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.

A Thousand Words: Waterworld

Waterworld

Guns N’ Roses November Rain is widely recognized as the final, out-with-a-bang entry of the musical niche known as the “power ballad.” Kevin Costner’s infamous Waterworld kind of feels like the movie version of this. Of all the movies labeled the worst ever, this deserves it the least in hindsight-though it’s perhaps fitting, since critics never cared much for hair metal anyway.

The plot and setting make no sense, and the acting is nothing special, barring Dennis Hopper’s typically hammed-up villain. But what this movie offers is spectacle. Before CGI truly came along and money became tighter, the huge practical effects epic had to have one final giant push. And in the form of the evil ski-jumpers, hamfisted environmentalism (from a movie that had to make a giant, inevitably polluting, artificial island in its production), and piles of (oil-burning) pyrotechnics, it succeeded.

This movie can’t really be considered “good”, but I had a lot of fun watching it.

Review: Firedrake

As of now the most recent book in the Kirov series, Firedrake combines the worst and best of it all. The worst is that all of the structural problems are still there and that the wargame lets play structure is beginning to wear thin, especially with the foreshadowing that this particular timeline is getting erased/destroyed. The best is, well….

The best is that plot points involve the ship transported to a bleak, dark, empty world where only hostile mechanized drones roam the seas and skies (was it Skynet or Yawgmoth that was responsible? :p ). Then it moves into another timeline courtesy of supervillain Ivan Volkov, where a Third World War (the fourth in the series) is about to begin, one where Japan won the second thanks to Volkov giving them nuclear bombs.

The Kirov series is best when it wargames out drastically changed situations, and that is the case in half of Firedrake. The other half is wargame action as usual.

Review: The Seventh Secret

The Seventh Secret

One of those “just a little bit more highbrow than the mushiest mush” popular fiction authors, Irving Wallace had The Seventh Secret as one of his later books. This is an entry in a subgenre that can best be described as “HITLER LIVED!”, the kind of “secret history” book that embodies a trope that probably started the moment the war ended.

This book has a lot of detail that’s basically higher-brow versions of “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL”. It has Wallace’s reputation for sleaze come across as well. While this sort of thing is common among cheap thrillers, it’s a little bit worse here. Yet the book manages to flow well in spite of these, to his legitimate credit. It also has surprisingly good buildup.

Yet the book ultimately comes across as, weirdly, both too bizarre and too mundane at the same time. Part of this is the very premise. Part of it is a comparative lack of action, with only a handful of humdrum fight scenes. The biggest part, and one that takes away from the effective buildup, is that there really isn’t that much of a villainous plot, expecting the audience to take “HITLER LIVED” as awe-inspiring enough by itself. Still, this was a satisfactory book.

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: 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: Red Army

Red Army

So I actually haven’t done a formal review of Ralph Peters’ masterpiece Red Army on this blog yet. I think I should, because well, it’s my clear choice for “best conventional World War III book of all time.” It has fewer competitors for that title than I originally thought when I first read it, but still manages to stay above them.

The story of a conventional WW3 in 198X, the book jumps between the perspectives of various Soviets as they carry out the war. One of the best “big war thrillers” at managing the viewpoint jumps, it never feels awkward or clunky in that regard. The characterization is very good, especially by the standards of the genre. And it works very well at avoiding an excessive focus on technology.

Of course, Peters has the Soviets win, and thus deserves extra credit for going against the tide. At the time the book was published, there was a (justifiable) sense of increasing triumphalism. Having them win and win handily was a good move. Especially since it doesn’t come across as being done for cheap shock value.

There’s a few sour parts. While the viewpoint jumping is good, the two messages of “humanize the Soviets” and “show how they can beat NATO” sometimes don’t work well, especially as the latter means characters done just to explain things (granted, as someone who’s read the translated Voroshilov Lectures and similar materials for fun, I understand it in ways a casual reader at the time almost certainly wouldn’t). There’s criticism of how the Soviets advance too fast, which is valid but which I consider a mild issue, no worse than Team Yankee’s similar problem with lopsidedness. My biggest complaint is how the situation is set up to let the Americans almost entirely off the hook for NATO’s defeat.

But these are small problems at most. Red Army is an excellent book, and I have no problem considering it my favorite “Conventional WW3” novel of all time. And it has one of my favorite book covers ever.

Review: The Ninth Dominion

The Ninth Dominion

The second, and as of now last book in the Jared Kimberlain series, Jon Land’s The Ninth Dominion is a par-for-the-course crazy ridiculous action-adventure book. By the standards of classic Jon Land novels, it has some issues. While it doesn’t help that its immediate predecessor was arguably his most ridiculous (in a good way) novel yet, there’s issues beyond this.

It’s a little less crazy. Beyond that, the biggest issue is that it doesn’t take full advantage of its almost Batman-esque premise of the craziest and most dangerous serial killers escaping. The prose and pacing are a little below Land’s height.

That being said, it still has all the strengths of a Jon Land thriller, and I still enjoyed it significantly. By the standards of more mundane thrillers, it’s quite goofy indeed. Its flaws are not deal-breakers by any measure, and there’s no shame in falling slightly short of a very high bar.

Review: I Jedi

I, Jedi

Michael Stackpole’s I, Jedi may be my favorite Star Wars novel ever. It’s also a book that has absolutely no business being as good as it is. After all, Stackpole is a writer who isn’t the best prose-wise and tends to take game mechanics literally. Corran Horn, his protagonist, is the ur-example of someone parachuting their own Mary Sue into an existing franchise. The first part of the book uses the same plot as a book by the infamously subpar Kevin J. Anderson.

And yet, it somehow works brilliantly. Part of it is that Stackpole’s writing is in better form than usual, in everything from starfighter battles where Corran fights his old teammates and can sense their thought processes to everyday life on a backwater world. Another part of it is that by being small-scale and comparably low-stakes, it manages to actually make the universe look bigger and more wondrous.

Stackpole’s epic might be helped along by the other books of the time, which tended to have a random ex-Imperial using the superweapon of the week and an inappropiately small number of Star Destroyers to threaten the entire galaxy. But even on its own, it works. It embodies the “distant vista” principle, restores a sense of awe, and just succeeds as a story in its own right.