Review: “Ion Fury” (Computer Game)

Well, since I’ve been distracted from reading the next book I plan to review (“Warhol’s Prophecy” by Shaun Hutson) for the few days before preparing this article, I thought that it was time the review the game responsible for this. I am, of course, talking about the one and only “Ion Fury” (2019).

This game was previously known as “Ion Maiden” but, alas, the best modern game referencing the best heavy metal band of all time was just too awesome for the miserable trademark lawyers of the music industry to handle. Hence the name change.

Anyway, when a new 1990s-style “Build Engine” game was announced a year or two ago, I pre-ordered a copy on GOG as soon as I had a modern enough computer (and, yes, “Ion Fury” has higher system requirements than actual 1990s games do) and played the preview demo more times than I could remember. And, even though the game’s release was delayed until August 2019, it was well worth the wait 🙂

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Note: Since I prepare these reviews very far in advance, this review will cover V1.00 of the game – since it is the one I played. So, although I’ll mention a technical bug I found (with the “chapter select” screen), it has probably been patched by the time that this review goes out. Even if it hasn’t, the presence of manual saves means that this small bug isn’t exactly game-breaking.

I also played the game using software rendering, rather than Open GL, since I’m using integrated graphics. So, if you’ve got a graphics card, the lighting will probably look better than the screenshots here.
——

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Ion Fury”:

Seriously, even the main menu looks really cool 🙂

“Ion Fury” is a spiritual successor to “Duke Nukem 3D”. Set in a vaguely “Blade Runner”-inspired cyberpunk future, you play as a bomb disposal expert for the Global Defence Force called Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison.

She is relaxing in a neon-lit bar when suddenly the window explodes and she spills her drink. Robed cyborgs suddenly start marching the streets. On a nearby viewscreen, the cackling face of the maniacal cyberneticist Dr. Jadus Heskel appears and announces that he is taking over the city. In retribution for her spilled drink, Shelly swears to spill Heskel’s blood.

Seriously, more games need to be set in cool-looking “1980s futuristic” cities like this 🙂

Yes! Heskel is an evil scientist who cackles and delivers moustache-twirlingly silly villain dialogue 🙂 This is so 1990s 🙂

One of the first things that I will say about this game is WOW! If someone made a FPS game specifically for me, it would look a lot like this one 🙂 In addition to lots of cool cyberpunk stuff, an actual personality and robed cultists like the ones from “Blood“, this game is a hell of a lot of fun to play too 🙂 Seriously, it’s so good to see a modern FPS game that is firmly focused around actual gameplay and old-school level design too 🙂

And what gameplay it is! As you would expect, the bulk of the gameplay revolves around combat and this feels suitably dramatic, responsive, fast-paced and impactful.

On the “Ultra Viscera” difficulty setting, the combat is also brutally unforgiving in the best possible way 🙂 Even the “weakest” cyborg monster is still a mortal threat to you, and you’ll need both quick reflexes and a tactical mind if you want to survive. And, wow, what a thrill ride it is 🙂 There is something inherently satisfying about getting through a tough battle by the skin of your teeth, relying on nothing but your own skills and quick thinking.

And, in classic 1990s fashion, this game has difficulty settings with cool-sounding names 🙂

But, if you haven’t played any actual mid-late 1990s FPS games before, then I would strongly recommend choosing one of the lower difficulty settings (“First Blood” or “Wanton Carnage”) for your first playthrough. These difficulty modes are probably what is considered “fair” by modern standards, with fewer enemies (who do less damage) and more supplies for the player. But, “Ultra Viscera” is closer to the “normal” difficulty settings of actual mid-late 1990s games like “Duke Nukem 3D”, “Shadow Warrior”, “Blood”, “Final Doom”, “SiN” etc…

This challenge is complemented by a brilliantly balanced health and ammo system. Unlike modern FPS games, there’s no regenerating health here and you’ll have about nine weapons (eight of which have separate ammo types). This adds a strategic element to the game, forcing the player to not only manage their resources but to balance caution and bravado too.

Unlike many modern games, the levels here (about twenty-seven of them), are complex non-linear things that require both exploration and backtracking 🙂 This is an integral feature of the game. Not only will you be required to search for switches and keycards in pretty much every level, but exploration is pretty much the only way to get a decent amount of health and ammo on higher difficulty settings too. Each level contains more than enough of both to see you through, but only if you actively go and look for them 🙂 In other words, there are lots of cleverly hidden items and areas that are there to both encourage and reward exploration 🙂

Literally the only criticisms I have of the level design are a lack of visual variety in some levels (for every cool-looking location, expect at least one extremely generic-looking “lab”, “office”, “sewer” or “industrial” level too) and a slight over-reliance on small spider-like robots that are difficult to hit. This aside, the level design here is absolutely superb 🙂

It’s an 1980s neon-lit sci-fi version of a 1990s shopping centre 🙂 This is so cool 🙂

And when the game actually shows you the world outside of it’s generic-looking factories, labs and underground bases, it is really amazing 🙂

In a vague concession to modernity, the game also includes an “auto-save” feature. But, fear not! There is no checkpoint saving here 🙂 Yes, the auto-saves function like checkpoints but – like in any proper computer game – you can also save literally whenever you want 🙂 Interestingly, the game also includes a “chapter select” feature – however, it didn’t work properly in the version (V 1.00. Again, I write these reviews very far in advance) that I played, but this might have been fixed by the time this review goes out.

In terms of weapons and monsters, this game is brilliant. Earlier, I mentioned how even the “weakest” monsters can be a serious threat and, as you would expect, there’s a decent variety of monsters to fight here.

Like in “Blood” and “Shadow Warrior”, the most common type are basic “soldier” enemies with different types of weapons. But, there are also small robot spiders, acid-spitting robot centipedes, two types of zombies and a variety of both larger monsters (including one inspired by the Fiend from “Quake”) and bosses to keep you on your toes. These all have different attack patterns and each one has an optimum tactic and/or weapon you’ll want to use to defeat them. Seriously, this adds a lot of depth and variety to the almost constant combat 🙂

Oh, and did I mention that the zombies actually attack in a proper horde at one point too 🙂 Seriously, this is so cool 🙂

The weapons are really good too – with even the basic pistol being a thunderously powerful three-barrelled revolver and the default weapon being a futuristic electro-baton that is literally called “The Electrifryer” that can also be used to recharge generators too. Although many of the other weapons are fairly standard “classic” FPS weapons (eg: Shotgun, minigun, SMGs, grenade launcher etc…), they still have enough quirks to set themselves apart from the crowd.

In addition to genuinely useful alternate fire modes and really dramatic sounds/animations, literally every weapon in this game is useful. Whether it is the “bowling bombs” that auto-target enemies or a seemingly useless flat grenade called a “Clusterpuck” – which suddenly becomes very useful when you realise how incredibly powerful it’s alternate fire is (provided that you’re far enough away to use it safely), the weapons here are really well-balanced.

Plus, the basic shotgun’s alternate fire is also the game’s grenade launcher, allowing for a lot of flexibility during battles.

Even the “boring” laser crossbow suddenly turns into something truly spectacular when you hold the alt fire button down for long enough. My only criticism of the weapon design is the lack of a rocket launcher. However, this limitation does make you play more strategically and also helps to focus the gameplay on more intense and frantic close-mid range battles too 🙂

As well as this great gameplay, this game actually has personality too 🙂 Seriously, I miss when this was an integral part of the FPS genre. Not only will Shelly shout out all sorts of hilariously badass one-liners during combat (including a couple of Offspring references and the “Yippie Ki Yay…” line from Die Hard 🙂 ), but Heskel’s villain monologues – voiced by none other than Jon St. John- are gloriously cheesy in the best possible way too 🙂

This humour also extends to the game’s visual design too. Like in “Duke Nukem 3D”, the lavish pixel art environments are absolutely crammed with small visual jokes, parodies and pop culture references. I’ve probably missed at least a few of them and there are far too many to even think about listing here, but almost everything in this game has some level of creativity or humour to it.

Yes, there are one or two outdated “jokes” that aren’t really funny (eg: the controversial “moisturiser bottle” sprite that appears in at least a couple of the levels) and may briefly lessen your enjoyment of the game. But, most of the time, the game’s humour works reasonably well.

Plus, so many objects in the environment can also be interacted with and/or are made from voxels (anyone remember those?) too. And, unlike “Duke Nukem 3D” and “Shadow Warrior”, there are a lot more voxels and interactive items thanks to slightly more powerful modern computers. Seriously, I’d love to see the parallel universe where this was the visual direction that “AAA” FPS games took 🙂

You can even play darts. Darts!

In terms of the music, this game includes lots of dramatic 1980s-style synth music which really fits in with the retro sci-fi atmosphere of the game. Whilst is it less distinctive than the famous music of actual 1990s FPS games like “Duke Nukem 3D” or “Doom”, it fits in really well with the game’s world and really helps to add some extra atmosphere.

All in all, although this game has a few flaws, these things are easily eclipsed by the sheer awesomeness of almost everything else. This is a modern 1990s-style FPS game that is filled with personality, humour, enjoyably challenging gameplay and creative level design 🙂 It is like “Blood” meets “Duke Nukem 3D” meets “Final Doom” meets “Blade Runner” meets “Ghost In the Shell” 🙂 It is a low-mid budget game that puts most “AAA” games to shame 🙂

If I had to go through the formality of giving it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five 🙂

Review: “Hope For The Best” By Jodi Taylor (Novel)

Well, it has been way too long since I last read one of Jodi Taylor’s excellent “Chronicles Of St. Mary’s” novels. And, after getting a copy of the tenth novel in the series – “Hope For The Best” (2019) – as a birthday present several days before preparing this review, I was eager to read it 🙂

Although this novel contains a few recaps, it picks up reasonably soon after the ending of “An Argumentation Of Historians” and probably won’t make too much sense if you haven’t read the previous nine novels in the series (starting with “Just One Damned Thing After Another). So, read those books before you read this one.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Hope For The Best”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2019 Headline (UK) paperback edition of “Hope For The Best” that I read.

The novel begins in the time-travelling historical research institute of St. Mary’s sometime during the mid-21st century. Max and Leon are still recovering from the injuries they sustained during the dramatic ending of “An Argumentation Of Historians”. But, it isn’t all doom and gloom because their son Matthew is visiting for the week.

During the visit, Max talks to Captain Ellis of the Time Police and begins to come up with a plan to deal with the dastardly Clive Ronan once and for all. Max is especially confident about this plan, even if it means that she has to join the Time Police in order to accomplish it…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, although it takes a little while longer than I’d expected to really get started, it is well worth the wait. Yes, there is a lot of deliberate mystery and slightly fewer fast-paced moments than you might expect during the early to mid parts of the novel, but all of this stuff has a wonderfully dramatic payoff that is well worth waiting for 🙂 Not only does this novel make a few innovative changes to the formula, but it is also a bit more of a dramatic, suspenseful and “serious” novel than you might expect too.

And it excels at these things. Whether it is the relatively slow build up, a few brilliantly suspenseful moments or the fact that Max finds herself a “fish out of water” during her employment at the Time Police, this novel sometimes has the darker and grittier emotional tone that was more common in earlier instalments of the series. But, thanks to Taylor’s experience with the series, all of this stuff is handled a lot more confidently and smoothly than it was during the earlier novels 🙂

Still, this isn’t to say that this novel doesn’t have the thrills or comedy that you’d expect from a “St. Mary’s” novel 🙂 Although it tells a slightly more “serious” story, there are still quite a few “laugh out loud” moments and numerous other moments of quirky subtle comedy too. Likewise, in the traditional “St. Mary’s” fashion, pretty much every jump backwards in time usually results in hilarious chaos for one silly reason or another 🙂

As I hinted at earlier, this novel is more of a thriller than usual too. This is handled in a more “traditional” way, with lots of mystery and build-up during the early to mid parts of the novel (with, for example, Max sometimes hinting at a secret plan that she refuses to reveal to the reader). This build up then gives way to some brilliantly unexpected moments of nail-biting suspense, before peaking with the kind of rip-roaringly chaotic and fast-paced adventure through time that you would expect 🙂

Intriguingly, this focus on suspense also allows Taylor to include a few elements from the crime thriller and spy thriller genres too. Not only does this help to shake up the formula a bit, but it is also handled with the kind of familiar eccentricity that you’d expect from a St. Mary’s novel too 🙂 This mixture between novelty and familiarity works really well and helps to keep the story intriguingly unpredictable at times, allowing for at least a couple of interesting plot twists.

Not only that, the fact that the novel involves the Time Police allows us to see more of this mysterious organisation and for the story to include more sci-fi elements than usual too 🙂 These sci-fi elements are handled really well and show off a few intriguing things that were only hinted at during previous novels in the series. Of course, being “St. Mary’s”, these intriguing things mostly fall into the category of “what happens when things go really wrong”. Still, it’s really cool to see more details of the technology and “world” of the series 🙂

In terms of the characters, they are as good as ever 🙂 As you would expect, this novel focuses a lot on Max – and, in classic thriller fashion, she ends up going through hell in this story – this not only allows for a lot of courageous and/or clever moments, but also allows for moments of serious drama that really help to add some extra realism and depth to her character too. Literally the only criticism I have is that, for some bizarre reason, Max’s first name is stated to be “Lucy” in this book (despite it being Madeleine in earlier books). At a guess, this might possibly have something to do with the events of book three. Even so, it was a little confusing and disconcerting.

The other characters are as good as ever too. Although there’s less emphasis on the traditional supporting cast of St. Mary’s members, this allows for a bit more emphasis on the Time Police characters and a few intriguing background characters from previous novels. Likewise, although Ronan is still the main villain in the novel, he remains unseen for a lot of the story – allowing for both the introduction of a couple of new villians and the return of another familiar villain too 🙂 Yes, the villains are very much on the “cartoonishly evil” side of things, but they are given enough nuance and menace to keep them frightening.

As for the writing, it is excellent as usual 🙂 Max’s first-person narration is the kind of fast-paced and informal narration that allows for a lot of immersion, comedic moments, powerful drama and characterisation too 🙂 If you’ve never read a novel in this series before, then the best way to describe the narration is that it combines the irreverent attitude of punk fiction with the eccentricity of an author like Terry Pratchett. It is, as always, an absolute joy to read 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At a hefty 461 pages, this novel is at least four pages shorter than the previous book in the series. Even so, I miss the more concise and focused lengths of some earlier books in the series. Plus, as mentioned earlier, this novel’s pacing has a lot of focus on build-up and suspense. What this means is that the second half of the book is a lot more compelling and eventful than the first half is (although the first half is still fairly good).

All in all, whilst this isn’t my favourite novel in the series, it is still really good 🙂 Yes, it takes a while to really get started but it is good to see Taylor doing different things with the series and showing off more of the “world” of the series too. Likewise, although the grittier emotional tone of some of the earlier novels in the series makes a bit of a return here, it is handled in a much better way and – as always – is also balanced out with lots of comedy too. If you’re a fan of the series, then this novel might be a little different to what you’d expect, but it is still very recognisably a “St. Mary’s” novel 🙂

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

Review: “Alien Armageddon” (Mod For “Duke Nukem 3D”)

Well, although I’d originally planned to review a “Doom II” WAD today, I got distracted by a mod for “Duke Nukem 3D” called “Alien Armageddon[NSFW] which I discovered after seeing reviews of it on Youtube. Since I write these reviews quite far in advance and was still waiting for the full version of “Ion Fury” to release at the time of writing, I was in the mood for a Build Engine game. So, I started playing this mod.

I used an older version of the Atomic Edition of “Duke Nukem 3D” with this mod and I don’t know whether or not it works with more modern re-issues of the game. It is also likely that a later version of this mod will have been released by the time this review (from August 2019) goes out. I either played version 2.0, 2.10 or 2.15 for this review – probably 2.15.

EDIT [9/4/20]: Yes, the version of the mod I reviewed is now an out-of-date one – with the current version now apparently including extra levels etc… that weren’t in the older version I reviewed here.

Plus, I should probably also include some kind of content warning for the mod itself – since it makes the original “Duke 3D” look fairly “PG-rated” by comparison.

So, let’s take a look at “Alien Armageddon”:

“Alien Armageddon” is a very extensive mod for “Duke Nukem 3D” which adds new weapons, monsters, NPCs, dialogue, costumes, menus, music, graphics, levels, gameplay mechanics, playable characters and pretty much everything. On a technical level, this mod is extremely impressive. Yes, some elements of the mod have a very clearly-defined target audience (and whether you enjoy them or not will depend on whether you are part of it) and some of the humour is a bit random, but – on the whole – it is one of the best “Duke 3D” mods that I’ve ever seen.

So, I should probably start by talking about the levels. In addition to a new five-level campaign (featuring large, challenging and non-linear urban, sci-fi and underwater levels) one really cool feature is that this mod also includes fan remakes of the “Duke It Out In D.C.” and “Duke Caribbean” expansion packs too.

However, the remake of “Duke Caribbean” doesn’t include the custom weapon/enemy sprites from the original.

Although these seem to be reasonably close in design to the originals, they include lots of new “humourous” background details (which are a bit “hit and miss”), a few epic battles (with friendly NPCs offering support), new bosses, new ending sequences and even new music too. These musical changes are at their very best during the secret level in “Duke It Out In D.C”, which now has a cover version of the “Robocop” theme tune in the background 🙂 Although this is a small change, it makes the combat in this level feel about ten times more dramatic.

But, although the levels in this mod are fairly good, the bulk of the changes are to the gameplay. One of the first things that you will notice is that you now have the option to play as an earlier version of the “Bombshell” character, based on the concept art for the original 1990s version of “Duke Nukem Forever”. Not only does she have different weapons to Duke, but most of Duke’s one-liners (and a few hilarious new ones too) have also been re-recorded for her too.

She’s a more stylised version of the character than Shelly from “Ion Fury” and is also more clearly based on Duke (to the point that she even has a Duke-style alternate costume).

The weapon changes for Bombshell also help to make the gameplay feel fresh, since they’re more than just simple sprite replacements. In general, her weapons are more powerful than the “classic” ones, but will often have some kind of disadvantage or side-effect that helps to keep the gameplay balanced.

For example, Bombshell has robotic gun turrets instead of grenades. These are fairly powerful, but do less immediate damage.

Another cool thing is that you can actually switch between Duke and Bombshell during gameplay. This is handled really well – with health and ammo carrying across between characters, some very well-programmed A.I. and a few other cool features (such as being able to revive the other character if they die, the ability to issue basic orders etc…).

Although including both characters is optional when playing the “classic” levels (and you can choose to just play as one of them), it is a more central feature of the five new levels – with segments where you can only play as one character and part of a level that requires you to use teamwork between the two characters to open airlocks. These new levels also feature more large arena-like areas, allowing the player to take full advantage of this co-op style play 🙂

Other gameplay changes include the addition of headshots, extra monster death animations, a much better way of handling health during underwater segments (eg: health lost to water damage regenerates when you leave the water), alternate fire modes, weapon upgrades and numerous other things.

For the most part, these changes add an extra level of intensity to the gameplay in a similar way to the famous “Brutal Doom” mod for “Doom II”, but without the disturbingly sadistic edge of that mod. These changes also make the gameplay both easier and more challenging at the same time, which results in a very different – but good – experience to playing the original game. This is modding at it’s best 🙂

The game is also balanced out by the addition of several new monster types that are significantly more powerful than the basic “Duke 3D” enemies. Although these new monsters are visually creative (whilst also fitting in well with the atmosphere and style of the game) and include an interesting variety of different attack patterns that the player has to learn, they can feel a little on the overpowered side of things at times. Yes, this won’t be too much of an issue for experienced players but, even on the normal “let’s rock” difficulty, expect battles to take twice as long as usual.

So, save often!

In terms of the mod’s comedy elements, they are very much a mixed bag. Although many of the references, one-liners and humourous moments are genuinely funny and work well in context, a lot of them just seem to be a collection of random memes and stuff like that. Yes, this adds personality to the game and also updates some of the older levels too, but it can come across as a bit random or weird at times.

Yes, I laughed when I saw Garfield here but – compared to the three shells in the bathroom nearby – this joke/reference doesn’t really make sense in context.

This brings me on to another element of this mod – it is a lot raunchier and much more “not safe for work” than the original “Duke Nukem 3D” was. Whether you see this as a good or a bad thing will, of course, depend on you. This element of the mod is very clearly aimed at a specific target audience and is probably really awesome if you are one of them. However, if you aren’t in this target audience, then these elements of the mod may seem a bit cringe-worthy, boring, gratuitous and/or disturbing.

Yes, there is the option to replace some of the game’s art, sprites etc… with censored versions but, if you grew up in the “edgy” 1990s/early-mid 2000s, then the idea of playing a censored version of anything “Duke 3D”-related will probably be completely unthinkable, regardless of what it is. Even so, it’s good that the mod actually lets the player decide whether they want to play a censored version or not.

Still, one especially good thing about this mod is the way that it handles menus and cinematics. Not only have all of the menus been revamped (even including a hilarious joke about modern DLC when you select the expansions), but the mod also includes new “cutscenes” in the style of the original slideshows at the end of each episode of “Duke 3D”. These look really cool and are also consistent with the visual style of the original game too 🙂

Seriously, the amount of work that went into each of these pieces of story-based art is really impressive 🙂

All in all, this is a really impressive mod that adds a lot to the original “Duke 3D”, making it feel fresh and interesting again 🙂 Yes, some of the humour is a bit random and this mod also has a very specific target audience, but it is impossible not to be amazed by the sheer amount of work, playtesting and creativity that went into making it. If you can put up with it’s flaws, then there’s a hell of a lot of fun to be had here 🙂

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

Bonus Post: Old Scenic Photos From 2018-2019

Well, after a brief moment of nostalgia, I decided to delve into my archives and compile a small gallery of some of the scenic photos of southern England (mostly various places in Hampshire) that I’ve taken over the past 2-3 years.

Although I’ve turned some of these photos into paintings, I’ve probably taken at least 20-30 other photos for each one that becomes a painting.

On a side note – photo-based paintings will still appear here about every week or so until early next April. This is because I make my paintings about 12-13 months in advance of posting them here (and the last time I was able to take any new scenic photos was about 3-4 weeks ago, for obvious reasons…)

So, in case anyone is in the mood for taking a look at some dramatic scenery, I thought that I’d show ten of these photos (two of which I have also turned into digitally-edited paintings – which can be seen here and here).

Even though I’ve had to shrink and compress the photos here quite a lot for file size reasons, I hope that they are still interesting.

Anyway, enjoy 🙂

Westbrook (1st March 2018) photo by C. A. Brown

Titchfield Haven (19th August 2019) photo by C. A. Brown

Cowdray Park (4th March 2019) photo by C. A. Brown

Corhampton (5th August 2019) photo by C. A. Brown

Portsdown Hill (30th December 2019) photo by C. A. Brown

Fareham (23rd September 2019) photo by C. A. Brown

Forton Lake (2nd December 2019) photo by C. A. Brown

Warnford (4th June 2018) photo by C. A. Brown

Langstone Harbour (26th March 2018) photo by C. A. Brown

Fareham (3rd September 2018) photo by C. A. Brown

Mini Review: “Alisa (Demo)” (Computer Game)

First of all, apologies for breaking my usual rule about placing articles between reviews. Although there was originally meant to be an article here, I wasn’t satisfied with it and had originally planned to replace it with an art preview – but then I happened to stumble across a “let’s play” video for something which I just had to review instead. I am, of course, talking about the “work in progress” demo version of a modern indie survival horror game by Caspar Croes from 2019 called “Alisa“.

Of course, being a demo, this won’t really be a full review. Still, one of the cool things about this demo is that not only does it have ultra-low system requirements that are actually appropriate for a retro-style game but it is actually a proper old-school demo too (which is technically free, albeit with an option for donations).

So, let’s take a look at the demo version of “Alisa”:

“Alisa” is set in the 1920s and begins with a Royal Armed Defences agent called Alisa waking up inside a creepy old mansion. She has no clue how she got there or why she is wearing a bizarre Victorian “Alice In Wonderland”-style costume.

Curioser and curioser…

After finding a door key, a pistol and a mysterious note, she decides to look for a way out. What could possibly go wrong?

Eerily inhuman porcelain doll automatons? Whew! I thought I’d ended up in a zombie mansion for a moment there.

Not only is the mansion filled with creepy murderous automatons and a hulking brute, but scattered notes leave ominous references to scientific experiments and someone has placed bizarre puzzles around the mansion too.

But, everything isn’t doom and gloom – there’s a friendly puppet called Pol who wants you to scavenge cogs from the broken corpses of fallen automatons. What a nice fellow.

Just try to not think about what could be on the other end of that arm.

One of the first things that I will say about this demo is WOW! The best way to describe “Alisa” is that it is like a cross between the original “Resident Evil”, “Alone In The Dark” and “American McGee’s Alice” 🙂

It is a totally new 1990s-style survival horror game and you have no clue how long I have been waiting for something like THIS! If you enjoyed playing the first three “Resident Evil” games when you were younger, you will feel at home here 🙂

And, yes, if the idea of themed door keys elicits a sudden moment of nostalgia, then you will love this game.

In terms of the game’s horror elements, they are brilliantly creepy 🙂 Although this isn’t the kind of game that will make you jump and clutch your pounding heart, it is the kind of game that will leave you feeling decidedly unsettled after you’ve played it for a while. In other words, this game achieves a deeper and more subtle form of horror through atmosphere, setting and story. Not only are Victorian porcelain dolls inherently creepy, but the ominous hints about the nature and purpose of the “dollhouse” are also fairly disturbing too.

Unlike a lot of classic survival horror games, this one is completely bloodless. Although this might sound like it would make everything less frightening, the opposite is true. The complete lack of gore just adds to the eerily uncanny and inhuman atmosphere of the giant dollhouse. Plus, it places much more emphasis on the other types of horror in the game – whilst also denying the player the cathartic comfort blanket of “Resident Evil”-style cartoonish blood clouds too. Add to this some exquisitely disturbing background music, a couple of well-placed eerie set pieces and an ominously mysterious plot and you get a game that will leave you feeling haunted after playing it for a while.

This game also sometimes does the classic survival horror thing of not showing you everything in a room after you step through the door.

This is the kind of game that wears its influences on it’s sleeve and yet also manages to be it’s own unique and distinctive thing at the same time.

There’s the “zombie mansion” style premise and gameplay of “Resident Evil”, the twisted gothic Victoriana of “American McGee’s Alice” and the early 20th century Lovecraftian eeriness of “Alone In The Dark”. Yet, as I mentioned earlier, this game is very much its own distinctive thing at the same time. Like many classic games, it actually has it’s own personality – with a “creepy old dollhouse” theme and some wonderfully twisted moments of quirky humour too.

And, yes, the first conversation between Alisa and Pol somehow manages to be both funny and unsettling at the same time.

And, whilst this may look like Alice has ended up in the Spencer Mansion instead of Wonderland, this game is very different from both things.

As for the gameplay, this is an old-school 1990s style survival horror game 🙂 If you grew up with the classic “Resident Evil” games, you’ll instantly feel at home here and will relish the chance to finally play this type of game again. But, if you are a modern gamer, then you might find both the camera and controls to be a bit confusing or awkward at first. But, don’t give up – this is the whole point of the game!

This game makes expert use of well-framed fixed camera angles to build suspense and 1990s-style “tank” movement controls to unsettle and disorientate the player. In classic “Resident Evil” fashion, the aiming system is also deliberately slow and imprecise – requiring the player to stand still, raise their weapon and carefully pivot towards the enemy.

Not only does this make the monsters more of a threat to the player, but the combat is also made slightly more user-friendly thanks to a small icon (which is easily missed) that shows you whether your shot is lined up properly. This extra help is balanced out by the fact that you have to reload manually, which can add extra tension to each fight too.

You actually need to read the tutorials! And, yes, despite the picture of a controller, you can play with a keyboard instead 🙂

Although the game doesn’t use a limited inventory system for puzzle and health items, this is made up for by the fact that you can only carry one weapon at a time (and have to use an item box to change it).

Yes, the menus and controls can take a bit of getting used to – but this is part of the fun of the game. It is evocative of the very first time you played “Resident Evil” and it is also a homage to the days when survival horror was a new genre that was still finding its feet.

It’ll take you a while to work out how to use this menu – just like in the good old days 🙂

The game’s monster design is really cool too. Although there are only three types of monster here, each has it’s own distinctive movement and attack patterns that add some variety to the gameplay.

There are basic “Resident Evil” style slow-moving enemies, there are faster crawling enemies (that are difficult to shoot and are best run away from) and there is a giant hulking monster who seems to be pretty much invincible and therefore has to be avoided rather than fought. In addition to all of this, I cannot praise the monster design enough too – not only are all of the monsters consistent with the game’s theme/atmosphere, but they all look genuinely creepy too because of this.

As for the two puzzles in the demo, they’re reasonably good too. Although I’m not a fan of puzzles in games (and had to use a “let’s play” video as a walkthrough for the second one), both are reasonably well-designed and consistent with the sort of thing you’d expect from an old-school survival horror game. One is a traditional slider puzzle – albeit with a slightly unintuitive U.I – and the other is an item/combination puzzle that, to be fair to the game, does give you a clue about how to solve it when you find one of the puzzle items.

Puzzles? We meet again, old foe!

This game is “old-school” in the most loveable and awesome way possible. Everything from the low-poly/pre-rendered graphics to the tank controls to the endearingly fun voice-acting just oozes 1990s nostalgia 🙂 This is a game that gets the style and atmosphere of this part of videogame history absolutely right. It looks and feels like an actual Playstation One game from the mid-late 1990s.

Yes, without this historical context, it is easy to point at this game’s flaws (and expect to be frustrated by the controls/user interface once or twice) – but this misses what makes this game so awesome. By also recreating some of the technical flaws of older games, “Alisa” feels less like a modern indie game and more like a “lost” game from the 1990s 🙂

The demo is very short – but you will have an incentive to replay it a couple of times thanks to how the game handles weapons and upgrades. Whenever you kill an automaton, they spew several cogs which can be collected and used to “buy” weapons, ammo, health and stat-altering alternate costumes. Since there are only about seven monsters in the demo, you won’t find enough cogs to get both the tommygun and the gothic alternate costume in a single playthrough. So, this encourages replayability.

Finally! Some dark clothes! Those *ugh* bright pastel clothes were really starting to freak me out.

All in all, although this is only a small demo, it is a “quality over quantity” type thing 🙂 I have been waiting for a modern game like this for so long 🙂 Yes, this is the type of game that you’ll probably get the most out of if you grew up in the 1990s/early-mid 2000s – but, if you fall into this group, then you’ll love it. It is literally like a “lost” mid-late 1990s survival horror game 🙂

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

Review: “The Rosewater Insurrection” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I was in the mood for some sci-fi. So, I thought that I’d take a look at Tade Thompson’s 2019 novel “The Rosewater Insurrection” (the sequel to Thompson’s excellent “Rosewater) since a relative pre-ordered a copy of it for me as a gift a few weeks before I prepared this review. And, yes, I write these reviews quite far in advance.

Before I begin the review, I should probably also point out that “The Rosewater Insurrection” is a direct sequel to “Rosewater” (and is the second book in a trilogy). Although it contains a few recaps, the story probably won’t make that much sense if you haven’t already read “Rosewater” first. So, this is a series that should probably be read in order.

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

This is the 2019 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “The Rosewater Insurrection” that I read.

The novel begins in Nigeria with a flashback scene set in 2055. Eric is a sensitive (someone with psychic-like abilities, due to alien spores) working as a field agent for Section 45. He has been sent to Camp Rosewater, the settlement surrounding a mysterious alien bio-dome that has recently arrived on Earth, with orders to track down and kill a local revolutionary called Jack Jacques.

Eric infiltrates Jack’s camp and spends quite a while working as a labourer there, waiting for a chance to get close to Jack. But, when he eventually does, he gets a message from Kaaro telling him to get the hell out of there, because Section 45 consider him expendable and are going to use him as a human targeting beacon for an air-strike. Eric flees and is demoted to a desk job.

And, after Molara delivers a short lecture about the symbiotic history of humans and aliens to the reader, we flash forwards to the city of Rosewater in 2067, where a woman called Alyssa wakes up and finds that she has no memory whatsoever…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, like “Rosewater”, it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 As you might expect, this sequel tells a larger and more epic story than “Rosewater” does. Although this means that the story doesn’t feel quite as focused during the earlier parts, if you stick with it then you’ll be rewarded with a gripping, spectacular sci-fi thriller that could probably put even the largest-budget modern movies to shame 🙂 Seriously, why hasn’t this series been turned into a film or TV series yet?

In terms of this novel’s sci-fi elements, it expands a lot on some of the stuff introduced in “Rosewater”. Not only do we get to learn a lot more about the aliens’ backstory, motivations and plans for Earth (including a novel twist on the familiar “alien invasion” trope) but the novel also includes all of the intriguing background details that you’d expect from a biopunk/cyberpunk novel too 🙂 The world-building is as good as ever, and the novel’s technology, alien fauna etc… also plays a role in the story in all sorts of dramatic, and occasionally surprising ways, too. Even so, this novel is very slightly more focused on it’s thriller elements than it’s sci-fi elements.

In terms of the novel’s thriller elements, it contains a really good mixture of suspenseful scenes, fast-paced action set pieces, tech/sci-fi based scenes and political/military/war drama too. All of these things also exist in both large and small scale versions too, adding even more thrilling variety and depth to the novel too. Although the novel takes a while to set up all of it’s many plot threads (which can make the story feel mildly confusing or unfocused at first), everything comes together in a really spectacular way and the mid-late parts of the story. Reading this novel feels like watching a much more intelligent, complex, creative and immersive version of a large-budget CGI blockbuster film 🙂

As you might expect if you’ve read “Rosewater”, the novel also contains some elements from the horror genre too 🙂 Although these are less prominent than they were in “Rosewater”, they turn up in a few wonderfully creepy moments (eg: the scene with Bewon and the plant growing in his apartment) – but their main purpose here is to add more atmosphere/realism to the setting and also to add extra impact, creativity and epic-ness to some of the novel’s action scenes. Even though this is less of a horror novel than it’s predecessor, these horror genre elements (eg: body horror, gory horror, zombies and psychological horror) really add a lot to the novel 🙂

Thematically, this novel is fairly interesting. Not only is this a novel about how power corrupts (shown through both Jack’s character arc and a few references to “Macbeth”, amongst other things) but it is also a novel about the environment, politics, warfare, how history is recorded etc… too. Most of this thematic stuff is more of a subtle background thing, but it plays a fairly major role in the events of the novel and also helps to add extra depth and realism to the story too.

As for the characters, this novel is as good as ever 🙂 Unlike “Rosewater”, this novel focuses a lot less on Kaaro (although he still gets some character development and a few really cool moments) and instead focuses a lot more on Aminat, Alyssa and Jack. All three of these characters have a decent amount of characterisation and character development – with Aminat going from being a slightly squeamish mid-level agent to a much more tough and heroic character, with Alyssa coming to terms with what is happening to her and with Jack slowly becoming corrupted by power. Yet, in an interesting twist, Jack isn’t the novel’s villain – but someone that the other characters have to reluctantly work with for the sake of their collective survival.

In terms of the writing, this novel is both similar and different to “Rosewater”. For the most part, this novel uses present-tense third-person narration that is informal enough to add personality to the story and keep things moving at a decent pace, but also descriptive and/or informative enough to add a lot of atmosphere to the story and make everything feel solid enough. The third-person narration also allows for a more complex and large-scale story. There are also a few mildly experimental flourishes too – such as random “extracts” from an in-universe historical novel (written by a character called Walter) that appear occasionally and provide extra backstory.

The novel also includes several first-person perspective segments and, although the jump from one perspective to another is a little surprising, the narrative voice is consistent enough and these segments are signposted well enough (each chapter title tells you which character it focuses on, and the infrequent chapters focusing on Eric and Walter are in first-person perspective) that this didn’t really become too confusing. Still, I’m kind of puzzled by this aspect of the novel – although, at a guess, Eric’s segments are in first-person because his opening segment is similar to the first-person narration used throughout “Rosewater” (and it provides a good bridge between the two books) and Walter’s segment is in first-person because it focuses a lot more on his thoughts, reactions etc…

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is reasonably good. At 374 pages, it is shorter than “Rosewater”, yet manages to tell a much larger story 🙂 And, although the story’s plot may feel a little less focused at first, all of the novel’s plot threads blend together well and provide a lot of payoff. The novel also contains a really good mixture of fast-paced action and moderately-paced drama/suspense, whilst still being as compelling as you’d expect from a thriller novel. Plus, although this novel is the middle part of a trilogy, the ending contains as much drama and resolution as you would expect from a stand-alone novel 🙂

All in all, this is a really enjoyable and compelling novel 🙂 Yes, it takes a little bit longer to really get started than “Rosewater” did (and the perspective/focus changes might take you a while to get used to), but it tells an even more spectacular story 🙂 This novel is a sequel in the truest sense of the word, taking everything good about the first novel and turning it up to eleven 🙂

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

Top Ten Articles – November 2019

Well, it’s the end of the month, so I thought that I’d do my usual thing of collecting a list of links to the ten best articles (with maybe an honourable mention or two) about writing, reading etc… that I’ve posted here this month.

All in all, this month has been a bit of a strange one and although I quite like most of the articles I wrote, some of them also ended up going in very slightly more of a game-based direction since I got a modern refurbished computer at the time of writing many of them. On the plus side, this also led to non-“Doom II” related game reviews (eg: this one and this one) returning to this site for the first time in about six months or so.

Talking of reviews, I also managed to review twelve novels this month – with my favourites being “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?” By Phillip K. Dick, “Virtual Light” by William Gibson, “N or M?” by Agatha Christie, “Blade Runner 2: The Edge Of Human” by K.W.Jeter, “Seventh Heaven” by Alice Hoffman and “Breeding Ground” by Shaun Hutson.

Anyway, here are the lists 🙂 Enjoy 🙂

Top Ten Articles – November 2019:

– “Does Writing Style Matter More Than Plot?
– “Three Things To Do When You Can’t Use Your Favourite Writing Style
– “Imperfect Technology Is An Important Part Of The Cyberpunk Genre – A Ramble
– “Two Very Basic Tips For Reading A ‘Difficult’ Book
– “Four Reasons Why Spin-Off Novels Are So Awesome
– “When To Use Alternating Chapters In Your Story
– “Two Tips For Writing Stories That Can Compete With The Internet, Games, Phones etc…
– “Why Writers Need To Read Multiple Genres Of Fiction
– “Three Ways To Make Your Story More Readable
– “What Can A Computer Game Teach Us About Writing Horror Fiction That Focuses On One Type Of Horror?

Honourable mentions:

– “Three Reasons Why 1980s British Horror Fiction Was So Shocking
– “Is Simplification A Good Thing In Storytelling? – A Ramble