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!”

cs_sw_uc_coll_pckfrnt_front_003_no_burst

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?

17399160

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).

Game Review: Hatoful Boyfriend Holiday Star

[suicide tw]

Confession: I actually played this last year and meant to review it, but then I decided to wait until the holidays, then the holidays came and I forgot about it, but now that the Hatoful Boyfriend Second Semester plushies are on the way (which, yes, I backed because I can’t get enough of these birbs) and it’s close enough to the holiday season, I have an excuse to review this game again.

The original Hatoful Boyfriend was a dating sim with a weird premise that concealed a thrill ride (and tearjerker) of a visual novel. Holiday Star does away with the dating sim mechanics and opts for a pure visual novel. There are very few choices and making the wrong choice results in instant death, so it’s practically a kinetic novel (that is, a visual novel with no choices, just a story that you click through).

hatoful-boyfriend-2-white_798_500_c1

If the original game is a novel, Holiday Star is more of an anthology. There are four main chapters. The first two involve wacky hijinks as Hiyoko and co. attempt to capture thieves who have been stealing Christmas trees, while the second focuses on Anghel. The third and fourth episodes are a bit more serious, focusing on a journey to a strange land ruled by The King who is reluctant to let our heroes leave. There are also a number of short episodes in the format of a radio show, and shrine visits with the main birds (and for those of you who like their human forms, there’s an option to view the shrine events with the main cast in human form).

There’s not much more I can say without spoiling the entire thing. Suffice it to say that you absolutely must play the original (including and especially Bad Boys Love) for Holiday Star to make sense. Fortunately, the game is short, it took me around nine hours to play the whole thing and get all the achievements.

The major trigger you need to look out for is suicide. If you are familiar with the aforementioned Bad Boys Love route from the first game (which again, is required to understand what’s going on here) you will already be familiar with this plot point (which is technically murder). Holiday Star goes into more detail, expanding on the characters involved and describing the victim’s last moments. It’s a heartbreaking, horrifying scene that is not played for laughs.

If you have played the original then you’ve probably already played this. If you haven’t played Hatoful Boyfriend, I highly recommend it. It’s easily the weirdest dating sim I’ve ever played, and although its spawned lots of imitators, most of them focus on the silly premise and have none of Hatoful Boyfriend’s depth.

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.

6294549

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.

 

Review: The Shattered Court by M.J. Scott

I remember taking a readers’ advisory course in library school and the instructor talking about how readers sometimes gravitated towards unusual reading choices. She mentioned once reading nothing but cookbooks at a time of high stress. In my case, “light reading” usually translates into “the most conventional fantasy books I can find”.

Which leads me to this book…

23281690

In the land of Anglion, witches born to the royal line are quickly bound to the land and the goddess through marriage, forbidden to practice any magic that is not simple Earth magic. Lady Sophia Kendall, thirty second in line to the throne, is days away from discovering if she is blessed-or cursed-with magic, but when disaster strikes the capital, Sophie’s brief encounter with Cameron, a battle mage in the service of her friend, Princess Eloisa, leaves her ultimate fate uncertain, especially when she begins to manifest powers that are far stronger than any royal witch before her.

The premise of this book seemed to hint at court intrigue and some tension between Sophie and the nation she’s sworn to serve as a royal witch. The back cover text in particular gives the impression that Sophie and Cameron spend most of the book on the run. In actuality, it’s basically a typical romance novel where nothing noteworthy happens until the big finale.

Seriously, the beginning of the book starts with a bang (literally) and then the protagonists head back to the capital and spend most of the book attempting to avoid each other (and failing miserably) and then it’s as if the author remembers the plot and things happen. THE END. Oh, yeah, there are a couple sex scenes in there too. I could honestly forgive the lack of plot if the characters were interesting, but they’re not. Although, Cameron is a bit more down to earth than the “alpha male” love interests that dominate the genre.

This is being marketed as epic fantasy when it’s clearly closer to romantic fantasy, where the fantasy trappings take a backseat to the romance, or what passes as romance in this book. See, the protagonist and her love interest have sex because the magic made them do it. They feel good about it, even though the love interest freaks out because taking a royal witch’s virginity is a big no-no. Fortunately, Sophie is spared having to fake being a virgin by becoming betrothed to Cameron, and then they spend the rest of the book being horrible at avoiding each other, especially because Sophie can’t stop thinking of Cameron’s cock. I did like how the leads are betrothed straight away but that just means the UST between them happens post-betrothal rather than leading up to the moment where they end up together.

In terms of diversity, there really isn’t any. Sophie is described as having “olive” skin and dark eyes, and I believe Cameron’s skin was described as “golden”. The only hit of non-straightness is a single line about how Cameron “might be the type who prefers his soldier brothers” because if a straight guy isn’t drooling over every woman he sees he must be gay, amirite?

In a nutshell, this book is the very definition of a waste of a decent premise. There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about it. The only word I can think to describe it as is “tepid”. I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of fantasy or romance, to be honest.

 

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.

header1

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.

Recent Realizations Re: The Tithe-Boy

Recently, I started looking over my old stories for inspiration. In case you’ve joined me since then, for Hallowe’en 2012 (or thereabouts) I wrote a story about a child who is taken from his home by strange magical beings. The story was intended to be creepy and unsettling, and it only really became a serial because I was bored and wanted something to write.

However, this past week I read it again, and I’m honestly kicking myself that I didn’t question the basic premise of the story. What was meant to be a nice story about a group of children learning magic read more like Stockholm Syndrome in the making, with Tom coming to accept that Lord Fulgaris meant well when he took him away from his home without an explanation.

I’m a different writer than the person from three years ago, and while I still love these characters, continuing on with the story when its very premise is kind of gross (and reminiscent of residential schools) is not something I want to do and was certainly not my intent when writing that first chapter. At the same time, I don’t know if I want to go back and revise the story right this instant, or scrap it and start over. Same characters, different story. There’s also a part of me that wants to preserve the creepy, problematic original version. It reminds me of how far I’ve come as a writer.

At this point, it’s been at least three years since my last update, so maybe it is a good time to start again if I can find the energy. I’m not sure what to do. I worked very hard on those first few chapters, after all.

Review: Captive Prince (Captive Prince #1)

[rape tw, pedophilia tw, slavery tw, racism tw, the following review will also contain spoilers for this book]

I was initially very hesitant about giving this book a read. It seems to be making the rounds on the internet and everyone seems to be talking about it, either because it’s a well plotted tale of political intrigue with a hot power couple, or it’s a racist rape fest that glorifies slavery. I’ve long since learned to be suspicious of anything labelled as M/M romance or erotica because so much of it is rape masquerading as “dubcon”, personally not my cup of tea.

51ab2bfjpusl-_sx332_bo1204203200_

Prince Damianos (also known as Damen) is a hero to his people and rightful heir to the throne of Akielos. One fateful night, he is betrayed by his half brother, stripped of his identity, and sent to the foreign land of Vere to serve the crown prince as a pleasure slave. His new master, Prince Laurent, is as beautiful and deadly as his court, and soon Damen finds himself drawn into an intricate web of political intrigue that could cost both of them their lives. Forced to work with a man he hates to save his own country, Damen realizes he must never reveal his true identity, for the one man he needs most is the one man who has more reason to hate him than anyone at court.

This isn’t going to be a normal review, because it’s difficult for me to talk about how I feel about this book without discussing its more problematic elements. To save time, I’m mostly just going to post what I posted to tumblr and add some additional thoughts. Please be mindful of all content warnings as you read this.

Continue reading Review: Captive Prince (Captive Prince #1)

Game Review: Shin Megami Tensei IV

There are few franchises that I would consider myself loyal to (at least until they come out on a system I don’t have) but Shin Megami Tensei (and its spinoff series, the Persona series) is one of the few exceptions. They have very interesting premises but many of the games haven’t been released in North America. Fortunately, with the popularity of the Persona games, more of the games are being released in the West.

tm_3dsds_shinmegamitenseiiv

In the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, people are divided between the wealthy Luxurors and lower class Casualries. The protagonist (default name: Flynn) and his friend Issachar are of age to undergo the trials to become Samurai, protectors of the kingdom who venture into the demon-infested ruins of Naraku to gather mystic relics for the monastery’s top brass. When a mysterious person starts causing unrest in the countryside, however, Flynn and friends journey into Naraku and beyond in search of answers. Who is the Black Samurai? And what is the strange city they find beneath the Kingdom?

The gameplay will probably familiar to you if you’ve played Devil Survivor or Persona 3 and 4 in particular. The Press Turn system from previous games makes a return. For those who aren’t familiar with this series, you basically get extra turns for hitting enemy weaknesses and scoring critical hits. Instead of fighting, however, you might want to recruit new demons (note: all recruitable monsters in this game are referred to as “demons” even though they are technically gods, goddesses, angels, etc.) to your side via Demon Negotiation, which is a somewhat random process of answering multiple choice questions and bribing them with money and items. Once they join your team, you can fuse them via the Cathedral of Shadows to obtain more powerful demons. Some demons are considered “Special” fusions, obtained by defeating them in battle during quests, or by fusing a specific combination of demons.

Unlike other games in the series, where skill inheritance is entirely or mostly random, you can select which skills you want the new demon to have from its parents’ skills. If you level up or manage to fuse an exceptionally strong demon, you can register that demon in the compendium, and then summon them as long as you have enough Macca. Sometimes demons that you speak to during battles will give you new challenge quests, which feels more organic than just checking in at the Hunter Association for new quests. When you level up, in addition to being able to increase your stats, you’ll be given app points, which can be used to expand your stock, unlock more slots for new abilities, and choose more options during demon negotiation, among other things. Another knew feature is demon whispers. In a nutshell, when a demon has learned all their skills, they can “whisper” their abilities to the protagonist, and Flynn can then use those skills in battle.

Other than the Press Turn feature I’ve outlined above, battles are standard turn-based affairs, with you and the enemy trading attacks. A first for this series is horde enemies, massive groups of enemies that all share a common weakness. In true SMT fashion, even lower level encounters can horribly murder you, especially if they get the drop on you. My level 90 party was very nearly destroyed by a group of level 25 demons who surprised us and quickly exploited my team’s weaknesses. Bosses pretty much require you to exploit their weaknesses in order to succeed, although, they aren’t quite as nasty as the boss encounters in SMT: Strange Journey.

Shin Megami Tensei IV has two types of quest: the main quest obviously advances the story, whereas Challenge Quests are the game’s sidequests. Challenge Quests are often standard fetch quests (delivery quests) or defeat this enemy quests, but they reward you with Macca, better weapons and armor, and the ability to fuse certain boss demons, some quests also have an impact on your alignment (more on alignment in a bit).

Regarding the story, it’s not as weird as, say, Nocturne’s post-apocalyptic demonic journey. In fact, I’d say it’s closer to the first Shin Megami Tensei game (with the initial setup of Shin Megami Tensei II) neither SMT I nor II were ever released in the West, I just know of them because I’ve done some reading. Besides Issachar, the protagonist has three fellow Samurai that play a role in the story: the Luxuror and law-abiding Jonathan, the rebellious fellow Casualry, Walter, and Isabeau, who is less inclined to extremes. Again, if you’re familiar with the series’ Law-Chaos-Neutral alignments (and you’ve seen the box art) it should be obvious which character acts as the mouthpiece for which alignment. I wouldn’t so much call the characters stereotypical anime characters, but they are definitely stereotypical SMT characters: with one fanatically devoted to serving God, the other committed to the social Darwinism of Chaos, and the characters who don’t embrace either extreme. Your choices can cause Flynn to favour Law or Chaos, or to walk the Neutral path. This choice doesn’t just affect the ending you can get, it affects which demons you can fuse, with some exclusive to one alignment, and even which bosses you face over the course of the story.

One major criticism I have of this game is that it’s ridiculously difficult to get the Neutral ending. It’s par for the course to make getting this sort of ending difficult in SMT, but getting the Neutral ending in SMT IV requires being between -8 and +8 on the morality scale, which is difficult to achieve if you’re just going through the game completing sidequests as you go. Speaking of sidequests, the Neutral ending also requires that you complete certain quests, though thankfully these are not time-sensitive. This was actually such an issue for me that I went for the worst ending in the game just so I could go for the Neutral ending in New Game Plus. I also found wandering the overworld map annoying due to the high frequency of demon encounters. This can be alleviated somewhat by obtaining an airship, but the quest to get it doesn’t pop up until late in the game.There’s also an unfortunate implication with the dark-skinned character from a lower class background representing Chaos, the alignment that allies itself with the demons where the strong survive and the weak perish (although, this is not exclusive to this game). I also felt like the story lacked nuance, with characters going from friends to opposite sides pretty quickly, which, although it makes sense for an SMT game, didn’t feel as natural to me as, say, the dynamics in Devil Survivor or SMT Nocturne. Some might (and have been) offended by the fact that the “monsters” in the game are actual deities and spirits from pantheons around the world, especially the way in which some of them are sexualized (although personally Incubus will never not be funny to me).

In terms of triggers, demons eat people and the game does remind you of that fact a few times, such as when one of the bosses devours an NPC and the reinforcements they’ve called. There’s also a secret underground compound where people are “harvested” for brain matter. In one scenario, human “neurishers” act as food sources for demonoids.Some of the sidequests have creepy implications, like the rampaging Wicker Men who are trapping people inside them and burning them to death. There’s also woman in Ikebukuro where it is heavily implied that she commits suicide no matter which dialogue option you choose. The game does have a tendency to flash red when someone is being killed, and finishing off someone by shooting them causes them to burst in a bloody mess.

Overall, Shin Megami Tensei IV is worth your time if you like JRPGs and a challenge. It’s a lengthy RPG–my total playtime, including my New Game+ run, is 85 hours–and it’s a great entry point to this difficult niche series.

Review: The Darkest Minds

[sexual assault tw]

Another book that I originally bought way back in January for my birthday, I’m not going to lie and say that I was intentionally putting it off given my bad experiences with some recent young adult reads. I’m not running out of things to read by any means, but I realized there was only so long I could put off reading one book.

51glg9yppil-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Ruby lives in a world where most of America’s children are gone, killed off by a mysterious disease, but when she wakes up on her tenth birthday, instead of the cold embrace of death, she discovers that something has changed. Something about her is frightening enough that her parents lock her in the garage and she is sent to Thurmond, a brutal “rehabilitation camp” for children like her, the ones who survived with mysterious powers that they cannot control. When the truth of Ruby’s abilities come out, however, she escapes Thurmond and joins up with some other kids heading to East River, rumored to be a sanctuary kids like her. When they finally arrive, however, they discover all is not as it seems, but there will those who will stop at nothing to use Ruby for their own ends, and her struggle to attain a life that is her own again will not be an easy one.

I confess that at times I find it difficult to not find characters who have gone through trauma annoying, not because trauma is easily dealt with (because it isn’t) but I often don’t realize a character that I would describe as “whiny” is actually acting that way due to their trauma. Sometimes I find it difficult to distinguish between “unlikable character because of a certain trait” and “traumatized character who is acting that way because they’ve been through hell”. In retrospect, I’ve realized I’ve unfairly judged certain characters who are actually acting that way because of abuse, and while I try to do better when judging a character, sometimes it’s difficult to not have that kneejerk reaction. Bracken’s characters have all been through hell to some degree, and they all deal with it in different ways: Liam, the leader of the group that Ruby encounters, is driven by guilt and on a mission, while Suzume is so traumatized by her experiences that she never speaks. My favourite character is Chubs, the smart guy who can’t see very well without his glasses and always has a sarcastic barb ready. Ruby, our protagonist, is stubborn, finds it hard to keep people close (for good reason), and very, very conflicted about using her powers. I think the only character who didn’t leave a strong impression on me was Liam, he just seems kind of bland when compared to Chubs, so of course, guess which one is Ruby’s obvious love interest?

This is kind of a weird comparison, but the book reminded me of the calmer moments in The Walking Dead game, where the characters are just sitting on a train and don’t have to worry about zombies for a few moments. In fact, the back cover text (and my summary) are a bit misleading as a sizable chunk of the book takes place on the road to East River. However, instead of zombies, the kids are threatened by bounty hunters: “skip tracers” who return fugitive children to the camps they escaped, representatives of other organizations who want to use the children for their own ends, and other children, some of whom have banded together to form tribes that don’t take kindly to outsiders. Normally I would be frustrated by the lack of action, but I thought the book was paced well, with just enough tension to keep things interesting, and I found myself breathing a sigh of relief when the characters finally had a chance to rest.

Even my very favourite books don’t escape criticism, and this book is no exception. It’s unfortunate that Bracken (out of ignorance, apparently) chose to make Suzume mute, as it reinforces the stereotype of the submissive Asian (in this case Japanese) woman. I do appreciate that in this instance, the author apologized and expressed regret regarding Suzume’s mutism, but as it is in the book and can still negatively affect those who read it, it bears mentioning. I also found the premise stretched the limits of my suspension of disbelief. For one thing, if most of America’s children have died off, wouldn’t adults have a vested interest in protecting them, not sending them to camps where they’re being mistreated? The whole thing with sending them to camps just seems like a massive instance of shooting oneself in the foot, if you ask me. Ruby also has this really annoying habit of encountering creepy boys who later turn out to be evil. There’s nothing wrong with creepy boys turning out to be evil, but it becomes this predictable shorthand for This Character is Obviously Evil and it’s just not very interesting.

In terms of diversity, in the main cast, Suzume is Japanese and Chubs is black. There are other minor characters of colour, like Hina, but they don’t play a huge role in the story. There are no overtly queer characters, although Ruby has really close relationships with other girls (which is, by the way, a refreshing change from protagonists who go out of their way to snipe at other girls).

In terms of trigger warnings, the book is definitely harmful to minors. There’s a scene at the beginning of the book where Ruby and a group of other children are deprived of sleep and denied food, as well as scenes involving kids getting shot. A character calls Suzume the r slur due to her mutism. The children are essentially being sent to concentration camps, obviously an uncomfortable topic for many. One notable scene near the end involves Ruby being restrained and sexually assaulted by a character she trusts. While the assault is treated with the seriousness it deserves, the situation itself is ambiguous, leaving the reader to wonder if Ruby was raped or not. This is one scene that could have been clarified or even left out entirely (as there were plenty of other ways this character could express his dominance without the sexual connotations).

Despite it’s obviously uncomfortable subject matter and the fact that some plot points didn’t make that much sense to me, I enjoyed The Darkest Minds and am interested enough to finish the trilogy. It might be some time before I get to the other books, however, I still have a ton of other books to read.