All posts by gefnsdottir

Review: Danganronpa V3: Killing Harmony

[incest tw, nsfw text]

This is going to be a very difficult game to review without spoiling anything but I’m going to try.

As I mentioned in my review of the first Danganronpa, I never thought this series was going to come to the West. Well, here we are with three core games, one spinoff, two animes, and a manga (I think?), which, when you think about it, is huge for a series as niche as this one.

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If you aren’t familiar with this series, the basic premise of the core games is that a bunch of teenage prodigies (called Ultimates) are trapped in a remote location by a malevolent robot bear named Monokuma and forced to play a “killing game” where they murder their fellow classmates in order for a chance to “graduate”. However, they first need to survive a class trial, where everyone tries to figure out “whodunit”. If they manage to find the “blackened” murderer, the person who did the deed is executed in spectacular fashion. However, if they accuse the wrong person, everyone else is executed while the murderer goes free.

The appeal of this series for me is bonding with the characters and then watching in horror as they are murdered or are revealed to be murderers. I like to guess which ones are murderers and which ones are victims based on their designs. In the last game, most of my favourites ended up surviving (and the character I hated the most died). There’s also a lot of stuff going on in the lore of the game. The executions are also interesting in that they are tailored to that person’s talent and personality. In fact, I’d say the executions were a low point for me in Danganronpa 2. They just didn’t have the impact of most of the executions in the first game.

I will say that I immediately liked the cast, which is an improvement from the second game, where I hated some of the characters from the start. I mean, if character death is a thing your series does, you obviously want the audience to connect with the characters in some way. The characters in this game are all very memorable, from the elegant Ultimate Maid Kirumi, to the man-hating Ultimate Aikido Master Tenko, to the to the leader of a “secret evil organization” Ultimate Supreme Leader Kokichi. I think a couple of them are now my favourites in the entire series. The only characters I didn’t like were the Monokubs, Monokuma’s color-coded children with their annoying catchphrases.

Gameplay follows the standard formula for the core games in the series: Daily Life, where you converse with your classmates and build your bonds, Deadly Life, where you investigate murders, and the class trials, where you attempt to uncover the identity of the killer. Class Trials consist of a bunch of minigames: Non-Stop Debates, where you need to shoot contradictions with truth bullets, Mass Panic Debates, which are just like Non-Stop Debates only with multiple people speaking at once, Hangman’s Gambit (one of the most annoying minigames in the series IMHO) where you need to illuminate letters before shooting them into place, Mind Mine, where you play Minesweeper, Psyche Taxi, which is like the dive game from Danganronpa 2, only in a taxi, Rebuttal Showdowns, which are Non-Stop Debates with swords, Debate Scrums, where you’re split into two groups and need to match the subject of your opponent’s argument with the right word to counter them, Argument Armament, a rhythm game, and the Closing Argument, which has you putting manga panels in the correct sequence to finally expose the killer. Most of the minigames are essentially taken from Danganronpa 2 and most of them are annoying, although I personally enjoyed Psyche Taxi and Debate Scrums. One added feature to the Non-Stop Debates is the ability to lie. You usually need to lie at least once a chapter. Choosing to commit perjury nets you some extra dialogue and a “back door” that makes it easier to ferret out the culprit, but it doesn’t do anything drastic like affect the culprit’s identity or the ending.

I mentioned at the beginning of this review that it is a hard game to talk about without spoiling anything since the game pulls absolutely no punches. Yes, including in the very first trial. This game will shock you, punch you in the feels repeatedly, and surprise you. A standout for me was the third case, with its occult themes, otherwise the middle of the game is a bit slow. The final cases, however, are well worth persevering through the game’s slower points. Even the executions are more brutal this time around. Get ready to see a lot of pink blood. I will admit to feeling a bit cheated by an early game twist, but managed to roll my eyes and sigh and keep playing.

Overall, I really liked this game, but I think I ultimately prefer the second game (although the first game’s characters are the most memorable). The ending was simultaneously brilliant and, if I’m being honest, disappointing (and it doesn’t help that the creator has a habit of trolling fans). Suffice it to say that you should absolutely play at least Danganronpa 1 and 2 before playing this game. There are so many references that it’s not optional.

The series continues its track record of very negative depictions of mentally ill people. One such character is not only a murderer but is also a serial killer who is implied to have had an incestuous relationship with their now deceased sister (who is the basis for a split personality that emerges in times of stress), they’re also into BDSM. It’s as if the writers were checking off a list of “obviously evil” points and dumped all of them on one character. Of the two characters with darker skin, one was literally raised by animals (and talks in Hulk speech) while the other is a religious fanatic who walks around in a bikini. Speaking of incest, two of the Monokubs appear to become infatuated with each other (although its weird to call a relationship between two robot bears incestuous) to the point where Monophanie (the sole feminine presenting bear) is shown giving birth during an execution, well, it makes sense in context. Most of the more fanservicey moments are courtesy of Miu, the Ultimate Inventor who is constantly, constantly saying some really crude, TMI-type things (which masks a shrinking violet personality). As much as I like the cast, I admit I did cringe a little when Kokichi calls Miu very gendered insults, like “cum dumpster”.

I would say I like this game overall but I’m not sure how I’d rank it among the games I’ve played. I loved Danganronpa 2’s cast and setting, although the first had the more iconic characters and less annoying minigames. I will say one edge Danganronpa V3 has is its post game modes: Salmon Team, which is a dating sim (much like Island Mode and School Mode) without the gathering/sim elements, Talent Training, a fun board game where you select a character and play through three years at Hope’s Peak Academy with the students from all three games, and Monokuma’s Test, an RPG where you take the characters you raised via the board game and pit them against a dungeon where you gain coins to unlock more characters for the board game. I would honestly play an entire game based on this board game.

In a nutshell, this game has definitely been very divisive among the fanbase and it’s very clearly meant for people who have played the previous games. I enjoyed it, and I feel like the cast and post game content in this title are particularly strong.

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Review: An Artificial Night (October Daye #3)

Fresh off her last big assignment, October “Toby” Daye barely has time to rest before trouble finds her again. Someone’s been stealing children from mortal and fae alike, and all signs point to Blind Michael, the leader of the Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, getting to him won’t be easy, as there are few roads that lead to his realm, each one can only be taken once, and some roads demand a more heavy toll than others, and once she’s in, she can only stay so long before her magical protection burns away and she’s at the mercy of the land’s formidable fae lord. To make matters worse, May Daye, her own personal Fetch and harbinger of her coming death, has suddenly appeared on Toby’s doorstep.

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I wouldn’t say the first two books in this series were a slog but they certainly had their slow points. This one kept me glued to the page. This one has a bit more action and tension, and of the three, this one is definitely the most “fairy tale” like. There’s a set of instructions the protagonist needs to follow in order to pass safely through Blind Michael’s realm. Blind Michael himself follows some very specific rules. Before this book there have been hints of fae protocol (like how you should never say “thank you”) but this book really highlights how Faerie is different from the mortal realm. I also really liked May as a character. As a Fetch, she shares many of Toby’s memories, but she also has more of a bubbly personality than our protagonist. I think Quentin and the Luidaeg are my favourites out of the recurring characters thus far.

I’ve criticized the series so far for October’s lack of investigative work and how the plot seems to happen to her. She takes more of an active role in this book, actually taking the initiative when she’s thrown a curve ball, though she still finds herself in situations where she needs rescuing. It’s not that I’m against characters who need rescuing, it’s just that it seems to happen more frequently to Toby Daye than it should. This book feels more like Toby is coming into her own. The word “hero” is repeated so often it gets annoying, but it really feels like Toby is starting to be the hero of her own story, so to speak. Another thing I like is the lack of a strong romantic subplot. While Toby does interact with men (including an ex) romantically, she doesn’t really have time to spend pages pining over men, unlike some other protagonists who by book three are usually juggling three love interests or at least trying to decide (because polyamory is never an option) between two love interests.

As far as complaints about the narrative, I felt like one of the twists in the second half of the book felt like the author was making excuses for October to put herself in harm’s way again, and the final confrontation seemed anticlimactic. It reminded me of the end of the College of Winterhold quest line in Skyrim, where I stood there and said “wait, that’s it?” but at least there wasn’t as much stumbling around and waiting for the plot to happen.

In terms of triggers, there is violence against children. Toby is physically abused by the antagonist (who also abused his wife). This book is a bit bloodier than the previous books, and at one point Toby describes bleeding from cuts all over her body. There is also a bit of body horror with children being turned into animals. When I say this book is like a fairy tale, I mean it in the sense of “sometimes horrifying story intended for adults” the way that uncensored fairy stories tend to be.

In terms of diversity, there’s Raj, Tybalt’s nephew, who is described as having bronze skin, but once again we have a dead Japanese girl and Blind Michael, the major antagonist, is, well, blind. I wish McGuire would stop killing off her characters of colour. Another thing I wish she’d stop doing is I wish she’d stop equating mental illness with evil (like with Rayseline). Although I doubt that’s going to happen soon.

The first two books in this series were good but this one seriously hooked me. It definitely has some flaws (like consistently failing on the diversity front) but even so I still couldn’t put it down, and I think that speaks volumes for the writing, the world, and the characters in particular.

Review: A Local Habitation (October Daye #2)

I know it seems like I write these reviews moments after I finish the work in question but the truth is some of these have been kicking around for months (I blame the depression), not this review though, I literally just finished the book in question.

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The first book in this series, Rosemary and Rue, was surprisingly good, and surpassed my expectations (which are, admittedly, very low for the urban fantasy genre). The world McGuire has created is so captivating that I can almost forgive her protagonist’s investigatory fuck ups (which often involved her getting shot in the first book).

This time around, October’s liege, Sylvester, Duke of Shadowed Hills, charges her to check on his niece, January, who is Countess of a the newly formed County of Tamed Lightning, sandwiched between his realm and the Duchy of Dreamer’s Glass. He can’t go himself, nor can he send more qualified members of his Court for fear of sparking a war with Dreamer’s Glass, though he does send her with Quentin, a page in need of some experience outside the knowe. What was supposed to be a simple courtesy call, however, quickly becomes deadly as someone starts killing off January’s key people.

As with the last book, I found many of the characters likeable. Besides Toby, there’s Quentin, an underage, inexperienced page currently being fostered in Sylvester’s Court, who is, interestingly enough, more savvy than October when it comes to technology. The staff of ALH computing were a mixed bag for me, I liked January and Elliot (who is a bannik, fae who are able to magically clean people and things), but couldn’t stand Gordan, who makes no secret of the fact that she hates purebloods and spends most of the novel hating on October (who she sees as the “lapdog” of the purebloods).

The world continues to be compelling. It’s populated by a wide variety of fae with their various organizations and politicking. Honestly, have the fun of urban fantasy for me is reading about the various fantastical elements and seeing how the author puts their own unique twists on myths, folklore, magical systems, etc. I love the ides of a company that specifically makes technology that is compatible with the weirdness that is Faerie, especially since traditional lore on the Good Folk often places them at odds with modern technology.

Unfortunately, like the first book, October doesn’t really do a lot of traditional investigating. Once again, I felt like the plot happened to her instead of her doing anything to drive the plot forward, to be fair, however, she’s facing an unknown assailant and something’s wrong with the phones. I’m probably jumping the gun by saying this, but her PI training seems like more of what TV Tropes calls an Informed Ability than a skill that has any bearing on the plot. My other major issue with this book is that the characters make a ton of questionable decisions. Guess what the remaining staff members at ALH do when Toby warns them not to split up? They split up, of course! One of the characters even references the “never split the party” rule in tabletop gaming. Personally, I was baffled that it didn’t occur to October to take a certain course of action (which seemed obvious to me) until about halfway through the book. At least Toby doesn’t end up injured and in distress as often as the first book.

Also unfortunate, but there’s not a lot of diversity here either. The only person of colour is one of the murder victims who was dead before October arrived on the scene. In terms of triggers, Alex, forces a kiss on October and his sister, Terrie, flirts with Quentin (who is underage), he also makes October feel attracted to him against her will. Fortunately, October is not having any of his shit (especially when other characters tell her “he can’t help it”) and tells him to stay away from her and Quentin. I also disliked how the killer is referred to using ableist terms for mentally ill people, which, while a pretty common trope, is still harmful.

Despite some very questionable decisions on the part of both main and minor characters, I’m enjoying this series and I look forward to reading the rest of it (provided I don’t get sick of it like I have with so many other series). I’m captivated by this world, even if the characters annoy the hell out of me sometimes.

Game Review: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End

It’s taken me longer than I thought it would but I’ve finally finished the Uncharted series (or not, because The Lost Legacy is now a thing) and it feels much the same as finishing a book series I’ve particularly enjoyed: bittersweet. On the one hand, I have more space on my (full) PS4 now, yay, but on the other hand, I’m going to miss Nathan, Elena, Sully, and their wild adventures (not to mention the gorgeous environments).

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Sometime between Uncharted 3 and 4, Nathan and Elena got back together and are now trying to live a “normal” life, though Nathan obviously misses his treasure hunting days. However, an encounter with his thought to be dead older brother Sam draws him back into his old life on the hunt for the treasure of the infamous “Pirate King” Henry Avery in order to pay off Sam’s debt to a drug lord who helped him escape from prison. As usual, they aren’t the only ones hunting for the treasure, and this time their rival is a businessman with money to burn and the backing of a private military company.

There’s really not that much to say about the gameplay. It’s still the same combination of jumping, climbing, swinging, shooting, driving and puzzle-solving in gorgeous environments as in the previous games. I did feel as if stealth is a much more viable (and often encouraged) solution to ending conflicts this time around. There’s even an achievement if you manage to stealth through a particular section of the game, and unlike certain other games in the series, I wasn’t failing at stealth so often that I managed to get the achievements for stealth takedowns in a single level.

I’ve said before that I almost feel like saying the graphics on a PS4 title are great seems a little redundant but I especially liked the facial animations in this title. I find it’s often too easy to fall into uncanny valley territory, even in many triple A titles, but I wasn’t bothered at all by Uncharted 4’s faces. They didn’t have that “plastic” look of, say, Dragon Age Inquisition (which, TBH, sometimes look like they’re made out of modelling clay, to my untrained eyes at least). I really can’t stress how pretty this game is, with sprawling vistas, busy cities, opulent mansions, and some gorgeous water features. Heck, I could practically smell the meat cooking in an outdoor market. This and Horizon: Zero Dawn are prime examples of the graphical capabilities of the PS4 IMHO.

I feel like this final installment is the one where Nathan stopped being less of a machine that dispenses wisecracks and more of a character. I still found myself sighing and rolling my eyes and some one-liners but smiling at others. Also, Nathan Drake doesn’t deserve Elena, she is an amazing lady. Another character I liked was kick ass South African mercenary Nadine, who can and will kick Nate’s ass.

I had the most trouble with two aspects of this game: treasures and mandatory shooting sections. When I first started the game, I told myself that I’d find all 109 treasures for this final installment (using a walkthrough) but unfortunately some vague instructions caused me to restart certain levels multiple times because I missed the window of opportunity to get a particular treasure (the game autosaves frequently). The other time I had trouble with this game was near the end, when the game forces you into shootouts with wave after wave of enemies. Up to this point, I’d mostly been stealthing my way through these encounters, so I kept failing as I fiddled with the shooting controls, that’s on me though, and to be fair, the jet ski levels and mandatory stealth sections in previous games caused me no end of grief. Occasionally I did get a bit lost in some of the game’s wide open spaces (the game takes an “open linearity” approach to level design, where the levels are big open spaces that you can explore but the actual progression is linear.

In terms of diversity, Nadine is black and while I love her as a character she is also an antagonist. There was also some controversy surrounding a black character being played by a white actress (Laura Bailey). There’s also a minor Latino antagonist who is…..a drug lord, are you surprised? At least the main villain is a rich white American man now?

In sum, Uncharted 4 is (or was) a fitting sendoff for a great series, and to be honest I wouldn’t object to further adventures with a certain spoiler character from the very end of the game. In terms of length I spent just over 30 hours obtaining all treasures but not the optional conversations, journal entries, or rock cairns, and I’m nowhere near close to unlocking all of the achievements, so if you’re a completionist you might take a bit more time than I did. You can also earn points to unlock different graphics modes (sepia, rainbow colours, black and white, etc.) infinite ammo, zero gravity, etc. that might be fun just to play around with. I think the game is accessible to those who haven’t played the first three games but since you can buy them all on the same platform I definitely recommend picking up the remastered collection before starting on this game, it’s worth it, trust me.

Game Review: Dream Daddy: A Dad Dating Simulator

Here’s a game I never thought I’d review, and that’s because I originally thought that it was one of those dime-a-dozen “wacky” dating sims with no substance. Listen, game devs, you are never going to top Hatoful Boyfriend, especially if you think the wacky humour is why it’s so popular, so stop trying. The game has also been the source of much discourse on tumblr.

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In Dream Daddy, which is by Vernon Shaw and Leighton Gray and funded and voiced by the Game Grumps, you play as a Dad (you can customize his name and appearance) who has just moved to a new neighbourhood with his daughter Amanda. The cul-de-sac also happens to be home to other eligible dads: from his former college roommate, to the anxious owner of a coffee shop, to a dad who always seems to spark his competitive side, but will he find love, end as friends, or meet an untimely demise?

Gameplay consists of a lot of reading, clicking, and making choices, but its broken up by a variety of minigames that have you doing everything from match-3 fishing to trying to fix a broken radio to making your way through a crowd at a concert. You can go on a maximum of three dates per game and each Dad has three dates you can go on. You are ranked on your performance during these dates and given a grade (S is the highest rank). Depending on your choices, you can end up romantically involved with one of the Dads, end on a friendly note, or even die. Some of the routes have more realistic resolutions, like the one where the Dad in question reciprocates your feelings but decides he’s not ready to be intimately involved with anyone. Besides dating, you also spend a lot of time hanging out with your daughter and can end the game with a good or bad relationship with her.

When I first heard about this game I immediately assumed two things: that it was just a silly dating sim with way too many dad jokes, and that it was probably going to be homophobic. Having dated all the Dads, I can say that this is one of the sweetest, most heartfelt dating sims I have ever played (aside from Hustle Cat). Even though a couple of them took some time to grow on me, there isn’t a single Dad I would say I dislike (even though I think one could’ve used a better ending), and each Dad is more than they appear: one is still grieving the loss of his wife, another’s aloofness hides emotional wounds, another cultivates a certain image because he fears others will find the real him dull. I wasn’t expecting to have a serious conversation about death during a date. There’s still a ton of dad jokes, but it never feels like the humour and pop culture references (and there are a ton of pop culture references) overstay their welcome.

One (small) issue I have with this game is that I wish the characters had a bit more time to develop, like a fourth or fifth date (which I admit would take a lot of resources for a game with seven possible love interests). A more major criticism is the fact that some of the minigames are sadistically difficult (MINI GOLF!) and there are a number of bugs (including bugs that are preventing people from getting certain achievements). As of this writing and as far as I am aware, those bugs haven’t been addressed. There also isn’t a ton of voice-acting, mostly “Ohs” and moans that sound dirtier than they should when you fast-forward through the dialogue.

In terms of diversity, four of the seven potential love interests are poc: Craig, Robert, Hugo, and Mat. One of the Dads is trans, casually mentioning binders in conversation. You also have the option to make your character trans and can choose whether your partner was a mother or a father and whether one of you gave birth to or adopted Amanda. There isn’t a whole lot of diversity in body types, however; Brian (and optionally your MC) is the only Dad of size. To be fair, you can only choose from three different body types during character creation, the only difference is whether that body has a binder or not.

In terms of potential triggers, one of the characters you can date is a married man and third dates always end in sex (of the fade-to-black sort). Characters do a lot of drinking. There’s also a segment during one of Mat’s dates where you buy drugs (which turn out to be oregano).

Dream Daddy is a sweet game about a single Dad trying to raise a daughter and find love. Steam has me clocked in at nineteen hours, but that’s because I’ve been playing a certain minigame obsessively trying to get the achievement for it. Which Dad is my favourite? Damien, hands down, although I also love Hugo and Mat. If you’re looking for a nice game about queer dads dating queer dads, well, what are you waiting for?

Also I’d really like a queer mom dating sim.

Review: The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue

[tw: parental abuse, alcoholism, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia]

It seems like I’ve been waiting forever for this book since I read some early impressions of it ages ago. It sounded like it was right up my alley: diverse historical fiction with cute boys in love.

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Henry “Monty” Montague is about to embark on his Grand Tour of Europe with his best friend Percy and sister Felicity. The young lord wants nothing more than to escape his overbearing father, have one last hurrah before his responsibilities catch up to him, and flirt with Percy across Europe. But when one of his reckless decisions endangers himself and his traveling companions and sparks a continent wide manhunt, it calls into question everything he knows, including his relationship with Percy.

Here is a brief list of things that can be found in this book:

  • running around naked at the Palace of Versailles
  • a tarot reading (that is actually accurate)
  • cute boys kissing
  • badass ladies
  • the worst pirates in the world

The plot of this novel could be summarized as “Man makes stupid decisions, his friend and sister bail him out.” The book isn’t going to win any awards for its plot, although there was an unexpected fantastical element in an otherwise realistic setting. The focus is definitely on the characters, and this book has some great, memorable characters, even the characters with the smallest parts to play have some little quirk that makes them memorable even when their part in the story is over, such as the bank teller that Monty flirts with in order to make an unorthodox withdrawal or Dante, the son of an alchemist with social anxiety. The story is told from Monty’s perspective in first person, and though he might seem like a bit of a rake at first, but as the book goes on we see that he’s scared, trying to deal with his feelings for Percy (and his homophobic society), has a very unhealthy relationship with alcohol, and is possibly suffering from PTSD, Felicity is a woman in Regency-era England who wants to study medicine but is barred from doing so, and Percy is biracial and epileptic in a racist society that thinks epilepsy is caused by demons or masturbation. The book is not just about a thrilling manhunt across Europe, it’s also about people who find themselves on the fringes of society. I love these characters, I love Felicity’s snark and how Percy is a huge dork and Monty’s hilarious trains of thought as bad and worse things keep happening to him.

Many works of historical fiction are often whitewashed or straightwashed. We’re told that people of colour who weren’t slaves didn’t exist and queer people couldn’t be public about their sexuality, so it “makes sense” that these marginalized populations are invisible or meet horrible ends, that’s just “realism”. That’s why it’s so refreshing that The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue manages to both have a diverse cast and talk about the challenges they would have faced in that time period, and not only that, but Monty is constantly called out by both Percy and Felicity regarding his privilege while at the same time acknowledging that this doesn’t mean his life has been easy. The back of the book has some historical notes to provide context to their adventures.

I think my only criticisms of this book are that Monty can definitely be insufferable at times, particularly at the beginning before he gets a bit of depth to him. I also thought the final confrontation with the main antagonist was very predictable, although as I said, the book probably won’t win any awards for it’s plot. There was a part that came across as a little white saviour-y, where Monty impersonates a Scottish nobleman to keep himself, his friends, and a black crew of ex-slaves turned pirates to avoid being arrested (and in the case of the pirates, killed). Another thing I found a bit odd was the use of modern English slang. Did people say “bloody” back then because Monty says it a few times. It’s not that I expect all historical fiction to only use period-appropriate expressions at all times, it just struck me as out of place.

As I’ve mentioned (and as you can see up top with the list of trigger warnings) the characters frequently deal with Regency-era prejudice and discrimination. Percy is frequently called “negro” and “coloured” and asked about Africa when he was born in England (and the son of a minor noble, to boot), and he also has to deal with ableism on account of his epilepsy, Monty is naturally referred to as a “sodomite” and is an alcoholic and abuse survivor. There is also a scene where Felicity gives Monty the old “Have you tried not being attracted to men?” line and some disabled viewers might be disturbed by Monty’s eagerness to “cure” Percy’s epilepsy through the power of alchemy. If this last bit concerns you, be assured that he gets an earful over it.

In spite of the fact that bad things kept happening to these characters that I love, The Gentleman’s Guide to Virtue and Vice is still a great book and an easy recommendation for anyone who wants to read some queer Regency historical fiction with just a bit of fantasy to keep things interesting. I’m super excited for the sequel/side story The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, starring Felicity. Also Scipio desperately needs his own book. Why can’t all YA fiction and historical fiction be as cool as this book?

Game Review: Until Dawn

[gore tw, ableist slurs tw, racism tw, sexism tw]

My PS4 is running out of space for some reason (that reason being each game I have for it is 50 GB minimum) so I’m trying to beat some of the shorter games I own to free up space.

I’ve been sitting on Until Dawn since I bought the PS4. It’s not that I didn’t want to play it, I’ve just been distracted by the deluge of amazing games for the console. Also the constant sales at Best Buy are not doing my library any favours. Hey, when I see a $90 game that I want on sale for $30, I get it.

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Until Dawn is a survival horror adventure game developed by Supermassive Games and published by Sony Computer Entertainment. Every year, a group of teenagers gather at an isolated ski lodge for a retreat. When a prank goes awry, however, two of the friends disappear into the wilderness and are never heard from again. A year later, the remaining eight friends are invited to the same lodge to commemorate their friends’ deaths, but when strange and deadly things start happening around them, including being stalked by a relentless killer, it’s anyone’s guess who will survive until dawn.

I think the simplest way to summarize Until Dawn is that it is an interactive horror movie. Have you ever watched a horror movie and yelled at the characters to not do something? Until Dawn gives you some measure of control over the characters, allowing you to subvert or play common horror movie tropes straight (to some extent).

Speaking of tropes, all the characters are predictable horror movie archetypes: Mike is the confident jock, Jessica is the sexy airhead, Sam is a girl next door type who loves animals, Chris is the nice nerd, Emily is an abrasive fashionista, Matt is friendly but a bit of a pushover, Ashley is more serious and studious, and Josh is a bit of a loner. Their personalities can change over time depending on your choices, but for the most part they stick to their archetypes, which was actually one of the issues I had with this game, but more on that below.

Gameplay consists of moving the character around and picking up objects (which may be clues that reveal background information or just things to inspect). Action sequences take the form of QTEs where missing a button press can occasionally be fatal, and sometimes you’ll need to aim at a target reticle and press R2 to fire. The most annoying aspect of action sequences is the DON’T MOVE prompt, when you need to remain perfectly still while the controller vibrates. You also use the right stick to make choices, some of which are timed, although doing nothing, the game says, is sometimes the best choice.

I feel like saying that the graphics are beautiful in a AAA PS4 title is almost redundant but the snowy environments and abandoned locations are really pretty, not to mention creepy. You can even see the dust motes in indoor scenes. The one thing I didn’t like was at times it seemed like the lip syncing was off and some of the facial animations really crossed the line into uncanny valley (particularly Dr. Hill’s teeth, which only increased the creepiness factor).

This game has been praised for it’s meaningful choices, and while I think that no game can ever completely account for every choice and that not every choice can completely change the game, I thought it was well done here. The game keeps track of your choices via the stats screen, which tracks how brave, charitable, etc. each character is, but also the relationships between characters, and the Butterfly Effect, which tracks choices and consequences and gives the player feedback when a choice they made earlier in the game has impacted current events. For instance, placing a baseball bat off to the side will allow a character to use it later. Sometimes the impact of your choices won’t be apparent until much later in the game, and can even result in characters dying. You can also collect different “totems” which might show a character’s death (or the death of their friends), guide you towards the correct path, show you something that will lead to a favourable result, or show you a possible danger. These are purely for the player’s benefit, as the characters don’t react to them at all. My only issue with the choices is that some of them are very unintuitive and will lead to characters dying because you made the wrong choice a few minutes earlier (or sometimes chapters earlier). There was also one moment where you needed a specific clue to prevent a death. Fortunately, I was able to backtrack and find said clue.

I think my biggest annoyance with the gameplay was the DON’T MOVE segments, where you need to remain absolutely still while the controller vibrates, which is especially difficult to do when they combine it with jump scares. You can easily pass the segment by resting the controller on a flat surface and picking it up as soon as the indicator goes away, which is what I did.

My major criticism from a story and character standpoint is a consequence of the game being so faithful to its genre, so of course the “sexy” character can die after having sex, Matt, who is black, can die first, and Emily, who is Asian, is practically designed in such a way that you will hate her (and, like Matt, can die most often and in really gruesome ways). I really hate that the devs decided that the character you need to hate the most is the one WOC in the cast. Meanwhile, Sam, the white vegan who isn’t into the group’s shenanigans, is clearly the Final Girl) and she spends the majority of a chapter when you control her wandering around in nothing but a towel. There’s also a heaping helping of “people with mental illnesses are scary” (and the person stalking the characters is referred to as “p*ycho” and “p*ychopath” repeatedly), not to mention appropriation of Indigenous traditions. All of these are established horror movie tropes but that doesn’t mean they aren’t racist or sexist. Apparently one of the lead designers believes Until Dawn isn’t sexist because the cast is evenly split between men and women and they’ve “avoided the traditional phallic stabbing”. I guess we can go home because sexism is over? No seriously, the cast might be equally split (although there’s no non-binary representation) but that doesn’t change the fact that Mike, the typical white, athletic, straight guy protagonist we’ve all seen before, gets the most screen time (in one case exploring the same location by himself twice). It’s a shame that Until Dawn is unfortunately constrained by the conventions of its genre in this way.

Other than the things I’ve mentioned above, this game doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to blood and gore. Characters are beheaded, stabbed and shot through the eyes, and bisected by a circular saw. They can also be stabbed with needles. One scene near the end of the game has a character hallucinating and thinking they see viscera tumbling out of a dead pig. Speaking of dead pigs, there are also scenes involving animals which have been torn apart and you have the option to shoot a bird in the early game.

In terms of length, I completed the game in about ten hours but I didn’t come close to collecting all the collectables and totems. There is some replayability, especially if characters die and you want to see what changes when they live. I don’t think I’ve played another game that feels as if you’re in control of the victims in a slasher movie. I recommend it to genre fans who don’t mind a game that slavishly adheres to genre tropes.

Review: Arrow’s Flight (Heralds of Valdemar #2)

[tw: rape, incest, abortion, child death]

I said this before in my review of Arrows of the Queen but it’s so weird reading this trilogy when I’ve already read The Last Herald-Mage trilogy. I’m not sure if I’d recommend you do the same, but it’s been an experience.

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Talia is ready to assume her role as Queen’s Own Herald, but one final test remains: a year and a half internship riding a circuit with a full Herald. In Talia’s case, her mentor is Kris, the Collegium’s heartthrob and Dirk’s partner in crime. Unfortunately, with vicious rumours dogging her steps and her fraying control over her abilities, it’s going to take some work before she’s ready to assume her responsibilities, if she manages to survive.

I’m going to be right up front about this and say that this is probably one of the most boring second books in a trilogy that I’ve ever read. It starts out promising, with Talia and Kris moving from village to village dispensing justice, but then the duo and their Companions (and chirras–basically llamas) are snowed in and remain so for the majority of the book. The result is about two hundred pages of Talia being anxious and stressed about her powers and whether she might be misusing them and not much of anything being done. I heard on tumblr that Lackey mentions that these early books were “experimental” and it definitely shows. It feels like someone wanted to write a closed circle plot but didn’t quite know how to make it engaging beyond having two people (and horselike beings) grow increasingly frustrated with one another. I actually preferred the moments when they were on the road, dealing with the ordinary problems of ordinary folks. It’s like when an author creates some interesting secondary characters when the story is actually about the most boring character and their boring love interest.

I suppose I can’t get mad at a book from the late 80s for things that were probably revolutionary at the time (like acknowledgement of polyamorous relationships) but at the same time, I feel like the entire plot could’ve been avoided if Talia’s instructors at the Collegium realized “Hey this girl doesn’t know what a Companion does, maybe we should teach her the basics?” and I honestly feel like this is the sort of story that would be better as a short story or the sort of event that characters reference but never really explain. I also found the way Talia finally “masters” her powers disturbing, and a definite case of mood whiplash as the book suddenly goes from two people angrily dunking each other in the water to dealing with a murder, an incestuous rapist who committed the murder, and an abortion in the same chapter. Oh and apparently trauma from finding the body of your drowned child can be magically cured by….giving you another baby, who might be the reincarnation of your lost baby? I don’t know, it’s magic, okay? Magic is the explanation.

But hey I guess there was character development, or at the very least Talia will stop reminding the reader that she has no confidence in herself. Seriously, I take back everything bad I said about Magic’s Promise, because it’s way better than this. Also she uses the g-slur a few times in the book.

This book is a difficult one to recommend unless you’re committed to reading the trilogy. It definitely has that “early work by a celebrated author” feel to it (on top of being the second book in a trilogy). It’s best to go into it understanding that it’s an experimental product of its time and definitely weaker than other books the author has published since. In that respect, I am glad The Last Herald-Mage sold me on the series before I picked up this omnibus, otherwise I’d probably be more discouraged by Arrow’s Flight. Fortunately I’ve heard Arrow’s Fall is much better.

Deck Review: Oracle of the Unicorns

I love unicorns. They’re like horses but magical and able to impale people. Despite being loved by the New Age movement in particular for their “purity” and “loving energy” there aren’t many unicorn decks. There’s the Unicorn Tarot, which AFAIK is out of print or hard to find, and Doreen Virtue’s Magical Unicorns cards, and that one by Diana Cooper. None of these decks really have what I want in a unicorn deck, so when I saw this deck up on Blue Angel’s website and took a look at the sample images, I knew I needed it.

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The Oracle of the Unicorns is a 44 card deck and book set by Cordelia Francesca Brabbs. The art is done by a variety of artists. The card size is typical for Blue Angel oracle decks. The cards are borderless and each card has its title and a few sentences to clue you in to the meaning of the card. The guidebook elaborates on these sentences with a few paragraphs for each card. There are no upright and reversed meanings given for any of the cards. The guidebook contains a number of spreads specific to this deck. There’s instructions for daily card draws, a four card “Through the Forest” spread, a five card “Elemental Star”, a seven card “Path to Miracles” spread, an eight card “Pegasus” spread, and a nine card “Unicorn Horn” spread.

This is generally a positive, uplifting deck, with cards like “Compassion”, “Sanctuary”and “Gentleness”, even the “Anger” card is about dealing with your anger in healthy ways (and is actually one of the best cards dealing with “negative” emotions in a way that doesn’t involve denying or “releasing” your anger). Despite the deck being called the Oracle of the Unicorns, there are pegasi in here as well, but I suspect few people will mind that some of the magical horse-creatures have wings instead of a horn.

I loved the artwork without exception. Even though the art is done by different artists, it’s coherent. My only gripe is that I wish the humans on the cards were more diverse. I only saw one figure (perhaps two) that is possibly not white, and all are women. Many of the unicorns are also white with white horns, although a few are different colours. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot about my recent deck purchases, but I’m seriously considering buying art from this to hang over my computer desk. Every single one of these paintings would make a stunning poster.

I’ve been using this deck to pull a card each day. I did a few readings with it for other people, and I think it would work best for spiritual questions, if you need a bit of a pick me up, or for questions regarding activism and social justice. I did the meditation included with this deck (to find your unicorn guide) and had an (unexpectedly) powerful experience where I did meet two such guides, whether or not it was all in my head is something I continue to ask myself, but I can’t deny that it evoked some very raw emotions in me

Besides the lack of diversity, I think a lot of people will be turned off by the New Agey-ness of the deck. The accompanying meditation references the chakras, “white light”, light and love, and all that, things that, granted, you’ve probably come to expect from a deck like this (especially ones published by Blue Angel). If you can handle the cotton candy love and light stuff and you love unicorns, this deck is an easy recommendation.

Deck Review: Celtic Tree Oracle by Sharlyn Hidalgo and Jimmy Manton

There are no good tree-themed oracle decks.

What I mean by this is that the vast majority of tree-themed oracle decks are based on Robert Graves’ fabricated “Celtic Tree Calendar” and its variations. I know of a couple decks that aren’t based on that system, but they are either a) out of print (but due to be reprinted) or out of my price range. If you want an affordable tree oracle set, you’re stuck with tree calendar nonsense unless you want to make your own out of bark.

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Having said that, you might be wondering why I decided to purchase and review the Celtic Tree Oracle by Sharlyn Hidalgo with art Jimmy Manton, recently published by Blue Angel, and to be completely honest, I love trees and the art is gorgeous. That’s it, that’s why I bought this deck.

The set includes 25 cards that measure about 3.5″ x 5.5″ or whatever is typical for Blue Angel oracle decks. They have a pale yellow border and a “wooden” inner border, as well as the title and number of the card. The book is slim and includes one and three card spreads, a four card “Celtic Tree Spread” and the Celtic Cross, because of course it does. Each card has a short paragraph on what it represents, a paragraph each for upright and reversed meanings, and a message given in first person from the tree to the reader. In addition, most of the trees in this deck have lists of animals, deities, letters and sounds, and a social class associated with them. Technically some of the trees in this deck aren’t trees but the Celtic Tree and Plant Oracle doesn’t have the same ring to it.

I’m going to be blunt. The book is basically useless unless you want to use the divinatory meanings the author has assigned to each card. The “correspondences” (which, predictably, include deities and animals that weren’t found in Celtic-speaking countries) seem like they were just randomly thrown together in typical eclectic Pagan fashion, and the paragraphs on the Wheel of the Year could’ve been ripped out of any Llewellyn book. I mean things like “Elder represents the Crone aspect of the Goddess Hecate” thrown together. One baffling choice is the choice to call the trees both by their Old Irish (?) and English names, for example,  Luis Rowan essentially referring to the card as Rowan Rowan throughout the text, which looks pretty silly (unless there is actually an explanation for this, but to me it looks pretty silly). The card meaning can get repetitive, with many of them mentioning connecting to your ancestors and caring for your elders, which, while not bad ideas by any means (and appropriate for a tree deck, because trees are old and family trees are a thing) it still felt like there was a lack of variety.

For this curious, this doesn’t follow Robert Graves’ exact system, but uses one based on the moon (possibly combined with the Gregorian calendar method). This is no one changes the fact that the tree calendar was not a thing, but I found myself wondering where the variation came from.

The real draw for me was Jimmy Manton’s art. He’s chosen to focus on the leaves, fruit, and flowers instead of the tree as a whole, and makes use of stunning pinks, vibrant oranges, and soothing greens. At first I thought the art would be difficult to interpret because of this, but for some reason I “get it” when I see these cards (although a keyword on the card would’ve been nice). Some of my favourite cards are Rowan, Spindle, Heather/Mistletoe, Elder, Ivy, and the Sea. This deck would be great for daily pulls but you could also use the cards to decorate seasonal altars or shrines or as a focus for meditation.

In terms of potential triggers it has that typical “Wicca 101” cissexism and heteronormativity problem, particularly with regards to Beltane, a number of trees discuss fertility and pregnancy.

In sum, buy this deck for the art, skip the book unless you intend to use the book’s meanings instead of your own intuition. Honestly though, I have a few decks from the same publisher and the majority of their books aren’t that great. This is more or less what I was expecting.