Monthly Archives: November 2014

Review: Fires of the Faithful

A couple of weeks ago, my neighbour brought us some biscuits. They were some of the fluffiest biscuits I’ve ever had, but bland, really, really bland. Even bland, they weren’t particularly bad biscuits, but they were definitely missing something.

This is how I feel after reading Fires of the Faithful by Naomi Kritzer.

Fires of the Faithful is the story of Eliana, a student at a music conservatory who hopes to obtain a prestigious position as a court musician when she graduates. For the most part, the conservatory is sheltered from the famine that ravages the land, but the conservatory’s peace is shattered when a student is murdered for clinging to Old Way beliefs, and Eliana finds that she cannot stay within the conservatory walls any longer, especially when she discovers the terrible secret that the mage Circle and the priests of the Fedeli are keeping from everyone.

You know how I keep complaining about how most fantasy books treat religion like a prop writers can bring out and put away and not like something that plays a central role in the lives of many (or at least some) people? Needless to say, when a fantasy book bothers to treat religion as more than just a prop, I tend to take notice.

Having said that, unfortunately, Fires of the Faithful takes the Crystal Dragon Jesus approach to religion. Crystal Dragon Jesus isn’t necessarily a problem in and of itself, but Fires of the Faithful just doesn’t even try, and the thing is, having a Christian-esque religion be the Old Way and the more Pagan-ish faith be the newcomer would have been interesting except that the Old Way….really isn’t that interesting. The prayers are in Aramaic, people pray to God (who is female yet still referred to as God) her son, Gesu, and the Holy Light. Gesu was betrayed by Giudas, adherents wear crosses, practice “sealing” (baptism), and hold Masses, and the quotes that begin each chapter are basically Bible quotes with a phrase or two changed. It might have been interesting, but instead it just made for a dull read.

I didn’t find the characters to be particularly memorable. Even though we spend the whole book inside Eliana’s head, I didn’t really get a sense of her as a character. She’s looking forward to a prestigious career, she loves Old Way music, she loves her family, but there was nothing that really stuck out to me other than that she was tall and often mistaken for a boy. The side characters that she meets all seem interchangeable, the men are friendly and gracious hosts, the women fill a support role. There are some exceptions but overall I just couldn’t bring myself to care about any of these characters and what they were doing. Much of the blame for this, I feel, is the author’s style, which is not very descriptive in general. It’s not that the writing is technically bad, it’s that it lacks depth and emotion. It’s the sort of thing one would expect from a first novel (which it is) but unlike other first novels I’ve read, I don’t even want to return to the series just so I can see if the author has improved. Even the presence of a queer protagonist (Eliana appears to be bisexual) is not a compelling enough reason for me to continue with this duology.

I think the main problem with Fires of the Faithful is that all its parts are half-baked so it just feels half-baked overall. The Old Way is one of the laziest examples of Crystal Dragon Jesus I’ve ever seen, the writing is dry and emotionless (though readable), and the characters aren’t memorable at all.  It’s not a bad book in the sense that it’s problematic or that the writing is awful, but in the sense that it lacks emotion and failed to provide the reader with at least some feeling for the characters. Like my neighbour’s biscuits, it’s not bad, it’s just bland.

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Review: Saga (Vol. 3)

I actually read this months ago and I’m just getting to it now because I realized that the fourth Saga trade paperback is due out next month and I need to get on top of this review.

As you probably can tell if you’ve read my reviews of the previous volumes (here and here), I really like Saga, and, as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am not a comics person at all.

When we last left Alana, Marko, and co. they were hiding out at D. Oswald Heist’s home with Prince Robot IV hot on their trail. Meanwhile, The Will, Gwendolyn, and Sophie (previously known as Slave Girl, who FINALLY gets a proper name) have a ship in need of repairs, forcing them to stop on a nearby planet, and on Landfall, a couple of intrepid reporters are asking way too many questions about the fugitive family.

The third volume in the series introduces readers to a bunch of great new characters. There’s Upsher and Doff, the intrepid reporters (who also happen to be a same sex couple), Countess Robot X, who in her introductory panel is standing next to a dead dragon and brandishing a sword, and The Brand, another professional killer. However, I think my favourite part of the volume was following The Will and Gwendolyn around, and wondering what the heck was up with The Will and The Stalk. They have some really great moments in this volume.

Saga is probably one of the most diverse comics on the market, and the series finally gets some queer representation. Gwendolyn is revealed to be bisexual (well, she could be pansexual) and Upsher and Doff are a couple (and there’s a nice big panel of the two of them snuggling in bed. I’m kind of annoyed that it took this long to get some overt queer representation but, well, better late than never, I suppose.

In terms of potential triggers, if you’ve been keeping up with the series, there’s not a whole lot of blood and gore or sex, but there is some full frontal female nudity and a close up shot of a character with a knife in their neck that is, as you might expect, pretty bloody.

Overall I don’t have much to say about this volume except that it doesn’t appear that Saga’s plot has jumped the shark and it’s basically more of the same things that make the series great. I don’t think you can go wrong with this one. Just as a final note, I love the image on the back cover (Marko and Alana as if they were on the cover of your average Harlequin Romance book).

I had a more detailed review prepared in my head but for some reason it didn’t come out that way. Seriously, Saga is good. Read Saga. Love Saga.

Game Review: Freedom Wars

I have a weird relationship with dystopian fiction. Ever since I was forced to read Orwell’s 1984 in high school I’ve been reluctant to pick up other books in the genre. I read The Hunger Games just to see what the fuss is about and I read Divergent on a whim, and while I enjoyed both (although they’re not without their issues) I’m not in a hurry for more dystopian settings. Maybe I’m just a wide-eyed idealist, but I like less oppression in my pleasure reading.

When I first saw screenshots for Freedom Wars, I was captivated by the character models, particularly your Accessory’s piercing blue eyes. Freedom Wars was billed as a Monster Hunter type game set in a dystopian society where city states known as Panopticons compete for scarce resources and people are given million year sentences simply for being born. It was also billed as a game that focuses more on story than the typical Monster Hunter-like game, or near as I can tell, having never played any Monster Hunter games. The closest I’ve come to touching the genre is Soul Sacrifice Delta, which I will eventually review eventually….

In any case, the premise intrigued me enough to give this game a shot (and $25 for a brand new just released Vita game is a steal) so here are my impressions after beating the game once going solo with AI teammates.

You play as a Sinner, the underclass in Freedom Wars. Sinners are given ridiculously long prison sentences and forced to work it off (thus earning their freedom, or what passes for freedom) by “Contributions” to their Panopticon, most often armed combat against giant Abductors, who abduct Citizens (the upper class, engineers and scientists who are valuable resources). At the start of the game, you lose your memory during one such operation. As your memory is a very valuable resource and losing it means that all the resources the Panopticon invested in through training have gone to waste, you’re pushed back to the very bottom of the Sinner ladder (CODE 0) and have to work your way up again.

Granted, this isn’t the first game to have done this. A ton of games have you lose your memory and start over from scratch, but few games are set in a society as oppressive as Freedom Wars, and this game positively delights in punishing gamers for doing things that come naturally to them via the Entitlement system. See, as a low level Sinner, you initially begin with no rights and you need to earn them by purchasing them with Entitlement Points, which you get for completing missions. Obviously you can use Entitlements to purchase facilities where you can upgrade weapons or upgrade your comrades’ equipment, but in a bit of a twist, you also use them to purchase features that many gamers take for granted. Want to lie down for a nap? If you don’t have the right to recline, it adds ten years to your sentence. Want to walk around your cell? The game penalizes you for “excessive exercise”. Did you speak to someone again when they told you to stop? That’s another violation. Freedom Wars really hammers home how restrictive life in the Panopticon really is by penalizing you for acting as most gamers would. Some reviewers found the constant violations annoying, but I thought it drove the point home very well.

Where Freedom Wars really shines is combat. When you go toe-to-toe with Abductors or other Sinners, combat is fast and frantic. You can only take two different weapons and a certain number of consumables for each encounter, that might not seem like a lot, but truth be told hacking, slashing, and shooting is only half of Freedom Wars’ combat. The best part of the combat for me was the Thorn. The Thorn is a grappling hook that’s attached to your arm. There’s a Thorn that’s more offense based, a Shielding Thorn for defense, and a Healing Thorn that can, as you might expect, heal your party mid-battle. In general, Thorns enable you to traverse the battlefield quickly, to drag down enemies, making them vulnerable to attacks, or to allow you to hitch a ride on an enemy so that you can attack certain parts of their body directly. If you manage to hook onto particular parts and mash the circle button enough times, you’ll sever that part and your enemy will be unable to use certain attacks (ie. removing an Abductor’s head will make them unable to use their laser attack, while removing their shields will make them easier to hit). This aspect of the battles was the part I liked the most, circling around an Abductor, looking for a vulnerable spot, then grappling up to that point and sawing away, jumping clear whenever they used an attack that was designed to knock me off. Few games have a vertical aspect to combat, and it makes encounters feel exciting and, at times, tense.  Some missions are your garden variety “kill the designated targets” but others will have you rescuing citizens from Abductors or gathering resources. There are also some incredibly easy stealth missions that are probably just there to give you a bit of a break between combat. Overall though, there’s not a ton of mission variety, but what’s there kept me entertained.

The art style captivated me since I first saw screenshots for the Japanese version. The environments are nothing special. Each map has a day version and a night (or limited visibility) version, but I thought the character models were well done. Your Accessory’s eyes in particular manage to look pretty and venture into the uncanny valley at the same time. One complaint I do have is that the costumes for female characters are a bit fanservicey and impractical (one outfit that she can wear is basically a poncho with no pants on underneath) in fact it’s kind of ironic that your robot companion is more practically dressed than you, but on the other hand, it could have been a lot worse.

This is an early screenshot but the art style hasn’t changed much. It doesn’t quite do the character models justice though.

 

However, few games are perfect, and Freedom Wars is no exception. For starters, I found the controls clunky and awkward at first. I’m not used to controlling the camera with the right stick, and the camera doesn’t move otherwise, so often it would end up in a very awkward position. However, I did manage to overcome my unfamiliarity enough to be able to beat the game using the default control scheme. Another issue I had with the combat was that although fights against huge Abductors were awesome, fights against fellow Sinners could get annoying, especially when they had machine guns and laser beams.

A major disappointment for me was how the story suddenly just….isn’t there anymore. The endgame leaves the player with a bunch of questions and a definite feeling of “what the hell just happened?” and despite the whole “fighting for freedom” thing, the main story barely scratches the surface of your million year sentence. It definitely feels as if a huge chunk of the budget was spent on the combat before the developers realized they’d promised there would be a bit more story and threw the writers a bone. Speaking of story, I hope you like Japanese audio because the game only has the Japanese audio with English subtitles. Personally, I prefer English dubs simply because I like being able to understand dialogue beyond specific subtitled scenes. In Freedom Wars‘ case, flavour text like Percy Propa’s speech in the Warrebs are not translated. It’s not a huge deal but not being able to understand little things like that consistently bothered me.

One final issue I had was with the crafting system. You can craft items and upgrade weapons through facilities, but sometimes it wasn’t exactly clear what was going on and item-crafting in particular is very random (although you can use different parts to influence what is crafted and it will indicate which items are likely to be crafted via the production queue). By the endgame, I had way more items than I could carry and didn’t really need to spend time upgrading my weapons, especially since I’d bought all of the entitlements for my party to obtain better equipment.

Freedom Wars is not a bad game. Heck, as it stands, I really like Freedom Wars. It’s one of the few games that puts the “dystopian” in dystopian society, and the Thorn is fantastic, but I think it could have done so much more. The controls could have been tighter, the story could have been more fleshed out, and crafting could have been a bit more straightforward. Still, for around $25. you probably won’t find a cheaper Monster Hunter style game for your Vita.