Author: Christopher Keene
Dream State Saga, vol. 2
My rating: 4 of 5
Noah is gradually recovering from the car crash that killed his girlfriend and left him fighting for his life in the virtual reality world of the Dream State. But he’s got unfinished business with Wona, the creators of the game and the company responsible for orchestrating the crash to begin with. Somewhere in the Dream State is an item encoded with video evidence that could put Wona out of business, make them take responsibility for what they’ve done. To get this item, though, Noah must return to the game where he was previously trapped, reunite with his old team members, and race to find this item before someone else does . . . except, when he gets back to the Dream State, he finds that someone already has.
I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Stuck in the Game, and I think that Back in the Game is a solid continuation of the story. The author does some really great stuff with the setting, focusing less on explaining the mechanics of the game (which you should already know from the first book) and more just letting the game setting affect the way things play out in the story. There are aspects of the story that just couldn’t work in any other setting, and there are also some really neat ideas and nuances that are developed here that I liked a lot–the way that leveling, items, and spells affect the battles or the wide variety of locations, for instance. That said, the type of story presented here is actually pretty different from that of the first book; Stuck in the Game is more of a survival story, whereas Back in the Game is much more revenge-focused. It works, and I enjoyed the plot, but I think I personally like the story-type of Stuck in the Game a bit better–but that’s just me. Also, not to give out too many spoilers, but I felt very personally betrayed by one character in the story . . . and I’m intrigued to see how that betrayal will end up playing out in future volumes. I did enjoy getting a variety of character perspectives throughout the book; they were balanced out quite well and provided some interesting insight into the various players. Overall I think Back in the Game would be an enjoyable read for anyone interested in LitRPG stories, light novels, video games, or cyberpunk/fantasy/sci-fi stories in general.
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 post.
Created by Desert Owl Games & Universal Studios
My rating: 4.5 of 5
An old woman sits by the fireside, telling fairy tales to the children sitting at her feet. Tales of great happenings, like the invasion of the snow queen Freya and her armies. And tales of things smaller but perhaps of no less import. Like the tale of Elizabeth, a young woman who took up her father’s sword after his death and went out into the wilds to seek her missing brothers. Or Marcus, the man she meets in the woods who insists upon accompanying her but keeps many secrets. Perhaps, in the end, all the old woman’s tales are really just a part of a greater story.
The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse is an American visual novel that incorporates a card battle system into the gameplay. It’s a bit different–usually you get one or the other–but in this particular setting it works remarkably well. I should go ahead and say that I’m pretty sure this visual novel is connected to a movie (or movies) which I have never seen. I’m coming at this review purely from having played the game, so if you’ve seen the movie, your perception of the game may be markedly different. . . . I don’t know. Just playing the game, it’s clear that this is very intentionally made to appeal to the largest possible audience–which is both good and bad. Bad in that you don’t get all sorts of fun indie/nerdy jokes and references like you do in games like Impossible Quest. Good in that the gameplay is really polished. Seriously, the card battles are just challenging enough (but if you die, you get another chance, and another), the story flows well with some choices (all of which eventually lead you back to the same story path), and the balance between story and card battles is so natural feeling that it had to have been carefully researched. In other words, this visual novel would be playable even to those who aren’t particularly used to gaming, and it’s got enough variety to be interesting even to those who don’t like to sit still for visual novels. Also, the story is interesting, if a bit predictable, and the art is pretty, although a bit to Disney-esque in the character design for my taste. As a plus, although the game is technically rated teen, I think it’s fairly appropriate for ages 10 or 11 and up–there’s fantasy-style fighting, but it’s fairly clean and appropriate for the most part. All in all, I think The Huntsman: Winter’s Curse is an enjoyable and playable visual novel/game that should appeal to a wide variety of players (although not perhaps to hardcore gamer types). Definitely worth a try.
Note: On the topic of giving the story a try, you can find it on Steam or on the game’s own website. On Steam (where I played) it’s listed as free to play . . . which it is for the first chapter out of five. So fair warning, you can try out the game for free (and there’s enough there to really get a feel for whether you want to play more), but if you decide to play the entire game, it’s about $18 for the whole thing.
Author: Yuu Kamiya/Translator: Daniel Komen
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Urban legends speak of a gamer with an impossible record of zero losses, a player who goes simply by “ ” or Blank. What the legends miss is that Blank is actually two players, a brother and sister pair who are as awful at real life as they are amazing at games. So when the two get sucked into a world where everything is decided by playing games of one sort or another, Sora and Shiro don’t do the expected and try to get home. They set their sights on the throne!
I really enjoyed reading No Game No Life, but I have to admit rather mixed feelings when looking at the light novel objectively. There are some things about it that are really well done and interesting; others, not so much. The concept, for instance, is brilliant–an alternate world with a fantasy flair that’s run entirely on games rather than wars and such is just remarkable. And the characters that Kamiya chose to stick in this setting are just perfect–I seriously think Sora and Shiro as a pair are about the most interesting characters you could possibly choose for this setting both because of the dynamic between them (which is intriguing in itself) and because of their mindset when it comes to games. The overall writing style is pretty average, I’d say typical for a light novel if not stellar. And I’m not even going to complain about the fanservice because 1) No Game No Life is just that kind of story, and if you want to totally avoid the fanservice, you’ll have to avoid this sort of story entirely, and 2) the fanservice in this volume is actually not that bad. What did bother me in that regard is the mild lolicon/incestuous verbal insinuations that were scattered throughout–they never amount to anything, but they’re kind of creepy still. Also, the fact that Sora uses a command that can’t be disobeyed to make a girl love him is kind of wrong, even though the author makes a point to show all sorts of ways the girl could have gotten around the command without directly disobeying. (And I know, I’m making this sound like a totally hentai story. It really isn’t that bad; I just feel the need to point out these parts since they bothered me personally.) The other notable negative is that at points (whether this is the original style or a mistake on the translator’s part, I’m not sure), the text is a series of somewhat disconnected phrases posing as sentences. . . . You can understand what’s going on, but it kind of catches you off guard and looks weird. But in spite of the negatives listed above, I would recommend No Game No Life for anyone looking for a fantasy/gamer light novel (who doesn’t mind some ecchiness); I’m planning to continue reading the series in any case.
Developed by Axel Sonic/Published by OtakuMaker Studio
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Interested in a quirky text-based game filled with wacky humor, snark, and tons of geeky references? Impossible Quest might be just the game for you. In this choose-your-own-adventure game, you are given a text cue and must select from three possible choices to advance through the game. . . . Actually, that sounds kind of boring. If you don’t take into account the hilarity of some of your possible choices, the 100+ possible endings, the frequency of your demise, and the probability of at some point meeting zombies, Nyan Cat, or Doctor Who.
I have really enjoyed playing Impossible Quest, as weird as it may sound. It is a weird game, and it will appeal strongly to certain people while others will likely hate it–it’s just that sort of game. Still, it’s well worth a try (especially at $1.99 on Steam). It has had me laughing, dying, and repeating quite enjoyably. The dying . . . reminds me significantly of Long Live the Queen in that you die, try something different, get a bit further, and die again, having fun even while being infuriated. And the endings themselves are kind of funny in a snarky way. Hey, there are even a few endings in which you survive and escape. Also, the geekiness must be mentioned. Your initial scenarios are A) a dungeon where you may meet trolls, mermaids, and a talking walrus, B) a plane trip complete with zombies and flying cars, and C) a spaceship with most of the usual suspects for that sort of scenario present at one point or another. So yeah, geekiness in the basic setting, but also inserted wherever possible in the text options as well. Very fun! I know Impossible Quest won’t be for everyone, but I would strongly encourage those with geeky leanings to at least give it a try.
Author: Christopher Keene
My rating: 4.5 of 5
Noah and his girlfriend Sue find themselves increasingly concerned and frustrated as they seem to be losing their friends to the new VR game Dream Engine. But when the two are involved in a terrible car crash, Dream Engine becomes Noah’s only link to reality and consciousness as the doctors in the real world work to help him heal. Noah finds himself trapped in an astonishingly realistic virtual reality world–complete with monsters that could kill him in-game and send him into a coma in real life.
I very much enjoyed reading Stuck in the Game. It appeals to the gamer in me, but also to my love of sci-fi and fantasy stories. I know the concept of being trapped in a VR game is not exactly original (think Sword Art Online), but I do think that Keene’s use of the idea was both creatively and interestingly executed. Also, the whole idea of using VR in medicine–cyberpunk, original, and thought-provoking from both a scientific and an ethical standpoint! The balance of game mechanics and descriptions against Noah’s very human plight works. I actually really enjoyed both the characters and the plot; both were quite engaging. I do have to note that this book would be . . . not necessarily inaccessible for non-gamers, but more challenging for them to get into perhaps. The writing style flows well and is easy to follow, however; the writing style has almost the feel of a good-quality light novel. I would definitely recommend Stuck in the Game, especially for gamers and those who love science fiction and fantasy adventures.
Note 1: I received a free review copy of Stuck in the Game from Future House Publishing in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this post.
Note 2: You can check out the author’s blog (including more information about this book) at fantasyandanime.wordpress.com.
My rating: 5 of 5
You all know the story, right? A young, orphaned noblewoman oppressed by her evil stepmother and stepsisters until her fairy godmother steps in, saves the day, and gives the girl the opportunity to meet Prince Charming. But what if none of it is that simple? What if Cinders’ stepmother and stepsisters are more than just evil oppressors? What if there’s a chance to really be a family? What if there are other people involved, other secrets to uncover? And what if Cinders decides to take matters into her own hands and decide her own fate?
Cinders is such a great visual novel! It takes the classic fairy tale and utterly transforms it in an amazing way. The creators describe it as a “mature” version of the story, and it’s definitely that–but not in the sketchy way that might seem to imply. Rather, it’s mature in the sense that choices have consequences and people are complex individuals. I think the characters are some of the best, most developed ones I’ve ever seen in a visual novel. There are so many different facets of their personalities, and even the unlikable ones (like Cinders’ stepmother) have a depth that is unusual. Cinders herself is a far cry from the typical stereotyped “Cinderella” character–fiery red hair, determined self-confidence, and a witty tongue complement the dreamier side of her character, making her a rich, enjoyable character to role-play. And there is a good deal of role-playing and decision-making involved in this visual novel, with the choices you make significantly influencing the ending you get and what you encounter along the way (although of course, there are numerous set events along the way as well). I found it interesting that the creators put in a small, tasteful indicator in one corner to show the places you could have a different outcome if you chose differently (it popped up a lot). The music and art add a lot to this visual novel as well, with the art being particularly notable. It takes a more western semi-realistic style (as opposed to the anime-styled art of many visual novels), and the work is really quite beautiful. There’s so much attention to detail that I found myself pausing just to stare at the scenes and take it all in–colors, expressions, fashions, even subtle animations on flames and such. For those who enjoy visual novels–or who just enjoy a great retelling–Cinders is an excellent game that I would highly recommend.
Credits: Game & Story by Tom Grochowiak/Art by Gracjana Zielinska/Music by Rob Westwood/Writing by Hubert Sobecki, Agnieszka Mulak, & Ayu Sakata
Note: Cinders is available on Steam, and you can find more information at the official MoaCube website. One play-through took me about 3 hours, and the game definitely has replay value, with at least 4 distinct endings available.
By Twelve Tiles
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Bowtie-sporting photographer Whitty Gawship finds herself invited to a wine-tasting party at Sommerhaus, the estate of Professor Chet Chatters. Also attending are leading members of some of the most elite, well-spoken members of St. Lauden society. Actually, Whitty finds their piercing “discourse” somewhat intimidating, although she does pick up some interesting gossip and befriend Seymour, the young master of Saymore house. But in the midst of their socializing, the guests find themselves interrupted by the voice of their (previously absent) host projecting from an unusual device on the wall–a voice that declares Professor Chatters’ intention to keep them all there while he tests his new device on them. Now Whitty must develop her own skills at discourse if she is to successfully unravel what’s going on and how to escape.
Last Word might be the most unique RPG I have ever played. It’s an RPGMaker game, and has the basic controls and such that you’d expect from such. But the entire course of gameplay (which took me about 4 hours to complete) takes place in a small collection of interconnecting rooms, and the majority of the game is social interaction between characters. You explore, gossip with the other guests, and learn about new topics, constantly expanding your perspective on what’s going on and learning some interesting history in the process (well, history of St. Lauden, not actual history, but still). One of the most interesting facets of the game is the “combat” sequences. To advance through the game, you have to engage in “discourse” with various individuals (and you’ll probably have to do it more to level up enough to succeed on the actual target individuals). The actual mechanics of this discourse are pretty interesting, but quite manageable to grasp as well. My one real complaint about the game is that it is voiced–but not with people saying the words, just with a series of “hems” and “haws” that gets really old after the first two minutes of gameplay. Still, on the whole if you’re looking for a different take on the PC RPG, I think Last Word has a lot to offer.
NOTE: Last Word is available on Steam, and you can also find out more about the game on Twelve Tiles’ website.