Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “August, 2014”

Bit.Trip.Presents Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien for Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, PC, Mac OS, Linux and iOS

Well, this is a game as fun as its name is long. I haven’t played any other Bit.Trip games, but if they’re all as fun as this one I certainly want to.

Runner2 does have the semblance of a plot, enthusiastically narrated by Charles Martinet, the voice actor for Mario and Luigi. I didn’t really follow though, as hard as Martinet sells it. The whole thing has a goofy Saturday morning cartoon vibe which is nice, but this isn’t a game you’ll be playing for the plot.

Runner2 is…well, an endless runner. You move from left to right, jumping and ducking to dodge obstacles, as well as putting up shields to block projectiles and kicking down barriers, all to a relatively simple beat. In fact, simple is the operative word; Runner2 is simple, but so much fun. There’s not a lot to say about a game like this; it has its simple mechanics and then builds a series of levels around challenging your reflexes and rhythm. That’s all it does and it does it very well.

The game is good value too, with loads of levels spread across five worlds. There are tons of secrets and unlockables, such as extra characters and skins. Runner2 is a great example of a game which opts to do a few things well, rather than being a jack of all trades.

Runner2 is, in many ways, a rhythm game, with much of the dodging and jumping taking place to the beat of the music. The music is therefore very good, pleasant without being too distracting from the gameplay. The visuals are also charming, but necessarily uncluttered; too much going on would make a game like this very difficult to play.

This is a short review because this kind of game is very easy to review. It’s mindless, fun and charming; unless you crave complexity, this is worth a go.runner2

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A Song of Stone by Iain Banks

I’m slowly making my way through Iain Bank’s entire back catalogue; he was an incredibly diverse author, capable of tackling many different genres, tones and themes. A Song of Stone actually reminds me most of one of Bank’s sci-fi novels, Inversions. Both are clever, but neither are favourites.

A Song of Stone takes place in an unknown country torn apart by civil war. Abel and his lover Morgan are aristocrats fleeing their ancestral castle, when a group of bandits led by a charismatic woman known only as The Lieutenant capture them and take them back to the castle, making it their base of operations. Abel’s entire sheltered existence is shattered by The Lieutenant and her men.

If there’s one thing Iain Banks wasn’t scared of, it was tackling taboos. A Song of Stone is disturbing in many ways, with a truly complex and unpleasant relationship at its core. The narrator Abel recounts everything in the present tense, giving an unpleasant immediacy to the whole thing. Still, this is also a novel about history, and how casually history can be destroyed by the present. It descends a little bit too much into long winded philosophising for my tastes, although generally the insights themselves are beautifully expressed and highly thought provoking. There’s a bit too much of a gulf between this and the narrative however; it’s actually a really good idea for a story, but it tries a little bit too hard and that damages the central narrative.

As I said though, the actual writing itself is gorgeous. A Song of Stone is written in a self-consciously arch style, with the irreverence and humour which characterised his Culture books not in attendance. It’s frequently beautiful, but I’ve got to say I prefer the irreverence. You can tell how much fun Banks was having when he wrote like that, whereas this book seems to come from a much darker place, the same place that provided The Wasp Factory. The Wasp Factory was brilliant though and A Song of Stone cannot quite compete.

Abel is an interesting protagonist, not very likeable and difficult to trust. He’s haughty, seeing himself above the common folk who have suffered even worse than him. His treatment of the mostly silent Morgan is deeply unpleasant, reflecting inner weakness in Abel more than anything else. The real star is The Lieutenant, a fascinating character, possessed of an awareness and intelligence greater than that of her men. Unlike her soldiers who trash Abel’s castle with no thought to its grandeur, the Lieutenant understands exactly what is being done, and sanctions it. The desecration of the castle is a victory for her against those who had put themselves above her. Everything else fades in this novel behind the brilliance of the Lieutenant, and she’ll be the character I remember.

A Song of Stone is far from Bank’s best work, but it’s an interesting one nonetheless. I don’t regret reading it, but there are much better books by him out there.ASongOfStone

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes for PS4, PS3, Xbox One and Xbox 360

Shameful gamer confession time; I’ve never played a Metal Gear Solid game before. My PS4 is my first Sony console and I was a bit young for the remake of the original on the Gamecube. Ground Zeroes is my toe dipping into the ridiculous waters of Metal Gear Solid, and thankfully I’ve found it to be to my liking.

So, the plot line for Metal Gear Solid is famously convoluted and insane, but I managed to piece together what was going on regardless. Ground Zeroes follows Naked Snake aka. Big Boss, the clone/father of the original protagonist Solid Snake. He has created a private army with nuclear capability, now under investigation by authorities. On the eve of an inspection, two of Snake’s associates are captured in Cuba; Chico, a young boy who works for Snake’s mercenaries for some reason, and Paz, a young woman recently outed as a spy in Snake’s organisation for the shadowy group known as Cipher. Snake must break into a compound in Cuba to rescue these two and preserve his secrets.

It took me a while to get what was going on, but Ground Zeroes makes a lot of effort to make sure that the player is brought up to speed, both in a summary on the menu and audio tapes which explain the run up to the main events of the story. The story is, like everything in Ground Zeroes, brief, with the most compelling element of the narrative being tapes taken from while Paz was undercover with Snake, at first contemptuous and then reluctantly fond of those around her. The tone is really uneven however, with one scene in particular towards the end feeling absolutely gratuitous and weird. Kojima said he wanted this game to tackle taboos, which it does, but tackling taboos is a risky business; it has to be done very well to pull it off, and Ground Zeroes doesn’t quite succeed there. Still, it’s mostly a precursor to the events of The Phantom Pain, so in the grand scheme of things it probably doesn’t even matter.

I’ll address the key concern first; the length. Yes, the actual Ground Zeroes mission is very short. There are a handful of other side objectives on the same map, and they don’t add up to much time either. There are collectibles, but I don’t really take seriously collectibles as a way to extend a game. Overall, there isn’t much content here, and if you’d paid £30 when it first came out you’d be well within your rights to be upset. It’s much reduced in price now however, and I think it’s worth the money you’d pay for it now, and its fun enough you’ll want to play through many of its missions again.  Each of the missions feel very different, even though they take place on the same base, with a variety of weather conditions and objectives, ranging from exclusively stealthy to heavily action packed, helping hold off repetitiveness.

Ground Zeroes is, of course, a stealth game. The controls are a bit fiddly, and took me a while to get used to, but that’s largely because you have much more control than you normally do in stealth games. Ground Zeroes doesn’t hold your hand, and it takes a while to master. When you do though, stealth doesn’t get more satisfying. There are some concessions to modern gaming though, with a good binocular system letting you mark enemies ahead of time, Far Cry 3 style. The action stuff works well too, with solid third person shooting alongside the stealth. There are a lot of options in how you approach an objective, with emergent gameplay opportunities to be found everywhere. If the objective of Ground Zeroes was to get me convinced on the basic gameplay of The Phantom Pain, it certainly succeeded there.

Of course, it all looks lovely too, with excellent lighting and weather effects building atmosphere well. The faces are detailed and believable, and the voice acting generally good, if slightly hammy. If Kojima can spread this level of polish across something on the projected scale of The Phantom Pain, I’ll be extremely impressed.

Ground Zeroes is a lot of fun; I’m not sure how I feel about it, the whole thing seems a little bit sordid to me. It did succeed in convincing me that The Phantom Pain will be something I’ll love, and I guess the entire Metal Gear Solid series by proxy.metal_gear_solid_ground_zeroes_wallpaper_by_jayveerk-d5e2xgf

Towerfall: Ascension for PS4, PC, Mac OS X and Linux

Well, that was a lot of fun. After the heavy brilliance of The Last of Us, Towerfall: Ascension is a lovely palette cleanser. Light, simple, fun and pretty damn tough. Just a heads up, I’m well aware that this is a multiplayer focused game, but individual PS4 controllers are obscenely expensive at the moment, so I’m going to wait a while until I get one.

Towerfall: Ascension’s single player doesn’t have a story, so I’ll get right to it. Towerfall: Ascension is an archery based arena game, with elements of Super Smash Bros. and Pac-Man weaved in. Each level is a different arena, with the top looping to the bottom and the left to the right in classic Pac-Man style. The player fights wave after wave of monsters, which can either be dispatched with arrows or by stomping on their head. You carry limited ammunition at a time, meaning arrows have to be retrieved from walls or the corpses of foes. You’ll also be regularly given power ups, such as wings which grant you the power of flight, bomb arrows or shields…and that’s pretty much it!

Towerfall is very simple, but so much fun. It’s also really tough, with a huge amount of enemies on screen with a variety of attack patterns to contend with. It’s never unfair though, and has a massive ‘just one more go’ appeal. There are only nine levels in the single player campaign, but there’s quite a lot of variety nonetheless. It’s a light package, but a very worthwhile one.

The graphics are classic pixel art, and it all looks very nice without becoming too cluttered and distracting. The music is pretty good as well, and the sound effects satisfying. There’s not much else to say about the presentation; it’s just really good.

This may be the game that pushes me to get a second controller, and I’m desperately awaiting a price drop or a third party version. Purely as a single player experience I still had a lot of fun with Towerfall though; I cannot wait to give the multiplayer a try!ps4-game-7958_lower_marq

The Last of Us: Remastered for PS4

I was actually a bit nervous when I picked this up. I mean, it’s so revered, it’s impossible not to wonder if it really could live up to the hype. Well, I needn’t have worried; I absolutely understand the hype. The Last of Us really is special. Included in the PS4 remaster is the similarly excellent Left Behind DLC.

The Last of Us takes place around two decades after a zombie apocalypse, caused by some kind of fungal infection which causes the infected to lose their minds. The protagonist is Joel, a weary man who lost his daughter in the initial panic. With the surviving humanity living in heavily militarised quarantine zones, Joel works as a smuggler. When hunting down a stolen cache of weapons with his companion Tess, Joel encounters Marlene, the leader of the Fireflies, a rebel group fighting the quarantine zone authorities. In exchange for the location of the weapons, Marlene asks Joel to bring a teenaged girl named Ellie to a Firefly safehouse outside the quarantine. Initially reluctant, Joel soon discovers Ellie’s secret; that she is infected, but has not turned, seemingly the only person with an immunity. Joel and Ellie embark on an epic trek across the country to the Firefly safe house, with the infected and waves of bandits pitched against them.

Summaries like that is part of the reason I couldn’t get too excited for this game. It basically sounded like The Walking Dead crossed with Children of Men, with nothing too original. Although the concept itself isn’t brimming with originality, in terms of execution I’ll struggle to think of anything which does it better. Joel and Ellie feel like real, fully rounded people, and their journey together is absolutely convincing. The Last of Us also manages to avoid the zombie clichés, with a story which had me gripped and frequently incredible emotional. There are lighter moments too, with the banter between Joel and Ellie regularly raising a smile. The Left Behind DLC, which focused on Ellie both during and prior to the game, was frequently laugh out loud funny. It’s all bittersweet though, with a palpable feeling of sadness throughout the whole thing.

The Last of Us has a key theme, which may sound cheesy: love. Not just love as a redeeming force, but as ultimately the most dangerous thing in this new wasteland. No practical society can truly last, because people are incapable of making sacrifices for love. It is simultaneously humanities best and worst trait. Now, this concept is one that I’ve seen explored loads of places before, but possible never better than in The Last of Us. This is a game which will rattle around in your brain for a long time to come. I also have to mention Ellie; the feisty female sidekick in FPS games have given us some great characters in the past, such as Half Life 2’s Alyx Vance or BioShock: Infinite’s Elizabeth, but Ellie manages to eclipse them both. She’s strong, funny and vulnerable, and easily one of the best game characters of all time.

Again, I was initially concerned that the gameplay would suffer to the story, but that isn’t the case. The Last of Us is a third person shooter with survival horror elements, a bit like Resident Evil 4 but less clunky. There’s a strong element of ammo conservation, with stealth encouraged whenever possible. The shooting is responsive and satisfying when a shoot-out does occur, but you never feel powerful, with Joel being much less hardy than your standard shooter protagonist. This adds to the horror element, with a crafting system allowing Joel to create shivs or makeshift bombs from objects scavenged from the world. There’s also a weapon upgrade system and a skill tree and they’re pretty simple, giving you a nice element of customisation. The stealth is really effective, with a cover system which is contextual but actually functional, something the Assassin’s Creed games have been pretty much failing to pull off for years. There are some light puzzles, but you’ll spend most of your time picking through wreckage, sneaking around or shooting.

The two types of enemies are the ‘infected’ and bandits, which need to be approached in very different ways. The most interesting enemy is the ‘clicker’, which is a blind infected which sees through echolocation. You have to move very quietly to avoid being caught, and when they do they kill you in one bite. You can create distractions using bottles and bricks to distract foes human and infected alike; you’ll have thrown lots of these by the time the credits roll. Although not nearly as slick as other shooters, the gameplay of The Last of Us supports the narrative, whilst actually being fun as well. If all you want to enjoy is some top quality shooting, go buy Wolfenstein; The Last of Us isn’t about being satisfying, it’s about being rewarding. The game is a decent length as well, long enough to feel epic in its scope, but short enough that it tells a compact and tight story. With the DLC, and the multiplayer as well, The Last of Us: Remastered is a great package.

The Last of Us: Remastered looks fantastic, easily holding its own against current gen games (although that in itself is perhaps a little worrying). The environments are detailed, and the faces for the characters utterly lifelike. It’s weird imagining that Joel and Ellie aren’t played by physical actors, instead being mo-capped by people who look nothing like them. That’s not to put down the actors though; the performances are phenomenal, with industry stalwarts Troy Baker and Nolan North making career best performances, and the less known Ashley Johnson being a revelation as Ellie. Of course, one of the biggest differences between the PS3 and PS4 version is the upgrade to 60 FPS, which really drove home to me for the first time just how much of an improvement it is. The ability to hit 60 FPS consistently is going to be the big challenge for this generation of consoles, with Naughty Dog showing us how it’s done.

The Last of Us: Remastered is the best game I’ve played for the PS4 so far, and as someone who didn’t own a PS3 I’m so glad I got an opportunity to play this. Believe the hype; The Last of Us is one of the most affecting gaming experiences I’ve ever encountered.res_751911e58d5f561cf3458aad33f7bc8f

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

Wow, so Scott Lynch may just be one of the most entertaining writers in fantasy. As with The Lies of Locke Lamora before it, Red Seas Under Red Skies was a blast to read, feeling quick and pacey despite it’s not inconsiderable length.

Red Seas Under Red Skies picks up around two years after Locke and Jean fled Camorr at the end of The Lies of Locke Lamora. They have travelled to the city of Tal Verrar, and have chosen a new target; The Sinspire, the largest and best defended gambling house in the world. Generally considered impossible to penetrate, Locke and Jean and back to doing what they do best; conning their way to the top. However, they cannot escape their past, with the Bondsmagi of Karthain not forgetting what Locke and Jean did to Falconer. Not content to simply kill Locke and Jean, they instead manipulate events just enough to make Locke and Jean’s lives miserable, getting them caught up in the power struggles in Tal Verrar, and into a life of piracy. At the same time, flashbacks fill in the gap between the immediate aftermath of Locke and Jean’s escape and the launch of their scheme at the Sinspire.

Although obviously a sequel, Red Seas Under Red Skies mostly tells a new story, with the only returning characters being Locke and Jean. As with the first one, Red Seas Under Red Skies contains a lot of plate spinning, with Locke and Jean under a pretty much constant assault of setbacks and complications, and seeing them get themselves out of it is always entertaining. This book is slightly more epic in its scope than its predecessor, but does so without stretching itself too thin. The best thing is that it wraps up most of its plot strands, leaving only a few dangling. This is something I’m beginning to realise I wish more books did, as it combines the comfort and familiarity of a series with the condensed and tight storytelling of a standalone novel. It’s much harder to get bloated with this approach. My main criticism probably has to be Lynch’s failure to foreshadow some key elements. Objects or concepts which play a vital role in the plot sometimes appear out of nowhere, making the impact seem somewhat cheap. A little bit more subtle foreshadowing would have been nice; that said, he does foreshadow some elements really well, but it’s not quite consistently enough.

The general style of the writing is just as pace-y and readable as the first one, with the sense of adventure and comedy still intact. Red Seas Under Red Skies has all the fun of a good old romp, but it transitions into scenes of genuine emotion really well, with the tone managing to be varied without being uneven.

Locke and Jean develop into one of my favourite double acts in the genre, but it’s a new characters who really stole the limelight for me. Tal Verrar is filled with a wonderful bunch of characters, but the best of the bunch are to be found out at sea, with the new nautical cast of characters. Zamira Drakasha, a pirate captain mother of two is utterly badass, and funny to boot. As a female person of colour, probably the most underrated demographic in fantasy, she is just the tip of an impressively diverse cast. This lot are quite a sexually diverse bunch as well, with Lynch refreshingly treating homosexuality as just there, not an ordeal to overcome, not the subject of a book, but just there. Lynch manages in his second novel to get right what many authors never quite manage after dozens.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is an excellent follow up to a promising debut, but has left me nervous. See, Lynch isn’t quite at Brandon Sanderson levels of prolific; he’s more of a George R. R Martin or a Patrick Rothfuss. This isn’t a bad thing, but it means I can add another series to my ever growing list of fantasy series for me to get impatient about. I’m looking forward to reading the next book, The Republic of Thieves, but am not looking forward to it being over.1473780

Doki Doki Universe for PS4, PS3 and PS Vita

Doki Doki Universe is the kind of game I wouldn’t buy myself in a million years, but cropping up on PS+ I had to give it a go. It’s a funny, charming and oddly thought provoking game, but its gameplay grows old very quickly and could grow tiresome.

In Doki Doki Universe you play as QT3, a robot accidently abandoned on a small asteroid with only one companion, a talking balloon. After a few decades, QT3 and Balloon are rescued by Alien Jeff, who informs QT3 that his model of robot may be scrapped due to a lack of humanity. To avoid being scrapped, QT3 must travel the galaxy learning about humanity and helping the weird and wonderful denizens of these worlds with their problems.

So, yeah, Doki Doki Universe is pretty much the most adorable game ever. The plot is obviously pretty basic, but the writing is funny enough consistently enough for it to be worthwhile. You only meet many of the huge number of characters very briefly, but they end up being genuinely vivid and likeable very quickly. There’s a large element of Animal Crossing here, but the characters are way more diverse than the sometimes homogeneous villagers. QT3 is pretty likeable as well and I particularly enjoyed Alien Jeff, who projects a perfect veneer but is in fact the best example of flawed humanity QT3 comes across.

So, the gameplay basically involves flying to the series of planets, which are two dimensional rings with a handful of characters on who need your help. Each planet is themed, both after a particular area or culture, such as the Japanese planet, or about a particular element of human nature, such as insecurity. Some are more interesting than others, such as the one where animals keep humans as pets. Each world will have a handful of quests to solve, which usually involve ‘summoning’ desired items for the characters. These items are gained by helping other people, making them like or hate you, or simply behind the objects in the background. Some of these puzzles are very basic and specific, with one particular summon for one particular issue, but a handful are actually quite clever. Still, it’s not the most compelling mechanic in the world.

There are other gameplay elements, such as the ability to pick people and objects up and throw them, or the power to shake the controller to make the entire world rumble. That is pretty much it though. There are personality tests scattered throughout on asteroids, which allow ‘Doctor Therapist’ on your home planet to describe to you your personality based on these answers. It’s obviously pretty meaningless, but worth a couple of chuckles anyway.

The visuals are charmingly childlike, all looking like it was doodled by a toddler. Many characters are funny just to look at, although the animations are poor to the point of non-existence. There’s a huge amount of imagination on display, both in the characters and in the summons themselves, all 300+ of them. The music is…well, there, and the sound effects sometimes cute, sometimes painfully irritating.

Doki Doki Universe is an extremely repetitive game, and something which wears extremely thin during an extended playthrough. Played as I did however, as a relaxing ten minutes here and there, I actually enjoyed it quite a bit.DOKI-DOKI-UNIVERSE

Guacamelee! Super Turbo Championship Edition for PS4, Wii U, Xbox One and Xbox 360

I was inclined to like this game based on the name alone, so it was doubly nice to actually enjoy it a lot as well. Guacamelee! is a game which combines a whole bunch of influences in fun and interesting ways, all wrapped up in a stylish and charmingly different aesthetic. Oh, and I’m going to include that exclamation mark the entire way through, try and stop me.

The protagonist of Guacamelee! is a Mexican farmer called Juan, a childhood friend of the daughter of ‘El Presidente.’ When visiting El Presidente’s manor, an evil spirit called Carlos Calaca attacks the village and kidnaps El Presidente’s daughter, killing Juan as he tries to stop him. Juan finds himself in the Land of the Dead, where he comes into the possession of a mask which transformers him into a powerful luchador (Mexican wrestler). Juan returns to the World of the Living to rescue El Presidente’s daughter and stop Calaca. Guacamelee!’s focus isn’t story, and it never really goes in any interesting directions. There’s a fair few laughs though, with a witty and self-referential script and plenty of wider references as well. There’s a reference amusing in its blatantness to Metroid, as well as your standard Mario and Zelda references as well. I even saw a reference to my beloved Homestar Runner.

Guacamelee! is a side scrolling brawler crossed with a Metroidvania. Juan makes his way through the relatively open world, going through a series of dungeons and learning techniques which allow him to reach new areas. These techniques are fun, from a simple headbutt to one which launches you indefinitely from any vertical surface. This is the kind of game where even basic traversal is made fun. There is also a ‘double world’ concept, with the Land of the Living and the Land of the Dead, in the style of something like A Link to the Past or Metroid Prime 2: Echoes. Eventually, you can move between these at will, leading to some genuinely fiendish jumping puzzles. There are loads of other abilities, but I

don’t want to spoil them. This being a Metroidvania, there’s naturally lots of stuff to be found off the beaten track, such as health upgrades and money, which can be used to purchase combat upgrades.

Ah yes, speaking of combat; Guacamelee! may not have the best world to explore in a Metroidvania, it can get a little same-y, but it probably has the best combat. There are basic brawling button mashing fare, but alongside that are wrestling throws, which can be used to take down rows of enemies like bowling pins. It’s always fun. The combat can get very tricky, with combinations of enemies which can only be attacked in the worlds of the living or dead (but can hit you from either), alongside foes whose shields can only be broken by certain attacks, to flying enemies to exploding enemies to giant enemies or enemies throwing projectiles. It can all get pleasingly chaotic and frantic.

The graphical style is lovely and charming, and the music plays with Mexican musical tropes to put together some fun tunes. The character animations for Juan and the enemies are detailed and striking; I enjoyed Juan’s ridiculous exaggerated run right up until the end. I wonder if a little more could have been done with the style, as Guacemelee! Is certainly a game which would have lent itself to some more stylistic moments, but it’s still a lovely looking game regardless.

Guacamelee! is a perfect summer game to get you throw the drought; light enough to not weigh you down, but meaty enough to be satisfying. There’s also loads of side stuff if you want it, but if not the central main story is more than enough. Since it’s on pretty much every console, I can happily and unreservedly recommend this to anyone.cover_large

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Perhaps with the exception of the first book of Gaiman’s I read, the sprawling epic American Gods, the fact is that in general he is an author who I respect most for his incredibly tight writing. Not a word is wasted in most Gaiman books, they’re not long and they’re not epic, they’re intimate, personal and haunting, and although my favourite Gaiman is still American Gods, I’m nonetheless really impressed by The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

The protagonist of The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an unnamed middle aged man on the day of his father’s funeral. Wandering, he returns to the house of a childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock, and there is suddenly overwhelmed with memories of his childhood involving the strange supernatural events surrounding Lettie and the other women of the Hempstock family.

I don’t really want to say more than that; the whole novel has a fuzzy, dreamlike quality to it, with the fantastical imagination which has defined Gaiman’s career on full show. As much as I like Gaiman’s work, some of it can tend towards being a little too whimsical, but there’s none of that here. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a thoroughly creepy tale through and through, with some really nasty baddies. As well as being, most importantly of course, a damn good little story, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is also a book about the fallibility of memory and the illusory gap between childhood and adulthood. Books for young people are generally about empowering children, as they should be, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not a book for children, as it deals most fundamentally with the powerlessness of childhood, with the arcane world of adulthood locked away from them, intangible and terrifying. Gaiman’s writing is increasingly precise, with not a word wasted. His books just flow in a way few others can accomplish, with prose which manages to be incredibly powerful and striking without getting in the way of a good story.

The unnamed protagonist is typical of Gaiman protagonists; not overburdened with personality themselves, but a figure that is instantly relatable. Most of Gaiman’s more recent characters are those that you can easily project yourself on to, feeling what they feel all the more keenly. The Hempstock women are funny and interesting, and Gaiman’s hinted they may show up again somewhere else, something I certainly would not be opposed to. The best character though is the incredibly creepy villain, which plays with and combines established tropes into something truly nasty.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a great palette cleanser, a trim and lean supernatural story with enough depth to make it interesting. I don’t need to persuade fans of Gaiman to read this, but The Ocean at the End of the Lane would actually make a really good first Gaiman book, so if you haven’t had the pleasure so far, this is a good place to start.06-26-Reads-Ocean-at-the-End-of-the-Lane-by-Neil-Gaiman

The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth was a slightly muddled novel, but it was carried by the strength of its ideas and compelling central conceit, as well as being anchored by the compelling central journey of Joshua and Lobsang. The Long War still has a lot of that brilliance, but it’s even more muddled, and lacks the impact of the original.

The Long War takes place ten years after the end of The Long Earth and the destruction of Madison by anti-stepper terrorists. The Long Earth of America has expanded further, with the new city of Valhalla forming as a central hub many thousands of steps from the Datum. Sick of the interference of the US Government, Valhalla releases a new Declaration of Independence from the US, prompting a mission from the Datum through the Long Earth to quell rebellion. Meanwhile, following terrible mistreatment at the hands of humans, the trolls are leaving human colonies, leaving some to realise how much they are needed. Joshua is recruited by Lobsang to find where the trolls have fled to, and persuade them to come back to the fold.

Simply put, there’s too much damn stuff going on in The Long War. A lot of that stuff is good, but it’s muddled, and too many plot lines are included. Now, I don’t mind a wide plot at all, but pretty much all of them involve some kind of journey through the Long Earth, from Joshua’s trip to find the trolls to a young woman’s trip East with the Chinese. I reckon there are about five different journey narratives, and they begin to roll into one. The first book had lots of snippets from other characters as well, but the focus was very much on Joshua, but that focus is lost in The Long War. There’s a lot of good stuff here, easily enough to make me want to come back for the next one, I just hope that The Long Mars is a bit more focused.

Still, that imagination that made the first one so great is still there, and Pratchett and Baxter’s hypothetical future remains as well developed and intriguing as ever. It’s a fair bit darker than the previous book, and has quite a depressing outlook on the general cruelty and stupidity of humanity. The tone works though, managing to be faintly depressing without being maudlin or lacking the moments of levity key to any good book.

Lobsang is still the star of the bunch, although his role is slightly diminished in The Long War. One of the more interesting characters is Nelson, the South African priest who played a very minor role in The Long Earth, who rises to a greater position of prominence in the sequel. Overall though, everything is just slightly too spread thin to really allow for decent characterisation. Most of the characters are likeable, but few manage to shine beyond that, although some of the non-human characters are interesting and amusing.

This review probably reads like I didn’t enjoy The Long War; I actually really did, but it’s a frustrating book nonetheless. There’s a lot of good stuff in it, but it’s an absolute mess, and a lot of the impact is lost. Look, if you liked The Long Earth, this is still definitely worth a read, just be prepared for a rather chaotic journey.20130320-102615

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