Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Yakuza 0 for PS4

This has been a hell of a year for AAA games; there are a huge number of predictably brilliant blockbusters like Breath of the Wild and Horizon: Zero Dawn, with plenty more coming soon. This has been backed up with a steady stream of lower profile releases that have unexpectedly blown people away, such as Nier: Automata and Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice. Yakuza 0 was one such game and slipped through the cracks until the summer, when a gap in the release calendar finally gave me some breathing room. Yakuza 0 is deeply bizarre game and kept me entertained largely through its sheer weirdness.

Yakuza 0 follows two protagonists in Japan in the late 1980s. The first is Kazuma Kiryu, an up and coming yakuza within the Dojima Family of the Tojo Clan. Kiryu becomes implicated in the death of a man he had beaten for debt collection, although it is clear that he is simply a patsy for the games of senior members of the Dojima Family. They seek the Empty Lot, an extremely valuable piece of real estate in the bustling red-light district Kamurocho, as securing it for the Tojo Clan will all but guarantee promotion to the high table. Meanwhile, Goro Majima is a disgraced former yakuza in the Sotenbori area of Osaka, now running a highly successful hostess club and hoping to re-enter the criminal world. When he is sent to assassinate a target in exchange for re-entry to the clan, he is pulled into a web of criminal intrigue and forced to examine his own morality and humanity.

Some games dabble in environmental storytelling or believe that game stories should be told through gameplay and mechanics rather than lengthy cutscenes; not Yakuza 0 though! It is not uncommon for cutscenes to run for as long as 15 minutes, with significant portions of the game involving simply walking to a location, watching a cutscene, then walking to the next location, watching another cutscene and so on. I must confess that this bothered me hugely in the first few hours; I haven’t played a game designed like this in years, but, for me, as the story went on it became less and less of an issue for one simple reason; the cutscenes are actually bloody good. The writing is deceptively excellent; it’s very hammy in the way that an awful lot of Japanese media can be, but it also has that emotional honesty of the best modern Japanese stories. Characters screaming their feelings is an anime cliché, but usually I’ll take it over stoic, calm Western protagonists. It’s hard to picture an Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty protagonist freaking out the way some of the characters do here. It’s over the top, sure, but endearing and at times genuinely moving. The characters are very strong; I liked the stoic and honourable Kiryu, but the ever so slightly unhinged and rougher round the edges Majima appealed to me more. Both have stories about trying to be a good man in an organisation designed to crush compassion out of you. They’re backed by an extensive and engaging supporting cast, such as the mysterious real estate mogul Tachibana and Nishki, Kiryu’s snappily dressed best friend (or bro as they ironically, and adorably, call each other). While it took a while to get its hooks in me, I can’t deny that it really did by the end. This being a prequel, and remakes of the orignal games on the horizon, I can’t wait to see where Kiryu and Majima go next.

So, after waxing lyrical about the story, what about the actual gameplay? First of all, the combat is a lot of fun. It involves switching between three different stances for each character, with some better for taking on large groups of weaker enemies and some better for pummelling bosses, but you can also tailor to your own preference through an extensive skill tree, slightly too extensive for my tastes but if you enjoy tinkering around with these things there’s a lot to…well, tinker around with. The combat is a lot of fun and becomes genuinely quite challenging during some of the boss fights. Between fights you’ll be wandering the streets of Kamurocho as Kiryu or Sotenbori a Kiryu. They’re small, but dense and packed with stuff. Not all of that stuff is good, but an awful lot of it is. As you wander, you’ll encounter a range of side stories, which is where the most bizarre parts of the game take place. Where the main story is still completely over the top, the tale of criminal power struggles is taken seriously in the writing, pulling off the Kojima trick of playing something silly straight and it genuinely working. The side missions allow the weirdness to cut loose, and involve a range of weird and wonderful characters, which usually end up pushing Kiryu or Majima out of their manly comfort zone into something weirder. The series is known for a large number of minigames, but a couple of notable exceptions I’ll get to later, this part of the game didn’t work for me, simply because the majority of them are bad and not fun. I didn’t mind the karaoke or dancing games, but stuff like bowling or baseball bored me to tears.

The most extensive side missions involve running a business, with two separate ones for Kiryu and Majima. They have their own extensive storylines, with many fully voice acted cutscenes as in the main story. Kiryu’s involves real estate, buying up property and raking in profits. It’s quite basic, but I’m a sucker for these real estate games, like in Fable 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood. There are some added complications, such as the ability to choose who runs your businesses and manages security, with more competent employees requiring higher wages. New employees are recruited though the side missions. You will sometimes need to defend your properties in the streets and, when you amass enough property in one of the five districts of Kamurocho, fight the previous real estate boss of that area, who are all as flamboyant and bizarre as you would expect. Majima’s business is focused on lifting a small, struggling hostess club into success. This is done partially by making links with local businesses, but most prominently through a fun minigames where you manage the club. You have the send different hostesses to different clients depending on their preferences. The individual hostesses all have stats and experience. A couple are fully fleshed out characters, with little side missions where you give them individual training. The whole thing is silly, fun and very satisfying. Similarly to Kiryu’s side mission, when your club takes enough custom from a rival Sotenbori club, their bizarre manager will challenge you to a fight. I loved this element of the game, but my one issue is that they are introduced way too late in the game. Missions like this are best when spread out between the main story missions, but to complete either storyline you’d need to spend a lot of time grinding that same minigame over and over again for Majima or waiting for payments to come in as Kiryu.

Yakuza 0 was also released on PS3 in Japan, and you can sort of tell. It doesn’t look quite as sharp as most current gen AAA games, but strong art and character design mean that this is never an issue. The dense and bustling locations, as well as the distinctive character designs and strong facial animation help the world of 1980s Japan come alive. The music is generally very good and the voice acting, which is only available in Japanese, is excellent; often hammy, but genuinely impactful when it needs to be.

Yakuza 0 did not make a good first impression, but as it went on I grew to like it more and more. If your tolerance for cutscenes is low, fair enough, but this game won’t be for you. I’m definitely going to pick up the remake of the first game, Yakuza Kiwami, when there’s another gap in the release schedule, although looking at the next few months that won’t be anytime soon.

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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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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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Shantae: Half-Genie Hero for Switch, Wii U, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and PC

I’ve never played a Shantae game before, but I’ve been aware of the series ticking over on a range of Nintendo consoles. Shantae: Half-Genie Hero has an abundance of charm, but ultimately lacks the depth or the tightness of controls needed in the best platformers.

Shantae is, as the title suggests, a half-genie, who protects her town from a range of menaces, most prominently her pirate nemesis Risky Boots. This game focuses on Shantae helping her uncle build a strange machine, as well as uncover some of the secrets of her origin. Half-Genie Hero is a soft reboot and entirely understandable if you haven’t played the previous games. The writing is very self-aware and quippy in a way which treads a very fine line between irritating and endearing. It just about landed on endearing for me, but I suspect lots of people would feel differently. Expect lots of jokes about the game industry and DLC, but it’s the simple but likeable supporting characters that made Shantae’s story a bit more engaging.

Half-Genie Hero, for all its charm, somewhat stumbles out of the gate. The core platforming is pretty unsatisfying, awkwardly floaty with pretty straightforward level design. There are people out there who can tell you exactly what constitute tight controls and strong platformer design and I am not one of those people, but I know it when I see it. The lack of ingenuity in the level design is masked by the charm and style of the environments as well as the range of transformations Shantae can perform. By the end of the game, Shantae had access to eight different transformations with different abilities. Examples include a monkey which can climb walls, an elephant which can smash blocks and a crab which can scuttle around underwater. Transforming to get around is fun and I liked the surprising range of abilities available to Shantae, but I’d prefer fewer transformations and better platforming. One element I did really like were the boss battles; which were generally clever and epic and an area where the game really excelled.

The basic structure of the game annoyed me. You regularly return to a core hub town, where you can purchase upgrades and talk to the locals. Between the levels you will usually need to take part in a Zelda style trading quest, with the items you need usually hidden in previously beaten levels with areas which can now be accessed with new transformations, adding a light element of Metroidvania to the proceedings. I do love a good trading quest, but this felt more like padding than anything else. There aren’t actually that many levels in the game, so Half-Genie Hero seems to feel the need to extend the run time artificially. When returning to the levels you are rarely given a new or fun challenge, it’s more likely going to be crabbing around on the sea floor picking up collectibles, or climbing a tower and elephant stomping on flowers to pick up collectibles and blah blah blah. Games for which the genre are named, Super Metroid and some of the latter Castlevania games, take place in a singular world and the approach doesn’t work nearly so well in discreet, linear levels.

For all I’m complaining, Shantae really is a lovely looking game. The art style is bright and clean and the characters are full of life, constantly moving and jiggling around. My favourite was the zombie girl Rottytops, who seems to never stop dancing. The music is very good too and adds a sense of grandeur, with scatterings of likeable voice acting too. There’s a rather pervasive feeling of style over substance here, but I’d rather have that than neither.

Shantae: Half-Genie Hero is not a bad game, but it lacks the cleverness and tightness of level design the best platformers need. It may not be a bad choice if it goes on sale, but it’s not exactly a classic.

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Mass Effect: Andromeda for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Genuinely bad AAA games are rare nowadays. Your annual Call of Duty is probably always going to be at least competent and well put together; so much money is poured into these things that the most common issue is blandness, rather than actual disaster. Actual disasters are few and far between, with Assassin’s Creed: Unity being one of the few that springs to mind. Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the roughest, most frustrating AAA games I’ve played in years. Unlike some of the more hyperbolic reactions it has garnered, I don’t think it’s awful. There are things to like here, but troubled game development is writ large over almost every part of the game. Some rough AAA games such as Final Fantasy XV can be so oddball and weird that they loop round to being loveable, despite their flaws, but Mass Effect: Andromeda is simultaneously too ambitious and conservative in design to achieve even this. Mass Effect: Andromeda has its moments, but it’s difficult to view it as anything but a failure.

Sidestepping the endings of Mass Effect 3, Mass Effect; Andromeda takes place 600 years later, in the Andromeda Galaxy. The Andromeda Initiative sent forth massive arks of Milky Way species in stasis, to awaken in their new home and establish a new frontier. Upon arrival, the Initiative discover that the Heleus Cluster of the Andromeda Galaxy is more dangerous than they thought, with a mysterious phenomenon known as the Scourge damaging the ark ships and a hostile alien force, the Kett, determined to wipe them out. Commander Shepard is gone and replaced with Pathfinder Ryder; the Pathfinder is the one who is in charge of scouting planets and establishing new outposts. Only the human ark, the Hyperion, as well as the central hub of the Nexus, have made their way to the intended destination. Ryder must set out with a new crew and her ship the Tempest to establish new homes for the Initiative, fight the kett and find the missing ark ships.

Andromeda’s story stumbles out of the gate. It attempts to take the series in a whole new direction, but in the process forgets what people liked about the original trilogy. The original trilogy had a brilliant sense of humanity as the new kids on the block, the upstarts. There was a real sense of defined history which impacted the events of the story: the Rachni Wars, the Genophage, the Quarian creation of the Geth. The setting felt full and alive and engaging. Mass Effect: Andromeda goes for a more Star Trek approach, focusing on exploration and discovering new lands. Without this sense of culture and society, the whole setting feels unbearably bland. Everyone keeps going on about how utterly alien it is, but it’s no more unique than anywhere from the original setting; we still have an ice planet, a jungle planet, a desert planet etc. The returning races from the original trilogy are the Asari, Salarians, Turians and Krogan. A lot of the weirder and funnier species make no appearance, such as the Quarians, Hanar, Elcor or Volus. The new species don’t exactly fill the void; the Kett are mindless and lack in any sort of personality. The Heleus natives, the Angara, are generally likeable, being built on empathy and emotional connection, but really they just feel like a combination of the original Council races. They have the empathy of Asari, the intelligence of the Salarians and the battle-prowess of the Turians, but I don’t think people are going to be clamouring for the return of the Angara whenever this series comes back. The new galaxy setting had the opportunity to double down on some of the glorious weirdness from the original trilogy, but ends up as far more conservative.

There’s little sense of narrative drive, with frustratingly vague goals. This may be a consequence of the open world approach taken, but Dragon Age: Inquisition did the same thing and I felt still managed to tell a coherent story. Where the original trilogies had an unknowable and terrifying foe, the Reapers, lurking in the background, it was fronted by believable and engaging villains, with even forces like the Geth and the Rachni imbued with depth and clear motivation. The lack of an engaging antagonist makes the whole thing feel directionless. I overall liked the new crew, particularly the elderly warrior Krogan Drack and the Angaran charmer Jaarl. Still, when you look back at the squad in Mass Effect 2, possibly the best team of characters I’ve seen in an RPG, they never come close to the same status. The voice acting is generally good, but the writing is much more mixed. Outside of some core main characters, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of entirely forgettable quest givers and NPCs. Much was made of Hainly Abrams, a transgender woman who within seconds of meeting reveals that she is trans, as well as her deadname. Transgender representation in games is a good thing; Bioware themselves pretty much nailed it with Krem in Dragon Age: Inquisition. Although the dialogue has been altered and patched, it reveals how utterly shallow these characters are. I could tell you much more about Krem than the fact he is trans, but with Hainly Abrams I could tell you nothing else about her. So much of the writing is entirely shallow, with characters I spent hours with but could tell you almost nothing about. The best parts of the game are the loyalty missions and there are some lovely character moments, but we lack the tension and conflict which undercut the ‘BEST TEAM EVAR’ dynamic if the Normandy. One area that did work for me was Ryder herself. She’s a bit more of a defined character than Shepard and you can’t really be a complete bastard, but that wouldn’t have been appropriate for the story told here. More often than not, Ryder is sardonic and irreverent, but never irritating. Overall, I think I liked Ryder more than Shepard but unfortunately the people she was interacting with were never as good.

I normally mention technical issues towards the end of a review, but they have to be brought to the forefront here. Now, I’m played this game a couple of patches deep, so the now infamous animation issues weren’t quite as pronounced as they were at launch but, well, they’re still not good. Almost every scene is undermined by them; the characters always look off, never quite seem right, in the way they stand, the way they move, their facial expressions. I’ve read and watched a lot of interesting stuff about this and I totally appreciate the nightmarish complexity of a dynamic animation system a game like this requires, but taking into account the reasons why this problem exists doesn’t actually stop it from being a problem, as sympathetic as I am for the fact that this likely was not the fault of the animation team themselves. There are major issues with the plotting and writing already, but even the stronger scenes (and there are plenty of good ones) are undermined by the animation issue. I suspect that the issues are more fundamental than any patch can solve.

The core structure to Andromeda is very different to the previous games, and resembles Dragon Age; Inquisition more than anything else. Now, I actually really liked Inquisition, although I’m aware that a lot of people didn’t. Sure, not every side quest was a winner, but the focus on exploration was well married to a central plot and I liked the variety of zones. It got blown out of the water by The Wtrcher 3 a few months later, but I still feel that Inquisition is underappreciated. Andromeda attempts the same structure, but is less successful. There are a handful of explorable worlds, which are usually pretty big. All but one use the Nomad, a replacement for the Mako from the first game, an all-terrain vehicle which lets you race around the planet. It controls pretty nicely and has quite impressive grip for more vertical movement, particularly after a few upgrades. Most of your time in the game will be spent getting a mission, driving somewhere in your Nomad, shooting some stuff, and returning. Mission variety isn’t great, but I did like how the game makes it very clear which missions you can avoid. The missions are categorised four different ways; main story quests, loyalty quests/quests attached to a particular supporting character, Heleus tasks which see you improving the different planets, and ‘additional tasks.’ Do the first three, but ignore the ‘additional tasks’, there’s almost nothing worth doing there. I wish more games made it so clear what was filler; one thing I hated about Fallout 4 was the way I would feel tricked into doing boring procedurally generated quests because they were sorted alongside proper ones made by an actual game designer. If you take this approach and ignore the boring missions, the issue of padding and filler becomes much less egregious.

Possibly the only unqualified success of Mass Effect: Andromeda is the combat; it may initially look similar to the original trilogy, but this is mostly superficial as this is most certainly not a cover shooter. It took a while to adjust, but this is a combat system which relies on constant movement and momentum. I went all in with biotics and shotguns, so my approach was largely based around teleporting across the environments and blasting enemies up close. With some cleverly placed upgrades, you can almost break the entire combat in some quite pleasing ways. It stopped being challenging in any way after a few hours, but as a sheer power fantasy I never quite got tired of it. I don’t know how fun other builds are, but I can’t recommend a biotic/shotgun build more highly. My enjoyment of the combat helped to alleviate a lot of the pacing issues; sure, the side quests mostly are of a ‘go here, kill this’ variety, but that never really bothered me.

Mass Effect: Andromeda is a disappointment; it has some strengths, but it’s clear that it’s fascinatingly troubled development has left it damaged in a way no patch can fix. There was a lot of potential here, but I think now the best thing that Bioware could do is give it a few years, then return to the Milky Way for an actual Mass Effect 4, leaving Andromeda as a spin-off. I didn’t have an awful time playing this game, it’s OK, but when it was released in the same month as Breath of the Wild, Nier: Automata and Horizon: Zero Dawn, OK isn’t good enough.

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Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

It’s been a while since a book got under my skin quite like this one. Annihilation is a book that plays with familiar ideas and themes in a unique way, bounding together familiar science fiction tropes with a palpable sense of Lovecraftian cosmic dread. In Annihilation, knowledge is deadly but irresistible, with those who are curious bringing about their own downfall.

Many of the details of the backstory are kept intentionally vague, but we do know that around 30 years before the book begins a bizarre ‘Event’ led to the creation of Area X, a fairly small section of coastal land separated from the rest of the world by a strange border. The exact natures of this land and border are unclear, so the Southern Reach organisation has sent forth 11 expeditions, of which none returned entirely intact. Annihilation is the story of the 12th expedition, as four women, known only by their job titles, set forth into Area X to attempt to unravel its mysteries. Our protagonist is the biologist and she is joined by the surveyor, the anthropologist and the psychologist. It is not long into their journey that they discover something not on their maps; a strange tunnel heading underground, which the biologist can only perceive as a ‘tower.’

Annihilation is told in the first person and is playful with the idea of an unreliable narrator. The biologist can’t quite trust her own senses and is quite upfront about the fact that she is distorting and twisting some of the information for the reader, and that some of what she sees is so indescribably alien it simply cannot be put into words. The atmosphere is pure Lovecraft; a recurring motif is our protagonist, a scientist, at the edge of something dangerous, knowing she should turn back, but utterly ruled by her curiosity and need to know, even if the consequences are hideous. Annihilation is not about eldritch and ancient beings viewing humanity with horrifying indifference, but it channels the same sense of unease.

It is the building of atmosphere which is Annihilation’s greatest triumph, particularly in scenes taking place within the tower. There is a sharpness and precision to VanderMeer’s prose; Annihilation is not a long book and could be called a longish novella rather than a full novel, but no moment is wasted. It is utterly lean and without an ounce of the flab which pervades the genre. I think Area X is meant to sound cliché; it sounds like the title of a cheesy 1950s sci-fi B-movie, but I think this intentionally bland name is to wrong-foot the reader about the kind of book they are reading and the reality of what Area X actually is. Alongside the solid world-building is very strong characterisation. The biologist is insular and driven and I loved spending time in her head.

Annihilation is the kind of book I’m going to be recommending to anyone who will listen, so I will scream into the void (this blog) to tell you to read it. I cannot wait to get to the sequels.

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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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