Game review ๐ŸŽฎ: Final Fantasy XIII-2

A sequel is tricky to assess. It’s always compared to the first/original game, so it has a lot to live up to. Where are the story and characters going next? How will the developers tweak the gameplay formula this time? Is it going to be more of the same, or wildly different? Can it meet everyone’s expectations??

Final Fantasy XIII-2 is a sequel that’s more of the same. Everything I reviewed about XIII — a cool technomagical world, pedestrian story and characters, pretty graphics, fun and fast-paced gameplay — holds true for XIII-2. Square-Enix tweaked the formula here and there, but by-and-large this is a conservative sequel that struggles to stand on its own.

The story picks up shortly after XIII’s finale. Lightning has gone missing, and the spotlight now turns on her sister, Serah. When Serah crosses paths with Noel, a warrior from the future, this is her chance to search for Lightning’s whereabouts. So their time-travel journey begins: Serah to find Lightning, and Noel to find and confront his mentor-turned-nemesis, Caius, who betrayed him. And of course their fates are all intertwined with each other.

What makes sequels appealing is the chance to revisit familiar locations and characters. XIII-2 does a fine job bringing you back to XIII locations that are reimagined and feel fresh and look great. I enjoyed exploring places like Lake Bresha and Oerba village, and discovering how the heroes and supporting characters of XIII have been shaped by past events. Of the new locations, my favourite was the city of Academia, which is the spitting image of modern-day Tokyo or Hong Kong. Out of place, maybe? But for Serah who comes from a fantasy beachside village, Tokyo must look exotic!

I especially enjoyed the music. All the tracks sound so fitting: each one matches the visual aesthetic and mood of its location, and all work together as a coherent musical picture of XIII-2. The light electronic tracks also make for great easy listening!

The story is serviceable but not outstanding — just continuing the serviceable but not outstanding story begun in XIII. It felt more intimate since it focused on Noel and Serah’s personal growth. Noel was more interesting than Serah, and at one point I thought he was actually developing beyond his Japanime male-lead tropes, and that the whole story will subvert its JRPG conventions. So I was disappointed by the ending, I guess it was too much to expect a FF game to abandon its tried-and-true-if-boring story formula for something really groundbreaking. But even that ending would’ve been alright — if it hadn’t followed up with an “ending after the ending” which was clearly a setup for FFXIII: Lightning Returns. That took away whatever little satisfaction I had!

Overall, XIII-2’s story had potential but suffered from being in the middle of a trilogy. I think it would’ve stood up much better as a standalone story of Noel vs. Caius.

Narrative gripes aside, the game is fun. Everything I said in my review of XIII holds true here: the fast-paced, strategic “command synergy” battle system is great, character levelling is still the same linear progression, and most of my enjoyment came from building my paradigm deck and mastering it in battles. Some mechanics were streamlined, eg. You can now swap between controlling Serah and Noel’s actions in the middle of battle, which wasn’t possible in XIII. The monster deck is a new feature and provides an additional source of variety: you pick a third squad member from this deck, and all monsters have unique levelling progression and skills. Combat continues to be the strong suit of XIII-2.

The time-travel gimmick shapes the gameplay, and I thought it was effective. Serah and Noel move up and down the timeline, visiting and revisiting various places in different eras. Each location-in-time is a discrete map connected to a central hub (the “Historia Crux”); more maps unlock as the story progresses, and you can revisit them anytime later. The story is presented linearly in small episodes, so in spite of the time-jumps, it was easy to follow.

There are more sidequests in XIII-2 than the very focused first game. I have an irrational hatred of Final Fantasy mini-games and grind, but I liked how XIII-2 integrated the sidequests with time travelling. Pursuing them felt meaningful, and I was rewarded with setting lore and more insight into Serah and Noel’s personalities. I especially liked discovering the “alternative futures” endings. There are also two mini-game locations in the form of the theme park Serendipity and the superboss Arena at the end of time, but I didn’t feel like I missed out on the meat of the game by ignoring them. Somehow, XIII-2 struck a balance of providing more things to do than XIII, while keeping sidequests meaningful and optional mini-games purely optional.

Final Fantasy XIII-2 was a decent sequel that walked closely in its predecessor’s footsteps and inherited all its strengths and flaws. While I enjoyed it a little bit more than XIII, it didn’t have that “spark of personality” that say, distinguished FFX-2 from FFX, that other FF game/sequel pair. Ultimately, XIII-2 is wholly defined by its predecessor and struggles to stand as its own game. Like big sister, like little sister: Lightning has already blazed a trail, and Serah doesn’t do much more than just follow behind.


Cross-posted at We The Players.

Game review ๐ŸŽฎ: Final Fantasy XIII

Escape a death sentence, get roped into a life-transforming quest. Work with a motley crew of fellow misfits, learn to become allies and even friends. Discover the truth about your society — and discover you can’t go back to the status quo anymore. Defy the powers-that-be, defy your fate: overcome both. Save the world.

Isn’t that the theme of all Final Fantasy games? Alright, maybe not — I haven’t played many of them — but that is the core of Final Fantasy XIII. It’s the second FF game I ever started, and the first I played to the end. (My first ever was the famous VII, which I played when it released on Steam. Let’s just say that that experience was decidedly underwhelming.)

The FF franchise is known for syncretizing magic and technology in its settings, and XIII is no different. It’s set in a technomagical world that looks modern, even futuristic, but also fantastic, fanciful and otherworldly. This “technomagical” style happens to be an aesthetic that really appeals to me, and XIII delivers the eye candy in spades. Landscapes and buildings and creatures are lushly designed, with locations calculated to wow the player. Combat has a lot of spectacle. There were many times where I just stopped in the middle of travel just to look at the scenery. Say what you want about the rest of the game, it looks amazing.

Combat is the other hallmark of XIII, which departs from the turn-based combat mechanics of previous FF games into a faster, more strategic version called “command synergy” battle system. First you pick a squad of 3 out of your roster of 6 characters (Lightning and friends), each of whom have distinct stats. Then you select a role for each member, out of 6 roles — damage-dealing Commando, defensive Sentinel, healer Medic, and others. Each character can play every role, but each has access to slightly different skills, and some characters are more effective at certain roles depending on their stats and levelling. Now you have a “paradigm”: your squad of 3 characters, each with a role. You build six different paradigms in total — same squad of 3, different combinations of roles — to make your “paradigm deck”, which is deployed during combat. In real-time battle, you manage the skills of the squad leader, and can swap around paradigms as the fight dictates, but the other two squad members operate by A.I.

Gone are the tactics of past FF games such as VII, X, and XII, where you micromanage each character’s skill/spell use in a blow-by-blow response to enemy action. Combat in XIII feels more like high-level strategy: building out your squad in your paradigm deck, and then managing them in real-time through effective deployment of paradigms. Instead of noting each enemy action and responding with a precise character action, I learnt to observe fights in gestalt and figure out the best paradigm for my squad to use, and when. It’s all fast-paced and flowing, and a battle can be done and dusted in a matter of seconds. In fact, figuring out how to defeat a foe as fast as possible is integral to learning how to build and use the paradigm deck effectively.

In some ways this combat mechanic takes some agency away from the player during the fight. Furthermore, the character-levelling system that supports this is a big step away from “roleplaying”: every character has a linear, non-customizable role progression. It’s not a skill tree to explore, but a skill thread to crawl up, and it completely removes the player’s ability to custom-build the characters. I gather that this high-level command synergy battle isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and a linear levelling system breaks with time-honoured JRPG/Final Fantasy tradition of building characters to one’s liking. Different combat, different levelling: different paradigm (pun intended) of what a FF game is meant to be.

That said, that boring levelling system was more than made up for by the diversity and sheer, moment-by-moment fun of battle encounters. I thoroughly enjoyed combat in XIII. The diversity of enemies and the challenge of getting a 5-star rating for each battle kept me constantly experimenting with my paradigm deck, putting characters and roles in every kind of permutation. It’s incredibly satisfying to beat enemies and storyline bosses with 5-star ratings!

Graphics and gameplay were the strengths of XIII. What about the heroes and their epic story?

It’s serviceable. Lightning and her comrades were decent characters and showed a bit of character development beyond their Japanime-trope surfaces, although compared to other RPGs and even other JRPGs, that’s not saying much. The save-the-world story kept me invested enough to want to finish the game. Not a story that moved me, nor characters that I got attached to, but it was all interesting enough and did its job.

The pacing could’ve been better though. While I didn’t mind the linear nature of the early game, the story felt quite disjointed when it split into three different subplot threads (from the time the characters split up after Lake Bresha), but it regained coherency when they all reunited in the Fifth Ark. I also experienced a bit of whiplash when the game moved from a focused, linear story in Cocoon to a huge exploration map on Gran Pulse. On the other hand, while I’m a completionist RPG player, I’ve never been a fan of FF’s various sideshows. Mini-games, chocobo racing/breeding, confoundingly hidden bosses or areas, and that interminable grind for elite/unique gear… all feel like busywork designed to infuriate a less-than-laser-focused-obsessive player. So the monster-hunting missions on Gran Pulse felt like just the right amount of sidequesting, and I appreciated that XIII was a more focused story with limited diversions. (Or maybe those annoying secret activities were just that: hidden from me.)

Overall, I enjoyed Final Fantasy XIII on the strength of its fast-paced, engaging battle system that required a different approach to combat mechanics, the breathtaking graphics and fascinating aesthetic, and a decent story and characters. Whether or not it’s a “good Final Fantasy game” is not a question I’m interested in answering. But is it a JRPG worth playing? –I’d say Yes.


Cross-posted at We The Players.

Game review ๐ŸŽฎ: Open Sorcery

You are BEL/S, a fire elemental bound to a piece of arcane software. You were created to protect your summoners’ neighbourhood and cleanse it of magical corruption, so people can go about their daily lives free from mystic trouble. You embody Fire and Order, but the world is full of chaos and surprises. How will you respond to your world and the people in it, and what will you learn? And you’ll have to learn fast, because trouble is already looming in your peaceful, quirky neighbourhood…

Open Sorcery is a text-based narrative game set in our world with an urban fantasy flavour — everyday magicians and spellcasting, fairies and elemental spirits. As BEL/S, you patrol various locations in the neighbourhood, interact with denizens both human and non, learn new skills, and become more self-aware. It’s a light-hearted “coming-of-age” tale filled with diverse and quirky characters.

Created by a solo indie developer, the game sits firmly in the interactive fiction (IF) genre, so it’s entirely text-based, sprinkled with a few graphics for flavour. Read the story, click on the words to make a choice (or occasionally, reveal a tidbit about this urban fantasy world), and keep on reading. This isn’t a novel, it’s a game — so text styling (ie. colour, font face, font weight, position on the screen, etc) is as much part of the story as the prose. The prose itself is engagingly written: mostly dialogue, short and snappy, and conveys a lot of emotion and detail in a few words. There is a stat sheet to keep track of the numerous skill checks and gains, but as with most narrative games, stats exist as choice gates to drive story interactivity, close off some narrative paths, and open up others.

And what of the game mechanics? Overall, the narrative is quite linear with defined progress points, and a single playthrough can be completed in about 30 minutes. But this is a deep-not-broad kind of game that’s expressly designed to be replayed many times with different choices. This replayability is the source of Open Sorcery‘s depth and fun. With every playthrough I discovered more details about the setting, learned more about characters and influenced their relationships (and even final fates), and figured out how to defeat that aforementioned trouble in more ingenious ways. (Or not defeat it, as it may be.) There are multiple endings, it’s not possible to see everything in one playthrough, and indeed there are whole areas you might miss due to not having one particular stat. Thankfully, the game’s short-and-sweet length makes each replay both doable and enjoyable! And if the whole thing looks straightforward on first glance, the Achievements list on the main menu reveal just how much you have — or haven’t — discovered yet.

One can argue that Open Sorcery is more of an interactive story than a bona fide game; the only time where you experience real gamified risk is the story climax, where you and everyone you’ve met can die, and in a variety of ways. But game or not, if you enjoy well-told, engaging stories and/or other text-based games like visual novels, Open Sorcery is a fun, lively entry into this growing niche genre of interactive fiction.

If you’re curious, experience the story beginning in the browser-based demo.

Cross-posted at We The Players.

Game review ๐ŸŽฎ: Neo Cab

An indie narrative game where you play as Lina, the last human taxi driver in a future Earth, eking out enough cash from her fares so she can pay for a room to sleep tonight. It’s about the relationship between two friends, and meeting interesting people (your fares) who lead normal yet fascinating lives in the city of Los Ojos.

The setting is a near-future California: Los Ojos is basically Los Angeles or San Francisco projected 30-odd years into the future. While the scope of the “world-building” is quite narrow (as it would be for a small game), it is done thoughtfully: a realistic and interesting projection of what technology and society in the future might be. I can imagine Los Ojos and Lina’s life becoming a reality in a few decades.

Neo Cab is a narrative game with light resource management to give it a smidgin of challenge. There’s money, and fuel for your taxi, but the main star of the show is managing Lina’s emotions, which is done through a cute mechanic called the “Feelgrid”. As you pick dialogue choices with NPCs, Lina’s mood changes, which influences her downstream dialogue choices by opening up some options while closing others off. The gameplay mechanics are very light and easy, as the story is the main focus: the friendship between Lina and her childhood friend Savy — made even more complicated when Savy goes missing.

And here is where the story shows its depth: Lina and Savy’s friendship is not emotionally healthy. This is the main theme of Neo Cab‘s story which reaches an inevitable climax at the game’s conclusion. There are a few different resolutions to their relationship, and it’s clear which is the satisfying one. I’m touching lightly on this because part of gaming enjoyment is discovering the depths of story for yourself, but suffice to say, the game handles the themes deftly through both gameplay mechanics and story narrative. I thought Lina and Savy provided a tasteful and realistic insight into this sort of not-so-wholesome relationship and reflected the real-life experiences very well. I think it can even prompt some self-reflection about one’s friendships as one plays it.

The 2-D animated graphics are lovely. I liked the visual and colour aesthetic of the setting, and the character design. The developers have clearly put a lot of care and love into every animation; Lina in particular has a huge variety of facial animations that are so realistic, she resembles a real person when her expression changes. These 2-D characters have more life in them than some 3-D rendered characters I’ve met in other more high-profile games!

Like most indie narrative games, Neo Cab is fairly short: a single playthrough lasts about 2 hours. The fun comes from replaying the game, as it’s not possible to meet all cab fares or see all the story consequences in one playthrough. While the main story doesn’t have a lot of variation, it’s Lina’s cab fares that make up most of replay enjoyment: getting to know their stories (which adds world-building flavour to the Los Ojos setting), and developing relationships with them as they become repeat fares.

Neo Cab is a rumination on friendship in the shadow of technology, capitalism and activism, set in a near-future Earth that is entirely plausible. A debut game by the indie game studio Chance Agency, and they’ve created a fine entry into the narrative game genre.

Cross-posted at We The Players.

Game review ๐ŸŽฎ: Journey

I played Jenova Chen’s Flash games (primarily flOw) when they were hosted on his uni’s server in the early 2000s, so I’ve been interested in his studio, thatgamecompany, ever since. I’d wanted to play Journey since its PlayStation release, but never thought it’d happen since I don’t and won’t own a console. So I was overjoyed when it finally made it to Steam.

I don’t know how else to describe Journey save that it’s a myth or allegorical story in video game form. You play a pilgrim on a quest to a distant mountain, and you encounter joys and suffering along the way as you climb toward the mountain’s summit. The game is pretty short, at most 2 hours if you’re wandering around enjoying the sights.

That’s all there is to it — but what an experience that is! While the game is delightful, the greater meaning comes from whatever you experience and remember while you’re playing. At the risk of sounding esoteric, the game is a kind of gateway to self-reflection. Indeed, it’s more about your personal thought/emotional “journey” as you play, than the surface goals of gaining achievements or completing the game (although the ending is thoroughly satisfying).

Gameplay-wise – the more I play video games in general, the more I discover: the simpler the game on the surface, the more dense and meaningful every gameplay action is. Journey is this kind of simple game. There are no voiceovers or text: the story is told in images, music, and gameplay, all of which are elegantly done and allow for lots of symbolism and layers of meaning. Graphical and auditory cues are subtle but meaningful once you recognize them. The controls are accessible in their simplicity. The game levels are integrated into the story, the few collectables (for achievements) are fun to find and have in-game benefits. The soundtrack in particular is atmospheric and evocative โ€” it won multiple awards, even got nominated for a Grammy. Everything you do in this game is purposeful.

Half of the gameplay experience is the companion you encounter partway through. It’s probably not a spoiler, but I started the game with zero prior knowledge, so discovering what/who that companion really is was a wonderful surprise. This alone makes the story so much more compelling and gives it big replay value.

I think Journey is less of a “game to be played” than a story or myth to be savoured with a controller in hand. It moved me in ways that reading good literature or fiction does. (I got the same feeling from another game, Kentucky Route Zero, even though it tells its story quite differently.) This is a game I know I’ll revisit periodically, to savour and mull over.

Cross-posted at We The Players.

Game review ๐ŸŽฎ: Obduction

The MYST series was my introduction to video games as a kid, Riven: the Sequel to MYST was the first game I ever bought with my pocket money. 20+ years later, my taste in video games has evolved substantially and I don’t play adventure-puzzle games anymore. But I still have a soft spot for Cyan Worlds and will play everything they release.

Obduction is a worthy successor to MYST. It contains the trademarks of a Cyan game: spectacular worlds, immersive and clever puzzles, a mysterious story told through journals and notes found while exploring. And there’s still live acting: the few NPCs are live actors captured in film and integrated into the world, instead of rendered 3-D models with motion-capture movements — a nod to the live-action videos in the MYST series. (How often do you see live actors in a video game nowadays?)

It’s also a 21st-century modern video game: The world is fully rendered in 3-D and opened for free-roam, but can be converted into a point&click game in settings. There’s no fast travel, you still have to walk from point to point, but the exploration areas feel tighter with more short-cuts between them, and in free-roam you can toggle between walking and running.

(Technical note: First-person games of any type make me motion sick, so I’m thankful for the point&click settings, where you can even eliminate the movement transitions between “click points”. Without it, I wouldn’t be able to play this at all.)

The puzzles are of course the highlight. Cyan are a genius at integrating puzzles with environment without making them seem contrived, and they knocked it out of the park here. I don’t have the patience to play adventure-puzzle games nowadays, but after a slow start to the pacing (the first 1/3rd of the puzzles are basically about opening routes/shortcuts between exploration areas), I got into the groove, and started feeling the same accomplishment I felt when solving puzzles in MYST and Riven, which lasted for the rest of the game. The puzzles in Obduction required careful observation and some deduction, but they walked that fine line between cheap and obtuse. I barely used a walkthrough, and usually it was to point out a path I didn’t notice earlier, not to solve puzzles.

Cyan are also great at creating breathtaking worlds. Obduction‘s worlds absolutely have that “wow” factor I loved about the Myst Ages, I enjoyed walking about and just admiring the landscapes.

The story was a bit of a letdown. There was a big buildup of expectation at the outset through the trademark journals/notes, and I expected an engrossing drama much like Riven. The climax of the story turned out underwhelming, even though it wrapped up neatly, and there seemed like many loose ends in the journals that weren’t addressed. I get the feeling that Cyan initially wanted the story to be more involved and set up the in-game notes for it, but ran out of resources/time before release and just left them hanging. That was somewhat disappointing.

That said, Obduction is a worthy successor to the MYST series: strong puzzles, amazing worlds, and updated gameplay controls. Cyan are still going strong โ€“ may they keep making fantastic games like this.

Cross-posted at We The Players.

Game review ๐ŸŽฎ: Disco Elysium

Studio ZA/UM’s first game takes a literary/magical realist novel, wraps it in the gameplay mechanics of a cRPG, and creates something one-of-a-kind in the RPG genre.

This “novel” is a murder mystery. The setting is a fantastical, magical-realist world that somewhat resembles our own 20th-century Eastern Europe. You play a detective solving the case while struggling with his inner demons and past regrets — and these struggles forms the other half of the story. There are many mature themes involved: suicide, depression and other mental health issues, drugs, racial prejudice, and class warfare. The story presents those themes meaningfully, but pulls no punches. So be warned.

The detective character is named and has an established storyline. It’s a cRPG in the sense that you have a stat sheet/levelling up and skill checks at every interaction, but it’s also not a “typical” cRPG because it’s primarily a character story about the said detective. Half the skills are associated with detective-ing, the other half are personality traits which reveal a lot about the character himself, on top of contributing to the gameplay.

The RPG fun comes into its own as you discover the mystery of the detective’s background, and experience the story through the strengths and weaknesses of his stats. The former fun is the delight of a first playthrough, but the latter fun is what gives Disco Elysium great replay value, since your skills and the associated success/fail checks heavily influence how you progress through the story. Failing an initial skill check frequently opens up other ways to progress — and failure often gives more interesting downstream outcomes than initial success! So it’s worth replaying the story with a different “character build”, as you’ll use different skills to progress through the quest, and discover new details about the story/world in the meantime.

Compared to most cRPGs, the gameplay is slow-paced. You spend a lot of time walking around, talking to NPCs, investigating the maps for clues, and contemplating your thoughts (in the form of random events, which added flavour to exploration). The exploration maps are relatively small, and while they’re dense with things to do, it got a little boring toward the endgame. There is zero combat, but there is a single “fight scene” — and oh man, was that a white-knuckle experience and the high point of the story!

The graphics and music are another selling point of the game. In a word: Fitting. The painterly style of the graphics is gorgeous and makes you feel like you’re playing inside a painting. The soundtrack is composed by the band British Sea Power, and its slow, melancholy, atmospheric mood fits the setting so well. Everything about the graphics and setting contribute to the aesthetic of the game. I think it was done to perfection.

I call this a “novel in cRPG form” because something has to be said about the volume of reading in this game. Yup, be prepared to read a lot — however, this does NOT mean you’re reading a novel! Even for someone who doesn’t like books, I think Disco Elysium is worth the play, for two reasons:

Firstly, text/story is presented in small choose-your-own-adventure type chunks of text, and primarily through dialogue. Most blocks of reading are short, while longer stretches are mainly confined to significant quest events. The prose is also constantly broken up by skill checks and choice points. This is NOT your conventional cRPG lore word-vomit, or even a text-based game.

Secondly, the prose itself is engaging. All characters, from your sidekick Kim Kitsuragi to the smallest NPC, have distinctive personalities. Everything is filtered through your detective character’s very voice-y point of view, often risque, sometimes scandalous. A lot of the prose is plain fun to read, I burst out laughing at many points!

So if you enjoy reading books, this should be an enjoyable game. And if you don’t, the small drip-feeds of prose make the story easy to absorb and not too overwhelming. At no point did I get confused or forget any of the main quest details.

Speaking of characters, Kim Kitsuragi is one of the most likeable sidekicks/NPC companions I’ve encountered in any RPG. He forms a fantastic foil to your detective character, and getting to know him is a huge part of the game’s appeal. He’s become one of my favourite fictional characters in any media.

Overall, this is a deep-not-broad type of game which rewards replay with more lore and alternate ways to progress the story. I played a “completionist” run which took about 40 hours, and there’s still a lot of stuff I haven’t discovered yet.

I’ve played a wide range of RPGs, and currently there’s nothing out there quite like Disco Elysium. Its visual/audio aesthetic, clever use of cRPG mechanics for storytelling, and engaging narrative puts it firmly in the Top 5 video games I’ve ever played. If you love story-rich games, don’t mind reading lots of prose, and want something different from the usual cRPG fare — this might be the game to try.

Cross-posted at We The Players.

Game review ๐ŸŽฎ: Tyranny

A cRPG by Obsidian Entertainment, in the same family as Divinity: Original Sin and Pillars of Eternity.

The story is straightforward: You play a law enforcer for the tyrant Overlord who rules almost all the known world. You’re tasked with rooting out corruption and incompetence in the armies while subjugating the last unconquered region in the name of the Overlord. This setting was an instant sell for me: there aren’t enough games out there where you’re on the side of the “evil empire” and can play it straight. Indeed, playing as the Overlord’s enforcer felt realistic and meaningful. I was impressed at how NPCs on all sides of the war have nuanced views of the empire (instead of simplistic black-and-white morality), and how the story reflects the complexities of empire and conquest. I’m reminded of the military/dark fantasy series The Black Company authored by Glen Cook, which has a similiar premise and exudes the same type of complexity in its setting and characters.

If D:OS and Pillars are grand and epic, then Tyranny is shorter and less expansive, which are its strengths. Compared to most cRPGs, the main quest is focused and the sidequests are brisk but feel meaty. Gameplay is typical turn-based cRPG with an open skill/levelling system, so while you can pick starting attributes, you aren’t locked into a class. The magic spellbook was a fun surprise: it has lots of customization possibilities.

While the main storyline is straightforward, the strong RP choice/consequence adds lots of nuance. The major choices happen during a character creation/history prologue, and at key moments in the early campaign. This is backed up by a huge reputation system with companions and factions, which constantly responds to those prologue choices and your quest decisions; this in turn influences your reputation with NPCs and thus how you progress through the main questline. This RP choice/consequence, plus your player character skills/abilities, makes for a huge degree of replayability to the campaign. Tyranny‘s prologue is the most meaningful character creation/history experience I’ve had since Dragon Age: Origins, and seeing how my choices influence the game world motivates me to replay the campaign.

As with all cRPGs, there are NPC companions who make up your party. The companions of Tyranny have intriguing backgrounds and motivations; gameplay-wise, all have unique abilities and synergies with the player character, and occasionally each other. No one was dispensable: I was swapping them in and out depending on the quest I was on (not least for the frequent unique NPC dialogue), and it was fun to mix up squad composition to see how their skills synergized with my character’s.

And as with most cRPGs, there is a lot of reading in this game. Overall, the prose writing is serviceable but not mind-blowing. I liked the NPC companions and their stories, but their prose was the most uneven to me. Not all dialogue lines are voice-acted; for some reason I really disliked the voice acting in this game and wish I could turn it all off.

The graphics of Tyranny doesn’t depart far from cRPG conventions and expectations: serviceable but not the main attraction. I really like the stylized 2D paintings typified by the gamebox art; those fabulous paintings appear in the world map, prologue and epilogue, but the rest of the game (including character portraits) is rendered 3D. I would’ve liked to see greater synergy between the paintings and the rest of the 3D graphics.

The whole game plus sidequests clocks in about 30 hours: short enough to replay the main campaign with different choices in the prologue. (This doesn’t include the DLC area of Bastard’s Wound: a separate, self-contained region with its own questline. Bastard’s Wound is another 5-8 hours.) There are multiple paths/endings possible, and it was interesting to see how it played out in the game’s “epilogue” — another leaf taken out of Dragon Age. I played the game twice, each playthrough with different choices; progression and NPC interaction felt different despite visiting the same locations.

Tyranny is a tidy cRPG package. Brisk and lean, a meaningful story, fun mechanics and choice/consequence, good replay value. I enjoyed playing Divinity: Original Sin but can’t remember a thing about it. I think I may remember Tyranny better.

I strongly recommend buying the “Gold Edition” that contains all the DLC add-ons. I did, and I suspect the base game would be a thinner experience without the DLC.

Cross-posted to We The Players.

Why I feel Leif Enger is the next John Steinbeck. ๐Ÿ“š

I started reading Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander yesterday. As expected, I got ambushed and clobbered by brilliant prose, and woke up groggy several hours later, with my face in the book pages, amazed that I was unconscious to the world for how long??

I’ve read all of Enger’s previous books in order of publication — not hard to do, since there are only two of them.ย  It’s fascinating to track the growth of a writer through the voices of his books. Peace Like A Riverย is like a spark of fire, and has the sound of youth: bursting with energy and superlatives, plumbing the heights and depths of emotion. It’s brilliant in the sense that light is brilliant and blinding. I got swept up in its ferocious passion, and love it for that.

So Brave, Young, and Handsome seems like a classic sophomore case. It feels more hesitant, as if now uncertain of its voice, and the fiery spark that animated Peace seemed almost quenched. Enger’s prose is still lovely and his characters are more poignantly drawn, but somehow the turns of phrase and imagery don’t glisten like they did, and this second novel doesn’t quite reach the heights of brilliance of the first. Yet, I sense that the prose of So Brave is starting to move in a different direction, as if it’s departing from the sources that animated Peace and reaching toward a new source or quality of prose, whatever that is. This second novel mostly falls short, although it sometimes enters that new source. While I thought So Brave was inferior to Peace, those moments of mastery encouraged me: Enger isn’t trying to recapture the past, but trying something new in his prose. (To be honest, I don’t think any author can ever quite recapture the spark of a first novel, and it’s futile to attempt.)

And Virgil Wander… Enger’s third novel successfully reaches those heights. That ‘spark’ is back, but it looks different. It’s still passionate, though not the fiery passion of Peace, and it feels more settled and matured.ย  Imagery and narrative glisten again, this time with more texture and complexity. And Virgil has something that the previous novels didn’t: a settled confidence that comes with experience and mastery of voice. The prose has control and precision that Peace didn’t have (and instead made up with passion) and So Brave was starting to reach for.

Have you read an author who manages to pack so much imagery and emotion into so few words?ย  Enger writes two sentences of less than ten words, or a two-line paragraph — and they paint a lush landscape in my mind, or evoke so many feelings of longing and wonder in me. It’s amazing. All his novels contain such turns of phrase, and they are the most precise and concentrated in Virgil Wander.

It’s been more than a decade since I last read or thought of John Steinbeck, but I think Enger gives life to his characters in Virgil Wander in similar ways as Steinbeck enlivens the cast of Cannery Row (my favourite of his stories) and The Grapes of Wrath.ย  Both authors have a way of drawing highly-textured, full-bodied characters in a single sentence. Main characters or bit players, they all spring off the page fully alive and with a sense of weight and history. And I think there are similarities between Enger and Steinbeck beyond characterization. Both have a whimsical knack for characterizing animals — simultaneously anthropomorphizing them while preserving their animal natures.ย  Both authors write with a strong sense of place, a deep embedding of the American person in their parts of America.ย  They address universals by getting into minute specifics of place and person. (For the record, I stole this from Russell Moore’s interview with Enger.)ย  And finally, it’s hard to describe, but it’s like both authors are pointing out the same kind of universal truth to me and evoking the same kinds of feelings in me.ย  The melancholy sorrow and numinous longing for beauty I felt when reading Steinbeck, I also feel when reading Enger.

Leif Enger’s prose is so simple, yet profound.ย  I want to write like him when I grow up.

I’m not finished with Virgil Wander yet, and I’m caught in the delightful position of simultaneously wanting to swallow it whole and savour every sentence. This is Enger’s best novel to date, and I look forward to being ambushed again the next time I pick it up.

๐Ÿ“š Now reading: Earth is But a Star. And a musing about reading anthologies.

Earth is But a Star, edited by Damien Broderick.
A science-fiction anthology of far-future/dying Earth stories and essays, by writers including Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, C.J. Cherryh, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, and Robert Silverberg. A fascinating, if cerebral, read through contemplations on humanity and Earth’s far-distant future.

This book is out of print. I first saw this in a local library and was so taken by the theme that I determined to buy a copy by hook or by crook. I ended up emailing the publisher, a small university imprint, and asking if they had any copies leftover from the original print run. Remarkably, they did and were willing to sell. So I had the whimsical experience of calling up and buying an OOP book directly from its publisher.


Unlike novels, the format of anthologies encourage dipping in and out of it as you please, picking and choosing which stories to read, not needing to read anything in order. Earth is But a Star has fiction interspersed with essays, so it’s tempting to just read all the fiction and then check out an essay or two, maybe read them later. (But face it, “read them later” never happens.) But I resolved to read the anthology in order from cover to cover. In doing so, I noticed something.

This habit of dipping in and out of a collection of stories is encouraged (or exacerbated) by publishing in the Internet age. News websites, blogs, online fiction ‘zines; and the practice of saving articles to Instapaper or Pocket… it’s so easy to read a piece of writing online that is isolated and removed from any surrounding context. Even online fiction ‘zines present their issues less in book-form with stories nestled between covers and lined up in a certain order, but as a landing page from which one clicks on links to stories. Apart from being linked from the same page, an online story or article has no spatial or temporal relation to the other stories in the issue. Less sense of a chronology, more sense of a radial branching network. That’s the kind of pattern that arises from a hypertext medium.

Whereas a physical ‘zine or anthology has stories in some sort of sequential order. Sure, a webpage has that too (the links are in some order), but a physical book embodies that orderly restraint more stringently than hypertext. One subconsciously assumes that there is a purpose to that order, and I’m certain there is.

Even so, one can still dip in and out of an anthology. It’s easy to jump ahead to the next story if the current one doesn’t hold your attention. Especially in Earth is But a Star, where I’m vastly more interested in the fiction than in the essays. But I resolved to have some self-control and read from cover to cover, missing nothing.

But I think there’s more to this than self-control: it’s being willing to surrender myself to the journey within the book. I’m relinquishing my choice to dictate which order I read the stories, and allow the book (and the editor/s) to lead me from page to page.

In this Internet age where reading material is rife and often disembodied from context, and the consumer is the one dictating how and in what order to consume media, it is a discipline to relinquish this choice and submit oneself to be led in a specific way. But I think there’s something profound in this submission. I’m accepting that the editor has purpose and meaning to this narrative trajectory they want me to go on. That there is a meaning and motive behind this journey, and that is worth exploring and pondering, even if I don’t agree with the trajectory. That every stop made, be it a short story or an essay, is a worthy stop to make right here, right now, at this point in the anthology. By surrendering myself to a journey directed by someone else, and resolving not to miss any stops, I get to experience a narrative different from mine.

Yes, it’s something (relatively) trivial: reading a fiction anthology cover to cover. But if I can’t submit my attention and choice to an anthology editor, am I willing to submit to some more important story? If I can’t take time to read a fiction collection in order without missing anything, how can I expect to take time to read and thoroughly investigate some bigger, more serious news issue, from all angles?

Sustaining attention through a narrative trajectory is a habit to cultivate in the trivial occasions as in the more serious occasions. Best I start with a science-fiction anthology.