Monthly Archives: May 2014

Game Review: Always Sometimes Monsters

I love RPGS. I love RPGs that give me meaningful choices. I love EPGs that make me feel like a complete asshole for making certain choices. Unfortunately, I don’t feel many games do the moral choice thing well. Mass Effect boils it down to Paragon or Renegade, Dragon Age does a bit better but choosing the “asshole” options tends to not give you the kind of rewards that you would get if you picked a “good” option. Games like The Witcher make it so that every choice you make leaves you feeling like an asshole.

Always Sometimes Monsters is a game about choices. There’s no combat, no grind, there’s just you walking around, talking to people, and making choices. Some of these choices are small, others have a huge impact on your life and the people around you.

The basic premise is that you are a struggling writer who is down on their luck, the love of their life is gone, they’re about to be evicted from their apartment, and, as if things couldn’t get any worse, they receive an invitation to their ex’s wedding! Having no other options, they decide to embark on a wild cross country trip to win the love of their life back!

It sounds like a typical romantic comedy, but this game is anything but….or is it? That’s up to you.

The first choice you make is to choose your character and your significant other (either can be male or female, so you can have a same sex love interest). You choose from a set of presets, so there’s no real character customization. Depending on what sort of character you choose, your character may experience homophobia, racism, and/or sexism: a gay black protagonist will have a different experience from a straight white woman. My character, a white lesbian, was on the receiving end of some sexist remarks and homophobic slurs, but I don’t think it was as bad for her as it could have been.

Once you’ve chosen a character, you’re free to wander around the town talking to people. It’s basically a JRPG set modern times with no combat, only questing, or, if you prefer, an adventure game with the visuals of a SNES RPG. The game does have a stamina system where you need to eat to stay alive, but as long as you are able to buy food it shouldn’t be a problem.  To help break up the monotony, the game also has a variety of minigames, which range from the simple (packing boxes into a truck) to the annoying (hacking).

“How far would you go to get what you want?” is the question Always Sometimes Monsters asks the player, and you can go to very great lengths to get what you want if you like. Do you accept a bribe from a large corporation, or do you side with the people who are being forced from their homes? Do you spend time with your neighbour, an old widow, or do you take the job at a nightclub because you need the extra money? And you can do some really, really terrible things: theft, blackmail, murder, crapping on someone’s car, and the things that you do have an impact on not only your life, but the lives of all the other characters, even in ways you wouldn’t expect.

I started off playing the game as a “good” character, but soon, I found myself doing some things that were less than wholesome, and although I didn’t go quite as far as I could have gone, I was still left with the sense that, wow, I’m a real selfish asswipe, and I wasn’t really considering the implications of the things I was doing. Perhaps it’s needless to say, but this is a very adult game, and there’s a content warning attached to it for a reason: sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, potty mouth, slurs, compromising photos involving a ball gag and a giant stuffed bear, all present in this game, and that’s not even the half of it.  Be certain to read that content warning carefully.

I do have some issues with the game. It’s short (a single playthrough will take about ten hours) although there is some replay value, the graphics are meh, although since this is an RPG Maker game, don’t expect much, the soundtrack is alternatively jazzy and sleepy and is pretty great, even if it does get a bit repetitive, and I did notice some bugs. There’s one particularly annoying bug where your refusal to do a certain action makes other characters treat you as if you went through with it and there’s one instance where the game neglects to inform you that the game spawns an infinite number of boxes that some unfortunate players were moving for a long time before they discovered that was the case, fortunately, these issues are being addressed in patches. Another issue is pacing, where sometimes I would be left with nothing to do and had to find a way to pass the time before I could do anything relevant to the plot (protip: doing temp work makes time pass). Something else I would have liked to see is an option to play as a character who wasn’t either gay or straight, even if it’s just a line about people you used to date in the past.

Overall, Always Sometimes Monsters is an interesting game about choices and consequences and the lengths a person will go to succeed. It’s short, not so sweet, and at times it’s downright dark, but it’s something different if you’re tired of the typical RPG Maker experience.

As an aside, this game was made with the same software that I used to make my little game.

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Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

[TW: mention of rape. incest, pedophilia]

Most of the time I can pick up a book, read a few pages, and know if I like it or don’t like it, sometimes it takes a chapter or two, but usually by at least chapter three or so I’ll know if it’s the kind of book I like. I’ve read good books and bad books and books that are so bad they’re good and books I shouldn’t like but do for a reason I can’t name.

And then there are books that are just plain weird.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is like a new shirt, you try it on in the store and it seems to fit, but you’re just not sure about it, but then you take it home, throw it in the wash, and suddenly you find that you liked it and it fits better than it did in the store.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is set in a world where defeated deities are enslaved by the ruling class. It stars Yeine, a woman from a “barbaric” Northern people who is summoned to the great city of Sky and named heiress to the king. Unsurprisingly, she is thrust into the struggle for ultimate power, and her only hope of survival may rest with the deities turned slaves themselves.

That synopsis (and every other synopsis of this book that I’ve seen) makes it sound like the book will be rife with political intrigue and subtle power plays and all that fun stuff, and the fact that it isn’t is both a strength and a flaw. Don’t get me wrong, there is an element of intrigue, but it’s not nearly as prominent as the synopses would have you believe. Rather, this book focuses on the world and the relationships between characters (the deities especially) than whispering and backstabbing.

The characters are kind of a mixed bag. Yeine herself is likeable enough, but Scimina and Relad, her political rivals, come across as very one-note (Scimina being conniving and obviously evil and Relad being an apathetic drunk), the real interesting characters are the deities themselves. Sieh is probably my favourite, a trickster and perpetual child who is actually much, much older than he appears to be, and the palace servants, and then there’s his father, Nahadoth, one of the three deities who created the world, who is….complicated….let’s say. Other godlings are Kurue, goddess of wisdom, and Zhakkarn, a war deity, who don’t really get as much characterization as Sieh and Nahadoth.

Another thing I liked about this book was the narrative style. The narration is from Yeine’s perspective and it very much reads as if she is actually telling you a story. Sometimes she goes off on tangents, other times she forgets something and says “wait, let me go back and tell you about this” although some people might find it annoying (and I found some sections very confusing at first) I actually found it quite refreshing and a nice change. Through the narration, Yeine feels less like a character and more like a person. It’s also a pretty diverse book. Near as I can tell, the ruling class seem to be mostly white (Yeine’s mother is referred to as a “bone white bitch”) but Yeine herself is biracial (although she has dark skin like her father) and many other characters are also POCs (also the author is a WOC). There’s a bit of queer representation but that would be spoiling everything. Unlike many other fantasy worlds, the world in the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms doesn’t seem to have a huge sexism problem, with both men and women being eligible to achieve the highest office in Sky (and Scimina is the obvious favourite to win) and many women acting as diplomats and emissaries. The one exception is the Darre, who previously had a much more matriarchal society before the Amn colonized the shit out of them (although they still have traditions like all female military units). It’s nice to see a work that does one or two areas well and completely fails on the third, you know?

That said, I do have some issues with the book. I felt like the political intrigue was played up a lot (both in reviews and from the book’s description), and the fact that it is pretty cut and dry was kind of disappointing. The Amn are essentially decadent and depraved (with a couple of exceptions) at times it seems like the Amn are playing a game of limbo: how low can they go? So if you’re looking for complexity there you won’t find much. There were a couple times where I was a little confused by what was going on, and it wasn’t until much later that something was actually explained.

In terms of potentially triggering content, there’s a brief mention of rape and creepy not really pedophilia but actually it is (it involves a deity who is actually very, very old). There are a couple sex scenes, one (between cousins) is a very brief “we had sex” kind of thing and the other is a bit more explicit (TBH, I found it awkward and kind of hilarious) and one torture scene.

In short, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a very weird book. It’s a very weird book that will probably confuse you at first, but as you read it will grow on you until you find yourself loving it or you fling it across the room in frustration. There’s a lot of stuff that’s good about this novel (stuff that I’ve tiptoed around because spoilers) and what I didn’t like about it wasn’t terrible enough that I lost interest in the book. Personally, I wasn’t sure about it at first, but now that I’ve read the whole thing I can’t wait to read the next book in the series!

Burnout

I know that I haven’t been posting a lot of things that aren’t reviews for a long time. I’ve been more active on tumblr as of late. (My main tumblog is answersfromvanaheim.)

One thing that I’ve been struggling with lately is burnout. There are days where I check tumblr or facebook and I see Heathens posting some really gross things and I just don’t know why I even bother doing anything to try and make things a bit more welcoming for newcomers. It helps that Vanatruar are generally more easygoing, but there really aren’t that many of us, and it’s much easier to poke at someone who is being gross when there aren’t that many of you.

To be honest, sometimes I wonder why I bother pointing out all the racism, the sexism, the queerphobia, the toxic behaviour, and any number of gross things that pop up in communities who claim to honour my deities. On some level, I realize that these problems have been in Heathenry a long time, have been in society a long time, and they’re not just going to be fixed overnight (if, indeed, it is possible to fix them).

It’s especially disheartening because I was once one of those newcomers that was scared away from Heathenry because of the crappy attitudes, and when I hear stories about others who are going through the exact same thing or who automatically equate Heathenry with racism and other gross shit I can’t help but think that something’s broken when it comes to Heathenry.

Seriously, when your religious community has a culture that actively scares away newbies, it’s broken, it’s broken and you need to fix it.

And no, you don’t get to say “grow a thicker skin” or “but I’m just being blunt because that’s what my ANCESTORS would do” because plenty of other traditions are just as committed to doing things the way they did in antiquity WITHOUT being assholes about it. Being an asshole should not be a requirement for practicing a religion.

And then people wonder where all the newcomers are, or why there aren’t more women in Heathenry, or why everyone seems to equate Heathenry with grossness.

Here’s a tip: look in the mirror. Take a good long look.

Review: Sailor Moon Vol. #7

I just realized that wow the new anime is coming (and Viz Media just snagged the license for the original series and are subbing and dubbing the anime in English, completely uncut and I just wow) so I really need to get on top of these reviews.

 

 

Vol. 7 continues the Infinity arc. This is a rather thick volume compared to the others, so there’s a lot going on. There’s more Monster of the Week mayhem, of course, but we also get more insights into the “Outer Senshi”: Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto and their mission, and some things about Sailor Saturn. We see Chibiusa trying to be a bit more independent and continuing to make nice with Hotaru, and Sailor Jupiter gets some time in the limelight where her love of gardening becomes a plot point.

Once again, the pacing in this volume is great. The reader isn’t bombarded with pages of exposition and there’s a good mix of action and tense moments to balance out the times when the scouts are out of uniform.

As usual, the translation has its painfully awkward moments, including a line that suggests that Sailor Uranus is intersex (what it actually means is that she has both feminine and masculine qualities). Which, again, doesn’t mean the series is unreadable, it’s just a shame that such a great series got such a lackluster translation.

Overall I actually wasn’t expecting to blow through this volume so quickly, the fact that I did says something about the improved pacing. Now if only I could wave a magic wand and make the translation not suck.

Game Review: The Cat Lady

[TW: suicide, depression, violence]

I’ve played a lot of games. I’ve played games that have made me laugh, cry, rage, or a bizarre cocktail of emotions. I’ve set some games down for a time because they’ve frustrated me. I’ve been grossed out by games. I enjoy playing some games even if I might not know exactly how they work. Some games are light and fluffy distractions.

And then there are games that touch me in a way that is almost life-changing.

The Cat Lady is a horror adventure game from Harvester Games (makers of Downfall) starring Susan Ashworth, a lonely 40 year old woman on the verge of suicide who only has her cats for company. One day, she discovers that she will cross paths with five individuals who will change her life forever, problem is, these five “Parasites” are monsters in human form, and they will stop at nothing to hurt Susan–unless she hurts them first.

The Cat Lady is about much more than encountering serial killers and making sure they stop doing that stuff, it’s about Susan’s struggles with depression. it’s about watching her struggle to live when life just doesn’t seem worth living, it’s about friendship and finding a purpose in life. It’s a really mature game, and not just because of the blood and gore (which it has in abundance) but deals with some pretty heavy themes: suicide, dealing with the loss of loved ones, it’s an emotional roller coaster ride, and The Cat Lady isn’t afraid to punch the player in the gut at times.

Susan is an interesting protagonist. She might not be the most likeable person and she’s not really the heroic type, but it’s hard not to care about her. I found myself restarting the game multiple times to try and prevent her from having a breakdown in one of the chapters (which is very difficult to do without a walkthrough) and I just managed it on one of the tries, and I was happy because I made Susan’s life a bit more comfortable, and depending on the choices you make throughout the game, Susan could come to terms with her depression or….not.

There are also some great secondary characters, like Mitzi, the young woman who shows up at Susan’s door one day offering to be her lodger, Liz, the nurse in the hospital where Susan is admitted after her suicide attempt, and the mysterious Queen of Maggots, a supernatural figure who isn’t really a grim reaper type but kind of acts like it. The Parasites themselves don’t really get a whole lot of characterization (with a couple of exceptions) but still manage to be really, really creepy.

The game is controlled entirely with the keyboard. You use the right and left arrow keys to move and up and down to interact with objects or use items in your inventory. There will be times where you have to combine items, but you don’t do a whole lot of that. There are also short puzzles to solve, but they aren’t particularly challenging (even if they can be kind of surreal and weird). The focus is definitely on the narrative over complicated puzzles.

Graphically, the game has a very distinct visual style. It’s mostly black and white with the occasional splashes of colour, but you’ll also see scenes rendered in full colour. As someone who can’t stand looking at B&W images for very long, I really liked the way the game was set up.

An example of the game’s unique graphical style.

As I said, the game doesn’t skimp on the blood and gore or violence. There’s also a little bit of (non-sexual) nudity (at least in the version from GOG.com, not sure if it’s censored elsewhere) implied stalking, and one near case of sexual assault. Hangings, dismemberment, and even crucifixion are par for the course. This game basically starts with a suicide and only gets worse from there, and the game definitely isn’t afraid of punching you right in the feels repeatedly and mercilessly. I can’t even count the times I exclaimed “Holy. Shit!” while playing this game, because those moments happen a lot. Also, the game is really, really, REALLY fond of Scare Chords, I hate those things, they scare the crap out of me. Much of the time, the game flip flops between realism and really surreal, just plain strange environments (including a moment where Susan is literally tripping on whatever medicine a nurse has given her).

The soundtrack is appropriately moody and melancholy and at times I found it very distracting, but there’s one moment in particular where it segued into a hard rock metal-ish riff that was so badass and appropriate for the situation that I couldn’t help but grin when it came on. The sound effects are appropriately creepy, and the voice acting is generally very good (although there were a couple characters who were a bit grating).

One issue is the issue of saved games. You can’t overwrite your save files and I heard there was only a limit of 50 saves allowed. I’m not sure if this was actually changed (I don’t know how many saves I used) but an adventure game like this shouldn’t have that kind of limit on the number of saves. (I understand wanting to prevent save scumming, but this is ridiculous).

There’s so much I’d like to say about this game but anything more would be spoilerific. The Cat Lady is a great game, it’s horrific, it’s heartbreaking, it occasionally leaves you open-mouthed and staring at your screen, and then it gives you a few brief glimmers of hope. It’s dark, it’s bloody, it’s mature without being juvenile, and it’s most definitely not for everyone (seriously, it deals with some heavy stuff). If you’re a fan of horror and point and click adventure games and you can handle the blood and gore and themes like depression and suicide, pick this one up.

The Thirteen Houses Project: Gentian

[Once a month for the next twelve months, I will be doing a post on the 13th of each month based on one of the Thirteen Houses of the Court of Night-Blooming Flowers from Kushiel’s Legacy.]

It’s the thirteenth and there’s a storm brewing, not exactly the most optimal time to be posting about Gentian House, but I can deal with it.

Gentian House’s canon is mystic purity of spirit, and it’s motto is “Truth and Vision”. Gentian adepts hold that Naamah was filled with such when she lay with the King of Persis. Phedre visits this house in Kushiel’s Chosen in order to seek help with understanding her dreams. Adepts of Gentian House often join Elua’s priesthood upon making their marques (although the one representative of Gentian House we see in the books joins Naamah’s Order).

Gentian House is tied with Balm for my favourite house. They are the house of diviners, seers, and mystics. All the Houses honour Naamah, but for Gentian House, mysticism, that ecstatic way of connecting with the Powers, is its bread and butter. Gentian House is basically the High Priestess in the tarot deck, a mysterious figure who keeps secrets close to her breast. Gentian and Alyssum share this sense of mystery IMO, though they do very different things with it.

And I’m not just saying this because I like to think of the High Priestess as “my” card.

I’ve written about mysticism and how some people just don’t seem to get it before on this blog. I recommend reading it because it seems like a “Gentian” kind of post. Funnily enough, I would label myself as much more mystically inclined (as opposed to historical or lore-based) but at the same time I am not a mystic, I haven’t had moments of ecstatic communion with my deities, and that’s okay. There needs to be room for all kinds of people in our communities: the mystics, the history buffs, the people who pour out offerings regularly but don’t really do anything special, the people who combine these roles, the people who fulfill completely different roles, the ones who take risks, the ones who play it safe. The Servants of Naamah all honour her in different ways, but they are all united in her worship. That is not to say that there aren’t issues with the Night Court, but that, ideally, all adepts have different things that they are good at, but they are all adepts and respected as such.

I was supposed to be talking about tarot and look what happened.

Mountain Bog Gentian, from here: http://missoulian.com/uncategorized/elegant-mountain-bog-gentian-provides-beautiful-fall-blooms/article_3efab28f-20bf-5e76-bbac-78e504e11fd0.html