Masques and Murder is a dark historical revenge fantasy taking place in Renaissance Italy. The historical setting lends the game a richness of language, combining with the art and music to give the game its particular aesthetic. The plot is as grisly as requisite. You play a young woman whose family was murdered in a power-grab, where the combined goal of the game is to extract vengeance, as well as escape the prospect of marriage to one of your family’s murderers. The game’s atmosphere is meticulously put together.
“Look, I know I’m crazy. I know that. You don’t have any reason to believe what I’m about to tell you[.]”
Disclosure: I received an ARC of Stay Crazy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
The most important thing to note about Stay Crazy, of course, is that the protagonist is insane. Well, yes, of course. It says right in the blurb that she was discharged from a mental hospital. And yet, she is also at the center of a vast conspiracy. It would have been so easy to make this the story of someone who only appears to be insane, when they are in fact the only ones who see the truth. Most often when I see spec fic stories involving characters confined in mental wards or the like, the story is one of false imprisonment, and draws a sharp line between the POV character and all those other people, the real crazies.
Em is as real-crazy as they come. Despite her unflattering descriptions of her fellow patients, she explicitly sets herself among them, the other psychotics. The book is written in a very subjective and often claustrophobic first person narration, dragging the reader deep into Em’s periodic bouts of hallucination. It’s difficult to immediately determine, during each episode, whether is is delusional or merely trans-dimensional. The silver insects crawling over her boyfriend’s plate at the restaurant, the swallowing brown smoke at the bowling alley, even the TV psychologist’s hidden messages. Which of these are conspiracy, and which are artifacts of the mind?
The Cloud Roads is the first installment of Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura series, a vivid and imaginative secondary world fantasy populated by a wealth of strange and fascinating creatures. Primary attention is given to the Raksura, a species of reptilian shapeshifters with a curious insectile social structure. This book is driven by worldbuilding, and as such, it must introduce a point-of-view that can ease the reader into the rich vitality of the setting, one piece at a time. Moon’s backstory as it is given is far from original, but as a vagabond traveler orphaned at a young age, he serves the book’s needs perfectly.
A well-rounded review requires revealing to the reader some things that the protagonist himself is initially ignorant of. Moon begins the story as a solitary being, camouflaged among strangers and unable to answer even the simplest questions about what he is or where he came from. The only others of his kind who he knew are long-dead. He does know a few things about himself, some of which he reveals to the readers, and others which he holds back. But the first turn of the plot is stated in the very beginning of chapter one, before doubling back to expose the transition in full.
I’ve been obsessed with mermaids since I first watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid when I was six years old. Reportedly, after the movie I menaced my father with complex natural science questions like ‘what do mermaids eat?’ Fairy tales never really stopped having an appeal for me, even as a teenager when I grew frustrated with their simplistic and formulaic nature. It’s a good thing, too, because studying fairy tales taught me more about writing than almost anything else. To this very day, there are some words that, if I see them on a book cover, will spark an immediate interest: “dragon”, for example. Or “mermaid”.
One of the delightful things that happened at Olamot Con 2016 is that I happened upon a copy of the first Rat Queens TPB at one of the stands. The name rang a bell, so I flipped through it and eventually surrendered to temptation and took it home with me. This title has been vaguely on my radar for a while, but the scarcity of comic book stores and my general disengagement with the medium produced an obstacle of availability. What am I gonna say, there is so much entertainment media out there, you have to work hard to catch and keep readers’ attention.
Conventions, however, exist to circumvent the barriers that make mass media vastly more available for consumption than more niche markets, and I took full advantage of this fact. I bought the first two TPBs, covering Rat Queens #1-#10, and a full story arc with a satisfying conclusion. Frankly, that’s already more than most comics can boast.
The game’s central mechanic is stat-building, which allows the heroine to get closer to her prey. The stats, like everything else in the game, are determined by the setting. The range of skills is interesting in that it encompasses the expected combat skills like fencing and shooting, not to mention seduction skills, but also some unexpected ones, like theology. Browbeating a man into complete intellectual surrender by interrogating him on the nature of the afterlife is one of the most satisfying victories I’ve ever gotten in a game.
The writing is very conscious of the position of the heroine in society, and consequently the game has an optional filter that abbreviates some of the longer chains of slurs into a brief description. Still, the game is as violent as one would expect from a revenge simulator. Ultimately it’s for fans of the genre, as it were. I can only play it when I am in a particular mood.
Find it on itch.io.
The Blind Griffin is a lovely visual novel set in prohibition-era San Francisco, a humorous fantasy romance lightly sprinkled with plot. In this game, it’s very difficult to tell how the choices you made lead to the outcome you receive, which is especially daunting given that some of the endings are pretty bad. The three romance options are all cute and entertaining in their own right, although the lack of any female romances makes me sad. Short and sweet, and free to download with an optional suggested price. Frothy speakeasy romance fantasy. Noted for having a Chinese protagonist and a perfectly delightful (supporting) trans lady character.
Find it on itch.io.
Wanted: Dragon is a perfectly delightful romp about an exiled princess who wants to take back the kingdom from her sister, and needs to recruit (read: seduce) a dragon to do so. Fortunately for all of us, we soon find out that this princess is the absolute worst and was exiled for very good reasons. Not gonna lie, that’s definitely the main appeal of the game. The heroine is absolutely appalling, which makes her infinitely entertaining. 10/10 would scheme and connive again.
Magical Otoge Ciel is a routine fantasy adventure about a feisty princess running away from her over-protective father. Liberal hints to some dire secret that justifies keeping the princess locked up all her life. Two apparent love interests, both of them with a bodyguard complex, and at least one with a childhood friend complex. Plus one additional male character who may be a stealth third romance. Unless someone can tell me that the game radically changes later on, I gotta say this is a color-by-numbers RPG romance fantasy. Maybe worth the time to play the free demo, if bodyguard romances and spirited princesses are your thing.
Find it on itch.io.
Cute Demon Crashers will require its own post, I think.
Queen at Arms, a strategy and romance visual novel, first became known to me under the working title ‘The Silent Princess’. Thankfully this title was dropped pretty quickly since, despite being accurate in the literal sense, it gives an entirely false impression of the game’s content. The protagonist of QAA is variously characterized as shy or reserved, and the player receives a close view of his anxieties and insecurities via his inner monologue. Ditching the awkward moniker lets his characterization stand on its own merits and lets the player engage with Marcus on their own terms — without subjecting both to the implicit judgment of what strong heroines are supposed to be.
The plot of QAA is basic fantasy fare. A good king and queen are assassinated and usurped by a brutal pretender. A loyal knight takes in their only child, a baby girl, and raises her anonymously under the identity of his own dead infant son, Marcus. Years later Marcus attempts to follow in his adoptive father’s footsteps, still oblivious to his royal heritage. Circumstances conspire to put him in the path of the pretender king, and place him in a position to either affirm or deny his male identity.
Marcus worries a lot about what he’s supposed to be. On more familiar terms, we learn that many of the supporting characters grapple with similar concerns. Hardly surprising given this theme seems nearly universal in nature. He nurses a secret, mutual inferiority complex with his older foster-brother, Nicholas, as they both labor under the shadow of their late father’s military reputation. He struggles to embody ideals of masculinity he learned from his environment and stays silent, in part, because of how feminine his voice sounds to his ears.
The central struggle, of course, is the one on which the whole plot of the game is predicated. Like most fantasy readers (I imagine) I’ve seen more crossdressing teenage girl heroines than I care to recount. By now the trope seems impossibly stale and unsatisfying. Again, the heroine rejects the burden of “weak” and “soft” femininity and seeks to emulate male role models. Again, she struggles to bind her breasts and hide her short stature (writers! there actually are tall women in the world, I promise). Typically whatever subversion of gender or sexuality norms is implicit in the scenario is obliterated when the narrative buries its heroine under a thick, treacly layer of compulsory heterosexuality. Haha! Nothing gay here, I promise!
I’m not going to say that QAA is the perfect antidote to this, or that it can fill the conspicuous lack of growing up with all those other ones. I’m also not ready to slap it with a grandiose label like ‘interrogating masculinity’, although heaven knows that masculinity needs some interrogation, especially in fantasy. I can tell you, however, that my first run through the game culminated in a romance where the love interest had no qualms about using Marcus’s birth name (Callista) as well as his chosen male pronouns. “Do they know you’re not a woman?” It’s rather refreshing to see such a seemingly-complicated identity just accepted as a matter of course.
I don’t know if I feel comfortable praising QAA for its depiction of gender issues. Its first and main advantage is that the character in question is the protagonist. The player is able to empathize with them from a position of exposure, to read and experience their inner narration, their authentic self. Then there is also the matter of being able to choose, and especially valuable is the fact that the choice isn’t presented in a clear-cut, obviously labeled dialogue option. Rather, it’s woven into the narrative. The game also spends some time on the intersection of gender identity and sexuality. Although the conversations surrounding this could be made more explicit and detailed, something about their implicitness rings true. It feels more like a love story between people questioning their gender or their sexuality, and less like a pamphlet for high-schoolers in disguise.
As well, I would need to experience all the different romance paths and their variations on this conversation before I felt comfortable drawing a bottom line. I played the game once through and was delighted by it. My second playthrough stalled near the end and I don’t know when or whether I will pick it up again. Frankly, the game is very playable and entertaining, but just not varied enough or beautiful enough to keep me amused through a third and fourth run.
The quality of the dialogue is a little inconsistent, and there are some eyebrow-raising writing choices. As a player with virtually no experience with strategy games, I found the gameplay responsive to common sense and satisfyingly challenging. The occasional timed decision added tension without becoming nerve-wracking. The visual novel convention of sprinkling the dialogue with voiced catchphrases is… well, I assume I’ll get used to it, but it rather caught me by surprise. There’s enough variation in the supporting cast to appeal to most players, and the game features six possible romances, four male and two female.
Ultimately I would say QAA is a compelling game, although not an excellent one. What recommends it is that it tries to bring something new to the table, and in the experience it can offer to the player. Despite multiple romance paths, achievements and hidden secrets to discover, it has limited replayability value. Recommended with reservations.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.
Solstice is a mystery visual novel from MoaCube, which previously brought us Cinders, one of my all-time favorite games. It’s been highly anticipated by myself and others since being announced about three years ago. As advertised it replicates the immaculately painted art style of Cinders, with the addition of small animations that enliven the sprite interactions. The writing style is similar to Cinders, but much more polished. With complex characters and a more complex plot, it’s at least as engaging and replayable as its predecessor, with the promise of good and bad ending in multiple variations each.
The central conceit of Solstice is its setting, a magical eco-bubble that lives in the heart of a frozen tundra, like a massive hothouse. The city, known only as the Jewel of the North, is the source of mystery and intrigue that pushes the plot along. Throughout the game, it is almost invariably referred to only as “the city”, which serves to underscore how central it is to the narrative, as well as to the lives of the characters living in it. Their suffering, whether self-inflicted or at the hands of the ruling merchant families, always seems to trace back to the city and its strange, compelling power. In this way, it is set up to serve as the game’s speechless but menacing antagonist.