Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

Mark of the Ninja for XBLA and PC

The most surprising thing about Mark of the Ninja is that there hasn’t been a game like this before. A side scrolling stealth ninja game seems like a no brainer now, but I’ve never played one before, and Mark of the Ninja makes a rather brilliant introduction to this new genre.

Mark of the Ninja follows an unnamed ninja, part of the Hisomu Clan in the modern day. Ninjas receive mystic tattoos with magical ink which give them strange powers, but after a while these tattoos sink their wearer into madness, at which point the Ninja must kill themselves. A ruthless corporation known as Hessian have attacked the Hisomu Dojo, seeking the secret of the tattoos, so our unnamed protagonist and fellow ninja Ora work together to bring down Hessian and it’s cruel leader, Colonel Karajan.

Mark of the Ninja is a wonderful looking game, highly stylised without being distracting. There’s an impressive sense of atmosphere to the environments. There are three main environments, each containing a handful of missions; these don’t feel particularly distinct from one another, and a bit more variety would have been nice, but it doesn’t change the fact that this game looks great.

The actual plot of Mark of the Ninja is utterly forgettable, which is a shame as the cut scenes are beautifully animated. The actual story has some potentially interesting elements, particularly the oncoming madness of the tattoos, but nothing is really well done with this. There are twists, but they’re highly predictable, with the plot becoming rather incoherent and hard to care about.

Mark of the Ninja is very much about the stealth aspect of ‘ninjaing’, unlike Ninja Gaiden which is about the fighting aspects. Our Ninja creeps through levels, fairly linear but still with multiple paths to the targets, assassinating foes either with simple stealth or with a range of optional gadgets. Keeping an eye on light sources is a must to stay hidden, with sounds made producing a little ring which shows whether nearby guards can hear you. A grappling hook helps for speedy traversal of the levels, but a lot of your time will be spent creeping through vents. It’s a lot of fun, and getting around unnoticed gives a real thrill. There are direct combat options, but they’re pretty useless, and if you’re spotted you’ll likely be dead in seconds.

There’s an upgrade system, with extra experience gained by dispatching your foes in clever ways and by maintaining a low profile, as well as completing little mini challenges in the levels. The upgrades contain new moves and items, and are generally very rewarding. The game is a good length, offering decent value for money. A new game plus rewarded upon completion will offer some more content for people who like a bigger challenge.

Mark of the Ninja is a huge amount of fun, satisfying and precise. Stealth gameplay is at its worst when the mechanics are imprecise and failure is the fault of dodgy AI and controls rather than lack of player skill. This was one of the primary flaws of Assassin’s Creed III, and thankfully Mark of the Ninja delivers one of the most engaging and enjoyable stealth experiences which I’ve ever played. I’m not really into stealth games; I could never get a grip on Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid, but Mark of the Ninja has changed that. It’s a masterfully designed game, the work of people who think carefully about each moment and mechanic to make sure that it’s balanced and fair. There is a notable drop in quality in the last third of the game however, with the introduction of exploding traps adding an unfortunate element of trial and error to the gameplay, and breaking the previously flawless sense of flow Mark of the Ninja generates. It’s an annoyingly artificial way to ramp up the difficulty, and ensured that I enjoyed the last third of the game much less than the first two. Still, Mark of the Ninja is brilliant fun to play, and quite unlike anything else.

This is, like Outland, a game which is really made by the slickness of its animations. The brutal kill animations are cool, switching over to an oddly ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ style for the cutscenes. It really shouldn’t work, but it does! Mark of the Ninja is a great looking game, with decent voice acting for Ora, your regular companion, helping the package along. The villainous roles aren’t quite so well cast, with their ridiculous exaggerated accents sapping these figures of any menace they might have.

Mark of the Ninja is a must play for anyone who’s into stealth games, but also a worthy introduction to the genre for people like me. It’s such a basic idea, but still feels so unique and polished, offering good value for money too. Mark of the Ninja isn’t like anything else you’ll play any time soon, so give it a try if you like new things. ninja_w_bg

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

I’ve now read everything by Iain M. Banks, containing some of the most entertaining and thought provoking science fiction that I’ve ever read. There are two sides to him though, as he also stands as a critical darling of non-genre fiction, without the ‘M’ in his name. The Wasp Factory was Iain Bank’s first novel, and the first of his that I’ve read without the ‘M’; it’s one of the most deeply unpleasant books that I’ve ever read, but it’s also a work of absolute genius.

The Wasp Factory is narrated by Frank Cauldhame, a sixteen year old boy who had been crippled at a young age in an, at first, unspecified accident. Frank is a strange young man, observing a bunch of bizarre rituals of his own invention, and tormenting the animals around his house. Frank nurtures even darker secrets, as we are informed right at the beginning of the novel that he is responsible for the deaths of three children in his family. The manner and motivations for these murders are explained as the novel goes on. In the present day, Frank’s brother Eric has escaped from a mental asylum and is planning to come home.

Banks conjures a great sense of place in his small Scottish island in which The Wasp Factory is set. Although likely a fairly normal island, Frank’s narrative turns it into a semi-mystical place, with every change of weather a portentous omen, protected only by the rituals which Frank enacts. Worldbuilding is a strongpoint of Iain M. Bank’s writing, and although he obviously isn’t crafting an alien culture as Iain Banks, he still creates a vivid and powerful setting.

The actual plot of The Wasp Factory is interesting, with the imminent return of the dangerously insane Eric lending the entire novel a foreboding feel. This feeling of foreboding is really the dominant characteristic of this novel; we don’t just fear the events coming, we fear discovery about the past. Frank’s actually not unlikeable as a character, and it’s easy to forget the terrible things that he’s done, so we fear discovering the stories behind his murders. Those who like a tightly structured plot may not be too enamoured with The Wasp Factory, but for atmosphere it really can’t be beat.

Bank’s ability to revel in darkly amusing sadism is something which I’d seen before in his science fiction, particularly the monstrous Archimandrite Luseferous from The Algebraist, but The Wasp Factory out nasties that novel hands down. The pain and torture in this novel is viscerally horrible, but Banks writes with this infectious energy that makes a little part of me amused. It’s this element of the novel which has most offended people, with the Daily Express comparing this novel to a ‘video nasty’ back when it was first released. The Daily Express, being the tawdry rag that it is, utterly missed the point here. There’s a constant ironic distance between the reader and Frank, but also between the murderous cruel part of Frank and another detached voice who is aware of how ridiculous his fantasies are. It’s this ironic voice which provides the sick laughs.

Frank is similar to Alex from A Clockwork Orange, with a dash of Holden Caulfield  thrown in for good measure. He’s not beholden to these characters however, and develops a pretty fascinating narrative voice. All of Iain Bank’s best characters are damaged, and Frank certainly deserves to stand alongside his best creations. Bank’s characterisation isn’t always brilliant; I wasn’t too impressed with his most recent release, The Hydrogen Sonata, but it’s absolutely top notch here.

The Wasp Factory is a nasty, unpleasant book. The squeamish will hate it, and many will write it off as gratuitous horribleness. If you have a dark sense of humour, and an interest in the darker sides of humanity, give The Wasp Factory a go, you won’t regret it. untitled-7

Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde

I really enjoyed the madcap fun of The Eyre Affair, so I am pleased to report that Jasper Fforde’s sequel, continuing the adventures of literary detective Thursday Next, is even better. More epic, emotional and, most importantly, funny than the original, Lost in a Good Book is everything that The Eyre Affair was and more, dramatically enhancing the scope of the series and opening realms of pretty much limitless possibility for the future of the series.

Lost in a Good Book picks up a month after The Eyre Affair, with Thursday enjoying her marriage to the novelist Landen Parke-Laine. She is not so much enjoying the attention which her activities in Charlotte Bronte’s classic have attracted. Her trapping of the nasty Jack Schitt in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven has drawn the ire of the sinister Goliath Corporation, with corrupt elements within Spec Ops itself conspiring against her. It’s not long before Landen is ‘eradicated’; the timeline changed so that he had died at the age of two, and Goliath will only return him if Thursday rescues Schitt from The Raven. Thursday must learn to harness her innate power to enter literature to save her husband, halt on oncoming apocalypse and dodge the assassination attempts of someone trying to kill her with coincidences.

The alternate universe set up in The Eyre Affair is as interesting and amusing as ever, with a few more entertaining details added to flesh out this world. One element which particularly interests me is the cloning of the Neanderthals and the culture that they form. Where The Eyre Affair first introduced the idea of jumping into fiction, Lost in a Good Book runs with the idea and brings it to a logical conclusion. Great Expectations and Sense and Sensibility play key roles in this one, with the bizarre society formed within literature providing a lot of laughs, as well as a lot of intrigue. As with Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, one gets the feeling that Jasper Fforde is simply inserting every element which amuses him. This kind of ‘randomness’ usually backfires, but a few can pull it off masterfully; Jasper Fforde deserves to stand alongside Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett in this regard.

Fforde crams a lot of plot lines together this time, making this book not quite as tight as The Eyre Affair. A lot of plot lines are left hanging, which is fine by me as I plan on reading the whole series, but those who prefer their novels fairly self contained may be somewhat put off by Lost in a Good Book. By and large though, the myriad of plot lines Thursday is drawn into come together. As much as I enjoyed The Eyre Affair, the actual plot didn’t interest me nearly as much as the world in which it was set, and thankfully the plot is much more interesting in Lost in a Good Book.

Fforde is a great writer, and uses some literary gimmicks which manage to be fun rather than obnoxious as these things usually are. Throughout the story some characters talk to Thursday through footnotes, which she perceives as voices in her head. It’s this sort of silly, self aware postmodern madness which makes this series so fun; it’s about literature but also comfortably self aware of the fact that it is literature too.

Thursday remains an endearing and likeable narrator, with the first person narration working well. There’s a somewhat po-faced way that Fforde writes, as Thursday just adapts to the bizarre things around her, quickly coming to accept the crazy things that are happening, an element of the character which I loved. The supporting cast are amusing and vivid, with the standout stars being the fictional characters from other novels who make appearances, either extended or as cameos. Great Expectation’s Ms. Havisham is a clear highlight, but figures such as the Cheshire Cat also help to round out the story. Fforde is respectful to the original core of these characters, but also allows himself to put his own spin on them, creating characters which build upon those already established to create something new.

Lost in a Good Book is a more than worthy successor to The Eyre Affair, and one which sets up future novels very well. This isn’t the kind of novel which you can take too seriously; that’s not a criticism, I doubt Jasper Fforde wants us to take it too seriously. This is the sort of novel which you just enjoy, and I certainly did, devouring it as quickly as I did The Eyre Affair.  fforde_lostinagoodbook

DmC: Devil May Cry for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

This is a game which pissed off a lot of people. Diehard fans of the previous four games in the Devil May Cry were horrified at this reboot to the series, in particular this new iteration of Dante, long time series protagonist. Well, I can’t really comment on this, I have no real experience with the earlier Devil May Cry games, but I can say that this reboot is excellent. Although we can all agree on one thing; DmC: Devil May Cry is the stupidest name for a game ever. It’s like calling a game SMB: Super Mario Bros.

DmC takes place in a world in the thrall of demons, with the method of control being manipulation of debt, fattening soft drinks and partisan media. Yep, this is a hack and slash game with social commentary. Our Dante is a young man unaware of his origins, living a life of indolence and violence. Dante is warned of impending demon attack by Kat, a member of an organisation which fights against the shadowy demon overlords known as ‘The Order.’ Dante is bought into ‘The Order’, headed by his hitherto unknown twin brother Vergil, where he learns of his past and joins the fight against the Demon King Mundus.

Most of DmC takes place in Limbo, a shadowy dimension which borders our own, with geography similar to that of its corresponding real world location but twisted by the desires of powerful demon lords. This leads to some truly brilliant locations to fight in; I thoroughly enjoyed a demonic nightclub, and found the few missions set inside the reflection of a huge tower in the river a lot of fun. DmC has some of the most imaginative environments which I’ve seen, although the classic ‘Renaissance’ architecture look for some of the levels, which also appeared in Bayonetta, was a bit redundant. Still, the vast majority of the environments in which Dante fights are cool and well designed.

DmC’s plot was a real pleasant surprise; I was expecting ridiculous silliness in the vein of Bayonetta, and whilst DmC has plenty of that going on, it’s also got a real heart. Dante may seem on the surface like the cocky jerk he seemed in the early trailers, but this is really only the surface layer for this character, and underneath he’s actually a surprisingly likeable protagonist. I particularly enjoyed his relationship with Kat; it’s not romantic, but it is quite touching. One scene in particular starring these two was actually quite emotional, something which I did not see coming in this game. The satire is incredibly unsubtle, but it’s there, which is more than the norm for most games. Mundus is two villains; the primal force of evil and the modern villain, the capitalist unrestrained by any morality. The latter is much more interesting, and I would have liked to see a bit more focus on this aspect of the character, but he still made for a great antagonist. The storytelling reminded me a lot of Ninja Theory’s last game, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, an incredibly underrated game which told a great story with very likeable characters. Sadly, like Enslaved, it looks unlikely that DmC is to get a sequel due to poor sales, which is a shame because I’d love to see more of these characters and this world.

DmC is a melee action game, a genre which I’m generally not mad about, but there are a few which I’ve enjoyed (Bayonetta and No More Heroes to be specific). I’m not really a huge fan of games which rely on fiddly combos, and thankfully the combat in DmC is more about timing than anything else. Dante has four weapons equipped at any time, his sword, a gun (of which there are three to choose from), a ‘devil weapon’ and an ‘angel weapon.’ Access to the devil and angel weapons come from holding the left or right triggers, with quick switching between weapons standing as the key to victory rather than memorising lots of different moves. That’s not to say that there aren’t a lot of options, but generally they’re fairly easy to access. DmC is all about style, with extra experience for further upgrades awarded based on how stylish the battles are. Your favourite move may help you stay alive, but you can’t simply rely on one or two moves to max out your style ranking, which is something that you’ll want to do to get the best upgrades. There’s a surprisingly fun platforming element, with a whip allowing Dante to both pull objects towards him and to pull himself towards objects to traverse the environments in a fun way. Anything which involves precision jumping is typically suspect, but launching around with the chain never stops being fun.

There are twenty missions in this game, and it comes to a decent length. This game is highly replayable, with a wide range of difficulty levels and items in early levels which can only be accessed with equipment only available later in the game. There’s actually a decent amount of exploration in this game, with taking the time to look around usually rewarded with experience, currency or keys which open doors to little challenges which give the player health boosts. This is not a game to simply rush through. The boss fights are quite simplistic, but are still a lot of fun. They tend to follow the standard ‘wait for enemy attack then go for weak spot’ routine, but at last they’re not quick time events!

DmC looks good, with none of the roughness around the edges which is beginning to define this last year of the current console cycle. The faces are particularly impressive, as they were in Enslaved, which, combined with the impressive voice acting, makes these characters feel genuinely human in a way few games really manage. The environments are lovely and stylish as well, with the animations for Dante’s attacks being fluid and smooth. The screamo and dubstep soundtrack isn’t going to please everyone, but it actually works pretty well here. I can understand the detractors, but like Far Cry 3, DmC offers dubstep in a use which I can understand.

DmC: Devil May Cry is a great game, one of the few melee action games to really appeal to me. A surprisingly emotional and interesting plot combined with wonderful visuals and voice acting help the experience, but it’s the truly solid and fun combat mechanics which make this game. Rebooted Dante deserves his own franchise, although I now suspect that this will go the same way as the underrated 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia, and that a return to the original timeline is more likely. I for one hope not, but regardless of all this, DmC: Devil May Cry is a great game that you shouldn’t let fly under your radar. 2447617-dmc-devil-may-cry-wallpaper+(1)

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

The Road is an absolute critical darling, one of those rare crossover genre fiction hits; I can see why. The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic setting, but doesn’t focus upon a world building element such as Stephen King’s The Stand did. This is a novel about other things, and uses science fiction as a backdrop, as Kazuo Ishiguro did in Never Let Me Go. Quibblings about genre aside, The Road is a harrowing and powerful read, one which should be experienced by genre fiction lovers and haters alike.

The Road follows a father and son as they traipse towards the coast in an apocalyptic landscape. Exactly what happened is unclear, but the vast majority of the population are dead, with the survivors more often than not cannibals or rapists (or both). The unnamed father and son try to avoid all other contact as they make their way through this wasteland.

Some writers make their worlds fascinating through imagination, an understanding of what makes a setting fascinating, barraging the reader with interesting detail; it’s this talent which gets me so obsessed with Steven Erikson. Other writers conjure a sense of place in a genre fiction setting through atmosphere rather than detail, such as Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. McCarthy sits firmly in the latter, with The Road standing as one of the most haunting visions of post-apocalyptic America that I’ve ever read. There isn’t a gimmick to set it apart; it’s conjured through the palpable atmosphere of dread and fear which permeates the entire novel. The lack of detail actually makes this novel profoundly scary; we don’t know what happened, we just know that it was bad, and that’s enough.

The actual plot of The Road is, by definition, fairly meandering. The closest thing that we have to a plot arc is the steady worsening of the health of the father, but by and large this is a story of a steady painful, boring trudge punctuated with bursts of extreme terror and horror. These moments can often come from nowhere, with moments of visceral horror popping up at almost any time. This is a book fundamentally about atmosphere rather than ‘plot’; in most novels, particularly genre fiction, almost everything serves the plot. Atmosphere, characterisation and use of language exist to support the plot, but that isn’t the case with The Road. Those who read mostly for the sake of just getting a great story may not find The Road to their taste, but that’s not really what this novel is about.

The Road is structured as a series of very short paragraphs, but no chapter breaks. It’s pretty interesting structurally; the lack of chapters really drives home the slog that is the lives of The Road’s characters, but the short paragraphs highlight how fractured and uncertain their lives are. It creates an uneasy feeling when reading this novel, which is quite hard to define. The prose is wonderful, often plain but with the odd use of more flowery language working well. McCarthy indulges himself linguistically during dreams, but it’s the more plain prose during the long waking hours which really shines through.

The relationship between the father and his son is extremely moving, and rather different than we’ve come to expect from ‘apocalypse fiction.’ In stories like these, the parents usually seem to try to harden their child to be able to face the cruel world they live in, but the father here seems to be desperate to preserve his innocence. He regularly lies to his son, although his son usually calls him out on it. There really isn’t anything else quite like it, with the actual personalities of our characters not really being that important. In a way, these two are totems, they represent the father/son relationship rather than standing as individual characters themselves.

The Road is a stunning novel, and I look forward to reading more books from Cormac McCarthy. If you want a fun post-apocalyptic novel, I recommend going for The Stand,  but if you fancy something a bit more harrowing, I’d definitely give The Road a go.

the road

The Cave for Wii U, XBLA, PSN, PC, Mac and Linux

I really, really wanted to like The Cave. Ron Gilbert is one of the best game designers of all time, Double Fine have released some of my favourite games and it was an excuse to turn on my Wii U. What could go wrong? Turns out; a lot. There’s the nugget of a great game here, let down by possibly one of the most utterly infuriating and obnoxious design flaws that I’ve ever played.

The Cave has, for all of its flaws, a pretty fascinating narrative. The Cave is a place where people can explore the darkest aspects of their personalities to find their ‘heart’s desire.’ The Cave may offer redemption, or simply allow these broken people to revel in their own depravity. The player picks three characters from a cast of seven, and these three go through the cave, each encountering obstacles and challenges unique to them and relating to an event in their past.

The Cave, who talks to you throughout the adventure (don’t question it), is a great setting. The different settings for each of the characters are quite atmospheric and distinct, from the medieval castle for the ‘Knight’ to the futuristic museum of the ‘Time Traveller’ .

The concept of a cave which throws up the darkest secrets of a person’s past is an incredible one, so it’s a just a huge shame that the actual game doesn’t live up to this potential. The stories about each character are fascinating; ‘The Twins’ have a truly dark tale to tell, with the ‘Knight’ falling into the category of grimly hilarious. The sinister, yet charming and witty, voice of The Cave helps to move the subtle story along well. There’s something of a Grimm’s fairytale in to The Cave, with a twisted and dark moral message paired with comedy.

The Cave is an adventure game (it is Ron Gilbert after all), but one in a style which I haven’t really seen before. At the opening of the game, the player chooses three characters from a pool of seven; the Knight, the Hillbilly, the Adventurer, the Twins, the Scientist, the Time-Traveller and the Monk. The game all takes place in 2D environments, and there’s a platforming element in the traversal of the cave. The player solves puzzles, used by collecting items, manipulating objects, often needing to use all three characters in your party at once. The puzzles are often very clever, although there is something of an overabundance of ‘adventure game logic’, puzzles which are oblique rather than clever.

The Cave tries some new and interesting things, but perhaps there’s a reason that this sort of game hasn’t been made before; it just doesn’t quite work. The platforming is cumbersome, irritating and pointless rather than engaging, and the lack of an inventory means a frankly ridiculous amount of ferrying items back and forth. Still, I could forgive these flaws, as I’ll forgive anything ambitious and shows a willingness to try something new, and The Cave certainly does. What I cannot forgive is the incredibly obnoxious requirement to play the game three times to see every character’s individual story. These are the main draw of the game, and there’s several hours of replayed content required to see them all. I gave up half way through my second playthrough; my first had been fun enough, but I wasn’t willing to waste that much time trudging through puzzles that I had just completed before. A major question is ‘why seven characters?’ Six would require two playthroughs, which wouldn’t be nearly so bad, but to experience the whole thing you have to play the game three times, the last with only one new character. Now, I’m sure this was intentional; Gilbert is a canny enough designer to not make these kind of mistakes by accident. That said, I cannot for the life of me fathom what that intention was, and it weakens the game a huge amount as a result.

Overall, this is a nice looking game. The characters all have a style which made me nostalgically reminiscent of classic LucasArts adventure games, as well as Double Fine’s more recent offerings. The voice acting is fun, with the clear highlight being the voice of The Cave itself, charming yet filled with menace. Other characters are voiced in an over the top hammy fashion which is the trademark of Double Fine games, and that’s just fine with me. This game is laugh out loud funny, as any good Double Fine game should be.

Still, it’s not enough, and The Cave stands as a bitterly disappointing experience, crippled by some baffling design flaws. There could have been a great game here, and there certainly are glimpses of something brilliant. This is a rare misstep for Gilbert and Double Fine; despite that, I still have full faith in both. I can’t wait to see where Gilbert goes next, and I’m thoroughly looking forward to Broken Age, Double Fine’s Kickstarted adventure game. the-cave_1_pac_m_121218150144

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

I love Neil Gaiman, but I’d somehow managed to not read Stardust until now. Whilst not my favourite novel of his, Stardust is an excellent little read, very clever but entirely unpretentious and earnest. More so than any other Gaiman novel which I’ve read, this one reads like a labour of love, the kind of novel that could only be written by someone who loves a good story more than anything.

Stardust is a modern fairy tale set in the early 19th century and tells the story of Tristran Thorn, a young man in love with the beautiful Victoria Forester. Tristran and Victoria live in ‘Wall’, a town which stands on the border of our mundane world and ‘Faerie’, the land of magic. Tristran is half fairy himself, but he doesn’t know it. When they witness a shooting star fall into Faerie, Victoria promises her hand if Tristran brings the star back to her. Against expectations, Tristran embarks into Faerie to find the star. He isn’t the only one however, having to compete with witches and sinister Princes to reach his star.

The ‘Fearie’ world which Gaiman conjures is an unabashedly fantastical one. Every whimsical imagining is fair game in this world, and it’s actually a joy to see a writer be so unconstrained. When creating a fantasy world it’s always vital to have a sense of internal logic and coherency. This is where George R. R. Martin and Brandon Sanderson excel, creating worlds which feel real and consistent, understanding that limits are as important as ideas. This is almost always the case. Stardust is a rare exception. The world of Stardust is a work of constant imagination, built upon myths and legend, yet putting a fresh spin on these ideas. Gaiman’s inventiveness doesn’t come from the dragging oddities from nowhere, but from taking elements of our own mythology and our own world and finding the strange within them.

The sheer inventiveness and sense of fun in the creation of this world uplifts everything. It isn’t all fun though, and Gaiman isn’t afraid to shy away from the darker scenes from fairytales, with some downright disturbing and scary scenes mixing well with the sense of wondrous joy. However, the plot isn’t particularly tightly structured, and the conclusion isn’t nearly as explosive as it should have been. The story ends rather neatly, with the most promising major confrontations coming to nothing. I suppose I had no right to expect anything else; this is a fairy tale, so  a fairy tale ending is to be expected. There are plenty of reasons to read, but the most important to me will always be to be told a story. Stardust tells a wonderful, exciting and interesting story.

Gaiman’s style has always been a wonderful mixture of the arch mythological fantasy style with the mundane, with the juxtaposition of these two opposing concepts often being the root of a lot of his comedy. There are some wonderfully plain spoken, blithe moments slotted among the fairy tale style of the rest of the novel. Gaiman is a clever, but unpretentious, writer, with no showoffiness, letting the quality of his writing speak for itself.

Gaiman’s protagonists are often straight men, reacting to the madness around them without  having particularly distinguishing characteristics in themselves, such as Shadow from American God, Richard from Neverwhere and Fat Charlie from Anansi Boys. Tristran is another of these; I’m not criticising, this is an archetype that works for Gaiman. The characters which intrigued me most were the competitive and sinister princes of Stormhold, named Primus through to Septimus. This element of the story was probably my favourite part, and I would have loved to have seen more from these seven. A spin off prequel telling of the exploits of these seven brothers would be very welcome in my mind.

Stardust is a lovely little novel. It’s not a long book, so it’s not difficult to fit into your reading schedule. It may not be my favourite Neil Gaiman novel, but it’s a lot of fun and well worth a look.

stardust

Outland for XBLA and PSN

Outland is a game which flew entirely under my radar. I generally have a fairly good idea of most major gaming releases, but I somehow missed this one entirely. I only gave it a try when it popped up on an XBLA sale, and I’m very glad that I did.

The protagonist of Outland is an unnamed and unspeaking man who, receiving dreams of a mythical and magical past, visits a shaman to get an explanation. The man is the heir to a great hero of the past, who had battled the two ‘Sisters of Chaos’, imprisoning them and dying in the process. The Sisters have escaped their imprisonment, so the shaman sends the hero on a journey to gain the powers needed to stop the Sisters.

Much of the plot is told through a gravelly voice narrator. There’s actually possibly a bit too much plot here, with a bad case of telling rather than showing. We’re informed after defeating each boss that they weren’t always bad, that they were once pillars of goodness, but this isn’t really relevant and doesn’t at all come across in the design or behaviour of the creatures themselves. There’s a potentially interesting world here, but it’s story isn’t told particularly well, and the game wouldn’t have suffered at all for paring the plot back even further.

Outland is, superficially at least, a platformer. The player is a silhouette who leaps and kills his way through the environment, gaining abilities which can be useful to access secrets in previous levels, giving this game something of a ‘Metroidvania’ feel to it. Outland’s twist comes from a mechanic stolen shamelessly from Ikaruga; the player can change between being red or blue, with lasers of that colour not effecting them. This starts out simple enough, but by the end you’ll be switching back and forth constantly, dodging between lasers and trying to take out enemies that can only be destroyed whilst the player is the opposite colour. Outland gets very difficult, and at times it strongly reminded me of the ‘bullet hell’ genre of shmup. The boss battles are fun and inventive too, usually involving taking out some giant horrible monster, and these can also get incredibly hard.

Probably one of this game’s biggest flaws lies in its weak opening. The player doesn’t actually gain the colour swapping ability until the second world, with the first world acting as a stylish, and not unentertaining, platformer. It doesn’t help that your given one of those moments where it shows you at full power before the game gets going, as in Metroid Prime, before yanking them away from you. This makes the wait until you get these abilities rather dull; it’s not good game design to withhold your main mechanic for a fifth of the game!

Outland takes place in five worlds, which do a good job of not being simply driven by the standard ‘grass world fire world ice world’ archetype. That said, there’s not that much of a distinction between these worlds. It’s visually very stylish, and this minimalist style is actually for the best; with the red and blue lasers flying everywhere as the player soars between them, dynamic backdrops would only serve as a distraction.

This is an incredibly stylish game, with the substance to back it up. The animation for our hero really contributes to the experience. There’s a sense of exhilaration as the player soars through the levels which simply wouldn’t have been possible with lesser animation, so a lot of credit is due there. The visual design of this game is subtle, not as obviously stylised as Limbo or as beautiful as Braid, but all the better for being understated.

Outland is a really cool, fun game. It takes plenty of elements from other games, and combines them to create something completely new. I’ve never played a ‘bullet-hell’ platformer before, and I’m grateful to Outland for giving me the opportunity to do so.

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The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett

The Painted Man is the debut novel of Peter V. Brett, the first in the ‘Demon Cycle.’ It’s always fun starting a new series, and structurally this novel reminds me a lot of The Eye of the World, the debut novel in the ‘Wheel of Time’ series. It’s a lot darker though, going places that many other authors are fearful to tread. Sometimes Brett handles this well, but sometimes it’s rather clumsily handled. This is a debut novel however, and is still enjoyable despite being fairly rough around the edges.

The Painted Man takes place in world on the decline, known as Thesa. Once a place of great magic and science, for the past three hundred years almost all of this creation has been undone by the ‘Core.’ Every night, elemental demons known as ‘Corelings’ rise from the ground to wreak havoc on the surface. The only thing that can hold them back are magical ‘wards’, which can be etched into any surface. This isn’t a perfect art however, and sometimes these fail. This novel follows three protagonists, Arlen, Leesha and Rojer from childhood through to adulthood. Arlen flees his village following a coreling attack to become a ‘Messenger’, those intrepid souls who roam between towns and villages. Leesha is a young woman who becomes a ‘Herb Gatherer’, a healer, as well as getting caught up in the small town politics of her home village. Rojer is a young man who, after his parents are killed by demons, is trained as a ‘Jongleur’, essentially a jester. Although initially separate, these three characters are drawn together towards a common destiny.

The world of The Painted Man has some truly tantalising elements to it, particularly regarding their scientifically advanced ancient past. A society which faces nightly demon attacks will naturally develop some idiosyncrasies, and Brett does a good job of presenting varied and interesting responses to their nightly war. The ‘Krasian’ people of the south, who fight the demons rather than hide from them, are interesting, but let down by an all too obvious comparison to Islam in their custom. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with basing fantasy people of real peoples, if anything it’s sometimes the only way to create a compelling fictional society, but there must be a clear distinction, and these patriarchal warrior priests who force their women to cover themselves in veils and robes seems uncomfortably close to a Fox News vision of Islam. Although there is obviously a kernel of truth to this depiction, there is always more nuance in reality than the media necessarily depict, and The Painted Man fails to convey this nuance. It’s perfectly possible that future novels will improve this; Brett’s worldbuilding shows promise, but it’s rough.

The three part plot structure works well, with all three characters feeling distinct and interesting. I never felt annoyed to be dragged away from Arlen, the main lead, probably because the plot was still balanced mostly towards him. I disliked the way that the ‘Wheel of Time’ novels abandoned its main character Rand al’Thor, and I really hope that it doesn’t go this way with Arlen in future novels in the series. The novel keeps up a good pace, with nothing that felt like padding.

Brett is an extremely competent writer, with the odd irritation likely coming down to poor editing. He writes in a plain style familiar to fans of fantasy, fairly characterless but he has plenty of time to develop a signature narrative voice. Like Brandon Sanderson, he particularly sparkles in dialogue, as well as having a clear knack for fight scenes. In a series about fighting demons, an ability to create good fight scenes is a must, and Brett manages admirably.

The characterisation is generally good, although a few of the characters fall too easily into fantasy archetypes. I enjoyed the character of Leesha, particularly her wry wit, but her penchant for bursting into tears at every moment of difficulty made me somewhat weary. The supporting cast are interesting, some undermining the clichés that we’ve gotten used to and others reinforcing them. One of the most interesting characters is Jardir, a Krasian warrior, who only appears briefly but apparently plays a bigger role in the sequel.

All in all, The Painted Man is an enjoyable read, if not a particularly revolutionary one. Some authors immediately hooked me, such as Patrick Rothfuss and Stephen Erikson, but it’s not uncommon for the debut release to have little effect on me to then become hooked on later novels. Elantris didn’t do much for me, but Brandon Sanderson ended up being one of my favourite authors. There’s much better fantasy out there, but if you just fancy a light, fun action packed read, you could do a lot worse than The Painted Manpainted man

BioShock: Infinite for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I can’t stop thinking about BioShock: Infinite. It was a deeply flawed experience, one with mechanics which utterly contradicted its story, lacking the elegance of the original BioShock but, nonetheless, I can’t stop thinking about it. The perfect scores this game has received are silly, this game is full of glaring flaws, but it is nonetheless one of the most intense, fascinating and immersive gaming experiences which I have ever enjoyed.

BioShock: Infinite leaves Rapture under the water and brings us instead into the floating sky city of Columbia. Just as Rapture was an extreme reflection of deep sickness in American culture, as is Columbia. Where Rapture was founded on an economic basis, a reflection of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy, Columbia reflects the American proclivity for veneration of its own past and deification of the founding fathers. Columbia isn’t all stars and stripes and statues of George Washington , but hides an uglier side. Columbia is a city built on white supremacy, superficially beautiful yet fundamentally sick at its core. Columbia had been launched in 1901, at first a pride of America, but later rejected by the US government following a brutal slaughter of Chinese civilians during the Boxer Rebellion. The leader of Columbia, the Messianic Zachary Comstock, seceded from the Union and took his city into the sky.

BioShock: Infinite picks up in 1912, with the player taking on the role of Booker DeWitt, a war veteran and Pinkerton agent and summoned to Columbia with the message to ‘retrieve the girl and wipe away the debt.’ It’s not long before DeWitt is identified as the ‘false shepherd’ by Comstock, and he begins a desperate fight against his forces. Soon DeWitt meets Elizabeth, a young woman held in isolation in a tower for most of her life, protected by the mysterious ‘Songbird.’ Elizabeth has the ability to open ‘tears’ into parallel universes, with questions regarding quantum science playing a key role in the plot. Together Booker and Elizabeth fight their way through Columbia to find a way back to the surface, becoming drawn into the civil conflict between the ‘Founders’ and the ‘Vox Populi’, a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow Comstock’s corrupt state.

Columbia is gorgeous, packed with the wonderful detail that made Rapture so great a location. BioShock: Infinite is packed with detail and effort; it’s not difficult to see why this game took so long to develop. Despite all this, Columbia doesn’t quite hold together as a location as well as Rapture did. Rapture, as a fallen city, actually felt like a living ecosystem. The Big Daddies and Little Sisters roamed independently of the player, with an believable hierarchy forming in the city. Columbia isn’t quite as believable as a location, with the more linear gameplay approach making certain areas feel more like shooting galleries than a functioning location. The best moments in Columbia are the quiet ones, the moments when you’re not firing a gun, where we can play carnival games and listen to barbershop quartets, but the second the shooting starts the illusion begins to fall apart. That said, Columbia only suffers by comparison to Rapture, a comparison which is inevitable. If this was the first BioShock game Columbia would be hailed as a revolutionary setting, but next to Rapture it suffers. There are some decent sized levels to explore, but they’re not nearly as open as those in the original BioShock and the game suffers for it. Rapture was very much the star of the original BioShock, and I expected the star of this game to be Columbia, but that isn’t the case. The star of the game is something much more human; Elizabeth.

I had some fear that BioShock: Infinite could end up being one big escort quest, but that isn’t the case at all. Elizabeth is never anything but useful, throwing you health, ammo and cash when it’s needed and opening tears to bring in otherworldly assistance. She’s also an incredibly likeable character, with her relationship with Booker (who, unlike Jack from BioShock, talks) forming the crux of the story. Although Columbia may not hold together as well as Rapture, the actual plot of BioShock: Infinite is much better. BioShock had some fascinating and vivid characters, like Andrew Ryan and Sander Cohen, but it lacked a human element for that variety of emotional investment. BioShock: Infinite is a much more human story, with Elizabeth emerging as the absolute star.

On a some other levels however, the plot of BioShock Infinite fails to live up to its predecessors. Comstock never feels as viable an antagonist than Ryan did, with the most interesting characters receiving relatively little air time in the story. BioShock: Infinite is one of those games that isn’t about what you think it is, and the sheer scale and ambition of the plot as it begins to unravel towards the end is staggering. This game plays with big ideas, and best of all pulls it off. I’ve played a lot of games lately which have been as ambitious as this, but not quite made it, but BioShock: Infinite does, with gusto. I honestly feel that the final act of BioShock: Infinite will mark a turning point in gaming history, weaving a tale which is unabashedly complicated, yet still adheres to a rigid internal logic. You may not necessarily understand what’s going on, but all the information you need is there, the game doesn’t patronise by putting all the pieces together for you.

Booker is armed with the standard array of firearms, with the introduction of plasmid-esque Vigors giving this game that unique BioShock feel. One of the most fun gameplay mechanics is the way that Booker can latch onto ‘sky rails’, which rocket him around the sky from which he can rain fire down on his foes, or leap from above in a deadly attack. This is incredibly exhilarating, and gives the battles a mobile, fast paced edge which the original BioShock lacked. This is a game which rewards flexibility and quick thinking, with a quick jump onto a sky rail or well chosen Vigor often being the only thing that can pull you back from death. This means that the tactical edge of the original is pretty much nonexistent however, giving the battles a somewhat mindless feel which seems at odd with the actual mechanics. These battles don’t suit the mature story being told elsewhere, with the cartoonishly ridiculous violence not gelling at all with the story being told. Don’t get me wrong, BioShock: Infinite’s shooting is often a lot of fun, particularly when sky rails are involved, but it’s also fairly uninspired, with the basic mechanics just feeling slightly off.

BioShock: Infinite isn’t a long game by any stretch, but it’s also got a lot of meat on its bones. Wherever possible it’s worth straying from the beaten path, with the best reward being ‘voxophones’, audio diaries basically, which often illuminate some of the more opaque elements of the plot. It’s also worth it to scour for ‘infusions’, which boost Booker’s stats, or ‘gear’, items of clothing which give Booker new abilities. Although these levels are still much more linear than Rapture’s, exploration is rewarded, and it’s always worth doing so.

BioShock: Infinite is a stunning looking game; Columbia is gorgeous, marrying superficial beauty with a clear sickness underneath. Elizabeth is a marvel, possibly the most ‘human’ gaming companion which I’ve ever seen. Her facial expressions are subtle, but expressive, and she moves in a way which truly reflects her personality and charm. The major characters generally all look good, but the minor NPCs which populate Columbia have possibly some of the most hideous gaming faces which I’ve ever seen. Seriously, they approach Oblivion levels of horrible. Thankfully, the voice acting is pretty much all excellent. I was particularly impressed by Courtnee Draper’s performance as Elizabeth, as well as Troy Baker’s performance as Booker. Booker at first seems to be your standard ‘world weary wise cracking stoic gruff voiced badass’, but as the character grows Baker does a great job at wearing the transition. I was incredibly impressed by Kimbery Brooks as Daisy Fitzroy, the leader of the Vox Populi. I was less impressed by the voice performance for Comstock, which lacked the charming eloquence of Andrew Ryan. Andrew Ryan was such a great character because there was something persuasive about his objectivist arguments, but Comstock lacks this, never really managing to come through as much more than a crazy old racist. This game has some great music as well, with the highlights coming from bizarre covers of contemporary songs, such as a barbershop version of ‘God Only Knows’ by The Beach Boys and a fairground cover of ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ by Cyndi Lauper. Don’t worry about how they’re playing these tunes in 1912 either, there is an explanation and it’s pretty fascinating.

I went back and watched some of the early ‘gameplay’ videos for BioShock: Infinite, and it looks like a different game. This was a shooter that lived up to the other elements of the game, stunning in its ambitious open ended scale; clearly, too ambitious. BioShock: Infinite feels like a watered down version of the game which we were shown, and I can’t help but feel that we were rather deceived.

So, there are a lot of criticisms up there. Honestly? Ignore them. BioShock: Infinite is a game which must be played, something which transcends it’s many flaws to become something truly wonderful. Does it have the same impact as the original? I don’t quite think so, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be played. It’s an FPS in which the shooting doesn’t really work, and yet it’s still an utterly stunning overall experience. Seriously, everyone should play this game, I cannot recommend it enough. bioshock_infinite_2

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