Thunderbird Strike

Thunderbird Strike LogoDeveloper: Elizabeth LaPensée
First Release: October, 2017
Version Played: iPad and PC
Available: Apple iOS | Android | PC (Direct Download)

A thunderbird uses lightning to destroy a snake (an oil pipeline) consuming the land.

This is a short sidescrolling game, focusing on the theme of oil pipelines being built on Indigenous land. There are three levels, one of which is a boss fight. Each level has a brief animation to introduce it. I initially tried the iPad version, but that was too glitchy to play. It crashed either at the end of the first level or the end of the second level introduction animation. This was consistent, so I couldn’t play beyond the first level on the iPad. I didn’t experience any crashes on the PC version, which is the one I played to the end.

I liked the general concept of the levels. The thunderbird flies into the clouds to gather lightning. The lightning can then be fired to destroy industrial items or to restore living things. There’s no damage or death for the thunderbird, so it doesn’t matter how well the player does. This is a good feature for a gamer who wants to experience it, but may not be too good at controlling the bird.

However, there were elements I didn’t like in the gameplay. There’s no charge meter for the lightning, which makes it difficult to tell when the bird needs more lightning. There is a sound when it runs out completely, but that doesn’t help much for players who don’t use sound. There is a crackling visual, but it’s subtle, and isn’t really usable on devices with touchscreens where fingers cover the bird. It is also hard sometimes to see if the lightning has hit, which was particularly an issue in the boss level where I didn’t appear to be able to do any damage at the start, and I have no idea why it wasn’t working.

I do wish there’d been a few more levels. It felt like I was just getting going when it ended (and the points on the snake map suggest this might have been the intention, as there are more points than levels).

A scene from Thunderbird Strike

Image Caption: A blue thunderbird fires lightning at an industrial vehicle. Rain clouds are above a bleak landscape with mountains in the distance. The art is 2D with outlines on the main subjects and textured fills and backgrounds.

The strongest element is the art. It’s a beautiful style, with clear outlines and textured fills. As the outline moves, the texture stays in place, which is a nice effect. The destroyable items are industrial machines and pipes. Activatable items include animal skeletons and pipeline protestors. Each level has a distinct visual theme.

The weakest area is the sound, which doesn’t fit very well with the rest of it. The spoken words are more like a retro fighting game, with announcements of “fatal strike” and similar. The music doesn’t match where it appears. For example, the first level has a stirring boss fight feel to the music. Added to this, there are no options to turn sound elements off or down.

Overall, it’s a good concept for a game. I really liked being able to repair the damage with the lightning, as well as destroy the industrial things. The artwork and animation were good. But it is a little rough around the edges, particularly when it comes to the sound design and the crashing issues with the iPad version.

Everything

Everything Game LogoDeveloper: David OReilly
First Release: 21st March, 2017
Version Played: PlayStation 4
Available: PS Store US | PS Store UK | Steam

You are everything and everything is nothing.

This is a simulator where you can become any of the things in the game. You start as an animal (I was a sheep). Wandering around will yield guidance on how it works and new abilities will be unlocked. Alternatively, you can leave the controls and let the game play itself, because the game doesn’t need the player to guide it. This would be an odd choice in most games, but it fits the themes well. Nothing is more essential than anything else, and that includes the player.

The art and animation choices are immediately apparent. The models are low detail and the land animals don’t animate. Instead, they either roll over end to end or skitter along, like they were toy animals being pushed by a child. Some things do have basic animations, such as birds flapping their wings and plants growing. I mostly didn’t have a problem with the animations, but the blur when ascending/descending into things did cause some motion sickness. I did like that the thunder storms didn’t have bright flashes of light (I’d note for those with flash issues, some of the disasters are a bit flashy, but they can be disabled).

Once the ability to ascend/descend to different scales is unlocked, it gets a whole lot more interesting. You can descend into the grass and then the microscopic level. You can ascend to continents, planets and galaxies. As the game continues, you get abilities that mean being able to change the size and type of thing, should you want to do so. I released giant geckos on one continent and left miniature planets between cracks in a city pavement.

During all this, it’s possible to listen to the thoughts of some of the other things. These are collected and used to generate your own thoughts. Those generated thoughts range from nonsensical to the inadvertently profound.

verything Screenshot: Thoughtful Flats

Image Caption: I’m a block of flats framed against the sky and having a thought constructed from the thoughts I’ve heard. The thought reads: “Is ludicrous to go on forever, but sometimes we make them short. Remember that happens.”

The narration is from a series of lectures by the philosopher Alan Watts. They were recorded between 1965 and 1973. His lectures deal with the general nature of reality, and that divisions are something that people create, rather than an innate part of the universe. At the same time, there are also elements of the lectures that are dated. Despite talking about how divisions are culturally constructed, he still considers men and women to be inherently opposite and unknowable to each other. Trying to explain anxiety disorders in terms of a philosophical crisis also really doesn’t work. The lectures weren’t anything new to me in terms of basic concepts, but they were interesting from a historical perspective. He’s a good speaker who explains his ideas clearly.

There aren’t many set goals in the game, as it focuses more on being a sandbox. There is the tutorial to complete, though it’s somewhat more lengthy and involved than most things labelled as tutorials. I enjoyed the ending and the unique area for the tutorial. Broader goals are to complete the catalogue of different things and listen to all the narration. I hit a few issues with collecting all the things, as some of the things disappeared from my universe. This can be solved, as each area can be reset to its starting point, which brought them back.

Everything Screenshot: Rolling Unicorns

Image Caption: I’m a herd of rolling white unicorns on a purple alien world with giant bacteriophages. The white circle at the top is the game interface.

I enjoyed wandering around to find the things and listening to the lectures. It was interesting to see a game with world/universe simulator themes, but not from a perspective where the player is a deity looking down on the playing area. The player is an ordinary thing in the universe and manipulates it from that position. Time does not go faster or slower based on global game settings, but by becoming things with different perceptions of the passage of time. The exploration side appealed to my love of walking simulator games, as there were a number of environments to explore.

However, there are some weaknesses. The vehicle behaviour has some issues, which means cars get stuck running down the river instead of on the road. An area has train viaducts, but the trains run on the grass next to them. Also, some scales are a little sparse on things. This is particularly true of the larger scales. It would have been nice to see some gas giants and a wider range of stars. The range of options to customise the experience was mostly good, but an instant alternative to the ascend/descend blur would have been a useful accessibility feature.

This game will appeal to players looking for an experience to wander around in. It’s not a game for players looking for strong narratives or structure. Note that it does discuss themes like death, and some things have thoughts that are suicidal or self-hating, so it may not be the game to play when needing a break from that.

The Foxfire Lights – Elizabeth O’Connell

Foxfire Lights CoverSeries: Hal Bishop Mysteries, #2
First Published: 26th August, 2016
Genre: Historical Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Jem and his brother Hal are called to break another curse. Lord Ransom’s youngest child is sick under strange circumstances.

The setup for this book is very similar to the first in the series. A child is cursed due to events in the family’s past. Jem and Hal have to uncover those events to understand the curse. It’s based on making deals with spirits, which is resolved in a similar way. It also repeats a fair bit of character development, as Hal goes back to not wanting to share his thoughts with Jem. This means there isn’t really any progress on the overall series story of figuring out what happened to Jem and Hal’s father.

There are some areas of improvement. In the first book, only magical disabilities were shown. In this, there is some sickness due to magic, but there’s also a disabled supporting character. Matthew, one of the sons of Lord Ransom, was born with a back injury and is non-neurotypical. There’s the suggestion that he doesn’t feel empathy (rather than just not showing empathy). It’s made very clear this isn’t magical, and a positive future is suggested for him.

Isabella, Lord Ransom’s wife, is from Argentina. She’s not particularly fleshed out as a character. I’d have liked more of her story, even if it wasn’t directly related to the local events.

A character is blinded in one eye towards the end, though it’s late enough that there’s not a lot to say about it in this book.

It isn’t a bad book and will appeal to people who enjoyed the first book. A lot of the things that stood out in the first are apparent here. The world is one where industrial magic is common. The curse breaking provides opportunities for interesting investigations. There’s folklore woven into the narrative. It just feels like it repeats too much from the first book, rather than building on that foundation.

[A copy of this book was received from the author for review purposes]

Hortense and the Shadow – Natalia O’Hara (author), Lauren O’Hara (illustrator)

Hortense and the Shadow CoverFirst Published: 5th October, 2017
Genre: Children’s Fairytale Fantasy / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Hortense hates her shadow and wants to get rid of it.

I loved the atmosphere of the book. It’s an eerie fairytale, with Hortense living alone in a dark wood, and her shadow as something that can act independently.

There’s a poetic feel and it rhymes in places. Some of the pages have words spread out in artistic ways. This is great for children who love finding words, but could hinder those who struggle. The main thing is to be ready to help struggling readers find their way.

The artwork is intricate in muted tones. The creators were inspired by stories from their Polish grandmother, which particularly shows in the setting. The winters are snowy. The characters wear fur hats and fur-lined clothing. They have black hair and high cheekbones. This is one time where having Eastern European characters as the villains (a group of bandits) actually works, because Hortense is clearly the same ethnicity. It’s not saying that criminals look like this and heroes look like that.

The book has an overall positive message about self (or shadow) acceptance. I appreciated that when Hortense is shouting at her shadow, she doesn’t resort to ableist slurs or similar. It’s a cute book, and will appeal to children who like fairytales with a touch of darkness.

[A copy of this book was received from the publisher for review purposes]

Ada Twist, Scientist – Andrea Beaty (author), David Roberts (illustrator)

Ada Twist CoverFirst Published: 6th September, 2016
Genre: Children’s Contemporary Fiction / Picture Book
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Ada Marie Twist loves to explore things and ask questions. It might just be that she’s a scientist.

The story is in rhyming verse and broadly splits into two parts. The opening has Ada as a baby growing up. Her family notice that she loves to explore things, along with the chaos this causes. Once she starts talking, she has endless questions about the world. This introduces the general idea of the things that make a good scientist.

I liked that Ada doesn’t speak until she’s a toddler. Children don’t follow an exact timeline of development, and it’s treated as something to not worry about. However, the text does assume she will speak eventually. This could hit the wrong way for children who are non-verbal, in presenting speech as something that will happen for everyone.

This thread wouldn’t have sustained the whole book, but it then switches to the second part. Ada notices a really terrible smell, and decides to investigate what’s causing it. She doesn’t find the solution, but the evidence is there in the pictures and the answer can be guessed. This shows science doesn’t have all the answers and encourages readers to come up with the answer. However, it does mean the plot trails off rather than having a firm resolution. This may not work for some readers.

The artwork is done with watercolour, pen and ink. Graph paper and pencil elements are used for the backgrounds. The characters have great expressions. I especially like Ada’s sibling, who is often shown pointing at Ada when she’s made a mess.

This book is in a series of similar books about children with science and technology interests. There’s some reference to that, as they all go to the same school, but it isn’t needed to read the others before this one. It is very clear that it’s an American school, as Ada’s class is referred to by grade, so it could cause some confusion for children in other countries.

My biggest reservation happens outside the story, because there is an author’s note at the end. Ada’s namesakes are introduced: Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie. There’s also a comment that women have always been involved in science. This is true, but the book shows Ada as a black girl. The two named examples are not. I’d have liked to see at least one black woman named, even if she wasn’t Ada’s namesake. The obstacles Ada (and readers like her) will face are not only going to be about gender.

In general, I thought it was a cute book with a positive message about young girls interested in science. The way the plot ends is likely to work for some readers and not for others, so that’s worth keeping in mind. The family cat does face some peril at points in the story, but it’s stopped before the cat comes to any harm.