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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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

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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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

And THIS area almost looks like something from “Final Doom” too πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

All in all, this is a really fun level πŸ™‚ 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 Β£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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚ There are dictaphones, floppy disks, CRT monitors, pop culture references and lots of other 1990s stuff πŸ™‚

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” πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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.

Review “Night School” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, it has been way too long since I last reviewed a novel (novel reviews will become a regular feature late this year/early next year though). And, I hadn’t planned to review one today – but, after spending about five and a half hours binge-reading a second-hand charity shop copy of “Night School” by Lee Child, it felt appropriate to review it too.

This review will contain some PLOT SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

This is the 2016 UK Bantam Press hardback edition of “Night School” that I read.

“Night School” is a novel from 2016 that is the 21st thriller in Lee Child’s famous “Jack Reacher” series. Like in the other novels in this series that I’ve read, “Night School” tells a self-contained story that doesn’t really require any knowledge of other novels in the series.

The story is something of a prequel to many of the other novels, with the events of the story taking place in 1996. Jack Reacher is an American military policeman who has recently been awarded a medal for a covert mission in Eastern Europe.

He’s on the up and up, and there’s a lot of military gossip about his next assignment. But, when Reacher is summoned to the Pentagon, he learns that he’s been… assigned to take a training course in forensics and inter-agency co-operation.

Of course, when he arrives at the facility, there are only two other students. A highly-commended member of the FBI and an outstanding member of the CIA. Between the three of them, they quickly realise that they aren’t there to study inter-agency co-operation or forensics……

One of the very first things that I will say about this novel is that about the first two-thirds or so of it are better than the later parts. Like any good thriller, the novel starts out in a mysteriously exciting fashion.

In some ways, the beginning and middle of “Night School” are reminiscent of an American TV show like “24” or “NCIS” and, in other ways, these parts of the story are more like a classic modern European thriller (like a more fast-paced version of Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl Who Played With Fire”).

Yet, during the later parts of the story, there’s less suspense. The plot twists seem predictable, hollow and clichΓ©d. The ending also seems somewhat anticlimactic. So, this is a story that is more about the journey than the destination. Everything leading up to the later parts of the story is fast-paced, complex, mysterious and thrilling (enough to warrant a marathon binge-reading session). Yet, the story gradually starts losing dramatic value as it progresses.

From what I’d heard about “Night School” before I read it, I expected it to be more of an “action movie”-style novel. But, it is very much a traditional-style thriller. Yes, there are suspenseful chases and a small number of well-written fight scenes (eg: a 2-3 page description of part of a fight that only lasts a few seconds). But, this is more like a cross between a spy novel, a political thriller and a detective novel than an action thriller novel.

A lot of the story includes several parallel narratives involving various agents, detectives and criminals. For example, there are scenes where the novel’s main antagonist is a few hundred metres away from the main characters, and neither of them realises it. Like in many good thriller novels, these scenes are interweaved in all sorts of cool ways.

One cool thing about this novel is that Reacher’s old colleague Frances Neagley makes an appearance here. Although I’ve read at least one novel featuring Neagley (“Bad Luck and Trouble” in 2009/10), I couldn’t remember a huge amount about that novel. Still, the name and the character were instantly familiar to me.

As for the characters, they’re adequate and functional. Jack Reacher is mostly (more on this later) still the smart, stoic hero that we all know and love. Yet, the main characters sometimes seem slightly “flat”. Likewise, even the novel’s romantic sub-plot feels somewhat random and slightly passionless. Surprisingly, the most well-developed characters in this novel are the main antagonist and a German detective called Griezman (who helps Reacher out throughout the story).

However, and this might be because of the 1990s setting or the fact that Jack Reacher is younger in this book, but he’s a little bit more aggressive than usual in this novel. What I mean by this is he’s slightly more likely to kill or attack people for reasons other than self-defence. Like an “edgy” 90s action hero, a couple of these scenes are also accompanied by pithy dialogue too. Although this stuff seems very mildly out of character for Reacher, some elements of this change in his character are foreshadowed in a very early part of the novel.

As usual, Lee Child uses a fairly fast-paced and minimalist narrative style, peppered with occasional descriptions. And, as gripping as it is here, it didn’t quite seem to have the same substance as some of his other novels. The narrative style seems a little too minimalist in some parts. Even so, it keeps the plot travelling forwards at a suitably fast pace, which is never a bad thing.

The novel’s mid-1990s setting is also handled in a fairly interesting way too. For the most part, the novel reads like a fairly “timeless” thriller story, with relatively little 1990s nostalgia (eg: there are some references to the Millennium bug and the end of the cold war. Likewise, there isn’t a mobile phone in sight either. But, aside from this, it could almost be set in the present day).

Yet, the mid-1990s setting also has a noticeable effect on the plot, with the story drawing on both the more imaginative/silly traditions of the 90s thriller genre (between the end of the cold war and 9/11, thriller writers had to be a bit more imaginative since they couldn’t just rely on popular fears for source material) and more “serious” contemporary concerns about extremism and terrorism too. Seriously, Lee Child absolutely nails the “mid-late 90s thriller” elements of the story perfectly.

This slight hint of 1990s silliness, along with some witty descriptions/dialogue and a hilariously gross scene set in a nightclub also help to lighten the tone of the story slightly too, which is never a bad thing. Although “Night School” is a suspenseful thriller novel, with some slightly “gritty” crime-based segments, it never really becomes bleak or depressing.

The rest of the novel’s settings are handled in a fairly interesting way too. Most of the story takes place in Hamburg, and this city is described in a fairly minimalist way – which helps it to seem “modern” and “realistic”. Yet, the city also seems slightly drab and generic too – which is both a strength and a weakness.

By making the city blend into the background slightly, Lee Child is able to focus our attentions more on the events of the story. Yet, the fact that it takes place in a version of Germany shown from the perspective of an American character imagined by one of Britain’s bestselling authors kind of means that the setting often comes across as more “generic European” than anything else. Lee Child is an expert at writing American settings, but mainland Europe really doesn’t seem to be his forte.

All in all, this isn’t Lee Child’s best novel, but it’s hardly a bad novel either. I mean, it was still compelling enough to binge-read in one marathon session. Yes, the beginning is better than the ending. Yes, this story is much more about the journey than the destination. But, it’s still a fairly well-written thriller novel. Not to mention that it’s kind of cool to see a vaguely 1990s-style thriller from 2016.

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

Today’s Art (4th September 2017)

Woo hoo! I am very proud to present the second comic in my ‘back to basics’ “Damania Relaxation” webcomic mini series. If you missed the ‘old-school’ mini series (where every comic was self-contained), then you’re in luck!

If you want to catch up on other old-style mini series, or check out some of the more recent story-based ones, links to them all can be found here. You can also check out previous comics in this mini series here: One

As regular readers probably know, I make these comics ages in advance. So, I made this one in 2016 – which really did feel like the beginning of a “dystopian alternate timeline” sub-plot in a sci-fi series. And, yes, I’m terrible at drawing Nigel Farage too.

As usual, this comic update (but not yesterday’s one!) is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] "Damania Relaxation - Timeline" By C. A. Brown

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] “Damania Relaxation – Timeline” By C. A. Brown

Mini Review: “Jonathan Creek – Daemon’s Roost” (TV Show Episode)

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Earlier this evening, I was feeling somewhat tired when I happened to remember a comment on my latest “Sherlock” review which recommended the “Jonathan Creek” Christmas special.

From the description and a few other things I’d read online, I was very curious about the show (curious enough to order some DVDs of it when I saw that they were going cheap online) and then I remembered that there was still an episode of it on the BBC’s iPlayer.

I’d originally planned to watch the first few minutes of “Daemon’s Roost” just to see whether the show was anything like what I imagined it would be like, but I ended up watching the whole thing. All ninety minutes of it. So, I thought that I’d review it.

This review contains some SPOILERS.

“Daemon’s Roost” begins with a wonderfully melodramatic 1970s Hammer Horror-style trailer for a film about someone called Jacob Surtees who used evil magic to murder men by levitating them into a fiery portal, whilst forcing their lovers to watch helplessly.

In the present day, the director of this film is an old man who is dying and has summoned his stepdaughter and her husband to his old mansion in order to tell them something important. The old mansion where Jacob Surtees used to live in the 19th century….

Meanwhile, Jonathan Creek and his wife Polly are moving into a new house in the countryside. There’s still a lot of stuff from Johnathan’s old house to be sorted through, a local scarecrow-building competition, an eccentric vicar and a paroled criminal who is out to get revenge on Jonathan.

Following a series of strange events at the mansion and a near-miss with the criminal, Johnathan and Polly end up retreating to the mansion to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this episode is that it is an absolutely perfect blend of old-school horror, eccentric comedy and Sherlock Holmes-style detection. In other words, it fits into three of my favourite genres! Ok, there wasn’t anything from the cyberpunk genre in there, but it was still one of the best modern TV shows I’ve seen for a while.

Imagine a cross between James Herbert’s “Haunted”, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Musgrave Ritual” and …something else (I’m not sure what)… and that would be a good description of the atmosphere of this episode. The horror-based scenes are genuinely suspensful. The detection-based scenes are well-thought out and filled with interesting deductions and fiendish schemes.

The comedy in this episode is slightly on the subtle side, but it not only will make you smile at least a few times, it also gives this episode a uniquely quirky atmosphere too. Plus, there are also a few brilliantly cynical moments of dark comedy in this episode (such as a laugh-out-loud scene involving delayed funeral directors, and a body’s temporary resting place).

In terms of the characterisation in this episode, it’s surprisingly good. Although I haven’t seen any other episodes of “Jonathan Creek” at the time of writing, there was enough characterisation to ensure that the episode wasn’t confusing. Many of the characters are realistic enough to be believable, but eccentric enough to be interesting. Whilst Jonathan Creek might be a genius detective, he also seems like the kind of person who you might find drinking cider in an old pub on a saturday afternoon.

The best supporting character by far probably has to be the vicar. Whether he’s trying to conduct an exorcism (whilst receiving instructions by phone) or talking enthusiastically about random subjects, he manages to be authentically vicar-y (if this is even a word), whilst also being gleefully irreverent and enthusiastically eccentric at the same time.

As for the mystery itself, some parts of it are a little bit contrived – but this is done in a knowingly theatrical way that is reminiscent of 1950s American horror comics or some of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s more unusual detective stories (like “The Problem Of Thor Bridge”). Plus, there is a logical explanation for every strange thing that happens in this episode. Something the writers of the BBC’s “Sherlock” series could learn a thing or two from! Best of all, there are even a few red herrings and hidden clues too.

Likewise, one part of the ending has a surprisingly Holmesian touch to it, when Jonathan actually decides to let the culprit go (since he didn’t entirely disagree with the crime and also feels guilty about not preventing it when he could have done). But, in a stroke of genius, this scene is also slightly played for laughs too.

Jonathan, Polly and the vicar go to all of the trouble to set up a meeting with the culprit in a fancy restaurant. There’s even a vaguely Agatha Christie/Conan Doyle-like scene where Jonathan explains how and why the crime was committed. And then everyone just kind of shrugs and lets the culprit go becacuse, they’re just four people sitting in a restaurant and.. well.. what else are they going to do? Cause a scene? This scene is both theatrical and realistic at the same time, and it is hilarious!

All in all, I really loved this episode. I’m honestly surprised that I’ve never watched an episode of this show before, despite hearing about it occasionally. This episode contains so many brilliant things – ominously creepy horror, distinctive characters, Holmesian deductions and quirky comedy. This is an episode that manages to be both brilliantly stylised and brilliantly realistic at the same time. It’s brilliant!

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