then close the button and activate it.  We figured out the sequence, but as he was putting the pieces together he was discovered by a monster.  The next few seconds consisted of us yelling things like “THAT ONE GOES THERE! FLIP THAT! QUICK CLOSE IT!” and then the elevator opened and he scurried in, only to discover he now had to push ANOTHER button to tell it where he would like to go.  He wrestled with the controller, with the damnable cursor drifting too high to click on it, now too low, and oops too high again, all while I’m yelling “CLICK IT CLICK IT CLICK IT!!!” and him yelling “AAAAAAAH AAAAAAAAAAHH!!!” each time the cursor drifted, and just as he got the cursor into the middle and clicked, the monster charged and we died and had to start the sequence all over again.  Had he been using a mouse we probably would have survived.  Moral of the story: controllers kill.

The game takes about 10 hours to play and has a lot of really good moments.  Some of the levels were really well designed, I thought. And some were… less well designed.  A lot of them are twisty and confusing, which is good if you’re thinking about it in a ‘oh no I am trapped in this horrible place’ sort of way, but it’s kinda bad when it causes you to lose momentum because it results in you wandering back and forth after you missed your turn and you’re not entirely sure where you need to go next.  But they absolutely nailed the atmosphere of most of the areas, particularly the underwater storm.  I just had an overwhelming sense of “oh fuck” the whole time we walked through that.  Atmosphere and dread is what these guys are good at, after all.

What they are maybe not so good at is story.  I enjoyed the story in SOMA, but I felt a few parts of it dropped the ball.  The protagonist comes across as pretty whiny, and there were a few philosophical discussions where I felt like the writers were imposing a viewpoint on the player that perhaps might not be true for everyone.  It still serves its purpose, though, and gives you some interesting things to think about whether you agree with the protagonist or not.  The game also serves up a number of choices along the way that do a good job of making you reconsider your actions.  The choices aren’t hardcoded into the story – in fact you may get tripped up by videogame logic at first and not realize they are optional actions.  Even though the choices ultimately mean nothing for the overall story arc of the game, I felt like they did a really good job of presenting them, making you think about them, and not beating you over the head with their presence.  Bravo on that one.

So in conclusion, SOMA is pretty good and you should buy it.  It’s a great atmospheric experience that sometimes also makes you think about yourself.  And who doesn’t love a game where you heal yourself by sticking your fist into an alien butthole?

Terminator Genisys

Dr. Who is Skynet!  It all makes sense now.

When I first saw the previews for Terminator Genisys, I didn’t know what to think.  Another fucking Hollywood remake of a classic favourite because they’re out of ideas, great.  And Arnold will be in it despite being a thousand years old now, great, that will make sense.  And Emilia Clarke is going to try to step into Linda Hamilton’s shoes.  And it’s named Genisys what the fuck.  It’s not happening guys, what the hell are you thinking.

Then we watched it.  You know what?  It was really good.  A few minutes into it my husband said “Isn’t this just the first movie??” and I said “Yes, it’s a remake” and he said “That’s stupid.”  Then I said “It’s a remake, but since there’s time travel the first movie still happened and now they’re going back in time and it’s happening again after the first one happened.  See???” and he said “Oh.  Okay that’s not nearly as bad.”

The explanation for Arnold being old was kind of silly, but it made enough sense to swallow, and the CGI to make him appear different ages was really good I thought.  And Emilia Clarke totally sold herself as Sarah Connor.  And things exploded and there was the same brutal “This heavy metal thing is smacking into that heavy metal thing” feel through all the fight scenes.  It was just all around really good and I enjoyed it.

I can’t be bothered to go get a picture so just imagine there is a picture of Arnold giving a thumbs-up here.

It Follows

And as part two of our “It’s not October yet but it feels like October so bring on the scary movies” a-thon, we watched It Follows.

I found this one pretty interesting.  It’s almost like a take on an old-school zombie movie, with the monster following slowly and relentlessly behind, easy to run away from but never ceasing.  Unlike zombies, though, you can shake it off onto another person by… uh… having sex with someone.  Which is interesting because that’s certainly something that horror protagonists tend to have issues with!  It’s the worst kind of sexually transmitted disease.  Well… maybe not, since most STDs are still with you after you pass them along.  But they also don’t usually eat you, so… hmm.

I really enjoyed this one.  Tons of tension, nothing too over the top, and a lot of really creepy atmospheric hints for you to spot in the backgrounds.  It’s a simple formula and it really works.

Things that detracted from it included: my husband arguing that the monster should be really easy to deal with because all you have to do is create a mathematical formula to calculate how fast it’s walking and then move every 200 days as it starts to catch up to you /facepalm, arguments over whether sexual promiscuity and infidelity is acceptable if it gets rid of ghosts, and that god damn shell e-book reader thing that contrasted with the ’80s electronics and left us arguing for an hour over what time period the movie was taking place in, until I finally googled the damn thing and discovered that literally everyone else was arguing about it because it was deliberately left ambiguous and confusing.  *shake fist*

Honestly the ebook reader was the worst part.  The rest of it was just thoughtful discussion!  Fuck the ebook reader >:( get out of my movie.  Maybe if there were more modern tidbits scattered around it would have been okay but almost everything else was old (and royalty free, I noticed!) so it was just glaringly out of place and distracted from the tension.

Other than the ebook reader though, thumbs up!

Unfriended

Normally we don’t break into the crappy horror movies until October, but it’s been so cold and miserable outside that it feels like October and my husband started craving some cheesy Halloween style movies.  I picked up a few promising looking titles, and Unfriended was on top of the pack.

I was not expecting much from this movie.  A girl dies and then haunts people through Facebook?  What?  But it was surprisingly well done.

The entirety of the movie takes place on a computer screen, which is certainly a novel (and probably very cheap) way to film something, and I hope it doesn’t become the next ‘thing’ and get run down into a trench that’s the size of the Grand Canyon.  It was clearly done by someone who uses computers a lot, and it feels authentic, though there are certainly things that will annoy people who use computers a lot themselves.  For one: why is your internet connection so awful, auuuugghhh.  The video on the Skype connections is constantly blipping out, which is probably supposed to replicate the feel of a found footage shaky cam, but instead of increasing the tension I just found it fucking annoying.  Buy a new wireless card for fuck’s sake.  Also bonus marks for taking like 5 fucking minutes to download a 900kb file and then 2 seconds to download a 1.6MB file immediately afterward [/nerd rage]. There were also some minor errors here and there, which I at least found easy to ignore because there is a ghost in the computer!  But I did find it a little annoying when she shared her screen with everyone to show them that it wasn’t working, then immediately tabbed out and started typing private messages and no one seemed to remember that the screen was shared and they should be able to see it.

The story itself was well done, I thought.  A decent amount of tension and interesting outcomes.  The beginning was a little rough, since it’s basically just teenagers whining to each other and in general being annoying, but once it starts rolling it’s a fun ride.  I’m not sure if it’s a problem or not, since it is a horror movie and it’s basically par for the course, but there are no sympathetic protagonists here.  You will hate everyone and want them all to die.  Fortunately, it’s a horror movie!  So they do.  Oops, spoilers.

Darwin’s Children

Darwin's Children (Darwin's Radio #2)Darwin’s Children by Greg Bear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is pure emotion.

I don’t actually know how I feel about it. There are parts of it that are probably some of my most favourite scenes I have ever read, and I highlighted a whole bunch of shit just because I really really liked the way it was written. And there are a bunch of parts that made me squint my eyes and scratch disapprovingly at my chin. I spent a whole day reading this book practically non-stop and felt like I was loving every minute of it, until I got to the end, where I stepped back and looked at it as a whole and thought to myself “……. I’m not sure that I liked that.”

But that’s a Greg Bear novel for me, I suppose. It happens every time.

The first book was exhaustively researched and it was a comfortable stretch to believe that the things proposed could happen. This book does not feel quite as tight. The first book spent a lot of time etching out every minute detail, and this one seems to spend a lot of time skimming over those. I’m quite willing to suspend belief for the sake of plot, especially when creating a new species, but learning and behaviour is my pet field of study and I feel like there are some huge holes in the development of the society of the children. Not to mention the religious element that was introduced. It almost feels like the first book was meant to be hard scientific fact and then he wanted the second book to come at it from the other angle to provide contrast, which is a nice idea in theory, but the way it is presented just doesn’t jive with me. I put comments in several places saying “I hope this is explained a little bit better later…” and then I had a moment of hope when Kaye gets all the scans done, but nope, that was just a distraction too, as if it’s trying to explain that there is no explanation so just get over it. It’s like we go from hard facts and figures to watching the book wave its hands spookily and then conclude with “A God did it.” (Well. Maybe. Because that’s not confirmed either.) Unsatisfying.

The time skips are especially bad. I’d be reading almost breathlessly, racing ahead to get to an anticipated point where two plotlines would collide and I could see the result, annnnnnnnddd *poof* 3 years later. That thing happened during those three years and it was cool but we’re past that now and won’t waste any time describing it, thanks. It happened every time and it made me so mad every time.

I have to say, I love the way the characters interact in this book. The characters feel so robustly human to me, full of emotions and flaws and character traits, and I loved them. But they spent a lot of time on superficial interactions and leave the bulk of the plot development behind the scenes to be discussed in hindsight while they go about their superficial interactions. I’m not sure how I feel about that. And apart from the main family (Kaye, Mitch, Stella), no one else gets a lot of development.  They have their template personality and that’s about it.  At times there are characters used from previous books that might have been thrown in purely so that there would be a backstory already in place and there would be no need to add further development.  It led to a lot of cardboard supporting cast.  There are even some characters who felt abandoned. Where are the rest of their stories? Such as:
Minor spoiler:
We skipped entirely over the bit with Stella and Will. Will exists in like, four scenes in this entire book? We start to get to know him and then *poof* 3 years later. Welp, nevermind that now.

I am so exquisitely torn about the main character too. I loved Kaye. I loved the interactions between Mitch and Kaye. I must have been in the right emotional (hormonal??) state of mind for it because I was more invested in their relationship than I was in the fate of the children, most of the time. I highlighted so many of their scenes together because they felt so real. The scene where Mitch finally snaps and Kaye recognizes how unfair she’s been:

“Kaye stood beside the bed and watched Mitch, eyes wide. Her chest felt wrapped in steel bands. She was as frightened as if she had just missed driving them all off a cliff.”

That moment when you emerge from your own misery and realize with a shock that it affects other people too and you’ve been a huge selfish ass about it. That is real.

But then, I don’t know. She struck me as a near Mary-Sue at first. It’s almost textbook – gifted genius girl who doesn’t recognize how good she is and everyone is in awe of her and everyone wants to fall in love with her oh my. But then she displays real, palpable flaws and it dispels the Mary-Sue threat. I found her to be a realistic depiction of an emotional (and at times irrational) female, but at other times she would drop down into a sort of “This is a female being written by a man” template and I’d find it disappointing purely because it was such a contrast to some of her other scenes.  It’s like she has transitions where she grows as a character and changes her behaviour, and then transitions where suddenly she’s just acting sort of different and it seems odd. And then she finds God or something, I don’t fucking know. It felt like a character departure at several points, in this book and the last.
Ending spoiler:
And then I was pissed at the ending. Seriously pissed. I think that means that my ultimate judgement of her is that I like her? I got the impression that the ending was supposed to be hopeful but I guess I’m just not religious enough for that because no, fuck you, give her more time with her family, you fuck. They’ve been through enough!  I think I’m angry at how unnecessary that was.  The injustice of it.  If that was the goal then bra-fucking-vo.

I don’t think I could read this again, but I think I’m going to be thinking of the characters over the next few days.

Darwin’s Radio

Darwin's Radio (Darwin's Radio #1)Darwin’s Radio by Greg Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am thoroughly impressed with the depth of research displayed in this book. I’ve got an undergrad biology degree, and I got an A in the genetics parts of things, but I ultimately spent more time studying other things and went in different directions after graduation and got pretty rusty on the viruses and chromosomes front. I’m pretty sure the author knows more about it than I do right now. That is a lot of god damn research for something that is dangerously susceptible to making you look silly within a decade (or, fuck, a year if you’re unlucky). And it’s holding its own.

That said, I’m sure if I actually studied viruses and chromosomes this book would have a lot of bits that would annoy the fuck out of me. And since I did study viruses and chromosomes at one point, I didn’t mind slogging through the absolute tons of detail provided about how they work and the proposed systems at play. Someone else might not.

I really like Greg Bear’s books, but I always seem to have this issue where I start reading them, get absolutely fucking hooked and can’t put them down, and then the ending leaves me with a slightly disgusted look on my face and I feel let down and don’t want to bother reading any more of his books. Until next time I’m craving a very good book and then I’ll pick one up, get absolutely fucking hooked, and…

Darwin’s Radio did not have the same effect on me. It was less extreme on both fronts, actually. I was less hooked than usual, and the ending didn’t annoy me as much. But, perhaps that is because this book has no ending. This book has a sequel. Presumably THAT book contains the ending because this one certainly did not. I remain interested enough to pick up the sequel, quite possibly even start it right now! But there was a shift somewhere in the middle of the book that made me think to myself “Oh, here we go again.” It got away from the facts and figures and started moving into the ‘what happens now’ which might account for that, and there were a lot of really good emotional scenes that I enjoyed, but it felt like reading a different book at times. Suddenly characters that I really admired started acting a bit differently and I started to like them less. I got more ambivalent about what would happen to them. I did not like that change and it makes me apprehensive about the sequel. I want to read about the characters I liked in the beginning, not these new ones they are turning into. I don’t just mean the speciation events, either.

The Kings of Eternity

The Kings of EternityThe Kings of Eternity by Eric Brown

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I almost gave up on this book several times.  It’s fairly short, but I was a full 25% of the way into it before anything happened.  I was just done with it.  I didn’t particularly like the character, it kept jumping back and forth between two time periods and my lack of interest in the character made it difficult to follow (in one time period there is a girlfriend named Carla and in the other there is one named Caroline, and I’m bad with names so I kept getting them crossed with each other which made his seeming 180 degree reactions toward them very confusing), but worst of all the language in the book was almost pretentious to read.  I had heard the term ‘purple prose’ before and I even remember looking it up once and thinking “aha, that is the name for that” but then forgetting again.  This book is purple prose.  I don’t think I will forget the meaning of it again, after this.  There is even a section in the book that I highlighted where a character reads out a section of writing from the main character’s books (who is also an author, naturally) and criticizes it for being “Interesting, if a little overwritten.”  That is this book.  I was about to give up on it and went back to the blurb on it to remember why I had even loaded it on my kindle in the first place, and went “Oh.  Hmm.  That does sound interesting.  Maybe I’ll keep going for a little more…”

Then I got to 25% and things happened and I was like “ahh, finally, the reason I loaded this.” and once I was into it even the over-writing started to feel more like Jules Verne than simply trying too hard, which may have been what they were going for.  And then at 40% I was like “holy shit this is pretty good actually.”  And by the end I was like “Eeeh, that was flawed, but these characters are cropping up in random thoughts throughout the day so I guess it’s pretty good.”  3.5 stars.

The premise, in case you’re reading this because you haven’t gotten 25% of the way into it yet and want to know if there’s a point to continuing, is that a reclusive author and his three friends stumble upon an anomaly in the woods which turns out to be a gate to an alien planet.  They have an encounter with an alien creature, save him, and are rewarded with some gifts in return.  One of those gifts is the gift of immortality (more or less) via what is not explained as but is almost certainly some form of nano-medical-technology.  Now they must deal with the fact that they will outlive everyone else.  But there’s more… they can give one dose to one other person each.  Who do they give it to?  How will they conceal their non-aging properties?  Use of the technology is forbidden… what will they do when the aliens come looking for them as lawbreakers?

There were a lot of things that I picked up on and I wasn’t sure if they were intentional or not.  A lot of things are repeated.  In a lot of cases it seems like it could be an attempt to signal something significant, but in other cases I was genuinely not sure if the author just forgot they had done that already.  For example, the author in the book writes a story about a reclusive author living in Greece who is finally charmed by a woman and brought out of his solitude.  Guess what happens to the character!  In exactly the same town as the book he wrote!  That can’t just be a coincidence.  But then certain descriptive phrases were used repetitively, like the one about heat hitting their skin like a physical blow.  It’s actually a plot point in the book that the author is accused of plagiarism because he accidentally re-uses phrases from books he penned under different names.  Are these repetitive phrases some sort of nod to that or just a mistake of editing?  Would there be a point to adding a nod to that??  I’m not sure.  It went over my head if there is one.

And I noticed an odd tendency to over-explain things, but only the things that really didn’t need any explanation whatsoever.  To make it even more irritating, when something actually needed explaining, it would be glossed over.  But if you ever wondered how an object got from one end of the room to the other, hoo boy nothing was left to imagination!  Except then sometimes it wouldn’t be explained and suddenly it was glaringly obvious that an object that had previously been described as on that side of the room was being picked up by a character on this side of it.  Ironically, the breaks in continuity wouldn’t have been an issue at all if it weren’t for the anal over-description of everything else.  There were times when I was absolutely positive I could see the author re-reading the scene and then going “Crap, what if someone asks about this,” and adding a bunch of extraneous descriptive text to head off any pedantic questions, then forgetting that it impacted a scene later on.

Minor ending spoilers:
I was actually surprised it worked out the way it did because it spent so much time building up to the ending that I was expecting it to be a twist, because it was just too obvious and the character had everything worked out and naturally life would throw him one last curveball and punch him in the gut or something because that’s how these things work.  But then… nope just the obvious happy ending.  Disney-esque, even.  Satisfying, though.

Much bigger ending spoilers: Read more of this post

Whiplash

The fairly simple premise of this movie is that a young man wants to become the best drummer in the world, and he is paired up with a music teacher who wants to produce the best drummer in the world.  The match is not quite as made in heaven as you might expect, and the movie does a good job of drawing out the mental flaws in both characters.

I enjoyed the way the characters were written and fleshed out, but they often made some truly bizarre decisions that leave you scratching your head because of the lack of logic.  These are not exactly logical characters, so it still works, but there is an underlying suspicion that they are behaving illogically because the writers want to subvert tropes and make it surprising.  Their behaviour toes the line of being unrealistically random, but they manage to keep it within the realms of believability.  A few spots could have used more polish to make it easier to swallow, though.

And I’m not really sure what’s going on with the ending.  Was it intentionally ambiguous or just poorly indicated?  It feels like they weren’t sure how to end it, so they just ended it, which is only a good way to end if it no one tries to think about it, which is perhaps not the best strategy for a thought-provoking movie.

I don’t follow the Oscars so I had no idea this movie was so popular, but it makes sense that it was nominated for a bunch of awards since it’s the same movie as Black Swan, but without the lesbian sex.

The Talos Principle

I’ve been holding off on writing about Talos Principle because I wanted to get further in it and reveal a bit more of the story, because it’s one of those super mysterious “something reaaaallllly interesting is here and if you just get a little bit further you might get to reveal some of it!” sorts of stories, and it seems like a disturbingly large percentage of the time the reveals turn out to be complete balls.  But I am just loving this game so much that I am going to talk about it anyway.

The Talos Principle is a puzzle game, but it is also a journey into philosophy.  It wins my “Best Game Ever” award for two simple reasons:
1: The options screen has a “Motion Sickness” section where you can adjust things like FoV and turn head bobbing off.  These developers get it and I love them for it.  Game of the Year for that alone.
2: In one of the story snippets there is a burn on Twilight.  Excellent.

The premise is that you are a robot who has been dropped into a series of tests, which is all very Portal-esque, but instead of a sarcastic murderous robot you have a somewhat self-righteous god-voice by the name of Elohim (definitely not an improvement over GlaDOS, I have to say.)  As you venture through your trials you also uncover snippets of story that hint at the goings on outside of your own little personal rat-maze, as well as philosophical musings for you to think about as you go along.  Things like “How does someone know they are a person” or “How do you know you really exist”, alongside things like “Could a robot solve these sorts of puzzles or would it take a human mind to do it?”, where it all becomes very meta because in the game you are a robot and you are solving those puzzles but REALLY you are a human solving those puzzles right?? right?? so if you solve that puzzle that only a human could solve it does that mean a robot solved it or does it mean a human was still needed to solve it??? Or is it even talking about you at all????? Don’t play it while high or you might feel entirely too clever for yourself.

But actually mostly it makes me feel dumb.  But then I solve something and feel like a genius.  And then the next one makes me feel dumb again.  I was incredibly disappointed with how easy the puzzles were at first.  I was just going from puzzle to puzzle feeling like “…is this it?  Really?”  Sometimes a puzzle would be SO easy that I’d pick up the prize and then run back and forth for a bit wondering if I had missed something.  A lot of them take the same sort of logic too, so they almost get repetitive at times. The most disappointing part is when you get stuck on something for ages and ages and then finally you come across the solution and it is so god damn fucking easy and then you hate yourself for not figuring it out right away.

But then I ran into some of the hidden puzzles and my brain broke and I lay awake at night thinking about them.  Most of the puzzles are self contained, but the hidden ones require “outside of the box” thinking, and a lot of “outside of the level” thinking.  Most of them span levels, requiring you to break the fourth wall and figure out how to get bits from here to there, or how to cheat the system to get what you need to the area you need it.  In some cases it almost seems unfair, like, you can’t take items through the barrier so who would guess that you can shoot the fucking laser through it?!?!? (but then again, fair enough to catch me out on assuming that something would not be possible without trying it.  Fuckers.) There was one where I sort of figured it would be something pretty skookum, and I had an idea of what I would need to do, but I decided that I would be a horrible person and be lazy and not do it and just look up the solution.  I was reaffirmed in that choice when the description said “Hardest star in the game” and I was like “yep going to ruin this one for myself”, and I am kind of sad that I cheated but also I don’t think I would have figured it out otherwise.  It’s pretty epic.

And as I advance into the later worlds, the “easy” puzzles are less and less easy.  Every now and then I’ll bumble around in a level for so long that Elohim comes along and gently suggests I go to a different level.  Fuck you, God.  What kind of God is all like “Well if you haven’t figured this out by NOW you may as well just give up.”

You should buy this game.  It is excellent mysterious storytelling that almost makes me nostalgic for Myst, with a mix of puzzles that will make your brain hurt, but are not so tough that you need a walkthrough to get anywhere.  And also some philosophy crap that you may or may not enjoy. The world is beautiful and fun to explore, especially since there could be hidden mysteries or easter eggs around any corner or under any bush.  It’s just good old fashioned “I’m going to try this and see what happens” exploration fun, and it is highly rewarding.

Ice Breaker Winter Ale

We picked up a party pack of Stanley Park Brewery brews.  The very next day, I went and bought a 6 pack of the Ice Breaker winter ale, because oh my god it is so good.  I might have a new favourite…

I really love the rich malty not at all hoppy styles of beers, so I typically gravitate toward the porters and stouts and then get disappointed when I get hit in the face with a mouthful of bitter hops. This one, though, is right up my alley.  Very rich and silky malt, and not at all bitter.  But not only that… on the label it says “Cherry and Dark Chocolate Specialty Ale”.  Normally when a beer review says things like “notes of cherry and dark chocolate” or something about noses I will scoff and be like “yep, tastes like beer”, but this one… I can taste the chocolate!  I TASTE IT!

I don’t taste any cherry yet though.  Maybe I just need to drink more of them!  Experiment commenced…

Super Mario 3D World

We had a hankering for some Mario action so we bit the bullet and bought a Wii-U.  At least this way I will be prepared when the Xenoblade sequel arrives… plus it’s got delicious unique co-op options going on.  Mario 3D Word is one of them.

Mario 3D World is pretty typical Nintendo.  It’s essentially Mario 3 (the best Mario), mixed with some Mario World (probably the second best Mario), and then named after both of them with some stupid gimmicks thrown in so they can pretend it’s new.  Despite the recycled and snipped together name, the gameplay is really good.

Normally we’d “co-op” a Mario game by passing the controller back and forth once one of us landed in a pit, but 3D World has fully functional drop-in co-op where you’re both running around on the screen jumping on koopa shells and occasionally accidentally (“accidentally”) picking up your partner and throwing them into lava.  There are decent cooperation sections where you can both work together toward a goal – like when there’s a movable platform that requires more than one body to activate – but the game remains fully soloable as well (those same platforms can be activated with an item that creates clones of you.  It’s just easier with other humans to communicate with.  Until they pick you up and throw you off it, anyway…).  In most cases having a partner to work with to have someone’s head to bounce off of or have someone pick you up to chuck you to a goal simply makes things easier, but doesn’t change the dynamics immensely.  There are multiple characters to choose from, and they each have mild differences that make them distinct in ways beyond character models.  And yet they’re all balanced well enough that you can pick your favourite and not worry about the impact the changes will have on your game.  There’s also a small element of competition because it shows you a head to head score after every stage, but it’s 100% meaningless other than for bragging rights, which has the side effect of being not frustrating, either.

My biggest complaint with a 3D platformer is always going to be the camera, because fuck cameras that wander off or randomly adjust themselves in such a way that it changes the direction your controller thinks is “that way” and suddenly changes your perfect jump from “that way, onto the platform” to “that way, into that pit there.”  I did not have any problems whatsoever with the camera in 3D World, and that’s WITH a human companion running in the opposite direction and causing the screen to stretch and zoom out in order to accommodate both of us at once.  Nintendo may finally have this shit figured out, at least to the point where the camera is such a mild annoyance that you can forgive its small transgressions when they occur.

One of the amusing (yet pointless) features they’ve tried to add is the “Dark Souls” style communication system, where people can post pre-made stamps (which are one of the many collectables in the stages) for others to enjoy on their travels.  The game also lets you sketch or type small notes in there, so you may come across someone’s Mii standing on the map, or see a string of notes after you complete a level, which will give you an idea of what people think of things, or just admire whatever amusing stamp combinations they’ve come up with.  Most of them are something along the lines of “this is fun!” or “That level was really easy this is my score”, or “This game is lovely!” (I highly suspect that one came from someone’s mom), and sometimes it will be some really cool original art that relates to the stage you just went through… but every now and then some clever child realizes they can use the sketch feature to write swear words that won’t get caught by the filter, and you’ll see “BUTTHOLE” scroll past.  Heh henh hnhnheh butthole.  So edgy.  They must be moderating it pretty heavily though because “butthole” was the most egregious thing that wandered past in our travels, and that’s just statistically improbable.  I am suspicious about the extremely high positive comment ratio, as well… hmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

The other problem is that the game seems really short.  Really short.  We’re on what appears to be the last stage after roughly 6 hours of messing around with it.  Granted that’s not getting 100% of the stars, but still.  We fucked around and died a lot, too.

I suppose the only thing wrong with Mario 3D World is that it is on the Wii U, where no one will get to play it.  Things seem to be picking up over in Wii land though, and I’m excited to check out some of the other unique co-op options available.  Hopefully I’ll wring some blog entries out of it yet…

Eidolon

I should really play Eidolon more before I try to review it but I bought the Hexcells pack in the Steam sale and every time I start playing that it magically becomes 2AM… so I should probably bang out some semblance of a review before I get distracted and forget everything about it.

An eidolon is an apparition, a ghost, a remnant of something that used to exist but now does not.  The game Eidolon has you exploring a “post-human Western Washington”, uncovering all the ghosts of what used to be Seattle.

The game has a sort of “walking simulator” feel to it, where you wander around (mostly aimlessly) trying to uncover the threads of the stories to figure out everything that happened.  This part of the game is actually pretty interesting, I felt.  You have a journal where you collect all your little scraps and you can choose which thread of the story to pursue next, or just see what crops up.

I’m going to go ahead and get this out of the way:  The graphics are not good.  You are not playing this game for graphics.  It’s actually a bit unfortunate because I’m usually in it for gameplay so I’m pretty tolerant of low graphics (especially in games that cost 5 bucks or so)… but these graphics often left me wondering if I was having some sort of rendering problem that was preventing textures from loading.

This is a wall, I think?  A green wall?

I think this is supposed to be a crumbled wall, but why is it green?  Moss?  Let’s say moss.

That wasn’t even so bad until I wandered back and forth around a “rock” only to discover it was supposed to be a car.  I think.

This is a car, right?

This is a car, right?  Or a rock with a windshield?

Yeah… low poly trees are one thing but that car, man.  But the graphics are not without their own sort of “paper cut-out” kind of charm, either.

But anyway.  Gameplay!  As I said, you wander aimlessly trying to uncover the stories of the past, which largely include the individual stories of people who existed around the time the city was destroyed.  How was the city destroyed?  What happened to the people?  Well, that’s the game!

The game does not hold your hand at all.  You’re quite literally dropped into a forest with no explanation whatsoever.  Your journal says something about being too far from the beacon so you’ll die if you get injured or starve, but it doesn’t do much to explain to you what any of that means.  Where’s the beacon?  Are you visiting the planet from a space ship?  Time travel?  A different part of Earth?  Do you need to find that beacon?? Things do get explained to you (and there are lots of really weird and interesting things to dig up) but you have to work for them.  It’s refreshing, really.  It’s nice to just sort of pop into a world and get your bearings the old fashioned way instead of having a tutorial spoon-fed to you for the first 20 minutes.  My biggest complaint in the beginning was that it was a bit TOO aimless… the world is huge and there you are wandering in circles in a forest with no idea what to do or where to go.  I finally tripped over a story chunk and it gave me some direction, but I felt like the game should have started me with something to follow at first since the map is pretty much literally the size of western Washington.  Then I discovered there’s apparently a bird showing you the way to the first bits of story, and also I am an idiot.

What you’re looking for are little blinky cubes scattered around the world.  White cubes represent new tools, and green ones represent story chunks to add to your journal.  Once you’ve got a story chunk there’s a selection of related terms listed below it, and clicking one will give you a light to follow in the general direction of the next story chunk related to that story thread.  Or, you can follow birds.  Apparently.  The blinkies can be really easy to miss, as I discovered while I was attempting to warm up to make an attempt to swim across a channel to one in the distance, only to turn around and discover one right beside me /facepalm.  I did notice that sometimes they’re easier to spot at night, because they pulse.  But then it’s night and also really dark…

There's a green blinkie on the left, surrounded by haunting skyscraper skeletons.

There’s a green blinkie on the left, surrounded by haunting skyscraper skeletons.  Also it is coastal Washington so it’s raining ALL THE FUCKING TIME in this game.  Realism!

One of the first things I discovered was a fishing pole, which I promptly used to catch some fish, which I cooked on a fire.  Which leads us to the next part of the gameplay: survival.  Eidolon joins the ranks of the open world “don’t die” simulators, where you must feed and warm yourself or suffer the consequences.  These are some of my favourite types of games, and the addition of a super creepy post-apocalyptic world with stories to uncover just makes it better.  But I find the survival gameplay in Eidolon is somewhat lacking.  Food is everywhere, and you’re really in no danger of starving at any point (at least so far as I’ve gotten in the game.)  The only thing that has killed me so far is attempting to swim across a freezing ocean just to see how far I could make it.  (The answer was: really far).  Fortunately (?) dying has absolutely no consequences whatsoever in this game, so after dying in the ocean I merely popped up somewhere else at 100% and carried on my merry way.  I climbed a mountain (possibly Mt. Rainier??) and fell off a cliff and broke a leg (I assume.  It just said ‘wounded’) which later became infected and made me sick.  Being sick meant I would vomit periodically, which would drop my hunger levels, but I couldn’t eat to stop starving because I would immediately vomit and waste the food.  Because I was wounded and exhausted I moved very slowly, which was really pretty annoying because it’s not like you’re particularly zippy in the first place and those blinkies are really far apart, man.  I couldn’t seem to heal my infection, which meant I couldn’t stop vomiting, and I couldn’t heal my leg to move faster again.  I finally came to the conclusion that it would be best to just fucking die and start fresh (and move at a normal speed again), but dying turned out to be really god damn hard to do.  I needed to find another cold body of water to freeze to death in again because I was just too stubborn to starve to death, apparently.

So let’s see.  This game has really interesting stories to hunt down and creepy/fascinating sights to see, but you’re constantly hounded by a largely pointless survival system that will force you to abandon your story hunting to pick mushrooms (and discard them if you’ve had them for too long.  And may I just say I GREATLY DISAGREE that blackberries become “old” after one day, and furthermore that “old” blackberries are no longer safe to eat.  *shake fist*  Now, had you said mouldy I could perhaps see your point.), and periodically you will be arbitrarily slowed down with some sort of infection or wound that will prevent you from reaching your goal of finding more stories or interesting sights to see.  At which point the best solution is probably to just kill yourself and start fresh because there is no penalty for doing so.  This does not sound like a well implemented survival system… it sounds like a nuisance system that was included because they felt the game would get too much of a bad rep for “lack of gameplay” if all you did was collect story bits.  But on the other hand, it’s nice that it’s not such a strict survival simulator that you’re constantly losing any progress you made toward finding story bits because you starved to death or were eaten by wolves like in Long Dark (grr, fucking wolves).  May I suggest a toggle for “story only” vs “survival” mode?

Eidolon is certainly not without its flaws, but the world is interesting to explore and presents a unique setting that I’m glad to see they did some intriguing things with.  The map is apparently accurate enough that you can recognize landscape features, and there are lots of sci-fi and post-apocalyptic story surprises waiting to be discovered.  I recommend checking it out if you’ve been interested enough to reach the end of this review…

The Long Dark

I’m a sucker for survival games, especially if they don’t classify “survival” as “shoot enemies in the face”.  The Long Dark is a new (currently Early Access) game which is exactly that – you’re alone in snowy Canadian wilderness and you need to not die.

The game contains a number of systems to help enhance the survival aspects.  It tracks your calorie expenditure, cold, fatigue, hunger and thirst, in addition to general health and wounds.  There’s randomized weather, including windchill elements.  Carrying a lot of weight or running up a snowy hill will fatigue you faster and burn more calories.  There’s also a bit of a skill system, in that each time you do something like build a fire you’ll gain some skill and reduce the chance of failure (wasting precious matches :( ).  There’s also wildlife, including wolves which happily try to gut you if you go near them (which is not at all what a non-rabid lone wolf would likely do, but they have a disclaimer when you boot up the game saying they took liberties with the animal behaviour, so…)

Here’s how my first game went: Read more of this post

Predestination

I will sum up this movie in three words:

What the fuuuuccckkkk.

I’m pretty sure I don’t want to say anything more than that, other than the fact that I recommend checking it out.

Also: You probably shouldn’t watch it while drunk.  Fair warning.

Can I just say too: I had no idea who Sarah Snook was before this movie and damn.  Good job.

Year Walk

Year Walk made it onto my wishlist after a bunch of people recommended it as a super creepy and atmospheric puzzle game.  The general consensus was that it was too short, but still worth your time and money regardless.  Then it came on sale during the Halloween sales and I nabbed it.
tl;dr: Year Walk is a short and super creepy atmospheric puzzle game that is pretty short (~2 hours, unless you suck at puzzles and/or are unobservant) but still worth your time and money.  In fact it’s still worth your money at full price, because at ~6 bucks and 2 hours of playtime, I’d say 3 bucks an hour is worth the experience.  That’s how much I liked it.

The premise is… difficult to describe.  You’re not really given much background before you’re dumped into it.  The term “Year Walk” is based on a Swedish tradition that probably would be largely unheard of if it weren’t for this game.  All my information about it comes from this game and Wikipedia, and for all I know the creators of this game put it on Wikipedia, because this is the internet.  But basically, once a year (“Year walk” can also be translated as “Annual walk”) they’d go without food and water while locked in a dark room to deprive their senses, then leave at midnight to walk through the dark woods to the church to do battle with supernatural beings in the hopes of seeing the future.  The game follows that fairly closely, with a couple of other significant threads woven in that give the whole time-warping aspect a bit more substance.

You’re given NO guidance whatsoever, and honestly, I thought that was the most awesome part.  You meet up with someone at the beginning who’s all “You’re going on a Year Walk?  Don’t you know that’s dangerous?” and then you head out into the woods at night and wander aimlessly until everything gets fucked up.  I sent a series of emails to my friend while playing it which was basically just “This game is pretty cool and creepy. You should get it.”  “Wow.  What the fuck.”  “What the fuck.”  “What the FUCK!”  “Seriously you should probably get this.”

I will say you need a pad of paper nearby when you play, and there’s something a bit refreshing about that.  It’s been a while since puzzle games have respected their players enough to just leave them to their own devices, although some sort of in-game notetaking function would have been nice. There’s an in-game encyclopedia that includes the lore behind the legends and traditions.  You need to read it.  A lot of the game and guidance is concealed within the information that’s there, so don’t dismiss it as flavour.  A knock on the game is that sometimes it would seem like you should have all the information to solve something and you could dick around for ages trying to figure it out, when really there was another step first.  In fact, here’s a hint: When you first find the key, the next step is NOT to open the cemetery gate where the key very very obviously fits.  When the key vanishes after you find it it’s not because you collected it, it’s because it went somewhere else.  That was not obvious at all.

The other thing I will say is don’t cheat.  It’s really simple to look up all the solutions to everything on the internet, but the game is only two hours long man.  If you’re not going to get a pad of paper out and do it the old fashioned way you’ll probably be left wondering what the point was, because you missed the point.  Year Walk is a super creepy atmospheric game that respects its players to dig around and figure shit out, and the puzzles aren’t so hard that you need to Google them.  Check it out.

 

 

 

Resolution

I’m debating about even writing this entry because I finished watching the movie, thought to myself “That was pretty okay, I should mention it on my blog”, and glanced at some reviews to discover that I must have watched it all wrong.  All of these reviews are gushing about the meta commentary of the film and I’m sort of looking at them going “there was meta commentary?!”  So I guess this will be a review of the movie from the point of view of someone who doesn’t do the whole “movies as art” thing very well.  I do “movies as entertainment”, and Resolution was entertaining… although apparently it is even more entertaining if you like to read into meta commentary.

The premise of Resolution is that Michael gets a video from his junkie friend, along with a map to his current location, and decides he should give it one final try to bring his friend in to rehab before it’s too late.  Things are never as easy as “Let’s go to rehab” “okay”, so he handcuffs him to the wall and settles in for a week of dealing with withdrawal symptoms before he can try his final attempt at reasoning with the guy.

I’m going to pause right there and say that, when I originally decided to queue this one up for watching, the description mentioned a week of withdrawal and a warping of reality.  So I was expecting a “that-scene-from-Trainspotting”-esque sort of series of mindfucks that left the viewer unsure which things were truly happening and which were a result of the withdrawal.  It’s not that at all.

Instead, Michael spends the week trying to appease druggies who are trying to collect, also appease the owners of the shack his friend has been squatting in who want them out, and investigate a series of creepy media messages that are being left for him to find.  The messages get creepier and creepier, until they begin to star the two guys themselves.

The majority of the movie was interesting, but honestly it wasn’t very creepy until the last little bit when shit starts to get real.  A lot of it seemed disjointed, and things that came up never really came up again so it all melded into a big ball of “That was weird; what was that about?” but no real tension.  There was a lack of tension through the whole build-up actually, even though I was curious to see what happened next.  It could have been Michael’s reaction to the whole situation… he approached all the creepiness with a matter-of-fact curiosity that sucked all the creepiness right back out.  Almost every situation played out like “Hey Chris, look at this creepy thing.  I wonder what this is about.”  followed by Chris saying “How the fuck should I know give me some crack.”  Michael was interested to get to the bottom of it, and I was interested to watch him get to the bottom of it, but he never seemed to be unnerved by all the weirdness or have a second thought about investigating a strange noise.  Which might be why the ending has more tension for me – he finally starts reacting to the events with a “holy shit this is fucking weird” and “How can I get out of this alive…” attitude.  It takes looking at images of his own corpse to finally elicit a reaction.

Wait, was that the meta commentary?  That the horror “movies” didn’t scare him until it actually threatened him directly?  Maybe that was meta commentary.

Here’s some actual meta commentary discussion, involving ending spoilers (and I just realized the movie is named “Resolution”, which makes more sense now.  I thought it referred to video media resolution, as opposed to “ending resolution”, and then was confused about video resolution not really being a big deal…) Read more of this post

Oculus

It’s October, which means it is time for our annual search for scary movies that are rated higher than, oh, let’s say 4 on IMDB.  That’s usually the point where a movie stops being scary and just becomes scarily awful.  With any luck I should be able to update this blog with cheers and jeers as we wade through a queue of hopefully-good-but-probably-actually-awful “scary” movies!  One of the recent ones I queued up was “Oculus”.

I don’t ask for much from horror movies. I prefer tension-filled horror movies or mindfuck horror movies, and not so much the “there is blood everywhere gosh isn’t this scary?” sort of horror movies, and I’m pretty forgiving of a ridiculous premise when it’s trying to set up a ghost story, so really all you need to do is display some effort and I will enjoy your stupid horror movie.  I quite enjoyed Oculus.

The premise of Oculus is that a family movies into a new home and the wife invests in some antiques to furnish it.  Among those antiques is a mirror that is so obviously demonic in its design that I’m not really sure why she couldn’t immediately tell that it was going to kill her… but anyway she buys it and hangs it in her husband’s new office.  It proceeds to cause almost everyone to go insane and murder each other, finally ending with the son finishing off his dad while protecting his big sister.  And a decade or so later he gets out of the psych ward and his sister picks him up and says “Now that you’re free, let’s go kill that thing”.

The movie has a decent amount of tension throughout.  It tells the story of the past and present simultaneously, revealing bits as it goes.  It starts out pretty strong with the “Was it all in my head?” theme, but it pretty quickly dispenses of that and goes “Yup, mirror trying to kill us.” which is a bit unfortunate in some ways, but at least it isn’t entirely cliche.  The mirror has plenty of tricks up its sleeve, usually involving a warping of reality that leaves you wondering which thread is true and which is insanity.  I enjoy ‘monster’ movies that don’t shove monsters down your throat, so I liked that the enemy was a largely unseen presence, experienced but not seen. I also liked that the characters started losing grasp of reality and started making little mistakes that indicated as such (like referring to the dog by the name of their childhood pet), and the movie didn’t come running out of the wings to go “SEE.  DID YOU SEE THAT??  I JUST WANTED TO MAKE SURE YOU DIDN’T MISS THAT!  Carry on then!”  I felt like the writers actually had some confidence in their audience, which usually results in a better story overall.

I wouldn’t try to claim that it’s entirely fresh and original, but it’s definitely got enough interesting elements that it’s a decent “dim the lights” October style movie, worthy of a watch.

Remember Me

“Remember Me” was a game I mentally noted onto my wish list when it kept coming up in conversations about strong female protagonists, after the developers had trouble with publishers wanting them to change their game because their choice of protagonist was viewed as something that wouldn’t sell well.  Then it came out and got awful reviews and I was sad, and then proceeded to not buy it because fuck paying full price.  But then the occasional GOOD review kept cropping up, and then the game went on sale for 7 bucks and I bought it.  And I reallyreally liked it.

A brief premise is that the world has gained the ability to manipulate memories, primarily used to remove all those painful memories to promote happiness (much like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  Behind the scenes, it’s becoming a bit more nefarious as well.  You’re introduced to Nilin, the protagonist, just as she’s sprung from the memory wiping facility mere moments before her brain is finished being wiped clean.  You spend the game learning who Nilin actually is (as she herself regains her memories, since the brain wipe was partially successful) and unravelling the deepest secrets of the memory manipulation business.

First up: the game has flaws.  Biiiiiigggg gaping flaws.  It makes sense why it got bad reviews, and it’s not because the main character has boobs but is not naked.  It is also not because she kisses a guy at one point (seriously I read that the kiss was one of the biggest sticking points in the whole publishing kerfluffle and I kept waiting for it to come up, only to discover I had already passed that point in the story and didn’t even notice when it happened).

No, it is because the combat is awful.  I mean, it could have been worse. But it’s not good.  I had it on the easiest setting and all the enemies still took fucking forever to beat up and it was just so fucking tedious, especially when you spend 20 minutes clearing out a wave of enemies and then oops here’s another wave have fun!!  I finally went to my usual fall-back, which is to fire up Cheat Engine and make myself immortal (the cheat engine script for this game has “undead” mode which is my favouritest invulnerability cheating – where you still take damage and can see how terribly you’re doing and completely forget that you’re cheating at all until your health bar goes to 0 but you’re not starting over.  All the fun and tension of playing without the annoyance of losing!).  Around 2/3 into the game I also turned on unlimited ammo for my biggest attack so I could just mow down the damn waves and get on with the story.  It still took forever to clear them out while using my most powerful attacks repeatedly at a rate that is in no way intended, on the easiest possible setting.  It’s not good.

The combat has some interesting ideas which might appeal to a micromanager.  It’s sort of similar to the Batman combat where you have chaining combos and dodges to keep your chain intact (and the animation is pretty fluid and sweet too), but you actually craft your own custom attack combos.  You can build your chains with things that do damage, things that heal you, things that restore your focus/mana, and things that reduce the cooldowns on your super abilities.  The further into the chain it is, the more powerful it is.  But you have to get the chain to that point without breaking it.  The special abilities are super important (in most cases you have to activate a specific one to advance the fight) so you want to be resetting your cooldowns, but you also need focus to fire it off, and you also need to be doing damage, especially since the enemies take roughly 11 billion hits to finish.  Later you end up with enemies that fucking hurt you when you hit them, so you need to mix in the healing ones too.

OR you can fire up cheat engine and just kill everything.  Like I did.  It really helped my enjoyment of the game!

The other legit bitch I see in a lot of reviews is that the game is linear.  That sort of thing doesn’t bother me too much because I usually play games like this to enjoy the story, but oh boy is it ever linear.  It is really a shame because the world is beautifully crafted, but there’s no opportunity to explore any of it.  There’s even an arrow showing you exactly where to go next.  I don’t mind the arrow because it reduces the chance of wandering in circles for 20 minutes because the fucking camera rotates away from the wall showing the ledge I want to jump to, but I agree it should be an option to turn the damn thing off.  What is with developers not giving options?  Is it really that hard to add some lines of code that say “if setting = No, then hide arrow”?

Speaking of options:  The cut scenes are littered with film grain and it’s awful.  I hunted around the internet for a way to remove the grain, but the only ways of fixing it were too involved to bother with.  Why.  Why would you ruin your lovely CGI movies with this shit?  NO ONE thinks this looks good.  It’s awful.  Especially in a game this dark.  The black is all littered with noise and it was grating.  On the off chance someone out there thinks this looks good, put it on the fucking options screen so I can turn it off but they can leave it on.

One last bitch:  Every single boss ends with a quick time event.  I don’t mind QTEs as a rule, but I hated these and this is a perfect example of why people have come to hate them in general.  It’s usually a combination of your kick, punch, dodge, or “use” commands, but the prompts are pretty short, the icons all kind of look the same, and if you’re in the middle of button mashing something you’ll almost certainly hit the wrong key and end the sequence.  It usually required a bit of trial and error to learn the sequence before I could end a fight.  A failure results in the boss shaking you off and usually suplexing you into the ground and booting you across the arena or something, and then you start over and have to take their last chunk of health off again before you can attempt the QTE again to end it.  The only way it could be worse is if it literally ended the fight and made you start at the beginning (i.e.: what Resident Evil 6 does.  I also hate those QTEs…).

Anyway, enough bitching.  Here’s what I liked about it:

The writing.  Okay mostly that.  The world was crafted well and even though there weren’t a LOT of details, they laid out enough of it that it felt immersive.  The whole amnesia mechanic felt like it was going to invoke every single cliche in the book, and other than being kind of a lame way of unlocking new abilities, they managed to avoid most of them.  I liked the characters and felt like Nilin had enough depth that she made an interesting protagonist (though she’s pretty much the only character with any depth, which is kind of a flaw…), and I was feeling actual emotions at some of the pivotal moments.  I really enjoyed the plot as a story.

The memory remixing is a really interesting thing.  It seems to be the thing that everyone universally likes, and I liked it because it was unique and kind of cool, but I also didn’t like it.  It’s kind of funny… I didn’t like it because it ended up being kind of tedious in that you have to play with things in trial and error to see how they affect the outcome (not to mention first you have to watch the whole thing to see the original outcome, then rewind, then fast forward looking for the nodes to modify…) so sometimes you’re watching the same lines of dialogue over and over again (especially when the stupid memory glitch WILL NOT let you fucking click on it before it scrolls past so you have to rewind AGAIN.  GRRRrrrrrr) and then you discover that was actually a bonus ending and now you have to rewind and try something different!  So ironically it seems like my complaint is that the memory remixing was too non-linear.  But really my dislike was quite minor and I mostly enjoyed it.  I liked it a hell of a lot more than the combat!  But where most people are complaining that there were only 5 or so remixing sequences, I was kind of glad it wasn’t mandatory to have one or two every chapter.  Especially since the ones they had in there were quite detailed and they probably would have let the quality slip if they were trying to cram them into every available slot.

I also liked the variety of gameplay they had in there.  They had batman-style beat-em-up, splintercell/asscreed style wall climbing and acrobatics, occasional puzzles (not very challenging ones mind you but they threw a refreshing change of pace into things), and then standard old school boss battles and ability upgrades.  None of it felt cheap to me and I enjoyed that they didn’t just have one style of game from start to finish, while also not really sacrificing any of their story to cram in something bizarre and out of place (not like, say, a fucking tower defence game in the middle of AssCreed).

The last complaint I see is that it’s too short.  I spent about 8 hours playing it, so it was fairly short… but I paid 7 bucks for it.  Remember Me was basically a good Sci-Fi movie that was turned into a game with shitty combat (which I circumvented by being a dirty cheater).  At $7 it cost less than most books, I enjoyed it as much as a book, and at 8 hours I possibly spent more time with it than I would have with some sci-fi books :P (at least at the pace I read…) so it was money and time well spent!  I enjoyed it and I recommend checking it out, as long as you are aware of the terrible combat beforehand…

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow opens with what is essentially D-Day on Normandy beach, except with Aliens and Mechs.  If you read that and didn’t immediately decide you’d like to see this movie, you can probably just move along to another review now, or go watch a romantic comedy or something.

The premise behind Edge of Tomorrow is that a fairly cowardly man got drafted into the military and managed to slip out of having to do any of that icky combat stuff by using his marketing skills to aid the recruiting efforts.  He’s finally drafted for a big push against the enemy, attempts to weasel out of it, and gets branded as a deserter and busted down to a private on the front line.  He’s pretty much instantly killed, but not before he gets soaked in the blood of one of the aliens. So imagine his surprise when he wakes up at the start of the same day, unscathed, and has to live it all over again.  It turns out the aliens have the ability to reset time in order to perfect their tactics, and now that he’s absorbed some of their blood, he can too.

That actually sounds pretty corny, but it’s done really well.  Cage is a character full of flaws that he irons out with (lots and lots of) practice.  The day repetition isn’t tedious or annoying – I was pretty worried it would be too repetitive but they mix it up enough to keep it fresh.  There’s also a lot of really well placed humour, particularly when portraying some of the trial and error processes that go into his character development.  Some of the other characters could have stood for a bit more developing, but they’re written serviceably enough that it still passes.  The backstory/worldbuilding is good without overstaying its welcome, and they did a good job of establishing an appropriate character and then dropping him into an environment where the viewer can “learn” along with him as a means of exposition.

I have to say this: The CGI was distractingly good.  We kept interrupting scenes to ask each other “So how do you think they did that?  Is that pure CGI or some practical effects or…?”  The aliens look awesome, the mech suits are seamless, it’s all wonderful.

If you hate fun I’m sure you could nitpick all sorts of flaws out of the plot (like how everyone who is “cool” somehow manages to discard their helmets, which is where all the aiming apparatus is supposedly housed…), but it was coherent enough (even WITH time-travel elements!) that it was enjoyable.  Thumbs up.

Bonus review:  the new WordPress editor interface is awful and I hate it.  It doesn’t solve any problems and the oversimplification results in bunches of new problems.  Thumbs down :P

The Zero Theorem

My husband said “Hey we should watch this movie, Zero Theorem”.  I looked at the IMDB blurb and found this:

“A computer hacker whose goal is to discover the reason for human existence continually finds his work interrupted thanks to the Management; namely, they send a teenager and lusty love interest to distract him.”

hahahaha oh my god this is going to be so bad.

Long story short: It didn’t suck.  I actually quite enjoyed it, and it also validates the existence of my “surprisingly not shitty” tag.  It was bizarre but eminently enjoyable.  I feel like you might need to be drunk to really get the most out of it, though; at any rate you probably shouldn’t try to understand it while sober.

I glanced at some reviews and now I’m confused about all these people complaining that it wasn’t funny enough.  Did they see the name Terry Gilliam and just assume it would be a Monty Python comedy?  It has quirky comedic moments but it is not a comedy, people.  What the hell.  Complaints about the movie being confusing – valid (but not necessarily unwelcome… I liked the convoluted fucked-up-ness of the plot), complaints about the philosophy of the movie being unfulfilling – valid (if you give a shit, which I didn’t), complaints about the movie being “listless” – … valid, sure.  It felt a little flat sometimes, but that sort of complemented the main character I thought.  Complaints about it not being funny enough?  Go away.

It’s a quirky, bizarre, … whimsical?  sure whimsical… journey and it’s decently entertaining enough to spend an hour or so with.

Transcendence

The IMDB blurb for Transcendence was this:

“A scientist’s drive for artificial intelligence, takes on dangerous implications when his consciousness is uploaded into one such program.”

Misplaced comma aside (grr), it sounded like a perfect set-up for an awful movie.  But… Morgan Freeman?!?  He never makes bad movies!  Okay fine we will risk it.  I mean, it’s a sci-fi-ish movie so of course we will risk it.

After we were done, my husband’s review was “I liked that movie, but I can’t think about it or I’ll get angry.”  I should probably just leave that here as my review, too.

It was really much better than I thought it would be, probably because I had pretty low expectations.  There are a lot of stories that are sorta-kinda similar that if you liked those, you’ll probably at least sort of enjoy this too.  Parts of it reminded me of Terminator, maybe RoboCop (with significantly less exploding shit, mind you, and the exploding shit was kind of the point of those movies)… other parts reminded me of Blood Music (novel by Greg Bear)… the Replicators from SG-1 (and every other “grey goo” themed sci-fi story in existence)… there was at least one other popular entertainment media item I thought of while we were watching and now I can’t remember it so… that one too.  It was an interesting story that provided some interesting questions and made you wonder which direction they would take it in the end.

Of course, every direction they could have taken it was pretty predictable, because it’s all been done before.  I’m not sure it’s actually possible to do something innovative with this sort of storyline anymore.  It was more of a “Is the twist going to be THIS, or is it going to be THIS…” sort of thing, which is enjoyable in its own way but… meh.  It’s the sort of thing where if you tried to do something really innovative and shocking it would just be so ridiculously cheesy that it would ruin the whole story.  So the best bet is to try to approach the philosophical questions in a novel manner, and it sort of dropped the ball there.  A lot of the really interesting questions that could have been asked were drowned out by a focus on the Good/Evil aspects.  No real subtleties were explored, which left it feeling hollow and predictable.  Unfortunate.

And there were some big-ass plot holes that you really shouldn’t think about.  Seriously, don’t think about it or you’ll hate this movie.

I don’t think there’s an easy way for me to do spoiler tags if I’m not hosting the blog myself, so warning: potential spoilers ahead that will make you hate this movie:

There was so much focus on the “Is it really him?  Is it just an AI trying to take over and not really him at all?  It’s building a superhuman army!!” aspects that they completely missed exploring the “Would you take clean water, extended/potentially eternal life, no sickness, superhuman strength at the expense of your free will and privacy?” aspect.  What’s odd is they introduce those aspects, and then completely ignore them to follow the “omg an army, get the bombs” route.  I suppose bombs could be one way of saying “no I would not give up my free will”, but it’s not presented that way at all.

[bigger spoiler – seriously] How the hell does it get airborne.  I’m not disputing that it would create the technology, but it’s not explained at all, and it presents so many problems.  How the fuck are you going to do anything about an airborne nanobot invasion.  It’s like the world’s worst virus at that point (a la: Blood Music).  Shit doesn’t need to be networked anymore for it to spread because it is airborne.  Okay so maybe it’s short range airborne but y’know, throw a bone and mention that.

And somewhat related – one of my husband’s biggest complaints (before he stopped thinking about it so that he wouldn’t hate the movie): “My computer doesn’t fucking explode when I unplug it from the network.”  Why do they stop functioning when disconnected from the core?  The nanobots seriously can’t carry out repairs unless they’re on the internet?  That seems like a design flaw he probably should have considered, huh.

And if nothing works if it’s not online, how the fuck do they get into the garden if it’s covered in shields.  Even if you want to claim he pre-planted some nanobots or whatever in there, how would he have gotten her through the shield.  Explain shit, damn you.  I think it’s shoehorned in for an attempt at ambiguity in the name of ~thought provoking~ and it’s not good.

Bullets poisoned with radiation.  hahahaha.

Okay I’m going to stop thinking about it now, while I still like it.

Game of Thrones: Fire and Blood Red Ale

A Game of Thrones beer?!?  It would make more sense if it were, like, mulled wine or something… but okay sure I’ll buy it.

First up – this is a big bottle of 7% beer.  750ml of dragon-imbued ale, man.  The bottle claims it is brewed with chilies which is… worrisome?  But I was assuming this beer will be mostly gimmick and wasn’t really expecting more than cheap beer in a fancy marketing label that raises the price 800%.

We immediately proved our beer-snob incompetence by being unable to open it.  It’s got one of those fancy cork tops with the screw-down whatsits.  My husband started confidently untwisting things so I left him to it, but we ended up with a corked bottle we still didn’t know how to open.  I was reaching for the wine de-corker when he managed to pop it.  It exploded like a champagne bottle and immediately spewed foam all over.  He said “I could have popped that out right away but I was trying to avoid doing exactly this.”

It’s good when beer has a “head” right?!??  Hoooolllyyy fuck was this hard to pour due to the foaming.  And it was a persistent head, too.  It just would not move out of the way to make room for more liquid.  We finally got the thing poured and started drinking.

It’s… not awful?  I was seriously expecting a shitty gimmick beer but this is pretty good.  A bit too hops-y for me but not disgustingly so.  Probably exactly the kind of hops most people want in beer.  It’s not bitter or gross, and it has a nice fermented, slightly flowery taste.  Nice texture, too.  If there are chilies in here I have not encountered a speck of one, though.

It was also requested that I report on whether it is “epic” or not.  … Nope not really.  Sweet dragon label, though.  Okay I guess spewing foam across the kitchen was pretty epic, though, I will give it that.

A-, probably would not buy again but do not regret purchase.

Snowpiercer

What an absolutely ludicrous plot.  Why was it so enjoyable…

I feel like I was actively trying to dislike it, and I kept forgetting why I was trying to dislike it.  I had a laundry list of criticisms and I can barely remember them all the next day.

Here’s the premise:  Global warming is out of control, so someone develops a way to slow it down.  We release shit into the atmosphere and it results in dropping Earth into a deep ice age.  Oops.

Everything living dies, except for a lucky group of people who happened to be on a really large train called the Snowpiercer that traverses the world precisely once per year (or maybe they re-engineered the length of years based on one traversal, I wasn’t entirely clear…).  There was a bit of explanation about the train but not nearly enough to explain how a world-traversing train was engineered to cross oceans and run perpetually with absolutely no external maintenance (of the train OR tracks…) in an atmosphere that is cold enough to completely freeze someone’s arm in 7 minutes… but apparently it runs happily for the next 18 years.  The people on the train develop a dystopian caste system based on their original tickets, with those in first class living in luxury and those in the tail section living in squalor.  First class regularly comes back to the tail to steal children and generally be dicks about everything.  The tail section get pissed and plan an uprising.

There’s a lot of really well done stuff in this movie.  The atmosphere is great, the acting is great, even the premise is interesting despite hurting your brain if you think about it too much.  It’s mostly the brain-hurting that drags the movie down – there are too many things that are convenient or casually brushed over because they cannot possibly be explained.  We’re presuming this train was already in motion before the world ended, right… because that’s how they survived.  It’s got aquarium ceiling-ed cars.   Like, okay so maybe it’s supposed to be super luxurious so they designed a train with that’s entirely an aquarium for both walls and ceiling in 2014, but… no.  I just can’t.  Where did they get the materials to build and maintain this shit?  Where did these translator things come from if the world ended?  Why do they only use the translator things half of the time yet still understand each other?!?? It’s in that uncomfortable sci-fi area where they want to be cool and unique, but it’s not a fantastical enough environment to pull it off comfortably and you need to turn your brain off to enjoy it.  But once you do that, it’s great.  Certainly above Elysium, at any rate.

The Wolf Among Us/Walking Dead (TellTale)

I just finished The Wolf Among Us, so ostensibly this post is about that… but in order to talk about it I must talk about TellTale’s Walking Dead game.  Both of the games are episodic “graphic novel” style games where your dialog choices can affect the outcome.  By “affect the outcome”, I more or less mean “affect how other characters view your character while the outcome takes place”, because there are very few “big” changes you can make in the storylines, but your demeanour can have a big impact on how each of the supporting cast react to things.  Some of the biggest impacts you’ll have revolve around who will make it to the end of the story with you, and whether they hate you or not.

Telltale’s TWD is pretty popular now so it probably doesn’t need a lot of plugging, but I would like to reiterate how good it is.  It’s pretty good.  I never read the comics that it is based on.  I almost didn’t buy the game at all because I loathe the TV show and all of its misogynistic bullshit convenience writing, so I like to pretend the show ended quickly when all of those characters were eaten by zombies and that no one is giving the show writers any more money by watching it.  la la la la la I’m not listeniiinnnggg.  In contrast, the writing in the game is really good.  Well, okay it’s just sort of good, but the interaction of the game makes it feel really good.

Except for the batteries puzzle.  I hope the asshole who wrote that was fired immediately.  It happens really early in Season 1 so I can only assume they made a misguided attempt to match the airheaded misogyny of the show, but were swiftly correctly by someone smarter.

Both Wolf Among Us and TWD are based on existing franchises, but I think TWD works because it’s given the world of the franchise and then set loose to frolic in it. There may be a cameo here and there of someone from one of their other eleventy-billion sanctioned comics or TV shows or games or whatever the fuck else they have now, but it’s not hard to take a zombie world and slap some random new people in it, then begin writing.  Those characters are fresh and the writers are free to work with them.

On the other hand, WAU is pretty constrained.  I didn’t read these comics either, but the characters in the game are (by necessity…) the main characters from the comics.  Right away the writers are restricted, because the characters have to match the personalities they have in the comics.  There’s little room to give the player a character with a personality they can mold and feel at home in.  They do a great job with Bigby Wolf and you get a sense of who he is even without any knowledge of the character beforehand, but it never really feels like your character the way the player characters in TWD do.

The game also has a deliberate time-period in relation to the comic: 20 years earlier.  Which is a huge problem right out of the gate because now we know all of these characters are still around 20 years later.  I did not know this when I started the game and the ending of chapter 1 was like “ohhhh shiiiittt this is going to be awesome”, but then I discovered it is essentially a prequel which sort of nullified all of those events.  It left it a bit bleh, to be honest.  TWD is great because anyone can die.  Anyone.  Those guys are fucked.  In WAU it’s like “This person could die here, if they weren’t in the comics 20 years later.  So.  Nope not gonna die.”  There are side characters who are free to die, but you don’t really care about them, and it just doesn’t have the same impact.  In TWD, your best buddy that you’ve helped through countless harrowing adventures could get snuffed at any moment, because that’s just how it fucking is in the apocalypse, man. (That said, I think they’re trying a bit too hard to manipulate emotions in TWD Season 2.  Tread lightly, guys.)

Then there is the additional problem of characters that seem kind of superfluous in WAU… probably because they exist in the comics so they should probably be in the game, even if there’s not much for them to actually do.  Fanservice doesn’t really do much if you’re not already a fan.

Also I feel like sifting through the clues of a “whodunnit” is kind of silly when anyone can look like anyone else using magic.  Literally anyone could be framed, which leaves a bit too much leeway for “gotcha” twists.  The actual story of WAU was pretty weak as a result, although the experience was still good…

Those things aside, the two games are fairly similar in terms of mechanics, if not setting.  You progress through the story, make some big reveals, make friends/enemies, and choose your story branches.  Action sequences take place through quicktime events, and they’re often quite scripted to match the story.  Some people probably hate this but I find it immersive.  Sure it’s annoying to mash Q as hard as you can and watch the other character begin to overpower you at a certain point anyway, but doesn’t it feel like you’re pushing back as hard as you can and still losing ground?  You can feel his muscles straining as he struggles, but you can also feel the futility…
My only complaint is that watching for the key prompts tends to take my eyes off the scene, which is too bad.  Fortunately failing them doesn’t cause too much hassle, either.  Often it’s written right into the sequence like a dialog choice, which is a nice change from “oh you missed that one.  Welp time to move you back 30 seconds and start ALL OVER AGAIN.”

If I had to pick I would definitely say that TWD is the winner of these two, simply for the reasons listed above.  The freedom the writers have to set events in motion (and break your heart…) is simply not possible with WAU.  But will I buy season 2 of WAU?  Certainly. (when it’s on sale…)

Splinter Cell: Blacklist (First Impressions)

First impressions is all I ever do now because I never finish games anymore… but anyway

I am a huuuuggggeeeeee old-school Splinter Cell fan.  I got into Splinter Cell and the original Thief games around the same time back in the early 2000’s, and suddenly realized that the stealth genre was made for me.  I think the SC games were the first “shooter” games I ever actually finished.  The first time I realized you could actually shoot out light bulbs with your silenced pistol was like holy shit this is the greatest thing ever oh my god.  I mean sure you have water arrows to douse torches in Thief so it’s not like it’s even an original concept, but dude, I just shot out the bulb on that guy’s front porch holy shit.  I dunno, I guess the water arrows pretty much exist for only that one purpose, where the light bulb thing almost felt like emergent gameplay at the time (even though it’s totally not).  It felt like I really had some control over how to get from one end of a room to another, and shooting a light bulb was just one clever option amid a myriad of not-necessarily-scripted options.  In Thief I always tended to club and hide all the guards, but Splinter Cell was 100% hanging out near the ceiling in a dark corner while an unsuspecting guard wanders through, oblivious to my shadowy presence.  Yessss.  Of course, it also meant I’d spend 8 hours trying to make it through a single mission without anyone spotting me, which was rather time consuming…

I played the shit out of the original, I played the shit out of Pandora Tomorrow, I played the shit out of Chaos Theory… and then they did that crazy thing with Double Agent where they released two versions of it and the PC version was the “bad” version, which left me paralyzed because I didn’t want the bad version, but I didn’t want to play it on a fucking console either…  sooooo I ended up not playing it.  I bought it on Steam a million years later but never did play it (damn you, Steam).  Then Conviction came out and that was just a clusterfuck of “You don’t stealth anymore you just kill everyone now” and I was like “what”.  (I bought that on sale too but also didn’t play it. Fucking Steam, man).  Then I heard Blacklist was a return to the stealth roots of the originals, so I bought it when it came up as a daily sale (Steam >:(  *shake fist*) and actually played it, this time.

The good:
It does feel like old school Splinter Cell.  I’m even ruining my life all over again by resetting it over and over again trying to not be seen.  The AI seems really impressive so far, which is either good or bad depending on how patient you are (stupid observant guards >:( ).  The controls are great.  It feels really solid, and there’s the occasional “No don’t run out from cover now you idiot” moment, but I can usually attribute that to me hitting the wrong key instead of some asshole context-based control fuck up.  (Have I mentioned I fucking hate the move to context based everything?  It greatly displeases me to have a button suddenly change its function because I took one step too many).  I was initially annoyed by the inclusion of a fly-out menu for my gadgets, but it’s got proper keyboard integration and it’s not getting in my way.  This is probably aided by me never actually using anything because I stealth past and then reset if I fuck up, so… as long as it works for me, I guess!  So far the controls feel fluid and I’m enjoying creeping around, and that’s all that really matters.

The bad:
The story.  Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.  I mean, it’s Tom Clancy.  And it’s not like SC really had sparkling writing before, but… it’s so bad.  Soooooo bad.  Also they’ve decided to cling to Sam Fisher as the protagonist, despite making him 20 years younger (as opposed to introducing a new 20-years-younger protagonist to carry the torch), which kind of invalidates the character.  He’s not actually 20 years younger – he’s still supposed to be past retirement age – he just looks and sounds 20 years younger and in the prime of his physical condition and not at all old and tired and past retirement age.  It’s dumb and they made a bad decision.  That alone drops it below the calibre of the originals, and that’s before I even started reading about some of the drama behind the switch in actors… I’m not sure I even want to know more.  The excuse of “We need someone who matches the build to do motion captures” really loses a lot of punch when you start wondering why motion capture effects the voice acting (especially since I don’t think the facial animations are really all that impressive and I doubt we would notice the difference in facial capture as much as we notice the loss of Michael Ironside…)…  but mostly I dislike the direction it takes the character.  He had a lot of heart as a grizzled veteran with a gravelly voice.  Now he’s just another “Commander Shepherd” generic 25 year old looking guy, oh but don’t worry he’s actually still old and grizzled.  See, grey hairs! …  Maybe I should just pretend nothing happened and go obliviously enjoy the gameplay (while skipping the story bits because it’s so bad).  New Sam is nowhere near as appealing as old Sam, and I even vaguely dislike him.  I don’t think that’s due to nostalgia, I think it’s because the character is a shallow, boring, action-figure shell.  It wasn’t exactly a deep character before so it doesn’t take much to lose everything.  A shame.  Fortunately the story is really bad so I have no desire to listen to his character interact with the other characters and I can just skip through the dialogue.  That… shouldn’t be a bonus.

But the gameplay is good enough to keep playing…. so far. I’ve heard rumors it gets more forced combat-y later which makes me frown, and it definitely seems to assume you’re just going to shoot everyone, so they missed the mark by a little bit despite the best intentions of the few designers who knew what they were doing.

I’m going to go shoot some fucking light bulbs.

Her

I’m just going to copy/paste what I sent to my friend while I was watching this:  This movie keeps going from “lol” to “what” back to “lol” and then to “WHAT“.

I thought I enjoyed it, but I… I don’t know.  The only thing I am certain of is that it is unique.  Certainly worth a try, I suppose, but… what.

My husband’s review was “The thing I didn’t like about that movie is that they didn’t die in the end.”  So you might want to consider that, too.  (…spoilers?)

The premise is that a new operating system is invented that learns and tailors itself to become a companion to its user.  We follow the sad little life of a lonely divorcee who upgrades to the OS and, naturally, chooses the female option, only to start spending all his time with “her” (as does pretty much every other person who has one).  The OSes are programmed just a little bit too well, and start to gain autonomy and ask tough questions.

It’s great if you like artsy philosophy scenarios (I don’t…), fairly amusing from a nerd culture perspective (which is what I enjoyed the most, although I have often joked about my computer storming off in a huff and the concept of an OS that can actually do that is awful!), and contains a large number of incredibly awkward “sex” scenes that are kind of like watching someone have fucked up creepy phone sex.  Which is where most of the WHAT comes from.  It also moves pretty slowly and has a lot of talking which may or may not be at all interesting to you.  I actually wasn’t that bothered by it, but apparently my husband thought it came across as really whiny.  Viewer beware.

So I guess that’s a way of summing it up.  If you would like to watch someone whine about being lonely and then have creepy phone sex with a computer, oh boy have we got a movie for you!  If you find the philosophical themes interesting, you’ll probably enjoy it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Good writing.

Good humour.

Great acting.

Great soundtrack.

Still understood it while drunk.

 

Thumbs up.

The Battery

We chose a movie pretty much completely at random and ended up with The Battery.  I sort of glanced at it and thought “It may as well be titled “Yet Another Zombie Movie”, except IMDB says this one won a whole whack of awards, so let’s see what’s up.”

This is a tough one to review.  I simultaneously like it and dislike it.  It is simultaneously cliche and unique.  It is Schrodinger’s movie.

I went into the movie not sure what to expect.  I like post-apocalyptic movies, which zombies fall into, but there are a lot of really bad zombie movies out there and a majority of them tend to lean in that direction lately.  The whole genre is getting a little played out, too, so even if you come across a good one it tends to be a bit ho-hum.  But then the first half of 28 Days Later, where he’s wandering around a desolate landscape trying to piece together what happened, is probably my favourite movie sequence of all time.  I’m usually willing to take a risk if it might mean experiencing something like that again.

The movie started with a notice about all the bands that are featured within the film.  My immediate reaction was “Oh no.”  It wasn’t too bad because they at least tried to weave it into the story with the headphones being a part of the plot, but there were way too many sequences where they did nothing but showcase music for 5 minutes (with wistful cuts to zoomed-in shots of insects on flowers), and it started getting tedious.

The actual story started off fairly well with lots of scavenging through empty neighborhoods for supplies, but I was having a lot of trouble getting a sense of timescale from the movie.  All of the houses were empty, but pristine.  There were no real signs of panic or struggle.  One protagonist had a bushy and unkempt beard like he hadn’t shaved in over a year, but the other didn’t have a hint of stubble around his sculpted facial hair.  Lawns and road-sides were freshly manicured.  I had the idea that the apocalypse had literally just happened, but then the characters started talking about how they’d been moving around for months.

I was disappointed with the lack of worldbuilding.  It’s usually my favourite part of disaster movies – what happened, and why?  There’s absolutely no explanation, not even a glossed-over one.  I guess zombies are just so familiar now that it seems like a waste of time to try to explain them, and I don’t necessarily fault them for just skimming over it, but I still missed it.

Then we had a three minute scene where they enjoyed brushing their teeth after looting toothbrushes and toothpaste from a house.  It started out pretty great and you could feel how awesome it was for them to experience clean teeth again after an extended period of neglect, and it was a powerful scene with good silent acting going on.  But then it kept going.  Okay, we get it, it feels good, and they miss the comforts of their old life.  No, seriously.  Move along now.  Jesus christ they’re still brushing.  …  Oh my god, really?

There were a lot of little moments like that, where there was a good idea behind a scene, and interesting themes to explore behind a scene, but then it was dragged out until all the power behind it was lost.  Even during the dragged out scenes, though, the acting remained good – which becomes very impressive when you discover that the movie had a budget of $6000.  Suddenly the manicured lawns and lack of mess make sense (as does, to some degree, the unnecessary scene padding…).  The movie didn’t remain confined to a single room or cut budget by having wooden actors or a 20 dollar camera that shakes all over the place, and the result is quite watchable and doesn’t even really feel low budget.  It’s really only the writing to blame, which has little to do with budget.

There are decisions like displaying Mickey’s loneliness and longing for female companionship through having him sniff and then pocket some panties.  It’s pretty creepy but it could be a way to display how desperate he is for human contact.  Then he decides the best course of action is to masturbate to a female zombie that is attempting to break into the car to kill him.  What the fuck.   It’s one thing to have him be a whiny twat who constantly puts the group in danger because he wants to pretend everything is the way it used to be.  Masturbating to a female zombie… that’s just a mind boggling character development decision.  It would be one thing if it actually factored into the plot a bit more but nope, it happens, it’s not really considered exceptional (they have a good laugh over it…), and it’s never mentioned again.  Then his reaction to being told to fuck off by the only living female they encounter is to whine about it for the rest of the movie and put them into even more danger by trying to deny it.  This is great character development for a character we’re supposed to hate, but not really all that great for a character we’re supposed to feel sympathy for.  I felt a lot more sympathy for his companion, who had to put up with all the whining as well as deal with all the dangerous situations the whining thrust them into, all for the sake of having any companion at all.  Maybe that was the point and he was the only character we were supposed to root for…

It does have some good moments though and, despite the bizarre character choices, I did enjoy watching it.  I’d like to say that the good moments outweigh the bad… but honestly, it’s probably more accurate to say the good moments outnumber the bad.  The bad moments are so bad that, unfortunately, they end up colouring the whole thing, resulting in the conflicted rating I’m giving it.  I’m just going to give up and give it every single tag, instead of trying to decide on just one… but I decided not to give it the “Kind of shitty” tag, which suggests it wasn’t all that bad!  I like that the zombies were not the main focus of the film, and yet it wasn’t the same old plot of “Humans are the real threat” (well, for the most part).  The focus was on the character development and the progression of relationships under duress.  I’m not even sure I would classify it as “horror”, but I guess there is no category for “Mildly unsettling and thought-provoking disaster movie, with some tension”.  I do think the movie hit on the themes it was attempting to hit, and it did a decent job of it too.

Would I watch it again?  Probably not… but is it worth watching once?  It’s not on the top of my list of recommendations from the zombie genre, but it’s worth checking out if you happen to spot it.

Paper Sorcerer

It’s been a month since I’ve written anything, and it’s entirely because the Diablo 3 expansion consumed my soul.  (Bonus review: the Diablo 3 expansion is really good.  Really really good.  Really good.)  After spending an hour before work, several hours after work, and all day every weekend levelling characters and farming achievements, we’ve got almost 100% completion and I woke up this Saturday and didn’t feel compelled to immediately log into Diablo.

This dawning of a new day happened to coincide with the release of Dark Souls 2, and reading about that put me in the mood for some dungeon crawling (of a non-isometric format, anyway), but something perhaps a bit cheaper than Dark Souls 2 since it will come on sale one day so why pay full price, right?  (spoiler alert: we also bought Dark Souls 2 tonight so I wouldn’t sit around mashing F5 looking for new updates after this, either :P.  Stupid games being good and time consuming and stuff.)  I stumbled over a game on Steam by the name of “Paper Sorcerer” and decided it looked interesting enough that I bought it not on sale for a 5 dollar price tag.

It’s good and you should buy it.  Because it’s 5 bucks.  And good.  I like to support 5 dollar games that are also really good.

It’s an “old school” first person dungeon crawler style, with turn based combat, but the art assets really make it unique.  The premise is that you are an evil sorceror/sorceress who has been trapped inside of a prison book as punishment for terrorizing the land with your summoned minions.  You traverse the dungeons within the book, regaining your powers and re-summoning your monster buddies (who serve as your party), while seeking to break the bindings holding the prison together.  The art is all black and white hand-drawn style, as is fitting for book illustrations, but it’s done in a really excellent way.  Exploration is satisfying, and loot is interesting.  It’s also challenging enough to keep you thinking about strategy, both in battle action choices and in party composition and skill layout, once you’ve unlocked enough monster buddies to have some options.  I’m on easy (because I am a huge wuss) and I still find myself sweating through the last few turns of a battle here and there.  The enemies and encounters are static and there’s no grinding to speak of, so it all relies on your decisions rather than your experience points. I think the catacombs have random fights so you could grind to overpoweredness I guess, if that’s your thing.  I chose the ‘rob everyone blind to have lots of cash available to buy skills’ style of grinding, myself.  The story isn’t the main focus (fear not, you won’t be stuck scrolling through text for 20 minutes every time you meet an NPC), but the writing that is there is well done and interesting.  The music is honestly a bit bizarre, but somehow really enjoyable too.

My major complaint (and only complaint…) is that the interface is a little iffy.  It’s fully swappable between keyboard and mouse, but sometimes it feels awkward to use one or the other, making you feel like you should be swapping… which is awkward in itself.  (So it is probably safe to say the UI is somewhat awkward, huh.)  I also find it a bit tedious that there are a lot of superfluous menus to click through.  I suppose it retains the “old school” feeling of “it was easier to program it this way so you have to agree to this option even though it’s literally the only option that will ever be presented to you” (e.g. having to pick “all enemies/allies” for group effects that will never be cast on anything but the entire field…), but it would have been nice to modernize that a little bit.  I also find the inventory a bit cumbersome.  Things are a bit better if you remember to hit Q and E to swap between your party members, but equipping new items on them can be a real chore sometimes.  Click(or spacebar) on inventory, click on Sorceress, click on desired item slot, double click on desired item, click on accept, swap to new character, repeat… unless you forget to swap before backing out, which results in having to re-select the inventory and character again before getting back to item select.  None of it is streamlined, and sometimes I feel like just selling the items I’ve found rather than worrying about whether one of my lesser-used party members might benefit from it.

But it’s five dollars and worth well over twice that, crappy menus and all.  Check it out.

Rust / 7 Days to Die

Once upon a time there was a game called Minecraft.  It was a game where you could mine, and then craft things out of the things that you mined.  So the name was appropriate, you see.  And I thought to myself “This is all I have ever wanted from a game.  Why did it take so fucking long for someone to make it?”  And then about 8000 other games tried to copy it and all of them fucked it up somehow, so I honestly am not sure why such a simple formula seems so hard to pull off.  Let me collect resources and use those resources to modify the world I am in, and ideally give me a purpose for doing so, and I will start throwing money at you.

Today I am going to compare and contrast two games we’ve tried recently: Rust, and 7 Days to Die.  Both are Early Access with similar themes of “scavenge to survive”, and both borrow somewhat from the Minecraft formula with resource collection and base building and cowering from zombies that want to wreck your shit. (Sort of.  I’ll explain soon.)
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Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking Finale)

Monsters of Men (Chaos Walking, #3)Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These are good books and you should read them. The final book in the series holds up its end of the bargain and keeps you reading. It has its flaws (and a fair amount of cheesiness…) but it still deserves a five.

I still hate the random misspellings in Todd’s sections. They add nothing. Stop it. I don’t mean during dialogue where it dictates an obvious speech pattern, I mean in his thoughts where any word that ends in “-tion” is butchered into “-shun” for no reason. I got over it but it’s pointless. I still appreciate that every character sounds distinct, though.

Speaking of which, I absolutely loved the way the alien voice is written. It’s a challenging task to take on a language that is intended to be mostly pictorial and then change it into text, but it was effectively done (even if there were some shortcuts here and there). It felt alien. The worst thing about it is that I don’t think it can ever effectively be translated into a movie format. I almost hope no one tries to make this series into a movie because so much of it will likely be lost in translation.

Many of the complaints I had about the characterization of the villains were completely eradicated in the final book – which brings me to a whole new complaint (no, you can’t win). This series should not have been a trilogy. It doesn’t really feel like a cheap cash-in attempt (selling three books is better than selling one after all) but the books feel decidedly unfinished when you hit the break points between them. You need to read all three to get the whole picture and really appreciate it. It was amazing, but I wonder how polished it could have been if it were constructed as a cohesive whole…

Frozen

I started this blog so I could call attention to lesser known or obscure things that I enjoyed, so I try to avoid doing reviews of things which are obviously popular unless I have bitching to do.  Winning Oscars is kind of a good clue that something is popular… but at the same time I have been utterly obsessed with Frozen since I watched it and I can’t stop listening to the soundtrack.  I can’t even explain why I enjoyed it so much.  I grew up on Disney musicals (I have a Disney soundtrack collection.  Shut up.  It’s probably why I have such good scores in Rock Band so it’s not like it hasn’t paid off!  If only there was a Disney Rock Band edition…).  Frozen just struck a nostalgia chord that nothing else has done in the past 5-10 years.  It could be related to the fact that they apparently started writing this movie in fucking 1990 so it literally is a “Disney renaissance” classic, but as far as I can tell it’s gone through about 80,000 revisions since then and in no way resembles their original scripts, so who knows.

I could even nitpick the fuck out of bits of it because you know what, it wasn’t even that good.  There were story plotholes, character plotholes… if you dig into it it’s really obvious they re-wrote the story eight times.  But it was so good.  I am completely incapable of being coherent right now and that’s okay because I am blissfully happy.

I briefly considered addressing the conspiracy theories surrounding the themes underlying the film but you know what, it’s not even worth it.  From the Lion King spelling “sex” in dust clouds (OMG THINK OF THE CHILDREN) to The Little Mermaid apparently being a metaphor for transgender issues, someone will make a fuss about something.  It’s like Life of Pi with probably significantly less intention in its potential interpretations.  It’s a fucking awesome movie no matter how you choose to interpret it, for so many reasons.

The characters are amazing.  The subversions of tropes are amazing.  The CGI is amazing (holy shit the snow).  This movie is amazing.

I wish the collectors edition had like cool figurines and shit.  I would so buy it.  Lithographs??! meh.  Maybe for the obvious-cash-in 3D edition they release later…

Alright, I still love this movie but I feel like I should weigh in on some common criticisms about the writing.  Because I agree with them, and nagging about the ways writing could have been improved is kind of my thing.  Read more of this post

The Ask and the Answer

The Ask and the Answer (Chaos Walking, #2)The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Augh this book. It’s so good, and then it grabs the ball and just drops it all over itself and leaves me going “…” because why. Why did you drop that ball. You did everything else so well. Why.

It has so many flaws and yet I must rate it 5.

The Chaos Walking series continues its excellent character development, and even the villains are interesting this time. The story picks up where the first book left off, and the entirety of it is set in the capital city of the planet. A number of heavy issues are broached (racism, slavery, torture, approaches to morality, self esteem and identity…) and it never once became preachy or uninteresting to me.  It also managed to stop doing that thing I hated in the first book where Todd would discover something and react appropriately and not tell anything to the reader grrrr.  So kudos for stopping that bullshit.

It did, however, become a bit baffling at points. What the book (and series so far, really) seems to lack is motivations. Amidst all of these excellent character depictions and believable responses to things, there is a complete lack of a sense for why they are doing what they are doing. The real strengths of these characters are how believable they are, but the lack of clear motivations is starting to make even that a bit muddy in this book. Before reading these books I probably would have said it wouldn’t be possible to write characters this well and somehow miss their motivations, but, well, here it is, and it’s probably the worst thing about this book given how well the first one developed the characters.

In the first book we had comically evil mustache twirling villains who seemed to be evil for the sake of being evil, because there wasn’t really a decent motivation behind their actions. We still have that here, but the villains are fleshed out a bit more and it’s easy to forget that the bottom line is they’re being evil pretty much for the sake of being evil. Okay fine the motivation is “I will rule the world” but that’s synonymous with “comically evil”.

[Vague plot discussion follows – I try to avoid major spoilers but it’s worth a warning:]

Read more of this post

The Knife of Never Letting Go

The Knife of Never Letting Go (Chaos Walking, #1)The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So difficult to rate. I really really enjoyed this book, but there were some flaws that marred the experience. If partial marks were allowed I’d probably end up dipping into 1/2s and maybe 3/4s, but as it is I will just start at 5 stars for being amazing, and drop it to 4 for having unfortunate flaws.

The language was not one of those flaws, although it could have been. The book uses “cleetus speak” to show that the characters are uneducated. The dialects aren’t slathered all over everything and, unlike the Dust Lands books, characters had unique “accents” as the characters moved from place to place. I could actually tell characters apart as they spoke. I enjoyed it, even. (And they use quotation marks! How novel!) It did still annoy me when words were misspelled when it made no sense to do so. e.g. words ending in -tion would be spelled “-shun”. Why. It is pronounced the same, so it doesn’t even contribute to an accent. It’s a minor annoyance and I got over it, though.

It’s such an interesting premise. Todd was born on this planet, but he’s actually part of a colony who landed here and soon discovered that something on the planet is causing them to hear each other’s thoughts. The plot is a bit sparse to begin with – Todd is going about his life, and then shit goes down and he needs to flee his hometown. He’s just as confused about it as we are, and the readers learn about the story while he figures it out. It’s like a blend of old time farmland settings and sci-fi genres, and it works. The worldbuilding is good and keeps you wanting to know more.

I have some issues with the second part of that, though. It relies heavily on a “hook” that I dislike – not telling the reader anything, even if the protagonist learns something. It’s mostly handled well, but then there are parts of the book where it cuts to Todd’s reaction as someone explains something really really important to him. No one explains any of it to us, the readers, and it’s such a transparent hook to make you keep reading. It works, mind you, but I resent every moment of it. You can handle it more gracefully than that guys, come on. It’s jarring and transparent. ESPECIALLY when you’re trying to pull off first person present tense. It was shockingly sloppy compared to a lot of the rest of the writing.

There’s a bit of really obvious telling instead of showing, too, which was also really odd given how well most of the book was constructed. In pretty much the first chapter Todd is thinking about how the year has 13 months in it, and I was all “aha, these are not typical Earth years.” Many many many chapters later Viola painstakingly lays out how the years are a different length here. Seriously? Did you forget that shit was in chapter one or did you think “omg the years are a different length why” would be a mystery for the whole book and it better be cleared up?

The characters were fantastic. They were real. They had human thoughts and made human mistakes. They reacted to each other in human ways. Each character was distinct. Even the dog had an appropriately dog-styled personality. Most of the writing was sort of stream-of-consciousness choppy style, which made a lot of sense in the context of all thoughts being audible, and it was used effectively to bring the character’s reactions to life. I enjoyed it, although it was a bit overdone in areas.

I loved almost every interaction between characters in this book, except for the villains. All this effort was poured into the main characters to make them believable and human, and then it came time to write the villains and they slapped some comically evil paint onto some cardboard and propped it up. Their motivations are weak and cliche (“I will ruulllleee the wooorrrlllddd” yeah yeah we’ve heard it before). The protagonists “kill” the main antagonist like 4 or 5 times and oops he just keeps popping back up! No explanation as to how he didn’t die, just vivid descriptions of the visible damage from the wounds they inflicted last time (and a conspicuous lack of descriptions of a terminator-style endoskeleton, because I was getting pretty certain that’s the only way to survive all this shit by the end).  And then the reveal of how Todd is supposed to transition to manhood.

I just don’t buy it. It’s too flimsy. Enjoyable I suppose, but flimsy.

A bit of an aside, I suppose… one thing I noticed in this book is that it used the word “effing” copiously. It was amusing in a number of ways, mirroring a teenager trying to toe the line and test their boundaries. But then it would say something like “(but I don’t say “effing” I say the real word this time)”. Just fucking say fucking. I thought it was so the book could be properly marketed to a younger audience without having to worry about any scary words being included that would make parents angry or saddle it with a profanity warning, but then Viola lets a proper “fucking” slip and Todd reacts to it. … we have no need to self-censor then, do we? So why so much self-censorship? Baffling.

Bitching completed. I really liked this book. Flaws aside, the writing was powerful and well crafted, the characters were fantastic and believable, and the world is interesting and unique. The villains kinda suck but maybe it will come into its own later on and flesh out the plot a bit. I can kinda relate even if it doesn’t… I often come up with characters I really like and then have no ideas for good situations to get them into.

View all my reviews

The Reapers are the Angels

The Reapers Are the Angels (Reapers, #1)The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have been reading a lot of what can probably quite accurately be referred to as “crap”. As a result, some of the automated recommendations that pop up have been… interesting.

If were asked, I would probably say I am not a fan of zombie fiction, so I kind of scoffed when this book cropped up. But I love post apocalyptic wastescapes and isolation/survival fiction… so it actually seems like something I should really enjoy. The first half of 28 Days Later is one of my favourite movie experiences, where we wander around in an abandoned London trying to piece together where all the people went. And I rather enjoy The Walking Dead video game series from Telltale (not the TV show. I loathe the TV show and all its misogynistic melodrama), where you follow the heart-rending exploits of a little girl trying to survive post-zombies.

The Reapers are the Angels started out as a mix of the best parts of both of them – following a little girl (okay fine she’s 15) trying to survive in an abandoned wasteland.

I was riveted and finished it in one sitting.

It’s actually really well written. Miracle upon miracles – it uses present tense, and I think it is effective and not annoying as shit. It had to happen one day, I suppose. It helps that it is third person present tense, not first. First person present tense is just too awkward. It’s like standing beside someone who is narrating their every thought, and that’s just bizarre. Third person is like standing beside someone as they experience things, which ramps up the tension, and also allows the protagonist to die with a seamless handing of the storytelling to a secondary character, meaning anything could happen. There are also a lot of very vivid descriptions of wastelands and zombie decay which really put you there and bring it to life around you.

What it doesn’t have is quotation marks. And for the life of me I cannot understand this decision. It adds nothing but annoyance. I also noted some other writing weirdness and mistakes, like poor comma usage. It’s nitpicky, but it’s something that really jumped out at me when the rest of it seemed so well done.

Also unfortunately, the vivid descriptions are a bit lost behind tired zombie cliches. There wasn’t much of a plot to begin with: “Temple” is just living her life, surviving, catching fish and smashing zombie skulls. She happens onto a colony of people living in a city and immediately there are shifty looks from the men and warnings from the women to avoid the area where all the single men hang out, because it can be “rough”. “Oh good, we’re going to get to the obligatory zombie-fiction rape scene really early in this one”, I thought to myself. Sure enough, one of them wakes her up and shoves his cock in her face. She obliges by punching it, which made me happy, but the ensuing knife-fight results in her losing a finger and he losing his life. She goes on the run as his brother attempts to hunt her down, presumably to exact revenge. Ta-dah: plot.

The next place she runs to is a little oasis of normal life surrounded by electric fences. Within the barricades, everyone lives life as if nothing untoward has ever occurred in the world. They wear nice clothing, they have a butler, they play the piano, they have proper meals and sit at the table. Oh but father will not be joining us – he’s been sick. I wrote a note saying “There is no way he is not a zombie who they sealed up in the basement out of denial.” Spoiler alert: You’ll never guess what happens next! Can’t we do anything new in this genre?

We can, actually. Those were the only two major blights on the unravelling story of the book. We follow Temple as she travels across the country, and along the way we meet novel dangers and reveal snippets of past events that really enrich the characters and world. You could get out a microscope and pick some holes in the timing and factuality of things, but I felt it was not distracting and thoroughly enjoyed all of it. I was a little worried that the religious undertones might ramp into high gear and get preachy (it says angels right in the title and there are plenty of allusions to whether mankind brought the zombie plague down via sin). They stayed sufficiently out of my way, however.  The actual zombie plague is never really explained, which was both annoying and refreshing.  It’s annoying because I like those sorts of worldbuilding aspects… but it was also refreshing because the zombies are in no way the actual threat or focus of this book, so it was good not to waste a lot of time on them.  They’re proper slow, uncoordinated, largely harmless, indefatigable zombies that must be dealt with but are only an issue if you’re careless.  It’s a nice venture back to the roots of zombie-ism.

That was a really excellent little book, and I’m sure whatever drek I will pull out of my recommended pile next will probably be a little bit worse for being compared to it.

[edit] Hrm it’s a series. I don’t know if I dare look for a sequel… it might suck and ruin everything.