Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Bridge To Terabithia (Revisited)

So, way back in 2012 I kinda-sorta didn't really review Bridge to Terabithia. At the time I said that I couldn't fairly rate the story and I was telling the truth. I couldn't then. However, I've given it some more thought and I think now I'm ready to do so.

Before we start, I'd like to talk about something called Cerebus Syndrome. Those of you who spend a lot of time on TVTropes already know what I'm talking about, but for those who don't, I'll give a brief description.

Cerebus Syndrome is when a story that starts out lighthearted and fun becomes darker and more dramatic over time, named for the webcomic Cerebus the Aardvark, a comedy with barely any plot that inexplicably and notoriously became unbelievably dark and depressing later on. There's also the less common Reverse Cerebus Syndrome where a dark story becomes lighter, but we won't go into that right now.

Cerebus Syndrome isn't necessarily a bad thing. Done well, it can add depth to a previously shallow story. When it's done poorly, though, this is easily one of the worst things you can possibly do. A poorly done Cerebus switch makes you feel like you've been cheated out of the rest of the story. You were enjoying it as it was, but now all of a sudden the story is about something totally different and everyone is dead.

This is the reason why I hated Bridge to Terabithia so much. I said in my previous post that I understand why the story is so beloved and, well, I really do. As I also said in my review of Dungeons & Dragons, it's possible to like elements of a work even if you admit the work as a whole is not good, and I kind of feel like that's what's happening here. The fantasy world of Terabithia is interesting and I think that's what most people remember and like about this story.

But then there's that twist. Yeah, spoilers-except-not-really: Leslie dies. I talked in my previous review about how it was similar to a vaccine - exposing kids to sorrow and loss so that when they run into the real thing they can handle it. I honestly hate when stories kill off nice characters at all, which is why I didn't want to rate the story back then because I felt like maybe the problem might have just been me.

The problem, though, is that this twist is not earned at all. In fact, I'll go a step farther and say my whole "vaccine" analogy was giving this bullshit far more credit than it deserves. Yes, that's right, I said bullshit because that's what this is.

As I said in that review, if the story had been entirely about exploring the concepts of mortality and loss from the beginning, if this had been set up in any way at all, then it would be different. But it's not. The story is all happiness and cool fantasy stuff for like 95% of it, and then all of a sudden we're watching a little girl drown and a little boy cry at her funeral.

The best I can say for this twist is that it's not just a cheap shot for feels. It was based on a real life event that happened to the book's author and it took her weeks to work up the courage to write it.

That said, all this really means is that the writer is taking out her personal pain on us. Yes, bad things happen, and if you wanted to write a story about loss and misery to work out your feelings that would be totally fine. But you didn't, did you? No, instead you baited us in with happiness and fantasy and then punched us in the nose with a brass knuckles made out of death, horror, and misery, because apparently your way of working out your pain is to force that same pain onto others.

Despite what I've intended to do for several years I've never really said this before, but for the most part all of my ratings have objective meanings. As a result, none of my ratings really work here. I know that sounds like a cop-out, but it's honestly true. My current rating system is woefully unfit for this work.

In terms of storytelling and crafting the work is virtually flawless, which would normally earn it a rating of 5 - Great, but that twist is just so absolutely terrible it completely killed any shred of enjoyment I was having with the story. So you might think 4 - Good, as a good work that's held back by one glaring flaw. But I feel like this flaw is worse than that. FAR worse. This twist didn't just tarnish my image of the story, it annihilated it, to a level on par with a 1 - Horrible... but it's not a horrible story.

That's why I'm giving this story this rating: negative 5. This story is Anti-Great. It is a beautifully polished piece of shit. It is expertly crafted with the goal of pissing you off and obliterating any sense of joy. It is perfect anti-entertainment. Seriously, I've tried to avoid cursing on the blog of late, but fuck this book.

KR Rating: [-5] ANTI-GREAT

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Video Game Review: Darkest Dungeon

Games like this are the reason why I really wish Steam's "do you recommend" question had more than just two options. Here's why: because I would very, very highly recommend this game... to a certain breed of gamer. Let me explain.

First, the good.

Darkest Dungeon is a masterfully crafted game. The artwork is beautifully grotesque and animation is smooth. The game is balanced fairly well, even if it is balanced towards the "hard" end of the spectrum. Even in early access there is nothing about this game that feels sloppy or poorly considered.

The stress mechanic, in which your characters accumulate stress which can affect them in various negative (and sometimes even positive) ways, is a really interesting idea and something that you don't really see a whole lot in video games. The only place I've seen anything like this before would be the Cthulhu games, and I honestly feel like it's handled a lot better here.

Oh, and the fact that it's constantly auto-saving, while intended to prevent save-scumming, also has the effect of allowing you to quit and pick back up whenever you want without losing progress, great for people who don't have a lot of time to sit down and play a game.

The game wasn't my cup of tea (I'll get to why in a minute) but I can't honestly call it bad just because of that. It's not bad. In fact...

KR Rating: [5] GREAT

But wait, don't stop reading yet, because now it's time for the bad. As I said before, Darkest Dungeon is a hard game.

Well, no, that's not really accurate. Etrian Odyssey is hard. That's why I like that series, and it's why I thought I would like this game too. Darkest Dungeon is not hard, it's unfair.

See, you can be riding high one minute, dominating every encounter and getting a ton of good items from the various chests and cupboards (called "curios" in the game) that litter the dungeons. Then you get into that one battle. You know the one I mean. It's the one that doesn't even seem like it should be all that hard. It's the same enemies you've been wasting with ease this whole time. Except this time you do nothing but miss your attacks over and over, while they stack critical hit upon critical hit. Before you can even click the "retreat" button half your force is at Death's Door... or through it. It's a little like Dark Souls in a way.

And the thing is, that's not an accident. I said this game was masterfully crafted and it honestly is. This isn't poor game balance, it's the entire point. It's the underlying design philosophy of the game.

The developers never intended this to be a game where you train up max level badasses and retake the estate. There are no badasses in the Darkest Dungeon. There are no heroes.

No, this is a game where you recruit expendable idiots by the wagon-load (literally) and send them to die for the greater good. (This is also why there are so few levels of upgrades for your characters: so that restarting when your top character dies is easier.)

That's why I say, I really wish that Steam allowed more options than just "recommend" or "not recommend." Because, on the one hand, the game is very well made. It has become exactly what I feel the developers wanted it to be. It is a GREAT GAME.

But "great" and "universally enjoyable" are not the same thing. A lot of people don't like hard games. I do like hard games and even I was turned off by the unfairness and the inability to properly take care of my people.

If I really had to choose (and for the purposes of the Steam version of this review I kind of do) I would say that I don't recommend the game, if only because I think the number of people who would enjoy it are in the minority.

That said, if you're the type who thinks you might enjoy that then by all means buy the game right now. It's only $19.99 USD on Steam right now, and for that you get one Hell of a solid classic-style RPG with an interesting twist.

If you're more like me and you get attached to your characters and don't want to see them die (or if you just don't like hard games) then skip this one.