Created by MoaCube
My rating: 4.5 of 5
In the far north, a city rests nestled safe in the perilous snow under a magically-created dome. It’s lauded as the Jewel of the North. But as the brash young doctor, Galen, and the mysterious young woman, Yani arrive on the last caravan to the city before the roads shut down for the winter, they find that all is not as it seems. For this is a city that keeps secrets, and those secrets may just spell the end of both the city and the lives of all its residents if Yani and Galen can’t get to the bottom of things before the winter solstice.
By the same creators as the visual novel Cinders, Solstice brings us a similar sort of visual novel. You’ve got a choose-your-own adventure sort of layout, with multiple story paths depending on the choices you make–definitely some replay value there. I haven’t managed to get all the endings myself, yet. The story is described as a “dystopian mystery thriller,” which is surprisingly accurate. You’re trying to uncover the dark secrets of the city and save it, while everyone is trying to keep secrets from you, with a limited amount of time before disaster strikes and everyone dies. It’s actually a quite well-written and interesting story, although definitely kind of dark. The characters are solid, varied, and interesting, including Galen and Yani–both of whom you get to play as at various points. I will caution that the themes and content of this game are a bit more mature, probably in the region of a T+, including murder, language, and some sexual content. As for the gameplay itself, it’s text-based–visual novel, so duh–with the written story overlaying illustration, and text-box choices that you click. The illustrations are quite detailed and attractive; a similar semi-realistic style to that used in Cinders, including small animations to make characters fidget and gesture and such. The music is also quite nice and suits the story well without being intrusive or excessively repetitive. Solstice is a visual novel that I would recommend and will likely replay at some point.
Note: I played this on Steam, and it can be found here. You can also find out more at the official MoaCube website here.
Hosted by Escape Experience in Chattanooga, Tennessee
This weekend, my brother and sister-in-law dragged me to an Escape Room–something I’d never tried before, although they are obsessed with them. Turns out, it was actually a pretty fun experience. Basically, it’s a game that’s played in a locked-room set with a time limit, rather than on a board or with cards. Your group of players are dumped in this room and set free to explore. There are clues, puzzles, and challenges throughout the room, and you have to beat them all within the allotted time in order to win. It’s actually pretty intense, as well as a good mental challenge.
We did “The Inheritance,” a mystery game in which your scientist uncle has passed away, leaving behind some sort of treasure which you have to find and escape with before your uncle’s dangerous enemies show up. I thought that both the premise of this plot and the execution were well done for this sort of game. The detailed set was thoroughly immersive and conducive to a good gameplay experience. The puzzles were varied and challenging while still being accessible to the average individual. I do think that some basic math skills, science, and geographical knowledge would be helpful for this particular game, but mostly just some solid teamwork, problem-solving, and logical skills are what you would need the most. There were a lot of puzzles in this particular game; it’s theoretically one of the more difficult ones, and we didn’t even finish it (although we were on the very last puzzle when we ran out of time!). Our one complaint, honestly, was that any hints we were given were displayed on screens in the room . . . which is nice in that you can refer back to them, but not helpful in that several were given in two parts, and the first part disappeared way too quickly, with only the second part remaining on the screen. On the whole, though, this particular Escape Room was a good experience that I would recommend.
Slap Happy Cartoons with Netflix
Status: Complete (1 Season/10 Episodes)
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Three teenagers find themselves waking up together in a doorless room with no memory of who they are or what their lives were like before that moment. An old typewriter on the floor and names written on pieces of paper in their pockets are their only clues–Adam, Mira, Kai. Accepting that these are their own names and that playing along with whatever “game” or “puzzle” is afoot is their only way to escape, the three begin working together, putting their skills to work in the series of ever-stranger situations they find themselves in. And they’ve got some pretty crazy skills to put to work, too! Which makes them have to wonder, who on earth are they? Because normal people can’t do the things they can do, and they’re freaking themselves out.
The Hollow is a show that I actually watched on recommendation from some family members, and while it’s not exactly what I would normally watch, I did enjoy it. But I feel like I can’t properly review it without totally spoiling it, and it’s one of those shows that you do not want to go into with spoilers. The mystery and watching it unfold is a huge part of the enjoyment of this story. And yes, mystery there is aplenty. The what-on-earth-is-going-on factor is on a level that nearly surpasses that of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and that’s saying something. It’s such a strange mix of genres and themes that I never really felt like I knew what was going on, right up until the end where everything’s explained. It did kind of feel like some of those kids’ stories where each character has specific skills that are suited to specific tasks and everyone fits just so; I didn’t care for that so much, it’s just not my thing, but it does make more sense once you get the explanations. The characters were good, not great, but good. Normal, if you can consider teenagers with superpowers to be normal. They’re relatable, which given the situation they’re in and how you’re supposed to be getting into that, is what you really want. The art is interesting; an animation style somewhere between an American cartoon and, say, A Cat in Paris, at least in terms of the character design. I think the character designs felt a bit inconsistent between characters, like the styles switched somewhere in between them, but it worked in this context. Overall, for those who enjoy having their head messed with and watching an inexplicable mystery unfold, I would recommend The Hollow.
Created by Vito Viscomi/Directed by Josh Mepham & Greg Sullivan/Starring Adrian Petriw, Ashleigh Ball, & Connor Parnall
Mangaka: Aya Shouto
Status: Ongoing (currently 12 volumes)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
When she turns sixteen, orphan Himari Momochi mysteriously receives a will stating she’s inherited her family’s ancestral home, Momochi House. Not that she thinks to question it much; it’s a true windfall, and she cheerily packs her bags and sets off into the mountains to move in. Only, once she arrives, she finds this mysterious boy Aoi is already living there, claiming to be the house’s guardian, along with a variety of yokai. Because apparently the house is on the border between the human world and the otherworld, a gateway of sorts. Not one to be so easily discouraged, Himari determinedly declares she’s the house’s landlady and tries to get the squatters to leave . . . only to be confronted with the fact that Aoi literally cannot leave the premises since he’s been chosen as the house’s guardian. Well, Himari’s not about to leave either, even if it does mean she has to share her home and deal with whatever weirdness comes through from the otherworld. And believe me, the weirdness is just beginning.
Personally, I find The Demon Prince of Momochi House well worth reading for the gorgeousness of its art alone, especially the color spreads at the beginning of each volume. Absolutely stunning. As for the story itself, well, I’m almost tempted to think of it as xxxHOLiC lite. You’ve got all these encounters with traditional Japanese yokai and suchlike, as well as other traditional folklore, all set in this mysterious house on the border between worlds. Yeah, sound familiar? But instead of this dark josei sort of flavor, you’ve got something much more traditionally shoujo. Bishounen galore–and it’s only Himari’s fixation with Aoi that keeps this from becoming some kind of reverse-harem situation–for one. A tendency for shoujo tropes, gentle romance, and a generally lighter tone in spite of going to some dark places at times. Oh, and Himari is a pretty classic shoujo heroine–innocent, romantic, stubborn, slightly blonde, and a total do-gooder. But she’s pretty likeable for all that. And Aoi’s mysterious dark past (and sometimes present) kind of counterbalances her air-headed sweetness. Shouto-sensei actually does quite a good job at making the characters more nuanced than you’d expect, especially through their facial expressions. I really love Aoi’s variety of expression in particular; well, I love his character in general, so there’s that too. Currently there’s a lot of uncertainty still as far as where the story will go, but it’s shoujo enough that I’m hoping for a sweet, satisfying end. I’m certainly curious where the story will go from here.
Author: Douglas Adams
My rating: 3.5 of 5
A computer programmer out to describe the rhythms of the universe in computer-generated music. A sofa stuck in a physically impossible angle on the stairs outside his apartment. A ghost stuck between life and death. An impossible magic trick. An electric monk from an alien world, created to save the people of that world the trouble of believing things for themselves. A visit to an old college professor. The works of a dead poet. Seemingly disconnected pieces, and yet they come together surprisingly in the hands of one Dirk Gently–who firmly professes to not be psychic. He’s a holistic detective, that’s all.
I’ve enjoyed Douglas Adams’s writing in the past, and I found Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency to be an enjoyable read, but definitely a more challenging piece. Not that it’s a difficult read exactly. But it’s very fragmented, especially towards the beginning, and there are a lot of moving pieces to keep track of if you want the ending to make any sense at all. The author certainly doesn’t dumb it down enough to give the reader the full breakdown, although everything is pretty thoroughly explained by the end if you pay attention. But yeah, fragmented and kind of pretentious would be my best way to describe this book. It’s well written, though, and has some quite interesting turns of phrase. I would almost say that’s one of the biggest selling points of this book, honestly. Of note, the titular character doesn’t actually appear until, like, halfway through the book. It’s really more about the programmer Richard, honestly, than it is about Dirk. Dirk’s just the guy strange and open-minded (or something) enough to connect all the weird, impossible dots. In any case, recommended for those who enjoy some slightly older speculative fiction (the bits about 1980’s computers were cool) and who has the patience to piece together all the randomness this story offers.
Of note, since I recently reviewed the BBC rendition of this story: they aren’t even the same story. Like, at all. They can’t even be considered AUs of each other, since that would require at least some level of semblance. The only things they have in common are the name Dirk Gently–the character is completely different, despite the name–and the concept of everything being connected–the “holistic” thing. Other than that, characters, plots, everything is different, to the point that it’s possible to enjoy each completely without comparing them to each other . . . as long as you don’t go and try to make them fit, because they just won’t.
Status: Complete (3 books)
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Along with a group of fellow college students, you find yourself on a plane heading for a Caribbean island paradise. Sounds just about perfect, right? Only, before you even land, things begin to go awry. There’s an extra person on the plane, and no one can figure out which of you isn’t supposed to be here. A freak storm nearly causes your plane to crash. And when you arrive on the island, instead of a bustling tourist resort, you find . . . nobody. Eerie in the extreme, but also kind of tempting since you’ve got a huge resort stocked with food and booze, nice rooms, beaches and pools, and a fun group to hang out with. Only, how long can you have fun before the strangeness of the situation begins to have larger repercussions? And will you be able to find the clues you need and make the choices you have to in order to survive?
Endless Summer is another choose-your-own-adventure style visual novel that’s playable through the Choices app. And the first thing I have to say is, quite simply, play it. It’s a lot of fun, it’s well thought out, and it’s engaging. The art style is unique and in many places quite beautiful–especially the island scenery, of which there is a lot. This story is largely character driven, and they manage to create characters who are interesting and fun to interact with. Of note, a lot of what goes on in this story is driven by your relationships with the other characters, and those relationships are impacted by your prior choices. So choose wisely. The initial plot lands you on this seemingly deserted island with a group of fellow students, but the plot quickly spirals in an ever-expanding whirlpool of mysteries, time travel, strange people, and evil plots that somehow manages to remain unified and coherent in spite of the strange paths it takes. I also feel the need to note that this story is absolutely rife with geeky and pop-culture references–not that you can’t play without a good knowledge of these, but stuff is definitely going to go over your head. Personally, I thought this aspect of the character development was absolutely marvelous. The sole reason I don’t rate this visual novel a 5 of 5–and this is significant–is that a lot of major choices and story paths require diamonds (i.e. real money, in most instances). It’s possible to play, enjoy, and complete the story without spending any real cash–I did it and had a blast doing so. But you should know going in that there are lots of major things you just aren’t going to be able to do, or you should go ahead and purchase a set limit of diamonds before going in, if you choose to spend anything . . . otherwise the spending is just going to get out of hand. But despite that, I would highly recommend Endless Summer to anyone looking for a fun choose-your-own-adventure story that’s a bit off the beaten path.
Author: Christopher Keene
Dream State Saga, vol. 3
My rating: 4 of 5
Noah has made the difficult choice to work for Wona–the company he had believed responsible for his girlfriend Sue’s death as well as the deaths of several other individuals–in order to find those truly responsible and hopefully see justice done. But that choice has come with a cost as most of his friends in the Dream State now see him as having betrayed them . . . which he kind of deserves, actually. He’s trying to fight for the greater good and hope they come around eventually. Of course, working for Wona has its perks, too. Cushy living conditions and great pay IRL, position and privilege in-game–it’s not all bad. But things continue to get more complicated as players in the Dream State find themselves attacked by seemingly untraceable random attackers . . . especially when one of these Screamers, as they quickly become known, shows up wearing the face of Noah’s friend Chloe’s brother, one of several beta-testers who had previously disappeared. Now it’s up to Noah to bring together a functional team and figure out what’s going on and who is behind it all.
As with the first two Dream State books, I found Ghost in the Game to be a treat to read. Keene continues to impress with his world building, giving us a sweeping, imaginative view of the Dream State world in its many iterations. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I really think that his way of presenting the world and the way the characters interact with it in-game are not only one of his greatest strengths as an author, but it’s also some of the best I’ve read, period. It manages to be immersive, easily understood, and captivating. I really enjoyed that in this volume we move away somewhat from the revenge theme, getting into more mystery, adventure, and relationship building/repair. There’s definitely some intriguing plot going on, which is fun to read, and it’s nice to get more interpersonal development in this volume as well, especially with where Back in the Game left us. I’m still not sure about Noah’s way of looking at the whole situation, but after three volumes, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that he and I just think really differently about stuff . . . and it’s actually kind of neat to have a character that is developed enough that I can draw that kind of conclusion about him. I also quite enjoyed getting to see more of the characters IRL in this volume; combining both in-game and IRL character interactions seems to add a lot to the character development and really flesh Noah’s group out as individuals. I should mention, we get left with a bit of a cliffie, or at least with lots of room for plot development in future volumes, which I am looking forward to. I would recommend Ghost in the Game, particularly for gamers, cyberpunk fans, and LitRPG fans in particular.
NOTE: I received a free review copy of Back in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.