Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “February, 2014”

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

I went straight from Ian McEwan’s first work, his harrowing short story collection First Love, Last Rites, to his latest work, Sweet Tooth, a significantly more palatable affair. Actually, this all works quite well, because in many ways Sweet Tooth is McEwan’s repudiation of his shock-for-shock’s sake approach of his earliest stories, as well as being a pretty good story in itself.

Sweet Tooth takes place in the late 1970s, primarily during the Winter of Discontent. It follows Serena Frome, a beautiful young maths graduate from Cambridge who is recruited into MI5 through her relationship with an older university professor. Although initially at the bottom of the pile, she is soon recruited into ‘Operation Sweet Tooth’, where writers are covertly funded by MI5 to unwittingly create anti-Soviet propaganda. Serena is assigned to Tom Haley, a young writer at the University of Sussex, so she goes to him posing as a representative of an organisation which funds promising writers. It’s not long before they begin a relationship, with Serena hiding her true identity as an agent of MI5.

The actual plot of Sweet Tooth is fairly predictable. It follows familiar paths, and is in some ways a fairly conservative book. There’s an undeniable autobiographical element to the book, with Haley in many ways paralleling McEwan himself early in his career. I’m always interested when authors portray themselves in a book from the point of view of another character, such as Stephen King’s role in his Dark Tower books. McEwan is probably kinder to himself than King was, but there’s still a strong feeling that Haley is an immature figure. After reading First Love, Last Rites, I’m inclined to agree.

I’m a sucker for a good story-in-a-story, and Sweet Tooth is packed with them. Serena reads a handful of short stories by Haley, and relays them to the reader, and they’re actually all very entertaining, as well an interesting insight into McEwan’s own creative process. McEwan parodies his own previously overly verbose writing, although his style has become a lot more restrained, and better.

Serena is an amusing character, whose shallowness and element of self-obsession makes her a difficult to like figure, but still sympathetic enough to make a compelling protagonist. Haley is an enigmatic figure, almost impossible to separate from McEwan himself.

Sweet Tooth is an enjoyable read, and one which plays with big themes such as the boundary between culture and government. I enjoyed it far more than First Love, Last Rites¸ that’s for sure. download (10)

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Attack of the Friday Monsters! A Tokyo Tale for Nintendo 3DS

Well, that was an oddly charming little experience. The 3DS eShop has become a bastion for little games like this. I don’t know if I’d even call it a game. Whatever you call it, Attack of the Friday Monsters is a rather lovely little product.

Attack of the Friday Monsters is set in a suburb of Tokyo in the 1970s, which differs from the real world through the tiny detail every Friday evening monsters attack and do battle. It’s also home to a TV station which makes shows about giant monster fights. Hmm. Young Sohta is a transfer student who has moved to the area that day, and the whole game takes place on a Friday in the run up to the monster fight, as he tries to solve the mystery of where the monsters come from.

It’s odd, the nostalgia of others is usually at best baffling, at worst irritating, when it isn’t a nostalgia you share. It’s very clear that this game is a vision of a more rural, peaceful Japan of the 1970s, and the simple imagination and joy of childhood at this time. Since I wasn’t a child in 1970s Tokyo, this obviously isn’t a nostalgia I share, but nonetheless the creator’s fondness for the time period is infectious. Fans of Studio Ghibli will recognise the aesthetic, and there’s something oddly peaceful and charming about this strange little plot.

There isn’t really much of a game to Attack of the Friday Monsters. Most of your time will be spent wandering around the quaint Tokyo suburbs talking to people. In fact, wandering around is the key game play mechanic. There’s a card battle game, with new cards gained by collecting ‘glims’. There’s not a huge amount of strategy involved, in fact little effort is made to disguise it from being rock/paper/scissors. When you beat your in-game friends, they become your ‘servant’ and you can cast a ‘spell’ to make them fall down. It’s oddly satisfying. The card game could perhaps have been expanded more, but by and large I didn’t really mind the lack of gameplay, because it’s more than made up for in its presentation.

Attack of the Friday Monsters has some absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds. The world isn’t big, but every little area is wonderful to look at. Much like with Bravely Default, the character models don’t live up to the background, but they do the job. There’s an odd bit of voice acting, only in Japanese, from a narrator of sorts, whose enthusiasm errs on just the right side of energetic. The music is nice too, especially the adorable and very strange song at the beginning (also in Japanese, with subtitles) from a child wondering whether his parents love him. It’s all very odd stuff, but I nonetheless found myself with a wide grin on my face with startling regularity.

Look, if you’re someone who likes a lot of…well, game in their games, Attack of the Friday Monsters isn’t for you. Attack of the Friday Monsters is a slight experience, and I picked it up in a sale and paid a pittance for it, so I didn’t mind. If it’s on sale pick it up; you’ll not play anything else like it!download (9)

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies: Turnabout Reclaimed DLC

Wow, that’s an unwieldy title isn’t it? Phoenix Wright is one of my biggest gaming guilty pleasures, so I wouldn’t be able to hold out against the DLC forever. Happily, it’s one of the best cases in the series and without a doubt worth the £4 asking price.

Turnabout Reclaimed fits into an odd place in the fractured Dual Destinies chronology; after Apollo and Athena’s cases which introduced Simon Blackquill and Bobby Fullbright, but before the explosion in the courtroom which kicks off the game. It is in fact Phoenix’s first case after regaining his Attorney’s Badge following the events of Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. The defendant in this case is one unlike any other; Orla Shipley, an orca, accused of the murder of Jack Shipley, the manager of the aquarium in which she is kept. Phoenix and Athena are recruited by Sasha Buckler, Orla’s keeper, to defend the orca in court.

So…yeah, even by Ace Attorney standards this case is goofy. It all works though! Although it is funny and silly, the case is actually a surprisingly interesting one, and the ridiculous concept doesn’t hold the case back from getting as intricate as these things can. The new characters are good, with Orla the Orca having a surprising amount of charm and character. This case cemented my fondness for Athena Cykes, and my belief (which would get me crucified in some corners of the internet) that she’s a better sidekick than the long absent Maya Fey (although it would be nice to see her again).

From a gameplay perspective…it’s all pretty much the same. There’s a flirting with bringing back some of the touch screen gimmicks from the original game’s fifth case, but it never really follows through. Still, when you play an Ace Attorney game you know what you’re getting.

Turnabout Reclaimed has a pleasant new handful of new anime cutscenes, which I felt were used much more effectively (and regularly) than in the main game. They’re still underused, but it’s good that they made the clear effort. In fact, ‘effort’ is one of the best things about this DLC. DLC can often feel half-baked and lacking the lustre of the main game, but Turnabout Reclaimed feels like the opposite, being one the nicest looking cases in the whole series, with some catchy new tunes to boot.

This is exactly what DLC should be; enjoyable, yet unnecessary for the main game, concise and, most importantly of all, good value for money. Turnabout Reclaimed is absolutely worth four quid if you have any fondness for this series.Turnabout-Reclaimed-Phoenix-Wright-630x354

Shift by Hugh Howey

It took me far too long to get onto this book. I really liked Wool, the first book in an apocalyptic trilogy by Hugh Howey, a prolific writer of self-published literature who hit it big with Wool. Shift is a prequel, focusing on a different set of characters to its predecessor, revealing the deceptively complex and ambiguous circumstances which led to the end of the world.

Shift follows several different narratives, in a variety of locations and time periods. The main storyline follows Donald, a US Congressman who is caught up in the creation of the Silos which held the final vestiges of humanity by the time of Wool, not long before the apocalypse falls. Then we have Troy, the bitterly lonely man who leads Silo One, which co-ordinates the other Silos. We have Mission, a young porter in Silo 18 from whom we see the story of the first uprising. Finally, and most movingly, we have the story of Solo, the man who was trapped in the ruins of Silo 17, utterly alone for decades, until the arrival of Juliette during the events of Wool.

Where Wool was a book all about claustrophobia, with its protagonists in a consistent state of ignorance, staggering from revelation to revelation without really understanding the big picture, Shift is about pulling back the curtain and showing the reader exactly what it is that has been going on. It’s an interesting approach, and Howey has succeeded in creating that rare setting which is still interesting even when its mysteries are revealed. It also serves the practical point of ensuring that the final instalment, Dust, won’t be burdened with exposition and mystery solving, and can instead forward the story in a meaningful and character focused way. Actually, in some ways, I preferred the story of Shift to Wool’s. Everything is on a grander scale, and I preferred this to the more nitty-gritty approach of Wool, which contained slightly too many descriptions of engineering. Shift focuses on the big picture, but still does really well on zooming in for some great character moments and quieter moments of individual reflection. Shift is possibly a tad long, and the Donald and Troy sections in particular contain a few parts which feel slightly too much like padding, but nonetheless Shift is a tighter book than Wool, and tells a damn good story.

Howey’s evokes the atmosphere in the Silo’s brilliantly, although he’s still not great when it comes to action scenes. When the intended outcome is confusion and chaos, it works, but when we need slightly more clarity they can be terribly hard to follow. There may be slightly too much melancholy musing, but it never reaches the levels of self-indulgence that some writers allow themselves.

Donald is a solid central protagonist, but the supporting cast never quite lifts off. Wool had the same problem, and it’s clear that characterisation is not Howey’s strongest suite. There’s a dearth of good female characters, which is odd considering how great Juliette was in Wool. The best character is definitely Solo, who was intriguing in his appearance in Wool but becomes a desperately moving and tragic figure in Shift.

Prequels are so rarely worthwhile, but happily Shift is one of the exceptions. It’s a great prequel and a wonderful story in its own right. As with Wool, its a little rough around the edges, but the ambition and intelligence is there, and I’d recommend it to any fan of dystopian sci-fi. 0029f185_medium

HarmoKnight for Nintendo 3DS

It must be strange being one of those developers who only make one series. Game Freak are so synonymous with Pokémon, that seeing that logo followed by something else is an odd sensation. HarmoKnight confirms that Game Freak isn’t a one trick pony, and maybe Nintendo should let them experiment outside the box a little bit more.

HarmoKnight takes the same minimal approach to plot as the Pokémon games, and follows Tempo, a young boy from the land of Melodia. A meteor crash brings Gargan and a Noizoids, evil aliens who disrupt Melodia and kidnap the Princess Ariana. It’s up to Tempo, alongside a group of allies, to use the power of music to become a ‘Harmony Knight’ and save Ariana and Melodia.

So, suffice it to say that you’ll not be playing HarmoKnight for the plot. There’s a weird amount of effort made to give it one, but that is effort which certainly feels wasted.

So, HarmoKnight is a rhythm-action game, similar in some ways to the Bit. Trip Runner games. Tempo continually runs, and the player has him jump and swing his weapon in time with the music to avoid obstacles and defeat enemies. There’s not really much more to it than that, although there are a handful of sections where Tempo’s allies take over with slightly different mechanics. What sets HarmoKnight apart from other games in the genre is its sense of scale and spectacle. Games like this generally go for a scaled back, stylish and minimalist look, but HarmoKnight goes the other way, with some really epic set pieces, particularly during the enjoyable, memory based boss fights. HarmoKnight isn’t a long game by any means, but there’s a lot of replay value. A handful of bonus levels based on Pokémon with familiar tunes from that series don’t hurt either!

HarmoKnight’s biggest weakness is one which, well, really shouldn’t be in any rhythm game. The music just isn’t that good, which is doubly strange considering the consistently excellent soundtracks in the Pokémon series. The game is still fun, exciting and epic, but HarmoKnight fails in this fundamental way which undermines the entire experience. Still, HarmoKnight nonetheless manages to charm in other ways.

The 3DS eShop now holds a surprisingly excellent range of titles, and HarmoKnight is another feather in this increasingly feather filled cap. It’s a fun, light release, a good way to pass a couple of hours when it pops up in the next digital sale. harmoknight660

Sonic Generations for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Despite the infamous ‘Sonic-cycle’ of misery and sadness, the blue hedgehog has been on something of an upswing lately. Sure, his newest games such as Sonic Colours aren’t as good as the originals, and don’t even come close to the recent offerings of his great rival Mario, but things have certainly improved since the miserable says of Sonic Heroes and Sonic ’06. Sonic Generations continues these tentative steps in the right direction, and is probably the best home console Sonic game since Sonic Adventure 2 on the Dreamcast and Gamecube.

Sonic Generations begins at Sonic’s birthday party with all of his obnoxious friends, which is mercifully interrupted by an otherworldly being, which captures of all Sonic’s pals and sends him into a white void. Time has been broken down, and the past is mingling with the present, as the Mega Drive-era (and blissfully mute) classic Sonic and the ganglier, wisecracking modern Sonic team up to save their friends and return the world to normal.

There’s an element of self-mockery to Sonic Generations that I enjoyed, but not enough of it, and the story is mostly made up of ultra-sincere dull Sonic fare. Although we’re invited to lightly mock terrible characters like Cream the Rabbit, we’re also sort of expected to like them, which is beyond the pale for me. Cream the Rabbit for crying out loud. At least the Australian raccoon from Sonic Rush Adventure doesn’t show up. Sonic at one point tells his younger counterpart that he has a great future ahead of him, but that’s not really true is it? If Sega had truly bought into the self-awareness that Generations shows glimmers of, we could have had something really entertaining here!

Sonic Generations’ main gimmick is that each level, based on a level from Sonic’s past, can be played both as ‘classic’ and ‘modern’ Sonic. There are only a handful of levels, with classics such as the original Sonic the Hedgehog’s Green Hill Zone, alongside Sonic Adventure 2’s City Escape (follow me, set me free, trust me and we will escape from the city) and even entries from the newer, terrible games such as Sonic 06’s Crisis City. The classic Sonic levels play much like the Mega Drive games, although there’s an element of 2.5D stuff coming through. The modern Sonic levels are a mishmash of basically on rails twitch based running, 2D sections and Sonic Adventure style gameplay. It’s odd, but it manages to generally take the best from those games without the worst. Alongside the main levels are a handful of actually really fun bosses, although the final boss is terrible. There may not be many levels, but the game is extended pretty nicely through challenges within the levels, which unlock collectibles. I was cynical about these, but many of them genuinely do offer an interesting and inventive spin; you may have already played these levels, but it doesn’t feel like you have.

This game is, simply put, a lot of fun. The classic levels are tricky and well designed. Sega never quite matched the tight platforming of Nintendo, and I’ll always prefer Mario to Sonic, but there were some things that Sega did better, chiefly the branching levels. I like that falling doesn’t necessarily mean death, it just means a lesser path with fewer rewards. The modern levels are more about spectacle, and there are some genuinely awesome moments, with the highlight for me coming from the level based on Sonic Unleashed (weirdly enough).

Sonic Generations looks nice enough, although there’s a weird fuzziness during the cut-scenes. The music is a treat, with some nice remixes of classic Sonic themes (City Escape!) that will set those with a huge investment of nostalgia into raptures. The voice acting is, well, Sonic the Hedgehog voice acting. It’s a neat little package, if relatively unambitious in its presentation.

Overall, Sonic Generations is a solid release, entirely worth the now low asking price. It’s not the glorious come back of an icon, but it’s at least good, and in this day and age that’s really the best we can hope for from a new Sonic game. download (8)

Lego Marvel Super Heroes for Wii U, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

Ah, I do like me these Lego games! They’ve become comfortingly familiar; nothing new or innovative from a gameplay perspective, but consistently fun, charming and well made. If you like the licence, there’s a safe bet you’ll enjoy the Lego game. I like Marvel. I like the Lego games.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes opens with Doctor Doom coming into the possession of a mythic artefact known as the ‘Cosmic Brick’, which he plans to use to control the world. He brings with him a team of villains, including Magneto, Green Goblin and Loki. Under the overall command of Nick Fury, the Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spiderman ally to take down Dr. Doom and the other villains. Oh, and they’re all made of Lego. So…yeah!

Lego Marvel Super Heroes is a fun romp through many of the main features of the Marvel Universe, with the main reference point being the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which contains films such as Iron Man and The Avengers. The thrill of seeing the Avengers team up with the X-Men isn’t really lessened by the fact that they’re Lego, and the game comes to a genuinely really cool conclusion. Sadly, Lego Marvel Super Heroes isn’t quite as funny as it should be. Lego City Undercover was genuinely hilarious, but this iteration doesn’t really raise more than a chuckle. Those chuckles will come pretty regularly though.

There’s not much new on the gameplay front in Lego Marvel Super Heroes. There are 15 missions, punctuated by free roaming sections, in this case New York City. The missions generally revolve around simply combat, basic puzzles and smashing and building. You know how these games work, and TT have this format down to a…er, T at this point. The superpowers are fun, with a few stock archetypes which play certain ways. There are the flying, shooty characters, such as Iron Man and The Human Torch, big smash-y characters like Hulk and The Thing and characters who can reach distant objects, like Spider-Man and Mr. Fantastic. Still, these characters generally feel different to play, and it’s a lot of fun switching between the characters and experimenting with their powers. The flying controls are a bit of a nightmare to get used to, but once you do soaring around the levels as Iron Man or Thor is a lot of fun. The co-op is back after its absence from Lego City Undercover, and is predictably a lot of fun. The Wii U version has the unique advantage of allowing each player a separate screen, although this does come with some frame-rate issues. It’s worth it though.

There’s plenty of stuff to do if you’re so inclined. I’m normally a sucker for a good open world, but something about this game’s New York just felt…off. I’m not sure. I just didn’t have a huge amount of fun with side stuff and found exploration a chore. I liked the open world in Lego City Undercover, and I feel more genuine effort was made there than it was here. This being a Lego game, there’s an insane amount of collectibles and replay value, so if those are the sort of things you value in a game, Lego Marvel Super Heroes will keep you very happy.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes is a surprisingly lovely looking game. It’s become an odd trademark of the series to contain genuinely epic moments which are oddly not-undermined by the fact that everything is made of Lego. The ending of Lego City Undercover in particular is a stunning set piece moment. This game is filled with those, and there’s a wonderful attention to detail in everything from the surroundings to the actual minifigures themselves. The voice acting is cheesy but in a good way, with the star being the appearance of Clark Gregg as The Avengers’ and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D’s Agent Coulson acting as an overseer of sorts. The music is actually pretty epic, as it was in Lego City Undercover before it.

The Lego games have built up a reputation for solid quality, and Lego Marvel Super Heroes certainly doesn’t break that record. It’s an immensely fun, light game, perfect for chilling out with a friend. If you like Marvel and Lego, you’ll like this. download (7)

Bravely Default for Nintendo 3DS

People sure have been making a big fuss about Bravely Default. After lots of campaigning for a Western release, it finally arrived, and I think it was worth the wait. Bravely Default is like a visitor from a parallel universe, a beautiful place where Final Fantasy XIII never happened and Final Fantasy continued to be excellent. Bravely Default marries the almost inherently conservative JRPG tropes with some intriguing gameplay and story undermining of genre tropes to launch what may be the most exciting new JRPG franchise in years.

Bravely Default appears, at first, to be tiresomely generic. A cataclysm strikes the farming village of Norende, with the only survivor being the young Tiz Arrior. He flees to the nearby Kingdom of Caldisla to seek the aid of the King, and soon encounters Agnes Oblige, the Vestal of Wind who is tasked with guarding the ‘Wind Crystal’, one of four crystals which support the world and the elements they match. The Crystals have failed, and Agnes is seeking help in re-awakening them, with the assistance of a fairy named, er…Airy. However, the Vestals are being hunted by the Duchy of Eternia, the most militarily and technologically advanced land in the world, who are opposed to ‘Crystalism’ and seek to end humanity’s reliance on the crystals. Tiz and Agnes are joined on their quest to re-awaken the crystals by Ringabel, an amnesiac lecher, and Edea, the daughter of the Eternian Grand Marshal who has defected following the cruelty of her colleagues.

Reading that, you’d be forgiven for expecting a tiring parade of JRPG clichés. Crystals? Check. Amnesia? Check. Destruction of home village? Check. The thing is, Bravely Default is well aware of this and manages to weave a genuinely compelling and interesting narrative with all of these familiar ingredients. Sure, you’re seen all of these ingredients before, but you’ve never seen them put together like this. Not everything is as it seems, and Bravely Default has a lot of fun undermining your expectations. Although I wasn’t necessarily too bothered about our central pair of Tiz and Agnes, the genuinely funny Ringabel and charmingly aggressive Edea make up for it. There’s a great supporting cast of weird and wonderful villains, who vary from entertainingly diabolical, to confusing and weird, to tragic and sympathetic. My one criticism is that it doesn’t feel like Tiz has a huge amount of agency during the story, and feels like a supporting character in his own game.

So, if you’re not a fan of classic JRPG tropes like turn based battling and granular statistics, you won’t enjoy Bravely Default. However, if you like these things, hell, even tolerate them, you’ll like Bravely Default. The main gameplay innovations in Bravely Default are the battle and job systems. Bravely Default treats ‘turns’ as a resource, with ‘defaulting’ saving up turns to be used later, and raising defence for that turn. You can stack up to four turns, to then ‘brave’ and use those turns all at once. You can also borrow turns ahead of time, creating a move deficit meaning that you cannot make any actions until you reach zero again, leaving you defenceless. Bravely Default’s combat therefore has a pretty fascinating risk/reward mechanic, with the conservative tactic of saving up moves vying against the temptation to finish enemies quickly through a volley of attacks. It sounds like a minor addition, but it makes Bravely Default feel completely distinct from anything else on the market.

The other major mechanic is the job system, which is probably closest to that in Final Fantasy Tactics. Jobs are levelled up distinctly from EXP, and with each level offer either an active or passive skill. Active skills are actual moves that can be used in battle, and passive skills are always active buffs which affect the character as long as they are equipped, although there are limited slots. Finding the right combination of active and passive powers offers a huge amount of strategy, and reduces the need for constant grinding. Your level isn’t nearly as important as your job and your equipment, which makes a nice change from empty levelling. Another lovely addition is the interesting flexibility that Bravely Default offers, such as tinkering with encounter rates and battle speed. It’s one of those tiny things that I will find intolerable if it isn’t in every JRPG from now on.

Probably the biggest problem with Bravely Default is the final few hours, which are unbelievably repetitive and dull. They’re justified for some really interesting plot reasons, but it doesn’t change the fact that the final hours were a slog, which I could only get through by doing something else at the same time. It’s a difficult conflict between story and gameplay, and I have to wonder if there was a better way to have managed this. Bravely Default also contains some truly hideous micro-transactions, which whilst depressing are easy enough to do without. It’s horrible to see this kind of thing in a game like this, but, well, it could have been worse.

Bravely Default has some beautiful hand-drawn environments, particularly in the major cities, but they’re few and far between. The majority of dungeons are pretty bland looking, and the character models aren’t too pretty either. When you do enter the beautiful hand-drawn areas, your chibi styled polygonal heroes look ridiculous and out of place, like visitors from another, less pretty game. However, the lacking visuals are more than made up for by the lovely sound. A great soundtrack is a key JRPG ingredient, and Bravely Default probably has the loveliest soundtrack on the 3DS.The voice acting is generally quite good too, particularly for Edea and Ringabel. There’s a fair bit of hamminess and standard JRPG voice acting silliness, but by and large I was impressed more than I was annoyed.

Bravely Default is the first great JRPG for the console, and one of the best in recent memory. It understands what the Final Fantasy series doesn’t, that you don’t need to reinvent the wheel, the gamer friendly changes and adjustments are going to be just as welcome in this modern age, without the need to abandon everything good about a genre. It’s not perfect, but if you own a 3DS and haven’t enjoyed a JRPG in a while, Bravely Default is for you. download (6)

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde

With every book in the Thursday Next series, I imagine that they couldn’t get any more silly and meta; Jasper Fforde simply laughs, shakes his head, and proffers up his next book. One of Our Thursdays is Missing is a hoot, and just as much of a blast as the rest of the books. Ok, these books are feeling more and more lightweight with every instalment, but I can’t deny just how much I enjoy the ride.

One of Our Thursdays is Missing steps in quite a different direction to the rest of the series, providing a change that’s been a while coming. The first big change is the protagonist; the Thursday Next that we’ve been following for the previous books is not the protagonist, with that role instead taken by the fictional Thursday Next from the in-universe version of the first four Thursday Next books…yeah. The second major change is that the BookWorld has been remade as a physical location with real geography, rather than the scattered realms that it was in earlier books. There’s a map and everything! I’m a sucker for a good map.

Thursday, the real Thursday, has gone missing, on the eve of peace talks between the genres of Women’s Literature and Speedy Muffler, the leader of the genre ‘Racy Novel’ who has been threatening to detonate a ‘dirty bomb’, which would spread badly written graphic sex scenes throughout fiction. The fictional Thursday, who spends most of her days enacting the fictionalised version of the ‘real’ Thursday’s life, is drawn into the investigation, and uncovers a wider conspiracy which spreads as far as the ‘real’ world.

For all their wackiness, the Thursday Next books could get a bit…formulaic, and although a lot of the predictable beats are still here, the change in protagonist and setting shake things up nicely. With every successive book, I focus less and less on trying to follow the plot and simply slip my mind into ‘receptive’ mode and let the story do its thing. The geographical BookWorld allows some interesting and funny new situations, and Fforde shows himself willing to look at modern phenomena too, such as eBooks and FanFiction. The actual mystery didn’t make a huge amount of sense, but I can’t claim to have been too bothered.

One of the nice things about One of Our Thursdays is Missing is the lesser reliance on the same old cast of characters, who appear more in cameos than anything else. Well, actually, the new characters are generally the BookWorld actors playing the real world characters, the highlight being the imperious actor dodo playing Pickwick. I also loved Sprockett, a robot butler who teams up with fictional Thursday.

Look, at this point in these series reviewing these books feel pointless. You know what you’re going to get with a Thursday Next novel. They’re predictably unpredictable. One of Our Thursdays is Missing is another fun, silly novel in this fun, silly series. download (5)

Saints Row IV for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I’m pretty new to the Saints Row series, with my first exposure to it coming from Saints Row: The Third. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t exactly change my life. Saints Row 4 really is a whole different kettle of fish, completely changing its gameplay focus from GTA-style driving and shooting to epic superpowers. It shouldn’t work. It really really shouldn’t work. But, well, it just does.

Saints Row IV continues the story of the Third Street Saint’s inexorable rise to its logical conclusion, with the election of the Boss to the position of President of the United States. Not long into their first term, Earth is invaded by the alien Zin Empire and promptly destroyed, but not before abducting key members of the Earth’s population, including most members of the Saints. The Boss is imprisoned in a simulated version of Saints Row: The Third’s Steelport, where he/she is able to hack the system to gain super powers. He/she sets their main task as the rescuing of the other Saints from simulations based on their worst fears and taking down the Zin overlord, the brilliantly effete Zinyak.

The plot of Saints Row IV is filled with references to the earlier games in the series, which is probably great for those with a long-time relationship with these games but left me frequently lost. Despite that, I actually really enjoyed Saints Row IVs story. It’s interesting, for a series which positioned itself as a sillier, more arcane hyped up GTA, the plot is actually surprisingly warm. There’s genuine affection between these characters, and the plot’s flipping between irreverent silliness and moments of genuine emotion actually work, when they really shouldn’t. You really feel how much these characters care about each other! This game parodies Mass Effect­ very heavily, but it actually captures that feeling that Mass Effect had of building a family, not just a crew. The villain, Zinyak, is fantastic, one of my favourite villains since GLaDOS. Of course, fundamentally, Saints Row IV mainly aims to be really funny, and there is certainly succeeds.

Saints Row IV is fun. Like, seriously fun. This is one of those rare games where just traversing the environment is a huge amount of fun, and I never got tired of it. If I were to compare it to anything, I’d say Prototype, but it does it a lot better. Although the Boss can’t fly properly, the combination of super speed and a massive leap combined with a glide means that you certainly get the visceral thrill. The combat powers are a hoot too; it’s hard not to enjoy shooting fireballs out of your hands or smashing to the ground with such power that it causes a mushroom cloud. Saints Row IV immediately turns the biggest weakness of the Saints Row series into its biggest strength.

The main missions are a lot of fun, and feature an impressive amount of variety. A lot of them are parodies of other games, with Metal Gear Solid getting a notable mission. They’re generally fun, but usually contrive a way for you to lose your superpowers. This is a bit of a problem, as once you start out with insane fun powers, it’s difficult to enjoy the passable third person shooting and driving when they’re gone. That said, the raw combat is better than GTA 5s. There’s plenty of other stuff to do, with loads of side missions and activities. Some of these are really fun and use the super powers in interesting ways, such as the great new Professor Genki game involving telekinesis, but a lot of them are pretty basic and feel like padding. Stealing vehicles feels rather basic after leaping around cybernetic dream spaces and throwing mascots through hoops. There are loads of collectibles, the most notable being Crackdown-style orbs which allow you to level up your superpowers, which is a good incentive to chase after every one that you see. Saints Row IV has a lot of content, and although not all of it is necessarily worth doing, there’s enough stuff that is to justify the asking price.

In some ways though, Saints Row IV is a lazy game. The biggest weakness of this release is the re-use of Steelport, which means that as good as everything else is, Saints Row IV can’t quite avoid feeling like a really good mod rather than a genuine new entry in the series. Steelport wasn’t really anything to write home about in Saints Row: The Third, but it was nonetheless designed with driving and shooting in mind, so it at least worked. You’ll do very little driving and much less shooting in Saints Row IV, but the world remains, aside from a couple of visual tweaks, identical. It seems to be a trend in open world games that you can’t have a great open world that also has great gameplay. Games like Skyrim and GTA 5 had amazing settings, but lacklustre gameplay, and games like Saints Row IV and Kingdoms of Amalur had great gameplay but uninteresting settings. Maybe Fallout 3 is the closest to mastering both? Still, Saints Row IV is held back from true greatness by its laziness, and if Volition had held out for another year and created a whole new setting alongside their new mechanics, we could have had a genuine masterpiece.

Saints Row IV isn’t the prettiest game out there, but it gets the job done. The animations are generally better than the actual character models, and some of the worlds created in the main mission are genuinely really cool. One of the real highlights in the voice acting, with the supporting cast varying between comedy and genuine drama really well. There are a range of voice actors to choose from for the boss, but I went for ‘Nolan North’, which is literally labelled Nolan North. For all this guy gets knocked for being in everything, he’s popular for a reason and he absolutely nailed it. One area where Saints Row IV comfortably knocks GTA 5 out of the water is the soundtrack, with classic songs regularly used to hilarious effect. Seriously, the opening scene of the game had me in tears of laughter solely through a soundtrack choice.

Saints Row IV is a huge amount of fun, but doesn’t come close to reaching its full potential. If Volition continue with the super power angle, and takes a bit more time in preparing the setting, Saints Row V should be a sight to see. It’s pretty cheap now, so Saints Row IV is absolutely worth picking up and playing. Saints-Row-IV

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