Wednesday, August 7, 2019
The Bookwyrm's Review of 8-Bit Bastards: Level One and Two by Joshua Mason
Author: Joshua Mason
Length: 267 Pages/ 9 hours, 47 Minutes
Release Date: June 6, 2019/ December 17, 2019 (Audio)
Publisher: Bebuka Books/ Spectrum Audiobooks (Audio)
Narrator: Michael Norman Johnson
Rating: 5/5 Stars
For me, LitRPG is very hit or miss genre. Luckily, 8-Bit Bastards is definitely in the hit category. avoiding a lot of the pitfalls I see in a lot of LitRPG, like five pages of stats, harem tacked on that doesn't advance the story and flat characters. It starts with an intriguing premise and runs with it, developing layers as the story proceeds.
The story starts with Sean, who is on day 82 of a game and junk food binge, when a knock on his door changes his trajectory in life. Heather, with whom Sean had a three year relationship with long ago, has news that draws Sean out of his self imposed funk. One of their descendants is in trouble, and only Sean and Heather can help. considering they have 700 years experience where they are, it should be no problem, right?
Wait, did I say 700 years? That's right, I did. The story takes place in the digital realm of Afterall, which up until 50 years before the story starts, those with the resources could have their consciousness uploaded to Afterall, leaving mortal life behind forever. Afterall has been closed to new players for 50 years, but the occasional person hacks in, but the results aren't pretty, since they are stuck by the control AI, Bartelby, in the 8-Bit realm, an homage to old 8-bit games. Think the original Zelda or Phantasy Star on Nintendo and Sega. The problem is it slowly drives players crazy, so having Pliny, their descendent stuck there won't work.
After talking to Bartleby, and being given some mental protection from the 8-bit realm, Sean and Heather proceed to put Sean's old adventuring guild, the 8-Bit Bastards, back together to go find Pliny. The problem is, Sean burned his bridges with both other members of the Bastards, Matt and Claudia, centuries ago, and they are still mad at him. Sleeping with a guy's wife and sister will leave a few sore feelings. Sean and Heather do manage to get them to put aside their differences, and they proceed to the 8-Bit realm.
Once they cross the river into the realm, they discover things aren't exactly as they remember. For one thing, they go from maxed out, multi-class epic level characters all the way down to weaponless, classless level one Sprouts. This means they will have to grind and level up the hard way. Also, they discover Pliny is ahead of them, questing on his own, so they need to do all this while chasing after him. What follows if a fun adventure filled with adventures, mob grinding, player class adding and enough snark and game culture references to choke a shark. All the while, Sean, Claudia, Heather and Mark each notices little things that just seem odd to the realm, and slowly start seeing that all may not be what it seems, leading to their eventual confrontation with the Boss of the region. Or is it?
In Level 2, Sean, Mark, Heather and Claudia have defeated their first boss foe, and have to enter the castle looking for Sean and Heather's ancestor. After entering the castle, the group discovers they are trapped within. They also start seeing weird stuff, as the 8 bit realm seems to be acting even more strangely than usual. Searching around the castle library for clues, Mark disappears, and his friends become desperate searching for him. Things start getting a little crazy from here, as they meet and old Teammate, Roger, who is also stuck in the castle. He warns them of a new threat in the castle, and lets them know they aren't nearly leveled up to deal with it. He offers to take them with him to level up, since he is maxed out, and his high level enemies, will shoot their levelling up to extremes.
Meanwhile, Mark has fallen through a trap door and is wandering tunnels under the castle, where he encounters Pliny, who they have been searching for from the beginning. Things get complicated when they encounter Tevera, the giant snake boss in the castle, who has a much darker and more powerful purpose than the group would imagine. When the group finally reassembles after a series of adventures in the castle, they find out that this encounter in the castle is not random, and that there is a threat to the entire world they never expected, with an unknown enemy pulling the strings.
WORLD BUILDING AND CHARACTERS
Since Afterall is a digital world, anything imaginable can be created there. There are of course tons of fantasy elements, but the inhabitants can mix and match elements in any of the realms that aren't the 8-Bit Realm, so you will see anachronisms like Star Wars Endor speeders or a Tron light cycle going into a fantasy realm where they run across wyverns. The 8-Bit realm based on those old games, so its lots of pixilated bright colors and sounds. The NPC's are also true to form, so there's a lot of pre-programmed responses, but there's also some underlying depth as well.
The characters really shine. Sean has an interesting arc, starting out as an apathetic burnout who is looking for some meaning to a life spent wasted, and really going through some character growth. The other Bastards also have some interesting arcs, although Sean's is the most profound, since he was the most fundamentally broken. The secondary characters get some attention, and you feel there is more to them than the basic responses programmed into them. The AI's are especially interesting, although not in a Skynet kind of way. it's funny watching their interactions with the Bastards. there is a lot of humor scattered throughout, with some hilarious running jokes. After you're through reading it, you will never think of cheese cubes or biscuits the same way. There's much more character to the characters than you would expect, and there are some twists and turns along the way.
The narration is ably handled Michael Norman Johnson. I was unfamiliar with him before this book, but I have to say, he is a great find. He has just the perfect voice for this book, having a humorous snarky quality to his voice. He does an excellent job giving individual life to each of the characters, and his narrative pacing is excellent. He really keeps the listener engaged in the narrative. I think the addition of a little music and various sound effects throughout was well done, adding a fun touch to a fun story.
After I finished reading Volume One, I was immediately interested in getting into the follow-up, Level Two. After reading book two and listening to the omnibus collection, I discovered the plan is for a much longer arc than expected (Nine!) and am thrilled at the prospect to continue with the series. This is such an engaging story, with such engaging characters, that it immediately shot into my top three Lit RPG titles, alongside James Hunter's Viridian Gate: Cataclysm and J.A. Cipriano's Soulstone: Skeleton Key. I highly recommend it to any fans of the LitRPG or GameLit genre's, and it will even appeal to fans of more traditional fantasy. With two books released so far, you have 500+ pages of fun reading so far, as well as almost 10 hours of audio goodness!