Friday, February 5, 2016

Bioshock 2 review


    I've been meaning to play this for some time but my Xbox 360 crapped out so I was forced to put it off until I got a new one. It's destined for being uploaded into Xbox One via Backwards Compatibility but I didn't want to wait to play. Bioshock 2 gets something of a bad rap, being a cash-in title created two extremely well-done, extremely-well-written, and (let's face it) somewhat pretensions philosophical works.

    And that's me saying it, the king of "Video Games are DEEP, man."

    Honestly, I think Bioshock 2's reputation is unfair because my opinion of the game is extremely positive. It's weighed down by a number of factors I'll get into but I think the developers included a lot of extremely good ideas which, if it had been allowed to develop them a bit more, would have made a game I probably enjoyed more than the original.

So cute and terrifying.
    The premise of Bioshock 2 is you're a Big Daddy, one of the semi-mindless humanoid abominations created by Andrew Ryan as a guardian of the Big Sisters. This is already a mixed blessing as while it provides an instant connection to an underdeveloped story, Big Daddy's are even less human your typical blank slate silent protagonist. One day, your Little Sister is kidnapped from you by Sofia Lamb, the Collectivist villain of the piece, and you are forced to commit suicide. Somehow, ten years pass and then you wake up pissed and wanting your mutant daughter back.

    I'm a big fan of father-daughter narratives in these kinds of stories so I'm going to give them props for making your distressed damsel into a child rather than a girlfriend. I also am going to say how much I enjoy Eleanor, who proves to be a much more helpful and interesting character than her position might have warranted. There's some definite holes in the above story which only get vaguely explained latter and strike me as a result of a committee writing the plot rather than any single writer. "How does he survive ten years with a bullet in his head?" "It doesn't matter! Big Daddy's can for some reason."

Rapture is creepy and beautiful as always.
    Either way, the game once more takes you through the crumbling ruins of Rapture which is even more of an insane hellhole than it was before. There, you will do battle with Big Sisters, the occasional Big Daddy, and Lamb's insane followers on a quest to recover Eleanor. You will also have the option of passing righteous or unrighteous judgement on the various citizens of Rapture. You will do this with Plasmids, a Power Drill, a Rivet Gun, a Machine Gun, and your superhuman Big Daddy strength.

    So what's good and what's bad?

    Well, the biggest benefit of the game is also it's biggest weakness as Bioshock 2 really is a second helping of Bioshock. The gameplay is damned near identical and the setting is just a different section of Bioshock, which is good because both were awesome. I don't mind reusing assets as long as they're good in the first place and, personally, think this is a good thing for Triple A gaming. It's fun to shoot Splicers, kill them with Power Drills, set them on fire, and otherwise forget they're not zombies but a bunch of human drug addicts.

Big Sisters are a great but disturbing concept.
    The game also has an extremely interesting villainess in Sofia Lamb. I don't think she has quite as strong an introduction as Andrew Ryan and it's a little too obvious they just went, "Okay, let's just take Andrew Ryan and completely reverse everything about him to the other extreme." Man, woman, Objectivist, Collectivist, businessman, charity head, dark, light and so on. It also causes some serious plot holes by suggesting Andrew Ryan would ever let someone with that idealogy live in his paradise when he was established as crucifying people for resistance by the end. The audio logs explain most of these inconsistencies away but I can't help but think it might have been better for Sofia Lamb to be a newcomer to Rapture--perhaps drawn by rumors of the city and organizing the aftereffects.

    Even so, I don't think we've got quite the level of Deconstruction to Collectivism as we got in Bioshock with Objectivism. The basic idea the game is going for is, "if you forget about the individual in the name of the group, then you have lost all moral decency because groups are collections of individuals." It's not a bad idea at all but too much is spent on Andrew Ryan's period as ruler of Rapture so we don't get a sense of just how crazy Sofia Lamb's collectivist urges really get. Thankfully, we do have Eleanor to serve as a focus for our outrage as it's made clear Sofia  is perfectly willing to torture and abuse her own daughter because she sees no reason why said child should be anymore important than anyone else.

Eleanor is a lovely character. Sort of a proto-Elizabeth.
    Ironically, I liked the game's posthumous use of Andrew Ryan a great deal and wonder if the game developers really just wanted to do a prequel or concurrent story. One of my favorite bits from Bioshock 2 is Andrew Ryan's theme park. A man came to Rapture to create his own version of Disney World and have his dreams come true but Andrew Ryan warped the subject to fit his vision--essentially, giving Objectivist propaganda to children. This is actually a funny joke if you know anything about Objectivism and I'm not sure if it's intentional or not but if it is, kudos. Basically, one of Ayn Rand's principle works of fiction is the Fountainhead which is all about an architect struggling against a society that ruined and perverted his designs.

    The Big Sisters are excellent enemies but confuse me and make me wonder about their origins. It wouldn't have taken long to just say, "Okay, you didn't rescue all of the Little Sisters the last time" but the game never does that so I was left wondering if some of Jack's kids had come back to Rapture out of a perverse sense of Stockholm Syndrome. I couldn't help but think a Little Sister doing that would have been more interesting in some respects than Sofia Lamb herself. There's also a lengthy subplot about Mark Meltzer, a man chasing his daughter to Rapture, which I thought would have been an excellent backstory about Subject Delta (i.e. the Protagonist) but turns out to be just random background flavor.

Sofia Lamb is one of the highlights of the game even if she just the Anti-Ryan.
    I also give kudos to Eleanor's voice actress of Sarah Bolger (Once Upon a Time) who does a great job with establishing a bond to her character despite the briefness of your interactions. She reminded me of Angel in Borderlands and that's not a bad comparison to make. The fact she eventually comes to join you in combat is something which also contributes to making her a great character.

    Ultimately, Bioshock 2 feels more like an expansion ala Dragon Age: Awakening or other DLC than it does a wholly separate game in itself. If you want to go visit Rapture again, then this is probably your best bet vs. Burial at Sea as it's a helluva lot less likely to make you want to hurl the controller at the wall. It's also got likable characters, an okay if plot-hole filled story, and fun gameplay. Could they have done better? Yeah, probably, but I'm not going to say they did poorly either.

8/10

Dead Space review


    One of the most influential games of all time is System Shock. It is the father of survival horror and gave birth to many other science fiction and horror games. One of the most famous of these is the Bioshock series, which is effectively System Shock set underwater and in the past than in a cyberpunk future. Another series which is the spiritual successor of the series is Dead Space, which takes all of the horror and future atmosphere then adjusts the gameplay to be more of a third-person shooter.

    The premise of Dead Space is a Lovecraftian plot adapted to science fiction. The crew of the USG Ishimura have encountered something...alien... in space and it's turned out to be bad. You, Isaac Clarke, are just some poor repairman who gets summoned to investigate it. Your girlfriend is on board too, as if there's not enough going on. There's ancient space civilizations, cults, and admirable world-building. What's really good about the game, however, is the setting.

Zombies IN SPACE!
    The backstory is pretty good too with a vision of the future dominated by religious fundamentalism as well as economic depression. In the future, humanity has squandered so much of its resources that they're reduced to destroying planet after planet in order to keep barely ahead of its planetary growth. The poverty and depression in the world means more and more people turn to religion with Unitology being the most prolific religion remaining.

    The fact it has taken to using stories of alien markers and tech to make it "true" also means that people misunderstood their true sinister purpose. While some people may think the Scientology-riff is too obvious, I appreciate it because they are the original UFO religion and the connotations of it in the public mindset added to the sense the people are desperate for answers. This is a cosmic horror story, at heart, with the action of a Warhammer 40K game. Religion and moral certainty mean nothing in the face of life or death struggles with monsters.

    And I'm all about the grimdark.

To be pedantic, the scaling of this is off. The Ishimura should be seven times bigger.
    The USG Ishimura is a triumph of world-building in that it truly feels like a town-sized spaceship from the far-flung future. I've seen some well-designed settings for video games over the years but the Ishimura may be the best. It not only has some truly spectacular visuals of both space and its interior but all of this feels plausible within the universe. This feels like it could be a spaceship in the far future.

    The majority of the game takes place in tight narrow corridors with excellent use of lightning, grates, and various places where monsters can pop out. However, there are also massive chambers which include amazing visuals that hold up as well today as they did when the game was first released in 2008. An amazing amount of detail was put into everything from the restroom designs to the graffiti on the wall. This could easily be ported to current generation technology and be considered up-to-date.

Really, this game has some breathtaking visuals.
    It's interesting that the USG Ishimura is so well-designed since the monsters are kind of meh. There's a few which aren't bad but most of them are sort of generic and kind of riff off Silent Hill, IMHO. Part of the problem may be presentation. It's hard to create a horror game when most of the time the monsters just run at you directly, giving you plenty of opportunity to blast them to pieces.

    Yes, they can be really scary with their horrible tentacles and monstrous spider-like movements but I think they get overused so that by the time I was halfway through the game, I was desensitized their revolting appearances. It's part of the nature of a shooter that, eventually, your enemies are going to be something you're okay with blowing away.

     This is where I will immediately backtrack as I say while the monsters don't look scary, I think they sound scary. The sound-design is a triumph and if you allow yourself to become immersed in what you hear rather than just what you see then you're likely to be left on the edge of your seat. The place manages to nicely bring up all the creaky old house noises translated to a starship as well as vaguely monstrous noises which had me terrified at times.

The Space Zombie may be overused but it's still effective.
    The use of the monsters in the game is awesome too. The Necromorphs come up from behind, drop down from above, play dead, and often do incredibly surprising things. The fact I often played the game by adjusting the camera angle so I could look behind me during cut-scenes told me how wary I'd become during the game. I also love the fact head shots won't kill the monsters but you have to dismember them and routinely stomp on them to make sure they stay down.

    Ironically, the best monsters in the game are the mooks rather than the bosses. The bosses, while visually impressive, are fairly easy to defeat once you figure out their attack patterns. Whereas the mooks can and often do react in surprising ways. You can easily find yourself dog-piled by them and they often have extremely divergent behaviors. There's no one strategy for all of them, though stomping on everything until it's bloody gibbets is a fairly good one.

    The interaction between the monsters and the environment is also awesome, especially when they're provided context. For example, you often see horrible growths along the wall and wonder what that's from. Then you remember the majority of dust in the world is skin cells. Another mission has you find out they kept frozen embryos for the growth of clones in one of the medical bays, only to find yourself soon surrounded by hideous yet ratings-appropriate monster babies.

These babies are all clones. Honest. Despite references to others being born naturally.
    The characters in the game aren't the most developed ones, at least the living ones. Still, I enjoyed getting to know Isaac's crew and regret we didn't get to know them better. They're a bunch of people who have crash-landed on a ship full of Necromorphs and justifiably panicking. I also like some of them have a hidden agenda. They're less developed than the crew of the Ishimura, though, and their posthumous logs are really entertaining. I find the Church of Unitology a bit underdeveloped but the larger mythology of Markers, Necromorphs, and the dying civilization of Earth quite entertaining.

     My favorite character is Isaac Clarke, himself. He's a triumph of visual design and while he's somewhat like a Space Marine in that he's fighting off hordes of monsters, both the game-play and the storyline constantly reinforce Isaac is just a repairman. Whole sections of the game are about Isaac trying to figure out how to get the ship running again. I could have used more cut-scenes with him but I understand this is rectified in the sequel. I really like the character.

     Unfortunately, Isaac is a silent protagonist and this hurts our ability to immerse himself in his story. While I often enjoy silent protagonists, here, I would have really enjoyed his reaction to all of the situations going on. Admittedly, I'm not sure the story would realistically be anything but him screaming every other minute but it would have gone a long way to making us sympathize with Isaac's plight. If Isaac talked about his relationship with Nicole or anything other than plot objectives, I think the horror and fear would have been even stronger. Even so, I do like that Isaac doesn't behave like a hero--he's here for Nicole and to survive, nothing more.

There are a couple of characters who come with you but they're sort of one-note (at first).

      Despite this, the game manages to win serious points with me in its setting that is, as I've stated 90% of the game's appeal. The claustrophobic feeling of the starship, occasionally broken up by massive chambers which make you feel microscopic is wonderful. I also like how the storyline really brings home these are people with their lives horribly disrupted by a unimaginable horror they can barely understand. I really developed a feeling for their lives pre-infestation.

    I will say I had a pretty bad case of deja vu at times because the whole business of markers, ancient alien gods, space zombies, and rapid mutation of the living reminded me a great deal of Mass Effect. This is unfair since there's only a year difference between the two games coming out but fans of both series will note a great number of similarities. The main difference is that things like Reaper indoctrination, Husks, and their manipulation of society are played for horror rather than as a basis for science-fiction adventure.

    I also think the game could have taken more time to interact with the survivors. All of the survivors you encounter on the ship save one (and there's a twist there I found to be quite clever) are completely insane. Oftentimes, you'll encounter them only long enough for them to commit suicide. I found this to be a bit annoying and would have liked to have found a group of survivors only for them to be horribly mutilated then killed later. It may have made keeping the mystery more difficult but you could explain that by saying they'd locked themselves up the entire time they were there.

The relationship between Nicole and Isaac could have been developed better.
    Gameplay-wise, Dead Space is somewhat schizophrenic. On the easier difficulties, ammunition is plentiful and it's just a somewhat tense murder-fest. On the higher difficulties, it becomes a true survival horror experience but only if you complete the game first on lower difficulties. Also, the game seems built like it should be an exploration game but works, instead, like a linear corridor shooter. I can't help but think there's a compromise going on between developers who wanted to make the next System Shock and their bosses who wanted them to make the next Resident Evil 4.

    There's a limited number of weapons for Isaac to use but, honestly, there's really no point to switching from your plasma cutter in most respects. The game's upgrade system means you're better off upgrading one weapon exclusively and using it to destroy all your enemies. Other tools like slowing time and telekinesis have their uses but the former is much more so than the latter. Indeed, the telekinesis function could be removed with almost no change to the game whatsoever.

    In conclusion, Dead Space is a great survival horror game but not a perfect one. I think the game would have been improved by a commitment to either shooter, survival horror, or dual-modes of one for the other. Still, I'm looking forward to playing the sequels.

9/10

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Ex-Isle review


    The Ex-Heroes novels by Peter Clines are one of the best high concept books which are presently out there. The concept is a simple X meets Y sort of setting. "What would happen if the zombie apocalypse happened in a world with superheroes?" I've also seen it described as "Land of the Dead meets The Avengers" and that's not a bad description. A bunch of low-powered heroes based loosely on popular archetypes are in the midst of the zombie apocalypse and do their best to save as many people as they can by creating a safe haven in a Los Angeles movie studio.

    I've enjoyed all of the books and I'm in good company as Nathan Fillon has given them his recommendation too but the last volume, Ex-Purgatory, showed there was a bit of wheel spinning going around. Now that the superheroes have successfully secured their homeland, it doesn't appear there's much else to do. I also felt the relationships among the characters were rather stalled as we saw Saint George and Stealth get together a couple of books ago but what they're doing is left ambiguous. Likewise, I was surprised by some of the relationships mentioned in this book but mostly handwaved. Still, I was interested in seeing what Peter Clines would come up with.

    Ex-Isle follows Zzzap finding an artificial island created from a dozen cruise ships and tankers fused together. Eager to get involved with another group of survivors, Saint George, Zzzap, and Corpse Girl journey there to make contact. Unfortunately, the locals are not only suspicious of outsiders but have a half-insane superhero ruler. Meanwhile, Cerberus is coping with PTSD even as she struggles to rebuild her armor. The Mount's survivors are opening a new farm for themselves so they can keep ahead of their rising population and it seems very likely someone may want to take it over as their own private kingdom.

    This is pretty much a popcorn adventure in the grand scheme of things, making no big significant changes to the status quo and just introducing some more minor characters. I confess, I find this a little disappointing as I was hoping the introduction of Nautilus, basically the setting's Aquaman, would have resulted in another member of the team joining them. Unfortunately, Nautilus appears to be just another petty dictator and a foe for our heroes to face rather than a potential rival or ally.

    I liked the depiction of the Islanders and their society as well as how everything functioned. Peter Clines has rectified some of the earlier accusations against him by expanding the diversity of the cast considerably. We also get an Arab superhuman named Marduk referenced who I hope will make an appearance in future books. I don't know if the island will continue to be a location in the series or if it'll be a one-off location.

    The big stand-out of the book is Madelyne a.k.a Corpse Girl who gets a chance to shine in the book by showing off her regenerative powers as well as the tragedies of her condition. For those who don't remember, Corpse Girl can only remember the previous day clearly and facts beyond that. It's a bit like a less severe version of Memento. Watching her cope with a life and death situation without the help of the other heroes is very entertaining.

    I also liked the handling of Cerberus. We've seen some great character development from her and there's some hints about her at the end which I really want to see followed up on. Cerberus is suffering from understandable trauma at having nearly been killed multiple times by Exes and confronting this issue without therapists is a tough one. I also liked the subversion of the "evil military" which is a prevalent trope in zombie fiction.

    One area I'm going to complain about is the handling of Saint George and Stealth. After they hooked up in Ex-Communication, I was expecting some more information in how things are working out between them. Sadly, there's no hint as to what's going on there and it would have been nice to continue analyzing the differences between them. After all, it is a romance between the equivalents of Superman and Batman.

    Ex-Isle drops some hints for upcoming books about threats from other survivors as well as potential non-zombie related threats. We also had it confirmed there are also groups of survivors out there other than the Mount and Island. I look forward to meetings between them and how the non-insane, non-dictatorial communities interact. Unfortunately, we don't get enough of that to really make things shine.

    In conclusion, this is a decent entry into the series but not a "can't miss" episode in their adventures. The character development for some overlooked members of the team is appreciated as is the introduction of some new villains. Sadly, there's not enough attention paid to the series mainstays of Stealth and Saint George. I still recommend the Ex-Heroes series to anyone who loves both superheroes and zombie fiction as they're two great tastes which go great together.

8/10

Legends of Tomorrow (Pilot part 1 and 2) review


    I was skeptical of this show. Very skeptical. Which is a strange thing because I'm overall very pleased with the DC television Renaissance which is going on lately. As bad as I think the direction they're taking the movies is, Suicide Squad exempted, I'm overall extremely pleased with their television shows. Some of them, honestly, are every bit as good as the Justice League animated universe which is not praise I throw around lightly.

    So why the skepticism? First of all, all of the characters are essentially beloved side characters from Arrow and The Flash. I very strongly enjoyed Ray Palmer (Brandon Routh) and the White Canary (Caity Lotz) but their addition to the show seems like it's an attempt to use ones they no longer had much room for in their current narrative. The fact the Hawks (Ciara Renee and Falk Hentschel) are infamously known in comic book circles as boring characters troubled me.

Rory's time as the Last Centurion has taught him much about being a Time Master.
    Hawkgirl managed to move a bit out of that role but I wasn't sure if they could pull off the same level of energy as was in the JLA cartoon. Furthermore, I have long maintained Firestorm has the honor of being the Lamest Superhero of All TimeTM. Even the fact he's half-played by Victor Garber left me nonplussed. In fact, Then there's the fact two of Flash's enemies are on the team seemingly for no reason also bugged me.

    I couldn't help but think looking at this Justice League International-esque group that it was a bit front loaded as well. Nine characters is a pretty big number to manage for a show, even if the superheroes are going to be taking the place of the supporting cast for one another. Throw in the fact the other DC television shows had fairly grounded premises versus this one being centered around time-travel and you had a lot of hurdles to overcome for this to be good.

    So is it?
Caity Lotz is my favorite Canary.
    It had a very rough start in Part 1 and I almost quit watching. It started to come together in the end, though, and Part 2 really managed to work well. I'm actually excited about watching the rest of the season and very glad to have given it a chance. Unfortunately, my fears about the size of the cast proved to be prescient and I'm inclined to think they'll have to be very careful about managing character time.

    The premise is Vandal Savage, another character who never clicked with me, has conquered the world in 2116. During this time, he murders the family of Time Master Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) who begs the Time Masters Council to alter the timeline to remove Vandal Savage from existence. While we don't get to see their answer, it's pretty easy to infer even as Rip Hunter decides to go back in time anyway and recruit a group of "legends." Hawkman, Hawkgirl, the Atom, the White Canary, Firestorm, Captain Cold, and Heatwave. Of the group, only Captain Cold and Heatwave suspect something is up and that they're a less than legendary group.

    The rest of the episode takes place in the 1970s as they attempt to deal with Vandal Savage's attempt to acquire and sell a nuclear bomb. The team's inexperience and lack of comprehension as to how their actions might ripple through the timeline causes a number of disasters which they have to fix. Likewise, Savage finds their attempts against him laughable because he has five-thousand years of military as well as physical training.

Professor Stein meeting his pot-smoking laid-back self is easily one of the best parts of the pilot.
    The show lives and dies based on its chemistry with the surprising stand-outs being the anti-villains. Captain Cold and Heatwave have very little interest in being heroes so watching their pragmatic lack of giving two ****s is hilarious. I'm also a huge fan of Caity Lotz's Sarah Lance and seeing her character arc continued here after it was so rudely interrupted in Arrow is great. It doesn't hurt she's a fabulously fun to watch on screen whether kicking ass, making jokes, or simply being nice to look at.

    Victor Garber does the impossible job of making me actually like Firestorm even if Franz Drameh doesn't get much of a chance to show off by comparison. Professor Stein is a character who really-really wants to be a superhero but he's about three decades too late and deeply resents this fact. The fact he looks down on Ray Palmer and other characters despite their successes make him realistically flawed in a series needing rounded characters.

Casper Crump does an exceptional job embodying a very complex character (who chooses to be simple).
    As mentioned, I've never been a huge fan of Vandal Savage. I liked him just fine in the JLA comics but his concept has always bugged me in the fact he's had 50,000 years to take over the world and hasn't managed it. That's just careless. The show manages to do some arc welding and actually deal with most of my problems regarding the character.

    Vandal Savage is shown to be someone who doesn't like being in the spotlight, unlike his comic book counterpart, and prefers to work from the shadows. He also is continuously frustrated by the Hawks even if he's usually victorious. Casper Crump looks, acts, and feels the part with a few displays of actual human vulnerability despite the fact he's a violent psychopath underneath it all.

    As for the Hawks? I actually found myself liking their arc despite the fact it had a lot of unpleasant bits like the fact Hawkman kept trying to force his reincarnation romance with Hawkgirl. They do have a couple of good moments like dealing with the fact they had children in previous lives as well as their repeated failures to harm Savage in a meaningful way.

I don't know whether I love the Hawk's costume design, hate, or love to hate it.
    I probably would be a lot more skeptical of the group but for the ending of the pilot which is a gamechanger in their relationship. I, honestly, did not see the twist at the end coming and applaud the show developers for faking me out. It provides a substantial and interesting arc for the rest of the season to follow up on as well as addresses another complaint I had about the show.

    In conclusion, is Legends of Tomorrow great? No, not even close. There's a lot of very confusing and over-the-top comic book things going on which keep the show from being grounded. The show has excellent acting and chemistry between the main characters, however, as well as several stand-out performances. If you don't mind a somewhat campy and silly superhero show then this is definitely a good one to check out.

8/10

Monday, February 1, 2016

War God Rising review


    War God Rising is the latest book by Tim Marquitz, one of my favorite authors for quick and entertaining popcorn fiction. No denial, Tim Marquitz is also one of the editors for Ragnarok Publications so I'm predisposed to like him but if you're still remotely interested in hearing what I have to say then read on to hear my brutal revenge for all of the changes he's made me make! *ahem* I mean, my fair and balanced review of his writing.

    The setting is a Rome-like Empire with monsters, demons, gods, and a thriving gladiator industry. Thousands of men and women line up every year to be horribly murdered in the arena for the entertainment of others. Two con men, errr honest entrepreneurs, Kaede and Bess are interested in performing the feat of their careers: fixing the War God tournament. The SuperBowl of Murdertainment.

    For this monumental act of hubris, they need a suitable patsy who is both physically capable as well as profoundly stupid. They find their chosen champion in Sand, a young man who is about to be executed for lewd conduct with a sheep that he might or might not be guilty of. Sand is painfully earnest, built like an ox, and believes his two new friends actually give a damn about him. I mentioned he was profoundly stupid, right?

    The story follows Kaede, Bess, and Sand as they set out to build up a reputation for Sand so they can even up his odds enough that it won't look completely ridiculous when he wins the tournament that puts him against the reigning War God champion. Kaede and Bess don't actually expect him to win, mind you, but it wouldn't do for their plans at all for him to get killed before it's his time to die.

    This leads to a comedy of errors where he faces opponents better than him, gets a magical talking sword (that's a complete ******), and discovers he can't kill attractive women in battle because he gets aroused easily. We even get a fun subplot with a sorcerer bookmaker who decides he needs a (large) piece of the action lest he inform the gladiator commission about just how MUCH cheating our antiheroes (really, villain protagonists) are up to.

    So is it good? Yes. Is it funny? Yes x2. Tim Marquitz inserts roughly a laugh a page while never making it completely unbelievable this is a legitimate story. Combining a sports drama with fantasy is something rare enough but the underused gladiator genre too? Yeah, it's very amusing. The humor tends to be on the juvenile side, though, with the aforementioned sheep situation coming up way too many times and Sand having something of an irritable stomach but I was willing to forgive it for the more nuanced humor.

    The setting is just the right mixture of development and supposition. We get to know it's a world filled with monsters, magic, and magical artifacts but it's really all centered around the gladiator contests. Tim manages to capture the feeling of sports and the shady back-dealings which continue even onto this day without feeling too anachronistic. Then again, I found out there were concession stands, bookies, and memorabilia stands in the original coliseum so I'm not sure how anachronistic it's possible to be.

    It should be noted everyone in the book is a complete *******, which is something that may bother those looking for a sympathetic point of view. Even Sand, the most innocent of the group, has some severe issues and I wouldn't exactly like to be his friend. There's a situation which happens with him and Bess which wouldn't remotely be funny in real-life for example. Of all the characters, I'm most fond of Bess as she provides the majority of sardonic humor and problem solutions. Still, I wouldn't wish some of what she goes through on anyone. Being forced to ask your mother for help? Dear god(s)!

    Still, the fact everyone is a jerk makes the jokes all the more enjoyable. You don't care whether these people succeed or not so watching how they fail and blunder about is hilarious. It's the same sort of humor which drove A Fish Called Wanda. Only with gladiators and witches and...okay, it's nothing like A Fish Called Wanda but it's still a fun little book.

9/10

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Exclusive Interview with Kenny Soward! II

Hey folks,

We've got an extra-special treat for you guys with a return from GnomeSaga author Kenny Soward to talk about his new gritty urban fantasy novel Galefire.


Galefire follows the adventures of amnesiac drug-addicted gang member Lonnie as he works for a gang of supernaturals working out of Cincinnati, Ohio. Lonnie believes he's their slave but the truth is more complicated than that and he is struggling to remember who he was. Unfortunately, that requires him to live long enough to do it.

You can read our previous interview with Kenny Soward here and read our review of Galefire here.

1. So, could you tell us what separates Galefire from other urban fantasy series?

The first thing readers will probably notice is that it isn’t just “vampires in the city” or whatever. It isn’t a parade of your typical monsters disguised as sexy characters. No, the main characters in Galefire are pretty dark and diluted in the first place and what they become is both terrifying and wonderful beyond that. I would equate Galefire a little bit to Clive Barker’s Nightbreed in that sense. These beasties are weird enough to be interesting without overplaying the typical monster types.

2. What can you tell us about the plot? 

In Galefire, a ragtag group of otherworldly beings escapes imprisonment on their home world through a sort of limbo called The Fade to find refuge on Earth. Unfortunately, they aren’t as powerful on Earth because Earth has a way of muting magic just by its position in the Universe. The only way the gang can manifest their powers is by getting high on drugs. Of course, there are other ways to work magic on Earth but drugs seem to be the quickest and easiest way for them.

They set up shop in the Westside of Cincinnati, OH and call themselves the Eighth Street Gang, where they fight other rival gangs for territory and “business.” We find our main character, Lonnie, in a state of continual forgetfulness. He thinks he is just a simple runner for the gang but as their past catches up with them, the Eighth Street Gang are forced to fight the supernatural forces that hunt them while at the same dealing with Lonnie as he starts to come out of his mental stupor and realize the truth.

3. Can you describe Lonnie for readers? 

Lonnie is a 30-ish guy who has seen a measure of success in his life but has lost everything due to his drug addiction. If only that were the worst of his problems! When the story starts out he’s pretty down on his luck although he tries to handle life with a sort of naked pessimism which (to me) makes him fun. He cares about things even if his jaded past keeps him from showing it. Lonnie is quickly challenged by new information about old things…and he’s got to figure out what to do with all that while at the same time keeping himself alive.

It’s a bit of a mind fuck, for sure. Ultimately, Lonnie’s a quiet, sordid hero, but when things go up in flames he’s determined to still be standing.

4. What about Selix? 


Selix is a tall, willowy 20-ish gal with an ash blond mohawk. She’s a quiet, talented young lady who is first seen as the mysterious leader of the Eighth Street Gang. A heavy drug user herself, she sings and dances (if a bit awkwardly) to cast her magic. An unwilling leader, she struggles to keep a grip on Lonnie’s memories even as her gang starts to come under heavy fire from rival gangs. An emotionally complex individual, Selix struggles to be ‘hard’ when she knows she’s not necessarily cut out for it. It’s just that she’s never had a choice in the matter…but when she’s pushed too far, she has no problems flexing her wings.
 

5. How would you describe Lonnie's gang? 

A group of loosely organized misfits, creatures of ill repute, outcasts of two worlds who have pretty much come down to an “us or them” mentality. They are fiercely loyal to one another (even if it doesn’t seem like it sometimes), they play by their own rules, and have been fairly successful at it so far. There are various elements in the gang who fill various positions. Crash, the muscle of the gang. The Brit who handles strategy and business acumen. Selix, the spiritual leader. Elsa and Ingrid, the Drear Sisters, dealing death to the gang’s enemies. All-in-all, a pretty fearful bunch.

6. What inspired you to do a gritty drug-addled urban fantasy crime novel? 


This type of story is closer to what I was publishing in the 90’s. Back then, the genre was called goth noir or gothic horror, I believe. I published in Carpe Noctem, Gothic.Net, and a few other publications. So, gritty is nothing new to me. I just hadn’t realized how ready the world was for darker stuff because I hadn’t tried to publish anything seriously from 2000 – 2010 and missed the entire Kindle/Amazon explosion. Now that I’ve got my bearings, I happy to know the grittier stuff is acceptable these days, and it’s what I love to write. Look for more of it from me.

7. Galefire has a gunfight which lasts a quarter of the novel. What kind of effort goes into making that kind of action scene? 


The hardest part about creating a long fight scene is that the story must progress through the action (and characters must develop) without breaking the flow of the action. In other words, people aren’t going to stop and have a conversation right in the middle of the fight unless it is good and quick or there is a lull in the action. It takes a lot of painstaking work to ensure there is plenty of detail and movement while at the same time offering up some new and interesting information for the reader. In this particular case, the gunfight served a few purposes. It explained Lonnie’s exact standing in the gang, his relationship to the other characters, and information for the reader that there was something much deeper happening here. At the same time projecting what I hope is some pretty cool imagery. I had to painstakingly read through those scenes over and over to get the timing right.

8. Who is your favorite character in the gang? 

While I really like Lonnie and Selix, Elsa is probably the most fun to write. Elsa has very striking, Fairuza Balk-like features. She exudes decadence. She’s the strange but beautiful girl at the party you just can’t take your eyes off of. She could do anything at any time, and usually does. And while she seems to serve only one purpose, being a completely lethal bitch, she’s actually very complex. I can’t wait to reveal some of her back story to the readers. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

9. How dark is too dark? How sexy is too sexy in your opinion? 


I don’t think there is a golden rule for what is too dark or too sexy (sexual). I market Galefire as dark, gritty urban fantasy, and I expect folks understand there will probably be some degree of violence, sex, and very adult situations happening within its pages. I think the danger of “too much” can come when you over or underwrite what your book was intended for. In other words, writing a romantic epic fantasy novel with excessive, raw sex might be a little off-putting to your average romantic reader. It can be the difference between, “His hand moved lower, caressing the back of her thigh, her skin smooth and supple beneath his fingers” and “His hand moved lower, clutching her ass, fingers wrapping around and between her legs as he pulled her roughly against him.” Continued re-iterations of the latter sentence might leave romantic readers feeling a little ‘battered.’

So, I think it depends on what tone you’re trying to achieve as well as your skill level in delivering what the reader expects. Ultimately, you want the reader to have a good time in your world and get exactly what they paid for.

10. What can we expect from you in the future? 

I’m thankful to be extremely busy at the moment. I’m revising Galefire #2: Fade Rippers right now for self-publication. I’m working on Dead West #3: Devils in Reno with Joe Martin for Ragnarok Publications, and Joe and I have another side thing we’re working on. Those three things as well as developing what I’ve written for the continuation of the Gnomesaga series, namely a series called Autonika which follows the continuing story of Penny the auton from Gnomesaga.

All-in-all, readers should probably expect my future works to be fairly dark. I’m not particularly interested in going “easy” on my readers at this point J I do, however, want them to have fun. Also, I’m dedicated to becoming a better writer in-general, so they should expect continual improvement from me.

Thanks so much for the interview. Much appreciated!

Check out his website at: http://www.kennysoward.com

Bioshock review


Warning - this review will contain spoilers for the storyline of the original Bioshock.

    This is a review which I file under, "no one in the world needs because everyone has already made up their mind but I feel like talking about." Bioshock was a game which debuted in 2007 and took the console world by storm. It was less impressive to PC gamers because it was, deliberately, a adaptation of System Shock's gameplay and atmosphere to a new IP. If you don't own System Shock then do System Shock with the numbers filed off. It was praised for its intelligent game design, its enjoyable gameplay, amazing setting, and analysis of a real-life philosophy. I come to both give Bioshock its due as well as point out its serious flaws.

    And there are many flaws.

    The premise of the video game is built around lulling you into a sense of complacency and then pulling the rug out from under you. You, the nameless protagonist of the game, are on board a plane in what appears to be the 1960s. Your plane crash-lands into the middle of the ocean and you miraculously survive. Traveling to a lighthouse, you discover a submersible which takes you to the underwater city of Rapture.

Rapture remains one of the most memorable locations in video games.
    Rapture was a city built by misanthropic billionaire Andrew Ryan on the principles of Objectivism. Scientists would be unrestrained by ethics, everyone would pull their own weight, and religion would be abandoned. Much like the communism it very much had its roots in but reverses the values of, Objectivism as envisioned by Ayn Rand was a Utopian system. However, in this reality, it lead to widespread social stratification and Depression followed by a revolution sponsored by a man named Atlas. Except, it involved sea-life derived drugs which provided superpowers.

    To completely spoil the ending of the game, it turns out you're actually Andrew Ryan's son created from his D.N.A and artificially accelerated to adulthood. Atlas, really a gangster named Vic Fontaine, has brainwashed you to obey his orders as long as he uses the words "Would you kindly?" A point is made of video game players' tendency to do whatever questgivers tell them to do as it's explained you have no choice in murdering hundreds of people for Atlas. The fact you only find this out after you, the player, have murdered hundreds of people for no other reason than a guy told you to do is part of the humor.

    Eventually, you kill Andrew Ryan, regain your free will, and then go to kill Atlas despite the fact I would have been entirely content to let him become ruler of a dead city. If you haven't murdered a bunch of children (more on that later), you get a happy ending where you build a family. If you have, you become ruler of Rapture and plan to conquer the surface with nukes.

Andrew Ryan is a compelling character. Intelligent, charismatic, and shockingly petty.
    One of the odder things about Bioshock which is a leftover from System Shock is the existence of Plasmids that work like a combination of Mutant Growth Hormone from Marvel comics and crystal meth. Users can shoot fire, lightning, and (I kid you not) swarms of bees from their hands. Virtually the entire city of Rapture has become addicted to plasmids and they've degenerated into psychotic mutant spree killers called Splicers. You, however, are just fine despite your use of plasmids and are only killing every single person you encounter because they're bad.

    Anyone notice the disconnect there?

    In simple terms, Bioshock is a shooter and a very good one. Rapture is an amazingly evocative location with its majestic underwater beauty, art deco building designs, and leaking tunnels. It's a good design of storytelling and gameplay integration as the various recordings you find around the city provide you with the tale of Rapture without bogging you down too much. There's also plenty of visual storytelling elements which show just how crazy things have gotten like encountered a man crucified for smuggling Bibles.

Remember, it's only murder when they do it.
You're totally sane despite injecting yourself with murder drugs.
    The bosses of the game come in one of two flavors. The less interesting ones are, ironically, the most humanized ones. There's a collection of various Rapture citizens who have maintained more personality than others like a psychotic plastic surgeon and a murderous sculptor but the bosses everyone remembers are the Big Daddies.

    Big Daddies are huge armored diving suits filled with brainwashed humans who have been conditioned to protect the Little Sisters. Little Sisters are the creepy children who have been genetically-altered to produce Adam, the stuff that powers Plasmids, that you have the option to murder them for.

    This, noticeably, is the only "choice" you make in a video game which is all about the lack of choice in video games. A lot of game reviewers touted the option as being about whether you would show your humanity as an altruist or whether or not you'd give into your basic selfish urges. You know, despite this is literally one of the most binary good vs. evil choices of all time.

    This turns out to have been very frustrating to designer Ken Levine because it's actually a PARODY of choices in video games. One of the fun things I found out about the game was Ken Levine wanted to do a story about the ridiculousness of choices in video games since he considered them horrible impediments to storytelling. Which, of course, is why the fact the game is about you being a mind-controlled flesh golem.

Oh, sweet child, if you only so full of sweet delicious ADAM like a little girl pinata.
    Ken's publishers, in a fit of completely unintentional irony, insisted he put a choice system in the game anyway. So, he put the most ridiculous binary, "kill a little girl or save a little girl" inside. Later, when he had more freedom, Ken Levine would create Bioshock: Infinite which is even more about lack of choice in video game narratives. Honestly, I'm on the publishers' side here.

    While I understand good storytelling requires you to be deterministic in character behavior and personality, if you're doing a game about the illusion of choice then you had better well put in a choice once you regain your free-will. The fact Ken Levine is absolutely fascinated with the issue of choice in video games also is the least interesting part of the narrative to me. I'm much more intrigued by the class struggle between Rapture's upper crust and lower castes that is entirely set dressing as I understand it.

    The critique of Objectivism is effective even if it's only fairly obvious and explains why, to me, the system is flawed to anyone who subjects it to the slightest bit of critical analysis. If you create a system which rewards selfishness and punishes selflessness then you're going to have a system where no one is remotely interested in supporting the system versus their own selfish gain. As the game nicely illustrates, "So who cleans the toilets in Rapture?" In a healthy economic society, someone who knows they'll be able to afford food, shelter, and clothing.

The Big Daddies are awesome. I accept no disagreement.
    In Rapture, the poor are looked down upon for being poor despite the upper-crust gaming the system--as they always do. The concept of enlightened self-interest doesn't exist in Rapture with predictable results as the idea of unions, organized labor, and so on are anathema to Rapture's leadership despite the fact they're part of any system which would actually bargain for labor. Because, of course, the system isn't really for equality but to make the rich richer and feel good about themselves.

    Likewise, you can't make a society based on freedom and expect it to remain firmly under your control like the good little snow-globe you envisioned it as. None of this matters when you're shooting Splicers in the face, of course. It's also a lesson reserved for jerkass CEOs and politicians who probably don't play many shooters.

    In conclusion, Bioshock is a fun game. It's a game which is more style over substance in my opinion, though. There's a lot of intelligent ideas and world-building but I'm sorry to say they sort of came about by happy accident than through intent. It's critique of Objectivism is the most important part of the story but it's more interested in talking about the disconnect between publisher and player. This isn't their fault but it's like attending a play of Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead and being more interested in its presentation of Denmark economic models. Still, I'm going to be good to its score because I had an immense amount of fun playing it and happy accidents are still good.

9/10