Review: The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

For some reason, the more I try to avoid vampire books, the more vampire books I end up reading. I don’t have anything against vampire books, in fact, I prefer vampire books to werewolf books any day of the week, but vampires have become such a staple of certain genres that they’re almost boring. What attracted me to The Coldest Girl in Coldtown was the striking cover and the fact that it was getting some rave reviews from some of the more critical review blogs I check on occasion.

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After a perfectly ordinary party, Tana wakes up surrounded by corpses. The only survivor of the massacre is her ex, Aidan, who has been infected by vampires, and a mysterious boy with a terrible secret. Determined to save them, Tana enters a race against the clock to bring them to Coldtown, an opulent prison where predator and prey mingle and no one ever leaves, with the odds stacked against her and an ex with an unquenchable thirst for human blood, can Tana find a way to save them both? Or will she find herself falling for a monster.

This book is one of the most melodramatic books I’ve ever read.

The best way to describe this book is take almost every popular trope in vampire fiction, and a heaping pile of melodramatic prose, and sprinkle with quotes from Romantic period poets. In the hands of any other writer it could have been disastrous, but somehow it ends up working. It’s clearly a love letter to books that have come before it, but it’s also a weird beast. It’s like it’s so dramatic that it would normally be awful but somehow, somehow it isn’t. or else I was willing to tolerate it.

It helps that the main character Tana is a bit more realistic than a typical heroine in a vampire story. Although I found myself questioning her actions at the beginning, she quickly grew on me, and it’s hard not to hate a scared young woman trying desperately to help her friends when her entire world is going to hell in a handbasket. Gavriel is more of an enigma, straddling the line between romantic hero (with an appropriate tragic backstory) and monster, and Tana is all too aware of that even as she realizes she’s falling for him (tropes, remember?). The book doesn’t let her (or the reader) be complacent, and just as you’re starting to warm to the vampires, the fangs come out and remind you that while they might have pretty faces, they are still Other, and the Other is dangerous. One thing I also appreciated is that this book is a standalone title, so prospective readers don’t have to worry about committing to a series.

That said, although I liked the book, it’s definitely not one I’ll be reading year after year. I had to be in a particular mood to appreciate it, and I also feel that while the abundance of tropes adds to the book’s charm, I felt like there were ample opportunities to try something different, although the major twist at the end was interesting. I can easily see that it won’t be to everyone’s taste, and I completely understand anyone who says they’re turned off by the melodrama. This is a book that begins every chapter with a quote from Romantic poets about death, after all, which seems like something out of angsty fanfiction.

In terms of diversity, there are a few characters of colour, the most prominent being Jameson, who is Latino, and Valentina is a trans girl (who, interestingly, came to Coldtown wanting to be turned because she couldn’t afford gender confirmation surgery). Aidan, Tana’s ex, is bisexual, a flawed character who makes a number of questionable decisions but eventually comes through in the end.

Potential triggers include copious descriptions of blood-drinking as well as bloody imagery in general, the vampires in this book mostly drink with the aid of stints and needles. There’s also at least one explicit description of torture.

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown is a strange book that I would have absolutely hated if it had been written by anyone else. I won’t say I absolutely 200% loved it, and it was incredibly slow at times. but I ended up liking it despite my initial impression of it as too melodramatic for its own good. It’s definitely not for everyone but if you want a weird homage to modern vampire fiction, this just might be your ticket.

Deck Review: The Green Witch Tarot

I have a weakness for “Pagan” decks even though I recognize, as a non-Wiccan, that most of them don’t cater to people who aren’t some flavour of Wiccan. Usually I like to wait until decks come out to get a glimpse of as much of the art as possible, but in this case, I was captivated as soon as the first preview images were available.

Green Witch Tarot Cover

The author of the companion book is Ann Moura, and the artist is Kiri Østergaard Leonard. The deck is billed as one that will help you “align with the natural energies of the Old Religion.” The deck and companion book are packaged in the same flimsy Llewellyn box as decks like the Tarot of Vampyres. The cards are the typical size for decks published by Llewellyn, but are borderless, the card stock is thin and flimsy. Many of the majors have been renamed to reflect (Neo-) Wiccan principles. The Hierophant is the High Priest, Death is the Lord of Shadows, the Fool is the Greenman, the Devil is Nature, Strength is the Crone and so on and so forth. The suit names are chalices, wands, athames, and pentacles, and the courts are King, Queen, Knight, and Page.

The major draw of this deck for me is the art. The deck has a very romanticized rustic feel, from the Knight of Pentacles atop her sturdy workhorse to the dramatic Wild Hunt scene in the titular Wild Hunt card (the Tower in traditional tarot), to the beautiful fairy bathing in a pool in the Star. This deck is a feast for the eyes, and each has a plant and animal associated with it that is featured on that card. The images are just detailed enough to spark your intuition but not so detailed that the cards seem busy. It really is easy to get lost in these images. Many of the images in poster form could easily fit into a ritual room if you’re into a certain “witchy” aesthetic.

The book is a full companion book that is about 240 pages. Every card gets a large black and white image and about a page of information. The majors also have a section where you can write notes. The book also includes seven spreads: Witch’s Circle (Celtic Cross), Elemental Cross, Wheel of the Year, Mystic Pyramid, Nine-Card Square, a Yes/No spread, and a Tree of Life spread.

Although all four seasons are depicted in this deck, this deck has a very autumnal feel to me, or at least a harvest theme. As someone who loves autumn and farmer’s markets, I immediately took to this deck. It’s the sort of deck you can curl up with in front of a fire with a hot drink. In some ways it reminds me of the Victorian Fairy Tarot. As for how it reads, I’d say the deck did pretty good with test readings, and a single card can tell some interesting stories.

That said, I did have a few issues with this deck. The deck is a very white deck, and there isn’t a lot of variation in the faces of the characters (the same man with the dark goatee shows up in multiple cards), except for two cards, which depict men of size, and one that depicts a pregnant woman, there’s no variation in body type either. The book also focuses on the positive, acting as if the dire events in some cards (like the Three of Athames) have already happened. While it’s not as unfailingly positive as some of my other decks, some might be put off by it. My other issue with this deck is that the interpretations in the book are overwhelmingly focused on career-specific advice. This would be fine if the deck was called “Career Advice for the Green Witch” but my impression based on promotional materials was that it could be used for more general readings. It’s not unusable by any means, it just would have been nice to have more general interpretations that didn’t have anything to do with advancing your career. A couple of the images also appeared to be a bit stretched, which didn’t really bother me until someone else pointed it out. On a more personal level, I really don’t like the Fool/Greenman card, which depicts a giant floating Green Man head above what seems to be some sort of festival scene. It just felt really jarring to have that be the first image I saw of the deck.

In sum, this deck is a vibrant, comforting deck only slightly let down by the companion book’s focus on career and and it’s positive slant. I should also note that Anne Moura’s books are full of the same sort of misinformation that plagues other Llewellyn Wiccan 101 books, so I wouldn’t see this as an exhaustive resource on the tarot. Still, despite its shortcomings (especially its lack of diversity) it’s one of my favourite decks of 2015 and one I’ll be using quite frequently.

Review: Chapelwood

One of my favourite books of 2015 was Maplecroft, which was a wonderful melancholic Lovecraftian horror tale starring a queer Lizzie Borden with great atmosphere. I was very excited to read the sequel, hoping that it would be as good as its predecessor.

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Birmingham, Alabama is a hotbed of prejudice and hatred. A serial killer stalks the streets, hacking couples apart with an axe, while in the church known as Chapelwood, worshipers seek to summon beings from beyond the stars. The darkness calls to Lizzie Borden, who arrives in town searching for someone thought long lost, but she doesn’t have much time, for the parishioners of Chapelwood seek to sacrifice a woman to summon beings never meant to share space with humanity, unless her and her allies stop them in time.

This book takes place some time after Maplecroft, Lizzie Borden is now much older and Emma has passed on. Since her passing, Lizzie has lived a life of quiet isolation, whereas Inspector Wolf has returned to Boston. A third prominent character is Ruth Gussman, who finds herself in a precarious position when her father falls in with the Chapelwood crowd, who, as you might expect, are up to no good.

Given H.P. Lovecraft’s stance on racial issues, it’s ironic (and likely this is intentional) that the source of the unrest (Lovecraftian or otherwise) are racists in general and the KKK in particular, like Maplecroft, this book also drips with atmosphere, with Storage Room Six being particularly unnerving, especially if you find yourself constantly losing track of things or you work in an environment that uses large storage facilities.

While I enjoyed this book, I found it to be much slower than Maplecroft. There’s a little bit of action towards the end, but the bulk of the book is concerned with a trial and its aftermath. In that sense, it reminds me of To Kill a Mockingbird meets Cthulhu. I also found that the ending was a bit anticlimactic. I read somewhere that Cherie Priest didn’t intend to write a sequel to Maplecroft, and that’s definitely reflected in this book. It’s not an awful book by any means, it just could have used a bit more action. I feel like part of the reason for this underwhelming feeling is the lack of Lizzie in general in this story. She’s definitely present, but the focus has shifted largely to Inspector Wolf and Ruth, and while they aren’t bad characters, Lizzie’s absence in this story is definitely felt.

For a book with racism and prejudice as major themes, there’s a definite lack of characters of colour. The most prominent is Pedro, but as he is a day labourer, we don’t get to see much of him. Speaking of racism, the book also uses historically accurate but racist language to describe people of colour in general and black people in particular, and derogatory terms to describe Catholics.

I feel like I should say more about this book, but the fact of the matter is that it didn’t leave as strong as an impression on me as Maplecroft. Maplecroft was one of my favourite books that I read in 2015, but unfortunately this one kind of fell flat. That said, I am interested in future books from this author, and hopefully you’ll see more reviews of her works on this blog in the months to come.

Game Review: Pillars of Eternity

I love RPGs: Western RPGs, JRPGs, action RPGs, games with RPG elements, all kinds of RPGs, so when I heard that Obsidian, the studio behind such gems as Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, wanted to make an old school RPG in the vein of the old Infinity Engine games, I backed it right away on Kickstarter.

Pillars of Eternity is about an ordinary person who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Your journey begins with you accompanying a caravan into the Dyrwood pursuing a fresh start. Soon after, you witness a terrifying event and find yourself thrust into the role of a Watcher, a person with the ability to see into the souls of others. Your journey will take you across the Dyrwood in the hope of finding out what has happened to you and whether you can free yourself from your new burden.

Pillars of Eternity is an isometric CRPG, a style of RPG which has become less popular in recent years but is enjoying a resurgence thanks to funding platforms like Kickstarter. If you’ve never played a CRPG like Pillars before, it’s difficult to find a point of comparison, if you’ve ever played Dragon Age Origins on “tactical mode”, it’s kind of like that with tighter controls.

The game starts, naturally, with character creation. You choose staples like race (with a number of sub-types) and class, but also background and place of origin. These choices aren’t just cosmetic, they have an effect on how NPCs treat you and what you can equip. Godlikes, for instance, have some sort of protrusion that makes it impossible to equip helmets and other headgear. For my first character, I broke my own tradition of playing a human mage and opted to play as a Moon Godlike Cipher (a class focused on using psychic abilities to manipulate others’ souls directly instead of using complex formulae like Wizards or songs like Chanters) named Paresh whose background was as an Old Vailian Aristocrat. As always, I tried to do “good” and honest things over acting like an asshole.

Unless you’re dedicated to soloing your journey of discovery (which you can apparently do with the right build), you’ll probably want some companions to help you out. The game gives you the option to create your own party from scratch a la Temple of Elemental Evil, but you’ll also meet a variety of colourful companions you can recruit, including Eder, a farmer turned fighter who is a follower of the persecuted Eothasian faith who is looking for an answer as to why his brother fought on the opposing side during a war, Aloth, an elven mage with some interesting secrets, Pallegina, an avian godlike who joined an all=male knighthood on a technicality who is caught between duty to her superiors and her conviction that there is a better way to help the Republics, Sagani, a dwarven hunter who is searching for the reincarnation of her village elder, and others. Each companion has a personal quest and the outcome of that quest (as well as how you treat them throughout the narrative) determines which of a few different endings you get. The characters all have depth and they all have a central conflict that you can influence. You can also gain reputation with various factions, which affects everything from which quests are available to you to the ultimate fate of a settlement. One of my favourite aspects of reputation is the way your decisions shape your character’s personality and open up different dialogue options (in one case, an Honest character will have an easier time giving testimony during a certain event, whereas a Cruel character gets more opportunities to be a complete asshole).

Combat is definitely one area of the game that sounds complicated but actually isn’t as hard as the fanbase or critics are saying it is. In a nutshell, enemies have four defense types: Deflection, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, higher numbers indicate more defenses against that sort of damage. For instance, an enemy with high Fortitude but low Reflex might resist most status effects but be susceptible to area of effect spells, whereas an enemy with low Deflection is very susceptible to melee attacks. It’s often a matter of checking enemy stats to find the lowest number and then using spells and abilities that cause damage against that attribute, provided you’ve fought enough of those enemies that you can tell what those numbers are in advance. Combat (at least at the time of release) involves adjusting the position of your fighters and coordinating their attacks, as (again, at the time of release) they didn’t have much in the way of AI. Some might dislike this level of micromanagement, but fortunately you can (and should) pause the game to issue orders. The “with pause” part of “real time with pause” makes combat much less stressful. Another important part of combat is health and endurance. In a nutshell, endurance is short term injury and is refilled at the end of battle and through healing potions, food, and spells. Health is long term injury and can only be recovered through resting. On every difficulty except Easy, if a character’s health is depleted, they permanently die. There are no resurrection spells or the like in this world. There’s something about the combat that is deeply satisfying, especially when you score a critical and the enemy explodes into giblets. There’s also something deeply satisfying about emerging from a fight with no unconscious party members, especially if you were like me and had trouble with the dungeons at the beginning. The fact that someone like me, who had immense trouble with the Infinity Engine games, can conquer the bonus dungeon and kill the challenging bonus boss is proof that the game is not nearly as difficult as everyone is making it out to be (or else I’m better at delegating than I thought).

While I was playing this I was also playing Dragon Age Inquisition, and I think modern RPGs like DAI could learn a thing or two from Pillars of Eternity‘s quest design. Whereas DAI had me running all over the Hinterlands looking for letters and corpses and endless distractions like shard hunts and constellation puzzles, Pillars of Eternity had fewer things to do (some areas are practically empty except for monsters) but made up for it in quality. Almost every quest has something more to it. Almost every quest is more than it initially appears to be. Even simple quests like “kill this bear in this cave” or “deliver this ring” tell stories of treachery or desperation, and many of them give you opportunities to develop your character’s personality as well as dole out precious experience. The bulk of experience is gained through completing quests, you do get some experience for killing monsters, but (at least when the game was released) you stop gaining experience when you’ve learned about them. You can also gain experience through exploring new areas and interacting with the world (unlocking chests, disarming traps, etc.).

The graphical style should be familiar to you if you’ve ever played this sort of RPG. The graphics are 2D and made by rendering high quality 3D models but the effects and characters are in 3D. Pillars has gotten some flack for its “old” graphics, but while it might not have sprawling vistas like Skyrim, the Dyrwood is still very pretty and objects like the “Gilded Vale Welcome Tree” would provoke an emotional reaction from me regardless of rendering. The music is another high point, with tracks that reminded me of the likes of Icewind Dale and Morrowind. Although there is little voice acting, it’s all pretty great with no voices that I really hated. Durance’s voice actor in particular nailed the “fire and brimstone preacher” personality, and Matthew Mercer is truly a man of a thousand voices.

Keep in mind that the few negative points I have may or may not have been fixed with a patch since then, but when the game first came out, the AI had a really annoying pathing problem where they would run back and forth instead of moving around to strike at an enemy. Although your party members are all very interesting, I feel as if Sagani, Pallegina, and especially Grieving Mother weren’t given as much attention as Aloth, Eder, and Durance. Grieving Mother is a particularly egregious case because the Watcher is the only one who can see who she actually is, limiting opportunities for party banter, and you can also permanently lose her at least twice in the story if you make the wrong decisions (although the second time you deserve it, you monster). Ciphers at the time of release seemed somewhat overpowered, with plenty of abilities that could knock an opponent down or make enemies attack each other, although I hear they have since been nerfed. The game is also pretty difficult at the beginning, and one of the earliest dungeons, the Temple of Eothas, can easily wipe the floor with your party and laugh. Stick with the game, however, and characters like Eder and Aloth become practically superhuman (casters starting off weak and then becoming powerhouses by the end game are apparently a staple of the Infinity Engine games). Miraculously, I didn’t encounter any game-breaking bugs, something that Obsidian games are infamous for having.

Pillars of Eternity might look like a standard fantasy romp in a standard fantasy setting but its also a very bleak world where terrible things happen to good people. In that sense, it’s very much a successor to Planescape: Torment. Rape is mentioned but never depicted in a couple quests, war and its effects on the land are ever present, human sacrifice (which can be performed by the player), death by hanging, and violence against children are all present, as are parental and spousal abuse, and this is barely scratching the surface of the dickish things the player can do. Suffice it to say if you can think of a way that a person can suffer, this game probably has it. No character earned quite as much ire from me than Durance, with his sexist comments and leers to his hatred of absolutely everyone, he is, as someone on tumblr put it “such a white boy”. My dislike for Durance is so great that someone actually messaged me asking how they could avoid recruiting him. Unfortunately, as he’s a priest, if you want to do a playthrough with no player-created characters and you’re not a priest/ess yourself, you’ll want to have him around, and to be fair, Hiravias is at least as filthy as Durance and doesn’t get half my scorn.

In terms of diversity, Pallegina, Sagani, and Kana are people of colour. Pallegina is black, and Sagani’s people clearly resemble the Inuit, Kana is a bit more ambiguously brown. Interestingly, the dominant culture in the Republics (which resembles Italy) are the dark-skinned Calbandra (also known as “ocean folk”). I do wish, however, that at least one of them was a normal human like Eder, Durance, and Grieving Mother. There isn’t much in terms of queer representation outside of backer-created content (the little stories that appear when you view an NPC’s soul), although a quest may be about a female captain and her lover, and two of the deities, Berath and Wael, have male and female aspects (Berath) or are flat out seen as genderless (Wael) although the decision to use “It” for Wael’s pronoun wasn’t the best decision. An interesting bit of lore concerns godlikes, who are legally seen as agender regardless of how they present or identify, which becomes a plot point in Pallegina’s story.

In short, Pillars of Eternity was one of the best RPGs I played last year and if you’re looking for a great RPG and don’t mind a bit of a learning curve or difficult beginning levels, I absolutely recommend it. Steam has me clocked in at 96 hours although the in-game clock says around 60, but regardless of my exact time, it’s an RPG that focuses on quality over quantity, and when so many RPGs seem to be focused on cramming the most stuff in as possible, Pillars of Eternity is a breath of fresh air.

Spotlight: My Lady from Michaela Laws

This isn’t a review per se as the game itself is very short, but Michaela Laws (who is behind the free otome game Seduce Me the Otome) has a new game out called My Lady, about a young woman who is in love with her butler.

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You can buy it now for a dollar if it’s your thing and support more great games from this woman. For a buck it will keep you entertained for at least an hour and there are five endings. My only criticism is I wish it was longer, but honestly I’ve paid more money for an hour’s worth of entertainment so it definitely wasn’t a waste.

Also there are chess motifs. Who doesn’t like chess motifs? I don’t actually know how to play chess I just like chess motifs.

TBH, lately I’ve been playing Amnesia (the otome game, not the horror game) and it’s nice to play a game that has a sweet romance and isn’t stuffed with jerkasses.

Game Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC

The trails series has quickly become one of my favourite series. The first chapter alone was a huge game with NPCs who constantly had something new to say, and it actually felt like the characters were wandering around doing a job. In fact, the only teal complaint I had was that the combat system was nothing special.

Trails in the Sky SC kicks its predecessor in the pants.

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The first thing you need to know about this game is that the second chapter takes place right after the first, so you’ll want to play it first to understand what the heck is going on. It’s difficult to talk about the plot without completely spoiling both games, but suffice it to say that it involves Estelle and friends going toe to toe with the mysterious Society of Ouroborous. Secrets revealed and shocking twists are the order of the day. Seriously, you don’t want to be spoiled, stay away from TV Tropes and the like until you’ve finished the game.

Not much has changed in terms of gameplay from its predecessor. You still insert quartz into slots in order to use Arts (basically magic) and grant passive abilities. This time around, you can (and should) upgrade your slots to hold more powerful quartz. In battle, you can now perform combos with other characters, but only if you have enough CP. Combos can be used to quickly finish enemies or allow a character who is out of range of an enemy to strike them, but they honestly don’t add that much to the combat, although destroying an enemy with a well timed combo was pretty satisfying. combat is still pretty slow, and after a while I started avoiding combat in my haste to get to the next story point. The combat is definitely one of the weakest points in both SC and FC. As a bit of an aside, if you’re worried about slow combat being a trend in this series, I’m happy to report that Trails of Cold Steel has vastly superior combat and an awesome battle theme.

In my review of FC, I remarked that the characters don’t really deviate much from their assigned archetype until the very end. SC gives everyone some much needed character development and sheds light on their background, including characters you might not have used much in the first game, like Schera or Zane (who I almost never used). As with FC, some chapters focus on a particular character. Unlike FC, the characters stick with you when their chapter ends for the most part. As expected for a main character, Estelle’s growth is significant. In FC, i often felt like she was overshadowed by Joshua and Cassius, but in SC it feels like she was given more time to grow into her own person. Although she doesn’t always make the smartest decisions, her enthusiasm is infectious and she’s easily one of the most dynamic characters I’ve played as in any JRPG. (I love you Square Enix but sometimes I need less brooding and more cheer.) A newcomer to the cast is Kevin, a wandering priest of the Septian Church who is nearly as big a flirt as Olivier.

Other than the combat, my second complaint is that there’s a lot of backtracking. In fact, you travel the whole (or most) of Liberl at least twice. The first time is arguably necessary to familiarize yourself with the world again and check up on your favourite NPCS (another reason for importing Clear Data from FC: NPCs will remember you helped them and you’ll get extra bits of dialogue), but the second time involves traveling the whole of Liberl on foot again, which just seems excessive. I also didn’t feel like there was much of a point to upgrading your slots a third time since the upgrades are very late in the game and it seems kind of pointless at that point. There aren’t as many hidden quests this time around, but you’ll still need a walkthrough to get the most Bracer Points, as well as to get all of the novel series, Gambler Jack (which can be redeemed for two of the best weapons in the game). I finished the game five BP shy of the max rank and I was following a walkthrough (although, I know I missed a sneaky extra BP by not bringing a certain NPC with me during an early game short term quest (hint: when you need to snap a photo, bring a professional photographer). The game doesn’t have much in the way of replay value (unless you want to get max BP) but it’s still quite a long game. My playthrough was just under 80 hours, which I’m pretty sure is the longest I’ve ever played a single run of a JRPG which average about 30 -40 hours).

Triggery things include implied rape (not of the characters, but during an event that happened in a major war fifty years ago) and it’s also heavily implied that a child character was a survivor of sexual abuse. Schera still fills the role of the sexy mentor but this time she gets a little more character development. As for Estelle and Joshua’s relationship, let’s just say that by the end, it’ll be very hard to think of them as siblings.

There are a bunch of little touches in both games that I like, like the way a character’s name on the status screen will change in response to certain events, or the way the quests are organized as if Estelle is writing in her Bracer notebook. Little things like that are not exclusive to these games, of course, but they make the world seem more alive.

If you haven’t played FC, you absolutely need to play it before playing SC. If you really didn’t like FC, you probably won’t like SC unless you really need to know what happens storywise, but if you loved FC and were clamoring to play SC, you have probably already picked this one up. Trails in the Sky SC may not break any new ground in terms of combat and it may start out slow, but it’s more of the huge world and endearing characters you’ve grown to love over FC.

P.S. Pick Agate, you’ll thank me later.

Game Review: Tales from the Borderlands

“Play Tales from the Borderlands,” said my tumblr friends. “You’ll love it!”

“Do I need to know anything about Borderlands?” I asked. I’m not a fan of shooters, so naturally I skipped the series.

“Nah, you might miss some references but it’s not essential.”

“ok”

Tales from the Borderlands is one of the more recent titles from Telltale Games. In it, players assume the role of Rhys, a salary man for the villainous Hyperion corporation, and Fiona, a Pandoran hustler, as they chase a case full of cash they both think is theirs, a trail that may lead to one of the planet’s elusive Vaults and the greater riches contained within.

In an age where every other game is “dark and mature” and the environments must contain at least sixty shades of brown, Tales from the Borderlands is a fun, funny, and at times just plain weird ride that manages to be hilarious without insulting several minority populations. Seriously, the game is laugh out loud funny. It was such a treat to play a more lighthearted game after the roller coaster ride that was The Walking Dead Season 2.

Also, this game has one of the cutest robots ever. Cutest. Ever.

If you’ve played the previous adventure games from Telltale (The Walking Dead series, The Wolf Among Us, etc.) you’ll know what to expect: a bunch of pointing, clicking, QTEs, and choices. Some of the consequences of your choices are apparent as soon as you make them, others less so. In fact, some choices you make in the first episode don’t bear fruit until the very last episode. There are also plenty of opportunities to shape the main characters’ personalities. Is Rhys a nice guy who just happens to be working for the “wrong” side, or is he desperate to climb the corporate ladder and will cut down anyone in his way? Similarly, is Fiona only in it for the money, or is she one of the nicer members of the cast? I played Rhys as a nice guy and Fiona as a kind, but sly con artist, and both of them snarky.

As far as things to keep in mind, make no mistake, the game is hilarious, but there’s also quite a bit of blood and gore, and a part of the game requires you to gouge someone’s eye out (the subject of some very dark humor). The blood and gore is no less over the top than the rest of the game, but the characters will definitely end up covered in it at some point. The game also makes use of several “imagine spots” where a character will narrate something spectacularly awesome happening and then be interrupted and asked for the true story. (Note that the game uses a framing device where characters are telling the story of how they got there, so unreliable narrator is a thing.)

The Borderlands series has been highlighted by many reviewers for attempting to be more diverse than the typical shooter, and Tales from the Borderlands is no exception. Although Fiona is a bit more ambiguous and appears to be white-passing at least, Sasha is less so, although it’s possible they’re both biracial. Cassius, Yvette, and Finch are unambiguously black and at least one can end up on your final team. There’s also a character from past games who may or may not be Latino (or its fictional equivalent in the Borderlands universe). Unfortunately, most of the characters of color can die during the course of the narrative, although all but one is mandated by the plot and keeping them alive is just a matter of picking the option that amounts to “don’t let them die”. This isn’t The Walking Dead, after all. In terms of disability, main character Rhys has a mechanical right arm. Unfortunately, the only character of size I encountered in the game is a villain, although they are not played for laughs and are intimidating and badass. There’s also a badass queer lady couple you’ll probably be familiar with if you’ve played the other Borderlands games. In fact, you pretty much can’t be successful in this game without being a badass on some level, that means lots of badass women.

If I had one complaint about this game, it’s that sometimes the way the arrows showing which direction to push curved around in a way that I wasn’t sure which one to push, and during one timed sequence, I was a bit confused as to what I needed to do to select something and ended up with an interesting combination for my robot buddy (it wasn’t a big deal).

In short, this game was a treat, from the hilarious subtitles that pop up whenever you meet a new character, to the over the top shenanigans of two unreliable narrators, Tales from the Borderlands was a game I didn’t think I’d like that much and ended up loving. Check it out if you want something that’s equal parts hilarious and action-packed. I for one hope we get at least two more seasons. Seriously when is Season Two happening, I want it.

Game Review: The Walking Dead Season Two

(The following review contains SPOILERS for season one of The Walking Dead game.)

I have no idea why it took me so long to play this because I love Telltale’s adventure games and this one’s been sitting in my Steam library for a few months now.

Season two picks up several months after the first season’s end. Clementine is now traveling with Omid and Christa. After things go south very quickly in the game’s opening scenes, Clementine finds herself alone in the wilderness with no help in sight. The events that follow will test her morals and survival instincts.

If the dominant emotion I felt while playing the first season was sadness, the emotion I felt the most during season two was rage. The second season seemed tailor made to make me angry, and not in a “the controls are broken and this game is terrible” way.  I was angry at the characters, I was angry at the way things kept getting worse all the time, and I was especially angry at Telltale Games for making me feel so angry.

As I said in my previous review of the first season, the zombies almost take a backseat to the interpersonal drama. In fact, the apocalypse could have been, well, anything, and you’d still have desperate people scavenging for survival and being despotic overlords of their own insular communities. Season two gives you a cast of mostly likable characters, so it’s all the more heartbreaking because the player knows that at least some of them will become zombie food (if their fellow survivors don’t kill them first). Even though I knew their deaths were very likely inevitable, I couldn’t help but get attached to Sarah, the sheltered daughter of the doctor in a group Clem meets, or Rebecca, who definitely started off on the wrong foot with Clem but slowly warms up to her. There are also some really great character moments for Clementine, who has been forced to grow up way too fast by the events in the first and second seasons.

The art is the same cell-shaded art of their other adventure games, and it’s only improved since the first season. I didn’t notice the music very much, however, the sad piano music during one of the credits sequences and the return of a familiar track from the first game really had an impact on me.

Few games are perfect, and when compared to the first one, I felt that the second season lacks the raw emotional depth of its predecessor, that is not to say that it doesn’t have its moments where it gets to you–the ending I got made me equal parts angry, frustrated, and sad, but I feel like it’s difficult to care about the characters when you know from experience that the game is going to screw you over. The episodes are also pretty short. Steam has me clocked in at eighteen hours for the first game, and fifteen hours for the second, although, 400 days might have given me a few extra hours. I also found that the prompts for QTEs sometimes blended in to the rest of the scene, but unlike the first game, I was never really stuck on a particular sequence.

As for potentially triggering content, if you thought you’d be spared a gory fate because you’re a child, think again. Clementine can be eaten by zombies, shot in the face, and has to stitch up a wound while fully conscious and aware, a scene that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. As a dog lover, there’s also the death of a dog in the first episode that is particularly heartbreaking. Although the cast is pretty diverse, the only same-sex couple (and even then it’s not outright stated they are a couple, just that one is the other’s “partner”) doesn’t even last half an episode compared to the other couples in the game.

At this point, it seems kind of redundant to say that I enjoyed my time with this game, because Telltale Games could make an adventure game about conceivably anything and I would love it to pieces. If you’ve played Season 1 and 400 Days, you’ve probably already beaten this one. If you haven’t tried this series before, you’ll want to start with the first one (and 400 Days).

Interactive Fiction Wednesday: The Hero of Kendrickstone, Choice of the Petal Throne, Champion of the Gods

Originally I was going to give each of these a separate review, but as they all approach the fantastical in different ways, I thought I’d save time and review all three of them at once.

All three of these are hosted by Choice of Games, you can buy them on their website or on Steam (please consider supporting them on Steam so that more of their titles will appear there). The Hero of Kendrickstone is by Paul Wang (who also wrote Mecha Ace), Choice of the Petal Throne is by Danielle Goudeau (although the source material is by M.A.R. Barker) and Champion of the Gods is by Jonathan Valuckas. In a nutshell, The Hero of Kendrickstone is standard European medieval fantasy, Choice of the Petal Throne is fantasy influenced by South American, Middle Eastern, and Indian cultures and traditions, and Champion of the Gods is inspired by Greek myth and epics. Choice of the Petal Throne is the shortest of the three, whereas Hero of Kendrickstone is the longest, with 240,000 words.

Here are some comments on the individual games.

The Hero of Kendrickstone

Of the three, this one is closest to “comfort food” for people who like D&D. Dragons? Check? Option to play as a Warrior, Rogue, Mage, or Bard? Check. Random apostrophes everywhere? Check. It’s also one of the few CoG games I’ve played with the option to play a non-binary character. The writing style is to the point, not flowery, also not the best I’ve seen in a CoG game (IMHO) but certainly not bad. You can fall in love with a lady knight and one of your patrons is a disabled wizard of colour. Also in your first scene you can kill a dragon by tricking him into knocking down a wall of his cave, and that’s awesome.

If the Hero of Kendrickstone has any flaws, it’s that it rewards rigidly sticking to your chosen archetype, which is fine if you’re a purist, but not so much if you want to get the best ending with a character who dabbles a little in everything, or even if you aren’t that familiar with your character’s role.  Although CoG games have made me cry in the past, the story didn’t really have the emotional impact of the site’s other offerings.

I would recommend The Hero of Kendrickstone if you’re looking for a safe, by-the-numbers, beer and pretzels sort of story. If you’re looking for something a little less “standard”, see my comments for Choice of the Petal Throne below.

Choice of the Petal Throne

Like Choice of the Deathless, Choice of the Petal Throne is based on an established world, in this case, the world of Tekumel (accent on the first “e”) which spans a number of novels, a roleplaying game with both official and unofficial conversions to various systems, and possibly other media I am not aware of as Choice of the Petal Throne is the first I’d heard of it. The world of Tekumel is vast and inspired by a range of non-European cultures and traditions. Naturally, I was all over it when it came to Steam. The writing style is flowery and the story involves politicking, intrigue, epic military fights, and an underground journey to find a mysterious magical artifact.

Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to like it, Choice of the Petal Throne has a couple of shortcomings. The first is that it is very short (even for a CoG game) and just as I was getting invested in the story, the game came to an abrupt end (although I became a pirate so, yay, I guess?). The second major flaw is that it feels like you need to be familiar with the world of Tekumel before playing it, and although the addition of (several) glossaries helps a lot, the game is constantly throwing unfamiliar terms your way, and naming conventions, honorifics, and the like can be pretty confusing at times. This is such a shame, because I feel like the world is vast with plenty of potential, but the game itself doesn’t feel robust enough to do it justice.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible game and I enjoyed my time with it, but this is one I’d recommend getting on sale. It just feels like a lot of potential was wasted when this could have easily been a stellar entry in the CoG family.

Champion of the Gods

Do you remember Clash of the Titans? Yeah, that silly movie. Champion of the Gods is like every corny movie that in some way references Greek mythology. The writing and dialogue is peppered with references to your destiny, you have a great destiny, you must fulfill your destiny.  You must defeat this great evil because destiny says so, your destiny. I can’t tell if the author was intentionally trying to be cheesy or if it just turned out that way. If Hero of Kendrickstone is an average, safe fantasy movie and Choice of the Petal Throne is a big budget production that looks pretty but never explains what the heck is going on, Champion of the Gods is so bad, it’s good.

Perhaps this is surprising, but I think my biggest problem with this entry was the writing, it just seems so overwrought sometimes, and repetitious. Yes, I know, destiny, destiny is important. I also thought that one of the final quests seemed to come out of nowhere, and I seemed to have lost track of my love interest (I’m pretty sure she died). The horoscope (where you are given a unique horoscope according to your character’s personality) is an interesting idea, as are the Gifts and the sight, but at times they almost felt unnecessary, just things that were there to highlight the fact that you had a great destiny.

I think the biggest problem that all these games share is that while they are not bad, they didn’t grab me like Choice of the Deathless or affect me emotionally like Choice of Robots (I never thought a game about robots could make me cry). They are certainly not bad, but I wouldn’t say they are the best CoG has to offer.

Game Review: Hyperdimension Neptunia ReBirth 1

I love JRPGs. I love them even when they force me to grind or have characters that boil down to trite stereotypes. I’m not sure how many people who read this are also fans of JRPGs, but if you find yourself looking through gaming sites and fora you’ll inevitably come across complaints that JRPGs have declined in quality in recent years. Some even go so far as to proclaim that JRPGs are dying. While there are definitely some critically acclaimed JRPGs that have come out in recent years (Persona 4 immediately comes to mind), there’s also been a steady increase in fanservice heavy games that don’t pretend to be for anyone but straight male “otaku”.

Hyperdimension Neptunia ReBirth 1 is the perfect example of the sort of decline in JRPG quality.

The Hyperdimension Neptunia series takes place in Gamindustri, which is broken up into four lands, each ruled by a Console Patron Unit, personifications of game consoles, and populated by characters representing various franchises. The CPUs are constantly warring with each other for control of all of Gamindustri, and during one of their fights, one of the CPUs, Purple Heart (representing a fictional Sega console) is defeated by the other goddesses, loses her memory, and becomes Neptune. Teaming up with the personifications of various companies and franchises, Neptune’s journey will take her all across Gamindustri as she fights personifications of piracy.

The very idea of personifications of various consoles, game companies, and franchises going on wild adventures together sounds like a lot of fun and a recipe for a ton of gaming-related humor, and, to be fair, it has that in spades. Fourth wall breaking is commonplace, Neptune will occasionally hum the victory theme after battles, even the monsters are obvious references to many games. Unfortunately, the humour never really goes beyond the self-referential “HA HA LOOK AT THIS ISN’T THIS FUNNY PLAYER LOOK!” and even becomes grating after a time. Neptune insisting that she’s the heroine and should be treated a certain way is funny the first couple of times, but by the fifth and sixth becomes annoying. The script, while not being the worst I’ve ever seen, is far from the worst and is riddled with grammatical errors and lines that don’t make any sense.

It doesn’t help that the characters could all be summed up in a single word or phrase: Neptune likes pudding. Vert is a hardcore gamer. Compa wants everyone to get along. Suffice it to say that I’m willing to bet no one plays this game for its deep characterization, which is not in itself inherently bad (Conception II, one of my guilty pleasure games, does much the same thing, and most JRPGs rely on stock characters and stereotypes) but these characters struck me as particularly vapid, not cute, definitely not endearing.

Now, the character designs are pretty cute, cute in that weirdly sexualized way that is “moe”, but still cute. Unfortunately, the environments and the backgrounds during scenes are bland and repetitive. The music, likewise, is forgettable, although a couple tracks, like the one that plays when you unleash a character’s EXE Drive, had a strong beat and helped me out while I was exercising.

Combat is turn-based and your characters can move around freely within a certain area. Attacks are combo-based and there are three different types of attacks: Rush attacks, which cause less damage but score more hits, Power attacks, which hit less but cause more damage, and Break attacks, which are like Power attacks but break the enemies’ guard. Attacking an enemy fills up your EXE gauge, which can be used to unleash powerful attacks that can utterly crush most enemies and even some bosses. The EXE drives are easily the most satisfying part of combat. Unfortunately, combat quickly becomes a drag, no doubt due to the massive amount of grinding the game makes you do.

To call this game a grindfest is an understatement. The game has a really bad habit of throwing sudden difficulty spikes at you, especially at the beginning. This is coupled with the game’s second bad habit: throwing you into marathon boss fights (or a long scene with a boss fight) without giving you the opportunity to save. In one case, the game sticks you in a dungeon with a series of fights against progressively tougher enemies, no save point in sight, and no way to exit the dungeon. I found a good grinding spot through the use of the Remake System (which lets you add dungeons to the map, weaken enemies, make enemies stronger, change what items you can find in a dungeon, unlock items for shops, and more). There are sidequests, but they are all the find this/kill that fetch quest variety, and the only reason you’ll want to do them is to adjust shares, ditto for the Coliseum fights. Shares are a measure of belief in the goddesses and are required to be a certain amount to unlock the True Ending.

In short, the fanservice is pretty much all this game has going for it and is undoubtedly why it’s so popular, because I can’t see anyone playing this game for its shallow characters, repetitive gameplay, and same-y environments and music. Unless you’re really into that sort of thing, I’d recommend staying far away and picking up The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky instead, or really, almost any other JRPG. Conception II may be a shameless fanservice-y game, but even it’s better than this one, and that’s saying a lot.