Andy Jamieson

Sometime Geek Overlord, bi-monthly Dungeon Master, part-time care worker, reigning Husband of the Year, & full-time daddy. Also, proficient proverbial juggler.

Sep 042019
 

Friday 20th  September marks the release of the game Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch on the PlayStation 4 (as a remastered edition) and Nintendo Switch. Originally a PlayStation 3 title, Ni No Kuni was a popular hit in the West back in 2013, and spawned an excellent sequel (Ni No Kuni 2: Revenant Kingdom) that landed on the PS4 in March 2018.

So what, asks the doubter. Well, Ni No Kuni is not just another Japanese RPG series, or just another videogame. What sets this series apart is the pure quality of the games, the creativity of craft and design, the gripping story, and perfectly pitched difficulty level. The story of Ni No Kuni’s creation begins way back in 2008.

The gorgeous anime style of Ni No Kuni, designed and created by Studio Ghibli & Level-5

Produced by company Level-5 (best known here in the West for their series of Professor Layton games), their president Akihiro Hino was also the creator of Ni No Kuni. He made such an impression with his enthusiasm on Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki, that a deal was struck to co-produce Ni No Kuni. Yoshiyuki Momose of Studio Ghibli (a veteran artist of such classics as Spirited Away, Porco Rosso, and Grave of the Fireflies) acted as director and lead designer for the characters and animated sequences, he and his team fresh off Miyazaki’s Ponyo.

Joe Hisaishi, the renowned composer and longtime Ghibli collaborator, produced the soundtracks for all the titles in the series, and features some of his finest work, particularly in Ni No Kuni 2.

The first game, Ni No Kuni: Dominion of the Dark Djinn was released for the Nintendo DS in December 2010, alongside a mobile game, Ni No Kuni: Hotroit Stories (both are only available in Japan at present; a translated patch is available for download on the DS). The PS3 version, renamed Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch, and incorporating elements of both previous games, was released in November 2011 in Japan, and January 2013 in the West. Another mobile game spin-off, Ni No Kuni: Daibouken Monsters, came out in May 2012.

Ni No Kuni in its original iteration, on the Nintendo DS back in 2010.

The Ni No Kuni games are pitched for a ‘Young Adult’ and upwards audience, and as such are suitable for younger children with adult supervision (the first game features a hard-hitting bereavement early on). I came to Ni No Kuni quite late, first playing it in 2017. When I loaded it up on my PS3, the appeal for my two children (who at the time were 4 and 7) was the anime style, familiar to them due to their exposure to the various works of Studio Ghibli; I’m a huge fan of their films, and have by parental osmosis passed this fandom onto my kids. But crucially it was the accessible pick-up-and-play appeal of the game that grabbed them. Here was a game that drew you gently into its tale, with a story containing enough intrigue and mystery to capture young imaginations. The hero Oliver is a 13 year old boy who, after suffering a personal tragedy early in the game, comes to learn that he is destined for greater things… in another realm. Mentored by his guide, the fairy Mr Drippy, who provides frequent humourous interludes, voiced with manic Welsh abandon by actor Steffan Rhodri, Oliver embarks on a quest in the realm of Ni No Kuni.

Ni No Kuni: Hotroit Stories, a mobile only version released alongside the DS game.

Ni No Kuni on the PS3, released in 2011.

The set-up and structure of Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch is fairly traditional. Oliver and Mr Drippy navigate a lush, free-roaming open world, moving from settlement to settlement, gathering quests (and allies) along the way. Those quests usually revolve around conquering a dungeon and its ‘boss’; experience points are rewarded, levelling up our heroes, making them powerful, leading to them tackling harder tasks and challenges. Oliver is a wizard in training, so starts off with very few spells. With each quest and mini-quest completed, he learns more spells and becomes a better wizard. Gold earned through defeating enemies allows Oliver and his companions to buy better weapons, items, armour and so on. Again, it is the design that elevates the game, with its ingenious puzzles and tasks that add variety to the dungeon exploring and combat. The plot requires Oliver to travel between the realms, carrying out quests in his home town of Motorville as well as in the magical world of Ni No Kuni. The ease of play is compulsive, but this is no easy game; some dungeons take repeated play to conquer. There is an expertly pitched balance of challenge and reward throughout the game. We’ve clocked up over 100 hours of gaming over two years, and there are still plenty of mini-games left to complete.

Ni No Kuni arrives on Nintendo Switch.

Ni No Kuni, remastered for the PS4.

When I informed my kids (now 6 and 9) that Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch was being released for the Nintendo Switch and the PlayStation 4, they were excited, regardless of the fact this is a game we have played lots. We have both gaming systems and, despite having completed the game previously, we are considering getting the new re-release. But on Switch or PS4? My kids said that the Switch version appeals to them more due to the handheld option. Depending on what the PS4 remastered edition has to offer, we might end up getting both…

Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch for the PlayStation 4 and the Nintendo Switch is available to pre-order from GAME, amongst other retailers, and will be released on Friday 20th September.

An animated feature film of Ni No Kuni was released in Japan towards the end of August.

Geekzine editor Andrew Jamieson is the award-nominated author of steampunk fantasy novels, The Vengeance Path, and its sequel, Children of War, both available from the Amazon Kindle Store.

May 182019
 

Geekzine editor-in-chief Andy Jamieson, along with new contributor Graeme Wetherill, run through some of the April and May releases at the cinema, and tv/streaming services.

Justice Smith as Tim, with Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds.

Andy: Along comes a film like Detective Pikachu, something that utterly defies expectation. I went into this feeling curious to what fresh horror could be wreaked upon my mind. And duly came out bewildered. What an enjoyable film. It does admittedly help to have some grounding in the Pokémon universe (thank you to my 6 year old boy), as the film rattles along without much in the way of pandering to newbies. The crux of the story is an oddly workable blend of film noir and buddy-action-thriller laced with a surreal sense of humour, which is ultimately well suited to the equally surreal visuals. There’s no getting away from the fact that this is just bonkers. Exhibit A: there’s an interrogation scene featuring Mr Mime, a Pokémon who, yes, is a mime artist, a sequence mined mercilessly for every ounce of slapstick humour possible. All of the surrealism would be infuriating were it not for the freewheeling, witty script that anchors all the zany time, written by a whole bunch of folks, including the director Rob Letterman (previous credits include Jack Black films Goosebumps, and Gulliver’s Travels).The cast do their part too; Ryan Reynolds is on golden vocal form as Pikachu, dropping quizzical pun-bombs aplenty (“All I hear are consonants, all I see is nipples”), whilst Justice Smith keeps it together in the lead human role, proving once again what a great actor he is; charismatic, with an ability to move effortlessly between scenes of dramatic weight to those of pure slapstick. And even the great Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe pop up in small, key roles. Detective Pikachu could have been so much worse without a great cast to pin it all on. This is a surprisingly good, energetic movie with a very appealing streak of madness.

Daenarys, Breaker of Plots, and Jon Snow, King of Earnest Scowling; each wondering WTF happened to Season 8…

The fantasy saga behemoth that is Game of Thrones returned to our screens in April with bloody fashion. (mild spoilers ahead, be warned…) After the high of season 6, and the wonky thrillfest of season 7, season 8 has no small responsibility in concluding the story. Five episodes in, the body count inevitably keeps climbing, and now we’re in the territory of guessing which main characters will survive to the end of the show. The first two episodes were curiously short and chatty, but episode three showed why. Depending on who you talk to, this episode was either predictable and dull, or thrilling and surprising. Personally, I think it falls somewhere between. There are some spectacular sequences (the Dothraki cavalry charge; the dragons fighting amidst the storm), and the carnage is brutal – but there is always the sense that our main heroes will make it out intact. The peril always feels manageable. The episode is wrapped up way too neatly. Not a whiff of a cliffhanger. Episode four just about lets you recover from the bloody mayhem of the previous episode before Plot Happens. It’s a strange, messy episode that highlights the issue with the previous one; seven years building up the threat of the Night King, and establishing Daenarys as a credible main challenger to the Iron Throne, all to be essentially undone within one episode. Awkward characters beats abound; Jon Snow has become a bit of a caricature of himself, and the incest plot arc between him and Daenarys is just unpleasant, and faintly ridiculous – even Jon senses this. One incestuous relationship was icky enough (Jaime and Cersei), two is dull repetition. The penultimate episode builds on the plot elements developed in four, particularly the ramifications of Jon’s true identity, and how that impacts his relationship with Daenarys, and their inner circles. The showrunners had an opportunity to furrow some interesting ground with these two central characters and they have abandoned that avenue to pursue something far more obvious and broad, and ultimately predictable. The fifth episode is crammed with carnage and destruction and just feels very… obvious. I feel that the show has arguably suffered from a change in its format; season 7 felt crammed and rushed at times, and season 8 feels even more so, continuing the curious structure of season 7; uneven length episodes, and shorter season; there is clearly swathes of potential plot still to explored, and after the first six seasons took their time about proceedings, with a sometimes languid ten episode run, now, just when it matters, the makers decide to thrash through the story, the onscreen destruction annihilating and abandoning what interesting plot avenues remain. The final episode awaits, and there seems very little grace or mystery left to this once great show.

Avengers: Endgame is the biggest movie news at the moment, busting box office records around the world. But is it any good?

Graeme: Endgame sees our favourite superhero team and the ultimate badass return for a second round of chaos and destruction. Thankfully though, this time round not only addresses most if not all of the loose ends that were left during Infinity War, but nicely rounds up the last 10 years of MCU and the perfectly imperfect saga that came from nothing. Endgame itself plays to the hearts of the fans and pays homage to each movie in the franchise. Easter egg videos on YouTube have the total count sitting at over 200 in just over 3 hours which most would agree is an achievement in itself. It’s worth remembering that this movie is the last in a 20+ movie saga, so there is a whole bunch of information to deliver, as well as loose ends to tie up, and everything to bring together for the final show down between the unstoppable force that is the Avengers and the immovable object that is Thanos. I don’t think it’s necessary to go back and watch all 3 phases of the MCU again, unless you realistically had the time. What Endgame did for me was give a fresh perspective on relationships and interactions from previous movies, with you knowing how it ends before maybe even the MCU production teams did. 10 years and it all boils down to this final showdown. The fighting comes very quickly, and it verges on the obscene at times, but concessions have to be made for Endgame considering the weight that is on the entire MCU team to get this saga wrapped up as tightly as possible, and after Infinity War, it was hardly going to end in a handshake and a catch up over tea and cake. Huge fight scenes should have been expected and are definitely delivered. There will be tears, big ones. There will be laughs, also big ones. There is only one major disappointment that lingered with me after watching Endgame and contemplating what’s next for Marvel…

What on Earth happened to –

Andy: If Comic book heroics and bloody fantasy aren’t your thing, you might still be able to catch Greta, directed by Neil Jordan. It’s a steadfastly low-key, old fashioned thriller that at once feels like a Hitchcock tribute piece by way of Brian De Palma. Isabelle Huppert is the titular Greta, the lonely senior citizen that Chloe Grace Moretz’s Frances befriends, after returning Greta’s lost handbag to her. Maika Monroe is on scene-stealing form as Frances’ best pal & flatmate, Erica, who is smarter than she lets on. Stephen Rea turns up in a small role as a private detective. Stylish, silly, and thrilling, and worth a watch.

David Harbour as Hellboy

April was the pre-blockbuster blockbusting month that saw the likes of Shazam!, Hellboy, Pet Semetary, and Missing Link come and go. The less said about this new rendition of Hellboy the better. However, where’s the fun in that?

There are so many things wrong with Neil Marshall’s take on Mike Mignola’s demonic paranormal investigator, it is tricky to isolate just one problem with the production. The plot, the script, the design and special effects, most of the acting (McShane and Jovovich are not at their best here); all round, it’s a poor-to-average bloody mess. David Harbour, in the lead title role, at least comes out of it with his reputation intact; the make-up allows him some expression but it is not as well designed as Ron Perlman’s in the previous Hellboys. Harbour’s Hellboy, however, is fun. More impudent than Perlman’s take, with a degree of soulfulness to anchor the silliness. A shame that he cannot save this unstylish, distastefully gory, often rushed-looking new update on a great comic. Guillermo del Toro’s movies weren’t perfect, or even great adaptations, but they are in every way superior to this stinker.

Pet Semetary is a margin better than Hellboy but, sadly, isn’t great either. It is a film that seems content in its ordinariness with a script determined not to answer any of its own interesting questions. Instead it fixates on the familiar dull, predictable, jumpy gruesome slasher horror. The cast do a good job but they are way better than this film deserves. It is a continuing puzzle how film-makers keep struggling to produce quality adaptations of King’s books. It seems IT is the anomaly. Maybe there is a longer, more nuanced cut of this film on an editor’s floor. And it took two directors to make this.

Thank goodness for Missing Link. Laika Animation Studios are going from one great film to another – a solid run of hits, each subsequent film feeling fresh and full of ideas. Missing Link is no different. A whimsical adventurous jaunt, its 19th century setting is evocatively brought to life in true Laika style, from lush forests and frontier townships, to the opulent halls of Sir Lionel’s club. Exploration escapades abound, with a good, hearty sense of humour. A great voice cast, led by Hugh Jackman, Zach Galifianakis, and Zoe Saldana, breathe character into the beautiful visuals, fuelling this breezy fun-for-all-the-family multiplex crowd pleaser. However, look deeper and you will find an excellent script, written by the director, Chris Butler, that is full of humourous warmth and strong emotions, and how we all long to belong. More in line with Laika’s own Box Trolls than with Kubo and the Two Strings. Definitely one of the films of the year so far.

Jack Dylan Grazer and Zachary Levi in Shazam!

Graeme: As time goes on, no one can deny that DC are better at the one shot stories rather than their sub-par team-up efforts, that the biggest of DC fan would find hard to argue are able to compete with the likes of Marvel. One thing that can be said, however, is that DC have been finding their feet with their solo hero efforts and Shazam! has only solidified that argument. One of DC’s lesser-known heroes has allowed DC to open the idea of humour into their movies which, previously, has been nothing but cringe-inducing. Being one of the more “fun” characters of the DCU makes this movie what it is, a good, fun, enjoyable play through the life of a 14 year old turned superhero and all the catastrophes that you would expect to come with that. There are hearty chuckles and a couple of “In the feelz” moments that, although slightly transparent and predictable, played well into the overall feel of the movie. One thing I always had issue with DC over was their filming of action scenes. The overuse of freeze-frame/slow motion videography (that went out of style after The Matrix trilogy milked it dry) seemed to be the only tool in their arsenal at points, and thankfully that’s gone. There are still uses of it, but it’s more tastefully done and adds to the atmosphere rather than a “here it comes again” feeling in your stomach. DC should definitely stick to their solo hero movies. I’m not opposed to sequels (unless it’s Iron Man 2. That can go in the fire) but going by the quality standard of the likes of Aquaman and Shazam!, DC need to leave the team ups alone. Well worth a watch.

I went into Dumbo expecting Burton to be all over this. The story itself almost seems to have been made for a film-maker like Burton, but he didn’t seem to capture that almost lunacy-infused magic that he is known for. This retelling of a classic was thin on plot. Stretching an hour long animation in to a two hour plus movie was always going to be a challenge, even for the biggest of Disney fans, there was a lot to ask for here and it never quite managed to hit the spot. Colin Farrell as the grumbling war hero father returning from war to take on both maternal and paternal roles would have been enough. Unfortunately, for some reason, Colin Farrell is missing an arm, which seems to play no part in the context of the story other than to maybe prove that the character was in a war? Maybe? As stated, Tim Burton failed to do his thing with Dumbo. The makings were there, considering how bonkers the theme of the original was, but he just wasn’t able to take it and make it his own which was disappointing. All this being said, it can’t be denied that Dumbo is fun to watch, if a little watery on plot. In true “new Disney” fashion, everything looks perfect, there is not an iota of detail missing from the wide angle shots and the circus scenes in general are pretty incredible to look at. Plus, let’s be real, Dumbo is cute as a button and there are a few laughs to be had at his dopey little face.

Andy: Netflix have not been idle, and over the last couple of months there have been some great releases. Unicorn Store, starring and directed by Captain Marvel herself, Brie Larson, is surely one of the oddest films on the Netflix site. Larson plays Kit, a dropout art student who takes on a temp job, and ends up striving to own a unicorn, a transaction orchestrated by the Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson, in one of his finest wigs, and an array of eye-popping suits). Its frivolity may annoy you but its good natured charm wins out, mostly due to Larson’s performance (the lady can do no wrong). Just when you think it is all quirk no substance, it surprises you with some striking emotional scenes, and some of genuine comedic genius; the vacuum presentation sequence alone is awesome and hilarious.

A still from ‘Suits’, one of the better short films from Love, Death and Robots

Love, Death and Robots is an animated anthology series, with the odd bit of live action. And do mind, this is definitely not a cartoon series for kids. Linked by the titular themes, this is a wild assortment of short films of a consistently high standard, featuring plenty of death, lots of sex/love, and plenty of robots – and gallons of gore. The styles vary in tandem with the content, from stunning photo-real animation, through to traditional 2D fare, and the spectrum between. Produced by Tim Miller (director of the first Deadpool film) and David Fincher (who hasn’t directed anything truly great since Fight Club), this series is well worth a look. Brimming with ideas, some of the shorts are original ideas, and some are adapted from other source material (The Dump from a Joe R Lansdale story, Beyond the Aquila Rift from an Alastair Reynolds story). The standard is high but there are some standouts; Suits is probably my favourite, about farmers who pilot battle mechs to protect their farmsteads against chitinous alien invaders; Good Hunting has a bizarre steampunk-alternate-history angle; Lucky 13 is pure class, a SF tale of a drop ship and the misadventures of its crew; and The Secret War sees soviet elite forces in action out in the wilds of Siberia, battling against a demonic invasion, and is as awesome as it sounds.

And how about The OA season 2… Wow. A great season that builds on the brilliant first, and just as out there. Creator/star Brit Marling uses this second season to explore some of the ideas proposed in the first, and how. Gripping tv, crammed with imaginative flair, that lingers long in the mind.

Joaquin Phoenix and John C. Reilly as Charlie and Eli Sisters

Coming and going from your local cinema, within the space of a week or two, The Sisters Brothers will, over time, be hailed as cult classic. A bonafide box office flop, this is a curious oddity. From its unusual title (adapted from the novel by Patrick deWitt) to its director (Frenchman Jacques Audiard, making his English-language debut) to its cast (John C Reilly, in a western? Really? And about time; he is awesome), there is nothing ordinary about this film. Reminiscent of Peckinpah at his most meandering, batshit crazy, John C. Reilly and Joaquin Phoenix are the titular brothers, a pair of mercenaries tasked with hunting down errant inventor Hermann Kermit Warm (an immensely likeable Riz Ahmed) and his mysterious formula. Jake Gyllenhaal appears as tracker John Morris, a soulful renaissance man searching for his place in the changing societal landscape of the Civilised West, also on the trail of the inventor. The cast are universally excellent throughout, including the briefest of brief cameos from Dutch legend, Rutger Hauer. Taking an array of familiar genre staples, the film delights in toying with your expectations. Peppered with bouts of stark violence, the film is at turns bloody, then ridiculous, and sometimes bloody ridiculous, the result being that it is always engaging, entertaining and often pleasantly surprising.

Oh, and if you have a Sky Cinema pass, The Meg has just been added. The Jason Statham vs prehistoric shark event picture from last summer is ridiculous fun, but is oddly restrained and not the over-the-top exploitation gorefest that you might be expecting. The Stath is on good form, leading an international cast of shark fodder. The effects and underwater sequences are bold and well shot, and there is just enough Plot and Science to make it all believable hokum.

Geekzine editor Andrew Jamieson is the award-nominated author of steampunk fantasy novels, The Vengeance Path, and its sequel, Children of War, both available from the Amazon Kindle Store.

Dec 092018
 

Nathan O’ Hagan is at the forefront of a an exciting new generation of British writers. His debut novel, The World Is (Not) A Cold Dead Place, is an incendiary piece of work, a vital novel of our times, described by the Liverpool Sound & Vision as capturing “a mood, a real sense of anger that perhaps has not been seen in such forceful, descriptive writing since the days when Holden Caulfield snatched J.D. Salinger into the world of rebellion and profanity forever.” His second book, Out of the City, cemented his burgeoning reputation as an author on the rise, and now his latest book, Everything Falls Apart: A Collection of Short Stories, is just out, and is equally impressive. He is also the co-founder (along with fellow acclaimed author, Wayne Leeming)  of publishing house, Obliterati Press.

Please enjoy.

Andrew Jamieson, Editor-in-Chief, Geekzine UK

 

Nathan O’ Hagan

Andrew Jamieson: Your new book, Everything Falls Apart: A Collection of Short Stories, is out now. Is there a theme to the collection?

Nathan O’ Hagan: I think the term ‘mixed bag’ could have been coined for this collection. They’re a pretty disparate bunch, linked only by the idea of people living somewhat on the edge, and frequently losing their shit in fairly spectacular fashion. I didn’t start out with a clear intention to write a collection of stories, if I had done, maybe they would have been more thematically linked. It was more a case of having a bunch of short stories sitting around, and not really being bothered to submit them separately, so why not put them together and self publish?

 

AJ: You’ve been a busy man over the last few years, founding the publishing house, Obliterati Press, as well as pursuing your own writing. What was the inspiration to start your own publishers?

NOH: Publishing house is probably an overly grandiose description of what we are, we’re probably more of a publishing potting shed at the moment. Something that started off as a bit of a joke the first time I met Wayne (M.W. Leeming, who I met when we were doing a panel event in Leeds with Armley Press) just kind of picked up its own momentum, within a few months a joke during a chat over a curry turned into, ‘well, why not?’ and then ‘how’? Wayne was able to build a nice little website, and I was able to find a couple of very talented but unpublished authors whose work we could start by putting out. There’s no shortage of publishers, both indie and mainstream, but the fact that within my own vague, extended network of associates, there were at least two great, unpublished authors. So how many more must there be out there? That was reason enough to do it.

AJ: It seems like a massive undertaking to start up your own publishing company. What have you learnt along the way?

NOH: What incredibly hard work it is! It’s been an almost vertical learning curve, and we’re constantly learning things, either from things we get right, or things we make a balls-up of. I think, so far, we’ve got more things right than wrong.

AJ: What are you most proud of with Obliterati Press?

NOH: Definitely being able to publish work of incredible quality, and to have given the authors the chance to get their work read. Richard Rippon and David Olner, for example, are both hugely talented authors, but the chances are, if I hadn’t approached them, their novels may never have seen the light of day, and that would have been terrible. We still wish we could break through more in terms of sales, and we are still working on ways to do that, but to have at least got them out there for now, we’re very proud of that.

AJ: Has becoming a publisher had any impact on how you approach your own written work?

NOH: Definitely. It’s made me much better at editing my own work (although I still believe it’s near impossible to do that well). Having to be a bit more task-orientated with Obliterati, rather than being my usual skittish self, reacting to tasks the way a cat reacts to a cucumber, has helped me be a bit more focused when it comes to my own writing, rather than pontificating for hours at a time. That’s not to say that I don’t pontificate for hours at a time, I just do it slightly less

 

Nathan’s first novel, the highly acclaimed The World is [Not] A Cold Dead Place, from 2015.

AJ: What are the future plans for yourself as a writer, and also for Obliterati Press?

NOH: Having just put Everything Falls Apart out, I’m hoping to sit back and watch the royalties flood in, but in reality I’ll probably be looking at the sales figures and screaming at my computer screen about how nobody’s buying it. I’ve just finished another draft of the sequel to my first novel, and Wayne is doing some editing for me. I’ve got a couple of ideas for novels four and five which I hope to get to preliminary work on at some point soon(ish). As for the press, we’re hoping to put a couple of ideas into practice soon. We’ve just set up a copy editing/proofreading service, and in the new year we’re hoping to start a podcast, focusing on unpublished authors. And we’ve also got our next book, an absolutely brilliant novel, The Weighing Of The Heart by Paul Tudor Owen coming out, probably around late March time.

AJ: How do you feel about the state of the British publishing industry at present? 

NOH: Like a lot of people, I do get very frustrated by how risk averse and homogenous the industry has become. Sometimes the big publishing houses still put out some genuinely superb work, but look at the bestsellers list, and you’ll mostly see ghostwritten celeb memoirs, fiction from the same few authors, and any publishing industry that can put out a book by a YouTuber telling you how to make sandwiches is clearly doing something wrong. A lot of this is responding to what the public want of course, but that just makes it even more depressing.

AJ: What are you reading for pleasure at the moment?

NOH: I’m currently re-reading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which is as brutal and brilliant as I remember it, as well as The House Of The Spirits by Isabel Allende. I also recently finished The Cut by George Pelecanos, and From A Low And Quiet Sea by Donal Ryan, which was magnificent and highly recommended.

AJ: And what ‘hidden gem’ book do you always recommend to people? 

NOH: Ooh, great question! So many! Obviously all the Obliterati Press books, as well as my own. But, while it may not be exactly hidden, having won a Pulitzer, I’m always amazed how few people I talk to have even heard of A Confederacy Of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, let alone read it. It’s probably the funniest novel ever written, and one of those I always try and foist onto people.

 

Thank you to Nathan for his time, and his answers. Everything Falls Apart is out now and available from here, or selected bookstores.

Please visit the Obliterati Press website to learn more about this exciting publisher and their authors.

 

Geekzine editor Andrew Jamieson is the award-nominated author of steampunk fantasy novels, The Vengeance Path, and its sequel, Children of War, both available from the Amazon Kindle Store.

Nov 222018
 

Some of the released art for Blackstone Fortress by artist Paul Dainton is incredible.

The new Games Workshop boardgame, Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress is the third in the current series of Warhammer Quest boardgames, that started with Silver Tower back in 2016 (sadly now unavailable from GW themselves), and continued with Shadows Over Hammerhal in 2017 (with the original Warhammer Quest released back in 1995). Out this weekend, Blackstone Fortress marks a departure as it is set within the Warhammer 40k universe of the far future, as opposed to the Age of Sigmar fantasy setting of the previous two sets. Games Workshop has indicated that the game will be supported with expansions over the forthcoming years.

The entire contents of Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress

First teased back in August at the NOVA Open Preview Seminars, Games Workshop have stepped up promotion of the game steadily throughout November, with a series of excellent posts on the Warhammer Community website, now handily gathered in one place (all essential reading). The feature-length play-through video ‘How to Play’ that Warhammer TV released, hosted by Becca Scott, gave us geeks a good indication of what to expect from this rather fabulous looking new game. There are some recognisable game mechanics carried over from the other two WQ games, with each character’s four Activation dice used to implement movement & attacks, etc. There is also a pool of Destiny dice, used for extra activations or other such narrative quirks. There is a d20 – the ‘Blackstone’ dice, for more character specific RPG developments. There are action dice, reminiscent of the dice in Imperial Assault, for carrying out combat. Compared to the Age of Sigmar WQ games, there is far more emphasis on a narrative backbone to Blackstone Fortress. There are nine named characters:

The heroes of Warhammer Quest Blackstone Fortress

Janus Draik, a Rogue Trader

Espen Locarno, Imperial Navigator

Taddeus the Purifier, Ministorum Priest

Pious Vorne, Missionary Zealot

Amallyn Shadowguide, Asuryani Ranger

Dahyak Grekh, Kroot Tracker

UR-025, Imperial Robot

Rein and Raus, the Ratling twins

Like Kill Team: Rogue Trader before it, there seems to be a clear effort by the design team to push and expand the Warhammer 40k background into hitherto unseen areas. For longtime fans, this is great to see, as the 40k setting holds so much potential for narrative/roleplay gaming beyond tabletop wargaming. The heroes each have a ship, which they can dock at the Precipice space station between expeditions to trade any loot recovered from their adventures within the Blackstone Fortress, and upgrade their characters.

The hostiles of Blackstone Fortress.

The hero miniatures are stunningly crafted, as are the hostiles. There are renegade Imperial guardsmen, beastmen, Rogue Psykers, Chaos Space Marines, renegade mechanicus cultists, Ur-Ghuls (nightmarish monsters carried over from the Drukhari/Dark Eldar range), and Spindle Drones, indigenous machines to the fortress itself. Like Silver Tower, the miniatures in Blackstone Fortress have been created specially for the game. And like Silver Tower, the miniatures give a good indication of what is to come next from GW; when Silver Tower came out, we saw the rejuvenation of the Tzeentch range with Tzaangors and Kairic Acolytes. In Blackstone Fortress, we can see a heavy lean towards Chaos forces. The rumour mill abounds that 2019 will see major releases for the Chaos ranges in both 40k and Age of Sigmar. From the Blackstone Fortress set it is not hard to conclude that we will see new Chaos Space Marines, a traitor guardsmen range, a renegade mechanicus range, but also a Rogue Trader faction range and perhaps even a revamping of the Aeldari and Kroot ranges, perhaps more.

As per Blackstone Fortress itself, the game comes with five booklets; Background, Rules, Combat, Precipice (bringing RPG elements to the game aboard a space station between expeditions), and Datasheets (to use the models in 40k). I’ve seen some opinions on various forums extolling the pros and cons of having so many separate booklets, but initially it appeals to me, although how useful they will be in the heat of the game remains to be seen. Maybe one rulebook with indentations for each section might have been more player-friendly but perhaps more costly to produce.

The Hidden Vault envelope that is intended to be opened once the game has been completed.

Unlike Silver Tower and Shadows Over Hammerhal, Blackstone Fortress appears to not be played out over a set ‘Quest’ map. There are three sets of cards that power the gameplay; Discovery, Encounter and Exploration, and through the turning of these, the game progresses, with combat and challenges. The hex map tiles are laid out for combat, and characters have the opportunity to fight through the hostile hordes inhabiting the fortress to discover clues that will lead them deeper within the mysterious space station. If the characters discover 4 clues this leads them to a Stronghold. There are a sequence of these strongholds to overcome, leading to a hidden vault, represented by a sealed envelope provided in the box; now, depending who you believe, each envelope contains an exclusive something-or-other that furthers the plot, and will vary between box sets. I suspect we will get a preview of a forthcoming expansion to Blackstone Fortress (GW have promised that the game will be supported for years to come), or an exclusive mission or similar. Whether or not us happy punters have the discipline to NOT open that Hidden Vault envelope before completing the initial game is another matter.

The three card decks used within the game.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that Blackstone Fortress is released just before the Vigilus Weekender kicks off (Saturday 24th to Sunday 25th November at Warhammer World). The most recent two 40k box sets, Tooth and Claw, and Wake the Dead, released this autumn, are set on Vigilus, as was the Kill Team starter set, released back in the summer. Games Workshop are teasing more developments in the ongoing story of the beleaguered hive world of Vigilus, to be revealed in seminars over the weekend. If we don’t see the reveal of a Primarch and/or a new box set and/or faction range I will be very surprised.

Warhammer Quest: Blackstone Fortress is up for pre-order now, from Games Workshop themselves, and slightly cheaper from various hobby shops and third-party online retailers. Over on Warhammer Community they state that the game is set for release on Friday 23rd November, or ‘Blackstone Friday’.

And check out the slick Blackstone Fortress website, for a thorough introduction to the game.

All photos taken from the Games Workshop and Warhammer Community website.

Geekzine editor Andrew Jamieson is the award-nominated author of steampunk fantasy novels, The Vengeance Path, and its sequel, Children of War, both available from the Amazon Kindle Store.

 

Nov 202018
 

Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone, circa late 1970s, were pioneers in bringing Dungeons & Dragons to the UK and Europe.

The creators of the Fighting Fantasy series of books, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson, are two titans of the fantasy roleplaying industry. Prior to the breakout success of the FF books, they set up and established Game Workshop as the UK’s premier hobby shop, publishing the magazine White Dwarf (which is still going strong today) and were pioneers in being responsible for bringing the RPG Dungeons & Dragons to Europe. Following the success of Fighting Fantasy, both men became involved in the videogames industry and to this day are renowned and respected figures in the gaming business and community. I met them as part of my hosting duties at this summer’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, and they were kind enough to allow my inner fanboy to pepper them with questions for a Geekzine interview. This has been months in the making, so please enjoy.

Andy Jamieson, Geekzine Editor-in-chief

November 2018

Andy Jamieson: Ian, why do you think the Fighting Fantasy books have remained as popular as they have?

Ian Livingstone: A Fighting Fantasy book is one in which you, the reader, are the hero. They’re branching narratives with a game system attached. They allow readers to make their own choices and decisions. Linear books are a passive experience whereas Fighting Fantasy is an interactive experience which gives control to the reader. Choice is empowering and speaks to today’s video game generation. We are delighted that they are relevant to a new generation.

AJ: Steve, how did the original idea for the Fighting Fantasy concept come around, and what inspired the choose-you-own-adventure system?

Steve Jackson: Originally this was supposed to be a ‘how-to-do-it’ manual. But when we got to explaining, it was much more interesting to make it an interactive explanation.

The first Fighting Fantasy book, released in 1982.

AJ: Ian and Steve, out of all the Fighting Fantasy books that you have written, which ones stand out as the titles you are most proud of, and why? 

IL: It has to be The Warlock of Firetop Mountain because it was our first book and I remember going into WH Smith several times a week just to see it on the shelves! My personal favourites are Forest of Doom, Deathtrap Dungeon and City of Thieves.

SJ: Warlock will always be a special one as it was the first in the series. Then I’d say the Sorcery series. That was an epic project and I was so relieved when I’d finished Crown of Kings. And Creature of Havoc.

AJ: Ian, how was it having Charlie Higson write a Fighting Fantasy book set in Allansia? Did you set him any no-go areas? Are there plans for him to write any more? 

IL: It was great having Charlie write Gates of Death as he brought a new dimension to the narrative style, and also attention to the series with his celebrity status and following. We pretty much gave him free reign in our universe, the only caveat being not to mess with legendary characters and creatures. It would be a pleasure to work with him again on another book.

AJ: Steve, aside from Charlie Higson’s Fighting Fantasy novel, are there any future plans for other authors to write original books for the series? 

SJ: Charlie’s book seems to have done well. So it’s something we’d consider.

AJ: Ian, how was it returning to the Fighting Fantasy series last year, with The Port of Peril? Had anything changed in the way you approached the design of a Fighting Fantasy adventure?  

IL: I used the same writing mechanics as I did in the 1980s – creating a manual flowchart as I wrote the adventure, allocating paragraph numbers on the fly from a list of 1-400, and making the all-important map. But writing it gave me a dilemma. Was I writing it for 10-year-olds or for 40-year-olds masquerading as 10-year-olds? In the end, I did what I always did – I wrote it for myself, hopefully appealing to fans young and old.

AJ: Steve, at the Edinburgh book festival event with Ian and Charlie Higson, you discussed that you were working on a new Fighting Fantasy book. What can you reveal at this early stage? Will it, for example, be set in Allansia?

SJ:  Top secret I’m afraid!

AJ: Ian, with you and Steve being the founders of Games Workshop, has the continued success of Warhammer Fantasy/Age of Sigmar and Warhammer 40k surprised you? Do you have much continued involvement with the company? 

Issue 1 of White Dwarf from summer 1977

IL: Steve and I are no longer involved in Games Workshop but watch its ongoing success from the sidelines with a great sense of pride. Who would have thought that the company we started in a pokey flat in Shepherds Bush in 1975 would turn into a hugely successful multi-national?

AJ: Steve, since your early days with Ian as pioneers in making roleplaying games popular in the Uk and Europe, do you still have as much passion for the games now as you did then? 

SJ: The games I mainly play these days are German Board Games and Apps. I haven’t quite got the concentration I used to have to read 100-page rulebooks!

AJ: Ian, as a long time Dungeons and Dragons fan, what are your thoughts on the successful 5th edition? And do either of you still play? 

IL: By all accounts the 5th edition is brilliant. But we no longer play D&D. We regularly play board games in a group which has been together since the 1980s.

AJ: Steve, has the recent upsurge in popularity in roleplaying/ board games surprised you?

SJ: Yes, indeed. The Japanese version of the AFF Rulebook has sold almost 2,000 copies in the first couple of months! I can’t believe it – after 35 years! 

AJ: Ian, what plans do you and Steve have for the Fighting Fantasy series going forward? 

The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, for the Nintendo Switch. (Goblin Scourge edition out now!)

IL: There are going to be more digital adaptations of Fighting Fantasy. Tin Man Games and Nomad games have launched some fantastic games over the years, most recently The Warlock of Firetop Mountain on Switch and Fighting Fantasy Legends on mobile, and there are plans for more. I’m currently working on ideas for a new Fighting Fantasy book and hope to begin writing soon. And the 40th anniversary will be upon us before we know it. Steve and I always planned to write another adventure inside Firetop Mountain for the 40th anniversary, so we better get started on that soon too!

AJ: Steve, what roleplaying / board / video games are you currently a fan of?

SJ: Our Games Night group plays 4-6-player games like Dominion and Splendor. And I often play 2-player games – Jaipur and Morels are current favourites.

AJ: Ian and Steve, aside from Fighting Fantasy, what projects do you have lined up? 

Steve and Ian at a book signing last year.

IL: I’m writing two non-fiction books at the moment. The Dice Men is a history of the first crazy ten years of Games Workshop (1975-1985) which I’m writing with Steve and Jamie Thomson. The second is a yet untitled book about the history of board games through the ages which I’m writing with James Wallis. I’m also very much involved in the video games industry. I currently sit on the board of eight video games companies – Sumo-Digital, Midoki, Flavourworks, The Secret Police, Bossa Studios, Mediatonic, Fusebox, PlayMob and Antstream. Whilst I endeavour to give them sound business advice, it’s the involvement in their game designs that gets me most excited. It’s the creative process that I enjoy the most.

SJ: The new book is still some way off and is taking most of my time!

 

 

Many thanks to Ian and Steve for their time, their photos, and their answers. Charlie Higson’s Fighting Fantasy book, The Gates of Death, is out now, and is worth all your pennies. To see the current range of Fighting Fantasy titles available from Scholastic, visit their website. If you’re looking for the vintage titles still out of print, try eBay and Amazon, and your local charity shops.

And please check out the official Fighting Fantasy website.

Aug 272018
 

Fighting Fantasy at the Edinburgh Book Festival 2018

The first Fighting Fantasy book, released in 1982.

Last year marked the 35th anniversary of the release of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, the very first of the Fighting Fantasy choose-your-own-adventure books. Since their worldwide bestselling heyday in the early to mid-1980s (20 million copies sold and counting), this classic series of books have been in and out of print, to varying degrees of success. Scholastic books are the latest publisher to tackle the series, in an attempt to bring Fighting Fantasy to a new generation of fans.

The two events at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on Sunday 12th August were testament to the fact that Scholastic might just have succeeded in bringing Fighting Fantasy and its creators, Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, to a new audience.

I first read a FF book when I was 8 or 9 (Caverns of the Snow Witch; I still love it) and read them relentlessly for the next five or six years. They were a massive influence on me, infusing me with a love of fantasy and gaming, and definitely in terms of inspiring me to try creative writing (still trying 30 years on, to mixed results).

Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone are the masterminds behind the Fighting Fantasy series, a project that was born out of their love for roleplaying games (aka RPGs), Dungeons and Dragons in particular, and their desire to try and translate those gaming mechanics to a younger audience. Prior to Fighting Fantasy, they had founded Games Workshop, steering it from its origins as a stockist and distributor of boardgames and RPGs (including being the original distributors of Dungeons & Dragons in Europe) to the worldwide Warhammer phenomenon of today; Games Workshop recently recorded their most successful year of trading yet.

The two events on Sunday were all about bringing Fighting Fantasy to a new generation. The programme notes for the afternoon event, Fighting Fantasy with Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone (sold out weeks ahead of the festival opening), which I introduced, promised an “interactive audio experience in which you become the hero.” Steve and Ian had created an audio adventure, operated from Steve’s laptop, and designed in the solid tradition of the FF books. Steve had also brought along some large toy dice for audience participation. After Ian had done a short slideshow detailing the history of Fighting Fantasy, Steve asked for volunteers from the audience – one to be the ‘hero’, and one volunteer each to roll the hero dice and the creatures dice.

Ian Livingstone gives a short slideshow history lesson on all things Fighting Fantasy.

Some suitably atmospheric audio chapters were played out, with Steve moving things along and prompting the encounters, and Ian on creature duty. The young volunteers – Daniel, Calum and Ruaridh – were full of enthusiasm, and there were lots of improvised moments of japes and mischief, which were handled in good nature by Steve and Ian, especially when the chapter order in the audio adventure became a little muddled. As I discussed with Steve after the event, these kind of technical hiccups only add to the good atmosphere. There was a tight time slot for audience questions towards the end of the event (always sure to keep seasoned book fest hosts like myself on our toes), and there was no shortage of hands up from the audience, with a good mixture of questions from veteran geeks from the first days of FF, to the inquisitive minds of the new generation of fans. Ian commented later that it particularly pleased him to see such a good, healthy mix of old and new fans alike.

The signing queue in the Children’s Bookshop at the festival lasted approximately an hour, and again was a lively mix of veteran FF fans with pile of vintage books, and younger fans taking their first steps into the Fighting Fantasy series, clutching the shiny new additions published by Scholastic.

After the event there was opportunity for me to talk freely with Steve and Ian, and it was interesting to get their perspective on the rise in popularity of boardgames and RPGs, such as the notable successes of Dungeons & Dragons, and the continued high grade quality output from Games Workshop.

Later that day, Steve and Ian were part of an event along with Charlie Higson, titled Charlie Higson with Steve Jackson & Ian Livingstone: Fighting Fantasy.

The evening event, where Charlie Higson joined Steve and Ian to discuss Fighting Fantasy, and the new additions to the series.

Higson has written The Gates of Death, a brand new entry into the Fighting Fantasy series, set in Allansia, like the bulk of Jackson/Livingstone fantasy set FF books. The event took place in the Sparkes Theatre on nearby George Street, and was chaired by illustrator Tom Morgan-Jones. This event was more discussion led than the earlier one, with the three authors and their host quizzing each other on the long history of Fighting Fantasy, and the addition of new titles to the series; last year Livingstone penned The Port of Peril, whilst this summer has seen Higson’s entry released to some acclaim, alongside reissues of some of the classic FF titles.

Ian opened the event with a variation of the slideshow that began the afternoon’s event. Higson discussed how he came to write a Fighting Fantasy book, and the design process of the books was explained (the diagrams from the authors own sketchbooks were something to behold, looking more like complex scientific formula than fantastical adventures!). Like the earlier event, the audience here was a good split of young and old (and I recognised a fair few faces from that event in attendance here too).

Figjting Fantasy for a new generation: The Gates of Death by Charlie Higson, and The Port of Peril by Ian Livingstone.

There was a good amount of questions asked at the end, and some fascinating bits of trivia came to light through the authors’ answers; Higson explained that Jackson and Livingstone had allowed him to write an Allansia-set adventure, meaning that aside from themselves, he was the first author to write an adventure set in that realm; Steve Jackson is working on a new FF book, but was tight-lipped on the details, other than it is expected next year; Charlie Higson gave his view on why and how Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings became a worldwide bestseller in the 1970s, with the development in printing techniques allowing for all three books to be released as one volume, which until 1972 had not been possible; Ian Livingstone revealed that one of the driving reasons behind the creation of the Warhammer Fantasy and Warhammer 40k universes was that Games Workshop went from being the sole distributors of Dungeons and Dragons to being one of many distributors, and that there was a desire to create settings that were unique to the company.

It was ultimately a day of celebration of all things Fighting Fantasy, and it was a pleasure and honour to have been involved in some small way. The Edinburgh International Book Festival, and the Children’s Programme Director, Janet Smyth, are to be praised for their vision in getting these events co-ordinated. On the evidence of these two events, the continued success of Fighting Fantasy seems in a healthy position.

 

The Gates of Death by Charlie Higson is out now. The Port of Peril by Ian Livingstone is also out now, as are a number of other Fighting Fantasy titles, all published by Scholastic.

Tom Morgan-Jones’ first picture book is out now, called The Red Dread, published by Barrington Stoke.

Geekzine editor Andrew Jamieson is the award-nominated author of steampunk fantasy novels, The Vengeance Path, and its sequel, Children of War, both available from the Amazon Kindle Store.