Review — The Two Towers

I finished the second book in the Lord of the Rings trilogy recently, and I have to admit, I wasn’t impressed. I don’t really know what our cultural consensus of the books is these days, but it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me as I read that Tolkien was not a writer–at least not one that would make it in today’s market. Don’t get me wrong, he was a genius in a lot of ways, and is a great storyteller, but his books are so different than the ones coming out in this generation, and at times I had quite a bit of difficulty getting through it. Plus, you can hardly blame him for all this, since he was, in a lot of ways, the ‘Father of Fantasy’. So, while there will be lots of spoilers ahead, I doubt many people would care because everyone (except me) has already at least seen the movies.

Before I get to my grievances with this particular book, however, let’s talk about the cool bits. For the most part, I loved Aragorn & Co.’s narrative. Following along as they pursued the captive hobbits, find Gandalf the White, and eventually fight Saruman’s Uruk hai was great. I particularly enjoyed the Ents’ involvement. And when the company got to the Orthanc and sought an audience with Saruman, Gandalf’s conversation with him was pretty cool. His argument was very persuasive, and I wanted him so badly to turn a new leaf and join Gandalf’s fight, but having known a bit of the story I knew it wasn’t meant to be.

I loved the first half of the book, and I think a huge reason for that is because when people talk about Lord of the Rings, most of the time they talk about Frodo and what happened with him. They don’t talk as much about Aragorn and that side of the story, so pretty much everything that happened was new to me.

But then the first ‘book’ ends and we transition to the second half of Frodo and Sam. I was really annoyed with that part because there really wasn’t a whole lot happening. Most of their trials were based on geographical and logistical problems, and as such it focused more on their character and reactions to the world around them (like what they think of Gollum and how they should deal with him). I hated it because I didn’t like either of them. As of writing this post I’ve actually realized that I really don’t like any of the hobbits, for various reasons. Simply put, though, they’re all incompetent, and it becomes frustrating because they are often the driving force of what’s going on around them.

The only thing Sam cares about is Frodo. He’s suspicious of everyone else, and he makes stupid decisions based on his loyalty and stubbornness. He’s apparently everyone’s favorite, but he doesn’t catch my sympathy. Frodo is nihilistic and stubborn. The only thing he cares about is getting the job overwith, and he doesn’t even care if he succeeds. I’m genuinely amazed that such a one-dimensional character managed to become so recognizable in pop culture. Of the three of them, Gollum is by far the most interesting!

The entire second half the book is consumed by gloom and dreariness, and it gets tiresome. My favorite scene in that part is when Frodo and Sam are talking about being the main characters in a story of their own, and not only is it ironic, but both of them manage to laugh because of how crazy it seems. It also specifically says (paraphrasing here) that that laughter is “the first time such a sound was heard in Mordor for [an indescribably long amount of time]”. And I think that characterizes exactly why this part of the book isn’t good. It should be a pair of fun-loving and merry people being juxtaposed against the black and smoky atmosphere. They can have dark moments, sure, but don’t make the entire subject of the second half of the book despair, because that will drain all the life from your reader, which isn’t what you want. This difference would have made the book a lot more like The Hobbit, which I think would have been an improvement.

As a last note, I’m sure this is in the movies, but Frodo kind of dies at the end of The Two Towers. Shelob poisons him, and Sam makes the choice to become the ring-bearer and carry on with the mission. If I had no prior knowledge of the story, it would have been a touching scene with lots of character growth, because it genuinely looks like Frodo is dead. It was an interesting scene, because I had absolutely no clue what Sam would do, but I was disappointed when he went back after the orcs came. Obviously it has to be that way because of how the story unfolds (Frodo will certainly die if Sam doesn’t help), but I think it was a great opportunity for a change of pace, which their line of narrative desperately needed. (To be fair, I don’t have a fix for how the story might unfold if Sam did continue on his own, because I don’t know how the story actually goes, but I think it certainly could have been done).

Now that I’m done with this book, what’s next? Well, not Return of the King. At least, not immediately, but I will get to it eventually. Here is the extent of my knowledge of what happens in the last book, based purely on my limited knowledge of the movies:

  • Minas Tirith is important, and I think Aragorn & Co. go there. There are probably at least two major battles, one where they fight oliphaunts (lazy name, by the way, Tolkien.)
  • Aragorn becomes king, because it’s like his book, right? No idea.
  • The Nazgul King is in one of the battles, and in the movies Eowyn kills him. I think that was specifically a movie choice, though, because Tolkien was notorious for only making male characters important.
  • Gollum comes back, though I don’t know when. All I know is that Frodo decides to keep the Ring when they get to Mt. Doom and Gollum fights him for it. Gollum and Ring end up being lava’d. Then they take the eagles back home where they eventually set off across the sea to the West.

Everything else in the book will be a surprise, so hopefully the narrative picks up the pace!

Review — Thief Town

Thief Town is a fun little party game that is sort of obscure, both because how simple it is and the fact that it doesn’t have much replayability. It’s got a retro style and some unique gameplay, though, so I think it’s worth a real mention!

This is a four player retro-style arcade game. It comes complete with two buttons (aside from four-directional movement), and is purely an arena where you fight your friends. The way that the game works is you and everybody else are a bunch of thieves trying to stab each other. The only trouble is, you, your friends, and a bunch of added non-players all look exactly the same. The only way you can figure out which one is you is by correlating movement on the screen with the input you put in the controller. (Keep in mind, though, walking around in circles will make everybody notice you.) Everybody, including the AI, walk around until one of the players decides to stab. If an AI is stabbed, they fall down dead and nothing happens (except everyone can see who the murderer was, if you’re paying attention). If a player is stabbed, they bleed out and die. Last one standing wins the round, and the first to a set number of points wins.

I did say two buttons, though. Depending on the sort of game mode you’re playing, players can have access to random one-time use abilities, like smoke screen, trap, or gun. They all have various uses, such as the gun killing everybody in a straight line and the trap revealing any player that steps on it.

The game also has a few modes. You can play with or without the abilities I mentioned, you can do showdown, where there are no AIs and you just have to rely on more skillful stabbing (sometimes while the players are literally invisible!), or you can do Sheriff vs. robbers, where the Sheriff player has to shoot the thieves while they try to remain hidden and act like AIs.

There’s more, but that’s the brunt of the game. All the music is 8-bit and the game itself is very pixelated. It allows the focus of this game to be the gameplay–hiding and stabbing. You can stab everyone near you or lie in wait for people to reveal themselves by stabbing.

My favorite thing about this game is that there is an element of luck involved. The last time I played, I won two rounds in a row only to come out with exactly zero points the third game, and not from lack of trying either. Sometimes your friends just stab the instant the game starts, and they kill you. Sometimes they try to stab somebody else and they kill you instead (or also). Sometimes a giant tumbleweed rolls onto the stage and flattens you before you can get out of the way. Is it fair? Not exactly, but games happen so quickly and it can happen to anyone, so what does it matter?

I believe the game is going for $8 right now. Even with three other people to play it with (and it does have couch co-op, as is kind of necessary), it’s still a lot to ask for. This is sort of the game where you play it for a few hours and you’ve had your fill. I certainly wouldn’t pay $8 for it because I don’t think I’ve gotten 8 hours worth of entertainment out of it, maybe even combined with the people I’ve played it with. There simply isn’t that much to experience in the game.

But if you don’t mind that, it’s certainly an interesting game to pick up, and it is a lot of fun for a short period of time!

Review — Titanfall 2

Titanfall 2 isn’t a new game by any means, but I hadn’t played the campaign until recently. The production of the game went into the multiplayer, as that’s what it revolves around, but my brothers and I nagged me about playing the campaign until I finally sat down to do it. I’ll talk about the campaign first, then add a little bit at the end about the multiplayer and the new mode: Frontier Defense. There will be spoilers ahead, but they will be more about gameplay than story. Honestly though, this isn’t the sort of game you should care to have spoiled. The fun of the campaign isn’t the story, it’s the map design and gameplay mechanics.

That being said, the campaign wasn’t what I had anticipated in the slightest. With my brothers wanting me to play it so badly, I expected it to have an epic adventure with plot twists and awesome characters. But really, it doesn’t have that. There are no interesting twists, and you can guess what happens at the end of each mission if you have enough familiarity with the action genre in any form.

But the Titanfall 2 campaign is awesome. It’s simply awesome in a way I haven’t experienced. It wasn’t Halo, that had you jumping onto a Scarab or looking for Cortana on a Flood-infested ship. It didn’t have insane moments. But the map design took heavy advantage of Titanfall 2‘s gameplay, where you can double-jump and run on walls. This game is by far the most fluid and mobile FPS I’ve ever encountered, and the campaign matches it perfectly.

And then the game throws you for a loop and introduces time shenanigans. You find a device that warps you back in time, and then you have an entire level where you can go back or forward in time at will. There are obstacles that bar your way that may not be there in the past/future, or enemies trying to kill you that might be in both parts of the timeline simultaneously. For about half an hour the game almost stops being a first-person shooter and instead shifts into a puzzle platformer. Now, the puzzles aren’t complicated, but it does require you to think a bit. Not to mention the incredible aesthetic change of shifting back and forth between pristine science facility and apocalyptic rubble looks amazing.

This one level makes the campaign worth playing.

It actually makes me a little sad that that idea isn’t used more. There should be an entire game based on shifting back and forth on a timeline. It could easily be implemented into a multiplayer system, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it actually has been done before. In the campaign it made me feel like a superhero. Way more so than any actual superhero game I’ve ever played. So I think that’s saying something.

So, enough about the campaign. What does this game feel like? Well, I will admit that it is a lot like the less socially acceptable games like Call of Duty and, now, Halo. You’re in an arena with some teammates and some enemies, and you try to shoot them before they can shoot you.

But Titanfall has two unique things going for it. First, the mobility I’ve already mentioned has a perfection I’ve never seen before in a game like this. If you’ve seen professional gameplay of somebody running around in Pilot mode, you can really see how quickly you can move across the map just by the mechanics the game has provided to you.

The second is the game’s namesake, and that is Titans. It’s amazing how they can give a player a giant robot and have those robots feel powerful while also making them balanced gameplay wise. The game has two different modes: Pilot and Titan. You can shift back and forth several times in one game, but you can also perform just as well with no Titan.

The new game mode, Frontier Defense, is especially enjoyable for me for two reasons. One, playing against other players is stressful, and with this mode being co-op, it alleviates that. It also lets you pick a very specific style of play and stick to it. The enemy AI won’t really adapt to it, so it could be easy, but if you play on harder difficulties you better be really good with the gimmick you’re going with! Frontier Defense, surprisingly enough, also has progression! You can level up your specific Titan and unlock new abilities, and I love that sort of thing.

So, all-in-all, the game is awesome. The way I see it, it is objectively superior to a game like Call of Duty in virtually every way, and it’s a fun experience any way you play it. I would certainly recommend it if you’re into first-person shooters.

Review — Dragon Quest Heroes II (460)

With no computer, I recently bought a console game to occupy my free time. My favorite game of all time is Dragon Quest VIII, but it has remained virtually my only experience in the entire franchise (though I have played the original Dragon Warrior on the NES). Despite mediocre reviews, I decided to give this game a try for the change of pace. I do enjoy leveling and progression in any game, and the familiarity would ensure at least some enjoyment, so I got it.

And man, this game really does deserve its mediocre reviews. Don’t get me wrong: it’s fun. I’ve put over fifty hours into it so far, and I haven’t had my fill, but there are a lot of things that are weird about it.

First, the plot is pretty ho-hum. There’s a lot of things that happen, mostly misdirection, that happens simply to take you the player to new areas to fight new monsters. Kingdom A is in danger, so you have to go help them, only the danger comes from Kingdom B, who is bringing war due to a misunderstanding, meaning you have to go to Kingdom C, and so on. I’d say it’s derivative, but that’s not the right word. It’s more like the plot is used solely as a device for adventure, when this sort of game could really have worked with no plot at all. I will say, though, near the end there were a few plot twists I wasn’t expecting, so that was a nice little treat.

As far as game design goes, there’s a lot of odd things that are irking. There are mechanics that aren’t explained (getting the key that unlocks half the chests in the open-world is too convoluted for anyone to figure out on their own), and there are instances where you are punished for making the right play, or rewarded for making the wrong one. For example, there is a pitfall trap in a dungeon, and in that trap there are treasure chests. Why would you reward the player for making a mistake? That means anyone that was smart enough to avoid them would miss out on that treasure.

Despite all that, though, there really isn’t any glaring issues with the game. It’s problems are numerous, but small. My biggest grievance of all is that the two characters from DQ8 were turned into stereotypes. They didn’t feel like the people I had spent hundreds of hours adventuring with in the good old days. It makes me worry whether the characters from the other games were out of proportion as well.

This game does do a lot of cool things, though. The progression feels natural and rewarding, and it actually is challenging in a lot of parts! There were times where I had to restart the mission because it seemed super difficult, only to turn it around the second time because I had a better handle on what I should be doing. That sort of difficulty is the best!

And my favorite thing is that all the playable characters (a bit over a dozen) all have unique and fun playstyles. In a lot of hack and slash games I’m used to different characters having different combo attacks, and that’s about it, but in this game it’s way more than that. Like in Dragon Quest VIII, it’s important to have a well-rounded team filled with people who do different things. I have a mage that deals a ton of damage but has limited mana, a sword guy that does a lot of wide attacks to deal with large amounts of enemies, a healer to fix things when people get hurt or die, and a variable character depending on what you’re doing at the time. But the cool thing is that every character feels special, and even when the game sometimes forces you to select characters you may not like as much, you can still enjoy them. (As a side note, the particle effects in this game are top-notch in a lot of cases. There are some instances where the shading is off, but most of the fire, lightning, and ice attacks look awesome!)

So, is the game worth getting? Well, if you like hack-and-slash games, it’s fine. It’s story isn’t great, and it does get a bit repetitive, but if you’re fine with progression for it’s own sake, there is a lot of stuff to do even after you beat the game. There’s also a ‘New Game+’ mode I haven’t tried out yet. So there’s plenty of content to justify the value, if you’re not easily bored or frustrated, that is.

P.S. Playing a new game in the Dragon Quest franchise did get me super excited for Dragon Quest XI. Seeing all the old enemies in high resolution was nice, and I can’t wait for the upcoming release!

Review — Spiderman: Homecoming

The latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Spiderman: Homecoming seems to be doing pretty well. In fact, I’ve yet to meet somebody that didn’t love it. It isn’t without its faults, but overall, the gripes I have with this one are minimal at the worst. It’s a good movie. Probably the best Spiderman movie we’ve ever gotten so far. Now, before we get started, I’ll say right here that I won’t be spoiling anything worse than a few character interactions. Nothing important, and if that bothers you, you probably didn’t even read further than the title anyway.

I’m going to say something that I’m guessing will be controversial, because I think I should get it out of the way first. I liked Andrew Garfield more than Tom Holland. That isn’t to say that I disliked Holland as an actor. I think he did very well. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the only reason I liked Garfield better was the scripts they were given. It leads into the next thing I want to talk about, but Garfield felt like a more ‘authentic’ Spiderman for me.

The biggest reason for this is that in Spiderman: Homecoming, we don’t really have a superhero. We have a child. He’s still figuring everything out. In Garfield’s movies, he’s older and has more serious things on his plate.

But that doesn’t make me feel better about it, and I know exactly why. Amazing Spiderman shows us the birth of the hero and he hits the ground running. Spiderman: Homecoming, on the other hand, isn’t an origin story. He’s Spiderman from the beginning. Really, in this movie Peter has been Spiderman for far longer than in Garfield’s movie. The problem is that he feels dumb and arrogant because of the age discrepancy. And that age difference is the sole source of pretty much all the complaints I have with this movie.

The other issue I have is that a lot of the plot revolves around the fact that he’s so young. His interactions with Tony Stark and his dealings with school cause the drama of him thinking he’s ready for more when he clearly isn’t. Personally, I find that source of conflict in any medium the single most annoying plot device in the world. I hate it when the characters I’m supposed to like are being stupid, even if it makes perfect sense.

Which leaves me at an impasse, because it does make a lot of sense in this movie. Peter Parker’s position in the MCU is really cool. I like his relationship with Tony Stark and the other big characters, as well as the role he fills in the overarching story. But I don’t like what that means for his own character motivations and his own plot structures.

But, grievances aside, this movie is awesome. The plot and the script are very well put together, and every time something unexpected happened, I thought “Huh, that makes a lot of sense.” There is one big plot twist in particular that I did not see coming, and it blew me away. Part of me is a little upset that I didn’t catch it, because in hindsight it seems obvious, but I’m also glad I didn’t, because that moment was easily one of the best in recent cinema history for me.

What’s more, the Vulture is the perfect villain in too many ways to describe. (His origin story and how it fits with his character design is particularly sweet). His motivation, his actual plans, and the execution are top notch. (Minor spoilers: The part where he turns off the purple portal thing on the truck to trap Spiderman was pretty clever, and I really enjoyed seeing that happen.)

So, is this movie worth watching? Absolutely. Do I think it’s better than the other two Spiderman franchises? Undoubtedly (though, again, I liked Garfield’s Spiderman more). Go see it the next opportunity you have!

Review — Hammerwatch

As far as fun little couch co-op style games go, it can be hard to find ones that work these days. There’s a lot of choices, to be sure, but the abundance of choices can actually hinder the decision making process because while there are so many games, it isn’t easy to find the one that works for you and your friends.

For me, Hammerwatch is a great example of a retro dungeon crawler. It is a Gauntlet style co-op hack and slash. You each have a different class with different abilities, and you run through dungeons killing all manner of little monsters, solving puzzles and finding secrets. If you’re not careful, however, you can die instantly, so there is a risk factor.

My favorite thing about the game is how unforgiving it can be. There are different sources of threats that are more or less difficult for certain classes. There are challenging monsters that run fast and deal insane amounts of damage. Ranged classes deal with these best, usually, because they don’t have to get close. There are also swarms of enemies that shoot from a distance which are also hard for melee classes to deal with because at that point the game is a bullet hell. But the melee guys excel at dealing lots of damage to nearby enemies, so if it’s relatively safe, they can delete swarms of enemies in one blow if you time it right. Of course, there’s also traps. Spike traps kill you instantly in this game, and for whatever reason, I am really bad at maneuvering around them. They kill me a lot because I’m an idiot.

The levels aren’t random, but there are so many secrets it lends itself well to replay-ability simply because there’s bound to be loads of stuff you missed last time. The more you play, the better you’ll get, naturally. But there are also plenty of difficulty modifiers. There is the basic “Easy, Medium, Hard” settings, but you can also adjust more specific settings. You can make mana regenerate faster, or make health naturally regenerate slowly, for example. You can also make it harder, adding a shared health pool or setting everybody’s health to a maximum of one, meaning taking any damage at all will always kill you (or everybody, if you have shared health!)

My favorite thing about this game is the upgrades. As you go higher up the tower, you collect money and find stronger vendors that sell upgrades such as increased armor, increased damage, or increased life pool and movement speed. There are lots of things you can buy, and finding more secrets can make upgrades cost less in addition to giving you more money to pay for them, so its incredibly rewarding. (You can also unlock new abilities for your specific class as you get further into the game!)

As usual, I do have issues with this game, but they are sort of nit-picky. The first is that there is no random generation. I get that it’s difficult to implement secrets if the map is always different, but it feels like the sort of game that would have randomly generated levels and enemies, so the replay-ability is less in the novelty of the experience and more for the personal challenge of increasing the difficulty. As an unrelated side note, it can be almost impossible to tell what secrets do sometimes. You can press a secret button that says “A passageway has been revealed!” but there is no indication of where that might be, which will force you to backtrack all across the map in the hopes that you discover some new place. That part is a little frustrating.

My second real frustration with the game is that the “good” ending is reserved for people that know all the secrets. In order to escape the tower once you beat the final boss, you have to use “strange plank” items that you found in various places in the tower, which at first serve no discernible purpose. But, if you find all of them (you have to find all of them, too,) you can escape the castle and beat the game. And as far as I know, there’s no indication of how many there are in the dungeon in the first place. There’s twelve one for each floor of the castle.

Is the game worth it? Certainly. Full price, it’s currently worth $10, and a successful run-through of the first campaign will take over three hours, though it’ll probably take you a few tries to even get that far int he first place. I recommend it for anyone that likes hardcore games that try to kill you and your friends. It isn’t the most insanely difficult game, once you get the hang of it, but you can certainly modify it to be.

Learning! — Fantasy Name Generators

So this post is sort of a cross between my typical ‘Learning!’ posts and a ‘Review’ post, but I thought it worked better here because it will serve it’s purpose better as a tool for learning rather than a subject of scrutiny.

Today I’m going to talk about a website: fantasynamegenerators.com. It is a resource for a lot of things. First and foremost is that it gives you random names for various purposes. If you can’t think of a name for a character in your book, this works well. It isn’t simple “generate thirty common fantasy names” situation, either. It has very specific generators for every situation.

Let me clarify a little bit. Let’s say you can’t think of a name for an elf character. Does the site have an elf name generator? Of course. It also has a name generator for dark elves and half elves, too. Three different generators for elves is nothing to sneeze at, but this site goes deeper. Blood Elf and Night Elf name generators from World of Warcraft, Elf and Half-elf for Dungeons & Dragons, Elf and Half-elf for Pathfinder, all the Warhammer elf races, generators for Lord of the Rings AND Lord of the Rings Online, as well as Magic: The Gathering, The Witcher, The Inheritance Cycle, Dragon Age, as well as a name generator for Harry Potter house elves. You want an elf name? Well, you’ll need to be more specific because there are nineteen different elf name generators on this site. Are some of them duplicate generators? It’s entirely possible, but even if there are lots of duplicates there is still more than enough variety to keep a creative person flowing with inspiration.

This site works for everything. All of the naming conventions for whatever fanfiction you want to write are all given to you, because a good chunk of the name generators on the site are from pop culture. But even if you’re working on a unique world of your own design, this site helps a good deal.

Whenever I’m trying to develop names for cities in my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, or in any of my fantasy worlds in my fiction writing, I use this site. Not every generator works for my purposes, but at least one works every time. If anything, I just need to do some digging to find it.

Do I always use names from this generator? No, of course not. In fact, I wouldn’t even say I often grab names from it even when I am actively using it. Instead, I use the generators for inspiration, or insight into the naming conventions of whatever it is I’m looking for. Remember, it’s all about the creative spark. This sort of site isn’t meant to tie you down into any sort of rules. Quite the opposite. If it gives you a name you like, if it only started with a ‘P’ instead of an ‘F’, then it’s a success, because guess what: it is entirely in your power to change it. It would be silly to keep looking until the site gave you the perfect name. Instead, use the generators as foundations that you can throw your own color onto. That way the site is still pulling the brunt of the effort and allowing you to add the flair and the finesse. When I use this site, I often splice the names it gives me together, or sometimes the names I see spark an idea for an original one, in which case I have only the website to thank for pushing my own creativity along.

But maybe I haven’t convinced you of how useful this is as both a worldbuilder’s tool and a writer’s resource. This website also gives instructions in its spare time. It can give you description generators. It has society descriptions, armor descriptions, backstory descriptions, planet descriptions, you name it. If your town is too boring to interest a reader or your D&D party, pull up the town description to help add some flavor!

But wait, there’s even more. Recently, Emily, the website’s creator, recently launched a second site, called rollforfantasy.com. This site is geared more towards worldbuilding and roleplay than it is towards writing, but I still find it very versatile. Not only does it have guides for how to handle certain situations or how to build a stronger campaign for you and your friends, but it also has specific tools to augment the experience for you. It has puzzles you can implement into your game and free music you can use to set the tone of each session.

And you know what my favorite thing about all this is? It’s not the ingenuity or the vast amount of knowledge there is to gain with these sites. It’s the fact that they are constantly updated on a weekly basis. Not only that, but she responds to e-mails within days. She’s so active on these sites, and really, it’s a resource I couldn’t do without these days.

Any person working in any creative field (even as a hobby) could gain a lot using these sites. I highly recommend checking them out, because if you’re anything like me, you’ll exhaust yourself clicking all the links well before you think you’ve learned enough to solve all of your creative problems.