Category Archives: Gaming

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.

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.

Game Review: The Sexy Brutale

So far 2017 has been a year of one hit after another. Persona 5 has been keeping me from the many, many games in my backlog (including hits like Horizon: Zero Dawn). I’m in the midst of a deluge of great games, not that I’m complaining, I’d just like a bit of a break! Okay, game devs?

Inevitably with the release of so many big budget games in such a short span, some smaller projects don’t get the attention they deserve, I’m here to talk a little about one of them.

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The Sexy Brutale is an adventure/puzzle game from Tequila Works, and takes place in the titular mansion turned casino. You are Lafcadio Boone, one of the guests of the mansion’s mysterious owner, the Marquis, during a masquerade. Unfortunately, the staff at The Sexy Brutale are inexplicably murdering the other guests, and it’s up to you to foil their murder plots and figure out just what the heck is going on.

What makes reviewing this game difficult is that pretty much everything story-related outside of the synopsis I just gave is a spoiler. The Sexy Brutale is not a long experience, my playthrough took about eight hours and I didn’t manage to find all the collectables, so this is one that you definitely should play for yourself if it interests you.

The Sexy Brutale takes an interesting approach to puzzle solving, instead of stockpiling items and combining them to make new items, the puzzles in this game are more about observation and timing. Lafcadio can’t interact with any of the other characters or the masks they wear detach and chase him until he leaves the room or dies (apparently you can die but I never did), so instead he has to follow both killers and victims at a distance, hide in cabinets, and foil murder plots behind the scenes like a guardian angel who moonlights as a stagehand. When you save a guest, you obtain their mask, which unlocks a special ability that you can use to solve later puzzles. And speaking of timing, the day resets when the clock strikes midnight, any items you’ve gathered up to that point vanish, but you keep any information you may have discovered, like a password or a door code. You can rewind or fast-forward time to certain points almost as often as you like, so if you’ve missed the window of opportunity to save the guests, you can rewind time straight away and try again.

What I liked most about the puzzles is that they’re deceptively simple. Chances are if you’re having trouble with a puzzle you’re likely overthinking it. One early puzzle had me wandering around the casino for hours when the solution was literally as simple as flicking a couple switches. There were some hiccups where I had no idea where to go, but usually figuring out how to progress was a matter of following someone around until they dropped a key piece of information. I wouldn’t say the puzzles are particularly hard, but it’s easy to assume they’re complicated when the opposite is true.

I particularly love the way sound and music is used in this game. The music will reach a crescendo to let you know that time is running out for the murder victims, then fall silent when the deed is done. It can be really disconcerting when you’re just wandering around and the music starts to pick up, even more so when you’re racing against the clock to save them before it’s too late. There are also a couple of really amazing vocal tracks.

In terms of potential triggers, one of the deaths is a suicide by hanging and you need to interact with something near the body to progress. The setting is a casino and the lore will hit home for anyone with a gambling addiction. The various deaths can be hard to watch. What lore I managed to unlock was pretty creepy.

In terms of diversity, Trinity is blind and Thanos uses a wheelchair (I don’t know if there’s another name for it). Aurum, Willow, and Greyson appear to have darker skin in the official art. While there’s no explicit confirmation in canon, the game implies that one male character has feelings for another but as far as I know there’s no indication that those feelings are reciprocated.

I almost passed on The Sexy Brutale because of the price (21.99 CAD) but I’m glad I didn’t. The ending is one that will stay with me, and I still have a lot of lore, playing cards (you can collect an entire deck’s worth of playing cards) and invitations to collect. I’m not sure if I will return to the Sexy Brutale any time soon, but it was an experience that I do not regret. If you enjoy puzzle games and you like murder mysteries–with a twist in that you’re not figuring out who done it but how to stop it from happening–The Sexy Brutale is an easy recommendation.

Game Review: Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune

“Whaaaaaaaaaat? A PS3 game, on this blog? I thought you only had a Vita, a 3DS, and a PC?”

I do, except now I have a shiny new PS4 that came with Final Fantasy XV and Uncharted 4, and now I have the remastered Uncharted collection so that means I’ll be reviewing the entire series, starting with the first one.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is one of my favourite movies. Raiders of the Lost Ark is okay, Temple of Doom was so boring I fell asleep, and the less that can be said about Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the better. Seriously, fuck that movie. But nowadays it’s difficult to view these movies (and the “adventurer archaeologist” trope in general) and not consider the colonialism inherent in a white dude (and it is usually a white dude) plundering cultural artifacts from non-white cultures and declaring “this belongs in a museum!”

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The protagonist of the Uncharted series is Nathan Drake, a descendant of Francis Drake. The story begins with Nathan Drake and journalist Elena Fisher finding Francis Drake’s coffin at the bottom of the ocean and leads to him embarking on a quest to unlock the secrets of El Dorado. Naturally, he’s not the only one searching for the legendary city, and he’ll have to solve puzzles, blow things up, and competently maneuver a jet ski in order to make it to the treasure before the competition, and did I mention his friend owes them money and they’re out for blood?

If I had to describe this game in one word, I guess it would be “derivative” but that sounds a bit negative, doesn’t it? Another word I thought of was “typical” but that also sounds like I didn’t like the game. I guess what I mean to say it that it doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. There are platforming sections where you jump from thing to thing and occasionally swing on things or hang on things. There are shooting sections where you hide behind cover and play whack-a-mole with enemies. There are puzzles which are so easy the game will literally give you the solution if you rake too long, and there is the occasional vehicle section where you awkwardly control a vehicle and try not to get instakilled, and there are plenty of collectable treasures (60 in all) which unlock bonuses like new outfits for the characters to wear. That’s pretty much it. Honestly, if you’ve played pretty much any action-adventure game you probably know what to expect. I was reminded of Prince of Persia, but I suspect most people will think of the Tomb Raider series, particularly the most recent games.

The characters are a mixture of what you’d expect from the genre with some surprises thrown in. Nathan Drake is a dime a dozen white thirty-something protagonist with permastubble with slightly more wisecracks than average (although in this reviewer’s humble opinion, he seems like he’s trying to hard to be snarky). Victor is an older mentor figure to Drake that ends up getting him into the whole mess with the antagonist. Elena was the surprise. At first, you’re probably thinking “let me guess, she gets abducted and Drake needs to rescue her, and also eye candy” but not only does she save Drake’s ass, she’s competent with a gun, and her default outfit is not ridiculous and sexualized (although she is baring her midriff in dangerous situations). Most importantly, she doesn’t put up with Drake’s shit. Unfortunately, she’s literally the only woman in this game. I want more badass ladies just like her.

I feel like this is almost redundant but the environments in this game are beautiful. Drake will be running, jumping, and climbing through ancient temples and abandoned churches and taking in some gorgeous vistas. I don’t have the PS3 version to compare, but the PS4 remaster was given a graphical bump and it looks great.

Unfortunately the controls in this game were my worst enemy at times, especially when Nathan refused to jump even though I was hammering the X button or ended up leaping to his death because I pressed it a bit too hard. I am also not a fan of the jet ski levels, and by not a fan, I mean I hated them. Fuck jet skiis, you couldn’t even speed through those levels like a badass because of the explosive barrels and pirates shooting at you. Another complaint I have is that I found the shooting monotonous. They try to throw in new enemy types (like annoying snipers with laser sights) but it was basically just the same “shoot enemies before they can flank you and hide behind cover). There were also a few times where the environments were too dark to see anything (which was particularly annoying for one puzzle). Lengthwise it took me about 10 – 15 hours to beat it but I only found around 20 collectables so there is some incentive to replay it if you care about collecting all the things. Usually I would criticize a game like this for being so short, but honestly I think this is an okay length and the game definitely doesn’t overstay its welcome.

In terms of diversity, the main cast is white. The only characters of colour in the game are the faceless enemies you mow down by the dozens, a minor antagonist, and a slightly more important antagonist (both Latino). There are no queer characters (although I subscribe to the headcanon that Nathan Drake is bi and/or pan).

I obviously have the benefit of hindsight but if I was playing this game with no expectation that there would ever be a sequel, I would have probably written it off as an average action-adventure game starring a younger, snarkier Indiana Jones. It’s average in pretty much every respect, which is not a bad thing, but it’s not exactly the best first impression of such a critically acclaimed series. I’m excited to play the rest, however, because I’ve heard the sequels are vastly superior.

Review: Snow Like Ashes

Look at this cover. Isn’t it just the prettiest cover?

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The world of Primoria is divided into eight kingdoms: the four rhythm kingdoms, which cycle through all four seasons, and the season kingdoms, which have only one season year round. Each kingdom’s monarch possesses a Conduit-and artifact of great magical power which they use to protect their people and cause their kingdoms to prosper. Then Spring invaded Winter, killing its queen, breaking its conduit, and enslaving its people. The few survivors of the conquest include Meira, an orphan girl who only wants what’s best for her country, and Mather, the young future king of Winter. When these rebels hear word that the pieces of Winter’s broken conduit are nearby, Meira embarks on a dangerous mission to take them back for her country.

At first I was having a blast with this book. Sure, it’s basically “young Xena” since Meira’s weapon of choice is a chakram, but I think you could hand me a book with the most thinly disguised Xena and I wouldn’t complain. I also found the writing easily engaged my senses: I could hear the crackling of fire and taste the frozen berries that are a popular treat in Winter.  Unfortunately, the book quickly gives up on the sneaking and stealing from Spring soldiers in favour of politicking, and depicting people in horrible conditions. This is where the book started to wear on me for a couple reasons:

  1. For someone who claims to want to do anything for her country, Meira is rude and childish towards a king who is the best chance they have of getting any help. She even admits that she’s throwing a temper tantrum and it’s childish of her.
  2. Oh look, a love triangle.

In a nutshell, Meira is betrothed to the king’s son, Theron, because this is What’s Best For Winter, Meira, naturally, isn’t too thrilled with the idea (especially since she has a very obvious crush on Mather) but Theron seems like a decent guy. Then he gets into a sparring match with Mather over Meira because it isn’t a love triangle unless the love interests duel at one point, that’s just how it goes. Also, it’s really obvious which one “wins” the relationship game, I honestly don’t know why some authors bother if there’s no contest between the potential love interests.

The other issue I have with this book is that it’s a book about oppression and prejudice that is almost completely erased of actual marginalized people. Autumn is a kingdom of dark-skinned people, but the Autumnians are barely in the book. Winterians apparently have the same phenotype: white skin, white hair, blue eyes, and it was difficult for me to root for these characters when they are literally the whitest of white people, although the scene in the underground “catacombs” where the Winterians record stories and customs of their homeland was poignant. Unsurprisingly, it’s also very heteronormative and cisnormative as well, it’s a shame, because there’s a plot point that could have lent itself well to one character being trans but that’s not what happens or I’d probably be praising it more.

Also, is it just me, or is “girls dreaming of dead queens” a genre now? This is the second young adult book I’ve read that has this as a plot point (the other is Throne of Glass).

Snow Like Ashes has some good ideas, and its not as blatantly offensive as something like The Queen of the Tearling, but it feels like it doesn’t do anything new with what it has. It’s your basic “girl power” fantasy, if you like those, you might like this. If you want another book in the same vein, I thought Throne of Glass was fun (if not very diverse either).

Review: Rosemary and Rue (October Daye #1)

It’s time for the latest entry in “books I bought because tumblr friends said they were good” lately this strategy has been hit or miss. As I’ve discovered, some of the folks I follow on tumblr have very different tastes than I do. In fact, I bet if you tallied the positive vs. negative reviews of books recommended to me by tumblr friends, there would probably be a few more negatives.

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The world of Faerie never disappeared. It exists parallel to our own, protected by secrecy. When the human world and Faerie intersect, changelings are born, belonging to neither world. October Daye is one such changeling, but after getting burned by both sides of her heritage, all she wants is to live as normal a life as possible. Naturally, she’s drawn back into faerie politics when Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the more powerful fairies in San Francisco (and Toby’s sometime friend) is murdered, her dying curse binding Toby to find the murderer, or die trying.

I found most of the characters likeable. Toby’s been through hell and she’s just trying to live a normal life after what she’s been through (as usual, that doesn’t last long), but there are some really great secondary characters: October’s good friend Lily, an undine who lives in the Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park, to Sylvester, Toby’s liege lord, his wife Luna and their acerbic daughter Rayseline, to Tybalt, a Cait Sidhe with whom she shares a mutual dislike. Toby’s world is populated by a variety of creatures drawn from world mythology, from selkies to kitsune to rose goblins.There are a couple characters I’d really like to mention, but that would be spoiler territory.

The world of faerie, so close to our own, is both magical and dangerous, with magnificent gardens of glass flowers, doors that open to places you weren’t expecting to be, and denizens who are sticklers for protocol and take hospitality very seriously. Changelings like Toby naturally occupy a dubious space in either sidhe and human society, not quite belonging to both and struggling to live in either. Toby’s position as a knight errant to a sidhe liege lord is something of a novelty.

This book had me hooked from the prologue. In fact, it’s one of the best prologues I’ve ever read. I was definitely not expecting what happened and it explains why October didn’t want anything to do with Faerie and had to be dragged back into it by her not-quite-friend’s death. I also like that the plot wasn’t overly focused on romance, there are some sexual tension laden scenes between October and a few men, but she doesn’t have a lot of time for romance.

Unfortunately, while the prologue is strong, I found the plot loses momentum. For a private investigator, October doesn’t really do any serious investigating and spends most of her time getting shot, nearly bleeding out, and having to be rescued by other characters. October’s circumstances remind me of a recent post I saw on tumblr, which talked about how some protagonists have the plot happen to them, and this is definitely what I felt happened in October’s case: she doesn’t so much drive the plot, the plot happens to her and she reacts to it. The Big Bad in this book was obvious to me from their introduction, and all it really took to uncover them was October remembering her powers. Speaking of her powers, they seem inconsistent, one moment she can’t maintain a simple illusion without experiencing a splitting headache, the next she’s using her abilities with no issues (although this is explained by coming into contact with a magical artifact, I thought there was a point where the effect wore off). My other criticism is that even though this is the first novel in the series, there are many references to past events. Occasionally these sort of references can be used to give a sense of history to the world, but in this case this first novel feels like the fifth in a series. (Note that although she has written prequel stories, I’m reading each book in order of publication.)

Unfortunately, while there are a lot of different types of fae, there aren’t any explicitly marked people of colour (although my impression of Lily was that she was at least half-Japanese), the only reference to queer sexualities is one character’s offhand comment that he slept with a (male) faerie, although based on what I’ve heard, there’s more queer representation in other books in the series and the author self-identifies as bisexual.

In terms of triggers, Devin, the man in charge of the halfway house for changelings where October used to live, is implicitly and explicitly abusive to his charges. There’s also some blood-drinking (sidhe can drink blood to experience the memories of dead people), and violence.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and the preview for the next one was genuinely intriguing. I can safely say I’m hooked and I can’t wait to catch up with it. If you’re a fan of urban fantasy, you’ve probably read it already. If you like urban fantasy that focuses on something other than vampires, check out this series.

 

Game Review: Why am I Dead at Sea?

By the time you read this Hallowe’en will probably be over, but in case I manage to write this review before midnight: Happy Hallowe’en and Blessed Samhain!

In the past, I’ve played games that were conventionally “scary” on Hallowe’en, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m getting older, but I’ve found I just don’t enjoy jump scares as much as I used to, the horror titles I’m into these days are more atmospheric.

One thing that has remained consistent throughout my life is that I love a good ghost story, and that’s exactly what Why am I Dead at Sea? is: a ghost story where you are the ghost and your task is to solve your own murder on a boat at sea.

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You solve your own murder by possessing the passengers and crew and getting them to converse with one another. Depending on their relationships, they’ll have different things to say to each other. In the beginning, you have limited control over the characters, and can only say what they would say in that circumstance. However, as you get to know them, you can take full possession of them and speak through them. You can also read peoples’ minds and uncover more information about them or hints as to what you’re supposed to do next. Each character also has a special ability: one character can see what’s in a person’s pockets if she’s near them, another can peek through keyholes to see what’s behind a door before she opens it, another can see objects he can interact with, etc. The puzzles in this adventure game are more about getting to know people and ferreting out secrets, and every single character in this game has a secret.

The characters themselves are interesting, although given the length of the game (Steam has me clocked at six hours, all achievements obtained) there isn’t really a lot of time to flesh them out. I loved Quella, the writer who writes because she enjoys it and she’d rather do something she enjoyed even if she isn’t making a lot of money (I feel like I understand her) or First Mate Ferdinand and his ridiculous announcements. They all deal with some dark stuff as well: from coping with the death of a spouse from suicide to cancer to parental abuse and more.

The graphics are obviously reminiscent of Earthbound, some of the characters have a leitmotif that plays when you possess them, but the music isn’t especially memorable, perhaps because of the game’s length.

One of my major criticisms of this game is that it’s sometimes unclear as to what your next move should be. You can always ask Paolo, the only character who can communicate with you, for help, but basically what it comes down to is talking to everyone (exhausting all dialogue options) and examining everything. Another issue I had is that Xu’s portrayal (a waitress who steals stuff from passengers and crew and is also secretly here illegally) strikes me as racist stereotyping, characters even comment on how her English is good and keep mispronouncing her name (as “Sue”). Out of all the characters of colour in the main cast, the only one I found remotely sympathetic was Quella, as the others are in on the unpleasantness described below (although most of the characters have something to sympathize with).

In terms of triggers, one character’s depressed spouse committed suicide, another is implied to have been stalked or sexually abused, there’s also abuse, one character is dealing with cancer, one on screen suicide (which is unavoidable) and discussion and depiction of human trafficking. There are also some flashing graphics at the very beginning of the game, and reading a person’s thoughts will occasionally show bright colours and flashing, moving text and images.

Overall, you can finish the game in an afternoon and unlock all the achievements. It’s a nice little diversion while you’re waiting for the latest big budget title to download. It has some interesting ideas, and it doesn’t overstay its welcome. I’m not sure that it’s worth the full price of $10, but on sale it’s worth a look if you like murder mysteries.

Game Review: Aviary Attorney

There are games that are obvious attempts to cash in on another franchise’s popularity, and there are games that are obviously a loving homage to its parent franchise. The difference between the two is often a matter of who you ask.

Aviary Attorney is an obvious homage to the Ace Attorney series, only with birds. As defense attorney JayJay Falcon, you’ll explore 1840s France on the cusp of a revolution. Whether France is consumed by revolution or not is up to you.

Oh, and there are bird puns, tons of bird puns.

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If you’ve played any of the Ace Attorney games, the basic flow of the game should be familiar to you, although Aviary Attorney is much closer to a pure visual novel. This is one game that definitely wears its influences on its sleeve. You’ll still be investigating, gathering evidence, pointing out contradictions and the like, but instead of scrutinizing every individual line of testimony, you’re given a transcript and asked to point out contradictions. Also unlike Ace Attorney is that the story continues if you lose cases (albeit it becomes much darker). You’re also on the clock, so if you spend too much time wandering around, there’s a good chance you’ll lack evidence for a trial, and the game is surprisingly strict about this. I ended up losing the second case because I visited a certain location early and ate up a valuable time slot. Even though I went back and tried to do the chapter over, I still couldn’t get the exact sequence of events down and gave up because I’m impatient like that.

The character designs are taken from the work of J. J. Grandville, who I am actually familiar with through his art being used for the Fantastic Menagerie Tarot and the Victorian Flower Oracle. The music is by the romantic-era composer Camille Saint-Saëns, whose work adds a certain grandeur to the setting. The graphics are in a sepia style that have an old sketchbook kind of appeal.

Although I liked this game, I do have a couple criticisms. The ending you get is based on the outcome of the third case, so you can theoretically bumble your way through the other cases and still end up with a good ending. Also I never thought I’d say this, but the bird puns sort of wore out their welcome by the third case, and I felt like the game has a hard time deciding whether it wanted to be a barrel of laughs or dark and serious. It felt like it just didn’t know when to put on each mask, unlike its inspiration, Ace Attorney, which can go from courtroom antics to serious drama in a matter of moments, Aviary Attorney doesn’t seem to know what it wants to do. Part of it is probably due to length, I was able to get a decent ending in four hours. Understandably, that’s not a lot of time to immerse players in sweeping drama.

I don’t want it to sound like I hated the game. It definitely scratched the AA itch, and I recommend it to anyone who’s waiting for Ace Attorney 6, but I want to emphasize that it’s a fleeting experience and at times it seems like it doesn’t know what it wants to be. I would definitely recommend picking this one up on sale if you’re interested. IMHO the price is a little steep considering its length. If you really want a game to scratch that AA itch, I’ve definitely played worse than Aviary Attorney.

Game Review: Hustle Cat

If there’s one thing visual novels with a bunch of romance options and dating sims have taught me, it’s that fictional people are better than real people, and I have A Type. Unfortunately, if there’s one other thing these games have taught me, it’s that at least one person in my fictional dating pool is bound to be a total jerk.

Then there’s Hustle Cat.

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Hustle Cat is a visual novel about a cat cafe. You play as Avery Grey, the newest employee of A Cat’s Paw, a place where the coffee’s good and the staff are friendly (not to mention cute!). Sure, your coworkers disappear and reappear at odd times during the day and there’s a strange book in the basement that you can’t read, but it’s probably nothing, right?

This is one of the cutest visual novels I’ve ever played.

This isn’t an exaggeration. The characters are genuinely sweet and the closest thing to a jerkass route is the “delinquent” taciturn cook who fell in with the wrong crowd in the past and the assistant manager, who is a little full of himself but is easily (and adorably) flustered by your awkward attempts to flirt with him. There’s none of that “he’s a jerk to me it’s so romantic!” thing like in certain other games *coughAmnesiacough* and I know I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but it’s a refreshing change from games like Sweet Fuse, which, despite being pretty sweet at times, still had jerkasses, angstbuckets, and a male yandere character.

There isn’t really any gameplay so to speak apart from the typical visual novel mechanic of reading text and picking choices. There’s not a ton of choices, either. Unlike many visual novels with separate routes, there are no bad ends with individual characters (although there are a couple that you can get by picking certain choices). Once you’re on a route, all you have to do is read until the final encounter. Regarding length, it took me nine hours to finish all the routes and get all the achievements. Hayes and Mason are probably my favoutite routes, and unlike some games, you can’t unlock the route that explains much of the story until you complete the others, so don’t worry about accidentally spoiling yourself.

I can’t really think of any criticisms. Sure, it would have been nice to have some choices once you were on a certain route, but “bad ends” don’t really fit the tone of this game (although there are a couple you can get). The requirements for the secret ending are kind of weird, but on the other hand it wouldn’t really be a secret ending without being, well, secret. Although having a non-binary option for Avery was great, I would have liked to see at least one non-binary love interest. It’s great to have that option for a main character but I find it hard to see the game as “non-binary friendly” if the only character who is actually non-binary is the one character where you can specify your pronouns. The writing is generally decent apart from some awkward sentences (also, it’s “vampires” not “Draculas”).

In terms of diversity, Mason, Reese, and Landry are all dark-skinned love interests. Any of the main cast can be romanced regardless of gender. It’s implied that Hayes has some form of anxiety, though it’s only stated that he gets “anxious” and nervous around people. The only obvious trigger I found was that one of the routes (Finley’s) deals with misogynist online harassment.

In sum, Hustle Cat is easily one of the cutest visual novels I’ve ever played with love interests who aren’t massive jerks. It’s a little on the short side, but is definitely worth the money if you like fluffy romance, especially fluffy romance involving cats and witchery.

Game Review: Pillars of Eternity

I love RPGs: Western RPGs, JRPGs, action RPGs, games with RPG elements, all kinds of RPGs, so when I heard that Obsidian, the studio behind such gems as Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, and Planescape Torment, wanted to make an old school RPG in the vein of the old Infinity Engine games, I backed it right away on Kickstarter.

Pillars of Eternity is about an ordinary person who is thrust into extraordinary circumstances. Your journey begins with you accompanying a caravan into the Dyrwood pursuing a fresh start. Soon after, you witness a terrifying event and find yourself thrust into the role of a Watcher, a person with the ability to see into the souls of others. Your journey will take you across the Dyrwood in the hope of finding out what has happened to you and whether you can free yourself from your new burden.

Pillars of Eternity is an isometric CRPG, a style of RPG which has become less popular in recent years but is enjoying a resurgence thanks to funding platforms like Kickstarter. If you’ve never played a CRPG like Pillars before, it’s difficult to find a point of comparison, if you’ve ever played Dragon Age Origins on “tactical mode”, it’s kind of like that with tighter controls.

The game starts, naturally, with character creation. You choose staples like race (with a number of sub-types) and class, but also background and place of origin. These choices aren’t just cosmetic, they have an effect on how NPCs treat you and what you can equip. Godlikes, for instance, have some sort of protrusion that makes it impossible to equip helmets and other headgear. For my first character, I broke my own tradition of playing a human mage and opted to play as a Moon Godlike Cipher (a class focused on using psychic abilities to manipulate others’ souls directly instead of using complex formulae like Wizards or songs like Chanters) named Paresh whose background was as an Old Vailian Aristocrat. As always, I tried to do “good” and honest things over acting like an asshole.

Unless you’re dedicated to soloing your journey of discovery (which you can apparently do with the right build), you’ll probably want some companions to help you out. The game gives you the option to create your own party from scratch a la Temple of Elemental Evil, but you’ll also meet a variety of colourful companions you can recruit, including Eder, a farmer turned fighter who is a follower of the persecuted Eothasian faith who is looking for an answer as to why his brother fought on the opposing side during a war, Aloth, an elven mage with some interesting secrets, Pallegina, an avian godlike who joined an all=male knighthood on a technicality who is caught between duty to her superiors and her conviction that there is a better way to help the Republics, Sagani, a dwarven hunter who is searching for the reincarnation of her village elder, and others. Each companion has a personal quest and the outcome of that quest (as well as how you treat them throughout the narrative) determines which of a few different endings you get. The characters all have depth and they all have a central conflict that you can influence. You can also gain reputation with various factions, which affects everything from which quests are available to you to the ultimate fate of a settlement. One of my favourite aspects of reputation is the way your decisions shape your character’s personality and open up different dialogue options (in one case, an Honest character will have an easier time giving testimony during a certain event, whereas a Cruel character gets more opportunities to be a complete asshole).

Combat is definitely one area of the game that sounds complicated but actually isn’t as hard as the fanbase or critics are saying it is. In a nutshell, enemies have four defense types: Deflection, Fortitude, Reflex, and Will, higher numbers indicate more defenses against that sort of damage. For instance, an enemy with high Fortitude but low Reflex might resist most status effects but be susceptible to area of effect spells, whereas an enemy with low Deflection is very susceptible to melee attacks. It’s often a matter of checking enemy stats to find the lowest number and then using spells and abilities that cause damage against that attribute, provided you’ve fought enough of those enemies that you can tell what those numbers are in advance. Combat (at least at the time of release) involves adjusting the position of your fighters and coordinating their attacks, as (again, at the time of release) they didn’t have much in the way of AI. Some might dislike this level of micromanagement, but fortunately you can (and should) pause the game to issue orders. The “with pause” part of “real time with pause” makes combat much less stressful. Another important part of combat is health and endurance. In a nutshell, endurance is short term injury and is refilled at the end of battle and through healing potions, food, and spells. Health is long term injury and can only be recovered through resting. On every difficulty except Easy, if a character’s health is depleted, they permanently die. There are no resurrection spells or the like in this world. There’s something about the combat that is deeply satisfying, especially when you score a critical and the enemy explodes into giblets. There’s also something deeply satisfying about emerging from a fight with no unconscious party members, especially if you were like me and had trouble with the dungeons at the beginning. The fact that someone like me, who had immense trouble with the Infinity Engine games, can conquer the bonus dungeon and kill the challenging bonus boss is proof that the game is not nearly as difficult as everyone is making it out to be (or else I’m better at delegating than I thought).

While I was playing this I was also playing Dragon Age Inquisition, and I think modern RPGs like DAI could learn a thing or two from Pillars of Eternity‘s quest design. Whereas DAI had me running all over the Hinterlands looking for letters and corpses and endless distractions like shard hunts and constellation puzzles, Pillars of Eternity had fewer things to do (some areas are practically empty except for monsters) but made up for it in quality. Almost every quest has something more to it. Almost every quest is more than it initially appears to be. Even simple quests like “kill this bear in this cave” or “deliver this ring” tell stories of treachery or desperation, and many of them give you opportunities to develop your character’s personality as well as dole out precious experience. The bulk of experience is gained through completing quests, you do get some experience for killing monsters, but (at least when the game was released) you stop gaining experience when you’ve learned about them. You can also gain experience through exploring new areas and interacting with the world (unlocking chests, disarming traps, etc.).

The graphical style should be familiar to you if you’ve ever played this sort of RPG. The graphics are 2D and made by rendering high quality 3D models but the effects and characters are in 3D. Pillars has gotten some flack for its “old” graphics, but while it might not have sprawling vistas like Skyrim, the Dyrwood is still very pretty and objects like the “Gilded Vale Welcome Tree” would provoke an emotional reaction from me regardless of rendering. The music is another high point, with tracks that reminded me of the likes of Icewind Dale and Morrowind. Although there is little voice acting, it’s all pretty great with no voices that I really hated. Durance’s voice actor in particular nailed the “fire and brimstone preacher” personality, and Matthew Mercer is truly a man of a thousand voices.

Keep in mind that the few negative points I have may or may not have been fixed with a patch since then, but when the game first came out, the AI had a really annoying pathing problem where they would run back and forth instead of moving around to strike at an enemy. Although your party members are all very interesting, I feel as if Sagani, Pallegina, and especially Grieving Mother weren’t given as much attention as Aloth, Eder, and Durance. Grieving Mother is a particularly egregious case because the Watcher is the only one who can see who she actually is, limiting opportunities for party banter, and you can also permanently lose her at least twice in the story if you make the wrong decisions (although the second time you deserve it, you monster). Ciphers at the time of release seemed somewhat overpowered, with plenty of abilities that could knock an opponent down or make enemies attack each other, although I hear they have since been nerfed. The game is also pretty difficult at the beginning, and one of the earliest dungeons, the Temple of Eothas, can easily wipe the floor with your party and laugh. Stick with the game, however, and characters like Eder and Aloth become practically superhuman (casters starting off weak and then becoming powerhouses by the end game are apparently a staple of the Infinity Engine games). Miraculously, I didn’t encounter any game-breaking bugs, something that Obsidian games are infamous for having.

Pillars of Eternity might look like a standard fantasy romp in a standard fantasy setting but its also a very bleak world where terrible things happen to good people. In that sense, it’s very much a successor to Planescape: Torment. Rape is mentioned but never depicted in a couple quests, war and its effects on the land are ever present, human sacrifice (which can be performed by the player), death by hanging, and violence against children are all present, as are parental and spousal abuse, and this is barely scratching the surface of the dickish things the player can do. Suffice it to say if you can think of a way that a person can suffer, this game probably has it. No character earned quite as much ire from me than Durance, with his sexist comments and leers to his hatred of absolutely everyone, he is, as someone on tumblr put it “such a white boy”. My dislike for Durance is so great that someone actually messaged me asking how they could avoid recruiting him. Unfortunately, as he’s a priest, if you want to do a playthrough with no player-created characters and you’re not a priest/ess yourself, you’ll want to have him around, and to be fair, Hiravias is at least as filthy as Durance and doesn’t get half my scorn.

In terms of diversity, Pallegina, Sagani, and Kana are people of colour. Pallegina is black, and Sagani’s people clearly resemble the Inuit, Kana is a bit more ambiguously brown. Interestingly, the dominant culture in the Republics (which resembles Italy) are the dark-skinned Calbandra (also known as “ocean folk”). I do wish, however, that at least one of them was a normal human like Eder, Durance, and Grieving Mother. There isn’t much in terms of queer representation outside of backer-created content (the little stories that appear when you view an NPC’s soul), although a quest may be about a female captain and her lover, and two of the deities, Berath and Wael, have male and female aspects (Berath) or are flat out seen as genderless (Wael) although the decision to use “It” for Wael’s pronoun wasn’t the best decision. An interesting bit of lore concerns godlikes, who are legally seen as agender regardless of how they present or identify, which becomes a plot point in Pallegina’s story.

In short, Pillars of Eternity was one of the best RPGs I played last year and if you’re looking for a great RPG and don’t mind a bit of a learning curve or difficult beginning levels, I absolutely recommend it. Steam has me clocked in at 96 hours although the in-game clock says around 60, but regardless of my exact time, it’s an RPG that focuses on quality over quantity, and when so many RPGs seem to be focused on cramming the most stuff in as possible, Pillars of Eternity is a breath of fresh air.