Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Cadian Honour by Justin D Hill (Warhammer 40,000 Book Review)

While fandoms end up demanding the change of a status quo sooner or later, few tend to be prepared to deal with the consequences. It's usually the demand for some huge change, or shift to keep things interesting, but without a deeper understanding of how this might impact the world at large. This was the case with Warhammer 40,000, where the fandom had long been demanding for the timeline to move forward, but few people seemed to ask "So what now?"

Most of the books tackling subjects of "How has this changed the setting?" have thus far focused upon the Adeptus Astartes or Craftworld Eldar (Well, Ynnari with some Craftworlders, anyway). This time a novel has taken the time to examine this on a much more human level, with the impact brought about by Cadia's fall. When the Gate fell, the Imperium didn't simply lose its main bulwark against the Traitor Legions; the Imperial Guard lost one of their greatest bastions and recruiting worlds. With Cadia gone, the question now is "How will this impact the Cadians? Do they even have a future?"

It's an interesting question, and the book thankfully delves into it in great detail.

The Synopsis

Even in the wake of their homeworld's destruction, the Cadian Shock Troops continue to wage war in the Emperor's name. Fighting across one battlefield after the next, they push to solidify and stabilize the Imperium following the emergence of the Great Rift. Yet none can deny that the Cadians have seen better days. With their system destroyed, every casualty can no longer be replaced, and their dying nature is slowly sapping morale among troops.

The Cadian 101st is among those left in the wider galaxy. Now largely delegated to assisting more numerous groups with their ongoing wars, they continue to campaign in the Emperor's name in spite of growing indignities. The latest among these is assisting the religious fanatics known as the Brotherhood on the world of Potence, a seemingly peaceful world which does not require their presence. Yet the methods used by Chaos to corrupt others are often subtle, and soon Sergeant Minka Lesk is leading her unit into a warzone which is far more hostile than anyone could have imagined.

The Good

Let's get the obvious one out of the way first - This isn't Gaunt's Ghosts. Don't deny it, just about all of you thought of them at least briefly during that introduction due to the direction and style of Cadian Honour. While there are some general comparisons which can be drawn up between the two series, they more or less begin and end with "Regiments who have lost their homeworld and are dying out".

The Ghosts had barely been established at the time Tanith was put to the torch, and the world itself was fairly remote. By comparison, Cadia was known across the Imperium as a fortress, supplying multiple renowned regiments and millions if not billions of troops across various battlefields. That loss carries substantially more weight, and Hill does not ignore that. For one thing, the opening of the story reflects upon this by establishing how the loss of Cadia has influenced Imperial Guard (and yes, I am going to keep calling them that) politics among the more famous forces. Other Commanders are jostling to push the Cadians out of the limelight even as a new Gate is being established; some even go so far as to depict the Thirteenth Black Crusade as an outright failure which can be blamed purely upon the Cadians.

The entire narrative is aware of just how massive an impact the loss of a homeworld would be on a major Imperial army, and it does not let up on this point. Better yet, it shows this both in major and minor ways, and the nature of this influence varies from character to character. One of the more notable ones which quickly highlights this is how the aforementioned Brotherhood is deployed to a world ahead of the Cadians, breaking the tradition of the Cadians being the spearhead of most attacks. It's seemingly not due to their limited numbers in this case so much as political pressure, regulating the Cadians to a secondary role. Better yet, this is conveyed without spelling it out word by word.

Furthermore, this isn't a "woe is me" story which keeps beating you over the head with this point. Hill could have very easily overplayed this element given how prominent it is, but the delivery is careful to avoid becoming utterly tedious. It is constantly present - and it is certainly less than subtle - but we have seen far, far worse than this in many sources of media over the years.  The very fact that it is used as a character building point and a means to introduce various soldiers quickly establish it as being treated as important but not overwhelming. It's more akin to the pre-Perturabo Iron Warriors having to endure indignities than, well, the Blood Angels in some of their worst stories.

So, what of the characters themselves? With an Imperial Guard novel authors are typically given the chance to offer a more varied number of figures than other races. The unenhanced human element certainly works in their favour, and Cadian Honour features an ensemble of varied and engaging characters throughout the ranks. 

Minka Lesk herself is the most obvious among these, and it's easy to see why she was highlighted on the cover. Her role and general actions throughout the story leaves her at the forefront of the fighting, but it keeps her presence to a surprisingly realistic level. Yes, I am using that word with a Warhammer 40,000 novel, and it is deserved here. Even the best series have a habit of pushing their characters over into areas of near invulnerability when it comes to battles, but with Lesk it's much more evident that she truly could die at any moment. This makes her character arc in the book far more engaging, and it helps to offer a more human face to the Imperial Guard as a whole. General Bendikt - the very first character the book introduces - is another among these, and arguably the deuteragonist alongside Lesk. He offers a depiction of life at command level for the Cadians now and a broader view of the problems they face, but it veers away from the expected outcome to something more engaging in the final pages. That and it highlights the stupidity of a character trope which will not die, which is a definite bonus in its favour.

The combat is solidly written across the board, but it avoids the out-and-out murderfest and meatgrinder that you might expect. It takes some time to get into an outright firefight, and the first segments with any action are an honour duel and then an accident. It helps to set the tone for the book and is closer, in many regards, to what you would get from a Ciaphas Cain story than a typical Imperial Guard book. This makes it all the more interesting when it shifts gears and gets into outright firefights, and Hill's manner of writing makes for excellent skirmishes. He has a talent for conveying an extremely vast amount of information with implication or cutting away at the "fat" of certain descriptions. This works in various fights, and squad level battles, in particular, are something that Hill handles well.

Unfortunately, given how much praise is leveled at smaller scale combat, you can imagine what we're going to delve into with the next bit.

The Bad

The single greatest flaw of Cadian Honour lies in its structure more than anything else. No, not its plot, nor even its prose, but how it divided up its chapters. Each one is incredibly short, which means you can be just getting into a scene when it draws to a close. This is only further highlighted by the way in which each segment of the book is further divided up into individual parts, and it means that each "chapter" in question can be as short as five pages long. In fact, most of them are about five pages long. 

While Hill doesn't repeat the mistake of certain authors by having the narrative leap about so fast you can't keep track of it - and you can probably guess which exact one I am thinking of if you've been with us for a few years now - this is still a problem. It divides up the tale in a way which makes you feel as if you're constantly starting over, and doesn't hold on a scene long enough for it to fully stay in your mind. It will stick with certain characters for chapters at a time, but it is never given the room to breathe. There's never a scene long enough to build up the atmosphere found in other books like Talos meeting Abaddon or Eisenhorn rushing through an Imperial parade turned into a historic disaster.

Because of its short length, the book also abandons many of the descriptive strengths which can further help work toward the strengths of Warhammer as a setting. There are few descriptions of barren wastes, hives or gothic architecture, or elements which fully convey age. It starts promisingly enough with a moment featuring a star fortress being towed into orbit, but it never manages to successfully repeat that moment. This leaves it very reliant upon its characters to keep the story engaging. While it certainly gets that right, it doesn't get it completely on point. Oh, the core cast is fine, but it drops the ball with the villains.

While it would be a spoiler to delve into who the book's antagonists are, you might be able to guess who they will be very early on. The story tries to partially disguise it as a secret, but it doesn't quite work. In fact, the book seems to half reveal and half disguise who they are at the start, while also trying to establish their presence as a surprise. It never fully works because of this muddled state, in spite of a few genuinely good scenes which makes it look as if this will all come together in the final few chapters. However, even with this considered, they never appeared to be all that engaging. There's a definite logic as to why they were chosen, but even in chapters intended to flesh them out, I never regarded them as more than an obstacle. Unless they are a force of nature like the Tyranids or (in some cases) the Necrons, this rarely works. The few times it does offer their primary characters a chance to speak also doesn't do much to raise them beyond being a general archetype.

Furthermore, the enemy in question is one of those creations which is interesting in of itself, but doesn't quite work in a story. Were this a tale written in a codex format or basic segment written as a synopsis, it would be an interesting and very engaging creation. The problem is, as it is described here, it lacks the innate punch or more curious angles to help them stand out. As a result, their best moments come from small segments which impact the heroes, but they fail to be fully engaging in of themselves.

The Verdict

Cadian Honour is a solid book on the whole, with some very good ideas and it handles its core themes fairly well. However, there's no denying that I personally thought that the ideas it brought up were more enjoyable than the book itself, and it was lacking in a few key areas. The overall narrative structure is ultimately its greatest weakness, and with lengthier chunks between each chapter heading, this might be substantially more positive. As it is, it seemed to hold back a few fairly engaging and very interesting core concepts, and limit time spent delving into the minds of the core characters.

This is going to vary heavily from person to person and, as such, I do suggest giving this one look for yourself before making your mind up. If you're an Imperial Guard fan or someone who is hungering for something with a more human perspective following the fall of Cadia, add a few more points onto the final score. Even if you're not, it's still worth a look, but don't expect to read through it more than once or twice.

Verdict: 5.2 out of 10

Friday, 22 March 2019

Siege of Terra: The Solar War - Scalpers and Appropriate Responses

So, the Horus Heresy has ended. Were I given more time (along with a working laptop and a workplace which actually has a staff number which meets requirements) there would likely be a few thoughts on that. It's coming, hopefully, but for the moment there is something more pressing to discuss.

With the end of the Horus Heresy itself, Games Workshop has announced that there will be a full series following the Siege of Terra. The number is estimated to be eight books in total, perhaps with a number of short stories surrounding them as well. In of itself, this seems like a questionable decision. Three books, perhaps four and an anthology, seems like all that would be needed to fully cover the Siege. While there is some room for the space-based conflict, stretching it out further seems like it could repeat some of the Heresy's more egregious mistakes. With that being said, judgment will be reserved on this until I at least see the first of these books. For a lot of people, that has suddenly been made much, much more difficult.

You see, scalpers are a problem with every franchise, but Games Workshop and Black Library have been largely successful in escaping them. While certain special editions will run out after a few hours, you can still find others on store shelves weeks or even months after their release, ready for purchase. This made it easier to get around the usual issue of people uploading products onto eBay at three times their buying price, or purchasing them in bulk. While those could be found, they were typically limited only to highly-praised and well-known series of works by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. Or both, given that probably goes without saying. However, it was steadily becoming worse, and this latest collector's edition finally opened the floodgates

The Solar War was the straw which broke the camel's back, and it was understandable why. It was a follow-up to a hugely popular series, had a few excellent bonuses, and one of the best covers to date. As such, within hours, every scalper, nutter, and guy looking to exploit the limited run for all it was worth rushed the website. Crashing the page several times, every book was rapidly pillaged and claimed by the scum of the earth, leading to copies appearing on eBay at six times the selling price.

You might be saying at this point that this was bound to happen sooner or later, and that Black Library should have been prepared for this. To a point, I would agree. Those running the publisher could have kept an eye on how this trend tended to play out with other media, or even companies such as Nintendo's mini-consoles. They didn't even need to pay that close attention to them, just to read the headlines and outrage. With that being said, the sheer scale of this spike was nevertheless ridiculous. It jumped from the most popular books disappearing in a few days with the odd dozen showing up online, to The Solar War disappearing in a few hours due to scumbags buying them in bulk.

In previous years, at least the Tom Kirby helmed years, that was where this likely would have ended. Games Workshop was outfoxed, but made all the money they wanted, and this hobby became a little more toxic as a result. Thankfully this wasn't the case. Within a day of outrage from this particular debacle flooding social media, Warhammer Community (a Games Workshop page you should seriously pay attention to, along with a couple of great podcasts) had a post-following up on the announcement. It can be read in full here, but within the first few paragraphs the writers quickly addressed their mistakes:

"Before we get to that though, We’ve also got some important news on the limited edition of The Solar War to share with you… read on!

Last weekend saw The Solar War, the first book in the new Horus Heresy: Siege of Terra megaseries (like a miniseries, but approximately 1000% more epic), released as a lavish limited edition. We’re aware that there were some issues with the release on the Black Library site, and we wanted to let you know about the steps we’re taking to make sure future limited edition releases run more smoothly.

From Book 2 onwards, the limited editions will be available exclusively on the Games Workshop webstore – and they’ll be limited to one per order, to ensure everyone gets the best chance to get their hands on a copy. In addition, there are some copies of the limited edition left over after the website issues – and there will be a second chance to get your hands on them in May, when the hardback, eBook and MP3 audiobook formats are also released."

While it doesn't outright cite their error or the issues behind it, it does admit to the fact that they were aware of the problem itself. The very fact that this limitation has been imposed to one per order is a step toward fixing this error, and it is a rapid solution. They cannot instantly reverse or alter the damage done, but they can shore up their defences for next time. This act is a clear indication of a desire to do better, and I think that is something that Games Workshop isn't credited often enough for doing. Ever since Kevin Rountree took control, the company has seen a massive shift toward boosting PR and being far more proactive in fixing problems. The fact that this was put through mere days after the fiasco, and promoted ahead of their major hype-building article, makes it evident that they desired to avoid future failings.

Another definite area to bring up here is that the company admits that there is always some wiggle-room when it comes to these products. The means that, intentionally or not, they can withhold some to allow for others to pick them up should they miss the initial rush. By keeping some in reserve like this - or even forcing the website to delay for updates - it can more easily avoid efforts to limit widespread sales to customers. Even if scalpers seek to grab them all at once, that will cause them problems. After all, being forced to buy them one at a time - and account for far higher postage costs - will always create issues for bastards more concerned with money than the product itself.

So, overall, while it is a failing on Games Workshop's part, I can't help but applaud the response. Rather than giving me reason to drag them over the coals thanks to this, it's one more reason to be thankful that the entire franchise has encountered a new golden age.

Sunday, 17 March 2019

Doctor Who: Series 11 - General Thoughts & Analysis

So, this is long overdue. While Doctor Who has been a subject that the blog has delved into several times now, episodes of the modern series tend to be tackled on a one-by-one basis. Unfortunately, the last one ended up falling through the cracks for a variety of reasons. As such, this isn't quite striking while the iron is hot, so much as it is staggering to the forge hours late and trying to make something of it. Yet, there are things to say about Series 11 which are both positive and negative. Perhaps the single greatest one among them was that it seemed to be at long last learning from its mistakes.

The previous showrunner, Steven Moffat, might have closed out his run on a high note, but he was undeniably divisive. He was ambitious, driven and had the desire to take chances when it came to improving the franchise as a whole. While aiming to keep experimenting and doing something different is typically laudable, Moffat typically took things a few steps too far. Much like John Nathan-Turner decades before him, Moffat never seemed to know when to stop taking chances. Worse still, he seemed addicted to complexity for complexity's sake, and certain character archetypes at times. This had reached the point of overshadowing Moffat's mistakes, and the roller-coaster ride of quality must have been on Chris Chibnal's mind when it took over, as his storytelling was very much a reaction to this.

Many of the stories within Series 11 were - pun not intended - far more down to Earth. They were still often space-based, benefitted from the mania of the franchise, and the dynamic with the Doctor and her companions was the same as usual. However, there was a noted shift in storytelling. The series rapidly abandoned series-spanning story arcs or end-of-the-universe events every twenty seconds, or even the more convoluted time travel elements. It's telling that in this Doctor's first introduction, and throughout much of her second episode, she was armed with little more than her wits, a few kind people and her past experience. While it wasn't a complete effort to revert back to prior sagas, it felt more like the dynamic of the Peter Davidson and Tom Baker eras.

The threats present in each episode were far from mundane, but took on a few more recognizable qualities. Ideas like rogue factory workers, an alien bounty hunter, giant mutant spiders, and a metal eating alien beast became the more common threats. These peppered the likes of unique sentient universes exiled from our plane of existence, or world stealing superweapons. As such, it felt like an effort to remind people why these concepts were special, rather than having them so often show up in the series. This dynamic shift could have easily seemed like a step-down, but instead, the show found new ways to work around them. It introduced stories which better explored human themes and elements in more mundane settings, but still made them engaging to watch through tight writing and excellent direction. Rosa, for one, was the first more-or-less true historical tale for a long time, and explored the subject of racism with more nuance and tact than most modern-era efforts would have been capable of. Equally, the excellent Demons of the Punjab proved to be one of the best tales of human atrocities in years, and the main threat of that story proved to be a bait-and-switch.

By changing up the nature of the content and its very direction, this new era of the show was quickly able to distance itself from its predecessor. While it did not always get things right, nor was ever tale perfect, it was a noted change from the style people had become familiar with over the past several years. Ultimately this benefitted it both by having Jodie Whittaker seem far more distinct a shift in direction, storytelling and concepts, and lacked much of the baggage a few previous efforts had been lumbered with. While this is coming from someone who loved both the Paternoster Gang and Peter Capaldi, the fact that so much of Capaldi's initial run seemed like an extension of the Matt Smith Era was an undeniable mistake. You can do that for a while (like with Tom Baker's first series) but a new Doctor needs to move away and take things in a different direction from his or her predecessor; allowing them to stand out on their own and establish their own era.

The visual direction of the show underwent a notable improvement in many areas, especially in terms of camerawork. Compare the opening few stories of this series to those of any other Doctor save Capaldi, and you might notice a few things. Many of the shots within the show took on a bigger-budget quality to them, utilizing the sort of directorial choices that wouldn't be out of place in a miniseries or high-quality film production. This helped to elevate the show beyond its usual budget problems, and to further emphasise its distinction from previous efforts.

A further noteworthy area worth praise stemmed from the actual execution of many stories. A fair number of scripts saw a few substantial improvements over the past series in addition to the new direction in content. They lacked the perpetually rushed feeling which plagued more than a few tales, and when something had a fast start, it typically waited a few minutes to say "By the way, this is happening" before plunging you headlong into the narrative. This helped to not only better establish the characters, but also to give the companions more to do outside of the current crisis. While all the companions to date have benefitted from an excellent choice of actors, and usually good writing behind them barring a few noteworthy failings, Series 11 benefitted from a few new changes. For one thing, three companions was a dynamic the show typically skirted about over fully utilizing, and the broader range of education history, age groups, and professions benefitted their distinctions. That and the show's creative use of bus drivers.

Most pressingly, however, was the use of the Doctor's gender in all of this. Marketing material made a great fuss about Jodie Whittaker being the first woman to take the role. Well, the first one outside of a fairly bad Big Finish story, and technically Jenna Coleman. It proved to be a key point in marketing to get this series off to a great start, and draw people back to the show after they had been trickling away for some time. However, there was one major concern about how this could be handled. The reason more than a few (saner) fans were worried about a woman taking the role, was because she would become a River Song clone. This wasn't an entirely invalid concern, as there had been no shortage of these, and the first male-to-female regeneration involved chracterisation defined purely by snark, and an announcement of "Thank God I'm a woman, how do you deal with all that testosterone."

Rather than making gender a key focus of every episode, the Doctor was just written as the Doctor. Jodie Whittaker and acting capabilities mattered far more than her gender, and the few jabs present were more appropriate to the era or individual moment rather than a constant barrage of them. While the promotional material helped to show how important this new change was for the show, the episodes themselves used the kind of restraint and focus it needed to prevent this change seeming like a marketing gimmick. The Doctor herself also had the sort of enthusiasm you would expect as a reaction to her predecessor, and it helped to give the show a very engaging upbeat feel. It showed promise for the future, and emphasised the out-and-out fun which had benefitted the highlights of the Matt Smith era, along with the need to shift to seriousness when required.

However, there were a few undeniable flaws here. The big one, more than anything else, was that it took quite some time for Whittaker to stand out from the crowd. Her introductory episode, and the one following both carried the same opinion from more than a few audiences: This seems an awful lot like David Tennant. This never truly stopped throughout the run, and while the show did improve on this, those familiar with the Tenth Doctor kept noting how similar she was in mannerisms and opinions. The last thing any Doctor needs is to be compared with an already popular predecessor due to their mannerisms, and for at least a few people it seemed as if the show was using a fan favourite as a clear reference.

Another definite problem in terms of writing was how it was rather hit and miss when it came to the meaning behind its stories. The quality of storytelling was far more consistent overall, as it wasn't taking risk after risk. It never seemed like it was reaching the heights of some tales, but it was making up for it by going off in new directions and avoiding many lows. However, outside of its historical tales, the current writing came across as extremely toothless at many points. 

The worst offenders were easily Arachnids in the UK and Kerblam! Both of which contemporary issues which were in the headlines, but never truly did anything with them. Arachnids threw a Dondald Trump expy into the mix, drew direct comparisons with him, and highlighted both the issues of current employee abuse and wealth disparity. Then it did nothing with it outside of a few gags, and the villain walked away scott free by the finale. Kerblam! followed the same approach, highlighting many abusive and outright terrible policies by Amazon early on, and the problems of such companies. However, it not only treated these as acceptable normalities, but it also showed no one having problems with them, and presented the company in a benign light. Compared with the likes of The Sun Makers or The Claws of Axos, it at best lacked the bite it seriously needed to help it stand out. At worst it seemed to be reaffirming such problems as just being a part of life and not worth changing.

The last big mark against it was how the series went off in one direction, only to promptly loop back around to doing the opposite. The show abandoned arcs in favour of individual episodes, lacked the repeating hidden elements peppered within stories, or foreshadowing of major developments. This was fine, of course, but the show needed to commit to this entirely. It didn't do that. Instead, at the last minute, it threw together a big finale which brought back a very forgettable villain from the first story that the group treated as a joke even as they met him. While the actor behind the make-up - Samuel Oatley - was a good choice, "Tim Shaw" as he was nicknamed lacked the meaning or threat needed for a finale. As such, the story just had an interesting start, but was undermined by itself at every turn, leading to a middling and somewhat disappointing end to the series.

Overall, when all of this was taken into account, Series 11 came across as more good than bad. It was certainly flawed to be sure, and had more than a few noteworthy areas which needed to be improved upon, but there was a definite push to change things for the better. At its worst it really was just middling more than anything else, and after some of the things seen during the last ten years (from radiation being conveyed to an audience via lightning strike to a certain city on a space-whale) it really did nothing so offensive that it was worthy of being called out on it. Here's just hoping that the next series keeps up with this success.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe (Book Review)

This title is a bit of a lie. This isn't a review of the full work but merely to the point where, were I a casual reader, would have given up on this book entirely and moved onto something else. There are a few such novels, textbooks or the like which all accomplish having this; the breaking point at which a reader rolls their eyes and gives up on them. The difference is that, with some examples of staggering incompetence notwithstanding, few books manage to accomplish this within the Introduction.

The blurb behind A More Civilized Age: Exploring the Star Wars Expanded Universe promised just that: A detailed look into the Expanded Universe through a series of viewpoints, discussions and the like. While it wouldn't offer the full detailed breakdown of all the books from start to finish, it was to compile a series of essays, personal thoughts and viewpoints to anyone curious about this. Well, apparently the editor, Rich Handley, decided he would have a go as well and started offering up his own thoughts. These effectively amounted to little more than this:

"The EU was a mistake, it was filled with continuity errors, failings and nothing good besides Thrawn. It was a self-contradictory mess which was bad from start to finish, and you should just be thankful that Disney is recycling EU material, and have no reason to feel sad that it is gone."

That isn't an exact quote, but what you end up with is a (discarding two large photographs) five-page breakdown which reads more like an effort to shout down anyone who wants the Expanded Universe back. You can even read this in full on the Amazon preview, which features nothing but this and the covers. I wouldn't recommend it, as the sneering self-righteous attitude of the writer was enough to put me off giving this one a chance and giving up on it entirely.

The entire segment effectively lists the flaws and only the flaws of the EU, with nothing offered for any of the good it did. The few times it does admit to having anything good are swiftly passed over, or even treated as being outright wrong in many ways. There is such a determined effort here to present it as such a flawed and failing thing, that the very idea that it spearheaded ideas which would flesh out the setting are ignored even as it has ample opportunity to bring them up.

Sadly, much of the criticism keeps coming back to continuity over and over again (To which, given how this writer has a shining view of Disney's revamp, is akin to a kettle noticing that the pot is of a dark shade) toward the end. He keeps citing it as if it's either a complete failure for being so vast that you need detailed knowledge to follow it all, or because it couldn't keep everything 110% interconnected without any contradictions. When more successful alternatives are brought up (Namely Babylon 5, Star Trek and Doctor Who) they are either cited as exemptions or treated as having failed in some way themselves. The way in which each kept going even following a reboot (or revamp) without needing to erase their entire past is conveniently skipped without comment.

Perhaps some of you are feeling that this is being disingenuous, or that it's wrong to judge an entire book by its introduction. However, this introduction is the first impression of the book. It's the bit you read, the tone it sets and the impression which you expect it would follow. Imagine if this same direction had been taken with another work, on any subject.

To offer an entertainment example - Imagine if a book delved into classic Doctor Who, but rather than citing its accomplishments, only brought up the budgetary issues, the behind-the-scenes conflicts and over-emphasised the events which led to its cancellation. Then followed that up by treating the rebooted series as being the "correct" version while the original was a failed experiment.

Imagine if this was done with a historical work - Someone in love with the Byzantine Empire freely admitted to doing so in an introduction to a book on the Roman Empire. Then they spent five pages citing Rome's political shortcomings, mass slaughters and declines with none of its successes. Then end by saying it's fine because it led to Byzantium's existance.

How about with an entire medium - Perhaps an introduction to comic books could treat them as a mild curiosity which should have died long ago, that outlived their value, and whose icons. It could write them off as some failure, but cite that we should all be thankful that so many eventually get made into films.

No matter how you look at it, such an approach is not only offputting, but it's insulting to the very material it looks to cover It doesn't treat the Expanded Universe a worthwhile entity in its own right as a complete failure that we should just accept is dead, and never look back on it with fondness. As such, the impression I was given by the end is that it's really not worth your time or money.

Thankfully, we'll be getting into one which is later on this week.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

After The Gold Rush 1-4# by Miles Greb, Issac La Russa, Micheal Shepard & Adrian Geller (Comicbook Review)

Here's some full disclosure before we dive into this latest review: I am not unbiased toward this one. I have spoken with the writer on a number of occasions, followed his work, and was convinced to back this comic. As such, I did read this with a more positive than neutral disposition. With that being said, it was the content of the comic which drew my attention, and I will not be pulling my punches with its flaws despite this. However, it was fair to let you all know this before diving into this review.

Genres are not perfect structures by any sense of the imagination. Rather than set rules they are like guidelines, which adapt, alter and shift depending upon a work. It's how we end up with comedy-adventure films or action RPGs after all. However, to define a work purely through those elements or ideas is disingenuous. While After The Gold Rush could be described simply as a post-apocalyptic story of a human astronaut returning to a Luddite dominated Earth, it might sound oddly generic. However, the best kind of stories are those which are better than the sum of their parts, and this is one of those tales.

The Synopsis

The essential story of After The Gold Rush follows Scout, a young woman returning to her ancestral home of Earth for the first time. Rather than the technological marvel she might have imagined, Earth itself has regressed into a primitive state of feudalism and iron age sciences. It is now up to her to survive this wilderness, and to survive as a scientist in a world which has abandoned science itself.

The Good

The easiest way to describe the strengths of After The Gold Rush would simply be to say "Think Mike Mignola". However, that might well leave a few of you very confused, given that Hellboy is as far from this sort of thing as it is possible to get. However, the world building and storytelling elements have a few surprising similarities which benefit the style of writing.

The world itself is presented and structured in an off-hand sort of way. It expects you to accept certain details and just move on, presenting you with enough to keep you interested but never letting info-dumps get in the way of the story. While often this would spell disaster for a work, the correct direction behind this works in the story's favour. 

The first thing the reader follows is Scout herself learning of the world and adjusting to her odd surroundings. Combined with brief images of what she left behind to arrive on Earth, it establishes hints and basic information that the reader can easily follow by making one thing clear - The story isn't going to force feed the reader details and events will gradually unfold over time. This allows the reader to settle into the impression of knowing that there is a much bigger world out there, and to accept that new established elements or ideas might arise on an issue by issue basis.

The fact that the opening focuses on Scout herself exploring the world further assists with the comic's pace. It allows the reader to learn a great deal about Scout herself through her actions, and without pausing for info dumps or dragging the narrative to a screeching halt. While it might lack some of the more detailed points of a full conversation, it nevertheless quickly impresses upon the reader just who she is. This works as a better introduction than some of the more heavy-handed examples which often require detailed exposition and narration. This continues throughout the comic, and any challenge is used to highlight the character's qualities or express her personal quirks.

Another definite - and quite pressing - benefit stems from the conflict of the story itself. This isn't your typical "good vs. evil" outing or anything with a direct antagonist. It works by telling a journey, and by having only a very general direction behind events. While the style of the storytelling and gradual exploration of the world offsets this, the other element is its pro-science stance. To quote the comic's website page - "After the Gold Rush is a comic about the conflict between religion and science. It is also a return to optimistic Sci Fiction; a genre where we see the benefits of the scientific method. " This could have easily resulted in open bashing of religion or dogmatic priests as antagonists. You know the sort, like those who populated Netflix's Castlevania. Instead, it avoids more than a few of the usual cliches.

While the story itself is fairly blatant when it comes to favouring science over faith, it more often than not directly opposes a lack of thinking. Those who have an unquestioning will to follow a nonsensical solution or refuse to serve as the comic's early villains. Even then, such individuals are not part of a wider cult, and it helps to keep things on a much more individual level. By adding in a wider cult in the opening stories it could have been written off as corruption born of a large organisation, but this instead helps it to make the comic's message convey more impact. It also offers a far more nuanced take as a result, with enough side or supporting characters brought up with primitive values to avoid an "us vs. them" atmosphere of the work.

Finally, and most pressingly, the comic's tone and visual style is a welcome break from more than a few officially published works. Compared with the likes of Marvel or (sometimes) DC, it never veers into "lol ironic lol" humour which seems to be trying to laugh off embarrassment at being associated with anything fantastical, or the uber-serious grittiness which robs joy from a story. Instead, the sincerity and bright tones of the work prove to be extremely refreshing, and it maintains a very hopeful sense of optimism even in its darkest moments. 

So, what does it do wrong?

The Bad

The odd thing about After The Gold Rush, is that its key appeal is both a strength and a barrier. There's an obvious path before Scout, a clear challenge and a group of side-characters are quickly established (well, one with hints of others from there on). However, the threat is not nearly so tangible as one would expect from most narratives, and the lack of a direct antagonist can seem toothless at first. It's akin to entering a story promising a hostile wilderness, only to find the character is not facing pursuit by wild animals or struggling to find food. It might sound odd, but short of a moment with a few arrows, there isn't the usual instant threat to kick-start an ongoing story.

Between the limited inclusion of a major over-arching antagonist at first and its more gradual pace, the story is something of a slow burner. This benefits it in regards to a trade paperback, and even after reading just the first three issues it becomes clearer that this is definitely going somewhere. However, it nevertheless lacks the immediate punch it needed to really make things engaging. While I personally leveled a few criticisms against The Wild Storm, that story started with an assassination attempt and an ongoing Illuminati cold war. This one certainly did not meander nearly so much as that story, but it did suffer from a typical inciting incident to fully hook the reader in.

Another problem within the story is that it is slow to flesh out its supporting characters. Scout herself benefits the most from the early issues due to being the focal character, but almost anyone else is defined by their relationship to her at many points. It's more justifiable here as it's not a team book or the like, but it does hinder their development. The comics which do focus on single characters typically pack far more into each issue to keep things going. While it is a problem which disappears as the narrative progresses it once again contributes to a weaker start to the tale.

Finally, the artistic styles used in the book are far from conventional. While far from bad, and actually utilising a number of techniques I wish comics would use more often, it can take some getting used to. This is particularly true of the sketchy visuals or extremely subtle shades of each artist's style respectively. It's not a negative point in of itself, but it is worth warning readers that they might need to adjust to something which is less than typical of most comics.

The Verdict

Despite some teething issues, After The Gold Rush is nevertheless an engaging and very entertaining story. Its themes are bold, but they are never beaten into your head. The story lacks a hero vs. villain dynamic, but that does not mean it lacks direction or drive. The visuals are different to the hyper-realistic norm or smoother edges of many comics, but once you get used to it, these become strengths which works in its favour.

As superheroes, fantasy sagas or disaster events tend to dominate comics, this is one I would definitely recommend as a great alternative to the more common story stylings. You still need to give it a chance for a good three or so issues, but it's well worth allowing it that opportunity to show you where it might be going.

As a final note as well, the fifth issue of the comic is currently being crowd-funded on Kickstarter. If you are interested in reading this comic, and want to see it continue to reach another issue, then backing it on that page would be a great way to fulfill both goals at once. Plus, if that doesn't convince you, this latest issue will be wrapping up the first story arc. So, I'd strongly suggest taking a look at this one.

Tuesday, 5 March 2019

Delays Due To Severe Overtime

Apologies to keep you all waiting, but I was repeatedly forced to work on my days off for this week for a variety of reasons. One of these involved a twelve-hour shift. With any luck, things should be back to normal tomorrow, with another comic review.

Thursday, 28 February 2019

Kickstarter Spotlight: Chained Echoes

I'm willing to bet that you never expected to see this on here again. However, this is a special occasion, as it's a rare game which genuinely deserves a lot more attention than it has been getting.

Longtime readers will know that this blog has frequently delved into the depths of retro RPG clones on Steam. Often sifting through the worst of the banal to find the few exceptional releases, more than a few reviews have highlighted those which actually deliver on their promise of 16-bit fantasy epics of yesteryear. Today's article focuses on one of these by the name of Chained Echoes. In layman's terms, it's a game which promises to go beyond that, offering up a combination of fantasy powers, attack mechs and monstrous leviathans a-la Escaflowne.

Developed by Ark Heiral, the story behind this one delves into the world of Valandis and a war between its three kingdoms. The continent was devastated by a previous generation-spanning conflict which was only just brought to a halt with a new treaty, promising a ceasefire if not total peace. Yet even as celebrations ring out, a disaster awakens the fires of war once more, forcing the heroes to halt it once and for all.

The project's Kickstarter page outlines the bare basics to start with, breaking down its core elements into a list of intended mechanical and gameplay choices over desires. Along with a planned experience of twenty to twenty-five hours, a major element within the game is set to be its traveling mechanics. Players will have the choice to engage in battles on foot via attack mechs or even an airship, with mechanics varying depending upon your choice. While the airship itself is primarily a means of transport (but customizable - something that Final Fantasy has needed for a long time) you can see how approaches toward battle differ in various gifs offered on the main page. These display the exact manner in which abilities are selected and battles are staged.

The battles in question are promised as a fast-paced alternative to the typically more methodical approach, while the game will actively avoid random encounters. You won't bump into anything that you will not see coming first. In this regard, it sounds less akin to your typical Star Ocean affair than it does Chrono Trigger, and the few examples of gameplay offered thus far do support this. 

Yet what is interesting is a glimpse into themes of exploration and item construction. While open world games and series twisted to support them might have had audiences burned out on the same old open-world exploration and crafting themes, RPGs tend to do better in this regard. These are added in as bonuses to constant progression over a requirement, and even when it is a key feature of a well-made RPG game it lacks the more tedious grinding qualities which burn out audiences after a time. A primary method to get around this was through the use of chests, rewards and hidden items over killing a certain number of mooks and stealing their rear ends. The likes of Last Dream proved this along with a few of the franchises already mentioned, and it is easy to get into a more even balance of crafting items with gathering materials than what was offered in more open world games.

Part of what helps to have a bit more faith in this direction stems from what the Ark Heiral have already outlined, notably with an emphasis on "depth built on simplicity." While this might sound obvious, there is a habit among crowdfunded releases to try and run before you can walk, and even veterans have fallen prey to this in the past. Yes, Double Fine, that was directed at you. Many essential inspirations seem to spring from examining the basics of what worked with classics and a few more experimental series, and then finding a new dynamic to layer atop of that. As such, it's not trying to reinvent the wheel so much as add a new layer to what already works. Think of it as how Pokemon or Legend of Zelda typically experiment with their games, but always stick to a solid and very familiar core group of mechanics.

The inclusion of the mechs is obviously intended to be a major selling point as, after all, who doesn't like gigantic attack robots. However, what shows that some additional thought has been put into this stems from a brief explanation of how these will work. Along with using them in battle, these can be piloted to access entirely new areas of the map and traverse about locations which would otherwise be inaccessible on foot. It's an additional use which, if pulled off successfully, would make them more of a vehicle rather than the combat power-up more than a few games end up treating them as.

The obvious risks and challenges are present for these games, such as increased costs and development times for this release. There are a multitude of bonus items for backers, as you might expect, but there are a fair few more physical items than might be expected. While further information on how Ark Heiral intends to provide these, from printing companies to shipping costs on a worldwide basis, the Kickstarter does outline a detailed list of basic factors. Besides the pie chart which breaks down exactly where the budget will go into percentages, a section outlines the work already completed, the progress made and what much of the money will ultimately go toward.

The fact that the project has been in development for two years already does reinforce the fact that Chained Echoes isn't simply starting from scratch. The page offers multiple examples of the developers' work from a few extracts of the soundtrack to gifs of gameplay, and as such you're not risking everything on someone completely untested or work without real grounding.

There is far more to be found on the page of Chained Echoes itself, and I would highly recommend giving it a look if any of this interests you. It goes into vastly more detail about each point, from a more detailed narrative synopsis to the core mechanics. With just over £8,000 to go before it hits its target and one week left on the clock, it's a project which could do with a few more investors taking notice of it.