Arkham Asylum: Living Hell Review

This trade collects the entire Arkham Asylum: Living Hell miniseries (issues #1-6).

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To call the main characters of Living Hell even “third-string” Batman villains would be generous, but Dan Slott reminds us that characters don’t have to be popular to be interesting. Across six issues he builds a compelling tale of the world’s worst nuthouse.

If you dislike supernatural elements creeping into Batman stories or require the Dark Knight himself as the focus, this won’t be for you. It’s also extremely creepy in tone and fairly graphic – I would normally expect something like this to be under the Vertigo imprint. Even with the title “Living Hell” I wasn’t expecting something this dark (especially from Slott, who is more well known for his comedic ability).

But those who can handle the elements mentioned above will find Living Hell well worth the read. Things tie together surprisingly but reasonably, horrific events tie directly to the plot and character arcs, and it was all engrossing enough that I couldn’t stop reading until I was finished.

Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro Volume 3 Review

“Well, no matter how much the road branches off… in the end, you can only go down one path.”

This volume builds a lot off of the previous two. Start with volume 1.

Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro follows of the unusual traveller Kuro, her sensei who just happens to be a talking bat, and two odd children. Kuro wanders with a coffin strapped to her back and is often mistaken for a boy and/or vampire.

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Volume 1 of Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro introduced our cast in stand alone adventures tinged with dark whimsy. Volume 2 continued with the same style and atmosphere, while fleshing out the world more and giving glimpses of the backgrounds of Kuro and the twins.

This volume continues in that vein, giving even more information regarding the pasts of Kuro, Nijuku, Sanju and Sen. It also continues their travels in the present as Kuro still searches for a cure, and features some key encounters and events. The tone is even darker in these stories than previously (which is surprising after some of volume 2) and there are a lot of intriguing philosophical overtones. Touches of humor and the familiar charming antics of the twins remain though to help us along.

While I enjoyed this installment the first time I read it, I feel like I got a lot more out of it this time through now that I have a better idea of how certain things fit together and am picking up more of the subtleties and foreshadowing. The storytelling is dense and takes effort to unravel, but is exquisitely layered and built and it’s rewarding to see it slowly come together.

As always the manga uses the 4-koma style, which gives it a very unique rhythm. The art is impressive as usual, particularly the gorgeous and numerous color pages, and the printing quality is excellent. I feel like there’s more use of white in the black and white pages this time, which makes it easier to see the detail work and is very nice in general considering the borders are all black.

Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is a very odd series but is quite engaging in its own way. I’ve become completely engrossed in Kuro’s journey and revel not only in continuing along with it, but also going back to these earlier volumes and experiencing layers and nuances I missed the first time.

Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro Volume 2 Review

“The world is big and endless, eh?”

Volume 1 was mostly stand alone adventures and character introductions, so it wouldn’t be too hard to pick up the gist if you wanted to start here. It is much better to go back to the beginning though.

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Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro follows the travels of the unusual traveller Kuro. She wanders with a coffin strapped to her back, is accompanied by two odd children and a talking bat, and is often mistaken for a boy and/or vampire.

The 4-koma style being used for a generally serious, dark, and somewhat non-linear story took getting used to in the first volume. I enjoyed it though and was fully invested by the end. I was very curious to find out more about Kuro, Sen, the twins (Nijuku and Sanju), and their world.

Volume 2 didn’t disappoint. The comic is growing into it’s format and is smoother this time. It still requires effort – things are not spelled out and the cadence of the story is unique so this is a manga you have to pay attention to and think about. But it’s worth it. The off-beat way the twins see the world leads to some touching moments and the information and flashbacks we get about Kuro and Sen are intriguing, powerful stuff.

The art continues to be very well done, particularly the beautiful color pages. Detailed thoughts from my review of volume 1: “The art is very good and detailed, particularly for the 4-koma format. The detail does make it a little busy, and I kind of wish all the pages were in color (the color pages are gorgeous).

The production values of the book are excellent. Good quality paper and printing and more retained color pages than most manga volumes. The style makes it a little hard on the eyes though, as all the borders and backgrounds behind the panels are pitch black.”

Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro is a odd little series that is quite captivating and really seems to be hitting it’s stride in this volume. It’s interesting to revisit these early volumes again (in preparation of finally having a new volume to read after a couple of years), and I’m catching even more of the details and subtleties this time through.

 

Rosario Vampire Season II Volume 5 Review

“I bet it’s tougher than we can even imagine for a monster to live in the human world.”

Tsukune and friends try to take a break from the threat of Fairy Tale on a quiet beach vacation to a seaside inn. But It’s not just them that Fairy Tale is after, and shy former Yokai Academy student San Otonashi might need help from them in numerous ways.

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I generally enjoy Rosario Vampire for what it is: a formulaic, fanservice-heavy series that provides a light blend of action and humor. It cranks up the dramatic tension and intrigue in parts nicely, but overall it’s more “enjoyable” than “essential.”

However this is the volume where it transcends itself, and it’s perhaps the best stand alone story within any series I’ve read. Among all the expected fanservice (and there’s plenty) and normal ridiculousness is a wonderful, powerful story about acceptance/ rejection, fear in various forms, and appearance vs reality.

Our usual protagonists’ encounter with San Otonashi plays with the self-same expectations and cliches the series is steeped in, with wonderful results. I love the twist on classic story tropes, where certain ones are embraced to compliment story character development while others are tweaked for added depth. The mix of surprises with certain things unfolding as expected heightens the impact of the former and it all comes together to a strong crescendo to end the volume.

Tsukune is at an interesting point coming into this volume, where he’s training and pushing himself to be less of a burden to his friends, but doubting his ability to achieve that goal. His continued growth intertwines with a spotlight on a new character and related events to her introduction.

The best thing is that the way the story is told not only conveys nuances of San’s and Tsukune’s characters, but several of the other cast as well in the subtle ways they react and comment on what’s happening. San’s tale is masterfully told, with layers to her personality and motivations unveiled deftly , and in way that provokes introspection in everyone around her. Gin in particular gets a nice spotlight in parts.

While it is better to be familiar with the established cast, their powers and personalities, and what they’ve gone through to this point, I realize catching up on a series and a half of Rosario Vampire is a bit of an investment to get to a single story. There is a summary of the regular cast at the beginning of each volume, and I think enough is explained that this could be read on its own. It would be hard to pick up on all the underlying effects and ripples of the story, but the core elements and themes and the emotional resonance related to the two main subjects would come through.

Again, this little slice of Rosario Vampire is one of my personal favorite manga works ever. Push past the general trappings (if that’s not your thing) and enjoy an emotional, character driven ride that provides a lot to think about if you poke below the surface.

 

Pandora Hearts Volume 4 Review

“Something is different this time…”

Oz and Gil get a pleasant reminder of their past, but their momentary inattention to Alice is the opportunity something dangerous has been waiting for.

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Things start a little silly here to break up seriousness that is to come, and it proves wise as the majority of the volume is quite dark. This seems an important installment overall as there are a couple of potentially huge reveals (and associated maddening cliffhangers). The author is still balancing reveals and continued mysteries extremely well, continuing the more even pacing from last volume after a somewhat unbalanced start.

The growing suspense is well built and various characters’ differing agendas are starting to come up against each other in intriguing ways. Finer points of the growing mythology and name dropping are a little hard to track, but can be done with some reviewing of previous volumes and the careful foreshadowing that’s been laid in. The “Alice in Wonderland” ties jump right back to the forefront in major ways here after being somewhat subtler in volumes 2 and 3.

This finishes all I have to read of Pandora Hearts for now, but it’s really gaining momentum and I’m definitely planning on continuing at some point in the future.

 

Pandora Hearts Volume 3 Review

“If parents are the ones who give birth to life… are they also the ones who create a reason for your existence?”

Oz needs time to come to grips to the changes that occurred while he was in the abyss as well as his own new status quo, but those who wish to use him for their own ends won’t necessarily cooperate with his need for a respite.

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After the big reveal and somewhat overwhelming info dumps of last volume, this installment has much better pacing and does a better job of conveying important information clearly while still appropriately keeping certain things as lingering questions.

Mysterious elements and exploration of key background stories about the main characters are mixed nicely with action scenes and it’s all delivered with strong emotional impact. The supporting cast is becoming more well rounded and interesting, giving the manga more to entice the reader with than just Oz and his connection to the abyss.

I feel like these chapters hit all the right notes in terms of forwarding the story without giving too much away too soon, and if the author can keep it up going forward Pandora Hearts is going to be a thoroughly captivating and entertaining ride.

 

Scythe Board Game Review

I’m a big fan of Jamey Stegmaier’s previous games (Viticulture and Euphoria) and heard a lot of pre-release hype about his newest offering in Scythe, so had been eagerly looking forward to trying it out. It balances a lot of moving parts in a way that requires some getting used to, but provides a wonderful experience once things click in the players’ minds.

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Gameplay

I debated leaving this section out, as I feel I’d have to get into much more depth than I want to for it to be truly explanatory, but I do want to give an idea of Scythe mechanics so I’ll do my best to highlight the most important aspects of playing Scythe in a somewhat accessible way.

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Each player controls one of five factions (seven after the upcoming expansion) that starts in a specific area of the game board, and has a faction specific board that shows a unique faction power, some starting conditions, and slight variations on four additional abilities that will become available during the game if/when the player builds their four mechs.

 

In addition to a faction board, each player will use a separate, unique player board which with determine which actions can be taken during turns. Each board has a top and bottom row with four actions each, and on a turn you choose one “vertical” and do either or both the top and bottom action on that vertical. The top actions are identical across all player boards, including costs and benefits, but are in a different order from board to board. The bottom actions themselves are the same and they are in the same order on every board, but the costs and bonuses vary.

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The top row actions all involve things on the main game board and/or one of the game’s four “currencies” (explained below). They are:

1) Move: move units on the game board or gain money.

2) Bolster: gain power or draw a combat card.

3) Trade: collect a set number of resources from the bank or gain popularity.

4) Produce: generate resources on certain hexes where you have workers (new workers are also gained using this action).

 

The bottom row actions directly affect your player and faction board (as well as sometimes adding things to the main game board) and generally enhance your powers or make actions more efficient/beneficial. They are:

1) Upgrade (costs oil): move a small block from somewhere on the top of your player board to somewhere on the bottom. This makes the top action you are moving the block from more beneficial and reduces the cost of the bottom action you are moving it to.

2) Deploy (costs steel): move one of your mechs from your faction board to a spot on the main game board where you have a worker.

3) Build (costs wood): move one of your four buildings from your player board to a spot on the main game board where you have a worker (and no other buildings). Two of the buildings provide additional abilities on the game board, and two of them make player board actions more beneficial.

4) Enlist (costs food): Move one of your “recruits” (cylindrical markers) from the player board to your faction board.  This gives you a bonus when you (or any other player) does the bottom row action you moved the recruit from, and gives a one time bonus determined by which spot on the faction board the recruit was moved to.

Each bottom action will additionally give the player 0-3 money. The specific amount given for each action is what varies on the bottom row among the different player boards.

 

So the top actions generally increase things you can spend (besides move) and the bottom actions make taking individual actions better. The fact that each player’s board has different sets of these actions in each vertical along with different combinations of faction and player boards will force different tactics from game to game.

(For a small example, resources generated using the Produce top action can be used for that vertical’s bottom action the same turn. So if production is above Upgrade for me, I may be more likely to have my workers congregated on oil so I can produce it and upgrade in the same turn. If production is above Deploy for someone else, they may be slightly more interested in steel hexes early on.)

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The four “currencies” of the game are:

1) Popularity: measures how much your faction is beloved by the population. Can be spent or lost in certain situations, and determines how much stars, territory, and resources are worth in end game scoring.

2) Power: measures military might, and is used in combat and spent in certain situations.

3) Money: measures your wealth ;), and in addition to being spent for certain actions, acts directly as victory points at the end of the game. The person with the most money wins.

4) Resources: there are four types of resources that can be produced (oil, steel, wood, and food) using different hexes on the game board. Each one is used for a different bottom row action as marked above.

 

Throughout the game, players can earn stars (place their star tokens on a achievement track on the game board) for a variety of things, mostly related to placing all of a particular type of piece or maxing out certain currencies.

Stars can be earned by achieving maximum popularity or power (one star each), building all of your upgrades, mechs, buildings, or recruits (one star each), winning a combat (up to two stars), completing a mission card (one star). Whenever any player places their sixth star, the game immediately ends. All players earn end game money bonuses based on their popularity and the number of stars they’ve placed, territories they control, and resources they control. Most money (after bonuses) wins.

 

There are a lot of details I left out (like the importance and function of the “factory” space in the center of the game board, the encounter cards featuring interesting choices and Jakub Różalski’s incredible art, etc) that both tie the above together and provide additional depth, but hopefully I’ve given the flavor of the main moving parts. The key to the game is that while there are all of these elements working together and a lot of rules to explain and keep track of, each players’ turn is kept manageable by it always boiling back down to “choose a vertical, do one or both actions on it.” I found everything fit well once the game got going and I understood how it all worked in conjunction.

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General Thoughts

It did take me a full game to start to get an inkling of how to play strategically and our group was a bit split, with everyone enjoying it to some degree but some loving it right away and others finding it “one level of complexity too many.” I’d say there is a steeper learning curve than Viticulture and Euphoria. But my personal impression is there’s more depth too,  so I think it’s well worth the slightly higher “start up cost” and I feel it becomes more accessible on subsequent plays.

One things that helps immeasurably is the incredible graphic design. Everything you can do in the game and all effects are represented in symbols on the various boards, so once a player gets the gist of the symbols there are constant, unobtrusive gameplay reminders at hand at all times. The theme is also beneficial in that respect, with the interactions of desperate elements making sense within what they represent thematically.  I also find the theme/game world fun and immersive.

 

Having faction specific character and mech abilities that are separate from the slight variation in action costs and rewards on the player boards is a fantastic way to increase replayability and depth. The flip side of this is players must be willing to be open to letting player board (not just the faction board and special powers) guide strategy to some extent, which can take a little getting used to.

There are a lot of interesting choices to be made, and I love the mechanic of choosing one “vertical” on your player board per turn and concentrating on one to two key actions to keep things manageable yet complex. I found an unusual combination of planning and flexibility is needed to do well, and am enjoying that aspect immensely.

The game plays differently with more players, but retains the same general feel and atmosphere as it scales and the set board worked well at the 2 and 4 player level games I’ve played.

 

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I participated in the Kickstarter for Scythe and got the Collector’s Edition, so even beyond Stonemaier’s general excellent production quality, my version of Scythe shines even more with realistic resources, wooden stars, etc. None of it’s necessary, but I adore the extra layer of visual impact and the weight and feel of the tokens.

 

Overall

Scythe definitely has a learning curve and is Stonemaier’s heaviest game yet, but I was pretty well acclimated after a single game and I adore the way it comes together. This is a unique game that won’t necessarily appeal to all fans of Jamey’s other offerings, but players who can take it for what it is and enjoy adapting to (somewhat) constantly changing situations and balancing needed actions with required currencies will find a thoroughly enjoyable (and quite possibly addictive) experience here.