Frivolous Waste of Time

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Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

I’m a big Margaret Atwood fan, but there are lots of her books I’ve yet to read and I’m trying to ration them. I first became a fan of Atwood through her science fiction like ­The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake; I ended up studying the latter at university. I was pleased to discover that I like her non-genre stuff just as much. Alias Grace is classic Atwood in many ways, dealing with a woman in a situation entirely beyond her control, who nonetheless mucks through it.

Alias Grace fictionalises the true story of Grace Marks, a famous ‘murderess’ in mid-19th century Canada, who gained infamy for her part in the brutal murders of the gentlemen Mr. Kinnear and his favoured servant Nancy Montgomery. The bulk of the story is Grace, now in an asylum, telling the story of her life that led up to the brutal murders. The framing narrative is the visiting Dr. Simon Jordan, who has an interest in the insane and Grace in particular. Dr. Jordan interviews Grace, with the narrative shifting between Grace in the present day, Grace’s history and the affairs of Dr. Jordan.

Atwood offers no satisfying conclusions in Alias Grace. Her culpability in the murders remains ambiguous, even if the portrayal of Grace is clearly sympathetic. Alias Grace is written in a clearly 19th century Gothic style and owes a fair bit to the genre, although Atwood plays with the form and there’s a tinge of irony to the whole thing. There’s a strain of dark comedy throughout of men becoming obsessed, and clearly aroused, as Grace relates the darkest and most sinister parts of her story. They act horrified, but in reality they’re titillated. This combination of horror and arousal is something the best gothic stories engage with and we see Grace playing up to her audience. In her wonderfully matter of fact style of narration, she states fairly plainly that she is aware of the reactions her story elicits. There are several male characters in the story who Grace ensnares, but all become more fascinated with the idea of the infamous ‘murderess’ rather than the woman herself. Atwood is making fun of not just a general human tendency to prefer simple and exciting myths over messy realities, but also a specifically male attempt to strip women of their complexities and reduce them to one of those two classic roles; angel or demon. Violence and sex are entwined in how Grace is viewed; Grace herself is bemused by the whole thing and is just happy for anything which breaks up the monotony and drudgery.

Of course, as readers we end up getting caught up to, making us culpable as well. There’s an undeniable frisson and sense of excitement when Grace’s story nears the murders; we want all the grisly details too. Atwood holds back on indulging us. Alias Grace is also a compelling portrait of a place and time I’ve never examined before, with the sheer brutality of what it meant to be female and poor in 19th century colonial Canada being pretty tough to stomach. Grace herself remains something of an enigma, with Atwood cannily preserving the mystery which had captured the attention of the Canadian public over 150 years ago. Dr. Jordan is an interesting character, fairly callow and louche but with noble ambitions to open a more humane and modern insane asylum.

Alias Grace is a wonderful book from one of my favourite authors. Netflix are releasing a miniseries adaption in a couple of months, for which I am now very excited. Grace Marks is a figure who will lodge in your head, capturing the imagination as the real Grace did all those years ago,

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Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkoswki

Fantasy series often have a ‘middle book problem’, where in telling an extremely long form story, you end up by necessity having an entire book which exits to react to events in the previous book and establish events for the next book, with little memorable actually taking place in the book itself. The absolute nadir of this concept was comfortably Crossroads of Twilight, the 10th Wheel of Time book, the most supremely uneventful book I’ve ever read. Baptism of Fire is very much a middle book, in fact it is the literal middle point of The Witcher novels (not counting the short stories). Although it may not forward the plot of the series as much as I would have liked, Sapkowski’s origin as a writer of short fiction means that the vignettes which make up this book are entertaining in their own right and it never ends up boring.

Baptism of Fire takes place not long after the end of Times of Contempt and the Thanedd coup, which saw the Chapter of Sorcerers torn apart, Ciri flung into an unknown part of the Nilfgaard empire and living as a bandit and Geralt, terribly wounded, being treated by the dryads in Brokilon. When Geralt hears from Milva, a talented human scout, that Ciri is in Nilfgaard and due to be married to Emperor Emhyr, he sets out to rescue her, along with Milva and erstwhile poet companion Dandelion. Along the way they join forces with a few new faces, such as a dwarven band led by one Zoltan Chivay and a mysterious medicine man named Emil Regis. Meanwhile, a group of sorceresses gather, human, elven, Northern, Nilfgaaardian, to form a new, all female, organisation from the ashes of the Chapter; the Lodge of Sorceresses.

The meat of this story lies in Geralt’s journey south from Brokilon, through the wat torn Northlands towards the Nilfgaardian border. Along the way he, along with his group, get caught up in a few scrapes and conflicts. Where Times of Contempt was largely about magic, Baptism of Fire is more grounded, and arguably the grimmest of the series so far. I’ve read a lot of descriptions of the brutality of war in a fantasy setting, so it takes a fair bit to shock me by this point, but Baptism of Fire can be genuinely horrific. True to Sapkowski’s style though, it isn’t all war and suffering and the moments of lightness and humour work well, particularly in Zoltan’s band of dwarves as well as the ever enjoyable fop Dandelion. Still, it’s difficult to shake the sense that Baptism of Fire is an interlude, setting the stage for the next books to come. Sapkowski’s a good enough writer that even his wheel spinning is pretty enjoyable, but obviously I prefer when he is pushing the story onwards.

Geralt is as enjoyable a protagonist as ever, with an interestingly petty and vindictive side coming through, adding further layers to one of the best characters in the genre. I liked the new characters a lot, such as the acerbic but vulnerable Milva. It was also nice to see a couple more characters I was familiar with from the games, such as the generous and kind hearted Zoltan, as well the enigmatic Emil Regis, who I very much enjoyed in the Blood and Wine DLC for The Witcher 3. Geralt has a proper old school fantasy travelling band with him now and I enjoyed seeing them bicker and grow together.

Baptism of Fire is probably the weakest entry in the series so far, but it’s certainly not bad. Not enough happens, but this world and these characters are strong enough that just spending time with them is enough to provide a decent time. It’s not a reason to stop reading the series, and if you’ve got this far you’ll likely find plenty to enjoy in Baptism of Fire.

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Prey for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Prey is a game which has been through many iterations, so it’s impressive that such a well realised and coherent product was eventually produced. Prey is a game with a lot of really interesting ideas which don’t always amount to much and I wish had pushed further down some of its weirder paths, but functions well enough as an enjoyable and sometimes clever experience.

Prey takes place in an alternate timeline where JFK was never assassinated and his presidency led to massive expansion in the pace and ambition of the space race. It is 2032 on the research space station Talos I, which orbits Pluto on the far edge of the solar system. The protagonist, who can be male or female, is named Morgan Yu and their brother Alex runs the station. Alex has been experimenting on the Typhon, alien beings who have been harvested to bring humanity Neuromods, which alter the user’s genetics to instantaneously give them skills and powers. Predictably, the Typhon have escaped and overwhelmed the station and an amnesiac Morgan Yu must discover what happened, how to stop the Typhon, and escape Talos I.

The actual narrative at the heart of Prey is competent, but never really climbs above that. There are some very cool ideas at the beginning and again towards the end, but it’s pretty straightforward for the vast majority of its run time. Convoluted ways to get you to explore the station make the plot feel a bit cumbersome; you must get two keys, you must get to the top of the station, then go to Deep Storage but the door is voice activated so you have to go to the Crew Quarters to get a voice sample blah blah blah. The plot rarely elevates above an excuse to send you to cool places, but those cool places really do save the experience. Environmental storytelling is somewhere Arkane have really excelled in the Dishonored series and they bring that expertise to Prey. It’s a bit of a cliché by now to say that the setting is the main character but, er…well, the setting is the main character. Sorry. Where settings in similar games, such as BioShock’s Rapture, position you long after it’s downfall, Prey’s Talos I only fell hours before and there’s a constant eerie sense of being just too late. The bodies are fresh and so the little tragedies and stories you find scattered through the environment all the sadder.

The actual atmosphere in Prey is, at least in the early stages, incredible. The world design is fantastic. Unlike Dishonored, Talos I is open and explorable, with some light Metroidvania elements. Talos I holds together as a coherent location, with a sense of variety matched with a general tonal consistency. I like settings which place you in one, dense, fully realised location and Prey pulls this off well. The thrill of exploration is somewhat hindered by brutal load times on PS4, which becomes a particularly significant issue during backtracking heavy later portions of the game. Exploring the station, poking about and finding little secrets, is the best part of the game by far. Alongside the main quest there are a handful of side quests, some of which are straightforward but some are really interesting and can directly affect the ending. There are some really interesting NPCs clinging onto life on Talos I, and I enjoyed lending them a hand.

The Typhon foes themselves are a bit of a mixed bag; the humanoid Phantoms aren’t particularly intimidating and some of the latter foes are more annoying than anything else. The standout enemies are the Alien facehugger-esque Mimics, which can disguise themselves as random objects. This is such a clever idea I can’t believe it’s never been done before. As you walk around you might see an object that seems a bit out of place, or catch a movement out of the corner of your eye. When you return to a location you’ll be asking yourself ‘was that mug there last time?’ At least in the early stages, it’s genuinely frightening. Of course, when you batter a few dozen with a wrench they become less engaging and more of a nuisance. The weapons don’t feel great in general, but the most interesting is definitely the multi-purpose glue gun, which can freeze enemies in place, put out fires or even create platforms allowing you to get to out-of-reach areas. It’s another clever idea in a game with plenty of them.

The actual core feel of the controls take a while to get used to, with a clunkiness that never quite goes away. This isn’t necessarily an issue at first; this is a horror game after all, but it becomes more and more pronounced as the game goes on. There are a range of upgrades available, some being to improve hacking and physical strength, as well as your standard health or stamina, but later on you can access Typhon abilities, with powerful attacks or the ability to transform yourself into any object like a Mimic. These work really well from a traversal standpoint; the promise of genuinely being able to pursue your own playstyle persists from Dishonored. You could hack open a door, or crawl through vents, or you could turn into a mug and roll through a gap. It really does work very well, but the combat abilities never quite work so well. The game speaks to you like you’re becoming an inhuman badass as you amass powers, but everything feels so clunky that you never feel it. I avoided combat at all costs, which was fine because for much of the time Prey is a perfectly serviceable stealth game. A late game twist makes stealth much more difficult and combat harder to avoid, but despite being bulked up with powers I never wanted to use them because they weren’t satisfying and the enemies were bullet sponges. I resorted to just running everywhere dodging enemy fire, which worked a little bit too well and got me thorough most encounters quite nicely, even if I did have to contend with the horrendous load times. It’s not exactly the way I think the game was meant to be played, but unfortunately that way just wasn’t fun. As I said, this only really becomes an issue in the latter parts of the game, but it did leave a stain on the experience.

Prey looks very nice, both in the setting and in the stylised human characters. The Typhon are creepy enough, but a bit vague and shadowy and PG. Aside from the Mimics, their designs are generally a bit lacklustre. An area Prey really shines in in the sound design. Prey uses ambient sound very well, where the falling of a coffee mug can herald the launch of a Typhon ambush. The voice acting is solid as well, but Prey also has a hell of a soundtrack. Heavy on the synths, it avoids feeling too kitschy and retro. The soundtrack elevates otherwise irritating action beats. It runs well and I encountered no glitches, so Prey seems to be a well put together package.

Prey is an interesting game, but I don’t think it’s a classic. It pulls from many sources of inspiration, but aside from the already iconic Mimics, it’s difficult to imagine it having much of an impact of its own. I had a good time for the most part, but the truly dreadful final act mars the experience, for the sake of what feels purely like an artificial inflation of the play time. Still, this is exactly the kind of game worth picking up in a couple of months after a price drop. In fact, considering the sales weren’t great, you probably won’t have to wait that long.

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Nier: Automata for PS4 and PC

I don’t even know where to start with this one. I never played the original Nier, although I’m aware of its cult following. I approached Nier: Automata more as a fan of Platinum Games than anything, but it’s the storytelling and fascinating themes of the game’s director, Yoko Taro, that ultimately lingers in my mind.

Nier: Automata is a sequel to the original game, but it’s set thousands of years later and the connections are slight. I didn’t feel like my enjoyment was in any way impacted by the fact that I had not played the original. Thousands of years into Earth’s future, the last vestiges of humanity have fled the Earth after an alien invasion, and now live on the moon. The aliens do not fight directly, but instead send machine lifeforms to do their dirty work. Project YorHa is an organisation of androids that fight the Machine menace on behalf of humanity. Androids 2B and 9S are sent to the surface to take down a massive machine, but soon they discover some machines acting strangely, as if they have emotions, thoughts and complex feelings and that the conflict between the androids and the machines may not be as clear cut as first thought.

It’s difficult to talk too much about Nier: Automata’s plot without spoiling what makes it so special. It does all the fundamentals right; likeable characters, clear motivations and satisfying resolution, but it also explores some pretty heady and intense ideas. The machines resemble toys more than anything else, rounded and generally harmless looking, and it is through these that Nier: Automata explores some complex philosophical themes. The nature of humanity is the core theme of this game and Nier: Automata explores this from a lot of different angles. Storylines which would just be too dark to touch with humans become explorable with machines and some of the true horror seen in Nier: Automata isn’t readily apparent. This is a story which sticks around, thought provoking and, at times, desperately moving.

The indie scene is stronger, but AAA games rarely use unique qualities of the medium in interesting storytelling ways. Examples such as BioShock and the Spec Ops: The Line are few and far between, but Nier: Automata is fascinating. I had heard beforehand that the game required multiple playthroughs to get the whole story and I was not really up for it in terms of the time investment. Actually, Nier: Automata’s multiple playthroughs are more like chapters of a larger story and it takes three to see everything. Nier: Automata is very aware of itself as a videogame, but not in an irritating, masturbatory fashion that some post-modern experiences can be. Things get weirder the longer they go on, with the first playthrough is told in a relatively straightforward fashion. It all crescendos into an audacious and hugely moving finale that simply could not have been pulled off in any other medium.

The story was my favourite part of Nier: Automata, but the core mechanics are certainly very solid as well. It’s an action-RPG, but there’s significant gameplay variety. As android 2B you’ll be hacking and slashing your way through a variety of enemies. With two weapons available at a time and a variety of ranged attacks, there are lots of options. You can also heavily customise your character using ‘plug-in chips’, some of which give passive and straightforward buffs to health or attack strength, but some are more interesting, such as introducing a counter attack. You have a limited number of slots, which can be upgraded, with elements of your UI taking up slots. You can uninstall things like the health bar or text pop ups to make room for more interesting things. The game is full of clever little things like this, even if the actual upgrade menu is cumbersome and awkward. The core combat is really fun and never fails to look stylish as hell, but it doesn’t land as one of the better Platinum combat systems. I felt myself missing the heft and variety of Bayonetta, with the combat is Nier: Automata sometimes feeling a big floaty and lacking in impact. I kept waiting for a new layer of complexity to fold into the combat and it never really does. Instead, the game introduces a clever new mechanic, which I won’t spoil, which is a lot of fun but exists almost parallel to the core melee combat rather than as an additional layer. Again, I never had a bad time slicing and dicing hordes of machines, but it would have been nice if there was a bit more to it.

Nier: Automata takes place in an open world, but I’d be hesitant to call it an ‘open world game.’ The world is quite small, and feels more like a series of connected zones rather than a coherent setting. That’s fine! After Zelda and Horizon I can’t claim to have been denied vast worlds to explore, but there is an awful lot of unnecessarily running back and forth. I don’t think a huge amount would have been lost for turning this into a more linear game. There are a range of side quests; some are pretty straightforward, but some are genuinely wonderful and contain some of the most devastating stories in the game.

One area where Nier: Automata really shines is sheer gameplay variety. There are semi-regular shoot-em-up sections in your mech suit, as well as shifts to a 2D platforming perspective. The bullet hell genre, where much of the challenge is focused on simply dodging increasingly dense waves of attacks, is a really interesting influence on Nier: Automata, and pervades all elements of the combat. I haven’t really encountered 3D bullet hell before. I still think it works best from a top down perspective, but it’s still interesting and speaks to Nier: Automata’s ambition to be a genre polymath.

Nier: Automata is a fascinating experience and a testament to the fact that interesting things can be done within AAA game development. It’s a game which waits to reveal its true cleverness and ambition, but the dawning sense of awe at what this game attempts to do was truly special. This is my first Yoko Taro game, but after Nier: Automata I don’t intend it to be my last.

 

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Horizon: Zero Dawn for PS4

I feel bit sorry for Horizon: Zero Dawn. It’s a hell of an achievement for many reason; the first open world game from Guerrilla Games, starring a kickass female protagonist and refining open world tropes into something interesting and new. It was the talk of the gaming town until less than a week later Zelda came out and pretty much obliterated it. I played Zelda first; as hyped as I was for Horizon, Zelda is…well, Zelda. Going back to Horizon after Zelda was interesting; after the freedom of Breath of the Wild, the first few hours of Horizon felt maddeningly restrictive. As I progressed I was able to appreciate better what this game achieves, but it was never quite able to get out of the shadow of Zelda. Others have made this point better than I, but Horizon: Zero Dawn feels like the apotheosis of an old way of making open world games and Breath of the Wild feels like the first of a newer, more genuinely open development philosophy.

Horizon: Zero Dawn takes place in a post-apocalyptic Earth, long after a mysterious calamity plunged the remnants of humanity back to pre-Industrial culture, with the land roamed by increasingly hostile machines. The protagonist is Aloy, a young woman born in the lands of the matriarchal and religious Nora tribe, but branded an outcast since her birth and forced to live away from her community with fellow outcast Rost. At a young age she stumbles upon forbidden secrets of the old world and as a young adult determines to enter the Proving, a test of strength and agility which could grant her membership of the tribe. Events at the Proving catapult Aloy into the wider world as she discovers the range of Tribes and cultures that have sprung up since the apocalypse and a looming threat connected to her own mysterious heritage.

It’s a good story and well told, with some interesting twists and reveals and a successful marrying together of the modern day politics and rivalries of the present with the gradual reveal of the secrets of the past, communicated through holograms and audio tapes. It’s all anchored by Aloy, a wonderful protagonist. Hardened by a tough upbringing, she’s singularly unimpressed with those with puffed up notions of themselves and can indulge in some withering put downs. I particularly enjoyed how several male characters express their affection to Aloy throughout the game, with her brushing them off because she has far more important shit to do. The supporting cast are a bit more mixed, with standouts being Lance Reddick’s Sylens, a mysterious expert in the technology of the old world and some intriguing characters in the side quests, such as Vanasha who seeks to rescue a boy-King puppet of a ruthless Priesthood. Some dodgy voice acting for some supporting characters make some moments a bit silly and a few characters verge on bland, but in general Horizon: Zero Dawn tells a good tale with plenty of strong characters to keep me engaged.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is an action-RPG, as basically all open world games are now. You’ll spend a lot of your time exploring the vast world. It’s a beautiful setting, but the actual exploration feels hampered in some regards. First of all, the waypointing is a bit aggressive and there’s a strong feeling that Guerrilla Games would rather you stick to the path please. There’s little reason to wander off the beaten track. Of course, you could always turn the way pointing off, but where Zelda’s Hyrule was filled with clear landmarks to orient yourself and navigate, trying to work your way through Horizon’s world without way points, or constantly pausing to look at your map, would be pretty much impossible. It just isn’t designed that way. This means that Horizon lacks the sense of adventure open world games, at their best, can have. The other issue is gathering materials for crafting ammo and potions, as well as medicinal herbs for healing. Constantly stopping to pick up every plant on your way, which shows up with a big symbol on your UI, upsets the momentum and pace of your journey. It means that you’re always looking at the next plant, rather than your destination. This isn’t a problem unique to Horizon; the Far Cry games are the worst for it I’ve played, but it’s a shame to see such a beautiful setting bogged down with all these superfluous mechanics. It may be an action RPG, but most of the best moments fit into the ‘action’ category and less into the ‘RPG.’

Where Horizon comes to life is the combat, and this is the main arena where I think Horizon could be said to have bested Zelda. There are fights against human foes, which some have criticised but I found fun enough. The core combat mechanics are very strong, unlike in the similarly bow and arrow focused Tomb Raider reboot series, so popping off bow and arrow headshots didn’t really get boring for me. Still, the main fun to be had are with the machines. There are a good range of machines to fight and you do, genuinely, have to adapt your strategies for each one. Horizon can be punishing if you’re unprepared, you have to think smart and lay traps and plans for taking down the most dangerous foes. Taking down some of the larger machines involved some of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve ever had. There’s something tactile about the machines which is wonderful. Different components can be shot off to weaken them in particular ways. It can be tempting to brute force your way through some of these guys, but it’s always more rewarding to give it some actual thought. The highlight for me was taking down my first Thunderjaw, which is essentially a robot T-rex. This involved shooting off its back mounted cannons, removing laser guns from its jaws, pinning it to the ground with ropes, before picking up its own cannon and blasting it to bits. This was my preferred strategy, but I’m sure there are other methods, such as using elemental trip wires or slingshotting bombs. One element which is a little bit underdeveloped is the ability to override machines. The side quests you do to progress this ability are brilliant, but ultimately it’s not as impactful as it may seem. One machine cab be hacked to ride, but all the others just assist you in combat. It’s an interesting idea and one I hope the inevitable sequel does more interesting things with.

The main quest is pretty lengthy and involved, with some fantastic set piece moments. Horizon is a big game with lots to do and in all fairness most of it is worth doing. Many of the side quests are fascinating, with their own stories and unique scenarios, which makes some feel essential and unmissable. We’re not quite at Witcher 3 side quest quality, but it’s the closest I’ve seen any other modern Western RPG reach. Alongside the more substantial quests are a lot of standard open world fare, but even these are made more engaging than usual. You still need to climb towers to reveal the map, but in Horizon the towers are mobile robot diplodocuses which you can hack. There are bandit camps to raid, but there aren’t too many to every get boring and they’re attached to Nils, one of the more interesting supporting characters. There are optional dungeons, known as Cauldrons, which allow you to override more machines. Hunting missions are always more than ‘kill x amount of y’, and usually offer interesting gameplay challenges, such as knocking the cannon of one creature, picking it up, and using it to kill another. Horizon doesn’t waste the player’s time with busywork. It may lack the sense of gentle wonder seen in Zelda, but it also avoids the open world game curse of feeling like a list of boxes to tick.

Horizon’s world is simply gorgeous, taking in several different biomes such as desert, jungle and snowy wilderness. This is a seriously good looking game and relatively free of open world technical snafus, with the few I encountered leaning more towards funny than annoying or immersion breaking. It has a decent soundtrack too, with a soaring main theme and some intense battle music. It’s nothing particularly memorable, but it serves its purpose well. The weaker area lies in the characters, both in the animations and the voice acting. I watched a great Extras Credits video about animation recently which made me appreciate how difficult animating an open world game like this can be, but the reality is that Horizon’s characters often fail to truly come alive due to the stiffness and awkwardness of their animations. It’s difficult not to compare it to The Witcher 3, similarly open world but with much more expressive and nuanced animations. Still, the overall quality of the writing elevates these encounters and the animations were never a serious impediment to my enjoyment.

Horizon: Zero Dawn is a very good game and a pretty massive achievement for Guerrilla. I truly hope this is the start of a franchise, a nice replacement for Uncharted in Sony’s line up of AAA single player blockbusters. It does feel constrained by some unnecessarily baggage in the mechanics and could do with some feature trimming, but these issues are never significant enough to ruin such a solid experience. Sony’s had a hell of a Q1 in 2017 and Horizon: Zero Dawn may be the cream of the crop.

 

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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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The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I found myself very wound up when this first book came out, because we got a lot of your obnoxious handwringing articles in the vein of ‘it’s fantasy but I like it so it’s not really fantasy’ that come about any time literary genre fiction gets published. The Guardian reviewer called this book ‘A Game of Thrones with a conscience’, literally one of the dumbest phrases I’ve ever seen in literary criticism. The Buried Giant is fantasy, but it wears the genre trappings loosely, creating a blurry dream of a mythic British past.

Axl and Beatrice are an elderly couple of an indistinct period of Britain’s past. King Arthur and Merlin are dead, but only recently, with their exploits beginning to blur from history into legend. The couple decide to visit their son in a nearby village after a lengthy estrangement and begin to make the perilous journey. A strange mist has cloaked the land, robbing the people of their memories. As Axl and Beatrice make their strange and fantastical journey, memories begin to reassert themselves with The Buried Giant asking one question; is it better to forget, rather than to pick at the scabs of the past?

The Buried Giant is a book which lends itself towards being read allegorically, rather than as a literal story. If properly broken down, the plot for The Buried Giant may seem thin, like a series of coincidences barely strung together, but that’s not really the point. Memory, and the odd mercy of forgetting, is the core theme of this book. The Buried Giant of the title refers both to a legendary figure referred to throughout, but also the hordes of painful memories lurking just beneath the surface, both as individuals and a society. Tory cabinet member Dr Liam Fox recently made the startling assertion that the UK has no reason to believe that it’s past is shameful. The brushing under the rug of British colonial atrocities, the wilful forgetting in the name of stability and comfort, is the unspoken metaphor which underlines much of The Buried Giant’s world of Saxons and Britons. Ishiguro is ambivalent and uncertain himself on memory; the book posits the thought that if peace can only be assured by forgetting the crimes of the past, surely it is better to forget, even if it leaves injustices unanswered. No easy answers are provided and an unsettling tone persists throughout.
The Britain Ishiguro conjures is itself indistinct and hazy; it never feels like a real place. Even the characters are vague and undefined. What are we if not a product of our memories? Without a clear past, there is nothing to define ourselves. As memories return, Axl and Beatrice don’t always like what they see; they fear that finding out what they were will alter who they are. This book works on a macro and micro level, both exploring societal forgetting but also the personal. Axl and Beatrice are uncommonly and utterly devoted to one another, but would such a pure love be possible if they could remember all the tiny hurts and grievances which build up over the course of any long relationship? However, is their love truly real if they cannot understand the foundations upon which it was built? Again, Ishiguro isn’t interested in answering the question, instead he simply presents the uneasy and uncomfortable thought to the reader.

The Buried Giant is a strange, wonderful book which leaves a lingering sense of unease in the reader. Ignore lazy comparisons to Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings by fantasy illiterate critics, The Buried Giant can’t really be compared to anything else I’ve ever read.

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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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