Review: “Greymood” (WAD For “Doom II”/”Final Doom”/ GZDoom)

Well, due to a combination of hot weather and the fact that I’d been feeling less motivated to read than usual, I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“Practical Magic” by Alice Hoffman 🙂 ). As such, this seemed like the perfect time to make sure that at least one “Doom II”/”Final Doom” WAD appeared here this month, given that I almost broke this hallowed tradition (thanks to playing some Build Engine games recently).

So, after clicking on the “Random File” button on the /idgames Archive, I ended up finding a WAD from 2017 called “Greymood“.

As usual, I used the “GZ Doom” source port (version 3.4.1) whilst playing this WAD, although it will also apparently work with Prboom+ 2.5.1.4 and Zandronum 2.1.2 (and presumably later versions of these ports too).

So, let’s take a look at “Greymood”:

“Greymood” is a medium-size single-level WAD that also contains new textures, skyboxes and music. Given that the WAD’s text file points out that it was inspired by a depressive mood, you should expect a level that is more on the gloomy and gothic side of things. This is both a good thing and a bad thing.

On the plus side, this WAD is very atmospheric and contains a good mixture of wintery segments, “hell”-style segments and segments that reminded me a little of a game like “Quake”. In addition to some wonderful dirge-like music and a few new textures (eg: a grey skybox, new switches etc…) that really adds to the atmosphere, some segments of this WAD also have really cool-looking lighting that is an absolute joy to look at.

I especially love how these ominous iron bars break up the grey sky texture, whilst also lending a vaguely industrial look to this part of the level.

And the minimal wall-based lighting in this “hell” area also reminds me a lot of the original “Quake” too 🙂

On the downside, this WAD’s visual gloom can sometimes go a little bit too far – with some areas consisting of almost impenetrable darkness that can make it difficult to find switches and/or where to go next. Although this is probably a visual metaphor for the mood that inspired the level, expect to rely on either trial and error or the in-game map in order to navigate a few parts of the level.

Yes, darkness looks cool. But, you really can have too much of a good thing.

But, enough about the visual design, what about the actual gameplay? Well, this level is one that experienced players will probably find at least moderately challenging and is also a relatively mild introduction to the “slaughtermap” genre of WADs for newer players. In other words, although a lot of the level plays out like a fairly traditional “Doom II” level, expect a couple of segments where you are trapped in small-medium sized arena areas with more monsters than you can fight.

And there are Arch-Viles too 🙂

These are reasonably fun, since you have to rely on things like tactics, hiding behind cover, circlestrafing and running past monsters to find switches. Even so, they are on the relatively easy side of things with – for example – the final “Icon Of Sin”-style segment containing a couple of invulnerability spheres. Even so, the WAD adds challenge in a couple of unexpected ways.

On the plus side, these spheres add some much-needed lighting to the gloom here 🙂

A lot of these consist of things that seem “frustrating” at first, until you notice all of the clever design choices. For example, you are given a BFG before the final battle, but it’s very easy to miss due to all of the shadows surrounding it. Likewise, whilst I won’t spoil too many details, the set piece you have to go through to get the red key is actually a very basic puzzle in disguise 🙂

This brings me on to the fact that this WAD takes a rather “traditional” attitude towards jumping, with the ability to jump being disabled by default. However, given that the level is designed around this limitation, it never really feels too much like a limitation.

As for the actual design of the level, it’s really good 🙂 It’s has enough non-linearity to require exploration, whilst also being laid out in a way that ensures that you’ll usually know where you’re supposed to go next. It also contains a good mixture of traditional-style segments and small-medium sized arena battles, that help to keep the gameplay feeling varied.

All in all, this is a rather fun level. Yes, the lighting can sometimes be a little bit too gloomy and a couple of moments might seem a little frustrating at first, but this is a fairly solid, atmospheric and moderately challenging level that will provide 30-60 minutes of fun for experienced players 🙂

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

Review: “Strange Practice” By Vivian Shaw (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I last read anything horror-related. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Vivian Shaw’s 2017 novel “Strange Practice”. This is a novel I found a couple of months earlier when shopping online for second-hand books. Intrigued by the plot summary, I ordered a copy there and then. Then, I got distracted by other books for a couple of months. So, this review has been a while in the making.

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

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Strange Practice” that I read.

The novel begins in modern London with Dr. Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead, visiting her vampire friend Edmund Ruthven. He has called her over because another friend of his, Sir Francis Varney (of “Varney The Vampire” fame), is in trouble. Fanatical garlic-spraying monks have broken into Varney’s house and stabbed him with a cross-shaped blade. He barely managed to escape alive.

Greta treats Varney’s injuries before extracting a mysterious substance from the stab wound. Thinking that it is probably poison of some kind, she decides to get it analysed. Meanwhile, London is reeling in fear from a series of Jack The Ripper-style murders and, in a dark chamber somewhere, a badly-burned man goes through a strange initiation ritual…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it has a really cool premise and is probably one of the most original novels I’ve read recently. It’s this really interesting blend between the horror, urban fantasy, detective, thriller and medical drama genres that not only contains a good mixture between chills and comedy, but is also absolutely crammed with old-school horror fiction references too 🙂 Yes, it wasn’t quite as much of a fast-paced thriller as I’d hoped, but I really loved the style and concept behind this novel 🙂

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, it is a little on the old-school side of things. In addition to a bit of gothic horror, it also contains suspense, paranormal horror, horrifying injuries, grisly murders, religious horror, character-based horror, psychological horror, gothic horror and even a few subtle hints of Lovecraftian sci-fi horror/ weird fiction too 🙂 Although this novel isn’t outright scary, the horror elements really help to add atmosphere, depth and creepiness to the story 🙂

In the classic urban fantasy fashion, the novel’s “monsters” (vampires, ghouls, demons, mummies etc..) aren’t actually the villains in this novel. Instead, Greta has to help protect them from a group of fanatical monks with glowing blue eyes. If you’ve ever played an old computer game called “Blood“, you’ll know that evil monks are one of the funniest and most gloriously melodramatic types of horror villains out there – and it is an absolute joy to see them here 🙂 Seriously, I bought this book purely on the basis that it contained evil monks 🙂 Plus, this novel also contains an adorable baby ghoul called a “ghoullet” too 🙂

And, in the classic urban fantasy fashion, this novel also has a little bit of a mythos too. Although this is slightly more of a background detail, the fact that the story makes a distinction between “vampires” and “vampyres” and also comes up with a rather clever twist on the classic “heaven and hell” thing really helps to add a bit of uniqueness, depth and atmosphere to the story 🙂

The novel’s detective and thriller elements are a little bit understated, but work reasonably well. Most of the novel is structured more like a drama and a detective story, with suspenseful thriller elements in the background. Although this suspense works well and the novel has a suitably dramatic climax, the fact that a lot of the novel takes place in Ruthven’s house means that the thriller elements weren’t always as fast-paced as I’d expected.

Even so, the fact that the house is presented as a bunker-like refuge from danger helps to build suspense and add realism to the novel, plus it makes the novel’s relatively few action-packed moments stand out more in contrast. These are reasonably good and mostly work well. However, despite being set in London, one fight scene has a very US-style moment where Greta fends off an attacker with pepper spray. Although this scene is very suspenseful and dramatic, it will probably seem a bit incongruous (given that the only people allowed to carry or use this particular weapon in the UK are the police).

The novel’s detective elements are fairly good too, with a strong focus on both scientific/library research and old-fashioned investigation. Likewise, the solution to the mystery of the monks is one of the most inventive that I’ve seen a while – containing a good mixture between psychological, paranormal and scientific horror that makes the novel feel a little bit like a Lovecraftian episode of “Doctor Who” at times 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re really good 🙂 Not only do Greta and her supernatural friends come across as complex, realistic people – but their friendship not only allows for quite a few “feel good” moments that leaven the story’s gothic gloom, but also for a few moments of drama and subtle comedy too 🙂 The villains also get a decent amount of characterisation too, which really helps to add to the horror. My only criticism of the characters is that there is slightly too much emphasis on Varney’s melancholic brooding. Yes, it adds depth to his character and even allows for a few obscure Victorian literature references too, but it happens just slightly too often.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 The novel’s third-person narration is written in a formal enough way to add a gothic, Victorian-style flavour to the story whilst also being informal and “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving at a decent pace. Not only does this writing style emphasise the glorious strangeness of Victorian vampires living in modern London, but it also helps to add a lot of atmosphere and personality to the story that really helps to set it apart from the crowd too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is ok. At 353 pages in length, it doesn’t feel too long. Likewise, although you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, the novel still moves at a reasonable speed (and never really felt “slow-paced”). Likewise, the mixture of suspense, drama and mystery helps to keep the story reasonably compelling. Even so, at least half of the novel is spent inside Ruthven’s house – and, although these scenes can sometimes feel a little less thrilling than the rest of the novel, the novel as a whole is still fairly compelling.

All in all, whilst this novel isn’t always perfect, I really loved the concept behind it 🙂 Not only is it one of the most original horror/urban fantasy novels that I’ve read in a while, but it is a must-read for anyone who loves stories that revolve around gothic vampires or evil monks too 🙂 Yes, you shouldn’t expect a fast-paced thriller, but if you like suspense, horror, urban fantasy, Victorian literature and/or detective fiction, then this novel is worth reading.

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

Review: “The Rules Of Magic” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Back in 2017, I was browsing the internet when I happened to see a review of Alice Hoffman’s then-new novel “The Rules Of Magic”, a prequel to Hoffman’s 1995 novel “Practical Magic”. This review intrigued me and, sometime later, I ended up watching the 1998 film adaptation of “Practical Magic” during my “1990s films” review series a couple of years ago. What can I say? I was more interested in films than books back then.

But, although I read a couple of other Alice Hoffman novels after I got back into reading regularly a little under a year and a half ago, both “Practical Magic” and “The Rules Of Magic” always seemed slightly too expensive. I forgot about them for a while, and then happened to notice a second-hand hardback edition of “The Rules Of Magic” going cheap online. A few days after that, I also finally found a sensibly-priced copy of “Practical Magic” too (although I’ll probably save it for a while, since you can have too much of a good thing).

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

This is the 2017 Scribner (UK) hardback edition of “The Rules Of Magic” that I read.

The novel begins in late 1950s America, with a woman called Susanna Owens who comes from a long line of witches stretching back to the 17th century. Susanna has decided to keep her distance from her family and has moved to New York with her psychiatrist husband, to raise their three children Frances, Jet and Vincent. She wants them to have a “normal” upbringing and, as such, has a long list of rules against anything vaguely magical.

Of course, as the three siblings grow up, they start to notice that they can do stuff like read people’s thoughts, summon birds and other such things. Of course, by the time they are teenage misfits, they have begun to secretly learn more about their magical abilities and, much to their mother’s disdain and disapproval, have also began to fall in love with people too. Then, when Frances turns seventeen, she gets a letter from her aunt Isabelle in Massachussetts, extending the traditional invitation that all family members receive at that age.

Although Susanna doesn’t want Frances to go, Frances travels there with both of her siblings. Isabelle lives in an imposing old house at the edge of a small town that fears, despises and respects her. And, unlike their mother, the siblings find that Isabelle not only doesn’t have strict rules about everything, but that she is also eager to teach them about magic too. However, it isn’t long before they learn about the ancient family curse. Any man who falls in love with a member of the Owens family is fated to die early…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is WOW! Not only is a beautifully-written, quirky and atmospheric magic realism/drama/literary novel that is filled with depth and personality, but it is also the kind of novel that is destined to become a classic in future decades. It is a timeless, universal masterpiece that anyone who has ever felt like a misfit will relate to. It is a “coming of age” story (that, refreshingly, is actually written for older readers), it is a vivid work of prose-based art and, like the other Hoffman novels I’ve read, it has a level of humanity to it that is almost impossible to surpass 🙂

Interestingly, although this novel contains a few subtle elements from both the fantasy and horror genres, it is much more of a traditional “coming of age” drama than anything else – showing the complicated lives of the Owens siblings from childhood to middle age. This is a long, unpredictable character-based tale filled with all sorts of interesting turns, tragedies and delights that walks a very fine line between being realistic enough to be relatable and stylised enough to be intriguingly “larger than life”. Like with every other Alice Hoffman novel I’ve read, this story has more than it’s fair share of tragic moments, but the story never really feels depressing thanks to both the beautiful writing and some really poignant, powerful and/or uplifting moments during the story.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. Not only is this novel a beautiful ode to being a misfit in more conservative surroundings, with a strong emphasis on the value of self-expression, love and self-knowledge – but it is also a novel about the value of counterculture/rebellion and a rousing statement about enjoying life despite it’s many tragic aspects. In other words, it is my kind of novel 🙂

Like all of Hoffman’s novels, it is also a novel about the value of humanity itself – with even the most unsympathetic characters still having relatable emotions, motivations, character development and things like that. Not to mention that magic is also used as something of a metaphor for the beautiful, quirky, unusual, interesting, imagination-evoking parts of drab everyday life too 🙂 The novel also grapples with the topic of fate and free will too, with the implication that the family curse is either a self-fulfilling prophecy and/or just a description of the tragedies that everyone encounters during life.

In terms of atmosphere, this novel is amazing 🙂 Seriously, I cannot praise the atmosphere of this novel highly enough 🙂 If you enjoyed the atmosphere of the “Practical Magic” film adaptation, then this novel turns it up to eleven. Not only is the novel’s third-person narration the kind of effortlessly readable, flowing, descriptive word-painting that is even more vivid than the most beautiful paintings, but it also lends the novel so much of its unique personality and wonderfully quirky, eccentric and witchy atmosphere too. Even if you don’t like literary novels, this one is still worth reading purely for both the atmosphere and the sheer quality of the writing.

The novel’s historical setting is fairly interesting, with most of the novel set during the 1960s. Like a lot of things in this novel, it walks a wonderfully fine line between realistic and stylised, with most of the story taking place in a fairly “ordinary” version of 1960s America that feels very timeless – but with a few well-placed, and brilliantly unlikely, historical cameos and/or moments (eg: Bob Dylan, the Stonewall riots etc…) that lend everything a slightly “larger than life” feel. This is also, like many historical novels, a story that takes a more “modern” attitude towards history – but it usually just subtly leads by example, rather than lecturing and preaching at the reader in the way that some modern historical novels do 🙂

Surprisingly, the historical references sort of work here, giving the novel a frisson of retro atmosphere whilst also keeping the main part of the story timeless enough to almost have happened in the present day. This is difficult to describe, but it works well. And, as you’d expect from a 1960s-themed novel, it also has a fairly countercultural atmosphere that is kind of a little bit like a slightly darker, more eccentric and more gothic version of Armistead Maupin’s excellent 1970s “Tales Of The City” novels 🙂 Plus, on a modern note, the Owens siblings rebellions against their parents’ anti-magic rules also reminded me a little bit of a really well-written computer game called “Dreamfall: Chapters” too, which is never a bad thing 🙂

In terms of the characters, this novel is utterly stellar 🙂 This is a character-based novel where even the background characters get a surprising amount of depth and character development. Plus, not only do all three of the Owens siblings have their own interesting, eccentric, tragic, heartwarming and/or unpredictable story arcs, but they all come across as being both very realistic and also slightly “larger than life” at the same time. Again, this is handled really well and it makes them really fascinating to read about. Plus, as hinted at earlier, this novel has a real heart and level of humanity to it that will catch you by surprise and the kind of non-judgemental tone that really makes the reader feel both welcome and respected.

As for length and pacing, this novel is surprisingly good too 🙂 Although the hardback edition I read was 366 pages long and relatively slow-paced, this works really well here. Because of the brilliant, flowing writing style, the story never really feels slow-paced when you are reading it (or, rather, time ceases to have as much meaning). Plus, it is one of those amazingly rich novels that is best savoured in several delicious instalments rather than binge-read in a couple of sessions. Not to mention that, although it is a little on the longer side, it never feels bloated – and you’ll probably want as much of this story as you can get 🙂

All in all, this novel is excellent 🙂 It is a modern classic 🙂 It’s a brilliantly-written, unique, creative and atmospheric historical novel filled with really vivid and interesting characters. It’s a joyously uplifting and heartwarming story about the value of being a misfit that is also a tragic, morbid and gothic tale at the same time. It is a timelessly realistic novel that is also wonderfully “larger than life” at the same time too. It is hard to describe this masterpiece in a way that really does it justice, but it is amazing.

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

Review: “The End Of The Day” By Claire North (Novel)

Well, after reading Gary Brandner’s “Death Walkers“, I was still in the mood for the macabre. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand book that I ended up getting several weeks earlier because of the intriguing premise, I am of course talking about Claire North’s 2017 novel “The End Of The Day”.

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

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “The End Of The Day” that I read.

The novel begins with a man called Charlie sitting in a hotel room with some pills and wondering if death will come for him. Then we flash back to some time earlier when Charlie is in Peru, meeting an old woman who is the last speaker of a language. There is another flashback scene showing Charlie taking a job interview in Milton Keynes for the position of Harbinger Of Death. The messenger that travels ahead of Death, sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is amazing 🙂 It’s this wonderfully unique mixture of poignant drama, dark comedy, magical realism, topical satire, chillingly realistic horror, heartwarming “feel good” moments, profound thought-provoking stuff, fascinating places, fascinating ideas etc…

It is an intelligent, humane and mature (in the truest sense of the word) novel that goes beyond merely telling a story to taking on an almost spiritual quality at times. In other words, it is art. It has literary merit. You will feel slightly richer, or changed, after reading it. In short, if you enjoy things like Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics or Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic, then this book is probably your sort of thing 🙂

Interestingly, although this is a novel that is quite literally about death, it isn’t as much of a horror novel as I’d expected. Yes, there are a few gruesome moments, descriptions of disturbing events/situations (eg: torture, war, poverty etc…) and even a scene that is vaguely reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque Of Red Death”, but it isn’t really a horror novel. It’s more of an exploration of the concept of death itself, with – for example – the death of an idea, or a place, or a phase of a person’s life or a period of history being described with the same dramatic weight as an actual death. And, like with Tarot cards, death is presented more as a force of change than of destruction.

This is also one of the novel’s major themes. It is about how the world is constantly changing (in both good and bad ways) and how this is an essential part of the world. This is also the focus of a lot of the novel’s topical stuff and it is one of those wonderfully rare things, an intelligent modern left-leaning novel that doesn’t really feel the need to earnestly preach at the reader in the patronising way that some novels do. It actually respects the reader’s intelligence, maturity and knowledge of the world and this is so refreshing to see. Yet, at the same time, it also makes a lot of points about a lot of topical stuff.

And, as well as being a timeless novel about one of the most timeless things in existence (or non-existence, as it may be), it is also a very modern novel at the same time. There is a lot of topical stuff here, which is handled in all sorts of amusing, interesting, serious, poignant and/or clever ways.

In addition to scenes set in places like melting ice caps and war-torn Syria, one fascinating experimental feature of the novel – which really sets the mood – is that some chapters consist entirely of random dialogue fragments from conversations near Charlie (it is left ambiguous whether these take place in his mind or not). Although it takes a while to get used to these chapters, they feel like a fascinating glimpse into the collective subconscious mind in a way that is really difficult to describe, but really effective.

This novel is about more things than I can describe here but, in addition to the themes that I’ve already mentioned, it is also a novel about capitalism, it is about how we lose humanity when we see others as less than human (shown, amongst other things, by random lines that consist entirely of the words “human” and “rat” in varying quantities. It makes sense in context), it is about how unique everyone is, it is about how similar everyone is. It is about a lot of stuff. But it is also a fascinating story at the same time, feeling like an intriguing glimpse at several years in the life of a man with a very unusual job.

In terms of the characters, they are excellent 🙂 Since this is a novel about life and humanity, the characters are probably the most important part of the story. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation here highly enough.

Earlier, I likened this novel to both Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic and this is mostly because of the realistic, interesting, nuanced characters. Even Charlie, who seems like a bit of a bland “everyman”/”expert traveller” kind of character at first, gains more depth and realism as the story progresses. Still, the numerous people he meets along his travels throughout the world are often slightly more interesting characters – many of whom are pretty much short stories in their own right.

Plus, like in “Sandman”, Death is actually a character too (who is often friendly, unless angered or summoned). In fact, all four horsemen of the apocalypse are characters. They retain their essential qualities and personalities, whilst also changing appearance, gender, shape etc… depending on who is looking at them at any one time. This both shows how they are timeless and yet still very much shaped by the world they live in. It’s difficult to describe, but it works really well. Not to mention that the scenes involving the horsemen are sometimes absolutely hilarious too.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is amazing 🙂 Yes, it might take you a little while to work out what is happening in the early parts of the story and to get used to a few slightly experimental elements (like the random dialogue fragments I mentioned earlier), but stick with it!

Most of this novel is written in a way that is informal/matter of fact enough to both feel realistic and to be easily readable, yet the writing is also descriptive, poetic (eg: certain repeated lines, descriptions etc..), vivid etc.. enough to literally make you feel like you’re reading an amazing graphic novel (eg: Gaiman, Rowntree etc..) at the same time. Yet, it also does all sorts of amazing stuff that can only be done with the written word and it is one of those novels that would lose a lot of it’s atmosphere, richness and depth if it was ever adapted to the screen or to a comic. Again, this is hard to describe fully, but it works really well.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 403 pages in length, it is a bit on the longer side of things, but justifies it’s length by telling a story that is both epic and small-scale at the same time. In terms of the pacing, this novel moves at a fairly moderate pace (and doesn’t have a traditional “plot”, which may put some readers off) – but this is one of those books that is atmospheric, unique, thought-provoking, emotionally-powerful, intelligent etc.. enough that you’ll probably want to savour it over several days rather than binge-read it.

All in all, this review probably hasn’t done justice to how good this book is. It is an intelligent, readable, compelling, unique, profound, humane, quirky, funny, chilling, sad, happy and fascinating novel. It is a piece of art that you will leave feeling richer than when you entered. Or, to put it another way, I went into this novel expecting either a horror and/or dark comedy novel, but found myself reading something that could easily rival Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” or Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality”, and that sheer level of quality is something that doesn’t appear all too often.

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

Review: “Change Agent” By Daniel Suarez (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a break from horror fiction and read a sci-fi novel that I’ve been meaning to read for at least a month or two. I am, of course, talking about the second-hand copy of Daniel Suarez’s 2017 novel “Change Agent” that I found online when I was looking for cyberpunk-style novels.

Although this novel is actually a mixture of biopunk, cyberpunk and thriller fiction, the idea behind it seemed interesting enough for me to get a copy – even if I didn’t get round to reading it for quite a few weeks.

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

This is the 2017 Dutton (US) paperback edition of “Change Agent” that I read.

Set in 2045, the novel begins in an illegal gene editing clinic run by a company called Trefoil. Two lawyers, Mr and Mrs Cherian, are visiting the clinic in order to look at some possible improvements for the baby they are planning to have. Although the couple are a little uncertain about everything, the clinic’s augmented reality presentation and the fact that all of their friends are having enhanced babies wins them over. However, before they can sign up for anything, there is an armed police raid on the facility. In the chaos, Mrs. Cherian is shot by a police officer.

Meanwhile, in Singapore, a programmer for Interpol called Kenneth Durand spends some time with his family before talking to one of the detectives, Michael Ji Yu-Chang, he works with. Kenneth has heard about the raid on the clinic and feels responsible for Mrs. Cherian’s death because he wrote the algorithm that allowed the authorities to locate the clinic. After some discussion about this, they report to the HQ of Interpol’s Genetic Crimes Division, where a visiting FBI agent called Marcotte gives a presentation about a mysterious human trafficking gang called the Huli Jing that have also been hoovering up as much genetic data as they can get their hands on.

On the way back from work, Kenneth’s self-driving taxi has a mysterious error, forcing him to get out and walk to the nearest MRT rail station. On the way there, someone in the crowd injects him with something. He has a violent allergic reaction and falls into a coma. When he wakes up in hospital several weeks later, his Interpol colleagues are there… to question him. Whatever was in that syringe has turned him into an exact duplicate of the leader of the Huli Jing, a very wanted criminal…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that you shouldn’t judge it by the first seventy pages or so. Although the novel is fairly slow to start and begins with a lot of background stuff, ethical debates etc… it does turn into a more compelling and faster-paced thriller novel after this 🙂 The best way to describe this novel is that it’s a bit like what you’d get if you mixed certain William Gibson, Clive Cussler and Alex Garland novels together with the movie “Face/Off” and the TV series “Burn Notice” 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit cheesy, preachy and/or contrived at times, but it is still a reasonably compelling sci-fi thriller.

Still, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements. Although the novel contains quite a lot of backstory about how the growth in synthetic biology has reshaped industry, geopolitics etc… it is very much a 2010s sci-fi novel. In other words, this novel includes, explores and/or name-checks almost every piece of “futuristic” modern technology it can (eg: CRISPR, drones, cryptocurrencies, lab-grown meat, self-driving cars, augmented reality, big data etc…). Whilst this lends the novel a certain degree of realism and the author has clearly done a lot of research, I can’t help but get the feeling that this is the kind of novel that probably won’t feel very futuristic in 20-30 years’ time – which is probably both a good and a bad thing.

This novel is very much an “issues”-based sci-fi novel too, with the story’s biopunk elements (eg: gene editing etc…) being used to discuss topics like nature, medical ethics and – most prominently – the nature of identity. Although some elements of this are fairly intriguing, the novel does sometimes come across as a bit heavy-handed and preachy at times.

Whether it is the scenes of psychological horror and body horror related to genetic editing or how the fact that people are able to change their bodies is described as a way for people to regain privacy in a surveillance-filled world and then the only examples of this shown to the reader are criminals using it to get away with stuff, this novel does have a slight conservative cautiousness to it. Something further hammered home by the rather moralistic main character.

In addition to these futuristic issues, the novel also discusses all sorts of realistic issues too. These are handled slightly better and they include things like climate change, human trafficking, refugees, economic inequality, modern slavery etc… The novel is able to make points about these things reasonably well and they also add a certain degree of grim realism that helps to counterbalance all of the novel’s more glamourous and/or “over the top” elements.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements – they are reasonably good, even if they aren’t always used to their full potential. Although the novel takes a while to really get started, it is a compelling one that lends itself well to binge-reading 🙂 The premise of someone being framed for a series of crimes and having to go on the run is an inherently suspenseful one and, in the earlier parts of the novel, this is used to it’s full potential – with Kenneth having to hide, run, think etc.. in order to survive in a hostile world. This is also paired with some well-written action-thriller moments, some scenes focusing on the Interpol detectives trying to catch Kenneth and some tense scenes set in the criminal underworld.

However, the grippingly nail-biting tension of Kenneth being just one small mistake away from death is at it’s very best for only a small part of the novel. After a while, Kenneth just teams up with various sympathetic criminals who almost always seem to have some contrived way to solve whatever problem he’s facing (shark-shaped submarine, anyone?) or somewhere for him to hide. Yes, this allows for various spectacular set pieces, Clive Cussler-style action sequences and visits to lots of interesting locations, but you don’t always get the grippingly suspenseful feeling that Kenneth is surviving by his wits alone. Still, it is a reasonably fun rollercoaster ride of a story nonetheless.

In terms of the characters, they are a bit of a mixed bag. This is one of those novels where some of the supporting characters and/or villains are more interesting than the main character. Some of the side-characters (eg: Frey, Otto, Marcotte etc..) are interesting, complex people who have a real feeling of personality and help to add extra life to the novel. On the other hand, Kenneth is a bit of a generic “moralistic”, “family man”, ex-military and/or detective “hero” character who, whilst he has emotions and backstory, isn’t really as interesting as several of the side-characters.

As for the writing, it is really good. This novel’s third-person narration is “matter of fact” enough to both make the story very readable and keep things moving at a decent pace, whilst also being formal and descriptive enough to add atmosphere and to make the story’s locations (eg: Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Myanmar) feel vivid and realistic.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a mixed bag. At 398 pages in length, this novel is a little on the longer side of things – but I ended up binge-reading about two-thirds of it in a single day. Likewise, whilst the pacing of the earlier parts of the novel is a bit on the slow side (with lots of backstory, debates, scientific explanations etc…), when the novel remembers that it is a thriller novel, then things improve significantly. The rest of the novel is this wonderfully compelling mixture of suspense, drama and fast-paced action, with these elements being juggled in a way that ensures that they never wear out their welcome.

All in all, whilst this novel isn’t a perfect one, it was still reasonably fun to read. Yes, it takes a while to really become gripping, the main character isn’t as interesting as the side characters and the story can also be a bit preachy too. But, if you can overlook these flaws, then you’ll get to enjoy a compelling thriller novel that also includes a lot of interesting “realistic” sci-fi, atmospheric locations and other good stuff.

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

Review: “Dreamfall Chapters: The Final Cut” (Computer Game)

Well, since I’m still reading the next book I plan to review (“The Damnation Game” by Clive Barker), I thought that I’d take the chance to review a game that I’ve wanted to play for literally years 🙂

Back in the early 2010s, I discovered both “The Longest Journey” (1999) and “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” (2006). These intelligent, profound, story-driven sci-fi/fantasy adventure games absolutely astonished me at the time. So, you can imagine my delight when I heard that this series would become a trilogy thanks to an episodic, crowdfunded third game called “Dreamfall Chapters” starting in 2014.

There was, of course, one problem. The vintage mid-2000s computer I had back then couldn’t run “Dreamfall Chapters”. So, for several years, I didn’t play it. Then, a couple of months before preparing this review, I ended up getting a vaguely modern refurbished computer. And, when a DRM-free version of the 2017 “Final Cut” edition of “Dreamfall Chapters” was on special offer on GOG a few weeks later, the decision to get it was an absolute no-brainer.

However, I should probably point out that because my computer’s Intel HD 2500 integrated graphics were just below the minimum system requirements, I not only had to turn the graphics settings to minimum but also had to tweak the game’s registry entries to lower the resolution to 800 x 600 in order to get a playable framerate (which worked a bit like a resolution scaling does). So, the screenshots in this review don’t reflect how the game probably looks with a proper graphics card and/or using the default widescreen resolutions.

I should also point out that, unlike most game sequels, “Dreamfall Chapters” should only be played after you’ve played both “The Longest Journey” and “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” (in that order). Although the game contains an optional recap video for the events of “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey”, certain important characters, important story events and at least one puzzle will make no sense whatsoever if you haven’t played “The Longest Journey” first. So, play the trilogy in order!

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Dreamfall Chapters”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS for “Dreamfall Chapters” and will contain MAJOR SPOILERS for “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey”.

The game begins directly after the events of “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey” with a short scene showing April Ryan’s body being cremated. Then, in a small house, a man waits nervously outside a door whilst his wife gives birth to their daughter.

Meanwhile, Zoe Castillo is trapped in the Storytime whilst her body remains in a coma. In this dream-world, she has several powers that she didn’t have in the waking world and she needs them. The Storytime has become filled with people trapped in nightmares by WATI Corp’s dream-machines and it is up to Zoe to rescue them. After rescuing a child from a nightmare, Zoe meets a mysterious old man who tells her that she needs to wake from her coma because she is needed elsewhere.

After waking up, Zoe’s story flashes forwards several months to the year 2200. She is living in the neon-drenched European mega-city of Propast, still suffering from amnesia despite regular sessions with a psychologist. But, this aside, her life is going reasonably well. She has a low-paying tech job and is still in a relationship, albeit a slightly rocky one, with Reza. The only problem is that there are troops on the street and Propast seems to be gradually turning into more and more of a police state.

A dystopian police state? In a cyberpunk mega-city? Who would have thought it?

Meanwhile, in the city of Marcuria in the magical parallel universe of Arcadia, Kian Alvane is imprisoned in a tower awaiting execution for betraying the Azadi. But, the night before he is scheduled to die, there is a prison riot. A mysterious man knocks on his cell door and tells him that the riot is to disguise his escape. The magical resistance needs his help….

Well, it would have been a fairly short game if he hadn’t been rescued at the last minute….

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that I really enjoyed it 🙂 Yes, it’ll only really appeal to avid fans of the first two games and it is often more like an interactive TV show than a traditional adventure game. But, if you’ve played the previous two games, then this is still an absolutely brilliant conclusion to one of the most epic, powerful and just generally intelligent stories to ever be told through the medium of computer games.

And, yes, this is very much a story-based game. It tells an epic, complex and emotionally-powerful story, with interesting characters, that blends both the cyberpunk and fantasy genres in a unique way whilst also exploring themes of fate, technology, social media addiction, politics, morality, dreams/imagination, life and death etc… If you like intelligent stories or wish that something like a HBO-style TV series also had interactive elements, then this game is well worth playing. Or, to put it another way, whilst the game’s numerous cutscenes aren’t skippable, they’re usually interesting enough that you won’t want to skip them.

Seriously, there’s probably a small DVD boxset worth of cutscenes here and they’re worth watching.

Seriously, I absolutely loved the story, characters, worldbuilding etc… in this game 🙂 Yes, I could probably pick a few holes in parts of the story (eg: the lack of foreshadowing for some later plot twists etc…), but my overall impressions of it were extremely good. This entire trilogy is gaming’s equivalent of masterpieces like like Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics, the film “Blade Runner” or Frank Herbert’s “Dune” novels.

This game tells a story that will make you laugh out loud, that will make you think, that will make you gasp, that will make you smile, that will make you cry and which will probably linger in your imagination for a long time after you’ve finished each gaming session. I’m wary of spoilers, so I won’t say too much more about it but, if you’ve played the first two games, then this is a fitting end to such a beautiful and profound tale 🙂

Seriously, this game is a really brilliant conclusion to the trilogy’s epic sci-fi/fantasy story 🙂

Still, since it is a game, then I should probably talk about the actual gameplay. Although it is frequently broken up by a lot of cutscenes, there is actually gameplay here. It consists of exploration, puzzle-solving and decision-making. Like with “Dreamfall: The Longest Journey”, this is a modern-style adventure game which uses real-time “WSAD” movement controls rather than the traditional “point and click” controls. This helps the game to feel a bit more fluid, immediate and interactive whilst also giving it a very small hint of the role-playing genre too.

Although there are only two large locations (Propast and Marcuria) to explore, I absolutely love the exploration elements of this game. After the extremely linear first hour or so of the game, the fact that the game drops you into a “Blade Runner”/”Ghost In The Shell” style cyberpunk city and then gives you the ability to actually explore it is an absolute joy 🙂

Woo hoo! Some actual exploration 🙂

Even so, there are a fair number of more linear gameplay segments too.

Yes, this isn’t exactly an open-world game and quite a few parts of the game can be a bit linear, but the fact that the two main locations are large enough to require you to use maps and/or memory to get around really help to add some intriguing exploration to the game 🙂

In terms of the puzzles, although I’m terrible at adventure game puzzles (and had to use a walkthrough frequently), they are – by adventure game standards- very logical and probably not too taxing for experienced adventure gamers.

Not only that, some of the puzzles – like this one involving testing out a second-hand robot called “shitbot” (which only apparently appears in one story branch) – are absolutely hilarious too 🙂

In other words, there isn’t really any “moon logic” (unlike the dreaded rubber duck puzzle in “The Longest Journey”) – although one puzzle requires you to know the story of “The Longest Journey”- and the things you need to solve each puzzle are usually reasonably easy to find. Even so, there are a few annoying puzzles – such as “treasure hunt” puzzles where you have to look for hidden items (and it doesn’t help that most of the walkthroughs online are written for the original episodic release of the game, since the game devs changed some item locations in the “Final Cut” version…).

Even so, the otherwise annoying “treasure hunt” puzzles (where you play as a character during the early stages of her life) include some really cool references to “The Longest Journey” 🙂

Finally, the gameplay also consists of decisions. At several points in the game, you’ll be given a choice between two options. What you choose will have an effect on how the rest of the story plays out and some of these decisions may not be as simple or straightforward as you might think (eg: sometimes doing something “good” can have bad effects etc..). This theme of unforeseen consequences is one thing that really helps to make these segments feel meaningful and the game’s world/story feel more realistic.

And, after each decision, there’s also a really dramatic “The Balance Has Shifted” animation too 🙂

These choices are given added weight via the use of the dreaded checkpoint saving, albeit with fairly frequent checkpoints/auto-saves. Whilst I can see why the developers didn’t want people going back every five minutes and trying out all of the different options, it is still a bit annoying not to have that option (especially since I’m sure the first game in the series had a proper “save anywhere” saving system). Then again, given that this game was also released on consoles, this might also explain the more primitive saving system.

Plus, if you’re into social media, then the GOG version of the game (I’m not sure how this works in the Steam version) contains an optional feature where you can connect to Facebook in order to see “helpful” statistics about what choices other players made during crucial story moments. Naturally, I didn’t use it – mostly because I wanted to actually think for myself.

Plus, the optional social media connectivity is a bit ironic in a game that is extremely critical of social media addiction.

In terms of the visuals, this game is brilliant 🙂 Even with all of the graphics settings turned down to minimum and the resolution lowered/scaled to 800×600 (via some registry edits), the game’s locations still manage to look intriguing, beautiful, detailed, unique and/or fascinating. In other words, this game is a great example of the difference between actual art and mere graphics. You can tell that a lot of actual thought and creativity has gone into some parts of the game and it is an absolute joy to behold 🙂

Even on low graphics, this area still looks absolutely epic 🙂

Plus, it’s always awesome to see neon-drenched cyberpunk cities in games too 🙂

And check out this awesome “Riven”-inspired mountain city too 🙂

In terms of sound design and voice-acting, the sound effects are reasonably good, the music adds atmosphere to the story and the voice acting is a reasonably good fit with the characters too (although Kian’s voice reminded me a bit of Sean Bean at times). One intriguing thing about the voice acting is that, unlike in many games, there’s a really good variety of accents here that really helps to make the game’s worlds feel realistic.

As for length, this is a surprisingly long game. Thanks to both it’s original episodic structure and the fact that there are a lot of compelling cutscenes, this game will take you quite a few hours to complete even if – like me – you use a walkthrough for almost all of the puzzle segments. Given that this game is the long-awaited conclusion to an epic trilogy that began over a decade before it was made, the game’s extended length feels more than justified 🙂

All in all, this is a really good game 🙂 Yes, it is more of a story-based game than a gameplay-based one and you need to have played the other two “Longest Journey” games before this one, but given the kind of story that it is telling, then this is more than justified 🙂 As long as you go into this game expecting it to be like an excellent TV series with some interactive elements, then you’ll have a lot of fun here 🙂 As I mentioned earlier, this entire trilogy of games is gaming’s equivalent of masterpieces like Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics etc… and “Dreamfall Chapters” is a fittingly epic ending to such a beautiful story 🙂

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

Reivew: “Kill All Angels” By Robert Brockway (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for the horror genre. So, I thought that I’d take a look Robert Brockway’s 2017 novel “Kill All Angels”, which is the third book in his “Unnoticeables” trilogy (you can see my reviews of the first two here and here).

Although I’d wanted to read this book for a few months, it’s probably the most expensive of the trilogy to find second-hand, so I had to wait until shortly after Christmas last year (and, yes, I write these reviews quite far in advance) before splashing out on a copy of it.

As you might expect with the concluding part of a trilogy, you have to read the first two books before reading this one. Although “Kill All Angels” contains a few small recaps, they’re more for people who have read the previous two books than for new readers. Whilst it is probably theoretically possible to read this book on it’s own, some parts will probably be confusing and many character-based moments won’t have nearly the impact that they should. So, read the other two books first.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Kill All Angels”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Titan (UK) paperback edition of “Kill All Angels” that I read.

The novel begins in 1984, with our favourite homeless punk Carey hiding inside a large meat freezer with a terrified guy. Carey gives the guy a brief overview of the monsters (unnoticeables, empty ones and angels) that are secretly terrorising the world before convincing him to go outside and distract Jie, an “empty one”, who is waiting outside the freezer. Carey tells the guy that Jie is only interested in him and that she won’t harm anyone else. Of course, Jie tears the guy’s heart out and throws it at Carey. But, she misses and he leaps through a window and flees.

We then flash forwards to 2013. After the events of the previous novel, Carey, Jackie and Kaitlyn are travelling through the Arizona desert. When they stop, Kaitlyn wanders off and tries to meditate. To her surprise, it works and thanks to the power from the angels she’s defeated, she quite literally steps into a realm beyond time and space. During this experience, she meets a mystical being that she calls a space whale. The space whale shows her that the angels are a parasite that feeds on the multi-verse and tells her how to destroy them all…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it gets the mixture of horror and thrilling drama right. Although it is slightly more of an epic thriller about an unlikely group of people trying to save the multi-verse, there’s actually a decent amount of horror here this time round (unlike the second book, which skimped on the horror a little). Not only that, it is a brilliant conclusion to an awesome trilogy that also introduces a few cool new things too.

In terms of the novel’s horror elements, they’re a really good mixture of gory horror, body horror, character-based horror, the uncanny, cruel horror, monster horror, cosmic horror and a couple of creepily atmospheric locations. Although this novel isn’t outright scary, there are a decent number of disturbing moments that will probably make you grimace or wince slightly. Not only that, the horror elements also help to add suspense, intensity, scale and drama to the story’s thriller elements too 🙂

And, yes, this novel is a really good thriller too. In addition to the grand “save the multi-verse” plot, there are a good mixture of dramatic chase scenes, fight scenes and scenes where the main characters find themselves outnumbered by monsters. Not only that, after the previous few novels, Kaitlyn now has a number of fascinating supernatural powers that she is starting to learn how to use. Add to this a rather fast-paced writing style and a few alternating plot threads, and this novel is the kind of gripping – but wonderfully quirky – thriller story that you would expect from this series 🙂

And, as you’d expect from a novel in this series, there’s also a decent amount of comedy too. This mostly consists of irreverent humour, crude humour, funny dialogue, dark comedy, grisly slapstick and even a few moment of mildly politically incorrect humour too. Although this novel isn’t always as laugh out loud funny as you might expect (and actually has some fairly serious moments), this comedy really helps to add warmth, uniqueness and personality to the story 🙂

Plus, this novel also has it’s own unique “personality” when compared to the previous novels too. In addition to lots of scenes set in 1980s Chinatown/Koreatown in Los Angeles, the story also introduces a “friendly” empty one called Zang who helps out the main characters. Plus, the scenes involving the space whale and Kaitlyn’s new powers help to keep things unpredictable. However, for the most part, this story focuses on the monsters that we’ve all come to know from the previous two books. But, since the reader already knows about them, the story’s scenes of horror and drama can be a bit more confident, epic and streamlined 🙂

In terms of the novel’s characters, they are brilliant as ever. Not only do all of the main characters feel like realistic – but stylised – people with proper backstories, but we also get to learn more about our favourite main characters too. Zang is an absolutely brilliant character too – since he retains all of the scariness of his fellow empty ones whilst also being strangely likeable at the same time. Seriously, the characters are one of the things that really makes this novel such a joy to read 🙂

As for the writing, it is as good as ever too. Although, like with previous books in the trilogy, this one uses both frequent time jumps and the dreaded multiple first-person narrators, the time and narrator are clearly signposted at the beginning of each chapter which prevents it from becoming confusing. Not only that, the ending to the novel also sort of offers a possible explanation for why the trilogy uses this format. The actual narration itself is the kind of fast-paced, personality-filled informal narration that you’d expect from this series and it is an absolute joy to behold.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel excels too 🙂 At a fairly efficient 313 pages in length, it never really feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, thanks to the multiple plot threads, the writing style, the epic scale of the drama and a good number of mini-cliffhangers, this novel is the kind of gripping fast-paced horror thriller that begs to be binge-read 🙂

All in all, this is a really great conclusion to a brilliant trilogy 🙂 It gets the mixture of horror and thriller stuff right, it adds something extra to the series and it is the kind of spectacular, dramatic payoff that fans of the trilogy have been waiting for 🙂

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

Review: “Origin” By Dan Brown (Novel)

Well, since I was still in the mood for reading thriller novels, I thought that I’d take a look at Dan Brown’s 2017 novel “Origin”. If I remember rightly, I ended up getting a second-hand copy of this novel after reading Brown’s “Inferno” a few months earlier and being surprised that there was another Dan Brown novel that I hadn’t heard of before.

Although “Origin” is the fifth novel in Brown’s “Robert Langdon” series, it can be read as a stand-alone novel – albeit one with a few brief references to previous novels for fans of the series.

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

This is the 2018 Corgi (UK) paperback edition of “Origin” that I read.

The novel begins with famous technologist, scientist and inventor Edmond Kirsch travelling to a remote church on a mountain in Spain. He has arranged a meeting with a powerful interfaith group in order to give them a preview of a scientific announcement he will make soon that will disprove every religion on the planet by conclusively answering the questions of where we come from and where we are going. He feels that it is only fair to give them time to prepare for it.

A few days later, Harvard professor Robert Langdon is visiting the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao for his friend and ex-student Kirsch’s announcement. However, before the multi-media announcement, the A.I. tour guide (another of Edmond’s inventions) leads Langdon to a private room where Kirsch is waiting for him. Kirsch believes that his life is in danger and wants Langdon’s advice on the matter. Eventually, Kirsch decides to press on with the announcement.

However, when Kirsch is shot by an assassin halfway through the presentation, Langdon falls under suspicion. Teaming up with both the A.I. tour guide and the future queen of Spain, Ambra Vidal, Langdon realises that the only way to deal with all of this is to find the password to Kirsch’s private server and release the rest of his announcement to the world before anyone can stop him…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a bit slow to really get started, it’s a really compelling thriller. In classic Dan Brown fashion, there is a lot of focus on art, symbols, puzzles, architecture etc… and all of this stuff helps to lend the story a surprisingly relaxing and, dare I say it, slightly high-brow atmosphere. Yet, all of this stuff is paired with some really gripping thriller elements that help to keep the story compelling – even when it gets a little bit contrived and/or silly.

As for the novel’s thriller elements, they mostly consist of mystery and suspense. Although there are a few short chase and fight scenes, most of the novel revolves around mysterious conspiracy theories, suspenseful moments, political drama, uncertainty about who can be trusted, intriguing puzzles and dramatic plot twists. In other words, this is a bit more of a sophisticated and old-school thriller novel and even though it takes a little while to really become compelling, it is one of those novels that is more gripping than it initially seems.

Yet, this is also one of those novels where the mystery is actually better than the solution to it. Although Brown has obviously done quite a bit of research, at least half of the “shocking” announcement at the end of the novel (and possibly one of the later plot twists) won’t be too much of a surprise to any fans of the science fiction genre.

And, talking of the sci-fi genre, this novel is something of a sci-fi novel in disguise. In addition to the novel’s scientific themes, there are also some vaguely cyberpunk elements too – which were kind of a cool surprise in a Dan Brown novel 🙂 Then again, Brown did write “Digital Fortress” in the 1990s, so he isn’t a total stranger to the sci-fi genre.

Even so, this novel is more about the tension between science and religion. Although the novel takes a fairly nuanced attitude towards this topic, with both sides having extremists and more moderate people, it is often handled in a slightly cheesy and stylised way. If anything, this novel suggests that both things can coexist, with each being able to adapt to changes in the other. This is also mirrored in the novel’s portrayal of monarchy too, with tension between the more traditionalist elements of the Spanish court and the desire for modernisation.

Although I haven’t studied Spanish politics or history in a huge level of detail, the royal drama is clearly stylised and fictional, yet it still remains compellingly dramatic. Likewise, there are also a few references to vestiges of the oppressive traditionalism of Franco’s dictatorship still lingering in Spain. Dan Brown has also done quite a bit of research about Spanish architecture and history too – with lots of fascinating buildings, descriptions of art etc.. that really help to add some atmosphere to the story.

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly decent. Although you shouldn’t expect ultra-deep characterisation, there is enough here to make you care about the characters. The motivations of all of the story’s villains are well-explained and help to add drama to the story. In addition to this, although Kirsch dies about a fifth of the way through the story, he gets a surprisingly large amount of characterisation afterwards. Not to mention that the novel’s A.I. character, Winston, is surprisingly well-written too. In general, the characters in this novel – whilst slightly stylised – are one of the things that helps keep this story compelling.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is often surprisingly formal and/or descriptive for a thriller novel. Yet, this is also paired with slightly faster-paced dialogue and narration too. The contrast between these things keeps the story compellingly readable, whilst also being surprisingly relaxing and atmospheric at the same time. This is really difficult to describe, but it lends the story a really interesting atmosphere that sets it apart from grittier and more realistic thrillers by other authors.

As for length and pacing, this novel probably isn’t perfect, but is still reasonably good. At 538 pages in length, this novel is a little bit on the hefty side of things. Likewise, although the story takes between a fifth and a quarter of the novel to really get started, it then becomes a lot more thrilling and compelling. Although you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced thriller, there are enough well-orchestrated mysteries, small cliffhangers, plot twists etc.. to make this novel the kind of thing that you’ll want to read more of.

All in all, even though this probably isn’t the best Dan Brown novel I’ve read, it’s still a really good one. It manages to be both relaxing and thrilling at the same time. Even though it takes a while to really get started and some elements of it are a bit stylised and/or silly, I still had a lot of fun reading it.

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

Review: “Skylar And Plux: Adventure On Clover Island” (Computer Game)

Well, since I’m still reading the next novel I plan to review (“A Wanted Man” By Lee Child) and am also still playing the other modern games I planned to review, I thought that I’d take a look at an indie 3D Platform game from 2017 called “Skylar And Plux: Adventure On Clover Island” that I completed shortly before writing this review.

This was a game that I ended up buying on a whim after I noticed that it was on sale on GOG last Christmas (and, yes, I write these reviews very far in advance). Since I have a lot of nostalgic memories of playing old 3D platform games (eg: “Jak and Daxter”, “Ratchet And Clank” etc..) on the Playstation 2 when I was a teenager, getting this game seemed like a no-brainer.

Although my refurbished modern computer – with it’s Intel HD 2500 integrated graphics- seemed to be slightly below the system requirements, I decided to take a chance. And, with low graphics settings, the game mostly ran at a playable speed (apart from a few infrequent moments of slowdown and some pop-up scenery). Although I should point out that these low graphics settings will be reflected in the screenshots in this review.

So, let’s take a look at “Skylar And Plux: Adventure On Clover Island”:

Woo hoo! It’s one of these games 🙂

The game begins on a space station. You play as Skylar, a cyborg cat who has had her memory wiped by an evil robot villain called CRT who wants to turn her into one of his minions. However, due to a series of mishaps in the station’s training course, Skylar ends up in an escape pod.

When she crash lands on the planet below, a talking owl called Plux rushes towards the pod, hoping that it is his father returning from outer space. Although he is disappointed, he decides to team up with Skylar. It also soon becomes obvious that CRT has started taking over the planet, with three parts of an ancient artefact missing, evil robots patrolling the planet and many of the planet’s adorable creatures, called L’oa, trapped in cages….

One of the first things that I will say about this game is that, even though it has some flaws, it is a really fun and nostalgic game in a genre that doesn’t appear on the PC that often. If you don’t go into it with “AAA” expectations, then you’ll find it a surprisingly compelling experience. Seriously, it’s so cool to see a modern PC game that is influenced by things like “Ratchet And Clank”, “Jak And Daxter” etc…

Seriously, why do hardly any of these games appear on the PC?

In terms of the gameplay, it consists of platforming, puzzles, exploration and combat. The emphasis here is on platforming and exploration, which are also the best elements of the game. The platforming segments are challenging enough to be fun, but reasonably forgiving too (thanks to things like double-jumps, a jetpack power-up, a time-slowing power-up etc..). Seriously, if you loved old-school PS2 3D platformers, then you’ll be in your element here 🙂

The design/layout of the platforms is really good. However….

However, one problem with the platforming is that, because this game was primarily designed to be played with a controller (which I don’t have), there is not only no option to customise the keyboard controls (which can be a bit counter-intuitive, like pressing “F” to interact with things etc..) but, more critically, I couldn’t find a mouse sensitivity option either.

Given that the default mouse sensitivity is absolutely sky-high, you’ll sometimes find yourself fighting with the camera during some fast-paced platforming segments. That is when the camera doesn’t freeze upon respawning (and only becomes moveable again after pressing “Esc” twice). Still, once you get used to these small annoyances, the platforming is really enjoyable.

In terms of exploration, this game is really cool. Although the levels are mostly typical 3D platform levels that have one “correct” path, a few parts are slightly more non-linear and there’s also a really interesting hub level too.

Not only are there a few interesting side-areas to explore in the hub area, but you can also meet rescued creatures too 🙂

The player is also given an incentive to explore because every level -except for the tutorial and final boss battle- contains several imprisoned L’oa that can be rescued. Not only do they make the most adorable crying and celebration sounds you’ll ever hear but, for every five that you rescue, you can return to the hub level and increase your maximum lives too.

The sound effects here are adorable. Only someone with a heart of stone wouldn’t rescue this creature.

The game’s lives system is fairly interesting. Although you’ll lose one whenever you take damage or fall off of a platform, they can be easily recovered by picking up enough of the plentiful in-game gems (which you’ll also need to rescue the L’oa). Likewise, although the game uses the dreaded checkpoint saving, this is reasonably forgiving and you’ll also have access to a fast-travel map at many checkpoints too (even if you have to move the cursor on it using the WSAD keys instead of the mouse).

Another cool thing about the game’s exploration elements is the art design. Even at low graphics settings, this game still looks really wonderful. It has the kind of whimsical, cartoonish and vaguely cel-shaded art style that made me really nostalgic for the days when games could be a bit more cheerful and stylised 🙂 Seriously, this game looks like a modern version of some of the best PS2 platformers I’ve seen 🙂

And, even on the lowest graphics settings, it still looks more spectacular than the PS2 too 🙂

The game’s combat is less frequent than I’d expected, and this is a good thing because it’s one of the weakest elements of the game. In addition to Skylar having no ranged attacks (and just three melee attacks), you’ll be fighting groups of tiny robots and a few annoying projectile-firing robots too. Although these combat segments become significantly easier, and more satisfying, once you’ve got the power-ups that can slow time and/or magnetise Skylar, expect a bit of frustration earlier in the game.

Plus, the game also includes an old-school puzzle-based boss fight too. Like in many classic games, there is a very specific way to defeat the boss and it is up to you to work it out. Likewise, although the final boss battle is the most challenging part of the game, it is still forgiving enough that you’ll probably be able to beat it after six or seven goes once you’ve worked out what you’re supposed to do.

Plus, given the lack of boss battles in the rest of the game, this part really caught me by surprise when I thought I’d finished the game.

In terms of the puzzles, this game is mostly ok. Although I’m not really a fan of puzzles in games, and aren’t that good at them, it’s an integral part of this genre. Many of the puzzles here are relatively easy and can be solved with a little bit of thought.

However, there were two frustrating slider-based puzzles (in the vaguely Zelda-inspired temple level, which also includes a cool “turning back time” mechanic) that led to me consulting a walkthrough on Youtube. Even so, puzzles are more of an occasional part of this game and most of them are reasonably straightforward.

Except for this one and the one directly after it….

Although the gameplay has some flaws, this is still a really fun game once you get used to them. Not only that, like the 3D platformers of old, this game also has personality too. Although a lot of this is done through the art style and gameplay, a fair amount is also done through dialogue.

The voice-acting and script in this game is quite literally “so bad that it’s good”. This is impossible to describe fully in a text review, but the game’s voice cast ham it up and/or phone it in majestically. Likewise, the script also contains so much cheesiness, corniness, cliche and random comedy (with the best examples being an early 2000s-style Limp Bizkit reference, almost all of CRT’s dialogue and the fact that Plux’s squeaky voice briefly drops several octaves when you find an artefact piece), that it actually becomes fun after a while.

Add to this the hilarious PG-rated “edginess” (eg: “Let’s get the funk out of here!” etc…) and the hilariously predictable, earnest and/or melodramatic “serious” parts of the story and this game’s narrative elements are some of the funniest things I’ve seen in a while.

As for the game’s sound design, there is some wonderful acoustic background music (with the highlights being the Ancient Egypt-style music and the hub level music) and the sound effects are also fairly decent too, with the highlight being the rescued/trapped L’oa creatures that I mentioned earlier. Seriously, the sound design in this game will make you nostalgic for the glory days of the Playstation 2.

I should probably also mention the game’s length too. Although I’ve seen this game described as “short”, this is mostly in comparison to the gigantic “AAA” 3D platformers of old. This game took me about 7-9 hours to complete (if you’re an expert at 3D platformers and/or are using a controller, then YMMV) and felt like a fairly satisfying short-medium length experience that never really seemed padded or rushed. It’s sort of a quality over quantity thing. Basically, if you remember that it’s a lower-budget “AA” game, if you want a game you can actually complete in a couple of days and/or if you wait until it is on sale, then the game’s relatively short length won’t be an issue.

All in all, whilst this game isn’t perfect, I had a lot of fun with it. If you can get over the clunky mouse/keyboard controls, the less than perfect combat, the occasional frustrating puzzle and the “so bad that it’s good” voice-acting/script, then there’s a really enjoyable game to be found here. It’s a really awesome, if somewhat rough around the edges, low-budget love letter to the early 2000s heyday of the 3D platfomer genre and this is really cool to see 🙂

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

Review: “Universal Harvester” By John Darnielle (Novel)

Several weeks earlier, I saw a mention of John Darnielle’s 2017 novel “Universal Harvester” on an online list of recommended horror novels.

The premise of the story intrigued me and it seemed like my kind of thing. So, naturally, I… forgot about it for several weeks before eventually remembering it and tracking down a second-hand copy.

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

This is the 2017 Scribe (UK) paperback edition of “Universal Harvester” that I read.

The novel begins in the late 1990s in a small town in Iowa called Nevada. Jeremy Heldt works in Video Hut, an independent video rental shop that is gradually losing out to the larger video shop nearby. It is a fairly ordinary winter afternoon and Jeremy passes the time talking to the regular customers. But, when a regular called Stephanie returns a video, she mentions that something has been spliced into the tape.

Curious, Jeremy takes the video home to check it out. Sure enough, there are a few seconds of bizarre gloomy footage in the middle of the film. Not only that, one of the other tapes contains bizarre camcorder footage of a hooded woman in a barn. Although Jeremy is a bit freaked out by this, he gets on with his life and only mentions it to his boss, Sarah Jane, a while later.

Sarah Jane begins to look into the mysterious tapes and becomes more and more curious. So much so that she tracks down the barn from the film. After talking to its current owner, Lisa, Sarah Jane starts spending more and more time there…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is what would emerge if David Lynch, Jack O’Connell and Alice Hoffman sat down and decided to write a novel together 🙂 In other words, it is an atmospheric and strange story that only just about makes sense, but is so unique, interesting and well-written that you won’t really care. Seriously, if you like weird novels and TV shows from the 1990s, then you’ll love this novel 🙂

Surprisingly though, this wasn’t as much of a horror novel as I’d expected. Yes, there are some ominous, mysterious and chilling moments. Plus, there is a creepily mysterious backstory involving a cult and a theme of death and loss running through the story too. But, it isn’t really a horror story. In a lot of ways, it is like the TV show “Twin Peaks” – in that it contains elements of horror, but isn’t really a horror story.

And, yes, I should probably talk about this novel’s 1990s elements, since they are brilliant 🙂 Not only does this novel almost read like an “alternative” novel from the 1990s (eg: the sort of thing that would have been reprinted by Vintage in the 2000s), but it perfectly captures the warm and wintery rural atmosphere of various American films/TV shows from the decade too.

In addition to this, it is also a novel that includes stuff like video rental shops, lots of VHS tapes, old computers etc… Seriously, if you remember any of this stuff from the late 1990s/early 2000s then the book is wonderfully nostalgic 🙂

Interestingly though, this novel isn’t entirely set in the 1990s. There are a few random time jumps to both the 1950s-1970s and the present day which, although they are a bit unexpected, really help to add a lot of extra depth and atmosphere to the story. Seriously, I cannot praise the atmosphere of this novel highly enough.

One other cool thing about this novel is it’s focus on alternate timelines and parallel universes. Although this is mostly just a stylistic thing where the narrator will talk about what could happen, it really adds a lot to the novel. Not only that, there is at least one scene (where Sarah Jane describes what she saw in the farmhouse) which contradicts the descriptions in previous chapter – implying either an unreliable narrator, a multi-verse or an unreliable character. This really helps to add a lot of atmosphere and mystery to the novel.

In terms of the characters, this novel is really good. We get enough characterisation and detail to really care about the characters, but enough is left unexplained or unsaid to make some of the characters seem intriguingly mysterious. Interestingly, although Jeremy is set up as the main character at the beginning of the novel, the story is more about several of the other characters than him. This reminded me of a very vaguely similar technique used in M.John Harrison’s “Nova Swing” and it really helps to add depth and realism to the story.

Needless to say, all of this makes the novel really compelling. The best way to describe the characters in this book is that they are like a very slightly more understated, mysterious, realistic and/or hardboiled version of the characters you’d see in an Alice Hoffman novel or an episode of “Twin Peaks”.

In terms of the writing, this novel is really brilliant. For starters, the novel is technically narrated from a first person perspective, but it often reads more like a third-person novel until the narrator suddenly drops a dramatic fourth-wall breaking description or intriguing plot spoiler. Likewise, you’ll also spend quite a bit of the novel trying to work out who the narrator actually is until their identity is (sort of) revealed in the final few pages of the story.

The writing style in this novel is really brilliant too. It’s “matter of fact” enough to keep the story moving, but also beautifully descriptive and unique at the same time. It’s a little bit like a mixture between the high-brow hardboiled prose of Jack O’Connell and the vivid, poetic prose of Alice Hoffman.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At a gloriously efficient 214 pages in length, it never feels like a page is wasted. Likewise, although this isn’t a fast-paced novel, it isn’t a slow-paced novel either. Although the story’s time jumps can take a while to get used to, there is enough atmosphere and mystery to keep the story really compelling 🙂

All in all, whilst this novel probably isn’t for everyone, I really loved it 🙂 It’s this gloriously weird mixture of 1990s nostalgia, ominous mystery, meta-fiction/experimental fiction and atmosphere. If you want a story which explains everything and has a linear plot, read something else. If you want a unique, intriguing and well-written novel, read this one.

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