Saturday, 16 January 2077

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Friday, 24 June 2022

Mass Effect: Legendary Edition

2183. Twenty-five years have passed since humanity discovered it was not alone in the universe. The Milky Way is dominated by the Citadel Council, a multi-species authority that seeks to limit conflict and war and promote peace and trade. One soldier now stands ready to become the first human Spectre, an elite agent with the authority to destroy threats to galactic peace. But their first mission uncovers evidence of a rogue element in the Spectre ranks, and evidence that a powerful, ancient threat is returning to the galaxy after fifty thousand years. With the Council not ready to face this truth, it falls to Commander Shepard to recruit a crew of like-minded allies and expose this new threat.

Yeah, get used to seeing these, Shepard.

If video games are about fulfilling fantasies, BioWare's Mass Effect trilogy offers one of the most compelling in the history of the medium: you are Commander Shepard, Space Adventurer. Your surname is set in stone but otherwise you can determine your Shepard's gender, appearance, abilities, sexuality and personality. You then guide your Shepard through a lengthy quest to save the galaxy, but it's up to you how you do it. You can be the ultimate hero, a paragon of honour and justice, or you can be a brutal, sarcastic antihero. Or maybe you just wing it as the fancy takes you. Depending on your deeds and words, entire civilisations will be destroyed, trusted friends may be betrayed or left for dead, and the fate of trillions of lives hang in the balance.

Most RPGs released since the trilogy have been open-world games, offering freedom in allowing you to travel across a vast landscape and mix and match quests and activities, but none have offered narrative freedom and control in this manner. You can see why, as well. It's very hard to pull off, and even BioWare themselves have shied away from trying to do it again. Their Dragon Age series has offered some of the same ideas of narrative control, but constantly changing protagonists and drastically changing locations between games has minimised the same kind of impact.

Where you command your ship from, and spend a lot of time searching for new worlds to visit in your bouncy tank.

The Mass Effect trilogy is really one immense game split into three for length and pacing reasons, and the Legendary Edition of the trilogy combines them for the first time into one cohesive package. Every bit of DLC is also included (one optional expansion for the first game excepted, which almost everyone ignored first time around anyway) and all three games have been given graphical spruce-ups and had their load times drastically improved. The first game has also had its combat revamped to better match the latter two games in the series. The result is now the best way to experience the trilogy, certainly for newcomers, and seasoned hands will find a more streamlined experience as well.

Michael Sheen plays the main human antagonist and has a blast in the process.

The trilogy's most vital feature is that you get to create your character and take them through all three games, carrying all their decisions with them to make for one epic story. The trilogy is ostensibly made up of roleplaying games, although it ends up being more of an RPG-shooter hybrid. All three games are separated into non-combat areas, where you can pick up missions, engage in dialogue and diplomacy and usually some shopping, and mission levels, which are linear maps where you usually make your way to an objective and shoot very large numbers of people along the way. The most important stuff usually happens in the non-combat zones, where you can guide Shepard through conversations using a radial dial and picking your responses. You can also gain "Paragon" and "Renegade" responses by picking kind or aggressive replies respectively. Increase your Paragon and/or Renegade scores and you can unlock special replies, which can sometimes allow you to avoid combat by defusing situations or intimidating an opponent into backing down. This is usually where you'll decide what kind of Shepard you can be, either a hero or an antihero (you can't really be a villain) or some kind of middle ground, although those trying to have their cake and eat it may find they're locked out of the special replies on both ends of the spectrum.

"Earth!?! Where are we?"

Combat sees you deploy Shepard and two companions and fight in third-person. Combat is inspired by the Gears of War series, with lots of conveniently-placed, chest-high walls to hide behind and fire off shots at the enemy. Combat in the first game is fairly forgettable, improves sharply in the second game and reaches its best in the final title. You can focus on your own fight and let AI handle your companions, or you can pause and give them orders mid-combat. The three games do handle difficulty differently, so I found that Mass Effect 2 could sometimes be challenging on Normal whilst Mass Effect 3 could occasionally feel a bit too easy even on Nightmare, so tweaking difficulty levels to find the right balance is key. However, given the important stuff happens in the dialogue scenes, combat can occasionally feel like a chore. Dropping the difficulty all the way to the easiest level makes combat trivial and allows you to get on with the story.

And it's the worldbuilding, story and characters where Mass Effect shines. Mass Effect is nothing too original - imagine 1990s SF TV classic Babylon 5 mashed up with the 2003 Battlestar Galactica and you're about 90% of the way there - but it almost gleefully mixes and matches its inspirations to create something very enjoyable, if occasionally familiar. The alien races are all memorable and have their interesting foibles and cultural tics, like the third-person-referring Hanar or grumpy space dwarf Voluses, or the Elcor, whose lack of facial expressions and monotonous voices means they have to patiently explain their current emotional state at the start of every sentence. The backstory, painting humanity as newcomers on the galactic stage who are still a bit paranoid about aliens but who are also rising fast in power and influence, angering older galactic civilisations, is also rich and interesting.

Tali, kickass space engineer and one of your best friends in the series.

The in-game story is also excellent, with you initially chasing down a rogue Spectre who has allied to a renegade race of mechanoids. The stakes get bigger and busier, and you eventually have to sacrifice a trusted friend and pull a gun on another when your relationship goes south. Eventually you discover the real threat, a Cthulhu-esque nightmare of techno-horrors from beyond the dawn of time, and have to fend off their first incursion into the galaxy with a massive space battle and a desperate battle up a burning skyscraper...and that's all in just the first game!

The story ranges far and wide across the galaxy, although players are often baffled by the turn it takes in Mass Effect 2. Trying to avoid spoilers, but suffice to say that there is a two-year gap between the events of the first two games and Shepard's warnings of the return of the Reapers have been disregarded by the Council, forcing them to join forces with a human separatist organisation with a dubious moral past but who have the massive resources needed to take the fight to a new enemy, the Collectors. The game feels like a huge side-quest from the main story arc, but it's also immaculately structured, with Shepard having to assemble a (more or less literal) Dirty Dozen of specialists in various fields, win their trust and then mount an all-out assault on the Collector home base. The brilliance of Mass Effect 2 is how closely it focuses on your relationship with the various characters: mess up your recruitment jobs and you may find some candidates will not help you, or may stab you in the back, or are so disillusioned with you that they will be killed in the final battle. Mass Effect 2 is distinctly odd when looked at in the grand context of the trilogy but it's a brilliant game in its own right.

One of the problems with facing cosmic techno-horrors from the beyond the dawn of time is that every other side-villain in the trilogy comes across as a time-wasting prat. This guy takes that to another level.

Mass Effect 3 then becomes an all-out war story, with you right in the middle of a desperate battle for survival with entire planets falling and burning, and a desperate resistance being organised against ridiculous odds. This may sound familiar, but really, Mass Effect 3 does an almost unmatched job of putting you in a ludicrously overwhelming situation and forcing you to make very tough decisions on which the fate of the galaxy will depend. It's enough to almost make you forgive the infamously divisive ending, which tries to bring the preceding ~95 hours of great storytelling to a satisfying close and can't quite manage it. It works and more or less fits the themes of the trilogy, but it also does feel like some of the unknowable mystery set up by the first game has been dissipated by lengthy exposition scenes in the third.

The Mass Effect's trilogy's ace card is its cast of characters. BioWare had superb casts of fun characters in earlier games, all the way back to Minsc and Boo in the venerable Baldur's Gate, but it was in Mass Effect where they really nailed it. Almost every character is excellently-written, superbly-acted (Mass Effect may have cumulatively the greatest voice cast and vocal performances of any video game series, ever) and given motivations and backstory that allow you to understand where they're coming from. A few characters are a bit on the bland side - Ashley, Kaidan, Vega, Jacob - and a couple don't feel like they really fit into a Paragon-based crew (Zaeed) or a Renegade-based one (about half the rest), but overall they're a great bunch. And of course Tali, Garrus, Wrex, Liara and Javik are among the best, most entertaining AI companions you could wish for in any game. There's also a few who might annoy at first or don't appear to do much, but gradually reveals themselves to be great picks (Jack, Samara, EDI, Grunt). Forging friendships or even romances with these characters, or encouraging hook-ups between their ranks, is amusing.

It's never revealed how much Shepard is paid for their troubles, but it's clearly not enough as this side-hustling advertising gig indicates.

So far, so good. But there are some issues. The first is that having all three games and their DLC in the same package creates some weird pacing problems, particularly in how you access the expansion missions. Arrival should really only be done after the final mission in Mass Effect 2 (it acts as a bridge to Mass Effect 3), but it's possible to trigger the mission a lot earlier and it fits very awkwardly into the timeline if you do that. Similarly, the Citadel expansion to Mass Effect 3 should be done as late in the game as possible to ensure you get to recruit the largest possible cast of characters from all three games for a reunion, but the lighthearted, comedic tone of the expansion fits awkwardly alongside the increasingly grimdark-AF atmosphere as the trilogy moves towards it conclusion.

There's also a lot of stuff that the games don't tell you that a newcomer should really know, like how regularly touring the ship between missions can unlock new conversations with your companion characters and open up opportunities to gain Renegade or Paragon points, or unlock new missions or "war assets" for use later on in Mass Effect 3 (Legendary Edition carries forwards more decisions from the first two games to help you in the third).

If you immediately got this Baldur's Gate reference, you are automatically a person of taste and refinement. Well done.

There's also the fact that although BioWare tinkered with how the OG Mass Effect works, they don't bring it fully in line with the other two games. Mass Effect is an RPG with a shooter combat mode, whilst Mass Effect 2 and 3 are much more shooters with RPG conversations. The difference is that Mass Effect has non-combat skills and more areas where combat and conversations mix, whilst the other two games only have very modest skill trees and much more clearly delineate their non-combat and combat areas. Mass Effect feels a bit out of keeping with the other two games and not fully integrated into how most of the series works, so the unified experience of playing all three games remains uneven (although less on this time around).

There's also the issue with minigames. Mass Effect 1 and 2 have laborious minigames for lockpicking and hacking, which are both tedious and should be dumped. Mass Effect 3 swaps them out for it simply taking a while and having to make sure nobody's shooting at you at the time. All three games also have an exploration mechanic which they handle differently. Mass Effect 1 has you driving around planets in the Mako, an inexplicably bouncy tank, looking for minerals and (very rarely) shooting bad guys. There's also identikit buildings - seriously, it's worse than Dragon Age II - you can sometimes clear out of enemies and loot. Exploring all these optional planets takes forever (literally 50% or more of Mass Effect 1's total playtime if you're going for an exhaustive run) and isn't much fun.

You will be doing this a lot.

Mass Effect 2 ups the ante with mineral scanning, which means you sit in orbit around planets and move the mouse around looking for minerals. It sounds and plays very dull, but is important to build up minerals for the final battle in the last game. Again, if you go for an exhaustive, 100% playthrough you will probably spend at least five hours accruing far more resources then you will ever need.

Mass Effect 3 has a much faster and more modest scanning game where you go looking for war assets to use against the Reapers. It's a bit more hit and miss, but it's fun to track down missing fighter squadrons or a damaged cruiser which can they rejoin the fleet for the final battle.

By the third game, even villains are stopping to tell Shepard how awesome they are before trying to kill them.

Another issue is that some storylines have not aged gracefully. Various cliches like genius autistic characters (who are then subjected to abuse and torture), wish-fulfilment hot alien space babes (some of the costume choices in the game were corny when the games came out, let alone now) and villains who are villains because villains rear their head from time to time and will make you roll your eyes as often. The games do improve immensely over this, sometimes fast enough for the third game to mock some of the decisions from the first.

Frozen Prothean soldier Javik is a very late addition to the crew (only appearing in the third game) but a superb one, with his bewildered disbelief at the state of the galaxy thanks to "primitive races" of his time being a constant source of comedy.

The biggest weakness of the trilogy is probably how it is divided into distinct "roleplaying" and "shooting" modes. The meat of the game is in the roleplaying sections and the shooting can sometimes feel rote and phoned in, a simple way of adding "more gameplay" to the series. The more hardcore RPG fan, especially those familiar with BioWare's earlier Knights of the Old Republic SF RPG, will bemoan the way tactical, squad-based combat has transformed into real-time twitch shooting. The games sometimes awkwardly move between the two modes and it can be odd seeing a Paragon Shepard extolling the value of all life and then five seconds later is gunning down forty enemies in rapid succession, gaining achievements for the number of people they massacre and set on fire. At its weakest, the trilogy can feel like a very-well written and characterised adventure game that is broken up by an shooting gallery minigame. Combat does improve across the three games, although the ability to split "run," "cover" and "use" into three different commands would make things even better.

It takes a while, but eventually Mass Effect delivers some outstanding CGI space battles.

If you've never played the Mass Effect trilogy before, then Mass Effect: Legendary Edition (****½) is an easy sell. One of the greatest video game stories ever told with one of the single finest casts of characters in video game history, with some genuine weight and consequence to your decisions. The workmanlike combat and tedious minigames can be borne for the sake of just spending time in this excellent world, and the negatives do generally clear up as the trilogy continues. If you're already a hardened Mass Effect fan, than Legendary Edition clears up some inconsistencies, puts all three games in a handy launcher, smooths out the process of carrying your character and decisions through all three titles and adds graphical and control improvements that make the experience just more enjoyable. Mass Effect: Legendary Edition is available now on PC, PlayStation and Xbox.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Scott Bakker's brother shares some insights from the D&D campaign that created the world of Earwa

Scott Bakker's brother Bryan has shared some insights into the 1980s Dungeons & Dragons campaign that resulted in the creation of the world of Earwa, the setting for Scott's Second Apocalypse series (subdivided into the Prince of Nothing trilogy and Aspect-Emperor quartet).

Artwork by the excellent Jason Deem (aka Spiral Horizon)

He includes some reminiscences about the games they played as kids, some maps and illustrations, and even a poem that arose from their gaming. It's interesting seeing standard D&D races like gnomes existing alongside well-known Second Apocalypse names like Scylvendi and Mekeritrig.

At the end, Bryan shares some thoughts on Scott's radio silence for the last couple of years and the prospect of future books in the series. Famously, Scott was debating on whether leaving The Unholy Consult as the last word on the series, as he'd originally planned, or proceeding with a concluding duology/trilogy. That debate still seems unresolved.
For those interested in the now, some have commented on the fact that Scott has been quiet online in recent years. Suffice it to say he has gone through a lot. His singular focus right now is raising his daughter and building his family's future.

As for the future of the series, I've heard him say two things, over the years, about how the Second Apocalypse should end:

One was that there would be a third trilogy outlining the blow by blow of 'you know who's' rise. I know outlines exist for such a story, but just outlines.

The other is that the story is finished. That 'The Unholy Consult', is a fitting way to end a sprawling epic about the death of meaning.

For my part, I can't help but to think that this massive story was where Scott's creative life began and, it would not surprise me if, after his real life trials are complete, he doesn't return to it, before the end.

Like a favourite old coat - warm and comfortable - and smelling of sulfur (:

Sometimes, life does come full circle.

Thursday, 23 June 2022

Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

Doctor Stephen Strange has helped save the universe from Thanos, but finds his life at home unsatisfying. He has renounced the title of Sorcerer Supreme in favour of Wong to focus on research. The arrival of a young woman, America Chavez, who can travel between dimensions at will, sees Doctor Strange seek the help of Wanda Maximoff, only to discover that she is now the Scarlet Witch, a magical being of incredible power, who wants America's power to be reunited with her children. Horrified, Doctor Strange must take part in a desperate battle to save America and, if possible, Wanda from her new alter-ego.

Way back when, the powers that be very nearly let Edgar Wright direct Ant-Man but then bottled it, apparently scared that Wright's idiosyncratic, highly-identifiable style would be out of keeping with the Marvel Cinematic Universe's fairly pedestrian directing paradigm. Since then, the Marvel movies have kept to a fairly solid "house style" that allows moments of flair or entertainment, but little in the way of identifiable soul.

Until they hired Sam Raimi, that is. The horror auteur behind the Evil Dead trilogy (and its spin-off television series), numerous one-off hits, the Hercules and Xena TV shows and the OG Spider-Man trilogy, Raimi is known for his terrific visual flair and alternating moments of gross-out horror and laugh-out-loud comedy (sometimes in the same scene). And it's abundantly clear here that absolutely nobody was going to put training wheels on Sam Raimi. The 62-year-old director very clearly had an absolute blast making this film, with a riotous energy that harks right back to his forty-year-old horror classic, The Evil Dead.

Marvel do manage to keep the film within the MCU mythos, with writer Michael Waldron doing his best to tie elements from the original Doctor Strange with the Infinity War/Endgame duology with the recent Disney+ show WandaVision, which was still shooting when work on Doctor Strange 2 began. He also wrote and produced Loki, another show which helped introduce the concept of the Multiverse into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And of course he also has to keep the film comprehensible to the casual audience who like seeing Benedict Cumberbatch magic bad guys into oblivion but don't want to keep the MCU Wiki on standby on their phone to look up obscure lore every few minutes.

This combination of Waldron's continuity-heavy script and Raimi's deranged directorial style, somehow, works well. The heavy-hitting cast do excellent work, with Cumberbatch as accomplished as ever as Strange and returning hands Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong and Rachel McAdams all bringing their A-game. Newcomer Xochitl Gomez also gives an infectiously enjoyable performance as America Chavez, despite getting lost in the mix in the latter part of the movie.

The visuals are impressive and in fact work on two levels. The film employs imaginative and impressive CGI (the goofy-but-lethal monster Gargantos is entertaining) but Raimi also sees nothing wrong with grabbing a handheld and hiding behind the bannisters like he's a 20-year-old kid making a movie in a cabin in the woods with his friends. The sheer number of shout-outs to the Evil Dead trilogy borders on silly at times (with zombie versions of the main characters, the signature "dead rising" hand move and the traditionally welcome Bruce Campbell cameo), but the visual style elevates Multiverse of Madness into the upper tier of Marvel movies.

The horror scenes might be a turnoff to younger viewers, though, and I wasn't quite prepared for how dark and grim the film was prepared to go with some concepts and ideas. The film usually peppers comic interludes through the story to lighten the mood, but I'm not sure how much help that will be with very young kids. Some parental advisory is warranted here for those who'd normally let their kids watch the latest Marvel project without any qualms at all.

I can see how the film's crazy and unique directorial tone may have put off some who'd gotten used to the MCU's predictability, but it's to the franchise's credit that even twenty-eight films into the series (putting it ahead of James Bond even including the non-canon films) that they're willing to take a risk here that pays off. Indeed, the film's main weakness is maybe also Raimi's traditional one, namely a messy ending which indicates he wasn't quite sure where to leave things (complete with requisite multi-end-credits sequences to tee up future films, of course).

Otherwise Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (****½) is a never-boring, always-entertaining head-trip through comedy, horror and gonzoid SF weirdness, and a shot in the arm to an MCU that, on film anyway, feels like it's been drifting for a few instalments. The movie is available to watch worldwide now on Disney+.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Wednesday, 22 June 2022

SHADOWRUN RPG trilogy released on console

It's taken a remarkable amount of time, but the Shadowrun RPG trilogy has finally arrived on console. Shadowrun Trilogy: Console Edition launches today on PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox S/X and Nintendo Switch, as well as Xbox Game Pass.

Despite being called a trilogy, these three game are actually independent, self-contained titles. In each game you create a new character in the Shadowrun setting - think of a mash-up of Dungeons & Dragons and cyberpunk, with fantasy races and magic existing in a technologically-advanced near-future - and then embark on a story packed with puzzles, companion characters, dialogue and turn-based tactical combat.

The three games are Shadowrun Returns (aka Dead Man's Switch), Shadowrun: Dragonfall and Shadowrun: Hong Kong. Each game takes around 15-20 hours to complete, rather more if you go for a completionist playthrough, and they are all well worth your time.

New Middle-earth book announced for 2022

A new Middle-earth book is on its way. The Fall of Númenor will be published on 10 November 2022 and will recount the events of the Second Age of Middle-earth, accompanied by new artwork by popular Tolkien artist Alan Lee.

The book will be published an impressive forty-nine years after the death of J.R.R. Tolkien and almost three years after the death of his son and literary executor Christopher Tolkien, who had been entrusted with the maintenance of his father's legacy after his death. Christopher published almost every single word his father ever wrote on Middle-earth, from the semi-complete story of The Silmarillion through numerous early drafts, incomplete short stories and esoteric worldbuilding essays on the most minor facets of live in Middle-earth. Much of this material was assembled in the twelve-volume History of Middle-earth series and books like Unfinished Tales. A further volume, The Nature of Middle-earth, was published in 2021 with Carl F. Hostetter as editor. This book included more previously unpublished material by J.R.R. Tolkien and was produced with Christopher Tolkien's permission and approval.

This volume appears to contain no "new" information in the form of previously-unpublished material by Tolkien. Instead, it appears to contain all the narratives that Tolkien wrote about the Second Age, assembled into one handy volume. This will likely include The Akallabêth, the closing part of The Silmarillion dealing with the fate of the island kingdom of Númenor; the "Second Age" section of Unfinished Tales which contains an incomplete short story, "Aldarion and Erendis: The Mariner's Wife," as well as a detailed genealogy of the kings and queens of Númenor and a map of the island; and the "Second Age" material from the appendices of The Lord of the Rings. There is also some material in the History of Middle-earth series which may be included.

The book is clearly intended as a tie-in with Amazon Prime's The Rings of Power television series, which is set in the Second Age and is concerned with elements including the forging of the One Ring and the rise and fall of Numenor. That TV show hits screens on 2 September.

The Fall of Numenor is not the first "greatest hits" repackaging of material from less-accessible, scholarly works into an easier-to-read format. Christopher Tolkien himself re-edited material from those books into three narrative tomes aimed at the layman: The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017) and The Fall of Gondolin (2018). The Fall of Númenor follows in that tradition.

The book is edited by Tolkien scholar and expert Brian Sibley, who previously wrote the early 1980s BBC radio adaptation of The Lord of the Rings and served as a consultant on the Peter Jackson movie trilogy, penning several of the tie-in "making of" books, returning in that capacity for the later Hobbit trilogy. He also wrote the booklets accompanying John Howe's "maps of Middle-earth" series in the 1990s.

This book does mark a minor bit of history in Tolkien publishing, being apparently the first Middle-earth book to have been assembled and published without the permission or approval of either J.R.R. or Christopher Tolkien (although I suspect the latter would not have been entirely opposed, given his previous work). Tolkien fans will now be wondering what the future may hold in terms of similar "fixup" works being put together from other sources.

Star Wars: Obi-Wan Kenobi

Ten years after the fall of the Old Republic, former Jedi Master Obi-Wan Kenobi lives in self-imposed exile on the desert planet Tatooine, keeping a watchful eye over the son of Anakin Skywalker. However, when Anakin's daughter is kidnapped from her home planet of Alderaan by mercenaries, Obi-Wan is reluctantly called back into action. The Emperor's Inquisitors are tracking down and destroying the last survivors of the Jedi Order, and some are obsessed with finding the last members of the Jedi matter the cost.

If there was an actor who was particularly ill-served by the Star Wars prequel trilogy, it was Ewan McGregor. One of Britain's hottest actors at the time, he was also a major Star Wars fan (partially due to his uncle Denis Lawson playing Wedge Antilles in the original trilogy) and leapt at the chance to appear in the films as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Unfortunately, his performance was hamstrung by some truly awful dialogue. It's a tribute to McGregor's acting skills that he was sometimes able to rise above the material with some great performances and moments (I'd argue he is the very thin line keeping Attack of the Clones on just about the right side of mostly bearable).

In view of this unfulfilled potential, McGregor and Lucasfilm have been working on ways of bringing him back to the galaxy far, far away for some years. A movie was in development at one point, but the underperformance of Solo seemed to shut down that idea. So now we have a six-part mini-series instead.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is certainly a stronger show than the inconsistent Book of Boba Fett but doesn't rise to the heights of The Mandalorian. McGregor is, once again, the best thing in it and he gives a stately, emotional performance filled with pain and regret for the horrors he has experienced. The script serves him much better than the prequel movies and it's genuinely fun to see the middle-aged Obi-Wan going on another adventure. Most of the supporting cast is great, and it's enjoyable to see Hayden Christensen reprise the role of Anakin/Darth Vader (even if the flashback scenes to the Clone Wars with a forty-year-old Christensen playing a teenager without much effort to de-age him are a bit odd). There's moments of satisfying fanservice along the way which will have long-term Star Wars grinning, from the minor (seeing Vader's personal Star Destroyer again) to the major (which would be major spoilers).

The show is inconsistent, though. Like a lot of other Disney+ shows (both Star Wars and Marvel), it feels like the low episode count is preventing it from being too ambitious, meaning a small and often claustrophobic scale which is not very Star Wars. On paper there's a lot to unpack here, with the politicking among the Inquisitors, Vader's hunt for Obi-Wan, the threat from new villain Third Sister Reva, an Imperial defector trying to make amends for the Empire's crimes, an underground railroad for Force-sensitives, Bail Organa walking a political tightrope, flashbacks to the day of Order 66 and the lives of the Skywalker family on Tatooine. However, the tight runtime prevents any of these ideas from really being explored in-depth. Instead we ping-pong between them as needed, meaning there's a lot of people doing a lot of things, but we are not necessarily given a good reason to invest in any of them.

It's a shame because we see some interesting new Star Wars planets for what feels like the first time in ages and there's a lot of ideas here that could be explored in an interesting manner if there was more time, but these ideas never have a chance to breathe.

There's also the curse of the larger canon surrounding the series: Obi-Wan Kenobi ties in to the video game Jedi: Fallen Order and the Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows, and walks a very awkward line between expanding on those entries to the mythos and keeping things accessible to the newcomer.

On the plus side, the lightsabre battles are very impressive, the musical score is great and the cast elevate the material. But there is the feeling that Obi-Wan Kenobi (***½) is relying too much on familiar ideas (another cute kid to protect!) and doesn't have enough time to flesh out its best ideas. The series is available now worldwide on Disney+.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods.

Tuesday, 21 June 2022

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents by Terry Pratchett

 A band of travellers from Ankh-Morpork have arrived in the town of Bad Blintz. The band consists of a boy with a flute named Keith, a tomcat called Maurice and a lot of rats. A lot of very smart rats. However, as the town suffers from a curiously well-timed rat infestation and Keith and Maurice prepare to enact 'the scam', it becomes clear that something else is at work in the sewers and tunnels under the town. Something that takes an interest in the curiously smart rodents...

Discworld occupies such a huge part of Sir Terry Pratchett's output that it's sometimes easy to forget his other career, that of a bestselling children's author. Thanks to the animated TV show, Pratchett was as well-known for his Truckers trilogy of children's fantasy as he was his adult Discworld series for a while, and his other books aimed at children were also huge successes. His Johnny Maxwell trilogy was the first of his works adapted for live-action television.

It's therefore interesting that it took twenty-eight novels for Pratchett to write a Discworld book for children, and it's also quite remarkable the impact it had on his career. The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents was published in 2001 and won the Carnegie Medal for children's fiction. Although a British award, it seems to have had a strong impact in the American market, with Maurice being the book that apparently finally broke through and established Pratchett as a solid-seller in the US after years of very patchy performances for the earlier books. Pratchett's performance in the UK also seemed to pick up, and indeed his already-incredible sales performance in the UK (1% of all books sold in Britain in the 1990s were apparently Pratchetts, which was remarkable at the time) would have likely broken even more records had he not also been overtaken around the same time by a certain other fantasy series about wizards and magic. Pratchett no doubt cried about this into his handkerchiefs made of £100 bills.

The Amazing Maurice is an an interesting novel, most notably because Pratchett makes almost exactly zero concessions to his apparently intended audience (his other books are not exactly awash in nudity and swearing). The novel is written in the same manner as his adult books and in fact is actually among the most disturbing Discworld novels, with the revelation of the antagonist in the book being one of Pratchett's more revolting moments. It may have talking rats in it, but the tone is closer to Watership Down (complete with some pretty savage fights and deaths) than to Beatrix Potter. Pratchett seems to do this deliberately, with the rats' belief in a utopian future of animal cooperation stemming from reading a children's book called Mr. Bunnsy Has An Adventure, which becomes a totem of their tribe. Pratchett paints the internal divisions of the rat gang and each character in some detail, with his traditional economical-but-effective storytelling. The book has a darker tone than most of his novels, and whilst there are still a few laughs here, it's a more intense book than many of the Discworld series.

The novel also has some great riffs on folklore, on the allure of storytelling and the inhumanity of humans to both other humans and the natural world. Pratchett is at his best when he's angry about some injustice, and he fires up his anger quite nicely here, particularly on how people treat animals.

It's also quite snappy, coming in at a breezy 270 pages, avoiding the bloat some of the later Discworld books intermittently suffered from. Pratchett sets up his plot and characters, tell his story with impressive depth and characterisation and gets out all in the time that some more traditional fantasy authors are still using to clear their throats and get the protagonist out of his starting village.

There aren't many negatives aside from one, which was outside the author's power: at the time of his grossly premature passing in 2015, Pratchett had a sequel to this novel planned, in which the Amazing Maurice becomes a ship's cat. It's a grievous shame we'll never read that story. But the book is getting another chance to shine, with an animated film based on the novel scheduled for release in late 2022, starring Hugh Laurie, Emilia Clarke, David Tennant, Gemma Arterton, Himesh Patel, David Thewlis and Peter Serafinowicz.

The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (****½) is Pratchett at his most impressive, telling a darker story than normal but with his trademark wit and skills at character-building. It's also a complete stand-alone, with no connections at all to the rest of the Discworld series and can be read completely independently. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Note: An earlier version of this review appeared here.

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Friday, 17 June 2022

The Last Hero by Terry Pratchett & Paul Kidby

Cohen the Barbarian is one of the greatest heroes in the history of the Disc. He has defeated many enemies, found much treasure and conquered several empires. But his well-earned retirement of riches and power is a bit on the boring side, so he's now come up with a new idea: to return fire to the gods and confront them on their home ground of Dunmanifestin, atop the ten-mile spire of Cori Celesti at the very heart of the world. Unfortunately, this will destroy the Disc and everything on it. Fortunately, the wizards of Unseen University are ready to join forces with Leonardo da Quirm and the Ankh-Morpork City Watch to save the day. Or at least try to.

The twenty-seventh Discworld book is another departure from the standard format of the series. Like the earlier Eric, The Last Hero was written and designed as an illustrated project. Unlike Eric, The Last Hero was never designed to be reissued without its illustrations, and they are more dynamically and essentially integrated into the book.

The Last Hero could be best-described as Discworld: Avengers. Pratchett takes advantage of the enormous cast of characters he's built up over twenty-six previous novels to come up with a story and cast of characters to form a team to save the world. Unfortunately, given the competence rating of the average Pratchettian protagonist is usually in minus figures (especially given the absence of Granny Weatherwax and Susan Sto Helit, and Commander Vimes only gets a cameo), this is not quite the slam-dunk solution it should be. Leonardo da Quirm, Captain Carrot and Rincewind join forces at the not-so-subtle behest of the Patrician and the Unseen University Faculty to stop Cohen's plan, and in the process have to build the Disc's first rocket ship and be the first people to set foot on the Disc's very small moon.

Compared to the form of thematic depth and rich characterisation Pratchett had hit in the mainline novels by this time, The Last Hero is lightweight and, even by Discworld standards, a bit implausible. The buildup and backstory of most Discworld novels is largely missing, and events unfold at very high speed given the epic scope of the story. But the book also works very well in its first aim, which is being a bit of disposable, knockabout fun of the kind we haven't seen since the early days of the series, and even better in its second, which is to act as a showcase for the artwork of Paul Kidby.

The original Discworld artist, Josh Kirby, passed away around the time this book was published. Kidby, who'd been working on art projects related to the setting for a few years already, had already been set up as his successor-in-waiting and this project was already underway at the time. Kidby would go on to illustrate the covers from Night Watch (the twenty-ninth book) onward, so The Last Hero can be read as a statement of confidence and intent here. And it works very well. Kirby's madcap art had a wit and charm of its own, but fans had long complained of a lack of fidelity to the text. Kirby's Rincewind was decades older than the thirtysomething character in the novels, and his constant depiction of Twoflower with literally four eyes rather than wearing glasses was quite odd. But Kidby's artwork is much truer to Pratchett's text and also much clearer and easier to parse, whilst still retaining its own, unique stylised energy.

The artwork throughout the book is excellent, often eliciting a giggle by itself. Many of the pieces in the book have become familiar art pieces for the setting individually, and these range from epic depictions of the view of the Disc and its supporting elephants and turtle from its moon to more intimate portraits of the characters and creatures. Kidby does a particularly great job at capturing Carrot's charismatic heroism and Rincewind's world-weary fatalism.

The story is thin and a little disposable, but fun. Pratchett layers in some melancholy thoughts about aging and feeling obsolete in your work as you get older, but also some traditional comic references to history and science.

The Last Hero (****) won't rank as many people's favourite Discworld book due to the lack of depth in its story, but the exceptional artwork elevates the work beyond being a mere curiosity or Christmas stocking-filler. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

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Square Enix confirm CRISIS CORE remake this year, FINAL FANTASY VII REMAKE sequel next year

Square Enix have been celebrating the 25th anniversary of Final Fantasy VII, arguably the most important and popular game in their long-running RPG series. As part of the news they confirmed both a remake of their 2007 mobile action RPG Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII and released a teaser for the sequel to Final Fantasy VII Remake, confirming that the remake will span three games in total.

Crisis Core is a prequel to Final Fantasy VII and focuses on the character Zack Fair. The story follows Zack as he is assigned to look for a missing military officer, Genesis Rhapsodos, and intersects with the backstory to Final Fantasy VII, where protagonist Cloud Strife knew Zack and took up aspects of his personality and backstory as the result of a mental breakdown. Crisis Core was well-received, but had a limited audience due to only being available on the PlayStation Portable.

The remake, Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion, will be available on PlayStation, PC and Xbox later this year.

Square have also confirmed that the Final Fantasy VII Remake project will now span three games, plus possible expansions. Final Fantasy VII Remake was released in 2020, followed by Final Fantasy VII Remake Intergrade in 2021 (including an expansion focused on the character of Yuffie). The second part, Final Fantasy VII Rebirth, will be released in late 2023 and will focus on the adventures of Cloud and his team after they leave the city of Midgar.

An as-yet untitled third part will follow and wrap up the project, presumably around 2026. The next mainline game in the series, Final Fantasy XVI, is due for release in summer 2023.