Friday, August 5, 2022

Dragonlance: Dragons of Deceit by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

 

    DRAGONS OF DECEIT by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman is the best Dragonlance book since THE SECOND GENERATION. Unfortunately, that's saying quite a bit since that includes DRAGONS OF A SUMMER FLAME, THE WAR OF SOULS, and THE DARK DISCIPLE books. I haven't read THE LOST CHRONICLES yet, but I feel like it is hard to capture the magic of THE DRAGONLANCE CHRONICLES and DRAGONLANCE LEGENDS.

    Anyway, Destina Rosethorn, my one complaint being her name sounds like it came from Harry Potter fanfic, is a young Solamnic Knight's daughter during the War of the Lance. Her father doesn't believe in the gods, but her mother does. After a series of unfortunate events result in Destina losing her father, castle, fiance, and self-respect, she proceeds to hatch upon a plan to use the Device of Time Journeying ot save her father from death at the High Clerist's Tower.

    Much of the book's humor derives from the fact that Destina's plan is utterly insane and incredibly ill-considered from beginning to end. It is also hypocritical as she spends a lot of the book talking about her disdain for magic and wizards while depending on a device that is unquestionably magic. The fact she chooses to involve the Graygem in this, which many book fans will know from Dragons of Summer Flame, is another layer of stupidity on a stupid sandwich.

    This isn't a complaint about the book because Destina's plan is actually somewhat endearing. We've all lost someone and would love to see them return if we had the right magic to do so. Watching her blunder forward with not one, but two of the most powerful mystical artifacts in existence is even more humorous than Tasslehoff Burrfoot ever was. Especially when she starts mucking with the timeline like if Rosencratz and Guildenstern decided to tell Hamlet's mother that her current husband murdered her late husband.

    Speaking of Tasslehoff, much of the book is about how Destina can't outwit him. Which is hard to really summarize the full meaning of that sentence. She.cannot.outwit.Tasslehoff. I love Destina and she's a wonderfully fun girl but while she may have an INT score of 12 or 13, she absolutely must have either the lowest WIS score on Krynn or is consistently rolling 1's on her Diplomacy or Sense Motive checks. Tasslehoff runs rings around her and that, honestly, is the best evidence I can think of that a character is a complete moron. 

    How bad is she at this? I mean, beyond trying to alter time and space with an object the gods can't control to save her father versus, I dunno, calling her father's ghost up to contest his will or finding Elistan or Crysania to resurrect him? Asking Astinus to confirm that her father left her keep to her rather than his evil nephew?  Straight up murdering her evil cousin and his wife? I mean, still incredibly extreme measures but a little less insane is all I'm saying. Well, Tasslehoff and she end up married. No, I'm not going to explain the circumstances.

    Dragons of Summer Flame ended the Dragonlance epic in many fan's eyes with the assumption being that Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman were attempting to wrap it all up before WOTC took it away from. Mostly because they've been trying to undo the changes to the setting for the past couple of decades. Many fans are assuming this trilogy is going to be yet another attempt and be a bit like DC's FLASHPOINT PARADOX. 

    Is Dragons of Deceit going to do that? Honestly, I don't know, but it's heavily implied that the Second Cataclysm is something everyone wants to avert. The fact Dalamar and the other High Sorcery mages see it coming as well as desire to stop it is an argument by itself. They certainly didn't know about it in the original timeline. It's also described not in "oh, humanity finally can make its own way!" terms but, "Oh my god, a world without gods and magic after we just got them back? That is monstrous!" Which, honestly, I think is how they would react so no complaints from me there.

    I love this book. I love Destina, who feels real both because and despite the fact she is the dumbest person in Krynn. We have way too many incredibly clever protagonists. Dungeons and Dragons was founded on people who see the Necronomicon and forget the magic words to use it safely. There's even a nod to this when the Hand of Vecna is sold to some gullible Black Robe mages with instructions to chop parts off themselves. Yet, I felt her pain and her very real-life problems that were relatable to all of us that struggled after the death of a loved one. Plus, some old favorites may or may not be back from the dead.

8.5/10

Available here

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Why I'm watching House of the Dragon


    To quote another story about a dysfunctional family of great influence, "Just when I think I'm out, they pull me back in!" I watched the extended Comic Con trailer for House of the Dragon, and it was like all the old feelings I'd suppressed from my days as a Game of Thrones superfan came running back. 

    We'd broken up for good reasons. Season Eight was a dark period in our relationship but let's be honest, it hadn't been good between us in a while. Things had been treading water for a while with massive changes from the books like the excision of Young Griff, Sansa being given Jeyne Poole's role as Ramsey's torture victim, and the Martells going from my favorite characters in the novels to people I just wanted annihilated. The Sparrow Plot was a meditation on the power of the people, and it was turned into another attack on religion. Tyrion lost his dark turn after murdering his father. We could be here all day.

    There's also the fact I wasn't exactly in a great place with George R.R. Martin himself. I love the song "George R.R. Martin is not your bitch." I'm a writer myself. Sometimes the creative juices don't flow or flow in different directions. I even told myself that I didn't care if he finishes the books because what he'd given us in unfinished form was worth it for the experience. I told myself this, but I was lying. I gave my wife copies of the first four books when we were dating, and we've celebrated our twelfth wedding anniversary.

    But I'm sold. The sight of the trailer combined with all the little tidbits and characters I recognized from Fire and Blood transported me back to the time when I was ready to join Daenerys in her purge of slavers as well as when the Others still had menace. However, you may want to know the reason for my insanity, so I thought I'd share.

1:] Nobody does it better

    Game of Thrones has had many imitators since it went off the air. However, none of them have managed to capture my interest the way HBO's adaptation of the books has. I was one of the people who liked the Wheel of Time by Amazon but even I wasn't blind to the flaws. The Witcher comes closest but they're fundamentally different kind of stories. No, HBO and Martin developed a ten-year relationship that was like nothing on television and still remains unique. The politics, magic, intrigue, characterization, and, yes, sexiness was all a delightful cocktail that you can only get one place.

2:] Weiss and Benioff aren't involved

    It probably seems ungrateful to those two to specifically cite their lack of involvement as a reason for why I'm willing to give another chance, but a lot of behind-the-scenes material has made me think the show's biggest flaws were their architecture. The pair sprung the idea that Game of Thrones should be five seasons and theatrically released movies (which HBO, a cable company, wasn't keen on) on their producers right as they were finishing season four. They were eager to move on and unwilling to have other people carry the show beyond them. Apparently, also immune to any form of criticism and prone to doubling down. There's a deleted scene, for example, where Arya watches a play where they simulate Sansa’s assault by Ramsay Bolton. One of the audience complains and another tells them not to watch if they're so annoyed by it.

3:] It's complete

    Fire and Blood will not be for everyone because it is a work of cryptohistory rather than novels, but George R.R. Martin has it all plotted out for us. The cast of vivid characters, sex, violence, blackmail, bastards, and dragons is all there. While I hate to say I'm utterly spoiled, I kind of am and know how this tragedy is going to play out the same way I would if I went to see Hamlet or Revenge of the Sith again. For better or worse, I know how the story is going to go and will be giggling like the Red Wedding when my wife speculates on the civil war she's predicting between Daemon and his niece Rhaenyra.

4:] The cast looks incredible

    It's not Doctor Who that I'm looking to for Matt Smith's performance but his role as Prince Phillip in The Crown, but I think he'll bring a massive amount of talent to the role. The fact we're going to be seeing young actors in the role of Rhaenyra and Alicent before skipping ahead a couple of decades also tells me that they're going to get all the nuances of this. Emma D'arcy is bringing a lot of chops and I'm even happy to see Olivia Cooke escape from Ready Player One. But when I say looks incredible, I mean the LOOK is incredible. Everything I've seen of their characters is fantastic and we're a long way from the t-shirts of Shanarra.

5:] Dragons

    I'm a simple man. I see a dragon, I smile. I hear the show is going to have sixteen characterized dragons and dragon fights, I am sold. Will I ever see a live action Dragonlance in my lifetime? Probably not. Will I take this instead? Yes.

    Would I watch anything BUT this? None of the other spin offs appeal to me because they're not pure Martin. Snow? I'll watch it but not with the same enthusiasm? Dunk and Egg? OH, HELL YES. But this? This will be my jam, I'm sure.

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons and Dragons by Ben Riggs


    Dungeons and Dragons and its parent company in the Eighties, TSR, had a fascinating story that has mostly been shared around by gamers at cons as well as word of mouth for decades. This isn't the story of the Satanic Panic that both vilified gamers and drove sales through the roof. No, this is a story of the internal politicking that led to the rise of TSR as a corporate entity under Gary Gygax, his loss of the company to Lorraine Williams, and how it was ultimately acquired by Wizards of the Coast before becoming yet another corporate culture.

    Generally, popular wisdom holds Gary Gygax as blameless and portrays Lorraine Williams as the villain who stole his company but Ben Riggs has a very different sort of take on things. Indeed, his portrayal of Lorraine Williams makes her every bit as endearingly quirky as the rest of TSR's creatives. Gary Gygax was a creative genius but a poor businessman according this book, spending boatloads of money on bizarre projects like trying to take a shipwreck from the bottom of a lake as well as a hard-R Dungeons and Dragons movie when they were presently marketing it to kids.

    Lorraine Williams was an excellent businesswoman, by contrast, but not as interested in the creative side of things and attempted to keep her distance in the company from employees. Which was bizarre given its tiny size and enthusiastic love of the material. She was also obsessed with the Buck Rogers IP and erroneously believed it would be a massive success. Later, she would attempt to move out of the tabletop roleplaying game business into paperback publishing because they were selling far more of those than they were of games. This, as you could imagine, didn't go over well with all of the obsessive gamers within.

    The book is full of fascinating details and, to be frank, dirt on the history of TSR as well as it's parents. There's some genuinely scandalous revelations about the people involved as well as the treatment of employees. Margaret Weis, mother of Dragonlance, made only $30,000 a year while being the best-selling author who was actually keeping the company afloat. Gary Gygax was cut out of a massive portion of his profits that he was entitled to. Random House, of all people, was cheated by TSR when the latter tried to give them a massive amount of product no one was buying (Dragonstrike) in order to get a huge check.

    The depiction of TSR in the book is a company that was populated by rabid fans working primarily for their love of the product that didn't really adjust too well to being an actual business. A lot of bizarre and insane mistakes were made but no one is a true villain. Many people were underpaid (Ed Greenwood was given about $2000 dollars for the Forgotten Realms' rights and even then only a courtesy) but everyone seemed to love what they were doing until they suddenly weren't doing it because of mismanagement. 

    Really, if anyone comes off as a hero of this, it is the most unexpected one in Peter Adkinson. He not only bought TSR despite the company was five million dollars in debt but paid off all of their individual artists, including Gygax. He also was willing to buy the company despite the fact Lorraine Williams had a personal detestation of him that seems to have originated in her belief that Wizards of the Coast was their biggest rival despite them not making tabletop RPGs. 

    The writing is crisp and humorous, often highlighting the absurdities of the situation without making much in the way of direct judgement. It is an unflattering but not condemnatory depiction of TSR and would make a great basis for a Mad Men or The Pirates of Silicon Valley-esque drama. I strongly recommend this as a easy-to-read introduction into the history of Dungeons and Dragons. If I have any issue with the book, the fact it costs fifteen dollars seems far overpriced for under three hundred pages.

Available here

Sunday, July 17, 2022

The Anarchism of the Dresden Files


    The Dresden Files justifiably gets a lot of criticism over the years (reasons vary according to individual readers). I, on the other hand, love the books and they remain one of my all-time favorite series. Their action, humor, and world-building are things I've only found a few series like and it has been a major influence on my own writing.

    However, one area I'll always give the books credit is their handling of anarchist sentiment. What? You don't think it’s an anarchist series? Allow me to disagree. The books are incredibly anti-authority, hierarchy, and systems of control. This essay will prove this by showing his relationship to the White Council, police, and how Harry uses anarchist methods to undermine both in the name of justice. It will, necessarily, also contain spoilers up to the most recent book, Battle Ground, as well.

    I hope you enjoy!

WHAT IS ANARCHISM?

    For the purposes of this essay, we'll be going with the dictionary definition of anarchism: belief in the abolition of all government and the organization of society on a voluntary, cooperative basis without recourse to force or compulsion. This isn't to say that Harry isn't going to believe in certain undying principles, very much the opposite, but these have to be compelled through willingness to follow the rules out of a desire to do so rather than through fear of force.

    It will come up repeatedly that the fear of punishment is something that flat out doesn't scare Harry and it is an attitude he encourages in his apprentices. Instead, Harry teaches his reasons for following principles like the Laws of Magic on the basis of them being good ideas. It also sets the stage for his everlasting hostility to authority and those who attempt to govern through the threat of force like the White Council and police.

HARRY AND THE WHITE COUNCIL

    The books are noir pastiches and while they moved toward high fantasy, they've never entirely shed their detective novel roots nor have they lost the unremitting hostility they have toward hierarchy. Our protagonist, Harry Dresden, begins the book as that classic staple of Les Miserable "the innocent man hunted by a rabid cop."

    In this case, Harry killed a dirty cop (his mentor, Justin, was a Warden despite being a warlock) in self-defense and has been harassed and pushed toward violence by Morgan for decades thereafter. Morgan won't just gun Harry down but wants to agitate him into giving him plausible deniability. Interestingly, enough, Harry believes passionately in the Laws of Magic and continually makes excuses for the White Council as well as their harsh methods even as he's a subject of their persecution. They even are willing to wage war on the Red Court when he starts a war on them, which buys them a lot of points with Harry.

    However, from the very beginning, the White Council's support of Harry is tepid at best and there are questions of turning him over to the Red Court for peace and Harry never improves in his opinion of their handling of the Laws of Magic's enforcement. We also slowly find out that Harry gets as much slack as he does due to nepotism. Literally, the only reason he wasn't executed was the Blackstaff was his grandfather and chose to adopt him after Justin's death.

    The corruption and arrogance of the White Council goes beyond the "few bad apples" Harry initially suspects the Black Council to be but soon become clear to be entirely the ethos of the organization and how it relates to the rest of the world. They are heavy-handed, ruthless, and dismissive of any talents not powerful enough to be full wizards to the point of doing nothing to protect them against persecution by groups like the White Court. Harry, himself, is also the only wizard to actively defend the public against supernatural threats since most of them are covered by the Unseelie Accords.

    At one point, Harry himself, becomes a Warden and the lover of their leader. This should have been a great moment for establishing the White Council's perspective as well as how Harry has been misjudged. Instead, it just further exposes Harry to the dark side of "his" supporters and after successfully stopping a Black Council agent that had been mind-controlling them all for years, they blame Morgan as well as elect another corrupt agent to their highest ranks.

    It's no wonder that by the time Harry returns from his "coma" that he's lost all cachet with the younger Wardens, who have become radicalized true believers in the White Council's "us against them" mentality and every bit as eager to believe in Harry's guilt as Morgan. Truly, a sense of how Jim views authority can be shown with the kangaroo trial of Molly Carpenter where they come within inches of killing a holy knight of God's daughter even if it would destroy dozens of lives as well as alliances.

HARRY AND THE POLICE

    Harry works with the police, which would normally disqualify him as an anarchist hero, but Butcher nicely lays the seeds for just how fragile and one-way his relationship with the Chicago PD really is. While they're willing to hire him as a consultant, he is a figure of derision and mockery even as he continually aids them against horrifying threats. No matter how many innocent lives Harry saves, the police view him as a necessary evil at best.

    Many longtime fans of the series believe I'm exaggerating because Harry's most permanent ally in the book is Lieutenant Karrin Murphy, who would right at home in a Law and Order spin-off. Surely as an honest cop, Karrin is a rebuttal that the Dresden Files are anti-authority. Indeed, it is the lengthy arc of said character that mirrors Dresden's own in reverse and helps show exactly where the series stands on its politics.

    For me, the groundwork was laid in Fool Moon rather than Storm Front. While Storm Front established Harry was a rogue hated by the White Council's chief enforcer, Fool Moon shows just how easy it is to get the police to turn on Harry. Indeed, Karrin herself shows that allying with the police necessitates turning on Harry and she even blames him for not informing her of the supernatural goings on. As we later discover, telling the police about the supernatural doesn't help matters and most of them are either in the pocket of Marcone, the Formor Court, the Red Court, the White Court, or some combination thereof.

    It's not too much of a spoiler to say Murphy's character arc is to have her attempt to follow the spirit of the law and protect the public, only to be slowly edged out of the police before being expelled entirely. By contrast, the originally seemingly decent cop, Rudolph, increases his wealth as well as influence within the CPD the more he becomes a contemptible corrupt weasel.

    Butcher's depiction of the Chicago PD is actually fairly vicious and contrasts heavily on the romanticized view presented by television or other media. Marvel comics was incredibly hesitant to have Frank Castle AKA The Punisher ever kill a cop (even a dirty one). The first one he did was actually a SHIELD agent to avoid the controversy. However, Jim Butcher has Molly Carpenter openly confessing to doing so in Ghost Story as she explains that the Chicago PD was turning a blind eye to the trafficking in children by the Formor.

    Perhaps the most blatant example of how contemptible the police in the Dresden Files is when Rudolph accidentally kills Murphy in what is the most controversial moment of the series. He isn't even attempting to do it but it happens because of poor trigger discipline, cowardice, and incompetence. His misplaced sense of priorities in a crisis paints what is arguably the most realistic example of police malfeasance I've seen in urban fantasy yet.

    The Dresden Files rarely gets into specifics regarding issues of profiling, minority abuse, and police brutality but the depiction of the police is largely one of a useless organization when not actively abetting the forces preying on the public. They have their moments, especially when the Formor turn on their allies and openly attack the city, but there's no indication the organization will change for the better. Especially as Rudolph planned to go after Harry and Murphy just hours before.

HARRY THE ANARCHIST

    All of this could just show the world is a crapsack one and that Harry isn't an anarchist, but I actually think Jim shows our protagonist using said philosophy's methods to undermine the traditional authority of his world. As early as Fool Moon with Kim Delaney and later reinforced with the death of Kirby in Turncoat, Harry realizes that keeping himself above his less powerful allies is a recipe for disaster. This actually lays the groundwork for Harry, not as a lone wolf soldier, but as the unlikely agitator and organizer of a large scale anarchist resistance.

    Harry's aid is important in helping lay the groundwork for the Paranet that protects practitioners against the supernatural forces that used to prey on them with impunity. He and Karrin recruit the Alphas, Order of the Large Cooking Pot, and others to start becoming a power block outside of traditional structures. Their alliances with individuals like Odin and Marcone are uneasy ones but show how grassroots organizations can become entangled with questionable forces in the name of larger goals.

    Harry attempts reform from within as well by helping create the Gray Council and working as a Warden among younger forces but these things are ultimately unsuccessful. The Blackstaff, his own grandfather, proves willing to murder him due to his hatred of Thomas Raith. Ramirez, his closest ally among the Wardens, turns on him as we've mentioned before. To quote Audre Lord, "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

    Ironically, it is Harry's relationship forged with the Demifae that provides one of his largest advantage. Even Harry doesn't seem to realize that by simply acting with kindness and letting them organize under his protection, he had created a vast alliance of a overlooked minority. This proves decisive in the Battle of Chicago when the White Council and Unseelie Accords prove useless along with the US military.

    Harry is a champion of the people, and his army is the people against the Man.

CONCLUSION

    The transformation of Harry into an anarchist and his fraying relationship with authority figures isn't something that happens overnight. Indeed, his relationship has many ups and downs before the final break between the White Council happens in Battle Ground. It is, coincidentally, also when his final break with the police is symbolically achieved with the death of Murphy.

    Harry is an unwilling anarchist in many ways because he wanted to work with the system and believe that the forces of order actually knew what they were doing. This despite the fact he was an innocent man persecuted for decades by hostile authority figures. However, in the end, he is forced to become a protective force for his community against not only the people outside the law like Marcone or the Red Court and Formor but also the people supposedly protecting the public from them.

    “The Council has spoken,” he said, just as tiredly, and turned to go.

    “No,” I said.

    He paused. “What?” 

    “No,” I said again, a little firmer. “The White Council has gotten to bully wizards for a long time, and they think they have the right. I say they don’t.” 

    Ramirez tilted his head. “Don’t talk yourself into something I can’t ignore, Dresden.” 

    I grimaced. “Carlos. I mean to live my life. You’ve cast me out, and you think that means I’m vulnerable. Maybe you ought to rethink that.”

Monday, July 11, 2022

Control: Ultimate Edition (2020) review


    "It will happen again in a town called Ordinary." 

    These were words spoken in reverse in the theme song of AMERICAN NIGHTMARE, the semi-official sequel to ALAN WAKE. It was meant to set up Alan Wake 2, which would take place in a town called Ordinary. Unfortunately, the disappointing sales of Alan Wake combined with other matters prevented us from ever discovering what was going to happen in Ordinary--until now.

    CONTROL is a stealth sequel to Alan Wake where you take the role of Jesse Faden, a young woman who has tracked down the mysterious Federal Bureau of Control that kidnapped her brother a decade earlier. Discovering no one at the front doors or, indeed, anywhere, she proceeds to investigate and ends up discovering the dead body of its director. Jesse picks up a mysterious gun by the corpse and unwittingly inherits leadership of the FBC. She also discovers the headquarters, called the Oldest House, is eldritch location that would give R'lyeh a run for its money.


    Unfortunately, the FBC is having the worst day in its seventy-year-history with an extradimensional noise called the Hiss possessing large numbers of the staff before turning them into aggressive zombie-like monsters that can still use guns. A handful of the employees are still alive and all of them instinctively recognize Jesse as their new leader. Jesse is both annoyed and intrigued by this since she planned to bust out her brother from these people, not save them from a parasitic noise.

    Jesse finds herself running from place to place, doing errands for her employees that are justified by the fact they're mostly terrified researchers and she not only has a magic gun but soon develops powerful telekinetic abilities by draining the artifacts the Bureau of Control keeps on lockdown. Some of them are unhelpful to her quest to free her brother while others are genuinely shocked at the idea they've been keeping someone prisoner for seventeen years.

 
    The purpose of the game is to eventually unlock all of the secret doors and passageways through the Oldest House as well as solve the mystery of the Hiss before shutting them out of this dimension. You also find out what happened to Dylan Faden right before it gets ridiculous that Jesse keeps putting it off. I have some complaints about the ending (see below) but it is, overall, a truly fantastic game.

    Gameplay-wise it's a third person shooter with psychic abilities. Jesse fights hundreds of Hiss throughout the corridors of the Oldest House. You can shoot them, throw rocks at them, levitate to do either, or dash past them. It's a surprisingly entertaining gameplay loop and serviceable enough that I barely noticed the enemy variety is pretty weak. There are some great bosses in the game like the Pacman-like Anchor, essJ, and FORMER but these really should have been part of the main story rather than sidequests. I also note the game lacks a final boss, when they had a perfectly good one already programmed with essJ or someone programmed with her powers.


    The game possesses a surprisingly versatile customization system with the option of basically activating cheat codes alongside the power to customize the difficulty along a slider. Jesse can become all but bullet-proof, unlimited energy, invincible, or one-shot kills with no judgement. It almost makes up for the absence of a New Game+ mode that I would have really appreciated given my maximized levels of powers that I had nothing to use on at the end.

    The Oldest House is an excellent example of "less is more" in terms of its graphics. The Oldest House looks like an old-style Seventies or Eighties government building with pneumatic tubes, carpeting, and green screen computers. Then things go "off" like the piping that leads to a massive nuclear power plant, sewer filled with humongous sentient clogs, and alien rock quarries in the basement that lead to alien vistas. Jesse Faden is a beautiful protagonist and while she's a bit emotionally closed off, Courtney Hope does a fantastic job with her acting.


    Control
is basically adaptation of the SCP Foundation. Those unfamiliar with that is it is an online project where people write stories about weird and inexplicable objects that are investigated by an X-Files like organization that contains them to protect the public. Control barely hides its influences with many of the materials you can pick up being similar to the reports you can see on the wiki like a rubber duck that follows you or a fridge that will kill you if you look away. It also combines elements of Twin Peaks and Remedy's other games, which I heartily approve of.

    Control's nods to Alan Wake and it's continuity also get an informal sequel in one of its two DLC that I recommend playing as essential parts of the game. We find out what Alan has been up to since the events of American Nightmare and how he possibly ties in to all the events of Control. You don't have to play Alan Wake to enjoy the game but it's an awesome game so I recommend you pick up Alan Wake Remastered after you finish it if you haven't.

    9/10

Available here

Wednesday, July 6, 2022

Horizon: Zero Dawn Complete Edition review


    HORIZON: ZERO DAWN is a game that has already been talked about extensively and has deservedly received many accolades. It's a video game with an inherently fun premise: what if you were a cute redheaded bow-wielding girl who fought robot dinosaurs? Turok: Dinosaur Hunter plus Brave. It's a pretty hard to screw up formula and one that seems like would be a can't miss. It wasn't either, I finished the game as well as its DLC after all, but it did have some flaws.

    The premise is Aloy (Ashly Burch) is an outcast of the Nora tribe due to mysterious circumstances. Raised by a fellow outcast named Rost. Aloy grows up disdainful and angry at the Nora for their treatment of her while Rost attempts to teach her to be respectful of the All-Mother as well as their traditions. Also, to fight robot dinosaurs. What is revealed fairly early is this is a post-apocalypse setting where robotic machines have taken over a vastly-changed Earth. Like the Last of Us with robots instead of mold.

 
    Aloy manages to find a loophole around her outcasting by competing in the games to join the Nora's warriors. Things proceed to go catastrophically wrong and our heroine soon finds herself on a quest to find out her origin, save the world, and avenge an attack made on her tribe. Well, as much as Aloy can really be called a Nora since she utterly despises them and finds the entirety of their traditions to be ridiculous. It's a coming of age story with lots more arrows and huge monsters to kill across a massive open-world map.

    If you want to know what Horizon: Zero Dawn is like, it's basically an Ubisoft game despite being published by Sony. There's a wide open map filled with stuff to collect, explore, and kill. The game feels a bit like a 3rd person Far Cry as you're always crafting new arrows or pouches from the things you hunt. Instead of going up radio towers, though, you find yourself climbing the top of giant long-necked robot dinosaurs and that does improve the experience. There's also only one type of gun and it is vastly less fun to use than your various kinds of arrows.


    Gameplay wise, I'd best describe Horizon: Zero Dawn as serviceable. I never disliked being Aloy, though the easiest modes are "too" easy and this is a rare game I'd say to play on normal for casuals like myself. I also feel like the game's inventory system is flawed as the barter economy means that while most things can be bought with metal shards, you also need to have the specific kind of robot part you need to get anything good. 

    Story-wise, I have to give Horizon: Zero Dawn some props for an interesting world. Ironically, I didn't actually care that much for the post-apocalypse element. Aloy must solve the "mystery" of Project: Zero Dawn and how she relates to the mysterious Doctor Elizabeth Sobek. Truth be told, I was much more interested in the setting in the present-day. I liked learning about the Nora, Carja, and Banuk peoples over finding out exactly how a bunch of idiots in our time killed everyone.


    There's some great world-building in establishing the post-apocalypse setting with its tribalistic Nora, Aztec-like Carja, and Inuit-like Banuk. Those are the cultures I enjoyed learning about and their politics was actually fascinating. Unfortunately, I do feel like Aloy herself feels a bit dissonant from these elements. She acts more like a 21st century woman rather than someone raised in a tribal environment (or at least its edge). She's a little too snarky, irreverent, and materialist to be believable.

    In conclusion, Horizon: Zero Dawn is an entertaining and enjoyable game but it doesn't feel like an awesome elevation of the genre either. The graphics are beautiful, the characters likable, and the worldbuilding is good. However, the game seems like we should be more interested in how the world was destroyed than we are. The big "revelation" about it isn't really that interesting either. It's worth a play but I'd say it's also not an amazing game either.

7.5/10

Available here

Saturday, June 25, 2022

The Evil Within 2 (2017) review

 


    THE EVIL WITHIN 2 (2017) is the sequel to, unsurprisingly, THE EVIL WITHIN (2014) and a game I picked up immediately after finishing the first game. I probably should have played the DLC for the first game before I played this but I'm not a big fan of stealth in video games and those are the primary mechanic of the original expansion. So, what did I think of The Evil Within 2? A game that was following up to a game with a lot of ups and downs? Well, it is a lot more consistent experience but not really a better one. 

    The premise is Sebastian Castellanos, protagonist of the first game, has been fired from the Krimson City police department after explaining the events of the first game. Which were, if you didn't play the game, a psychopathic Freddy Krueger wannabe named Ruvik using a wireless Matrix to plunge dozens of people into a hellish nightmare world called STEM. Sebastian has very little to live for as he also lost his little girl to a fire and his wife to what seemed like a paranoid conspiracy theory about a group called Mobius.


    Well, it turns out Mobius is real and recruit Sebastian by force to go into their new version of the Matrix, err, I mean STEM. Sebastian has a reason to cooperate, though, in that his daughter is alive and the "core" of the new machine. Mobius has created a replica of a small American town in their virtual world but, unfortunately, it has started turning into the same sort of hellscape that the Beacon Mental Hospital from the first game became. Which in gamer terms, means the townsfolk are all becoming zombies or worse.

    The biggest pros of The Evil Within 2 are that it is a much-much better designed experience in terms of gameplay. The stealth mechanics are much better, the skill system has been pruned down to a more manageable level, a crafting system has been created that functions well (especially when you're in need of ammo), and a bunch of other things that make the experience more streamlined. The combat is also a good deal easier, which isn't necessarily saying its better but it's no longer frustratingly difficult either.

    The story is also a great deal simpler and easier to understand but, unfortunately, derivative. Sebastian wants to save his daughter, and this is something that it is about as common as "save the Princess" these days. Sebastian even looks like Joel from The Last of Us now. Given I'd only recently played Resident Evil: Village, I can't say that there weren't a lot of similarities there too. On the other hand, it's a decent motive and it isn't a mistake after the overly convoluted weirdness of The Evil Within.


    I also give credit for the games' two bosses with Stefano and Father Theodore. While it seems a bit silly that two more serial killers are put into STEM after Ruvik, they were both exceptionally realized baddies. Stefano more than Theodore, who is just your standard "burn the witch" evil priest, which is strange since he doesn't appear to actually be religious. Stefano, by contrast, is an evil photographer who likes creating murder art. There's some genuinely creepy monsters that accompany him like the Obscura and I got scared a few times during his segments.

    Unfortunately, the biggest problem with the game is that aside from Stefano's sections and the optional Anima sidequests, the game just isn't nearly as creepy or frightening as the original. Beacon Hospital was more gory than scary, but it was a visual treat even when it wasn't terrifying. Union just feels like a somewhat bland middle American town with monsters and is far inferior to Beacon Mental Hospital as a setting. While a couple of the bosses are frightening, none of them match up to the original games' baddies. There's even a section of the game where you fight the bosses of the first game, and they sort of blow the rest of it away.


    The lack of Ruvik is also a big problem with the game. This is a game that doesn’t necessarily need Ruvik and I liked the psychopaths here, but they could have made much better use of him. We also never actually get a reason why the town of Union becomes the hellish nightmare-scape it does. Is it because your daughter is dead, is it because Ruvik “infected” STEM permanently, or is it because of all the other psychopaths present? The Administrator just isn’t intimidating enough to be the main baddie and I feel like they could have done more or had a big Ganon-esque reveal ay the end that Ruvik was possessing your daughter or something.

    The game also half-measures its supposed wide-open sandbox. Despite the fact the town of Union is supposedly open for exploration, it's actually cordoned off into tiny little areas that you can only progress through using "The Marrows" which amount to the backstage of the Matrix. I feel the game should have committed to either a wide-open sandbox for Sebastian to explore or just kept with the linearity of the original game, which was fine. It doesn't help you can also meet with multiple NPCs, but they keep dying before they can add much to the world-building. I feel like the Kidman/Sebastian relationship was also underdeveloped when I was actually invested in it. Given Sebastian’s (ex)wife plays a big role in the game, perhaps that is for the best. 


    In conclusion, I rate The Evil Within 2 as "fine." The gameplay is much better and the story slightly stronger but it's significantly less weird and that is a flaw when doing a survival horror game. The monsters are less horrible and unnerving than the original game too. It also feels less like a grand guignol of blood pools, viscera, and other Silent Hill-esque horror. Blood and gore do not a good story, but they are fine party decorations for a Mature-rated game. This just feels like a tamer inferior sequel but not that inferior. I still recommend playing it. Just, you know, not if you have any other games you want to play instead.

7/10