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Deck Review: The Magic of Flowers Oracle

One thing I can never have enough of is plant-based decks. I love trees, I love flowers, they make great themed decks. The problem is finding art that appeals to me and finding a price point that isn’t “ridiculously expensive”.

Initially I was drawn to this deck’s bright colours but was hesitant to pick it up but wasn’t sure about the author. I had only skimmed one of her books, The Magic of Flowers and Bach flower remedies, the Law of Attraction and manifestation just isn’t my thing. This video review by Arwen is what convinced me to buy it, and I recommend giving it a look to see if it’s your thing.

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The set includes 44 cards and 264 page book. The cards are what I’ve come to think of as standard Llewellyn size (same as the Green Witch Tarot, I just checked). The author is Tess Whitehurst and the artist is Anne Wertheim. The companion book doesn’t have unique spreads, just instructions for one and three card readings. The entries for each card has its name, a black and white image, key phrase, magical applications, a few paragraphs about the meaning of the card in a reading, and some more specific ideas and messages for each card. There’s also a space to write notes. The cards themselves are borderless apart from a footer that has the name of the flower. The backs are bright purple with a compass rose and different flowers at the points, they are non-reversible but the book doesn’t use reversed meanings. Many of the flowers in this deck are common flowers that you will see in many gardens in North America, such as rose or tulip, although some were unfamiliar to me.

The artwork is the main draw of this deck for me. I love the bright, vibrant colours and the level of detail in the images, but despite the detail, the images don’t feel cluttered, although without the keywords, some would be difficult to recognize unless you’re familiar with that flower. One of my favourite cards is “Crocus” which depicts a wintery scene with a woman walking towards a gazebo. “Carnation” is a fiery card, depicting a woman emerging from the flower, wreathed by flames and arms open wide. “Morning Glory” is a transitional card, depicting the sunrise through a gateway surrounded by the titular flower.

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Unfortunately, while the companion book has a bunch of suggestions for how to use the cards, the messages are often steeped in New Age jargon which might make it difficult to interpret. One of the more difficult cards for me was “Dandelion” which is all about manifestation and the Law of Attraction which was difficult to interpret for friends who not only didn’t believe in the Law of Attraction but saw it as thinly disguised classism. Although, I will say that some messages resonated with me. Another unfortunate thing about this deck (which strikes me as a missed opportunity) is that the book seldom references the art. This deck would probably work best as an affirmation or spellcasting deck. The positive messages in this deck would also make it a good self-care or “pick me up” deck. If you know the symbolic associations of each flower, you could also bring those into play. This is one deck that I wish had keywords, because sometimes the meaning isn’t that apparent from looking at the card image, particularly Rose, which seems to be going for a stained glass window weird mandala look, and seems out of place in the deck. This is personally disappointing for me as someone who loves roses, and I almost didn’t buy the deck due to that one card.

In terms of diversity, a few cards unambiguously depict people of colour, including Bouganvillea, Impatiens, and Dahlia (and others), while others, like Carnation, are more ambiguous. The characters are mostly women, although Sunflower and Yarrow both feature men and others don’t depict any humans at all. The only questionable images in this deck that I found are the cover image, depicting a white lady in the “royal ease” position and the Sunflower card, which depicts an apparently Native American man in a loincloth, which is all kinds of nope.

Overall, this is a very pretty deck that is let down by reliance on New Age jargon and a couple of unfortunate choices in imagery. I would tentatively recommend it to anyone who likes their plant decks bright and colourful. For something a little more subdued, I recommend checking out my review of the Flower Reading Cards, which is forthcoming.

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Game Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky SC

The trails series has quickly become one of my favourite series. The first chapter alone was a huge game with NPCs who constantly had something new to say, and it actually felt like the characters were wandering around doing a job. In fact, the only teal complaint I had was that the combat system was nothing special.

Trails in the Sky SC kicks its predecessor in the pants.

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The first thing you need to know about this game is that the second chapter takes place right after the first, so you’ll want to play it first to understand what the heck is going on. It’s difficult to talk about the plot without completely spoiling both games, but suffice it to say that it involves Estelle and friends going toe to toe with the mysterious Society of Ouroborous. Secrets revealed and shocking twists are the order of the day. Seriously, you don’t want to be spoiled, stay away from TV Tropes and the like until you’ve finished the game.

Not much has changed in terms of gameplay from its predecessor. You still insert quartz into slots in order to use Arts (basically magic) and grant passive abilities. This time around, you can (and should) upgrade your slots to hold more powerful quartz. In battle, you can now perform combos with other characters, but only if you have enough CP. Combos can be used to quickly finish enemies or allow a character who is out of range of an enemy to strike them, but they honestly don’t add that much to the combat, although destroying an enemy with a well timed combo was pretty satisfying. combat is still pretty slow, and after a while I started avoiding combat in my haste to get to the next story point. The combat is definitely one of the weakest points in both SC and FC. As a bit of an aside, if you’re worried about slow combat being a trend in this series, I’m happy to report that Trails of Cold Steel has vastly superior combat and an awesome battle theme.

In my review of FC, I remarked that the characters don’t really deviate much from their assigned archetype until the very end. SC gives everyone some much needed character development and sheds light on their background, including characters you might not have used much in the first game, like Schera or Zane (who I almost never used). As with FC, some chapters focus on a particular character. Unlike FC, the characters stick with you when their chapter ends for the most part. As expected for a main character, Estelle’s growth is significant. In FC, i often felt like she was overshadowed by Joshua and Cassius, but in SC it feels like she was given more time to grow into her own person. Although she doesn’t always make the smartest decisions, her enthusiasm is infectious and she’s easily one of the most dynamic characters I’ve played as in any JRPG. (I love you Square Enix but sometimes I need less brooding and more cheer.) A newcomer to the cast is Kevin, a wandering priest of the Septian Church who is nearly as big a flirt as Olivier.

Other than the combat, my second complaint is that there’s a lot of backtracking. In fact, you travel the whole (or most) of Liberl at least twice. The first time is arguably necessary to familiarize yourself with the world again and check up on your favourite NPCS (another reason for importing Clear Data from FC: NPCs will remember you helped them and you’ll get extra bits of dialogue), but the second time involves traveling the whole of Liberl on foot again, which just seems excessive. I also didn’t feel like there was much of a point to upgrading your slots a third time since the upgrades are very late in the game and it seems kind of pointless at that point. There aren’t as many hidden quests this time around, but you’ll still need a walkthrough to get the most Bracer Points, as well as to get all of the novel series, Gambler Jack (which can be redeemed for two of the best weapons in the game). I finished the game five BP shy of the max rank and I was following a walkthrough (although, I know I missed a sneaky extra BP by not bringing a certain NPC with me during an early game short term quest (hint: when you need to snap a photo, bring a professional photographer). The game doesn’t have much in the way of replay value (unless you want to get max BP) but it’s still quite a long game. My playthrough was just under 80 hours, which I’m pretty sure is the longest I’ve ever played a single run of a JRPG which average about 30 -40 hours).

Triggery things include implied rape (not of the characters, but during an event that happened in a major war fifty years ago) and it’s also heavily implied that a child character was a survivor of sexual abuse. Schera still fills the role of the sexy mentor but this time she gets a little more character development. As for Estelle and Joshua’s relationship, let’s just say that by the end, it’ll be very hard to think of them as siblings.

There are a bunch of little touches in both games that I like, like the way a character’s name on the status screen will change in response to certain events, or the way the quests are organized as if Estelle is writing in her Bracer notebook. Little things like that are not exclusive to these games, of course, but they make the world seem more alive.

If you haven’t played FC, you absolutely need to play it before playing SC. If you really didn’t like FC, you probably won’t like SC unless you really need to know what happens storywise, but if you loved FC and were clamoring to play SC, you have probably already picked this one up. Trails in the Sky SC may not break any new ground in terms of combat and it may start out slow, but it’s more of the huge world and endearing characters you’ve grown to love over FC.

P.S. Pick Agate, you’ll thank me later.

Game Review: Tales from the Borderlands

“Play Tales from the Borderlands,” said my tumblr friends. “You’ll love it!”

“Do I need to know anything about Borderlands?” I asked. I’m not a fan of shooters, so naturally I skipped the series.

“Nah, you might miss some references but it’s not essential.”

“ok”

Tales from the Borderlands is one of the more recent titles from Telltale Games. In it, players assume the role of Rhys, a salary man for the villainous Hyperion corporation, and Fiona, a Pandoran hustler, as they chase a case full of cash they both think is theirs, a trail that may lead to one of the planet’s elusive Vaults and the greater riches contained within.

In an age where every other game is “dark and mature” and the environments must contain at least sixty shades of brown, Tales from the Borderlands is a fun, funny, and at times just plain weird ride that manages to be hilarious without insulting several minority populations. Seriously, the game is laugh out loud funny. It was such a treat to play a more lighthearted game after the roller coaster ride that was The Walking Dead Season 2.

Also, this game has one of the cutest robots ever. Cutest. Ever.

If you’ve played the previous adventure games from Telltale (The Walking Dead series, The Wolf Among Us, etc.) you’ll know what to expect: a bunch of pointing, clicking, QTEs, and choices. Some of the consequences of your choices are apparent as soon as you make them, others less so. In fact, some choices you make in the first episode don’t bear fruit until the very last episode. There are also plenty of opportunities to shape the main characters’ personalities. Is Rhys a nice guy who just happens to be working for the “wrong” side, or is he desperate to climb the corporate ladder and will cut down anyone in his way? Similarly, is Fiona only in it for the money, or is she one of the nicer members of the cast? I played Rhys as a nice guy and Fiona as a kind, but sly con artist, and both of them snarky.

As far as things to keep in mind, make no mistake, the game is hilarious, but there’s also quite a bit of blood and gore, and a part of the game requires you to gouge someone’s eye out (the subject of some very dark humor). The blood and gore is no less over the top than the rest of the game, but the characters will definitely end up covered in it at some point. The game also makes use of several “imagine spots” where a character will narrate something spectacularly awesome happening and then be interrupted and asked for the true story. (Note that the game uses a framing device where characters are telling the story of how they got there, so unreliable narrator is a thing.)

The Borderlands series has been highlighted by many reviewers for attempting to be more diverse than the typical shooter, and Tales from the Borderlands is no exception. Although Fiona is a bit more ambiguous and appears to be white-passing at least, Sasha is less so, although it’s possible they’re both biracial. Cassius, Yvette, and Finch are unambiguously black and at least one can end up on your final team. There’s also a character from past games who may or may not be Latino (or its fictional equivalent in the Borderlands universe). Unfortunately, most of the characters of color can die during the course of the narrative, although all but one is mandated by the plot and keeping them alive is just a matter of picking the option that amounts to “don’t let them die”. This isn’t The Walking Dead, after all. In terms of disability, main character Rhys has a mechanical right arm. Unfortunately, the only character of size I encountered in the game is a villain, although they are not played for laughs and are intimidating and badass. There’s also a badass queer lady couple you’ll probably be familiar with if you’ve played the other Borderlands games. In fact, you pretty much can’t be successful in this game without being a badass on some level, that means lots of badass women.

If I had one complaint about this game, it’s that sometimes the way the arrows showing which direction to push curved around in a way that I wasn’t sure which one to push, and during one timed sequence, I was a bit confused as to what I needed to do to select something and ended up with an interesting combination for my robot buddy (it wasn’t a big deal).

In short, this game was a treat, from the hilarious subtitles that pop up whenever you meet a new character, to the over the top shenanigans of two unreliable narrators, Tales from the Borderlands was a game I didn’t think I’d like that much and ended up loving. Check it out if you want something that’s equal parts hilarious and action-packed. I for one hope we get at least two more seasons. Seriously when is Season Two happening, I want it.

Game Review: The Walking Dead Season Two

(The following review contains SPOILERS for season one of The Walking Dead game.)

I have no idea why it took me so long to play this because I love Telltale’s adventure games and this one’s been sitting in my Steam library for a few months now.

Season two picks up several months after the first season’s end. Clementine is now traveling with Omid and Christa. After things go south very quickly in the game’s opening scenes, Clementine finds herself alone in the wilderness with no help in sight. The events that follow will test her morals and survival instincts.

If the dominant emotion I felt while playing the first season was sadness, the emotion I felt the most during season two was rage. The second season seemed tailor made to make me angry, and not in a “the controls are broken and this game is terrible” way.  I was angry at the characters, I was angry at the way things kept getting worse all the time, and I was especially angry at Telltale Games for making me feel so angry.

As I said in my previous review of the first season, the zombies almost take a backseat to the interpersonal drama. In fact, the apocalypse could have been, well, anything, and you’d still have desperate people scavenging for survival and being despotic overlords of their own insular communities. Season two gives you a cast of mostly likable characters, so it’s all the more heartbreaking because the player knows that at least some of them will become zombie food (if their fellow survivors don’t kill them first). Even though I knew their deaths were very likely inevitable, I couldn’t help but get attached to Sarah, the sheltered daughter of the doctor in a group Clem meets, or Rebecca, who definitely started off on the wrong foot with Clem but slowly warms up to her. There are also some really great character moments for Clementine, who has been forced to grow up way too fast by the events in the first and second seasons.

The art is the same cell-shaded art of their other adventure games, and it’s only improved since the first season. I didn’t notice the music very much, however, the sad piano music during one of the credits sequences and the return of a familiar track from the first game really had an impact on me.

Few games are perfect, and when compared to the first one, I felt that the second season lacks the raw emotional depth of its predecessor, that is not to say that it doesn’t have its moments where it gets to you–the ending I got made me equal parts angry, frustrated, and sad, but I feel like it’s difficult to care about the characters when you know from experience that the game is going to screw you over. The episodes are also pretty short. Steam has me clocked in at eighteen hours for the first game, and fifteen hours for the second, although, 400 days might have given me a few extra hours. I also found that the prompts for QTEs sometimes blended in to the rest of the scene, but unlike the first game, I was never really stuck on a particular sequence.

As for potentially triggering content, if you thought you’d be spared a gory fate because you’re a child, think again. Clementine can be eaten by zombies, shot in the face, and has to stitch up a wound while fully conscious and aware, a scene that leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination. As a dog lover, there’s also the death of a dog in the first episode that is particularly heartbreaking. Although the cast is pretty diverse, the only same-sex couple (and even then it’s not outright stated they are a couple, just that one is the other’s “partner”) doesn’t even last half an episode compared to the other couples in the game.

At this point, it seems kind of redundant to say that I enjoyed my time with this game, because Telltale Games could make an adventure game about conceivably anything and I would love it to pieces. If you’ve played Season 1 and 400 Days, you’ve probably already beaten this one. If you haven’t tried this series before, you’ll want to start with the first one (and 400 Days).

Interactive Fiction Wednesday: The Hero of Kendrickstone, Choice of the Petal Throne, Champion of the Gods

Originally I was going to give each of these a separate review, but as they all approach the fantastical in different ways, I thought I’d save time and review all three of them at once.

All three of these are hosted by Choice of Games, you can buy them on their website or on Steam (please consider supporting them on Steam so that more of their titles will appear there). The Hero of Kendrickstone is by Paul Wang (who also wrote Mecha Ace), Choice of the Petal Throne is by Danielle Goudeau (although the source material is by M.A.R. Barker) and Champion of the Gods is by Jonathan Valuckas. In a nutshell, The Hero of Kendrickstone is standard European medieval fantasy, Choice of the Petal Throne is fantasy influenced by South American, Middle Eastern, and Indian cultures and traditions, and Champion of the Gods is inspired by Greek myth and epics. Choice of the Petal Throne is the shortest of the three, whereas Hero of Kendrickstone is the longest, with 240,000 words.

Here are some comments on the individual games.

The Hero of Kendrickstone

Of the three, this one is closest to “comfort food” for people who like D&D. Dragons? Check? Option to play as a Warrior, Rogue, Mage, or Bard? Check. Random apostrophes everywhere? Check. It’s also one of the few CoG games I’ve played with the option to play a non-binary character. The writing style is to the point, not flowery, also not the best I’ve seen in a CoG game (IMHO) but certainly not bad. You can fall in love with a lady knight and one of your patrons is a disabled wizard of colour. Also in your first scene you can kill a dragon by tricking him into knocking down a wall of his cave, and that’s awesome.

If the Hero of Kendrickstone has any flaws, it’s that it rewards rigidly sticking to your chosen archetype, which is fine if you’re a purist, but not so much if you want to get the best ending with a character who dabbles a little in everything, or even if you aren’t that familiar with your character’s role.  Although CoG games have made me cry in the past, the story didn’t really have the emotional impact of the site’s other offerings.

I would recommend The Hero of Kendrickstone if you’re looking for a safe, by-the-numbers, beer and pretzels sort of story. If you’re looking for something a little less “standard”, see my comments for Choice of the Petal Throne below.

Choice of the Petal Throne

Like Choice of the Deathless, Choice of the Petal Throne is based on an established world, in this case, the world of Tekumel (accent on the first “e”) which spans a number of novels, a roleplaying game with both official and unofficial conversions to various systems, and possibly other media I am not aware of as Choice of the Petal Throne is the first I’d heard of it. The world of Tekumel is vast and inspired by a range of non-European cultures and traditions. Naturally, I was all over it when it came to Steam. The writing style is flowery and the story involves politicking, intrigue, epic military fights, and an underground journey to find a mysterious magical artifact.

Unfortunately, as much as I wanted to like it, Choice of the Petal Throne has a couple of shortcomings. The first is that it is very short (even for a CoG game) and just as I was getting invested in the story, the game came to an abrupt end (although I became a pirate so, yay, I guess?). The second major flaw is that it feels like you need to be familiar with the world of Tekumel before playing it, and although the addition of (several) glossaries helps a lot, the game is constantly throwing unfamiliar terms your way, and naming conventions, honorifics, and the like can be pretty confusing at times. This is such a shame, because I feel like the world is vast with plenty of potential, but the game itself doesn’t feel robust enough to do it justice.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible game and I enjoyed my time with it, but this is one I’d recommend getting on sale. It just feels like a lot of potential was wasted when this could have easily been a stellar entry in the CoG family.

Champion of the Gods

Do you remember Clash of the Titans? Yeah, that silly movie. Champion of the Gods is like every corny movie that in some way references Greek mythology. The writing and dialogue is peppered with references to your destiny, you have a great destiny, you must fulfill your destiny.  You must defeat this great evil because destiny says so, your destiny. I can’t tell if the author was intentionally trying to be cheesy or if it just turned out that way. If Hero of Kendrickstone is an average, safe fantasy movie and Choice of the Petal Throne is a big budget production that looks pretty but never explains what the heck is going on, Champion of the Gods is so bad, it’s good.

Perhaps this is surprising, but I think my biggest problem with this entry was the writing, it just seems so overwrought sometimes, and repetitious. Yes, I know, destiny, destiny is important. I also thought that one of the final quests seemed to come out of nowhere, and I seemed to have lost track of my love interest (I’m pretty sure she died). The horoscope (where you are given a unique horoscope according to your character’s personality) is an interesting idea, as are the Gifts and the sight, but at times they almost felt unnecessary, just things that were there to highlight the fact that you had a great destiny.

I think the biggest problem that all these games share is that while they are not bad, they didn’t grab me like Choice of the Deathless or affect me emotionally like Choice of Robots (I never thought a game about robots could make me cry). They are certainly not bad, but I wouldn’t say they are the best CoG has to offer.

Game Review: The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky

Way back when the PSP was still amassing a library of games, I stumbled upon the three installments of The Legend of Heroes series (Prophecy of the Moonlight Witch, A Tear of Vermilion, and Song of the Ocean) but didn’t end up giving them a try because, let’s face it, first impressions matter and my first impression of this series was that it was as generic as JRPGs come. This impression solidified when I looked up some reviews and saw that they were mostly average to negative.

Fast forward to a point where JRPGs were starting to trickle onto Steam and I noticed The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky was in the upcoming section. I also started seeing a great deal of positive comments about the game, from its great female characters to the staggering amount of text and content.

headerMany JRPGs are about a protagonist who goes from humble beginnings in a small town to saving the world from some kind of Evil Overlord or Ancient Evil or both. Trails in the Sky is about a girl, Estelle, and her adopted brother, Joshua, trekking across the country in order to gain membership into the Bracer Guild, a guild of politically neutral mercenaries slash peacekeepers slash volunteer police force. They are also looking for Estelle’s father, Cassius Bright, a former high-ranking officer in the military and currently a respected Bracer.

You know how the protagonist in many RPGs is part of a band of mercenaries/in the military, and usually the tutorial level is dedicated to testing them to see if they make it in? Trails in the Sky turns that single test into a game-long excursion. The majority of Trails in the Sky is not spent tracking down an Ancient Evil, but wandering around helping people, slaying monsters, the usual things you’d expect a volunteer police force like the Bracers to do. It’s a far more personal quest, for the most part, and because of that, it can be a little slow at times. The characters also adhere to JRPG stereotypes for the most part: Estelle is an energetic tomboy with a habit of rushing headlong into danger, Joshua is her calm and collected counterpart, Schera is the sexy mentor, Olivier is the flirt (and a bit of a narcissist) who is constantly getting into trouble, Agate is the jerkass, Kloe is the polite young lady who only reluctantly joins the fray, the list goes on, and it’s only until very late in the game that character development happens which appears to subvert some of these tropes, and in spite of the fact that they neatly fit into their assigned roles, I found them unexpectedly endearing. It’s hard to hate Estelle when her enthusiasm is so infectious, or smile at the way Olivier tends to constantly land himself in hot water and need rescue by Mueller, his beleaguered childhood friend.

I should back up a bit and explain that Trails in the Sky was originally intended to be a single (huuuuuuuuuuuge!) game but had to be split into two games, likely due to technical limitations. Considering that this game along took me about fifty hours to beat, and Second Chapter apparently clocks in at around 70 – 90 hours, that’s more time than I spent playing Skyrim (currently at 99 hours).  This also explains why the game is a bit of a slow burn in terms of plot.

Trails in the Sky feels less like an epic quest to save humanity and more like a job that requires constant travel. Each town and city you stop in has its own flavour, from the mercantile city of Bose to the port city of Ruan, and every NPC (and I do mean every NPC) has something to say, before AND after every story event. The music can get a little repetitive, but is still pretty great, with tracks that reminded me of Chrono Cross (although I was a bit underwhelmed by the jazzy battle theme) and it fits the slow, nearly carefree nature of the game.

In addition to the main story, there are also a ton of sidequests that you can complete at the Bracer Guild. Completing these quests nets you Bracer Points, money (mira), and rare Quartz to give you an edge in battle. Although many quests are the sort of “go here and kill X number of things” many quests are also accompanied by plenty of flavour text that flesh out the characters and the world, and there are definitely some memorable quests, like the one where you pursue a thief by following the riddles they’ve left behind. There are also a number of hidden quests that you get by talking to certain people at certain points in the game. I decided to randomly speak to the priest in the first town and he gave me a letter to deliver to the priest in the next one. I didn’t manage to find and complete all of these quests, but found most of them in my fifty hour playthrough.

Combat in this game is turn-based. Using arts (magic) requires two turns: one to ready the spell and one to cast it. You can use this to your advantage by electing to sacrifice your turn to move characters out of the way of incoming magic attacks. Characters can also use skills, called Crafts, if they have enough CP (obviously, Craft Points) for it, you gain CP when attacking an enemy or being hit by one. When the CP bar is full, you can use special S-Crafts, similar to the way limits work in Final Fantasy VII. Honestly, the system is not bad, but it’s nothing earth-shattering, if anything, it’s serviceable. The process of learning arts is similar to the Materia system in FFVII as well. Enemies drop material known as Sepith that corresponds to various elements. Sepith can then be used to unlock slots (giving that character a wider range of abilities) or refined into quartz that can be placed into the slots. Quartz usually grants both passive and active abilities. For instance, a single quartz might let you use a basic fire spell in addition to raising your max HP. Some slots can only be fitted with a certain type of quartz. This may sound complicated on paper, but in practice it’s just a matter of fighting a ton of battles, unlocking slots, and using quartz to customize the characters.

If I had anything negative to say about the game, it would be that I wished they’d included a “Defend” button, because there were times when I didn’t want to do anything with my characters (including move them). Cutscenes are also unskippable, and since the characters can talk for quite some time before jumping into a fight, it would have been nice to have a skip button that didn’t require holding down the spacebar. Another annoyance is there doesn’t seem to be a way to back out of using S-Crafts, so if you clicked the red button by accident, be prepared to follow through. The graphics aren’t anything to write home about, but they have a certain charm to them and remind me of PS1 era 2D RPGs, and they aren’t awful by any means. The game could have really benefited from a fast travel system as well, although there is flimsy justification for it in story (Bracers should see as much of the land as they can), even the characters start complaining after awhile, and even though it never takes very long to walk from point A to point B, a fast travel system would have easily cut down on the tedium in a game that is already a slow burn.

As for potential triggers, there are a couple of scenes that involve Joshua cross-dressing (once for a play and once to infiltrate a heavily guarded area) that are played for laughs. Olivier frequently attempts to flirt with Joshua, making the latter very uncomfortable, and the only dark-skinned character in the game (Schera) is not only the most sexualized, in fact, pretty much the only sexualized character in the game, but appears to be a walking Romani stereotype (background involves being in a circus, fortune-telling, etc.). It’s disappointing, especially when the game has no other fanservice-y content to speak of, although there is a hot springs scene (usually a prime opportunity for fanservice), it’s used in a way to flesh out the relationship between Estelle and Joshua. Speaking of which, some might be a bit put off by the way their relationship develops. Although they are definitely not blood siblings, I did find myself kind of side-eyeing how Estelle kept referring to Joshua as her brother (and Cassius referring to him as his son) when she was obviously developing feelings for him.

Overall, , when compared to recent JRPG offerings, which seem to be focused more and more on fanservice for straight men, The Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky is a breath of fresh air. I am stoked for Second Chapter, which is coming out next week, and Trails of Cold Steel, which is coming out in December. If you’re willing to put up with the slow pace of its story and cliche (but endearing) characters, Trails in the Sky is one of the best, if not the best, JRPGs on PC right now and definitely one of the better JRPGs I’ve played in recent months.

Game Review: Life is Strange (Episode 5)

It seems like it’s been years since angry dudebros on the Internet complained about this game being too feminist, and here we are at the end.

The last episode ended with a twist some of you may have seen coming, and what follows is Max’s attempt to try and fix everything that’s gone wrong up to this point.

In the first episode, I mentioned how Max annoyed me a little due to her hipster attitude, in this episode, the characters shine. Max and Chloe have one of the most intense friendships (or is it more than that?) that I’ve ever seen in a video game. Even characters you’ve grown to hate, like David, are fleshed out and, I would say, sympathetic, in the end. I also feel like the voice-acting in this episode was particularly good.

This episode is much more puzzle heavy than the previous episodes. The troublesome focus mechanic from previous episodes makes an appearance, but luckily the devs have thrown us a bone and enabled us to skip focusing by pressing and holding the spacebar. One particularly frustrating moment for me was a puzzle involving sneaking around while avoiding various light sources. Another puzzle was a bit more gruesome in which you try and prevent a murder. This puzzle actually unnerved me, as I had to watch this character die over and over again before I finally found the correct solution. Fortunately, there’s no ridiculously annoying and long detective work sequence to deal with this time around.

Naturally, for the final episode of a reasonably popular game, the fandom seems divided on the issue of whether your choices actually mattered. Personally I think the journey I took to the endpoint is more important than reaping the consequences of every single decision I made, but at the same time I feel like we were left with a lot of unanswered questions. On a purely technical note, it seemed to me like the graphics weren’t as clear as they’ve been in previous episodes (texture issues, perhaps?). I’m not the graphics police but it definitely seemed like there was a slight lack of polish.

As for potential triggers in this episode, again there are photographs of drugged women in vulnerable positions (one of which you need to use for the focus mechanic), needles, shooting deaths, and the surreal “nightmare” sequence, which may leave players wondering what the hell is going on.

The entire game has been a roller coaster ride, but episode five ends it with a bang and overall, as much as I hate the ending I got and the way it gave me so many feels (TOO MANY FEELS!), I enjoyed my time with hipster girl and her wacky time-traveling adventures, and would love to see a second season, perhaps focusing on a new power. If you’ve been reading my reviews of the previous episodes and wondering whether this game is worth the purchase, I would definitely say that it’s worth the money, especially if you enjoy high school dramas, magical realism, or can appreciate stories about strong friendships between ladies.

Review: Chameleon Moon

It’s been a long time since I reviewed an ebook as I’ve been focusing on my backlog of physical books, and I usually only read a maximum of two books at once.

Chameleon Moon is an interesting mashup of dystopian fiction, fantasy, and a little bit of superhero fiction. The setting is the city of Parole, a burning city where black smoke blots out the sun and the citizens are watched by a totalitarian police force. It’s also hiding a secret from the rest of the world: people who have powers they should not have. Regan is one of them: a hitman with the skin of a lizard, he finds himself in an unlikely alliance with Evelyn, a singer and unofficial superhero. Together, its up to them to uncover the secrets Parole hides before it’s too late.

The main cast of Chameleon Moon is composed of misfits trying to survive in a hostile environment, both in terms of the environment itself being hostile and the police force meddling in everyone’s business, and that’s not even considering the anxiety, amnesia, and PTSD that our protagonists need to live with. Rose was a particular favourite of mine, a calming presence who can manipulate plants. In fact, only one character really grated on me, Finneas, Evelyn’s fanboy who has a really hard time over the course of the book. Sorry Finneas. I also love how the ladies in particular are consistently shown to be strong and resourceful, even characters with smaller parts like Lisette or Evelyn’s mother have a presence, and they seem to know much more about what’s going on than Liam, the guy who runs the mysterious Turret Home where the cast eventually finds themselves.

I also want to give the author props for the strong beginning to the book, which reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s works. I felt like it hit all the right notes and hooked me (as it should), although, I did find that the book slowed down considerably  after that. I would say this book is definitely more character driven, although the world is interesting.

Speaking of world-building, the book has an interesting premise of a drug that cures users of nearly any ailment but occasionally has interesting side effects (including death) which allows for a really interesting cast of characters with a range of powers, like Danae, who can create living beings out of assorted parts and scrap metal, or Zilch, a Frankenstein’s monster-esque man who is practically immortal as long as no one harms his heart, but otherwise I found the world to be almost….bare….Sylver doesn’t waste time with flowery descriptions, which is appropriate, in a way, because Parole is anything but flowery, but I did feel like there were definitely times that the world could have been fleshed out but wasn’t.

This book is one of the most diverse I’ve ever read. The main cast is made up almost entirely of MOGAI characters, Rose is black with metallic legs, her wife, Danae, has PTSD, Evelyn is trans, Regan himself has anxiety, a prominent side character hasn’t decided on a gender that fits them and they’re okay with that. There’s also an important Latino character and two men who end up together by the book’s end, but I won’t spoil anything. The book is very clear that anyone can be a hero, even if you don’t feel like one.

If I had any criticisms of this book it would be that some scenes felt like they kind of dragged on, and I also felt like a few major questions (such as most things to do with the Turret Home) were left unanswered. Presumably, at least some of these mysteries will be addressed in the sequel. Strangely, given my first criticism, I definitely think the book could have stood to be expanded and the world fleshed out in a bit more detail. There were times when the book relied on some common tropes (like amnesia) but even this makes sense in context.

In terms of potentially triggery content, characters have depression, anxiety, and PTSD, and experience drug addiction and withdrawal (their powers result from taking a fictional drug, so it’s referenced a lot. Evelyn experiences a little transphobia (which she quickly shoots down). There’s also a brief description of a character’s suicide, and a (IMHO) graphic depiction of a character’s arm being severed and that character going into shock from it, which was one of the few things that squicked me about this book.

Overall, if you’re looking for a short, diverse dystopian superhero story, you can’t go wrong with Chameleon Moon. The characters are endearing and diverse, and despite the hopelessness of the setting, the book manages to end on a surprisingly upbeat note.

Game Review: Undertale

There are a few things that I look for in a game: a strong story, relatable  characters, interesting gameplay, and enough content (including replay value) that I feel makes it worth its asking price. The lack of compelling characters and story is what caused me to take The Legend of Legacy off my wishlist (and I was really looking forward to it).

Undertale is a game that seems to have flown under the radar for many, and TBH, I wouldn’t blame anyone for looking at its minimalist presentation and goofy description on Steam and figuring that it’s another dime a dozen RPG made in something like RPG Maker, but as the title indicates, it’s what’s under the candy-coated surface that makes this game something special.

Long ago, the world was ruled by humans and monsters. A war broke out between the two races, and the victorious humans sealed the monsters underground. One day, a human child falls into the underground ruins. Their journey will take them through monster territory as they try to find a way to get back home.

It’s a simple premise, one that you’ve probably seen in many RPGs. In fact, the entire game is an affectionate parody of 90s RPGs, anime, and geek culture, and I suspect if that were all it was, some would be content with that, though i doubt it would have so many people naming it a game of the year. It’s mostly a labour of love of one man, Toby Fox, and that love shows, trust me.

The central premise of Undertale is that you do not have to kill anyone. Many games treat pacifism as more of a self-imposed challenge or claim that you can avoid combat except for certain boss fights. Undertale, on the other hand, actively encourages the player to find ways to resolve conflicts that don’t involve smacking monsters with weapons until they stop moving. It might be as simple as cheering on a depressed ghost or encouraging a shy mermaid to sing.

Encounters are random but break from the typical turn-based fare of many JRPGS. There are four separate commands you can use: Fight, Act, Item, and Mercy. Using the fight command allows you to attack an enemy by pressing a button when the indicator is over the center of the image that pops up. Item lets you use consumables and equip weapons and armor mid battle, whereas act allows you to perform certain actions that are unique to each monster (sort of like the Talk command in Shin Megami Tensei). Monsters will drop hints as to their likes and dislikes, and picking certain options can make fights easier or harder. For instance, not picking on a monster who says “Don’t pick on me!” can cause them to lose their will to fight. The Mercy option allows you to flee or spare an enemy when their name is in yellow. Enemies attack you through “bullet hell” like sequences where you are represented by a heart and must move around dodging attacks until it’s your turn to act again. This system keeps both aggressive and pacifist approaches interesting, and it makes battles challenging without being unforgiving. In case difficulty is a concern, let me assure you that I’ve never played a bullet hell shooter and I’m terrible at shooters in general, and I managed just fine, only having to stock up on healing items for particular boss encounters.

I chose cinnamon, for the record.

For such a short game, Undertale has a quirky, endearing cast of characters, from the motherly Toriel to the skeleton brothers Sans and Papyrus, the former who deals out terrible skeleton puns at the drop of a hat and the latter who seems to take everything seriously, to the nerdy, anime obsessed reclusive scientist, the passionate guard captain, even the random monsters you encounter have their own quirks. One complaint I’ve always voiced about the SMT games is that sooner or later using the “talk” command on a demon involves picking an option and hoping the RNG is nice to you. In this game, I dealt with two monsters of the same type in very different ways.

Another important facet of this game is the way it reacts to your choices. Even something as simple as buying a doughnut at the beginning of the game can have an impact on a certain boss battle. Actions you take during some random encounters will have an impact on other random encounters. For instance, convincing a monster to overcome their shyness and sing will allow you to sing a lullaby to a different monster, putting them to sleep and allowing you to spare them. The game will not only remember and comment on how many enemies you’ve killed, but will even recall what you’ve done in past saves, yes, even if they’ve been overwritten. When I was playing the demo, I ended up killing a character I liked so I started again without saving, only to have the game acknowledge this character’s death and call me out on it. Much of the game is very lighthearted but make no mistake, it can and will tear your heart out at times, especially if you approach it the way you would any other RPG, where overcoming enemies through physical force is often the easiest way to progress the story.

This review wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the soundtrack, which takes me back to hours spent playing Final Fantasy IV, V, and VI, in fact, there’s a really well done parody to a notable scene in Final Fantasy VI that had me laughing my ass off. Boss battles feel epic, going on a “date” with a skeleton is accompanied by an upbeat track that underscores the ridiculous situation. I highly recommend purchasing the soundtrack to go with the game.

It’s difficult to say anything more about this game without spoiling anything, and this is one of those games that you really need to experience for yourself. I finished the game and got the “True Pacifist” ending in 17 hours, although most are saying a single playthrough can take half the time. There is another route you can take through the game, labeled the “Genocide” route, which, as its name might suggest, is far more dark and sinister, but personally I am content with the path I took.

This is probably one of the queerest games I’ve played this year. The main character is canonically non-binary (characters refer to them with “they” pronouns), one character you can “date” is possibly aromantic, the aforementioned nerdy scientist is bisexual and has a crush on the (female) guard captain. There are also two guards that you can set up who decide not to fight you in lieu of going to get ice cream together.

If I had any criticism of Undertale to make, it’s that the middle portion of the game (at least, in the Pacifist run) focuses more on self-referential humour but makes up for it with a strong beginning and ending. If you’re the sort of person who is a stickler for graphics, Undertale probably won’t win any points from you for its very minimalist pixel graphics.

In terms of triggery content, there are some puzzles and encounters in the game that feature flashing images (such as the colored tiles in one of Papyrus’ puzzles) and fast scrolling text (the latter is particularly true during the endgame). Boss battles in particular can get really hectic with fast moving shapes and the final boss is particularly flashy, I would say it would be best to avoid this title if you are epileptic. The worst ending you can get (which is practically impossible to get by accident) features a jumpscare and scrolling text. As was previously mentioned, the game remembers things like how many times you’ve died to certain bosses or who you’ve killed even if you’ve deleted that save file. There is a particular boss fight where the game will crash to desktop if you die, and, once again, the worst ending causes the game to come up as a blank screen (you just need to wait a bit). If you have issues with paranoia or unreality, this is probably not the game for you (although if you can tolerate it, there are plenty of video walkthroughs on YouTube for you to watch). The true ending also has a sequence that involves some body horror. There is additionally the ableist implication that a character who loses the ability to express their emotions turns into a killer.

Undertale is a game that will make you laugh and cry, sometimes in the same scene. It’s at once hopeful and terrifying, filled with both puns and punches to the gut. If you are a fan of JRPGs, or just RPGs in general, if you can appreciate much breaking of the fourth wall, want an emotional roller coaster ride, or are just really fed up with games that seem to lack heart and want something different, I absolutely recommend you at least try Undertale’s demo. This is one purchase that is well worth the $10 or so price tag.

Stay determined.

Review: Maplecroft (The Borden Dispatches #1)

I’ve never been much of a fan of H.P. Lovecraft. Don’t get me wrong, the Cthulhu mythos and related stories changed how people thought of horror, but I’ve never been able to get past his unabashed racism and xenophobia. However, recently I’ve been taking a look at Lovecraftian works like She Walks in Shadows, an anthology of short fiction by women about women and the mythos, and films like Cthulhu (2009) which has a gay protagonist, and everywhere I looked, everyone and their mother is recommending that fans of Lovecraft’s works read Maplecroft.

Maplecroft‘s main character is the infamous Lizzie Borden, accused and acquitted of murdering her father and stepmother with an axe and inspiring a rhyme based on it. Maplecroft asks “What if Lizzie Borden did commit the murders? What if she had a very good reason for doing so?” When a series of bizarre murders occur in Fall River and the surrounding area, Lizzie, along with her brilliant sister Emma and the town doctor, Dr. Seabury, must race to uncover the truth of these incidents before Fall River is swallowed by a tide of nightmares and madness.

Or, to summarize, “queer Lizzie Borden fights Lovecraftian horrors that come from the sea”.

The book’s format is an epistolary novel, that is, the story is communicated through letters and other documents (Dracula used the same format). It’s kind of odd, thinking of all the characters taking incredibly detailed notes about everything that happened that day, but by the end of the book I didn’t really notice. The book switches between multiple first person perspectives, each character getting a chapter.

I usually start off by talking about the characters but in this case I think the overall atmosphere of the book has a much greater impact than the individual characters. The book is permeated with this sense of melancholy and madness and the deep dark mysteries of the ocean. Many characters undergo a descent, of sorts, first, making some offhand comment about forgetting something in the beginning, and having things steadily get worse until they are not themselves anymore. Even Lizzie and Emma, the characters who are at the heart of the story, are not unaffected by it. Priest nails Lovecraftian horror, and she does it without calling anyone a “mongrel” and having multiple amazing female characters. This book gave me major Aegir and Ran feels. The sea isn’t just sinister in this book. it’s beautiful and mysterious and fascinating, and it can also eat you alive.

The book isn’t all melancholy. of course, there are moments where Lizzie takes her axe and throws down with otherworldly creatures, and there’s the whole mystery of why this is happening in Fall River, and why does it seem like the Bordens are at the center of it all? There were some great moments outside of the book’s more melancholic moments: Lizzie’s relationship with Nance O’Neil, Emma writing respected research papers under a pseudonym. I found the pacing was decent, and it helps that chapters were generally short, allowing the reader to walk around in another person’s shoes for a bit before swapping them out. Some have referred to this book as “historical horror” and I would say this is accurate, although the book never feels like it neglects the horror bits to focus on the historical and vice versa.

If I had to criticize Maplecroft, I’d say that the resolution to the central mystery was a bit….weird…even by Lovecraftian fiction’s standards. The book was also way too short. I want more. I can’t stand not knowing what happens. Fortunately, the sequel, Chapelwood, is out now, so I won’t have to wait long to read more of this series.

In terms of potentially triggery content, madness is practically a stable of Lovecraftian works, but there’s also plenty of murder and suicides, that, while not graphically described, are certainly gruesome, and children are not exempt from being targets of violence. Emma also frequently coughs up blood, which might be a bit jarring for some.

In terms of representation, there are no characters of colour, but Lizzie and Nance are depicted as being in a relationship and Emma is disabled, and while this does play into the story, she is ultimately shown to be intelligent, resourceful, and not nearly as helpless as she appears (while still requiring assistance at times). As a woman writing scientific papers under a pseudonym, she also experiences sexism to such a degree that at one point she wishes she were a man. Lizzie herself feels the brunt of being ostracized by Fall River and frequently sees herself as a lone woman fending off oceanic terrors while the rest of Fall River sleeps.

Bottom line: I was pleasantly surprised by this book. I’ve been burned by the hype machine before but this book deserves all the hype it can get. I recommend it to anyone into Lovecraftian horror, particularly if you appreciate historical fiction.