Pony Island Review — Indie Torture Chamber

by Jed Pressgrove

In its simplest form, Pony Island is an endless-runner game in which you control a pony that must jump hurdles and shoot enemies. But within minutes it’s obvious that designer Daniel Mullins only intends to mess with you, doling out hackneyed meta tricks like the game “crashing” and an omniscient presence telling you what you should do. While some of these jokes might be fun at first (the options screen that goes awry is the most inspired part), Mullins wears out every idea, much like Davey Wreden did in The Stanley Parable, with the apparent goal of impressing easily amused hip gamers.

Like The Stanley Parable, Pony Island encourages the nonsensical, anti-intellectual stance that you can’t talk about the game without spoiling it. Thus, discussing Pony Island can be as big of a joke as the game itself, resulting in everything from Zoe Quinn’s hideous “Top 10 Games of 2014” entry to Angus Morrison’s hesitant interpretation to Jim Sterling’s admittance that Pony Island partly exists to “show off how clever the developer is.”

To my knowledge, no critic has answered this question yet: how clever is it to offer a hacking exercise for numbskulls? Pony Island presents coding puzzles where the only object is to make sure you position arrow icons so that the next part of the game can be unlocked. Other sections reinforce a sense of utter pointlessness, such as when you must chase around a window with a mouse cursor or engage in inane instant-messenger conversations with paranoid characters. Since Pony Island is a game within a game that does not want to be played, the real solution is to stop praising indie sadists like Mullins whose work is just as vapid as the popular, conventional video games they sneer at.

Battlefield 1 Review — The Empathy Dollar

by Jed Pressgrove

With Battlefield 1, publisher Electronic Arts taps into the “empathy” market established by the likes of Journey and Gone Home — games that want you to tear up regardless of whether they say anything substantial. Although many journalists have said otherwise, there is nothing outstanding about Battlefield 1 taking place during World War 1 and trying to be sensitive about the lives that were lost (have most critics forgotten about the admittedly forgettable Valiant Hearts?). Battlefield 1, more than anything else, is a new league for a popular sport with the goal of gaining new fans through the pretense of historical perspective.

Battlefield 1’s intro manages to capture the chaos of war in a way that only a video game can. When you die in this scene, you see the name of your deceased character as well as his fictional date of birth and death before Battlefield 1 throws you into the role of another soldier. The effect is jarring as you sort out where you are in relation to allies and enemies after a character switch, only to fulfill the preceding narrative: “What follows is frontline combat. You are not expected to survive.” Despite the intro’s predictable tokenization of the Harlem Hellfighters (you only learn names and dates, not personalities), this sequence holds its own against great opening scenes of war movies like Saving Private Ryan in how it dismantles any notion of glory.

The rest of the single-player campaign reminds one that Battlefield 1 is just another entry in a series that uses history as a playground. While the campaign offers five character arcs, the overall story doesn’t provide any fresh, meaningful context for the conflict, as it limits your perspective to that of the British, Italian, American, and Australian armies and forces led by Lawrence of Arabia, one of the most glorified heroes of World War I. Even if you take these tales for what they are, they come up short against superior fiction. For example, the tank-focused “Through Mud and Blood” arc begs for a comparison with David Ayer’s 2015 film Fury but is far too neat in its depiction of conflict, failing to match Fury’s provocative commentary on the role of masculinity and morality in wartime.

Battlefield 1 proclaims that World War I “ended nothing” but “changed the world forever,” but it’s difficult to feel this statement among contrivances that obliterate the suspension of disbelief needed to instill the sense that you are looking at a war and not a new map for an eSport. Stray too far from a path in order to better flank enemies, and the game will tell you to “return to combat area.” Not only does this prompt announce the real purpose of Battlefield 1 (competition in a regulated space), it shows a lack of imagination from the developers in terms of designing a world that doesn’t seem artificial and behind the times. During “The Runner” arc, I stopped caring altogether about the story and action because blades of grass stopped my bullets while I was on the ground firing a rifle. Every time you die, you see the current protagonist’s name and lifespan before you jump back into an arena of varied and attractive combat options. This monotony reveals the truth: Battlefield 1 desensitizes one to death like most first-person shooters. As long as we keep competing, Electronic Arts doesn’t mind if World War I remains largely misunderstood.

Virginia Review — Cut the Crap

by Jed Pressgrove

“Play Feature.” With this main-menu item, Virginia directors Jonathan Burroughs and Terry Kenny imply their game is a movie waiting to come to life. To their credit, Virginia often incorporates the cut, a common film technique, while you play as protagonist Anne Tarver; most movie-wannabe games reserve cuts for a cutscene, when players tend to only have the option of watching or skipping the scene in question. As such, Virginia’s editing is refreshing in some cases, as when you walk in a hall and suddenly find yourself in a stairwell, knowing you would have arrived there anyway without the cut. Sadly, this good idea can’t save the game’s brutal combination of no dialogue and a rambling plot, which touches on everything from a missing-person case to the dehumanizing effects of internal investigations to a secret society, with metaphors to spare.

At the beginning of Virginia, it’s hard not to think of David Cage’s Heavy Rain (remastered earlier this year) when you take control of FBI agent Anne Tarver as she looks in a bathroom mirror. Besides their obvious debt to movies, both Heavy Rain and Virginia ask the player to engage in mundane activities like getting ready for the day. Such events in Heavy Rain suggest a universality that connects us as human beings, with Cage’s constant requirement of timed button presses serving as a commitment — equally inspiring and laughable — to the repetitions of life. Burroughs and Kenny take a different approach to the mundane in Virginia, putting a little circle in the middle of the screen that represents the center of the player-controlled camera. As Tarver, you look around until that little circle becomes a diamond, which indicates you can press a button to make something happen.

So in the bathroom in Virginia, you press a button to open Tarver’s purse, and you press that button again to apply her lipstick. Compared to similar sequences in Heavy Rain, one could say this action is mercifully brief, but it could have been absent without compromising the tale. In other scenes, you have to advance the story by drinking coffee, which comes across as a weird excuse for the player to move that little circle around to find the diamond. With this throwaway action, it’s almost as if Burroughs and Kenny are struggling to find a reason for Virginia to be a game rather than a full-length movie feature.

With its lack of dialogue, Virginia begs to be compared to silent movies, but this comparison exposes the storytelling of Burroughs and Kenny as cinematic amateurism at best. On the simplest level, Virginia’s plot has too many wacky details, some of which are nothing more than dreams or hallucinations. Given Virginia’s normal-looking town hiding a sordid underbelly, Burroughs and Kenny clearly enjoy the work of David Lynch, but mimicking Lynch in a silent-movie context makes no sense with this story, especially without intertitles to clue the audience in on basics like character relationships and motivations.

Virginia also needs more diverse visuals. As mentioned before, the cuts in Virginia often serve to reduce the time it takes the player to travel, but it’s not compelling to watch this idea multiple times while Tarver rides in the passenger seat of a car for whatever reason. Burroughs and Kenny also utilize flashbacks that, in addition to recycling old imagery, can lead one’s brain astray in a dialogue-less game where events of the present are not always clear. Here we arrive at a wicked irony: while Virginia, with the usage of cuts, presents itself as a game that trims unneeded material, it still seems monotonous and confusing.

The Voter Suppression Trail Review — Partisan Lines

by Jed Pressgrove

The Voter Suppression Trail shows that developing a video game is like playing a guitar: almost anybody can do it, but that doesn’t mean you should. As part of The New York Times’ Op-Docs series, The Voter Suppression Trail parodies the well-known computer game The Oregon Trail under the guise of being a funny, informative indictment of Republican-led strategies to disenfranchise nonwhite voters in the United States. Unfortunately, creators Chris Baker, Brian Moore, and Mike Lacher don’t seem to be aware that their nostalgia-ridden joke doesn’t treat the important issue of voting with the respect it needs in the globally embarrassing election year of 2016.

In The Voter Suppression Trail, you play as either a white, Latino, or black character during an election. I first played as the white voter, and the game only lasted a minute. The character didn’t have to wait in line and faced no obstacles near the voting booth. The message is if you are white, you can vote no matter what, even though the game specifies the character is a Californian programmer — hardly a good representation of the average white person in many states, but the figure does confirm a myopic understanding of the world.

When you play as the Latino and black characters, you immediately join a very long line of people outside of a building, but the situation comes across as a cold presupposition rather than a dramatic event that can lead one to humane understanding. This is when Baker, Moore, and Lacher showcase their juvenile and forced sense of humor. Playing off the famous “You have died of dysentery” line in The Oregon Trail, the game says the following when you play as the Latino voter: “Your son has dysentery. Will you leave the line and pick him up from school?” By shoehorning a reference to a common problem in 19th-century pioneer survival, The Voter Suppression Trail makes its point about voter disenfranchisement difficult to take seriously, eliminating virtually any chance of the game changing how anyone thinks or feels in a political sense.

The black-voter story is not much better. As this character, you are told that you better go back to work instead of staying in line. If you stay in line, the consequence is taking a dock in pay from a boss who, not so coincidentally, supports Donald Trump. Later, the game says one of your coworkers has dysentery. If you don’t agree to take over the coworker’s shift, you get this Telltale-like message: “Your coworker dislikes you.” With cheap line after cheap line, The Voter Suppression Trail trivializes the nonwhite experiences its creators supposedly want the audience to care about. Of course, none of this matters when you consider the real point behind The Voter Suppression Trail: giving Democrat-leaning players a(nother) reason to feel morally superior. Here’s looking forward to swell election commentary in 2020.

Manual Samuel Review — Narrate This

by Jed Pressgrove

When you take control of the massively disabled wealthy protagonist in Manual Samuel, you have to manually perform actions we take for granted in both video games and life: breathing, blinking, and walking. Developer Perfectly Paranormal’s superficial purpose for this concept is physical comedy and challenge; Sam will, for instance, do the splits if you mistakenly press the right- or left-foot button two consecutive times (Manual Samuel is one of the only games that could be smartly called a walking simulator). The experience is a hoot thanks to good animation and how tied up your fingers can get in what is usually a failed attempt to move Sam without awkward pauses. It’s Brian Sommer’s narration, though, that makes Manual Samuel special, infusing the slapstick with class-based schadenfreude, as when you assist Sam with two steps: “Good job, Sam! You are very good at existing!”

The story starts as Sam is having dinner with his girlfriend and being, as Sommer puts it, a douche. From the start, Sommer represents the envy and dislike that players might have for someone like conceited, spoiled, and stupid Sam. Indeed, when Sam needs your help after losing control of his body due to freak injury, you might laugh at his failure even if it’s due to your poor timing. After arm spasms cause Sam to tip his barrister, Sommer takes aim at the character’s previous rich-boy arrogance: “He really was hit hard on the head.”

As you progress in Manual Samuel, you might find yourself more sympathetic for Sam despite Sommer’s almost-hidden glee at seeing the rich in pain. For one, Sam gains perspective on the morbid prospect of being a working-class citizen when he dies and goes to Hell (one of the more memorable depictions of the setting in games), where new arrivals are forced to stand in line to be assigned a job and “become functioning souls of society.” It’s also hard not to feel for Sam when you meet his mean and detached father, who thinks his son doesn’t live up to the high standards that brought the family wealth.

But Manual Samuel cranks up its demands for hand-eye coordination in driving and combat sequences, which, more than likely, will have you thinking more about your own frustrations with such obstacles than any class and interpersonal implications of Sam’s state. The happy ending also pulls away from class-influenced emotion, with little moral point other than Sam not being an asshole to his girlfriend. Thankfully, the script avoids the superiority complex of The Stanley Parable (and its haughty narrator Kevin Brighting) when Sommer berates the game’s own notion of speedrunning through its ridiculous scenes. In the same concluding speech, Sommer reveals he is an American doing a British accent, further cementing one of the best voice-acting jobs in video-game history.

Oxenfree Review — Dial-Up Horror

by Jed Pressgrove

Oxenfree writer/director Adam Hines makes caring about people in a horror story too difficult. Piss-poor aesthetics is the primary major problem, which you can see right off the bat when the game introduces its main characters — Alex, Jonas, and Ren — riding a boat to a deserted island. The three teenagers look like unimaginative Xbox 360 avatars that have found themselves in a nice painting, and different-colored word balloons pop up every time they speak, further clashing with Heather Gross’ superior surrounding art. With this goofy, nagging mismatch of visual styles, Oxenfree appears to be stuck between a hope to be quirky and a desire to make audiences consider the ghosts that haunt human relationships.

For the first half of the game, you might wonder why you should care about the tension between the three teens and their two friends, Nona and Clarissa. Most of the interpersonal issues result from the fact that two of the characters are annoying and one-dimensional: Ren is always bouncing off walls, while Clarissa seems to harbor negativity for no good reason. This limitation is especially problematic given that you are supposed to rescue these two misfits after Alex, urged by Jonas and Ren, opens a triangular portal in a cave, transporting the teens to different parts of the island. The prospect of having to listen to Ren or Clarissa again does not serve as motivation to solve Oxenfree’s easy but tedious puzzles, which mostly amount to tuning a radio with an analog stick until the controller starts vibrating.

Until Oxenfree requires you to grapple with the death of Alex’s brother Michael (who dated Clarissa) and to consider how you should treat characters while trying to escape the island, the bits of dialogue that you choose as Alex seem inconsequential. In fact, since the game doesn’t force you to do anything when a dialogue choice appears, I sometimes didn’t select a response because the conversations tended to float around the trivial, such as whether a tree looks interesting or not. Even worse, the voice acting and avatar movements often come off as too calm and restrained during crucial emotional moments, such as when two of the friends watch someone inexplicably commit suicide. During a large part of Oxenfree, the cast acts like it is auditioning for a Wes Anderson movie, giving off a privileged, blasé attitude that runs counter to the notion of empathy.

In the second half of Oxenfree, when the characters start behaving more like people who have seen triangular portals, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena, you start to feel something as the one pulling some of Alex’s strings. Unfortunately, Clarissa’s emotions, which drive so much of the dilemma in the story, are not explored enough despite the fact that I, by chance, triggered a revealing conversation between Alex and Nona about Clarissa’s sweet side. If anything, perhaps Oxenfree should have been about the player assuming the role of Clarissa, not the consistently straightforward Alex. The choice to make Alex the star points to this idea that female characters shouldn’t be complicated, and if they are, you should not comprehend their feelings. For playing it safe with Alex, and for not establishing aesthetics and dialogue that directly connect the audience to an uneasy realization about the effects of death on human interaction, Oxenfree is just another island to get stuck on.

Mafia III Review — Fighting Racism with Stereotypes

by Jed Pressgrove

Mafia III is the most pretentious game of 2016, opening with a few lines about how it takes racism seriously but operating like a Grand Theft Auto clone that uses violent superficial visions of minorities like countless other crime stories. Although the game admits its setting is a fictionalized (read: BS) version of 1968 New Orleans, it seems unaware of its many other facades, including the unconvincing conscience of a minister.

Director Haden Blackman and writer Bill Harms so casually display moral cowardice and contradictions in their messaging that you have to consider the possibility that Mafia III has an unpleasant gimmick: exploiting current U.S. racial tension for dramatic intrigue, regardless of whether anything pressing or meaningful is communicated. You play as Lincoln Clay, a black veteran of the Vietnam War on a quest for vengeance against the Italian mobsters who killed his family. As its introductory statement implies, Mafia III doesn’t shy away from racial slurs directed toward Clay and other black characters, but that the story takes place in the late 1960s both makes the game more politically correct (hindsight is 20/20) and lets audiences, both conservative and liberal, off the hook for present-day racism. After all, who would want urgent moral consideration to get in the way of enjoying Mafia III’s serviceable (but historically unimpressive) driving, shooting, and stealth sequences?

At first, Mafia III appears to want to shed a sympathetic light on oppressed people of color who are driven to extreme actions because of their circumstances. Clay shares an observation about Vietnamese soldiers that Mafia III intends as a parallel to black Americans: “You put people against a wall, they will do anything to survive.” The problem is that Mafia III, much like the sci-fi film District 9 that a lot of white people loved, portrays droves of darker-skinned people as inherently violent rather than recognizable human beings. Before Clay is betrayed, he is shown and described as a natural killer, and the game wants you to get off on not only this idea but also insensitive perspectives on ethnic groups, as demonstrated in the mission titled “Kill the Haitians.” By trying to make violent black stereotypes fun, by juxtaposing its understanding for Vietnamese people with the usual crime-fiction disregard for Haitians as a group, Mafia III shoots its claim about good intentions in the head and robs its revenge story of the intended moral outrage. (Imagine the conservative commentary that might come after the “Kill the Haitians” mission: “All of that black-on-black crime.”)

In every attempt to provide moral commentary, Mafia III comes off as hypocritical or amoral. The game offers Father James as a character with a conscience about Clay’s path. When Clay informs Father James he intends on killing everybody in the Italian mob, Father James says killing anyone beside the leader would be immoral and inadvisable. Later, Clay tells Father James that his “turn the other cheek” philosophy doesn’t work in the real world, but this debate is laughable given that Father James endorses murder as long as it’s controlled and in the best interests of one’s family or community. One of the game’s endings even confirms that Father James has little moral or spiritual conviction.

Mafia III believes that it can be serious about historical discrimination without acknowledging how racial and ethnic stereotypes in crime fiction might confirm long-standing prejudicial views and assumptions. The Italians in Mafia III don’t just illustrate the notion of white violence against blacks; their one-dimensional characterizations conform to the caricature of the Italian criminal. But this sort of cliched writing is a logical antecedent to a wealth of missions involving racially and ethnically charged violence that is supposed to be pleasant. Those who criticize Mafia III’s action as too repetitive might miss a larger point: the creators of Mafia III are all for cyclical violence because, as the Grand Theft Auto series has demonstrated, that type of rush sells more often than articulate, compassionate, and self-reflective discussion on race. As long as Mafia III convinces people of color that it cares and white people that they don’t have to feel as guilty anymore, it will appear to transcend its genre’s typical lack of originality and sensitivity.

Mighty No. 9 Review — A Dashing Idea

by Jed Pressgrove

Conceptualized by Mega Man artist/producer Keiji Inafune, Mighty No. 9 does what Mega Man and countless other home-console platformers have failed to do: marry the motivation to complete all levels with the urge to achieve a high score. More than enough satisfaction can be had by beating Mega Man, Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, or Ninja Gaiden, and if you are going to do anything more, speed runs and finding secrets tend to be more attractive than engaging with these games’ scoring systems. Not so in Mighty No. 9, where trying to create an endless combo (and add to your high score) gives you bonuses to help you through lengthy but imaginative levels, such as a military base in which you must climb on and dodge boxes that fall off various conveyor belts.

Ingeniously, Mighty No. 9 ties its high-score focus to the dash, a descendant of Mega Man 3’s evasive slide that did away with the stricter trail-and-error positioning of the first two entries. To start a combo in Mighty No. 9, you must first shoot an enemy enough to stun it (different foes take different numbers of shots for stunning), then you must absorb the enemy by dashing into or near it, whether in midair or on the ground. However, you must use the dash quickly after the stun, or the absorption won’t register as part of a chain and will end the combo. Thankfully, if you recognize your dash will be too late, you can keep a combo going by avoiding the stunned enemy altogether or blasting it until it disappears.

In addition to stretching out combos, absorbing enemies grants power-ups, such as increased speed and health tanks that can be consumed during a level. One of these effects, stronger firepower, brings a dilemma. This power-up stuns enemies faster, which can be a blessing when your health is low, but it also makes your shots pass through multiple characters, meaning that you might accidentally stun an enemy that is too far away for combo linkage. Because of these situations, you sometimes have to play counterintuitively to get the best combo and high score, such as waiting until multiple enemies separate enough so that you can jump between them and fire only toward those you can absorb fast enough.

The goal of a long combo doesn’t just inspire otherwise illogical behavior, though; it also encourages stunts with the protagonist’s flexible dash. For example, you can stun an enemy floating high above a death pit by jumping in the air and shooting them once, then, while in midair, you can transition into a dash after the shot to absorb the enemy, and then, instead of falling to your death, perform another dash (or multiple dashes) to reach a ledge. Because you only fall slightly between midair dashes, you can skip portions of levels by doing the move over and over, but certain levels, such as the brilliant White House-like setting that involves tracking down a propaganda-spewing sniper, can punish you for spamming the dash and not paying attention to how it can throw you into enemy fire or an instant-death trap.

The dash even has an unusual role in boss fights. Each boss has a health bar that is split into segments. You decrease a segment by shooting the boss, then you must try absorbing the boss to permanently erase that segment of health (and potentially continue a combo). If you don’t do this within a certain period, the boss will regenerate the entire segment. This rule forces you to consider ahead of time how you and the boss will be positioned as you fire away.

While Mighty No. 9 has very noticeable flaws like weak-looking explosions, some terrible voice acting, and a rambling story, its fascinating take on the combo and dash makes it the most underrated Mega Man game (in spirit). Popular commentary has failed to recognize the ingenuity because too many critics and fans are obsessed with prerelease hype and gossip. Just ignore the Kickstarter groupies. It’s actually fitting this game released within a year of Mega Man Legacy Collection: the series’ legacy would be greater if it showcased more daring, well-executed tweaks on the formula like Mighty No. 9.

Firewatch Review — Cynicism Simulator

by Jed Pressgrove

In applying the “walking simulator” label, the gaming press and gamers miss what Firewatch is (a mystery/drama) and what action it emphasizes (hiking and conversing). If you wanted to be just as clueless as those labelers, you could call Firewatch a “hiking simulator,” as such a marketing term would overlook that the game barely tries to simulate what it feels like to traverse the wild. But the biggest failure of Firewatch involves its soap-opera view of humanity’s interaction with the natural world, a continuation of the facile darkness that creators Jade Rodkin and Sean Vanaman pimped out in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

You walk and talk as Henry, a middle-aged man who takes a job as a fire lookout in a national forest to escape the difficulty of dealing with his wife, who has developed early-onset dementia. You take orders from and report to supervisor Delilah, who also expresses a sad jadedness about the toughness of real life. As natural as the voice-acted dialogue can be between Henry and Delilah (especially when they trade sarcastic remarks), their eventual romance is hard to buy for the simple reason that you never see the two together. This limitation seems irrelevant, though, when you consider the dreaded purpose of Firewatch: dragging the player into a fatuous underbelly.

The story seems petty early on when Delilah, with little evidence of professional insight in her direction, tells Henry to chase off a couple of belligerent teenagers. He attempts to give orders to the teens, they run away, and on a later day, Delilah reveals the teenagers are missing. Later, Henry finds evidence that someone, maybe multiple people, is spying on him and Delilah and recording their conversations. Preposterously, all these weird details become tied to a former fire lookout who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the Vietnam War. With this relevation, it’s clear Rodkin, Vanaman, and the rest of the story/direction crew seek to dumb down an important history of human struggle for the sake of character reflection, but only a cynic would think Henry has to be scared by such an exaggeration to consider the responsibility of being a husband.

Although Firewatch has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock more than once, no Hitchcock film ever moved as slow, but that’s by design. Developer Campo Santo intends an illusion of exploring nature the old-fashioned way, requiring you to hold up a compass and map rather than view a convenient map screen. Yet you’re confined to particular preset paths and will run into many invisible, illogical walls if you venture too much. The forest is thus unconvincing, and it’s almost a joke when a character uses the word “hike.” This detachment from sincere feeling and experience receives its trashiest expression with the disposable camera, which the developers want you to use so that you can sentimentalize their depiction of nature rather than understand why people get sentimental about nature. Firewatch may not have any zombies like The Walking Dead, but that only means it’s a more subtle version of a mindless doomsday vision when the big fire takes over the pretty sights at the end.

Assault Android Cactus Review — Emotional Arenas

by Jed Pressgrove

The arena fights in the new Doom are often preceded by an opportunity for preparation and scouting, decreasing the chances of the combat intimidating you. Outside of a tutorial stage, you will not find similar complacency in Assault Android Cactus. The hundreds upon hundreds of enemies for each arena fight in Assault Android Cactus, along with the need to recharge one’s battery in order to survive, bring greater pressure than what you will experience in Doom, and with that comes greater elation when you finally obliterate the opposing forces and hear that dizzying melody that kicks off the stage-clear theme.

You would be hard-pressed to name a better twin-stick shooter than Assault Android Cactus. Developer Witch Beam channels the oddball joy of classic works by Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy) and, more importantly, establishes a compelling set of rules to assist and concern players during the mayhem-filled fights. Each character has a primary standard weapon and a secondary power weapon that has to recharge after each use. In most cases with the latter, the character will perform a dodge before and after the shot is fired — a quirky update on 1942’s innovation in bullet evasion. The majority of the characters have the firepower (e.g., seeker missiles, shotgun, etc.) that you would associate with a “shooter protagonist.” But a couple of the heroes fall well outside of such expectations, such as the woman whose primary weapon is a boomerang and whose secondary weapon is a black hole, creating what feels like an iconoclast’s take on the twin-stick shooter framework.

Assault Android Cactus is also a race against time. Each protagonist is powered by a battery that decreases over the course of battle; taking hits from enemies depletes the battery as well. The trick is killing enough enemies to attain a battery power-up before time runs out. You can gain boosts to speed and firepower and paralyze enemies via other power-ups, but such effects must take a backseat in moments during which your battery meter is flashing red in a crowded arena. The new Doom does not have anything like the suspense of the battery, instead encouraging players to engage in “Glory Kills,” which drop health and ammo for you. In Assault Android Cactus, none of your kills carry any sort of pretense of pride like Glory Kills, yet carrying out a streak of 150 consecutive kills is far more pleasurable, not to mention more eye-catching and varied, than Doom’s  mini cutscenes of enemy destruction.

The arena design in Assault Android Cactus exposes most levels in twin-stick shooters as lazy and boring. In some cases, it’s not even accurate to call the battlegrounds “arenas.” In one level, you move through corridors as enemies try to push you back. In another level, the floor and walls collapse and come into place based on where you move. Even when a level is more like an arena, there can still be strange things to account for, such as a deadly laser that routinely sweeps through the entire level, forcing you to hide behind crates or enemies at the right time.

Given this constant intensity, it’s not shocking when you go through Assault Android Cactus’ final boss, which involves enough transformations to rival the concluding multi-stage battle in Treasure’s Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. But truth be told, no action game has ever so surprisingly registered as pure camp as Assault Android Cactus. When your battery runs out, you hear an auto-tune voice woefully sing, “I’m just another android, and my battery’s running low.” The synths of this tune recall the ominous keys of A Clockwork Orange, bringing an undeniable gravity to what would otherwise be interpreted as an easy joke. After the entire song, after you hear the android singer proclaim “can’t feel my feelings,” the tone is more sensitive than humorous, more resonant than smart-assed. It’s difficult to imagine bolder expression upon defeat in a well-tread shooter subgenre.