All things that interest me as a fan of Fantasy. Fantasy themed art, tattoos, video games, books, movies, and anything else that catches my eye;)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

For reasons unknown Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher has received somewhat limited press in the last few months. I hope to remedy this, because it was without a doubt one of the best debuts I’ve read in quite some time. A really unique twist on a magic system, a couple of trusted bloggers shouting praise, and an intriguing cover prompted me to buy this one at a local bookstore, something I don’t do too often these days.

***Obligatory quick summary: Konnig Furimmer is a High Priest who has plans to create a god. By manipulating a young child named Morgen, he hopes to control the boy’s god-like powers once he ascends into godhood. Ultimately his goal is to take advantage of this god to further his religious order’s influence on the world. The three main characters eventually hatch a plot to kidnap Morgen with hopes of ransoming him back to Konig. Eventually this unruly trio takes hostage the child. In response, Konig unleashes his right hand to fetch the child back at all costs. ***

The unique twist that Fletcher puts on the magic system is inspired by mental illness. He takes some of the better-known mental illnesses and bases his characters around them. Stay with me, I know it sounds strange. Geisteskranken are essentially mages with powers based around a specific mental illness. Pulling from the glossary in the back of the book, “Geisteskranken are capable of believing something so utterly and completely-are insane enough-to effect noticeable changes in reality all by themselves.” Essentially the characters can will something into becoming reality.

I know that I haven’t done this strange magic system or plot any justice. Trust me when I say that it works and it’s pretty fucking cool. The main characters, while initially appearing to be plucked straight from a D&D character list, were very compelling. At the start I was somewhat hesitant because you have a cocky swordsman, a tortured warrior, and a rogue. By the end Fletcher puts just the right amount of spin to make these characters feel both familiar and fresh. One character in particular stole the spotlight for me. Gehirn Schlechtes is a Hassebrand which in Fletcher’s world is a pyromancer. Gehirn is tasked with bringing back Morgen once he’s discovered missing. Imagine a more insecure version of GRRM’s Brienne of Tarth with the ability to turn her enemies into ash with a whisper. She fucking rocks and although she isn’t painted to be a good guy, (woman) I found myself rooting for her throughout the story.

The world building wasn’t the main attraction here. There are brief mentions of former empires, but Fletcher doesn’t overwhelm you with info-dumps, something I felt was appropriate considering the pace of the story. He keeps the plot going, and doesn’t distract the reader with whole pages of fictitious history, which as most fantasy fans know is something of a staple these days. The small glimpses we do get of this twisted world left me wanting more. As another reviewer noted, there is a real Dante’s Inferno vibe going on.

So why should you pick this one up? Well if you’re like me then you’re constantly on the hunt for that next R. Scott Bakker, or Steven Erikson. You want a dark fantasy world for grown ups. You don’t want another Game of Thrones clone; you want something fresh and unique. Look no further, Fletcher has given the middle finger to traditional fantasy, his mental illness concept is proof alone of this. Good shit here, I’ll pre-order book two without a doubt.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Untamed Graphic Novel Review

Art by Peter Berting 

The Untamed came to my attention thanks to social media. Even though Facebook adds can be annoying, I’m thankful in this instance because that is what led me to discover The Untamed. A passion project that has been 10 years in the making, The Untamed is a graphic novel composed of seven issues. Currently there is a Kickstarter campaign going on and not surprisingly, they have surpassed their initial goal. With Kickstarter projects seemingly everywhere these days the fact that their initial goal was surpassed so quickly speaks volumes about the great content. I can assure you that this is no amateur “project.” The Untamed is quite simply one of the best graphic novels I’ve come across.

I’m always a bit hesitant to crack open a comic book, purely for the reason that the story tends to come to a close all too soon. Just as soon as you begin to get invested in the story the pages come to an end. So I was beyond thrilled to discover that my PDF was composed of 248 pages of material. This was a graphic NOVEL in every sense of the word. This is one of the benefits of having a novel length title, the reader is allowed to bond with the characters, as well as having enough time to get truly immersed in the world.

The plot appears rather simple at first. Someone who was once close to The Stranger (our main character) eventually betrays him. This betrayal resulted in his death and banishment to Hell. The stranger is given a chance for vengeance and is allowed seven days out of Hell in exchange for seven souls. Although his memory appears foggy at first, the Stranger sets his sights on the town of Oasis to exact his vengeance. The Stranger’s return to Oasis was one of the highlights of the whole novel and there was a great genre blend of old school western meets classic revenge tale. There are several characters that team up with the Stranger along his way; most notable for me was Stutters. Niobe was also a refreshing female character that I wanted to know more about. This being a story of revenge, there is bound to be some bloodshed, and while the ominous cover does hint at the serious tone it should be noted that this novel is intended for mature audiences only. Never did I get the impression that the violence or sex (only briefly hinted at) was over the top, it was suiting for the world of Asunda. Sebastian A. Jones should be applauded for his creative writing skills. There is some very nice writing within this graphic novel, and while the writing can be one of the biggest pitfalls of a comic, in this instance it’s one of the strongest elements.

The art within was dark and gorgeous, I don’t know how else to put it. I’m a huge fantasy art fan with some of my favorites being Justin Sweet, Vance Kovacs, and Raymond Swanland. There were a slew of artists who contributed to The Untamed, and all of them have done a phenomenal job marrying the dark story with fantastic artwork. Artists Peter Berating and Hyoung Taek Nam both do splendid jobs bringing this dark fantasy world to life. Sebastian A. Jones isn’t afraid to step back and allow the artists moments to shine, several pages at a time have little to no dialogue.

I don’t claim to be a comic book expert, but as a huge fantasy fan I’m always on the hunt for that special fantasy comic. I’ve read quite a few Conan comics, Red Sonja, Sinbad, Spawn the Dark Ages, Death Dealer, Aladdin, (radical comics) Kull, and Northlanders, just to name a few. As I was reading The Untamed there was another title that I kept thinking of. Although it is somewhat obscure, there was a Watchmen Animated film that came out in 2009 called Tales of the Black Freighter. It was one of the darkest animated films I’ve ever seen, and a personal favorite. I found The Untamed to have a similar darkness to Tales of the Black Freighter, and if I could compare it to one other piece of fantasy out there, then it would be that. For the avid comic reader, I imagine Dark Horse fans will find a lot to like with The Untamed. The same can be said of traditional fantasy fans, but I imagine the grimdark literature fans will be especially pleased.

It would appear that something special is happening in terms of fantasy comics. Adrian Smith recently released his Chronicles of Hate hardcover, the Elric series is experiencing a solid revival, and even acclaimed director Alejandro Jodorowsky has released his own graphic novel entitled Royal Blood. If there is to be a frontrunner in this new comic scene, then hands down Sebastian A. Jones is going to be leading the way.  While this series is still in its infancy, I have no doubt that this has the potential to be a longstanding series. Put down your Avengers comic and pick up The Untamed. Throw on a nice soundtrack (I went with Clint Mansell’s Noah OST) and you’ll find yourself getting easily transported to this dark menacing world. Kickstarter Link

Art by Hyoung Taek Nam

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Dragon Age Inquisition Review

Something just really prevented me from really getting invested in this game. I’ve played the first two Dragon Age games, but never beat them. After about 15 hours or so I moved on to another game. With only a handful of fantasy games out for the next gen consoles I decided to give Inquisition a chance. Sadly the third one wasn’t much of a charm.

The main story lacks originality, but this might be due to the fact I’m so enthralled into the fantasy culture. The player is the chosen one who has the power to close “rifts” that spout Darkspawn. Eventually we meet the main villain who had a cool design, but little personality. His goal of course is to enslave humanity. There are several party members that aid the player and each one has their own backstory. This was a high point in the game as there are some cool storylines to explore. The player is also given a choice on how to reply during conversation, which can affect the future outcome of certain plots. Inquisition introduces several homosexual characters, and gives the player the ability to flirt and even couple with members of the same sex. As disappointing as this game was, I commend the developers with giving players this choice. It isn’t too often we get a “progressive” video game, so props to them for that.

Gameplay was probably my biggest issue. Inquisition has a “tactical view” that can be accessed at any time. Essentially you can pause the fight and give specialized instructions to each of your party members. I found myself not utilizing this feature much because it tended to bore me. Some people might enjoy this, but I thought that it killed the pace and excitement of combat. The only real time that I used the tactical view was during dragon fights. For the most part you can auto-lock onto an enemy and hold down your swing/fire button. There are several attacks to choose from and each one has a “cool-down” effect, which I’m not a huge fan of. Initially I thought that perhaps I had chosen a class that just wasn’t much fun. I created a rogue character that specialized in archery and poison. The player can switch between characters at any point, but sadly I didn’t find any more excitement playing with the other combat styles.

In terms of the environment this is undoubtedly Inquisition’s strongest feature. There are some really gorgeous places to explore and the PS4 graphics were top-notch, especially compared to the 360 that I played on previously. Landscapes range from snow covered mountain fortresses to mysterious barren deserts. There were a couple of areas that were similar in design (looking at you green forests) but for the most part they each had their own personalities. There are multiple zones that you can fast travel to and after beating the main storyline I was sitting at about 70 hours, which is something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a lengthy game worth the 50-60 bucks.

Enemies are repeated and recycled all to often, and I found myself disappointed with the relatively small bestiary. Demons, dragons, giants, spiders, mages, and soldiers are really all that you run into. I think that the developers could have come up with something a bit more original instead of the standard fantasy fare. While the dragon fights took some strategy, I didn’t feel nervous or hesitant to explore the world.

Look at the end of the day a video game has to be fun to PLAY. No matter how gorgeous the surroundings may be, I still want to have fun exploring and fighting. With a lackluster main story, disappointing combat system, and repetitive quest-lines I’m left to wonder how this game garnered so many rave reviews. I think that it speaks to the fact that we just don’t have many next-gen games to compare it to yet.  

Interestingly enough Dragon Age Origins was the first game I bought for my XBOX 360, and Dragon Age Inquisition was the first game I purchased for my PS4. There have been a handful of people online that have said that this game feels like an MMORPG without any other players. I couldn’t agree more. The world just feels empty and after giving Bioware 3 chances to woo me, I think it’s safe to say that the Dragon Age franchise just isn’t for me. 

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Poseidon Tattoo

I just had to share this amazing tattoo by artist Rob Richardson. I would happily wear this one! 

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt "The Trail" Opening Cinematic

Yet another amazing trailer from CD Project Red, the development team behind The Witcher 3. Coming out in February 2015. At this point I feel like CD Project Red is showing a bit too much of the game. We still want to be surprised, and at this point I feel like I've seen half the game. Then again it's supposed to be bigger than Skyrim was, so likely they've really only shown off the cinematics. Looks pretty awesome, and the graphics should look amazing on the PS4! 

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Dark Souls 2 Crown of the Old Iron King Review

Crown of the Old Iron King is part two of The Lost Crowns trilogy and it takes place almost exclusively in a giant tower. Once again From Software has delivered with this extraordinary DLC, and somehow manages to top Crown of the Sunken King.  Accessed about halfway through the standard game, Crown of the Old Iron King is difficult even for the most seasoned veterans of the series. The environment itself becomes just another obstacle to tackle. With precarious ledges, hidden enemies, and sinister traps, Brume tower manages to instill both wonder and anxiety.

In the opening area the player comes across a strange pulsating statue, surrounded by fallen soldiers. Immediately I began to wonder what happened here, and what was the strange Idol before me? Afterwards, the player begins to traverse a giant chain that leads towards the main tower. Much like the first DLC, this sense of scale allows the player to take one last deep breath before being plunged into a claustrophobic nightmare.

The central area of Brume Tower became something of a “home base” for me. From there I could begin to get a sense of direction. There are multiple paths the player can take be it left, right, up, or down. Eventually the player will find a key to ignite the giant furnaces within Brume Tower. Platforms rest upon the backs of ancient stone sculptures, and similar to an elevator, these go up and down once the furnaces are ignited. Brume tower takes on a whole different personality once it comes to life. Areas that were initially inaccessible become available for exploration.

While the majority of the game will take place within the interior of Brume Tower, there are several areas available on the outside. These exterior areas became small respites and allowed me to breath again. Once you leave the tower you realize just how suffocating it feels. The graphics do suffer a bit on these exterior areas. The distant lands just look a bit unrealistic, but considering this is a DLC I couldn’t really complain.

Several new enemies make an appearance in Crown of the Old Iron King, but unfortunately the main enemy soldiers are very similar to the soldiers you faced in Crown of the Sunken King. One of the best parts about a Souls game is the creepy enemies that you face. To confront what is essentially a different colored version of an enemy previously faced is something of a letdown. There is however a certain enemy that is just downright disturbing. Bloated, legless humanoids crawl towards you at an alarming speed only to pause and explode after a few seconds. When I encountered my first one I was overconfident, and when it did its speed crawl I was truly disturbed.

Much like Crown of the Sunken King, the bosses in this second DLC are hit and miss. Two of the three are truly tough battles, and one in specific could be considered the hardest boss of the game. Once again the theme of “recycling” a previous boss is repeated here, and it’s just as disappointing as it was in the first DLC.
Crown of the Old Iron King is littered with new weapons, rings, armors, and items. Another NPC makes an appearance, and this one actually flees from the player. These NPC fights feel like you’re playing an online player, and while they do use cheap tactics, it makes them feel authentic.

The one thing that I found surprising in this DLC is just how damn big the map was. For the ten bucks I spent I probably got about eight to ten hours of play. To me this was totally worth the price and once again I am completely blown away with the quality of these DLC’s. As with the first DLC Crown of the Old Iron King’s level design is arguably one of the best in the entire game. If you’re a fan of the game, this one is going to be essential. This was yet another impressive and solid entry into the Dark Souls 2 saga.

Level Design 10/10
Enemies 8/10
Lore 7/10
Items 9/10
Boss Battles 8/10

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dark Souls 2 Crown of the Sunken King Review

When the announcement came that there was going to be DLC for Dark Souls 2 I was absolutely ecstatic. This was going to be a huge test for From Software, the development team behind the game. Would this be a grab for players’ cash, or would this be legitimate material that would enhance the original game? Eventually From Software announced that there wouldn’t be just one DLC, but THREE! Thus was born the Lost Crown trilogy. Once again fans began to wonder whether or not this was going to be a good thing. Well I’m here to tell you that all three DLC’s are absolutely fantastic. They are worth the ten bucks apiece, and arguably the level designs are better than most if not all of the original game.

The first to be released was The Crown of the Sunken King. The level begins by leading the player down a winding corridor, and this claustrophobic feeling hints at what’s to come. The player then comes face to face with an ancient dragon, with a spear protruding from it’s poisoned flesh, it seems to be expecting you. It flies right over the player and the sense of scale shows just how gargantuan it really is.  

The level design introduces a new concept in the form of movable platforms. The player can raise or lower these platforms by hitting a small switch-like stone. This was a really cool idea, as you can use these platforms to your advantage. If you find yourself swarmed by enemies, you can escape by running on a platform that raises you above your enemies. Likewise, you can raise a platform and send an enemy plummeting to their death. While I didn’t personally do much PVP (player vs. player) this would be a really fun playground for that.

The whole level has a lot of Mayan influences. It feels like an abandoned kingdom, gone to ruin long ago. While there were only a handful of new enemies to encounter, there was one that really stuck out. The player will eventually come across ghost like phantoms, each wielding two swords. Initially when I came across these foes I was shocked to discover that you couldn’t deal damage to them. There was a certain panic associated with this discovery. Once you agro these enemies, there is no escape. They will pursue you until one of you is killed. After dying several times I discovered that you have to destroy a tombstone first. Once the tombstones are destroyed the ghouls become solid, and combat can ensue. This was typical Dark Souls! Introduce a seemingly impossible scenario, and leave it to the player to figure out how to overcome the obstacle.

There were three boss battles in The Crown of the Sunken King, as well as an optional “challenge” path.  The biggest complaint with this first DLC comes in the form of these boss battles. For starters, two out of the three boss battles were essentially re-skins of other bosses. One of the bosses is exactly the same as a boss previously encountered in the original game. One of the great things about a Souls game is the fog door that let’s you know that there might be a boss waiting behind. When you come upon one you can’t help but get excited/nervous and to enter only to see a boss that you’ve already come across before left me feeling a bit disappointed. However, the final boss was exquisite and arguably one of the coolest dragon fights I’ve ever encountered in any game.

One of the more frustrating aspects of the Souls series for me has been the very obscure lore. For the most part Crown of the Sunken King is something of a standalone story, and I found it refreshing. Reading the item descriptions and observing the surroundings it’s clear to the player that this was once a prosperous kingdom that fell into ruin. I was proud to have finally understood what was going on around me. There is a story to be found within this first DLC, and while it may not be the most original, it’s very well done.

There are a host of other things that could be mentioned. The surprise NPC encounter, the challenge route, the secret areas, the new weapons and armor, I could go on and on. All in all I spent about ten hours within the poisonous pyramid of the Sunken King. I think that ten bucks is fair for such a generously sized DLC, and I would remind people that some entire games are only ten hours long.

To conclude I think that this was very much a success and it feels like From Software wasn’t out to just grab our cash, but instead they wanted to give us another wonderful experience within Drangleic.

Level Design 8/10
Enemies 7/10
Lore 10/10
Items 9/10
Boss Battles 7/10