I am Setsuna.

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Hey folks!

Still not reading much (though follow me on Goodreads to see when I do post the occasional review) but I did just finish playing through I am Setsuna, a JRPG recently released for the PS4 and Steam so I wanted to share some thoughts. Is this worth the $40 price tag?

First off, if the phrase “Chrono Trigger meets Final Fantasy X with the materia system from Final Fantasy VII mixed in” doesn’t mean anything to you, I’d say just go spend your $40 on the Final Fantasy X/X-2 remaster released last year. It’s a much better introduction to what JRPGs can be. But for those who do know, let’s take a deeper delve.

Art:
This game takes the vibe of the SNES-era games and gives them a watercolor makeover to beautiful effect. It’s a lovely game. There’s some especially nice snow-work, where your characters create paths as they move through snow and those paths disappear as you move along. That said, everything in this game is in the snow. Everything. Even when we get some color in the form of a sunset after you’ve defeated the final boss, there’s still always snow. So while it’s lovely, it loses some of its effect over time. Some variety would have been nice, is all I’m saying.

Music & Sound:
This game is notable for its piano-only soundtrack. While the piano does fit the somber mood well, after a few hours I was killing for a violin, a cello or some other string work to offset the piano. It just becomes monotonous overtime and I’m not convinced this was the right way to go. It would have been just as easy to keep the mood but go from a soloist up to say, a quartet for some variety. I absolutely love instrumental scores, but now that I’ve finished, I’ve no desire to go figure out how to pull the soundtrack that I got as a preorder incentive off my PS4 to listen to elsewhere. The rest of the sound work is fine, nothing to write home about. You’ll probably want to turn off the voice clips though. Though in Japanese, they get no less tiresome when you hear a character repeating the same phrase for the thousandth time.

Gameplay:
I love me some active turn based battling. I’m actually sad that the FFVII remaster is doing away with it. I like having some time to plan, and by having it active it means you can’t take forever lest the enemies get their shot at you. And at the core, the system works just fine. The additions to the system – momentum and fluxes – are questionable at best. The momentum is definitely helpful (basically get your timing right and you can add bonuses to your moves), but fluxes are so confusing (and so poorly explained) that I still can’t explain it to you and I’ve defeated the game. There’s a very non-helpful explanation in one of the vendor screens, but that’s it. You can safely ignore it and not be hurt by it. The bigger issue lies with the spritenite/techs and it’s twofold. One: there are way, way, way too many of them. Dozens upon dozens. Your eyes can glaze over the list and still keep scrolling. It’s just way too much, even more so when you realize that outside of a few bosses (more in a minute) the battles in the game are just too simple to even need a fraction. You’ll settle on the handful you’ll use per character rather quickly and stop even looking into new one for one simple reason:

The gameplay balance is horribly off. There’s a specific double tech and a triple tech that essentially break the game. You can use the double tech to wipe out mobs in one go, and the triple tech to out cheese the cheesy bosses at the end game. While you can avoid using them during play to not just sail through the dungeons, they become vital at endgame.

Case and point: the dungeon with the final boss is essentially a five-part fight, no saving in between. I was appropriately leveled for the area, but kept wiping at some part within the four sub-bosses. I did a quick search for a strategy guide and saw the rec for the triple tech. I went ahead and got the spritenite needed for it, and I was able to beat the whole final boss fight in one go.

Grinding isn’t even a viable alternative because stats are based on weapons more than anything. Why waste hours and hours and hours grinding for incremental gains when a couple of choice spritenite can save you the frustration of throwing your controller at the wall over cheap difficulty spikes? It’s just not worth it.

The gameplay isn’t awful by any means, but I don’t think Tokyo RPG Factory brought anything new and worthwhile to the table, and it certainly isn’t going to make you want to play through again to try and play with the builds. There’s no reason to.

Oh, and finally, save points are FAR too sparse in the dungeons. You can go an hour between finding one, which is a pain in the ass. The lack of an inn system is an odd omission and the vending system desperately needs a way of selling items in bulk. These aren’t deal breakers, but in the 20 years since these came out, these kind of things have been perfected, so the choices here just seem to be here to be different, and it hurts the game.

Story:
So what about the story? It’s….there. It’s watered down Final Fantasy X. Ndir is an Auron clone, but 1/3 as interesting. Setsuna is the Yuna analogue but way more naive and still so ridiculously optimistic and positive that it’s absolutely grating. Endir, a cipher for the player has no real personality at all, and his part in the story isn’t really explained once you get the exposition as to what’s actually going on. Some other stock characters round out the party, but none stand out all that much. Even more baffling, right after you defeat the second-to-last major boss fight you get one more character to join your party. Why? I don’t know. He doesn’t add much of anything to the story, and because of the aforementioned issue with the spritnite, his being over leveled compared to your party is meaningless. I used him for a few trash mobs and on one of my failed boss run attempts, but you could easily never use him in battle at all and still beat the game. He’s just there. I will also say the ending is quite divisive and a lot of players don’t seem to like it. It doesn’t bother me as much for a reason that I can’t give away, but the story leading up to that point is so basically predictable that as you finally get to the final reveal (which is very slowly dragged out over the last major dungeon in the game) you just aren’t surprised. I kept waiting for some interesting twist to the story, and well, don’t get your hopes up. It’s all very trope- filled and lacks any of the nuance or depth of Final Fantasy X. All in all, this is pretty standard stuff, and if you’re looking for the richness that Square Enix can bring to its games, keep looking because you’re not going to find it here.

Verdict:
If it sounds like I’m down on this game, it’s because I kind am. I love this old-school style and was very excited for this game to release. My excitement died quickly though, and we’re just left with a slightly above average game. I don’t think I can recommend it for $40 when the inspiration games can be had for the same price (or cheaper!) on PSN, Steam, or various handhelds. Look there first instead. Otherwise, if you are a JRPG fan, I’d try and pick this up for $30 or less, I just think $40 is a bit overpriced.

 

 

 

The End (For Now)

So this is something I’ve been wrestling with for a while now, but I’ve since decided that I’m at peace with it:

It’s time to call it quits with this blog.

Yeah, I had a post up just last Friday…and that was a book I finished like a week and a half ago? Swapping to posting once a week help me build up some lead time, which I’ve now completely squandered away and that honestly helped me make this decision.

So what’s going on?

Burnout and work.

I’ve recently touched on how I was hitting burnout as of late, but what I think has pushed me over the edge is a very real, and now very permanent, increase in my workload. While it is within the realm of what I can handle, I don’t have the downtime I used to have. And while I know many read to get rid of stress, I find myself not wanting to read as much when I am stressed – and when I do read, I need to be something I can fall head over heels in love with which is hard to do with the aforementioned burnout.

I’m not going to stop reading, nor do I think I’ll ever stop reading fantasy, but I am just going to pull way, way back. I just want to finish something or not without feeling guilty that I’ve got nothing to post. I want to be more at peace with the thought that it may take me another week or two before I want to pick up a book. I want to be able to just throw a star rating on Goodreads and call it a day.

So yeah. Time to call it a day.

Maybe I’ll post the occasional review if something moves me, or maybe I’ll just squee on twitter (@gilded_lady hint, hint) instead.

And maybe, just maybe, if I manage to get through this fun of mine, I’ll start this up again in earnest. But for now, so long and thanks for all the fish:)

Hexed (The Iron Druid Chronicles #2) – Kevin Hearne

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Summary:

Atticus O’Sullivan, last of the Druids, doesn’t care much for witches. Still, he’s about to make nice with the local coven by signing a mutually beneficial nonaggression treaty—when suddenly the witch population in modern-day Tempe, Arizona, quadruples overnight. And the new girls are not just bad, they’re badasses with a dark history on the German side of World War II.

With a fallen angel feasting on local high school students, a horde of Bacchants blowing in from Vegas with their special brand of deadly decadence, and a dangerously sexy Celtic goddess of fire vying for his attention, Atticus is having trouble scheduling the witch hunt. But aided by his magical sword, his neighbor’s rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and his vampire attorney, Atticus is ready to sweep the town and show the witchy women they picked the wrong Druid to hex.

Review:

In some ways, Hexed feels like it ought to be a continuation of Hounded, like it is finishing the set-up work that the first book started. Why? It now feels like the players of this world are fully in place: we know that the Morrighan and Brighid will likely spar over the course of the series. We now know which witches will be at his side, and which witches he’ll be sparring with sporadically over the course of the series, and so on.

Why? The first third of the book feels like filler.

We get some fun character interactions, and Hearne is setting up some characters that will become important later in the series, but it’s so insignificant to the plot that none of this story is mentioned in the synopsis at all. Worse still, you could take this all out and have the story basically work as is with very few, very marginal changes. Not helping matters is that this book barely clocks 200 pages without it, it basically NEEDS to be in here to justify calling it a novel. To me, that is the very definition of filler.

But once I got past that, I enjoyed the book. I like the world that Hearne is creating and Atticus is a very likable figure. The world is unique enough and the humor of the first book is still there and if you’re looking for a more action-centric series, this will certainly fit the bill.

I think at this point I expected to be more sold on the series than I am. Will I pick up Hammered at some point? Probably. Do I feel in any rush to do so? Not really.

That said, I completely get why this series is as popular as it is though, and I do think that if you liked the first book you should give this second one a chance.

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: Now

Traitor Angels – Anne Blankman

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Summary:

Six years have passed since England’s King Charles II returned from exile to reclaim the throne, ushering in a new era of stability for his subjects.

Except for Elizabeth Milton. The daughter of notorious poet John Milton, Elizabeth has never known her place in this shifting world—except by her father’s side. By day she helps transcribe his latest masterpiece, the epic poem Paradise Lost, and by night she learns languages and sword fighting. Although she does not dare object, she suspects that he’s training her for a mission whose purpose she cannot fathom.

Until one night the reason becomes clear: the king’s men arrive at her family’s country home to arrest her father. Determined to save him, Elizabeth follows his one cryptic clue and journeys to Oxford, accompanied by her father’s mysterious young houseguest, Antonio Vivani, a darkly handsome Italian scientist who surprises her at every turn. Funny, brilliant, and passionate, Antonio seems just as determined to protect her father as she is—but can she trust him with her heart?

When the two discover that Milton has planted an explosive secret in the half-finished Paradise Lost—a secret the king and his aristocratic supporters are desperate to conceal—Elizabeth is faced with a devastating choice: cling to the shelter of her old life or risk cracking the code, unleashing a secret that could save her father…and tear apart the very fabric of society.

Review:

Historical fiction is still very much a niche within YA – the closest you usually get are faux-medieval worlds and fantasies set within the Regency era – so to find something set in the 17th century and to incorporate Milton within it got me all excited.

Sadly, my excitement ended rather quickly.

First and foremost, this is yet another historical novel where the protagonist is 100% modern. She’s fluent in five languages and a competent swordsman, making her more educated than pretty much the vast majority of Europe, even the male nobility. And it hurts her to to think that her father believes that a woman’s place is subservient to her husband (you know, like every single last man – and a good majority of the women at the time believed). What makes it worse is that it all feels so arbitrary because none of her other three sisters are as educated. To be fair, one is clearly simple, but the other two? They didn’t get the same education…because? It seems like it was done out of a nod to historical accuracy, but it makes his focus on her seem all the more jarring. It stands out to only educate the one, and since it was to ensure that she would have the tools to go on this scavenger hunt later, talk about putting your eggs in one basket. What if she wasn’t the best choice of the three? And what’s worse, is that at the end of the book, she essentially gets disowned for having developed a love of learning when he encouraged it. And it’s the more ridiculous because he cites a fear of scandal, when he was convicted of plotting to kill the king. You don’t get more scandalous than that.

Speaking of ridiculous, the hunt to solve the mystery borders on that as well, with leaps of logic along the lines of Elizabeth deciding that she and Antonio are characters in this poem because the names of Adam and Eve start with A and E respectively. Seriously. And it’s all over a vial of liquid mercury? Or some kind of space elixir that can supposedly resurrect people that will result in the downfall of Europe and create a world war because it’ll destroy the notion of the Divine Right of Kings and belief in Chris. It’s just…silly.

I just couldn’t take this book seriously when the author clearly does. I suppose if you like books like The Da Vinci Code you could very well enjoy it – it’s that kind of absurdist fun – but if leaps of logic like the ones articulated above make you roll your eyes, keep looking, because once they start rolling, they’ll likely won’t stop.

Verdict: Skip it

Available Now

 

The Voodoo Killings: A Kincaid Strange Novel – Kristi Charish

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Summary:

For the first time since we launched Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, Random House Canada is thrilled to announce the debut of a new urban fantasy series. Kristi Charish’s The Voodoo Killings introduces Kincaid Strange, not your average voodoo practitioner…

For starters, she’s only 27. Then there’s the fact that she lives in rain-soaked Seattle, which is not exactly Haiti. And she’s broke. With raising zombies outlawed throughout the continental USA, Kincaid has to eke out a living running seances for university students with more money than brains who are desperate for guitar lessons with the ghost of a Seattle grunge rocker–who happens to be Kincaid’s on-again, off-again roommate.

Then a stray zombie turns up outside her neighbourhood bar: Cameron Wight, an up-and-coming visual artist with no recollection of how he died or who raised him. Not only is it dangerous for Kincaid to be caught with an unauthorized zombie, she soon realizes he’s tied to a spate of murders: someone is targeting the zombies and voodoo practitioners in Seattle’s infamous Underground City, a paranormal hub. When the police refuse to investigate, the City’s oldest and foremost zombie asks Kincaid to help. Raising ghosts and zombies is one thing, but finding a murderer? She’s broke, but she’s not stupid.

And then she becomes the target…As the saying goes, when it rains it pours, especially in Seattle.

Normally, I’m not much of a zombie person. Or at least, I’m not really much of a horror zombie kidn of person. The apocalypse (which usually comes with zombies) doesn’t interest me and beyond serving as a metaphor for death that is nipping at ones heels, they just aren’t that interesting of a normal paranormal creature to me.

Normally.

Kristi Charish’s Voodoo Killings has made me a fan, of at least her special brand of the classic creature.

Kincaid Strange lives in a world where zombies, ghosts and poltergeists are all quite real, and the latter common place enough that they even have their own enclave hidden beneath the streets of Seattle. Thanks to a police captain (that is the Mayor’s sister’s husband) that somehow believes that it’s your own damn fault if a ghost comes to visit, Kincaid’s primary means of living – raising zombies for things like will disputes and helping the police with preternatural crimes – was outlawed and now she’s stuck doing seances with the Kurt Cobain analogue of Nate Cade.

Then she’s called to do something about a zombie that randomly shows up outside the bar of a good friend and it all goes to pot from there.

If it sounds like their are vague similarities to Anita Blake (the zombies for wills, helping the police) there are, but that’s about the full extent of it. Kincaid isn’t a medium, she has no innate *need* to raise them like Anita does, and she’s very much on the outs with the police in this book, not only because of the outlaw on her craft but because one of the cops happens to also be an ex. Kincaid is very much her own woman and this world is very much its own place.

Like Charish’s other protagonist, Owl, Kincaid is a bit of loner in this book too, but that seems to be more by choice as opposed to just pissing everyone off  the way that Owl has a knack for. Still, the book has some rather interesting side characters from the aforementioned ghost Nate, to the century+ zombie of Lee Ling who runs the Seattle underground, to the aforementioned ex boyfriend where there’s some nice push and pull action between the pair and even a bit of jealousy. Ultimately, for someone who doesn’t have a lot of friends, she still feels a heck of a lot more human than a lot of urban fantasy protagonists can often come off as.

As far as Voodoo goes Charish kept her discussion of Voodoo to the actual Otherside – something that obviously none of us are going to have any experience with, so that it can be whatever she wants it to be. Voodoo/Vaundun is a real religion and it would have been easy to go with the obvious stereotypes, and she didn’t. It’s very much the kind of touch that I personally appreciate when people are putting their own spins on real-world religions and just a bit of an added bonus for me.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t remark on the design of this book. From the hand-drawn appearing title page, to the mirrored page numbers, mirrored author’s name and the snakes along each page, the team at Random House CA put a lot of love into this book and shows because rarely does a book get this much attention  for such small details. It’s fantastic.

My only complaint about this book is that right now this book has only been released in Canada, and as far as I can tell, there aren’t any plans for US distribution yet. I really hope that changes as this feels like another fresh entry into one of the most tropey fantasy sub-genres. Do yourself a favor and pick this up from Amazon.ca. Hopefully we can get demand up high enough so more can read this awesome book.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now, at Canadian retailers only

P.S. Though not technically labeled as a series, the ending is absolutely setting up a second book. It makes me think that it will only actually become a series if sales justify it, so please take a look at this, I’d love to read more!

 

This Savage Song (Monsters of Verity #1) – Victoria Schwab

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Summary:

There’s no such thing as safe in a city at war, a city overrun with monsters. In this dark urban fantasy from acclaimed author Victoria Schwab, a young woman and a young man must choose whether to become heroes or villains—and friends or enemies—with the future of their home at stake. The first of two books, This Savage Song is a must-have for fans of Holly Black, Maggie Stiefvater, and Laini Taylor.

Kate Harker and August Flynn are the heirs to a divided city—a city where the violence has begun to breed actual monsters. All Kate wants is to be as ruthless as her father, who lets the monsters roam free and makes the humans pay for his protection. All August wants is to be human, as good-hearted as his own father, to play a bigger role in protecting the innocent—but he’s one of the monsters. One who can steal a soul with a simple strain of music. When the chance arises to keep an eye on Kate, who’s just been kicked out of her sixth boarding school and returned home, August jumps at it. But Kate discovers August’s secret, and after a failed assassination attempt the pair must flee for their lives. In This Savage Song, Victoria Schwab creates a gritty, seething metropolis, one worthy of being compared to Gotham and to the four versions of London in her critically acclaimed fantasy for adults, A Darker Shade of Magic. Her heroes will face monsters intent on destroying them from every side—including the monsters within.

Review:

I remember requesting a DRC on a whim, not actually expecting to get approval. I got approval the same day as The Crown’s Game. And while I was excited for both, and more or less read the former the day I got the green light, I just sat on this for a while until I picked it up again today. Skipping over what I thought was a problematic prologue and going for the first chapter resulted me getting absolutely hooked. I read 65% of it on my flight home and finished the rest in the same evening because I will be honest: this book is compulsively readable. It’s a great book for when you’re looking for something truly fun to sink your teeth into.

If it I enjoyed it so much why was the prologue a problem for me?

It all comes down to Kate. Kate is the human who would be a monster to impress her father. Her father rules his half of the city mostly by fear, and she wants to be wanted by him, to be allowed to go home again and the lengths of what she’s willing to do to get there turn her pretty dark, pretty quick. It’s sympathetic in that sense of you can tell it’s a girl who just wants her only remaining parent to love her, but it’s also cold enough and hard enough that it takes a long time to reach that sympathetic point. I’m not entirely convinced that that was the POV to start out with.

Luckily, the book has an intriguing premise set in an interesting world that blissfully isn’t telling another story of teenagers improbably banding together to overthrow the tyrant/save the day or what have you. Although the book does walk some familiar paths, the story doesn’t go exactly where you expect it to, and that’s also a refreshing bonus.

If anything, my only real complaint is I would have loved to see what Schwab could have done this under her V.E. Schwab pen-name. This book is pretty dark for YA, but the premise could have gone darker still without much trouble and I would have loved really exploring it. Scwhab never really fully explores the morality at play here and she proved in Vicious especially that it’s something that she’s fantastic at.

All told, this is a return to form for me (I’m not a fan of A Darker Shade of Magic) as it shows all the hallmark originality and questionable morality that makes her stand out as an author. If you haven’t preordered this yet,  why don’t you get on that, mmkay?

Verdict: Buy It

Available: July 5

Night Watch (Watch #1) – Sergei Lukyanenko

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Summary:

Others. They walk among us. Observing.

Set in contemporary Moscow, where shape shifters, vampires, and street-sorcerers linger in the shadows, Night Watch is the first book of the hyper-imaginative fantasy pentalogy from best-selling Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko.

This epic saga chronicles the eternal war of the “Others,” an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who must swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. The agents of the Dark – the Night Watch – oversee nocturnal activity, while the agents of the Light keep watch over the day. For a thousand years both sides have maintained a precarious balance of power, but an ancient prophecy has decreed that a supreme Other will one day emerge, threatening to tip the scales. Now, that day has arrived. When a mid-level Night Watch agent named Anton stumbles upon a cursed young woman – an uninitiated Other with magnificent potential – both sides prepare for a battle that could lay waste to the entire city, possible the world. With language that throbs like darkly humorous hard-rock lyrics about blood and power, freedom and responsibility, Night Watch is a chilling, cutting-edge thriller, a pulse-pounding ride of fusion fiction that will leave you breathless for the next installment.

Review:

This is one of those books where the things that make it interesting also make it frustrating.

It is a refreshing change to read a story about a man who is not the hero and can never be the hero. It is also depressing when you are constantly being reminded that he is nothing but a pawn, knows it, hates it, and yet mostly accepts it because he sees little alternative.

There’s just something inherently depressing about this world; so much so that it makes it hard to keep a vested interest in the characters.

The book is not aided by a translation that, while assuredly faithful to the original as it can be, reads as very stilted as if the translator doesn’t understand that the meter and rhythms of the original language are only a hindrance here. There was nothing gained by refusing to soften the harshness of the style, is all.

Finally, the fact that this is not one story, but three shorts means that this feels like a loose collection of shorts that feel disconnected and only makes it that much harder to really ever gain any empathy for anyone.

This is one of those books you almost read out of academic interest because it feels so far removed from American urban fantasy. I’m not sad that I read it, but I also know I have no interest of looking at any of the other books in the series.

Verdict: Borrow it. This is very much a Your Mileage May Vary kind of book that’s hard to recommend at full price.

Available: Now