Goodreads Review – Moon Rising (Wings of Fire #6)

Moon Rising (Wings of Fire #6)Moon Rising by Tui T. Sutherland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I respect the hell out of a fantasy series that’s as much about the world as the individual characters. The first five books in Wings of Fire told its own complete story of the Sandwing Succession. Moon Rising represents the first in the next series of books starring new characters, though most of our old favorites make frequent appearances.

Instead of fleeing the tyranny of dragon queens and fighting for their lives, this new group of dragonets must survive the drama of the new Jade Mountain Academy, a school opened by our original heroes to help bring the formerly warring dragon tribes together.

Moon is a unique Nightwing who actually does possess the legendary mind-reading powers of her tribe. The story is less action-packed and much more introspective, with Moon as a young-adult mutant or inhuman (from Marvel comics) viewing her powers as an ostracizing curse, and her mentor may or may not be a legendary dragon supervillain from ages past.

As much as I enjoyed her character and her supporting cast, including exuberant Kinkajou (first introduced in the third book) and likable friend Qibli (from the fifth book), the plot moves agonizing slow due to all the internal dialogue. A murder mystery helps shake things up, though the final revelation isn’t terribly shocking, and the end serves as more of a springboard to the next series than a satisfying conclusion to the story.

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My Top Ten Most Anticipated Games of 2020

There are video games releasing in 2020, and I know at least ten of them.

There’s still so much we don’t know about 2020 in the gaming world, but we do know it’s going to be huge, with both Sony and Microsoft launching new consoles this holiday. So many launch games have yet to be formerly announced, while big games releasing in the first half of the year have been in development for a very long time, including Cyberpunk 2077, The Last of Us Part 2, and the Final Fantasy 7 Remake.

As of mid-January 2020, here are my top ten most anticipated games of the year.

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My Top Ten Games of 2019

My ultimate year-end gaming post of lists and accolades.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year – when game journalists come together to provide their hot takes on Game of the Year! I’ve been doing a personal top ten list for years, and enjoy comparing them to my Most Anticipated lists (from January) and Mid-Year lists (from June). I like lists.

Before we kick things off, let’s review my Most Anticipated Games of 2019 list, published January 2019. Keep in mind many games that released in 2019 weren’t even announced yet, while others were delayed into 2020.

  1. Pokémon Sword and Shield
  2. Age of Wonders: Planetfall
  3. Desperado 3
  4. The Outer Worlds
  5. Warcraft 3: Reforged
  6. Anthem
  7. Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
  8. Wargroove
  9. Kingdom Hearts 3
  10. Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

I also published a Top Five Games of Mid-2019 list in June, which is usually a pretty strong indicator for my final top ten list:

  1. Wargroove
  2. Steamworld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech
  3. Slay the Spire
  4. Druidstone: The Secret of the Menhir Forest
  5. Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark

Finally, here were my top five most anticipated games for the second half of 2019 (alphabetical) as of June 2019:

  • Age of Wonders: Planetfall
  • Borderlands 3
  • Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3
  • Monster Hunter World: Iceborne
  • Pokémon Sword and Shield

Now it’s time for my final end of year ranking. It was a heated battle for my favorite game of the year in 2019. For the first time ever I made it through the year without a clear #1, but in the end came away with a satisfying answer.

My Top Ten Games of 2019

10) Remnant: From the Ashes

Remnant: From the Ashes squeaked onto my top ten list at the last second, when my friends and I realized we hadn’t been playing any co-op games in awhile, and picked it up during the Steam Autumn Sale. Remnant is a game I have a yet to play single-player, and have no real desire to try, but I’ve had an excellent time playing cooperatively. It’s best described as Left 4 Dead meets Dark Souls; challenging, intricate third-person combat, with an important focus on watching your teammates’ backs. Some boss battles alone have taken us entire evenings to conquer, but we always have a good time doing it.

9) Planet Zoo

Even an impressive, well-polished zoo theme park game can’t quite compete to my love of dinosaurs with Frontier’s Jurassic Park Evolution (My #6 Game of 2018), but Planet Zoo is certainly good enough to warrant a spot on my Top Ten list. Planet Zoo combines the advanced animal AI from JPE with the advanced park management and customization from Planet Coaster, making it Frontier’s most impressive park sim to date. Planet Zoo‘s animal AI is as impressive as it is maddening, turning a theme park sim into part-time babysitting, but I can’t help but love the attention to detail, the emphasis on conservation and education, the gorgeous graphics, and multiple gameplay modes. 

8) SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

I’ve enjoyed Image & Form’s previous SteamWorld games, and respected the hell out of the fact that they’re all different genres, from Metroidvania to 2D XCOM. SteamWorld Quest is yet another genre, combining satisfying deckbuilding and card battling within a brightly colored side-scrolling RPG. It’s well-balanced and perfectly paced at around 20 hours, leading to one of the rare card games that actually has a legit story and characters.

7) Slay the Spire

Of all the games on my Top Five Mid-Year list, Slay the Spire is the only one I’ve gone back to play since, and I a big reason is because it’s the perfect game to play on the Switch. The rogue-like deckbuilder is incredibly addicting and balanced to a razor’s edge for each of the three classes. I love playing through a run while cooking dinner and watching TV, testing out new strategies and card synergies, and seeing how far I get. I may not end up dumping dozens of hours into it, but I do plan on playing this one off and on throughout the next year. 

6) Pokémon Sword and Shield

It’s no secret that the first main-line Pokémon game on a home console has been divisive for fans. Hell I wrote up a list of all the things I love – and hate, about Pokémon Sword and Shield. But there’s no denying that I’ve enjoyed the hell out of my time with the game. The Wild Area alone is amazing, a tantalizing tease of a truly open-world Pokémon game that I’ve been dreaming about for years, spending hours just wandering around catching pokémon, and the new Gen 8 pokémon are some of the best we’ve had in several generations. If Sword and Shield are the start of a new era of Pokemon games, we have a lot to be excited about.

5) Wargroove

My favorite game of the mid-year fell a few places to the more flashier AAA games of the latter half, but Wargroove is still a phenomenal strategy game. It completely rips off Advance Wars in all the right ways, from its pixelated art style to its hard counter units, but with an original story and fantasy world filled with fun characters and factions. The campaign is astonishingly huge, and that’s on top of skirmish modes, puzzle modes, and a level editor, for all the pixelated warfare you could ask for.

4) Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

I didn’t know what to expect from the Switch-exclusive third game in a series that hadn’t seen a release in ten years. I loved the co-op beat ’em up Marvel Ultimate Alliance games and X-Men Legends games from the GameCube and PS2 era. I’m more than pleased to reveal my undying love for Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order.

MUA 3 captures exactly what I loved about the older games – a customizable team of dozens of Marvel superheroes battling waves of bad guys, with just enough RPG elements, powers, and challenges to keep me locked in. MUA 3 dropped the ball a bit with its horrendous camera when playing couch co-op, otherwise this could have easily been my #1 game of the year.

3) Age of Wonders: Planetfall

As soon as Triumph Studios announced their next Age of Wonders game, it rocketed near the top of my Most Anticipated list. Age of Wonders 3 (2014) was a fantastic turn-based strategy game that revitalized the series, and Age of Wonders: Planetfall did not disappoint. The sci-fi strategy game keeps the solid 4x strategy while streamlining colonization with sectors and expanding the tactical depth of combat, along with a meaty campaign mode. Also, the factions include undead cyborgs and amazons riding laser-mounted alien dinosaurs – hell yes.

2) The Outer Worlds

When Fallout: New Vegas released in 2010, we knew Obsidian Entertainment was capable of crafting an excellent Fallout RPG off of Bethesda’s first-person open-world style. The Outer Worlds is proof that they can make their own first-person RPG, and it’s a damn good one.

The Outer Worlds brilliantly combines the best parts of Mass Effect (memorable party members; zipping around to different planets) and Fallout (snarky world poking fun at capitalism; rewarding exploration and slow-mo combat) to create a game that’s the opposite of innovative, but a very enjoyable AAA experience.  All of this works because it has legitimately great writing, with party members I actually cared about, and a shockingly down to earth story that doesn’t rely on big bad killer robots or genocidal aliens. Best of all, it distills all the good parts of those big RPGs down to a very well-paced 20-30 hour game.

1) Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3 is an amazing game and a worthy sequel to one of the best games of the previous generation. The writing isn’t quite up to the high standards set by Borderlands 2 (and its equally excellent DLC), but the new characters are solid, and the gameplay offers tons of welcome improvements, such as multiple (and customizable) abilities per character, separate loot tables for parties, and alt firing modes on top of the ridiculous amount of guns. The threequel smartly doesn’t try to fix what sure as hell wasn’t broken: fantastic co-op looter-shooter gameplay.

The Borderlands series means a lot to my wife and me, and we actually played through all of Borderlands 2 again before Borderlands 3 came out. I’ve played BL3 for 50 hours so far, and 40 of those hours have been with split-screen co-op, and have enjoyed every minute of it. Borderlands 3 is my #1 game of the year.

2019 End of Year Awards

Most Played: Fire Emblem: Three Houses (68 hours)

Best Multiplayer: Apex Legends

Best Cooperative Game: Remnant: From the Ashes

Biggest Surprise: Remnant: From the Ashes

Most Disappointing: Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Best Early Access/Beta Game: Gloomhaven

Best Original Music: Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Best Art Design: SteamWorld Quest: Hand of Gilgamech

Best World Building/Atmosphere: Borderlands 3

Best Writing: The Outer Worlds

Best Game Nobody Else Played: Druidstone: The Secret of the Menhir Forest

Most Improved Sequel: Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

Favorite New Game Mechanic: The Wild Area (Pokémon Sword and Shield)

Most Innovative: Slay the Spire

Best New Character: Parvati (The Outer Worlds)

Favorite Moment: Helping Parvati with the perfect date (The Outer Worlds)

Best Industry Trend: Multiple Big Nintendo Switch game releases in the Summer!

Worst Industry Trend: BioWare, are you okay?

Didn’t Have Time to Play: Phoenix Point

Too Long; Didn’t Finish: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Favorite 2018 Game of 2019: The Bard’s Tale 4: Director’s Cut

Backlogged Games and Let’s Plays Finished in 2019

  1. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider
  2. The Bard’s Tale IV: Director’s Cut
  3. The Stanley Parable
  4. Tales from Candlekeep: Tomb of Annihilation
  5. Mage’s Initiation: Reign of the Elements
  6. The Banner Saga 3
  7. The Banner Saga 2
  8. Rise of the Tomb Raider
  9. XCOM 2: War of the Chosen

Have a wonderful holiday and I’ll see you next year with my most anticipated games list of 2019!

Goodreads Review – The Shepherd’s Crown

The Shepherd's Crown (Discworld, #41; Tiffany Aching, #5)The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fifth and final Tiffany Aching book and final Discworld novel is all too short due to the passing of Sir Terry Pratchett, my favorite author, in 2015. While it does tell a complete story, many elements are severely shortened and underdeveloped, leaving to an unfortunately underwhelming final tale.

Although I adored the first novel in the Tiffany Aching series, the rest of the series has been very up and down. I love Pratchett’s humorous and insightful writing style, but the series is less about Tiffany dealing with fun fantastical threats (as in the first novel), and more a series of coming-of-age teenage dramas.

The Shepherd’s Crown seems to even lack that, as by the fifth book Tiffany has come into her own as a witch of The Chalk. The passing of a major series character is a pivotal moment that’s done very well, but everything else falls a bit flat, including an all new side character who’s kind of pointless (yet given a lot of pages on his own), and the return of the elves which is resolved way too neatly. At under 300 pages it’s clear the book was left unfinished in many areas, and I suspect much of the novel’s praise was given due to the finality of the series and Prachett’s lifetime of amazing work.

Even so, I enjoyed The Shepherd’s Crown more than the second and third novels. Pratchett still makes me grin like nobody else, and finishing this book made me sad all over again that the world lost such a treasured soul.

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Goodreads Review – The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth #3)

The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth, #3)The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Phenomenal. The conclusion of The Broken Earth trilogy was everything I wanted and more. The emotional, epic climax between mother and daughter. The fate of the world. The history of the stone eaters. The slow-burn of the second book developing the relationship of Nassun and Schaffa paved the way for an emotionally-gripping finale.

I adored the intimate glimpse into the far-flung past (which is still our future) that sets up the cataclysmic world, how it broke, and how to fix it. Jemisin is an expert world-builder, yet always remains focused on the few but fantastic characters.

Every SF/F fan needs to read The Broken Earth trilogy, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

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Goodreads Review – The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2)

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth, #2)The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I wish Goodreads allowed half-stars. As much as I still adore Jemisin’s writing and world-building, I didn’t quite love the second novel in The Broken Earth trilogy as much as the first.

*VAGUE SPOILERS BELOW*

I was fascinated with the character evolution of Schaffa, but his (and Nassun’s) storyline plods along slower than I would have liked. Likewise I didn’t expect Essun to remain in Castrima for the entirety of the novel, though I enjoyed the socio-political developments, interesting minor characters, and the climactic battle. The best parts were learning about the fascinating world and history, and a much deeper dive into the stone eaters, as well as the awesome and satisfying reveal of the first-person narrator.

Make no mistake, this is still a 5-star series, and an incredible blend of apocalyptic sci-fi, fantasy, great characters, and excellent world-building.

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Goodreads Review – Cibola Burn (The Expanse #4)

Cibola Burn (The Expanse, #4)Cibola Burn by James S.A. Corey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The fourth Expanse book almost has the opposite problem of the third book, it sets up the characters, setting, and conflict in an exciting way, then drags on for most of the second half of the book.
Cibola Burn tackles early settlement of the first of the new worlds opened up by the gates at the end of the third book. A renegade group of Belters were the first through the gate, and by the time a giant corporation ship from Earth arrives to document, research, and set up facilities, the squatters/settlers are already entrenched, leading to political conflict, especially when the squatters sabotage the newly arrived ship.
In comes James Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to mediate. The human drama take precedent over the exotic alien planet, but the new characters (including a returning old one from the first book) are all solid new additions, particularly the villainous Murtry and passionate scientist Dr. Elvi Okoye.
A cataclysmic event separates the two halves of the novel, and the second half slows to a crawl as we transition into man vs nature. There are two main storylines, and the orbiting ships in space becomes way more interesting and action-packed than the plodding survival story on the planet’s surface.
I still love this series and the characters are fantastic, but so far most of them could benefit from better pacing and about 100 fewer pages.

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