Doki Doki Literature Club! review: A must-play game

First off: Spoiler alert.

TL;DR: This FREE meta-game that plays the player is not only an innovative manipulation of genre tropes and a punchy satire, but is also one of the most empathy-inducing games I’ve played to date, combining psychological horror and tearful poignancy in equal measure. HIGHLY recommended. In all. Freakin’. Caps.

This game’s a visual novel, so almost every single thing I could/will say is a spoiler. If you haven’t played it, do so now, and come back when you’re ready.

That said, Doki Doki Literature Club! might be, hands down, one of the best games I’ve played in recent years.

Granted, its art style was average, the dialogue predictable, and the characters fairly generic archetypes, but this game succeeds for two reasons: its plot and the fact that it plays the player.

 

If you’ve done as I told you earlier and played it, you’ll know how predictable it is that Sayori commits suicide. It’s written in every line. From the opening scene, where she runs up having overslept again, my brain went to severe clinical depression (at least, I hope it’s predictable, or that means I’ve known a strangely high amount of very unwell people). Yuri’s subsequent suicide is equally predictable. However, these moments are predictable on purpose, playing Monika becoming self-aware against her inability to do anything about it. The moments have to be obvious, because she can’t actually change her world, just exacerbate its existing qualities, like Sayori’s depression.

Monika’s self-awareness is one of the more subtle parts of the game. The meta-plot of this game–the game itself falling to pieces as the script gets destroyed and rewritten–becomes increasingly tense and horrifying. Visuals glitch, music distorts, the screen zooms in odd ways, and images flicker so quick they border on a subliminal assault on the player’s senses. Then she ‘stops’ time (or, simply draws attention to the fact that time doesn’t exist in her world), which eventually leads to you deleting her. She realizes how much it sucks to get deleted, so she restores everyone else.

Here’s why Doki Doki Literature Club! might be one of the most important games of the past year. When the game resumes and the club continues under the resurrected Sayori’s leadership, she knows everything, just as Monika did. But, if you spent as much time as possible with every available character, Monika doesn’t take over and ‘delete’ the game itself, like usual.

Sayori thanks the player for having tried to help everyone by listening to their problems and bringing them happiness. She appreciates the effort you’ve gone through by saving and loading to experience every path in one run, and says, even if you didn’t get to fall in love with someone, that’s okay.

“We all love you.”

…I can’t recall the last time any game awarded the player for empathy. These last words, full of platonic, appreciative love, aren’t about who you tried to ‘romance’ throughout the game. They’re expressing gratitude that you were a true friend to each possible person.

I’ve played a lot of disturbing games. I grew up on Silent Hill and Fatal Frame, where mutilated bodies were common–where suicide is not a possibility, but an expectation. I’ve played horror, adventure, action, shooters, and RPGs, but even games with morality systems, even the most in-depth games like Legend of Zelda, never held up to this.

Most games that encourage you to do the right thing offer rewards. In Legend of Zelda games, being a hero results in new weapons, heart containers, unlocked areas, and other rewards. Silent Hill games that offered moments to be good to others did so more to inflict horror at your failures rather than pride in your successes. The Fallout games treat morality more as a matter of convenience, as evidenced by perks that reset karma to zero so you can pretend you’ve always been a good person.

Doki Doki Literature Club! is the first time I’ve ever played a game and simply felt glad to have done the right thing. No reward involved, no drastically changed ending, just the characters saying, “Thank you.”

Perhaps its the fourth-wall breaking theme of the characters wondering about their own significance, and if they matter to anyone because they’re a game character with automated friends, but their gratitude at the end makes for a very heartwarming ending.

There aren’t a lot of games out there that encourage empathy these days. There are fewer that do it well. So, more than simply saying I enjoyed DDLC, I respect it, too. It’s a feat of gaming the player at its finest, but those who sift through the files and put in the time to treat each character well are sure to be glad they did.

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4/5 Stars for “Brothel” and “Hysteria” by Stephanie M. Wytovich

If you like dark poetry, you’ve heard her name before. As a long-time fan of her work, I recently gave myself the kick in the seat to actually post reviews of her collections. I’ve only just started Sheet Music to my Acoustic Nightmare, but I have a feeling that’ll be a 5 star rating.

In the meanwhile, here are my thoughts on Hysteria: A Collection of Madness.

No surprise this was nominated for a Bram Stoker award. Horror poetry is hard to come by, but when done right, it’s really compelling. Such is the case with this collection, the debut release of one of the rising stars of dark verse. A few poems didn’t thrill me, but I’m an occult snob, so 666 does nothing for me. Beyond that, these are certainly inventive, and great for anyone looking for horror, poetry, both, or just a solidly good read–or one hell of a coffee table book!

And now, a slightly longer, in-depth review of Brothel.

This truly epic collection of poems by Bram Stoker-winner Stephanie Wytovich continues to combine eloquence with gritty topics. A book titled “Brothel” containing poems like “From Behind” and “Naked” isn’t shy about its contents, and each poem, like another position in the Kama Sutra, embraces a new way to talk about the sleaze and sin of the world’s oldest profession.

The book isn’t all the joys of getting paid to get laid. Some pieces recount struggling with addiction and disorder, while others tell of violent clients who get off on beatings and brandings, but this isn’t a narrator who goes down quietly. This is a fierce collection, told by a narrator who refuses to be a victim. She destroys her abusers, whether physically or through her own voracious appetite, calling to mind Plath’s “Lady Lazarus”: “Out of the ash/ I rise with my red hair/ and I eat men like air.”

Brothel is a book that knows sex is about power, in which succumbing to temptation is simply a part of life. While some individual poems fall flat compared to the more impressive ones, this collection is more than worth the money, so don’t worry. If you’re tempted to read this, hit buy. You’re in for a real good time.

Whether you like or agree with my reviews, you really should be reading her work, so check out the links above to find them on Amazon.

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In the mood to stick around with me for a little while? My Patreon has free fiction, and additional stories for paying subscribers, not to mention a bunch of other goodies. High-paying backers also get promotional opportunities, so it’s great for indie writers and small presses. Check it out!

5 Stars for Jim Goforth’s “Harvester’s Trade”

Self-published work is sometimes a gamble. This is Jim Goforth’s first foray into the self-pub world, and I assure you, he’s doing it right. Harvester’s Trade is exactly the type of succinct, hard-hitting work an author should be producing, regardless of how they publish. Read it here, or read the review below:

This story of visceral horror is an excellent debut into the world of self-publishing. Jim Goforth, a highly regarded writer of this genre, certainly doesn’t hold back, keeping the adrenaline running from start to finish. It’s a quick read–more a sprint than a marathon–but this need to keep things to the point doesn’t impact the ambiance at all.

With ten characters getting relatively equal page time, it can be hard to keep track of them, but they’re distinct enough, and leave enough of a mark on the story, that this problem goes away within the first few pages. The end has enough twists and drive to leave you wanting more about what’s really going on, powered by visuals that could easily be translated to a pretty exciting film.

This’ll keep you glued to your Kindle all evening, so be sure to pick up a copy.

That’s all for now. Stop back soon for more reviews, news, and other fun.

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If you enjoy my reviews, fiction, writing advice, and other posts, or just like me in general, please check out my Patreon. In exchange for helping me afford things like insulin, you get monthly stories, an annual collection, writing advice, and many other rewards. Thanks, friends!

“At the Hands of Madness” review copies available!

Hey everyone!

Just wanted to reach out real quick and say that I’m looking for book bloggers and other reviewers to take a look at my latest release, At the Hands of Madness.

You can post a review on your blog(s), website of your choice, and/or (preferably) Amazon/Goodreads.

DM me on any social media, or hit me up at Kevin.JL.Holton@gmail.com with the subject line REVIEW COPY. Thanks!

Book Review: 5 Stars for Megadrak: Beast of the Apocalypse, by Christofer Nigro

Hi everyone!

As you know, I like reposting the reviews I leave elsewhere to generate more buzz. Good writers deserve all the support they can get, so here’s my 5 star review of Megadrak: Beast of the Apocalypse.

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Kaiju fiction has been getting popular over the last few years, and among the writers dedicated to expanding this untapped genre lies Christofer Nigro, whose latest solo work, Megadrak: Beast of the Apocalypse, embodies all that is great about skyscraper-sized mutant creatures that want to consume all earthly life.

This story is set in Japan, 1954, with the Cold War, as well as the Nagasaki, Hiroshima, and Bikini Atoll nuclear detonations as a backdrop for the end of days. The country, its cities, and its citizens are described with painstaking detail, taking care to render the era with an exacting pen. All the Japanese names may at first be confusing to some American readers, but this is kaiju fiction—few people survive more than five to ten pages past their introduction, so there aren’t many lasting characters to talk about.

Megadrak begins with Goro Takiguchi, a fisherman, whose friend is attacked by a mutated bloodworm, soon to be named Glyceracon. These ravenous, fanged annelids descend on a nearby village, draining scores of bystanders dry while he narrowly escapes. The creatures swarm whoever and whatever they come across, leaving havoc in their wake, seemingly the worst bio-organic threat in written history—until the researchers trying to slow and stop their assault come to the conclusion that they must have been feeding on a far larger food source. One with radioactive blood.

Enter the Big Bad, Medadrak, a draconian daikaiju with a sharp intellect and insatiable appetite for destruction. I won’t spoil what it can do, or what it proceeds to do, but I can say it’s everything a Godzilla fan would want, and more, with a dash of scientific terminology to keep the more detail-oriented readers engaged.

Along with Nigro’s extensive kaiju knowledge comes his expansive vocabulary. It’s not enough to say that reading his work might teach people new words; reading his work will absolutely teach you at least a few. His keen mind for synonyms keeps the wording fresh, yet also provides a journalistic perspective, as if this is being described by an academic or reporter, which works really well for this genre.

This occasionally works against the pacing, as some overly formal wording or lengthy descriptions don’t quite fit in the action of some sequences, especially when it comes to dialog. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between.

Megadrak: Beast of the Apocalypse gives readers exactly what they want. Kaiju fans will get all the giant, city-stomping monster mayhem the genre is known for. Those who are newer to the field will take delight in the smooth introduction, starting with littler creatures and progressing to the bigger ones after you’ve gotten to know the main crew. And yes, there’s a giant monster brawl, because what would a story like this be without one?

Tack on a few scattered moments of mutant humans with extrasensory powers, and Megadrak is clearly the start of a larger universe, if not to say Nigro’s own little kaiju franchise. While no one’s flying around or rewinding time in this particular novel, it’s safe to say this author will deliver on that promise soon. Until then, the Beast of the Apocalypse deserves a place on any monster lover’s shelf.

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If you’d like to help prevent the end of the world, consider pledging to my Patreon! You’ll get monthly fiction, ebooks, and even signed copies. I can’t guarantee this will actually prevent the end of days, but it couldn’t hurt, right?

Book review: 4 stars for Attack of the Kaiju: Age of Monsters (volume 1) anthology

Hey everyone!

Reviews are very important to authors, so after posting on Amazon/Goodreads/wherever, I like to repost here, along with a link to the product. Here’s my 4 star review of Attack of the Kaiju: Age of Monsters (Volume 1), an anthology edited by Matthew Dennion and Neil Riebe. If you buy it, be sure to leave a review, too!

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Attack of the Kaiju: Age of Monsters delivers exactly what the title promises. Within the pages lie 15 stories of giant, smashy, beat-em-up doomsday creatures, each ready to deliver varying degrees of mayhem. As with any anthology, some don’t quite measure up to the others, but there’s enough originality and variety here to attract fans of most genres, so long as there’s a large enough place in their interests for a rampaging megabeast.

Overall, the collection is pretty solid. There are occasionally distracting typos (most notably, a few instances of pluralized words being written with apostrophe-s), but Dennion and Riebe clearly put a lot of care and concern into their work. Several writers, including Dennion, have more than one story in this anthology. This can make some tales feel familiar to the others in terms of writing style, but in a niche genre like this, it makes sense to gather several stories from those that are guaranteed to deliver, rather than scour the earth for newcomers.

Here are individual contents, briefly overviewed:

The Odyssey of Draugr, by Matthew Dennion
A Frankenstein-style kaiju created by Nazi scientists goes on a more or less accidental rampage while looking for companionship. “Nazi experiment gone awry” may not be too original, but it’s one of the few stories, in this collection or otherwise, that I’ve seen feature character development for the beast itself. It’s a refreshing change of pace for a genre that typically depicts its namesakes as a bunch of mindless destroyers.

Hunting Grounds, by Breyden Halverson
Revenge is a dish best served wandering around in a swamp, looking for God-only-knows-what. A research mishap leads to a rapidly mutating kaiju set loose just outside of civilization, and one man’s thirst for blood over his wife’s disappearance may be the only thing preventing the creature from harming innocent people. A little jumpy with the POV, but satisfying in the end.

A Day at the Beach, by Cody Bratsch
Kaiju destruction meets social criticism when three friends take a fresh-out-of-rehab heroin addict on a day trip. While the dialog isn’t always believable, the story deals with the subject matter in an engaging, sensitive way, balancing the existential horror of two massive creatures rendering humans insignificant against the much quieter, personal dread of never full escaping one’s personal demons.

Goregod, by Robert Galvin
Blurring the lines between occultism and mad science, “Goregod” lives up to its name, unleashing all sorts of hell on any biological material nearby. From turning mortals into undead warriors, to resurrecting the skeleton of a long-dead dinosaur in a local museum, the kaiju in this story obeys no rules, and leaves no soul unscathed. Not for the faint of heart, or those who dislike weird/Lovecraftian fiction.

The Price of Violence, by Matthew Dennion
Returning for his second of three stories in this collection, this five-page story goes into the fantasy realm, focusing on a league of fairies trying to prevent a newborn dragon from destroying the land. Rife with ecocriticism and a vaguely solarpunk influence, “The Price of Violence” is very conscious of its place in this collection. However, a lot of ‘telling’ without much ‘showing’ leads to an overbearing moralism in the final moments, unfortunately diminishing the impact of an otherwise very original story.

Poseidon’s Wrath, by Breyden Halverson
A story featuring kaiju inspired by real mythological creatures, this tale focuses on a teenage anti-kaiju combat unit, since the kaiju let off radiation that destroys human immune systems, but this effect is diminished in the young. Ultimately, the protagonist, James, plays second fiddle to the brawl between Poseidon’s brood and a single beast of a far different nature–one that might not want to rule the seas, but protect them, instead.

Sky Horror, by Jesse Wilson
Another fantasy-style piece featuring a fledgling mage sent off to stop a mighty creature from ravaging the locals. The mage, Saziz, soon meets a guy named Bill, and in a story like this, an ordinary name can only mean trouble. There are some loose ends, and other matters that perhaps should’ve been addressed, but the writing itself is solid.

A Hard Day at the Office, by Timothy Price
One of the more unique stories here, if only because it’s set entirely in one man’s corner skyscraper corner office, overlooking the city as it comes to destruction. There’s a far more personal story here, as we’re limited to his thoughts, rather than given an overarching view of incredible destruction, but those who’ve come for carnage will still find the ending they’re looking for.

Massive, by Alex Dumitru
Fans of Ant-Man will love this story of a regular human being who, through science and a special suit the narrator doesn’t even pretend to understand, can grow to a “Massive” size, fighting the kaiju in a one-on-one grudge match. There’s a vague threat of something terrible happening if his suit’s battery runs out, but this is never full explained or capitalized, undercutting the tension. Still, reading about a human punching a hundreds-of-feet-tall monster in the face is an easy thing to love.

Four Horsemen, by Zach Cole
Though it draws from obvious source material, “Four Horsemen” is still a clever piece of kaiju fiction, with four beasts descending from asteroids to lay waste to Earth. When society appears destroyed, they turn on each other–and the survivor faces off against a human warrior, neurologically linked to a battle mech constructed from scrap metal. Anyone who wants a religiously-inspired Pacific Rim style story will get a kick out of this one.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Roof Top Ripper, by Matthew Dennion
For his third and final story here, Dennion gives us a story featuring The Great Detective against a creature that, by all accounts, shouldn’t still exist. Another tale of ecologically-inspired events, this one more subtle, it tracks an older, Waston-less Holmes as Scotland Yard calls on him one final time–to stop a series of murders that, according to all evidence and human limitations, shouldn’t be possible. It’s a slower story than the others, but necessarily so, considering the source material.

Christmas Wish, by Jesse Wilson
When a young boy makes a Christmas without thinking through the consequences, a giant red gorilla with a flaming skull appears to deliver havoc onto his little town. The only way to stop it is by summoning his hero, an Ice Dragon of mythic proportions, but all wishes come with consequences. It’s kaiju-meets-the-monkey’s-paw for this story, though the dialog isn’t always that natural.

Bringing of Chaos, by Breyden Halverson
A deranged older scientist resurrects a prehistoric kaiju, Tiamat, also known as Chaos, to essentially commit a monster-themed purge of society’s evils. Naturally, this doesn’t go according to plan, and it soon becomes apparent that there’s more than one massive creature lurking in the shadowy corners of the globe. The character development feels too fast, but there are some interesting twists and turns here.

The Criminal and the Kaiju, by Christofer Nigro
Drawing on his long-standing love of the genre, Nigro delivers a story full of varied, dynamic characters, swapping perspectives as needed to show his kaiju from every angle. Though this can get a little disorienting, it’s another human-becomes-god-sized piece, leading to a rather epic session of mano-a-mano action. The narration/word choice can get in the way of the pacing/tension, but it’s one of the harder-hitting stories here.

Noregon, the Blue Steel Kaiju, by Neil Riebe
In what’s apparently his first work of original fiction, Riebe delivers a novel premise: in a world full of giant monsters, a cabal of shadowy figures have learned to psychically control these beasts, using them to wage war instead of using their respective armed forces. While it never feels like Noregon’s actually in danger, this creature’s internal struggles fuel the plot quite well. Told from the beast’s perspective, this has the most kaiju character development of any story I’ve read in the genre, leading to the perfect ending for this unique collection.

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