Distant Worlds: The Verdict

This is part 3 of a series on Distant Worlds.

 

1. First impressions: the galaxy is a big place

2. How the opening moves play out – a mini-Let’s Play

3. The verdict

 

 

Note: I am playing a review copy comprising the base game plus both expansions, supplied by the publisher, Matrix Games.

 

 

4X strategy games, especially 4X space strategy games, do not think small. They challenge the player to build world- or galaxy-spanning empires, to juggle exploration, economic management, research, diplomacy, and military leadership. Yet even by these standards, Code Force’s Distant Worlds is a behemoth. Big (galaxies span hundreds of stars), complex, and breaking new ground within the genre, it could so easily have been a case of an ambitious indie developer biting off more than it could chew. From what I’ve read, it did indeed have its fair share of rough edges at launch… but as of the second expansion pack, Legends, it’s remarkable how well it works.

 

At a design level, DW’s distinctive features are:

 

  • Everything takes place in pausable real-time (which can be slowed down or sped up);

 

  • No separate tactical battles. As with a Sins of a Solar Empire or AI War, you can zoom in to watch ships fighting it out, at the same time that the rest of the galaxy goes about its business. However, there’s relatively little fine control available here – warfare in DW emphasises logistics and manoeuvre at the galactic level;

 

  • Relatively little emphasis on planetary management. There are only a bare handful of facilities to build, and they don’t unlock until a ways through the tech tree. As such, there are only a few levers to pull to influence the economy: laying down necessary infrastructure (starbases, especially with commerce centres, and refuelling posts), securing luxuries and resources (via mines and colonies), signing trade pacts with the neighbours, and building the odd wonder.

 

  • Rewarding goody huts. Finding a derelict cruiser early on is a nice treat. Finding a derelict armada, and making the necessary investment to recover it (the kind of decision that’s the crux of strategy games!), can tilt the balance of power.

 

The net effect is that the game emphasises exploration (which it does very well), warfare (at the level of the grand admiral, not the captain), and preparing for the above. As such, it’s often likened to Europa Universalis III in space… though a better analogy might be Victoria 2 or Hearts of Iron 3, because Distant Worlds’ other distinguishing feature is the ability to automate almost every aspect of your empire.

 

The AI automation is a joy to work with. It can be toggled off area by area, allowing you to concentrate on what you find the most rewarding part of the game. It smoothes out what would otherwise have been a fearsome learning curve – for instance, in my first game, I let the AI handle research and civilian construction while I learned how to play admiral. It takes care of tedious busywork, such as raising troops, fighting off pirate raiders, escorting civilian ships, or garrisoning outposts. As of Legends, it can even be given an intermediate level of autonomy: you can assign fleets an area of responsibility, either to defend or subdue, which allows you to dictate the “big picture” to the AI and let it handle the details. The AI, in short, is the assistant I wish every strategy game offered.

 

My main criticism of the game is an occasionally subpar interface. For example, I would love an easy way to route newly built ships to a given fleet, instead of having to select them one by one. I can only imagine how much of a hassle this would be on large maps, or when adding lots of smaller ships to a fleet! I’d also like to be able to see the total troop strength on a planet, not just the number of units. Still, this isn’t a deal-breaker for me.

 

Diplomacy is relatively simple, but works well. Here the various alien races’ personalities shine through: playing as the humans, I soon found out that the Space T-Rexes are much friendlier than their fearsome appearance suggests, whereas starting next to insectoids guaranteed an early war. Computer players will sue for peace if they’re losing a war or if someone jumps them on another front. They’ll even butter you up with tribute when they want something, if they fear your power, or, more benevolently, if they’re on especially good terms with you.

 

And that’s emblematic of all the cool things to discover in DW. If this game had a motto, it would be, “the dev team thinks of everything”. Time and again, Distant Worlds has enthralled me with little touches that sound trivial on paper, but that helped bring its universe to life. The light-bulb moment when I realised why my AI neighbours were showering me with gifts. The nasty shock of seeing colonies revolt when I declared war on their ethnic kin – something that should happen in games, but never does. The awe of first starting the game and seeing how big the galaxy was. The thrill of discovering a derelict space fleet, waiting for me to defeat its guardians and send in the construction ships – and the moment when, upon seeing another empire’s construction ships butt in, I wondered if it would be worth a war to keep the derelicts to myself. Perhaps the most impressive part: there’s so much of the game I still haven’t seen! I haven’t tried many of the setup options (including an entire gameplay mode), and I’ve only played the humans, leaving 20 alien races, each with certain unique victory conditions, to go.

 

All in all, Distant Worlds lives up to its promise. Vast, unique, and packed with the sense of wonder that lies at the heart of science fiction, I’d recommend it to any grand strategy fan – and to any strategy developer in search of good ideas. Thumbs way up.

 

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 the game: Roughly 30-40 hours.

 

What I have played: I’ve won two games on small maps, and walked away from many more on a variety of map sizes. Generally, I like my maps small enough to finish over an afternoon, and small enough for each individual colony or fleet to really count.

 

What I haven’t played: The “Return of the Shakturi” mode, any species other than the humans.

Book review: Fatherland, by Robert Harris

Berlin, 1964. Germany crushed Britain and Russia, won the Second World War, spent the next two decades locked in a cold war with the United States. Hitler’s 75th birthday is approaching, just in time for a new detente with the US. And German detective Xavier March has just been called in to investigate the discovery of a body in an exclusive neighbourhood, which will kick off events further-reaching than March could have dreamed…

 

I found Robert Harris’ novels about Cicero and the Roman Polanski film based on another of his books (The Ghost Writer) enjoyable but nowhere near great. But his first novel, Fatherland, showed me why the man is a bestseller.

 

Fatherland’s characters won’t win any awards for originality. Xavier March himself – middle-aged, at a career dead-end, estranged from his ex-wife and son, cynical about the Nazi Party – is straight out of central casting. The rest of the cast falls into equally familiar archetypes, from spunky journalist to Nazi brutes. And I suspect a veteran thriller reader would be able to say the same about the plot – even as a novice to the genre, a number of Fatherland’s plot developments felt awfully familiar, and I was even able to guess one of the major twists.

 

The real star is the dystopic setting. “The Nazis win WW2” is the most hackneyed of alternate histories, and I have a couple of niggles with Harris’ timeline, but none of that detracts from the book. Harris brings his setting to life with skilful detail, sometimes through March’s observations, sometimes through casual remarks, sometimes through well-written and interesting infodumps. We see March’s fellow Germans cringe from his SS uniform, we see the values of Nazi society reflected everywhere from the personals ads of March’s newspaper to the “crimes” investigated by some of his colleagues, we see how March’s devoutly Nazi son loves touring Berlin to admire Albert Speer’s post-war architecture, we hear rumours of the atrocities committed by March’s counterparts in the Gestapo. And this is more than background colour. The setting, plot and characters, stock though they might individually be, combine to create a work of chilling power.

 

It is that chill which makes Fatherland so effective. This is not a feel-good book, except in the sense that it should make you grateful that history unfolded the way it did. But even knowing its biggest reveal before I started (this has to be one of the few spoiler-free reviews of Fatherland on the internet) did nothing to diminish the bleak horror when it did unfurl. And guessing much of its ending hasn’t prevented the book’s final moments from lingering with me. A worthwhile read.

 

 You can buy Fatherland 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.

 

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

Book review: The Other Lands, by David Anthony Durham

THE OTHER LANDS

By David Anthony Durham

 

The Other Lands is the second book in the epic fantasy trilogy by David Anthony Durham that began with Acacia. And I’m glad to say it’s a far more engaging read than its predecessor, which was intelligent and original but also rather dry. The first book followed the children of the royal Akaran family, rulers of the kingdom of Acacia and hegemons of the known world, as they struggled through invasion, subjugation and finally liberation. By the time of The Other Lands, peace has descended again, but how long will it last?

 

Plotwise, The Other Lands is very obviously the Middle Book. Plenty of things happen, from palace plots to great hunts to lethal ambushes, but the net effect of these plot threads is to set the stage for Book 3. However, it is still fascinating to watch those threads unfold, and they leave off at precisely the right moment to make good cliffhangers. This all takes place in an elf-less, dwarf-less world that owes little or nothing to Tolkien or D&D. And while it’s not based on any particular period (unlike, say, Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical analogues) and eschews the ubiquitous quasi-medieval Western European setting for something more original (how many other fantasy novels feature a literal ‘opiate of the masses’?), it does have a historical flavour from its kings and queens, priests and exiled tribes.

 

Characterwise, The Other Lands gives us the usual fantasy cast of valiant warriors, depicted likeably enough, and a couple of rather more pathetic/despicable hangers-on – but also, rather more interestingly, a morally ambiguous monarch takes centre stage as one of the main characters. If you ever wondered what a less unsympathetic, more intelligent version of Cersei Lannister would be like, this is the book for you.

 

Theme deserves a special mention. At its heart, the first book was about principles versus realpolitik, and how hard it is for leaders to stick to the lofty road. It’s less prominent in the second novel, but it’s still there in the background, and the road paved with good intentions remains a key part of one character’s arc.

 

Overall, The Other Lands is a good novel, both readable and imaginative. Don’t start the Acacia series with this, but if you enjoyed the first book, then The Other Lands is well worth checking out.

 

You can buy The Other Lands 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.

Book review: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

UNDER HEAVEN

 

by Guy Gavriel Kay

 

“You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of these glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.”

 

Well, Shen Tai – hermit, son of a famous general, and the hero of Under Heaven, the novel by Guy Gavriel Kay set in a fictionalised version of Tang Dynasty China – has just been given two hundred and fifty.

 

I have mixed feelings about Under Heaven. This is a Kay novel, so at a “micro”, nuts-and-bolts level, the writing is very good. The characters are vividly drawn, from beggar to scheming minister to random foot soldier to Shen Tai himself. Even the least pleasant amongst them becomes sympathetic when we view the world through his or her eyes. The settings of the novel are distinct, from a haunted lake to the steppes to the splendours of the imperial capital. And Kay has a wonderful eye for the way the world works – the cruelty of random chance, the unfairness of history and folk memory, and on a happier note, the human capacity for kindness and loyalty and devotion.

 

My problem, rather, is with the big picture – the plot in which all those elements are wrapped. Under Heaven is not a George R R Martin or J R R Tolkien or Joe Abercrombie-style novel about Stuff Happening. It is not even a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, such as his earlier Tigana or The Lions of al-Rassan, about Stuff Happening. Rather, though Stuff Happens in the background*, Under Heaven’s plot structure is fundamentally not that of the conventional, three-act, build-to-a-climax-and-denouement novel. The story, for want of a better word, meanders through this beautifully described setting and past these beautiful people. For a lot of readers, this won’t be a problem. But it left me dissatisfied.

 

Was Under Heaven worth the money I paid, the time I sank in? Yes. I appreciated Kay’s sense for human nature and for life. I appreciated the worldbuilding, and a couple of the characters and scenes will stick in my mind. But it’s neither one of my favourite reads nor even my favourite Kay. All in all, worth a look – judging by the reception this book received, you may like it more than I – but I am glad that I waited for the paperback to take that look.

 

* If you know anything at all about Tang Dynasty history, you will be able to guess what that stuff concerns: I saw a major plot development almost right away, and all I know about the era is the name of one historical figure, his fate and that of a few of his contemporaries, and what its pottery looked like. The fact that this didn’t spoil Under Heaven for me, I think, reinforces my point about what the book isn’t about.

 

You can buy Under Heaven 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.

Book review: Cryoburn

CRYOBURN

 

Lois McMaster Bujold

 

 

Cryoburn, the latest entry in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga, is something of an odd beast. It lacks the sparkling wit and manic energy which I typically associate with the series. In exchange, it offers excellent worldbuilding as Miles ventures to the cryogenics-saturated world of Kibou-daini on an Auditorial investigation.

 

Plot-wise, this is probably one of the weakest novels in the series. Normally, in a Miles book, it is crystal clear what is at stake and what Miles must do. Not so here. The two principal plot hooks more or less resolve themselves, and the main plotline felt muddled and only tangentially connected to the other hooks.

 

And while Bujold’s prose is as easy to read as ever, unfortunately this is also one of the least funny novels in the series. There are a couple of amusing moments in Cryoburn, but nothing compares to the dinner party, the bathtub full of ice cubes, or “Miles’ mad soliloquies”.

 

Character-wise, the book is in line with the rest of the series. As is usual for Bujold, everyone is vividly drawn, from series regulars down to the supporting cast. Jin the street urchin, Suze the tough old lady, and Raven the doctor all feel distinct, though nobody particularly resonated with me.

 

However, where Cryoburn really shines is its worldbuilding. In this book, Bujold gives us one of the most interesting settings in the series: cryogenics technology made its debut quite a few novels ago, but this is where it pays off. We see some of the implications of widespread use of cryogenics: a cranky old “revive” who can’t sell his story to the press, because there is such a glut of people like him; other revives who huddle together in themed communities set up to resemble the eras of their youths; and just what happens when cryo-storage equipment and know-how become cheap enough for anyone to get their hands on. And we see its economic effects, too, in the “cryocorps”, the industry that grew up around cryogenic storage. We see glimpses of the cryocorps’ business model, the extent of their profitability, their strategies and bright ideas. In both cases, the overall impact is perfectly tuned: not enough to drown the reader in irrelevant detail, but enough to add a lot of flavor to the world, and make it clear that the author gave serious thought to these issues and did her research (in the case of the cryocorps). And Cryoburn does so good a job with the concepts introduced earlier on, I can’t wait to see the next entry in the series explore one particular innovation from this book.

 

In conclusion, Cryoburn is not the pageturner that its predecessors are, and I certainly would not recommend it as a starting point for the series: not only would a new reader not be familiar with its characters, but so much of the book’s appeal to me was that it was the payoff for concepts introduced earlier. However, that same payoff – amongst other reasons, which I’ll not describe so as to avoid spoilers! – makes Cryoburn a worthwhile read for Vorkosigan fans.

 

You can buy Cryoburn 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.

 

 

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.

Book review from my archives: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep


Vernor Vinge
The galaxy is divided into Zones, different laws of nature applying in each. The long-forgotten Earth is in one where intelligences are tightly constrained, nanotechnology breaks down rapidly, and nothing can travel faster than light. Further out, FTL travel becomes possible, and ultimately, in the Transcend, godlike Powers live, post-singularity beings as comprehensible to us as we are to goldfish. One day, a foolhardy expedition into the Transcend awakens the Blight: a long-dormant Power, actively evil and mighty enough to drive all before it. Yet all hope is not lost: the expedition’s last survivors crashland a ship with the countermeasure far away, upon a world populated by doglike creatures with pack minds and medieval technology. Now not one, but two races are on. Two factions on that planet, each the beneficiary of technology from the wrecked starship, each asisted by a child survivor of the crash, engage in a war that will determine the destiny of their world; meanwhile, a rescue team speeds to the planet, one step ahead of the Blight’s agents.

 

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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.

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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.

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Empire: Totally Better Than I Expected

I went into Empire: Total War (“Empire”) with very low expectations. I had read the horror stories about bugs and horrendous AI, heard the jokes about “Empire: Total Crap”. My interest in the game’s concept made me throw it in at a hefty discount when I bought my new PC, but even as I sat down to install it, I wondered why I had been so quixotic.

 

I was very pleasantly surprised.

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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.

 

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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…

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