Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “May, 2014”

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

Jurassic Park is pretty much a perfect movie. I love it.  I was sort of aware that it was based on the book, but hadn’t really given it any thought before stumbling across it in a charity shop, and decided to give it a whirl. Now I’m going to say something that you won’t hear me saying often; I preferred the film.

For those poor souls who aren’t familiar with the plot, Jurassic Park takes place on Isla Nubar, an island near Costa Rica where the eccentric billionaire John Hammond has built a resort with a unique attraction; genetically engineered dinosaurs. Alan Grant and Ellie Sattler, palaeontologists, are flown out to Isla Nubar to give their expert opinions on the dinosaurs, but it’s not long before an act of industrial espionage cuts power on the island, freeing the dinosaurs from their enclosures and plunging the island into chaos.

I wish I could review this without talking about the film, but I just can’t. The story of Jurassic Park is great, but you all knew that already right? It has a wider scope than the film, jumping between characters with greater regularity, as well as more lengthy considerations for the science and context. Crichton uses the character of Ian Malcolm, renegade mathematician and Jeff Goldblum, essentially as a mouthpiece for his opinions on the importance of ethics in science. That’s not a criticism, its interesting stuff, giving the novel slightly greater depth than the film.

The prose is punchy, readable and exciting. Obviously I knew what was going to happen, but I was still tense and immersed in the story, which is a testament to Crichton’s writing. He does tend to ramble slightly, and some of his digressions can be a bit much, but more often than not they’re actually pretty interesting.

Where the book is eclipsed by the film is in its characterisation, particularly in its marginalising of female characters. Lex, Hammond’s niece who travels with Grant and her brother Tim, is quite possibly one of the most pathetic, irritating and lazily written characters that I’ve ever encountered. I hated her, particularly compared to her competent and likeable brother. Now, in the film, this dynamic just wasn’t the case; you rooted for both of them. Similarly, Ellie Sattler’s role is pretty minor, and was significantly bumped up in the film. I did like some stuff; Hammond is much less sympathetic in the book, almost fitting into a villain category, which I actually preferred to Richard Attenborough’s rather more likeable interpretation.

This is a really tough review to write, and I sort of hate it. I wish I could just review it on its merits as a book, but the film was just too essential a part of my childhood. I will say though, if you are a fan of the film (and if you’re not, get out), give the book a try, at least for the interesting shift in perspective it gives.425px-Jurassicpark


Child of Light for Wii U, PS4, PS3, Xbox One, Xbox 360 and PC

I know it’s a bit weird to have a favourite game engine, but it’s hard not to have developed a quick fondness for the UbiArt Framework, which powered last year’s fantastic Rayman Legends and, more recently, Child of Light. For a major game publisher, Ubisoft took a fantastic risk into clearly pouring a lot of work into a new 2D game engine, and it’s paid off handsomely, providing a couple of the most beautiful games around. The question is, does Child of Light live up to its own beauty? Well…not quite.

Aurora, the daughter of an Austrian Duke in the late 19th century, has contracted a mysterious illness which has left her catatonic. She awakens in Lemuria, a mystical land which has had its stars, sun and moon stolen by Umbra, the Dark Queen. Gathering a motley band of adventurers around her, Aurora sets out to make her way home to her dying father, and save Lemuria along the way.

Child of Light is very much a fairy tale, with all of the advantages and disadvantages these things can have. The plot is simple and fairly formulaic, but it nonetheless stirs strong emotions in its oddly moving story. You won’t be surprised by much, but if you just relax and let yourself be caught up in the story, it’s quite enjoyable. Probably the most striking thing is that the whole thing is written in rhyme, which is the sort of thing I should love, but it just didn’t quite work for me. Yes, the whole game is in poetry, and that’s cool, but…well, it’s bad poetry. The rhymes are questionable, the rhythm regularly non-existent. Obviously writing a whole game in iambic pentameter is no easy feat, and I can’t blame them for not pulling it off, but nonetheless the rhyme is more distracting than charming. The ending is incredibly rushed, because, well…Ubisoft.

Child of Light may look like a platformer, but it’s an RPG, replete with all the stats and items and turn based battling of the genre. The combat is fine, not particularly complex, but enjoyable and without ever feeling like a grind. The combat is all built around a timeline at the bottom, which Aurora and her party, as well as the enemies, travel along at their own pace. At around 4/5 of the bar, the player inputs a command, with more powerful attacks taking longer to execute. The main element of strategy comes from the fact that if hit during this charging phase, your attack is interrupted and you’re thrown further back into timeline, with the enemies able to do the same to you. There’s a lot of judging speed and move lengths in the combat, alongside all the standard JRPG strategies. It’s not as complex as it sounds, but it’s still fun.

The game is navigated all on a 2D plain, as Aurora traverses Lemuria, mostly in a linear route but occasionally diverting off into side quests. Aurora is joined by Igniculus, a fairy which, at least on the Wii U version I played, is controlled on the touch pad. He can manipulate the environment in some simple puzzles, restore Aurora’s health, and in battle can play a pretty vital role in slowing down foes. This can be played co-op, and I had high hopes for this after Rayman Legends, but in the end it’s not really much fun for the player stuck with Igniculus.

Child of Light is an absolutely enchanting game…at least for the first half. The art is sublime, no other way to put it, and the soundtrack melancholy and hauntingly beautiful. There’s something so evocative about Child of Light that it can be difficult at first to ascertain the game’s flaws, but really there are a lot. The main issue that I had with Child of Light is just how (pardon the pun) lightweight it seemed. The game is the right length, but the story and pacing are incredibly rushed towards the end. I’m absolutely certain that there’s a whole load of cut content here (and if they try to sell it as DLC so help me God). I’m absolutely fine with games that put more focus into style and beauty than complex mechanics; if that’s what you intend to make then go for it. The problem with Child of Light is that it attempts to marry traditional JRPG tropes with the sort of aesthetic mostly seen in indie games. The result just doesn’t quite work, and I wonder if an RPG was the best use for this art style and world. At times Child of Light reminded me of the similarly lovely Aquaria, and perhaps a Metroidvania style game would have worked better. The battles are perfectly fine, but there’s not much depth to them, and they do eventually become chores to get through so you can see the next gorgeous area or hear the next wonderful tune.

Child of Light is an absolute feast for the senses, but as a game it doesn’t quite live up to expectations. Again, I’m usually fine with this, but so much of Child of Light is taken up in the bland battling that the balance shifts against it. Look, I still admire this game for lots of reasons, and some people will really love it, but overall Child of Light just didn’t quite work for me.2309987-childoflight

Stick it to the Man for PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Wii U, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PC and Mac

Oh wow, I really loved this game. I just had such a blast playing it. Stick it to the Man scratched an itch I didn’t even know I had in a big way, and is easily my favourite free PS+ game released so far.

Our hero Ray is a hard hat tester at a local factory; on his way home, he is ironically hit on the head by a falling object from space. After some bizarre dreams, he awakes in hospital with a giant pink arm coming out of his head which lets him read minds. Yep. Pursued by the henchmen of the shadowy figure known as ‘The Man’, our charmingly idiotic hero stumbles from one situation to the other.

So, that itch I mentioned? Let’s call it…Schaferian. As much as I loved Broken Age, its melancholy and gently funny narrative lacked the twisted darkness of Psychonauts or Grim Fandango. Stick it to the Man has that in spades, filling that niche for darkly comic adventure games nicely. Ray is an engaging and likeable protagonist, and supported by a range of hilarious recurring and one-off characters. Most of all, it’s really funny, but there’s a palpable aura of menace to the proceedings.

Stick it to the Man is an adventure game at heart, with the main gimmick being the way in which the player interacts with the world, namely the aforementioned giant pink arm. It can be used to swing Ray through the 2D environments, adding an enjoyable manoeuvrability generally lacking in adventure games. Ray uses this arm to peel objects from the environment to stick elsewhere, solving the generally extremely simple puzzles. It also allows Ray to read minds, which offers more than just amusing dialogue, with their thoughts sometimes manifesting as a sticker to be used elsewhere. It’s odd really; Stick it to the Man has some of the most ridiculous examples of ‘adventure game logic’ that I’ve ever seen, but it commits itself so thoroughly to the insanity that in the end it all works.

What doesn’t quite work are stealth sections of sorts, where Ray must evade henchmen of ‘The Man.’ These are either achieved by skilfully moving through the environment, or using stickers to trick the henchmen. There’s not much thought involved, and a lot of trial and error. There’s very minor punishment for failure, but it’s enough to break up the flow of the game slightly. It does play the role of contributing to the atmosphere of menace, but I wonder if there was a way to do so which was slightly more…well, fun.

The voice acting is wonderful. It’s generally completely goofy and over the top, but always incredibly funny. This world is just packed with character, with everything from teddy bears to goldfish available to mind read. The visual style is striking and oddly creepy, using a paper aesthetic which fits in nicely with the sticker theme. The music is good as well, with the very welcome appearance of Kenny Rodgers with Just Dropped In (To See What Condition my Condition Was In), made most famous in The Big Lebowski, wrapping up the whole thing in an undeniable energy of laid back cool.

Stick it to the Man is probably the best paper style sticker based game ever made (take that Paper Mario: Sticker Star!) It’s hard for me to review this game objectively, because it was free and pushed my buttons so damn much. Leave it to say that I absolutely loved it, and I hope you all do too.stick_it_to_the_man

Remember Me for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I so, so wanted this game to be good. The premise intrigued me so much that I desperately hoped that I’d be able to see past the flaws suggested in the mediocre reviews and reach the interesting game underneath. I had hoped that this game would be a diamond in the rough. Well, there may be a diamond, but it’s tiny and the rough is made of disappointment and bad voice acting.

Remember Me takes place in the late 21st century, in Neo Paris. Memory has been comodified, with the vast corporation Memorize having released the Sensen, which allows people to upload and share their memories, as well as exorcise negative ones. The rise of Memorize has also led to the arrival of the Leapers, those who have become addicted to memories, leading them to become mutated for reasons never adequately explained and living in the sewers. Our protagonist, Nilin, is a ‘memory hunter’, an expert in extracting and altering memories. She is an ‘Errorist’, a member of an organisation which seeks to take down Memorize, but has been captured and almost had her memory erased. The timely intervention of the mysterious hacker known as Edge saves her, and lets her escape the clutches of the company before embarking on a journey to reclaim her stolen memories and take down the company that took them.

So, that sounds pretty cool right? On paper, Remember Me has a pretty interesting plot which plays with big ideas such as the importance of memory in what constructs humanity, and the attempts of the private sector to commoditise every aspect of the human experience. The execution however is absolutely, at times hilariously, terrible. This is one of the most ineptly told game stories that I’ve ever seen, made all the worse for it’s potential. The voice acting is wooden, the writing is hammier than ham and the tone is all over the place. Plot twists which should be exciting are either rote or non-sensical, dramatic character moments which should be engaging are robbed of all emotion by a complete lack of context. Remember Me seems to expect you to be completely engaged in its cast, whilst making absolutely no effort to develop them or even give them introductions before introducing the mawkish drama. Against the backdrop of these fascinating ideas, we have a cast of some of the dumbest, goofiest villains you’ll ever see. If done well, this can actually work, with Metal Gear Solid being the prime example. Remember Me is no Metal Gear Solid however, and these characters are at best laughable, at worst actively infuriating. One thing Remember Me does do well is in its wide range of female characters and people of colour, generally unrepresented demographics in gaming. In fact, Remember Me has one of the most pleasantly diverse casts in recent memories. It’s just a shame that it happens to be in a game with such a dumb plot as this one.

The gameplay is…fine. There’s a lot of Assassin’s Creed-esque scrambling, which is heavily signposted by orange waypoints. The combat is your standard Arkham-style brawl that has become the norm, but it’s not as good. There are your standard moves, as well as special moves, called ‘S-Pressens’ for some reason, which can be activated when enough ‘focus’ is gained through combos, with individual attacks having a cool down timer to prevent spamming. The most interesting combat mechanic is the ability to create your own combos from a series of moves with different effects: red basic attacks, yellow healing strikes, purple to speed up the cool down timer and blue to greatly amplify a previous effect. The further down the combo an attack is, the greater it’s effect. It’s actually pretty cool, and the combat is perfectly functional. It’s just not that much fun. There’s not much else to it. Remember Me is a very linear game, and will mostly see Nilin climbing, jumping and fighting through a series of levels. There are a couple of really cool set piece moments, but they don’t make up for a lack of actual gameplay.

The most hyped gameplay feature of this game was easily the memory remixes. This is where Nilin alters the memory of a target to change their behaviours. This is accomplished by playing through a memory, identifying areas that can be altered, and finding the right combination to create the desire deffect. It’s a cool idea, but incredibly simple, and only occurs a handful of times in the game. It’s a shame, because if greatly expanded and made the actual focus fn the game, we could have had something really cool here, but instead Capcom played it safe and focused the game on those safe mechanics of climbing, jumping and brawling.

Where Remember Me does shine however is in its art design. In fact, I’m pretty sure all of the major talent in Remember Me must have been in the concept artists, without having a good enough game to back it up. Neo-Paris is a vivid location, but the poor character animation and static feel to the world make it seem sterile. This is that rare game which looks better still than in motion, which is not a good thing. Still, the artists behind this game should be commended. The music is actually quite good too, with the faintly techno-operatic backing music fitting the setting well. The voice acting is a disaster however; at its best it’s wooden, and at its worst it’s absolutely terrible.

Remember Me does some things right, and it certainly has some nice ideas and ambition. The execution falls flat nearly everywhere however, I rolled my eyes ten times for every genuinely cool moment. Those moments are there however, and when they pop up they make it even more depressing that it all culminated in this mediocrity.Remember_Me_(Capcom_game_-_cover_art)

Railsea by China Miéville

Railsea may fall under the category of YA fiction, but that doesn’t stop it from being a bloody clever, meta-fictional post-modern piece of work. That’s all well and good, but much more importantly, it’s also a damn good adventure story. One might even go so far as to call it a ‘ripping yarn.’

Miéville is an author who often builds his books around a vivid and imaginative setting, and Railsea is one of his best yet. In a vaguely post-apocalyptic world which was, perhaps, once known as Earth, a vast network of rails and trains criss-cross the land. Churning beneath the surface are a collection of deadly mutated creatures, such as giant moles and insects, that will devour any who land in the dirt. Our protagonist, Sham ap Soorap, is a young doctor’s assistant on the Medes, a mole-train which travels the railsea in search of its prey, the giant moles known as moldywarpes. Captain Naphi of the Medes has a personal quest, her ‘philosophy’, to take down the albino moldywarpe Mocker-Jack, who had taken her arm many years before. During a routine hunt, the Medes come upon a wrecked train, and inside Sham discovers a series of photographs which threaten to shake the foundations of the entire railsea.

Railsea is, at its core, just a really great adventure. It shares DNA with a fair bit of Miéville’s own previous work, particularly the similarly train themed Iron Council, but I was also reminded of my personal favourite, The Scar. Of course, the biggest influence is obviously Moby Dick, although it’s significantly more interesting than just a retelling of Melville’s classic with a train instead of a boat and a mole instead of a whale. It’s a hugely fun book, with some clever twists and a much better ending than has often been the case in Miéville’s work.

I’ll admit to not having been hooked from the get-go, with Miéville’s typically challenging writing style setting up an immediate barrier to entry. When you get used to it, it actually works quite well, with a faintly 19th century Robert Louis Stevenson style to the writing. Still, this does feel like the book where the accusations of pretension which have (in my opinion) been unfairly levelled against Miéville’s may perhaps be justified. Miéville uses ampersands throughout the whole book, which is fine, but do we need an extended reflection on their use? This is a story about stories, and Miéville playfully teases the reader throughout the book, dangling then pulling back intriguing story threads. At the end of the day though, this is marketed as a ‘book for all ages’, and unlike Un Lun Dun, I just cannot see how these digressions are going to do anything but alienate many young readers. Still, whatever you think about his unique style it can’t really be denied that Miéville has an almost unrivalled ability to craft a vista in the reader’s mind. The railsea is Miéville’s best and most vibrant setting since Bas-Lag, and it’s quite painful to leave it when the book is done.

Sham is an engaging and likeable protagonist, not necessarily hugely complicated, but he nonetheless goes through a distinct character arc, which is accomplished subtly enough that you don’t really realise how much he has grown until the end. There’s an engaging supporting cast, with the driven Captain Naphi standing as an intriguingly morally grey figure.

Railsea is probably one of my favourite Miéville books. It’s not quite up there with The Scar and The City & The City, but it’s still damn good. It’s a complex, political, intelligent work which, most importantly, tells a hugely fun story. I’m just not sure if your 8 year old will enjoy it.railsea_design

The Wonderful 101 for Wii U

I really only bought this game as an excuse to turn on my beloved Wii U, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that this game gelled with me significantly more than I had expected. I had written it off as an inferior Pikmin, and it can look like it in gameplay videos, but in reality it actually plays more closely to Platinum Games’ own Bayonetta, which is most certainly not a bad thing.

The Wonderful 101 takes place in an Earth which has fought off several alien invasions by a civilisation known as the GEATHJERK. In response to these invasions, several defences have been enacted, such as the planet surrounding force field known as…er, Margarita. The most exciting defence are CENTINAL suits, masks which turn their wearers into superheroes. There are 100 members of the force known as The Wonderful Ones, flamboyant costumed superheroes who defend the Earth from GEATHJERK and their forces. The main protagonist is a teacher known as Will Wedgewood aka Wonder-Red, who heads up the team after GEATHJERK launch a third full scale invasion.

I didn’t expect to care a whit about the story, but it actually all hangs together quite well. I have a bit of a soft spot for Japanese games with ridiculous plots like these, with Wonderful 101 reminding me favourably of Japanese action games such as Bayonetta and Asura’s Wrath. It’s silly and funny, but manages to pack in some genuinely cool twists and decent character development along the way, alongside all the goofiness.

I’ve never played a game like The Wonderful 101 before. I suppose the best comparison is Pikmin crossed with Bayonetta. The player controls all 100 heroes at once, although you often have less and gather more throughout the level. Using the Wii U touch pad, the player draws different shapes to activate ‘Unite Morphs’, which turn the team into different weapons, such as a fist, a sword, a gun or a whip, as well as others. The player uses these abilities to fight their way through a series of levels, which are then split up into a dozen or so checkpoints. This is a game which can be incredibly frantic and chaotic, and at first it’s utterly overwhelming. After a couple of hours though, everything clicks and it all begins to just work. This is a game which plays so differently to any other that you can’t just relax into your tired patterns. The frantic pace probably has most in common with a Japanese brawler, something like Devil May Cry, but it genuinely isn’t quite like anything else out there.

The Wonderful 101 is not a short game, and there’s plenty to keep you going. Probably the best thing about this game is the sheer amount of variety. As you go, you’ll experience a whole bunch of different mechanics. Not all of them work; levels which require you to navigate on the Gamepad screen using the gyroscope to manipulate the camera are absolutely terrible, but if you don’t enjoy a particular mechanic you can be happy that it won’t last for long. This is a surprising game, always bringing out some new mechanic or concept to keep you on your toes. The boss battles are fantastic¸ with that glorious sense of scale that you only really get from Japan. The Wonderful 101 is never a game which holds back, unleashing everything at 100% craziness the entire time.

This is a decent looking game, but it won’t win any beauty contests. Where it does succeed is in conveying a sense of scale, but by and large the art style is functional rather than exciting in of itself. The voice acting is fantastic; okay, ridiculous, goofy and over the top, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The jock ‘bro’ voice for Wonder-Blue and the ridiculous French accent for ‘Wonder –Green’ are a couple of my favourites. The music is nice and exciting too, with the ‘theme song’ for the team in particular bringing a great ‘Saturday morning cartoon’ vibe to affairs.

It’s far from perfect, and is frequently irritating and frustrating, but I’ll forgive a lot in a game this unique and memorable. It’s not a masterpiece, but something which really shouldn’t be missed by any Wii U owner. It’s got a hell of a learning curve, but persevere and you’ll find something special here.2129213-169_wonderful101_nindirect_wiiu_ot_080913

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