Jungle Heat

Jungle Heat (Nord Studios) came out way back in 2013, just one year after Clash of Clans. Amazingly, it has all the new features, mostly. It’s ignored the new stuff that makes it more playable, and has even managed to screw-up things that were working.

But first, what does a “Jungle Heat” theme look like? Not much. The heroes seem like characters from Vietnam war movies — green face paint, headbands, a guy named “machete fighter”, plus ever-popular Robot Santa Clause, and “Agent” (clearly Will Smith from Men in Black). One of the air units is a Black Hawk helicopter, which is a nice try (they weren’t in use until 1979, 4 years after the war ended). The fade-out/in effect is very leafy — it’s the most jungley thing in the whole game.

With that resolved, lets see what this ancient game kept up on. It’s got those defense buildings which pop out riflemen. It has the protect-my-neighbors building, and also the enhance-my-neighbors-power one. It’s got the super-cheesy customizable defense building, upgradable only with piles of gems (I hate these, but it’s a new invention which they took the time to copy). As noted, besides normal heroes there are bonus unlockable ones from the start. There’s a building which lets you spend Dark Matter for various 8-hour buffs. A new type of barracks has troops which cost gold&manna — that’s new. There’s a first-winning-attack-of-the-day loot bonus. It has Boom-Beach-style Idols. It’s even got a Builder Base — the separate small base where you have 1-on-1 duels seeing who can smash the other guy’s base more.

In short, it’s kept up with just about everything, and even tried some new stuff. And now the bad:

The map edges are frustratingly thin. What I mean is, in a normal clash-like, attacking troops can be deployed past edge of the map. Some people like to push their base against the sides, thinking those parts are safe, but they’re not. Well, in Jungle Heat hugging the edges is better. The part of the edge attackers can go in is so thin that it’s tricky to tap there. Now that I think about it, tapping anywhere except a completely open area is wonky in this game. Maybe to help with that, they added a toggle to let you place multiple troops at a time. It puts down all troops of that type. Why would anyone want to do that?

Bombs attack the nearest walls, making them less than useful. After putting holes in the outer layer, your next bombs will blow up every bit of it before going to the inner wall. And that’s if the defender hasn’t placed a single wall post in the middle of nowhere to distract them. The funny thing is there seems to be decent bomb AI — sometimes they avoid useless walls and head for the good ones, but rarely. To make up for the terrible AI, bombs only cost one space. I’ve taken to releasing bombs in waves.

Resting heroes are on your attack scroll bar. Let me explain: after heroes attack they need to rest, skippable if you spend gems. You can pay to wake them up from your Town Hall. Fair enough. But those same “pay gems to wake me up” heroes are wasting space on your freaking attack scroll bar. To get to your spells you’ve got to slide past the heroes you can’t use right now. All-in-all, I’m pretty happy when I get most of my troops about where I wanted them and didn’t spend too many gems by mistake.

The game has players! That’s not the bad thing. The bad thing is that in the course of being steam-rolled twice a day during events, I’ve noticed these TH12 monsters are getting a decent chunk of gold from me. Every other game adds a loot penalty to avoid that. Not Jungle Heat — go ahead and grief much lower level players.

Finally, there’s army training. It sucks. They didn’t add the rule where you can train up to double your army limit, which is merely disappointing. But they didn’t even add a button to retrain your old army. Even worse, they have one, but only to retrain instantly for gems, and it’s right in the middle of your barracks-training scroll, too. You have to go past that mocking “spend a pile of gems” menu every time you’re laboriously tapping your army back in.

It’s not a bad clash-like, except for being unplayable. I’m going to quit just as soon as I get to stage 45 of the NPC missions and rescue “Huntress”. You see, in the first two scripted scenes I had to build a cannon to defend against a bad guy, and then I was told he’s captured “Huntress” and I have to rescue her. That thrilling story has me hooked. I need to see how it ends.

Ebony Gate

“Ebony Gate: The Pheonix Hoard, book 1” (Julia Vee & Ken Bebelle) is discordant. It’s got the elements of a proper UFDR but it’s just so epic. Our hero Emiko thinks she wasn’t good enough for her ex-boyfriend from a rich and powerful family. But her family is … one of the big eight and even more rich and powerful. She’s a dissappointment to her family — they wanted her to be a ninja-assassin and she … became a world-class ninja-assassin. Mid-book she’s worried that her business partners might learn her secret; which would be a great thing to worry about if she didn’t have 19 hours and 34 minutes to save San Fransisco from demons. In short, she’s written as down-trodden when she’s anything but and that’s, well … discordant.

But first, let’s go over the UFDR parts. The secret world is “Big Trouble in Little China”, but more secret. They mind-wipe or kill outsiders who find out. That’s easy because many of them have a natural magic power. Toughness or telekenisus or air blades, but also the ability to make all sorts of mind-affecting charms. It’s got a bit of Harry Potter “there’s a spell for that” silliness: when they need to repair a valuable magic item, Emiko remembers she might be able to find some repair-o-mancers. But overall the secret world is fine, and I’m curious what gets added in the next book. Oh, for more fun, they’re all actually refugees from another dimension.

She’s pathetic enough with sufficiently low self-esteem for this genre. She’s not concerned about her looks, but she’s very, very insecure about her lack of magical talent. Everyone in her family and her world has magic, except her. And her parents really are disappointed with her. While she was an excellent family ninja-assassin, she quit several years ago after an especially bloody public incident and has moved to SF to find herself. But of course her reputation has followed her and her only friends are her human business partners, her amulet supplier and her potion-maker. But over the course of the book she decides to stop being a recluse and meets everyone she’s been avoiding. It’s charming, but also surprisingly easy.

Her new romance is also good for this genre. He’s super-rich, handsome, expert at her obscure form of judo (but she’s better), and is sort of a jerk who won’t stop crudely hitting on her. But … he’s a normie, not part of the magic world. That’s a problem since he won’t stop trying to research his ancestral magic sword. He’s out of the picture about half-way through, put into the hospital after seeing a mgical secret magic battle. After the climax he’s released but has partial amnesia. On the last page they’re seeing each other “as friends”. Her studly ex-BF is also back in town now dating a powerful local woman who Emiko likes. That’s an acceptable amount of low-key ill-fated romance.

We don’t get any casual sexism. It actually goes the other way where anyone tough who matters is a woman: Emiko’s mom is the world’s most epic magical assassin (her dad stays home running the business), the leader of the friendly clan is an ultra-competent warrior woman (her brother is an inexperienced bumbler), and the bad guy is a man can’t even fight — he uses Mind Control. And of course, Emiko’s reputation as a heartless killer precedes her. No one calls her little missy. There’s nothing wrong with that in general, but if you’re going to write an underdog female character, for adults who are very familiar with “can I talk to your husband or father?” nonsense, why would you give that up to make the world more boring and unrealistic?

She’s not a detective. She owns a small business locating and appraising artifacts with two human partners. That’s like detecting, maybe? But we don’t see her doing it, and she’s rich anyway, and the main plot is her being chosen to save the city. Basically, the hero’s small band of friends isn’t in this book.

On to the plot. Naturally it’s driven by her two-day-deadline. It has some twists and turns, but a big amount is her just knowing where the bad guys will be, going there, kicking ass, then they barely get away. How she deals with the demon-ghosts sums up the weaknesses: only Shaolin-blessed swords can hurt demon-ghosts, but she figures a Shaolin monk might have some other advice if he’ll even meet with her. It turns out the monk has seen how much good she’s done while in SF, and likes her, and loans her a blessed sword. It’s touching as we realize she’s her worst critic. But she solved her problem by getting a bigger sword. That’s a Dungeons&Dragons plot.

It’s common in this genre for regular folks to have heard that our heroine can help with magical problems, as if she’s some sort of protector. This book cranks that to eleven, creating a formal magical position “Protector of the City”, awarded by the semi-sentient city itself. That could be interesting, but here it comes with epic magical powers, fame, respect, and a parade. Emiko is now into comic-book levels of epicness. And as a nit-pick, the powers include earthquakes and roots bursting from the ground. Those are nature powers. Shouldn’t city powers use concrete and buildings and so on?

This book isn’t bad. I might even read the next one to see how things turn out, because there are some fun loose ends. The woman who runs the best restaurant in town still hates her and won’t sell her pork rolls. Emiko is going to stay friends with a young girl from the bad-guy clan — another ninja-assassin in training. Her younger brother has his traumatic Royal Rumble school graduation ceremony coming up. Her two business partners are starting to get curious about her past. Will she explain magic to her new possible boyfriend? All things which I’m sure will barely be touched as she fights a giant squid or something in book two.

Dragon Lords (3DS)

After FXGamesMedia finished making the innovative Clash-like “Galaxy Control 3D Strategy” they decided to make another. Exciting right? What will they come up with next? It turns out: nothing — they reskinned their first, calling it “Dragon Lords 3D Strategy”. And it’s a true reskin. In GC3D when you attack NPC island 3 stage 2 it says “oh, no, they’re attacking you” and goes to a base defense. In DL3D, exact same thing. But FXGMedia manage to add one nice thing and makes one odd change.

Decorations! Your fresh base starts with movable, rotatable(!) trees and roads. You can buy more right away. Even the buildings are rotatable. They went all-out on a decoration system to match the best. Despite this big push, the art-style is still poorly matched generic crud. I wonder if someone was once burned by scope creep and was all “decorations, that’s a deliverable! And I don’t want to see any time-wasting notes about fixing dinky little stuff from before”.

Game-play wise, remember how Galaxy Control added a small shove to the Wizard Tower attack, but it was slightly bugged? I guess they couldn’t fix it, since it’s gone in this game. But the real change is how your army is half the size. Like if you would have had an army of 30 archers and 20 soldiers in the Galaxy game, in Dragon Lords it’s 15 and 10. It’s better, I suppose — You’ve plenty of troops and never think “I wish I had twice as many that were 1/2 as tough”. But it seems like a lot of work rebalancing the numbers for this one change.

Every new Clash-like seems to have at least broken troop type. In this it’s Balloons (renamed mini-dragons). They’re mid-game troops that fly and go after defenses and in Clash they’re balanced by slowness and vulnerability to air defenses; but not in this game. I once didn’t look closely and put them all directly in the path of the blower-back air defense thingy. It looks cool in action and was pretty effective at delaying my guys. Still won easily. Mini-dragons are OP. But you know, I’m sure it gets better at town hall 8.

Galaxy Control

Clash-like “Galaxy Control 3D Strategy” may be the best new clash-like, with the worst name. It grabs most of the good ideas from post-clash clash-likes, adds some nice ones of it’s own, and doesn’t screw it up too much. But boy does it punt on the art: your base is the galaxy’s grayest asteroid; don’t ask me to tell a level 1 cannon from a level 3 one, from a tool shed. The overall theme seems to be “generic SciFi” and that’s being generous.

Besides the art, they screwed up other easy things. In the PC port, keys 1-9 select the troop type (during a battle), and that’s it for keys. We can’t even press Enter to select the “OK” button. Then there’s the camera. The game uses real 3D, not just sprites, and the camera spins around and zooms in/out. Cool. But for no reason the maximum zoom is much too close. And it resets to all the way zoomed in whenever you come back from another screen. I’m used to it now, but it’s not good.

Now onto the good parts, starting with what it borrows. Like most newer clash-likes, your Barracks and Army Camps are moved off to the side, since we already have enough damage sponge buildings. Our few hidden land-mines work the “good” way — a smaller detection radius and a delay — giving a decent chance to catch groups. We get Boom Beach-style idols (enchantments like +3% more Ore). We also get Boom Beach style “Resource bases” to conquer (more later). Spells use a point system (but old-style, spell points are bought in advance and come back slowly). Only winning attacks get loot. Premature HQ upgrades are prevented using the old overall level requirement. Finally, you’re allowed to double your haul from an attack twice a day (and without having to watch an Ad, like the 40K clash-like makes you do). I realize these aren’t explained well, but they’re the best new ideas — each new clash-like invented like one of these.

Now onto new stuff. Other clash-likes have experimented with buildings that buff their neighbors. GC:3DS gives that to the humble, otherwise pointless Builder Shack (in this case, it’s an aura of bonus health). The AoE “wizard tower” gets a cool new ability — push-back. It can now annoy giants, or hold off barbarians while gradually whittling them down. It’s bugged and sometimes pushes attackers sideways or just sucks them in, but is super-cool the 80% of the time it works right. As usual, resource bases are occasionally stolen from you, but in this game it’s only by a ghost copy of another player; recapture it once and you’re done until next week (compared to the grueling back&forth battle in Boom Beach).

Then there are some nice tries. Upgrading storages requires you to max out the corresponding harvesters. At first that seems like that cheesy trick “X needs Y, but Y needs Z and Z …” which amounts to having to fully upgrade everything in lockstep. But harvesters are where battle loot comes from (or doesn’t, since smart-alec’s never upgrade them). So sure, make everyone max out collectors so we can steal more. We also get new “landing pad” buildings which receives deliveries from your resource bases.

Each Barracks is matched to one Army Camp. Let me explain: in every other clash-like, leveling one Barracks to Dragons allows you to grow an entire army of dragons. But here, that single dragon-making barracks can only fill its Camp. To put Dragons in the other camps you’ll need to level their Barrackses. It’s fun in practice. You rarely want more than one Camp-full of most units, like giants or wall-breakers, but for that flying army it makes you work a little harder.

Victory in Clan wars (Mon, Wed, and Fri) is determined using the point values of destroyed bases. Since lower level bases are worth fewer points, it makes lower-level clan members less important. I like it. A newish player can contribute, but no big deal if they mess-up. And it also makes it worth trying more difficult bases (since 75% of a tougher base may be worth more points than 100% of a weaker one).

Finally, every reskin needs a cutsie cosmetic addition. While anything is upgrading, little robots deliver a stream of elixer or gold (sorry — minerals or uranium) to it. Wall sections even drop to let them pass (which I could do without, since it looks like you left holes in your wall). I’m not in love with those five fresh additions, but the designers are trying, and they’re not bad.

Now onto exciting advances in monetization, because we know it has those! After an attack you’re hoping to find an idol-making crystal under a random destroyed building. That’s great. But rarely you’ll find an impressive glowing green orb. The game tells you how special this is aaand … takes you to the special cash shop. Next, and not as thrilling, our daily gifts for the month include a few of the troop production speed-up item (the thing which makes the game playable at high levels). Adding teaser like that is an old trick, but rare in clash-likes. And that leads us to the best thing: it has a true battle pass. As usual, the small free daily gift is displayed as a top track, and for $5/month you can unlock the lower, much better VIP track.

So, how does it play? For a clash-like it’s fine. A huge plus is having other players. I get attacked once every other day, and a few people do stuff in each clan war. That’s a feat in itself. But some draw-backs: you can’t train a back-up army, which means there’s a wait after every attack. I mean, yeah, you keep troops that live, but the “must win to get loot” rule ensures many casualties. There’s also no level limit for troops in the clan castle. Sometimes an easy mark has a deadly unkillable monstrosity come out of their clan castle, donated by their maxed-out buddy. On the plus side, there’s a Retreat button.

Magic [verbs] series

Magic Burns by “Ilona Andrews” (a pair of writers) is surprisingly well-written. It starts out fast — a phone call from a fellow mercenary wakes our herione from her lonely bed. He needs help on a tricky rush job. After agressively negotiating her cut, we jump ahead to where she’s dodging fireballs as her friend sneaks up on the bad guy. And wouldn’t you know it — just as they conk him out, the city-wide magic flare-up fades back down. Wonderful. Right away we know who she is and learn that magic flare-ups are going to be a problem. Next we get a slick info-dump. A bystander sees our hero’s Order badge and says “my kid wants to join them, but how are they different from the Merc’s Guild?”. Very nice. Oh, right — both guilds handle monster problems, but The Order does it with extreme prejudice. She works for both, so that might be fun.

Non-sucky writing continues through-out the book. That long description of a random cave — it will be important later. Her werewolf and vampire friends arguing during the walk to the park — we learn something about how those groups interact in this world. This may be the only book of this type without a page of “banter” about who loves coffee more. But before more praise of the writing, the checklist:

A point agianst: she’s single with no family or close friends. But during the book she adopts an orphan and gets close to a work friend, sharing their deep secrets and getting werewolf relationship advice. So that’s fine. Then more bad: she’s comfortable with her appearance and is also pretty confident, probably due to her skill in “martial arts killing machine”. Yeah — it’s one of those books. But to, uh, humanize her?, she’s super horny, nearly leaping at every man she sees (this is a reverse spoiler for me — now I know she hasn’t had sex at all for the entire first book. This is the second book). As we know, women objectifying men is fine.

Another point against: she’s not a weird magical 1/2-thing, but she makes up for it with Dark Secrets! Who taught her deadly illegal magic? And why can she control the undead? She might be 1/2-something.

The world’s backstory is where it gets good. The magical world is public, mostly since decades of high-magic waves have wrecked parts of the city, messing-up tech during the peaks. Crossbows are the go-to weapon and transportation is either horses or dual gas&magic cars. Werewolves have sub-tribes for various species (were-hyenas) and the “alpha” is just a strong guy who’s a decent politician. Witch covens fall into registered and unregistered. Vampires are two-part things. Humans can be turned into mindless killing undead, known as vampires. But real vampires are this other race who stay at home while puppeting the mindless ex-human vampires around town. And everyone seems to be using Fomorians now. They’re public domain “real” Irish monsters (and were even in the Dungeons&Dragons Monster Manual from the 1980’s). Those are the bad guys here.

Hitting the genre straight on, she solves plenty of problems by merely talking. Her first case is all talk. Her ex-boyfriend wants to marry the werewolf leader’s ex-girlfriend, and they want her to get the leader’s permission. After some brawling, she hears his side, they about ex’s, and eventually he comes around. That’s exactly how to do it — “the main plot is trying to murder me, but I have to talk about that wedding”. The book has a sexy, mysterious who’s-side-is-he-on guy. After the usual taunts and sexual tension, she gets him to admit he’s only groping her out of reflex. He actually like farm girls and is very lonely in general, and she convinces him that doing a good deed for some sexy witches will help him with both. Then we find out they were on the same side of the main plot, but his macho lone-wolf attitude kept him from realizing that. She’s practically a monster therapist.

She even pretty much solves the main case by talking. She’s the one’s able to meet with everyone and figure out the whole picture. Sure, she’s randomly attacked and solves a few problems by fighting, but it’s not too silly (well, sometimes it is, like when she’s flung across the room by an ogre-swipe and somehow counters by cutting out its liver. But what are you going to do?)

The writing and plotting is decent enough that one quibble stands out. Early on she’s looking for a little girl’s mother, which includes visiting her old house (a clean one, apparently proving she’s a good mom). A chapter later she awkwardly explains that she left a note for the mom while she was there. It’s as if the authors realized they messed-up but weren’t allowed to go back and fix the old chapter.

All-in-all this is a great book in the genre. It’s got enough romance, enough relationships, that strong “this is a job for a woman” vibe. My only worry is it may be a bit too well-written. Readers of these like two pages of the bad-guy calling her a stupid C, then two more pages of him yelling “how is a lowly woman beating me!”. Here the badguy only calls her a B the minimum required number of times (twice).

Bad Girls Drink Blood

Bad Girls Drink Blood (S.L.Choi) has some fun ideas and might be worth reading, but I’m not excited for book two. A big reason for that is the super icky love interest. It’s yet another noble Prince-in-Exile, who’s also vastly older than her. And he’s been grooming her since she was 15, deciding she was “a female worthy of him”. At first she’s shocked to hear this, and a chapter later … decides that it’s normal and actually very romantic.

If you can stand to read more, on to the secret world. It’s fine. In this universe the supernatural stuff is public knowledge, but doesn’t mix much. Most magic critters live in fairyland, anyway. Mainly, humans get a thrill out of visiting non-human establishments. It’s not the usual dark demons and vampires and weres. What we get are Sun fairies and Moon fairies (which are more like elves). Awww. Sure, there are a few big scaries, but we also get furballs who can sprout fangs and teeth but even then are more cute than deadly. And there isn’t a Master Vampire in sight.

Powers-wise, she’s super strong, heals by drinking blood, and is weak in sunlight. So she’s a 1/2-vampire, right? Well, no — she’s a defective artificial creation for The War called a Blood Elf. That’s neat, right? Of course we later meet some normal full Blood Elves and learn a little about why she’s defective.

Her personality does a great job of pushing what the genre wants. She’s the muscle in the family detective agency, so thinks of herself as stupid, especially compared to her sisters. Back in fairyland she was put down by Sun Fairies and has clearly internalized it. She wants to hate them for being all stuck-up and elfy, except her adopted sister is a Sun Elf. She can’t use magic and dislikes fairies who can, but her other ice-fairy adopted sister is super-magical. Basically, she’s a mess of insecurities and constantly second-guesses herself.

Back to the secret world and plot, we find out the war was Sun vs. Moon elves. But later that it was just one Moon elf faction. We learn that the art of portal-creation was part of the war, possibly involving long-lost druids. We learn that fairy magic is channelled through foci, which all come from living crystals. We get some Moon Elf politics. It’s fine.

But then come the story problems. Having met her True Prince so early, flirting and new guys out of the equation. The main bad guy is cartoonish — pure evil, even using evil spells, with a needless personal hatred towards our girl, sexist insults included. Then the last half turns into pure action. As the danger escalates, the answer is turning our heroine into a killing machine. She just punches and smashes and slays her way to the ending.

And that’s the rest of why I have low hopes for book two (and there will be one — this book is AKA “Bad Fae Druid Book 1”). As part of the turn to action, she just wins. We started with her and her two adopted sisters trying to keep the detective agency afloat, living in a makeshift house hidden by the human/fairy border, questioning whether she’s good enough. By the end she’s saved the world, is besties with the queen, has cathartically overcome the effects of childhood bullying, has found her soulmate, and has gained an epic new power.

Sure, we still have her sister with a crush on that insufferable Sun Fairy royal guard. And she just met her mysterious grandfather. And I guess we could watch her prince boyfriend put his kingdom back in order? But her conflicts are done. Book 2 will probably be named “Queen’s Assassin: Conquest of DarkRealm”.

SkinWalker (more YellowRock)

Series tend to go downhill. This was my thought after reading the third book in Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series. It was so bad, but also popular, that I figured if must be riding on just how terrfic the first one was, titled “SkinWalker”. I’m here to tell you — the series was never good (and was never an Urban Fantasy Detective Romance).

By the third book the main character was boringly overpowered. That can happen — she could have “figured out her powers” in the first two. But no — it turns out she’s always been a heavily-armed expert martial artist with a plot-destroying sense of smell, fast regeneration, shape-change into any animal, and a BFF sorceress providing her with bleeding-edge magical gadgets. The first book hints at a time when she was trying to make it in the world, but then we find out it was merely proving she was the best magical monster exterminator in the world. She’s always been boringly OP.

But surely this first book gave her interesting motivations and unresolved angst (which were solved by book three). But again, not really. She can’t remember her past and claims to be desperate to learn where she came from. That seems to have potential. But when she meets people who know about her, she’s all “hurry up with your boring story old man — I need to kill this bad-guy for the reward”. That’s right — her motivation is money. She spends more time worrying about getting the early completion bonus than trying to find out who her parents were.

But what about the weird cat spirit trapped in her body? In book 3 it’s pretty much nothing, but it was a serious conflict in the first two, right? Again, nope. Midway we find out she doesn’t need the cat spirit for anything — all of her animal and smell powers come from her alone. The cat spirit is just comedic relief. There’s some fake drama about it being a soul she stole, but then we learn that only happened because she absorbed the cat’s body to heal herself after it sneak-attacked and mortally wounded her (wait — she could always do what?)

But maybe book one had a great plot before the author ran out of ideas. Once again, nope. The plot is she has to catch a bad guy, wanders around accidentally seeing him a few times; he runs but she easily smell-tracks him, then grossly out-guns him during the final fight. He appears to have a clue about her past which might make her hesitate — oh, never mind, she slaughters him without a second thought.

Technically there’s complication where a secret wizard’s guild is also hunting the badguy. But it’s a page long — we learn about them at the top, and they’re killed at the bottom. There’s a sub-plot with illegally created wild vampires which seems beneath her since she’s been slapping around the city’s master vampires pretty easily. Oh, it was crammed-in to be her mission for the next book. Yawn. Of course, in solving the case she made an enemy of the city’s master vampire, but we’ve already seen how harmless he is.

Two of my favorite out-of-place bits: she explains her good dancing by saying she took a class. Why do we need to know that? She can out-fight every man, just because, but I guess we need her dancing skills explained in the most out-of-character way. Bit number two starts with her pointlessly browsing stores. For this scene only, pretend she’s poor and has bad fashion sense. She’s thrilled as a helpful shop girl picks out an inexpensive but nice-looking mix-and-match set of tops and skirts. Did pages from a different book fall into this one? We already know she owns and wears custom sexy outfits fitted with special weapon holders.

Onto what we really want to know — what about the gross-out sex kink stuff from book three? Is that the major draw of the series? Oddly, no. She’s nude or nearly nude in many scenes, but we get no lengthy descriptions of that particular kink — no hosing mixtures of bodily fluids from her delicate areas and so on. I like to imagine that the author read fan-fiction based on book one and two, said “oh my!”, thought some more, and decided to give her fans the filth fetish they really wanted in books three+.

Curse on the Land

“Curse on the Land” by Faith Hunter is the second book in her “SoulWood” series. It’s bad, but in an interesting way. I rate it “readable”.

The main character fits the genre in an original way. She’s a former child-bride in a polygamous cult — naive, meek, inexperienced, but gaining confidence and trying to make her place in the world. This naturally gives her a large family of 1/2-siblings with problems. Nell needs to take time out as her younger sister needs guidance with her new magic powers, her sick father won’t see a doctor, her mother frets about her well-being, and an evil tree is taking over the church grounds. Side-bar: highly recommend non-fiction “Escape”, by Carolyn Jessup about growing up in a polygamous cult.

Sadly, she’s not a 1/2-vampire or 1/2-anything. But she’s a new weird thing, so it’s fine. She can interact with the woods around her house (named “SoulWood”) to sense everything for miles (yes, Harry Dresden did this 5 years earlier on his Island). Almost immediately we find her powers work on any old patch of land, but SoulWood is still special since she needs to feed it blood and human lives!?! (which she doesn’t do in this book, but did in the first one, but he was evil). Oh, she’s also immune to most magic, since Earth Power, and she senses she could tell the ground to suck in and devour people. But all she does is sense the ground, mostly saying “yup, this land also has a curse on it”.

Romance-wise there’s not much, but it’s fine. Nell was scarred by her underaged forced-marriage and is surprised when people think of her as sexual. She has a girlhood crush on her werecat partner because he’s around a lot and is nice to her. Good enough.

The required “banter” with her friend team is surreal. It’s trite, way-too-personal, way too much, and male were-creature friends hang out at her house shirtless. A few of them even turn into werecats in her driveway and when she gets home unexpectedly they almost murder her. So funny! Her boss even pulls her off the case to take her on a date to a movie. Wait, her boss? Yeah, the problem is that her “friends” are really her co-workers in an elite government X-Files division. The banter is disturbingly inappropriate here, even if it is how the real Department of Homeland Security behaves.

But another plus, she’s suitably impetuous: in chapter one she almost dies after using her ground powers to go deep and check out an unknown powerful thing. That happens again at a crime scene. The third time she’s learned her lesson, quickly gets a helpful read … and then goes too deep and is almost killed by an unknown powerful thing. She ignores her boss’s orders, but mostly since the whole team is ignored until we need them for the plot.

Yet one more plus, she solves the evil tree problem by just talking to it. Very genre-appropriate. Except this tree saved her life (in the first book, which we’re told over and over) and her first plan was to completely murder it, and she only tried talking after that hilariously failed. Oh, if you were wondering, the tree was acting evil because it was bored.

Now onto the funny parts. Her main job is to take readings with a super state-of-the-art magic detector. It has multiple dials for vampires, werecreatures, ummm, Frankensteins? The author gives a really nice explanation of calibrating to ambient levels so that we always get a reasonable result. But to raise the stakes, on every reading the meter “redlines”. Why did they explain calibration to us? After a few redlines we get a reading where one of the levels is a little shy of the top. But it was a fake-out. The next dozen reading are back to redlining. This is one of the few Urban Fantansy Detective Romances that had me laughing.

Around chapter 4 we meet a top-level agent: young, beautiful, and so important and cool that she ignores all of the agency rules. Everyone says so, and speculates about what she is and what her powers are. Two paragraphs later we’re just told she’s a dragon. Mega-girl announces to everyone that she likes our heroine for being a rule-breaker. She drops by twice later to sign their paychecks or something, and announces to everyone that she likes our heroine for being a rule-breaker. Most boring dragon character ever.

Late in the book a co-worker gains a new power after almost being killed — the power of infodump to advance the plot. I’m actually fine with it: the plot’s been very slow, I don’t have any confidence our heroine can solve it, so give me the outline.

This last funny part is hilariously summed-up in the book. After the plot is over she muses that she hasn’t followed-up on any of her family’s problems. Yes, we all noticed that and don’t know why you’re reminding us. Very little happens in this book.

Sexism is completely botched. Putting up with, mitigating, and getting around sexism is a big theme in a real Urban Fantasy Detective Romance. In this book, one guy makes one sexist remark and he’s pounced on by everyone else. The heroine doesn’t even have time to be offended before he’s apologizing. That’s just boring wish-fulfillment. She didn’t have to overcome anything.

Finally, get ready — this is a spin-off! Nell talks to the Jane YellowRock character, from that series, twice over the phone in this book, and Jane saved our life in book one. Doing that makes no sense. The Jane character is a generic bad-ass male-fantasy filth kinkster with no inner life to speak of. It’s a different genre.

Oh, geez, the plot: a spell got out-of-control, everyone who cast it is just silently waiting to die, but Nell convinces them to shut it down. I can’t believe I forgot that!

Can it be less immersive?

The MMO Albion Online uses the new-style “economics and player-vs-player” format, and is also free-to-play. It’s a fine game, I guess, if you like that sort of thing, but two things jumps out. One is the sneaky way it incentivizes the monthly subscription. The other is the almost mathematical design, like it’s a board game.

Free-to-play MMO’s have a few options to make money. A common fair-seeming one is a free trial. Often it’s unlimited time, but content-limited — you can’t go past level X, or can’t play the latest expansion. The other way is using the cash shop to demonstrate how free players are lowly peasants — you can try the non-fun version to get a feel, then buy and subscribe to play the real game. Albion runs between these in a clever way. Buying the subscription gets you a personal chunk of land (an “island”, but not really). and triples your “crafting bonus points”. That doesn’t seem like anything to a new player. Only later do you realize the value, but then you still don’t really need it.

You can build crafting stations on your island, but cities already have them. Islands seem pointless. Later you realize the looms and smithies in cities have an extra tax which can be enough to make crafting unprofitable. But by then you’re using the crafting stations in your guild. Moving on, those “bonus crafting points” only give a small bonus — subscribing to get more seems pointless. But then you realize how the margins work. Your normal crafting can turn $100 of elm into $105 of elm lumber. With the bonus that becomes $120. It quadrupled your profit. Those daily bonus crafting bonus points are a big source of income. But even knowing that, you don’t have to craft. You can gather or fight. But then you find out you can farm on your island, which is very profitable if you use bonus crafting points.

Net, new players don’t feel any pressure to subscribe, but they might want a cool island. End-game players are still perfectly fine playing for free, unless they want to get into crafting. It’s a very clever fair-seeming system.

Onto players always fighting. 15 years ago Eve OnLine discovered the formula for meaningful player murdering. You make the game about the economy. Everything is made by other players, including the best weapons. They’re made from stuff other people made, down the line, with the bottom being miners and lumberjacks. They go into the wilderness, making longer trips for the more valuable stuff. Players fight to mug them, or protect them, or guilds fight to control areas with the best stuff to harvest. It turns out those games work — they attract a good mix of players who want to pirate, or fight pirates, or avoid pirates.

Most games in this style try to set this up in a realistic-seeming world. Albion Online ignores realism. They want a mathematically perfect design. The world is a perfect hexagon, made of smaller hexagons. Six perfectly-spaced cities are around it, with the big one in the middle. Player-vs-player restrictions are in perfect concentric rings. Resources are laid out with mathematical precision in pie-shaped wedges — all of the wood is in a 30-degree wedge, exactly opposite the one city with a crafting bonus to wood. The designers don’t pretend to understand why you’d want the world to feel natural.

Older games have semi-realistic crafting. You make brass from copper and tin, since that’s how you make actual brass. Albion doesn’t understand that. Every type of material uses the same formula, for example, crafting a Tier-5 refined material requires 3 Tier-5 raw materials and a Tier-4 refined material. Huh? That’s how they say that a cedar plank is made from 3 cedar logs and a pine plank. To clarify, in this game you create a cedar plank by improving a birch plank (Tier2) into a chestnut one (Tier3), into a pine plank, then finally into the cedar. That works for the game economy — everything will always be in demand — and Albion proudly doesn’t care how ridiculous it is.

Normal game worlds work hard for suspension of disbelief and a sense of wonder. Albion says to forget that stuff — it’s been done to death. What people want now is a world laid out with almost mathematical precision, without a lot of confusing dressing-up with how things work “for real”.

I’m a little worried I made it sound good, so a warning: it uses click-to-move with a top-down camera. There. Now you’re either scared off, or just have to play it.

Black Desert of Content

There’s this MMO, Black Desert Online, that I just don’t get. People still play it. It gets new characters and months-long “seasons” to level them up. That’s not what has me confused. It’s Korean, which means it’s graphics-card-boilingly extra shiny, with sexy armour and boob sliders for the ladies. Character customization settings can be saved and traded. Is that waifu? It uses pre-set characters, for example a Witch is always a little girl named Deneve who uses a staff. Some people get furious, calling that “gender locking”, but not these players. Game-play is good: skills are fighting game quality — fast mini-combos, added movement, invulnerability frames, small juggles, cancels; and the monster packs are varied and challenging. I recommend it if you get a deal. But here’s what I don’t get: the fans are all about doing end-game stuff, and end-game stuff is a cross between pointless and non-existant.

For a while I thought this was a big PvP game. PvP is World — can be attacked any time — and Clan vs. Clan. Players rave about how 1-on-1 PvP is fast and skill-based. But apparently only in Korea on a LAN with sub-zero ping speeds. Plus it’s pointless — if you kill some sleazebag stealing your ore, you can’t loot them, and they quickly pop back alive with no penalties. Forums say the Clan-vs-Clan is just a boring AoE spam-fest. So the exciting end game isn’t player-vs-player.

I don’t hate the plot or the heroic device: the region’s been conquered and you can work for the new overlords or the rebels. You’re so tough because you made a deal with a tiny energy ball of a demon, but have amnesia and can’t recall what or why. Sadly, we never find out. But fans see this as just something to rush through on the way to End Game. Black Desert isn’t popular because of the story.

Now about that end-game. To get gold you set up a farm and an off-line factory system. There are guides and then it’s just 1/2-hour of tending them with an alt. The rest of your time is farming monsters for gold — kill monsters in a big circle which respawn by the time you get back. Every few days, use that gold to attempt to level-up your weapon. That’s it. No dungeons, no 3×3 arena league. Just grinding. Updates to the game are just new more powerful weapons and more areas to grind for gold. I don’t get it. There are boss battles: time-limited tokens allow one to be summoned, and it’s tough but quickly trounceable by your guild, dropping weapon upgrade items. In other words, they’re not boss battles, merely a boss-themed way to grind for upgrade items. I don’t get the appeal.

Each character can choose from two weapons, each with their own moves. That’s nice, but it’s done in the worst possible way. You have one weapon the entire game. Then at max level you lose it, which means you lose all your moves, and are forced to use the new second weapon. There’s a quest to re-unlock the original. It involves fighting (yep — you’re forced to learn the new moves).

Of course, the upgrading process is ridiculously over-complicated. The chance drops to a few percent — sometimes literally zero. Stacking various items will raise it to single digits. An expensive but near-mandatory item prevents losing a level on failure. Every time you fail, there’s a small cumulative bonus added to the next try. It’s too small and expensive to use directly, but if you build up a “fail chance” on a cheap weapon you can transfer it to your real weapon (using another expensive item). Now you’re on track to finish in a month or two. Except the inevitable failures build up enchantment damage which eventually needs fixing (using more expensive items). There are multiple ways of doing these, with internet guides on which is best depending on current level and your tolerance for risk.

While writing down those last two paragraphs — and suffering through the memories — I suddenly realized why people still play this game — sunk cost and trauma-bonding. They know it’s a boring grind leading nowhere, but it’s their boring grind leading nowhere.