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Review – Alice: Madness Returns

October 27, 2011 Leave a comment

My girlfriend Tori and I have a system of playing through games we rent from GameFly: she picks the titles she likes the look of and plays until she hits a snag of tedious or nuanced gameplay. I take over, push through the jumping puzzle/repetitive enemy/otherwise unpleasant experience, then return the controller. Thus, much of my console gaming experiences are now semi-vicarious, and it is through this filter that I will present many of my game reviews. Does this prevent me from providing personal feedback on every aspect of every game? Yes. Does that fact make what I say in my reviews a load of rubbish? Very probable. Will I still charge headlong down the Internet’s twelve-lane superhighway built specially for the transportation of half-informed opinions? With abandon.

Eleven years ago a horrific fire took Alice’s family from her and left her mind horrifically scarred. Afterwards she was confined to Rutledge Asylum, where she struggled to confront her demons by slipping further into her fantasy world of Wonderland. Now, after ten years, she has finally secured her release – yet she still bears the heavy psychological burden of that tragic event. With her mind in tatters, she is unable to resolve the fear prompted by her strange memories, dreams, and visions. Perhaps she’ll do better in Wonderland. She always has. She travels there, seeking what the “real” world can’t provide: security, knowledge, and the truth about the past. But in her absence, Wonderland too has suffered. Something has gone horribly wrong, and now a great evil is descending upon what once was her beautiful refuge. Can Alice save Wonderland – and herself – from the madness that consumes them both?

The art direction and execution in this game are absolutely fantastic. Each stage is unique, atmospheric, and detailed; the monsters are unsettling and grotesque; and the backdrop of a dreary, unfeeling London provides an excellent contrast to the colorful and bizarre machinations of Alice’s tortured imagination. I’m hard pressed to identify my favorite of the game’s many stages because nearly all of them have their own powerful allure. The ones that stick most in my memory, however, are the sky-card world and the Asian-themed world, so I guess I’ll go with those. Tori’s affinity lies with the dollhouse stage, which is certainly a valid contender. Changing Alice’s dress to match each world was a nice touch, and I’m not usually one to care much for costumes.

Alice‘s story is surprisingly coherent given the disjointed worlds and events portrayed in the promotional screenshots and videos. American McGee takes what he likes from Lewis Carroll’s original works and morphs them into a new creature all his own, giving Alice a new history and new reasons for delving into the nightmarish depths of her psyche. Set some years after her initial foray into Wonderland, old familiars flit, lumber, and slither their way through the game, speaking to her as one would to an old acquaintance whom one doesn’t entirely trust. This adds an uneasiness to the story that never quite fades, leaving the play unsure of what The Hatter or the Red Queen might do at any moment. The one (most unfortunate) exception to this is Cheshire Cat. Despite the powerful intrigue his character commands in the original work, he ends up occupying Orlando Bloom’s spot in The Lord of the Rings films: stating the obvious for the slow kids. By game’s end, I was dreading his all-too-frequent appearances and bits of inane dialog.

I believe he represents Alice's latent Asperger syndrome

Alice’s weakest link is its gameplay: fairly standard platformer fare, which is something of a rarity on this generation of consoles. Combat is fun but fairly predictable, a few of the enemies are repetitive and awful enough to warrant profanity, and the range of weapons is very limited. The invisible platforms (only visible when Alice pops her shrink juice) could have been removed at no great loss, and I could clearly feel projected developer aggression while racing to beat some of the timed puzzles. A few bugs popped up from time to time in the X-Box version as well, namely tiny Alice falling through platforms, which is very surprising given the game’s high production value.

Overall, though, I’d easily recommend this game for fans of visual splendor and an interesting take on the Wonderland mythos. Smaller doses are recommended, though, as it can wear thin during marathon sessions.

Categories: Game Reviews, Games

Ars Technica Enters an Unfamiliar (Secret) World

October 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Ars Technica recently published their impression of The Secret World’s gameplay demo at New York Comic Con. A fair review of the footage revealed, but some of the comments make me wonder how familiar the reviewer is with the MMO genre. I’ve read other articles in years past poking fun at the world of MMOs saying that the genre can become a parody of itself when a game takes itself too seriously, and I have to say I agree. By nature, MMO lore and questing challenge the suspension of disbelief; no village could possibly need 100 adventurers to each kill 15 boars a day. Pirates do not capture the same high-ranking officer’s daughter every five minutes. Demons and demi-god don’t respawn at regular intervals. Bad guys and good alike may have vapid lines they like repeating, but not twenty times in a three minute encounter. We get that. The silliness is part of the enjoyment for many, and the myriads of comics on the subject prove this.

Why, then, is it pertinent to point out these flaws in this game, a product of the 15 years of trope and tradition that came before it? None of the flaws pointed out in the review are unique to The Secret World. Ragnar and his team have managed to shed a lot of the cliches that have plagued the genre over the years, creating a new and (in my opinion) exciting interpretation of a fantastic genre. The AT review of Star Wars: The Old Republic‘s demo was far more positive despite the game doing no more than introducing the ME dialog wheel to a WoW-in-space motif. Heretic though it makes me, I admit I haven’t been overly impressed with BioWare’s recent output; I enjoyed ME1 and DA:O, but they did not provide the earth-shattering stories I’d heard about. As such, I can’t understand the hype around SW:TOR, and I’m disappointed that AT is incapable of seeing through the BioWare glitter to see the same flaws they identified in The Secret World.

Ashenvale Forest is just one of the many exciting destinations in a galaxy far, far away

Categories: Games

Review – The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

October 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I had intended to present a lovely piece of poetry today, full of meaning and imagery beautiful enough to moisten even the driest, most Internet-weary eye. Unfortunately, fatigue and workplace politics have dampened the wood in my fireplace of creativity, so instead you get my amateurish review of science fiction classic The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. My review format will be shamelessly lifted from that book-devouring badass Amanda Rutter over at Floor-to-Ceiling Books.

Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Urras, to challenge to complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.

In Shevek, Le Guin has fashioned a very sympathetic and likeable main character: he is brilliant, socially awkward, and decidedly unusual-looking. In other words, the poster boy for nerds far and wide. Being one myself (though not nearly as accomplished as most), I couldn’t help but be drawn in by him from the start. The book begins with him hitching a ride on an offworld freighter, so we are introduced to his nature while he himself is coping with entirely foreign circumstances, and we (or I, at least) like him immediately.

Unfortunately, Shevek ends up being the only character with this kind of appeal and depth. His wife Takver has potential, but she enters the story late and so is deprived of much-needed exposure. Similarly, the servant Efor hints at unexplored fathoms that remain unexplored by the book’s conclusion. The remainder of the characters, both the anarchists of Anarres and the “propertarians” of Urras, occupy a relatively two-dimensional space. They operate as placeholders for the various political and economic ideologies that Le Guin kicks around: the altruistic anarchist; the manipulative, profit-minded capitalist; the aging, eccentric academician; and the polished, reserved ambassador. They function well as icons but fall short as characters.

The plot also suffers in service of the author’s message. The book oscillates between Shevek’s present and past with each chapter, but the majority of the interesting events occur in the past. The present narrative doesn’t pick up for nearly three-fourths of the book, and Takver’s absence makes it more an exercise in observing Shevek reacting to capitalist ideas than in meaningful character interactions.

The trade-off for all of this, however, is an in-depth exploration of differing economic and political models, which Le Guin handles very well. She teases out the benefits and pitfalls of philanthropic anarchism in the past narrative, placing it in stark relief against the unshackled capitalism of Shevek’s present world. His naivete turns to bitter disappointment and despair as he learns the truth of the propertarian way of life, but his radical ideas have exiled him from his homeworld, and he must turn to an unknown alien race for asylum. Thus, while Le Guin seems to empathize more with the anarchistic philosophies throughout the book, she ends with a rather dim view of human nature regardless of socio-economic policies.

Overall, I must say I enjoyed Shevek’s journey, but I found it wanting more human contact. Perhaps this is intentional on the author’s part; aside from his connection with a couple of Urrasti children, Shevek’s experiences on the capitalistic Urras can’t match his interpersonal relationships with the Anarrians. If this is the case, it was done very well. I suppose I’m just more a fan of books concluding with a punch to my emotional gut, and my viscera remained unmolested at the end of The Dispossessed.

Categories: Book Reviews, Books

Fading

October 6, 2011 Leave a comment

Phantoms of yellow light drift among the reeds, their reflections dancing on the surface of the river.  Eva’s laughter sparkles and splashes like the water around her toes as she chases them, her short fingers closing on air over and over.  I watch her from my perch on the lowest branch of a willow tree.  My legs sway as I drink in the sound of her happiness, a sound I once thought had died with our parents.

Smiling, I lean back.  The wind creeps through the thick tapestry of leaves above my head, allowing the deep blue sky to wink through.  Deep blue like the eyes of the girl who first showed me this place.  The daughter of the village baker, I met her while running errands for the matron of the big house.  Her pale cheeks were always dotted with flecks of flour, even as she led me through the meadow to this secret place.  When I heard the calls of the mourning doves and saw the willow branches drowning themselves in the river, I knew I would bring Eva here.

We had to sneak out; the matron rarely let the younger ones leave after supper.  The river wasn’t far, but we walked slowly, her small hand clinging to mine. Some of the meadow grass was tall enough to tickle her face. She let it brush her cheeks and comb her brown tangles with soft yellow fingers. Her brown eyes would catch on the occasional glimmer from a lonely firefly, but it would wink out before she could turn her head.

The river had already transformed into a parade of lights when we reached it. Eva held back, unsure of what she was seeing. I leaned over and whispered in her ear, then led her down to the water. A swirl of fireflies floated skyward as we approached, and she smiled. It was a shy smile, as if she was afraid the willows would reach down and snatch it away, but it was there.

That smile is the reason I’m here tonight, watching the light slowly drain from the sky. Tiny grey clouds rimmed with fire float near the horizon, and I picture the same brilliant orange gathering on the cold walls of the orphanage.  That color means washing dishes and seeing to the lanterns there, but here it means peace and laughter. If I can take her away from there, away from those kids with their sad eyes and thin faces, and help her remember how to laugh, it is worth the risk of punishment.

The matron caught us once.  After a stern lecture on the dangers of the river at dusk, she sentenced me to two weeks of garbage duty in the kitchen.  The matron kept the younger children out of the kitchen, but my sister walked with me as I hauled the sacks of rotting rinds and stale bread to the compost garden. She didn’t say much, but it was enough to have her footprints beside mine in the garden soil. Once my penance was complete, the matron tried to keep an eye on us, but the big house is home to many orphans. Eva and I keep to ourselves, and the matron soon forgot our escapades as she scurried after the troublemakers with her apron strings flapping.

A small hand on my ankle pulls me out of my thoughts.  Eva is looking up at me, her brown eyes big in her lean face.

“What is it?” I ask her.

“They’re coming out,” she replies in a whisper, pointing toward the river.

“Better hide, then,” I whisper back, slipping off the branch.  Together, we crouch in the grass, eyes sweeping the riverbank.  The earth is cool against my hands and knees, and I shiver a little despite the warmth of the evening.  A stray stalk of grass tickles my ear as I shift my weight.  Shaking my head against it brings a stern look from Eva.  She lifts a finger to her lips and frowns, looking for all the world like our mother as she does.  A hard lump swells in my throat as she turns back to the river, and I try to swallow it as I pull my eyes away from her matted hair.

Eva sees the first one.  Her tiny arm points upstream, and I follow it to the boughs of another willow across the river.  At first, the dim light makes it hard to distinguish, but its eyes give it away.  They fade and glow like the fireflies in the reeds, watching the evening from between the willow leaves.  I squint, trying to make out its body in the shadows.  Before I can, Eva points again.  Another pair of pulsing yellow eyes has appeared.  They hover above the water, resting in a faint hint of shadow against the sky.  We watch as the shadow grows darker, drawing in swirls of deep purple and blue as it begins to resemble a human shape.  The head turns downstream, and the gaze of those firefly eyes sweeps past us.  My breath catches in my throat.  I am not afraid of them, but all the same, I don’t want them to know we are here.

Eva gasps and leans back into me as the air in front of us begins filling with another shadow.  Wisps of cold flow in tiny streams over my arms, sending goosebumps skittering across my body.  The shape slowly turns its head as the colors of the evening sky swirl into arms and legs.  Eva’s head presses into my chest as her breathing quickens, but she doesn’t hide her face.  My own breathing becomes shallow as the creature’s haunting eyes come to rest on us.  Staring into their soft, warm light, I feel my fear begin to fade like the sunlight in the sky.

A memory springs into my mind without warning.  I am with my parents again, returning home after the midsummer festival.  Baby Eva is burbling in her sling across Mother’s back, and Father is carrying the prize chicken he won in the archery contest.  My shoes are small next to his. On the edge of the forest ahead, I can see our small cottage waiting for us. My stomach rumbles at the sight, ready to feast on Father’s prize, and I break into a run.

Eva’s head lifts from my chest.  Looking down, I see her reaching upward with both arms as if waiting for Mother to pick her up.  The shadow leans toward her, its eyes bright.  A shock of fear burns the tears from my eyes, and I grab her wrists.

“Stop it!” she cries, struggling against my grip.

I wrap my arm around her middle and pick her up without replying.  The shade rears back as I stand.  Eva is squirming in my arms, crying to be let go.  Turning, I come face-to-face with another shadow.  Its eyes burn like lanterns, their yellow light filling my vision until I am drowning in it.

When my eyes clear, I am with my parents again.  We are sitting around the table, the prize chicken crackling over the fire.  Mother is placing a bowl of berries on the table.  Father’s face is stern as he leans over his bow, rubbing it down with an oil-soaked rag.  The smell of roasting meat fills the room, and my stomach rumbles again.  The berries are sweet and juicy, and they stain my small hands red.  When it is time, I pick up the spit and hold it out.  Father slides the chicken onto a waiting platter and sets about carving it in his solemn manner.  I want to watch him, but Mother asks me to fetch water from the well. When I return, she leans forward to dip her pitcher in the bucket. Eva starts crying from her crib in the corner.

Eva.

The thought of her explodes through me, clearing the memory from my eyes.  Deepening twilight surrounds me again.  The shadow in front of me has vanished.  Eva has also disappeared. Waves of nausea flow through my body as I turn back to the river, hoping to catch a glimpse of her.

There, by the riverbank.  She is following a shadow into the water.  I sprint after her, calling out her name as I run.  My feet splash in the cold water, but she doesn’t turn around.  Around us, pale eyes flicker in anger at my intrusion.  Refusing to look at them, I reach toward my sister, to pick her up, to carry her away from these shadows.

My hand passes through her wrist as if it were smoke.  Desperate, I try to grab her waist, but my arms only close on air.  My knees buckle, and the river rushes in to cover them.  Eva turns to me, eyes closed and lips spread in a quiet smile.

“They are taking me to Mommy and Daddy,” she whispers.

“No they aren’t, Eva!  Mommy and Daddy are gone,” I reply, my voice tight in my throat.

“They’re here.”  Eva’s eyes slide open and look at me. “They want to be with me.”

Her brown eyes are pulsing with yellow light.

Tears fill mine as she turns back to the river.  Reaching for her, I watch my hand pass through her body.  I can see willow branches through her matted hair.  A sob catches in my throat as she takes a shadow’s hand and sinks deeper into the river.  By the time her chin touches the water, her skin is the same color as the evening sky.

The last of the daylight is fading from the solemn willows.  The shadows are fading with it, but I will remain here, my tears falling into the river that took Eva from me.  The shadows will return tomorrow night, and I will be waiting for them to take me into their twilight.  Eva is there now, and maybe our parents are with her.  They are waiting for me to join them, and I will go.

Around me, the glowing of fireflies shimmers on the cold, dark surface of the water.

Categories: Short Fiction
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