Top 10 Games of 2013

This was supposed to go up more than a month ago, but I somehow lost it in the shuffle.  I thought about just letting it go, the end of February is an odd time for a best of the last year list, but I wrote this and want to post. So here are my Top 10 Games for 2013.

2013 was the year that the 3DS really came into its own.  It was a good system before that, but this year it really ruled.  The hits started early, with Fire Emblem Awakening in February and never really stopped.  Plus, there were a ton of great downloadable games as well.   The WiiU, while a failure from a sales standpoint, also had a decent amount of good games.  Plus a couple truly great games. I wish I’d have been able to afford a few more PS3 games, but I’m so far behind with that system it is hard to justify new game purchases.

Before I get to the list, I really should mention a few games that missed the list.  Mostly because I didn’t play them, or didn’t play them enough.  Pandora’s Tower was the last hurrah for the Wii.  I bought it and gave it a try.  It seemed okay, but was kind of janky.  I need to give it another chance, but it got lost in my Monster Hunter mania. Pikmin 3 is by all reports excellent.  Somehow, I just never made time for it.  It slipped through the cracks.  Likewise, I never really found the time for SMT Devil Summoner: Soul Hackers.  I just added it to the ever growing pile of unplayed SMT games.

The two Zelda games released this year, A Link Between Worlds and Wind Waker HD, were also excluded.  A Link Between Worlds because it is my Christmas present so I haven’t gotten to play it.  Wind Waker HD, though, I Ieft out because it is a remake.  That is also why I left out DuckTales Remastered, as excellent as it may be.   Continue reading

What I Read in January ’14

I got 2014 started with a solid month of reading.  A decent number of books, in a wide variety of subjects.  February is shaping up to be just as good, even is the books themselves aren’t as good.  Still, I hope I can keep this momentum up.



Brian Jacques

Salamandastron is yet another entry in Brian Jacques Redwall series.  This one focuses on the mountain fortress that the formidable Badger Lords make their home.  It is one of the better entries in the series, shifting focus enough off the abbey to feel fresh, but still keeping somewhat close to the well-loved setting.  While many of the series constant tropes are present, it rearranges them so they don’t feel stagnant.

Salamandastron has two storylines that begin as separate but eventually intertwine.  There is the titular mountain Salamandastron, where its Lord, the badger Urthstripe, tries to balance ruling with raising his adopted daughter, Mara.   Soon, the fortress is assaulted by a horde of vermin and young Mara and her friend Pikkle the hare end up separated from their home.  Meanwhile, at Redwall Abbey, they are throwing a feast, as they often seem to be doing.  Added to the usual assortment of mice, hedgehogs, mole and squirrels are two rats who have escaped from the same vermin horde assaulting Salamandastron.  While at first trying to appear good, the rats soon commit murder, if only accidently, and leave with Martin’s Sword in tow.  A young squirrel and mole chase after them, while the inhabitants of the abbey start to fall ill.  So an otter must travel to a faraway mountain to retrieve the cure.

The two pairs of youngsters eventually meet up and have the usual sort of growing up adventures that happen in this series.  The events at Salamandastron are more epic, but not surprising.  Those sets of stories dovetail nicely, with the young warriors bringing aid to the beleaguered defenders of the mountain.  It’s the otter’s quest for a cure that seems oddly out of place.  It is a fine story on its own, but it is almost wholly disconnected to the rest of the book.

Still, Salamandastron is a fine adventure.  The characters rarely rise above the generic, but they are a suitably diverse and interesting group and the plot is fast moving and exciting.  Salamandastron is one the better Redwall books.



Diana Gabaldon

I listened to part of this book years ago riding with my aunt to a family reunion.  The part I heard was pretty great, a woman being interrogated and threatened by a man before being rescued by her husband.  My aunt tried to explain what was going on to that point, but her version was muddled and disorganized, but she got across that is was a time-travel adventure romance.  While usually just shrug off suggestions of what to read from family members, I made note of this one.

I read it recently, though not for the first time, and it is still highly entertaining.  The romance aspect does take up a large portion (i.e. there is a lot of boning) but the whole thing is more entertaining than it has any right to be.  Outlander follows the adventures of Claire Beauchamp, a woman who, while on vacation with her husband on Scotland, is transported back in time by a Stonehenge-like circle of standing stones to the mid-18th century.  Believed by everyone to be a spy for everyone else, she is taken by the clan Mackenzie to their castle.  Her attempts to get back home lead her all over the highlands and eventually she is forced to choose between her husband in her own time and the love she has found in the past.

It is melodramatic and romancey most of the time, but there is plenty of adventure in there as well.  Claire and Jamie, the two protagonists, really make everything work.  She is a sarcastic “modern” woman whose reaction to many of the past’s sensibilities is hilarious.  It is the intellectual knowledge of that’s how things were meeting her new reality that that is how things are.  He seems to have been designed to be almost the perfect romantic hero, something of a thoughtful barbarian.  Even his flaws seem carefully chosen to appear attractive.  Despite that, he eventually becomes as real as a character as one is likely to find in any sort of genre fiction.

Outlander is ha hefty tome, being more than 800 pages long, but it reads fast.  There are slow parts, but things move relatively quickly.  It meanders a bit and simply explodes with subplots and side characters, but the end result is a full tale that creates its own believable world.


Over Time: My Life as a Sportswriter

Frank Deford

I wasn’t really familiar with Deford before I read this.  I had seen his name in plenty of articles in Sports Illustrated, but I rarely paid attention to the real articles, wanting more to get to the more current rumors, speculation and stats.  This book kind of makes me wish I had paid more attention, so at least I’d know how much I should care about what is written here.

Over Time is a memoir, as the title suggests a collection of anecdotes about Deford’s sports writing career.  This is split between recollections of athletes and events and his ruminations about other sportswriters.  Much is a glimpse into the work of a handful of writers and editors I’ve never heard of.  His genuine admiration of some people shine through, Arthur Ashe, while so does his disdain for others, Rodney Dangerfield.  Since I am not familiar with Deford or many of the people he was writing about, this book did not have the effect on me it could have.  Still, as a look back and a look into how the sausage of sportswriting is made, it is a good enough read.


The Lies of Locke Lamora

Scott Lynch

I have been largely away from the fantast genre for most of the last year.  I did spend a lot of time reading the Wheel of Time series, and many of the books I’ve read would fall into the periphery of the genre, but I’ve been largely avoiding what was once my favorite genre.  So far this year I have been back with a vengeance, and I started with one of the best I’ve read.

The Lies of Locke Lamora is a fantasy done as a heist.  Sanderson’s Mistborn had a similar starting place, but in the end it felt more like a traditional fantasy story.  This manages to keep that heist the feeling all the way through.  The book follows Locke Lamora in both the present as he and his team of thieves plan and execute daring robberies and in the past when he meets his current friends and learns his trade.  The alternating present and past is sometimes a bit clumsy, with Lynch giving back information about characters just before it becomes relevant.

Locke’s past, while important, is not as good as his present.  While his group, the Gentlemen Bastards, perform intricate grifts, they pose as more humble thieves before the thieves’ guild.  The aging leader of the thieves, Capa Barsavi, is facing a challenge to his authority and while Locke has no problem deceiving him, he sides with him in the conflict.  Unfortunately, the Grey King who is threatening Barsavi’s dominance forces Locke to help him.  As often happens with heists, things don’t go quite as planned.

While they are nominally bad guys, being thieves and all, they are remarkable likeable.  Locke has a different set of skills than the usual fantasy hero, which makes him all the more likeable.  His closest ally, Jean, is also an unusual character for the genre.  While a lot of the world building is standard fantasy’s stuff, well done but the same kind of stuff one would expect from a fantasy novel,  the unique characters make is seem all the more different.

Really, this is just and excellent, fresh fantasy adventure.  I am eager to jump on the sequel. It is just really great.


Capcom’s 30th Anniversary Character Encyclopedia

Casey Lee

It’s not a lot of book, but it counts.  This is just a collection of character biographies from Capcom’s voluminous catalogue of games.  There really isn’t a lot of new information for me here; as far as video game companies go Capcom is second in my heart only to Nintendo.  That’s even with their almost adversarial dealings with their fans over the last couple of years.

This is an excellent primer on the various heroes and villains that populate Capcom’s games.  They do memorable characters better than just about anybody.  The whole cast of Street Fighter 2 are solidly recognizable and Mega Man has two incarnations that are all-time great characters.  This book is not really much of a read, but it is an excellent spotlight on these characters.


A Mind to Murder

P.D. James

More classic mysteries, though this one did not leave much an impression on me.  It was fine, but I never really took a liking to the main character, which makes the while book from his perspective hard to get really into.

There is nothing overtly wrong with this, it just didn’t grab me.  A woman is murdered in a psychiatrist’s office, and Det. Da;gliesh must work his way through her colleagues to find the one who killed her.

Brick by Brick

From Wikipedia

The Lego Movie shouldn’t work. The build it yourself toy is not really a product that cries for a movie version; it is the least necessary movie adaptation to come out of Hollywood, trumping even Battleship. Yet somehow, The Lego Movie manages to be pretty gosh darn entertaining. It fails to find any emotional center, but it is funny and brisk enough to make up for it.
The movie stars the completely average lego man Emmett, who after falling down a hole at the construction site where he works is assumed to be the “special,” a master builder prophesied to save Lego World from the evil President Lord Business. He is joined by the mysterious pink and blue haired Wyldstyle and the wise-ish sage Vitruvius as they try to thwart Lord Business’ plan to glue all the bricks of Lego World in place on Taco Tuesday. Eventually they are joined by a handful of Lego heroes, such as Batman and Benny the Astronaut. While Emmett is apparently the “special” his defining feature is being as average and nondescript as possible. He has bought wholeheartedly into President Business’s conformist propaganda and seems incapable of the original thought necessary to build anything. Being a children’s movie, the usual sort of lessons are learned, lessons about teamwork and being yourself. Aside from a brief flirtation with a concept somewhat interesting and original near the end, a something that also manages to kill all the narrative momentum, it plays out pretty much how one would expect.

While The Lego Movie isn’t groundbreaking, it is smart and well made. Its humor manages to amuse both kids and adults. Its throwing references upon references to all the various media franchises that have been turned into Lego tends to be the weakest part. Sometimes it works, mostly when the appearance is actually integrated into the movie. Batman plays a significant role as part of the good guys team. When they show up for a quick joke, like the brief appearance of some Star Wars characters, it jars the viewer out of the movie. Mostly, it is just characters acting silly, like the spirit of a deceased character making “spooky” ghost noises when he returns to impart some important information on Emmet. It never manages to rise above being very good, but it rarely falls much below that.
The best part of the film is how the whole world is constructed out of Lego. When Emmett showers, the water is clear Lego bricks. When something is on fire, it is Lego fire. The movie really sells it with a charming stop-motion aesthetic. While it never feels like a commercial for the toys, it acts perfectly as one. It is hard to watch this movie and not want to at least dig out the Lego you had as a kid and build something. The look probably goes the furthest in sparking that desire.

While I am still not convinced of the necessity of a Lego movie, The Lego Movie is better than anyone should have expected. Like playing with Lego, it is sometimes messy and cobbled together but is simply plain old fun.

Now Playing in January

I had a lot of free time in January, so I managed to clear a ton of games off of my backlog.  Many of them were quite short or already half beaten, but it was still a whole lot of games.  A few of them were all-time classics.


Metal Gear Solid 4: This is a hard game to judge.  More so since I am so late to the party that I can’t imagine anyone else that cares about this game hasn’t already played it and had their say.  There is a lot of truly excellent game here.  There is also about 5 hours of barely interactive nonsense.  Honestly, I loved it. All of it, even the nonsense.  I can clearly recognize that there are parts of this game that are legitimately terrible and you can almost feel things falling apart the further you go along, but I don’t care.  The gameplay in the first couple chapters is great.  It is the perfect escalation of the usual Metal Gear Solid gameplay.  Instead of sneaking into an enemy held stronghold or area, you are sneaking through a contested warzone.  It adds layers to the already involved gameplay.  There are just so many more options and strategies available to the player.  Mixed in there are some good boss fights and cool set pieces.  After the start, though, things break down.  The control the player has had since the start is stripped away.  There is less and less gameplay, fewer and fewer decisions to make.  Those boss fights and set pieces become all there is.  It is not so much that the last couple of chapters are bad, it is just that they are so disappointing compared to what came before.

Then there is the story.  Kojima desperately tries to answer all the questions raised in the previous three games.  That overwhelming desire to provide answers gets in the way of telling a story.  The plot of this game is an incoherent mess, an inelegant synthesis of everything that has come before.  What the story lacks in coherence and logic, it more than makes up for in spectacle.  That is an area where this series has always towered above all others, and this game doesn’t disappoint.  Whether it is the assault of the cow tanks or the motorcycle chase or the series encompassing boxing match on top of a Metal Gear, the player is never far from something awesome happening.  It feels like a fitting end to this series, ambitious, enthralling and always a little messy.  Video games being what they are, though, it really isn’t one.

Paper Mario Sticker Star: This game turned off many with its how thoroughly Nintendo tried to scrub the RPG out of it.  Outside of the art style, it is very different from the first Paper Mario and The Thousand Year Door.  While that is unfortunate, Sticker Star is still a very good game.  It has some ingenious puzzle elements.  The discrete stages help keep things from getting overwhelming and while battles play out like and RPG, the scarcity of resources force a big change from the usual grind your way through tactics of that genre.  Its biggest flaw is how closely it sticks to the well know Mario characters.  It is just Mario vs Bowser, with Mario’s sticker companion the only real new comer.  Instead of memorable takes on existing character types, like Toadette or Cooper, all the side characters in Sticker Star are Toads.  Frequently Toads that don’t have a name.  It definitely hurts the adventure that that game couldn’t do more with the opportunities it had for memorable side characters.  Still, it is a largely very good entry in the Paper Mario series.  Hopefully next time Nintendo will finally give us more Thousand Year Door.

Ratchet and Clank Future: Tools of Destruction: The Ratchet & Clank series made the jump to HD consoles with very little change.  The title may say future, but this is the same game I loved on PS2.  That is a good thing: the Ratchet and Clank games were some of the best on the system.  With his wide variety of inventive weapons and combination of shooting and jumping gameplay, Ratchet is very much the modern day Mega Man.  Hell, he’s even got the yearly sequels.  Though Tools of Destruction is just another R&C adventure, that is in no way a bad thing. It means a terrific 10 hours of delightfully destructive action.  I do like that Insomniac is stepping up the story.  I think even at this point they were feeling the end coming with R&C and decided to get on with the character revelations.  So the game is about Ratchet looking for where he came from, only for Clank to find out that answer about himself.  It isn’t my favorite R&C game, but it is still very good.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds: wrote about it here.

Galaga Legions DX: I got this free with my PS+ membership and as I’d heard generally good things about it, I thought I’d give it a spin.  It is addictive fun; just complex enough to be interesting but simple enough that one can just pick up and play.  This is kind of the perfect downloadable game as far as I’m concerned.  It is not something that is going to take a significant commitment on my part to play. It is best played in short, intense bursts.

Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII: wrote about it here.

Broken Age Act 1: This is only the first part of the first project I packed on Kickstarter and I already feel like I got my money’s worth.  I’ve written before about my troubles with adventure games, but this one so far manages to avoid the missteps that many of it’s brethren make.  The puzzles are largely logical, with none of the mind breakingly obtuse junk that always annoys me.  I suspect many adventure game fans will find this game too easy just because all the puzzles make sense.  I can’t imagine that anyone will be let down with the writing.  While Act 1 ends just as things really start moving, the opening adventures of Vella and Shay are wonderfully engrossing.  Vella’s story is much more straightforward, with her going on a quest to stop a monster that is eating young girls.  Shay’s story has him trying to escape a nanny ship that has not aged with him, leaving him a teenager stuck in the life of a toddler.  After seeing the twist at the end, I can’t wait for Act 2.

The Secret of Monkey Island: Speaking of adventure games, I had such a good time with Broken Age that I went looking for a similar experience.  On Steam I had the first Monkey Island, which a few months ago I played until I got my ship.  There are some obtuse bullshit puzzles in this game; puzzles with solutions that don’t make any sense until after you solve them.  There aren’t a lot of them, but there are a few.  Luckily, the writing is more than strong enough to carry the game past its few rough spots.  This game absolutely deserves its classic reputation.  I’ll admit that I kept a guide open as I played this.  I didn’t strictly follow it, but I don’t have the patience to spend a lot of time trying everything when I get stuck.  Still, I am eager to take the sequel for a go.

Dungeons and Dragons: Chronicles of Mystara: My brothers came by and we got a four player game of Mystara going.  We beat both games, but didn’t quite figure everything out until we were almost done with the second one.  There are some surprisingly deep brawlers.  I think I need to play this until I’ve seen everything.


Broken Sword: I’ve been on something of an Adventure game kick lately and this looked good after I finished Monkey Island.  I’ve played through Cairo so far.  Its good, but its attempts at humor fall completely flat.  It is just painful at times.

Ratchet and Clank Future A Crack in Time: I’ve played the first quarter or so of this game.  It feels like something is missing, maybe because Ratchet and Clank are split up.  Still a ton of fun though.

Earthbound: I’ve now made it to Fourside.  This is usually the point where someone erases my save or I just flat lose interest or I accidentally delete my emulator.  It’s been so long since I’ve played past this point that I don’t quite remember what I am supposed to do.  I may have to break down and take a glance at a guide.  It is strange that I know the first third or so of this game so very well, but I can only remember the rest vaguely.

Xenoblade Chronicles: I am hacking away at this again.  I made it to Alcamoth after nearly a month of trying to remember just how this game works.  I’m not quite as in love with this as I was a couple years ago when I first got it; in fact, I am feeling more than a little overwhelmed. Still, I am having fun. And it looks amazing.

Binary Domain: Another PS+ game that I likely would not have played otherwise.  It is a cover based shooter, like Gears of War.  However, it is made by the people who make the Yakuza games.  While it does play largely like the Western equivalents, there is something very Japanese about this game.  It isn’t present in the art style so much, it has a kind of anime Blade Runner feel to it.  It is hard to explain exactly what I mean.  I played the first two chapters and enjoyed it.  I’m not rushing to finish this up, but I’m not likely to abandon it completely.


Bravely Default: Near the start of February this will hit.  The demo is scads of fun.  Its predecessor, 4 Heroes of Light, was largely great.  It looks to be the best Final Fantasy of the foreseeable future.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze: This hits at the end of the month and I couldn’t be more excited.  I loved Donkey Kong Country Returns and everything else Retro Studios has touched.

Ys Origin: I played this just a little at the end of the month.  It seems fun.  I’ll probably put some serious time into it.  The Ys series is one I’ve wanted to get into, but the first game on the VC did nothing for me.  It was just too old.

Shin Megami Tensei: I’ve got a half dozen games from the various sub-series of this series and I intend to play them.  I’m not sure which one, but I’ll play one.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit Review

Jack Ryan is almost a really good spy movie. It does mostly everything right and is closer to plausible than most of its ilk. However, it lacks the spark to be truly memorable. As well made as it is at points, it is still rote, seeming to only go through the motions of its genre.

Jack Ryan, based on the Tom Clancy character and played by Chris Pine, is a grad student who joined the military after 9/11. Injured during the war, he came home to arduous physical therapy, where he meets both Cathy, his beautiful physical therapist and eventual fiancé, and Harper, who invites him to continue serving his country as a CIA analyst. That is all covered in the first twenty or so tedious minutes. It sets up that Jack is a heroic, patriotic genius. Possibly necessary information, but it is delivered inelegantly. The movie picks up after that, with Ryan uncovering plot at the same time his girlfriend starts to unravel his secret life in the CIA. Soon, he is whisked off to Russia and he goes from being an analyst to an operative.

Shadow Recruit is ostensibly a thriller, with Ryan navigating the shadowy world of espionage, but there are few twists or betrayals. Everything is what is seems. The accounts that Ryan uncovered do hide a terrorist plot, so he must steal information to get the date that it is supposed to be executed. The Russian villains make it seem like a remnant from the Cold War, but since this is based off a book series from that era I guess that’s understandable. The good guys are if anything too good at their jobs. Other than being slow to uncover the plot that threatened to destroy the USA, they tend pull things off with the minimum of hitches, despite Ryan being untrained as an agent and Cathy playing a large part.

While the plot is somewhat trite, the film is buoyed by largely good acting. Pine is fine as the hero, especially after his first kill where he is understandably shocked. Kevin Costner plays Harper almost like the spy version of a sitcom dad, tough but fair. He does have some lines seemingly added to make him seem mysterious in trailers, which cloud things a little. Director Kenneth Branagh plays the Russian baddy, Cheverin, with charm and just enough menace to seem legit. Keira Knightly’s Cathy could do with being a little more fleshed out, but it still a solid character. She takes to Jack’s job with more enthusiasm than one would expect and does better with the deception that he does.

Shadow Recruit plays like the expected start of a franchise. I almost hope it does. The pieces are all here for a solid spy thriller. All that’s missing is the thrills. As long as the plot isn’t so pat as this one, a sequel could go from being okay to being genuinely good.