TUNIC

TUNIC is good. It’s great. It has a goofy, simple name that has encouraged Google to serve me both articles about the game and articles of women’s clothing, and it’s drawn me in magnetically over the past two weeks. There have been nights where I’ve had to peel myself away from the computer, and gone to sleep still puzzling over how to get past the latest obstacle I’ve found. It’s worth checking out.

This game has never had a name that, to my mind, properly acknowledged its potential. I first saw it teased at PAX East years ago, when it was still called Secret Legend. From what I can tell, the game has grown significantly since then.

And it’s good.

Other people have already made this quip, but they’re on the right track: TUNIC is a Souls-like by way of Zelda nostalgia. But that’s not all. In many ways, TUNIC reminds me of a less bloodthirsty Hyper Light Drifter (HLD) with more puzzles and more Metroidvania-esque exploration. It’s softer aesthetically, with all its gentle shapes and bright colors, and less challenging in its basic fights. But it still rewards—and requires—mastering its combat-mechanics in order to progress. As is traditional, boss fights are designed with the expectation that you’ll die a number of times. You’ll gradually learn the bosses’ patterns and how they change over the course of the battle, and might find sneaky ways to use those patterns against them.

TUNIC starts you off slowly, a classic ”wild Link” waking on a sandy shore. It introduces its mechanics in a dribble, offering you new equipment and consumables in chests hidden throughout the game—some hidden better than others. It even gives you an in-game manual. But TUNIC requires you to collect every manual page you want to read, and (again like HLD) almost all of its in-game text is in an unfamiliar script.

Just enough of the manual is in English that I haven’t needed to translate the script in order to understand how to do things yet. But nearly the entire “Background Story” page is impossible for me to read, along with other big chunks of the manual. So making a translation is on my to-do list; there are enough pages mostly in TUNIC’s script, enough clues and explanations that I can’t read yet, that I think it is worth it.

Frustrating as this might be, it’s part of what sets TUNIC apart from other similar games for me. It has somehow doled out just enough information to keep me feeling hooked and encouraged, and I haven’t yet spent long enough mashing my head against a wall to despair. Better yet, while there are clues hinted at in the manual, there are also secrets the manual carefully doesn’t explain or mention, which only opens up the feelings of possibility even further.

Given what I heard about the game developers giving their early reviewers a Discord channel where they could share questions and hints about what they’d discovered so far, my hope is to find other people who are playing and compare notes with them. Maybe I’ll do that on the official Discord server; while I’d prefer to confer with friends, the community there looks like it’s doing a decent job of not spoiling things for the most part. And that’s good, because I don’t want spoilers! And I don’t want to spoil anything for another player. I might be willing to tell people that yes, there’s an item that will allow you to do something, or that yes, there’re hints pushing me to investigate in another direction… but I want to find the actual discovery for myself. The few hints I saw on the official server reassure me that I’ve barely scratched the game’s surface, even though I’d thought I was pretty far along.

I guess that makes sense. So far, I’ve just kept finding more things hidden around the world of TUNIC. And every time I discover a new tool or technique, I revisit all the old places I’ve already been and hunt for what I might have missed. So far, I’ve missed a lot! But I’ve also uncovered tremendously cool things, and it’s that feeling of discovery that I love so much. The satisfaction of puzzling out how to do something—how to open a door I’d struggled with or how to sneak my way past it—is what feels so rewarding. I don’t want to ruin that for anyone. And if that’s something you enjoy in a game, I have to recommend this to you.

If you’re able to play it, and if you like Zelda-ish games with many deeper puzzles, and don’t mind an occasional tricky boss battle… damn. Try TUNIC.

The Orpheus Plot, by Christopher Swiedler

The Orpheus Plot is fun, and an excellent comp title for Bury’em Deep. Its dramatic arc has a similar structure, it has good kid vs adult conflict, and it digs into some moral quandaries. Even better, it’s all about a young teen coming into his own through his larger struggles against the powers that would control him and his world. It’s more than that, too, but those are parallels enough for me to know that I should reference this book. That fact that it’s also space-adventure MG sci-fi, vanishingly rare, is just icing on the cake.

The biggest reservation I had with In The Red is resolved here; The Orpheus Plot clearly digs into the social questions and issues of its setting, rather than more or less pretending those things don’t exist. I’m glad it does. I can see how In The Red’s narrator might not have been aware of those larger struggles, but I think The Orpheus Plot is more interesting and more rewarding for focusing so much on the societal struggles of Inner System-vs-Belter politics and the struggles of life in the Belt in general.

Now, because of how similar our stories are (and because I do actually think both my story and Swiedler’s are good) most of my quibbles about this book are smaller scale and more personal. If you want middle grade space sci-fi I can already tell you to pick this up. If you want me to pry a little deeper, keep reading.

First, a few thoughts about some of the emotional arcs.

Some of the emotional resolution later on felt a little rushed or unexpected. There were hints of social and emotional arcs that had outgrown the established material without enough support in place for their final end points—mostly in the narrator’s interactions with other students towards the end. And there were a few places as the climax rolled on where it felt like a scene or interaction happened because it needed to be in the story and the main character needed that push, rather than because the story world led us there… just normal issues, spots where I felt like I could see the seams that revealed the story’s artifice. Also, those interactions are classic genre tropes, and they don’t feel out of place so much as they feel noticeable.

Now, a bigger difference between The Orpheus Plot and Bury’em Deep: I think Christopher Swiedler has more positive opinions of hegemony, authority, and the system than I do. That, or he’s less willing to question such things in fiction for middle grade readers.

Relatedly, there are some ways in which Swiedler’s space-future feels remarkably staid. There isn’t much queerness (I think I recall one mention of a non-het couple?), and neither the hegemonic center nor the frontier fringe have much visible divergence from our own social norms. That feels odd.

Historically speaking, divergence from shared social norms increases with time and distance. “The past is a foreign country,” to quote L.P. Hartley. People telling stories about the past usually put considerable effort into rewriting, recontextualizing, and even obscuring pieces of the past in order to make history match the author’s social standards, preferring to highlight the places where things are still the same (and make up commonalities where they need more). Many Westerns are an excellent example of that, ignoring the queer, non-traditional, and racially intermixed communities that developed on the frontier of the expanding US in favor of writing about strong independent straight white men.

But the future is a foreign country too. I wanted more of a departure from our own ideas of how society works, more ‘foreign-but-recognizable’ social conventions. The Orpheus Plot clearly has some, and highlights the differences between Belters and Inner System folks, but I wanted more of them. I wanted to know that there were “total weirdos” out there somewhere, and I wanted to feel more confident that life as we know it feels totally foreign to our narrator—that, from our narrator’s perspective, we readers would be uncannily different.

But I think the key to this, the reason this story feels more staid or in line with authority, comes back to the stories it most reminds me of. This story’s narrative arc reminds me of Treasure Island, or a reimagining of something from C. S. Forester’s Hornblower or Patrick O’Brien’s series. And whatever issues this story might raise with authority (the Navy, Inner System-dominated politics, etc) those authorities are still presented as less-bad than the alternative.

I’ll go into further detail, but there’ll be some *SPOILERS*.

So, this story is more than a modernization of those old Age of Sail adventure stories. But while we’re exposed to the ways in which the system is clearly bad for Belters, and we’re given a sympathetic view of Belters’ complaints, the story’s key revolutionaries are never painted with anything but a villainous brush. Heck, the big villain—leading the revolution—is almost comically evil, engaging in some really tropey, mustache-twirling bad stuff. And we never see enough of his side of things, or hear enough about his story, for those actions to feel anything but melodramatic. Moreover, he’s enough of a scumbag the rest of the time that it’s easy to ignore the validity of his larger complaints. No matter how much sense some of his complaints might make, and no matter how the narrator might pointedly agree at times, he’s still obviously bad rather than complicated.

It’s okay to have bad guys in your stories. But I wanted there to be more complication to the central conflict, rather than having the most sympathetic revolutionary (not that main baddie) feel more like a less-charming Long John Silver. 

Part of the struggle here is just time and focus in the book, I think. That less-charming Long John Silver, a Navy crewmate involved in the lower decks’ conspiracy with the revolutionary Belters, never quite has enough narrative focus to become a helpful replacement parental figure. Without that narrative focus, without the warm fuzzies of a friendly older ally on the ship, we (and the narrator) don’t quite feel close enough to him to wonder why he makes the choices he does. That means that even when he offers us a little more moral complexity near the end of the story, it doesn’t carry as much narrative weight as it could have, had there been more connection there.

Plus, our narrator is so concerned with making it in the Navy and not rocking the boat that we never get as much honest reflection on how the Navy isn’t doing well by the Belters. There’s a brief scene where that becomes relevant, but it’s not in the forefront enough of the time, the way it’d need to be if the story were really digging into the oppression experienced by the Belters. Honestly, I’m not sure how the story would have worked if that had been written differently. I suspect the book would have had to be longer. *END SPOILERS*

Anyway.

I don’t know that I did a better job (in Bury’em Deep) with any of the issues I’m critiquing in The Orpheus Plot. But I think interrogating those points, poking the issues and digging deeper, is really important. And maybe, I hope, doing that in fiction for kids will invite their further reflection.

The Orpheus Plot is good space adventure fun. If that’s what you’re hankering for, do yourself a favor and pick it up.

Update, 3/17/22

Today’s been an odd one. I’ve been productive on other projects, but without a specific book or game lined up to review, I’m at a bit of a loss here.

I’m partway through two books, Teen Killers Club by Lily Sparks, and The Orpheus Plot by Christopher Swiedler. The Orpheus Plot is another middle grade sci-fi book in the same setting as In The Red, this time with slightly more focus on politics and intrigue (a Belter kid wants to join the space navy, which is almost entirely composed of people from Earth, Mars, and the Moon). It does some of the things I’d wanted to see from In The Red, dealing a bit more with the social expectations of people in this setting and how that creates and influences political conflict, so that’s a plus. I’m about halfway through; I’m enjoying it, and I won’t render any verdict yet.

Teen Killers Club caught my attention for being a potential comp title for one of my friend’s YA projects. I’m about a quarter of my way through that one, so I have even less to go on, but at the moment I’d call it a fusion of Holes, Suicide Squad, and the surge in fiction about serial killers from a couple years back. It feels like one-part thriller, one-part mystery, one-part teen camp drama, and it ate a good deal of my time earlier this week and stopped me dead in my tracks in the middle of The Orpheus Project. I’m enjoying it so far.

I’m also rereading Naomi Novik’s socialist-Harry-Potter-but-different The Last Graduate, this time out loud to my partner. They’ve been loving these books (they insisted that I start this one the day after I finished reading the first book, A Deadly Education, to them). That’s good, because I love them too. But I’m not able to read multiple chapters a day because by the time I start reading it’s usually already late. So there’s been an amusing and agonizing dance of trying to find places where I can stop each evening that will both keep them hooked and give them enough breathing room to actually be okay with stopping. The first has been much easier than the second.

Edit: I realized while writing this that I never reviewed The Last Graduate here. I’ll have to rectify that.

I, like several friends of mine, have picked up Vampire Survivors. It’s not an especially complex game, but it does a stunningly good job of catching my attention and holding it. Compulsive. That’s what I’d call it. Usually that’s not a quality I want in a game, but I used it to distract myself from some unwanted thoughts earlier today and that seemed to work pretty well. Maybe not the healthiest solution, but quick and effective at the time.

With a little luck, next week I’ll have finished one of those books and be ready to share my thoughts on it with you.

Hero’s Hour revisited

It’s grown on me.

Hero’s Hour, which I wrote about before, is out now in a full release. The game still feels like the same casual-ish Heroes-lite offering I mentioned before. But with its stability improvements in the release build, I can finally play the game without multiple crashes in one sitting. It turns out that’s enough to change my feelings on the game.

The visuals haven’t changed. The maps still feel a little bland, but there’s significant variation in visual appeal between different biomes and it seems like I was mostly playing on the ugliest possible options last time. The units aren’t as detailed or lush as HoMM 3’s units, but their cute lo-fi pixel art design matches their slightly cartoony movement and attack or death animations. It all gels to match the aesthetic, for the most part, and does a decent job.

The map generation and layout also doesn’t seem to have changed. But as one might expect from procedural generation, its quality varies: sometimes the spacing I complained about previously is an issue, sometimes it isn’t, and mostly it feels right enough. However, I admit that the variation is something I never saw HoMM 3 manage well, and it does help keep things interesting. Hero’s Hour deserves credit for that. It also helps, no doubt, that I’ve changed strategies and picked up an early extra hero or two to cover more ground and to augment and reinforce my main army faster (old HoMM strategies I’d nearly forgotten).

Also, I think I’ve found the ‘deeper strategy’ I’d glimpsed before. It’s not what I’d expected. Hero’s Hour gives every faction unique mechanics, and every hero a unique arrangement of common skills, without (apparently) trying to balance any of them. I generally like games where every faction can do weird cool stuff, and I’m okay with that imbalance. But this means the most reliable path to victory (vs the AI) is to find and exploit combos of skills and faction units, and then hammer that combo relentlessly. Changes in strategy are rarely necessary when facing the AI. Some heroes seem strictly worse than others, whether through weaker or slower-starting combos, but counter-combos are also available sometimes. This creates a messier-than rock-paper-scissors dynamic, which I think could shine in a multiplayer setting. Sadly the game only currently offers multiplayer via hotseat—classic HoMM—and the dev apparently isn’t certain how to implement other multiplayer options.

What’s my final take?

In context, this game is extremely impressive. It’s predominantly one person’s project, with help from a few other contractors. Now that it’s more stable, I’m able to enjoy the HoMM-esque feel without interruption. As I said above, it turns out that’s enough to let me enjoy the HoMM homage without fixating on the minor shortcomings. I can just relax and have fun.

And your mileage may vary! Some folks like the game’s aesthetic more than I do, including the map’s visuals. Plus, there are enough weird interactions between different units and their abilities that the game can totally surprise me; that’s both good and bad, but it leaves enough intriguing wrinkles to draw and hold my interest for a bit. And at least in Hero’s Hour I can puzzle through why what was supposedly an easy fight was actually hard. This game does a far better job explaining unit and hero abilities than HoMM 3 did, where most unit abilities were opaque and the path to victory was generally predictable.

I’ve seen precious few games recreate the HoMM experience any time recently (though I’m still watching Songs of Conquest) and if you want to experience HoMM again, this is one of the few options that can deliver that. Playing Hero’s Hour is fun. The game knows what it’s doing. Plus, there’s a free demo, which is a big plus.

The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang

The author’s name has changed since initial publication, hence the different name on some hard copies and publicity images

The Black Tides of Heaven, by Neon Yang, left me feeling a little narratively unmoored.

I suspect that the biggest cause for that was my own fault: I put the book down about halfway through, and then took over a month to return to it and finish it. But that means that I’m writing this from an odd place. I’m not sure how much my perspective has been shaped by that prolonged delay, and I can only recommend that you take my review with a grain of salt or three. The book certainly seems to have worked better for other people than it did for me.

Part of my sense of being narratively adrift grew from the way in which the book is divided into sections, with each section separated from the last by a big temporal gap. Each section felt like an extended short story about that time period in our POV character’s life. But chaining those extended short stories together into one novel didn’t feel like it created the narrative cohesion I wanted.

In some ways, this is the opposite of the cool technique that Martha Wells used for her first four Murderbot novellas. Where Wells wrote a series of four stories that each gave a snapshot of emotional development and then kept them in separate novellas to let them stand on their own and build on each other, Yang has written those separate stories and put them all in one book. It didn’t work as well for me.

Writing is all about adding just enough to let your audience fill in the rest, without adding so much that they get tired of it. I think Yang went just a little too light for me. I could sketch out the narrative arc and tell you what the points of growth and resolution were, but it didn’t feel like there was quite as much connective tissue between the narrative dots as I would have liked.

Maybe, if I’d expected the book to consist of those discrete mini-stories beforehand, I’d have a different opinion of it now. Maybe, if I hadn’t put the book down halfway through, I’d feel like Yang cut out just the right amount of material. Instead, none of the smaller segments individually brought me the kind of narrative movement or growth that I wanted. And the individual segments didn’t quite gel together to make the larger whole feel quite right either.

But…

Maybe I’m still looking at this the wrong way. There are several other books out by Yang, all in the same series, at least one of which looks like it’s supposed to be semi-contemporaneous with or closely following this book. Perhaps those, in connection with this one, would give me the more complete perspective and narrative arc that I’m looking for. I’ll probably pick those up and read them just to find out. Maybe not right away.

Having said all that, I should add that The Black Tides of Heaven has solid child-parent struggles, a setting that feels refreshingly distinct from standard Western fantasy, and lots of good queer content. And it’s well-written! I feel bad complaining so much above when the fault may be my own. Whoops.

So, if any of those things sound interesting to you I suggest checking the book out. And I recommend reading it all in one go, or at least not stopping for over a month right in the middle. That was definitely a mistake on my part.