Monthly Archives: September 2015

Tales of the Abyss (PS2 / 3DS)

Tales of the Abyss (PS2 / 3DS)

Auldrant is a world ruled by the prophecy. Two thousand years ago in the Dawn Age, Yulia Jue foresaw a totally accurate prophecy about the future of her world, and wrote it all down on seven fonstones. Those stones have since broken apart, and fragments have fallen into various places around the world, triggering wars between nations as everyone fought for possession of the fragments.

Luke fon Fabre doesn’t know much about the outside world, and frankly, couldn’t care less. Despite being the son of Duke Fabre, third in line for the throne, and one of the most powerful people in Baticul, he’s not been allowed to leave his manor. Seven years prior, he’d been kidnapped, and when his family finally recovered him without any memories of anything prior, they forbade him to leave until he reached his majority. His life consists of a lot of boredom punctuated by treasured sword lessons with an Order Commendant, Van Grants.

And then Luke’s manor is invaded by a strange woman seeking to kill Van—and when Luke interferes, a magical explosion blows both of them to the middle of the wilderness. Now Luke is stuck alone in the middle of the world he’s been protected from for his whole life, in a world preparing to go to war . . .

Story: Tales of the Abyss did something daring with its story direction—it deliberately makes the main character a spoiled, selfish brat. Luke whines about being forced out of his deathly boring (but comfortable) life. He clashes with the rest of the party often, putting his own desires ahead of what needs to be done. He ends up in charge of this game’s mascot, Mieu, and names it Thing and has a tendency to beat him up. (Granted, I still find the mascot bit rather funny, as Luke’s primary complaint—that Mieu is annoying and has a really high-pitched voice—is something I agree with.)

What’s remarkable is how well everything pulls together. Luke is a whiny, spoiled child—but not without reason. Even in his worst phase, it’s still possible to read between the lines and see where he’s coming from (this is one of the things that makes a second playthrough so much fun; now you know all the secrets). He’s spoiled because he has been sheltered, and all of his life so far has been about him. It takes a pretty big knock to shake him out of that, but once he does he swings too far in the other direction—too hesitant, too uncertain, very much still looking to others for validation of not only his thoughts but his existence. But he changes, just as he promised, and ends up pulling up the others with him.

In terms of party members, Jade and Guy are easily my favorites. I liked Jade from the first moment you meet him. Jade, on a mission of peace for the Emperor of Malkuth, realizes Luke’s support would be a huge boon. Luke demands Jade bow when he asks for help, so Jade immediately gets on his knees and petitions Luke for aid. Luke then complains that Jade has no pride—and Jade counters “None so petty as to be shaken by something like this.” Jade is adult enough to have his eye on the grand prize of peace between nations. He’s direct, logical, somewhat cold, and has a great sense of humor. I also really like his backstory. He was, at one point, more villainous than many of the current villains because he was brilliant and without morals. And despite him personally changing and repenting, the knowledge he uncovered has much further-reaching consequences than he can control. So when you finally meet Jade, he’s an odd contradiction: world-renowned,yet content to be a simple Colonel, working for his Emperor and friend. It’s also quite fun how everyone not only knows him, they know him as someone extremely dangerous and not to be trifled with (which the beginning of the game underlines when the enemies use a seal that cost a tenth of a country’s budget just to shut him down).

Guy is my other favorite character, and like Jade he’s got a complex backstory and an interesting present story. Guy’s main gimmick is that he’s got two equal and opposing personality traits: he’s a really nice guy who turns into a basket case if a woman tries to touch him. It’s mostly played for laughs—but then you find out why he can’t stand women’s touch, and it’s an awesome, awful moment. But he’s also interested in fontech, in a world where engineering is that embarrassing hobby you’d never try to show your friends.

Abyss focuses on flawed, human characters. Whether it’s Asch working for overall good but unable to overcome his hatred of Luke, to Sync’s destructiveness stemming from his emptiness, to Dist’s questionable loyalty to anything but his own goals, the villains have as much to contribute as the party. (It’s also quite funny how Dist is determined to paint the relationship between him and Jade as eternal rivals, and Jade merely views Dist as an unfortunate groupie. At one point he even calls Dist a pet.)

In addition, the story as a whole has a darker tone. Replicas (a magical form of cloning) are a major focus of the plot. So is the infallible prophecy that promises prosperity followed by disaster–which leaves the protagonists actually working for what might be the wrong side for a good portion of the plot, and leaving the villains with superior motives if worse means.

Because the story has a lot of depth, and such strong characters, it’s an easy game to play multiple times (and in fact, playing it at least twice allows you to pick up on the clever way the game subverts expectations).

Gameplay: This is the first true 3D Tales battle system, which means Free Run at last! The elemental system is interesting in that spells affect the portion of the battlefield they hit, and stronger spells contaminate that area with more of its element, until enough gathers that it can be used to transform other attacks. So positioning is important (or keeping the enemy away from those positions), but you aren’t unduly hampered if you can’t use the elemental fields well.

Ironically, the agile Guy tends to play a better swordsman than the slow-but-harder hitting Luke. I played my original PS2 run of the game as the spearman/mage Jade (both because I loved his character and because it amused me to play as a mage) and my second 3DS run as Guy. The team additionally has Tear as the area healer plus offensive spellcaster, Natalia as the single-target healer plus some melee archery, and Anise as a physical/magical unit like Jade but focused more on the physical attacks.

This is one of those games that really benefits from having a guide. I use the Brady Games guide, which is mostly correct and enormously helpful. Sidequests have a nasty tendency to become available without any indication to a casual player they even exist, and many of them have strict time cutoffs where they’ll disappear forever. (Although one of the reasons to use GameFAQs even if you have this guide is that it won’t often tell you far enough ahead of time what a sidequest needs to be completed—I had to wait on the blacksmith due to not having enough materials from my initial run through Zao Runs, or not informing you to buy maces while they are cheap and instead forcing you to spend 7k apiece to get them for a quest if you’re going strictly by the book).

Even with a guide, the crafting system is obtuse at best. You turn in materials found at search points (and sometimes dropped from enemies), which gives you points in various categories. When you have enough points, items can be crafted. It’s best just to look up the GameFAQs guide if you want to do this. You can get some decent items from the shop, particularly when it initially opens, but it isn’t required.

But from a main story standpoint, it’s easy enough to get through, although some fairly easy-to-miss sidequests have nice bits of backstory.

OVERALL: The gameplay is complex and remains engaging even so long after its initial release. The story remains one of my favorite game stories overall. This game has long been my standard for later Tales games, and although I enjoy most of the series, this is probably my favorite. I rate this game Highly Recommended.

The Book of Dead Days

Title: The Book of Dead Days

Marcus Sedgwick

Boy has been the assistant to the magician Valerian for nearly as long as he can remember. Boy helps with his magic show, looks after him in his home, runs his errands. In return, Valerian provides him a place to stay and sometimes teaches him things like reading. But things are changing. A murderer is roaming the city. Valerian is uneasy—frantically driven to find something in the last few days between Christmas and the New Year. Joined by Willow, a girl from the theater, the three have only a few days to make everything come right . . .

I should preface this by saying the novel is mostly horror, and that’s not a genre I like much unless it’s got something else that stands out to redeem it. So. There is a City, unnamed but given the hints (Kepler, mostly), a savvy reader can make a guess about which one it is. I found the setting vague and generic, with the most interesting bit the underground canal system the party finds themselves traversing near the end. There’s only so much urban grime and stink one can read about before it all starts to blend together.

Character-wise, Valerian not only dominates the story, he’s kind of the only one with a point. Boy is shy and mostly does whatever Valerian wants. Willow, too, is only there to draw out some exposition and to challenge Valerian on a few points. In other words, in a children’s book, the children are really basically side characters. And I found it really aggravating Kepler appears to be the historical figure, only instead of being a strong Christian, he comes off as a jerk who may have been dabbling in the same dark powers Valerian unwisely called.

I didn’t buy the ending either. Well, one vital sentence: that Valerian suddenly realizes Boy’s life has been harder than his own. Really? Boy lived on the streets and then with a temperamental and somewhat abusive guardian. Valerian had it all, lost it all, and is about to pay with his life. Boy has never had to deal with the kinds of relationships Valerian has known—friendships, unrequited love, enemies, etc. And I was annoyed that the murders that seemed to be such a big part of the plot are left completely dangling. At first I thought Valerian’s magic had spawned some phantom that killed for fun or to sustain itself, but that doesn’t seem to be true. It’s actually highly unlikely Valerian was the one to commit the murders, as well (despite the smoke at the second), which leaves the annoying question of who it was. Kepler? He’s literally the only character other than an extremely obese and bad-tempered singer who gets any screen time and would’ve been around to try.

Overall, this isn’t necessarily badly written, but I had to force myself through. It was hard to care about Boy when he shows so little agency, and the conclusion to Valerian’s plot was more or less what I had expected. I rate this book Neutral.

The Cabinet of Wonders (Kronos Chronicles #1)

Title: The Cabinet of Wonders

Author: Marie Rutkoski

Series: The Kronos Chronicles #1

Petra Kronos had a happy life with her father, before he went to work for the prince. And then the prince returns him, only without his eyes, so that he might never create a masterpiece to rival the clock he has built for the prince. Petra, infuriated, heads to Prague to get into the prince’s palace and steal her father’s eyes back. Of course, it isn’t that easy . . .

This was a relatively short adventure with a pretty unique setting. Alternate-history Prague in the 16th century, with a dash of magic and a little steampunk (Petra’s father makes living tin animals, and Petra herself owns a spider he made). I liked Petra’s father’s gift of magic and metal, and the various unique objects he’s created with it. Nor is he the only one with a bit of magic and crafting—Petra’s friend Tomik has a way with glass, Tomik’s father creates jars that hold your worries, and so on.

The characters are also quirky and memorable, from Neel, the gypsy with a particular talent for theft, to my favorite, Iris the dye-maker, who oozes acid whenever she’s afraid or angry. (Seriously, I will hunt down the sequel right now if Iris shows up again, although it’s highly unlikely Petra will be back to the palace). Add to that a very peculiar ensemble of villains—a painter, a surgeon, and of course the prince. But as the nefarious deeds of the anyone not the prince tend to be more hinted than spelled out, I hope some of them will show up again to give a bit more depth to their characters.

Overall this is nice and short, and if the somewhat macabre mission isn’t a deterrent then it should be an enjoyable read. I rate this book Recommended.

Ready Player One

Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Wade Watts may live in the slums of the Stacks, but his dreams go much farther. In the near-future, the world is suffering under an energy crisis, and most of the remaining population prefers to spend its time in the virtual world of OASIS. When the creator of OASIS dies, and promises his fortune to anyone who can find his Easter egg in the game, Wade is one of the millions who sets out to find it. But the egg is well-hidden, and Wade’s going up against both the top players of the world as well as a corporation who will do anything to ensure OASIS comes under their control . . .

This is a book aimed at a very specific audience. If you like 80s pop culture and videogames (or don’t mind learning about them), this can be a lot of fun, as it’s a zany ride through movies, games, trivia, fashions, music, etc, from the 80s. The problem is that everything is SO tied up with these references that unless you lived through the 80s or otherwise engaged with its media, most of the visuals and some of the key scenes are going to fall completely flat. I enjoy gaming and know a fair bit about games, but having not seen most of the movies or TV shows or music definitely means that for me, this probably would’ve worked better as a movie, as the gaming references were the only things I could really key into.

The prose is serviceable, not strong. I liked the details of Wade’s life, as well as the other gunters he befriends (I had a particular fondness for the two Japanese guys, as well as the various nods to old anime and mecha). There was also a nice twist near the end as Wade finds out the difference between OASIS personas and real people. And it was a lot of fun to see Wade tackle the evil corporation head-on using some pretty nasty tricks to cut their legs right out from under them.

So overall, as I said before, this is going to appeal mostly to people who can remember enough of the 80s to visualize a good chunk of the book. Otherwise, if the story interests, the movie might be a better option. I rate this book Neutral.

Noman (Noble Warriors #3)

Title: Noman

Author: William Nicholson

Seeker has been charged with the destruction of the savanters. Of the seven, five have already died by his hand. But the two he failed to finish are still out there—still able to prey upon others to extend their own lives. He’s determined not to let the last of them get away.

For Morning Star and Wildman, peace is its own problem. Wildman is the head of an army with nothing to fight. The lack of something to which he can throw himself into, the lack of something to conquer, is driving him crazy. Wildman wasn’t meant to settle down. And Morning Star has the ashes of the realization that her love for him was always only hers. But a charismatic leader promises them both everything they’ve ever longed for . . .

I have mixed feelings about this one. I greatly enjoyed Seeker’s journey, but much of its conclusion depends on handwaving about what his powers are capable of and the really confusing relationship between Noman, Jango, and Seeker. I think I see what the story was trying to do, but lir never came off as that kind of power.

It was good to see Morning Star shake her infatuation with Wildman. My favorite part of her story was the intriguing look into the community the Joy Boy was building (one wonders why he didn’t try to make it last by picking a spot and declaring that the capital). As for Wildman, his turbulent journey took a while to get interesting, but his eventual confrontation with Seeker was brilliant. Even better was Seeker’s reaction to the whole mess afterwards.

I was disappointed the plot did eventually turn back to the “we are all gods” bit implied by the creed, which makes what happened with the All and Only inevitable. Pity. I was hoping the story would be bold enough to allow the All and Only to be eternal God. So what happens instead is a really convoluted plot hole that trips the whole story up.

*** SPOILERS BELOW ***
Lir has been shown to come from life and affect the present. Eg, Seeker focuses his own lir to strengthen his body, or to touch someone’s mind, or even to shake the earth. But to make the end of the story work at ALL, lir has to be capable of crossing dimensional boundaries. Without time travel (twice) you can’t have Seeker AND Jango AND Noman. It might be possible to believe the other two are merely figments of Seeker’s memories, except Jango does things off on his own in the previous book while Seeker is going the other direction down the road. And just how did Noman become a young child again, anyway? That was Manlir’s triumph and the rest of the savanter’s dream. Not to mention Noman the warlord is much more Wildman than Seeker, who has no ambition to rule anyone.

And all of that leads to the mess at the end where Seeker lets Echo get eaten up by the force he won’t destroy because faith needs an enemy and that enemy is knowledge. The story comes so close but fails to show that faith isn’t the problem but whether what you’ve put your faith in is worth that faith. Seeker’s faith is, in the end, in nothing, because the All and Only is a lie just like all the other gods introduced have been lies.
*** END SPOILERS ***

In the end it feels like more of the overall story should’ve been Seeker’s, as his arc was a lot more interesting than the other two, especially in the third book. I did like this overall, but it failed to amaze me the way the end of the Wind Singer trilogy did. If you’ve read the previous books, read this one to cap off the series, but if you haven’t read the first two don’t even bother. Most of what’s going on calls back to things that happened earlier in the series and many of the events just won’t make sense without that backdrop. If you have read the first two, I rate this book Recommended.

Jango (Noble Warriors #2)

Title: Jango

Author: William Nicholson

Seeker, Morning Star, and Wildman are in training to become Noble Warriors. They’ve achieved nearly everything they set out to do—and nothing is what they thought. For Seeker, the power of becoming a Noble Warrior comes with burdens, questions, responsibilities, and no way to know for sure if his path is the right one. For Morning Star, the unexpected revelation of her own heart seems a contradiction to continuing onward in her training. And for Wildman . . . living by the rules has never been his style. He’s still to get a glimpse of the Garden and the one who waits within, the All and the Only. It’s all he’s ever wanted. As war comes once again to the land, the three find themselves at the heart of something greater and more terrible than they ever dreamed. . .

It’s been nearly ten years since I read the first book, so my memories going into this one were a little foggy. Thankfully, the main plot was very easy to get back into, beginning as it does with the slow life of training with the Nomana, and gradually building speed through the final war. I still like Seeker best. In this volume his troubles take on more of an adult tone as he wrestles with who he is, what purpose his abilities have, and what direction to take his life. He knows there is a reason, but he has no idea what that reason might be. And then when he does have a mission, its purpose contradicts his vows. More, his reactions during it show he’s not quite as pure and detached as he aims to be.

Morning Star’s revelation seemed a bit too abrupt, but it otherwise plays out well. I found it interesting how what she noticed, what she says, about herself is also true for Seeker, although he won’t say it and probably doesn’t realize it himself. Echo, a resident of the forest Glimmen, is an interesting contrast—a girl captured by an army, forced to choose a marriage she does not want. Echo took a while to grow on me, mostly because I was dreading how her storyline would turn out, but she shows a lot of cleverness in avoiding what could have been the worst of her situation.

And Wildman, is, as always, the wildcard. He’s capable of great things when he’s focused, but the Nomana seem determined to frustrate him. And it’s kind of looking like he might end up as part of the problem later on, even if right now he’s helping out. It will be interesting to see what kind of a path he chooses to blaze on the road ahead, especially with all the tools at his disposal by the end.

The only quibble I have is a small one—the whole “Nothing is dependable. Nothing lasts.” that is supposed to be Seeker’s key revelation—the nothingness he is, the nothingness that is all around him—is really more a statement for horror and despair than the joy it stirs in him. It is perhaps the best argument for eternity: nothing in this world is everlasting, and so nothing in this world is able to hold the weight of our hopes and dreams. And Seeker points this out near the end when he talks with Echo about gods. She can only see what she wants now and next, and he, emptied of wants, can see where such a course must eventually lead.

But it makes for interesting reading, and an interesting plot, and most certainly interesting powers. I was amazed Seeker got so much of an upgrade so early in the story (and what it did to him to get it). And then it was great fun watching the ramifications play out. Now that Seeker has such a different perspective on life, it’s catapulting him into places the old him would never have dared.

Overall this is probably best read after the first book, although it’s mostly the minor characters who benefit, as most of their backstory is only slightly touched on, if at all. And with such an open ending, the third book has a lot of space to go places . . . I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Krakens and Lies (Menagerie #3)

Title: Krakens and Lies

Author: Tui T. Sutherland and Kari Sutherland

Logan and Zoe have suspected for a while that someone is deliberately trying to bring down the Menagerie. All of the “accidents” feel too orchestrated. But in between juggling the current crises, they don’t have a lot of time for some of the larger mysteries. Like, what happened to Logan’s mother and the Chinese dragon she was escorting? What is going on with Jasmin’s family? Logan and Zoe are determined to get to the truth, but the answers will surprise them . . .

This feels like the capstone of a trilogy, which disappoints me only because I hope to see more books about Logan and Zoe and their crazy Menagerie. I love the chaos that pervades the whole plot—it’s one disaster after the next, huge personalities clashing against each other, and unexpected but amazingly well-fitting surprises.

I liked how Logan works things out with his dad, and how the two of them are finally on the same side. Or Jasmin and Zoe having that talk Zoe’s spent so long avoiding (added bonus points for the backdrop to this conversation being utterly hysterical). And I liked the variety of relationships, from the “she’s just not into you” Marco and Keiko to the budding attraction between Blue and Jasmin.

And, of course, Nira gets a surprise appearance where she proceeds to steal the show with her quips. I adore the griffins. Nira is the best, but her children aren’t far behind. That’s honestly one of the greatest things about these books. Every character tends to be memorable in his or her own way.

The plot does wrap up well, save for one very interesting comment made about Logan that leaves me hoping for a future book to delve into it. Overall, though, this is a fun series that reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones. I rate this book Highly Recommended.