Monthly Archives: November 2015

Tales of Zestiria (PS3/PS4/Steam)

STORY: The world is in an era of chaos. Long ago, legends tell, in such times one known as the Shepherd would rise up to drive back the darkness. But the darkness closes in, and no Shepherd has yet appeared . . .

Sorey is a rare young man: raised in a village of seraphim, he’s never met another human. Seraphim are a race invisible to the eyes of most humanity, but humans like Sorey with a high enough resonance can see them. When a chance encounter with an injured knight draws him outside to the world, he takes up the mantle of the Shepherd and struggles to bring peace for humans and seraphim alike.

I greatly enjoyed the story, although it isn’t without its flaws. The humans-can’t-see-seraphim dilemma is played up more than once for laughs—or showing how other people outright fear Sorey for the incredible forces that protect him. I also liked the way Sorey’s new Shepherd powers initially grant him nothing but sickness as his body tries to adjust. Or how learning to use techniques such as armitization leaves him asking “How do I turn this off?”

I also liked the focus on one major villain throughout. Most recent Tales games have suffered from wandering plots but this one stays pretty focused. Sorey is told as soon as he gets his power that his duty will be to stand against the Lord of Calamity, but he’s encouraged to explore and grow stronger before that confrontation. And when repeated encounters leave him unable to best that individual, he diverts himself with gaining more strength and finding out more of the real story. And the Lord of Calamity seems more bent on destroying Sorey personally than with destroying the world (although he’s not opposed to that), which leads to some really nasty tricks.

Character-wise, I liked all of the characters. Sorey’s ruin mania (often exacerbated by a friendly competition with Mikleo) helps paint him as a mostly ordinary kid who got sidetracked into this whole heroing business. And it’s not unusual for him to geek out at some historical discovery (the skit with the bust you find in the museum is particularly funny, as it contrasts what the girls think of it with what the guys think). Mikleo, having a similar interest in ruins, is a good counterpoint since the two of them often butt heads about minutiae no one else cares about (and there’s a great skit where Rose is trying to contribute to their argument and failing miserably).

Unfortunately, the other characters suffer from not having a ton of depth. Edna’s teasing really grated on me at first when she was picking on Alisha, who wouldn’t fight back, but later on she had a lot of funny moments. (Not so much when she picks on Mikleo, since he won’t just sit there and take it like Alisha does.) But Edna’s main plot thread, introduced when you meet her, is cleared up via a sidequest that’s easy to skip, and it’s relatively little content for such a big personal issue for her. Similarly, Dezel had a lot of potential, but most of his story gets crammed into a set of cutscenes between back-to-back fights, and it took me reading some outside materials to really get a good picture of what actually happened with him. Zaveid could have fleshed out both himself and Edna if his relationship with Edna’s brother had gotten more than a passing mention. Alisha actually had a plot, but it’s barebones, rushed, and a lot of it happens offscreen (oddly, despite at one point being held for questioning, she never remarks on this incident, making me wonder if she actually had been detained or if that was just a lie told to Sorey). And so on.

The most puzzling offender is Rose. I liked her (well, until the Alisha DLC, which paints Rose in a really bad way in the beginning), but I don’t find her to be internally consistent. She’s mostly the feelings-not-thoughts character. But she’s involved in professions that favor thoughts over feelings, such as her job as a merchant, and she’s supposed to be a really good merchant. Frankly I thought Eguille should’ve been the head of the Sparrowfeathers. He seemed more suited to the role. On the other hand, she seems to be a vigilante, but you don’t see a lot of the passionate drive that would give such a role a context. Why is she set on taking out bad guys? That’s not explained.

Still, even with that, I had a lot of fun with the plot. The end is mostly satisfying, though a few points are frustratingly vague (I prefer to think the figure in shadow at the end is human, not seraph, but it’s basically up to you).

GAMEPLAY: This is the first attempt at an “open-world” Tales. The world map is now fully explorable at a detailed level. After Xillia’s ugly corridor layout and profusion of brown and gray, I really appreciate all the bright colors and beautiful visuals. I got the PS4 version entirely because of the cleaned up graphics. The plot isn’t too long, but I spent a lot of time just poking around maps looking at things or looking for surprises.

The battle system is a more or less seamless transition on the world map. You’re still bounded by a circular area you can’t leave without escaping the battle, but the field objects around you when you fight are now part of the fight. This is good and bad. The battle camera is generally okay for single player, but even there it tends to get stuck on rocks or behind enemies. I was disappointed in the after-battle victory quotes, as only one or two of them was genuinely funny and most of them were more boring stock quotes. Earlier games in the series had a great selection of victory quotes.

Also, the AI will die. A lot. On the flip side, the seraphim’s ability to auto-revive in the back row, or auto-revive humans on armitization, meant that I made it through the entire game without using a single life bottle.

Artes have been broken into a rock-paper-scissors system, which I personally disliked due to how insane this made enemy spellcasters (Yes, I party-wiped multiple times against the Wraiths. Nothing like ten of the buggers constantly casting tiny spells that keep you pinned in place until dead). It can be hard to distinguish if the enemy is using martial or hidden artes against you, and since they generally know how to screw up whatever you’re doing, this can get problematic.

More positively, most of the characters have enough uniqueness that they’re fun to control. Lailah takes some getting used to for her slow attacks, but her AOE spells cheese giant mobs if used correctly. Mikleo, though, I don’t really like until armitized, as his spells are outclassed by everyone else and his melee is only average. Zaveid actually has a funny quirk where if the enemy is half-human-female, he’ll change from attack cries to start catcalling them.

I also liked the new enemy designs and enemy types. Especially elephants. Because beating up woolly mammoths is awesome.

The skills/fusion system is far too dependent on randomness, even though there are a few methods provided to make it somewhat less random. Getting a good skill build is going to take a bit of luck or a lot of patience. On the other hand, I completed a Normal/Moderate playthrough without needing to focus too heavily on skills (the Medusa fights are one notable exception, because if you can’t get the stack-6 bonus skill to prevent petrification, you’re going to have a bad time. On the other hand, you get Dezel, who automatically has this skill on all his titles, for the required one, and the other three are optional fights). Getting the skills in the first place is hard, but once you have them it’s not too bad to keep upgrading your weapon through strategic fusion.

But, if you have the time and the inclination, it’s perfectly possible to set up a character with, say, 80% casting time reduction plus absurd boosts to elemental damage plus the ability to ignore enemy resistance to that element. Or set them up to ignore 300 damage from every hit, plus the first 8000 damage total in a fight, plus 10 seconds invincibility at the start of a fight. And if you use the NG+ option to apply double/triple skills 2/3x to the skill board, that only gets more overpowered. The options are wide open and “best” build depends more on how you like to play.

OVERALL: The complaints about the game are valid, but I still found it a great time and really enjoyed playing my way through it. The story is my favorite Tales so far, though I would still say Tales of Graces has better mechanics. I spent 80 hours on the main game and am working my way through the postgame dungeon and Alisha’s DLC (which was originally free but now costs money, unless you get the Collector’s Edition which has it included). A pure plot run would be a lot shorter, but I spent a good amount of time in the optional dungeons, exploring the field, and so on. I spent almost no time grinding, as the only time I needed to get extra skills for a boss fight the normin drops were sufficient to get what I needed relatively quickly.
I would add that the Alisha DLC chapter may turn a mostly satisfying ending into a somewhat frustrating one based on what I’ve seen so far. You do get the option to play as Alisha with a better moveset and the opportunity to use her Mystic Artes, but she can’t armitize, which leaves her outside the most useful mechanics (especially revive-on-armitize), which especially hurts during bosses. That said, it has its own content that can be carried back to the main game if you play from a clear save file.

I played the first game in English but plan to do another run in Japanese. The English voices are generally solid, but the dual audio ensures that those who prefer the original language can enjoy it. In addition, the music is excellent. The Collector’s Edition sadly only includes twelve tracks, but they include Rising Up and Journey’s End, two of the best in the game (none of the elemental temple themes, though). So if you like the music, importing the OST is a better option than buying the Collector’s Edition.

I will add the Prima guide is mostly useless, though the maps can help. But the text spoils cutscenes rather than give actual strategy, the data section is missing a ton of information, sidequests are all bunched together in the back and not indicated in the main walkthrough (and those aren’t even 100% complete either), and so on. So buy at your own risk, and in the meantime the free online guides are starting to catch up.
All in all, this is one I certainly plan to replay. I rate this game Highly Recommended.

Apprentice Fantastic

Title: Apprentice Fantastic

Author: Martin H. Greenburg

Short story collections are always such a mixed bag…

“The Augustine Painters” by Michelle West – This was one of my favorites. The way art and magic blended, and the consequences, made a compelling backdrop for the story of one apprentice who may lose someone very dear to her.

“Sign Here” by Charles de Lint – Hated on multiple levels. This is a story told entirely in dialogue (not even any speech tags), which annoyed me. And the story tries very hard to paint someone who wants people to sign over their souls to him as NOT the devil incarnate, which I don’t buy at all. It would be easier to read it as irony and say they’re all damned, for either trading their own souls or trading other people’s.

“Til Voices Drown Us” by Tim Waggoner – Also disliked, though not so intensely, and more for the philosophy presented than the storytelling. Telling people lies to make them feel good and protect them from the truth rubs me the wrong way.

“Homework” by Esther Friesner – Disliked, because the hero turns out to be a cad and there’s no one worth rooting for. Especially not the whiny kid.

“The Last Garden in Time’s Window” by Dean Wesley Smith – This was okay, but nothing really stood out to me about it. A man investigates his parent’s deaths, convinced it must have been a murder.

“Final Exam” by Jane Lindskold – Another favorite. Danny’s an interesting kid: spoiled rotten by his own admission, with powers to heal that seem incongruous with such a disposition until you realize how he got them and what he does with them. And it really makes me want to hunt down the original story featuring him to see how the beginning all works out (footnotes indicate these exist in other anthologies).

“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s Apprentice” by David Bischoff – Disliked. Too much focus on sex and being drunk.

“Zauberschrift” by David D. Levine – An interesting piece about a man who left magic for a job as a dyer being called back to troubleshoot his village’s weather issues. Not terribly memorable overall.

“When the Student is Ready” by Tanya Huff – A good piece about a girl who has to apprentice to a homeless bum of a magician who is all that stands between her and the forces of darkness.

“What Has to be Done” by Fiona Patton – This one could get a bit gross since it deals with necromancy, but it’s a fascinating look at an apprentice who hates his trade. The only downside is this feels a bit thin for a short story (and it’s one of the longest in the book), as though a longer form would’ve allowed it to play more with its ideas, and bring them to a fuller conclusion.

“Flanking Maneuver” by Mickey Zucker Reichert – A bit too happily ended, given the generations of conflict, but otherwise okay. A young man pressed into service for his country accidentally ends the war.

“The Muses’ Darling” by Sarah A. Hoyt – It’s a fantasy short story about the beginnings of William Shakespeare. The intro kind of spoils the whole thing, as once you know she has a Shakespearean novel it’s no stretch to figure out who “Will” is. This was okay. I was happy with the ending, though rather annoyed that so many of the ordinary people were speaking in rhyme (and, for the watchful, these are lines adapted from his plays).

“Blood and Scale” by John Helfers – I liked this, though it wasn’t a favorite. The relationship between the unlucky apprentice and the dragon who captures him was fun, and the story kept twisting in surprising directions.

Overall the good stories, like “The Augustine Painters”, tend to be really good, but they’re mixed in with a lot that doesn’t feel worth the effort. So it may just boil down to how much you like short stories. I rate this book Neutral.

The Wayfinder

Title: The Wayfinder

Author: Darcy Pattison

Winchal (Wil) is a Wayfinder, someone who can locate people or things magically, and find his way to them. But when an accident claims his younger sister, he’s devastated, and goes from one of the most promising apprentices to someone no one will trust. Then a caravan, a quest, a second chance—to go the one place no one ever goes. Deep into the heart of the Rift.

As much as I hate to say it, one character pretty well ruined this for me. The dog. Lady Kala is stuck up and pretentious (as might be expected from a breed practically worshiped), but also practically schizophrenic. She prods Wil mercilessly to continue his quest, and then she’s the one wasting time on side trails. She’s fiercely loyal to the prince, except when she’s not (and not just the wolves; I can understand/admire being tempted). I was actually hoping she wouldn’t decide to stay with Wil, because at this point I feel sorry for him having to put up with her. He does a whole lot for her, both through the journey and at the end, but I can’t help but see her as more of the liability on the journey. (Also, dogs who fight crocodiles in the water don’t end up with dead crocodiles. They’re lucky if they end up as live dogs. And despite significance having been given to the croc being albino, nothing is ever mentioned about this again.)

Second, the setting begins well, but doesn’t work for me throughout. With Finders being an obvious magical talent, it’s a little surprising no other magical talents seem to exist. I get not overloading the story, but it was hard to place what magic is to these people or how it works, especially when the opportunity to contrast it with a different people came along. The second village was of necessity quick and simplified, but I was puzzled that it was only two women fighting for rulership. None of the men wanted to put himself forward as the greatest hunter/future headsman? Given the competitive nature of many men, I find that surprising. (Though many things could have been clearer if the adventure hadn’t been hurrying through this—Wil has to get the water and get back in about a week to make things work.) And quite a lot of page space is wasted on a talking lizard that does nothing but taunt and nibble at Wil and Kyla, exposing fears which don’t lead to a resolution.

Well, at any rate, this wasn’t too bad, but nothing about it made it stand out either—except Kyla being excessively annoying. I rate this book Neutral.

Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls

Title: Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls

Author: Jane Lindskold

Sarah has a fairly ordered life in the Home, but when a discharge order leaves her stranded on the streets, she has no idea what to do. A severe autistic who can only speak in quotes, Sarah has spent her life institutionalized. But she finds a new home with a street gang, a new life in the wild Jungle and with its compelling Head Wolf, and new troubles as her ability to hear inanimate objects brings her to the attention of ever more sinister people.

I liked the main story. Sarah’s autism blocks her from communicating in a typical way, and even though she can comprehend far more than those around her would assume, she can’t get it out. I’m doubly impressed at the difficulty writing this must have been, given the sheer volume of mostly-applicable quotes Sarah always has on hand. And the action is good, as Sarah moves from aimless confusion to a horrific knowledge of her past and her purpose.

That said, the story gets unflinchingly brutal at times. Sarah and several other characters were raped and molested as children, and the Jungle is home to young male and female prostitutes. Although the level of detail is thankfully light, the fact that it’s there at all darkens the tone considerably.

So overall, simply due to the multiple instances of child rape, I doubt I will read this again. The story does do what it set out to do relatively well, and it’s more a question of how much the content would bother you. I rate this book Neutral.

When the Gods are Silent

Title: When the Gods are Silent

Author: Jane Lindskold

Rabble is a warrior who performs for the Travelling Spectacular (and doubles as a guard). A request from a farmer, Hulhc, leads to a journey north. Some time ago, magic simply stopped working. Hulhc’s own father was a wizard, but Hulhc is little better than a farmer working the land his father left him. Hulhc is convinced magic may still be around, or he might find some clues about it, in the mountains up north. But no one expects what they might discover . . .

Rabble is the star of this intriguing story, though most of the characters get a good amount of space. Although the end wraps up a little fast, the journey goes well. Hulhc’s journey-quest has to work with a traveling circus, which means, among other things, caring for dancing bears—and fending off Rabble’s tendencies to insult people she dislikes, which leads to duals, which leads to trouble . . .

This isn’t too complex, and it’s an enjoyable read. I rate this book Recommended.

Spell Fantastic

Title: Spell Fantastic

Author: Martin Greenberg

Like all short story collections, this one had a few I enjoyed, a lot I was ambivalent about, and some I’d rather not have read.

“Saving Face” by Kristine Katheryn Rush – I liked this one a lot. It’s a slower kind of murder mystery, where the main character isn’t directly involved but rather figures a lot out from the side. And his magic is small and not at all flashy, but important, in the way ordinary life is important, even if most people don’t notice it much.

“A Spatter of Later Stars” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman – This was mostly just there. It might have worked better as the opening chapter of a novel, because a lot of characters and gifts are set up, but the actual plot and resolution was a bit weak to stand alone.

“The Woman Who Loved Death” by Robin Wayne Bailey – Disliked. Death shows up, and Hell, but what Hell is/involves and what evil is blurs and confuses. The main character quite enjoys Hell because she’s busy sleeping with Death, and has more of a sense of her own evil deeds after she goes back to life than in the afterlife, which seems backwards.

“Sacrifice” by Michelle West – This is a twist on a fairy tale, although which fairy tale is part of the surprise. I disliked this for the horrible way the main character gets treated throughout, which includes rape and an unwanted marriage.

“Spellsword” by Jane Lindskold – My other favorite of the volume. This is a short story about a college-age young man who failed his wizarding exam and is out on a quest to prove everyone wrong. Magical swords and pterodactyls—how can you go wrong?

“Curse of the Dellingers” by Micky Zucker Riechert – The initial setup is awkward, although at least it carries through the theme well. But I didn’t care for it overall because the only magic was a curse that made people do horrible things.

“For the Life of Sheila Morgan” by Dennis L. McKiernan – Disliked. The main character was irresponsible and petty, and it was hard to want things to work out for her at all.

“The Sagebrush Brujo Meets the Last of the Platters Or Why Do We Live in LA?” by John DeChancie – This one will depend on how much you like the narrator. I didn’t care for him and his rambling, and the frequent pop culture references mostly cited things I didn’t know, although I can appreciate the end point about little moments of magic. It just felt like a lot of words for a tiny plot with a tiny payoff.

“To Catch a Thief” by Lisanne Norman – This one really puzzled me on the setting. I thought it was straight up fantasy for about half the story until it mentions spaceports, and suddenly there are alien races. This is another one that feels like a chapter taken out of context from a larger book, especially given the way it starts and ends in the middle.

“The Thronespell” by Diana L. Paxon – I liked how this incorporated the old Norse legends and the new changing face of the kingdom, and how the two young men become somewhat friends even though they have a vast cultural divide.

“And King Hereafter” by Rosemary Edghill – This would have been better if it hadn’t gone with the Hitler ending. As soon as I saw the year this was taking place the ending was inevitable. Which was annoying. And it’s also why I hate reading World War II era fiction.

“The Midas Spell” by Julie E. Czerneda – More of a sports story here, which was a surprise. The end was a bit fast but was understandable given the hints dropped earlier. Good but not a favorite.

“Embracing the Mystery” by Charles de Lint – The technology references are dated by this point, and the story meanders a bit in the beginning, but this was a good way to finish out the book. It gently points to the unknowable, the magic, and ends the volume on a hopeful note.

Overall this is a hard one to give a blanket recommendation to. I rate this Neutral, and I hope Jane Lindskold eventually collects this short story into a book with the others featuring the Albuquerque adepts. (This story references one published in another anthology; I think there are four total, all in different anthologies).

Stories of the Raksura Volume 2 (Raksura)

Title: Stories of the Raksura, Volume 2: The Dead City & The Dark Earth Below

Author: Martha Wells

Series: Raksura

The second collection of Raksura stories has two novellas and a few shorter works. The Raksura are, for the newcomer, a shapeshifting race who have a humanlike groundling form and a winged and scaled flying form. Since I love stories about people that fly and shapeshifters, I’ve been having a lot of fun with all their books. The best part is that Wells has crafted a unique society for them, in a world full of nontraditional creatures.

The Dead City – This is set before The Cloud Roads, when Moon is fleeing the Fell. As one of the two novellas, it has a longer plot. One of the things I appreciate most about Well’s work is how inventive she is with the alien species, and how they’re not just random bits of parts but there’s glimpses of their lifestyles and societies.

The three short stories in the middle were (and perhaps still are) freely available on Martha Well’s homepage, so I had read them before. I still appreciate getting them in print.

The Dark Earth Below – The second novella, and the longer one. Jade is pregnant with Moon’s first clutch, and as Moon is stressing out about being a new father, unexpected trouble finds the colony. Again, more delightful alien races, a deeper picture of Raksuran society, Moon in top form killing things and Jade being clever despite being indisposed . . .

Given how strongly these are linked to the Raksuran trilogy (starting with The Cloud Road) this is interesting as a standalone but best read in conjunction with the series. It does, after all, provide both background and future for Moon. I rate this book Recommended.