Environmental Station Alpha (2015)

Environmental Station Alpha (short ESA) is one of the most content-rich metroidvania’s I’ve played, but also one of the most frustrating. In terms of difficulty, only An Untold Story is harder, and harder only in the sense of the platforming skills required, when it comes to boss design ESA definitely takes the cake. I played ESA’s demo when it came out in 2014 (which you should play if you want to see some extra-content), played ESA itself on-and-off from 2015 until I finally gave up after beating Overgrowth honestly and just started cheating.

This is not to say that the game is unfair. It’s one of the most honest hard games I’ve played, each boss is doable with a lot of training and skill, it’s just that I prefer my metroidvania’s with less difficult bosses. Not that I find difficult bosses in general bad, it’s just that in this type of game they badly break the flow of gameplay and act like hard counters that just stop everything. I play these type of games more for the exploration than anything else.

This connects to my second point. The level design in ESA is superb, with lots of smart backtracking, winding corridors that lead back to the same hubs, with items required to open ways in areas you already covered. The problem is, the game requires so much backtracking, that you could only keep all that in your head and remember if you beat the bosses in a timely manner, if not you feel utterly lost. Once you’ve entered a room and see something you can’t reach, but the room itself is already uncovered on the map, you forget later that there was something to do there.

A map where you could jot down some notes would have helped make traversing the game much easier. At one point I stopped proceeding not because of one of the bosses, but because I’d forgotten that I could clear a certain type of block with one of my new items, because I did’t realize I had to go there.

I didn’t much like the language encryption puzzles of the post-game content, I hated this stuff in Fez and I hated it here and the secrets are ridiculously obscured. I would have preferred something less oblique, but then I’m not a fan of adventure games and that type of thinking. Keep stuff like this to the genres where it belongs.

This sounds all a bit critical, so I want to iterate that I think ESA is one of the best metroidvania’s I’ve ever played. It has superb level-design and controls, it has excellent boss design (for my taste too much on the hard side, but never unfair), even earlier passed levels remain dangerous with tougher enemies getting activated later on and there is just tons of content here that beats most games done by larger teams. The graphics are quite cool for the simplistic retro-vibe they are going for (sometimes they are too sparse to make out details, but otherwise okay).

It’s just that not a lot of people will see all that, if they play the game honestly.

Dead Cells (EARLY ACCESS)

I’m not usually a fan of Early Access titles, not because I think there’s something inherently wrong with that approach, but because I rather wait until a game is finished. In this case though, the trailer for the game looked too good and I’m a sucker for any metroidvania-type game. I was a bit skeptical at first, as similar titles like Rogue Legacy or Flinthook for example sport their roguelike influences on their sleeve, but usually contain no real trace of metroidvania-type gameplay.

And initially that was true for Dead Cells as well. Procedurally generated levels that change after each death, with a metagame where you can earn persistent upgrades that make you stronger in each new run. But then I got my first ability, which allowed me to access more areas in the early levels. It’s a cool twist on the Metroidvania-genre, that actually manages to combines a roguelike action platformer with metroidvania-type elements into a neat mix. The roguevania descriptor here is actually well earned.

Beyond that, even at this early stage, the game is already more fun than many other full games. The action is perfect, with scrunchy hits that make it a delight to take enemies apart, either by sniping them from afar or going in for close combat. The weapon selection is such that instead of always preferring just one weapon, each is pretty cool and handles differently with unique advantages that makes it hard to decide which to take. Controls are tight and the graphics are a perfect fit for this type of game.

If they developers don’t make a major misstep in the future and build on those foundations, then Dead Cells will be almost perfect.

Flinthook (2017)

Flinthook is one of these games that seems almost perfect from the start: a great soundtrack, beautiful 2d-pixel graphics that closely remind me of Bitmap Brothers games (one of my all-time favorite classic studio when it comes to aesthetics) and more or less solid controls that makes the game initially fun to play.

The most similar game in terms of approach is Rogue Legacy: randomized level architecture based on various room segments that repeat ad nauseam in countless different configurations, single runs that either end with your death or a win against one of the few bosses and a metagame where you can earn advancements even if you die in single runs. Flinthook’s unique gimmick is the eponymous hook that allows you to fling yourself through the level segments at high speeds and avoid various traps. In theory.

In praxis, the hooking-mechanism works most of the time, but the times when it doesn’t often becomes a critical failure that traps you in a harmful loop that’s hard to escape. One major annoyance is that if you aim for a ring to hook but instead hit one of the spike balls, the hook gets deflected. Often, when it looks like you should hook, you don’t. The auto-aim works most of the time, but when it fails, it mostly does in the most unfortunate situations. Some rooms are designed in such a way that it’s almost impossible to escape without a major loss of health.

Traps in general are another problem. While the graphics are lovely, they are so busy and every rooms is stuffed to the brim with shiny things to look at, that the traps themselves are easily to miss, even when you know what to look for. Especially the ground plate spikes that shoot for the whole length of the plate, not just the part you’re standing on. I really hate those plates.

Shooting is a bit annoying as well, as your range is never as far as that of the enemies while their shots go through walls, unlike yours. That makes the game somewhat unfair, as it forces you to get close to the enemies, while they can snipe you from afar.

I also hated the slow-down mechanism and the time-barriers, which felt like something stuffed into the game purely to annoy the player and often aggravated the issues I had with individual room designs. All the little issues, hard-to-see traps, the less-than-ideal hooking mechanism, the time-barriers only highlighted the main issue of the game: the individual rooms.

Most of them are okay, offering the right balance between difficulty, stuff to find, enemies to kill. You get into the flow of things, fling yourself through the level, makes short process of the enemies and suddenly you’re in a room where you need a lot of luck just to escape alive.

The game is full of that and if you play long enough, you really get tired of seeing these badly designed rooms kill all the effort you put into every run. At some point advancing because of this becomes a terrible, boring grind and you’ll likely stop before ever reaching the ending.

The Raven and the Reindeer (2016)

There are three types of fairy-tale re-tellings (1) those that miss the mark by a wide margin (2) those that feel quiet alright by changing some elements and updating others and reminding us why we loved those stories in the first place and (3) the very few that improve upon the originals and replace them in your personal canon.

Actually, the original I remember isn’t the Hans Christian Anderson story, which I know I read as a kid, but whose memory who overtaken by the breathtakingly beautiful Russian animation from 1957, which for me was the most definitive version until now. Despite not having seen this for years, I remembered the tension between Gerda and the bandit daughter despite this being a kids movie. There was something there, if extremely subtle at that.

Vernon aka Kingfisher marvelously took those elements from the original tale, embellished them and spun them into a tale that is still recognizably the Snow Queen, but also something different. The rough story skeleton is the same, but some of beats are subtly and sometimes not so subtly altered to change it from the girl setting out to get the guy to the story of the girl who grew into her own, saved a guy (lets not pretend that Kay isn’t an ass in all of the versions) and got the girl.

At the end of the story I felt utterly like cheering and happy and nodding in agreement. This is how you do a re-telling.

Eden Green (2015)

This was a particularly interesting read for me, as I felt like I was enjoying the novel for things the author didn’t meant me to enjoy. The main character’s big fear, being infected with alien bio-machinery and slowly changed into something inhuman, was something I felt completely disconnected from. I did enjoy the bio-machinery, the strange and weird transformation Eden and her two associates went through, but this felt less like a source of genuine body horror (which I think was the intention), but the joy at seeing cool and neat transformations.

It probably depends on your reading protocols and interests, which in my case meant the changes, both body and mind, were the meat of the novel, as was the intriguing if somewhat lackluster exploration of an alien world. I found the super-rationalistic attitude of the main character amusing, and I’m not sure if that was intentional and to be taken serious or meant to be perceived as a character flaw. Also her constant resistance to the bio-machinery in her body was initially merely irritating until it became deeply annoying when it was established as the main thrust of the books final part.

Less convincing were the psychological changes. Sure, I completely buy that getting your brain blown up and then re-assembled by alien bio-machinery will force changes to your personality (and the part with the memories was neatly done), but I didn’t really bought that it would mean the characters would turn psychotic, just different.

On that account, I found the ending was the typical esoteric ending where the writer thought it was kind of positive and I though it was quite the opposite. If you write from the perspective of monsters (even if I don’t completely buy they are monsters), I want to see them succeed, accept what they are and go on with their lives of murder and mayhem. I’m a fan of happy endings.

Company Town (2016)

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It’s like Terminator, only completely different. But don’t worry, that part comes in very late and isn’t the main appeal of the novel. In a nice reversal it’s a book with a seemingly generic or at least not at all-enthralling hook (action girl with issues has to play bodyguard for the heir of a stinking rich family that takes over a city that is part of an oil rig), but once you start reading its hard to put down.

Ashby throws a lot of stuff on the wall, a rapid fire of little ideas to give texture to the setting, a few big ones to inform the plot, and wraps it around a heroine that is easy to get comfortable with. Plagued like most of us with small and big things (cold mother, strange, defacing disease that has become both boon and bane for her), trying to muddle through life.

Then things get more complicated, relationship- and plot-wise. A Faustian bargain is made, at least it feels so a bit to the heroine, even if some of it comes from genuinely trying to be good and a killer stalks her friends. It’s a lot, and surprisingly enough, for all the ideas Ashby throws at the wall, most of them stick and build a dense, often unexpected trip that’s really hard stop. At close to 300 pages, this feels more like a hundred page novella, burning fast and bright.

If you asked me what the bigger message or topic was, I probably came up blank, but as far as intensity and sheer fun goes, this is right at the top.

Dead Things (2013)

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As far as urban fantasy goes, Dead Things does what most entries in the genre do, trying to find a slightly new angle on an old topic (this time the main char is a Necromancer, hailing back to the trope codifier of all things urban fantasy, though its different in style and tone), wrapping it up into a personal viewpoint that should be enticing enough to get on with the ride and enjoy it.

I do like the main concept, I like the plot-hook, but I find the main character a bit flat, especially given what happens. Not completely to the point that I didn’t like the book or the main char, but to the point that I though some of his reactions, especially to gruesome murder and mayhem where on the cold side. This kind of fits with his character to some degree, but it doesn’t feel entirely intentional and more like the author had not the best handle on his own character.

It’s still a fun and short read that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and the author had some neat world-building ideas. Also I like the feeling that even the most powerful people including the main character, are easily hurt and every bruise and hit is felt. Makes the stake feel real and the tension is definitely there. I’ll check out the sequel to see whether it gets more interesting.

The Hangman’s Daughter (2017)

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This takes place in the same setting as Veteran, but around one or two hundred years later. The main character comes of as slightly psychotic manic pixie girl who captures a ship of 6000 prisoners to find the few prisoners who killed her father, while also setting up a deep black ops operation for the CIA with a penal legion as a plausible deniable ops team to take on various targets. The first book is concerned with setting up the legion, both for future prospective buyers and the audience reading this. Manic pixie girl and her legion take on a miner’s asteroid that has been taken over by a communist virus, and things go from bad to clusterfloppery very fast.

It’s a no holds barred tour de force full of violence and gore and plans inside of plans. Characters get introduced and killed off at breakneck pace and it you usually have to decide who is least offensive asshole on the block, as there are few if any who could be called nice or good. There are a lot of future settings made up by writers that I rather live in than in any of David Smith’s worlds, but damn is it a fun ride, even if I’m flip-flopping between hating the main heroine (she’s awfully nonchalant about human lives, even prisoners) and wanting to see her survive to know what comes next. Can’t wait for the sequel.

Afterparty (2014)

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I read Daryl Gregory’s phenomenal short story Second Person, Present Tense when it came out in 2005 and ever since then he was on my list of writer to look out for. There are a few science fiction writers who like to make a go at where brain chemistry, consciousness and egos cross, but none made it feel so effortless and personal as Gregory did in that short but impressive story.

But further dips into his work left me less impressed. Good writing in general, but his other novels just didn’t speak to me the same way as SPPT had. And then I read Afterparty. It has a different set of characters, the main hook is different (a drug that once you overdose gives you your own personal god, whether you want to or not) and it thankfully goes on for far longer.

But overall, it has the same energy and verve, it’s interested in a similar set of topics and it gives you something to think about even when you close the book. It’s probably my favorite book from 2014, and a strong contender for one of the best books recently overall.

Part of the attraction is just how the book frames the entire debate: the main character is a staunch atheist who is also completely convinced that she has found god, even when she knows its all just brain chemistry. And she’s not happy with that.

As a concept, it might be blasphemous to true believers, but it’s just as uncomfortable for the true atheists. What Lyda and her friends who overdosed suffer from isn’t exactly mind control, but it’s a close cousin where you can believe whatever you want, but that drug-induced personal god won’t take no for an answer and leave. Always there, always making you feel like you have direct access to a higher truth.

It’s one thing to know its fake when you’re not afflicted, but when it’s always there, always on, it becomes its own kind of truth.

There’s a lot more going in the novel than just that. Someone has started distributing the drug she and her friends overdosed on, even as it should be impossible. And her journey to find the source and shut it down leads to personal revelations that while long overdue and necessary, still cut deep. Meanwhile, lots of characters, each with their damage, their own stories that are just as compelling Lyda’s.

The story has just the right length with a pitch-perfect ending, but it still makes me want to see more from this world and its characters.

Holy Fire (1996)

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Given the current political climate and development, it doesn’t look like our world is heading the direction of Sterling’s Holy Fire, but maybe we’re just right before the mass upheaval and megadeath phase. The future depicted in the novel is one that is both dystopian and utopian at the same time, depending to a large extend on your age and also personal inclinations.

It’s a meditation of the impact successful longevity treatments have on society, and how a world where old people have most of the power feels like. Sterling could have gone for easy targets here. It’s pretty clear where his sympathies lie, but you never get the feeling that the gerontocracy is cardboard evil. It’s the outcome of a likely future history where the survivors of years of plagues and death have developed a stance toward personal responsibility (regarding health) that makes sense but still feels incredibly cold.

Funnily enough, I would fit rather well into the gerontocracy, as I’m rather risk-averse and security-prone. But even I can see the drawbacks of such a system. The gerontocracy has plateaued, which is okay in the short and even medium term, but forever is a long time. With such a time-frame, out-of-context problems will crop up, and to at least have a chance of surviving them requires a different attitude. You need dreamers and risk-takers, the weird and the strange ones willing to go where nobody else has gone.

Even if that doesn’t happen and the gerontocracy of the book manages to keep the reigns of power and exist for a very long time, it’s easy to see why it doesn’t look much like living. Risk-aversity and forethought are not a bad thing per se, but as in many things there needs to be a balance. If all you do is focused on prolonging your life, at some point you’ve forgotten what actually living means. There are fates worse that death.