Button Mash To Glory: Dust: An Elysian Tail

Copyright © 2014 by Microsoft Studios.

Copyright © 2014 by Microsoft Studios.

Around the end of summer, I decided to get back to trying and playing new video games. The process started with Dream, an art game by HyperSloth Ltd. that gave me high hopes but didn’t yield as enjoyable an experience. Disheartened, I dove back through Steam’s listing of recent titles on sale and came across a relatively new PC release courtesy of Microsoft.

This is the beat ‘em up game known as Dust: An Elysian Tail.

Dust is the story of an amnesiac warrior armed with a sentient sword and accompanied by the weapon’s guardian, a flying girlish creature named Fidget. Dust and Fidget begin a quest to rediscover his identity and restore peace to the land, facing down hordes of monsters and aiding villagers as they move one step closer to unraveling a terrible mystery regarding the monster attacks in their land and Dust’s shady past.

At a certain point, fights become pretty one-sided. Copyright 2014 by Microsoft Studios.

At a certain point, fights become pretty one-sided. Copyright © 2014 by Microsoft Studios.

Looking beyond the story, Dust is a 2D side-scrolling beat ‘em up game with RPG elements. One thing about the combat system in this game is that it’s very simple to learn and very satisfying to use. After the first few fights, you quickly learn that you can clear any screen of enemies by holding down the right set of buttons while rapid-tapping your attack sequences. Of course, the game is nicely balanced out with occasional rock monsters and boss fights where rapid button mashing sometimes need to be broken so you can dodge an actual attack.

As for the RPG elements, they’re alright, but nothing inspiring. I honestly didn’t get much out of the more banal aspects of the game, like gathering materials that I could sell to local merchants or craft into new combat items. With the right combos, most enemies can’t touch you and you’ll level up pretty fast, so the occasional armor vest that grants +1 Defense doesn’t seem like all that great an investment.

It does show that Microsoft Studios and the Humble Hearts team really put a lot of effort into designing this game. Besides the variety of colorful monsters you get to battle, Dust also features a lovely setting, which is an odd mix of Edo Period architecture and landscapes populated by several species of talking animals. While some might dismiss the style as a bit too cartoonish, I didn’t find it to be that bad. It certainly didn’t distract from the simple joy of mowing down enemies with my sword and spinning attacks.

If you’re looking for a basic beat ‘em up game with a decent story, then Dust is the game for you. It’s not a game that requires a lot of skill, only persistence and a willingness to have fun whenever possible.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is available for purchase and download through Steam.

Bibliography: Dust: An Elysian Tail. Developed by Humble Hearts. Published by Microsoft Studios. Designed by Dean Dodril. Written by Dean Dodril and Alex Kain. Xbox 360, Microsoft Windows, Linux, OS X, PlayStation 4. Microsoft Windows release date: May 24, 2013.

Getting Lost on the Way to Log Out: Sword Art Online

Thanks to the wonder of getting my own Netflix subscription, I finally have access to so many anime series that I never would’ve watched before. One of these shows was the anime adaptation of a popular light novel known as Sword Art Online.

Copyright © 2012 by A-1 Pictures

Copyright © 2012 by A-1 Pictures

In 2022, Kirito is a young man who, like thousands of his peers, has become a skilled beta tester for a virtual reality MMORPG called Sword Art Online (SAO). However, on launch day, the game’s creator traps every player inside the virtual world, demanding that they fight their way to the final level and beat the game in order to reenter the real world. To survive and triumph, Kirito partners up with an equally talented female player named Asuna, with whom he finds love and a few answers about the madness driving this whole plot.

For the most part, what struck me most about this anime was (naturally) the animation. From its sharp lines and fluid color shadings to its detailed monster and player designs, it really is quite lovely to look at. For the most part, it’s a standard fantasy landscape of villages and beast-filled countrysides. However, what balances this out is the detail of the in-game controls and stats, which make this stand out as a show about roleplaying games.

However, the cast doesn’t quite pull me in. Kirito should be interesting as our protagonist, who has a prior knowledge of the game as a beta tester, but he just becomes another generic fantasy hero for most of the series. The same goes for Asuna, who could have been interesting if they’d played up the lone wolf dynamic from her first appearance, but she pretty quickly devolves in the standard action girl love interest for our dark, brooding male hero. As the show went on, I stayed sympathetic for these characters, but they didn’t exactly stand out against the backdrop of their fairly generic fantasy world.

I think the biggest problem I had with this series is that it never quite delivered on its original premise. It’s supposed to be a major shock when the game’s creator cruelly traps thousands of players inside the virtual world, forcing them to literally win or die. The players all have families and lives outside the game, which they no longer can touch or feel. But the show never took any steps in this direction. We never learned why the creator did what he did and we don’t see what the real world’s reaction to this horror is like. I would have loved to have seen a real-world subplot throughout the series. Perhaps a tech specialist trying to work around the virtual barriers and free as many minds as possible, forming some bridge between the two worlds.

Ultimately, even with an intriguing premise and high-quality animation, I felt like Sword Art Online is a bit of a mess. It never follows through on its own premise and devolves into a pretty standard fantasy shonen anime, albeit with one or two nods to MMORPGs. It could’ve been great, but it took a few too many hits and its life meter is reading critical.

The English dub and broadcast of Sword Art Online is available through Aniplex of America.

Bibliography: Sword Art Online (anime). Directed by Tomohiko Itō. Based on the light novel by Reki Kawahara. A-1 Pictures (studio). Aniplex of America (US distributor). Adult Swim (Toonami). Original broadcast: July 7, 2012December 22, 2012.

Magic in Every Page: Libriomancer by Jim C. Hines

Copyright © 2012 by Jim C. Hines. Cover art by Gene Mollica.

Copyright © 2012 by Jim C. Hines. Cover art by Gene Mollica.

Every kid has fantasies. The vast majority of those kids love to play out their favorites, whether they’re swinging imaginary lightsabers or flying on the back of a winged horse or literally anything else they can think of. But strange as it may seem, not too many authors have actually tackled that power of imagination so directly.

That’s where Jim C. Hines comes in. Libriomancer is the first book of his Magic Ex Libris series, which tell the story of Isaac Vainio, his partnership with a sexy dryad named Lena Greenwood, and his tempestuous relationship with a secret society of magic-users known as Die Zwelf Portenære—a.k.a. the Porters, led by none other than the immortal Johannes Gutenberg. The source of their power lies in the collective imagination of the human race. If it’s in a book, they can reach out and summon it into the real world, both the good and the bad.

In Book One, we see Isaac make his return to the field when war breaks out between the Porters and the vampires, as a series of murders and attacks prompts an investigation into a rogue libriomancer and his warped agenda. Isaac must navigate both the halls of power and his own heart, with so many of his preconceptions challenged and tossed aside before the day is won.

As a main character, Isaac is rather unusual. At first glance, you might be forgiven for seeing him as another cookie-cutter urban fantasy hero: a dude in a long coat battling monsters in the back alley while spouting off pop culture references left and right. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find a nice helping of mad scientist, too; Isaac is so enamored with the theories and laws of magic that he’ll easily forget himself and try to work out every last detail and spell just to understand a little more. Some might call it obsessive, but I find it a very human trait, especially for a geek like him. And given how he’s written, I get the impression that Isaac is meant to be a mirror for the geek population that makes up most of the novel’s audience.

The same curious depth goes for his would-be love interest Lena Greenwood. In fact, Lena’s whole character is a very clever deconstruction of the Strong Female Love Interest. In that she literally is a character from a fictional novel, endowed with supernatural strength and a driving urge to be Isaac’s lovernot by the Creator, but by a hack author. What makes Lena so enjoyable, though, is that she both accepts her nature and tries to move beyond it, defining herself by other choices rather than what she was originally written to be. The fact that she’s a rare dryad in modern fiction doesn’t hurt either.

I also loved the mythology that Hines created for his secret side of the modern world. Besides immortal historical figures like Gutenberg and Ponce de Leon, we also get to see geopolitics among magic-users, an impressive take on the different fictional species of vampires, the twelve automatons, and the long-term effects of serious magical energy on both books and people. It’s clear that a lot of thought went into the field of libriomancy, from power drainage to size constraints to the limits of channeling collective human belief.

Truly, I had a lot of fun reading this story, and yet, something didn’t exactly grab me by the end of it. I still can’t quite put my finger on it. I mean, this is a book that has a librarian and a dryad fighting vampires with wooden katanas, laser pistols, and magic herbs from The Odyssey. How could I not love every page of this?

Looking back, it could be that I got a bit too much setup and exposition for the Magic Ex Libris universe instead of some more potent interior moments with Isaac. And it could just as easily be that I’m getting hung up on common Book One issues and the rest of the series is still going to be enjoyable. I sincerely hope it’s the latter and I’ll try to get back to reading and reviewing more of this series in the not-too-distant future.

Libriomancer is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Hines, Jim C. Libriomancer (Magic Ex Libris, Book One)DAW Books: New York, 2012.

Where Syndromes and Security Meet: Lock-In by John Scalzi

Copyright © 2014 by John Scalzi

Copyright © 2014 by John Scalzi

By all accounts, I should be more into John Scalzi’s body of work. I already follow his blog and I love his last book, RedshirtsHowever, I never had the time to get through his famous Old Man’s War series or other key novels.

However, this year he came out with a new standalone novel called Lock In and I knew I had to give it a read. Much like Redshirts, this story’s very accessible, with a touch more science fiction and social commentary balanced around a very tight murder mystery.

In the far future, a terrible outbreak of a disease known as Haden’s Syndrome affects millions of people worldwide, trapping them inside their own bodies. Money and years of research have allowed those victims (known as “Hadens”) to interact with the world through synthetic bodies (known as “threeps”) and human bodies for hire (known as “Integrators”). When Chris Shane, a well-known Haden, starts his job with the FBI, he finds himself investigating a murder in D.C. on the eve of a massive Haden protest march. With his partner Leslie Vann, Chris quickly finds himself lost in a conspiracy of corporate espionage and the growing Hadens subculture, all while questioning where he himself fits into this brave new world.

I will say that Chris Shane could have easily been a generic detective in a murder mystery, but as a Haden who relies on threeps to be an FBI Agent, he adds a layer of complexity, from his hardened shell and instant Web access to his bitterness over the treatment of Hadens in the US. From here we get a sympathetic lens into the Haden culture and how he interacts with other Syndrome victims. The same applies to his partner Vann, a former Integrator (meaning she has a different form of Haden’s). Both of them are a nice balance of virtues and flaws, like courage under fire versus self-loathing.

I also love the worldbuilding that Scalzi goes into, not all of which is based on Hadens. We see the necessities of threeps and Integrators and the Agora, but we also get a look at social implications. There’s the massive cut in federal spending on Hadens, a major shift toward privitization and a changing corporate landscape, a Haden separatist movement led by Cassandra Bell, and the resentment or alienation between Hadens and healthy human beings (with slurs like “clankers” and “Dodgers” thrown around for good measure). But we also get nice tidbits like driverless cars and a Navajo Nation server farm–small advances that add to the story’s atmosphere and a sense of the future where everything takes place.

On the whole, I really enjoyed the story and the atmosphere it developed. On a social science fiction level, it beautifully explores every aspect of a fictional disease. I would’ve liked to have focused a bit more on the Agora, the concept of liminal space, and Cassandra Bell’s separatists, but I can let it go for the sake of the plot. Speaking of which, the story is very tight, moving quickly through interviews, research, brief tussles with armed suspects, and the occasional expository dialogue. I thought the whole resolution in the final chapters was pretty solid, albeit a bit anticlimactic. Of course, real life is a bit anticlimactic, so maybe it’s just as well.

If you’re looking for a tight murder mystery with a heroic FBI agent, then this is your book. If you want a creative social science fiction story, then I continue to recommend this. And while I’ve been referring to the main character by the male pronoun this whole review, in truth, Shane is written with a level of ambiguity with regard to race and gender, so this is a rare opportunity for readers to delve into a story and picture the protagonist however they like. On that count alone, it’s definitely worth reading more than once.

Lock In is available for purchase through booksellers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Bibliography: Scalzi, John. Lock In. New York: Tor Books, 2014.

First Look: The Legend of Korra: Book Four: Balance

Much to everyone’s surprise, the showrunners of The Legend of Korra announced that the fourth and final season would premiere only a few months after the third season finale. Then again, so much about Korra has been up in the air (from being renewed for additional seasons to changing to an online-only broascast) that it’s hard not to take such news in stride.

With that said, here’s a look at the opening to Book Four: Balance.

Copyright © 2014 by Nickelodeon

Copyright © 2014 by Nickelodeon

In the pilot episode “After All These Years,” we skip ahead to 3 years after the fall of the Earth Queen and the defeat of Zaheer. Korra has disappeared following her recovery from the Red Lotus attack, leaving the task of preserving balance and defending justice to the newly restored Air Nomads led by Tenzin and Jinora. Meanwhile, the Earth Kingdom is preparing to welcome its new ruler, Prince Wu, back from exile while also feeling the iron fist of the elite general Kuvira (voiced by Zelda Williams), who brooks no argument in her quest to pacify the kingdom under her particular brand of justice.

So what does this season have to offer so far?

  • New character arcs. Despite her name being in the show’s title, we get to see barely anything from Korra herself in this episode. Instead, we see all the things that the new Team Avatar has been up to in the last three years. I like that Asami is helping connect the world through Future Industries and the ways in which Mako and Bolin are contributing to the restoration of the Earth Kingdom. Even side characters like Opal are getting their own arcs. It’s a healthy approach after spending so much time focused on Korra and her personal needs (though her arc this season will undoubtedbly be the strongest of them all).
  • An interesting antagonist. Kuvira is an interesting antagonist. She has the common well-intentioned extremist brand that so many other Korra villains carried, but she seems to be far more effective at her job, almost on the scale of Amon or Azula. She inspires fear in the name of justice and isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty. She definitely comes across as a sinister counterpart to Avatar Korra, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
  • The Air Nomads in action. Ever since the start of Book Three, seeing the return of airbenders has been a real treat in Korra. I love everything I’ve seen about the new Air Nomads, from the new aerodynamic uniforms to the partnership between young recruits like Opal and Kai. It’s a return to the playful spirit that Aang and his friends exhibited during the Last Airbender saga
  • A glimpse at Korra’s journey. The biggest change this show has to offer in Book Four isn’t merely physical or political. The last few minutes showed us Korra who for once didn’t define herself as the Avatar or try to live up to her own legend. That alone is an interesting premise and worth following up on this season.

Ultimately, what this season seems to be focused on is the same fundamental question: “How does this world do without the Avatar?” It’s a question you consider whether you’re looking at Kuvira’s Napoleonic rise to power or the return of the Air Nomads or Korra’s own struggle to define her identity. Whatever this season may bring, I can only hope that it lives up to that promise of a mature look at the Avatar universe as much as possible.

The final season of The Legend of Korra is available through Nickelodeon. New episodes air on Fridays.

Bibliography: The Legend of Korra Book Four: Balance. Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Ki Hyun Ryu, Colin Heck, and Ian Graham. Written by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Tim Hedrick, and Joshua Hamilton. Produced by Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko, Joaquim Dos Santos, and Tim Yoon. Ginormous Madman, Studio Mir, Nickelodeon Animation Studio, and Studio Pierrot. Nick.com (channel). Original broadcast date: April 14, 2012 to present.