Monthly Archives: June 2015

Vision in Silver (The Others #3)

Title: Vision in Silver

Author: Anne Bishop

The relationship between the Others and humans is tense at the best of times, and the Humans First and Last movement is dismantling more of the peace every moment. Humans who cooperate with the Others are getting branded “Wolf Lovers”, denied jobs, forced out of housing. Worse, the first murmurs of rebellions are beginning to spark up into war against the inhabitants of the Courtyard.

But on a more personal level, this story follows Meg as she continues to adjust to life outside the prison where she grew up; Simon as he is caught in the middle of the strife boiling inside the Courtyard and without; Montgomery’s fight to keep his daughter, and then keep her out of the mess she’s brought with her. Because little Lizzy is at the center of this maelstrom, which will wreck both Others and humans if it can’t be stopped.

This is a good next chapter to the story so far, but I think that was my biggest feeling about it—a chapter, an episode, another short bit of plot in which a few small things get resolved but the big storms that have been brewing in the first two books still haven’t quite broken out yet. It’s not a bad story, at all, but I didn’t find it stood out to me as much as either of the first two books.

Simon is still inching forward in his relationship with Meg (although he’s starting to figure out he might be falling in love with her) on the one hand, and trying to manage the unruly Courtyard-human relations on the other. Meg has to figure out how she’s managing because the other blood prophets aren’t taking to life outside nearly as well, and their survival depends on Meg figuring out how to replicate her own success. The emotional heart of the story, though, is the mystery around Lizzy and her mom, and what it is that either of them knows or has that has people willing to kill to get it.

This is a solid entry in the series, if not quite as conclusive as I had been hoping. If you’ve followed the series so far, it builds well on what came before even if it’s not as weighty as the previous two. If you’re new to the series, though, start with Written in Red, especially as a lot of what happens in this book depends on knowing what happened previously.

Overall, I rate this book Recommended.

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

Story: When Chrom discovers you lying in a field, the only thing you can remember is his name, even though you’ve never met him. Or have you? Was it a dream of the two of you fighting side by side, only for the battle to end in such tragedy?

Regardless, Chrom is willing to let you fight with him now. And when the usual bandits and border skirmishes give way to an undead menace, Chrom enlists your help. Who is controlling the Risen? And can you prevent the dark future “Marth” warns you about, or is destiny unable to be changed?

It’s hard to give a good plot summary since  from a sheer plot perspective, this is a fairly short story, with some pretty big twists coming early and several more along the way. I loved the story. There’s something extremely satisfying when, after only a single battle against bandits, you’re facing evil space zombies. And even as you have to fight against merely human invaders, the undead lurk at every turn.

Another interesting twist is how well the player-character gets worked in. Your avatar, named Robin by default (but you can use whatever you want), can be either male or female, and has a number of features (including voice!) that can be customized by the player. But simply being the player-character doesn’t mean Robin’s personality is a blank slate. The support relationships have been hugely expanded from previous Fire Emblem games, and Robin can support every single character (and get married to anyone of the opposite gender, including the bonus Spotpass or DLC characters). And in a move that further increases replayability, male Robin’s supports are sometimes completely different from female Robin’s supports with certain characters. The different support conversations are also true of Morgan, who is Robin’s child should Robin get married.

The support conversations in games like Path of Radiance were interesting, but extremely limited—you could only have five conversations per character. Awakening changes that. As long as the characters support each other (viewable in the Support menu) you can unlock all of the C-A conversations. The only restriction is that the S-rank (marriage) is limited to one opposite-gendered character. So if you aren’t sure who you’d like a character to marry, you can get all the basic supports before tying the knot. Even better, once you beat the game, a Support Log unlocks, which allows you to view previously-viewed conversations, which means you can choose different paths on later playthroughs.

And like any Fire Emblem, the cast of characters is extremely large and diverse. I had a lot of favorites this time around. Lucina has a rather heartbreaking character arc, but her support conversations also reveal someone unintentionally hilarious as she starts to loosen up. Gaius—“You’ll risk your life for us if I give you…a bag of candy?” And pretty much every support conversation with Owain is comedy gold: he likes naming his weapons and role-playing battles. Which is even better if you have someone like Morgan (male) who goes along with it. I was also fond of Henry (vastly preferring him to Tharja, your other dark mage), because he’s an eternally upbeat, cheerful, helpful sort who is also probably criminally insane. He finds everything fun, especially if it involves blood. Morgan (Morgan’s gender will be opposite Robin’s) is also upbeat, cheerful, and goofy, but the female Morgan tends to be a bit more sadistic. Which is to say, I’m glad I had a boy this time around . . . even if male Robin’s supports with Owain are much better, male Morgan’s are also much better with Owain. And really, the eternal rival LARP group they have going on totally beats female Morgan’s attempt to prove his sincerity to be her eternal ally.

Gameplay: This is a strategy-RPG, which means you fight in turns on a map with characters you generally get to choose. New to Awakening is the option to play with Casual mode—units who die only retreat from the current battle, but are able to fight with you again in future battles. The Classic mode, where people who die stay dead (or at least unable to fight for story-critical characters) is also available. Personally, I’m a fan of Casual mode because I hate redoing battles because the RNG hated me. (Seriously, I can’t count how many times I had a less than 5% chance to crit and the RNG threw not only one crit but multiple. Usually it was in my favor, but not always.) You also have the option of playing on Normal, Hard, or Lunatic, with a Lunatic+ mode available once Lunatic is beaten.

Also rare for the series, Awakening offers the option to fight both random Risen encounters or summoned Spotpass teams as a way to grind up experience (and in the case of the Risen, a bit of gold/weapons/items). The benefits diminish on harder difficulties, which is perhaps not surprising (how hard would Lunatic be if you could just grind everyone high enough to solo the levels?).

Practically, this means you can use whichever characters you want, because anyone can be at least competent in the right class and with the right stats. Everyone’s default classes offer fairly good options, as promoting with a Master Seal offers you two choices of an advanced class, and using a Second Seal allows you to go sideways to another base (or, if you’re promoted and at level 10, advanced) class. My Lissa, for example, made a tolerable healer (her default class) but was one of my best Dark Fliers.

The options get even more attractive for the children characters. When two characters reach an S-support, this unlocks a child-character for recruitment (although some female characters, like Tiki, do not have children unless married to Robin, since Robin’s child Morgan depends on Robin being married).  This gives the children twice the flexibility of either parent alone, since they can inherit classes from both parents (and Robin’s children inherit Robin’s classes, which is nearly every class in the game, gender-permitting).

Speaking of, Robin can be whatever you want him/her to be due to the incredibly large class pool available. There are a handful of classes not available based on gender constraints, and a few like Lord not available for other reasons, but by and large, if you want to do it, you can. Robin’s unique class is Tactician > Grandmaster, and I am fond enough of the magic and swords combination that I put Robin back there once I had the other skills I wanted. But if you’d rather have an Assassin or Sorcerer or Wyvern Lord, etc, that’s all open too.

There is a good variety of class types and skills/abilities to use. I like all the dual magic-and-weapon classes, as it allows for attackers who can hit whichever defensive stat is lower. The weapon triangle exists for swords, axes, and lances, but oddly magic doesn’t seem to have a similar one anymore, so I mostly used Thunder magic for the high crit rate and Wind magic for bonus damage against flying creatures. When units are paired up or supporting each other, the accuracy of Thunder magic improves enough to put it on par with the Fire spells.

Pairing up is another big component of the gameplay. Units can team up to act like a single unit, or merely stand next to each other. There are bonuses for both, but which one you use will depend on the situation. The higher the support level between two characters, the bigger the pair-up bonus. It was somewhat ironic to me that I spent a lot of time getting skills that were good at recovery or dealing damage when hit only to find, thanks to high bonuses, my Avoid was so high I basically never got hit. (I also have a preference for Myrmidion > Swordmaster/Assassins, although the Hero class worked pretty well too).

Also, in addition to the main story chapters (25 chapters plus an Endgame chapter), there are about as many sidequest chapters available. Some of these are straightforward battles, but many of them have an extra character to recruit (children, for example, are recruited in sidequests). Spotpass adds a few additional maps with some interesting characters to recruit. The nice thing is that you can beat the main game and still open that save file to find yourself right before the final battle, which means you can finish out the story and then clean up any outstanding sidequests, or train for DLC maps. I personally don’t care for DLC, but there is a good amount of content available for those interested, which could add another set of maps.

Overall: If you have a 3DS and any interest in strategy games this is an excellent one to get. The various difficulty levels allow for beginners as well as experts. The huge pool of support conversations (and marriage options) guarantees you won’t be able to see everything in one playthrough, especially as Robin’s conversations to some extent depend on Robin’s gender. There’s also a few key scenes where the dialogue will change a bit depending on Robin’s relationship to Chrom’s family.

The visuals are gorgeous, and the 3D works really well with the art style. The character portraits have just the right level of detail, and the animated movies make me regret that I can’t leave a save file before each one to re-watch them (Youtube is great, but without the 3D effect, it just feels so flat). Also, if you choose “No” about Chrom in the Endgame, you’ll get an additional movie after the credits… but since you can redo the Endgame again after doing it you can also just play the last chapter twice to see both endings. (My favorite ending is picking No, but neither choice gets you a “bad” ending.)

I beat the main story and about half of the paralogues in 62 hours, which accounts for a fair amount of grinding random Risen when I wanted to get characters a few more skills. I intend to finish the rest of the paralogues before replaying the Endgame to choose the other option, so there’s still a good amount of play left even for my current file, and a few things I’m already planning to do a little differently next time I go through the story. I rate this game Highly Recommended.

Uprooted

Title: Uprooted

Author: Naomi Novik

Agnieszka has always lived in the shadow of the Wood. Although she’s drawn to the forest and the outdoors, the Wood has been waging a bloody war against the people of the valley for generations. Monsters in the Wood slip out to wreck havoc on the villages. Worse, the Wood itself breathes corruption, so that merely walking too near can turn a person to a pawn of the power that wants them all to suffer. But the valley has the Dragon to protect it, a sorcerer who lives in his tower and only comes out on the feast day to collect his tribute. And part of that tribute, every ten years, is a girl . . .

If I had to sum up this book in a word, it would be brilliant. The fairy-tale atmosphere draws the pieces into place—the Dragon, the Wood, the Tower—but the details bring everything to life. Agnieszka is a compelling voice. If she has a gift, it seems to be for ruining every nice thing she touches, but for all that she’s got a place with her family and her village. Her best friend, Kasia, is the sort of girl the Dragon likes to choose, and both girls have lived their lives in the shadow of that knowing. Everyone has. No one really knows the Dragon, and he makes no effort to be known. And none of the girls he takes ever really comes back, even when they finish their ten years in the Tower; they all go off to a bigger town, or in some other way leave the valley.

As the story goes on, the thematic elements start to get stronger. There are a number of interesting observations about roots, both literal plant roots and the insubstantial bonds that keep a people connected to the land and each other, even when that land is trying its hardest to kill them off. But these ideas play very naturally into the unfolding story.

This is also has a lot of humor, particularly between messy Agnieszka and the pristine-and-proper Dragon. He’s trying his hardest to make her into someone who won’t embarrass him or herself, and she’s trying just as hard to hang on to everything that makes her herself, which includes the fact that she can’t seem to go five minutes in something nice without it somehow coming apart.

I only really have one quibble with the story at all, and that’s with how detailed the explicit scenes get. It would be easy to recommend this to younger readers if two scenes were toned down; I would have greatly preferred the second, in particular, to be more behind-the-curtain than in-your-face.

Overall, though, the story is definitely one I would read again. The ending works perfectly, with no nasty loose ends left for a sequel, although it has the kind of openness that suggests Agnieszka is just beginning to live the kind of life she’s chosen for herself. I rate this book Highly Recommended.