A Thousand Words: Undertale

Undertale

It’s the 5th anniversary of Undertale , the cult classic indie RPG/homage to Earthbound. It’s hard to really explain, because in some ways it’s a victim of its own success. There was a yo-yo of crazed fandom and understandable backlash. People know the plot twists now.

When I first played, I didn’t, and I could appreciate what it delivered, and what’s been lost. So yeah, I know it’s a five year old game now and has been successful, but I’m going to be spoilering it all.

You control a deliberately androgynous-looking child (I thought the sprite looked more feminine) as they fall, Alice-in-Wonderland style, into a sealed-off world of goofy monsters. The battle system is an action-RPG hybrid where you can move around on a screen to avoid attacks.

What works is how it works with the expectation of it being a normal RPG. Basically, I thought “You don’t have to destroy anything” was just a sardonic comment like Postal 2’s “only as violent as you are”. Flowey, the psychotic flower-beast, is basically a “lolmeta-lolgoofyIkillforfun”… at first. When I first battled Toriel, the overprotective monster-mother, I was convinced that reducing her to zero HP would just trigger some kind of cutscene, and that she’d be fine. (She wasn’t).

To date, one of my absolute best video game moments comes from fighting the dogs. Now, they’re portrayed as little more than normal enemies and not the most special, so I deal with them. Then I go into the town and they ask where the dogs were and how good they were and wonder what happened to them and I go…

“Oh.” (gulp)

That’s why I haven’t personally played the game since my one violent neutral route. In many way it’s still a short, cheap, simple indie game, and the magic just wouldn’t be there if I knew what was happening.

Even with the blind run, the game had some down parts. The Hotland area is execrably bad, being a combination of the same lame social media joke, an extremely annoying character, and puzzles just hard enough to annoying but not complex enough to be fun. I felt like I had to stagger through-then came the finale.

Even with full hindsight, I can say this-the finale, whatever route, is the highlight of the game. Part of this, I believe, is that it plays everything straight and goes for legitimate gravitas. The best fiction, even the kind that’s often silly, knows when to be earnest, and the conclusions of Undertale count as that.

It’s still good-the music and art are both excellent, and the mechanics, while simple, aren’t bad by any means. Undertale definitely deserves its success. It’s just that I think it was at its absolute best when you didn’t know what to expect-and I was fortunate enough to play it that way.

Review: Supercell

Supercell

A tale of FBI agents hunting prisoners who escaped after a weather disaster, Douglas Dorow’s Supercell cannot be mistaken for anything except a light literary snack. And it’s not the “healthiest” literary snack, being a pure cheap thriller. But it is a tasty snack.

Independent publishing pretty much saved the “lightweight novella”. A long time ago, something like this could have been released by a large publisher, likely under a house name. Now, it’s the sort of thing that’s the purview of independent authors. And that enables works like this to flourish again.

Review: Kirov Season 6

Kirov Season 6

So, I’m FINALLY caught up with the entire Kirov series as of now, a feat of great effort even for me. The Season 6 “Next War” arc is, with hindsight, one of the weakest in the series. Unfortunately for me, it was the first arc I encountered. The second of four World War IIIs depicted in the series (this has to be some kind of record), it follows the World War II mega-arc.

In terms of actual writing, the individual books aren’t any worse than other Kirovs. The problem is its comparative mundanity. It’s one of the most recent examples I’ve seen of the “Captain Beefheart playing normal music” effect. It’s a contemporary World War III. Apart from a few half-hearted hypotheticals here and there, the only really substantive addition is a bigger Russian Navy, and that seems there just to have repeated large sea battles at all.

As for the time travel soap opera, there isn’t that much there. The war starts because Tyrenkov, a time traveler from the 1940s went forward , seized control of contemporary Russia, misinterpreted a possible future where he won as a definite future, and then started the war. Between that and the fetching of more of the time-keys (obvious plot MacGuffins), this is pretty restricted. About the only redeeming part there is the (sadly too small) presence of Ivan Volkov, the closest thing the series has to a primary non-historical antagonist. Volkov is a cross between a puppy-kicking supervillain and a crazy schemer who’s a lot less smart than he thinks he is, and remains my favorite character in the series. While there is some Volkov, there isn’t enough.

The only other new characterization is Tyrenkov, after fleeing to the ship as the war spirals out of control, being forgiven far too easily for my liking. The rest of the main cast stays the way they’ve always been, and they’re swamped by the shallow Steel Panthers Characters.

Otherwise, it’s a mixture of being restrained by semi-realistic orders of battle, cover ground that lots of other wargames have gone over, and, worst, having the contemporary setting give the author a justification to er, opine. It’s not the worst, but it’s still an issue the less “connected” installments didn’t have. It also feels-redundant, going over similar ground that the initial World War III in the books 4-8 arc did (to the point where I not unreasonably thought it was the exact same war), and having the same outcome (nuclear destruction and the ship timeshifting away).

Thankfully, the series improves significantly in the next arc, as a World War III in the altered reality created by the ship’s intervention in World War II allows the “wargame sandbox effect” to really flourish in a way it doesn’t here. Season 6 itself has all the weaknesses of the Kirov series as a whole and very few of the strengths. I’ve compared the series to an overly literalist lets play of an RPG. If that’s the case, this is the dungeon you always disliked.

Review: Trigger Point

Trigger Point

The first book in the Gabriel Wolfe series of thrillers, Trigger Point is a novel saved from “51%” mush by its bizarre plot. The title character is a conventional cheap thriller protagonist to a fault. Of course he’s an SAS veteran. Of course he’s haunted by the man he had to leave behind. Thankfully, this is the genre where it isn’t that much of an issue.

That being said, the bigger problem is the execution, with the action scenes and prose coming across as subpar. Another huge problem is that the plot takes a weird turn, with the antagonist being an ultra-connected billionaire plotting to take over Britain in a coup-and yet he has to rely on pathetic American hicks for the weapons-and mundane weapons at that in the form of heavy machine guns in use for a very long time. It’s this weird zigzagging between too big and too small.

Still, in an incredibly crowded genre, there’s just better books out there.

Review: Rhinelander

Rhinelander

After 31 (!) books, the World War II arc of the Kirov series concludes in Rhinelander. This is what I’ve been reading for the last month as the latest long, sequential series that I had a weird craving for. This book continues the time travel adventures which grow steadily more convoluted and more obviously a way to set up wargame sandboxes.

It also focuses on an alternate World War II where the initial Allied invasion of France came from the south and there were different tanks (including timeshifted modern ones on both sides) and… lots of changes. Much of it is reminiscent of the final battles on the historical western front, only moved up a year. A sort of “mini-Bulge” is conducted as one of the set pieces.

There was no real way that this lummox could conclude gracefully, so it gets a quick brute-force ending with a lot of exposition to smooth things over for the next timeshift and arc, a contemporary World War III that got the series to my attention in the first place. I was nonetheless content with it, and not just because the Kirov series defies normal critical scaling. Especially knowing the nature of the series and the state of the war at this point, having several books of nothing but the Allies advancing without truly serious opposition would not be ideal.

Review: The Bear Marches West

The Bear Marches West

A short, small, and simple compilation, Russell Phillips’ The Bear Marches West is a list of prospective wargame scenarios made out of the three most iconic 1980s conventional World War III novels: Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and Red Army.

The book itself is basic: You get a listing of forces, a listing of the situation, and that’s essentially it. This is so that it doesn’t get tied to any one rules system. For enabling reenactments of scenes in the classics, this book works well enough, although anyone who knows 198X WWIII wargaming (not exactly an underused or underexplored area) should likely be able to do something similar with just a bit of knowledge. Still, it’s an inexpensive novelty, and it would be interesting to see what ruleset generates results closest to what actually transpired in the original novels.

Review: Altered States

Altered States

The ninth Kirov book, Altered States, is where the series really starts to hit its stride. By Schettler’s own admission, the response to the question of “should I write about the missile cruiser’s later adventures or an alternate World War II where the German surface fleet was bigger?” was “Yes.” And he was glad to oblige, combining the cruiser soap opera with a huge naval battle in a location I haven’t seen in a while-the GIUK gap.

(There’s a Kirov, but there’s not any Backfires or Aegis cruisers or F-14s. It’s like my original vision of Fuldapocalypse mixed with what the blog later became)

This sets the stage for the giant wargame sandbox/time travel soap opera that the rest of the series would become. Not quickly or even the most effectively, but it still does. I’ll admit that the “alternate sandbox” approach is my own favorite way of wargaming, which is why I’ve grown fonder of the series. I’ve found later, similar installments in a series hard to review, and this is one of them. But still, this is where it really clicks into place.

Review: Neptune Island

Neptune Island

The first in the “Lincoln Monk” series (how’s that for a protagonist name) by Tony Reed, Neptune Island is a delight to read. One of the biggest problems with trying to find good cheap thrillers is that the cover and even the blurb alone can’t easily tell whether a book is going to be good or bad.

That being said, this book of a Cheap Thriller Protagonist (capital-that’s how blatant it is), a supervillain billionaire, a superweapon, a beautiful biathelete, and a giant mutant crab is the most fun I’ve had reading a thriller in some time. It’s the kind of book that tosses every sort of “restraint” and “realism” aside in favor of ridiculous spectacle, and it’s great fun, especially after a period of more serious and sedate works.

It’s amazing, and is the kind of book that’s a delight to find. Sure it’s “implausible” and there’s a lot of contrivances, but those are small potatoes. The action is great, the setup is great, it manages to have very good buildup (which I’ve found is surprisingly rare among cheap thrillers), and the whole thing is just incredibly goofy-and really, really fun.

Review: Pacific Storm

Pacific Storm

The Kirov series is over fifty books long and counting. But the third entry, Pacific Storm, was planned as a potential stopping point, according to the introduction of a later entry. And while I normally criticize series from Jack Ryan to the Survivalist for passing good opportunities to conclude, it’s for the best that this one sailed right by it.

After having fought through the Mediterranean in the second book, the missile cruiser battles in the Pacific in the third. Besides the issues with the prose, the encounters fall short because the disparity between World War II ships that don’t know what they’re dealing with and a futuristic warship that does means that all the battles have to be contrived in some fashion. Pretty much the only things that work are various surprise gimmicks, close range, and pure numbers, and that’s barely enough to sustain a three-book series.

The ending still involves sequel hooks, but features the ship going back to its present with its crew having realized they started the (nuclear) World War III by firing on an American submarine. When they see the submarine after their “excursion”, they avoid attacking it. Meanwhile, their experiences have changed the “past” significantly. This would be a perfectly good conclusion that still gave room to continue, but it would have concluded three stilted, modestly out-there books. Instead, the series got bigger, more complicated, and, yes, better.

Review: If It Bleeds

If It Bleeds

A collection of short stories featuring the infamous Predator alien hunters, If It Bleeds is the first anthology I’ve reviewed on Fuldapocalypse. From ancient history to futuristic fighting rings, the Predators come to hunt.

In many ways, these aliens are ideal crossover/setting shifters. A combination of a sense of (comparative) self-restraint and a desire for (by their standards) a “fair” fight mean they can be put almost anywhere, and they are. Compare this with the other half of the “Alien vs. Predator” franchise. The xenomorphs are one-dimensional and will inevitably either devour everything or get crushed themselves.

The various writers take advantage of this to bring about various “prey”. For the most part, they’re successful. However, there’s a few small issues. The first is that the stories that go for some kind of mystery don’t work because you know what the anthology features. The second is that there is no story where Theodore Roosevelt fights a Predator.

Otherwise, this is a very fun group of stories that any science fiction or action fan should enjoy.