Review: “Jonathan Creek – The Grinning Man” (Film/ TV Show Special Episode)

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Well, ever since I reviewed the most recent special episode of “Jonathan Creek” earlier this year, I went through a bit of a Jonathan Creek phase and ended up buying several second-hand DVDs of the show. Although I hadn’t planned to review any of them, I just had to write a review after watching a feature-length episode called “The Grinning Man” that was originally broadcast on New Year’s Day in 2009.

Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid giving away anything too major.

“The Grinning Man” begins with an old-style film clip about a famous illusionist of the 1930s called Gessler who lives in an old mansion called Metropolis. This mansion is notorious for housing the “Nightmare Room”, a supposedly haunted room that causes all who spend the night there to disappear. Of course, a famous sceptic of the day insists on being locked in the room for the night to put it to the test…. and he disappears!

In the present day, paranormal investigator Joey Ross and her friend Mina are travelling through the countryside at night when their car breaks down. Thankfully, a car happens to be passing and the driver offers to give them a lift to the stately house that he works at. The house is, of course, Metropolis!

After an evening with several of Gessler’s descendants, Joey goes to bed whilst Mina persuades the caretaker to show her the infamous Nightmare Room. When she playfully suggests that they spend the night together there, the caretaker sternly refuses. But, he eventually agrees to let her stay and even agrees to lock the door for her, even though he won’t stay. Of course, when he returns the next morning, Mina has vanished!

Joey begins to investigate the case but, at the insistence of Gessler’s daughter, Jonathan Creek is also called in to assist with the investigation….

One of the first things that I will say about this episode is that it is possibly one of the best episodes of “Jonathan Creek” that I’ve seen. Although I’d heard bad things about several of the more modern episodes, this one is easily as good as anything from series 1-4.

Since the episode is about two hours long, there’s a lot more room for the story to build suspense and a lot more room for characterisation. One of the most outstanding characters in the episode has to be Joey Ross, who is as brilliantly cynical and sarcastic as you would expect one of Jonathan’s co-investigators to be. But, unlike Maddy or Carla, Joey has a lot of skills in common with Jonathan Creek.

Plus, since the episode begins with Joey being thrown into the middle of a mystery, she pretty much almost ends up being the main character of the episode too.

The main plot for this episode is, quite simply, stunning. Whilst a lot of the episode is spent building up suspense, this pays off brilliantly. The explanation for the mystery of the Nightmare Room is genuinely shocking and extremely chilling. Seriously, I cannot overstate how creepy this part of the episode is! Plus, like in all great episodes of Jonathan Creek, the solution is something that will startle you when you first see it, but will seem blindingly obvious in retrospect.

Seriously, this episode is an absolutely brilliant horror movie! In addition to the shocking main storyline, there are also a few other brilliantly creepy elements such as the titular “Grinning Man”, a creepy-looking Heironmyous Bosch painting that has a chilling backstory of it’s own. Parts of this episode also have a wonderfully gothic atmosphere, which is helped by some absolutely brilliant set design.

However, the episode’s many sub-plots are a bit hit and miss. There’s a hilarious, if somewhat silly, sub-plot about Adam Klaus that helps to add some comedy to an otherwise gloomy and chilling episode. There’s also a more conventional detective-themed sub-plot, where Jonathan and Joey have to investigate a kidnapping – which is a mildly compelling storyline but nothing extraordinary.

Finally, there’s something of a sub-plot about Jonathan falling in love with a fan called Nicola. This is probably the weakest part of the episode, given that they seem to go from meeting each other to being in a relationship within a ridiculously short space of time. In fact, this part of the story only really serves to add to the set up for both a comedic scene involving Adam Klaus and a joke at the very end of the episode.

All in all, this is an absolutely stellar episode of “Jonathan Creek”. The characters are brilliant, there’s some hilarious comedy and there are some genuinely chilling scenes that will probably linger in your mind for hours after you’ve finished watching. The only flaw with this episode is that it’s slightly too long. It’s still an amazingly good episode, but it would have been even better if the editor had removed the lukewarm romantic sub-plot and the more “conventional” detective sub-plot about the kidnapping. But, this aside, it’s a brilliant episode.

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

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Mini Review: “Mutiny (A Doomworld Community Project)” [WAD For “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”/”ZDoom”]

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A few days before I wrote this review, I was in the mood for playing another “Doom II” WAD. In particular, I was in the mood for a cyberpunk-themed WAD and, after a bit of searching, I found this WAD from 2016 called “Mutiny (A Doomworld Community Project)“.

As usual, I used the “ZDoom” source port whilst playing this WAD. However, it will probably work on any modern limit-removing source port that allows jumping. Interestingly, this WAD also comes with a Dehacked file too. Looking in the text file, this file only affects the story text screens and map names or something like that. I used it nontheless, but it isn’t strictly necessary.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Mutiny (A Doomworld Community Project)”:

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“Mutiny” is a 16-level WAD that contains new textures and new music. This WAD is described in it’s text file as being inspired by “late 90’s cyberpunk-themed wads” and some areas of the WAD certainly have a fairly “industrial”/gothic/post-apocalyptic 1990s-style cyberpunk look to them (thanks to the new textures and some clever design decisions).

Whilst I’m slightly more of a fan of “Blade Runner“-style 1980s cyberpunk, there are still lots of cool-looking cyberpunk areas in this WAD.

Like this gothic futuristic corridor and post-apocalyptic skybox in the first level...

Like this gothic futuristic corridor and post-apocalyptic skybox in the first level…

....Or this brilliantly retro room that almost looks like something from "Blade Runner".

….Or this brilliantly retro room that almost looks like something from “Blade Runner”.

Seriously, the cyberpunk parts of this WAD look really cool :)

Seriously, the cyberpunk parts of this WAD look really cool πŸ™‚

Whilst there are some brilliant cyberpunk levels and areas in this WAD, there are also at least a few areas that just look a bit like “standard” Doom II. Even so, there are some brilliantly creative flourishes here – such as a giant door in the final level that is made by tiling the standard door textures:

Plus, if you squint when it is opening, it looks a little bit like the Tyrell building from "Blade Runner".

Plus, if you squint when it is opening, it looks a little bit like the Tyrell building from “Blade Runner”.

But, what about the gameplay? Well, for the most part, “Mutiny” does this really well. As you would expect from a modern WAD, it is aimed at experienced “Doom II” players and offers quite an enjoyable challenge.

Most of the time, this is achieved in the traditional way (albeit with slightly more chaingunn zombies than in many WADs) but there are also a few “slaughtermap” style areas (such as the final level) which help to add some variety to the gameplay too.

But, don't worry, you'll encounter the occasional giant horde of monsters in earlier levels, like this one.

But, don’t worry, you’ll encounter the occasional giant horde of monsters in earlier levels, like this one.

One slight problem with this WAD being a collaborative project is that it occasionally doesn’t have a consistent difficulty curve.

For example, one of the easiest (relatively speaking) and shortest levels in the WAD is level fourteen. Yes, this offers a bit of a respite from the longer and more challenging levels, but it seems a bit unusual to place a level like this near the end of the WAD.

Yes, even the cyberdemon in level 14 can be easily dodged.

Yes, even the cyberdemon in level 14 can be easily dodged.

Another thing that might be a bonus or a problem (depending on your tastes) is that the levels in this WAD are occasionally on the large and labyrinthine side of things.

Whilst it’s always great to see old-school non-linear levels, there were at least a few times where I got completely stuck and/or lost, and had to actually stop playing the WAD for a while (only to work out where I was supposed to go after seeing the level afresh the next day). Whilst this made me nostalgic for the golden age of FPS gaming, having slightly smaller levels and/or a few more shortcuts to locked doors wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

There are also a few cool set-pieces here too. For example, at the beginning of level ten, you are offered a choice between a super-shotgun or a rocket launcher. You can only choose one of them. So, if you are playing from a pistol start (which I wasn’t. Seriously, why do people do this?), then it probably adds an extra level of challenge and strategy to the level.

 Or, option three, a plasma cannon found in an earlier level :)

Or, option three, a plasma cannon found in an earlier level πŸ™‚

Another innovative set piece can be found in level four, where you have to solve a simple puzzle that involves raising and lowering two platforms in order to form a bridge.

These platforms are raised and lowered by either standing on or not standing on two large buttons on the floor. Although it might take you a few seconds to work out what you’re supposed to do, this puzzle is technically impressive (for “Doom II”, at least) and it doesn’t really get in the way of the gameplay either.

 It's also much less annoying than the "one-third of a puzzle" puzzles from a certain official Doom-engine game :)

It’s also much less annoying than the “one-third of a puzzle” puzzles from a certain official Doom-engine game πŸ™‚

The music in this WAD is really good from what I can remember. The most memorable pieces of background music were futuristic-sounding 90s-style MIDI tunes that fit in especially well with the cyberpunk theme of the WAD. The best piece of background music can probably be found in the final level, since not only does it quickly build up into a suitably epic piece of background music, it’s also vaguely reminiscent of the music from the original “System Shock” too.

All in all, this is a fun retro-futuristic WAD that will provide several evenings of enjoyment. In addition to the thrillingly challenging gameplay, there are also a few interesting set pieces and slaughtermap-style segments that add some variety to the gameplay, but expect to get stuck and/or lost at least once or twice. It isn’t quite a perfect WAD, but it’s still a really good one.

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

Mini Review: “Preacher (V.05)” [WAD For “Doom II”/”Final Doom”/ “ZDoom”]

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Well, it’s been a little under a month since I last reviewed any WADs for “Doom II”/ “Final Doom”. Although this is partially because I’ve been busy with other projects and other games, it’s also because (at the time of writing) finding WADs that will actually run on my computer is somewhat more difficult than it used to be.

Before writing this review, I looked at a few other interesting-looking WADs on the ZDoom forums, only to discover that they all required the absolute lastest ultra-fast high-graphics version of GZDoom to run!

Still, I refused to give up my search and I was eventually rewarded by finding a rather cool little WAD called “Preacher (V.05)“. There seem to be multiple versions of the WAD available, and I played the one that can be found in the post by Arch from the 12th May 2015 (10:43pm).

As usual, I used the ZDoom source port (v2.7.9999.0). From what I’ve read, this WAD is also compatible with PRBoom and, if it’s compatible with ZDoom, then it’s probably compatible with both old and new versions of GZDoom too.

So, let’s take a look at “Preacher (V.05)”:

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“Preacher (V.05)” is a five-level WAD for “Doom II”/”Final Doom” that includes new textures, music, sounds items and weapons. This is a gothic horror-themed WAD that is loosely-based on another awesome FPS game from the 1990s called “Blood“. In fact, you actually get to play as one of the evil cultists from that game – which is amazing!

And, even cooler, he'll actually shout random gibberish during fights too. Crudox Cruo!!! Pallax!!!

And, even cooler, he’ll actually shout random gibberish during fights too. Crudox Cruo!!! Pallax!!!

The level design in this WAD is really good. All of the levels are reasonably large, non-linear exploration-based levels, and there is a decent amount of variety between the locations that you visit.

Even though a fair amount of the WAD uses “gothic cathedral/castle”-type locations, there is also a “wild west”/”ancient Egypt”-style level and a gothic level that reminded me a lot of the ‘pale realm’ levels from “American McGee’s Alice”:

 *Whistles the theme tune from 'The Good, The Bad And The Ugly' *

*Whistles the theme tune from ‘The Good, The Bad And The Ugly’ *

Curiouser and curiouser! Best of all, the background music in this level actually sounds a bit like something from "American McGee's Alice" too :)

Curiouser and curiouser! Best of all, the background music in this level actually sounds a bit like something from “American McGee’s Alice” too πŸ™‚

One interesting piece of level design in this WAD is that each level requires you to collect all three skull keys in order to open a locked door that leads to the exit. These are the only locked doors that you will find in every level. This has the effect of streamlining the gameplay during the earlier parts of each level, whilst also forcing you to explore later (when you’ve got rid of most of the monsters).

In terms of difficulty, this WAD is enjoyably challenging and it is aimed at moderately experienced players. Whilst it isn’t really a “slaughtermap” WAD, there are still a decent number of mid-level and high-level monsters in each level (it’s on par with many modern “Doom II” WADs when it comes to the monster count, I guess).

This is one of the easier parts of level five. Then again, if you're still playing "Doom II" in 2017, then you've probably had at least a few years of practice anyway..

This is one of the easier parts of level five. Then again, if you’re still playing “Doom II” in 2017, then you’ve probably had at least a few years of practice anyway..

If you have fast reflexes, a good understanding of “Doom II” tactics and a sense of determination, then you can finish this WAD within a couple of hours. And you’ll have a lot of fun in the process πŸ™‚

In the spirit of 90s-style FPS gaming, this WAD takes a rather traditionalist approach to the gameplay. In other words, jumping is disabled by default. Not only that, each level is played from a pistol start thanks to some strategically-placed exploding barrels that appear after you step into the teleporter at the end of each level (and, yes, it takes a while to remember not to reflexively load your last save when you die at the end of every level).

Yes, I can see why the creator of this WAD did this – in order to ensure that each level has it’s own difficulty curve, and to make weapon placement matter more – but it does get annoying after a while. Even so, the new pistol texture makes up for this slightly.

I don't know why, but I really love it when FPS games include revolvers.

I don’t know why, but I really love it when FPS games include revolvers.

And tommyguns too!

And tommyguns too!

Although many of the new weapons in this WAD are simple sprite/sound replacements (for the fist, chaingun, rocket launcher, plasma cannon and BFG), they all look amazing. The best new weapon is probably the replacement for the BFG, which is this cool-looking staff with a skull on top of it.

But I was only able to find it in level one for some strange reason.

But I was only able to find it in level one for some strange reason.

In terms of the sound and music design, this WAD is really cool. Not only does the main character regularly use both Caleb’s laugh and the cultist dialogue from “Blood”, but the music for each level is suitably gothic and dramatic. However, the version that I played just had instrumental music playing during each level, rather than the music that is mentioned in earlier parts of the WAD’s thread in the ZDoom forums.

The best background music can be found in the third level, and it is very reminiscent of “American McGee’s Alice”. In addition to this, an excerpt from Handel’s “Messiah” plays whenever you pick up certain in-game items. Plus, when you complete each level, you are treated to some wonderfully creepy artwork, which is hilariously counterpointed with audio excerpts from a rather joyous religious sermon:

Hallelujah! I've completed the level!

Hallelujah! I’ve completed the level!

The only minor criticism I have of the sound design is that the tommygun sounds a little bit feeble. Yes, it still sounds like a machingun, but it seems a bit muted and muffled. Even so, it’s still fairly cool.

All in all, this is a really good WAD. It has a wonderfully gothic atmosphere, the levels are thrilling and you get to play as one of the cultists from “Blood”. Whilst it probably isn’t a “perfect” WAD in every way, it’s 1-2 hours of pure fun that will remind you why “Doom II” is still one of the best FPS games out there. And, unlike some modern WADs, it’ll actually run on old computers too πŸ™‚

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

Mini Review: “Black Out 2022” [“Blade Runner 2049” Prequel] (Short Film)

Well, although I probably won’t see “Blade Runner 2049” until it comes out on DVD (since I’ll probably end up watching it at least five times, probably more…), one cool thing about it is that the director Dennis Villeneuve hired three other directors to make short prequel films, that were then officially made freely viewable on Youtube.

Although I’ve watched the other two films, I thought that I’d review the third one – “Black Out 2022” – mostly because it was directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, the director of my favourite anime TV series (Cowboy Bebop). Yes, the director of “Cowboy Bebop” has made a “Blade Runner” anime! Words cannot describe how cool this fact alone is!

So, let’s take a look at “Black Out 2022”. Needless to say, this review will contain SPOILERS. Likewise, apologies about the low resolution of the screenshots in this review – I was so eager to watch the film that I lowered the resolution to 144p, so that buffering wouldn’t be an issue.

“Black Out 2022” is a 10-12 minute animated short that takes place in the year 2022. The Tyrell Corporation has released the Nexus 8 model, who have a normal human lifespan. The combination of this fact, and the shoddy privacy settings on the replicant database, lead to widespread anti-replicant riots where replicants are hunted down and lynched by angry mobs.

Whilst all of this is going on, a few replicants decide that the only way to stop it is to destroy the database via a terrorist attack on a computer facility using a fuel tanker.

Whilst this is going on, the military has noticed that one of their EMP missiles has been launched. However, one of the people in the control room is (to quote from one of K.W.Jeter’s Blade Runner novels) a “rep-symp”, having fallen in love with one of the replicants who is carrying out the attack on the facility.

Yes, this film features a replicant-sympathiser, like in K.W.Jeter’s sequel novels πŸ™‚

After the resulting cataclysmic devastation to the city, replicant prohibition is enacted and the Tyrell Corporation never recovers. However, a text screen then explains that – several years later- the Wallace Corporation manage to repeal the ban on replicants.

One of the first things that I will say about “Black Out 2022” is… wow! Seeing the look and feel of such a familiar film as “Blade Runner” replicated in anime form is absolutely astonishing!

Yes!!! A million times, YES!!! πŸ™‚

Even though I initially started drawing comparisons with the original “Ghost In The Shell” anime (itself inspired by “Blade Runner”), the short film’s aesthetics are quickly shown to be very much based on the original film.

Seriously, there are so many amazing visual references to the original film here – from the cityscape, to the projection room in the police station, to the noodle bar, to ESPER-like augmented reality glasses, to the Off-World blimp, to the Ennis House-style tiles on a building exterior, to the replicant database itself etc.. Likewise, Bryant and Gaff also make a cameo appearance too:

Oh my god! It’s Bryant and Gaff! πŸ™‚

And the noodle bar from the original film shows up briefly too πŸ™‚

And check out the Ennis House-style tiles in the background here too πŸ™‚

In terms of the animation, it is absolutely superb. If you’ve seen the “Cowboy Bebop” movie, you’ll know that Watanabe is an expert when it comes to fluid, fast-paced action scenes and this film doesn’t disappoint here. There are some brilliantly cinematic martial arts scenes:

Such as this fight between one of the replicants and several hooligans.

One of the great things about animation is that you can do impressive things on a relatively small budget, and “Black Out 2022” takes full advantage of this fact.

The destruction of the city is shown in full, with spinners falling from the sky in a spectacular fashion and lots of melodramatic explosions.

Like this scene showing the Off-World blimp crashing into a video billboard.

Or this astonishingly cool explosion scene.

Plus, of course, there’s some cool acrobatics involving a spinner and there’s also a wide variety of different locations too (again, no need to build physical sets etc…).

In terms of the characters and the story, this short film really excels. The nameless replicants are, true to the original film, portrayed as deeply human characters who ponder the nature of their own existence (with one opining that replicants don’t go to heaven or hell – life is all they have).

One particularly striking scene involves an ex-military replicant having a war flashback (which is very reminscent of the “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?: Dust To Dust” graphic novels) where he discovers that both sides in an off-planet war are only using replicant troops, like they were “toy soldiers”.

Seriously, this scene reminded me a lot of the “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? – Dust To Dust” graphic novels πŸ™‚

The story itself is really well-told too. Although the short film mostly revolves around one event, the background to this event is explored in a surprising amount of depth. Seriously, “Black Out 2022” crams more storytelling and characterisation into just 10-12 minutes than the average Hollywood film would manage in 30 minutes.

The only slight criticisms I have of this film (other than “why isn’t this a feature-length film?” or “why isn’t this a TV series?”) has to do with some of the voice-acting and dialogue. Basically, some of the voice acting has that corny “dubbed anime” sound to it, even though most of it is fairly good. Likewise, although the short film tells a complex story, a few lines of dialogue sound a little bit too simplistic.

In terms of music, this film sticks pretty closely to Vangelis’ excellent score for the original film… and it is a joy to listen to πŸ™‚

All in all, this short film is brilliant. It’s an official “Blade Runner” anime from the director of “Cowboy Bebop”! And, yes, it is as cool as this description suggests! Not only does it manage to cram a lot of storytelling and characterisation into an absolutely tiny running time, but it is also visually and dramatically spectacular too. Best of all, it can be watched for free on Youtube too πŸ™‚ Seriously, why aren’t you watching it right now?

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

Review: “Mr. Holmes” (Film)

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Although I’d heard of “Mr. Holmes” before, I didn’t get round to seeing it until shortly before writing this review. Since I was fairly tired at the time of writing this review, it may be shorter or more abrupt than my usual reviews are.

Likewise, this review may contain some minor SPOILERS

As you may have guessed from the title, “Mr. Holmes” is a film (from 2015) about Sherlock Holmes. Set in 1947, this film focuses on Holmes as an old man who lives near the Sussex coast with a housekeeper and her son. Like in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original stories, Holmes has dedicated himself to beekeeping in his old age.

However, thanks to both his failing memory and the curiosity of the housekeeper’s son, Holmes realises that he cannot recall the exact reason why he retired from detective work. He has vague memories of a case, but he suspects that Watson’s account of it was inaccurate. So, he must try to find out what actually happened during his final case….

One of the first things that I will say about this film is that it both was and wasn’t what I expected it to be. Although Holmes’ final case is an important part of the story, it isn’t really the main focus of the film in the way I had expected it to be. This is more of a poignant, tragic drama featuring Sherlock Holmes than a Sherlock Holmes film. It is also a film that will probably make you cry at least once.

Yet, despite the morose and sombre tone of the film, there are still hints of classic Sherlock Holmes within it. For example, he points out that 221b Baker Street was a false address created by Watson in order to prevent tourists bothering them. Likewise, there’s even a short Basil Rathbone-style segment too.

However, although Holmes does make a few clever deductions, they often tend to be fairly understated instead of celebrated. In other words, Holmes is presented as an intelligent, but ordinary, person – rather than the subtly superhuman character found in the stories.

Likewise, Holmes’ final case isn’t exactly the kind of story that Conan Doyle would have written. Then again, this is the whole point of the film’s story. It’s a story about Holmes’ weaknesses rather than his strengths. But, if you are expecting a “traditional”-style Sherlock Holmes mystery, then you’re probably going to be slightly disappointed.

In terms of the set design and filming, I cannot fault “Mr. Holmes”. Although most of the film is set within Holmes’ house by the coast, this is broken up by numerous flashbacks to both Holmes’ final case in London and a trip to Japan that he took in 1945/6, in search of a medicinal plant. All of the locations look suitably realistic, whilst also looking stunningly dramatic at the same time.

The acting in this film is, quite simply, superb. Although I disliked the tragic tone of the film, it was only able to carry as much emotional weight as it did because of strong performances from all of the central cast. Ian McKellen in particular gives an absolutely stellar performance as the elderly Holmes, although the decision that he should also play the “younger” version of Holmes was slightly ill-judged in my opinion. Whilst there is some contrast between the two versions of Holmes, it doesn’t really seem as great as the 25-30 year time difference that the film suggests.

Surprisingly though, Watson is never directly shown in this film. He is talked about, he appears in the distant background once, and we see a few close-ups of his hands but, we never really see him. Although I can understand the dramatic reasons for this – since it is very much a film about Holmes rather than Watson – it would have been nice to see more of Watson in this film.

All in all, as a drama film, this film is excellent and it carries a lot of emotional weight. However, it doesn’t really fit into my personal idea of what a Sherlock Holmes film should be. But, it’s a creative experiment that tries to explore and present the character in a complex, nuanced and unconventional way, and I have to respect it for that. But, if you’re expecting a “traditional”-style Sherlock Holmes adaptation, then you’re better off watching the sublimely brilliant ITV adaptation from the 1980s/90s.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, I’d probably give it about a four due to it’s creativity and the high quality of the acting, filming, writing etc… even if it wasn’t really my kind of Sherlock Holmes film.

Review: “Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut” (Computer Game)

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Well, although I am stuck on the final boss battle at the time of writing, I thought that it was about time that I finally reviewed this game. Although this isn’t technically the full review I’d planned to write, I’m probably about 95% of the way through the game, so it’s pretty close.

I first heard of “Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut” from this video review that I saw on Youtube. Although it didn’t really look like my type of game, the fact that it was a highly-praised modern game in the cyberpunk genre (that would actually run on my computer) made me interested.

I bought a direct download of this game quite a while ago when it was on special offer on GoG, although it is also available on services such as Steam. However, the GoG version comes with some extra goodies, such as a complimentary MP3 soundtrack download. Likewise, the GoG version is – of course – DRM-free too.

However, expect to take a while to get this game running. Although it uses pre-rendered backgrounds, text-based dialogue and relatively simple 3D graphics, the game download is over a gigabyte in size! In the 1990s/early 2000s, a game of this type would have probably fit onto a CD ROM! It also takes up a surprising amount of disk space when installed too. Not only that, it also comes with a 20mb patch which, for some bizarre reason, takes almost as long to install as the actual game itself does!

This review may also contain some mild gameplay SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut”:

shadowrun-dragonfall-review-title

“Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut” is a cyberpunk fantasy role-playing game (with turn-based combat) that was released in 2014.

The storyline of the game is somewhat complicated, but the basic premise is that the game is set in a vaguely “Neuromancer“-like future where – due to various events – dragons, trolls, orcs, elves, magic etc.. have also become part of the world. Yes, it sounds hilariously silly, but the game actually handles this part of the story fairly well.

The game begins in Berlin with a team of mercenaries (or “Shadowrunners”) led by the legendary computer hacker, Monika SchΓ€fer. She’s also the closest thing to the leader of an anarchist mini-state called “the Kreuzbasar”, and you are her second-in-command.

It is a night like any other, and you’ve got a mission to raid a nearby stately house and grab some data for a client. What could possibly go wrong….

See! It's an easy introductory level that will help you learn how to play the game... Of course!

See! It’s an easy introductory level that will help you learn how to play the game… Of course!

Joking aside, as much as I grew to like this game, the first level almost put me off completely. Although the events of the level are essential to the game’s rich and detailed story, it is probably one of the more difficult levels in the game! Yes, this sudden difficulty spike forces you to actually learn the game’s combat system. But, it isn’t exactly the friendliest way to introduce new players to the game.

That said, most of the game plays fairly well. You, of course, begin by creating a character. I created a human computer hacker called “Molly Millions” (because ‘Neuromancer’). You can choose to play as a variety of races (eg: human, orc, troll etc…) and you can choose to specialise in a number of skills too (eg: magic, hacking, drones etc..). There are a reasonable (but limited) number of pre-set appearance options for your character, but the level of customisation is still fairly impressive.

Although you can customise your 3D avatar somewhat, there are a fixed number of character portraits to choose from

Although you can customise your 3D avatar somewhat, there are a fixed number of character portraits to choose from

The gameplay itself revolves around exploration, dialogue and turn-based combat. Between missions, your character can explore the Kreuzbasar alone, stock up on items and talk to the local residents. Although the Kreuzbasar is a relatively small place, this limited size (along with one or two side missions early in the game) quickly helps you to learn where everything and everyone who matters is.

Plus, it just looks really cool too :)

Plus, it just looks really cool too πŸ™‚

 Plus, at one point, you have to look for a DVD player. It's like that episode of "Cowboy Bebop" with the VCR :)

Plus, at one point, you have to look for a DVD player. It’s like that episode of “Cowboy Bebop” with the VCR πŸ™‚

However, there are also both compulsory and optional missions that you have to complete. During these missions, you’ll usually be accompanied by up to three team members of your choice. Each team member has a different specialisation, and you’ll have to work out who is best for each mission.

For example, Glory is a medic who also excels at close combat, Eiger is an ex-military troll who is an ace with a sniper rifle and Dietrich is a washed-up punk rocker who can use magic. Likewise, you can also expand the team by temporarily hiring other mercenaries and/or letting a character called Blitz join the team a bit later in the game.

Plus, surprisingly, these characters are actual characters. For example, after the first mission, one member of the team will be incredibly pissed off at you. You can try to talk to her about it and win back her support, you can ignore her or you can argue with her. Although this doesn’t seem to affect the actual gameplay too much, it was kind of surprising to see the supporting cast acting and reacting in such a realistic character-based way, rather than just unquestioningly admiring the player.

As I mentioned earlier, this game uses turn-based combat. In each round, every member of your team has a fixed number of actions they can perform. So, you have to make tactical decisions about whether to use your characters’ limited number of action points to move to more advantageous locations, to reload their guns, to heal their wounded comrades and/or to attack any nearby enemies. This system can take a while to get used to, but it lends the combat an almost chess-like level of strategy.

 It'll take you a while to learn the combat system, but it's relatively self-explanatory.

It’ll take you a while to learn the combat system, but it’s relatively self-explanatory.

One of the things that is both a benefit and a flaw is that this is a “slow” game. Thanks to the long loading times (on older computers at least) and the chess-like pacing of the combat, this isn’t the kind of game that you can just play for five minutes.

On the plus side, the loading screens contain written narration that helps to pass the time...

On the plus side, the loading screens contain written narration that helps to pass the time…

To make any progress, you have to sink at least an hour or two into it at a time. Likewise, the game has a somewhat inconsistent saving system (eg: the “save” button will work in some areas, and it won’t work in others). So, you sometimes have to keep playing for a while longer than you expect if you want to save your progress.

But, on the plus side, putting a bit more time into this game is worth it because it’s wonderfully immersive, satisfyingly relaxing and thrillingly cerebral. Even the dreaded “timed segments” in this game rely on you having a limited number of turns, rather than an actual timer (which is brilliant!). It’s an action adventure game that is as relaxing to play as a “point and click” game is.

Yes, the timed levels are suspenseful. But, thanks to the timer not being an actual timer, you actually have enough thinking time and planning time for these levels to be enjoyable too.

Yes, the timed levels are suspenseful. But, thanks to the timer not being an actual timer, you actually have enough thinking time and planning time for these levels to be enjoyable too.

This “slowness” also gives you time to absorb the story and the world of the game. And, yes, this is one of those intelligent games that will really fire your imagination. The game includes things like a nuanced portrayal of an anarchist society (which is neither a utopia nor a dystopia), complex moral decisions, detailed written descriptions, character backstories and things like that.

Even though I’ve probably put at least 10-20 hours into this game, a brief glance at the Wiki for this game shows me that there’s still tons of optional story stuff that I’ve missed.

 Plus, there are lots of brief mentions of fascinating pieces of backstory which are then partially left to your imagination. Like this futuristic German version of the Battle Of Cable Street that Dietrich talks about before an optional mission.

Plus, there are lots of brief mentions of fascinating pieces of backstory which are then partially left to your imagination. Like this futuristic German version of the Battle Of Cable Street that Dietrich talks about before an optional mission.

For the most part, the game is fairly linear – although there are a few optional missions and additional mission objectives that you can choose to follow. Plus, whilst it isn’t even vaguely close to the versatility of a game like “Deus Ex“, there are sometimes multiple ways to complete particular missions.

For example, I got stuck on a level called “Bloodline” for a while because I didn’t have enough charisma points to sweet talk an electrician who was working on a building that the characters were supposed to break into (and my previous “all guns blazing” approach to entering the building had ended in failure).

Worried that I was completely stuck, I consulted a walkthrough and learnt that there’s a slightly hidden area nearby which allows yet another way to enter the building. Yes, it isn’t quite “Deus Ex”, but it’s still good that there are multiple ways to complete some of the missions.

Plus, this is a level where you pretty much need to have Blitz come along for the mission if you want to take a particular approach to completing the level.

Plus, this is a level where you pretty much need to have Blitz come along for the mission if you want to take a particular approach to completing the level.

Plus, being a cyberpunk game, there are also the obligatory “cyberspace” areas too. Interestingly, you can only access these if you play as a hacker (or have one on your team) but they look really cool. Not only that, your character also gets more “turns” within cyberspace than he or she does outside of cyberspace. For example, in a round of combat, your character can perform the equivalent of 9-15 actions in cyberspace per turn, whilst the characters outside of cyberspace are limited to just 2-3 actions per turn.

Well, it IS a cyberpunk game. So, I'd have been more shocked if there WEREN'T cheesy  "Tron"-like cyberspace segments :)

Well, it IS a cyberpunk game. So, I’d have been more shocked if there WEREN’T cheesy “Tron”-like cyberspace segments πŸ™‚

Likewise, a few earlier parts of the game have knock-on effects later in the game. For example, in one optional mission, you have to investigate mysterious disappearances in the sewers beneath the Kreuzbasar. In the end, you have a choice between siding with the hungry ghouls who live in the sewers or exterminating them. If you side with them then, when you have to visit the sewers to fight some bad guys later in the game, they’ll join forces with you and help you out.

Yes, contrary to what many other games have taught me, NOT killing the zombies is by far the best approach!

Yes, contrary to what many other games have taught me, NOT killing the zombies is by far the best approach!

The game contains a couple of counter-intuitive parts like this. For example, earlier in the game, you find a hotel room with a warning message on the door. If you open it anyway, you are confronted with a giant mutant scorpion that attacks you. Once you’ve defeated the scorpion, you can investigate the room…. where you promptly learn that it was someone’s beloved pet scorpion. Needless to say, I quickly loaded a previous saved game out of shame and then promptly ignored the room.

Yes, YOU'RE actually the villain in this scene!

Yes, YOU’RE actually the villain in this scene!

In terms of length, this game is massive! When I heard that it was a low-budget indie game, I expected something relatively short. But, I’ve spent about a month playing this game every couple of days or so and I’m still stuck on the final boss battle at the time of writing. Make no mistake, this is a full-length game – of the type that was pretty much standard back in the 1990s.

On a technical level, this game is (mostly) good. It will run on a computer that is over a decade old! However, there are a few small glitches and flaws. I’ve already mentioned the unpredictable availability of the “save” button, but also expect to mess around with the camera options for a while when you start playing (eg: be sure to set the camera to “fixed”, otherwise you have to move it manually). Likewise, the game froze up once (but only once) when I was playing it.

Plus, the game obscures any areas of the map that are not directly within your characters’ vision. Normally, this adds some suspense to the game – but, especially if you’re using an older computer, the game can sometimes take a bit longer to reveal “new” areas that you’ve entered. So, you can end up standing around in a background-less void for a few seconds before the background loads:

Either that, or the game has a hidden "goth mode".

Either that, or the game has a hidden “goth mode”.

As for the sound in this game, it’s brilliant. Although all of the dialogue is text-only, the weapons sound suitably dramatic and the background music is absolutely sublime. It’s a little bit reminiscent of the soundtrack to “Deus Ex” and it has a very atmospheric, electronic kind of sound to it. Whilst the music isn’t quite up to Perturbator levels of retro-futuristic awesomeness, it still sounds suitably cyberpunk.

All in all, “Shadowrun: Dragonfall – Director’s Cut” is a brilliant cyberpunk game. It’s intelligent, atmospheric and imaginative. It’s the kind of game that has to be played for hours at a time and can’t be completed in a couple of days. It’s a brilliantly immersive game that will linger in your imagination after you’ve finished playing it. Yes, a few parts are a little bit flawed and it isn’t a “perfect” game. But, it’s still an extremely good game nonetheless.

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

Review: “Brighton Belle” By Sara Sheridan (Novel)

2017-artwork-brighton-belle-review

Well, it has been way too long since I last wrote a book review (I think that the last one was in 2014!).

So, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting detective novel called “Brighton Belle” by Sara Sheridan that I got as a Christmas present last year (along with two other novels by the same author), and finished reading about fifteen minutes before I started writing this review (which was originally written quite a few months ago).

So, let’s take a look at “Brighton Belle”. However, I should probably point out that this review may contain some moderate PLOT SPOILERS:

This is the 2016 reprint (published by Constable [London]) that I read. I'm not sure if the original 2012 printing of the book used this cover art, but it looks really cool.

This is the 2016 reprint (published by Constable [London]) that I read. I’m not sure if the original 2012 printing of the book used this cover art, but it looks really cool.

“Brighton Belle” is the first novel in Sheridan’s ‘Mirabelle Bevan’ series – a series of self-contained detective novels set in Brighton during the 1950s. Mirabelle Bevan is a former military intelligence officer who ended up working in debt recovery after the end of World War Two.

“Brighton Belle” takes place in 1951 and it begins with a pregnant woman called Romana Laszlo arriving in Brighton. It soon turns out that she has run up some fairly large debts in London and, with Mirabelle’s boss off sick, it is up to Mirabelle to find her.

After talking to a Hungarian priest that she knew during the war, Mirabelle learns that Romana has died in childbirth. Although Mirabelle initially thinks that all she has to do is to make a formal claim against Romana’s estate, something seems slightly off about everything. So, she begins to investigate….

One of the first things that I will say about this book is that, although it gets off to a bit of a slow start, it’s fairly compelling. Sheridan’s third-person narration is slow-paced enough to allow for descriptions and characterisation, but fast-paced enough to remain interesting. “Brighton Belle” isn’t the kind of book that takes weeks to read, but it also isn’t the kind of lightning-fast thriller novel that you pretty much have to read in one sitting.

In other words, it’s the kind of wonderful book which you can read at your own pace. You can enjoy it in five-minute bursts or, like I did, read half of it within the space of about three hours. Another thing that helps to make “Brighton Belle” more readable is the fact that it’s a reasonable length too. In an age where virtually every novel seems to be a 400+ page doorstopper, it’s good to see a modern novel that is a streamlined 243 pages in length.

The mystery at the heart of “Brighton Belle” is, as you might expect, filled with all sorts of clever twists and turns. Whilst I’m wary about giving anything away, it’s one of those novels where several of the plot twists will initially seem slightly contrived until later in the story, when they begin to make sense. There’s also a well-placed red herring or two too.

However, despite all of the clever plotting, some parts of the ending seem a little bit rushed. Likewise, one part of the story seems more like something from an American detective novel than a British one.

At one point in the story, a character gets away with shooting an unarmed criminal in the back, with barely any questions or repercussions from the police. In an American detective story, this would hardly raise an eyebrow. But, in a story set in Britain, it just seems a little bit unrealistic and out of place (at the very least, there would have been an arrest and probably a trial).

Although I’d initially expected “Brighton Belle” to be more of a “Poirot” style detective story, it’s probably slightly closer to the hardboiled detective genre. Throughout the story, Mirabelle meets an assortment of shady characters and, like any good “film noir” detective, uses various extra-legal methods in her investigation. This is made especially interesting by the fact that Mirabelle isn’t really a typical hardboiled detective character.

In fact, despite working in wartime intelligence, she had little to no experience of fieldwork during the war. So, she often has to rely on information she remembers from military manuals, her instincts and things that she heard from people she worked with. This helps to add an extra element of suspense to the story, since she doesn’t really come across as the kind of experienced detective that is common in the noir genre. But, at the same time, she’s intelligent and tough enough not to come across as being too out of her depth either.

The other characters in this novel are all fairly well-written too. The main villain of the story is chillingly mysterious and, apart from a few intriguing hints, we never get to learn too much background information. The best supporting character is probably Vesta, a clerk in the office across from Mirabelle’s who ends up getting drawn into the mystery too. Although she mostly ends up being Mirabelle’s sidekick, she also becomes the closest thing that Mirabelle has to a friend and there’s also a good amount of contrast between the two characters’ personalities.

One slight problem with this novel is that, although the historical elements of the novel come across very well, I never really got a vivid sense of place. Even though it’s been a few years since I was last there, I’ve visited Brighton more times than I can remember and, yet, when I was reading the book, I found myself imagining the setting as a generic seaside town. This didn’t really affect my enjoyment of the story, but I’d have liked to have seen more descriptions of the narrow lanes, the ornate pier, the coast etc..

All in all, despite my occasional criticisms, “Brighton Belle” is an enjoyable novel. The characters are interesting and the mystery becomes more and more compelling throughout the novel. It’s very readable and short enough that you can read it over a few days or in one 5-6 hour session. If you like the “film noir” genre, or enjoy historical crime drama shows like “Boardwalk Empire” or the old ITV adaptation of “Poirot”, then it’s worth taking a look at this book too.

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