Wednesday, January 23, 2019

REVIEW: MARVEL'S SPIDER-MAN: THE ART OF THE GAME

The Amazing Art Book...

I'm a huge fan of Insomniac Games' recent Spider-Man video game for the PlayStation4. I even read and greatly enjoyed the prequel novel. Around the holidays I received Marvel's Spider-Man: The Art of the Game from a secret Santa (as in the identity or identities of said "Santa" remains a secret) and of course immediately began flipping through the pages. While I was instantly impressed, it wasn't till I took the time to really sit down with it that I realized what a treasure trove it is.  

HOW I RATED IT 
5/5 Not only is the art stunning, but it's also accompanied by interesting and insightful tidbits regarding the creative process that led to what players experienced in the game that I think would honestly be captivating for anyone with a creative mind. 

ARTWORK
The main attraction in any art book is, of course, the art within it. Each page is brimming with gorgeously depicted paintings, sketches, and some renders of the finished products. The subjects range from characters to key locations, and even some of the gadgets and pseudo science fiction technology that shows up in-game. My one complaint is that the art is almost too good, or at least too polished. I personally love seeing the earlier, crappier phases of concept art and this book does showcase some of the earlier sketches and silhouettes for some of the characters and gear, it's just that you definitely get the sense that it's all been carefully cleaned up and composed for your viewing pleasure. I think most art books actually do this, the main reason I notice it hear is because of how detailed the little informational snippets are when talking about earlier ideas they worked on for the characters, scenery, and equipment. None of that really seems to be reflected in the imagery on the page. For the most part, you're seeing what looks like at least a second draft of something or perhaps a remaster of an early piece of concept art. This is a very minor gripe though and I totally get why the creative team would want to break out the best for this collection. I also should note that you definitely CAN see the different ideas artists were throwing around and get a sense for how the characters progressed over time and some are shockingly different from the final designs.

Related image

ADDITIONAL CONTENT
The most surprising aspect of this for me was the detailed tidbits of information that offer readers insight into how each person, place, and thing in the game came to be. There are surprisingly honest (though not unflattering) descriptions of what it was like to partner with Marvel and some of the back and forth that was involved in remaining true to the spirit of the source material while also offering the audience something wholly new to enjoy. There's quite a bit of info to read through which not only heightened my appreciation for the artwork before me, but also greatly extended the amount of time I spent actually reading through this book. It's rare to get such an in-depth look at how something morphs from idea into a shippable product so to have that process so clearly articulated felt like a wealth of creative insight that goes above and beyond what I'd ever have expected.

Image result for Marvel's Spider-Man: The Art of the Game

CONCLUSION 
I think Marvel's Spider-Man: The Art of the Game appeals not only to people who greatly enjoyed the video game and its breathtaking aesthetics, but also anyone who enjoys undertaking creative projects for either personal or professional uses. There's a great deal of work that goes into a piece of art in any medium so having nice references like this can be invaluable for those trying to practice different art forms. I'd definitely recommend this for anyone who falls into either of these groups, or even maybe just people who like really nice Spider-Man art. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

REVIEW: DESCENDER VOLUME 5: RISE OF THE ROBOTS

Image result for descender volume 5 rise of the robotsWar erupts as humes fall and robots rise...

The fifth entry in this series keeps with the momentum that's re-established in VOLUME 4. The war between flesh and metal officially kicks off and there'll be no turning back.

HOW I RATED IT 
5/5 High quality art, high octane pacing, and some fulfilling payoffs make this one of the strongest volumes in DESCENDER to date. 

CHARACTERS
Tim-21, Telsa, Quon, Andy, Eff, Driller, and the rest of the gang are back as Psius pulls the final strings to send the universe into chaos. As with before, perspective jumps around to the different parties: with Telsa and Quon struggling against the unhinged Tim-22, Tim-21 trying to escape Psius's ship to rescue them, Driller exploring a strange planet with his new friend, and Andy, Eff, and co. brought aboard Nagoki's flagship. It was cool to finally see Telsa's stern father in action as fleet commander as well as rewarding to have a brutal confrontation with Tim-22. I also enjoyed the emotional roller coaster that Andy has to go through as the world as he knows it shifts around beneath him. 

Related imageWORLD/SETTING 
Much of the story takes place upon various starships, but there's a generous amount of alien scenery to enjoy as well. One planet of particular note is Noch, the planet that Driller and his friend traverse through. This one will be of special interest to fans not only because of how it serves as the backdrop to some character development for Driller, but also because it introduces magic to this universe. It's home to goblins that hurl spirit bombs which turn their victims into more spirit bombs as well as vampires that make their home beneath sinkholes, waiting to devour any unlucky enough to fall through. Though this planet is only featured for one full issue, there seems to be a lot of potential that it introduces, perhaps something that's being saved for after the Harvesters - assuming there is something to come after their arrival. There are also some interesting developments beneath the surface of Mata, but to say any more there would be approaching spoiler territory.

PLOT/TONE 
Image result for descender volume 5 rise of the robotsAs I mentioned before, the plot progresses very nicely and rapidly. Things have all begun to come together, but there's also much more to come. This volume lays down some hints at what some of the secrets might be regarding Tim-21's connection to the Harvesters, Psius's full intentions for living beings, and what makes Mata so central to everything. Driller's issue feels like sort of a stray side-story, but I imagine that it's setting up some important things to come as well. Chaos is the ruling force now and from here to the finish line, it will be a desperate race to stop the destruction of organic life. Readers are left with some cliffhangers on that front, but that will just make diving into the sixth installment all the more enjoyable.

ARTWORK
Everything from the subtleties in Tim-21's facial expressions to the watery depths of Mata and Driller's violent encounter with a goblin camp is rendered as lovingly as ever with the watercolor-esque style that the series has become well known for. 

CONCLUSION 
If you've been with the series up until now, this will have some of the important payoffs you've been waiting for. It does an excellent job at depicting the early stages of the organic/synthetic war while also teeing up whatever grand finale to the conflict the creators have in store. I found myself engrossed in everything going on here and I'm eager to see what comes next. 

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

REVIEW: THE FINAL EMPIRE (MISTBORN #1)

41586421Of metals and men...

As a big fan of Sanderson's short fiction, it was high time I dove into one of the landmark series that put him on the map as one of the big names in Science Fiction and Fantasy. 

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 With the minor (yet, for me, bothersome/distracting) gripe of how often passive verbiage is used (ex: had told vs. told), this is by far one of the most gripping fantasy novels I have ever read.  

WORLD/SETTING 
Normally, I start a review with the characters in the story, but in this case, the setting of MISTBORN is so monumentally important that it deserves to come first (an impressive feat even for an author that's well known for his world building skills). Part of what helps here is that there is no major exposition dump and while the inner workings of the world are intricate, nothing is so complex that it distracts from the events within it. The core premise is that this is a world where a chosen one went to do battle with a daunting force for evil. While it seems that the hero may have "won" against the threat known only as "The Deepness" he also appears to have become a dictatorial villain in his own right. The resulting society is one where the noble houses hold lavish parties and conspire against each other while the "ska" slave away beneath their rule.It's also one where the grass was literally greener in the days that came before The Lord Ruler's regime. Ash falls from the sky like rain and the sight of vegetation that isn't brown or grey is a marvelous thing to the people of this age. The economy is based upon the trade of goods and there's a delightful magic system based upon different metals that certain people known as Mistings (more common and able to "burn" one metal) or Mistborn (very rare, typically born of high nobility, and able to make use of all of the metals). It's a fascinating place steeped in rich lore that I imagine will require me reading the full trilogy to fully understand. 


CHARACTERS

Equally as layered and nuanced as the world are the various characters who live within it. The story primarily stars the charismatic Kelsier, a Mistborn with rebellion on his mind and revenge in his heart, as well as Vin, a thief who's grown up with some serious trust issues, but a solid head on her shoulders and sharp wits about her. The two take on a master-apprentice relationship and I found it endearing to see how they each help the other grow over time. There are some other great characters mixed in as well like the wise and loyal Sazed, the eccentric Elend, and Kelsier's ragtag team of Misting thief friends. Without dipping into spoiler territory, I'd just say that I was impressed by the amount of depth each character had as well as how much potential some of them have for the sequels. They all managed to feel familiar, relateably flawed, and none of them fit too comfortably in any pre-existing archetypes which made for some nice diversity in the cast as well as the sense that you never know exactly what they're going to do. The Lord Ruler himself also proves to be a very intriguing villain and I loved the short journal entries from The Hero of Ages that mark the beginning of each chapter which hint at the backstory for how a conscientious hero could become a brutal tyrant. 

PLOT/TONE 
While the setting of this novel is decidedly dreary, the overall tone of the narrative is actually quite hopeful and occasionally ponderous. Kelsier and his band of unlikely rebels take on the seemingly insurmountable task of bringing down The Final Empire. The early sections of the book divulge portions of Kelsier's crazy schemes while also setting up the rules of Allomancy, the story's magic system. Things do eventually start taking some dramatic turns that throw serious wrinkles and tears into the gang's carefully laid plans. The pace continues to intensify until the final moves are made and the fate of the heroes is determined. One thing worth particular note are the spectacularly detailed action sequences that are spread throughout the narrative that not only serve to keep things high-energy, but also give you a very tangible sense that danger lurks around every corner. 

CONCLUSION 
I'm not sure if I've ever read anything that packages a fully realized fictional world, complex characters, and a well-defined magic system together in such a way that it works so seamlessly with the main narrative. Usually one aspect shines while another is overshadowed, but that's not the case here at all and the end result is a fantastical adventure unlike any that I've enjoyed before. Although I did nitpick the writing itself above, I should be clear that it's very serviceable and Sanderson's distinctive literary voice is always a pleasure for me. Anyone who likes a good work of fantasy would be sorely missing out if they do not pick up this series. I'm fiercely looking forward to catching up on the rest of it myself.

REVIEW: MARVEL'S SPIDER-MAN: HOSTILE TAKEOVER

40071320Does whatever a Spider-Novel can...

Serving as a prequel to this year's highly anticipated MARVEL'S SPIDER-MAN, a game exclusive to the PS4 console, this little novel serves as much more than a pre-release cash grab. I actually picked this up after completing the main portion of the game and enjoyed reading through it while waiting for the DLC chapters to be released.  

HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 Although the prose itself lacks any sort of distinct style or flare, this tie-in not only manages to do justice to the characters that appear in the video game, but also introduce a couple that exist solely within this story as well as surprise readers with sudden twists and interesting turns. 

CHARACTERS
The titular Spider-Man and his alter ego, Peter Parker, are naturally the central duo of this narrative, but there are a number of other characters who get some quality time with readers as well. Mary Jane, and Wilson Fisk (A.K.A. Kingpin) get chapters dedicated to shaping their personal arcs while other characters like Aunt May, Norman Osborn, and Scorpion make notable appearances. Seemingly exclusive to this novel are new faces like Maya Lopez, an adopted daughter to Kingpin, Anika, a girl Peter works with who develops a crush for him, and someone who serves as an impostor Spider-Man. All of them are wonderfully represented with the sole exception of Harry Osborn, who players don't actually get to see really in the game as he's already departed for a trip to Europe. I'm sure Marvel tied the author's hands a bit when depicting this character so as not to spoil the surprise twist he's involved in during the game's after-credits scene, but given that this novel is both the first and (sort of) the last time we get to see this version of the character, I wanted his inclusion to have a little more impact, especially when he and Peter say their goodbyes to one another. 

WORLD/SETTING 
New York is just as vibrant and alive here as it is in the way it's depicted in-game. The story takes readers to all sorts of different corners of it from Fisk Tower to The Bar With No Name and a number of different restaurants that, real or fake, give you the distinctive sense that this is where Spider-Man and friends eat, sleep, and breathe. There's also a fantastic number of little side references and "easter eggs" scattered throughout such as mention of The Avengers Tower and reflections on various super-criminals that Spider-Man knows. Different parts of it are explored through the different characters which gives you this sense that it's so much larger and perhaps more important than any one of them. 

PLOT/TONE 
What surprised me the most is how this story proved to be so faithful to the experience players have in-game, while also serving as something wholly it's own. The writing captures everything from the kinetic fighting style of Spider-Man to how important his in-mask cell phone is to how he interacts with the people in his life. I also loved the way perspective shifted around from character to character, much like how players will sometimes take control of one of Peter's friends for brief sequences in the game. It all just works without ever feeling like you're reading some cheesy description of what you'd see on a TV screen. Fortunately, the meat of the story is just as well done with information about the Spider-Man impostor slowly divulged, the rivalry between Osborn and Fisk brewing to a boil, Spider-Man's relationship with Officer Yuri Wantanabe being established, and turning what could have become a very tropey love triangle into something quite unexpected. The ending doesn't pack the same emotional punch as the game's narrative does, but there are still some great twists and high-energy moments that give it a proper finale even if the bigger conflict with taking down Fisk is saved for the opening chapter of the game.

CONCLUSION 
If you either have played, or plan to play MARVEL'S SPIDER-MAN for the PS4 then this is a very worthy and (at the time of writing this) cheap book to pick up. The writing is about as mass-market as it gets which did bother me a little, but I was impressed by the overall tone and how the narrative defied some of my expectations. It's a worthy enough Spider-Man story even if you aren't into games, but it is important to be aware that the full resolution to the Spider-Man vs. Kingpin narrative is saved for people playing the game.

REVIEW: THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE (WINTERNIGHT TRILOGY #1)

25489134Magic in the cold of winter...

Set in the unforgiving Russian landscape during a time where a newly established Russian-Catholic Church clashes with the mystical beliefs of yore, a young woman comes into her own as an unlikely hero. 


HOW I RATED IT 
4/5 Deeply creative, un-apologetically raw, and packed with unique cultural perspective, this pseudo fairy tale is sure to delight a wide range of readers.  

CHARACTERS
The story primarily focuses on Vasya, the young heroine of this tale, but the perspective will shift back and forth between other characters as well such as her father, stepmother, Dunya, her brother, Alyosha, and Father Konstantin who serves as one of the narrative's antagonists. Vasya is a bright and wild girl that has trouble fitting into a society where girls are expected to grow into polite, obedient, and loyal homemakers who bear lots of children for their husbands and keep their houses warm (something easier said than done in this landscape). None of that is for Vasya though, she was born different and she can see into a whole other world of demon-like creatures although she is blind to some of its inner workings. Her story is compelling at every turn and I also very much enjoyed the segments that explore the weight on her father's shoulders, Dunya's wisdom of the old ways, Alyosha's support of his sister, and the conflict that rages within her stepmother as well as Father Konstantin.

WORLD/SETTING 
This world is not one for the weak. The very landscape is filled with peril, not least of which is the searing cold that threatens to claim any that stay out in it too long. This landscape is made all the more dangerous by the deep lore that surrounds it. There's an unseen ecosystem of demovi - various ancient creatures that either help or hunt mankind. The land stands on the precipice of a major conflict that no one even knows is brewing, all while political machinations and religious agendas disrupt the normal day-to-day of the hardworking townsfolk. 

PLOT/TONE 
Despite the light and airy fairy tale whimsy that the story boasts, there's also an unmistakable gravity in every line of text. The odds could not be more against Vasya and her family as they contend with both very tangible and very mystical adversarial forces. Fortunately, things never get too grim for the events to be enjoyable and the likable cast of characters is probably part of what makes things feel so tense. One thing that fell a little flat for me here is the concept of consequence. The sins of Father Konstantin are very nicely (and respectfully) represented as he obsesses over the painting of his "icons" (holy images of God and the saints) in the name of glorifying The Lord when really he's attempting to glorify himself - a malpractice that costs both him and the townspeople dearly. My issue is more in the fact that an equal weight is not given to Vasya's interactions with the demovi and Morozko, lord of winter. She dabbles in very dangerous forces, some of which that are beyond her ability to control, and while the climactic final battle is definitely intense, the perils of the mysticism she gets into are not really given as much attention as they deserve. Perhaps this is being saved for future entries in the trilogy, but for me this was one glaring omission.  

CONCLUSION 
THE BEAR AND THE NIGHTINGALE plays to the strengths of what people love about fairy tales without leaning too heavily on commonly known tropes or narrative patterns. It illustrates a beautifully grim world in which old demonic powers hold sway over the fate of its people and does a nice job in clearly defining the societal parameters - many of which have some basis in Russian history. The author also does a lovely job of transliterating Russian words/names into English in a way that feels both faithful to the spirit of them while also pleasing to an American reader. While it does feel a little too anti-establishment at times, it's clear that a lot of love and care went into this story, the world it's told in, and the characters that readers meet. This one really is a must-have for anyone who might enjoy a sort of fairy tale that's a little more grown up and I'll certainly be continuing with the series. 

Saturday, December 1, 2018

MINI REVIEW: ALL SYSTEMS RED (THE MURDERBOT CHRONICLES #1)

327589014/5 An enjoyable, albeit brief science fiction romp that keeps readers guessing as to what comes next. 

The story follows a part-human but mostly robot service bot that offers support to his team of specialists on their outpost. The story spends a bit of time developing the different members of their crew and their relationships with each other. As this is happening, the Murderbot, as he calls himself (though the team doesn't know he's killed people), is also fleshed out. It seems he's somehow broken through his security protocols which has led to him keeping some entertaining secrets. He has an affinity for downloading and streaming media, often binge-consuming it while on the job (definitely a violation in his code). We also get some insight into how estranged he feels from human interaction. There are even some funny moments where he's purposefully awkward so that he can avoid prolonged conversation with his crew. 

Things take a turn for the more dire when other stations begin to experience violent activity. The gang finds themselves tangled up in the mysterious conflict raging around them and tensions rise as Murderbot has to choose between keeping he secrets to protect himself or exposing them in favor of protecting his crew. The tension of not knowing exactly what they're up against for most of the story a well how the characters bond during these events is really what makes this a worthwhile read. There's also some interesting world building at play even though the physical scope of things is mostly confined to the the desolate planet that they're stationed on. I imagine that this is one area that the series will aim to expand upon in future installments. The one thing that didn't work quite as well with me was the ending. It's definitely a little surprising and nicely sets up future adventures, but I kind of wanted it to go a different way which slightly soured it for me. 

Overall, I really enjoyed this quick, intriguing read and I'll probably be continuing with the series to see what happens next to the Murderbot. 

REVIEW: INJUSTICE GODS AMONG US YEAR FIVE VOLUME 3

All Hail Superman...

The thrilling prequel comic to the INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US video game concludes with the third volume of the fifth and final year which reminds readers that although the series has enjoyed plenty of spectacle, it's always really been about the characters. 

HOW I RATED IT 

5/5 While not as sweepingly spectacular as previous volumes, this one still has plenty of action that propels the story forward those final few steps to where players found things at the start of the game. 

CHARACTERS

Related imageBatman and Superman again take their place at center stage. The tension between them continues to be the main staple of the series and it's as good as it's ever been here. Damien Wayne has some great development as he descends even further into darkness while Catwoman comes to Superman, vouching for Batman's life. Harley Quinn completes her transformation into Harleen - a persona that is both a return to who she was before The Joker as well as someone brand new. I've also felt that Batwoman and Batgirl have been underused to date so it was great to see them get a little more time in the spotlight along with Hawkman and Hawkgirl who have also played comparatively minor roles.

WORLD/SETTING 

The Regime is in power, but it's not yet exactly the way players found it. It undergoes some awesome changes that are also of great narrative significance. The quarantine of Wayne Manor, the appropriation of Arkham Asylum, and the decontamination/reconstruction of Metropolis all serve as reminders that the writers not only have a great deal of love for the characters, but also the places they call home. 


Related imagePLOT/TONE 

Batman and his allies make one last play at taking down Superman - one that won't be fully enacted until the events of the game. The good news for those who are only really interested in the comic, is that the INJUSTICE:GROUND ZEROES comics covers the events of the game. In the case of either audience, the story answers a lot of the open questions about how Harley Quinn gets her own army, what was involved with pulling in the heroes from the main DC world, and what became of Hawkman after his heartbreak in a previous volume.

ARTWORK

The art - by this point known as being high-quality - ends on a strong note with great attention to the detail. Some of the costumes that members of the Regime and Insurgency factions are wearing in the game even make their debut here which I loved. 

CONCLUSION 

All in all, INJUSTICE: GODS AMONG US YEAR 5 VOLUME 3 is packed with a satisfying series of events that ties the comic back to it's source material and fans won't want to miss it.