Tagged: reviews

Ten Little Astronauts Review by Sara L. Uckelman

Sara L. Uckleman has posted a review of Ten Little Astronauts over on SFF Reviews, and amazingly that’s a review of the book as a whole rather than just the main novella! For those who aren’t familiar with it, Ten Little Astronauts (the book) actually includes three separate pieces of writing, each of which gets its own post on the site:

The second of these sometimes get passed over (particularly by ebook readers, who don’t have physical pages offering a clue as to the extra content in the book). That’s a shame, because Six Years Stolen – a tech noir crime thriller that’s been described as “Blade Runner meets Phone Booth” – seems to have been a real hit with pretty much everyone who’s found it so far!

If you’re looking for more short fiction, by the way, you really should check out some more posts on SFF Reviews. The site originally came to my attention through a review of every single story included in Jessica Augustsson’s Myths, Monsters, Mutations: it’s rare to see both that kind of focus on short fiction specifically, and such a dedication to it!

Three Bits of Ten Little Astronauts News

If you live in Winchester, you might have noticed something on the High Street recently…

That’s right! Ten Little Astronauts is front and centre in Waterstones’ shop window, advertising An Evening With Damon Wakes on June 10th. This is quite a milestone for me, but it’s not the only news! Continue reading

Ten Little Astronauts BookBub Promotion

If you get your books from Apple, now’s your chance to grab Ten Little Astronauts for just 99p!

This is down to a BookBub deal that, surprisingly, has also seen the novella reach its highest ever sales ranking on Amazon, despite it not actually being on offer over there as far as I can tell. It’s also seen a sudden influx of ratings on Goodreads, so if you’ve read it but not left a review (on Amazon, Goodreads, anywhere else) then this would be a great time to do that.

Ten Little Astronauts is getting a lot of attention at the moment – a few words from you would do wonders to help people decide whether it’s something they want to read!

Ten Little Astronauts Out Today!

Ten Little Astronauts has now been published and is available for sale – no pledging, no pre-ordering – anywhere you might reasonably expect to buy books! Readers who supported Unbound’s crowdfunding campaign started getting their copies yesterday.

If you’ve got one yourself, please do share a photo – I’m putting together a Twitter moment featuring as many as I can find:

The book is available in a whole bunch of places I’ll be adding to its page on this site as I discover them, but for now your main options are:

Waterstones

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble

Kobo

Alternatively you should be able to quite simply walk into a bookshop and ask for it. I’m not sure how many places will stock it right off the bat like this, but any of them should be able to get a copy if you request it. This is actually one of the things that will help persuade booksellers there’s a market for the book in the first place, so seriously do consider it instead of flinging money at Jeff Bezos.

That said, though the book has been collecting reviews on Goodreads ever since it was serialised by The Pigeonhole, it wasn’t possible to leave a review on Amazon until today. If you’re one of those lucky people who got an early look – either through the Pigeonhole serial or me sending you a review copy – please do rate it on either Amazon UK or Amazon US (or whatever Amazon is local to you). I know Amazon sucks and has a terrible habit of feeding what you write directly into a digital shredder for any number of poorly defined reasons, but reviews there are one of the things that really helps an author out.

Finally, because I just can’t say it enough, thanks to everyone who helped get Ten Little Astronauts to where it is today. Whether you supported the crowdfunding campaign directly or just shared it around, this is the moment it was all leading up to. I’m looking ahead to a launch event after Christmas, and I hope to see lots of you there!

Help an Author Out?

Things are really moving along with Ten Little Astronauts, and the book is expected to release on December 13th: less than a month from now!

There’s more information about this over on Unbound, but since the people reading here are probably familiar with my work beyond this one book, I’d like to focus on something else entirely and ask if you could do me a massive, massive favour.

I don’t normally go chasing people for reviews, which is probably part of the reason my books don’t have many. However, with Ten Little Astronauts set to go off to the printers any day now, it’s likely that a fair number of new readers will come across my older work and I’d like for it to make a good impression when they do. Continue reading

“Plants Versus Zombies” Versus “Plants Versus Zombies 2”

Or: Pay to Play Versus Pay to Win. But I feel as though that general topic has been covered over and over, so for this article I’m going to focus on two specific games in the same series that each take a different approach.

Plants Versus Zombies is a 2009 tower defence game that’s made it onto a bunch of different platforms (though I’m only familiar with the Android version). Rather than the traditional variety of tower defence in which you strategically place armed towers around a winding path, Plants Versus Zombies has you plonking plants down directly in front of a horde of zombies who approach in a perfectly straight line.

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Though the basic idea is ludicrously simple–zombies are approaching from the right, your house is on the left…stick something in the middle!–there’s a good deal of strategy involved. You often have to weigh up the benefits of planting a quick defence now versus saving up for something stronger later. You’re also frequently faced with a choice between paying for a very powerful (frequently explosive) plant to use just once, or saving up for weaker plants that will continue to chip away at the zombie horde throughout the level. The game might look silly, but it demands a fair bit of thought.

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It’s also funny. Really, really funny. What story it has is presented through polite notes dropped by the waves of zombies, and the ravings of your saucepan-wearing neighbour, Crazy Dave. The game attracted some well deserved praise when it was new and has maintained a following ever since. Long story short, it’s a neat little package and a hard act to follow. If you fancy playing it, it’s easily worth the (now fairly trivial) price.

Plants Versus Zombies 2 (2013) takes almost exactly the same approach in terms of gameplay, but its pricing is completely different. The game is free to download on Android and iOS (but not available on any other platform), offering optional in-app purchases in lieu of a mandatory up-front charge. Ever come across one of those games that invites you to buy power/crystals/gems to progress better/faster?

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Yeah. It’s one of those, and it attracted a lot of criticism when (and especially before) it was released. Plants Versus Zombies 2 offers opportunities to spend real dosh on imaginary plants at pretty much every turn, even going so far as to take you to the shop screen as part of the tutorial. Twice. The first time funnels you towards (though doesn’t actually require) buying additional plants and accessories, while the second illustrates a FarmVille-style plant-tending mechanic, in which you earn powerups by watering and waiting in real time or (you guessed it) spending gems.

That said, once you’re past the “BUY SOMETHING!!!” portion of the tutorial, it’s easy to forget that the game ever brought it up. Though new level packs are available for purchase before they’re unlocked, I can’t really imagine ever doing this. At the time of writing, I’ve unlocked the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth worlds without even completing the first: paying for number seven at this point would feel like going out and buying a chocolate bar when I already had six melting in my hot little hand. This abundance of levels feels particularly generous compared to the original game, which offers just one well curated (but entirely linear) series of levels.

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The wealth of content available for free in Plants Versus Zombies 2 is simultaneously a strength and a weakness. On one hand, I’d probably recommend it over the first game purely because there’s a lot more to do. Even without paying for any extras, there’s a wider variety of plants and a wider variety of zombies, and the gameplay feels more refined. On the other hand, the non-linear levels make for a weak plot (Your neighbour Crazy Dave has invented a time machine so he can re-eat his taco. There. That’s it.). The first game wasn’t exactly a masterpiece of storytelling, but the setting and the sequence of levels (front garden, back garden, pool, roof) did an adequate job of presenting you, the player, as an ordinary guy whose house is under siege by the undead. The sequel never quite explains why Crazy Dave even takes you along for the ride.

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Though the overall bundle of levels feels a little haphazard, with the game coaxing you into completing various “quests” without ever really doing anything to recommend one over another, this free-to-play game offers a huge amount even if you’re determined to never pay a penny. The only time the game really seems to be pushing you towards “paying to win” is in the events and minigames. The vasebreaker, for example, presents you with a vast field of vases to break. Three green ones will obviously contain plants, while the rest will contain plants, powerups or (far more likely) zombies.

The Vasebreaker minigame screen.

Unfortunately my phone pauses this minigame (and only this minigame) when I try to take a screenshot. It’s very strange.

Vasebreaker plays more like a slot machine than a strategy game, with the level of randomness involved making it nearly impossible to win without either several restarts (to find a favourable vase layout) or several powerups purchased with in-game currency. This is a game where one unlucky break can easily see a super-tough zombie spawn right in front of your base, and 1,000 coins spent on zombie-paralyzing butter (Yeah, it still has all the charm of the 2009 original!) can just as easily stop it. You earn coins steadily for free, and it’s trivial to stockpile them for this one minigame, but when you know you have to–when you know that the only reliable way to win is to throw coins at the problem–there’s little joy to be had in doing it.

The daily events present a similar problem. Your first attempt is free. However, given that you have no idea what that event will involve–shark-wielding giants or swarms of zombie chickens–you’re at quite a disadvantage right off the bat, with little chance of setting up an effective defence. You can retry as many times as you like, but each retry costs 1,000 coins. Since there are additional rewards for beating five events in a row, it’s easy to imagine a situation where you’d be forced to choose between losing a four-day winning streak or paying real money for additional coins.

If people want to invest their money in this kind of minigame, it’s reasonable enough to offer them the option. However, personally, I find it kind of off-putting. If winning five events in a row was simply presented as an additional challenge, I’d be all for it. However, when it feels like a trick to make me invest money in the game, it makes me unwilling to even invest my time. There’s something to be said for paying for extras to support the developers (who have, after all, put out a remarkably enjoyable game for free), but I’d prefer to do that by buying additional content rather than gambling on a minigame. Fortunately, this is where they’re really onto something.

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In addition to the regular quests (which make for the easiest way to earn gems without buying them for cash), the game occasionally offers the opportunity to “Try a Premium Plant for Free!” This behaves like a regular “go here, do this” quest in terms of earning gems, but at the same time trying out the premium plants is pretty neat in itself. Many will be familiar to those who played the first game, and all of them feel finely balanced: a fun extra rather than an overpowered tool to blast through levels. This pretty much hits the “freemium” sweet spot. If you want to support the game, you get something neat in return. If not, you aren’t missing out.

To wrap this up, both Plants Versus Zombies games are well polished and fun to play. If you’ve got an Android or iOS device, I’d highly recommend the second one: it’s certainly the bigger of the two, and (when you’re not being forced to depend on them entirely) the various manually-activated powerups make it faster and more lively than the original. If you enjoy the sequel and want to throw some money towards the franchise, I’d suggest buying the first game over paying for additional content in the second: the original still holds up very well, and the same things that make it feel smaller than the sequel also make it feel more complete as a package.

New Year, New Decisions

I’ve never really been a fan of New Year’s resolutions. They seem like a handy excuse for putting off doing anything until January 1st, and later on a handy excuse for giving up for ten months when you fail spectacularly in early March.

That said, starting something at the beginning of a new year does make it easy to set up a schedule, and so on this occasion I’ll be joining in too. My New Year’s not-resolution is to write a game article a week. At the moment I’m hoping to make most of them reviews of specific titles, but I’ve also got plenty of ideas for articles about game design and mechanics. Most likely there’ll be a fair bit of crossover between the two. The main thing I’ve settled on at this point is that whatever they are, there’ll be 52 of them by the end of the year. Or at the very least, there’ll be a dozen-ish by early March.

In the past it’s proven difficult to keep up weekly or even fortnightly updates. Beyond the Black Throne became problematic partly because I was juggling it with an MA course that steadily demanded more and more of my attention, but also because the interactive format made for tight deadlines and more or less eliminated the possibility of building up “buffer” updates that I could write ahead of time and post when necessary. Producing images and animation to illustrate the story—however hilariously amateurish those things were—also took a lot of planning and ate up a lot of time.

The Lash of Khgharghag

I sure hope this doesn’t end up being the preview image for this blog post.

I’m still planning to pick up the story again at some point, but in the interests of producing something on a regular basis and building up my games-related portfolio, I feel as though the reviews are a safer bet for the time being. For one thing, I’ve already played through a bunch of games that I’d like to write about, which means I’m already halfway towards having a “buffer” ready. For another, games (even if they’re primarily text-based) offer the possibility of illustrating a post with screenshots, which don’t take too much effort on my part.

My Epistory review was remarkably quick to put together.

I expect it’ll take a while to play through anything I’m going to write about, which isn’t a challenge I had to face with Beyond the Black Throne, but at the same time that seems more compatible with my job at the moment than responding to reader suggestions and fiddling about with paper cut-outs. I could happily fit in the button-mashing after a day at work, then write the actual article on one of my days off. Combined with the buffer posts, that should ensure I’m able to keep these things regular.

But beyond that particular goal for the year, I’ve got another decision to make. I’ve still got access to the university recording equipment, and while that’s the case I want to make the most of it. However, that’ll mostly mean recording things I’ve already written, and I’d quite like to keep producing new stories at the same time. So here’s a question for you:

“New, experimental things” at the moment will likely involve audio, video, or interactive fiction. They’re by no means limited to that, though.

In any case, I’ll be doing a little bit of both either way. If you’re curious to see something a little different from me, I hope to have some recordings done in the not too distant future (and perhaps some 3D printed things too). If you want conventional stories, I’ll be including a brand new one in each of my monthly newsletters.

Happy New Year!

Bionic Punchline at Immerse or Die

This week, I was pleased to discover that Bionic Punchline has been reviewed as part of Creativity Hacker‘s Immerse or Die series. As the name might suggest, these are no ordinary book reviews. In fact, they’re not so much reviews as the book equivalent of those How long would you survive locked in a wardrobe with a polar bear? quizzes that turn up on Facebook.

The process goes something like this: Jefferson Smith, the reviewer, hops on a treadmill and starts reading. Either the book immerses him for the duration of his 40 minute workout, or (upon accumulating three strikes for “WTF” moments) it dies, with its survival time becoming a sort of score. As the banner says: 1 book, 40 minutes, 0 mercy.

So how did Bionic Punchline do?

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12 minutes, 4 seconds!

Based on the other reviews, that’s actually not too bad. Out of more than 200 books, only something like 21 have made it through the entire 40 minutes, and many don’t make it through the first one. It’s also just nice to see a detailed, critical review.

Though I’ve quoted such gems as “Most of the stories are pretty good” on the back of the book itself (and I’m hugely grateful for any review, no matter how brief), it’s great to know that there are people out there willing to take the time to explain precisely what they do and don’t like. The treadmill test might sound gimmicky, but actually the scores it provides feel like a more practical gauge of a book’s quality than an overall star rating. I don’t insist that every book keep me riveted for hours at a time (and Jeff himself suggests he might go back to Bionic Punchline at some point), but as a rule the best ones do, so that’s definitely something to look out for.

With that in mind, if you’re looking for a really great read then the Immerse or Die Survivors would probably be a good place to try. And if you want to see the full review of Bionic Punchline, you can find it right here.