Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

I Am Setsuna for Switch, PS4, PS Vita and PC

I’m really into the idea of Tokyo RPG Factory, a smaller studio within Square Enix who will make shorter, more compact classic JRPG experiences. However, their first result leaves a little bit to be desired.

I Am Setsuna’s protagonist is Endir, a mysterious masked protagonist who is sent to kill Setsuna, a young woman who has been chosen as a human sacrifice to keep the hordes of monsters which threaten their world at bay. Instead of killing her outright, Endir joins her on her pilgrimage to the Last Lands, where she must die, although this being a JRPG there have to be a lot of distractions along the way, whilst meeting a colourful band of characters. The best thing about I Am Setsuna is the premise itself, and the mournful, melancholy tone. The idea of your quest being to escort someone to their death is brilliantly dark, but the game fails to explore it with enough nuance.

I Am Setsuna’s combat is mostly inspired by Chrono Trigger, and is mostly fine. There’s a gauge that increases and when full you can perform an action, such as attack, use a special move or an item. Certain special moves can be used in conjunction with each other to form combos, some of which are deliciously overpowered, although this led into an issue I’ll discuss later on. You can also wait on your turn to boost up a second gauge, which allows when full allows you to boost the power of your attack or technique. It’s a simple matter of deciding whether to launch fewer more powerful attacks or more frequent weaker strikes, but particularly during boss battles the decision stayed interesting. Still, I didn’t find the combat particularly engaging, particularly coming straight from the much more fun Persona 5.

Outside of battles you’ll follow your standard structure of wandering between dungeons, towns and the overworld and there’s little of note mechanically outside of the combat. There is an interesting method for unlocking new techniques, involving selling particular monster parts to be able to access them. Killing monsters in different ways give different paths; if you chip away the tiny bit of health with surgical precision, you’ll get something different to if you overwhelm them with a massive strike. It’s an interesting idea but in practice isn’t particularly fun and I found myself wishing that this game had a simpler approach to upgrades and its economy.

Confession time: I didn’t finish I Am Setsuna. I got 4/5 of the way through which is, in my opinion, enough to form a judgement, but I didn’t finish. I ran into a boss for which I was staggeringly underleveled, having essentially managed to sweep away all fights beforehand. Upon looking up the recommended level I was aghast to see that I was a full 10 levels below where I needed to be I was aghast. I was not going to use my precious time to sit and bloody grind. Grinding may have been a part of old school JRPGs, but they’re a failure of design and have no place in modern gaming. I couldn’t help but compare it to the smooth and satisfying increase in difficulty in Persona 5, the fact that I never felt the need to grind once and comfortably completed the game, and get quite irritated. I suppose I could have whacked on a podcast and mindlessly killed monster penguins for a couple of hours to get my level up but, well, why the bloody hell should I?

It’s a shame because I liked the world they created. It’s all quite same-y, with a snowy and beautifully bleak aesthetic throughout, but it’s very effective. Comfortably the best thing about I Am Setsuna is the gorgeous soundtrack, with every single one being a simple piano piece. Where JRPGs are known for grand scope and orchestra, I Am Setsuna’s restraint here is genuinely revelatory. The simplicity and beauty of the single piano, arguably the most versatile instrument around, provides one of the most interesting soundtracks I’ve heard.
Unfortunately, the rest of the game can’t match that piano. It was a decent enough JRPG experience I would have been happy to play to the end. There are games out there I like so much I’d grind for if absolutely necessary, but I Am Setsuna is not that game.

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Severed for Switch, 3DS, Wii U, PS Vita and iOS

I really enjoyed the Mexican themed Metroidvania Guacamelee, the last game from DrinkBox Studios. Severed retains a similar art style, and a small element of Metroidvania, but other than that it’s a different beast entirely, both in gameplay and tone.

Severed takes place in some kind of underworld, with a young woman with a severed arm arriving to find the bodies of her dead family, to attempt to lay her to rest. Along the way she encounters several figures, some friendly, some antagonistic. As you can probably tell, Severed is a fair bit darker than the generally comic and upbeat Guacamelee. I felt like Severed was a little bit too ambiguous for its own good; I didn’t really know what was happening, which made it a fair bit harder to actually care. There are some striking images, such as the corpses of our protagonist’s family and the hollow, dead eyed stare in her eyes, but these images don’t really come together to form a cohesive whole.

Severed was designed for touch screens. The combat involves hitting enemies with your sword, using your finger to swipe across the screen. Longer swipes do more damage. Some enemies will block, meaning that you have to attack around them and some have more interesting defences. You also have to parry incoming attacks by swiping against it. This basic mechanic is a lot of fun. You will end up facing multiple enemies at once, with the need to swap between them and parry when they’re about to attack. This can get hugely frantic, but seriously fun and rewarding. Things are complicated further when enemies get particular buffs, such as boost to attack or speed. The simple act of swiping across the screen ends up being less important than managing a large number of foes, keeping in mind factors like the time it takes to parry their attacks and how many shots you can get in before you have to defend from somewhere else, There’s a surprising amount of depth, with an upgrade tree powered by body parts you sever from your foes. You get interesting attacks of your own and we end up with a combat system which is deceptively complicated and engaging.

Between fights you’ll be wandering the world in first person, through a series of distinct rooms. The different environments represent Zelda dungeons more than anything else, dense and layered. You’ll be collecting keys, backtracking, finding unlockable boosts to health and mana (for special attacks), as well as solving some simple puzzles. Severed ends up having more than a little in common with the much maligned Skyward Sword, in things like combat and dungeon design. You do this exploration one handed, as you need your other for the combat. As a lefty I’m pleased to report that moving with your right hand and swiping with your left feels fine.

Severed has a dark and unpleasant tone, with some genuinely distressing imagery within the cartoonish art style. The horrors that we face throughout the game are also darkly beautiful. The soundtrack is moody and atmospheric. Just as with Guacamelee, the extra layers of polish help to elevate an experience which may otherwise be more rote.

I’ve never quite played anything like Severed. It doesn’t necessarily do anything new, but it takes a bunch of disparate elements I’ve never really seen combined before in interesting new directions. I didn’t like it as much as Guacamelee, but it has cemented DrinkBox Studios as one to watch.

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The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Every so often I’m dipping back into Atwood’s back catalogue and I never fail to be impressed. The Penelopiad is a clever little novella, condensing a lot of what I love about her writing into a little over 100 pages.

The Penelopiad retells The Illiad and the Odyssey, from the point of view of Odysseus’ long suffering wife Penelope, narrated to us sardonically from the Underworld. Daughter to a king and cousin to the ship launching beauty Helen of Troy, Penelope was never able to truly compete, something Helen never let her forget. When she does marry the wily and smooth talking Odysseus, she is taken off to his island of Ithaca. As we will know, it isn’t long before Odysseus is sent to Troy and then gets a bit lost on his way home, leaving Penelope to fend off the homestead from hundreds of lascivious suitors keen for her hand.

I loved Greek Myth when I was a kid and I think at least a basic understanding of the Illiad and The Odyssey would help here. The core question of this book lies in the killing of Penelope’s 12 maids; in The Odyssey it is claimed that they were unfaithful and untrustworthy. Alternating with chapters narrated by Penelope, the maids appear as a chorus. These take many forms, such as poetry, a mock trial, show tune etc. The significance of a Greek chorus is interesting; they are associated with tragedy, which The Odyssey most certainly is not. The implication that the unjust slaughter of the maids transforms The Odyssey from a story of swashbuckling adventure to something much more sinister is interesting. The classic idea of female characters being either angels or devils is explored here; Penelope is very much a saint in The Odyssey, although this does not really reflect the real and complex woman who narrates this story. She can see her myth being written even as she lives, and watches with a sense of detached irritation from the Underworld as it develops after her death. If Penelope is the saint, the story demands female devils and, fair or not, the maids fit the bill. The Penelopiad seems to be about the rendering of complex women into archetypes, a human desire for a pleasing myth over a messy reality.

I absolutely loved Penelope’s narration. There’s a world weariness to her, a sense that she may now be impossible to surprise; she has been dead for thousands of years and some references to how she views the modern day are really funny. The Penelopiad is frequently very funny; funny Atwood is one of my favourite Atwoods. A lot of humour also comes from Helen, who is here rendered in glorious full on passive aggressive Mean Girls-style bitchiness. Odysseus himself is interesting; it is clear that Penelope did love him, as he shows her kindness and a superficial respect few others do, but he’s hugely manipulative and his motivations are quite clearly not be trusted.

I really liked this little novella. Atwood clearly understands the appeal of myth, but that doesn’t stop her from having a lot of fun puncturing it.

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Persona 5 for PS4 and PS3

I’ll play, at most, one major JRPG a year, so it had better be good. I haven’t played any previous Persona games, although I have dabbled in other games in the Shin Megami Tensei series, such as the Devil Survivor strategy spin offs and the Wii U Fire Emblem crossover Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE. Many of the things that irritate me in JRPGs are neutralised in Persona 5, although issues with padding and quality of dialogue are annoyingly present.

Persona 5’s young protagonist is walking home when he sees an older man trying to force himself upon a younger woman. When he steps in and protects her, it transpires that the man is a senior politician, which he uses to have our protagonist charged with assault. Excluded from school and placed on probation, our hero is sent to study in Tokyo, staying with a family friend. It isn’t long until he is drawn into a strange world, or Palace, which mirrors the soul of the sadistic gym teacher Kamoshida. The protagonist and some new friends from school discover that they have the ability to change people’s hearts by stealing a treasure at the heart of their Palace, forcing corrupt and evil adults to change their ways. The hero, given the name Joker, forms the Phantom Thieves, a group which will plunder the Palaces of the evil and change their hearts, hopefully to change Japan for the better.

The core conceit of Persona 5 is great, and I loved the opportunity it gives the game to explore some pretty weighty and grounded topics which the genre may usually avoid. Things get weirder and grandiose as they go on, I felt to the game’s detriment. The Palaces reflect locations in the real world and how their creator views them. Kamoshida, the abusive PE teacher, views the school as a castle and himself as a decadent King, wearing a crown and an open bath robe. This Palace feels like a genuine delve into someone’s twisted psyche, even in the enemies, with a particular grotesque miniboss representing his libido. It’s really clever and makes the events feel personal, but unfortunately this element of the story peters out. It’s a decent enough JRPG tale and the writing is better than average, but the latter third of the game in particular feels very flabby, with interminable scenes of the characters just standing around and talking about things we already know. That said, the core party are a likeable bunch. Your first few companions are the loyal and hot headed Ryuji, the kind but stubborn Ann and the sassy talking cat Morgana. Persona 5 is frequently fascinating, but it moves too far from its own premise; a group of teenagers exposing the hypocrisy and manipulation of corrupt adults. It’s story peaks extremely early, which is a shame, because that peak really is very good.

Persona 5 is split into two parts; dungeon crawling and day to day life. The dungeons are the Palaces, although there is also Mementos, a descent through dozens of procedurally generated floors, with progress gated off between the completion of Palaces. The dungeon design is generally pretty good, with some simple but fun puzzles and some clever layout design. Joker is a bit more mobile than your average JRPG protagonist, with the ability to jump between platforms and up buildings. It’s all contextual and doesn’t require any thought, but it’s an extra layer of style in a game brimming with it. There are no random battles, with you instead assaulting shadows in the dungeons which then resolve into turn based battles. There’s a stealth element, which I expected to hate but was in fact simple enough that it wasn’t an issue. When in cover an enemy cannot see you at all, whether it’s facing you or not. You can launch an ambush to be able to have your whole party hit first, but they can also ambush you, leaving you surrounded and with certain moves unavailable. The dungeon design is nothing particularly special, but it doesn’t really have to be, mostly being an excuse to ferry you between the combat encounters.

The combat itself is pretty great. All party members apart from Joker are tied into using one Persona, usually tied to a particular attack type. For example, Ryuji’s Captain Kidd Persona is proficient in electric attacks. Joker is the exception and can switch between a range of Personas, all with different stats and attacks. New personas can either be taken in battle, or made by fusing other, weaker Personas together. I’ve always loved the demon fusing systems from other Shin Megami Tensei games and I enjoyed it here too. As with other games in the Shin Megami Tensei-verse, the battles are based primarily around elemental weaknesses, although some are weak to physical or gun attacks. If a foe is hit with their weakness they are stunned, the user gets another turn, where they can either attack again or pass over the attack to another party member, which in turn boosts their attack power. If every enemy is stunned, your party move into a hold up, where they can either all team up to devastate the enemy team, often killing them outright, demand an item, or negotiate them to join the party and become a new summonable persona for Joker. Standard buffs and debuffs, as well as status effects are also in play, making a combat system which feels fast and fluid, with quick battles that rarely drag. The boss fights can get really tricky and require clever use of buffs and debuffs. The vast majority of moves you can use are useful in some way and the game does a good job of encouraging you to use a range of attacks, rather than just powering through on a few damage heavy moves, as I often find myself doing in other JRPGs.

Outside of dungeon and combat, the other half of the game is found back in the real world and is probably the part I enjoyed the most. Alongside your Phantom Thievery in the cognitive Metaverse, you are also just a normal high school student, with exams, part time jobs and a social life. During each day when not heading into a Palace or Mementos, you have two time slots, after school and the evening, to take on a number of activities. The first, and most important, is building relationships with characters, referred to as Confidants. All of your party members are Confidants, but a number of other supporting characters in the world are too. You boost Confidant rankings by spending time with the characters; for your party members this will give battle advantages when you use them, but it’s the non-party members that can be the most valuable. For example, the ability to swap out party members during a battle is unlocked as you develop a friendship with the shogi player Hifumi. Some allow you to use your precious, and limited, time more effectively, such as a maid who will take on some tasks for you that usually take up a valuable slot for something else. You absolutely will not have time to max out every Confidant in one playthrough, giving these interactions a sense of very real weight. Some of the abilities you unlock are hugely useful and it feels really damn satisfying when you finally get them.

This isn’t the only thing you’ll need to do during your time slots; you also have ‘social stats’, which can gate off progress for boosting your Confidant ranks. These are knowledge, charm, guts, proficiency and kindness, all of which can be boosted in a variety of ways. For example, you can boost knowledge by studying for exams, which then boosts your charm if you pass them. On most days there’s a wonderful sense of possibility; do you head into a Palace/Mementos, do you hang out with your friends, or do you go and better yourself somehow. It captures a very real sense I have as an adult of never quite having enough time to do everything I want to do. There’s a peculiar anxiety permeating the game and it turns out that this sense of urgency may be the kick up the arse that JRPG pacing needs. That said, too many days are consumed by cutscenes and far too often you won’t be allowed to go out at night for reasons that feel arbitrary. Feeling like you never quite have enough time is interesting, feeling like a little kid being sent to bed isn’t.

Persona 5 is dripping with style, with a sense of flamboyant theatrics I loved. The art style is expressive, although animations in conversations are as awkwardly stiff as we expect for the genre. Even the menus and UI look incredible, with easily the best designed turn based battle menu I’ve ever seen. There is the odd anime cutscene, although they’re really not that great and I preferred some lovely ones animated in the actual game’s art style. The voice acting is better than average for a JRPG. I’ve accepted that JRPG voice acting will rarely be truly good, so generally I’m happy with just the right amount of hammy. There are a few awful voices for some minor characters, and one party member, but generally the quality is decent. I loved the music, which is entirely silly. I’ve realised that I prefer a JRPG battle theme to be as goofy as possible, and preferably to have vocals. I’ll have the sweeping orchestras in my western RPGs, my ideal JRPG soundtrack is the crazy one for Xenoblade Chronicles X. Whilst it doesn’t quite reach that level of silliness, it’s still pretty goofy and I loved it.

Persona 5 is a game I liked a lot, but general JRPG irritations held me back from loving it. It’s not quite the bold reinvention of the genre some people seem to have made it out to be; it is just a JRPG, but definitely the most solidly constructed and interesting I’ve played in years. A good 15 hours snipped would have improved the experience, as it’s the sense of flabbiness and bloat that most holds this game back from true greatness. Still, if I’m going to sink 70 hours into a JRPG I’m glad it was this one.

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The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The concept of the ‘Great American Novel’ is a weird one, a novel which sums up the strange heart of America and its culture. Fictions about slavery are, for my money, some of the best contenders for this idea. As much as many white Americans may like to pretend this isn’t the case, the soul of America simply cannot be discussed without the sin that the nation was built upon. I genuinely despise people who will not admit this, just as I do those who deny that the horrors of colonialism and empire are at the heart of any discussion of the soul of my country. Slavery may be long gone, but it’s consequences are still ringing through to the modern day and it’s difficult to imagine an America where this is not the case.

The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora, a young third generation slave. When fellow slave Caesar asks her to attempt an escape with him to the underground railroad, she eventually agrees after initial reluctance, pursued by the ruthlessly efficient slave catcher Ridgeway. Here the underground railroad is a literal subterranean train and takes its passengers to relative safety, although it soon becomes clear that any true safety for a black slave in America will only be tenuous at best.

Given the subject matter, it’s unsurprising that The Underground Railroad is bleak. Despite having experienced many slave narratives in literature, film and television, the capriciousness and cruelty of the slave owners never ceases to shock. There’s no need to exaggerate, since the most imaginative horror writer would struggle to come up with something worse than the punishments meted out to captured escaped slaves. Whitehead takes his time building up an idea of slave life before the escape; the cruelty comes paired with catharsis, as the brief moments of freedom and joy Cora is allowed to enjoy cut through the horror and darkness. A core theme of this book is that a former slave may have been able to escape physical, but the mental scars and patterns of learned behaviour are all but impossible to shift. The Underground Railroad may be the personal story of Cora, but it’s also the story of America itself. Read this book and try and tell me Robert E Lee deserves a statue, although I suspect most who hold that view don’t read.

While The Underground Railroad is certainly a fascinating exploration of America on a macro level, the core thriller narrative of Cora’s escape is very entertaining. Many may only read this book on that level, which is fine! Ridgeway is a terrifying villain; he doesn’t seem to hold the same hideous views about the superiority of the white race and the need to keep the black in bondage for their own good that some others do. He isn’t much interested in grandiose justifications for slavery; for him, they are simply property to be returned. Cora spends much of the book glancing over her shoulder and is never able to become truly comfortable, even when she finds herself in relatively safe positions. Interspersed between the chapters following Cora are shorter chapters following other characters; some are from fellow slaves and some are from the perspective of white characters, revealing the complex and insidious forms that racism can take. One seemingly benign member of the underground railroad is revealed to be motivated from a colonial desire to be worshipped and praised by the African ‘savages’ she helps.

The Underground Railroad is a fascinating book, well deserving of the praise it has received. I’m looking forward to going back and taking in some more of Colson Whitehead’s back catalogue; I think it’s going to be good.

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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice for PS4 and PC

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is one of my favourite games of this year, an experience which I found profoundly distressing, anxiety inducing and, ultimately, hugely moving. I’m very fond of Ninja Theory; I loved the underrated Enslaved: Odyssey to the West and the criminally unfairly treated DmC: Devil May Cry. Hellblade is something else entirely though, telling a story in a way that could not be done in any other medium and exploring themes almost any major game studio would either never touch, or do so in the shallowest and most exploitative ways.

Senua is a young Pict woman whose partner dies, prompting her to journey to an underworld based on Norse and Celtic mythology to rescue the soul of her lover. However, Senua suffers from what modern doctors would call psychosis, constantly hounded by voices whispering in her head.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the best depiction of mental illness I’ve ever seen in a game, or possibly any medium. Psychosis is a complex condition and Ninja Theory resisted painting it simply. Mental illness in games is often exploited as an excuse to have a character behave in an outrageous way; GTAV’s Trevor Phillips is the first example which comes to mind, but gaming is littered with, usually male, characters like this. Hellblade does not glorify mental illness, far from it. This game is very distressing; my wife had to actually leave the room and her tolerance for horror is far above mine. It is emotionally intense in a way few games are. A lot of the reason for this is how incredibly good the animation for Senua’s face is; during cutscenes the camera will usually pan around and focus on her expressions, with the camera usually from the perspective of whoever is speaking to her, giving the impression that Senua is talking directly to us. The haunted look in her eyes is utterly believable, and when her face crumples in extreme anguish it’s almost unbearable to watch. If you cannot be captured by Senua I don’t think you have a heart; I wanted nothing else but for her to find some kind of peace. The writing, combined with stunning visuals and sound design conspire to make Hellblade one of the most engaging game narratives I’ve ever come across.

The core gameplay matches the story very well. Although much of the game involves walking through stunning environments, Hellblade is no walking simulator. The combat is excellent, heavy and intense. The battle system is fairly simple, based around light and heavy sword strikes along with block breaking kicks, as well as parries, dodges and dashes. There’s a sense of real danger in the combat and it captures the sense of weight and tension which pervades the story brilliantly; no ludo-narrative dissonance here! Fighting multiple enemies is dangerous, with the camera saying fairly tightly to Senua meaning that strikes from behind, out of sight, are common. This would normally be infuriating in almost any other game, but before being hit one of Senua’s voices will warn her and you can attempt a last minute dodge. It’s shouldn’t surprise me that the developers of the excellent (shut up it was) DmC would nail melee combat, but it’s rare to see something so clearly built to deliver narrative to also be so satisfying from a purely mechanical perspective.

The other part of the gameplay lies with the puzzles, which many seem to have disliked but I wasn’t particularly bothered by. You will regularly come across doors locked by strange runes; you must then wander the environment trying to find something in the shape of the rune, which you can then ‘focus’ on, unlocking the door. I know this sounds pretty awful, but in reality the environmental design is strong enough that I didn’t spend long wandering around aimlessly. Sometimes you need to manipulate the environment to create the rune shape, such as a torch casting a shadow. There are other sections with different mechanics at play, such as a stealth section and one involving switching between two different time periods/ The puzzling is simple, but satisfying. They’re not the most memorable aspect of the game, but they didn’t bother me and were actually sometimes quite fun.

Ninja Theory have referred to this game as a AAA indie; a shorter, more experimental game made with the same production values and aesthetics of a AAA game. I love this idea and would like to see it explored further. Games with simpler visuals and sound can, of course, still be emotionally resonant. I remember being reduced to a blubbery mess by Thomas Was Alone where the main characters are quadrilaterals. However, it’s difficult to deny that Hellblade would not be as successful at achieving what it sets out to do if it’s visuals were not so stunning. The environments are stunning, sometimes beautiful, particularly early on, but descending into truly nightmarish as the experience carries on. As mentioned above, it is the facial animation for Senua which truly elevates the experience and allows her to stand as one of my favourite game protagonists of all time. I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to audio, but even I could tell how good the sound design was, with the constant whispering of the voices and the gently haunting soundtrack perfectly capturing Senua’s descent into her own personal hell. I think Hellblade is a game which would have been make or break depending on the level of polish, with no distractions of irritations to take away from the impressive story woven here.

As you can probably tell, I loved Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. It provided one of the most genuinely profound gaming experiences of my life, with a kick-ass combat system to boot. I cannot recommend it more highly.

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Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation was a wonderfully sinister bit of sci-fi horror and managed to get under my skin with almost surgical precision. It seemed quite stand alone and the sequel Authority ends up answering a few questions I’m not sure needed answers. Authority is a good book in its own right, but when compared to the haunting majesty of Annihilation it can’t help but feel a little lacking.

Authority shifts from the eerie first person narrative of the Biologist, to a third person narrative following John, the son of a senior intelligence operative, who chooses to go by the name Control. Control is sent to become the director of Southern Reach, the organisation which studies the mysterious and dangerous Area X, as well as manages the expeditions, such as the one we saw in Annihilation. Southern Reach is in a state of relative disrepair, underfunded and hounded by rumours and hearsay. Control must find out the secrets of Southern Reach, as well as perhaps Area X itself.

This is a very different book to its predecessor in almost every way. Where Annihilation horrified in a Lovecraftian sense, with a sense of the terrible and unknowable alien, Authority borrows more from Kafka, in bureaucracy and an odd feeling of people pursuing mundanity fervently despite the strangeness of their surroundings. The psychological impact of working near Area X is the main focus as we see several characters fundamentally damaged in a variety of ways. Authority is a fair bit longer than Annihilation and does have a little flab towards the middle. That said, Southern Reach is an interesting setting and VanderMeer conjures it well.

I have to say I missed the intimacy of the Biologist’s narration. We’re held at a remove from Control and he’s difficult to warm to or even become particularly interested by. Control is our audience cipher, so is perhaps not a particularly complex character in his own right. The characters surrounding him are brilliantly and vividly drawn, such as the hostile interim director who Control replaces, or a nervy scientist who has been far more affected by the omnipresent horror of Area X than he lets on. VanderMeer seems to have a knack for strong development of a small group of characters; the cast is slightly larger than Annihilation’s four, but not by much and they are given the same level of attention and detail.

Authority is a weird book and an odd direction to take for the series. I mostly liked it, but it felt slightly overlong. It does establish the final book to go to an interesting place however, and I look forward to reading the final of the trilogy, Acceptance.

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Graceful Explosion Machine for Switch, PS4 and PC

Graceful Explosion Machine is a simple, stylish little shooter which proves doing a stuffed genre just a little bit differently can be enough to make it feel special.

Graceful Explosion Machine is a side scrolling shooter, where you move your little space ship within a small arena, most of which loop left to right Pac-Man style. Your task is simply to blast every single one of your enemies, using a range of weapons. These are your straight forward blaster, but also a spinning melee attack, homing missiles and a powerful laser. Your blaster has infinite ammo but can overheat if spammed and the other weapons are all tied to a separate bar, which can be filled by picking up little gems dropped by enemies. There are a range of enemy types, some of which simply charge at you, but some will fire upon you or require heavier weaponry to take out efficiently. You can move your ship freely, as well as flip it to fire in either direction.

Graceful is a great way to describe this game. It starts getting extremely frantic, particularly in the last few of the 40 or so levels. Having a wave of ships begin to overwhelm you before decimating them with your melee strike never stopped being satisfying. All the weapon types were useful and I found myself slipping into the trance like state usually reserved for rhythm games. There’s a sense of style and, yes, grace permeating the game. It gets very difficult towards the end, with vast numbers of foes spawning almost on top of you, where resource management and making every hit count become vital. Simply put, Graceful Explosion Machine is a hell of a lot of fun.

It has a clean, colourful look, primarily orange and yellow hued. There’s a charming simplicity to the visuals, where your ship, foes and even bullets have a soft roundness to them, like it’s Fisher-Price First Shooter. The aesthetic really works, never distracting you from the snappy reflexes needed to succeed. The soundtrack is synth-y and atmospheric and appropriately ratchets up the tension when needed.

Graceful Explosion Machine is good old fashioned fun and there’s not much more to say than that. There are far worse ways to pad out your Switch library.

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Cave Story+ for Switch, 3DS and PC

Despite being released a Nintendo indie staple, I’m late to Cave Story. Developed by one guy in his spare time and released on PC 13 years ago, Cave Story has been remade and remastered in many different ways, most notably a complete 3D remake on 3DS. Cave Story + is a more straightforward port than that and is a neat addition to the rapidly growing indie library for the Switch.

Cave Story follows a cute little robot called Quote, who awakens on a mysterious island, floating in the sky, populated by talking rabbit creatures known as Mimiga. The Mimigas are being persecuted by a mysterious figure known as the Doctor, who has been kidnapping Mimigas and forcing them to eat a strange red flower which causes them to become violent and feral. Quote sets forth to defeat the Doctor and save the Mimiga, discovering on the way that things on the island are much more complex than they first seemed. The story and world of Cave Story are much more complex, compelling and well thought out than you might expect from its simplistic art style. It is frequently funny, but at times genuinely quite horrific and sad. Minimalist or environmental storytelling is more common in modern indie platformers and it’s quite nice to see something so densely plotted and heavy with world building detail.

Cave Story is a platformer, with Metroidvania elements. You’ll mostly be working your way through caves, blasting enemies with a variety of weapons, all of which can be temporarily upgraded with shards, but will downgrade again if you are hit. One thing I loved about this game is how utterly puny and pathetic you feel at first compared with how powerful and dangerous you become with all your weapons fully upgraded. The jumping itself was obnoxiously floaty for my tastes, but the addition of a jet pack mid-way through greatly mitigated this irritation. You’ll fight through a series of areas, with most centring on the Mimiga Village, and most culminating in a cool boss fight. Some issues with balance and difficulty belie the amateur origins of Cave Story, but these issues rarely raised above the level of annoyance. It’s a hell of an achievement. Exploration is rewarded with upgrades to health and missiles, Metroid style, but this is largely a linear experience. Floaty jumping aside, Cave Story plays well, with some smart level and boss design.

With a charming chip-tune sound track and satisfying blasting noises for the weapons, there’s a lot of polish to Cave Story. It’s got a simplistic art style, but it’s very effective, particularly for the character models and bosses. I loved the character designs, which vary from charming to creepy to just plain bizarre. With support from Nicalis, you can see that a lot of love went into this game.

I suspect that playing Cave Story for the first time in 2017 will not have the same impact it would have had back in 2004. Indie Metroidvania platformers aren’t exactly a rarity these days and, when placed aside more modern examples, Cave Story doesn’t come across as particularly special, excepting its strong world and story. It’s an interesting cultural artefact though, and I can see how it’s influence rippled through the indie scene. I’m glad I played it.

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Dark Souls III: The Ringed City DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

After being mildly underwhelmed by Ashes of Ariandel, The Ringed City DLC for Dark Souls III shows the series at its absolute best, offering what is probably my favourite slice of content from the whole game.

The Ringed City is the home of the Pygmies, ancestors to humanity. Located at the end of all things, The Ashen One is transported to the blasted Dreg Heap and instructed to make their way to the mythical city and discover the secrets within. If Dark Souls III was apocalyptic, The Ringed City goes beyond even that. The Pygmies are a much discussed element of Dark Souls lore and we find a bit more about them and the way they lived. This DLC also provides some closure for characters from the main series, as well as tying back to the Ashes of Ariandel DLC. The Ringed City evokes perfectly the feeling of arcane ruin the series is known for and, whilst it doesn’t clear anything up (nor should it), it does feel like a good way for the series to end.

The Ringed City is structured as a descent, from the valleys surrounding the Ringed City which give it its name, down to the city itself and then further into its depths. The stunningly clever verticality of the level design has long been my favourite thing about the Soulsborne game and was something that Ashes of Ariandel lacked somewhat. The feeling of opening a shortcut back to a bonfire after a long and terrifying run and finding yourself back where you were several hours ago will never get old. Where Ashes of Ariandel lacked in boss fights, The Ringed City has four, and they’re generally really good. I won’t spoil the identity of the final boss of the DLC, and possibly the series, but it was one of my favourite boss fights both in the series and possibly of all time. The foe is fast, terrifying and humanoid; my favourite kind of Soulsborne boss.

The sound design and voice acting is as unsettling as ever, but it’s the way The Ringed City looks that took my breath away. This is only a DLC so we only get to see a small portion of it, but what we do is genuinely stunning. I’d love to have explored more of this place. I mentioned in my Ashes of Ariandel review that I think the series fares best in city environments and I think this DLC proves that.

The Ringed City is a perfect way to, perhaps, wrap up this series. It feels like the right time too, with Bloodborne paving a way to show how you can craft a different experience form the same template. Whether it’s Bloodborne 2 or something new entirely, I can’t wait to see where FromSoft go next.

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