Archive for March, 2013

Peter Clines – 14 (Book Review)

14 cover

14 – Peter Clines

Nate Tucker’s inexpensive new LA apartment seems too good to be true, but it also comes with a lot of quirks. Several doors are heavily padlocked, one unit has a reputation for suicides, and the cockroaches are actually mutated. Despite the building manager’s threats, Nate soon finds himself obsessing over these mysteries, putting his job (and possibly more) at risk. This is the set-up of Peter Cline’s novel 14.

14 is an enjoyable page-turner, though the journeyman writing keeps it from ever becoming engrossing. Cline’s descriptions get hung up on details about the way an item is laid out or a person performs a simple task. It’s never bad, but it often keeps things from flowing smoothly. If this book engrosses you, it will be because of all the twists and secrets, not because you get lost in the prose. Similarly, the quantity and variety of the oddities can be a little hard to accept, as are some lucky coincidences that keep Nate’s investigation moving forward. (Strangely, though, some of the later things he uncovers are huge, and don’t actually rely on him following the trail of breadcrumbs that led him through the first half.) The characters are quirky, even by LA standards, and though the book promises that they have secrets, it’s more that they all have exactly the right skill sets to move the plot forward.

Still, Clines’ gifts lie in the plotting, and the story definitely progresses smoothly while raising the stakes and ensuring that new details are uncovered frequently. Most chapters are a few pages each, with cliff-hanger endings, making it easy to read. (These chapter breaks feel a little forced once you realize that they are consistently placed after surprises instead of at logical breaks in the action. Conversations are often split between two chapters so that one chapter can end with a surprise revelation, but then a major scene change will fall in the middle of the following chapter.)

Strangely, I appreciated 14 as a mystery-thriller novel, but Clines intended it to be a horror novel. It does seem a little creepy at the start, because it is scary to think of moving into a new building where you might not be safe, but that aspect quickly fades away once it takes on the structure of an investigation. Nate and his new friends follow patterns that seem safe and formulaic, in which pieces come together and curiosity is rewarded. This is the stuff of comfortable thrillers, not horror novels. Bad things happen to people, but they’re at the points in the plot where someone should be expected to pay a price. The big reveals late in the story do have some trappings of the horror genre, but by that time, my thought was just “I wonder how the intrepid gang will get out of this!” Had it been a horror story, I would have been wondering if they were going to get out of it.

14 is never as clever or original as it apparently intends to be, but it’s a fun genre exercise. This was one of the three books I was recently reading simultaneously for my book clubs, and it was often the one I was most eager to come back to. On the other hand, when it ended I didn’t feel any need to keep thinking about the story or to look into the author’s other works.

Grade: C+


Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal (Music Review)

The Grifter's Hymnal cover

Ray Wylie Hubbard – The Grifter’s Hymnal

After I named Ray Wylie Hubbard’s previous album one of the best albums I discovered in 2011, you’d think that I’d know to check out his next one as soon as it came out. But I missed out again, waiting until now to try his 2012 release The Grifter’s Hymnal. And while I don’t think this one is quite going to make it on my year-end list, it’s a reminder that I need to pay closer attention to Hubbard.

Hubbard is an old country bluesman with a penchant for slide guitar, but he’s more versatile and experimental than you’d expect from that description. He sounds a little more settled down this time, which is probably why it didn’t quite live up to my expectations. But still, it features the rocking, irreverent “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell”, half-spoken stories of his restless youth in “Mother Blues”, and “Henhouse”, a catchy tale that rambles through country life and exaggerated character studies. Mostly about sinning, with a few heartfelt moments about God, Hubbard still sounds wild and fun despite the knowing way he looks back on life. And songs like “Moss and Flowers” provide a soulful counterpoint to his jokester moments. This is still a varied, well-rounded album.

Even when he’s playing around, music is serious business to Hubbard. Throughout tales of sex, drugs, and faith, it’s obvious that music is what really drives him. Some songs address this directly, such as the DIY blues set-up of “Coricidin Bottle”, while others just mix music directly in with the rest of his life. When he is judged in “New Year’s Eve at the Gates of Hell”, Hubbard mainly considers his musical accomplishments (“Sure I drank a lot of gin and tonic, but I never threw away my Panasonic.”) It’s a philosophy that should make Hubbard a friend to any music lover.

Though my preferred Ray Wylie Hubbard album was A. Enlightenment B. Endarkenment (Hint: There Is No C), don’t let me scare you off of The Grifter’s Hymnal. It’s an excellent celebration of life, as seen through the eyes of a man who mixes the best parts of youth and age.

Grade: B+


David Wong – John Dies at the End (Book Review)

John Dies at the End cover

David Wong – John Dies at the End

David Wong, the author of John Dies at the End, is a pseudonym for Cracked editor Jason Pargin. Cracked, of course, is that humor site that turns out to be full of bitterly intelligent essays with sophisticated points hidden behind the obscenities. John Dies at the End brings that same sensibility to horror-comedy. It doesn’t necessarily make any larger points, but it’s easy to read while building an atmosphere that’s both juvenile and consistent. It proposes that the reality behind what we see is one bad drug trip, and then sells that premise.

More comedy than horror, John Dies is about lazy fuck-ups who learn to see demons and ghosts. The only thing that saves them is that the powers that want to destroy humanity are as dumb as they are. On the other hand, maybe only someone with their approach to life could withstand the barrage of surreal sights that they face. Though there are some consistent rules being built behind the madness (again, just like Cracked), the book is full of absurd humor. Whenever you start getting comfortable with this mix, though, horrifying things will happen to shake you up.

This often works great. Wong is a funny man, and he has a clever take on one of the clichés of horror: The idea of people being insignificant specks in a malevolent universe is a common theme, but it’s difficult to make the reader believe in the incomprehensible beings that are supposed to be out there. Wong finds a mix that lets him dial up the weird humor to a level that would normally be annoying, but in this case it’s a representation of just how wrong our everyday expectations are. By really making the reader feel lost sometimes, the message is conveyed.

However, John Dies works much better at the beginning. The story was serialized online, apparently with modifications, over the course of years, and the collected version still feels episodic. Early on, it feels like the author has free reign to go in any direction he wants, and the unpredictable story is a lot of fun. By the end, it feels like Wong is trying to force a plot into this. Some people get traditional story arcs that don’t fit the anarchic sentiment the book opened with, and the things that aren’t explained feel a lot more arbitrary once certain mysteries are figured out. It’s still funny, but the one thing that really does bug me is the way it derails that horror formula. The heroes become too important and are watched by the bad guys. I can’t shudder at the idea of being lost in an incomprehensible universe when the main characters turn out to matter after all.

Despite that, John Dies at the End is a hilarious, unique book. It’s smartly stupid humor and quirky worldview are worth experiencing.

Grade: B


Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away (Music Review)

Push the Sky Away cover

Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds – Push the Sky Away

This blog mixes reviews of artists I’ve known for a long time with ones that are new to me. I’ve often wondered if I’m consistent in my approach to these categories. I think I am overall, but there are ways I can be skewed in either direction. Nick Cave is an excellent example. As a big fan of for years, and I’m able to find things to like even in his less popular works. On the other hand, when I already know of the best options he presents, it’s difficult to get excited about the ones that don’t reach those heights. His new album, Push the Sky Away, falls into that category: It has good moments, and if this were my first exposure to him, it might be enough to make me look into his other works. But compared to what a Nick Cave album should be, I know that it’s especially weak. There’s no reason to recommend this, especially when it follows on the heels of the excellent Dig, Lazarus, Dig!

The main problem is that it feels reserved. Cave has always been defined by a fearless, if not outright foolish, extremism. Whether talking about love, hate, joy, or angst, his lyrics and The Bad Seeds’ accompaniment is always over the top. Here, he seems comfortable in the persona of an aging crooner, taking no risks and refusing to lose control. I’ve described his music as a “psychological exorcism” before, but this would be better suited for a dinner party.

The Bad Seeds’ membership has always been in flux, but with Blixa Bargeld and Mick Harvey gone, the only prominent musician left is Warren Ellis. Possibly because of this, many of the songs do a great job of evoking a darker, threatening atmosphere behind their gentle sounds. The good moments fall into that category, with repeated lines like “you grow old, and you grow cold” or “we know who you are, we know where you live, and we know there’s no need to forgive”. Cave doesn’t always go for that dark, quiet approach, though, and he has nothing else for the other songs. Effectively, only one dimension is fleshed out here. At the very least, Cave needs to add a guitarist to the group next time.

“Finishing Jubilee Street” is the one exception, an interesting track whose appeal comes from its novelty instead. It’s not one to listen to repeatedly, but it’s interesting in a blog-post-as-song sort of way. (It’s a simple story, and repeating refrain, inspired by a dream Cave claims to have had after he wrote another song on the album.) Otherwise, Push the Sky Away features the least experimentation or artistic restlessness of any Cave album ever. He has good lines (“she had a history but no past”), execrable lines (“I was the match that would fire up her snatch”), and everything in between, along with a strange approach to naming songs: The titles “We No Who U R” and “We Real Cool” sound off, fitting in neither with Cave’s established persona or the style he adapted here.

As I said at the start, Push the Sky Away is certainly not bad. There’s half of a good album here, with some quiet, evocative examples of a mature Nick Cave. But that portion doesn’t offer a lot of variety, and the rest is forgettable. He’s set the standard by which albums like this should be measured, and this one isn’t necessary given what else is available.

Grade: C+


On Book Clubs

Almost two years ago, I joined a Twitter-based book club called #1book140. Last year, a couple friends and I decided to start a book club of our own. So last month, when some coworkers started looking around for people who might want to form a club, I sensibly said I couldn’t. But I decided to try this month, and that’s how I’ve found myself way behind on three books at the same time. So I think it’s a good time to talk about book clubs.

I’ve enjoyed being in these clubs a lot. Though reading is normally a solitary experience, I like to discuss it. (I’m sure that’s related to the reason I write this blog.) It’s also good for me to have some sort of goals and structure to drive my hobbies: Last year, I read more books than any other time in my adulthood, and I credit my book clubs with giving me motivation. Normally, comics take up a lot of my reading time instead, largely because they come out on a weekly schedule, so there’s a constant feed to keep up with. I’m not trying to judge whether books are better or worse than comics, but the switch in focus has definitely worked well for me.

In fact, one of the first things I tell people about book clubs is that it’s a lot more fun to read books I don’t like if I get to tell people why afterwards. I do really appreciate the fact that these clubs have introduced me to a wider variety of books, but it’s simply the ability to share that I find best. Actually, that exposure to different categories has pros and cons, since I’m a little more likely to find books I don’t like that way. I definitely do enjoy the variety, and I’m glad that it pulls me away from the science fiction and fantasy that would otherwise be my default, but this variety is something to be careful with. I often have to read three books in a month just to find time for one of my own choosing, which means my personal to-read pile is getting dangerously high. There were novels I was eager to read a year ago still sitting on top of the stack!

The positives far outweigh the negatives, though, or I wouldn’t still be doing it. I’ve also enjoyed the very different experiences of the real-world and Twitter clubs. My Twitter one discusses general business on the #1book140 hashtag, and individual sections of the current book on tags named #1b140_1, #1b140_2, and so on. There’s a nominal schedule for the sections, but the separate tags let you join in at whatever time works. This means that the conversation is ongoing. It also means that sometimes people are saying things like “I really wonder what happens next!”, which sounds a little silly when they could just read another chapter to find out. But when I join my monthly group in-person, where we all finish the book before discussing, sometimes I wish we’d had the chance to talk back when we still had more questions than answers. It just goes to show how different one group can be from another.

If you’re considering starting your own book club, here are a few tips I’ve picked up:

  • I recommend voting on the choice every month. We do let people take turns choosing the nominees, but I think it helps a lot that everyone gets some input each time. For a small group, you probably won’t have any bitter arguments about this, but it will guarantee that if someone is strongly against one choice they get a chance to steer the group to a different one.
  • My local group spent some time early on trying to figure out ground rules. Should someone be considered a full member right away, or do they need to show up a certain number of times before they can vote or nominate titles? The answer turned out to be much simpler than we expected: About three-quarters of the people who expressed interest never showed up to a single meeting. Of those who did come once, almost every one turned out to be a dedicated member. So now, as soon as someone reads a book and joins a meeting, we just assume they’re a full-fledged member.
  • Don’t feel bad about skipping books from time to time. Everyone needs to find their own balance between book club books and ones they picked out themselves, and as I said earlier, I have to struggle to keep up with the ones I already bought. I probably participate nine or ten of the months each year for #1book140, and the work club will definitely be a sporadic thing for me.
  • Most of all, enjoy it! Book clubs fit a social role much like going out to see a movie, but everyone actually interacts with each other instead of just sitting in the dark. It’s a good experience.

Bob Wayne – Till the Wheels Fall Off (Music Review)

Till the Wheels Fall Off cover

Bob Wayne – Till the Wheels Fall Off

Since reviewing Bob Wayne’s Outlaw Carnie, I’ve wondered if I was too harsh on it. My general opinion holds true: He has a good country sound, if a little rough and obviously metal-influenced. And while some of the songs are fun, the overall impression is that of a boorish party animal who’s more interested in telling you how he wins all his fights than in reflecting real life. Despite that, I do keep going back to the best songs, because they’re worth listening to. The album as a whole is obnoxious, but the standouts arguably redeem it. I bought his latest release, Till the Wheels Fall Off, to give him another chance. Unfortunately, this one sees Wayne doubling down on the outlaw posturing, and is definitely a lesser work than Outlaw Carnie.

Part of Wayne’s problem is that his vocals aren’t singing so much as a country affectation and exaggerated quaver. It’s not out of bounds by the standards of harder underground country, but it definitely makes it easy to question his authenticity when the songs get a little unbelievable. This happens with tracks like “There Ain’t No Diesel Trucks in Heaven”, which can’t seem to decide whether that’s supposed to be a relief for weary truck drivers, or a curse. A couple songs about killing drug dealers and rapists barely even try to establish a plot or characters; Wayne sounds too eager to get to the vengeful fantasies.

I just have to laugh at “Fuck the Law”, in which he complains that the government is against him just for “writing and living these songs”. In another song he claims that he’s shot at cops for fun, so I have to agree that living out his songs would be a problem. Maybe that gets to the root of the matter: There’s nothing wrong with living vicariously through songs (even if I do complain about how one-dimensional these get at time), but there’s a confusing mix of reality, too: As far as I can remember from a live recording a while back, “Fuck the Law” was a real response to him being barred from Canada. So it’s real, but the idea that he’s “living” these songs in general is a delusion.

As I said before, the best songs are very good in isolation. “Devil’s Son” is the most fun example of claims to bad-assery, and “All Those One Night Stands” comes close if you can forget that he already covered similar territory with “Chatterbox”. “Lost Vegas” and “Hunger in My Soul” show that he can write moody, somber songs when he wants to. They’re still odes to sin, of course. Don’t expect any of the reflection from his previous highlight, “Blood to Dust”. The only one that tries at that is “Wives of Three”, a surprising song about a polygamist begging his mother to accept him for who he is. In different hands, that would be a touching character study with an unusual point of view. In the context of this album, though, it’s hard to believe that Wayne isn’t really cheering at the idea of having someone having his own little harem.

I still want to like Wayne, and it looks like every album will have a couple tracks good enough to give me hope. He’s heading in the wrong direction, though.

Grade: D+


Dungeon Petz (Game Review)

Dungeon Petz box

Dungeon Petz

Vlaada Chvátil’s Dungeon Lords has become one of my favorite games. Admittedly, it’s a long game that puts lots of emphasis on two short battle rounds, so a brief mistake can be devastating. But it’s still very fun, with a hilarious theme, choices that have lots of ramifications, and an action-selection system that stays interesting even after it has become familiar. Now Chvátil has created a new game, Dungeon Petz, set in the same fantasy world. Where Dungeon Lords centered around evil beings building underground lairs, this is about the hard-working imps creating pet shops that raise various monsters.

The art, humorous rulebook (with very clear explanations), and playing time will all be familiar to a Dungeon Lords fan. Both games are also built around worker placement, with a twist that comes from players making simultaneous choices. But that’s where the similarities end. In Dungeon Petz, the choice is in how to group your imp workers at the start of the round. When they’re all sent out to market, the bigger groups will have more “buying power”, and thus get to go first. This lets you decide whether you want to take a few actions before everyone else, or many actions after the other players have taken the good spots, or some mix in between. The goal is to buy baby monsters, set up cages suited to their unique needs, and then earn points by showing or selling them.

A view of two pets and their needs (with one poop cube in play!)

A view of two pets and their needs (with one poop cube in play!)

Of course, there are a lot of different factors to track in the game. The most important is in meeting the needs for each animal. Each one has multiple dots of different colors, with an elegant wheel increasing the total number of dots as the animals “grow” from round to round. After actions are chosen, you must draw cards of matching colors, and assign them to your pets so that each one has the same number and types of “needs” as its figure shows. Those needs, which include eating, playing, pooping, and unstable magical energies, must be met by paying certain resources or having a cage designed for them. (The cards are random, but each color has a different focus, so you can make educated guesses ahead of time.) If needs can’t be met, that pet will be less appealing to customers. Also, there are cubes to mark the amount of poop each pet makes. As with Dungeon Lords, this is a funny game, despite its complex, balanced rules.

In fact, I would say that Dungeon Petz is arguably the better-designed game, as it features scoring opportunities on almost every round (exhibitions and potential customers). Points accumulate gradually, and a single bad round won’t determine everything as it can in Dungeon Lords. I still say that Dungeon Lords is the more fun one, though. It may be difficult to control, but it has the personality to make up for it. And the simultaneous selection in that game is pure genius. Outguessing your opponents can lead to them taking actions that don’t help because they didn’t get other actions they needed. In contrast, Dungeon Petz feels like a much more traditional worker placement game. The initial choices just determine how many actions each player will have, and in what order. After that, everyone takes turns choosing actions, so if you didn’t get everything you wanted, you can immediately readjust your strategy. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the actions don’t feel that interesting. It’s the pet management on your personal board that feels fun, and that is only a portion of the game. Also, each round of Dungeon Petz involves several phases, which are difficult to remember even when looking at the reference card. This can make the game confusing, especially since planning ahead is vital.

It works best with three players. With four, everyone plays fewer rounds to keep the playtime down, which means that the endgame planning has started by the time the game really gets going. This makes a nice alternative to Dungeon Lords (which plays best with four people), but the three-player game does add extra rules to account for a “dummy” player blocking certain actions.

Dungeon Petz isn’t a great game, and it depends a lot on the goodwill generated by Dungeon Lords’ rich, amusing theme. But it still adds to that world, and it is fun if less distinctive. Very importantly, the two games feel related but are still different enough that one person can justify owning both.

Grade: B-


Rotworld and its Build-Up (Comic Review)

cover to Swamp Thing #7

Swamp Thing

When I last looked at DC’s current Swamp Thing and Animal Man series, I found them to be fascinating character reboots, with a shared battle against “The Rot” making them even more compelling. Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. didn’t impress me as much, but it had potential. It since joined these other two titles for the “Rotworld” event, under the theory that the unliving Frankenstein is one of the few creatures immune to the death and decay wielded by the enemy.

All series continued, if not improved upon, the high level of talent shown in the first few months, but “Rotworld” itself was disappointing. After a lot of fun character-building and horrific moments, the heroes suddenly found themselves in a future where The Rot had already won. It quickly fell into the pattern of alternate universe stories that are all too common in superhero comics: In a world that doesn’t have to last, lots of major characters can be killed off, minor ones can rise to prominence, villains can switch sides, and so on. These stories are fun the first few times you see them, but it doesn’t take long before they feel repetitive, and there’s never any question that everything will be undone by the end. The theme of plant- and animal-themed powers fighting against death did allow for more cool ideas than these events usually have, but on the other hand, the powers of The Rot meant that it was mainly just pictures of grotesque, corrupted heroes killing each other. After a year of exciting build-up, “Rotworld” went on for a couple months too long to stay interesting.

cover to Animal Man #17

Animal Man

It’s a shame, because Animal Man had been getting much better up to that point. The main problem with the first several issues was Travel Foreman’s art, which kept pulling me out of the story. The excellent Steve Pugh stepped in, though, and he improved it immensely: Deeper colors, less drastic differences in shading, and slightly more dynamic framing managed to make the art great without ever feeling like a break in continuity from Foreman’s style. Jeff Lemire’s writing stayed consistent throughout, but it sure seemed a lot better once the art wasn’t distracting me. Before Rotworld began, I’d reached a point where I was enjoying Animal Man a lot more than Swamp Thing every month.

Swamp Thing stayed good, too, but was less surprising than Animal Man once the new status quo was explained. As I noted in my second look at Batman, Scott Snyder’s writing skills lie in making formulaic stories interesting, rather than cutting new ground. So the middle act, about darkness rising, felt a little more like a straightforward than Animal Man’s family drama, though it never stopped being enjoyable. And my only real complaint is that Yanick Paquette remained unable to keep up with a monthly schedule.

However, Swamp Thing ended strongly. Issue #18 had been planned as the conclusion to Snyder and Paquette’s run, and while I’m sad to see them go, they did tell a good story. It’s rare to see in comics, but the conclusion felt like the logical outcome of everything that had happened so far. This is especially good to see after an alternate-world event, since usually those just result in one or two arbitrary changes, usually tragedies to make the event feel “serious”. Animal Man fell into that trap, but Swamp Thing came out feeling like a classic. Issue #18 is beautiful, satisfying, and makes me feel invested in the new status quo even though I had previously been unsure about following the new creators.

cover to Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #11

Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E.

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. was an unexpected addition to the event. The early issues didn’t have anything to do with the battle against The Rot, but Jeff Lemire was writing both this and Animal Man. However, this crossed over with his big storyline after he handed writing duties over to Matt Kindt! Kindt was a great choice for this, though. I had been disappointed by Lemire’s story, and thought that it was trying too hard to be a weird Hellboy-type title without any actual spark. Just as Pugh was able to make Animal Man reach its potential with subtle changes, though, Kindt worked magic here. In his hand, the weird world felt like more of a backdrop, and the focus shifted to Frankenstein’s own longing for peace and purpose. The series never sold well, and it ended with issue #16. Over the course of a few months, I went from getting bored with this title to being sad to see it end.

I seem to have written mainly negative comic reviews so far this year, so I’m happy to say that all of these inter-related titles are worth reading. (And, with only a couple exceptions, they managed to keep themselves understandable even if you only weren’t reading them all.) The half-year spent in “Rotworld” definitely drags them down, and I can’t recommend them as highly as I would have at their peak. But Swamp Thing created a new classic story for the character. Animal Man fared much more poorly in the crossover, but it’s difficult to compare a still-ongoing series to a complete one. It did show that the team of Lemire and Pugh can do great things, and I’m actually more excited about its potential than I was in the early days. Finally, Frankenstein may have been cancelled, but it turned itself into something to mourn just in time.

Swamp Thing (based on issues #7-18, 0, and an Annual): B+

Animal Man (based on issues #7-18, 0, and an Annual): B-

Frankenstein, Agent of S.H.A.D.E. (based on issues #6-16 and 0): B-


Gentleman Jesse & His Men – Gentleman Jesse & His Men (Music Review)

Gentlemen Jesse & His Men cover

Gentlemen Jesse & His Men – Gentlemen Jesse & His Men

Jesse Smith, aka Gentleman Jesse, sings simple, slightly tinny garage rock. It almost takes a conscious effort today to create a sloppy DIY sound, and like many of bands who make that choice, he is actually influenced by classic pop sounds. As much Brian Wilson as The Ramones, Gentlemen Jesse & His Men filled their self-titled album with catchy, hook-filled songs. The themes are unchallenging: love (“All I Need Tonight (Is You)”), hate (“If I Can See You (You’re Too Close)”), and slacking off (“The Rest Of My Days”), and the song structures aren’t very complex either. But these songs are pure, energetic, and have a naive charm. At their best, these fuzzy-sounding tracks are great examples of alternative pop.

The constant energy level gets a little dull, though, and Smith’s slightly flat performance doesn’t help when things start to drag. While some songs have an authentic air, others feel like Smith is faking an upbeat attitude because he isn’t sure how else to perform. The most ironic example of this is “I Get So Excited”, which features Smith failing at any hint of true enthusiasm as he plods through a chorus about how excited he is. That song comes right at the two-thirds mark, and it definitely feels like the tipping point between fun pop and a boring exercise. At less than 35 minutes, the album still feels way too long.

Every time I start playing Gentlemen Jesse & His Men, I wonder why I had been disappointed by it in the past. It’s unoriginal, but offers exactly the sort of simple, familiar thrill that should be a staple in any music collection. I remember before long, though, when I find myself bored before the short playthrough is over. I’ll put it aside and repeat that cycle a while later. It’s never satisfying, but there are enough good songs for me not to regret it either.

Grade: C+


Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes (iPhone Game Review)

Might & Magic battleThe first thing you’ll see when starting Might & Magic: Clash of Heroes is a warning that quitting the game at the wrong time will corrupt all saved game data. That’s just not an acceptable flaw for an iPhone game to have, and it’s the first sign that this Nintendo DS port may not have been planned very carefully.

I bought Clash of Heroes because, after trying 10000000 and DungeonRaid, I was curious to see another cross between an RPG and a Match 3 puzzler. This game also rewards planning and puzzle solving, but it’s much more of a traditional turn-based RPG than those other two. Not only does it include normal JRPG elements (including exploration, a verbose but half-hearted story, and unnecessary mini-puzzles), but higher-level characters will crush weaker ones no matter how well or poorly each side plays the Match 3 game.

Judged by RPG terms, the battle system is very clever. Your hero leads units of three different colors that go in a grid formation. If you create three matching ones in a column, they will attack up that column, destroying opposing units and hopefully reaching the far end to damage their leader. If you match three in a row, they turn into a defensive wall to block attacks. Combos give you extra actions, and proper positioning can “fuse” and “link” attacks to make them stronger. There are also larger “Elite” and “Champion” units, which become especially powerful if normal units are lined up behind them.

A boss battle

A boss battle

It’s fun, especially since the campaign comes up with a lot of clever twists on the basic system. Some battles require you to attack targets in specific columns, maybe also in a certain order, or planning ahead as they move around. Bosses have unique patterns and attacks, and you can plan ahead by swapping around the units and magical artifact you’ll take into battle. Plus, as this is a Might & Magic game, you know that there will be several different factions, each with units that have their own special ability. If you take the time to get familiar with all of them, you’ll find a lot of depth behind the simple, logical battle system.

Will you take that time, though? Probably not. This game just doesn’t feel designed for an iPhone screen. Everything on the battlefield is very tiny, and it’s easy to make uncorrectable mistakes. (It’s sort of a mixed blessing that the opponent AI is so bad, because they messed up even more often than I did.) When not in a battle, I had more trouble tapping hotspots than I ever have in any game before. Perhaps this would be more playable on an iPad, but it was sold as one usable on iPhones, and that’s how I’m considering it.

Might & Magic dialogEven with a bigger screen, there would be other problems. The fights don’t become interesting until you gain a few levels and earn enough units to fill the battlefield. You need to wait for frequent load screens. Worst of all, the gameplay is slow, with the “minutes played” counter on the save screen feeling less like an interesting fact and more like a note about how much time you’ve wasted. Once your units are ready to attack, they take a certain number of rounds to charge up. This is important to the strategy, since you may use that time to set up combos, and your opponent may try to prepare with walls or by setting up a faster attack in the same column. However, it means that you may still have a few rounds left to play after the outcome of the battle becomes obvious. And the rounds play slowly. With the animations of each unit charging up or fighting and the slow-paced opponent moves, you’ll often need to tap your screen to keep it from falling asleep between the time you end one round and begin the next! That feels way too passive. By the higher levels (which you get to quickly, since the game is a series of campaigns), the no-risk battles against minions can easily take eight to ten minutes, and a battle featuring defense and healing abilities could feasibly take half an hour! They never feel meaty enough to justify that time.

The pick-up battles outside the campaign can be more fun, with evenly-matched high-level fighters and no distracting plot. It still suffers from a too-small screen that will guarantee mistakes, though, and you need to play through the campaign to unlock everything. After more than thirteen hours, I’m apparently halfway through, but I have no motivation to keep going. There are a lot of great ideas that make me want to like Clash of Heroes, but the flaws usually dominate.

Grade: C-