Category Archives: Review

Papers, Please.

A Dystopian Document Thriller.

The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.

Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.

“Papers, Please” is, quite simply, a triumph of game design.

Looking at the game as a simple list of mechanics, it’s nothing special. It’s essentially a “spot the difference” game. However, a few simple design choices make all the difference and turn it into one of the most addicting and compelling games I’ve played in a long time.

The theme makes the game.  It’s an entirely believable setting and situation; I could imagine this being based on real events in Eastern Europe during the Cold War.  The crushing poverty, the political instability and paranoia.  It all just works.

The addition of time constraints is an obvious addition to a game such as this.  It sets up a conflict between being thorough in your checks and getting as many people through immigration as quickly as possible.  Making a mistake can result in being penalized.

Of course, this addition by itself is not what makes the game so genius.  You receive money for every immigrant you inspect.  At the end of the day, you get a very simple menu showing your income and expenses.  Rent, food, heat, etc.  You also are caring for your family; you have a wife, a son, as well as your uncle and mother-in-law living with you.  Sometimes they will get sick and you need to purchase medicine for them.  Sometimes you won’t have enough money to care for everyone.  You never even see your family members, but it’s still a gut-wrenching moral decision to skimp on medicine for your uncle and mother-in-law to afford food for your wife and son.

Other moral quandaries arise during your work day. A young girl slips you a note that a man is getting her into the country so that he can sell her into sex slavery.  A husband is admitted into the country, but his wife doesn’t have all her documents. Do you admit her, even though it will cost you money you need to keep your family alive?  This is how morality is best handled in games.  You don’t give people Good or Evil points; you simply put them in tough situations and make them decide what the right thing to do is.  You don’t judge them, you make sure they know the consequences beforehand and let them weigh their options.  Some  will do whatever is the “best move” as far as the game in concerned, but for others it will be painful, and therefore meaningful.

It’s an incredible simple yet deep game.  It demonstrates how a solid theme can inform mechanics, and how a few mechanics mixed with the pressures of time constraints and moral decisions can create a rich, engaging, and addicting experience, without having to spend millions of dollars on fancy graphics or effects.

“Papers, Please” is still in development, but you can download a free demo here

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Review: Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan

“THE AGE OF KINGS IS DEAD…AND I HAVE KILLED IT”

Click here for the TL;DR

Overview

Promise of Blood is the debut novel of Brian McClellan, the first in a planned trilogy.  McClellan is a former student of Brandon Sanderson, and though this is not some sort of Sanderson-lite story, the influence definitely shows (in a good way).

As the first book in a planned trilogy, there are a few elements that I feel could have used more depth or explanation, but I will grant Mr. McClellan the benefit of the doubt that my concerns will be addressed later in the series.  Obviously I wish I would have had more clarity here, but it doesn’t ruin the experience.

Promise of Blood is an industrial-age fantasy novel, which is a nice change of pace.  It isn’t your typical feudal European style fantasy, but it also doesn’t veer off into the whole steampunk, alternate history sort of technology.  I like this time period, especially when mixed with fantasy.  Many people have a strongly negative reaction to the idea of mixing guns into their fantasy, but I feel that the weapons technology is still at a point where you can get the strong, heroic sort of action the fantasy reader is used to.  It’s the fantasy world taken through the Industrial Revolution and into a time period roughly analogous to the French Revolution/Napoleonic era.

The French Revolution parallel doesn’t just extend to the technology.  The book opens with a military coup led by one of the book’s main characters, Tamas.  Tamas is a Field Marshall (highest rank in the army), as well as a Powder Mage (which we’ll talk more about later).  They kill the King’s royal cabal (sorcerers, called Privileged) , round up all the nobility, and line them up for the guillotine.  From here we get into the main conflicts of the book.  As they died, each of the royal cabal whisper the same cryptic warning.  A mysterious Privileged escaped the attack and is now at large.  A rival kingdom is poised to take advantage of the domestic strife.  All of these plots are woven together at various points and reach a fairly satisfying conclusion at roughly the same time.

Characters

Promise of Blood follows three main characters.  All three have their own plot, though they intersect at various points throughout the novel.  They also have their own “companion” secondary character.

Tamas is focused on the aftermath of his revolution, consolidating power and preparing to deal with the threats both foreign and domestic.  He is joined by his bodyguard Olem, a soldier with a Knack (another kind of minor, magical talent) that makes it so he doesn’t need to sleep.

Taniel, the son of Tamas and a skilled Powder Mage in his own right, spends most of the book chasing down the mysterious rogue Privileged, as well as dealing with various personal issues.   His companion is Ka-poel, a mute “savage” he met while campaigning in a foreign land.  She has some sort of magical ability that is unfamiliar to Taniel, but that is revealed as the story goes on.

Adamat is a retired police inspector who is called upon by Tamas to investigate the warning of the dying Privileged to not break “Kresimir’s Promise”.  He is later joined by SouSmith, a boxer who serves as hired protection during Adamat’s investigations.

All of the characters were well-rounded and interesting, but I think that for the most part the secondary characters stole the show.  Olem was by far my favorite.  He was, for me at least, the most relatable.  With the exception of his cool but fairly simple Knack, he’s a common soldier.  He’s tough, honest, loyal, and kind.  To use the cliche, Olem is the kind of guy you’d want to go have a beer with.  The best lines of dialogue in the book are Olem’s.

Ka-poel is probably the second most interesting character in the entire book. Even though she never says a single word, I’d say she’s the most expressive character we meet.  Her communication with Taniel is excellent writing on McClellan’s part.  One of the most intriguing threads throughout the novel is trying to unravel what exactly this little savage girl is capable of, and when you find out it certainly does not disappoint.

I found Adamat to be the strongest of the three main characters.  Like Olem, he has a simple Knack (he has an eidetic memory, handy for an inspector).  He’s just a good guy, a retired police officer, trying to get by in the world and support his family.  It creates a character that is very easy to empathize with and root for.  Unfortunately, I found his plot to be the weakest of the three.  It ratchets up towards the end, and he does discover some very important things, but they’re more needed as keys in the plot lines for Tamas and Taniel than they are for him.  I can see how it had to play out that way, but it’s a shame that the character I found to be the strongest of the three drew the short straw where the plot was concerned.

Magic

The magic in Promise of Blood is where it is most clear that McClellan is a student of Brandon Sanderson.  Sanderson is famous for his magic systems.  They usually play a very central role in his stories, and he does them very well.  McClellan is following a similar path here.

The magic is split into three separate types.  First, you have the Privileged.  The Privileged are the closest we come to a traditional fantasy sorcerer. They access magic by directly tapping into what is called the “Else”, and are focused on the Aristotelian elements (earth, air, fire, water, and the oft added fifth element of spirit, or Aether in Promise of Blood), which are woven together by using one hand to call a certain element and the other to direct it.  There’s a line, almost a throwaway, about how each finger on the Privileged’s hand is tied to a certain element, and the thumb being the strongest one.  That itself sounds interesting to me and I wish we could have gone more into it, though it’s tough without any of the main characters being Privileged.

Next, we have the Powder Mages.  Powder magic is a recent development, one that is strongly opposed by the more traditional Privileged, especially in the neighboring kingdom of Kez.  Powder Mages can ingest gunpowder (reminiscent of Sanderson’s Mistborn series) to enter a Powder Trance, granting them enhanced physical abilities, including eyesight, which is useful when you’re a sharpshooter.  They can also ignite gunpowder with their mind, as well as give little mental pushes to their bullets to make them travel farther and faster, or even cut around corners.  One of the things I didn’t like about this system is the lack of any clear downside or cost. Though a bit of lipservice is given to the dangers of becoming addicted to gunpowder (Taniel is portrayed in a way that summons the image of a Hollywood sleazeball taking a hit of cocaine), we don’t really see any negative effects besides a headache.  I think I recall that maybe he got a nosebleed once.  I would have liked to see more about the limits and costs of this magic use, though this is one of the things that we may see more of in the next two books.

The third type of magic is called a Knack. Knacks are really just special talents or attributes taken to an extreme level, like Adamat’s perfect memory or Olem’s ability to go without sleep. They aren’t the flashiest of powers, but in some ways they’re my favorite. I wish we saw more examples of Knacked individuals; I don’t recall any mentioned besides the two above. Sorcery and gun magic is cool and noteworthy, but Knacks are just so darn practical. Wish I had one.

Ka-poel has her own magic which is not explained in any real depth, but I’m sure we’ll find out more in the future installments. It seems somehow related to the magic used by the Privileged, but she also has some neat voodoo stuff going on.

Conclusion
Overall, I found Promise of Blood to be an enjoyable read and a fantastic debut novel. McClellan did a great job ratcheting up the tension, making me stay up late into the night to get a resolution.

The book isn’t without its flaws; the secondary characters generally outshine the main, and I at times found myself unsure about how effectively the pacing of the various plots was being handled (though part of that is a symptom of the book being the first of a trilogy, I’m sure). I also wish that there was a much clearer/more severe cost to the various magic systems, but that’s just a personal issue of mine.

TL;DR

You should buy and read this book, if for no other reason than to be able to make the hipster-y claim “I was reading Brian McClellan before it was cool” a few books down the road when he really takes off (which I think he will).