Comic Reviews for Late April

  • All Star Western 8: This continues to be a great comic. Palmiotti and Gray manage to make Jonah Hex a complete bastard and somehow still likable. In this issue he gets to play off a group of villains who can’t be faulted for expecting him to side with them, some legitimately good vigilantes as opposed to Hex’s amoral attitude and the still wholly unsuited for crime fighting or police work Dr. Arkham. Moritat’s art isn’t quite as polished here as it has been, though it is still excellent. And the back-up is just the greatest. A
  • Aquaman 8: Reis’s art is perfect superhero art and Johns is as on as he’s ever been. In this is vintage Johns, weaving a simple but satisfying superhero story with great skill. The amount of characterization for both the young Arthur and his team, the Others, is amazing considering the small space Johns has to tell it. John’s young Aquaman is angry and reckless, not quite as heroic as one would expect but young enough that he is understandable. Plus, there are some great moment between Aquaman and Mera. B+
  • Batman 8: Another great issue of Batman from Snyder and Capullo. I get the feeling that the Court of Owls hasn’t been discovered by Bruce because they haven’t been active for some time, given the wide range of targets they are attacking. Things look really grim for Gotham and for Batman and though I know Batman will win because he is Batman, I still like how this is shaping up. It is a great start for this sort-of crossover. B+
  • DCU Presents: Challengers of the Unknown 8: This is a bad comic. I had high hopes at the start of this, even with the reality show backdrop, but this just doesn’t make a lot of sense. It doesn’t even have an ending. It just sort of stops with no resolution. It leaves a significant bad taste. D
  • Flash 8: This is good stuff. Flash explores the Speed Force and meets Turbine, a new version of his old rogue the Top. I liked the explanation for the accidents caused by the speed force and why exactly the Flash can use it. The main draw, as usual, is the art. Manapul is the best. A
  • Green Lantern Corps 8: The start of the trial of John Stewart leaves me cold, but Guy being commended by the Guardians is one of the best twists this title has had in years. Guy is such a jerk I can’t see this lasting long, but his bafflement was worth it for this issue. B
  • Justice League 8: I love John’s more comedic take in this comic. Green Arrow’s attempts to join the league play out like an episode of the old JLU cartoon, though I am less found of the Martain Manhunter part. Even though all of these characters are serious in their own titles, in JL they seem to be cutting loose and having fun. It is a good take. The Shazam back-up is nice so far, but no a lot has happened. B+
  • Kirby Genesis 7: This is still chaotic, but finally there are some answers. I love the chaos. As long as the last issue brings things home satisfactorily this has been one fine series. This is really good. I’ll have more to say when its finished. A-
  • New Mutants 41: I realized something with this issue: I don’t really care about this comic anymore. I liked it when I started reading it. This issue should have been a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun. The team goes to Madripoor for a night out and just party. If I cared at all about the relationships of these characters I would have loved this. But I just don’t care. C
  • Supergirl 8: I think this is the best I’ve seen George Perez’s art look in a long time. It is really good. I also like that this issue starts to integrate Kara into Earth civilization. The reintroduction of Silver Banshee in a possible more heroic role is great. I really like Siobhan as a supporting cast member for Supergirl. Another good issue. B
  • Superman 8: There really isn’t anything here because there is never any doubt that Superman is going to reject Helspont’s offer. The alternate reality is a terrible possible future, but not a likely one. The best parts are the bits with the supporting cast. This book is still much better than the first 6 issues, but there is not a lot worthwhile in this issue. C-
  • Voodoo 8: If this was the route this title was going to take, then they should have done this 3 or 4 issues ago. Fallon was an interesting character, and killing her sucks. It makes most of the first 7 issues seem like a waste. I am still interested to see how this whole thing turns out, but I am mostly staying for the art. Sami Basri just gets better and better. I like him almost as much as Manapul or Chiang. C
  • Wonder Woman 8: Azzarello and Chiang’s trip through twisted myth gets back on track after an off issue. For a superhero title, WW feels surprisingly like anything might happen. This issue is back to the high quality of the first few. As always, Chiang’s art is phenomenal A-

Video Game Archaeology: Low G Man

It is time for more Video Game Archaeology! Video Game Archaeology is my monthly exploration of an artifact video game found during my excavations of various bargain bins and yard sales; an examination of a game cast off and long forgotten. This month’s game is Low G Man: The Low Gravity Man, an action game from Kid and Taxan for the NES.

 

Low G Man was released in 1990 by Taxan. Before playing it for VGA, I was not familiar at all with it. I had heard some people refer to it as a joke, as though Low G Man was a comically awful game, only worth remembering for how badly it failed. Knowing nothing else, I was content to leave my knowledge at that. Then I learned that KID had developed it and it jumped to the top of my list of old games to play. Though they stayed alive into the 2000’s making Japanese visual novels, KID was best known to me as a solid developer of NES action games, specifically the GI Joe games. Since I enjoyed those games so much, I was eager to see more of their oeuvre. While I wasn’t overwhelmed by it, Low G Man wasn’t disappointing either. It was just a kind of good NES game.

Low G Man is a middle of the road NES action game, generally well made but Lacking the polish or spark of a truly great game. There is nothing brokenly wrong with the game, but neither does it do anything to distinguish itself from the multitude of similar games for the system. Low G Man tries, though. The first part of the attempt to give Low G Man an identity is right there in the title. The title character has a “low gravity suit” that allows him to jump incredibly high. As in about 2/3 of the screen to start with, and power ups that increase it significantly. It takes a bit to get used to the height of the jumps, but it works. Except that most of the levels are not designed to incorporate the high jumps. Yes, the player can jump higher than the screen, but there is little reason or incentive to do so. The second distinguishing characteristic of Low G Man is the two part fighting system. The player has two main weapons, a freeze ray and a spear. The ray, which I assume is supposed to be some sort of EMP gun since the enemies are mostly robots, doesn’t actually damage enemies; it merely stops them. The spear is needed to damage enemies. So first the enemy must be frozen, the stabbed to death with the spear. The problem is that the spear and gun share a button, making it easy to accidentally use the wrong one. While it is satisfying to freeze an enemy, then jump on its head to stab it repeatedly, it mostly just grinds the action to a halt. It works for boss battles, but for most of the rest of the game it is tedious and awkward. What keeps Low G Man from being great is that its signature gameplay features are either badly implemented or simply bad ideas. It feels much like the first Mega Man game: all the parts are there for a classic, but it doesn’t quite come together. Unfortunately, there was no Low G Man 2 to sand off all the warts.

Though there was no sequel, this game does share a lot with the GI Joe games, especially the first one, on the NES. Both games have 3 part stages, with occasionally controllable vehicles. The music is similar, and the graphics are almost identical. Really, the graphics are very good. Though too often the background is black, when out in the open you can see the player characters long hair wave as he jumps. Both the GI Joe games and Low G Man feel the same. I am willing to consider GI Joe the polished classic to Low G Man’s rough draft. The only thing that was really dropped was the cumbersome spear fighting. Though the emphasis on jumping high is gone, Snake Eyes still jumps absurdly high.

Low G Man is not a must play. It is just another competent action game in the veritable sea of action games on the NES. For fans of KID’s other NES games, though, it is worth checking out Low G Man. Just remember that it is an NES game, and therefore quite, frustratingly difficult.

2nd Quest Part 3: Link’s Awakening

In the circles I frequent, both online and in real life, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening is considered by many to be one of the premiere games in the series, mentioned up there along with A Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time. For the longest time I could not understand the love Link’s Awakening received. It was just a smaller, talkier LttP. Plus, it was on the dark often blurry original Gameboy screen. I was never able to push through and really get started in large part because it was just so hard to see. For my 2nd Quest, I played the Gameboy Color’s DX version on my 3DS. Playing it when I could actually see what I was doing made a ton of difference. Now that I’ve beaten it, I still don’t understand the hyperbolic love this game gets. Link’s Awakening is phenomenal for a Gameboy game, but it is greatly hampered by the limitations of that system.

Link’s Awakening does an admirable job cramming what is essentially A Link to the Past on to a Gameboy cart. However, there are some drawbacks. Some come from elements abandoned from the original Legend of Zelda that Link’s Awakening decided not just to bring back but to expand upon, like the side scrolling rooms where new items were hidden. Those are more numerous and larger in LA and they are not particularly good. Most of those segments could have easily been removed. Then there is the limiting, at least after having played later Zelda games, A Button and B Button weapon set up. Sure, Link’s Awakening makes the sword optional, but I still spent way too much time in the menu changing items. This is partly due to the games laudable attempt at more complex puzzles by mixing a variety of items into their solutions. Puzzles have more steps to their completion, but in between each of those steps is pausing the game, going to the menu and changing equipment around. It seriously breaks the flow of the game.

Some of this could have been alleviated by not having the power bracelet be an equipable item. It is the same with the shield. The shield could have just been automatically equipped, like the original LoZ. Really, Link’s toolset is pretty lackluster here. There are the usual tools: bow, hookshot, and bombs, with only a few new or interesting ones. Link’s Awakening is the first appearance of the ocarina, which would play a large part in several games to come. There is also the Roc’s Feather, which allows Link to jump. It is an interesting tool for the 2D games, but Ocarina’s auto jump made it superfluous to most future games. Because of the limited tools, Link’s Awakening feels like the most generic Zelda game.

At least the dungeons are largely good. The first couple are pretty basic, for obvious reasons, but after that they get to be really good. Except for Level 5, it relies on making the player fight the same mini-boss, an exceptionally easy mini-boss, four times. Which in and of itself wouldn’t be so bad, but he only appears in the four fighting rooms in a specific order, meaning that a player who takes the wrong route through the dungeon might have to run through it as many as four times. It is some tedious crap. That is just a small hiccup, ignoring that these are some really good dungeons.

People also talk about how charming LA setting is, the island of Koholint in place of the usual Hyrule. I’ll agree to that some, but not to any real extent. With one exception, the “charming” townsfolk are just mostly the same as the residents of the average video game town. Okay, that is too harsh, the game does give several of them a little more than that, but for the most part they are just townsfolk. Marin, Link sort of love interest, is well realized. She is a genuinely interesting character. There are other supposedly charming moments, including a wealth of references to Mario games. Those are pretty neat, but a quick picture of Peach or stomping some Goombas really doesn’t do a lot for me. Though I did like the appearance of Wart from Super Mario Bros 2, since it is at least thematically appropriate. There are more references to other games, like an enemy that looks suspiciously like Kirby, which does add to the whole dream world feel.

One of the biggest problems I had with the game was how often it would stop the player to give them some useless piece of advice. This is a complaint often leveled at newer entries in the series, especially since Twilight Princess onward, but I think it is worse here than in other games. It is worst with rocks and other lift able things. If the bracelet is not equipped, then every time it stops the player to tell them its too heavy. It is absurdly easy to bump up against something and have to go through that. I found it infuriating.

 
Some of my complaints are admittedly rather nitpicky, but there are enough to hamper my enjoyment of the game. Link’s Awakening is still a really good game. Especially when compared to other gameboy games. It is head and shoulders above most of them but compared to most of the Zelda series, it feels like something of a runt. This one belongs squarely in the liked, not loved category. It was certainly better than Zelda 2, though.

 

Memories of Chrono Cross

There are few more divisive games than Chrono Cross. While it garnered almost universally terrific review at release, the public at large seems to be split. The reason for this is quite simple: Chrono Cross is an absolute terrible sequel to Chrono Trigger. That is not to say that it is a bad game. Far from it. Chrono Cross gets almost everything right, it only falters when it tries to connect to Chrono Trigger. Nearly every time a part of Cross echoes Trigger is stumbles.

Honestly, I absolutely love Chrono Cross. Both because it is a great game and because of my memories of the time when I played it for the first time. I came to the PS1/N64 generation of consoles pretty late, not getting a 64 until Christmas ‘99 and then a Playstation near my birthday (October) the next year. Chrono Cross was one of the numerous RPGs is bought the next year, flush with money from mowing lawns and too old to ride my bike but still too young drive. Plus, that summer I has home alone. Part of my family went on an RV trip to the west, to see the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, but anyone who has spent a week in an RV with 8 or so people know why I declined to join them. My two brothers closest in age spent a month or so with an uncle 500 miles away, but I didn’t go with them either. So at home, with my Dad who was working all day, after I finished whatever mowing I had to do that day I had the house, and TV, to myself. The games I played that summer! Final Fantasy IX, Final Fantasy Tactics, Legend of the Dragoon, Lunar 2 and Chrono Cross. Amazing games (save for LoD) and while I still would rate most of them among my favorites in the system, but Chrono Cross is the game I most associate with that summer, if only for the summery tropical aesthetic.

If there is one place where no one can argue that Chrono Cross doesn’t shine, it is the presentation. The music is one of humanity’s greatest achievements (warning, the last statement may contain a small amount of hyperbole.) The graphics, while primitive by today’s standards, hold up better than nearly any other 3D PS1 game. The character designs are great, and the colorful, tropical world is still all too unique. Chrono Cross undeniably looks and sounds incredibly good.

Chrono Cross did carry a few things over from Trigger in a good way. Like the lack of random battles, though it didn’t do as well as Trigger. In Trigger many encounters were built into the map, in Cross there are enemy sprites that when engaged zaps the players to usual battle screen. In another way, though, Cross takes the no random battles further by eliminating experience points. In stead of gaining levels by fighting battles, in Cross players get star levels by beating bosses. Other than for some supplementary stat increases after the five or so battles following a level, there is no reason to ever fight a non-boss battle. The forced level let developers hone the difficulty much more tightly. All players are going to have roughly the same stats, so they know exactly how tough the boss can be. Chrono Cross is one of the tougher RPGs I’ve played, a fact easy to forget after a decade of New Game +. The somewhat higher difficulty is tempered by Cross letting players run from any battle. Even boss battles. This means that there is no good reason to see the game over screen. If your element layout or strategy isn’t working, just run away and reset everything. The system all work together, designed to work in concert rather than just things thrown against the wall. It emphasizes strategy over simply making numbers bigger.

None of that would matter if the actual battle system didn’t work just as, which it fortunately does. Each character has 7 stamina per turn, which can be used to attack or to use an element. Weak, medium and strong attacks take 1, 2 and 3 stamina points respectively, but they each open up the characters grid the corresponding amount if they connect. Casting a spell, or an element as they are called in this game, takes a full 7 stamina, but it can be done as long as the character has at least one stamina point, allowing them to accumulate a deficit of up to 6. Effective strategizing means using using enough attacks to open up the grid, but not letting the whole team fall into a deficit, which allows the enemies a free turn. Despite being a rather novel set up, the battle system is surprisingly intuitive. It never feels overly complicated or different for the sake of being different, despite changing plenty of things from Chrono Trigger . There is no MP and it is completely turn based. Instead of learning abilities, with the exception of 3 unique techs for each character, there are only elements and the grid. Each character has a grid on which the player can but spell elements, each of which can be cast once per battle. Since the player can’t just spam their best attack over and over, they must rely on smart allocation of elements. The battle system is good enough to make you want to fight battles even though there is absolutely nothing gained from doing so.

The story, while not as good as the gameplay or graphics, has its moments. Early on it is terrific. It aims for poetic and actually hits it. There are constant references and allusions to dreams and memories and conflating the two, setting up the nostalgic “what is things were different” yearning that is the tone for the game. The dreamlike state, starting with the actually dream sequence at the beginning, never really goes away. The two realities work because one in not wholly better than the other. Serge is only alive in one world, but in his home world nearly all of the Viper Manor characters have been killed. It actually makes it hard to decide which one is the preferable “real” world. When the dragons show up things kind of go to crap, but there are still plenty of great moments. The dreamy-ness of the plot helps excuse some of its shortcomings, but not all of them. The first six or seven hours or so really work well, but after that it kind of sketchy.

One part routinely pointed out as a weakness is the numerous, thinly developed party. I will not argue that the majority of the party is well-developed, but I will argue that the large party is an asset rather than a fault. The characters that matter, Kid, Lynx and Harle, are all well rounded. Most of the rest have only small windows of importance, and some have absolutely none. However, many have their own stories going on outside of Serge’s. The whole world seems connected, with many of the characters having pre-existing relationships, but it also as though Serge’s search into the mystery surrounding him is not the only thing going on for many of the characters. There is the whole Viper Manor group, which numbers about a dozen character and while most of their story can be uncovered over the course of the game, plenty of the dots are not necessarily connected for the player. The individual characters aren’t particularly well-developed, but they all feel like pieces of a well-developed world.

As I mentioned earlier, the game usually falters when it refers back to Chrono Trigger. While they both take place in the same world, the only mentions of places familiar from Trigger are uniformly insulting and terrible. All the happy endings have been quickly erased, and the sleepy town of Porre is now a warlike empire. Squaresoft did seem to know which dangling plot thread from Trigger players wanted so deal with, that of the missing Schala, but they dealt with it in an entirely unsatisfying manner. The questions of what happened to her aren’t really answered, and Magus doesn’t even make an appearance. Also, Schala is Kid kind of and it doesn’t make sense. The story really goes off the rails the more it tries to be a sequel to Chrono Trigger. The worst part of the battle system, the sparse and useless double techs, is a tacked on hold over from Trigger. It almost seems like Chrono Cross goes out of its way to not be a satisfying follow up to Chrono Trigger.

Removed from the idea that it is supposed to be a sequel, Chrono Cross is one of the absolute best RPGs on the Playstation. It can be hard to separate the two games though, and Cross can only suffer from the comparison. The two games in the Chrono series are both excellent, but they really don’t seem to get along with each other.

The 3 Stooges Review

The 3 Stooges is exactly what one would expect from a 3 Stooges movie. Larry, Curly and Moe beat each other up and get into a variety of moronic mishaps for about an hour and a half, featuring some fine slapstick and physical comedy. For the most part the movie works. The 3 Stooges may be low-brow, but it is undeniably funny.

The plot of 3 Stooges is thin to nearly no-existent. The stooges are orphans who are never adopted. Stealing the plot right from The Blues Brothers, the orphanage needs an obscene amount of money to keep from being shut down and the stooges set off to save it. There is only the barest of nods to plot actually holding the thing together. What is there is mostly an excuse to get the Stooges to somewhere else for the next scene. The writer(s) seemed to realize that there is no story featuring the Stooges that can be maintained for a full movie, so the film is divided into roughly 30 minute segments. While there are some weaker scenarios, like part of the Stooges trip to the hospital, there are also some great ones, like Moe accidental audition for a reality show and his antics toward the cast of Jersey Shore.

The format mostly works. Nearly every scene featuring the adult Stooges is great. It is the other part of the film where things falter. The young Stooges are quite terrible, but they don’t really have any charm either. The thin villains aren’t much fun either. But the adult Stooges are spot on, as is Larry David as Sister Mary Mengele. What is great is the attention to detail in the film. Any line that is not explicitly a joke is there for a reason. The potential adoptive father’s being a jerk is not just a one off joke, it is a clue to his real nature. When he shows up later it should no surprise that he only wants to help is they want to sue (He’s a lawyer.) Everything connects in a way that in a serious movie would be too precious, but it works here.

The 3 Stooges is more entertaining than it probably should be. It is the definition of mindless, but satisfying. It pleases my inner child to see Moe knock Larry on the head with a hammer, as does the elaborately choreographed three way fights. This movie is pure stupid fun.

*** Stars

Comic Reviews April ’12 Part 1

One might notice that I tend to rate comics rather highly. That is because I only buy stuff I like, so nearly every thing I review is from a series I like. If a series consistently is of a quality that I would rate a C or lower, the odds are good I will not be buying it for much longer. On with the reviews.

  • Action Comics 8:  Morrison and Morales first arc finally comes to an end. This has been a bumpy start to the new Superman, but it been mostly good. This issue is probably the best since the first. Superman stops Brainiac, of course, and there is plenty of great moments for nearly the entire supporting cast. Morales’s art is the best its been on this title in this issue too. All in all just a great comic. A-
  • Animal Man 8:Animal Man continues to be completely amazing. Jeff Lemire is amazing, and Pugh’s art is almost as good as Foreman’s was. Maxine shows more of her new powers and after an issue off the terror ratchets back up again. I still don’t quite understand how a family/horror comic works, but it definitely does. A
  • Batgirl 8: Gail Simone seems to be nearly done wallowing in the aftermath of Alan Moore’s thoroughly mediocre Killing Joke, finally done dealing with its ramifications on Babs and there are signs of moving on. For this series so far Simone has seemed determined to make Babs’ return from as painful for readers as it was for the character, but anytime the focus goes elsewhere Simone is at her usual high quality. There are some good scenes between Barbara and her mother, and the return of a great new villain. This issue is mostly good. B-
  • Batman and Robin 8:  This has been the secret best Batman book of the relaunch. Batman gets all the accolades, but B&R has been just as good. Here we get the aftermath of Damian killing Nobody at the end of last issue, and amazingly it is intelligent and reasoned rather than loud and melodramatic. This is a quiet, recovery issue where we see that the realtionship between Bruce and Damian may be strained, but it isn’t broken and neither is either of them. Plus, Pat Gleason continues to be awesome. B
  • Batwoman 8:  The second arc of this series has not been anywhere near as good as the previous one. Partially it is the loss of JH Williams III on art, part it the scattered nature of the story it is trying to tell. I applaud Williams and Blackman trying to push themselves, but so far I would classify this as a failure. Reeder recently left the book due to creative differences, and I can’t say I’m sad to see her go. Her art is normally great, but here it has been inconsistent and kind of bad at times. I’ve read some reviews that blame it on the inker, but whatever it is, the art just doesn’t look as good as it should. C
  • Frankenstein Agent of SHADE 8:  I really do not likes Wong’s inks over Ponticelli’s pencils. Instead of looking distinct and scratchy, it merely looks bad. The story here is much more personal than anything in this series so far. Frank and Lady Frank go on the hunt for their child, who they presumed dead but is actually missing. We get to see what drove the wedge between Frankenstein and his Bride, as well as see the manipulations of Father Time start to turn on him. Frankenstein is just a great character. This is a great book. A
  • Green Arrow 8:  Another issue that is interesting if not particularly good. The big problem here is the art, which occasionally looks really good but often fails to tell the story effectively. It took me several reads to parse some of the pages. There is a lot of weird going on here, with hive-mind triplicates and genetic experiment and a midget with a sniper rifle. I’m sticking around for at least a few more issue to see how this turns out, but I don’t think I could recommend this with any conviction. C
  • Green Lantern 8:  I enjoyed the first arc of the relaunched Green Lantern, but this issue feels like the first time Johns has been on track since before Blackest Night. We are finally getting some answers about the Indigo Tribe, plus Hal actually uses his ring to make some constructs. Mahnke’s is great as always. I thought Johns might be running out of steam on this title, but now I think he is back on track. B+
  • Justice League International 8:  I still really like Lopresti’s art. It has a simply a good, classic superhero look. Too bad the story here is just so painful. There are a few nice character moments here, like the little bit between Guy and Ice, but mostly it is stupidity on top of gruesome stupidity. It is lingering on the desperate, “look at how extreme we are” blowing up of the whole team while setting up a cliché new bad guy and adding in pointless new teammates. Other than the nice art, JLI is an insultingly bad book. D
  • Kirby Genesis 6:  The only flaw in this issue is that it has been too long since the previous one. This series gets better and better. At first the sheer number of heroes and monsters popping up can seem bewildering, but other than some clearly defined major players, the rest are just there to show that this is a world gone made with crazy awesome ideas. The tenous alliance of villains is showing cracks, but they may have already won. Which of course they haven’t, but those are the stakes we are playing at here. The fact that these are largely Kirby’s rejected ideas just shows how many awesome stories he had to tell. A
  • Mega Man 12:  I love this series so much. This issue manages to cover the entire Wily’s Castle section of Mega Man 2. It is non-stop action that can’t help but put a smile on the face of anyone who is familiar with the game. It manages to tell a story that anyone can understand while also tossing out some nods to old school Mega Man fans. I especially love Guts Man angrily taking down the Guts Tank and Mega Man learning how great Metal Blades are. This is pure fun. A
  • Men Of War 8:  If this is a preview of what Frankenstein is going to be like when Matt Kindt takes over for Lemire, then I think the book is in good hands. This issue is downright manic. For better or worse this feels like 2 or 3 issues worth of story crammed into one. Frankenstein and GI Robot have a fairly generic superhero team-up, they meet and fight then join forces to take down a larger threat, but it is set against the backdrop of WWII. The only problem is that it is jittery, trying to cram so much in that it just jumps from scene to scene. Still, it is a hoot. B
  • Saga 2:  I’m not quite as sold on this as the rest of the comics reading world seems to be. I like it, but I don’t love it. Some of it feels like it is trying too hard to be clever. Again, though, I do like it. There is good chemistry between the two lead characters and as goofy as the names for the bounty hunters are, they are interesting at first glance. Still, this issue feels far too brief. It is over almost as soon as it starts. I’m still on board, probably for the long haul if Saga gels into a consistent tone. B
  • The Shade 7 (of 12):  James Robinson has been at his best with this series and he continues to be. The Shade allows him to let is sometimes verbose writing go, as it fits with the character. This is probably the weakest issue of the series so far; it is a bit unclear as to how exactly things go down at the end. Or maybe its just been too long since I read the last issue and I do not quite remember what was going on. Either way, it is still enthralling, if a bit foggy. A-

What I Read in March

Another month with four new books read, which I guess is the fastest pace I can manage when I am rereading the Wheel of Time. Usually my WoT rereads are fast, slapdash things where I read only the parts I want, the Perrin parts early and the Mat parts late, while skipping the storylines that I don’t like quite as much, surprisingly Rand’s part. This time I am giving as close a read as I have since I first read them, which means each one is taking me about twice as long as it usually does. So four other books a month is about all I can manage.

The Blonde Lady
Maurice LeBlanc

This is apparently the second of LeBlanc’s Arsene Lupin detective-ish stories. Lupin is something like Robin Hood mixed with Sherlock Holmes. What Holmes is to solving crimes, Lupin is to committing them. There are two stories in this volume, which is all about Holmes, called Holmlock Shears, matching wits with Lupin. There are some what I am going to guess are translation issues, where words don’t mean quite what the characters seem to think they mean, but otherwise it is solidly entertaining. I don’t want to get in depth on the plot since this is a mystery. Lupin is wisely kept on the sidelines for most of the book, letting most of the story come from the detectives trying to stop his announced robberies. Lupin is a great character, dashing and dangerous but he has enough of that Robin Hood noble thief in him that readers can still root for him.

The Alloy of Law
Brandon Sanderson

Since I first discovered him a few years ago, or more appropriately when I was forced to discover him because it was announced that he would finish Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, Brandon Sanderson quickly became one of my favorite fantasy authors. Even though Mistborn is not my favorite thing he has written, I really like the first book but I think books 2 and 3 are flawed, when I heard that he was writing a follow up with a Western setting I was excited. The magic system in Mistborn is one of the most original I’ve encountered, especially when you weed out the ones that come off as weird for weird’s sake. Putting that in a Western, a genre that I unabashedly love, sounded perfect. Too much fantasy takes place in the same sort of faux medieval time period. It is always good to get out of that. Fortunately, Sanderson did not disappoint.

Alloy of Law is short for a fantasy novel, running just around 300 pages, but it accomplishes a lot in its short time. Since the world was not new, much of the usual world building could be eliminated, allowing for a greater focus on character and plot. Both of which delivered. Wax is a pretty great character, competent and brave but not with the sort of Godlike powers that many fantasy protagonists have. Wayne is perfect to complete a buddy cop routine with Wax. And Marasi doesn’t get quite enough time, but she is an interesting catalyst. The story follows Wax trying to solve some mysterious train robberies and kidnappings that seem to be impossible, which leads to him uncovering a plot involving corrupt cops and even more corrupt noblemen. Plus, Snaderson avoids spending too much time on the mechanics of his magic system, as he sometimes does.

Alloy is an adventure about magic cowboys trying to stop ghost trains. Conceptually, it is perfect. Even with its short length, t manages to be a meaty, enjoyable adventure. Its only real flaw is that it leaves the reader really wanting more, and the internet seems to be telling me that this is a stand alone entry in the series. Stand alone books should not have cliffhangers! More, I want more.

The Shadow Rising

Robert Jordan

The Eyre Affair
Jasper Fforde

You know how sometimes something just really clicks with you immediately. To experience a piece of media that seems almost perfectly tailored to your specific interests. Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series, of which The Eyre Affair is the first entry, has so far been one of those special experiences for me.

The Eyre Affair is a smart, inventive and often silly detective novel set in an alternate reality. A reality with time travel and cloning and a much greater appreciation for literature. Once all the fun sci-fi/fantasy fluff is stripped away The Eyre Affair is a rather standard-ish noir tinged detective story. But the fluff is the substance. The plot is clearly secondary to the fluff. The plot is merely an excuse for Thursday to keep moving through the world. More important than the over arching story is a side-story where Thursday helps hunt down a vampire.

Fforde throws tons of concepts against the wall, but the parts that resonate best are when he’s playing with literature. Perhaps it is just that the works he references are some of my favorites, Jane Eyre and Dickens. I simply loved the Eyre Affair.

Lost in a Good Book
Jasper Fforde

With the second Thursday Next book, Fforde focuses more on the book jumping skills that were key to the last books finale. It is also less of a stand alone book than the previous one. The Eyre Affair told its story and ended, Lost in a Good Book is clearly the start of a larger story. Numerous plots are started and very few of them are finished.

Despite that Lost feels more focused than Eyre. The first one was about throwing stuff against the wall, this one is just playing with the stuff that stuck. I didn’t like it quite as much as the previous one, but it was still pretty good. Especially the greater use of other fictional characters as living characters in this series. They are clearly different than the “real” versions of those characters, but they are reminiscent enough to be fun. Another really good novel.

Radiant Historia

Radiant Historia is one of the best original RPGs on the DS.  The system has been a haven for fans of 16 and 32-bit role playing games, but a surprising amount of the systems library is remakes and ports.  Not that that is a bad thing, it is the only way people are likely going to be able to play things like Dragon Quest 5, but the original games have mostly paled in comparison to the classics.  Radiant Historia, though, stands among the best in the genre, managing to feel simultaneously classic and original.

In a lot of small, hard to define ways, Radiant Historia feels like an SNES game.  Which coming from me is the highest of compliments.  Give or take some rough sprites and 3D backgrounds, it looks like an SNES game.  Maybe the feel is in the fact that the game really doesn’t take advantage of the DS’s special features, making it not unlike many of the ports and remakes.  More than anything, though, it is that there is a comfortable familiarity to the game.  It plays exactly like one would expect an RPG to play.  It is accessible and intuitive.

The accessible nature is amazing when you consider that a lot of what Radiant Historia does is pretty novel, at least as far as RPGs go.  It combines the time travel of Chrono Trigger with the alternate realities of Chrono Cross, but in a way that is more in depth than either of those games.  In Chrono Trigger time travel was mostly an excuse for different environments, Radiant Historia uses it for the opposite reason.  It allows the game to reuse the same areas over and over, but in turn they really take advantage of moving through time.  The battle system is not exactly standard either.  It combines Final Fantasy X’s emphasis on turn order with the grid set up of a tactics game.  The end result offers a variety of effective and interesting strategies.  The player can set trap on squares and knock enemies on to them, or manipulate the turn order to build a giant combo or even do both at once.

The end result is a highly satisfying game, the kind expected from the twilight of a systems life, when all the tricks are known and developers have familiarity with the tools.  Perhaps the most satisfying part of the game is actually the story.  Radiant Historia’s story, at least for much of its length, is much more like a piece of Western fantasy than the typical JRPG.  Sure, eventually the anime-influenced JRPG stuff seeps in, with the forgotten pasts, secret siblings and plots of world destruction, but for the first two thirds of the game there is more emphasis on political maneuvering and small scale conflicts.  Much like the rest of the game, it is a refreshing change of pace.

The game isn’t perfect.  For too long it sticks players with party members with the least interesting abilities.  They are fine individually, but Raynie and Marco do not have much synergy. The game also takes a little too long to get going and it starts to fall apart near the end.  Small flaws in an otherwise terrific game.

Though it more likely to be forgotten than celebrated in the years to come, Radiant Historia deserves a place in the pantheon of great DS games.  It is not only probably the best original RPG on the system, it is easily among the best DS games.  I’m not sure if it is still widely available, but players owe it to themselves to give this gem a try.

Go Trickster, Go Gambler Go!

Cover of "The Shadow Rising (The Wheel of...

Cover via Amazon

 

Time for more Wheel of Time reread. I’m now on to The Shadow Rising, which is really the point when the Wheel of Time goes from a traditional Hero’s Quest to something more. There were hint’s of the change from as early as the start of The Great Hunt, but here is where it takes full effect. Rand is still the main character, this is still primarily his story, but there is much more time devoted to side characters and the world in general.

That switch is what I think makes people complain about how slow the start of this book is. Because the start of The Shadow Rising isn’t really that slow. Sure, they don’t get out of Tear for more than 300 pages, but a lot happens in that 300 pages. Plus, for the last time in the series, at least until A Memory of Light, the group from Emond’s Field are all in the same place. That 300 pages in Tear set up at least the next three books for each of the major characters, as well as containing quite a bit of action on its own.

There is the prologue in all but name in chapter 1. Nearly every book in the series starts with a chapter similar, with tertiary characters and storylines getting brief spotlights. We see Min with Siuan and Leane, who are a book away from getting promoted to genuine supporting characters. There are also brief snippets of Elaida, White Cloaks and Seanchan being awful. All of there things are disconnected from the story of the rest of this book, except for the Whitecloaks, but are important to the overall story.

In Tear we start with a “bubble of evil” attack, which is interesting but never satisfactorily explained. The problems Rand, Mat and Perrin deal with are symbolic of their overall struggle, though less so with Mat. Perrin is attacked by his ax, part of his ongoing struggle in choosing between the hammer and the ax as well a being symbolic of his fear of losing control of his savage wolf nature. Mat is attacked by playing cards, which I guess could be commentary on his love of gambling, but it is mostly just seems like the reason is living playing cards are neat. And Rand has to literally fight himself, which drives much of his actions, his fear of losing control of himself. We also meet Berelain, who despite never being anything other than a good guy manages to spend most of her time messing with the other heroes. She is a character whose name tells the reader just about all they need to know. Just like Thom Merrilin is Merlin, Berelain has lain bare. Then there is the Trolloc attack, along with Rand’s struggles with Lanfear. We get our first real glimpse how some of the Forsaken work. Lanfear, unfortunately, looses something when you realize that she is just Rand’s crazy ex-girlfriend, albeit one with magic powers. You also see the Forsaken undercutting each others plans just to keep one of them from gaining an advantage.

Rand spends his time in Tear ruling and trying to learn as much as he can about his fate. Moiraine’s biggest failing is her inability to share information with Rand. Even Lan realizes this. Because she wants to be in charge she never really lets Rand in, so he doesn’t let her in on his plans. The most believable part of Rand and Elayne’s romance is her helping him with how to rule.

Perrin, in his ill-fated attempts to send Faile away to safety, finds out about Whitecloaks in the Two Rivers and decides to go home. The struggle between he and Faile is as painful to read as it is inevitable. Their characters could not have acted any differently, but it is still very obvious that they are both being stupid. Faile’s defense is that she is 16, I don’t know what Perrin’s is. His whole plot in this book is one of the best storyline’s in the whole series. It has the hero returning home to find nothing as he left it, as well as one of the most true victories anyone in the series has. It is a story that could have been a book on its own as just one part of the larger story. It really is great.

Then there is the girls. Though Egwene ends up going with Rand to see the Wise Ones, Elayne and Nynaeve go to Tanchico, keeping up their hunt for the Black Ajah. Their storyline is not quite as satisfying as Perrin’s, but it is also much shorter. We also see another group of channelers besides Aes Sedai, all of which seem to be more well thought of than the actual Aes Sedai. One thing that becomes more and more apparent as the series goes along is that the Aes Sedai are really bad at their jobs. The girls in Tanchico works because Nynaeve and Elayne are a great team, both humorous and effective. Plus, they get to team up with Bayle Domon, Thom and Juilin. They really just do not get enough time to work. (in this book, they get all too much time later on.)

Rand, meanwhile, decides to surprise everybody and go into the Aiel Waste. He travels for I think the last time by Portal Stone. He actually thought this plan through very well, despite Moiraine’s misgivings. Other than his desire to find out where he came from, he needs people behind him that he can trust, and that is the Aiel. If he can get them behind him. Once their incredibly short trip is over, they all go to Rhuidean, except for Egwene. Rand’s trip trough time in Rhuidean is one of the greatest segments in fantasy fictions. It is perfect. Two chapters that perfectly encapsulate all that is great about the genre. Once Rand returns, the intricacies of Aiel society are slowly revealed, as is a plot between one clan, the Shaido and a group of obvious Darkfriend peddlers. No matter what Rand does, the bad guys always seem to be able to force him to rush. It is the same here, with Shaido leader Couladin also declaring himself Car’a’carn, the Aiel equivalent of the Dragon. It forces Rand to reveal the Aiel’s big secret, that they were once the same as Tinkers.

The book still ends as the others do, with a fight with several Forsaken. Although this time they are not at the same place. Rand fights with Asmodean in Rhuidean in one of the less memorable book ending conflicts he has. It really is kind of an anticlimax. But there is also Nynaeve getting in on the Forsaken fighting by besting Moghedien. It is really her starting to cash in on the potential she supposedly has. Her fight is much more memorable than Rand’s, if only because there are fewer to compare it to.

This is book that is somewhat light on plot, but it is big on fleshing out the world. Ideas like the World of Dreams. It was around in previous books, but in The Shadow Rising it is really fleshed out and explained. There is the first glimpse of the Aelfinn and the Eelfinn, though they aren’t completely explained. There is also the introduction of Slayer, the strange combination of Luc, Rand’s uncle, and Isam, Lan’s cousin. I’m still not sure what is up him. Also, Birgitte starts to show up and give advice. Another big change is the fleshing out of various characters love lives. Sure, there was plenty of Rand and Egwene in the early books, as well as Nynaeve and Lan. But in The Shadow Rising there is Rand and Elayne, Perrin and Faile, a hint of Moiraine and Thom. In all there is a greater focus on character in this volume, a greater fleshing out of characters outside of Rand, Perrin, Mat and Egwene. This is the book where events have grown past just rand and his immediate surroundings, and Jordan takes the time to introduce his players.

Second Quest Part 2, Kind of

If you remember, a few months ago I said I was going to beat every Zelda game, spend the year taking in the series. But after putting up my thoughts on the original Legend of Zelda, I haven’t had anymore ready to go. That is because I was playing Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. It had been nearly 20 years since I had last played Zelda II; I had only vaguely pleasant but confused recollections of it. Playing it again lately has been a largely frustrating experience. Not so much because Zelda II is a bad game, it has its problems but it is mostly well made, but because its flaws are almost perfectly suited to pissing me off.

Since I didn’t even come close to beating Zelda II, I only reached the second dungeon, I am only going to go over a few things that made me put it away. The first is the how slow getting information out of townsfolk is. This is something that only makes me mad because I am already kind of fed up with other things, but this doesn’t help. It’s like torture. Another is how the game gives out experience. Like the fact that not all enemies give experience or that some actually take it away. And last of all, is that Zelda II did not fix the unknowably arcane crap from Zelda I. That seems like all they actually kept, things like knowing exactly where to go in the woods to find Bagu or whatever his name is to get across the river. I only found out by using a guide, which I was trying to avoid.

It simply comes down to the fact that I just do not like Legend of Zelda II: Link’s Adventure. More power to the people who love it, I won’t say they are wrong but I’ll be damned if I’ll waste anymore time playing it myself. So there is at least 1 Zelda game I will not beat this year. On to A Link to the Past!