Monday, April 02, 2007

Ptolus: City By The Spire Review

Issue 6 of Monte Cook's Ptolus: City By The Spire miniseries comes out this week.

And so, because we here at 2GBC are committed to providing the most in-depth objective consumer analysis... ha ha, no, I am kidding. Like 90% of all bloggers, we are just egocentric fanboys with access to the Internet.

Anyhoo, Special Guest Blogger Keith joins the 2GBC army (ok, it's more of a national guard) today! Keith works with us at Frobozz Software, is a gaming enthusiast, and is just the man to evaluate the Ptolus series thus far, as he's well acquainted with the source material and, um, actually bought the comics.

Take it away, Keith!


Before I begin with typing up a review I should probably explain who I am and what compells me to write a review.

I am a gamer. I am not what some people would call a "comic fan". Sure, I have dabbled a bit here and there, mostly flipping through the pages and looking at the pretty art, but very few comics even capture my attention, much less make me want to shell out some cash.

But when I learned that Monte Cook had done a comic series and the first 5 of 6 were out, I thought that was all sorts of cool and shelled out cash on the spot.

And it was cash well spent.

Finally, as I write my review, I tend to be nit-picky. Some people think that means I didn't enjoy what I nitpick. Some people would be wrong.

== The Review ==

Comic one starts with our Heroine standing on a hill top she identifies as the Noble Quarter and a brief lead in to her being hired for a job. In here starts a recurring line of issues for a casual reader. Basically, as you read this and the rest, a lot of characters and places and houses get introduced. And most get introduced in name only. For those that play a story significance (like here where she is hired by the house of Khatru) they lack an appropriate amount of structure to identify their importance. And in other cases, people or places are introduced and then never addressed again, so they seem out of place.

I made a mental list of the top three items that were the largest downfalls.

This in my top three offender list: Too much name dropping, not enough name definition

All that said, she does introduce the city and that she is a well-off semi-retired adventurer. It gives a nice two-page spread of the city elevation and thankfully, it stuck with the cannon city description, giving Dungeon Masters (DMs) (of the Table-Top D&D game) a great visual for their players too. In fact, if there is a quality to this comic that DMs are sure to enjoy, it is a great set of visuals for same of the places and people in the city.

Speaking of visuals, the artwork in all but #4 are top quality and have a great level of detail. I'll come to the #4 issue in a bit. (And - Oh it's coming - )

The colorwork is just beautiful. To show a scene on issue 2:


Moving onward, Sheva's (the heroine) best friend is introduced - a ghost named Parnell. They have an exchange of plot hooks and then the story moves on. This scene was a great introduction to Parnell - but it's not the only one - which becomes another top three offender: Rehashing the story inside the story.

Seriously - start the comic with a "What came before" section and leave it out. It is frustrating to the reader to read the same stuff that was hashed in one comic immediately in the next. It is an interruption.

Fortunately, at Issue 4, they *did* start printing a "what came before" section and that helped noticably in reducing repetition.

With the story exposition over, Sheva swings to action and starts her "job". The action from here on is very reminscent of a D&D module and I loved it. Put simply - it introduces obstacles and then takes care of them in very D&D manner. She sneaks past the city patrol, scales a wall, deals with guards, that sort of thing. And about the middle of the first issue she introduces one of the big plot devices - her sword - a blade of legendary power called a "hungersword".

Now, if the comic is guilty of not enough definition, this is one place where it becomes really apparent. The sword is named and that's it. Later (in a different issue no less) Sheva even remarks "I bet you know what it does to those it slays" to some foes. The big flaw here is that the reader is never told. While the Ptolus D&D game setting goes over hungerswords, I suspect not all readers will either remember the lore or even have been introduced to it.

So, while I am on that subject, let me shore it up. There are six hungerswords. Each has an adamantite blade and bone hilt. It is an unholy sword of the highest magical caliber core D&D has to offer. It can make it's weilder immune to immediate-death effects or it can unleash a death ray once per day. It can absorb spells that are cast by good-aligned characters and then use the absorbed energy to make the wielder able to more easily strike a foe with the weapon. It bestows negative levels to foes it strikes (meaning they get weaker until they just die outright). In the D&D material however, there is absolutely no mention that it's especially bad (moreso than normal that is) to actually be slain by one. And finally, the big deal with the swords is that there is a rumor that if a specific spell could be cast on all six at once, that spell would make them even MORE beefy (able to kill with any contact with the blade).

So yeah, that's pretty heavy. And unfortunately, the story just sort of leaves it unsaid.

Finishing off the first comic, one of the ignoble houses is more properly introduced (yay) and a sword battle commences. The end of Issue 1 is nothing short of yummy comic eye-candy. And ends with a cliff hanger.

Now, I know that cliff hangers are sort of the standard with comics (for marketing purposes I'm sure) but in the sense that these comics are written with a modular feel, it disappoints to be cliff hung more than it delivers. If each issue didn't have to finish the hangar from the last, it would be a self-enclosed story each time. In short:

Issue 1: Character is set up
Issue 2: Party gathering and info gathering
Issue 3: Infiltration
Issue 4: Build to climax
Issue 5: Climax and "To Action"
Issue 6: Denoument

But as it is, there is some bleed over from previous issues.

After Issue 2 closes out Issue 1, Sheva goes to the (D&D classic stereotype alert!!) inn to pick up some party members. She calls in a spell casty type and a nimble fingers / crafty type. The halfling (the nimble fingers) is great. His interaction with the party really goes a long way toward defining character in all three of the party cast. Plus - he's just plain cool. The invisibility scene is a classic.

In a manner that propels this comic, they waste almost no time getting right back in to the action breaking in to a warehouse in order to interrogate a person on a lead. In fact: this scene when you see it is so rewarding, that it feels wrong for all the right reasons:

Touche` Mr. Rogue. Touche`.

After the yummy action scenes, the issue leaves off with another cliffhanger. This one is the only one that is appropriately placed, I think, as the next issue starts with that cliffhanger and runs with it. Plus the transition from the two issues is pretty sharp.

From Issue 3, the protagonists research and hatch their plan for infiltration. In D&D stereotype once again, it involves mucking around in the sewer and a crypt. And for the part of them being in a sewer and a crypt, there is all sorts of ewww thrown in (appropriately).

In the middle of the issue for a few pages, the issue four artist makes his appearance. The style takes a sharp turn. Unfortunately, it is most apparent on the halfling. Frankly, his look becomes simply "goofy" for a few pages. To see what I mean, allow me to show you, the reader, a side-by-side of halfling "cool" versus halfling "silly". The other party members are similarly affected.

Now, the artist that did these panels and apparently all of Issue 4 is a better artist than I am but clearly not the skill and style as the original. While I do appreciate having a comic to read, it's a shame that it could not be done with the original artist. I am going to hereby call them "normal artist" versus "uber artist". Hopefully the labels don't offend anyone.

In a rare moment in comics (Chris affirms), the middle of this issue does launch in to a last minute get-it-open-or-we-die moment of the rogue picking open a lock. This two page stretch really expresses the value of rogues in D&D and does it very well. Put simply, the value of a trap finder and lock picker is unquestionable once this strip is over. And it too, works well.

The strip uses magic from time to time where the specific spell isn't necessarily known by a common reader but the fact it's magic is quite apparent. Magic makes an appearance a few times in this issue and each time, it's a minor but obvious detail and one that goes a long way toward establishing the mood of a magic-infused world. I must say that I really enjoyed it.

And then finally, we end at "The Lich".

Liches in D&D are usually one of the memorable battles. The Lich is played well in that his words and character are expressed well, but the fact that he is 100% drawn by "normal artist" is disappointing at best. This strikes me as one of those monsters that could have had a cool factor off the normal scale. He ends with simply "cool".

So, now that I've mentioned it a few times, top three offender list item: Clear artist change.

Yeah, it's that big of a difference.

In Issue 4, we got a nice introduction to the Necropolis and a new villain. That opening does tie up a loose end as well, but I am trying to leave a few things for the reader to experience on their own and that is one. Overall, well done, but once again, the significance of that person isn't really introduced. Being another player in the larger game, it can easily leave a reader overwhelmed by the cast of characters.

And then, the Lich fight. The fight makes wonderful use of magic and for the first time, the other character, the wizard, really shines through. In fact, the two (the wizard and the Lich) fighting magically is perhaps one of the best mage to mage duels I have read in a long time.

Which only amplifies the confusion I have over what happened between the Lich summoning his "Spell of Power" and a room in shambles... Seriously, did they miss a few panels or something? Why is the Lich all of a sudden just gone and the fight is over?

But it gets even more rediculous. This is the last time I will mention the artwork, but come on. A new character, the Iron Mage, is introduced. This strikes me as the extreme example of a "just give us some filler" that I have seen. It's pretty pathetic really.

Here is a three cell comparison - the first two taken from this issue, by "normal artist" and the last taken from issue 5 when we get back to "uber artist".

Night and Day.

"Bucket Head" to "OMFG Cool". Anyone who saw Issue 4 Iron Mage and was as disappointed at how silly he looked I hope made it to Issue 5 because in Issue 5 he becomes a character with - well - character.

In the finishing of this issue, Sheva finds an item she is looking for and a helpful character turns out to be a little less helpful than he originally appeared. Nice twist actually.

Unfortunately, much of this issue is low-action and feels like filler.

But where Issue 4 didn't deliver, Issue 5 delivers in mass quantity.

Issue 5 is best paraphrased as the action issue. Not only does it sum up all the efforts that came before but the turning of the tide during the battle scene (of which is pretty much the entire comic) back and forth is impessive to say the least.

In this issue, you find how just how much of a bad-ass some of the characters are. They need a new scale I think.

My only gripe with this issue is that apparently during the battle, two characters have a hungersword. The protagonist and one antagonist. Both drop their swords. One ends up being run off with. Based on the closing text (the "thriller text" that foreshadows the next episode) I have to assume that was the protagonists sword. But it's not clear within the comic itself.

But seriously, I look forward to issue 6.

Despite the shortcoming I listed, I really liked this comic series and for anyone either D&D fan or Fantasy fan I would recommend you purchase a copy.

Hell, after writing this up, I think I need to go back and enjoy them again.

And thanks for letting me blog here, Chris and Randy.


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Blogger kelvingreen said...

I just can't believe that Monte Cook's home campaign has a comic book spinoff.

8:42 AM  

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