Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “February, 2016”

Sixth of Dusk by Brandon Sanderson

After finishing Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell I did the only natural thing; immediately started reading another Sanderson Cosmere short story. Sixth of Dusk is just as good.

Sixth of Dusk is the name of the main character, a trapper who explores and gathers resources on the exceptionally hostile and dangerous island known as Patji, an island which is part of the Pantheon, whose spirits are considered to be gods. He is protected by Aviar, birds which grant abilities to humans to protect them, such as warding their minds from telepathic creatures or giving a vision of potential death. Solitary by nature, Sixth meets Vathi, a noblewoman who represents the interests of a powerful mainland organisation, seeking to monetise Patji and curry the favour of the ‘Ones Above’, an alien race who have made contact with the more primitive people of the planet.

Once again, Sanderson conjures an amazing and unique setting with remarkable speed. The basic setting of a hostile environment with magic provided by Invested birds is interesting, but the added wrinkle of an alien race hovering above makes this even more fascinating. I wonder if the Ones Above are people we’ve met before in other Cosmere books? Sixth and Vathi make a good pair and, as with Shadows of Silence in the Forests of Hell I’m left wanting more, which definitely isn’t a bad thing. The star of the novella is Patji itself, which is exceptionally well drawn and relentlessly hostile.

Sixth of Dusk is another great novella from Sanderson. As much as I like Sanderson’s epic series, I hope he carries on writing shorter fiction like this. He’s really good at it.



Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell by Brandon Sanderson

I got a Kindle! I got one as a gift and the first thing I did was buy a whole bunch of Sanderson Cosmere novellas I’ve been fancying. The first was Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell; I really liked it.

Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell takes place in the Forests of Hell, which are haunted by the Shades of the dead, who wither the life from any who draw their attention. Silence Montane is an older woman who secretly works as a bounty hunter, the legendary White Fox. Her day job is to run a waystation within the Forests with her daughters, but a threat to their lifestyle forces Silence to take on a particularly dangerous contract and take risks she would normally avoid.

it’s been a while since I entered a brand new Sanderson world, with the last time probably being The Way of Kings, and Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell is a perfect demonstration of just how good Sanderson’s world building is. The little we hear about the setting is immediately fascinating; I would be thrilled if Sanderson wrote a full novel is this setting and knowing his pace he probably will. Sanderson is honestly the best at this in the business. The story is tight and focused and very enjoyable. Silence is an immediately compelling character; naturally cautious and nervous but forced beyond her comfort zone.

Shadows for Silence in the Forest of Hell is as enjoyable as its title is long. If you’re a Sanderson fan, don’t skip it. Hell, if you fancy giving some Sanderson a try but don’t want to commit to a whole novel, give it a go!


The Bands of Mourning by Brandon Sanderson

The Bands of Mourning is the second Mistborn book released within three months, which is baffling, impressive and very very welcome. I loved Shadows of Self and whilst The Bands of Mourning isn’t quite as good as her sister book, it’s a very enjoyable read, particularly for long term fans of Mistborn and the wider Cosmere.

The Bands of Mourning picks up a couple of months after Shadows of Self left off. Still mourning the second loss of Lessie and bitter towards Harmony who orchestrated the events, Wax is set to finally marry Steris. His wedding day is interrupted by the arrival of a kandra, ReLuur, with news from the southern end of the Basin. He has sighted the mythical Bands of Mourning, the Feruchemical bands worn by the Lord Ruler which had granted him the terrifying power needed to subdue the world. Alas, the Set have also set their eyes on the Bands. A photo showing Wax’s sister Telsin in the hands of his nefarious uncle Edwarn sees Wax setting out to New Seran, with Wayne, Marasi, Steris and MeLaan in tow.

Shadows of Self had a rollicking pace which The Bands of Mourning lacks. It isn’t quite as tight a book as Shadows of Self was, but in terms of overall significance for the Mistborn narrative The Bands of Mourning is an absolute game changer. Sanderson has made no secrets of his plans for a more technologically advanced Mistborn series and this may be the turning point where Scadrial becomes that world. When Sanderson’s 30+ book Cosmere magnum opus is finished, I suspect that it may be this book which is viewed as the moment where the connections between the series actually become relevant to the plot. This works both as a strength and a weakness. Lacking the focus of the previous book, The Bands of Mourning isn’t as consistently successful, but the overall impression of the book is still very positive. The vastness and scale of events begins to rival the original trilogy for the first time and it is exhilarating.

A pleasant surprise is how funny this book is. I had found some of the humour in the last two Wax and Wayne books a bit grating, particularly Wayne’s ‘banter’. The Bands of Mourning contains what is comfortably one of Sanderson’s funniest ever scenes and MeLaan is as delightful as ever. The action scenes sometimes run a bit long in the first half, but the final few scenes of the book are breathtaking.

Where MeLaan was the breakout character from Shadows of Self, in many ways The Bands of Mourning belongs to Steris. It’s odd; this is a book concerned with the huge and the dramatic, but the star ends up being the most straightforward, unspectacular character in the book. Lacking any kind of Allomantic power or even any ability to defend herself, the steadfast bravery and self deprecation of Steris allows her to grow into a genuinely loveable and engaging character. If you’d told me before reading that I’d finish the book with Steris as a favourite character, I wouldn’t have believed you. The characterisation is good all round, with even Wayne, a character who has never quite worked for me, getting some pretty great moments.

The Bands of Mourning isn’t the best book in the series, but it is one of the most exciting. On a macro level I can’t wait to get back to Scadrial and watch the world change, but more importantly I want to follow Wax and Steris and see if they get a happy ending.


Gravity Rush Remastered for PS4

I feel pretty sorry for PS Vita owners, but seeing all the major Vita releases make their way to PS4 has been great. Gravity Rush Remastered does feel like a handheld game blown up onto console, but a reduced price and solid porting work make it a really good experience.

Gravity Rush takes place in the floating city of Heskeville, which has been threatened by a mysterious force known as the Nevi. Kat, an amnesiac girl, awakens in Heskeville and meets Dusty, a strange black cat who grants her control over gravity and allows her to become a ‘Shifter’. Kat sets out to be a hero to the people of Heskeville, but faces opposition from many sources, from the Nevi to the military to fellow Shifter Raven.

There are some rather interesting moments in Gravity Rush’s storytelling, but sadly the whole thing is largely incoherent. The core narrative of the goofy Kat building an identity as a hero in a city which seems to instinctually blame her for their problems is interesting. Early on, in the prologue, you save a little boy whose father promptly chastises you for failing to save their house too. I liked this stuff, but Gravity Rush goes a bit off the rails and frankly winds up making very little sense. A lot of stuff seems held back to set up a sequel, but if you take Gravity Rush as it’s own thing the story ultimately doesn’t feel satisfying. Like I said, there’s some interesting stuff here and I hope Gravity Rush 2 is able to make sense of the mess.

Gravity Rush is an open world superhero game, with a few similarities to Crackdown. Your main power is the ability to shift the direction which gravity pulls you from. So, if you point at the sky and press R1, you start falling towards the sky, which essentially works as a charmingly wonky version of flight. You can run on walls and soar through the skies and it’s genuinely thrilling. Pretty much everything comes out of this mechanic, with combat involving launching kicks towards glowing weak spots on foes. The further away you kick from, the more powerful the attack and landing a hit from a huge distance and destroying a foe in one hit is highly satisfying. As with Crackdown, there are glowing orbs everywhere which you use to level up, incentivising exploration. That said, the upgrades don’t feel hugely exciting, with the only one which significantly boosts fun being the ability to fly around for longer without needing to recharge.

The core mechanics of Gravity Rush are really solid, but sadly the things you actually have to do in the missions and challenges are less inspired. The better ones are simple and involve essentially flying around and then fighting things, but there are a few disastrous missions which attempt things like stealth. Probably the only different mission type which worked was in one of the DLC missions (which are included in the Remastered PS4 version) and involved having to alternate putting out fires in the city and on a flying battleship. It was frantic and fun, but overall an exception. I hope that Gravity Rush 2 finds more interesting stuff to do to provide mission variety.

Gravity Rush does look like an upscaled portable game, but the lovely art style still makes everything pop. Everything runs at a slick 60 FPS and Heskeville is a truly gorgeous setting. The story is mostly told in manga style cartoon panels, which is…well, understandable but somewhat off putting. I’m not in love with the character designs, which tend to range from stereotypical anime designs to pointlessly skimpy outfits. The French inspired Heskeville more than makes up for it though. The music is good too. I really look forward to seeing what can be done with the full power of the PS4 in Gravity Rush 2.

Gravity Rush Remastered is a lot of fun. It’s a bit bare bones and doesn’t quite live up to its potential, but for a £20 release it’s definitely worth it. It’s got me excited for the sequel, which I suppose was the entire point of this release!


The King’s Blood by Daniel Abraham

I enjoyed The Dragon’s Path, but it didn’t exactly blow me away. Despite a few weaknesses, it had a lot of strengths with the main being strong characterisation and snappy pacing. Thankfully, with The King’s Blood, Abraham begins to address some of the weaknesses whilst building on the strengths.

The five main characters from The Dragon’s Path return, picking up where we left off. In Porte Olivia Cithrin is chafing under the controls imposed on her by the Medean Bank, so sets plans in place to raise her status which sees her travelling further than she ever has before. Marcus Wester, in Porte Olivia to protect Cithrin, finds himself without a role. Master Kit, revealed at the conclusion of the previous book to be an apostate from a religious cult, comes to Marcus to request his help in killing a God. Up in Antea Geder Palliako’s power continues to wax; named as Regent of Antea he launches a war of vengeance upon Asterilhold after their failed assassination attempt on Prince Aster. Dawson Kalliam is named as Lord Marshal of the war effort, but becomes suspicious of the strange foreign priests Geder surrounds himself with. Finally, Clara Kalliam plays the diplomatic games her husband is too blunt to play.

Looking back on The King’s Blood, I can’t believe just how much happened. The Dragon’s Path was pace-y, but The King’s Blood doubles down on Abraham’s decision to trim the fat and get to the good stuff. Early on a character sets out on a journey by sea and I settled in for a chapter or two of travelling, perhaps with a conversation with the ship’s quartermaster about the stores of salted beef, but no, lo and behold, next chapter they’re there! The plot continues! The King’s Blood is a tenser and more exciting book than The Dragon’s Path, particularly the Antean storyline which I hadn’t enjoyed as much in the first book. The one let down is the Marcus Wester storyline, which takes a while to get going, but elsewhere Abraham shows some meticulous plotting.

The worldbuilding is improved, with a clearer picture provided of the differences between the Thirteen Races of Humanity. Nonetheless, it still isn’t a strength. This could become more of an issue as the series moves on; the first two books are mostly dealing with human conflict with the looming magical threat being left in the background. The problem is that at the moment I just don’t feel like I’ve had enough yet to particularly care and this is something I hope Abraham addresses in future books.

The characterisation is even better than in The Dragon’s Path. Geder Palliako’s journey from bumbling loser to the most powerful man in Antea is fascinating and terrifying. Abraham does a great job at bringing the reader along with the thought processes of his characters; Geder does some terrible things, but his self delusion is convincing enough that, in his chapters, he’s difficult not to root for. Then you get to a chapter from another character’s perspective and realise the ramifications of his decisions. All the core characters are strong, with Clara Kalliam in particular emerging as a fascinating and engaging character in her own right.

The King’s Blood is a genuinely great book in a way that The Dragon’s Path wasn’t. The plotting is rock solid, but it’s the nuanced characterisation which sets this apart. I can’t wait to read the next book; I’m now all in, no reservations.


Shovel Knight for Wii U, 3DS, PS4, PS3, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

Every so often I think I’m bored of 2D platformers, until I play the next amazing one. It’s weird that the act of moving left to right and jumping, the most classic of gameplay actions, can be made to feel fresh in so many different ways. Although Shovel Knight evokes an NES aesthetic, it isn’t simply an exercise in nostalgia, being an exceedingly fun and challenging game in its own right.

Shovel Knight instantly separates itself from its NES inspirations by actually having a rather nice little story. Shovel Knight and Shield Knight were friends (or maybe more) who adventured together before a journey to the Tower of Fate sees Shield Knight possessed by a mysterious amulet and sealed inside the tower. Grieving for his lost love, Shovel Knight quits adventuring. In his absence, a malevolent Enchantress rises and brings evil to the land. Upon hearing that the Tower of Fate has been unsealed, Shovel Knight sets forth to rescue Shield Knight, but finds his way blocked by eight Knights loyal to the Enchantress; The Order of No Quarter.

The story line is light, but is pretty much a perfect example of how a little bit of added context can help to elevate an experience. There’s just enough to make me care about what happens to Shovel Knight, but not too much that it gets in the way of the gameplay. This is a lesson that I’d like to see companies like Nintendo learn; I have to say, I much prefer Shovel Knight’s approach to story over the not-really-bothering approach we see in most other 2D platformers.

Shovel Knight gets the basics very right, with tight and responsive controls and a surprising amount of flexibility for playstyle. You fight using your trusty shovel and can also pogo on foes, DuckTales style. It’s the genius level and enemy design that truly sets this game apart. Every single level adds some interesting new mechanic or twist on expectation with some fantastic boss fights to cap off each one. I’m generally not a fan of boss fights in platformers, but Shovel Knight’s combat feels better than any other 2D platformer I can recall. There’s a lot of room for experimenting with different play styles, with a load of extra tools which can be unlocked. All of them are useful in their own way and allow you to approach many challenges in a variety of different ways, building replay value through strong mechanics rather than just a simple NG+ (although there is one of those too). Shovel Knight just feels good to play, which is the strong foundation on which all the other stuff is built.

There’s a fair but more going on in Shovel Knight than just the main stages; there are a handful of optional boss fights as well as two villages where you can purchase upgrades to things like your health, magic and armour. These are all bought with treasure, which can be found scattered liberally throughout the levels. The treasure hunting aspect is built closely into the level design, with all levels containing secret, challenging areas where extra treasure can be gained. The only punishment for death is losing some of your treasure, which appears floating where you died so you can pick it up again, Dark Souls style. Again, Shovel Knight shows an underlying canniness in it’s design; in many games the currency can feel awkwardly separate from what you’re actually doing, but there’s an immediacy to the reward of collecting treasure which other games lack. To be honest, if the treasure was gained by killing enemies and was called EXP we’d be calling this an RPG. Powering up Shovel Knight is satisfying and provides an immediate noticeable boost and can make taking unwise risks for more treasure irresistibly tempting.

I thought I was done with the pixel art thing, but I guess not because Shovel Knight is beautiful. The world and enemies are bursting with character, using the retro style to create something which feels new and fresh. The music is great too, with a lovely chiptune soundtrack. Shovel Knight does well what a lot of other people have done badly and proves that, even if the aesthetic could be described as retro, the experience can still look, sound and feel fresh.

Shovel Knight is a tight, challenging little platformer that is so much more than mere nostalgia. It succeeds in pretty much every goal it sets for itself. In an industry groaning under the weight of quirky indie platformers, Shovel Knight stands apart.


Xenoblade Chronicles X for Wii U

I just couldn’t do it. I normally make a point of ensuring that I finish every game that I review here, but 60 hours in and several hours of grinding ahead of me, I had to call it quits. I reckon my playtime has given me enough time to justify giving a verdict however. Xenoblade Chronicles X has the greatest open world of any JRPG that I have ever played and one of the most striking settings in gaming ever; it’s also exhausting and, at times, a little dull.

With no connections to the excellent Wii Xenoblade Chronicles, Xenoblade Chronicles X begins in 2054 with the destruction of Earth when it is caught in the crossfire between two warring alien races. Several ark ships were sent out to save a tiny sliver of humanity, but the White Whale, the ship from LA, is the only one to survive. After drifting through space for two years, the White Whale is attacked again by the alien force known as the Ganglion and crash lands on the planet of Mira. There, they establish the city of New Los Angeles, or NLA. A beautiful and dangerous planet teeming with life, it is the task of the elite military group BLADE to scour Mira for life pods containing other survivors from the White Whale, along the way meeting many alien races, some friendly and some hostile. Most important is the Lifehold Core, which holds a vast number of human lives and is lost somewhere on Mira.

There are elements of the story which I liked, but overall it isn’t nearly as effective as that of the original Xenoblade Chronicles. The whole experience is less linear, with only 12 core main missions. This isn’t a problem; in fact the structure is quite interesting, but the sense of adventure inherent in the gameplay is lacking in the story. More effective are some of the side quests; some are voice acted and tell some good stories, but the best ones are some that aren’t, which is a shame. They’re inconsistent though and separating the wheat from the chaff isn’t easy. Mira is a fascinating setting and I loved the range of alien races introduced, some with well thought out and interesting cultures. The tone is all over the place though, with the return of the Nopon species from the original Xenoblade Chronicles often throwing in lashings of goofy comedy in moments which really don’t call for it. I’m also not a fan of the player generated character; I liked the goofy, good natured Shulk of the original and missed having an actual protagonist with a personality. Lin and Elma, two BLADEs who join you for most of your journey are great characters, but few others get much of a chance to shine. The story isn’t terrible, but it was far from my main motivation to keep playing.

Xenoblade Chronicles X takes a wise sequel approach, taking the best element of the original and blowing it up into the core mechanic. The first time I entered Gaur Plains in Xenoblade Chronicles, after a fairly irritating and linear opening, was stunning. Even on the little old Wii, the sense of scale and grandeur was astonishing, with the wonderful music making everything better. As fantastic as the setting on Xenoblade Chronicles was, there wasn’t always much reason to explore, but in X that now becomes the main focus. There are five vast continents to explore; there’s the grassy plains of Primordia, the mysterious jungle of Noctilum, the barren plains of Oblivia, the ice wasteland of Sylvalum and finally the volcanic hell hole of Cauldros. Your plot reason for exploring is FrontierNav, which sees you planting data probes around Mira to seek the location of the Lifehold Core. The FrontierNav map is displayed on the Wii U gamepad and contains a lot of information and you can fast travel at will. Mira is stunningly beautiful and varied, but the exploration is massively helped by how good the core movement mechanics are. You run ridiculously fast and jump very high, which makes exploration feel exciting rather than a chore. It’s interesting; I play a lot of games for that feeling of discovery and exploration, but Xenoblade Chronicles X is one of the few which focuses on it as its primary mechanic.

Less successful is the combat, which is similar to Xenoblade Chronicles but ultimately less satisfying. It’s still MMO style, with auto-attacking and a bar with attacks which cool down between use. The topple system returns, but is simplified and feels less satisfying to pull off. The chain attacks are also gone, which removes a really satisfying element from the combat. The lack of the Monado doesn’t help either, with the lack of visions from the future making the whole thing less interesting. There’s more going on at a granular, statistic based level, but in terms of the actual fun and enjoyment of the combat it’s a real step backwards. The ability to switch at will between melee and ranged weapons is interesting, but ultimately not that meaningful. I loved exploring Mira and gawking at the weird creatures which populated it, but killing them wasn’t nearly as fun.

I haven’t even mentioned one of the most notable things about Xenoblade Chronicles X; the Skells. If you know anything about this game, it’s probably that it involves piloting giant mechs. This is one of the most hyped features but doesn’t become available until roughly 20 hours in. The ability to fly isn’t unlocked until about 10 hours after that! Now, this sounds awful but in practice it really isn’t. The pacing for Xenoblade Chronicles X actually works, up until the final hours, very well. The fact that the on foot movement is so fluid and fun helps and the addition of the Skell comes at the perfect time in the story to reinvigorate your desire to explore. I wasn’t a huge fan of the 10 side missions of busy work which you have to do, but I genuinely didn’t see the pacing as an issue. Regardless, the wait is very much worth it. Riding around in the Skell is an absolute joy and the addition of flight later on feels glorious. It brings with it a shift in perspective; you move from a tiny figure barely surviving in a dangerous world to a master of the land and skies, soaring above it all. One downside is that I enjoyed the Skell gameplay so much that I didn’t want to go back, which the game occasionally forced me to do.

Xenoblade Chronicles X is an almost aggressively complicated experience, with a vast number of systems in play. For example, there are two separate currencies. There’s your standard credits, used to buy new weapons/armor etc, but there’s also Miranium, which is used to fund arms manufacturers to create new weapons as well as some other odds and ends. There are three separate upgrade paths: your standard level, one based on your class and a third BLADE level which determines which resources you’re able to harvest in the field. Honestly, for me it was a bit much. I know some people go gaga for this level of number crunching, but it just isn’t for me. Coupled with how little I enjoyed the combat, I soon found myself hitting a difficulty wall. Now, this is where a lot of internet types would blame me for just being bad at the game, but the simple reality is that I write this blog to express my feelings about the game and I felt that the level of complexity took away from the chief strength of this game; its magnificent and beautiful world.

Let me talk a bit more about this world; the Wii U may not exactly be a powerhouse, but you wouldn’t know it from the vistas on display on Mira. The vast draw distance helps make the world feel truly epic and the sense of scale is glorious. It’s also wonderfully weird and imaginative, with the most beguiling JRPG setting since..well, Xenoblade Chronicles. I really cannot express how wonderful it feels to explore Mira. Even though many of the core mechanics didn’t work for me, the opportunity to see more of the planet made it all worth it to me. The one downside visually are the truly hideous character models, which are a bit too anime for my tastes, with the majority of female characters seemingly designed to facilitate waifu fantasies. The voice acting is decent, but I’ve got to say I preferred the cheesy performances in the original. It’s slightly  more grounded, but the silliness was such as big part of the original’s charm. However, there is one area where Xenoblade Chronicles X is much sillier; the soundtrack. Put simply, Xenoblade Chronicles X has quite possibly the most bizarre soundtrack I’ve ever experienced in a game. So many of the musical choices are utterly strange, with a soundtrack which ranges from operatic grandeur to cheesy power ballads to hip hop. I can tell that the soundtrack is going to be divisive but…well, I love it. I don’t often listen to game soundtracks, but I can see myself listening to this game’s.

Xenoblade Chronicles X is a fascinating, maddening game. I couldn’t bring myself to finish it, but I really enjoyed most of the time that I spent with it. As I get older I’ve realised more and more that JRPG micromanagement of stats and details just isn’t my bag anymore, I just don’t have the time. Some people love this stuff and fair play to them, but I’m in it to experience the world and a sense of adventure. It is a testament to how wonderful a world Monolith Soft created, and how fun it is to explore, that I was able to power through a fair few mechanics that I just didn’t like. If you like nothing more than exploring a strange, bizarre world, Xenoblade Chronicles X is for you.


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