On Monday 13th April I got a chance to see Devin Townsend Project perform their highly anticipated ‘Ziltoid Returns’ set at the Royal Albert Hall. Ever since seeing them for a short set at Sonisphere 2014 I’ve been extremely eager to experience a full show of theirs, and I was fortunate enough to acquire tickets at a late date. So while it wasn’t my first time seeing DTP, it was my first time at the Royal Albert Hall. A beautiful building in an architecturally stunning area of London, filled to the brim with riotous metalheads getting ready to trash the place!

I kid, really. The fans I encountered in the arena (standing) were an extremely enthusiastic but well-behaved bunch – not with their hands in their pockets or anything, but not losing their minds either. The few mosh pits that broke out during the set were relatively tame and, I suspect, tinged in irony (the first pit started during a song about Canadian Earth Day and recycling). When I think back to the last gig I went to (Meshuggah) the difference in crowd mentality is crystal clear. As heavy as Devy certainly can be, there was a genuine sense that people were allowing themselves the chance to really absorb the music – myself included.

This can be attributed entirely to the quality of the performance. DTP were absolutely fantastic and I won’t be forgetting this gig anytime soon.

The night was split into two halves: a full-length playthrough of the new Z2 album, and a request set afterwards. The Z2 set consisted of ridiculous props, a double-dose of unabashed immaturity and that quirky yet grandiose quality that has become synonymous with Devin Townsend’s work. Couple that with a sweeping plot that spans the cosmos and a rather creepy narrator and you can’t really help but smile at the insanity on stage.

Everyone was on their A-game for this gig. Ryan in particular impressed me with some fantastic drumming, particularly during ‘Earth’ and ‘Ziltoid Goes Home’. And despite reaching the end of a long tour and an alleged recent bout of flu, Devin was superb from beginning to end. It never ceases to amaze me how energetic and entertaining this guy can be despite enduring the most gruelling schedules and self-imposed workloads.

So while the Z2 set was excellent, the real treat for me was the request set. The set list featured a number of tracks they had played on their tour previously, but it was nevertheless a nicely balanced coverage of DT’s solo discography. While I personally would have appreciated a track from the ‘Deconstruction’ or original ‘ZTO’ albums (and, of course, a Strapping Young Lad number), I certainly wasn’t disappointed with what I got. ‘Namaste’, ‘Deadhead’, ‘Christeen’ and ‘Earth Day’ were all wonderful to hear live.

To round off the set, Devin concluded with an ‘Ocean Machine Biomech’ bonanza of ‘Funeral’, ‘Bastard’ and ‘The Death of Music’ back-to-back and my God, the amount of emotion he put into these three tracks sent chills down my spine. His vocal performances were incredible, demonstrating his powerful range and mixing delicate tones with harrowing screams of anguish. Devin poured every ounce of himself into these songs and I was genuinely concerned for his vocal chords – it seriously seemed like he was looking to do himself an injury at times. These three songs were undoubtedly the highlight of the night for me. I’ll confess that I had never really understood the appeal of the slow and ponderous nature of ‘The Death of Music’ and I was anxious about its inclusion on the set list. All I can say now, is that I finally get it. And thanks to anyone who requested that it be added to the set, because it was the perfect finisher.

Devin was quick to thank the technical team behind the show, and I have to agree with his praises. One guy I met took issue with the mixing, which completely baffled me. The mixing of instruments, vocals, backing tracks, choir and narration was, for the most part, very well-accomplished – especially considering the need to provide a good line-in audio track for the DVD/Blu-Ray release. The sound from the arena floor was great compared with most other live acts I’ve seen, and I didn’t notice a single notable technical hitch throughout the whole three hours.

The show concluded with ‘Universal Flame’, which Devin got his son up on stage to introduce! I can’t imagine what he must have made of it (the poor kid must have been scared to death!) but it was an appropriately heart-warming way to end the show. Devin Townsend stated that this show was his passion project and meant a huge amount to him but, to me, it was already evident in everything up to that point – from his blisteringly powerful and emotional performances, to the attention to detail in every aspect of the show. Now that it’s over, he and the band have earned themselves a well-deserved rest – the guy knows how to rest, doesn’t he?

While I don’t know the chances of Ziltoid ever becoming a household name (though I’d love nothing more!) I think DTP can congratulate themselves on a job well done. Though I’m very eager for the Blu-Ray/DVD release so I can get a chance to relive it one more time, I don’t think anything can beat being there. It’s a show I genuinely felt privileged to have been a part of and I won’t ever forget it.

On a side note, I still have a review of Z2 from LAST YEAR that I need to post. Ain’t I a disgusting procrastinator? That’ll be the next thing to go up, and I promise it won’t be delayed any further.

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The Fault In Our Stars

Posted: October 9, 2014 in Uncategorized

I apologise for the lack of reviews recently and, more generally, the lack of movie reviews. I’ve wanted to do more movie reviews for some time but it may take a bit longer before I get around to covering a recent release. I used to be quite good at keeping up-to-date with recent films, but it’s been a while since I’ve had a film night with my friends and I doubt that will be changing any time soon. So while I didn’t get around to seeing the film adaptation of The Fault In Our Stars, I did manage to grab a copy of the bestselling book.

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The plot centres around the character of Hazel Grace: a teenager who was diagnosed with lung cancer at a young age. During one of her weekly sessions at her local Cancer Support Group, she meets Augustus Waters – a boy in remission but who bears the scars of his own battle with cancer. They form a romantic attachment and vow to travel to Amsterdam to meet Hazel’s favourite author, Peter Van Houten.

One big surprise for me was in the main characters. I’m unfamiliar with John Green’s previous work but his writing style has a very quirky yet incisively witty quality to it. His style flows into our teenage protagonists and it’s a polarising issue for many readers. In short, they don’t sound like teenagers. Their dialogue is improbably verbose, riddled with self-deprecation, sarcasm and sharp-eyed remarks; you’re almost left wondering when the hormones are going to kick in! Hazel also enjoys a close relationship with her parents – though this is admittedly more plausible considering her housebound lifestyle.

Ultimately, however, it is the dialogue that will divide readers. Some people will find it charming, others will find it irritating and self-indulgent on Green’s part. As for myself, as someone who was expecting a slightly more realistic teenage voice, I found it to be jarring at first but I gradually warmed to it. It certainly does lend itself to some pretty funny dialogue though, such as one vaguely Pulp Fiction-esque moment where Hazel and Augustus spend an entire scene talking about scrambled eggs. It’s daft, sure, but it feels in keeping with the silly little conversations that many couples enjoy. So, in spite of some earlier gripes, I managed to enjoy the novel for what it was: a stylised but sincere look at the lives of teenagers battling cancer.

But there’s more to Green’s writing style than quick-fire wit and occasional oddball dialogue. His previous writing experience shows with some truly fantastic imagery planted throughout the novel. Hazel’s description of her BiPAP breathing machine as a ‘pet dragon’ that times its breaths with hers, and the description of ‘the invisible and tenuous third space’ she experiences when listening to Augustus’ silence over the phone, are my favourite examples of Green’s wonderful use of language. While the dialogue may lack realism, the subject matter of terminally-ill teenagers is firmly grounded in reality. The book’s major strength is that it never gets overly sentimental with its hefty subject while retaining its emotional power. Hazel’s parents are clingy, like a lot of parents, but they’re eager to see Hazel enjoy her life despite her condition. The emotional moments of the story are effective but not overpowering to the point of melodrama; it all feels finely balanced.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that the novel doesn’t shy away from harsh realities, and the eccentric author Peter Van Houten is my favourite example of this. His earlier appearances in the story take on a certain godlike quality; his eccentric yet erudite quotes recurring through the novel much like the ‘Encouragements’ dotted around Augustus’ house, and his work is a major influence in Hazel’s life. By the end of the novel, however, he becomes significantly more humanised – even downright detestable. You’ve also got Isaac, whose girlfriend immediately leaves him after he loses his sight to his condition. We get frequent glimpses at the trauma and suffering resulting from cancer in all its gruesome detail. It is these measures of disappointment and anguish, mixed in with the love that Hazel and Augustus share, that keeps the story relatable and ‘real’.

The story itself is well-paced, if a little barren. There really isn’t a whole lot driving the story forward and the side characters contribute very little to the plot, but this feels appropriate when considering the restrictiveness of Hazel’s condition. This was never going to be an around-the-world adventure but they get as far as Amsterdam which is pretty good going! The focus is squarely on the relationship between the protagonists and it manages to be an engrossing page-turner nonetheless. There’s a fairly savage tonal shift roughly two thirds of the way through but the ending is a powerful resolution that wraps up the story very well.

All in all, The Fault In Our Stars is a well-constructed novel with plenty of emotional punch. The writing style, though divisive, delivers plenty of genuinely humorous moments and explores a number of themes and ideas, from philosophy to the role of the author, to make for a thought-provoking read. The characters of Hazel and Augustus are both likable enough, but Green doesn’t really succeed in capturing the ‘teenage voice’ that some readers will be hoping for. The simplistic storyline and plotting is actually conducive to the tone that Green is trying to create; that is, one of constant frailty and vulnerability, but also of great joy and love.

Every reader will take away something different from it. In my case, it was the subject of terminal illness that resonated most powerfully. It’s one of those novels that’ll have you counting your blessings once you’re done reading it; a reminder to cherish your good health while you’ve got it. After all, we’re not all so fortunate to go through life without a pair of ‘crap lungs’.

7.5/10

I’m not sure how many people can claim to have been bullied at school but cyberbullying, to use its most ‘trendy’ handle, is something a lot of people confess to having experienced in some capacity. It’s a word I struggle to take seriously; I’ve been on the internet long enough to know how people behave online without needing to make schoolyard comparisons. What’s wrong with likening them to creatures that live under bridges? That always seemed like the more apt comparison.

My facetiousness aside, cyberbullying is a thorny issue that seems to drag out a range of responses from different people and I felt like I should commit my thoughts on the subject to word. I was compelled to write this post after watching the latest VLOG from well-known Hearthstone streamer, Trump, about the cyberbullying that he and other users have experienced on Twitch TV. Here’s a link to the video in question.

Now, I respect Trump and I enjoy watching his stream. I also respect his experience in this matter and the experiences of other streamers he refers to. It is unsurprising to me that Trump felt the need to speak out on this issue. As a high-profile streamer, he no-doubt gets his own share of abuse (public and private) and Twitch has succeeded in creating an ecosystem of bewildering toxicity and bile. Even if it is partially ironic, as Trump mentions himself.

I want to share my own personal views about this ‘modern’ phenomenon and offer some suggestions on what can be done about it.

It may be unhelpful to get bogged-down in semantics but I have a distaste for the term ‘cyberbullying’ to describe online abuse, and I was a bit disappointed to see Trump buy into the term in reference to Twitch TV. I realise we need a phrase to describe online abuse, but the term ‘cyberbullying’ was clearly invented by someone’s aging Dad who has no idea what an Internet is, let alone what people get up to online. I prefer the term ‘abuse’ because it is abuse and, in an ideal world, no-one would have to put up with it. Let’s get away from the subject of schoolchildren bullying each other online (from which the word originated) and talk about it in a wider context. Let’s focus on the root of online abuse and not its narrow application to schools.

In my opinion it is deeply misleading to equate ‘cyberbullying’ (or whatever the hell term you want to use) with real-life bullying. Yes, there are parallels that can be drawn between the two but let’s dispense with the idea that they are somehow the same issue and, most importantly, that they can be dealt with in the same way. There are some important distinctions that inform my opinion on how online abuse is best dealt with.

It’s important to remember that, unlike real bullying, you’re not entirely unarmed in your fight against the trolls. Most online communities offer their users a ‘Block’ function that serves as the single greatest tool for dealing with abuse. Some communities employ IP bans that are more effective in dealing with persistent offenders. There is a notable degree of empowerment that you don’t have in a real-life scenario and it lends to the criticism of online victimisation as a ‘first-world problem’. But this is ultimately a cynical and unhelpful position that only works to misrepresent the real impact that online abuse can have. You may be armed, but these weapons have their limits.

In the case of bans for example, the victim must place their trust in the moderating body to ban offenders. I play ‘League of Legends’, a game that has garnered a reputation as having one of the worst communities of any game. The game utilises a ‘report’ system where people can report toxic players who will be banned after a sufficient number of reports. But considering I have played with people who deliberately behave in a toxic manner to bait out the banhammer, only to get little more than a slap on the wrist, it’s clear that the onus is not solely on the victim to deal with the abuse they receive. Clearly there are often more things that the moderators can do.

Whereas the school bully may victimise you for a perceived weakness, a ‘cyberbully’ makes little distinction. If you have a presence online, you will encounter abuse from someone at some point – and it doesn’t require provocation. Differing opinions, jealousy, a bad day at work in the salt mines – ultimately it is often not worth the time trying to identify the aggressor’s motives. As someone with a slight antagonistic streak myself, I know that sometimes the catharsis of being a dick to someone online can be reason enough (disclaimer: I don’t make a habit of this). To bring the topic back to streamers, Trump is the most innocuous personality on Twitch. The idea he could attract any kind of hate may be inconceivable to some but I believe that even cuddliest of card gamers will be unable to avoid the torrents of abuse once they reach his level of popularity.

It is because of this sad inevitability that I believe that a minimum amount of thick skin is required when using the internet (or at least the ability to laugh it off). After all, you’re unlikely to have blocked someone before they’ve said something nasty, for the same reason you don’t arrest someone before they’ve committed a crime. In real life, if you see a bully walking towards you, you can cross the street and hope to avoid an encounter. On the internet, you’re more likely to stumble face-first into that same bully before you’ve even removed your blindfold.

It is, of course, the digital aspect that makes the Internet such a fertile breeding ground for abuse. Under the guise of anonymity, anyone can get away with saying the most appalling things without the threat of an arrest warrant or a swift punch to the face. But it works both ways. If you’re the bully, it’s easy to form a picture of the anonymous person you’re attacking as a stereotypical gamer geek with nerdy glasses who doesn’t wash and lives in his mother’s basement. And that’s bound to give your insecure ass a nice ego boost. Digital anonymity is the catalyst for unpleasant behaviour as much as it is the defining feature of the Internet.

So, as I hope I’ve demonstrated, the subject of online abuse is distinct from other types of abuse, wide-ranging in its implications and, above all, complicated to solve. But a number of tiresome responses and ‘solutions’ are trotted out all the time, and I’d like to take a moment to refute some of them:

“Well, if we all behave like decent human beings and treat each other nicely then the problem will solve itself.” – I think it’s because we’re human beings that we can’t be nice to each other all the time. Not to be pessimistic, but Trump acknowledges that a degree of negativity is inevitable. The Internet is a global service and until a global edict is announced that commands us to be nice to each other in our flower gardens, then we can rule this out as a solution. Note that this doesn’t invalidate Trump’s message about spreading positivity which I will come back to later.

“The Government needs to treat all these trolls and flamers as criminals and have them arrested!” – No, no, no, a thousand times no. Please get your head examined.

“Well, you’re clearly doing something right! They’re probably just jealous. F**K DA HATERS!” – Obvious presumptuousness and use of the unforgivable term ‘hater’ aside, this is slightly closer to the attitude I wish people would adopt (but only slightly). I’ve already mentioned that some thick skin is a necessity and, if you’re looking to achieve something online in the long-term, thick skin will stop you from being dissuaded by the nay-sayers. Unfortunately, it’s not a solution to the wider problem.

So what is the solution? Trump’s message about spreading positivity to counter the more abusive aspects of negativity is not a bad starting point, though he was referring specifically to the gaming community and streaming. To tackle the problem on a wider scale, I believe the answer could be innovation. Someone invented the Block function (I don’t know who, Google wouldn’t tell me); we need more Block functions, more features such as parental controls, more tools that enable consumers to protect themselves. Without looking to conflate separate issues, we’ve seen that automated systems have not worked in the past especially when the interests of corporations are involved (cough Youtube Content ID cough). Good companies will do their best to maintain a healthy user-base but it is seldom their chief concern. As for policing the Internet, I’ll concede that there’s a time and place. I am, however, averse to anything that infringes on freedom of expression on the Internet, which means that world governments can get stuffed too.

No, the best solution is to empower the individual users. Let them foster an overwhelmingly friendly and vibrant community and give them the tools to combat online abuse in all its forms.

For all of its bugbears, the power and freedom that the Internet gives us, as it is now, means it is something to be cherished and protected. A certain degree of negativity and abuse is, unfortunately, inevitable and it pains me to say that those with extremely sensitive temperaments or sufferers of severe depression may be safer away from the computer. However, I agree with Trump that there are steps we can take, both in our smaller online communities and as a larger whole, through community, digital literacy and enterprise, to make it a more pleasant space for all to use.

I’m not done with Dev yet! You may be pleased to hear I think I’m finally reaching the end of my non-stop Devin Townsend binge. It’s taken many months but I’m finally finding that I’m able to listen to other musicians once again – it’s good to be on the road to recovery with the ability to enjoy his work in more moderate doses. So what’s enabling me to break free from my DT-dependency? I think it may have something to do with having seen him live at a festival a couple of weeks ago. He played a range of different songs from his catalogue and delivered a slightly rambling speech on the worrying effects of puppets on his life; really, I couldn’t have asked for more. He even blew a kiss to me in the crowd, and that seems to have succeeded in putting some closure on the whole thing for now.

While my last post covered an album he produced in isolation as a solo project, this review will focus on the most recent release from his current band, the Devin Townsend Project. The album is Epicloud and, before I start, I think I should dedicate some space for the album that introduced me to Devin Townsend. So I discovered his music quite late in his career, but ‘playing catch-up’ by working through his discography has been one of the best musical journeys of my life.

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So Devin Townsend formed another band, though you could probably consider it an extension of his solo efforts. He’s joined by a set of very accomplished instrumentalists but the standout for me is vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. For Epicloud, he’s also brought along a choir and, in keeping with his traditionally eclectic style, Epicloud sees DT trying some new things. I’ve seen it referred to as ‘gospel metal’ which is about as good as a label I can come up with. It’s epic and it’s loud, and it’s probably above the clouds too. This album, along with his 2009 release Addicted, a shift towards a slightly more commercial sound. Epicloud’s sound is more akin to hard rock with an increased usage of ballads and earworm guitar hooks, moving away from his typically progressive style. It’s a change of pace for sure, but not an unwelcome one. Epicloud is also a powerful showcase for DT’s remarkable skill as a producer – his uniquely layered, ‘spacey’ production style has been amped up significantly here to create his most striking release to date.

After the grand yet admittedly cheesy choir intro of ‘Effervescent’, we begin with ‘True North’ – the worst track on the album. That’s right, I’m not kidding; this album starts poorly! The song itself starts off nicely enough with a nice vocal melody shared by Anneke and Devin. Unfortunately, the song quickly becomes confused, wandering without any real sense of direction. The progressions and tone shifts are outlandish and muddled, and the lyrics don’t really shed any light on why this is. “Where do we go from here?” Devin asks in the bridge – a phrase which sums up the whole song for me. That said, the new production style is so engrossing that you’ll probably glaze over for most of this song like I did.

‘Lucky Animals’ definitely exhibits some of the pop-rock elements of this album; it’s a real earworm with an incredibly groovy verse riff and it’s quite good for a sing-along. Unfortunately, Devin Townsend himself has already ruined this song for me with the ‘Official music video’ he released. Now I can’t listen to this song without the mental image of him strutting around in someone’s back garden, riding an invisible motorbike.

‘Liberation’ sees Devin continuing to experiment with stadium-rock influences – it’s catchy and upbeat with an anthemic chorus. This leads straight into ‘Where We Belong’ – the first song I ever heard from Devin Townsend. If you’ve heard it too, you can probably guess what my reaction was. What a wonderful introduction this was to his work, and what a wonderful song. I wouldn’t say it’s anything dazzling in terms of composition but the stylish production lets the elegant simplicity of this song shine. Devin’s spacey guitar tone is truly beautiful here, his singing is spot-on and the backing choir gets so loud towards the end it becomes almost dazzling.

‘Save Our Now’ is a simple yet very satisfying halfway point in the album – Devin’s stylistic ‘spacey’ production really shines here and it’s got a lovely chorus. The next song is ‘Kingdom’ which is actually a rehash of a song from Physicist. It’s been amped up significantly here – Dev really threw everything into this one. The song is perfectly suited to his new, ultra-bombastic style and it’s practically on steroids compared to the relatively humble original. The new and improved ‘Kingdom’ is a mix of soaring operatic vocals, majestic major chord riffage and, of course, “the greatest guitar solo ever”. After that blast of bombast, we’re treated to the delicate and relaxing acoustic interlude of ‘Divine’ which is a nice change of pace. ‘Grace’ is a continuation of the interesting mix of concepts and influences that Epicloud explores; it’s an uplifting track that blends heavy metal riffs with hymn-style choir swells. Anneke also gets to really showcase her talents here with some great vocals. Once again, ‘gospel metal’ is the only fitting descriptor.

‘More’ is probably the heaviest track to be found on this album, evoking the distinct style of Addicted with yet another great chorus and ending with a groovy Chimaira-style guitar riff. After the heavenly acoustic interlude of ‘Lessons’, we’re treated to the penultimate track, ‘Hold On’, which boasts a delicate, ethereal introduction and some powerful vocal sections – it’s short but very sweet. We finish with ‘Angel’, a huge finale befitting the grand scale of the album that preceded it. The church organ intro and the absolutely enormous choral vocals epitomise the grandiose spirit of ‘Epicloud’. You can almost feel yourself lifting off the ground when you’re listening to it.

On the whole, Epicloud is a very worthy addition to Devin Townsend’s expansive discography. It’s a tremendously fun listen and, I imagine, amazing driving music. Once I get a car of my own to accompany the licence, I’ll be blasting this album non-stop. It distances itself from the technical insanity of its predecessor Deconstruction while losing some of the raw ‘Heavy-Devy’ edge of Addicted. In pursuing a more pop-rock sound, Devin does forsake some of his progressive elements but this compromise doesn’t hamper his creativity too much.

In an interview with Soundwave TV, Devin admitted that Epicloud was, in essence, an unpredicted by-product of his efforts to write space-opera themed music for Z2 – saying that whenever he tried to write a track, some “poppy hard rock thing” would come out. In short, Epicloud could be seen as an intermission piece; a set of musical ideas that needed to be expelled before the next major project. But critics who would (hypothetically) call Epicloud ‘more of a demo disk than an album’ have been pre-emptively one-upped by DT, as the album comes with a separate release Epiclouder with even more material on it. At the end of the day I’ll take any offerings from such a wonderfully creative mind, and I don’t think there’s any denying the man’s talent and drive for making music at this point. Personally I’m very satisfied with Epicloud and, if it really is just a stopping-gap, it makes me incredibly excited for what he can do in Z2.

 

7.5/10

 

Favourite track: Where We Belong

Does any of this look familiar? To quote a certain renowned angry gamer: “We don’t need to go back to the past. We’re still in the past!” It’s certainly true that we’ve seen a big resurgence in retro-inspired games, particularly from the indie scene, in the past few years. We’ve had some great titles as a result of this (Mega Man 9, Super Meat Boy and Fez to name just a few) but this influx of ‘old-new’ games has led to some natural consequences. We’ve been inundated with these titles for years now and gamers are rightly becoming more discerning towards titles that boast a retro aesthetic. Marketing your game as a retro-inspired no longer guarantees a free buck from the starry-eyed, nostalgia-fuelled retro fanatics. While it’s not all bad, we’ve had plenty of ‘old-school’ platformers that have failed to capture the essence of the classics they’ve aspired to. We’ve also had some interesting attempts to merge retro-style visuals with modern mechanics and gameplay, though many have ended up as failed experiments.

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That’s why it’s so wonderful when a game like Shovel Knight comes along that successfully merges the two to create something breathtaking and timeless – an unashamedly old-school platformer that simultaneously feels innovative and fresh, yet familiar. Understandably some people are sick to death of pixelated graphics and chiptune soundtracks (never me though!), and are highly sceptical of anything that comes forward proclaiming to be as good as the platformer classics it draws inspiration from. There’s a lot of hype surrounding this game but I’m here today to tell you that Shovel Knight really is as good as people are making it out to be.

You play as the eponymous Shovel Knight on a quest to defeat the evil Enchantress and rescue your companion, Shield Knight. Shovel Knight’s weapon of choice has multiple uses, from swiping at enemies and deflecting projectiles, to digging up treasures and excavating secret areas. He can also bounce on top of objects and enemies with it in a manner similar to Scrooge McDuck’s pogo stick. Aside from Ducktales, the gameplay borrows elements from other traditional NES platformers like Mega Man, Castlevania and Zelda 2. It’s an amalgamation of the classics, to be sure, but its control scheme has a distinct feel to it that separates it from these games. The aforementioned digging mechanics are also a unique twist on traditional platformers that allows for more interaction with the environments and levels. The 8-bit graphics are extremely well-executed – they’re very detailed, colourful and gorgeously designed, but not overstated. The graphics and visuals, right down to the old-school UI and life meters, form the backbone of this game’s retro charm. Similarly, enemies are well-designed with detailed sprites, and yet feel completely in-line with the enemy designs of classic NES titles.

Gameplay is split between Zelda 2-style towns and Mega Man-style stages that end with a boss fight. The towns are full of people to talk to (with a lot of surprisingly funny dialogue!), shops, events and hidden secrets. The stages are extremely varied and memorable; each one introduces a new mechanic to adapt to. Boss battles are uniquely intense; bosses have a set move list but they appear to mix up the order of their attacks. Despite their unpredictable nature, their attacks often have a slight visual cue or ‘tell’ that’ll give you time to react, but it’ll test your reflexes nevertheless! They also have an ‘enrage’ mode once they lose a certain amount of health. The difficulty curve of the game is perfect and each stage has its challenging moments that’ll make you grip the controller tight or, in my case, claw at the keyboard. On that note, I should mention that keyboard users have nothing to fear; Shovel Knight controls perfectly using either option.

The soundtrack by Jake ‘virt’ Kaufman (with some contributions from Manami Matsumae of Mega Man fame) is dynamic, vibrant and extremely catchy – another fantastic soundtrack to his name. Even the bosses have their own individual music tracks (remixes of their stage music) and they’re incredibly intense. All the sound effects are fantastic too; it really feels like a classic NES soundtrack on steroids.

Instead of points and high scores, you collect gold as you shovel through levels. There are plenty of unlockable skills, secondary weapons and customisations that can be bought with the gold you’ve accumulated – as well as health and mana powerups. These new abilities and items give you multiple different ways of tackling the levels, and you can kit yourself out differently to make each playthrough a unique experience. The addition of optional bosses, item-specific puzzles and roaming encounters on the SMB3-style Overworld means that there are plenty of things to do between each level.
Shovel Knight, for all its throwbacks, introduces plenty of innovations to keep things interesting, some of which I’ve described already. One of my favourites is the sense of adjustable difficulty without the need for a ‘difficulty setting’ option. The core game is challenging in its own right but you have multiple ways of making the game easier or trickier. Rather than losing a life when you die, you return to the last checkpoint and drop a portion of your gold at the place you died – this gold can be retrieved if you continue the level. This is a much more forgiving system that encourages you to avoid unnecessary deaths, while subtly nudging you on with the prospect of getting your lost treasures back. But what if you died somewhere hard to reach, like falling down a pit? Are you willing to run the risk of a second death to rescue your gold from a tight spot?

Checkpoints are fairly numerous and well-placed so you’ll never endure excessive amounts of stress to get through a level. That said, the checkpoint system can be manipulated in a fantastic risk-versus-reward mechanic. Checkpoint orbs can be smashed open for extra cash but they will stop functioning as a checkpoint. Are you skilled (or greedy) enough to take the risk of being sent back to the start for smashing every checkpoint in a level? The variety of customisable skills, aside from giving you new ways to play a level, can also be exploited to effectively handicap yourself to give you more of a challenge with an unsuitable loadout. And if you’re still looking for a challenge, there’s always New Game Plus! This all lends itself to an organic sense of challenge; you have control over how difficult you want the game to be at all times.

While feeling retro, it never feels outdated. Its visual style and graphics are perfectly in-line with classic NES titles and its presentation is superb. The gameplay is fast-paced, rewarding and utterly addicting – stages are memorable, challenging and beautifully designed with crazy boss fights and plenty of secrets to discover. It’s not the longest game but it’s got replay value in spades (every review of this game has a pun, this is mine) – the wealth of customizations, skills and collectable weapons ensure that you’ll find new ways to beat levels in record time. And you will want to play this game through multiple times, I guarantee that.

The game scraps old but worn mechanics in favour of new ones; its influences are clear as daylight but it succeeds in carving out an identity of its own. Shovel Knight’s innovative twists on the retro platforming formula, particularly the scrapping of a lives system, make it a touch easier than its hard-as-nails predecessors which, in turn, makes it more accessible for newcomers! I… have no substantial criticisms of Shovel Knight. Maybe a boss rush feature would have been nice, or some extra modes similar to Capcom’s Mega Man 9 & 10? Regardless, Yacht Club had their priorities straight in focusing on the main game and, on this occasion, the strength of the core experience nullifies any of my criticisms. Maybe they could consider releasing some extra modes as DLC?

Given its retro aesthetic and influences, it could be slightly misleading to call it a ‘modern’ classic but I don’t care. Shovel Knight completely deserves that accolade and many more besides – it’s a fantastic piece of game design and the perfect love-letter to those timeless platformers of the past. I’m aware I’ve used the descriptor ‘perfect’ multiple times in this review and, as a continuation, this is one occasion where I feel inclined to award a perfect score. Whether you’re a fan of retro games or not, don’t miss out on Shovel Knight as it really is a gem of a title.

 

10/10

Eragon (2006)

Posted: June 26, 2014 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

I confess that I perhaps took too much malicious enjoyment in writing my previous post on Divergent. In my downtime I’ve been taking great pleasure in reading the negative reviews of the book of Amazon (some of them are fantastically witty), and running through in my head how I would write that review all over again – it came close to becoming an obsession. In short, I needed a new outlet and giving Divergent another dressing down would have verged on callousness. So let’s continue to ride this wave of vitriol and take a look at Eragon – specifically the film adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s hit fantasy novel from 2003.

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I’m coming at this from the perspective of someone who read the book before seeing the film. For the sake of clarity, I’ll start by saying that I really enjoyed the book! The story is as follows: a humble farm boy named Eragon lives with his uncle and his cousin Roran in the village of Carvahall. Whilst hunting in ‘The Spine’, a forbidden mountain range, he stumbles across a dragon egg lying in the undergrowth. Upon returning home with his prize, the dragon, Saphira, hatches from the egg and Eragon forms a magical bond with her; unwittingly becoming a dragon rider. Soon after, the village is attacked by the agents of evil King Galbatorix and Eragon’s uncle is murdered. Forced to flee his home along with Saphira and mysterious storyteller Brom, Eragon must evade the armies of Galbatorix and seek out the secret resistance force of the ‘Varden’ who plot to overthrow the corrupt king.

Continuing the theme of Young Adult fiction, Paolini started work on Eragon, the first in the Inheritance Cycle series of books, when he was just fifteen years old. If you were too intimidated to tackle Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings novels as a kid, Eragon was a fantastic way to break into the genre of fantasy writing. The books were more accessible and easy to read than your average fantasy novel, but it still managed to present an engaging and absorbing world. Paolini’s world of Alagaesia is admittedly a tad cliché and recognisable, but otherwise surprisingly expansive and detailed. He even invented his own language for it! Eragon’s journey across the world is eventful and well-paced, giving you enough time to take in the surroundings. The thing that stood out to me about the first two books was how they explored the political and social relations (and tensions) between the native races of Alagaesia; it all felt very nuanced. Eragon’s relationship with his dragon Saphira is a delicate and intriguing affair; their unique bond as dragon and rider is a host of emotions, sensations and experiences that are intricate and very heart-felt. As a child, it gave me that feeling of wonderment that only good fantasy can provoke. More so than anything else, it is a story about their personal bond. It’s certainly not the best that fantasy literature has to offer, but the novel’s faults can be overlooked due to the sheer impressiveness of Paolini’s accomplishment in writing this powerful series at such a young age.

And then we come to the movie. Unlike Veronica Roth’s Divergent which has its fans and defenders, there is no ambiguity here. You won’t find anyone rushing to this movie’s defence. Eragon is a catastrophe: one of the worst fantasy films to be released in years and perhaps one of the shoddiest film adaptations of a novel in recent memory. A notorious butchering of a promising franchise, Eragon would strike any viewer as a ham-fisted attempt to replicate the success of Peter Jackson’s epic film adaptations. But it takes knowledge of the books to fully understand how truly terrible this movie is.

The first problem is the actor who plays Eragon, a newcomer by the name of Ed Speleers. A cursory at his IMDB page indicates that his only notable acting work since Eragon is in A Lonely Place to Die and a role in Downton Abbey. Without wanting to wish him failure in his career, I would kindly urge him to stay away from major motion pictures from now on. Indeed, his performance in Eragon sums up a lot of things that are wrong with the film. First off: he’s miscast in the role. He’s a pretty boy (and he plays a pretty boy in Downton), not a rural farm lad who goes hunting in the mountains. Then there’s his obnoxious performance. He doesn’t just undersell the scenes he’s in; he sabotages them. He has this awful smirk on his face through the whole film and he’s unable to suppress it even during serious scenes. The worst example of this is Brom’s death; what’s supposed to be a tragic moment is ruined by the big dumb grin plastered on Speleers’ face. His line delivery and general acting are flat at best, but it’s his off-putting, ubiquitous grin that makes him a uniquely awful actor. He’s completely out of his depth here and his performance only helps to undermine the shaky foundation the film is built on.

What’s worse is that while young Speleers is making a fool of himself, he’s sharing the screen with some of Hollywood’s giants. In spite of an underwhelming protagonist, Eragon boasts a stellar supporting cast of Jeremy Irons, Robert Carlyle, John Malkovich and Rachel Weisz – holy cow! But with all this talent on display, it makes the movie’s failings so much more disappointing as these great talents are marginalised. Jeremy Irons keeps the film from collapsing as Eragon’s mentor, Brom, but his performance is dull and completely forgettable – he seems practically bored half of the time. Every time he’s on screen, I find myself pining for his uniquely awful yet hilariously energetic performance in Dungeons and Dragons. John Malkovich doesn’t even get five minutes of screen time as the Evil King Galbatorix and Robert Carlyle’s role as Murtagh is too underwritten for him to leave an impact. The only actor worthy of note is Rachel Weisz. Her vocal performance as the dragon Saphira is widely agreed to be the high-point of the movie – she captures the personality of a feisty yet tender dragon really quite well. Weisz is assisted by the animation work on the dragon itself which is also very good. None of these great actors can escape the terrible dialogue though, including one running gag about how unimpressive Eragon is as a young dragon rider, which ends up being unintentionally funny for all its miserable truth.

Let’s address another huge problem with the film – the runtime. Eragon is just over an hour and a half long. For those of you who complain about the length of the Lord of the Rings movies, just watch Eragon if you want to understand precisely why Peter Jackson sets out enough time for his movies. This approach is utterly self-defeating as there’s no time for the film to do anything. No time to explore sub-plots, no time to establish new settings and locations, no time to introduce side-characters. So, naturally, the movie suffers from a complete lack of immersion. The sets themselves are rubbish anyway so I guess it doesn’t matter, but these time constraints prevent the build-up of any sort of atmosphere or understanding of Alagaesia. Several key moments in the story are cut out completely and entire sections of Eragon and Brom’s journey from the book are bypassed – places like Dras-Leona and Teirm are never visited or mentioned. Scenes are altered or mashed together in the crudest way possible. A prime example of this is where Arya’s rescue, Eragon’s first fight with the shade Durza and Brom’s death are compressed into one short scene, with all of it taking place in the same dank prison corridor. It’s borderline self-parody.

There are also plenty of examples of awkward cuts and scene transitions that hint at a long night’s work in the editing room. For example, Eragon’s arrival at the Varden’s hideout of Tronjheim in the Boer Mountains is extremely rushed with the Urgal invasion occurring barely minutes after he’s arrived! Tronjheim is also the home of majority of Alagaesia’s Dwarven population but the movie hasn’t allowed for time to introduce the important dwarven characters, Hrothgar, or Isidar Mithrim – so it just leaves it at ‘there are dwarves here;’ an entire race of people completely side-lined in this so-called ‘fantasy’ movie. It’s lamentable that after a series of books that took time and effort to detail every aspect and nuance of the world of Alagaesia, its civilisations and its peoples, we get an adaptation that completely fails at anything beyond the bare basics of storytelling.

But worst of all are the instances of blatant disregard for the source material. I have a very specific example that I like to trot out whenever I’m asked to explain why I hate the film having read the book first. It has to do with spell-casting; the book is clear to highlight the two key rules about the use of magic in the Eragon universe. Number one: casting magic saps the user’s strength depending on the effort required to cast it. Certain spells, such as attempting to create a living creature with magic, are impossibly strenuous and will result in the caster’s death. Indeed, this is a rule that the movie establishes too. And number two: attempting to cast a spell on something further away from you will drain more of your energy. Now, bearing those two crucial rules in mind, try this: during the Urgal invasion of the Tronjheim, the shade Durza, standing on the edge of a cliff, uses magic to conjure up a gigantic evil dragon from the base of the mountain and rides it into battle against Eragon and Saphira.

The worst bit is that this farce of a climax is completely unnecessary.

I’ll tell you what the ending fight scene between Durza and Eragon was in the book: an intense swordfight where both combatants use magic to try to break into each other’s minds so they can predict each other’s attacks. That would have looked great on the big scene! But nope, it’s a film about dragons so we need a nonsensical CGI dragon fight that defies all of the established ground rules, breaks continuity by having a non-dragon rider riding a dragon, and offends fans of the book to their core. All for the sake of an ‘epic’ action scene to round off the film. Well, it certainly was jaw-dropping – though not in the way I think the filmmakers anticipated.

The film ends with an insulting bit of sequel baiting in a close-up shot of the eye of the Galbatorix’s newly-hatched dragon. I have no idea what they were thinking with this; how could they after altering key plot elements? The Ra’Zac, who go on to play a major role in the second book, are killed off in this movie! Similarly, the 2nd book opens with a continuation of the Urgal invasion (and some notable events), when in the film they are completely defeated! Angela, Murtagh, Roran and Arya all get bigger roles in the 2nd book but are underdeveloped here and Sloan, another side character in Eldest, is tortured and (it is implied) killed! Outside of a massive retcon, a sequel to Eragon is impossible; perhaps we should be counting our blessings.

It’s true that there’s almost nothing more disappointing than a bad fantasy film adaptation. When presented with such a vibrant world in a novel that evokes such incredible images in your head, it really hurts when Hollywood fails to bring those visions to life in a visual medium. And while some films are so bad they’re good, Eragon is just depressing in its badness as it represents so much squandered potential. The budget was evidently sufficient with decent special effects and a fantastic cast but they’re all ultimately undone by a bad script, a lack of direction and a cripplingly short runtime of just over 90 minutes. The acting ranges from passable to unforgivably bad, the settings and environments are completely uninspired and the world of Alagaesia is totally flat when compared with the book. And the half-hearted hint of the possibility of a sequel leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Not to worry though; I doubt that director Stefan Fangmeier won’t be following up on his threat.

I don’t know what a sequel to Eragon may have looked like but if this movie teaches us anything, it’s this: while dragons may have some practical purposes if you form a bond with them, there are definitely some dragons better left slain.

 

2.5/10

‘Divergent’ is the first in a series of hit novels by greenhorn ‘Young Adult fiction’ author Veronica Roth. The series has enjoyed great commercial success recently; ‘Divergent’, the first book in the series, has even had a film adaptation released earlier this year. I have not seen it yet; I actually picked up this book up on a whim without realising it was the next teen smash-hit. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the comparisons to ‘The Hunger Games’, a series I quite enjoyed – including the film adaptations! The blurb got me hyped up too with the line ‘In a society divided into factions all are forced to choose where they belong’; sounds like a cool idea for a story! While focussed on the blurb, you can see a quote from Rolling Stone calling it “The next big thing”. Well, I guess its success is indisputable at this point. Instead I’ll focus on the question you really want the answer to: is it any good?

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I think I should start with a proper plot synopsis, rather than just the blurb, which might help to put this into perspective. ‘Divergent’ is set in the streets of Chicago in some kind of sci-fi/dystopian future. Society has been divided up into five different factions representing an individual aspect of human nature – Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, Candor and Dauntless. Our protagonist is a girl called Beatrice, or ‘Tris’, born into an Abnegation family in government. Like many a teenager, she’s dissatisfied with her life and feels that she is destined for more than a life of public servitude. On her 16th birthday, she and her brother Caleb must undergo tests and choose which faction to dedicate the rest of their lives too. Beatrice surprises her parents by choosing Dauntless, a notoriously dangerous faction and a total inversion of her humble Abnegation life. But Beatrice hides a secret; her test results were inconclusive as she exhibited multiple different characteristics, classifying her as ‘Divergent’. Can she find a new life in the Dauntless faction and will she discover what it means to be divergent?

Can I please straight-up address the first thing that’s on everyone’s minds – the premise. Perhaps you can now see how I felt slightly mislead by the blurb. The explanation for why this society is structured according to human nature is given fairly quickly in a baffling speech at the ‘Choosing Ceremony’: the human race was decimated after a catastrophic world war. The population was arranged into ‘factions’ based on five separate human personality traits, in an effort to annihilate the ‘negative’ aspects of human nature that lead to war, and to build a society where people could be ‘slotted in’ to jobs appropriate to the doctrine of their faction. Candor members are predominantly lawyers due to their honest natures (though there’s no mention of a legal system in the novel). Dauntless members are tattooed thugs and thrill-seekers which obviously makes them ideal candidates for a city defense force – defending from what exactly? Abnegation members, according to Roth, make for ideal political leaders because they are fervently selfless. And the menial, practical jobs are held by the poverty-stricken Factionless – those who failed to choose a faction or pass their initiations. Because, you know, people in public service have no place in our divisive society.

I won’t torture you with a Marxist reading of this, but you don’t need to be a major in social sciences to realise that this model of a society is dubious. How many of history’s wars have been caused by clashes in interests, ideologies and emotions? How many uprisings have involved an oppressed underclass? These troubles are magnified when observing their political model. If Abnegation are such incorruptible, natural-born leaders, why do they preside over an underclass of Factionless – supplying them with charitable aid but deliberately shutting them out of society? Why, when criticised by Erudite with trumped-up accusations, do they sit on their hands and not try to clear their name before dissent and chaos sets in? And how on earth can they lay claim to a right to rule when teenagers are free to choose the faction of their choice? What’s to stop a young criminal joining Abnegation, as there doesn’t appear to be a police force? What’s stopping someone from pretending to be virtuous and selfless to earn themselves a seat of power?

Obviously this flawed system eventually falls apart, but this creation is a disservice to Roth’s audience. You may notice that the best dystopias in literature act as twisted satires of our contemporary society, not merely a fantastical setting. There needs to be something relatable; it needs to instil a fear in the reader that human society could end up this way if we continue down the wrong path. This is something Roth apparently does not understand. The notion that human nature can be broken down into its individual elements, and that a functioning society can be structured around it is not only fallacious; it’s downright childish.

I just thought I’d get that out of the way before continuing. Now I want to start with some positives, because there are a handful of good things to be found in ‘Divergent’. One of the novel’s strong points, in my opinion, is the protagonist, Tris. True, she is not a particularly remarkable YA character – her status as a ‘divergent’ basically means that she’s more human than the other characters, which doesn’t make her inherently interesting. She can be cruel, and she does make bad decisions – sometimes stupidly but sometimes understandably (take her treatment of Al after the kidnap). She’s flawed and, in a lot of ways, unlikable but she’s human. Let’s face it; almost everyone else in this world is annoying in the most stereotypical way possible. Abnegation are a bunch of ineffectual weaklings, the Dauntless punch each other in the face just for kicks, Candor take glee in pointing out when you’re lying and watching for your ‘tells’, and every Erudite person acts like a smart-arse.

The other good thing about Tris is that she evolves and changes throughout the story. She starts out as a timid and weak Abnegation child and her Dauntless training transforms her. She’s initially excited by the prospect of joining Dauntless, then she goes from anxious to elated, to wildly aggressive, to cold and distant, to erratic and outspoken – and it was all quite entertaining to watch! I actually had quite good fun keeping track of how the harsh life as a Dauntless was changing her as a person. She also embodies multiple qualities, being a ‘Divergent’ (or, as we call it, human) and finds it difficult to forsake her Abnegation roots. She’s constantly obsessed and self-conscious about her figure and her age, although the latter confused me as all the initiates are roughly the same age. Her constant desire to prove her strength and to look strong in the face of a brutal training regime is quite touching too; the moment she realises she’s being hunted for being Divergent, rather than give way to tears, she breathes a quiet laugh – which I thought was a fantastic response for someone trapped in an environment where one sign of weakness or cowardice can ruin you.

My research, however, suggests that everyone else thinks she’s uninspired, unlikable and uninteresting. So maybe I’m just mad.

Also, there’s no love triangle! How nice it is to be rid of that tired YA cliche. Instead, the very-obvious love interest is a broody, dark, handsome young man with a mysterious past. Well, I never said it was a game-changer but even ‘The Hunger Games’ couldn’t steer clear of the love triangle iceberg so I’ll give it some credit.

Although much of the first book is set in the Dauntless Compound following Tris’ life as an initiate, the novel zips from scene to scene at a break-neck pace. There’s plenty of action too so it doesn’t often get boring, so long as you have some investment. I was able to get through the book very quickly in just a couple of sittings. Tris’ life in the Dauntless compound is eventful and there’s an engrossing mix of cruelty and danger with exhilaration. The best moment in the book is when she goes along with a group of daring ‘Dauntless-born’ initiates who zip-line off the top of the Hancock building – the muddle of trepidation with the adrenaline-rush and joy of the dive reminded me of the first time I went on a rollercoaster. But somehow, the best bit for me was after the death-defying fall, she has to rely on the people she’s only just met to catch her in their arms when she drops from the zip-line. The moment she lets go and she feels them catch her, I found the acceptance and sense of camaraderie amongst other like-minded, daring people to be very heart-warming. It’s quite life-affirming in some ways and I’m guessing this is where the book gets most of its appeal from, along with co-opting elements from ‘Harry Potter’ and ‘The Hunger Games’.

Regrettably, there is still far more bad here than good, and it’s the kind of bad that I could write essays on. However, I will do my best to restrain myself and break it down as best I can. One essay will probably suffice.

The writing is, for the most part, inept. I don’t want to paint it as universally awful, because there are some genuinely good moments, but it is very inconsistent. The plot, on the other hand, is terribly predictable. The only part I failed to foresee was the ending, mainly because of how bafflingly lazy and plothole-ridden it was; I didn’t consider it a viable option for Roth to take. But… I’ll get on to that later.

A lot of the predictability stems from the author’s apparent inability to show, not tell. Almost every exchange between Tris and Four (the hunky boy) ended with a tell-tale line like ‘Is he watching me?’ or ‘I detected a hint of jealousy in his voice;’ lines which almost had me clawing my eyes out. There’s no subtlety here; most major plot points are spoiled with an unnecessary tag-on line that does nothing but undermine the already shaky plot. What’s worse is Roth’s very off-putting tendency to establish certain plot points, only to drop them and never mention them again. One major example of this is when Tris notes the Dauntless members locking a gate from the outside as if to keep the population of Chicago MK. II in rather than keep something out, and speculates why this might be. This seemingly important remark is swiftly forgotten and never mentioned again. And I don’t care if you’re going to reveal what’s behind the gate in Book 3 or whatever, don’t raise plot points in novels where you have no intention of exploring them! You certainly haven’t invested me enough to pick up the other two books in the series so don’t assume that I’m going to read them! By the way, on a side note, I’ve heard that Book 3, Allegiant, is being panned by readers and critics for being really disappointing, poorly written and nonsensical. And this one apparently isn’t. Hmm.

Getting back on topic, there are other areas where the narrative suffers serious deficiencies. As I said earlier, the story is eventful but this leaves barely any space for descriptions of her surroundings and this future world. The setting of the novel is woefully underdeveloped; it’s pathetically anaemic. As someone who has seen pictures of, but has never been to Chicago and, more to the point, is unfamiliar with Roth’s view of a dystopian Neo-Chicago, I would have appreciated a bit more description. I know Chicago is a big place, so why does Dauntless only take on 10 fresh initiates each year? It was only when I was two-thirds of the way through the book that I had a better grasp of how many people inhabit this city and even then it struck me as underwhelming.

But the biggest travesty is the ending. The story begins to come apart at the seams as the author piles up cliché after cliché, inconsistency after inconsistency, and introduces plot points that render large parts of the story meaningless. I’m talking, specifically, about the serums. Jeanine, the Erudite leader, creates a serum that she injects into the Dauntless that causes them to enter a state of Virtual Reality. This simulation paints Abnegation members as enemies to be eliminated and Jeanine uses her personal army to commit genocide against Abnegation. The power of the Divergent characters, Tris and Four, is that they are both immune to the VR serum, so Jeanine literally pulls out another ‘prototype’ serum that mind-controls Four. Not only does this damage the plot and open more plot holes than I care to mention, it’s a prime example of an author writing themselves into a corner. It’s also incredibly disappointing that, after all the build-up, the power of the Divergent is something we had already taken as read – that they’re good at overcoming simulations.

And do I have to point out how uninspired it is to use mind control as a device of manipulating the Dauntless? The Dauntless members aren’t exactly strong-minded; they could have been bribed, coerced or otherwise persuaded to stage a coup – why mind control? And then there’s the pointlessness of the Erudite smear campaign! They spend days publishing reports to discredit Abnegation and stir up unrest, and then just pull out a super-weapon to eradicate them? What?!

The quality of the writing notably degrades at this point too. I praised the novel earlier for an erratic lead character, but Tris begins acting without sense in the final chapters; she becomes unusually violent towards one character for no real reason at all. Maybe these fluctuations in mood are more noticeable because of this inordinately action-packed finale being crammed into only a few short chapters; it feels extremely rushed and tacked-on. Characters appear, just to die and never be seen again. Attempts at humour and sarcasm feel awkward and inappropriate because a main character died a mere two pages earlier. There’s one point where Tris ‘discovers’ that her mother was Dauntless, even though she had already deducted that earlier on in the story! Did they just forget?

Some people have criticised the perceived moral of the story; that young people (particularly young girls) should not pursue knowledge and education, with the Erudite being portrayed as the villains of the story. While it’s certainly not a very flattering message, I’m more shocked why Roth felt the Erudite had to be the ones to instigate an uprising. Whatever happened about the Factionless – the oppressed masses that have every reason to rebel? Along with Amity, they are complete non-entities in the story except for one brief, pointless encounter between a Factionless man and Tris. Candor is completely underutilized as a faction too. I’m stunned at how this author can create a fantasy world and then choose to neglect half of it.

‘Divergent’ is quite a spectacular failure. Perhaps the author’s ambitious ideas outstripped her writing ability, or maybe she was looking to cash-in on recent trends, I’m not sure. I just know that the kindest thing I can call this novel is ‘derivative’. Rather than taking time to flush out this world with detail, the world of Chicago 2XXX is left hopelessly lacking in identity. The characters are all stereotypes, the story is predictable and uninteresting, the author’s writing style actively dismantles any sense of suspense or intrigue, and the ending is just terrible. You may think I’ve been overly-critical of this novel, scouring each page for something to poke at, but I can honestly say I haven’t mentioned even half of the plot holes, inconsistencies and general bad writing. This really is one of the most poorly written fantasy stories I’ve ever read.

Some have called it a good idea but with bad execution, and I can’t agree with that either. The premise is ludicrous and poorly thought-out. I won’t mention how stupid the Choosing Ceremony test is, or why it is required at all when teens can choose their own faction. We, as a species, know enough about our nature to understand that a society like this cannot exist and thrive ‘for years’ as the book claims. It’s not a vision of the future; it’s a juvenile understanding of society and Roth is misleading rather than informing her audience. I’m of the firm belief that Young Adult authors should prioritise treating their audience like adults; not like children. Perhaps some of them still need to grow up themselves, or at least write a second draft.

I’m actually half-tempted to see the film now. Bearing in mind how good Hollywood can be at ruining good ideas, I’m morbidly curious to see what they make of this. If you’re looking for a spectacle rather than a thought-provoking read, by all means give ‘Divergent’ a try. But whatever you do just don’t think about it, because you’ll find it about as resistant to logic as a sandcastle to a tsunami.

It’s no Hunger Games. Not even close.

 

3/10

I wanted to do something a bit different for this post. I’ve always enjoyed reading people’s Top 10 lists and I think they suit a blog format quite well, so I thought I’d try my hand at one of my own!

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve become a big fan of music in video games and I’ve found myself revisiting old games I’d played for their soundtracks. I’ve taken a real shine to the chip-tune soundtracks. There’s something about their uniquely raw sound, their simplicity and the limitations imposed on the composers (and, importantly, how they work around them) that makes chiptune music absolutely timeless. The Gameboy and Gameboy Colour are the handhelds I grew up with and they’re the consoles I’m most familiar with. There were a huge amount of games released for Gameboy and Gameboy Colour; most were cheaply-made junk but there were definitely some gems. I feel I’m qualified enough to give my personal picks for the top 10 soundtracks on the world’s most famous handheld console. So please excuse me while I nerd out for the rest of this post.

Number 10: Super Mario Land (Composer: Hirokazu Tanaka)

I actually played this game long before I ever played the original Super Mario on NES and I’ve always preferred this one. Maybe not a fair comparison considering the time disparity between the games but this game is still worth checking out. Aside from being portable Mario, and some major technical innovations (one of the first GB games that didn’t suffer from horrible motion blur when scrolling), its soundtrack is extremely good. There is some seriously underrated material here; Tanaka’s tunes are absolutely on-par with Koji Kondo’s legendary creations on the NES. These songs will burrow their way into your mind and have you humming them on a daily basis.

Number 9: Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Seasons/Ages (Composer: Minako Adachi)

While I consider it to be more of a mixed bag than other titles on this list (with regards to one or two sub-par dungeon tracks), the soundtrack for the ‘LOZ: Oracle’ games is fantastic. Really strong and memorable compositions, really good sound design and it just SOUNDS like a Zelda soundtrack. I can’t put my finger on it; it just has this magical quality that sets it apart from everything else. Brb, going to listen to Din’s Dance for the 8th time today.

Number 8: Donkey Kong Land 1+2 (Composers: Dave Wise, Greame Norgate)

These two games have two big things going for them: they are Gameboy spin-offs of the excellent Donkey Kong Country and Diddy Kong games on the Super Nintendo, and David Wise is a wizard. So if you want to hear another great DK soundtrack, including some quality Gameboy renditions of songs from the SNES titles, you’ll definitely be satisfied with this set of GB games. Released in 1995-1996, which is roughly halfway through the Gameboy’s lifespan, these games are home to some of the most memorable tracks from the ‘8-bit era’ and, indeed, some of the best SNES tracks too.

Number 7: Dragon Quest/Warrior 3

I kicked some other very worthy games off the list to make room for this one. In this case, I don’t care. I have such fond memories of this port of the classic NES RPG; it’s my favourite game in the series and the Gameboy version of its soundtrack is outstanding. It sounds so much better than its NES counterpart which, in a way, is hardly surprising considering this GB port came out ten years after the original. But I love how, with the recent DS remakes of classic Dragon Quest games, the old chiptune soundtracks have been remade into towering orchestral pieces. There’s a simplicity and elegance in these old Dragon Quest tunes that makes them ideal for transforming into fully-realised compositions. A very special game for me and one of my favourite soundtracks.

Number 6: Project S-11 (Composers: Aleksi Eeben, Jonne Valtonen)

This game is a recent discovery of mine. It’s the most obscure title on this list but wow, what a fantastic soundtrack! There are a few things that make this game’s music stand out from the pack. It makes use of the Gameboy’s very limited 4-bit sampling capabilities. Sure, some games like ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Warlocked’ made use of voice and FX samples, but ‘Project S-11’ is the only Gameboy game I know of that uses percussive samples in its songs to enhance the noise drum channel. The composers also display an excellent use of arpeggios, echo and wave modulation to create a very layered, next-gen sound. It’s some of the most dynamic, action-packed music I’ve heard on the system – an absolutely perfect accompaniment for a spaceship dogfight.

Number 5: The Smurfs’ Nightmare (Composer: Alberto Jose Gonzalez)

Alberto Gonzalez is a highly-skilled and prolific chip artist who wrote soundtracks for a huge amount of Gameboy and GBC games. While all his work is amazing, I only have room to put one of the many games he worked on. As a result, I decided to pick what is commonly considered to be the best of the bunch. He wrote the music for both Smurfs games on Gameboy; ‘Smurfs’ Nightmare’ being the 2nd one. The hallmarks of his work are all over this; amazing instrumentation and technique with an array of different sounds, catchy melodies and punchy percussion. Every area of the game has a memorable track and the overall quality of the soundtrack is high, even by his standards. The music for ‘The Strange Planet’ level is the GBC’s equivalent of ‘The Moon’ theme from Ducktales on NES. It’s an iconic and powerful piece; perhaps the single best piece of music on the entire system. It’s in the video I’ve linked so take a listen.

If you like what you hear, I really urge you to check out more of this guy’s music. He’s got a very distinctive style and his music is great to listen to casually.

Number 4: Pokemon R/B/Y (Composer: Junichi Masuda)

We all knew this one was coming. There’s no escaping the game that spawned the phenomenon that has changed the face of gaming and entertainment forever. And there’s nothing I can say about it. What could I possibly say about this that you don’t know already? It’s Pokemon and it would be sacrilege not to include it on the list. If you grew up with it, the Pewter City, Celadon City and Wild Pokemon Battle themes will be in your head for the rest of your days. And the theme for Lavender Town will be with you when you’re on your deathbed.

Number 3: Pokemon Trading Card Game (Composer: Ichiro Shimakura)

Another Pokemon game, but some of you may be unfamiliar with this one. Yes, they did actually make a GB game based on the trading card game. A terrible idea? Surprisingly no.

Aside from being a really solid and enjoyable game, this game always stuck out to me as a kid for its soundtrack. And now that it’s a bit of a rarity, it’s gratifying to find that ‘Pokemon TCG’ is now lauded by many for having one of the best soundtracks on the system. The game is full of really amazing, intricate and technically adept compositions that are immediately ear-catching. But I want to mention the battle themes in particular as they are some of the most intense battle themes I’ve heard in any game from this generation. They’re so well-constructed, progressing smoothly and gradually building up in a crescendo to an explosive climax and then looping all over again.

Funny thing is, these guys aren’t fighting for their lives; they’re playing CARDS. No doubt about it: if you want to make card games seriuz bizniz, this is the way to do it. That said, I don’t wish to detract from the other tracks. The rest of the soundtrack is excellent and it actually rivals the mainstream Pokemon games, which is quite an achievement. There was a sequel to this game that was, sadly, only released in Japan; its music is just as stellar.

Number 2: Pokemon G/S/C (Composers: Junichi Masuda, Go Ichinose, M. Aoki)

Yeah, I know. Three Pokemon games in the top 4. I’m sorry if that seems terribly predictable and boring. At least there’s one more game to go on this list that will hopefully hold your interest. Thing is, I’d be lying to you if I didn’t think these games were practically synonymous with the Gameboy’s legacy. When you think of the word ‘Gameboy’, you think of Pokemon. And when I think of the word ‘nostalgia’, I think of the theme song for Cherrygrove City from my copy of ‘Pokemon Gold’.

‘Pokemon Blue’ was the first GB game I played as a kid, but it was ‘Pokemon Gold’ that really left an impression on me. I was absolutely blown away when the 2nd generation games came out. ‘Pokemon Gold’ struck me as a real (pun not intended) evolution from the previous games, especially in terms of presentation. The songs really stepped it up with regards to sound design; the composers got more creative in experimenting with flute leads and a host of different bass sounds. Battle themes were more intense, Town and Dungeon tracks were more expressive and SFX were more interesting! It wasn’t just the graphics that were more colourful in 2nd gen; the soundtrack was more vibrant and alive too.

The first three generations of Pokemon games had amazing soundtracks, but 2nd gen gets my vote as the best of the best. If people say that they don’t find the G/S/C soundtracks as memorable as the songs from Red, Blue and Yellow, it’s worth considering how much music there is in 2nd gen Pokemon. The unique music for almost every area of the game, the multitude of variations on the battle themes, all the extra tracks in ‘Pokemon Crystal’, rehashed tracks when you revisit the Kanto region, the radio tunes and jingles – there is a gargantuan amount of music packed on to these small cartridges. And it’s all brilliant.

Number 1: Shantae (Composer: Jake Kaufman)

This is a game about a belly dancing half-genie who fights pirates! It’s not your standard fare, it’s not Pokemon and it’s not hugely well-known outside of retro gaming circles. As one of the last games to be released for the GBC as late as 2002, a full year after the release of the Gameboy Advance, Wayforward’s ‘Shantae’ faced some stiff competition from the next-gen of handhelds. And yet, in spite of its inevitably poor sales, ‘Shantae’ is fondly remembered as a remarkable demonstration of the Gameboy’s full potential as a piece of hardware. Every aspect of Shantae’s presentation is astounding, not the least helped by Jake ‘virt’ Kaufman’s stunning soundtrack.

To list a few of musical influences he draws on in his work on ‘Shantae’: Eastern, Bollywood, hip-hop, dance, ambient, prog rock and heavy metal. If you’re wondering how this range of influences and styles can be conveyed with such a primitive soundchip, I can only say listen to it yourself. It’s the most well-realised and ambitious GBC soundtrack ever written, and it complements this quirky, infinitely charming game perfectly. As soon as you start the game up and hear that epic, sweeping Title theme, you know you’re about to experience something special; a game unlike anything else on the system.

It’s a technical marvel too; easily one of the most complex soundtracks on the system. As someone with a solid understanding of chip music and the technical limitations imposed by the soundchips of the earlier gaming consoles, some of the technical wizardry Virt performs in this soundtrack blows my mind. He relies on a mix of delicate instrumentation, swelling arpeggios and duty cycles to achieve a wide range of timbres and tones, all mixed with some extremely punchy percussion. It’s one of the most carefully-constructed chip soundtracks I’ve heard and I was astonished the first time I experienced it as I played through.

Virt is still writing music for games today (Contra 4, Red Faction Guerilla, Bloodrayne: Betrayal, Ducktales Remastered and many more), as well as releasing his own independent chip albums, but I still view the soundtrack of ‘Shantae’ as one of his real masterpieces.

I will probably take it upon myself to do a full review of this game at some point as it really is an unknown and unappreciated little gem of a title.

 

 

So there’s my list of the top 10 Gameboy/GBC soundtracks. This was a tricky list to make; I could probably have made a top 30, maybe even a top 50, and still have to miss out some games. So here are some honourable mentions (though there are so many more titles I’d like to mention!).

Honourable mentions:

Mega Man V (Composer: Kouji Murata)

Oh Mega Man. My favourite gaming series and protagonist, and yet I couldn’t find a spot for you on the top 10 list? Sorry buddy, that’s just how the list panned out ­– there was simply no room. Blame an oversaturated market – though, let’s be fair, Capcom didn’t exactly help in that regard. While Mega Man had a slew of releases on classic Gameboy that were essentially portable remakes of the earlier NES games, Mega Man V was entirely its own thing. Its soundtrack is excellent and it stands tall alongside the NES classics.

Das Geheimnis der Happy Hippo-Insel (Composer: Stello Doussis)

This game deserves a mention for one reason – sheer technical madness.

The title track (that I’ve linked as a video) may be a wonderful homage to/rip-off of ‘Under The Sea’ from The Little Mermaid but this game’s soundtrack is one of the most technically advanced on the system, characterised by lively backing chords, massive percussion and punchy basslines. The composition style is reminiscent of old Commodore 64 chiptunes and I suspect these to be conversions of some sort, but damn. This is some gloriously over-the-top chip madness.

Although the music is credited under the name ‘Stello Doussis’, this is most likely a pseudonym for another notable demoscene chip-artist – I would suspect that it’s Jeroen Tel. If you want another sample of this artist’s work (whoever they are), check out ‘Ottifanten – Kommando Stoertebeker’. It’s just as crazy as this one and a real demonstration of the Gameboy soundchip being pushed to its absolute limits.

Ok – no more ultra-obscure German carts, I promise.

EVERY TUROK GAME (Composer: Alberto Jose Gonzalez)

That’s right; every GB Turok game is worth your time, because Alberto Gonzalez did the soundtracks for all of them! Special mention should go to ‘Turok 2 – Seeds of Evil’ and ‘Turok – Rage Wars’. ‘Rage Wars’ contains some of his most vibrant and technically impressive music from his library; but unfortunately there aren’t many videos of it on Youtube. ‘Turok 2’, on the other hand, is flat-out heavy and hard-hitting. Just listen to the video I’ve attached; it’s one of the most badass tunes you’ll ever hear from those tiny Gameboy speakers.

Radikal Bikers (Composer: Alberto Jose Gonzalez)

Another Alberto Gonzalez soundtrack, though this game was never released. It’s a real shame because this game’s soundtrack is… well… radical. It’s like a mix of his trademark punchy percussion with some good old hard-rock riffage. Real 8-bit biker music – rad?

Warlocked (Composer: Jeroen Tel)

C64 legend Jeroen Tel (the real one this time) did the music for this ambitious real-time strategy title. What’s cool about this one is that he basically limited himself to using two channels to free up a Pulse channel for in-game sound effects (though this isn’t the case for the Title music that I’ve linked here). If you like the idea of hearing some minimalist orchestral-style chiptunes, check this out! The game has a sound test mode that features a goblin playing all the tracks from the game on a church organ. You can tell they had their priorities straight!

Some write songs about love. Some write songs about their own personal hardships and troubling experiences. Some write songs concerned with mortality and death. And some people write entire albums about 4th dimensional beings with a thirst for coffee. Not many, granted; only one person springs to mind.

Ziltoidtheomniscientcover

Enter Devin Townsend – Canadian metal giant and a keen obsession of mine over the last few months, to the point where I’m in severe danger of developing some kind of man-crush. I remember reading a post online from a fellow fan that said ‘Upon discovering Devin Townsend, prepare to never listen to any other band ever again.’ How prophetic that post turned out to be; I seldom listen to anything else these days.

Who is he exactly? He’s a remarkably talented, prolific and surprisingly versatile musician and producer; a real personality in the metal scene who was been around for longer than most people realise. He got his start working with guitar virtuoso Steve Vai, lending his vocals to the 1993 release Sex & Religion as part of Vai’s experiment of forming a ‘supergroup’ of musicians. He quickly broke off from Vai to form his own band, the aggressive extreme/thrash band Strapping Young Lad. SYL released a number of albums over the next few years. Meanwhile, Devin released a stream of albums for his solo project under his own record label, HevyDevy Records. This guy has a work ethic I could only dream of. He eventually disbanded SYL to spend more time with his family – though he didn’t really slow down. He released Ziltoid the Omniscient later that year and has been cranking out albums at a brisk pace ever since – both as solo releases and also under his newly formed ‘Devin Townsend Project’. It’s tricky to pigeonhole Devin Townsend; his trademark style consists of heavy rock/metal with prog elements, though he’s released plenty of ambient, new age and acoustic material too.

So, Ziltoid the Omniscient. An album he began work on after the birth of his first child. An album he reportedly spent a solid four months working on in isolation. He wrote and produced this entire album himself – an impressive feat as I rank it as one of his best releases to date. Devin has since gone on to popularise the character of Ziltoid with his live shows, skits, a radio show and an upcoming sequel to this album, Z2! Seeing as Z2 is due out soon, shortly after his most recent side-project in the duet Casualties of Cool (this man doesn’t sleep!), I think now might be a good time to talk about what is pretty much destined to be one of my favourite albums for a long time. Personally, I wouldn’t be against seeing this become a trilogy – a ‘Ziltoid Saga’ even. The sci-fi genre has certainly suffered worse slights.

Before I begin, though, I think I should clarify one important thing: this album is not a comedy act. The premise, about an alien who invades Earth in search of the Universe’s ultimate cup of coffee to fuel his time-travelling powers, is of course rooted in parody and the album’s story is full of goofy dialogue and characters mixed with cheesy narration and catch-phrases. I’m aware that some listeners may find this constant silliness to be cloying and it’s not entirely representative of DT’s work as a whole. Once a character named ‘Captain Spectacular’ is introduced halfway through the album, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve stumbled across Tenacious D’s scraps. But whatever you do, don’t make the mistake of dismissing it solely on the grounds of its comical tone (you joyless prats). This album, as I mentioned earlier, is one of DT’s finest works in terms of songwriting, production and overall ambition. Make no mistake; in spite of Dev’s modest attitude in interviews about this ‘jokey’ album, he put a ridiculous amount of effort into this. Dev exhibits a lot of passion for his craft and seems to genuinely enjoy the music he writes, and his eccentric brand of humour is reflective of that; sort of a modern Frank Zappa. I often get a chuckle out of it even after having listening to it so many times; it reminds me that the guy is doing what he loves and is getting a real kick out of it.

Some of his most recent releases, most notably 2013’s Epicloud, have seen DT experiment with wildly over-the-top production – angelic choirs and extremely heavy use of echo and similar mastering. While I’m not opposed to some craziness in the Mix, I will say that Ziltoid the Omniscient features some of Devin Townsend’s most well-balanced and effective production work, while maintaining his own unique sound. He mixes a fantastic set of clear and crisp guitar tones with a balance of heavy riffs, sweeping arpeggios and ghostly spacey-ambience that feels perfectly in-line with his previous work, but is still both striking and bold. The only slight weakness in the production is the drums; they were programmed from a drum machine that he, quite literally, borrowed from Meshuggah – perhaps not ideal but it gets the job done. He makes up for these deficiencies by writing some truly awesome patterns that I air-drum to all the time – but strictly only in the privacy of my own house.

After an introduction and a declaration of Ziltoid’s mission statement in ‘ZTO’ that perfectly sets the tone of the album, we open with ‘By Your Command’. It’s a chugging, memorable number with a lot of rapid arpeggios intercut with more daft narration. ‘Ziltoidia Attaxx!!!’ features a galloping riff, super-fast double bass peddling and a wildly dissonant, wanky solo from Ziltoid – Dev doesn’t shred as often as some guitarists, but he’s damn creative when he does. This leads into ‘Solar Winds’, a real standout track. It starts out as a delicate, atmospheric piece with delicate vocals, which then shifts to a rousing power ballad and then a set of superb riffs. It’s an epic track with plenty of emotion, atmosphere and power, and it transitions through these varying sections smoothly – even if it ends with the human rebels narrowly escaping Ziltoid’s grasp. Phooey!

So how do you follow up a track like that? You don’t let up, that’s what. ‘Hyperdrive’ is a crowd favourite and is instantly accessible for any listener. With dreamlike vocals and insanely catchy riffs, it’s an instant classic and one of DT’s most widely beloved tracks. ‘N9’ is another great song, though a bit more of a mixed bag than the rest of the album – in more ways than one. The initial verse riff, despite some great lyrical melodies, can get a bit repetitive, but the song quickly evolves into something much bigger, more all-encompassing. The song concludes with a groove metal riff that vaguely Arabian tones feel like a call-back to ‘ZTO’ at the beginning of the album; if my suspicion is correct, that’s some fantastic attention to detail. Next up is ‘Planet Smasher’, a real fist-pumper of a track. The opening is pretty intense; a sinister guitar riff over Ziltoid’s musings. I have to draw attention to the double bass kick on both syllables of Ziltoid’s ‘Indeed’ catchphrase – just another sly small touch I absolutely loved. From there the song explodes with huge death-metal growls, a brutal verse riff and an incredible anthem of a chorus that has this mechanical, semi-futuristic quality to it. The hulking character of ‘The Planet Smasher’ may claim to hate musicals, but if I were a cosmic Doomsday weapon, I couldn’t wish for a more badass theme tune!

One more interlude and then we’re treated to another epic piece with ‘Colour Your World’. It opens with a simple yet effective thrashy riff that always reminds me of just how wonderfully powerful DT’s guitar tone is on this album. It also gives us a striking section that begins ‘I’m Ziltoid/I don’t give a shit!/I live above Earth/In a big rocket ship!’ After the thunderous breakdown we enter a beautifully spacey, washed-out section of weaving arpeggios and melodic vocals, building up to a vicious outro that leads into the final song of the album: ‘The Greys’. And what a way to finish. The relaxed, spacey ambience and dreamy atmosphere really come into full force here with delicate yet notably whimpering, hushed vocals and a driving guitar riff. The chorus is mournful, abstract and deeply evocative; I love the use of imagery in the lyrics – the extension of the phrase ‘Greys’ (referring, of course, to aliens) as a description of colour and how the dream world is washed away in a flood of grey. The exploitation of this homograph is just a genius bit of lyricism from DT. Everything about this song screams ‘finale’ and it’s a hugely powerful reverie. Who thought an album about aliens and coffee could provoke so many emotions? The album ends on a humorous note that sheds some light on the ‘story’ of the album.

So I’m all hyped up for Z2, but will it be as good as this one? The thing about DT’s solo work, and his new Devin Townsend Project, is that his tendency for experimentation doesn’t always result in the highest quality, or even just what you were hoping for as a fan. This does not and has never bothered me; an artist can do as he or she pleases, and Devin has spent years building up a unique style and image alongside his bouts of experimentation. One thing is for certain in my mind though – the guy is a huge musical talent and Ziltoid The Omniscient is perhaps the most consistently fantastic album he has written/recorded/produced to date. Never mind that he did this entirely by himself –the overall quality of the album is outstanding by any standards; there are no weak tracks and each one is polished and fully-realised. I’ve noted some slip-ups in bits of DT’s previous production work but there are no such issues here. He also deserves some credit for attempting to inject some genuinely funny humour into the genre; who said metal has to be dour and miserable all the time? Likewise, the humour doesn’t have to compromise the beautiful and powerful elements of the music on display. It’s a remarkable achievement from a hugely talented individual and it’s one of my favourite metal albums, full stop.

I wish DT the best of success for the future, though he’s been doing this before I could crawl. He’s been pushing hard to make Devin Townsend Project as big a mainstream success as possible and I’m only too happy to recommend his music to, well, anyone really! Excluding my Grandma (some bits of it may be lost on her), anyone who enjoys great musicianship, humour and creativity or, hell, just wants to hear something different should check this out. Give it a spin, and you too may be captivated by the tale of one alien’s journey across time and space to discover the secrets of the Universe, the true nature of his reality and a good cup of coffee.

 

9/10

Favourite track: The Greys (a really tough one, Planet Smasher is probably second!)

I’ve been using 3DS games as a way of trying to make my early gaming posts on this blog seem more relevant to modern gaming. There are more 3DS games I’ve yet to mention but I want to briefly throw away the relevancy and talk about a game released in 1997, one of my fonder gaming memories: Claw. My Dad ordered a copy for me all the way from Canada after I was addicted to playing it at my cousin’s house. And it’s not just nostalgia that makes me sing its praise; it is genuinely one of the best platformers I’ve ever played. If any game is deserving of an HD remake, it’s this one.

Claw_Coverart

You play as Captain Nathaniel Joseph Claw, a feline pirate captain in search of fame and fortune. After being captured by Captain La Rauxe of the Spanish Armada (of dogs!), Claw finds a piece of a map detailing the location of the elusive Amulet of Nine Lives – a mystical treasure of great power. He decides to break free from his canine captors, seek revenge for his lost ship and crew, and hunt for the Amulet and its gemstones. Across the course of the story you’ll travel through deep forests, port towns, mysterious caves and more as you punch, kick and blast your way through a horde of enemies.

In terms of graphics, I would say that they’re very impressive for the time. Although I’m more of a PC gamer now, I didn’t play many PC games back in the day so I can’t speak with any great certainty about how it compares to other 1997 titles, but it certainly compares favourably to major DOS titles like Jazz Jackrabbit released just a couple years prior. The environments in each level are colourful and beautifully detailed with a range of well-animated enemies. The game includes some nice animated cutscenes which I could never get to run on our old computer!

The gameplay is some of the best I’ve seen in a platformer. It’s where this game gets its lasting appeal from and I can’t praise it enough. Combat is fluid and extremely satisfying. Stand closer to your enemy and you can deliver a punch or kick for additional damage – a great risk vs. reward mechanic. One awesome feature is the ability to pick up objects; you can pick up explosive barrels and throw them at your enemies, or you can pick up the enemies themselves and chuck them screaming into a pit of spikes or off cliffs! You can also find a set of special weapons; your pistol, ‘magic claw’ and dynamite weapons are in limited supply but they’re very useful for dealing with difficult sections. There are also a mass of additional power-ups, such as elemental swords which are fantastic for clearing groups of enemies and, in true pirating fashion, a ton of gold to loot.

There are a good range of enemies that you’ll have to overcome, each one with different attacks and behaviours. Certain types of enemy will reappear in later levels with extra health or the ability to block your attacks, but what’s impressive is that their AI evolves too. Take the musketeer enemy as an example – in Level 1, you can easily duck underneath their shots and they won’t be able to hit you. However, if you try ducking under their shots in Level 2, they will retaliate by firing a 2nd shot closer to the ground. Get too close to them and they’ll swipe at you with the stock of their musket. The variety of enemies and their adaptations in later levels makes every level of Claw a unique experience.

The controls are simple but very effective; Claw’s movements are smooth, responsive and unhindered by momentum. The game is hard, no doubt about it; there are a lot of dicey jumps that’ll result in instant death if you miss and it can be frustrating. Thankfully, the simplistic control scheme and responsive moments create a ‘pure’ yet challenging platforming experience. It’s tough but fair – if you screw up there’s always something you could have done better.

This brings me on to level design, one of Claw’s strongest assets. If I were ever to develop a game myself, I would take cues from the intelligent and measured approach to level design that Monolith took with Claw. There are only 14 main levels, but each one is expansive and lavishly detailed, full of branching paths, optional gauntlets and masses of secrets. These lengthy levels have plenty of check points and two mid-level save points, meaning that you can continue halfway through if you get a Game Over. Enemy positioning and placement of traps/pitfalls are placed in a way to be deliberately challenging, but it never comes across as completely obnoxious or insurmountable thanks to the great controls. Although I would argue that some of the hidden power-ups aren’t worth the risk of navigating an elaborate death trap, Claw’s level design is some of the best I’ve ever seen.

The sound design in this game is just fantastic and a bit of a step forward for platformers of the time. Each level features several layers of sound: the MIDI soundtrack, a layer of ambience and background sounds mixed in with a wealth of sound FX and vocals; it creates a very rich soundscape that really brings the levels to life. The MIDI soundtrack was composed with the default GS Wavetable MIDI synth that comes packaged with every version of Windows in mind, and which features some notoriously nasty-sounding instruments. Despite this, the composer (whoever they are!) overcame these technical limitations with some fantastically detailed orchestral compositions. The main theme for Claw (that plays in Level 1) will be in your head forever once you’ve heard it! The sound effects are excellent and surprisingly conducive to the gameplay. The collectable gold, for instance, only serves to get points that build towards an extra life, but the sound effects for picking it up are so satisfying you’ll always crave more. I’ve died too many times to count by getting greedy and bolting for a golden sceptre or crown above a set of precarious-looking platforms, only to fall face-first into a pit of spikes. It really gets the loot-hoarding pirate in me going (and proves that I’d make a terrible pirate).

As I’ve already mentioned, the game features in-game character vocals; usually from the captain himself. Claw makes his own context-sensitive remarks about aspects of the level or when he’s brawling with an enemy. While running down a long corridor he’ll scowl “I don’t need any more exercise!” Upon encountering a nasty-looking set of crumbling platforms hovering over a spike pit, he’ll remark “What a death trap!” When taking down a flock of angry seagulls in the port town level, he’ll snarl “Bloody birds!” It’s a really nice touch that adds a lot of personality and charm to our protagonist. The enemies too have their own speech snippets, whether it’s engaging in idle chit-chat on patrol or acting surprised when they spot Claw.

As I’ve already mentioned, Claw is a challenging game but the difficulty curve is almost perfect. The difficulty increases incrementally over each level and each level introduces new enemies, new obstacles and new mechanics to learn. The first level is an easy ride, with some challenging optional sections, but the difficulty quickly ramps up. There’s a section of rapidly shifting platforms placed just before the final boss that seems ludicrously tough on appearance, but you can tell the developers were having fun with it, including it as a ‘rite of passage’ for those wanting to fight the final boss. Even Claw makes an astonished remark about how insane it looks! It’s doable, but it’ll put your reflexes to the test.

One area where the game is unfortunately lacking is its boss battles. About half of the boss battles in Claw are brawls; these bosses are generally impervious to your special weapons so the only option is fight them toe-to-toe. However, their fast attacks, blocks and unpredictable AI means you’ll end up taking a lot of hits in the process. This removes any strategy in boss fights and turns them into battles of attrition. The most annoying example of this is the 2nd boss, Katherine. Her whip gives her rapid ranged attacks and she leaps around the battlefield constantly making her infuriatingly difficult to hit with melee attacks. These boss battles are a blemish on an otherwise exceptional game. Thankfully, these scrappy battles are balanced out with some pattern-based bosses that are more predictable and fair. Really, though, this small problem doesn’t detract from the rest of the game.

Claw is an extremely satisfying and engaging platformer. It’s a game I go back to play frequently and it never gets old. Its presentation is excellent with great graphics and music, its gameplay and controls are simple yet incredibly gratifying and it still feels fresh after almost 20 years. Aside from some boss battles and a baffling hitbox issue with one type of enemy, Claw is a very polished game. Each level is a learning experience, but a joy to learn and master. Some may find it to be a bit too difficult and they may get frustrated as the deaths tally up, but Claw is never unfair. It is, in my opinion, a timeless experience and I can’t recommend it enough for anyone who loves action platformers.

If what I’ve said about Claw has piqued your interest and you’re considering trying it yourself, I’ve got some good news: the game is abandonware. While it is still listed on their website, Monolith has abandoned the rights to the game and it can be downloaded legally and for free (unless you want to make a donation to the fine folks who keep the site running!). Here’s a link if you’re interested in checking it out.

This is a patched version which lowers the difficulty a little bit, though it’s still very challenging!

 

9/10

 

As an addendum to this review, I assumed that a sequel was never released for Claw. However, I did some research and it turns out that there was indeed going to be a sequel to Claw. Announced by Techland in 2007 as Captain Claw 2, the game went through a series of delays and name changes. And somehow, it all resulted in this.

Still waiting on that HD remake!