Game Review: Growlanser IV

Originally a Japan-only PS2 release way back in 2003, Growlanser IV was remade with expanded content and new characters for the PSP system in Japan last year. This time around, they opted for an English-language release to follow.

And it’s actually a little surprising we didn’t see this title in North America after its initial release nine years ago. The story isn’t too far “out there” — one of those untranslateables which, in the old days, just didn’t seem like they could flourish outside the Japanese milieu. In fact, after a slow start, the characters and storyline are entirely decent in this very playable, though admittedly, high-difficulty TRPG.

Marketing mysteries aside, the sprite-based, classic gameplay is the sort that ages well in the bottle. With the updated content, there’s no sense that this is a decade-old game, nor that it was ever intended for anything other than than a Playstation Portable system, as is the case sometimes with simple ports.

Despite the fact that this game is fourth in a series, the story and characters appear to stand entirely alone. The narrative revolves around a character named Creville, the archetypical “silent protagonist” of RPG convention, whose only dialogue is selected by the player in a multiple-choice fashion. We find out early on that he is a so-called “Ruin Child”, individuals found in a technological stasis in the few remaining structures from an ancient civilization.

The same threat that wiped out this advanced ancestral culture, some 2000 years before the events of the game, may be arising again. However, these mysterious forces, in the guise of city-destroying angels, almost fall to the background for much of the game, as no less than four different countries wage war against each other.

Starting out as members of a mercenary band, the characters fighting both on and alongside your team shift allegiances several times, ultmately battling with and against the members of several nations’ armies. The discovery of ancient magical spells are treated as a major tactical advantage, since initially, only one nation has access to them.

(The player also has the option of unlocking better and more powerful spell abilities of his own by performing sidequests and putting supporting members of the team to work on magical research.)

Combat-wise, tactics overshadow level-grinding as the big timesuck in this title. Rather than spending hours clicking “attack” in dungeon runs, the player can expect to put in the same hours going through the same boss battles until the trick to undoing the enemy defense becomes clear. This is particularly true with extra-challenging clear conditions that vary from rescuing hostages, defending strategic routes, and guarding VIPs.

A plethora of special abilities and accessories (everything from stealth skills which allow Creville to more closely approach an enemy before beginning a battle, to random chances of inflicting or resisting status effects) make preparations before a big battle as important as commands in the fight itself. Side missions and non-battle activities at the home base, including business ventures, weapons research, and, oddly, city planning, all ultimately feed into supporting the player’s fighting power. It’s a sort of “supply lines” strategy aspect to the game that I found unusual and interesting.

Atypically for a TRPG, battles are active time rather than strictly turn-based, and movement is analog instead of based on a grid. More typically for a TRPG, boss battles (which usually feature tough odds against overwhelming numbers of enemy soldiers) are usually an affair of 30 minutes to over an hour. Never get complacent. Much like a game of chess, it’s not over until it’s over. Victory can be snatched away, even in the final minutes of a campaign.

On the whole, I found the game often frustrating, but remarkably addictive, and ultimately rewarding. The story and characters aren’t going down in gaming history for me, but the gameplay is interesting and challenging, and the engaging and plausible way the non-battle elements of the game tie in with field tactics put this one over the top for me. Recommended.

Article first published as PSP Review: Growlanswer IV: Wayfarer of Time on Blogcritics.

Tuesday Links (08/21/12)

Learning Through Level Design with Mario: “The first thing that happens when you play Super Mario Bros. is: You die.”

Star Trek Original Series Episode Art Prints: “We’ve taken the voyages of the starship Enterprise one adventure further with a series of original movie-style art print sets commemorating every episode of Star Trek, the iconic American television series that aired from 1966 to 1969.”

Book Review: Paradise Tales

“With a few exceptions, the sixteen stories in this collection exemplify well-grounded, character-driven fiction. While some of the stories fall squarely within the realm of speculative fiction, others could wear labels such as ‘slipstream’ or ‘magical realism’ just as comfortably.”

Read my full review of Geoff Ryman’s excellent story collection at AESciFi.

Book Review: The Once and Future King

“I will tell you something else, King, which may be a surprise for you. It will not happen for hundreds of years, but both of us are to come back. Do you know what is going to be written on your tombstone? Hic jacet Arthurus Rex quondam Rexque futurus. Do you remember your Latin? It means, the once and future king.” -Merlin, in The Queen of Air and Darkness

I’m going to make a (I think) reasonable assumption here, that the reader is aware of basic Arthurian legend. Guinevere, Lancelot, Mordred, Morgause, and Morgan Le Fay. The Round Table, Holy Grail, and the sword called Excalibur. There will be some spoilers, some universal to the legend, perhaps one or two little ones specific to this particular book. If this concerns you, read no further.

T.H. White’s four-volume take on the Arthurian cycle draws heavily on the late-fifteenth century epic, Le Morte d’Arthur, by Sir Thomas Malory. This in turn brought together in one place the myriad legends, songs, and poems, both French and English, about the mythical king and his knights. But in the half century and change since its publication, White’s tetralogy has almost certainly been the more widely read, if not amongst scholars of medieval literature.

The first part, originally published as a stand-alone novel, even inspired a feature-length animated film from Disney: The Sword in the Stone. It’s a natural fit. Though relatively lighthearted compared to later books, Arthurian legend is so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of Western society, even young children certainly must pick up on the fact that great things are in store for the young Wart.  Certainly that self-proclaimed nigromancer, the white-bearded Merlin, would not take such an interest in his tutouring otherwise.

The Once and Future King is certainly more readable (and several hundred pages shorter) than Malory’s tome (or so I suspect, not having read that work myself), but it’s not an abridged version, a children’s version, or an update with modern language. It’s an entirely new work of Arthurian fantasy, implicitly based on Le Morte d’Arthur as all such works must be, but even within the constraints of retelling this old story, somehow managing to tell a different one.

The titles themselves are revealing. The publisher gave Malory’s work as a whole the same title as the final section. To him (and to White, nearly five centuries later), the ultimate narrative arc was the slow playing out of Arthur’s inevitable tragedy. Themes of sin, doom, and fate pervade the work. Questions of morality, the right to rule, the possibility of change, are given short shrift.

But if Malory’s story was all about the ending, White’s was all about continuing on. The book’s closing chapter drops the curtains before Arthur strides out to his final battle, and the reader is reminded of Merlin’s promise. One day, returning perhaps from beyond the vail of Avalon, Arthur will rejoin the world and be king once again.

The Once and Future King is about the important lessons Arthur learned in his boyhood, and worked hard all his life to put into effect. It’s about how the world was different for his having lived in it. It’s about how, whether he comes back bodily or not, the spirit of Arthur is in all the good parts of humanity and governship today.

The morality in Le Morte is, at times, contradictory, ambiguous, or altogether absent. But White makes the assumption that there is a reason this man is special, beyond finding a magical sword and winning all his battles. He became king for a reason: to make things better. Consequently, he is far more interested in how Arthur strives to achieve this (and how, even today, we strive to achieve it) than in enemies slain or heads chopped off.

Despite this comparative optimism, White doesn’t shy away from the gruesome facts of the barbaric Britain in which his story is set. He avoids detail but states plainly that such things occur. He thoroughly demonstrates the point that might does not, and cannot make right. Simultaneously, he makes clear that finding a better way is an uphill battle. The world can get better. But it is a slow and painful process. Even for wizards, legendary kings, and the best knights the world has ever seen. Every single one of them, you see, is merely human.

The Once and Future King remains today, as the day it was first published, one of the very best works of fantasy ever written. An absolute must-have for any fantasist, literati, or parent. And the Ace hardcover is absolutely lovely.

(Ace, 2011)

Reprinted with permission from The Green Man Review
Copyright (2012) The Green Man Review

Book Review: The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra

Vectors, matrices, and eigenvalues, oh my! The Manga Guide series’ triumphant return to the fertile and abstract realms of mathematics is, to this reader, most welcome and not a little overdue. This is not to say that previous forays into the physical-, life-, and computer sciences were at all unsuccessful. But even on their worst day, these real-world subjects are not nearly so difficult to penetrate as, say, set theory or integral calculus. And this is coming from a card-carrying math geek.

The wonderful and beautiful thing about this series is in its ability to come at complex and foreign topics from a sideways angle. I’m still amazed at the unusual points of reference the book authors find to bring the reader into some notoriously difficult topics – explaining onto and one-to-one functions in terms of restaurant orders, for example. The highly visual nature of the comic medium also serves as an anchor in what might otherwise be a text-heavy topic.

The manga scenario wrapped around all this math draws on a number of classic tropes, and not only from the realm of manga. Reiji is working hard as the newest student in his university karate club, a membership he paid for by agreeing to tutour his sensei’s sister in linear algebra. He’s the proverbial 98-pound weakling with a good heart, and it’s as good a reason as any to have two young people flirt and talk about matrix multiplication.

Of eight chapters, the first six are laid out as groundwork before the “real” linear algebra topics in the last two. The fundamentals in chapter two include reiviews of (or introductions to) set theory, some basic mathematical logic, and functional relationships. Following this are two chapters covering matrices, and two more on vectors (in a matrix interpretation). Only then are we able to tackle the true topics of the book title, linear transformations, eigenvectors, and eigenvalues.

It may sound like a hodgepodge, but it’s not. Each chapter builds carefully on the previous one. No calculus and only some basic algebra, trigonometry, and co-ordinate geometry are needed before reading this book. But the topics are tough for a newbie. This is university-level mathematics and requires a lot of practice problems before it will sink in for most readers.

The example problems in the text are great, but there are only a few. As with all books in the series, The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra is best utilized in conjunction with a thick textbook, chock-full of additional practice exercises. Much like earning a black belt, the road to mathematical mastery requires many hours of practice and perhaps more than a few forehead smacks on nearby slabs of wood.

(No Starch Press, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog