Review: Frayed Knights, Skull of S’makh-Daon

This review is long overdue. Of course part of it is just that life and business got in the way, but originally one of the biggest stumbling blocks was I was at a loss for what to say about something I enjoyed so much but had so many complex thoughts on. And for the time it’s taken me to get around to actually writing this, I apologize, since the time it’s taken has not actually made it proportionally better.

A few months back, Cirsova contributor Jay Barnson sent me a copy of his FPRGP Frayed Knights: Skull of S’makh-Daon. While I was playing it, I was absolutely addicted and could not stop until I finished it.

On the surface, Frayed Knights is an exploration-focused first person RPG with a fair share of hack-and-slash, but there’s a great deal of nuance to it that really scratches a lot of itches that someone who has played a lot of CRPGs and maybe burned out on them because of that “seen it all before” feeling will end up still getting a kick out of it and find it highly engaging.

First of all, the writing is great; which should come as no surprise, as Barnson’s a great writer. But the party’s dialogue is consistently witty and entertaining, giving the characters all a unique feel and personality and giving life to a world which is less a spoof than a humorous homage to old-school dungeons and dragons. While not so self-aware as KoDT, fans of that franchise would certainly enjoy the tropes played with. Plus, there are plenty of Easter Eggs that a fan of old D&D would enjoy, not the least of which being that it is set in an expy of the Caves of Chaos.

Something you can’t say about very many CRPGs is that combat was always a dynamic and engaging challenge. Except in areas you may have backtracked to for whatever reason, there was almost never any time where you could just hold down the attack button and expect combat to go your way. While you might settle into a few strategies that are more consistently effective than others, the combination of the pseudo-realtime initiative, exhaustion system, and variable equipment abilities, it was often a unique puzzle to figure out just what the best strategies against certain groups of foes might be – battles could often swing back and forth, and a lucky break or skin-of-the-teeth play could bring you from the edge of defeat back toward victory. One kinda funny part that may be unique to Frayed Knights is that in any fight, even a gimme fight, it is more effective for a magic user to cast a low-level spell than swing with their weapon—your level 1 damage spell is likelier to hit than the weapon against many foes and will also probably accrue less exhaustion.

While there were a couple of particularly tough fights, though, there was never much need for grinding – the biggest problem I had was, due to recognizing the homage to the Caves of Chaos and applying certain assumptions to Frayed Knights, was doing certain dungeons out of order and suffering the consequence. For instance, the Ogre caves present far less of a challenge as a smaller mini-dungeon than the Goblin Caves which, as a major plot dungeon, are filled with a much wider range of tough nasties (like those Shamans who will dish out damage and keep you from downing front-line gobos).

There are some obvious negatives; you might be put off by the low-res textures and simple models or, in some cases, the incongruous assets (generally non-animated NPC models). Graphically, it’s somewhere in the middle-ground between Daggerfall and Thief: the Dark Project. I love both of those games, but the look won’t be for everyone. Really, for me, though, the biggest problem I had was with the game’s scope. And it’s a weird complaint, but Frayed Knights is just big enough that once I was truly impressed by how large it was, I ended up being disappointed by how small it felt. It has a very Episode 1 feel to it; it set me up with expectations of a truly huge world with multiple hub towns, with even more areas to visit and explore, because what IS there is off the one hub town we’re given IS impressively vast.  A part of me wishes that instead of a new game with a new system, Frayed Knights would continue with new cities and new content added (nodes and hubs appear listed as you visit them, and newly visited areas can be quick-travelled to). Frayed Knights ends on something of a cliff-hanger, and it made me wish I could actually go and visit some of those other towns and locations mentioned beyond the original hub. But still, there’s an impressive amount of real estate to explore; maybe not to the extent of an Elder Scrolls game, but enough that you might come to expect it, forgetting that the game, as huge as it is, was developed by a small indie team.

The upside of Frayed Knights 2 being on a new system is that obviously it will allow the dev team to make improvements to the engine and graphics, and hopefully optimize things a bit (you get some vast and seamless 3D environments in each location, but at the cost of some really long loading times). I also hope that you’ll be able to port characters, but that may not necessarily be in the cards.

Still, I absolutely think that if you dig D&D and/or CRPGs, you should check out Frayed Knights!

Reviews of Stuff (Which Probably Aren’t Gonna Happen) – Ethics in Pulp Journalism

I’ve added a lot of contemporary stuff to my reading pile lately, but for a handful of reasons, I probably won’t be actually reviewing a lot of it.

I’ve reached a point where conflicts of interest are going to put a damper on a lot of the content I could write about the newer stuff on my reading list. If I feel particularly strongly about a work that i want to share, I may end up singing it from the rooftops with the appropriate disclaimer, but…

Pulp Revolution Folks

I really can’t review stuff coming out of the Pulp Revolution crowd honestly and dispassionately. I’m too close with many of the writers and in some cases have even offered services to see stuff get to market.  If there’s something I like, my review will doubtlessly be colored by my personal relationship with folks involved. If there’s something I don’t like, I’ll be tempted to restrain criticism on account of those personal relationships. A lot of these people have written reviews for Cirsova, and I don’t want to get into review swapping. Not just that, they’ve spent money on us, buying copies and sometimes advertisements, and no negative review can be trusted, because no matter what, I’ll be writing in ways that don’t chase fans away.

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I will likely avoid reviewing works by writers or editors who have advertised with us or done ad-swaps. At least within a recent time-frame. I’ll be sure to try to highlight those works and creators who have tried to support us, but I won’t be reviewing, because a positive review will look like I’m sucking up to capital and a negative review would be self-consciously written to not drive away future capital.

I’ve ad-swapped with Red Sun and with Storyhack, and I’m happy to talk those guys up; I’ve referred authors to the former when I haven’t had money or space, and I’ll likely do the same with the latter in the future. But I probably won’t review specific stories or issues of those publications.

Other Stuff

Some folks have sent me stuff for review. If I have it in print, I’ll try to get to it in a reasonable amount of time, I really can’t add anything else to my queue for a bit. Open submissions are coming up, and that’s going to be taking up A LOT of my time.

I already feel like the quality of my content is slipping because I have too many things going on.  I’d like to be able to maintain my daily M-F schedule, but if I need to dial it back in June and July, I might have to.

 

A Very Short Review of Aye, Robot and The Yanthus Prime Job

The other night, I finished Robert Kroese’s new Rex Nihilo book, Aye, Robot.aye robot

While I enjoyed the first one, it did push me to the limits of my tolerance for spoof and parody in SFF – Starship Grifters got away with a lot I wouldn’t normally forgive because Kroese’s such a damn good and damn funny writer.

Starship Grifters’ sequel, Aye, Robot, was much more satire than parody. With the basic level Star Wars stuff out of the way from the first book, we’re left with a much more interesting and less predictable story. All of the top notch humor and brilliant writing from the first book was still there, but its move into unfamiliar territory with its narrative made Aye, Robot even more enjoyable.

Rex is still a Zapp Branniganesque scamp, but he has a few moments of real genius shine through; enough that one might question if some of his mannerisms aren’t just an elaborate act to throw people off. The secondary characters of Boggs and Donny were far less useless than the companions from the first book, so while entertaining in some of their antics, they helped keep Aye, Robot from being another “one sane man” (or one sane robot, in Sasha’s case) story. Even Vlaak managed to be a bit interesting as a character this time around (as opposed to merely a flamboyant cross between Darth Vader and Falco).

In short, while I liked Starship Grifters, Aye, Robot was a much better and much more enjoyable book, even if the humor was not quite as machine-gun-like as in the previous.

YanthusPrimeJobCover_medium-313x381I was also happy that Kroese included his Pepper Melange novella, The Yanthus Prime Job, as a bonus. I’d gotten an ebook of it, but honestly, I probably would’ve never gotten around to reading it had it not been in print. While still including some of Kroese’s brilliant humor, YPJ was a much more straight-forward sci-fi heist story, which I liked a lot. Pepper is a tough SF dame in the older mold – smart, clever, quick thinking on her feet, and creative in her approaches to problems, rather than a 5’2″ war machine in pleather. She was one of the better parts in Starship Grifters and took a lot of the burden off Sasha from being the one competent character, so it was fun to see her in her own story. FWIW, The Yanthus Prime Job is a lot closer to the sort of fiction that I, myself, am looking to buy for Cirsova than either Starship Grifters or Aye, Robot (even though they were both great). YPJ shows me that Kroese’s talents go way beyond clever wordplay interspersed with his nod-giving action SF; in a fairly silly setting, he’s able to tell a straight-forward but intense story that showcases his short fiction chops.

I’m already looking forward to the next installment in the Nihilo-verse, but I think I’ll be looking into more of Kroese’s fiction before then, when I get a chance.

Also, thanks for putting a ray gun in Rex’s hand on the cover. He looked kinda weird just standing there hands- on the last one.

starship grifters*: I backed the Kickstarter for a softcover of the first book. I think that Robert may have sent me a copy of Aye, Robot for having shilled for him (unpaid, of course) on Twitter. If that’s the case, thanks, Robert, I really appreciated it!

Aldair, Across the Misty Sea

Aldair, Across the Misty Seas is a book I bought by mistake. The bookstore was dark, and for some reason “Barnett” looked like “Brackett” when I was pulling various DAW, Ace and Zebra books off the shelf for a flea market haul.

Aldair is a pulp-style post-apocalyptic furry sword & seafarer science fiction. It could be that I jumped in on what turned out to be the third volume of a four volume series, but what left me gobsmacked was the appearance that it was written from a ‘place of furness’.

Now, what the hell do I mean by that? When folks talk about writers writing from ‘a place of whiteness’, they generally mean that the writer and the characters in the story take for granted the fact that they’re white – they are the default, and other races and cultures are “the other”. Well, in Aldair, it seemed as though the fact that everyone was an anthro furry was taken for granted.

It took several pages before I figured that something was up. The locations and races were described in terms of faux antiquity, so that it read like a historical adventure – the seafaring Vikonen, the fallen empire of the Rhemians, the Stygiann, rattling off places like Gaullia and Niciea… They were shorthand for the familiar used in a way similar to Howard’s Hyborian world. So, when the narrator mentioned that someone from Gaullia would come up to the chest of a Vikonen warrior, I thought that maybe it was just a figure of speech.

Then the main character describes his Niciean buddy, Thareesh, and his Rhemian dame, Corycia, who is the daughter (or niece, I forget) of Titus Andromeda (so she’s a princess!). The Nicieans are greenskinned and scaly. Cool, Aldair’s got reptile friends! Then Aldair describes the first time he met Corycia, with beautiful auburn hair and a revealing green dress that accentuated her rows of breasts.  Wait.  Rows of breasts?! Throughout the book, characters are described in terms of having paws or claws, muzzles and snouts, but with the exception of the lizardmen who are pretty specifically lizardmen (as a non-furry other), it’s left very vague as to what kinds of petting-zoo people these folks actually are. I’m proud of myself for having correctly guessed that the Vikonen were bears, and by the end I figured out rounds about what most of the characters were, but the book never came out and said “Corycia was a faux-Roman cat-girl” or “Signar is an axe-wielding bearman sea captain”, because the narrator never saw fit to expound on those details. Again, this could be that I just jumped in on the 3rd book of a series, but it made for an interesting reading experience.

But was it good?

Yes, it was pretty damn awesome. And considering that I had no benefit of having read (or until an after-the-fact Google search even known that there were) previous books in the series, it STILL held up on its own, that says something. It was a mix of Baron Munchausen and Horatio Hornblower with a touch of Frank G. Slaughter’s or Anya Seyton’s historical adventure romance; crazy adventures on the high seas, swashbuckling adventure, sword-fights, and even some robots.

In a dark and distant future, Man created anthro-furries, then Man destroyed himself in various wars, leaving petting-zoo people to repeat the history of man, building their own kingdoms and empires that would flourish, war, and fall into ruin.

Aldair is on a quest to find the secrets of Man, hoping that somehow he will find something that will allow beast-kind to break the chains of history’s vicious cycle. In this book, his adventure takes his small fleet from a Vikonen village in what is probably Greenland to North America and eventually to the Amazon, with countless disasters and fights with scary monsters happening in the intervening time. It’s well written and strangely compelling. Again, the comparison that springs most to mind is Forester’s Hornblower stories (particularly those early-ish in HH’s career). Reading Aldair’s travails as captain of a small fleet of ships supported by his quirky and likable lieutenants was a joy.

The only downside is that my reading list just went up by three books as I now need to track down the first two for some context and the last book to find out if Aldair ever rescues his dame from the mutineer who absconded with her into space.

aldair

Aldair and Thareesh in a hot air balloon scouting for the ship that got separated from fleet in a storm. Even the covers of the first 3 books make it impossible to tell what kind of petting zoo person Aldair is! (he’s a piggy man)

aldair 2

Corycia, Rhalgorn, Aldair, and Signar, shown in all of their beastness on the 4th volume’s cover, which was done in a completely different style from the other three. I kind of imagined Aldair looking a bit more dapper…

Winter/Early Spring Short Review Round-up

For those of you not following along at Castalia House, I’ve reviewed several more short stories, including a lot of G-Men detective yarns. Plus, I reviewed Kroese’s Starship Grifters and Cynthia Ward’s The Adventure of the Incognita Countess. Check em out!

http://www.castaliahouse.com/retro-fandom-friday-rocketship-x-m/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-panama-peril-by-jean-francis-webb/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-pa-howdy-goes-fishing/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-thieves-blueprint-by-ronal-kayser-as-dale-clark/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/review-starship-grifters-by-robert-kroese/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-too-smart-to-die-by-george-antonio-wetter/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-review-you-cant-plant-murder-by-donald-bayne-hobart-beware-and-the-black-chamber/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-death-by-a-dusty-blade-by-frank-johnson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/review-the-adventure-of-the-incognita-countess/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-moon-that-vanished-by-leigh-brackett/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-that-mess-last-year-by-john-d-macdonald-and-galactic-heritage-by-frank-belknap-long/

 

Cute Knight – First Impressions

Despite its simplicity, I’ve really been enjoying this.

I’ve played through three times now and gotten three endings:

-Royal Knight

-Dancer

-Librarian

 

The Librarian path was basically a “bad end” because my character got depressed and gave up on her dreams. The goal that time around was a magic build, but it was hampered by the fact that I was too poor to study magic and too frail to earn a living.

Busking felt a little OP as a means of making money, since Charm and Luck are the cheapest stats to raise. It took more than one instance for ‘private party’ to register as code for prostitution (I thought a noble was asking for a performance at an exclusive gala – why else would he be paying over a week’s honest wages for a single night?)

Turned out that you could make a bit more money as a bartender or waitress, but without the chance for a big naughty bonus.

Even as a fighter, I relied heavily on busking to keep myself out of penury. The cost to become a decent fighter or magician makes the economics of being a dungeon crawler a bit questionable. If I’d known that winning the jousting tournament and accepting a job as a knight triggered the end-game, I might have turned it down because I really want to see how deep the dungeon will go and making a good fighter build is tricky.

I want to do more with the magic system, but again, making enough money to learn magic and not suck at it is a tough goal in its own right. I maxed out item creation with one character but never learned any recipes. I’ll also probably try out both a “tamer” class and being a villain. Part of why my Librarian ended the way she did was that she sucked at everything and got depressed before she could grind up her taming skill. Learning tamer hurts your charm (cuz you smell like animal crap), which also hurts some of your best revenue generating jobs, so I’ll probably have to find a birthsign that starts good at it and can get better, making enough money at other stuff that I won’t go broke or get depressed. My dancer ended up almost being a villain…

In Cute Knight’s morality system, killing anything that isn’t undead, stealing, and sleeping with guys for money raise your “Sin” stat which has a range of negative effects. No one will want to hang out with you in the square, the Church won’t let you stay the night for free, and if you’re really awful, the magical ward around the slums will register you as being a dangerous monster and keep you trapped unless you make sizable donations to the doctor or volunteer to help the sick and injured. Or you can hang out with bad guys and become a bad guy in the bad part of town. I’ll maybe see what happens going the bad guy route.

http://www.hanakogames.com/ckd.shtml

Lego Batman

This is just a quick review of the Lego Batman movie.

If you’re a fan of Batman, watch it.

Its story is just coherent enough that it manages to keep rolling along while delivering nonstop Batman fanservice.

Like the first Lego movie, it is painfully self-aware, and I really don’t think it’s going to stay a fresh and enjoyable approach into the Ninjago movie they had a trailer for, but if you got a kick out of narcissistic asshole Batman there, this manages to keep the funny coming.

Batman here is a grotesque, all of his worst qualities (particularly those from the 80s & 90s comic incarnations) are exaggerated and played for laughs but also to give a bit insight into just why Batman is so messed up. It ends up looking at a lot of the same themes as Dark Victory, just taking an incredibly gonzo approach to get there.

I don’t know how well it would work as an actual kids movie; there’s plenty of action and explosions and slapstick humor, but much of the comedy and entertainment value revolves around either Batman being a terrible person or Batman obscura in film, cartoons and comics. If you’re a Batman fan, it’s definitely worth a couple of bucks to see.

(Did anybody else think it was weird that they used Carrie Kelley’s character design for a Robin that was supposed to be Dick Grayson?!)