Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: The Dread of Oakville (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 10th July 2015
Platform: PC


I’m continuing my journey through the Phantasmat series with the fourth title: The Dread of Oakville. The series is still in the competent hands of Eipix Games for this title, and this one really has a ‘classic Eipix’ feel about it (in the best possible way). Unusually for me, I played the Standard Edition of this one (because I had a free game coupon that was only redeemable on SEs) – it’s been a while since I played an SE!

So… surprise, surprise… The Dread of Oakville begins with you driving down a dark mountain road, as a storm begins to gather. Suddenly, a landslide forces your car off the road, and rocks block the way behind you. Of course it does. You find yourself in a tunnel, a locked gate in front of you, and a blocked road behind. The only way to continue is to find a way to unlock the gate and enter the town on the other side.

The town is Oakville and, as in other instalments of the Phantasmat series, it is deserted. There are missing person posters scattered around, and you quickly find the driving licence of a young woman called Josie Grimes. What happened to the people of Oakville? And how are you going to escape? It’s not long before you meet one of the residents who seems friendly, though if you’re familiar with the previous titles in the series then you’ll have a good idea what to expect from him.

The storyline in this one had so much potential. There’s a creepy woman, an apocalyptic prophecy, an ancient entity contained in a tree, and a sinister puppet called Mr Nightingale. However, the execution is rather fragmented, and it’s not particularly clear how the elements fit together. For the first time in the series, I was left a little confused as to which characters were alive and which were dead, and I couldn’t quite work out which ones were working together (and what the intended to achieve). There was a bit of a paint-by-numbers quality to the storytelling in this one, with the Big Bad (Mae Grimes) pretty much being bad for the sake of it. It’s a shame, as some of the apocalyptic elements (see below) worked so well (and I’ll even admit to enjoying the jump scares in this one), but the narrative just wasn’t quite coherent enough for me.


Although the storyline of The Dread of Oakville was weaker than some of the previous instalments of the series, I loved the design of this one. It is really excellent, and definitely Eipix at their best. Scenes are beautifully detailed, and the HOGs were clear and well-designed. The soundtrack is also a real plus point, with evocative and atmospheric music that doesn’t loop too much. I do enjoy it when the soundtrack shifts with the action of the game (not all HOPA soundtracks do this), and the music here does just that. The cutscenes (though there aren’t many) are well-illustrated and integrated into the narrative.

But the real highlight of the design in The Dread of Oakville is the impending apocalypse. In my reviews of the earlier Phantasmat games, I mentioned how much I liked the way the design of the NPCs shifts as you learn more about what they are. The Dread of Oakville takes this to a different level, with a really unsettling shift early on in the game. Without giving too much away (there are a few shocks and scares early on in the game that it would be a shame to spoil), the design of the not-quite-living characters in The Dread of Oakville is classy and cinematic.

However, it’s the rain that really makes this game. In mad Mae Grimes’s prophecy/plot, the apocalypse is due to come in the form of a cataclysmic storm that will destroy the world (or destroy Oakville – Mae’s a little unclear on that one). When you first arrive in the town, it’s overcast but still fairly dry. By the time you meet your first NPC, dark clouds are gathering… and then the storm starts. Now, The Dread of Oakville is far from the only HOPA to include constant rain as a backdrop to gameplay, but it does do it so well. It builds up gradually, with rumbling thunder, before driving down in a relentless torrent for the second half of the game. The sound design is great, with the rain effects balanced well with the music, and the storm is beautifully illustrated. I know it might sound a little odd, but the rain was probably my favourite part of the game!


In terms of gameplay, The Dread of Oakville is pretty standard HOPA fare. You move from screen to screen, clicking stuff, picking stuff up, using items from your inventory. It’s fairly intuitive and logical (though the fragmented storyline meant that I occasionally lost track of what I was doing and had to use Hint). There are three difficulty settings, plus Custom (yay!). I played with my preferred Custom options (no tutorial, no sparkles except on HOGs, longer recharge on Hint and Skip), and this worked well for me.

My main criticism of gameplay would be that the HOGs and mini-games are on the easy side. In fact, some are very easy to complete. I enjoyed the variety with HOGs – there are straight item lists, morphing objects, items to be assembled and silhouettes – and the fact that there are no repeats, but there just isn’t quite enough challenge. The mini-games are fun and well-designed, but again they just aren’t particularly challenging. It’s a tough balance to reach, though, as I’m aware I’ve grumbled in previous reviews about mini-games that are too difficult. I also know that all players are different. Nevertheless, as I’d completed the game within three-and-a-half hours, I just don’t think there was quite enough gameplay in The Dread of Oakville.


And now it’s time for my regular rant about non-player characters in HOPAs… I’m a bit frustrated, to be honest, as I’ve been rather impressed by the use of NPCs in the Phantasmat series so far. As you may remember from previous reviews, my biggest pet peeve about HOPAs is NPCs that set you a task and then stand around watching you complete it. Why don’t they help you?? At least with Phantasmat, it seemed that some explanation was given for why the people you encounter weren’t too keen on helping you out.

Sadly, though, we move towards Gregory Logain territory in The Dread of Oakville, and that’s guaranteed to wind me up a bit. At first, it seems like things are progressing nicely: you meet a suspiciously friendly resident who encourages you to stay in Oakville for a while, and a creepy little girl who sings a horrible nursery rhyme at you and then disappears. But, unfortunately, this doesn’t continue. You soon end up hooking up with Josie Grimes and her dad, who have that irritating tendency to say things like ‘We’re going to need fuel for the Limo. I think there’s a barrel in the basement.’ Before standing stock still and watching you. Sigh. I’ll go down to the basement and look then, shall I? And I’m guessing I’ll also need to search the house for a funnel and a hose. Jeez. To make matters worse, the lack of full narrative coherence means that it’s not always completely clear who you’re meant to be helping, and why. I couldn’t quite get my head around what was going on with Ansell Grimes – exacerbated by the fact that a bit of dialogue skipped at a key moment, so I didn’t get to see the full interaction. Despite this – and this is definitely a personal gripe – I will say that the NPCs are illustrated very well, and the voice acting is very good throughout.

I just really don’t like being told to do stuff by NPCs in a game where you can’t answer back.

As I said above, this was a rare Standard Edition for me, so I didn’t get chance to try any bonus content. I believe the Collector’s Edition has a bonus chapter (which I didn’t really miss, as these haven’t been a strong point of the series so far), a jump map (again, I didn’t miss this), Match-3 options for the HOGs, collectibles and achievements.

Overall, an enjoyable game, but not the strongest instalment of the Phantasmat series. Design-wise, The Dread of Oakville is excellent, with some really stylish and impressive features. But it’s let down a bit by a fragmented narrative and lack of challenge in gameplay. Still, it’s not put me off the series, and I imagine I’ll keep going with Phantasmat for a while yet.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Review: Richard III (Headlong Theatre)

Tuesday 30 April 2019
HOME, Manchester

On Tuesday, I was at the press night of Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III at HOME Manchester, on behalf of North Manchester FM. I’ll be playing a (slightly shorter) version of this review on Hannah’s Bookshelf on Saturday, but here’s the full version…

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Headlong Theatre’s production of Richard III came to HOME, Manchester this month. It’s a bold, energetic and unsettling adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, which uses set design, costume and performance to present a darkly compelling study of a man’s pursuit of power and sovereignty.

Expertly directed by John Haidar, this Richard III actually begins with a scene from the end of Henry VI, Part 3, in which the Duke of Gloucester kills King Henry. This, of course, sets up the audience for the murders and intrigue to come (and there will be lots of murders), but it also allows for a direct introduction to the character of the future King Richard III – the play begins, not with the ‘winter of discontent’, but with Richard’s ‘I, that have neither pity, love, nor fear’ speech, leaving us in no doubt that we are about to watch a very bad man do some very bad things.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

And Richard here is a very bad man. Tom Mothersdale is both repulsive and mesmerising as the twisted, cruel and power-hungry Gloucester. Snarling, spitting, grasping, cajoling and mocking, this Richard III is a monster rather than a tyrant. And yet… Mothersdale’s delivery is so captivating that it’s impossible not to warm ever so slightly to this version of Shakespeare’s famous villain. His delivery of Shakespearean dialogue is excellent, rendering even the most verbose monologues immediate and accessible – aided by knowing nods and asides to the audience that make us feel almost complicit in his nefarious plots. It takes an accomplished actor to get laughs from a contemporary audience without undermining either the gravity or the literary style of Shakespeare’s dialogue, but Mothersdale is more than up to the task. However, he’s equally up to the task of making the audience’s skin crawl.

As with most modern adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, this is not the complete Richard III. Some scenes are excised or abridged, and the cast of characters is substantially streamlined. We jump from one monstrous act to another with hardly a breath and little time to ponder motive or purpose. For instance, Richard’s plan to marry Elizabeth of York (who doesn’t appear on stage in this production) is even more hot-on-the-heels of her brothers’ deaths than is usual, and he shrugs off her mother’s accusation of incest as though it’s completely irrelevant. He is, after all, a very bad man. While Shakespeare’s play gives some time and space to considering broader questions of statesmanship, sovereignty, sin and consequence, this production focuses more on the facets of a repellent individual – it is a portrait of vileness, in all its glory.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Admittedly, while this is an adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s histories, the audience learns little of actual history from this production. You would be forgiven if your understanding of the Wars of the Roses, or the messy succession of the English crown, was not expanded by seeing this play. Indeed, this seems like quite a deliberate stylistic choice. Obviously, Bosworth Field is mentioned (though only once), but the play resists adding any signposting of who Richmond will become once he has taken the crown from Richard. This is not simply faithful adherence to Shakespeare’s text, but rather a stylistic decision to present a more timeless story of corruption and power that transcends the rigidity of historical context.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner
While the play is very much a study of its title character, with Richard appearing on stage in almost every scene, it would be remiss of me not to mention the other excellent performances. Stefan Adegbola makes a fascinating Buckingham, transforming the character from the start into a slick, smiling and untrustworthy spin doctor, before crashing hard into Richard’s betrayal. Derbhle Crotty and Eileen Nicholas play Elizabeth and the Duchess of York, exuding almost tangible anger and pain. Nicholas’s Duchess has a powerful scene with Richard in the second act, which is made all the more complex by the earlier inclusion of Richard’s speech from Henry VI, Part 3 – a subtle hint that Richard has been missing a mother’s love. I should also give full admiration and credit to the young actors playing Prince Edward and York – Headlong have taken a bold decision by including child actors in such an intense adaptation of a Shakespeare play, but the performances of the younger cast members definitely justify the decision.

Caleb Roberts’s performance as Richmond is rather curious. Delivering his calls-to-arms and regal monologues with pious grace and innocence, this Richmond stands in as sharp distinction to the grotesque Richard as it’s possible to be. However, there is a sense that he is too pious, too good and, occasionally, a little too wet behind the ears to really carry off the final dramatic act of murder and renewal. In the absence of overt signposting of Shakespeare’s pro-Tudor propaganda, it’s hard to know what to make of Richmond here. And, in fact, we’re given little time to dwell on this – the ‘good guy’ wins, but the play actually ends on an image of the tormented and defeated ‘bad guy’ that is far more memorable.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

There is a stylised quality to the production that further suggests this Richard III has a more timeless quality about it. Characters appear in not-quite-contemporary suits, and the gender of some characters is switched (for instance, we have Lady Hastings – played by Heledd Gwynn – who sports formalwear, high heels and bright pink hair). Chiara Stephenson’s set design adds to the effect: a dungeon-like castle forms the backdrop, with mirrors on every side. These two-way mirrors become an integral feature, not only of the set, but of the performance – Richard becomes reflected in a distorted kaleidoscope effect at times, but at others his ghostly victims appear behind them.

In addition to the mirrors, the first act of the play makes interesting use of the crown. Suspended from a wire in the centre of the stage, the coveted object descends a little with each murderous act, edging ever closer to Richard’s grasping hands until the pre-interval climax. It isn’t a subtle image, but it’s well-done here and recurs towards the end of the second half, when we see the monarch literally begin to lose his grasp on the crown.

The stylisation extends to sound design (by George Dennis) and lighting (by Elliot Griggs). This is particularly apparent when acts of violence occur. The harsh red light and screaming sound effects that punctuate the performance when murders occur are jarring – which is an effective, if disconcerting, technique. In the same way, the movement of actors too and from the stage – as well as the adeptly choreographed movements on stage – is both unnerving and gripping.

Overall, this is a dizzying and intense production that builds to a high-pitched climax (and an incredible final image). It’s unpleasant, nasty and nightmarish in places – but isn’t that the allure of Richard III? Headlong’s vivid and forceful production brings Shakespeare’s villain and his ruthless (but ultimately futile) quest for sovereignty to life in a way that is both captivating and grotesque. I highly recommend it.

Richard III is on at HOME Manchester until Saturday 4th May.

Wednesday, 1 May 2019

My Year in Books 2019: April

I'm carrying on my blog review project for another month... though I've pretty much gone back to crime fiction and some favourite authors for this month. No domestic noir for me in April!

In case you're interested, here are the other posts so far from 2019: January, February, March. But here are the books I read in April...

Beneath the Surface by Jo Spain (2016)


I discovered Jo Spain in December, when I bought a copy of her first novel (With Our Blessing) in a charity shop. I enjoyed the book and passed it on to my mum. She enjoyed it so much, she immediately went out and bought two more of Spain’s novels. And now she’s passed those on to me. Beneath the Surface is the second book in the detective series, so it features the same team of detectives as With Our Blessing. D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate a murder at Leinster House, the seat of the Irish parliament. Ryan Finnegan, a highly-regarded government official, has been shot – and the suspects are made up of the great and the good of Irish politics. I didn’t enjoy this one quite as much as With Our Blessing, but that says much more about my tastes than Spain’s writing. I loved the Gothic atmosphere of the snowed-in convent at Christmas in the first book, and the world of politicians, civil servants and lobbyists wasn’t quite as creepy and evocative. However, Spain’s writing is great, and Beneath the Surface is definitely another page-turner. I also really liked the good balance Spain struck between political intrigue and murder mystery (even if I did spot the killer a little bit too early!). The detectives here are easy to like, and their personal lives don’t dominate too much. A warning though… there are With Our Blessing spoilers in this one, so best to read the books in order.

Sleeping Beauties by Jo Spain (2017)


I decided just to go straight to Jo Spain’s next book – also lent by my mum. Sleeping Beauties is another mystery for D.I. Tom Reynolds and his team, though at first it seems to be quite a different sort of crime novel to Beneath the Surface. The book begins with the discovery of a woman’s body at the tourist spot of Glendalough. The body has been buried in a shallow grave, and the detectives quickly work out that it’s missing woman Una Dolan. But they also realize that there are four other grave sites in the same area – Reynolds’s team are faced with a serial killer. While Sleeping Beauties does tread familiar ‘hunt for a serial killer’ ground – there’s some profiling, lots of working out the ‘type’ that the victims adhere to, some pretty grisly and unsettling details – it is still a mystery. As in her previous books, Spain is keen to follow the same rules of detective fiction that you might find in older mysteries (the killer is always someone who has appeared in the story before, for instance). There are also some neat clues – one in particular that I really liked (no spoilers!) – that make this a proper whodunit, rather than a procedural thriller. Again, Spain strikes a good balance between the case and the detectives’ private lives, though I must admit I found myself really rooting for one non-case-related storyline a bit more than I thought I would. A well-written and compelling read – definitely recommend this one.

The Chalk Pit by Elly Griffiths (2017)


I read one of Elly Griffiths’s Dr Ruth Galloway novels last month, after buying it from a charity book sale at the supermarket. This month, I discovered another book in the series on the same shelf so I thought I’d give it a go. It was kind of a weird experience. The previous book I’d read was the second in the series (The Janus Stone), but The Chalk Pit is the ninth – so I was picking up with characters nearly seven years after I’d last seen them. However, the basic set-up remains the same: Ruth Galloway is a forensic archaeologist who helps the Norfolk police out with their investigations. D.I. Harry Nelson is the lead cop for the series (and his relationship with Ruth is… complicated). In The Chalk Pit, bones are discovered on an underground building site (which is also how The Janus Stone kicked off, but that’s fair enough, since there’s very little other reason to bring in a forensic archaeologist) – certain markings on the bones lead Ruth to suspect something very sinister has been going on under the streets of Norfolk. When Nelson’s team are contacted about a missing homeless woman, the picture starts to look even creepier. This is an entertaining read, with some interesting bits about tunnels and catacombs (and some virtuous commentary on homelessness and rough sleeping). However, as with The Janus Stone, the book tends to get a little bogged down in the ongoing (increasingly complicated) soap opera of the detectives’ private lives.

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (2018)


I’m a big fan of Kate Atkinson’s novels (though weirdly not, as I discovered last year, of her Jackson Brodie books). Behind the Scenes at the Museum is one of my favourite books of all time, and I really loved Life After Life and A God in Ruins – now there’s a book with a twist. Like Life After Life and God in Ruins, Transcription is partly set during WWII, though (as with the other two) there’s a good chunk that takes place after the war as well. Transcription is a spy novel, and it follows the story of Juliet Armstrong, who is recruited into the Secret Service to help with an operation to root out Fascist sympathizers in Britain. As befits a spy novel, the task Juliet is given is sometimes murky and uncertain, and the chain of command isn’t always clear. The story moves between 1940, when Juliet is working for MI5, and 1950, when Juliet is working for the BBC; however, the war casts long shadows, and the 1950 storyline sees figures from the past coming back to confront Juliet. Transcription is written in Atkinson’s characteristic style, so it’s full of things that are unsaid, unclear and confusing. Everything is connected, though, and the book builds towards an ending that is full of revelations. And yet, it’s also a spy novel, so that ending also leaves some questions unanswered. The historical details in Transcription are really captivating, and Atkinson draws you into Juliet’s world with her usual brilliance.

The Shape of Snakes by Minette Walters (2000)


Don’t know where to start with this one – this book devastated me (I literally stayed up all night to finish it, so I’m shattered too). I really enjoyed The Sculptress, but haven’t actually read any other books by Walters. So I thought I’d give The Shape of Snakes a go. The book begins in Richmond in 1978, with the death of a woman known as ‘Mad Annie’. Annie is the only black person on the street and has suffered a variety of torments at the hands of her white neighbours. As we learn early on, Annie also has Tourette’s (hence the ‘Mad’ soubriquet), and drinks to self-medicate. Annie’s death is recorded as an accident, but the narrator (known only as ‘M’ or ‘Mrs Ranelagh’) believes she was murdered. And she is not for letting that go, even when the neighbours turn on her. However, all of this happens before the story really begins – the bulk of the book takes place in 1999, when M returns from overseas ostensibly to investigate, but actually to resolve the unsettling situation. You may know that I’m fond of unreliable narrators – and M is just that. There is so much to the story that the narrator is withholding from the reader in this one. It’s a deeply disturbing book (with violence, sexual assault, racism and animal cruelty – be warned), but so incredibly well-constructed and well-written that it completely blew me away. The last page reduced me to uncontrollable tears – that’s how you write an ending!

Surfeit of Lampreys by Ngaio Marsh (1941)


I recently had a bit of charity shop binge while we were staying in Bakewell (there’s a lot of charity shops in Bakewell). The Shape of Snakes was one of the books I bought – the next one on the pile was Surfeit of Lampreys, which is quite a different kettle of fish. I haven’t read a huge amount of Ngaio Marsh – I’ve never rated the Inspector Alleyn books quite as high as some other Golden Age detective fiction – but I’ve enjoyed the books I have read. And Surfeit of Lampreys is certainly enjoyable. The book introduces the Lamprey family, a gaggle of charming eccentrics who coast from financial crisis to financial crisis without getting particularly ruffled about it. The early section of the book is mostly concerned with setting up the characters (the many Lampreys, and their friend Roberta Grey) and their idiosyncratic lifestyle. However, things take a darker turn when the Lampreys’ boring (but rich) Uncle Gabriel is murdered at their London flat. It’s up to Inspector Alleyn to work out whodunit. Surfeit of Lampreys is a curious book: the fatuous, fashionable silliness of the Lamprey family is juxtaposed with a particular brutal and grisly murder, and the investigation takes place almost entirely at the scene of the crime. It’s a wonderful – and very entertaining – character study, with some light-hearted commentary on the finances of the landed gentry, but the puzzle at the heart of it isn’t quite as fiendish as it first appears. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed it.