Golt’s Gooch

With deliberate resolve he crouched low, carefully gathered his patent leather shoelaces, and strained. He strained with all his might; wrenching his laces with savage force while simultaneously squeezing downward against his sphincter. The seams of his suit bulged; he knew the tailoring was exquisite, but would it hold out? Even more pressing, could his body withstand the strain!? But he pulled ever harder, eyes glued shut and teeth clenched by the fury of his squeezing. Just as he thought he must burst, a sour, almost primordial, honk cut through the air and a great warm rush suffused his cheeks. He dared open his eyes a crack. He was aloft! He’d successfully pulled himself up by his bootstraps!

There he bobbed, laces in hand, the only sound to be heard the gentle murmuring of his stomach as it mixed his buoyant gasses. A glorious horizon spread out in every direction, cool, and calm, and blue. Far beneath him stretched the mismatched collage of the earth. Everything was so small down there. More importantly, he felt bigger. Much bigger.

He whooped in happiness. Once he’d been stuck just like one of them – now he was free, free, free! As soared through the air it brought to mind one of his favourite childhood movies: The Snowman and he hummed a few bars from the signature theme as he burst through a cloud bank.

Hello there!”

With a start he looked up. A short way above hovered a circle of suited gentleman, each doubled over like a sprinting cyclist with a firm hand to their laces , buoyed by a soft symphony of whispering gasses. Carefully he angled himself, and letting off a soft squonk, drifted into their company.

Congratulations!”

Well done old chap!”

You’ve uncovered the secret!”

BOOTSTRAPS!” Bellowed one excitable fellow at the back, old school tie hanging partly chewed from his mouth.

Amongst them he recognized a few fellows from his old alma mater. All had a well-oiled, prosperous look. The eldest one among them stood slightly apart from the rest. Sporting a pencil moustache and a light grey suit as sharp as a paper-cut, he stood upright, maintaining his grip on his shoes via a pair of extraordinarily long shoe laces – a halfway house between reins and ski-poles.

The impressive figure ever so slightly inclined his head. “Allow me to introduce myself, I’m Gordon Oldeboye and these are fine gentleman are part of our Independent Fellowship of Noble Gasses.”

Without thinking he went to present his hand, the instant he let go of his lace however he fell into a paroxysm of spinning and flailing until he managed to re-seize his lace and right himself again. The fellows about him were guffawing and slapping one another over his faux-pas.

Steady on there, chap,” cautioned Oldeboye gently, with faint smile. “Remember, things are different up here. It’s only through a firm grip on what matters that you’ll maintain your position amongst us.”

Thank you, my name is Prolson.”

Come chaps, what say we take our new fellow Prolson on a tour of our great enterprise?”

The fellowship honked their affirmation, arranged themselves about him in a V formation with Oldboye at their head, and, with one simultaneous rip, launched themselves out across the blue.

*

Prolson soon found that, while his flight pattern was a trifle unsteady, he could gust with the best of them and had no trouble keeping up. His fellows chattered amongst themselves, or else trilled away on their hands-free kits. He wouldn’t allow himself to be distracted though, he knew he would have to closely observe Oldeboye if he was going to learn to be a proper rugged individualist.

As the formation dipped lower, back below the cloud line, Prolson realised they were descending back down toward the lower world. Why on earth would they ever return to the squalor their straps had pulled them free from?

Fortunately Oldeboye was in the mood to lecture. “This my boy, is our world. A land of infinite resources, infinite opportunities. The golden oyster.”

Below them spread a great ghostly vista. A charcoal paradise of pavements, factories and tenements, the scheme broken by garish bill-boards and pithy advertising slogans of luminous fonts, bathed in the harsh orange glow of exhaust flares. He’d remembered hating these streets once upon a time, but he had to admit it all looked far more palatable when viewed at a distance.

Oldeboye continued, “Competition is fierce down there – look how oversubscribed our labour positions are!” The line stretched out from the factory entrance, across the roadway and down several streets.

Indeed, there was only one line longer; it was the queue outside the public relief office. At this sight a difficult mixture of anger and shame stirred within Prolson’s chest.

Oldboye seemed to notice his discomfort and drifted closer until he was leaning just over Prolson’s shoulder. “Difficult to understand, isn’t it? Those creatures below were once men, but they’ve chained themselves to the teat of government.”

The flock immediately erupted into a barrage of curses and spitting noises. “Public health is private injury,” squawked one of their number.

Remember Prolson,” whispered Oldeboye with a mischievous glint to his eye, “if they had half a chance, they’d have your laces in their hands and pull you back down with them as soon as look at you.”

Prolson felt his body victim to an involuntary shiver, his rump’s purring suddenly reduced to a strangled squeak. To return back down there? Never. He had to stay up, up, up! Panic seized him and, heedless to the cries of his fellows, he shot away with a frantic squawk.

*

He didn’t know for how long or how far he flew, but his panic gradually subsided and finally he slowed to halt in order to catch his breath. Taking stock of his location he found he was above one of the less inhabited parts of the city, close by where the residues from the factories were allowed to pool.

In the distance a group of barefoot children clambered their way over a clinker heap sifting for fragments of useable coal or recyclable materials. He smiled down on them benevolently. From his height they looked doll like, quite unreal. ‘Like tiny entrepreneurs.’ He thought. ‘If only they had bootstraps to tug.’

Then it struck him. He’d fled like a cur and from what? A past nobody remembered except himself? He was a new man now, with a grip of iron and plenty of roughage. He was a wealth creator.

Now everywhere he looked he saw the mighty hands of progress at work and the fierce activity required to keep it inching ever forward. Things were being made, or refined, or sold; all under the watchful eyes of the peace officers. The work queues outside the factories proved that the economy was ripe for expansion. It was a stunning tapestry. Even better, it was a tapestry he could improve upon. He gazed across the roofs of the tenements, his mind ablaze with a fever of creation. They should be sloped, not flat. More expensive materially, but the cost would be more than paid for by positioning a different billboard on each slope. Those long queues of dead eyed men staring at the ground? Markets waiting to be tapped once they coated the pavement with indelible endorsements for aspirational products! They could even refract holographic images from the smog banks.

He couldn’t bask in his glory for long however, there was something nagging at the edge of his perceptions. Small, insignificant, but somehow it wouldn’t go away. He cast about himself and finally spied a peculiar pair far below him: a man with a clipboard was passing a cheque to a woman clutching a child to her chest.

His nose twinged, his stomach rebelled. It lay there in his bones, deep and ancestral: there was something deeply, deeply wrong about this act. Her clothes were of an inferior cut, her face haggard, and her back bent beneath the weight of the child, while her benefactor had the drab shapeless outfit that could only belong to a unionized government employee. This was clearly an act of public charity.

A strangled cry of loathing clawed its way forth from his lips and, with a truly savage rip, he hurled himself into a dive. He gunned his anus faster and faster, air pressure pushing his eyeballs back into their sockets, but still he wouldn’t blink, his eyes locked in a deaths embrace with that poisonous cheque. Time seemed to slow as the woman’s quivering hand inched ever closer to the ill-gotten prize. He wouldn’t make it in time. Her hands would touch it. In that hazy moment, that lifetime second, a shadow crossed his mind, a memory of second-hand clothing and student loan support. But it was just a shadow, a shadow of somebody else’s life. With a final roar he surrendered his grip on his laces and launched himself forward like a master class diver. With a wrench of his neck he seized the cheque between his teeth and tore it free, re-established the grip on his laces and with a herculean, spine shattering squeeze, scorched his way back into the air.

The official and the woman barely had time to process what had happened before the flock, summoned by his scream of rage, was upon them in a righteous whirlwind of sharp teeth and sharper elbows. The invisible fist of the market. It was over in moments.

He was still wheezing with the effort of his dive when his fellows caught back up to him.

Laissez-faire.” Coughed a number of the group with nervous excitement as they preened their cufflinks, their once immaculate suits now flecked with scraps of hair and torn clothing.

Oldeboye singled him out with a steely gaze. “What possessed you to loosen your grip?”

He knew with an utmost certainty now. Before he had been consumed by an almost animal rage with the injustice he had witnessed, but his mind had had time to process the complex feelings he had felt at the sight of that cheque about to be exchanged, the horror that it had represented.

Mine! It was mine!” He bellowed with seam splitting passion.

Around him the flock took up the cry.

MineMineMine!”

Oldeboye’s lips parted in a narrow smile. “Our new brother has committed a most exemplary act. He took risk and risk is always rewarded.”

Feeling like the winning infant on sports day he shyly held aloft his prize as his fellows fluttered their sleeves in appreciation. The figure on the cheque was low, almost pathetically so, but in his eyes he’d never beheld a sum so bountiful and glorious.

As he floated amongst their pungent adulations he realised that something had changed; these men were no longer his fellows; they were his brothers, of shared mind and purpose. In this new light, gone were the receding hairlines, arthritic wheezings, and desperate oily grimaces of his earlier perceptions. In truth he could scarcely credit how he could ever have held such notions. He stood in a Company of Heroes, each man an Adonis in flesh and will. Chests jutted forwarded like ATMs beneath jawlines so hard and straight you could snort lines from them, while hands like great mechanical shovels clasped laces with grips as tight as the terms of a foreclosure. In fact it wasn’t so much a light as a nimbus, as if they were illumed by the very gold standard itself.

Let us quench our thirst at Golt’s Gooch.” Declared Oldeboye authoritatively. As one the flock wheeled, changing course with a decisive tug and gust.

They sailed on into the fading light, those mighty horsemen of the Free Market.

*

There was something ahead, twinkling in the twilight. The closer they flew the larger it grew, until it stretched to fill the horizon.

“There she is,” declared Oldeboye with a flourish of his moustache. “The greatest wonder of the modern world, mankind’s very zenith. The city of Tharts.”

And it was. It was a city. A glorious city floating on the clouds. White marble and golden filigree from gutter to gable, it sparkled in the dying rays of the sun with that mixture of gaudiness and anti-septic clinicism that always indicates the finest of taste.

But this, how can… an entire city!” Stuttered Prolson.

The pioneering spirit, a monopoly’s worth of bootlaces, and a nasal staggeringly enormous quantity of hot air.”

Now that he noticed it there was a slight haze around the city, the air ever so faintly tinged with the warm comfortable aroma of bot-squawks.

As they zoomed over the gates and into this marvellous edifice groups of fellow entrepreneurs sang out to them and Prolson could instinctively feel his social network profiles blossoming under the weight of friend requests. More domestic scenes abounded as couples crouched lace-in-lace above exquisitely maintained sidewalks, feet never quite touching the ground. Curiously though there didn’t seem to be a single municipal worker in sight.

It’s so perfect, how is this all maintained?” He asked as they skimmed over another artistically sculpted topiary.

Through sheer force of will.”

Prolson raised his eyebrows in surprise. This was surely inconceivable, even for the most robust constitution and the leatheriest of laces.

Oldeboye received his with a knowing smile. “Don’t forget the very fact of your own elevation! Anything can be accomplished once one sets their mind to it! After all we achieved all this with nothing but our bootstraps, our private educations, parental connections, and a substantial loan of interest-free capital.”

Of course.” He affirmed, swiftly quashing a memory of free school breakfasts as it spiralled into his brain.

Every man must stand alone.” Sermonised Oldeboye as they passed row upon row of carefully guarded and clinically maintained gated communities.

*

The sky had slowly darkened as they trumped their way across the boulevards and avenues and now a series of floodlights came into play, giving their procession the air of a film premier. It was just as well, for they’d finally arrived at that fabled place, that mecca of all thirsty acolytes of the Profit. Golt’s Gooch declared the sign in imposing letters.

Of course, there was no line to join here, nor need for doormen. It was inconceivable that any but the strappiest of bootmasters could ever make their way to this holy of a-holies. As one the flock about faced and, with one tremendous blast of hot air, jetted their way over the threshold and into the Gooch proper.

The first thing that became apparent to Prolson was that the bar had no floor. It was simply an empty space falling away into a void, eventually giving way to a vast stretch of clanking machinery and jagged scaffolding that descended off into absolute blackness. The pit of some enormous industrial ant-lion.

Behind the bar, mounted in an enormous gold frame, lay the image of a hatchet faced sociopath wielding a dollar topped mitre. With a jerk Prolson realised that he was gazing onto the face of the Profit and lowered his eyes reverently. The very first Guffstronaut. Around him his fellow’s heads were bent in similar repose and as one they uttered the traditional prayer: “Got mine.”

The staff, bereft of proper lace-based propulsion, pulled themselves about the establishment via a system of ingenious pulleys and bungee cords. They carried small trays bearing tiny fluted glasses of that terribly exclusive yet utterly tasteless beverage Sauvignon Blanc-Cheque. Balanced next to these were trays of tiny burgers, the one true culinary expression of opulence and success. Sleek, prosperous go-getters grabbed handfuls of them and tipped them into their noble maws.

I thought you said there were no Lessers here?” He asked Oldeboye.

Figments of the mind, old chap. Pay no heed to them. Remember that here money is reality.”

Prolson had never thought he would ever see so many of his fellow strappers in the same place. The air was practically humming with the brassy notes of their combined nether-orchestra. In the same way Oldeboye headed up their flock, the room was grouped around several significant looking figures of unusual appearance.

Is that fellow alright?” He asked aloud. The rather large man in question held the proper posture required for flight, but appeared to have crammed both his legs into a mouth that could only be described as multinational in scale. It gave him a peculiar ring-like symmetry as he pootled lethargically about.

Oh don’t worry about our friend Roboros over there. He sits on the upper echelons of the civil bureaucracy. Addicted to his own flavour, but don’t worry, no matter how much he chews he’ll never run out of leg.”

And him?” He questioned, indicating a middle aged man with a savage cast to his eye that put Prolson in mind of a hungry feral dog. A brilliant blue flame could clearly be seen jetting from the seat of his trousers.

The fellow with the powerful gas pipe? That’s Ripitov; he made his fortune through some truly obscene asset stripping during a period of serious social and economic instability. Remember, while we may appear to come from different flocks, beneath it all ‘strappers of the leather flock together’.”

This instructive session in Who’s Who was interrupted by a great buzz of conversation; the attention of the room had suddenly shifted toward the labyrinth of gears and pistons beneath their rumps.

Ah yes, we normally have them use the tradesman’s entrance.” Chuckled Oldeboye softly.

An extraordinarily tall figure was approaching from below. Its flight seemed possible by the two large bunches of balloons looped around it shoulders, all emblazoned with the legend ‘Change’. As it drifted closer it became clear that the figure only appeared to be so tall because a long rope of what appeared to be suit-clad primates were clinging to its legs. These leg limpets gibbered away inanely at one another, clinging on with one hand while using the other to feverishly stab away at an array of smartphones. It was the effigy’s face that really held his attention though; so stiff, so shiny, so plastic, it looked like it should be testing crumple zones on the latest family saloon, with a smile so oily it could have been harnessed as a credible source of bio-diesel. He recognised it at once: it was the Prime Minster.

Change. This government, this government. Necessity. Future.” Offered the PM in greeting. Through some ventriloquist’s trick it could make sounds without actually moving its lips.

Greetings.” Returned Oldeboye with a genial smile. “I’m glad you could make it, several of my fellows had some grievances they wished to air and-”

At that mark the PM was immediately deluged in a tidal wave of shouted grievances both complementary and contradictory, as the flocks of bootstrappers fell about him in a frenzy.

Tax, tax, tax!” Shrieked several from the flocks in chorus, as they rocked themselves from side-to-side in spasms of fury.

Regulation!”

Ring-fenced!”

Lèse-l’argent!”

BLOODY DARKIES.” Bellowed school tie.

It was a twittering fluttering maelstrom, punctuated by indignant hisses and spurts of escaping noble gasses. Prolson tried to keep himself back from it all, but there was something stirring within him just below his diaphragm, writhing and pulsing with greater and greater urgency until –

Welfare Queens!” He blurted out in a torrent of ignorant bile.

These two dread words provoked the assemblage to an even greater frenzy. “Hear, hear,” cried several of the fellows from his own pod, clapping him across the back with a friendly elbow.

Buckling under this siege, the PM seemed to be suffering some sort of overload. “Mandatory, mandatory! Future austere! Firm stance necessary people’s man.” It grovelled in a confused whine as the mob squeaked in closer and closer. To the rear, Oldeboye, Roboros, Ripitov and co looked on impassively.

In the middle of this scrum a flunkey shimmied its way up the prime minister’s leg to present him with what was obviously, but quite curiously a bacon sandwich.

The riot immediately came to halt.

Despite the reprieve the prime minister couldn’t have worn a look of greater horror and confusion if it had been handed slug wrapped hand grenade. Below the flunkeys shrieked in delight. Fearful of this alien object yet conscious of an audience, the creature slowly raised the sandwich towards its face and with a halting effort attempted to achieve some sort of interaction between its perfectly square teeth and the glistening butty. Only succeeding in smearing some of the bap onto the side of its face. It uttered a small buzz of distress and pain as it managed to get some of the butter into its eye.

It was hard to feel empathy toward this bizarre simulacrum, but an acute air of embarrassment had definitely infiltrated the gathering’s otherwise fine pong. “They normally throw up on their food, you see.” Muttered someone hovering near the back.

With a gesture that was at least distantly related to kindness, Oldeboye held out his hand for the ruined sandwich, which the creature gratefully surrendered. “You really did very well.” He soothed in the tones of a sport’s day parent looking down the barrel of 36th place. “Now remember we’ll be sending you a new manifesto and policy guide later to replace the one we left you with last week.”

With a grateful nod and to the shrill wheeze of deflating balloons, the creature and its attendants began the long descent back toward terra inferior.

And now, to celebrate.”

Oldeboye lifted his glass and led them in chorus.

We few, we happy few, we band of brokers;

For he to-day that hoards his assets with me

Shall be my brother!”

They fell about themselves, laughing at their own wit. Yet as much as he was enjoying himself, Prolson couldn’t help but feel that something wasn’t quite right. One of their band had been off-key and not in the proper, raucous way.

With the same uncanny accuracy that had enabled him to spy out the wealth leeches earlier, his head span around with the speed and incision of a tawny owl, fixing on a member of his own flock. The fellow had flown with them, fought with them, exchanged contact details with them… but singled out beneath Prolson’s disapproving gaze it was clear that this former comrade’s face was now flushed and shiny, his laces distinctly frayed looking and his intestinal expulsions weak and arrhythmic.

Chapschapschaps.” Shrilled Fray-Lace fitfully. “Banterbanterbanter?”

In desperation the fellow reached with one wobbling hand into his jacket pocket and held forth his threadbare wallet, determined to show that he still had what it took, but slowly the rest of the room drew back. It was well known that poverty, unlike wealth, was highly communicable.

All except Prolson. His and frey-lace’s eyes locked. This was what he a missed in the dive for that welfare cheque, so narrowly had he focused on the money itself he hadn’t been able to perceive the human on the other end. Now he gazed into the soul of one who was his equal, born into the same fearful world, possessed of the same trivial yet sympathetic hopes and desires. This man had had a name, a networking profile, several business cards… Once.

Prolson’s hand shot out and snatched the wallet with the practiced ease of a striking viper. “Got mine.” He hissed.

To his credit, fray-lace fell in silence, not a sound passing from between either set of cheeks. The room watched him spiral down toward the waiting reaching darkness. Slowly conversation began to resume.

As Prolson gazed at what he held, the paltry sum of an individual’s net worth, he realized he felt lighter. Much lighter. Something had changed. To the gasps of his comrades he released his laces. Yet did not fall! Instead, with a triumphant trump, he straightened out, proud and erect.

In mirror, but with a tip of his head, Oldeboye performed the same feat. “You see, chap. Your noble gases were always capable of sustaining you.”

His fermentations came forth dank and rich, hanging about him like the aroma of a fine cigar. He sat back and breathed deep. He had mastered the secret science. The heaviest part of the human psyche was, of course, the conscience. The old man nodded slightly, welcoming the challenge in this newcomer’s eyes.

Gain was the orthodoxy. Hail the Profit’s Kingdom off earth.

*Ptthththththththaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrp*

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Two Idiots in Japan: Tokyo

So the Egg and I finally hit Tokyo. There’s a lot that’s been said about this city by a fair number of informed and articulate commentators, fortunately I have the distinction of being an idiot and so am approaching it from a competently different angle.

The first thing that strikes about Tokyo is the scale of the place – it’s an absolutely sprawling concrete labyrinth and I doubt you could even claim to fully understand it if you spent a whole year there, let alone a few days. It does share at least one obvious common point with London though – increased pace and population pressure does tend to make everyone a little bit more of a arsehole than usual. Though that also means that the effect of tourists in Tokyo dampens considerably – there are already so many damn people here that a bunch of sweaty sandal-wearing schmucks from overseas can’t really make much of an impact on it.

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Sadly the increased urbanisation meant that there were no animals ready to attack Egglet within the city limits. Not sure how I kept my spirits up in lieu of this.

Not even this little bastard at Kasai Rinkai could muster the energy for an aerial assault.

Not even this little bastard at Kasai Rinkai could muster the energy for an aerial assault.

Akihabara

Has an almost legendary status. Electric Town. Nerd City. It deserves every inch of its title and then some. In many senses this seems to typify Japan at the crossroads between its past and its future. It’s the ultimate mecca for odd, kitsch, or morally dubious tat, and in Japan that’s saying something. There are floor after floor stretching across multiple department stores dedicated to just about every socially marginal hobby or interest imaginable. It’s like a different culture, complete with it’s own gods, their sacrament delivered by the silver hands of the hundreds of UFO machines that crowd the lower floors of the town’s arcades. Graven idols adorn every available space, from bizarre Freud-bothering statues behind glass display cases, to literal idols in the form of AKB48 – a band specifically headquartered in Akihabara as its resident ‘group’. AKB48 are a madness unto themselves and I won’t even try to untangle that particular mess. And Akihabara can be a total mess sometimes, the sort of mess only a critical mass of nerds can make.

Let’s take this 2D image and give it 3D breasts. Of course.

Arcades here are alive and kicking and just as excellent as I remember them from the halcyon days of my misspent youth. The games are awesome, the lighting Stygian and the air tinged with smoke. Like if Satan had a rumpus room. It’s fucking brilliant. The Arcades are also home to Japan’s UFO machine culture, which is so advanced compared to its UK counterpart that it’s like trying to compare the Grecian republics to Neolithic man. The prizes are way more lucrative than the garbage grill rejects you might have come to expect from pier side amusement parks and range from the traditional cuddly toys all the way up to music CDs and vinyl statues and crucially, IT’S ACTUALLY POSSIBLE TO WIN THEM. Attendants can be summoned to effect the difficulty of winning a prize, or even swap out them out altogether if you are unhappy with the present offerings. And if you fail 5 times in a row, a gigantic demonic claw descends from the ceiling , plucks out your soul and adds it to the run of prizes. Truly it is an industry bathed in a perpetual golden age.

No joke, a random Japanese business man and his wife helped me win this for Egglet.

No joke, a random Japanese business man and his wife helped me win this for Egglet.

My personal favorite however, has to be the Gasopon, or ‘ball-toy’ subculture. Similar to the 20p bouncy ball dispensers you occasionally see chained outside newsagents back home, in Tokyo this simple concept has been elevated to the height of an art form. Each machine is filled with a small, randomly selected, collectible toy and cover every conceivable theme and subject, from Japanese folklore, to bullet trains. Rows of these machines stand two or three tall and span the length of entire corridors and patrons wander the aisle with an air of the connoisseur browsing the chateau’s wine collection. There are even entire stores devoted to the reselling of particularly rare individual toys, with corresponding price tags. It’s utterly mad and I love it to bits.

Here’s one I acquired earlier – a scene from traditional Japanese feudal history featuring a noblewoman in repose and in traditional warrior costume.

Posed in front of old SNES cartridges for maximum authenticity.

Posed in front of old SNES cartridges for maximum authenticity.

Obadai Island

Constructed on the backs of some historical, man-made, island fortresses, Odaiba is a bit like a Pleasure Island constructed for Japan’s middle classes. It’s a particularly clean looking place, but not just clean sanitized. It has all the bright-lights and gaudiness of Tokyo’s red-light area’s, but with none of their bite. It’s peculiarly alienating, like  gazing into nightmare vision of the future where everything is ferris wheels, shopping malls and office blocks, all holding the same amount of personality as wrap of cling film.

There are a truly surprising number of ferris wheels in Japan. I have no idea what this means.

J. G. Ballard would have had a field day here, as the whole island is effectively doing a spitting impersonation of Highrise at the point just before the breakdown. It’s like it’s perpetually teetering on the edge of catastrophe. The odd thing is that I could imagine the Highrise experiment working in Japan.

Welcome to my electric nightmare.

Welcome to my electric nightmare.

Odaiba, come for the Gundam statue, stay for the culture shock and schlock literary analysis.

Meiji Shrine

It was so bloody cold and wet in Tokyo that we could hardly manage the resolve to do any tourist gawping that was restricted to the interior of shopping malls and their blessed environmental controls. We did, however, bring ourselves to brave the sodden rigors of Yoyogi park in Harajuku to visit the Meiji Shrine (Needless to say all the Harajuku kids were keeping well out of the rain that day). The Shrine serves as a monument to the Meiji Emperor and Empress, the father and mother of modern industrial Japan and who hold the status of gods in the Shinto pantheon. The  shrine is definitely worthy of a visit, the path to it passing through Tori gates and alongside a colourful wall of offerings from the nation’s sake distilleries.

I guess in England the equivalent would be a pile of crumpled Carlings.

I guess in England the equivalent would be a pile of crumpled Carlings.

It seems worlds away from tourist trap Miyajima, despite its equivalent size and grandeur, as being in the park means the experience can’t fall prey to the hordes of commercial outlets that surround the other large shrines. Still, although it’s impressive, it seems to miss a certain connectivity that I felt at the smaller wayside shrines, which I think may be down to the increased formality of the whole experience. Plus the rain was too bloody cold to stand there that long and Egglet was finding it difficult to resist the siren-like song of her own nearby temple, Tokyu-Hands (Don’t ask).

In Conclusion

Japan, eh? There are a dozen things we’ve seen and experienced, but remain undocumented here – I haven’t even spoken about the pickles, good god, but I could sing about the pickles there for hours. Onoyo with pickled plum on top is THE BEST. Plus there are a thousand more we missed and await our return – pachinko parlours! How did we miss out on pachinko parlours? So I’m going to leave this as is and use my remaining space to thank the academy – they’ve been great:

A big thank you to all the ALTS and their friends who hosted us in Kagoshima (particularly the ones I tormented with endless questions about Yokai Watch); the random Aussie who we met briefly on the platform, passing like trams in the night; the young salaryman with the superb English in Hiroshima station; the young Brightonians who were sadly eaten alive on the fetid hell-jungle of Okunashima, the lovely obasan who helped us navigate the complete nonsense that is the Tokyo monorail interchange; Egglet’s school friend who we missed on Odaiba; the other schoolfriend who we found at the KISS building; the strange Ham-beast and it’s handler who we met in Narita; and all the countless others who sacrificed so much to help us bumble our way across this fascinating country.

One last MASSIVE thank you to all the animals that attacked Egglet. God bless each and every one of them.

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Two Idiots in Japan: Kyoto

Eggly-peg and I made the decision to come to Japan during its spring break season, this was utterly not a problem in Kagoshima, but becomes more pronounced in Hiroshima and reaches its absolute apogee in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. The city was absolutely heaving with foreign and domestic tourists. We actually run down a bit on our trip here, as sandwiched between leaving Hiroshima and then departing for Tokyo, we have little time even to visit the old city.

Arashiyama, the Bamboo Grove

The Bamboo grove is a justifiably famous forest walk about the gentle slopes of Western Kyoto. We certainly didn’t have any trouble finding the place; there were a literal wall of day trippers pouring forth from Saga Arashiyama station like salmon in spawning season. We probably could have crowd surfed our way up the hill. Definitely worth the struggle though, as the grove itself is somewhat like walking through an undersea forest: pale light tinged green by the long stalks and a bizarrely pleasant sense of claustrophobia.

DSCN1000We conclude the walk with a visit to Okochi-Sanso, a mountainside villa constructed by an interesting old Japanese film star called Denjirō Ōkōchi, which has some impressive views across the breadth of Kyoto. The only thing it was missing was a before and after photo, the view we see now must have been wildly different to the one it was built for 70 or so years ago.

As I don’t have much more to add about Kyoto that doesn’t involve terrorizing Egglet (who sadly failed to be attacked or robbed by an animal here) I’d like to take the time to make some more general observations about our experience that stood out for us.

Shopping in Japan

Normally I loathe shopping and I mean loathe – the dentist’s chair holds a greater attraction than Westfield does for me. Shopping in Japan though, is a totally different ball game. Every store is just so crammed with the wildest tat imaginable that it’s almost surreal, like something out of Alice in Wonderland. They are simply light-years ahead of us when it comes to product presentation and branding.

I mean, just look at it. LOOK AT IT.

I mean, just look at it. LOOK AT IT.

And again, layers within layers. Shame about the actual taste.

And again, layers within layers. Shame about the actual taste.

This is particularly clear when it comes to character branding. Take Snoopy for example, you may remember him as the beagle from Charles Schultz’s old newspaper strip Peanuts. In Japan, snoopy isn’t a comic character, he’s an entire industry, with entire stores devoted to the beady-eyed beagle and ranging from flannels to drug boxes. There’s a whole street in Tokyo station dedicated specifically to these type of character stores.

The Snoopy drugbox in all its glory.

The Snoopy drugbox in all its glory. What do you mean ‘why would you want one?’ Why WOULDN’T you want one?

Then there’s the actual employee/customer interaction. On entering any given store the employees will greet to with the phrase ‘welcome to my store,’ regardless of how many times you wander in or out. They’ll wrap your purchase up with loving care and then seal it in its bag with a strip of decorative sticky tape. It’s consumerist ritual elevated to the level of religious sacrament. It’s a rather jarring experience if you’re used the traditional London experience – a sharp glower of hostility and the unspoken understanding that they’re doing you a favour just by not having set the dogs on you.

Special mention here must go to Daiso. For those not in the know Daiso is basically a blueprint for the pound shops you’ll find in heaven. Absolutely crammed with the best quality tat you can buy for 108 yen. No one institution has done more as a positive cultural ambassador than Daiso.

Vegetarians in Japan

If you want to visit Japan on difficult mode you can either try to enter the country on a Russian passport, or alternatively try traveling across the country in the company of a vegetarian. It’s like Rocky offering to fight Drago with one hand tied behind his back. In Japan Vegetarian seems to translate as ‘I like Vegetables,’ not ‘I don’t eat meat,’ so you will have waitresses happily serving vegetables cooked in pork broth, or accompanied by shellfish miso. Which at least meant I got a lot of free food, even if it was soaked in Egglet tears.

Religion in Japan

Is sort of a 50/50 split between Buddhism and Shintoism and the religions seem to sit in exact harmony with one another. Of the two Shintoism is the native religion and is quite similar to old European pagan traditions. Shrines to various gods or spirits are everywhere, tucked behind residential streets or in the car parks of airports. There they sit untouched by developers as local infrastructure grows up around them until resembles something out of Stuart Little. Stumbling across a tiny shrine in the middle of a forest, it surrounded by offerings of coins or small bottles of alcohol is a very striking experience even for the atheistically inclined.

DSCN0326There’s something peculiarly raw and unrestrained about them, completely at odds with the European tradition and its closed off churches. By contrast, as I found on Miyajima, the larger shrines, despite being areas with special spiritual/historical significance e.g. famous tombs, site of famous holy relics, tend to be completely commercialized and divorced from these impressions, despite having priests actively attending them.

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Kirishima Jingu is actually pretty nice though.

Vending Machines

These may be just behind pickles as my favorite thing about Japan. Hundred’s of flavors, hot and cold beverages side-by-side, Ice-Cream, hot hot food, the vending machines here belong to a different generation, a future generation man was not yet meant to see.

S'like Ali Babar's treasure.

S’like Ali Babar’s treasure.

Two or three adorn nearly every street and corner and you have to check them all out. Why? Because each is special in its own right and SOMETIMES THEY HAVE SECRET FLAVOURS. Japan’s relentless tapping into my collector’s psyche will be the sweet bubbly death of me.

Don’t get me started on the pickles.

And now! Onward to Tokyo! Shinkansen HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

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Two Idiots in Japan: Hiroshima.

Hiroshima

Hiroshima is basically Kagoshima turned up a few notches. Larger, busier and with a far fiercer nightlife, with scores of establishments and little hole-in-the-wall bars. The narrow streets swarm with people while taxis try to nudge their way through them like bumper cars. Our hotel receptionist only seems slightly sickened by our presences; clearly we’re lowering the tone what with the hotel being on the edge of red light district and all. There are three major stops on our Hiroshima trip: Okunashima, Miyajima and the Hiroshima Peace Park.

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Flower shop, apparently designed by Hayao Miyazaki, next to our hotel.

Okunashima (Rabbit Island)

Comparatively few people in Japan seem to have heard of Okunushima, at least in Kagoshima it seemed this way. A small island off the coast of Tadounma, it was formerly the site of a chemical weapons facility in WW2 and according to local legend the rabbits are either escaped test subjects, or left there by succeeding generations of Japanese school children. Regardless the place is absolutely overrun with them and is subsequently probably the single most dangerous environment in the Japanese archipelago. Mutated by exposure to buried weapon stocks, with no natural predators and having long exhausted their traditional food supplies they now roam in herds tracking, isolating and running down their new favoured prey: man. It’s like taking a trip to the raptor pen in Jurassic park, but with fluff.

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Land sharks about to eviscerate a young man.

The rabbits were out in force despite absolutely torrential rain, but sadly Egglet is not eaten alive as she seems to have some sort of bond with them, like that old film Beastmaster.

IMG_20150403_143656610_HDRThe downpour was so intense that soon began to coalesce into a mist, leaving the island a mess of rushing water and eerie half-formed presences lurching suddenly from their ghostly shrouds. No wonder this is the country that produced Silent Hill.

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Miyajima

Miyajima is another small island, home to the famous Itsukushima Shrine. It’s also covered in deer; though they’re quite different to the ones encountered on Yakushima. Prolonged interaction with the hordes of hoi-polloi that descend on the island have made them bolder. Ruthless. With the cold calculation of a veteran street urchin, they will isolate the weak from the human herd and pounce. As soon as we step foot off the ferry a deer lunges forward, tears the map from Egglet’s hand and promptly eats it. I love this country.

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Look at this smug little bastard.

By comparison the shrine itself is a bit of a disappointment, a victim of its own hype. Constantly billed as one of the 3 great views of Japan by Hayashi Gahō, after the majesty of Yakushima it completely fails to astound or entrance. The long rows of souvenir shops and hordes of tourists lead it to have less in common with a religious pilgrimage and more in common with a ride at Disney land. I’ll always have the deer though.

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So many bloody tourists you can’t help but get their grubby elbows in the shot.

Hiroshima Park, the Bomb Dome and Peace Museum

After the harrowing animal terrors of Okunshima and Miyajima we come to the light-hearted portion of our trip. The Bomb Dome and Peace Museum are two components of a wider anti-war monument situated in the center of the city; it stands as a stark contrast to the jingoistic landmarks that adorn most metropolitan centers for obvious reasons. The museum is thought-provoking, moving and occasionally quite horrible, as it educates you about the results of the world’s first atomic weapon attack.  Like an enormous mausoleum or epitaph, the crowds are far more restrained and reverential than those found on Miyajima.

The Bomb Dome itself still remains the most striking monument for me. The ghost of a structure built of a style completely at odds with the rest of the metropolis bordering the park. The image of it standing amid the utter desolation of blast zone – an otherwise 2D world – is just so stark.

DSCN0954The scaffolding is part of a scheduled maintenance inspection. Time is slowly doing what the bomb could not.

On that somber note we leave Hiroshima for a whirlwind tour of Kyoto in our next installment.

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Two Idiots in Japan: Kagoshima

Recently, I and my pal Egglet embarked on a brief tour of Japan that took us from the Southern Kyushu Island, along the main country, before terminating in Tokyo. What follows is a highlights reel of some of the things we saw and experienced divided into four, easy to digest, bite-sized chunks.

Kagoshima

Kagoshima is a fine place to start a trip; the city is large, but not overpowering, the pace relaxed and there’s a bloody great big active volcano in the bay. When we arrive, it’s warm and the Sakura are just coming into season, bursting out of the craggy mountain scenery in clouds of pink. On the bus from the airport I’m serenaded by a group of children chanting ‘Ebola! Ebola!’ Which is the sort of welcome you just can’t get in England.

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Visually the city provides a very dramatic contrast – all neon billboards and Blade Runner umbrella clusters one minute and then a tram that looks like it was brought in a scrap exchange from 1920s San Francisco the next. It’s pretty easy to fall in love with the place and with the help of the city’s friendly English and Japanese ALTs, Egglet and I get a crash course in local life: shrines, dinosaur parks, improbable celebrities, unironic karaoke sessions and sushi served via toy bullet train.

As if being a volcano isn't enough Sakurajima even has its own dinosaur park, which completely dumps all over John Hammond's cheesy knock off.

As if being a volcano isn’t enough Sakurajima even has its own dinosaur park, which completely dumps all over John Hammond’s cheesy knock off.

They also teach us that traffic crossing instructions should be treated with the same reverence you might otherwise reserve for bomb disposal manuals. Seriously, jay-walking as a local will probably get you onto the 6 o’clock news under heavy police escort. Eating, drinking and smoking while walking are also completely verboten unless you happen to be a Yankii (delinquent). The local English ALTs fill me with horror stories about how the Yankiis in their class not only jaywalk while eating, but also drink cans of coffee and then leave those cans on the pavement! Flower of English hooliganism! The gauntlet has been thrown, will you, nay DARE you pick it up?

Dinosaur Park sunset across Kagoshima Bay.

Dinosaur Park sunset across Kagoshima Bay.

Ibusuki Sunamushi

The Queen of the ALTs decides we need a deeper immersion in traditional Japanese life, which will be accomplished by a trip to the famous black sands onsen at Ibusuki. The idea is attendants bury you up to your neck in black sand, where you steadily bake for ten minutes before being turfed out into the traditional hot spring. As the shovels get to work two sensations immediately spring to mind – being buried alive and returning to the womb. Ultimately the latter prevails and the overall experience is a very peaceful one as you lay there and listen to the distant wash of the ocean. The onsen that followed was somewhat underwhelming by comparison, like a large jacuzzi, just with a lot more sausage in it. The best moment came when I realised I’d forgotten to bring a spare towel with me. Fortunately the men’s changing room comes complete with hairdryers. You haven’t lived before you’ve hairdryered yourself down in front of a full length mirror with attendant Japanese audience. Definitely an experience I recommend.

Post onsen we decide to have some vending machine ice cream on the promenade. As we sit down to enjoy it a Black Kite swoops down and rips the ice cream from Egglet’s hand, showering the road in a fine rain of chocolate and vanilla. Hands down the happiest moment of my life. Hands down.

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God bless you, King of Burds.

Yakushima

Kagoshima also serves as the gateway to Yakushima, a mountainous sub-tropical island off the southern coast whose lush scenery inspired the setting for Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke. Quite frankly it’s a magical place and I don’t use that term lightly. Covered in mile upon mile of gnarled cedar forest, it is home to Yakusugi. These trees hold a special spiritual significance – the larger, especially impressive ones were once thought to be the homes of gods by the indigenous populace. The forestry commission have maintained the traditional hiking trails carved out by foresters hundreds of years ago and the walks are pretty intense – as thrillingly dangerous as they are ethereally beautiful. You pick your way between trunks using roots, rocks and planks as your stepping stones over sheer gorges with river water roaring over distant boulders, with the near constant rainfall helping to add to the challenge. Egglet manages to fall in the river. Result.

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Spot the tiny Kodama

There’s a crazy amounts of wildlife here and we’re given a little check card of poisonous species to avoid when we arrive, which immediately filled me with a Pokémon-like urge to catch them all. You’re unlikely to encounter many of these though. What you will see a lot of are deer and monkeys, both of which roam as and where they will. The deer are for the most part fleeting creatures that tolerate, but for the most refuse to indulge in human company. The monkeys however… You do not want anything to do with monkeys – they are twisted homunculi with the strength of men, the vicious cunning of a spoiled toddler and just enough manual dexterity to be able to flip you the bird. They are not to be trusted.

This little guy's heart is probably filled with murder, but he's still more trustworthy than those damn monkeys.

This little guy’s heart is probably filled with murder, but he’s still more trustworthy than those damn monkeys.

It’s also a pretty good look at life in rural Japan (But with added foreign hikers). Every morning we are awoken at 7.00 am by what I think is an instrumental version of Edelweiss, which appears to be piped into every building on the island (some cultural barriers are just impenetrable). Massive meals are available for peanuts, including battered flying fish. It should be noted fried food is in superabundance over here – anything and everything will find its way into the fryer, including mint leaves. Glasgow’s crown has been taken and plastered in batter. The smaller restaurants also come complete with their own comic racks and Apparently it’s quite natural for grown adults to pick a comic from the rack and read it alongside their meal. In England this sort of behaviour would only be found in pop-up bars where beer is £7.00 a pint, £.6.50 with a suitably smug beard.

Yakushima is our last stop on Kyushu, Hiroshima awaits in our next installment, just a bullet train away.

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Chappie (Aka: Crappy)

Neil Blomkamp. How the mighty have fallen. From his brilliant early shorts, to the ground breaking District 9 and the at least philosophically interesting Elysium, comes Chappie.

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The plot plays out a bit like a mash-up between Short Circuit and Robocop. In the near future Detroit Jo-burg is descending into violent anarchy. The only solution: fully automated, super-robot police force. However one rogue scientist successfully reprograms a broken droid so that it attains true artificial intelligence. Violent wackiness ensues. Like I said, Robocop crossed with Short-Circuit, with a side order of metaphor-for-kids-in-broken-families.

Now that’s not a problem, but the film’s total lack of focus and ridiculous character motivations are. It starts out in poor, heads straight through into ridiculous and keeps on going so far it nearly doubles back around to clever again. This is one of those films where if you accidentally engage your brain for even a second then the whole thing unravels faster than a jumper sleeve through a fan belt. Into this heady mix Blomkamp throws the big questions – life, death, legacy and answers each one by waving a magic wand and demanding nobody dare look behind the curtain.

So cinema’s had a decent run of excellent robots over the last few years, heck we’ve been spoiled – David in Prometheus, TARS in Interstellar. So how does Chappie rank up? Well, he’s okay, might even be good if given a chance. He’s certainly the character with the most potential, a blank slate onto which humanities worst excesses are projected. Only we never really get to go anywhere with this, instead we get to see him throwing people out of cars while screaming, “Don’t be naughty!” In a robotic South African accent. Which I guess is an okay conciliation prize.

The film’s biggest problem though, may be Die Antwoord. If you don’t know, Die Antwoord is a South African rap group. They make some good music and have a great artistic style. They also apparently murder feature films. Not only do they co-star in the film as protagonists that essentially reiterate their rap personas, their tracks reverberate across the soundtrack and their artwork and buzzwords occupy the entirety of the most significant set. At this point I’m not entirely sure if this is actually Blomkamp film or a multi-million dollar advert for their brand. Whatever it is, the characters they play are jarring and terrible, particularly Ninja (Watkin Jones) who plays a huge egotistical bullying mess that we are somehow expected to sympathize with, which is probably something to do with his customized bright yellow assault rifle.

They can shoulder a lot of the blame, but not all of it. Of the rest of the cast only Sigourney Weaver really pulls anything off as cutthroat corporate player; Dev Patel hardly has anything to work with other than ‘stock scientific dingus’ and Hugh Jackman will never live that mullet down.

It’s not a total write off. The’ visuals, specifically the robot CGI does not disappoint and let’s be honest, the 5 year old in you always has more time for amazing combat droids. Rotating little whatsits, hydraulic hissings, ridiculous cluster munitions. The guy can always be relied upon for a gritty industrial spectacle. They even manage to sneak ED-209’s bigger meaner brother into the flick. Problem is you can get all that from just about every Blomkamp film and while it’s enough to carry a short, it’s not enough to carry a feature.

Everyone should just go home and jam on Wall.E or a YouTube TARS montage and just forget this whole thing ever happened or that this is probably exactly what we should expect from the next Alien installment.

 

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Darkest Dungeon (Early Access)

So I recently purchased early access on Darkest Dungeon, a Kickstarter project that impressed me with its superb art direction, tone and supposed ridiculous difficulty. Here’s my review of the early version as stands.

You are heir to a mad and improvised aristocrat, recalled home to deal with your father’s legacy of satanic excess, which has brought ruin to the village of your birth. You will attract teams of foolish adventurers with promise of fabulous treasure, pouring their blood into the chthonic tunnels that your birth right has become in a bid to restore your estate.

First off, the artwork is phenomenal. Seemingly heavily inspired by the works of Mike Mignola, it paints a vivid picture of a grim, gothic world steeped in blood and squalor. The score, dialogue and voice work are equally adroit in creating a wonderfully grim and melodramatic atmosphere.

Take a few seconds to immerse yourself into Red Hook’s splendidly dismal vision:

 

As far as genre goes, DD is sort of a mixture between Dungeon Keeper and Gauntlet. You direct your heroes as they trawl through the side-scrolling dungeon, commanding them in battle against the various monstrosities that assail them, but the principal object you’re fighting for is the town that serves as your base. You should expect death to be frequent and forgettable, only the town matters; it’s where armour is forged, skills trained and ailments are cured. Heroes are free to hire and plentiful, town upgrades are expensive and must be bought in blood.

The actual management of resources is rather cursory as stands; you acquire various types and invest them in town infrastructure, which is used to improve your heroes to acquire more resources. Simple. The intrigue is in the combat system, which is based around a unique positional system, where the hero/enemy position in the party line-up determines what skills they can use and who they can use them on.

As illustrated here:

Beige dots = Your position. Red dots = can then hit enemies in this position, with linked dots representing AOE attacks.

Beige dots = Your position. Red dots = can then hit enemies in this position, with linked dots representing AOE attacks.

Party order can be altered by various skills and outside factors, so it’s partly a game of juggling your heroes and their foes into positions where you can butcher them and they can’t even engage you. As there are large number of different classes and skills exploring their various interactions to find the ‘best line-up’ is a large part of the game.
The other interesting hero-based mechanic/resource is sanity. Taking its cue from Lovecraft, the world of DD is a nerve grinding, brain warping nightmare from which death is sweet release. Pretty much every action you ask your heroes to undertake is going to impinge on their stress levels. Stress is just as important as physical health, if not more so as it’s so difficult to heal. Hit 100% stress and your characters will go totally off the rails: psychosis, violent delusion, party sabotage. Even worse their allies will take a large stress penalty when a comrade snaps, which can have a domino effect and send your whole team bouncing off the walls into a shallow grave. Even if they live this, they’re often left with a list of game-play influencing scars, which you may need to have excised – check the rap sheet for my fellow below.

quirksA minefield of psychosis, which you crassly exploit for mental gain? It’s like living in Hollywood.

So far, so good, eh? Alas, the center cannot hold and all must fall apart.

The gameplay is incredibly monotonous and grindy. This is a resource farming game and while dungeon lay-out may change, you’re essentially trawling the same stretch of corridor 5 hours into the game as you were 5 minutes in. Something worsened by the fact that a lot of the map designs result in high amounts of backtracking as you fruitlessly search for the goal that ends the level. The combat system may be initially intriguing; but it really doesn’t have enough depth to support this amount of repetition.

I quite enjoy hard games. Dark Souls, Bayonetta – these are hard games, but games determined by skill, alertness, muscle memory. So while they are hard, they are ‘fair’. DD is hard, but not fair. The root of this is in the random number generator. The RNG determines dungeon composition, which enemies you face, whether you or the enemy are taken by surprise, trap springing, combat math, loot drops, hero skills… it goes on. You can use character skills to manipulate the figures, but ultimately your agency seems less than the game’s. When the game say’s ‘no,’ which it will with frequency, your guys die and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is frustrating. Even worse, when I do breeze a level in a blaze of crits and wheelbarrows of loot, it never really feels it’s a result of my efforts, simply that the game has ‘allowed’ my victory on surety of greater future bullshit. You may as well just shoot craps.

Now, as I established, party death is to be expected, but as there seems little agency in your actions and the pool of replacement heroes is essentially limitless (you can’t really ‘lose’) – what exactly are you playing for? It’s hard to care about your town – it’s not organic in the way Dungeon Keeper or Dwarf Fortress is. The heroes? Their fate is at the whim of the dice and their character merely a list of psychosis on a sheet. It’s so disappointing for game literally dripping in atmosphere, but ultimately, everything seems rather futile, which I do suppose is quite in keeping with the Gothic/Lovecraftian theme.

TLDR; Looks and sounds amazing, some interesting ideas. Let down by poor/unfair mechanics. May get better on release.

• Now obviously I haven’t seen the full game, there are entire dungeons and hero classes not even currently implemented that will certainly add more to the finished product. However, my issues really lie with the core game-play mechanics and I’m not sure how these can be addressed without a radical overhaul.

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