Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “February, 2017”

Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

Blood of Elves is the first full novel in The Witcher series, with the previous two being linked short story collections. Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction is apparent in this book, since if taken as a novel, Blood of Elves doesn’t quite work. However, each lengthy chapter feels fairly stand alone, so if taken as a series of short stories closely linked by a core narrative, Blood of Elves works much better.

Blood of Elves picks up not long after the concluding story of The Sword of Destiny. Nilfgaard’s invasion has been repelled, but not before the brutal sacking of Cintra and the death of its formidable Queen Calanthe. Calanthe’s granddaughter, Ciri, is thought dead, but has in reality been rescued by Geralt and taken to the witcher stronghold of Kaer Morhen. Geralt and Ciri are linked by destiny and Geralt makes it his sworn vow to protect Ciri above all else. Rumours of her survival spread, and malevolent forces gather to find her and use her for their own nefarious purposes. Meanwhile, tension between humans and non-humans reach a boiling point and the Scoia’tel, an anti-human guerrilla army, is formed.

This book is oddly structured and not a whole lot happens; it lacks a satisfying conclusion in its own right and is focused towards building towards the sequels. If taken as a series of separate short stories it works much better. There are some delightful chapters, such as the arrival of Triss Merrigold at Kaer Morhen, where she promptly takes the gathered witchers to task for their bungled handling of Ciri’s ongoing puberty. Another involves Ciri training with Yennefer and the bond that builds between them. In fact, any scene involving Ciri is pretty much delightful. Geralt himself takes a bit of a backseat in this one, with Triss, Ciri and Dandelion covering well over half of the novel between them. Sapkoswki relies a bit too much on exposition, with one lengthy scene following the meeting towards the gathered rulers of the North feeling particularly egregious. The thing is, his actual writing is light and buoyant enough than it never feels boring. These pacing issues are ones which I found myself more observing objectively rather than being actively bothered by. There’s a whimsy, tempered by darkness, which is more than little reminiscent of Neil Gaiman. Blood of Elves is just very bloody readable and a testament both to Sapkoswki and the translators from the original Polish.

As mentioned above, characterisation is arguably Sapkowski’s greatest skill. Geralt, Ciri, Triss, Yennefer, Dandelion, all are a joy to spend time with. The bond between Geralt and Ciri is very moving; the well of feeling and love behind the grizzled exterior of Geralt is the reason he’s one of my favourite protagonists in fiction. There’s a lot of humour in Blood of Elves and I’m still amazed by how well CD Projekt captured the tone of the books in the games.

Blood of Elves is an undeniably flawed book, but I enjoyed it a hell of a lot anyway. The characterisation and dialogue are so strong that I could forgive almost anything. It feels like it’s saving the big stuff for later; a table setter it may be, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more enjoyably set table than this.

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XCOM 2 for PS4, Xbox One, PC, OS X and Linux

XCOM: Enemy Unknown was a great little game and the sequel builds upon its predecessor in interesting ways. The core mechanics and loop are the same, but a few clever twists keep things interesting and provide a very strong strategy experience.

In the previous game, the aliens were the guerrilla fighters, popping up, inflicting damage, then vanishing again. XCOM 2, in an interesting narrative twist, assumes that the player failed in Enemy Unknown and so the aliens have taken over the world, with the role now reversed. It is 20 years after the fall of Earth, with the planet now in the grips of the puppet ADVENT administration, with propaganda persuading the people of Earth that the aliens are benevolent and kind. XCOM are now an insurgent group, operating from a mobile military base hidden in the arctic. Word reaches XCOM that the alien administration is pursuing the mysterious ADVENT project. No one knows what it is, but they know it is bad and must be stopped.

XCOM 2 feels a little bit more plot heavy than the predecessor, but as with the last game the real joy will be in the stories you craft for yourself. Your base has a handful of scientists and military men and engineers you may be meant to care about, but I never really did. I did care about my squad of randomly generated squaddies. By sheer chance and not my radical feminist SJW agenda, I ended up with an all-female core squad and by the end I grew rather fond of my ass kicking team of alien stomping women. I felt this way about the first game as well, but it felt like there were more boring cutscenes this time around. Give me the context for what I’m doing then leave me alone, I’m not interested in anything else.

The core feel of the turn based battle system is unchanged from the previous game, but a couple of nifty adjustments shake up how the whole thing feels. Enemy Unknown was a bit easier to cheese, with the Overwatch ability being somewhat overpowered. This move meant any movement by the enemy would then cause them to be fired upon, meaning that a strategy of ‘creep forward, Overwatch, creep forward, Overwatch’ would work more often than not. Most missions in XCOM 2 are on a timer. I thought I’d hate this, but in reality it forces you to play more aggressively. You have to actively pursue your goals with every turn, taking risks to survive. I got through the last game by playing very conservatively, something which XCOM 2 refuses to let you do. The battles themselves are still hugely satisfying, with a simple class system which nonetheless allows for significant customisation. There’s a moment when your squaddies become predators rather than prey which us hugely exciting. The moment for me came when my sniper unlocked the ability to have a move refunded every time they make a kill. This meant that I could operate a strategy of whittling down the alien’s health with explosives before finishing them all off with my sniper, often going through my entire ammo pool in one round. Some may call this cheap, but I had to earn the ability to do this, by keeping my team alive long enough to develop these abilities.

A core part of XCOM is the metagame between missions, which sees you developing your base and researching new weapons and armour. This element was so satisfying in the last game and is even more so now. The sense of satisfaction from developing a new technology or building a new facility is intoxicating, all the more so because the decision about where to allocate resources is so risky. Resources are tight, particularly at the beginning and it’s more than possible to screw yourself over before a battle even begins. The core focus is on linking rebel cells into a global resistance. All the while, a bar counting up to the launch of the ADVENT project is above the map. This can be lowered in a variety of different ways, but it’s a constant reminder hanging over the player. A sense of urgency pervades the whole experience. Something about the XCOM gameplay loop of build/fight, build/fight is just so dang lovely.

The general visual design is decent, with some nasty new alien design and decent music. All told, the actual visual upgrade from the previous game is minimal, minor spit and polish aside. The biggest issue is punishing load times between missions; this is a pretty good disincentive against save-scumming, but I doubt this was intentional. A bit of added visual flair would be a neat little addition, but the general visual conservativeness doesn’t do much harm.

XCOM 2 is, pretty much, more of the same, but seemingly minor tweaks are more significant than they first seem. Strategy games often allow players to retreat to comfort zones, but XCOM 2 refuses to let you do so. It’s always pushing the player on, never allowing them to relax, which can make it an intense, but highly rewarding experience.

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Blade of Tyshalle by Matthew Stover

This is a weird, weird book. It is the sequel to the outstanding Heroes Die, the first in Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine series. It abandons a lot of what worked well in the first book and doubles down on things that didn’t, but it’s sheer ambition is giddying. Stover goes all out here and it results in a book which is a structural mess and becomes borderline incoherent, but is an undeniably fascinating read. I don’t think I’ve ever read a fantasy novel like this.

Blade of Tyshalle takes place seven years after Heroes Die: Hari Michaelson, famed as the Actor for Caine, has been left crippled after the conclusion of the previous book and is now living his ‘happy ending’ as the Administrator for the Studio for which he used to work. Things are far from perfect, with a tense marriage to his wife Shanna and a dangerous nostalgia for his violent past as Caine. His purest joy is his adopted daughter Faith, child of Shanna and Lamorak. His closest companion is former nemesis Ma’elkoth, the former Emperor of Ankhana who was dragged along with Hari when he last left Overworld and unable to return, now known as Tan’elkoth. Hari’s quiet life is interrupted when he discovers an outbreak of HRPV in Overworld, a mutated and more deadly form of rabies which had swept the Earth decades prior. With no immunity or vaccination, the people of Overworld are defenceless from a hideous death and so Hari sets about to get to the bottom of the outbreak, dragging him back into the habits of the past and re-awakening the dormant Caine within him.

Heroes Die was a relatively focused novel, taking place over six days and primarily within one city. Blade of Tyshalle has no such structure, or seemingly any structure at all. The frustrating thing is just how frequently brilliant this book is; there are isolated chapters which are as good as anything else you’ll read in the genre, but there are a lot which descend into endless mythological and metaphysical mumbo-jumbo. I loved the opening, which shows us Hari’s early days training to be an Actor through the eyes of Kris Hansen, who wants nothing more than to live in Overworld as an elf-like Primal. The biggest issue is the emergence of the true villain, a figure whose presence doesn’t gel at all with the previous book and is too abstract to truly fear. The core of humanity which made the previous book so good is still there, but there’s an unbelievable amount of time spent on conflicts which involve one demi-God communicating with another demi-God in an incomprehensible manner. When Blade of Tyshalle brings itself back down to Earth the book soars, but much of the climax is robbed of impact. It seeks to be too epic, with a villain who is essentially a manifestation of the worst vices of human nature, but this is a story which works best when it is about scrapping in the streets.

From a prose standpoint though, Blade of Tyshalle is seriously great. The action scenes are still pretty much the best I’ve read. I may not have thought it possible to crank up the violence any further from Heroes Die but, well, here it is. This time though…I think he went a too far. The violence in Heroes Die felt like a winking allusion towards a shift in fantasy tastes at the time but Blade of Tyshalle doesn’t function as a commentary on the fantasy genre as well as Heroes Die. The violence, and some of it really is stomach churning, feels like shock for shocks sake. Rape, both physical but also mental, shows up time and again in the story. The victims are denied any real voice, both before or after and once again it feels like it was deployed for shock value. The world building and dialogue are top notch, but it feels like Stover descends into self-indulgence here and without the defence of being a satire that could be claimed by Heroes Die.

Caine/Hari continues to be so much more interesting than he sounds, with new character such as Hari’s academy friend Kris and the vengeance driven monastic warrior Raithe being well and fully drawn. As I said before, the main villain is the weakest link and never manages to match up to the brilliant trio of antagonists from Heroes Die: Ma’elkoth, Count Berne and Arturo Kollberg. One of the most interesting themes of this novel is that of friendship. Caine has a lot of odd friendships, forged in strange ways, which arise throughout the novel. One of the chief joys of Blade of Tyshalle is the bizarre love/hate relationship between Caine and Tan’elkoth, former nemeses who, by circumstance, have become best friends, but it’s far from the only relationship like this. Betrayal is the mirror theme of friendship and is also core to the narrative and it’s these complex, shifting relationships which kept me most engaged in the book.

Blade of Tyshalle is hugely ambitious book which falls short of the mark. It’s too long and self-indulgent and could have done with a pretty brutal editing. There’s so much potential in this book, so many interesting ideas and characters toyed with, which are abandoned in favour of a fuzzy and vague message about humans being better as individuals and more flawed as a collective…or something? I don’t really know what this book is trying to say. Heroes Die was a relatively straight forward satire of the fantasy market and the human lust for violence and it worked so much better than whatever this is. Blade of Tyshalle is a very interesting book and one which I think I’m going to think about for a while, but it’s too unfocused to be the genuine classic Heroes Die is.

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Gravity Rush 2 for PS4

Gravity Rush 2 is a game which veers between delightful and infuriating pretty consistently throughout its playtime, but just about balances out on delightful. I played the remastered PS4 version of the Vita original last year and those hoping that leaving a handheld for the PS4 would lead to a massive upgrade may be disappointed. Everything is shinier and bigger, but the core mechanics are the same as they were on the Vita. This leads to a game which somehow manages to have a truly magnificent sense of scale but also, at times, feel a bit small and unambitious.

Gravity Rush 2 picks up with a powerless Kat in the travelling mining colony of Banga, having been flung from Hekseville by a gravity story along with Raven and Syd. It isn’t long before she regains her powers and the colony arrive at the city of Jirga Para Lhao, a beautiful city nonetheless riven my terrible inequality and ruled by an uncaring elite. Kat sets about the save the poor of the city. The closing chapters of the game also address the dangling thread of Kat’s past and how she first came to crash, amnesiac, into Hekseville at the beginning of the first game.

The plot of Gravity Rush 2 is, overall, better than the first, but it still feels a bit incoherent. The inequality storyline in Jirga Para Lhao is easily the best part. The first game was at its best when it grounded itself in the familiar and the same is the case here. A return to Hekseville in the second half of the game strays into more bizarre territory, with a conclusion which dips into Akira-esque body horror. The final section details Kat’s backstory and it is here that the game descends into utter nonsense. The lore of this series is fairly complex and convoluted, much more than it needs to be. Gravity Rush is at its best when Kat is dealing with genuine human problems in beautiful settings. A lot of this is because Kat is so likeable as a character. She is, in many ways, your classic doofy wacky anime girl, but there’s a spine of genuine empathy and toughness which elevates her beyond that. The supporting cast is extensive, probably too much so, but there are some really loveable characters here. None are developed as well as they should be, particularly the villain of the second section who, whilst intriguing, is introduced and dispatched before we get a solid understanding of who he is.

From a mechanical stand point things are much the same, for better or for worse. Soaring through the skies is a joy, particularly in the new, more vertical oriented Jirga Para Lhao. The combat also feels a bit tightened up; I didn’t find myself soaring past enemies and missing entirely quite as much as I did in the last game. I honestly couldn’t tell you how they tightened this up, but clearly they did something because the combat actually feels good in this game which it didn’t really in the last one. A series of excellent boss fights showcase the combat best, with the level of frantic madness and escalation beginning to stray into Platinum Games territory. They’re exciting, challenging and, most importantly, really fun. New gravity powers are introduced in the ability to switch between different ‘gravity styles.’ Alongside the default we’re familiar with, Kat can also switch into the ‘Lunar style’, which makes her lighter and floatier with a range of new combat techniques, as well as ‘Jupiter style’ which makes her heavier and more powerful. Switching on the fly between the three lends combat a more tactical edge and by the end I was freely switching between the three during all combat encounters. Many games like this offer you loads of powers but you only really use a few, but I found myself using almost the entire toolbox of Gravity Rush 2, which is impressive.

There is a lot to do in this game, with 27 core main story quests and many more side quests. Some are simply fun little challenges to earn experience for powering up, but a lot are more involved, containing story to flesh out the world and the characters. All round, the mission design is the game’s biggest flaw. Some of the missions are brilliant and exciting, using the gravity powers in a range of interesting and fun ways. A baffling number however, both in the story and in side missions, strip your powers from you. This is pretty much always a bad design decision; feeling powerless is not fun in a game about the joy of having super powers. To make matters worse, a lot of the time these are stealth missions, which are all awful. Stealth missions in non-stealth games were so universally bad that it became a bit of a cliché a few years ago and they started to drop off. After Final Fantasy XV did the same thing late last year, I’m scared that the dodgy stealth mission is making a comeback. Kat doesn’t control subtly, she moves in big swinging motions, which is fine because the game is meant to be about soaring through the sky, but it doesn’t work for stealth.

Visually Gravity Rush 2 is lovely, and Jirga Para Lhao deserves to be considered alongside the best cities in gaming. The mid game return to the smaller, less vertical Heskeville is therefore underwhelming, which makes sense; Heskeville was designed for a PS Vita and Jirga Para Lhao for the PS4. As soon as I was taken from Jirga Para Lhao I wanted to go back. The comic book story panels are back, which is fine, with the characters still babbling in their vaguely French sounding nonsense language. The music is lovely, with a lot of very catchy new tunes around Jirga Para Lhao. I liked the character designs much more than the last game, particularly for Lisa, the matriarch for the mining community of Banga. Gravity Rush 2 does still look like an upscaled Vita game and I suspect it was produced for around the same budget as the first game. It’s no visual marvel, but for a game where the camera spins around so much a steady frame rate is pretty vital for avoiding nausea and it remained good throughout.

Gravity Rush 2 is a game which is intensely likeable, but too irritating to love. The charming world, characters and core mechanics do manage to save it from being dragged down too far by some very suspect mission design and storytelling, and I still feel that this series has yet to reach its true potential.

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