Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “March, 2016”

The Butcher of Anderson Station by James S A Corey

Due to a (mostly Brandon Sanderson provided) barrage of new books recently, it’s taken me longer than I would have liked to get back to  The Expanse after Leviathan Wakes. My next novel to read is Caliban’s War, but before getting into it I decided to warm myself back up to this setting with The Butcher of Anderson Station, a short story which tells us a little bit more about one of the most interesting characters in the series.

We meet Fred Johnson in Leviathan Wakes years after his defection from the Earth military to the OPA. Through flashbacks we see Johnson’s actions at the Belter massacre at Anderson Station and how this event led him to join the very group he had been fighting. It doesn’t really give us much new that we didn’t already know, but it does give us an insight into how it is that the most hated enemy of the OPA became one of their leaders. It’s a good story, told well.

There’s very little to say about this one. If you have about 30p to spend and fancy spending 15 minutes learning a bit more about Fred Johnson, go for it!

The_Butcher_of_Anderson_Station

Advertisements

Dancer’s Lament by Ian Cameron Esslemont

I’m what can only be called a Malazan superfan. The prospect of any journey back into this world makes me somewhat giddy with excitement, but I can’t deny that the series is occasionally uneven. Ian Cameron Esslemont isn’t as consistently good as his co-creator Steven Erikson, but nonetheless has written some great books. Return of the Crimson Guard and Blood and Bone are great; Orb, Sceptre, Throne and Assail not so much. I was therefore a bit nervous about Dancer’s Lament, the first of the trilogy which details the rise of the Malazan Empire and the human lives of the men who go on to become Shadowthrone and Cotillion. Thankfully, Dancer’s Lament is Esslemont’s best book so far and a fantastic introduction to two of the most fascinating figures in the series.

The city of Li Heng, at the heart of the continent of Quon Tali, has stood untaken for generations, with massive walls built to repel the monstrous man-jackal Ryllandaras. The predatory eye of the King of Itko Kan has turned upon the city and is now laying siege, which is governed by the mysterious sorcerer known as the Protectress, Shalmanat. At this turbulent time two figures enter the city; one is Dorin Rav, apprentice to a legendary master assassin seeking to make his name and the other is the bizarre Dal Hon mage who goes by the name of Wu. The two soon form a partnership, using their complementing skills and personalities, to shape the city of Li Heng and, eventually, the entire world.

No points for Malazan fans who work out who Dorin Rav and Wu are and who they become, but the mystery isn’t important. I was a bit disappointed that Forge of Darkness shied away from focusing on Anomander Rake; I can see why Erikson did it but it was still disappointing. Esslemont does not take this approach in Dancer’s Lament, with Dorin Rav being very clearly the main protagonist. In fact, Dorin is the clearest main protagonist in any Malazan book so far, which have instead usually featured sprawling, vast casts. This focus benefits Esslemont considerably. Erikson is very good at creating a sense of scale with a wide range of storylines, but Esslemont simply isn’t that good at it. When he focuses his writing on (mostly) one storyline and city, everything improves massively. It may have taken six books to get there, but it feels in Dancer’s Lament that Esslemont has finally found his voice as a writer.

It isn’t perfect; the final confrontation is a bit underwhelming, but Dancer’s Lament is solid in a way that few of Esslemont’s books have been. This is still a Malazan book, so we have a few scenes of ancient beings talking cryptically to each other. That may sound critical, but when written well I actually really like these scenes. Esslemont hasn’t always been so good at these, but as with every other area Dancer’s Lament improves in the sense of wider world building and scale significantly.

The characterisation is a strong point, with Dorin being human enough to empathise with but with signs to see of what he will become. Dorin has trained himself to be uncaring, but seeing empathy and passion burst through anyway is lovely to see and completely in keeping with the conflicted God of Assassins he eventually ascends to. Wu, the eventual Kellanved (presumably) is a bit more mysterious, which makes sense as the longer plans are ultimately his. There are some great familiar faces, with my favourite being a young Dassem Ultor, appearing as a passionate and dour Sword for his God Hood. Malazan fans know how this particular arrangement ends up and I can’t wait to finally see how it happens. We also finally see a bit more of Nightchill, an intriguing Elder Goddess who was killed off half way through Gardens of the Moon. Knowing where these characters end up doesn’t make things less exciting; I’m desperate to see how these figures become the legends and, in more than one case, Gods they eventually become.

Dancer’s Lament is a great book and a worthy addition to the Malazan canon. I cannot wait to read the rest in the ‘Path to Ascendancy series and continue the journey. With Fall of Light releasing in a little over a month I am thrilled to be jumping head first back into the Malazan world. There really is nothing else like it.

25480364

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess HD for Wii U

The 2004 Nintendo E3 press conference is something I’ll never forget. I’m aware of just how geeky that sounds. I miss the drama and bombast of those old conferences and it was a particularly strong one for Nintendo, with the unveiling of the original Nintendo DS. The moment when Nintendo closed off the conference by announcing that they had one more game, showing footage of the Zelda game that became Twilight Princess, was genuinely magical. Twilight Princess was launched with a huge amount of excitement already invested in it and although the reaction was immediately positive (remember the ridiculous backlash when GameSpot gave it an 8.8/10?), Twilight Princess’ ultimate legacy hasn’t been particularly positive. Replaying it on Wii U has essentially confirmed what I expected; it is a very good game but not a great one, which suffers too much from living in the shadow of the past rather than building its own future.

Twilight Princess opens in the serene Ordon Village, where Link works as a goat rancher. Link stumbles into a wider conflict where he is pulled into an encroaching shadow and turned into a wolf. He is paired with Midna, a strange imp who seeks to drive back the ‘Twilight’. After a group of children (and Epona, Link’s horse) are kidnapped, Link sets out into Hyrule to rescue them and drive back the dark forces assaulting the land.

Some elements of Twilight Princess’ plot are successful, most notably Midna, who is comfortably the best companion character in the series. She’s sassy, funny and sad and goes on a genuine character arc, something the Zelda series usually misses. There are some great supporting characters, with my favourite being the weird, angry baby Malo. All said though, Twilight Princess lacks the same wide cast of bizarre weirdos that makes games like Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker so great. The biggest weakness is the lack of any sense of looming threat. Zant, the usurper to the throne of Twilight is a memorable and strange villain, but is undermined by the predictable reveal that Ganondorf is behind everything. After playing pretty much no role in the plot, the final confrontation with him feels deeply anti-climactic. Compare this to the unforgettable encounter we have with Ganondorf as Young Link in Ocarina of Time, which builds him as a true threat to give the final encounter as Adult Link greater stakes. A lack of stakes is an issue overall. I don’t think Ocarina of Time gets enough credit for it’s environmental storytelling. The transformation of the vibrant, joyful Hyrule Castle Town of the child era into the nightmarish, Re-Dead populated hell hole of the adult era is striking and upsetting and creates a real sense of stakes and tension. Twilight Princess doesn’t have anything like this.

Twilight Princess can essentially be summed up as great dungeons, with a poor overworld. This game contains some of the most inventive, satisfying and clever dungeons in the 3D series, but the world created here in the least alluring and exciting of any of the series. I liked some of the new items, particularly the bizarre spinner, which we haven’t seen again since. They’re not really used enough, but they’re fun while they last. From a core mechanic point of view, Twilight Princess is very strong, with easily the best combat of the series with a greater range of moves and techniques at play. The puzzles are good and the boss fights fun. It’s pretty easy, but I don’t really mind. I’m not playing Zelda for the challenge. The moments between dungeons are just as important as the dungeons to me and it is here that Twilight Princess suffers most. Majora’s Mask was the best for this, but I think Ocarina of Time did well too. Wind Waker gets a lot of flack for its Triforce hunt, but at least the world of Wind Waker is gorgeous. Sailing around the Great Sea for a few more hours didn’t feel like nearly as much of a chore as galloping through the dull, muted world of Hyrule we have in Twilight Princess. The wolf stuff is fine, but ultimately inessential. The transformations in Majora’s Mask were more interesting from a gameplay perspective. It isn’t bad, it all works, but I couldn’t really work out what the point was. I still pretty much always wanted to just be plain ol’ Hylian Link.

The visuals have been tarted up for the HD release, but there’s only so much that can be done. Parts of Twilight Princess can be beautiful and striking, such as the snowy and desert regions, but the core sections in Hyrule are bland and lack character. Even Hyrule Castle Town, now with additional NPCs rushing everywhere, can’t rival the simple charms of the town in Ocarina of Time. The music isn’t particularly good; the Twilight Princess theme is my least favourite of any in the 3D series, being mostly bombast and lacking the subtle beauty and character found in the others. There are some great character designs though. Twilight Princess was never going to age as well as Wind Waker, but it’s striking how antiquated elements of its design and style are.

This sounds very negative, but I want to make clear that I still like this game a lot. Does it live up to the promise of that 2004 E3? No, not really, but what could? In Twilight Princess Nintendo gave the fans what they want, but it turns out that giving fans something weird and polarising is better. The bizarre and oppressive world of Majora’s Mask and the beautiful, vibrant world of Wind Waker are now pretty much revered and Twilight Princess’ murky, soulless Hyrule simply cannot compete. The core of the experience is still great though, with outstanding dungeons, great combat and a wonderful character in Midna.

twilight_princess_hd_wp_1

Calamity by Brandon Sanderson

My ridiculous Sanderson binge has come to an end, as had the Reckoners series. Of course, Brandon Sanderson being Brandon Sanderson he’s announced a new three book spin-off picking up some of the loose ends. Calamity, as with the two proceeding books, is a lot of fun and comes to a satisfyingly huge and (ahem) epic conclusion.

Calamity picks up not long after Firefight left off. After Prof used his powers to absorb Obliteration’s bomb in Babilar, he has turned and has become one of the most dangerous High Epics in the country. David Charleston now knows the secret of Epic’s weakness and aims to bring Prof back from his madness and take the battle to Calamity itself. The battleground is Idilthia, once the city of Atlanta and turned to salt. It creeps across the land and has been ruled by Larcener, an Epic who can drain powers from others and it is here that Prof first seeks to conquer.

Calamity fits into the pattern established in this series, with each taking place in a transformed American city and focusing on taking down the primary Epic. Although there was wider worldbuilding, Steelheart and Firefight were quite focused, but with so many loose ends to tie up Calamity has to stretch itself a bit thinner. The quick pace is a strength of this series, but Calamity feels a bit rushed, lurching towards it’s conclusion. The satisfying sense of watching a plan come together isn’t really present, but the action scenes are as strong as ever. That said, Sanderson makes up for it with wider world building. Somewhat hilariously, Sanderson appears to be building a second multiverse. Most authors can’t pull off one, but here’s Sanderson building up a second. The sense of scale is extremely exciting, but Calamity does suffer somewhat by biting off slightly more than it can chew.

All said though, the core of humour and action that define this series is still there. The action scenes are really exciting and, at times, surprisingly grisly. Considering that this is a YA book, Calamity contains the most stomach churningly violent scene in any of his books. Sanderson approached the Reckoners in a different way to his Cosmere books, with a more chatty, informal tone which is a lot of fun to read.

David is still a likable protagonist and it’s nice seeing him and Megan together, if only to end the relationship drama. Both characters are only enhanced by their pairing. Sadly, my biggest disappointment here is the lack of development of Prof. Seeing him turn at the end of Firefight was heartbreaking, but we don’t quite see enough of him for this to have as much impact as it should. He’s usually raging and attacking everyone, with the connection he holds to the Reckoners not explored quite as much as it should.

Calamity is a satisfying conclusion to the Reckoners series. It isn’t quite as successful by it’s own right as Steelheart and Firefight, but I still enjoyed it a lot. It leaves a few loose ends hanging which will hopefully be picked up in the Apocalypse Guard, Sanderson’s upcoming spin-off.

1calamitymain (1)

Divinity: Original Sin Enhanced Edition for PS4, Xbox One, PC and OS X

I’ve come to realise that I play RPGs for a very different reason than some other people. I like them for exploration, character and story. If you don’t do those things for me, I probably won’t enjoy it. I’m not so into granular stats based games and it’s from that perspective that I’ll be looking at Divinity: Original Sin. I know people love this sort of thing, but it just isn’t for me.

Divinity: Original Sin takes place in the land of Rivellon. Dark magic drawn from a power known as the Source plagues the land and your protagonists are two Source Hunters, members of an ancient order, who arrive in the town of Cyseal, which is besieged by the undead. Councilor Jake, a respected local politician, has been brutally murdered and what begins as a simple investigation spins off into a grander story involving dark forces which threaten the entire land.

There are some elements of the story which I enjoyed, but by and large there was absolutely nothing here that hasn’t been done much better elsewhere. The big weakness is the characters, who I found pretty much impossible to care about. The game is flexible and responsive to your actions, which is really cool, but the actual writing doesn’t really back up the ambition. The writing is at its best when it focuses on comedy and weirdness, such as a mission about reuniting a decapitated zombie with it’s body or match making between two cats. When we get to the ominous end of the world eldritch evil stuff it all gets a lot less interesting.

Divinity: Original Sin is an old school isometric RPG, a genre I have very limited experience with. In fact, the only one I can think of that I’ve played is Fallout 2. The first thing you do when you start up is create your two characters. There are a lot of options, which I liked, with a range of classes. I went for a ranger archer and a sneaky rogue because I knew a warrior and wizard join the party soon after. Building up your character is a strong element, with a range of different attributes and ‘talents’ allowing you to put together a character however you please. The main draw is presumably the combat, which isn’t really my sort of thing. I ultimately found it boring and frustrating, although the element that I did like was the emphasis on environmental factors. For example, if you cast lightning on a puddle everything wet will be paralysed. Exploiting the environment is probably the most unique element of the combat here, but all told I got pretty sick of it pretty fast. It’s not that I don’t enjoy turn based tactical RPGs (I adore Fire Emblem) but this approach just does not appeal to me in any way.

The quality of quests is something of a mixed bag here. Some are pretty dull, but a lot of them are really funny and charming. I liked how responsive the game could be to your actions, with a genuine range of ways to approach most quests. Many games promise choice but don’t really follow through, but Divinity: Original Sin really does. It’s just a shame that the actual bread and butter gameplay didn’t hook me at all.

Exploration is possibly the biggest factor in my enjoyment of an RPG, but I felt pretty much zero incentive to explore Rivellon. The art style wasn’t particularly appealing and offered little of interest, with the environments essentially being standard fantasy fare. The voice acting isn’t great; some characters are done a lot better than others, but so much of it is cringe worthy and immersion breaking. World building is hugely important to me and I simply wasn’t invested enough in the land of Rivellon to care. If I will say something nice for the presentation, it’s that the music is very good.

I didn’t like Divinity: Original Sin, but I wouldn’t call it a bad game by any stretch. I can only review my own experiences and I honestly didn’t like this game. I took a punt of this one and I wasn’t sure if I’d like it and I’m sad that I didn’t. This is a generous game that, from the general consensus online, seems to succeed in the goals it sets for itself, but those goals simply aren’t ones which align with my tastes.

divinity

Post Navigation