Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “August, 2017”

The Tower of the Swallow by Andrzej Sapkowski

I wasn’t in love with the previous book in the Witcher series, Baptism of Fire, feeling that it felt too interstitial and didn’t do enough to further the plot. The Tower of the Swallow is not dissimilar, with the plot once again focusing on Geralt’s journey to find Ciri, but is improved for a number of reasons; an interesting playing around with time and narration and the increased role of the wonderful Ciri herself.

Geralt and company are continuing their journey to find Ciri, after their run in with the Lyrian forces at the end of Baptism by Fire. Along with Dandelion, Milva, Regis and Cahir, Geralt must head towards the Nilfgaardian Duchy of Toussaint. Yennefer has arrived in Skellige, as she seeks Ciri’s location, becoming drawn into the machinations of the sinister Vilgefortz. The heart of the story lies with Ciri, who we find terribly injured in the home of a hermit. Still being hunted by Nilfgaard, Ciri relates to him her time with The Rats, how they came to separate and her run in with the terrifying bounty hunter Leo Bonhart.

In terms of Geralt, The Tower of the Swallow does not move the plot forward much further than Baptism of Fire did. Ciri is absolutely the protagonist of this one though, with her story mostly related through flashback as we see the trials and tribulations she has been through. We regularly dip into several layers of narration, as present day Ciri in the hermit’s house flashes back to middle of the story Ciri who flashes back to earlier Ciri. This happens with other characters too, such as a mercenary who relates her role in events through court testimony. It can be confusing to put together the chronology of everything; this playing around with structure of the Ciri storyline feeling a bit clever for its own sake, but it is interesting and I’m always up for genre authors pushing out of their comfort zones and doing something a bit different with the form.

The Tower of the Swallow is very much ­Baptism of Fire Part 2, but it does leave things in a good place for an exciting finale. I’m going to be sad to finish this series, although hopefully it won’t be too long until The Witcher Netflix series manifests itself.

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Dark Souls III: Ashes of Ariandel DLC for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I really enjoyed Dark Souls III, but as a Bloodborne man at heart Dark Souls III spent a lot of it’s time lurking in its shadow. I took a while for me to go for the Dark Souls III DLC and I’m glad I did. Ashes of Ariandel is the first of the two DLC packs, binging us to a new location, with new things to find and monsters to be murdered by.

Ashes of Ariandel opens with the Ashen One transported to the Painted World of Ariandel by the mysterious Slave Knight Gael. The snowy and pristine land, held within a painting, has been infected with a strange rot, with conflict within Ariandel about how to deal with this threat, burn away the rot and begin anew, or allow the rot to continue. Dark Souls is always going to Dark Souls so Ashes of Ariandel is as cryptic as ever, but this DLC does operate as an interesting microcosm for the main thrust of the series, about whether or not to link the fire.

Ariandel itself is a beautiful location, although I do generally feel that the series fares better when in city environments, allowing more complex geometry and clever pathways than will occur in a natural environment. Ariandel is still fun to explore, but it does lack some of that cleverness of world design which is my favourite thing about the series. There are a range of fun and challenging enemies to fight, such as wolves or the twisted Corvian bird people. One potential disappointment is the lack of boss fights; there is only one mandatory one at the end, with another that is optional. The optional fight is fun, but doesn’t really do anything which hasn’t been done in other boss fights throughout the series. The final boss fight is a bit more interesting, a multi-stage monster of a fight with three distinct stages, and health bars. It’s utterly brutal and at times felt a bit cheap, but at its best it reminded me of the superlative Maria boss fight from the Hunters Nightmare DLC for Bloodborne.

Ashes of Ariandel isn’t massive and doesn’t really represent the best of the series, but Dark Souls III is so solidly constructed that just adding more isn’t really a problem. On its own it may be a bit unsatisfying, but taken within the grand swatch of the game it’s difficult to fault it too much. If you’re sold your copy of Dark Souls III, Ashes of Ariandel isn’t a reason to rush out and buy a new one, but there are far worse ways you could spend your time.

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Splatoon 2 for Switch

After much speculation as to whether Nintendo would ever tackle a shooter, they knocked it out of the park from the get go with Splatoon. It was fun, unique and like nothing else I’d ever played. Splatoon 2 is a very conservative sequel by most accounts and likely only exists because a port of the original wouldn’t have looked good considering that some are already grumbling at the number of Wii U ports on the Switch. That said, the foundation is still strong and the new additions and tweaks are very good. I’m not going to go over the core mechanics of Splatoon 2 much, I covered that back when I reviewed the first one (https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/splatoon-for-wii-u/).

The core mode of Splatoon 2 is still the brilliant turf war, where teams of four have three minutes to coat as much of the map with ink of their colour as possible, with the winning team having the higher percentage. You still need to try to take out your foes to buy some precious time to dominate the map, but it’s not your main goal. Taking focus of shooting away from violence is so very Nintendo and I really do love them for it. After climbing 10 ranks, unlocking new weapons and clothing along the way, you can enter Ranked Battles, which have different modes such as a tower defence mode and one involving possession of the powerful ‘Rainmaker’ weapon. These are fun, but I was irritated to have to spend so long working my way back up to them. This game is very similar to the original; new maps and weapons make a difference, but the foundations are functionally identical. This makes the work back up to Ranked Battles a bit obnoxious, and limits the excitement of unlocking new weapons. Oh, I’ve got the Splat Roller back…cool. I imagine that this is an issue with almost any regular online shooter, but this is the only one I really play apart from the odd round of Titanfall 2. It’s an example of why I don’t like upgrade and EXP in online modes in FPS. I get why it’s there; you’re placed in a skinner-box and the little dopamine rush when you unlock something new is nice, but I’d much rather everyone be given access to everything upfront, with unlocks being purely cosmetic. I’m aware that this is a gripe with modern shooters in general, but it did impact my enjoyment of the multiplayer. Still, the core fun is still very much there and I don’t think it’s really possible to have a bad time playing Splatoon 2 online.

The major addition is Salmon Run, a really horde mode, where a team of four must defend themselves from wave after wave of enemies, complete with boss encounters. It’s surprisingly intense and a lot of fun, particularly when played locally. My ability to engage with Salmon Run has been limited by the fact that it’s only available at particular times. I’m reliably informed that this is par for the course for online shooters but I hate this. Some critics have been saying they like the pleasant surprise of Salmon Run popping up and being available, but as someone with a full time job and limited ability to play games, turning on Splatoon 2, wanting to play Salmon Run and not being able to is infuriating.

The single player is continued and improved upon. Story wise it’s basically the same; Giant Zap Fish is stolen from Inkopolis and you have to save it blah blah blah. The only twist is the role played by Callie and Marie, the Squid Sister pop stars of the first game. In a neat little twist, the final Splatfest of Splatoon, where Marie won the popularity contest over Callie, has greatly upset Callie and she has gone into hiding. I liked the way it tied back to the last game, but the actual plot still isn’t much, even if the world building remains surprisingly well thought out.

I really enjoyed the single player stuff in the first game, but it’s much better now. The levels are much more intricate and the platforming elements I loved from the first game expanded upon. A nice change is that the levels are based around a variety of weapons, rather than just the Splattershot in the first game. This means you have levels based around sniping with the Charger, or tanking through with the Roller, or using a variety of the other weapons. You can also replay these levels afterwards with any weapon of your choice, with the levels altering slightly to accommodate this. This adds a lot of replayability if you fancy it. Nintendo could probably have got away with giving this series no single player element at all, but I’m really glad they did.

There are some minor cosmetic upgrades, but mostly speaking Nintendo are sticking with the instantly iconic style they settled on for the first game. 90s American biker/graffiti culture is a weird cultural touchstone to tap in to, but it works undeniably well. The music is still as strong as ever, faster and exciting tracks mixing with the low key reggae relaxation of the lobby. The only real upgrade I could spot visually was that the actual ink itself looks far more real and silky. Once again, Nintendo prove that power isn’t everything; Splatoon 2 looks and sounds wonderful.

Splatoon 2 is more of the same, which is not a bad thing. Being able to play handheld on the Switch is a revelation and I hope this allows the series to grow in a way it never really could on the poor Wii U. With many free maps and weapons to come, I look forward to dropping back into Splatoon 2 for as long as Nintendo keep supporting it, or even Splatoon 3.

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Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

I’m eagerly anticipating China Miéville’s next full length novel, but a new short story collection is a more than adequate way to bridge the gap. The collection contains 28 stories, some of which are lengthy and involved and some are simply a couple of pages long. It’s hit and miss as most collections are, but the misses are never too egregious and the hits hit hard.

The titular opening story Three Moments of an Explosion is more of a tone setter than anything else; brief, unnerving and intriguing, but not much to talk about in of itself. The subsequent Polynia is much meatier, taking place in a London whose skies have been invaded by inexplicable floating icebergs and the story of a boy who becomes obsessed with them. Its environmentalist message isn’t exactly subtle, but its unsettling and awe inspiring nonetheless. Miéville does a brilliant job depicting the strangeness of the new world the Londoners find themselves in; at eye level all is the same, but a quick glance up and you can see that something is very wrong indeed. The Condition of New Death is another shorter piece, but one of my favourite of the collection; you’re given just enough for the bizarre premise to lodge in your mind for days. I adored the next story¸ The Dowager of Bees, where mysterious and arcane suits occasionally appear in the hands of those playing high stake card games. Again, a sense of unsettling and alienation is what Miéville goes for here. There’s a palpable sense of danger whenever one of these cards appears. It isn’t necessarily layered with meaning, but it’s easily one of the most fun stories in the collection. The following story is another long one, In the Slopes. This tale of two warring archaeologists as they uncover a strange civilisation and culture beneath the earth is generally quite popular, but it didn’t quite land for me. This story is pure Lovecraft, a writer Miéville owes a lot to in content if not in style. The story is told from the point of view of a bystander, which simply left me feeling remote from the events and struggling to care. Still, the image of what lurks beneath the earth is highly compelling.

The Crawl is a weird one, describing scene for scene a trailer for a fictional movie about a civil war between two types of zombie. Stripped of context, it’s largely just a series of powerful imagery. I’m not really sure what Miéville is trying to say with The Crawl, whether it is meant as a comment on films and their marketing or simply a nugget of an idea he finds interesting. It’s odd but I liked it. Watching God is about an island where strange ships come and go and is surrounded by giant strange words. I suspect there was more to this one than I picked up, but it ends up as quite a compelling look at ritual and tradition and the way minor changes can throw a community into disarray. The brilliant The 9th Technique follows; it concerns a magical artefact created from the pain of a real life torture victim of Guantanamo Bay. The combination of the relatively familiar and fantastical world of dark magic and totems with the very real horror inflicted by those who many in the West consider to be ‘the good guys’ is deeply chilling. The Rope is the World could easily be stretched to an entire novel, and is written in the style of non-fiction, describing giant space elevators which have fallen into disrepair. Only a couple of pages long, Miéville asks a couple of fascinating questions and leaves it to the reader to answer them for themselves. The Buzzard’s Egg is one of the most overtly fantastical and is narrated by the elderly guard for totems of Gods taken by some kind of controlling empire. The nature of God, as well as how many may have been forgotten in the march of empires throughout history, is the order of the day here, with the rambling unreliable narrator putting everything through am intriguingly foggy lens.

Säcken is the most straightforward horror story of the collection, and is genuinely terrifying. It may lack the edge of satire seen elsewhere, but this story of a young woman and her older academic lover travelling to a lake in Germany is a huge amount of grisly fun. It was one of my favourites. Syllabus is just that for a strange university course. I’m ignorant enough of academia that I suspect any satire here flew over my head. Dreaded Outcome is probably the most straightforward story in the collection, but so much fun, following a psychologist and her unorthodox way of helping her patients. It’s silly, darkly funny and pretty broad, but coming around the middle of a collection it offers a nice bit of breathing space from the heavier stories that sandwich it. You need that breather because the next story, After the Festival, is the most grotesque of the collection, set in a London where a mainstream festival sees select Londoners place a severed and hollowed out animal head on theirs and parade through the city. As a comment on our culture’s attitude towards meat and animals it was uncomfortable and effective, particularly as a non-vegetarian like myself. This story is held back by a weak ending which aims for ambiguous but lands on unsatisfying, but that image of the grisly parade won’t be leaving my mind anytime soon. The Dusty Hat was a weird one; at first it appears to be a satire on the inability of the hard left to work together without splitting into warring factions, something which frustrates me as a proud Lefty myself, but it takes a strange turn into the fantastical which didn’t quite work for me.

Escapee is another entertaining fake trailer, although I think I enjoyed The Crawl more. The Bastard Prompt is a brilliant little thriller about actors who take work as fake patients for doctors to train on, who begin to name bizarre and alien symptoms. It’s chilling, sinister, fun and the symptoms themselves are gloriously inventive. I’d read an entire fake medical book if Miéville was behind it. Rules briefly describes a strange children’s game, interesting enough but not particularly memorable. Estate is another story set in London involving a strange ritual, a clear fascination of Miéville’s, where a burning stag is released through the city. I couldn’t work out what the point of this one was, but the imagery is very effective and powerful. Keep was another story with a great premise and an irritatingly obtuse ending, about a contagious illness where people sink into depressions in the ground if they are still for too long. It’s quite engaging, but doesn’t really come to much.

A Second Slice Manifesto is similar to Syllabus, following a strange new artistic method, but is a bit creepier and more atmospheric. I think it may be a bit of an examination on post-modernism, but I’m pretty ignorant about art so I may have missed something. Covehithe is awesome in the original sense of the word, where derelict oil rigs have picked themselves up from the ocean floor and begun to march on land. Similarly, to ­Polynia, the environmentalist message is pretty clear. It’s a cool story with some brilliant imagery in the vast, loping grace of the oil rigs. The Junket is the funniest story in the collection, about the murder of a screenwriter known for courting excessive controversy in his deeply offensive writing. It’s a brilliant take on an outrage addicted media, as well as the vapidity of offensiveness for offensiveness’s sake. Four Final Orpheuses briefly offers four alternative endings to the Orpheus and Eurydice myth; they’re mildly interesting but little beyond that. The Rabbet is a creepy little ghost story about a sinister animation, but I found it a little bit too straightforward. I really enjoyed most of the more straightforward stories in the collection, but I found this one a bit irritating, even if this one had an actual ending.

Listen the Birds is the third and final fake movie script, acting as the others do as a palate cleanser of sorts before the final two stories. A Mount isn’t a story so much as a prose description of porcelain animals. I enjoy Miéville’s writing enough that even something like this has a strange majesty. The collection ends strongly with The Design, the story of a 19th century doctor who discovers beautiful scrimshawing on the bones of a body he has dissected and becomes obsessed with their mystery. Lovecraft rears his head again, with a similar sense of cosmic dread and human irrelevance. Are the bones a message from an alien or magical creature, or was God simply doodling? Answers are less important than the nagging discomfort of just not knowing.

Three Moments of an Explosion is a brilliant example of Miéville’s range. Some are a lot of fun, some truly horrific, some satirical and clever and, yes, a few are obnoxiously obtuse. Still, I’d take a self-consciously intellectual approach of Miéville over something that’s, well, stupid.

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