Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “August, 2016”

The Spider’s War by Daniel Abraham

The Spider’s War is a very interesting end to a strong series which plays out its final conflicts in a manner I think little could expect. Not every character apotheosis is successful, but enough are to make this a satisfying conclusion.

The resistance against the Antean Empire and the cult of the spider priests is growing on multiple fronts as the forces of Geder Palliako begin to fold in upon themselves. The Antean forces are badly overstretched and an army is marching on Camnipol to take revenge. Meanwhile, pamphlets spread by Cithrin bel Sarcour are revealing the truth of the priests’ power and the people of the world are beginning to wake from the slumber of the spider goddess. Marcus, Cithrin and Clara turn their aims towards obliterating every spider priest from the face of the earth and maybe put an end to war itself, whilst Geder grows more and more unstable.

For those hoping for a big military clash between an army led by Marcus Wester (perhaps with the dragon Inys at his back) and Geder’s Antean forces, you’ll be disappointed. This novel contains a dearth of big battle scenes, with the most spectacular in the series remaining the Antean attack on Porte Olivia and the takedown of Inys from The Widow’s House. The Spider’s War is oddly pacifist, with characters avoiding fighting and conflict as much as possible, with a notable exception which slightly undermines the novel’s message. The themes of the series are finally tied together; this is a series about the movement from the violence of the dagger towards the violence of the coin. There are rumblings of a sequel series and I’m wondering that where this one is a critique of war the next will be a critique of capitalism. It would certainly be interesting to see a world move on from hurting each other with weapons to hurting each other with money and greed. This series has overall been extremely thematically successful in a way few sprawling fantasy epics can achieve.

Most characters continue in their interesting directions, particularly Cithrin who has changed utterly from the frightened little girl fleeing Vanai all the way back in The Dragon’s Path. Clara also has a very satisfying story; I’ve never been much of a fan of the gossiping court noblewoman intrigue plot which is so bizarrely prevalent in fantasy, but Abraham has done a good job of making it interesting through the wonderful character of Clara. Not every character is handled so well, with some moments and final twists which feel a bit unearned. There were some moments where it felt like Abraham was pulling back from pulling the trigger. I don’t think a finale should just be a series of cheap shocks, but I think Abraham could perhaps have thrown at least one mindbender our way. Once the path towards the end in clear, everything happens pretty much as you would expect.

The Spider’s War is a worthy finale to a really enjoyable series. There are massive threads left dangling for a follow up which I certainly hope happens. I may never have taken to the world building of this series, but I most certainly took to the characters and I’d love to see them again and any new ones Abraham creates for us.

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Cibola Burn by James S A Corey

I described the previous book in The Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate, as a pivot point in the series and book number 4, Cibola Burn, does seem like it’s moving the series in a new direction, taking place for the first time almost entirely outside our own Solar System. Unfortunately, the pivot in setting doesn’t necessarily equate a pivot in plotting, which is beginning to feel a little formulaic.

Not long after the opening of the gate to a host of other star systems, a group of refugees from Ganymede slipped through without official permission and settled on a new planet in a new system. Called New Terra by the officials and Ilus by the locals, the new planet is a seemingly ideal place to build a new human civilisation, although the group contains no scientists who can truly understand the risk. The planet is rich in natural resources and so the UN send a ship to claim the planet, much to the chagrin of the locals who launch a terrorist attack as it lands. Basia Merton, last seen in Caliban’s War, is one of these terrorists but immediately regrets his actions and seeks to make amends. Elvi Okoye is a highly talented biologists sent by the UN to study the planet who survives the attack but finds herself caught up in the escalating conflict between the Ilus locals and the UN sanctioned forces stationed there. Dmitri Havelock, Miller’s partner on Ceres from all the way back in Leviathan Wakes, is in charge of security on the UN ship hanging in orbit, with the conflict not simply being confined to the atmosphere. Finally, once again James Holden joins the fray, sent as a negotiator by Avasarala and try to stop the conflict from boiling over, all while the threat of the alien planet and the remains of those who once lived there looms in the background.

The core conflict between the security forces and the locals on Ilus isn’t particularly interesting; we already had the authority figure going mad with power storyline in the last book. The core characters are decent, but this element of the story is dragged out for far too long. Things pick up considerably when the grander elements involving the dead protomolecule-creating civilisation show up and Cibola Burn begins to achieve a grandeur the series hasn’t really seen as much as it should. Cibola Burn is simply too long, dragging out a relatively simple premise for far longer than it really needs. The second half is a major improvement, with a sudden massive event shifting focus entirely into something far more interesting; it just takes too long to get to this point.

The characterisation is good in places; Holden and his team are as lovable as ever and I liked the character of Elvi Okoye, the naive young scientist with a massive crush on Holden. Havelock, a character I rather liked in Leviathan Wakes, settles into familiar ground as a security officer forced into an impossible position, something the series has done before. Merton never really comes into his own as a man driven by grief to make a terrible mistake. I liked all of these characters, but there’s none who can rival being anywhere near as interesting as characters like Bobbie and Avasarala from Caliban’s War.

This is a very negative reading review, but I did actually enjoy Cibola Burn quite a lot. Abraham and Franck are good enough writers that they can carry even a lacklustre story into something entertaining, but this was not the return to form for the series that I had hoped it would be. Don’t get me wrong, I liked it enough to keep going, but I’d be lying if I said that my enthusiasm for The Expanse is as great as it was.

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The Long Cosmos by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

The Long Earth has been a strange little series. In some ways the scale is grander than anything else imaginable, but the events that take place are often smaller and gentle. Moments of extreme peril are rare and when they do take place the horrors are rarely dwelt upon. This has made the series frustrating at times, but the raw imagination and genuine optimism about the human spirit makes this a series hard not to like. The Long Cosmos does not offer a massive blowout conclusion, but that’s never been what this series is about.

The Long Cosmos takes place decades after Step Day; a mysterious message from the stars has arrived and been decoded as ‘Join Us.’ Now known as the Invitation, this message was not only received by humans, but by the trolls through their long call as well as the super intelligent Next. Groups from across the Long Earth gather to work out how to respond, or even if they should. A range of familiar characters play a role, from Joshua Valiente, now in his 60s, setting forth on another adventure to Nelson Azinkiwe, who discovers that he fathered a son during the events of The Long War and sets out to find him on the Traverser known as Second Person Singular.

The Long Cosmos is just as gentle and oddly relaxing as the previous books. This series is at its best when it’s a travelogue, pure worldbuilding as the authors take us through their strange and wonderful new worlds. Things begin to fall apart when actual plot is involved, with a story which never quite feels like a finale. It could be argued that the authors are simply being consistent with the rest of the series, but I think something more of a climax than this would have benefitted the book. The worldbuilding is damn good in this book too, with some of the weirdest and most magical stuff in the Long Earth held back for this book.

I never really grew to love any characters in this series, although I was rather fond of Lobsang, the Tibetan motorcycle repair man turned AI demi-god. He’s on good form here, as is Nelson Azikiwe, the intriguing priest and friend of Lobsang. Still, I can’t say I’m hugely going to miss many of these characters. The thing I will miss is never seeing any more weird and wonderful planets of the Long Earth.

The Long Cosmos is, in some ways, the perfect end to the series, summing up as it does both the strengths and the flaws of this odd little series. I never waited on bated breath for the next book, but always enjoyed them when I did read them. My pool of books to read with Terry Pratchett on the front is diminishing and that is utterly tragic.

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Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest for Nintendo 3DS

Two down, one to go! This probably won’t be a long review as much of what I said about Birthright applies here, but overall I enjoyed Conquest much more.  
 
When the prince/princess Corrin is forced to choose between her birth family, the noble and peaceful Hoshido, or her adopted family, the aggressive and mighty Nohr, Conquest sees Corrin choosing the latter. This is a much darker tale than Birthright’s, which was a relatively straightforward march towards the enemy and revenge. It’s also a lot more interesting. Nohr are very much the more evil of the two choices and seeing Corrin and her friends try to balance their inherent kindness and nobility with the evil asked of them is quite interesting to follow. One of my biggest issues with Birthright was the lack of memorable characters and this is an issue which Conquest does not have at all. From the melodramatic sorcerer Odin to the psychopathic bloodthirsty Peri to the unlucky chivalrous knight Arthur, Conquest is packed with memorable and entertaining characters. It’s difficult to express just how much of a difference this makes; levelling up and building a warrior is pretty satisfying when they’re bland warriors but having them be a likeable eccentric elevates the experience. These aren’t complicated characters and frankly they’re better for it; Fire Emblem characters don’t need to be complicated, they need to be memorable.  
 
Mechanically Conquest is naturally very similar to Birthright, but a fair bit trickier in a number of ways. First of all is the lack of challenge missions to grind; as with the pre-Awakening Fire Emblems, EXP is a valuable and finite commodity which has to be shared tactically. Getting the best out of my forces was an added layer of strategy I really enjoyed. The actual mission variety itself is also greatly increased; in Birthright almost all missions simply involve killing everything. There are loads of very interesting missions in Conquest, which genuinely force you to adjust your strategies and play style. It makes for a much more challenging experience, but an all round better one.  
 
Fire Emblem Fates: Conquest is an excellent game and one which I enjoyed quite a lot more than it’s sister release Birthright. Only one left to go now; onto Revelation! 

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Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE for Wii U

I don’t think this was the game that anyone was expecting. I was quite excited when Nintendo announced a crossover between the Fire Emblem series, which I love, and the Shin Megami Tensei series which I’m less familiar with but have liked what I’ve played. I imagine that most of us were predicting a dark fantasy tale and not something based around JPop idols. Taking the weeaboo plunge, I went for it anyway and quite enjoyed it, although I did leave still feeling that the overall aesthetic definitely wasn’t for me.

Itsuki is a normal high school student in Tokyo whose best friend since childhood, Tsubasa, is trying out for a competition to become an ‘Idol’, an all round performer with a focus on singing. When the compare for the event is possessed by a sinister entity, Tsubasa is pulled into the ‘Idalosphere’, a dangerous parallel realm and Itsuki must head in to save her. Mysterious beings known as ‘Mirages’ have been attacking Toyko, with the most significant event being the mysterious vanishing of hundreds of people at an Opera House five years previously, including Tsubasa’s sister. These beings seek ‘Performa’, a mysterious force generated during performance for nefarious purposes. Itsuki, Tsubasa and a group of other young friends are bonded with friendly Mirages, who are familiar characters from Fire Emblem, to keep Tokyo safe from the mysterious threat. They are all performers themselves, working for the agency Fortuna Entertainment.
The plot for Tokyo Mirage Sessions is all fairly predictable, with little in the way of interesting plot twists or even a feeling a genuine peril. A lot of the story relies on comedy and, to be honest, the Japanese sense of humour has never really worked for me. That’s not to say that an odd smile wasn’t raised, but I personally found it more annoying than anything else. The main characters are likeable, but very broad with no complexity or depth. Some interesting ideas are touched upon; Eleanora is a party member of mixed race heritage, being half Japanese and half European. The effect of this heritage on her career in the entertainment industry is hinted at, but Tokyo Mirage Sessions doesn’t really have the courage to explore the bigotry she has experienced in any depth. Any potentially interesting moments are undercut with a need to keep everything light. That’s not to say that a JRPG can’t be light and comic; I love the humour of the Mario RPGs and Earthbound, but a lot of that is due to excellent translation but the Tokyo setting means that many of the cultural references flew over my head. If you are a full on weeaboo I think there may be more for you in the story of Tokyo Mirage Sessions. I actually love Japanese culture, but not this particular facet of it.

Tokyo Mirage Sessions is primarily a straight forward JRPG, with a really fun and stylish battle system. The elemental weaknesses of Shin Megami Tensei is paired with the weapon triangle from Fire Emblem to give each enemy a complex list of weaknesses and resistances to exploit. Where most Shin Megami Tensei games provide extra turns when a weakness is exploited, Tokyo Mirage Sessions triggers combos called ‘Sessions.’ For example, if a sword aspected attack is used on an enemy with that weakness, another member of the party can use a passive move which converts to another element or weapon, such as fire or axe, which then in turns converts into another. Initially you’re limited to combos of three with your party members, but later on party members held in the reserves can join in Sessions too, allowing you to chain together some pretty massive combos. It’s an inherently satisfying system, but one which doesn’t really involve a huge amount of player agency. Towards the final hours of this lengthy game I was desparate for the ability to skip watching these attacks and the stylishness of the presentation only got me so far. There are also random attacks which can trigger, called ‘ad lib’ performances which got me out of a few tricky boss fights. There are some really cool boss fights with some interesting mechanics, like shifting weaknesses and the like and it gets really tricky.

There’s a lot of content to this game, with most of your time being spent in dungeons. Compared to a lot of JRPG dungeons, which are often essentially paths for you to travel down while fighting battles, each dungeon has a different puzzle mechanic. They’re not particularly clever or intricate, but they do a good job of making what is often the blandest element of the genre interesting. Between dungeons you’ll be wandering around a few areas of Tokyo buying items and accessories and taking part in side quests. These quests are quite interesting, with each focusing on different party members. Some are very straightforward and just involve wandering around Tokyo a bit and some are a bit more elaborate, but it’s here that the better storytelling is to be found. You’ll also be powering up and crafting new weapons with your spoils from battles and it is from these weapons, called ‘Carnage’ for some reason, that you gain new abilities for your party to use in battle. You can also develop passive abilities and eventually Fire Emblem style class changes. This is all fine if not for the fact that the only place you can do this is behind two loading screens. If you’re in a dungeon and your weapon maxes out and you want to go upgrade it or make a new one, you have to leave the dungeon, go into the Bloom Palace where the upgrades are made, make the upgrade, move back through Tokyo to the dungeon entrance, enter the dungeon and then warp to where you left from. I did this dozens of times as I was playing and it’s a bit infuriating to think of how much time I wasted. That’s an issue this game has overall; wasting the players time. A good JRPG should have a solid curve that removes the necessity of grinding. If you fight every battle offered you should be able to, with skilful play, fight any boss you come to. In Tokyo Mirage Sessions you will need to grind. In the 45 or so hours I spend with this game, I estimate that around 10 were from time wasting activities like this.

Appropriately considering that performance is the key theme of the game, the battles in Tokyo Mirage Sessions are really flashy and fun to watch. The combined visual design of JPop Idol culture and Fire Emblem high fantasy actually ends up working bizarrely well. Although the story never really lives up to the crossover potential, the overall design works very nicely. That said, the whole thing is very much 80% Shin Megami Tensei with 20% Fire Emblem sprinkled on top and I think I would have preferred it the other way around, but that’s likely just down to my own tastes. A strong area is the music; there are a few JPop tracks which are fairly catchy, although my favourite piece of music is a reworked version of the Fire Emblem theme which shows up fairly regularly. The voice acting is good and only in Japanese; this is a good shout as this is a story so heavily meshed into Japanese culture. It’s a miracle it was released here in the first place!
All said, Tokyo Mirage Sessions wasn’t quite my cup of tea. My love of Fire Emblem and desire to actually use my Wii U drove me to give it a go. I wouldn’t say that I regret my time with it, but I’d say that this is a game more for fans of Japanese Idol culture than for fans of Fire Emblem and Shin Megami Tensei. It’s mechanically strong but with far too much time wasting, something which the best JRPGs manage to streamline away. If you’re desperate for a traditional JRPG on the Wii U you could do worse than Tokyo Mirage Sessions.

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