Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver is an Action/Puzzle Platformer game about the vampire Raziel.

Now usually after mentioning that the game in question focuses on vampires, a reviewer will complain about Twilight. You know the sort of thing I mean: shiny vampires boo hoo, romantic werewolves waah. I’ve decided that I’m not going to live my life putting down other people for their taste in fiction, unless they enjoy child pornography or blatantly racist literature. Yes, I’m not a Twilight fan, but that doesn’t mean that I should bash the franchise every time vampires come up in casual conversation. Frankly, if there was anyone you’d expect to have a little tact about the absurd media loved by others, it’d be people who review video games for a living.

This is a second game in the Legacy of Kain series. (I haven’t played the first, to be honest I bought Soul Reaver by accident!) The eponymous vampire Kain has taken over the world with his undead empire. Then his right-hand man, Raziel, evolves into an even more beautiful form of monster. Intimidated, Kain tosses Raziel into the Abyss. A millennium later, Raziel is pulled out of the Abyss for by The Elder God, a disembodied voice with big ideas, and urged to defeat his former master and comrades. It’s hardly Final Fantasy VI, but excellent writing and voice-acting keeps things interesting towards the very end.

The puzzle-based gameplay of Soul Reaver immediately invites comparisons to the Zelda game Ocarina of Time but has one huge advantage over it, you can jump. I can’t tell you how weird 3D games are when you can’t jump, it’s like your little guy is magnetised to a board. After defeating every dungeon boss you gain a new ability with which you can access the next area of the game. These skills include swimming, phrasing through grates, and rotating cylinders by running around them in circles. Combat is fairly simple, mostly boiling down to either swiping at your opponent before setting him on fire or impaling him over a spike. You can also regain health by sucking the energy from your opponents. The most important facet of Soul Reaver’s gameplay are the two layers of reality. The first is the material plan, the normal one, where your physical actions have consequences and time has meaning. The second, the spiritual one, is all twisty and funky, and you can’t actually change anything because time’s frozen. Both have their monsters, though.

My only complaint about the gameplay was that some of the puzzles were too hard, but maybe that says more about me.

I have mixed feelings about the graphics. Sure, they’re detailed, but they’re so dim and dreary that they’re not much fun to look at. It’s like the people behind this game decided they wanted to create a world in the palette of a moth’s wings. Maybe it’s the kid in me, but I prefer more colourful games like Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly.

The sound design was great. The music was so creepy that I turned it down, the sound effects were realistic and the voice acting was sincere.

While I could appreciate the effort that went into this game and its many excellent moments, the dark graphics and confusing puzzles meant that I managed to get into it. I won’t be playing it again.

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Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly

Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly is the finest and final installment of Insomniac Game’s original Spyro trilogy. It is the culmination of all the things we’ve seen in previous Spyro outings; vivid graphics, intuitive gameplay, fiendish puzzles, memorable voice-acting, and goofy characters thrown together with endlessly creative mini-games that will see you skateboard, zap goons as Sparx the Dragonfly, and even strap on a backpack to blast spacecows! Suitable for gamers aged eight or over, Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly is a platforming classic worth playing again and again.

Just to boast: I bought this game and its two prequels for five dollars around Christmas in 2014. Though I think that was a special Playstation anniversary sale…

Trails In The Sky: Second Chapter

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Falcom’s Trails In The Sky: Second Chapter is about as good as a sprite-based role-playing can get. Sure, in the future there’ll likely be similar games with a more ambitious story, or a more innovative battle system, but each of these theoretical successors would have be pretty damn great to out-excel Trails In The Sky: Second Chapter.

For those of you haven’t been keeping up with your niche gaming, Trails in the Sky: SC is the sequel to Trails in the Sky. It continues the story begun in that game, that of the step-siblings Josh and Estelle successfully foiling a palace coup and uncovering hints of more a sinister conspiracy in their first year as Rangers, essentially members of an informal policy force in a fantasy word. At the end of Trails In The Sky we learn Josh was a sleeper agent and former member of this conspiracy, so he leaves his step-sister, and the awkward feelings growing between them, to pursue his own path. Trails in the Sky: Second Chapter sees Estelle gather her new friends to investigate and hopefully defeat the secret conspiracy that promises to cause international chaos. While the story ultimately does boil down to the standard ‘group of friends saves world’ plot that virtually defines the genre, the believable and deep characterization of even the most irrelevant characters more than compensates for the lack of narrative twists. It even passes the Bechdal Test.

The thing you need to understand about Trails in the Sky games is that they are wordy, with probably more words than three bibles in each one. Every NPC has their own unique reaction to plot events and some even their own story-line. There are optional quests that blossom into their own expansive narratives, giving you further detail about Estelle’s world. You can read newspapers, magazines, even two novels! This game took years and years for Xseed Games to translate, and you can read on their tumblr  just how epic that task was. This game’s prequel had a running gag where every time you checked an already opened treasure chest there’d be an amusing message. In Trails In The Sky: SC there were only two chest messages. I can’t remember what the first one was, but the second was along the lines of Help, we’re the localization team and we’ve been stuck here since 2011. That should tell you something about how much prose this game’s packing!

Talking about the gameplay of a RPG in a review like this is almost completely redundant… usually if the reviewer is trying to be funny they’ll bitch and moan about clichés that were old in 1996. (The best variation on this theme I’ve seen was on this review for Tales Of Eternia). Trails in the Sky takes these traditional gameplay standards and breathes new life into them. Battles are not randomly activated, but begin only if you make physical contact with a monster while walking, like in Earthbound. The battles themselves are small scale bouts ala Final Fantasy Tactics, with foes taking turns to move across chess-like tiles to whack their opponents. You can also enhance your stats and battle techniques with quartz, reminiscent of the djinni in Golden Sun. A battle mechanic new to this installment is that allies can combine their attacks, just like they could in Chrono Trigger. You can also choose side quests from the Ranger’s Union, similar to what happened in Final Fantasy Four. The only genuinely original facet of Trails in the Sky’s gameplay is that you can instantly restart battles after you’ve lost them, saving you the agony and re-enacting all the things you did since you last saved. It’s hard to think of an innovation longer in the coming. While most of the Trail In The Sky: SC’s gameplay should be familiar to any RPG fan, how it’s implemented is as close to perfection as I’ve seen.

I don’t usually focus on graphics, usually because they lose whatever novelty they factor within an hour of playing, but I like what Falcolm’s done here. Trails in the Sky: SC uses really detailed sprites. If there was a parallel universe where they never invented 3D polygon graphics and instead tried to make sprites as swish as possible, they’d look like the sprites in Trails in the Sky: SC. They also reminded me of the graphics on Golden Sun, but look, I think it’ll be easier for all of us if I embedded a video under this paragraph:

Trails In The Sky: SC is a long game. From memory, it took me about eighty hours to beat it. The prequel was seventy hours long. If it’s possible for a video game to be too long, these games would be the example. That said, I definitely got value for money for that forty dollars I spent on Trails in the Sky: SC.

If you’re an RPG tragic with a PSP or a Steam account, then you’ve probably already brought this game. I think that the Trails In The Sky games, with their heavy emphasis on compelling stories and easy modes, would hold an especial appeal for book lovers trying to find a way to get into video games. (But they should probably try visual novels like Phoenix Wright first…) I don’t give stars, but if I did, this game would get five.

Superman: Miracle Monday – Elliot S! Maggin

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So this is the sequel to Elliot S! Maggin’s Last Son of Krypton. This time round, a demon possesses a female time-traveler and causes so much chaos that Superman will eventually be forced to kill her, contradicting his moral code. Lex Luthor has also invents magic. If anyone in fiction could, it would be that guy.

What makes Maggin’s Superman stories so memorable is that he takes these characters far more seriously than their absurd situations necessitate. I think that if most writers were to write the story of an alien man who flies around in blue tights, that they’d either play it for comedy or cartoonish action. Not Maggin – he writes these characters with so much depth that their bizarre actions make a sort of sense. His Lex Luthor comes across as a criminal combination of Leonardo da Vinci, Willy Wonka and Sherlock Holmes, or a collection of vices grouped around hyper-competency. His depiction of Superman is even more impressive, a moral exemplar with godlike powers who relies on his Clark Kent persona to relate to the humans he protects. This book proves that superhero stories can be emotionally mature without relying on darkness, if they have believable characterization.

I thought the plotting in Miracle Monday is all over the place. While the demon possession storyline was intriguing, not enough of the novel seemed dedicated, but maybe that’s just because demonic schemes ratcheted up in the last quarter. There was a lot of emphasis on Supermans day-to-day activities, which is hardly a bad thing, given that his everyday life is hardly going to be everyday. Flashbacks were also frequent in the early portions of the book, although these did establish the origin of Superman’s no-kill code, so that’s cool. Reading this book, I got the impression that many of the things that happened within it were stories that Maggin had been wanting to tell about Superman for a while, but couldn’t get it right in the comic format. It was also plain that he really loves these characters and has a lot to say about them.

If this is quality of prose fiction we can expect about Superman, than DC comics should consider beginning a novel range based around their heroes. I’m certain that Maggin has more Superman stories in him, and with writers like Grant Morrison and Neil Gaiman in their orbit I’m certain they could produce some truly memorable literature. More cynically, novels would be an easy way for DC to market their heroes to readers uncomfortable with graphic fiction.

Obviously Miracle Monday will appeal to Superman fans like myself, but I think this book would also be good for people who want to see Superman at his best. It’s also required reading for anyone thinking of making a Superman film, because Maggin knows how to do Superman justice.

Options – Robert Sheckley

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Many book blogs have a rating system for their book reviews, involving stars or A+. Mine doesn’t because I didn’t think of doing that long after I’d started this site, and by then were too many reviews for me to be bothered revising. If I did have such a system, Robert’ Sheckley’s Options would get a question mark. But it would be made from gold.

Tom Mishkin is an astronaut stranded on an alien planet, who is searching for a missing ship part with the help of a surprisingly human robot. At first glance this seems like a fairly pedestrian premise, the sort of thing you’d expect from an iPhone game, but soon enough Sheckley abandons this straight-forward concept and uses it as a springboard into bizarrity.

About a third the way through Options, the Sheckley’s book adopts the structure of a Land of Oz novel. That is to say, the narrative is a series of self-contained episodes in which a human protagonist and manufactured being encounter several surreal entities that force you to ask the question “What drugs was the author taking?” The journey motif is also Oz-like, although obviously fantastic voyages go all the way back to the Odyssey. Really, all that’s missing is that Mishkin’s party doesn’t include a talking animal, although they do meet more than a few verbose creatures. And obviously they’re not in Oz – they’re on the planet Harmonia, which is worse.

The stuff that goes down on Harmonia is weirder than anything Frank Baum ever hallucinated, drifting straight into Monty Python and Samuel Beckett territory. The novel’s coherent beginning features a robot whose programmed personality drives him into an existential crisis, similar to Marvin the Paranoid Android who from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which first appeared as a radio show a year after Options was published in Britain. Mishkin and his robot companion encounter a carnivorous sandworm whose many heads act like racist Italian stereotypes, gruff city men playing poker on a thin bridge across a ravine, and a duke who imagines himself in and out of existence. The novel becomes truly post-modern is its second half, with Mishkin advising a replacement protagonist how to perform his role, the author cameoing to worry about how to end the novel, and a nested narrative in which a fat man in South-East Asia worries about how to get Mishkin his engine part before giving up.

I don’t believe Sheckley had a plan when writing this novel, or if he did that he abandoned it early on. A science-fiction book hasn’t bamboozled me so much since Creatures of Light and Darkness. This is practically a Zen novel, if you’re an adherent of the most fatuous form of Buddhism this book will catapult you into the most profound form of nirvana. For the rest of us, our response to incomprehensible and sometimes deliberately infuriating forms of art will dictate how we respond to the novel.

I’ll tell you who wouldn’t like this novel: the sort of people you find in creative writing tutorials at universities. If Sheckley showed them this they’d say, ‘Robert, this all very interesting, but it’s too dense. I don’t understand it, what does it mean?’ Of all the books I’ve read in my life, this one would be the worst for that audience.

This is a book I’d recommend towards Beckett fans who are convinced that science fiction cannot be Real Literature, Zen Buddhists, and anyone who can fully understand a Philip K Dick novel on first reading.

The other rating I’d give this book is WTF.

How To Win Friends and Influence People – Dale Carnegie

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There was at least one good tip from this book: Dale Carnegie says that when you’re critiquing someone, you should say ‘you’re good at all this stuff and you could do this other stuff better’, instead of ‘you’re good at all this stuff but you’re terrible at everything else.’ And instead of but, it sounds effective but I haven’t actually tried it yet.

The rest of How To Win Friends and Influence People was about the author trying to find different ways to rephrase the ideas ‘consider the matter from the other people’s perspective,’ ‘act like your appreciate their ideas,’ or ‘just flatter them’. Give me a red pen and some money and I could summarize all 277 pages of this book into 50.

So no, I wouldn’t recommend this book. To be honest, I only read it so that I could tell other people I had, since How to win firends and influence people is one of those books everyone’s heard of but never read.

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut

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I was underwhelmed by Slaughterhouse Five.

It stands on the intersection of books that I care about, and the books that I don’t. By that I mean that Slaughterhouse 5 is essentially autobiographical Literary Fiction with some Sci-Fi garnish and a dash of post-modernism.

Our protagonist is Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist and alien abductee who spends most of the novel remembering how he was a German prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden. He learns a form of time-travel where he can return to any point in his personal history, but he cannot change anything. The aliens explain to him their fatalistic vision of the universe, in which all events, including the end of the universe due to a disastrous rocket test, are predetermined. Their mantra, and the mantra of the book, is So it goes.

This mental time-travel is a device Vonnegut uses to tell his narrative out of order. At one point Billy will be talking to his wife, then he’ll go back to WWII Dresden, and then he’ll return to 1960s America. (I think this is really just a roundabout way to write about PTSD. Between this and Lovecraft’s focus on mental illness, I think it would be fascinating to see how speculative fiction responded to the PSTD epidemics unleashed by the World Wars.) Giving the protagonist an excuse to experience things nonlinearly feels a lot smoother than just jumping around in time without any explanation.

I think one of the reasons Slaughterhouse Five underwhelmed me was that its message, that war is really terrible, already seemed axiomatic to me. In the country where I live we have a burgeoning state religion centered around the young men who were heroically shot trying to invade Turkey back in WWII. Each year in school we’d have another lesson on how awful it was. Alongside an interest in history and a conscience, all this means that for me joining the army is as unthinkable as murder itself. Perhaps if I was patriotic gungho American who believed that my nation was incapable of acting unethically, or if this book tried to tell me that was is simply fantastic, I would’ve have been impressed.

I also think that the sci-fi elements of the book were unnecessary. I see why Vonnegut included them; he writes science fiction and they were probably a distancing technique that allowed him to process such traumatic memories.

Based on Sirens of Titan, I still think Vonnegut is an author worth my time, but this isn’t the first book of his that I’d recommend.