Thursday, 28 February 2019

Kickstarter Spotlight: Chained Echoes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 25 February 2019

Primarchs - Angron: Slave of Nuceria by Ian St. Martin (Book Review)

We return once again to the Primarchs series, and once more with one of its odd figureheads. Angron himself is a character who has suffered from a lack of exposure while also being featured in no shortage of books. Much like Mortarion and - to a lesser degree - Vulkan he is one of those figures who ultimately has shown up in no shortage of books, but has often been left playing second fiddle to other characters. Part of that is likely down to how Betrayer is considered a high point, and near perfectly covered Angron's entire story in one volume. Part of that might also be due to the fact that - much like a few others - Index Astartes gave him a simple tragic tale which was not the easiest work to adapt into a fifty book long series. As such, Angron: Slave of Nuceria was a book which was both going to face an uphill battle while also being desperately needed to flesh him out a little more.

The end result of Ian St. Martin's efforts is a book which partially accomplishes its intended goals. When taken on its own it does benefit from a strong structure, surprisingly memorable characters, a good twist and a number of great individual moments. However, when taken into account with the rest of the series, it leaves something to be desired. Unfortunately, its very structure means it's something which cannot be judged without comparing it with other works.

The Synopsis

Set mere months into Angron taking leadership of the Legio XII, he is still a stranger to many of his sons. Isolating himself for long periods of time and typically appearing only to issue insults or executions, morale among the former War Hounds is ebbing with every passing victory. Bled dry and losing ever more of their number to his mass cullings, some among them question if their gene-father is a creature broken beyond repair.

Divided and seeking answers, some among the legion's number are going to ever greater lengths to unify themselves with the primarch. One among them believes that the Nails themselves are the answer to appeasing the Red Angel...

The Good

The greatest thing which works in the book's favour stems from the chosen time period in which the story is set. A fair number of fans have constantly wondered just what the War Hounds were like prior to Angron's ascension, and how they differed in culture, temperament and attitudes to their later World Eater incarnations. As the story is set so soon after their re-naming, there are many among their number who still remember their traditions and creeds. This is exemplified very early on when we see the legion utilising phalanx formations, favouring the use of power spears and calling upon one another with ranks which will soon no longer exist. 

Furthermore, we have viewpoint characters who can directly contrast their thoughts with those of their more bloodthirsty kin. The majority of the focal characters among the legion help to examine this evolution as they favour their lives as the War Hounds, as it more accurately depicts their nature as a legion inspired by the Spartans or Greek hoplites than the berzerkers that they would become. This serves to compare and contrast each state of the legion, but curiously it is left up to the reader as which was truly better. While Angron himself is certainly at fault, and many cite shortcomings among the World Eaters attachment to the Nails, it doesn't forget their strengths. As such, you're never left with the book hammering down on the "THIS IS A MISTAKE! THEY ARE NOW THE JOKE LEGION!" angle other stories resorted to.

More curiously still, there are multiple arguments made in favour of the Nails even by sane members of the legion, some of which are fairly compelling. Kharn, even without citing any attachment to Angron himself, brings up a multitude of points in their favour. It shows why he was one of the best suited to their inclusion, and how certain minds much more easily adapted to the enhanced aggression than others. Plus, this leads to one of my favourite visual displays of them taking hold that I have seen to date, where the page itself runs red with blood over the descriptions. No, seriously, as Kharn is lost to the haze for the first time, the bloody rage literally blots out his initial reactions over three pages. It sounds heavy-handed, but with the build-up it is fairly effective.

Several other forces are also at work within the World Eaters legion, and the book helps to show how the Nails' inclusion wasn't quite so cut and dry as one imagined. For one thing, it took multiple prototypes for anyone to get a working set, and even then it was only accomplished by an outside source taking interest in the work involved, and a discovery from a lost planet. It makes for the dynamic and downfall much more tragic, as it makes it clear that if any one of the things leading up to this had failed, the World Eaters would have likely avoided their fate.

None of this is to say that Angron is left out of the focus either, and Ian St. Martin utilised a fairly inventive take to examine this and shed further light on his time among the gladiators. We learn some very interesting details, notably where his name originated and potentially why he never utilises his surname (no, I can't reveal that due to spoilers). The circumstances which led to the Nails being forced upon him are another critical element among his story, as we see so much of the person that he could have been. Ironically, what little is shown makes him closer to a much more stable version of Perturabo or an odd balance between Guilliman and Russ. It's fairly engaging, and it makes for some of the story's best parts.

Unfortunately, for all the good it does there's almost always a "But" added onto the end.

The Bad

Let's deal with the elephant in the room first - This is treated like a prequel to Betrayer. Other stories did similar things, such as Angel Exterminatus utilising many characters from Storm of Iron, but that worked as it did offer more depth and detail to each one, including a proper introduction. With Slave of Nuceria, you repeatedly run into the problem of Betrayer being treated as required reading. Many characters from that book show up with little true introduction, such as Lhorke and Delvarus, but they are just there. Other events, meanwhile, take place but lack the further descriptions in Betrayer which makes them more impactful. So much of this is presented seemingly with the intent that the reader should be familiar with what is going on. This can work in a direct trilogy, but these are supposedly from separate series in the same timeline.

Another notable problem stems from a few logical issues and quirks within the timeline, especially in relation to Angron. One thing which the Forgeworld books noted very clearly is that Angron started in a poor place, but did improve for a time. There was a period of relative lucidity between his acceptance of his role in the legion, and the Horus Heresy. This is even noted in a number of books as well, but here he's stuck at the end of his development. He's a furious rage monster, but lacks many of the more human quirks which he supposedly lost over time. For example, he's already treating the Devourers as an unwanted addition, despite supposedly appreciated by him at first. He even treats them as expendable fodder, and his restructuring of the legion is turned into a ludicrous act of self-destruction. Initially, there was some odd brutal logic behind it, but now he keeps saying "You have 24 hours to conquer the entire world. Even if you are successful but exceed that, I will slaughter one in ten of you."

The problem is only made worse by the fact that Angron's history on Nuceria is changed in one crucial way: He only gains the Nails after he has been a gladiator for some time. The impression many works offered was that he was implanted with these while young, and thus it interfered with any efforts to foster rebellion. instead these were forced upon him early into his adult life, so it comes across as him just never making the push they needed to get out. That's also without getting into the issue of how the hell they pinned down/kept confined a demigod who could likely slaughter entire stadiums with just his fists. Even with these new additions, his current self is given little more depth or detail beyond wanting to die; something already expressed in Betrayer.

The book sadly suffers from an extremely weak opening. While you can see why it was a chosen move on the part of Ian St. Martin early on, it interferes with the pacing. We only get any substantial interaction between Angron and the legion, and much of it is instead devoted to combat between the War Hounds and an enemy which is barely expanded upon. it helps to show their style of warfare. However, there should have been better ways to balance out a good mix of character development and action without letting the latter eclipse the former for one-third of the work.

Finally, elements of Ian St. Martin's writing style made it difficult to keep up with broad, sweeping events. His form of describing scenes is excellent when it comes to individual duels, and is best suited to moments of character drama or conversations. It's why the book is often strongest when there are two or three people in a scene at a time. However, the massive battle scenes fall somewhat short, and he tends to skim over key details in places. It reached the point toward the end when, once an enemy stronghold had been overwhelmed, I honestly stopped to check if I had accidentally skipped over several pages thanks to a rapid resolution of events.

The Verdict:

Overall, Angron: Slave to Nuceria has promising points but it still falls prey to a few problems which held back previous books. It's decent on the whole, with no small number of great moments and good ideas, along with a solid effort to flesh out Angron's personal history. However, not enough of the book is about the primarch himself, and it tells us little about him that we did not already know. It skips over a stage where he should have been undergoing development, or one of the more interesting eras where he was at a more lucid state despite the Nails. Between this and repeating the mistake David Annandale in structuring Guilliman, it makes for a book which is only a good short story when it could have shed light on something wholly new.

Verdict: 6 out of 10

Sunday, 24 February 2019

Did My Little Pony Fail Applejack?

Most of you will be confused by this being on here, and understandably so. As such, here's a bit of backstory before we dive in:

Most of you will know that this franchise and I have had a bit of a turbulent past. The more insane elements of its fandom were among the first to start spamming my inbox full of demands for reviews, and then piled on the hate when I issued a basic response. This sadly pushed things over the edge, and I responded with a "review" which was more critical of how fandoms can drive away new fans than the material itself. This naturally only made things worse. However, after meeting some more sane fans (and someone who actually provided a review copy as I previously pointed out) I offered two olive branches in the form of genuine reviews of an episode and the first few issues of the comic.

So, why are we back here again, you might be asking. One of those fans, who will remain unnamed, re-read those reviews and made a request of me. Her main criticism of the show was it seemed to undervalue the character she enjoyed watching the most, and wanted a relatively unbiased outsider perspective to examine this. She didn't want me to approach with a demand of "Prove this!" so much as "Do you think this is an issue, and if so, how?" It's in the same manner that I had previously looked into the Iron Hands' problems. Yes, Ferrus Manus somehow equated My Little Pony. Who would have thought?

With the series coming to an end, there seemed no better time to ask this.

Still, I held to my same standards: I would only work for pay and/or a review copy. She promptly supplied both, including every episode to date and the film. It's hard to refuse someone when they ask for an unbiased opinion and then go the extra mile to offer you direct access like that.

To offer the short answer very early on - Yes, the show let her down, but it wasn't purely the fault of bad writing.

To offer a more extensive response, let's get into breaking this down piece by piece.

Hard Work And Confidence Rarely Makes For Good Writing

Among the various characters, Applejack is more or less the most down to earth character. She is supposed to be generally level headed and confident if stubborn Earth Pony, with few aspirations beyond keeping the farm she works on in order and her main strength being her hard work. She has the benefit of being one of the much more athletic members of the group and is associated with the trait of honesty. Also, her parents were apparently killed when she was quite young and she has a much stronger connection to her family than the other characters.

Now, this already shows one or two issues given the general archetype. It's not inherently bad in any way, and if the show had seen a general run of two or three seasons it would have been fine. However, every character needs to gradually progress in some way to avoid stagnation, and a few of these qualities could see her falling behind in one way or another. 

Let's just stick to the most obvious one - Her main strength is hard work and diligence, both of which are very appealing and it builds upon the everywoman charm of her role. However, when you look into almost any story, this rarely wins out on its own. One older trope among almost any story tends to be the hero or some grand figure completely standing out from the crowd based upon skill alone, or overwhelming their competition. This typically rapidly overtakes those who rely upon sticking to a tight regime, and earning their victories through constant small steps or focused hard work doesn't make a person quickly stand out. 

You can already think of a few examples of hard work rarely working I'm sure, but to offer a few obvious ones: Dragon Ball has been rife with it from the start, to the point where weaker but more dedicated fighters like Tien, Piccolo or (arguably) Roshi quickly fall behind the naturally more powerful Saiyans. The Wheel of Time's Egwene and Nynevae are cited to be naturally powerful channelers beyond measure, and start with an advantage beyond almost anyone else. Mass Effect is rife with such examples, even if you discount Shepard him/herself, where most of them started strong and only got better. It's also the message in Atlas Shrugged, but there is no way in hell that I am touching that thing. The point is that, by having this be her main quality in terms of general problem solving, Applejack was already a distinct disadvantage.

Ironically enough, when the show did delve into actually showing hard work pay off, Applejack's main quality once again worked against her. She was never selected to show this off or ever benefit from this, as the writers always seemed to select more visibly flawed or timid individuals to pull off such acts. Instead, Fluttershy typically ended up taking such roles, with an emphasis on building her confidence from Hurricane Fluttershy onward. When it comes to Applejack herself, typically this ability is treated as a background element or something which never comes into play thanks to the more noted abilities of other characters. None of this was to say that the episodes about Fluttershy were inherently bad, and their message was typically well delivered, but it left little room for Applejack to show off her most beneficial skills.

In fact, when Applejack is given the chance to actually build upon her strengths and shows them off, the series typically uses this as an opportunity to undermine them. This started with Applebuck Season, which featured a plot involving Applejack's overconfidence getting the better of her, and her hard work failing to overcome a task too large to accomplish. This led to her learning to accept help from others. This was then further compounded by The Last Roundup, which saw her promising to return with money in an event she was extremely talented at, only to fail spectacularly. She then needed her friends to talk her into returning and accepting her failure and walked home empty-handed. Both had great messages and were extremely well written in regards to character development and dynamics, but they seemed to set the tone for the character. Sadly, it also set the stage for the state of her stories from here on.

Too Few Victories

One of the show's best strengths (aside from finding stories which were not minded in strife or constant violence) was how it handled its characters. None of them were perfect, and it balanced many of them with enough shortcomings or outright failures to keep things interesting. It was ultimately a lesson show, but it nevertheless managed to execute that in a manner which was usually satisfying and rarely let the characters seem too perfect. In the case of Applejack, however, the writers always seemed to go too far in regards to her losses.

When you cover even the first season alone and break down her actions, most of the ultimately boil down to failing in some way in the long run. She does get a few victories, but when she does these are either quickly overshadowed by others or the episode itself ends up reversing them. In isolation, this does work in regards to her episodes, and the stories themselves play toward further emphasizing their message. However, when you look at it on a series-wide scale, this just leads to her falling behind the other characters. 

Let's just cite the two-parter pilot, for example, specifically the moment which displays each character showing their affinity for one Element of Harmony. In Applejack's case, it was convincing Twilight Sparkle to trust her after she let go and allowed her to fall over the ledge, allowing the two pegasi in the group to catch her. It works in of itself, but once the others come into play there is a more obvious problem: No other character requires this help during the pilot, and they typically overcome their issues on their own. The only exception to this is Twilight herself, and that's right at the end when the Elements are combined following a realization by her. Ultimately, this ended up showing the others surpassing and overcoming obstacles, while in Applejack's case it amounted to sitting aside and letting someone else do the rescuing.

The issue was only further exaggerated in the following episodes. The Last Roundup is arguably one example of this, but then you have even small moments which keep being effectively overruled. For example, Swarm of the Century featured Applejack seemingly having a viable way to deal with the current threat, with the help of the others. It was meant to fail, which is fair enough, but it could have been a chance to show that she was at least more adept in handling it than the others. The problem is that this was instantly followed by Rainbow Dash performing a far more effective means of dealing with it without the help of others, and then the episode closed out with noting that Applejack's method had only caused more problems for other towns. The same was true of Spike at Your Service, where Applejack is given a genuinely great victory for once; only for the episode to undermine it by the end by having another character defeat a much more threatening example of what she faced without breaking a sweat.

When a situation does arise where she can get any personal victories, nine times out of ten she will end up falling back on the others for help. The Super Speedy Cider Squeezy 6000 (yeah, I know) saw this, when it turned from Applejack and her family vs some potential rivals, to all of the characters vs some potential rivals. The Mane Attraction saw the same problem, where the ultimate resolution would have been impossible without a group effort despite it being an Applejack episode. Then you have others like Bats! where Applejack herself not only causes the problem of the episode, but when it comes time to resolve it the entire problem becomes a required group effort. This ends up carrying the unintentional message that she constantly needs others to fix her own mistakes.

The fact that more than a few of her victories keep coming from other characters taking over and solving them for her would be troubling enough. However, then you have all the ones where Applejack is written to be either irrelevant or actively detrimental to the entire situation. Made in Manehattan saw Applejack and Rarity effectively being tasked with fixing a problem, only for Applejack to end up doing little to nothing helpful and the problem ended up effectively resolving itself. The same was true of Sounds of Silence, which might as well have carried the message of "Fluttershy figures out everything instantly, resolves the problem, and Applejack gets in the way all the time" throughout its events. Non-Compete Clause was the same, to the point where the entire episode's theme was doing exactly the opposite of what she and Rainbow Dash attempt throughout the whole thing.

Then there are episodes where, despite there being a mutual problem among the characters, she is singled out as the only one at fault. This began, once again, in the first season with Look Before You Sleep, which sees Rarity and Applejack equally at fault causing trouble, only for Applejack to be presented as the one ultimately in the wrong and needing to apologize. Then, to twist the knife, it has Rarity fix the problem in a split-second despite previous efforts requiring far more effort from Applejack herself. 

If you think that episode might be an exception, then just look over the others from later seasons. You have ones like Hearthbreakers, where the problem stems from the fact that neither Applejack or Pinkie Pie's family celebrates their version of Christmas in the same way. However, even after Applejack makes the effort to celebrate the event in the way of the other family (and they equally refuse to accept anything besides their own version and expect the others to go along with it) the episode once again presents her being in the wrong by the end.

Perhaps the worst example of all this was Buckball Season, where Applejack is presented as an experienced player of a specific sport and an excellent leader at it. The problem is, she not only ends up almost completely ruining their chances of winning, driving away players with her training regime and is shown to be utterly blind to her shortcomings, but her skills are undermined. She not only loses out entirely to the new players when they are pitted against one another - despite both being first-timers who have little athletic interest - but it's made clear that she would have lost herself if she had joined the actual match personally. Even when she is effectively handed something which it would only take a few tweaks to fix and show her in a beneficial light after so many losses, it opts to make her a failure.

This even carried over to the comics where, during an arc focusing upon her called The Good, the Bad and the Ponies, Applejack's "victory" is just getting Twilight to resolve everything. Another called Night of the Living Apples, despite taking place on her farm, sees Applejack pushed almost completely out of the story in favour of more or less everyone else.

Compare this to the other characters and you end up with a far, far more even spread of victories and failures. Non-Compete Clause, for example, might have been an episode where Rainbow Dash fails but it's followed up by The Washouts, which was a stunning personal victory for her and over a rival no less. Look Before You Sleep, even though it was less critical of Rarity than Applejack, was followed by A Dog and Pony Show, which has her escaping a hostage situation without assistance. Plus, even atop of this, the failures of these characters can often be attributed to other factors, such as Canterlot Boutique, where the demands of Rarity's manager is the source of trouble over Rarity herself.

The end result of all this is that you end up having a series of episodes which are largely well written but ends up making one character ultimately look worse than the others. While the show presents her as capable and generally skilled, there is rarely a moment where her abilities actually pay off. As such, intentionally or not, she is made to look like the weak link in the overall group.

The Impossible Rivalry

If the nature of Applejack's episodes didn't cause enough of a problem for the character, her rivalry with Rainbow Dash only exaggerates it further. It's easy to see why the two were designed for this role: They are equally athletic, have a competitive side to them, and are comparable in terms of interests without it delving into cliche. However, there's just one problem: Applejack herself is overshadowed and completely overwhelmed when the two are compared. Constantly. As in, there is honestly rarely a single moment where the two compete at something, and Applejack does not lose out.

This started with the previously reviewed Fall Weather Friends, and like a lot of things discussed thus far that seemed to set the dynamic from there on. The entire state of the story effectively amounted to "Rainbow Dash will beat Applejack without trying, unless she is held back", and it suffered from many problems cited in the previous section. While the rivalry angle would go on and off for a while, and would never go to quite the same lengths again, it ultimately draws a comparison between the two. A comparison which, to be blunt, does not work in Applejack's favour.

This section will largely tie into others, but the simple matter is that Applejack is never given a chance to catch up to Rainbow Dash. While the latter is given victory after victory, the former stays more or less where she is in terms of skill and prominence within the story. This might sound somehow exaggerated, but the following seasons have shown this from Rainbow Dash:

  • She was responsible for every other member of the main characters getting their abilities.
  • She can break the sound barrier with little to no effort, and then push herself to even greater heights.
  • She can equal Applejack in seemingly almost every skill, then surpass her in most others.
  • She has repeatedly joined events where Applejack was notably skilled at - such as the Sisterhooves Social - and typically wins at them, with the story finding excuses to remove Applejack from the picture.
Combined with a point we will get into below that Rainbow Dash has gone up in the world while Applejack has remained where she is, and a direct comparison only ends badly. It only serves to make a fan favourite already better, while it makes Applejack seem all the more flawed for not equally someone cited as her rival. For this to work, they would need to be on roughly equal standing, and this simply isn't the case. Going from their victories this is less Goku vs Vegeta than it is Krillin vs Vegeta. No matter how much you liked the character, the way the series has set them up makes it clear that one side will instantly win out.

None of this is to say that Applejack isn't talented in the slightest, it's quite the opposite. However, every time an episode might have had the chance to show off just why she was Rainbow Dash's rival, it would end in her failure. This move only made things worse, and the capabilities of the two seem all the more uneven.

Of course, it's a problem only made worse by their species.

All Of Their Weaknesses, None Of Their Strengths

If you're brave enough (or have a strong enough stomach) to look up original characters on DeviantArt relating to this series, you might notice a trend. More or less all of them will be pegasi or unicorns. The reason for this is simple: The series has never done anything to make Earth Ponies seem as if they can ever hold their own at anything compared with the others. You see, unicorns have a much better grasp on practical magic and have an almost universal capacity to use telekinesis. Pegasi can typically fly at extremely high speeds, control the weather than set up their own towns atop of clouds. Earth Ponies have a bit more stamina, supposedly superior strength to the others and allegedly have the skill to grow plants.

The entire dynamic has been created as a supposed balance between them, and in terms of when it is set up and on a social level this isn't too bad. However, on an episode-by-episode basis, this just doesn't work out. It leaves the former two with a massive advantage over the Earth Ponies in problem-solving, basic abilities and general traits, with few to no disadvantages. To make matters worse, these episodes frequently overlook any physical edge that the Earth Ponies might have. In many events, when the group is shown as being physically exhausted or tired from running, no one has an edge over them. Each species is depicted as breathing hard or being burned out, and no one seems to have an edge over the other. The same is true of physical strength, as any contest between Applejack and Rainbow Dash seemed to have them on equal footing, if not outright favouring the latter. Writers will occasionally remember Applejack is supposed to be stronger, but like so many things this is never used to actually resolve a problem.

You are probably wondering if the plant growing angle might come into play at any point and, honestly, no it doesn't. There is nothing to further substantiate or display their benefits, outside of one or two episodes involving special crops by the Apples. Even then, it's not made clear if this is due to techniques unique to them, or any benefit based upon their species. This would already be a poor advantage, but the fact that unicorns are shown to be infinitely more adept at plant growing or farming via spellcasting ruins even this. At the same time, pegasi were then given the capacity to lift whole carriages into the air and carry several times their body weight in flight, further nullifying any possible Earth Pony advantage. While basic species traits certainly shouldn't purely define characters, when two have such a staggering natural head start over the others, the writers need to offer something to help even things out.

There were a few opportunities the series had to try and even out this disparity, but for one reason or another, it always avoided doing so. Fluttershy was originally intended to be an Earth Pony to further build upon a supposed connection to nature, but was changed to a pegasus. A move which, while detrimental to the species, was definitely very beneficial to her character. Then, there was an indication that Earth Ponies could use their tails in a prehensile manner, which would have been some benefit to some work. However, it was later established that this was a universal skill. As such, the end result of all of this is that two species have massive benefits to help them, while the third only has their weaknesses.

This hurts Applejack, naturally, but it's only specifically her among the main group. Pinkie Pie has more than a few unique quirks to fall back on, which allows her to effectively bend the laws of reality in relation to comic timing. As the only other Earth Pony, this leaves Applejack no natural abilities to ever fall back on. This could have been a chance to at least display how she could get by or keep up with the others despite a lack of those same advantages, but the series never finds any opportunity to do just that. As such, it's yet another area where she only loses out in the end.

Humble Beginnings Left Nowhere To Go

This is another one where, if the series had not gone on for quite so long, likely would not have been an issue. Why? Really, because it's part of Applejack's overall appeal. She is more or less where she wants to be in life, and she has her overall role decided for her. Whereas the others are more uncertain or are still developing, Applejack herself has ended up in a position of certainty very early on. As a character dynamic, this further helped to establish her as a more stable element within the group and offered a more established role within the community. Plus, atop of this, her close relationship with her family was one element which allowed for more stories to be told, and a secondary group of characters to exist alongside the main group.

So, if this is such an advantage, what disadvantage did it offer?

Simply put: Applejack stayed where she was, and the others developed around her. Because she was so well established in terms of location, lifestyle, and direction, little was ever done to fully build upon her further. This, unfortunately, meant that, while the others developed, she seemed to be stuck in a static position. Rainbow Dash achieved her life dream of joining the Wonderbolts, Rarity opened up a new business line, Twilight ascended to a throne, Fluttershy became more confident and understanding of her role, and Pinkie gained further self-awareness. With Applejack, no push was made to actually further build upon what was there. As a result, she seemed as if she was a secondary character in her own show.

There were opportunities to expand upon what was already there. Applejack could have taken further control of the business as her grandmother grew older, or taken it in new directions. It could have expanded upon its role, or something done to improve it in some way. However, rather than doing that, almost any story involving Sweet Apple Acres ultimately ended up with "Applejack is at risk of losing X" and the story would try to resolve that. So, while the others were building up further, any story with her was left depicting the character as fighting to hold onto anything she already had.

There is also something to be said for the secondary characters as well, in that they tended to also overshadow her. As most had more of a direction before them, their tales tended to be building toward something or they featured an angle which could not be accomplished with the main group of characters. This ended up only contributing further to the problems previously cited, even as it benefitted the show as a whole.

Honesty Denied

Finally, there is perhaps the most frustrating point involving the character and the show in general: Honesty. Each of the characters is supposed to represent some aspiring element, from Loyalty to Generosity, and their personalities reflect this in some way. It was a good basis for episodic stories, and allowed for messages to be more easily worked into the show. As with most things listed so far, however, it seemed to drop the ball with Applejack. That or, really, they just did not know what to do with her tales and this.

Now, these stories would often feature the characters either learning to appreciate the value they represented more, or they would be given a chance to impart messages to others. This worked out well for the most part, but with Applejack, she seemed to be the one always learning rather than imparting such values. Beyond the first episode where this fully came into play, Sisterhooves Social, there were few moments where she would attempt to use this to an episode's advantage. In that one, it at least helped to highlight inner clarity with someone and gain further understanding in a sibling who was becoming distant to them, but after this point, it featured less with each passing season. 

The few times that Applejack's honesty was utilised, it was typically in a manner which any other member of the group could have done themselves through simple common sense. Viva Las Pegasus and Sounds of Silence were both notable examples of this, as in one she was little more than a means to an end with that quality soon forgotten, while the latter had her simply getting in the way at every turn. Worse still, even in those episodes, writers continually played up her stubbornness until it got in the way of this supposed quality.

This habit of having Applejack learn of honesty only helped to further throw her relationship with the Element into question, and few stories seemed to reinforce the point that she was worthy of it. In fact, a multitude of others that would have been perfect for actually examining or even addressing the idea of how honesty could be regarded were constantly handed to other characters. If there was an investigation story, typically it would be given to either Pinkie Pie or Rairty, such as with MMMystery on the Friendship Express and Rarity Investigates! respectively. If it required speaking with those in power or distant, Twilight would be handed it, while issues of honesty between comrades typically ended up with Rainbow Dash over anyone else. 

Even in situations stemming from pride and stubbornness that Applejack would have been perfect for thanks to her past growth - such as Not Asking for Trouble and The Hooffields and McColts - but it's never brought up. The second of those two would have been perfect in every regard, and could have been taken in almost any way, but instead, it ended up with Twilight and Fluttershy taking the spotlight. 

Yet even in situations where she could be of viable help, or a direct benefit to the story, she ends up being treated as a hostile factor in it. Appleoosa's Most Wanted featured a character who was not only misjudged but also could not be honest with himself. Despite being unable to properly understand his skills or even what life had set for him, it instead became an Apple Bloom plot, with Applejack only believing a falsehood until the end. The same was true of P.P.O.V. (Pony Point of View) - a Rashomon style story about perspectives - with multiple characters blaming one another for a failure. You would think that Applejack might be able to coerce them to talk to one another, or even as a lesson to show how easily opinion could sway views or influence an honest account. No, instead, she's treated as the worst of the bunch when it comes to outright lying.

This only came to a head with a prequel episode called Where the Apple Lies. This effectively showed that Applejack was once the complete opposite of her current self, and was willing to lie about any event to get her own way. Now, this is something of a fan favourite and I can see why. It's a look into the past of a character, it deals with fleshing out their history and it comically well timed throughout a multitude of jokes. 

Furthermore, the argument could be made that it is an indication that she overcame her nature and traveled a much more difficult path than the others to arrive at her place. It's a move which could be respected, but the episode handles it in a manner which is irksome, to say the least. Rather than showing the desire for improvement, it comes across as Applejack failing so hard over and over again that she cannot help but be honest to avoid it. While that is just a personal perspective, when it follows on directly from P.P.O.V. it seems to only further emphasize that she isn't the best person to represent honesty at all.

Final Thoughts

Just to reiterate on previous points - None of this is to say that the individual episodes were poorly handled. The series as a whole (with a few exceptions) is remarkably well rounded and maintains a high standard of quality both in animation and storytelling. It sidesteps many of the issues which would plague long-runners like The Simpsons and never avoided a chance to change things up for characters once a status quo had run its course. As stated multiple times, when viewed in isolation or even just on a one-by-one basis, the episodes discussed work perfectly fine.

However, in regards to how characters were depicted and handled, I can also easily see why someone who liked Applejack would take issue with the creative choices. There have been far more spiteful or ill-handled moves in many franchises (just look up Karen Traviss), so I am hesitant to say that this was entirely intentional. However, the fact that the other characters are handled so well - and so many perfect episodes kept being made at the expense of Applejack herself - is eyebrow-raising. Even going into this with an open mind, it was hard not to notice how she kept losing out in terms of its overarching structure.

Still, this is the viewpoint of an outsider more than anything else. Most of my writing involves technicolour genetically engineered psychopaths more than magical horses. As such, someone better connected with the fandom or even with a better understanding of the show might have another viewpoint. Yet from the perspective an outsider who just watched it all through from start to finish, I really do have to wonder if someone in writing department was playing favourites over the course of its seasons.

Thursday, 21 February 2019

Realm Quest: City of Lifestone by Tom Huddleston (Warhammer Adventures Audiobook Review)

The difficulty in judging both Warhammer Adventures series is that they are opposites to one another. Realm Quest truly is the yang to Warped Galaxies' ying, and it embraces a few very different tropes and storytelling elements to craft its world. None of this is to say it is inherently bad. If anything, the differing direction helps it to better establish itself as a sperate story worth reading on its own. However, some of this will depend heavily upon a reader's preferences, and how it impacts an introduction into this new world.

Each series has a clear target audience, each has been written with a clear understanding of the setting and it is set to establish the tone, style and dynamic within the series. It's simply that whereas one focuses more upon an episodic format, Realm Quest is following a series based storyline. As such, this review is going to comment as much on the positives and negatives of this as it is the story and direction itself.

The Synopsis

Set in the modern timeline, City of Lifestone follows the story of Kiri, a slave to the Darkoath Barbarians. With the Mortal Realms now in a state of constant warfare against Sigmar's invading legions, the worshippers of the Ruinous powers demand ever more from their slaves. Kiri dearly wishes to flee from her life, but when she is given the opportunity to do so at last, she finds that her fate is far more complex than she ever could have imagined. A great darkness is coming to the Mortal Realms, and she is but one of a few who might stand against it.

The Good

The single most surprising thing about City of Lifestone is how it rarely pulls its punches. While few comparisons will be drawn from here on with Warped Galaxies, the flaw in the introduction to that series stemmed from how it did try to avoid grimmer everyday aspects of the world in key areas. With this story, much of what is outlined would be completely at home in a James Swallow or Guy Haley book. Kiri's life is stressful, the barbarians are constantly demanding more from her slaves, and it is an extremely grim existence. While it might not go into the same descriptions as more mature books - or feature the same level of copious body horror - it is displaying the nature of the Mortal Realms to a tee.

The story also fits into a specific, and very familiar, style which fits in well with most fantasy readers. It's not quite low fantasy, but there is certainly a Robert E. Howard-esque quality to how life is depicted and events unfold. It leaves you asking as many questions as answering them, but it does more than enough to establish the story and keep you invested very early on. This helps as it follows up events with several chases in quick succession, with little truly told to Kiri about the nature of life or even the mysterious advice her mother offers on her deathbed. Yes, Kiri's mother dies in the opening chapter. I told you this was grim.

While the tumultuous quality of Kiri's introduction could have easily put the tale on hold it works for one specific reason: We only know as much as she does. While there are a few bits and pieces which are dropped and the reader is expected to understand, much of it unfolds very naturally. She is an audience surrogate character in this regard, but rather than just using her as an excuse to explain things away, Huddleston utilises it to help better establish the atmosphere and direction of the work. It's akin to how Brothers of the Snake featured a woman unaware of the wider universe, or even the Adeptus Astartes, to establish the tone of the book along with introducing the reader to the Iron Snakes.

Furthermore, while sparsely described, there is an undeniably engaging and very interesting quality to Lifestone which makes you want to know more. One major factor within the book stems from how the city itself seems to almost be alive, warping the perceptions of travelers and altering the very streets upon which they stand. Even without this quality, however, it is also in a clear state of decay. Many areas within its limits are a shadow of what they once were, and Huddleston establishes a faded, almost vestigial, quality by simply having Kiri walk its streets. The issue is only made far more evident as events play out, introducing both the supporting cast and main villains into the story.

The actual narrative itself is concisely explained, and fully detailed, but you might not realise it at first. Part of this does play toward prophecy, but the story is structured in a way in which offsets the usual problems involving this. Some of the big ones relate more to how it re-orders a number of events and reworks a few ideas to mix things up. While a few typical elements still crop up, this method does at least keep you invested to see where it is going and what else can be utilised in its favour.

Finally, there is Billy Piper as the narrator. While her performance has its flaws, she definitely has more hits than misses here. She's one of a few who can evoke the Skaven with the mixture of horror and humour they truly need, and balances the varied tones and qualities of younger characters alongside older ones. Her only shortcoming here is her voice as a narrator, which works in the bleaker moments of the tale, but her tone seems to be off in others.

So, that's the good, now let's move onto the bad.

The Bad

The most obvious issue within Realm Quest stems more from how the story is structured and staggered than anything else. You are introduced to Kiri first and foremost, stay with her for most of the story and follow her perspective throughout the whole thing. On the one hand, this helps the tale in terms of just who to follow and the aforementioned advantages of exploring the world. On the other, it means that the tale is wholly tied to her. Characters are defined more by their association with her than anything else, and she takes up a lot of the spotlight which should be more evenly distributed. It's akin to the main failing of Star Trek: Discovery in this regard, where one hijacks what seems as if it should be a multi-person show.

The fact that so much of the story is focused upon Kiri also means that there is much less proverbial screen time for anyone else. You only start to learn about the other core characters at all past the story's halfway point, and even then it is a rushed introduction. Yes, they show up here and then before that point and have plenty of moments to interact in front of the reader. However, because these moments are action set pieces or chases, there is little time to fully offer them a chance to present themselves to the reader. A shifting perspective might have helped substantially to offset this but the story lacks that. As a result, the only characters who come across with any substance are Kiri and her two "predecessors", one of who looks as if he might quickly depart from the series. Well, that and the Skaven, but they always tend to steal the show.

The sheer volume of characters present within the tale only serves to exaggerate the above problem, however. In a short story such as this, three main characters and a villain would have been fine. This expands that roster to almost twice its size and, without a definitive introduction or time spent to fully introduce them, it can be difficult to keep track of who is who during the third act.

Matters are only made more problematic thanks to how City of Lifestone tries to use a lot of tried and tested ideas to hook the reader. The main characters are linked by prophecy, gathered by an older member of the last generation of such individuals, and need to make up for their failure. Each represents a key aspect of the Mortal Realms, and you are likely already thinking of one Saturday morning cartoon or another. This isn't inherently bad if it has something to further bolster it, but this introduction lacks so much of what makes Age of Sigmar so interesting. Much of it is spent avoiding the details which seemed so fascinating, and irritatingly it keeps offering hints at what could follow and might scratch that particular itch.

A further problem lies in how the action is handled here, specifically when it comes to outright fights. These are supposed to be largely untrained children, but after a point, the story seems to forget that particular detail. City of Lifestone handles the balance of their skill and inexperience very well for most of the tale, only for them to enter a large-scale skirmish and emerge on top at the last minute, which destroys this sense. Some of it can be excused one way or another, but it feels like a point which should have been saved for a moment much later on in the series when they have fully gelled as a group.

Finally, and most pressingly, City of Lifestone doesn't have a definitive ending. It ends on a "To Be Continued..." moment which works, but it leaves more than a few dangling threads which need to be resolved. In a larger book this can certainly work, but in a short tale such as this, it can feel unfulfilling at the end of the day. Combined with how the story is presented and the character elements play second fiddle to introducing Kiri, and it seems as if it was written with an ongoing series in mind, not as an individual tale. For some people this will make it engaging, but for others it can be quite offputting.

The Verdict

This is very much a "your mileage may vary" review, as some of the storytelling devices utilised here might appeal to some people more than others. However, in my personal opinion, it caused a few problems which should have otherwise been avoided so early on in the series. One or two fewer characters, more time spent on interaction, and another viewpoint character would have resolved many issues. As it stands, it's a story which looks as if it might be worth looking into further, but how good it will be shall ultimately be decided by how the second story follows up on this one.

If you do have a younger fan invested in Age of Sigmar - and who enjoys ongoing narratives which flow from book to book with few stopping points - this is a definite win. It still has many likable elements, but its flaws are hard to miss.

Verdict: 4.7 out of 10

Monday, 18 February 2019

Warped Galaxies: Attack of the Necron by Cavan Scott (Warhammer Adventures Audiobook Review)

It's easy to forget that Warhammer 40,000 tends to have a fairly young audience along with its older one. As many voices within the fandom these days range from thirty to seventy-year-old hobbyists, the seven to thirteen demographic that Games Workshop tries to keep itself open can be easily overlooked. In that sense, it's almost a surprise to think that we have not seen something like Warhammer Adventures sooner.

The very idea of these stories and their possible direction was discussed some time ago here, which largely weighed concerns against possible execution. The short version was simple: A PG rating on any work will not declaw it of all dark elements, and creative writers can work with that. Thankfully, it's a lesson which seems to have remained true here.

Following a chance to listen to this story in full, it looks like things are off to a good start for the Warped Galaxies series.

The Synopsis

During an era of turmoil within the Imperium, one of its more stable Hive Worlds has found itself under siege from a Necron Dynasty. Attacking without warning or seemingly any reason, the Imperium's armies are quickly forced into a desperate battle, with both the Imperial Guard and Ultramarines quickly forced into a rearguard action. However, the focus is not upon them but a trio of figures trying to escape the violence: The young spacefaring Zelia Lor, assistant to her mother's archeological expeditions, the fledgling hive ganger Talen, and the Martian born Mekki. As the war takes a turn for the worse, they soon find themselves relying upon one another for survival, and uncover a crucial element behind the Necron uprising.

The Good

As with anything intended to be a gateway into a setting, Attack of the Necron needed to offer the right amount of explaining details to the reader. It needed to both offer up a number of key pointers on how the universe worked but without bogging itself down in exposition or the grander scale elements. While this is something most people expected to be a challenge, Scott manages to accomplish the exact balance needed for such a tale. While the story won't go into detail behind Chaos, the Emperor or how the Imperium works, you learn how it is reliant upon Warp technology, a few of its basic ideological viewpoints, some milder dystopian elements, relationship with technology and even attitude towards aliens. Through simple conversation, thoughts, events, and expressions, the story conveys an immense amount to the listener in an extremely short amount of time.

The way in which the story is able to rapidly express so much is largely thanks to the varied viewpoints as much as the characters themselves. While it is true that every story needs its audience surrogate, Attack of the Necron is able to utilise several at once. For example, Talen is able to detail an immense amount about the more dystopian elements within the Imperium and the hive city. At the same time, however, he is completely at odds with space travel and the more advanced technologies the others take for granted. It's not subtle in its execution, but there's rarely a "LOOK AT THIS! SEE! SEE WHAT THIS SAYS ABOUT THE IMPERIUM!!!!" moment as you might expect. This is also without getting into small bits which add life to the setting. Specifically, nuanced moments like a character using the Old Ones in place of the Emperor when appropriate in its mind.

The characters themselves are also a nicely rounded bunch, most of who can fall into certain archetypes but never delve into full-on cliches. To offer examples of the other two - Zelia is capable, has great leadership qualities and is forward thinking, but her inexperience in a leading role and desire to always look for the best in others can undermine her. Equally, Mekki is overly calm, distant and tends to empathize with machines over humans, but his social shortcomings are milder than you might expect and he never devolves into the extremes we tend to see from Tech-Priests. While none of them are wholly genre-breaking, each avoids enough pitfalls that it's difficult not to praise it within a Young Adults series.

So, what of the story itself? The greatest element working in its favour stems from its narrative pacing, as it keeps throwing new elements and ideas at the reader in quick succession. While Scott typically finds good ways to use a small armory of Chekhov's Guns, he is equally able to keep the story moving at a brisk pace while introducing a multitude of new ideas to the narrative. The book rarely revisits past scenes, and the way it keeps finding new ideas to tap into the story without cheating the reader is quite masterful. You can usually guess what might happen and how at key points, but there are still more than enough curve balls thanks to the setting or environment to keep anyone invested.

The pacing itself never undermines the opportunity to have quieter character moments, and this is something which places it head and shoulders above even some adult stories. Attack of the Necron features a full-scale invasion, multiple battles, a car chase and a firefight, but it always pauses long enough to better establish the people involved. It's a human element which helps each of the characters to stay in your mind, along with breaking up the action-heavy setpieces. Without that, so many key moments could have come across as white noise, or been lost entirely due to sheer narrative exhaustion. This would have been an especially great loss, as the story avoids conventional engagements in favour of traps, trickery, and intelligence in the name of survival.

The last thing to truly keep in mind about Attack of the Necron's narrative is that it serves as an opening. Much like Corsair: The Face of the Void, this has clearly been written as the start to something greater, so more than a few elements are left unexplained. Unlike that example, however, it still works as a one-off outing, with better closure and a much more coherent three-act arc to events. You can tell the story is going somewhere, but even isolation it still proves to be an engaging and satisfying tale in of itself; the few loose strings are alluded to or relate to mild sequel bait over leaving parts wholly unexplained.

Still, as this is a look at the audiobook version, one last part has to be praised: David Tennant. While Tennant's presence might seem like a case of stunt casting, Tennant himself has a broad vocal range and experience with audio work which played to the story's strengths. While Black Library has no shortage of talented actors returning to its productions there are more than a few who tend to have odd limitations or vocal choices. Even my personal favourite, Jonathan Keeble, has fallen victim to this at times with certain characters, which made the likes of Talon of Horus difficult to follow at times. For a new series, it needed a narrator who could get every role absolutely right regardless of age, gender or race, and Tennant knocked it out of the park.

After all of this you might think that Attack of the Necron is a perfect work. Sadly, that's not entirely true.

The Bad

With any story set in M42, one fact was always going to be true: In some areas, the story was going to need to pull its punches. It's a Young Adult series, and many of the darker elements are tied so close to the mythology that skipping them would be inevitable. There's no reason to bring up the fact that the Emperor is kept alive only by consuming the souls of a thousand unlucky sods per day, after all. However, even while accepting this, there were various major and minor occurrences which proved irksome. The greatest among these relates to the hive city itself and what we see of the overall underhive. To be blunt, it needed more Judge Dredd. What little we do get downplays so much of the squalor such places are infamous for, that it seems to be almost viable as a living location. Equally, the risks and problems relating to the Imperium's power structure are all but ignored, allowing characters to get away with things that they would otherwise never be permitted to accomplish. In both cases, these might have been easily ignored, were it not for the fact they factor heavily into the background of key characters.

The Mechanicus is especially hit hard in this book in regards to its darker elements. On the one hand, Attack of the Necron ditches the more egregious sins of the past few years thanks to this. On the other, it does away with almost anything grim in regard to technology, its limitations or even the anacronysms which define it. The story reaches the point where it seemingly sidesteps key parts of Warp travel and servo-skulls are replaced wholesale with servo-sprites in every situation. Well, that and any mention of the word servitor is replaced with "robot". Yes, the Mechanicum has access to robots still, but the wider Imperium still utilises the mind-wiped cyborgs. Some of these are especially confusing, as the story could get away with using their names but not elaborate on the grimmer details, and get away with it.

Even accounting for the liberties taken - because every Warhammer story does them to a degree - characters also seem to understand far more than they should about the wider universe. Space Marines show up and are treated simply super soldiers, rather than divine angels or crusaders as so much of the Imperium seems to think of them as, while the Inquisition is freely mentioned without any of the fear that might usually inspire. None of this is to say that the story completely botches this element - there's an awful lot of xenophobia brought up for one thing - but Scott seemed to pull his punches in the wrong places.

Still, focusing on issues with the story over how it fits into the overall universe, we then have the aliens to consider. The Necrons themselves are a major element within the story, and another (perhaps surprising) non-human character ends up sticking with the protagonists throughout the bulk of the story. In each case we see inside their minds and get a feeling for things. There's just one problem - They're too human. In the case of one, we see a few hints of older things, negative regard for the Imperium and a greater awareness of the galaxy. In the other, the Necron in question, we get the impression that they are a dutiful hunter devoted to their task. The problem is that neither offers the impression of originating from a different culture or holding different values, to the point where you could easily think of them as simply being of a different culture. It's an especially notable problem when more than a few opportunities to emphasise the often fragmented mental state of the sentient Necrons is completely passed up, seemingly for the sake of simplicity.

Finally, and most notably there is one factor above all which proves to be irksome: A lack of immensity. The writing style present here was certainly aiming for simplicity, and a direct nature which was both easy to follow and comprehend. In that regard, it certainly succeeds, and it helps to make it open to younger readers. However, in doing this, Scott passed up much of what makes Black Library novels often so memorable - The sense of age in the universe, the sheer immensity of events, and the archaic qualities of the cultures present. Attack of the Necron didn't need weapons grade purple prose to execute this, but it would have benefitted significantly from a few vivid descriptions to establish scenes or time to better establish a sense of atmosphere. Without this, the story and setting are interesting, but they do not fully convey what can help to make it so engaging.

The Verdict

Ultimately, Attack of the Necron is more Animorphs and it is Redwall. That's not a mark against the story itself (or even either of those series) but it should help to give you a better impression of just what to expect from it. It's an adventure tale with a relatively narrow focus, which succeeds in being a starting point for new readers, but there is a definite emphasis on accessibility. The characters are likable, the story is easily accessible, it's well thought out and fits in well with the better examples of major Young Adult series over the years.

Some of its accessibility comes at the cost of details relating to the broader universe in question, and your mileage may vary on how much this ultimately impacts the story. In my personal opinion, it is a detractor but it hardly ruins what is ultimately a very entertaining tale. Given the fact that this premise was fighting an uphill battle in the first place, we could have ended up with something far, far worse than what is ultimately a solid first entry in what should be a great series.

If you have a youngster who might not be able to cope with the likes of Gaunt's Ghosts, this would be an excellent gateway into the Warhammer 40,000 universe.

Verdict: 6.5 out of 10