Sunday, February 10, 2019

Audible: Upping my book game

Before last year I hadn't really given audio books much thought. I very much enjoy reading but find myself distracted by any number of other media sources and life happenings which puts my read count at a much lower level than I'd like. Then I threw my hat into Audible's ring to give it a shot. A monthly subscription offered by Amazon, it is free for 1 month which gives one a single book credit and the knowledge that you can cancel at anytime and actually keep the books you've acquired through the service. That was enough to get me to try it and I'm now hard pressed find another service that I pay for that I enjoy more.

It's been about a year with the service now and I've gone through 10 titles, mostly on my drives to and from work where I have time to just sit and listen. I've burned through a few autobiographies by faves Bruce Campbell and Alan Alda (read by them too), experienced the first two books in the Altered Carbon series (which were superb! - I'm reading the physical edition of the 3rd one now), ripped through a trilogy by Robert Sawyer about a bridging of earths, one our own, the other one where Neanderthals were the developed species. I've gone through another Mass Effect tie in book (and just started a second) and got around to seeing what the fuss was about with The Hand Maid's Tale.

The service (at time of writing) is $14.99/mo which gets you 1 book credit for the month and discounts on the others. I tend to stick to the credits as the audio books by themselves tend to be a bit pricey for my tastes... but they do hold sales where you can pick up titles for a few dollars a piece. As I said above, the service allows you to keep the books even if you stop the subscription and they also offer an option where you can trade in books you didn't enjoy at any point for another book credit. You can listen to the service on any internet connected computer with a browser player on their site or download their app for phones which then allows you to download the book in full for listening without streaming. The two connect to the same service for tracking, so you can simply pick up where you left off regardless of where you're listening.

This is of course if you're okay with what audio books are. I've been telling a number of people about my new found past time and a lot of them come back with "I'm not sure I'd enjoy listening to a book". Which I get. But I feel it's worth a try. One thing I will note, however, is that each book offers a snippet/preview for you to test. These can be key in determining if you like the person narrating the book. I've had the pleasure of listening to some books read by the authors who really put the extra effort in. I've also enjoyed some titles read by those who love their craft, who put so much into each character and portraying the scenes within rather than just reading the book to you in a deadpan sort of manner. However, I have run across switches in readers and just plain terrible readers who make you feel like you're in a lecture rather than unraveling a wonderful tale. This is exactly why I opted to read the physical book for Richard Morgan's Woken Furies (third in the Altered Carbon series) as the third audio book switches readers after the second book and after testing it, followed by some online research I've learned it's quite hard to get through on most reviewers accounts. In this regard one needs to be careful. I feel like one bad audio book would ruin someone's view of audio books for a long time.

All of this aside, I very much enjoy the service and plan on continuing to expand my "read" base with great titles that I've otherwise have yet to sit down and read in the traditional manner simply because of how busy life can get. In closing, I'd highly suggest anyone reading this to give it a shot.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Valley Review: Quite the Gem!

Game: Valley * System: PS4 * Developer: Blue Isle Studios

Occasionally I'll get into a slump when it comes to games, starting a handful or two but never really being captivated by any in that group enough to really delve into them. Valley was part of one of these slumps which broke that trend and I'm glad to report that it's completely blown me away. It's also one of those titles that I thought looked interesting and decided to buy on a sale, leaving it on my hard drive for quite some time. I'm glad I dug into it. It's an absolute gem.

The main premise of this game is that you're thrust into a remote location known as Area 634 (I believe that's what it was called) which is inspired by the Canadian Rocky Mountains with little more than that as information. You can choose to play a male or female (nameless) character and because it is a first person perspective this really only effects the grunts you hear from your avatar. Nice that they've added both as an option, but not really impacting of the story. You're left to explore at your leisure. This is where the first high point in Valley really starts to unveil itself; the level design.

The level design is so damn smart. It's linear in nature as you follow the story, but with wide open areas that beg for you to explore and reward you with smartly hidden collectables. The flow to these levels (and they're big) really is hard to describe. I've been playing games for many many years and it's rare that I see such care taken into the layout of every piece the player interacts with. That's not to say it's too easy, it's just damn good level design. Bravo to the members behind this marvel.

Only once in the campaign did I hit a snag where it wasn't apparent what should be done (this has been found by others too). In the screenshot below (took original from youtube), you can see the green arrow I've put in to show where you're suppose to go in order to get the upgrade you need for the section after this. However, you can veer left (see red arrow) and double jump onto a set of pipes which gives you access to the ramp you see in the picture. This ramp is meant to be used after you progress through the green path and pick up that upgrade. However, following the Red and then Blue path allows you to double jump into the next section where you can't progress nor can you go back. You're left thinking you're stumped on something that should be obvious. Thankfully you can fast travel to the section just before this and re-do. Still, it's an interesting snag in a game that's otherwise a winner in level design.

The single level design issue I had with Valley.

The game takes place mostly in nature as you unravel events that happened in the era of World War II (Early-mid 1940s) surrounding an energy source found only in this area and a military group researching this energy.  The L.E.A.F (Leap Effortlessly though Air Functionality) suit that is built around harnessing this energy is an exoskeleton that allows you to leap high, run fast and with upgrades you earn through the campaign, gain access to nearly anything you can see in the game world. This is a really interesting part of the game which has exploring at it's core. The levels in which you use the ability to run incredibly fast through a charged rail system are exceptionally fun to rush through.

Without saying too much about the plot, it's a somewhat passive story telling but one that is quite effective. You don't run into other characters, you're mostly hearing recordings and reading notes. It kind of adds charm to the game though, as you're spending your time thinking about the mystery of the island rather than dealing with NPCs. You're also not gunning down enemies, which is quite refreshing.

Visually the game is quite nice to look at and oozes it's own style all over the place. From the over all world esthetic, to the neat character/creature designs and intertwined WWII era equipment, the game really makes it's own little world unique. The only gripe I'd have against the visuals would be that the shadows were sometimes too dark. I found myself blasting energy to see in the dark sometimes. But I'd be doing the game a disservice if I didn't mention the spectacular sound track. On numerous occasions I found myself just poking around listening to the music instead of completing tasks. It's spectacular. Bravo to the composer and to the technical team who interwove the tracks into areas, changing with fluidity anytime the action/setting called for such.

I've got something like 10 hours into it, have completed the campaign and am now exploring further in the levels for secrets and collectables that I missed (or didn't have access to) throughout the game as the developers let you explore once the story finishes with all of the upgrades you have earned. For a small indie team to have pulled off such a tight, expertly built (on all fronts) game that rivals massive budget titles in quality really just impresses the hell out of me. Bravo team, Bravo.