Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Video Game Review: Hotline Miami

If there's one game that should be on every gamer's computer, then that game is Hotline Miami. It's an indie game, with old-school pixelated graphics, reminiscent of the first couple Grand Theft Auto games, except the carnage level has been significantly raised. Squeamish gamers may not be able to handle the good 'ole ultraviolence.

The player controls a nameless character (fans have taken to dubbing him "Jacket" because of his distinct letterman's jacket) who receives voicemails instructing him where to go. When he arrives on the scene he puts on a rubber animal mask, and has to kill everyone inside the building. As the game goes on, the levels become progressively harder, and more masks and weapons are unlocked. Each mask gives the player an advantage (faster speed for example) or disadvantage (more guns).

The storytelling and aesthetics are also spot on. The film Drive was a major inspiration for the game, and it's quite apparent. The film goes for a brightly-colored, neon look which meshes really well with the pixelated graphics. The soundtrack is amazing and features many 80's inspired electronic tunes. Hotline Miami's story is heavy on surrealism, opening with a bizarre scene of three people in animal masks making mysterious comments to the player. The more the game progresses, the more bizarre things become. The player starts to question what is really happening and what is a trippy fever dream. The game's questions and mysteries are partly answered by the game's ending, but collecting the puzzle pieces also gives the player a "secret ending" where even more answers lie. Some aspects of the game are left open to interpretation, and there are several good theories out there.

As great as the aesthetics are, it's the gameplay itself that will win any gamer over. The controls are simple, but the game can be quite difficult. One hit will kill the player, so the restart button will be hit many, many times. Despite the simple controls, there is quite a bit of thought and planning involved. Overall this makes for quite rewarding gameplay, as finishing a level has rarely felt so good. The levels themselves play out quickly, and the action is very fast-paced, and timing can be everything. Slashing your way through Russian mobsters has never been so fun.

I've already played through the game a couple times, and every friend I've told about it have also become huge fans. Hotline Miami just gets so many things right, that it simply must be played. The game itself only goes for $10 on STEAM, and is half off today.

The soundtrack (which has to be the best video game soundtrack of the year, and one of the best ever) is also up on soundcloud and can be heard HERE.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Review: The Book of Cthulhu II edited by Ross E. Lockhart

In 2011, Ross E. Lockhart, managing editor at Night Shade Books, put together an amazing anthology of Lovecraft inspired stories titled The Book of Cthulhu. Weighing in at five hundred pages, this tome managed to collect some of the best Lovecraftian stories to be found, and even included a couple original tales. I’ll most likely be doing a review at some point, but if I may cut to the chase now it’s safe to say that it’s a brilliant anthology that should have a place in every Lovecraft fan’s library.

The Book of Cthulhu met with enough success to warrant a sequel volume which was published in September, The Book of Cthulhu II. Lockhart has chosen more of the finest tales, as well as giving readers four original tales this time around. The book is a tad bit shorter, at four hundred and forty pages, but should easily satisfy any fan of the first.

The main problem with Lovecraft-inspired fiction is that there is so much of it out there. In a sense, for fanboys like me, this is also a good thing, although it means there is also a ton of not-so-good pastiches. Lockhart has found some of the standout stories over the years, some of which I was already very familiar with and others that I myself have not read.

The tales themselves vary in tone. Some of the stories are horrific, and others are light-hearted and even silly. Thematically, there are stories chosen that represent different aspects of Lovecraft’s writing. The vast majority are Cthulhu-Mythos related, or play on those ideas, however there is a tale that explores Lovecraft’s dream cycle. Overall, the vast majority of stories are great reads, and the book is a must have for any fan of the Gentleman of Providence.

Some individual story notes:

The anthology opens with Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar by Neil Gaiman, which is one of the light-hearted, silly offerings. Gaiman’s storytelling skills are evident, and it’s a fun little opener for the anthology.

Next up is Caitlin Kiernan’s Nor The Demons Down Under The Sea (1957). The story is a sequel to Andromeda Among The Stones (a brilliant story that is the opener for The Book of Cthulhu). Kiernan’s language is beautiful as she paints a picture of strained relationship which leads to a “house with secrets”. 

John Fultz brings the apocalypse with This Is How The World Ends, and it’s not a pretty one. Cthulhu rises, monsters of all types begin spreading, while some people fight to survive in an increasingly hostile world.

In the first original story, The Drowning at Lake Henpin, author Paul Tobin pens a fun tale with all the right Mythos elements. He’s a new author to me, and I look forward to read more of his works.

The Ocean and All It’s Devices by William Browning Spencer is a well-written story about a creepy family who visits a hotel by the beach every year. There is obviously more going on, and plenty of play with the creepy kid trope. 

Livia Llewellyn weaves a depressing tale about a transformed Earth and sacrifice. Take Your Daughters To Work is a beautifully written story and really showcases this author’s vast talent.

Big Fish was originally published under a pseudonym by author Kim Newman. It’s a fun, pulpy, hardboiled detective story.

Cody Goodfellow is another author that I am growing to love. Every story I’ve read by him I’ve loved. Rapture of the Deep is no exception, and is a great story of psychics and the Mythos.

Readers of the first Book of Cthulhu will be hard pressed to forget Molly Tanzer’s The Infernal History of the Ivybridge Twins, a story that manages to be creepy and funny at the same time. Tanzer brings us another Calipash tale (and an original to this anthology) with The Hour of the Tortoise. The story is delightfully perverse, funny, twisted and disturbing in only a way that she could pull off.

Ann K. Schwader, known especially for her dark poetry, hits a homerun with Objects From The Gilman-Waite Collection. Schwader pumps up the anxiety in a man’s trip to an art exhibit that is a little bit out of this world.

A Gentleman From Mexico showcases Mark Samuels’ easy style of writing. The story moves along at a nice pace, and touches on a few Lovecraftian themes, such as dark cults, evil gods, and the transference of consciousness.  I enjoyed the story to quite an extent, and have ordered one of his story collections.

Another author who always delivers a solid tale is W.H. Pugmire. The Hands That Reek and Smoke is a haunting tale about Nyarlathotep. As usual with Pugmire’s tales, this one has beautiful, poetic prose. 

Matt Wallace writes an eerie science fiction story titled Akropolis about something that falls from the sky but becomes a city, gifting farmboys with unbelievable powers. These God-like beings then proceed to take over the world in this wonderfully dark story.

Fritz Leiber’s classic, The Terror From The Depths, has some cool ideas, but is also a bit overlong. References many of Lovecraft’s tales.

Black Hills by Orrin Grey is a creepy tale about oil. I loved the ending and the language used in the story.

Michael Chabon’s The God of Dark Laughter is a very literate, and very short story about the murder of a clown. The story explores an eerie mythology, and really makes me wish Chabon wrote more Lovecraftian tales.

Karl Edward Wagner pens one of the best Lovecraftian tales ever written in Sticks. This story remains one of the most classic stories of its kind, and holds up well with rereads. 

Lockhart’s closing author of choice is once again Laird Barron. Barron’s story Hand of Glory retains some of the usual Barron trappings (a macho protagonist, a noir-ish feel) but stands out in that it isn’t really a horrific story. There do exist some horrifying moments, but for the most part it stands as a fun tale of a gangster who gets mixed up into the Occult. There are also tons of references to his other stories, which serves to furthermore weave them all together into Barron’s own web of Northwestern Mythos horror.

There are several other good stories in the book as well. Stanley C. Sargent puts his own spin on The Dunwich Horror, A. Scott Glancy serves readers a Delta Green story about the government raid on Innsmouth, Christopher Reynaga offers a short re-telling of Moby Dick, Elizabeth Bear teams with Sarah Monette for a tale set on board a living spaceship, Jonathan Wood delivers a sequel to his novel No Hero, and Gord Sellar hits on the dream cycle with a visit to Ulthar.  

All in all, any fan of Lovecraft can’t afford to miss out on this one. If you’re a fanboy like I am, you most likely have a good amount of these stories in other books, but even if you do the originals are worth the buy. Personally, I’m looking forward to seeing if Lockhart plans to continue the series. With his two for two track record, this blogger is hoping he does.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Kickstarter Worth Note: Punktown Setting for Call of Cthulhu RPG

Fans of tabletop RPG games (especially Call of Cthulhu) should take note of the current kickstarter campaign for Punktown. Miskatonic River Press has been publishing original Mythos (and Mythos related) anthologies along with Call of Cthulhu RPG material for several years now, and they do an excellent job. Punktown is slated to be their next project, and is one worth supporting.

So what exactly is Punktown? Created by author Jeffrey Thomas, Punktown is cyberpunk at it's best, and represents a fusion of genres and subgenres to create something unique. Science fiction, noir, horror, and even the Cthulhu Mythos all play a big part. Thomas has published a good amount of books set in Punktown, from short story collections to novels, and they are all a blast.

The Kickstarter campaign has a week left, and has almost hit it's goal. Along with author Jeffrey Thomas, plenty of other talented individuals are involved including: author Mike Tresca, author Brian Sammons, artist Mariusz Gandzel, and the President of Miskatonic River Press Tom Lynch. Each of these men bring pretty hefty talents to the table, so the product is definitely going to be top quality.

Although I don't play Call of Cthulhu RPG myself (maybe I should start?), I'm supporting the Kickstarter. I own all the fiction anthologies Miskatonic River Press has put out over the years, and every one of them should have a spot on the shelf of any Mythos fan. They do awesome work, and Punktown is very much a fun setting, and would make a great addition on any gamer's shelf.

Tons more information can be found on the Kickstarter site itself: HERE. Also, as with most Kickstarter campaigns, several cool awards are offered for contributing.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Fungi edited by Orrin Grey and Silvia Moreno-Garcia

 I’ve said before that original anthologies are usually a mixed bag, and for the most part that remains the case. Therefore, it’s a special thing when one comes out that manages to be great throughout. Innsmouth Free Press, a Canadian “micro-publisher”, has already produced some quality anthologies. Historical Lovecraft and Future Lovecraft both have a spot on my bookshelf, and were quite satisfying. Fungi, their latest anthology, stands as their best work yet.

The brilliant cover by artist Oliver Wetter blends strangeness and beauty, and gives an idea of what’s to be found within the pages. Fungi itself is such an interesting species, and days could easily be spent reading about different types that are strange enough on their own without having to be fictionalized. Editors Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Orrin Grey wisely saw the potential of such a theme, and have compiled together a variety of tales. The stories themselves range from horror to fantasy. Some are dark, some are silly, some are chilling and some are just plain fun. The paperback edition contains twenty-two stories and a poem, while the deluxe hardcover edition includes three extra stories and ten black and white illustrations by Bernie Gonzalez.

Some (there are many) stories that I particularly enjoyed:

Hyphae, by John Langan, opens the anthology. It’s a good, solid horror story like I’ve come to expect from this author.

Lavie Tidhar is an author who writes beautiful short fiction. The White Hands reads like an excerpt from a weird encyclopedia detailing a mushroom world. Although not a typical, narrative story, it’s quite captivating.

Camille Alexander is an author that I’m not familiar with, but His Sweet Truffle of a Girl showcases her talent. The story is about a man on a “fungal submarine”, on a mission to win over his heart’s desire. It’s a weird, sad tale.

The next story, Last Bloom on The Sage by Andrew Penn Romine, is a fast-paced weird western. This could be one of the weirdest westerns I’ve read, as it seems to add steampunk, magic, and Lovecraftian creatures into the mix. Romine writes a rip-roaring train heist filled with action and strangeness, yet hinting at a much larger world. This is one of my favorite stories, and I’d love to see more stories set in the world Romine has created.

Another favorite is The Pilgrims of Parthen by Kristopher Reisz. It’s a beautiful, chilling tale of a special type of mushroom that causes shared hallucinations. Reisz manages to write a tale that could also work as a metaphor for real life drug addiction, and shows just how obsessed and dependent people can become. Parallels can be seen to Lovecraft’s A Shadow Out of Time and tales by Clark Ashton Smith. All in all, one of the best stories in the anthology.

W.H. Pugmire’s Midnight Mushrumps (my second favorite story title) is typical of Pugmire’s work. The prose is dreamy and decadent and the story is quite haunting. Any fan of weird fiction or eerily beautiful prose should mark Pugmire as a must-read.

No weird, fungal anthology would be complete without a story by Jeff Vandermeer. The author/editor is, without a doubt, the King of Fungi. Corpse Mouth and Spore Nose revisits his fictional city of Ambergris (which is explored in his previous brilliant works: The City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek: An Afterword, and Finch). This short story involves a detective coming to the city of Ambergris on a job, but finding more than he bargained for. The story is weird at its best with some disturbing visuals and elements of body horror.

Goatsbride, by Richard Gavin, is another beautifully written story. Although I found the fungus element to play quite a small role, I loved this story. It explores primal lust in a village reminiscent of a religious, conservative settler town. Gavin is highly talented, and balances fluid prose and brilliant imagery to weave a tale that is not easily forgotten.

Molly Tanzer and Jesse Bullington show what’s possible when two impishly warped minds come together. Tubby McMungus, Fat From Fungus (favorite story title – obviously) is easily the weirdest, funniest, most memorable tale (tail?) in the anthology. Anthropomorphic animals, scheming nobles, fungus, and merkins come together in a story that will not soon be forgotten. Fungal fun for the furry in all of us.

Where Dead Men Go To Dream by A.C. Wise is a dark tale of anguish and loss. There is some beautiful imagery to be found in a tale of mushrooms and dreams.

Daniel Mills recently caught my attention with a brilliant story in A Season in Carcosa. With Dust From a Dark Flower, Mills uses fungus in a more traditional weird horror style. Mills is quickly becoming a new favorite of mine.

Nick Namatas brings us a tale of an urban housing project’s garden, and the hope it brings to the neighborhood before taking a darker turn in The Shaft Through the Middle of It All. Namatas paints a very convincing urban picture in a stand out tale.

Go Home Again showcases Simon Strantzas many talents. The melancholy story is full of beautiful, dark imagery, coming together for a hopeful ending.

And ending the anthology (for the paperback readers) is a powerful tale by Laird Barron. Gamma is a disturbing, spine-chilling tale. It works as an example of how literary, powerful, and brutal Barron’s stories can be, adding another example of how he is the Cormac McCarthy of the weird. A perfect closing story.

There are several other fun stories as well, Julio Toro San Martin spins a steampunk yarn, Lisa M. Bradley writes an intriguing environmental tale where not everything is as it seems, Polenth Blake pens a hilarious little ditty, Ian Rogers brings back his recurring paranormal investigator Felix Renn in a supernatural noir, and Chadwick Ginther brings fungus into the realm of Sword and Sorcery.

Also of note are the three additional stories available in the hardcover edition. Catherine Tobler writes a poetic, gloomy tale of a ruined earth, while J.T. Glover and Claude Lalumière bring light-hearted, funny tales to the table. The three stories together are totally worth the extra money.

Fungi is definitely an anthology any fan of the weird should get ahold of. There is just so much offered in terms of content that it is entertaining throughout. Also, the hardcover is worth dishing out the extra dollars for. Not only would I dub this anthology “highly recommended”, I would even go so far as to say it’s my pick for best original anthology of the year. 

The book can be bought straight from the publisher HERE.