Escape from the Underworld (2010)

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The graphics from Escape from the Underworld look at first sight like someone did them in Paint, but considering that this was done for a game jam on a short deadline, its understandable. They are crude, but effective and while not exactly nice looking, never actually hamper the gameplay itself. The game is a bonafida example of the metroidvania genre: explore a free roam-able world, collect power-ups and items to open new passages and so forth.

Not exactly original, even the power-ups you’ve seen elsewhere (thought the angel wings and the laser sword are somewhat less common than double jump or other power-ups), but the gameplay is solid. The controls, especially the jumping seems a bit wonky initially, but is easy to get used (other games have it far worse, here it’s just not as tight as in the best examples of the genre). I definitely had fun playing it, and since Escape from the Underworld is on the shorter side, the game never outstays its welcome.

Also, those who have played Banov’s phenomenal jRPG Phantasmaburbia will realize that this is sort of a prequel for it.

Xeodrifter (2014)

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Retro-styled metroidvania that is one of the purest expressions of the form I’ve seen for some time. Explore four different planets, find new power-ups and backtrack all over the map to use these new power-ups to get into previously shut-off parts of these levels. It’s a bit on the short side (I think I played it through in three or four hours, and I didn’t exactly speed through), but otherwise it’s highly enjoyable due to the mix of excellent graphics (while it references other similar games, it does find its own style very fast and doesn’t just feel like a copy-cat), tight controls and the ever-escalating boss battles (re-skin of the same boss over and over again, but different and especially more challenging attack pattern each time).

It’s a game slimmed down to the essentials, but in this case it doesn’t so much feel like bare bone and instead like a highly potent cocktail of the best that metroidvania games have to offer without any extraneous fat to artificially extent playtime.

FEZ (2012)

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FEZ combines two different halves into one game: one is a beautiful to-look-at vaguely puzzle-ish platformer whose main objective is to collect a certain number of objects to finish the game.

I say vaguely puzzle-ish, because the major obstacle is to master the rotate-the-world-around-its-axis mechanic that set’s FEZ apart from other platformers and gives it its third dimension. It’s a neat mechanic that offers some incredible pixel-vistas and often manages to make you forget how little interactivity and actual gameplay FEZ really contains. But it’s merely puzzle-ish, because once you get it, its hard to call the remaining tasks challenging, just traverse all the unexplored roads and eventually you get all the necessary cubes to the get the normal ending.

The other half of FEZ is a fiendish adventure games whose puzzles require you to think about stuff like key inputs, decryption and other highly abstract stuff. It’s incredibly inventive in a way, but represents an approach to game-making I rarely like. It’s all about puzzles barely connected to the world they’re set in, with either none or a tenuous at best explanation why they are placed there at all. It’s basically a completely different meta-game welded to the world of FEZ, where the seams can easily be seen.

And if you don’t go for that kind of abstract puzzle solving, then everything after the normal route becomes a chore to play (not helped at all by the cumbersome way to traverse the world of FEZ, even with all the portals around). And the normal route isn’t that great a game either.

The beautiful graphics are a somewhat good compensation, I just wish there was more game in it I could enjoy.

Castlevania: Spectral Interlude (2015)

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There’s retro and then there’s retro. It does sound kind of backwards-looking to program an entire game for a platform that isn’t produced commercially anymore, not just to take the look and feel of older games, but to actually build one for those old systems. But despite that, I understand how limits sometimes can prove beneficial to the creative process and anyways, with emulators these days it’s not much of a hassle to actual play these games on a modern system anyway. And I’m always in awe of people who can master these feats.

Castlevania: Spectral Interlude is a metroidvania-style games that combines the look and feel of the NES Castlevanias when it comes to the controls and visuals with the free-roaming and exploration-driven gameplay of the PSX/GBA/NDS 2d platformers of the series. The game is not too big, but it’s difficulty is more in line with the NES-games than later games in the series, despite the plentiful allocation of save points. While a lot of the graphics – environments, monsters and other sprites – are reminiscent of or maybe even directly taken from the original games, the entire game feels like its own thing and much more than just a hack of the original.

I especially like the bosses, who most of you have seen in other games, but who will roll over you the first time you meet them. Even figuring out their pattern isn’t enough, the bosses act dynamically enough that even knowing how to beat them is only half the battle, the other half is actually having the stamina to survive their relentless attacks and hitting them. But each time you manage to beat one of them, it’s pure bliss.

The story is somewhat okay, more or less functional like in most Castlevania games (no clue where it fits into the overall chronology, probably somewhere after C:SotN). Sadly, the writing is the biggest drawback of the game, going for a mocking, irreverent at times even humorous tone that is completely at odds with the tone in other Castlevania games and sadly isn’t all that well written anyway.

Some minor nitpicks I have concern the controls, sometimes hitting oddly flying enemies seems to not work, even if it looks like you should have hit them, the ability to space-jump via double left/right-tap often gets activated even when it’s not wanted and the maps, despite the two updates, seems not to work correctly (also you have to double-tap down to fall through platforms, instead of the usual down+jump combo, which you need to get into some secret rooms).

Still, despite some of these drawbacks, I really enjoyed the game. It’s more challenging that most games I’ve played recently, it’s hits nearly all the right button gameplay-wise (I do love a good metroidvania) and it’s a labor of love that does exactly what it’s creators set out to do.

[HINT 1: If you wonder where the white altar is, once you have all the four pieces go back to town and see what has opened, and if you proceed past Dracula you get a somewhat different ending.]

[HINT 2: The artifact you get from the boss enemy before Dracula doesn’t just allow you to proceed to him, you now can also see all the hidden upgrades in the walls. ]

[HINT 3: If you want to get to Dracula with the Vampire Killer whip but don’t want to summon Death and kill all the townspeople in the process, there is a way. Remember the joke your father made about the 10.000 coins of gold?]

Scale-Bright (2014)

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Scale-Bright, a novella by infamous internet troll Requireshate and writer Benjanun Sriduangkaew clearly shows that despite the commonly accepted opinion that her two personas are widely different, one overly acerbic while the other more mild-mannered, some personal quirks are much harder to hide. It’s a story about female characters front and center. Males, if they appear, are at best incompetent or stupid, at worst malicious.

As for the rest, the novella itself as well as the supplementary stories that takes place previously to the main novella, are exceedingly well done re imagining of old myths, reinterpreted and told with an obvious focus on how the females carve a place out for themselves, despite what society or other people tell them how they should behave and do.

Unlike the stories preceding it, Scale-Bright takes place in modern Hong Kong, and while it takes some characters and motives from myth, it tells its own story instead of reinterpreting one. If you pared it down to the essentials, you could say it’s kind of a romance mixed with a prison break, but that sort of misses the point.

It’s urban fantasy, but the writing is of much higher quality that you usually get, much more lyrical. You can say about the author what you like, but her control of language is finely honed and always fitting. The main characters journey is cliched (find out who you are, what you want), sure, but the delivery is so well done, that it’s hard not to feel with her and when the end rolls around to be happy that she got the ending she and you as a reader were hoping for.

Echopraxia (2014)

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Echopraxia is by no means a bad book, but it doesn’t exactly deliver on the expectations set by Blindsight. Since it’s a Peter Watts book, expect all kind of good stuff, interesting questions asked, neat ideas and research stuffed into an sfnal design and then explored to some degree, though never as far as you really want things to go.

The book lacks the thematic tightness of its predecessor, at times it feels like it explores the same plot structure and themes with less interesting and new things to say and ends in a – at least for a Peter Watts book – conventional space for its main character, without packing a similar emotional gut punch as his other books often do. Which is kind of odd, since Br├╝ks felt like a reverse Mary Sue of the author himself, much closer in outlook, age and background to Watts than Siri from Blindsight ever was, and yet Watts managed to make the later more relatable than a character he should have even better insight into.

And while it’s pretty clear what Watts is going for – I mean it’s in the title after all – it’s actually not as interesting as it initially sounded (there is only so much and they were all puppets, hoho that one can stand before you stop caring for both plot and characters). Instead it invites endless comparisons to Blindsight’s ruminations on the nature of consciousness, and falls short in pretty much every regard.

It’s still good, but also a disappointment.

Moon Knight: From the Dead (2014)

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I must admit that when I tried to read Moon Knight in the past, I always bounced off. Felt like an overly convoluted concept that various generations of writers had added to, without managing to establish an interesting core concept that made some sort of conceptual sense. And like so often, Marvel has hired Warren Ellis to do a short, 6-issue stint on the character to make him sort of hip again and streamline him a bit.

While I’m not sure he makes more sense now than in previous incarnations, at least Ellis take on it is highly enjoyable to read (or rather watch, the series is short on words but big on cinematics), something a lot of previous Moon Knight series seemed not to be (not entirely sure, since I stayed with none of them for long). The series feel a lot like Ellis stint on Secret Avengers, highly stylized, lots of action, typical Ellis dialog. It’s pretty much a high-octane big screen superhero book that tells a new story with each issue, which while not very dense in terms of storytelling, makes for a fun and fast read each time.

The Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun (2013)

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Five-part prequel series for the Sixth gun comic that puts the spotlight on general Hume’s evil henchmen. Well done, just as the main series is, but like a lot of prequels and sidequels it feels utterly pointless. It doesn’t advance the main story a bit and the more in-depth view on the characters doesn’t changes how reader will view them in the main series. Only for those who want to get every piece of world-building from the Sixth Gun series.

Scream (1996)

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I planned to watch all four Scream movies in a row, but instead I realized that over the last years I must have lost my appetite for slasher movies, or at least those that have entirely mundane killers. I can still watch the Elm Street movies or similar stuff for the fantasy elements, but stuff like Scream, and its certainly a pretty good movie for that specific genre, just scream murder porn to me and make me antsy because I know what will happen, I don’t actually get a thrill from it anymore and just want to get it over with.

Scream, which is both a faithful entry into and also a clear a subversion of the genre, has everything a good slasher movie needs, a spectacular main actress, a not entirely inapt supporting cast, gruesome violence and a script that makes it clear to both the viewer and even the characters that they are in a slasher movie. And it keeps you on your toes with some pretty good twists along the way despite everyone waiting for those to happen.

Yet all I could think of while watching was, damn, another human countdown, how boring and predictable. For some genres you can see the Xth variation and still not be sated, but for others the well has truly run dry. Still, as objectively speaking as I can in this case, for a slasher Scream is pretty good.

Clarkesworld October Issue (2014)

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Six stories in number 97 of the Clarkesworld magazine, three contemporary fantasies, one science fictional one and two second world fantasies. Writing is competent mostly, though most of the stories are also pretty forgettable. Interestingly the best and the worst of the lot are the two second world fantasies and both feature characters trying to finish missions that lead them into morally questionable territory or at least grey areas where things aren’t as clear cut as merely killing monsters should be.

Alex Irvine’s Wizard’s Six suffers from being overly dramatic, at times slipping into soap operatic-levels of ridiculousness drama that brings down the entire story and makes it quite tedious. K. J. Parker’s A Rich, Full Week on the other hand manages to bring its main character and his world alive, even if we only catch a glimpse of it and leaves us with the longing to get more, despite its generic fantasy surface.