Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Dragon Age: Inquisition review


*Warning - this review contains mild spoilers for the prologue of the game*
   
    I picked this one up for my birthday and have been more or less playing it non-stop for a week. I'm still not done with it but the game has provided countless hours of continuous amusement. Dragon Age: Inquisition combines the deep characters of Dragon Age with the sheer open-world hugeness of Skyrim.

    It is an impressive accomplishment for Bioware, its writers, and its programmers. If nothing else, anyone who says the game is underdone is lying through their teeth. This is a product of hard work with every one of its thousands of man hours visible. About the only thing I can compare it to in size is an MMORPG and it has all the benefit of such without the actual MMO-isms.

    This is one big-ass game.

    Ahem.

The War Table operations aren't a great deal of fun but help with the feeling you're in charge of an army.
    Have I mentioned its big?

    Yeah, okay, now we can move on.

    The premise is the mages and Templars have been at war since the events of Dragon Age 2 (the actual declaration taking place in novel Dragon Age: Asunder). The war has been devastating for both sides so the Chantry, equivalent to the Catholic Church, hosts a peace summit at the holiest spot in Thedas: The Tomb of Sacred Ashes (found by the Warden in Dragon Age: Origins). This is already full of fanservice for  devoted followers of the series. The peace-summit goes disastrously wrong, however, when someone sets off the equivalent of a magical nuke. A literal hole in dimensions is torn and demons begin pouring out by the hundreds.

    All of the participants at the conclave but a scattered handful are killed, including the Chantry's equivalent to the Pope. One survivor, however, emerges from the Fade with a supernatural mark on his (or her) left hand. This is the Herald of Andraste and future Inquisitor.

    Your character.

A duel of words is as deadly as one of swords in Orlais.
    The Breach, as it comes to be known, has had even greater effects than this initial explosion. Smaller rifts have been created across the continent, flooding Thedas with demons. The Templars and Mages blame each other, resuming their fighting, but it's fairly obvious neither is at fault.

    The character, who people believe was rescued by Andraste herself due to some oddball events in the Fade, is thus dragooned into joining a force to put the world back to rights. It's a strong, if somewhat generic, plot. The "save the world" thing has been done many times in the past and I should probably be grateful this isn't just another Blight.

    My biggest criticism of the game is its greatest blessing. Inquisition isn't just meaty, it's outright obese. They could cut half of the side-quests away from the game and it wouldn't lose a thing except running around time. It's possibly to spend forty or so hours in the Hinterlands doing random side-quests so when the time comes for the "Seal the Breach" mission, you assume it's the ending.

    In fact, this is just the ending of the prologue.

The High Dragon fights are suitably epic.
    I feel a bit daft complaining about this sort of epic scope and it's not a large complaint. In truth, this is a great game to spend a long time with. The game doesn't blow everything at the beginning, either, as there's some truly magnificent levels spread throughout. My favorite was attending an Orlesian masquerade ball where you can assemble blackmail material to, potentially, control the future of the Empire.

    The characters are an eclectic mix of heroes, villains, and anti-heroes with old favorites Varric, Morrigan, Leliana, Hawke, Cole, and Cassandra returning. Sadly, Alistair doesn't make as much of an appearance as I'd hoped but you can't have everything.  New characters of Solas, Sera, Vivienne, Dorian, and Iron Bull are all fascinating even if I can't say I fell in love with some of them the way I did Origins. Writing is where Bioware is at its best and you really come to view all of these individuals as friends by the end of it.

    The Elder One, mastermind behind all of this madness, is a poor villain. While I'll keep his identity secret, he amounts to being little more than a generic doomsday cultist. There's none of the menace and personal anger at Loghain or Malak from previous Bioware games. The Elder One manages to be a better villain the Knight Commander Meredith or the Arishok but even they had moments of pathos. The Elder One, at the end of the day, is a poor man's Skeletor and I think they could have done better with him.

The Inquisitor has a selection of four voices and multiple races, which gives quite a bit of range to characterization.
    I can't say I'm not disappointed with the resolution of the Mage-Templar War too. Given I took the time to write a huge essay on freedom versus security on this website, it turns out none of those issues were addressed. The majority of both factions die in the conclave explosion and the survivors are those who the Inquisitor chooses to ally with. There's no final showdown between the two factions with one faction winning by default.

    I felt kind of cheated.

    The gameplay is similar to Origins with many tweaks. It's real-time turn based with an option to pause the game for tactical commands (which you will never do because there's no real point). You can armor and gear your followers however you want, but their clothing will adjust to their personal styles. High Dragons make a return with a unique set of them spread throughout the game for high-level monster-slaying.

I romanced Cassandra, one of the few openly lawful AND good people in Thedas.
    Another huge draw of the game is the settings are absolutely beautiful. While the Hinterlands are something of a generic fantasy land, there's a fabulous mixture of environments throughout. There's deserts, stormy coasts, gloomy haunted marshes, and a battlefield which has been torn-up to look like World War 1 trenches. All of this is gorgeous and you're really doing yourself a disservice getting this on a last generation console.

    One feature I liked about the game was the addition of the War Table operations. While they could be no different than the Assassins missions from Ubisoft, I think they did a good job making them tools for world-building. Lots of connections from previous games show up and the use of the Dragon Age Keep means I can change my game however I want to. One final thing, for those who care, the romances are considerably more risque with a Witcher 2 level of nudity.

    In conclusion, this is a must-buy for anyone who wants to spend possibly a hundred or so hours in Thedas. If not, you can race through the game, but don't be surprised if the Elder One destroys the world.

10/10

Saturday, December 13, 2014

What Zombies Fear: The Incarnation review


    The explosive climax to the What Zombies Fear series is the end of an age. In a very real way, these books had an impact on the whole of the literary zombie genre. Nowhere near that of World War Z, of course, but something that inspired quite a few other authors to take up the pen. What Zombies Fear contributed, at least in some small way, to creating a market for people who wanted to see the undead get slaughtered in text.

    The premise is a rebuttal to the majority of zombie fiction which revels hopelessness. Most zombie fiction is a disaster story, while this is an action series. Our heroes are capable of slaying vast numbers of the undead and do so with great abandon, exacting a small amount of revenge for the amount of times mankind has been slaughtered by them in fiction. Victor Tookes, the titular individual which zombies fear, has developed superpowers due to his immunity to the zombie bite. With these powers, he's fought the zombies of Earth for over a decade.

    Unfortunately, they've regrouped and are now assaulting not only his community of survivors but every single other community his followers protect. The group is divided and weak, many having lost loved ones. Can Victor rally them to take the fight against Bookbinder, the mysterious new "queen" of the E'clei?
   
    Of course he can.

    Despite the previous volume being the darkest in the series, Incarnation is a largely positive story about humanity vs. the dead. Everyone rallies back behind Victor and while there is a good deal of hurt feelings, the sense of heroism behind each of the characters shine through. Due to the fact Max is now an adult, he is able to lend his godlike zombie-destroying powers to aid the fight as well.

    It's no walk in the park for the heroes, though. Despite Max's many advantages, the zombies have been preparing for the counterstrike for ages. Lives will have to be sacrificed to stop the E'clei and some of them will be familiar faces. All of the heroes are ready and willing to give their lives to stop the zombie menace once and for all. People often pooh-pah good versus evil stories but some of the most enduring are those which have said premise. This is not an exception and I'm not afraid to say the ending had me a little misty eyed.

    The battles are straight out of a comic book only done in a wonderful literary style. Even better, the drama is heartfelt. When people die, each character is strongly affected and can't help but be devastated when the loss is someone closest to them. A few of them become suicidal but in a war where every life matters, the heroes have to close ranks in order to try and help.

     Is it a perfect ending? I'm not going to say so. I felt the break-up of the group to go their separate ways when millions of zombies were still at large felt contrived. Likewise, I was hoping we'd get to see more than the main group take up the sword to do battle with the E'clei. It would have been nice to see him leading a whole army of empowered mortals against the zombie hordes. Such is not to be, though.

     The ending also verges a little to the melodramatic side but, at least, spends time giving events their appropriate dramatic weight. It was always about protecting Max for Victor and his life along with the lives of his fellows was never important beyond that.

    It's the end of a series and the authors have saved the best for last.

10/10.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Dresden Files: Death Masks review


    If Summer Knight was the first "real" book in the series then Death Masks is the book which revealed it wasn't a fluke. Summer Knight told an excellent story about fairies, world-building, character development, and past mistakes. Death Masks, by contrast, is a story which builds on the previous four books to create a story which shows how all of the strangeness so far is interconnected. It's not my favorite of the series but tells a great story while setting up the groundwork for many more adventures to come.

    This book follows up on two plotlines established in Grave Peril: the war between the Red Court vampires and the White Council wizards as well as the holy sword wielded by ally Michael Carpenter. The former was left largely off-camera as there was still the possibility of negotiation or turning over Harry to stop the conflict. It's in full-swing now with the White Council doing the fighting for Harry (which I never quite liked).

    A representative of the Red Court, Duke Ortega, comes to visit Harry and makes him an offer: settle this in a duel, one-on-one, and end this war now. Harry, justifiably feeling guilty for his role in starting the conflict, agrees and begins preparations for a show-down against an opponent he's woefully outmatched by.

    The latter plot element expands on the mythology behind the Knights of the Cross. It turns out three individuals are armed with swords made from the nails in Jesus' cross. Surprisingly, but appropriate given Jesus' views on violence, they aren't really warriors per se but redeemers. It is the job of the Knights to gather up the Denarian Coins (Judas' coins) which cause the holders to be possessed by demons. The Knights of the Cross attempt to save the holders of said coins rather than execute them since each soul lost to the Devil is a tragedy.

    I've mentioned my fondness for Michael Carpenter as one of the rare Christian characters in fiction who is neither a caricature or irreligious to the point he might as well not be one. While Harry remains as agnostic as someone can be in a world where the Archangel Michael hands out magic swords, fact he lampshades is ridiculous, Michael remains a beacon of quiet faith. Michael's compatriots play with this idea as one, Shiro, is an honorable warrior but Christian mostly because he liked Elvis' gospel music. Their companion, Sanya, is a black Russian communist who one-ups Harry by being an atheist.

    The three of them join Harry in opposing Nicodemus, the leader of the Denarians. Nicodemus is as close to an arch-nemesis as Harry possesses, being a character who has opposed him across multiple books with various degrees of success. Nicodemus is a cunning and evil character with his own sense of humor as well as genre savviness. As impressive as Duke Ortega is, he's in the kiddie leagues compared to the human host of a fallen angel. Death Masks also introduces the Archive, a character who doesn't play a big role in the books but is one of my favorites. There's something awesome about a little girl with near-omniscience.

    Death Masks ups the stakes considerably in terms of character danger as deaths are not uncommon in this book. These make the dangers faced by the characters considerably more real and a few of them are unexpected. In short, this book comes with a strong recommendation and it amazes me that it just keeps getting better.

10/10

The Walking Dead: Season 2 review


    I've already reviewed the entirety of the season by each individual episode, which are available here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

    However, because I enjoyed it, I'm going to give an overview of the entirety of the series. I think the original is one of the best video games ever made, so the sequel has some pretty big shoes to fill. Would Clementine prove to be as interesting a protagonist as Lee? Would the characters be as likable? Would the plot be as moving or dramatic? Would it end on a bang or with a whimper?

    The short answer? It's not as good as the original.

    Not by a long shot.

The dog should have been Clementine's companion for the entire game.
    Still, there's plenty of room between "one of the best video games of all time" and "complete crap." There's a lot going for Season 2. Clementine is a great protagonist, about the only thing as good as the original, with her story arc remaining one of the most consistently entertaining things about the game. The characters are interesting, if not especially likable, and the story arc involving Carver is one of the best in the franchise.

    So what's the problem?

    On a serious note, there's too much darkness for it to have its appropriate impact. Part of what made the original so effective was the lighter moments scattered between the horrible ones. You came to bond with Kenny, Lilly, Duck, Carly, and (of course) Clementine before the game started picking them off. While there's some genuinely likable characters, a lot of them are mean and nasty to you before dying unexpectedly. Plenty of characters are introduced, get a minimum amount of development, and are unceremoniously killed off.

Is it wrong I want almost everyone in this cabin to die? Even at the beginning, I wanted Clementine to just find another group.
    The morality of the setting is also far more skewed towards cynicism and ruthlessness. In the original game, stealing a car full of groceries was a dick move which left Clementine feeling miserable if Lee goes through with it. It also has consequences. Here, the characters routinely betray, intimidate, lie, and worse with nary a second thought.

    While this is, perhaps, realistic given its years into the apocalypse--it doesn't really give me much reason to care about these asshats. If everyone is a scumbag, then what's really worth preserving? A more philosophical game might be interested in asking that question but this one is too interested in setting up the set pieces for the next big tragedy. There's also just some genuinely bad writing like a bunch of gun-toting Russians who don't speak English showing up in Episode 4.

    The premise of it's roughly a year after Clementine survives the events of the original game. It's hard not to spoil the game but she is separated from survivors Omid and Crista, only to hook up with another group of survivors. These survivors, however, are on the run from their own previous group. Clementine must win them over since they are hostile and suspicious of anyone new, apparently even little girls. Needless to say, they re-encounter their previous group and have to deal with the fallout from this event.

Carver could easily be a villain in the comics.
    There's some truly great moments spread throughout the game. The scene where Clementine is forced to deal with a non-zombie-related wound is shocking while I also loved the three endings the game gives you. A Christmas party near the beginning of the game is as touching as such a moment should be in a world where almost everything has been lost.

    As mentioned, the character of Carver is an immensely effective villain. He's tough, charismatic, and ruthless while also cracking in a quite believable way. You can understand why people follow him and even might be tempted yourself before the true depths of his brokenness become apparent. I also liked the polarizing figure of Jane who, despite her faults, is just a scared little girl like Clementine.

    These characters don't get their proper amount of time to shine, however, due to the game not being interested in developing them across the entire series. They get one or two episodes devoted to them before the plot leaves them in the dust. Which is a shame as they could have elevated the material greatly.
If the series ended here, I'd be okay with it. It's a satisfying ending.
    In conclusion, The Walking Dead: Season 2 isn't a bad game. It's actually a very good game. It's a depressing game, however, and I had mostly stopped caring by Episode 5. I wanted some levity to contrast against the horror. I got a good ending but the game wasn't what I wanted. Despite all this, I recommend it for players of the original game because Clementine is an awesome protagonist. The good outweighs the bad and I'm still purchasing Season 3.

8.5

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Time of Death: Asylum review


    I've mentioned what a big fan I am of Shana Festa's signature series. Time of Death: Induction was exactly the sort of breath of fresh-air I needed after a series of increasingly dreary and grim zombie novels. Horrible stories of survival and trauma are fine, don't get me wrong, but it seemed like that's all anyone was doing.

    Time of Death is more or less the Southern Vampire Mysteries of zombies, following protagonist Emma Rossi as she meets the apocalypse with a can-do chipper attitude. This is contrasted to her husband, who is unable to process how his wife is able to remain so calm and upbeat in the face of the world's end.

    The premise of the books is Sanibel Island, the refuge from the previous books, has fallen. Our heroine, her husband, her brother-in-law, and sister-in-law all pile together in a boat to flee. Searching for fellow survivors in Florida, they hear rumors of a potential location called "Asylum." Meeting an oddball cast of characters, they eventually arrive and try to deal with their new-found home's peculiar rules.

    It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize Asylum isn't going to end up all it's cracked up to be. Shana Festa's avoids the common pitfalls of zombie fiction writers, however, by avoiding making them overtly evil. The majority of people in Asylum are helpful, friendly, and interested in saving their fellow humans.

    There's something evil going on, of course, but finding out what and who is involved is a mystery. This is a nice contrast to The Walking Dead's Woodbury or Terminus where it seems everyone is a willing slave to the Governor or a cannibal. The fact the survivors include many decent folk also prevents an easy solution like opening the gates to the undead. No, our heroine must convince her fellow survivors of what she finds or run the risk of being tossed out into the wilderness.

    What's interesting is the majority of the book takes place away from asylum, wandering around the ruins of Florida. While other series would play on the horror of a now-empty city, this book takes time to show the upsides of the apocalypse. Admit it: if you were looking for shelter in the zombie apocalypse, you'd probably go for the biggest, fanciest, and most well-equipped mansion you could.

    The fact some locations have working electricity and plumbing hint at larger survivors than we're used to in these situations to (or just some houses are "really" well equipped). This adds a nice little bit of social satire which has been missing from the genre since the Dead movies. The social satire is subtle, but it's there. All of the money in the world can't protect you against a real disaster and people want comfort, even in the face of oblivion.

    The writing is sharp, the scary scenes are scary, and the funny scenes are funny. There's a surprising number of well-written characters in this book with all of them able to stand out as individuals before the inevitable grasping hand of death kills them off. Despite being a lighter and softer series, Time of Death still has a large number of casualties. I can't tell who is going to live and who is going to die, either, which is new for me. It's also the only zombie series I know to have a cute dog! What's not to love?

    In conclusion, this is an awesome sequel to an equally good book. I hope Shana Festa can keep up the pace. If there's one flaw, it's the fact the book doesn't really so much end as peter out. The book has a cliffhanger and I hate those. Still, I'd be wrong in giving this anything less than a 10 out of 10.

Buy at Amazon.com

Monday, December 8, 2014

The Dresden Files: Summer Knight review


    Summer Knight is where I think The Dresden Files really took off, at least for me. It's a story which moves away, slightly, from the private detective genre and more into the realm of "high fantasy in a modern setting." It introduces the character of Queen Mab, one of the series most enduring characters, and raises the stakes to the point Harry's failure will lead to the slow death of the world.

    The premise is Harry has been hired by Queen Mab, ruler of the Winter Fae, to find the murderer of Ronald Reuel  the titular Summer Knight. Harry doesn't want to do this but is forced into the job by the White Council lest they revoke his title of wizard and hand him over to the Red Court vampires who still want his blood. Complicating matters further is the return of Harry's childhood romance, Elaine, who is working for the Summer fae.

    Part of what I like is it's a story built around the Fair Folk. While they're hardly unused in urban fantasy, it's rare they're as well-developed or nuanced. The Unseelie Court are mostly horrible people, inhuman predators without an ounce of humanity, but they aren't precisely evil either. Well, most of them aren't evil. The Summer Court is supposed to be the "good guys" amongst the fae but they have their dark side too. The book has a lot of cleverness about it, too, with Ronald Reul being the middle initials of J.R.R Tolkien.

    Summer Knight makes excellent use of characters and plot developments from previous books to round out the cast. This is the book I started liking Murphy in, for the first time. There's an action scene which takes place involving a Walmart that's a blast. Her character is softened a bit from previous volumes and much more likable. While I was still ill-disposed to her due to the events of Fool Moon, she did a lot to regain my respect.

    I liked the relationship between Harry and Elaine, but it's a little too compatible to be interesting. They're childhood friends, both wizards, and neither side has any real reason not to become involved. In this, I'm grateful to have Jim Butcher substitute the very real trauma which passed between them. Even if Harry and Elaine are able to reconcile over what happened years ago, the feelings they've carried from that event stick with them. I'm not a big fan of the Murphy and Harry alternative, though, and am fond of other romance candidates.

    The supporting cast is great with several characters I wish had shown up more often in the resulting series. Mab is a particularly awesome because Harry is desperate to be the Good GuyTM with a capital G. Mab, however, represent the necessity of the lesser level. She's vicious, cunning, and wicked but a person who has an important part to play in the world. Forcing Harry to work with her is a source of great drama and tension which reoccurs throughout the series.

    Summer Knight is funny, exciting, and filled with excellent world-building. It isn't my favorite of the series but it's a novel I've read on multiple occasions. That's about the highest praise I can give a book. A good book will entertain you for a day. A great one will entertain you for a week.

    This is averaging about four or five days so far.

9.5/10

Buy at Amazon.com

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Heresy Within review


    People have a very strange view of fantasy.

    The vast majority of people have a blind spot in their understanding of the genre. They think it started with mythology, moved on to King Arthur and Robin Hood, got revived with Tolkien and everything after was a product of J.R.R's vision with the exception of C.S. Lewis. Sometimes, they remember Conan. However, one of the big things George R.R. Martin gets credit for is adding grit and darkness to the genre. Stuff which was always there and Professor Tolkien removed.

    The Sword and Sorcery genre is the predecessor to Dark Fantasy. People remember Conan but it's a much wider and diverse collection of stories than one barbarian. There's Elric, Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, plus countless other heroes who are, in a word, bastards. They live in worlds where antiheroism prevails and the reward for being a noble hero is unknown because none exist. Every city is a Bronze Age Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. So what does that have to do with The Heresy Within?

    This is a return to that sort of uncompromising storytelling. Indeed, Rob J. Hayes manages to one-up the originals in terms of dark and gritty content. This isn't always for the better as the book's casual use of sexual violence as a background element, thankfully never on-camera, was a real turn-off.  Those who are squeamish about such things should be cautious because the author frequently references rape and sexual slavery as an element to establishing his world is an utter ****hole. Like George R.R. Martin's Westeros, however, depicting misogyny is not condoning it and I gradually warmed to the way heroine Jezzet Vel'urn dealt with it.

    The premise is three ruthless anti-heroes: Blademaster Jezzet, Inquisitor Thanquil Darkheart, and a bandit called the Blackthorn are all individuals struggling to survive on an unnamed demon-haunted Sword and Sorcery world. There's implications this is, like Howard's Hyboria, a "lost age" of our own world but there's knights and churches alongside God-Emperors ruling over city-states.

    Each of them has their own wants and needs: Jezzet wants to escape the vengeance of old partner-in-crime Constance (now a warlord's general), Darkheart wants to uncover a conspiracy in the Inquisition, and the Blackthorn wants to get rich. They're all ruthless and jaded with the Blackthorn (real name: Betrim) being outright evil but all three are willing to do whatever is necessary to achieve their goals. There's one shocking moment, involving a witness to a demon summoning, where I actually had to put the book down.

    I found the starkness to be refreshing after I got over my initial shock. Betrim's gang may be scumbags but they're honest scumbags. Watching the characters interact, grow, befriend and betray each other is always entertaining. The book is meaty, too, with over four hundred pages of content. You really get a sense of what this world is all about, its politics, and environments by the end. One of the hardest parts of fantasy writing is so much effort has to be devoted to world-building the characterization sometimes suffers but that's not the case here. Everyone just leaps off the page, even if it's to stab you and steal your wallet.

    The actual plot is full of twists and turns with the characters' larger goals occasionally being lost. This is not because I lost interest but because everyone has a different agenda which they try and reach by manipulating the others. The characters lie to each other, lie to themselves, and lie to the authorities. This works to the book's benefit as much of it is framed in a series of short-story-esque mini-adventures where they go from one loosely-connected caper to the next. It all comes together in the end but this is the sort of book which can be read in multiple sittings.

    I even liked the romance, which is the last thing I expected in a book like this.

    Go pick this up and let the author tell you a tale of high adventure. Just keep one hand on your purse and another on your sword at all times.

    Hehe.

10/10

Buy at Amazon.com