Saturday, 28 February 2015

Schedule Slip

Yes, it's another one of these.

This is just a quick heads up that content might drop off on here for the next couple of days. Truth be told the last couple of articles were somewhat rushed and i've been having difficulty getting time to do more since then. This is largely thanks to a situation at work, which has left me pulling several hours overtime a few days ago, and i'm about to lose one of the days i'd usually reserve for putting a full article together.

Things should be back up to speed soon afterwards, but until then things are going to be a little slow around here.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Harlequins: Part 2 - The Rules (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review)

Welcome to part two. If you missed it, click here to see how the book's lore shaped up.

The biggest issue with Codex: Harlequins was really summed up last time: This is pretty much half of a full codex. Despite being priced as a full book, despite standing on its own and with an admittedly decent variety of units for an army which has largely been in the background for three decades, it features very little content. The overall book lacks a lot of the elements you'd hope it would contain, some essential and some just nice bonuses, which doesn't really put it in a good light. In many respects it's something akin to Codex: Imperial Knights from my personal view, it's doing so well on many fronts but it's also only furthering some of Warhammer's worst trends at the same time. Especially when it comes to the characters.

Rather than being made up of a band of varied units, small troops selections and specialist forces, the Harlequins are made up of bands of individuals. Shadowseers, Solitaires, Death Jesters and the like combine together and form a force which is heavily weighted in favour of elites choices. On the one hand this is staying true to their original incarnation, but on the other the big issue, the obvious issue, is that since that time this is no longer unique. We've had so many armies written to emphasise unique elite individual characters or heroes while screwing over the backbone of the army itself, it's become an epidemic. As such, this is just adding more fuel to the fire when it comes to that issue, but at the same time it's actually pretty damn solidly written for what it is.

The only Troupes choice available (and I will not apologise for that pun) is very direct, very straight forwards and sticks to the overall glass cannon archetype all eldar forces follow. Armed with a basic shuriken pistol and close combat weapon, their main advantage stems from their WS5 I6 stats with two attacks standard. Combined with the Troupe Leader, this means that even a basic squad is going to get sixteen attacks on the charge, and they're backed with a 5+ invulnerable save thanks to their Holo-fields. Then, atop of this, they have the added durability of a 2+ Look Out Sir tests against anything and suffer no penalties for difficult terrain. 

You still have to be careful about where they're sent in. While they can potentially cut through an army like a knife through butter if used carefully, if you miss that opening blow they will die very quickly against the wrong kind of weapons. This is only backed by the fact they have access to Fleet, cause Fear, have access to Hit & Run, and come with Furious Charge standard, which means they'll be slicing their way through many units at a rate of knots. Well, assuming the other side doesn't choose to send a sizable roadblock against them so they can pull back.

On the one hand I can appreciate this as it does emphasise player skill and it is well balanced, but like so many things it is playing a little too much towards the rock, paper, scissors rut which the game has been falling into over the past few years. The added bonus though is that they are well priced. The initial five models cost 90 points with an additional 15 for another dancer to be thrown into the mob, and the unit does have access to some fairly meaty weapons, such as the infamous Neuro Disruptor and that old favourite the Harlequin's Kiss. Add in the Starweaver as a dedicated transport, and beyond the usual eldar shortcomings of a low Toughness and Strength, they manage to have variety while staying just on the right side of not being broken.

Speaking of the Starweaver, the transport skimmer is really a bigger glass cannon than even everything else in the army. While still equipped with Holo-Fields, having an armour value of ten on all sides means they can all too easily fall to a little concentrated fire. This wouldn't be too bad were it not for the fact that they are one of the few true anti-armour units in the book with their two shuriken cannons, meaning the army as a whole definitely lacks some punch when it comes to taking down tougher vehicles. Combined with the fleet ability of the Harlequins and their capacity to speed through all terrain, it really has only a few proper uses for the force. 

The more useful one here is its bigger, tougher brother, the Voidweaver. The vehicle forgoes its carrying capacity in favour of a Haywire Cannon, a 24" range large blast weapon with a strength and AP of 4. Not bad on the whole and useful for breaking up groups of large troops which might bog down any troupes. Atop of this, it still comes equipped with the shuriken cannons meaning it's reasonable for a ambush predator style attack craft and can be grouped in squads of three. Combined with the more versatile Prismatic Cannon (capable of switching modes from a Strength 7 lance beam to a Strength 3 large blast) it can swap out its main gun for, the unit feels as if it has more of a place in the army. It still has that same fragility, but at least with more guns and capable of being grouped together it looks as if it can hit a lot harder.

Skyweavers meanwhile are effectively your Shining Spear substitute for this game. Capable of performing Hit & Run attacks, having the same invulnerable saves and capabilities offered by Mirage Launchers and Holo-fields, they are a faster and much more risky version of the Troupes. While a high cost at 50 points per model, they're quite interesting thanks to the Star Bolas and the ability to switch out their guns for a Haywire Cannon. Really, they're fast moving crowd control, but for such a small army that's to be expected and there's little to really complain about here.

The real fun comes into play with the elites choices. Foremost among these being that skull faced nightmare of giggling annihilation, the Death Jester. Armed with a Shriner Cannon and capable of pulling off Precision Shots, he's definitely a good choice if you know how to use him. Perhaps his most beneficial element however is the Death is Not Enough rule, playing wonderfully into his morbid humour. Everything hit by this monster's gun takes a Leadership test of -2 even if they're at more or less full strength. If failing to make this, the Harlequin player can then choose which direction they fall back in. Normally i'd say this was too tough, but given how he is as fragile as the rest of the army, and will quite likely be off on his own, it more or less balances out.

On the opposite end of the spectrum we have the Solitaire, being the ever perpetual combat monster they're known to be. At a whopping 145 points they really are the closest this game comes to a full blown bullet magnet or a Mephiston grade one man army. Fulfilling Games Workshop's quota for one at least Eternal Warrior model per book, he comes with WS9 BS9 I10, 6 attacks basic and a 3+ invulnerable save. However, being perpetually stuck on his own he can be mobbed and taken down by concentrated fire, with now groups to hide in. even if he does have the Fleet ability. 

What does make him truly dangerous though is his notable ability to Deep Strike into enemy forces, and either the Harlequin's Kiss and Harlequin's Embrace. So he can drop into your lines, storm about and use Instant Death or cause automatic wounds on a 6. The Solitaire is definitely veering towards being outright broken and power gaming, and in all honesty it does seem that he should cost a hell of a lot more for his abilities. While there might be only one of him per army, you can only imagine the damage he could do. This is also before getting to the Blitz special ability, allowing for D6 more inches in time with the current turn. This is added after standard movement, which he can move up to 12" before Fleeting, and increases his number of attacks on a charge to 10. Really, is this just here to fit in a unit they couldn't excuse adding to the Grey Knights codex?

Then finally we have the Shadowseer, the wizard psyker for this merry band of killer clowns. Not a bad bunch of stats on the whole, obviously favouring combat but with a few nice upgrades like the Neuro Disruptor and the Miststave - AKA something which increases their Strength to 6, and gives the wielder both Concussive and Fleshbane. Nothing really to say about this one, it adds a good mixture of abilities to the army and has some nicely balanced stats. The only real criticism to make is the model's cost which seems far too cheap at 60 points.

The actual psychic abilities this one can cast are an admittedly varied bunch under the name Phantasmancy. More focused upon building survival and misdirection, it does manage to do just enough to make it stand out from the usual Craftworld Eldar mixture of abilities, while at the same time offering one or two reasonable offensive skills. Chief among the latter are Laugh of Sorrows and Mirror of Minds, which deal damage to a target based upon an Leadership test duel. Standard stuff to be honest but useful to have with this selection to pack a bit more of a punch, the latter Focused Witchfire ability especially.
The more interesting ones are the Dance of Shadows, Shards of Light and Pearl of Discord. These offer, respectively, Stealth and Shrouded to one unit, Witchfire which causes Blind and a Concussive Nova based power. The first one gives suitability while the latter two allow the Harlequins to storm in and get in that vital first blow.Fog of Dreams meanwhile is probably the only irritating one here as it makes your units invisible to one enemy unit. It's okay but it feels as if a little more could have been done with it.

The only last part to cover is the armory, and truth be told there isn't much to it. It's the usual mixture of same items we've seen time and time again in the supplements, made to carry out a few set roles but little else really. 
You have the stats boosting melee weapon (The Stories Sword, +1 Strength, AP3, Master-Crafted) 
the short range but unremarkable gun (Crescendo, which is pretty much a bolt pistol which just has Bladestorm and Quickfire tacked on) 
the two leadership boosting abilities (Mask of Secrets which gives Fearless and -2 to any enemy Leadership tests within 12" - admittedly good for the Shadowseer - and the Laughing God's Eye, which gives Adamantium Will to any allied unit within 12")
then finally we have the supposedly exceptionally kill crazy one (the Cecgorach's Rose, which offers Shred and Kiss of Death in melee, which is really a glorified Harlequin's Kiss).

These are honestly extremely by the numbers and it does leave me personally wondering if - Combined with the lack of any special characters or further troop choices of any kind - the design team were rushed for time. These were Harlequins, so there was nothing to really stop them going nuts and trying something completely ballistic.

The last bits of the book really are just a lot of formations, none of which are really that interesting. They just add some very basic bonuses like Cegorach's Revenge, which allows all units to re-roll invulnerable saves. So that's an entire army of 5+ inv saves in an eldar force. Personally, this could just be bias though as i've never really personally seen the point of formations, they just seem to take half the fun out of building a list.

While personally I won't say that Codex: Harlequins is anything remarkable, it is a big step in the right direction. While it does continue trends i'm not especially fond of, the aforementioned emphasis upon individual units over all else, given they were core to the army's concept in the beginning this can perhaps be let slide. There's not really a bad unit in here save possibly for the transport, but the lack of a dedicated anti-air unit of some kind is a definite oversight and it really seems only about two thirds done. With more work this could have been something truly outstanding, but instead the options here feel a little too limiting. They're good options, but with so few units it lacks the variety a full blown army would truly need. Atop of this, while a few points are definitely broken, at least  the army actually requires some skill to play, and wasn't turned into a vehicle to shill some shiny new super heavy.

If you're into this one, perhaps you could give it a look but personally i'd still say they work better as allies for other eldar forces. Then again, given Games Workshop, that was probably the plan from the beginning.

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Order: 1886 (Video Game Review)

Welcome ladies and gentlemen, to the best movie on the PlayStation 4. With three hours of gameplay and two hours of cutscenes, The Order: 1886 proves how outstanding next-gen visuals can be while wasting every last shred of potential on offer.

Set in an alternate history universe, the game follows the steampunk nigh-immortal Knights of the Round table as they face down hordes of werewolves. Backed by a young Nikoli Tesla, the Order soon faces rebellions from the downtrodden lower class lacking their protection, forcing them to fight the very ones they swore to protect.

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Harlequins: Part 1 - The Lore (Warhammer 40,000 Codex Review)

Of all the codices we've covered so far on this site, this was easily one of the hardest to judge based upon its lore. In many respects it does so much right, and avoids many of the failures plaguing Games Workshop books and the game as a whole. It sticks to the lore, expands it and has a few good ideas of its own, but at the same time, it's all too often written as if the design team were playing it safe. Not a bad thing given what the last writer did with an eldar codex, tying down the canon and violently beating it until it was tenderized enough to suit his needs, but it results in a very odd experience. Still, let's start by focusing upon what worked.

The foremost thing which needs to be praised before getting to the writing is the artwork. A big problem with many past codices good and bad has been their willingness to recycle or re-colour old images and pass them off as new. We've seen this done with everything from trying to pass off Raven Guard forces as Iron Hands (seriously, closely examine the interior cover of Clan Raukaan sometime and look at the pauldrons) to photoshopping Dawn of War artwork pillaged from THQ's rotting corpse. Hell, as great as the lore was, it's hard to miss the Blood Gorgons taking up Codex: Chaos Space Marines' front cover. This time though? All of it is new from beginning to end, and the Harlequins have never looked better.

The variety of work on hands is astounding, with more new images than I have personally ever seen in a book, displaying the Harlequins in combat against all comers. We see Troupe Masters mid battle, Death Jesters walking away from explosions 80s action hero style, and even individual art pieces for seemingly every kind of foe. Orks, Eldar, Tau Empire, even a rather highly detailed work shows them slaying Ultramarines, probably a first for any work featuring that chapter. After so much disappointment, it's truly heartening to see that Games Workshop actually listened to fan criticism and went the full mile to bring this army to life.

Things only get better once the book opens up and it immediately takes the first steps towards fully establishing the army for a new audience. Despite having a unit in Codex: Eldar for the past few years, the Harlequins as a whole have largely been stuck in the background so we get a brief introduction to them here. This is delivered across several pages, detailing first the Fall before moving onto the role of the Harlequins over the millennia, and the Laughing God himself.

Sticking with what was established a few years ago in Codex: Dark Eldar, it outlines how the race's pantheon was weakened as their race descended into depravity. Many turned their backs on their kind, with only Cegorach seeming uncaring, laughing at their acts. This helps to establish perhaps his reasons for survival while keeping things short. It gives just enough information to allow new players to get up to speed without going over every little bit of info already seen in past books. It also quickly leads into the passages which will follow. As Cegorach himself is detailed, it's made clear that he finds pleasure in causing the downfall of those with great pride. While it's not spelled out, this gives strong suggestions that he might have allowed the eldar to fall of that time and why he would flee rather than assist the members of his pantheon. It also shows why, given his somewhat closer nature to the depraved kindred of that time, why the Harlequins would be able to bridge the gap between Commorragh and the Craftworlds.

This is perhaps one of the best aspects of the book - Such information is delivered in bite sized chunks but leaves enough suggestion and information to keep the player intrigued. It's a very back to basics style of the kind we saw during the Third Edition, and it sort of works here. Going into too much information would dispel half the mystery behind the Harlequins and rob them of their great advantage, that they are unusual even among the eldar. At the same time just enough information is given to build an image of what the army is like in the heads of player. It's enough to build fan theories off of and make them invested to know more about this force. After so many heavily lore centric books trying to fully flesh out factions have only resulted in canon defilement of the worst kind, this caution with a reintroduced army is perfectly understandable.

Another reason this plays into being an asset for this army is that the Harlequins are far more individualistic than other forces. Rather than whole units or a standing military, their role is one of performers in every respect. We see this in the unique way their army is structured, focusing upon single figures performing entire roles unto themselves, so much of the book focuses upon them. What we do get is a solid impression of each and every one, with a few simple paragraphs outing their roles and the way they see warfare as a performance. A personal favourite is how the book handles the morbid mockery of the Death Jesters:

"Death Jesters possess a grisly sense of humour that leads them to seek new and inventive ways to terrorise , torment and eventually kill their victims. They can sometimes be heard chuckling or humming softly in the midst of battle, and will occasionally pause to sketch a deep bow or offer mocking applause to foes whose horrible fates have especially entertained them.

Killing the foe is not enough for a Death Jester. To make war worthwhile, they must intersperse death with ironic humour. Slaying an offider at the crescendo of a rallying speech, panicking enemy sappers so they flee into their own minefield or wounding a heavy weapon trooper so that their shot flies wide and destroys the very objective they were defending; these are the kinds of cruel deed in which Death Jesters find their amusement."

Short and to the point, it still offers great insight into their ways and shows imagination when it comes to describing their nature beyond simply "She's a Shadowseer who kicks arse, he's a Solitaire bent upon killing all others - They fight Chaos!"
This actually carries over to many of the vehicles as well thankfully, and the book fully embraces the more spiritual and ancient aspect of this old race. Many of the old names behind the vehicles such as the Skyweavers and Voidweavers have mythological meanings linking into their natures. Each and every one has a distinct connection to the Laughing God in some way, and it helps to better emphasise upon the reader just how what we see of the eldar are remnants of a much more powerful race.

The further detail for the army revolves around the various masques which are better known among their kind. These are presented in brief one at a time and there is some effort to put some variation when it comes to these forces. Unlike Codex: Imperial Knights and Codex: Tempestus Scions, both of which had the issue of making certain armies little more than pallet swaps of famous space marine forces, the ones here are very distinct and quite unique. The self-destructive war against Chaos by The Midnight Sorrow follow, the hyper xenophobic Frozen Stars and smaller forces such as The Dance Without End are written to be forces unto themselves. They're not always the most fully detailed or truly unique, but they stand out far better on their own than other forces.

Finally, one of the most interesting aspects stems from the timeline, which covers four pages and cites famous instances from the beginning of M31 to the end of M41. These range from the small disappearences of forces to the running wars with Ahriman and even (and it's sad this actually needs to be pointed out) probably the only outright Ultramarines defeat ever recorded in a codex. Unfortunately, as great as this is, this also summarizes the book's greatest failing - It's only telling us rather than showing.

Unlike the many, many others books of its kind, many key areas are outright missing from the codex which would otherwise help make the army very distinct. Beyond a few brief extracts, we are never fully shown things from the Harlequins' perspective or have any in-depth details citing any alliances among their forces. While the book tells the reader about key events and cites major victories, it lacks the usual several pages or in-depth descriptions one would expect to compliment this. Every codex has always benefited from this, even the worst of the biased disasters we've seen criticised on here, because it really shows the army at war. Without it, what the reader is left with is only a few general suggestions of events but without any solid basis to really inspire them to follow the army.

To make matters worse, Codex: Harlequins goes infinitely too far when it comes down to trying to keep things hidden in shadow or details held back to help with mystery. While off to a promising start by showing the reader only as much was needed, it never manages to really go into greater detail with the Harlequins. We're never given any greater bits of information surrounding the Black Library, and the actual text box detailing the great archive fails to even mention it is a craftworld trapped within the Webway. It's poetically written, but it lacks any additional substance or new spin on old ideas.

Well, actually that's not being entirely fair, as there is one truly new addition.

Continuing with their ever greater emphasis upon the end of M41 being midnight on the doomsday chronometer for just about every faction, the Harlequins get one new bit of lore. Despite being one of the few eldar gods left, and supposedly being so active that he is rumoured to secretly move about the masques in person, Cegorach mysteriously left a book in the Black Library. It was said to contain some final mystery, and as M41 drew to a close, the bindings on the book opened. It's not revealed what was written, only some frustratingly vague hint of some impossible way to trick Slaanesh into expending all of her/his power to save the eldar race. It sadly never goes beyond this so all we're left with is a couple of vague paragraphs about another millennia long gambit to save the eldar after someone decided to bugger over the Ynnead gambit.

Really, there's just not enough here to actually cover the whole army as a full, and the only reason it takes up ninety-six pages is thanks to severe padding. While truly outstanding, far too often the artwork is used as an excuse to have full splash-pages with minimal information, a few parageaphs and then nothing but art. The same goes for the units, with many having an additional full page to show what they look like in flat, colours, when the full illustration just to the side was more than enough. 

This issue with padding only becomes more and more clear as the codex goes along, as it not only wastes space but starts to actually repeat itself. All of the formations are expanded with massive images to try and excuse them taking up two pages when they could easily be fitted into a single one. At the book's centre, we have sixteen pages displaying the same models over and over again, and finally an explanation of the datasheets which is downright pointless at best. The datasheets themselves are then expanded with massive images and additional bits of lore which have already been listed in the book, causing the army section to take up three times the size it could have been covered in.

Finally, and most frustratingly, the codex never takes any actual time to show a depiction of one of these dances. Unlike what we were offered to the build up with the original Codex: Necrons, having a Harlequin masque retelling how the Laughing God deceived the Nightbringer into consuming so many of his own kind, here there is nothing. Nothing to display that additional bit of eldar culture, nothing to emphasise the very thing the Harlequins are best known for and nothing to ram home how they are in many regards keepers of their race's history.

Really, the problem with Codex: Harlequins is that it's only half a codex. It's a good half a codex, but there is just so much here which seems to either be missing or stretched out to try and excuse the price tag on this book. Personally, I can appreciate the fact the design team put in effort here to not balls up this army and get things right, but at a full £30.00? If you're in it for the lore, it's going to be a frustrating affair finding only the opening stages for something good. It's not bad, but it's hard to recommend it based upon this when other successful codices have offered a far more fully fleshed out and detailed account of their factions.

Still. this is only one part of the book. Take a click here to see how the book stands out on the tabletop.

As a quick aside, I apologise for the quality of images here. This was one of the few times i've personally bought a physical copy over a digital one for these reviews, and my usual scanner was out of commission. This is the best job I could do while trying to meet this deadline.

Mephiston: Lord of Death by David Annandale (Novella Review)

Even among the countless scribes of Black Library, David Annandale is one of those writers you instantly recognise even before checking the cover for his name. Famously pushing the level of gratuity within Warhammer's already loudly bombastic universes, he can be best recognised for his influences. The man's respect for monochrome horror movies, kaiju films and the great cult classics of science fiction all tend to make their way into his works somehow. This, perhaps above all else, is why along with Ben Counter he tends to be one of the best authors when it comes to the more oddly obscure elements of Chaos, and why he was a perfect match for Chief Librarian Mephiston.

Leading his battle-brothers to war once again, the astartes once known as Calistarius is haunted by his past. An enigma among those haunted and cursed by the Red Thirst and Black Rage, he is treated with equal levels of respect and distrust, an unknown element which has emerged after ten thousand years of crusades. This soon comes to the fore when combating a traitor warband far from Emperor's light and stumbling upon a long lost vessel carrying a ghost Calistarius' past. Questions soon begin to arise among their ranks, centred around this new arrival, peaking as they discover something far more terrifying and wondrous hidden on a long lost world...

Friday, 20 February 2015

Impulse: Lightship Chronicles - Book One (Book Review)

A post-apocalyptic tale of a different kind, Impulse focuses upon humanity trying to explore and rebuild its isolated societies following the near total collapse of galactic civilisation. Determined to form a standing government, a small coalition of planets establish a project to send envoys to distant stars and unite humanity.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Dark Heresy: We're On A Mission From The God-Emperor (Campaign Index)

Should have really done this a lot sooner. 

Given that there's plenty of Dark Heresy sessions which have been piling up, this will become a regular feature on the blog again quite soon. As such it seemed best to first of all compile together and link all the prior sessions in case others want to read them from beginning to end. Though, admittedly, going back through them shows I desperately need to do some proper editing to remove some typos and punch up the descriptions.

The Nightmare Begins...

Update 1: Conscription

Update 2: Heretics, Recon And More Dakka

Update 3: In His Holiness's Hallowed Ordos

Update 4: Religion, Politics, CSI and Insanity Points

Update 5: Bad Cop, Mad Cop Routine

Update 6: When All you Have Is A Lascannon...

Update 7: Violence Inherent In The System

Update 8: Archbishop Halmn: Dead or Alive!

Update 9: Tattered Fates - Session 1 - Everything Goes Wrong

Update 10: Tattered Fates - Session 2 - New Objectives, New Problems

Update 11: Tattered Fates - Session 3 - Questions, Heretics and Spiders

Update 12: Tattered Fates - Session 4 - Through The Front Gate

Update 13: Tattered Fates - Session 5 - 'Tis The Exposition Hour

Update 14: Session ??? - The Last Rays Of The Thirteenth Hour

Evolve (Video Game Review)

As the latest effort to return asymmetrical multiplayer combat to the AAA industry, Evolve has ridden a wave of controversy to its release date. From devs all but boasting about their DLC plans to severe communication problems with the public, opinions over this one have been extremely divisive.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Why Warhammer Needs Uriel Ventris

Among even Ultramarines fans, Graham McNeill's six book saga tends to be extremely divisive. Some love it for the characters, action and variety of factions involved, while others dislike it for its focus and problems involving the Codex Astartes. Far too often the books seemed to only treat the Codex as a weakness rather than both a weakness and a strength, and rather than the chapter as a whole it often just focused upon the adventures of a two particular Ultramarines. While there is a definite degree of truth to all this, above all else though, one of the most heavily criticised aspects of the series tends to be the actions and position of Captain Uriel Ventris, the saga's protagonist. 

The criticisms against Uriel tend to focus upon his actions such as abandoning his company to join the Deathwatch strike against a Hive Ship, the fact he is written far too often to be far more human than anyone would expect for a space marine, and the fact he unleashed the Nightbringer upon the universe. However, for all this, many of these flaws help to benefit the series and make him a vital part of the universe due to one thing: Accessibility.

When it comes down to it, the Warhammer 40,000 universe can be off-putting to some people due to its overly dark nature or lack of likable characters. Some getting into the hobby from a younger age might not fully understand the depth of the setting or its supreme darkness at first glance, or treat it as they would Star Wars or Star Trek. While its tag line might be "In the grim darkness of the far future, there is only war..." this tends to go over the heads of some people getting into the hobby at first glance. They expect it to play out somewhat the same - The heroes can win, they can pull off "everyone lives!" endings and walk away happy, with the real grim dark nature not hitting them until later on. The Ultramarines series itself plays with this theme, and ultimately, gradually subverts it.

This descent into darkness can best be seen with Uriel himself throughout these books. While he never becomes quite so truly callous as any Flesh Tearer or zealous as a Black Templar, Uriel himself gradually succumbs to more and more of the necessities of the setting. Many side moments are made to emphasise what humanity needs to do in order to survive and even what he has lost, and that trying to pull off a Captain Kirk just doesn't work here. This can be best seen in the infamous ending to Nightbringer, where Uriel tried to save everyone. Upon learning that some ancient - then unknown - evil was close to being unlocked on the world he was sent to save, Pavonis, he actively counter-commanded the orders of an Inquisitor to launch an exterminatus strike. Instead he led his company into a lightning assault upon the compound where it was being released and prevent the world's destruction.

While Uriel's attack is successful, he arrives moments too late to prevent it being unlocked and the Nightbringer is unleashed. While starved, weakened and slow, it is none the less capable of slaughtering its way through the ranks of both the Ultramarines and those who had assisted it. At this point Uriel was given a choice. He could either bury the entire facility with bombs, killing those under his command and burying the alien god, potentially starving it to death, or he could lead his forces in a futile battle to try and kill it and most likely lose. He chose the third option. Planting a melta bomb upon the link to the creature's ship, he threatened to sever its link with the orbiting craft, burying it and trapping the creature. Even should it escape, it would be trapped on Pavonis. In a game of chicken against an unknowable alien horror from millennial ago, it's the Nightbringer which blinks and retreats.

Most of the ending is spent treating this conclusion as you would expect. Uriel manages to save the world, keep most of his company alive and emerges victorious. This carries on asa glorious victory, only to be subverted at the last moment. The final scene of the whole book is of the Nightbringer returning to its ancient task, feeding upon suns and starting is culling off all sentient life. In his efforts to try and win everything, in taking the expected third choice, Uriel only makes things far worse and may well have doomed countless trillions to death. This moment sets the tone for the entire series above all, that trying to pull stunts which would work in any other setting, that trying to find a way out of the Kobayashi Maru scenario simply will not work. Trying to be a traditional hero will only guarantee the death's of all.

This is only compounded further when the book's return to Pavonis later on in Courage and Honour. Despite managing to save the world, Uriel's actions and the Imperium's only help doom it. Following the rebellion, it is so badly taxed and stripped away by Imperial forces that the governor, previously Uriel's ally, goes so far as to try and defect to the Tau Empire. It's a sobering moment, and the juxtaposition in tone is only driven further by Uriel's own actions in achieving victory. Despite facing a far weaker foe, a far less threatening one, when faced with defeat he manages to drive them off only by threatening the very thing he prevented decades ago: Exterminatus. He even notes by the end that his preventing the world being conquered by the Tau has likely doomed the population. Their lives will now be governed by a military presence and will be far worse off now than they would have been with the Tau.

Uriel even reflects upon this change in attitude by the book's end, with just how far he is willing to go in order to emerge victorious. If you actually track his choices there is a gradual character arc throughout the series, and more and more of McNeill's books focus upon the flaws of humanity. While it remains a perpetually Ultramarines focused series and grants them many victories, you more and more flaws emerge over time, often focusing specifically upon Uriel himself. The loss of any ability to have a normal life, his inability to initially make many of the hard choices needed for the Imperium survive, sometimes condemning entire worlds to death, and his treatment of the Codex are all explored. The Imperium itself is a dark empire, one with heroes, but a faction which would be a villain in any other setting none the less. Yet through these books we see just why the Imperium is the way it is: Out of necessity, and that trying to be a conventional hero in this setting will rarely ever achieve any kind of actual substantial victory.

Is it the best written series in Black Library, with the most outstanding characters? No. Yet at the same time the series is easy to get into, the books do a solid job of easing the reader into the theme of the setting, show a vast amount of the universe, and try to be a cut above standard bolter porn. Even atop this the more acclaimed series of late such as Salamanders and Night Lords follow many of these ideas with equally unconventional characters for their factions. Take that for what it's worth.

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 (Video Game - Early Access Analysis)

Returning once again to the realm of point and click adventure releases, KING Art have opted to take things in a very different direction. Whereas The Raven: Legacy of a Master Thief was a love letter to Agatha Christie through and through but ultimately set in a conventional world, The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 is a thoroughly Pratchett-esque outing. Embracing the staggering absurdity of the setting, this time there is much more of an emphasis upon gags, fantasy subversions and the odd obvious stand in here and there.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Codex: Harlequins Release Confirmed

It's not Codex: Exodites, but it's the next best thing. Leaked on Bell of Lost Souls with the early release of a White Dwarf issue, it has now been confirmed that the Eldar will be seeing a second codex. Not a supplement but a full book at least on par with Codex: Imperial Knights.

The information so far has been sparse but what little has been confirmed has shown that the servants of the Laughing God will be receiving a number of new vehicles to help enhance their existing forces. Those shown so far have fitted the idea of a fast moving elite force who hits hard then falls back, with a very clear emphasis upon small sized skimmers, jet bikes and the like. So far there has been no sign of anything even at the size of a Wave Serpent, and it looks as if the infamous Harlequin Wraithlords will not be making a return.

Other new models have been sighted for the likes of the Death Jester and many prior core units for the army, with the famous Solitare putting in an appearance. As such it looks like things are off to a pretty solid start in terms of setting up a small supporting army, and the force organisation chart (amazing as it is that Games Workshop is even following that after their "unbound armies" nonsense) reflects this. Rather than being a standard set-up, it focuses upon nothing but an HQ, Fast Attack Choices, and with a vast number of optional Elites slots. These are listing individual units as being choices within Troupes, so it looks as if this is going to be following the same unconventional approach as the old army.

Further information has been revealed in the form of the mission cards and codex itself. The book will come with a limited collector's edition (because when doesn't one these days) and the cards will contain a large number of location markers, mission types and psychic powers. The good news is that the Harlequins will be gaining a unique psychic power known as Phantasmancy to help reflect their unique abilities and skills, which should benefit the Shadow Weaver. Also Sanctic Daemonology which fits them despite the terrible name. Let's just hope they don't add daemon summoning as well, as Games Workshop keeps trying to force that on every faction in every game.

There's really little else which can be said at this stage, as this leak shows nothing of the lore, the way in which the army works or even how the basic tactics are set up. The art looks good, the bit we see at least, so here's hoping it adds a bit more flavour than what we've seen in the past, and less recycled work.

There's certainly some potential concerns behind this, but any judgement should be reserved until we know more. For the moment, let's just celebrate the fact that the psychic killer clowns are back and have an army with them once again.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Guardians of the Galaxy - Unforseen Problems

This is one i've been sitting on for a while, ever since we saw the first trailers actually. 

Of all the Marvel films, few since the original Iron Man or Avengers have received quite the same hype and acclaim as Guardians of the Galaxy. In all honesty it's not hard to see why Being a big gamble on Marvel's part, the studio pulled out all the stops when it came to the film's promo and building the hype. Everything from the use of minor memes to the unexpected "You're Welcome" and ever intensifying Ooga-Chaka all worked in its favour. It really helped to build up hype for the film and give people a real impression of how it was going to play out, putting them in the right mind set for it. It was really a work of genius, but even discounting that, the film was a smash hit and with good reason. 

The film really hit all the right notes, playing out as almost an affectionate parody of a Star Wars style space opera, and with a very clear direction. Despite all that though, while it was a fantastic film, albeit with a few flaws people often overlook, it suffers when you look at it as an adaptation. Now, this isn't going to be slamming the film, and this isn't going to claim it doesn't deserve the fandom it's built up. At the same time though, this article isn't going to treat it as anything sacrosanct, and is going to look at where the production both worked and failed in bringing the comic to the big screen. That and some of the less fortunate implications of this film's success.

Now, with any adaptation, changes are to be expected. In many cases, this can be down to trying to skip history or just making changes which aren't suited to the medium or audience. In this case the big ones came down to the characters and setting itself. For all the hype made about the universe's big and bright goofiness, its actually far more tame than the comics. Oddly enough, while many of the similar points are featured, they're either toned down or oddly underplayed by comparison to the comic.

One of the big examples often brought up is the fact that Xanadar seemed to offer so little, there was barely any culture or real identity to the world. Despite being home to Marvel's more militant version of the Green Lantern Corps, the Nova Corps themselves showed so little of their true nature, serving as more traditional soldiers and pilots. Even the planet itself seemed to be going for more of the generic Star Trek style Earth than something truly alien. Even beyond that though, the likes of Knowhere were not nearly as distinctive as in the comic. Despite being the head of a dead eons old being known as a Celestial, much of the place really boiled down to being the traditional hive of scum and villainy. While the comic often used Knowhere's power and unique role in its plotlines, to the point of once completely re-activating, here it was more an interesting background event.

The odd thing is though, all of this I can personally accept to a degree. While it might be vastly more toned down than what's seen, in many respects that can actually help here. Much like how Doctor Who's early first series was much more down to earth by that franchise's standards than what had come before and after, so was this. In both cases it seemed to be done in order to just have an audience unfamiliar with such ideas better acclimate themselves to a far different and far more radical setting. As such, while it is a loss that the Nova Corps aren't flying around Superman style and fighting with energy blasts, in this case it's more of a necessary sacrifice.

In some respects the same can be said of the characters. In the Guardians of the Galaxy comic, many of those there were already extremely well established and knew one another. Star Lord already had connections with Gamorra, Rocket and Drax, and vice versa. They only really gathered out of necessity. As such not going the full mile to have Annihilation take place to bring them together was understandable. At the same time though you really have to question some decisions made here.

Now, before getting into the characters, one thing to really praise are the casting decisions. Many were unconventional, others unusual or even came completely out of left field, but for the most part they did prove themselves to be the best choices. The sad thing is though, the writing didn't always serve them as well as it could have, and often it seemed to be not so much of a departure from prior comics ideas, as taking the names and abandoning them entirely, often for the necessity of the plot.

The big victims of this were Drax, Yondu, Ronan and to a lesser degree Gammora. In the case of the first two, effectively all of their character traits and attributes were completely re-written to suit the film. 

With no human background, no metaphysical link to Thanos or even the meaning behind his name "Drax the Destroyer", he is simply an alien here. Many aspects such as his complete literal mindedness were introduced, and his overall intelligence seriously dialed back to suit that need. While this may have been done to reflect upon his earlier "Space Hulk" persona where he was exceedingly dull witted, mashing the two together doesn't quite work. The Drax here isn't Drax, he's more dumb muscle with a chip on his shoulder. 
Yondu is the same. The only member of the original Guardians team to show up, only some superficial visual traits are kept while all else is abandoned. Blue skin, something of a mohawk and a bow (well, an arrow) are here yes, but all else really just comes down to Michael Rooker playing the roles he's best known for these days. While they might not be as grand or well established a character as Captain America or Galatus, keeping the name but throwing the rest away fails to really respect the source material.

By comparison, Ronan is actually far more akin to the Accuser seen in the comics. He's driven, likes up to his name and proves to be a serious threat to all who oppose him. Unfortunately, while these are all core traits of the character and Lee Pace proved to be an excellent choice, the presentation was a little off. It was hard to tell exactly what it was until he was described by those working on the film as a "fanatic" along with similar terms. This is used to really excuse his approach in the film, but it fails to fit with him. Ronan might be a villain a lot of the time, but he was loyal to the Kree Empire. It doesn't matter who runs it, it doesn't matter how they are treated, he is loyal to a fault when it comes to his people, and going rogue as he did doesn't fit him. It would be akin to taking Judge Dredd and then removing any value the character has for the laws of Mega-City One.

Finally, Gammora's issues are not so much what she's lacking but how it was presented. Think about what the film shows for a minute, then consider what we actually see of her background. There's no real point where we truly witness her behaving like a villain, actively working for Thanos or setting up the savage streak her character is known for. By the time she shows up, she's already turned against him and there's nothing to really make her quite as distinctive as she could have been. The Gamorra in the comics, while an anti-hero for many years now, retained the same bloodthirsty nature as a result of this. The problem is that this is severely toned down here, and the film Gamorra really lacks any of that viciousness which helps make her stand out. As with Ronan, this wouldn't be a problem were it not such an essential part of her character as "The deadliest woman in the whole galaxy."

This last point isn't the only issue here as there is a great deal the audience just needs to accept being told or left underplayed rather than the scale of it being evident. The whole Kree-Xanadar conflict? Okay, it would have been nice to see more of that but constraints are constraints, fine. Then however, we just have scenes which either quickly brush by this exposition to try and keep the film lightweight, but it ends up having some elements lacking serious impact. Hell, even Star Lord's entire history in growing up away from Earth and his abduction at a young age is barely touched upon.

Sticking with Gamorra for a moment, this also causes a problem with Nebula and even Thanos. With Nebula there's never really a quiet moment to properly establish her personality or even justify her turn. While she states that she's willing to turn on Thanos for what he did to her, up to that point there's no real establishment of this point or even foreshadowing of it. It really just appears and is used as an excuse to keep her there. It's telling the audience things rather than really showing them, or allowing her background from the comics to be carried over and come into effect. The image on the right? Yeah, that's what Thanos did to her during the Infinity Gauntlet saga. 
Speaking of which, Thanos himself only appears to foreshadow that. While he appears as his usual outstandingly larger than life self, the fact he's hinted so early on just overshadows Ronan. It doesn't help that there's also no time spent to establish who he is, or leave questions in the right way.

Focusing on the team specifically for a moment though, even then you quickly do realise just how different the two are when comparing one another. The Guardians of the comics are an established strike force, albeit something of a new and unconventional one. Along with sharing the same uniforms, operating outside of a base of operations and acting more like an organised unit, their goal is very different. 

Whereas the team here were just trying to keep people from dying, the one in the comics had a greater goal in mind. Their job was to prevent another catastrophic war the galaxy simply could not take. In the wake of so many massive battles, reality itself was breaking down and far deadlier things were starting to seep through. As such, they operated on missions, as individual teams and often too a slightly more methodical approach. Slightly. Plus, rather than being used as a band of pirates, killers and assassins, the comics Guardians featured avatars of universal concepts (death, life, etc) and far more powerful entities beyond that.

To call upon an analogy, many call the Guardians of the Galaxy film as Firefly with superheroes. If that's the case then the Guardians of the comics were Stargate: SG-1 with capes. both are good in their own right, but they're far from really comparable (or compatible) at the end of the day. As such, there's a definite disconnect between what's on the pages and what's on the big screen.

Overall the film really has the problem in that it's trying to use the hype and presence of certain characters to further itself. At the same time it doesn't want to be tied down by established details, and this is going to become more evident as time goes by. Already James Gunn has confirmed that he's going to go a very different route than what is established with Star Lord's father, and things will likely keep changing from there.

Now, for all this i'm not calling Guardians of the Galaxy a bad film. It's very entertaining and it does try to capture the spirit of the universe, but at the same time it's made so many differing choices that the two can hardly be seen as one leading on from the other. To call up an old comparison, it's like comparing the James Bond books and films. Both share the same name,but read one and then watch the Sean Connery era, and you'll see many discrepancies. This wouldn't be so bad in of itself, were it not for the problem with Marvel Comics.

The sad truth is that, rather than having the films become more like the comics over time, the comics are throwing everything away to try and be what they think the films are like. This has already been confirmed on the creative side of things, with creators being more influenced by the films than comics at the cost of continuity and theme. This often comes at the cost of established ideas and points, with Marvel itself giving no enforcement to try and ensure everything says somewhat coherent rather than the blundering mass of retcons its devolved into. That might sound like what the Marvel universe has always been, but it's getting to the point where it's jumping from writer to writer with no consistency. A few writers (such as one we'll get into in a second) often seem to base them more off of general pop culture or personal opinion. Many such as Star Lord and Iron Man have been hit especially hard by this of late, with the characterisation of Stark often coming down purely to snarky one-liners in order to try and echo Robert Downey Jr.

This might not be too bad were it not for the fact that Marvel seems to actively encourage this wherever possible to gain more money, then abandons any effort to emulate the films entirely in other places. As such, with so many discrepancies in the Guardians film, you can only imagine how this affected the comics. This wasn't helped when it was given to Brian "I didn't write it so I ignore it" Bendis. You can only imagine how that turned out.

The cinematic universe is fine as an entity, but the problem is too many people, including creators, now see it as the definitive version. If future films are allowed to keep going further and further away from the source material, Marvel Comics will follow and what was once outstanding or well defined will be lost in a haze of lust for money.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

First Look At Space Hulk: Deathwing In-Game Screenshots

Having been quietly in development for some time now, news about Space Hulk: Deathwing First Person Shooter has been fairly scarce. Beyond a cinematic trailer and a few promotional images, most of what audiences have learned has come through brief second hand information, but now we have a fleeting glimpse of what the game will lok like from the player's perspective. Superfluously taken then leaked onto Facebook and the Eternal Crusade forums, the distant images give a general impression on how the game might shape out. 

While difficult to see at this point, it does give an impression of the HUD system and environments players will be fighting in. More open than the cramped environments found in past games, these ones look much more open while at the same time retaining the much more dead metal feel of the Warhammer universe. Albiet one with a distinct lack of the usual mounts of skulls carved into each archway.

The main aspects seen on the HUD are displayed in each of the four corners of the screen, and what can clearly be seen is a minimap on the top right, a selector or manager tool of some form on the bottom right, and a similar identifier on the top left.

Oh, and a flamer has also been confirmed as a part of the Deathwing's arsenal.

It's only a slight glimpse into what's to come, but it's the first look we've seen in quite a while. Here's hoping more will follow. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

Sunless Sea (Video Game Review)

Proof of just what crowd funding is capable of in the right hands, Sunless Sea is a tie-in release to Failbetter’s Fallen London. Set away from the city itself and exploring the vast underground world London was dragged into when Queen Victoria made a Faustian pact with the devil, the focus here is on the distant lands. Your job is to run cargo between ports desperate for new supplies, seek out new land, and engage in the odd bit of piracy.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Heroes of Might & Magic III – HD Edition (Video Game Review)

The main point of any HD remake is to refine an old idea. This often means taking an old but beloved title and upgrading it for a new generation, graphically or even going so far as to tighten the gameplay. While there have been many successes and failures, Heroes of Might & Magic III – HD Edition accomplishes a truly catastrophic misunderstanding of what an HD Edition should truly be. Not only does it completely fail to improve anything, but this version actually detracts from the experience of playing this classic.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Saints Row: Gat out of Hell (Video Game Review)

Proving that the Saints Row universe can manage to go just that little more insane, Gat out of Hell is the Jedi Academy of the series. Using many assets and ideas from its direct predecessor, it tells a new story and streamlines the experience. That and it also gives players DJ Shakespeare as an ally.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Gothic War (Book Review)

When it comes to Black Library, there are a few key novels which are signified as being massive game changers for the franchise and fan favourites. Ian Watson’s Space Marine, Dan Abnett’s First and Only, and Graham McNeill’s Storm of Iron are the traditional ones, but the Gothic War duology is sadly forgotten these days. While likely down to a lack of reprints until recently, the sad truth is that it’s one of the best novels of its kind and covers a subject so often skipped by many authors: Naval life and battle. True, many books do feature this to a fair degree, but so few are exclusively set on warships, and both Execution Hour and Shadow Point are perfect examples of how to truly nail this.

Set during Abaddon’s Twelfth Black Crusade, the series follows the crew of the Lord Solar Macharius as they are deployed to help turn the tide in a slowly losing battle against the traitor fleets. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned on countless occasions, the vessel and her captain, Leoten Semper, keep winning battles time and time again. However, as the ever traitorous Eldar offer an alliance against Chaos and the Planet Killer continues on its ponderous course towards heavily inhabited worlds, can even the most staunch of Imperial commanders hope to turn the tide?

Monday, 2 February 2015

Last Dream (Video Game Review)

As with all things, as a franchise builds and develops they sadly develop flaws. Some fan be fatal, others divert it down a route the story never explored, and the canon devolves into a patchwork of retcons or forced sequels. Whether this is down to the creators losing sight of what worked, the rights shifting to those who do not understand the property, or even just changes in vision which go against its best strengths, we've seen this many times over. Sometimes it can take an indie to show where a major publisher went wrong, and Last Dream captures everything which SquareEnix has lost sight of with Final Fantasy.

Created in RPGMaker and touted as an ode to the classic era of SquareEnix's fabled flagship series, Last Dream is a near perfect example of how to make a great RPG. The story is surprisingly deep but un-intrusive, the world is vast and the enemies challenging. Atop of all this however, it manages to account for many ideas and points big name publishers have long forgotten. Not just in Final Fantasy, but in the likes of the Elder Scrolls, or even the biggest of names.

The story opens up with a parent being separated from their children while on a beach. Whilst out searching for firewood, the skies overhead darken and the very environment seems to warp about them, and their family disappears. Returning and frantically searching for them, they nearly drown as a hooded figure looks on and barely escape alive with the help of the enigmatic Dante. Recovering, they soon discover they have somehow arrived on a parallel world known as Terra, and may have no way home...

Despite sounding like some demented opening to an Uwe Boll production, this actually works in the story's favour. The opening is very short, presents a real sense of mystery, and you soon discover that the protagonist (the parent, whose name, class and to some degree gender, is decided by you) may not have been brought there by mistake. Through visions you see glimpses of how the elves were driven to extinction and the rise of a new power. The character himself is a blank slate, as are your companions, but that partially works in the game's favour. It's up to you to really fill out their character traits and turn them into a legendary figure, rather than the writers. Not to mention how things play out.

Of the two franchises mentioned above, Final Fantasy's main failing has been its increasing linearity and emphasis upon trying to tell a long drawn out story. A story which is, going by XIII, often bereft of context. Elder Scrolls meanwhile never seems to let your achievements have much impact. You can be champion of the area and head of the mage's guild, but people will barely recognise you for it, and bandits will still attack as if you're a no-name chump. Last Dream completely obliterates these as it progresses onward. 

Along with offering a massive open world which is huge even by Final Fantasy's standards, sequence breaking is outright encouraged by the developers. There are many hidden ways you can find to skip ahead of the main story or even bypass a few plot critical events like gaining access to a ship by serving the king. While many still need to be followed at some point to keep the story going, there's far more freedom in how you accomplish them. Atop of this, a huge number of locations and points can only be found by going out of your way to find them. While having no bearing on the core story, it's possible to kill a demi-god, the very being who destroyed the elves, build a submarine, find Atlantis, and kill a sea-going leviathan from the inside-out. Those are just a handful of the things which happen, and revisiting villages is actively encouraged. Many will change over time to react to events, or even be occupied by a hostile Empire at points, or even offer brand new sidequests.

Speaking of sidequests, it's through these and a few key choices that you can really get the world to react to you. Okay, go back and speak to them about new developments and they'll say something new, but you can end up heaped with praise. Kill a pirate terrorising a village in a non-required battle? You get repeatedly thanked, several nights free in the local inn, and even hear how things develop thanks to your actions in the ending. Complete the entire Hunter's Guild and Arena tiers? People will often recognise you as the champion who accomplished them, and both will not only alter the ending but a huge amount of the final battle. You can even at one point launch a raid into the heart of occupied Asgard, join with the resistance, rescue the imprisoned king, and flee, and you'll be seen as a hero by many for it.

This is the thing about the game, while the Last Dream might be more basic in its presentation and general story, it makes up for that by covering areas missed by bigger titles. This makes it truly well worth investing in and more often than not there are choices or unseen moments which will make you go back to try things again in multiple replays. The fact that the developers themselves published an online guide shows how much they wanted people to really make the most of their game.

Beyond even this, many mechanics in Last Dream are fairly solid from the outset. Much like the first Final Fantasy, you get only four heroes to choose from and they consist of the usual mix of classes. There's the tanking Knight, sneaky Thief, White Mage, Black Mage and Monk, with a few later or unusual choices such as the Hunter, Engineer and Grey Mage. Each of them plays out as you'd expect, and their overall role goes as you'd expect, albeit with a few twists here and there. Rather than leveling up normally, there are two separate points systems to help upgrade your party in terms of abilities/spells and stats. The former can be used to ignore some of the more basic spells and save up for better but more expensive ones. The latter allows for some real freedom in terms of how you develop a hero. As a personal example, after getting irritated at Mages being exceptionally squishy, I dumped a metric ton of points into defence. Keeping with this, they rapidly became borderline bullet-proof and capable of tanking attacks like there was no tomorrow.

The actual combat system goes as you'd expect really. It's turn based, you have a wide variety of actions to choose from and it's strictly sticking to what works really. While the inclusion of passive upgrades you can buy and a few class choices might surprise you, such as the Engineer's usefulness with certain items, it's really nothing we've seen before. At the same time, there's nothing really wrong with that as it is set up to emulate classic pre-PSX RPGs. It's also somewhat expected due to the RPGMakers system, and really it's better to stick with a winning formula here than anything else.

What is every interesting however, and something far more RPGs should have included a very long time ago. In the options menu there is the choice to edit the exact state of Last Dream's world as you play through, allowing players to play as they want. This consists of a varied array of difficulty options (allowing you to lower it briefly to deal with any especially aggravating speed-bumps of bosses), but also the rate of random encounters and whether you want to see cutscenes. Both are very intelligent choices as they can ultimately speed up grinding, and allow players to really tailor their experience. If you're only interested in the mechanics or speed-running the game, repeatedly mashing the spacebar to race through cutscenes is going to become frustrating in minutes. If you do miss them however, there is an option to go back and re-watch them in the menu.

All this said however, Last Dream is not a perfect game by any means and there are a few irritating points here and there.

While sticking to a classic turn based system and mixture of classes, some elements of the abilities system and enemies lack some fine polish. In going back to an older design, many design choices which were better refined later on in Final Fantasy's sequels rear their heads here. A lot of spells quickly become problematic as rather than the usual Cure or Firaga, you have various Cure 1s, Fire 7s and the like. This means you're going to be buying up and churning you way through multiple very similar spells which do not scale too well with your levels. Switching them in and out due to the limited slots in combat is pointless busywork at the best of times, and it would have been easy to have one replace the other as you brought them up. Instead it can leave you scrolling through pages of no longer useful spells at times.

On the subject of scrolling through things, this is actually a real problem the game has with a few systems. Navigating through the map can be problematic as it does not allow for free moment, only jumping from dungeon to village to dungeon by scrolling up and down on a list. However, rather than putting them in alphabetical order, it's merely mashed together meaning it's hard to find what you want at times. The same goes for the recipe system to make new items, which is infinitely frustrating when you just want to know how many more demon skulls you need to craft a new helmet.

In terms of the actual enemy variety, there's nothing really unique here and it even lacks some of the more interesting choices. While the usual mix of orcs, bandits, undead and the like all show up, but none of the spellcasters immune to physical attacks. It's the same sort of foes you'd expect to see showing up but they lack that additional element to make them truly interesting or stand out. Just a bit more variety or originality would definitely help.

Even the story does suffer from a few teething problems. While it quickly settles into its storytelling method, the initial cutscene is extremely jarring and it takes a couple to really get going. Atop of this, the party beyond the protagonist seems to really be ignored. Even in the ending, none of your companions even register as being there and just disappear entirely. It's thankfully kept to a minimum but these headscratching scenes really spoil what is otherwise a perfect ending. One which, in all fairness, nails everything you'd hope it would in tying up the fate of the characters you meet and your impact on the world.

Really though, these problems are not nearly enough to prevent Last Dream being a glowing beacon of hope for indie RPGs. This really is the standard to which all RPGMaker titles should be measured against as it maintains a consistently high quality throughout and really rewards the player for going out of their way to explore the world. If you have been missing a great RPG in the style of yesteryear which isn't afraid to change things up or break from tradition when needed, this is one well worth recommending. For its very low price you can expect to drain a good fifty hours of your life into the game, and you'll not regret a second of it. 

Just remember to take an Engineer if you want the best ending to be available to you. No, really, you'll need him.