Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “August, 2013”

Pikmin 3 for Wii U

A lot of people are wondering what the single game to ‘save’ the Wii U will be, the killer app so great people have to purchase a console to buy it. However, in my opinion the whole concept of a single game saving a console is nonsense; look at the 3DS, which went from an awful position to a great one in two years, but I can’t think of a single individual game which saved the device. Instead, the 3DS has steadily built up a great library at a decent rate, with Nintendo ensuring a good stream of releases to keep any 3DS owner busy. This is what I hope will happen with the Wii U, and Pikmin 3 may just be the game to kick off that trend.

Rather than following Olimar and Louie from the earlier Gamecube Pikmin games (although they do appear in a non-playable capacity), Pikmin 3 instead follows three explorers from the planet of Koppai, who have come to the planet of ‘PN4-404’ in search for fruit to feed their planet, which is suffering a food crisis. Their ship crashes, and the three crewmembers, Alph, Brittany and Captain Charlie are scattered to different parts of the planet. They are soon assisted by the adorable plant creatures known as Pikmin, re-join forces, and seek to repair their ship and gather enough fruit to save their planet.

Pikmin 3 is fairly beat you around the skull preachy, but it’s a good message so why not? The three protagonists are likeable, with an effort made to infuse them with character, with little details such as the Captain’s love for his rubber ducky and an awkward love triangle standing as entirely unnecessary, but still very likeable additions.

The Pikmin series is arguably the best experiment in console RTS gameplay, which succeeds by not attempting to imitate its PC cousins and provide instead a much more hands on approach to managing your squad. Gameplay wise, things are haven’t changed much since Pikmin 2; the focus is still on working your way around levels, using your different Pikmin for different tasks, building bridges and bringing loads of stuff back to your ship. The time limit from the first Pikmin returns, although it’s very generous, and I never even came slightly close to running out of time. Pikmin 3 definitely isn’t a revolution, but a refinement on the original game’s concept.

Of course, the most obvious change is the control method, although there are loads available. Various combinations of the Wii U Gamepad, Wii Remote and Nunchuck and the Pro Controller are on offer, but the general consensus is that the best control method is the Wii Remote and Nunchuck, with the Gamepad used as a map. The motion controls work brilliantly in Pikmin 3, offering a level of accuracy which completely surpasses the originals, with the ability to view the map on the gamepad, and assign orders to your squads, making multitasking and strategizing much easier. Whilst I was pointing at the screen with my Wiimote and poking at my tablet controller, I was struck that the multiple ‘gimmicks’ were actually reinforcing the gameplay rather than undermining it, and I then became thoroughly depressed trying to think of another Nintendo games that I could apply that to. The wacky new control methods are absolutely to Pikmin 3’s advantage, and convinced me of the Wii U’s potential better than anything else I’ve played on the system.

There are other shake ups to the formula, with the most obvious being the three team leaders. In theory, this means that you can have three squads doing things at once, to maximise efficiency. This would have been quite unworkable without the Gamepad, but the ability to send secondary teams off for other tasks works well. I never really used all three, unless a puzzle demanded it, and the game probably could have worked with only two, but it doesn’t take away from the experience. There are a couple of new Pikmin types to; the Flying Pikmin which are quite self-explanatory, and the Rock Pikmin which can destroy structures too tough for the other types. The fire absorbing Red Pikmin, the electricity conducting Yellow Pikmin and the water breathing Blue Pikmin make their return from the earlier games. The levels are very well designed, with an almost Metroidvania approach taken to the level structure. The earlier games did this as well, but I think that Pikmin 3’s levels are the most ingenious yet.

Pikmin 3 isn’t a particularly long game, and does end a bit before I was ready for it to, but this is made up for with the surprisingly excellent multiplayer. Any regular readers may have noticed that I usually completely ignore multiplayer, but after a highly enjoyable evening with a friend playing through Pikmin 3’s ‘Bingo Battle’ multiplayer, I can’t not mention it. Both players are placed on one of twelve maps, which contain a collection of fruits, items and enemies which can be collected. Each player as a separate ‘bingo card’, and when they form a line of collected items to win. The game ends up having quite strategic element as you have to choose between focusing on finishing your own lines or sabotaging your foes attempts. It’s a lot of fun, and an understated part of the package.

The planet of PNF-404, which Nintendo barely even attempt to hide being Earth in a vastly distant future, is unbelievably gorgeous. This is the first Wii U game that Nintendo has made which really shows off what they can do with the boosted visual power over the Wii. Pikmin 3 is a lovely looking game, with charming music and great sound design. Nintendo aren’t a company who skimp on such things, and the love poured into Pikmin 3 is clear.

Pikmin 3 is the best game for the Wii U so far, and one which I hope helps to lift the console’s flagging fortunes. I hope we see more Pikmin from Nintendo sooner rather than later, perhaps in the form of DLC. download

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Redshirts doesn’t so much break the fourth wall as methodically take it apart brick by brick, and then destroy those bricks so that wall can never be put up again. What starts as an entertaining Star Trek parody turns into a head scratching study of the entire notion of creativity and the relationship between fictional characters and their creators, which doesn’t always quite work but always impresses in its ambition.

Many science fiction fans will have heard of the Redshirts concept; in the original Star Trek, minor characters who essentially existed to be killed off to add tension or angst for the main characters usually wore red shirts, and it has become something of a joke that anyone wearing a red shirt in Star Trek is doomed. Although it is obviously this that Redshirts is parodying, and Star Trek in general, a knowledge of Star Trek really isn’t that important. To my shame, my experience with Star Trek barely extends beyond the J.J Abrams movies and a handful of episodes of The Next Generation, but I don’t think I missed much in Redshirts, and as the novel goes  on it becomes less and less about Star Trek as about fiction in general.

Ensign Andrew Dahl has been assigned to Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union, a human galactic empire hundreds of years in the future. It’s not long before he notices a strange pattern, that the death rates for away missions on the Intrepid outstrips that of any other ship, and that proximity to a handful of leading figures, such as Captain Abernathy or Chief Scientist Officer Q’eeng, massively raises the chances of death. Dahl, and a group of fellow underlings, decide to root out the cause of this mystery and save themselves from their seemingly inevitable deaths.

Although the opening chapters are enjoyable and goofy, things get really interesting about 100 pages in. It’s really hard to explain what I loved about this book without spoiling it, but let’s just say that Redshirts is far from afraid to extend beyond being a simple Star Trek parody. I wasn’t sure about the left field turn this novel takes at first, but as I read I began to understand what Scalzi was going for, and it all slotted together. It’s a slightly uneven book, and at seems at times that even Scalzi himself wasn’t quite prepared for the turn this novel takes, and is winging it slightly, but it all helps make Redshirts so much more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

This is the first novel that I’ve read by Scalzi, but I’m certainly intrigued enough to consider coming back for more. The dialogue is refreshingly naturalistic, and Scalzi is able to show us the distinction between the style of language often seen in science fiction and the way people actually speak. It’s funny too, laugh out loud funny, and if you wanted to the first couple of hundred pages could function as a perfectly good comedy. Redshirts gets less and less funny as it goes on, but it’s replaced with a real humanity and charm. There are some scenes here which are genuinely really moving, almost tear-jerkingly so, but they don’t feel out of synch with rest of the novel due to the gradual shift in tone.

Dahl is an entertainingly droll protagonist, but overall the cast are slightly underwhelming. Although lots of them are likeable, they all feel slightly flat, but I do wonder if that was the point, and whether Scalzi’s playing some kind of post-modern game with us. It’s not so much the characters that make this book, but what it has to say about the act of writing itself.

It’s difficult to really sell Redshirts without giving too much away, but I really recommend giving it a go, even if you’re not a Star Trek fan. It’s a really interesting book, which doesn’t always succeed, but is nonetheless utterly original and unlike anything else I’ve read. download

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor: Overclocked for Nintendo 3DS

That may be one of the most…Japanese game titles I’ve ever seen. The Shin Megami Tensei series and its myriad spin-offs are apparently a big deal to JRPG fans, but this is my first. The original Devil Survivor spin-off was released back on the Nintendo DS, but this 3DS remake is my window into this strange and complex game. Devil Survivor is a deep and difficult game, with an interesting story to wrap it all up.

Devil Survivor takes place in a Tokyo in the grip of a major crisis; the city is in lockdown, and demons are roaming the streets. The protagonist (silent and named by the player) and his friends Atsuro and Yuzu are given COMPs by the enigmatic hacker (and the protagonist’s cousin) Naoya; COMPs are personal computers with a startling resemblance to a 3DS, which have been altered to summon demons and bind them to their will. The protagonist can see timers above everyone’s head counting down the days until they die; no one in Tokyo has more than seven days. Our young team set out to discover what it is that will kill everyone, and avert it.

I wasn’t really expecting to get as drawn into the story as I was, but it’s actually a really complex and multi-layered tale. As you travel around Tokyo you meet loads of supporting characters, who shed new light on the current situation, and the events that led up to it. It’s a well-rounded cast, from the pugilistic street tough Kaido to the troubled indie singer Haru. Many of these characters can, through your choices, join your team, and with one or two exceptions they’re an interesting bunch (the primary exception being the unbelievably irritating cosplay girl Midori). When not battling demons, you can wander Tokyo and meet characters for extra conversations, which can unlock or block paths to the multiple alternate endings this game has on offer. From reading up on the others from the one I got, there’s a huge amount of variety in terms of what can happen, and they all sound interesting in their own ways. The plot keeps plenty of plates spinning, with a lot of characters to keep track of and different groups scheming and feuding, with chapters for individual stories often coming a long time apart. I really liked this approach though, and Devil Survivor does a good job of dodging the irritating clichés which can pervade the JRPG genre.

So, gameplay wise, Devil Survivor is basically a Final Fantasy Tactics-esque turn based strategy RPG, but with combat more in common with a traditional turn based JRPG and a Pokemon-esque collecting mechanic. You have up to four humans in your team, each backed up by two demons. There isn’t really that much room for tactics in the battles themselves, with simple map design making the focus instead on preparation and making sure you have the right demons for the job. Demons can be bought at an auction with Macca, the game’s currency, but the most interesting way of getting new demons is to fuse them. Two demons can be fused together to create a new, more powerful creature, which can take skills from both of its ‘parents.’ Between battles you can choose areas of Tokyo to visit, to pursue side goals or just progress the story. Each ‘event’ that you choose eats up 30 minutes of in game time, sapping away from your seven day time limit, so sometimes you’ll have to choose which characters to see and chat to, which can affect which ending you get. There are also ‘free battles’, which take up no time, and allow you to grind for EXP or Macca.

The demon fusing mechanic is absolutely compelling, and it’s always exciting when you luck out and end up with two spare demons which fuse into your next juggernaut. Although the demons do level up, they become outclassed very quickly and your roster is constantly changing to meet the new challenges. Oh, and there are a lot of challenges. This game is hard. Brutally, punishingly hard. I spent over a week trying to take down the final boss, grinding, fusing new demons and just trying to find what worked. It’s the right kind of difficulty though, and however insurmountable a challenge seems there’s always a way, if you’re smart about it. There were some missions where you need to defend useless NPCs which did feel a bit cheap, but by and large this is a well-balanced game, and a lot of fun.

The actual battles look…well, like a DS game. There’s been no graphical upgrade (or any 3D, but who cares about that?) for the 3DS, and the game does look quite dated, especially next to the other big Japanese 3DS strategy release of this year, Fire Emblem: Awakening. Still, the actual visual design is great. The Demons vary from badass, to cute, and some to downright grotesque. Seriously, the naked asexual man beast riding a giant snake is rather horrible, but it all works in the context of the game itself. Lots of the demons are based in Japanese folklore, and this lends a bit of depth to the design. The voice acting, an addition in the 3DS version, is generally pretty good as well, and definitely of a higher quality than your average English JRPG voice over. The music is a low point, incredibly repetitive and dull, but overall Devil Survivor is a pretty slick package.

The 3DS version has an extra 8th day chapter not present in the original, but sadly I didn’t get to play it as my ending didn’t have it. This was quite disappointing, and isn’t flagged up in any way in the game. If I’d known this to be the case I would certainly have gone for another ending, so for those who played the DS original and are wondering if the extra day is worth it, I’m afraid I can’t help you.

Shin Megami Tensei: Devil Survivor: Overclocked is a complex and brutal game, but very addictive and compelling both in its mechanics and its story. If you didn’t play the original, please don’t let this fly under your radar, it’s truly excellent. download

Asura’s Wrath for Xbox 360 and PS3

Asura’s Wrath is one of the silliest games that I’ve ever played, an utterly ridiculous and over the top experience which perfectly captures the excesses of a certain kind of anime. If I were forced to make comparisons, I’d say that Asura’s Wrath is like Dragon Ball Z fused with Hindu mythology, but the aesthetic and style of Asura’s Wrath is unlike any other. Oddly enough, the fact that the actual gameplay is severely underwhelming does little to detract from the overall experience.

Asura’s Wrath takes place primarily on the planet Gaea, an Earth-like planet populated by human tribes, which is under attack from the corrupting force from beneath the earth known as the Gohma. To defend Gaea there are a civilisation of demi-Gods, who fight off the Gohma using their fleet of space craft and the Eight Guardian Generals, hugely powerful beings who can defeat scores of Gohma with their bare hands. The titular Asura is one of the Eight Guardian Generals, and is instrumental in a successful battle where the most powerful Gohma, Vlitra, is defeated and sealed away for millennia.

After the battle, Asura returns to the space station where the demi-Gods make their home, to find his wife murdered and his daughter kidnapped, after discovering that he has been framed for the murder of the Emperor. Asura is thrown from the space station to Gaea and dies. He awakens in Naraka, the realm between life and death, 12,000 years later, with the help of a mysterious Golden Spider, and makes his way back to the realm of the living. Here he finds a world where humanity has been enslaved by the demi-Gods, now known as Seven Deities, and are harvesting their souls to power their weaponry, and using Asura’s daughter as a conduit. Asura sets out to rescue his daughter and free humanity from the clutches of his former allies, taking out the Seven Deities on the way.

It’s your classic tournament Bleach-esque anime structure, but I’ve never seen this done properly in a videogame before. The closest would be in Japanese fighting games such as Tekken, but they never quite capture the ridiculous scale that these anime can have, and dear lord does Asura’s Wrath capture that scale. The first boss grows to the size of the moon and tries to crush Asura with his finger (the first boss!) and it only gets more insane from there. The game is split into chapters which are about the length of an anime episode, reinforcing the link. Asura’s loving motivation to save his daughter isn’t particularly convincing, any emotion from Asura but unbridled rage doesn’t really work, but it does give the carnage a slightly more human element. The mythology is confusing nonsense, but it’s fairly internally consistent and used to great visual effect, which is the important thing. The supporting cast of the Seven Deities are highly entertaining and well established, if not particularly complex or nuanced. In fact, Asura’s Wrath may be the least nuanced game ever. At the end of the day, despite (or perhaps because of) all of its myriad flaws, the plot kept me entertained and interested throughout, and this experiment in anime style storytelling in a videogame really works.

Now, there’s one element of Asura’s Wrath which will immediately alienate a large number of players, so I’ll get that out of the way first; Quick Time Events. There’re a lot of them. In fact, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that this is a game mostly comprised of Quick Time Events. They may be the best implemented QTEs I’ve ever seen, but QTEs they are. They mesh with the action really well, and genuinely add to the excitement rather than detracting from it as most QTEs do. The actual gameplay parts are, in a case I suspect is unique to this game, actually weaker. The insane action of the cutscenes/QTEs devolved into sluggish, dull melee combat, with your standard fast/strong attack types and little in the way of strategy or nuance. The replacement of the traditional health gauge for enemies with the ‘burst gauge’, which activates the next cutscene where Asura either finished off his foe or moves on to the next stage of the fight, really changes nothing and has absolutely zero effect on how the fights are fought. The other main gameplay sections are some quite dire rail shooter segments, which while visually stunning, are highly dull and again just become mindless blasting. It’s a shame that the bread and butter gameplay couldn’t live up to madness of the story and the presentation, but as I said it ends up not being a huge issue.

Asura’s Wrath is an absolutely stunning game, with its mixture of science fiction with Hindu and Buddhist imagery creating a world unlike any other. The fights are very well choreographed, and are a joy to watch (I won’t count the QTEs as actually playing). The voice acting is extremely hammy, but that’s a classic part of the anime experience and it all ends up working. The sound track is lovely too, with some tracks that are genuinely beautiful, with the juxtaposition of these gorgeous and haunting melodies with the carnage being unleashed giving me some real frissons. The sound mixing isn’t great overall though, particularly when it comes to character voices, which often cannot be heard over the sound of the music or other sound effects. It’s a problem which lasts all the way through the game, and mars the entire experience, but it’s not a deal breaker.

Finally, I’m going to address the elephant in the room; the DLC. Asura’s Wrath ends on a pretty massive cliffhanger, and generated huge controversy for selling the final chapter as DLC. I…really can’t defend this. The final chapter is excellent, and I couldn’t imagine the game without it, but that makes the whole thing worse, not better. I picked up Asura’s Wrath and the DLC in a digital sale for a pittance, so it wasn’t an issue for me, but this may understandably put a lot of people off.

If you can get past the QTEs, the poor gameplay and the sickening DLC practises, Asura’s Wrath is an amazing experience. Put like that it rings a bit hollow doesn’t it? If approached as a videogame, you may find Asura’s Wrath wanting, but as a multimedia experience it’s fascinating, and highly entertaining. There’s really nothing else like it, and if you can pick it up for a decent price I really recommend giving it a go. download

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. for Nintendo 3DS

I love the Mario RPGs, but I’ve been a bit concerned about their future as of late. After the massive disappointment of Paper Mario: Sticker Star, I’ve been concerned that Nintendo’s program of watering down their RPGs was set to continue, but thankfully, Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. puts those concerns to rest. Each game in the Mario & Luigi series introduces a new gimmick; in Partners in Time it was the addition of Baby Mario and Baby Luigi, and in Bowser’s Inside Story it was the ability to control the brothers’ long-time foe. In Dream Team Bros, the gimmick is the ability to enter Luigi’s dreams.

This game primarily takes place on P’illo Island, a sleep themed tourist destination. Although it generally looks quite nice, it’s not particularly engaging to explore, largely due to the clichéd nature of its environs. There’s the desert part, the field part, the beach part, all stuff that we’ve come to expect from these games. Much more interesting is the dream world in Luigi’s head, although not quite enough is done with this. There was potential to go to some very strange places in this game, and Dream Team Bros doesn’t quite live up to it. Honestly, the Mario & Luigi games haven’t had a truly engaging setting since the Beanbean Kingdom of the original. This area is really the only one in which the game is surpassed by the other recent Mario RPG for 3DS, Sticker Star. Thankfully, Dream Team Bros. surpasses Sticker Star in almost every other sense.

Princess Peach, the Mario Bros. and her entourage vacation to P’illo Island after an invitation from its reclusive leader. It is soon discovered that Luigi’s extreme ability to sleep anywhere means that he can open portals to the world of dreams. It’s not long before a foul bat-like being known as Antasma is unleashed. Antasma is the foe of the ancient P’illo race, who have been petrified as stone pillows that can only be released if Luigi sleeps on them and Mario rescues them in his dreams. Mario & Luigi are joined by the prince of the P’illos, Dreambert, as well as Starlow from Bowser’s Inside Story, to stop Antasma and save the island.

Although the plot is naturally much more entertaining the main Mario games (and Sticker Star), it still feels like a step backwards. The Mario RPGs have traditionally been an opportunity to subvert the traditional Mario tropes, representing a knowing self-awareness on Nintendo’s part. Remember the curious and feisty Princess Peach of Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door? She’s gone, and is back to her uselessness of the main platformer series. The worst victim of this is Bowser, a character who in previous Mario RPGs emerged as probably the most interesting character in the Mario canon, a pathetic, almost masochistic figure, whose kidnappings are more motivated by bravado and insecurity rather than genuine evil. In earlier RPGs he’s a funny, obnoxious, but oddly sympathetic character, but he’s right back in standard villain mode here. Yahtzee of Zero Punctuation fame has a theory that Nintendo are intent on purging all subversive elements from their canon, and it’s hard not to concede him that point. Dream Team Bros. is definitely the least self-aware game in the Mario & Luigi series, and it suffers for it.

The P’illo Island element of Dream Team Bros. is standard Mario & Luigi; simple puzzles, some platforming and turn based battles. It’s still fun, but all the really interesting stuff happens in Luigi’s dreams. In these dreamscapes, Mario is joined by ‘Dreamy Luigi’, who is capable of many strange powers. In battle, Mario is the only active fighter, but all of his attacks are reinforced by a horde of Luigi clones, known as ‘Luiginoids.’ Special attacks are called ‘Luiginary Works’, and usually involve Mario wielding his army of Luigi’s, often using the 3DS gyroscope. Outside of battle, Luigi’s face on the touch screen can be manipulated to affect the dream world. For example, Mario and be launched around by Luigi’s moustache, or made to sneeze by tickling his nose. Returning from Bowser’s Inside Story are the giant battles, this time controlling Luigi, during which the 3DS is turned on its side and everything is controlled by the touch screen.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. is a long game, perhaps too long as by the end I was getting a little bored. The battles, both on P’illo Island and in the dream world can get very repetitive, and the puzzles are usually rather easy with solutions spelt out for too clearly. However, I did like the difficulty of this game, which is probably the hardest in the series since the original. Sometimes the difficulty can feel quite cheap; the final boss’ random healing move was infuriating, but generally failure is due to your own reflexes inability to dodge or counter attacks. There’s quite a bit of side content too, from extra P’illo folk to rescue to a large side quest involving taking photos and sliding puzzles. I didn’t really focus too much on the side quests, but it was nice to have it there, and it will easily bump the play time up by at least another five hours for those who are so inclined.

My favourite parts of the game were those that involved puzzling and platforming in the dream world, using Dreamy Luigi’s abilities in interesting and fun ways. It makes the rest of the game feel a bit vanilla by comparison, but this is the kind of game which likes to keep things fresh and surprise you. How you get through each area isn’t always completely obvious, even if the areas themselves are generic. My favourites were a Zelda-esque trading quest in seaside town and controlling a giant drill in the desert, but there are plenty of other examples of the interesting ways you progress. The combat isn’t particularly deep, but it’s generally fun and only really wears out its welcome in the last few hours or so. The giant battles were a real treat; as cool as they were in Bowser’s Inside Story, the additional power of the 3DS allows these battles to be utterly insane, with a definite nod to Japanese kaiju films in how these fights play out. The controls, all on the touch screen, can be a bit fiddly, but overall they work well. In fact, in some ways this game reminds me of those early DS games which used the touch screen constantly for gimmicks. The difference is that back then those gimmicks usually held the game back, but here they actually work very well and support the core mechanics rather than undermine them.

I wasn’t sure about the oddly more realistic graphical style when I first saw it, but it really grew on me by the end. The Bros. are very well animated, particularly in battles, with a fluidity to their movements that just wouldn’t have been possible on the DS. The giant battles in particular, which take place in full 3D, look absolutely stunning, and genuinely awesome. The music is generally pretty great too, with only a handful of standout tunes, but more than I can recall from the other Mario RPGs. Alpha Dream have apparently been working on Dream Team Bros. for four years, and that level of effort really shows in the presentation.

Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros. is an encouraging sign that Nintendo aren’t done with this kind of game, and although it can’t quite rival the heights of Bowser’s Inside Story and The Thousand Year Door, it’s a great game and definitely one of the stronger releases in the Mario RPG canon. Mario-and-Luigi-Dream-Team-Bros-artwork

Un Lun Dun by China Miéville

When I bought this book I had no idea that it was Young Adult fiction, but since I’m starting a teacher training course soon it’s good to experience some more books for younger readers to recommend to students. Un Lun Dun works brilliantly as a kids book, with China Miéville’s potent imagination providing plenty for children to enjoy, but it’s also a great read for an adult reader.

Un Lun Dun primarily takes place in the parallel city of UnLondon, a bizarre reflection of London in a parallel dimension. The elephant in the room is the immediate comparison to Neil Gaiman’s excellent Neverwhere, which also takes place in a parallel London, but Miéville’s genuinely puts an entirely unique spin personal to him upon it. Neverwhere and Un Lun Dun’s depiction of a bizarre London alternate are as different as two depictions of the same fundamental concept can be. If anything, Miéville’s Kraken felt more indebted to Neverwhere than Un Lun Dun does, with the titular city showing Miéville’s excellent world building at its best. Whether it’s Perdido Street Station’s New Crobuzon or The City & The City‘s Beszel and Ul Qoma, Miéville knows how to create a fascinating and vivid setting, and UnLondon is a great example of this.

Un Lun Dun follows two young Londoner girls, Zanna and Deeba, who are bought into the city of UnLondon after a series of strange incidences in the real world. There, Zanna finds out that she is the ‘Shwazzy’, the chosen one who is prophesised to help the city of UnLondon defeat the ‘Smog.’ Following the cleaning up of the air on our side, the infamous London smog gained sentience and fled to UnLondon, where it has been marshalling it’s power. Along the way Zanna and Deeba encounter a wide range of weird and wonderful characters to help, and hinder, their battle with the sinister Smog.

Although it’s perhaps a bit overly long for a children’s book, the pacing is still much snappier than many of Miéville’s works. This being a China Miéville book, there’s an interesting political undertone to the whole thing, and the book holds a clear message about avoiding blind trust in authority figures, and the importance of asking questions and exercising a healthy cynicism. Miéville has a lot of fun mocking the traditional fantasy pre-ordained ‘quest’ structure, and makes a conscious effort to undermine it at every turn, often with very funny consequences. Un Lun Dun is a reaction against rote storytelling for children, and it’s great to see an author trying to do something so interesting in a book like this.

The fact that he’s writing for children forces Miéville to rein himself in a bit, and the book is probably better for it. Although it’s far from dull plain prose, Miéville writes with a clarity which can be lacking in his adult fiction. Sure, we lose a bit of the linguistic grandeur which we come to expect from Miéville, but we also lack the tiresome rough patches that can invade his work.

Although Zanna is the ‘Shwazzy’, the story is primarily told from her friend Deeba’s perspective, and she’s the real star. Deeba is a great character, brave and strong, but also funny and droll; she’s the perfect kind of role model for young girls reading this book, and is the kind of character we rarely see written by male authors for children. There’s a strong streak of Lyra Belacqua to her, with the less well fleshed out Zanna seeming to in some ways be a parody of the ‘too good to be real but ultimately dull’ female protagonist we often see in fantasy written for children. There’s a charming supporting cast too, with plenty of highly strange figures, such as Brokkenboll, the lord of broken umbrellas, and Curdle, Deeba’s pet milk carton.

Un Lun Dun may not quite reach the dizzying heights of Perdido Street Station, The Scar or The City & The City, but it’s nonetheless a great read for adults and children alike. It’s that ideal combination of funny, scary and intelligent that the best children books should be, and one which I would recommend for any parent whose child has a streak of the macabre. nyt_unlondon_gluekit

The Fourth Bear by Jasper Fforde

The Fourth Bear is the second novel is Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next spin-off ‘Nursery Crime’ series. The first novel, The Big Over Easy, was a lot of fun but it didn’t quite win me over to the concept of solving nursery rhyme themed crime in Reading as well as The Eyre Affair won me over to the concept of literary detectives in Swindon. Overall, The Fourth Bear is an improvement over The Big Over Easy, but as fun as it is, Jack Spratt still can’t quite eclipse Thursday Next.

Following the Nursery Crime Division’s rise to success following the events of The Big Over Easy, Jack Spratt and team are once again the whipping boy of the Reading police force, due to the bungling of a case involving a girl in a little red hood and her grandmother being eaten by a wolf. Jack is suspended (again), with his sanity now in question, but he is nonetheless drawn into the investigation into a missing journalist and bear rights activist Goldilocks. At the same time, Jack’s psychotic serial killing nemesis The Gingerbreadman has escaped from his asylum and threatens to resume his murderous rampage.

The nature of this strange setting, created during the events of The Well of Lost Plots, is expanded upon slightly in this book, and actually raises some interesting questions. In settings as strange as this one, a chaotic and loose approach to internal logic is usually taken, and this approach is normally the right one to go for. Fforde does elaborate somewhat on how the existence of nursery rhyme characters is an otherwise normal Reading works, with the slightly more grounded setting actually allowing the comedy and silliness to soar higher.

The Fourth Bear is much more tightly plotted than The Big Over Easy; plot structure is Fforde’s biggest weakness, with his infectious writing energy sometimes creating books which border being utter messes. The relevance and connections between the major story arcs are better established here than in many of his others, which is a bit of relief.

The jokes still fly thick and fast, but Fforde actually shows himself quite good at genuine human drama too; we saw a bit of this is the Thursday Next books during the eradicated Landen storyline, but I think this is the best case of it that I’ve seen. One scene in particular was actually very moving, although it being Jasper Fforde this still ended with a punchline. Still, this book is a comedy first, and the jokes are as good as ever.

Jack’s obvious nature as a nursery rhyme character himself is finally dealt with here, after having been largely ignored during The Big Over Easy, and it actually creates some real depth to him, although his droll sardonic attitude is still the defining character trait, which I wouldn’t have any other way. Ashley, the Rambosian alien introduced in The Big Over Easy, plays a much bigger role in The Fourth Bear, and the novel is all the better for it; Ashley is a wonderfully sweet and funny character, and I was very glad to see him gain the prominence he deserved. The Gingerbreadman also makes a hell of a villain; Fforde makes him genuinely creepy and unsettling, which is highly impressive considering that The Gingerbreadman is…well, a ginger bread man.

The Fourth Bear is funny and infectious stuff, as every Jasper Fforde book is, and is a definite improvement over The Big Over Easy. I’d be very happy to see more from Jack, Mary and Ashley, but before then I’m switching back over to the main Thursday Next books. One thing’s for sure; I am not done with Jasper Fforde!tfb_sf

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Oh God I love starting a new fantasy series so much; that sense of potential and possibility is thrilling to me, and Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, the first in his ‘The First Law’ trilogy, kept me entertained pretty much the entire way through. Abercrombie is definitely part of the Martin/Erikson breed of fantasy writers, rather than the slightly more mythical and optimistic Sanderson/Rothfuss crowd. For those who like their fantasy bloody and dark, The Blade Itself will be just for them.

The Blade Itself primarily concerns itself with the ‘Union’, an empire with its base in the centre of the world, which has spread it’s imperial limbs outwards. It is still recovering from a brutal war ten years before with the desert Empire of Gurkhul to the south, and now finds itself at risk from both sides, as the King of the North Bethod seeks to liberate the imperial province of Angland and the new Gurkhish Emperor musters his forces to retake the Union city of Dagoska. Similarly to Martin’s setting, magic has largely faded from the world of ‘The First Law’, although it certainly plays a larger role than it does in ‘A Song of Ice and Fire.’ Although there’s little obviously unique in Abercrombie’s setting, his world building is good, and I was certainly drawn into the setting. Lots is hinted at but not revealed yet, so I’m confident that there’s more interesting stuff to come in the following novels.

The Blade Itself primarily follows three characters; Jezal dan Luthar is an arrogant Union nobleman and military officer who is being trained for the annual fencing contest in the Union capitol of Adua. Sand dan Glokta was a decorated military officer, and former victor of the fencing contest himself, who had been captured and horrible tortured by the Gurkhish in the previous war. Crippled by his ordeal, Glokta finds his new calling as a torturer himself, a job for which he is uniquely qualified. Logen Ninefingers is a Northern ‘barbarian’ with a terrifying reputation, but as we find him he is much calmer and philosophical. Logen is summoned to meet Bayaz, an ancient wizard known as the ‘First of the Magi’, due to his unique ability to speak to spirits. As well as these three primary leads, we also have a handful of POVs from the Dogman, a former companion of Logen’s, Collem West, a rare Union commoner who gained high military rank, and Ferro Maljinn, a former Gurkhish slave out for vengeance upon her cruel masters.

The plot is pleasantly tightly structured, and we’re never really left wondering what the relevance of each story is. The Blade Itself is fundamentally concerned with introducing them to us separately and then bringing them together and watching the sparks fly. Some elements of the story are more interesting than others, with Logen’s story with Bayaz standing as probably the best. Although I really liked Inquisitor Glokta as  a character,  his storyline involving a potential conspiracy against the crown didn’t really hold much interest for me, but hopefully more will come of this in following books. Similarly, Jezal’s training for the Contest lacked any real narrative drive due to how damn unlikeable Jezal is as a character, sapping any investment in this storyline that we might otherwise have had. Still, The Blade Itself is largely compelling stuff, and certainly hooked me for the following books.

Abercrombie writes well for a debut novelist, with pleasantly naturalistic and un-portentous dialogue, with a good eye for comedy as well. He’s less strong on the fight scenes, of which there are many, and are at their best when reserved to a couple of pages, with one chapter long fight scene towards the end being particularly dull and repetitive. Action isn’t an easy thing to get right in print, and Abercrombie wouldn’t be the first to leave me confused and bored during a long action sequence, but I hope that he shows a little more restraint in the following books.

Probably the area in which Abercrombie shines best is in his characterisation, which is almost always on point and successful. Many of his characters are incredibly unlikeable, but still compelling to read, although at times Jezal did try my patience. Logen is a great character too, definitely within the ‘philosopher barbarian’ archetype, but likeable and compelling. I love characters who know they have done terrible things and have to live with their past actions, and Logen fills that role well. My favourite character had to be Glokta however, who does some really horrible things, but still remains sympathetic. His constant internal litany of self loathing and disgust makes him hard to condemn, and although he is constantly straddling that line into irredeemable, he never quite plunges into it, and that tension is at the heart of what I liked about this book.

The Blade Itself is a confident and strong debut which, whilst not without its flaws, manages to exceed them and stand as a compelling and dark read. I’m looking forward to continuing with ‘The First Law’ trilogy, and recommend this book to anyone who enjoys the darker side of epic fantasy. 944073

The End of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas

Oh dear, I really don’t review enough female authors do I? Apart from Donna Tartt a few months ago, it’s been a real sausage-fest up in this blog. Perhaps it’s my taste for fantasy and sci-fi, a currently very male dominated genre (although that wasn’t always the case), but I haven’t read nearly enough female authors. Thankfully, there should be a lot more soon, because The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas is one of those books that makes you want to rush out and buy everything the authors ever written.

The End of Mr Y follows Ariel Manto, a PHD student studying the fictional author Thomas Lumas, who stumbles upon the incredibly rare Lumas book, the eponymous ‘The End of Mr Y.’ This book is said to be cursed, and as Ariel finishes the book her life changes in ways that she could not possibly have predicted.

The main conceit of this novel is the existence of the ‘Troposphere’, a trippy manifestation of human consciousness which is unique to every person who experiences it. The Troposphere allows people to hover inside the minds of other humans, or even animals, and even jump between these mind back in time. The Troposphere is a complex notion, but Thomas does an admirable job of making sure that this realm of the abstract follows rules and has its limits. Thomas frequently makes comparisons to a videogame, with the Troposphere working almost a debug menu in a game of SimCity in which we’re the sims. It’s hard to wrap your head around, but very convincingly handled.

Although the story does begin to come of the rails a bit towards the end, The End of Mr Y is nonetheless an exciting and fascinating journey most off the way. Thomas isn’t afraid of asking the big questions; in fact, this is a book about the big questions. Thomas doesn’t merely engage in mythic mumbo jumbo, but exhibits an impressive knowledge of quantum mechanics, which underpin the entire narrative. Expect to hear lots about quarks, the space-time continuum and Schrödinger’s cat; if that puts you off, as it naturally will many people, you’ll find large portions of this  book incredibly dull, but if you share my fascination in quantum science, you’ll eat all this stuff up. Things are let down somewhat through a rather tacky epilogue, but it’s only one page so it’s easy to forget.

The End of Mr Y is all told in the first person, from Ariel’s perspective, but Ariel’s frequent jumps into the minds of others forces Thomas to write in a dynamic and flexible way, a challenge which she comfortably rises to. POVs from a group  of callous and insecure school girls, to a frightened mouse, and a sadistic cat are handled well, and often very funnily. Although this book isn’t a comedy, it certainly has its moments of levity, and you’ll find more than a little to chuckle over as the book goes on.

Ariel is a really strong protagonist, thoroughly flawed and with an aircraft carrier filled with emotional baggage, let always sympathetic and hard not to like. It’s really refreshing to read a character like this actually; a lot of well meaning male authors are nervous about writing a character like this for fear of appearing sexist, so we’re instead left with blandly likeable women, but Thomas has no such qualms, and gives us the kind of female protagonist that I’ve been craving for a while. The supporting cast has a few entertaining characters and figures, but Ariel is the real star, a character I’m unlikely to forget any time soon.

The End of Mr Y is a great book for many reasons; as a character study, as a piece of fascinating science fiction, a collection of philosophical musings and a beginners guide to quantum physics. I loved this book, and cannot wait to read more of Scarlett Thomas’ stuff. images (8)

New Super Luigi U for Wii U

It still feels really strange buying DLC for a Nintendo game. Sure, I’d bought a handful of Fire Emblem missions, but DLC in a Mario game? What’s the world coming to? I was therefore relieved when Nintendo announced that their New Super Mario Bros. U DLC would be vast, a complete remaking of the 80+ levels in the game around Luigi’s slightly different physics; it sounded too good to be true. Sadly, it kind of is.

The ‘plot’ is identical to New Super Mario Bros. U, but with Luigi replacing Mario. Perhaps an injection of some of Luigi’s cowardly humour seen so well in games like Paper Mario and Luigi’s Mansion would have been nice, but…yeah, I’m not going to criticise a Mario game for its plot.

The excellent world map of New Super Mario Bros. U is unchanged for New Super Luigi U, but the levels are completely different, keeping only the world themes. The problem comes in the 100 second time limit applied to each level, ostensibly to lend this game a faster, more chaotic pace, but likely simply because it halves the length of each level. It’s not a stretch to complete many levels in less than a minute, with a constant feeling that the levels are finishing just as they start getting good. There are a fair few levels where this really works, where you get into a Rayman Origins style groove, with extra long jumps which only Luigi could pull off and a high speed throughout, but there are lots more which don’t. An odd glimmer is visible of what Nintendo were going for, but these moments are too few and far between.

That said, the game is still incredibly fun. It’s kind of hard for a game like this to not be fun, it’s simply too brief and not nearly as good value for money as it may first seem. The boss battles are identical to those in the main game, with this game feeling more like a fan made mod than a full expansion, which is how it is priced. The other major addition is the playable debut of Nabbit, the thieving rabbit from the original game, who is a new kind of Mario playable character. He cannot take damage, but he also can’t take on powerups, so he’s only really there to help prop up weaker players in co-op.

New Super Luigi U is a lot of fun, but it leaves a sour taste in your mouth, and unless it pops up in a digital sale I’d give it a miss. luigi

Post Navigation