SIGNAL BOOST: The Ronin Genesis by Steven Hildreth Jr.

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I’ve known Steven for 13 years and counting. Back then, we were newcomers on the writing scene with more ambition than skill. Nonetheless, we kept each other going over the years, even though I veered off into science fiction and fantasy while he stayed a purebred thriller writer. With THE RONIN GENESIS, I can confidently say that he has reached new heights.

Previously in THE SOVEREIGNS, former Special Operations soldier Benjamin Williams intervenes in a terrorist attack at the Saguaro Towers in Tucson, Arizona. But the strike was a false flag attack engineered by Iran to breach the American covert intelligence infrastructure — and the true mastermind has fled the scene with a thumb drive filled with sensitive information.

With no other options, the Central Intelligence Agency turns to a small Private Military Company to find the Iranian and recover the thumb drive. The PMC in turn hires Williams and members of his former Special Activities Division team. Pursuing their target through Mexico, Williams and his teammates must battle mercenaries, a ruthless drug cartel and a shadowy wet work team. And in this multi-factional drug war, the Ronin Defense Institute will be born in blood and steel.

Steve made his mark writing hard-hitting action-packed thrillers intertwined with surprising depth of character. As a beta reader of THE RONIN GENESIS, I can confidently say he took his skills to the next level. Action scenes explode from the page from the first trigger pull, and once the shooting stops there’s no letting up until the last body falls. The operators are portrayed authentically, displaying the mindset, training, techniques, tactics and procedures that separate the best from the rest. When Williams and his allies clash with the opposition, both sides do their best to outwit and outfight each other, creating satisfying scenes of suspense, drama and all-out action.

It’s not all blood and guts and gore. During breathers, Steve explores his characters’ histories and personalities, letting his characters evolve with the plot. We see more of Williams’ backstory, gain insights into why the bad guys do what they do, and even peek into the hearts of many minor characters who, in other stories, would be shown once or twice and soon forgotten.

Steve’s writing is clean, precise and hard-hitting. Brisk and workmanlike, it is highly reminiscent of the best of Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy, with events proceeding at breakneck pace. While there are plenty of acronyms and military jargon in there, the book also comes with a glossary for readers new to the genre.

THE RONIN GENESIS also takes the series into a darker direction. Steve has never shied away from graphic depictions of violence and torture, but this novel kicks it up a notch. Even so, it’s never employed gratuitously for mere shock effect; instead, it underscores the brutality of Mexico’s drug war, creates chilling portrayals of human evil, and demonstrates the terrible cost of sustained violence on the human spirit.

I only have one main issue with the novel. Now and then the characters make references to past adventures that Steve hasn’t written yet. Having sat with Steve and discussed his ideas for the series, I can say that the novel will spoil some of his future novels set prior to the events of the currently-published series. Among the many stories I’ve read this is a novel issue — but it will not in any way affect your enjoyment of the novel.

You can pick up THE RONIN GENESIS on Amazon in Kindle or paperback here.

Book Review: Six Expressions of Death

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Six Expressions of Death is a solid debut work from Castalia House author Mojo Mori. Set in 16th century Japan, the story begins with the murder of a traveller on the road between the city of Morijuku and the village of Iwagi. When Daikawa Tadashi, a poor but noble samurai, investigates the murder, he quickly discovers there is more to the crime than a mere murder-robbery. Soon, he is embroiled in a complex web of deceit, intrigue and violence. Clan war is on the horizon, and shinobi stalk the night.

Six Expressions of Death is a taut, atmospheric murder-mystery set against the backdrop of the Sengoku period. Japan is still divided among daimyo, and powerful, ambitious clans like the Takeda are seeking to dominate the land. The book demonstrates a painstaking attention to detail, from architecture to artwork, cuisine to culture, immersing the reader into its setting.

Buddhism and folklore are key components of the narrative. The samurai view themselves as drifting within an ever-changing dewdrop world, recognising that their lives are brief and transient. The titular six expressions of death refer to belief among samurai that the faces of the dead hold portents for the future. While religion doesn’t play a significant role in the narrative, it nonetheless informs how the characters think and act.

The Japanese obsession with honour, too, pervades the book. The warriors among the cast, for instance, strive to comport themselves with honour. Tadashi grapples with how to handle himself in the most honourable fashion, even as he deals with shinobi, whom he believes the most dishonourable of creatures. Likewise, when meditating on his relationship with his lover, he, too, tries to behave in a manner becoming of his ancient house. And of course, in the story, deceit and betrayal are seen as the most craven acts, while seppuku is always the final solution to regain one’s honour.

The prose is tight and clean. There are no unnecessary scenes, no wasted words, and the narrative flows cleanly from one event to the next. Mojo writes with a strong, clear voice, imbuing the text with a heady mixture of mysticism and violence. The action scenes are quick and lethal, with individual combats often resolved in the space of a breath. As the mystery unfolds, plot twists come at surprising moments, yet every revelation is carefully thought-out and appropriately foreshadowed. My only quibbles come with the occasional use of Westernisms like ‘sir’ and ‘Commissioner’; I would prefer the use of the original Japanese terms, but I recognise that such terms make it easier for non-Japanese readers to follow the story.

As I read the text, I’m reminded of Raymond Chandler’s notes on the character of a private detective. To quote from the master:

But down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid… He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor — by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He is a relatively poor man, or he would not be a detective at all. He is a common man or he could not go among common people. He has a sense of character, or he would not know his job. He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him. He talks as the man of his age talks — that is, with a rude wit, a lively sense of the grotesque, a >disgust for sham, and a contempt for pettiness.

Daikawa Tadashi neatly fits into the the archetype. He routinely confronts danger and death, but he is neither afraid nor negatively affected by his encounters. Being a samurai he is educated in the way of the pen, the sword, the bow and the horse, and is prone to reciting haiku at the drop of a hat. He is born of high status, yet he is also a poor man not too far removed from commoners. While the people he encounters treat him with the respect he is due, he in turn does not mistreat them or take advantage of his station. He is, of course, a man of honour, and as such he despises deceit and holds weak people in contempt.

Throughout the story, Tadashi uses his wits as often as his weapons. A perceptive and intelligent man, he is quick to pick up clues and piece them together. He is also equally handy with bow and sword, able to match trained killers on their own terms. Readers accustomed to ‘gritty’ works or noir fiction might grouse that he is too perfect, but I would say that Tadashi strives to hold himself to the samurai ideal at all times.

The rest of the cast is also well-characterised, reflecting both their personalities and the norms of the times. There is the loyal and unflappable servant, the extroverted if somewhat unreliable comrade, the incompetent commissioner, the feminine and faithful lover.

A common complaint I’ve seen among other reviews is that the ending is anticlimactic. The true villain of the story is dealt with in a few placid pages. I can sympathise. Readers accustomed to Western-style action stories would expect an action-filled climax in which Tadashi personally delivers justice at swordpoint. However, this is a crime novel at heart. Violence is punctuation, not purpose; the story is not driven by the fight scenes, but rather by Tadashi’s investigation. Likewise, as a poor country samurai, Tadashi’s ability to confront the mastermind is sorely limited; if anything, I felt his method of bringing justice to the offender was particularly inspired. It was entirely within character and completely congruent with the setting.

Six Expressions of Death is a heady brew of logic, spirituality, treachery and combat. It comes highly recommended for readers who enjoy historical fiction and crime novels. It can be found on Amazon and the Castalia House store.

(Full disclosure: I am also published by Castalia House.)

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If you would like to see the work I’ve published at Castalia House, you can pick up NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House store. This one is for people who love urban fantasy, military science fiction, espionage and martial arts.

Book Unreview: The Gatekeepers by Nuraliah Norasid

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I try not to review books I don’t finish. But some books are so terrible that they serve as a prime example of how not to write.

The Gatekeepers by Nuraliah Norasid was the winner of the 2016 Epigram Books Fiction Prize. The prize ‘promotes contemporary Singapore creative writing and rewards excellence in Singapore literature’ by awarding the winner $25,000. While it seems to be an impressive achievement for a debut author, when I read the story it felt like I was jamming a block of dry granite into my mouth. I had to drop it after 45 pages.

Worldbuilding, not Worldbreaking

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You don’t want your story world to look like this, do you?

The story’s most immediate failure is worldbuilding. The setting resembles Singapore with fantasy creatures.

But a Singapore with fantasy creatures living openly alongside humans will not resemble Singapore in the slightest.

The Gatekeeper blends Greek and Malay myths, featuring a range of non-human species, such as the cat-like Feleenese, the dog-like Cayanese, and medusas–in other words, gorgons. Like the gorgons of Greek myth, the medusas in-universe have the power to turn people to stone.

And nobody cares.

Medusas are living weapons of mass destruction who stop themselves from petrifying people simply by wearing scarves that cover the snakes mounted to their heads. All they have to do to petrify someone is to take off their scarves — and the potential of even an accidental mass petrification is astoundingly high. Yet no one, not even the Government mentioned in the story, seems to care. There are no inspections or cultural practices to prove one’s humanity, no special military or police units to regularly sweep rural villages for dangerous creatures, no special gadgets to securely hide a medusa’s snakes, not even regular census-taking to ensure there aren’t any criminal medusas or other monsters hiding among people.

Further, because reasons, protagonists Ria and Barani, both medusas, live with their grandmother in a human village.

Why would the people allow such dangerous creatures to live among them? Why would the Government allow the possibility of medusas turning people to stone, deliberately or otherwise? Why would the medusas even want to live alongside people if they pose such a threat to humans but do not want to subjugate them? Why would the medusas take the risk of the Government finding out who they are and obliterating them?

These issues irrevocably break the story world. It demands that the reader assume that the Government has no interest whatsoever in the continued survival of their nation, that people are perfectly willing to live side-by-side with creatures that can turn them to stone and treat them as little more than humans with funny hair, that there have never been cases of medusas even accidentally turning people to stone, and that nobody thought of how to protect themselves from petrification. These are utterly absurd notions. It doesn’t matter how excellent the worldbuilding is later on; when the introduction of a story fails common sense, the story fails.

She Said, She Said, She Said

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Still a more interesting conversation than nearly everything in the book.

Everyone in the first 45 pages speaks a mix of colloquial Malay and English. This may seem charming, but everyone uses the same emotional register, vocabulary and sentence structure. Everybody sounds alike, even the village Cikgu, or teacher. Without speech tags and without knowing what ‘Abang’, ‘Nenek’ or ‘Cikgu’ means (words which the text doesn’t explain), it’s hard to tell who is talking to whom. Making matters worse, there is barely any dialogue. The first 45 pages averages one or two lines of dialogue per page, if at all. There are people talking to and at each other, but there is no meaningful two-way interaction that brings out their personalities until page 37. The overall effect is that none of the characters, not even the protagonists, stand out from each other.

The prose of the story is not much better. It is as dry as rock and soft as curd. A major character dies early on, but there is no emotional weight to the text. When the Government announces a modernisation programme it is simply dumped on the page without elaboration or context. The early pages features more infodumping explaining the fantastic creatures of the land, even though they have no bearing on the story at that time. It is so very tempting to simply skim over the dull parts — but it means skimming over essentially the whole story.

Our Heroines, the Monsters

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In the story world, if you can see this you are already dead, but nobody cares.

Greek and Malay myths have one thing in common: heroes slay monsters. Be they evil gorgons or malicious swordfish, the monsters are universally evil creatures that prey on humans and must be put down. If a writer wants to make a monster the protagonist, then the writer must ensure that the monster protagonist is sympathetic in some way.

The Gatekeepers does not feature sympathetic monsters.

When the Government’s modernisation programme finally gets underway, it is revealed that the authorities want to demolish the medusas’ home and replace it with paved roads and modern housing, and relocate the protagonists to a government shelter. A government representative teams up with the local police and Barani’s suitor to convince the medusas to accept their offer. Barani refuses the offer, since her suitor said he wanted to marry her and turn her into an ordinary human. The situation breaks down in a lovers’ quarrel.

Ria responds by turning everyone except her sister to stone.

Then she turns everyone in the village to stone.

This is the point where the novel lost me. By crossing the moral event horizon, Ria has irrevocably become a monster.

Up to this point, the medusas have not faced unjustified discrimination. The other inhabitants of the village are noted as staring openly at the medusas and warning their children not to interact with them. This may seem racist — but the protagonists are not simply humans with funny hair. The moment her scarf comes off, accidentally or otherwise, everyone around a medusa will be petrified. What parent would not want to protect their children from accidents? You cannot deal with medusas the same way you deal with humans.

The medusas have not experienced any actual harm. They have not been bullied, cheated, robbed or attacked. Nobody tried to lynch them either. In fact, the Cikgu offers to teach Ria at home and a villager tries to woo Barani. Nothing Ria did is justified. Nothing she did is worthy of sympathy.

Barani believes that Ria petrified the government representatives because it was her way of protesting against the authorities. That may be so, but why petrify everybody else in the village? It is not revenge against oppression; they have not been oppressed. It is not self-defence; nobody was attacking them at that time. What Ria really did was to vent her frustrations against a faraway government on innocent villagers near her.

In other words: she threw a temper tantrum.

And in so doing, became a monster.

Barani joins in the atrocity by petrifying policemen who were trying to neutralise her sister. Instead of stopping the madness, Barani chose to perpetuate it. While this may be understandable, by choosing to aid a monster she has herself become one.

What made the whole sequence so maddening was that none of the visitors in this pivotal chapter was wearing personal protective equipment. Barani’s suitor already knows that she and her sister are medusas. If he didn’t tell the government men, that makes him an idiot. If the government men knew and didn’t take protective measures against a breakdown in negotiations or even just plain accidents, they are even bigger idiots. If there are no PPE in this world that can defend someone against a medusa’s stare, then why are the medusas even allowed to live alongside humans? Why aren’t medusas shot on sight, or at least forced to live only among their own kind? Why are humans and medusas not locked in a state of perpetual conflict or at least a tense truce? Why do medusas not rule the world with their petrification powers, and why aren’t humans more wary of medusas? The chapter that has the medusas turning an entire village full of innocent people into stone is exactly the reason why humans have to treat medusas as highly dangerous creatures — but the humans in this story are too stupid to care about their own survival.

This is a failure of worldbuilding, characterisation or both. Not that I care — this was the point where I lost all interest in the book. Why should I care about protagonists who destroyed an entire village just because they were upset? Why should I care about a world filled with idiots? Why should I care about a story that fails so badly at the beginning?

How to Fail SFF 101

If a story contains fantasy tropes then it must explore them to the fullest. If a work has fantasy creatures then the impact of those creatures on people and the world must be accounted for and built upon, all the more so if these creatures threaten all of humanity simply by existing. Without careful worldbuilding, a fantasy story falls apart from the start.

The Gatekeepers may have a modicum of literary merit, but as a fantasy story it is an utter failure.

To see worldbuilding done right, you can study my novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, whose worldbuilding has been praised as ‘plausibly created’ and ‘logical’. You can find it on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

Initial Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS are rolling in, and reader reception has been highly positive. Here are a few samples from Amazon:

Ray, May 5, 2017

Great book, that took a surprising twist on the usual mixing of Urban Fantasy and Military cloak and dagger genre, plus a bit of alternate history. I’ll need to re-read it because there is a lot under the surface of this hard to put down well written book…
The action is fast paced and it reminded me of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series that is just a fun read, but with a much more sophisticated, serious world view… The mythology makes sense and is not the usual urban fantasy drek. The attention
to detail reminds me of the Laundry Series by Charlie Stross. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

James Nealon, May 6, 2017

The book is damnably technical, or is it technically damning? Mr. Cheah wrote a very good military spy/thriller, of the type that pulls you into intense action… The book is very well written, with very good characterization of heroes and villains… I can’t wait for more in the series. Great action hook for the book, and a great hook for the series.

Koba, May 11, 2017

This is an action-packed story of “counter-terrorism with a twist”…The alternate Earth is extremely well-realized and convincing. It is just “different enough” that it is not too predictable… The system of magic and the “theology” of the book are also well thought-out and coherent… I would compare this favorably with Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter” series – action oriented, lots of weapons, but with supernatural elements. If you liked his books, you will like this book. I am definitely looking forward to the sequels from this exciting new author!

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be can found on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store. If you have already bought a copy, do consider leaving a review on Amazon or your blog if you have one. That would help others find and enjoy this novel too.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel, HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

Movie Review: A Silent Voice

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The anime Koe no Katachi (A Silent Voice) is an excellent movie marred by flawed execution. At its heart, Koe no Katachi is a story about redemption, friendship and overcoming social anxiety, covering childhood bullying, suicide and the psychic scars of isolation and ostracism. The anime makes excellent use of its heavy subject matter, creating a realistic and entertaining character study.

But only of the protagonist.

The Sole Driver

The story focuses on Ishida Shoya, a former delinquent trying to do good. When he was in elementary school, Nishimiya Shoko transferred into his class. Nishimiya is deaf, relying on hearing aids and communicating mainly through written notes on her notebook or through sign language. While she can speak, she is unable to properly articulate her words. Her mannerisms lead Ishida to pick on her, causing the rest of the class to join in.

Until one day, he goes too far.

In an instant, the entire class turns on him. Nishimiya transfers out. Nishimiya’s deeds haunt him through the rest of his days in elementary school. Guilt and regret set in, festering into crippling social anxiety. In high school, Ishida is unable to even look at most people, picturing a ‘X’ in place of their faces.

With no plans and no hope for the future, Ishida contemplates suicide. But one day, he meets Nishimiya again, discovering that she attends the same high school. Ishida reaches out to her, and begins his long journey to acceptance, recovery and redemption.

The anime’s critical weakness lies in having too many characters. Nearly named character from the manga appears in the anime. This leaves very little screen time for all of them. While a manga has the capacity to fully explore the minds and actions of supporting characters in depth, the two-hour anime adaptation can only do so much. The anime elects to focus on Ishida’s struggles to face his past, understand the meaning of ‘friendship’, and fight through the mental block that isolates him from everyone else. While it was masterfully done, it came at the cost of character development for everyone else.

Every supporting character is defined by their deeds and personalities, and remain static for much of the film. Aside from Ishida, only Nishimiya Shoko and Yuzuru enjoy character growth — the former by being more willing to interact with others, the latter by growing friendlier and less sullen.

While everybody has believable personas and act entirely in line with their core beliefs and attitudes, the secondary characters exist mainly as a means to reflect Ishida’s progress in becoming more sociable. Indeed, characters like Mashiba Satoshi and Nishimiya Ito barely have spoken lines and almost no influence on the plot. Further, at times in the anime I found it difficult to understand why some characters did the things they do; only in the manga are these motivations revealed, such as why Ueno Naoka began bullying Nishimiya, why Yuzuru takes so many photographs, or why Mashiba joins in Ishida’s social group.

It is inevitable for lengthy manga to suffer major cuts when adapted to the big screen, but at least in Koe no Katachi, the core ideas and story remain intact. It is a testimony to the studio that they managed to deliver a powerful anime in spite of eliminating major story arcs and being forced to work with many shallow characters.

Almost-Amazing Cinematography

The major flaw of the anime is its cinematography. To be sure, Koe no Katachi has excellent visuals. Every scene is stylishly depicted, combining traditional anime iconography with beautiful background scenery and fluid motions. The art direction and soundtrack shifts at key moments, driving home Ishida’s mental and emotional state.

However, those key moments are also interrupted by flashbacks and surreal sequences. This is especially jarring in the opening segments of the anime, covering Ishida’s elementary school and early high school days. These shots distract from the main event instead of adding to it, making it more difficult to keep track of events and characters and muting the overall emotional impact of these scenes. The flashbacks could be cut from the anime without loss to the story — and should have been, to retain its overall coherence.

Final Thoughts

Koe no Katachi is a beautiful coming-of-age tale of friendship and redemption — but poor cinematographic techniques undo the key scenes. It stars realistically-portrayed characters suffering from deep psychic stories and personal failings — though the secondary characters are all static. Koe no Katachi is a few steps short of being a genuine masterpiece, but it is nonetheless an amazing story in its own right.

Photo credits:

Anime poster from Wikipedia

Children of a Dead Earth: Future War in Space

Children of a Dead Earth bills itself as the most scientifically accurate space warfare simulator ever. And it lives up to the hype.

In the universe of CDE, World War III wiped out the Earth, forcing the survivors to colonise space. The game covers a superpower conflict between the Republic of Free People and the United Sol Trade Alliance, spanning most of the inhabited Solar System. Players take on the role of a newly-commissioned Admiral in the RFP’s Navy, with the plot delivered during mission briefings and in-game radio transmissions. To succeed, players must apply a combination of military tactics and orbital mechanics in a series of increasingly challenging environments.

CDE is a niche game. One part tactics, one part space travel simulator, one part design software and one part puzzle game, there is nothing quite like it out there. Literally everything in the game is faithfully modeled using real-world scientific principles, from Young’s Modulus to thermal conductivity, stoichiometric mixture ratio to arc lamp material. The developer even included real-world reference material in the infolinks.

Being a military sim, most of the missions involve defeating an enemy spaceship or constellation. A few missions, however, are more akin to complicated puzzles, requiring you to get your ship or constellation from one point to another within tight time and delta-v requirements. The last stretch of missions combine both elements, requiring the player to gave a firm grasp of rocketry, orbital mechanics and military tactics.

Resource husbandry is the number one priority in the game: players must figure out how much delta-v to expend to get to their destination in a reasonable time, while still retaining enough propellant to hunt down and engage the enemy. In later missions, players must also strike a fine balance between conserving munitions and overwhelming the enemy’s defences.

Missions are a combination of turn-based and real-time tactics. During orbital maneuvers, players can choose how much game time passes with each ‘turn’. In-game missions run for weeks, even months, making it critical for playability. During engagements, the game shifts to real-time mode, letting players decide ship tactics and targets. With ships and missiles shooting past at high velocities, engagements rarely last longer than a minute. But that minute is packed with screaming flares, desperate full-auto kinetic barrages, dazzling lasers dancing across hulls, multicolored streams of death racing against each other to kill their targets first, and short-lived starbursts of nuclear fire.

There is no hand-holding in the game. Once past the introductory missions, the game leaves you to puzzle out missions for yourself. If you aren’t already familiar with rocketry and orbital mechanics, reading and re-reading the in-game reference documents is absolutely essential. Gamers familiar with Kerbal Space Program will find plotting burns and trajectories a simple task, but since the game utilises an N-body simulator, players must also account for gravity.

This approach extends to the ship and module design sections. Part of the game’s main draws, you can unlock the ability to design custom ships and modules and send them into combat. However, the game will not teach you how to build them; it will simply provide reference documents and leave you to your own devices. While the user interface is pretty simple, every item in-game is subject to the laws of physics. If you don’t possess multiple degrees in aerospace engineering, nuclear physics, electromagnetism, thermodynamics or material science, or at least if you don’t have reference websites handy on a second window, designing ships and modules may well become a game of guesstimation and trial and error. Which, for the patient gamer, can yield incredible rewards.

The main propulsion technology in-game is a nuclear thermal rocket. There are many kinds of NTRs in game, utilizing a variety of propellant mixes for different results. Methane is the preferred propellant of choice for capital ships, offering a balance of exhaust velocity, thrust and mass. Other kinds of rockets are available: chemical rockets for missiles and small ships and resistojets for altitude control and faster spin times.

A number of weapons technology is faithfully modeled in the game. Missiles and drones are long-range strikers, meant to soften (or destroy) enemy formations from afar. Lasers are the main line of defense against them, but they can also be employed to snipe specific ship modules from medium range. Kinetics are the game’s ship-to-ship weapons of choice: railguns are high rate of fire, high accuracy weapons for precision targets, while coilguns fire heavy slugs that blast through armour and kill ships.

Capital ship engagements present a stark view of space war. It becomes a question of how fast and how far away you can destroy your enemy before he destroys you. The game’s tech assumptions prioritises high-velocity, long-range kinetic weapons: the further out you engage the enemy, the safer you will be. There is no dodging incoming fire, not when you are inside a weapon’s effective envelope. The best ships can do is to evade kinetics from a very long way off, or take incoming fire on heavy armor in the hopes of surviving long enough to loose their own weapons. Combat tactics usually revolve around disabling the enemy’s longest-range weapons early, buying time to knock out the remaining critical systems. If the enemy manages to open fire, the only question is how badly both sides will be mauled.

Every weapon and every munition has an equation attached to it. Lasers are continuous wave weapons, doing damage by superheating targets. Their power drops off in an asymptote; past their effective range and they will be effectively useless. Missiles utilize infrared seekers: they will home in on the targets’ brightest radiators — or flares — and too many nukes in too small a space will interfere with each other, leading to much reduced effect on the enemy. Kinetic slugs do not lose power over range, but because they are unguided, ships can (sometimes) dodge them from tens of kilometres out. CDE is the first game in my collection that actually caused my gaming-grade computer to stutter and lag. Suffice to say, throwing huge numbers of missiles at the enemy is not recommended.

Graphics-wise, the game is simple but functional. There aren’t any AAA graphics here, but the art design suits the game’s vision of ultra-hard sci fi. It’s just as well that the textures aren’t of ultra-high quality; calculating trajectories and weapon effects is extremely demanding task as is. That said, every visual is realistically modeled. Exhaust is mostly transparent, only lasers in the visible frequency can be seen, explosions are brief bursts of white spheres, and a barrage of thousands of incoming tracers is terrifying to behold.

Likewise, in-game sound mostly composes of the soundtrack. There is no air in space; you cannot hear anything. Ideally, you should complete your entire mission without hearing any sounds. The sounds a player can hear are the impact of hypersonic rounds, armour crumpling, modules exploding, and crew compartments decompressing.

The most astounding achievement is that this game is developed by just one person. Five years ago I would have said it was impossible. That this game exists at all is a testimony to human ingenuity, and the easy availability of knowledge and software.

The game does have a number of flaws, chiefly the AI. The enemy AI isn’t spectacular. It will launch drones and missiles at you, it will do their best to set up favourable interceptions and dodge yours, but outside of a few missions they won’t do much. Once you’ve locked in an intercept, gameplay boils down to a mad minute of gunfire. Much of the game’s challenge actually lies in setting up burns to put yourself in advantageous positions relative to the target, or just maneuvering so you can intercept your target. In a very real sense, each mission is won or lost on in the design and orbital maneuvering stages. Most annoying of all, even if you wipe out an enemy’s capital ships, if there are still surviving drones or missiles, you must still neutralize them before you are officially victorious.

That aside, the other flaws are minor, such as typos in the written material and the lack of an ability to save your game during a mission. These can be easily overlooked. The real flaw, in my opinion, is that the game has only 18 missions. Ship design is unlocked after the 9th mission, and module design after the 12th. That said, players can retry missions at any time and beat the standards set by the developer. Players can also pit fleets of their choice and design against each other in the sandbox mode. However, this game is single player only.

Children of a Dead Earth is highly recommended for players seeking an ultra-hard science fiction space warfare simulator, with the patience (and knowledge) to model ships and modules using real-world scientific principles. It is not a game for everyone, but for its target audience, it is a highly rewarding experience.

Sunrider Academy: How NOT to Write A Romance

Sunrider Academy is a spin-off from the Sunrider series. Set in an alternate universe, Sunrider Academy reimagines the main characters as high school students. The Sunrider series is a collection of visual novels powered by the Ren’Py engine, with gameplay sections interspaced with VN storytelling segments. Where the original game was a turn-based strategy game featuring intense battles between starships and mecha, Sunrider Academy is a time/stat management dating sim.

I don’t play dating sims, and visual novels only rarely. If not for its tangential connection to the Sunrider series I wouldn’t even have picked up Sunrider Academy. That said, I enjoyed my overall experience with the game. But it could have been so much better.

In Sunrider Academy, you play the role of Kayto Shields, Vice President of the Student Council. In the beginning of his second year, he promises his kid sister Maray that he would get a girlfriend. When he goes to school, his childhood friend Ava Crescrentia, President of the Student Council, charges Kayto with turning around three sports clubs in danger of being disbanded by the school. And, Kayto has to keep his grades up to retain his position. The player must juggle Kayto’s studies, club affairs and love life over an increasingly hectic school year.

The common route, spanning the first few months, is chock-full of in-jokes and moments of hilarity. When you choose a girl to pursue, the humour gives way to drama, teenage angst, and romance.

Or tries to.

While Sunrider Academy delivers competent stories for all four routes, it is hamstrung by its Japanese influence. Sunrider Academy relies on a number of well-established VN, anime and manga tropes: the overachieving childhood friend, the moeblob, the genki girl, the emotionless girl, conveniently contrived clumsiness leading to predictable perverse positions, and so on. Tropes are not bad in of themselves, but the developers relied far too heavily on them to carry the plot instead of building on them to build better stories.

To illustrate this, I’m going to break down the romance routes in the story. Warning: unmarked spoilers ahead!

Chigara Ashada

I’m a pessimist, so I’ll start with the worst route: Chigara’s. Chigara is the captain of the science club. She’s a genius, but she’d rather be a baker. She is also meek, innocent and girlish, the very definition of a moeblob.

The conflict in her route is driven by her twin sister, Lynn. Where Chigara is a genius, Lynn is not. Where Chigara is all sunshine and bubbles, Lynn is broody and depressive. Chigara just wants to get along, but Lynn wants to take everything from her sister. After all, Chigara is the favored daughter — created by their parents to be the perfect girl.

As the story progresses, Lynn tries to impersonate Chigara and steal Kayto from her. Worse, Chigara gives in to her sister’s whims, allowing Lynn to take her place in the Academy. It gets to the point where Kayto can’t tell who is who anymore. [To be honest, neither could I; somehow Kayto could read them better than me.] This could have been the setup for a psychological thriller.

Instead, the story is resolved in an extremely convenient fashion: as Chigara coaches Lynn to act like her, the sisters find common ground to bond, and resolve their differences. By the story’s end, they have made up and stopped impersonating each other.

Heartwarming, certainly, but with one problem: Kayto had nothing to do with it.

Throughout Chigara’s route, Kayto becomes increasingly passive, focusing solely on his club responsibilities and studies. The entire resolution occurs off-screen, delivered only by exposition. The final reconciliation was also unsatisfying: it’s hard to imagine that Kayto would suddenly welcome Chigara back into his life after the sisters put him through so much emotional stress. The more likely and realistic outcome would be Kayto cutting ties with the Asadas permanently.

This is a romance story, though, and there must be a happy ending. There’s a simple fix for this: have Kayto refuse to give up on the Asadas, and instead push them towards reconciliation. Have him engage both sisters throughout the route, and convince them to make up. This makes him involved in his story, giving agency to the player. This would be far more emotionally satisfying than simply having Chigara say they made up.

Ava Crescentia

Ava is a perfect embodiment of the overachieving  childhood friend: she is the top student of Sunrider Academy, the President of the Student Council, and a stickler for the rules. She is cold and harsh towards everybody, demanding every student to obey every regulation, no matter how inane. Her default expression is a frown, and she almost never smiles during the story sections. She bosses around everyone she meets, earning the ire of the entire student body, and picks out Kayto for particularly difficult duties (taking charge of the problem clubs is just the beginning!).

So why is there a romance?

Kayto’s motivation is obvious. Being neighbours, they have a shared history stretching back years. Plus, Ava possesses certain ‘assets’ no hotblooded male will fail to notice. But Ava? There is no hint that she is interested in Kayto, or even respects him as a person. She is almost always seen giving him more work or berating him or otherwise treating him as an extra pair of hands to clear the never-ending pile of paperwork.

The moment she took the opportunity to make out with Kayto came as a shock, to him and me. She had been nothing but harsh and domineering, and he in turn (mostly) placative and resigned. Kayto himself thinks she sees him as little more than an insect. Why is she suddenly interested in him? Why is he interested in her?

Near the end of the game, she hints that she came to love Kayto because he had always supported her. But that doesn’t ring true with me. Loyalty and support are hallmarks of friendship; romance requires more than that.

The Kayto-Ava dynamic just isn’t convincing enough. Instead of a hard-won love, I see the classic signs of emotional abuse. At the very least, I see Kayto being a hen-pecked husband and an unhappy marriage.

To make this romance work, the route needs two major improvements. There needs to be more signposting of Ava’s intentions and emotions. She has a sugar and ice personality, but the writer focused on the ‘ice’ aspect to the exclusion of ‘sugar’. The script needs to make her attraction to him more obvious from the start, giving Kayto hope that he has a chance.

As for Kayto, he needs to be stronger and far more decisive. He comes off as a Typical High School Boy, which is the wrong approach to take. For instance, after a key moment of intimacy, he said, “Well, after we did that, I thought we were going out.” This comes across as wishy-washy and utterly cringeworthy. A better line would be, “After doing that, why wouldn’t we be going out?” This signals strength and places the ball in Ava’s court, forcing her to examine why she did what she did and to face her growing attraction to Kayto. Likewise, he should stand up to Ava whenever she makes idiotic decisions instead of quietly following orders and getting into worse trouble.

Women like Ava only respect people as strong as they are — any less and they simply will not give the time of day to, much less consider as a romantic prospect. To make this story work, Kayto has to step up his game, and Ava has to show more vulnerability.

Asaga Oakrun

This route is a marked improvement over the other two. Instead of high drama or contempt, this route is filled with passion. Asaga is the very model of a Japanese genki girl, and she drags Kayto right into her orbit. He mans up and proves himself worthy of his affections.

Eventually. The weakest point of the story is in the middle, when Kayto finds himself overwhelmed. Asaga becomes increasingly intrusive, and her personality leads to clashes with other clubs and the Student Council, causing Kayto more trouble. It all comes to a head during a climactic Student Council meeting (puns very much intended), and Kayto decides to break things off with her.

Fortunately for all involved, the lovers reconcile quickly. But a bit too quickly for my tastes. Kayto stomps angrily away from the relationship, Asaga apologises in tears, and they make up.The remaining drama in the route is due to external shenanigans, which reinforce their feelings for each other — but not necessarily how they act. What I would have liked to see is how they influence each other for the better: Asaga becomes less impulsive and puts in more effort in paperwork and studies, while Kayto lets himself relax and be more spontaneous. This is only vaguely hinted at the penultimate story section, the day before the Most Definitively Final Exams.

Sola

Sola in this game is a mysterious girl adopted by the head priest of the city shrine. She speaks with a flat register, but uses formal and sophisticated vocabulary. Unlike the other routes, this one is tied intrinsically to the main Sunrider storyline. This Sola is in danger of being erased from the universe, and Kayto must find a way to save her.

This route was the route released as the public demo, and the devs clearly put in a lot of time polishing it. The route mixes moments of drama, intrigue and tenderness. Unlike the other routes, this Kayto isn’t wishy-washy or indecisive: he swears to save Sola, refuses to give up on her no matter how hard she tries to convince him to abandon her, seeks solutions, and at the climax confronts a de facto god — and wins. Likewise, Sola also shows character growth — though I have to say, it’s easier to show character growth for someone already established as a flat, if eccentric, girl.

This route would have been magnificent, but for the ending. It boils down to Kayto telling the abovementioned god to give Sola back, and the god agreeing just like that. There is no drama, no sense of resistance, no insight into the god’s motives or actions. It just happens. A far more satisfying ending would have Kayto debating the god — and winning. A crowning moment of awesome is a far better fit for the game than a deus ex machina.

Gameplay and Story Segregation

Sunrider Academy is a stat management game, and the gameplay layer is painfully segregated from the story elements. During the girls’ routes, there are moments when the characters are betrayed or in emotional distress. Yet, somehow, this doesn’t affect the stat building sections. Kayto can continue to improve the stats of a club led by a girl who hurt him as though nothing had happened. This is, frankly, quite jarring — but this may be due to engine limitations.

Throughout the game, you are given plenty of opportunities to interact with the girls. You can give them gifts, engage in conversation with them, or attempt to charm and flirt with them. During the common route, this is key to raising their affections, which unlocks their individual route. But afterwards, save for the girl you’re pursuing, this mechanic has exactly no impact on the story that I can tell.

More than that, there seems to be no penalty for flirting with or charming a girl who isn’t your girlfriend. None of the girls show signs of jealousy, and there is no impact on your chosen girlfriend’s affections. When you think hard about it, it kills immersion.

Not for Dating Sim Fans

The developers took a gamble by jumping into an entirely new genre for their spinoff. While I recognise their courage, I think they have much to learn about writing convincing romance stories. In romance VNs, players want to see the hero and heroine(s) grow together, to be given a sense of agency through meaningful decisions, and to experience a realistic facsimile of romance. This requires excellent storytelling and a keen insight into human nature beyond faithful recreations of anime and manga tropes. VNs are novels: they live and die by their characters and writing, and the writing here isn’t up to scratch. Further, I think the devs could have tried to close the gap between gameplay and storytelling, improving overall immersion.

Ultimately, if you’re not a fan of dating sims or stat management games, Sunrider Academy offers repetitive clicking through huge swathes of the game on easy or waifu mode to unlock story content that isn’t quite up to par. Quite fortuitously, on Steam it’s currently being offered at a 60% discount. But to properly enjoy the game, you need a walkthrough or risk missing key events necessary to propel the game.

I think Sunrider Academy will appeal mainly to people who enjoyed the main series. The writing isn’t as tight as I would like it to be, but fans would appreciate the humor and references. Gamers or VN fans seeking a plausible romance should look elsewhere, or at least wait until the game is on sale.