Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “April, 2017”

This Census-Taker by China Miéville

I haven’t read a China Miéville book in ages, so this slim little novella seemed as good a place as any to jump back in. It’s a strange, unsettling story, with a tighter focus than Miéville normally shows. This is still a political book, everything Miéville writes is, but it perhaps has a greater focus on the personal.

This Census-Taker has a strange setting, a sort of desolate fantasy dystopia. There are hints that this world is not our own, but Miéville isn’t interested in world building here, with the setting being used primarily to create mood and atmosphere. There are a couple of hints that it may take place in the Bas-Lag setting seen in Perdido Street Station, but if that is the case it isn’t particularly important to the story. The protagonist is an unnamed young boy, who runs into his village screaming that his mother has killed his father. Lacking evidence, he is forced to return home to his terrifying and homicidal parent, living in constant fear, with his only allies being a group of street urchins.

It’s a relatively straightforward story by Miéville standards, but thoroughly unsettling. Miéville has flirted with many different strands of horror, most effectively with Lovecraftian cosmic horror, but domestic horror may be some of the scariest, the fear of what lurks within your own home. Very few characters are named and they are generally thinly drawn, but this is more about creating an atmosphere than anything else. Hints to wider events are welcome and suggest that this is a world gone very wrong, expanding into the broader social commentary Miéville is so well regarded for. The titular census-taker doesn’t show up until close to the end, but he’s an intriguing figure with hints to complex motivations. Some have suggested that This Census-Taker could almost be a prologue to a larger work and I wouldn’t mind if that were the case. The novella asks some interesting questions I wouldn’t mind seeing answered.

This Census-Taker is a clever, unsettling slice of fiction I’d recommend to any Miéville fan. He hasn’t published a full novel since 2012s Railsea, so I hope there’s another one not too far away.

 

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Gravity Rush 2 – The Ark of Time: Raven’s Choice DLC for PS4

I’m a big fan of the price point for this Gravity Rush 2 DLC; free. This is partially because free DLC is always welcome and partially because I don’t think I would have been very happy to have paid for this.

Raven is something of a fan favourite character and it makes perfect sense for her to be given her own story. In the confusing jumble that was Gravity Rush 2’s story, we never really found out Raven’s backstory. Taking place between Gravity Rush 1 and 2, this DLC also resolves a plot strand left hanging from the first game, the Lost Children trapped in the Ark, and so depicts Raven’s attempts to save them, as well as uncover her own history.

A lot of this DLC weirdly doubles down on the worst things about the main game, and that applies to the story as well. Gravity Rush as a series gets weirdly bogged down into its own bizarre mythology, which never succeeds in becoming more compelling than confusing and Raven’s Choice, which is a couple of hours long at most, contains all of these flaws in perfect microcosm.

Unfortunately, this extends to the gameplay as well. Gravity Rush is about soaring through the skies and kicking giant monsters in the eye but both games spent an unforgivable amount of time keeping you grounded, forcing you to complete arduous stealth challenges or escort missions. A good DLC either offers something new, or at least what was good about the game in microcosm, but Raven’s Choice blows up everything bad about Gravity Rush 2. There are some good moments, such as a fun boss fight and some neat differences in Raven’s power set to Kat’s, but I can’t see this being something I’d be happy to pay for.

So…good thing I didn’t! Since it’s free there are worse ways to spend your time if you still have your copy of Gravity Rush 2 lying around, but I wouldn’t nudge it to the top of your pile if I were you.

 

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Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

I’m thoroughly enjoying my time ploughing through The Witcher saga, with Time of Contempt building on the successes of Blood of Elves and addressing some of its faults.

Time of Contempt picks up not too long after Blood of Elves. Ciri is now under the tutelage of Yennefer of Vengerberg. Yennefer is taking Ciri to the Island of Thanedd, a safe haven for mages and sorceresses where she plans to enrol Ciri in a school to hone her magical training. It is not long before Geralt is reunited with his surrogate family of Yennefer and Ciri, and the three arrive at Thanedd, for a gathering of the magical users of the Northern Kingdoms, known as the Chapter of Sorcerers. The politics of the North have become more unstable, with the Northern rulers desperate for a pretext to go back to war with Nilfgaard and regain Cintra.

Where Blood of Elves was a bit more unfocused, feeling like a series of connected novellas more than anything else, Time of Contempt is a bit more self-contained, dealing primarily with the internal affairs of the Chapter of Sorcerers and the role of the magical community. The sharper focus benefits the book massively and it moves the story forward in a range of interesting ways. A lengthy epilogue shifts focus for a while, but it leaves a lot of important character sin very interesting places for the next book.

The action scenes are good, but Time of Contempt may be the funniest book in the series so far. A wonderful scene where a proud Yennefer parades Geralt in front of a series of lustful sorceresses, each more ridiculously provocative than the last, is a lot of fun. I had thought that the games had over sexualised characters like Keira Metz and Phillipa Eilhart but…nope, they’re like that in the book too. Geralt struggling to keep composure is a joy to behold. When things get a bit darker it all works well too, particularly during a harrowing scene in a desert which ratchets up tension to almost unbearable levels.

A lot of my favourite characters from the games play large roles here, such as the brilliant Redanian spymaster Sigismund Djikstra and a range of sorceresses. Sapkowski does a brilliant job of making these characters feel distinct; we’re introduced to about 8 new sorceresses all at once, but they all feel distinct and memorable. Ciri seems to be taking over from Geralt in main protagonist duties, but this isn’t a problem because I love Ciri.

I always struggle to write about middle books in a series. It doesn’t shake things up, but Time of Contempt keeps the story ticking on at a nice pace and leaves me excited to get into the next one. What more could you ask?

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Nioh for PS4

I’ve been playing Nioh in fits and starts snce it came out and are finally done. Not quite finished; there’s some side stuff and a post credits final mission I got half way through and quit, but I’m definitely done with this game. I played for a long time and there are many elements that I sort of loved, but it’s also a bit bloated and lacking in some key areas.

Nioh takes place in the early 17th century and follows…er, wait, let me just google his name….William Adams, an Irish sailor and pirate. He has been protected by a strange spirit for most of his adult life. Queen Elizabeth is fighting the Spanish Armada and seeks a secret weapon; the mysterious force known as Amrita. William is imprisoned in the Tower of London when the hilariously evil Edward Kelley arrives and kidnaps William’s guardian spirit and uses her to locate the source of Amrita; Japan. William goes in pursuit of Kelley to rescue his spirit and put an end to his nefarious plans and finds himself plunged into the conflicts of a demon infested feudal Japan. Tokugawa Ieysu, along with his servant ninja Hattori Hanzo, seek to unify Japan and William teams up with them to put down the demons awoken by the arrival of Kelley and in the process become the first Western samurai.

Nioh’s characters are all based on figures from real history, but with the obvious twist of demons, spirits and magic. This is interesting in theory but the reality is that it is so divorced from reality that this separation becomes meaningless. The plot is, simply, incoherent. It’s a load of mad old bollocks which goes on way too long and doesn’t have a single engaging character to shake a stick at. I quite enjoyed the first few hours; it had a bit of goofy, Platinum-esque charm, but that fades away with a story I think we may be expected to take seriously but devolves into madness. There are far too many characters, all real world figures. If you are already familiar with Japanese history then perhaps there might be more of a thrill to this, but aside from the odd reference to Oda Nobunaga I was pretty much lost. The main character looks like Geralt and sounds like Edward Kenway but has neither of their personalities. There was potential here but the story is a pretty massive let down overall.

Thankfully, the actual core mechanics of Nioh are very solid. The key inspiration for Nioh is immediately obvious. I know ‘it’s like Dark Souls but…’ has become a games writing cliché, but Nioh is very clearly inspired by FromSoft’s outings. There are shrines rather than bonfires, elixirs rather than Estus Flasks and Amrita rather than Souls, but if you’ve played a Soulsborne game you’ll know the deal. Nioh mimics so many elements from the Souls games that it becomes impossible not to primarily consider it within that context.

The biggest difference is the combat; both Dark Souls and Bloodborne contain a relatively low number of weapon inputs available at any given time, with combat being more about timing and positioning than using particular moves or combos. In Nioh you can equip two melee weapons, which can be switched freely. Each weapon can be held in one of three stances, a quick and weak low, a slow and powerful high and the average middle. Each stance then has a strong attack and a weak attack. This means that you have potentially 12 different weapon inputs at any one time, and this is before you consider other abilities like ranged weapons, magic and Ninja skills. The sheer number of options for an individual combat encounter adds an enjoyable precision to the combat. It’s very visceral, satisfying and fun. One of the most interesting mechanics is the Ki Pulse; maintaining your stamina, known here as Ki, is as important here as it is in the Soulsborne games. A well timed button press after an attack allows you to regain some of your stamina, allowing you to keep up the offensive. Later, you can also upgrade your abilities to Ki Pulse when you dodge. The interesting thing is that you have to wait a fraction of a second after attacking before you dodge away to achieve the Ki Pulse, meaning that you are encouraged to dodge away in a much more last minute fashion than you may be comfortable with. I love risk/reward mechanics like this. It’s a combination of Bloodborne’s aggressive health regeneration system and Gears of War’s active reload and works brilliantly.

Of course, the combat can only be so good as your foes and they’re generally decent, if a bit limited. You will fight a range of human enemies, some of which are simple victims to slice and dice and some are much trickier and engaging. There are also a range of yokai demons to fight, but not perhaps as many as there should be. The combat is fun, but ultimately most combat encounters are ‘hit hit, dodge behind, hit hit, dodge behind’ and repeat. The core mechanics are so fun that it takes a long time to get old, but ultimately, it does. Some have knocked the boss fights for being less fair than in Souls games, but I’m not sure that’s true. They are punishing, probably worse than in Bloodborne, but seriously fun and clever. They do create massive difficulty spikes, where the Soulsborne games tend to be a bit more gentle in the ramping up of challenge, but I still had a lot of fun taking them out.

The major diversion from the Soulsborne formula is structural. Where the Souls games take place in densely interconnected worlds, not necessarily large but coherently and convincingly put together, Nioh has a more old-school level structure. The levels do contain some Souls style short cuts and doubling back on themselves, but to nowhere near the level of inventiveness and craft seen from FromSoft. This level structure wouldn’t be a problem if the levels were varied and engaging, but they begin to feel very samey towards the end. The first proper level, in a burning Japanese fishing village, is easily the most memorable, but there are only so many caves, temples and mountains you can wander before it gets very familiar. This repetitiveness is only highlighted by how damn long this game is. It’s too long in all honesty, with everything interesting it has to do being thoroughly explored within 20 hours, but Nioh is closer to 50. This includes the side quests, which are pretty much mandatory if you want to avoid grinding. Without a sense of meaningful exploration, Nioh becomes an action RPG much more focused on the action, but there’s a reason action games tend to be shorter than other genres.

Nioh has a good visual design for the characters and monsters, although as I said above the environments certainly begin to wear thin. In a welcome move, you can choose to play Nioh at a higher resolution but capped at 30FPS, or take a resolution hit and play at 60. I chose the latter and recommend you do too; this is a game about maximum precision and the frame rate boost makes all the difference. The music and sound design are solid, but never anywhere near as atmospheric as in the Souls games.

I liked Nioh quite a bit, but it’s not a particularly interesting game. It’s fun and satisfying, but lacks the sense of intrigue and mystery I had hoped for. I imagine that the constant comparison to Dakr Souls might annoy some people, but when a game wears it’s influences so blatantly on their sleeve it’s difficult not to. It’s a very solid and fun action RPG, but it’s no game changer.

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Caine Black Knife by Matthew Stover

The previous book in the Acts of Caine series was the ambitious, but frankly incoherent, Blade of Tyshalle. It drastically expanded in scope from the first book, but at the cost of what made Heroes Die so engaging to begin with. Caine Black Knife is a simpler, more straightforward return to form for the series. Where Blade of Tyshalle got bogged down in numerous sub plots and supporting characters, Caine Black Knife is all Caine, all the time. It is a shorter, leaner and more focused book and all the better for it.
Caine Black Knife follows two timelines; one takes place a couple of years after Blade of Tyshalle, with Caine heading to the Boedecken Wastes to save his Orgrillo friend Orbek, who has fallen into trouble. The other timeline tells the story of Caine’s most notable Adventure, and the one which propelled him to massive stardom; Retreat from the Boedecken. We’ve heard this story alluded to many times in the previous books, about how Caine destroyed the infamous Black Knife Orgrillo clan and earned his reputation for stunning competence and cruelty. Caine’s actions 25 years in the past are still influencing the present, as figures from his past come back to haunt him and the consequences of his actions finally catching up to him.

Where Blade of Tyshalle covered a significant geographic range and focused heavily on metaphysics and mysticism, Caine Black Knife takes place mostly in one location and drops (to an extent) many of the elements which bogged down the previous book. It’s an exciting and tense book, with the stunning violence the series is known for still in full effect. Just when you think this series couldn’t shock you any more, Stover manages to conjure up something truly horrible. The crucial difference is that it feels less gratuitous, but also more honest. This series has long had a history of slyly satirising the fantasy industry’s propensity for grimdark violence whilst also acknowledging the undeniable visceral thrill this violence provides. The first book got the balance right and the second got it wrong, but the fine balancing act is pulled off here. Caine wasn’t so brutal against the Black Knife clan in the Boedecken because it was the clever or tactical thing to do, he did it because the audience back on Earth loved it.

There’s a sense of fun to Caine Black Knife, even in its grimmest moments. Caine is a relentlessly enjoyable protagonist, utterly loathsome but impossible not to like. There are odd cracks of sentimentality, which are usually punctuated by something unforgiveable. Removing Caine from the core of Blade of Tyshalle was a mistake, because he truly is a brilliant protagonist and this book benefits massively from keeping him as the key PoV at all times. Most of the previous supporting cast is absent, a handful of cameos aside, but the new cast is filled with interesting figures for Caine to murder or generally infuriate, both in the present day and flashback storyline.

Caine Black Knife is a fun, horrifying and deeply satisfying book. We know that Caine murdering his way through swaths of Orgrillos shouldn’t be as fun as it is and Stover never stops winking at the reader. He keeps escalating things further and further, seeing how far our sympathies will stick with Caine, with the answer being worryingly far. The sense of satire, as well as being just a damn good fantasy novel, makes Caine Black Knife a return to what made Heroes Die great.

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