Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “December, 2012”

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is one of those rare science fiction novels to have been whole heartedly embraced by the literary establishment, perhaps to the greatest extent since Margaret Atwood’s wonderful The Handmaid’s Tale, a novel this work reminded me a lot of. Like The Handmaid’s Tale, Never Let Me Go does not wear it’s science fiction setting on its sleeve, and isn’t really about big sci-fi ideas and high concepts. Unlike Margaret Atwood, Kazuo Ishiguro tentatively accepts the science fiction label, which certainly endears me to him (I’ve never been happy with the way Atwood rejects the sci-fi label, considering that she’s written some of the best science fiction novels in the last thirty years). Quibblings about genre aside, Never Let Me Go is a great novel, and Ishiguro uses it’s science fiction setting to explore some big ideas and craft a truly compelling narrative.

Never Let Me Go is not set in the future, instead in a sort of parallel England in the 1990s. In this England, human cloning for the harvesting of organs has been an accepted science for decades. Ishiguro doesn’t really go into much detail about the history of this world, and we’re only given a few tantalising details about the culture of this setting. The early 90s setting is important, as this is a story that simply couldn’t function with the internet. The clones are treated well for their short lives, becoming carers in their adulthood for those who have begun donating their organs, before becoming donors themselves. Most die by their third donation, although some last to their fourth. It’s a system as elegant as it is cruel.

The protagonist of the novel, in whose first person narrative the story is told, is Kathy H, a clone in her early thirties, coming to the end of a lengthy carer career. Kathy recalls her life up until the present, particularly the love triangle relationship between herself, the honest and sensitive Tommy and her insecure and cruel best friend Ruth. Much of the novel recalls their time as children at Hailsham, a school for the clones, and the strange culture which formed there, aware of what their future holds, yet wilfully ignorant as well. The novel is fundamentally focused upon the relationship between its three leads, yet also contains strong mystery element as we discover more and more about the ongoing conflicts regarding the clones.

Never Let Me Go is a well structured story, told in an interesting way. Although the story is broadly chronological, Kathy often goes off onto tangents for entire chapters and it gives the novel a good stream of consciousness feel. Far from being irritating, as it could easily have been, it only serves to reinforce the startling humanity and believability of Kathy as a narrator. By and large the story is interesting, although there’s a little too much of ‘young women being awful to each other’, which after Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye I’m a little bit exhausted by. Despite this though, most of the story is captivating, and it’s not difficult to get utterly invested. There really isn’t much of a focus on the science fiction element, and what we do learn is mostly through a massive exposition dump towards the end which feels rather clumsy, but this is a novel fundamentally about relationships, and this is where Ishiguro succeeds best.

Ishiguro creates a really great sense of place in the first half of the novel, set in the clone school Hailsham, which doesn’t quite manage to be born out as the novel goes on. Perhaps this is intentional; much is made of the lingering effect their time at Hailsham has had on their lives, and the rest of the novel feels vaguely dreamlike and ethereal. Ishiguro knows how to tug at the heartstrings, and delivers some really beautiful moments in the novel between its leads. I was never quite able to buy this strange relationship, but it’s undeniable that Ishiguro does a great job at making you care.

There’s some great characterisation in this novel, and although the characters can seem oblique and confusing, it’s because Kathy doesn’t understand them. We don’t really get much of a picture of what Kathy is really like, but this only lends to the impressive naturalism of the narrative, which manages to avoid resorting to Modernist stream of consciousness gimmicks. By far my favourite aspect of this novel is the way that the clones, who all know what they are, do as best they can to avoid considering the ramifications of what they are. The moments in which the characters do lapse into introspection and fear are utterly heartbreaking, and feel incredibly human. This is really the whole point of the novel, that these clones are human, as human as anyone else, yet burdened as a separate class with a tragic and inevitable destiny.

On one level I really admire Ishiguro and Never Let Me Go, yet I’d be lying if I said that I really enjoyed this novel. Something about it didn’t quite click for me, despite Ishiguro’s excellent prose and an interesting story. Perhaps it was the clear conscious effort to hold back on the science fiction element, something which, despite her prejudices, Margaret Atwood never does. Objectively speaking, yes, this is a good novel, but is it one for fans of science fiction and fantasy? I’m not so sure. never let me go


Borderlands 2: Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty DLC for Xbox 360, PS3, PC and Mac

Well, this is how to do DLC. The firs t major Borderlands 2 DLC takes a piratical theme, introducing a few large new areas, a fun main story and a good range of side quests. All of the fun of the vanilla game is there, although there are some elements in this release which fall slightly short of the very high bar set by the main game.

Despite the pirate theme of this DLC, it doesn’t take place near an ocean, instead staying in the deserts which are the primary setting of the series. There are a handful of big new hubs, which feel admirably distinct from each other and those in the main game. Some of the most breathtaking geography in Borderlands 2 is to be found in this DLC. I particularly liked a vast lighthouse on a high promontory above the desert; I was often fond of the more vertical environments of the main game, so I was glad to see more here. I’m generally not fond of caves in videogames as a rule, and the cave levels of the main game were generally less impressive than their more open ended counterparts, so it’s gratifying to see that Gearbox have included the most lovely and beautiful cave section of the game in this DLC. A gorgeous underground oasis ironically discovered below a town in which all of the population bar one had died of thirst is a classic example of the wonderfully cruel comedy which made Borderlands 2 so great.

The Vault Hunter (or hunters if you are co-op inclined) arrive in the deserted town of Oasis, and are soon greeted by a message from the titular Captain Scarlett, who is seeking the treasure of the dread pirate Captain Blade. She recruits the player to find four compass pieces, which will reveal the location of the treasure, whilst cheerily confessing that she will almost certainly stab you in the back come the end. Along the journey there player meets plenty of new big personalities to join the roster, encounters some fun new enemies and picks up the requisite hordes of loot. The actual plot isn’t anything special at all, there aren’t any compelling twists and it doesn’t pack the emotional punch which the main game was able to. What makes the DLC so fun to play is, as always, the characters. Captain Scarlett herself is a hoot, affably sadistic, but there are plenty of other fun characters rounding out the bunch. One of the best was Shade, the last survivor in a town riven by drought, who has propped up the corpses of his former friends, pretending that they are still alive. Shade even gives you some missions ‘in character’, which was as amusing as it sounds. It would be so easy for Borderlands 2 to slip into being obnoxious, but it never does; the humour is cleverer than it may first seem.

The basic mechanics of Borderlands 2 are as strong as ever, and the levels are well designed and fun to play. If there’s any area which takes a slight step backwards from the main game, it’s in the prevalence of fetch quests. These were generally still fun, and what you’re fetching is usually amusing, but a little bit more variety would have been nice. One huge improvement is the addition of the ‘sand skiff’, a hovercraft to explore Pirate’s Booty’s locales. The vehicles in Borderlands 2 were one of its weakest points, as they lacked traction and weight, feeling unnaturally floaty. A hovercraft has no traction and is floaty, so the controls feel a lot better here, with a nice extra boost to manoeuvrability. However, if you’re hoping for something fundamentally different to what’s on offer in the main game you may be disappointed, there’s no real innovation here. More of the same isn’t necessarily a bad thing though, when the ‘same’ was so damn fun to begin with!

The voice acting is up to its usual high standard here, with plenty of fun and amusing characters joining the fray. One tragically minor character was Aubrey Callahan III, a wonderful deadpan teenage girl, who I’m utterly convinced is named after Aubrey Plaza of ‘Parks and Recreation’ fame. There are a few technical issues, a cut out of the music during the final boss fight rather sapped the tension from the battle, but Borderlands 2 remains a remarkably glitch free experience. After the mess that was Assassin’s Creed III, this was a relief.

If you enjoyed Borderlands 2, Captain Scarlett and Her Pirate’s Booty is a worthwhile, but unessential purchase. If you gave this a miss you wouldn’t necessarily be missing out on anything incredibly worthwhile, but there are much worse places you could put your money. borderlands-2-captain-scarlett-her-pirates-booty

World War Z by Max Brooks

It seems like everyone is reading World War Z lately, so I thought I’d give it a go to see what the fuss is about. I’m not particularly interested in zombies, never really understanding the appeal of films which play the zombie threat straight (I like comedies, Shawn of the Dead etc.), and I generally see zombies as existing simply to be fodder for extreme violence in film and videogames which would be unpalatable if committed against sentient humans. I’m not ashamed to admit that Max Brooks has proven me wrong on zombies, delivering what is probably my favourite apocalyptic novel since Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake.

Easily my favourite thing about World War Z is its international focus. Yes, there’s probably more focus upon America than anywhere else, but Max Brooks is American and understands America better than he does the rest of the world. The real triumph of this novel is the way in which he weaves the cultures of the nations of the world into their response to a massive zombie epidemic. The response in America would be very different to the response in China, and Brooks captures this very well. I was somewhat perturbed by a clear pro-Israel bias which manifests in the novel, but it’s never so egregious as to detract too much from the story. From the Paris underground, to the mountains of Japan, even to the International Space Station, we see the zombie crisis from almost every conceivable angle, and this is so incredibly refreshing in the zombie genre. This isn’t just a criticism of the Americans, British films such as 28 Days Later don’t really offer much of an international angle either, so it’s great to read a novel taking this kind of approach.

World War Z has a singularly interesting structure; the novel contains a series of interviews with a broad range of survivors of the devastating titular war in which a zombie epidemic swept the world. The interviewer is Max Brooks himself, but he does a good job of keeping his personality out of the novel, keeping the focus upon the stories of the survivors. The novel follows the entire trajectory of the conflict, from the first discovery of an infection in ‘Patient Zero’, through to the ‘Great Panic’ that followed, and finally into the beginnings of an organised resistance to the encroaching zombie hoards.

It might be expected that the very nature of this novel would reduce narrative tension, but Brooks manages to show exceptional talent as a horror writer. We know humanity must survive the zombie war; how else would the book exist? We also know that are interviewees will survive to give the interview, so the tension comes from elsewhere. Rather than wondering whether our hero will survive, we wonder whether the humanity that emerges from World War Z is one that deserves to live. Many of the snippets we are given in the interviews feel like episodes in lives which could have carried a full novel by themselves, creating a work simply packed with fascinating detail and compelling stories.

Considering that this is Brook’s first real novel (his earlier work, The Zombie Survival Guide, doesn’t construct a narrative in the same sense), it’s remarkable accomplished. There’s a little bit of falling into cliché in the way some of the characters communicate, but it’s never bad enough to break the wonderful immersion this novel can create. There are so many little details that make this novel work so well; I loved that the American military listen to ‘The Trooper’ by Iron Maiden to psych themselves up before a big battle, reactions from figures such as Nelson Mandela and the Queen and the tale of the army of dachshunds trained to alert humans to nearby zombies. Whilst the sweeping narrative of this novel is definitely strong, it’ll be these little details that I’ll still remember a year from now, and the novel is packed with them.

The protagonist of World War Z isn’t really Max Brooks, the interviewer, but the planet Earth itself. The characters are the nations; Russia is paranoid, Japan insecure, China riven by internal conflict. This is something that the upcoming Brad Pitt starring film adaption looks to be thoroughly misunderstanding. That said, some really interesting human characters emerge, and Brooks generally leaves you wanting more. I was absolutely fascinated by the maverick former Vice President known as ‘The Wacko’, and was desperate to learn more about him, but Brooks does the right thing and preserves the mystery. Brooks presents a really interesting view of America; the man is a self confessed patriot, and this novel is clearly written by a man very proud of his country, but he also contains some biting criticism of American culture, particularly isolationism. This is a novel in which America is confronted with the idea that it isn’t special, it’s just another nation amongst a plethora, with the zombies acting as a leveller to strip away nationalist pretensions. It’s hard not to view the bungling response of the US government to the zombie crisis as a reference to President Bush’s utter failure of leadership following Hurricane Katrina. However, Brooks presents the Americans as having a tenacity of spirit which allows them to overcome. If the nations of the world are the protagonists of World War Z, the United States is the most complex and riven by contradictions, yet also the most interesting.

World War Z is a really fun novel, one which deserves the hype it has received. There’s definitely room for more stories told around the Zombie War, and I hope that Brooks returns to the setting one day. If you’re into zombies, this novel is a no brainer. Even if you’re not, like me, this is a really great read, and one I recommend to anyone with a fondness for genre fiction. world war z

Assassin’s Creed III for Xbox 360, PS3, Wii U and PC

Playing Assassin’s Creed III was probably one of the most miserable experiences in my gaming life. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve played many, much worse games, but can I honestly think of a game that left me feeling this hollow and depressed? To say that Assassin’s Creed III does not live up to its promise is an understatement; if there’s one good thing to come from this game it’s that it left me looking back more fondly at Mass Effect 3, this year’s other big ‘disappointing end of a trilogy’ release. At least the mechanics of Mass Effect 3 were functional and fun, which cannot be said for Assassin’s Creed III. I love this series, I even loved the deeply flawed first instalment, but Ubisoft have succeeded in quashing almost everything that I love about it, in a game all the more tragic for the odd flash of utter brilliance that shows just how greatthis game could have been.

Despite that somewhat bile and hate filled first paragraph, I’m going to open by talking about one of the real strong suits of the game; it’s ability to construct a believable and fascinating world to experience. Assassin’s Creed III is set in the American colonies during the Revolutionary War, and easily captures this location as well as they did in Renaissance Rome in the Ezio games. In a first for the series, the strengths aren’t the cities, but the beautiful countryside, known as ‘the frontier.’ The frontier is beautiful, and the best moments of the game are those where you’re swinging through the trees in the great forests of America before it became the United States. The cities fare less well; whilst the opening city of Boston is certainly wonderful to look at, and seems very authentic, it really isn’t that much fun to explore. It lacks the grandeur and scale of Rome or Jerusalem,  all the buildings are too flat and the streets to far apart to allow satisfying free running. New York fares even worse, it doesn’t even look good. It’s clear that Ubisoft rushed this game, and that manifests itself in almost every aspect of the finished product, and New York is a prime example. The draw distance in New York is awful, with terrible pop up and absolutely no effort to give the city any kind of identity. Compared to the differences between Florence and Venice in Assassin’s Creed II, the treatment of Boston and New York in this game is shameful. Despite this, the setting is probably this game’s biggest strength, it’s just a shame that the developers were utterly incapable of giving the player anything fun to do in it.

The plot of Assassin’s Creed 3 is actually pretty great for much of the journey, but makes a lot of mistakes. The plot covers most of the Revolutionary War, including iconic events such as a certain event involving tea in Boston harbour, a pleasant trip with a Mr. Paul Revere, and the signing of a little document known as the Declaration of Independence. The player character is Ratonhnhaké:ton, known for most of the game as Connor, a young Native American. After Connor receives a vision from an unknown figure, he comes into the fold of the Assassin order. Connor focuses his attention on the real world figure of Charles Lee, swearing vengeance for an earlier crime. Connor then proceeds to ‘Forrest Gump’ his way around colonial America, encountering figures such as George Washington, Sam Adams and Benjamin Franklin, and playing a rather implausibly large role in the conflicts which birthed a nation. Of course, this wouldn’t be Assassin’s Creed if we didn’t have the Desmond meta-narrative. Assassin’s Creed III picks up right where Revelations left off, with Desmond and his merry gang of Assassin allies arriving at the Grand Temple of the ‘Ones Who Came Before’, the incredibly advanced precursors to humanity who had been all but wiped out by a massive solar flare. In 2012, another solar flare is due to devastate humanity, and so Desmond must penetrate the secrets of the Grand Temple to seek a solution, with the location of the key to the temple’s inner sanctum held within the Animus, and the life of Connor.

Before this game was released there was some concern that this game would fall into the classic jingoistic pro-America wankfest trap that so many videogames succumb to, with a lot of the marketing suggesting that this would be the case. Thankfully, Ubisoft actually sold themselves short here and we have a plot that’s admirably ambiguous and willing to question the precepts which undermine the United States. Although, broadly speaking, the Patriots are the good guys and the Loyalists are the bad guys, it’s all a lot more muddy than that. This is a game which is willing to portray the reality of the Founding Fathers, not quite vilifying them but steering very clear of the hagiographic treatment often given to these men by the writers of American history. This ambiguity spreads to the meta narrative, a major theme is the concept of the Templars as being incredibly similar to the Assassins, which is a welcome deviation from the rather unambiguously evil role they’ve played so far in the series. The game constantly asks you to reassess your previous preconceptions, creating an interesting sense of narrative unease. The game gets off to an odd start as you play as a different character to the much advertised Connor, the incredibly interesting and charismatic Haytham Kenway, and this extended prologue lasts for a long time. From a gameplay point of view this got somewhat tiring, but from a plot perspective this was an absolute work of genius, giving us a point of view which we haven’t previously seen in the series. Haytham is probably my favourite character ever to appear in an Assassin’s Creed game, he’s utterly fascinating and his appearances were real highlights.

Alas, the actual plot of the game never quite lives up to the few individual interesting moments it contains. Connor is a potentially interesting protagonist, torn between his Native American heritage and his ties to the Patriot cause, which come into conflict more than once, but the voice actor never really sells this dichotomy. I suppose it must have been difficult to find a Native American voice actor fluent in the dialect Connor’s tribe speak, so their talent pool must have been rather shallow. Connor never approaches Ezio for likeability, but I don’t believe that a good protagonist has to be likeable, look at LA Noire’s Cole Phelps. The actual writing for Connor is pretty sharp, and I like the directions the story takes him, it’s just a shame that the voice acting never lives up to this. The Ezio games were able to take complete liberties with the personalities of its characters, turning Leonardo da Vinci and Machiavelli into big, interesting characters, because no one can truly say what they were really like. This isn’t really the case in Assassin’s Creed III, and we’re never really sold on any interesting characters. Where Ezio plays a background role in his Renaissance trilogy, Connor plays a vital role in many of the key moments of the American Revolution, to the point that it seems like simple fan service rather than an attempt to craft an interesting story with fun missions. Ezio’s background role felt much more convincing. The Desmond stuff is easily the best yet, but is let down by a rushed and poorly thought out ending. People may slate Bioware for the Mass Effect ending fiasco, but at least they had the bravery to give the series a definitive end, despite how profitable it was. Ubisoft don’t do this, clumsily paving the way for future games and denying a proper ending to the story that’s been going on for five games now. It’s painfully clear that Ubisoft had no long term vision for Desmond’s plot, and any plans that they may have had were thrown out when they realised just how much money they could wring from this franchise.

The gameplay is similar to the rest of the Assassin’s Creed series; you’ll be free running, fighting, stabbing and shooting. Probably one of the better features of the gameplay are the wonderfully smooth animations when clambering through the trees in the frontier, a first for the series. The combat is still based around countering, and has been Arkham Asylum-fied, although it never feels anywhere near as fluid and satisfying as Rocksteady’s masterpiece. This is a game which does not lack for content, there is a lot to do; sadly, very little of it is fun. Gone are the open ended assassination missions of the earlier games; each story quest mission generally just funnels you along a linear path, such as a chase scene, with any deviation from doing exactly what the game wants punished with a loss of full synchronisation or even outright failure. There are some fun side missions, but many are simple deliveries, with the extra assassination missions having had absolutely no effort put into them. The optional assassinations in Assassin’s Creed II and Brotherhood were never as elaborate or well designed as the story ones, but they had at least had some thought and effort put into them, which cannot be said for Assassin’s Creed III. There’s a welcome return of the assassin recruitment element of Brotherhood and Revelations, which has been smartly refined in this instalment, with each recruit given a personality of their own. One of the few positive changes in the game is an altering of the game economy; gone is the ridiculous system of purchasing land, whereby most players ended up owning most of Rome in Brotherhood and Constantinople in Revelations. Now, Connor is the master of a ‘homestead’, which can be steadily built throughout the game, in a highly satisfying manner. Alongside the high drama of the American Revolution, a simpler story of a community growing together emerges through easy missions for the likeable range of characters which can be bought into the homestead. These missions can either gain new members of the community, or bolster resources and abilities of those already there. This feeds into a rather compelling crafting system, where you’re ‘homesteaders’ can construct items which can be sent out in convoys to earn cash. I really liked this system, it’s just a shame that I ran out of things to spend money on about half way through the game, which forms yet another example of a decent idea utterly ruined by creative laziness and thoughtlessness. A clear highlight of the game are the naval missions, which whilst being relatively simple from a gameplay standpoint, are hugely fun and atmospheric. This wouldn’t be an Assassin’s Creed game without lots of useless collectibles to clutter up your map; most are pointless, but one collection, ‘Peg Leg’s Trinkets’ leads to a series of fun missions which actually form a surprising highlight of the game.

There are so many things wrong in the basic gameplay of Assassin’s Creed III that it can be difficult to think of them all. There’s absolutely no mechanic in the main game (sailing excepted) that works well; even free running, probably the defining mechanic of the series, feels awkward and stilted. Gone are the smooth and easy motions of the earlier games, now it’s incredibly difficult to get Connor to do what you want him to do. The player is given plenty of gadgets and methods to take out enemies, and lots of potentially interesting moves from the assassin recruits, but you will almost never get to use them. The game drives you so relentlessly down a single play style path that there’s almost no opportunity to use these moves. The stealth is an unmitigated disaster; there’s no crouch button, it’s very difficult to ever blend into the scenery or a crowd and the enemy AI seems to have zero internal logic. I wasn’t overly impressed with Dishonored, but Assassin’s Creed III made me look back at it with a new fondness; at least that game actually functioned. There are several missions which are just so staggeringly poorly designed that I honestly couldn’t believe they got through play testing. Of course, it doesn’t matter, because Ubisoft knew this game would sell huge amounts and had no incentive to make sure the game was properly finished. People may complain about the numerous delays of Bioshock: Infinite, but I’m confident that when the game finally does arrive we’ll have a polished product. Assassin’s Creed III needed at least another six months of dev time; the recent claim that the game has been in development since Assassin’s Creed II has been exposed as a lie, it was actually made in just two, which simply isn’t enough for a game of this scale and ambition. There are some truly baffling design choices too; who was it who thought it would be a good idea to make the player crawl through boring tunnels to create the fast travel points in the cities? Who? Who was this snivelling incompetent and why did no one bother to stop them? This is a game which just doesn’t work, it fails at that most basic level, and it’s other successes, and there are actually plenty, can never transcend just how broken this game is.

When Assassin’s Creed looks good, it looks really good. The frontier has to be one of the most beautiful gaming environments that I’ve ever seen, it’s just a shame that there wasn’t much fun to do in it. The level of detail is astounding, and I loved the wild animals everywhere, either for hunting or as part of the scenery. The naval missions are also stunning, particularly in stormy weather, and are easily the most immersive parts of the game. Alas, the cities don’t fare nearly so well, as mentioned above. Some of the character animations, particularly during the side missions, are embarrassingly terrible, looking like something out of an N64 game rather than a modern release in one of the most successful series in the world. The voice acting, the staid tones of Connor excepted, is generally excellent, containing the wide range of accents which would be expected of the time period, and rarely lapsing into caricature. There are a few obnoxious vocal samples heard over and over again in the cities (the laughing children are burnt inside my skull for all eternity), but the main characters are generally excellent. Of particular note are the wonderfully aristocratic tones of Hatham Kenway, a wonderful vocal performance containing a mixture of English gentile politeness, brusque efficiency and the occasional haunting snatch of humanity. Hatham Kenway is too good for this game. The music is unexceptional, but not annoying, so that’s something I suppose. Irritatingly, this has to be the most obnoxiously glitchy game that I’ve ever played; I never played more than five minutes before another awful glitch or failure of the mechanics drew me out of the experience. The recent patch improved matters somewhat, but not enough, and it all feels like too little, too late.

Assassin’s Creed III isn’t the worst game I’ve played this year, but it’s the only game to make me angry. Ubisoft had the potential for something wonderful here, and they cocked it up in almost every regard. This series used to be about free form assassination, and that’s changed. That’s ok, change is good, it’s fine to try to become something more, but you’ve got to replace it with something else, because without that the experience will just be an empty void. That’s all Assassin’s Creed III is, a void. The moments of brilliance, and there are plenty, only serve to highlight how truly incompetent the rest of the game is. I kept waiting for the real game to start, but it never did. assassins_creed_3

The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

The Emperor’s Soul is the last work of Brandon Sanderson set in the Cosmere which I had yet to read, and with the finishing of this novella I am now caught up. I’ve been reading Sanderson for a few months now and it’s been an incredibly fun ride; I’m sad to be forced to take a break (I’m not counting the imminent A Memory of Light, because although Sanderson may be writing it I’ll always consider it Robert Jordan’s story). Thankfully, The Emperor’s Soul is an absolutely wonderful way to round off my Sanderson experience, standing as one of the most complete and charming novellas I have ever read.

The Emperor’s Soul is set on Sel, the planet upon which Sanderson’s first published novel, Elantris, was set. The ‘Rose Empire’ within which The Emperor’s Soul is set in incredibly far from Arelon, the setting of Elantris, with the only indications of this shared setting coming from oblique references to lands which played a background role in Elantris, such as Jindo and Svorden. Therefore, this novel is completely readable without having read any other Cosmere novels, even Elantris. We don’t see much of the Rose Empire, mostly just the palace of the titular Emperor, in fact, mostly within one room of that palace. It’s therefore rather impressive how much detail Sanderson manages to cram into this rather short novella, even though world building isn’t really the priority here. I really hope that we see more of Sel, and I hope that Sanderson’s planned sequels to Elantris incorporate the Rose Empire somehow, or even have a role played by some new and interesting lands referred to in The Emperor’s Soul. It wouldn’t be a Brandon Sanderson novel without an interesting new magic system; the magic of The Emperor’s Soul is known as ‘Forgery.’ Similar in some ways to the AonDor symbol based magic of Elantris, Forgery is the act of rewriting an objects past to change its attributes in the present through the crafting of stamps. The magic is based upon plausibility; if too much is changed the Forgery will fail, so an intimate knowledge of an object’s history is needed to rewrite its past. Like all the best magic systems, there are clearly defined limits to what it can and can’t do. Forgery, similarly to the BioChromatic breath of Warbreaker, is considered to be an abomination by the general population. Forgery is an interesting system, one I hope also plays a role in further works set on Sel; I’d love to see conflict or cooperation between an Elantrian user of AonDor magic and a Forger.

The Emperor’s Soul is told over the course of 100 days in the palace of the Emperor of the Rose Empire, Ashravan. The protagonist of the novel is Shai, a Forger who had been captured attempting to steal the most valuable relic in the palace, leaving a Forged fake in its place. In an assassination attempt, Emperor Ashravan had been left permanently brain damaged and mindless, so the main advisors of the Emperor’s political faction, desperate to keep power, recruit Shai to use her Forgery to recreate the Emperor’s soul. To do this Shai must gain an intimate knowledge and understanding of the Emperor, so that she can rebuild his soul in a Forgery stamp to restore his mind. Shai has only 100 days until the Emperor must reappear, and is given the impossible task of rebuilding the mind of a man she has never met, or she shall be executed. Running parallel to this is a lot of scheming among the advisors, a guard with a grudge and Gaotona, an advisor more open minded and sympathetic than the rest, with whom Shai forms an odd bond.

Similarly to The Alloy of Law before it, Sanderson focuses upon a much smaller scale here. This rigid 100 day structure is interesting, and unlike anything that he’s done before. For a novel mostly about a young woman sitting in one room reading about a dead Emperor and plotting her escape, it never feels lacking in action and incident. It is a novella, and very short, so therefore feels almost like a prologue to a longer story. If this story will one day manifest remains to be seen, Sanderson has the rest of the Stormlight Archive, future Mistborn trilogies and other standalone works on his plate at the moment, so perhaps he can be forgiven in not returning us to the Rose Empire, but it would be a shame, as we are introduced to an interesting world which could easily host further adventures. The Emperor’s Soul is Sanderson’s most focused work yet, dealing with a small group of characters in a small space, and is all the better for it. As much as I liked it, I thought that The Alloy of Law felt faintly incomplete due it’s short length, but this isn’t really a problem here; we get just as much character growth and world building as we need to tell a good story, and it’s amazing how much Sanderson manages to cram in.

Sanderson’s unflashy style conceals someone who really understands how to write, with a great understanding of the craft of writing. Sanderson is just so solidly competent, and a tendency to occasionally indulge in clichés in his earlier work is thoroughly stamped out by this point. Although this novel lacks the beautiful vistas of his other novels, particularly The Way of Kings, it makes up for it through the wonderful depiction of a master performing her craft. Sanderson really conveys a sense of wonder in what Shai is doing, reserving his best prose for descriptions of Shai’s meticulous crafting of the stamp to restore the Emperor’s soul.

By the very nature of the novella’s brevity, Sanderson doesn’t get as much time to focus upon characterisation as he might usually. Shai is a great protagonist, but in many ways the real focus8 of the novel is Emperor Ahsravan himself. Through Shai’s research into his past we learn more and more about him, and he emerges as an interesting character, trapped between idealism and moral cowardice. I enjoyed the character of Gaotona, trapped between his instinctive disgust at Forgery, yet overwhelmed by the beauty it can create. I hope we see some of these characters again, but I doubt we will, so I’m glad I got to meet them for the short time the novella lasts.

The Emperor’s Soul is everything that makes Sanderson so special in microcosm. It won’t take you long to read, but the time that it does take is thoroughly enjoyable. Now that I’ve finished with Sanderson for now, it’s time to pick my next big fantasy author. I’m looking at you Patrick Rothfuss!emperors-soul-e1352276556630

Darksiders II: Abyssal Forge DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Darksiders II was probably one of my favourite games of this year, so I naturally always look forward to an opportunity to squeeze a little bit more out of it. What’s on offer in Abyssal Forge is some inventive, well designed fun that is over far, far too quickly.

If it were possible, Abyssal Forge has even less plot than the proceeding Argul’s Tomb DLC. Death finds himself in a strange, swamp like realm between heaven and hell, in which a rogue Maker had been imprisoned. Driven mad by his isolation, the Maker built the ‘Abyssal Forge’, a self replicating machine which desires only to spread throughout the many realms and gain dominance, something to which Death is unsurprisingly opposed. Unlike Argul’s Tomb, the Abyssal Forge doesn’t seem like it was clipped from the main game, but it’s still a thin tale which doesn’t seem to have much effort put into it.

Just as Argul’s Tomb focused upon the Portal gun-esque Voidwalker, Abyssal Forge focuses upon use of the ‘Soul Splitter’, which splits Death in two to solve puzzles. The puzzles are very well designed, and the dungeon featured in Abyssal Forge is absolutely up to the standards of those in the main game, even surpassing them at times. Sadly, there is only one of these dungeons, leaving this DLC feeling criminally short for the price. This DLC is simply not good value for money. There’s a fun boss fight at the end, and some new loot, but nothing which feels like it’s worth the price of entry. When compared to the effort some companies are beginning to put into DLC, Vigil are really behind the curve here.

Although the swampy setting of Abyssal Forge is unlike anywhere in the main game, it still doesn’t feel particularly interesting or atmospheric. One area of Argul’s Tomb which did shine was it’s beautiful icy vistas, and sadly Abyssal Forge lacks even that. It’s just not a fun setting to explore, and after the main story of the DLC was over I felt no drive to remain in the area and see more. One thing I do appreciate however is that Vigil keep the voice actor for Death around in the DLC, it really helps to keep the vibe which made me so fond of the main game.

Abyssal Forge is another disappointing DLC from Vigil that seems to have been rushed out to fulfil their DLC Season Pass obligations rather than coming from a genuine desire to extend their game. Since I was foolish enough to buy the Season Pass, hoping for a lot more than I got, I will eventually play the final DLC, ‘The Demon Lord Belial’, but I cannot claim to have high hopes. If all of these DLCs were combined into one we may have had a satisfactory pack on our hands, as the actual content of these DLCs are pretty great, but it’s hard not to feel completely cheated by Vigil. If you don’t own the Season Pass, this is most certainly not worth the price of entry. Darksiders-2-Abyssal-Forge-600x300

Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont

Blood and Bone is the third (third!) novel released this year within Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont’s Malazan setting. The rate at which these two men are churning out these books is astounding, particularly considering their generally high quality. With Erikson currently focused upon his ‘Kharkanas Trilogy’, telling us the ancient tale of the Tiste, the Jaghut and the Elder Gods in a dimension separate to that of the main series, it falls to Esslemont to keep us up to date with what’s going on in the main timeline. It’s difficult not to view Esslemont as the ‘B’ author of the Malazan universe; Erikson did start the series, and is probably a better writer. Despite this, Esslemont has some great novels under his belt, particularly Night of Knives and Return of the Crimson Guard. I was far from impressed with the recently released Orb, Sceptre, Throne, which suffered for being set on Genabackis in the aftermath of Erikson’s Toll the Hounds, largely dealing with Erikson’s characters and a world which he built. Esslemont is at his best when showing us new lands only hinted at in Erikson’s novels and dealing with either new characters or characters who played only minor roles in Erikson’s central ‘Malazan Books of the Fallen.’ After having given us a long awaited glimpse of mainland Quon Tali in Return of the Crimson Guard and the much discussed but never seen land of Korel in Stonewielder, in Blood and Bone Esslemont turns his gaze to Jacuruku, a location known to long time readers as the seat of the ancient fallen empire of Kallor, and the location of the original summoning of the Crippled God. It’s wonderful to finally visit a location which is semi-mythical to many of the inhabitants of already established lands, and thankfully this time Esslemont does not disappoint.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed Stonewielder, I was somewhat disappointed that Korel seemed rather similar in culture and geography to other Malazan locations such as Genabackis and Quon Tali. I rather missed exposure to all new cultures and peoples as we were in the desert Seven Cities in and the obsessively capitalist Lether. Thankfully, Jucuruku in Blood and Bone feels unlike any other location which we have previously visited in the Malazan series. Much of the novel is set in Himatan, a vast jungle which covers most of the east of the continent, the demesne of the much hyped Elder Goddess Ardata. Himatan is a wonderful location, and incredibly atmospheric, intentionally kept secluded from the rest of the Malazan world, allowing a bundle of wonderfully weird flora and fauna to have developed. Bordering Himatan is the land of the Thaumaturgs, the descendants of the mages who summoned the Crippled God to destroy Kallor, and Esslemont does a wonderful job of depicting a deeply twisted and cruel society almost as loathsome as the Pannion Domin in Erikson’s Memories of Ice. Jacuruku is probably the smallest continent thus featured in the Malazan series, which leads to a tightness to the world building unlike the other novels in the series (the oddball Night of Knives excepted). Where we readers have got used to seeing maps filled with cities and nations which we’ll never even see, in Jacuruku we gain possibly the most complete portrait of a land seen so far in the series. Part of this is simply because Jacuruku is mostly jungle and wasteland, and there simply isn’t quite as much going on here as there is in Lether or Seven Cities, but I do believe that Esslemont deserves some credit for how complete and immersive his portrayal of Jacuruku is. With only one continent yet to be visited in the Malazan series, the incredibly hyped Assail, it’s nice to see that we can still be surprised.

The Malazan timeline is one of the most convoluted in modern fantasy, but Esslemont does a good job of placing Blood and Bone within a very specific timeframe. Blood and Bone takes place at the same time as Stonewielder and Erikson’s finale The Crippled God. The novel contains many cross references to what’s going on in Kolanse in The Crippled God, and it’s really cool to see this level of coherence in a series which biggest flaw is a lack of coherence.  In classic Malazan fashion, the plot follows many strands which converge towards the end. Pretty much every Malazan novel is structured this way, and it really works for them. New characters introduced to the series include the pilgrimage of siblings Saeng and Hanu to avert a coming catastrophe and the amusing Thaumaturg invasion force of Himatan, with the journey of the arrogant and deluded leader Golan into a somewhat remorseful and rundown figure was a lot of fun to read about. One of my favourite plot strands followed Jatal, a tribal prince who joins an invasion of the Thaumaturg homeland under the command of a mysterious foreign mercenary known as ‘the Warleader’, whose real identity will be painfully obvious to any long term Malazan fans. There are also plenty of strands following established figure in the mythology; we are finally given an insight into Skinner’s Disavowed as they dash around Jacuruku collecting fragments of the Crippled God, and we are also given the opposing Crimson Guard view from Shimmer under the leadership of the enigmatic K’azz D’Avore. An amusing bunch of ex-Malazan mercenaries under the hire of Spite, daughter of Draconus and sister to Lady Envy, are one of the stand out POVs of the novel. There are regular scenes featuring the POV of Osserc, as he has some incredibly intriguing and revelatory conversations with Gothos, which provide some of most juicy tidbits of new info for those of us hungry for every possible detail we can wring out of the Malazan world. Rounding out the main characters is the journey of T’riss, the Queen of Dreams, with her Seguleh bodyguard Ina into Jacuruku, unable to travel magically due to a blockage by Ardata.

Unlike previous Esslemont novels, there were no plot strands that I didn’t enjoy; each character feels entertaining and fun to read about. All of the plot strands feel relevant to the conclusion, compared to the bafflingly unnecessary (if entertaining) Ivanr subplot in Stonewielder. The novel does rather stick too much to the ‘travelogue’ style of fantasy, in that most of the novel is spent travelling, and it can sometimes feel that perhaps this artificially extends the novel as we await the inevitable convergence which defines the Malazan series. The finale is also something of an anti-climax, although not nearly as bad as that of Orb, Sceptre, Throne. Esslemont attempts to emulate Erikson in withholding information and keeping things vague, refusing to spell things out with exposition, yet still isn’t able to do this as well as Erikson can. Erikson usually leaves enough information there to piece together what’s happened, as seen very clearly in his masterful conclusion to the main series, The Crippled God. Esslemont simply isn’t good at this; Stonewielder had an unnecessarily obtuse ending  as well, withholding information about the Stormriders that many readers were hoping for in a novel about Korel. Blood and Bone’s Stormriders is Ardata, a highly mysterious Azathanai Elder God, which this novel barely reveals anything more about. As frustrating as this is, and it is Esslemont’s biggest flaw as a writer, the fact remains that this novel is probably the most coherent and well structured that he has written so far, never boring or containing dips in interest as was the case of many of his other novels.

Esslemont improves as a writer with every novel he publishes, and Blood and Bone is his best written yet.  Esslemont isn’t quite as good at conjuring a compelling atmosphere of tragedy as Erikson is; this was most notable in the embarrassing ‘crying soldiers’ scene in Orb, Sceptre, Throne. Thankfully, Esslemont doesn’t attempt this in Blood and Bone, but where he does succeed is in creating a feeling of visceral horror in the degradations of Thaumaturg culture, where he not only manages to match Erikson in this regard but even surpass him. Himatan is beautifully depicted, as wonderfully vivid a location as Erikson conjured in Raraku in Deadhouse Gates and the Letherii wastes in Dust of Dreams. I suspect that Esslemont has spent some time in Vietnam, and the Asian influenced jungle setting feels refreshingly new and interesting. Esslemont shows his flair for comedy which was first exhibited in the hilarious Ipshank and Manask in Stonewielder through the entertaining bromance between the two ex-Malazan mages Murk and Sour. The highly amusingly passive aggressive relationship between the Thaumaturg general Golan and his po-faced scribe Thorn was a real highlight of the novel, and show that Esslemont has more than one literary asset to his name.

If there’s any clear triumph of this novel, and any clear indication of Esslemont’s growth as a writer, it’s in his characterisation. The ex-Malazan mages Murk and Sour can stand proudly alongside Icarium and Mappo, Trull and Onrack, Tehol and Bugg as another classic bromance, in a series filled with them. I was particularly impressed by Esslemont’s portrayal of the Disavowed, figures who have seemed as archly villainous in other novels here get rather humanised. In particular Skinner, one of the major antagonists of the series, is given his most interesting portrait yet. I was very impressed with what Esslemont did with ancient Elder forces such as Osserc and T’riss, who seem to match their younger forms seen in Forge of Darkness rather than their rather more esoteric appearances earlier in the series. If I have any complaint it would be in the characterisation of Jatal, a new character who goes upon a highly unconvincing Rand al’Thor-esque emo trip. Despite this slight misstep, this is a novel filled with great , interesting characters.

Blood and Bone is Esslemont’s best novel so far, which is all the more impressive considering how unimpressed I was with Orb, Sceptre, Throne, released less than a year ago. Esslemont only has announced plans for one more novel, set in the frustratingly intriguing Assail. Assail as a location has began to be hyped up all the way back in Memories of Ice, so Esslemont has a lot of pressure to deliver with this next novel. I truly hope that this isn’t the last we hear from Esslemont in the Malazan setting. I’d love for him to follow the Erikson route and begin some prequels, perhaps a trilogy detailing the foundation of the Malazan Empire, and the rise of Kellanved and Dancer to power. All future speculation aside, this is an excellent novel and a must read for any Malazan fan; Esslemont really delivered in his depiction of Jacuruku.

Blood and Bone

Bastion for XBLA, PC, Mac, Linux and iOS

Bastion is one of the biggest success stories of the recent indie gaming boom, and it’s not difficult to see why; the beautiful world, wonderful music and best of all, a narration throughout the entire game by a husky voiced gentleman. What’s not to love? Sadly, quite a lot. Like Limbo before it, Bastion is a case of pure style over substance.

Bastion is set in and around the city of Caelondia following a nightmarish catastrophe known as ‘The Calamity’, which has left the world fractured, with the surviving pieces of the once beautiful city floating in a void. There’s a surprisingly complex back story to the game, but it isn’t conveyed particularly well, with a large amount of the details coming from simple messages in the loading screens. Although it’s clear the developers wanted to create a complex and compelling world to underpin the gameplay, and I don’t believe that they quite succeeded. Where they did succeed however is in how utterly beautiful the world of Bastion can be, creating a unique setting unlike any that I’ve seen before.

The player character of Bastion is known only as ‘The Kid’, a young man of a mysterious past, of whom we are only given a very limited understanding. Upon awakening after The Calamity as one of the only human survivors, he makes his way to ‘The Bastion’ a sort of floating shrine to the world before the disaster, under the control of the mysterious Rucks, the narrator of the game. Rucks sends the Kid out into the shattered lands of Caelondia to collect shards of, I don’t know, some kind of vague magicky stuff, which can boost the power of the Bastion. As the Kid’s journey continues the player learns more about the nature of The Calamity and what bought it about.

The plot of Bastion is quite thin, but rather interesting nonetheless. There are a few characters in the game apart from Rucks and the Kid, but it’s rather difficult to get a real feel for them, as they’re simply narrated by Rucks. The success of Bastion’s narrative lies not with the story itself, which is moderately interesting at best, but in how this story is told.

Bastion is an action RPG played from an isometric perspective. There’s little in the way of exploration; the player picks a level from the world map and then plays through in a generally linear fashion, all to the soothingly grave tones of Rucks. The combat is fairly simple, consisting of two weapons and one special attack, which can be customised in the Bastion, which serves as the game’s hub. There’s a wide variety of weapons to choose from, from the hammer seen in the game’s art to pistols and a rocket launcher.

The actual bread and butter gameplay of Bastion leaves something to be desired, usually devolving into fairly uninspired hack and slash. Something I did like was the wide variety of weaponry available and the amount of customisation available to the player; the game does a good job of introducing cool weapons all the way throughout the game, so you’ll never go too long without getting to try out something new. There’s some interest in the customisation of the Bastion, but this mechanic never really reaches its potential. As I mentioned before, like Limbo, Bastion is another indie game which shows style over substance. That said, if the style is suitable good this isn’t necessarily a problem; I actually really liked Limbo! The sad fact remains that Bastion simply isn’t that much fun to play, even if it is beautiful to look at and listen to.

Despite all of my misgivings about the gameplay of Bastion, the narrator is going to keep me looking back at the game with fondness. It’s so elegantly compelling that it’s a wonder no one else has done it before. The voice actor for Rucks was an excellent choice, soothing and mysterious, a trustworthy voice to carry the player through the game. The music for Bastion is also excellent, particularly a sung track towards the end of the game that sent shivers down my spine. The game also looks great, with a lovely art style, although the environments can look a little cluttered. I suspect that the blame for this lies more with the level design than the art design. For all its flaws, Bastion doesn’t look or sound like any other game out there.

I have extremely mixed feelings on Bastion; on one side I love that it took risks with its presentation, delivering something certifiably unique yet I wish that as much attention had been lavished upon the gameplay. I almost want to recommend Bastion solely because I want to support games like this existing, but the game as it stands simply isn’t good enough. If you spot it on sale, and fancy being taken on an interesting and fun narrative ride, pick up Bastion, but if you want an actual fun and satisfying gaming experience, you could do better elsewhere.


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