Monthly Archives: April 2015

Kingdom of Twilight (Avatars #3)

Title: Kingdom of Twilight

Author: Tui T. Sutherland

Diana is dying. Although Gus, Tigre, and Kali are doing what they can, none of their powers involve healing. Their only hope is that when they finally reach Africa, someone there will be willing and able to help. But Africa was excluded from this contest of the gods, and the local gods may not take well to the intrusion of the avatars . . .

I continue to be impressed by the sheer breadth and depth of the gods Tui T. Sutherland pulls into this trilogy. Not to mention the amusing takes on more familiar gods (Poseidon with his trident going after the boat comes to mind . . . invincible trident, meet magically-protected boat). This time around we get a small taste of the many gods of Africa, a tour through various underworlds courtesy Diana, and a closer look at pantheons like the Polynesians and the Incan/Aztec/Mayan. And I was right about Coyote, which made me happy.

Although I felt the story in general wasn’t as compelling as the previous book, there were still a number of things I liked a lot. Tigre finally gets a teacher he can connect with—someone utterly unlike the blustering Tlaloc—and he starts to master the weather powers everyone has been telling him he has. The other gods are comfortable with their powers, even Kali with her destructive nature. But Tigre’s always been unhappy with having weather powers rather than something animal-related (part of that being visible in choosing to go by Tigre and not Catequil). And it was fascinating to see how Catequil ended up as the representative of the hodgepodge of South American pantheons.

Gus also goes head-to-head with Oro in a few places, although I felt the conflict wasn’t as intense as it could have been. Oro never gets the chance to make Gus do something he’ll regret. And his journey to the underworld in search of Diana is over almost as soon as it starts.

I did like the end, too. The game plays out in a way none of the original authors (or even participants, with the possible exception of Catequil, since he’s a god who sees the future) could have guessed. It was really nice to see Tigre gain some confidence.

I’m not sure why this one didn’t strike me nearly as much as the second. The diverging plotlines for different characters didn’t help, because each individual story got less emphasis. The humor, although certainly there, felt a little lessened as most of the truly hysterical characters don’t get more than a line or two. And it would probably have made a difference if the African gods they found included an antagonist or two.

Overall, though, this was a good end to the story. Thanks to Catequil’s prophecies, the few threads that could be dangling get a glimpse forward to the eventual resolution. I rate this book Recommended.

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Mastiff (Beka Cooper #3)

Title: Mastiff

Author: Tamora Pierce

In the middle of the night Beka is summoned to a Hunt of dire importance: an attack on the Royal family has occurred, and the young prince is missing, possibly dead. So Beka and Achoo, along with her partner Tunstall, his lady Sabine, and the mage Farmer are on the Hunt. But this Hunt is bigger than anything they have worked on before. This Hunt very quickly exposes corruption at the highest levels of the kingdom. . .

This is a pretty massive book, but the events flow so well that it feels like a quick read. This is a Hunt that relies primarily on Beka as a scent-hound handler, where she and Achoo are in the lead and the rest of the team helps to back her up. And as events keep getting bigger and nastier, everyone else has opportunity to chip in with their specialties. I liked how vital every person was to the mission. This is Beka’s story, but the Hunt belongs to all of them.

I particularly liked Farmer. He’s a bit of an enigma and a riot, a atypical mage stronger than he likes to let on, who enjoys driving arrogant people (usually other mages) insane. He’s well aware of the perceptions people have of Dog mages being the crappiest of the lot, and he uses that combined with his country background to present a facade of innocent bumpkin. But despite being a powerful mage, he’s got a lot of limitations that show up early and often. His friendship with Beka builds naturally from the camaraderie of shared hardship to a mutual respect to something more. It’s also interesting how Farmer is contrasted with Beka’s now-deceased fiancee, Holborn, mostly in terms of personality and how he relates to her.

There was only one thing that actually bothered me about the plot, and that was a certain twist at the end. I’m going to try to stay vague to avoid spoilers. I just did not buy what happened with Tunstall. I know this was set up as additional comparison to Holborn, a literary trick of ending where the book began, in a sense, but I didn’t buy that it sprang from his character. Maybe if it had been one thing, alone, but everything together? That was a lot to swallow. I would have preferred a different explanation for certain events even if it still culminated in Tunstall making the same decision.

And on a minor note, I really wanted George’s bits of epilogue to be in third person. I know Beka’s journey has been first person—that’s part of why it’s so jarring to switch to a different narrator. All of George’s scenes in other books have been third person, and he came off differently to me in this small first-person segment than he did in other books.

Overall, though, this is probably the strongest book of the trilogy. The Hunt is clever at moving through multiple locales, difficulties, and social strata. There’s a great deal of magic, which was something I missed about the earlier books. And the high stakes is underlined again and again by the rather large body count by the end of the book, a constant reminder that there are consequences to meddling with the affairs of royalty. I rate this book Recommended.

Shadow Falling (Avatars #2)

Title: Shadow Falling

Author: Tui T. Sutherland

The world had mostly ended, and now six avatars of various pantheons of gods (and one Polynesian interloper) are charged with killing each other in a winner-take-all contest. Unfortunately for the gods, the avatars have turned out more human than expected, and although some of them embrace the mission others hold back.

Gus was possessed by the Polynesian god of war Oro and doesn’t have the benefit of a trainer, but Oro knows how to handle himself. Gus is still one of my favorites. He’s not integrated with Oro’s power, since Oro’s personality is not his, and he’s more than a little concerned that his own personality might not survive the experience. And when Oro really gets going, he proves that the one everyone has chalked up as the weakest has enough fight in him to potentially tip the scales . .

Tigre, along with Gus, is one of the more normal (human) of the cast. He’s been flat out told he’s a weak god, and his own pantheon doesn’t expect him to win. I adored his trainer Tlaloc and the “training” sessions they have together. (And it’s also quite funny how everyone else is cursing out weather gods practicing storm-summoning as they’d like just a LITTLE less rain).

Diana continues to struggle between the Diana/Artemis and Venus sides of her personality. I loved how Apollo, who can only speak the truth, is both the most honest and the most subversive of the pantheon, as he’s bending the rules as far as he can to let her know things the other gods all want kept secret. I also loved how Diana came to her own decision about Amon and what she does with him.

I liked Kali’s relationship with Shiva, and how steady and reliable it is compared to the teenage drama happening with Gus and Diana or Tigre and Anna. And how that doesn’t mean they don’t disagree or fight, but there’s an assurance on both sides that they’re in this for eternity. And I liked how Kali, far from being a one-dimensional god who brings fire and destruction, has a softer side the other gods don’t want to admit is there.

This book is incredibly funny. Tlaloc had me laughing every time he shows up. Lines like: “A SLUG IN BED WILL LOSE HIS HEAD! ARISE, PATHETIC ONE! TLALOC HAS RETURNED TO BEAT YOUR POWERS INTO YOU!” followed by “LOOK TO THE SKIES! THEY ARE FULL OF DISGUSTING SUNSHINE! LET US GO FORTH AND TRAIN ANEW TO BRING THE WRATH OF THE CLOUDS DOWN AMONG US!”

Thor’s cheerful incomprehensibility combined with his gigantic stature and strength gets played for more than a few laughs. Or the utter self-absorption of the Greek pantheon in particular, who decide to inhabit an art museum because they like looking at the paintings and sculptures of themselves and making snide remarks about how other members of their pantheon were portrayed. Or the way Kali refuses to let Tigre live down the way he almost became an involuntary organ donor in the first book. Or Quetzie: Kali says she dooooesn’t need any comments from the peanut gallery. Is that me? Am I the peanut gallery? Does that mean I get peanuts?

Overall this is a much stronger book than the first, packed with a lot of action, humor, and drama. Tui T. Sutherland has incredible range as an author—I’ve enjoyed her books for younger readers, but she nails the older ranges as well. I like the different types of humor and the way more than half the book had me laughing out loud, yet underneath there’s a deadly serious game going on that the teenagers are desperate to escape (well, most of them). And I have my own guesses about the unnamed god that comments on the various events and characters; the commentary frequently adds a bit more humor or insight. Do read the first book first, just to get to know the world and the characters. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Jinx’s Fire (Jinx #3)

Title: Jinx’s Fire

Author: Sage Blackwood

Jinx has to pull together the inhabitants of Urwald as a nation, and fast. His homeland is being invaded by three different armies, all of whom have their own plans for how to divide up the forest. And the Bonemaster still has Jinx’s master Simon trapped in some kind of ice. Jinx has the power of the Urwald itself behind him, but that power is mysteriously fading . . .

I enjoyed the first two books in this series, but for some reason this one didn’t grab me as much. Maybe it was all the political wrangling as Jinx is running around from clearing to clearing attempting to get the stubborn and selfish Urwalders to do something that will benefit all of them, rather than a more straightforward adventure story like the first two. It was funny to see how much Jinx has grown up to be like Simon—blunt, tactless, and powerful in his own way. (His reaction to his friends using tact on HIM is very good.)

I also loved the elves. Particularly the garden. It’s such a fascinating twist and it makes a lot of sense. And elves, like everything else that lives in the Urwald, are fundamentally nasty at heart.

I wasn’t so keen on how the deathforce and lifeforce magics worked out. I get that the trilogy as a whole is about showing the darker, snarky side of reality, the bits that most fantasies never talk about. So in that vein Jinx’s decisions make a lot of sense. I guess it just seemed odd that the wicks, who seem to be more or less the embodiment of one side, can cross sides.

Well, at any rate. This is a poor place to jump into the series because most of the characters are returning and it’s expected you’ll know who they are for the most part. But the earlier books are worth a read and will set the background nicely. I rate this book Recommended.

Bloodhound (Beka Cooper #2)

Title: Bloodhound

Author: Tamora Pierce

False silver coins are showing up in town, and Beka’s own friends are getting in trouble over them. Then a riot ensues over the raising prices of bread. Beka, a first-year Dog that is once more partnerless, is sent with Goodwin to Port Caynn to dig deeper into the surge of counterfeits. But the local Dogs aren’t at all worried about the problem, and Beka’s managed to offend the ruling Rogue. Together with the scent hound Achoo, Beka starts digging deep enough to uncover some truly nasty secrets.

This is a tad long, but the tension manages to stay strong throughout. The various clues about the counterfeiting ring surface slowly, and Beka’s got to play the part of stupid visitor (a role that does not suit her at all). It’s interesting to see how local corruption in the Dogs (the police force) feeds the greater corruption in the city, and how Beka functions when friends and allies are few and far between. It’s also interesting to see all the various discussions around counterfeiting, and how it debases the currency, and how that ripples out to broader impacts. And of course, this is a strong cop story, with plenty of scuffles with Rats and an unflinching look at some of the uglier sides of the Dogs.

I wasn’t as keen on the romance. Beka’s lived a rough enough life that she should’ve realized she was being played, and it’s kind of annoying how willing she is to bed someone she’s known for about two days simply because she’s got a pregnancy charm (what about diseases? or better yet, the fact that he’s still technically a SUSPECT?). So it was hard to read the romantic sections without skimming because the only reason she falls for him is that he’s good-looking and persistent about flirting with her.

The other thing I wasn’t keen on is how much page time is devoted to glorifying Okha/”Amber” as a woman in a man’s body and how beautiful that is (and the homosexual relationship is also portrayed as good, although that one is more just there, whereas the prose specifically takes time out to highlight Okha and his particular deviancy). I do not believe “feelings” define gender, because this makes as much sense as me saying I’m really a purple six-legged pony from Jupiter because I know it in my heart. (Bonus: since there’s no evidence no one can prove you wrong, and you’re just branded a hater for not going along with it.)

Anyway, I do enjoy them for the cop stories, and for a look at Tortall from a different angle. Magic certainly comes into play, but for the most part this is hardboiled detective work (and in this instance, a couple of scent-hound tracking sprees). If the rest of it doesn’t bother you, then go ahead and read it. I rate this book Recommended.

The Invisible Tower (Otherworld Chronicles #1)

Title: The Invisible Tower

Author: Nils Johnson-Shelton

Arthur Kingfisher is an ordinary kid deeply involved in a game called Otherworld. And then the game starts going strange on him, and he finds a real Otherworld, along with the real Merlin. It turns out Artie is related to the original King Arthur, and now Merlin needs his help (and Excalibur) to get out of the Invisible Tower where he’s been imprisoned for hundreds of years. Can Artie stand against the centuries-old wickedness of Morgaine?

It may have been a mistake to read two Arthur-inspired tales back to back, although I’m not certain anything would have changed my mind about this one. I do think kids will probably enjoy it, as the prose is light and the action is snappy, and Artie is very much a typical twelve-year-old who thinks games are the coolest thing ever.

But . . . you have someone related to King Arthur (apparently the whole Arthur thing is genetic, although I do give props for avoiding the clone angle), the original Merlin, and a cast comparable to the Knights of the Round Table, along with antagonist Morgaine, and what’s the real enemy? Global warming and the energy crisis (I wish I was making this up). Morgaine might show up and throw around a few tornadoes but the REAL threat is clearly that we’re going to run out of fossil fuels sometime in the next few hundred years. And what’s even more agonizing is how EXCITED people like Artie’s father get over the idea that Artie will unite the worlds to bring over a clean energy source and save us all from oil and extinction.

And then there’s Artie’s dad, who is as much of a kid as his son, and doesn’t worry at all when Artie vanishes into the Otherworld for several weeks because he knows his son is going to fight for clean energy for the world. Actually most of the characters, adults or kids, have a pretty childish mentality. Or take the ridiculous fight scenes, which are predicated on Artie using his knowledge of video game sword fighting (and some magical help from Excalibur, which is more believable) to turn him into an expert swordsman in about a week. Excalibur’s magic is a big deus ex machina, as anything Artie needs to know or do can be handled by the sword (or its sheath).

I could go on, but I don’t see much point. Again, kids who don’t really care about anything but a fast ride will probably like it. It reads like the kind of adventure a kid would dream up for himself. But the overall world logic, reason for the fight, lack of substance, constant elevation of Artie as hero and king when all he’s really done is exist (basically making him out to be a hero without necessarily having the actions to support it) . . . I’m done. I’m not going to be reading anything else in this series. I rate this book Neutral.

 

Tales of Vesperia (XB360, PS3 Japan exclusive)

Story: When someone steals a magical item that controls the water for the Lower Quarter, Yuri Lowell decides to take matters into his own hands. It’s not the first time he’s picked a fight with the people who oppress the poor of the Lower Quarter. But a rather routine stint in jail turns into a completely different adventure. A noble girl begs his help escaping the castle so she can warn Flynn—Yuri’s childhood friend who is now in the Knights—about something. And then the assassin after Flynn. And the journey quickly becomes something much larger than hunting down a thief for a little robbery . . .

I have long heard people singing Vesperia’s praises, so to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot when I started the game. (Mostly this is probably due to the sheer number of people who say Symphonia is the best game ever, which I thought was good but not great.) I was happy to find at least a few of the things I had heard were true, and the story overall was enjoyable.

I will say up front that the narrative arc of the game starts off going in one direction (vigilante justice or lawful justice?), then shifts gears and spins in the mud (Estelle being flighty and not able to make up her mind), then finally settles into a somewhat different story that it follows to the end of the game (the world-threatening disaster). I thought the first arc of the game would have been the most interesting to pursue to its logical conclusion, as it sets up a nice contrast between Yuri and Flynn as representing change-from-without and change-from-within that never really went anywhere. But I did like the eventual ending and was only really frustrated at Estelle’s ADD in the middle when she starts jerking the plot around to a bunch of minor useless quests.

And quite frankly, I loved Yuri’s solution to some rather annoying lowlifes. It’s simple, logical, and efficient—and hardly anyone ever does it. The one thing that weakens it is that the eventual discovery by the rest of the party is so underwhelming as to have virtually no impact on his relationship to any of them (well, Karol actually reacted a little, but he gets over it pretty quickly).

The villains were rather cheesy for the most part, except one whose turn is frankly baffling (if he really had good motives, as claimed, then why is he doing the full-fledged evil laughter bit? It just seems someone wrote one character and then decided to shove him sideways into another cheesy villain role). The last boss, at least, I enjoyed both plot wise and battling. The world-threatening disaster seems to go down a little too easily (it basically stands there and gets smacked).

The cast relationships feel a lot more like a family this time around, with Yuri in a more father-like role, Estelle’s motherly concern, and Rita and Karol’s big-sister-little-brother vibe (Raven and Judith are kind of the odd ones out). I loved Rita and mostly disliked Karol (probably because I had little brothers and also reacted violently to severe annoyances). Karol has a good role in the plot, and he actually has one of the better character arcs, but I suspect I would have preferred him as an NPC rather than a party member. I also hate slow tanks so his playstyle did little to endear him to me (Estelle I lost the 100-man melee in the Coliseum first time around due to a timeout because she’s slow and has terrible normal attacks, but she’s primarily a healer with some decent attacks thrown in. I should NOT be also timing out with someone who is supposed to be a frontliner).

I disliked Raven at first, but he grew on me (and I really liked him after a certain point in the game). Judith is kind of there—she’s the least interesting on her own, and is actually better from Rita’s side since Rita has to struggle with whether or not she can be friends with someone who has such radically opposed beliefs. I liked Rita’s testiness and genius and the way she’ll shorten her spell chants to “blah blah blah”, and how someone that no one liked (because of said temperament and genius) gradually gets sucked into caring about a group of people who can appreciate her. I like how Karol has to learn to stop running away from everything, and especially how Yuri encourages him to step up into a role he doesn’t feel ready for, and how Yuri supports Karol going after his dream. Estelle was another one that for me was kind of just there. I didn’t much mind the her innocence or ignorance (it contrasts well with Yuri’s more pragmatic bent), but I couldn’t really get invested in her arc of learning to make her own choices.

Speaking of, the choices angle was the only thing that really bothered me about the end. Yuri promotes choice above all, but his actions and his words rather contradict. Ragou and Cumore and even Duke made their own choices, but they were choices that harmed people, and rather than tell them he was happy they lived true to their own convictions Yuri stands up for a standard of right and wrong. And there are a few similar contradictions earlier in the game, most notably when Yuri talks about “cutting out the cancer” and then makes excuses when it comes to Estelle. It’s just funny that although the stated message is choice above all, the actual plot can’t get away from good being honored and evil being challenged.

Gameplay: Overall, the gameplay is excellent. The battle system has a fair number of gimmicks, but most of them are unobtrusive and can be used or ignored as desired (I think I used a handful of burst artes all game because I kept forgetting about them). The battle system goes a little crazy on special attacks, with Fatal Strikes, Burst Artes, and altered artes in addition to the more typical base/arcane/mystic artes. In a rather aggravating move, the three-hit-combo standard is actually reduced by one for certain characters, making already ineffective physical attackers like Rita even more useless without magic.

Overlimit is tiered, which is a shame, since mystic artes can only be triggered off level 3 or 4. On the other hand, even level 1 allows near instant-casting for spells, which make Rita, Raven, and Estelle overpowered in most fights. And Estelle has a skill which combines with an arte for invincibility (a bug which was actually fixed in the PS3 edition from what I’ve heard).

The skills system has a lot of depth. Skills are associated with weapons and learned from points gained after battles. This encourages synthesizing, as shop/standard weapons will frequently gain or change skills once upgraded. Setting skills in particular ways can also get you overlimit bonuses, although it was only a few hours from the end of the game that I actually had things staggered on certain characters to get those bonuses, since I wanted too many skills all over the place to get the bonus. One of the grade shop options I’ll definitely buy if I go through another playthrough does allow for skill cost to be set to 1, which will mitigate a lot of the “I have this awesome skill but would have to de-equip eight other skills to use it” dilemma.

Synthesis is a bit frustrating. The Monocles that improve item drop percentages aren’t available until later (green Fatal Strikes can help, but it does require a bit of care while battling), and the ingredients are not that easy to get. More, funds can be a real issue main game, and materials sell for 100 gald apiece (with a very few exceptions, usually drops from boss monsters). That means it’s useless to sell drops for cash, since at best you’ll be able to make a couple thousand on items that cost a lot of battles to obtain. But as a whole the synthesis isn’t too bad. By end game the rare items aren’t too hard to get hold of, especially if you’ve been diligent about farming search points. It’s a LOT better than Symphonia/Xillia 2 which required synthesis down several layers in order to get to the best items.

Character play styles have some good variety, although Yuri, Judith, Repede, and Raven were the best. Rita, unlike Jade from Abyss who could actually put forth a somewhat decent physical assault, can really only do spells, which means she can be run via shortcut and/or turning artes off. Estelle is a bit slow to be a physical fighter but doesn’t have much arsenal as a mage (only light-based spells, which is problematic if the enemy resists). And Karol is just slow. At least he gets Reaper Knock, which gives him something like a ranged attack (assuming the ball’s arc actually crosses the enemy’s body, as I had a few that I couldn’t consistently hit depending on the distance because it would go over their heads).

Sidequests were generally good (although get a FAQ if you want a few of them, as they require all-game participation), with a few notable irritants. The Dog Map was a lot of grinding, and several other quests have you hopping to every corner of the world just to complete one step.

Secret Missions are available for most of the boss fights, and they range from easy enough that you’ll probably get it by accident to incredibly frustrating. This is entirely optional and can give nice rewards, including a costume for Yuri if you manage to get all of them. I did them all, but never again. Some of these were pretty hard to trigger, and it felt really stupid to put everyone in the party on standby (and get murdered) while I’m trying to get the boss to use the one super special move that’s required for the mission. What makes it more frustrating is that there is no scene-skip option, so if you fail to get the secret mission before the boss dies, and want to retry, you’ll have to watch everything again (Zagi on the boat, I am LOOKING AT YOU).

Overall: This is a solid entry in the Tales franchise, and I can see why people like it so much. Mechanically it’s very good, and the plot generally hangs together well. I beat the main game in 100 hours (earned the Too Much Free Time achievement right before trashing the final boss), although people who aren’t trying to get every synthesis weapon and sidequest will get through it faster. Final levels were 74-75 for the party. I haven’t touched the ex dungeon yet, but I’m not sure how far I am going to go within.

The game has both PS3 and XBox 360 versions, but only the 360 version was released in English. That’s mostly why it took me so long to get around to this entry, since I had to buy a 360 to actually play it.  That said, if you have a 360 or don’t mind picking one up, this is a good RPG to have for it. There’s a lot to explore, a lot of systems to master, and a grade shop that makes replays more valuable. If you can understand Japanese, the PS3 version adds Flynn and a new character Patty to the party and fixes a few small things. I rate this game Recommended.