Thursday, October 08, 2015

Ezio Auditore in Pen and Ink

I used ballpens and oslo paper then scanned the drawing. I didn't bother editing the photo as you can see.

Literary Theory and Criticism

Note: This is my final paper for Adv. Literary Theory and Criticism, one of my classes in MA in Literature. October 2015. I'm posting this here as a backup in case I lose my copy and I need a guide in the future.

Literature is the soul of a civilization. It is the collection of dreams, ideas and experiences of a people. It is what separates us from animals. It is an examination of our aspirations, happiness, fears and sadness, ideas and opinions.

As a student of literature, I have learned that to get the most out of a poem, short story, novel, play or film, I must go beyond simple reading and observation. To do this however, I have to answer first the question "how do we fully appreciate a literary piece?" This essay is divided into four sections, namely; what is literature for me; the literary theories and criticism; Heneral Luna: a film review using the poststructuralist approach; and what makes a good literature?

In the first part, I will recall my experiences as a student, reader and an aspiring writer. The second part introduces the literary approaches and how I understood them from listening to class and from supplementary readings. In the third section, I will use the poststructuralist approach to assess the literary value of the film Heneral Luna. Lastly, the essay concludes in an examination of what makes good literature in today's fast-paced lifestyle.

What is literature for me?

I have been writing as a hobby for years. Some of my blog entries include reviews of works from different media such as books, movies, plays, television series, anime, music, art, and video games. I admittedly do not have any idea what most of the literary approaches are, but I have some training in other fields. What little I probably know and the experience I have had in writing must have touched on some of the theories yet I was unaware all this time. When reviewing a book for example, I had a list of elements to look for and I compare the piece to previous books from the same genre.

I have learned through experience that what makes a poem, short story, book, play or film effective is similar to what an audience will look for in mass media and new media such as print, television, radio, animated films and television series, video games, and online articles. Before I learned of the literary approaches, I used the same process and criteria with slight differences. I used different strategies I have picked up in my training as a communication arts student as well as my previous readings from other fields. For example, when I read Carl Jung's Man and His Symbols years before, I thought I would never have a use for it. But I have learned that Jung's studies can be instruments to better understand a literary piece. I will also later learn that there are more methods I can use. In the next section, I will explain how I understand these different literary approaches.

The literary theories and criticism

The conventional way of reading literature is used in Familiar Approaches. The critic uses a social perspective in examining a work by looking at the historical and biographical aspects. This school believes that knowing the writer's environment, the world presented in the work, and the audience for which it was intended will help the reader understand the work better. This approach can be used to supplement and support complex approaches. However, the critic has to have access to previous works of the author and is well informed in history and other related fields to be able to explicate, analyze, and study the work.

The school of Formalism on the other hand provides readers with a way to understand and enjoy a work for its inherent value as a piece of literary art. This approach is also called New Criticism. Most useful when reading poetry, Formalism is not concerned with the effects of the work on the reader but on the work itself. The critic examines how the work creates meaning by looking at the form, diction, and unity. When writing as a formalist, the following do not appear: paraphrasing, intention, biography of the author, and affect. Russian Formalism in particular focuses on poetics and has the following basic assumptions: form rather than content; art as a device of defamiliarization; text as a sum total of its devices; aesthetic of deviation; and literature with its own history.

Meanwhile, the Psychoanalytic Approach examines the human psyche through character analysis. This approach relies on Sigmund Freud's idea of the tripartite psyche (id, ego, and superego) and is elaborated later by other thinkers like Carl Jung, Northrop Frye, and Jacques Lacan. The important features of a work to look for when using this approach are the conflicts, characters, dreams and symbols. Dreams in particular are the language of the unconscious. It has meaningful symbolic presentations. Jung's archetypal criticism is built upon the assumption that the unconscious mind powerfully directs much of our behavior. These archetypes (the shadow, anima/animus, persona, self, and other archetypes) can be approached in dreams, ritual and literature. A critic will look for what is commonly found in stories because these archetypes are said to be innate, universal and hereditary. Frye advanced the study of archetypes by claiming all text are part of the central unifying myth. Furthermore, he lists four mythos in which most Western literature can be classified; these are spring (comedy), summer (romance), autumn (tragedy), and winter (irony and satire). Lacan focused on the unconscious as a center of one's being and claimed that it is structured like language. The three stages of human development (imaginary, symbolic, and real) can be used for character analysis.

Another approach called Reader's Response highlights the readers' relationship to the text. This school claims that there is no one true interpretation of a piece. There is no wrong or right answer but a variety of readings that grow out of individual experiences and feelings. From this perspective, the critic assumes that the meaning of the text is created by its two shapers (transactional) and that the expectations of the readers differ based on their background (horizon of expectations).

A more radical approach called Structuralism analyzes binary oppositions, recurrences and differences. This theory is based on the assumption that there is structure in every text or "grammar of literature." Literary texts are not separate from a larger structure and therefore everything that is written is governed by specific rules. Its pioneer Ferdinand de Saussure introduced the langue (collective grammar/competence/system of language) and parole (individual speech/performance/individual realization of the system in actual instances of language). He also proposed a closer study of signs (semiotics). These signs are composed of the union of the signifier (sequence of sounds or marks on a page) and signified (concept or meaning). Words therefore are not symbols which correspond to referents but are signs which are made up of the said parts. This idea is furthered by poststructuralism and deconstruction.

Poststructuralists claim the "death of the writer" and the "birth of the reader" in creating the meaning of texts. It assumes that texts are "fluid, dynamic entities that are given new life with repeated readings and through interactions with other texts, thereby providing an ongoing plurality of meanings." This is opposed to the Structuralist idea that there is only one structure or meaning of a text. Deconstructionists further this idea by stating that meaning is essentially undecidable. Instead of looking for structure, then, deconstruction looks for those places where texts contradict, and thereby deconstruct, themselves. Instead of showing how the conventions of a text work, it shows how they falter. This is based on Jacques Derrida's elaboration of Saussure's "sign." Derrida went a step further, stating that any given signifier may point to several different signifieds. These ongoing plays of signifiers that never come to rest produce illusory effects of meanings. When doing a deconstructive analysis, the critic locates the binary opposition and the hierarchy, reverses the hierarchy of the binary oppositions and reasserts that there is no one interpretation of text because the second reading can be replaced by another and so on. Poststructuralism and deconstruction are sometimes used interchangeably.

Structuralist Narratology furthered the idea of a structural pattern found in texts by examining the oppositions which create meaning. Claude Levi-Strauss studied the units of myths (mythemes) while A.J. Greimas argued for a universal grammar of narrative. Greimas listed six roles present in texts. These are subject/object, sender/receiver, and helper opponent. Furthermore he found three basic patterns which recur in all narrative; desire/search/aim, communication, and auxiliary support/hindrance. Similarly, Gerard Genette divided the narrative into three levels; story (tense), discourse (mood), and narration (void). The most well-known however are Vladimir Propp's and Tzvetan Todorov's versions of theory of narrative. Propp classified characters into seven types (hero, villain, donor/mentor, helper, princess, dispatcher, and false hero) and the narrative structure into six stages (preparation, complication, transference, struggle, return, and recognition). Todorov's five stages of the narrative are quite similar to Propp's.  The five stages are the following: (1) a state of equilibrium at the outset; (2) disruption of the equilibrium; (3) recognition of the disruption; (4) attempt to repair the disruption; and (5) reinstatement of the equilibrium.

When Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, its implications were felt in literature as well. Marxist criticism uses the following fundamentals of Marxist thought: critique of capitalist society; adaptation of Hegelian dialectic (history develops as a struggle between contradictions that are eventually synthesized); materialistic conception of history; the division of labor; Marx's conception of ideology that the ruling class represent its own interests as the interest of the people as a whole; and Marx's economic views that economic exploitation is a part of the dialectic process. When applied to literature, Marxism works to reveal the internal contradictions in the text. It is different to Formalism because for Marxists, literature is not an aesthetic object but a reflection of socioeconomic relations. It is similar to Structuralism but instead of just looking at the systems within the text, Marxism also includes the text's historical context and condition. The text will reveal if it supports the status quo or depicts its negative aspects. The point of view therefore can change the ideology.

A similarly radical approach, Feminism explores the treatment of women (first wave), the female writers and women's place in history (second wave) and the exploration of the female experience in art and literature (third wave). The first wave was mainly concerned with the struggle to resist patriarchy by comparing the material disadvantages of women from men. The second wave is concerned with the discovery and exploration of a canon of literature written by women. Finally, the third wave seeks to escape the double standard imposed on women.

Gay Theory and Criticism is similar to Feminism but because previous constructions of sexuality are inadequate, this approach was made. Likewise, Lesbian Feminist Theory focuses on gender issues and oppression. It differentiates sex from gender by stating that there is a set of attributes which are necessary to its identity and function. Queer Theory also explores the concept of gender which claims that it is also socially constructed.

Postcolonialism's concern in literature is to reclaim spaces and places, assert cultural integrity, and revise history. Some of its basic assumptions are the following: natives see themselves as inferior and therefore practice mimicry; practice of "othering"; colonizers in the process also become the colonized; and hybridity or syncretism. A critic looks for resistant descriptions, appropriation of the colonizer's language and the reworking of colonial art-forms. Postcolonialism looks at the cultural overlaps and hybridity.

In the next section, I will apply some of these theories in reviewing Heneral Luna. In particular, I will use the Poststructuralist approach which also utilizes other approaches to find multiple meanings of the text.

Heneral Luna: a film review using the poststructuralist approach

Heneral Luna is a 2015 historical biopic film which covers the beginning of the second phase of the Philippine Revolution until Luna's assassination on June 5, 1899. Antonio Luna at this period in history was the Supreme Chief of the Army under the First Philippine Republic.

At first glance, the movie seems to be sympathetic towards Luna despite his bad temper and colorful language. The portrayal of Luna is similar to the antihero archetype that lacks conventional heroic characteristics. Several historical films and television series covering the Philippine Revolution have been shown in the past. Luna is a slightly different choice of a lead character however from Jose Rizal, Andres Bonifacio and Emilio Aguinaldo who are usually portrayed as noble. Luna's character is respected by some yet feared and resented by those he had humiliated.

One incident in the film wherein he insulted Capt. Pedro Janolino in front of his soldiers for failing to bring reinforcements seemed amusing at the time. This incident however would contribute to the growing hatred and fear against Luna that would eventually lead to his assassination. The way most of the audience reacted to the film (as is seen in comments in social media) seems to point that despite his unconventional behavior, he had gained their sympathy and admiration, a reaction which modern antiheroes elicit. Luna will pay the price for his passionate outbursts however. His intentions may have been for the good of the fledgling army that lacked discipline and despised coordination, but not everyone was happy about it. In this way, not only is Luna an antihero but a tragic hero who, according to Aristotle, “is not eminently good and just, whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty.” Luna is a tragic hero "who commits (wittingly or unwittingly) an injury or great wrong that ultimately led to his misfortune." He is not necessarily a good hero, but a human with flaws. Some of the materials used for the creation of the film were from an earlier script shelved for several years, Nick Joaquin's A Question of Heroes, and Vivencio José's The Rise and Fall of Antonio Luna. Whether the Luna is the movie is historically accurate or slightly exaggerated, he is a character who is a striking contrast to the other figures in the film such as Aguinaldo.

The portrayal of Aguinaldo did not escape my notice as well. Although it was not implied that he was the mastermind behind Luna's assassination, he is depicted as indecisive and biased towards his kababayans from Cavite. I leave the speculations about Luna's death to the experts but Aguinaldo's behavior in the movie shows that even among those fighting for a common cause liked to label themselves as "us and others." When asked if he could do something about Gen. Tomas Mascardo, who refused to obey Luna's orders, Aguinaldo remarked that "… mga kasama ko sila…" (… they were my companions… [from Kawit]). Recall from history as well that the fate of the Katipunan was also plagued by divisive factions. Is the practice of "othering" so ingrained in the Filipino mind that our founding fathers were willing to betray their brothers who are fighting the same cause? Janolino's and Mascardo's insistence on following only Aguinaldo's orders reflect such "us and others" behavior despite the obvious consequences that might result from it.
Luna's character seemed fiery compared to Aguinaldo's cold and distant leadership. I can easily see why the audience would sympathize more with the foul-mouthed general whose goals are transparent than the leader who is surrounded by gossips and lickspittles.

On the second viewing of the movie, I began to see omissions that might or might not have affected the story. The film failed to mention the events prior to the second phase of the Philippine Revolution. Students and historians might recall that Luna was in favor of reform over revolution. When he and his brothers were arrested and jailed, his statements were used against Rizal and the Katipuneros. I do not think that the movie meant to show Luna's change of heart as a journey of redemption however because this was omitted.
Another thing that I noticed is the portrayal of the Americans. I recall during my grade school and high school days that the Americans were usually written in the textbooks as the "rescuers" of the Filipinos from foreign occupation and the bringer of justice and education. In the movie however, they were shown in a different light. Even the lighting and camera angles made them look ominous characters. This prevailing belief that the Americans were benefactors is poignantly challenged in a scene where Joven Hernando had his writing hand shot and his ears rang during an encounter with the Americans. Hernando is a fictional character who was shown interviewing Luna at the start of the film. This is the film's way of saying that the later generations (because Hernando is a young man and therefore represents the Filipino youth and later generations) became "blind, deaf, and ignorant" of the role played by the Americans in the war. The massacre, rape and plunder shown in film are information you do not usually read in school textbooks. Books would usually gloss over this part of history.

Lastly, the viewers should have paid attention to the disclaimer at the beginning of the film. Heneral Luna is not simply a patriotic film but could be said to have shown the "bigger truth" about the nature of Filipinos when faced with an adversary that is nearly impossible to defeat. Initially, the movie could just be about a man who was both a hero with good intentions but could not keep his human imperfections in check. Or it could be questioning Aguinaldo's supposed non-involvement in Luna's death. But when examined closely it also challenges the role the Americans played in history and our readiness to accept fabricated history.
Heneral Luna is the kind of movie that will keep your mind working even after you have watched it---the kind that the Philippine movie industry severely lacks. This then leads us to the final part of the essay.

What makes a good literature?

If there is a lack of provocative movies like Heneral Luna, why did the movie's director had a hard time convincing some producers that the movie will not be boring and hard to market? If we extend that to written literature such as novels, why are books such as Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Precious Hearts Romances have more readership than Classics? What then is good literature?

As a reader of various genres, I cannot give a definite answer to that. Every book or film has a different effect on the audience but for that effect to happen, a reader's background and experiences play a role in that. Some people claim that the Classics are hard to read but when upon close examination, all books (Classics or not) fall into certain categories and these categories represent human truths. It could be love, hatred, vengeance, death, renewal, and others. They tell the same stories but in different ways.

Those who have had more experience with books also place stigma on popular books like those I have mentioned claiming that they are shallow. I disagree with such claims because the emotions and ideas they invoke after all resonate on a lot of readers, hence their popularity. Clinging to the idea that intellectuals should only read the good books (what is a good book anyway but a preference) is not different from the process of "othering." If we extend the poststructuralist ideas to preferences in literature, there is no right or wrong.

As a final note, I would like to point out that efforts are made to bring Classics to the younger audience (book and film remakes, adaptations) and challenges to our conventional ways of looking at different characters are also being done (recent films like Maleficent and Heneral Luna).


Dobie, Anne B. Theory into Practice: An Introduction to Literary Criticism. USA, 2012, Cengage Learning. International Edition.

Heneral Luna. Dir. Jerrold Tarog. Artikulo Uno Productions, 2014. Film.

Selden, Raman, et al. A Reader's Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. UK, 2005, Pearson Education Limited. Fifth edition.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Some Pencil Sketches of Game Characters

Ezio Auditore from Assassin's Creed

Morrigan from Dragon Age

Sgt. Foley from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

War from Darksiders

Zhao Yun from Dynasty Warriors

Sumerian Mythology by Samuel Noah Kramer

Full title: Sumerian Mythology
A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the 3rd Millennium B.C.

This book perhaps is the most comprehensive and well-organized study on Sumerian religion I have read so far. The author himself has done studies over the years of this previously unknown peoples. He also contributed in the identification, decipherment, translation and analysis of fragments of ancient literary works.

The book first introduces the author's intended projectst. Then the book proceeds to list the researches that have been done so far about the Sumerians. This volume is mostly concerns mythology and is divided into different categories. The author provides summaries and analyses of the origin myths, the organization of the universe according to the Sumerians, the creation of man, the myths of Kur and others.

The author's writing style is reader-friendly. Students and even casual readers will find this book helpful and entertaining.

The reader has to remember however that this work is one of the few early works about the Sumerian religion. Further reading about updates will be helpful. That aside, I think this is a perfect book for those who are still not familiar with Sumerian mythology.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Heavy Rain (Director's Cut)

This interactive drama features four playable characters who are trying to solve the mystery of the Origami Killer's identity. This serial killer is known to gradually drown his victims, all young boys. No one knows his motives and he leaves very few clues.

In the opening act of Heavy Rain, the player is introduced to one of the four characters, Ethan Mars. He is a happily married architect with two sons. During a visit to the mall one of the kids, Jason, went missing. When he did find Jason, the kid tried to run back to his father and did not notice an oncoming car. Ethan ran to save the child but was too late. Ethan himself suffered a coma which probably causes the blackouts he later experiences.

Two years after the accident, his remaining son, Shaun went missing in a park. Ethan had another blackout episode and did not know how the child disappeared. When he went to file a report at the police, he voiced his suspicion that the Origami Killer might have taken his son. Unfortunately he was right when he discovered a letter directing him to a series of trials to save Shaun.

The Director's Cut edition includes PlayStation Move support, The Taxidermist DLC, game soundtrack, videos, concept art, and themes.

Ethan Mars
Norman Jayden, an FBI profiler sent to help in the investigation. He possesses the Added Reality Interface or ARI, which help him in gathering data about the killer. He is addicted to triptocaine and has constant arguments with a police lieutenant.
Scott Shelby, a private investigator who is also looking for information about the Origami Killer. He suffers from asthma. He later met Lauren Winter, mother of one of the victims of the serial killer.
Madison Paige, a photojournalist who suffers from nightmares and insomnia. She meets Ethan later in the game and becomes involved in the investigation of the Origami Killer.

Although a game with multiple possible endings is not new, the choice of the story is unusual. As a fan of a certain suspense writer and stories about serial killers, I had high expectations of the game. If you're familiar with dating games, the mechanics are quite similar---choices affect later scenes and dialogues. But Heavy Rain allows for more interaction with the environment and the characters. In the first few scenes, the controls seem easy. When you get to the fight scenes however, it gets trickier. If you enjoy quick time events, this won't be a problem. I think the more difficult part of the game is the ability to make choices (sometimes with a limited time and option). The choices do not really have to be just the responses in the conversations, but also which items to interact with in the environment.

I also love the details they put into the animation and graphics. The facial features of the characters alone are worth looking at.

As I've already mentioned, I had high expectations of the game's story. Sometimes when you have read too many books and watched too many TV series or movies of the suspense and/or detective genre, most of the stories become predictable. I did notice some details later in the game (before the culprit was finally revealed) that I did not care to look at in the beginning. One character's involvement in the investigation became questionable to me as the story progressed, but his first appearance in the story was maneuvered cleverly so as not to draw suspicion on him immediately. They also made all four (and even some of the supporting cast) look like the possible Origami Killer by adding some flaws to their character and background.

It's easy to empathize with the four characters because you're not distracted by the usual superpowers and magical beings. You also get to observe closely how the characters organize their thoughts and manage their emotions.

The game is worth playing because the concept is new, the graphics beautiful and the story engaging.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Assassin's Creed 3

*Note: My review will not include multiplayer
This PS3 Exclusive Edition includes the DLC Benedict Arnold

Assassin's Creed III is the direct sequel of Assassin's Creed Revelations following Desmond Miles's discovery of the present location of the Grand Temple of Those Who Came Before. Desmond is accompanied by his father William and old buddies Rebecca and Shaun. They gain access to the temple using the Apple of Eden. When one of the power sources partly activated the temple, Juno began communicating with Desmond, showing him the history of her people and the threat they sought to contain. She reveals that the incoming second disaster will happen on December 21, 2012. Desmond and companions have to find the other power sources to activate the rest of the temple. Desmond also has to locate the key to open the inner confines of the temple. To do this, he has to relive the memories of ancestor Haytham Kenway, then later Haytham's son, Ratonhnhaké:ton or Connor.

Desmond learns that Haytham searched for the medallion as well, believing it will give him access to the Grand Temple. When he finally acquired the key in London he then searched for the temple. That was when he met Kaniehtí:io, a member of the tribe Kanien'kehá:ka (the Mohawk) who was captured by slave traders. Kaniehtí:io agreed to a temporary alliance to eliminate their common enemy General Edward Braddock. Kaniehtí:io is Ratonhnhaké:ton's mother.

The story of Desmond's ancestors is set in the 18th century British American colonies. Haytham first arrived in Boston and gathered men around him. One of these, Charles Lee, met the child Ratonhnhaké:ton just before the Kanien'kehá:ka village was attacked and torched. Kaniehtí:io perished in the event and her son vowed that he would make Charles and the other people responsible for the attack pay for their deeds.

Years later, a village elder showed Ratonhnhaké:ton a crystal sphere which activated at his touch. This allowed the boy to communicate with Juno. She urged him to seek Achilles Davenport. Doing so would enable the boy to keep protecting his village and his people who are also the guardians of the Great Temple. After a few tries, Achilles agreed to train Ratonhnhaké:ton as an Assassin. He named the boy Connor.

From left: Desmond Miles, William Miles, Shaun Hastings, and Rebecca Crane
Connor at the opening video of the game

Several changes have been made in the game. The first thing I noticed when Haytham roamed the streets of Boston are the environmental effects. Sometimes it would rain or fog or snow. I've also noticed that there are more animals around besides horses (yay! I get to pet dogs!). Later in the game, the player will also notice the contrast of the different locations. In the last four games, the lead characters usually only had access to towns and cities. But in AC III, the player gets to experience running in open country and climbing trees. Naval missions also give an opportunity to experience the open waters. I like the little details they included in creating the environment. You could easily tell that the staff did their research.

In previous games, the player satisfied his obsessive and "completionist" tendencies through collectibles, crafting, and buying. In AC III you still get to do those and more. Homestead missions allow the player to make his property grow and generate income through crafting and trading. Upgrades can be crafted through this. Trading and crafting have also been expanded. Some of the materials can be gathered through hunting, one of the activities that can be done in the Frontier.

Recruiting and training assassins is also more hands-on as Connor can actually talk to the recruits. As for fast travel, locating entrances is like a mini game itself.

One of my favorites however were the four mini games; namely, Nine Men's Morris, Boules, Fanorona, and Checkers. I've read a blog post stating that the staff did a research about which games were appropriate for the setting. I'm glad they included those because I'm fond of board games and puzzles in general. They even included different levels of difficulty. I appreciate little details like that. 

Another favorite of mine are the naval missions in the Aquila. Besides the joy I got in destroying enemy ships, I also enjoyed the view. The animation is quite good.

Haytham Kenway and Kaniehtí:io
Son with father. Connor (left) and Haytham (right)

Unlike Altair and Ezio, Connor can climb natural elements like trees. It took me quite a while to get used to, but jumping from branch to branch was as fun as the first time I learned to run on the roofs.

Combat has also been revamped. The system allows for dual wielding (a bigger weapon paired with a small weapon like the hidden blade or dagger) and there are a variety of weapons to choose from (ranging from heavy weapons to flintlock pistols). The player can also assassinate targets using other weapons besides the hidden blades. However, blocking is more difficult as well as the counter-attacks which need proper timing. The enemies are slightly less stupid as well. They can detect you much more easily than in the previous games.


My overall playing experience with AC III has been pleasant. There were so many things to do and so many things to enjoy. I also liked how the Connor's story and Desmond's present struggle blended really well. There was even a contrast between the two father and son relationships in the game (Desmond and William, Connor and Haytham). The ending? Heartbreaking. I admit I did not anticipate how Desmond's story would play out but near the end you could sense that Juno might be planning something unpleasant because she was so persistent (after all, who could forget the ending of AC Revelations?).

There is also that pervading mood I felt throughout the game as well. It seemed as if despite everything that Connor accomplished, the struggle is futile. I guess this is because the players already have an idea what will happen (it's inspired by historical events after all) and because of Connor's approach to his problems. At times he's frustratingly stubborn and naive. And this is usually contrasted to the Templars's way of doing things. Sometimes I think maybe Haytham's way is better, but I admire Connor's persistence and honesty.

The only thing I don't like is that it seemed it took me less time to complete the game than I initially anticipated. The story did seem short.

If you enjoyed both Altair's and Ezio's stories, Connor's is just as interesting and engaging. AC III offers a lot of new things to enjoy and still retains the familiar elements in previous games.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan

Ringil Eskiath, Archeth Indamaninarmal, and Egar the Dragonbane are back in this final installment of A Land Fit for Heroes. Ringil leads an expedition to search for the remains of the Illwrack Changeling, a champion of the Aldrain. The search has been fruitless so far and the members of the expedition are growing restless.

In anticipation of a fight, Ringil has to master the ikinri'ska, a skill that could make a difference later on. But Hjel hints that Ringil's attempt could be dangerous. Meanwhile, the other forces seem to be working their own schemes as well. The Dark Court offered Ringil help, the helmsmen seem to be hiding information, and the stakeholders in the expedition are uneasy. Maybe this time, Ringil's skills and wit might not be enough to get them through.

While most of the book has been consistent in its action scenes and is full of surprises, there are a few changes that I have noticed. One is the tendency for characters to have telepathic conversations and monologues. It gets a bit annoying as it became more common. Another is the inconsistent pace which is similar to the second book. Those details aside, the book still has the familiar elements that made the series intriguing.

I love the author's humor, the details of his world-building, and the magic system. The final few chapters raised some questions however, and I find myself wanting some more and almost betrayed.

The story of the first book of the series seemed shallow, but that changed as the author gradually revealed that the world in which the story was set has depth after all. If there's anything that stood out the most in the series, it's Ringil. Even if I had a few misgivings about the series, I think Ringil was interesting enough to get me though the three books. A Land Fir for Heroes lacked something, but the author was able to create unforgettable characters and my overall experience of the series was still fun and satisfying.

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Links to my review of the other books of A Land Fit for Heroes series:

Assail by Ian C. Esslemont

In this final installment of the Novels of the Malazan Empire series, Ian C. Esslemont explores the semi-mythical land of Assail.

Rumors of abundant gold deposits has attracted adventurers and fortune-seekers. Some of these however are not seeking wealth but have come to Assail for something else. The natives, besieged by the newcomers, could do nothing else but band together and temporarily forget their blood feuds to protect the land. The land of Assail is mostly unexplored and there are plenty of tales to scare some who have heard whispers of Elder monsters from which the name of the land must have been taken. The story is told from different points of view.

The second in command Shimmer took it upon herself to force the K'azz and the rest of the Crimson Guard to undertake the journey. The bard Fisher Kel Tath finds his steps leading him home. While Kyle carries a sword called Whiteblade which attracts trouble wherever he goes. Orman, son of Bregin, is one of the lowlanders who dreams of going to the Greathalls of the high slopes and perform great deeds. One of the fortune-hunters Jute Hernan, captain of the Silver Dawn, looks upon the obstacles he and his crew have to pass through and begins to doubt his decision to join in the hunt for gold. Meanwhile, Silverfox, the Summoner of the T'lan Imass is in a race to stop a massacre about to happen.

The title of the book alone sent chills up my spine. When I first heard of it, I anticipated that the author would come up with another book that is as entertaining as his previous books. Esslemont did not disappoint. He's one of those few authors that makes writing look so easy. Smooth: that's one word to describe his writing style.

Now I'm not gonna reveal more about what happened in the book (if you're a Malazan fan you know the only way to answer the questions is to read some more), but Assail did tie up some loose ends. Some story-lines which did not have a follow-up in the previous books were addressed here. But like all Malazan books, Assail also raised new questions. Questions which I hope will be answered in the future books planned by Esslemont and Mr. Steven Erikson. There was one character here whose true identity has plagued my brain with questions even after I finished the book.

What I love about Esslemont is the power and clarity of his descriptions. The scope of Assail is not like that of Blood and Bone (which by the way is my favorite among the six books) or Return of the Crimson Guard, but the experience is equally satisfying. I have always admired his preference for fewer POV characters and the good action scenes. You could tell this guy knows his craft well.

I've said this over and over again in my previous reviews of the Malazan books (including Steven Erikson's) that the series is intellectually and emotionally fulfilling. The authors do not insult the readers with cliche plot and characters. I do not recall ever getting bored or disappointed because I can predict what the characters will do next or the direction of the story. The Malazan world is rich and alive and you just get sucked into all the intrigues and mysteries of the mortals and the divine. And that is probably part of the reason why even a few fans of the fantasy genre cannot appreciate the Malazan series just as easily as other popular series---because they think it's a difficult read! It's worth it though. Once you get over the slightly challenging Gardens of the Moon by Erikson, you'll be hooked by the time you're into Deadhouse Gates.

If you're planning to start the series, I recommend starting with Erikson's first. Read all the books in proper order of release date. You can alternately read Esslemont's and Erikson's book if you like. Both series are meant to complement each other.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Links of my reviews of the five previous books of the Novels of the Malazan Empire:

Kiseijuu: Sei no Kakuritsu

While listening to music, Izumi Shinichi feels a strange creature creep up his hands. It seems like a worm has burrowed in his hand and is creeping slowly up his arms. With seconds only to spare and no idea what to do, Shinichi coils the cord of his headphones around his arm to stop the worm from getting further. To his horror, the worm took over that arm when it failed.

The creature which he later called Migi, has eaten part of that hand and is partly attached to Shinichi's body, the latter being its host. Migi reveals that he originally planned to enter Shinichi's ear and take over his brain. Failing that, he settled in taking over the right arm.

Migi seems like an intelligent creature and gradually the two got along just fine, except when the matters turn to the issue of parasytes feeding on humans. The two will need to work together however as it seems that they are always targeted by other parasytes.

Migi and Shinichi in their first few days together

The series showed a lot of promise and it did not disappoint throughout most of the 24 episodes. The conclusion however was anticlimactic and its attempt at showing the normal humans versus the "monsters" argument seemed so weak it completely destroyed the series for me. Not that it was a terrible series overall, but it could have been handled better with a different tactic. The theme I mentioned is not new so I can't help but compare. I think the series could have done without the romance towards the end or maybe improved that part a bit. All that did was distract the me as an audience.

It was exciting from start to climax however, so it was still a good series for me. Migi's characterization as the opposite of what Shinichi stands for was done effectively. If this was meant to be an argument of sorts, I think Shinichi's got weaker as he physically got stronger.

The animation isn't bad and there's no shortage of gore, although this is mild compared to other series of the horror genre. I love the action scenes though. I especially looked forward to Migi's strategies. The anticipation of a fight with other parasytes kept me interested despite some issues I mentioned above. 

Rating: 9 out of 10

Migi and a changed Shinichi in the later part of the series

Friday, July 03, 2015

Dragon Age II

*Note: This review does not include the DLCs.
I have also included a short entry about Anders after this review. If you have not played Dragon Age II, you can ignore the last part.

Varric Thethras is kidnapped and interrogated by Cassandra Pentaghast, a Seeker, at the start of the game. Varric is a friend to the Champion of Kirkwall, Hawke, who seems to have been involved in a controversial incident several years after the Hero of Ferelden defeated the Archdemon. Hawke has disappeared and Cassandra wants to know the whole story and where to find him. 

Hawke is one of the few refugees who fled Lothering during the fifth Blight. He and his family went to Kirkwall to start over. In a span of 10 years, Hawke has gained power and influence and has overall changed Thedas. The story is told through flashbacks from Varric and is grouped into three major acts which are separated by years. 

What happened during the 10 years will be played out by the player-controlled character.

Bethany (left) and the male Hawke at the start of Varric's narration

Importing the events in Origins/Awakening or picking one of the three pre-written histories will set the backdrop of the events in Varric's narration. I suggest importing the ending you like most in Origins/Awakening (why waste all you hard work?).

The Arishok. The Qunari are stranded. Their presence adds to thee growing tension in Kirkwall.
Like the previous game, the player will choose the gender and class of Hawke. His race, back story, and family name cannot be changed however. Gender will affect some of the conversations, while class will determine which abilities Hawke can learn in the game. However, unlike Origins and Awakening there is more emphasis in the differences of the three classes. Each class has two weapon style options. The mage's staff and the archer's bow can double as melee weapons when the enemy is close. 

One feature that I like in DA II is the added voice of the player-controlled character. It is a lot easier to get immersed in the story because you can hear him/her talking.

As for the supporting cast, there are a total of nine possible companions (including Sebastian Vael in the DLC).  Hawke has a brother (Carver) and a sister (Bethany) at the start of the game. The player can have up to three companions while active. Each companion also has his or her own home base. There are changes in conversations as well. The responses have icons beside them that indicate the tone or type. Conversations can be made while in their home bases, but this is also limited. Moreover, unlike the previous games you can become either friends or rivals with your companions. Romance is possible with all but four of the companions.

It is not possible to change the armor of your companions, but you can upgrade them. I like this change because it allowed me to focus on other things. I remember spending so much time assembling armor for my companions in Origins/Awakening. The companions also have their specific weapon styles.

Other additions and/or improvements also include cross-class combos, new behavior in tactics, improved organization of the inventory, improved crafting, and talent trees in abilities. 

Aveline Vallen, former soldier in King Cailan's army
The narrator Varric Tethras
Fenris, escaped elven slave from Tevinter
Isabela, ship captain and pirate
Merrill, Dalish mage
Familiar face. Anders, mage and former Grey Warden; possessed by Justice (companion in Awakening)
A screenshot of my character (center) with some of the possible companions.
The overarching story in Dragon Age II is just as engaging as the story of the Hero of Ferelden in the previous games. I like the focus on the various stories and the conversations with other characters. Perhaps more than half of DA II is spent in talking, arguing and speculating. I'm a bit disappointed however with the very limited conversation options and even the romantic encounters. I have also noted that the possible romance partners do not mind if you're male or female (except for Sebastian). 

I have to commend the staff for certain events in the game in which the player has to make very difficult decisions, sometimes omitting a neutral stance. This is only possible through the creation of a supporting cast with unique beliefs and experiences. Some characters are not easy to deal with, while the others that seem to be predictable can actually surprise you later.

The combat isn't so bad either despite some of the changes that were made, especially the limited control over the companions' armor and weapon styles. There are some bosses that are harder to beat, but overall the game isn't very difficult if you know how to make the most of what you have (tactics, weapons, certain spells). 

The time it takes to complete the game is shorter than I expected. The locations are limited and some of the areas have the same layout. Those who are expecting something bigger than DA Origins might be disappointed. If you enjoyed the story and the interactions with companions in the previous games, DA II will not disappoint.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Garrett Manu Hawke. Male warrior specializing in two-handed weapons. Picked Fenris as his lover.

***   ***   ***

The Anders Dilemma

Like most of the people who have played DA Origins, Awakening and DA II, I have not failed to notice the troubles Anders had to deal with. I have also noticed that the changes he has gone through after the events in Awakening have made some people upset. I've read people describing him as whiny, scheming, a liar, emotionally imbalanced, and even a bad lover.

I don't really think he's very different from the easygoing and naughty mage in Awakening. He already had a penchant for trouble but he was not burdened with the feelings of Justice. Some might find him annoying but I appreciate the effort into making him such a complex character. You can't claim his actions are entirely evil nor innocent. He just made a stand and he was aware of the consequences. He wanted it to happen, but it was not entirely his fault. The signs were all there, all Anders did was to fan the flames. He can be sweet and funny (I'm talking about both Awakening and DA II here), but he isn't easy to understand sometimes. I can say the same thing however about Sten, Shale, Velanna, and even the Arishok. They aren't easy to deal with, but that makes them really fun and challenging to talk to.

As for the part about being a bad lover, it did seem like he used Hawke. But do not forget that he lost his previous lover because of the templars. That quest in which Hawke had to gather ingredients for him (which turned out to be components for a bomb) also gave the impression that he was blackmailing Hawke. But didn't the other characters also do the same (take Merrill for example)? His schemes just seemed more sinister because he blew up people and his actions had a bigger impact overall. But Merrill was selfish and bordering on childish when she wanted the damned mirror fixed. But unlike her, Anders was ready for the consequences. 

I don't get all the hate, but that only proves his characterization was so effective to have generated such reactions. I like most of the characters in the three games, but some of them are cliche and predictable (Fenris is one. Oh yes he's sexy but he's not all unique and complicated). I guess I just like the really difficult ones, those characters whose actions and thoughts aren't easy to read and therefore make the experience more rewarding.

Dragon Age Origins Ultimate Edition

This edition includes Dragon Age Origins, Dragon Age Origins Awakening and seven downloadable content packs. The Stone Prisoner, Warden's Keep and Return to Ostagar can be accessed while playing Origins while The Darkspawn Chronicles, Leliana's Song, The Golems of Amgarrak, and Witch Hunt are stand-alone adventures. Also included are the Blood Dragon Armor and Feastday DLCs.

At the start of the game (begin with Origins if this is the first time you're playing Dragon Age), the player has to choose his character's gender, race, background, and class. Gender will not affect abilities but has some differences in dialogues. There are three playable races (human, elf, dwarf), each with their own set of starting bonuses and natural capabilities. Background will determine the opening act of the character's story. There are six different stories for human noble, magi, city elf, Dalish elf, dwarf commoner, and dwarf noble. Meanwhile there are three classes to choose from; warrior, mage and rogue. This will determine the abilities the player-controlled character can learn in the game. Each class also has four specialization bonuses to choose from (six when playing Awakening, The Golems of Amgarrak and Witch Hunt).

There are six attributes to be improved and these will determine how the characters act in combat and non-combat (dialogue). The following are the attributes: strength, dexterity, magic, willpower, cunning, and constitution.

There are a maximum of four party members while actively playing. In Origins there are ten companions to choose from. Awakening has five. Party members react differently to how the player-controlled character respond to dialogues and decisions. They will either approve or disapprove. Conversations will also lead to more quests (companion quests) and/or romance (romance is possible only in Origins). It is possible to control the movements, attacks, and spells of all the characters through Tactics. This can be changed at any time and the player can switch from among the four active characters.

The characters can have two sets of weapons equipped but can only use one set at a time. However different classes can be vulnerable to certain attacks and are more effective at using specific weapons or attacks (melee or magic). Which armor the companions use can be decided by the player as well as which attributes and specializations are improved. 

At the start of the game, the player is introduced to Ferelden's political climate and the creatures called Darkspawn that threaten it. Hundreds of years ago, the creatures went up to the surface and wreaked havoc in an event called the Blight. The only group of people that successfully fought the darkspawn so far was the Grey Wardens, warriors with various skills and made up of different races. The leader of Ferelden's Grey Wardens, Duncan, has sensed the coming of a fifth Blight and that an Archdemon is behind it. 

The Origins story is determined by the player-controlled character's race and background. Set in Ferelden, the player will be introduced to Duncan of the Grey Wardens and then later recruited because of some tragic event. He traveled with Duncan to a fortress in Ostagar where he is initiated into the order. Before that, he is introduced to King Cailan of Ferelden who is gathering his forces to try to repel the darkspawn and stop the Blight. Cailan is supported by Duncan and his father-in-law Loghain, although the latter seems to disagree with some of the king's plans.

The war council planned to have Cailan's unit and the Grey Wardens lure the darkspawn into attacking the fortress. Loghain, at a signal, will then flank the darkspawn. But when Loghain saw the signal, he ordered his unit to retreat, leaving Cailan and the Wardens at the mercy of the darkspawn. A massacre ensued and the king, the army and most of the Wardens were slain in battle and southern Ferelden fell.

However , the player-controlled character and Alistair survive the attack. It is up to the two to try to gather and rebuild forces again to resist and stop the Blight. The two surviving Wardens will need the help of humans, dwarves and elves but Ferelden is beset by a lot of problems they have to overcome first before they can face the threat of the Blight. Besides gathering skilled individuals throughout the game, they also have to convince the leaders of the different races to lend them support.

Alistair, Grey Warden and Cailan's half-brother
Morrigan, apostate mage and daughter of Flemeth
Dog, a Mabari warhound
Sten, a Qunari, warrior of the Beresaad
Leliana, bard and former assassin
Shale, stone golem
Oghren, dwarf and berserker
Wynne, mage of the Circle in Ferelden
Zevran Arainai, elf and Antivan crow
A screenshot of my character (center) with the nine out of ten companions in DA Origins

In Dragon Age Awakening, the player has an option to create a new character but I recommend importing the character from Origins to continue the story. Most of the attributes and specializations are retained at the beginning of Awakening. 

Several months after the Wardens successfully defeated the Archdemon and stopped the Blight, the player-controlled character, now Warden Commander, is sent to Vigil's Keep to try to rebuild the Grey Wardens. He is also now the Arl of Amaranthine and must deal with other matters. 

When he arrived at the Keep with a new recruit named Mhairi, they discover that it was overrun by darkspawn. Baffled at how the darkspawn can organize such an attack without the guidance of an Archdemon, the Warden Commander discovers that a talking darkspawn led the attack. The player has to find answers about this new threat. It seems the darkspawn have not gone underground after all and two new names (the Architect and the Mother) seem to come up every time.

There are some returning characters but Oghren is the only available companion. The new characters are fewer but are as diverse as in the previous game. You cannot initiate conversations with them outside camp however. Romance is not available as well. 

Moreover, Awakening has some changes in the gameplay and features. There are new specializations (battlemage, legionnaire scout, keeper, guardian, shadow, and spirit warrior), spells, talents, and skills (clarity, runecrafting, and vitality), and materials for armor.

Anders, former mage of the Circle in Ferelden
Nathaniel Howe, rogue, son of Rendon Howe
Sigrun, dwarven rogue and member of the Legion of the Dead
Velanna, an exiled Dalish mage elf
Familiar face. Oghren.
Justice, a spirit of the Fade in the body of a dead Warden

Probably the best part of the game are the companions. Over the course of the game, you get to know each one better through conversations and their personal quests. Trying to balance your relationship with them and the decisions you have to make for the Wardens is almost like a game in itself. Usually companions in games are provided for convenience, but Dragon Age allows the player to explore the different personalities and therefore forge a bond with them. It almost becomes addictive and when you get to the point when there are no more conversation options, you get really disappointed.

I also commend the staff for coming up with back stories that have depth. The world-building of Dragon Age will be appreciated by fans of fantasy, history and mythology. Some stories have parallels in the three mentioned areas but is still engaging and addictive. It's like reading a satisfying book except that you also get to participate in it.

Combat might be easy at some instances but there are stages that are a bit tricky. As long as you prepare ahead, have mastered tweaking the tactics and you have plenty of potions all the time, getting through the fights will not be a problem. Decision-making is the more difficult part of the game. You cannot always anticipate the outcome of events or the reaction of the different affected parties. Sometimes one statement you pick from a seemingly casual conversation has a huge impact in the conclusion of the story. The satisfaction you feel when you get the result you desire is worth all the effort.

Origins is time-consuming given the depth of all the back stories of the various quests. The rewards are worth the effort though. Awakening takes less time to complete.

Were the two games worth playing? Oh yes, and quite addictive as well. The replay value is also high, especially if you want to see all the possible endings.

Duran Manu Aeducan. Male noble dwarf warrior. Loves the weapon and shield. Picked Zevran as his lover.

Rating: 9.5 out of 10
Origins: 10 out of 10
Awakening: 9 out of 10