Deck Review: The Halloween Oracle

Well my plan to do the thirteen days of Hallowe’en totally backfired but now that it’s actually Hallowe’en and I am not recovering from eye surgery like I was last year, here is a review of a deck that I’ve been saving just for this occasion: the Halloween Oracle!

As much as I hate the cold, I adore autumn. I love the colours and the food, autumn is just a magical season, and Hallowe’en is a holiday I look forward to celebrating year after year. I mean, Hallowe’en is the one time of year where I can dress in outrageous costumes and eat all the candy and it’s perfectly normal and expected.

In general, though, I’ve been looking to acquire an “autumnal” deck. I have decks that I associate more with spring and summer, but few that are autumn themed or seem “autumn-esque” to me, so when I saw that the Halloween Oracle was in the works I knew I had to have it.


The Halloween Oracle has 36 cards and comes in a sturdy box with a slim guidebook. The card stock is thin and the cards are glossy. The cards stuck together when I took them out for the first time. The card size is roughly 5 ½ x 3 ¾ inches, and the entire deck is almost thick enough to make shuffling an annoyance with my small hands. The cards have a black border, the card title, and a line of text as well as the image. The card back is black with a variety of Halloween symbols (ghosts, brooms, etc.) in grey and are non-reversible, although this oracle doesn’t use reversals. The guidebook contains instructions for a one card draw, three card spread, and six card Jack O’ Lantern spread. The entries for each individual card include a small image of that card, a short verse, and some text on how to interpret it.

First let me say that the art is gorgeous. It reminds me of the Wisdom of the House of Night Oracle Cards. However, the Halloween Oracle uses a warmer colour palette, which is an interesting choice considering that many place an emphasis on the dark and creepy on Halloween. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of bones (and entire skeletons) in this deck, and you’ll find werewolves, witches, and zombies, but none of the art is especially grotesque or gory, and this deck contains cards such as “Forgiveness” and “Joy” as well as the expected assortment of monsters. I would even say that this deck is appropriate as a general autumn deck, not just Halloween specifically.

I think the biggest issue with this deck for me is that the card text often doesn’t seem to “mesh” with the card or the associations most people would have of the chosen image. For the Vampire card, for example, the text reads “Emotional intelligence”. The text in the book talks about cultivating emotional intelligence against emotional vampires, things that “drain” a person, but I didn’t really get how that had anything to do with vampires until I read about it in the book. The text just seems really vague. It would have been better, in my mind, to have text that said “Things that drain you” or “Cultivate emotional intelligence” or whatever. I think one of my main problems with this. I also think that for an oracle that seems to sell itself as a more “generic” Halloween Oracle, the card meanings seem to have a more specific purpose, that of self-improvement or realizing your full potential, so I found it difficult to use it for readings on more practical matters, like employment and romance. On a more personal note, the author has a tendency to use the word “synergy” a lot, but that’s more of a personal quibble as I am easily annoyed by constant repetition. Oh, and this may seem obvious, but I definitely wouldn’t treat this guidebook as an authoritative reference on Halloween customs because it’s really not. Lastly, although the art is gorgeous, there are an abundance of “sexy” women in this deck, even on cards where there’s really no need for any human figures to be there at all (like the “Midnight” card). In fact the only unquestionably male figure is on the werewolf card, and while he is practically naked and buff, that still doesn’t change the fact that there are a bunch of sexy women to his one sexy man. This was the one thing that really bothered me about the art.

Despite all these negatives, the Halloween Oracle isn’t a bad deck. It is a very nice deck and one I can definitely see myself using. I just feel like it could have been so much more than it is. One thing this deck definitely does capture for me, however, is the magic of fall, and Halloween in particular, and for that, I’d say this deck is worth a look.

Review: Dark Currents


I put off reading this book for a long time because I like to read books that I’m less excited about before I get to the books by my favourite authors. However, since my to-read pile continues to grow and it’s been that kind of week, I just decided to read something I was reasonably certain I would actually enjoy.

That book is Dark Currents, by Jacqueline Carey, one of my very favourite authors.

In the resort town of Pemkowet, residents make a brisk business off of supernatural tourism. Fairies frolic in the woods and fields, naiads and undines in lakes and rivers. There’s a brood of vampires and a reclusive werewolf clan. Your neighbour might be a brownie or a troll, and it’s all presided over by Hel.

Daisy Johanssen is Hel’s enforcer, fathered by an incubus and raised by a single mother, it’s up to her to mediate between the human and eldritch elements in Pemkowet, which involves working with the Pemkowet Police Department on unusual cases. When a boy drowns under mysterious circumstances and with the town’s tourism business at stake, Daisy must team up with her childhood crush to solve the mystery while keeping a tight leash on the darker side of her nature, or, well, Armageddon could happen, no big deal.

You would be forgiven for thinking that Dark Currents is the most generic urban fantasy on the planet. The cover is the most generic of generic covers (and what is with Daisy’s arms?) and the back of the book is standard urban fantasy stuff. Daisy certainly isn’t the first consultant who works with the police on behalf of the supernatural (here, they say eldritch) community. Like many other urban fantasy heroines, only one of her parents is in the picture (although, in this case, her dad is a demon who can only cross over to our world in special circumstances) and she has an unrequited crush on one of her co-workers, who happens to be a werewolf. Urban fantasy protagonists love werewolves.

However, unlike many urban fantasy heroines, she has good female friends and confidantes. In fact, Daisy is surrounded by awesome women. There’s her mother, whose loteria card reading drives the plot, her best gal pal Jen, Mrs. Browne, who owns the bakery below her apartment, her former babysitter, Lurine, retired starlet who also happens to be an ancient lamia, and the goddess Hel herself.  She has a great relationship with all of these characters, and even when her relationship with Jen is strained early on, Daisy admits that she’s the one at fault and owns up to her mistake. Carey does an amazing job of populating the town of Pemkowet with eccentric locals who may or may not be fully human. Lurine was probably my favourite of the bunch, a really old and powerful lamia who refers to Daisy as “cupcake” and talks clothes with her mother is believable in Carey’s hands. Each character felt like they could be someone I know, from the flamboyant owner of an occult shop to the frat boys to the rich conservatives going on about Satanism.

It wouldn’t be an urban fantasy without the presence of the fantastical, and Carey populates the town with a nice variety of beings: faeries, demons, ghouls, vampires, werewolves, undines, naiads, brownies, frost giants, and then there’s Hel herself, probably the most benign form of the goddess I’ve encountered in any recent media. For the most part, Carey seems to adhere more to traditional folklore where faeries aren’t very nice but can be persuaded to cooperate when given the right offerings (in fact, the fact that Daisy skimps on an offering is a plot point), although her ghouls (who don’t like to be called ghouls because it’s inaccurate) eat emotions rather than flesh. There’s an entire bestiary in this book and it all meshes with the mundane goings on of Pemkowet seamlessly.

Having read Carey’s other books, Daisy herself is a mix of Moirin and Imriel. Like Imriel, she grows up carrying some stigma associated with her parentage and spends much of the novel trying to be good, and especially avoiding the Seven Deadly Sins (which activate her demonic powers and cause things to explode and/or fly around the room) and like Moirin, she can’t seem to walk two feet without feeling a hint of desire for one man or another. A quick note, she describes her orientation as “mostly straight” when it comes to humans, but mentions that the eldritch community “has an entirely different Kinsey Scale” and seems more bothered by the fact that it would be weird sleeping with her babysitter than the fact that Lurine turns on the charm around her and nearly succumbs to a the seductive charms of a powerful female vampire, but most of the time you’ll be hearing about how hot all the men in her life are, and with three love interests, it gets really old really fast.

Speaking of love interests, there are three: Cody Fairfax, a werewolf who isn’t “out” to the community, and is a generally nice if closed off kind of guy, Stefan, a powerful, surprisingly philosophical ghoul who heads a biker gang and whose unique abilities have a calming effect on Daisy (who has particular trouble with Anger out of the Seven Deadly Sins), and “normal guy” Sinclair, a black guy from Kalamazoo who can see auras. Out of the three, Stefan is probably the most interesting to me. He’s the kind of character who would probably be unquestionably a villain in any other book, but in Carey’s hands he serves as a nice contrast to Daisy and her issues with Anger with his calm demeanor and heaping helpings of self-control. It’s easy to see some influence from Kushiel’s Avatar in Stefan, as it was one of the more philosophical of the Kushiel books. Sinclair is perhaps a bit problematic with his initial introduction, where he acts like a caricature of a Rastafarian, but it’s actually an act, and him and Daisy do discuss the Magical Negro trope, and how it’s basically bullshit. On the downside, Daisy refers to his skin as being the colour of cocoa, because I know how much POCs love it when white folks use food metaphors to describe skin!

(Yes that was sarcasm.)

Honestly I thought his act was really unnecessary, although it was nice to see the trope being discussed, but, I mean, white authors need to be careful with that shit as it’s too easy to mistake something like that for a serious portrayal.

I suppose up until this point my thoughts are that it’s not bad, that in some ways it’s a very typical urban fantasy with some really nice blending of the supernatural with the mundane, but now I have to get to the bad and ugly parts, so strap yourself in because this is going to be quite the ride.

Let’s start with the bad. Daisy has a tendency to use misogynistic slurs everywhere. I know it’s a pretty common thing in urban fantasy, but it’s honestly something I didn’t expect from someone like Daisy, who is literally surrounded by great women, and it just makes Daisy sound that much more juvenile. Basically I found it completely unnecessary and kind of silly, especially when an author like Carey could have easily invented fantastical insults to fling at, say, the naiads.

Now to the ugly. Spoilers are below the cut.

Read More »

Game Review: The Last Door

[suicide tw]

It’s that time of year when scary games get all kinds of discounts and legions of gamers sit up at night in darkened rooms with their headphones on, ready to be scared out of their minds, and you know how much I love point-and-click adventure games with a retro pixel art style, especially when they’re inspired by the works of Poe and Lovecraft. This one is from The Game Kitchen and Phoenix Online Studios (who are also responsible for Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller).

In The Last Door you play as Jeremiah Devitt, who receives a mysterious letter from his friend Anthony Beechworth. Concerned for the well-being of his friend, Jeremiah heads to his house to investigate, and what unfolds is a tale of murder and madness as his quest for answers takes him to his old boarding school off the coast of Scotland, to the streets of London, and even his own nightmares.

Gameplay is very simple. You look around with your lens. If the cursor changes to a hand, you can interact with that object, and you can use items you’ve collected on other items or on objects in the environment by simply clicking on one and then the other (no need to click and drag). It’s nice to go back to adventure games with such simple mechanics after playing something like Gemini Rue.

You might think that a game with a goofy pixelated art style couldn’t possibly be scary, and while it’s true that the human figures in particular seem a little silly, the game absolutely oozes atmosphere and knows when and where to shift from mournful piano and violin music to eerie silence. Although, if you like jump scares, this game loves, absolutely loves, its scare chords.

As I always say when reviewing point-and-clicks, a point-and-click lives or dies by its puzzles, and I’m happy to report that, for the most part, the puzzles (which are almost entirely inventory-based) are fairly intuitive. In the last chapter in particular, the solutions are a bit….strange….but when compared to the kind of games where a wad of gum and a plastic bottle makes an impromptu floatation device, The Last Door‘s puzzles aren’t that bad.

The Last Door is an odd game in that while there are characters and their actions drive the plot, the focus seems to be on the atmosphere and just tossing Devitt into creepy situation after creepy situation. The malevolent force at the center of the tale definitely has a presence, I would say. Although, maybe that’s just because I’ve played a lot of horror games, a few of them Lovecraftian, and the “obviously unhinged guy locking himself away” is an extremely common trope that it’s unremarkable. In any case, I find myself wanting to know what the hell is going on with these characters, but I don’t really empathize with them.

The game also doesn’t shy away from some really dark subject matter. It opens with a suicide and from there delves into murder, madness, animal cruelty, neglect, necrophilia, and being buried alive. Even when the game isn’t bombarding you with creepy journal entries it’s unsettling, and this is, in my opinion, what makes it such a great game, that feeling of dread, that sense that there’s something terrifying waiting for you around the corner. It helps that the sound effects are genuinely unnerving (in my case, the sound of a man laughing just made me not want to open a door, at all).

The people might look a little silly but the backgrounds are amazing.

If I had one particular problem with The Last Door, it’s that I felt it ended way too abruptly. The episodes are short (and the bonus episodes are probably less than a minute long each) and I feel like much of this game was build-up for an as-yet-unreleased season two. so if you think this might be something you’d enjoy, just be aware of that. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth your time and money, I just felt like the plot threads were purposefully left dangling when they didn’t have to be.

If you’re a fan of H.P. Lovecraft or you just like atmospheric horror games, The Last Door will keep you up at night. The game is free to play from the official site (it used to be just the first three episodes but now I think the whole thing might be free) although you can also buy it off Steam and GOG, and if any of you happen to have dyslexia, the game offers the option to switch to a dyslexia-friendly font in the options menu (not sure if this is true for the website version but it is in the version I bought from

Game Review: Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monokuma is very weird like that.

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

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

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

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

Game Review: Shadowgate

[suicide mention tw]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These scenes may be static but they sure are pretty.

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

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

[rape mention tw]

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

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

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

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

To recap, Shadow and Bone is about:

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

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

Tension between Alina and “Alpha Bitch” Zoya.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

13 Days of Hallowe’en Spooktacular!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Silvered

[tw: zoophilia mention, rape mention]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game Review: The Walking Dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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