Monthly Archives: November 2017

Review: Daughter of Mystery (Alpennia #1)

I’ve been thinking about this recently, but describing a book as “historical fantasy” seems like a contradiction in terms, and yet, there’s no better way to describe this series, which was recommended to me courtesy of the tumblr hivemind as a sapphic historical fantasy series.

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Margerit Sovitre didn’t expect to inherit a baron’s fortune, and with it, a bodyguard in the form of Barbara. At first, Margerit protests the need for Barbara’s protection, but she wasn’t counting on earning the enmity of the new baron and soon she can’t imagine life without her by her side. All is not well in Alpennia, however, with the Prince ill and the succession in question, Margerit finds herself drawn to the mystical rituals known as the Mysteries of the Saints, and now she’ll need Barbara’s protection more than ever to survive the deadly intrigue of the court.

I’m struggling with finding words to describe this book. There’s a bit of political intrigue, a little action, a bit of (Catholic) magic and a lot of mingling in Society and maintaining one’s reputation. According to the author, Alpennia is a fictional country nestled between Italy, Switzerland, and France. I’ve heard it described as “Ruritanian romance” but as I wasn’t familiar with that term, I was reminded of Regency romance.

The major players in this slow burn of a novel are Margerit and Barbara, the point of view characters. Margerit is a typical fish out of water protagonist who suddenly finds herself a highly eligible heiress, though she would rather spend her days buried in books than trying to land a man. Barbara, on the other hand, was trained from a young age by the former baron to be his armin (professional duelist) and finds to her chagrin that his death hasn’t freed her from service. There are some interesting secondary characters, like LeFevre, the baron’s (now Margerit’s) man of business, Margerit’s aunt Bertrut, the prickly scholar Antuniet, and the eccentric Vicomtesse de Cherdillac. My one issue is that we didn’t get to see very much of a couple characters.

Politics, religion, and reputation play a big role in Alpennian society. At times, the politics can be a bit knotty, but the basic idea is that there’s a crisis of succession based on the validity of a marriage contract. At one point there’s a discussion of some of the finer points of Alpennian inheritance laws and debts that becomes a plot point later on. The magic system is focused on the mysteries of the saints, which combines ceremonial magic with intercessory prayer and rituals in a way that reminds me of the game Darklands.

It’s a very slow-paced book, there isn’t really a sense of urgency in the plot until the last few chapters, when the plot threads are neatly tied up. In a book like Throne of Glass, where the main character is an assassin, the focus on dresses over murder was disappointing (even if Celaena is recovering from being imprisoned) but here it makes sense: Margerit is an heiress and would-be scholar, and Barbara doesn’t have many opportunities to leave her side, so of course there’s going to be a lot of visiting, parties, the opera, and the like.

In terms of potential triggers, there is an attempted rape/sexual assault and the attacker appears later in the story. The romance, which is between Margerit when she technically “owns” Barbara (it’s complicated) might make some people uncomfortable. However the power disparity between the two is acknowledged and Margerit does make multiple attempts to free Barbara from her obligations, which for me is more palatable than, say, the relationship between the two main characters in The Winner’s Curse. Although the main romance is between two women, Alpennian society is still very heteronormative, so characters make certain comments about how Barbara might be one of *those* women because she dresses in masculine clothing.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed this book. I’m not sure if it would make my “Top Ten Books of All Time” list, but the Alpennia series is now one to watch. I would recommend it if you like books like The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner, just be prepared for a slower read.

Game Review: Hand of Fate

I start again, thinking I have what it takes to beat the final boss and finally finish this game that I’ve spent nearly 45 hours playing. The first tile I land on is the Desert Cult, “Easy” I think. “I’ll just beat these enemies and get some free gear out of it.”

And then the game throws a past boss at me and six enemies with shields, on a small map.

And that’s how I died on the first tile of the dungeon.

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Beyond the thirteen gates at the end of the world, the game of life and death is played. As one of the players of this game, you’ll tackle a variety of challenges: some will reward you with gold, equipment, or food to ward off starvation, you may be blessed or cursed. Tour opponent, the mysterious Dealer, won’t pull any punches. Your run can end in one of two ways: victory or death.

Prepare to see a lot of death.

What makes Hand of Fate unique is that it is a combination of rogue-lite randomness, action combat, interactive fiction, and a deck-building game. The “tiles” of the dungeon are actually cards drawn from your encounters deck. As you might expect, each card represents an encounter of some sort. Many encounters present you with a choice: to attack some bandits or sneak past them, to try and pry open a treasure chest, or leave it alone. Unless they involve combat, these encounters are purely text-based, although sometimes you’ll be asked to pick a card to see if you succeed or fail at your endeavor. Some cards have tokens, which are gained by resolving that encounter in a particular way. Tokens unlock new encounters and equipment for your deck. As you traverse the dungeon, you need to keep an eye on your food and gold. One food is consumed per dungeon tile and if you run out of food, you steadily lose health until you buy more food at a shop. Starvation is only one of the few ways you can lose the game. You can also be afflicted with curses, which cause various effects (most of which are bad, but there are a few you can turn in your favour). Your goal is, naturally, to get to the end of the dungeon, where you’ll fight the boss. From there, you choose a new boss to face, adjust your encounter and equipment deck, rinse and repeat. There’s also an “Endless Mode” where you see how long you can last before dying.

It sounds like the deck is stacked against you (ha!) and occasionally you just won’t have any luck during a run. Fortunately, there are ways you can tip the scales in your favour. I mentioned before that most of the encounters come from your encounters deck. Each time you begin a run, you can add or discard encounters and equipment from your decks. Are you going up against a bunch of lizardfolk? Add in weapons and armor that are effective against lizardfolk. If food is going to be a problem, add in encounters that give you food cards. While the dungeon layout is random and there are some special encounters that you have no control over, you aren’t entirely at the mercy of the RNG.

When you enter combat (and you can go a full run without entering combat) the game switches to 3D graphics and becomes an Arkham-style brawl based on fluid counters and dodges. I loved watching the character bounce from enemy to enemy like the world’s angriest pinball. The idea is to watch for enemy prompts, a green prompt above their heads means that the attack is counterable, while red indicates an unblockable attack (I can’t remember if there’s a colorblind mode but I don’t think so). It’s a simple system that doesn’t really add many more mechanics although some shields and weapons have special abilities and artefacts grant powerful abilities with limited uses. Combat can be frustrating at times, particularly when you’re surrounded by enemies with shields of their own, but even though I would say it’s the weakest aspect of the game, I still had fun with the combat system. One thing I do recommend is using a controller. You can get by with mouse and keyboard (as I did for most of the game) but it’s much easier to activate weapon abilities and artifacts with a controller (which is ultimately how I managed to beat the game).

This wouldn’t be a proper review of Hand of Fate if I didn’t talk about the Dealer. The Dealer is basically the DM of the game your character is playing, and apart from the enemy grunts, his voice is the only one you’ll be hearing throughout your playthrough. He praises you when you do well, snarks at you when you forget to use a weapon ability, and questions your decision-making skills when you purchase new equipment at the shop. Mostly he snarks at you. Anthony Skordi does such a great job as this character, especially during later runs, where he goes from being smugly confident in his victory to throwing quite literally everything he has at you when you rise to the challenge. There are also many characters within the game, and some of them (like the one with the goblin disguised as a very short human) have a series of encounters that are unlocked in succession. It’s weird to talk about exploring a world where interactions are almost purely text-based, but the world is full of encounters with the supernatural, heroes who are down on their luck, treasure vaults filled with traps, a secret society, an auction where the currency is blood, and deals with the devil. Sometimes I just wanted to explore the entire floor of a dungeon just for discovery’s sake.

I’ve tried recommending Hand of Fate to my friends and most of the time they are reluctant to play it because they don’t like “hard” games. I don’t blame them, I dislike most games the “hardcore” gaming community touts as “hard” (not to mention that “hard” is subjective). Hand of Fate can definitely be a challenge, but I also feel like the deck-building aspect allows players to tailor their experience to some extent. I would say Hand of Fate is one of the easiest “rogue-lites” I’ve played, and I’ve played a bunch, but even so, the last level in particular seemed almost insurmountable until I managed to beat the last boss last night. It will definitely challenge you, and the red/green colour scheme and timing-based counters don’t make the game very accessible, but it’s also a unique game in an industry full of samey open worlds (says someone who loves open world games).

Some criticisms I have of this game are lack of any sort of character customization (you’re limited to playing as a dude), lack of enemy variety, and some late-game encounter cards. While lack of character customization isn’t a deal-breaker to me, I was still disappointed that I couldn’t play as a lady or even change the hairstyle or skin color of my adventurer. This has been addressed in the sequel somewhat with the option to play as a lady, but I don’t think you can customize the PC beyond that. Another issue I had with the game is lack of enemy variety. There are some unique enemies in the game (like Minotaurs or Lava Golems) but most of the time you’ll be fighting against four basic enemy types (“suits”) in the game: Dust (Bandits), Skulls (skeletons), Plague (Ratmen) and Scales (Lizardfolk), the game does try to mix it up by giving enemies more special abilities and throwing former bosses your way, but once you’ve fought one you’ve kind of fought them all. Finally, some of the late-game cards that require you to spend ridiculous amounts of resources for were little more than an annoyance, especially on the final level, where resources can very easily be lost from bad luck with the pain deck. A special annoyance for me during the final level was the Kraken, a boss who was just as much a challenge as the final boss and often ended my final boss run prematurely by happening to be in a linear dungeon layout. Sometimes, the way you obtain a card’s token is obscure, like the encounters that require you to fail in order to eventually succeed. I can’t think of any common triggers, though there are references to slavery (including one event where you are captured and forced to fight in gladiator games).

It took me 46 hours to finish the game, with a lot of stopping and restarting, and barely having touched the achievements. A single run to a boss encounter might take a few minutes or longer depending on which encounter cards you come across. There’s a ton of replay value, and the Wildcards DLC (which I recommend) adds “Fates” (like character classes) with their own encounter chains. Some encounters are only available to certain Fates, and they each have their own advantages and drawbacks. I would say the expansion is definitely worth it, especially if you’ve completed the game and are looking for a bit more challenge.

Not gonna’ lie, Hand of Fate is a frustrating experience at times, but it’s a unique experience, it’s an experience that kept me coming back for more even when I had the most rotten luck during a run, and that speaks volumes if you ask me.