The Boys (1987)

One of the earliest stories by Charles Stross (also his first professional sales) that feels like it owes a huge debt to Bruce Sterling’s Shaper/Mechanist setting. I read it on Stross’ website, so it’s somewhat raw and probably not as edited as the version that was published in Interzone, but it shows the potential, if not exactly the full polish of his later stuff. It takes place in a rundown space colony with a dense cultural setup reminiscent of Sterling’s material and with the main char an outsider who scouts out the place trying to see whether it’s a good hiding place for her own group, which is fleeing from something vastly more terrifying than anything the colony can muster.

Even in this flawed form, it’s an intriguing proposition. Stross layers on the setting with infodump after infodump woven into the very texture of his story, which makes it a delight to read for those of us who like dense writing, but at the same time, it makes it hard to see the underlying plot. The story also does something where I’m not sure it was intentional, or at least not fully intentional to hide what it’s doing, which is telling its story from the POV of two different people (or maybe not) who might be in the same orbital colony, but not the same time.

The confusing thing is that it switches around those two POVs, and you only get that from the text itself, no formatting to help you there. Again, could be intentional (given the ending and how the two POVs are connected), or not. Apart from that, the biggest problem is the ending, which doesn’t feel natural and just like it stopped in the middle of things and you’re none the wiser why.

Given this is Stross, I assume he actually had a very clear idea why he did it, but at that point, he hadn’t learned yet to hide his more cryptic plot points in more accessible and satisfying ones, which makes it especially irritating as an ending.

Also of note, the mention of the Dreamtime makes me wonder whether this was supposed to take place in the same setting as Scratch Monkey, Stross’ first novel.

Ultima (1981)

I like old games. I mean really old games, where the CGA visuals drip from your screen and make most of you run away screaming. That said, not all old games have aged gracefully. Ultima 1: The First Age of Darkness, which is actually a 1986 remake of the 1981 original game (and then ported to MS-Dos in 1987), is a fine example of that. While it’s the official first game of the classic Ultima series, it takes the dungeon crawling gameplay from its predecessor Akalabeth (another game that has aged terribly) and expanded the world and added a few quests and called it a day.

In theory, it’s a massive open world with an incredible 36 dungeons to visit (each dungeon is 10 levels deep with 9×9 squares per level, though some of those are walls). But you really only need to visit one of them. Likewise there’s a massive amount of cities scattered throughout the world of Sosaria, but you don’t really need to visit any of them.

The only places worth visiting are 4 castles (out of 8) that each give you a mission to kill a specific monster, after which you get 4 gemstones needed to build a time machine. The other quests from castles you get, to visit certain signposts on the world map, are useful for getting strength up but aren’t exactly essential.

So what we have here is a massive game with lots of content, but not a lot of content that is actually interesting. None of the dungeons are unique. They are randomly generated each new game and stay fixed for that specific save game, but all have similar layouts, the same monsters and provide the same experience.

That’s not the worst. From a dungeon crawling perspective, the dungeons just aren’t that much fun. Combat is monsters turning up from the side and attacking you while you turn around, and it happens all the time. It’s sorta turn-based, but so simplistic that real-time action would have been an improvement. Monsters feel mostly the same, and the few times they are not, like thieves or gelatinous cubes, they either steal your equipment (annoying) and destroy your equipped armor (really annoying).

Worse is the character building, which is admittedly one of the biggest flaws of the series as a whole and one reason I don’t think highly of it overall. Unlike say Wizardry or the Goldbox games, character and race choices are superfluous, as is the whole attributes system, as you’re supposed to max them all out anyway, independent of your initial choices. Character growth is getting more HP, either by surviving dungeons (you basically farm HP by dungeon diving) or buying them from any of the castle lords.

Basically, the game just isn’t much fun. It’s a large sandbox that’s not exactly empty, but most of its content feels just pointless. I can imagine getting the game in 1981 or even 1986 and feeling excited running around the world and trying out all this stuff. But these days we have much better options, unlike say the Wizardry series or the Goldbox games, that still manage to kick lots of modern games in the balls with their depth. Ultima, on the other hand, at least the first one, has been roundly surpassed, by later incarnations of its own series and many, many other cRPGs.

The Death of Superman (2018)

When I first heard about the new Death of Superman animated movie, I was like, wait, wasn’t there another one already. And yes, there was, though not a good one by any stretch, even if it wasn’t completely terrible. So going in I was mostly thinking, who is this for, did we really need another iteration of the same old story.

And while I honestly believe nobody was really asking for this, it’s actually not bad. It’s certainly better than the first one and even with using the New 52 designs and the continuity from the other New 52 movies, it feels like its closer to the original than the first one was. It just sticks to the pre-death plot and doesn’t going into what happens afterward, which is where the previous movie went off the rails.

And it really is better at the whole character angle, making us first care about Lois and Clark before going into the action. Both are already in a relationship here, though Lois doesn’t know the truth about Clark yet and his reveal to her is both the climax of their personal arc, as well as the moment he leaves to his doom.

Doomsday arrives, and in the fashion of most recent DC animated movies, kills countless bystanders in gory ways. I never liked the propensity of the recent DC animated movies to shower the screen in blood, it’s just tasteless and doesn’t help the overall story. The Justice League attacks, but is utterly destroyed by Doomsday, then Superman arrives and fights a good fight.

Unlike in other incarnations of the story where both of them felt evenly matched, it feels like Superman is totally outclassed by Doomsday here and only wins in the end due to a desperate movie. I didn’t like that much, but on the other hand, the scene with Lois saving him and standing up to Doomsday was brilliant and I really loved her character here. She’s a main char in this movie just as much as Clark is, and I really like their relationship. They are on equal footing and she’s as strong as he is, and it’s easy to see why Clark fell in love with her.

Overall, not a movie I was waiting for, but definitely much better than I expected and worth the time to watch, and also much better than a lot of the other recent DC animated movies.

Hollow Knight (2017)

The metroidvania genre has been blessed for the last few years with a flood of good and great games, but as impressive as many of them have been, Hollow Knight still blows all of them away. It’s a game of remarkable polish, offering a huge amount of content at a quality level few of the competitors can match.

Gameplay-wise, it seems pretty standard at the beginning. You explore a massive 2d world, search for upgrades to get past obstacles and when you can’t, look for stuff to do elsewhere until you have what you need to get past. Beside basic upgrades like wall jump, dash, and double jump, you also collect 40 charms that expand your skillset further, but their use is highly limited by the number of slots you can fill (you can also collect more slots to increase the number of charms used).

This allows for a huge number of builds in terms of skills, something you usually find more in a cRPG than in a pure action-adventure variant like Hollow Knight. If certain bosses are too strong, you have to respec your build to adapt, but as many of the bosses are quite different, you’re forced to try out different specs to see how you fare against them. And while not all of the charms are equally useful, few are of them are really useless.

Another point of differentiation from other metroidvania is how the game handles mapping. When you get to a new area, you don’t have any map. In each area, you have to find a cartographer who sells you a map, which is incomplete, and which from then on gets updated with information about where you have been, once you save at a save point. It’s not quite an automap, but it definitely makes getting around easier.

This approach, while sometimes annoying, forces you to pay attention to your surroundings in every new area and forces you to memorize most level layouts to the point that you often don’t need to rely on the map too much. It’s a map system that doesn’t trivialize exploration while at the same time cuts down on pointless busywork (as the map later helps you to plan routes to get around the kingdom).

The game has two shortcut systems (actually three with the teleport function added in a content pack, but I never really used it), and even with them you still have to walk around a lot. And again, both systems have been deliberately designed in a way to cut down on pointless travel time, while not trivializing getting around overall.

Hollow Knight doesn’t do anything revolutionary in terms of mechanics or core gameplay, but it pushes boundaries in many small ways and together with the overall high polish this leads to a very satisfying experience while playing.

There is one area where the game is quite unique, and that is the overall art design, which is tightly interwoven with the overall story and all the other content aspects like the enemy design and even your own character. You play a bug exploring an old insect kingdom, where something in the past has led to the downfall of said kingdom. Each area of the kingdom repeats the overall theme while exploring a different aspect of it: a spider domain, a garden of mantises, underground caverns full of living mushrooms, deep caverns of deadly centipedes and so on.

Whether it’s a fantasy- or a space-themed metroidvania, in most games you often find pretty cliche environments, but while Hollow Knight follows roughly fantasy conventions, the insect theme makes every area feel really fresh and unique. This, in turn, adds just to how much fun exploration is in the game. Getting to a new area is always exciting, and there’s just so much to discover, so many secret areas, that it never gets boring.

And unlike most metroidvania games that deploy a sort of fake non-linearity (it feels non-linear, but usually you can’t break the official order of progression), Hollow Knight is one of the few games that is actually non-linear. Sometimes you need upgrades to get past a certain point, but at many points in the game, you really have options of where to go next, and each playthrough can feel decidedly different based on the order in which you approach the various areas.

So, is the game perfect? Obviously not. Its main plot remains frustratingly vague, so much so that when I reached the final boss the first time, I had no clue why I fought him or over what. You can interfere a lot about the background story just from the area design and the various utterings of NPCs, but you never have a clear idea of what’s going on. Also, to fight the real final boss, you have to get through an area that suddenly introduces Meat Boy-like masocore platformer torture, with a very boring design that just adds challenge, but no style (saws, spikes and lots of death).

But otherwise, its one of the best, if not the best metroidvania I’ve played in a long time, and given the level of competition, shows just how remarkable the game is.

Doctor Who S9 Specials (2015-2016)

<< Doctor Who 2005 series >>

The two specials between the 9th and 10th season show that Moffat is at best when doing self-contained episodes, not managing a larger myth arc or any larger arc at all. Both specials are quite different from each other and do different things well, but they stand out as some of the most enjoyable stand-alones Moffat has written for the series in some time.

The Husbands of River Song is basically the swansong for River, and its a pretty neat one. She initially was more of a high-concept, living a life in reverse to the doctor’s personal time stream (first meeting of the doctor with her was her “last”), but what really made her work was actress Alex Kingston, who managed to create one of the few characters that felt on par with the doctor and not just like a sidekick, like most of his companions.

Part of her appeal was both her self-assuredness and her occasional bouts of amorality, and the hint that despite her relationship to the doctor, she lived a whole, interesting life without him, one that could have easily led to a spin-off. Here we see basically the real final meeting before her demise, and while it somewhat contradicts her original concept, it was an excellent way to highlight what was so great about her, both her rogue-ish ways and her ability to meet the doctor at eye level. The ending was sweet and just perfect.

The second special, The Return of Doctor Mysterio, is basically a Doctor Who attempt to do a superhero story, and while it doesn’t exactly capture American superhero story vibes well, it’s an amusing yarn with two main chars besides the Doctor (said superhero and his love interest) who have such a strong dynamic that at times it feels like the Doctor himself is the superfluous side character here.

It’s not a deep story, there are aliens out to conquer Earth, there’s a guy the Doctor met as a kid and accidentally transformed into a superhero and there’s his headstrong love interest (basically the Lois Lane to Doc Who’s copy of Superman, only that Superman is not a reporter here but a male nanny). But its fun to watch for the characters alone, and sometimes that’s all you need to enjoy something.

The Price You Pay (2018)

It’s been some time since I’ve caught myself gleefully giggling while reading a book. Ostensibly a crime novel about a drug dealer trying to get to the bottom of a murder in his apartment building, it’s really a story about future shock in the criminal milieu (heavy quotes around that, as this is in no way a realistic depiction of any milieu). It’s about asymmetric warfare between a conventional (heavy quotes again) organization of assassins who usually go after established organizations or public people, and not a dealer who is utterly plugged into a near-future zeitgeist.

This means money is untraceable and completely hidden in the deepest, most dynamic parts of the darknet, where organization (on the dealer’s end) is an ad-hoc construct of strangers who have been hired via yesterdays newest app and don’t even know that they are part of a stratagem to take down and embarrass killers. Where no pre-defined, hidden fallback locations exist (just using Airbnb) and no information about the opposition can be revealed, as there are no henchmen at all, just a super-lean org chart of one.

All this is entirely told from the POV of the dealer, who is one of the most amoral, likable characters I’ve read about for some time, and if the whole tone wouldn’t be so funny it would be utterly blood-chilling and sad and terrible. This is not a book about the triumph of good over evil, this is about the triumph of someone utterly sociopathic doing awful things to equally despicable people, and while you can’t help acknowledge just how bad everything (and the main POV) is, it’s hard not to enjoy it as well.

And just like the main POV in the book is thrilled to get the chance to give into his darkest impulses (even as a dealer even always knew where the line was and what not to do), as a reader we love it the moment he cuts loose and goes fully mental.

Young Sheldon S1 (2017-2018)

I watched the first two or three season of the Big Bang Theory when it aired, then stopped when I felt it began to run around in circles. I’m kinda surprised it managed to survive this long, but never felt the need to revisit the seasons I missed. So when I heard there was a spin-off about Sheldon’s childhood I was even less interested and probably would never have tried it, if I hadn’t been bored on a flight.

Color me surprised how much I actually liked it, enough to search out and see the rest of the season. The major difference here is the tone. It’s still a comedy show, but at the same time, it feels like it has taken lessons from drama series, which makes it feel much more substantial and weighty than the series from which it was spun-off. It doesn’t go for cheap jokes based on walking cliches, it goes for the humor that comes from the friction of real human beings trying to live together, even when they have widely different perspectives.

Every cast decision is perfect: all of the characters have quirks, but none of them are flanderized by them and bury the human character beneath it. Even Sheldon shows more willingness to grow and remain flexible than his original alter ego on the Big Bang Theory ever did while remaining true to his character. I wouldn’t have expected this to be possible, but I have to say its more than welcome.

If there’s one sour note, its that at the end of the first season some continuity crept into the show with Sheldon trying to get his grandma and one older physics professor together, which felt like the writers running out of material and reverting to the tricks that made the Big Bang Theory a success but also boring in the long run (the focus on relationship continuity).

Salt and Sanctuary (2016)

Getting the difficulty right in an RPG is much more difficult than in an action adventure, say a typical Zelda game, as the build-variety of characters in an RPG is much wider. Which is why people can have widely different experiences, which per se is not a bad thing, but makes it sometimes difficult to understand where others are coming from when it seems that they played a completely different game based on their experiences.

Salt and Sanctuary is a 2d action-RPG with a few nods towards metroidvanias, although this aspect is far less pronounced than in a full-blown metroidvania. Getting new abilities only really comes into play much later into the game, and while they are essential to proceed, they don’t feel as meaningful to the core gameplay as double jump or dashing in a real metroidvanias. Here the abilities feel more like keys to advance beyond barriers than upgrades that lets you do what you’ve already done, only better.

The game is much more focused on your character build and your weapon specializations. And unlike most metrodivanias, either those of the more action-adventure variety or even others with more RPG characteristics, few of them allow you to out-level enemies like Salt and Sanctuary does. The game is often called a soulslike metroidvania, which translates to losing your exp (Salt in this case) at the place where you died (and you can get it back if you go there), and some harder common enemies.

I say harder because apart from a few situations, I never had much of a problem throughout the game. In theory, the bosses should be hard, but again, based on your build experiences can vary. I usually tend to prefer heavy strength-based builds in most RPGs with single characters, and this worked quite well here. Difficulty-wise, I had probably only three boss fights that gave me a bit of trouble (the first, the final boss and one in between), and the one I had to redo the most was actually the first one.

Once I got past that hurdle, I seemed to kill most bosses on the first or second try (okay, some did take maybe a few more times, but not an excessive amount of attempts like the first). Interestingly, after I won and read up on the game, I found out that some of the bosses I killed on my first try without any problems really were absolutely roadblocks for others, while vice versa some of the harder bosses for me didn’t pose any challenge for others. It really shows the difference between RPGs and action-adventures, whereupon in the later most people will face bosses with almost the same abilities and skills and hence will have very similar experiences, independent of how good they are at the game itself.

Compared to some action-adventures, you have options to approach difficult situations and its really not that hard (especially the bosses). You still will die a lot though, because the game occasionally takes cheap shots at you (some of the deadly traps are quite hard to see given the already muddy visuals) and common enemies can often stunlock you with no way to escape.

Although, one aspect of the game I utterly hated is fall damage. During my playtime I thought of Salt and Sanctuary as that game that wanted me to jump to my death. It tantalizingly dangled an abyss before me, and each and every time I thought about jumping to see what was down there, it killed me. There are maybe one or two situations in the whole game where it’s a good idea to jump without seeing where you will land, but in almost every other instance, it will kill you.

I’m not sure its really a problem of the game, its just that almost every other exploration-based platformer has conditioned me to explore every nook and cranny, and while I remember some 2d games with fall damage, they are quite rare and usually don’t go well together with this type of game. Since the game is designed around this, sadly, you couldn’t even change it, as, without the fall damage, you would be able to get to areas you aren’t supposed to go yet, but on the other hand it makes the game feel a bit bipolar, as it wants you to explore but at the same time punishes you when you do.

Also, there are some more advanced platforming elements later (like vanishing platforms) and while the controls, for the most part, are okay, they feel more designed for beat’em up games/2d fighting games, than pure platforming, which becomes an issue later. The platforming sections are not too long and demanding, but the controls are a bad fit for them and make them decidedly unfun to play.

So, overall, would I recommend the game? Not sure. Once I really got into it, I wanted to see it through and there’s a lot of variety in areas and monsters. I know that most soulslike games are built around deliberate actions, but to me, this always translates to games where my characters move more sluggish than what I’m used to. I can adapt, but it just doesn’t feel as enjoyable as more faster-paced games. The whole save spot system with the altars and idols was not overly intuitive gameplay-wise, even if it made sense setting-wise, and the consequences for doing something wrong or what wrong meant wasn’t too well explained.

The visuals certainly were unique, but I’m not sure I ever became overly fond of the style and the muddy colors really got on my nerve later on. The game also could have used an automap system, and while I know that some people religiously object to maps in soulslike games, it would have been a nice feature. You can get around without a map, most of the places are distinct enough, but it’s easy to forget some of the places you have to backtrack to later when you get the right items or ability.

Anyway, it’s probably a good soulslike in 2d, but if think you get a good metroidvania, think again.

The Delirium Brief (2017)

If I were to value the quality of a book on how fast I manage to get through it, then the latest Laundry book would be up there with most of my favorites. It’s not called reading anymore when you basically just suck out the content as fast as you can while going from page to page and still try to get the gist of whats happening without any loss of information. And while the book isn’t a supermassive brick, at four hundred pages it’s not a lightweight either.

Like the book preceding it, it goes exceedingly fast from zero to utter clusterfuck, probably even faster. If you thought that the Nightmare Stacks had upped the game, then the Delirium Brief will prove you can always go one step further. Basically, the Laundry was outed to the world at large in the wake of an alien elven incursion in the last book, and the repercussions from that event are basically the firestarter for the events here, that show another invasion, the dismantling of most of the Laundry and a climax that leads to a change of the status quo even more shattering than what happened at the end of the last book.

It’s an incredibly exciting development for where the series goes next, but at the same time I’m wondering just how Stross will get out of that corner, because he didn’t just flip the conventions on their head, rather he threw them out, set them on fire and it’s everybody’s guess what’s up next.

There’s no map, because few writers ever venture so far, maybe not exactly out of their comfort zone per se, but the conventions of their own series. A few years ago when Stross started writing the Laundry series, I was a bit annoyed with him because he made disparaging comments about Butcher’s Dresden files series and then turned around and wrote his own take on urban fantasy, although urban horror would be more appropriate. I’m not saying the Laundry series is better, but it’s definitely more willing to really change the status quo of its own conventions, go to a place I wasn’t expecting to go and grow from something more to something incredibly less formulaic.

It’s not all roses, though. I mean I loved the book, but it’s not perfect. I do miss the slower moments that we still had a few books back. This is basically a tour de force that starts fast and just dials up the tempo every 50 pages. It’s almost non-stop action and sometimes a short breather would be welcome.

Bob is still old Bob. For all the changes he went through, and the implication that old Bob died and was replaced by a Bob simulacra running the Eater of Souls, or vice versa, he still acts like a massive beta (I know, terrible term, but sadly it just fits perfectly here). Just once I want him to go all-out ruthless and just do his thing without the massive amount of sperging about morals and ethics. Yes, I’m quite aware what that would mean, but come on, it’s getting ridiculous how Stross pussyfoots around his massive insecurities and attempts to remain human. We’re long past that.

Also, Stross’ epilogues are terrible. Would it be too much to ask for a few lines describing the aftermath and public reaction? I’m not expecting a lengthy Lord of the Rings ride home to the Shire, but give us something at least.

Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay (2018)

I feel like a broken clock when saying this, but the DCU animated movies have become a game of chance, some of them are quite good, some of them are just terrible. The latest Suicide Squad movie is another miss, with cheap visuals, a stupid plot and worst of all, terrible character dynamics. If for some reason you don’t know who the Suicide Squad is, it’s a gang of supervillains gang-pressed into doing black op missions on behalf of the American government, or at least Amanda Waller.

While most of the missions aren’t exactly brilliant, as per the recent live-action movie where they had to go against a threat raised due to the team being founded in the first place, the objective in Hell to Pay is even more stupid. Basically, both the Waller team as well as two additional teams of supervillains are going after a get-out-of-hell-for-free card.

It almost makes sense, as in-universe gods of various ilk walk the earth, but heaven and hell are far from proven and to believe that both Zoom and Vandal Savage care that much what happens to them after they die and are worried that they end up in hell, seems preposterous. Waller makes more sense since she thinks of herself as a good guy and yet knows what she is doing is highly questionable.

But you know, a stupid objective has never hurt an otherwise good movie much. Sadly, it’s pretty dire on every other front as well. The movie enjoys killing off characters pretty fast, even big name villains, but since the movie never makes the audience care about them in the first place, all the violence, and gore and killing big name villains feels childish and not all that consequential as its just a one-off and none of these deaths will have any long-lasting impact.

That said, while all of the characters are evil to some degree, better movies have managed to make the audience care about despicable people. Hell to Pay doesn’t even try, its all murderous backstabbing paradise from start to finish. It’s not just that these are evil people, its that they are so one-dimensionally evil that it gets pretty boring. I think even in a movie with no heroes, you still need a focus, somebody to root for, and here there’s almost nothing. Maybe Deadshot and Bronze Tiger, but even for them, there is only the barest amount of character work done.

In the end, I had to concede that the high point or only point of note about of the movie was the revelation of why Zoom was after the get-out-of-hell-for-free card in the first place. The rest is anemic and plain boring.