Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Guises Of The Mind” By Rebecca Neason (Novel)

Well, after scaring myself senseless with an especially terrifying horror novel, I needed something a bit more cheerful and relaxing. So, after going through one of the piles of second-hand “Star Trek” books that I accumulated in 2011-13, I ended up choosing Rebecca Neason’s 1993 “Star Trek: The Next Generation” novel “Guises Of The Mind”.

Although it is theoretically possible to read this novel without having seen “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (since it tells a self-contained story), it is best to have watched at least a few episodes of the TV show beforehand in order to get to know some of the characters. Even so, the novel does a fairly good job introducing the show’s characters.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Guises Of The Mind”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1993 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “Guises Of The Mind” that I read.

On the United Federation Of Planets starship USS Enterprise, Counselor Troi is having a bad day. Not only has one of her patients decided to take a leave of medical absence, but a bereaved crew member doesn’t want to talk to her.

Not only that, since the Enterprise is travelling to a planet called Capulon IV to sign a treaty with the soon-to-be crowned King Joakal and to transport two nuns who want to set up an orphanage on the planet, Troi’s empathic powers are needed to make sure that everything goes smoothly.

During a formal dinner with the nuns, Troi notices that one of them – Sister Veronica – is a telepath. Sister Veronica notices that Troi has picked up on this and, filled with fear and horror, she flees the dinner.

Meanwhile, the benevolent and just King Joakal is preparing for his formal coronation with his trusted advisor Aklier and thinking about his secret plans to reform the planet’s archaic traditions and laws. He also misses his love, Elana, who is torn between becoming queen or devoting her life to religious servitude. But, when walking through the corridors of the palace, Joakal is attacked by a mysterious man. Before the man bludgeons Joakal into unconsciousness, Joakal glimpses the man’s face. It is identical to his own.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is was a lot of fun to read 🙂 It’s kind of like a cross between a new episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, a gripping adventure story and “Game Of Thrones” 🙂 It is an atmospheric and thrilling tale of intrigue, treachery and suspense 🙂

Plus, after reading Peter David’s “Imzadi” and Charlotte Douglas & Susan Kearney’s “The Battle Of Betazed” quite a few years ago, it is always good to see another Troi-based novel too 🙂

This is also one of those “Star Trek: The Next Generation” stories that is set on a less advanced world, allowing the story to blend elements from both the sci-fi and fantasy genres too. This works really well and, surprisingly, there is actually more emphasis on things like telepathy, intrigue, religion/philosophy, adventure and traditions than on futuristic technology. Although the most dedicated of “Star Trek” fans will probably notice that Capulon IV doesn’t seem to have developed warp technology (and therefore shouldn’t be able to join the Federation), this is a small criticism to make of a really atmospheric and compelling story.

In addition to a vaguely “Game Of Thrones”-like atmosphere, filled with treacherous plots and skulduggery, the novel’s worldbuilding is fairly good too. Although we only get a relatively basic overview of the history of Capulon IV and only really get to see one part of the planet (eg: the palace), there are enough intriguing details to make the place feel suitably real. Yes, everything is a little bit stylised, but this just adds to the “old adventure story/fantasy novel” atmosphere of the story 🙂

Thematically, this novel is pretty interesting. In addition to being a story about telepathy, the major themes in this novel are religion and self-acceptance. Both of these are explored in a reasonable amount of depth, with the novel taking a surprisingly open attitude towards the topic of religion – whilst also mentioning some of the problems that it can cause too. There is also a sub-plot where Data tries to study several religions too. The theme of self-acceptance is mostly explored through the inner conflict Sister Veronica feels due to the conflict between her telepathic powers and the traditional religious environment she has grown up in.

In terms of the characters, this novel absolutely excels 🙂 Most of the novel’s characterisation is focused on Troi, Sister Veronica, King Joakal, Aklier, Elana and Joakal’s twin brother Beahoram. All of these characters have realistic motivations and backstories that really help to add a lot of drama and conflict to the story. Likewise, although Beahoram is a bit of a stylised moustache-twirling villain, we get to learn enough about him to know how and why he has become like this.

In terms of the writing, it is really good. The novel’s third-person narration is descriptive enough to be atmospheric and to make you care about the characters, whilst also being “matter of fact” (in a mildly formal way) enough to keep the story moving at a reasonable pace.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 277 pages, it never feels too long. Likewise, the story moves along at a fairly reasonable pace and becomes more and more compelling as it continues. Whilst I wouldn’t exactly call this novel “fast-paced”, it isn’t exactly slow-paced either.

As for how this twenty-six year old novel has aged, it has mostly aged well. About the only dated thing in the story is a brief discussion about autism, where it is viewed as a disease (which the Federation have found a way to “cure”). This moment is especially bizarre, considering the many criticisms of eugenics etc… later in the story. But, aside from this, the novel is pretty much timeless.

All in all, this is a really compelling and fun sci-fi fantasy story 🙂 Yes, some elements of the story are a little bit stylised, but this just adds to the fun. Not only that, this novel also has excellent characterisation and a fairly gripping plot too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

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Review: “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror” By Diane Duane (Novel)

Well, after abandoning the novel I’d originally planned to read today since I really didn’t enjoy the first forty pages, I needed to find a better book… and quick!

Luckily, I’d been to Portchester the day before preparing this review and I’d found a few interesting books in the charity shops there. One of those books was a hardback copy of Diane Duane’s 1993 novel “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror”.

According to a note at the beginning of the book, this original spin-off story takes place during the same time period as the fourth season of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” (mostly because of a few brief references to Picard’s history with the Borg). Still, although this is a new self-contained story, it is worth being familiar with the characters from “Star Trek: TNG” and/or one or two parts of “Star Trek” mythology (eg: the mirror universe) before reading this book.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 1993 Simon & Schuster (UK) hardback edition of “Star Trek: The Next Generation – Dark Mirror” that I read.

The novel begins with the USS Enterprise waiting in an empty region of space. Captain Picard is painting a picture of France when he receives a report that a ship owned by a spacefaring people called the Lalairu is approaching the USS Enterprise for a rendezvous. The ship has been carrying a dolphin-like Starfleet navigation expert called Hwiii, who has been conducting scientific studies of the area.

However, shortly after Hwiii joins the Enterprise’s crew, the captain of the Lalairu vessel gives Picard a cryptic warning about something dangerous in the area before leaving very quickly. A while later, the Enterprise experiences some kind of weird spacial distortion before the security systems alert the crew to an intruder. When the intruder is caught, it turns out to be a crew member called Ensign Stewart. The only problem is that, according to the ship’s computers, Ensign Stewart is asleep in his quarters.

After some medical tests, the captured intruder turns out to be a slightly different copy of Ensign Stewart. He freezes with terror when Counsellor Troi tries to talk to him and it soon becomes obvious that the Enterprise has found itself in a cruel dystopian parallel universe. Not only that, an “evil” version of the USS Enterprise is also nearby too. Needless to say, it isn’t long before the “good” Enterprise’s crew begin to hatch a plan to infiltrate the evil version of their ship and stop it from destroying them….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it is fairly slow to start, it becomes a lot more compelling and atmospheric as it continues. Imagine a slower-paced two-part episode of the TV show, but with more depth, atmosphere and drama – and this will give you a good impression of what this story is like.

The “mirror universe” (an alternate timeline containing an evil dystopian version of Starfleet) is an absolutely fascinating part of the series’ mythology and it’s a shame that it never appeared in the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” TV show. So, it is absolutely awesome to see a novel that rectifies this mistake 🙂

In addition to seeing both chillingly evil versions of familiar characters and an atmospheric dystopian version of the Enterprise, this novel also delves into some of the mirror universe’s backstory in addition to exploring issues like morality, loyalty, colonialism etc… too. Likewise, the interactions between the “good” and “evil” versions of familiar characters also allow for lots of drama too.

And, yes, this is more of a suspense-filled spy drama novel than anything else. It is the kind of novel that is more compelling than thrilling, if this makes sense. In other words, if you’re expecting a fast-paced action-thriller novel, then you’re going to be disappointed. But, if you want a grippingly suspenseful dystopian spy story that is filled with compelling drama and science fiction, then you’ll enjoy this one 🙂

Another interesting thing about this novel is that it is a lot more high brow than I’d expected. Yes, the show itself contains some high brow moments, but this novel turns them up to eleven. In addition to lots of complicated scientific lectures and some fairly formal narration, there are numerous high brow cultural references too.

For example, when the Enterprise’s translator finds it difficult to translate the irregular grammar of the Lalairu’s language, the novel jokingly likens this to the experimental writings of James Joyce and Anthony Burgess. Likewise, there’s also a two-page scene that quotes a large portion of an altered Shakespeare play. Even so, if you don’t get all of the high brow references (I didn’t get the opera, poetry and Greek mythology ones), then there’s usually enough contextual information for them still to make sense.

In terms of the characters, they’re really well-written. The main characters are reasonably true to the TV show, with the novel also adding a bit of extra depth to them too. And, although the story mostly focuses on Picard, Troi and La Forge, most of the other characters also get a decent amount of characterisation too. Likewise, their interactions with their evil twins also allows for a lot of extra character-based drama too. In addition to this, Hwiii is an absolutely brilliant new character too – and, although he only appears during a few scenes, he adds some extra humour, sophistication and drama to the story too.

In terms of the writing, it’s fairly good. As I mentioned earlier, the novel’s third-person narration is fairly formal and descriptive (and is a little bit like a literary novel). Although this does slow the story down a bit and might take you a little while to get used to, it really helps to add a lot of extra atmosphere and depth to the story.

In terms of length and pacing, this story is ok. At 337 pages in length, the novel feels slightly on the long side, although not too much so. The novel starts fairly slowly, although the pace picks up slightly later. As I mentioned earlier, this story is more compelling than thrilling – so, expect a more moderately-paced, but gripping, story.

In terms of how this twenty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged reasonably well. This is mostly thanks to the story’s futuristic setting, not to mention that most of the technology still just about seems futuristic (eg: 512 terabyte storage devices, computers with 19 processing cores etc..). However, a brief “historical” reference to an opera house riot in 2002 seems a little bit silly when read today. Likewise, whilst the story itself remains compelling to this day, the more formal and “literary” writing style may seem out of place when compared to modern expectations about TV show spin-off novels.

All in all, this is an atmospheric, suspenseful and compelling novel that “Star Trek: TNG” fans will enjoy 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit slow-paced, a bit formal and perhaps a little bit too high brow. But, if you stick with it, then you will be rewarded with something that is not only like a “lost” episode of the TV show, but is also a bit richer, deeper and more compelling too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid four.

Review: “Guilty Pleasures” By Laurell K. Hamilton (Novel)

Well, after reading Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall“, I wanted to read something shorter and more fast-paced. So, I thought that I’d check out Laurell K. Hamilton’s 1993 novel “Guilty Pleasures”. After all, it’s been a while since I last read a vampire thriller novel (I think that the last ones I read were Jocelynn Drake’s amazing “Dark Days” series, which I reviewed here, here, here, here, here, here and here ).

Surprisingly though, “Guilty Pleasures” isn’t actually the first Laurell K. Hamilton novel I’ve read – since I reviewed a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” novel by Hamilton back in 2013.

Anyway, I saw several of Hamilton’s “Anita Blake” novels in a charity shop in Petersfield last April but, for cost reasons, only ended up buying three of them. I’m not sure how many of them I’ll end up reviewing, since I’ve got a lot of other books on my “to read” pile, but I was eager to see what this series was actually like – since I’d always see these novels on the horror shelves of bookshops when I was younger.

So, let’s take a look at “Guilty Pleasures”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2009 Headline (UK) paperback edition of “Guilty Pleasures” that I read.

The story is set in St.Loius, Missouri. Anita Blake, a professional necromancer (or “animator”) and part-time executioner of criminal vampires, is sitting in her office when a friendly vampire called Willie walks in. He’s got a case for her. Someone has been killing vampires (without a lawful reason) and he’s been told to ask her to investigate the killings. Naturally, Anita doesn’t take the job.

But, later, Anita gets a phone call from someone called Monica who is helping out with Anita’s friend Catherine’s wedding. Monica asks Anita if she can be the designated driver for the bachelorette party. Reluctantly, Anita agrees. And, a few days later, she finds herself at a vampire-run nightclub called Guilty Pleasures.

During the festivities, Anita is paged by the police and makes a brief visit to a graveyard. Another vampire has been murdered. When Anita returns to the nightclub, it soon becomes obvious that she had been led there on purpose. Several vampires at the club tell Anita that the city’s head vampire wants her to investigate the killings, or Catherine will be in danger…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that although the first third or so of it is quite literally “so bad that it’s good”, the novel becomes more thrilling and creepy later on. The earlier parts of this novel are highly entertaining in a hilariously cheesy way (eg: were-rats, gruesome coffins, male strippers etc..) and they certainly put a grin on my face. However, as the story progressed, I found myself more gripped and, to my surprise, at least mildly creeped out.

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s horror elements. Whilst the earlier parts of the novel include some hilariously silly creature horror, some suspenseful/threatening horror and some fairly standard gory horror, this is all there to lull you into a false sense of security.

As the story progresses, it gradually starts to introduce other types of horror too – these include criminal horror, paranormal horror, age-related horror, character-based horror, religious horror, psychological horror and sadistic/cruel horror. Seriously, this is a creepier novel than you might initially expect it to be. So, the story’s horror elements work really well 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements are also fairly good too. Whilst this story certainly contains it’s fair share of fights, the thriller elements of this story are often achieved through atmosphere, story and suspense in addition to dramatic action scenes. Like a good “modern” film noir, this is one of those suspenseful stories that is constantly infused with both the threat of and effects of violence. In addition to this, the detective-based plot of the story helps to keep things moving at a decent pace too. So, this is a reasonably gripping and fast-paced novel that you’ll probably want to read in a couple of 2-3 hour sessions.

The novel’s paranormal/fantasy elements are handled in a fairly interesting way too, with the novel set in a world where vampires actually have some political rights. Although this topic, and the moral ambiguity of Anita’s job, is explored in a few scenes – it seems to be slightly more of a background detail. The rest of the story’s paranormal/fantasy elements (eg: re-animating the dead etc..) are handled reasonably well too, with enough explained to make the events of the story seem logical and enough kept mysterious to keep the story creepy.

As for the novel’s characters, they’re reasonably well-written. Whilst you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there’s still enough characterisation here to make you care about what happens to the characters. However, I had mixed feelings about the narrator/main character.

On the plus side, Anita is the kind of cynical, badass character you would expect to see in a story like this. She makes witty observations, has a few amusing quirks (such as a collection of stuffed penguins) and is both tough and intelligent too. And, on the whole, is a reasonably well-written character.

However, one part of this novel points out that crosses also require religious faith to be effective weapons against vampires. So, Anita is religious. Half of the fun of urban fantasy-style vampire fiction is vicariously experiencing the debauched, gothic, hedonistic and countercultural world of the vampire characters. Typically, this is achieved through the use of a vampire protagonist/narrator. So, telling the story from the perspective of a non-vampire protagonist who also lives a relatively puritanical life and tuts disapprovingly at various things etc… kind of ruins the fun a bit.

Still, some of this stuff is also satirised via the inclusion of a group of “mainstream” vampires (the “Church Of Eternal Life”) who also disapprove of the more debauched elements of vampirism – only for Anita to disapprove of them because, due to her religious beliefs, she’s creeped out by the fact that vampires have a non-Christian church.

In terms of the writing , Hamilton’s first-person narration is fairly well-written. In other words, this is a very readable thriller-style novel, with hints of old-school hardboiled/noir detective fiction too 🙂 Likewise, the first-person narration really helps to show the reader Anita’s personality and character too. Plus, as I mentioned earlier, there are quite a few witty observations etc..

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. It never really gets particularly slow-paced or boring and, at 327 pages in length, the story never really gets bloated either. In other words, the pacing and length of this story are reasonably good.

As for how this twenty-six year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well. Although there are a few obviously 1990s elements (eg: pagers, the phrase “peachy keen”, some of the fashions etc..), I often forgot that I was reading a novel from the 1990s whilst I was reading it. If you showed me a copy of this story without a publication date, I’d have probably guessed that it was from 2004-9, rather than 1993. So, yes, this novel is often somewhat ahead of it’s time.

All in all, this is an entertaining, creepy and gripping vampire thriller novel. Yes, as urban fantasy vampire stories go, I still prefer Jocelynn Drake’s “Dark Days” novels to this one. But, this novel is entertaining. It contains a good mixture of humourous/cheesy horror and genuinely creepy horror, the pacing is good and the story is certainly compelling. However, the choice of a non-vampire protagonist and the slightly judgmental tone of the story can drain some of the fun out of it.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

Review: “Striking Distance” (Film)

Well, for the next review in my “1990s Films” series, I thought that I’d re-watch a detective/thriller/horror movie from 1993 called “Striking Distance”.

This is one of those films that I vaguely remember watching on late-night TV when I was a teenager. And, since it was included on a cheap DVD boxset (that also contained “Bad Boys) I thought that I’d take another look at it. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid larger ones.

So, let’s take a look at “Striking Distance”:

Why it loses out on second billing to “S.W.A.T” on this DVD cover is a complete mystery to me.

After a creepy title credits montage involving a serial killer, “Striking Distance” begins in Pittsburgh in 1991 – with homicide detective Tom Hardy (played by Bruce Willis) getting ready to go to a police social event with his father, when he catches a news report about a police brutality case that he gave evidence in.

Well, that was a rather convenient coincidence…

This case led to the conviction of Hardy’s partner Jimmy (played by Robert Pastorelli), which has made him somewhat unpopular within the police department.

On the way to the social event, Hardy and his father get a call from dispatch and soon find themselves in the middle of a dramatic police chase.

Which somehow still continues for quite a while after this point, despite all of the suspension-wrecking jumps here.

The criminal drives expertly and manages to evade all of the other police cars until only Hardy and his father are left. After a crash, Hardy is knocked unconscious. When he comes to, he learns that the criminal not only fled the scene, but also shot his father too.

Some time later, Hardy goes to Jimmy’s sentencing, where one of the other officers tells him that they’ve caught a serial killer that Hardy had been trying to collar. However, Hardy has his doubts about the suspect.

Well, it wouldn’t be a very long film if this suspect was actually the criminal…

But, when Jimmy’s sentencing hearing begins, Jimmy is nowhere to be found. It soon transpires that he is standing on the edge of a tall bridge and threatening to jump. Despite the efforts of Hardy and the other police officers, Jimmy jumps.

Two years later, Hardy is a washed-up officer in the Pittsburgh river patrol – after being hounded out of the police for publicly expressing his doubts about the suspect in the serial killing case and for the events surrounding Jimmy’s death.

Bitter and cynical, Hardy is also, as you would expect, something of a loose cannon too. And, after “accidentally on purpose” throwing his partner overboard, he gets assigned a new partner – Jo Christman (played by Sarah Jessica Parker).

And, yes, there’s the obligatory scene a few moments earlier where Hardy mishears Jo’s name as “Joe” and then looks surprised.

At first, the two of them don’t get along well. But, after a thrilling raid on a coal boat, they become friends. However, Hardy is shocked when he gets a call over the radio about a body in the river. When he arrives, it doesn’t take him long to realise that it is the same modus operandi as the case from two years earlier. So, despite Christman’s reminders that he isn’t a homicide detective any more, Hardy decides to investigate once again……

Again, it’d be a fairly short film if he didn’t….

One of the first things that I’ll say about this film is that, even if you already know the ending, it is still a surprisingly suspenseful, dramatic and compelling film. Although this film has a few dramatic action sequences, it is actually more of a detective film than an action movie (unlike, say, “Bad Boys) – with a lot of the film focusing on Hardy trying to catch the serial killer and investigate the case unofficially.

Likewise, the film’s pacing is slightly closer to that of a detective movie than an action movie – with slightly more emphasis placed on the character dynamics between the various detectives than on the film’s relatively few chases and fights.

And, yes, a lot of the film is taken up with dialogue and sailing.

Likewise, the film also contains a suitably clever plot, at least one expertly-used red herring and a couple of shocking plot twists. Although this film isn’t exactly a police procedural or a Sherlock Holmes-like detective film, the emphasis is still firmly on detection, suspense and character-based drama rather than action.

Surprisingly, scenes like this aren’t as common as you might think.

Even so, the film’s action elements are fairly good – and still stand the test of time. Like with another vaguely nautical action film from the 1990s called “Hard Rain“, the film’s focus on small-scale events happening in one location really helps to keep the action dramatic, “realistic” and focused.

Likewise, the fact that the film’s action scenes actually have consequences (eg: Hardy spends the entire film limping from an injury he sustained in a thrilling car chase early in the film) helps to give the film’s action moments a real sense of drama and impact.

The suspenseful, dramatic and theatrical car chase at the beginning of the film is probably also the most well-choreographed of the film’s action scenes, although a later scene where Hardy uses a flare gun is probably the most inventive action scene.

The only action scene I can think to criticise is a somewhat random and unnecessary scene where Hardy (mostly) single-handedly raids a coal boat filled with criminals, seemingly just to impress Christman. Still, it’s a thriller movie starring Bruce Willis, so at least one badass “Die Hard”-esque scene is to be expected.

Yippie-ki-yay mothership!

Plus, at a streamlined 97 minutes in length, this film’s narrative manages to remain fairly focused throughout. Seriously, I’m surprised at how much storytelling and characterisation the film-makers managed to include here.

Yes, it certainly isn’t the most complex film I’ve ever seen, but there’s a lot of characterisation for many of the characters (eg: the older detectives who Hardy often ends up clashing with, Hardy himself, Christman etc..) and the relationships and dynamics between the characters are a central part of what makes the film so compelling.

However, quite a few of the conversations in this film can be described as terse, angry or bitter. Then again, this often adds suspense and tension to the film.

The emotional tone of this film is also somewhat interesting too. Opening credits aside, the film initially seems reassuringly “retro” – with Bruce Willis being Bruce Willis, some thrilling action, lots of beautiful scenery, some amusing dialogue etc..

Yet, as the film progresses, the emotional tone gradually darkens somewhat – with chilling plot twists, story developments, characters and scenes that push the film away from the thriller genre and into the horror genre. Or, more accurately, it’s one of those “a horror story in all but name” thrillers that used to be more popular during the 1990s.

For example, this scene probably wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie.

Not only is this horror emphasised by the killer’s identity and modus operandi, but also by the fact that we learn relatively little about their motivations too. Not to mention that the motivations of some other characters seem all too chillingly realistic too. So, this isn’t really a “fun” action movie in the way that a film like “Broken Arrow” is, but it’s still a very compelling thriller.

In terms of set design and lighting, this film does fairly well. Most of the set design is fairly “realistic”, although there are some cool locations at various points in the film. Not to mention that Hardy also lives in a wonderfully cosy houseboat too, which just seems so quintessentially 90s.

Needless to say, it also provides a good backdrop for the obligatory romantic sub-plot too.

The lighting is, as you would expect from a film of this vintage, absolutely brilliant! Like so many other films from the 1990s, “Striking Distance” is filled with lots of wonderfully atmospheric gloomy and/or high-contrast lighting. Seriously, I miss when films used to include lighting like this on a regular basis.

Seriously, this place looks AMAZING!

Plus, Hardy’s houseboat looks really cool at night too.

Musically, this film is reasonably good – with the stand-out musical moment being an ominous slow-paced rock song that plays whenever the serial killer phones the police to taunt them.

All in all, “Striking Distance” is a compelling detective/horror/thriller movie (with some action movie elements). Yes, this film will be most dramatic when you see it the first time – but the character dynamics, characterisation, horror elements and suspense mean that the film can still be surprisingly compelling even when you know who the murderer is. Yes, it isn’t a “fun” 1990s action movie – but the suspense, horror and drama elements of the film are still fairly timeless.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.

Partial Review: “Legend Of Kyrandia – Hand Of Fate” (Retro Computer Game)

Firstly, I should probably point out that this isn’t a full review of “Hand Of Fate” (for reasons I’ll explain later, I haven’t completed the game).

But, since this game holds a lot of nostalgia value for me and because I’d planned to review it about three weeks ago, I felt like writing a review of what I have played. So, although this is slightly more than a “first impressions” article, it is far from a full review.

That said, I have a lot of nostalgic memories of playing the CD-ROM version of “Hand Of Fate” during my early-mid teenage years. Although it was already a retro game by the time that I found a budget re-release of it in a game shop, it was a game that would actually run on the ancient Windows 98 machine I had at the time. However, being terrible at point-and-click games, I quickly got totally and utterly stuck on a relatively early part of the game.

Fast-forward to last summer. It was a hot day and I was grappling with of the more difficult levels of “SiN“. I also wasn’t in a good mood and I needed something to cheer me up. Then I remembered “Hand Of Fate”. But, from my memories of digging out my CD-ROM copy of it a few years ago – I knew that it wouldn’t run on my current “ancient” PC. However, since GOG was having a summer sale at the time, I decided to re-buy a discounted digital copy (that actually works on PCs from the 21st century) of it for less than £2.

Of course, history has a funny way of repeating itself….

Anyway, that said, let’s take a look at “Legend Of Kyrandia – Hand Of Fate”:

It could be YOU!

“Hand Of Fate” is a comedic fantasy point-and-click game from 1993. The game takes place in the mythical land of Kyrandia, where random objects are mysteriously disappearing. The kingdom’s magicians are absolutely baffled by this turn of events:

Yay! Piles of books! I KNEW there was a reason why I loved this game 🙂

After a lot of discussion and research, they decide that the problem can be resolved by finding a mythical Macguffin of some kind or another (an “anchor stone”, I think). Of course, despite being magicians, they somehow haven’t developed powers of teleportation. So, it is up to a cynical magician called Zanthia to go on an epic quest to find the Macguffin and restore order to Kyrandia.

Well, after dealing with the obligatory “local idiots” first.

One of the very first things that I will say about this game is that it showcases both the very best and the very worst elements of early-mid 1990s point-and-click games. But, I’ll start with the good stuff…..

The first thing that I’ll say about this game is that it is hilarious. Like a lot of games from the time, this one has it’s own distinctive personality. Not only is the game’s fictional world filled with all sorts of random things and surreal characters, but all of this is filtered through Zanthia’s hilariously cynical perspective.

Seriously, I cannot praise the dialogue in this game highly enough. It’s hilarious!

There’s even a little bit of Monty Python-style humour too.

There’s also a vaguely “LucasArts”-style segment with poetry-reading pirates

Zanthia is, by far, one of the best comedic game protagonists that I’ve ever seen. This is mostly because she’s this brilliantly contradictory mixture of a tough adventurer, a typical down-on-their-luck adventure game protagonist and a spoiled aristocrat.

All three of these elements of her character are combined in a way that is both absolutely hilarious and brilliantly distinctive. Seriously, I’ve never seen a character quite like Zanthia.

WHY don’t they sell mineral water here? What is this, the middle ages?!

All of this character-based humour is supplemented brilliantly by several other types of humour such as slapstick comedy, surreal elements, funny storytelling, a mixture of modern-style stuff with historical fantasy settings etc.. Seriously, as a light-hearted comedy game, “Hand Of Fate” is absolutely brilliant!

And there are zombies too. Zombies! (Well, sort of..)

Likewise, this game’s artwork looks absolutely brilliant too. If, like me, you’re a fan of early-mid 1990s pixel art, then you’re in for a really nostalgic treat here! Seriously, just take a look at some of these locations:

Oooh, this place reminds me of the cave level from “Super Castlevania IV” 🙂

“Wonderful!” sums it up perfectly! I LOVE this place 🙂

In addition to the amazing artwork, cynical dialogue and hilarious characters, another reason why you’re going to enjoy hanging out in Kyrandia is probably the music and voice-acting in the CD-ROM and GOG versions of the game. Seriously, I cannot praise these elements of the game highly enough. This game is funny, atmospheric, unique and gloriously retro 🙂

However, you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned the actual gameplay yet. Although it is mostly typical “point and click” gameplay (with an additional potion-mixing mechanic and lots of inventory slots etc..), it is typical of everything that is wrong with old-school “point and click” games.

Not only did some of the puzzles I encountered border on “moon logic” but, even with frequent walkthrough use, it is still possible to get stuck in an unwinnable state if you aren’t careful. For example, if you forgot to note down a sequence of flashing lights that you saw earlier in the game or make a foolish decision, you’ll get stuck here:

Fun fact: During my original attempt at playing this when I was a teenager, this is where I abandoned the game in frustration. I remember that gloating octopus all too well!

Yes, a lot of this is mitigated by the fact that the game contains a real saving system (where you can save anywhere an unlimited number of times). However, it is easy to make a mistake that requires lots of tedious and repetitive backtracking. This is the exact opposite of “fun”. Which, if you’ll remember, is why people play computer games!

In fact, the reason why I didn’t finish the game on my current playthrough (even though I was using a walkthrough very regularly) was because I accidentally threw away a seemingly useless tree branch at one point in the game.

It was only after repeating a highly-convoluted puzzle (which I don’t know how anyone could work out on their own) and traipsing back-and-forth across the map three times that I realised that I actually needed the branch. Needless to say, “ragequit” is probably an apt description of my subsequent actions.

Yes, solving this ultra-convoluted and hyper-repetitive puzzle won’t do you any good if you accidentally discarded a random branch that you found here earlier in the game. *Facepalm*

All in all, this is a game that is worth playing for everything except the gameplay.

If you want to hang out in an interesting fictional world, then this game is worth getting. If you want a hilarious game that really doesn’t take itself seriously, then this game is worth getting. If you want a quintessentially 1990s game that showcases the sheer amount of personality, imagination and uniqueness that defined games from this golden decade, then this game is worth getting. But, if you’re interested in gameplay, this game isn’t worth getting.

If I had to give what I’ve played a rating out of five, it would get five and a half for the characters/art/dialogue/voice-acting/atmosphere etc.. but maybe two for the actual gameplay, if I’m being charitable.

Review: “Alien Intruder” (Film)

2017-artwork-alien-intruder-review-sketch

“Alien Intruder” is one of those cheesy B-movies that I’ve seen on the shelves of second-hand DVD shops for years, but didn’t actually get round to watching until the day before I wrote this review.

Before I go any further, I should probably point out that this review will contain MAJOR SPOILERS, and lots of sarcasm.

So, let’s take a look at Alien Intruder:

alien-intruder-dvd-cover

“Alien Intruder” is a sci-fi movie from 1993 which is set in the distant year of 2022 and, despite it’s title and cover design, has absolutely nothing to do with the “Alien” films. The film begins with the crew of a spaceship called the U.S.S Holly fighting each other with laser guns and flamethrowers.

All together now, "It's cold outside, there's no kind of atmosphere..."

All together now, “It’s cold outside, there’s no kind of atmosphere…”

And, yes, this futuristic laser pistol seems to have been made out of a power drill of some kind.

And, yes, this futuristic laser pistol seems to have been made out of a power drill of some kind.

After this, two military officers arrive at New Alcatraz to select four highly-skilled prisoners to serve as the crew of the U.S.S Presley, a vessel that has been tasked with the dangerous search mission for the U.S.S Holly.

 "But, sir, why can't we recruit the crew from... you know.. the actual military?" [Not a quote from the film!]

“But, sir, why can’t we recruit the crew from… you know.. the actual military?” [Not a quote from the film!]

As well as offering the prisoners their freedom if they accompany one of the officers on this mission, the military officers also tell the prisoners that they’ll get to enjoy regular visits to “Weekend” – a virtual reality enviroment where their fantasies are fulfilled– during the journey. These rough, tough and “Oh So Manly (TM)” prisoners, of course, have just one thing on their mind:

Yes, some good old film noir crime-solving, in the tradition of Bogart and... Who am I kidding? This is about the only part of this scene that is even vaguely safe for work...

Yes, some good old film noir crime-solving, in the tradition of Bogart and… Who am I kidding? This is about the only part of this scene that is even vaguely safe for work…

But, as the U.S.S Presley gets closer to the U.S.S Holly, the simulations start to go violently wrong and a mysterious woman called Ariel starts appearing in both the real world and the virtual world….

Could she be the... ALIEN INTRUDER?!?!? *dramatic music*

Could she be the… ALIEN INTRUDER?!?!? *dramatic music*

Whilst I’d like to describe this film as a sci-fi horror film, it really isn’t. It’s a dark comedy film (with some occasional action movie and adult film-style elements). It’s less like “Alien” and much more like an “edgy” and “politically incorrect” version of “Red Dwarf“. It’s also one of those films that kind of knows that it’s “so bad that it’s good” and plays it for all it’s worth.

Pretty much all of the characters are basically two-dimensional cartoon characters, which lends the film an extra layer of ridiculousness. It’s a film about a group of idiotic cavemen on a spaceship in the middle of nowhere and an evil alien who is trying to seduce them because… well, the actual explanation is hilariously silly.

The film implies that she's a hallucination caused by an intelligent alien virus. Yet, instead of trying to keep the crew alive so that the virus can spread across Earth as fast as possible when the crew return, the virus tries to kill as many crew members as possible just for the sake of doing so. This story makes no sense!!!!

The film implies that she’s a hallucination caused by an intelligent alien virus. Yet, instead of trying to keep the crew alive so that the virus can spread across Earth as fast as possible when the crew return, the virus tries to kill as many crew members as possible just for the sake of doing so. This story makes no sense!!!!

Again, I really don’t know why anyone thought that it was a good idea to market this film as a sci-fi/horror film. Yes, there are one or two slightly disturbing violent scenes, but – as a whole – this film really isn’t even close to the horror genre!

 One of the characters even looks a bit like a cross between Rik Mayall and Duke Nukem, for heavens' sake! His personality is closer to Donald Trump's though.

One of the characters even looks a bit like a cross between Rik Mayall and Duke Nukem, for heavens’ sake! His personality is closer to Donald Trump’s though.

The set design in “Alien Intruder” is… variable… to say the least. At it’s worst, some scenes look like they were filmed in a supermarket warehouse and, at it’s best, the set design almost reaches the level of an episode of “Red Dwarf” from the 1990s, or a decent low-budget 80s sci-fi movie like “Trancers“.

Still, some of the locations look pretty cool. Not to mention that I really miss gloomy, misty 1990s style low-budget sci-fi set design too :)

Still, some of the locations look pretty cool. Not to mention that I really miss gloomy, misty 1990s style low-budget sci-fi set design too 🙂

All in all, “Alien Intruder” is hilariously silly! Yes, this is the kind of film that you’d expect to see at 1am on some vaguely sleazy freeview channel. Yes, it’s the kind of film that would never get made these days. Yes, even the film’s “shocking twist” ending is more funny than scary. But, as long as you don’t have high expectations or take it seriously, this film is hilariously silly.

If I had to give this film a rating out of five, it would get three.

Today’s Art (14th October 2016)

Woo hoo! My long-running “Damania” webcomic series has reappeared for another mini series 🙂 You can catch up on the previous mini series here, here, here, here and here.

And, yes, I’m sure that online deathmatches probably existed before 1993, but they were popularised in that year by “Doom”. In addition to this, this comic thankfully doesn’t contain a slight error that turned up in a similar comic from the previous mini series (see if you can spot it).

As usual, this comic update is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Damania Reappears - Since 1993" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Reappears – Since 1993” By C. A. Brown