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.

[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]

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.

The Sixth Gun: Cold Dead Fingers (2011)

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First collection of Cullen Bunn’s (writer) and Brian Hurtt’s (artist) on-going western series about six guns from (most likely) hell that give its owners supernatural powers but obviously also have some drawbacks, among them how they warp their owners. It’s all about the set-up, an old, blood-thirsty civil war general and his henchmen who seem hell-bent on bringing on some vague threat (most likely a supernatural apocalypse) and the good guys who try to stop him, even if they have to bear the cross of becoming owners of the hell guns themselves.

Excellent art, writing is pretty good (though if you’re looking for a character-driven narrative you’re definitely in the wrong place here), the pacing is fast and keeps everything flowing nicely and the first volume is self-contained enough to leave the reader with hunger for more without making him feels that the story is stringing him along. All in all a pretty got introductory art and seeing how many more volumes are out there, I wonder what more the series has to offer, since at times it seemed like it was firing on all cylinders already.

Doctor Who S8 (2014)

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I really had high hopes for Capaldi as the new Doctor. Last season slipped from must see to maybe, but I hoped a new Doctor would reinvigorate the show. Instead it got worse, with a completely unlikable Doctor who tries to find out whether he’s a good guy or not (really, a thousand years old alien gets the midlife crisis, how novel) and a companion who discovers that what drives her relationship with the Doctor is an endless stream of lies. Everything on the show, every filler episode, every small detail leads back to the big theme that has been present since Moffat’s run on the show started, that the Doctor is the black hole at the center of the narrative, warping everything that happens until it leads back to him.

Sure, it’s called Doctor Who and he’s the main character, but a show that’s merely about exploring him, his nature whether good or bad, has become an endless boring and tedious navel-gazing that is a far call from showing the wonders of the universe with its often-times lightweight and frivolous but also fun adventures. And Moffat really can’t do finales, he builds them up like Russell T. Davies did, but the payoff is never worth it. Damn frustrating.

Nice Dragons Finish Last (2014)

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It’s not often that you feel an urban fantasy novel is doing something new and different and when it comes in such a compelling package it’s a real treat. Part of the tradition of urban fantasy novels that take place in the near future where the supernatural has come out and magic has become common, this one deals with the looser-kid of a dragon family (yep, dragons in human form, still able to transform into big, scaly things if needed) who is used as disposable collateral in a complex power play by the matriarch of his family and who has to learn fast to survive not only various enemies but his own family as well.

While it’s not 100% original, most of the set-pieces still feel very common if you read enough of the genre (from the early forerunners like Shadowrun to recent stuff like the Kate Daniels series), I don’t remember all that many stories told from the viewpoint of a dragon spawn (actually the only one that comes to mind are the Firebreather comics from Phil Hester and Andy Kuhn) and it’s fun to see said spawn trying to survive and as a reader learn why he is the way he is. This is definitely one where I can’t wait to read the sequel.