Game Review: Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator

Here’s a game I never thought I’d review, and that’s because I originally thought that it was one of those dime-a-dozen “wacky” dating sims with no substance. Listen, game devs, you are never going to top Hatoful Boyfriend, especially if you think the wacky humour is why it’s so popular, so stop trying. The game has also been the source of much discourse on tumblr.

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In Dream Daddy, which is by Vernon Shaw and Leighton Gray and funded and voiced by the Game Grumps, you play as a Dad (you can customize his name and appearance) who has just moved to a new neighbourhood with his daughter Amanda. The cul-de-sac also happens to be home to other eligible dads: from his former college roommate, to the anxious owner of a coffee shop, to a dad who always seems to spark his competitive side, but will he find love, end as friends, or meet an untimely demise?

Gameplay consists of a lot of reading, clicking, and making choices, but its broken up by a variety of minigames that have you doing everything from match-3 fishing to trying to fix a broken radio to making your way through a crowd at a concert. You can go on a maximum of three dates per game and each Dad has three dates you can go on. You are ranked on your performance during these dates and given a grade (S is the highest rank). Depending on your choices, you can end up romantically involved with one of the Dads, end on a friendly note, or even die. Some of the routes have more realistic resolutions, like the one where the Dad in question reciprocates your feelings but decides he’s not ready to be intimately involved with anyone. Besides dating, you also spend a lot of time hanging out with your daughter and can end the game with a good or bad relationship with her.

When I first heard about this game I immediately assumed two things: that it was just a silly dating sim with way too many dad jokes, and that it was probably going to be homophobic. Having dated all the Dads, I can say that this is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt dating sims I have ever played (aside from Hustle Cat). Even though a couple of them took some time to grow on me, there isn’t a single Dad I would say I dislike (even though I think one could’ve used a better ending), and each Dad is more than they appear: one is still grieving the loss of his wife, another’s aloofness hides emotional wounds, another cultivates a certain image because he fears others will find the real him dull. I wasn’t expecting to have a serious conversation about death during a date. There’s still a ton of dad jokes, but it never feels like the humour and pop culture references (and there are a ton of pop culture references) overstay their welcome.

One (small) issue I have with this game is that I wish the characters had a bit more time to develop, like a fourth or fifth date (which I admit would take a lot of resources for a game with seven possible love interests). A more major criticism is the fact that some of the minigames are sadistically difficult (MINI GOLF!) and there are a number of bugs (including bugs that are preventing people from getting certain achievements). As of this writing and as far as I am aware, those bugs haven’t been addressed. There also isn’t a ton of voice-acting, mostly “Ohs” and moans that sound dirtier than they should when you fast-forward through the dialogue.

In terms of diversity, four of the seven potential love interests are poc: Craig, Robert, Hugo, and Mat. One of the Dads is trans, casually mentioning binders in conversation. You also have the option to make your character trans and can choose whether your partner was a mother or a father and whether one of you gave birth to or adopted Amanda. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in body types, however; Brian (and optionally your MC) is the only Dad of size. To be fair, you can only choose from three different body types during character creation, the only difference is whether that body has a binder or not.

In terms of potential triggers, one of the characters you can date is a married man and third dates always end in sex (of the fade-to-black sort). Characters do a lot of drinking. There’s also a segment during one of Mat’s dates where you buy drugs (which turn out to be oregano).

Dream Daddy is a sweet game about a single Dad trying to raise a daughter and find love. Steam has me clocked in at nineteen hours, but that’s because I’ve been playing a certain minigame obsessively trying to get the achievement for it. Which Dad is my favourite? Damien, hands down, although I also love Hugo and Mat. If you’re looking for a nice game about queer dads dating queer dads, well, what are you waiting for?

Also I’d really like a queer mom dating sim.

Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

[tw: parental abuse, alcoholism, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia]

It seems like I’ve been waiting forever for this book since I read some early impressions of it ages ago. It sounded like it was right up my alley: diverse historical fiction with cute boys in love.

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Henry “Monty” Montague is about to embark on his Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and sister Felicity. The young lord wants nothing more than to escape his overbearing father, have one last hurrah before his responsibilities catch up to him, and flirt with Percy across Europe. But when one of his reckless decisions endangers himself and his traveling companions and sparks a continent wide manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with Percy.

Here is a brief list of things that can be found in this book:

  • running around naked at the Palace of Versailles
  • a tarot reading (that is actually accurate)
  • cute boys kissing
  • badass ladies
  • the worst pirates in the world

The plot of this novel could be summarized as “Man makes stupid decisions, his friend and sister bail him out.” The book isn’t going to win any awards for its plot, although there was an unexpected fantastical element in an otherwise realistic setting. The focus is definitely on the characters, and this book has some great, memorable characters, even the characters with the smallest parts to play have some little quirk that makes them memorable even when their part in the story is over, such as the bank teller that Monty flirts with in order to make an unorthodox withdrawal or Dante, the son of an alchemist with social anxiety. The story is told from Monty’s perspective in first person, and though he might seem like a bit of a rake at first, but as the book goes on we see that he’s scared, trying to deal with his feelings for Percy (and his homophobic society), has a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and is possibly suffering from PTSD, Felicity is a woman in Regency-era England who wants to study medicine but is barred from doing so, and Percy is biracial and epileptic in a racist society that thinks epilepsy is caused by demons or masturbation. The book is not just about a thrilling manhunt across Europe, it’s also about people who find themselves on the fringes of society. I love these characters, I love Felicity’s snark and how Percy is a huge dork and Monty’s hilarious trains of thought as bad and worse things keep happening to him.

Many works of historical fiction are often whitewashed or straightwashed. We’re told that people of colour who weren’t slaves didn’t exist and queer people couldn’t be public about their sexuality, so it “makes sense” that these marginalized populations are invisible or meet horrible ends, that’s just “realism”. That’s why it’s so refreshing that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue manages to both have a diverse cast and talk about the challenges they would have faced in that time period, and not only that, but Monty is constantly called out by both Percy and Felicity regarding his privilege while at the same time acknowledging that this doesn’t mean his life has been easy. The back of the book has some historical notes to provide context to their adventures.

I think my only criticisms of this book are that Monty can definitely be insufferable at times, particularly at the beginning before he gets a bit of depth to him. I also thought the final confrontation with the main antagonist was very predictable, although as I said, the book probably won’t win any awards for it’s plot. There was a part that came across as a little white saviour-y, where Monty impersonates a Scottish nobleman to keep himself, his friends, and a black crew of ex-slaves turned pirates to avoid being arrested (and in the case of the pirates, killed). Another thing I found a bit odd was the use of modern English slang. Did people say “bloody” back then because Monty says it a few times. It’s not that I expect all historical fiction to only use period-appropriate expressions at all times, it just struck me as out of place.

As I’ve mentioned (and as you can see up top with the list of trigger warnings) the characters frequently deal with Regency-era prejudice and discrimination. Percy is frequently called “negro” and “coloured” and asked about Africa when he was born in England (and the son of a minor noble, to boot), and he also has to deal with ableism on account of his epilepsy, Monty is naturally referred to as a “sodomite” and is an alcoholic and abuse survivor. There is also a scene where Felicity gives Monty the old “Have you tried not being attracted to men?” line and some disabled viewers might be disturbed by Monty’s eagerness to “cure” Percy’s epilepsy through the power of alchemy. If this last bit concerns you, be assured that he gets an earful over it.

In spite of the fact that bad things kept happening to these characters that I love, The Gentleman’s Guide to Virtue and Vice is still a great book and an easy recommendation for anyone who wants to read some queer Regency historical fiction with just a bit of fantasy to keep things interesting. I’m super excited for the sequel/side story The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, starring Felicity. Also Scipio desperately needs his own book. Why can’t all YA fiction and historical fiction be as cool as this book?

Game Review: Until Dawn

[gore tw, ableist slurs tw, racism tw, sexism tw]

My PS4 is running out of space for some reason (that reason being each game I have for it is 50 GB minimum) so I’m trying to beat some of the shorter games I own to free up space.

I’ve been sitting on Until Dawn since I bought the PS4. It’s not that I didn’t want to play it, I’ve just been distracted by the deluge of amazing games for the console. Also the constant sales at Best Buy are not doing my library any favours. Hey, when I see a $90 game that I want on sale for $30, I get it.

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Until Dawn is a survival horror adventure game developed by Supermassive Games and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Every year, a group of teenagers gather at an isolated ski lodge for a retreat. When a prank goes awry, however, two of the friends disappear into the wilderness and are never heard from again. A year later, the remaining eight friends are invited to the same lodge to commemorate their friends’ deaths, but when strange and deadly things start happening around them, including being stalked by a relentless killer, it’s anyone’s guess who will survive until dawn.

I think the simplest way to summarize Until Dawn is that it is an interactive horror movie. Have you ever watched a horror movie and yelled at the characters to not do something? Until Dawn gives you some measure of control over the characters, allowing you to subvert or play common horror movie tropes straight (to some extent).

Speaking of tropes, all the characters are predictable horror movie archetypes: Mike is the confident jock, Jessica is the sexy airhead, Sam is a girl next door type who loves animals, Chris is the nice nerd, Emily is an abrasive fashionista, Matt is friendly but a bit of a pushover, Ashley is more serious and studious, and Josh is a bit of a loner. Their personalities can change over time depending on your choices, but for the most part they stick to their archetypes, which was actually one of the issues I had with this game, but more on that below.

Gameplay consists of moving the character around and picking up objects (which may be clues that reveal background information or just things to inspect). Action sequences take the form of QTEs where missing a button press can occasionally be fatal, and sometimes you’ll need to aim at a target reticle and press R2 to fire. The most annoying aspect of action sequences is the DON’T MOVE prompt, when you need to remain perfectly still while the controller vibrates. You also use the right stick to make choices, some of which are timed, although doing nothing, the game says, is sometimes the best choice.

I feel like saying that the graphics are beautiful in a AAA PS4 title is almost redundant but the snowy environments and abandoned locations are really pretty, not to mention creepy. You can even see the dust motes in indoor scenes. The one thing I didn’t like was at times it seemed like the lip syncing was off and some of the facial animations really crossed the line into uncanny valley (particularly Dr. Hill’s teeth, which only increased the creepiness factor).

This game has been praised for it’s meaningful choices, and while I think that no game can ever completely account for every choice and that not every choice can completely change the game, I thought it was well done here. The game keeps track of your choices via the stats screen, which tracks how brave, charitable, etc. each character is, but also the relationships between characters, and the Butterfly Effect, which tracks choices and consequences and gives the player feedback when a choice they made earlier in the game has impacted current events. For instance, placing a baseball bat off to the side will allow a character to use it later. Sometimes the impact of your choices won’t be apparent until much later in the game, and can even result in characters dying. You can also collect different “totems” which might show a character’s death (or the death of their friends), guide you towards the correct path, show you something that will lead to a favourable result, or show you a possible danger. These are purely for the player’s benefit, as the characters don’t react to them at all. My only issue with the choices is that some of them are very unintuitive and will lead to characters dying because you made the wrong choice a few minutes earlier (or sometimes chapters earlier). There was also one moment where you needed a specific clue to prevent a death. Fortunately, I was able to backtrack and find said clue.

I think my biggest annoyance with the gameplay was the DON’T MOVE segments, where you need to remain absolutely still while the controller vibrates, which is especially difficult to do when they combine it with jump scares. You can easily pass the segment by resting the controller on a flat surface and picking it up as soon as the indicator goes away, which is what I did.

My major criticism from a story and character standpoint is a consequence of the game being so faithful to its genre, so of course the “sexy” character can die after having sex, Matt, who is black, can die first, and Emily, who is Asian, is practically designed in such a way that you will hate her (and, like Matt, can die most often and in really gruesome ways). I really hate that the devs decided that the character you need to hate the most is the one WOC in the cast. Meanwhile, Sam, the white vegan who isn’t into the group’s shenanigans, is clearly the Final Girl) and she spends the majority of a chapter when you control her wandering around in nothing but a towel. There’s also a heaping helping of “people with mental illnesses are scary” (and the person stalking the characters is referred to as “p*ycho” and “p*ychopath” repeatedly), not to mention appropriation of Indigenous traditions. All of these are established horror movie tropes but that doesn’t mean they aren’t racist or sexist. Apparently one of the lead designers believes Until Dawn isn’t sexist because the cast is evenly split between men and women and they’ve “avoided the traditional phallic stabbing”. I guess we can go home because sexism is over? No seriously, the cast might be equally split (although there’s no non-binary representation) but that doesn’t change the fact that Mike, the typical white, athletic, straight guy protagonist we’ve all seen before, gets the most screen time (in one case exploring the same location by himself twice). It’s a shame that Until Dawn is unfortunately constrained by the conventions of its genre in this way.

Other than the things I’ve mentioned above, this game doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to blood and gore. Characters are beheaded, stabbed and shot through the eyes, and bisected by a circular saw. They can also be stabbed with needles. One scene near the end of the game has a character hallucinating and thinking they see viscera tumbling out of a dead pig. Speaking of dead pigs, there are also scenes involving animals which have been torn apart and you have the option to shoot a bird in the early game.

In terms of length, I completed the game in about ten hours but I didn’t come close to collecting all the collectables and totems. There is some replayability, especially if characters die and you want to see what changes when they live. I don’t think I’ve played another game that feels as if you’re in control of the victims in a slasher movie. I recommend it to genre fans who don’t mind a game that slavishly adheres to genre tropes.

Review: Arrow’s Flight (Heralds of Valdemar #2)

[tw: rape, incest, abortion, child death]

I said this before in my review of Arrows of the Queen but it’s so weird reading this trilogy when I’ve already read The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. I’m not sure if I’d recommend you do the same, but it’s been an experience.

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Talia is ready to assume her role as Queen’s Own Herald, but one final test remains: a year and a half internship riding a circuit with a full Herald. In Talia’s case, her mentor is Kris, the Collegium’s heartthrob and Dirk’s partner in crime. Unfortunately, with vicious rumours dogging her steps and her fraying control over her abilities, it’s going to take some work before she’s ready to assume her responsibilities, if she manages to survive.

I’m going to be right up front about this and say that this is probably one of the most boring second books in a trilogy that I’ve ever read. It starts out promising, with Talia and Kris moving from village to village dispensing justice, but then the duo and their Companions (and chirras–basically llamas) are snowed in and remain so for the majority of the book. The result is about two hundred pages of Talia being anxious and stressed about her powers and whether she might be misusing them and not much of anything being done. I heard on tumblr that Lackey mentions that these early books were “experimental” and it definitely shows. It feels like someone wanted to write a closed circle plot but didn’t quite know how to make it engaging beyond having two people (and horselike beings) grow increasingly frustrated with one another. I actually preferred the moments when they were on the road, dealing with the ordinary problems of ordinary folks. It’s like when an author creates some interesting secondary characters when the story is actually about the most boring character and their boring love interest.

I suppose I can’t get mad at a book from the late 80s for things that were probably revolutionary at the time (like acknowledgement of polyamorous relationships) but at the same time, I feel like the entire plot could’ve been avoided if Talia’s instructors at the Collegium realized “Hey this girl doesn’t know what a Companion does, maybe we should teach her the basics?” and I honestly feel like this is the sort of story that would be better as a short story or the sort of event that characters reference but never really explain. I also found the way Talia finally “masters” her powers disturbing, and a definite case of mood whiplash as the book suddenly goes from two people angrily dunking each other in the water to dealing with a murder, an incestuous rapist who committed the murder, and an abortion in the same chapter. Oh and apparently trauma from finding the body of your drowned child can be magically cured by….giving you another baby, who might be the reincarnation of your lost baby? I don’t know, it’s magic, okay? Magic is the explanation.

But hey I guess there was character development, or at the very least Talia will stop reminding the reader that she has no confidence in herself. Seriously, I take back everything bad I said about Magic’s Promise, because it’s way better than this. Also she uses the g-slur a few times in the book.

This book is a difficult one to recommend unless you’re committed to reading the trilogy. It definitely has that “early work by a celebrated author” feel to it (on top of being the second book in a trilogy). It’s best to go into it understanding that it’s an experimental product of its time and definitely weaker than other books the author has published since. In that respect, I am glad The Last Herald-Mage sold me on the series before I picked up this omnibus, otherwise I’d probably be more discouraged by Arrow’s Flight. Fortunately I’ve heard Arrow’s Fall is much better.

Deck Review: Oracle of the Unicorns

I love unicorns. They’re like horses but magical and able to impale people. Despite being loved by the New Age movement in particular for their “purity” and “loving energy” there aren’t many unicorn decks. There’s the Unicorn Tarot, which AFAIK is out of print or hard to find, and Doreen Virtue’s Magical Unicorns cards, and that one by Diana Cooper. None of these decks really have what I want in a unicorn deck, so when I saw this deck up on Blue Angel’s website and took a look at the sample images, I knew I needed it.

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The Oracle of the Unicorns is a 44 card deck and book set by Cordelia Francesca Brabbs. The art is done by a variety of artists. The card size is typical for Blue Angel oracle decks. The cards are borderless and each card has its title and a few sentences to clue you in to the meaning of the card. The guidebook elaborates on these sentences with a few paragraphs for each card. There are no upright and reversed meanings given for any of the cards. The guidebook contains a number of spreads specific to this deck. There’s instructions for daily card draws, a four card “Through the Forest” spread, a five card “Elemental Star”, a seven card “Path to Miracles” spread, an eight card “Pegasus” spread, and a nine card “Unicorn Horn” spread.

This is generally a positive, uplifting deck, with cards like “Compassion”, “Sanctuary”and “Gentleness”, even the “Anger” card is about dealing with your anger in healthy ways (and is actually one of the best cards dealing with “negative” emotions in a way that doesn’t involve denying or “releasing” your anger). Despite the deck being called the Oracle of the Unicorns, there are pegasi in here as well, but I suspect few people will mind that some of the magical horse-creatures have wings instead of a horn.

I loved the artwork without exception. Even though the art is done by different artists, it’s coherent. My only gripe is that I wish the humans on the cards were more diverse. I only saw one figure (perhaps two) that is possibly not white, and all are women. Many of the unicorns are also white with white horns, although a few are different colours. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot about my recent deck purchases, but I’m seriously considering buying art from this to hang over my computer desk. Every single one of these paintings would make a stunning poster.

I’ve been using this deck to pull a card each day. I did a few readings with it for other people, and I think it would work best for spiritual questions, if you need a bit of a pick me up, or for questions regarding activism and social justice. I did the meditation included with this deck (to find your unicorn guide) and had an (unexpectedly) powerful experience where I did meet two such guides, whether or not it was all in my head is something I continue to ask myself, but I can’t deny that it evoked some very raw emotions in me

Besides the lack of diversity, I think a lot of people will be turned off by the New Agey-ness of the deck. The accompanying meditation references the chakras, “white light”, light and love, and all that, things that, granted, you’ve probably come to expect from a deck like this (especially ones published by Blue Angel). If you can handle the cotton candy love and light stuff and you love unicorns, this deck is an easy recommendation.

Deck Review: Celtic Tree Oracle by Sharlyn Hidalgo and Jimmy Manton

There are no good tree-themed oracle decks.

What I mean by this is that the vast majority of tree-themed oracle decks are based on Robert Graves’ fabricated “Celtic Tree Calendar” and its variations. I know of a couple decks that aren’t based on that system, but they are either a) out of print (but due to be reprinted) or out of my price range. If you want an affordable tree oracle set, you’re stuck with tree calendar nonsense unless you want to make your own out of bark.

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Having said that, you might be wondering why I decided to purchase and review the Celtic Tree Oracle by Sharlyn Hidalgo with art Jimmy Manton, recently published by Blue Angel, and to be completely honest, I love trees and the art is gorgeous. That’s it, that’s why I bought this deck.

The set includes 25 cards that measure about 3.5″ x 5.5″ or whatever is typical for Blue Angel oracle decks. They have a pale yellow border and a “wooden” inner border, as well as the title and number of the card. The book is slim and includes one and three card spreads, a four card “Celtic Tree Spread” and the Celtic Cross, because of course it does. Each card has a short paragraph on what it represents, a paragraph each for upright and reversed meanings, and a message given in first person from the tree to the reader. In addition, most of the trees in this deck have lists of animals, deities, letters and sounds, and a social class associated with them. Technically some of the trees in this deck aren’t trees but the Celtic Tree and Plant Oracle doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I’m going to be blunt. The book is basically useless unless you want to use the divinatory meanings the author has assigned to each card. The “correspondences” (which, predictably, include deities and animals that weren’t found in Celtic-speaking countries) seem like they were just randomly thrown together in typical eclectic Pagan fashion, and the paragraphs on the Wheel of the Year could’ve been ripped out of any Llewellyn book. I mean things like “Elder represents the Crone aspect of the Goddess Hecate” thrown together. One baffling choice is the choice to call the trees both by their Old Irish (?) and English names, for example,  Luis Rowan essentially referring to the card as Rowan Rowan throughout the text, which looks pretty silly (unless there is actually an explanation for this, but to me it looks pretty silly). The card meaning can get repetitive, with many of them mentioning connecting to your ancestors and caring for your elders, which, while not bad ideas by any means (and appropriate for a tree deck, because trees are old and family trees are a thing) it still felt like there was a lack of variety.

For this curious, this doesn’t follow Robert Graves’ exact system, but uses one based on the moon (possibly combined with the Gregorian calendar method). This is no one changes the fact that the tree calendar was not a thing, but I found myself wondering where the variation came from.

The real draw for me was Jimmy Manton’s art. He’s chosen to focus on the leaves, fruit, and flowers instead of the tree as a whole, and makes use of stunning pinks, vibrant oranges, and soothing greens. At first I thought the art would be difficult to interpret because of this, but for some reason I “get it” when I see these cards (although a keyword on the card would’ve been nice). Some of my favourite cards are Rowan, Spindle, Heather/Mistletoe, Elder, Ivy, and the Sea. This deck would be great for daily pulls but you could also use the cards to decorate seasonal altars or shrines or as a focus for meditation.

In terms of potential triggers it has that typical “Wicca 101” cissexism and heteronormativity problem, particularly with regards to Beltane, a number of trees discuss fertility and pregnancy.

In sum, buy this deck for the art, skip the book unless you intend to use the book’s meanings instead of your own intuition. Honestly though, I have a few decks from the same publisher and the majority of their books aren’t that great. This is more or less what I was expecting.

Review: Arrows of the Queen (Heralds of Valdemar #1)

Ever since reading The Last Herald-Mage trilogy I’ve made it a goal to read the entire mass of novels set in Valdemar. I’ve actually been sitting on the omnibus containing the debut trilogy (Arrows of the Queen/Arrow’s Flight/Arrow’s Fall) since January of last year. Better late than never, right?

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A daughter of the repressive Holderfolk, Talia’s fate is to marry young and produce children for a husband of her father’s choosing, she is saved from this fate by Rolan, one of the mystical horse-like beings called Companions who Choose people with potential to become the legendary Heralds of Valdemar. Talia finds herself thrust into a new world of combat training, classes, and dealing with her emerging Gifts, but when an old conspiracy threatens her life, Talia must learn to make use of her mercurial gifts before she becomes the conspiracy’s latest victim.

This story is the very definition of a coming-of-age story: person with a tragic backstory discovers they are Special in some way and leaves that life to start afresh somewhere. It’s an old staple that a lot of authors rely upon (like say, me, for instance) and there’s nothing inherently wrong with relying on old staples. I should note, however, that this book was first published in 1987, when at least a few of its ideas must have seemed fresh.

Anyways, so Talia basically goes from being forced to marry whomever her father chooses for her (Holderfolk are very much like that fundamentalist offshoot of the Mormon church) to being the new girl at Herald school. What separates her from the majority of young female protagonists (especially YA protagonists) is that she actually manages to make friends with other girls. This is from a novel published in 1987. I know right? Naturally, because she is the protagonist, she has a Special Destiny, in her case, to become the Queen’s Own Herald, A.K.A. the Herald the Monarch depends on to tell them to get their shit together. Talia’s other job, besides attending classes, is to help the Heir to the throne (assuming a Companion Chooses her, as the Monarch and the Heir must be Heralds), Elspeth, who is known as the Brat, be less of a brat, and that’s before dealing with the conspiracy that killed her predecessor and wants her dead.

It’s difficult to talk about the plot not because I didn’t like the book, but because there isn’t a whole lot of plot to be had. Talia is in training to be a Herald, after all, so she spends much of her time attending classes, angsting over her lack of self-confidence, making friends, losing friends, and trying to get a grip on her Gifts. There is a plot involving a conspiracy that is the source of some tense moments, but the machinations of the wider world outside of the Collegium aren’t Talia’s concern at this time. Since this was the first published book in the series, there’s naturally a lot of exposition. The real focus of the book is its characters: Talia herself, Rolan, twin instructors Teren and Keren, Sherill, the first person Talia meets at the Collegium (besides the Dean), Queen Selanay, and her daughter Elspeth are just a few of the great characters in this book. While they aren’t incredibly complex (I remarked in my review of The Last Herald-Mage trilogy that you can sum up the characters in a sentence), but by the end of the book you feel like you’ve grown along with them. They feel like old friends. I especially like how Lackey subverts your expectations regarding Skif and his relationship with Talia.

It’s really weird reading this book after The Last Herald-Mage trilogy (which chronologically takes place before this one) when Vanyel (and Stefen) have become legends and things are a little different now that there are no more Herald-Mages. Just FYI, I’m reading the books in order of publication, chronologically, Arrows of the Queen is more like #34 in reading order.

One of my main criticisms of this book was that I felt the resolution to the conspiracy plot was anticlimactic and obvious setup for the next two books. While there are a few same-sex couples in this book (which was notable at the time) only one gets a bittersweet ending. Talia spends an annoying amount of time doubting herself, while this is not in and of itself a flaw, I felt like Lackey got the point across the second time it came up in the text. As with The Last Herald-Mage, the frequent P.O.V. switches between paragraphs were jarring but tolerable.

In terms of potentially triggering things, Talia grows up in a repressive patriarchal culture where her elders want to marry her off at thirteen. It’s heavily implied that a minor character was raped as a child. The way Talia makes young Elspeth behave is by spanking her (and telling a servant to hit her back when she hits her with a brush), which, while “normal” for the time it was written, might be off-putting to readers these days.

Overall, it’s difficult to accuse this book of being cliche when its probably inspired a bunch of those cliches. As a first book in a trilogy, it’s decent, not the most exciting first book I’ve ever read but good enough to keep me coming back for more.

Review: Truthwitch (Witchlands #1) by Susan Dennard

Few things appeal to me more than books about witches and books about relationships between women. I don’t care if the witch is becoming the new vampire in fantasy and urban fantasy. I will take a good book about lady witches supporting each other over an interesting setting with girlhate any day of the week.

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In the Witchlands, some people are born with a magical talent–a witchery–that sets them apart from from others. Safiya is a Truthwitch, able to discern truth from lies, while her friend Iseult is a Threadwitch, able to see the invisible threads that bind people together, though she is unable to see the threads that bind her heart. The two make an unlikely pair, Safiya is reckless, whereas Iseult is a careful planner. Unfortunately, their desire to live their own lives free from the influence of others proves difficult to obtain when they are caught up in political maneuvering between empires, and with a formidable Bloodwitch on their tails, Safi and Iseult will need the help of Prince Merik–a Windwitch desperately trying to help his impoverished nation–if they mean to survive long enough to attain true freedom.

The main characters, Safiya and Iseult, are the stars of the show. Safi is hotheaded, very much about doing. Iseult is the planner, the thinker, brains and brawn. In some stories, the secondary characters steal the show. In this book, the relationship between the two women takes center stage. I love them. There are also some great secondary characters: Aeduan, the Bloodwitch hunting Safi and Iseult for his patron, and Evrane, a Monk with a calming presence, especially when compared to her nephew, Prince Merik, who has quite the explosive temper. Some characters have smaller roles in the book, but manage to leave an impression on the reader, like Vaness, Empress of Marstok, or Mathew and Habim, the girls’ mentors, with some exceptions, I didn’t find the characters unlikable at all.

I love the idea of “thread-family” which is very much a family of choice rather than blood. Thread-brothers and thread-sisters share a close bond, one which often takes priority over, say, romantic bonds. It’s refreshing to see this sort of story where friendship is treated as just as important, if not more important, than romance.

I also enjoyed the action scenes. The book begins with a highway robbery gone wrong and everything just gets worse for our two protagonists from there. At times it’s difficult for me to see the action scenes in my head, but the scenes in this book played out like a big budget summer blockbuster in my head. This is one book I’d love to see adapted to the big screen.

One criticism I’ve heard about this novel is that there’s no worldbuilding. I disagree, to a point. There’s an elemental magic system, various empires and nations all trying to out-politic each other, and some hints at different pantheons and religious beliefs. The problem is that it’s not really expanded upon. Whereas some books will spend paragraphs telling you about how magic X works, Truthwitch takes a more, I guess you could say, minimalist approach. There’s nothing wrong with that but there were times that I wished the author had elaborated more on certain points.

If I had to name one thing I didn’t like about this book, I think I could sum it up in one word: Merik. Merik is the Prince of the impoverished nation of Nubrevna, desperate to forge a trade agreement or two to keep his country from being set upon by its neighbours, he’s also Safi’s Obvious Love Interest. Initially, I liked their playful bantering back and forth, that is, until he puts Safi and his aunt in leg irons on a ship for an entire day because he needs to maintain the loyalty of his crew. It was at this point that I completely lost interest in this character.

Another issue I had with the book is despite the emphasis on the friendship between Safi and Iseult they spend a fair chunk of the book separated until everything goes to shit. While we do get a glimpse of Iseult’s life before Safi and I understand why they separated, both characters are at their best when they are together, and it was these chapters in particular that I felt were the slowest parts of the book.

In terms of diversity, Iseult is described as having “slanted” eyes and her culture is basically (stereotypically) Romani in all but name (she is even referred to with the fantastic slur “‘Matsi”). There’s a minor black character, Ryber, and the powerful Empress of Marstok is described as having “bronze” skin. Safi herself is described as “tan”. In fact, Iseult, with her pale skin, is seen as unusual, although I should mention that the nation where they live is based on Venice, so it’s one of those ambiguous “are they tan white people or people of colour?” situations. In addition, Vaness, though powerful, is still a minor antagonist. In terms of LGBT representation, Matthew and Habim, Safi and Iseult’s mentors, are described as “heart-threads” which, if Ryber and Kullen are any indication, means that they are at the very least romantically involved, if not sexually. Overall, I’d say Truthwitch could use some work on the diversity front. It’s disappointing that there’s a main character of colour (and possibly two, depending on how you interpret Safi’s skin colour) whose family is depicted in such a stereotypical way.

Overall though? I loved Truthwitch despite its missteps. I loved the themes of friendship and found family. The action scenes were some of the most vivid I’ve read in a book, and most of the characters were interesting. I can’t wait to read Windwitch!

Game Review: Persona 5

There was a time when I thought I wasn’t going to get to review this title, in 2016 when everyone thought the apocalypse was nigh, but it’s 2017 now, year of amazing game releases that offer amazing worlds to explore and problems to solve, escapes from reality that help you forget about all your mundane problems.

In Persona 5‘s case, the amazing world is Tokyo and the problem is high school.

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This is actually the cover of the fantastic steelbook edition. I LOVE PS4 steelbooks.

In Persona 5, like its predecessors Persona 3 and Persona 4, you assume the role of an ordinary high school student. After attempting to stop an assault, the protagonist is arrested, branded a criminal, and sent away to attend the only school that would take him: Shujin Academy. As he’s settling into his new home, a cramped attic space above his new guardian’s coffee shop, he discovers a mysterious app on his phone. Later he discovers that the app is the gateway to the Metaverse, a space where the desires of corrupt adults become Palaces where they hide their deepest, darkest secrets. Seeking to change the hearts of these corrupted adults, the protagonist and his friends become the costumed vigilantes dubbed the “Phantom Thieves of Hearts” who infiltrate Palaces to steal the Treasure at its heart, thus changing the heart of the corrupt adult in the real world.

Persona 5, like its predecessors, marries typical JRPG dungeon-crawling, treasure-finding, and boss-fighting to a life simulation where you make friends, try to ace your tests, juggle three part time jobs, hit the batting cages, brew coffee, watch movies at the theatre, and possibly find time for romance. You know, just like real life. You’ll typically attend classes during the day. When classes are out, you can choose to hang out with other characters or participate in activities to raise your social stats, or you can choose to infiltrate a Palace. Infiltrating a Palace takes up the afternoon and evening, so you usually can’t do anything else that day if you choose to go dungeon-crawling. To make matters more complicated, you only have so much time to steal the Treasure before something really bad happens, fail to steal the Treasure before the deadline, and it’s game over. This means you do need to manage your time somewhat: do you make progress in the Palace or do you hang out with the friend who asked if you wanted to go to a movie that day? Fortunately, the game is generous with its deadlines for the most part and you can usually complete a Palace within the first three days at the start of the mission.

Palaces are Persona 5’s dungeons, they’re all unique and reflect their owner’s personality. Unlike Persona 3 and Persona 4, which had randomly generated dungeon floors, Persona 5’s dungeons are hand-crafted. Enemy shadows roam the dungeon, and coming into contact with them initiates a battle. Persona 5 takes a more stealth-based approach to gameplay (you are thieves, after all), you can hide behind objects in the level and ambush enemies to gain an advantage in battle. If an enemy spots you, the Palace’s security level will rise, and if it reaches 100%, you’ll be kicked out of the dungeon and need to return the next day. Safe rooms can be found throughout the dungeon where you can save your game, check your progress in the dungeon, and heal up using items that can only be used in safe rooms. Palaces also contain puzzles, these puzzles generally won’t keep you awake for days trying to solve them, but they’re a nice break from battling.

Speaking of battles, the endless menus of the previous games have been mostly done away with in favour of every action being mapped to a controller button. Press X to attack with your melee weapon, press Circle to guard, you can see and target enemy weaknesses with the press of a button. Persona 5 uses the familiar “One More” system, where targeting enemy weaknesses knocks them down and gives you an extra turn, managing to knock all enemies down allows you to perform a powerful All-Out Attack, or to negotiate with the shadows. Negotiation is a staple of the Shin Megami Tensei series and the earlier Persona games, but it disappeared in 3 and 4. You can negotiate with shadows for money, items, or their mask (which allows you to summon them as a persona). Negotiation is basically a matter of choosing options you think the shadow might like and hoping the RNG likes you. Occasionally, if you leave an enemy on the brink of death, they will attempt to negotiate with you, which is an easy way to gain their mask if they don’t have easily exploitable weaknesses. Speaking of exploitable weaknesses, enemies can also exploit your party’s weaknesses. It can be frustrating yet hilarious to watch enemies ambush you and then proceed to destroy your party before you even get a chance to react. The enemies may also take your party members hostage, failing to negotiate their release will make them unusable for the rest of the encounter. While still very much a turn-based battle system, the player feels a bit more involved in the action. Once you’ve obtained personas, you can take them to that old series staple, the Velvet Room, and fuse them together, sacrifice a persona to strengthen another, put them in “lockdown” to train them, or turn them into various items. Speaking of fusion, you have much more control over skill inheritance, especially when you factor in skill cards that you can use to give a persona certain skills.

The ability to form bonds with your party members and other characters has been an important part of the series since Persona 3. Persona 5 calls these relationships Confidants rather than Social Links. Each confident is linked to one of the Major Arcana, and usually all it takes to increase a confidant’s rank is to have a Persona of the same arcanum in your stock when you speak to them, but some levels might require certain social stats to proceed (for instance, a character won’t even speak to you if your knowledge isn’t at rank 3). While previous games treated social links as ways to give experience bonuses to personas during fusion, Persona 5‘s confidants all have impacts on the gameplay. For instance, one allows you to brew coffee and make curry, which is used to restore SP (used for skills), a valuable skill since SP-restoring items are few and far between. Another confidant might help you with negotiation, give you access to unique skills in combat, or allow you to do more things during the day. Each confidant has their own story and issues to overcome, and this ties into the second major dungeon area of the game: Mementos. In a nutshell, Mementos is everyone’s Palace, for regular people who are not quite evil enough to have their own Palace, but have still fallen victim to corruption. Occasionally (either through the Phantom Thieves’ fansite manager or your other confidants) you’ll receive requests to change someone’s heart in Mementos. It’s basically a matter of heading in, wandering around until you find the area with their shadow, and beating their shadow to complete the quest. Since Palaces disappear after you steal their Treasure, Mementos is your go-to grinding spot as well as a place to obtain Personas you missed in the Palaces.

Persona 5 might not have the most cutting edge graphics in the industry, but one thing it does have is style. Everything from the main character’s climbing animation to the menus oozes style. The shadows/personas themselves look fantastic in HD and this absolutely needs to be a series standard now. Even the (awesome) victory screen seamlessly transitions to the dungeon. It just looks so cool. While Persona 3‘s colour scheme was a melancholy blue and Persona 4‘s was a more upbeat yellow, Persona 5 has an aggressive red colour scheme that fits its themes of revolution and change. The soundtrack is amazing. “Rivers in the Desert” (a track that plays during certain boss battles) is one of my favourite boss themes in the entire series. I also love the upbeat “Life Will Change” which plays when you infiltrate a Palace for the final time to steal the Treasure. “Beneath the Mask” the track that plays during the evenings and on rainy days, has that “relaxing with a hot beverage and a book” feel.

I’ve been talking a lot about the game’s systems and not so much about my own personal opinions, but I think most of my readers are aware that I love this series, and this game is no exception. I loved hanging out with my party members. Persona 3 and 4 by no means had awful social links, but I found that I genuinely wanted to hang out with the confidants. I looked forward to messages they would send me asking if I wanted to go to a movie or hang out at the coffee shop. I liked making curry for them. I grew to love these quiet moments outside of battle. By the end of the game I was wishing it let me spend more time with the social aspects than the actual dungeons (not that the dungeons are awful). Their stories range from a washed-up politician trying to atone for his past mistakes to a woman who needs the courage to leave an exploitative cult, to fake dating one of your party members so she can check up on one of her friends, and, as I said, each one has an impact on other systems in the game. I absolutely loved the way Persona 5 makes you feel like a mysterious phantom thief, complete with sending a calling card to the target the day before you steal their Treasure. The actual heists, where you infiltrate the Palaces while an awesome track “Life Will Change” is playing in the background will make you feel like a badass. One last thing, boss fights have interesting strategies and at times you can send a teammate to perform special actions to weaken the boss. While this does make the majority of bosses ridiculously easy, I thought it was an interesting “hold the line” mechanic.

I also love the little touches in this game, like the fact that the tarot images you see when you rank up a confidant are from the Marseilles tradition instead of the Rider-Waite Smith, to the way the protagonist rakes his hand through his hair when he gets out of the bath. One minigame I loved was the flower shop part time job, where you have to choose the right flowers to match the customer’s order.

One major criticism I have is the fact that the game won’t let you do anything else that day even if all you’ve done is talk to your friends. The game makes you waste days doing nothing but meetings with your friends and sleeping. While I do appreciate, just as a person, that Morgana is reminding the protagonist to take care of himself and makes sure that he’s getting enough sleep, as a player it’s frustrating (so much so that Morgana telling the protagonist to go to sleep is a meme). It feels like Atlus is anticipating the release of “Persona 5 Crimson” which will give players more time to do things (which is another issue for another day) but at present, it’s really annoying that a game about time management doesn’t appear to respect your time. The other thing that I’m salty about is the fact that while the protagonist can initiate romantic relationships with any of the lady confidants (including his teacher) he can’t date the guys. While this is unsurprising seeing as Japan is still very conservative and there are few protections for non-straight, non-cis people, it’s particularly unfortunate considering a major theme of the game is rebellion against systems of oppression. To add insult to injury, two recurring characters are a stereotypical gay couple who exist to make Ryuji and the protagonist uncomfortable. I also didn’t like how Ann, a sexual abuse survivor, is constantly sexualized by the game and other characters even though she’s obviously uncomfortable (not to mention being body-shamed by Ryuji for liking sweets). Many people have pointed out that Lala Escargot, a trans woman (or drag queen) who works in a not-gay bar in Shinjuku, is a more positive portrayal of queer identities. The game refers to her with the correct pronouns and she is the voice of reason in Ohya’s confidant events (as well as your employer if you choose to work there), but she still speaks in a stereotypical husky masculine voice and plays a support role in Ohya’s story. Personally, I didn’t care for Ohya as a confidant and think that Lala’s story would be much more interesting, but it’s important to acknowledge that one positive portrayal doesn’t change the fact that someone decided to stick some gross stereotyping in their game, especially since Persona 2 gave us the option to have Tatsuya voice his attraction to Jun. In terms of actual gameplay things, the second to last dungeon was a long drag and culminated in a series of boss fights without an opportunity for a break. I also would’ve liked to see more opportunities to avoid combat (there’s a point where you have to convince some NPCs to give you invitations and there’s no option to avoid a fight completely). Lastly, I found the game overall to be pretty easy. The boss I had the most trouble with was the second story boss, but after that it was mostly smooth sailing barring some enemies getting the drop on me.

In terms of potentially triggery content. The opening scenes involve the protagonist being drugged and beaten by police. The very first antagonist you encounter is physically abusing male students and sexually abusing female students, including an implied sexual assault that drives one student to attempt suicide. There’s another suicide later in the game, but it’s revealed to be a murder. One of your party members is threatened with the prospect of sex slavery. The “bad ends” you reach by failing to complete palaces before the deadline also reference suicide and sex slavery. Several sidequests involve abusive boyfriends and girlfriends, abusive family members or bosses, stalkers, animal abusers, and other unpleasant people. A number of characters have unpleasant home lives that involve abuse or neglect of some sort. Suffice it to say if it’s something awful humans can do to other humans, it’s probably in this game in one form or another.

There’s so much more I could say about this game (such as influence of Gnosticism in its narrative) but that would involve heading into spoiler territory. The game has me clocked in at 150 hours and 50 minutes and I’ve only filled half the compendium, maxed about seven confidants, and didn’t even try activities like fishing. There’s so much to do that Persona 5 is easily worth your time and money despite its shortcomings and my personal gripes.

Game Review: The Sexy Brutale

So far 2017 has been a year of one hit after another. Persona 5 has been keeping me from the many, many games in my backlog (including hits like Horizon: Zero Dawn). I’m in the midst of a deluge of great games, not that I’m complaining, I’d just like a bit of a break! Okay, game devs?

Inevitably with the release of so many big budget games in such a short span, some smaller projects don’t get the attention they deserve, I’m here to talk a little about one of them.

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The Sexy Brutale is an adventure/puzzle game from Tequila Works, and takes place in the titular mansion turned casino. You are Lafcadio Boone, one of the guests of the mansion’s mysterious owner, the Marquis, during a masquerade. Unfortunately, the staff at The Sexy Brutale are inexplicably murdering the other guests, and it’s up to you to foil their murder plots and figure out just what the heck is going on.

What makes reviewing this game difficult is that pretty much everything story-related outside of the synopsis I just gave is a spoiler. The Sexy Brutale is not a long experience, my playthrough took about eight hours and I didn’t manage to find all the collectables, so this is one that you definitely should play for yourself if it interests you.

The Sexy Brutale takes an interesting approach to puzzle solving, instead of stockpiling items and combining them to make new items, the puzzles in this game are more about observation and timing. Lafcadio can’t interact with any of the other characters or the masks they wear detach and chase him until he leaves the room or dies (apparently you can die but I never did), so instead he has to follow both killers and victims at a distance, hide in cabinets, and foil murder plots behind the scenes like a guardian angel who moonlights as a stagehand. When you save a guest, you obtain their mask, which unlocks a special ability that you can use to solve later puzzles. And speaking of timing, the day resets when the clock strikes midnight, any items you’ve gathered up to that point vanish, but you keep any information you may have discovered, like a password or a door code. You can rewind or fast-forward time to certain points almost as often as you like, so if you’ve missed the window of opportunity to save the guests, you can rewind time straight away and try again.

What I liked most about the puzzles is that they’re deceptively simple. Chances are if you’re having trouble with a puzzle you’re likely overthinking it. One early puzzle had me wandering around the casino for hours when the solution was literally as simple as flicking a couple switches. There were some hiccups where I had no idea where to go, but usually figuring out how to progress was a matter of following someone around until they dropped a key piece of information. I wouldn’t say the puzzles are particularly hard, but it’s easy to assume they’re complicated when the opposite is true.

I particularly love the way sound and music is used in this game. The music will reach a crescendo to let you know that time is running out for the murder victims, then fall silent when the deed is done. It can be really disconcerting when you’re just wandering around and the music starts to pick up, even more so when you’re racing against the clock to save them before it’s too late. There are also a couple of really amazing vocal tracks.

In terms of potential triggers, one of the deaths is a suicide by hanging and you need to interact with something near the body to progress. The setting is a casino and the lore will hit home for anyone with a gambling addiction. The various deaths can be hard to watch. What lore I managed to unlock was pretty creepy.

In terms of diversity, Trinity is blind and Thanos uses a wheelchair (I don’t know if there’s another name for it). Aurum, Willow, and Greyson appear to have darker skin in the official art. While there’s no explicit confirmation in canon, the game implies that one male character has feelings for another but as far as I know there’s no indication that those feelings are reciprocated.

I almost passed on The Sexy Brutale because of the price (21.99 CAD) but I’m glad I didn’t. The ending is one that will stay with me, and I still have a lot of lore, playing cards (you can collect an entire deck’s worth of playing cards) and invitations to collect. I’m not sure if I will return to the Sexy Brutale any time soon, but it was an experience that I do not regret. If you enjoy puzzle games and you like murder mysteries–with a twist in that you’re not figuring out who done it but how to stop it from happening–The Sexy Brutale is an easy recommendation.