Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage

Wizards of the Coast
Street: 11.20

Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage is the latest official adventure from the maniacal minds over at Wizards of the Coast. This tome guides players down over 20 dungeon floors beneath the eponymous city’s western mountain to thwart the titular mage. It also serves as something of a sequel to the September release of Waterdeep: Dragon Heist, progressing characters from levels 5-20. In fact, part of what makes DotMM unique is that it’s the first officially published adventure with content intended for the level band above 15, known as “tier four”—that’s fifteen character levels of content jam-packed into 319 pages! To those of you adventurers whose curiosity is piqued by the phrase “mega-dungeon,” I will simply say: Get this for your group’s dungeon master, pronto, and that I highly recommend that you don’t read beyond this paragraph. There are minor spoilers contained within my review intended only for those entertaining the idea of running the adventure.

The premise is straightforward enough—an immortal, crackpot wizard went and turned the backside of a nearby mountain into a sadistic amusement park. Don’t mistake the “amusement” as necessarily intended as your own; Halaster Blackcloak, the aforementioned, arcane looney, has gone to great lengths in order to play with the playthings that wander his halls in search of wealth and fame. As such, DMs have a glut of monsters, traps and magical malefactions to inflict upon unsuspecting opportunists. Disembodied voices that provide play-by-play commentary as heroes suffer through obstacle courses? Check. Warring factions which vie for underhanded assistance in order to thwart nearby rivals? Massive check. Underground castles housing serial killers? You bet your dragon-scaled ass. The adventure as written is thrilling and eerie, with plenty of opportunity for an unexpected twist to surface.

All that said, my main criticism with this book is the columns and columns of text that start to blur together. Each chapter follows a near-identical format, making it difficult to differentiate which floor had what trap or if that cave actually contained a giant centipede or interplanar frog people. Each dungeon level features a contextual header to complement its contents, a full-page map, and occasionally something smaller to represent a magical artifact or creepy-crawly. This has a bit of a knock-on effect to the art department. While still present, the usually prominent and evocative illustrations that adorn each Fifth-Edition book thus far feel somewhat sparse in DotMM. I cannot say whether that is simply because the ratio of text is higher here than other books, but my suspicion is that the art had to bear the brunt of the editor’s knife in order for the page count to remain within reason. It’s certainly nothing damning, but my favorite palate cleanser to word walls was just a little bit drier on this adventure.

The running recommendation of most adventures is for the DM to read the whole adventure, beginning to finish, before starting. While I usually agree with that input, my advice here to you is to only read one or two chapters at a time: the floor your party explores and the one below it. You may do yourself a disservice otherwise, trying to keep track of which floor had what nooks and crannies. The world needs more dungeon masters, and the last thing I would want for new DMs is to take one flip through the book, hastily scoop up their jaw from the ground, and run away screaming in terror.

There is an embarrassment of riches in Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Honestly, even if you had no intention of running the entirety of the campaign within the mega-dungeon itself, each chapter is a dungeon easily weaved into anyone’s campaign, whether you find yourself behind the screen for the first time or the hundredth time. You aren’t alone if you feel even mildly intimidated when undertaking this adventure, but with the variety and mischief in spades on offer, this makes an excellent Christmas gift for that special dungeon master in your life. 

Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes | Wizards of the Coast

Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes

Wizards of the Coast
Street: 05.29

What sacrifices are you willing to make to ensure interplanar balance? What role will you play in the conflicts to come? Those are two of the main narrative themes presented throughout Wizards of the Coast’s newest publication, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes. Almost immediately upon cracking open the creature compendium, I was inspired by its depth and breadth to consider ways of incorporating elements from the Blood War and the Giths’ feud—with the notorious monstrosities known as mind flayers—into my own homebrew campaign. There are also thoroughly comprehensive chapters about the history of elves, dwarves, halflings and gnomes with new player subraces. Much like Volo’s Guide to Monsters and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, Tome of Foes offers a wealth of personality and utility.

The premise of Tome of Foes is an account of an eternity of conflicts across the multiverse told from the collected research of the morally fluid wizard—from the world of Greyhawk—known as Mordenkainen—and penned by his lackey, Bigby. Honestly, the titular arcanist reads a bit like Avengers: Infinity War’s Thanos in his devotion to interplanar balance. Mordenkainen’s legendary cosmic arrogance is interjected throughout the book, reflecting the cold calculation of a wizard who’s spent decades reaffirming his own self-importance as one of the few capable peacekeepers.

As is the norm in the digital age, there’s a fairly useful online supplement in the form of D&D Beyond’s daily articles, which explores some of the reasoning behind the inclusion of the varied nightmares on display. One such creature is the Oblex, the result of Illithid experimentations gone horribly awry—though that’s a foregone conclusion when discussing Illithids. The article on the aforementioned ooze explains that the idea came from the terrifying imagination of a young boy named Nolan Whale, who’s a part of the Make-A-Wish program. Also accompanying the digital edition of Tome of Foes is a lengthy (and free) 9th-level adventure with pre-generated Githyanki and Githzerai player characters.

Tome of Foes has little mechanical application for most players outside of the additional playable races, save for probably the most important facet in all role-playing games—inspiration. Did your character’s village suffer collateral damage from a nearby demonic assault in an effort to gain territory in the eternal struggle of the Blood War? Perhaps you’re an upstart Githyanki soldier, cleansing the land of Illithid and building allegiances in the name of your queen, Vlaakith. Have you been looking for the right subrace to complement the Warlock’s Hexblade subclass? Have you found the Shadar-kai to finish the puzzle? Tome of Foes may have the pages you need to conjure richly imagined facets for both playable characters and narrative threads alike, and I think it’s in that latter category where this book offers the greatest value.

From the position as a dungeon master, Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes is a must-buy. There are a couple sections of the bestiary that feel slightly recycled, namely the demon and devil lord stat blocks. The adventure Out of the Abyss has a dedicated segment specifically for these unholy rulers and their context in this region, but that’s ultimately a negligible detail when you consider the immense top-level detailed contribution to the unremitting conflict between them. I vastly prefer the direction and focus 5E took with its supplementary books by dressing them in a vibrant tapestry built on decades of D&D history. When flipping through dozens of new monstrosities on display, I become giddy with anticipation for the countless opportunities to terrify and captivate my players. Whenever anyone asks why I’m a dungeon master, books like Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes immediately bolt to the forefront my mind because they serve as vehicles that drive my creativity to entertain friends gathered around the table, sharing in drinks and gasps as a reckless barbarian bursts through the door to find a pustule-pocked venom troll napping on the other side. –Rob Hudak

The titular beholder gazes upon its prized possession

Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Dungeons & Dragons
Street: 11.21

Tabletop role-playing games have fallen into something of a renaissance over the past few years. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when it began, but there are four major factors that I think significantly contributed to this: 5th edition, virtual tabletop software, Twitch, and nostalgia-fueled shows like Stranger Things. I’m filled with joy when I sit new players down at the table eager to try Dungeons & Dragons out for the first time and get to see that lightbulb flicker with understanding as they realize the limitless potential of this game.

Since its official release in August 2014, the fifth edition Player’s Handbook for Dungeons & Dragons breathed new life into a hobby struggling with atrophy. I never had the opportunity to play fourth edition, as most of my friend groups that play RPGs spoke of the ruleset with plugged noses and 10-foot poles as they lamented the “WoW effect” and its destruction of true role-play at the table. While I can’t exactly contribute worthwhile perspective either for or against this, what I can comment on is an issue that has pervaded the brand from edition to edition: book bloat. D&D is notorious for breaking the backs and draining the wallets of its enthusiasts with excessively published tomes ranging from second edition’s 15 “complete” expanded class & race handbooks, five Monster Manuals in third (and 3.5) edition, and approximately 27 classes for fourth edition—46 if you break it up by subclass. Those poor, poor backpacks!

Dungeons & Dragons: Xanathar's Guide to Everything
Dungeons & Dragons: Xanathar’s Guide to Everything

Fifth edition indicates a more conservative approach. Wizards of the Coast publishes three  books per year, but two of those are adventure modules with the third being a supplemental rulebook with customization options. Enter Xantathar’s Guide to Everything, 2017’s officially published supplement rulebook and first major expansion to the Player’s Handbook. Xanathar’s Guide adds 31 new subclasses (three of which are simply pulled directly from Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide) split fairly evenly across the nine primary classes. Those searching for a thorough analysis of each subclass and the potential balance to the system may want to stop reading now—this isn’t that. What I will say is that I really appreciate how much flavor and versatility each addition offers. Every class still feels distinct in how they might interact with the system’s mechanics; Xanathar’s Guide simply helps to blur the lines a bit and gives a great selection of something I value most at the table: player choice.

The second chapter in this three-chapter tome provides an array of concepts, tools and items specifically for the dungeon master in your life. There are options for ways to use tool proficiencies more effectively and also how players might spend their downtime enjoyably. Anyone particularly keen on spreadsheets will find an embarrassment of riches with tables built for random encounters, creating monsters, rounding out characters and even an entire 17-page appendix dedicated to generating names. Magic users also have access to a collection of 95 new spells. However, the majority of these spells are simply taken from the Princes of the Apocalypse campaign or its accompanying “Elemental Evil Player’s Companion” PDF, which is available for free on the D&D website. I don’t mind consolidating these spells with a peppering of newly crafted ones; what I do find strange is the inexplicable absence of spells from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, especially when a few subclasses from that very book are present here. I can’t seem to find an explanation of this throughout their various social media accounts or press releases either. It’s by no means a deal-breaker, but it’s an odd omission.

I’d also briefly like to mention D&D Beyond, a licensed digital resource for fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons. You can build characters with great ease, create and log your own spells, and construct homebrew content to share with your players. It’s an incredibly useful tool in the digital age of gaming that’s held back primarily by licensing. What I mean by that is that it’s a wholly digital platform that requires you to purchase the content for use book by book. If you’re a customer like me, you already own basically every book in a physical format, so purchasing yet another version prevents someone invested in physical media to supplement with tools like D&D Beyond. However, there still are some cost-effective options available where sections of each book can be purchased to suit your needs—races, classes, magic items, etc., are available for purchase à la carte. It’s great at guiding new players through the character-creation process and the general rules ascribed to each component. I’m a bit old-school when it comes to running a campaign, but after having spent some time tinkering with the various levers available, I may start spending a little more time building the campaign guide for my new homebrew with D&D Beyond.

Ultimately, when thinking about this book, a question looms: Who is Xanathar’s Guide for? The short answer is … mostly DMs. The book details 31 subclasses, yes, but typically, good DMs will have the relevant books available for reference. Also, the majority of this book is written with DMs in mind, and that’s not a bad thing! So if much of the information available in this book is consolidation either completely based on various “Unearthed Arcana” playtest material or previously published subclasses from the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, why else should you buy this book? Well, the honest answer is mainly for Adventurers League customization options. Adventurers League is the official ongoing campaign for fifth edition, primarily in the form of organized play at “Friendly Local Game Stores.” When building an “AL-legal” character, players are allowed to choose from the Player’s Handbook plus one other, official supplement. That said, the book is a fine package with a cornucopia of tools and inspiration for building characters. It’s a well-crafted and lovingly designed addition to the shelf, but when considering the price tag of $50 for a sizable chunk of recycled content, this drops from a must-buy to a recommendation with a few caveats. The holiday season is here—maybe put it on your wish list?

Gears-of-War-4

Gears of War 4
The Coalition

Reviewed on: Xbox One
Also on: PC
Street: 10.11


The legacies we leave behind…

There aren’t many games that are defined as much by their sound effects as Gears of War: The revving of a chainsaw bayonet against flesh. The wet, crunching squish as a foe’s skull explodes from a well-executed headshot. The echoing thrumming of an over-distorted guitar as you cleared an area from the pervading threat of the Locust Horde. Originally developed by Epic Games, the Gears series saw huge success over its three main entries (and a fourth prequel entry named Gears of War: Judgement, developed by Epic-owned studio, People Can Fly), which was wrapped up with the ultimate defeat of the Locust threat in Gears of War 3. As you might guess, all is not well on planet Sera 25 years later. Gears of War 4 shatters a hard-fought peace when nearby settlements start disappearing. James Dominic “JD” Fenix and his rebellious friends Delmont “Del” Walker and Kait “No Abbreviation” Diaz investigate these recent disappearances with the help of retired veteran, Marcus Fenix, the previous protagonist. The Outsiders fulfill a role similar to the previous trilogy’s Stranded faction, but this time, that perspective is much more interesting than “Fuck the Coalition because war,” as the Coalition of Ordered Governments, or COGs, have basically turned civilization into a police state. Say what you will about the bro-fist spectacle that is the staple Gears narrative, but I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the series in all of its goofy glory. The writing here seems to give a wink and a nod to that goofiness with some good-natured, self-aware wisecracks, enriching the experience throughout my time with it.

Warriors, Kings … Wizards.

Gears-of-War-4
Making first impressions is very important.

There are a lot of critics comparing Gears 4 to Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens in that this mirrors the first entry in many ways, namely that it comes off as a little too safe. I found myself frequently thinking the same thing, but this safety isn’t exactly a bad thing. Much like with Episode VII, there’s a legacy here and with that legacy comes high expectation, notable because this is the first original entry from new developer The Coalition.

I think that it’s smart to recapture some of that initial magic for a new generation, though it occasionally does come at the cost of forging character investment. Soon after your group discovers that there’s a new threat, they seek the aid of JD’s father, Marcus. This should also come as no surprise to anyone paying even the slightest attention to the media surrounding the game prior to release as it was reported everywhere. Anyway, from the moment Marcus joins the fray, he steals the show—often “upstaging” the new crew simply by being there. The plot then falls into retreaded territory as the gang delves deeper into the planet in pursuit of a familiarly styled antagonist known as the Swarm. The game ends on an ambiguous revelation, reaffirming players that there are definitely more Gears games in their future.

Same shit, different drones.

How does Gears 4 actually play, though? It may be that the original Gears of War came out 10 years ago, but the newest entry takes the cliché “If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it” to heart. Any concerns that I brought with me—such as whether or not the series would attempt to upend controls (i.e. Judgement)—were immediately assuaged once I fired up the campaign. The moment-to-moment gameplay carries over from the original trilogy and it’s what keeps me coming back for more punishment. There’s also quite a lot to keep you entertained here outside of the main campaign, with competitive and social PVP, as well as the trademark Horde (now dubbed 3.0) mode. Keep in mind that there is a lineage to the multiplayer component, so it’s very likely that you will face crushing defeat time and time again by what can only be described as “joystick sorcery.” It’s seriously remarkable to watch high-level Gears competition, but at times it’s equally infuriating. Horde is certainly where I feel less pressure, yet there’s no less fun to be had. I did encounter numerous matchmaking hiccups while looking for online Horde groups—in one instance, we failed once on wave 50 and could not restart from the current wave. We had to call it a night on that sour note which was a massive letdown.

The game’s greatest shortcoming is its approach to “free-to-play” style microtransactions. It isn’t so much that they exist within the game, it’s that they cripple meta-progression for the class-based Horde 3.0 mode. You can only acquire skills for your class through loot boxes, purchasable via the in-game credit system or real money—this isn’t necessarily an issue until you notice the rubber cement-like crawl to accumulate enough credits to purchase them. The Coalition acknowledged this particular hindrance by shaving 500 credits off a top-tier box and mildly increased the credit accumulation rate but it does little to address the actual problem: The incorporation of these microtransactions into a big-budget, triple-A title is frankly gross. However, the fact that players continue to purchase these proves the system works and will persist into the future. If you’re looking for the next best Gears game, I don’t think you’ll find disappointment here. I’m certainly going to spend countless hours replaying the well-written campaign and Horde mode with my girlfriend and others dedicated to eradicating the Locu—I mean Swarm threat.

As a note: We did receive a standard copy of the game’s official strategy guide around the time of its release. It’s pretty damn comprehensive with tips and tricks for the various modes, collectible locations, weapon stats, lore information and an achievement guide. In the age of all things digital, it’s certainly nothing that couldn’t be found in a wiki guide somewhere, but it’s convenient to have at your side. It also includes the standard Prima eguide with a redeemable gear pack, further reinforcing the game’s blind-box system. I don’t think it’s exactly worth the $24.99 price point, especially if you plan to invest your money into the gear packs, but if you’re fond of flipping through these kinds of guides, you probably have it already.

Video game companies don’t exactly scream “job security,” regardless of any particular title’s success—companies ranging from THQ to Irrational Games have illustrated that very point in recent years. It’s interesting, however, to follow the paths of those developers affected by such challenges. Sometimes they decide to start their very own companies, such as The Molasses Flood. Their debut title, The Flame in the Flood, is a survival rogue-lite set in a world devastated by a mysterious flood. You play as Scout, a silent wanderer, accompanied by an impressively resilient dog named Aesop. Together, Scout and her scruffy companion wade downriver searching for food, supplies, and a little bit of hope. I enjoyed myself throughout the entirety of the game’s Campaign mode, as well as a covering a good stretch of land on a few Endless Runs. The game hooked me in, driving me forward in pursuit of the promise of safety, which often never came. The developer’s co-founder and CEO Forrest Dowling was kind enough to spend some time answering a few of my questions about the game.


The Flame In The Flood

SLUG: What brought ex-Irrational, Harmonix, and Bungie devs together? And why a rogue-lite?

Forrest Dowling: Quite simply, our team came together after Irrational Games came to an end after Bioshock Infinite. We found ourselves in a situation where there were a ton of talented people out of work in a town without a lot of job opportunities. We saw this as a chance to put together a talented team and build something new for ourselves, rather than going off to the four corners of the earth. While folks on the team have worked a lot of different places, we did all cross paths at Irrational at one point or another, so that was the link between us all, even if we weren’t all there at the same time.

A rogue-lite is a variation on “roguelike.” Roguelikes are sort of a loose term, but the rigid definition is a game that features random generation, permanent death, turn-based combat, and tile based movement. It comes from the classic game Rogue, which featured all these. We use the term “rogue-lite” because while we have randomly generated maps and permadeath, we have real-time combat and movement.

SLUG: The Flame in the Flood‘s art style is strikingly good. What influenced its direction?

The Flame In The Flood

Dowling: The art style for The Flame in the Flood came from a lot of different influences, but the most immediate and clearest is that it’s based on the painting and illustration work of our art director, Scott Sinclair (or “Sinc”). Sinc was the art director on Bioshock and Bioshock Infinite, but outside of games he is an accomplished painter and illustrator. His work has the sort of angular, distinctive style that is so prevalent in the game.

SLUG: How has your experience in this industry benefited you specifically on this project?

Dowling: The team that made The Flame in the Flood is comprised of folks who’ve mostly had a decade or more of experience making games, which has given us all sorts of benefits, ranging from contacts throughout the industry to experience in managing development and keeping it on schedule. Games are always a mysterious thing to make when you start out, but we were able to take our first steps from a pretty knowledgeable place since we’ve all had years of mistakes under our belts. I think our greatest victory is that we were able to make the game we set out to make on the timeline that we wanted to make it and for the budget we planned. It may not sound like much, but with the number of unknowns that exist when making a game staying on target and vision throughout is pretty rare.

-Klaus-

My first encounter with -KLAUS- was at PSX 2015. I sampled a few stages while Victor Velasco, the game’s Creative Director and La Cosa Entertainment’s CEO, explained some of its concepts and features. I walked away from the experience thoroughly entertained, anticipating its upcoming release. On Jan. 19, 2016, it arrived on the PlayStation 4, and I finally got my chance to fully immerse myself in this intriguing platformer art piece straight out of my hometown of Los Angeles, CA. After spending the next week with -KLAUS-, I ingested a captivating experience that left me contemplating my place in the world, and for that it has my respect. Recently I had the opportunity to pick Victor Velasco’s brain for some insight into how the cogs fell into place.

KlausSLUG: For the people playing at home, what, or who, is -KLAUS-?

Victor Velasco: -KLAUS- is a PS4 existential platformer with a focus on narrative and experimental gameplay.

SLUG: How did La Cosa Entertainment form? Were there seven people to start or did seats open and fill?

Velasco: At the beginning there were only the two of us: Ginaris Sarra and me dealing with the idea of the game. After that, we contacted Luis Vieira, a great programmer, and from that point on we started contacting people we needed. I think that this was crucial because in that way when the backgrounds artists arrived, the main mechanics and the basic design of the game were already set up.

SLUG: How long has -KLAUS- been in development?

Velasco: I came up with the idea about four years ago: An official who rebels against the system while searching for his own identity. The first version won second place in a Latin American contest and after that we focused on the PS4 version. The current version of -KLAUS- has been in development for about two years.

Klaus concept artSLUG: What inspired -KLAUS-, in both its narrative and platforming mechanics? They seem inextricably linked. Last time we spoke at PSX 2015, you mentioned something about this conceptually starting as a short film; am I remembering that correctly?

Velasco: Our inspiration was our own lives. Ginaris and I were in a point in our lives where we were frustrated with a couple of things. I’m a filmmaker, but also a system engineer—I worked for an insurance company for about two years. It’s a good company, don’t get me wrong, but it was not hard to see myself as another number, a replaceable gear of that big machine that was the company. I also had the idea of a game in which the player is some sort of god and the main character is like a son and can rebel against his father and have his own personality while he breaks the fourth wall.

Those two ideas plus the anime (like Cowboy Bebop and Akira), video games (Mega Man, Super Meat Boy) and music influences (Kraftwerk) and films (Irreversible) made the game what it is today.

SLUG: What was the greatest challenge you, whether individually or as a team, faced during production? How did you overcome it?

The Witness

The Witness
Thekla, Inc.

Reviewed on: PS4
Also on: PC
Street: 01.26

I remember playing Myst with my dad when I was five years old. We sat together in the computer chair, wandering throughout this enigmatic island with only our wits and a strange book chronicling the history of the island’s inhabitants. More vividy than anything, I recall how validating it was to solve some of the more nefarious puzzles after struggling for what seemed like hours. When I heard that Jonathan Blow, developer of the 2008 hit Braid, composed a team whose next project aimed to recreate that same childhood experience… well, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it.

A Puzzling Turn of Events

The Witness: Symme-TreeThe premise is simple enough: You awake on a mysterious island with no knowledge how or why you got there. The only clear choice from there is to push forward and solve puzzles. There is no direct story to speak of, save for subtle environmental clues. There are many audio logs strewn about quoting brilliant minds and relevant insight, but there are no princesses to rescue nor is there a menace to thwart. This is a different kind of adventure game though: There is no inventory management overburdened with arbitrary item collusion. There is no chance of death on this island, as there is no combat and you can’t fall off ledges, though at times I wish I could—there were a few instances in which hopping off a two foot drop would save me a couple minutes of backtracking—but it doesn’t really hinder the experience.

Once you open an early gate, the island is open to explore at your leisure, but that doesn’t mean you’ll understand everything before you. The puzzles in The Witness function like a new language. First you need to learn the alphabet, then how they form words, and from there, syntax, and that’s where the difficulty truly sets in. You will encounter puzzles that amuse you and ones that shift your perspective. Then there are those puzzles that make you realize how foolish you once were for thinking you knew what “challenging” meant. However, when that wave of inspiration rolls over you, enabling you to tackle the seemingly impossible, you will simultaneously praise and condemn the architects for rewarding your patience while beating you up and taking your lunch money.

One of The Witness’ greatest strengths is how it reminds you to slow down in your pursuits. I certainly tried in a couple instances to burn through the experience in marathon sessions, but whenever I took a step away, breathed, and did something else—read, clean, even go for a walk—that’s when the magic really happens. Speaking of magical, this game is gorgeous. Your character is allowed to run around, making traversal easier, but I won’t deny that occasionally I felt guilty for running because the environment is incredibly rich in both its aesthetic as well as subtlety. You also need to pay attention because there are clues all around you.

Seeing with Fresh Eyes

The Witness: SecurityI gained quite a bit from the 20+ hours of mental gymnastics I’ve already put into The Witness—my notebook’s frenzied scribbling is proof enough of that. This isn’t a game for everyone—at times demanding near-saintly patience or a couple aspirin—but I can’t recommend it enough. It brought back great memories and made me feel like a kid again—there was something new to discover at every turn, be it in or outside of a puzzle. In keeping with one of The Witness’ main narrative pillars, I’d like to close with this quote from writer Alice Munro:

“A story is not like a road to follow … it’s more like a house. You go inside and stay there for a while, wandering back and forth and settling where you like and discovering how the room and corridors relate to each other, how the world outside is altered by being viewed from these windows. And you, the visitor, the reader, are altered as well by being in this enclosed space, whether it is ample and easy or full of crooked turns, or sparsely or opulently furnished. You can go back again and again, and the house, the story, always contains more than you saw the last time. It also has a sturdy sense of itself of being built out of its own necessity, not just to shelter or beguile you.”

Borderlands Vol. 2 – The Fall of Fyrestone
Writer: Mikey Neumann
Artist: Agustin Padilla

IDW Publishing
Street: 02.05

I enjoyed the first Borderlands video game: It was fun in both its gameplay and presentation. I enjoyed it right up to the moment you fight the tentacled alien menace contained within the vault and receive no form of compensation. Borderlands 2 absolved the series of its sins, even addressing the predecessor’s problems in the opening cinematic. The Fall of Fyrestone lands a little closer to the former’s shortcomings. Neumann and Padilla try to recreate the charm of the series, and they do find some success, especially in the art. The comic opens with the four hunters from the first game, and they start off pretty bland, but they do develop more throughout the book. The plot basically retells the early missions surrounding the town of Fyrestone, just with a bit more substance. There’s a lot of backstory building here, and it seems like it’s trying to make up for what the game was missing—Claptrap’s story about Tate was a little sad and the ensuing dance party was pretty cute. This isn’t a bad read and will probably entertain fans of the series, just don’t expect it to strip the flesh and salt the wounds. –Rob Hudak

Death Vigil Vol. 1
Writer/Artist: Stjepan Sejic

Image Comics
Street: 07.29

Stjepan Sejic created something pretty special with Death Vigil. It’s a story about an organization led by the grim reaper that fights a chaotic evil from the unknown—sounds pretty cool on paper, right? While it wears its influences on its sleeve, Death Vigil is overflowing with heart. As dark as the subject matter can be, there’s an equal amount of wit and personality. Santa Claus…er… Bernadette is easily one of the most charming characters in a comic book, reminiscent of Neil Gaiman’s chipper representation of Death, though Bernie plays a more prominent role. She serves as the reaper and the maternal figure for the titular organization, responsible for recruiting and nurturing those willing and gifted enough to join the fight. There’s a “family-you-didn’t-know-you-chose”  dynamic between members of the Vigil and they’re all interesting characters. I can’t help feeling like a part of this family, cheering for their successes and commiserating with their shortcomings. Watching Clara grow and discover her power filled me with a sense of pride, not unlike seeing a sibling overcome an obstacle. All of this, however, pales in comparison to Sejic’s drool-inducing art. It’s imaginative, horrific and hypnotizing all at the same time. This is a worthy addition to anyone’s collection. –Rob Hudak

Jupiter’s Legacy – Book One
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: Frank Quitely

Image Comics
Street: 04.23

Jupiter’s Legacy, in keeping with the spirit of the “American Dream,” is a melting pot of influences—from Golden Age-era comics to The Incredibles—but, it warps these family-friendly superhero stories into something far more sinister. What is it like to grow up with superheroes for parents, constantly eclipsed by their colossal achievements and do-goodery? Would it slowly eat at us? Do we cope with heavy drug use or even lash out so fiercely that even Zeus would blush? Millar and Quitely seem to retread familiar territory with Jupiter’s Legacy, but it adds more than it detracts. Some scenes are so captivating and cinematic that I find myself turning back pages just to stare or laugh—most notably, the scene where Walter offers cake to Blackstar in a psychic painting. There are more than a few transparent characters and some expository dialogue is pretty weak, but ultimately everything combines to deliver power statements on capitalism, America’s current economic plight, and in reality, falling short of the ideology. I really enjoy Hutch and Chloe as three-dimensional characters and how they try to break the mold cast by their predecessors. I’m excited to see how everything ties up, but it probably means waiting another year for them to finish. –Rob Hudak