Sunday, November 22, 2020

Ghost of Tsushima (2020) review

    GHOST OF TSUSHIMA is a game I picked up in-between replaying Spider-Man (PS4) and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. It looked fantastic and I'm a huge fan of Akira Kurosawa and historical samurai anime. I'm also going to admit specific bias in the fact my college degree is in Medieval Asian history so I'm doubly in my wheelhouse here. However, if you are not a fanatical student of samurai then you may not get as much from this game as I did. Alternatively, you may get just as much or more because you're not obsessed with every off detail.
Many different kinds of armor and cosmetics.

    The premise is based around the First Mongol Invasion of Japan in 1274, specifically the titular isle of Tsushima. Historically, the samurai took advantage of the terrain and used their mastery of the bow to rain down arrows on the invading horde enough to severely deplete their ranks. This is because samurai were originally archers rather than swordsman (that came later). In this version of history, Lord Shimura is an idiot charges the Mongols head on rather than use the terrain and gets the entirety of the island's defenses wiped out in a single battle. Lord Shimura's nephew, Jin Sakai, is seemingly the only survivor and barely manages to escape with his life.

    The premise of the game is that Jin needs to become the first ninja. While the word shinobi is never used, Jin has to learn a variety of stealth tactics and sabotage skills in order to wage asymmetrical warfare on the Mongols. Jin cannot defeat the Mongols by himself but he can certainly make their invasion far more difficult. He also attempts to recruit as many allies as he can to continue resisting the invasion after the majority of their defenders are killed. This is all in hopes of eventually weakening them enough that they can be repulsed by reinforcements from the mainland. Theoretically. In practice, Jin does single-handedly murder the entirety of the Mongol invasion and drive them back by himself.

    This is pretty much about as good a set of historical facts as Assassins Creed, which is to say not at all. Tsushima island is less than three hundred miles in size and the Mongols actually managed to subdue it in a few days before getting repulsed at the next island over. The depiction of the samurai here is also extremely stupid because the ones here are obsessed with "honor" and glory as defined by fighting fair. The thing is that samurai have NEVER applied fighting fair to anyone but their fellow samurai and the greatest honor has always been winning. Even Klingons know that. So much of the game's premise is about Jin tormenting himself about teaching himself how to be sneaky.

The beautiful scenery and stylized violence is A+

   Still, even if you don't buy Jin's source of angst, the storyline is pretty excellent. An incompetent leader who Jin still loves as family has led them to ruin and now it's up to you to extirpate the Mongol horde. Technically, the Mongols should be composed of Han Chinese and Korean levies as well as Mongols but calling them all "Mongols" is forgivable given Jin is probably not going to draw technical distinctions regarding the invaders. It offers an excuse to become Medieval Batman, with more murder, and that's always an excellent gameplay style.

    The game is absolutely gorgeous. It's quite possibly the prettiest game that I have ever seen. The whole thing successfully evokes the kind of stylized Japan that shows up in many media. It's the kind of beautiful flying cherry blossom sort of natural beauty that is almost impossible to replicate. The battles are as beautiful as the scenery. I have occasionally stopped to marvel at the backdrops of video games but this was something else entirely. The score combined with the setting makes just about every scene a work of art.

    The gameplay pretty much is Assassin's Creed with sword fighting and that isn't a bad thing. I always felt that the Assassins Creed games would be good to crossover into ninja-storylines and the Mongol invasion is pretty much the perfect place to do this. You sneak around, assassinating Mongols whenever you don't just run into their bases to kill them all with your sword. You do sidequests, you collect objects, and you explore the map. 

Great drama as you approach murder zones.
   The game doesn't do anything innovative with the open world stealth combat formula save, maybe, duels where you can call out the strongest fighter of a Mongol group to kill him in an iaijutsu duiel. It's mostly the same, go to X, kill everything there, pick up Y, sort of gameplay. That doesn't mean it's bad but people expecting anything more are likely to be disappointed. I collected a bunch of crafting materials because I wanted a Straw Hat and to be able to kill slightly more efficiently with my sword. 

    The sidequests of the game include cutting through bamboo, composing haiku, tracking down foxes, and soaking in hot springs. In other words, Jin is probably the most Japanese man who ever lived. About the only way he could get more Japanese would be to take up a job as a salaryman or rice eating contests. This makes sense with the fact that this is an American game that's an homage to classic samurai cinema but is still very noticeable. Sometimes only foreigners can play all the tropes straight.

    If I had any complaints about the game, I'd say that it's a little too self-serious and Kurosawa. The samurai are all concerned about honor, honor, and honor with the time period completely inappropriate to be worrying about bushido (that didn't exist until centuries later). This is the time when the samurai were defined as, "people who kill people really good" versus "obsessive honor fanatics." That's more a Tokugawa Shogunate thing. Despite this, I had a lot of fun and you can even switch this game to "Kurosawa Mode" where it's black and white with Japanese language.


Friday, November 13, 2020

Spider-Man: Miles Morales (PS4)

     I'm a big fan of Miles Morales due to the Spider-Verse and the simple fact that he seems to be a fun character who nicely contrasts Peter. Peter was a jaded misanthrope as a teenager and outsider. Miles is a happy go-lucky kid. Peter is motivated by soul crushing guilt. Miles want to live up to his idol. Peter is the stereotypical 1960s nerd. Miles is a cool 21st century geek. Peter is so whitebread that he doesn't even have a cultural identity. Miles is biracial black and Hispanic. Yet both are heroic science heroes from New York that I love to follow the adventures of. 
The Rhino delivers a serious beatdown.

   I really loved Insomniac's Spider-Man game from last year, which I think was the second-best depiction of Spider-Man in decades. Basically, I grew up in the Eighties so the Peter Parker I was most familiar with was the adult man married to Mary Jane. As such, I tend to prefer an older Peter versus the attempts to de-age him to high school. Indeed, it was The Clone Saga followed by One More Day that put me off my favorite superhero for the better part of a a decade. 

    So, I was glad when they decided that the "teen hero" story of Spider-Man would be occupied by Miles in this spin-off game from the main title. While I'm very eager to see what happens in Spider-Man 2, I really was glad to see Miles get his own spin-off game. The one in the game is a bit of a mixture between the Spider-Verse and the comic book version but comes into his own quickly enough. This Miles lost his father to Mr. Negative in the previous game and is still suffering from both the financial as well as emotional turmoil losing a parent can do.

    The premise is that Spider-Man (Peter Parker) is leaving for Symkaria to have a working vacation with Mary Jane. Given that they're having a civil war, I'm not sure how relaxing that would be but he leaves the city to the freshly trained Miles. Miles is a little rough around the edges despite a year of training under Peter as he crashes a Osprey Police helicopter and accidentally releases the Rhino during his first mission. Miles manages to put down the supervillain by himself, though, proving that he has the potential to equal Peter.

The Tinkerer is surprisingly good.

    Much of the subsequent story deals with the sinister Roxxon Energy Corporation's attempt to build a clean energy reactor in the middle of Harlem. This being the Roxxon Corporation, there's something nasty afoot and Miles begins investigating it. He also has to fight off the Underground, a bunch of incredibly well-equipped juvenile delinquents that is led by a female version of the Tinkerer. Roxxon and the Underground are having an enemy civil war with Miles caught in the middle. No points for guessing that Miles super-genius best friend with a name suspiciously similar to the canon male Tinkerer's is wrapped up in all this.

    For the most part, this game plays very close to Insomniac's Spider-Man but has some key differences. Miles feels like he hits softer than Peter, so he's forced to rely on his Venom blast powers to make up the difference. He's also facing a gang of miniature supervillain as Roxxon's heavily armed sci-fi PMC troopers. Miles is only "lucky" enough to face ordinary gangsters a few times in the game proper. He also later develops camouflage powers and these make the stealth segments of the game much smoother than the original ones. A typical "fortress" mission is sneaking around and eliminating rooms of bad guys without being discovered versus dealing with waves of identical foes.

The game in a nutshell.
    Miles' supporting cast is well-developed with Ganke serving as his partner in crime. Well, crime-fighting. Ganke has created an app to help Spider-Man fight crime and the most unrealistic part of it is that it's not constantly being called by white women on people who look like Miles. Ooo, too topical? Well, there's also a BLM mural and it's beautiful. Rio Morales, Miles' mother, is also running for local government in order to oppose Roxxon's encroachment on Harlem. The main villain, Krieger, kind of just feels like a discount Dane Vogel. Which is a shame because Dane was a great corporate enemy. As for the Tinkerer? I really liked the build-up between her and Miles as archenemies.

    I feel like this game manages to earn its identity by focusing on the colorful nature of the environments as well as bad guys. The individual missions are more personalized and have a lot more character to them. The Underground reminds me of the Deckers baddies in Saints Row III, which feel like good opponents for Miles versus Peter. The music is also much more varied than the instrumental score of the main game. 

I love swinging around in the Spider-verse suit.
    The architecture of the game deserves a few notes as it's clear that Sony had some issues getting the rights to certain buildings. The Chrysler Building, Trump Tower (now the Rand Corporation Building), and Freedom Tower are some recognizable landmarks that don't appear in the game. Personally, I would have gone all in on using fictional substitutes when I couldn't get the rights but it is kind of weird since most of these were in the main game.

    If I had one complaint about the game, it's the length. If you do all of the side content, it'll be about twenty hours, which is about right but you can breeze right through the main story without difficulty. While I didn't expect this to be as long as the original game, I could have played a full price game without difficulty. Add some more supervillains as well as ordinary crooks to go along with Miles' supertech enemies and this would have been golden. As is, this is a very good but somewhat less filling game than it could have been.


Saturday, November 7, 2020

My reaction to the reign of President Omega

Weirdly, I feel like singing the theme from Star Trek: Enterprise. No, seriously.

It's been a long road
Getting from there to here
It's been a long time
But my time is finally near

I will see my dream come alive at last
I will touch the sky
And they're not gonna hold me down no more
No they're not gonna change my mind
No they're not gonna hold me down

Cause I've got faith of the heart
I'm going where my heart will take me
I've got faith to believe
I can do anything
I've got strength of the soul
And no one's gonna bend or break me
I can reach any star
I've got faith
I've got faith
Faith of the heart

    The election of Donald Trump was something I was not necessarily overly worried about. I voted against him after voting for Bernie then Hillary but I figured that he was mostly a gross jerkass but wouldn't be able to do much. I underestimated not just what he'd do in office but also the depths of what the man had done in the past. Mafia ties, money laundering for dictators, cheating workers, rape allegations, and other serious crimes. The media had treated Donald J. Trump as a buffoon and he should have been treated as a criminal.

    It was even stranger because both my parents reversed longstanding opinions of the man in order to vote for him. I mean personal opinions of the man that just weirded me the hell out. My father had recommended against letting Donald Trump build a golf course in Lexington, Ky due to his history of cheating his partners. My mother was a friend of Marla Maples and knew of the domestic abuse as well as cruelty the man displayed to his closest family. In that way, maybe I too was suffering amnesia because I should have been scared from the beginning. Now I'm left knowing that one of the last things my father ever did while alive was voted for that man.

One of the books that helped me get through the crisis.
    Donald J. Trump immediately started doing things that not only offended me from a moral standpoint but endangered the people that I cared about in my real life. My wife is disabled with fibromyalgia and needed the help of the ACA in order to make sure that she wasn't rendered destitute for treatment. Twice she's had to have serious surgery for broken legs that didn't recover remotely as well as they should have. Getting insurance for these and other preexisting conditions was impossible without government aid.

    It wasn't just my wife that his hostility to the ACA threatened either as I knew other friends and loved ones who couldn't survive without it. I'd been blessed growing up with decent health care and insurance but I knew lots of other people who simply could not afford it. That was in addition to Donald's attack on the rights of trans Americans and other highly vulnerable people. The fact so many evangelicals rallied around him as he stood for nothing but attacking immigrants, Muslims, LGBT, and others made me sick. It was not the Christianity I'd been raised to believe in and seemed like a mass insanity. Yet, none of the people I knew seemed to care about anything he did until he was putting children in cages. Even then, it was often blamed on Obama who didn't have a blanket separation policy.

    If you think I'm exaggerating, it gets weirder because I was there on 4chan when Qanon was created. I had mostly left that site since I was always more interested in gaming than racism but I knew when people started the internet game about "Q." For those unfamiliar with the particulars, he was a fake spy that would give puzzles like the fucking Riddler that people would decipher while indicating Donald Trump was waging a secret war against the pedophile Illuminati. It's fake, obviously, and was always meant to obviously be fake. It's about as believable as the Slenderman and every bit as obvious. Yet, increasingly, people actually came to believe in the nonsense. I'm talking about millions of people who were terrified of internet fanfiction.

I recommend reading this article if you want to know how people monetized it too. 

    I did my best to ignore the increasing craziness of the country but it influenced both my mental health as well as my writing. Gary in the Supervillainy Saga gradually moved from being my celebration of Spider-Man, Batman, and the Dresden Files to being something more overtly political. He became an anarchist and vent for a lot of my distaste for how the country was going. The United States of Monsters dealt strongly with the racism and poverty as well as general hostility the world seemed to feel. Even Agent G, which is about as cyborg assassin, suddenly became about corporate manipulation of the masses via scapegoats. 

"It's not real! It's a message board game!"

    The issue was doubly frustrating because I live in Kentucky, where it honestly feels like any vote I make is going to be utterly worthless since it is the state of Mitch McConnell. That proved to not be the case when we kicked out Governor Bevin, a man who literally stole money from teacher's pensions and tried to exacerbate the opioid crisis for financial gain. He also pardoned a few pedophiles and murderers on the way out. Mitch McConnell obstructed every bit of legislation that came out of the Blue Wave of 2018 while also protected Trump from the consequences of his actions. I never thought Trump would be removed via impeachment but I'd hoped it would wake up people to just what a bad dude he was.

    I sought refuge in media to try to help things make more sense. Really, not nearly enough of it seemed angry about what was going on. I became a fan of Trevor Noah and John Oliver. I started watching The Good Fight on CBS All Access, which was the only show that seemed furious about the things happening around us. I also enjoyed Remember Bowling Green by David Niall Wilson and Patricia Macomber. That's kind of a beautiful Discworld/Doctor Who-esque story that expressed just a bit of the frustration I was feeling. I wished it had a sequel and recommend people pick it up. You can check it out here if it intrigues you.

    The sheer bizarrity was the more depressed and uncertain I felt about my future, the more Donald's popularity seemed to go up. There were plenty of people who went from supporting Donald to thinking of him in messianic terms that confused the hell out of me. This included some people actually faking miracles (a greater blasphemy I can't think of) in order to make Donald Trump look better. All of this happened before the coronavirus pandemic too.

    I actually didn't expect to hold the coronavirus pandemic against the President. After all, a plague is something you can only prepare for, not prevent. Yet, the bizarre and disturbing stories coming out of the White House shook me to the core. Insane tales of stealing supplies from Blue states for Red states, bidding wars, throwing out pandemic plans, hostility to testing, and seemingly irritated with attempts to actually fight it. I caught the coronavirus in March and suffered through it but what struck me as insane was how easy this would have been to contain with the right measures or at least reduce the worst effects of.

    I never hated the people who voted for Donald. Mind you, it took reading Mary Trump's book for my mother to change her opinion on him despite voting for Obama in the previous election. However, it felt like they were living in a separate reality from the rest of us. He didn't seem dangerous to them and often seemed just quirky rather than scary. He was an exaggerated jerkass billionaire game show host and Pizza Hut guy versus the guy who used to have goons kick out people from their homes so he could tear them down like Daredevil's Kingpin (and that's the legal stuff). Not the guy who admitted, under oath, that he robbed his own children's and veteran's charities to fund his campaign. We were on two different worlds (seperate ways--Journey).

    The election itself was one that I was terrified about. I hadn't wanted to vote for Biden. I'd supported Elizabeth Warren, Bernie, and even Harris over Biden. Yet, you go to war with the army you had. I was hoping for a Blue Wave but it ended up being more a splash. For 70 million Americans, everything that happened wasn't a reason to kick out Donald J. Trump. I couldn't sleep or eat much during the entirety of the four days of the election. I checked for updates constantly and was terrified the Supreme Court would side with him in throwing out mail-in ballots. Yet, now, the whole thing is apparently over. Donald's allies abandoned him and this whole nightmare ends with not a bang but a whimper.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

Book Announcements for October 2020

Hey folks,

I'm very pleased to say that we've got a lot of news for fans of my writing. I want to thank all my wonderful fans for their support in making this a productive year for me despite the fact, well, it's been a real pear of a year for just about everyone and everything.

Some of this information will be new to you and others will be a retread but as November approaches, I figure it'd be good to give a year update. 


Progress on my current books is going well and I'm pleased to say that I have three currently in the works. So much so that I have already commissioned their cover art (see below for which books are almost done). 

 All of them are close to being finished and I hope I can get the manuscripts done by the end of the year. Furthermore, I hope to have them released or close to being released in both ebook, paperback, and audiobook format. It's been a rough year and I regret not doing two Supervillainy Saga books but hopefully this will make up for the losses.

Cover Art for Upcoming Books 

A NIGHTMARE ON ELK STREET (Bright Falls Mysteries Book #3): The Bright Falls Mysteries remains one of my all time favorite creations and it is with both excitement as well as a heavy heart that I post the cover for the final in the trilogy. Jane Doe is hired by Lucien Lyons to serve as security on his low-budget horror movies using real shifters and witches. Unfortunately, this is after someone has started making threats against the actresses. Is it a publicity stunt gone wrong or the return of an evil that Jane thought she'd put away? Why won't Lucien shut down the production?

 The Bright Falls Mysteries

THE HORROR OF SUPERVILLAINY (Supervillainy Saga book #7): Gary Karkofsky is back! Having decided to make the jump from supervillain to superhero, he soon finds himself bored out of his mind in the now mostly crime-free Falconcrest City. Thankfully (?), he soon finds himself on a quest to rescue the President's daughter from a bunch of vampires in Nightmare Swamp! But what does a crooked mutant sheriff, a summer camp of superpowered women, and the merging of universes have to do with Dracula! Find out inside Gary's latest adventure that homages classic DC and Marvel horror comics.

The Supervillainy Saga 

BRIGHTEYES (Morgan Detective Agency #2): The sequel to Brightblade and the next chapter of Ashley Morgan's badass adventures. Having recovered her wounded sister, Anna, Ashley is informed that her family is now under attack by mysterious forces in the Men in Black. Worse, there's a massive slave auction of former Solomon Academy spy school graduates planned in New Detroit. The vampire nation plans to turn all of them into tools for spreaidng their power. Despite having a vampire for a brother, Ashley thinks this is a fate worse than death and plans to stop them.

Morgan Detective Agency

Now Available on Audiobook 


PSYCHO KILLERS IN LOVE: I'm pleased to say that Psycho Killers in Love is now available on audiobook. The earliest volume so far in the United States of Monsters series. William England is the son of Billy the Immortal, a holiday-themed slasher who terrified teenagers throughout the Eighties. Billy was eventually slain by a slasher-hunter called an Artemis and William was freed. Unfortunately, he and his sister Carrie were promptly locked up in an asylum for their father's crimes. Escaping, they find themselves meeting one of those slasher-hunting Artemises. William is immediately smitten but can his desire not to be a slasher overcome both their instincts to destroy the other? Narrated by Jefferey Kafer.

Available here

AGENT G: ASSASSIN (Agent G #3): The exciting conclusion to the AGENT G trilogy! Case, formerly known as G, has successfully escaped from his employers but a natural disaster plunged the world into a decade of chaos. What has emerged is a megacorp-dominated hellhole straight out of Gibson. I really have loved writing Case's adventures from beginning to end. Will he achieve the peace he's always sought or will it end in a tragedy? Probably in a rain soaked cyberpunk alley? Narrated by Jeffrey Kafer. 

Available here 

ELDRTICH OPS (Red Room #2): The Red Room series is where my writing career began and it is also the first of my trilogies to be completed. Derek Hawthorne was my attempt to combine James Bond and Harry Dresden, with him coming out as his own character in return. This book is the second of his adventures where he finds himself in the impossible situation of investigating the House to see if their leadership are planning a genocide of the world's vampires. This is problematic because he is the world's most famous living vampire hunter. Yet, his ex-partner, Christopher, begs him to protect those who aren't completely evil. Besides, Derek owes him for a secret that would get him killed by his own side. Narrated by Jeffrey Kafer.

Available here


An awesome interview with me on Bookworm Blues
An interview with me on Booknest.EU

Book Sales

Brightblade (Morgan Detective Agency #1): Is available on Kindle for 99c until December 5th!

Esoterrorism (Red Room #1): Is available on Kindle for 99c until December 5th!

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Werewolf: The Apocalypse: Heart of the Forest review

    WEREWOLF: THE APOCALYPSE: HEART OF THE FOREST is the latest visual novel from the Paradox Interactive produced World of Darkness. It is based on the old White Wolf World of Darkness where vampires, werewolves, demons, and hunters all fight a covert war behind the scenes of our modern Earth. I was never a huge Werewolf: The Apocalypse fan like I was Vampire: The Masquerade or Changeling: The Dreaming but I did run a few campaigns of it. Honestly, I was always more of a Fera fan than the Garou Nation. You can guess this by the fact that I wrote I was a Teenage Weredeer.

    For those unfamiliar with W:TA, basically it has the idea that werewolves are the warriors of Gaia. The spirit of the Earth has granted them the power to shapeshift in order to stop those destroying the world. Garou history is a never-ending war against monsters created by the spirit of entropy, the Wyrm, and the spirit of order, called the Weaver. The Garou, unfortunately, failed in their duty by being a mixture of violent jerks as well as selfish marauders. It doesn't help that claws and teeth are not great weapons against Enron versus spreadsheets and journalism.

The art in this game is fantastic.
    The premise is that Maia is a Polish American college student who has decided to journey to the Białowieża Forest along the Belarus/Polish border in order to investigate her family heritage. It is one of the last remaining primeval forests in the world and a real life natural wonder. So, obviously, people want to cut it all down. Maia is having dreams of the forest speaking to her and these include many cryptic clues to the idea that more is going on than a controversial logging project. It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that, yes, Maia is a werewolf about to go through her first change.

    Honestly, Heart of the Forest is unlike any other werewolf game that I've played (tabletop or otherwise) as it goes out of its way to offer alternatives to violence. The opportunity for Maia to give into her rage and go on a killing spree is ever present but it felt wrong for her character. I was compelled to always try to seek peaceful solutions, defy my rage, and work toward mutual understanding. Understandably, I ended up becoming a Ragabash Child of Gaia but came within inches of being a Philodox instead. For those unfamiliar with W:TA that means that I'm a funny clever peaceful wolf rather than a grr-argh meanie wolf.

The Spirit World is beautifully described.
    For those unfamiliar with W:TA that means that I'm a funny clever peaceful wolf rather than a grr-argh meanie wolf. The game is still recognizably Werewolf: The Apocalypse but the violence is presented as far less justified and possibly counter-productive to the idea of saving the planet. There is no Pentex, or if it's there then it is far from the armies of Formori and Black Spiral Dancer-filled First Teams, and everyone around you is either a normal human being or a Garou. This makes the very interesting dichotomy of you being a terrifying barbarian warrior among ordinary people just trying to live their lives.

    Part of this may be the changing nature of the times. When W:TA first came out in 1992, environmental issues were certainly becoming pressing but the sense of urgency brought about by global warming wasn't the same level it is now. Also, protests being sabotaged by outside actors or slandered as violent wasn't quite as well known a tactic as today. When one of the werewolves thinks they should just kill every one of the loggers and sabotage their equipment, the mature modern player is likely to have a very different reaction today than perhaps when they were a teenage edgelord in the Nineties. Or maybe that's just me.

Exploration is simple but well-done.
    Indeed, the more nuanced approach to violence may put off some W:TA fans due to the fact that it gives a rather nasty portrayal of the Get of Fenris. Multiple Garou tribes are represented in the game but the Get of Fenris are dismissed as werewolf fascists. Much is made of the fact that they fought on the side of the Russians and Nazis during WW2 as well (albeit Maia's grandfather is a former Polish freedom fighter Get). You have no opportunity to join them and every werewolf you speak to talks about the Get with a mixture of contempt and disgust.

    This makes me wonder about the future of the Get because they've always been a group that has struggled against bad-faith actor fans. In 2003, I had a conversation with a developer of W:TA, who admitted that they had a Neo-Nazi problem in the fandom. Despite being a pro-indigenous, pro-racial harmony, punkish game, there were plenty of white supremacists who loved the game and almost purely played the hyper-masculine Viking-esque Get. It even led to the Swords of Heimdall, a in-universe villain faction, being executed because they were an explicitly white supremacist group.

    This is a tremendous game and I encourage everyone who enjoys the WOD to try out this visual novel. The story is a bit on the short side and I feel like we were only getting into Maia's story when it abruptly came to an end. I also feel like it perhaps worked a little hard on establishing its human characters since Anya and other normal characters felt more "real" than the actual werewolves. Still, I appreciated what seems to be a preview of W5 and if this is going to be the "new" W:TA then it seems like it is in good hands.


Monday, October 19, 2020

Mafia: Definitive Edition review

    Mafia: City of Lost Heaven was one of the stand-out Grand Theft Auto clones when seemingly every game in the business was trying to imitate the success of GTA III. The idea behind this game was that you would play a mobster, Tommy Angelo, and the game would rid itself of all the more absurd elements. Instead of a hyper-exaggerated version of real life, it would be fairly true to the cinematic mafia movies of Goodfellas, The Godfather, and American Gangster. It would attempt to tell a serious story and see if that was possible with the game mechanics of 2002. It worked very well and was fondly remembered even if some of its choices were a little strange like the cops picking you up for speeding.

    The premise is Tommy Angelo is an Italian can driver who is unwittingly pulled into the mob war between Don Morello and Don Salieri in the city of Lost Heaven. Tommy finds himself getting recruited as a driver and later an enforcer for the underdogs in the fight because the money is too good to pass up in the Great Depression. He's also interested in the daughter of the bartender of Salieri's headquarters, Sarah. What follows is an eight year storyline that has Tommy gradually prove himself as a soldier to the Italian mob while also wear away at both his morals as well as friendships. What he decides to do is foreshadowed by the framing device of telling a cop his story but ultimately revealed only at the end.

Beautiful world and eye-catching graphics.

   The Definitive Edition updates the original story of Mafia: City of Lost Heaven with the same technology used to create Mafia III. Tommy Angelo, Don Salieri, Paulie, and others are all recast with new models that reflect their actors' faces. There's also some additional content to make the game's characters more fleshed out, particularly Sarah's role as Tommy's love interest. 

   The game also adds numerous ways of adjusting your playthrough like how the driving is done and even providing the option to skip the lengthy but sometimes boring driving segments. The gunplay and fighting is also much more cinematic but you can choose to play like the original game where it is all too easy to be killed by one shot.

    The primary appeal of the game is the storytelling and atmosphere. Tommy is a likable protagonist but you can tell he's making the wrong decision getting involved with Salieri's mob. The little tweaks to the game's story emphasize they're charming but scummy people, like when Paulie threatens to beat their stuttering mechanic for comparing himself to him. Tommy has lines he won't cross but these are increasingly more flexible and the ones he won't get him in huge trouble with his faux affably evil boss. 

The plotline is a decently written gangster tale.

    If you've played Mafia II or Mafia III, this updated game is very similar to both, but improves on them in most ways. Still, this is a game that doesn't actually need the free roam mode that it comes equipped with. You'll almost certainly just play the game from mission to mission with a minimum of driving around for fun. The city is beautiful and I recommend driving through many missions but outside of it? No. The collectibles are nice but nothing that's really necessary. There are no sidequests either.

    Gameplay wise, the game consists of shooting, driving, and stealth sections. There's a few brawling bits too but none of this is particularly deep. It's serviceable, though, and that's all that really matters. The game is not free of bugs, however, and I remember when I waited for almost twenty minutes for a car to be destroyed by the beating I was giving it with a bat before I realized that I had a bug that prevented me from using a molotov cocktail on it. Still, aside from that, nothing was game breaking.

Gameplay is familiar but solid.

    The 1930s atmosphere of the game is well-done with Lost Heaven feeling like a mostly optimistic and pleasant place to live, if you're a gangster at least. There's hints of the Great Depression and Prohibition going around but very little of the misery. The few times it does intrude like when Sarah is doing her charity, it is a nice reminder of the historical authenticity. Tommy is a man with power and respect but that doesn't mean that anyone around him has any. The racism and sexism in the game is toned down for the period but exists in enough amounts to make it feel like the actual period.

    In conclusion, I think Mafia: Definitive Edition is probably the best of the three Mafia games and definitely manages to avoid the missteps of the others. Tommy Angelo's journey has a lot more emotional punch than Vito's or Lincoln Clay's, even though I liked both of them. It also ends on a great moment that has stuck with gamers for close to two decades. I should probably not give it a perfect score given the bugs and simplicity of gameplay but I'm an overly generous reviewer.


Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Ten Real-Life Inspired Chronicles for Kindred in 2020

V5 Chronicle Tips

2. Ten Tips to Running the Second Inquisition in V5
3. Ten Tips to Running the Sabbat in V5
4. Ten Chronicles for Sabbat PCs in V5
5. Ten Tips to Running the Camarilla in V5
6. Ten Tips to Running the Thin-Bloods in V5
7. Ten Tips to Running the Tremere in V5
8. Ten Real Life-Inspired Chronicles for V5

    The year 2020 has been a bad one for a lot of people across the globe. It has utterly upended the lives of the majority of the populace, claimed far too many lives, caused international outrage over police brutality, undermined confidence in institutions, and also led to massive weight gain due to my new diet of junk food. It is a year that very few people would want to roleplay through.

    However, roleplaying games are an outlet for a lot of us. We do the things we would never do and be the people we could never be. It is also an effective stress reliever for those who need to vent their anger or darker side on fictional characters that catch our ire. Vampire: The Masquerade has certainly been a comfort to me during the past year and I admit to having let loose my inner Sabbat a few times. I've also had my characters play saintly heroic vamps more than I've ever done before.

    Having experienced firsthand Covid-19 and worried for relatives who have it, this list is not meant to undermine or diminish the real-life suffering that it has brought about. It also doesn't attempt to trivialize any of the events that have marked a real pear of a year. Instead, if your players are comfortable with it, it is a list of adventure hooks for people who want to possibly explore some of the ramifications of real-life events in-game.

    If your players don't want to get reality in their game or it hits too close to home, don't feel bad. Throughout the year, the last thing I wanted was to get reminders of how bad things had gotten or real-life suffering I could nothing about in my undead power fantasy. However, as it approaches its end, I've been curious about exploring how some of my player characters would have dealt with the past year's events.

    Here's a list of ten adventure hooks and ideas that Storytellers might be interested in drawing from for their Vampire: The Masquerade chronicles.

1. Feuding over Domain

    Vampires are social predators and their traditional feeding grounds are bars, nightclubs, strip clubs, brothels, and other anonymous gathering places. It should go without saying how badly a lot of these places were hit by quarantine. Many vampires who once had prime feeding territory find themselves not only bereft of business but also lacking a place to hunt safely. Undead with less traditional hunting places like gas stations, rest stops, essential businesses, hospitals, hospices, retirement communities, and apartment buildings will find their value increasing considerably. Player characters who previously might have had "worthless" territory may soon find themselves overwhelmed with poachers or those determined to seize it from them.

2. Breaking and Biting

    One of the obvious solutions to the problem of feeding is for vampires to simply go after their food directly in their homes. Unfortunately, this has the potential to go catastrophically wrong if you aren't up on your Security or Stealth skills. Those with Obfuscate will have a much easier time carrying it out but even they might not be well-versed in the finer habit of getting into a home without alerting the residents. Player characters may soon find out that their home city is deluged with a sudden spike in feedings gone wrong, Masquerade violations, or accidental murders. Hard choices may have to be made whether to help cover up these Dracula-esque assaults or deal with the clumsy vampires unused to having prey that resists.

3. Mad Science and Magic Fixes Everything

    The dangers of Covid-19 may result in Banu Haqim, Tremere, Tzimisce, and scientifically minded Kindred seeking a supernatural solution to their problem. Experiments in creating animal blood that can nourish lower generation Kindred, cloned blood, or causing test subjects to produce far more excessive amounts of vitae are all valid experiments for the sufficiently determined Kindred. Animalism may become a Discipline many Kindred wish to learn from Gangrel and Nosferatu to make the blood of lesser beings more palatable. Others might seek out the legendary Children of Osiris and see if the mythical power of Bardo holds the key to survival.

    Alternatively, Kindred may actively seek to cure Covid-19 for their own selfish desires. Perhaps the slightest bit of vitae is enough to strengthen the immune system to drive out the disease. Others may throw large amounts of resources into a fool's errand to cure the disease rapidly with a mix of the scientific and supernatural. Players may find "scientific trials" are actually a decent cover for extracting blood for Baggers as well.

4. Enough is Enough

    An act of police brutality in the player character's home city results in massive protests and demands to reform the police. This proves problematic for the local Kindred because the police are particularly scummy and corrupt because of undead influence. The police have knowledge of the local vampire hangouts, criminal organizations, and quite a few murders committed by their public identities. They don't know their patrons are vampires (don't be ridiculous) but they know they're rich criminals with connections to one another.

    The crooked cops expect their patrons' aid in shutting down any public demand for change and charges against its officers. They also make the mistake of implying they have a great deal of leverage they could turn over to the FBI Special Affairs Division (or similar institution). This poses a threat to the Masquerade from both sides. Worse, the protestors have attracted the attention of a group of idealistic Anarchs who have decided to take down the corrupt police structure in the city both to strike at the Camarilla as well as a desire to "do something good" with their powers.

5. The Blood Trade

    Blood is more expensive than wine. The shortage of blood is something that hits a lot of Kindred hard in 2020 and those who are willing to provide it find themselves with an abundance of influence. With so many Kindred businesses destroyed, money may be more valuable than favors, though. For many Kindred, the best way to provide blood is an incredibly old institution of slavery. People who can be readily disappeared are and are sold to vampires to be fed off in safety. Less ruthless is "renting" people for the evening with door-to-door service like prostitution, except with an even higher chance of being killed by a predator. Farms like the scene in Blade 2 where brain dead subjects are kept hooked up to IVs are other possibilities as are isolated cults or dungeons. Can the PCs step in to shut their local version down? Will it end up making things worse?

6. Prince of Fools

    The player characters are roped into visiting a neighboring city's Prince or Baron to deliver a message. Almost immediately, they find the place in disarray as the city has exceptionally nasty numbers of flu deaths as well as simmering social anxiety. For once, the mortals are scarcely at fault because the ruling vampire used all of his influence to force things open and a return to "normalcy" in order to keep his failing businesses open. Dominate, Presence, ghouldom, and exceptional amounts of cash have been expended to cover up the disaster that is leading to the exposure of numerous Kindred herds as well as businesses to infection. The players soon find themselves involuntary "guests" as the Sheriff, police, and others refuse to let them leave. The Prince and Baron wants to make sure that they share only a rosy picture of perfection and are not easily convinced the players will.

7. The Red Conspiracy

    An Anarch has co-opted the message boards of a popular social media site to begin spreading rumors and piggy-backing on more famous conspiracy theories to create horrifying Satanic stories of blood-drinking as well as weird occultism with the Camarilla's Elders. This is a solid violation of the Masquerade and will result in at least some of their accusations leading to vampires being discovered. Unfortunately, what follows is a blood path as already unstable individuals start killing Blood Dolls, hanging Goths, and going on shooting sprees at Hot Topics. The Camarilla and Anarchs both want this conspiracy "leaker" shut down with extreme prejudice and the entire movement discredited. However, how does one discredit lunacy?

8. The Plague Bearer

    For once, Thin Bloods pose a serious threat to Kindred society. It turns out that Embracing a Thin Blood with Covid-19 can result in them rising from the dead with the virus still in their system. Worse, it's a particularly virulent form that has an even higher fatality rate than the original. The only reason it hasn't spread farther is it kills faster. The CDC has a very large interest in the sudden deaths and apparent mutation of the virus. The PCs need to track down this plague bearer and cure or destroy them. It doesn't help the Thin Blood has passed his condition onto other members of their lineage.

9. Alternative Facts

    All Kindred are liars, but some liars are better than others. The player characters run into this when a disaster strikes close to home with the death of several Kindred and perhaps a mortal Touchstone. The player characters have a vested interest in finding out what happened but every single witness has a different story, all of them mutually contradictory, with even those who know the truth actively denying even the most basic of details happened. Who is covering up what? Who is just lying out of habit? Does the truth even matter when everyone agrees what happened didn't?

10. The Bail Out

    The economic devastation of the pandemic has seriously compromised the Camarilla. To prove their continued relevance, the Camarilla's leadership arranges for a federal bailout to all of their businesses regardless of whether any of them have any essential status or need [Note: Sadly, this is just flat out true]. This includes several businesses that exist only on paper but will receive tens of millions of dollars in Federal funds. The player characters catch wind of this and the fact that at least some Second Inquisition forces are also investigating it. They can attempt to stop the Inquisitors, sabotage the bailout to hurt the Camarilla, or divert the massive amounts of funds to themselves.

An additional series of ten minor adventure hooks too:

1. The player characters witness the police chase down and murder a man. They have the potential to intervene and save the man's life or deal with the stains. The irony being the police may attempt to intimidate them if they think they're involved or outright murder them.

2. An associate of theirs is dying of Covid-19 and is on a ventilator without much chance of him making it through. Embracing him would be out of the question but his or her spouse knows enough, too much in fact, that they want to have the player make their loved one a ghoul. This comes with its own responsibilities.

3. A particularly scummy vampire is using the Covid-19 crisis to kill as many humans as they like, knowing it will be attributed to the virus. They're rapidly descending to wightdom as they can't control their Hunger know that they've fully indulged it. This is apparently a somewhat common trick of vampires during influenza outbreaks of old.

4. The player characters get pulled off by a police officer who, frankly, just seems to be determined to give them a hard time. It escalates rapidly until the point the PCs are forced to defend themselves. Was this the result of an enemy sending the cop against them, prejudice, or just a bad night? It's caught on the police car's camera.

5. Covid-19 parties in the area are actually being organized by vampires to get access to the precious vitae that they would otherwise be denied. Unfortunately, these things are so irritating that a video of them is being widely distributed with a number of Kindred faces on it. How bad is this and how far will it spread on the net?

6. The player characters' or an associate of theirs has a ghoul who had a child before their bonding. Said child was in the protests and they went to pick them up, only to get arrested for "rioting" and are being railroaded by the cops. Can they get them out of the system without drawing attention from the Second Inquisition? Before they need their next fix (and they were due for their next not too far from their rest)?

7. An Elysium gathering of judges, crooked politicians, and businessmen with the Ventrue results in an outbreak of Covid-19 that kills several of them as well as leaves others disabled. At least one Elder's entire network collapses and he becomes vulnerable. The player characters can help him try to rebuild it or take advantage of the imminent Blood Hunt to get some Elder vitae. They may also help his enemies or acquire the vacated influence sphere themselves.

8. An asshole Malkavian has decided to go around town spreading misinformation, using Dementation, and rousing the crowds against the local government as well as restrictions. Buildings have been broken into, police precincts burned down, protestors run over, doctors threatened, and more. The governor is about to send in the National Guard but this is probably part of his plan to make things even worse. Why? Because it's fun.

9. The Ventrue owner of an ailing Magadon pharmaceutical subsidiary has decided to up its stock to the millions by pretending their livestock vaccine is the cure for coronavirus. He's used vitae to help cure numerous people and is risking the Masquerade to reverse his fortunes that were devastated in 2008. Unfortunately, the CDC examined it and now the city is crawling with the Second Inquisition. He's now even ready to make a deal with them to keep touting his snake oil as he'd rather be a traitor than broke.

10. A very weird situation emerges as a large number of theaters, bars, and restaurants come to the local Kindred for money to get them through the situation. They believe them more to be mobsters than vampires or at least shady businessmen but it's preferable to losing everything (or so they think). This is a great opportunity for them to expand their influence across the pandemic but potentially going to bite them in the ass if it keeps going. After all, what would a vampire do with a cruise ship?