Game Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

[This review will be triggery for ableist slurs and suicide and will have some spoilers regarding the above. Please read with caution.]

If you’re like me and you’re a fan of Japanese games; do you ever find yourself asking: “Why the heck did they decide to localize this game?” It’s pretty much a given that almost every Final Fantasy game is going to make it to North America nowadays, but every so often there’s a surprise localization of a game no one saw coming. Corpse Party is one that immediately comes to mind for me. I would never have thought that a game like that would make it over here.

Danganronpa is another game that I didn’t think would get a North American release. It wasn’t on anyone’s radar when the PSP version came out, so why would it come out on Vita? Luckily, I was wrong and this charming mashup of Virtue’s Last Reward, Phoenix Wright, and Persona 4 came to the West.

In Trigger Happy Havoc, you play as Makoto Naegi, an average high school student who was selected to attend the prestigious Hope’s Peak Academy, where the best and brightest of Japan’s high-school students gather. The other students are all “Ultimate” (in Japanese, Super High School Level) in their fields. There’s the Ultimate Pop Sensation, Ultimate Clairvoyant, and Ultimate Moral Compass, to name a few, but Makoto is unique in that he has no particular talent and was selected by a lottery, making him the Ultimate Lucky Student. When he arrives at the school, however, he’s knocked out and awakens inside a classroom with all the windows boarded up and no idea as to how he got there. Meeting up with the other students, the group encounters Monokuma, a giant bear who refers to himself as the Headmaster of Hope’s Peak, who tells the group that they must live the rest of their lives within the school, which will provide for their every need, or they can graduate, and by “graduate” he means “murder another student without getting caught”. If they are caught, the “blackened” as they are called is punished, but if the other students can’t identify the killer, they are punished, and the killer is allowed to leave the school, and by “punished”, he means “executed in a spectacularly gory fashion”.

The game is divided into three phases. In the “Daily Life” phase, you’ll spend time interacting with your fellow classmates and unlocking special abilities which will help you in the third phase. Basically, like Social Links if you’ve ever played the Persona games. When a murder happens, you enter the “Deadly Life” phase, where you investigate the scene of the crime, gathering evidence by examining certain points in the scene. If you’re in a hurry, you can press a button (triangle, I think?) to highlight everything that you can interact with in the area. When you’ve finished investigating and talking to students, you move into the game’s third phase: the Class Trial.

Remember how I said at the beginning that in order to graduate, a student needed to commit a murder and not get caught? This is the part about not getting caught. A class trial is basically a series of minigames aimed at ferreting out the guilty party. Discussions among the cast are very Ace Attorney-esque, requiring you to expose contradictions in your fellow students’ testimonies. Unlike in the Ace Attorney series, however, you contradict statements by shooting them with “Truth Bullets” containing certain pieces of evidence. The first trial starts off simply, but latter trials add more mechanics. You will also play a “hangman” style minigame and rhythm-based “bullet time battles” which are the closest thing this game has to boss fights. At the very end of the trial, there’s a special “Climax” mode, where you piece together what happened by correctly arranging the sequence of events in comic book style panels. By the way, most of what you do during these trials is on a timer. If you fail to provide a correct answer or run out of time, it hurts your credibility with the other students, and once your credibility drops to zero, it’s game over.

Graphically the game’s interface is basically the same one from Persona 4. The characters are all distinct. In general, I wouldn’t expect earth-shattering visuals. I really enjoyed the soundtrack, particularly the fast-paced music that plays during the debate portions of the class trials.

Although it gets very action-oriented during the trial sequences, Danganronpa is at it’s heart a visual novel, and so it’s important that the characters be interesting. Fortunately, Danganronpa has a strong cast of characters that are less stereotypical Japanese stock characters, and more stereotypes of people in their particular profession or field. The Ultimate Moral Compass, for example, is an upstanding Lawful Good character who feels it is his duty to make sure the other students follow the rules, the Ultimate Clairvoyant is always going on about Lemuria and vibrations, and the Ultimate Affluent Prodigy is an arrogant asshole. They’re all stereotyped to a degree but they also have hidden depths and, let’s not forget, a few of your new friends are secretly cold-blooded killers.  It’s also peppered with plenty of humour, mostly, surprisingly enough, courtesy of Monokuma himself. For a diabolical mastermind, he manages to get involved in some very awkwardly hilarious scenarios. While some characters did irritate me, and others definitely grew on me, overall I found the cast very likeable. I loved how Aoi Asahina and Sakura Ogami bonded easily over a shared enthusiasm for athleticism or how Mondo Owada and Kiyotaka ishimaru bonded over a “manly” contest of endurance in a sauna (it makes sense in context). If you’re not careful you can get very attached to these characters, and that’s not a good idea, because there’s always a chance that that character will die horribly.

Monokuma is very weird like that.

There were two things I really didn’t like about the game. The first is that the minigames, particularly the Bullet Time Battles, would frustratingly not register a button press when I was jamming on that button trying to get it to register. During one particular Bullet Time Battle, I had to restart about five times due to issues I was having with the minigame.

The other major issue that I had was with the localization. To give this complaint a little perspective, I actually watched some gameplay videos that used a fan translation of the game. I recall reading that NISA stated that they did not look at the fan translation while localizing the game, and, to be honest, I kind of wish they had taken some pointers from it (even though that would have probably been messy in terms of legalities). For instance, the team chose to change some of the names of the characters, Touko becomes Toko, Oogami becomes Ogami, etc. This in itself is not a big deal for me, although I was scratching my head as to why they chose to rename a serial killer “Genocide Jack” instead of just keeping it as “Syo” (or Shou). I understand the reference is to Jack the Ripper but to me the name change seemed unnecessary, but you know what? Names aren’t really why this is a negative for me. What I did find problematic was their use of the slur “Schizo” in reference to one of the characters, not only is it an ableist slur, but the individual in question actually has dissociative personality disorder, not schizophrenia, and this is something that the fan translation got right and could have easily been fixed with a second or two of internet research. I’m not saying that the translation was absolutely horrible, but I definitely think there were some poor choices made on the part of the team. The game is also as linear as linear gets. The killer in each scenario doesn’t change depending on your choices, so there’s really no reason to go back and play again unless you want to get all the free time scenes or special abilities. At times I found that I didn’t have a whole lot of time to interact with the characters much before the next murder. Fortunately, the game has a “School Mode” which is an alternate scenario where the students choose to live together in the school and you have time to catch up on conversations (as well as being a light strategy/sim game where you build different Monokumas using materials you find around the school, but I haven’t spent a lot of time with this mode as of this writing.  Oh, and just to clear one thing up, the pink blood is actually there in the Japanese version. They changed it early on to avoid having to give the game a higher rating, so for once it’s not the result of North American censors. BTW, the English voice acting is pretty good but this is one game where I actually prefer the Japanese voices, although Makoto shouting “No, that’s wrong!” in any language would be satisfying every time.

In terms of potentially triggering content. Well, it’s essentially a murder mystery so there’s a lot of violence and death, and the executions pull no punches in this regard (but for the most part, they actually aren’t that gory–with a couple exceptions). There is a fair amount of blood but, as I said, it’s pink, so it looks more like that disgusting pink medicine. One of the trials involves a suicide, Also one character has some issues related to their gender and the pressure to act a certain way, which is in keeping with the stricter and more enforced nature of Japanese gender roles, but might be triggering for folks who have to deal with similar issues.

These issues aside, I enjoyed Danganronpa and I can’t wait for the sequel to ship and I honestly have no idea why I didn’t order it sooner. If you like a good mystery, especially if you’re a fan of games like Virtue’s Last Reward and Ace Attorney with a look that is closer to the recent Persona games, you should definitely give this one a look.

Game Review: Shadowgate

[suicide mention tw]

It’s a day for things that begin with “shadow” apparently.

I actually beat this game a month ago but I thought it would be a good game to review in October, so here’s my review of Shadowgate.

The one thing that seems to be fueling a lot of new releases these days is nostalgia, particularly on Kickstarter. A particular niche of gamers seems nostalgic for really difficult games that punish you for so much as stepping on a small area of tile in the right place at the wrong time. They’re the type that wants no tutorials and for easy mode to make fun of any “casual” who dares to play it, and modern triple A games just won’t do for this type of masochist.

Shadowgate is one of those sadistic games that runs almost entirely on nostalgia. Have a look at the Steam page and you’ll see review after review of gamers talking about how they played this game when they were in diapers and it was fantastic and the remake is equally as fantastic, but simply waxing poetic about the game isn’t going to help newcomers who might be interested in an enhanced remake of a piece of gaming history.

For the uninitiated, Shadowgate is the story of Lord Jair. Lord Jair is the Seed of Prophecy, and his task is to head to the titular Shadowgate, navigate it’s many rooms filled with traps, and defeat the evil Warlock Lord. It’s not the most original premise but I’ve explored plenty of castles in video games with little justification and this is a remake of an 80s game so the setup is very appropriate for the time and the genre.

Shadowgate may look and sound like a fantasy RPG but it’s actually a point-and-click adventure game. As Lord Jair, you’ll navigate the castle room by room picking up everything in sight and stuffing it all in your satchel. You will then use those items to solve puzzles, which will grant you access to more areas of the castle. The interface is very different from what you might be used to if you’ve only played more recent point and click adventure games. You have a series of commands (Look, Eat, Hit, Use, Go, etc.) and you use those commands to navigate instead of mindlessly clicking on everything. It may seem clunky at first to have to HIT a switch (or USE Thyself, that is, click Use and then your portrait) when every other game lets you interact with single clicks, but it’s nothing you won’t get used to with time. Everything you do, from moving around to using objects, takes up turns. It’s very important to keep track of turns, and not just for achievements. Not doing certain actions in a certain amount of terms can kill you. You will also need to keep an eye on your torch, which will go out after so many turns. Let’s just say that the game warns you that bad things happen when your torch goes out and leave it at that.

Speaking of dying, reviewers aren’t kidding when they say that Shadowgate is the Dark Souls of point-and-click adventure games, because no other game relishes killing you in interesting ways. TAKE the wrong item, step into a room when you aren’t wearing certain items, or click on the wrong window when you’re inside a high tower and you will die, and yes, you can USE your dirk on yourself. There’s even an achievement for finding all the different ways you can die in the game. I heard a rumour that the old Shadowgate having so many ways to kill the player character resulted in the “no deaths” trend in adventure games that has persisted to this day. Fortunately, the game has an autosave feature that saves frequently, but saving before you enter a room is a good practice to adopt while playing this game.

The meat and potatoes of any adventure game is puzzles of some sort, and Shadowgate takes a more subtle approach to puzzling. You might be wandering around when you come across a list of books, might they have something to do with the books on that one shelf in the library? The puzzles are also different depending on what difficulty level you’re on. I was, for once, playing on the lowest difficulty setting, Apprentice, and the puzzles were often very simple, I was actually over-thinking them! If you get stuck, Yorick, your talking skull companion, will drop hints like candy from a pinata.

That said, my soon-after-release version of Shadowgate was not without its issues (it’s been updated since then). There’s a general lack of direction or hints to tell you where to go next (a problem with many games, let’s be honest) and at times I felt as if I had missed some piece of information that I needed in order to solve a puzzle. The Archive (where you keep all notes and other written things you pick up) is also very disorganized, and often I would remember something I’d read that I thought would be useful for solving a puzzle, but couldn’t find the relevant passage anywhere. Other times I felt that the game didn’t indicate when something major had happened to your character. After going through a certain event in the game, for instance, you can take certain objects from the environment, which you need for a puzzle. However, the game’s only indication that you are now able to take these objects is some text saying something like “You feel power course through your veins” or something, and the only way anyone would know differently is by backtracking and trying to remove the objects in question, something that the player has probably tried to do already and wouldn’t think to do for a fifth time.

Graphically, have you ever looked at concept art for am RPG like, say, Pillars of Eternity, and thought “wow that is so pretty”? Comparing Shadowgate‘s graphics to concept art may sound harsh but I’ve seen some gorgeous concept art and Shadowgate‘s art would not be out of place in a D&D manual. It’s a feast for the fantasy fan’s eyes. In terms of sound, the music is great. The theme that plays when your torch is about to go out is so tense it had me scrambling to light another even when I knew I had a few more turns before it went out. The only voice acting is in the game’s few cutscenes, so there’s a good amount of reading involved.

These scenes may be static but they sure are pretty.

Shadowgate isn’t a game to play if you don’t like dying, especially if you don’t like dying a lot, and yes that includes USE-ing any weapon on yourself. If you’re the type of person who thinks they would have difficulty with Shadowgate’s more subtle approach to puzzling, I recommend using a walkthrough so you aren’t stuck in a lose-lose situation with some of the turn-based events. However, if you have played the original Shadowgate or you just like great point-and-click adventure games, this remake has plenty of added content and surprises for the veteran and poses a good challenge to the newcomer.

Review: Shadow and Bone (The Grisha Trilogy #1)

[rape mention tw]

Lately I’ve found Young Adult books tiresome. They recycle the same old plots over and over. Here’s a special girl who has special powers and despite everyone falling for her, she still thinks of herself as plain, even ugly. Here’s a love triangle. Here’s that one Alpha Bitch who is always picking on our poor protagonist, and the terrible writing doesn’t help matters. Thanks that old chestnut, peer pressure, however, I found myself with Shadow and Bone in hand.

It captivated me from the first page all the way through to the end of the bonus materials. In fact, it was probably one of my quickest reads this year.

This is doubly surprising because when you break it down it’s easily one of the most cliche books I’ve ever read.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Alina Starkov is an orphan who lives in the care of a duke with her love interest best friend Malyen (called Mal). Since there aren’t many employment opportunities for orphans, Mal and Alina join the army, but when their regiment is attacked while attempting to cross the treacherous expanse of darkness known as the Fold, Alina awakens a power within herself that even she didn’t know she had and saves her regiment from destruction. She is promptly separated from Mal and sent to be a part of the Grisha, the magical elite led by the mysterious Darkling, and told that she is a Sun Summoner, destined to rid the world of the Fold. Plucked from her simple life and suddenly immersed in a lavish magical world where nothing is as it seems, Alina will uncover a terrible secret that could destroy everything and everyone she holds dear.

To recap, Shadow and Bone is about:

A young woman with special powers, special powers that are so special she stands out even among people with special powers.

A love triangle between Alina, “normal” Mal and “otherworldly” Darkling.

Tension between Alina and “Alpha Bitch” Zoya.

In short, Shadow and Bone has pretty much everything that I despise in a YA novel.

So then, why do I like it so much? Why was I so captivated by it?

Well, for starters, the writing didn’t grate on me. Bardugo has a very accessible style. Ravka is based on Tsarist Russia, and while the book has drawn criticism of incorrect use of the Russian terms in the book, at times reading this felt almost like reading a Russian folktale. Bardugo takes a more scientific approach to her magic system. The Grisha call their abilities the “Small Science” and cannot create something out of nothing like many fictional mages seem to do, only manipulate things like air pressure and combustible gases to create storms and fire respectively. It’s a very logical approach to magic, and Bardugo doesn’t bombard the reader with pages and pages of rules.

I also like that Alina actually manages to make friends, like actual female friends who aren’t secretly jealous of her, and she also doesn’t disdain “feminine” things like fine dresses and perfume (spending an entire afternoon playing “dress up” with her friend Genya and giggling like a child over it). She is a reluctant hero, who insists on wearing blue like the other members of her Order instead of black, which would indicate very high status in the Grisha’s status-obsessed society. On an unrelated note, I love the cover. It is beautiful, instantly evokes a feel for the setting in my mind, and most importantly, avoids the cliched image of a single woman in an awkward pose, probably tattooed (although there’s no reason for Alina to be tattooed).

Many of the negatives I have to throw at this book are the things that I’ve mentioned above, namely that it has almost every one of my most hated YA cliches in one book. I wish Alina would stop thinking of herself as “ugly” because she has brown hair. I wish Zoya didn’t exist. She’s literally only there to make eyes at Mal and bully Alina and it’s a really tired trope. Most of all, I wish YA authors would get together collectively vow to never have love triangles ever again. Shadow and Bone’s saving grace is its writing and its interesting world, or maybe I just have a higher tolerance for insufferable cliches in YA novels by now.

Other things of note. Alina seems surrounded by very perverted men. There’s a clear reference to Rasputin in the character of the Apparat, but the king himself is heavily implied (read: outright said) to have had his way with Genya, which is a cliche in and of itself. Alina is also the recipient of a couple oblique rape threats but nothing comes of it other than the assailants suffering grievous bodily harm. The one POC I remember was a Shu Han (this, I’m assuming, is the fantasy equivalent of China) man who is Alina’s teacher who is the only character who speaks broken English Ravkan.

Shadow and Bone is chock full of cliches, no two ways about it, but at the same time, it managed to keep me interested enough to want to continue the trilogy. (Proof that even horribly cliched writing can be engaging.) It’s not as earth-shattering as I was led to believe, but it didn’t make me want to bash my head against the wall either. I guess if I had to summarize it, I would say that it’s a mess of cliches, but at least it’s well-written and presented in an interesting way.

13 Days of Hallowe’en Spooktacular!

I love Hallowe’en. You will pry Hallowe’en out of my cold dead hands, so I thought I’d celebrate and get rid of some games I’ve bee meaning to review at the same time and review titles that are scary, creepy, or at the bare minimum mention witches and vampires and things…..somewhere….and maybe, MAYBE, I’ll have a new story for you, if I get to it.

The thirteen days starts with Shadow and Bone and Shadowgate and from there, well, I’ll figure it out. you just enjoy all the things.

Game Review: Professor Layton vs. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney

As you no doubt already know by now, the Ace Attorney series is one series that I am constantly kicking myself over for not getting into it sooner. Better late than never, I suppose. Naturally, I was very hyped for this game because I will use any excuse to play more of Courtroom Hijinks: The Series.

I did come into this game with some reservations, however. I never got into the Professor Layton series because, truth be told, I’m horrible at solving puzzles, and telling me to “just solve it with math” is like telling me to drink vinegar. My experience with crossovers has been that they’re difficult to pull off and still maintain the charm of their respective series. I also noticed that the vast majority of professional reviews were coming to it as fans of Layton, not Ace Attorney, so their impressions of the game were skewed in that direction.

In PL vs.AA, Professor Layton and his “apprentice gentleman” assistant Luke Triton are enjoying a quiet evening at Layton’s residence in London when they are approached by a mysterious girl named Espella, seeking their aid against witches who are intent on capturing her. When Espella is abducted, Layton and Luke find themselves in the mysterious town of Labyrinthia, a place that is governed by a man known as the Storyteller, and whose inhabitants believe that the Story he writes literally comes true and malevolent witches are a reality.

Meanwhile, Phoenix Wright and Maya Fey are in London on an exchange trip organized by the Legal League of Attorneys. Naturally, they also end up in the town of Labyrinthia where they team up with Layton and Luke in order to uncover the secret of the town of Labyrinthia and the mysterious witches that plague it.

Gameplay is split between Layton-esque puzzle-solving and trial segments. As Layton and Luke, you explore the town solving puzzles. There are a good variety of puzzles in the game (although there are some repeats). if you ever get stuck on a puzzle (as I did countless times) there’s a handy hint system that costs hint coins–which you can find all over the town–that will practically tell you the answer if you are willing to sacrifice enough coins. As someone who isn’t  very good at puzzling, I found many of the puzzles frustrating, although most of them actually have very simple solutions if you stop and think. Solving puzzles without using hints and without failing awards you with the most Picarats (basically a points system), which are necessary to unlock bonus content. If you really don’t have the patience for a puzzle, you can always skip it. Unfortunately you can’t save during puzzles, but if you time your saves right you can save scum like a dirty cheater. :D

The other half of the gameplay is the trial phase. This phase should be familiar to anyone who has played an Ace Attorney game as it’s the usual matter of pressing witness statements and pointing out contradictions with the help of evidence. This game’s trial phase adds a couple of twists, namely the ability to cross-examine multiple people at once (which is basically a standard cross examination with each person delivering a line of testimony) and the ability to question witnesses (“Hang On!”) about statements made by other witnesses. As I am much more competent when pointing out contradictions than puzzling, I found these sections to be relatively easy compared to other Ace Attorney games. Cross-examining multiple witnesses might seem intimidating at first but, as I said, it’s simply a single long testimony with each line spoken by a different person.

Graphically, the game has some really pretty background art. Many of the characters are done in a similar style to Professor Layton (highly stylized) while important characters are done in Ace Attorney’s still exaggerated but more anime-esque style. Layton’s art style was a little too cartoonish for my tastes (says the girl who loves cartoons) but mixing it up with Ace Attorney style characters helped a bit. Musically the game is gorgeous and familiar tracks from both series make an appearance. I was especially pleased with the arrangement of the “Pursuit” theme from the very first Ace Attorney game. Another big surprise for me was the amount of voice work in this game. Have you ever played an Ace Attorney game and wished that you could actually hear the witnesses shout “Hold it!” just like the main cast could? Well, here you go!

In terms of negatives, some of the secondary characters really annoyed me. There’s one in particular that shows up in at least two trials and I could not wait for this character to go away so I could get on with the trials. There’s another character whose “quirk” involves her shouting “Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiir!” very loudly and shrilly (complete with microphone feedback noise) which is just obnoxious. I thought that the characters’ personalities were true to their original series (or near as I can tell with Layton) but was slightly disappointed when Maya’s spirit medium abilities were barely mentioned, especially given that there were a couple of times in the plot where she could have used them, especially since we get to see Luke use his ability to talk to animals multiple times during the game.

As far as stuff to watch out for, well, this game involves witch trials and it’s made very clear that even admitting to being a witch is a death sentence involving a literal pit of fire. One case involves suicide. If you’re the type of person who is very attached to the main characters, there are definitely portions of this game that will either make you sad or fill you with rage. Overall, I would say that despite the, you know, witch-burning, PLvs.AA is definitely not as dark as Dual Destinies, which could get pretty dark.

I spent a good thirty hours with this game and the story has enough twists and turns that it kept it interesting even if the puzzles were frustrating at times and despite the sometimes heavy subject matter it’s actually a pretty lighthearted adventure. If you’re a fan of either series and you’re looking for a game you can play on Hallowe’en but you aren’t into jump scares, or even if you just like a good puzzle, Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney would be a fine addition to your collection.

Review: The Silvered

[tw: zoophilia mention, rape mention]

I mentioned in my review of The Stone Prince that I was a fan of Tanya Huff’s work in high school. Her books were some of the first books I read that had queer characters in them, but I’ve been finding, increasingly, that her latest works aren’t really doing anything for me. The Enchantment Emporium was okay but not great, I didn’t like the Smoke books at all. I think this is definitely the case of liking an author because of that one series and then nothing else they write seems to scratch that itch. Nothing else is like that series.

And The Silvered is about werewolves. As you probably also know, I’m not a huge fan of werewolves.

The Silvered is set in a world where ancient magic clashes with scientific advancements. In the Kingdom of Aydori, the people are protected by the Hunt Pack–werewolves–and the Mage pack, masters of six elemental forces: fire, water, earth, air, metals, and healing. When the emperor of the neighbouring Kresentian Empire receives a prophecy that indicates that an unborn child born of “mage and wild” will portent the rise or fall of his empire, he sends a squad of soldiers lead by Captain Sean Reiter to kidnap six pregnant women of the mage pack. After witnessing the kidnapping, failed university student Mirian Maylin heads for the border to alert the pack leader, only to be captured by Reiter. Escaping with the Pack Leader’s younger brother, Tomas, the two set off on a mission to rescue the captured mages with Reiter in hot pursuit.

I had to start and stop this review a few times because I was having trouble articulating stuff I liked and didn’t like about it. The world is interesting. It strikes me as very nineteenth century in a vaguely Slavic setting. The nation of Aydori is protected by the Pack, ambitious social climbers want their children to marry into the Pack. The Hunt Pack is assisted by the Mage-pack, magic users who are identified by the flecks of colour in their eyes. The empire, meanwhile, sees the Pack as mere beasts and Aydori social climbing as institutionalized zoophilia. I did find that there were some things about the world that could have used a little more explaining (particularly regarding how the Mage Pack actually works) but I don’t have any major complaints other than that the major religions aren’t anything you haven’t seen before.

I think the strong point of the novel is its characters. Mirian Maylin is the type of protagonist who dropped out of school and has few prospects who suddenly finds herself on a perilous journey. Tomas is trying to cope with the death of family and friends. Neither one of them really want to work together but they don’t have much of a choice. What I like is that, unlike other “reluctant companions” plots, Mirian and Tomas don’t spend every minute of every day insulting each other and trying to deal with unresolved sexual tension (although there is a bit of that, but not as much as you might think). Sure, they grumble a bit but they quickly figure out that they need each other and they need to work as a team. The other refreshing aspect of their relationship is that while Tomas does play the “grrrr I’m a mighty werewolf dominance” song and dance that is pretty much a must have for anything involving werewolves, Mirian’s reaction is to shut him down and force him to treat her like an equal (she also takes the opportunity to comment about romance novels that do a similar thing). I’ve read story after story where the werewolf does the aggressive dominance thing and the heroine just puts up with it that to actually have a character tell them point blank to knock it off is refreshing.

The story is also told from the perspective of Reiter and the captured women of the Mage-pack. Reiter’s perspective is nothing special, he’s the typical “my country right or wrong” good soldier type who doubts that what he’s doing is tight but, well, orders. The women of the Mage-pack are interesting but I don’t think they really had a lot of time or opportunities to develop as characters. There were a few standouts, like Stina subtly making her captors’ lives difficult and using every opportunity to swear in a language her captors don’t understand, but I honestly couldn’t keep them all straight half the time.

The major issue I had with the book was pacing and the fact that when all is said and done, it didn’t really seem like the epic fantasy that it set out to be. Mirian and Tomas make for the Empire, Reiter chases them, the Mage-pack sits on their asses in captivity (although they do take small steps in order to escape). What should be a race against the clock never really gets there. It seems to be missing a lot of tension that makes those kinds of plots interesting.

Something that was personally aggravating for me was how the book was so heteronormative. There’s one same-sex couple near the end of the book, but the Pack and Mage-pack are all heterosexual pairings. Tomas has a rather interesting relationship with Harry, his friend who died at the very beginning of the book, and by “interesting” I mean he spends most of the book mourning him, mistaking the heroine for him, and wishing he was around to fix everything, and yet somehow he’s still straight as a pin. Huff saying that all her characters are bisexual unless she says otherwise is no help, since the average reader will assume that any given character is straight until told otherwise. It just seems like such a wasted opportunity, especially since it’s not like she’s never written a series with a bisexual main character.

If you’ve read any of Huff’s other books this one is no different in terms of style. There’s a ton of repetition, and by the tenth or so time that you hear about gold earrings or how characters “lay with beasts” it’s gotten old. There’s so much repetition that it becomes a plot point.

Triggery things: there’s mention of rape and it’s abundantly clear what the emperor means by wanting to “breed” the captive Mage-pack. The Empire dehumanizes the Pack and considers them little more than animals, so there’s also a ton of snide remarks about how the Aydori “lay with beasts”. Reiter tells off a soldier who sexually harasses Mirian.

Overall, I liked the take on werewolves that wasn’t just all “grrrr dominance” but in the end nothing about the book has me chomping at the bit for a sequel (thankfully, the story is self-contained with the possibility of a sequel). The Silvered just isn’t the Blood books.

Game Review: The Walking Dead

Happy October everyone! Are you ready for tasty treats and autumn foliage porn and reviews of scary games?

You probably know by now that I’m not a zombie person. Let’s face it, if a zombie apocalypse actually happened, well, apparently they eat the queer people first because we’re never in these things. Zombies just don’t do anything for me. Zombies just kind of shamble around and get shot by pasty white dudes with a stockpile of firearms, no thank you.

Basically what I’m trying to say is that I had absolutely zero interest in this game. Heck, I had absolutely zero interest in this franchise, but you know, there’s only so much peer pressure to the tune of “What are you doing Gef you have to play this!” that I can take before I cave and buy the game on sale from the Humble Store.

You guise, seriously, if I ever pull that stubborn shit again, punch me in the face or poke me on Facebook or something, because The Walking Dead is fucking amazing.

For all two of you who aren’t familiar with this franchise, The Walking Dead is basically about people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. What makes this franchise interesting is that The Walking Dead is more about the psychological and personal struggles of the survivors as they try and deal with zombies popping up everywhere. In The Walking Dead game, you play as Lee Everett, a convicted criminal on his way to prison who suddenly finds himself with a second chance at life and an orphaned girl named Clementine to protect.

Although The Walking Dead is an adventure game, you won’t be hunting through your inventory or combining items or solving puzzles that defy logic. Telltale Games opted for a more cinematic and action-oriented approach. If you click on something, you’ll be presented with a list of things to do like look, use, etc. If you have an item in your inventory that you can use, you’ll have the option to use it. It’s a welcome change from clicking and dragging objects until you hover over the precise spot where they can be used with another thing. During action sequences, shooting an enemy is a matter of hovering over the spot the target indicates and pressing a button. The game does make use of QTEs when you get in a tight spot, but you usually only have to press the same buttons (Q and E, in my case) and they’re not that much of a hassle. The Walking Dead is an adventure game, after all, not a shooter, so it handles things in an appropriately adventure game-y way.  At first I didn’t really notice the music, but it especially shines during tense or sad moments. The graphics are cel shaded graphics, giving it the feel of a graphic novel. At times, I thought the graphics looked a little goofy (especially when it shows close up shots of characters’ faces) but after a while I didn’t really notice.

There’s only so much you can do with a zombie apocalypse plot. Here are some zombies, zombies infect people who turn into zombies. Survive. Drama happens. What makes The Walking Dead interesting is it’s focus on the characters and the relationships between characters. Every character fills a niche, so to speak: you have the old bigot, the nerd, the intrepid reporter, the straight-to-the-point leader or the group who doesn’t have time for your shit, the average Joe and his family, and how you interact with them shapes the group’s dynamics. The characters (and the game) take note of your actions, from who you agreed with in a fight to who you fed one day when it was time to dole out rations, and while the same story plays out similarly regardless of your choices, characters will make references to your past actions and your choices will have some impact on future events.  Oh, and I hope you’re good at thinking on the spot, because those choices (in dialogue or out) are on a timer, and at most you';l only have a few seconds to make a decision before the game moves on. (Fortunately, if you accidentally make a choice you didn’t like, you can rewind events and make a different choice, at the expense of playing through some scenes again.)

Although, as I said earlier, each character fills a niche, it’s easy to get attached to them. As an extreme example, I found myself constantly going to bat for a particular character despite finding them an annoying fuck up, and the game is not afraid to punch you in the gut when it comes to your emotional attachments. Characters will die. This game will rip your heart out and stomp on it. This is one of the few games that has actually brought me to tears, and unlike Mass Effect 3, the ending was actually satisfying (even if it did leave me clamoring for a sequel). One thing I did find interesting is that in many horror games, a character like Lee (who is a black man as well as a convict) would probably be the first one to die. The game also has two WOCs, Clementine and Christa, and one Persian-American, Omid. The DLC has Vince, who is Asian, Danny, who is Latino (who isn’t a very positive portrayal of a Latino man, sadly), and Russell, who is black. Considering that the rest of the cast is pretty much the same shade of pasty white, that number seems pretty small. However, that makes this game waaaay more diverse than about 99.9% of zombie apocalypse stories, where everyone is white apart from the token black character who dies before the first episode is over.

In terms of potentially triggering content, the game can get pretty violent and bloody. There’s also cannibalism and scary situations and violence involving small children. One character might come across as racist (though he claims that’s not what his remarks were about). From the DLC, one character is a convicted rapist, and the game can be a real downer in general.

In short, I am blown away by this series and although I don’t see myself picking up the graphic novels, I will definitely be checking out Telltale’s other adventure games (which includes season 2 of The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us, and upcoming games based on Borderlands and Game of Thrones). As a final note, I strongly recommend picking up the DLC, 400 Days, which is a series of short scenarios starring different characters that will have an impact on events in Season 2. I would say pick this up if your into zombies, interactive fiction, and/or adventure games that are stylistically similar to games like Indigo Prophecy than say, any of the point-and-click titles I’ve reviewed.

Triple Indie Tuesday Review: Unholy Heights, Redshirt, Cook, Serve, Delicious!

It’s another edition of “review multiple games at once to clean out Gef’s disgustingly long backlog”. This edition comes with a food trigger warning for Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Let’s just jump right in, shall we?

Unholy Heights

Unholy Heights is an adorable Japanese indie title that is a mixture of tower defense and life sim. You play as the Devil himself who has decided to buy an apartment complex and fill it with monsters. Unfortunately, local heroes have caught wind of this devious plan and it’s up to you to lead your tenants into battle and hopefully keep them happy so they won’t skip town on you.

Gameplay consists of attracting monsters to your apartment complex and taking care of their needs by buying them stuff. You can attract different monsters by placing certain items in the apartments and by completing quests. Monsters need a variety of things to keep them happy. Some monsters don’t like it when their rooms are too hot, others don’t like it when their rooms are too cold, and others are perverts who want naughty wallpaper. Keeping them happy is basically a matter of buying them things when they ask and keeping the rent at an acceptable range.

Yeah, that hipster beside the billboard is you, you’re the Devil.

The other part of the game involves heroes trying to ruin your business venture by making off with your gold and killing your monsters. When you select a quest by using the notice board (quest difficulty is indicated by the number of stars it has) you’ll usually have one day before the heroes show up and make a mad dash to the top floor to make off with your gold. To combat the heroes, you knock on doors to summon the monsters within, monsters can have melee, medium, or long range attacks, and it’s up to you to know when to summon them to gain an advantage over your foe. If your monster’s taking too much punishment, you can make them retreat by clicking on them (although this won’t work if an enemy is blocking their room). Once all enemies are defeated, you gain gold and new monsters and quests are unlocked.

I don’t like to use the term “casual game” because some people pronounce “casual game” the way most people pronounce “tapeworm” but Unholy Heights is a simple game that you can pick up and play for a bit and then put down. If you like tower defense and sim games and are looking for something to play on the go, this is a good choice, plus the art style is adorable.

As for negatives, the sound effects get really annoying really quickly, which is why it’s best to play it in very short bursts. A few of the monsters have some annoying quirks. Beastmen and Abyssals hate each other and will refuse to be in the same building with the other, so if you want one you can’t have the other unless you want them to be really upset with you. I could understand if they couldn’t be on the same floor or even have their rooms next to each other, but that they can’t even stay in the same building seems….a bit much. The game is also ridiculously heteronormative, to the point that there are male Succubi (not incubi, succubi) that are pretty much interchangeable with their female counterparts. If you look at some of the art for the game (on Steam Trading Cards, for instance, you will be forgiven for thinking that the two Succubi in the picture are women (the one with the green hair is the dude). Unless there’s been an update I don’t know about or I just have the most heteronormative copy of the game, your monsters will only ever take lovers and have families with different-sex partners.

These issues aside, however, Unholy Heights is light on both the tower defense and simulation aspects, but it’s a neat little game that’s worth playing if you need to scratch either of those itches.

Redshirt

I was very excited to play Redshirt after The Border House blog did a feature on it. Unfortunately it was released on Steam and I thought the price point was a bit too high for what I was seeing in the screenshots, that said, I found it in a Groupees bundle for the bargain price of $1, so I thought I’d give it a shot.

Redshirt is a parody of sci-fi series like Star Trek and social networking sites like Facebook. You are a new arrival aboard space station Megalodon-9. You start your illustrious career as a Transporter Accident Cleanup Technician (which is as glamorous as it sounds) and you soon discover that every crew member is required to use the proprietary social network called Spacebook. However, you barely set foot on the space station when you hear rumours that something bad will happen soon aboard the station, and it’s up to you to make sure you stop being a disposable crew member with all haste!

Basically Redshirt is a parody of Facebook. You build relationships with people by adding them as friends, liking their posts, posting status messages, sending private messages, and arranging group and solo activities that affect your skills (for better or worse). There are many different ways you can win the game: from accumulating cash to making friends with influential people to climbing the career ladder. I tried to go a couple different ways and eventually ended up simply buying my way off the station, just to keep you on your toes, the game will sometimes throw an “Away” mission at you, heavily randomized events where your colleagues (and sometimes even you yourself) will most likely end up dead.  You also have a limited number of actions per day (usually just two): Should you “like” a friend’s post or invite your boss out for lunch? Redshirt is made of these small decisions.

The other cool thing about Redshirt is that your character’s gender is on a slider (you can also set it to private) and you can also indicate an interest in men, women, or all genders (it doesn’t get more specific than that). One race, the Xx’th’xx, a race of squid people, always have their gender set to private.

Humour is an important aspect of any parody game, and Redshirt’s humour got a chuckle out of me, but it’s definitely not one of those games where you laugh out loud for five minutes straight. It’s a very tongue-in-cheek look at common tropes in science fiction, and in that respect it does what it’s supposed to do. The art style is pretty cartoonish with everyone having very exaggerated facial features, which is, I suppose, par for the course in a game like this. Sound and music, by the way, are nothing special.

An example of an Away Mission screen.

I think Redshirt could have been a great game. I mean, what other game lets you select gender using a slider? Unfortunately, it’s bogged down by a ton of repetition. Every character you meet will just spit out the same lines over and over. Your significant other will constantly complain that you never take them out on romantic dates (even if you just went on a date with them the day before). An Away mission might set you back because it kills off your S.O. but don’t worry, you can enter a relationship with an interchangeable crew member soon enough. (In my case, someone sent me a relationship request the morning after my girlfriend died.) At first cultivating relationships was fun but by the end I was just going through the same handful of actions to build up my skills. None of the characters felt remotely real to me. I should note that this game procedurally generates crew members, so they are literally a random collection of interests for you to poke at. You will also often find yourself being hit on by straight people who can’t seem to figure out that you’re only interested in women.

I’d like to recommend Redshirt because it’s an amusing parody of science fiction and social networking, but because it’s so repetitious I really can’t recommend buying it unless it’s on sale. It could have been a very good game, but as it is, the crew felt less like actual people and more like checklists.

Cook, Serve, Delicious!

Cook, Serve, Delicious! is billed as a “hardcore restaurant sim” where you take over a worn down restaurant in the SherriSoda Tower. Your job is to  take that restaurant and return it to it’s former status as a five star restaurant.

You start with zero stars and work your way up by completing tasks such as being in service for a certain number of days, passing health inspections, and upgrading your foods and equipment, taking catering jobs, etc. Before each day begins, you can buy and upgrade foods and equipment and set your menu. Your goal is to generate positive “Buzz” for your restaurant, you get positive buzz by fulfilling orders and changing up your menu to keep things fresh. Different foods have factors that positively or negatively impact your performance. Certain foods might be especially fatty or considered “munchies” that customers won’t order during rush hour. Some foods create a lot of garbage, others are environmentally friendly, and still others are considered perfect rainy day eats. Some foods are ready to eat, others require cooking or other prep work. All of these factors are important when planning a menu.

Once you have your menu items picked for the day, you move on to the portion of the game where you actually prepare and serve food for customers. In order to make them happy, you need to complete the order to their specifications (obviously) but you also need to do so in a timely manner, as you only have so long before orders disappear, would-be customers leave, and your restaurant gets some negative buzz attached to it. Fulfilling orders is as simple as reading the order and clicking (or using the keyboard) on the desired ingredients (for instance, if someone orders a salad with ranch dressing and cheese, you would click on ranch, then cheese, and then click the Serve button). Sometimes you will also need to complete chores like cleaning the toilets or taking out the trash. In general, the orders come at a relaxed pace unless it’s the appropriately named Rush Hour, which has you scrambling to fulfill orders and hoping that you can get to them all in time before three customers in a row walk out on you. It’s probably the most hectic and stressful part of the game.

For an indie game, Cook, Serve, Delicious! has a lot of content. You can pick up catering missions that require you to feed a group of people particular foods. You can place bets with people via email. I’m only up to one star and Steam has me clocked in at seven hours. This is a great game to pick up and play when you just have five minutes or so to play one in=game day, and I believe it was previously on mobile devices so if you’re looking for an on-the-go restaurant sim, this is probably the only choice you have. In any case, it’s a great game to pick up and play for a few minutes. The one downside is that it will probably make you hungry.

Overall, I’d recommend Cook, Serve, Delicious! if you want a simple (yet challenging) game that you can play in short bursts. Just don’t play it when you’re hungry.

Where We Find Acceptance

If it seems like this blog has been a dumping ground for reviews this year, that’s because I’ve been spending a lot of time on Tumblr, and don’t feel the need to repeat what I say on Tumblr over here because, let’s face it, I’ve probably said the same thing five times already. Also I’m trying to play catch-up with my reviews. I have only a couple comics left and some games and then there will be less reviews as I finish the books I’m currently reading.

Anyways, back to Tumblr. Tumblr’s “pagan” tag is a very strange beast. It’s about 80% unsourced vaguely Pagan-ish art, 19% Pagan holiday memes that are grossly inaccurate (the whole Ishtar = Easter thing was either born on Tumblr or spread from Facebook to Tumblr) and 1% useful information. There’s at least one outbreak of “drama” per week. One week it’s because someone got on the wrong person’s bad side. Another week it’ll be because Pop Culture Pagans are wrecking polytheism. The week after that, Christian Witches are the target. It goes in cycles. Something different will probably crop up next week.

The thing is though, as much as Tumblr gets made fun of by “serious” practitioners for being fluffy central and Headquarters for the Social Justice Warriors (which is often true) Tumblr has been, in my experience, a place that is much less tolerant of bigotry and assholetry as some of the other social networks I’ve been to.

It’s no secret that Heathenry has issues with racism, but it’s also true that a sizable portion of Heathens have issues with other “isms”: ableism, homophobia, transphobia. These people are not card-carrying neonazis. They’re running respectable Heathen websites. For some examples, check out my posts “Stay Classy, Asatru Lore” and “Moderates” among others. I have seen too many people on Tumblr say that they are interested in Heathenry, but are absolutely not okay with the kind of dickishness that gets passed off as “being blunt” like it does in some Heathen circles. If you’ve read the posts above and you don’t think this is an issue, it might be a sign that you’re a part of the problem.

These people find acceptance on Tumblr when they wouldn’t find it anywhere else.

Tumblr may not be perfect. Tumblr may earn its reputation on occasion. Tumblr may be a source of drama, but Tumblr will not tolerate your hate. (In fact, there’s a rule about tagging your hate.) It’s not perfect, there’s the odd person who thinks the Wiccan Rede applies to everyone, and some portions of the community are more vitriolic than others, but overall, compared to some of the Facebook groups I’ve been in, Tumblr is not interested in your shit.

Review: Rat Queens (Vol. 1)

My friend told me i had to read this comic. “You’ll love it,” she said. “It has badass queer ladies and badass POCs and ladies who drink and swear and it’s awesome.” To be honest, I was intrigued but skeptical. Parodies of the fantasy genre are so numerous that they might as well be their own genre at this point. “Hey, we’ll have an atheist Cleric! Har har!” “Let’s be sure to put in a joke about dwarf women and beards because no one’s ever done that before!” It’s been done so often that it’s just tiresome.

In that light, does Rat Queens have the most original story and setting?

No, not really.

Is it still awesome?

Yes.

Rat Queens stars the titular Rat Queens, an adventuring party made up of four women: Hannah, the “rockabilly elven mage” who takes no shit and gives zero fucks, Violet, the “hipster dwarven warrior” who shaved her beard back when it actually meant something, Dee, the atheist human cleric whose parents worship a giant squid, and the hippy halfling thief Betty, whose idea of a good meal is drugs and candy. The series follows their exploits in and around the town of Palisade. The paperback edition collects issues 1-5.

The setting will be familiar to anyone even passably familiar with the Standard Fantasy Setting. There are adventuring parties made up of various classes who go around slaying monsters and stuff, and yes, there are references to dwarven women having beards and atheist clerics. It’s the Rat Queens themselves that make this comic special. They’re a quartet of badass ladies who drink, swear, kick ass (in ways that are frequently bloody) and are loyal to each other.

The characters are what makes this comic great for me. I love how Hannah takes no shit at all and the way Dee acts during a party (with her nose stuck in a book avoiding all opportunities to socialize) reminds me of me at parties. I love how Betty constantly provides comic relief with references to drug use and innuendo but isn’t just a comic relief character. She’s sweet and, like the rest of the Queens, perfectly capable of kicking ass when she needs to, even Violet’s firm rejection of dwarvish cultural traditions struck a chord with me. None of them  annoyed me and I didn’t think one received more characterization than the others.

At first I wasn’t too thrilled with the art. It’s a very cartoonish style that wasn’t really doing anything for me. I think the best part about the art is the facial expressions. The characters are so expressive. You can see their emotions written all over their faces. The art style did take some getting used to (especially since I don’t read a lot of comics) but it can’t be said that the characters aren’t expressive.

Yes, Violet, yes she did.

It’s also pretty diverse. Dee and Sawyer (who is Captain of the Guard in Palisade) are both black and there are characters of colour in the other adventuring groups as well as in the background. Betty is a lesbian and gets an on-screen kiss with her ex-girlfriend. There are also a pretty good range of body types from the short and svelte Betty to the heavyset Braga (Braga is awesome, btw). Some of the outfits are kind of fanservice-y but interestingly enough, the outfits on some of the male characters are no less impractical and characters like Violet are actually wearing practical clothing that suits the type of job that they’re doing.

Rat Queens doesn’t away from being violent and bloody. There’s no nudity but there are some revealing outfits, and sex is not shown at all. Women also tend to throw misogynistic insults at one another, and of course there are the drug and alcohol references. As I said, these ladies aren’t afraid to cuss up a storm when shit hits the fan.

Along with Saga, Rat Queens is definitely a comic I’ll be following. The setting might not be the most original but it’s made me laugh more than once and I already can’t wait to read the next few issues. (The next trade paperback is out in January). If you want a fun (if times dark) fantasy adventure with a crew of badass ladies, go check out Rat Queens.