Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

VVVVVV for Nintendo 3DS, PC, Mac, Linux and Android OS

The bizarrely named VVVVVV is another of those retro styled platformers that have become the bread and butter of indie game development in recent years. Since these stylish side-scrollers have become something of a cliché, it takes something fairly special to separate your small game from the pack. VVVVVV is just that, through a combination of a unique and simple game mechanic, some wonderful Commodore 64 style graphics and possibly the catchiest chiptune score I’ve ever heard.

The plot of VVVVVV is hardly Planetscape: Torment, but it’s pleasant and gets the job done. It’s certainly got slightly more meat to it than previously reviewed indie platformers such as Mutant Mudds, and oozes charm. When the spaceship of Captain Viridian is caught in some ‘dimensional interference’, they are thrown into a parallel dimension. Viridian is separated from his crew, and so much explore his new surroundings (known as Dimension VVVVVV) to find and bring them all together back to the ship. The little snippets of dialogue between Viridian and his crew after each is found is whimsical and amusing, and lends each crew member a distinct personality in the incredibly brief time we encounter them. My praise may make it sound as if the story is a complex epic, but in reality it’s a very sparse and simply narrative. What sets VVVVVV apart from similar games is that it makes an effort to give your actions some context, without allowing the plot to dominate the gameplay. VVVVVV should be a textbook example in how to handle stories in side-scrolling platformers; Nintendo could learn a lot from this in their increasingly blandly plotted Mario games.

VVVVVV is built around one, simple mechanic; the flipping of gravity. Uncommonly for a platformers, Viridian cannot jump, and can instead only be sent launching towards the ceiling or floor. That’s pretty much it, and it’s amazing how much the developers managed to wrangle out of this simple mechanic. There are lots of spikes to avoid, trampolines which bounce you around and platformers which vanish below your feet. One of the more interesting features of the game is that it takes place in a fully explorable environment, with no linear path from point A to B. From the hub setting there are different colourered environments to find which contain each crew member. These environments tend to shake things up slightly, with slightly different slants on the basic mechanic of gravity flipping. Of course, there is really one thing that VVVVVV is known for more than anything else; it’s difficulty. This game is incredibly, devilishly and delightfully hard. It’s also very fair. Displayed prominently on the title screen is your number of deaths; mine, after the four hour or so of the main game, easily exceeded 1000. The checkpoints are very regular, so there’s almost no penalty for death, and nonexistent load times mean that each time you die you can immediately get right back into the action in a manner similar to Super Meat Boy. Although I would regularly spend ages on one screen, dying again and again, I was never frustrated. There is no chaotic element to grasp victory from me at the last minute, it is simply a matter of refining my own skill and training my muscle memory. This is exactly how to handle difficulty in games, and it just feels oh so satisfying to reach that next checkpoint before launching into the next deadly challenge.

Often, when a game is labelled as ‘retro’, what they really mean is that it’s simply sprite based, but with designs clearly surpass anything that would have been possible back in the days of the NES. This is not the case with VVVVVV; the game has a signature Commodore 64 style that works really well; excessive visual bells and whistles would only serve to distract in a game which can, at times, require absolute concentration. Where the game truly excels in its presentation is in its score, which contains some of the best and most catchy tunes I’ve ever encountered in a video game. I sometimes feel that many chiptune composers are rather lazy, simply building upon nostalgia rather than making the effort to compose any of the truly classic tunes produced by people such as Koji Kondo of Nobou Uematsu. Magnus Pålsson’s score for VVVVVV however is absolutely sublime, catchy, uplifting and never annoying. The pain of dying over and over again is alleviated by the fact that it lets you listen to the incredibly catchy music for a moment longer. As a side note, I played this on 3DS and the 3D is an absolute waste of time, it’s completely unnecessary.

VVVVVV is a brief, yet incredibly fun experience. A lot of hard work and love has been put into this game, and Terry Cavanagh, the game’s creator, should be proud of what he achieved here. If you have a 3DS, the only rival in quality to this on the eShop is PullBlox, and it’s an absolute must.  Although it has more rivals on other platforms, I’m still convinced that VVVVVV is a hell of a lot of fun and worth your time and money.

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Bully: Scholarship Edition for Xbox 360

I really, really wanted to like this game. I love Rockstar and their approach to making games, how they can create so many products built around the same structure and yet still feel so distinct. It’s become pretty clear to me lately however that Rockstar games fit into two distinct phases, the ‘GTA3’ phase encompassing GTA3, San Andreas, Manhunt and Bully and the ‘GTA4’ phase encompassing GTA4, Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire. Although there is significant criticism levelled by long term fans at the sobering effect GTA4 had upon Rockstar games, after playing Bully it’s hard not to think that things have really only got better, and that this love for ‘old style’ Rockstar games is simply nostalgia.

Bully tells the tale of Jimmy Hopkins, a juvenile delinquent enrolled in the prestigious Bullworth Academy by his mother to get rid of him whilst she goes on a world cruise with her new husband. Bully, I’m sure intentionally, mimics the GTA structure of slowly rising to power in a microcosmic school setting. Acting in a similar way to gangs in GTA, Bullworth is ruled by different factions whose support Jimmy must gain, the jocks, the nerds, the greasers, the preps and the townies. Behind it all is Gary, a sociopathic genius who at first takes Jimmy under his wing before turning on him, manipulating the school to bring about Jimmy’s downfall. The story hits a lot of familiar notes, but I suspect that that was sort of the point. Jimmy is a surprisingly likeable protagonist; he sort of reminds me of those people who seemed scary in school but actually turned out at heart to be decent guys. While sympathetic figures, Niko in GTA4 and John Marston in Red Dead Redemption are doubtless hardened criminals, so it is interesting playing a character who still has the potential to turn out alright. The supporting cast are entertaining caricatures, and they all feel distinct and memorable, with some really great character designs. The voice acting is top notch; it is Rockstar after all. Bullworth is an enjoyable location to explore, with plenty of entertaining places of interest. There’s no real nuance or subtlety to the plot, and after the complexity of GTA4 and Red Dead Redemption I missed it here, but perhaps it’s unfair to judge the game on what it’s not. There’s potential here that’s untapped, and whilst I may have liked a slightly more complex narrative, what we’re left with is still a relatively enjoyable yarn.

So, to the gameplay itself. It’s…it’s really really bad. Almost without exception. Jimmy handles horribly, the player is in a constant struggle with the camera and everything feels really…loose. There’s not really a word for it. It all just feels wrong. The game is filled with mechanics which don’t quite work. The terrible, inappropriate stealth section in a game built around mechanics which don’t fit stealth pops up a lot in gaming, and in the long and storied history of this mechanic, I cannot truly think of a worse implementation of stealth than in this game. Every stealth section is agonising to go through, with the lack of a cover system and enemies which seem able to spot you through walls or out of the back of their head. The stealth sections are the worst of the bunch, but there are plenty of others which don’t quite work. There’s an underused photography mechanic, and the bike handling is really weird and to keep any kind of speed requires constant tapping of the ‘A’ button. The classes which Jimmy attends at Bullworth take the form of little mini games; most are basic Quick Time Events, and the only ones which provided me with any enjoyment where the arithmetic, geography and literacy classes in which the player simply selects the correct answer to what the teacher asks. When the most enjoyable aspect of your game is, essentially, a round of trivial pursuit, you know that something must have gone wrong. I’m pleased to report that the combat isn’t nearly as bad as many of the other mechanics, but it’s hardly engaging, relying on simple combos and grapples. The game attempts to be a jack of all trades, yet compared to other games which take this approach such as Darksiders, the disparate elements never come together into a coherent whole. The brawling is better in GTA4, the skateboarding in the Tony Hawk games, the photography in Beyond Good and Evil and the stealth in Thief. Is there anything which redeems this game then? Yes, actually quite a lot.

You see, whilst this game is a technical and mechanical mess, there really is nothing else like it. The whole game is based around a schedule, with classes taking place between certain times and missions only activating at particular times of the day. This lends Bullworth an organic feeling which feels thoroughly ahead of its time. Although other great open world environments had already been created when this game was first released in 2006, such as Morrowind or San Andreas, there were none which felt quite as vivid and real, in the way of Skyrim or Red Dead Redemption. Bullworth is an incredibly engaging setting, and it’s truly a shame that such a fun and interesting environment is so squandered with gameplay as mediocre as this. The whole vibe of the game is pretty cool, and it definitely offers something which I have never seen before. Graphically the game looks like…well, a PS2 game. Some games can simply receive a nice HD upgrade and still look great, such as Okami or Resident Evil 4, but Bully looks incredibly dated. The game is from that difficult period in gaming which lacks retro charm, yet cannot technically support realism. Games with distinct visual styles, such as The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, have aged much better, but any game which attempted a ‘realistic’ style in this period almost invariably looks terrible.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on Bully. I suspect that upon its initial release on the PS2 in 2006 it was a sensation, and it’s almost unanimously positive reviews elsewhere testify to this. However, I’m not reviewing this game in 2006. The purpose of this review is to suggest whether you  should buy this game now, in 2012, and I’m genuinely saddened to say that you shouldn’t. Don’t get me wrong, Rockstar should be applauded for having made this game, and I sincerely hope that they create a sequel after GTA5. It’s just aged so incredibly badly, that unless you’ve played it before and want a nice little HD update for 360 to feed your nostalgia, there’s no reason to play this game. 

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

You don’t need me to tell you that Life of Pi is a great book. It’s one of those books with almost no dissenting voice doubting it’s brilliance, beloved by almost all who read it. This novel is most certainly not science fiction or fantasy, although at times it could be argued that it tends towards magic realism. I’m therefore going to do something a bit different with this review; since everyone will already tell you that Life of Pi is great, I’m going to focus upon what there is in this novel to appeal to a fantasy fan.

It’s an adventure

Part of the appeal of fantasy and science fiction is that they tend to avoid the pretention which can often pervade ‘respectable literary works.’ The fundamental job of a writer of prose fiction is to tell a good story; all psychological or philosophical depths, all political or spiritual messages, use of language, metaphor and technique, must be underpinned by a good story. This is something which Martel clearly understands, and even expresses very clearly himself through the odd moment of authorial interjection which takes place during the story. What is the most timeless and exciting story telling trope? That of the adventure. Life of Pi tells the story of Pi Patel, a young Indian man whose father runs a zoo. During their journey over the Pacific Ocean to Canada, the ship containing Pi, his family and the majority of their animals sinks, leaving Pi stranded on a life boat with a dying zebra, an orang-utan, a hyena and a Bengal tiger. The majority of the novel relates Pi’s struggle to survive in this bizarre and terrifying situation. If that doesn’t sound like a cracking yarn then there must be something wrong with you. This novel captures the scale of adversity regularly present in fantasy, forced into a situation which spells almost certain death and attempting to survive solely by their own wit and ingenuity.

It isn’t concerned with realism

One of the main reasons I read is for escapism, and I believe that this is something I share with many readers. Where some readers may escape into the sadomasochistic adventures of Anastasia Steele in 50 Shades of Grey, or the quaint 19th century charms of Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice or, in my case, another universe or planet , us readers of fiction all share a desire to flee from the humdrum and real and into what is fantastic and beautiful. The real world offers us only the odd rare snatch of beauty, with fiction we can access transcendental beauty at will. However, too much ‘mainstream’ fiction is concerned with simply giving us what ‘is’, or at least an absurdly gritty representation of our own world (which I believe is the number one problem with the ‘thriller’ genre). Life of Pi has no qualms about doing away with the pervasive need for realism which seems to dominate mainstream fiction, and instead tells a fantastical, bizarre and farfetched story. At the conclusion of the frame narrative, the young protagonist challenges two bureaucrats sent to determine the cause of the ship’s sinking as to whether they would prefer a story rife with unbelievable human suffering  and nihilistic cruelty, or the uplifting story of a young man managing to achieve a harmonic and beautiful balance with nature. The difference between this and fantasy is that where fantasy creates wonderful and captivating settings, people and places, Life of Pi finds them in our own world. Martel suggests that Earth itself is a bizarre and fascinating fantasy, if only you’d look hard enough.

It’s…it’s just really good ok?

Like…seriously good.

Since I’m not writing a proper review, this is slightly shorter than usual. For more detailed reviews encompassing the philosophical depths, quality of writing, humour and charm this novel has, look elsewhere, there’s nothing more I can say that hasn’t been said before, by better writers, a thousand times. If, like me, you prefer to stick with novels with spaceships or dragons on the cover, I highly recommend that you take a little step outside your comfort zone and give Life of Pi a try. You won’t regret it. 

Forge of Darkness by Steven Erikson

Ok, in terms of spoilers, this review is spoiler free for Forge of Darkness, but I didn’t make any effort to avoid spoilers for the other novels. I don’t think that there’s anything too bad in there, but if you’re very sensitive about spoilers and haven’t read the others, I’d give this one a miss.

Ok…

We cool?

Cool.

I just want to make this very clear straight off the bat. I am absolutely, head over heels, passionately in love with the Malazan books. Even weaker instalments such as Orb Sceptre Throne fill me with glee at every little titbit of detail about a setting unrivalled within the genre, so news of a trilogy of prequels focusing on one of the most interesting elements of Malazan history naturally had me giddy with excitement. As is so often the case with Erikson, this was not the novel I was expecting, but something ultimately better.

Upon finding out that we would be receiving a trilogy set in Kurald Galain before the Tiste invasion there was really one character on everyone’s mind; Anomander Rake. In a series positively dripping with immortal badass swordsmen, Rake was the one which always seemed to prove the most popular. Perhaps it was his unforgettable introduction at the opening of Gardens of the Moon, slinging sorcery at the Malazan forces atop Moon’s Spawn  during the Siege of Pale which earnt the character his legions of fans. For whatever reason, Rake is undoubtedly one of the most popular characters in the series. Many people will be initially disappointed to learn however that Anomander, as well as his brothers Silchas Ruin and Andarist, receives relatively little ‘screen time’, with the focus of the novel laying much more with those close to these characters rather than the characters themselves. A similar approach is taken with Draconus, with our primary window into his character coming from his bastard son Arathan. In fact, the majority of the characters that I suspect people most desired POVs from have small roles; Tulas Shorn and Scabandari Bloodeye among them. Several characters from the main series do have prominent POVs, notably Sandalath Drukorlat and her son Orfantal, but the focus is very much on the wealth of new characters that Erikson has introduced to is. Although frustrating at first, I firmly believe that this was the right approach. To see inside the heads of Anomander Rake or Draconus would be to utterly drain the mystique from characters that we love. Don’t get me wrong, we still learn a lot about these characters, particularly Draconus, but not enough to take away the mystery and render these characters boring. This is no Phantom Menace. This may not be the novel people wanted, but since when has Erikson pandered to fan-service? Remember when we left the characters and world well established in the first four novels and went to some random continent filled with characters we’d never met? Remember how Midnight Tides was completely goddamn brilliant?

Erikson doesn’t exclusively focus upon Kurald Galain either, with the revelation that, rather than the distinct little realms which we believed made up the Elder Warrens, they are in fact on one shared continent. Whether this continent is on Wu or not is unclear, although I personally suspect that it is, and possibly attached to the north of Lether due to the presence of Jheck in the south, but that’s just my own hunch. A parallel story involving the Jaghut in Omtose Phellack sets up Hood’s War on Death, a narrative strand which I personally find even more interesting than the eventual downfall of Kharkanas which is at the centre of the narrative.

The novel is fundamentally centred around the grievances of ‘The Legion’, an army who had excelled in a war against invading Forkrul Assail (so you KNOW they’re tough) under Vartha Urusander. They feel that they have been shunted aside by a society that desires to forget it’s veterans and what they represent, and wish for their leader to take the hand of Mother Dark, but as us long term readers will know, her heart is with another; The Consort, Draconus. Despite being a prequel, and long term readers pretty much knowing the broad beats of what is going to happen, Erikson still manages to pack in plenty of surprises and interesting revelations. The whole novel has a delightful sense of impending doom, and at times it can be rather tragic. Enjoying the banter of Silchas Ruin and Scara Bandis, presumably the man who will one day be known as Scabandari Bloodeye, becomes bittersweet as us veterans know the violence and hatred each will visit upon the other.

This novel is structured rather differently to the other Malazan novels, which typically ended with a massive convergence as the multitude of different plot strands are bought together. This novel instead follows the more traditional ‘first novel in a trilogy’ structure, in that it is mainly focused upon setting up events to come rather than showing the events themselves. This leads to a novel which is decidedly slow paced, even by Erikson’s standard, hardly an author known for brevity. There’s a lot of different squads of soldiers wandering around Kurald Galain, and whilst this approach worked in latter Malazan books, these distinct squads were still unified Bonehunters under Adjunct Tavore, part of a coherent whole whilst retaining other entertaining idiosyncrasies. Although they may not have had the psychological depths of characters such as Fiddler or Kalam, figures such as Kindly, Pores and Hellian offered some wonderful levity from the characteristically dour tone of the series. Erikson has stated two of his greatest influences as Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Glen Cook’s Black Company novels, and a merging of the strengths of these two interesting, but flawed, series offered something greater than either achieved independently. As someone who seriously struggled with the Thomas Covenant novels, I was uncomfortably reminded of Donaldson during this novel. Every character is suffering, every character is a philosopher, and we will endure their (rather similar) views for much of the novel. I actually believe this philosophical depth is Erikson’s greatest contribution to the genre, raising profound and fascinating ideas in a way which no other author in the genre has achieved. However, in earlier novels, for every lengthy brooding inner monologue from Udinaas, we were treated to hilarious scenes with Tehol and Bugg which in my opinion rival those of greats such as Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Even Toll the Hounds, a novel which is (unfairly in my opinion) criticised for its pace and focus upon philosophy had the great mule charge between Kruppe and Iskaral Pust (my vote for funniest scene in the entire series). Such moments of levity are pretty much completely absent in this novel, and I must say that I missed them. Although this all sounds negative, I must make clear that this is a very well written novel. Erikson’s ability to evoke tragedy never feels as if it’s simply for the sake of it, as is in my opinion the case with Donaldson, achieving some fantastically complex moral ambiguities which challenge the reader against their own preconceptions and judgements.

Forge of Darkness is not Erikson’s greatest book, and will do absolutely nothing to convert his legions of detractors. The novel is slightly too Thomas Covenant and not enough Black Company, but for fans such as myself who are utterly enthralled with the setting it’s an absolute must read. To finally bear witness to events which I have imagined and built up in my mind as a reader is an absolute treat, and is a rare prequel that succeeds in not draining the sense of wonder evoked in earlier novels. I loved this book, and am eagerly anticipating the follow up, Fall of Light, as well as Esslemont’s next novel Blood & Bone coming later this year.

Quantum Conundrum for XBLA, PSN and Steam

Quantum Conundrum is the new game from Kim Swift, the creative genius behind Portal. It bears many similarities to her opus; it’s a first person, physics based puzzle game. Swift wasn’t involved in Portal 2, leaving her to create this new game with new game play mechanics. I’m sure that Swift doesn’t appreciate that almost every review for this game compares it to Portal, but that’s just what happens when you create one of the most innovative and influential games ever made. So, does this game live up to is spiritual predecessor, or should Swift have stuck with Valve?

Whilst the gameplay of Portal was utterly sublime, it is arguably just as respected for its witty and sinister story and atmosphere, bolstered by exemplary voice acting and sharp humour. Sadly, these elements do not translate into Quantum Conundrum, although not for lack of trying. In Quantum Conundrum you are a young boy sent by his mother to visit his uncle, the mad scientist Professor Quadrangle. Upon arriving, some kind of weird science-y stuff happens and the good Professor becomes trapped in a small pocket dimension with no memory of how he got there, and it is up to his young nephew to rescue him. Our young hero uses this game’s equivalent of the Portal gun, the IDS, a glove which allows the player to switch between four different ‘dimensions’ which cause objects to have different properties. The attempts at comedy tend to fall fairly flat, whilst not being actively annoying. Quadrangles narration never matches that of GLADOS, tending more towards somewhat self consciously ‘quirky’ statements, and without the air of subtle menace which made Portal so special. The story certainly isn’t bad, just easy to ignore, which is what I suspect the vast majority of players shall be doing.

Luckily however, the game play of Quantum Conundrum is easily enough to make up for its forgettable narrative. The player is given access to each dimension gradually throughout the game, creating a nicely smooth learning curve. The player character is unaffected by these dimensional changes, so the player handles the same in every dimension. The first dimension the player is given access to is the ‘light dimension’, where everything is fluffy and, well…light! Safes which would normally be too heavy to move can now be picked up and thrown to pressure switches etc. The next dimension the player is given is, unsurprisingly, the ‘heavy dimension’, which does the exact opposite. The third is a dimension in which time slows down to a crawl, allowing precision jumping between objects normally moving too fast to traverse. The fourth and final dimension flips the gravity in the room, making all objects float to the ceiling. The rapid manipulation of these dimensions can lead to some truly complex and ingenious puzzle designs, although there are certain tricks which will be used over and over again. There has been a large amount of criticism of the amount of that much maligned gameplay mechanic, first person platforming, in this game, but I’m not sure if that is entirely fair. Although it is easy to miss the odd jump, the checkpoints are so regular and the load times so quick that it can be difficult to get too frustrated. The jumping around can lead to some pretty epic moments as the player zips around the room, reacting quickly to whatever object happens to block your path. Many players will not be satisfied with this game for one simple reason however; it is a rather easy, and although solving the puzzles does release that little rush of endorphins so vital to the genre, there are few which I can say left me truly stumped. Throughout the game I was waiting for a level of complexity which simply never appeared, it just..ends. Perhaps the clearly forecasted sequel will bring on the complex puzzles not quite featured here. This is another of the problems with this game; whilst Portal, despite its short length and position as part of The Orange Box, felt like a complete game in of itself, even if it didn’t have the length or budget of its sequel, the same cannot be said for Quantum Conundrum. Despite these issues however, the game is still damn fun to play.

The visuals are sadly lacklustre throughout. The mansion which the player explores is singularly uniform and drab, and not in a cool stylistic way like the Aperture Science complex of Portal. Between each puzzle chamber the player commutes through a series of insultingly similar rooms, with the very low number of visual assets repeating over and over again. It’s a rather surprising laziness, but it doesn’t really take away from the core gameplay. Star Trek’s Jon de Lancie’s performance as Professor Quadrangle can’t really be faulted; the uninteresting narration stems from unimaginative writing rather than poor voice acting. Ike, a cute little critter who pops up every so often, is really the only dynamic creation in the entire game, with his clumsy slapstick antics raising a smile in a way that none of the narration succeeds to. I suspect that with a proper, Valve sized, budget, Swift could have done great things with this setting, but the opportunity is sadly squandered.

Quantum Conundrum is a lot of fun, and worth a play. The fun of the basic gameplay overwhelms the disappointing setting and narrative. Swift has cemented her position as one of the most interesting developers in gaming, and I thoroughly look forward to her next product, whether a sequel to Quantum Conundrum or something entirely new. 

Tales of the Abyss for Nintendo 3DS

The ‘Tales of’ series of JRPGs are absolutely huge in Japan, yet never really made a huge splash over here in the West. My first experience with the series was the wonderful Tales of Symphonia, released in 2004 on the Nintendo Gamecube and the PS2. Symphonia is easily one of my top JRPGs I’ve ever played (alongside Chrono Trigger, Skies of Arcadia and Xenoblade Chronicles), featuring an incredibly compelling story and combat which was closer to Super Smash. Bros than Final Fantasy. Following games in the series have either been released on consoles I do not own, not localised in the West or quickly become prohibitively expensive in the case of Tales of Vesperia for the Xbox 360. It was therefore with great excitement that I picked up the remake of the originally PS2 exclusive Tales of the Abyss for 3DS, hoping that it would capture what it was that I loved about Tales of Symphonia. Sadly, in almost every area Tales of the Abyss fails to match up to the quality of its predecessor, although is certainly not a terrible game if taken alone.

In the typical JRPG Final Fantasy/Dragon Quest tradition of each game taking place in a new world with all new characters, Tales of the Abyss bears absolutely no story connections to previous games in the series. The protagonist of Tales of the Abyss is Luke fon Fabre, the son of a noble house in the nation of Kimlasca-Lanvaldear, engaged to marry Princess Natalia, daughter of the King. Whilst training with his sword master Van, a mysterious young woman  named Tear appears and inadvertently teleports herself and Luke halfway across the world. Luke and Tear find themselves in Malkuth, a nation on the verge of war with Kimlasca, and decide to attempt the arduous journey back to Baticul, the Kimlascan capitol and Luke’s home. Along the way Luke and Tear are joined by a motley array of characters, from the Machiavellian schemer Jade Curtiss to the Luke’s former servant and best friend Guy. Of course, this being a JRPG, the plot thickens considerably, and actually raises some pretty interesting questions regarding predestination. The entire world of Tales of the Abyss is ruled by an ancient prophecy known as The Score, and almost all decisions are made in an attempt to bring it to fruition. The villains of the story seek to end The Score and revive true human free will by destroying the world and rebuilding it through a technology known as replication, a cloning method which can recreate people and even continents. Of course, is their path to bring about free will in itself predetermined? Is everything the player does meaningless in this grand tapestry pre-woven thousands of years before? These are big, interesting ideas, and in true JRPG fashion they are bungled horribly, instead focusing upon an endless stream of meaningless jargon and angst. The angst is no worse than any other JRPG, but the jargon is possibly the worst I’ve ever encountered. After sinking fifty hours into this game I still only had a rudimentary understanding of what the characters were talking about. The game is far too long, with a huge amount of meandering between the different towns, particularly during the middle act. There are literally hours of gameplay which simply involve getting into your flying ship, heading off to a previously visited town or city, talking to someone…and repeat. The story is certainly functional, and I was invested in the fate of the characters. As is often the case with JRPGs, it’s really the beginning and end that shines. I’ve played worse game stories, and I was invested enough to care what happens, but compared to many other JRPGs I’ve played the story feels rather staid and cliché.

The big draw of the ‘Tales of’ series has always been the combat, eschewing random battles or turn based/ATB-esque  systems in favour of engaging and active combat mechanics. Even through stats and strategy are still the most important factor in winning a battle, the players ability to string together combos, block and time attacks based on the foe’s attack patterns play a significant role. The combat is filled with systems which seem like they should be fun, but don’t quite…work. Perhaps the best is the FOF (Field of Fonons…whatever that means) system whereby the casting of an elemental spell creates a ring, within which is another special move is used they can combine and create powerful elemental attacks. Pulling one of these off never failed to be satisfying, and can turn the tide in a tricky boss fight. There are several poorly explained systems which I simply opted to ignore, and got on just fine without them. The game is actually singularly bad when it comes to introducing and explaining game play mechanics. The combat is nonetheless pretty fun, and certainly remains one of the more engaging JRPG battle systems out there. Outside of battles there’s very little in the gameplay that could be called dynamic, particularly the return of the Sorcerer’s Ring from Tales of Symphonia, which allows you to shoot a little burst of fire. Clunky and rather pointless in Symphonia, it has only been made worse in Tales of the Abyss by the fact that each usage is accompanied with the high pitched squeal of the obligatory annoying furry JRPG sidekick. This probably sounds awfully negative, but it’s really not that much worse than any other JRPG, and is actually better than many others. The worse crime committed by this game is one which has caused me to stop playing other games, such as Baten Kaitos on the Gamecube; unskippable cutscenes. If you lose to a boss, you are taken back to the previous save point, and every single time you will have to watch the proceeding scene, some of which are really rather long. It’s one of those baffling design flaws which always astonish me when they appear; a simply issue to remedy, yet so prevalent and infuriating. Perhaps the streamlined glory of the Wii’s Xenoblade Chronicles has ruined other JRPGs for me.

The game looks pretty great, with the excellent character design the series is known for on full display here. The environments are rather hit and miss, and at times it can seem to be going through the motions of the typical JRPG locales (desert town, snowy town etc.) There are some utterly beautiful locations, such as the beautiful Malkuth capitol Grand Chokma and the atmospheric Tower of Rem. The 3D is completely useless, you’ll turn it off almost immediately, but that doesn’t really take way from the experience. The voice acting is up to a fairly high standard, with very few of the voices truly grating (with the notable exception of the aforementioned furry sidekick Mieu) and some coming through as genuinely enjoyable, such as the sardonic Jade and the gynophobic Guy. The music is rather good, and whilst not necessarily all hugely memorable, does a good job of capturing the locations they play in and the events they underpin . This is a game where you’ll want to keep the sound on the whole time.

This review reads very negatively, but this game isn’t truly terrible, or even bad. The story is rather compelling, the combat is exciting and the characters are likeable, making it worth persisting with despite the myriad flaws. It’s a good game, one I do believe is worth playing if not for the sticky issue of the price. Due to a highly limited amount of stock released in the UK, this game is rather rare and accordingly expensive. I’ve never seen it sold for less than £40. The only reason I could afford to buy it was because I picked it up in Sydney at a shop which I always visit due to it selling rare games at a reasonable price. It’s a shame really, there’s really nothing else like Tales of the Abyss out yet for the 3DS, but the quality of the game simply doesn’t justify the price. If by some miracle you spot this game for around £20 or so, don’t hesitate to buy, but that seems something of a long shot. 

The Bas-Lag Trilogy by China Miéville

China Miéville is a fairly contentious figure in fantasy fandom. Whilst held in incredibly high esteem  by some readers, and is certainly one of those rare fantasy authors to have achieved relative critical acclaim as well, he is regularly assayed with accusations of arrogance and seeking to show off his own cleverness in his works rather than simply telling a good story. His supporters counter that he conjures some of the most interesting and bizarre environs in fantasy, as well as the creation of some of the most delightful cultures and creatures ever to grace the genre, whilst writing in an utterly graceful and elegant style somewhat at odds with the relatively utilitarian writing of a large amount of the genre. My take lies somewhere in the middle, but I certainly lean towards the admirers rather than the dissenters.

The series is really only a trilogy in the sense that there are three of them and they take place in the same setting; I only noticed one character appearing in multiple books, with even references to previous books being utterly sparse and only really done so when the plot absolutely requires it.  Miéville isn’t interested in fan-service, and whilst at times it can be frustrating as we yearn to find out what happened to the characters we grew to love in previous books, it does mean that each book stands very well on its own. Luckily, the setting itself is one of the best I’ve ever read.

One of the recurring problems with fantasy worlds is that they just don’t feel…well, real. I know that seems an odd point, ‘it’s fantasy, it’s not meant to be real’, but an utter lack of believability in worlds built by the authors can be lead to these books feeling somewhat weightless, existing only for a dramatic event. It’s difficult to imagine life in Middle Earth or Narnia outside of wars and crisis, the existence of the average resident of these lands. The most compelling fantasy worlds are those which the reader can imagine the lives of the average member of the population, one not involved in the world shaking events and conflicts which shape the narrative, whose lives go on after the story finish and who lived full existences before the story began. George R. R. Martin is a notable author who has succeeded in doing this, in the Song of Ice and Fire series, but he does so by crafting a world relatively grounded, with the fantastical elements emerging gradually over the course of the series and an ability to make even mundane details about life in Westeros interesting. There is absolutely nothing grounded about Miéville’s Bas-Lag; sentient cactus people mix with women with the heads of scarabs, clockwork robots carry out tasks for the organic populace, demons and trans-dimensional beings abound in a world filled with bizarre and fascinating locales. Yet Miéville manages to conjure a setting which feels fundamentally real; it is not difficult to imagine the life of a dockworker in the huge port city of New Crobuzon, or of a librarian in the floating pirate city of Armada, or of a track layer for the perpetually moving independent train city of the Iron Council. It is in this, I believe, that Miéville’s true triumph lies.

I’m going to look at each novel individually, as unlike the Mistborn books which I reviewed a few weeks ago, each is very much its story, with different strengths and flaws.

Perdido Street Station

Although not his first novel (1998’s King Rat for anyone who cares), it was this novel which propelled Miéville into his position as one of the most respected writers of the genre. Set in the sprawling city of New Crobuzon, Perdido Street Station tells the story of Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a rogue scientist who has been cast out of mainstream academia and now pursues his research in a simple warehouse. A man named Yagharek, a member of the avian race known as the garuda, comes to him with a request; to restore to him wings which had been sawn from him for some obscure crime. In Isaac’s pursuit of a method to give flight back to Yagharek, he accidently lets loose the terrifying creatures known as slake-moths over New Crobuzon, with Isaac and a motley crew of hangers on spending the rest of the novel trying to take down these foul beasts. The novel is rife with subplots, and thankfully all are interesting and complement the main story well, in particular the story of Isaac’s lover Lin, a scarab headed woman of the race known as khepri, who is tasked with creating a sculpture of the hideous gang leader Mr. Motley. The novel is very long, it has been argued too much so, that the plot is too slow paced and that not enough happens to justify its extreme length, but ‘plot’ is not the greatest concern of the novel. Instead Miéville conjures a living and breathing city upon the page; I have not seen a single fictional city described in such detail since Terry Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork, and that was over the course of almost forty Discworld books. Is the incidental detail that, in the east of the city, a market has been built up in the ribs of a gargantuan flying creature necessary for the plot? What about that the descriptions of the bohemian Salacus Fields, a hotbed of anti-government activism and artistic expression? The answer is no, but that’s just fine. Traditionally novels serve the plot as the ruler of its structure and composition, but for Miéville it is the city itself, New Crobuzon, which underpins everything. A Ulysses style novel of simply walking the streets of New Crobuzon would be a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining read, and the interesting plot and likeable characters who live in the city are simply a wonderful bonus.

Miéville has a real flair for language, and an ability to conjure some simply awesome images and scenes. However, his critics are not entirely wrong when they accuse him of self indulgence in his writing. Occasionally he shall break down his standard chapter structure for a short passage in the first person present, and you just know that it’s fancy and artistic because he puts it in italics. Luckily these literary self indulgences are (at this point in Miéville’s career) few and far between, and it is easy to simply roll one’s eyes and move on. Perhaps this cerebral showing off becomes worse in later books, but in Perdido Street Station at leastit’s fairly manageable.

Miéville is admirable in his avoidance of clichéd protagonists. Isaac, an overweight scientist is surrounded by those who seem like those more suited to the role of hero; the passionate revolutionary Derkhan, or a trio of badass mercenaries who join the struggle against the slake-moths. Instead, we have the flawed, yet very human protagonist of Isaac to bring us through the story. Lin, the insect headed khepri’s desire to reconcile with her upbringing in a racial ghetto creates interesting conflicts between a self loathing for her xenian nature and a desire for humanity, but it is really the city itself that is the protagonist of Perdido Street Station.

Perdido Street Station deserves its status as a modern classic, yet here I differ from the majority of my opinion in that the best was yet to come, at that the finest work in the Bas-Lag trilogy is The Scar.

The Scar

Miéville had an easy path in front of him when it came to penning a follow up to Perdido Street Station; he had the vivid and fascinating setting of New Crobuzon already crafted, rife for further works set within this utterly fertile setting. As seems often to be the case with Miéville, he avoids taking the obvious path and instead sets the novel entirely outside of New Crobuzon, although the city does cast a long shadow over the novel, with a number of the main characters originating from New Crobuzon and its militia forces  featuring in some truly epic action scenes. The protagonist of The Scar is Bellis Coldwine, an ex-girlfriend of Perdido Street Station’s Isaac who is forced to flee her native city of New Crobuzon due to events indirectly set into motion in the previous novel. Whilst setting sail across the ocean to a New Crobuzon colony, her ship is accosted by pirates and the crew are bought to a floating city named Armada. Bellis is horrified by her predicament, but many around her are grateful; her ship had carried prisoners bound for slave labour in the colony. A common punishment in new Crobuzon is to be ‘Remade’, to have the body altered with either organic or mechanical parts to either facilitate work or as an ironic reference to their crime. These Remade are treated as free equals in Armada, and so embrace their new home. Ruled by a motley collection of leaders and factions, one pair seem dominant; The Lovers, a couple covered in scars gained through their sexual obsession with ritual suffering. The Lovers seek to summon an avanc, a vast sea creature, to tow Armada, allowing it greater speed so that it may strike targets and escape notice with greater ease. Where Perdido Street Station was a fairly restrained novel, all taking place within the confines of New Crobuzon, The Scar is a globetrotting adventure around the seas of Bas-Lag, whilst retaining Armada as an interesting central location to which the narrative always returns. This approach works well following Perdido Street Station, allowing Miéville to show off just how weird and wonderful Bas-Lag is. Where the plot of Perdido Street Station is, not so much lacking, as secondary, The Scar features a wonderful story, filled with incident and intrigue. Like his previous novel, many accusations have been levelled that The Scar is simply too long and verbose, but I again feel that this is justified by the constantly fascinating details and complexities about this world revealed in his writing.

Miéville’s penchant for strange, somewhat pretentious sections in italics, returns in this novel, but unlike the other two here it feels natural and unforced. Several sections take place from the point of view of terrifying creatures known as grindyloes, and the sudden shift in writing style serves well in highlighting how alien these creatures are, unable to be reasoned with as one would a human, with an utterly xenian consciousness.

The protagonist of The Scar, Bellis Coldwine is atypical of the standard fantasy protagonist in that she is a woman over the age of thirty, and not a badass warrior heroine. Instead we get that oh so rare figure, particularly in fantasy, the well rounded and interesting female character. Many Miéville fans dislike Bellis, viewing her as a cold ice queen, but frankly I think that this says more about a repressed sexism of these critics than it does about Miéville’s characterisation. In a male figure these traits would be viewed as that of an aloof badass, yet in a woman it makes her a bitch. Bellis is supported by some truly interesting characters, such as the manipulative spy Silas Fennec and the ancient vampire known as ‘The Brucolac.’ My favourite is the philosophical thug for hire Uther Doul, a chilling figure who nonetheless invites reader sympathy and interest.

The Scar is the strongest novel in the trilogy, marrying Miéville’s talent for world building with some great characters and a truly compelling story. If any of the trilogy is a must-read, it’s this one. Can Miéville keep up this momentum into the final novel of the trilogy? The answer shall soon follow.

Iron Council

No. No he can’t. Not quite.

Iron Council returns the action to New Crobuzon and its surrounding environs. Taking place twenty years after Perdido Street Station and The Scar, it’s really great to see what the city I fell in love with has been up to. The already oppressive New Crobuzon militia have come out from hiding as a sort of Soviet style police state, and have become a military force propping up and overtly totalitarian regime. Iron Council follows three narrative strands, with only one taking place in New Crobuzon. The Crobuzoner government have been engaged with a war with the mysterious city of Tesh, with the truth of the horror overseas beginning to slip past the official propaganda. Ori is a young revolutionary affiliated with the left-wing (and illegal) publication The Runagate Rampant, who becoming sick of the perceived inaction of his peers, joins a violent revolutionary gang under a gangster known as Toro who are hell bent of assassinating the mayor of New Crobuzon. The second tells of another young man named Cutter, pursuing his lover, a man named Judah, across half a continent, eventually finding the Iron Council. The Council is a perpetual train which was hijacked from an expansion effort across the land after the employers failed to pay their workers. The Iron Council is a socialist paradise, with no currency or significant internal strife, managing to evake the forces of the militia who are obsessed with recapturing the wayward train. On this train, Remade, those whose bodies have been horrifically altered by the Crobuzoner justice system, non-humans and normal workers live equally and without singular leadership. The third arc is an extended flashback from the point of view of Judah about the formation of the Iron Council.

There have been many criticisms that Miéville’s left wing politics are too prevalent in this novel, and that it sacrifices telling a good story to instead further his socialist agenda. It is true that this book is seriously left wing, with a huge focus on topics such as trade unionism, a clear parallel between New Crobuzon’s disastrous war with Tesh and the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the homosexuality and bisexuality of many of the main characters. However, I fail to see the problem with this. Most fantasy is rather apolitical, focusing on questions of philosophy rather than engaging with the political questions of the day. It’s rather refreshing to read a novel in the genre wearing it’s political flag so proudly on its sleeve. The problems with the novel are therefore, rather than down to plot, structural in nature. A huge flashback in the middle of the novel completely disrupts the narrative flow, and the constant jarring back and forth between protagonists makes it difficult to really engage with any of them, which is a shame because they’re all rather interesting with hints of unplundered depths, particularly Judah Low, torn between his desire to strike at New Crobuzon and his wish to defend Iron Council.

The world building isn’t quite up to the standard of the first two novels either, with the environs surrounding Iron Council seeming much more nebulous and unbelievable than his first two novels, stripping this one of that wonderful ‘lived-in’ quality that those novels had. I can imagine life in New Crobuzon, I can imagine life in Armada, but not really in Iron Council.

Although this may seem awfully negative, I must make it clear that this is a very good book. Miéville plays with some really interesting ideas, and his passion for his left-wing ideals shine through the whole novel. However, it simply isn’t up to the quality of Perdido Street Station and The Scar; it’s a structural mess, and feels somewhat rushed. If you have read the first two and have fallen in love with Bas-Lag like I did however, there’s still a lot to love in this book.

Conclusion

Miéville has created one of the most interesting and original settings in modern fantasy, one which is simply begging for further exploration. These are novels I can recommend even to those with no  time for fantasy, in its utter abandonment of typical fantasy tropes. They are a lot of fun, and play around with some pretty interesting ideas whilst we’re at it. Miéville is one the smartest writers in the business, and one worth giving your attention.

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