Tuesday, 31 July 2018

2018 Can Burn In The Deepest Darkest Level Of Hell

More delays due to people not bothering to tell me a single damn thing, and deciding that screwing over my schedule is fine. We will be back in two days.

I swear, if 2019 proves to be worse than this one, I will personally welcome Ragnarok as a mercy killing.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Why Gaunt's Ghosts Is Still Warhammer 40,000's Greatest Gateway Drug

Warhammer 40,000 has rarely been in a better time, as it has become much more open to fans of all forms. The push for new games, a better use of social media accounts (seriously, check out their Facebook and Youtube pages if you get even a second) and transparency has earned more goodwill than Games Workshop has seen in decades. New fans can start practically anywhere, with the new novels following the slowly advancing timeline or those of past eras. People have always suggested certain series over others to get into it, depending on the factions they are most engaged by. However, even with that in mind, I would still argue that Dan Abnett's long-running saga is still the ultimate gateway into the grim darkness of the far future. Why? Specifically, because it has run for so long.

Barring the likes of Ian Watson's Space Marine or the like, Gaunt's Ghosts is one of those sagas which has run from the start. It effectively marked the point where the game moved from the last vestiges of the Rogue Trader era into the more modern incarnation it's recognised for today. With First and Only's release in 1999, it was published at the tail end of the Third Edition and with it came more serious storytelling, deeper lore and detailed depictions of figures. While the bolter porn and bizarre humour was still present, it was shaping up into being less of a parody than a varied setting. First and Only reflected this in many ways, as it was simultaneously open to new readers but lacked inherent universal detail.

Think about it for a moment, what do you actually need to know when reading First and Only, just going from the events of the book itself. Very little in all honesty. The space marines are largely a background presence, only showing up briefly or having the odd passing mention in places. The Emperor is outlined as a god venerated by the Imperium, but it doesn't go into the nitty-gritty of his entombment. Chaos? That's introduced as a fantasy element, with daemons, corruption and its worshippers which the Imperium opposes. For the sake of the story, that's all that you need to know. This is the real brilliance of the story, as it keeps things at a human level: It explains as much as it needs to keep the plot moving, and no more, ensuring that events are kept at a Guardsman's eye level.

On the surface, skipping so much information might seem like a crime as it's bypassing immense amounts of what would make the setting so great. However, it instead works this in its favour. It's offering the reader glimpses into the overall setting, small details and highlights of its nature. It tells you just enough to make you understand, but doesn't swamp you with details. Heldane? He's a psyker and an Inquisitor. What are those? A psyker is a psychic, a telepath in his case, and an Inquisitor is a member of His Hallowed KGB. It skirts by on atmosphere and letting the reader put two and two together when needed, and in doing so it was given the freedom to more aptly explore elements the bigger setting would overlook. By doing this, it means the novel has the freedom to explore the smaller details of the setting which would be otherwise overlooked.

The Tanith First and Only themselves were an oddity as they were not supported by any major Imperial Guard Astra Mmilitarum IMPERIAL GUARD regiment on the tabletop. They had no models, no standing, no written history outside of the novel, and the same went for the Jantine Patricians and Vitrian Dragoons. The details we were given of their homeworlds showed just how heavily humanity's varied cultures were across the galaxy, from forests which re-arranged themselves at night to cities of glass pagodas. It was used to give the Imperium more of a face, show how people reacted to war in this era, and contrasted with what people would expect of a far future empire. This was only further enhanced by the inclusion of things like the Men of Iron and STCs, showing the techno-barbaric nature of humanity as it rebuilt itself on scraps. That's the big point here, all of this was shown to the reader rather than dumping exposition on them. In doing so, there was more time to explore the characters as well, from Gaunt's surprisingly controlled nature as a Colonel-Commissar to the likes of Larkin.

Now, we have spent much on only the first novel here so far, but there's a good reason for that: It's easy to pick up, read and gain investment in, all without greater understanding of the setting. People could certainly look up those details and see the greater meaning behind them, but that wasn't required reading. This was how it started, and how much of the series - barring a couple of odd moments - would continue from there on. Whether it was the Imperial Navy or the hierachy of the Guard itself, more of the inner workings would be displayed detailing the overall nature of humanity. However, what helped substantially was how Gaunt's Ghosts proved to be a rare series where the bad was dropped, but it retained everything good. First and Only worked well as an introduction, but it did suffer from a liberal use of archetypes, a few overt character cliches and shallow one-shot villains. Ghostmaker would try to overcome this with more limelight moments to flesh out the Tanith's numbers, and the series would truly hit its stride with Necropolis. Even the more static characters would be given more human moments, and revelations to better flesh them out.

Each novel would confront a very different form of warfare, from sieges to infiltration efforts to all-out trench warfare. It ensured the reader that they were never fully comfortable with a single style of story, and quite often it would seem as if Abnett would intentionally oppose what had been written before. The Ghosts' victory at the end of The Founding arc was directly followed by a disgraceful loss, and the odd optimism of early books would heavily contrast with those of later stories. The likes of Traitor General and The Armour of Contempt, in particular, were seemingly written to undercut all previous elements, and keep things fresh rather than allowing anything to become overly familiar. This allowed every book to feel new despite its connections and would be just as open to old hands as new ones. Something which seemed to carry over into the style of the stories themselves. Foreknowledge was certainly a bonus, but it never fully relied on readers keeping fully up to date with events.

Like the overall setting, the series would rely on the reader being told enough to keep track of things at the time. Like many Star Wars Expanded Universe novels, you didn't need to know everything, and you would be told enough to keep track of them. Forget about one side character? Something would be added to remind you of their role and nature in the regiment. Did the exact events of a past book slip your mind? There would be some moment of recollection to let fans catch up with things. It meant that most novels could be approached from a fresh perspective without any serious issues or feelings of being lost.

Now, you certainly can't start with any book in the series as some don't lend themselves well to new readers. Guns of Tanith, for one, is a difficult tale to fully pin down without prior familiarity due to its style and structure. However, many others would easily lend themselves well to fans and update new readers. As a point of curiosity, I tested this myself with a friend unfamiliar with the setting; lending them Traitor General, The Armour of Contempt, and then Salvation's Reach. Because they so frequently and easily updated details or covered prior events, said fan was able to keep track of developments between books and new twists. Why is this important? Because it meant the series could often get away with people starting in later arcs or more recent publications, rather than working through twelve prior books to understand what was going on. Instead, it would tell a good story the reader would follow, and make them want to go back and read those other stories.

However, perhaps the greatest reason that the Gaunt's Ghosts series remains the best gateway for fans is due to how it handles characters and tone. The saga makes it clear from the start that almost anyone can die. The Tanith are constantly under-strength, constantly losing people and a few big twists make it clear that named characters will be bumped off. It doesn't do so gratuitously, or to the point of making you feel nothing for their deaths, but it more easily separates it from inherently less grim and dark settings. Characters would develop, change and alter over time, but sometimes that would be for the worse or would mislead you into thinking they had some immunity to death for a time. This was only further enhanced by something fans have nicknamed "promotion from within", where characters would be established long before becoming promenant. MkVenner is perhaps the greatest example of this, and through it you could constantly have lesser characters coming more and more to the forefront. Thus easily covering for those who died.

There is certainly more that could be said about Gaunt's Ghosts - and, once again, there are still great sagas which also serve as an excellent way to get into Warhammer 40,000 - but there is a very good reason why this is deemed a flagship series. The fact it can keep gaining fans almost a decade after its release and four major arcs only prove that, when many others barely reach a fraction of its length. Even with the series edging toward a finale, it wouldn't surprise me if it keeps serving as a lightning rod for new fans to take note of the lore for decades to come.

If you disagree or have your own views on this, or you want to cite another one you would suggest in its place then please leave a comment. Everyone has their own views after all, and this is just mine.

Sunday, 29 July 2018

MOTHERGUNSHIP (Video Game Review)

MOTHERGUNSHIP is one of those very rare releases which earns the all-caps title. There’s no other way to announce its existence than with a skyward scream, because it never does anything small. This is a game where bullets are frequently the size of your head, and guns have so many barrels that even Rob Liefeld would do a double-take upon seeing them. You can not only dual wield five-rotor miniguns, but stack one weapon atop the other, until you are firing a literal tower of guns.

The story here as about as throw-away as you would get outside of a 90s arcade machine, with Earth having been conquered by alien robots and you as the one person capable of turning the tide. Much of this exists purely to offer you more and more varied designs of enemies to fight, but it certainly works. You could be fighting anything from a series of rapid firing turret emplacements to a giant enemy mechanical crab with cannons.

It also helps that the typical FPS experience has been altered significantly, as this is less Halo than it is Touhou. At times this really is a first person bullet hell experience, with all the flashing gunfire, massive projectiles and steams of energy bolts you would expect. Due to the semi-random layout and varied designs, this allows rooms to change massively from one environment to the next, and you can never be wholly certain of just what awaits you around the corner. This should have been MOTHERGUNSHIP’s greatest strength, but it is instead undermined by severe RNG issues. There is no consistency from one room to the next, and you will frequently bump into massive difficulty spikes right after relatively easy environments. If you thought FLT: FASTER THAN LIGHT could be punishing, this game completely eclipses its traps.

The RNG issue is further compounded by weapon drop rates and the fact you only find shops as and when the stars align. While the customisation options are extremely varied and complex, you can end up carrying completely the wrong bits you need to further enhance your current weapons. As such, so much of your victory is put down to sheer luck. Combined with the fact you lose any and all items you carry on death with some very punitive rewards, and what is initially creatively energetic becomes an exercise in frustration.

MOTHERGUNSHIP has the potential to be a great game, but currently, it definitely needs a few patches to balance out its problems. You will certainly have fun for the first few hours, but after a while, the experience will feel like you are bashing your head against a brick wall. In its current state, save it for the sales.

Wednesday, 25 July 2018

Warhammer 40,000: Gladius - Relics of War (Video Game Review)

It’s odd to think that Warhammer 40,000 has not entered the 4X genre before now. With its detailed galaxy, diverse races and vast armies, it would seem like a perfect fit. However, Warhammer 40,000: Gladius is a classic example of ‘be careful what you wish for’. It gets the basics right but never pushes the envelope. As such, it all too often feels like an elaborate Civ VI mod.

Tuesday, 24 July 2018

Metal Fatigue (Video Game Review)

Homogenization plagues any genre or medium as time goes on. Developers are more likely to follow a successful formula over branching out when met with tight deadlines, and it’s always best to build on a success than start anew. The unfortunate sacrifice in the name of more reliable successes is innovation (actual innovation, not the Ubisoft brand of the word) with the daring risks and messily ambitious designs of a genre’s formative years. When it comes to RTS games, few epitomise this lost art better than Metal Fatigue.

The main appeal of Metal Fatigue is how it approaches its subject matter, especially when it comes to offering a new dimension to engagements. While you might have the usual mix of tanks, troops, planes and giant sci-fi robots the map isn’t the usual single plane you’d expect. Instead it’s divided between low orbit, land, and underground with certain units able to move up and down between the three. Shoot down a plane and it will fall down through one zone to the next. Fail to properly guard the underground, and suddenly a swarm of subterranean tanks might spring up inside your base.

Each zone provides unique benefits, as the land is the best location for buildings, while the underground is one of the most suitable areas for thermal energy from lava. Orbit, meanwhile, is the best location for solar panels and some of the game’s big weapons: Railgun platforms. Yet it’s not the railguns people will remember but the Combots; giant mecha you can wholly customise. Torso, arms, legs, the lot, can be swapped out and reworked to tailor make a new mecha. While each of the three factions has their own preferences - the usual powerhouse, sneaky one, and balanced mob - these can be retooled to fit a number of roles.

Unfortunately, where Metal Fatigue tends to go wrong is when its ambition exceeds its capabilities. Besides a mix of irritating bugs which makes certain swarm units more effective than they should be, the user interface is frustratingly spartan and poorly laid out. In addition to this, most winning strategies rely heavily on hard countering units and ambushes, a problem which is exacerbated by how often underground environments lead to bottlenecks and stalemates. Equally, the mechs themselves lack balance in terms of their parts, which allows camouflage torsos and jump jet leg equipped Combots to ambush and annihilate whole armies.

The end result of all this is a game which is brilliant, inventive and creative, but is unrefined. It’s akin to playing Tiberium Dawn today, it’s entertaining but it needs a sequel to iron out all of the problems. It’s just a shame we never got that one. Still, for all of its problems, Metal Fatigue still has something to offer even modern-day players.

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Shining Force Refrain (Video Game Review)

The problem with describing Shining Resonance Refrain, is that it plays and feels like a “best of” compilation of other releases. You have ideas, mechanics and characters which are all but openly lifted from other titles, meaning that it can be hard to pick out just where it succeeds and fails on its own merits.

The game is ultimately extremely derivative in its mechanics, but it’s easy to see where it has picked and chosen the best parts of other successes. Influences from Eternal Sonata and Ar Tonelico are both evident in the use of music as a method of buffing and debuffing enemies, while the relationship links system seems like something straight out of Persona. However, it does these well enough that it’s difficult to fully hold it against the game, while the core combat system is dynamic and fast paced enough to easily disguise some of its more derivative core elements.

Another major point in its favour is the artistic direction, which is bright and extremely vibrant. It has every anime element you would expect from the big eyes to the superpowered attacks, but it’s so carefully crafted that there’s a distinct charm to it. It manages to walk a very careful line between traditional and overly generic which repeats many older inspirations and designs, but still manages to retain its own identity. There’s rarely a level or boss which doesn’t help visually build upon the world in some way, and that’s definitely to its benefit.

Shining Resonance Refrain’s greatest failing lies largely with its lore. The setting and overall concept is as stock as it comes, often playing and feeling like a SNES era Final Fantasy clone. It consists of stock characters, stereotypes, and generic overplayed concepts we have seen too many times before. Having the evil Empire hunting an ancient power that the protagonist is tied to is bad enough, but when that links into dragon lore and an extremely weak protagonist, it’s difficult to become engaged. It’s only made worse by how the game continually tries to keep the player engaged through dating sim elements and embracing relationship cliches. Combine that with the overly long cutscenes, and the experience it offers can be downright soulless at times.

Ultimately, Shining Resonance Refrain is a game of extremes. The combat system is solid, art direction is beautiful to the point of overcoming its poor graphics, and the Persona style bonding system works well. Yet, with a boring story and forgettable characters it can become a chore to force yourself through the experience. If you value mechanics over storytelling you might get a kick out of this one, but JRPG fanatics should look elsewhere for their next big hit.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

STAR WARS: THE CLONE WARS Revived for a New Season

One of the major casualties of Disney taking over the Star Wars license was the ongoing Clone Wars cartoon. Despite having a substantial fanbase and frequently receiving critical acclaim for its stories, the series came to an abrupt end with no true finale. While Star Wars: Rebels attempted to offer some closure to key storylines, particularly those of Darth Maul and the Mandalorian Civil War, the cartoon went without a true ending. That changed today in San Diego Comic-Con 2018, where series creator Dave Filoni unveiled a brand new trailer to celebrate the cartoon’s tenth anniversary.

Friday, 20 July 2018

The Legacy of Final Fantasy IV

Every generation has its favourite Final Fantasy, from VII on the PSX to X on the PS2 and VI on the SNES. Also technically XII for the PS3, but something tells me that was due to a lack of a choice. The point is that a few always stand out above the others in this long-lived series, and they tend to benefit from much bigger fandoms. These can range from the mechanics to ambitious stories or even release dates. However, IV is an oddity which has unfortunately been lost in the mix of things. No one will doubt it had a significant impact on the series, but all too often it tends to be reduced to a momentary mention in the series' history. This is fairly disingenuous as without it we would never have seen the heights the franchise reached. We may not even have ended up with the modern JRPG.

While I will freely admit that this is coming from someone who loves every Final Fantasy to some degree - to the point where he will even come to II's defense - IV is where the series as we know it truly began. The characters in I, II and III ranged from simple puppets there to drive the plot along to figures who had a vague hint of a backstory, but lacked any meaningful drama or character development. Really, when it came to the core characters, "Guy speak beaver" was about as detailed and dynamic as you got. Everything else was vague if not outright non-existent. As such, not only was the very idea of having an act structure to a game focusing on the protagonists something IV pioneered in video games, but as were things like character conversations and introductions.

If you think that this is hyperbole, really stop and compare this game and its predecessors for a moment:

I - A group of heroes arrive at Coneria, show the king they have proof of their link to a prophecy, and are sent to kick arse for the elements.

II - Firion, Maria, Guy and Leon flee their village from raiders sent by the Empire. All of them are knocked unconscious, while Leon himself is taken captive. The group is then recruited into the White Rose Rebellion in the hopes of retaking their home.

III - Four teenagers with attitude young children find an underground cavern and are granted a small portion of a mysterious crystal's power. They are then sent forth by their adoptive family to restore balance to the world.

IV - The elite fleet of airships, the Red Wings, attack the city of Mysidia to claim their water crystal. Forced to slay those within its temple to capture it, they return to the Kingdom of Baron with their prize, despite enduring repeated assaults from new monsters which plague the land. The Red Wings' commander, the Dark Knight Cecil, continually questions the King's increasingly tyrannical decrees until he openly voices his concerns. Cecil is promptly stripped of his rank and is parted from Rosa, his beloved. In penance for his insubordination, Cecil is tasked with taking a mysterious ring to the village of Mist. Along with the Dragoon Kain Highwind, he journeys to this place, home to the world's population of Summoners.

While direct, it's leaps and bounds above all that came before, quickly establishing the prior life of the protagonist, his standing in the world and relationship to the others. At the same time, it creates far more of a sense of mystery and raises as many questions about the world as it offers answers. As video games go, it's a perfect hook to grab the player's attention and establish some early world building along with sparking character arcs. While it's certainly basic by today's standards, this really would be like jumping from a Lumière brothers production to a Laurel and Hardy film within the space of just a couple of years. 

Beyond the story itself, core concepts and mechanical ideas which would become series staples were solidified here. For starters, the then unique system of turn-based combat where every action was tied into a timer really took off. This was made in response to how players were seemingly frustrated at having to wait to take their turn, allowing battles to have a more obvious flow of events and some degree of real-time progression. While this could have easily been a case of trying to reinvent the wheel and messing everything up (just look at Mystic Quest to see how badly that could go wrong even in the early series) this was instead refined and used as an asset. You ended up having to think over actions with a sense of urgency and there was less of an opportunity to think out how and when to best use an optimal move.

Even the soundtrack underwent a transformation. The enhanced technology behind the SNES' sound chip allowed the likes of the Crystal Prelude theme to become the iconic song so closely associated with the franchise. The additional tones, layers and new details all went towards refining and developing what had been set down before, making it truly stand head and shoulders above its contemporaries. Even when you sit down and compare the original scores to those found in IV, it's clear that later installments owe far more to the tracks introduced with this story than those before it.

If it's not been made clear, this game is where Final Fantasy truly began. All that was introduced before it, from the stumbling efforts of I to the vastly improved mechanics of III were the baby-steps taking before it started to truly hit its stride. With that said, it is clear that there are lessons found within IV which the series needed to more closely adhere to: The beauty of simplicity. This was most evident during XIII where a genuinely interesting story and an engaging world was marred by an overly complex plot, incoherent storytelling elements and several major characters which lacked a clear direction. The series went back and forth on this for some time, but often games were attempting to over-engineer what could have been direct and easy story elements. While it is difficult to pin this down to a single incident, the highly detailed story of VI and the dense, borderline insane, plot behind VII are likely to blame. With VIII following it, and X only taking a general step back toward normality, it was as if the series' creators had lost sight of what made their games great in the first place.

When it came to IV, you had a direct and easy premise which was gripping and engaging. One which never fails to grab the attention of players today when it's offered to them. Simply put: IV is Star Wars if Darth Vader was the hero.

The overall arc is ultimately one of rediscovery and redemption as a result of Cecil's role in the story. His need to shed his role of Dark Knight is one of rebirth and new direction, along with overcoming his prior mistakes and a multitude of storytelling elements reflect this well. The large supporting cast is one of the few times the series did nail frequently swapping out one character for another, as it allowed for a very fluid and natural storytelling quality to events. The locations were extremely varied and diverse, with several changing through the story while the major twists were delivered in a clear and concise manner. Each was executed such a way that you never forgot prior events, or lost track of what was going on, even as the plot rapidly thickened.

The very fact that IV could support such a large number of characters related heavily to how it made each one distinct and easy to remember. Kain? The guy with a big stick-sword whose loyalties are divided between Baron's rulers and what he personally believes is right. Tellah? An angry old man out for revenge, no matter the cost to himself. Rosa? Bow-wielding support character who links directly into several major twists. Yang? Polite, taciturn and willing to take on an army of monsters if it's the right thing to do.

Now, it's true that you can argue that this has carried over to many other games. While this is another element that IV is the progenitor of, and other games have learned from its example, it's something which it does better than many others. There's no single character here who feely superfluous or tacked on for needless reasons, while the same cannot be said of a multitude of other games even today. Calling out Mass Effect: Andromeda might seem like a cheap shot, but the truth is that I could only keep track of a few character's names due to their seemingly tacked-on roles. Those who I can, like Drack, were possible only thanks to belonging to the same archetype as another character in prior games. Jade Empire suffered from the same issue, while even series lauded for their storytelling such as Persona or Phantasy Star can suffer from this depending on how they integrate characters into the story. 

The overall point of this article really is both to highlight how Final Fantasy IV reshaped its series, genre and served as a turning point for a major staple of video games. At the same time, it's not one which should be forgotten or overlooked despite gaming having long since moved on to more complex narratives. If anything, it's an installment which should serve as a guideline on how to execute so many elements without losing track any single one, and a reminder that simplicity isn't a sin. 

Now, bait-and-switches, that's a whole other matter.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Octopath Traveller (Video Game Review)

Octopath Traveller is a story of stories. Eight travellers agree to unite in their travels, following their own goals while they wander the world. From a ruthless thief to a pious knight, each is given the chance to tell their own tale, and occasionally take centre stage while following their own arc. In layman’s terms, it’s the Samurai Champloo of JRPGs, and the story is every bit as good as you would think from that comparison.

At one moment you can be participating in a heist, at another investigating a missing member of a character’s family, or hunting for a tome of lost knowledge. The game proves to be bizarrely episodic, but through this it allows every one of Octopath Traveller’s characters to have far more distinction than the usual divide between protagonist and supporting cast.

The combat system is extremely well developed, and proves to be elegantly simplistic. It’s a turn-based system which hinges on exploiting weaknesses in foes and utilising Bonus Points to augment skills. You can generate these during fights and choosing when to use them allows players to chain together potentially devastating strikes if conserved and used correctly. It makes battles remarkably engaging, and it’s one of the best examples since Chrono Trigger on how a game can make a simple but tactically complex system.

Even without this, the side-quests prove to be engaging even when their rewards are lacking. This is largely thanks to the Path action system the game utilises, where characters can perform tasks relating to their role outside of combat. These can open up any number of new opportunities, with the likes of Ophilia the priest being able to recruit NPCs, or Olberic the knight to challenge people to duels. This offers the game a much higher level of replay value than the average JRPG.

Where Octopath Traveller fails to fully succeed lies largely in how it fails to fully debunk a few underlying problems within the JRPG genre. There are multiple points where the game descends into a grind, typically when you’re up against a brick wall of a boss. This drags the story to a screeching halt and, even without these narrative speed-bumps, this only further highlights a few problems with the story structure. While juggling between plots, several stories resort to very abrupt conclusions to close out certain elements. These prove to be very hit and miss, with some succeeding in terms of surprise drama, while others feel like a cheap way to rapidly resolve dangling plot threads.

Despite its two failings, Octopath Traveller succeeds where the likes of Lost Sphear stumbled. It manages to perfectly call back to yesteryear without falling into the same old traps. If you have a Nintendo Switch, this should be an essential addition to your gaming library.

Wednesday, 18 July 2018

A Single Typo Ruined Aliens: Colonial Marines' AI

Every time it’s seemingly done and buried, Aliens: Colonial Marines comes back to haunt Gearbox in whole new ways. The game has been subject to heavy criticism and a lightning rod for controversy in the five years since its release. Both Randy Pitchford’s willingness to blame his audience for having high expectations, and a final product which barely resembled the vertical slice demo, have been particular sore spots among fans. However, a whole new problem has been uncovered by modder jamesdickinson963, who has been attempting to fix Colonial Marines with his TemplarGFX’s ACM Overhaul. Apparently the game’s much derided AI was the result of typos within its basic scripting prompts.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Director Duncan Jones Hints at Upcoming Comic Book Movie

In a recent Tweet, Moon director Duncan Jones has announced that he will be involved with an impending film adaptation of a comic book property

Thursday, 12 July 2018

The Love of Luthor AKA The Misguided Hatred of Superman

The subject of Lex Luthor has always been a bizarre one in the comicbook world, thanks both to his presentation and who he opposes. When you sit down and look at him, the character is one of countless contradictions and contrasting elements, thanks as much to his history as the man he opposes. He's depicted as a ruthless businessman atop a skyscraper while also a self-made entrepreneur. Someone who is a philanthropist but also a representation of capitalism's worst excesses, and a figure who could accomplish great good but is held back by all too human failings. He's hardly relatable in any way, and yet an odd number of people continually root for him. Some so as far as to claim that he is the true hero of the story rather than Superman.

The question is, why?

By every definition Luthor is an unrepentant figure who would sooner tie the entirety of Metropolis' population to railroad tracks than admit Superman's thoughts had any merit. He will take the most convenient route to gain what he wants, and will never lose sleep over murdered innocents or broken laws required to get there. Worse still, his ego and superiority complex often drives him from necessary evils to acts of outright spite, often going out of his way or even wasting precious resources in such endeavors. Unlike those who try to take extreme measures for the betterment of others, no matter how misguided they might be, Luthor is instead just an outright bastard with a small handful of redeeming moments. Unfortunately, that is all too often forgotten in the face of the man he opposes.

Superman is, by every standard, the boy scout. There have been plenty of jokes over him in past years in this regard, and the varied number of abilities he has. However, the problem is that with his standing comes every criticism possible. It ranges from the usual misguided and cherry-picked theories that he is unrelatable and inhuman, to people going through Silver Age stories to cite how he is a prick. Even when he's de-powered people seem to dislike him, claiming he doesn't fully live up to expectations, and I think in the minds of many this is where the issue lies: His abilities. When you make a character a god, or give them enough power to move the entire planet, all too often those figures are the villains. They're treated as detached from reality, seeking to rule over us, and must be beaten by a far more human hero with less power. There's plenty of examples of this, but ultimately when one character is being forced to outsmart a more powerful opposite, it's usually the hero against the villain. 

Equally, an issue stems from how there is a perpetual conflict between characters who are relatable and those who serve as escapist figures. Iron Man is considered an escapist figure, but because he repeatedly makes very obvious mistakes, suffered from alcoholism, has a titanic ego and has a bitter past, people tend to ignore him. With Superman, while he has the loss of his father and planet, many other events have never reached public consciousness. You can name multiple plotlines and key events which do contradict this, and even a multitude of major A-list villains who do contradict the idea of his invulnerability. A personal favourite among these is Parasite, if you're wondering. Yet, because he is openly idealistic, openly hopeful and seeking to make the world better without being bitterly cynical or sarcastic, he's seen as distanced from humanity. 

The issue of his distanced nature is only made worse thanks to the fact his abilities aren't born from magic, science or some ingrained enhancement, but a part of his natural biology. As a result of this, so many people want to see someone like Batman repeatedly beat him in a fight because they feel that they're the underdog, and that they have earned their skills. People will argue that he relies far too heavily on powers he gained due to circumstance or sheer luck, and that he didn't build them up like others, often overlooking facts like how he gradually developed them during his childhood. 

The unfortunate end result of all of this is that those with only a passing familiarity with comics or even go from pop culture knowledge simply go from where Superman stands in power. Rather than fully looking into it, the baseline elements are judged. This isn't an exact damnation of the trend - it's present in damn near everything, entertainment media or otherwise - but it is still a problem, as media has developed in a way which leaves Superman at a disadvantage. One where, after so many years, people are predisposed to support the person individually less powerful and seemingly working off of personal innovation over natural strength. To quote Grant Morrison:

"It's essential to find yourself rooting for Lex, at least a little bit, when he goes up against a man-god armed only with his bloody-minded arrogance and cleverness."

So, with all this said, why do people like Superman? Why is it that he still has supporters, when he has so many inherent advantages, and Luthor is in a position which would typically be heroic? Once again it all comes down to power.

What people tend to forget is that Superman and Luthor are in a very similar position in many regards. They are an authority unto themselves, they have access to resources which entire countries cannot hope to match, and stand above the average person in almost every sense. Then, consider how they use them.

Luthor argues that Superman diminishes humanity via his sheer presence, and that humanity cannot be fully allowed to simply rely on him. However, that only comes about thanks to how Superman has chosen to use his power. No matter how noble the act might be, Luthor's every decision boils down to self-service. He could save an entire orphanage or guarantee a man's family safety, only to kill them as part of a scheme to make Superman look bad. He's actually done that as well, if you want to look up Lex Luthor: Man of Steel. If he offers up a charity event it's to bolster his ego, and if he tries to uplift someone in society, it's largely done to keep the spotlight on him. On its own, this might not be inherently wrong, as heroic characters like Booster Gold have retained this as a character trait. Yet, when combined with his lack of morals, it ensures that he would burn down all of Metropolis, if not the Earth itself, if he could be rid of Superman and remake it in his image.

By comparison, you could stop and look at any moment where Superman has acted to help others, save lives or defeat villains, simply because it is the right thing to do. Not out of ego, self-satisfaction or even a misguided attempt to create his own legend. He has the capacity to help others who cannot help themselves, and he uses that in order to do things humanity cannot currently deal with. It doesn't matter if it's a supervillain or a natural disaster, the reasons are always the same. It would be easy to set himself up as a king among them, and yet refuses, and doesn't hold humanity back either, hoping one day that they will "join him in the sun."

Even if you do argue that Superman's abilities stem from some genetic advantage over a personal creation, that can still apply to Luthor as well. He was born smarter than others, had none of the genetic disabilities which plague others, and had the ingrained ruthlessness which allowed him to murder his parents for financial gain. He only reached the heights that he did due to his specific advantages in brain and body, ones he started out with from an early age and gave him a benefit many typically lacked. Perhaps some amount of that animosity (or even a substantial part of it) could be seen to come from how he beat Luthor at his own game, earning a far more beneficial head start due to his alien origins. We do see, after all, in events such as Blackest Night that he ultimately wants to be Superman, and that his justifications and arguments stem from a bruised ego over a personal ideology.

Yet, if there is nothing else to consider, take a moment to think of class. Over the last several years, the divide between lower class and upper class has become ever greater, to the point where "working class" is considered a bad joke. Almost every story we have about these individuals in power is constantly negative, be it from the USA, UK or Russia, and those are just the ones which make the headlines. The bad doesn't simply eclipse the good, it swallows it whole, until the news of a billionaire or politician actually doing the morally right thing is downright shocking. Luthor emulates these figures in almost every sense, from the extreme self-interest to sheer arrogance they radiate. By comparison, Superman is an embodied hope, the desire that someone who would end up with that power from a lower standing would use it to do good. Keep in mind that, while Luthor lives the high life, Superman was raised as Clark Kent first and foremost - Someone who worked on a farm, and then lived as a reporter with a middling salary. 

Perhaps more than anything else though, it's the idea that someone from a lower standing in life might end up with power to oppose those who would abuse it. That someone of humble origins and without the benefits of a richer environment might gain the power to fight back, and to push back against bullies who would use their abilities to make life hell for others.

Or, if you want to boil this final point down to a clip, compare it with this, just replacing Loki with Luthor and the Hulk with Superman:

It's a one-sided fight, painfully so. But what makes it so satisfying is the fact that Loki has spent the entire film lauding over others, proclaiming his superiority and acting out of spite. As such, rather than it seeming unjust, that moment offers a sense of much-needed catharsis in seeing someone being given a taste of their own medicine. Hulk meanwhile, whatever his flaws, is using his powers to try and stop him from taking ove the Earth, even after being shunned for so long by those same people.

An entire book could be written on the subject, but I just personally wanted to touch on these themes. It's easy to see why someone might fall into the trap of sympathising with the devil, and defending Luthor as a possible hero simply due to his standing and who he fights against. At the same time though, it's hardly a chore to recognise why Superman is needed in fiction, and the dream he inspires is needed more than ever.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Star Wars: The First Order's Modern Mistakes

"But the meta!"

All too often I have seen this excuse for works and their flaws. It doesn't matter if it's a novel, film or video game, this is something someone will argue and focus on in the face of problems. The analysis itself isn't bad in any regard as many works benefit from layers of meta-narrative, or even being written with it specifically in mind such as Cabin in the Woods. Yet, the problem is that this is so frequently praised that internet critics and fans alike seem to think this excuses any flaw. The act structure was terrible, and it relied on the rampant use of Deus Ex Machina? But the meta! The story was borderline incomprehensible and offered no time for any character motive or development? But the meta! It features a writer openly unzipping his flies, pissing on the franchise, annihilating it and declaring anything besides his new vision is wrong? But the meta!

The reason I cite this here is that such critiques have turned from intelligent discourse into an easy method of hand-waving away actual problems. It's less about exploring something than using such articles or thoughts to openly dismiss anything you dislike or handwave away any visions which disagree with you. In fact, one of the more infamous moments I personally experienced was someone who defended everything done to Warhammer 40,000's Iron Hands and the quality of recent novels by claiming the meta-narrative was all important, and how the fandom reflected the characters. It's part of why I try to avoid writing this these days as, while I always try to make it clear that my viewpoint is just one of many, it's an easy trap to fall into. Plus, sometimes, it's probably completely unintentional. Enter the First Order of the new Star Wars films.

The First Order itself really can be summed up as Galactic Empire 2: Imperial Harder, keeping many of the same visuals, distinctive iconography and visual traits. You have Stormtroopers, Star Destroyers, a new superweapon and everything right up to a replacement Emperor. For all intents and purposes, it comes across as an effort to easily introduce an excuse to have an Empire in the new films without dealing with the fallout of the original trilogy. It was made in emulation of what came before and, to be blunt, along with the Resistance I largely wrote it off as lazy writing. Yet, there is an angle, at least one interpretation of the First Order which would allow them some degree of much-needed depth: Realising that they are simply mimicking the Empire without ever wholly understanding it.

When you stop and compare information on the two for a moment, one thing which becomes readily apparent is how the First Order emulates the Empire and then attempts to one-up it. I joked about this in a previous rant, calling it the "Super Empire" but that seems to be how they regard themselves, simply as a means to try and succeed the Imperials. The problem is that every shred of information you find, every detail and concept all leads back to the same focus: Purely on the military. Beyond it, beyond anything which cannot be used to kill or control someone through the threat of death, you really have nothing of substance to them. Their focus is placed entirely on emulating the visual distinction and most noted capabilities of the Empire but without the infrastructure to back that up. When you start to examine that something starts to become clear: They really have no idea what they are doing. They are simply doing their best to copy what seemed to be a successful predecessor, and hoped that things would work out for the best. In the simplest of terms - The First Order is a cargo cult of galactic proportions.

You might immediately argue that Palpatine's Empire was no different, but in truth, it accomplished things in a very different manner. Palpatine took his time, he planned, schemed and slowly made one move at a time as he worked toward an end game. He established a war where he was in near total supremacy over both sides, used it to distract the Jedi while thinning their ranks, and accumulate power for himself. By the end, he had taken the Republic's governing policies, guiding principles and ideologies, and inverted them. He used the will of the people and all that had protected them to have him rapidly reshape the galaxy as he desired, with governors, system commanders and a battle-hardened militarized force under his control. By comparison, the First Order just decided to blow up the Republic and thought that is all they needed to do.

The First Order isn't a power with policies, doctrines and an internal infrastructure, it's a horde which is trying to utilise the momentum of past creators to achieve its goals. The emotions and thoughts relating to their ships, and the historical significance of its imagery, is enough in their eyes to accomplish all that they need. Even when something fails so massively to accomplish its intended targets, the First Order writes it off as a minor issue or even a hidden success, and keeps going despite it. They don't learn, develop or fully build upon past ideas, and when confronted with a contradiction they simply attempt to annihilate it while hoping for the best. The end result is a tenuous grip on authority which is supported only through sheer power, and means nothing without a juggernaut of a military to back it.

The concept of the First Order as a cargo cult has potential behind it and, while I do not think that the writers envisioned this as a subtle meaning, it has potential. It would be a means to change the franchise and offer a different take on events. Instead, it's simply the bad guy. Now, you might think that the meta element to be found in here stems from a comparison with Disney itself. There are criticisms and comparisons which can be made in how they are trying to relentlessly one-up the original trilogy while either copying or calling back to nostalgic feelings to earn cash. Instead, this seems to more widely apply to a multitude of modern franchises.

You can think of any number of classic cartoons, comics or film series which have recently found new life but bereft of their original charm and intelligence. They're the pale shadows, the mimics, the creations with Michael Bay's name attached to them. Often relying wholly on call-backs to prior successes or bringing back older actors, each is an effort to simply survive by reminding people of things they once liked. When another element of the franchise emerges which might differ from this or even overshadow them, efforts are made to supplant, erase, overshadow or simply discontinue them entirely. Purely so that they are the only definitive version of that franchise from here on. Even when they are being critically savaged by fans or reviewers for their failings, they try to drown it out and refuse to re-evaluate their possible problems, and simply press ahead. The First Order isn't a reflection of fandom, it's a reflection of what happens when a beloved franchise is given to the wrong person.

This really was just a stream of consciousness work - mostly due to the heat causing my computer to repeatedly crash - but it seemed worth putting to paper. If nothing else, it's been an excuse to ramble about a few possible ideas to build on for future articles.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Wreckfest (Video Game Review)

If anything can be learned from racing, nothing gets an audience going quite like a high speed collision. As hazardous, frantic and often deadly as they are, the spectacle keeps pulling people back, to the point where the entire Burnout franchise is best known for its slow-mo crash gimmick. Wreckfest doesn’t just emulate this, it glorifies it. It takes the destructive concept as far as it can go without becoming realistic Mario Kart, and lets the players loose inside its tracks. Best of all, it never takes itself seriously.

Wednesday, 4 July 2018

2018 Steam Summer Sale: 14 Excellent Games For Under £5.00

Well, it's better late than never. 

Between my house being torn to bits, technical failings and more than a few problems I can't get into, I have been short on time of late. As such, rather than the full massive listings you would usually get, this is going to be a very brief one. However, as before, the previous several lists covering past sales all apply. Really, look through them if you have the time, all those there are winners.

This year's lot are a mixed bunch of well known (if oddly overlooked) releases, along with promising indie games which really deserve some attention. So, enjoy.


Valley is one of the exceptionally few games which can be filed under "walking simulators done right". You only have limited interaction with the environment, much of it is puzzle based and relies on you uncovering details of your mysterious surroundings. However, it stands out for several reasons. The hero has stumbled upon an old experiment, with only slight hints and aged technology to guide him. It's expertly delivered rather than frustratingly vague, and you don't so much walk as merge with the Speed Force. The  L.E.A.F. suit you find is a powered exoskeleton which allows you to leap over your surroundings and speed along at a rate rarely seen outside of a Ferrari. What's more, you have the power to control the life force in your surroundings, which leads to some quite innovative puzzles.

It might seem at first as if death has no penalty to it, as you are almost instantly resurrected. This is soon proven wrong, and it hurts you in a few ways you wouldn't otherwise expect. While there is little in the way of direct combat and a few puzzles are real brain teasers, it's a game well worth a look.

Knightmare Tower

This is one of a few which looks as if it should be absolute trash at first glance. Really, a glance would have you write it off as one of the monstrosities which clogs up the mobile market, or Steam's lesser-seen titles. It only requires a single attack button, basic movement and has a limited graphical interface. So, why's it on here? Simple - It's better than the sum of its parts.

You play as a knight who fires himself out of a cannon and up through a tower, fighting his way through airborne beasts as he does. This is done by avoiding them as they attack, then abruptly jumping on them to keep gaining height. Fail to do this and the wall of lava pursuing you will overrun the screen. Besides the surprising difficulty of many monsters and their attack patterns, the game runs at a high frame rate and rewards fast reactions. Often playing like a more casual SHMUP, you need to keep repeatedly thinking of how an enemy will attack before they even move, and utilize specific attack patterns. You will die repeatedly, but the game always rewards you every time you get that bit further, with more money and unlockable abilities. It's arcade one-more-turn engagement at its best.


A certainly unique take on the match 3 genre, Ironcast advertises itself as "Puzzlequest meets FTL". It more than lives up to this as well, because of its Roguelite direction and unique combat mechanics. You pilot a steampunk mecha into battle throughout the streets of London, but rather than firing your gun through standard (or turn-based) means, it's all driven by match 3 mechanics. Connect together the right series of links, you gain more power for another shot. It proves to be quite engaging, as the combat moves only as fast as you can link together chains of shots.

The nature of its campaign means you will die more often than not, but this opens the door to other scenarios. You can run into any number of encounters, rescue missions or traps before the end, and this frequently opens the way to new mechs, pilots and surprising new opportunities. You'll die, a lot, but the twist makes it well worth persevering through every failure.

Fhtagn! - Tales of the Creeping Madness

We actually reviewed this one quite recently, but it's worth citing on here. Even at full price, the game is extremely cheap, and its story-driven gimmick makes this an absolute gem of a game. If you want a detailed version then read the review, but the short version is that this is a massive joke on the Cthulhu mythos. You build up a story with a character, join certain cults, cause problems and sell your soul leading up to the end of the world. The fun comes from seeing how your actions impact the world, and even other players joining in with you.

We Are The Dwarves

This one does come with a massive caveat - You may hate the control interface. Every negative review cites this as the main problem, and I will admit it takes some definite getting used to. However, if you are able to adjust to problematic interfaces, the rest of the game is spectacular. It's a science fiction take on dwarven dungeon delving, with several heavily armed dwarves exploring each realm in turn. Most of these are the deadly, murderous and colourfully killy variety, but you also have lost ruins and floating debris to examine.

This can be considered a more tactical Diablo-style experience, with a great emphasis placed on locking onto enemies and chaining attacks. You can throw people about, slam them into walls and charge up powerful attacks, but as you're rarely alone a good deal of it lines up with how well you can keep your people focused on a single target. 

Megabyte Punch

Distinctive thanks to its 90s electro music, chunky graphics and colourful palette, Megabyte Punch is one of the best takes on the beat 'em up genre in years. You have the opportunity to build your own fighter, steal parts from other combatants to upgrade yourself, and compete in tournaments. Oh, and it's also set inside a computer world, with you defending a cyber village against the massed forces of an enemy empire.

The joy of playing this game comes from just how well the developers got what they were aiming for. This could have easily just relied on its gimmick and been forgotten as a result, but instead, it offers extremely tight mechanics, responsive controls and enough enemy variety to keep you interested. The capacity to keep coming back and reworking your fighter offers more than enough replay value to keep coming back, even after beating the campaign.

Of Orcs and Men

An odd choice, Of Orcs and Men allows the player to control two characters simultaneously in its action RPG fights. One is a brute, the other a sneaky backstabber. The game's visual style and sense of humour tends to be its greatest draw, lampooning more than a few fantasy tropes even as it it utilises them for its own means. The result of this is that there's a constantly positive chemistry between the main characters, and a repeated back-and-forth which keeps things engaging.

The core mechanics themselves are satisfyingly meaty, with more than a few ways to link together specific attack sequences or open up exploits. While it is admittedly easy just to whale on the nearest foe and win through sheer brute strength, more than a few encounters add elements encouraging you to break from this trend. You can never become complacent without the risk of failure, and the otherwise dumb AI has some moments of surprising brilliance which can catch you off guard.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters

Video games have a unique benefit in how they deal with other mediums, largely thanks to their interactivity. While films tend to be the big one, this game approaches it in a different manner. You're not experiencing a film a-la David Cage or even building one via a simulator, but playing your way through the director's commentary. The entire framing device is you playing your way through a schlock 70s science fiction film, with all the cheesy monsters, bad effects and stunts involved, and the director chiming in on events.

The genre itself is decidedly action RPG, with a few genre flips, and half the fun comes from seeing where the things you fight break a suspension of disbelief. While the game has a solid backbone for mechanics, the way enemies react, effects fail, or the story goes off of the rails due to the actors involved. It's a brilliant, fun and quite a fantastic take on the genre which never tries to take itself remotely seriously.

Whispering Willows

So here we go from humour to horror, where you play as a girl trying to rescue her father. Trapped within a ghost-infested building, he is mere hours from death, and only your ability to transform into a ghost to bypass barriers allows you to overcome obstacles. The main competition steams from both the roaming enemies and surprise changes within your environment, and a multitude of puzzles which always manages to get in the way.  

At only three hours long, this is one definitely a casual experience, but the artistic direction and surprising moments of maturity shine through. You have every reason to start thinking of this as an easy and quite cheap horror experience, but every time it lulls you into such a sense, it throws a curve ball your way. As such, it continually surprises players at every turn.

Richard & Alice

Set in the wake of a second ice age, this game is a character-driven experience which follows two people trapped in a prison far underground. With little connection to the world above, Richard lives in relative comfort but is distanced from humanity or the horror it has become. Things change once Alice, another prisoner, is added into the cell next to him. As you might imagine, this major change proves to be a source of distrust, a desperate need for social contact and the fact each has their secrets.

Most of the engaging qualities here come from the character dynamics and how the stories are told. This is mechanically light and largely requires you to just walk from place to place, or to occasionally just read the dialogue. It helps that this is more easily broken up than most options, and you actually have things to do over following someone else's work.

Siralim 2

It's Pokemon. Well, not exactly, but it is an old school monster hunting/raising game which has you wandering about and building them up. It's made with a love of classic gaming in mind, but without losing the complexities behind them. You have plenty of team combinations to work through, and you can keep coming back to retool how certain groups benefit from one another. There's such a large enemy variety and the arena allows players to easily test out their new ideas or level up the squads they deploy into battle.

There are plenty of novelty options to mess about with here, as you can end up with teams of mimics, or golems with bizarre character perks. Add to the fact you can have up to six of these things on the screen at a time, rather than the one or two Pokemon typically allows, and it stands out on its own two feet.

Cosmic Star Heroine

A criminally underrated release from the minds behind Cthulhu Saves the World, this one is another humourous RPG. Created with emulation of the late SNES or early PSX era RPG games, this one is a high speed and extremely flashy creation. The cutscenes alone reflect this, but the constantly shifting environments, battle modes and more than a few surprising settings helps to offer a sense of progression and movement. Yet, while the likes of Chrono Trigger serve as a definite source of inspiration, it doesn't simply rely on mimicking them.

The combat systems are highly strategic thanks to how enemy bosses and many enemies operate, with triggered attacks, shifting requirements and even countermeasures against your favoured methods. While you can get through a few basic fights by spamming attacks - at least in the basic dungeons - many later fights often involves you unlearning details or completely reworking your basic playing style. Also, the story is pretty damn good as well.

Final Directive

This is another one which is a release from a developer we have previously looked into, this time the minds behind Reveal the Deep. While that game was a horror experience streamlined and stripped down to what makes the genre glorious, Final Directive follows a different path. It instead does the same with bullet hell games.

The experience is chaotic, over the top and the kind of thing most people used to think of when it came to gaming: One person with a very big gun against hordes of enemies. The flow of combat is intense and sometimes overwhelming, but manages to avoid wearing you out. At the same time, it reworks things mid-battle through weapon upgrades, some creative boss battles and swarms of foes rushing you in corridor fights. It's mindless fun at its best.


The spiritual successor of sorts to the Battlezone series, Warshift combines third-person vehicle combat with RTS strategy. Each side has a commander and troops, with players setting up buildings, creating units and then organising who is sent into battle. You can then participate with the battle itself via the form of Avatars you can control. The avatars themselves can rework and transform, going from ground to water or flight depending on the modes, and outfitting themselves with a variety of weapons.

While the strategic elements themselves are simplified, it does allow for an odd tactics vs strategy element. Someone controlling the army can win in the long run if they think carefully about their actions, base building and how to approach an enemy force. At the same time, however, a talented person with an understanding of how to win individual fights can be a real thorn in their side, and prevent necessary victories in their grand plans. It's a more dynamic contrast than what we usually end up with, and a good way to cater to both overhead generals and frontline players.