Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Review Blog – Deus Ex: Mankind Divided

Agonised about how to rate this one. On the one hand it's Deus Ex! The gameplay and mechanics are still in tact and Adam (Batman) Jensen is still as awesome and droll as ever. On the other hand it has some MAJOR flaws.

For anyone who doesn't know, DE: Mankind Divided (MD) is the follow up to the hugely successful 2011 game DE: Human Revolution (HR). It's a cyberpunk stealth/action thriller which sees our protagonist, Adam Jensen, as the most badass cyborg alive. He stealths or shoots his way through the story to uncover the truth behind the big bad corporations that control the world.

So HR was an amazing game. I put it as my favourite of 2011 (even pipping the juggernaut that is Skyrim) and gave it a 4.5. It only missed out on the final 0.5 because of the infuriating and lack lustre boss fights. I mention this because it shows how big a stick MD had to live up to.

The gameplay in MD is very much the same as it was in HR and I'm all sorts of OK with this. It ain't broke so please don't go trying to fix it. There are more augments that you can unlock and a whole host of fancy new tricks that come along with them... none of which did I use. Honestly I played through the entire game with cloaking, hacking, smart vision, and both long and short range non-lethal guns. I may have to play through it again to play with the new gadgets. But this just proves my point, the gameplay is the same as the first game and that's a good thing. The DE series is, in my eyes, the best stealth-em-up game on the market today. It's fun, challenging, and varied and there are usually multiple solutions to each problem. I can't really attest to how well the run-and-gun style of gameplay holds up because that's just not how I roll. Adam Jensen is a stealthy ninja cyborg Batman and that's all there is to it.

There are choices to make and I'm not just talking about the obvious times when you have 2 missions and enough time to complete only the 1 of them. The actions you take during missions can have knock on effects. One mission had me breaking into a secure train station to steal a thing and I triggered an alarm along the way, no sooner was I back at HQ I was being chewed up by the boss for causing a ruckus. Another mission had me trying to abduct a leader of a cult in a hostile city, I navigated my way to the dood in charge without killing a single soul (actually I managed the entire game without a single death to my name) and the leader recognised this. They are small decisions you make but they matter and that gives the world a more real, lived in feel.

Onto the world and setting. I love the world DE gives us. I love the cyberpunk feel where giant corporations exist and control everything. I love the idea of gangs taking over entire sections of cities. The idea that after years of research augments (cybernetic implants) aren't just for those who have lost a limb or the like, but people purposefully get these augments installed to be more than human.
Hengsha, a city so crowded they had to build a second city on top of the first.

In MD the golden age of augments has passed and the world has moved onto a much darker time. People with augments are feared and segregated, treated as second class citizens and stripped of basic human rights. It's forced down our throats a bit but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Shit like this has actually happened in the real world, is still happening in bits of it, and sometimes we need a very graphic reminder of this to convince us that it really did/does happen and it's not OK. I mention this because I know a few people who got a bit pissed off at how often the prejudicial theme was brought front and centre, but personally I thought it was core to the very story that is being told and deserves to be there in front of us the entire time we are playing. This isn't something we should ignore or forget because history has a habit of repeating itself and that's simply not something we can allow in this case.
The visuals are still simply stunning.
The soundtrack! You might think it odd that I mention this, I don't usually, but there's a reason. HR had an amazing soundtrack, so much so I purchased it. The music was perfect for the setting and hit all the right notes. MD has a decent soundtrack by way of comparison, but it lacks the same impact. It is there, but it does not stand out.

So the one thing that MD does heads and shoulders better than HR is the boss fights... or lack thereof. In HR there were 4 boss fights and all had just 1 solution: kill the bad guy in a big shoot out. In a game that sold itself on being able to navigate it by stealth without killing (if you so choose) this was a big red cross. It sucked. MD has 1 boss fight right at the end... at least it did the way I completed it. It's still a bit of an arena fight, but you don't have to go all shooty shooty. I did not, I beat the bad guy unconscious and handed him over to the authorities like the good little pacifist I am.

Right, so how does MD earn its lack of rating. Why do I give it a 3 out of 5. Well there's 2 reasons and they're both linked. First is that the game is short. I spent about 20 hours on the main story (including many of the side quests) and that's with a bit of reloading when shit went sideways and about an hour on pause because a family member phoned me. In reality, I would say there is about 15 hours of gameplay at best. Now I didn't find and do everything, but I did a fair amount. The game is short and that's a fact, especially when compared to its predecessor.

The second reason is this. MD suffers very heavily from middle syndrome. This is a thing! In terms of a trilogy the first story (book/film/game) is usually a good scene setter and a full story all itself, the second often feels like it isn't a full story but only half a tale, setting up things for the final instalment. MD is this second story. I've heard it described as it ends on the second act and it's true, it does.

I was fighting the big boss and I took him down, knocked him unconscious and celebrated with a sip of rum. My girlfriend, who was watching, turned to me and asked if that was it. I said “No. Just beaten this bastard.”... then the credits rolled.
This dood is a lackey. He screams "lackey".
I was actually shocked because that wasn't a full story at all. The guy I'd just beaten was nothing more than a lackey for the shadowy higher ups and I knew that. Adam Jensen knew that. At this point, everyone in the story knew that. I felt cheated. I still feel a bit cheated because it only feels like half a game, half a story. There are SO MANY threads that are left completely open and unexplained. As far as a story goes it was disappointing, not because of its content, but because its lack of resolution.

One other minor gripe is that I would have liked to see a few more of the supporting cast from HR in the mix. The new cast is fine, though a bit bland, but I missed the antagonistic self-important of Pritchard. Even the pilot was a bit 1 dimensional when compared to Malik from HR.

All in all Deus Ex: Mankind Divided gets a 3 out of 5. Gameplay and setting are fantastic, but the story and size are a severe failing. What does this mean? Well I'll still pick up the 3rd game in the series, but I won't be going anywhere near the DLC.

Rob J. Hayes is the author of the acclaimed The Ties that Bind trilogy and the upcoming Best Laid Plans duology. You can find out more on his website here.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Review Blog - The Forty First Wink by James Walley

It's the Wizard of Oz meets Terry Pratchett

I'll start by saying this isn't my normal sort of book. I tend to stick to reading Fantasy with a healthy smattering of sci-fi. The Forty First Wink exists in a genre all of its own and if I had to name it I'd probably call that genre Pratchett.

The Forty First Wink follows our protagonist, Marty, as he struggles to wake up. Sounds a bit odd, but that's pretty much the long and short of it. Marty wakes up in his own dream and has to try and find a way out of it. Along for the ride he has a crew of tiny toy pirates, a flying pirate ship, his literal dream girl, and a geriatric not-so-super hero. He soon realises that not everyone in his dream wants him to wake up and chief among those arrayed against him is his own worst fear, clowns.

The story is a lot of fun, though definitely requires a fair amount of leaving your brain outside. I caught myself questioning logic a couple of a times before realising that it was a dream and therefore not entirely supposed to make sense. The pace is roaring, actually it rarely slows down. It's set over the course of a single day... inside dream space, and steadily adds new characters, new areas, and new set pieces.

Marty himself is about as normal as a protagonist can be really. I'm pretty sure he was designed to be the modern every-man and we get to see him grow as the story progresses. In many ways it's about him finding his courage, kind of like a modern Wizard of Oz... actually very much like a modern Wizard of Oz now I think about it. So Dorothy is likeable enough, despite being quite dense at times, and propels the story along nicely in his attempt to wake up.

The stand out character is without a doubt Timbers, the tiny toy pirate captain. Timbers is just pure fun, witty one liners, and a zest for life. He's pretty much Buzz Lightyear... but a pirate... and self-aware.

There are some genius lines in The Forty First Wink. Lines that you might expect from Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams. They actually made me laugh aloud at times and it's quite rare a book manages that.

I have a couple of gripes with the book. Adverbs. The book houses a few too many of them and once I noticed that it became hard to stop noticing it. They're everywhere at times and often completely superfluous... (sorry, had to do it). Most folk probably wouldn't notice, but I did and it kept pulling me out of the narrative.

The other issue is that often I found things over explained or described, leaving little to the imagination which actually hurt my ability to imagine it. I think the author needs to trust in his readers' imagination a bit more.

In the end I give The Forty First Wink 3 stars. The biggest problem I found was that I'm just not really too big a fan of comedy in my books. I found the same when reading Pratchett; I like humour while reading, not comedy.

Rob J. Hayes is the author of the acclaimed The Ties that Bind trilogy and the upcoming Best Laid Plans duology. You can find out more on his website here.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Review Blog - Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

Book Review: Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley
Still some of the most gorgeous covers ever.
Been struggling with this review for a few reasons. Finally figured I'd just pull it together. Here goes.

I listened to the audio version and therefore may get a few names wrong as spelling is hard.

Providence of Fire(PoF) picks up directly where The Emperor's Blades(TEB) left off. There's pretty much no time lost and we see the characters in the same dire peril we left them in. Kaden and Valyn are united and determined to uncover the plot that tried to slay them both, avenge the death of their father, and plonk Kaden's arse down on the Unhewn Throne. Adare is doing Adare things; sleeping with the enemy, realising she's sleeping with the enemy, running away.

I'll start with Simon Vance's narration. This guy continues to impress. He has a good range of voices, none of which sound forced or unnatural and he does an excellent job of giving characters unique voices so you can tell who you're on board with even before the text specifically states it. One interesting thing I did notice was that a few of the voices and pronunciations have actually changed since TEB. This is probably just the author correcting inaccuracies. I'm pretty sure Simon Vance's voice was designed for reading epic fantasy and there's little higher praise I can give it than that.

So what did I love about this book? Well there was a lot to love. We get a much deeper look into some of the characters and I'm not just talking about the back stories that TEB layered upon us. PoF is very much a book living in the present whereas TEB felt like a book living in the past. If Staveley completes the trend with The Last Mortal Bond(TLMB) feeling like it lives in the future, I will be very impressed.

We get a much greater look at the world and the various factions inhabiting it. That being said, the world continues to feel very tightly packed with everything happening in just a small section (geographically speaking). I don't doubt the world is very large, but for that reason it feels very small. Everybody seems to be within a few days/weeks travel of each other and ALL the important events are happening around Anore (?) as if the rest of the world doesn't really matter.

Tristae (?) is awesome. Possibly my favourite character (after Valyn) because of the way she flits between helpless little girl to hand-crushing nutbar. She's definitely one of the most interesting and not just because of the secret she's hiding.

Gwenna is another highlight as the foul-mouthed demolitions expert. She's worth mentioning as well as we start getting PoV chapters from her perspective... which seems odd. Up until now all the PoVs have been the Emperor's Blades; his 3 children. Now that changes and suddenly we have Gwenna chapters. Don't get me wrong, they're interesting and fresh and probably some of the best chapters... it just seems odd, almost as though Staveley really wanted to tell more of the story and had to break his own formula to do it. I'm glad he did though as Gwenna's chapters are certainly some of the most rewarding.

Kaden is... Kaden. He still feels like a potato. He goes around, he does things (important things), and yet he's just so hard to connect with that I struggled to care about his plight.

Adare is still as useless as she was in TEB. I really wanted to like her and for her character to flourish, but she's too much like Dany-fucking-Targaryen for me. One mistake after another and doesn't give a damn what any of the people around her (advisers appointed by her) say. Maybe she gets more likable in TLMB, I'm told she does... but then I was told she does in PoF... lies.

Valyn, despite making some face-palm choices, is the bright light. I think I would have preferred books written all from his perspective, but then telling the whole story would be pretty much impossible. He's a broken man who is a product of a very harsh past and continually tries to put himself back together even when he just wants it to stop. He's fascinating and compelling and drives the story forward and keeps me coming back to find out more. I can't wait to see how he progresses into TLMB because he's left on a fair cliffhanger and I can only imagine he's going to become even more of a badass.

OK, time for biggest gripe (and it's a biggie). There is SO MUCH FAFFING AROUND in this book. There was a bit in TEB, but that was to be expected as there was a lot of scene setting, world setting, character back story. In PoF there's just a lot of people wandering somewhere, wandering elsewhere, splitting up, getting back together, doing a thing, doing the opposite thing. The book waffles and it slows down the pace to a crawl at times. That's not to say that there are chapters where nothing important happens, just that often those important things are surrounded by the rest of the chapter where nothing happens. The book is slow, lethargic at times, and it's why I struggled through much of it... and why I'm struggling to get into TLMB at the moment.

So that's about it. I enjoyed Providence of Fire, but not as much as The Emperor's Blades. I give it 3 stars.

Rob J. Hayes is the author of the acclaimed The Ties that Bind trilogy and the upcoming Best Laid Plans duology. You can find out more on his website here.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

5 GrimDark Anime You Might Not Realise are GrimDark

5 GrimDark Anime You Might Not Realise are GrimDark

OK, I'm gonna start this one by pointing out that I have not watched every anime ever so this list will be based on those I have watched. I will however start it with a respectful mention to BESERK as I have not watched it, but am reliably informed it is GrimDark as fuck!

Onto the list. Here's 5 GrimDark animes you really should watch:

  1. Elfen Lied
Because hot anime girls with guns.
Hey, perfect, this one just became available on Netflix. Go get it watched.

Elfen Lied is set in a close-ish approximation of real world Japan, only murderous bounty hunters are a thing and the government has created a bunch of mutants with stretchy invisibly hands that can tear folk apart... and they all look like red-haired girls with horns.

This anime isn't just a gory action series (though it has more than enough blood to satisfy if that's your deal), it's a dark look at a fractured personality born by hideous experimentation and the power to cause carnage on a very real scale. I'm going to emphasize the fractured personality bit here because one is... essentially a child, while the other is a homicidal superbeing.

It's well worth a watch even if it does suffer from the annoying anime trope of boring-as-shit male lead.

  1. Ergo Proxy
Following a trend.
I'm gonna start this one by saying I've watched this series 3 times and I'm still not entirely sure I understand what is going on 100% of the time... but damn! is it a gorgeous series.

OK, so Ergo Proxy takes place in a world where society is confined to enclosed cities and humanity is heavily monitored by robot counterparts that occasionally go insane due to a virus and FUCK SHIT UP! So our main character starts looking into this and then she finds... well basically the God of Death. Then they all go on a little road trip outside the city and shit just continues to get weirder.

So why does this count as GrimDark? Because the world is a horrible place in Ergo Proxy. Humanity has basically had its free will stripped from it by those in power and the core of the series is about said humanity waking up from enforced catatonia.

Just don't ask me what the fuck is going on during the TV game show episode...

  1. Ga Rei Zero
Spoiler Alert! The first episode of Ga Rei Zero makes the GRRM reaper look positively cheery. It's pretty much “Meet your cast of major players. Now watch them all DIE!!!!” Second episode doesn't look much better because you're introduced to the main lass... who dies at the end of that episode (or does she?).

So after the fairly extreme opening the show goes back in time and we watch our main character build a loving relationship with a big-sister-esque character... all the while knowing that they're eventually going to kill each other.

On a grander scale Ga Rei Zero is again set in a close-approximation of real world Japan only demons are a thing and they are also invisible to anyone without the ability to see them. And some can be controlled, but it involves a person merging their soul with the demon and that demon steadily consumes the person. It's dark, but it's not the darkest vision of a world. The GrimDark really comes from watching the relationship between our 2 main girls grow as they become more and more like sisters because in the end we know it ends somewhere beyond badly.

Seriously, if you watch this one do NOT get attached to any characters. Or... you know... do because it makes it more fun when they die... they will die.

  1. Code Geass
When best friends fight... with guns... and armies.
I'm going to ignore the fact that Code Geass is basically a retelling of Gundam Wing because...

Yes, it is! It's not about the mechs at all, alright. It's about the fact that the entire show is about 2 best friends knowing that the only way they can stop WAR FOR ALL TIME is to give the people of the world a war SO ATROCIOUS that it can never be allowed to happen ever again. It's also about those 2 friends knowing that accomplish their insane goals they both need to become MONSTERS and also that they simply can't survive it because the people of the world need to have a scapegoat for the sheer scale of death and destruction that they are going to cause in pursuit of PEACE!

So now that's out of the way I'll just say that this show takes place in a world where war is just... a thing basically. It's pretty much common place and the common folk of the world are pretty much brainwashed into not only accepting this, but worshipping the bastards who are waging war. Oh, and the Japanese are basically 2nd class citizens because they lost.

We should also talk about the fact that the power our main character possesses is the power to bend people to his will... and sometimes he uses that power by accident... or does he? Honestly, the main character is pretty much a high-functioning psychopath who SPOILERS actually orders his own sister to murder a bunch of folk before killing herself. Oh, and the time he tells his best friend (love interest) to forget that he exists... yeah, he's a dick!

Code Geass makes the list because it's set in a horrific world where segregation and war are common place and because the main character is true product of that world.

  1. Naruto
Probably threw you all for a bit of a curveball here. You're likely saying “Naruto isn't Grim or Dark, let alone GrimDark. It's about a screw up kid who actually is crazy powerful and he makes friends and has crazy adventures and...”

WRONG! Time to burst your bubble. Naruto has some of the most GrimDark shit I've ever witnessed in anime and instead of selling you on it I'm just going to list a bunch of them.


Naruto is about ninjas and different clans have different specialisations. One such clan has hollowed out their bodies to act as nests for insects which they then use to suck the life force out of their enemies.

Sasuke hates his older brother Itachi. Why? Because Itachi murdered their entire family. Why? Because Itachi was forced to murder their entire family in order to save Sasuke's life. Why? Because the people in charge ordered it. Instead of explaining this to Sasuke, Itachi turns himself into the living embodiment of a villain and constantly provokes Sasuke in the hope that Sasuke will get strong enough to kill Itachi. He actually makes his own little brother kill him because... redemption, I guess.

One villain actually fights by forcing his own bones to grow out of his skin into sharpened spikes. At one point he actually creates a tree of his own bones.

Death is real. When people die, they die... unless you're Orichimaru who is able to infect people with his spirit where upon they slowly start to be taken over by his spirit.

There's a badguy who fights by controlling puppets made out of dead people. Two of such puppets are his own parents... who killed specifically to make puppets out of them. Oh, and he also made a puppet out of himself.

Naruto has a demon inside of him, a crazy nine-tailed fox demon thing that was put inside of him by his own father because turning your son into a ticking-time bomb of demon energy is fun. At one point the demon inside of Naruto pretty much takes over and he exhibits so much power that his skin is burned away... but the demon heals him as his skin is burned away. So for a while Naruto is stuck in agony as the demon controls his body, melts his skin off, and heals him so it can melt his skin off some more.

Yeah, Naruto may be sold as a kids program... but DAMN! it has some of the GrimDarkiest shit in it.

Anyway, those are 5 animes you should give a try if you're a fan of GrimDark. They're probably not the ones you might expect either. Do you have any others you think I should try? Let me know in the comments.

Rob J. Hayes is the author of the acclaimed The Ties that Bind trilogy and the upcoming Best Laid Plans duology. You can find out more on his website here.