Game Review: Life is Strange (Episode 3)

My review of episode 2 was very, very late, but I played through episode 3 yesterday as soon as I finished the review for the previous episode, so it’s fresh in my mind and hopefully I’ll have more to say about it.

The second episode ended with a bang, I would call the third episode more of a “breather episode” the kind of episode that gives viewers (or players, in this case) a break from the tension of previous and forthcoming episodes. Don’t get me wrong, this episode isn’t completely devoid of tense moments (a standout includes having to escape from the cops and hiding in a change room stall), but there’s also a long scene with Max and Chloe chilling in the school pool together after hours (which is definitely not loaded with subtext). You can even take it further with a choice later on in this episode (which 83% of players chose to do).

The one annoying part of this episode was the introduction of the “focus” mechanic, where you need to press A and D and the mouse buttons to focus on a picture, and then STOP when you hear voices. The instructions for explaining it aren’t very clear, and I tried and failed at least three times before consulting the Steam forums.

At this point, it would be nice if the game started explaining some things, like why Max has her powers in the first place. I’d assume that it will be explained somehow in episodes 4 and 5, but so far the game’s focus is mostly on the shady shit going on at the school and Max’s powers are taking a backseat. It’s not that I mind not having an explanation, but it would be a nice thing to have. Another thing that has been consistent throughout the series is that the lip-syncing is way off. This didn’t bother me too much in the previous episodes, but it was really noticeable here.

As far as triggery content, there’s a lot of talk about the (attempted or actual, depending on your decisions) suicide in this episode (since I saved this character, the dialogue with other characters is about visiting her in the hospital). There’s also a really unnerving scene involving a teacher and a student with the student suggesting an exchange of….favours… return for winning a contest, which the teacher refuses. If you’re sensitive to animal death, one of your choices could end up getting a dog killed (just throw the bone in the parking lot to avoid this) and there are dead birds on the ground (and dead whales in a cutscene).

See you soon with a review of the fourth episode!

Game Review: Life is Strange (Episode 2)

[suicide tw]

By the time this review goes up, episode 4 of Life is Strange is out and the last episode will probably be on its way any day now. Still, better late than never, right? If you haven’t read my review of the first episode, I recommend doing so, as it provides some background info on the game and this review won’t make a lot of sense.

When we last left off, Max had a vision of an impending disaster. This episode focuses on Max and Chloe experimenting with Max’s powers, leading up to a very intense climax. There are still a variety of choices to make, and plenty of consequences (whether in episode or throughout the game) to those choices. In fact, there isn’t a whole lot I can say about this episode that wasn’t true of the last episode. Max is still kind of a hipster, the writing is still great.

Any gripes I have with this episode are more personal gripes with one exception. For instance, I had trouble with the diner scene (where you had to predict a sequence of events using your power) because I couldn’t see a bug that landed on a jukebox. In another tense sequence, a tool I needed clipped through a cabinet and wouldn’t let me retrieve it, forcing me to make a decision that the game obviously considered to be less than desirable. I would assume by this writing that this issue (if it was actually an issue and not just me missing something) would be fixed by now.

The really triggery content in this episode comes in the form of a student’s suicide. There are things you can do to prevent the suicide (being nice to the character, removing text from a mirror, etc.) but the game does show the student jumping off the roof (causing you to rewind time to attempt to stop it) and hitting the ground as you make your way through a crowd of students. It’s also possible to not be able to talk this character out of jumping. I was able to do it pretty easily, and there are walkthroughs available, but as far as I know the scene cannot be skipped or avoided in any way.

Other than that, there isn’t really anything else I have to say about this episode other than to encourage you to buy this game if you are a fan of adventure games in the same vein as the ones from Telltale Games.

This is probably one of the shortest reviews I’ve ever written, but it’s a bit difficult to review episodic games without rehashing everything that was said in the previous episode.

Review: Seraphina

I originally came across Seraphina in hardcover, read a couple reviews that complained that it was too cliche, and promptly forgot about it until someone I follow on tumblr recommended it to me as “YA that does something different with no love triangles–also dragons”. I appreciate YA that does something different with dragons, so I decided to give it a shot.

The paperback edition also has a gorgeous cover with none of the stereotypical extreme closeup of a girl’s face design.

In the Kingdom of Goredd, dragons and humans coexist in a tenuous peace. Amidst tensions between the two groups, Seraphina, the newest member of the royal court, is a gifted musician with a terrible secret. When a member of the royal family is murdered, Seraphina is drawn to the investigation alongside the dashing Prince Lucian, but as she comes closer and closer to the truth, it becomes harder to keep her secret, and revealing it could cost her her very life.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. A girl has a terrible secret. She meets a boy. She likes this boy, but she knows that if her secret gets out, the boy won’t like her anymore. Things happen in such a way that she eventually is forced to reveal her secret and deal with the fallout. It’s not the most original plots and characters with terrible secrets (known or unknown) are a dime a dozen, not just in books, in media in general. Although there’s nothing especially earth-shattering about the plot, it serves its purpose as a means to create tension and propel the characters towards the climax. Appropriately for a story in which music plays a significant part, the writing in Seraphina is very lyrical without crossing into purple prose. At times, I felt like the writing did get a bit philosophical (particularly during memory sequences).

I would say this book’s strengths lie in the characters and how they struggle in a society that finds it hard to accept them. In case it wasn’t obvious from the summary, Phina’s secret is that she is half-dragon, a creature that humans see as soulless and dragons see as one of their own succumbing to weak human emotions. Her love interest, Lucian Kiggs, is a bastard who came to Goredd being unable to speak the language. The dragons in the book struggle with experiencing emotions while in human form. The dragons in this book reminded me very much of the Qunari in Dragon Age, with their rigid adherence to ard (order, correctness) and their rejection of emotions as illogical (and their subsequent anxiety when they take human form and begin to experience these emotions). I would also say that while Goreddi religion isn’t the most original (it does the same thing as the Exiles books where the “pantheon” is made up of saints). It felt familiar and unlike the hagiographies of my childhood, included a same-sex couple as patrons of romantic love, not to mention a heretic saint (the hows of becoming a heretic saint is not explained). At times, the book is very philosophical, musing on the value of emotions and art. At times, many YA books, at least fantasy and sci-fi YA books, seem to never explore the implications of their dystopian societies or magic systems in favour of the all-important love triangle, and don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with pure escapist fiction, but there are times I’ve wished that authors would think more about the implications of their world-building than they often do.

I don’t have very many complaints about this book. Most of the characters didn’t really leave a strong impression on me, and the mystery plot felt like it could have had another twist or two and it wouldn’t have hurt the pacing. I also found it to be a little slow in some places.

In terms of diversity there’s Lars and Viridius, who are both gay but don’t play a huge part in the plot.  They also fall into the stereotype of “theater-loving gay men”. The one character of color of note isn’t known by his actual name for much of the book. Characters from Porphyria (Africa with elements of Classical Greece and belly-dancing) are said to be dark-skinned.

As far as triggery content, there is some self-harm in chapter 21, and a plot twist involves cross-dressing. There was also a point where the Ardmagar acts really creepy towards Phina in a way that was just….creepy.

Overall though, Seraphina was easily one of the better YA reads I’ve read this year (and that includes the ones I’ve read since and have yet to review). It might be a bit of a wait before I can read Shadow Scale in paperback but I definitely intend to do so.

Two for One Review: Tarot For Writers and Astrology For Writers by Corrine Kenner

At first I was going to review both of these books separately but now that I’ve read both, I find they work best in tandem for different reasons. So, here is my first (and possibly only) review of two books in one blog post.

As a writer, I’m always looking for ideas and prompts to enhance my writing, and as a tarotist, I’ve had Tarot For Writers on my list for the longest time. I read Tarot For Writers and liked it enough that I ordered Astrology For Writers before I’d finished its predecessor. As the titles suggest, the books are about using tarot and astrology respectively to generate characters, plots, and settings for your writing. For readers who are unfamiliar with either tarot or astrology, the books also serve as introductory material to each and suggest ways to use these esoteric disciplines to enhance existing projects and inspire new ones.

Tarot For Writers is divided into three main sections: “Tarot 101”, “The Writer’s Tarot”, and “A Writer’s Guide to Tarot Cards”. The first part is your basic “Tarot 101” crash course, intended for writers who maybe aren’t familiar with tarot. The second part, “The Writer’s Tarot” is arguably the heart of the book, and discusses how a writer can use tarot cards to generate character traits, plots, and settings, flesh out an existing character, and beat writer’s block (among other things). The third section, “A Writer’s Guide to Tarot Cards” looks at all seventy eight cards in a tarot deck individually, making note of the symbolism in each card and suggesting writing prompts if that card shows up in a reading. Astrology For Writers has a four part structure. The first section covers the planets, the second the signs of the zodiac, the third covers the houses of the horoscope, and the fourth is a quick reference guide if you just want a brief rundown of the different planets, signs, and houses. These aspects of astrology are meant to provide insight on characters, plots, and settings respectively.

Both books have flaws but there’s something to like in both of them. In Tarot For Writers I liked the fresh take on the Celtic Cross, which assigns each card an element of a “standard” plot structure, as well as the spread that combines tarot and astrology to flesh out a character by drawing cards for each of the twelve houses of the horoscope. I also found the writing prompts for each card interesting although most were pretty self-explanatory. My favourite aspect of Astrology For Writers was undoubtedly the “Twenty Questions” sections at the end of each chapter, which provides questions based on the planets, signs, and houses to flesh out a character (“How is your character’s health?” “Have they ever experimented with drugs or alcohol?”) as well as offering suggestions for scenarios you can play out with your characters “Have your character visit the doctor.” “Make your character choose the lesser of two evils.” I’m always looking for prompts or interesting questions to flesh out my characters, and there are plenty in Astrology For Writers. Each sign also has an at-a-glance chart to help you determine signs that mesh or clash, which is perfect for creating group dynamics, foils, and other relationships.

Both books are not without flaws, however. For Tarot For Writers, I thought more time could have been spent in the section on “The Writer’s Tarot” as that seems to be the heart of the book, and yet, the bulk of the book is dedicated to the third section on individual cards and their symbolism. The section on beating writer’s block really only applies to starting new projects, not breathing new life into existing ones, and there’s almost nothing about using your cards during the editing, proofreading, or marketing phases of your book, and those are definitely some areas where a divination tool like tarot cards could come in handy. My biggest problem with Astrology For Writers was that I feel like the attempts to match planets with archetypes (Venus as the Love Interest, Pluto as the Dark Lord etc.) is too constricting and simplistic. In addition, the book seems fixated on the idea that heroes are helpful, kind, and physically attractive, whereas villains are the opposite, and in general seems to conflate “hero” with “protagonist” (and assume that heroic characters are all solar characters) which as most writers can tell you isn’t always the case. The signs themselves are reduced to familiar stereotypes that you see in many astrology books: Scorpio is sexy and intense, Capricorn is a social climber, etc.  Both books rely on Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey and Gustav Freytag’s plot structure and only a few of the many conflicts that can arise in stories. In short, both books suffer from being a bit too basic to be useful to more experienced writers. There’s also a lot of gendering in both books. To be completely fair, both tarot and astrology have traditionally gendered elements of their crafts in a particular way, but occasionally I found it a bit off-putting, especially in the astrology book.

In spite of these flaws, I enjoyed both books and will add them to my small repertoire of writing tools. If you can only afford one, I would recommend Tarot For Writers if you work with tarot or if you need assistance with plots or settings in particular, whereas I found that Astrology For Writers would be more useful for character creation.  Both books touch on plot, settings, and character of course, but I think the focus makes more sense when you consider how tarot and astrology are used (tarot usually sheds light on situations, astrology is mostly used to look at individuals or pairs). If you are new to astrology, tarot, or writing, either book would be worthwhile to add to your library, but experienced writers in particular might be a little let down by the way the sections on writing seem geared more towards beginners.

This is kind of tangential but I feel like the techniques in the books (particularly the tarot book( could also be applied to Lenormand cards (particularly if you want inside into the day to day of a character’s life or inspiration for a setting). I’d love to see a book on Lenormand For Writers.