Review: Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer by Rick Riordan

Title: Magnus Chase and the Sword of Summer

Author: Rick Riordan

Pages: 528

Goodreads link

My rating: 4/5

There were two things that initially attracted me to this book: Rick Riordan and Norse mythology. I’m a big fan of both, so this was a bit of a no-brainer. I’m afraid it’s been languishing unread on my shelf for a while now, but I recently had a craving for mythology, so the time was right.

I’ve previously really enjoyed Riordan’s Percy Jackson books, not just because they cannibalise the weird and wonderful library of Greek mythology, but also because Percy is not a stereotypical hero. He has some problems in the ‘normal’ world that the author elegantly turns into strengths in his fictitious world, showing both his son and now a multitude of kids and kidults that weakness is a subjective term. I rather like the ambition behind that message.

Magnus Chase is another unlikely hero that bumbles and stumbles his way to success, with, of course, some help from some unlikely friends. Every Rick Riordan book I’ve read so far is first person, and I really like that because it allows the POV character’s voice to really shine through and shape the narrative. And Magnus has a great voice: he’s really quick-witted and sarky, but in a good way. He can fire off amusing observations and understatements from the hip, which keeps you smiling throughout, even in the joke-inappropriate moments of near and actual death. It keeps the mood light and upbeat, which is not an unusual tactic for getting through the struggle, and it keeps the mythology on the silly side, when it could so easily be utterly gruesome and traumatic. It’s akin to what Disney did to traditional fairy tales: made them attractive to kids.

If I have to give one slightly negative point, it would be that the story felt a bit bitty. I recognise a lot of the stories from Norse mythology in this book, but some of them feel slightly shoehorned and just there to fill up some space because they exist. I like the modern interpretations of the stories, don’t get me wrong, but in some places it feels like they’ve been used to the detriment of the plot. It’s a bit myth first and narrative second. This is perhaps why the book is significantly longer than any of the Percy Jacksons.

Having said that, I still really enjoyed reading the first in this series, and I definitely intend to keep going. It’s good fun and has some excellent twists on the old myths. And, of course, at the centre beats the heart of Rick Riordan’s purpose: it doesn’t matter what ‘faults’ you have; as long as you have courage, you can be a hero.

Review: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Title: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey

Developer: Ubisoft

Genre: Action Role-Playing, Stealth

My playtime: 127 hours

My rating: 8/10

Well, I’m currently sat around, twiddling my thumbs and waiting for Mr Amazon to deliver my copy of The Division 2. I cannot express how excited I am that it’s finally out, and how frustrated I am that it’s now almost evening and it’s still not here. Just my luck, Mr Amazon chooses today to deliver at 11.59 p.m. Anyway, I thought I’d do something constructive in the meantime and review another game I was very excited about: Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

And I was right to be excited about this one. I cannot contain how thrilled I am that AC is heading in this direction. I know traditionally AC is an action-adventure franchise, and I’m not at all averse to action-adventures, but in my heart of hearts, I’m an RPG gal. Origins was a really elegant transition game, so that die hard fans weren’t shocked by a change in genre, but Odyssey is where the RPG potential of AC is really starting to bloom. And actually, this franchise is perfectly matched to this genre, as is evidenced in Odyssey. For the first time, I feel like I’m very much in control of my character. Being able to choose a female character is one of the highlights of this game for me. I played Evie as much as I could in Syndicate, but there were times in that game when you were forced to played Jacob, which I wasn’t too happy about. Committing wholly to Kassandra, however, felt like I could really own this character and hone my style with her, and be able to play as her throughout, with no annoying sidetracks into characters I’m not used to (ahem, Origins).

And then there’s the map, the sheer scale of this Greek world. It’s bloomin’ huge! I would often climb up to synchronization points just to spin the camera around and look at all the places on the horizon I could reach and explore. And actually, one of the good things about Odyssey is that there’s more motivation to go to each of these regions. Whereas in Origins, it was sometimes a slog to reach every question mark, in Odyssey, each region has a decent amount of diverse side quests (if not main quests), that make each region or island an interesting place to explore. There’s more motivation to do so. And they’ve really dug into Greek mythology for some of these places, which makes them even more fascinating and challenging.

One thing that I did not excel at was the decision-making. I’m terrible at decisions in real life, but for some reason, I have a real knack with choosing the “wrong” way in games. And these decisions are not straightforward. Most of the time, you’ll be lulled into a short-term decision that feels right, but the long-term consequences can be far-reaching and really quite bad. I made all those kinds of decisions. And then, of course, Sokrates pops up every now and then to judge you for all your bad choices and make you feel even worse. Top tip: whatever Sokrates asks you to do, do the option that seems bad at the time. To be fair, he’ll probably just judge you anyway. It also took me a while to get out of my AC head of trying to complete every single mission. I was quite shocked that a lot of the recurring missions you get from NPCs are to murder civilians without really gathering any evidence or differing points of view to see whether your victims actually deserve it. I felt really awful about doing that. And then it twigged: I didn’t have to! These missions aren’t obligatory, and you can just ignore them if they appear on noticeboards – if that’s your style. If not, murder away! Just be careful about the bounty system, as it takes ages for bounties to drop naturally (you can pay them off, but they do decrease with time, just a lot of it). But this is really the great and relieving thing about Odyssey: choice. I remember getting quite upset that completion in Origins meant having to kill war elephants, which I just did NOT want to do, because I love elephants, and in fact, never did. But in Odyssey, it’s all about what you want to do. The conquest battles, for example, were just not my thing. My melee fighting in AC has always been a weakness, and button-mashing battles just don’t appeal to me. But it didn’t matter, because I didn’t have to do them. It was just so pleasant to have this kind of choice about what I wanted to do.

To be honest, I think the civilian killing is the only thing that made me think that this game didn’t feel like an AC game. There has been a lot of stick about Odyssey not being anything to do with the actual assassin’s creed, as it doesn’t actually exist yet. But these things don’t just burst into existence overnight. They have to evolve, and Odyssey is a fantastic precursor game. Apart from the civilian murders, really at no other time did I think that this wasn’t an AC game. It’s such a good game in and of itself that it really doesn’t matter that there’s no creed or hidden blades. In fact, I really liked the Spear of Leonidas as my primary weapon. In Origins, I favoured the bow, but the bows in Odyssey are pretty pants. However, this spear was a more than adequate replacement. Once you level it up a bit, you can do some truly awesome moves with it that blow hidden blades out of the water. I’m going to be really sad in the next AC game when that disappears. Unless it’s replaced by something even more awesome …

So, in a nutshell, I think Odyssey is a fun, epic and promising evolution in the AC franchise. I didn’t care a jot that there were no hidden blades; this game is outstanding as a game on its own, and it is an engaging precursor to the actual creed. Hey, I’ve sunk nearly 130 hours into it, so it must be good. Hoorah for the direction AC is now heading in! It makes me feel like Ubisoft is really digging into the potential for the franchise, which is exciting and optimistic for future episodes.

Review: TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow

Title: TimeRiders

Author: Alex Scarrow

Pages: 425

Goodreads link

My Rating: 5/5

A while ago, I promised I’d dig out my old review for TimeRiders by Alex Scarrow, the first in a favourite series of mine. So here it is!

When I think about a time travel story, my first instinct is to go straight to the story, pick one of the many points in history that excite me, and imagine all the hilarious, awkward and hair-raising situations modern kids would get themselves into. Oh, and then I’d shove in some lame time-travelling apparatus and crowbar in a reason for the kids to accidentally fall through a wormhole. And that’s probably why I don’t have an empire of time-travelling novels and Alex Scarrow does. The time-travelling element isn’t just crowbarred in after the story has been written, it forms the incredibly – and sometimes alarmingly – robust basis of the book. It’s scientific, it’s clever, it’s comprehensive, and it’s the nearest I have ever been to believing that time travel is actually happening – we just aren’t aware of it yet.

A good example is the way that the TimeRiders have to be suspended almost naked in a vat of water when they travel in order to prevent contamination, but on the other side, this leaves them inconveniently wet and, well, almost naked when they arrive. Why would you force this on your characters? Wouldn’t you rather gear them up and give them some awesome gadgets? Not if you’ve actually thought about the mechanics and the risks of time travel, and the water vat scheme turns out to be the most practical for non-fiction time travel.

This level of detail and the consequent extreme realism is the foundation of elite science fiction – it’s what makes the world of Star Trek so popular and what creates some of the world’s most passionate fans, and Alex Scarrow has done his utmost to produce the most realistic time travel world I have ever encountered.

And then there’s the story itself, which I really struggled to find fault with. It trots along at a great pace with an infuriating lack of explanations that keep you turning over to the next page as the narrative snakes from one point of view to another. What I find really impressive is the distinctiveness of each character’s voice. It’s one of those skills in authors I really admire: to be able to switch the tone of the narrative voice seamlessly to suit the character the story is following.

It is quite a while into the book before any time alteration occurs, but the beginning is far from long-winded, as it takes you through the mechanics of the time travel and the training of the TimeRiders, which helps the reader realise that time travel and timeline alteration is not something to make light of. In fact, as the story builds, you’ll find that the most threatening bad guy is not the deluded time alterer, it’s actually time travel itself. It is very much shown to have a similar effect and threat level on the world as the splitting of the atom. As Dr Oppenheimer aptly quoted, “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” The same can be applied to the fictional creator of time travel in TimeRiders, Roald Waldstein. The invention of time travel causes nothing but destruction yet cannot be uninvented, and even the good guys, the time cops, are sucked into the devastation, facing the choice of either dying horribly in their own times or sacrificing and risking everything in order to prevent time alteration. The costs of keeping their lives are immense. The responsibility of the world rests on their shoulders, yet they are only kids – kids without the choices we take for granted.

So, the observant amongst you may have noticed that I quite liked this book. It has put in place the strong foundations of a fantastic sci-fi series and unfolds a thrilling adventure with quite a serious edge. I’m really looking forward to many more exciting and intriguing time alterations.

Review: Shadow of the Tomb Raider


Title: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Developer: Eidos Montréal

Genre: Action-adventure

My playtime: 20 hours

My rating: 9/10

Well, I’ve just finished serving the big bad boss up some whoop-ass in the latest outing for Lara Croft, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, so I thought I’d hit y’all with my review whilst it’s still fresh in my mind. Just give me a moment to blink away the bleed-through …

I am in reality. We don’t skewer each other with pickaxes. We don’t steal resources from impoverished civilians. And we definitely don’t poke holes in endangered species …

There we go.

I’ve been a fan of Tomb Raider since Tomb Raider II, the first game I was old enough to play (oh, the hours I’ve spent pottering around blocktastic Venice). So this has to be the longest-running franchise that I’ve eagerly anticipated each release date of. Lara has been with me ever since my age had double digits, so it’s fair to say she’s had quite an impact on my life. As a child, I so desperately wanted to be her, but now I’m an adult and the opportunity to raid tombs for a living has passed me by, I’m quite content to live vicariously through Lara as she adapts and flourishes into the fourth decade of my time.

I’m a fan of all three of these latest games, but I have to say, I am particularly impressed with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It really feels like the maturation of Lara in her current iteration. They had an excellent formula is 2013, but the brew is at its best in the final episode of this trilogy. I think this is mainly due to the proportions and qualities of this world, set in the Peruvian jungle. The hub areas are vastly bigger than they are in the previous two games, and more than that, there are actual side quests. Gasp! Yes, this is a real, living, breathing world populated by actual people. Previously, our Lara has been adventuring through fantastic settings with some truly epic locations (which can definitely be said for this latest game), but they were all lacking that certain something that made them feel lifelike: life. There are NPCs galore in Shadow, beset with the usual problems that NPCs can’t solve for themselves. Poor lambs. And because you spend time in these hubs, hunting out relics and documents or completing side quests and challenges, this game feels a lot bigger than it really is. Unlike vast open worlds in which you spend most of your time trying to find the fastest way to traverse them, you’ve got to poke your nose into every nook and commit suicide several times to reach every cranny to find every bit of hidden treasure (and I’m ace at finding every way possible to commit suicide in Tomb Raider – I particularly liked being blown off a ledge, breaking my leg and then being devoured by wolves). And there is some fantastic background information about the indigenous and colonial cultures in this area. I actually stop and listen to each entry, rather than just collecting for collecting’s sake, because it’s so fascinating. The challenge tombs are also much bigger than in previous episodes, with much more involved puzzling and problem-solving. The puzzling feels far more like a significant feature of the game now, rather than just a natty bit of fun on the side. I do love a good brain challenge, and this is Tomb Raider after all. The key is in the title.

There are some nice RPG touches in this game. Right from the off, you can customise Lara’s outfit and then collect other outfits with certain bonus effects (you can even skin her in old-school Lara – ah, the memories! That bloody butler!). There are a decent number of weapons to buy or earn, and a comprehensive skill tree that allows you to build Lara’s skills in a way that’s useful for your particular play style. My preference is to be stealthy (because I just panic when all the bad guys rush me), and Lara has learned a few new tricks in this regard. She can now apply mud camo and stick to muddy walls, ready with her trusty jury-rigged knife to savage the presumably half-blind guards. The only problem I had here was that Lara was a bit too sticky for me. It took a lot of joystick waggling to get her to peel away and run to the next cover. Not great when you have to time things exactly. But as compensation, you can now put lure traps on dead bodies, attracting the presumably half-brain-dead guards to your latest kill so that a proximity bomb can blast them into oblivion. That’s great fun! Probably my favourite feature for stealth kills.

But there’s not too much RPG stuff to threaten a total change in genre. I think they’ve got the balance about right. These days, gamers expect more from an action-adventure. People like to make choices and be in control regardless of genre. It’s fun and it makes the game dynamic and personal. And at this point, we’re really getting to know this Lara and understand her choices and behaviour, even if she does cock up on an apocalyptic level. I think that’s the other aspect of this game that really makes it stand out from the others. We see Lara at her worst and best. She’s like Percival crossed with an avenging angel who’s still too young to make wise choices, but when she cocks up, she makes damn sure she puts things to rights. This is a Lara that I can really get on with: rash and flawed, but ultimately courageous and righteous. And that is just the kind of dynamic hero/anti-hero that I like in my games.

So I’m really pleased with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I think the developers should all get cake for this game. They’ve done themselves proud, they’ve done the franchise proud, and they’ve made a lifelong fan very happy.

Review: Heavy Rain


Title: Heavy Rain

Developer: Quantic Dream

Genre: Interactive drama

My playtime: 10 hours

My rating: 8/10

I have to admit, I was very uncertain going into this game. I’d never played an interactive drama before, and I’m not a fan of games that force you to watch hours and hours of cutscenes that interrupt play. I’ve very recently signed up for PS Plus while the subscription was on offer, as I wanted to at least try it out for a year and see what I was missing (not to mention get into that bloody Dark Zone in The Division at last! That was a total waste of time, as I just died within minutes every time I stepped in there). Every month, PS Plus has free games to download, and Heavy Rain was a free game in July. I’d heard a lot about it, and it’s a predecessor of Detroit: Become Human, which I’d heard even more about, so with a little encouragement from my friends, I went ahead and clogged up my internet connection with it.

And colour my mind changed! I think I’m an interactive drama convert!

It’s only a short game – you could probably complete it in a day if you were dedicated – but it packs one hell of a punch into those few hours. The premise is you are essentially in something akin to a film, taking on the roles of the characters and exploring scenes and guiding interactions with other characters. The ultimate goal is to solve the mystery of the Origami Killer.

I think this is possibly one of the most challenging games I’ve ever played for two reasons:

  1. You have to make certain decisions very quickly, and I am a notorious overthinker who can take days to make up my mind over even the most trivial matters.
  2. I have this amazing ability to totally forget the anatomy of a PS controller under even the slightest whiff of pressure.

So you can imagine how stressful this experience was for me! And herein lies the reason for my conversion: the adrenaline was real, the fear was real. I spent a lot of time poised on the edge of my seat with my controller trembling in my hands as I pushed myself to make snap decisions and hit the right button at the right moment. And that stuff really counts. There are innumerable permutations in Heavy Rain, depending on the choices you make and the buttons you (fail to) hit, so your story won’t unfold exactly like the next person’s story. And this is real insight-into-your-soul stuff. This game confronts your personality with snap decisions about harrowing situations, and you’ll soon learn what kind of person you are if you weren’t sure already. I feel genuinely fretful after playing this game, and those scenes are playing on my mind, almost haunting me. Did I make the right call?

The good thing about this game is that, because it’s relatively short, you can easily go back and play it through on a whim, making different choices or succeeding where before you failed. It also allows you to restart from a certain chapter if you aren’t happy with the outcome of your first attempt. That was a real relief for someone who suffers from button paralysis and Indecisiveness Maximus.

But the thing is, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this game so much if it hadn’t been for the stress and the adrenaline and the edge of my seat. It is a genuinely thrilling experience. And I really appreciated the filmic atmosphere of the whole thing. Perhaps being a pluviophile has something to do with it, but there’s a real sense of looming threat and psychosis throughout. Just exploring scenes is actually a really satisfying experience in a game, and Heavy Rain really plays on that gaming preference (if, like me, you’re an explorer type!). The only thing that irked me was the movement mechanics. I actually found it really hard to just walk in one direction. Unlike most games that use the left joystick, Heavy Rain uses the R2 button for walking, and then you can change direction with the joystick. I really struggled at times to get my character to just stand in the right place to trigger an exploration button, but really, that’s my only gripe.

Heavy Rain is a fantastic mystery thriller to fully immerse yourself in. It’s challenging both physically and mentally, and it has certainly inspired me to play more interactive dramas.

The only question that remains is why does nobody in this rain-washed town own a single piece of Gore-Tex?

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline


Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Pages: 374

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

This was one of those times when I wanted to read the book before I saw the film, and since Ernest Cline is a self-confessed uber-geek, I felt like I was in safe hands with this one. Even from the first page, I knew I had found a book nestled very deeply within my comfort zone. Within these pages, I was among friends.

And, boy, do I know feel like a total geek wannabe. I love books, games and films, but I now realise I am several hundred levels away from being able to call myself a true geek. I’m not going to tell you what year I was born, but I don’t remember the eighties. Yet since reading Ready Player One, I feel like I was there, in the infancy of true consumer gaming. The whole book is a neon tapestry of geeky knowledge woven with extra geeky knowledge, with an extra sprinkling of geeky knowledge for good measure. And the best part is that Cline’s encyclopaedia of eighties geek culture is delivered in an unnervingly prophetic dystopian – only one of my favourite genres. I keep going on at people that virtual reality is the future of our society, in a world that is overcrowded and drained of resources. Cline’s bleak near future satisfies my predictions and provides a jolly good story to boot.

There’s plenty of world-building, which I can rarely get enough of, but it’s done in such a thorough way that it’s hard to poke holes in it. This is why geeks should write books. They are very hole-aware because a robust world is the only satisfying one. To be honest, as I was reading Ready Player One, I really struggled to like the POV character, Wade. At times, he gets a bit bogged down in self-pity and has a whiff of the cowardy custard about him, but he does improve, and now that I think about it, he’s just exhibiting the same insecurities that a lot of us loner-geek types can’t shake (I am definitely included in that category). So really, he’s an archetype geek, and I can’t criticise that. Who wants a perfect hero after all? There’s nowhere to go with that.

I have to say, I was totally gripped by this book. It was the kind of book that I made time for during my day. It’s a real escape-and-immerse novel that’s as robust as any decent massive open-world game. It’s a pure, unashamed geek-fest, written for geeks, by a geek. If you’re a geek, you’ll love it. If you’re not (or you’re a wannabe like me), you’ll be really impressed by it. And I think that’s probably my key descriptor for Ready Player One: it’s impressive. I am impressed.

Now, have I said ‘geek’ too many times?

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman


Title: Norse Mythology

Author: Neil Gaiman

Pages: 304

Goodreads link

My rating: 5/5

I’m a huge fan of old stories from bygone civilisations. There’s a lot of information to be gathered about old peoples from artefacts, architecture and old bones, but I think that stories really give an deep insight into the psyche of those who came before. When you read something like Beowulf or The Metamorphoses or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’re really investigating the human condition and psychology of the time these works come from. I’m not much of a history buff, but I am a psychology buff and a student of human thought and behaviour, so these stories have great appeal for me.

I’d had Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology on my reading list for quite some time, but somehow couldn’t get around to actually obtaining a copy. But then two fortuitous events collided: my birthday and the release of the new God of War game. I wanted to brush up on my norse mythology before playing the game, and it just so happened that my mum bought me this book for my birthday. So I got straight on it!

Neil Gaiman is, of course, a very accomplished writer, but what really impressed me about this book was the careful research and curation that has gone into it. Gaiman has done all the hard work, poring through the various sources of Norse history and mythology to extract and stitch together a string of tales that are both fascinating and amusing, just as a fireside story should be. If you’ve ever read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda, you’ll know it can be a bit treacly to read, perhaps something to do with the translations, but this is a book that caters to the modern reader. It reads easily and flows nicely like a book of collected stories, only the stories all relate to each other. The order of the tales is such that it takes you on a mythological journey from the Norse version of the creation, and the birth of the gods, all the way to Ragnarok, and the death of the gods (I just love that the Norse predicted the downfall of their own gods!). So although it’s a collection of individual stories, they all blend together into an overarching narrative, which makes it a satisfying experience as a book.

Oh, and forget what you think you know about Thor and Odin from the MCU, these guys were proper jerks! In fact, almost all the gods that feature have some serious personality flaws, particularly anger management issues. But I think herein lies the insight into Norse life. The gods were harsh and indiscriminate in their wrath because the Norse people’s environment was harsh and indiscriminate. It was a dangerous place to live and a dangerous time to live in, and death was meted out just as indiscriminately as the gods meted it out. The gods dealt in treachery and war and deceit and greed, all of which were a reality to the people who created them.

I think it’s also interesting to note that the Norse version of hell, Helheim, is a frozen wasteland, which of course, was a very real and dangerous environment for the Norse. Meanwhile, the vision of hell that was created in the Middle East and Mediterranean is a fiery furnace, and of course, extreme heat and drought was a serious concern for those peoples. Each hell represents the extremes of climate, and the dangers and fears associated with them, relative to each group of people. This is purely my own speculation, of course, but I think it’s rather neat all the same, and again, it lends a certain insight into the minds of those we cannot question.

Personal ponderings aside, Norse Mythology is an excellent example of engaging writing nested in considerate curation. It’s got all the characters you’ve heard of, and then plenty more besides. There are lessons to be learnt (although I’d advise against Thor’s philosophy of just bashing everyone’s head in to solve all your problems!) and great insight to be had. I’d be surprised if anyone was disappointed by this book.

Review: God of War


Title: God of War

Developer: SIE Santa Monica Studio

Genre: Action-adventure

My playtime: 50 hours

My rating: 9/10

I should start this review with a disclaimer: this is, in fact, the first and only God of War game I have played. To be honest, the previous episodes completely passed me by. I must have been too busy playing Assassin’s Creed! But the first thing that drew me to this 2018 game was some beautiful artwork and a huge feature article in my gaming magazine back in Autumn 2017. For me, the world and how it’s rendered is one of the most important features of a game, so I was immediately attracted to these stunning blue- and green-toned visuals. And it turns out that the concept art was telling the truth about what awaits in the game itself.

Although not a true open world (which is my preferred setting for my gaming deckchair), it still excels in its epic scope. Around almost every corner, through every canyon and behind every door is wow moment, the kind where you lift your fingers off the controls and leave only your right thumb rotating its joystick just so you can fully take in the scene. In amongst the stream of expletives uttered as I managed to die on a regular basis, the most common exclamation I made was “Oh, wow!” or “Oh my god, look at that!” Apart from the colour and the lighting, I think the real artistry lies in the height and the depth, especially, of each location. There’s a real sense of impressive scope, even in the relatively small areas of the world. You get to feel really small, which is a feeling that I always crave (living, as I do, in such a cramped and flat environment). Each area or realm creates real feeling and atmosphere. The battering winds, disrepair and unending jagged sea ice of Helheim give you a sense of the cold despair. The ethereal beauty and dusky nature of Alfheim give a sense of the endangered enlightenment.

And, yes, as I hinted above, I did die. A LOT. I’m not an amazing gamer; it can take me a while to get used to the feel of a game, and I’m especially slow at combat controls. I tend to take things far too seriously, and my mind and body go into a panic-freeze funk when the enemies approach. I will eventually develop a cool head in a game after a few hours of play, but God of War is not forgiving for gamers like me, even on the “normal” mode. There’s a really tough boss fight almost immediately, and possibly one of the steepest learning curves I’ve experienced in a game. But I would say the weapons you get to wield are fair compensation for the amount and deftness of wielding you have to do. The Leviathan Axe is definitely one of the coolest and most useful weapons in a game ever. And they really do make you utilise the full range of its awesomeness. This is the kind of game where experimenting really pays off in trying to solve puzzles or collect everything. My main tip for this game would be: look up and chuck that axe at everything!

Don’t get me wrong, this is not just an axe-chucking, beasty-slashing hack fest. There is that layer to the game (I mean, you can’t be a god of war and not decapitate a fiend or two), but it’s so much more complex than that. It’s so much more of a story than that. This game is really about a relationship, one between between a father and a son who aren’t particularly comfortable in each other’s company. Kratos is certainly not the most loving or encouraging of fathers. He spends most of the time calling Atreus “BOY!” in that marvellous Christopher Judge voice, and criticising him and generally being huffy and intolerant. But as the game plays out, there’s an evolution to their relationship that you cannot help but become completely invested in. Yeah, yeah, the game is gritty and violent, but it’s also funny and sweet, and every little interaction between the characters really means something. God of War is a very satisfying experience both as a gamer and as a human.

And, I have to add, as a story lover. I frequently went out paddling on the lake just to hear stories from Norse mythology. At first, it feels like these stories are just a bit of audio filler as you travel around the lake, but actually, they are really important to understand the context of the game. And in fact, nothing you do, see or hear in God of War can be classed as “filler”; all these environmental embellishments are critical to gaining the fullest and most rewarding experience of the game. Side quests, for example, are always optional, but here, they are central to Kratos and Atreus’s complex and developing relationship. You won’t get the intricacies and the nuances if you skip anything, or if you fail to notice the little gestures that pass between characters. Even when using the mystic gateways to fast-travel, you’ll hear stories or snippets of speculation that are crucial to understanding what’s going on. Every bit of content is all part of the story, which makes everything unmissable.

Apart from the total immersion of the story, the real standout feature of this game, for me, was the progression, something that has been well mastered here. Like I said, it’s not a huge world, but everywhere in it, they tease you with collectibles and puzzles that you can’t solve just yet because you don’t have the right equipment. Gah! It’s infuriating and excruciating! But it’s also incredibly motivating. And it adds yet another layer to the story-telling because each piece of equipment is acquired as part of the narrative. It also makes good use of a small world because it means you go back to each area a bunch of times with something new to do or discover (and a chance to spot more of those pesky eyes of Odin!). Everything is done at an appropriate time in the narrative, which makes the progression utterly satisfying and the game far less aimless than an open-world affair, where the player has more control over their own progression. It just all feels seamless without being contrived, because you still have control over where you go in the world (unlike something force-fed, like Unchartered, where you don’t get to revisit any location). And levelling up and upgrading gear is the same: you feel like you’re in control, but everything happens at an appropriate time and rate. It’s an extraordinary balance between the gamer owning their game, and the developer curating the gameplay.

And, you get to upgrade not only Kratos’s gear but also Atreus’s gear, and for me, the small boy with a bow was butt-savingly amazing in combat when my brain did its panic-freeze thing, so he’s well worth upgrading.

There are two areas of God of War that made me decide on 9/10 instead of the perfect score. Firstly, the game was too dang short! The world is pretty small, even if you do go to all the other realms, so I’d say 50–80 hours is the limit. Although I enjoyed the main story, and it’s probably one of the best main storylines I’ve played, there are only a handful of side quests, and I like to get lost in days’ worth of side quests to stall progressing through the main quests. Really, it was so good, I just wanted more! Secondly, the skill tree is entirely combat-focused, and there are quite a lot of skills to earn for each weapon. This may sound great for a gamer with excellent combat skills, but I just found it totally overwhelming. The number of button combinations you have to learn off by heart to use these skills is staggering, and most of the time, I just couldn’t get it to work because I couldn’t master the intricacies of the timings while in the heat of a battle. And anyway, in the end, I managed to play through the whole game with just the basic moveset and maybe a couple of special moves that I did manage to get the hang of, so these abundant skills for each weapon aren’t even necessary. Good news for me, but it does make earning new skills a bit pointless.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these personal niggles of mine didn’t in any way damage my enjoyment of the game. It is epic and seamless and really artfully woven. This is a real standout for me so far this year, and probably so far in my gaming history. It’s one of those above-and-beyond games where the quality of the experience lies in the details that have been so carefully placed. It’s a game, and it’s a real work of art. And you get to be BFFs with the World Serpent. What’s not to love?

Ravenclaw edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Look what arrived today! I know, I know, she’s gone and gotten YET ANOTHER Harry Potter book. She’s such a sucker for marketing. Well, in the case of Harry Potter, I’m really not that ashamed. And I was even more of a sucker this time because I went and preordered it directly from Bloomsbury, paying through the nose, so that I could get this awesome exclusive bookmark.

This Chamber of Secrets edition is illustrated by Levi Pinfold, just like the house editions of Philosopher’s Stone, but where Philosopher’s Stone was more Ravenclaw centric in the cover design, this one is more Chamber of Secrets centric, with the entwined snakes, Moaning Myrtle and possibly a Cornish pixie. There’s also some new extra content about Ravenclaw characters in the book and more Ravenclaw factoids. The dust cover has a lovely matt feel to it, and it also has copper embossing, which the Philosopher’s Stone edition doesn’t have. However, the page edges have the same blue and yellow striping.

I’m dead chuffed with the Ravenclaw bookmark, which is actually quite good quality. It’s a pretty standard faux leather, reasonably flexible, bookmark, with the words “Ravenclaw” above “Wit * Learning * Wisdom”. I’m slightly vexed that the illustration on it is the cover design of the Chamber of Secrets book. I think it would have been better with the Ravenclaw crest, so it wasn’t book specific. But I’m not going to cry about it. I’m kind of hoping they’ll start selling the house bookmarks separately, as I’d like to catch them all, even though I’m mostly a Ravenclaw. I like to be able to pick and choose based on my current mood!

Now I’m just debating whether to put this in my usable bookmarks stash or in my don’t-use-it-or-you-might-spoil-it bookmark collection. I’m leaning towards actually using it.

Review: Echoes by Laura Tisdall


Title: Echoes

Author: Laura Tisdall

Pages: 298

Goodreads link

My rating: 4/5

I picked up Echoes by Laura Tisdall not long after a second play-through of Watch Dogs 2, and I was still in the mood for some hackery-pokery. They were promoting it on Amazon, so when I saw it, I was like, why not? Sounds like my kind of thing. And I’m actually really glad I did because it really did turn out to be my kind of thing.

I was hesitant at first because I am really not a fan of present tense stories. As soon as I read the first present tense verb, “hunches”, everything inside me sagged. I can’t put my finger on what it is with me and present tense narrative, but I just find it jarring. I find it just doesn’t flow in my head so well as past tense narratives. But I pressed on regardless, and I soon lost my gripes over present tense in favour of the POV character, Mallory. She is a fantastic representation of what I like in my POV characters. She’s not just a normal female teenager with faux flaws, she actually has real issues. She’s hypersensitive (like me!), especially to touch, and she doesn’t like anyone she doesn’t completely trust touching her (also like me!). She’s also from a genuinely broken family, the kind where the kids call their parents by their first names. But she’s also an incredible mathematical genius with an extraordinary talent for hacking, which is what she spends her evenings doing. I have to say that Mallory is one of the most engaging and well-developed POVs I’ve ever read. You get to witness all the inner conflicts that the world triggers in her, you really do see through her eyes, and that’s the difference between a main character and a POV character. The voice is strong with this one.

The story itself is also quite engaging. On first thoughts, the pace is perhaps a little slow for this kind of thriller plot, but on seconds thoughts, it makes perfect sense. Because you’re seeing the story through Mallory’s POV, you’ve also got to read through all her overthinking, which I totally get. The world goes much more slowly for me than it does for other people because I have to overthink everything before I do anything. Need to pop to the shop? Okay, I’ll just sit and overthink about that for a couple of hours and then go. Want to visit another country? Okay, I’ll overthink about that for a couple of years to make myself too anxious to actually go. For a highly sensitive overthinker like me and Mallory, life must be paced out to accommodate the workings of our minds, to allow us to manage the anxieties of everyday living. Throw a life-or-death situation into the mix, and the pace of the novel makes total sense. This is an author who genuinely understands her character, and can speak through her mind. It’s subtly and comprehensively immersive.

And who doesn’t like a good anti-hero story? Yes, hacking is bad – don’t do it, children – unless, of course, it’s done for the benefit of humanity. This is about people with extraordinary skills that allow them to do incredibly illegal things, but they use their powers for good. It’s a real endorsement of humanity and a person’s character to present a person with a choice, one option with a selfish benefit, one option with a selfless benefit, and for them to have the intelligence and integrity to understand the greater benefit of the selfless option. That’s what I got from this book. It’s a great story, but it’s a great message too.

So, why didn’t I give it five stars? I’m afraid I just couldn’t push it to five stars because the punctuation is ghastly. There are significantly more than the average face-slapping typos and inconsistencies that really make this feel unprofessionally published. And it’s extraordinary because in her acknowledgements, the author names no less than FOUR proofreaders. FOUR proofreaders, and the text is still riddled with horrors. Even on the same page, you’ve got the same thing spelt two different ways. As a professional copyeditor and proofreader myself, I’m just stunned that FOUR proofreaders couldn’t mop up all these problems between them.

Anyway, if you don’t mind typos and rereading sentences because of poor comma usage, I would definitely recommend Echoes for anyone who likes an anti-hero or an immersive POV and a great story to go along with them.