Dry January

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‘Dry January’ has been a thing in the UK for a few years now. Last year T. and I did a sort of truncated Dry January, deciding around New Year’s Day that a month off the booze would be a good thing for our health and our wallets. It turned out fine, although I did crack about halfway through and have two beers on the second or third Friday. On the whole, though, it went pretty well, and I definitely noticed that I lost a few pounds round my waist and had a few more in my bank account come the end of the month.

So we planned to do it again this year. I drink too much, ordinarily, not just drinking socially but regularly having a beer, whiskey or, er, cocktail at home of an evening to help unwind after a day at work. It’s a pleasant routine but does contribute to a lifestyle which tends to revolve around alcohol which, let’s face it, is not good. So a month off here and there is a good thing, and I’m happy to say that this year I got through Dry January without a single drink. Though I confess, that ‘Dry January’ for me lasts not the entire month but from the first workday (4 January this year) until the last Friday–ie, today. So three and three quarter weeks. Long enough.

More and more people seem to be doing this. We’re all bombarded with information, sometimes verging on propaganda, advising us of the health risks of alcohol and the financial and social burden that excess alcohol consumption places on the health service and the state more broadly. Never mind the fact that alcohol grows ever more expensive and is taxed like crazy, and we pay through the nose to the government for the privilege of having a drink, in the same way that the tax paid by smokers goes a long way to paying for the cancer treatment they may or may not need later in life.

Most of us don’t need to be guilt-tripped into cutting down our drinking–we know we need to drink less, just like we know we should avoid having a chocolate biscuit with our coffee or avoid having a smoke when we’re out with friends–but life and work is just that damn stressful that we rely on these little things to help us get through it all. If the powers that be were serious about improving public health they would look to address social inequality first and foremost, but of course they’re not actually serious about it and just use ill health as another stick with which to beat the poor and downtrodden.

The government would probably love it if we all took to meditation to take care of our stress–a workforce of mindful, self-sacrificing, healthy ascetics is probably their ideal population–but that’s not really how most people work. And in fact, they better be careful: the admirable Jeremy Corbyn is a teetotal vegetarian, and many more like him and this country could be turned upside down. Of course, trying to change our problems is a lot more positive than just briefly escaping from them, but the fact is that most problems for most people are rooted in circumstances outside their immediate control, and to change them requires time, perspective and resources that are not easy to come by. So, have a drink instead.

Alcohol is full of calories, especially beer, and so taking a few weeks off has definitely helped me lose a few pounds. I’ve had a few non-alcoholic beers here and there to get by, but most of those taste pretty bad so you’re not going to throw six or eight of them into you like you would during a night of proper drinking. Even before Dry January I’ve been going to the gym a lot more often–four, five, or even more times a week since October, except for a few weeks over Christmas–and today weighed myself properly for the first time in a while. I was disappointed to find my weight–78 kg–slightly higher than expected, as I weighed in a bit lower on another set of scales just before Christmas. But it’s still the lowest weight I’ve been for about five years. Irritatingly, because I’m quite short (5’7″ and a bit) that makes my BMI 26.8, which is technically overweight. But I don’t really feel overweight; I feel pretty good. Plus I’m quite happy that my body fat is apparently down to 17%, which is quite decent for a guy. So all a bit of a puzzle really, and I’m not sure I’m better off than if I hadn’t taken the measurements. In fact, I’m definitely 70p worse off because that’s how much the machine charges you in Boots.

As a seasoned drinker and supporter of the brewing industry, I’ve definitely felt the benefits of a few weeks off, which will help invigorate me for the business of the year ahead. So I was amused a couple of weeks ago to see a pub I know lamenting Dry January on social media, complaining about loss of trade and the selfishness of drinkers not supporting their local pubs during the hardest time of year. Please. There are plenty of guilty parties who should be challenged for making life harder for pubs, particularly those responsible for tax and planning legislation, but the idea that hardworking drinkers like myself should be called out for taking a breather now and again is bizarre. I’m going to the pub tonight and will probably make up for a month’s quota of alcohol this weekend alone.

Making a Murderer

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In this post I intend to discuss various aspects of the documentary series Making a Murderer, currently available in full on Netflix. This isn’t a ‘review’ of the show as such, as that doesn’t really feel appropriate given the nature of the series. If you haven’t watched it and are keen to see the whole thing ‘fresh’, without anything being given away in advance, then it would be best to return and read this post after you’ve seen it.

Making a Murderer is a very powerful series that has received a fair amount of media attention, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the case has sent shockwaves across certain parts of the public consciousness in the United States and beyond. The first episodes tell the story of Steven Avery’s early life, his wrongful 1985 rape conviction at the age of 23, and his 18-year incarceration. It’s a harrowing story, and at times is very difficult to watch. But the worst and most disturbing part of the series is of course the depiction of his trial and conviction in 2007 for the 2005 murder of 25-year old Teresa Halbach. At the time of writing, there is a petition on change.org with almost half a million signatures calling on Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to pardon Avery. During the course of the investigation against Avery, his 16-year-old nephew, Brendan Dassey, gave a confession to police indicating he was complicit in the murder. The documentary gives the impression Dassey’s confession was coerced in order to help build the case against Avery, but as concern grew about the unreliability of the confession it was not admitted as evidence in Avery’s trial, although it was central to Dassey’s own conviction for the same crime.

As the programme regularly points out, this is a very emotive case stemming from the horrific murder of a young woman. The documentary suggests that the prosecution manipulated the natural horror the killing inspired in normal people to mobilize opinion against Avery. The documentary further suggests that local police had a long-running vendetta against Avery stretching back to before his 1985 conviction for rape; and the clear suggestion is that Avery’s lawsuit against the county for their handling of his case provided motive for the police to frame him, in order to destroy his public standing as an exoneree and so he’d drop his $36 million dollar lawsuit against the county.

In some parts of society it is of course anathema to talk about police corruption or brutality, but anyone over the age of ten who is not ideologically wedded to the saintliness of the police knows that frame-ups do happen. Not every allegation of frame-up is true, of course, but in this case Avery’s lawyers, Dean Strang and Jerry Buting, presented what seemed like compelling evidence that the case against Avery had been manufactured by law enforcement. The general tone of the series did put one in mind of other famous frame-ups and miscarriages of justice, which are all too common in American history and also familiar to British audiences from the cases of people like the Guildford 4 and the Birmingham 6. Such cases normally affect people from marginalized and easily demonized parts of the population, and most of the iconic cases in the USA (like that of Mumia Abu-Jamal) affect black people. Although Avery is white and not associated with a particular political cause, he is from a poor and poorly educated background (the show indicated both Avery and Dassey have IQs of around 70) and his lawsuit had the potential to cause great harm to the state and the reputation of individual figures in the local law enforcement community.

Making a Murderer feels like a horror series for much of the time, and is certainly one of the most gruelling things I’ve ever seen. The way that police, and later even his own defense team, elicited ‘confessions’ from the 16 year old, intellectually challenged Brendan Dassey, was particularly disturbing. The only ray of light appears when Avery hires Strang and Buting as his lawyers, who provide some hope and a glimmer of human feeling, compassion, and integrity in a situation where none was evident elsewhere. The full might of the state was brought to bear to secure a conviction against Avery and Dassey, and the judicial system comes across as unconscionable, loathsome and repellent. The defense team was not allowed to introduce theories about other killers in the case, but the prosecution said in their closing arguments that if the jury was to believe that the cops framed Avery, they had also to believe that the cops killed Halbach–a patently ludicrous suggestion. As the defense themselves had suggested, it would have been quite feasible for another party to manipulate the well-known animus of the police against Avery by planting a minimum of circumstantial evidence from which they would inevitably seek to build a case. The defense team have expressed their belief that the killer is still out there while Avery and Dassey spend their lives behind bars.

While watching this series I kept waiting for the moment when things would change, when something would happen that would turn things around and Avery and Dassey would be released. I never expected a clean ending–that rarely happens in real life–but I didn’t expect that, almost a decade after the trial, they would still be in jail. On the strength of the evidence shown in the series it seems impossible for a conviction to hold water. Of course, there are plenty of accusations on the internet that the show is biased and that it did not cover parts of the evidence. That hasn’t changed my own overall impression, though, and on the whole I think most of the people who have seen this have come away shocked that such an apparent miscarriage of justice has not been redressed.

Avery has a new lawyer who is trying to get a new appeal for his conviction. There are new stories and theories emerging about the case on almost a daily basis. It certainly feels like there is a lot more to come, and there is talk of Netflix doing another season. If they do, I hope they get the filmmakers to add subtitles to accompany the audio of interview transcripts, as some of them could be very hard to follow.

Pandemic (board game) – Review

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These diseases almost look good enough to eat, but I wouldn’t recommend it.

There are a lot of co-operative board games out there. For those occasions when you don’t have five hours to spare (cf. Arkham Horror), Pandemic is a good choice. Pandemic is one of the more commercially successful board games around and has and garnered quite a lot of critical praise. The reasons for its mass appeal are obvious: you can play it in less than an hour (a quick game can be over in less than thirty minutes), and it’s playable by a relatively wide audience, including those who recoil from a game of Eldritch Horror in, well, horror.

Part of Pandemic’s broader appeal is that its premise is immediately accessible. The world is under threat from four different diseases and it’s up to the players to cure them. Each player gets an investigator and some starting cards, and takes it in turns to perform actions to treat infected populations and travel around the globe, building research stations which can eventually be used to cure diseases. Each turn involves several phases: an action phase, draw cards phase, and ‘infection’ phase, which is the game’s chance to make things harder for you. When drawing cards there is a chance you will draw an ‘epidemic’ card, which causes more infections and ramps up the difficulty. There is a mechanic whereby repeated outbreaks in infected cities can cause a chain reaction, and a succession of these can cause you to lose the game. In reality, you have to be very neglectful to let this happen, and after a number of games we have never even come close to losing by this method.

Pandemic is not a particularly difficult game, and the main threat comes from running out of cards. Indeed, that’s the only way we have lost (once in about ten games), and the game’s strategy really revolves around trying to find the most efficient way of curing the diseases before the cards run out. This ‘card economy’ aspect of the difficulty is quite well balanced, but I would have liked there to be a bit more threat from infections. As it is, the best thing to do is just keep your head above water while ‘curing’ diseases, as otherwise you will run out of time, and if you’re out of cards then you lose even if there are very few infections on the board.

The investigator characters are a bit unbalanced, as well. One of them, Operations Expert, is extremely useful as he can travel anywhere on the board and build research stations anywhere for a trivial cost, making it easier for other investigators to travel as well. Another character, Researcher, has the ability to trade any city cards anywhere. You need to spend city cards to cure diseases, and to trade them both investigators usually need to be on the same city depicted on the card they are trying to trade, which is painstaking and time-consuming; but this one character trivializes the whole mechanic. Having either of these characters is a massive advantage, and having both basically breaks the game’s difficulty. There are ways around it, but it’s not ideal.

That said, the limited number of cards available does still put you ‘on the clock’ and this aspect of the game’s pacing is enough to give it a tactical feel, and debating the best course of action among yourselves is the best part of the game. On the whole, it is a relatively deep strategic experience for the limited time you invest, and certainly a good introduction for those, by age or inclination, not suited to playing more ‘hardcore’ games like Eldritch Horror.

The game can be picked up for £25-£30 and is pretty reasonable value for money. As the game is fairly streamlined, the box is not particularly full, and the limited character art is rather basic; but you do get a bunch of rather appealing transparent coloured ‘disease cubes’ which essentially look like tiny plastic cubes of raw jelly. The game’s success has inspired a number of expansions, as well; next time we’re on holiday with friends we might look into picking one up, to freshen the experience a bit. But Pandemic is definitely worth a go if you’re looking for a co-op game you can play with almost anyone and which won’t take up your entire evening.

8/10

Back to the Future: The Game – Episode I: It’s About Time (PC) – Review

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Back to the Future: The Game was one of the last games released by Telltale Games before The Walking Dead exploded and brought their work into the mainstream. Because of TWD’s success, Back to the Future has received more attention since its release and has even been ported to PS3 and PS4, part of a cheeky tie-in with the franchise’s 30th anniversary. But the question is–is it any good?

Like Telltale’s more recent games, Back to the Future is an episodic adventure, in this case told in five parts. So far I have only played the first episode, which took me several sittings and several hours to get through. It felt much longer than recent Telltale episodes, which sometimes clock in at about ninety minutes (or less), and in general the ‘feel’ of this is, naturally, much closer to that first season of The Walking Dead than more recent games. The emphasis here is slightly more on ‘game’ than narrative or dialogue, and you spend a lot of time walking around trying to solve environmental puzzles. So don’t expect any dramatic choices or big moral dilemmas–which would in any case be out of keeping with the tone of the franchise, I suppose.

One of the best things about this episode is the loving recreation of aspects of the Back to the Future universe. In particular, the first scene will be familiar to fans and it was a real pleasure to hear Marty McFly saying some familiar lines. Marty is not voiced by Michael J. Fox, but the replacement does a good job of sounding like the character you remember. It’s probably a good thing they got another voice actor, consider Fox’s age; Christopher Lloyd returns to voice Emmet Brown, but he sounds every bit the 20 years older, and considering the events here happen shortly after the last film, it doesn’t really work. But still, it’s nice to see these characters again.

Marty is quickly dragged into time-travelling shenanigans and ends up in prohibition-era USA. Most of the game takes place during this setting and, for me, it really dragged on. The problem is that the entire game revolves around environmental puzzles, but there is not really much rhyme or reason about what items can interact with what: it all comes down to trial or error. Other times you might be doing the right things but in the wrong order, and need to speak to someone and choose a particular dialogue option before you can advance. It all feels a bit arbitrary. Moreover Marty spends a lot of the time just running around doing errands, and I really don’t want to spend my video game time turning on radiators or delivering soup. It’s not helped by the fact the dialogue is generally rather flat. There are a few funny moments courtesy of Marty’s wisecracking, but on the whole I found myself avoiding any dialogue options that didn’t look like they would advance the plot. Which is not a good sign when the only other thing the game has to offer are odd jobs and some underwhelming environmental puzzles.

The graphics look quite dated: this would not have been a pretty game when it was released in 2011, and in 2016 the textures look quite bad. The art style on the whole has the standard Telltale feel, and the character models are competently done if somewhat ugly.

Throughout, you can see the ingredients that culminated in The Walking Dead, but there is no magic here. After the initial thrill of being in the Back to the Future universe wore off, I found that playing through this episode really felt like a chore. I’ll probably get round to trying the next episode at some point–I got the whole thing on Steam for a few pounds–but I’m in no hurry.

6/10

Bioshock Infinite (PC) – First Impressions

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Bioshock Infinite received glowing reviews when it came out in 2013, but my impression is that it wasn’t really the commercial success it should have been. I’ve only just got round to playing it, having picked it up for a fiver in a Steam sale last year, so I can’t exactly claim to have done my bit to support the franchise. Which is a shame, because a couple of hours in, I have to say this game seems absolutely outstanding.

The game makes a slow start, but soon delivers you to the fantastical, floating city of Columbia. Exploring the streets of Columbia for the first time is a jaw-dropping experience and sceptic that I am, I must admit to something of a sense of wonder here. This game’s opening reminds me of nothing so much as the beginning of Half-Life 2, and indeed that is a comparison that is bearing up throughout the early stages. The game has a deeply congruous and well-realized sense of place and it is obvious a great amount of thought and care has gone into designing this world. One of the first areas you explore is an entire, functioning amusement arcade which serves no obvious plot or tutorial purpose, but helps to flesh out the environment and the world you’ve entered. Columbia is quite well-populated by people talking and going about their business, and most of them have interesting dialogue to follow. It’s excellent.

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Graphics are very colourful and the visual design is to be commended. The game is set in 1912 and there are impressive feats of mechanical and electrical engineering throughout the gameworld. But for all its Utopian pretensions, Columbia is a deeply sinister place, characterised by religious fanaticism and racial prejudice, and the game has a really creepy atmosphere. I was stunned at the point, very early on, when my initial exploration of Columbia came to an abrupt and violent halt. I don’t want to say too much, as this is a game that really should be experienced for yourself, but the narrative is well-paced and intense. There is an air of mystery and everything you learn seems to point the way to more questions.

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So far, the weakest part of the game is the player character Booker DeWitt, a generic private investigator who took an assignment in Columbia to pay off a gambling debt. I’m sure there will be a few twists along the way, but so far he is a cookie-cutter character and I can’t help but think that featuring him so prominently in the game’s marketing was a mistake. This game has plenty of selling points but the protagonist is not one. Elizabeth, a mysterious young woman with supernatural powers, is much more interesting and indeed I remember her cropping up regularly in coverage of the game when it was first released.

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The game’s combat is surprisingly deep. It has a number of features I remember from Bioshock 2, and in addition to melee and firearms you also get ‘Vigors’ which are equippable spells that allow you to do things like possess humans or machines or throw fireballs. The Vigor system is very cool, and combat is hectic without feeling overwhelming. On normal difficulty, the game’s challenge also seems relatively mild and frustration-free which is very welcome indeed.

So far, I’m really intrigued and enjoying Bioshock Infinite. The game blends a complex and interesting setting and story, great action, and stunning set-pieces and environments. I understand now why it received such wide critical praise; and I wish I’d played it sooner. It’s disappointing to learn that developer Irrational Games has since closed down, but I’m going to try not to dwell on that until I’ve finished the game, and just savour the experience while I’m playing it.

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The Fall (season one) – Review

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I don’t really know why, but the UK doesn’t produce much in the way of great contemporary drama these days. Most of the successful programmes these days are period dramas or entertainment like Sherlock. This sort of fare is sometimes watchable, but too often infused with a kind of fake ‘Britishness’ that seems to me to propagate an ideological notion of some kind of national essentialism, which incidentally helps sell it to overseas markets, particularly North America.

The Fall is an exception to the rule of bad British TV. For one, it’s reminiscent of older, serious British crime dramas as well as top-quality American shows like The Wire or True Detective. While not quite on that level, it’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking story, certainly a rarity in Britain these days. It’s actually an Anglo-Irish collaboration, produced by BBC Northern Ireland and filmed and set in Belfast. The Belfast setting is intriguing for a number of reasons. First, Northern Ireland and its, shall we say, complicated politics rarely figure on television in England outside of news and documentaries about The Troubles. Northern Ireland is, of course, part of the same country as England–the UK–and its incorporation into that state remains a basic tenet of British domestic and foreign policy; of policing and military policy; and, as we saw in last year’s Scottish independence referendum, the Union remains a touchstone of the British elite’s sense of its place in the world. The Conservative Party’s official name is the Conservative and Unionist Party! But for most ordinary people, Northern Ireland is a world away culturally, socially and politically. For this reason, to see a ‘normal’ programme set in Northern Ireland (albeit one about a serial killer) is interesting and significant.

Belfast is also an interesting setting for a story like this because of its size: it’s much, much smaller than somewhere like London, so the sense of anonymity and danger is quite different. If, as here, the killer is targeting people who look a certain way and are from a certain background, in London there might be half a million people who fit that description; in Belfast there might be only a couple of thousand. Similarly, it’s more difficult for a serial killer to hide and blend in. This is made particularly apparent in a scene where the killer is stalking a victim who lives near the Shankill Road, a notorious Loyalist area in Belfast. Because locals there are always on the look-out for outsiders, he’s quickly spotted, and this causes all sorts of problems later on for his personal and professional life.

The killer is well played by Jamie Dornan, who is also known for having played Mr Grey in the ’50 shades’ film the other year. Dornan is very attractive but in the sort of way that lends itself to playing these creepy characters. While the maniac he plays here is quite compelling, and certainly terrifying, I felt there was something missing. At times he breaks into recitations of Nietzsche, but between these moments and his crimes you see no evidence of this aspect of his motivation and self-justification, just lots of scenes of him staring intently at computer monitors. I suppose we’ve been spoiled by the first season of True Detective, and now expect existential philosophy and H.P. Lovecraft to be finely woven into every tale of bloodshed and murder. But nevertheless, that’s where the bar sits these days.

Gillian Anderson is absolutely stunning (in every sense) as Detective Stella Gibson. The magnetism of her performance certainly brings the show to another level. Since the X-Files I’ve always thought of Anderson as an American actress, but it turns out she grew up in north London–near where I live now! It helps explain how she is able to do the clipped English accent so well, and indeed she’s done other English roles very well in the past–particularly Lady Dedlock in Bleak House. I’m very pleased to see Anderson doing gangbusters work like this and looking forward to seeing her reprise the role in seasons two and three.

The Fall’s first season is only five episodes, but at an hour each they do pack a lot in and it feels like a full-length series. The ending left us hanging and I’m not sure how the story will sustain itself over another two seasons, but prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt for now. I can’t remember the last time I cared about a British drama, so kudos for doing it right for once.

8/10

Undertale – Thoughts-in-Progress (Guest Post)

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I’m very happy to introduce a guest post from my brother, S., one of this blog’s loyal readers. Undertale is a game which has featured on this blog a couple of times now, chiefly in relation to last year’s GameFAQs best-game-ever competition, which it unexpectedly won. I haven’t got round to playing Undertale yet but am very interested in hearing different perspectives on it. Here is what S. has to say.

We thought that Undertale would take like 4 hours, but so far we’re 6 hours in and still not finished. So, here are our thoughts so far.

The first face that Undertale presents is one of a lighthearted RPG with one or two twists to the classic formula. You find chippy music, random encounters, interesting combat, and hints of character progression. With this type of game you go in with a lot of expectations, and at this early point Undertale subverts these in quite an effective way. Even with the hefty reputation Undertale has developed, I found myself laughing out loud at some points out of pure joy. Coupled with the genuinely nice and well-crafted sound design, this sets up what could have been a really memorable game. However, there’s a fine balance between subverting expectations based on a history of exposure to RPGs and traditional fantasy story tropes, and the unfortunate manner in which Undertale spends the rest of the game trying to make you laugh.

After the gentle introduction to the game the humor devolves into the ‘LOL RANDOM’ territory and remains firmly there for the next 5 hours of gameplay. The humor not only misses the mark wildly, it’s also injected into your experience at points that serve to massively frustrate (that is, if you don’t enjoy memery and senpai jokes). At times I would be moving the player character down a long corridor, only to be interrupted by obtuse ‘text messages’ a dozen or so times. The interruptions to your progress don’t serve to convey any information. They are meant to make you laugh. They don’t. See, this game has an obsessive focus on the idea of unrequited friendship and love. Half or more of the characters in this game are, one could say, ‘losers’. A major aspect of the game is being nice to pitiable, unlikable people, who, due to their lack of friends, don’t know how to appropriately interact with other people. This kind of character hounds you for the entire game and you’re supposed to put up with their shit. I’m sure it must be a relief for certain people to find relatable characters in a video game – finally! – but I don’t see what the rest of us should enjoy about this interaction.

Typically that would be enough to turn me off a game. That’s not the worst part. The worst part is how the game treats combat as you progress.

I should point out, we heard that the only way to get the ‘real’ ending of the game is to avoid killing anything in combat. That’s actually possible in Undertale. There’s an interesting combat mechanic where you can interact with monsters in different ways (‘tickle’, ‘pet’, ‘flex’, ‘clean’, and so on) that basically makes the monsters like you, and stop fighting. Of course, this approach completely negates the entire character progression system in the game. If you take this route, you will be level 1 at the end of the game. None of the combat items you pick up will have any real utility. You will have practically no hit points. There is a massive bullet-hell component to the combat as well, where around 5 hits will end your life. You will spend half of the combat healing yourself–otherwise, you die. I can not stress enough how much I dislike this shitty and broken system.

On top of that nonsense, there is literally no way to know how you’re meant to make some of the boss monsters stop fighting you. This is the way to get the only ‘real’ ending, and I have to fucking look up what to do online? I have to rely on the idiotic, trolling community to give me the answer? Please. On top of that, when you inevitably die the 10th time in a row, the game gives you a wink and says ‘You need to have more determination!’ Playing this game has been infuriating at times, in large part due to this kind of shit.

For me, a game that subjects you to massively frustrating combat while feeding you memery and stupid inane jokes is almost intolerable. This game can’t be salvaged by the few occasions where the humor really does hit the mark. The music is lovely at times, the sound effects are really creative and enjoyable, but I’m afraid that’s the best compliment I can give this game. I haven’t finished it yet, and supposedly some great revelation happens for players at the end of the game. I can’t see it changing my mind, though I would be happy if Undertale could violate that expectation.

With not long to go until the end, Undertale is on target for a 2/10.

Many thanks to S. for sharing his thoughts on a game which continues to divide opinion. When I get round to trying it myself, I’ll be sure to share my own thoughts here, too.