The Carraig Man

Earlier this year, I entered the Fearie Tales competition for “Winter Words” at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. The brief was to write a short horror story of between 2250 and 3250 words. The story also had to have roots in Scotland.

I was really pleased to find out that I had won, and that my story was to be read out at the theatre, which my wife and I went to hear. Now that the competition is over, I can publish that short story here for everyone to read (though Word to WordPress has ruined the formatting and I’ve spent an hour trying to make it look only marginally better…).

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The Carraig Man

A winter’s evening, perhaps in the Highlands, or perhaps in the Lowlands. You’re in the grassy fields with the standing stones, nearby the village. Just before the sun becomes dull enough to look at, a flash of light on the horizon makes you blink. As you clear away the spots in your vision, you’ll swear that the old man standing by the stones wasn’t there a second ago. After all, that’s just ridiculous: old men don’t just appear out of thin air.

Only that is what just happened.

The Carraig Man is here.

The Carraig Man isn’t a person, like you, or like me. The Carraig Man is something different. The Carraig Man is something else.

The night begins to fall, and you soon forget the sudden appearance of the old man in the field with the standing stones. Much like the many others who behold the Carraig Man, you return to your business and make your way home before the night blankets the village.

The night is dark. The night is cold. Most importantly, the night is long. The Carraig Man has work to do, and it doesn’t like to be rushed.

The Carraig Man makes its way through the village, noting its route as it stops to rest on all of the benches positioned away from the streetlights. The Carraig Man doesn’t visit the same village every night, but that’s not to say that it hasn’t visited yours recently, or that it won’t visit yours again. The Carraig Man has been around for a very long time. Streetlights are something that the Carraig Man is still getting used to.

The Carraig Man finds a place that folk like to gather, hiding in plain sight. A place with low light and secluded corners. A place that the Carraig Man can watch you all, undisturbed.

~

The Carraig Man finds a pub. A gathering where folk can join in with one another, or spend some time alone. The Carraig Man always manages to find a dark corner by itself. The Carraig Man isn’t particularly fond of the light we insist on placing everywhere. The Carraig Man may look like an old fellow at a glance, but if you chance upon spending any amount of time really looking at it, you’ll see that not everything is what you might expect. The Carraig Man’s lips are too thin and too wide, housing a mouth that is larger than you or I would need. Its ears are ever-so-slightly pointed at the top, and the lobes dangle like jelly. The Carraig Man smiles, but it never reveals its teeth, or licks its lips. At least not where everyone can see. The Carraig Man has no eyebrows, but it does have a wiry mass of thick, grey hair, with a double crown. The Carraig Man cannot stand straight, but this is not a frailty.

These are all the features that you should be looking out for on strangers you might meet on the winter nights, but these aren’t features that you’ll be able to see as the Carraig Man watches you from its dimly-lit spot in the hum of the pub at night. If you find yourself in the company of an old man that matches this description, you have met the Carraig Man. It is probably already too late for you.

The Carraig Man nurses a single drink for the entire time it watches you all. The Carraig Man doesn’t much care for alcohol, for it gives him nothing desirable. It drinks only water, and will only begin to sip it when it has thoroughly warmed up from the chill of the tap. The Carraig Man may appear to be nothing more than a lonely old man that drinks alone, but you won’t feel sorry for it unless it wants you to. The Carraig Man works slowly, and it may have been among you all for several hours before it decides which of you it wants.

Eventually, the Carraig Man strikes.

The Carraig Man doesn’t rush in like some ferocious beast or starved animal. The Carraig Man can go for weeks without feeding. The Carraig Man is slow. The Carraig Man is careful. It fixes its gaze upon the one or two of you that it wants. It is never clear what causes the Carraig Man to make its decision, but its decision is always correct. The Carraig Man always gets what it chooses.

It casts quick glances at you with sad-looking eyes. At first they drop away, whenever you happen to meet them. You will feel its eyes on you. It isn’t altogether unpleasant, but it isn’t altogether nice. If you ever happen to notice an old man watching you, face hidden mostly by shadow, circling its long fingers around the rim of a half-full glass of water, as a winter’s night wears on outside, know now that this is the time you should leave, should you wish to avoid meeting with the Carraig Man.

But…

You don’t leave. The old man may be strange, but he is just an old man, and old men aren’t anything to be worried about. Certainly not a decrepit and lonely man, such as the one that sits and drinks alone in a pub. You look back at it, and this time, it meets your gaze. The Carraig Man smiles. The Carraig Man gently waves.

The Carraig Man ignores you for the rest of your evening. Whether you are alone or with friends, the Carraig Man has marked you, and you are now his.

For you, the night begins to draw to an end. For the Carraig Man, its work is just beginning.

As the patrons order their last drinks, and others head off out into the night, the Carraig Man gulps down the last mouthful of its water. For some reason, you notice this act specifically, and you feel that it too, is time for you to leave. As you finish your own drink and begin to say goodbye to those you know, you realise that the old man is no longer sat in the corner. Only an empty glass remains on the table or windowsill. As an inexplicable wave of relief washes over your tired body, a thin but strong hand grabs you by the elbow. Others around you smile and laugh as you realise the old man from the corner has come to see you. The Carraig Man is about to begin its work.

The Carraig Man beckons with a finger that seems to be one knuckle too long, inviting you to step closer. The Carraig Man’s wide lips barely move, but the corners of its eyes curl in a manner that makes you instinctively draw in to listen. You feel its lips brush the edge of your ear. You can’t remember the words that the Carraig Man whispers, but you know that the Carraig Man is old and far from home.

You know that the Carraig Man wants help.

You’re not quite sure where the Carraig Man wants you to take it, but you don’t feel worried and you don’t feel scared. After all, you’re only being asked to get an old man to his home, and good deeds never go unrewarded. Friends might raise their eyebrows, and you might think of your warm, cosy bed. It seems so easy to say no and let the old man find somebody else to take him home. But you don’t say no. You nod your head and agree to help. Everybody does after the Carraig Man whispers to them.

The Carraig Man leads you outside.

The night is dark, and the night is cold. Most importantly for the Carraig Man, the night is long, and it has work to do. Your breath mists around your face, and your journey begins.

The Carraig Man takes your hand. It doesn’t feel strange that you are the one following and it is the one leading. Despite the chill of the night, you feel warmth as the ancient figure leads you by the hand. The Carraig Man takes you through the darkest streets and along the narrowest of alleys. Away from the buzz and glow of the bustling areas of the village. The Carraig Man prefers the shadow. The Carraig Man doesn’t want to be seen. Yet.

You begin to leave the houses behind, via paths you probably never knew existed. The Carraig Man comes to know all of the available routes before he chooses you. The night loses the artificial glow from the windows, replaced with the cold light of the moon and stars. The dark shadows of munros loom to your sides as the Carraig Man carries you away from any house you may have thought it was heading to. It picks up speed. It knows where it is going, and you’re happy to follow along. You think of that warm bed waiting for you after you reach the old man’s destination.

After all, it is just an old man.

The Carraig Man leads you into the field with the standing stones. There is nobody around. There is never anybody around when the Carraig Man is ready to do what he came to do.

You find yourself standing between the stones. You notice the small, circular holes in the top of the stones as the Carraig Man begins to dance around you, all gangly limbs and strands of hair bouncing as they catch the moonlight. He moves slowly, like in a dream.

The Carraig Man stops and looks directly into your eyes.

And the spell is broken.

Fear drenches you. The night feels colder, and that fuzzy kindliness you felt on your walk from the pub vanishes. You are frozen to the spot as the Carraig Man stares. You try to think, but you can’t work out where you are. You don’t remember how to call out, or get attention. You are silent. This is how all of the Carraig Man’s victims behave as its eyes bore into yours.

The Carraig Man shows its teeth.

It lets its tongue slither out of its cavern. The tongue is so long that it makes you shiver, but that tongue is the least of your worries now.

The Carraig Man draws in. You are so terrified that you feel like your heart will explode in your chest. But you don’t run. You can’t run. The Carraig Man has you transfixed.

The Carraig Man drapes a long and slender arm around your neck, fingers brushing the edges of your ears. Its legs straddle yours, and its waist closes in to touch against your belly. The Carraig Man sighs, revelling in the moment, delighted in its success.

For a moment, there is only silence, and depths of the black, liquid eyes that drill into the back of your mind.

The Carraig Man no longer looks like an old man. The Carraig Man looks like what it is. Something different. Something else.

You feel it first in the pit of your stomach. A gentle sucking, of your insides moving upwards. Your stomach is drawn inwards, and the back of your throat tightens. The fingers around the back of your head slide down and grip more firmly around your neck. The other hand caresses gently up and down the length of your spine. Its misshapen face is the single most terrifying and beautiful thing you have ever seen, or will see ever again. The pain begins, but the fingers on your back somehow calm you. They stop you from screaming out. The air disappears from your lungs and won’t return. You see your hands pushing against the chest of the Carraig Man. They appear pale and thin. Veins protrude. Your legs begin to shake, and you start to feel less… there, than you were a moment ago. Your head falls back into the Carraig Man’s hands as it draws out the very essence of your being. Your eyes slide back and stare up into the night sky above. You watch the moon as it charts its long journey across the night sky.

The Carraig Man doesn’t like to be rushed.

You feel smaller. Lower. The Carraig Man towers over you. The pain is gone. You are almost gone. You linger on the cold precipice of nothingness. You think of your nice, warm bed. It is still there, whether or not you will be joining it.

You realise that you are looking up at the blades of grass, at the underside of the Carraig Man’s chin as it stares out into the remainder of the night. You feel a momentary pang of sadness and loss as you realise that this is the end and you were powerless to stop it. You close your eyes for the last time as the red light of the morning creeps over.

~

The Carraig Man stands between the standing stones in the field and looks down at the empty pile of clothes its victim once wore. As it stares at them, the grass and dirt claim them, dragging them below and out of sight.

The Carraig Man places a hand on one of the standing stones. Two fingers, one knuckle too long on each, push through the hole in the stone as the two either side press up against the lichen-covered roughness. The tip of the orb that is the sun crests the horizon, and for the briefest of moments there is a flash. As the flash fades, and early passers-by rub their eyes, they wonder where the old man has gone that they saw in the field, among the standing stones. After all, that’s just ridiculous: old men don’t just vanish out of thin air.

Only that is what just happened.

The Carraig Man was here.

The Carraig Man isn’t a person, like you, or like me. The Carraig Man is something different. The Carraig Man is something else.

The Carraig Man will appear again. Perhaps in the Highlands, or perhaps in the Lowlands. The Carraig Man will return. There is always work to be done.

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Cold Call is now available!

I’ve finally published my first story!

Cold Call is now available on the Amazon Kindle Store and will be free between October 14th and 16th to celebrate the release of my first novella (price after offer is just 99p). Perfect for a Halloween!

Cold calls. Private numbers. Incessant ringing…

They’re not going to stop, so when are you going to answer?

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To find out more about Cold Call and the upcoming Havelock’s Path, visit my facebook page.

The Wheel of Time – Channelling A Magical Weave

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In 2016, an Age of Kindles and long train journeys, this reader finally finished the epic fifteen-book series through the Westlands. The fate of future story enjoyment hangs in the balance. What was, what is, and what will be may never compare to the journey I went on in Robert Jordan’s epic collection.

Wheel-of-Time-Logo

There are many, many, fantasy series out there, and one of greatest (first world) troubles a reader of fantasy might have is picking a series to read. If you only have limited time to read each day, then you’ll want to make sure you lock yourself into something good! I don’t know about you, but if I start something, I damn well finish it. Even if it turns sour before the end. The Wheel of Time was an enormous series to get stuck into, and while we had our ups and downs, our slow times and our fast, I regret none of the time I spent with Rand Al’Thor and the hundreds of characters he meets.

It all starts innocently enough. Emond’s Field in the Two Rivers region is a sleepy farming village that is cut off from much of the developing world. The people live a simple life and keep very much to themselves, so much so that even the Monarch has nothing to do with the place, and few are sure whether or not they even have a King or Queen. Emond’s Field is home to three very important young men (among other characters who form a large part of the story!); Rand Al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara. All three of them catch glimpses of an evil presence close to home, prior to the arrival of a fabled Aes Sedai and her Warder, Moiriane Sedai and Lan Al’Mandragoran. Within a few chapters, the three boys are whisked off out of the village on a journey to the Northern reaches of the known world. From there, the story spreads out across the world, with our characters splitting up and having their own adventures with a grand cast of characters. The whole set up is remarkably similar to my favourite genre of videogame, the JRPG. It was easy to get caught up in the unfolding adventure told in The Eye of the World, and it was no time at all before I’d tapped right on the side of my Kindle Paperwhite for the last time, and was prompted to purchase The Great Hunt for £6.99 (if you’re interested, the whole Kindle series set me back £104.85).

Throughout the first couple of novels, I found Rand Al’Thor to be a great main character; a man struggling to come to terms with unwanted nightmares, unknown enemies, and the small matter of being able to wield the tainted male half of the One Power, Saidin. For obvious reasons, the man who would end up becoming the Dragon Reborn was the focal point at the beginning of the series, but it wasn’t long before the sheer number of characters in the book left poor old Rand Al’Thor being swept somewhat by the wayside, and putting in minimal appearances for much of the story, and many of those did little to forward his story until late in each entry.

Now, I really did enjoy the overall story of The Wheel of Time, but it was frustrating to come to terms with reading so little about the character that the whole story was originally focused on. Fortunately, the vast majority of the players in this story were all interesting in their own way, and the annoyance of losing Rand’s journey was often diminished by discovering more on how Perrin had become able to talk with the wolves, and watching how Mat managed to come out on top again and again, no matter the dire situations he found himself in. And Jordan doesn’t just limit us to the three boys, he opens up the story to the point of view of characters from around the world and from all walks of life. Chief among these characters are the Aes Sedai – women who can channel Saidar, the untainted, female half of the One Power – and the women who would eventually become them. Egwene Al’Vere and Nynaeve Al’Meara from Emond’s Field play a huge role in the story, The Amyrlin Seat Siuan Sanche (chief among the Aes Sedai) follows a tragic tale that would have been a great story told alone. Countless women from the seven Ajahs (factions) of the White Tower (headquarters of the Aes Sedai) take the reigns at various points and give us new insights into the workings of the Tower, and we also get to find out how three women in love with Rand Al’Thor overcome the difficulties of all wanting to be with the same man (spoiler alert – Rand just gets to be with three women…). We even get to spend a good deal of time with several unsavoury characters that are acting in the interests of the Dark One.

It is always refreshing to see how the evil characters view the unfolding story, and it also means we get to spend more time with Jordan’s excellent horde of vicious monsters and terrifying beings. Jordan’s Trollocs form the footsoldiers to rival Tolkien’s Orcs, huge creatures formed of an unnatural mixture of human and animal. More chilling are the Myrddraal, evil creatures that drive the Trollocs and form the basis of tales told to scare children around the world. Similar in build to men, Myrddraal have no eyes yet no disability when it comes to locating their prey. They can move on shadows and disappear when escape seems possible. They move with horrifying speed and an attack from their blade nearly always proves fatal. Elsewhere are the vampire-like Draghkar, Seanchan monstrosities from across the ocean that resemble great lizards and dragons, and the nightmares that inhabit the dead Blight to the north. Everything on offer feels very much a part of the world they inhabit, and are a change to oft-used goblins that are seen in many a fantasy tale. With these creatures, the story can often become quite violent, with many a ruined throat and charred corpse to be found. However, the writing itself remains largely clean throughout (assuming you aren’t offended by “bloody” and “flaming”, otherwise this will be the most foul-mouthed story you’ve ever read).

Map

One of the most interesting aspects of The Wheel of Time is the One Power. Split into two halves of Saidin and Saidar, that can be used exclusively by men and women with the talent, the magic of the story is ubiquitous enough that it can be used in almost any situation without feeling forced, or simply a means to an end. Certain characters have greater abilities with different aspects of the power, such as fire and earth magic, healing, or controlling the weather. The One Power allows us to see the usual range of magical abilities we expect to see in fantasy, and still manages to feel very much a product of the story itself, and not something borrowed from other stories you may have read.

With the One Power being such an important force in the world of The Wheel of Time, the taint-free female half of the power has caused the world to develop into a very women-oriented place. Men who can channel are reviled, doomed to go mad and threaten the very fabric of the world, capable of bringing dark forces that everyone should rightly be terrified of. As such, the rare men who can channel are hunted by the Aes Sedai, and elsewhere around the world are simply exiled or sent to their deaths by various forms of execution. That the Dragon Reborn – the man destined to battle the Dark One and bring peace to the world – is a man that can channel, there are mixed feelings throughout the world debating whether or not such a man should be allowed to thrive or be neutered. After all, without a Dragon for the prophecies, the fated end times cannot come without him there.

A frenzied reaction from the Aes Sedai takes place whenever a man pipes up that he is the said saviour of the world. Rand Al’Thor is one of several men who end up proclaiming themselves as the Dragon Reborn around the beginnings of the story (very rarely can four novels be classed as the beginnings, but they certainly are in this case). Of all of the men, Rand is the most reluctant, terrified of going mad and rotting away, unable to accept that friends and family will come to revile him for the power he holds and the destiny he faces, and very uneasy of the prospects of fulfilling the prophecies he is bound to carry out. Yet despite his reluctance, Rand finds himself ticking off the boxes one by one, locating the Eye of the World and the Horn of Valere, dispatching the first of the awakened Forsaken, agents of the Dark Lord, and eventually proclaiming himself the Dragon Reborn itself. Rand’s rise to the Dragon is very well done, and his struggles with the torrent of pure power that is Saidin had me believing he would be ruined long before the climax of the story.

It is at around the point of Rand accepting his status at the Dragon Reborn that the story begins to slow down and lose momentum. Rather than pushing on full steam ahead towards the destined Last Battle, books five to ten begin to spend more time with many different characters as they spread out around the world, seeking out the tools needed for Rand and hunting down the secretive members of the Dark One’s forces. At the time, reading these books wasn’t so much of a chore as it was just mildly frustrating. All the places that Jordan takes us are interesting, and I don’t care how many times Nynaeve tugged her braid, or an Aes Sedai smoothed her skirt, each character felt unique and interesting, especially as we get to see the story from several very different points of view. It’s just that… well, we know that Rand’s nemeses, the Forsaken, are out there and gaining power. I wanted to see him deal with them more regularly, and the snippets we see of Rand edging ever closer to each one made it a huge tease when it seemed a huge chapter was on the horizon, only to be diverted away by another day spent with a travelling circus.

As the story begins to draw to a close (and by close, I mean the final ~4000 pages), big things begin to happen with the male half of the One Power, and it finally feels like the story is picking up again. Unfortunately, it was at around this point in 2007 that Robert Jordan sadly died, unable to finish his story within his lifetime after releasing 11 releases in the main story, and one prequel book. Back in 2007, I was already reading The Wheel of Time but was only at the fifth book, The Fires of Heaven, and perhaps misguidedly decided to give up on a story that I doubted would ever see an end. In a somewhat surprising turn, the series was picked up by renowned fantasy author Brandon Sanderson, and wrapped up in a further three entries.

Now, I have no idea what Jordan’s intentions were for the remainder of the story. I mean, everyone that has finished the series will have the gist of it, but was this exactly what had originally been planned? My personal opinion is that Brandon Sanderson was the best thing to happen to the series, and I mean this with no disrespect to Robert Jordan himself (after all, he created this amazing world that so many have become lost in), but I can’t help but think that had Jordan carried on, the Wheel of Time would have ended up as twenty books, and probably wouldn’t have been finished even now. The Gathering Storm was the twelfth book in the series, and from the first pages it becomes apparent that the pace of the story has finally kicked into high gear, with developments coming thick and fast and a tangible sense of foreboding growing throughout the final three novels. It really feels as though the world is coming to an end, hope is sparse and death is ubiquitous. With each book, the Dark One and his minions inch closer and closer to their goal of annihilating the world of light, and by the time the last battle came around (which is largely the entirety of the final book, A Memory of Light), I was tearing through pages, desperate to find out how everyone fared. I even had re-read a few pages several times just so that I could take in what was happening to these people I had been reading about for fourteen books. With so many people dropping with each page, I began feeling quite shell-shocked by how sudden each loss was, and how the characters had no time to mourn in face of the disasters around them.

One might think that changing authors would derail and ruin a story, and anybody would have been forgiven for being wary of seeing what was about to become of their favourite characters. By and large, Sanderson did an excellent job of maintaining the essence of the characters we all know and love. In fact, out of the hundreds of characters he had to deal with, only Mat Cauthon felt a little off. And that isn’t to say that he was badly written – some of my favourite chapters of the final three books focused on Mat – he just felt slightly different, as though we were picking up the story in an alternate dimension where the only difference was Mat was a bit… funnier. Given all of the dimensions that Rand witnesses early on in the story, this is probably a fairly acceptable way to look at the last three books.

Thanks to the urgency and horror contained with the final novels, the slower books in the middle of series take on a new life. We are able to look back on a time where the world wasn’t on the brink of disaster, and the forces of good were still able to keep the situation in hand. Had the whole series run at the same pace, then the Last Battle wouldn’t have had the impact it now does.

The Wheel of Time is a huge commitment. Fourteen main books and a shorter prequel. Each book is somewhere between 600 and 1200 pages, and they more commonly lean toward the larger number. Reading the series took me eleven months, and as I closed the final book I was met with an emptiness that I have never felt from a story before. It is always sad to say goodbye to any great characters from a book, but I spent a lot of time with Rand Al’Thor and company. The story was wrapped up well, and in my mind the characters still live on in the their world, enjoying new adventures that we’ll never read about. Turning the final pages didn’t feel like reaching the ending of The Wheel of Time. There are no endings, and never will be endings, to the turning of The Wheel of Time. But it was an ending.

Mór Reodh Pub Song – They Come

The men they come,
The men they come.
They shape our streets,
And they build our homes.
The men they come,
The men they come.
Cover all the land before they’re done.

And if you should live while they provide,
Then a prosperous life you’re sure to find.
With a wooden door to close at night,
And a solid wall to soothe your mind.

The Wee Men come,
The Wee Men come.
They flood our streets,
And they burn our homes.
The Wee Men come,
The Wee Men come.
Take you underground before they’re done.

And if they should come while you’re alive,
Then you’d better be sure that you can hide.
If they drag you off into the night,
Then they’ll take your soul before your life.

The Tall Men come,
The Tall Men come.
They take our folk,
And they eat our young.
The Tall Men come,
The Tall Men come.
Turn us all to stone before they’re done.

And if they should come while you’re alive,
Then you’d better be sure that you can hide.
For they’ll catch you out with their great strides,
And a long-lived life you’ll be denied.

The screams they come,
The screams they come.
They rend our ears,
And they burn our lungs.
The screams they come,
The screams they come.
And they’ll bleed us hoarse until they’re done.

And if they should come while you’re alive,
Then you’d better be sure that you can hide.
But don’t let yours out while they’re outside,
Or you’ll join your kin on the underside.

The Travellers come,
The Travellers come.
They clear our streets,
As they have their fun.
The Travellers come,
The Travellers come.
Silence all our lands before they’re done.

And if they should come while you’re alive,
Then you’ll thank the walls that you survived.
Now the Tall Men fall and Wee Men die,
And a stillness comes to our fair isle.

 

From Havelock’s Path: A Stone King Slumbers

Contemporary SaGa – The Legend of Legacy

I’ve been shirking my game-playing duties recently. This time last year I had six finished games under my belt, and none of them were short. I suppose I thought that the older I got, the more refined my interests would become and with that the more time I would have for them. Well, that is clearly not the case; between planning for the arrival of our baby, writing what is now a trilogy of books, photography, reading (and, of course, work), there has been little time to spare for playing games.

So, despite my backlog of games that seems to be forever growing in size, I thought I’d take a chance on The Legend of Legacy. The game is a continuation of the SaGa series of games in all but name. If you’ve never played (or even heard of) the SaGa games, then just know that they tend to be slightly more experimental takes on the tried and tested JRPG gameplay styles. When Final Fantasy was originally leading players down a relatively straight path to the end boss, The Final Fantasy Legend (or Makai Toushi Sa-Ga, as it was known in its native Japan) provided an almost open world and a certain degree of decision making on the player’s behalf when it came to developing characters. While Final Fantasy continued to enjoy the limelight for major JRPG release, the SaGa series became a more left-field series, with fewer releases and definitely a greater sense of a cult following. They’re all good experiences in their own way (in my experience), though I imagine most players will find Unlimited SaGa something of a tough nut to crack. In a pleasing turn of events, The Legend of Legacy manages to emulate the classic formula of the SaGa games, and only really presents any difficulties once it well and truly has you locked in.

Arrival

As if to prove just how big a presence this game would become in my gaming time, The Legend of Legacy arrived in a box roughly one foot by two (Creme Egg for scale). After going on my own mini-quest to retrieve the item that clearly wouldn’t fit through a letterbox, I began playing immediately. In the beginning, I had the impression that this might be one of those games that I buy, play five minutes of, then shut away in a cupboard until it becomes worth something (a fate that far too many of my games have met), and all because it looked and felt considerably like Bravely Default, and I’ve already played Bravely Default. But as soon as I found myself exploring the starting location of the Forest Ruins, trees and rocks and mysteries began popping up all around me as I navigated the top screen, all while my map was filled in on the lower: I already had the sense that this would be a game persevered with. My first few battles saw my characters learning a few new skills, improving existing ones, and having their own personal stances and stats improved with pleasing regularity.

You see, The Legend of Legacy is almost perfectly designed for portable play. Even if you only get to play for the duration of a short tea break, the way in which the world is presented means that you are almost always making progress. With so many different attack styles and magics on offer, focusing on one over a short period of time will undoubtedly see them improve. Your hit points are always on a steady rise. It is really quite difficult to play this game without making some sort of headway, and to cap it off you can quick save at any time out of battle or cutscenes.

Initium

The Legend of Legacy takes place on a mysterious island known as Avalon, and the character that you pick to begin your quest (from a selection of seven, though you’ll be playing with three of them no matter who you pick) is tasked with exploring the island and uncovering its secrets. You’ll begin with only one area to explore, but that soon expands as you push the boundaries of that location and find pathways to entirely new places that run the usual JRPG locations of forests, deserts, caves, and ancient villages. You can even buy maps to new locations, though expect these to set you back a bit financially. There are also plenty of unique locations that are better left hidden until you discover them yourself. Each area is formed of at least one map, but usually many more. As you explore deeper and deeper, you’ll see your maps creep their way to 100%. None of the individual maps are particularly huge, but the sheer number of them means that for at twenty hours you’ll be contented with a 100% here, and a 100% there. At any point, you can choose to sell your maps for a sum that depends on the level of completion you are offering. I’m not sure why anybody would choose to sell an incomplete map, but it is an option available to you. A word of warning comes when selling maps though! You can only sell a map once, and once done, you might find that the challenge in that area is reduced somewhat. This might seem preferable in the short-term, but if you need a place to beef up your characters late in the game, you’ll curse yourself for selling maps early.

With such a variety of locations available to you, you might wonder which map you should explore first. The Legend of Legacy encourages you to work this out for yourself, which is a refreshing change in games that funnel you along a path, and it also reinforces the sense of exploration as you come across new areas individually without any prompt the game to direct you there beyond the location icon on the world map. Sure enough, you’ll run into one or two areas that sees you kicked out with a sound beating in seconds, but this only made me more determined to see what those maps were hiding.

beginning

Well, if you want to uncover all of Avalon’s secrets, you’re going to have to fight, and fight a lot. The Legend of Legacy plays with JRPG tradition by providing you with a turn-based battle system with a few twists that make it a uniquely enjoyable system. You’ll have three characters in your party (and after playing other JRPGs that give you four or five characters to play with, this did feel restrictive), and unless you’re fighting an oft-beaten foe, you’ll soon discover that each character has to perform very specific functions. My party consisted of mercenary Owen, holy knight Garnet, and frog dude Filmia (and what fan of Chrono Trigger wouldn’t want a frog in their party?). Owen was the resident death-dealer throughout, wielding a huge Buster Sword of a weapon, and a more modest long sword. Garnet was the very definition of a Shield Maiden, blocking hundreds of incoming attacks, and eventually learning to deflect those attacks back at the enemy. Filmia became a Spellsword with a variety of magical attack and defence spells, and was also pretty handy with a spear. Although players are 100% free to mix up how they use their characters (you can equip different characters with different weapons and spell stones and take them in a direction you wish), I stuck to the aforementioned roles for my crew, and was rather pleased with how they looked when the end-game came along. Owen had come to learn not only hugely powerful attacks on one enemy, he was also pretty handy at taking on groups of seven or eight foes alone. Garnet rarely let an attack past her, and Filmia became invaluable for buffing and healing when magical attacks on my group became too much. However, so fixed were my characters in their positions, that if one happened to fall, the battles would tend to go south fast. As you are completely free to build your gang up, it would have been entirely possible for me to have each character learn all of the skills that were spread across my party. However, I didn’t particularly want to spend sixty or so hours to do this…

Level

Although battles tended to be more on the physical side during my playthrough, The Legend of Legacy houses an interesting magic system that relies on the player finding magical shards that offer up a skill (or skills), and utilising them in battle by calling over the requisite elemental to your side of the fight. There are four elementals to be aware of, and very predictably they are fire, water, air, and shadow. Your characters will learn spells in all but the shadow element, which is very useful as there are only three of you… Aside from the spell-providing Whispering Shards, there are three Singing Shards that allow a character to call their requisite elemental over in battle if equipped. If there are any general frustrations to be had in this game, they largely lie with the magic system. Each character has two item slots with which to equip various items and shards. If you want to go down the route of learning spells, then you must use both of those slots to equip a Singing and a Whispering Shard. Even after this, you still have your work cut out. Firstly, you’ll be best off finding a location where the enemies you face don’t prefer use of the elemental you are trying to learn spells from. There is little more annoying than setting your party to cast spells throughout a turn, only to have the bastards standing opposite you steal your elementals to their side, resulting in a crushing failure to cast a spell when it comes to your character’s turn. Things can be improved by learning various stances that will let your chosen character recklessly beat out a spell before the enemy can take their turn, but whatever setup you use, you will still need a sizeable dose of luck when it comes learning spells. Fortunately, once you have learned a spell (achieved through continued use of your Whispering Shard), the spell becomes a permanent part of your repertoire, and you are then free to unequip the Whispering Shard if you wish (in favour of an item or another shard). You will, however, still need to hold onto that Singing Shard if you wish to continue using your learned spells, as they’ll still require you to possess the element in battle if you wish to cast them.

Ravine

At the beginning of this review, I mentioned that The Legend of Legacy was almost perfectly designed for portable play. If I’ve done things correctly, you’ll likely agree with this until perhaps the twenty-hour mark of your first playthrough. However, The Legend of Legacy did not take me twenty hours to complete. It took me thirty-seven.

At twenty hours, I had filled in all of the maps, located all of the available Whispering Shards, and killed all of the optional bosses. Fair enough, I sold my complete maps without knowing that it would remove higher level enemies from the maps, but the game never explains this to you anyway (I only discovered this from the Japanese wiki!). The last location in the game was open to me, and I eagerly ran along its pathways expecting the boss to a tough but fair battle. Not so. Within one turn I had been wiped out by a devastating area-of-effect attack. Well, this is turn-based game and the attacks are somewhat random. I’ll try again, I thought.

Third turn, same attack, party wiped out.

Okay, I thought, I’ll go and learn some more shield-based spells. Over the next couple of hours, I did just that and made my my way back to the boss again. Turn one, I had all my characters pull the elementals over to my side of the battlefield. Turn two, I had my characters all prepped to cast their shielding spells, and used my “Haste” setup that should have allowed them to go first. What did the boss do? The big attack, right before I could even cast a spell. The third game over. The whole setup felt very much like a boss battle at the beginning of an old anime series called Jungle Wa Itsumo Hale Nochi Guu (click the link and skip to 2:13 to see what I mean).

archwing

I’m all for tough battles in my JRPGs, but being wiped out repeatedly before I could even get a hit in seemed more than a little unfair. Still, I did my due diligence and scoured the land for foes that would see me level up enough to take this guy on. However, given that I had had no trouble throughout the game until this point, it felt especially bad as I no longer had any new areas to have fun in while I developed my team. Eventually, I went back and slaughtered the git – he barely even got a hit off on my – but as this is a JRPG, I was under no impressions that this guy was the real final boss. Without wanting to spoil the game too much, there was something after that treated me in much the same way as the previous guy had. More levelling.

All told, I spent nearly as much time grinding to fight the end boss as I did fighting to get to it in the first place. It was annoying, but not hateful. I’ve played so many JRPGs where this kind of thing happens that I pretty much accepted it as par for the course. If you’re not the type that relishes these difficulty spikes, then I would have to say that you would be better off looking elsewhere for your role-playing fun.

Personally, I don’t believe that this bump ruined the game. It added challenge that perhaps could have been better distributed throughout the game, but when I actually managed to defeat the final challenge of the game, the sense of satisfaction was incredible. For fans of post-game content, you’ll not find much in the way of new stuff here, but instead the game asks that you play the game again with a different character as your main. Subsequent playthroughs are bolstered by increased drop rates and better items, so you will see your playthroughs hitting completion in shorter and shorter times. There is a special surprise for those that finish the game with all seven characters, but that isn’t a challenge I think I can deal with right now. The story, often shared focus with battle systems in JRPGs, is much of an aside in The Legend of Legacy. Your chosen character will have a scene at the beginning and end of their run, and a few choice lines here and there at major battles, but completing the game with each character really does amount to completing the same game seven times, with perhaps a variation on battle setup.

The Legend of Legacy is a fun game, marred by an uneven challenge. For fans of the SaGa series, it is a nice return to the types of games you might have played back in day, but much as the SaGa series sat on the sidelines while the heavy hitters put out release after release on the SNES, PS1 and PS2, this contemporary saga feels like it may go the same way. After seeing it through once, the game holds a special place in my heart for being the first game finished in 2016, and for rekindling a love for the more old-school style of JRPG. But for many others, in a year when Bravely Second and Fire Emblem Fates are released, who wouldn’t go for the heavy hitters first?

clowns

Tales of Reminiscia

Perhaps Recollectia is a better name…

Tales Collection

My current Tales collection, numbering 38 releases from the series

There is actually another word I wanted to ‘ia’ for what was once going to become an encyclopedia of Tales knowledge, but it was too good to let slip. For those who have no idea what this long page is about, I am referring to the “Tales of” series of Japanese Role Playing Games. This is a bit of a rambler, so if you’ve no interest in the tried and tested tropes of a thousand console RPGs, then you’re probably better off navigating away from this page.

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The series began in 1995 on the Super Nintendo with “Tales of Phantasia“, a game which set the naming standard for a series of games that generally end in “ia” (though there are some exceptions that actually start with the second game), and has since proven to be a solid series that has reliably brought fans of the JRPG genre new entries with incredible regularity – if you’re a Japanese speaker. Tales games feature colourful, anime stylings often with pastel shades. Even when trying their hardest to be “mature“, they still end up being brighter and more cheerful than just about every other JRPG series bar Gust’s Atelier games. One of the most important features of the Tales games is the battle system, which mixes random battles with an action-style system that has evolved from something representing a crude Streetfighter, to  a complex beast that personally provides me with more fun than dedicated 3D fighters such as Soul Calibur. However, this is just the start, we’ll come back to the battle system later on!

But as good as the Tales games are, like most things you fondly remember from your childhood and earlier years, the recent entries just aren’t as good as the ones of old. Perhaps it is simply the frequency of which we hear about new games in the series but the last few years has seen merely good releases, and nothing that captures the excitement and scale of the older games. In many cases, feelings like this reveal themselves to be created by a solid pair of rose-tinted glasses, but I would personally guarantee that if you pick up any game in the series that was released before 2009 you’ll have a better time of it than you would with a more contemporary release. Part of me even believes that Bandai-Namco also agree, as they recently released a high definition update of one of their greatest entries, Tales of Symphonia (2003). If you do fancy playing some of the series, it may even be more prudent to work your way back and find the series improving as you delve into the past. I once had grand plans for a sizable tome on the series’ past, present and future, but the last few years of releases have put me off somewhat. Maybe this piece will inspire me to get back to it, or perhaps it will stand as the “thing” I write about the series.

Tales of Originia…

Tales of Phantasia was once just another member of the rich vein of  2D JRPGs that populated the SNES’ library. If you were into your role-playing games in the 1990’s, then you’d have been right to hope that that large, rectangular box under the tree at Christmas wasn’t a Sega Mega Drive!

Brattish attitudes aside, the SNES really was the place to be for levelling up, chocobos, moogles, and the exquisite views of twee fantasy worlds from atop cliffs. This was irrefutable if you lived in Japan, hard to argue against for North Americans, and the best place for those of us in the UK (though the PAL release schedule often left a lot to be desired!). The slight problem that came with the appearance of the Tales series was that it was strictly a Japanese-only game! On other platforms this might have meant you wouldn’t hear about the series for many years to come, but the SNES was reported on by a great magazine by Future Publishing called Super Play, and that magazine thrived on the Japanese games and oddities that the console had to offer. One of the issues I managed to get hold of when I was twelve-years-old was somewhere in the 30s of the 48 issue run (I’m pretty sure it was the magazine with the Secret of Evermore cover but it is currently 312 miles away from me to confirm, and it could have been Kirby), and inside this issue was a first look at Tales of Phantasia. More than anything else, the game caught my attention because it was a 2D JRPG, but it was also notable for being a game that required a 48Mbit cartridge so that the developers were able to include a host of voice acting for the characters, and songs on the soundtrack that included vocals: this was a Big Deal™ for 16-Bit consoles. Nevertheless, as much as I was intrigued by this game, my pre-teen self had no way of picking the game up, much less read the Japanese that would have been required. For now, the Tales series was just another one of those things I read about in Super Play that I had to accept I would never be able to play, alongside Final Fantasy III (VI), and Chrono Trigger

Tales of Sequelia

The next phase of the Tales series was actually turning it into a series. Much like Final Fantasy, the Tales games were developed as standalone games, and didn’t require knowledge from the previous games in the series to be fully enjoyed. As a gamer in the drab, flat lands of Lincolnshire though they did require a pricey foreign console as unfortunately Europe still remained a forbidden (dramatics) territory for localisation and publishing. The United States did get the second though: Tales of Destiny. With the SNES breathing a death rattle beneath the weight of the 32 and 64-Bit consoles, the second game abandoned Nintendo in favour of Sony’s PlayStation in 1997 (almost a whole year later for North America). While other companies saw fit to try out their games in these new-fangled three dimensions that the gaming world was going mad for, Wolf Team (the Tales developers of the time) saw fit to keep the bulk of the game set firmly within two dimensions (the world map was polygonal) and was all the better for it. Say what you will about classics such as Final Fantasy VII, Tales of Destiny has aged far better in the visual department!

Tales of Destiny perhaps wasn’t quite as good as Tales of Phantasia in my opinion, though it was still an excellent game that had me glued to my screen until the credits ran. Random battles were incredibly frequent, but the offset was that the fights themselves were fast and fun. The game must have made more than a few good impressions though, as North America solidified itself as a location that Tales games might be released in, and eventually welcomed in the third game in 2001.

The third game’s official name was Tales of Eternia, but thanks to He-Man it was stripped of its official title when leaving Japan and slapped with the thoroughly uninspiring Tales of Destiny II. The name made sense from a marketing point of view for the Americas, as the only other game released in the Tales series there had been Tales of Destiny, but as both games featured no ties save for general structure of the game, people wanting to continue the story were left scratching their heads. To make matters worse, a year later in 2002, the original Tales of Destiny actually received a Japan-only sequel, genuinely called Tales of Destiny 2. This game has never been released outside of Japan, but has seen a later port to PSP. All in all, the third Tales game may as well have been called Tales of Confusia, which would actually have been less confusing to someone coming into the series post-2002.

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Still, ignoring the naming slip-ups, the Tales series was now beginning to make a name for itself among Japanese and English speaking gamers. But what about us poor saps in Blighty, eh? We may have had Terranigma (a one-up over the US releases of Final Fantasy III and Chrono Trigger), but that game was released in 1996, and as good as it was, after tens of playthroughs I at least knew that I wanted something else: something unobtainable by normal means.

Tales of Importia

2002, United Kingdom. The Nintendo GameCube was released, and while perhaps not receiving the greatest amount of third party support (a sad future for Nintendo, really), they did gain the attention of Namco’s Tales Studio just the once. Fortunately, once was all it took before Namco graced Nintendo’s little purple box with arguably the best entry in the Tales series: Tales of Symphonia!

Now, while Tales of Symphonia was eventually released in Europe (twice, in fact), there was no precedent for this back when the game was first announced. Hell, there wasn’t even a guarantee that the game would see the light of day in the US, as they had already missed out on the real Tales of Destiny 2! Tales of Symphonia was also the first 3D entry into the series, and Namco had left it long enough that the 3D was able to make sublime use of cel-shading and as such remains largely unaffected by the ravages of gaming time. Now was the time for panic, now was the time for credit cards, Japanese dictionaries, Freeloaders, and play-asia.com!

Tales of Fantastica

Around the time of Tales of Symphonia, I was finally able to play Tales of Phantasia for the first time thanks to the shady world of emulation and fan-translations. I say shady only to make it sound dark and mysterious, it is actually a wonderful thing that I am fairly confident has played a large part in inspiring the big, brutish games publishers to make the effort to localise games for regions outside Japan. This was around the time that I was really getting into the Tales series. I had a PlayStation 2, Xbox, and GameCube, as well as a PlayStation, Saturn and SNES and a host of handheld machines. Yet despite all of this newness, it was the first entry in the Tales series that had me returning to my PC every day. It didn’t matter if I finished the game, I just bust straight into NG+ again and again. It was brilliant, the soundtrack, the graphics, the battle system, the Whole. Damn. Game. Because of the amount of time I had spent with Tales of Phantasia, I just new that Symphonia was going to be better, or equally as awesome. At this point I didn’t even know that both games shared the same world of Aselia, and that Symphonia was actually a prequel that set up the world for Phantasia (huge spoilers, by the way, but the game is over a decade old). All I knew was that I needed the game, and a little bit of research led me to discover that it was actually very easy for anyone to bypass the GameCube’s region locking with Datel’s Freeloader: a simple disc that opened the console up to games from around the world. Never again would a lack of publisher confidence stop me from playing a game (until firmware upgardes on future machines, at least)! The only barrier now was the Japanese language. Not to be dissuaded, I picked up a couple of Japanese dictionaries, and a teach yourself guide. The game arrived (my first import!) and it transpired that basic Japanese wasn’t even that difficult to pick up! Within a few days I could easily read the menus, understand character names, items, basic plot points… Fair enough, I didn’t get the full extent of the story and the game took me over 100 hours to complete, mostly because for the life of me I couldn’t understand what “Penginisutomiton” meant, but by the time I watched the Japanese credits roll, there was the announcement that Tales of Symphonia would be heading towards the US! Even though I had just finished the game, playing it through again in English was just what I wanted and I went back on play-asia and ordered it again, this time in a language I could read in its entirety.

Incidentally, “Penginisutomiton” actually meant “Penguinist’s Mittens”, no bloody wonder that wasn’t in the J-dictionary!

Even so, while Tales of Symphonia did eventually get a PAL release, only the GameBoy Advance and PlayStation Portable received PAL versions of the Tales series for a while (re-releases of Phantasia, Eternia, and new IPs Radiant Mythology), and the “Mothership Titles” of the series continued to elude my PAL consoles. The PlayStation 2 ended up having similar options for importing to the GameCube, with the use of Swap discs, but they were never quite as intuitive as the Freeloader and required you to do things to your consoles that felt illegal, be it on the original model of the PS2, or its slim variant. Whatever. I needed the Tales games I didn’t have.

Tales of Collectia!

My awful penchant for collecting things came into full flow. Credit card in hand, and eBay to the rescue, I soon had orders for a US PS2, and Japanese PS2, and emails saying the Tales of Rebirth, Tales of Destiny 2, Tales of the Abyss, and Tales of Legendia had been dispatched. Then came the PSP imports of the Radiant Mythology games, Phantasia, Rebirth, and Destiny 2: Sony’s handheld became the place to be for the series, and the region-free nature of the machine meant that it was relatively easy to develop a collection for. It even gained it’s own games in Tales of VS and Tales of the Heroes: Twin Brave in its later years

Tales

It wasn’t just Sony’s handheld though, Nintendo’s GameBoy, GameBoy Advance, and DS also received their fair share of games (though they never had as many). While the GameBoy Advance made a home for yet another Phantasia rerelease, both GameBoy and Advance were the format for a spin off series known as Narikiri Dungeon. The Narikiri games were an offshoot of Phantasia, and were dungeon crawlers with costume-based gameplay: not quite the scope of the so-called “Mothership” games themselves, but pleasant offshoots in their own right, and the sign of a popular and well established series! What’s more, while the Tales series was really hitting its stride, it was somewhat noticeable for being a series that consisted of mostly good games. Sure, the games appealed to a specific type of gamer, but their action-oriented battle systems and grand casts of characters were well received by most that played them. It was at this point that the lacklustre entries to the series were the exception and not the norm. Not to sound completely damning of the current releases, but Tales of Legendia was largely remembered because it was (at time of release) the weakest entry into a generally strong series. It wasn’t even that bad when ranked among the myriad of JRPGs out there, but was notable for not being developed by the Tales studio, having a weaker battle system than the other games in the series, and the US release didn’t even have voice acting for the latter half of the game (which was technically post-game content, but provided as much game time as the rest of the story before it).

The Tales series was becoming a behemoth, releases were everywhere and on pretty much every platform that was worth owning, including mobile phones!. I had done everything in my power to own as many of the games as possible. I even picked up the obscure Tales of Fandom games on PS1 and PS2, though I haven’t had actually played them… Something unexpected then happened.

Tales of Vesperia

So here we come to a chapter in this not-very-to-the-point write up the Tales series that is actually named after a Tales games itself! In my opinion, Tales of Vesperia was the last truly great entry into the Tales series. It is hard to say to say whether it is better or as good as Symphonia. It was notable not just because it was a grand example of how the JRPG should be done, it was also released on the Xbox 360, and it saw a release in Europe as well as the US and homeland of Japan.

Tales of Vesperia came at a time when Microsoft was desperately trying to break into the Japanese market with its distinctly American box of tricks. The Xbox 360 was a good console (despite me burning through five of them), but it was not well received in Japan where it sold only 6 copies: nowhere near as well as Sony’s machines performed! If you were a JRPG fan and you had an Xbox 360, well you could count yourself very lucky if you only had Tales of Vesperia on it.

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I would also like to tell you that it was Tales of Vesperia’s Yuri Lowell that brought Troy Baker to the attention of the gaming world in general and ensured that he voiced every videogame character from 2011 onwards, but it was probably more likely to have been Catherine. Whatever, at least he put paid to Nolan North’s and Johnny Yong Bosch’s ubiquity.

Tales of Vesperia was a game that easily sits among the Final Fantasy VIIIs (yup.), Chrono Triggers, and Secret of Manas of our time. For starters, it looks amazing (and still does), featuring some of the most delightful cel-shading I’ve seen this side of the Wind Waker. The chief character, Yuri Lowell, was something of an anomaly among the Tales casts in that he was quite obviously a bad-ass. This was a guy who got shit done, even if it meant getting his own hands very dirty in the process (see 6.30 in the linked video), and it wasn’t just the one time. Seeing a protagonist outright kill a character in a series that rarely saw folk die (at least not in terms of being murdered) was something that I personally hadn’t witnessed in a Tales game before, and it was something strange to witness in a game that was so colourful and resembled a family-friendly game. Yuri’s story took him through many terrible choices, and had him lead an ever-growing group throughout a globe-trotting adventure around one of the largest Tales worlds. The game was quite easily the biggest entry into the series, and that it was on a console more suited to brown first person shooters was all the more baffling. Vesperia did eventually get a release on the PS3, but it was Japanese only and I’m not sure that English speaking Tales fans have ever got over that given that it was generally regarded as the better version (though this could simply be contrarianism at its finest!).

Tales of Disappointia

So, Vesperia had been released! The Tales series had proved itself as a worthy opponent to Final Fantasy (the current big hitting rival). Everything was good for the Tales series, right? Well, not quite.

Following on from Tales of Vesperia was Tales of Hearts. Hearts was a DS-only game upon release, and was also a Japanese-only entry into the series to boot. Despite being a “Mothership” title in the series, Hearts wasn’t released outside of Japan until a PS Vita port in 2014. Perhaps because of low sales due to the odd choice of platform for the worldwide release of Vesperia, the Tales series had sunk back into relative obscurity. Those that imported the Japanese DS games knew that there were great games in Innocence, Hearts, and (to a lesser extent) Tempest, but it certainly looked as though Namco had turned its back on the western world for Tales releases.

Following on from Hearts came Tales of Graces, a Wii-only game that formed the twelfth Mothership entry into the Tales series. The game saw good reviews in Japan, which only made the lack of a release outside the country more frustrating. Importing was possible, but after being able to play Vesperia in english, slogging through a game in different language no longer held the same appeal. We had tasted JRPG nirvana and we wanted it back! Namco did something strange.

graces

A puzzle was hinted at by Namco which eventually led to a website called “http://ataleoftworichards.com/” (site no longer works so I haven’t hyperlinked). From here Tales fans could see the above image, in which you could clearly make out the “Tales” of a Tales title! Yup, Tales of Graces was heading to both the US and EU newly entitled Tales of Graces f, featuring an extended epilogue and releasing on PlayStation 3. This all sounded fantastic, and there was hope once again for those of us clamouring for a new, readable Tales game.

I’m sure that many people enjoyed Tales of Graces f, and I didn’t hate the game. The problem with Graces though was that it just wasn’t up to the standards set by the previous epic entries into the series. The game featured two worlds, but each felt small and under featured, as though each globe was nothing more than a small village overall. The battle system was (as per the standard) hugely rewarding and fun to play for hours on end, but the characters were uninspiring and not a patch on those seen previously. The prologue took a long time to finish, and the story itself took such a long time to get going, made worse by the fact that there weren’t really many places to go so the world you thought was coming had actually already been traversed.

I finished the game thoroughly underwhelmed. It wasn’t too long after that another console entry into the Mothership series was announced with Tales of Xillia. The game did turn out to be better than Graces, but again did away with a decent overworld (there was no traversable map to speak of at all this time). Worse, the gameplay areas themselves were formed almost exclusively of canyons! Almost every location was a corridor walled off by rock walls making for a claustrophobic experience that didn’t express the epic nature that a Tales game usually shipped with. Back in my day (Phantasia) we would be on those cliffs looking at the lands below! Instead, the game plied replayability with the inclusion of two protagonists, a neat idea but one that didn’t really hold much water when there could simply have been a greater storyline in the first place. Once again, the battle system pulled me through the game, and the characters were a little more likeable. The game even sprung its own meme with a salesman who seemed to populate every town in the game, incessantly begging for someone to buy his damn mutton!

Well, Tales of Xillia 2 then came around, and was a game where you had to pay back a loan. Really.

Wholelottanothing

Again, it wasn’t a terrible game, but it was far from the heights we had seen from the series. Luckily, a ray of light shone from the PS Vita for Tales fans with the remake of Tales of Hearts. Tales of Hearts R was a fully 3D iteration of the 2D DS game. The game had stuck with the anime stylings (the original DS version shipped in two flavours: anime, and the hideous CG edition) and honestly resembled the games that longtime Tales players remembered: a huge world map, random battles (without enemies on the map), a large and fun cast of characters, two large worlds, and the kind of scale that we had come to expect with Vesperia and Symphonia. It wasn’t as good as either of those games, really, but it went a long way to show that a future epic Tales game could still be on the cards.

The future of Tales is somewhat uncertain from my point of view. It seems that handheld games are the place to be based on the latest releases in the series, but it won’t be long before the next console entry into the saga is released on both PS3 and PS4 with Tales of Zestiria. The game certainly looks good, and I’m excited to play it, but I’ve also read mood-killing reports of another smaller world despite being something of a free-roaming adventure. What’s more, we have also seen the announcement of Tales of Berseria (again for both PS3 and PS4) with an as yet unknown release date. Already, Berseria’s protagonist Velvet conjures up ideas of a female Yuri Lowell, but time will tell! I do genuinely worry that the games are getting churned out a little too quickly, but I do hold out a good deal of hope for Berseria. At least while we know next to nothing about it!

Tales of Battalia

Let’s not end of a bum note though. The Tales series still stands as my favourite JRPG series out there, holding its weight alongside the many Final Fantasy games, the less frequent Dragon Quest series, and tens of smaller collections I have across my PS1, 2, and 3. Even if the more recent games aren’t quite up to scratch, the series in general has many games that you can mine if you’re interested, and thanks to the 2D and cel-shaded 3D graphical styles of most the games they generally tend to be easy on the eye, all while countless other games from similar times past are practically hideous to behold. I’m no graphics whore, but knowing that a game has aged gracefully from a visual standpoint is at least going to be a good start.

The greatest way in which Tales games remain among the most playable JRPGs since the original release is almost completely thanks to an engaging take on the part of a JRPG that inevitably eats up around 70% of your playtime (or 50% if you’re playing a particularly cutscene heavy game). The Tales battle systems form the centrepiece of the games and have undergone many changes throughout the series, starting out as a 2D, side on fighter, and developing into a fully 3D brawler. The system was originally given the name of Linear Motion Battle System, or “LMBS” in its most simple iteration. The battle systems gradually introduced multiple lines of attack, the ability to run free, and even once tried to emulate Tekken in Legendia. As is expected with systems of Japanese origin in a videogame, the original LMBS became hilariously overtitled at times, seeing such hits as “Cross Double-Raid Linear Motion Battle System” (XDR-LMBS), but whatever the name was, the games have consistently provided a battle system that doesn’t feel old throughout the many hours it usually takes to complete a Tales game.

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Heading back to Phantasia, the fights on offer can feel somewhat sluggish by Xillia’s standards but are still remarkably robust (if a little on the frequent side). Trying to play through Final Fantasy’s ATB from the same time period is a painful experience in comparison! Even better, the battling really does feel different with each game, despite being fundamentally similar. This is a substantial boon for those considering playing through a large number of these games. You’re not just getting a new story laid on top of the same skeleton again and again. In fact, you’re actually getting more the opposite, as many Tales stories are relatively similar despite being incredibly exciting at best and merely passable at worst. Still, even if the stories can be a bit samey, you can kill all of the bad guys in new and inventive ways! And who can say no to countless variations on the Hot Springs? Oh, you can?

Tales of Summaria

Alright, perhaps Concludia might have been better, but I am trying to Tales-ify as many words as I can here, give me a breakia.

So you know what? Here you go Bandai-Namco – Tales of Compendia. That’s what I was going to call my encyclopedia of all things Tales (actually, perhaps “Encyclopedia” would have worked just as well…). Maybe you could trademark it now, maybe you have. Maybe you could ignore the fact that I was going to use it as the title of a book and simply slap as many games onto a Blu-Ray as possible and follow Rare’s suit with their upcoming Rare Replay and do every Tales fan out there an enormous favour!

If you’ve never played a Tales game before, or perhaps only played some of the more recent entries, you might find yourself quite surprised by the quality on offer in the back catalogue. While the series never seems to make as much of a splash as say Final Fantasy, the games are more consistently enjoyable than most series I’ve played. While the last couple of games have been a little shaky, I’ve yet to play Zestiria to say whether or not it does match up to the Tales games of years past. Clearly I’m hoping for a new Vesperia, guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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Tales of Referencia

In order of appearance:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_(series)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Phantasia

http://aselia.wikia.com/wiki/Tales_of_Xillia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atelier_(series)

http://aselia.wikia.com/wiki/Tales_of_Symphonia

http://playingwithsuperpower.com/super-play-magazine/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namco_Tales_Studio

http://aselia.wikia.com/wiki/Tales_of_Eternia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Destiny_2

http://metro.co.uk/2015/02/15/nintendo-and-the-third-party-problem-readers-feature-5062671/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cel_shading

http://www.play-asia.com/tales-of-symphonia/13/702a0

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fan_translation_of_video_games

http://aselia.wikia.com/wiki/Category:Mothership_Titles

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_the_Abyss

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_the_World:_Radiant_Mythology

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_VS.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_the_Heroes:_Twin_Brave

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Phantasia:_Narikiri_Dungeon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dungeon_crawl

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Legendia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Mobile

http://aselia.wikia.com/wiki/Tales_of_Fandom_Vol.1

http://aselia.wikia.com/wiki/Tales_of_Vesperia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yuri_Lowell

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm1684869/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catherine_(video_game)

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0636046/?ref_=nv_sr_3

http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0097765/?ref_=nv_sr_1

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Legend_of_Zelda:_The_Wind_Waker

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Hearts

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Innocence

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_the_Tempest

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Graces

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Xillia

http://mutton-fresh-mutton.tumblr.com/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Xillia_2

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Zestiria

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tales_of_Berseria

http://aselia.wikia.com/wiki/Linear_Motion_Battle_System

http://finalfantasy.wikia.com/wiki/Battle_System#Active_Time_Battle

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Microsoft-5050013391119-Rare-Replay-Xbox/dp/B00ZFNLHK4/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1434900318&sr=8-1&keywords=rare+collection

2014: Results

It’s getting dangerously close to being too late for a look back over my accomplishments of 2014 (I had meant to do this last week but a certain Bioware RPG decided to intervene), so I’ll rattle it out quickly!

I’m one of those types that likes to keeps records of shit, rather than just doing and forgetting. I like stats! I’d like to put maybe a decade’s worth together at some point. Generally I record the games I’ve played (see http://www.backloggery.com/Extra_Life), but I’ve done a bit more over the last year so there’s more to add. I’ll begin there though.

Games

This was not my most prolific gaming year (see 2010’s 60 finished games and over 1000hrs of playtime for that milestone), but given that there is a lot more that I want to do these days, I think I actually managed more than should have been possible…

  • Ys: Memories of Celceta (PS Vita) – 28hrs
  • Resogun (PS4) – 8hrs
  • Game Dev Story (Android) – 5hrs
  • Super Mario 3D World (Wii U) – 10hrs
  • Tales of Xillia (PS3) – 35.5hrs
  • Bravely Default (3DS) – 52hrs
  • Mario Kart 7 (3DS) – 20hrs
  • Street Pass Squad (3DS) – 5hrs
  • Mario & Luigi: Dream Team Bros (3DS) – 42.5hrs
  • Dark Souls II (PS3) – 113hrs
  • Shin Megami Tensei IV (3DS) – 45hrs
  • The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (PS3) – 80hrs
  • Etrian Odyssey Untold (3DS) – 40hrs
  • Mario Kart 8 (Wii U) – 10hrs
  • Stranded (Steam) – 1hr
  • Theatrhythm Final Fantasy (3DS) – 20hrs
  • Star Fox 64 3D (3DS) – 10hrs
  • Theatrhythm Final Fantasy: Curtain Call (3DS) – 20hrs
  • Minecraft Projects (PS4, PS3, PS Vita) – 100hrs + (not 100% on the Vita times)
  • Dust: An Elysian Tail (PS4) – 10hrs
  • Lords of the Fallen (PS4) – 15hrs
  • Geometry Wars 3 (PS4) – 20hrs
  • Never Alone (PS4) – 2hrs
  • Tales of Hearts (PS Vita) – 30hrs

24 Games for around 720hrs of gameplay.

  • 3DS – 9 games, 254.5hrs
  • PS4 – 6 games, 105hrs
  • PS3 – 4 games, 268.5hrs
  • PS Vita – 3 games, 68hrs
  • Wii U – 2 games, 20hrs
  • Steam – 1 game, 1hr
  • Android – 1 game, 5hrs

This is telling me that I need to get far more use out of my Wii U… So many good games on it, but I’m frequently distracted by my PS4 now, and I’ve recently bought in a host of PS3 JRPGs on the cheap during the winter sales. I wonder if/when I’ll get round to playing them. Despite the 3DS being the platform where I finished the most games, the PS3 was where I spent most of my time (with only 4 games!), largely on Dark Souls II. Wonder if I’ll get the same out of Bloodborne and the Dark Souls II re-release on PS4 in 2015?

Travel

I don’t really manage to travel very far (I rarely leave Britain), but I’m a firm believer that there is a huge wealth of places of to see and things to do within the British Isles. So much so, that as much as I want to travel north to more or less guarantee a view of the Northern Lights, I find there is enough to attract me within the (relatively) local vicinity to keep me occupied for years to come.

Sadly, my longest car journey this year wasn’t to any place new, but to Lincoln. It was to see family though, so there’s that!

  • Longest overall journey – 431 miles (home to London)
  • Longest car journey – 308 miles (home to Lincoln)
  • Longest walk – 15.41 miles (I walked to see Godzilla. It was averaging 25 degrees and was quite the workout)
  • Overall distance walked – 1079 miles

I also visited some new places:

  • John O’Groats
  • The Isle of Skye
  • Glentress
  • Loch Lomond
  • Tongue and Ben Loyal
  • Glencoe

I had hoped to have walked more last year, as 1079 miles averages at a smidge under 3 miles a day. I was on track for doing a lot more, but the second half of the year was spent on a nightshift working some long (but necessary) hours.

Writing

My first post on WordPress was the beginnings of the book I’m writing. I’ve since learnt that writing a book is a time consuming process and not something to be taken lightly! My initial story idea blossomed over the first few months of the year. I made lots of notes, developed protagonists, antagonists, locations, colloquialisms. It was great fun! After I had put together a mass of work, I started writing the story proper. It was actually really difficult to write that first chapter. Not because I didn’t know what to write, but because it meant that I was finally committing all of that thought to (digital) paper. My characters started to take on a life of their own, and I even began to worry about leaving them alone for too long. I became surprised when my characters showed me aspects of themselves that I hadn’t yet been aware of, and worried slightly that I may have schizophrenia when this happened. Any other writers reading? Do you find that your characters reveal things you didn’t know about them?

I’m still a way off finishing the story (I believe my initial plan is about a third complete). I’m hoping to self-publish it when I’m done. Nobody has really read anything by me before, and it feels to me that asking someone to read the entirety of my story could be a big ask. Therefore, I decided to break my story down into a couple of parts (well, more than a couple, but the others are a plan that follows on from my first story): Part one is now named “Bleakendom Slumbers”, while part two is called “Bleakendom Stirs”. I am really looking forward to having someone read the full story, regardless of the resulting opinion.

  • 175932 words written (53879 notes, and 122053 story)
  • 32 Chapters written
  • 14 chief characters created (that are currently involved in the story
  • 18 WordPress posts

With all the work I’ve had to do this year, I’ve recently not been able to write as much as I’d hoped. Despite this, I think about my characters every day, and add notes here and there for dialogue ideas in the coming chapters. In case it seemed that way given my fewer posts recently, I haven’t forgotten about my story, nor do I plan to give up!

Others

There are other things, such as a seven months working nights, my 5th title change at work and so on. I added the areas I’d like to carry on keeping track of though!

Anyone else have any mini-stats (or full) to share?

Happy New Year!

A Bit of the World

Well, I know that this is a place to write, but I’m posting a couple of images this time. Thought I’d see if I can catch some interest for my story with a bit of mappage. Not that I see many viewers here, but what the hell!

Traverne is a world I came up with. Built upon the bodies of three beings greater that once landed on the celestial rock of Traverne (we’re talking eons before the story. Nice to have some background). Two were impressed into earth while giving birth, along with their children.

Traverne

 

I’ve written the basis for several stories around the world. The most advanced of which is the one that I’m writing at the moment, which takes place on a large island nation within the world. I’ve drawn another map for this. You should be able to see where the more detailed map comes from within the world.

Bleakendom New Map1

 

Neither map actually took that long to draw. Both had been sketched out on a break at work, but wasn’t happy with the fact that they were on A5 paper! In the more detailed map, the names take their inspiration from Gaelic words (well, I spend a lot of time exploring Scotland and I think they sound great!). The story begins in the boringly named “Stonewall” and heads west, eventually to the The Shield, a vast iron wall that separates the island from the rest of the world (for reasons pertaining to the antagonists).

Some people say drawing maps is too much procrastination. If that’s the case, then so was the time I spent trailing about real mountains in search of fantastic inspiration 🙂 I’ve barely had time to write recently thanks to a huge leap in the amount of work I have on (one night off a week), so I’ve only been able to write another 5 chapters since my last update. In an attempt to get around this I’ve bought an Asus Transformer. A very nice piece of kit (Tablet with a keyboard attachment that makes it into a 10″ laptop) complete with the programs I use to write. Hopefully this means all the time I spend on the train can become writing time!

If anyone does pass by my page and see these maps, please let me know what you think!

I Shouldn’t Be Here

* Disclaimer – This is not an emo post. It is just a transcript of a nightmare that caught me out last night!

                I hear a door click shut behind me, I turn my head and see only a dark expanse. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know where I was before. I don’t know why I’m here. I look ahead. Concrete pillars flank me in uniform lines, reaching all the way to two ramps. One ramp heads up, the other leads down. Yellow stripes divide the ground between the pillars into even rectangles Parking spaces. Five cars occupy five spaces. The ceiling in here is low and the only light comes from the harsh luminescence of the bulbs that dot it. A car park. This wasn’t where I meant to go. I’m not supposed to be here.

I feel Its hands on my shoulders. Long, thick fingers, whose tips grip deeply into the fleshy space below my bones. I feel Its breath on my neck, coursing between my collar and neck, and rolling down my spine. It is taller than me, and It is definitely stronger than me. I don’t know what It is. I can’t see It, and I don’t want to. The faint rumblings of laughter replace the breathing as I try to move. It won’t let me. I feel my arms become lighter, It has taken its hands from me. It tells me to go. I take nervous steps forwards and Its breathing fades into the background as I move along the middle of the road. A jangling sound comes from my feet. I look down to see a bunch of keys lying on the concrete floor. A car key, two silver keys, and a plastic key ring with a photograph on it. I bend down to pick them up. Nothing looks familiar, save for the photograph. A woman. A woman I know? A woman I should know. I stand back up and study the car key. Three buttons adorn the black plastic. I press the opened door symbol. Pulses of bright orange light up this place as I realise that the key has opened all of the cars. I glance quickly at all five of them, their lights still flashing. As I step away from the centre of the road, the faint laughing returns from all sides and comes closer. I don’t turn around. The laughing reaches the back of my head before it stops. It tells me to go again. I ignore the cars and their inviting doors and head towards the ramps. I wonder whether up or down will take me out of this place. I hear a squealing of tyres come from the floor below, and instinctively know that up is where I should be headed.

As I reach the top of the ramp, the floor now below me is plunged into darkness. I look back and see nothing but a void. I don’t want to be here, and I don’t want to be down there. I hurry from the ramp and follow the road around to the next ramp. I don’t feel like running, but I feel that I must be fast. The pillars are denser on this floor. I hear a footstep beyond them but see nothing between them. Every five steps I take, I hear another step from behind the pillar. The ceiling is still low, It can’t be that tall. There are no cars on this floor. I turn with the road to find the next ramp. As my right foot hits the incline, the screeching sounds of spinning wheels on concrete return. I want to run now. I dash up the ramp as the floor behind me becomes dark.

The next floor is identical. I hurry along the road. A heavy footstep drops behind me with every five steps I take, and with every footstep that falls from It a bulb behind me goes dim. I feel the black trying to overtake me. The only light is ahead, behind me is the abyss and It. If I stop, the darkness will overtake me. I don’t know why. The next ramp is close.

The floor below is dark, the floor ahead is lit. I step onto the road once again. The buzzing lights ahead of me begin to shut off in rows, blanketing the way to the next ramp in a suffocating night. I spin on the spot and see the same happening to the lights behind me. I know that I cannot enter the darkness, no matter what. The island of light on the floor rapidly diminishes as my eyes dart from left to right. There, ahead of me, that is where I need to go. In the middle of the lit area is a door in the wall, between the rows of pillars. I begin to run towards it. The sounds of bulbs blowing begin behind me now. Light is disappearing from all sides other than directly ahead. Barely a thin strip is left to me, the pillars form a myriad of gateways into the darkness. The footsteps behind me are louder, accompanied by laughter. It is close, It is right on my heels. I can feel the presence of hands hovering around my head, over my shoulders, threatening to clamp down on me in the blink of an eye. I can’t stop. The door gets closer. I strain my eyes to see how the door works. I don’t have to stop and figure it out there. A metal bar reaches across the door, push to exit. I reach the door and thrust my hands down on the bar, it gives way as I lean into it. Clunking metallic sounds echo throughout the floor behind me, giving way to the awful sounds of scraping metal as daylight floods into the car park around me, a cool breeze washing over me. I see nothing but white for a moment. As I step outside I hear the door shut behind me with a click.

People stare at me as they walk along the pavement. Tall buildings tower over me on all sides, but in the middle is blue and wisps of white. Outside. The sounds of a busy day surround me, and I can’t get my bearings. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know how I got here. I know that this is not where I was heading when I woke up this morning, but I don’t know where I woke up. I realise the keys are still my hand. I look at the key ring again, perhaps it will jog my memory. The picture is blank. A white square. The woman is gone. I think it was a woman, I should know who she was. I step into the road, gazing at the empty card inside the plastic key ring. Voices are shouting, I can’t make out what they’re saying. A horn blares to my right.

I feel nothing, I see nothing. I hear only laughter. I am not supposed to be here.