Wildwitch: Wildfire – Lene Kaaberbøl (author), Charlotte Barslund (translator), Rohan Eason (illustrator)

Wildfire CoverSeries: Wildwitch, #1
First Published: 7th January, 2016
Genre: Middle Grade Fantasy
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Clara is attacked by a large black cat on the way to school. When she gets sick from the wounds, her mother takes her to visit Aunt Isa for the first time. Isa is a wildwitch, and it looks like Clara might be too. The cat is only the start though. There’s something else going on, and it’s soon apparent that Clara needs training in order to defend herself.

The book looked as though it was inspired by traditional European witches. This is of particular interest to me, given my family connections. I wasn’t disappointed. The wildwitches are clearly based on that, down to having familiars (wildfriends), the nature focus of the magic, and a matriarchal system.

Much of the story is about Clara adjusting to what’s going on. She has to settle into staying with Aunt Isa, learn to get along with fellow apprentice Kahla, and figure out how to be a wildwitch. At the same time, all this means missing her mother and school friends. I liked that other concerns don’t magically disappear for the witches. Clara’s school has to be told she’s sick, to cover for her absence. Isa creates art to make money. The rest of the world doesn’t just fade away because there’s magic in it.

It also touches on systematic issues. The wildwitches aren’t right in every way. Their laws and traditions are subject to change, such as no longer making the ruling council blind themselves, and allowing some men in. Being close to nature doesn’t make an organisation infallible.

The way Clara’s training is handled is realistic. Clara has the raw ability and power, but she doesn’t have precision or control. A few weeks of training doesn’t suddenly make her a master. She’s a sledgehammer compared to Kahla. Wildwitches have to train for a long time. Clara doesn’t get around this because she’s the protagonist.

There were a few things that caught my attention in less positive ways. Kahla is non-white, and her skin is described as cinnamon. I’ll give the book its due that it doesn’t linger on that or keep repeating it, but food descriptions for skin are exotifying. I’m also a little undecided on the statement that blind people tend to be drawn to the council. It’s somewhat implied that it’s because they gain sight through their animals. I can see it might be true for some individuals (especially someone who wasn’t blind from birth), and it’s not stated that blind people are more magical or all drawn this way. But there’s still that implication that not having sight is something that needs patching up. I’d feel more comfortable if there had been blind people in other roles as well, who’d made other choices.

I enjoyed the story. There was a good balance of the more domestic scenes, where Clara is learning and figuring out where she stands, and the action scenes leading to the finale. I look forward to seeing how Clara’s abilities develop, and finding out more about the world of wildwitches.

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

The Oddfits – Tiffany Tsao

Oddfits CoverSeries: The Oddfits Series, #1
First Published: 1st February, 2016
Genre: Fantasy / Novel
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Murgatroyd Floyd doesn’t fit in. He’s the only white child at school, has one friend, and nothing ever seems to work out for him. He’s also an Oddfit, able to visit another land called the More Known World. Once he reaches adulthood, a group who explore that world seek him out.

This is a portal story set in a person’s life before the portal. Murgatroyd sees a few glimpses of the More Known World, but it’s mainly not about that. It’s about his life growing up and living in Singapore. It’s also a story with mature themes written in a children’s book style. Both of these things made me interested in reading it. I did like the early part where Murgatroyd is befriending the ice cream seller. Unfortunately, that didn’t last.

Murgatroyd is abused right from the start. It’s not simply that he feels like he doesn’t fit in, but that the people around him actively try to harm him. This starts with his parents, who make sure his first day at school goes badly, then tell him it’s his fault. The abuse continues into adulthood, where they keep all his earnings, to be sure he doesn’t gain any independence.

The other people in his life are only marginally better. His employer sees him more as a novelty possession to make her restaurant look good, and his best friend is selfish. It only counts as better because they don’t spend as much time with Murgatroyd, so the damage they do is limited compared to his parents.

As the abuse continued, I was increasingly uncomfortable with how it was handled. At first, the tone feels as though the reader is supposed to laugh at the things happening to Murgatroyd. I wasn’t laughing. Later on, this abuse is blamed on the Known World reacting to Murgatroyd being an Oddfit. In other words, blame for the abuse is shifted away from the abusers. They couldn’t help it. Murgatroyd was just different and they had to treat him like that. Which is disturbingly close to how people try to minimise abuse against non-neurotypical children.

There are interesting elements to the story. The idea of the More Known World, and the parts shown of it, was potentially fascinating. It looks set for the series to make some different choice in terms of plot, compared to the usual portal story. Where it falls down is the challenge of making someone’s pre-portal life as exciting as the world on the other side. I don’t feel this book managed it. There wasn’t a whole lot of plot, so it was stretched very thin. There’s a lot of padding, such as the multiple paragraphs taken up listing out food items.

There are some things that may be an issue for readers. There are a few casual bigoted comments made, generally by characters (though some are in the narration). Examples are bystanders fat shaming people, Murgatroyd’s parents using binary gender assumptions as a weapon, and calling an unhealthy home environment schizophrenic. There are also some detailed descriptions of killing animals, as the restaurant where Murgatroyd works slaughters animals as a public entertainment. Basically, the book isn’t as fluffy as it might appear on a quick read of the opening, so go into it knowing that.

I liked some parts of the book enough that I might read the next one. This acted as a prologue more than anything, and it might be the aspect of abusers not being able to help abusing will be subverted later. It’s difficult to tell at this point, as a lot of the nature of the More Known World wasn’t explained. I’d also hope the next book picks up the pace, now that the world and the main players are introduced. This is a book that had potential, but never quite reached it.

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

The Order: 1886

The Order: 1886 Cover

Developer: Ready At Dawn
First Release: 20th February, 2015
Version Played: PS4
Length: Medium

The Order: 1886 is a steampunk game set in London. The Order is a group of knights, named for the original knights of the round table, who prolong their lives by drinking blackwater from the grail. Their mission is to fight the half-breeds (such as the lycans… werewolves by another name).

Though the game has some shooter and stealth elements, it’s mainly about the story. That makes it a good place to start when discussing the game, as this is likely to make or break whether someone enjoys it.

Story

The story follows Sir Galahad, starting with the prologue where he’s being held prisoner by the Order, and flashing back to what led to this. In the flashback, a lot of things are happening in London. The poor are rebelling against oppression. A killer (Jack the Ripper) is targeting prostitutes. The patients of a mental asylum have broken out, and there’s suspicion of a lycan connection. The knights have a lot to deal with, but not everything is as it seems.

Anyone expecting a more common action game narrative of defeating the big bad and saving the day is likely to be disappointed, as it’s not that sort of story. It’s more about Galahad’s personal journey, as he discovers things aren’t as black and white as he assumed, and has to decide where he stands.

One thing I look for in steampunk is how colonial themes are tackled. Some stories are prone to glorifying the British Empire and all it did. The Order doesn’t. Some of the characters certainly think that way, but it’s clear to the player that the poor join the rebellion out of desperation for how they’re treated. The authorities are doing little about the murdered women, and something odd was going down at the asylum.

The supernatural elements are shown as taking advantage of the British Empire’s expansion, rather than being responsible for it. A subtle difference, but an important one, as blaming it all on magic is a common way for stories to avoid addressing history.

In terms of inclusion, there are two Indian women who are important to the story. However, I would have liked to see a wider racial mix among the inhabitants of Whitechapel. At this point in history (and there’s no suggestion that the game version is any different) people moved to London from all parts of the Empire. Few would make it into the upper classes (such as the knights), but the poor workers would be more diverse.

The biggest issue with the story was not developing some of the characters and subplots. The collectables would have been a good way to introduce more information about the things going on at the asylum and hospital. The knights visit a brothel, which makes sense as prostitutes are being targeted by Jack the Ripper. But they don’t actually talk to anyone to find out more about that, which seems like a wasted opportunity. These things could have been fleshed out without giving away everything. And in turn, a little more story in the subplots would have given more space to develop the characters.

Overall though, I enjoyed the story. It was the gameplay where my reaction was more lukewarm.

Gameplay

The shooter parts of the game were solid. It’s cover-based shooting, with a variety of weapons. There are a number of fun science weapons, designed by Tesla (though I would have liked more time to explode things with these). I also liked the tools, such as the lockpicking, morse code sender and circuit breaker. These could have been used more, such as having some puzzles that required them, but the basic mechanism for how they worked was fine. If this was all the gameplay, it would have been fun.

Unfortunately, the game also had quick time events. These can be fiddly for someone like me, as my coordination isn’t the best, and reacting quickly to onscreen prompts is difficult. I could at least retry the cutscenes with quick time events, so I got there eventually. The stopping point was the stealth takedowns. Rather than sneaking up and hitting the takedown key, it has rings around the button prompt. Only at the precise moment the rings hit the prompt, and the buttons highlights, can the takedown be performed successfully. Failure means total failure, as Galahad forgets how to fight if they turn around to face him. Which meant I failed as often as I succeeded. This was hard enough when I had to perform two takedowns in a row. But a later chapter with multiple takedowns was extremely difficult, and not in a fun challenging way. I thought I wouldn’t be able to complete the game due to that chapter. I can’t imagine why any developer would think it was fun to fail, and fail, and fail, and fail, for hours on end. So my assumption is they didn’t consider that quick time events can be a problem for people (I’d note that using an easy difficulty only seems to change the gun fights, not the reaction time for quick time events).

Subtitles

The subtitles had some issues. They were a little small for a start. Fine on the big screen I’m using, but I feel for anyone using them on a smaller screen.

I often got no subtitles for a conversation happening next to me, but at the same time I got subtitles for a conversation happened elsewhere. I would have also liked non-translated subtitles to go with dialogue in other languages (this was especially strange when the French character used the odd French word in mostly English dialogue, and the subtitles translated it… I wanted to know what he actually said).

The game was pretty free of bugs, though I did find one with the subtitles. I picked up a newspaper while a conversation was happening, and the subtitles got stuck on the screen.

It does feel like they needed a tester who uses subtitles regularly.

Graphics and Polish

The game’s graphics are as good as the promotion promised them to be. It sets a high bar for photorealistic games. Outside of my subtitle bug, I didn’t find anything else amiss. There was no getting stuck on geometry, trophies failing to award, save file corruption or other issues of that nature. It was clearly polished to a high standard.

As someone who likes collectables, I would have liked them to have more additional lore in them. I also would have liked a collectables log, so I could track them. The basic system for collectibles is really nice (Galahad can pick them up and look them over), so the potential is there.

No game is perfect, but this one certainly gives the feel of hitting what the developers set out to do.

Conclusions

The Order: 1886 is a beautiful game, with an interesting setting and storyline. It will appeal to steampunk fans, with its airships, Tesla devices and other trappings. For someone who is good at quick time events, it will be a quick play with easy trophies. However, I don’t recommend it for anyone who struggles with quick time events, as the chapters with multiple stealth takedowns will be frustratingly difficult.

I’m on the fence about whether I’d get another game in the series. The stealth takedowns were the least fun I’ve had in a game for a long while, and I’m not sure the story is going to be enough to sign up for that.

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death – M.C. Beaton

Agatha Raisin CoverSeries: Agatha Raisin, #1
First Published: December, 1992
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Available: Amazon.com | Amazon UK

Agatha Raisin takes early retirement from her PR job to move to a quiet Cotswolds village. In order to fit in, she enters the quiche competition with a quiche she bought. When the judge dies after eating her quiche, her deception comes out. But was the death an accident or murder?

The main focus is really on Agatha trying to find where she fits. Her life has been very lonely up to moving to the village, and she feels like an outsider (which brings her to cheat, as she thinks winning will help her fit in). She does spend time questioning suspects and the like, but she isn’t fully committed to the path of the amateur sleuth and has her own doubts about whether it was murder. It’s clear this book is setting her up to believe in herself as a sleuth.

The mystery was relatively straight-forward, though there are several suspects (one of my criticisms of a number of the mysteries I’ve read recently is there’s only one possible suspect).

I found the main character interesting. Agatha is someone who’s had to struggle for everything she’s got in life. She’s abrasive, ruthless and not above cheating to get where she needs to go. During the story, she has to acknowledge that she’s not always the nicest person. But the people around her also have to acknowledge that she’s good at getting stuff done.

In terms of inclusion, some of the characters are rather stereotyped. The one that particularly got the side-eye from me was describing one of the characters as “gypsy-looking”. She was also someone with poor personal hygiene and a gambling problem.

Then there’s Roy, who comes across as the stereotypical gay best friend and is described as effeminate. I did like that Agatha disapproves of some of his later actions as chauvinistic (like wanting to marry a woman purely to help advance his career). It’ll be interesting to see where Roy ends up going with that. Personally, I liked his first friend (implied boyfriend) Steve, who was serious and wrote everything down in a notebook. He made a good contrast with Roy… but I suspect he wasn’t being set up as a regular series character.

There’s also Bill Wong the British-Chinese detective, who I imagine will be a reoccurring role, though there wasn’t that much of him in this one (he’s mostly there to warn Agatha not to get involved, rather than working with her).

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It fulfils its cozy mystery aim of providing a lighter read, with nothing too graphic (there’s some mild violence and a few instances of stronger language). It also made me want to eat quiche (though I avoided the spinach one). My main criticism is the stereotyping and some of the language used to describe marginalised people, which did detract from my enjoyment of the book.

Secret World – Act One Roundup

Dead on a bridge
I reviewed urban fantasy/horror MMO The Secret World shortly after it came out. Since then, I’ve played through the main storyline available at launch and tried out a number of the other activities in the game. The first special event (Hallowe’en) has also happened.

These are my updated thoughts on issues of gameplay and representation.

 

Gameplay

Storyline – Act One

The main story remains strong throughout. A story mission guides the player through each region. Mini stories link each of the areas, and these mini stories vary depending on the character’s faction. The story themes are as follows:

  • Solomon Islands – Zombie invasion, Wabanaki (Native American), Norse.
  • Egypt – Biblical plagues, Aten (Sun Cult), Ancient Egyptian Gods.
  • Transylvania – Forest folklore, vampires, Soviet era, Roma.

Recurring themes are sun cults (including a modern New Age cult, which runs through several of the zones), the Filth (dark stuff that corrupts people) and the Orochi group (a Japanese mega-corporation). Along the way, you learn more about Gaia and your own place in things.

There are several points where you have to make a choice. It could broadly be defined as a choice between good and evil, but it’s a little more complicated than that. You’re never really sure which is which, or whether evil has a point. Good has its own agenda and it may be evil is the one telling the truth. It’s been implied the choices will impact later on the game world or characters, but so far, it’s uncertain in what way.

New quests are released in small batches at regular intervals. There were two general updates, and then the Hallowe’en quest line. My main complaint is about Hallowe’en, as they said the event would run until the first week of November in one announcement… but they ended it on the morning of November 1st. This didn’t give enough time, as many people would have used the weekend after Hallowe’en to finish it (especially those hit by the hurricane). I hope next year they take on board the feedback, and reactivate the quests from this year (as well as any new quests they design for that year).

End Game

The end game does have issues. The main repeatable things are group dungeons (separate areas with a mini-story running through them) and lairs (where players spawn rare bosses to fight). The dungeons come in various difficulty levels, from normal to nightmare. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to get a group for anything above normal, unless you have gear from PvP. This is a player-created issue, but would be alleviated by having a better chance of decent gear in solo PvE play.

Accessibility

Right from the start, there was dialogue without subtitles. This has been improved. A lot more of the background comments have subtitles, but there will still be areas where it’s an issue. The community has taken this on board though, and walkthroughs will turn sound information into pictures.

My biggest accessibility problem has been player created, as it’s become very hard to find a cabal (guild) who doesn’t organise everything over voice chat. Text-only cabals are rare. This is likely to be an issue in any game, so I’m not blaming that on the developers. It’s just a pity it’s gone that way.

Factions

Now I’ve tried out factions, the Templars still remain the most interesting. They are utterly colonial, yet at the same time, they have a whole lot more diversity than the other factions. They’re also the only one your character chooses to join (the others practise forced recruitment). The (faction-specific) story mission between Egypt and Transylvania was one of the most atmospheric in the game, in a creepy horror way.

The Illuminati are rather mad science, and though that can appeal to me, it didn’t quite hit it here.

The Dragon were the least my thing. There are some good aspects. I like the work they did on Seoul. They used Korean voice actors for the parts of dialogue in Korean, which avoids the Firefly effect of people who don’t speak the language botching the words. Working in chaos theory gave a modern mathematical edge to dragon legends.

But overall, the Dragon intro is full of East Asian stereotypes. Silent tattooed men stand ominously. No one says what they mean. And all round, the mysteriousness is so thick there isn’t really a chance to get attached to your handlers. Less yellow peril would have gone a long way to making me like the Dragon.

 

Portrayals

Gender/Sex Neutrality

The game has an interesting design choice, in that it does not differentiate between male or female characters. Everyone takes the role of Sarah (a woman) in the tutorial flashback. The Templar guards (mixed male and female) will flirt with anyone. NPCs who make suggestive comments in their cutscenes do so to all player characters.

However, it is a little imbalanced. Though a few male NPCs do make suggestive remarks, it’s a blink-and-miss-it moment. This is in contrast to some female NPCs, where it’s very obvious. This could easily be balanced though, but having a few more male flirts.

Sexuality

The game normalises gay and bisexual behaviour. In some ways, it has to, due to having no male/female differentiation with player characters. But it’s shown directly in dialogue with characters too. In the first zone (Kingsmouth) Moose tells you he has feelings for Andy. It’s not immediately obvious if this is mutual, but Andy does talk about Moose a lot and the Hallowe’en cutscenes suggest Andy is considering a relationship. It’s not uncommon to have a gay man pining after a straight man, and calling it representation. It’s a way of avoiding having to actually show a relationship. But it looks like it’s not the road they’re heading down, based on Andy’s current reactions…

…though this may not be a surprise considering Egypt has a gay couple who appear in cut scenes together.

There’s apparently a lesbian character, but this is known because of what some of the other NPCs say about her. I haven’t found that dialogue yet.

Women

Women and girls continue to have varied roles in the story, including positions of power. The Roma storyline especially has some direct criticisms of sexism, both from the woman who acts as their lookout and the daughter of the leader. The latter directly confronts her father when he suggests the only reason an older man enjoys her company is her looks, telling him it’s messed up to think being pretty is her only worth.

There are points that made me wince, like the French women at the windmill where one uses gendered insults against the other, but overall, it’s pretty female-positive.

However, women are underrepresented in marginalised groups. Kingsmouth has two black men as NPCs, complete with missions and dialogue. It has one black woman, who is the voice of the zombie announcements, and who can’t be spoken to and has no missions. There are several gay men, but only one lesbian who you wouldn’t realise is unless you hear the right background dialogue.

Disability and Non-Neurotypical People

One NPC in Transylvania has facial scaring and is blinded in one eye. There’s also a woman in a wheelchair in London (who currently has no dialogue, but is set up as though she will have in the future).

A recurring trope is seeing unknowable things and going insane (something common in Lovecraftian horror). What interested me more is how people with pre-existing conditions or who were non-neurotypical were handled. That’s a bit mixed. I loved the sociopath headmaster, as it showed a positive side to it. By not being concerned about the people around him, he’s able to cope with everything that’s happened. It gives him an impartiality that lets him organise the school, without getting caught up in feelings of guilt or grief.

Not so hot was the man with a low mental age in Transylvania. He enjoys killing things, and about the only thing keeping him from killing humans is his mother. Though it’s clear she encouraged this behaviour in him, it’s a common trope to show low mental age people as violent, and it isn’t countered by any other more positive representations.

Belief Systems of Marginalised Groups

There are a number of marginalised groups, include a Roma group, a Native American Tribe, Egyptians and some references to voodoo in the Hallowe’en event. Some are better handled than others.

The Wabanaki – the Native American tribe (or more accurately, a confederacy of nations) – came across as reasonably well researched. They were shown as modern people, and the events in the game touch on the issue of lost cultural knowledge. The tribe remembers they shouldn’t dig somewhere, but their last medicine man is shot and no one left knows why they can’t dig and why it’s important.

I wasn’t as comfortable with the handling of the Roma (who appeared to be an entirely invented sub-group, with invented beliefs), though it does avoid things like the gypsy fortune-teller stereotype.

The voodoo references were too brief to really say, and in itself, I don’t think that’s a good thing… they have a Haitian market and a voodoo supply shop, so they could have NPCs and related missions. Voodoo should be a year-round religion, not kept as ‘black magic’ for Hallowe’en.

But the biggest area of discomfort are the sun cults. In the game story, the sun cults aren’t really worshipping the sun, but are being corrupted. This works fine for the invented New Age cult. It’s getting a little dubious at Aten. I couldn’t see any signs of a continuing tradition of Aten worship from an internet search, but it may exist. However, once we hit the Mayans, I wasn’t happy… it strayed too far into the North Native Americans being good and South Native Americans being bad (as the context is a battle between the Mayans and the Wabanaki). Unlike Egypt (where a village of everyday people is shown), this example had no ordinary Mayans to act as a counter to the corrupted Mayans.

 

Final Thoughts

The game still has aspects that need improvement and areas where the portrayals could be better. However, I’m still enjoying the storytelling and they’ve got me interested in how it’s going to end. I like the prominent women, non-white and gay characters, and would like to see this extended to other groups.

I have some cautions, in that it’s a horror game and some characters will die. I hope they focus on killing off non-marginalised characters, because it’s far too common to kill off the black and gay characters first. And there are a lot more non-marginalised characters to kill, so it’s not like there’s a lack of other choices.

A Wabanaki gathering

The Wabanaki (…with two exceptions. I’m the centre character with the cross on my back. To the far left is Boone, a white man, who is there with his partner Jack.)