Review: “Saints Row: The Third” (Computer Game)

Well, although I hadn’t planned to review a computer game today, I’ve just completed the main campaign of “Saints Row: The Third” (2011) and absolutely had to talk about it.

This was a game that I found during a sale on GOG last October (I write these reviews quite far in advance) and decided to get because it has been ages since I’ve played a 3D “GTA”-style game (the last time was “GTA: Vice City”… On the Playstation 2). And, after waiting for the hefty 8.5 gigabyte download to finish, I was eager to take a look at it.

Note: I should probably point out that the DRM-free version of the game I played was the “full package” edition of this game. This is a version that – in a level of honesty that would shame some modern game companies – includes literally all of the paid DLC. I’ll be talking about the DLC in this review, but it isn’t an essential part of the game 🙂

Edit: Since a remastered version of this game has been released in the time between preparing this review and posting it, I should probably also point out that I am reviewing the non-remastered version here.

So, let’s take a look at “Saints Row: The Third”. Needless to say, this review will contain some gameplay and story SPOILERS.

It’s a bank robbery where the robbers are wearing giant masks based on one of them and the customers sometimes pose for photos with them too. This isn’t your typical “gritty crime” videogame…

You play as the leader of The Saints, a criminal gang who have become celebrities. After a bank heist goes spectacularly wrong, you and your associates – Shaundi and Johnny Gat – are captured by the leader of an organisation called The Syndicate. This is an alliance of three smaller gangs – the satanic/mafia-style “Morningstar”, the Lucha Libre-inspired “Luchadores” and an awesome cyberpunk goth gang called “The Deckers”.

In case you haven’t guessed, this character is the villain. Or one of the villains anyway…

The Syndicate leader takes you onto his private plane and makes a proposition. You and your associates refuse it – with bullets. In the chaos that follows, Johnny Gat is killed and both you and Shaundi have to make a daring aerial escape from the plane. When you land, you find yourself in the American city of Steelport. A city controlled by these three gangs. A city that you decide should belong to The Saints instead….

No, this isn’t the ending of a movie. It is literally the second mission in the game 🙂 This is so epic 🙂

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that it is a hell of a lot of fun 🙂 For the first hour or so of it, I quite literally had a huge grin on my face. And, although some parts of it can get a little dull or repetitive at times, this is probably one of the most enjoyable games that I’ve played in a while. Not only is it a game with an actual personality and a sense of humour, but it is filled with so many awesome moments and elements that really help to make it more than just a clone of the “GTA” games.

Exhibit one: The “sonic boom”. A sound-based rocket launcher type thing that can smash through doors and liquefy zombies.

In terms of the gameplay, it is fairly similar to the “Grand Theft Auto” games. In other words, it is set in an open world and played from a third-person perspective. You can explore the city, carry out missions whenever you choose to, steal cars to get around, get into gunfights and earn in-game currency (through gameplay and gameplay alone 🙂 ) which can be spent on various things. And, although this game includes the dreaded regenerating health and checkpoint saving (albeit with a limited manual save option too), the gameplay here is really solid.

This is a gloriously open-ended game where you can either follow the main story, explore at your own pace and/or cause random mayhem just for the hell of it. You’ll probably be doing a combination of all three of these things but, to my surprise, the main story was a more interesting part of this game than I’d expected. Usually in these types of games, the “do whatever you want” element is a lot more fun than following pre-structured missions – but, barring a few repetitive combat and escort missions, the main story was a lot more fun than I’d expected.

Surprisingly, this was more due to the actual story more than anything else. Although the premise is incredibly stylised and knowingly silly, I still found myself gripped by the game’s epic – and often hilarious – storyline. It is completely “over the top” in the most fun way possible. In addition to telling the story of The Saints’ battle for Steelport, it also includes elements from so many other genres (eg: Cyberpunk, zombies, professional wrestling etc..) too. Yes, the story is utterly silly and “unrealistic”, but the game knows this and uses it to deliver a funny and compelling romp that is worth playing for the story alone.

The game’s story is extremely random, yet surprisingly gripping.

And, as mentioned earlier, this game actually has a sense of humour too 🙂 Yes, it is a very immature and “edgy” sense of humour, but it is still incredibly funny. In addition to lots of sarcastic, cynical and/or funny dialogue between the characters, the game also includes all sorts of gloriously surreal things like a rather “not safe for work” chariot chase, an area where you turn into a laser-wielding toilet, a hilariously rude baseball bat-style weapon, a mission where you have to ride across town with an angry tiger in the passenger seat etc…

It’s grrreat!

Whilst the game’s main plot also includes a small amount of political satire too, the game’s comedy elements are so surprisingly and consistently funny because a good number of the jokes are things that would only work in the medium of videogames. This style of transgressive and surreal humour relies heavily on interactivity in a way that only games can. Although your character also does a few traditional things like shouting out corny “Duke Nukem 3D”-style one liners (eg: “I always win my arguments!” etc..) during combat, a lot of the really funny parts of the game take full advantage of the fact that literally anything can happen in the artificial world of a game.

Another awesome thing about this game is the sheer amount of customisation and self-expression that is available to the player too 🙂 Not only are there numerous character design options available to you, but you can also mix-and-match numerous outfits, get various tattoos, create your own “mixtape” (albeit from a list of pre-selected songs) for one of the in-game radio stations and choose which weapons/abilities you want to upgrade. Yes, some costumes are DLC, but there are still quite a few non-DLC ones that can be earned and/or unlocked through gameplay. Seriously, I cannot praise the sheer amount of customisation on offer here enough – and I probably spent at least 1-3 hours on all of this stuff throughout my playthrough of the game 🙂

Seriously, you can even wear “Blade Runner”-style ’80s sci-fi’ make-up! This game has a lot of customisation 🙂

Literally my only complaint about the customisation is that the game doesn’t allow you to choose which gang you belong to. You quite literally have to be in The Saints – which seems like a little bit of a missed opportunity. I’d have absolutely loved to play a more cyberpunk-themed version of the game as a member of The Deckers instead. Plus, although some missions are themed around the other gangs, you don’t always really get to learn a huge amount about them.

Yes, the leader of The Deckers is quite literally a gothic cyberpunk character 🙂 Remind me, why am I in the *yawn* Saints?

And this virtual reality mission is gloriously cyberpunk too 🙂 Again, why can’t I play as a member of The Deckers?

As mentioned earlier, I played the “full package” edition of the game which includes all of the DLC. I have very mixed feelings about this extra stuff. On the plus side, two of the three extra mission packs (“Genkibowl VII” and “Gangstas In Space”) are reasonably fun – especially when you’ve upgraded your character enough. Likewise, the DLC also includes cool stuff like a gun that summons a hungry shark, a couple of really awesome motorbikes and several extra costumes.

On the downside, some of the DLC messes with the game’s progression and difficulty curve by giving the player some fairly powerful weapons and vehicles very early in the game (in addition to automatically unlocking some stuff that is meant to be unlocked via gameplay). So, I imagine that this game is probably a slightly more fun, focused and consistent experience without the DLC. Which, in this greedy modern age, is something that I actually have to praise 🙂

Plus, even without the DLC, the game still provides a decent amount of replay value after completing the main story thanks to a large number of optional “Saints Book” side-quests and the fact that there are numerous collectable items littered across the map too. You can also re-play many of the game’s various activities and challenges too. Plus, after completing the main story, the game gives you the chance to re-play the final segment in order to see the other ending (but, it will only let you choose that ending the second time round!).

As for the game’s combat, it is fairly standard console-style third person combat. Although the regenerating health drains some of the suspense and reduces the level of challenge a bit, the game makes up for this in a number of ways. Not only does it throw realism out of the window and include some creative enemy designs (eg: large tough “brute” enemies, zombies, armoured soldiers, tanks etc..) and also includes a large range of upgradeable weapons too. Although some of the more imaginative weapons are DLC, there are at least a couple of creative weapon designs (like the “sonic boom”) in the main game.

Yes, you can literally fight zombies with sci-fi weaponry. This is so epic!

In terms of the game’s vehicle segments, they are really good. As you’d expect from a “GTA”-inspired game, there are a wide variety of cars and motorbikes for the player to steal and you’ll quickly work out which ones are worth choosing. Plus, in addition to a few armoured vehicles, the game also contains segments that involve flying helicopters and VTOL planes (with reasonably intuitive controls) and even a few brief boat-based and skydiving segments too.

In the classic “GTA” fashion, there are several radio stations you can listen to when you’re in a vehicle. These include a refreshingly large variety of music and there is nothing better than roaring down the freeway at warp speed with the “William Tell Overture” thundering through your headphones or listening to some “edgy” Marilyn Manson music during a car chase.

Plus, there’s actually a radio station that plays heavy metal 🙂 I want to live in Steelport!

Plus, during at least a couple of missions, the game will also play some very well-chosen background music too. Whether it is Kanye West’s “Power” playing during a thrilling aerial raid on a penthouse flat or the way that Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For A Hero” serves as a hint during a crucial decision that you have to make in a later part of the game, I cannot praise the music in this game highly enough 🙂

The game’s world design is fairly interesting too. Not only is the city large enough to encourage exploration, but it is small enough to ensure that you’re never too far away from where you need to be (and, yes, the game includes a “GPS” feature too). Plus, although a lot of the areas are the kind of generic Chicago/New York-style city locations that you’ve seen in “GTA” games before, there are still some brilliantly creative flourishes too.

Time to go to church! Just a shame that the doors are always locked 😦

This is a mission-specific area but, wow, this is so gloriously cyberpunk 🙂

All in all, this game was a hell of a lot of fun to play 🙂 Yes, it isn’t quite 100% perfect (eg: regenerating health, a limited saving system, DLC that messes with the difficulty curve, annoying escort missions etc…), but it certainly comes close. This is a game that is simultaneously a thrillingly epic action movie and a hilariously immature comedy at the same time. Although it was released in 2011, it is closer in spirit to the classic “edgy” games of the 1990s than most modern games. It is a game that is made to be fun and, for the most part, it achieves this in spectacular fashion 🙂

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

Review: “Brother’s Temple” (WAD for “Doom II”/”Final Doom”/”ZDoom”/”GZDoom”)

Well, it’s been about a month or so since my last “Doom II” WAD review and I suddenly remembered that I should probably carry on this hallowed monthly tradition. So, after clicking on the “Random File” button on the /idgames Archive a few times, I ended up finding a WAD from 2011 called “Brother’s Temple“.

As usual, I used the “GZ Doom” source port (version 3.4.1) whilst playing this WAD, although it will also apparently work with version 2 or higher of ZDoom too.

So, let’s take a look at “Brother’s Temple”:

“Brother’s Temple” is a short-medium length single level “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD which includes a skybox from “Final Doom” too 🙂 The WAD’s creator describes it as being “Plutonia-feeling” and since The Plutonia Experiment is my favourite “Official” Doom episode, I was instantly intrigued.

In essence, the WAD has an atmosphere and visual style that is reminiscent of the best parts of “Final Doom”, but differs somewhat in terms of difficulty, level design and gameplay.

Still, for something that pretty much just uses the default graphics, it looks really cool. Thanks to the red sky and stone textures, it really does look like some kind of abandoned ancient temple – complete with the kind of walkways that you’d expect from a “Plutonia” level, in addition to some really cool flourishes – such as broken stones floating in lava and ominous red mist effects – that surpass what you’d expect to see in “Final Doom” 🙂

This covered outdoor walkway reminds me a lot of something from “Plutonia”.

However, this level does some cool new stuff too 🙂

But although this is a cool-looking and atmospheric WAD, the gameplay differs a little from “Final Doom”. The most noticeable example of this is how the level handles difficulty. Unlike “Final Doom”, this level doesn’t challenge the player by throwing lots of mid-level monsters at them. Instead, this level achieves most of it’s challenge through the use of weapon progression and claustrophobic set pieces.

For a lot of the level, you’ll be using the basic shotgun (with the super shotgun only being found in an optional area that you can miss completely) and the chaingun. Chaingun ammo is relatively limited, so the basic shotgun automatically makes each battle twice as difficult. In addition to this, expect to find yourself trapped in claustrophobic areas with several monsters and relatively little room to dodge.

Yes, this is technically “cheap difficulty”, but it both looks and feels really cool 🙂

Although both of these things aren’t the best way to challenge the player, they are handled fairly well – with lots of lower-level monsters meaning that the shotgun doesn’t feel underpowered for most of the level and the claustrophobic set pieces often making use of a really cool-looking red mist effect that adds a lot of awesomeness to these otherwise slightly cheap segments. Experienced players will find this level to be mildly-moderately challenging and the level never really feels unfair either. Still, it feels relatively easy compared to “Plutonia”.

Interestingly, this WAD also seems to take a rather traditionalist attitude towards jumping. Although, given that the level has been designed with the traditional “no jumping” limitations in mind, this is barely noticeable.

In terms of the level design, it’s better than I’d initially expected 🙂 Although it gets off to a slightly linear start, the level quickly becomes a lot more non-linear – with a good mixture of corridors, outdoor walkways and other such things to keep everything interesting. As mentioned earlier, there’s even an optional area (which I only found when I was looking for more health to get through an upcoming claustrophobic set piece) that rewards exploration by the player 🙂

Seriously, you can totally miss this cool little part of the level if you don’t bother exploring.

I love how there are multiple ways to get to different parts of the level (eg: you can approach the blue door from either side) and how the level is large enough to encourage exploration, but small enough that you’ll never really get lost. It’s a really well-designed level but, although there are a few moments that reminded me of “Plutonia”, the style of design here is intriguingly different and kind of it’s own thing too. This is kind of hard to describe well, but the level felt a bit “wider” and larger than a typical densely-designed “Plutonia” level. Still, this fits in well with the ancient temple theme and really helps to give the level a bit of a unique atmosphere.

All in all, even though this level has slightly more style than substance, it’s still a really fun level. Although it is nowhere near as difficult as a typical “Plutonia” level, it not only captures the atmosphere of that episode but also adds some intriguing new stuff to it too 🙂 It’s a cool-looking, but mildly-moderately challenging level that was fun to explore and play for the 15-20 minutes it took me to complete it 🙂

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

Review: “Mistification” By Kaaron Warren (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at Kaaron Warren’s 2011 literary/surrealist/fantasy novel “Mistification” today.

I’ve been meaning to read another Kaaron Warren novel ever since about 2009 or so, when I happened to find a copy of Warren’s excellent horror novel “Slights” in a bookshop in Brighton. I consider “Slights” to be one of the scariest horror novels that I’ve ever read and, more than a decade later, I can still vividly remember the utterly chilling ending too. Seriously, if you want a genuinely disturbing and unforgettable horror novel that will freeze the bones of even the most jaded horror hound, read “Slights” 🙂

Anyway, when I was randomly searching for second-hand books online, I ended up buying a copy of “Mistification” as soon as I saw the author name and the vaguely ominous-looking cover art. Even though I’d read enough about it to know that it isn’t a horror novel (although it contains a few occasional horror elements), I was still intrigued enough by the concept of this book to want to read more.

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

This is the 2011 Angry Robot (UK) paperback edition of “Mistification” that I read.

The novel begins in a large house in Australia, with a young boy called Marvo fleeing from armed men with his grandmother. They hide in a secret room behind a panel and spend the next few years there, hiding, scavenging, watching a silent television and telling stories. Shortly before his grandmother dies, she gives Marvo a letter and tells him not to open it until he is older. Then she tells him to leave the house.

Marvo sneaks out and wanders through nearby towns and cities for a while, finding random things, listening to people’s random stories and gradually discovering that he has the power to create mist which can be used to create illusions. When he feels that he is old enough to open the letter, it tells him that he is a magician. It tells him that there aren’t many magicians left and that magicians are important because they create the illusions that make life worth living for everyone else. That, without illusions, everyone will succumb to nihilism and despair and the world won’t last for long.

Burdened by this heavy responsibility, Marvo wanders around more and listens to more stories. He starts performing stage magic, even though he dislikes when non-magicians do this. He also meets an equally eccentric woman called Andra, who works as a nurse when Marvo is briefly committed to a mental hospital. The two of them fall in love and decide to start a magic show together…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I have mixed feelings about it. Although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would, I can certainly see that it has literary merit and that it must also have been a lot of fun to write too. The best way to describe this novel is that it is like a mixture between the poetic magical realism of an Alice Hoffman novel and the edgy, cynical, transgressive dark comedy of a Chuck Palahniuk novel. In theory, this should automatically give this novel a five-star rating but, again, I have mixed feelings about this novel.

A lot of this comes down to the novel’s story and structure. In short, this is the kind of novel that was probably really fun to write, but isn’t always fun to read. At the beginning, the author points out that none of the information relayed in the book should be treated as reliable and that most of it was either made up or found in books sold by the kilogram in disreputable bookshops. This is both the novel’s greatest strength and it’s greatest flaw.

When this book is at it’s best, it is the kind of unique story that only Warren can write. If you’ve read “Slights”, then you’ll know that random found objects and intriguing clutter are one of the coolest features of Warren’s work (and are used to evoke everything from wonderous fascination to lingering spine-chilling horror).

Since I’m someone who doesn’t really feel “at home” if I’m not surrounded by piles of books and random stuff, Warren’s focus on random kipple really adds a unique level of realism that you don’t really see in the orderly worlds of many novels. “Mistification” excels in this regard, with the novel itself also being a brilliantly weird collection of random events, short stories, poems, riddles and characters. Seriously, this book must have been so much fun to write 🙂

However, this is also the novel’s greatest flaw. It is perhaps too random at times. For every interesting quirk or factoid, there is a segment that almost reads like an extract from a cookbook, a dream dictionary and/or a list of superstitions. For every short story that seems to carry some kind of intrigue, horror, humour and/or metaphorical truth, there are also completely random ones that don’t really seem to add anything to the novel.

In short, this book can sometimes come across as “weird for the sake of weird”, with little underlying logic or reason for some of its many surreal elements. Although the novel’s story never really gets too confusing, it does feel a bit random and disjointed, which can make reading it feel like a chore at times. In short, whilst this technically isn’t a plotless novel, it can often feel like one.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting though 🙂 It is a novel about the power of stories or, rather, the value of illusions. If you’ve ever read Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House“, you’ll probably remember the chilling opening sentence about the dangers of absolute reality. This novel taps into this theme absolutely brilliantly, with Marvo almost treating stories like a form of currency and his magical abilities also being connected to his ability to feel emotions. In an age where STEM subjects are often valued far more than the arts are, this novel is perhaps one of the most brilliantly subversive books that I’ve read in quite a while 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly interesting. Marvo comes across as being both complicated and simple, sympathetic and unsympathetic, weird and normal at the same time. This is difficult to describe well, but he’s certainly one of the most creative characters that I’ve seen in a while. The same is true of his partner, Andra, who is kind of like a mixture between the sort of intriguingly witchy character you’d find in an Alice Hoffman novel and the “edgy”, quirky love interest characters found in Chuck Palahniuk novels too 🙂 And, as you’d expect in a novel like this, there is also a weird and wonderful (and occasionally creepy) cast of unusual background characters too.

In terms of the writing, this novel is absolutely stellar 🙂 For all of the novel’s experimental elements, the novel’s narration is written in Warren’s unique and readable style that, again, is like a blend of the poetic narration you’d find in an Alice Hoffman novel and the cynical “matter of fact” narration you’d find in a Chuck Palahniuk novel, whilst also being it’s own wonderfully distinctive thing at the same time too 🙂

Literally the only criticism I have to make of the writing in this novel is that the narrative voices during most of the first-person perspective short stories often remain very similar. Whilst this allows the story to flow well and helps to ensure that the frequent changes between first and third person perspective are never jarring, it also makes these segments of the novel feel a little bland and it doesn’t really create the impression that Marvo is listening to lots of different people tell him stories.

As for length and pacing, this is probably where this novel falls down. At 388 pages (not counting the five appendices), this novel feels longer than it probably should have been and the novel’s surreal elements wear out their welcome slightly on account of the length. Likewise, although this novel does have a plot, it is more of a background detail and the numerous side-stories, random factoids etc… mean that the story doesn’t really have the same compelling drive as a more traditional novel. Don’t get me wrong, this novel’s story is still relatively easy to follow, it can often be quite interesting and I really like the concept of this novel, but the pacing of it can make it feel like a bit of a slog to read at times.

All in all, this is a unique novel. It is worth reading for the themes, the writing and the general creativity of the story. However, it might not always be that enjoyable to read – even though it is most definitely Art (with a capital “A”) and you can definitely tell that the author had a lot of fun writing it. Still, if you’ve never read a Kaaron Warren novel before, I would recommend reading “Slights” instead of this one. But, if you like surreal fiction and/or are a fan of both Alice Hoffman and Chuck Palahniuk, then it might be worth taking a look at this novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “Twins Of Evil” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Well, since I was in the mood for another vampire novel (after really enjoying Anne Rice’s “Vittorio, The Vampire), I thought that it was time to take a look at the second-hand copy of Shaun Hutson’s 2011 novel “Twins Of Evil” that I bought about a month or so earlier.

This is a modern novelisation of an old Hammer Horror film from the early 1970s (which I haven’t seen) and is one of three Hammer Horror novelisations that Hutson wrote during the early-mid 2010s. And, since I’ve been a fan of Shaun Hutson for almost two decades, I was genuinely surprised that I hadn’t got round to reading any of his “Hammer” novels yet. So, “Twins Of Evil” seemed like a good place to start.

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

This is the 2011 Arrow Books (UK) paperback edition of “Twins Of Evil” that I read.

The novel begins in 19th century Austria, with an ominous description of Count Karnstein’s ancestral castle towering above a nearby village. The insular and superstitious villagers fear the castle and its mysterious occupant, and perhaps they have good reason to – what with the unexplained disappearance of a local peasant several months earlier.

A group of cloaked men, dressed in black, ride through the forest at night. Meanwhile, a woodsman called Rolf Kessler sits in his shack and gets ready to eat dinner with his daughter Sophie. But, before they can eat, she hears something outside. When Rolf goes to investigate, he is knocked out and a group of men seize Sophie. The men, led by the cruel puritan Gustav Weil, are a secret society called “The Brotherhood” who ride around at night in search of “witches”. And, after a few false accusations, they burn Sophie at the stake. When Rolf comes around and finds Sophie’s body, he swears revenge against Gustav.

Some time later, two young women called Frieda and Maria arrive at the village. They have travelled from Venice after the sudden deaths of their parents in a house fire and are to stay in the village with their aunt Katy and their uncle Gustav. Needless to say, their puritan uncle is outraged at their lavish appearance and rants at them for a while before their aunt can calm him down. But, although Maria seems ready to settle into life in the village, Frieda absolutely hates the sheer boredom of it all. And, after briefly meeting the mysterious Count Karnstein – recently turned into a vampire after meeting the ghost of his ancestor Mircalla- Frieda decides to sneak out and visit him…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is “so bad that it is good” 🙂 In short, this novel is what happens when an expert horror author writes a reasonably “faithful” adaptation of what seems to be a laughably corny and dated 1970s horror movie. The contrast between the excellent writing and the less-than-excellent source material results in a brilliantly melodramatic story that – whilst not exactly scary – is just hilarious fun to read 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s horror elements – which are a combination of gory horror, suspense, “Dracula”-style vampirism, atmosphere, sexual horror, gothic horror, religious horror, the macabre and character-based horror. As mentioned earlier, this novel isn’t really all that scary – but the horror elements are still rather enjoyable, thanks to their stylised melodrama. Yes, this often results in more than a little bit of unintentional comedy, but this is part of the fun of this story.

Interestingly, this novel is also a little bit like classic Shaun Hutson too 🙂 Whilst the novel’s gory moments are relatively tame when compared to the splatterpunk fiction Hutson wrote during the 1980s, they are still frequent and grisly enough to evoke nostalgic memories of reading these novels. Likewise, the novel also has a theme of mourning and bereavement (which can also be found in many of Hutson’s classic and modern novels). Plus, the grim, dangerous and brutal world of the village is a fairly good fit with Hutson’s uniquely cynical brand of horror fiction 🙂

However, this novel is let down by the dated source material. Even a writer as good as Shaun Hutson can struggle to evoke feelings of terror and dread when trying to “faithfully” adapt a story filled with well-worn horror tropes, dodgy 1970s sleaziness, over-the-top melodrama etc.. Although I haven’t seen the film and can’t make a full comparison, at least a few moments in this story just feel slightly “off” when compared to Hutson’s original horror fiction.

And, although the novel is written well enough that it doesn’t evoke creaking film sets or anything like that, it would have been a much better horror story if Hutson had been able to make the story his own a bit more. Again, I haven’t seen the original film and can’t make a full comparison – but this novel still sometimes reads like an awesome heavy metal band doing a “faithful” cover version of a pop song. Hilariously funny, but more of an amusing novelty than anything else.

In terms of the characters, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. Although some of the background characters get a fairly decent amount of depth and characterisation, many of the major characters seem a bit two-dimensional – in a way that leads to a lot of unintentional comedy. Still, one of the amusing and interesting things about this novel is the antagonism between the cartoonishly evil Count Karnstein and the equally cartoonishly evil Gustav Weil. This “villain vs. villain” dynamic not only allows for lots of dramatic moments, but also helps to add a little bit of intrigue and unpredictability to the story.

But, in terms of the actual writing, this novel is excellent 🙂 Hutson’s third-person narration is a really good mixture of fast-paced “matter of fact” storytelling and more descriptive/formal 19th century-inspired narration. This adds a lot of atmosphere to the story, whilst also avoiding the slow pacing that you’d typically expect from the gothic horror genre. Plus, the very slightly more formal writing style is also wonderfully evocative of the writing style that Hutson used to use in the 1980s 🙂 Seriously, at some points during the novel, I just felt the really relaxing and awesome feeling of familiarity I feel whenever I re-read Hutson’s older novels 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although it is a slightly lengthy 384 pages long, it really doesn’t feel too long thanks to the combination of fast-paced narration, shorter chapters, mini-cliffhangers and lots of dramatic moments 🙂 Despite the shortcomings of the source material, Hutson still manages to make this novel as compelling as you’d expect from one of his books 🙂

All in all, this novel is “so bad that it’s good”. If you’re new to Shaun Hutson, I’d strongly recommend reading “Deathday” or “Erebus” instead of this novel. But, if you want an enjoyably readable melodrama, if you want a “horror” story that will make you crease up with laughter, if you grew up in a time when Hammer Horror films were actually considered scary or if you just want to enjoy the sheer novelty value of one of Britain’s best horror writers adapting a corny old 1970s movie, then this novel might prove interesting.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “The Affair” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, although I’d planned to review another hardboiled sci-fi novel next, the one I’d chosen didn’t seem to be anywhere near as good as I’d hoped it would be – and I ended up abandoning it after about ten pages. So, I needed to read another novel, a better novel. Quick!

And, since I was still in the mood for thriller fiction, I thought that it’d be the perfect time to take a look at one of the few Lee Child novels I hadn’t read before. I am, of course, talking about Lee Child’s 2011 novel “The Affair” (which I’ve been meaning to read ever since a family member gave me a copy of it several years ago).

Although this novel is both a prequel and part of a large series, it is – like almost every Lee Child novel – designed be read as a stand-alone novel. So, you can enjoy it if you haven’t read any other “Jack Reacher” novels before this one. But, if you have, then there might be a few familiar names and references that you’ll enjoy.

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

This is the 2011 Bantam (UK) paperback edition of “The Affair” that I read.

The novel begins on the 11th March 1997, with a US military policeman called Jack Reacher arriving at the Pentagon for a meeting with a colonel called Frazer. As he goes through security, he expects to be arrested. No-one arrests him. But, as he heads towards Frazer’s office, he’s certain that there is a team of people following him. He has expected something like this. But, no-one follows him and he arrives at the office ten minutes late. Frazer asks Reacher for the name of the suspect he has found.

Reacher says that he has nothing. That the meeting was nothing but an elaborate ruse to draw the culprit out into the open. That he’d hoped someone would have tried to make a move against him before he arrived. Frazer asks if he’s a suspect. Reacher lies about the answer. Frazer laughs and points out that Reacher looks a bit dishevelled. Reacher says that he is supposed to look like this.

Then we flash back to five days earlier. Reacher has been summoned by his CO, Leon Garber, who criticises him for not meeting uniform regulations before pointing out that his scruffy hair is probably a good thing. A woman called Janice May Chapman has been murdered in a small town in Mississipi called Carter Crossing, a small town with a large army ranger base nearby. Although Reacher expects to be lead investigator on the case, the job goes to another officer called Munro.

Reacher’s role in the case is to enter the town undercover and keep tabs on the local police, in the hope of pre-empting or averting any kind of army-related scandal before it happens. So, he hitchhikes to the town, but the local sheriff – Elizabeth Devereaux – is a former military police officer and guesses why he’s there shortly after meeting him. Still, with only two deputies – and no trained detectives- in the town, she reluctantly agrees to let him help her investigate the case…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that this is a really compelling historical detective novel, with some thriller elements too. In other words, it’s probably closer in style to one of the more understated modern Reacher novels, like “The Midnight Line“, rather than the older novels in the series. And, as long as you don’t expect an action-fest or anything like that, then there’s a rather gripping mystery to be enjoyed here.

So, I’ll start by talking about the novel’s detective elements. This novel is a bit like a blend between a thriller, a police procedural and a hardboiled novel. Not only does the case quickly expand in size and scope, but there are a good variety of investigative elements too – including examining physical evidence, making deductions from clues, interviewing people and coming up with several clever ruses and schemes to catch the criminal.

In addition to one or two smaller side-mysteries, another thing that really helps to keep the story’s detective elements compelling is the fact that – right up until the late parts of the book – the reader is never entirely sure which one of the two main suspects are guilty, thanks to lots of red herrings and contradictory pieces of evidence (all of which are, of course, explained later). So, it’s one of those stories that will keep you guessing 🙂

Plus, there are also a few hardboiled elements too. Whether it is a clever twist on the idea of a “femme fatale” character, the fact that Reacher is a semi-official investigator (who is breaking orders and technically doesn’t have jurisdiction) or the fact that – instead of arresting anyone – he unflinchingly metes out rough justice to anyone he finds to be guilty of a serious crime, this novel definitely takes a few hints from the classic American crime fiction of the 1920s-50s. Even so, it isn’t really a “film noir” story.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they’re fairly compelling too 🙂 In addition to a larger-scale sub-plot about Reacher trying to deal with a possible military cover-up, the novel also includes quite a few suspenseful moments and even a couple of fight scenes too. Still, this novel is more of a traditional-style crime/suspense thriller than the kind of action-thriller novel you’d traditionally expect from Lee Child. But, thanks to things like shorter chapters and a fast-paced writing style, this novel moves along as quickly as you’d expect from a modern thriller novel 🙂

The novel’s historical elements are a bit of a mixed bag though. When they are at their best, they reminded me of other modern 1990s-based crime/suspense novels (such as Laura Lippman’s excellent “Sunburn) which keep their 1990s setting fairly understated – with only the absence of things like smartphones etc.. – helping to create the historical atmosphere. This helps to lend the story a feeling of realism, in addition to allowing for more suspense too (thanks to the lack of modern technology etc…).

However, unlike many modern 1990s-set novels, there are a few moments where Reacher “breaks the fourth wall” and talks directly about the 1990s in the past tense, as if he was re-telling the story in the present day. Although these moments help to clarify the historical setting, they will probably break your immersion in the story slightly at the same time. Yes, the idea of an older Reacher reminiscing about his younger days is an interesting narrative device, but this puts a certain amount of distance between the reader and the story.

As for the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about the characters. Not only is it really interesting to see a slightly younger version of Reacher (and one or two other long-running characters too), but Elizabeth is also a fairly complex and interesting character too.

The relationship between Reacher and Elizabeth is quite well-handled, and it manages to be both realistic and stylised at the same time (not to mention that, for a Reacher novel, it is probably one of the steamier books in the series too). Plus, the US military – with all of it’s foibles, rivalries, contradictions and complexities – is also pretty much a main character in this novel too.

In terms of the writing, it is really good too 🙂 Like with a couple of other Reacher novels, this one is written from a first-person perspective – which allows for a bit of extra characterisation and suspense. And, although Reacher’s occasional asides about the 1990s can be a little immersion-breaking, I cannot fault the actual writing itself. If you’ve ever read a Lee Child novel, then you’ll know that he’s an expert at writing fast-paced, precisely-engineered and streamlined narration that is kind of like a modern version of the hardboiled fiction of the 1920s-50s, and this novel is no exception 🙂

As for length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. The edition I read (which had slightly larger pages) was 427 pages long, and this length seemed to be a good fit for the story. Although this isn’t the fastest-paced Reacher novel I’ve read, the story still moves along at a fairly decent pace – with lots of well-placed plot twists, mini-cliffhangers and suspenseful moments that help to keep everything compelling. Another cool thing about this novel’s pacing is the TV-style “cold open” scene, which adds instant intrigue to the story by giving the reader a tantalising glimpse of events that happen about three-quarters of the way through the novel.

All in all, this is a really good detective novel that also contains some gripping thriller elements too. Although I’d have liked to have seen more of an action-thriller story, this novel was still very enjoyable to read – with a (mostly) well-handled historical setting and a good mixture between investigation and suspense.

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

Review: “Torchwood: Long Time Dead” By Sarah Pinborough (Novel)

Well, a week or two before I wrote this review, I was reminded about the sci-fi horror TV show “Torchwood” after talking to a relative about “Doctor Who”. This then stirred a vague recollection of seeing Torchwood-themed books in bookshops ages ago.

After a quick internet search, I ended up getting second-hand copies of a couple of these books. So, for today, I thought that I’d look at Sarah Pinborough’s 2011 novel “Torchwood: Long Time Dead”. After all, it was apparently a prequel to the only complete series of “Torchwood” that I’ve actually seen (eg: the “Miracle Day” series from 2011).

Interestingly, although this novel references the TV show a few times, there are enough explanations and recaps for the story to be enjoyable if you’ve only got vague memories of the show or if you haven’t seen it. Likewise, this novel also tells a fairly self-contained story too.

So, let’s take a look at “Torchwood: Long Time Dead”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 BBC Books (UK) paperback edition of “Torchwood: Long Time Dead” that I read.

The novel begins with a government scientist called John Blackman exploring the burnt-out ruins of a secret underground facility with orders to recover any technology found within it. He hears someone groaning and, to his surprise, finds a woman lying on the ground in one of the rooms. Her stomach starts to glow red. But, before John can talk to her, she stabs him with a shard of glass.

Meanwhile, in Cardiff, a detective called D.I. Cutler is spending some free time watching a mysterious government site that has sprung up in the city after a terrorist attack three weeks earlier. He doesn’t quite understand why, but he has become obsessed with this strange site.

Back underground, the site’s commander – Elwood Jackson – discovers John’s grisly corpse and is shocked to find that his eyes are missing. Whilst all of this is going on, the resurrected woman, former Torchwood agent Suzie Costello, has managed to sneak out of the facility and travel to a safety deposit box she set up in case of emergencies. However, to her surprise, she finds that she has an urge to kill again…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a fairly compelling sci-fi horror thriller that also vaguely reminded me of classic 1980s horror fiction (eg: Shaun Hutson, James Herbert etc..) too, which is never a bad thing 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re really good. Although this novel contains a few moments of gory horror and also uses the classic splatterpunk technique of introducing several random background characters who only survive for a single chapter, the main types of horror in this novel are psychological horror, cosmic horror, paranormal horror, implied horror, death-based horror, tragic horror and/or character-based horror.

These types of horror work really well and, although they aren’t usually outright scary, they help to add a rather ominous and creepy atmosphere to the story. Not only will the reader occasionally find themselves sympathising with the story’s creepy villain, Suzie Costello, but the novel’s themes of death and trauma and it’s vaguely Lovecraftian hints about a terrifying hell dimension are also fairly creepy too.

In terms of the novel’s sci-fi elements, this novel is probably a bit more like H.P.Lovecraft than anything else. In other words, whilst there are references to alien technologies, monsters from outer space and other dimensions, the story focuses slightly more on the effects that these mysterious things have on the characters rather than on the mechanics behind them (although the novel does give an explanation for why Suzie returned to life). But, although the sci-fi stuff is a bit more of a background detail than I’d expected, it is well written and helps to add a lot more atmosphere to the story.

The novel’s thriller elements are fairly interesting too, with the story mostly focusing on both D.I. Cutler’s investigation into a mysterious series of deaths and on Suzie’s attempts to understand what is going on whilst also staying one step ahead of the authorities. This adds a lot of suspense and drama to the story, which helps to keep it really compelling.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly good. Most of the characters get enough characterisation to make you care about what happens to them, with the novel’s best character probably being Suzie – who, although clearly the story’s villain, is written about in such a way that you’ll probably end up either feeling sorry for and/or sympathetic towards her during a few parts of the story.

In terms of the writing, this novel is fairly good too. The novel’s third-person narration is written in a fairly fast-paced, informal and “matter of fact” way that also focuses quite heavily on the characters’ thoughts and feelings (which helps to add to the story’s horror elements too). Likewise, there are also a few italicised flashback scenes that presumably describe moments from previous series of the TV show too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At an efficient 250 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, this novel is written in a reasonably fast-paced way and also uses an interesting cross between a thriller novel-style structure (with alternating chapters focusing on the two main characters) and a 1980s splatterpunk novel-like structure (with some chapters and segments focusing on random background characters dying in horrible ways).

All in all, this is a fairly decent sci-fi horror thriller novel that is also vaguely reminiscent of the classic horror fiction of the 1980s too 🙂 The characters are well-written and the plot is both creepy and compelling too.

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

Review: “Christmas Tree” (WAD For “Doom II”/”Final Doom”/ “ZDoom”)

Well, since I’m still reading the next horror novel I plan to review (“The Vampire Armand” by Anne Rice), I thought that I’d take the chance to review another “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD 🙂

And, after clicking the “Random File” button on the /Idgames Archive a few times, I found myself looking at a WAD from 2011 called “Christmas Tree“.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. According to the text file accompanying the WAD, it is designed for ports (ZDoom and GZDoom are listed as examples) that support 3D floors.

So, let’s take a look at “Christmas Tree”:

“Christmas Tree” is a rather cool little single-level WAD that also possibly includes new music (or it could be one of the standard pieces of music that I don’t remember).

The premise of this WAD is that you have to defeat most of the monsters in the level in order to complete it. So, like a trimmed-down “Slaughtermap” level, this level is something of an arena. But, the level does some rather innovative stuff that sets it apart from a traditional “Slaughtermap” level.

Yes, this is a clever twist on a familiar style of level 🙂

For starters, the difficulty level is something that practiced players will find moderately challenging, rather than fiendishly difficult. Unlike a slaughtermap, where there are too many enemies to fight (thus turning the level into a challenging fast-paced puzzle), you actually have to defeat almost all of the enemies here.

As such, the difficulty level is a little bit more forgiving, with a large arena and lots of weapons, health etc… scattered around to give you a fighting chance. This also makes the gameplay feel a little bit like the classic “Serious Sam” games too 🙂

One interesting way that this level adds some challenge is via the use of pain elementals. Although the large arena means that there is plenty of room to duck, dodge and circlestrafe, this is a level where the sky will quickly become orange with lost souls that will zip at you from every direction. Interestingly though, at least some of these don’t count towards the number of monsters you have to defeat before the level ends.

Yes, these little monsters become more of threat than you think during this level.

The level design is also really good too. Although you might be a bit confused about what to do (and the relative lack of weapons) at the very start of the level, it won’t take you long to find the teleporter that drops you on top of the Christmas tree. The tree is made out of four platforms of varying sizes that mostly serve as brilliantly-balanced mini-arenas 🙂

Although you’ve got the constant threat of lost souls to contend with, the difficulty in these mini-arenas is handled really well. Although the top of the tree is just there to give you a few items, the smaller circles of the tree contain fewer monsters but also fewer items and less room to dodge/strafe (and vice versa with the larger circles). Plus, the tension between staying on the tree and jumping off it to the relative safety of the arena below also adds a bit more depth to the gameplay too 🙂

Yes, this level is kind of like four micro levels in one 🙂

All in all, this is a really fun and well-designed little level 🙂 It’s thrilling, complex and really well-balanced 🙂 If you’re an experienced player and want to enjoy yourself for 20-30 minutes, then this level might be worth checking out 🙂

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

Review: “The Ritual” By Adam Nevill (Novel)

Well, for the next novel in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d take a look at Adam Nevill’s 2011 novel “The Ritual”.

This was a novel that I spotted when looking for second-hand books and, since I’d heard that there had been a film adaptation of it (which I’ve only seen the trailer for) and because the title sounded hilariously melodramatic, I decided to get a copy.

So, let’s take a look at “The Ritual”. Needless to say, this review will contain some MAJOR SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Pan Books (UK) paperback edition of “The Ritual” that I read.

The novel begins with a short scene showing four hikers discovering a grisly animal carcass dangling from a tree in the middle of a forest, before flashing back to several hours earlier.

Luke, Hutch, Phil and Dom were flatmates at university. About fifteen years later, they decide to have a reunion and go on a hiking holiday in Sweden. Of course, tramping through rain-soaked fields and sleeping in tents isn’t the relaxing break that they had somehow expected it to be. And, with tempers fraying and Dom’s knee acting up, Hutch decides to call the holiday to an early end.

So, after checking the map, he proposes taking a shortcut to the next town through a wild patch of unmanaged forest. What could possibly go wrong?

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is one of the most compelling, creepy and atmospheric horror novels that I’ve read recently. Imagine a mixture of horror stories by Dennis Wheatley, Shaun Hutson and H.P.Lovecraft and this might give you the vaguest hint of what to expect. It is also one of the very few genuinely scary monster novels I’ve ever read.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it contains a gloriously unsettling mixture of suspenseful horror, location-based horror, atmospheric horror, occult horror, monster horror, claustrophobic horror, camping-based horror, paranormal horror, psychological horror, bleak horror, character-based horror, gory horror, sadistic horror, cosmic horror and survival horror (yes, survival horror, in a novel).

Seriously, whilst this novel might not outright shock or terrify you that often, you’ll probably be in a constant state of nervous unease throughout most of the story.

The novel also manages to make the monster genre scary too. In part, this is because it uses the Hollywood trick of not directly showing the monster that much. But, it is also because of the fact that the novel has such a realistic tone and atmosphere that, for large parts of the story, you aren’t really quite sure whether the monster actually exists or not. The novel also makes sure that the monster isn’t the only source of danger and fear that the main characters encounter. Seriously, it’s a scary monster novel 🙂

Plus, if you believe that tent-based camping is only appropriate for music festivals, then this novel will be a chilling source of realistic horror too. Seriously, the novel’s depiction of the squalor, bleakness and general misery of camping in something other than a caravan is terrifyingly accurate. Likewise, the novel’s woods are a really claustrophobic, creepy and menacingly atmospheric location too.

However, if you’re a fan of heavy metal music, some of the later parts of the novel might either be scarier than you expect and/or might make you roll your eyes. The second half of the novel focuses on something similar to the violence and political extremism that the metal scene in Scandinavia was infamous for during the 1990s, with the novel’s human villains being members of an extreme metal band called Blood Frenzy who wouldn’t exactly be out of place in that context.

Given that this is the scariest and most disturbing part of the metal genre’s history, I can understand why it would inspire part of a horror novel – although it is kind of annoying that the novel doesn’t really contain a more nuanced, modern and/or realistic portrayal of the genre and it’s fans, given how infrequently heavy metal turns up in fiction these days.

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting. This is a novel about alienation, loneliness, time, ageing and death. It’s a mid-life crisis story about how friends drift apart and how there is no right way to grow older. Yet, surprisingly, the story doesn’t drift into nihilism. It is a story about how life is valuable and meaningful, even if it is often harsh and apparently meaningless. This theme is handled well and it really helps to add a lot of extra depth and emotional impact to the story.

In terms of the characters, this novel is brilliant. Not only is the realistically complex, and often antagonistic, friendship between the four hikers a major source of drama, but all of them get more than enough characterisation to make you care about them. Likewise, the main characters also suffer from realistic problems (eg: Luke has depression/anger issues, two of the characters are going through divorces etc..), which add tension and character-based drama to the story too.

Plus, even though the novel’s metal band are caricatures, they still become suitably chilling villains as the story progresses. Likewise, the monster is left mysterious enough to remain frightening, but shown enough to be dramatic 🙂

In terms of the writing, this novel is brilliant 🙂 Whether it is how the novel’s third-person narration sometimes contrasts elaborate formal descriptions of the forest and more informal “matter of fact” descriptions of the characters trying to survive in it, or the disorientating nightmare sequence that somehow uses first, second and third-person perspective within the space of a couple of pages, this novel is really well-written 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is interesting. At 418 pages in length, the novel can feel a little long at times. Seriously, the first half of this book would almost work as a gloriously efficienct short novel 🙂 Likewise, although this novel is a moderately-paced horror story, the consistent use of suspense gives the story more of a thriller-like quality that keeps it compelling. Seriously, I was absolutely riveted during some parts of this story 🙂

All in all, this is a really brilliant horror novel 🙂 Yes it could have been a bit shorter and, if you’re a metalhead, some parts of it will make you roll your eyes. But, this aside, it is a wonderfully atmospheric, well-written, constantly chilling and utterly gripping horror novel 🙂 Seriously, if you want to see a scary example of the monster genre, then read this book!

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

Review: “Rienzi (Release 6)” [WAD For “Doom II”/”Final Doom”/”ZDoom”]

Well, since I’m still reading the next horror novel that I plan to review (“The Ritual” by Adam Nevill), I thought that I’d take a quick look at a “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD today. After all, it’s been almost a month since my last WAD review.

And, after clicking the “Random File” button on the /Idgames Archive a few times, I found myself looking at a WAD from 2011 called “Rienzi (Release 6)“.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD, although it will probably work with GZDoom etc.. too. However, according to the readme file, it may not run with vanilla “Doom II”/”Final Doom” or the Chocolate Doom source port. Likewise, be sure to enable jumping in whichever source port you use.

So, let’s take a look at “Rienzi (Release 6)”:

“Rienzi (Release 6)” is a short to medium length single-level WAD that also contains a couple of new textures/animations too.

One of the first things that I will say about this level is that it has a really good difficulty curve and weapon progression. In the early parts of the level, you’ll be fighting zombies and imps with the pistol before gradually encountering better weapons and more powerful monsters.

If, like me, you’re slightly out of practice with “Doom II” then this level is a good way to reintroduce yourself to it. It’s challenging enough to be fun, but forgiving enough not to be frustrating. In other words, it’s a mildly-moderately challenging level.

So, yes, if you’re out of practice with “Doom II”, then this is a rather fun level 🙂

In terms of the level design, it’s really good. The level contains a really good mixture of gloomy claustrophobic areas and large bright arena-like areas, which help to keep things interesting. Plus, although the early parts of the level seem to be fairly linear, the level quickly turns into the kind of proper non-linear level you’d expect from a real FPS game like “Doom II”.

One strange thing about this level is the keys. Although there are three skull keys hidden throughout the level, the door that they open doesn’t seem to be clearly marked. Still, they encourage the player to search the level thoroughly – which is important because, in the classic fashion, progression at one point depends on finding an unobtrusive passage. Likewise, if you want the plasma rifle, then prepare to look for secret areas.

Yes, this gun is actually a secret item in the level.

In terms of the textures and visual design, this level is really good 🙂 The new textures consist of some animated flames and a suitably fiery teleportation animation when the Cyberdemon appears:

Yes, THIS is “Doom II” 🙂

For the most part, the level uses the standard textures – but thanks to some wonderful lighting and a cool-looking tower in the later part of the level, everything looks really cool 🙂

There is some really awesome lighting here 🙂

Seriously, this looks wonderfully ’90s in the best way possible 🙂

All in all, this is a well-designed level that will provide half an hour or so of fun 🙂 There’s a good difficulty curve, some cool-looking areas and a decent amount of variety too.

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

Review: “The Mall” By S. L. Grey (Novel)

Well, for the next book in this month’s horror marathon, I thought that I’d take a look at a novel from 2011 called “The Mall” by S.L. Grey. I first found this novel shortly after I’d finished reading Sarah Lotz’s excellent “Day Four” a few weeks earlier and decided to search online for other novels by the author.

And, given my fascination with abandoned shopping centres, this novel (co-written by Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg) intrigued me enough to order a second-hand copy of it.

So, let’s take a look at “The Mall”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2012 Corvus (UK) paperback edition of “The Mall” that I read.

The novel begins in Johannesburg. A down-and-out British woman with a coke habit called Rhoda is searching the halls of a large shopping centre for the child that she was supposed to be babysitting for her cousin.

Although the centre’s security guards aren’t exactly helpful, Rhoda eventually gets them to talk to a bookshop assistant called Daniel who she thinks might have seen the lost child. However, the incompetent guards mess this up and give Daniel the wrong description.

With suspicion falling on Rhoda, she flees the guards and lies in wait in a nearby car park for Daniel to emerge from the centre at night. When he does, she threatens him and eventually, at knifepoint, forces him to return to the centre to help her look for the child.

But, soon after they break into the closed shopping centre, they find that they cannot leave. Not only do parts of the centre look slightly different, but they both start receiving creepy text messages from someone who wants to play a game with them….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it the first half of it is one of closest things that I’ve ever seen to a “Silent Hill” novel 🙂 Yes, the story goes in a slightly different direction later in the book, but the first half or so of the book is like an awesome mixture of the shopping centre level from “Silent Hill 3” and the “Saw” movies 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they are a brilliant mixture of suspenseful horror, psychological horror, surreal/paranormal horror, atmospheric horror, creepy locations, dystopian horror, realistic horror, unreliable reality horror, gross out horror and character-based horror.

As I hinted earlier, the novel’s horror elements are at their very best during the first half of the novel – where the characters find themselves trapped in the run-down parts of a deserted shopping centre. Everything from the creepy mannequins, to the “nightmare world” atmosphere to the menacing text messages reminded me a lot of both “Silent Hill” and the “Saw” movies 🙂 Seriously, it’s really cool to see this type of horror in a novel 🙂

The second half of the novel focuses a lot more on surreal satire, dystopian horror, bleak horror and more realistic drama. Although the story does something really clever with it’s twisted nightmare-world (which I won’t spoil) during the late parts of the novel, the second half of the novel is a bit more understated and less visceral than the earlier parts of the novel. These parts of the story are more creepy, bleak and/or disturbing than outright scary, if this makes sense.

I should probably also talk about the novel’s satirical elements too, since this novel is a satire of consumerism. About halfway through the story, the characters find themselves in an uncanny alternate version of the mall, where all of the shop signs are different (eg: parodies of shop names), the adverts are grotesque, everyone speaks a slightly weird version of English and the mall’s inhabitants are sharply divided between homeless people, inhuman robot-like employees and grotesque ultra-rich “shoppers”.

This segment of the novel reads a lot like an updated version of the dystopian fiction of the 1950s-80s and it is surprisingly compelling, not to mention both hilarious and disturbing at the same time too. And, although I’d have liked to have seen slightly more “Silent Hill”-style horror in this part of the story, it’s refreshing to see a modern version of this type of old-school dystopian fiction 🙂

This novel is also more of a thriller than I’d expected too 🙂 Thanks to the way that it is written and the clever use of mystery and suspense, this novel is a surprisingly gripping and fast-paced one. Although, like with the horror elements, this is at it’s best in the first half of the novel, the second half is still very compelling too.

In terms of the characters, they’re really well-written. Not only do both Dan and Rhoda get a lot of characterisation and character development – which turns them from unsympathetic characters into very sympathetic ones – but the weird love-hate relationship between them is also a really compelling part of the story too. In addition to this, the novel is also populated by an unnervingly odd cast of background characters who really help to add a bit of extra unease to the story too 🙂

In terms of the writing, it is better than I’d initially thought. In short, even though this novel uses both present-tense narration and the dreaded multiple-first person narrators, it actually works surprisingly well. Each chapter clearly signposts who is narrating and, once you get used to the slightly weird present-tense narration, it really helps to add some extra intensity to the story.

The writing style in this story is more on the informal and gritty side of things and, although this means that it takes the story a while to really build up some atmosphere, it keeps things moving at a fast pace and really fits in with the general style and tone of the story too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 312 pages in length, this novel doesn’t feel too long and, although the first half is more fast-paced than the second half, both halves of the novel are really compelling 🙂

All in all, this is a really innovative, creepy and compelling horror novel 🙂 If you’re a fan of the classic “Silent Hill” games and/or old-school dystopian fiction, then you’ll really love it 🙂 Yes, the narration is a bit weird and the first half is slightly better than the second half, but it is still one hell of a novel 🙂

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