Review: 4 books I did not finish

For me thie last month was one of great disappointments. I played Dark Souls and watched the early seasons of X-Files, and both failed to live up to my expectations and had me quit at some point. I’ve also been trying to broaden my horizon in books instead of reading more Witcher or Robert Howard, which I already know I love. I ended up starting three different fantasy books and stopped reading all of them. For various different reasons, but also some that are very much the same. Since I have completed neither of them, I can’t do actual review of them. But I think that none of them are actually truly bad and each one has some great things about them. So what I’ll be doing is to give a short summary of each book, also including one I tried a few months back, and the reason I quit reading, as well as going into some more detail what they all have in common that had them fail in entertaining me. This is not “4 books I don’t like and the reasons why”, but instead “4 examples of novel openings that failed to capture my interest”.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

When I started trying to catch up with fantasy books that have come out or become popular in the last 10 years, the Malazan series was obviously one of the biggest names I’ve regularly came across. Normally I would never attempt to try a series of 10 doorstoppers, but praise for this one is so great that I thought I could at least read the first book and then decide if I want to do the whole thing. But it turns out, I could not. I don’t think I got very far with it either. The writing was nothing objectable and the scenes presented in a quite engaging way. This one was a while back, so I don’t remember very clearly, but I think I got introduced to four different characters. And at least within the limited amount of exposure they got in my reading, they were all totally bland and forgetable. Young nobleman, young female soldier, mysterious man on some special mission. And I think some kind of weird queen. And then I lost interest. I got introduced to several characters and to several locations and situations in which they find themselves. But I did not get any information on what role these people play in the story or their world and why or how these scenes are relevant to the plot. Usually I always try to go into a story pretty much blind. Vague praise of the qualities of a work get me interested and then I want to experience it myself without knowing where exactly the story will go. But since I was already at the point of giving up on the book, I tried looking up a brief and general outline of what the story is about. Then I asked people who love the series to try and explain to me what the story is about. And they couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand their replies or found them unhelpful for what I wanted to know. The fans themselves were not really sure what the actual story is. Aparently this behemoth of printed paper keeps on going about different people doing various things that don’t really follow any primary plot. I can appreciate abstract narratives and stories relying mostly on characterization. But I need a goal or purpose for the combined efforts of the characters. From what I can tell, this series doesn’t have that.

Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

I got this book recommended by several people at different occasions when I mentioned my search for recent Sword & Sorcery and fantasy adventure books. So I gave it a try. It starts with an infamous fight scene in which the heroes fight off an attack by pirates. Which makes up th entire first quarter of the whole book! Let’s say this is a quite “courageous” descision to start a book with, especially by a new writer. I actually read through the whole scene and got about a third through the book before putting it away. And I think the scene did not work out. Because even though it is very long, there is very little actually happening. There is a lot of fighting, but it doesn’t rally accomplish anything. It doesn’t feel like the enemies start to get fewer, or that the heroes are running out of strength and resources. No ships are sunk or new ones arrive, and throughout almost the entire battle, the situation is pretty much the same. At some point I was flipping quickly through pages to find the point where something new is happening and skip the repetitive stuff. But the majority of the lines are not actually fighting, but characters talking and thinking. Now, I am not a person of strong negative emotions. I don’t usually hate any things, and I don’t get angry about things. But reading this book… I think anguish could be an appropriate term to describe my experience. Most of the talking is a gang of loveable rogues doing witty banter. It rally is not the fault of the author, it really is just personal preference. But I fucking hate loveable rogues and witty banter! And this book is nonestop unrestrained witty banter. Or at least it tries. Every single word that comes out of the mouth of one of the heroes is a supposedly witty insult directed at each other. And after twenty, thirty pages of this, you really start to ask yourself why these people even form an adventuring party together? They all despise each other to no end and since they are all loathsome and terrible people, it seems quite implausible that they have not all killed each other in the first scene. It was an ordeal to read, I don’t want to see anything of it ever again. Yet, I don’t outright hate the book. It does has its qualities. Something many people commented on the book is that the author really has terrific skill at using language. His sentences are great and I enjoyed the style very much. If only he would have been telling a good story. Tome of the Undergate has pretty good ratings when you look around online, and I think this skill with words is probably a big reason for it. People I talked to about my unpleasant experience with the book told me that his pacing and plotting improved significantly in later books, and as muc as I despise this one, it really makes me interested in trying out something else by him in the future. I feel even inclined to compare him to one of the three giants of Sword & Sorcery. He reminds me a lot of Fritz Leiber. I love his writing, even though his stories are terrible. ^^

The Eagle Shoting Heroes by Jin Yong

As far as I am informed, this is one of the biggest and most famous Chinese fantasy books. And fantasy is a big deal in China, just as it is in America and Europe, though the markets mostly exist pretty much isolated from each other. Movies are easily redubbed and there is some exchange, especially in recent decades, but with books this is much less the case. The Eagle Shoting Heroes was written and released in the same period as The Lord of the Rings and a massive success, but somehow it never got published in English. Chinese fans made translations of it themselves, which I found to be of pretty good quality. It has been turned into movies and TV shows many times, some of which did get English releases as Legend of the Condor Heroes. Which does’t make any sense as it takes place in medieval China where there are no South American birds. For the first few chapters I really liked the story. It begins with a taoist priest coming to a village and having a clash with two villagers who turn out to be no ordinary farmers but secretly heirs of great warrior dynasties who had to flee their homeland. And of course, they have a big kung-fu fight. Taoism is one of the big Asian religions I know the least about. But in Chinese fantasy stories, traveling taoist priests are basically Jedi. And this novel is not pseudo-historic fiction. This is full out, balls to the walls fantasy loosely inspired by historic events. It’s total awesome. Because after the initial fight is over and everyone apologizes for the unfortunate understanding, a gang of ninja show up and the action gets even more outragous. Then an evil officer screws everything up, women are kidnapped, terrible revenge is sworn, crazy flights in the night. It’s glorious. This is one of the occasions where I can use my favorite word in the English language: “Preposterous”. I really loved it. Then in the second chapter the priest has a confrontation which a gang of seven famous kung-fu masters who would best be described as superheroes. Sadly, then the story skipped 18 years into the future to introduce one of the actual protagonists. There are more fight scenes that are quite entertaining, but the plot completely loses all steam. In fact, the plot of the previous chapters has been pretty much resolved. It only served to give us some backstory on who the boy is and how he got to be trained by kung-fu masters. And I felt left hanging, wondering what’s going to happen next. The first chapters are huge action spectacle with great pacing and stuff happening. And then it’s just a boy getting trained by his masters and some bits about the career of Djingis Khan. There’s no immediate goal or sense of direction. Just a series of scenes with no real indication what it might be a buildup to. Basically the same problem that made my give up on Gardens of the Moon. And it’s very clear that the book is about two heroes whose fates are tied together, and by the point where I stopped reading the second hero had not even been introduced yet. I have the strong suspicion that after the origin story of the first hero, we probably get the whole origin story of the other one before theh finally meet each other. And this is a really big novel. I had read quite a lot by that point, but it was still just a 10th of the book. And there are actually three more books after this one. Thanks, but no. If I can get it in smaller chunks of 50 to 100,000 words, I’d really love to read more wuxia stories. But these giant mammoth books just are not for me, especially when they don’t have a tight plot.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

When I saw how much people praise and hype this book, I assumed it was the latest breakout success enjoying its 15 minutes of fame. But turns out it’s actually already 10 years old. Now that’s something that catches my interest. I am both picky and lazy, so most books, movies, and videogames I give any attention to are things that have already become classics and proven themselves to have a quality that survives beyond the initial excitement. When people still sing praise about something that’s an old hat, that’s what catches my curiosity. And I think The Lies of Locke Lamora has become established as one such classic. This one will probably still be remembere in 10 or 20 years. And reading it, it is easy to see why. It really is very good. I like it. But it’s not really doing anything for me. It is the story of Locke Lamora, a charming young man who was born to be a thief. He is the leader of a group refered to as the Gentleman Bastards. Some people steal out of necessity, some do it professionally. But for Locke and his team, stealing is not simply a job, or even an art. It’s a religion. They all have been raised and trained by a priest of the trickster god, and stealing is their life. And for Locke in particular, it’s his instinctive nature. They don’t care much about money, as they could easily steal more than they could ever spend. They are in it for the challenge and so only the most elaborate con games are good enough for them. Which I admit is a pretty good and new concept for a fantasy book. However, as I mentioned above, I really am no fan of the loveable rogue archetype. Though I have to give it to the book, that none of the character struck me as annoying or unlikeable. But I still don’t care for them. There are certain elements and themes in fantasy stories that fascinate and interest me and that feed my personal cravings in entertainment. And even when written as excelently as here, these stories just don’t deliver in that regard. It’s nothing qualitative. It’s plain personal taste. However, there is an actual problem I have with the story, which is that I am really not sure what the plot is about. I am about a sixth into the book and there’s still no sign of an antagonist or a conflict. Locke and his crew are setting up an elaborate con to trick two rich nobles out of their money, but it still feels more like setup for the actual plot that has not been introduced yet. Which is made worse by the fact that the story uses a technique that I really dislike and consider incredibly cheap. Even though we experience the story through the eyes and the mind of the protagonist, he has a lot of information about what is going on that the author does not share with the readers, but which is critical to understand what the protagonist is doing and why he behaves the way he behaves. And we know that he knows, because it’s all his briliant plan to begin with. We read about him going through with the plan without knowing what the plan is. It creates excitement and keeps the readers attention and interest. And it almost always works magnificently. But I consider it incredibly cheap, because the author is basically lying by omission. He tells us that there is a mystery where none exists. We are in the head of the protagonist and supposed to feel with him. Yet crucial pieces of information are withheld. It may work, but it’s a cheap trick. Especially in the first pages, events are often shown out of order, showing us a dramatic scene, but not giving any context. Which I call the Breaking Bad Opening. And like Breaking Bad, the supposedly dramatic scene often turns out pretty mundane amd unexciting once you actually get the information needed to understand what’s going on. Which the characters of course had all the time. It’s smoke and mirrors, and once you see them, it becomes impossible to ignore them. But again, other than that, it’s really well written and quite enjoyable, and the only book of these four that I very much recommend. It just is not what I am looking for, and when I am reading it I am always thinking that I could instead read something else that’s more my style.

The Big Problem

What I noticed a few days back, and what really motivated me to sit down and write all this, is that even though the books are all very different and I mostly have different problems with them, the main issue that makes me stop reading them is always the same. None of these books is able to tell me within the first 50 pages what the story is about. They are stories, but they don’t seem to have plots. What is the goal? What is the obstacle? What is the conflict? Where is it all going? What kind of story is this? In many popular stories this is pretty clear. In The Lord of the Rings the goal is to end the threat of Sauron getting back the ring while avoiding his minions. In the storie of Conan, the goal is almost always to steal a treasure or defeat an evil sorcerer. Not terribly original, but you know what kind of story it will be. Even in the Witcher novels, which are quite meandering with many different characters going to different places with diffuse goals, it’s very clear that the goal is to find out what the deal is with Ciri’s powers and why the thugs are hunting her and Geralt. It’s not a tight plot, but it’s a plot. Which is all I am asking for.

Now I do love pretty artsy and ambigous fiction. But with many fantasy books of recent years, I regularly end up at a loss when trying to figure out what they are about and what kind of plot they have. Even with the danger of appearing like an illiterate brute, my preference in fantasy is clearly adventure. And at least in this one point, I do applaud Tome of the Undergate. I really dislike the characters and the plot, but it’s an old fashioned adventure story of the kind that doesn’t seem to be any popular these days. On the Fantasy Faction forum someone had been asking a few weeks ago “Does a story need to have a hook?” And my personal answer is yes, it really does. I am quite willing to go along with a highly unconventional story about nonheroic characters dealing with diffuse issues. But I need to know what the story is about, and I would like to have a general idea within the first chapter. Because at least in my own individual case, I stop reading when I don’t get an answer to that question.

Retro Game Review: Thief

Thief: The Dark Project is one of the classic games from my teens, wich had gained an outstanding reputation back in the day, but for some reasons I’ve never really got very far past the first two levels. It’s a fantasy stealth game, and you could probably call it the stealth game that defined the genre for PC games. The same year, Metal Gear Solid was released for the Playstation, but even though they are completely different in almost any way, they both made the concept of games in which you secretly sneak around instead of killing all enemies popula. It was released way back in the great year 1998 (on the same day as Baldur’s Gate) for PC, and despite its age I was able to get it to run under Linux with WINE (with only an acceptable amount of trouble). I added some fan mods mostly for stability, but it also added some minor improvements like the night skies and water surfaces. I have to say it still looks pretty good for its age. Many games just a few years older have aged much worse when it comes to graphics. But this one is completely servicable. Audio is superb and I didn’t have any problems with controls or any glitches during play. My first impression had always been classic middle ages with a few anachronisms here and there, but as I got deeper into the story I discovered it to be actually following pretty closely to classic Sword & Sorcery traditions. It’s far more than breaking into castles and stealing gold coins and silver cups and candle holders.

Thief is the story of Garrett, a master thief who in his youth was trained by the Keepers, a secret society of lorekeepers who also have knowledge of semi-magical stealth skills, which come extremely handy for Garrett during the game. Some halfway decent shadows are enough to make him practically invisible, even to people who are standing right next to him and looking straight at him. The other two important groups of the settings are the Hammerites and the Pagans, which is where the Sword & Sorcery elements really start to take center stage. The Hammerites are a religion of smite-happy fanatics who have tremendous power in the City, while the Pagans are a group of wild men and women who live deep in the woods outside the city walls and worship an ancient and dark god of fertility and chaos. During the course of the game, the Pagans become the main antagonists for Garrett. As he delves deeper into their hidden lairs and learns more of their ancient religion, the game is getting more and more surreal and fantastic. It reminded me a lot of some of the more bizare adventures of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The intro should give you a pretty good impression.

I also played the second game, The Metal Age, which focuses on an even more radical sect of the Hammerites, who being a religion of order and machines, make it feel almost like steampunk, with the Sword & Sorcery elements virtually completely absent. Though the level design is greatly improved and the most annoying enemies from the first game almost completely absent, I couldn’t really enjoy the second game for that reason. The first game is all about magic, haunted places, and a twisted evil god and his creatures, and their nightmarish chaos creeping into the city. The second game is all about warehouses and office buildings, avoiding security golems and the like, and that just didn’t do it for me. It is the better game, but with a much weaker story and atmosphere, as far as I am concerned. The third game I didn’t get to run on my computer, and the less is said about the fourth, the better. But the first game, it really is quite amazing.

The game uses first person perspective, which might seem somewhat unusual as it’s normally used almost exclusively for shoting games, but I guess at the time it was an approach that both game developers working with 3D engines and players were already familiar with and so they just went with that instead of trying something completely different and new. But I think it actually works really well, especially for the parts of the game that are really quite spooky. The Penumbra and Amnesia games are pure horror games and are doing very well with this approach, too. You have a sword, but it probably will see very little use except for a few special cases later in the game. In this game, fighting means you failed at being sneaky. The actual main weapons are a club to knock people out from behind, and a bow, which is not usually used to shot people, but to fire all kinds of special arrows, which are the primary tools for getting into places and around guards. The water arrow can extinguish any open flame and though guards notice it, they will not lit it again. Since shadows make you practically invisible, these are always super handy. The moss arrow contains a capsule with magical moss seeds that will grow into a patch of moss about a meter across within a few seconds, allowing you to walk silently on wooden and stone floors. While Garrett is always sneaking around in tap dance shoes is a bit of a mystery, but having to take care of any sound you make is a nice gameplay element. The rope arrow will stick firmly to any wooden surface it is shot at and then uncoil a rope strong enough to climb. It still flies as easily as any other arrow, which I assume is because of magic. You also can pull it out and reuse it again, even though it can hold your full weight, which clearly must be the work of magic. And finally there is the fire arrow, which can light things on fire, or make zombies explode so they don’t get up again after being hit by the sword. You can also uses fountains or vials of holy water to turn your arrows into undead slaying arrows for a minute or so. Your bag of tricks is not as big as in most other stealth games back then and since, but it really is more than enough to always make the game exciting and puzzles fun.

For the first couple of levels you are doing a number of various break-ins, which are only loosely connected. You steal works of art, documents, and at one point even break a friend out of prison. And on the way you grab everything of value that is not nailed down. At the end of the level you get a reward, plus all the other valuables you collected, which will be your budget for buying supplies for the next level. For gameplay reason, all the money you don’t spend is lost and any equipment you don’t use is not carried ove into the next level. Otherwise it would be impossible to balance the challenges to both players who collect very little or grab absolutely eveything. Getting a lot of loot helps you with the next level, but doesn’t mak a difference in the long run. In almost any level there are a number of locke doors which you can not pick and you have to find a key for. Quite often the key is on the belt of a guard, which you can either knock out, or just sneakily pick the key from them. Others have coin purses or healing potions, which are also nice to get. On normal difficulty you simply have to find the item you are looking for and pick it up, and then the level is immediately over. Hard difficulty is immensely more fun, as you not only have to grab the item but also sneak out of the place again, often using a different route. Usually without killing any humans. This not only makes many levels about a third longer (and therefore the whole game), but also requires much smarter methods of getting to your goal. Simply running past the guards in the same room with the item won’t do.

The levels are often very big and you move around very slowly. I think most probaby take between one and two hours, depending on how good you are and how flawlessly your personal pride demands to pull everything off. Slowly knocking out every person in the building and hiding them in safe spots works, but is not nearly as satisfying as walking around them unseen. I also like the maps. You really have to use the maps or you will have no clue where you need to go. There are always dozens of rooms and corridors with lots of connections between them. And sometimes secret passages. The maps are not just clear layouts of the area, but instead you have rough sketches scribbled down on several papers. Sometimes you’re in luck and have proper building plans, at other times you have almost nothing. The only help you get is that the map screen always shows you in what area you currently are, otherwise it probably would be nightmare.

After a couple of levels like this, you get contacted by a man who has become aware of your exploits and has need of someone with your amazing skills. Because he has a job he thinks nobody else would be able to do. Which is where the main story really kicks off. The version that I played is Thief Gold, which adds several new levels to the game and is the version everyone should play. And the one I believe to be on GOG. The first release of the game was criticized for having too few levels in which you break into rich people’s places and steal their stuff, and that for most of the game you sneak around ruins and caves full of monsters instead of doing actual thieving. The new levels from Thief Gold address that and are all about that. They are not just like an add-on or are put between the early introduction levels and the later main storey levels, but spread out quite evenly through the whole game. And somehow they managed to do it so seamlessly that you wouldn’t even know that they added something later unless someone told you. And even if you do, it’s impossible to tell which ones are old and which ones new. At one point in the game you have to find four items. Originally there were two items each in two levels. But then they removed one item from each level and gave them both their own levels. And since the new levels are both again in human buildings with human guards, it breaks up the monotony of monster caves very nicely. It feels a bit like getting the four items take forever now (which it does, originally it took half as much time), but that’s a very minor tradeoff and the new levels are all great.

Now while the mechanics of the gameplay are fun in themselves, I think it really is the atmosphere and the story that make it shine. Or not, since they are both very dark. The Thief series is the only case I know that blends medieval fantasy with Noir. And it works perfectly. If you’ve seen The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca, you’ll immediately recognize the games as Noir. They have it all: Shady businessmen, corrupt watchmen, mysterious women, fancy houses, and it’s always night. And usually raining. But the plot of this game is also Sword & Sorcery. Not at all like Robert Howard, but very much like Karl Wagner or the darkest works of Fritz Leiber. Of course, this combination also gives the later parts of the game a slightly Lovecraftian feel. It’s very difficult to talk about the plot without giving away too much. It’s a story of deception and betrayal, where nothing is really as it seems at first and nobody is trustworthy. It leads to a number of different locations. Not just fancy mansions, but also a prison, zombie-haunted catacombs, a ruined and abandoned, quarter of the city, a hammerite temple, and an ancient cave city. The new levels also lead you into an opera house and a wizard academy. And then there’s of course the infamous mansion of Constantine, which really is one of the greatest gems of the whole series. It’s really unusual and weird, but if there’s any chance that you might play this game, I really recommend not looking up anything related to it. While many people probably would not instinctively group the game with Sword & Sorcery, I think there is a very strong kinship. Most of the world seems almost magic free and to have more in common with steampunk. But this game also has a very strong supernatural element to it. It’s not the zombies or the wizards of the mage tower, but the mysterious plot related to the Pagans. They are a very strange bunch, even much more so than the Hammerites. They would not feel out of places on Twin Peaks or X-Files, and I would not be surprised at all if the makers of this game were fans of those shows. But also, Garrett pretty much fits the mold of classic Sword & Sorcery heroes. He’s exist in a position outside of regular society (being a thief for hire who works only independent), who gets involved with things for personal and selfish reasons (making money and getting rid of personal enemies), and he also takes the initiative and uses daring acts to get closer to his goal. He doesn’t wade through a sea of enemies and cuts them down with an axe. Instead he sneaks into very high security and dangerous places, which is just as crazy and amazing, just in a somewhat different way. He doesn’t fight and doesn’t kill unless you make him, but he’s still pulling of insane stunts left and right. And of course, he’s constantly making comments on things that are wonderfully sarcastic. He may not look like it, but Garrett is in most ways a classic Sword & Sorcery hero.

In addition to being both Noir and Sword & Sorcery, this game also would have little trouble being classified as a horror game. Many levels are completely free of any horror elements and the others are not particularly horrific. But they are really damn spooky! The undead are not that terribly frightening either. But in this game you are always alone and in the middle of the night. And in the spooky levels you also creep around in old abandoned places with no living human soul anywhere, and most of the time barely any light. And of course, you always rely on stealth and there isn’t much to find in the way of weapons or healing. It all helps to create an atmosphere that is perhaps not terrifying, but super spooky. Perhaps the word creepy also doesn’t really describe it, but it’s the spookiest thing I’ve ever seen.

To sum up my thoughts on this game, it’s great. I feel like this will be one of my long time favorites, even though I really played it only this year. And even as old as it is, I highly recommend it. To my knowledge, there isn’t really anything like it around these days. Dishonored may look somewhat similar, but it’s really a completely different thing. I can’t really think of any group of people who play fantasy games, who would not like it. If you don’t like stealth games in general or you’re not a fan of spooky games, then this game probably is not for you. But to everyone else, I really do recommend giving it a look. It’s on Good Old Games and pretty much dirt cheap. Getting old games to run on modern computers can often be challenging, but when you get it from GOG, it usually has been updated to work without problems.

Game Review: Dead Space

The last month I was filling up some of the gaps in my collection of Playstation games. Among them being Dead Space, which I actually played once before five or six years ago but gave away or traded it for something else after I was done with it. Now I played the whole thing again and there’s really quite a lot to talk about in it. I usually don’t play Horror games because they are – yes, you’re right – too scary for me. Dead Space is one of the exceptions. Compared to oldschool Survivial Horror games it is relatively tame as the scariness goes and it’s set in a setting that I generally don’t consider particularly scary to begin with. I grew up with spooky Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes and it was only many years after having seen Alien that I learned that most people consider it a horror movie. Alien lifeform infiltrating a ship and altering the people on board is an old hat for me. If you’re not immunized to stories of this type, it might be much more scarier, though.

Dead Space was released in 2008, like a whole bunch of other great PS3 games, and while not one of those games that achieved immortal fame, it was still very well recieved and has a lot of great fans. The kind of success game developers can reasonably hope to achieve with a new series. The setup is very simple. The deep space mining ship Ishimura has send a distress call from a remote planet and the company sends a small repair team consisting of a computer technician, an engine technician, and three guards. You play the mechanic Isaac Clarke (little joke here that sci-fi fans should easily spot), whose girlfriend Nicole is also one of the medics on the Ishimura, who had send him a strange message before contact with the ship was lost. When their shuttle arrives at the Ishimura, the whole power is out and the automatic landing system malfunctions, causing them to crash into the hangar bay. Inside the Ishimura everything is in chaos and the whole crew gone. But no three minutes later a swarm of berserking space zombies tears two of the guards to pieces and answers the question where everyone has gone. With the Ishimura being out of working order and the shuttle wrecked, Isaac has to crawl through the giant mining ship, trying to find a way to escape while keeping the ship from crashing down into the planet. And of course try to find out what happend to Nicole and saving her if possible. Good thing he’s an engineer and not some kind of useless space marine or theoretical physicist. Overall, the game feels a lot like a blend of Aliens, Event Horizon, and The Thing. You could also call it Die Hard on a Spaceship. With zombies! Or, as I believe the correct technical term goes, serious fucked up shit.

This is an excelent trailer, by the way. It gives a good impression of what you’re going to get and, more importantly, doesn’t give away any details of the story. I watched this one years ago and quite liked it. And I think it was the only one I watched, which allowed me to go into the game completely blind. Which I think really was very much worth it. Many of the other trailer I’ve seen now give away way too many unexpected revelations in my opinion.

How it plays

Dead Space is described my many people as a Survival Horror game, but I think it’s a very different thing from the old Resident Evils and Silent Hills. While there is a superficial similarity in the environment designs, the gameplay is very different. The first time I played the game I had not really played any action games on console before, so I played it on Normal difficulty. Which I think was really much too easy. But even having played it on Hard now, there is just so much ammo and money around and regular easy access to stores that you never have to conserve your resources. You can kill absolutely everything hostile in the game without any trouble. Also, you’re actually perfectly equiped for the situation with an armored space suit that allows you to survive in vacuum for a while and walk on the walls in Zero-G areas, and you also have exactly the right kind of weapons that make very short work of all the monsters. You’re not really some poor chap who somehow ended up in a situation that is way over his head. You’re a total badass who absolutely owns the whole ship and wipes the decks with any space zombie he comes across. What is nice when you play, but taking away a lot of tension, is that the game is one of the most generous with autosave checkpoints I’ve ever seen. When you get killed by the monsters you usually start right at the door you just opened. That’s really not at all Survival Horror. Sadly, the Resident Evil series seems to have largely abandoned their original gameplay and went the same direction as Dead Space, becoming action shoters with zombies many years ago. The more recent Silent Hill games also appear to have turned in that direction, which really is a shame. Both series are lying in shambles now, with Konami even pulling out of the videogame business entirely. Even after the great praise of the first Dead Space and the still positive reception of Dead Space 2, this series also appears to have been completely wrecked now, as it has increasingly abandoned the faint survival elements from the first game and focused entirely on nonstop zombie shoting. I’ve heard a fourth game was planned but abandoned, which of course is entirely their own fault. Taking an established formula with a dedicated fan base and then removing all the unique elements and making it more generic does not get you more customers. You only lose the ones you had and not offering something new that that hasn’t already been done a dozen times. But back to Dead Space, which I think when looked at by itself, is a really quite good game.

One of the great things of the game is the interface. In a sense, the game does not have any kind of HUD at all. Instead your suit has a holographic display that will project an inventory screen, map, or questlog in the air in front of you. Your ammo counter is also always on the gun you’re holding in your hand. When you go close to a door or a switch, a hologram will appear which serves as the button. One of the real Survival Horror elements of the game is that it never pauses for anything (except when you pause it, during which you can’t do anything else). Going into your inventory or looking at the map does not stop any nearby enemies from attacking or sneaking up on you. Reloading a gun or using a health kit can be done with a quick press of a button, but if you need to switch an air canister or recharge the stasis module, you have to go into the inventory and do it manually. Inventory space is limited but increases as you upgrade your suit, but that rarely became an issue for me. However, it’s still a good idea to regularly check your inventory because that’s the only way to see how much ammo and health kits you still have. If you don’t pay attention you can find yourself unable to reload your gun in the middle of a fight, which can be a bit of a problem. Where the game is very forgiving is that not only do enemies drop plenty of ammo, they also only drop ammo for weapons that you currently have.

Since the first gun you get is actually clearly the best one in the game, it’s really very easy to never use anything else. That way you never have to worry what kind of ammunition to carry or having to switch weapons in a fight. The plasma cutter is a mining tool that shots a wide beam of plasma that can be fired either vertically or horizontally. Which makes it extremely well suited to cutting off arms, legs, or tentacles from the monsters, which does a huge amount of damage. You can kill them by shoting them in the chest, but instead of going for the head, the most damage you can deal is by shoting off the limbs. Shoting off just one limb is not going to kill anything and they will just keep crawling towards you and hacking and gnawing at your legs if you shot off one of their feet. Something really great about the game, which I would love to see in really every shoting game, is that it seems to have quite variable damage. Most of the time it takes cutting of two limbs from the standard enemy to kill it. But sometimes it will keep coming after that, and in some rare cases they will be dead after losing just one. It could have something to do with weapons dealing different damage depending on how they are upgraded, or that sometimes you hit multiple hit areas on the enemy with a single shot, which leads to the damage being added up. But either way, I was very often surprised to see an enemy dropping dead sooner than I expected or keep fighting after I thought I had killed it. In most games that don’t use automatic guns at long distances, you very quickly figure out the rythm of fighting. “One, two, three, dead.” “One, two, three, dead.” And so on, and on, and on. Dead Space doesn’t, which I think is really great. And to make things more interesting, sometimes enemies will just stop moving after they fell over because they got a leg shot off. But then start clawing at you once you step too close to them. There’s also lots of moments where you come upon a corpse and think “Wait, there was no corpse here when I last came this way”, and of course they jump up and attack you. But not always. Sometimes the dead monsters you find are actually dead. There’s always tense anticipation. There is a total of seven weapons in the game. And while the plasma cutter is great and the line gun a more powerful and wider version that can only shot horizontally (to cut of a dozen legs in a single shot), most of the other weapons are really quite bad. First time you see it in the store, you probably think “Oh sweet! A flamethrower!” But it sucks. It’s completely terrible and pretty much useless. Instead of having a zombie that claws at your face, you now have a zombie that claws at your face while being on fire. Even fully upgraded the damage is tiny and you actually have to reignite an enemy several times because it keeps going out much faster than it kills. Or you keep a constant stream of fire on them, in which case you run out of fuel within seconds. There’s also a kind of long range chainsaw called the Ripper. Which also does way too little damage and requires you to keep the spinning blade touching an enemy for way too long. Both weapons really only work when you have a single enemy who has no legs left, in which case you could just shot it with any other gun. The force gun is also quite fun, battering any enemy in its way with a massive impact blast when upgraded. But it’s really the best idea to only use the plasma cutter and line gun and upgrade them for maximum damage. Buying the other weapons and spending the rare upgrade points of them is a complete waste of resources.

As mentioned, Isaac is wearing a space suit that is made for repairing damaged space ships and allows you to work and fight in both vacuum and no gravity. Which is great, because the Ishimura is a total wreck. Breaking up asteroids leaves a lot of big stones flying around and without working defenses the ship quickly got punched full of giant holes. The air supply of the suit lasts for only a minute, which can be upgraded to two minutes, but that’s generally more than enough. In sections where you’re without air for a longer time, there are generally Oxygen refuling stations that you just have to click on to get the timer instantly reset to full. There are also air canister which you can find lying around or buy from the store. Much more fun than the lack of air to breath is the lack of air to hear. Being space zombies, all the enemies are not troubled by vacuum at all. But unless they are stepping on the same deck plate you’re standing on right next to you and you hear the slight shockwaves that travel through your suit, everything is completely silent. And of course, most areas that have no air are either completely wrecked or on the outside of the ship, so you never really have a good view of your environment. Good times. But moving and fighting in weightlessness is even much more fun. Some parts of the ship have no gravity and there’s also none when you’re running around on the outside. Instead you stick to the floor with magnetic boot. Or to any wall or ceiling, really. When you aim at something on which you can stand, Isaac can disable the magnets and make a jump straight in that direction, no matter the distance. Once you reach the surface, your feet will stick to it and it becomes the new floor. Which really works amazingly and surprisingly well. Most games have clear up and down, even Portal immediately switches you around to the correct orientation when you jump into a portal in the floor and come out of a portal on a wall. In Dead Space, up and down is entirely defined by the surface you currently stand on. Sometimes these surfaces are even curved, allowing you to simply walk from a wall to the ceiling without any transition. One great fight even takes place in a room shaped like a giant drum. The only possible downside: I can imagine this getting super confusing for people with a less than excelent sense of orientation. I’ve been playing starfighter simulations for many years in my teens which makes it all very easy, but there are probably many people who would have real trouble with switching a whole three dimensional room by 30 degrees on the z-axis and 70 degrees on the y-axis and still remembering the position of enemies and exploding canisters nearby. That you have to aim your gun to indicate the direction of your jump is a bit clunky, but otherwise it really works incredibly smooth.

The Sights

One element in which Dead Space really is nothing short of astonishing is the architecture and interior design of the levels. The Ishimura really is a metal hell. It’s an old industrial ship that has been severely battered by asteroid strikes and all kinds of fighting going on inside, with survivors of the first days having created various barricades and written messages on the walls. I particularly like the first and third levels, which take place in the train maintanance section and the engine section, which together with the mining section later in the game are the most industrial environments. Much of these levels consist not of thick solid walls, but of flimsy walkways, metal grates, and steel sheets that let you look through the many gaps. Of couse, the lighting is bad and there’s also lots of steam, pipes, and dangling cables everywhere. It’s very similar to both Alien and Aliens and really a wonderful environment for fighting space zombies. The medical section and crew quarters are very different in style, but it’s never a pleasant place. I say the art design of Dead Space is really by far one of the best I’ve ever seen in any game. It’s relatively simple most of the time, but it’s just perfect for the location in which it is set and the atmosphere of the story.

Also, the Ishimura is huge. Though when you played it a two or three times and then look at the maps, the levels are actually all much smaller than they seem. You start and finish almost every level at one of the many train stations that connect the different sections of the ship. Most of the time you leave at the same station at which you’ve arrived, which means that you either make one big circle through the level or, more commonly, have to make your way back to the train once you accomplished your current task. Bam, instant doubling of the level size! Six of the twelve levels actually take part in the same three areas of the ship. But it’s far from boring. Since the ship is full of monsters crawling around everywhere, you can never be fully certain that there isn’t going to be something jumping out from a vent or coming around a corner. While it’s all scripted with no really random enemy movement, sometimes the enemies show up only the third or fourth time you’re passing through a central area. It’s always staying tense.

The Sounds

I have the sound from my PS3 running over a six speaker surround system, but in most games you really don’t notice it much. In Dead Space, it’s very noticable. Because, holy shit, this ship is noisy! The industrial sections in particularly are extremely loud, which huge machines making an incredible amount of noise that is just overwhelming. And of course makes it impossible to hear all but the nearest enemies. I think it’s even more tense than fighting in vacuum with almost no sound at all. When an engine is restarted or a big machine powered up, it really makes a lot of noise. But even in the other sections of the ship, there’s almost always a lot of minor noises going on. Some metal thing hitting the ground in the distance, muffled screams, hissing, dripping, the whole shebang. And it sounds really good. The only shortcoming that I’ve noticed is that you quickly learn that none of those sounds are made by monsters moving around nearby, they are all just background noise. Which is a shame. It would be so much more fun if you had reason to stop and listen if there are any other sounds and from where it might be coming. But it still sounds really great.

Sometimes there are automated messages broadcasted by the ship’s computer, but they are always so faint that I can never make out what they actually say. Which I think is actually an advantage. It makes the whole place seem much more otherworldly. There’s also often sounds that clearly can not be be actually there. There’s a greenhouse section where fresh food is produced and air recycled and it’s full of jungle noise. Then you get to the other greenhouse section which is both completely stripped by any vegetation, covered by fleshy growths, and almost entirely silent. The contrast is both quite amazing and spooky. There is also a lab where something seems to play a tune for sleeping babies. Which given the context of the place certainly can’t be the case. Since there’s not just space zombies but also lots of space madness among those who are not completely dead yet, there’s always some ambiguity on whether some things might be hallucinations. And in that context, the incomprehensible broadcasts also start to feel somewhat spooky.

The voice acting in the game is also really quite good. It’s nothing noticably special, but I think that’s great. It mostly feels very natural and genuine. The emotions are mostly not overblown, but they are still very much present. When you notice great voice acting, it’s because it’s unusual and draws attention to itself. In Dead Space it’s not the case, but it’s also not flat. It’s not a huge deal and there are no amazing performances, but I think whoever was in charge of the recording and selecting the takes that were used for the game really had a quite good ear for dialogue that flows smoothly.

The Horror, the Horror

What I really have not talked about at all yet is the story. Which really is a complicated topic. I had the fortunate situation of being able to go into this game completely blind, knowing nothing except that there’s a big ship in space that has been overwhelmed by space zombies. And to anyone who has the chance, I very much recommend to do the same. If you’re really curious about it but feel certain that you don’t want to play a game like this yourself (I would never play Silent Hill or Penumbra by myself, way too fucking scary), I would still recommend watching a Let’s Play. (I’d personally go with Helloween, he’s one of the most hilarious guys on the internet.) But I’ll be talking a bit more about some general things before going into specific spoilers later. At its core, the story of Dead Space is really quite simple and basic and there isn’t really much to it. However, many of the fragments of information that you get throughout the game hint at something really interesting going on and since the release there have been a lot of speculations by fans how everything fits together and what certain elements really mean within the larger context. However, the sad truth behind it is that even the writers of the story himself admited in an interview that I’ve seen that they really didn’t pay much attention to many of the details and just threw in a bunch of things they thought were cool. Many of the biggest questions, like how the monsters are actually multiplying and what purpose the Marker has, are really just the result of shoddy and inconsistent writing. There is an infector form of the monster that infects human corpses to make more monsters. But there is one very clear case in which a large group of people were all killed and transformed by a single monster, which clearly was not an infector but a standard warrior. There isn’t really anything given away by telling that the final boss monster is called the Hive Mind, which would have pretty important implications. But actually, no. That boss fight was added to the game without even consulting the writer of the story which resulted in multiple forces being both behind the monster horde but also opposing each other. Following games tried to make some sense of it, but to my knowledge they never succeded. There are also some moments that just sound completely silly, like when the repair team tries to find the captain and they find out that he’s dead. And one of them actually says “What?! How?!” I don’t know? Maybe it has something to do with all the space zombies who killed the other 1000 people on the ship? (It wasn’t, but it was still a stupid question.) And halfway through the game someone mentions that they should find Isaacs girlfriend and get off the ship as soon as possible. How at that point anyone could assume that Nicole somehow is still alive and well while practically everyone else is dead seems completely nonsencical. Again, the truth is actually a bit more complicated, but in that situation it really didn’t make any sense at all.

But I am actually someone who really plays games primarily for the story and I still don’t hate this one with a passion. I actually really quite like it. Why? One of the quirky things about Dead Space is that while it’s story is more holes than plot and makes not very much sense when you look at things logically, the way that it is presented works very well on an emotional level. It’s a poor story that is very well told. The emotions of the characters and their interaction, as limited as they may be, really work. Yes, it’s a bit cliched and stereotypical, but it’s well executed. The distress, treachery, and hybris feels real. Trying to understand the chronological steps of events and the mechanisms by which the monsters are created and multiplying won’t get you anywhere. That part of the story is just a complete mess. But you can understand what each character is feeling and why, and how that makes them behave. And in that regard it’s a good story.

There is one minor twist to the story of Dead Space that comes pretty early in the game, but going completely blind into this game, I really did not expect. And it’s also what really makes Dead Space stand out from other zombie games and movies and makes it its own unique thing. Obviously, spoilers in the rest of this paragraph. As it turns out, I think already in the second level, much of the crew of the Ishimura consisted of members of the Church of Unitology, the largest remaining religion on Earth. And the zombie outbreak on the ship was not an unfortunate accident caused by bad luck. On the planet the Ishimura is orbiting, miners found a strange burried artifact called the Marker. And to the Unitologists, the Marker is a devine relic connected to their version of the afterlife and their belief in a transformation of all humanity. But when they went to dig it out and fiddle around with it, people started getting crazy and turning into monsters. And with many different people having very different ideas what to do about the situation, everything devolved into chaos and the monsters killing almost everyone. At its core, this is the stuff of a good story. People encounter something strange to which there is much more than it seems at first, and conflict breaks out about how to deal with it. The main problem seems to be that the makers of the game went a bit overboard with trying to add lots of additional layers, twists, and complications to that without really having a clear idea of what is actually going on with the Marker and the monsters. Turns out there’s also a government coverup and secret experiments, and multiple conspiracies. Less really would have been much more here. But as I’ve mentioned before, when you look at the story of Dead Space as people responding to a crisis, I think it’s pretty good. It’s mostly the exact nature of the crisis where things get really messed up and confused. The search for Nicole is a good example of that. If you try to piece together what’s really going actually on, it doesn’t make much sense. But you can still easily get the idea what the creators of the game were trying to do with her, and I think it’s a pretty good idea. I also very much love a moment in the later parts of the game where you are trying to board a shuttle where one of your current allies is waiting for you, and suddenly there’s just a bang and blood on his uniform and he falls over while behind him the doors close, the engines start, and the shuttle takes off without you. At that moment, it really took me several seconds to realize “Someone is stealing our escape ship! Why?! Who?!” It just takes off and leaves. You then get a radio call 10 seconds or so later where everything is explained, but when I first played that level years back, it was one of those moments that really made me fall in love with the idea of having major things happen in a story without immediately given any clue what just happened. In almost all fiction, any time there’s a twist someone immediately shows up to explain everything to the audience. It was only 15 or 20 seconds, but I really loved that unexplained confusion. When I work on ideas for stories, I always plan them out in a way that the reader doesn’t get anything told until the protagonist learns it.

So, to my final verdict on the game. Yay or Nay? Clear yay from me. I really like Dead Space. It’s not amazing game, but in many respects it’s a really good game. And yes, in some others it’s a very mediocre game. But it gets some very important things right, which are atmosphere and emotional depth, fow which I really care so much more than logically consistent plots. The sad thing is that I think Dead Space really could have been so much more. I think the potential was there for something like a Silent Hill 2, but they went with the action shoter approach instead of the horror mystery. While looking for the E3 trailer, I also found this launch trailer for the game. Which really looks and feels quite amazing. Unfortunately, it also is really not representative of the game at all. It makes it all look so much deeper and complex than it really is. (It also spoils the thing I was talking about in the previous paragraph.) It’s still a space zombie shoter with with a nice coating of simple story that adds a few interesting but underexplored ideas. But maybe I should try to write a story like that?