Book review: The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson

THE MISTBORN TRILOGY

Brandon Sanderson

 

After really enjoying a short story by Brandon Sanderson, “Firstborn”, I had high hopes for another set of his works, the Mistborn trilogy (comprising Book 1, Mistborn; Book 2, The Well of Ascension; and Book 3, The Hero of Ages). Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

 

At its core, the Mistborn trilogy is a Traditional Fantasy Series. While there are no elves, dwarves, or orcs, there are superpowered teenage heroes and sinister dark lords. What distinguishes it is the bunch of clever twists that Sanderson adds to the formula. As such, he is strongest as an “ideas guy”. This is visible in the way the first book overlays bits of the heist genre onto the fantasy template; the alternatives to the stock fantasy races; the magic system that’s almost RPG-like in its depth; the little and not-so-little plot twists; and more.

 

Unfortunately, Sanderson is not very good at the nuts and bolts of writing*. He is not very good at scene construction (with the exception of action scenes), he is not very good with prose, and in particular, he is not very good with dialogue, which often sounds stilted and didactic. Almost any of the speculative fiction authors I’ve read in the last few years – to name a few, Bujold, Kay, Lynch, Morgan, Abercrombie, Vinge, Powers, Martin, maybe even Erikson – could beat Sanderson at the micro level. This also hurts his characterisation – for example, I found it hard to remember which member of the heist crew was which, and I ended up skimming one important character’s chapters in book 2 because I found his conversations so inane.

 

Going book by book, the first novel is the best. The magic system is fresh, the plot is tight, and the fights are well-spaced and thrilling. The second book is the weakest by far. While it starts with an interesting premise (what happens after the superpowered teenage heroes succeed?), it suffers from an acute case of the Idiot Plot as said heroes spend the book blundering, moping about their love lives, and generally making a hash of things. The third book falls in between – while a lot better than the second, the sprawling subplots and the increasingly draggy fight scenes are a far cry from the first book.

 

Ultimately, while the first book in particular is worth a look if you do like Traditional Fantasy Series, the novels can’t do justice to the nifty ideas they contain. While there are plenty of worse speculative fiction authors, there are also plenty of better ones, both at the pulpy and at the Great Novel ends of the spectrum. And while Sanderson’s weak prose is not the sole culprit, it’s certainly a major one**.

 

You can buy Book 1, Mistborn, from Amazon here.

 

* Or at least he wasn’t at the time he wrote this series. I have heard his prose subsequently improved, but not having read any of his other novels, I cannot attest to whether this is true.

 

** As such, this trilogy would have worked much better in a visual medium. This also explains why I prefer Sanderson’s short fiction – short stories are briefer and idea-driven, which plays to his strengths.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

Anime review: Last Exile

“It’s the dawn of the Golden Age of Aviation on planet Prester, and retro-futuristic sky vehicles known as vanships dominate the horizon. Claus Valca – a flyboy born with the right stuff – and his fiery navigator Lavie are fearless racers obsessed with becoming the first sky couriers to cross the Grand Stream in a vanship. But when the high-flying duo encounters a mysterious girl named Alvis, they are thrust into the middle of an endless battle between Anatoray and Disith – two countries systematically destroying each other according to the code of chivalric warfare. Lives will be lost and legacies determined as Claus and Lavie attempt to bring peace to their world by solving the riddle of its chaotic core.”  – official DVD blurb

 

After eight years, I recently re-watched Last Exile – one of the first anime I saw, back when it originally ran in 2003. Since then, I’ve watched a lot more anime before drifting away from the medium; steampunk has become the “hot” subgenre of speculative fiction; and the show itself has a brand-new sequel. How does the original hold up?

 

From the start, Last Exile’s greatest strength is on full display: its world. Antigravity battleships soar through the skies, courier pilots scoop up message tubes marked to indicate the danger of the mission, men march to their deaths in pointless ritual combat. Dukes fill their fountains with the purest water, while those same couriers scrimp and save for water of the “third grade”. It’s a world very different to ours, a world where Han Solo would feel right at home but with the space opera traded out for steam/dieselpunk. And it’s a world both imaginative and richly brought to life.

 

Unfortunately, a cool premise and imaginative worldbuilding can only take you so far. The greatest flaw of Last Exile is that the further along you get, the less sense its plot makes. And it doesn’t help that the show is light on exposition, which is fine for worldbuilding but a real problem when it comes to plot. What was the point of that elaborate scheme? Where was X during all of that? How did those guys warp from point A to point B? Why is a certain character so stupid? Most damagingly, and repeated several times: what just happened, and why? This isn’t so much of an issue in the show’s first half, but it weighs heavily on its later half, enough to cripple my suspension of disbelief by the time the curtain fell. That said, the writers can plot satisfying individual episodes – these tend to be the ones that highlight an aspect of daily life in the skies. (As such, Last Exile would probably have worked better as an episodic show with the odd plot episode, a la Cowboy Bebop or Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.)

 

The characters aren’t especially deep, but they’re passable. Hero Claus is a generic milquetoast, but heroine Lavie has enough personality for both of them. Along the way, they encounter a familiar cast of characters: friendly rivals, a not-so-friendly stiffneck and her sweeter sidekick, a Captain Nemo/Harlock wannabe, a salt-of-the-earth mechanic crew, and more. Few of them are worth writing home about, but they all receive their fair share of endearing moments – and the supporting characters also get some of the show’s crowning heroic moments.

 

In the end, Last Exile could have been so much more, were it not for characters who are merely fair-to-middling and an overarching plot that’s downright weak. But with its fascinating world and its individually cool moments, the show is still well worth a look for a speculative fiction fan.

 

You can buy Last Exile from Amazon here (or, if you’re in the US, just watch it on Hulu).

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

TV review: BOSS

Criminals of Tokyo, watch out! The Special Crime Countermeasures Unit, led by American-trained Inspector Osawa, is on the job! There are just a few flies in the ointment. Osawa’s superiors hate her. To form her squad, she’s been given the dregs of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. And Osawa herself was previously packed off to the US in disgrace. But don’t underestimate what outcasts can do, given the chance to prove themselves…

 

BOSS is a Japanese detective show, two genres I’m not familiar with. However, I have watched a lot of anime, and in a couple of ways, this reminds me of a live-action version of the same.

 

The first similarity is plot. Generally, each episode features a new case for the team to investigate, and to my non-genre-viewer’s eyes, these are implausible but entertaining. I doubt real police officers would use the heroes’ methods, and a couple of plot twists came out of nowhere, but it’s still a delight to watch the heroes outwit the criminal of the week. Here, the show deserves credit for avoiding a formula. In some episodes, the viewer and characters have to discover the identity of the criminal from scratch; in others, the viewer knows from the start, but the characters don’t. In some, the characters must race to prevent the criminal from striking again; in others, there’s no risk of a repeat, so the tension comes from the difficulty of obtaining hard evidence. As such, it has no problem staying fresh every episode.

 

The second similarity, and where BOSS really shines, is its characterisation and its sense of humour – this despite the grisly nature of the crimes. At heart, BOSS is the classic story about the ragtag band of misfits that ends up gelling together to save the day. Osawa is hot-tempered on the job, but also brave and devious; her crew run the gamut from excessively cheerful (young patrolman Hanagata), to apathetic (forensics technician Kimoto), to scatterbrained (washed-up Yamamura), to sullen (firearm-averse prettyboy Katagiri), to deceptively gruff (gay romantic Iwai). I doubt real police officers would be as quirky as the heroes, but they’re too endearing/funny for me to complain – and the whole point of this genre is seeing how the goofballs shape up. Watching them grow, learn to trust each other and conquer their demons over the series is the slow-burning payoff to the immediate laughs they generate.

 

Overall, BOSS might be a fluff show, but it’s a very good fluff show – the best analogy I have is an early Lois McMaster Bujold novel. You won’t ponder its hidden meaning or debate its moral nuances, but with its rollicking plot, vividly written and acted characters, a great sense of humour, and memorable background music, you’ll have too good a time to worry about such things. Recommended.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

Flower – The Verdict

One of the gameplay elements that made 2006’s Okami so special was its emphasis on healing the world. As creation goddess Amaterasu (incarnated as a wolf), smiting evildoers was only the beginning; as you restored sacred cherry blossoms, nature would spring back to life in a blaze of colour. It was beautiful, it was triumphant, and it fit the theme of the game.

 

Well, Flower is that element turned into an entire, albeit short, game. In Flower, you control the wind, as it blows a petal across the landscape. Fly up to other flowers, and they’ll blossom, releasing petals to join you – soon, your one lonely petal will have turned into a flying trail of colour, almost like a prettier Katamari Damacy. Blossom all the flowers in an area, and you’ll revitalise the world. Withered fields will spring back to life, boulders will part, new flowers will sprout for you to collect, and new areas will unlock.

 

As far as game mechanics are concerned, that is pretty much it, although certain other features of the landscape will become important as you progress*. There are no enemies, no conflict, no timer, and no fail-state. A challenging test of skill this is not; if you play games solely for that reason, then Flower is not for you. What it is, instead, is one of the most unique, prettiest, and most relaxing titles I’ve played. Text-based descriptions of gameplay mechanics can’t do justice to what makes this game work – the combination of fluid controls (tilt the controller to steer, press any button to move ahead), unique premise, and art design.  The world in bloom is a glorious sight – but that art design can also turn far more ominous, effectively changing the mood without a word being said.  That makes it all the sweeter when you do restore the world.

 

All in all, I’d recommend Flower for any gamer after a simple, unique, pleasant experience. It’s particularly suitable to play while tired or stressed. The game isn’t long, but it ought to put a smile on your face while it lasts.

 

* I’m being vague here to avoid spoilers.

 

You can buy Flower via Amazon (warning – US PSN store only).

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: A few hours.

 

What I have played: The entire game.

 

What I haven’t played: n/a

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together – The Verdict

 

This is the fifth post in my series on Tactics Ogre. Check out my earlier impressions of the game’s character profiles; four things it does better than FFT (and one it doesn’t); how I used different character classes in battle; and an unfortunate mishap later in the game.


 

Introduction


 

Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, the 2011 PSP remake of the SNES/Playstation tactical RPG, is a labour of love, and it shows wherever you look. It shows in the game’s beautiful character designs and in its soundtrack, performed by an orchestra even though players might only hear it through the tinny speakers of the PSP. It shows in the sweep of the game’s plot; in the natural sound of its mock-Shakespearean localised dialogue; in the lovingly written character profiles given to even spear carriers; and in the fluff text accompanying every bit of terrain. And it shows in features such as what is, effectively, an in-battle autosave; a perspective that can switch from top-down to isometric; and the ability to jump straight to important points in the game’s timeline during a replay instead of having to redo everything from scratch, all of which speak to thought and effort put into eliminating annoyances.

 

The gameplay

 

Most importantly, the basic in-game task, moving party members around on the grid so they can attack or use their special abilities, feels satisfying. The balance between offence and defence feels just right – blows do enough damage (generally, squishies will crumple after a few good hits, whereas heavily armoured warriors can keep fighting for longer) to keep things moving quickly and maintain tension, but not so much damage as to turn the game into an exercise in luck or frustration. Positioning matters, too: archers can shoot farther from the high ground; front-line fighters project zones of control to prevent enemies from rushing past to the weaker characters; wizards may be unable to cast spells if friendlies are in the way.

 

In between battles, you’ll choose classes and skills for your party members – in broad terms, knights tank; archers and ninja are the main damage-dealers; and mages are used for debuffs and crowd control. Archers in particular are devastating, but as not even the mightiest archer will be able to stand unsupported, it remains important to maintain a good mix of party members*.  And here, the gameplay’s main flaw reveals itself – the levelling system fails to eliminate grinding. All characters of the same class will share a level, and switching classes will change a character’s level. This works better than the traditional system found in, say, Final Fantasy Tactics, since now you only need to level a class once. Unfortunately, not only do you still need to level newly unlocked classes (of which there are quite a few) from scratch, high-level NPCs in new classes will revert back to level 1 when they join the party! By the end of the game, I was leaving even interesting-sounding new party members on the bench, because my patience for grinding had run out. And that is a frustratingly imperfect element of the system.

 

The story

 

As a storytelling experience, Tactics Ogre reaches for greatness, but doesn’t quite get there. This is not because its creators were untalented or unimaginative. Instead of  a stew of quest fantasy clichés, they attempted to give us a tale of ambition, compromise, loyalty, and love, set in a land riven by feuding pretenders – “A Game of Thrones” for the JRPG genre, if you would. The player’s choices will then drive that story down one of three branches that recombine for the game’s final act.

 

At times, this works very well. Some individual moments, in their injustice, left me shocked and appalled. In another scene, a tyrant sounds all too human, all too real, as he attempts to rationalise his misdeeds. And a  dying foe might show a hint of nobility that leaves the question of what could have been. At other times, it doesn’t. One of the two storylines I played is noticeably better than the other, which is more black-and-white and doesn’t hang together very well. Once the storylines do recombine, the plot feels rushed: key characters act on inconsistent or poorly explained motivations, some of the later twists and turns pop up out of nowhere, and good luck getting the desired outcome from one vital story decision without a FAQ. And characterisation of party members suffers as a result of the gameplay format. There are dozens of potentially recruitable characters, so they can’t be given much time in cut-scenes. (While party members do influence the ending, you can only see one character’s epilogue per game, an incomprehensible hold-over from the Playstation version and a noticeable flaw compared to Valkyria Chronicles, a game that was far inferior story-wise.) Party members do get in-battle dialogue, but consistent with other TRPGs, there’s no ability to talk to them in between battles. And this is a pity, because the one brief scene I saw where several party members hang out in town, bantering and enjoying everyday life, was done so well that I’d have loved more moments like that.

 

The verdict

 

All in all, Tactics Ogre is a very good game, and close to the borderline with greatness. Gameplay-wise, this is the highly polished epitome of turn/party-based combat,  for all it ends up too grindy as it wears on. And story-wise, while it suffers from flawed execution, it aims high enough, and gets enough right, to leave me glad that I played it. If you like turn- and party-based RPGs, and you have a PSP, I would recommend this game.

 

* I’ve seen the point made elsewhere on the internet (on a forum or by another reviewer? I can’t quite remember) that this is in contrast to Final Fantasy Tactics, where the key was mixing and matching class abilities to create unstoppable characters.

 

You can buy Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together from Amazon here.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

The basis of my review

 

Time spent with the game: My playtime clocked in at around 80 hours, though there would have been times when I’d left the game on (either on AI control, or completely idle) while I did something else.

 

What I have played: The Chaos route, most of the Law route, the good ending, the first few minutes of the postgame.

 

What I haven’t played: The last few battles of the Law route, the Neutral route, most of the postgame content.

Total War: Shogun 2 – The Verdict

This entry is part 3 of 10 in the series Total War: Shogun 2

This is the third post in my series on Shogun 2. You can find my early impressions here and my write-up of the game’s diplomacy here.

 

 

Total War: Shogun 2 is the latest entry in Creative Assembly’s grand strategy, conquer-all-before-you franchise, and its core strengths are those of the series as a whole. Play Shogun 2 for making you feel a master strategist as you build cities; develop farms and mines; raise armies and march them across a beautifully drawn map of Sengoku Japan. When those armies meet, play Shogun 2 for making you feel a natural general as your samurai flow across the battlefield with an easy click of the mouse. Play Shogun 2 for the tension as you wonder how long your beleaguered men can hold, and for the thrill of triumph as you tilt the balance with one well-timed charge.

 

But unlike its predecessors, Shogun 2 offers more than that, for this is the game where Creative Assembly applied the lessons learned from earlier missteps. Where previous Total War titles started strong but wore out their welcomes with boring late games, Shogun 2 is about planning and preparing and gathering momentum for a decisive endgame showdown. Where previous Total War titles were aptly named because diplomacy was so dysfunctional, Shogun 2 makes diplomacy not only viable, but a vital part of the preparation for that showdown. Where previous Total War titles were buggy and often crash-prone, Shogun 2 seems much more stable. Where previous Total War titles suffered from risibly inept AI, Shogun 2’s computer opponent appears more capable (though it still sends generals on suicidal cavalry charges, while failing to repair ships). Last but not least, where it was painful to keep track of a growing empire in previous Total War titles, Shogun 2 offers a far more user-friendly and better-documented experience.

 

In technical terms, then, Shogun 2 is a very good strategy game, one from which other developers could learn, and one that benefits from being built upon the foundations of previous mistakes. It even nails pacing and diplomacy, two elements that strategy games struggle to get right. The question of whether it is a great game is more subjective. As a game, Shogun 2 is so much better implemented than Empire: Total War that it makes me sad for the wasted potential in the latter, but I will still cherish how Empire brought to life a pivotal historical period and the real-world importance of seapower. Shogun 2 sheds no such light for me, but this is more a function of my own interests* rather than being any fault of the game’s. All in all, I would recommend Shogun 2 to any strategy gamer (especially one interested in the Sengoku era!) who would like to see the series’ core mechanics at their most refined.

 

*  While I am interested in Shogun 2’s subject matter, the Sengoku era in Japan, I am even more interested in Empire: Total War’s scope and subject matter: the Enlightenment, the wars of the eighteenth century and the dawn of the modern world.

 

You can buy Total War: Shogun 2 from Amazon here.

 

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

 

The basis of my review

 

 

Length of time spent with Shogun 2: Roughly 29-30 hours’ playtime (adjusted for time spent away from the keyboard).

 

What I have played: Two short campaigns (one aborted as the Oda, one won as the Shimazu), two historical battles, several custom battles, several “classic mode” multiplayer battles.

 

What I haven’t played: The avatar conquest multiplayer mode, the multiplayer campaign.

Anime review from my archives: Fate/stay night

FATE/STAY NIGHT


Long ago, three sorcerers created a plot coupon, which they dubbed the Holy Grail. It is powerful enough to grant any wish — but to claim it, one must compete against six other sorcerers, each contestant, or “Master”, summoning a mythological hero (“Servant”) to be his or her champion.  Now, in one Japanese city, the fifth such bout is about to begin, and a young man, Emiya Shirou is about to be caught up…

 

Frustration is not seeing an unredeemably bad book, or anime, or game. No, to be truly maddening, it must display some kind of potential, or promise that it could have been something great, and then throw it away. Fate/stay night exemplifies this. It has an extremely cool premise. It has a handful of excellent characters, most notably the prickly, haughty, and brilliant sorceress Rin Tohsaka and her Servant, the sarcastic Archer. It has decent music, and the most striking visual effect I have ever seen in anime (a wasteland littered with thousands of swords, gigantic gears turning in the background).

 

Unfortunately, the good characters, including all those with any depth, are soon either marginalised or outright killed off. Instead, the focus is on an infuriating main character, who goes beyond “generic milquetoast young male hero” to “idiot who prattles about being the ‘protector of justice’, and insists on rushing into every fight, even though this puts his friends in even greater danger, as they now have to work around him.” Even though he becomes slightly less annoying in the second half of the series, he would still have been enough to sink the whole show by himself. Unfortunately, he’s not the only thing wrong. His two starting female companions are just as bad: one is a servile doormat who waits on him hand and foot, the other is an annoying, shrill shrew. They, too, are eventually marginalised, but this is too little, too late.

 

It’s not just the characters that are deficient. The plotting is similarly atrocious. After the show introduces the premise to us, it settles into a routine that others have compared to Dragonball: “villain-of-the-month appears; seemingly invincible VOTM calls out the name of a visually spectacular special attack, and beats back protagonists; as all hope seems lost, protagonists counter with an even flashier deus ex machina, and defeat VOTM; protagaonists ‘relax’ in a bad romantic comedy episode, at the end of which the next VOTM appears; repeat.” Minor characters walk in and out with little rhyme or reason, beyond giving effect to the VOTM plotting, and aren’t really developed even where they are interesting enough to merit it; one turns out, with no foreshadowing, to be the ultimate villain, out to destroy the world for the sheer hell of it!

 

Even the action scenes stop becoming “cheesily entertaining” and just become stupid after a while, courtesy of the show’s reliance on deus ex machinae, shouted attack names, and overused stock footage of characters shouting and swinging their swords, followed by bright lights. You know it’s bad when you cheer and laugh every time the villain lands a blow on the hero! Finally, the Protagonist Powers manage to sabotage one of the series’ redeeming moments, by cheapening to worthlessness the sacrifice that one character makes.

 

All in all, Fate/stay night stands as an ignominious example of how not to treat a good premise: had, say, Roger Zelazny done it, this could have been a masterpiece. Instead, it is the worst series I have ever watched to completion, a poor-to-mediocre show made watchable only by the occasional brilliant moment, idea, or glimpse of a good character — and one can get those by simply reading spoilers on Wikipedia or fansites.

 

You can buy Fate/stay night on Amazon here (though I’m not sure why you’d want to).

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart

Crest of the Stars and its sequels (Banner of the Stars I – III) are some of my favourite anime of all time. Based on a series of novels (Seikai no Monshou and Seikai no Senki, by Hiroyuki Morioka), they succeed on so many levels. They tell a tale of conflict within the heart, against a backdrop that combines an epic clash of empires with an imaginative exploration of what humanity’s descendants may look like.

Continue reading “Crest of the Stars / Banner of the Stars: A space opera of the (trans)human heart”

Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale — The Verdict

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the demo of a game named Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale (please see the initial post for the game’s premise). I’ve now spent around ten hours with the demo + full game, and my verdict is, this was a great diversion, albeit with a finite shelf life.

Continue reading “Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale — The Verdict”

Book review from my archives: Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds


Barry Hughart

 

This is a fabulous novel, a plot-coupon quest fantasy done right. It takes place in ancient pseudo-China, where the protagonist must go for help after the children of his village mysteriously fall ill. Help arrives in the form of the sage Li Kao, brilliant but “with a slight flaw in his character” (read: he’s a born con man who once sold an emperor shares in a mustard mine to win a bet). Together, the two make their way across the land in search of a cure, lying, cheating, and stealing (all in a good cause), escaping from the clutches of evil warlords, and eventually, uncovering a thousand-year-old evil.

 

Continue reading “Book review from my archives: Bridge of Birds”

A book review from my archives: Declare

DECLARE
Tim Powers

The year is 1961, and the Cold War is at its peak. Andrew Hale ekes out a modest living as an academic in England, but a call from an old acquaintance triggers his abandonment of middle-aged obscurity, and his reentry into a world he abandoned when he was a young man, fresh from WW2 and the start of the Cold War: a world of dimly remembered spycraft, old lovers, and above all, a mission left incomplete…

Continue reading “A book review from my archives: Declare”