Review: “And The Rest Is History” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, although I’d planned to read this book a couple of weeks ago, I thought that I’d take a look at the eighth novel in Jodi Taylor’s amazing “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” series today. If you’ve never heard of this series before, imagine a mixture of “Doctor Who”, a late-night BBC3 sitcom, Terry Pratchett, “St. Trinians” and a punk comic.

Anyway, this novel – “And The Rest Is History” (2016) – was part of a birthday present that I got a couple of months earlier and am carefully rationing, since there are only a couple of other “St. Mary’s” books left to go.

However, although this novel does contain some recaps, you need to read the previous seven novels before reading this one. A lot of the novel’s drama will only really have the emotional impact that it deserves if you’re already familiar with the characters and backstory. Likewise, this story picks up where the previous book left off. So, read the previous seven books before this one. You won’t regret it.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “And The Rest Is History”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “And The Rest Is History” that I read.

The novel begins shortly after the events of “Lies, Damned Lies, And History”. At the time-travelling historical research institute of St. Mary’s, Chief Operations Officer Madeleine Maxwell (or Max for short) is still getting to grips with the fact that she now has a baby son called Matthew. Surprisingly, there have been no major disasters either.

However, during a jog around the grounds of St. Mary’s, Max runs into her old enemy Clive Ronan. To her surprise, he hasn’t travelled to St. Mary’s to kill her. In fact, he has grown tired of life as a fugitive and wants to work out some kind of peace agreement with St. Mary’s. As such, he gives Max a set of temporal co-ordinates and requests a more formal meeting.

After some discussion, Max agrees to go – with her husband Leon staying behind to look after Matthew. And, after jumping to a remote part of the Ancient Egyptian desert, the meeting starts out well. Even a freak sandstorm that engulfed an entire army doesn’t get in the way and, if anything, engenders a grudging respect between Max and Ronan as they help each other to survive it.

Then, completely out of the blue, the Time Police show up. Needless to say, Ronan thinks that Max has betrayed him. Fleeing the desert, he swears cruel vengeance against both Max and everyone that she loves…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really solid “St. Mary’s” novel 🙂 There’s a really good mixture of comedy, action/adventure, time travel, historical horror, sci-fi and sombre emotional drama. Plus, if you’re a fan of the mythos of the series, then this novel has all of the classics 🙂 Ronan, the Time Police etc… You name it, it’s there 🙂 Seriously, I don’t know what to say about this novel that I haven’t said before. If you’re a fan of “St. Mary’s”, then you’ll love it 🙂

With every novel in the series, everything gets a little bit more refined and this one is no exception. This is a novel that will both make you laugh out loud and feel numb with shock (especially when you see a new twist on a familiar catchphrase). This is a novel that can be hilariously funny sometimes and grimly bleak sometimes and, somehow, both of these things fit together absolutely perfectly.

It is also a novel that is as much about what isn’t shown as what is, with the most dramatic sub-plot (eg: Leon chasing Ronan through time and space) taking place almost entirely “off screen” and, yet, it still works perfectly.

It is a novel that is able to make you feel nervous and uneasy when nothing goes wrong for the characters. Seriously, it’s a testament to how well-written this series is and how much Taylor knows her fanbase that the absence of chaos and catastrophe can be an extremely notable and suspenseful part of one of these novels.

Seriously, I absolutely loved how this novel was structured 🙂 Although I don’t want to spoil too much, there are some stunningly dramatic twists and turns here and, even if you can predict how some of them might turn out, they remain very dramatic nonetheless 🙂

Seriously, this novel gets the balance between thrilling adventure, dramatic suspense, fascinating sci-fi, grisly history, hilarious comedy (including a sneaky hat-tip to Terry Pratchett too. You’ll know it when you see it) and poignant, bleak emotional drama absolutely right. This is a novel that is like an excellent season of a TV show, but three times better 🙂

In terms of the characters, they are the heart of this story and they are as brilliant as ever. Not only is Max’s relationship with Leon and the fact that she now has a son a huge part of the story, but there is a lot of drama involving the other characters too. In the traditional fashion, this is a novel where the characters feel like old friends and you’ll really care about what happens to them.

In terms of the writing, it is also as brilliant as ever. Like with the other novels in the series, this one is narrated by Max and the incredibly readable, informal “matter of fact” punk narration allows for thrillingly fast-paced scenes, bleak moments of tragic drama and some absolutely brilliant comedy too 🙂 Seriously, like all of the other books in the series, this one has a lot of personality 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a little different. At a whopping 426 pages, it is longer than previous novels in the series. In fact, the increased length was why it took me a couple of weeks to work up the enthusiasm to read it. Even so, the novel is just as compelling and well-paced as you would expect 🙂 There’s a well-handled mixture of suspense, thrills, emotional drama, time travel and hilariously random comedy too.

All in all, if you’re a fan of this series, then you’ll absolutely love this novel 🙂 This is a novel for “St. Mary’s” fans and it absolutely excels 🙂 If you’ve never read a “St. Mary’s” novel before, then start with the first one and work your way towards this one. Seriously, it is even better if you’ve read the other books first 🙂

If I had to go through the formality of giving this novel a rating out of five, it would get the usual five.

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Review: “The Empty Ones” By Robert Brockway (Novel)

Well, shortly after I’d finished Robert Brockway’s punk horror thriller “The Unnoticeables” about a month earlier, I ended up finding a second-hand copy of the sequel – “The Empty Ones” (2016). Of course, I got distracted by other books and only got round to reading “The Empty Ones” a month later.

“The Empty Ones” was, after all, the book that had got me interested in the series after I’d read about it on an online list of recommended horror novels. Annoyingly though, copies of the third novel in the trilogy (“Kill All Angels”) were still a bit too expensive at the time of writing.

Since “The Empty Ones” is a sequel, it is recommended that you read “The Unnoticeables” first. Yes, this novel does contain a fair number of recaps – but it’s best to witness these moments first-hand and to get to know the characters (and the series’ mythos) before reading “The Empty Ones”.

So, with that said, let’s take a look at “The Empty Ones”. Needless to say, this review may contain SPOILERS.

This is the 2016 Titan Books (UK) paperback edition of “The Empty Ones” that I read.

The novel begins in Peru in 1984, with a brief scene showing a character called Meryll transforming someone into some kind of strange monster. Meryll then muses about being God.

The story then jumps to London in 1977. After the events of the previous novel, New York punk Carey has travelled there to check out the music. However, during a Ramones concert, he happens to spot an unnoticeable – a not quite human person who is instantly forgettable and who does the bidding of even worse creatures. Needless to say, it doesn’t seem like he’ll be having much of a holiday here.

Meanwhile, in 2013, ex-stuntwoman Kaitlyn is in Arizona with Jackie and Carey. Ever since the events of the previous book, the unnoticeables have been chasing her. Whilst spending a sleepless night in a motel, she happens to see an interview with Marco – the inhuman movie star villain of the previous book – on TV. He is heading to Mexico to film something. Determined not to run any more, Kaitlyn decides that she needs to travel to Mexico and deal with Marco once and for all….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is better than “The Unnoticeables” was 🙂 In addition to having some wonderfully grotesque horror elements, it is more of a focused and action-packed thriller story than I’d expected. The novel also keeps the punk attitude and humour of the previous novel too 🙂

As for the novel’s horror elements, they mostly consist of gory horror, paranomal horror, monster horror and/or body horror, with a bit of suspenseful horror thrown in too. Although the novel also contains a bit of Lovecraftian cosmic horror and a few uncanny not quite human characters, there is slightly less of an emphasis on horror in this novel than in the previous one.

The novel’s thriller elements are a lot more prominent though. Not only are there quite a few fast-paced fights with and/or escapes from monsters, but there’s also a fair number of interesting mini cliffhangers, short chapters, dangerous situations and other stuff like that. One cool thing about the novel being set in several time periods is that it allows for some intriguing plot twists too (eg: In 1978, Carey really likes one of the people he meets. But, when he sees her again in 2013, they are enemies etc..).

Like with “The Unnoticeables”, this novel also contains a fair amount of humour too. Although most of this consists of subtle, irreverent and/or puerile humour, there are also some hilarious moments of physical comedy too. Whether it is a chapter narrated by Marco where he suddenly decides that the most efficient way to chase Carey is to literally crawl along the streets of a city, or a hilariously gross mutation-based scene set in a hotel in the 1980s, this novel can be pretty funny at times 🙂

Another interesting thing about this novel is that it expands a little on the mythos established in “The Unnoticeables”. For example, we get to learn why Kaitlyn’s sixth finger is so important, how to defeat the seemingly invincible “empty ones” etc.. Another cool thing about this novel is that, when Carey travels to London, the punks there have different names for the monsters (eg: faceless, husks, sludge and flares) than the NY punks do. Not only that, there are a lot more of them in the crowded streets of London too.

Although most of the novel takes place in both 2013 and 1978, there are also a few brief scenes set in the 1980s and 1990s that help to add atmosphere and characterisation. Like in the previous novel, the 1970s scenes are the best in the novel – filled with fast-paced drama, punk stuff, weird characters and atmosphere. Even so, the scenes set in 2013 were a bit more fast-paced and gripping than I had expected.

In terms of the characters, the main characters get a reasonable amount of characterisation whilst still being very recognisable to readers of the previous book. Another cool thing is that, in the scenes set in London, Carey seems even more like Vyvyan from “The Young Ones” than usual. The novel also introduces a couple of new characters too – such as a crusty old man called Tub and a punk called Meryll. Meryll has a really fascinating character arc and she also takes part in some of the novel’s most badass fight scenes too.

In terms of the writing, this novel uses a similar style to “The Unnoticeables”. In other words, although it uses the dreaded multiple first-person narrators, both the narrator and the year they are living in are usually clearly signposted (so, it isn’t too confusing). Likewise, the novel is also written in the kind of informal style that you’d expect from a punk thriller novel 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is pretty good. At a fairly efficient 284 pages, the story never feels too long. Likewise, the story’s pacing feels a lot more consistently thrilling than in “The Unnoticeables” too 🙂

All in all, this is a really fun thriller novel that is even better than “The Unnoticeables” was 🙂 Yes, there was slightly less horror than I’d expected, but it’s still a really cool mixture of the punk, horror and thriller genres 🙂

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

Review: “Operation Goodwood” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

Well, it has been far too long since I read one of Sara Sheridan’s “Mirabelle Bevan” historical detective novels. Although I read the first two books in 2017 (but only got round to reviewing the first one), I didn’t get round to reading any more of them, since I was going through a phase of not reading much back then.

When I remembered the series, I looked for my copies of the third and fourth books, but couldn’t remember where I’d put them (Edit: I finally found them shortly after finishing the first draft of this review). So, instead, I ended up buying a cheap second-hand hardback copy of the fifth novel “Operation Goodwood” (2016) online. And, since this is a series where each novel tells a self-contained story, I thought that I’d read it next.

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

This is the 2016 Constable (UK) hardback edition of “Operation Goodwood” that I read.

The novel begins in summer 1955 at Goodwood. Debt collector and ex-SOE agent Mirabelle Bevan is watching a motor race with her partner Superintendent McGregor. After catching a pickpocket sneaking through the crowd, Mirabelle returns the stolen money just in time to see a racer called Dougie Beaumont beat Stirling Moss to the finish line.

Several weeks later, Mirabelle wakes up in the middle of the night in her flat in Brighton. The flat is on fire! After a narrow escape from the burning building, she watches the fire service stretcher a dead body out of the flat above. To her shock, the body is none other than Dougie Beaumont. Although the injuries on his neck suggest that he took his own life, something doesn’t quite add up about this. So, Mirabelle decides to investigate…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a fairly solid historical detective novel. Although it didn’t have quite the same gloomy “film noir”-like atmosphere as the earlier books in the series that I’ve read, it is still a rather compelling mystery that is kind of a bit like a cross between a formal Agatha Christie-style detective story and a more modern/gritty historical detective novel.

The novel’s detective elements are reasonably good, with the story taking more of an Agatha Christie-style emphasis on interviewing people and finding out the motive for the crime (as opposed to Sherlock Holmes-style deductions from physical evidence). Even so, there’s a fair amount of hidden clues, red herrings, sneaking around and clever ruses here too.

As you would expect from a detective story, there is also a second murder that is linked to the first one. But, whilst this second murder is solved, the culprit for the first one isn’t explicitly stated. However, the novel gives enough background information, hints etc… for astute readers to guess who was probably responsible for it. Given the motive, this implied conclusion seems somewhat realistic and also helps to add a slightly chilling tone to this part of the story.

In terms of the historical setting, it is reasonably well written. In addition to a good variety of locations (eg: Brighton, Goodwood, London, Chichester, Tangmere etc..), the novel also does the usual thing of contrasting the genteel popular image of 1950s Britain with all of the stifling repression, prejudices, conservatism etc.. that lurked beneath the surface of it.

There are also quite a few references to major events and historical figures of the time, with some major elements of the plot also revolving around a less well-known (and very disturbing) part of 1950s history. But, if you’ve read about these colonial atrocities before, then the fact that references to them are somewhat understated during the early-middle parts of the novel might tip you off about the ending though. Even so, the novel does use the reader’s knowledge of 1950s history to plant a few clever red herrings too.

In terms of the characters, they are fairly well-written. In addition to a few familiar faces from earlier books in the series (eg: Vesta, Charlie etc..), Mirabelle is the same confident, realistic and resourceful detective as usual too. McGregor is, in the classic fashion, an official detective who is always a few steps behind Mirabelle (in addition to being the source of a few scenes of relationship-based drama too). Most of the other characters are either ordinary people who help Mirabelle or aristocrats who have secrets and/or possible motives for murder.

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third person narration is formal and descriptive enough to emphasise the 1950s setting, but “matter of fact” enough to seem both modern and easily-readable. As you would expect from a classic-style detective story, the third-person narrator always follows Mirabelle and she is present during pretty much every scene of the novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At a fairly efficient 272 pages in length (plus several pages of historical notes, reading group questions etc..), this novel never really feels bloated or over-extended. Likewise, whilst the story moves along at a fairly moderate pace, it is compelling enough for it not to seem too slow-paced.

All in all, this is a reasonably good detective novel. Whilst it doesn’t really have the same gloomy atmosphere as the earlier books in the series, and the focus on aristocratic characters/suspects gives the novel a slightly old-school Agatha Christie-like tone which means that it doesn’t stand out from the crowd as much as I’d have liked, it is still a fairly solid detective story.

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

Review: “Lies, Damned Lies, And History” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Ever since I got several of Jodi Taylor’s “Chronicles Of St.Mary’s” novels for my birthday several weeks earlier, I’ve been carefully rationing them out.

So, since a little over a month has passed since I read the sixth novel in the series, I thought that I’d read the seventh – “Lies, Damned Lies, And History” (2016).

Although this novel is the seventh novel in a series, it contains a fair number of recaps near the beginning. However, you will get a lot more out of this novel if you’ve read the previous six books first.

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

This is the 2016 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “Lies, Damned Lies, And History” that I read.

The story begins in the mid 21st century at the time-travelling historical research institute of St. Mary’s. Chief Operations Officer Madeleine Maxwell (or “Max” for short) has made a huge mistake and is in a hell of a lot of trouble. Not only that, so is St.Mary’s too.

The story then flashes back to sometime earlier. Since Max is pregnant, she’s been restricted to less hazardous time jumps (if such things even exist). And, after seeing the coronation of King George IV, she makes another time jump to Wales to examine a hill fort. Of course, this being St.Mary’s, it isn’t long before Max’s team find themselves hiding in the fort after a Saxon army begins to advance towards it.

Luckily, King Arthur shows up to save the day. Even so, things are fairly close. After Arthur wins, he presents the fort with a ceremonial sword – symbolising his protection- that is placed in a nearby cave. Realising that this could be a major archaeological discovery, Max and her team return to St. Mary’s and report the sword to the University Of Thirsk, who dig it up and get all of the glory.

However, one of the team members (Roberts) who has family near the cave starts telling Max about a sudden series of terrible events that have happened in the area after the sword was removed. Needless to say, it isn’t long before Max has secretly assembled a team and begun planning a sword heist….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that the series is very much back on form 🙂 It never really left it, but this is another way of saying that book seven is better than book six. This is one of those awesome novels that feels like a giant, intricately-plotted epic storyline crammed into a small book 🙂

And, did I mention the heist? In addition to including elements from the sci-fi, comedy, drama and horror genres, this novel also includes the heist genre too 🙂 There is something absolutely hilarious about stories featuring “good” characters pulling off elaborate heists – and Max is in good company here, given that none other than Sherlock Holmes established this particular sub-genre of heist fiction (yes, the Holmes story was inspired by E.W. Hornung’s “Raffles” stories, but Raffles wasn’t exactly a “good” character).

Although I sort of mentioned this in yesterday’s article, one of the great things about this book is the sheer sense of progression. This is a novel that expertly jumps between genres and sub-plots so well and so often that it feels like a considerably deeper and larger story than you might expect 🙂

Plus, even though this novel tells a fairly self-contained story, it also manages to squeeze in a few elements of the series’s over-arching storyline in a way that felt slightly lacking in the sixth book.

Even though the novel’s time travel elements take a little bit of a back seat in this novel (there are lots of jumps, and even a battle, but most of them just involve fields and castles), the main focus of this story is on the drama taking place in St.Mary’s and, to my delight, the novel not only pulls this off well but also manages to make it really compelling. Whether it is Max’s fall from grace and her inevitable redemption or the battle of wits between Max and an obnoxious coffee-drinker called Halcombe who briefly takes over St. Mary’s, this novel is wonderfully dramatic, suspenseful and gripping.

Plus, the comedy in this novel is as great as usual too. Seriously, from a pet ringworm called Oscar to the mathematical formulae needed for cleaning products, this novel absolutely excels itself as a comedy novel. Although most of the story’s irreverent humour is as low-key and understated as usual, there were slightly more “laugh out loud” moments in this novel than I’d initially expected 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re as good as ever. Not only does Max have to deal with being pregnant, but she also has to find a way to make up for all of the trouble she has got St. Mary’s into during the earlier parts of the novel too.

The other characters are as well-written as usual, with the historical figures (eg: mostly various kings) also being portrayed in the series’ usual idiosyncratic and/or cynical way. Not only that, Halcombe is the kind of wonderfully cartoonish villian who you would absolutely love to see get his comeuppance too 🙂 Plus, talking of villains, long-running villain Clive Ronan makes a brief appearance in this novel and is actually a lot creepier and more evil than you’d expect too.

In terms of the writing, this is a St.Mary’s novel. So, it is excellent as ever 🙂 If you’ve never read a novel in this series, then the series’ gloriously informal and frequently irreverent first-person narration is a thing of beauty. I’ve probably described this series as punk literature before, but it’s a reasonably good description. This is a novel that has a lot of personality 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is stellar. The story’s 315 page length may initially feel slightly too long but, considering the amount of stuff that happens, it’s a miracle this novel is only 315 pages long. Needless to say, the pacing is really good too. There’s a brilliant mixture of slower and faster-paced scenes, not to mention that the clever segues between different genres (eg: suspense, time travel, drama, comedy, thriller, heist etc..) help to keep the story really compelling too 🙂

All in all, this is a really excellent instalment in the “St. Mary’s” series. If you like drama, comedy, sci-fi, history and thrills, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

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

Review: “Try Before You Die” (WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”)

Well, since I’m still in the middle of reading a rather long C. J. Sansom novel (is there any other type?), I thought that I’d take the chance to review a “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD today.

After all, it’s been at least a couple of weeks since the last WAD review and, despite playing an older version of “Reelism” occasionally, I was worried that I was getting out of practice.

So, after clicking the “random file” link on the /idgames Archive a few times, I eventually found a rather interesting-looking WAD from 2016 called “Try Before You Die“.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. According to the accompanying text file, this WAD is designed for ZDoom-based source ports – so, it will probably work with ports like GZDoom too.

So, let’s take a look at: “Try Before You Die”:

“Try Before You Die” is a medium to long single-level WAD which revolves around a demonic invasion of Earth.

With Earth in ruins, humanity’s only hope is for the Doomguy to complete some kind of infernal trial in order to rid the planet of hell’s forces. So, yes, pretty standard stuff really.

Well, what were you expecting? A romantic comedy?

One of the first things that I will say about this level is that it’s pretty cool. Not only is the level design the kind of interesting non-linear level design that you’d expect from a classic 1990s FPS game, but the gameplay is also suitably challenging too 🙂

And, in keeping with the 1990s style of the level, this is also one of those modern levels where jumping is disabled by default (although the level is designed with this limitation in mind, so it isn’t really that noticeable whilst playing).

I should probably start by talking in more detail about the level design. In addition to containing a reasonably good mixture of claustrophobic corridors and arena-like areas, this level is also divided into two distinctive areas. There’s a ruined city area and a demonic fortress area (with four sub-areas you can teleport to in any order you want) – and, considering that this WAD only uses the standard “Doom II” textures, both areas look pretty cool.

Woo hoo! Gloomy post-apocalyptic landscapes 🙂

And THIS area almost looks like something from “Final Doom” too 🙂

This is also one of those awesome non-linear levels where you’ll often find yourself having to explore, in addition to finding new routes back to earlier areas of the level. Although the level is reasonably large, it’s still small enough to make exploration interesting rather than frustrating. In other words, it probably won’t take you too long to work out where you’re supposed to go next.

Likewise, this level also contains some fairly interesting, but solvable, puzzles too. For example, if you step through a teleporter in one area, you’ll quickly get torn to pieces by imps when you emerge on the other side. As such, you have to find where the teleporter exits and then use a nearby window/hole in the wall to deal with the imps first.

The level also includes an interesting little puzzle involving teleporters and barrels, a few basic switch puzzles, some combat-based puzzles etc… These puzzles are interesting enough to be reminiscent of the classic FPS games of the 1990s whilst also being straightforward enough not to become frustrating.

Hmmm…. I’m surrounded by barrels o’ fun!

In terms of the difficulty, experienced players will find this level enjoyably challenging 🙂 Whilst it is more of a standard-style level (think “Final Doom” turned up to eleven) rather than a “slaughtermap”-style level (where you’re faced with giant hordes of monsters), the level’s difficulty is achieved in a variety of interesting ways.

When you start the level, you’re faced with a reasonable number of mid-low level monsters, few health power-ups, relatively little ammo and a few claustrophobic areas. Whilst the difficulty in these parts of the level can feel a little bit cheap (especially if you’re slightly out of practice), the level soon begins to include a variety of different types of challenging combat.

These include really fun arena areas, areas where you’ll be running for your life, tense battles in narrow corridors, a Cyberdemon battle and even a fun little slaughtermap-style segment where a wide corridor quickly fills with powerful monsters (and you’ll have to use quick reflexes and clever tactics to find a way to escape).

And, yes, this level fulfils it’s mandatory Arch-vile quotient too 🙂

In addition to all of this, the relative scarcity of health items throughout the level (seriously, my health was less than 20 for large portions of the level!) helps to keep things suspenseful and challenging too 🙂

All in all, this is a really fun level 🙂 It’s a really cool modern twist on classic 1990s-style FPS levels. If you feel that “Final Doom” is a little bit too easy or you want a slightly more epic classic-style “Doom II” level, then this one is certainly worth checking out.

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

Review: “Kathy Rain” (Computer Game)

Ever since I watched this ‘first impressions’ video by PushingUpRoses, “Kathy Rain” has been one of those games that ended up on my ‘I must play this someday. This is my kind of game!‘ list.

However, although my computer met the system requirements for it, the game seemed somewhat pricey at the time. But, eventually, it went on sale. So, I was able to pick up a DRM-free copy of the game for £2.39 on GOG during their Black Friday sale last year. And, yes, I write these articles very far in advance.

Plus, since Halloween is only a few weeks away, this seemed like the perfect time to review this game too.

So, let’s take a look at “Kathy Rain”. Needless to say, this review may include some SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

“Kathy Rain” is a horror/detective “point and click” game from 2016. The game begins in September 1995, when a journalism student called Kathy Rain returns from a wild party, only for her roommate Eileen to tell her that she read something in the paper about a man who had died. He had the same surname as Kathy. The man is none other than Kathy’s grandfather.

Interestingly, many of the characters here are people you meet during other parts of the game.

The next day, Kathy travels back to her old hometown for the funeral. But, after talking to her grandmother, Kathy learns that something happened to her grandfather in 1981 – which left him a hollow shell of his former self. Bewildered by this, Kathy decides to look for an explanation…..

Well, it would be a very boring game if she didn’t investigate.

One of the first things that I will say about this game is “WOW!” The best way to describe it is that it’s a little bit like a cross between “Twin Peaks” and “Silent Hill 3” – with some hints of “American McGee’s Alice”, “The Longest Journey”, “The Last Door” and Dave Gilbert’s “Blackwell” games too. In other words, it’s an interesting, intelligent, dark and mature character-driven game. It’s shocking, creepy, funny, depressing, intriguing and compelling.

Whilst I’d love to talk about the game’s story in depth, I’m wary of spoiling the plot too much. But, don’t be put off by the slow pacing (and lack of scares) in the earlier parts of the game. This game is something of a slow burn, with many of the game’s more dramatic, dark and/or disturbing moments happening later in the story. The game is a lot like the first two seasons of “Twin Peaks” in this respect, being an ordinary detective story that gradually turns into something much creepier and more bizarre.

And, like in “Twin Peaks”, there are bizarre dream sequences too.

In terms of horror, this game generally tends to prefer psychological horror, mysterious horror and/or story-based horror. Not only are there “Silent Hill 3″/”The Last Door”-style hints of H.P.Lovecraft here, but there are also a few wonderfully understated “shock” moments. These aren’t jump scares, but they are the sort of thing that makes you raise your eyebrows and quietly gasp. Again, I’d love to talk about some of these but, well, I don’t want to spoil them.

These are contrasted with about four chilling moments where Kathy is directly threatened by other characters and has to defend herself. All of these scenes are disturbing for different reasons, and this game is one of those rare games where violence itself is presented as a source of horror (rather than just as a type of gameplay).

Likewise, Kathy’s reaction to defending herself varies from scene to scene. In this one, she responds to this lecherous biker with righteous fury but in other scenes, she’s clearly mortified by having to harm other characters.

Despite some fantastical elements, the game also keeps much of it’s horror grounded in reality – even though it may sometimes be expressed metaphorically or through fantastical elements (like in “Silent Hill 3”). So, expect a lot of fairly dark subject matter throughout the game.

Thematically, this game is also fairly complex too. In addition to the theme of being haunted by the past, this game also includes a rather complex presentation of religion too (showing how it can be both a force for good and evil). It’s also a game about introspection too (with Kathy often being given the option to “think about” things as well as just looking at them).

The game’s characters are brilliant – with Kathy being one of the best game protagonists that I’ve seen for a while. In addition to being an ultra-sarcastic chain-smoking horror movie-watching biker (with so, so many brilliant lines of dialogue), she’s also a bit more of a complex character too.

Seriously, she has so many hilarious lines of dialogue.

A lot of the game revolves around Kathy trying to understand and reconcile herself with her past. In this regard, the game reminds me a lot of “American McGee’s Alice”, “Silent Hill 3” and “The Longest Journey”.

But, although Kathy’s journey through the game involves some hair-raising moments and some rather depressing subject matter, she never really comes across as a depressing character. However, she isn’t a typical “emotionless robot” game protagonist either (and will actually have realistic emotional reactions to the game’s events).

The game’s supporting characters are pretty interesting too, with many of them also being complex characters too. Eileen is a good example of this – at first she seems like she was just designed to be the opposite of Kathy (eg: religious, optimistic and cheerful) in order to add comedy to the game. But, although there are some absolutely hilarious dialogue exchanges between Kathy and Eileen, they are not only shown to be friends but Eileen is also a much more complex and open-minded character than she initially seems to be.

Seriously, she isn’t the “annoying character” that she initially appears to be.

The writing and voice-acting is on par with other intelligent Adventure Game Studio games like “Technobabylon“, “The Blackwell Epiphany” and “The Shivah“. Like in all of those games, the dialogue segments also feature wonderfully detailed character illustrations which help to add even more depth to the game’s lushly detailed pixel art world.

Seriously, I love this style of character illustrations 🙂

In terms of the game’s historical setting, it’s really interesting. Although I talked yesterday about how the game uses fake anachronisms (eg: things you wouldn’t think would exist in 1995, but actually could have), the game’s setting comes across and wonderfully and convincingly retro 🙂 There are dictaphones, floppy disks, CRT monitors, pop culture references and lots of other 1990s stuff 🙂

Such as the fact that CRT monitors are still seen as “high tech” LOL!

However, one jarring anachronism is the bizarre – and out of character- fact that Kathy seems to religiously follow 2000s-style restrictions about smoking. She can be standing in the middle of a bar with ashtrays on the tables and people lighting up a few feet away and yet she primly comments that she only smokes outdoors if you click on her cigs. This could just be the result of a lack of programming time (eg: one simple line of code instead of lots of realistic location-specific responses) but it comes across as a bit anachronistic and/or out of character.

Visually speaking, this game is really good. I absolutely love 1990s-style pixel art and this game doesn’t disappoint here. Whilst many of the game’s locations look fairly “ordinary” (which adds to the “Twin Peaks”-like atmosphere), there are some brilliantly creative areas found throughout the game. Plus, like in many great 1990s movies and TV shows, the lighting is often a little bit on the gloomier side of things.

Seriously, I really wish more of the game’s locations looked like this one. This is like a gothic version of “Silent Hill” 🙂

Plus, the game sometimes does the classic 1990s-style thing of placing items in the close foreground to “frame” the picture.

This game is detailed. In addition to the fact that you can look at pretty much everything, there are loads of other clever little details too. One of the best ones (which I only noticed whilst looking through the screenshots for this review) is that, in each segment that takes place in Kathy and Eileen’s halls of residence room, various things move slightly compared to when you were last there.

This isn’t very noticeable when you’re actually playing the game, but it gives the impression that people are actually living there. They could have easily just re-used the same background for all of these segments, but they didn’t. Now, that’s attention to detail!

In terms of the actual gameplay, it’s fairly ordinary “point and click” gameplay. Before I talk about the puzzles, I should probably point out that I’m terrible at these types of puzzles. In other words, I enjoy “point and click” games for the story, characters, humour, dialogue, atmosphere, locations etc… rather than the puzzles.

Even though the game gives you hints, this was probably the first of many times that I reached for a walkthrough….

But, even though I had to consult a walkthrough a fair number of times, many of the puzzles here seemed fairly logical. The game gives you clues and there didn’t seem to be any “moon logic” or pixel hunting here. So, if you’re an experienced adventure gamer who actually enjoys the puzzles, you’ll probably find this game to be “easy”.

The game also occasionally does inventive things with traditional “point and click” game mechanics too. For example, if you look at Eileen’s stuff when she is nearby, she’ll hear Kathy’s voice-over narration and comment about it. Likewise, the game occasionally does some inventive things with the classic “take everything that isn’t nailed down” approach that most adventure games take to in-game items….

Yes, this sort of thing is actually considered to be burglary. Who would have thought it?

In terms of length, this game is what you would expect from an indie “point and click” game. With moderate to heavy walkthrough use, it took me approximately six or seven hours to complete this game. However, if you don’t use a walkthrough, then the game may take longer than this.

Likewise, although the game contains a relatively limited number of different locations (about 10-15 places, albeit with multiple rooms/areas in many of them) – this helps to keep the narrative reasonably focused.

Not to mention, the fast travel map is absolutely badass too 🙂

In terms of music and sound design, this game is fairly good. Although there aren’t that many memorable musical moments, the music inside the biker bar and the eerie “Silent Hill”-like music that plays near the lakeside cabin are two stand-out moments.

All in all, “Kathy Rain” is a brilliant horror game. Not only is it wonderfully 1990s, but it also features interesting characters, brilliant dialogue and a compelling story. Yes, it isn’t a game for the easily shocked, nor is it a typical “jump scare”-based horror game. But, if you like “Twin Peaks” and/or “Silent Hill 3”, then you’ll love this game 🙂

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

Review: “Dimension Of The Past” (Levels For “Quake”)

Well, since I was still in a “Quake” kind of mood, I thought that I’d check out a set of unofficial levels from 2016 called “Dimension Of The Past” that were made by a company called Machine Games to celebrate Quake’s 20th anniversary.

As usual, I used the “Darkplaces” source port whilst playing these levels. However, due to issues with either the source port and/or my computer, I had to lower the graphics settings to 16 bits per pixel in order to get a playable framerate. So, the quality of the graphics/textures in the screenshots in this review is probably slightly lower than the ones you’ll see if you play the game on normal (32 bit) settings.

So, let’s take a look at “Dimension Of The Past”:

“Dimension Of The Past” contains eleven levels for “Quake” – including an introductory level, a secret level (that I didn’t find) and a deathmatch level. These levels are “vanilla” levels that just contain the standard textures, monsters etc.. from the original game. Since the level set presents itself as a ‘fifth episode’ for the original game, then this decision makes a lot of sense.

One of the very first things that I will say about “Dimension Of The Past” is that it quickly goes from being ‘enjoyably challenging’ to ‘borderline unfair’ very quickly – even on normal difficulty! If it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve built up an attitude of dogged determination from playing quite a few ultra-challenging modern “Doom II” WADs over the past few years, then I’d have probably abandoned this level set out of frustration fairly early on.

Seriously, even this part of the second level will give you quite a challenge… and it’s easy compared to the later levels!

Seriously, don’t let the easy first level lull you into a false sense of security! Even though this level set has been made by a modern games company, it is anything but easy!

These levels do the usual “Doom II” WAD trick of throwing lots of mid-high level monsters at you regularly. But, whilst much stronger forms of this sort of creative unfairness can work really well in “Doom II”, it doesn’t always translate that well to “Quake” for a number of reasons.

The first reason is the “Quake” contains a much gloomier aesthetic than “Doom II” – as such, it can sometimes be difficult to see where to run to when you are besieged by monsters. The second reason is that “Quake” and “Doom II” have different weapons that handle differently. The third reason is that the movement speed in “Quake” is at least slightly different to that in “Doom II”. The fourth reason is that both games have different monsters that act (and attack) differently.

For example, there isn’t a proper “Doom II” equivalent of the fast-moving Fiends in “Quake” (the closest thing is possibly the weaker and slower pink “demon” creatures).

The borderline unfair difficulty in “Dimension Of The Past” is further compounded by the fact that many of the levels are at least slightly stingy when it comes to health and ammo. Whilst there is often just enough to get through each level, there are at least a few segments of “Dimension Of The Past” that feel more like an old survival horror game than a thrilling action game. In other words, you’ll probably have to flee from monsters sometimes.

Seriously, this part of the fourth level even looks a bit like something from a “Silent Hill” game!

Again, there are some amazing modern “Doom II” WADs out there that rely on the player not being able to fight literally every monster in order to create thrillingly fast-paced gameplay that almost seems more like a type of puzzle game than anything else. But, due to the age and visual style of the game, this sort of gameplay works better in “Doom II”. The cute cartoonish graphics, ludicrous movement speed, perfect weapon progression, simple monster AI and more well-balanced gameplay mechanics in “Doom II” mean that this type of gameplay becomes an thrilling abstract puzzle.

But, in a grimly gothic game like “Quake” – with very slightly more intelligent monsters and with different weapons, then even a relatively mild example of this type of gameplay just doesn’t feel as fun.

Likewise, the fact that it’s harder to dodge projectiles in “Quake” doesn’t help either.

This also has something to do with emotional tone too – in “Doom II” WADs, completing a brightly-coloured level containing 300+ cartoon monsters makes you feel like an expert gamer. Yet, thanks to it’s bleak emotional tone (that evokes feelings of vulnerability), completing one of these 20-75 monster “Quake” levels just feels like you’ve survived some kind of grim ordeal.

If this was “Doom II”, then this scene would involve gleefully fighting Hell Knights in a cartoonish corridor. But, it’s a bit more frantic and grim in “Quake”.

But, even just running away from monsters doesn’t work all of the time in “Dimension Of The Past”. The final level contains no less than six shamblers – all of whom have to be defeated in order to complete the level (four block your path, and a barrier in front of the exit won’t lower until the final two are defeated).

This wouldn’t be too bad if it wasn’t for the fact that the level also contains death knights, yores, scrags…. and barely enough health and ammo pickups! Seriously, unless you find a hidden quad damage early in the level and use it in the most efficient way possible, then you won’t even get to the final part of the level. And, when you get there, you’ll need to play very tactically until you finally, eventually get lucky and defeat the final two shamblers with whatever scant ammunition you have left.

Seriously, even though it is possible to get them to fight each other… don’t rely on it!

Again, this sort of hilariously extreme difficulty can work really well in “Doom II” WADs, but even relatively mild examples of it just don’t translate well to “Quake”.

The fact that ammo is so scarce that you occasionally have to resort to using the axe doesn’t help either!

Although “Dimension Of The Past” begins with a couple of sci-fi style levels, the majority of the level set is taken up with gloomy, gothic medieval-style levels. This creates a grim and foreboding atmosphere that is reinforced with a few fiendishly evil set pieces throughout the game – such as a fast-paced puzzle segment where you have to stop yourself from being crushed by finding two hidden switches within about 10-20 seconds.

Seriously, I even tried rocket jumping out of here a couple of times, before I finally realised you have to shoot two hidden switches!

The actual technical design of the levels is really good. Most of the levels are the kind of creative, non-linear levels that used to be standard in FPS games. You’ll be searching for keys, backtracking, opening doors elsewhere with switches etc.. As much as I might criticise the difficulty in these levels, I cannot really criticise the level design too much.

In fact, the only major criticism I have is that a hidden platform you need to jump onto in order to get to the ending of one level is quite literally shrouded in shadows and next to impossible to find (seriously, I was stuck for at least an hour before I discovered it!). Then again, this might be a byproduct of the 16 bit graphics setting I mentioned at the beginning of the review (since it tends to make the shadows a lot more solid).

Seriously, it took me at least an hour to work out that I was supposed to jump here!

However, one minor design quibble I have is that there’s no “ending” to this game – not even a small text screen. Once you finally, eventually beat the punishingly difficult final level, then you are… just taken straight back to the introductory level. In fact, since I hadn’t seen this level for a few days, I initially mistook it for a ninth level – before noticing the difficulty selection portals.

All in all, “Dimension Of The Past” is a set of technically well-made levels whose borderline unfair difficulty will heavily challenge even the most experienced retro FPS gamers. However, I just wish that this had been a “Doom II” WAD instead. A lot of the design tactics here would work really, really well in “Doom II” – but are somewhat ill-suited to “Quake”.

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