Sunday, 21 January 2018

The Geld by George Mann (Warhammer 40,000 Audio Drama)

Few settings have changed in such a short time than Warhammer 40,000. The sudden jump alone from the last Black Crusade to Guilliman's resurrection would have been enough, but every other day new developments take place. The galaxy is both brighter and darker, and many stories of late have focused primarily upon how the setting as a whole is coming to terms with these developments. The Geld is just one of these, but it's a rare example of a faction stopping and looking back once more, to ask if a situation warrants the re-activation of an old idea.

The Synopsis

Times are desperate for the Raven Guard. As the chapter finds itself beset on all fronts by enemies, a particularly well entrenched Alpha Legion warlord by the name of Mazik the Unfixed has denied all attempts to oust him. With his fortress posing a tactical threat and the chapter in great need of a victory, Chapter Master Shrike considers if it is time to approach matters by an unconventional means. Summoning several officers and a member of the Knights of the Raven Chapter to his chambers, he announces one simple decree: The re-formation of the Mor Deythan. Few among the chapter and its successors still possess their primarch's dark gift, but enough are known to formulate a small ad-hoc unit for this situation.

The battle to come is to be a trial by fire, and their performance will be judged in the conflict to come. Yet, as they enter the corrupted halls, many come to wonder if they are not playing exactly into the Alpha Legion's hands once more...

The Good

The benefits of stories like The Geld is that they have the freedom to experiment with certain key ideas. While they lack the inherent length to push the entire narrative of the setting forward, the stylised presentation, sound effects and capacity to utilise a talented cast all benefit many shorter stories. This is the case here with The Geld, as the focus is on presenting a good battle and an engaging quest. It experiments with larger questions about the setting and even makes them a key part of the overall narrative, but it never overburdens the whole story.

The reformation of the Shadow Masters into a single unit is a big one, but the story handles it well and only up to a point. Anything more than an experiment would likely require a full novel to fully explore, so we have a brief depiction of Shrike's summons, the theories they have in mind, and then the action itself. It's a controlled and direct method of examining the themes in question while not limiting the larger impact this might have later on. Equally, we do start to see just why this development would take place now as much as anything else. Along with the darker state the galaxy is in, and the major threats facing them, the change in leadership to Shrike has left him more open minded to unorthodox methods of resolving their problems.

The actual scenes confronting these points, questioning them and then deploying the unit into battle are told throughout the first half of the audio drama. As the unit ventures deeper into the fortress, the story cuts back to earlier points in the tale to flesh them out. While this Christopher Nolan style nonlinear narrative is becoming overplayed, it definitely works here. As this is intended to be a quick and action heavy tale, by mixing up what could have been a slow first act into the more battle-centric later segments, it becomes a far more thematically coherent experience. 

The Geld is also one of the novels to use Chaos to its fullest, with Warp spawned insanity seeping into every fight. While there are good stories which stick to this, and old sin among writers is to depict Chaos as an attribute. Something added to existing space marines to give them a bit more firepower, rather than going full Lovecraft. Here though? Not only is the fortress itself heavily implied to be a full on daemonic TARDIS, but no single fight is ever the same. Time loops, hunters in the dark, mirror images and stranger things still all come into play, and no single battle could ever be considered to be "conventional" in any respect. Better yet, while the capacity to wraith-slip is a key factor in this conflict, it's not a gamebreaker. More than a few post-Heresy developments arise here which counters it, and it's down to the characters themselves to overcome them. While a few might not seem obvious at first, they end up making an incredible amount of sense once you put two and two together.

As for the combat itself? Much like George Mann's writing, it knows when to be schlocky and when to have fun with some scenes. While quite a few are extremely well told and embrace the dark thematic drama of a man hunting through enemy territory, others focus upon very overt descriptions. They are the sort of insanely over the top actions and visuals you could see them showing up in a film by someone so bombastic as John Woo or with Schwarzenegger in a starring role. Of particular note is the final battle itself where the squad is being thrown around and a swordsman makes a rather dramatic save by parting a mutant head-to-groin. It's far from bad, but it's the kind of hyper-kinetic savagery you'd expect more from a Last Chancers novel over some of the more recent Warhammer 40,000 releases. Then again, with this sort of semi B-movie plot, it adds to the charm.

Yet, while there is plenty of good, there's a notable amount of bad as well.

The Bad

None of the characters are particularly memorable. The Raven Guard themselves are hardly bad and there is certainly a few hints of characterisation about them, but little really sticks. Of those present, only Shadow Captain Qeld and Mordren stand out. The former because he is the protagonist, and the latter because he is the only non-Raven Guard member. Also because of the awesome Eastern European accent. This could have been offset more by discussions or interactions, but there are large chunks of the tale where the group exchanges no words and even split off entirely from one another. We didn't need much, but something to help them comment or focus on one another would have seriously improved the tale.

Equally, the enemies themselves are problematic in their presentation. While the variety of enemy encounters and how they are dealt with does provide the book with its greatest strength, the way they are seperated out hurts it. They seem too much like levels in a video game with so little to break them up, and given how each challenge is overcome with a new objective in mind, and little lasting impact, it's an easy comparison to make. Especially when you consider that Mazik himself is waiting at the end, for a Turok style boss fight atop of his fortress.

There seems to be little serious impact on the events of the story as things progress, and the group just bulldozes through the opposition. It's lively, loud and engaging, but offers little in the way of substance from the mid-point of the narrative onward. While the tale attempts to add the sense of a ticking clock thanks to the battle playing on outside, and the Raven Guard beset by a vast number of foes, it's not enough to really work within the story. It's too distant and disjointed to really impress upon the listener a sense of true desperation. 

Most of these would be forgivable, but perhaps the most frustrating sin of the story is how it fails to really utilise the Raven Guard. What we got did not need to be especially in-depth, as the early part showed, but there are a few easy characteristics which can always be implemented to give them a greater sense of identity. Usually, this is something core to their character, or even just a commonly known trait. It's part of why so many short stories on the Blood Angels tend to focus upon their inhereted curse. With this though, there simply wasn't enough there to get an impression of this. There was little in the way of guerilla fighting or skirmish tactics, even in the wider battle, nothing in the way of their internal culture and even Corax's teachings. 

While the use of vague links back to the older Heresy does work, there's simply not enough said about the modern chapter. That and, when we do get it, it seems to be falling back into the Fifth Edition's Blood Wolf Nemesis curse. You know the one, where everything was defined by one single thing which related somehow to their name. In this case it's ravens. Shrike's throne has raven wings, there are ravens all about the fortress monastery, the Chaplain present has a giant raven's skull for a helm, they carry raven's skulls on their belts, and the mention of ravens comes up a great deal. On the surface this might seem fine, and it is admittedly more restrained than with the Space Wolves. However, when one of the first concerns about a fallen marine is if the skulls on his belt can be recovered along with his gene-seed, a defining theme has reached the point of borderline caricature exaggeration.

The Verdict

The Geld is fun but ultimately fleeting. George Mann is a talented enough of a man to turn what could have been a forgettable or overly gimmicky tale into something entertaining, but it simply lacks staying power. If he had pushed things a bit further or even reworked a few chapter elements into something more engaging, this might have been fine. Without that though, it's something best left to Raven Guard fans or those interested in a more straightforward but highly entertaining bolter porn tale. 

Verdict: 4.7 out of 10

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

Star Wars - Crimson Empire Vol. 2: Council of Blood by Mike Richardson and Randy Stradley (Comicbook Review)


The odd thing about Crimson Empire is that, despite the cliffhanger ending, it was ultimately a complete story. Kanos had beheaded his arch-foe, the New Republic has claimed a world, and slipped back into the shadows to continue his personal war. While it was clear that the authors desired a trilogy, after such a definitive end it seemed like the sort of move which brings the likes of the Matrix sequels to mind.

Thankfully, it seems as if Richardson and Stradley took a long hard look at what worked with their first chapter, and asked one another "What can we do next that we couldn't do there?"

Synopsis

In the wake of Jax's death, the Empire's growing instabilities have led to a council taking power. Rather than a single dominant leader, a variety of generals, politicians, bankers and even aliens now have a voice within the Remnant. However, politics and backstabbing are still rife within this turbulent time. Despite his oath of vengeance, little has been seen nor heard from Kir Kanos in months, yet when Imperial leaders start to die with only the Royal Guard's symbol left at the scene, it seems as if his personal crusade is far from over. Amid this, operating on her own, Mirith Sinn has taken to hunting Kanos in a desperate attempt to bring him to justice.

The Good

A major strength of the original Crimson Empire was its apparent simplicity. Along with rapidly bringing the reader up to speed on current events within the first act, it was a streamlined experience. The focus was placed on a few key characters above all others, the full history of those involved was told through flashbacks and it led to a definitive final scene. Due to its nature as a sequel, Council of Blood couldn't quite follow that same format. It instead, rather than trying to rehash the same exact format, questioned what the previous book couldn't do and what they could build upon with a sequel.


The big point in its favour immediately is how the book broadens its focus without ever losing track of events. You have three major worlds with separate concurrent stories, and the comic bouncing back and forth between each of them in turn. This is used to build up the villains, but also to much more easily handle the complex schemes at work. Rather than simply killing the Dark Lord and leaving it at that, Crimson Empire took the opportunity to ask "What next?" With Jax dead, the Empire has left a massive power vacuum, and others beyond the Imperials and New Republic would seek to take advantage of that. We see multiple details of just how Jax was previously holding the Empire together and the problems his death creates with internal feuds flaring up, and enemies seeking to capitalize on his end. 

While the actual politics in question is far from deep or truly detailed (look to A Song of Ice and Fire to see how well it can be handled in a fictional setting) it's enough to give the comic more substance than you might expect. The figures involved are big, bold or are presented to work through others so it's easy to follow, even when several separate conspiracies start to collide with one another. It's a "wheels within wheels" situation, closer to what you would expect from the Houses of Dune over star wars. Due to this, the sudden murders and the obvious threats on display, it sidesteps many of the immediate issues which turned people off the politics within the prequels.

Better yet, rather than discussing the actual actions themselves or outlining the possible threats, it manages to fill in the reader exactly as it's taking place. Depicting and fleshing out one after another after bombshell after bombshell is dropped, including a rather sinister figure who is seeking to further distabilise the Empire's power. One who will become very prominent later on in the New Jedi Order.

The switch from guerilla combat to cloak and dagger work is one which definitely benefited the story on the whole. While it admittedly lost the inherent simplicity of the original - and that's the last time we'll discuss that point to avoid hammering it into the ground - it gained far more substance for many characters to work with. This is most evident with Mirith Sinn, who is given substantially more to do here. Whereas the original comic presented her as an obviously competent figure but never gave her a chance to shine, here she's clearly among the New Republic's best agents. While her role is initially unclear, the fact she so easily adapts to her environment and only fails at one moment due to a turn of events no one could have predicted gives a far more positive impression of her skills. Furthermore, when she is involved in frontline fighting, she's obviously lagging behind Kanos but stands head and shoulders above almost everyone else. It's a great change of pace, and a fantastic way of utilising a skilled character without the protagonist utterly overshadowing them. 

The comic's use of Kanos himself is certainly curious, as it seems not know quite what to do with them. Then again, that goes doubly so for Kanos himself. While he still has a clear objective and a goal in mind, much of the force which drove him is gone, and he's somewhat unfocused. It's actually a surprising moment of real life hitting the story, as Jax was the focus of his duty-bound hatred for so many years. With him gone, he lacks some of the rage which kept his determination going to the point where he questions a few of his life goals. It's not enough to redeem the character abruptly, nor even to add a lighter shade of grey, but it reflects somewhat on the "What next?" focus of the book. The impact of this on Kanos' life is evident even in the final pages, and it takes speaking for some time with Sinn before he comes to terms with the situation in question.


Of course, for all this, the book benefits from a massive amount of action. From running gun battles to starship engagements and airborne assaults on an enemy fortress, any time you start to adjust to a new status quo it throws something new into the mix. It helps to prevent the book from dragging and even when it seems to calm down for a time, you always know that something large, violent and likely explosive is going to come out of the woodwork. It's not utterly random nor even unheralded, but you can never quite tell just what might play out unless you're paying close attention to the comic's events. The heightened nature of the combat allows it to also be more evenly distributed throughout Council of Blood. So whereas we had two large battles during the second act of the first volume, here there's far more variety to the combat and intense fighting.

Another bonus in the book's favour is the artwork. While he was always skilled, Paul Gulacy seems to have settled into the exact tone of the comic's darker nature and has paid more attention to the finer details. You can pick out minute qualities, small signs of age and use on items, but without sacrificing bold style of the series. There is also a much broader variety of aliens on hand. Rather than having brief cantina-style appearances early on, the more prominent number of aliens here helps to make the galaxy seem more varied and ultimately fleshed out. The more subtle expressions and ability to convey a broader variety of emotions through the individual panels certainly makes the story all the stronger. As does the capacity to focus upon multiple figures within running battles over the more singular combat we had previously. 

Unfortunately, while the tale took a few steps forward, there's no denying it took one or two back as well.

The Bad

You likely noticed that, for all the praise offered to the comic, little time was spent discussing Kanos himself. The truth is that, while he still plays a very prominent part, much of the time he is out of focus. In a Batman Returns move, the writing team seemed much more invested in exploring the shifting dynamic between the villains over the main character. As such it takes quite some time before he truly gets involved in the story, and even then it doesn't quite reach the legendary quality built up about him in the initial story. It's not that his skills have diminished or even that he's being presented in a worse light, but there are fewer opportunities for him to pull off the spectacular victories of the first tale. 


Along with the above factor, another notable issue is that the story seems to skip a point in their development. Kanos' turn makes sense as outlined above, but some of Sinn's development takes place off-screen. While the book dangles the possibility of her vendetta over the tale for a time, she eventually admits that her hatred had died away some time ago. Yet, even counting for this or a few reasons she might have started to forgive Kanos, it's a stark contrast to the ending of the previous book. It's only made all the worse by that most frustrating of tropes, where the story tries to push a romantic link between the two leads. It doesn't come completely out of nowhere, but when combined with the previous events, it becomes egregiously out of place. 

Another definite issue is how the comic can't decide whether or not it wishes to be a stand-alone chapter or leave events for later tales. While it quickly and quite satisfactorily ends a few key figures within the story, others disappear for another day. This certainly makes a great deal of sense in one case, but when it comes to others it has the story just peter out. There's little in the way of a truly climactic ending, and what we get is definitely rushed, bereft of the sense of finality it needs. Because of this, it lacks the impact of the previous book and fails to end on a high note, leaving the promise of more but failing to satisfy you. 

Yet perhaps the most frustrating flaw the comic unfortunately suffers from a few idiot plot moments to try an encourage it to follow certain paths. These are largely minor or are handled in a way which either a character's overconfidence or inept nature could excuse them. On a few occasions, it becomes quite questionable though, such as one moment which treats Kanos as if he was unaware of the Empire's worst excesses of tyranny. Or at least those of Vader himself, which unfortunately contradicts much of what we saw in the first volume. This is partially thanks to the ambition of the book requiring such conveniences, but it's hard to justify or accept them when they create obvious problems rather than bypassing them. In fact, the only thing which does prevent these points from marking down the book further is thanks to the pacing diverting your attention away from them, or disguising them within some otherwise well executed scenes of character development. 

The Verdict

While there are certainly a few apparent flaws with Council of Blood, the overall story still works extremely well. The fact that Richardson and Stradley didn't rest on their laurels, and understood the need to push to new boundaries without betraying what came before. Something which, to be honest, the franchise needs a lot more of these days. Overall, it had some interesting politics, dealt with the repercussions of the past events well, and the action was still solid despite a lack of a major duel. It set up events for new adventures with some interesting new players, and a strong final chapter overall. Unfortunately, we ended up with Empire Lost, but that's a rant for another time.


Verdict: 7.5 out of 10

Monday, 15 January 2018

Deck Casters (Video Game Review)



Deck Casters is a game you might have seen before under a very similar name. Originally released on console under the name of ArmaGallant: Decks of Destiny, the developer claims that this has merely been “based” on his previous outing. In truth, little has changed and the few alterations made have definitely been for the worse.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Blade Runner 9732 (Video Game Review)



Much like motion controls, VR is all too often used as a gimmick. It’s a way to make an otherwise basic game stand out, and more often than not the best releases on this new medium are the simplest. Fewer still can be called games, and more often than not can simply be marked down as interactive experiences. Blade Runner 9732 falls into the latter category, offering an environment for the user to explore. However, this passion project by Quentin Lengele helps to highlight the benefit of the medium over traditional film.

Friday, 12 January 2018

Yume Nikki (Video Game Review)


At first glance, Yume Nikki looks as if it is a wannabe attempt at a genre. Made with RPGMaker, and retaining a description which seems like it’s equal parts Fran Bow and Alice: Madness Returns, it would be easy to write this off as an experiment by a first time developer. However, this is another example as to why you should never judge a book by its cover. Yume Nikki is a masterpiece rendered in 16-bits, and the best part is that it’s absolutely free.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

Black Library Opens Its Doors To Submissions


In a follow-up to yesterday's story, Black Library has announced the return of Inferno! as a short story anthology. While sadly lacking the comics angle of its previous incarnation (and we do have Titan Comics covering that at the moment) it's to be used as a platform to test out ideas and experiment with short story concepts. The announcement goes as follows:

"For the past 20 years, the Black Library has been bringing the Warhammer universes to life – from the grim darkness of the 41st Millennium, through the Underhives of Necromunda to the sprawling realms of the Age of Sigmar and the savage sports fields of Blood Bowl.

We have seen empires rise, kingdoms fall, heroes corrupted, saviours fulfil their destinies and worlds ended.

As part of this celebration, we’re bringing back a classic title from the Black Library archives – Inferno!

Released between 1997 and 2004, Inferno! was our bi-monthly magazine packed full of comics, short stories and artwork. Plus, it’s where many of our established authors published their first stories for Black Library before going on to greatness.

We’re giving Inferno! a new lease of life as a collection of short stories, penned by new authors and old, and showcasing the best works from across our many universes.

We are looking for talented writers to be a part of this new anthology and celebrate this incredible milestone for Black Library.

We are looking for exciting and dynamic characters who drive an absorbing plot that captures the grim darkness and unique tone of our universes. As Inferno! has always delivered the very best from across all of our settings, we are encouraging stories set in Warhammer Age of Sigmar, Warhammer 40,000, Blood Bowl and Necromunda!"

While Black Library typically opens itself up to these sorts of submissions once per year, this is one which has arrived to far more hype and greater promotion than previous efforts. The guidelines themselves seem to reflect this, as they both cover far more numerous topics and leave themselves open to more varied ideas. Rather than submitting a full story, the entries only require that the tale in question fit into at least one of the following genres/situations: Heist, Detective/Police Procedural
Adventure, Mystery, Ghost/Paranormal/Horror, War.

The proof of a writer's skill will stem from both a synopsis of the story and a brief extract. 

More than a few fans are already predicting that Black Library will have to deal with a few thousand Kharadron Overlord heist stories.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

Warhammer 40,000 Inferno! Magazine To Return?


A recent timetable outlining events and workshops at Warhammer World unveiled something of interest. While lost among some of the more pressing notes of late, a small mention in the Black Library segment noted the following:


Suffice to say, this is big. For those not in the know, Inferno (Or rather, Inferno!) was the big promotional magazine for stories and lore in general. It hosted a number of long-running comics we have covered on here over the years, such as Ulli and Marquand, Titan, Bloodquest and a staggeringly large number of one-shot concepts. More than this, however, it was where many short stories and experimental concepts were first tested, with more than a few Black Library series showing up within its pages. If you have ever wondered why a few early books in the company's flagship series tended to be anthologies, notably the Gaunt's Ghosts work Ghostmaker, you need look no further than this book.

The fact that they are openly appealing to new writers and seeking submissions suggests that it will once more become a test bed for ideas, and a promotional piece for shorter tales. With Titan handling the longer running comics, this could be a fun return to the shorter one-shots and brief arcs which the likes of Kal Jericho benefitted from over the years. We will only learn more as the company opens up about this news.