Latest reviews

2 stars
Saccharine, implausible visual novel riddled with typos

I love a good romantic tale, even of the overwrought variety (I am a The Notebook enjoyer). Therefore I was happy to give Big Dipper a try, which is a short, kinetic (choice-free) visual novel about a romantic encounter on New Year’s Eve. In case you’re wondering, it’s all very chaste stuff; the title is no naughty double entendre.

Developed by Team Zimno from Russia [*], the story is told from the perspective of Andrew, a somewhat sullen young man who encounters his manic pixie dream girl when a woman named Julia literally sleepwalks into his life and his cabin.

The game throws in a bit of the supernatural, but it’s over after less than two hours, so it doesn’t really go very far with any of it. That’s a shame, because earnestly incorporating Slavic folk tales could have made things a lot more interesting!

The relationship between Andrew and Julia develops implausibly. They grow closer through sharing stories of loss of alienation with each other, but the romance is otherwise just rushed along a “they dislike each other → they love each other beyond measure” path without ever building genuine momentum.


We’re only in the first scene, and there are already typos like “busrt” instead of “burst”. (Credit: Team Zimno. Fair use.)

Big Dipper certainly gets the aesthetics right. Made with Unity, the game looks better than your average visual novel, with nice animations for the snowfall outside and the cozy fireplace inside. The character art and full-screen graphics also look good, and are enriched with chibi-style pictures during key scenes.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to overlook the shortcomings. Aside from a rushed story that doesn’t withstand the slightest scrutiny, it’s difficult to justify the lack of attention to detail in the writing. You’ll notice the first typos and misspellings just a few paragraphs in, and we’re talking about glaring ones (“busrt” instead of “burst”, “cheked” instead of “checked”) that could have been caught with any spell checking tool.

Big Dipper is only $5, but you’ll find much better romantic visual novels even for free. Unless you’re desperately looking for a winter-themed pick-me-up and are willing to look past its issues, you can safely skip it.


[*] It’s worth noting that the authors have publicly spoken out against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and against Vladimir Putin.


4 stars
A morbid tale of death and decay, told in beautiful watercolor art

Pumpkin Eater is a kinetic visual novel, which means that it’s a story with art and sound, but with no player choices. The $2 regular sales price suggests a short story, and indeed I finished it in about 30 minutes.

Given how short it is, I don’t want to give too much away. In a nutshell, it’s about a family who loses a child in an accident but cannot let go. What follows is a tale of decay and insanity, told in (the authors assert) a medically accurate manner.


The characters and backgrounds are lovingly painted in watercolor, which creates a contrast with the story’s morbid content. (Credit: thugzilladev. Fair use.)

I appreciate attempts to demystify death, even if it’s done in the form of a horror story. Ultimately, that seems to the point of the game, which comes complete with a glossary.

The story is engaging, and it uses music and sound effects well. It won’t scare your pants off, but it might make you lose your appetite. It is also likely to stay with you. 3.5 stars, rounded up.


3 stars
A hard look at the cost of telling the truth, marred by dubious psychoanalysis

When governments, corporations and other organizations act unethically or illegally, only people on the inside may know about it. If they choose to tell someone who might bring about change, they become whistleblowers.

Published in 2001, C. Fred Alford’s Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power examines the personal sacrifice it takes to oppose an organization’s actions. From interviews and a review of prior research, Alford concludes that in spite of many legislative attempts to protect whistleblowers, retaliation is the norm, not the exception.

How organizations fight back

Whistleblowers are often not fired immediately. They are moved to “offices” that previously served as closets; their responsibilities are curtailed; their performance is put under a microscope. Only after sufficient time has passed to create distance to the act of whistleblowing, they are fired, frequently for “poor performance”.

After losing their job, they may find it impossible to work in their chosen sector again, thanks to informal blacklists. Whistleblowers are portrayed as “nuts and sluts”, their sanity and character called into question. As Alford puts it, the process is complete “when a fifty-five-year-old engineer delivers pizza to pay the rent on a two-room walkup.”

Considering this characterization, one might expect Alford to support whistleblower anonymity. Not so—anonymity, he claims, is a road to nowhere (p. 36):

Anonymous whistleblowing happens when ethical discourse becomes impossible, when acting ethically is tantamount to becoming a scapegoat. It is an instrumental solution to a discursive problem, the problem of not being able to talk about what we are doing. Whistleblowing without whistleblowers is not a future we should aspire to, any more than individuality without individuals or citizenship without citizens. If everyone has to hide in order to say anything of ethical consequence (as opposed to “mere” political opinion), then we will all end our days as drivers on a vast freeway: darkened windshields, darkened license plate holders, dark glasses, speeding aggressively to God knows where.

Personally, I think an “instrumental solution to a discursive problem” is still a fine solution, especially if it happens to save lives or serve the public interest. Much as Alford agonizes about the sacrifices whistleblowers make, he seems unwilling to imagine a world in which those sacrifices can be lessened.

Psychoanalysis to the rescue

Because many of the people Alford spoke with attended self-help groups (which selects for trauma), and because his book rarely deals in numbers, it’s difficult to say how statistically valid his observations are. Much of the book is focused on psychoanalysis: What causes whistleblowers to act, and how do they process the consequences of their actions?

Alford theorizes that whistleblowers are motivated by what he describes as “narcissism moralized”. To put it another way, whistleblowers can tolerate the alienation from everyone else more than they can tolerate being in conflict with their idealized moral self.

It’s a reasonable argument, considering that whistleblowers often act alone—so their impulse to act is often likely the result of an inner conflict. But when he characterizes whistleblowers’ motives and feelings, Alford readily dismisses evidence that isn’t consistent with his own views.

In describing one case, he writes: “Ted protests too much. For that reason I distrust his account” (p. 39). This kind of reasoning makes me worried that the author may be an unreliable narrator of whistleblower motivations, and I would rather read more quotes and fewer abstract characterizations.

How many whistleblowers discuss their actions with loved ones beforehand? How many are deeply appalled by imagining the consequences of the organization’s actions on the outside world? What Alford offers us are generalizations, made more tedious with frequent repetition and verbosity, for example, when he writes about the state of “thoughtlessness” (p. 121):

Thoughtlessness stems not merely, or even primarily, from fear. Thoughtlessness arises when we are unable to explain our fears—that is, make them meaningful, comprehensible, knowable. This happens when we lack the categories to bring our fears into being. Common narrative is, I’ve argued, of little help in this regard.

Social theory could be more helpful than it is. Liberal democratic theory assumes that politics is where the action is, and so it assumes that individualism is possible. Foucault’s account assumes that individuals don’t exist. Neither approach gets close enough to life in the organization, to say nothing of the lives of those who suffer the organization, to help individuals make sense of the forces arrayed against them.

If you enjoy the kind of analysis that says in 100 words what could be said in 10, you’ll find plenty of it here.

The Verdict

In fairness, Whistleblowers is a short book (170 pages including the index), and it does tell some interesting stories about different types of whistleblowers in different fields, from engineering to accounting.

It offers some metaphors which I’ll almost certainly find myself using again—for example, it describes life after whistleblowing as akin to space-walking, because many whistleblowers have learned the hard way that the world doesn’t work the way they thought it did.

The most useful takeaway from Alford’s book is a deeper understanding of the often very heavy cost of whistleblowing. Alford ultimately characterizes it as a “sacred” act; I would compare it perhaps with blasphemy. To understand the cost of telling the truth should prepare us to lessen it.


1 star
Blutiges Ghost Dog.

Gabriel ist jung Vater geworden und lebt mit seinem Sohn Jamie. Er ist in einer Clique von Skatern. Gabriel hat ein Samurai-Schwert und, ähnlich wie im Film “Ghost Dog”, werden Samuraisprüche während des Films erzählt. Gabriel lernt Corry, die Freundin seines Freundes Joel, kennen. Corry, Joel und Gabriel nehmen Drogen, steigen im Rausch in den Züricher Zoo ein und lassen zwei Pumas und eine Giraffe frei. Jamies Mutter Mutter ist Fernsehsprecherin und berichtet über die freigelassenen Tiere. Gabriel und Jamie gehen auch einmal zum Haus der Fernsehsprecherin um Jamie’s Mutter Zoé zu besuchen. Es ist gerade Party dort, und dem Mädchen ist schwindlig. Ein paar Tote und Verletzte später endet der Film.

Soul of a Beast ist ein etwas schwieriger Film. Es sind sehr viele Elemente hineingemischt, egal ob Szenerie, Situationen, Stilmittel, verschiedene Kulturen wie Asien, Europa, Afrika, Südamerika, Natur, Stadt, real, unter Drogen, Friede, Militär, Polizei. Es wirkt ein bisschen als wäre es der letzte Film den Lorenz Merz in seinem Leben machen könnte und alles enthalten sein muss. Die 100 Minuten reichen bei weitem nicht aus um diese Elemente vernünftig zu entfalten. Ausser die Dialoge - die sind sehr kurz. Zu kurz vielleicht. Ausser von der Grossmutter erfährt man kaum etwas von den handelnden Personen, sie kommen und gehen. Viele Szenen sind irgendwie dunkel, blutverschmiert, meist voller Müll. Die Umgebung wirkt immer überladen, überzeichnet. Gabriels Auto ist voll, Gabriels Wohnung ist voll, Zoé’s Mutter hat viele Bedienstete. Im Wald ist es nur grün, völlig unmotiviert steht auf einmal ein einzelner gut getarnter Soldat auf, der Zürisee ist schön. Am Ende bleiben Fragen über Fragen, es bleibt das dumpfe Gefühl dass irgendwas fehlt.


2 stars
A mechanical romance story in a dreary setting

Cyberpunk stories often take place on Earth in a dystopian future characterized by a) darkness, rain and neon lights, b) corporations running everything. So, really, mostly a darker, rainier version of the present.

Synergia, a visual novel by indie developer Radi Art, takes place on a desert planet colonized by humans that is home to multiple political factions, including a dominant superpower, the Empire.

In other respects, it follows the cyberpunk template, featuring cityscapes drenched in neon lights; cyborgs, androids, and evil corporations. It also takes itself quite seriously.

This is a mostly kinetic visual novel, meaning that there are only a few choices (three in total) you get to make to influence the course of the 4-5 hour long story.

The story revolves around Escila, or Cila for short, a cop demoted under circumstances that will be revealed later in the story. When looking to replace her household android, she gets more than she bargained for: an outgoing, cheerful and remarkably human-like android named Mara. Cila soon becomes entangled in a web of conspiracy and romance.


Some of the full-screen art is quite well-done. Here, Cila encounters the android Mara for the first time. (Credit: Radi Art. Fair use.)

Romance without chemistry

Synergia is at its heart about the relationship between Cila and Mara. Unfortunately, as a romance story, Synergia failed to click for me. It reads as a relationship of necessity and convenience—two people drawn together only out of alienation towards the rest of the world, and out of sheer loneliness.

The larger narrative of a conspiracy involving androids, rebels, and corporations is convoluted and unsatisfying. Dialogue doesn’t read like the interaction between different people, but like a single writer cramming exposition into speech bubbles. It doesn’t help that the UI doesn’t always make it obvious who’s talking.

The writing suffers from a few typos and grammar errors. The character art and backgrounds are original and maintain a coherent style. As is typical for low budget visual novels, a few backgrounds are overused. The game’s strongest point is its soundtrack, which never dominates but creates suitable ambience.

I can’t recommend Synergia, but your mileage may vary. If you love the cyberpunk aesthetic and enjoy romance stories that are on the more mechanical side, you may get something out of it.


La Lanterna, Ristorante Vegano Biologico, Verona  it
5 stars
Ottimo ristorante vegano a Verona  it

Ho mangiato benissimo, i piatti erano abbondanti e ad un prezzo contenuto. Ci sono capitato per caso durante un sabato a pranzo e ho apprezzato tanto sia il servizio, sia il cibo veramente ottimo e fresco.
Il menù si trova sul sito internet ed è contenuto il giusto che basta per darti una selezione variegata di piatti senza farti spulciare ingredienti e varie all’infinito.


5 stars
A milestone deckbuilder with masterfully executed mechanics

Slay the Spire is not the first roguelike deck-building game, but its massive success created a recipe many indie developers would soon try to follow.

The game doesn’t owe its popularity to its rich lore. You’re ascending a tower—excuse me, spire—fighting monsters on its many floors, to face a final enemy: a corrupted, beating heart. Random events hint at a larger mythology, but if you’re looking for a narrative adventure, look elsewhere.

The monster bestiary is also not what will keep you playing this game. While the art and animation are always serviceable, the array of cloaked figures, slimes, geometric shapes, and bands of thieves and gremlins gets a bit samey after a while.

What sets Slay the Spire apart is the tightness of the card-based battle mechanics, the unique play styles of the different characters, and the clever combination of cards and relics to make each run feel different.

Chance and strategy

You first play as the “Ironclad”, a powerful masked warrior. You navigate the spire across a path of your choice: you can face challenging encounters with large rewards, pursue random events, or plot the safest course to the level boss.

Monsters on the map indicate turn-based battles against one or multiple opponents. You draw cards from your deck in random order, and expend limited energy to play some of them. (Your opponents don’t have cards.)

The game will usually tell you what the enemy will do next: attack, defend, inflict status effects, and so on. This gives you a chance to prepare: if the enemy is about to do a lot of damage, you better have those defenses ready.

After each battle, you pick up new cards and other loot. As you ascend the spire, you’ll also find treasure chests and shops. Question marks on the map lead to random events. Those may have small negative or positive consequences, or give you dramatic choices: Would you like to play the rest of the game as a vampire?


The Silent, one of the four playable characters, faces a Shelled Parasite. It will take carefully planned moves to penetrate the monster’s plated armor while minimizing inbound damage. (Credit: MegaCrit. Fair use.)

Game-changers

Among the items you can find are relics. These can significantly alter the game mechanics—for example, you might get extra energy every three turns, or boost the effectiveness of certain cards.

More and more content gets unlocked the longer you play—additional characters (four in total), cards, and relics. That means that a relic you unlock after 20 hours of play could be transformative for your next run.

The four characters offer fundamentally different play styles: The Silent is a rogue whose cumulative poison attacks can bring down the most powerful foe. The Defects is a sentient automaton who uses orbiting energy orbs to line up deadly chain reactions. The Watcher is a blind ascetic who uses “stances” to collect her energy and defenses (“calm”), then attack with twice the strength and vulnerability at the right moment (“wrath”).

Learning by dying

Battles can feel terribly unfair—such is the nature of roguelikes—but there’s enough strategic depth to reward repeated play. You will get better, learn to avoid unnecessary risks, and achieve easy defeats in battles that seemed unwinnable before.

To keep you playing, the game never ceases to throw new challenges your way, and that’s without taking into account lovingly created mods like Downfall, a fan expansion that lets you play as the bosses.

After 40 hours of play, having faced (but not defeated) the game’s ultimate boss and unlocked most cards and items, I’ve decided to put Slay the Spire down again for now. But I know it’s sitting in my library, ready to give that dopamine rush that only a perfectly executed game can.

If you like the genre, I also recommend Krumit’s Tale (review), Iris and the Giant (review), and Dicey Dungeons (review). All were released after Slay the Spire, and each brings something new to the genre.


Istituto Tecnico Industriale Guglielmo Marconi, Verona  it
1 star
Istituto tecnico sotto certi punti di vista pessimo  it

Ho frequentato svariati anni nella prima metà dello scorso decennio e a livello umano mi sono sempre trovato malissimo - capisco che il focus sia sulle tecniche (si chiama istituto tecnico non per altro), ma l’ambiente tossico che si va a creare dal generale disinteresse per le materie umanistiche (e indubbiamente anche dalla predominante presenza di ometti pre/adolescenti) porta la scuola indietro di un ventennio buono: razzismo, misoginia, queerfobia erano all’ordine del giorno.

Quelle poche materie che potevano suscitare un poco interesse psicologico verso sé stessi si riducevano a studiare a memoria per ripetere a menadito.
Tutte le risorse parevano dirigersi verso il prepararvi al mondo del lavoro, come fine ultimo quello di rendervi una ulteriore minuscola rotellina del sistema capitalista. Parlo per esperienza: vedo ancora svariati ex-compagni di classe che usciti dall’Istituto e trovato un lavoro sono invecchiati paurosamente male - a metà dei venti anni parlano e pensano ancora come se ne avessero dieci in meno.

Sfortuna mia con i professori? La ricordo peggio di come era? Non posso dirlo con certezza, ma se non siete sicuri della vostra scelta per il futuro (ed esserlo a 14 anni penso sia molto difficile) facciatevi il favore di andare a visitare L’Open Day di tante altre scuole, magari di un certo liceo a qualche passo da questo istituto.


4 stars
67 "retro-style" indie games covered true to form of the first volume

The main focus of Hardcore Gaming 101’s “Retro Indie Games” book series are games that look, feel and/or play like old-school games from the 1980s and 1990s, but that are much more recent indie titles. (See my review of the first volume.)

The second volume covers both old titles that didn’t make the cut last time (e.g., Papers, Please! and Fez), and very recent games like Helltaker, Paradise Killer and Lair of the Clockwork God.

The format is largely the same as before: each game is richly illustrated and described in detail, with heavy focus on gameplay and story, and little emphasis on any other aspect such as the developers or how the game was made. As before, games are grouped by developer.

With 67 individual games, every reader with any appreciation for indie games is likely to discover at least one or two to add to their backlog. For me, that included Katana Zero (the time manipulation mechanic sounds super-interesting) and The Binding of Isaac (it just seems like a wild ride).

As with the first volume, I still feel the series could do better at being an actual guide to genres and developers. As an effort to catalog and describe some of the greatest retro-styled indie titles of the last decade or so, it is without equal.

The full list of games in the second volume follows (grouped by developer):

Cuphead
Celeste
Panzer Paladin
The Messenger
Cyber Shadow
Gunpoint
Aces Wild
Blazing Chrome
Katana Zero
Minit
Fight ‘n Rage
198X
Cave Story
Kero Blaster
La-Mulana (series)
Xeodrifter
Hollow Knight
Blasphemous
Iconoclasts
Dex
Rabi-Ribi
Pharaoh Rebirth
Touhou Luna Nights
Record of Lodoss War: Deedlit in Wonder Labyrinth
Fez
The Binding of Isaac
Dusk
Project Warlock
AMID EVIL
Cruelty Squad
Saturday Morning RPG
Cosmic Star Heroine
Anodyne
Anodyne 2: Return to Dust
Into the Breach
Chroma Squad
Katawa Shoujo
Digital: A Love Story
Don’t take it personally babe, it’s just not your story
Analogue: A Hate Story/Hate Plus
Ladykiller in a Bind
Broken Reality
Coffee Talk
Unavowed
Lamplight City
The Low Road
Ben There, Dan That!
Time Gentlemen, Please!
Lair of the Clockwork God
Paradise Killer
Return of the Obra Dinn
Umurangi Generation
Hypnospace Outlaw
Oxenfree
Back in 1995
Stories Untold
The Count Lucanor
Yuppie Psycho
Detention
Devotion
Paratopic
Anatomy
Papers, Please
Stardew Valley
Helltaker


4 stars
An absurd but entertaining conclusion to a flawed trilogy

As a twelve-year-old, Gwendy Peterson met a stranger who gave her a magical box that can destroy the world. That’s the premise of the Gwendy trilogy by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar.

The first book, Gwendy’s Button Box (review), was a fine story that stood on its own as a morality tale. The titular button box can fulfill wishes and wreak destruction—including at the planetary scale. As child custodian of the box, Gwendy used some of its powers, but was never corrupted by them.

In the mediocre sequel, Gwendy’s Magic Feather (review), Gwendy became a celebrated author and elected Congresswoman, and the box once more played an (ultimately anticlimactic) role in her life.

In Gwendy’s Final Task, the mysterious man or being who originally gave her the box tasks her to get rid of it once and for all. Because it’s a magical box, throwing it into a volcano won’t do. It must be…shot into space!

And so it is that Gwendy, now a Senator, finds herself on the way to a space station, with the button box locked away in a steel box marked “CLASSIFIED MATERIAL”. The spaceflight is organized by a SpaceX-style private company that is hoping to monetize space tourism.

That explains why one of the other passengers on board is an obnoxious billionaire. It doesn’t explain why the man seems to be completely obsessed by what’s in the steel box. Meanwhile, Gwendy is literally losing her mind to early onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The setup is ridiculous, but it mostly works. The enclosed environment, combined with Gwendy’s dwindling mental faculties, builds suspense. King rewards his constant readers with plenty of references to other works, including the Dark Tower series many consider his magnum opus.

The ending leaves no doubt that this truly is the final book in the series. That’s probably for the best. If you’ve made it to the second book, the conclusion is definitely an improvement, and I would recommend picking it up. If you’ve not started the trilogy yet, there are much better works in King’s oeuvre.