Monthly Archives: August 2012

Book Review #4: The Devil’s Acre by Matthew Plampin

Title: The Devil’s Acre

Author: Matthew Plampin

Publisher: Harper Collins

Date: 24th June 2010

Genre: Historical Fiction

 

This is the first time I have ever read historical fiction, and unfortunate to say, for my first time…it was disappointing.

 

I picked up the novel in my local book shop as it promised an intriguing plot, political scheming, a scandalous affair, gangs, theft, and murder.  What I got was a mediocre mess of a book.

 

The Devil’s Acre is set in Victorian London, based on the gun factory of Colonel Samuel Colt.  I am unfamiliar with this piece of history, but looking at the notes in the back, Matthew Plampin seems to have done his research and I give him credit for that.

 

We start the book by meeting Edward Lowry, who has recently been hired by Col Colt as his personal secretary.  Col Colt has opened his gun factory in London and sets about trying to do business with the London government to supply his revolvers to the British army.  Along the way, Edward meets Caroline Knox; a factory worker who Edward is smitten with but unfortunately she is below his social class.  Things get difficult for Caroline when she gets ensnared to help her brother-in-law, Martin Rea – factory worker and Irish immigrant – steal guns for his gang of Irish friends known as the Molly Maguires.  The Molly Maguires are hell bent on acquiring guns so they can murder British politician, Lord John, who they blame for the terrible famine in Ireland.

 

Coupled with the political scheming of Col Colt and the British politicians, you would think it would lead to an engaging and interesting read. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

 

I found this book very difficult to get into, and about a third of the way through I was just reading the book to finish it rather than any actual interest or enjoyment of the book.  Part of the reason for this is because we’re always chopping and changing what character we’re with.  In one chapter we’re with Edward, in the next we’re with Col Colt, then we’re with Caroline Knox, then onto Martin Rea, and finally we’re back again with Edward Lowry starting the rotating cycle all over again.

 

The continuous changing between characters was somewhat jarring.  It also made it very difficult to form any kind of bond with the characters, as we never stuck long enough with them to see them develop.  In fact, overall character development was severely lacking in this book.  There were only two characters who showed any kind of development, Edward Lowry (who was a wet blanket and I didn’t care for) and Martin Rea (the most, and only, interesting character in the book).

 

Apart from Martin Rea and Edward Lowry, all of the characters were two dimensional reactionists.  One of the reasons for this is a good number of characters are historical figures.  You’re limited to how much you actually know about these people, and with the little you do know it can be hard to build some kind of picture to how they’re personality would be.  Which means you will end up tweaking certain facts and adding flourishes to your characters to fill them out, but, you’re restricted to how much you can do this before being accused of being historically inaccurate.

 

Though I acknowledge it can be difficult to build characters based on historical figures, I also noticed the original characters of this book were somewhat lacking as well.  I just didn’t care for them. They made little or no impression on me, and I felt they were nothing more than a part of the scenery.

 

Another problem with the constant changing between characters meant we were constantly changing between plot points as well.  First we’re reading about Edward adjusting to his new job, then we’re reading about Col Colt trying to sell his guns, then about how Caroline is forced to help the Molly Maguires acquire guns, and then were reading about the Molly Maguires plotting to kill Lord John before going back to Edward.  It felt like we had four stories in one book, instead of weaving the plot points together and making one interesting story.

 

I also found the major plot points to be underdeveloped and poorly executed.

 

For example:

 

The love affair between Edward and Caroline was meant to be a scandalous affair; after all, they were from different classes and worked in the same establishment.  The foundations were set with the growing attraction between Edward and Caroline and the gossips starting to whisper about the two liking one another.  Then the plot point was somewhat dropped once Caroline got involved with the Molly Maguires and was ordered to stay away from Edward as it could jeopardise their plans.  From then on, all we got was Edward moping about why Caroline wasn’t talking to him, and Caroline feeling bad at having to ignore Edward.  In the last third of the book we finally had Edward and Caroline get together when she needed his help, but it was all kept secret as Edward hid Caroline in his place of residence until things came to an end and Caroline died.

 

There was no romantic or sexual tension between the two which built up and had you routing for them as a couple.  And when they did finally get together as a couple, it was kept behind closed doors and none of the other characters knew about it, which meant there were no problems or dramas associated with such a relationship, and I personally would have found that interesting to read about.  I just didn’t care about this couple.

 

Another example:

 

The Molly Maguires attempted to obtain revolvers by getting Caroline to sneak out gun parts and eventually whole guns.  When this failed, the Molly Maguries decided to storm the factory and take the pistols by force.  Their attempts to do this were so amateurish and stupid I found it laughable.  Yet it was also rather disappointing, because the gang was supposed to be intimidating and dangerous, but they just came across as foolish thugs.

 

On the whole, the major plot points were poorly developed, boring, and underwhelming.  Even the ending was anticlimactic.  I was hoping for a big showdown, as the Molly Maguires went to kill Lord John and everyone tried to stop them.  All that happened at the end, was everyone blundered along until they were caught by the factory warden, who had known what was going on the entire time.  A few people died, but as I have said before in this review, I didn’t really care, I was just glad to be at the end of the book.

 

I may make it sound like this book was a real chore to read, and yes it really was tedious as I pushed myself to finish it.  But at least I didn’t have to contend with bad grammar as well.

 

Having read so many books with poor grammar recently, it was a blessing to read something where the author at least had a basic understanding of grammar.  I did find the word ‘that’ overused a little bit, but I think it is more me nit-picking than a real fault with the book.

 

However, there was one thing which really annoyed me.  Thankfully it only happened two or three times in the book, yet when they did happen, they were huge slap in the face.  I refer to writing accents in dialogue.

 

Now I know you may want to inject some personality in your characters by writing their accent into the dialogue, yet in doing this, it can make your work very unreadable.  One way of doing this is to replace certain words with alternative words which are popular in certain dialects.  For example: if your character is French, you may have them say ‘oui’ instead of ‘yes’.  Another way to write accents is to omit certain letters with apostrophes in certain words, such as words beginning with H or ending in i-n-g – such as ‘ere for here; or tryin’ for trying.

 

However, you need to be careful not to over this; moderation is the key.  One popular way to write in an accent is to mention he/she spoke with a heavy or prominent accent instead of writing it in the dialogue.  In a fair few cases this is the best option.  Yet on a few occasions, Matthew Plampin chose to write in a cockney accent by completely misspelling words.  A technique you have to be careful with, as it can go completely wrong, and did go completely wrong for Matthew Plampin.

 

I’ll show you.  I came across these two words, haggravatin’ and sitiwation.  Try saying these words out loud…I bet they feel like they don’t fit right in your mouth.  It turns out haggravatin’ is aggravating, and sitiwation is situation.  It took a fair few minutes for me to figure it out.  This really annoyed me, not only was it very difficult to read, but being an East Londoner (home of the cockney) it infuriated me to believe this is how Matthew Plampin pictures us speaking!

 

Despite all the above, and generally not being happy with this book, I did enjoy reading about Victorian London.  The description of places and London life felt very authentic and it is what I liked the most about this book.

 

All in all, this book really wasn’t worth the effort it took to read it.  The few good points really didn’t negate the smothering boredom one felt when reading this story.

 

Bad Points:

  • Poorly developed plot points.
  • Boring
  • Ended on a huge anti-climax
  • Uninteresting characters.
  • Constantly changing from character/plot point to character/plot point
  • Major blunder in writing accents into dialogue

 

Good Points:

  • Grammar is consistently good throughout (apart from one point regarding accents)
  • Research done into the subject matter.
  • Depicts London in Victorian times well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Game Review #4: Final Fantasy XII

Game Review #4

 

Game: Final Fantasy XII

Publisher: Square Enix

Format: Playstation 2

Release: 2006

Genre: RPG

 

Today I am reviewing one of my favourite games, Final Fantasy XII. As I’ve stated before, I am a big fan of RPGs; I’ve also stated before that Final Fantasy is one of the biggest franchises in the RPG genre and even gaming history – whether people like the fact or not.

 

Final Fantasy XII is the first one I ever played from the series.  It has been said to me ‘the first one you play is often your favourite’, and boy is this statement true on my behalf.  I spent over 245hrs of my life playing this game, I loved it so much, but it is not without its faults as I shall explain bellow.

 

We start the game in the fictional country of Dalmasca, which has recently been invaded and taken over by the powerful Archadian Empire.  We meet a street urchin by the name of Vaan, who is fed up with the Archadian oppression his country and people have to suffer.  When Dalmsaca has a state visit from Prince Vayne of Archadia, Vaan decides to upset the proceedings by robbing the palace.  During his escapades, Vaan meets two sky pirates, Balthier & Fran; a disgraced Knight, Basch, and a dethroned Princess, Ashelia.  Joined with his childhood friend, Penello, the six heroes band together to help Ashelia claim her rightful throne and free Dalmasca from its oppression.

 

One of the first things I notice about this game is the stunning FMV sequences.  Though it is not unheard of – especially in recent times – for a Final Fantasy game to behold breath taking graphics.  However, as well as amazing FMV scenes, the in game graphics were top notch too, making the game a joy to view.  This can also be attributed to the fact that Final Fantasy XII came out towards the end of the PS2’s (Playstation 2) life. It is not uncommon for the best games of a console’s life come out at the end, as developers are completely familiar with what the machines are capable of at the time.  Regardless, the game is pretty to look at.

 

Another thing I noticed was the soundtrack.  I always appreciate a well composed soundtrack, feeling it adds great atmosphere to games, films and television programs.  The sound track on Final Fantasy XII really stood out for me. Many times I would wonder in certain areas of the game just to hear particular pieces, and I even went out of my way to buy the soundtrack on CD; I was very much impressed with it.

 

Yet one of the main things I really enjoyed was the story.  I absolutely loved the subtle, political ploys throughout the story, as Ashelia tried to regain her kingdom. Giving the game a real grown up and sophisticated edge.  Some people complained FF:XII was too political.  Personally, I couldn’t understand this argument. I thought the politics really gave the story an intelligent feel which had me thinking and wanting to desperately find out what happened next.

 

As your six characters progressed through the story, they discover Archadia has been using a powerful material called Nethercite to build powerful weapons and battleships.  However, this Nethercite is too powerful for the hands of humans and technically belongs to these god-like creatures, who have been manipulating humans throughout the centuries.  However, one of these god-like creatures has gone wayward, disgusted with his people’s manipulation of mankind he helped the Archadians in gaining their recent power.  The remaining god-like creatures offer to aid Ashelia in obtaining her throne.  Now, Ashelia must choose whether to: take the Nethercite offered by the powerful creatures and get revenge on her Archadian enemies using the Nethercite, or, refuse the help of the ancient beings and no longer allow them to manipulate mankind while finding another way to stop the corrupted Vayne and his overpowered armies.

 

It is not uncommon for Final Fantasy games – or RPG games – to have a much grander scheme in their stories than what was originally shown to begin with.  However, this is where I find, especially with JRPGs, the games often over reach.  I have nothing wrong with there being a higher meaning in stories, but sometimes I find they over complicate things with their big ideas and leaves the player somewhat confused.  Thankfully, Final Fantasy XII doesn’t fall into this trap; it gives its story a higher meaning and depth without baffling the player with ideologies one would need a step by step guide to understand.

 

Another trap FF:XII manages to avoid, is clichéd characters – another thing JRPGs are guilty of.  There is no lone wolf, main character who spends a majority of the game brooding and feeling sorry for themselves, before eventually learning to let people in.  Nor are there any over feminine, always speaking in a softly spoken voice, and unbearably nice female characters which reflect no real women on this planet.  All the characters in FF:XII are interesting and likeable with no annoying traits to grate on your nerves.  I suppose it also helps when the characters were very well voice acted as well.

 

However, one thing which did disappoint me with the story, was a plot line involving the sky pirate Balthier.  We see a bounty hunter appear early in the game, wanting to track down Balthier and collect a reward placed on our favourite sky pirate’s head. Later we see the bounty hunter confront Balthier and the gang, in a confrontation the heroes have to flee from the bounty hunter, leaving it open to be concluded at another time.  However, in the main story we receive no conclusion on this plot development; which was a real shame, as on the whole, the story was very well constructed and played out.  You can however receive resolution on this plot point in an optional side quest – unfortunately, the resolution is disappointing and anticlimactic.

 

Moving away from the story and onto the game play, you come to learn the game is huge with a massive free roaming world for you to explore.  Unfortunately, there isn’t really much to do but to look around and battle.  The dungeons are unimaginative and repetitive; consisting of nothing much more than walking into a corridor and clearing it of enemies, walking into a room and clearing it of enemies, walking into another corridor and clearing it of enemies, and so on and so forth.  There’s little puzzling or platforming elements to this game.  It’s all about taking down your enemies and getting to your next stage.

 

With a game which is so battle orientated, it is important to supply a battle system that keeps things interesting and keeps you on your toes – after all, you will be battling for many hours.  Final Fantasy is a series famed for using the traditional turn based battle system, but in recent instalments of the series it has tried to step away from this, adopting new battle systems which have been hit & miss. For FF:XII, they used a system known as the ‘gambit’ system.

 

The gambit system is a system which allows you to input commands into gambit slots that the computer AI will act out.  For example: if you put in the command ‘heal when HP is below 50%’, the computer will heal your character when their HP is below 50%; provided there is sufficient MP or potions to do so.  In the beginning of the game you only have a limited amount of gambit slots, making choosing you commands rather tactical. For example: you will want to give healing and protection commands to your strongest magical users while allowing you other characters to take care of fighting.  Also, in the early stages, it may be necessary to put in commands manually due to lack of gambit slots; keeping you on your toes as you have to keep an eye on what is happening and seeing when you have to interject.

 

You can gain more gambit slots as you level up – by acquiring licenses – and thus allowing the computer AI to act out more commands.  Depending on the number of ‘gambit’ slots you have and the situation you are in, it is necessary to tweak your commands to your best advantage.  The system works very well and it is rather fun to set your commands and send your troops into battle.  Yet as well as this system works, it is also its downfall.

 

With the more ‘gambit’ slots you have, the more commands you can give to cover any situation that should arise, thus making your team the ultimate killing machine. It basically means you can tweak your commands so perfectly, there isn’t much for you to do other than walk up to an enemy and let the AI take care of everything – which can be somewhat boring.

 

This is really disappointing, as you are doing nothing more than walking your characters around the scenery and watching them fight. Especially when you buy games to play, not watch!  However, there is something to compensate this, and that is the side quests.

 

The number of side quests is vast, even if a majority of them are hunts.  Though the hunts involve you battling the monsters with the perfect, yet flawed, battle system, the fun in the hunts is finding your marks.  The marks will only appear if certain criteria are met: such as the right weather condition or having no armour equipped.  There are even some hidden boss battles which will take you hours to do, and even if you have your ‘gambits’ perfectly set up, the fights are still challenging enough to require you to input commands manually as well as relying on your gambits.

 

You can spend a majority of game time trying to complete these side quests which are a lot of fun to do, but there was one quest which was poorly thought out: acquiring the Zodiac Spear.  As you journey through the game, you will come across treasure chests; in opening them you will find money or goodies.  Yet to acquire the spear you need to leave some of these chests un-open before opening the very final chest.  Unfortunately, without a game guide there is no indication this is what you have to do or anyway of figuring out what chests you do and don’t open.  In fact, you wouldn’t even know this side quest existed without a game guide.

 

Regardless of this one minor flaw, the side quests really make this game, and you will get a lot more out of it if you take the time to complete them.

 

Character development of this game is a combination of levelling up through gaining experience points and buying licenses.  Gaining EP (experience points) allows you to level up in the standard way; reaching new levels and gradually increasing you HP (health points) and MP (magic points).  You can also acquire LP (license points), which will allow you to buy licenses to gain certain skills and attributes.  For example: if you want to use fire magic, you have to make sure you have the appropriate license to buy and use such spells.

 

In the beginning of the game it is important for you to spend you LP wisely.  In example: magic users tend to have lower HP, so you will want to buy licenses which let you use/buy heavy duty armour for their protection.  Another example: ranged fighters are good at taking out enemies at a distance, so you will want to buy licenses to improve their accuracy as this will improve their skills.

 

As you buy more and more licenses for you characters, they become pretty much good at everything.  This isn’t unheard of in RPGs; often when you level your characters up to high levels, magic user become good fighters, and fighters become good magic users, and all your characters become good all-rounders.  Unfortunately, this can be slightly boring, as it takes away any tactical element of the game and you can plough through pretty much any enemy.

 

All licenses are available to all characters, as none are designated to a certain skill set.  Though to some degree, it is satisfying to make these ultimate warriors.  Like the gambit battle system, when you’ve bought all the licenses it makes you virtually indestructible and takes away almost all threat of you dying, thus eliminating any challenge to the game.

 

Another way to develop your characters is with equipping armour and weaponry, and there is a variety to choose from.

 

Each piece of armour provides you with different attributes: head armour will improve your magic defence while the right foot wear will increase you speed.  Heavy duty armour will provide you with more protection but slow you down because it is weighty. Light armour will allow you to move quickly but is useless at defending you against strong enemies.

 

The vast numbers of weapons also have different advantages as well.  Staffs are naturally weak weapons but improve the potency of your magic. Whereas axes will deliver great damage but are cumbersome to wield.

 

You can also make weapons and armour out of the items you collect through out your journey, and some of the weaponry/armour you can make is vastly superior to what you can buy in shops.  On the whole, it is important for you to equip your characters correctly to get the most out of what you want them to do.

 

Even though there is a lot to choose from when buying and equipping your characters, the menu isn’t overwhelming. If you are a novice to playing RPGs this shouldn’t confuse you too much.

 

In general, FF:XII is pretty user friendly for first time RPG players, yet still retains core elements more veteran RPG players will be used to – engaging story, character development, and plenty of side quests.

 

One thing FF has moved away from in this game (and thank god they did), was random battles.  Always cropping up when you don’t want them, and never when you do.

 

When entering a new area you can see all the available monsters fight and you can choose whether to engage them or not – they will however come up to you if you wonder to close to them and they spot you.  You also have the option to flee the battle if things are getting too much for you.  It is also a flee option which works 100% of the time – excluding boss battles.  It is quite the luxury to be able to escape battles and travel unhindered when needs be.

 

Unfortunately, the game does make a mistake in its explanations.  There are certain things – such as rare animals, quickenings, targeting enemies – that do not even get a mention in the tutorials. Whereas quite simple things have longwinded explanations making them seem more complicated than they actually are.  Also, if you want to complete this game fully, then you’re going to need a game guide or you will be looking things up on the internet.  Much like with obtaining the Zodiac spear, there are some things which have no indication on how to do them or that they are even available within the game without you resorting to some sort of guide.

 

All in all, I really enjoyed the game, despite its flaws.  I was able to live with them and enjoyed all the good points out of the game.  Some RPG fans should really stay away from this game, especially if you want more from the combat.  Yet if you’re a big Final Fantasy fan or are still intrigued to give this game a go, I would suggest buying it at a reasonable price (£10 – £15 tops).

 

Good Points:

  • Very good story.  Sophisticated and filled with political intrigue.
  • Likeable characters.
  • Plenty of side quests.
  • No random battles and a flee option which always works.
  • Very nice graphics and music.
  • Easy to get to grips with.

 

Bad Points:

  • Characters can easily become overdeveloped and takes away any challenge of the game.
  • Game guide is required because the game fails to require in-game information about certain things.
  • Battle system becomes rather lacking as there is little for you to do but sit and watch.