Author: Christopher Keene
Dream State Saga, vol. 4
My rating: 4 of 5
Noah’s team at Wona is coming together nicely–new name, cool new stuff to try out in-game. But not everything is settled and calm. As evidence arises that the Dream State beta-testers–including his girlfriend Chloe’s brother–may actually still be alive and held captive, Noah finds himself pulling together a team IRL to find them. And it seems likely that this dangerous mission will require all their skills (plus some fancy new gadgets) to pull off without losing even more of their friends.
Lost in the Game is a solid, enjoyable installment in this intriguing LitRPG series. I am again impressed by the world-building going on here, particularly when it comes to settings described in-game. And even though this volume is distinctly more focused on the real-life setting and plot, there are still some pretty awesome in-game moments–new skills that Noah gains which lead to insights into the Dream State’s ghost, dungeon crawls to dig for information on the missing beta-testers, even a big tournament with Siena the Blade. As with previous volumes, the descriptions of things in the game are immersive, detailed, and clear without bogging the story down unnecessarily; I truly admire how Keene pulls this off so seemingly effortlessly. Back in the real world, there’s some pretty intense mystery and intrigue developed as well, as Noah and his team attempt to track the missing beta-testers to an actual location. Things get . . . really real, more so than I was expecting, but it works, heightening the adventure and mystery, advancing the character development, and pushing the plot along. Again, as I’ve found in the other volumes of this series, Noah seems kind of calculating and perhaps even manipulative as a character; however, his character is well-written and consistent, and I find myself enjoying reading even while being concerned by his personal choices as a character at times. Lost in the Game, as well as the rest of the series, is a book I would definitely recommend, particularly to gamers and those who enjoy LitRPGs.
NOTE: I received a free review copy of Lost in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.
Producer: Choice of Games
Author: Logan Hughes
My rating: 3 of 5
Pull out your magnifying glass and get ready to solve some mysteries. Okay, okay, you’re way too cool for that old-fashioned magnifying glass stuff. But when mysteries start popping up around your school, you are exactly the person for the case.
Sixth Grade Detective is another text-based game along the lines of Choice of Robots, utilizing the same game engine–so no music or visuals, just a story that your choices influence, powered largely by your own imagination. I really love the concept and have greatly enjoyed other games in this vein. This particular one is pretty decent, although generally a bit simplistic. The mysteries aren’t particularly hard, and although your choices certainly influence how the game progresses, there isn’t so much of a branching plotline as in, say, Choice of Robots. You get more choices as to what your attitudes towards events and authority are, what kind of relationships you’re going to build, who you take to the dance . . . that sort of thing. Not a ton of replay value, though. I do have to say that this would make a great introduction to this sort of game for a younger player; I mean, the main character is a middle-schooler, the story’s generally fairly clean, and the challenge level is approachable for a beginner. So yes, Sixth Grade Detective wasn’t my favorite of this game set, but it was interesting and would be a good choice for kids.
You can find out more at Steam or Choice of Games website.
By Black Chicken Studios
My rating: 4 of 5
1930, New York City: Prohibition is in effect, and the Great Depression is making itself known across the country, but for wealthy heiress Scheherazade Keating (Sadie to her friends), other things are much more immediately important. Having just graduated valedictorian of her high school class, Sadie is ready to make her mark, embarking on a whirlwind college degree in archaeology that includes on-site work at a variety of digs around the world. Incidentally, she’s following in the footsteps of her parents, a pair of famous (now missing) archaeologists . . . . She’s also following a trail of clues that may (she hopes) lead to more information about what’s happened to her parents. And she’s not afraid to break a few rules of society if that’s what it takes.
How to describe Scheherazade . . . it’s honestly a pretty unique experience, although there are similarities to a lot of other stories and games in certain aspects. It definitely plays like a visual novel–nice backgrounds, music, character pics, text describing what’s happening, and choices for the player to make that influence how the story progresses. You could, I suppose, even compare it to an otome visual novel in some senses; there are certainly several romance paths that can be pursued, if desired. But it’s entirely possible to play with purely platonic relationships as well. I actually loved how much good friendships were a part of the story. Mechanically, the game is also almost a princess-maker sort of game in that you have to choose how to spend your time, different choices build different skills, and your skills influence how certain challenges resolve. There’s actually a good bit of challenge to the game mechanics if you really want to play to meet certain goals; however, there’s also an easy mode that basically lets you focus on the story. And Sadie’s story is pretty interesting in a pulp novel sort of way. She’s a very strong character, and an amusing one to read–even if her ridiculous wealth tends to make you forget how bad life is in the world at large for a lot of people. But then, she’s more ridiculous than even her wealth, getting caught up in chases, digging in the dirt, getting into arguments, and suchlike. And there are actually a lot of interactions with people of a variety of stations in life–lots of interesting relationships to build. On the whole, I really enjoyed playing Scheherazade and found it to be an interesting slice of an era as well as an exciting romp around the world and a fun exposition of a fascinating character.
Producer: Choice of Games
Author: Jim Dattilo
My rating: 3.5 of 5
You find yourself unexpectedly with the ability to stop time. Now, what will you do with your newfound ability? You could use it to save people in dangerous situations or you could profit from it. Or you could refuse to use this ability, uncertain as to what it all means and if it’s dangerous. And maybe it is; you certainly feel drained after using it much.
As with Choice of Robots, A Wise Use of Time is a purely text-based game that uses the same scripting language–so no pictures, no sound, just stuff to read and choices to make. And of course, stats and events that are affected by the choices you make. Personally, I enjoy this gameplay style, so that was fun for me; I’ll probably continue to seek out more games written in this script because I do enjoy it so much. The basic premise of A Wise Use of Time is also pretty interesting–not time travel or anything like that, but the ability to slow time so much that it appears stopped. That’s pretty cool. And you do get a good bit of customization at the beginning as far as who you want to be, your skills, your interests and such . . . but after the beginning, the choices are more limited. Or rather, you have a lot of choices, and they do affect people’s opinion of you and the outcomes of certain events, but for the most part, I feel like the general chain of events is pretty linear. Much more so that for Choice of Robots, in any case. That was kind of disappointing, especially with such a strong emphasis placed on 1) my job and 2) my roommate’s gambling problem. Not that those aren’t interesting issues to work through, but it would have been interesting to have a bit more branching of options. Still, this was an interesting game and one that I enjoyed. I should note that I played the Android version, but I’m pretty sure (based on what I’ve seen of their games in general) that the gameplay is identical regardless of platform.
Producer: Choice of Games
Author: Kevin Gold
My rating: 5 of 5
You may just be in postgraduate studies right now, crafting the initial designs for your first real robot, but you know your creations are destined for greatness. One way or the other, you’re going to impact the world. But will you be a humanitarian, training your robots to work with people and crafting them to be useful in the medical field? Or will you create robots that are useful for the military, regardless of the consequences? Or hey, your robots are intelligent enough, will you just give them their freedom and let them decide for themselves what sorts of beings they should become?
Okay, so first off, I’m hesitant to call Choice of Robots either a video game or a visual novel–but I don’t really have a good word for what it is other than those. This is an entirely text-based computer game, devoid of pictures or background music entirely. Sounds kind of boring, right? It’s totally not. This is an indie choices matter sort of game that is just fabulous, truly. It’s smart, for one thing; the writer has a Ph.D. in computer science, and it shows. It’s very well thought out and organized. The game is like a visual novel in that you read a block of text and are offered a variety of choices you can make based on that text. Your choices are meaningful, and even small choices can have a big impact on what happens later in the game. Choices also influence your stats (empathy, grace, autonomy, and military appeal for your robot, plus your own wealth and fame) as well as your relationships with various other characters. I can see this game as having a great deal of replay value due to the huge number of story paths available; I’ve played through it three times already, and have only unlocked a few of the possibilities. If you’re willing to look past the surface simplicity of such a purely text-based game, I think Choice of Robots is an excellent game, and I will be trying other games by this group.
Note: I played Choice of Robots through Steam, and you can find out more at the Steam store page or on the game’s credits page.
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.
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
In honor of the upcoming 2018 Nebula Awards, Humble Bundle is offering a rather brilliant selection of fabulous (including numerous award-winning) titles in speculative fiction, fantasy, and science fiction. We’ve got previous Nebula winners, Hugo Award winners, Philip K. Dick Award winners, and World Fantasy Award winners. There are a few repeats from previous humble bundles, yes, but there are a lot more titles that I haven’t seen featured here before, including a couple of Jane Yolen novels I’ve been planning to get which, personally, make the bundle worth it in their own right. If you’re interested, you can find out more here.
In other news, Humble Store is having their big spring sale, which means lots of great games at deep discounts. Seriously, some of this stuff is up to 90% off right now. I found Hakuouki: Kyoto Winds for $8.99! Plus, there are some free games thrown in if you spend certain amounts. Again, if interested, check out the Humble Store at https://www.humblebundle.com/store.
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.
For anyone who’s interested, Humble Bundle currently has a graphic novel bundle that looks potentially interesting. I’m not really that familiar with any of the titles, but some of them look like they have potential. In any case, they’re supposedly “fan favorites,” for what that’s worth. If you’re interested, you can find out more at https://www.humblebundle.com/books/fan-favorite-graphic-novels.
Also, Humble Bundle is having their big Winter Sale in the Humble Store, so there are a lot of games on sale there that might be worth checking out.