A creativity blog - including reviews, photographs and discussion on a variety of things; such as dragons and other things almost but not quite completely entirely unlike tea.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Gardens of the Moon

"Now these ashes have grown cold, we open the old book.
These oil-stained pages recount the tales of the Fallen,
a frayed empire, words without warmth. The hearth
has ebbed, its gleam and life's sparks are but memories
against dimming eyes - what cast my mind, what hue my
thoughts as I open the Book of the Fallen,
and breathe deep the scent of history?
Listen, then, to these words carried on that breath.
These tales are the tales of us all, again yet again.
We are history relived and that is all, without end that is all."

Gardens of the Moon is the opening novel in Steven Erikson's 10-volume fantasy series Malazan Book of the Fallen. The book is set for the most part on the continent of Genabackis, where the Onearm's Host, a Malazan army led by High Fist Dujek Onearm, wages war of conquest against the city state of Pale, planning to advance next towards the gem of Genabackis, Darujhistan. The story recounts the fall of Pale and the efforts of the splinter group sent to Darujhistan to undermine the defences of the city, as well as the daily life and opposition of the Malazans posed by some important characters of Darujhistan nobility and low-life alike. Another important part is played by the imperial inner politics, the aim of which is to weaken those loyal to the old Emperor and to install the current Empress' trusted officials in positions of power. Apart from these all there are the mysterious Tiste Andii, who have taken upon themselves to oppose the advance of the Malazan conquest, though they themselves are without a land to call their own; as well as machinations of two newly instated gods among the pantheons, who possess a strange hatred towards the Empire and, in most part, Empress Laseen.

The prologue of the novel seems at first glance a simple premonition of things to come - a young boy, dreaming of becoming a soldier, is standing on the battlement of Mock's Hold, the keep on Malaz Island where it all supposedly began for the Malazan empire: "once capital to the Empire but now, since the mainland had been conquered, relegated once more to a Fist's holding" (p 3). He is staring out to the sea and is soon joined by two veterans of the war - identified by their crest as Bridgeburners, who were the old Emperor's élite soldiers. These three are soon joined by a woman who exchanges words with older of the men - these are remarked upon by the young Ganoes Paran with awe, as he can recognize them as the most influential people in the whole Empire, after the Emperor Kellanved and his right hand, Dancer themselves. The words they exchange now feel meaningless to the reader, but after getting acquainted with the backstory of it all, as it were, it becomes clear that at this time the Emperor and his companion have already disappeared and the throne stands empty. It is later explained, though the reader will know nothing of this in a long, long while, that there were two candidates people whose claim of the throne people were likely to support, and it is these characters that join Ganoes Paran on the battlement of Mock's Hold, which makes this scene a much more powerful opening for the novel in retrospect.

'One day I'll be a soldier,' Ganoes said.
The man grunted. ' Only if you fail at all else, son. Taking up the sword is the last act of desperate men. Mark my words and find yourself a more worthy dream.'
'The world,' Ganoes said, 'doesn't need another wine-merchant.'

Beginning of Book One takes the reader on the coast of the Malazan conquered mainland, to a small fisher village that is massacred by two mysterious figures commanding huge, black hounds. This scene is then viewed by the now-grown-up Ganoes Paran, a corporal of Malazan army, who catches the eye of the Adjunct Lorn, aide to the Empress Laseen. Most things set in motion within this scene unravel only much later in the book, as the main point of Book One involves the Genabackan campaign. The victory at Pale is devastating to Onearm's Host, killing of soldiers both as tunnels dug below the city wall collapse as well as collateral damage when the army's mages take on the Lord of Tiste Andii, who has moved their flying fortress to stand guard over the city of Pale. Eventually though the city falls and in the course of the battle the reader is introduced to the main characters of half the novel: Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his Bridgeburners; Corporal Kalam, the squad mage Quick Ben, healer Mallet, the sappers Fiddler and Hedge as well as their new recruit, a female assassin Sorry. Other important characters are some of the high ranking mages with the Host, including the Imperial High Mage Tayschrenn, as well as high mages Tattersail and Hairlock. Also arriving after the fall of the city is the newly promoted Captain Paran, who comes with orders to take command of the Bridgeburners. It is to be noted that the series has lots of characters, most of whom are introduced in one book and are given a much more important role in another - this is true of both the High Mage Tayschrenn, who in Gardens of the Moon is introduced rather one-sidedly, as of Captain Paran's escort, Toc the Younger, who is both a soldier of the Host and a Claw, an imperial assassin and spy.

After the victory at Pale, the command begins to plan the assault to Darujhistan, with schemes and planning occurring also on a lower level - the Bridgeburners are afraid of the Empire's plans for them and try to convince their commander of it, while making plans to prevent or at least retaliate against it at the same time - this plot is mainly carried on by the mage Quick Ben and his friend Kalam, as well as the crude and unruly mage Hairlock who also has schemes of his own. Tattersail is pulled into these machinations both through Hairlock and Quick Ben, as well as through Captain Paran, whom she watches over as he miraculously heals after an assassination attempt. Captain Paran fails to take command of the Bridgeburners, as he is still recovering while the company is moved on to Darujhistan and joins them in the blue city afterwards.

Meanwhile, in the city of Darujhistan, a young thief has fallen in love with a noble's daughter. Crokus Younghand goes about his daily life and battles his emotions and aspirations - sharing his burden with his friends at Phoenix Inn: Kruppe, a master thief and blatherer, assassin Rallick Nom, dilettante Murillio and a drunkard ex-councilman Coll. They all work for a master Baruk, an alchemist in the city and a member of a secret council of mages, who more or less rule the city in the shadows. After the fall of Pale, Baruk is approached by an interested party offering his assistance against the oncoming Malazans; Anomander Rake, Lord of Moon's Spawn and the Tiste Andii. At this time the city has already been infiltrated by the Bridgeburners, who attempt to contact the local assassins as well as plant explosives at all important junctions of the city. And naturally, also portrayed are the city's petty politics, the fights over council seats and balls where alliances are decided and decimated.

Removed but still connected to all this are Adjunct Lorn and the T'lan Imass names Onos T'oolan, who travel Genabackis in search of something covered in dust and myth and have philosophical discussions over the state of war, conquest and the Empire along the way. Further players include Oponn, the twin gods of luck and chance; the lords of the Shadow realm; K'rul, an elder god who is accidentally awakened by Rallick Nom bleeding on his shrine long since in disuse; and many more named characters, who play smaller, but no less important roles in the lives of the individual characters. Some simple incidents that in the Gardens of the Moon are easily dismissible in the face of the greater events resurface in the later novels as something far more important - some examples of such are the death of Nightchill, the madness of Hairlock, the demise of Tattersail and the arrival of the Crimson Guard, to name a few.

The novel is filled with so much intricate detail that it feels more realistic than reality itself - the world has been created as a background for a roleplaying game campaign utilizing GURPS, the Generic Universal RolePlaying System - to those who are familiar with it, it is no surprise then how each individual battle is described by every second that passes and how each character seems to have so much more under their surface than meets the eye. To those unfamiliar with it, GURPS is a system that strives to describe everything through mechanics that can be written down on paper and tries to model reality as much as possible - the turns in a fight take exactly one second each, for instance.

The novel can be quite overwhelming, if one just stops to really think of everything - it is the appreciation of the links, the details and the growth of the characters that really brings Gardens of the Moon home to me as a reader. The novel is captivating also in the sense that it describes very well the hopes and fears, actions and sometimes also inaction of its characters; it is the characters who are in the focus of the story and the story unrolls not on its own accord, but at the pace of the characters' development. Also, I'm a huge fan of the single character, living his or her simple life, becoming something great through choice, actions or chance - the more epic a character or the events get, the better. It is, in my opinion, this evolving the reader is able to see that makes you root for the imagined character, or for the thing they hold dear in their hearts. Erikson's work is defined by the way it describes everything through the eyes of its characters, so that the actual narrator stays hidden for the most part and the reader can sometimes be led astray by characters' view of things. Also to a person in love with the English language, the language Erikson uses is superb in complexity, managing to put words in mouths of the characters in such a way that makes each of them an individual in their own right, as well as give a lovely account of the environs, while not overplaying the role of landscape as such as some fantasy novels tend to do. (Also, a big part of the environs in the novels are battlefields, so their description might not be as lovely as gritty and disgusting. But even that doesn't generally leave a bad taste in your mouth.)

However, as much as I rant about Gardens of the Moon of being part of a bigger whole and establishing so many links to later novels in the series, it is also a complete novel in its own right. The bigger story archs aside, the story the novel sets out to unfold reaches its turning point and ending and most of the matters dealt with are resolved one way or another, while naturally paving way for the stories to continue in the later instalments of the series. The next book, Deadhouse Gates, takes the reader in a new direction entirely, maintaining only four characters from Gardens of the Moon: Kalam, Fiddler, Crokus and Apsalar/Sorry, who travel back to the heart of Malazan Empire by the way of Seven Cities continent, the bloodiest conquest of the Empire to date. The story of Gardens of the Moon is continued from where it was left in the third book, Memories of Ice, that sees the abandoning of the Genabackan campaign and engaging of a foe unimaginable by Empire and city states alike: the Pannion Dominion.

Oh, and did I mention the dragons?

Monday, 22 July 2013

Some words about Elder Scrolls

When I was in upper secondary school, we were asked to write an essay about a hobby of ours for our English class. I picked up videogames as my hobby and as I was at the time ranging somewhere between Balmora and Ald'ruhn, the title of my essay ended up being "Many Fall, but One Remains". I do not think I have the essay anywhere safe anymore, but I do remember writing something about people dismissing playing videogames as a hobby, because it was stuff for kids, but glorifying sports, because it is stuff for bigger kids, or something such. And naturally, I also wrote about Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind, because that game was my chief love at the time.

Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was published on Xbox (no number after it) in 2002 by Bethesda (in North America) and which received the Game of the Year nomination and was repackaged with two expansions in 2003. I do believe it was in 2002 when I first bought the game and 2003 or 2004 when I also bought the GotY version. Again, this was quite by chance - I think I chose the game as my Christmas present from my parents (me and my brother each got to choose one game for Christmas present that our parents paid for and if we wanted any more games during the year, we had to buy them ourselves.) My brother got it for his PC after playing it a while on my Xbox and years later, I also played it as a PC version with several mods intended to make the game smoother to play and prettier to watch. The game did last several years for me (meaning that I kept playing and playing it) and was one of the most enjoyable games I've ever played and will probably remain to be one till the day I die.

Morrowind was for me the first rpg genre game - having been a long time console player, most of the games I played were action adventure, such as Resident Evil series. I was rather overwhelmed by the idea of a sandbox game, where I could stumble upon ancient ruins of Dwarves or Daedra worshipping sites and be killed by an Orc bandit wielding a huge-ass battle-axe - when I was still on level 3. So far, that games I had played became more difficult gradually and only allowed you to progress when you got better at playing and purchased or gained new skills and talents, or equipment along the way. I have to say that when beginning to play Morrowind, my English skills weren't really up to the level with the game, so I learned mostly by trying and dying. But learn I did, and hundreds of hours of learning I did too.

What I loved in Morrowind was the openness of the world, the possibilities it gave to the player and the unique world you set out to explore. During my first ventures to the isle of Vvardenfell I really couldn't compare the scenery, the people or the stories in the books I read to pretty much anything I had encountered before. When the fourth installment game out, Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, I was rather disappointed in how "familiar" everything in it seemed - I longed for the creativity and natural beauty of Vvardenfell, with its unique flora and fauna. Oblivion seemed too much set in the "real" world, with elves and lizardmen strutting about on the streets.

As for the system of play, it took me years to figure out how to play different sort of characters - in the beginning I was just concentrating on fighting skills, because those seemed for the most part to keep me alive. Then at some point I realized I could start sneaking around backstabbing my enemies and started to train a character in a more thief-like manner - after that came the spells, because in Morrowind, spell casting was somewhat frustrating if you didn't generate your character to be a mage from the beginning. In Oblivion your spell meter fills up constantly, not only when drinking potions and resting in a bed, as it did in Morrowind.

Trading skills were the last ones for me to learn and use, since in Morrowind, you play around to level 10 or so, hauling everything you can carry from pits and dungeons and caves and shrines and you have enough money to buy healing potions for the rest of the game. You even started to collect valuable things in houses, because there was no merchant alive who could pay you 30k for the Daedric longsword you just looted from the Golden Saint you encountered in the fields. Not to mention the unique equipment you received when you completed the quests for the Daedra princes - the first one I stumbled upon quite accidentally when nicking jewels from his shrine; I accidentally clicked the statue and when it started booming to me about testing my valour, I nearly fell down from my chair from surprise.

In later installments of the series, the skills also get a bit more in hand than they were in Morrowind - you had about 50 different skills, or so, which started max. 50-60 and min. five and you could get each of them up to hundred by using them and over with enchanted items. Your character leveled up whenever you got 10 major or minor skills up a level, and the rest were misc. skills - they didn't speed up your levels, but they did affect which attribute you could then buy better advancements in. For instance, if you had Illusion as a misc. skills and trained 10 levels in it, your Personality attribute could then be upped by 5 points the next time you gained a level. If Illusion was a major or minor skills, however, by the time you got 10 levels in it, it was time to level up and you didn't get any more bonuses for attributes - if you hadn't trained any of your misc. skills. There were several weapon related skills, like Axe, Long Sword, Short Sword, Spear and Marksman, as well as a skill for each type of Magic found in the world; Destruction, Alchemy, Enchant, Alteration, to name a few; and naturally all the movement related skills, the interaction related skills and the stealing related skills.

As such, the game was not so complex as one might think - it just had so much of content, that you didn't bore of the little things easily. After all, most quests could be completed by killing things, but some were of the kind where you just had to pick something up, or escort someone somewhere, or steal something without detection. The main story involved fulfilling an ancient prophecy about a hero-reborn, who would rid the island of evil and such and such, which is actually still quite compelling plot-wise, as the story did not develop too linear and even though there was certain "these guys are good and those guys are bad" mentality that was explained to you by the NPCs, when you actually got to meet the man-become-god Vivec and the would-be god Dagoth Ur, you sort of didn't know whose claims to believe... Which was naturally further enhanced by the expansion Tribunal, where you got to meet the other gods of the Tribunal, Almalexia and Sotha Sil.

In the beginning of the game you were automatically installed in Blades, the emperor's eyes and ears in the Empire, and you could also join a number of guilds and factions, as well as one of the Great Houses of Vvardenfell, which would equip you with enough gabbabe picking quests to last a life-time. I remember, the first time Caius Cosades, my spymaster, told me to join either Mages' or Fighters' Guild in Balmora to get more experience, I couldn't even find the damn guild houses - not that they were in any way hidden, like the Morag Tong guild house was. (Accidentally stumbled down there too, but that's probably how it always goes with those.) Thieves' guild was also available in Balmora as was the Temple of Tribunal and the Great House Hlaalu - for the Imperial Cult you had to cross a short way over to Fort Moonmoth, where you were also told that if you wanted to join the Legion, you had to trek all the way up north to Gnisis and Fort Darius. House Redoran could be joined in Ald'ruhn and House Telvanni in Sadrith Mora - which was probably the last house I ever joined, as it is on the other side of the island from where you begin the game. Morag Tong is the secret assassins cult that did not try to kill you, unlike the Dark Brotherhood which opened up the option to go to Mournhold (the Tribunal expansion) - to get to Soltsheim you just heard rumours of a frozen isle to the north, when the Bloodmoon expansion game to be - and each of these you could also join up factions. The Ashlanders were joined as a part of the main plot, so before that happened, you didn't really have the necessity to have any dealings with them. And yes, you would get quests from each and every one of them, though with Ashlanders you only got a couple of quests. (Oh, and it is also possible to join a vampire nest, but I never got around to doing that.)

Joining a faction always gave you a higher influence rating among the other members, so dealing with shopkeepers and traders belonging to your own faction was always good. It also affected the way people talked to you - when I joined the Temple for the first time, another falling to the floor experience happened when I was walking around Vivec (the city named after the god) and a random passing-by Ordinator greeted me with "Hello friend, how does the day greet you?" instead of the usual growling "Scum" or "If you're here for trouble, you'll get more than you bargained for." Most factions gave you quests according to your level, so you got to do only beginner stuff first - one of the exceptions in these is the quest you get from the Mages' Guild Arch-Mage, but, even though advanced, that one is a bit silly to begin with. And naturally, you would get quests from different places; the Fighters' Guild for instance had chapters in Balmora, Vivec, Ald'ruhn, Pelagiad and Sadrith Mora, each with a guild master head full of things for you to kill. There were sometimes even choices you could make within the faction, when you were given two opposite goals by two competing guildmasters, for instance. Of the factions, there were only a few limitations: you could only join one of the great Houses and you could only join the vampire nest where your sire originated, meaning the vampire you got the disease from. Other than that, you could join anything and everything, although I seem to remember that in Morag Tong they were reluctant to let you join, if you didn't have at least few assassin-like skills to boast of. And after all the factions and Houses and such, there were of course all the random NPCs in the wilderness, who would ask for your help, so no shortage of quests in sight.

It is true that compared to Oblivion and Skyrim, Morrowind is not as pretty a game. However, there are several mods you can install on your PC version that smooth out the graphics, if you like to do that. And apparently, there are still people making mods for it, which speaks it own language about how popular a game it is. I wouldn't recommend the Xbox version for purchase anymore, as the download times were sometimes very long and there was the possibility of crashing or falling down a pit -clitch when running around the mountains - also, you'd get no benefit of the mods people make for it. For PC the requirements are not high at all and most laptops are quite capable of running the game, if not all of the graphics mods available. For content mods I recommend the one with modified star signs, as they make the character creation more flexible and fun, even. Although, after enough playing, the levelling up system forgives quite a lot of the mistakes made in the character creation process, so don't worry about it so much.

I heartily recommend Morrowind for anyone who hasn't tried it before and would be glad to chat about it with people who have - even though I have played some Oblivion and I have Skyrim on my PS3 now, I don't think they have quite captured the magic which was ever present in their predecessor.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

Jade Empire - now available on PC close to you

One of the best games I had on my old Xbox (no number after it) was Bioware's Jade Empire that caused many a gamer much aggravated pain by having been made exclusively for the Xbox console. I picked the game up quite by chance - it had a picture of a pretty girl with a sword on the box, and the game description of saving an ancient Empire or destroying it appealed to my then very prominent longing for the East - I was listening to j-pop and writing to my japanese friends and dreaming of a time when I could travel to China or Japan, but the plane tickets were costly and music and games were, at the time, all I had. I didn't even watch any anime at that time, although I must say I would have, had I had the knowledge of the internet I have now.

But the point of this post is the Game, not my Japan-longing teenage heart. I started the game off with - not the prettiest, but with reasonable good-looking - female character, Ling the Scholar, whose Spirit attribute is elevated (although this does not really mean much after you can start leveling her up, since the difference in the beginning is only by a few points) and Body is lower than usual. I played the game, made my choices, died a few times and by the time the handsome, though a little blockishly animated rogue started talking weird things to me about having fallen in love with my character even though his character entered the game looking for his lost wife... I was already past the silliness of what the other characters sometimes said to me and thought this relationship thing was rather neat. Plus, using Sky as a follower is also neat, since he is not only a rather good fighter with his double swords, but in reserve mode he fills your Focus meter, which one needs if one is to fight with swords. (Because of course I'll take the sword, you can keep you silly staff.)

In any case, I found the story compelling, the characters hilarious and my own quest captivating in its simplicity and with the naivety of youth was rather quite surprised by the ending(s). So when the game came available to PC players around the world in Good Old Games I naturally jumped at the chance and at the price, which was discounted at the time of its release. So, now I once again have Jade Empire, even if the Xbox console has been long gone from my life.

So what is different with the PC version to the old Xbox powered one? Naturally, you control the character with the keyboard and the mouse, rather than the bulky controller Xbox seems to be cursed with. Other than that, well... The game runs a bit smoother, loads new scenes and places faster and doesn't skip with the subtitles if they fail to keep pace with the dialogue. All positive then. Even the fight scenes, some of which I wasn't a fan of when playing with my Xbox, are much easier now that I can just click mouse left to attack and press space to defend. The only problem I've encountered so far with the default controls is the heal button, left shift, which is difficult to press in battle, when your fingers are busy on the four movement keys, so that one will probably need to be changed when the battles get a bit more serious. It says something that I only died once during the intro chapter of the game on PC, when on my Xbox the battle on the beach took several frustrated tries, careful planning and letting Dawn Star kill bandits and die before moving into fray myself - even during replays. (Because your followers jump right back up when the enemy is defeated, it's a viable tactic sometimes to let them soften the enemy a bit and keep dodging and handing down some easy attacks from afar before engaging the enemy for reals yourself. But don't use up all your Spirit on Magic attacks, because then you won't be able to heal.)

I've now reached Tien's Landing, which is the second, or maybe third chapter in the game, and so far so good. I'm actually looking forward to trekking down to the ghost-infested formerly flooded village with Dawn Star, as well as the Bandit Camp, where stuff needs to happen before we can be off flying to the Imperial City. So I thought I might as well write a bit of something of the game, since plot-wise there will be no surprises and I generally feel the PC version to be better than the old console one, so maybe this will encourage other people too to try out some old Bioware. I'll try not to include any serious plot spoilers, although some minor things may come up, so be warned! I've received help to writing of this review from Jade Empire wiki, which lists useful stuff like info on characters and places as well as quest walkthroughs and what-not, so go see that if interested.

The gist of the game is to save your kidnapped Master Li, who in the beginning babbles on about your destiny and how You are the last of all Yous in all of the world. Well, this is confirmed by a spirit that appears to you, although Master Li is a bit flabbergasted about this all. Before he can really do anything about it though, you need to go rescue Dawn Star (silly girls, let themselves be captured) and when you come back from you cabbage picking mission, the village is aflame and Master Li and your serenely peaceful kung fu school is in ruins. So, in order to make any sense of what has happened and also about what's going on, You and your new friends you pick up along the way, should probably, maybe, go and find the old geezer. While doing so, you are naturally given several sidequests to occupy your time, which are most often quite fun, as well as plot related quests, that can be frustrating, long and yet, oddly rewarding, as they almost always give you new friends or other stuff to travel with. Apart from your missing master, there also seems to something very wrong with the fabric of the world - the dead are being left haunting the living in the form of ghosts, unable to pass on; the skies are not giving the much needed water for the fields and the Emperor has withdrawn from the public eye, leaving the control of the Empire to a mysterious man in black armor (although the armor itself looks more red and blue than black, but that's not really that important). And somehow You seem to be in center of this whole mess, as the last of the Spirit Monks.

As most people know of Bioware, so too in Jade Empire can you be good or bad. Or, not good or bad per ce, but you can follow the path of the Open Palm or the path of the Closed Fist. So yeah, good or bad. Making dialogue choices either ups or lowers your Path rating - or whatever it is called - which doesn't really affect the game much, except that there is at least one sidequest available solely for the follower of each path. So, no worries, whichever one you choose. I generally play a good character, although in my later games I've started badmouthing the evil characters more, of which they always seem so surprised... Most characters do comment, if you generally follow the Open Palm but then answer to them in a manner of a Closed Fist follower, although the results often are the same no matter the means. 

Your character has three attributes which are Body, Spirit and Mind. Body is the same as your vitality and Strength, Spirit is your Magic or Ki and Mind is your Focus. When vitality runs out, you die, but luckily you can always replenish it with your Ki, which is also used for magic attacks, and can also be used to power your hand-to-hand combat. Focus is used to fight with weapons and when it runs out, you can no longer lift your blade. You usually get some of the attributes back from defeating enemies, who drop red, blue or yellow essence balls for you to pick up, or you can use certain followers in support mode to replenish your attributes - Dawn Star for Ki, Sky for Focus and can't remember who for Vitality. Maybe no one, since replenishing Ki means replenishing Vitality through healing. In any case. Leveling up means putting in points both in these attributes as well as your styles.

Styles are all martial in some manner, and there are a few different kinds of them. You have your basic fighting styles, such as Thousands Cuts and Leaping Tiger, which mean putting your fist to your enemy in a manner that hurts. In Leaping Tiger your character actually grows claws, which is cool, but I like the Thousand Cuts of the fast characters, so I often use that one. Then you have your support fighting styles, such as Heavenly Wave, which slows enemies down when you hit them or Paralysing Palm which does guess what again. Magic attacks include a choice of Ice or Fire in the beginning and later on Earth or Tempest as well. What they basically do is give you the ability to either shoot fire- or snowballs, or rocks or gusts of wind at your enemies from afar, or drop down a hunk of fire or ice or dirt or call up a whirlwind as a stronger attack. Each attack, be it martial, weapon or magic has the kind of "basic" attack formula and a stronger form, which is used to break through shields. This is all explained in your beginning bouts at the school.

Weapons, as mentioned, use up your Focus, so keep an eye on that yellow meter. They are the strongest fighting styles there are, and for its speed, I like to use the sword Fortune's Favourite. The other choice in the beginning of the game is the staff Golden Hind (*Golden Star), which is a bit stronger than the sword, meaning basically that it drains your enemies out of their health in bigger chunks, but which is slower to use than the sword. Also, your character holds the sword above their head, with one arm in front, in a kind of com'ere posture, which I think is fun. You can also get other weapons later on in the game. Another type of attack you will get early on in the game, is the summoning technique. That means summoning a thing to fight for you - the first one you get is a huge ass toad, which can do stuff, like... well, I can't remember what it does, since I rarely used it. I'll update this once I try it and see what it does. Summoning drains you Ki and your character is replaced with the summoned monster for all means and purposes, until it dies or your enemies die, whichever comes first. If it dies, your character returns to the fray.

When leveling up, you also get skill points to assign to all of your styles. All of the styles have three different attributes to level up, which vary according to the style. A basic martial style for instance will have Speed, Strength and something else..? Can't remember. This is becoming a very good post, I keep writing about something and then not remembering the details. Oh well. I'll update this later. In any case, your styles get better once you get levels. And remember to use the skill points. The leveling of styles isn't as straightforward point for point as it is with attributes though. You get X amount of points to use and the first circle costs 1 point to upgrade to, the second one 2 and so on. So you'll sometimes need to save up skill points or use all of the ones you earned with this level to a single advancement. It also requires you to consider which styles you keep in primary use and which you only tweak with occasionally - during the course of the game you get to learn more styles, so there won't be enough points for all of them. There isn't really a great need to power game with this one, although it naturally helps by making kicking enemies' butt so much faster.

The basic combat works in a "cue battle music" kind of way. You might be running down the hill, or your dialogue with an NPC doesn't go as smoothly as expected and presto, enter fight mode. This means you start moving a bit differently, the sword or flames appear in your hands or you just lift you claws up in a ready stance. You can lock-on to enemies of your choice and circle the lock-on between enemies with left tab, or fight in free mode. Your follower will aid you by fighting along you or by being in support-mode - you can switch this at least on the follower screen and probably there is also a hidden button to do is instantly as well, at least now that we're playing with a keyboard and not with a controller. In any case, you can always enter the menu and the battle pauses for the duration of it, if you need to check anything, switch styles or followers, or whatever. Switching the style you're using happens with a button as well, on the keyboard you use the numbers 1-4 to circle between them. You always have four styles ready to use and if you need others, you need to change their order from the menu. This is probably due to the controller controlled version having had four directions on the directional pad, which was used to switch between styles in days gone by. To ease the choosing of styles mid-battle, you'll always hear your character's voice actor booming "Long Sword", when you choose it, or "Dire Flame", when you switch to your magics, so you'll know which one you just chose. Very intimidating indeed. As mentioned previously, you attack with mouse left, defend with space, break defends with mouse right, heal from left shift or some other than the default button and control your movements from W, A, S and D. Once the battle ends, your character performs a finishing move and the battle music ends, signalling the return to more peaceful ways.

In dialogue with people you get choices to answer or question the NPCs with. Your character does not speak them out loud, but you can see from their face if the line is meant to be angry or jovial. This is the main way of moving yourself on the Paths, but also other things, such as success in fights for justice will also affect your Path rating. As mentioned, the Path does not affect your game much, but sometimes the way NPCs deal with you changes. Also, some dialogue options are more likely to the different Paths. Furthermore, concerning your attributes, you use Body attribute to intimidate, Spirit to persuade and Mind to be intuitive, so upping the attributes will also affect your success in using these skills in dialogue.

The game plot is rather railroady, which means that you can sometimes choose in which order you do things and sometimes doing something means you don't have to do something else, but can if you will, eventually ending up doing pretty much all the same things. Depending on male or female character your romance options are different; males get to pick between Dawn Star and Silk Fox or if they can't pick, they can always have both; females then again have the pick between Sky and Silk Fox. No boy-on-boy romances, I'm afraid.

In the end, when the plot thickens and betrayals are revealed and your destiny is unraveled and you get to actually make choices not seemingly pre-destined for you, you can actually, and this might sound like repetition, make choices! Whoa! Which affect the way the game moves on! But that is quite far towards the end and basically only determines the kind of ending you get. So enjoy your power.

I in any case like this game very much and recommend it to everyone. As the story is, in my opinion, the high point of the game, there sadly isn't much replay value if you can remember quite well everything that happened last time. Given enough time between the value of replay grows, as I've noticed of myself. Maybe  this time you'll do it with a different character and a different skill set, even, choose flame instead of ice and staff instead of sword (although I wouldn't) and have a whole new adventure of your own.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Malazan Book of the Fallen

My all time favourite fantasy series (so far) is Steven Erikson's colossal Tale of the Malazan, Book of the Fallen series. The series is comprised of ten books, which in order of publication are: Gardens of the Moon (1999), Deadhouse Gates (2000), Memories of Ice (2001), House of Chains (2002), Midnight Tides (2004), The Bonehunters (2006), Reaper's Gale (2007), Toll the Hounds (2008), Dust of Dreams (2009) and The Crippled God (2011).

Apart from these books there also exists a collection of short stories written by Erikson, a series of five books set in the same world by Erikson's friend Ian C. Esslemont and a new trilogy by Erikson that begins with a book titled The Forge of Darkness published in 2012. It was for a long time been my intention to write a review of the series and/or the books and possibly encourage other fantasy-minded friends of mine to read them too, as I would very much like to talk about the series with someone else who has also read them. As I've quite recently read the two first books from the original series and will soon begin reading the fifth and final installment of Esslemont's novels and will after that probably return to the original series yet again, I don't think it would be too prudent to promise a review of the books and the world I've come to love so much.

Here then, I will discuss the series as a whole, rather briefly (I should hope).

The novels are all set in a secondary world and they follow for the most part the exploits and fall of an imperialistic empire that originated from an island called Malaz and has later conquered continents, all the time spreading its influence over the world. The Malazan Empire is known for its superb military, the cornerstone of which is the Malazan infantry unit. Magic also plays a role in warfare and life in general, as affliated people are able to access warrens of different sort of magic - usually a person is able to access only one type of warren, but there are naturally some characters who dance around the edge of these limitations. I have actually written an essay based on the first book about the different types of soldiers in the Malazan army: the leaders, the infantry, the assassin and the mage - I might add that text here if I deem it appropriate.

Religion also plays an important role in the course of the books, and it is very tightly intertwined with the notion of magic: the warrens mages access or even travel through for their power are actually all aspected to some sort of gods, deities or ascendants. Each of these is represented by a House, which is represented in a deck of cards - the deck of Dragons, which is used in Tarot-like readings throughout the books. As the stories unfold, it is revealed there are old gods, new gods and human-become gods, some even against their will, all warring over power, control and life of the warrens and the essence of the world. An alien entity is corrupting the fabric of the world, which causes all sorts of problems, and to some extent it creates, forces or even in same cases, subsides some of the conflicts on the immortal planes of the world.

The average character in any given novel is a human, who all have a race according to their specific birthplace - in the world, there are at least three or four major continents, as well as several islands and smaller areas of population, which creatures inhabit. With as massive world as this, the variety of characters present in the novels is also huge. This is not a series I would recommend to people who cannot stand having hundreds of named characters. Apart from humans there exist also other races: Jaghut, who seem to resemble beasts with their tusks and high stature, undead T'lan Imass, dark elf-like Tiste Andii and their cousins Tiste Edur and Tiste Liosan, Forkrul Assail who seem to be some sort of monstrous half-gods, as well as giant-related races of Teblor. And naturally, dragons of different sort, beasts, shadows, demons and at least the one meteor-riding alien - as well as some things that seem to be living houses. Go figure.

The story follows, as mentioned, the Malazan empire, which has a big role in affecting the events of the world. The most important and fascinating thing about these novels is that the events are always unfolded from the point of view of single characters - there are many of them and sometimes they perceive things differently, but it is only very rarely that events are described on the larger scale of the world, removed from the daily thoughts of its people. Rather the reader will get a description of a battle and its consequences through the eyes of a squad healer, or a description of a fight between a demi-god and a demon with a street urchin hurrying out of the way or hear the dealings between gods sitting on the shoulder of an eccentric master thief. 

It also transpires that nothing is as simple as it first seems when reading the Books of the Fallen. The stories and links and references are all very intelligent, well thought of and complex, which require the reader to think, to remember and sometimes to make the connections very far apart from each other book-wise; this is in great part the reason I have myself fallen in love with the Malazans. It might be that a character is somewhere doing something and meets someone they did not previously know - but the reader does. From previous novels. This gives us the impression of being in on the secret with the author, the knowledge of this or that person and their nature, goals and desires, which are as of yet unknown to the character who is in the spotlight of the event. And very often, who remain in the dark even after the encounter.

The first four books are connected, so that novel three follows novel one and novel four follows novel two, with overlapping in each of them with some same and very many new characters. Novel five moves into a new direction, novel six joins together three and four, novel seven continues five, eight continues six and nine and ten which are a single book but in two parts join everything together again. The short stories are set between the events, Esslemont's books happen some before and some after everything and the new trilogy describes events before everything. So, time-wise the series is also very complex and requires a good concentration and an excellent memory. Making a single timeline would be a nightmare, as some events span centuries and some happen in the course of a few hours.

So, in brief, Malazan Book of the Fallen. Reviews of the individual books to follow.

Asiria - Dragon Witch

Two very good friends of mine got me into cross stitching earlier this year and after working for a month at a secondary school I spent some of my hard-earned earnings on this particular Heaven and Earth design cross stitch pattern: The Dragon Witch Asisia by Nene Thomas. You can find the artist's official gallery here and the Heaven and Earth webpage here, if interested.

What I like about this particular image is the warm, brown and gold colors of the background and the dragon, and the serene beauty of the witch Asiria in the white and gold gown - although I have to confess that I wouldn't have thought of her as a witch, had I not read the full title of the image on Thomas' website. I'm rather reminded of Daenerys Targaryen from Martin's Song of Ice and Fire -series, especially as depicted by the HBO series, with the gold blond hair and pale skin. The dragons I think were of a darker hue in the filmatization though.

Currently I'm stitching the beginning of the first page, which contains some 8000 stitches - mostly hues of brown - which begins the image from the upper left corner. I cannot see much in my actual stitching yet, but I can sort of make out the first arch in the pattern. The work has a total of 48 pages, with 90 different colours, most of which are browns. But as the background is rather simple, it means stitching huge areas with the same color, so the work is progressing quite nicely. If I stitch about a page in a month, I should get around to framing the work in about four years or so. Somehow I doubt it, but at least the start has been a good one.

Not too visible here, but there are already four different shades of brown floss that I have stitched: coffee brown, beige brown, cocoa brown and black brown. The first two are very close to one another in hue, other one has a bit more red than the other, and they are very difficult to tell apart on the fabric. Cocoa is currently the lightest and black naturally the darkest color. I might sometime during this page get to stitch some other colors than browns as well, like oranges and yellows.

The fabric is 28 count white Lugana and the flosses are DMC six strand, all purchased from 123 Stitch

Oh yeah, and I want a dress like that for my wedding. It's like the third different fantasy wedding dress I want. Maybe I can switch my dress for church, party and after-party?