Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

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The recent sequel to the ultra-jingoistic 96 alien invasion classic was a positive surprise, though given that I had rather low expectations, it shouldn’t have been entirely unexpected. It sports the same mix as the original: another invasion, a certain we-can-do attitude in the presence of utter, nightmarish destruction brought on by an even bigger alien ship and various plans to fight back that get more desperate as events spiral out of control.

What I didn’t expect was how the sequel built on the foundations laid down by the first movie. Instead of US-centric jingoism, there is now human-centric jingoism that reminds me of old SF-novels and their humanity-is-superior approach and which shows that the humanity united theme of the original’s ending actually carried through. Also, unlike lots of invasion movies, humanity actually researched the technology left by the destroyed alien ships and used it to built an advanced defense system including local space-faring capabilities. Also typical for old space opera books, but rather rare in movies.

I wouldn’t say the movie is great, but for what it is, it’s very enjoyable. It starts with slowly mounting tension and the utter nightmare-inducing descent of the alien ship, packs in a neat mystery that is essential for the final part and beyond, has well directed, tense action (arguably even better than that of the original) and sports lots of clever plot twists which overall make it feel more ambitious in terms of world-building. And while there’s a lot of pandering going on, both to those who like the original as well as the humankind-uber-alles mindset in general, at least it has no major suspension of disbelief breaker like the winning strategy of the original.

If you want to see something like early space opera – slightly modernized but not too self-aware – brought to the big screen, this is your best bet.

Fred the Mermaid (2006-2008)

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Urban fantasy as a genre is pretty much pure entertainment with few works striving to be more, but even with most of it being fluff, there are some that are much more lightweight than others. The works of MaryJanice Davidson fall into the ladder category, amusing but mostly forgettable stuff. Characterization is utterly rote, plots are an afterthought and the prose is serviceable.

The Fred the Mermaid trilogy is about a female half-human, half-mermaid hybrid who has secretly lived among humans and gets involved with other mermaids and has three books to decide between a human and a mermaid love interest. She’s established as snarky and abstinent, but her stick (as well as that of all the other characters, who are just as one-dimensional) is only tolerable in small doses (maybe that’s the reason the books are so short).

As said, plots are an afterthought and utterly perfunctory. The worst offender in that regard is probably the second book, whose plot is summarized as, and there was a big meeting and then a decision was made. Yep, that’s pretty much it.

Another example why this is really fluff is the way Davidson handles her characters and how they react to major trauma. SPOILER ALERT In the last book Frederika goes from being all cuddly with her long-lost dad to breaking his neck once he reveals himself as a big bad. Instead of any psychological turmoil after that or at least a decent human reaction to having killed someone, she shows no sign of being at least a bit stressed out about that. Sure, there are people who react like that, but I somehow doubt Davidson intended Frederika to be some kind of sociopath.

It’s kind of odd, these are books based almost exclusively on the interactions between the characters, their conversations, not action, scenery descriptions, backstory or deep introversion. It’s all talk, talk, talk, but while most of it can be described as amusing and entertaining, there’s no depth to it. Characters remain one-note, and occasionally, as with the few kills that happen, characters react weird (and that’s a nice way of saying that author Davidson has only a perfunctory grasp of how to write realistic human beings once it goes beyond snarky, superficial dialogue).

Stiletto (2016)

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You wait almost forever (at least it felt like it) for a sequel to a book only to discover that the author ditched the narrator from the first book and instead made him part of an ensemble cast. Once I got over this, I have to say the sequel to surprise hit The Rook from Daniel O’Malley turned out just as great as his first novel, if somewhat different.

The Rook and Stiletto are arguably urban fantasy, or at least the setting is: there is a secret agency fighting supernatural threats while at the same time keeping them hidden from the public, there are all kinds of scary monsters running around. Still, both The Rook with it’s amnesia angle and the second with it’s ensemble cast and plot line about supernatural terror attacks and internal strife feels like it doesn’t follow exactly the same formula than most books in the genre do.

O’Malley is somewhat more inventive with his setting details, the agency defending the world, or at least Great Britain contains individuals whose powers feel like those of superheroes, yet they are entirely supernatural, while their opposition in the first book and somewhat ally in the second is another secret organization that does science-based biological augmentations, and has done for hundreds of years. The threats are also more original, not just common mystical creatures with a slight spin but entirely new creations that feels fresh and intriguing.

The long gestation time of the novel has not been wasted, O’Malley packs lots of stuff into the book, a major plot line, a minor one that still feels essential and makes the world feel more complex by not being connected to the major plot at all and lots of clever world-building in general, much more so than in the first book. Stiletto almost feels like O’Malley realized the lack of setting in the first book and overcompensates here, but instead of just deluding the reader with boring info-dump after another, he manages to integrate his world-building bits seamlessly into the narrative, making it part of the longer history that still informs the things going on in the present.

My favorite of those were two short, covert references to famous science fiction novels (Frankenstein and the Isle of Doctor Moreau) that fit perfectly into the background and enhance its fictional history instead of distracting from it.

Overall, it’s really nice to see a book that not only manages to fulfill expectations but to surpass them.

The Nightmare Stacks (2016)

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Switching from one genre to another is always a tricky proposition, especially if you and your readers might be at odds about what genre you’re writing in. The Nightmare Stacks is the 7th book in the Laundry series about a secret British government agency fighting occult threats, only that as of this 7th book it’s not secret anymore.

There are two kinds of urban fantasy settings (very generalized), the one where the supernatural world is hidden (Dresden Files for example) and one where its out in the open (Anita Blake series). In my experience, few urban fantasy series have depicted the point of transition (the recent Magic ex Libris Revisionary is one example), and the deeper reason for that is that most of them are, despite the urban and modern element, fantasies.

They are not interested in looking at it from an sfnal point of view, showing the effect that these revelations have on the culture, on people and how it shapes society. In my case, if I want to see these kind of stories, I rather go directly to the source, to science fiction that actually deals with things not based on magic or the supernatural.

One could argue that Stross laid down the rules of his setting from the beginning to be like science fiction, to be internally consistent, but at the end of the day it feels as real as PSI-based powers or attempts to scientify magic ala midi-chlorians, which might look good enough for some, but it’s still not the same as science fiction that deals with rather more ‘realistic‘ things.

So, why is changing your genre a tricky proposition? Because it might be that readers dig your stuff for entirely different reasons than you where expecting. Or maybe not. It does look like the Laundry series is in endgame mode and most people who are still with the series might hand around for the ending just to see where it lands, but to say that I like where its going would be a lie. Changing genre means focusing on different aspects than what drew me to the books in the first place, and it doesn’t really work all that well here.

One example is that The Nightmare Stacks contains long, very drawn-out sequences of what I can only describe as war- or combat-porn, detailed, long-winded descriptions of weapons and battle scenes that make the second half of the novel rather tedious and which feels completely at odds with earlier novels in the series and what they focused on. And while I do like the inclusion of Moorcock-style elves invading Britain much more than the silly and really annoying superheros in the previous book, it was much better for the lack of those boring fight scene and weapon descriptions.

Will I hang around for the next few novels in the series? Sure, but I’m less enthusiastic about the prospect of Stross looking at the ramifications of putting the supernatural in the spot-light, while diminishing the aspects of the earlier books that I actually enjoyed.

Antifragile (2012)

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Taleb’s latest book is tremendous fun from start to finish, managing to insult a large swath of people from all corners of life while integrating them with his philosophies about systems that are positively enhanced by shocks and how to navigate a world that doesn’t get this and is slowly constructing ever larger systems that are utterly fragile to the same.

The book is abrasive and offensive to almost everybody (though in such a playful way that only the truly dour and pathetic will take it personal) and yet offers such a wealth of deep insights that its easy to stop feeling attacked and just enjoy the ride, look at the brilliance beneath the surface aggressiveness and try to learn as much as you can.

After Fooled by Randomness and the Black Swan, I thought Taleb had used up all his novel material, instead he managed to upstage his earlier books by providing one that connects to both but provides more than just doom saying, instead here’s a utilitarian, positive spin that is easy to overlook, yet gives hope that all is not lost.

That said, one of the most interesting aspects of the book are the various and varied critics leveled against it, that make it clear that many of the points Taleb mentioned are easily misunderstood or intentionally deflected, as most of what Taleb is saying isn’t exactly hard or complex. It’s just that he attacks sacred cows, especially those build at the expense of others. Few people like to be called out as idiots (at best) or malicious frauds.

The Black Cauldron (1985)

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I knew next to nothing about this going in, only that it was based on the first book of a fantasy series (not a faithful adaptation I heard) and a major flop. Throughout the movie there is an odd mismatch of tone, it’s much darker than most Disney movies, going so far as depicting blood in one scene and some of the monster design is almost inspired in terms of generic but effective fantasy. On the other hand there are continued intrusions of Disneyfied elements: sweets fairies, a secondary pet character, a naive hero right out of the Disney handbook and other stuff. Also the most cuddliest pig I’ve ever seen.

Still, I did enjoy the movie, while still too childish in many ways (it’s Disney after all) it does tell a more or less coherent story that doesn’t feel too much like a collection of disconnected elements strung together by a flimsy narrative, like a lot of the earlier Disney movies. Some of the visuals, for the time, were quite cool and while I wished it had been more mature throughout, it definitely is a lot better than many of the reviews I’ve seen made it to be.

The Sword in the Stone (1963)

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Like most of the early Disney movies this has a strong episodic feel to it, but in this case this works for the movie, instead of against it. To some degree it has elements of a coming-of-age narrative, only that this stage is never reached. But Arthur as the young teen getting life lessons from Merlin and his owl is both highly amusing (when the lessons go wrong) and educational (often not for the reason Merlin expected) as well as gives great insight into the characters.

Each of the episodes gives Arthur glimpses of the wider world beyond what he has been exposed to in his mundane existence, and what might be if only he allowed himself to take a step, believe he can fly or dive as a fish. But as Merlin says from early on, he’s cheating. It’s not so much that Arthur is exposed to another path his life could take, but what Merlin is doing is broadening his horizon to the extend that Arthur probably couldn’t shy away from the wider world. The moment he accepted the lessons from Merlin, being a simple squire wasn’t his fate anymore.

The ending on the other hand is just odd. Not sure how the book on which this is based handled it, but in the movie it feels like the narrative does a large deus ex machina (given that this is Arthur it was expected but it still feels out of character for the way the narrative was going, not Arthur himself) and then stops at the oddest point in terms of pacing. But otherwise its quite a fine movie.

The Jungle Book (1967)

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I adore the old-school, hand-drawn animation of old Disney movies, but the Jungle Book, like lots of other older Disney movies, suffers from feeling like a compilation of events with a serious lack of an overarching narrative that is more than just an excuse. The movie suffers sadly not only from this, also from the fact that while the host of various secondary characters are great and quite amusing, Mogli himself is an utter blank apart from his motivation to remain in the jungle.

There’s just not much to him and without his character keeping an emotional grounding for the movie, it really feels a bit episodic and haphazard, so overall enjoyment hinges on whether you like the various parts. I do, but overall I can’t shake the impression of having seen a decidedly second-rate movie elevated somewhat but good secondary performances.

Dungeon of Zolthan (2016)

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Dungeon of Zolthan is small metroidvania that gets all the basic gameplay elements of the genre right but offers next to nothing else, that it feels kind of pointless. There are games that pare down to the core of what makes a genre tick and still manage to be inspirational and great fun, DoZ is just minimalist for its own sake without giving you any reason to like it beyond that.

Wizardry 6: Bane of the Cosmic Forge (1990)

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I can’t pinpoint exactly when I played Wizardry 6 the last time, but I’m reasonably sure it was more than 15 years ago (my old review was long done after the fact). So, when I went to replay it, my nostalgia goggles were fixed in place. And to be honest, some of the stuff I remembered fondly didn’t work all that well this time. Other stuff did, and some things I overlooked the last time made me appreciate the game even more.

So in order: puzzles, interface, dialog, battles and graphics. And writing for last.

While the game has a lot more puzzles than any previous Wizardry, most of them were rather enjoyable in the sense that when you reached the right situation and looked at the tools you had, you got an idea, tried it and it actually worked. The cheese and the wall break, the bubblegum and the jumping chest, the hook, the rope and the chasm, these were the kind of puzzles I liked.

The drawbridge puzzle is the exception, it’s one I never managed to solve myself, had to look it up now (and in the past) and even then wasn’t sure how one got the solution based on the rather opaque hints.

What often stumped progress in the game for me weren’t puzzles per se, but the lack of door signs. When I got the jail key, I remembered reading a one-time note saying something about a jail, but by that point I’d completely forgotten where it was (and sadly did not make a note) and had to brute-force all doors to find the right one. Even more obnoxious was the Sorcerer’s lair, where the door sign was after the locked gate, and for which you needed not a key but another item. This was another one I had to look up, something I do only sparingly and I got even more annoyed when I found out the solution.

Sometimes what stopped my progress were simple oversights, for example I didn’t realize that when I said yes to giving the ashes to Charon, I didn’t actually do it, but had to do it manually afterwards. This one was on me obviously.

The interface in general is something I enjoyed this time even more than the first time. Often my biggest problem in old games isn’t dated graphics or conventions, but obtuse interface design. Wizardry 6 has one of the most effective, leanest keyboard-only interface that allows you to do lots of action with a few key-strokes. You can actually activate the mouse, but I advice against it as it slows down everything and the interface wasn’t really designed for it.

One of the major things I enjoyed less this time around was the dialog-system, which is more or less keyword based. In general I think keyword-based systems are superior to dialog trees or god beware dialog wheels, but the implementation in Wizardry 6 simply sucks. It was often less keyword-sensitive and instead phrase-sensitive.

To progress I often brute-forced NPCs to get the clues needed to go on. Quite literally, as I killed all friendly NPCs on first sight, got their alternative quest items to see what I should be asking them and then reloaded (C&C at its finest). Even with that parallel construction, I sometimes had no idea what exactly to ask to get the required response: for example I never found out what to ask the Faery Queen to get the answers for the Delphi’s riddle.

Another case was Xorphitus, who after defeat asks why you killed him. Don’t reply with “pen”, as the system is too stupid to recognize the correct but wrongly worded answer. It’s only annoying because the wrong answer gets you an insta-kill, and I feel given my reply that wasn’t exactly warranted.

Despite all my mentioned misgivings up to now, the beating heart of the game is the battle system (round/phase-based) and you know what, if you manage to enjoy it then you’ll likely enjoy the game even if you quibble with other minor elements. And boy did I enjoy it.

Sure, save-everywhere invites save-scumming (which I did extensively) and which makes all Wizardry’s from this point on much easier than earlier entries in the series, but its still a fun system. All other game mechanics directly or indirectly work in support of the battle system, from item identification, spell casting, character leveling. Even resting, which is not the kind of resting you get for example in Eye of the Beholder where you can simply spam the rest button.

All it gets you in Wizardry 6 is a mean laugh, some stamina and MP, often little HP and very often a group of unfriendlies attacking your still sleeping characters. Every area without any close-buy fountain to replenish your health makes the gameplay into a march of attrition where you scrape buy on your last few hit and spell point and really hope you don’t get the big ninja family with grandfather, chunin and bottom line ninjas in your next fight.

Encounter design is great overall. Whenever you feel like you’ve become invincible, leveled your characters to the point where you can easily obliterate any current foes, you enter a new area and get stomped to the curb. A lot of CRPGs have a weak endgame where your characters are a force of nature that can easily beat everything. On the other hand, if you go through Wizardry 6 at a normal pace and don’t grind, then you’ll get your ass handed to you in each new area and the temple of Ramm at the end will eat you up.

Another thing about encounters is that different types of enemies turn up in each new area that force you to change tactics. Some enemies are utterly deadly if not killed on the spot, some need to be silenced first and then you can slowly whittle them down, in some areas the smart thing is to use fire shield extensively and so on. I think this was the point in the CRPG Addict’s final rating that pissed me off the most (apart from his fear of the nipple and his rather odd obsession about Bradley’s decidedly obnoxious humor in the Wiz 6 game guide). Yes, a lot of games try to achieve this variety in encounters, but few manage it as exceedingly well as Wizardry 6 does and it definitely is a cut above most standard-crawlers.

Also a warning, if you do not like the battles (hell, why are you playing a crawler?) then don’t play this.

In the beginning I said graphics penultimate and writing last, but actually those two points are somewhat connected for Wizardry 6 in my mind. I think at the point the game was published EGA was slowly trounced by the VGA standard and I remember few games where I preferred the EGA to the VGA look, but honestly, this is one of the rare cases where the EGA graphics really improve the the game.

Wizardry 6 takes place in a decrepit castle that is both figuratively and literally rotten to the core and slowly eaten away by the ages. The EGA graphics give it just the right, gloomy-looking, run-down visuals that more shinier VGA graphics would not have achieved. In a way, the EGA graphics are the perfect look for the game.

And they perfectly integrate with the story that comes out in bits and pieces during the course of the game. It’s all bleak and morbid. But it’s not just the story that’s important here, to enhance the sparse visuals there is a lot of writing illuminating the scenery, setting the mood in a way that is utterly perfect, even if the writing is more on the purple side of things. I wouldn’t want to read a whole novel written in that style, but here it works perfectly, tightly integrating with the graphics, the occasional conversations with friendly NPCs and not so friendly boss encounters, all in an over-the-top style that still fits the mood Wizardry 6 establishes from the beginning. Our party’s trip down the lanes of the Bane Castle is the final chapter in a horror story of the old Gothic-mode, and the writing here is the perfect fit for it.

One more thing I really like about the game is how tightly integrated the maps are. It’s easy to fault the game for including a variety of (maybe not always fitting) environments all next to each other (an amazon pyramid, dwarf mines, a major mountain, pirates, river styx and more), but then overlook how each area spirals back to the others, how useful the introductory hub-area of the castle remains up to the end of the game and just how well all the maps are designed.

In blobbers like Wizardry 6, mapping was part of the fun. I understand that people these days don’t have the patience for this anymore and it’s obviously easy to download full maps for the game everywhere, but that’s not the point. If mapping itself wasn’t such fun, integral part of the gameplay, we wouldn’t have the Etrian Odyssey series. This time around, I didn’t use any paper, but the Grid Cartographer software that essentially replaces grid paper but adds lots of neat tools and makes mapping even more enjoyable. Run it side by side with your dosbox-emulated copy of Wizardry 6 and you’ll have a great experience if you like mapping at all.

Compared to the sprawling massiveness that is the immediate sequel, Wizardry 6 is a tightly designed, almost perfect exercise in CRPG design that evolved the basics from the previous games in the series in a way that felt both like an act of obeisance and also of improvement. It’s an achievement, one that has stood the test of time and can be enjoyed today just like yesteryear.

P.S. Another essential link for this game is the Cosmic Forge editor, not because of the editing, but due to countless bug fixes and mechanic enhancements it provides (for W6 as well as W7 and W8).