A couple of reviewlets

I took a shower after getting up this morning, as I do every day before work, and I had a coughing fit after my shower, as also happens damn near every day. I don’t know why this happens, but it’s been a feature of my life since college: finish shower, coughing fit.

The coughing fit going on for so long that I puke was new, though. As I have A Rule about these things, I quickly amended my half day off because of Ongoing Medical Disaster to a full day, took the boy to school, hoping that no further esophageal eruptions would occur, and took a nap. Then I got back up, finished reading a book, and beat a video game. Then I puked again, right after beating the video game.

It was some kind of day, I’ll tell you what.

I have read one Sam Sykes book in the past. Well, started. His The City Stained Red bounced off of me hard, in the sort of way that leaves you suspecting you’re being unfair to the book somehow, but I like him enough on Twitter to be willing to give him a second chance, and man, am I glad I did, because Seven Blades in Black is a monstrously good book despite the terrible, Monty-Python-esque cover. It’s nearly 700 pages long and I blew through it in about three days because I didn’t want to put it down– and right up to the last 100 pages I was pretty convinced I was reading what would eventually become my favorite book of the year.

Unfortunately, the book could probably stand to be about a hundred pages shorter, and this may be a consequence of having read it so fast, but a number of its tropes started feeling really damn repetitive toward the end and it started to wear on me a tiny bit. This still leaves it good enough that it’s a solid candidate for the end-of-year list, but I liked the first 5/6 more than I did the end. This is gritty, violent, profane fantasy literature that somehow manages to be high-magic and low fantasy at the same time, not a combination that I see all that often (or would have thought possible before reading this) and the most amazing thing about it is that Sykes makes it feel so easy. I don’t know his process at all, but this feels like it was written in seven or eight ten-hour bursts over the course of seven or eight days, and in case it’s not clear I mean that as a compliment. For all I know, he agonized over it for a really long time, but on the page it just feels … I dunno, I don’t want to repeat “easy” again but the whole thing just comes off as really organic somehow, like it wrote itself.

And I love Sal the Cacophony, even if she looks ridiculous on the cover. Check the book out.


I finally finally finally finally finally finally finally fucking beat Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice today, a game I started playing approximately six years ago, and no shadows die at any point in the game and in fact the word “shadow” is never uttered once anywhere by anyone and it’s the worst subtitle in the history of video games but that’s okay because Sekiro might be my favorite game ever right now. That said there are four endings and I just got one of them, and the one I got involved beating a different final boss than the other three do, so … I’ve got some more fucking work to do, because I’m getting every damn trophy this game has to offer and no one and nothing is going to stop me.

You should buy this game and you should dedicate your life to getting good at it because it is insanely Goddamned difficult and it will break you down and make you cry and force you to play on its terms no matter what you want to do. And you will do it anyway because the game is just that fuckin’ good. 15/10 would cry again. Probably will tonight, as a matter of fact, because I have two active save files on two different last bosses and I only beat one of them today. Time to go back to the other one.

I figure it’ll take another week, minimum.

In which I brag about meaningless things

This motherfucker right here …

I’ve mentioned I’m playing through Dark Souls 3 again. This was my third playthrough. The first one, I hit a wall and had to stop playing because I couldn’t come even close to beating any of the game that was left. The second was as a strength-focused build and, while I beat the game, there was still one boss I couldn’t come close to killing no matter how hard I tried. He was optional, though, so I could just skip fighting him and still beat the game.

I was playing as a sorcerer for this run, for the first time. Playing as a sorcerer in Dark Souls 3 is kinda strange. You’re frankly just not that tough for most of the game until all the sudden at the very end you turn into a monster. My wife went to bed early last night, and I’d gotten to the point where I had three bosses left to beat the game– Lorian & Lothric, who I’d beaten once with the strength build, the final boss (ditto) and the fucking bullshit-ass Nameless King up there and his bullshit-ass dragon that he rides in on that you have to kill first. I had never beaten the Nameless King. Never even really come close. I told my wife I was gonna take a couple of stabs at the last couple of bosses and then come to bed, hoping that I’d get through one of them in half an hour or so and then make a sensible decision.

I beat Lorian & Lothric on my second try, and frankly I only lost to them the first time because I got overconfident and sloppy, and Dark Souls is a series where the most basic enemy in the game will demolish you if you stop paying attention for a minute. It took over an hour of trying on my last build to get through them and I still felt like I’d gotten kinda lucky at the end there.

“Screw it,” I thought, “I’ve been playing for less than ten minutes and I’m still not ready for bed.” (In my defense, it was barely nine– I wasn’t kidding when I said Bek had gone to bed early.) “I’m gonna give the King a try.” Now, this was dangerous– I know what I’m like, and it was entirely possible that I was sentencing myself to a night where I was still up at Goddamned midnight frustrated and tired and still losing to this annoying-ass boss and his annoying-ass dragon over and over again. Because, again, I’ve never beaten this bastard.

And then I demolished his ass– over half my health reserves left– on the first try. And everyone else in the house was in bed, so the proper response to an achievement of this magnitude– tearing my pants off and running around the house yelling swear words while waving said pants over my head– seemed inappropriate. So I just sat there in mild disbelief for a moment, thought “Ah, fuck it,” and went and beat the game. Which also took two tries, but mostly because the last boss does something halfway through the fight that I’d forgotten about and I got way too close and he wasted me.

So, yeah. If you’re a Dark Souls fan? Try a sorcerer build. It won’t come together for a while, but when it finally does? Holy shit.

SPIDER-MAN PS4: Final verdict

2018252F09252F11252F70252Fd73f0d1fa7a1426e834f26f8ccf916d5.52098.jpg

I am, in general, very skeptical of “give it a chance, it gets good later on” types of arguments for anything I had to spend $60 to get.  For $60 you need to be fun in five minutes and you need to stay fun for however long your game ends up being, and I’d rather have a lean, entertaining 30-hour game than a 100-hour game filled with … well, filler.

I’m nonetheless very, very glad I stuck this one out– I just beat it half an hour or so ago, although I’ve left a number of the mop-up tasks for later.  I may or may not get back to them.

But: forget the game for a moment.  Spider-Man PS4 is one of the best Spider-Man stories I have ever encountered, in any medium.  Comics, movies, whatever.  And even that, as I said in the piece from earlier today, takes a good long time to get rolling.  But once it does … wow.  I was in tears during the final act.  I’m not gonna bullshit around.  I’m a grown-ass man and a video game just made me cry because the story was that good and they get this character that thoroughly.  Fucking tears.

And then, the three movie-style stingers after the credits?

*kisses fingers*

Can’t wait for the sequel.  And if they put the same people in charge of writing it, I’m not gonna have shit to say about the gameplay.   Because with a story this good, I’ll chase fucking pigeons all day if I have to.

In which I’m still going on about this

marvels-spider-man-villanos

Yeah, I know.  Another Spider-Man post.  Lucky for you, this website’s free.

I’ve quit playing this game forever at least three times now.  There are still a number of things about it that are enormously goddamned annoying, most of them related to the endless number of side tasks they put all over Manhattan for you to do.  Yes, I know I can ignore these things, but they’ve actually done a really good job of incentivizing hitting every stupid little glowy mark on the map and I’m enough of a completist that I have trouble ignoring shit like this even in games without good incentive systems.  I’ve got this game firmly slotted in Witcher 3 territory, another game I quit playing a whole bunch of times, where the shit that annoys me is just never going to stop being annoying and I need to focus on the stuff I like.

… which, holy shit, when this game is firing on all cylinders it is ridiculous.  And I got to a point last night where something happened that I absolutely wasn’t expecting to happen at all: the game surprised me.  Like, a lot.  At about the 70% mark.

That’s not a thing that happens very often.

It’s difficult to balance an open-world game properly, right?  These things must be utter hell to code.  You want your game to have some sort of main storyline, usually expressed with some sort of discrete mission structure, but you also want your players to explore, so you sprinkle a few dozen enemy bases and a few dozen side missions and a bunch of  things that you’ve scattered 40 of around the map for people to find and stuff like that.  This game has a mission where, no shit, you’re supposed to find and recapture a dozen pigeons for some random guy.  These pigeons fly at the speed of a military jet for some reason.  You gotta catch ’em all.

But the thing is, your “main story” missions have to be compelling enough that they get done, but not so compelling that players ignore all the other stuff that you want them to do.  You want them to be able to take a couple of hours and go hunt for backpacks or glowy orbs or whatever it is that you’ve scattered fifty of all over the place.  This will break immersion if your main missions have a ton of immediacy to them.

And up until the beginning of Act 3, I’d say Spider-Man wasn’t doing a bad job of straddling that line.  Do a mission, go find some backpacks, do a mission, clear out a couple of bad guy hideouts, do a mission, find some pigeons, take some pictures of New York landmarks, move on.

And then Act 3 hits, and the criminals at Riker’s Island all break out, and the criminals at the Raft, the nearby superpowered prison, all break out, and all the sudden Electro, Mr. Negative, the Rhino, the Vulture, the Scorpion and Doctor Octopus are all beating the shit out of you at the same time– not that it actually affects gameplay, but Spider-Man mentions fourteen broken bones the morning after escaping the beating– the whole fucking city is on fire and Doc Ock releases a massively contagious bioengineered virus that you quickly find out has already infected half a million people by the time the first mission properly ends.

Also, two of the six supervillains up there spend a big chunk of the game being mentors to Peter Parker, so there’s all kinds of personal angst wrapped up in suddenly discovering they’re evil.

Shit gets really darkreally quick, is what I’m saying, and all the sudden the idea that you’d stop doing missions to catch pigeons stops feeling like a fun diversion and more like criminal negligence.

I had to force myself to quit playing and go to bed last night, and I went several missions in a row back-to-back-to-back just because the conditions the game set up made it impossible for me to believe doing anything else was remotely reasonable.  Like, I hope shit goes back to normal soon, because there’s still a couple of pigeons out there that need catching.

(I hate catching pigeons.  But I’m going to do it anyway.)

Also, while I’d prefer to have a powered Miles Morales in the game, every single scene between him and Peter has been absolute gold.  This game gets Miles really, really well.  I want the sequel to star the kid.


Red Dead Redemption 2 came out on Friday.  The first RDR is one of my favorite games ever.  Reading between the lines of some of the early press, I’m worried that the sequel isn’t going to work for me. Part of the reason I’ve been playing Spider-Man so much this week is that I want it off my plate so I can play RDR2.  It would be deeply upsetting if I didn’t like this game, especially if I’m following my usual “I don’t like playing this game, and the whole rest of the world loves it” thing that I’ve been so good at for the past few years.

I will, of course, keep y’all posted, since it’s not like I talk about anything other than my PlayStation around here anymore.

Two quick #reviews and an update

UnknownREVIEW THE FIRST:  Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis.  This is going to be one of those reviews that is mostly complaining but then I tell you to read the book anyway, so just be prepared for that– it’s just that the weird stuff is more interesting.  Doomsday Book tells a story of a time traveler sent from 2048 to 1320.  In this future, time travel is part of how historians do their jobs, for the most part, although certain periods are considered too dangerous to send people back, and the machines they use to do the time travel are calibrated in such a way as to deny people travel if sending them back will cause paradoxes.

So Kivrin, one of the main protagonists, gets sent back to 1320, and then all sorts of shit goes wrong, including an epidemic in the “now” timeline (causing a massive quarantine) that may have been caused by sending her back.  Which is impossible, which kind of complicates things.

This book was published in 1992, but reads like it was written in the fifties or sixties, in that  other than time travel and some weirdly inconsistent advances in medicine the author appears to have anticipated exactly zero societal changes that were actually brought on by advanced technology.  Like, the internet existed in 1992, even if it was mostly AOL and local BBSes at the time, and most houses had a computer.  Willis appears to have believed that computers were a fad that were going to go away.  So her notion of future is kind of weird and charmingly retro, but her notion of past is excellent– the bits of the book set in the fourteenth century are phenomenally interesting, enough to make it much easier to ignore the weirdnesses of what is supposed to be 2048 where they seem to still be using rotary phones.  Which never work.   At times it almost seems like they’re going through operators to connect phone calls.

It’s also enormously and charmingly British, so be prepared for that.  The book won all sorts of awards, and it’s a great read, but be prepared to chuckle condescendingly at it in a couple of places.

51SX5APRP1L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_The second book of John Scalzi’s Interdependency series, The Consuming Fire, is out and I finished it today.  I liked the first one a hell of a lot– no surprise, as Scalzi has been a favorite for years– but didn’t write about it here.   The Consuming Fire suffers from a slightly meandering first third and takes a bit to get its legs underneath it but once it does it’s off to the races.  I like the basic premise of this series a lot– the Interdependency is an intergalactic human civilization (no aliens in this universe) headed by an Emperox, who is both a political leader and the leader of the church, and the different smaller human societies are joined by what are called Flow streams, which (more or less) are wormholes that connect one chunk of space to another and allow a properly-equipped ship to move substantially faster than light.  This has allowed the Interdependency to exist, as many of their civilizations can’t fully provide for themselves and so trade is absolutely necessary for their society to exist.

In the first book, the Flow streams started collapsing.  This is Bad.  In this book, it becomes clear that what first started out as a couple of lone scientists screaming about the slow-moving ecological and societal catastrophe (sound familiar?) has now become a real and present danger to human civilization.  The good thing is that the Emperox is on the side of the scientists.  The bad thing is that virtually no one else is, and the political machinations going on throughout the book are complicated and (ultimately) really satisfying.  Scalzi’s humor is on point throughout, although he’s kept a trend from the first book of giving spaceships really weirdly anachronistic names– there is a ship called The Princess is in Another Castle, for example, and I feel like there was one in the first book named after a Beatles song.

Still.  S’good.  Read it.

spiderman_negativeUPDATE:  I keep almost abandoning Spider-Man PS4, to the point where I’ve declared myself done with it at least twice and I keep going back to it.  It’s one of those frustrating games that keeps having bits that are entertaining and fun as hell and then four seconds later you’re screaming at the screen because of the absolute bugfuck stupidity of whatever Goddamned dumb thing the game is insisting you do next.  The research missions, in particular, so far are damn near unforgivable– they can be ignored, but I’m bad at ignoring shit in games like this and so far each research mission has found a new and different way to be absolutely insanely annoying in some way or another.  I’ll be perfectly happy to make it through the rest of the game without another fucking car chase, too, which are never not terrible.

Also: I think I mentioned this in my previous piece about this game, but guys?  Spider-Man doesn’t kill people.  Ever.  The only character more fanatical about not killing people than Spider-Man is Batman, and even that is only true for properly understood versions of the character.

This game has a reward for knocking 100 people off of buildings.  Like, there are occasional big fights on top of skyscrapers (in itself, kinda dumb) and the easiest way to be successful is to use moves that knock the bad guys back a lot because most of the time they’ll go sailing off the edge of the building and they’re dead.

No.

I will probably end up finishing this, but much like The Witcher 3, another game that I hated initially and only completed out of spite, I’m going to hate it about half the time I’m playing it.  But Read Dead Redemption 2 comes out in a few days and I need this one done and dusted by then.  So I need to beat it this week.