Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “September, 2013”

First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

After taking a break from Thursday Next to read the spin-off ‘Nursery Crime’ series, I was happy to see her again. With almost all plot strands from the earlier books wrapped up in Something Rotten, First Among Sequels introduces lots of new plot elements and characters, all in the familiar and entertaining setting of Fforde’s bizarre Swindon and the BookWorld.

First Among Sequels picks up many years after the end of Something Rotten, with Thursday in her 50s and ostensibly retired from her dual role with Spec Ops and Jurisfiction, instead focusing her energies on being a wife to Landen and a mother to their three children. She is, of course, secretly a full part of both, although Spec Ops now operate under the cover of a carpet company. First Among Sequels begins in classic Jasper Fforde fashion by setting a whole load of plates spinning from the get go. On the Swindon side Thursday has to contend with a reappeared Felix8, a resurgent Goliath and ensuring her lazy son Friday satisfies his ChronoGuard destiny. In the BookWorld she has to deal with a surprising apprentice, attempts by the Council of Genres to turn Pride and Prejudice into a reality show and the continuing attempts on her life by the Minotaur.

Although the BookWorld is largely more of the same, although with the pre-requisite introduction of new classics to form the focus (in this book it’s Pride & Prejudice), there’s a real weakening of the world building of the alternate Swindon. Thursday Next’s world has changed, with a lot of what made that setting so interesting moving away. The world which was obsessed with literature is gone, replaced by a vapid, reality TV obsessed populace, which forms a really rather clunky commentary on the dumbing down in our own culture. It’s a worthy message, but the original books already were a comment on our society, it just did so by showing us an outlandish alternative, which was much more entertaining.

When I read the first few Thursday Next books, I felt that their rapid, loose structure was to their detriment, but by the end of Something Rotten Fforde did a surprisingly adept job of tying all of these loose ends up comfortably. Therefore, I’m not worried about First Among Sequels. There’s a lot going on, and because of this not a massive amount actually happens, with the structure of Thursday dipping in and out of different plot points continuing. Things do converge a bit towards the end, and it ends on a pretty massive cliffhanger, leaving me suitably hyped for the next instalment.

These Jasper Fforde books always go past in a blur for me, something about them is just so compulsively readable. If you look too closely, sure, you might see a few cracks, but you won’t want to slow down and check them out because you’ll be having too much fun.

Thursday Next is probably one of the best female protagonists in genre fiction, and it’s always a pleasure to get reacquainted. Much of the supporting cast make appearances in greater or lesser roles, with plenty of cameo appearances from the most entertaining characters of the earlier books. There are a pair of new characters, who, without spoiling the surprise, are the real highlight of the book, but I’ll let the readers discover them for themselves.

First Among Sequels is business as usual for Jasper Fforde, but when his books are so entertaining that’s no bad thing. As the first in a new series, it certainly intrigues and entertains, and I look forward to reading the books I’ve yet to get to.first-among-sequels

 

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MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

It’s pretty clear that Margaret Atwood didn’t intend for Oryx & Crake to be the first in a trilogy, but I’m sure glad that she changed her mind. Unlike Oryx & Crake, The Year of the Flood more clearly set up for a concluding story, and thankfully MaddAddam mostly delivers. Whilst not being quite as accomplished as the first two, it is nonetheless a truly excellent read, and a further solidification of Margaret Atwood as one of this generations greatest writers of science fiction (although I’m not sure she’d be too thrilled to be thought of as such).

MaddAddam picks up right where The Year of the Flood and Oryx & Crake left off, with Jimmy the Snowman wandering into the aftermath of Toby and Ren’s rescue of Amanda from the hands of the rapist Painballer thugs. Their respite is brief, as a cultural misunderstanding leads the adorably naïve Crakers untying the Painballers, and they flee into the night. Ren, Amanda, Toby, the Crakers and an unconscious Jimmy, near death following the infection in his foot he gained during Oryx & Crake, make their way back to the Maddaddamite base. Under constant threat of Painballer assault, pigoon attack and internal tensions, Toby hears from her lover Zeb the story of himself and his brother, Adam One, and the formation of MaddAddam and the God’s Gardeners.

In Oryx & Crake, Margaret Atwood created one of the scariest apocalypses that I’ve ever seen in fiction, terrifying in its plausibility and unique in its shunning of genre clichés. It’s interesting that writers who aren’t normally associated with science fiction, such as Margaret Atwood and Cormac McCarthy (The Road), have created some of the best dystopian science fiction in recent times. Perhaps it takes someone not too closely tied into the sci-fi scene to really avoid the clichés of the genre. The expansion of the world of the Waterless Flood in MaddAddam doesn’t hold quite the same impact as Oryx & Crake did, and doesn’t show such a massive contrast as Year of the Flood did in its portrayal of the Pleebands. The flashbacks in Oryx & Crake and Year of the Flood were about world building, about showing us what existed before this catastrophe, but MaddAddam exists comfortably in an already built world, and allows the focus to shift to the characters. That said, there are surprises, and a few of our pre-existing preconceptions about this world are torn down, in ways you really couldn’t see coming.

For the final in a trilogy, MaddAddam actually has a more relaxed tone that its predecessors, with the internal sexual politics of the MaddAddamites as focused upon as the core threat of the Painballers. Things ramp up quickly in the central narrative towards the end though, leading to a satisfying and gripping conclusion, which I had doubted was coming considering the laconic first two thirds. The flashback story is interesting and entertaining, but it doesn’t necessarily feel vital, with much of what we’re told already implied in the previous books. This isn’t so much a necessary part of the puzzle, as a final slotting of those pieces together, which leads to an oddly relaxed but extremely satisfying book.

Margaret Atwood is a really, really good writer. I can try to think of a cleverer way of expressing it but there isn’t one, she’s just really, really good. She is excellent at crafting a sense of place, has a wonderful knack for dialogue, manages to allow poetic beauty in her prose without it turning purple and can write incredibly movingly. The surprise highlight of MaddAddam for me though was it’s often warm and funny tone, particularly in regards to the Crakers, whose adorable naivety never fails to amuse and charm. Atwood has clearly become very affectionate to her most ridiculous creations, and they’re drawn absolutely brilliantly, becoming more than their simplistic role in Oryx & Crake might have suggested.

Toby is the clear central protagonist of The Year of the Flood, with Ren and Jimmy stepping back into the role of supporting characters. Toby is probably the most likeable and sympathetic protagonist of the bunch, so letting her be the core of the book was a good call. The oft mocked, slightly bitter Toby, filled with insecurities and fear yet projecting a tough exterior, is hard not to feel for. Zeb, the protagonist of the flashbacks, becomes a better fleshed out character too, and by the end MaddAddam becomes a book about the people, where arguable Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood were books about the world.

MaddAddam doesn’t quite soar as high as Oryx & Crake and The Handmaid’s Tale, but a book that I’d feared as pointless and tacked on is anything but, offering a surprisingly reflective, melancholy, warm and funny vision of a horrific future. Atwood’s future is a nightmare, but it’s a nightmare I’m going to miss.81SteV0BJtL._SL1500_

Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

I really enjoyed The Blade Itself, and it certainly caught my attention enough to keep me going with the series. It had plenty of flaws though, and happily a lot of those are ironed out in Before They Are Hanged (although a few more are added), and is overall a better book and one which has me chomping at the bit to get my hands on the third in the trilogy.

Before They Are Hanged picks up not long after The Blade Itself left off, and contains three primary storylines. In the North we follow the troubled Union war against Bethod, the King of the northmen, from the points of view of the seemingly decent, but internally tortured, Union solider Collem West, and see his attempts to reign in the disastrous strategies of the moronic Prince Ladisla. We also follow the Northern scout Dogman, who has defected to the Union along with the rest of his crew, under the leadership of the legendary Rudd Threetrees, to bring down their old foe Bethod. Another storyline is in the city of Dagoska, a Union held city on the northernmost tip of the Gurkhish continent, under assault from the army of Gurkhul and their avaricious Emperor. Inquisitor Glokta is sent to discover the fate of his predecessor in the city, who had mysteriously vanished, as well as protect Dagoska despite the terrible odds against it. The third storyline is the most traditionally fantastical, and follows Bayaz’s expedition to recover the mysterious ‘Seed’ in the far West of the land, a journey which brings his retinue to the Old Empire, a once proud land destroyed by infighting and civil war. We follow this storyline from the points of view of Jezal dan Luthar, the obnoxious young fencing prodigy, Logen Ninefingers, the most feared man in the north and surprisingly good man, and Ferro Maljin, the former Gurkhish slave dragged along on the mission by the promise of vengeance against her former masters.

It was great to see more of the interesting world Abercrombie has developed in Before They Are Hanged, especially considering that the majority of The Blade Itself was all set in one place, the Union capital Adua. Although all fantasy lands are, to a greater or lesser extent, going to be based on real world civilisations, it can get a little bit too blatant for my liking in ‘The First Law.’ The Old Empire is basically exactly the same as the Roman Empire, with the Gurkhish Empire standing as the increasingly common Islamic Empire. Although the Gurkhish aren’t quite as blatant as Peter V. Brett’s Kraisians, there’s still a huge similarity that feels a bit wearying. That said, I’m nonetheless intrigued by the world of ‘The First Law’, which has a pretty interesting history. Where many fantasy novels like to shroud their world’s past in mystery, the presence of Bayaz, a semi-mythological figure in the world of ‘The First Law’, as a major character gives us a greater insight into this world’s past than we would have otherwise, while still keeping enough mystery to keep our interest.

My favourite storyline in Before They Are Hanged was the Northern one, with the hopelessly incompetent Union giving the whole thing an infuriatingly futile feeling which I enjoyed. The Glokta stuff in Dagoska was good too, lacking the ‘middle’ book of inaction that fantasy trilogies can sometimes succumb to. The most disappointing storyline was sadly the one I was most excited for, the search for the Seed, which despite containing a lot of great individual scenes and moments, didn’t really hold together too well as a narrative, and ended in a clumsy and anti-climactic manner.

Abercrombie is a great writer, with rigidly unpretentious dialogue and savagely dark sense of humour. It’s very readable and compelling, easy to get through without being dumbed down, a skill which he shares with Brandon Sanderson and Peter V. Brett.

Probably the biggest improvement between The Blade Itself and Before They Are Hanged is in the characterisation. West in particular grows from a fairly dull character to probably the most screwed up and interesting of the bunch. I also highly enjoyed Dogman and his fellow crew of Northman warriors, with the fearsome reputation of this band contrasting well with the highly human and funny side we see to all of them, even the terrifying Black Dow. Glokta’s story arc is quite ‘Tyrion Lannister’, but I can live with that, and Logen and Ferro gain new depths too. Probably the biggest change is that Luthar becomes bearable, although this transition is extremely clunky and doesn’t feel nearly as organic as it should.

Before They Are Hanged is a great book, even better than the original, but it still doesn’t lack for flaws. I nonetheless have high hopes for the third book whenever I get around to it, because if Abercrombie continues his pattern of improvement it should be absolute cracker.before they are hanged

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons for XBLA, PSN and PC

Stories about young boys undergoing severe trauma and fear are becoming quite the XBLA Indie theme isn’t it? I guess there’s some primal part of us that engages with children more readily than we engage with adults, and that we can form an emotional connection with the speed that these, often briefer, indie games require. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons falls firmly into the ‘artsy’ game category, and your ability to enjoy it will come with many caveats; namely, whether you can forgive distinctly iffy gameplay for the sake of ‘art.’

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons follows a pair of erm…brothers, whose father has been taken with a mysterious illness. Their mother had drowned not long before, so the two set out to retrieve a strange medicine from a magical tree which can save their father’s life.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons takes place in a faintly Nordic inspired fantasy land, which starts out with a pleasantly twee, Fable-esque tone to it. This doesn’t last long though, and Brothers takes a massive turn for the dark a bit later on, with some genuinely chilling and horrifying environments, and an unsettling feeling that the idyllic charm of the beginning village is a front for a brutal and violent world. Don’t get me wrong, this world is frequently incredibly beautiful, and the game knows it, offering you regular benches that you can sit upon and get a great glimpse of the surprisingly huge vistas on offer, but behind that beauty is some truly horrific and violent imagery.

Although there is voice acting in this game, they don’t speak in any language, instead in a garbled gobbledegook. Dialogue really isn’t needed though, and it’s not difficult to tell what’s going on, with the voice actors doing an admirable job conveying their feelings purely through the tone of their voice without any reliance on actual words. The plot is well told overall, and we genuinely get a real understanding for the characters of the two brothers based on their reactions to the world. The older is more responsible, tough and chivalrous, and the younger is more playful, more sensitive and has a slight cruel streak common in young boys. The fact that these characters end up so well defined with the limited tools they can use is very impressive.

A few reviewers have called Brothers a co-op single player game, and there really is no other way to describe it. Each brother is controlled with an analogue stick, with their interactions with the world mapped to the trigger buttons. Although this is initially a highly off putting control scheme, by the end I got the hang of it, and it’s a great case of using the basic mechanics of the game to reinforce your ideas. You’ll mostly be running around looking at stuff, and there’s a lot of reward in slowing down and exploring your environments; all the achievements are tied to optional little secrets rather than the main story, and I encountered less than half even while I was trying to take it slow. There are plenty of simple puzzles, although none are too taxing, with many being typical ‘co-op adventure game’ puzzles mapped to a single player game, giving the familiar a new spin. There are some great set piece moments too, with the highlight of the game being a section where the brothers are tied together and must swing each other up platforms to climb a tower. It’s a simple mechanic, but requires a fair bit of concentration and dexterity.

That said, this game is horribly clunky, and without the ability to control the camera with the right stick, seeing where you’re going is a pain. The best ‘artsy’ indie games have really great gameplay alongside their interesting narratives, such as Braid, but Brothers is more like Limbo, serviceable gameplay which is upstaged by its atmosphere. Brothers is frequently enchanting, moving and funny, but it’s not always a lot of fun.

Although the environments are gorgeous, the character models are actually quite hideous, but I suspect that resources were tight and they absolutely made the right call putting the world first. Brothers has a lovely soundtrack, which varies from grand and uplifting to absolutely heart wrenching.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a great piece of interactive art, but not necessarily a great videogame. If you’re looking for excitement or refined gameplay you won’t get it here, but you may end up with one of the most stirring and moving gaming experiences you’ll play all year. brothers-tale-of-two

EarthBound for the SNES and Virtual Console (Wii U)

EarthBound has a pretty legendary reputation, although along with everyone else in Europe my experience with the game didn’t extend beyond a fondness for Ness in Super Smash Bros. Whenever playing an older game with a reputation like this, I always get a little bit nervous, wondering whether it will have stood the test of time, and live up to its hype. Although it took me a few hours to really ‘get’ it, EarthBound lives up to the hype and more, providing an experience which I just cannot stop thinking about.

Ness, a young boy from the town of Onett, awakens one night to find a meteorite crashed near his house. There, he meets a miniscule alien known as Buzz Buzz who warns Ness that, in the future, an alien force known as Giygas has conquered the Earth, and that Ness must embark on a quest in the present to stop him from becoming too powerful. Ness gains telekinetic abilities, known as PSI powers, and sets out on his bizarre journey, to visit the ‘Eight Sanctuaries’ and record their songs so that he may access the power to stop Giygas. Along the way he meets three other heroes, Paula, a PSI adept and local celebrity, Jeff, a technological genius abandoned by his scientist father, and (ahem) Poo, a warrior prince from the nation of Dalaam.

EarthBound, unlike the traditional fantasy JRPGs of the time, takes place in the modern day, primarily in Eagleland, a parody of America, although there are other locations as well. EarthBound takes place in a setting unlike any other JRPG I’ve played, although the closest may be Pokemon. EarthBound has a lot more fun with its setting though, with countless jokes and digs at America’s expense. I absolutely love seeing how nations familiar to us look through the perspective of one less familiar, and EarthBound is very much a Japanese view of the US. There’s a huge amount of variety in the areas, and the eschewing of a fantasy setting mans that we lose the cliché areas that we’ve all become used to, in favour of areas which feel much more organic and interesting.

The plot is fairly thin, and there’s not an excess of explanation as to just what is going on. It’s difficult to describe what makes EarthBound’s plot so compelling, but I think the key lies in the excellent sense of place this game has, and the incredible writing. A huge amount of credit is due to the translator, providing a script which is frequently hilarious, but also delivering some truly sinister and emotional moments. EarthBound can get very creepy at times, and is a really interesting coming of age story for Ness. If there’s one weakness to the game’s narrative, it’s the lack of character for Ness’ fellow adventurous. Although they’re not silent like Ness, they don’t talk much after they join the party, and it’s a shame as there’s a lot of potential interest in these characters, particularly in Jeff, whose story could have had a real emotional payoff that doesn’t really work. Again, it took a while for my interest in the story to really kick in, but when it does EarthBound is continually striking, bold and interesting, and willing to go to those dark places that Nintendo seems scared of these days.

EarthBound is, from a gameplay perspective, a fairly traditional JRPG, with turn based battles and lots of statistics levelling up etc. The main innovation in the combat over its turn based friends is the sliding health counter; when Ness or his team take damage, the damage counts down rapidly, meaning that mortal damage can be offset with a rapid healing move or a quick defeat of the enemy, lending a frantic pace to the battles which is more effective than any gimmicky button inputs and real time elements can ever be. Enemies do appear on the map, but avoiding them isn’t really an option; however the fight rate is just right and never becomes as irritating as it can be in some games. One of my favourite little quirks is that when Ness encounters a much lower level foe, the battle is skipped, so there’s no need to plough through weak enemies when one encounters you. It’s a tiny thing, but something I cannot believe hasn’t been widely stolen by all JRPGs that followed, they really should have done.

EarthBound just feels good to play, in a way hard to describe. Perhaps it’s the way that with every level up and stronger piece of equipment the characters feel notably tougher, rather than the gradual glide in difficulty more common in JRPGs. That said, the difficulty curve in EarthBound is easily its biggest flaw. When criticising an older game’s difficulty, you usually get a load of people lambasting the writer as soft, because real gamers relish the difficulty in older games. The problem with EarthBound isn’t the difficulty, but the poor difficulty curve; if the first boss is one of the hardest in the game, and requires huge amounts of grinding to beat, you’ve got a problem. Still, once you get over the hurdle of the first couple of hours, things even out very nicely, and the pace settles out. It’s not easy mind you, but it’s challenging for the right reasons, which isn’t the case for the early hours.

EarthBound is a charming looking game, colourful and vivid, full of great enemy designs and beautiful areas. There’s an irritating amount of slowdown during more packed scenes, which is inexcusably still present in the Wii U port, but it’s a small price to pay for this beautiful game. The real star of the presentation has to be the music though; EarthBound’s easily soundtrack stands alongside the best of that era. This is a soundtrack to rival Super Mario World, or A Link to the Past, filled with tunes catchy, creepy and downright emotional. The music perfectly conjures the tone of each place you’re in, and ends up being one of the best of parts of this game.

EarthBound is a strange, hilarious and unsettling experience, which refuses cliché and charts a bold path of its own. In some ways it shows its age, and it lacks some of the refinement of modern gaming, but it’s also thoroughly ahead of its time in others. EarthBound is a must play for anyone with a love of JRPGs, an interest in a vital part of Nintendo’s history, or really anyone who enjoys games. Earthbound-Wallpaper

Dishonored: The Brigmore Witches DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Dishonored never quite clocked for me the way it did for many others, but I still enjoyed it enough to persevere all the way to the end of the story, and ‘The Brigmore Witches’ is certainly a worthy end for the game before a likely sequel.

‘The Brigmore Witches’ picks up where the previous DLC, ‘The Knife of Dunwall’, left off. Daud has now discovered the identity of the mysterious Delilah Copperspoon as a witch, and seeks to finish the task set to him by the mysterious ‘Outsider’, and discover her intentions. To do so he must enlist the help of certain seedy members of the Dunwall criminal underworld, so that he may access Brigmore Manor and the Coven that resides there.

I’ve actually enjoyed Daud’s arc more than Corvo’s of the main game. Corvo’s absolute lack of personality makes the emotional crux of the story, his relationship with the orphaned young Emily Kaldwin, feel quite disingenuous. On the other hand, we’re actually allowed to get more of a feel for Daud’s personality, and his self-torture over his murder of the Empress makes him a much more intriguing character to follow. I had wondered what role the Daud DLCs would play next to the main game, and ‘The Brigmore Witches’ does a good job of tying this narrative into the main one, revealing that Daud played a vital role behind the scenes of the main game, before his final encounter with Corvo.

Gameplay-wise ‘The Brigmore Witches’ is largely more of the same, with the carrying over of the intriguing favour system from ‘The Knife of Dunwall’ as well as all of our standard Dishonored powers and gadgets. The main gameplay addition is the introduction of cursed bone charms, which bestow massive advantages with severe penalties elsewhere, adding an interesting risk/reward element to Daud’s load out.

‘The Brigmore Witches’ is pretty substantial, with three missions encompassing several areas. The first of these missions is a return to a location from the main game, Coldridge Prison, which Corvo broke out of in the first mission. Where ‘The Knife of Dunwall’s recycling of the Flooded District was poorly implemented and lazy, ‘The Brigmore Witches’ does a much better job of making this old area feel completely fresh, as we get a completely new spin on a familiar location. The second area is the largest, and the most lengthy, but possibly the least inspired, feeling very much like ‘standard’ Dishonored rather than offering anything new. Still, it was certainly fun, and offered some of the more creative methods for dispatching your targets. The third area, the Brigmore Manor itself, was very interesting, offering some areas which felt completely unlike anything else that we’d seen in Dishonored so far. The three missions are all lengthy, clever and well designed, with no duds unlike the first DLC.

Dunwall is as lovingly crafted as ever, with the great atmosphere of the original carried over well. Although Dishonored was far from perfect, it did a great job of making its areas feel organic and lived in, and packed with stuff. This carries over well into ‘The Brigmore Witches’, with the excellent voice acting helping to ground the setting.

It’s hard not to compare ‘The Knife of Dunwall’ and ‘The Brigmore Witches’ to the Assassin’s Creed III ‘Tyranny of King Washington’ DLCs, both being assassin themed and multi-parted, but Dishonored shows DLC done right, offering twice the value for less of the cost. They’re good value for money, as replayable as the main game, and well worth your time. Dishonored Brigmore 02

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