Dark Souls II: Scholar of the First Sin (2015, From Software)

dark souls 2 scholar

So I played Dark Souls II again.

Scholar of the First Sin is a re-release for current-generation consoles with several improvements, especially if like me you didn’t play any of the expansion content that was released as paid add-ons for the original. There’s marginal graphical upgrades that are barely noticeable since even improved it does not look like a new Xbox One game. The meaningful changes, I shall endeavor to classify below:

Lore-wise, the game offers some augments to the existing narrative. ‘Narrative’ is a loose term when referring to Dark Souls since it barely has a plot and its lore is driven on atmosphere, item descriptions, and creepy and mysterious happenstance. The titular Scholar follows suit, when he erupts out of a bonfire (checkpoint) partway through the game as a sort of fleshy-hairy-slimy thing that speaks/gurgles. Aldia, a personage briefly mentioned in the base game (there’s an estate named after him and you get the idea he was experimenting and conjuring up monstrosities) will pop up at various points and pontificate on the responsibilities of a true monarch, and the main character’s suitability as such. He also shows up as a final-final boss fight after the previous last boss. It’s an okay addition but not much to write home about.

The enemy and item placement has been rebalanced. Enemies appear where they did not before. Some are removed. Some behave differently (carry a torch and watch spiders skitter away in fear). This mostly succeeds — you get key items at smarter times, there’s a few zones like No Man’s Wharf which totally embrace the neglected torch-carrying mechanic of the base game to great effect. The newbie areas are made slightly less devastating. Others changes are dubious. Heide Knights were found in the base game in unique locations — for instance, sitting with their back against a tree, unstirring and contemplative. You had to attack them first. Now they’re just another enemy wandering a different area. There’s some baffling changes like removing nearly all of an enemy unique to the Shaded Ruins — armored lion knights — in favor of semi-transparent soldiers who are difficult to see and cannot be targeted with auto lock on.

But the real meat of the changes, which isn’t a change at all if you bought the downloadable content as it was released, is the three new areas of the game.

 

brume

Brume Tower (Crown of the Old Iron King)

Adjoining the Iron Keep of the first game, a castle that literally sunk and collapsed into a volcano, is Brume Tower, which shares some of the architecture and look of the main structure. It’s an entirely vertical level, which is very cool. You’re generally climbing down, and once you turn on the ‘elevators’ (giant impressive stone statues that go up and down), you’re up-down-down-up-down-etc.

What you’ll find, other than new, more difficult enemies and environmental puzzles, is some kind of misshapen, imprisoned woman, huddled amidst her extra limbs. You’ll hear her moaning from a distance and she’ll be trying to kill you or lending your enemies her benefice (healing them, resurrecting them, powering them up). If you’re armed with a consumable item called a smelter wedge, you can drive it into her heart and pick up a fragment of the soul of ‘Nadalia, Bride of Ash’. All 12 gets you the full soul. This is key because all of the new areas involve a Queen and a King and a fallen Kingdom. All of the queens have names similar to the Queen of Drangleic and main-game last boss, Nashandra. As you play through each new area, you start to feel there is some kind of space-time hyjinx going on with the same story playing out in other lands with different-but-the-same players.

The bosses of Brume are difficult — potentially the hardest in the entire game. Not beasts or demons, just lone swordsmen with quick and complicated movements.

 

shulva

Shulva, the Sanctum City (Crown of the Sunken King)

I wanted to like trap-filled Shulva. You descend even further than the depths of The Gutter from the main game to an expansive, ancient mesoamerican-looking city. There’s a dragon flying around crashing into things and you just know you’re gonna have to do him in (you do). But mostly it just annoyed me.

All of the new areas crank up the difficulty. In base Dark Souls II, if you hit an enemy that doesn’t have a shield up, they have a decent chance to flinch (based on the strength of the attack) and have their attack or movement interrupted. Most enemies in Shulva do not have this feature. So what could have been tense fights on precarious stone bridges hanging over the abyss devolves into ‘get off the fucking bridge’ because the enemy has all the advantages.

For such a cool set piece on entry, you do not really interact with the Sanctum City much. Mostly you run around on its rooftops, or drop into a few upper rooms, all with the same drab blank-wall, square look. There’s switches you can activate to raise and lower buildings, but I found this quite humdrum. The place is loaded with traps too; maybe I’m just a gigantic baby but I just found these cheap and annoying. Yeah, I could have examined every brick in the floor to see the trigger for the killer spike-protruding walls that were about to instantly murder me on the next flight of stairs, but that’s just not the sort of patience I like to have to test. Wah wah.

The bosses are pretty cool though. I do like a good dragon.

 

loyce

Frozen Eleum Loyce (Crown of the Ivory King)

Last is the frozen fortress of Eleum Loyce. It wraps up the story, in part because it’s the only one with a friendly rather than antagonist queen, who explains via dialogue why Eleum Loyce is a frozen wasteland and where she came from. It’s cryptic, but it’s there!

This area is the best tuned, difficulty-wise. Enemies are dangerous but fair. The environmental hazard here is the poor visibility with snow-and-wind blowing in your face whenever you’re outside. Halfway-ish through, you can trigger the melting of much of the ice in the level, meaning you can return to areas frozen over before and open chests or access new areas. It’s kind of cool, but it’s really simple in design — it doesn’t completely change the level, just a few different paths which starts to make the repetition of going through areas you’ve already traversed a bit grating.

The level builds to the boss fight by asking you (just kidding; it doesn’t ask — you have to figure it for yourself) to recruit several Loyce Knights who stayed loyal to the king, to fight on your side in a showdown boss fight versus the knights who did not.


Anyway. More Dark Souls is always good.

The Creator by Mynona

thecreatorOK, I’m done. I will no longer be suckered into buying unheralded classics from various points in the 20th century that happened to be suffering in obscurity until, just now, a small press managed the painstaking task of reviving it and translating it into english.

The inside flap of The Creator says

Mentioned in his day in the same breath as Kafka, Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender was a–

Let’s stop here for a second with this wonderfully ambiguous sentence. Mentioned in the same breath as Kafka? I’m sure such breaths were:

Salomo Friedlaender and Franz Kafka are both writers.

or

Salomo Friedlaender is not nearly as good a writer as Franz Kafka.

Anyway, on with the blurb:

Mynona, aka Salomo Friedlaender was a perfectly functioning split personality: a serious philosopher by day and a literary absurdist by night.

A serious 19th century German philosopher who wrote satirical fantasy tales by night? Sounds fun! But this Jekyll &Hyde description is pure fraud. The Creator is barely fiction — it’s just a short tale to promote the philosophy of a Kant disciple named Ernst Marcus. To wit, here’s a monologue from one of the professor characters in the story:

Consider the work of the Kantian Ernst Marcus! This estimable epistemological theorist proves with convincing acuity that sensory perception does not only ensue as a consequence of the inward-directed affect of external objects on our brain, but also emanates with equal force from the brain outward toward those objects. An ethereal sensory stream surges from our body, our brain, and in particular, from our optical nerve center, outward into the world around us, all the way to the Sun, thus also to the reflected Sun in the mirror.

So our brains are beaming sensory perception back at the sun. Okay. This could be an interesting philosophy to explore in a novella. But here it is not.

The actual plot has a solitary man meet a much younger woman and start dreaming of each other and this turns out to involve some mad-scientist-like old man (the woman’s uncle/father) who espouses the above philosophy, and has a magic mirror ready to demonstrate it (poorly). It’s boring, not particularly well written, and without charm. Then the story repeats. The Creator wraps up and there’s a second short story following it that tells almost exactly the same story. Younger woman, misunderstood man, old man with a magic mirror. Kant/Ernst Marcus monologue. Both stories have the exact same conclusion — man and woman merge into some pure non-sexual angelic being. It’s baffling.

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch #2) by Ann Leckie

ancillaryswordThe end of book one left Breq, former ship AI turned human soldier, in command of her own ship and departing the capital of the empire and its nascent civil war en route to the recently annexed tea-growing planet of Athoek. On the space station orbiting Athoek, Breq uncovers widespread corruption. People are living in a subterranean undergarden and technically ‘don’t exist’. There’s imperial forces acting highly suspicious. Tea magnates jockeying for position. Something called the ‘Ghost gate’, a doorway to a supposedly haunted solar system. It’s a smaller, tighter story. It hits its action beats. There’s a panoramic set piece set up early in the story and you just know the final showdown is going to play out there.

Leckie has grown as a writer in a short period of time. The prose is functional and rarely awkward, over descriptive, or murky. While married to Breq’s first person viewpoint, there is an in-narrative cheat that allows other perspectives: Breq, along with her entire crew, is hooked up to her ship. So she can monitor the thoughts and activities of several of the other main characters. It sounds kind of silly but it works. Especially when weaved together; Breq might be trying to listen to an important conversation while three other characters are amid actions that are of immense interest to both Breq and the reader.

Flaws from book one remain, but slightly improved. The heavy handedness of the modern day class politics… has, uh, less heavy hands. It’s still there in spades: the underclass living in the worst and most dangerous area of the station. The immigrant workers forced into the tea fields with no real recourse to get out, regardless of state sponsored non-solutions that allow everyone else to maintain their conscience. It ties into the story a little smoother this time around. Indeed, it only really took me out of the novel when it wrapped up so easily and with such obvious solutions on Breq’s part. It feels kind of cheap to showcase real world problems and then answer them with such easy fixes that would not work (or last) in real world situations.

The secondary characters are still not very good. It’s hard to fathom how a book succeeding on the strength of a first person viewpoint can somehow fail at everyone else. There’s a new character who is seventeen years old and she’s written like how a fourtysomething+ person thinks teenagers are rather than how teenagers actually think of themselves. The villain, insofar, as there is one is pretty lame. There’s a few characters, such as the governor or the station administrator or chief botanist, that are so bland, I must wonder why they are even separate characters

The narrative continues to use a single pronoun for all genders (she), and I continue to wonder if the absence of gender in Radch society means everyone is bisexual or if everyone is genetically altered, and Leckie continues to tiptoe around these questions. I went from trying to guess at everyone’s “real gender”, to seeing everyone as vaguely faceless, to seeing everyone as actually women, to sort of settling on everyone looking androgynous (I think this is the closest to Leckie’s vision, but I am not positive). I think the gender thing is also totally overblown when people talk about these books. It’s not really new or inventive. What is far subtler and more effective is the real strength of the book: Breq herself. She is cool, distant, competent, compassionate but no-nonsense, effective, deadly. She runs her own ship. It’s a kind of female POV we don’t get much of. Even though Breq isn’t technically a woman.

This one felt more episodic than the last. It wrapped up only a very narrow plotline — most of the action taking place in Ancillary Sword is a result of whatever is behind the Ghost Gate, a device introduced in this book and a resolution that was never reached. At the pace of one book a year, it’s not too bad. I look forward to the next episode.

Happy Birthday to The Scrying Orb, year 2

happybirthdayA day late anyway.

At the close of year 1, I vowed to better visually design the look and feel of the blog. That didn’t really happen. A few weeks ago, I was browsing the web and saw a blog with the same wordpress theme as mine and thought damn, that looks dated. So I changed the theme to a more modern, clean look. From the theme of twentyten to that of twentyfifteen (!!). The 2012-14 designs were getting a little too overthought w/r/t responsive design and hidden navigation. 2015 went back to functional, but nice to look at.

I also wanted to write about more than books and write articles not specifically tied to reviews. I succeeded, somewhat, on the former goal. I wrote about video games a bunch (and a few movies), but I’m not sure I’m happy with those reviews. It’s harder to sum up a game quickly, especially with an ambiguous audience. How deep to go into minutia? How familiar with game mechanics to assume in tone? Anyway, still working on that.

As for articles not tied to reviews, I failed at that completely. I’ll continue that as a goal for year 3.

In addition, I plan to try writing longer reviews here and there. This won’t change then general pacing of this blog and my reviews, but I have noticed both popular fan and professional reviews occasionally go way in-depth in their reviews (and it can be enlightening). Not something for every time, but for a few pieces that really strike me.

Child of Light (Ubisoft, 2014)

child of light

Child of Light is chasing an aesthetic. A cauldron of beautiful art, tranquil music, and a fairy tale story influenced by Disney and Studio Ghibli classics.

The art is indeed gorgeous and mixed with the subdued orchestral tinkling, the atmosphere of the game emerges with an austere beauty. It is the whimsy that is lacking; the dialogue is all text (no speech), and generally rhymes. There’s sad clowns, mercantile mice, 13 year olds with beards. A city where all inhabitants were turned to crows, a city built upon a giant’s scalp. The stuff of Roald Dahl and Norton Juster, but Phantom Tollbooth this is not. It’s hard to make such wonder so bland, especially when backed by such pretty artwork, but the sad truth is that the writing is just not that good. For a tale relying so heavily on rhyme, the couplets do not flow well at all and require some mental word twisting to work out the rhyme. The characters aren’t particularly charming or worthy of emotional investment.

The game starts poorly. You control a single character, walking around a 2d world that does seem particularly friendly to walking. I almost put the game down. But 30-45 minutes in, the little-girl protagonist, Aurora, gains the ability to fly and the gameplay vastly improves. You increase the size of your party and the enemies increase the size of theirs and it starts to feel like a real game.

The combat in Child of Light is reminiscent of the old Super Nintendo Final Fantasy games. Touching an enemy out in the world swaps to a separate screen where your party engages the enemy in turn-based combat. All characters, friend and foe, show up on a bar called the timeline and their portraits move from left to right, and when they reach 80% of the way to the far right, the player can choose an attack. If the character is attacked in the remaining 20%, they lose their move and are shunted backwards down the timeline. The player can only control 2 characters at a time but can seamlessly swap in dormant party members mid-combat.

It’s pretty fun. On the harder of the two difficulties, fights generally require a strategic approach. The game eventually starts to suffer from repetition as every boss fight is a main beastie with two henchmen and the strategy of carefully killing one, then two, and stabilizing to take down the major enemy works literally every time. The game is short so the repetition does not get too tiresome, but I can’t shake the feeling that a more creative approach could have led to far more varied battles.

All said, the game was pretty if a bit sterile. I miss turn based RPGs, so even if it was far from perfect, I’m thankful this game exists and I stuck it out beyond the flightless first act. And it really was very pretty.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

station11In the near future, an epidemic breaks out in eastern Europe — a deadly, highly contagious flu that rapidly kills off most of the population of earth. Survivors scrounge by, holed up in airports and Walmarts. It’s not a terribly innovative premise as far as fiction goes. Yet it feels both comfortable and fresh.

This is in large part because the collapse and subsequent dystopia are not really the focus, or at least not the only focus. Shortly before the flu destroyed North America, an aging actor named Arthur Leander had a heart attack and died on stage while playing the titular role in King Lear. The book weaves back and forth, prior to the virus, after the virus, during the virus, following Arthur or, more often, people with some connection to him. His ex-wives, best friend, minor acquaintances like co-actors and paparazzi. A series of narrative-supported coincidences led several of them to survive the collapse and cluster around Michigan.

The time-shifts and the way the point of view shifts reveal different facets of the story is the meat of the book and feels almost David Mitchell-lite. The character study isn’t exactly deep. Many of the characters aren’t fully realized entities but they are treated kindly by the author and all serve to further the ‘feel’ of the novel. It’s a pleasant feeling, despite the loss of most of mankind. The human legacy that  survives the apocalypse is Shakespeare — some of the main characters belong to a traveling symphony show that regularly perform his plays. Quoting Star Trek: Survival is insufficient is the main theme of the survivors. The story is more about hope than it is about the depravity humans sink to when resources are scarce. There’s wonder and loss for the magical technology of the past as well as awe for the star-speckled sky in a world with no light pollution.

I really enjoyed this book as I was reading it. And I read it very quickly. I still feel like it’s a good book, but I’m a little less plussed having finished it. The pacing/momentum of the story is one of its greatest strengths. So when the end sort of peters out, without any real oomph or narrative glow, it’s a little disappointing. And due to the shallow characters, I feel like I’m already forgetting the book!

Actually, I think this would make a fantastic TV show. About 60% of the way through the book, I was thinking of Station Eleven as a solid first episode: introduce the characters, their world, their plight. But I knew it wasn’t a series and became doubtful it could close satisfactorily (and this was borne out).

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (2014, Monolith)

shadowofmordor
This game impressed upon me a profound and immutable truth: the average video game player has much in common with with the orcs of Mordor.

This is a video game based on a movie based on a book. Indeed, it’s a fanfictiony tale that takes place in an indifferent time period that is only recognizable to Lord of the Rings nerds because Gollum is hanging out in Mordor. But the overarching narrative — Talion, a ranger of Gondor slain by Sauron’s agents and returning to half-life mysteriously bonded to the wraith of a long dead elf — is not the true narrative at all. Indeed, the real story of Shadow of Mordor lies in the ‘nemesis system’ that Monolith has created, a complex system of orc politics and identity generation.

In other words, an orc might strike you down, gain a name like “Zag the Mighty”, laugh at your misfortune and begin his meteoric rise through orc society, ambushing his contemporaries and engaging in feats of strength, to be promoted from captain to warchief. Later, after interrogating his cronies for intel, you might learn Zag is immune to stealth attacks, really afraid of fire, and has a weakness to archery. You’ll duly shoot the scoundrel in the head with your wraith’s bow and leave his corpse to rot. Hours in the future, when you’re minding your own business (beheading unrelated orcs), you’re jumped by an orc with a bandaged, mummified head, now “Zag Baghead”, truly pissed off you ruined his face and ready to rumble. He clashes swords with you, references your last fight, and laments how all the other orcs make fun of his face now.

These interactions, smartly tied together in a ball of procedurally generated thread, are the real narrative, a truly inventive mix of gameplay and emergent storytelling.

This game is violent. It’s spent almost entirely killing orcs en masse, lopping off their heads, pincushioning them with arrows, stabbing out their eyes or shanking them repeatedly in the kidney. Or otherwise planning your next sojourn to do the same. Orcs, after all, are just really bad humans. They generally have cockney accents which brings a sort of ugly class angle to the whole thing. They get birthed from mud as adults and know only cruelty and competition. I was starting to feel maybe a little uneasy about taking joy in this whole slaughter thing when it came to me. Maybe it was when an orc who had recently killed me yelled “Didn’t I already kill you?” or “Stop haunting me!”. Or maybe when I was sneaking around listening orcs argue who would win in a fight — an elf or a wizard? Maybe when I burst into laughter after Dush the Cannibal, on death’s door, shouted “Don’t let me go to waste! Please eat me!” shortly before I killed him.

These aren’t just orcs. They’re models of video gamers. I, too, when given a weapon and free reign in a video game, am an orc. Butchery and laughter and grog! If the only the game had the balls to straight up make you play as an orc and not a beefy Aragorn analog.

 

The Happiness Myth: Why What We Think is Right is Wrong by Jennifer Michael Hecht

happinessmyth‘The Happiness Myth’ is an unlikely title to find in my hands. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a self-help book, but like Hecht’s previous (excellent) book Doubt, it’s a mix of philosophy and history and the author’s opinion. Maybe a little self-helping.

(not that there is anything wrong with self-help books, but generally gripping, inventive fiction or engrossing non-fic is of the most help to me, not instructive wisdom & motivation.)

The general premise of The Happiness Myth is this: we have three conflicting kinds of happiness.

  • Good day happiness: Reading a good book, eating a piece of cake, watching a movie. Instant good feelings.
  • Euphoria: Drugs, mindbending sex, spiritual visions. Rare and sometimes dangerous extreme feelings.
  • Good life happiness: Advancing in your career, raising a family, building your life. Generally not individually happy events, but the overall accomplishment feels good.

These three categories often compete with each other. For instance, eating a whole pizza feels good in the moment but won’t feel so good later if you have certain life-wide fitness goals. Likewise, pursuing a career that forces you to always be on does not offer many times to take hallucinogenic drugs. Our culture has a bias towards good-life happiness at this current era of history and disparages euphoria in particular.

The second part of Hecht’s argument is that the methods that people have used to achieve happiness have been vastly different across civilizations and time periods. More importantly, we have a tendency to think our era’s methods are correct, when in actuality, they’re just as nonsensical as anyone else’s. We have maxims built into our language such as “Money cannot buy happiness” which is objectively false. We tell pregnant women to exercise. Victorians told pregnant women to avoid exercise and partake in opium vials instead. We condemn the latter, but it’s not any more risky or dangerous than the former. In fact, they’re both very slightly dangerous and pregnant are better off not doing either!

Like Hecht’s previous book Doubt, this book is strongest when it’s revealing the obscure historic details and quotes. It’s fascinating and it did provoke me to analyze my actions w/r/t the people of the past, which is like the definition of a book like this succeeding at its aim. There’s a few spots where Hecht generalizes people at large and gives direction for our culture that doesn’t entirely mesh with me. For instance, I really like going to the gym. And while I understand public mourning and would like to attend the massive, chaotic week long festivals of the ancient medieval and hellenic worlds, it would be as a bystander, not a participant. I don’t think there’s much emotional release for me in crowds.