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I'm very interested in East Asian culture, especially that of Japan and, more recently, South Korea. However, while South Korea is very much a modern country by Western standards, being an economic powerhouse home to recognizable electronic brands and an increasingly popular music scene, to the north of the border is a nation that is very much George Orwell's '1984' come ture.
The "Democratic People's Republic of Korea" (AKA North Korea) is a country cut off from most of the world, where films and literature that many would consider orthodox are banned or censored and everything is controlled in the name of the 'Glorious Leader'. North Korea regularly pops up in the news with reports of its nuclear testing and threats of war against the USA and South Korea, but it wasn't until I read articles and listened to a couple of interviews from North Korean escapees that I realised how the normal citizens of this nation live. I started looking at books on North Korea and came across 'Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea'. This book has been very well-received critically and, judging by its many 5-star Amazon reviews, seemed accessible enough to the non-historian like myself, so I soon snapped up a paperback version as part of a deal from Waterstones.
==---About the Book---==
'Nothing to Envy' is written by Barbara Demick, an American journalist for the Los Angeles Times who was formerly based in Seoul. During her tenure in South Korea, Demick interviewed several North Korean defectors about their life in North Korea and how they managed to leave the country have since managed to adjust to South Korean life. 'Nothing to Envy' focuses on the lives of six North Korean defectors Demick interviewed from Chongjin, one of the country's largest cities but still inaccessible to foreign tourists (Pyeongyang, the capital, is the only place open, which means that the city is presented to give foreigners a good but false impression). Rather than dedicating a chapter to each person, the book instead hops from one person's perspective to another over the course of North Korea's history, from the country's first decades of prosperity to the famine that devastated the country in the early nineties, to Kim Jung-Il's rise to power. I felt this was a great way of showing how their lives changed and what events caused these people to try and escape, instead of repeating the same timelines for each person over and over again.
The six North Koreans interviewed are of varying backgrounds, including a doctor, a secretly dating couple (consisting of a well-off academic and a "tainted" elementary schoolteacher), an orphan, and a woman who started off as a staunch believer in the Communist regime. In fact that last person- an initially well-off and proud woman named Mrs. Song- proved one of the more interesting accounts to read, because she so earnestly believed in Communism and Kim-Il Sung that learning how she endured the years of famine and the toll it look on her family and livelihood is very sad to read.
Whilst snippets of the interviewee's dialogues are included in the book, most of the content is Demick's own engaging storytelling, explaining the various predicaments of the North Koreans as time goes on. We learn how each person endured the horrific famine in the 90s, and their interpretations of the regime imposed upon the citizens. Most North Koreans were not allowed to say anything bad about the regime or their leader out loud, should they risk being reported by a spy and sent to prison or, in less austere times, executed. It's worth nothing that most characters don't think anything bad of the regime at first; most grew up believing that North Korea was one of the best places to live in the world whereas Japan, the USA and South Korea (deemed as "America's lapdogs") were outright "evil", and if you cannot learn anything about these countries in comparison to your own, you would indeed think that you were lucky! It seems to be the famine of the 90s, and the economic meltdown that followed, that led to a change in views. The chapters based around this period were some of the hardest to read, as Demick explains how children died as they begged for food which nobody could afford to give them when they were so hungry themselves. One of the escapees, Mi-ran (the elementary schoolteacher mentioned above), noted how fewer children came to school every morning as they slowly died at home, and those present struggled to pay attention to the lessons that gave praise to Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il for their "prosperity".
Towards the end of the book we begin learning how the North Koreans made their escape out of the country, mainly by escaping to China and then taking a flight to South Korea where they were offered asylum and freedom. Yet even after escaping not all the stories take a happy ending. Some find that fitting into the modern world is very difficult, and as such integration programmes are set up to help them begin their lives anew. It just goes to show that a lifestyle that we take for granted would prove difficult for North Korean citizens nowadays to comprehend.
Although this book was published in 2009 and there have been some changes in North Korea since then (the death of Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un's succession), it seems amazing that this country's regime is still going strong while other, larger Communist countries fell and changed their political ideologies entirely. 'Nothing to Envy' is a true reminder of what the lives of everyday citizens are like in an isolated country where little seems to change even when the rest of the world does. If you are interested in North Korea then this book is an excellent starting point as it presents some harrowing accounts of normal people and their attitudes towards the regime. I will admit that it might not be the best book for historians as there is only a tiny bit of focus on the Korean War and how Kim Il-sung came to power, which I did want to know more about. Nevertheless, the accounts of these individuals feel very real and made me only hope that things get better for those who aren't as lucky enough to escape North Korea.
You can find 'Nothing to Envy' on Amazon for £4.63 (Kindle)/£6.99 (paperback) brand new.
'The Snow Child' is a fantasy novel by Eowyn Ivey. This is another book I bought on Kindle over Christmas due to its low price (99p off the Kindle Store), rave reviews and an interesting, fairly-tale like premise- a perfect read for winter!
Jack and Mabel are a middle-aged, childless couple who have relocated to Alaska during the 1920s to start a new life. However, their move seems to not have benefitted them at all; Jack is struggling to find work and gather food before the harsh Alaskan winter arrives, while Mabel is lonely and frustrated waiting at home for a husband she is increasingly distant from. One day when it snows, the couple decide to build a little girl out of snow, going as far as to dress her with a scarf and mittens.
The next day, the snow girl has gone. On top of that, Jack and Mabel both begin catching sight of girl in the forests near their house- a girl similar to the child they made in the snow. As time moves on, the old couple are drawn to this child, as if she is the daughter they always wanted...but will they be able to hold onto her?
'The Snow Child' definitely did not disappoint. Whilst it moved more slowly than I expected, as it takes several chapters to for the titular snow child to be revealed in full, I felt the slow pace adds to the atmosphere of the novel. I have never been to Alaska and probably never will, yet Eowyn Ivey easily brings its solitary, wintery forests to life. You easily get a feel of how dangerous and harsh the land is to our characters, especially in the dead of winter.
Jack and Mabel are well-written, sympathetic characters who I could relate to despite their flaws. Mabel in particular is a depressed, frustrated woman; having come from an affluent social background she has decided to escape to Alaska with Jack to avoid the social stigma of childlessness. The novel begins with her contemplating suicide on the ice, which shows her poor state of mind. Likewise, Jack is a well-meaning husband but seems unable to connect with his wife, and what's more his age and lack of a son make it difficult to provide for the two of them over the Alaskan midwinter. I liked how their reactions to the snow child's appearance differed, because it displays their relationship and personalities: Mabel believes she really is the girl they formed in the snow and immediately fusses over her as a mother would, whereas Jack is more cynical about her origins and eventually learns off where exactly the girl has come from. As for the snow child, who is christened Faina by Jack & Mabel, she is a quiet girl with a real air of mystery about her, helped by the lack of quotation marks whenever she speaks in the book. Yet she somehow survives living in the forest by herself while managing to change Jack & Mabel's lives for the better, so she's definitely a stronger person than she looks.
As the story progresses and the characters get older, you get the real sense that something might happen to Faina and I became eager to see if anything dangerous would happen when more characters became aware of her existence. As this book is based on a fairy tale, references to the original story are brought up and it leads Mabel to worry about Faina's possible fate. Fortunately this book cannot and does not follow the fairy tale to the letter and I felt the ending was a poignant and satisfying take on the original's conclusion.
'The Snow Child' is a beautiful story. I loved how it mixes the realism of 1920s Alaska with the magical elements of a fairy tale. If you enjoy stories with fairy tale elements then certainly try this book out. The relaxed pacing means that it can be quite a slow-burner, but the brilliant setting and atmosphere should still draw readers in and not bore them.
With a moderately long commute to work in the mornings and evenings, I have looked towards passing the time on the train by reading instead of playing on my phone (something which isn't really possible with no Wi-fi or a data package!) When I was at my local Sainsbury's a couple of months ago, I came across a novel called 'The Shadow Year'. With a compelling blurb and a low cost of £3 I snapped it up on impulse.
'The Shadow Year' is a 2013 novel by Hannah Richell. I have never heard of Richell prior to reading this book, but it seems last year she had a bestselling novel with 'The Secrets of the Tides' and the high praise of that novel fills the covers of her second one.
In 1980, Kat and her university friends stumble across an abandoned cottage in the middle of nowhere. Won over by the cottage and its beautiful surroundings, the five friends decide to leave behind their graduation lives and live in the house. However, as they stay in the house and the seasons turn, the friends discover life in the cottage isn't easy and relationships soon turn sour.
Thirty years later, the now dilapidated cottage is left to a young woman named Lila for reasons unknown. Lila has recently undergone a miscarriage and the loss is putting great strain on her marriage with her husband. For her, staying in and renovating the cottage is a much needed escape project. However, she soon discovers that the cottage holds many secrets, including why she has been drawn to the cottage through the story of its previous inhabitants.
Although it took me a couple of chapters to really get into 'The Shadow Year', by a quarter of the way into the book I was totally hooked, finishing the book at home in bed instead of just during my commute.
What really works for me is the dual narrative. Each chapter alternatives between the university friends living in the cottage during 1980-81, and Lila's time there in the present day. Both narratives are equally interesting, and as someone who was not born until the early 90s I was comfortable with the 80s setting and references. The structure allows the mystery of the cottage to be revealed in an unusual but effective manner. Furthermore, the two narratives start off completed unrelated, but as the novel gets closer to the end you want to know how the stories relate to one another.
Both Kat and Lila are good leads for their respective storylines, although I preferred the latter over the former. Present-day Lila has just lost her baby and has become increasingly isolated from both daily life and her husband, Tom. I have read quite a few stories recently with a miscarriage plot point, but makes Lila's story more interesting and tragic is that she has memory loss just before the accident that caused it, and this gap in her memory is something that bugs her throughout the novel. When she inherits the cottage, she decides to renovate it as a way to get over her demons, and indeed it seems the more she works on the cottage, the better her recovery. I liked Lila because despite her suffering she seemed down-to-earth and determined.
Then there is Kat, who comes to the house in 1980 with her four friends Simon, Ben, Carla and Mac. Kat loves the cottage and is convinced by Simon to live here for a year and escape the doom and gloom of adulthood and careers. Although Kat is a sympathetic character who comes from a broken home and starts the novel with an unrequited crush on Simon, her actions and behaviour sometimes frustrated me. She blindly believes in Simon despite his tendency to be overbearing towards the other characters, and her opinions past the halfway point came across as really insensitive, especially concerning a certain plot point. Moreover, Kat is described by other characters to be headstrong and practical (particularly in comparison to her younger sister Freya) but at times appears quite petty and dismissive. The rest of the house characters range from a bit bland (Ben & Carla, who might be justified since they are a couple from the start) to well-developed but anger-inducing (Simon). I think my favourite minor character was Mac, a shy and rather mysterious young man who proved to actually be the most reliable in the cottage and his actions affect the plot right up to the present day storyline. Also, the twist regarding his character a lot more surprising than I expected it to be.
Despite my minor misgivings for Kat, I really enjoyed seeing the two plotlines converging towards the climax and working out how the 1980s characters would link to Lila thirty years later. There are quite a few plot twists towards the end which I thought were well played out, although the final one in the Epilogue might have been a bit "too little too late" in my opinion, since the actual final chapter seemed to tie up loose ends before this sudden last swerve in the narrative. At least it surprised me so much that I had to re-read the last few chapters to understand what had happened just then; for me, that is the sign of a good read!
'The Shadow Year' is an excellent novel. Save the final twist and slightly annoying characterisation, I nonetheless enjoyed the story and its setting. If you want an unsettling thriller with a brilliant narrative and set-up then you will definitely like this book. The paperback can be picked up for about £3 on Amazon (and a similar price on Kindle) and I think the story is well worth the money.
(Review originally posted on Ciao under the username Anti_W.)
'The Babylon Rite' is a thriller novel by Tom Knox (aka journalist and author Sean Thomas).I bought this from 'The Works' a while back as part of a 3 for £5 deal, but the book sat on my shelf for the best part of a year before I started reading it. This is partly because I had so many other books I wanted to read first, and partly because I didn't have really high expectations anyway.
Journalist Adam Blackwood witnesses the supposed suicide of a respected Templar historian in Edinburgh. However, he soon meets Nina, the scholar's daughter, who believes that that her father was murdered and wants Adam to help her find out what really happened. Adam, eager for a story, agrees to help Nina, but his murder mystery soon turns into a journey across the Templar sites of Europe.
Meanwhile in Peru, anthropologist Jess Silverton is digging up the remains of the Moche, one of the most brutal ancient civilizations in the world. But with the excavation of the Moche comes people determined to silence Jess over the secret of their horrific practices. As it turns out, Adam and Jess's adventures, together with a string of graphic suicides occuring across London, are linked by a dark secret in the deep of the Amazon...
I did enjoy 'The Babylon Rite' a bit more than I thought I would. The story is well-paced and I liked the use of interlinking stories which lead to a joint conclusion. The chapters alternate the story between Jess, Adam & Nina, and the police investigation into the suicides lead by DC Ibsen (although this part disappears late into the novel to focus on the first two). This helped keep my interest throughout the book as chapters tended to end on a tense cliff-hanger, so I tended to read on past the next few chapters to see what happens next to certain characters.
The book has a very interesting setting and I liked how various cultures past and present become interlinked by a secret which several people are determined to keep quiet about. On the other hand, I felt that the author's writing style is unusually worded, especially concerning dialogue. Sometimes I felt that the dialogue sounded weird and unnatural whilst I was reading it, as if written more like a television script without any prompters. An example is that Nina keeps saying 'Ach', which I know is like a verbal tic that shows she's Scottish, but the way it is included in sentences just makes me stop and scratch my head. Furthermore, there are a lot of graphic scenes in the book, especially regarding the suicides. I know that the deaths are meant to shock the reader and connect this part of the story with the Moche people in Peru, but some scenes are so sickening that they almost put me off finishing the book. Maybe people more used to graphic deaths and violence in books will be nonplussed, but this book is definitely not for the faint-hearted.
The characters are okay but I felt they needed some more depth to them. Adam is a journalist and comes across as insightful and clear-headed, albeit with anger management issues. Likewise Nina is headstrong and the two are a good match, although I did feel that their growing relationship came out of nowhere just after the halfway point. Meanwhile Jess is a strong woman who has to overcome a lot of difficulties during her excavation in Peru which give her a lot of depth. There is a plot point concerning her which dictates her actions towards the end of the book, although the course she eventually takes does seem very unbelievable and lets down the story's ending.
'The Babylon Rite' is a decent book for anyone who likes standard controversial thriller. It has some interesting plot elements and fairly well-written characters, but at some points can be too graphic and occasionally sloppy. The book was compelling enough that I wanted to see how it would end, but it won't be something that I will read again.
At the time of writing, you can find 'The Babylon Rite' for £5.59 on paperback and £2.99 on Kindle (both prices on Amazon).
'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is a novel written by debuting author Gavin Extence. I first heard about the novel from my sister who told me about its premise. Being intrigued and seeing its many positive reviews on Amazon, I downloaded a sample to my Kindle and really liked the novel's style and opening chapter. Sometime later, I bought the whole eBook off the Waterstones website. Needless to say, 'The Universe versus Alex Woods' was finished in a day!
When 10-year old Alex Woods was struck by a meteorite, his life changed forever. As if having a psychic mother and living in a small village where everybody knows your name wasn't enough, Alex has to deal with epilepsy and bullying as he grows older. Luckily, by coincidence he meets Mr Peterson, an elderly, sullen American man who lives nearby, and the two of them form an unlikely friendship that results in an incredible journey for the both of them.
So 'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is a coming-of-age story that might appear to you as a bit outlandish. Yet the premise works brilliantly due to the author's style of writing. The book begins with the 17-year-old Woods being stopped at Dover in his car carrying a bag of drugs and an urn whilst being treated as a pariah by almost everybody else in the country. From there he narrates his story from the time of his incident so that you find out how he ended up in this position.
I really liked Alex as a narrator. He is witty, intelligent and a bit socially awkward, which comes across clearly in the prose. In some ways the writing style is similar to 'The Curious Incident of the Dog at Night-time', which is another book I really enjoyed because it showed how different and charming the main character was from everybody else around him. The story is well-paced and I found it could be as funny as it was moving, especially later in the book when Alex has to make some difficult decisions.
Philosophy crops up quite a bit in the book, as Alex becomes a great fan of Kurt Vonnegut's work and so the concepts of life, death and morality form major themes in the novel. Thankfully, the way this is worked into the story is done in such a way that you don't feel like it bogs down the plot too much or forces their author's ideals down your throat- it is the character's interpretation of such issues after all.
The other characters I found to be unique and entertaining as well. Mr Peterson is grumpy and somewhat old-fashioned, yet I liked his frankness and honesty towards Alex. Even though he and Alex did not agree on everything, it was great seeing their relationship turn from a forced agreement (Alex destroys his greenhouse, and his mother makes him help Mr Peterson around his house as punishment) to a mutual friendship. He may not be completely likeable, but he does soften up towards the end of the book for spoiler-related reasons and you do really do sympathize him. Even more minor characters (such as Ellie, Alex's schoolmate who ends up working at his mother's shop and the doctors whom he meets after his incident) have enough depth given to them to seem realistic.
'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is a fantastic book. If you like stories that can be as thought-provoking as they are funny then definitely try this book out. Everything about this book seems to stand out from everything else I have read this year, and I certainly would love to re-read it again in the future!
At the time of writing, 'The Universe versus Alex Woods' is currently available in eBook format for as little as 99p (!) from various online retailers and in paperback format for £3.85 (on Amazon).
When my sister hinted that she was buying me a novel for Christmas, I didn't expect the book in question to be 'The Remains of the Day'. I expected it to be something either longer or more contemporary. Nevertheless, I was not unhappy with her choice either, because I had both read and enjoyed 'Never Let Me Go' earlier last year. Above all, despite my initial misgivings, 'The Remains of the Day' proved to be a better novel than I expected.
Set in 1959, the narrator of 'The Remains of the Day' is Stevens, an elderly butler serving at Darlington Hall. Stevens is encouraged by Mr Farraday, the Darlington Hall's new owner and Stevens' new employee, to take a holiday during his absence. Stevens uses the opportunity to visit Miss Kenton (now married and known as Mrs Benn), the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall who now lives in the West Country. As Stevens undertakes his journey through the South of England, he reminisces about his days as the head-butler of Darlington Hall including his service to the late Lord Darlington, the turbulent political climate between the First and Second World Wars and his relationship with Miss Kenton.
What makes 'The Remains of the Day' such a good book is perhaps not so much the story (being mainly told in flashbacks) as its powerful narrative. With Stevens as the narrator, you get a real feel for his personality, relationships with the other characters and opinions on various matters due to his complex way of speaking. Whilst reading I really did feel that I was hearing Stevens' voice instead of the author's and seeing things from his point of view.
Furthermore, Stevens himself is such a well-written character. He outwardly displays the best qualities of a butler: his prose and demeanour are well-mannered to everyone even in the worst of situations, and he never gets involved in the matters of his supervisors unless asked to do so. On the other hand, it is clear that Stevens is unsure of himself, being unable to accept that sometimes, his stoic nature doesn't lead him to the best course of action. This seems especially true regarding his relationship with Miss Kenton, as it is implied the two each have feelings for each other but Stevens never wishes to bring up anything romantic, even when Miss Kenton has to resort to finding another lover to stir up Stevens' jealousy. Likewise, he believes in Lord Darlington's opinions on all the political issues of the period, even when it is made clear in the book that his actions might lead to another war instead of continued world peace. Above all, Stevens struggles with the concept of dignity, and whether his actions (or lack thereof) in the past are in line as being the best in his profession or bring down his character. His insecurities make him a relatable character to readers even fifty years after this book is set.
The other characters are also well-rounded and likeable. I especially liked Miss Kenton because of her occasional defiance in her role as housekeeper and being the only character to question Stevens about himself throughout the book, while Lord Darlington came across as kind but naïve for the times in spite of Stevens' hopes. Some real life characters (Neville Chamberlain, George Bernard Shaw etc.) pop up throughout the novel as well as guests of Darlington Hall. Although minor, these give real scope as to the politics of 30s Britain and the importance of Darlington Hall and its inhabitants within this period.
'The Remains of the Day' is an excellent novel which I found surprisingly compelling. This is a rather short read (about 250 pages) but I was eager to finish the book to the end. Although some people might be put off by the seemingly superfluous writing style (which is due to the character rather than Ishiguro in my opinion) this is something I soon got used as I was nevertheless drawn into the life of this character. I certainly recommend it to everyone and would happily read it through again!
My mom seems intent on getting a new dance/party game for every Christmas season for all the family to enjoy, even if it is only two or three of us who play them after Christmas. Last year it was 'Michael Jackson: The Experience' 'The Hip-Hop Dance Experience' (which I've reviewed previously) and 'The Cube' to enjoy. This year, my mom bought us 'Just Dance 2014', the latest instalment in the successful series by Ubisoft. Although this is the first 'Just Dance' game I have played, the series' popularity means that I had some fairly high expectations. But does this game impress, or is it a sign of a cash cow franchise?
The gameplay and controls for 'Just Dance 2014' are presumably the same as in other instalments. Players hold the Wiimote in their right hand and, following the prompts running along the bottom of the screen and the dancer, mimic the dance moves as accurately as possible to a selected song. It is pretty easy to pick up and play as no buttons need to be pressed (unless navigating the menu)- every dance move is motion based. At the end of each song you are given a star rating out of five, a point score and earn a certain amount of coins (the purpose of which is explained later).
There are 47 songs available to play of varying difficulties (Easy, Medium, Hard and Hardest), and all of them can be played as above. Most also have special modes of the song which have different rules, which I have listed below:
*Sweat*: The choreography is focused on giving you a workout and burning calories. There is also a Sweat Mode that can be selected from the menu, where you can create a playlist of songs to dance through and see how many calories you've burned while playing.
*Extreme*: A harder version of the song, the choreography is a lot more complex.
*Battle*: You have two dancers, each with a health bar at the top of the screen, and alternate between two song routines. The aim is to get the most moves correct possible, as failing to do so depletes your life bar. Whoever has the most health at the end of 30 seconds wins the round, and then the next round with the alternate song starts playing. This mode is best played with human players on each side, as the choreography complements you dancing off against the other. Furthermore, playing against the computer AI is very difficult as they will rarely get any moves wrong!
*Mashup*: Choreography from other songs is included into one. A difficult mode as the random dance moves will have to keep you on your toes!
*On Stage*: One player performs as a lead routine, while the others are backup dancers.
Of the songs I have played, I find the choreography engaging and really makes you work hard to get the best score possible. Whilst, as with most Wii dancing games, it will only track your right hand from the Wiimote, it nevertheless isn't something that can be easily enjoyed playing from your sofa. Furthermore, the game tracks your movements well in all the songs I have practised and clearly indicates how to do each move. I haven't had problems with songs being out-of-sync with the choreography. However, there have been a few instances where the game has frozen for a split-second, but it still continued as normal without lag. There is also a problematic glitch where, in the middle of one battle song ('Kiss You' vs 'Pound the Alarm') the dancers and indicators disappeared off the screen! This makes the song completely unplayable, and the nature of the Wii hardware means that it cannot be fixed!
The presentation is decent for a Wii game. The dancers are brightly neon coloured and easily stand out from the average backgrounds (which range from plain-coloured dance floors to real life landscapes where the dancer has been green-screened onto). Overall it's eye-catching and does the job befitting a party game, but not spectacular from a gaming perspective.
As I mentioned before, the game has an initial tracklist of 47 pop songs. These songs range from the latest chart toppers (Psy's 'Gentleman', One Direction's 'Kiss You') to hits from previous decades ('Age of the Aquarius', a cover of Michael Jackson's 'Blame it on the Boogie) to Eurodance tracks. The full dance list for the Wii version can be found onto the 'Just Dance 2014' website.
The presence of the old school tracks is promising given that several of the 2012-13 songs already feel dated and these will appeal to older players. However, the ratio of new to old music is about 5:1, so it's obvious that the 'Just Dance' series still wants to aim its music at children and young adults.
'Just Dance 2014' has an Online Mode called 'World Dance Floor'. Basically it's an ongoing jukebox where a song is chosen and all players around the world have to dance to that song. Whilst dancing and at the end you can see your rank compared to the rest of the players of the world, and having a better ranking increases your online level. I'm not sure what having a high online level does for you, however, except for bragging rights. What is interesting is how the all the star ratings earned by all the players are added to a star meter. Once that meter fills up to maximum, then a new song or avatar is unlocked for everyone. I think this is an excellent concept, as it encourages more people to play online to get extra content while still having the element of competition against players worldwide. Perhaps the only drawback is that everybody has to dance to the same song with little to no choice in which to play. On the other hand, it is a great way of trying songs you would never choose in the Free Play Mode.
Also new to this instalment (for the Wii version at least) is the Shop. Here you can download new songs or alternate modes for tracks already available. The alternate tracks are purchased with in-game coins but the new songs need to paid for with Wii Points (bought either via credit/debit card or a Wii Points card through the Wii Shop Channel). In other words, it is paid downloadable content. The availability of new songs is promising, and seeing how Ubisoft seems to add new songs every month or so, it means that people are encouraged to play the game well into next year
'Just Dance 2014' is definitely my favourite Wii dance game and I now wish I had played the previous instalments to see how they compare. We've barely had this game for a week yet my sister and I have already put in several hours trying to perfect the routines of our favourite songs! The game is really fun, easy to get into and a great way of doing some exercise at home- I certainly plan to use it as an aid for weight loss in the New Year!
Perhaps my only concern is that the game's future longevity. Given that the game title has changed from a numbered one to a year, Ubisoft are clearly aiming to release a 'Just Dance 2015' 'Just Dance 2016' etc. etc, which means that this instalments will be out-of-date whenever the next one is released. Moreover, it seems that the Playstation 3, Playstation 4 and Wii U versions of the game have a lot more extra content.
Until then, however, I intend to enjoy this game and its extra content over the months to come. After all, what are the chances that I can dance along to my favourite summer jams of 2013 in the next game?
'Just Dance 2014' for the Wii is available for £16 from Amazon, and is similarly priced at other online retailers.
'Sleeping Dogs' is an action-adventure game released in 2012 by Square-Enix for the Playstation 3, Xbox 360 and PC via Steam. Originally meant to be part of the 'True Crime' series of games, the poor reception in that series meant that this game was scrapped, placed in development hell and then picked up again as a standalone title. I was recommended this game by my cousin, as normally I don't play action games but after playing a load of rpg titles I wanted to try something different. The good reviews and gameplay videos for 'Sleeping Dogs' won me over, so I bought it with rather high expectations. Thankfully, I can confirm that this game more than met those!
'Sleeping Dogs' is set in Hong Kong. Wei Shen is an undercover police officer who has come back to his birthplace after having moved to the United States as a teenager. He is chosen by the Hong Kong Police Department to infiltrate the Sun On Yee faction of the triads. Wei meets his childhood Jackie Ma, an acquaintance of local Triad leader Winston Chu, and he helps him to join a group called the Red Poles led by Winston Chu. However, Wei has a personal vendetta against the Sun On Yee, and as he gains the trust of the triads, the line between cop and triad becomes increasingly blurred.
The story of 'Sleeping Dogs' is very dark and filled with complex characters and a lot of grey morality. Wei Shen, despite his chequered past with the triads and quite violent approach to undercover work, is a likeable lead character and easy to sympathize given what he goes through in the story. The rest of the cast are also very realistic and well-developed. I think my favourite supporting character was Jackie, the wannabe triad who helps Wei get into the gang, whose attitude towards the triads changes over the course of the game. The ending provides decent closure while opening the possibilities of continuation for what happens next to Wei as well as the Sun On Yee gang.
'Sleeping Dogs' is an open-world game and works similar to the series of 'Grand Theft Auto' or 'Saints Row'. Players control Wei around Hong Kong and take on missions as a triad, as a cop or just help people out with 'Favors'. Completing triad (marked as green on the map) or cop (marked as blue) missions grant you with Triad and/or Cop experience points and money, and levelling up your Triad and Cop meters will grant you upgrades to Wei's skills. Completing Favors nets you 'Face' experience, which improves Wei's standing in Hong Kong, allows you to wear better clothes bought from around the city and gives you combat boosts via the Face Meter.
This brings me nicely onto combat, which is by far one of my favourite aspects of this game due to the emphasis on melee combat over firearms (which I am really bad at!). Wei can attack enemies with the Square button, and pressing it multiple times will build up a combo. You can grapple enemies with Circle, and Wei can either punch them continuously (using Square again) or drag them to a nearby object or wall, which can then lead to an impressive (and graphic) environmental kill. Environmental kills include throwing enemies into rubbish bins, impaling someone onto a meat hook, and so on. If an enemy tries to attack you, you can counter their move by pressing Triangle as they turn red. As you can see, melee combat is incredibly varied and interesting. You are encouraged to mix up your moves because not only does your Face Meter increase (to the point where it can cause enemies to cower away from you) but will get you a better score on the triad missions. Furthermore, enemies will have different styles of fighting and need different strategies to take down; strikers tend to block frequently and need to be grappled to break through their defenses, whereas grapplers are burly types who can easily get you in a headlock (which require some quicktime pressing of buttons to get out of) and need to be defeated by heavy strikes and counters. Therefore, melee combat shouldn't bore anyone in the slightest.
Wei can also defend himself with various objects and weapons (usually which enemies carry) ranging from handbags to machetes. There is also gun combat in the game, mostly from about halfway into the main story. I would say that controlling guns in the game is okay, but it's not as good as the melee combat controls. However, in certain situations players can slow down time while shooting. This is available when sliding over a surface, when dropping from a great height or during a vehicular shootut. The slow-motion is quite cool and thanks to an auto-aim which locks onto your target assists with gun combat greatly. The vehicular shootouts are pretty fun too. I really enjoyed shooting out the tires of triads on your tail and watching their cars slide off the road!
When you are not taking part in missions, Wei is able to drive around Hong Kong in cars, motorbikes, vans and boats (whether bought or hijacked). Driving is really fun and it helps that there are plenty of radio stations to listen to while you're cruising along the motorway. However, there is a problem with the camera while driving cars; when in a car the camera (controlled by the right analog stick) only swings round to one side of the vehicle's body or the other. You cannot get it to swing behind you while stationary, which is problematic when you're reversing the car and can't see either oncoming traffic or the game environment. This is the only problem I had with the camera in the game, and when on foot it is easy to move it around your character and look around.
'Sleeping Dogs' has some impressive graphics. Character models are very lifelike and capture different emotions pretty well. The Hong Kong world is very beautiful and I liked how you can distinguish between the different districts of the city, from the neon lights of North Point to the commercial atmosphere in Central. However, the draw-distance isn't that great, meaning that buildings in the distance are not as detailed as when you are up close to them. I also did come across some graphical glitches while playing. Wei occasionally got stuck in a wall or piece of the environment, some dead enemies could look like they were floating on the ground or floor depending on how they fell to the ground, and once when I caught a taxi to the martial arts school the game crashed on me! Don't worry, the glitches are not frequent and do not hinder gameplay much (and regarding the crash, I was taking a taxi down an alleyway rather than a proper road, which might not have been the game's intention for me to do so).
I mentioned earlier that there were several radio stations to listen to in 'Sleeping Dogs', and most of these tunes lend itself to a large, varied soundtrack for the game. I was surprised as to how much I enjoyed both the Cantonese Hiphop and traditional Chinese music songs while driving, and I feel that these help to bring Hong Kong's fusion of modern and traditional culture to life as you play.
There is also voice acting in the game which is fantastic. Some of Hollywood's more prominent Asian stars provide voices: Will Yun Lee (from LOST) is Wei, Edison Chen is Jackie, even Lucy Liu shows up as pop star Vivienne Lu. In addition, non-Asian actors such as Tom Wilkinson and Emma Stone have supporting roles, so altogether this is a great ensemble. The use of English and Cantonese is very genuine, with many of the characters switching between the two within one sentence (with a liberal use of profanities in either to boot!).
Completing the main game took me about 10-12 hours, and this included me doing all of the undercover cop missions as well as the triad ones. On top of this there are plenty of collectibles hidden around the city- lockboxes, health shrines (which increase your max health when you find enough of them in area), and jade statues (return these to the martial arts school to unlock more combat moves) are just some of the stuff you can look for. Furthermore you can take part in car races with the cars you can buy, bust drug dealers by hacking cameras and outrun the police on the motorway. After you complete the main story, you can complete everything to 100% at your leisure. Hong Kong pretty much becomes your oyster!
For those who don't mind spending a little more money, there are some DLC story missions and items available from the Playstation Store. I have not tried these yet, but they do extend the story and gameplay for me. I intend to try one of them, 'The Year of the Snake' pretty soon.
Many people have decried this game as a clone of 'Grand Theft Auto IV' set in Hong Kong. It is easy to see why, however. Both are open-world games focused on crime, driving hijacked cars and jumping around buildings. However, I still enjoy 'Sleeping Dogs' even if it has lifted elements from a seemingly superior series. The story is a lot darker and more serious than GTA, the melee combat is brilliant and the world of Hong Kong is something a bit different for me. I really enjoyed the game and it has made me more willing to try out others in the same genre. If you're a fan of open-world, adventure games then definitely check out 'Sleeping Dogs'. The game can be picked for the PS3 from about £7 used so it's a real bargain!
Several months ago I started hunting for a new mobile phone. My previous phone was a Blackberry Curve 8250 which I received for Christmas a couple of years ago, but now Blackberry phones are no longer as popular, plus the Curve 8520 just felt slow and clunky whenever I used it. I looked towards getting a Samsung or HTC mid-range phone to browse the internet efficiently and access games and apps from the Google Play Store.
The LG Google Nexus 4 was not one of the phones I was looking to consider as I felt it was way beyond my budget. However, when Google put their 8GB Nexus 4 phones on sale for £159.99 at the end of August I decided to bite the bullet and buy it. After all, the Nexus 4 is a high spec phone that rivals the iPhone 4S (or is it just 4? I'm not sure) and Samsung Galaxy S2, so the price ought to be worth it!
The Google Nexus 4 arrived in a surprisingly small box. All the packaging consisted of was the phone itself, a quick start manual, a tool to help you put in/take out a micro sim card, the phone charger/adapter and the USB cable. To be honest, that is all you really needed- there are no random leaflets or irrelevant manuals. I imagine if there was a problem that the quick start manual couldn't fix then you would have the sense to go onto Google and search for a solution anyway.
For those who care about the technical points, here are some basic specifications I've found for the phone (please just scroll down if you aren't interested!):
OS: Android 4.2 Jelly Bean and up
System Processor: 1500 MHz (quad-core)
System Memory: 2GB RAM
Built-in Storage Space: 8GB (no external storage capabilities)
Camera: 8 megapixels (front-facing camera has 1.1)
Battery: 15 hours talktime
(A word of warning: the Google Nexus 4 takes micro-sim cards instead of normal sized ones. If like me, you don't wish to buy a new mobile micro-sim, you can purchase a micro sim cutter that will cut your normal sim down to micro size and allow it to fit into the slot and work as normal.)
==---Using the Phone---==
Holding the phone in my hand, the Nexus 4 is pretty heavy. However, I'm not somebody who likes really slim, lightweight phones because they are easy to drop, break, or simply forget about, so I don't see this as a disadvantage. Despite the large screen, it is still small enough to just about fit into a trouser pocket, albeit conspicuously.
The power button is on the top right hand side of the phone and the volume +/- is on the top left. Pressing the power button will simply lock the phone, turning the screen off and preventing any accidental button-pressing.
After charging the phone, I immediately started playing with my phone and downloading several apps from Google Play that were also on my tablet. The first thing I noticed was how crisp the display is. My phone displays a lot of my camera pictures without a noticeable compromise on the resolution quality. My current phone wallpaper is a photo of the Golden Pavilion which I took during my holiday Japan, and on my phone it looks exactly as it does on my computer screen!
Even by my little technical know-how, I can tell this phone has great specifications as a smartphone. The 2GB of system memory means that I can browse the internet really fast on Wi-Fi or a data package; pages open in seconds and using the built-in Google Chrome web browser app is a breeze. Most of the first apps I downloaded were completed in a matter of seconds. Also unlike my tablet that easily freezes when updating apps when I boot it up, my Google Nexus 4 copes perfectly with multi-tasking. If I'm browsing the internet while listening to music, there is no slowdown on this phone. Watching videos, whether through a media player on the YouTube app, is not a problem either. I listen to music on my phone sometimes during my commute to work and I find that the sound quality is pretty good through my headphones.
The only instance my phone has crashed was when I quit a game and the phone froze and turned itself off completely. It turned back on when I held the power and volume down buttons, so thankfully nothing was lost.
The phone does come with some built-in apps such as Gmail, Google, Google Maps and...erm... Google Now. These apps cannot be deleted. I only use a couple of these apps occasionally at best, but as I said before they don't really slow down the phone. If you're really concerned about these built-in apps, then downloaded a Task Killer app to make sure they don't run in the background and drain your battery or data.
Of course, making calls and texting is easy as well. I was able to easily transfer my contacts over from my sim card. These are all alphabetically sorted in the contacts app and you can easily check your call history to find a number quickly. One of my main worries in getting a touch phone was accidentally ending a call should my cheek touch the screen. Thankfully, during a phone call the screen turns off unless you touch it precisely, and even then the 'end call' button is located at the bottom of the screen. For texting, the QWERTY Android keyboard is responsive and has a variety of shortcut buttons to access the more common symbols. There is also an auto-correct feature if, like me, you tend to easily make mistakes typing words on the touchscreen. If you dislike auto-correct this feature can be easily turned off in 'Settings'.
The Google Nexus has both a back and front-facing camera. The back camera is 8 megapixels, which is pretty good by mobile phone camera standards. It controls fairly well, you can easily zoom and edit the lighting and the shutter button is easy to locate and touch. I wouldn't say the camera picture quality is top-class, but the camera is easy to use and holds up among other smartphones. There is a video camera feature, but I have not had opportunity to use this yet and cannot comment.
Many smartphones do not have a great battery life and the Google Nexus 4 is no exception. I tend to go on the internet often (no more than an hour a day), play games, check my emails and listen to music on my phone, and I've found that the battery lasts about 2.5 days before it needs a full charge. If you like to watch a lot of YouTube videos and browse the internet on your mobile a lot, you might need to charge it every day. Of course, this is caused more by the internet than anything else I do with this phone. If you want your phone battery to last longer, turn off the Wi-Fi or data when you don't intend to use it
Charging the phone completely takes about two hours, which I find quite slow (my Blackberry took about 40 minutes). I think it usually charges faster if the phone is turned off though.
The Google Nexus 4 is superb. Other than the typical smartphone battery life and a lack of external storage space, the phone has minimal problems. It's extremely fast and efficient in its internet functionalities, pretty easy to get used to the screen resolution is superb. I have had it for a couple of months now and I use it regularly for more than just calls and texts simply because it works much faster than my stone-age tablet. Google claims that the screen is made of "Gorilla Glass", thus preventing minor scratches. Nevertheless I do have some faint scratches on my phone already, but I don't have a screen protector on and can treat my electronic goods quite badly, so this is more my fault than Google's!
I know the Google Nexus 5 has come out now and Google are no longer selling the Nexus 4. But if you come across this new or second hand and are looking for a powerful phone then definitely consider this phone.
'Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure' is an adventure/puzzle/rhythm game released for the Nintendo 3DS. I quite like rhythm games and when I heard about this game I immediately went and downloaded the demo from the 3DS eShop. The demo, which consisted of 3 rhythm games that make up the core gameplay, were very good - the style of gameplay reminded me of cult rhythm game 'Space Channel 5'. I finally bought a physical copy of the game, which in reality can be described more as '"Professor Layton" meets "Space Channel 5"...and came away with the better business deal'.
The game is set in Paris, France. Our hero is a young man named Raphael, otherwise known as 'Phantom R'- a thief who steals precious artworks from around the city only to return them some time later. In reality, Phantom R is doing this to find his father, whom disappeared when he was younger, by creating a reputation that would get his attention. Accompanying Raphael is his sidekick dog, Fondue.
At the start of the game, Phantom R's next target is a bracelet in the Louvre. However, after stealing it he encounters Marie, a young violinist and orphan, and a strange man, claiming to be Emperor Napoleon himself. "Napoleon" is looking for his own treasure and is intent on capturing Marie for reasons initially unknown. As Raphael travels around Paris trying to find his father's whereabouts, he must also protect Marie (who is looking for her mother), avoid the Parisian police force led by obsessed Inspector Vergier and protect Paris from the revived "Emperor" and his army.
I wasn't expecting the story of 'Rhythm Thief' to impress me and for the most part it was simply okay. Not that it is weak or non-existent either; there were some plot twists that caught me off-guard, particularly towards the end. However, compared to the 'Professor Layton' games or any RPG it is not amazing. The main characters are defined well enough, but I never really cared or related to Raphael's predicament despite him being the hero. Nevertheless, 'Rhythm Thief' doesn't really try and take itself too seriously and has some funny and charming moments between Raphael and Marie.
The bulk of the game takes place in the 'Story Mode', with other options in the menu being unlocked as you progress. Gameplay can be split into two aspects: a) roaming Paris 'Professor Layton'-style finding clues and conversing with other characters, and b) playing rhythm games.
Players control Raphael/Phantom R by moving him around Les Invalides, Paris. In each area players can touch people or objects to interact with them. Speaking with people can reward you with new information or extra rhythm games. Touching objects might grant you medals (for buying levels and items for the rhythm games), Phantom Notes (collectible pieces of paper dotted around the city) and sounds. The latter can be recorded by Raphael and are used both to solve puzzles and help create the Master Instrument, which forms an optional sidequest. Movement through the city is pretty simple and the top screen acts as a map which shows you where you are as well as where to head to next (indicated by an explanation mark and path highlighted in red).
Now onto the reason I bought this game- the rhythm games! Players control one of the characters (most of the time Phantom R, but it can also be Fondue or Marie, among others) using a variety of controls to get through some predicament. These controls vary between each level and can consist of using the touch screen, A and B buttons, L and R buttons or even the 3DS's gyroscopic camera. So you could be sliding your stylus to the beat as Phantom R dances alongside his backup dancers, or sneaking past security by touching the buttons on the screen to hide behind statues at the right moment, or have Fondue attack police officers by pressing A as they come past him. Your character has a stamina meter at the top of the touch screen. Getting moves correct will increase the stamina, combo and potential ranking, whereas missing moves lowers it. At the end of the level your score is totalled up and you are ranked between A to E. The better your ranking, the more medals you earn.
I love the variety of rhythm games offered here. Most of them are part of the story and need to be completed to progress, while others are only accessible by speaking to an NPC. The difficulty is noted at the start of each level on a star system of 1-10. I would say the 'Rhythm Thief' progresses well in difficulty- the later rhythm games will definitely have you restarting a number of times if you don't pick up the mechanics fast enough!
The controls for each rhythm game work fine. However, the gyroscopic-based games do prove awkward. Sometimes the game did not recognise my movements and so it would count as a 'miss', and this led to a few times where I would fail a level. Fortunately, only a few levels out of fifty or so use the camera, so it is an annoying but not a game-breaking mechanic. Furthermore, if you're really struggling at a rhythm level, you can use your medals to buy boosts just before you start. Such boosts including restarting your stamina meter if it hits rock bottom, or making your stamina meter build up faster. I tried not buying any boosts and relying on my own skill to pass the levels that stumped me, but sometimes I caved in as they really do help when the later levels become less forgiving of mistakes.
The graphics in 'Rhythm Thief' are very colourful and vibrant. Their version of Paris looks gorgeous and very atmospheric, especially during the portions when the game takes place at night. There are plenty of cutscenes during the story as well and these are also well-animated. 3D is put to use during the rhythm games and the exploration sections and it looks pretty good, with character models really standing out from the top screen.
Since this is a rhythm game, a good soundtrack is really important. Fortunately 'Rhythm Thief' gets it right. Most of the background tracks (including the main theme) are jazz-inspired and fit the theme and the setting of Paris perfectly. A lot of tracks for the rhythm games are quite catchy and can be more than enough reason to play through the games again!
Perhaps one of the weaker points of this game however, is the voice acting present in all the cutscenes and rhythm levels. The VA is not horrible and some voices suit the characters well, but it's really inconsistent. First of all, the game is set in Paris but several main (French) characters do not bother with a French accent while others do. I wouldn't mind if all the characters sounded American (as Raphael/Phantom R does) but when some characters sound so British they should be in the 'Professor Layton' series it is quite off-putting. Secondly, I noticed on several occasions that what was being said aloud is not what is on the screen. This included French phrases being said as their English translations. This shows a big inconsistency between the script and the voice direction and something that should have been checked during QA testing. That said, it doesn't affect gameplay whatsoever, but it does hinder the quality.
'Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure' is criminally short- I completed the main game (consisting of ten chapters that take around half an hour to get through) in about six hours. Luckily there is quite a bit of extra content. Extra chapters are unlocked involving certain characters by finding all the Phantom Notes, completing the Master Instrument and getting 'A' rank on all rhythm games. In addition there is a Wireless mode where you can play against friends and a Streetpass mode to set high scores against the people you meet through there. Therefore, I would say there are still plenty of things for me to do before I finish completely!
'Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure' is a not perfect game, but it is still incredibly fun and looks great. If you're a fan of rhythm games like 'Space Channel 5', 'Samba di Amigo' or 'Rhythm Paradise' then certainly buy this game! If you want something like 'Professor Layton' then also look into this game, although the puzzle aspects here are much weaker than those found in that series. I feel there is something for everyone here whether you're a 'casual' or 'hardcore' gamer. The developer commented that he might do a sequel for the 3DS or the Wii U and I would definitely buy that as well!
'Rhythm Thief and the Emperor's Treasure' is available new from £30 (£39.99 for a digital copy off the Nintendo 3DS eShop) and used from about £19.99. Please do shop around as this game is pretty uncommon!
Normally I wear in-ear headphones with my mp3 player as they are easier to carry around when I'm taking a walk or commuting to work. However, a few months ago I was looking for a pair of over-ear headphones to use when I'm at home on my laptop. These Sony headphones from Argos cost £17.99 (although I got them for less due to a family discount) and come in 3 colours: blue (my choice), red and black.
These headphones are fairly light; the earpads can turned to face down so they lie flat and are easier to pack in a bag without breaking them. Furthermore you can adjust the headband to easily fit your head comfortably. The cable is only 1.2 metres long, which might prove a bit short for some. However, it's a perfect length for plugging into my laptop's headphone jack or to my mp3 player.
I find these headphones very comfortable to wear. The ear-cups cushion my ears really well and they don't feel heavy on my head. I admit that, after a few hours of wearing these, the tips of my ears begin to hurt, but I don't tend to wear headphones for hours on end so this is only an occasional pain. I imagine that unless you are a DJ or on a long-haul flight, this shouldn't be a major problem for most either (and in the case of the former I'm pretty sure you will require more high-tech headphones anyway!).
As for the sound quality, I'd say these headphones are good for the cost. When I listen to music through my laptop I don't hear any distortion and it seems good as listening to music through my mp3 player. The sound is rather bassy which I don't mind at all since a lot of my previous headphones were bass-heavy as well. Unfortunately, even at a fairly low volume the sound leaks out from the headphones, so I couldn't use them in a library, for example, which is a shame.
Overall I am very pleased that I bought these headphones as they allow me to listen to music and videos without disturbing my parents in the evening. The cable length and sound leakage might make these headphones more problematic for those using them on the go or for commuting to work, school or university. However as I only use them in my house and for my laptop, these headphones work great for that purpose.
'Tales of the Abyss' is a role-playing game released for the 3DS in 2012, although it originally came out on the Playstation 2 in 2005 for Japan and North America. This was a game I really wanted to play at the time of its original release, but like mainly games in the cult 'Tales' series (which include the popular 'Tales of Symphonia' for the Nintendo Gamecube), it did not make it to Europe until now. When I got a 3DS console in June I knew this was one of my 'must-by' games, and I bought it back in July with high expectations. Having now completed 'Tales of the Abyss', is this port worth the seven-year wait to come to Europe?
'Tales of the Abyss' takes place in the world of Auldrant, governed by an ancient prophecy known Yulia's Score. Created by a woman who became one of the first to see the future, The Score's accuracy at foretelling events means that the people are pretty much ruled by its readings, believing that deviating from what is written will bring disaster.
One of the great prophecies of the Score is that a Chosen One will be born in the Kingdom of Kimlasca and bring prosperity to the region. Said Chosen One and game protagonist is red-headed noble Luke fon Fabre. Unfortunately, ever since he was captured by the enemy empire Malkuth at seven years of age, Luke has no memories of his childhood and has been trapped in his manor for his supposed safety. Spoilt, sheltered and immature for his age, Luke's only escape is sword training with his best friend/servant Guy Cecil and senior knight Van Grants. However, his life changes completely when a young woman named Tear breaks into Luke's manor to kill Van. When Luke tries to stop Tear, their contact causes them to teleport out of the manor. Tear agrees to escort Luke home, but what ought to be a simple journey back turns into a quest to save the world, with a quite a few revelations for Luke along the way.
The story in 'Abyss' is very good, particularly as the lines between 'good' and 'evil' become very blurred past the halfway mark. At first I was a bit overwhelmed by various terms and exposition given by the main characters, but once I understood the world better things got a lot more interesting. There are skits throughout the game (accessed by pressing Start when prompted) which provide short dialogues between characters and help you understand the story and nature of events better. Furthermore, several plot twists are present and whilst a couple are predictable by video game standards, some definitely throw you for a loop.
Characterisation is very strong too. Luke starts off an immature douchebag who you really do wish was not the hero, but after a certain story-changing event he endeavours to change for the better. As well as Luke, Tear and Guy, you will be joined by thirteen-year old knight Anise Tatlin, sarcastic and shady general Jade Curtiss and the Kimlascan princess (and Luke's betrothed, despite being related...?) Natalia L.K. Lanvaldear. All of these characters, and even some of the villains, are well-written, relatable and undergo development as the story progresses.
As with most RPGs, 'Tales of the Abyss' has you controlling your character as you move around towns and dungeons as the story requires. What makes the 'Tales' series unique is its real-time battle system. The player controls Luke on the battlefield while up to three of the other characters are controlled by the computer. You strike enemies normally with the A button and use 'Artes' (special moves which consume your character's 'TP' meter) with B, and these can be chained together to combo your enemy. Enemy attacks are guarded by pressing Y, while pressing X will open up the battle menu and allow you to use items or change the party strategy, among other options. Winning battles grants your team experience points, gald (the game's currency) and 'Grade' (explained later).
The battle system is great in that it makes battles fast-paced and exciting; they can be completed in about 30 seconds if you're skilled enough, therefore one isn't bored or frustrated by even basic enemy encounters. Nevertheless some enemies and certain bosses can provide a challenge if unprepared, but on the default difficulty the game is balanced enough. Controls for battle are decent enough for a conversion from Playstaion 2 to 3DS, but I did have some trouble getting used to moving around the battlefield using the analogue stick. There is barely any use of the touch screen controls except to cast spells that have been shortcut to the bottom screen, although this is handy for getting healed quickly in battle (but was present in the PS2 ability). Unfortunately, the game occasionally suffers from lag in battles, especially when several attacks are happening onscreen at once. The lag only lasts seconds and doesn't affect gameplay too badly, but it is concerning as to how well this Playstation 2 game is suited to the Nintendo 3DS console.
There are quite a few little gameplay aspects which help to make 'Tales of the Abyss' stand out from other RPGs. Firstly, the cooking system from other 'Tales' games returns. Characters can cook dishes from recipes found around Auldrant which can restore health or give a certain boost, and the more skilled your cook the better the benefits. Secondly there are several ways to boost your characters' skills. AD Skills are learned as characters levelled up, and they can be equipped and unequipped with ease (although I found that I never unequipped anyway). One such AD Skill is 'Free Run', which allows your character to run around the battlefield instead of simply forward and backward, therefore they can avoid attacks and possibly get behind enemies. The most unique feature to the battle system 'Abyss' in my opinion is the FOF (Field of Fonons); when elemental attacks are cast on the battlefield, a coloured circle appears for a brief moment of time on the ground. If your character uses a certain attack Arte whilst standing in that space, it will initiate an FOF change and cause the character to do a more powerful Arte instead. This is a nice touch to the battles and adds some strategy but I wouldn't say it is essential to gameplay. Most of the time, I didn't end up using the FoF unless the element there was associated with one of my regular attacks.
The game is mostly in 3D save for occasional anime cutscenes interspersed during story events. To be honest, the 3D rendering (so characters, monsters and the like) does not look the best on the 3DS console- everything lacks polish and can look quite "blocky" especially from a distance. That said, the game environment looks decent enough, with the final dungeon looking absolutely gorgeous. Likewise the anime cutscenes look great and run smoothly.
Turning on the 3D is possible, but it adds nothing to graphics or gameplay whatsoever.
The soundtrack for 'Tales of the Abyss' is fitting enough but I found only a couple of tunes are really memorable. The opening theme is 'Karma' by Japanese rock band BUMP OF CHICKEN [sic]. I find it's terrific and suits the story really well (it doesn't help that I heard and loved the song before I realised it was the theme song for this game!). The song also inspires a couple of background melodies that fit the scene perfectly.
There is voice acting for the story cutscenes and battles. Most of the main characters are voiced by prominent voice actors (if you pay attention to the video game/anime/cartoon VA scene) and they seem to fit their characters well. Unfortunately the in-game skits that I mentioned earlier are not voiced, which I found very awkward as the background sound is lowered and you're reading text in awkward silence.
An average playthrough of 'Tales of the Abyss' takes about 50 hours, which is very impressive! This isn't including sidequests or minigames, which can add another 5-10 hours.
In addition, when you finish the main game once, you can play through the game again carrying over various things that you buy in the 'Grade Shop'. Higher difficulties (the game is defaulted to Normal) are also unlocked to give you a bigger challenge in facing enemies in battle. So it is possible to spend well over 100 hours in Tales of the Abyss! For me, however, one playthrough is enough of an experience for the moment, but the story has won me over that I might play it again in the future on Hard mode.
'Tales of the Abyss' is a great game with solid gameplay and an excellent story. However, I do feel that, as the handheld port of a Playstation 2 game, the quality has been somewhat compromised. The graphics do not look great, particularly compared to games specially designed for the 3DS, and the lag might be offputting for some. That said, since this is the only way this game has made its way to Europe, its positives far outweigh the disadvantages. I highly recommend 'Tales of the Abyss' to RPG fans and those who like video games with a good story and engaging gameplay.
You can buy 'Tales of the Abyss' for about £22-25 new and for no more than £20 second hand.
'Devil's Attorney' is a strategy Android/iOS game released in 2012 by indie game developers '1337 game design'. Despite being a game on a platform filled with casual timewasters and imitations of better titles, 'Devil's Attorney' has nonetheless received critical acclaim and various mobile gaming awards for its refreshing gameplay and depth. As a fan of turn-based games, 'Devil's Attorney' immediately appealed to me when I saw it advertised on the Google Play store. When I finally got myself a Google Nexus last month I promptly downloaded 'Devil's Attorney', and I can safely say it is £2.99 well spent!
In 'Devil's Attorney' you are transported back to 80s America and play as Max McMann. Max is a charming but immoral defence lawyer and his job is to get his (obviously guilty) clients off the hook. You do this by facing off against a prosecutor and various party members in turn-based combat. As Max you take turns damaging each member of the prosecution's Credibility (essentially their hitpoints) with various moves in your arsenal. You start with 9 Action Points per turn and each move will cost you a set amount. For example, 'Cross Examine' would cost you 4 Action Points and deals 3-5 damage on people's credibility; other moves include 'Tamper with Evidence', which reduces the amount of damage dealt by pieces of evidence to you, and 'Ego Boost' which increases your damage against people or evidence once per case. Once you run out of Action Points, it is then the prosecution's turn to attack. Max has his own hitpoint meter, the Case Strength, shown at the top of the screen. If this is brought down to 0, then your client is found guilty and you must restart the case.
I feel the game has a good difficulty curve. Max's first case is a tutorial and as you encounter different prosecutors with different abilities it gives you tips on how to beat them, so you are brought into the gameplay rather gently. However, when this game says you are on the defence side, it means it; later missions require you to take out at least member of the prosecution side or you will be killed straight away. At first you only have to deal with witnesses and pieces of evidence, but later missions will throw experts (increase evidence damage against you), coaches (increase witness damage) and witness protection (reduces damage against witnesses) into the mix. You cannot expect to win just by attacking as many people as possible, especially as some might take more than one turn to defeat. Instead, the strategy is to remove or reduce the damage of the right people or evidence first in order to survive the first wave of prosecution attacks, and then counterattack them hard. Fortunately losing a case doesn't result in a big loss or anything- you just restart the mission.
So what is the benefit of defending such scum? Well, for every case you win you earn money, including a bonus if you win a case within a certain number of rounds. This dosh is used to upgrade Max's flat with furniture which can boost his skills- in Materialism, Decadence and Vanity because that is how wonderful our "hero" is- and unlock new moves for Max to use in the courtroom. In the later stages of the game, Max not only moves into better apartments and offices, but also can buy accessories and even upgrades for his shiny red car for further boosts.
You control the game completely by touchscreen, and thankfully it works great, being responsive and not reliant on sliding or any other techniques which might cause to make accidental errors!
The graphics of 'Devil's Attorney' are pretty slick, even for a mobile game. Presentation on my phone is crisp and definitely brings in the 80s with its slightly faded but realistic feel, especially in the furniture you can decorate your house with. The characters are slightly caricaturist in design but still look great on screen, and I like that Max's looks change as you win more of his cases (e.g. in the first levels he has stubble and a scruffy suit; in the final stages he is clean-shaven with a classy suit).
Most of the time I played my game on mute, but I will admit that the game's opening theme tune (which seems to disobey the 'mute' option even through the game options!) is pretty catchy. It's very bombastic and cheesy, painting Max McMann like he's a member of GI Joe. It's meant to be ironic, given his choice of career. The background music is decent enough, and surprisingly voice acting as well during the pre-case banter between Max and the prosecutor. For the most part, the voice acting is good enough, but it's more because the script is actually quite funny!
I haven't yet completed every case in the game, but I've done about 43 so far and each one can take up no more than about 3 minutes. Whilst I'm near to the end there are several achievements you can unlock, such as completing a turn without taking any damage, or completing a part of the game on certain difficulty settings. That's right, there are three difficulty settings in 'Devil's Attorney': Easy, Medium and Hard. Once you complete the game on one difficulty you could start a save file on another and see how you fare, but you can easily switch between difficulties through 'Options' on the main menu. I've been playing on the Normal difficulty and that is taxing enough already!
'Devil's Attorney' is an impressive game that could even sell on proper handheld consoles. Whilst its gameplay is simplistic at its core, its turn-based and role-playing system still works refreshingly well on your mobile. It might not be the most addictive game I've played on the Android, it's still easy to get into if I'm bored and want to play around on my mobile. If you want a well-made, well-presented game for your mobile phone, then pick up 'Devil Attorney'. £2.99 might seem much when a lot of games for Android and iOS are free, but this game is deserving of every penny for the effort the developers have put in.
One of the places I most wanted to see while in Japan was the International Manga Museum. This is rather ironic given that Kyoto is known for its historical buildings and the Manga Museum is a relatively new attraction (it was built in 2006). However my sister, cousin and I are casual anime fans so we reckoned that visiting here would be an interesting visit on the pop-cultural side of things and, at the very least, a break from the traditional tourist spots.
---For the record...---
"Manga" is the name for Japanese style comic books. They differentiate from Western ones due to the unique drawing style (e.g. focus on big eyes etc.) and having to read them "backwards" (right to left). There are several different manga genres to attract men, women and children of different demographics, and reading manga is a generally more popular pastime in Japan than reading comic books are in the West.
"Anime" is Japanese shorthand for "animation", but to Westerns it refers to Japanese cartoon animation. Many famous manga get adapted into anime which tends to expose them to a bigger audience. As with manga, different anime tends to appeal to various demographics.
The International Manga Museum is located on the west side of central Kyoto, in fairly close proximity to other attractions such as Nijo Castle and the Imperial Palace. The easiest way to get there is either by taking the subway from Kyoto Station to Karasuma Oike (takes about 5 minutes and costs ¥210 one way), or city buses 9, 50, 101 and get off at Karasuma Oike bus stop (15-20 minutes and costs ¥220 one way or ¥500 for a day pass). The museum is a 2 minute walk from Karasuma Oike, but to be honest it isn't that well signposted. We went there by bus but ended getting off a stop later at Nijijo-mae (the bus stop for Nijo Castle) and had to use our map to work out how to get there.
With the 'International' moniker in its title, you would think that the International Manga Museum was a huge, sprawling, high tech building. Instead, the building was converted from a former elementary school and is relatively small. It consists of three floors and a basement (dedicated to the museum archives), as well as a restaurant attached to the main building via a walkway and a garden in-between. Nevertheless the Manga Museum feels very modern with several large windows and bright, spacious décor.
Admission to the museum is ¥800 (about £5 by today's currency rate), and it's worth noting that you re-enter here as many times as you want in the same day and will only have to pay once. Upon payment we were given English leaflets at reception and told about the special exhibition on the second floor. This didn't cost us any extra, but I've read that some exhibitions might, so be sure to inquire. The museum is completely accessible to all, with ramps on every floor alongside steps and a large lift.
Before I continue, let me tell you what the three of us were expecting to see at the Manga Museum: displays about the history of manga, the impact of manga upon Japanese society and maybe some special space dedicated to particularly famous manga such as 'Dragonball', 'Astro Boy' and maybe even 'Naruto'. This museum...didn't really have that, but what it did have was a huge library of manga across all three floors.
---The Museum Library---
The shelves of manga are pretty vast; I'd imagine every volume of popular manga is available to read at leisure. Visitors are free to take a manga and sit down around the museum to read it at your leisure; plenty of seating areas are around the museum For international visitors such as myself, there is a fairly large selection of English manga on the ground floor just past the museum shop. There are also slightly smaller shelves that stock in other languages, including French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Korean among others. Unfortunately the international selection, while perhaps better than what is stocked in your local library or Waterstones, misses several volumes of manga and the titles seem to be mainly aimed at young boys.
That being said, it was nice just being able to sit down, read a volume of manga in a quiet area for hours on end. You'll spot more visitors sitting down and reading something than actually browsing around the museum. I read a couple volumes of 'Case Closed' (a.k.a. 'Detective Conan' in Japanese). 'Case Closed' is a murder-mystery manga about a teenage boy who is great at solving mysteries being transformed into a five year old. The story has Conan Edogawa (his new name, based on two famous detective story authors) trying to solve mysteries while being taken seriously as a kid. I had watched a few episodes of Case Closed's anime adaptation years ago but I found the manga much more compelling... even if I did have to start reading at volume 17.
---But what else can I do here!?---
If volumes of manga to read at leisure are not your cup of tea, then there are a few more things to do. First, there are tables where artists can draw your face in a "manga style". I can't remember exactly how much this cost, but I think it was about ¥1000 for 20 minutes of your time. Also on the ground floor were some computer booths which taught you how to draw manga style cartoons. From what I could see the instructions were in Japanese but I imagine there would be an option to have English audio instructions provided or a member of staff could help you (the staff members at the front desk had good English skills and seemed very approachable).
During our visit a special exhibition of ballet-themed manga was being held on the second floor. The exhibition had displays with English sections and the theme proved more interesting than I thought it would be, with explanations on how the growing popularity of ballet in Japan reflected on the number and quality of manga that focused on ballet. Unfortunately no pictures or videos were allowed in the exhibition area (most likely due to the copyrighted material on display) and I imagine this will be a rule with most exhibitions held in the museum throughout the year.
The general displays around the museum are surprisingly few and far between. There are some on manga across the years, but it's all very general and nothing you wouldn't know if you looked up 'manga' on Google.
The museum shop sells a range of manga-themed goods, including a selection of 'Studio Ghibli' items such as book adaptations of their films and A5 notebooks. Despite what was on sale, I found the prices a bit too expensive for me and refrained from buying anything. It didn't help that, for all the museum's space, I still had to squeeze past people in the shop aisles!
Before leaving the museum, we popped into the restaurant for some snacks. This restaurant works on a ticketing system, so you choose what you want to order on a machine, put the money into a slot to pay, collect the printed ticket to give to the server and then sit down and wait for your food to come. I just ordered some fries and a drink and these came in about 5 minutes. The fries were decent- very crispy like McDonalds fries without the salt in them. Generally speaking, I'd say the restaurant seems good for the fast service you get.
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is not so much disappointing as just incredibly underwhelming. We came expecting information on the history of manga, its highs and lows, its impact not only in Japan but the whole world. We wanted to see statues of famous manga figures such as Astro Boy and Sailor Moon whom we could pose with in photos. Instead, this museum is a huge library with a few extras and little information for newcomers to the subject. Anybody coming to learn more about manga or wanting to indulge in one of their favourite pastimes will gain little here.
Nevertheless, this doesn't mean that going here is a complete waste of money. Sitting down and reading manga in the museum is still nice, especially if you're reading something which is new to you. Children in particular will find it a nice change of pace from walking around temples and shrines in Kyoto, especially since in the summer Kyoto is very hot and the museum very cool due to the air conditioning system. This is why I'm still giving it three stars; the museum may not have been what I wanted, but it was an enjoyable and relaxing visit nonetheless.
Opening Times: 10am - 6pm (closed every Wednesday)
Kiyomizudera (literally "Pure Water"), also known as Kiyomizu Temple, is a very famous Buddhist temple in Kyoto, Japan. Although Kiyomizudera was founded in 780 it has been knocked down and rebuilt time and time again. In 1994 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and today it is one of Kyoto's most popular tourist attractions.
Kyoto is filled to the brim with temples and shrines and I almost overlooked Kiyomizudera since I was afraid of being "templed out" by the end of our trip. However, my sister (who has been in Japan for the past year) had visited Kiyomizudera in March and told us that, if we only wanted to visit a couple of temples, this was one we couldn't miss out. So on one boiling Thursday morning my sister, cousin and I got onto a packed city bus to see why this place is on most tourists' 'must-see' lists.
Kiyomizudera is located in wooded hills towards the east side of Kyoto. The most convenient way to get there is taking either the 100 or 206 bus from Kyoto Station to Gojo-zaka or Kiyomizu-michi bus stop. The bus fare is a flat rate of ¥220 one way, although day tickets can be bought at the station for ¥500. The bus should take around 15 minutes to reach the stop (however the 100 is an express bus, meaning it stops at only the main bus stops and thus goes much faster). Alternatively, if you would rather catch the train, the temple is 20 minute walk away from Kiyomizu-Gojo Station on the Keihan Railway line, which is again accessible from Kyoto Station (¥270 for the whole journey).
==---Getting to the Top---==
As stated earlier, Kiyomizudera is located on hills. The paths to the top are daunting but not very steep; also the paths are smooth and there aren't really any steps that might hinder wheelchair users. It helps that the main path up to the temple approach at Gojo-zaka is along the Hiyagahima district, meaning that there are plenty of shops and restaurants along the way to either take a break and/or browse the Kiyomizudera-related souvenirs. Above all, if you happen to be there in the height of summer mid-morning as we were, there are ice-cream shops and the ever-so-common vending machines to keep you alive!
It's worth noting that there is more than one path up to the Kiyomizudera Temple. For example, we took a wrong turn at the entrance and ended up going up a path that was next to a large cemetery. Since it was Obon season (a time when the Japanese travel back to their hometowns and pay respect to their dead ancestors) we felt very awkward going up a path that was obviously not used by tourists!
Once you reach the main grounds there are several buildings dotted around the temple grounds. All the buildings are beautiful even though I didn't know the function of most, but still they looked Buddhist and they looked pretty and that's what matters. Apparently a couple of buildings are undergoing construction at the moment, but during my visit I was so overwhelmed by what was available that I didn't notice!
The most important bit ought to be Kiyomizudera Main Hall, a colourful red and white building which serves as an entrance of sorts. However, our favourite is the Koyasu Pagoda. To reach there, you have to enter the wooden stage leading out behind the hall. This houses the main deity of Kiyomizu Temple, the thousand armed Kannon, whom many of the Japanese tourists took the time to pray to (NB: you cannot take pictures of the inner temple).
The path between the wooden stage and the Koyasu Pagoda gives you some stunning aerial views over the forest below us and Kyoto in the distance, so it's an absolute must to take the diversion. You can also head to Jishu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to love and matchmaking, if you relish a challenge. See, at the front of the shrine are two stones placed far apart. If you make your way from one stone to the other blindfolded, it will give you good luck in finding your true love. Since our little group was not too fussed with the 'true love' bit, we gave it a pass.
Heading back from Koyasu Pagoda we passed Otawa Waterfall. To be honest, it looks more like a spring than a waterfall, as a little stone construction has been built over it and the water is being filtered into three streams. Visitors could drink from any of the streams using the cups with long handles to collect the water. Apparently, each stream gives you a different benefit, but I never tried drinking them due to the length of the queue!
Back towards the temple entrance is a small souvenir shop selling various Japanese temple charms, but like I said earlier, the approach has several similar shops which sell similarly priced goods, so I decided to pass on buying anything at the temple itself (I'm aware now that it might have been more authentic, but I was going to visit at least one more temple or shrine selling similar goods, so what did it matter?).
Kiyomizudera is a beautiful temple. It has beautiful buildings in an excellent location. Even if you don't care much for temples it's still an interesting excursion and provides some stunning views out over Kyoto and forests below. Would I go there again? Certainly... but not in mid-August. Kyoto is much hotter than Tokyo (although not as humid) and by the mid-morning the temperature was already around 30°c on the day of our visit, making walking around unbearable without a sit-down every 15 minutes or so. Moreover, the temple was very crowded with both international and Japanese tourists, the former being families who had taken time off for the Obon season. The temple is apparently not that much quieter during spring and autumn (my sister, who as I said went in March, said that there were plenty of school groups visiting on the day she went). Nevertheless, with the changing leaves in autumn and the cherry blossom blooming in spring, I imagine the scenery will be much prettier in those seasons, plus the weather would be a lot more suitable for going out and about!
With an incredibly cheap admission price of ¥300 (£1.92 by today's current exchange rate) there is no reason why you shouldn't visit Kiyomizudera while you're staying around Kyoto!
Opening Times: 6am - 6pm
Admission: ¥300 for adults, ¥150 I think for children.
(Review also on Ciao under the username Anti_W).