Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Review — Thief’s Real End

by Jed Pressgrove

For the first few hours of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, it seemed the amoral Uncharted franchise turned to spiritual inquiry, aligning itself with the most profound aspect of the original Indiana Jones movie trilogy. By game’s end, the script rejected its own promise; protagonist Nathan Drake’s deception and immaturity were, again, sentimentalized. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy does the opposite with Chloe Frazer’s character, though from a more secular angle. For half of the game or so, the proceedings seem to be Uncharted by the numbers, with Chloe following the lead of Nathan as a “selfish dickhead,” to quote Chloe’s reluctant partner Nadine Ross. But before and after the climactic train-based action sequence, Chloe gives up her thieving instincts and injects moral conscience into the story, proving that you need goodness, not just a gender switch, to save a lost series.

There is a hint of Chloe’s better humanity in her first scene in The Lost Legacy. Before enacting the initial steps of a profit scheme to locate and steal the storied tusk of the Hindu deity Ganesh, Chloe interacts with a little girl running a store in a marketplace in India. Not content with a single transaction, the child keeps thinking of ways to extend time with Chloe. Chloe humors the kid as much as she can, and eventually the girl’s stubborn desire to befriend Chloe leads her into potential danger. No harm comes to the girl, but Chloe, forgetting her egotistical mission, is visibly concerned about what could have happened.

From there, Chloe teams up with ex-mercenary Nadine, who has no interest in doing business with two-faced people. Nadine’s frustration with Chloe’s half-truths comes to a head when Nadine learns Chloe’s been working with Nathan Drake’s brother Sam the entire time. After a period of separation, the common threat of death at the hands of an insurgent group led by Asad, who wishes to find and trade the invaluable tusk of Ganesh for a bomb, brings Chloe and Nadine back together. Riding a young elephant the duo saved, Nadine drops the “selfish dickhead” label on Chloe, who, in accepting Nadine’s usage of the male-evoking insult, starts to realize her lying ways hurt any chance of sisterhood she has.

The two, along with Sam (who, in his quips, is almost endearingly true to the douchebag legacy of the Drakes), manage to attain the tusk — but not before Asad has already traded the relic for an explosive that he intends to detonate in the middle of a city to ramp up the revolution he believes is just. Chloe feels an urge to do something when she learns about Asad’s plan, while Nadine and Sam both point out that the political conflict isn’t hers, that she accomplished her mission and can now benefit from the sale of the tusk. It’s a dilemma with the weight of a pop franchise behind it, as Nadine and Sam represent the questionable but alluring status quo of the entire Uncharted series.

But Chloe doesn’t ignore her new moral compass, saying “This isn’t our fight; it’s my fight.” What follows is something you might see in any Uncharted game — an extended scene of vehicle chases, gunfire, explosions, and other near-death experiences — but, finally, with humane conviction behind it. In this climax, The Lost Legacy becomes the game Uncharted should have been from the beginning, notwithstanding a reliance on tired action tropes.

The coda that interrupts the end credits confirms Chloe’s legacy isn’t shallow. As Chloe, Nadine, and the Indian girl from the beginning of the game eat pizza to M.I.A.’s “Borders,” Sam tries to appeal to Chloe’s former greed, explaining that a plan to give the tusk to a ministry of culture isn’t necessary. The child puts Sam in his place: “Don’t ruin the moment.” As her appearances in previous Uncharted games demonstrate, Chloe’s surface strength lies in both her ability to match the ambition of men and her sexiness (the sweaty strands of hair that stick to her neck and face through most of The Lost Legacy more than prove the latter). But more significantly, this latest (last?) sequel proclaims she can be a good person and influence, and for that to show up in the fifth entry of a modern big-budget action game is, well, damn-near miraculous.

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The Offense of Criticism to a Shill

by Jed Pressgrove

Last week, critic Yussef Cole offered a historical analysis of the animation style that StudioMDHR mimicked in its hit shooter Cuphead. Although Cole wasn’t the first to point out that the game’s early 20th-century aesthetic is associated with racial caricatures, his essay had an unforeseen level of detail, fairness, and insight. Every sentence of the article is measured. As a writer, it’s hard not to notice the craft in his criticism.

Enter Brandon Orselli, who responded to Cole’s piece with “Stop Trying to Be Offended at Every Video Game.” Taken at face value, Orselli’s title is a silly exaggeration. Cuphead doesn’t represent “every video game.” More importantly, Cole doesn’t appeal to emotion in his essay. He only mentions that as a black man aware of animation history, he doesn’t have the “luxury” of viewing Cuphead from an ahistorical lens. Even Cole’s title, “Cuphead and the Racist Spectre of Fleisher Animation,” is restrained; the use of “spectre” doesn’t suggest a visceral reaction but rather a careful observation, as ghosts are hard to see.

But I’ll throw Orselli a bone, albeit a small one. The title “Stop Trying to Be Offended at Every Video Game” could be clever hyperbole if I had been born yesterday, the very day his article was published. Orselli might also say his article wasn’t a direct response to Cole. I would reject that as a lie. Although he also references a Kotaku article, that Ethan Gach piece is a simple and brief regurgitation of Cole’s argument that is meant to generate traffic, not add to the argument. Furthermore, Orselli is definitely lying when he says Cuphead “has been the subject of multiple attempts at baseless attacks via the collective mainstream gaming journalism world.” For one thing, if you look at mainstream reviews of Cuphead, you will not see much discussion in the line of Cole’s criticism. What’s more, Orselli knows he’s trying to deceive people with that sentence about the mainstream. After all, in the next paragraph, he implies Cole is one of many “no-name bloggers.”

This is the truth: the offended party here is Orselli because he is a shill. He labels his article an editorial, yet his final two paragraphs — precious real estate for an editorialist to drive home a point — are only used to market Cuphead and its creators. “I can’t wait to see what they put out next,” he says of StudioMDHR. “[T]he game sold over 1 million copies,” he says of Cuphead, as if sales indicate quality and/or represent an argument against critical perspective. (Does Orselli also champion how many burgers McDonald’s sells?)

Orselli is free to counter any criticism of a game, just as we all are. Dishonest responses like “Stop Trying to Be Offended at Every Video Game” are worthless, though. As a critic, like Cole, I have also been accused of simply being “offended” by a game, no matter how articulate my criticism is. But it’s not a coincidence that these accusations often come from people like Orselli; people who like the criticized game in question; people who care about sales figures as if their bills won’t be paid unless a game that they like sells well.

Shills don’t understand that although offense can inspire criticism, not all criticism, as written, drips with offense. If shills want to know what offense looks like, they might go into their bathrooms, where their superficial complaints can be flushed, and stare into a mirror.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus Review — The Guilty White Resistance

by Jed Pressgrove

The vision of resistance to world-ruling Nazism in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is as stupid and disingenuous as neo-Nazis who use terms like “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Like its 2014 predecessor Wolfenstein: The New Order, the game attempts to make you think you’re experiencing more than mind-numbing ultraviolence. Take one of the first cutscenes that delves into the past of protagonist William Blazkowicz (who, despite being half Jewish, wears the stereotypical white hero profile like a glove): young Blazkowicz and his mother suffer the racist wrath of Blazkowicz’s father after it comes out that the boy likes a black girl. The scene moves on to a manipulative and preposterous sequence where the father tries to force the boy to shoot the pet dog, as if the writers weren’t sure if the preceding physical abuse and racial slurs would communicate that daddy’s a giant asshole. This kind of extreme drama is what Wolfenstein II passes off as human-centered storytelling, yet as you survive suicide mission after suicide mission as the Terminator-like Blazkowicz, you realize he’s as inhuman as the Nazis, just in a different way.

If you really want to know the true maturity (or lack thereof) of Swedish developer MachineGames, look no further than Wolfenstein II’s pregame menu that asks players to choose a difficulty level. As you scroll from setting to setting, a picture of Blazkowicz changes to convey what you’d be getting yourself into. Put the cursor on the lowest difficulty (insultingly titled “Can I play, Daddy?”), and Blazkowicz becomes decked out with a bonnet and pacifier. This image is not just a cheap joke but rather points to one of MachineGames’ biggest influences: preening and gore-filled 1990s action games (including, of course, Wolfenstein 3D) that desired to flip the birdie to parents and politicians.

But, even with the game’s over-the-top bloodiness, the outdated adolescent politics of Wolfenstein II can be hard to dismiss or identify because of a veneer of sophistication. In one scene, Blazkowicz calls the Nazis “monsters,” and resistance leader Grace Walker corrects him with “Not monsters. Men.” It’s a profound line that’s never realized, as the game constantly portrays Nazis as monstrous fodder. Irene Engel, the main villain, wastes perfect opportunities to eliminate Blazkowicz for good as she parades around like a hateful cartoon. Adolf Hitler shows up in the second half of the game, pissing and vomiting, and can even be killed; it’s a lazy Quentin Tarantino-inspired appearance that lacks the irony of Charlie Chaplin’s brave satirization of Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator and the humanism of Bruno Ganz’s disturbingly real performance as Hitler in 2004’s Downfall. The only Nazi that reflects Walker’s insight is Engel’s daughter Sigrun, but then again, Sigrun quickly betrays her mother after being introduced in the story, indicating that she’s not meant to reflect the depths of the elusive Nazi soul.

The superficiality and gall of a Tarantino-like mind shows up several times in Wolfenstein II, muddying the game’s potential as a commentary on race and politics. During one part before Blazkowicz goes on a routine Nazi-killing spree, the hero shouts, “White-ass fascist Nazi pigs!” The “white-ass” descriptor is laughably out of place given Blazkowicz’s identity, but the contrivance echoes Tarantino’s deceptive white guilt, a wish to be recognized as an honorary person of color.

In another segment, two KKK members, white hoods and all, can be seen walking on a sidewalk in Nazi-occupied America. Although the real-world Nazis did admire racial hegemony in the United States, the KKK robes function as cheap shock value in Wolfenstein II’s alternate-history universe. Not only would there be no reason for the anonymity of such attire in a Nazi-ruled place, but Nazis would likely prefer their own imagery to be displayed among the populace, regardless of whether they’re white supremacists. The KKK members go on to have a conversation with a Nazi, who keeps correcting their horrible attempts to say German phrases. In Tarantino fashion, Wolfenstein II makes easy comedy out of subjects that evoke great pain to this day.

The most juvenile ode to Tarantino, however, is saved for one of Wolfenstein II’s last scenes, where Anya, Blazkowicz’s pregnant partner, strips off her upper garb and guns down Nazis, afterward turning to her man with her swollen torso soaked in blood. In this attempt to champion the equality of women, the game further confirms a lack of relatable vulnerability among its main characters, from Fergus’ Dr. Strangelove-knockoff mechanical arm to the piss-poor hit detection as you fight as Blazkowicz (many times you will be unexpectedly killed because the game does such an amateurish job of telling you when you’re taking damage; talk about fake difficulty).

What’s more shameful is that this game wastes genuine human moments, as when Blazkowicz has flashbacks to when he spent time with Billie, the black girl his dad hated. When the two children first meet, they articulate why they should keep their distance based on the discriminatory views of their parents. After they accept that they want to be around each other, they happen upon a drowning rat, and while Blazkowicz laughs and says the predicament serves the rat right, Billie is horrified. At the last second, Blazkowicz saves the rat, that which he doesn’t think deserves life. In a later sequence, mercy reappears when the adult Blazkowicz approaches an unaware Nazi. Because there’s no mission-related reason to kill the Nazi, Blazkowicz tells the man to run off.

Wolfenstein II could have been great if such complicated scenarios were its driving force, but these sensitive pieces ultimately seem accidental. The first-person shooter’s typical thrill of the kill reigns supreme, regardless of how much Blazkowicz’s body is annihilated. In the game’s closing credits, an anachronistic death-metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take it” plays, and some members of the press have suggested it’s a horrible final note to a good game. That’s not the truth, though. A game as violent and trendy as Wolfenstein II deserves such a ditty.

Pyre Review — Revolution by Sport

by Jed Pressgrove

I can’t recall a sports video game that captures the feelings that develop before and after a team-based contest like Pyre does. Although the rules and intricacies of Pyre’s fictional sport are fascinating, developer Supergiant Games’ greatest accomplishment lies in how it subverts role-playing game conventions to up the emotional ante and affect roster options, as when two party members, due to bad blood, refuse to compete at the same time. By the conclusion of this game, you take away a deeply personal win-loss record that can have world-altering effects on Pyre’s fantasy setting, including one possibility that speaks to a compelling type of political resistance.

As the mysterious Reader (think head coach), you lead a group of exiles on a mission to win Rites, three-on-three competitions where the object is to throw an orb into the opposing team’s fiery goal until the fire is extinguished. Every so often, a team member has an opportunity to return home to the Commonwealth, a place of prosperity, by winning what the game calls a Liberation Rite. Once a character is freed from exile, he or she is effectively retired and can no longer play on your team.

The catch is that only characters who have been leveled up a particular amount can be eligible for liberation. This rule means that if you stick to a favorite trio to increase your odds of winning Rites, you will have to do without a preferred athlete permanently if you are the victor of a Liberation Rite — an ingenious punishment for following the old RPG standard of leveling up with abandon. This set-up creates questions about how your strategy must change after you lose an essential piece of your team (a parallel might be losing, say, Kevin Durant to season-ending injury). Pyre forces you to learn how to use characters who seem less appropriate for your system. As such, the game works as a believable simulation of maximizing talent as a coach, with all the pride and frustration that comes with the job between significant matches.

At the same time, you are not required to win matches in Pyre. Here, the game deviates again from the norm: in most RPGs, losing a battle means you can’t progress. But Pyre continues even when you lose, which can set up a variety of emotionally charged situations. Before one Liberation Rite, one of your team members may plead with you to allow the opposition to win, as her sister plays for the other team and has an opportunity to be forgiven of her past misdeeds. In another case, if you win and choose to liberate a character before he has an opportunity to fulfill a promise to friends, you will be told about his guilt, so losing in that case might seem more fulfilling. Or what if you win every Rite with the exception of contests against a specific team? You then become acquainted with a nagging status that the New England Patriots must bear: a dynasty that nonetheless can’t defeat its archenemy (in the Patriots’ case, the New York Giants). With a storytelling fervor inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Supergiant Games homes in on the friendships, rivalries, and other connections that make sports a lesson in theater and psychology.

Prye’s emphasis on motivation and ego shines the brightest with a character named Volfred Sandalwood. At first, Volfred seems like nothing more than an intelligent control freak, as he goes on and on about you and your team fitting into a plan to overthrow the powers that be in the Commonwealth, so that no other person will have to suffer the injustice of being exiled. But as your journey develops, Volfred develops humility under your authority. By game’s end, you can choose to set Volfred free, and if you do, the Commonwealth undergoes a nonviolent intellectual revolution. This fantasy scenario stands opposed to the adolescent hero-ball resistance presented in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, showcasing how rules-based competition can change society via individuals who inspire unity by speaking truth to power.

Golf Story Review — A Conflicted Birdie

by Jed Pressgrove

When Golf Story focuses on golf, it’s one of the best games of the year — and not because of reverence for the sport it depicts. While Sidebar Games does pay tribute to the fun and reward of, say, chipping in a shot from a bunker of sand, the developer has also crafted a whacked-out vision, complete with balls strategically bouncing off turtle shells peaking out of the water and the freedom to tee up wherever you want and aim at whatever (or whomever) you want. This creative design renders a sport that most people find boring an electric concept full of possibilities. But when you must, for example, literally run around in a circle just to advance the story, Golf Story forgets why anyone would want to play it.

You assume the role of a young man trying to become a professional golfer. He wants lessons, but the coach he needs doesn’t seem interested in teaching him (partly because of the young man’s weird swinging motion), so the protagonist must prove himself worthy of the sport. This goal sets the stage for an unusual role-playing game experience, where relevant quests might have you driving a ball farther than an opponent or attempting to make the ball land on a small, circled-off spot on an island despite incredible wind. And as you complete these challenges, the denizens of Golf Story’s world begin to accept that, yes, you deserve a chance to compete with the best.

The catch is that many quests must be completed to open up the game’s world. If such requirements involve golf, they serve as necessary practice. You must learn different adjustments that can help you make good shots on the game’s eight major courses, which have different environmental threats, from the normal (areas with thicker grass) to the bizarre (moles that will pick up your ball and move it).

But when Golf Story requires you to engage in non-golfing activities, the game can become mundane and aimless. Some characters will demand you to fetch items within a time limit, which amounts to running toward red circles along a predictable path. Then there’s tripe like the Pac-Man-style mission where you collect balls in a maze while avoiding enemies with all-too-obvious walking paths. The dullest task comes when you must mine minerals by pressing a button, at least a dozen times or so, right as a cursor touches the same segment of a pop-up bar.

These distractions thankfully don’t change the fact that Golf Story, like no other video game, simultaneously draws attention to the beauty and absurdity of golf. The game’s strong sense of place — like Earthbound, the game utilizes almost every inch of its relatively small map — peaks at a setting called Tidy Park, a course that resists modern flash and style. The peacefulness of this location is infectious, with bird song and serene bagpipes, old men taking their time with every swing, and a more naturalistic type of landscaping.

Tidy Park also signals the point when Golf Story’s hints at golf’s exclusionary nature blossom into satire. As gorgeous as Tidy Park is, you can’t help but feel the uphill climb a lower-class outsider must perform for acceptance, particularly when your coach flatly states, “You’re on your own.” You then must befriend a lot of pretentious, stubbornly old-school fools while distancing yourself from where you came from.

Golf Story’s final location, the pro-tour course, adds insult to this social progression. Trash talk, envy, and competitiveness can color any sport, but Sidecar Games puts golf in a particularly unflattering light when all sorts of people, from players to media, accuse you of cheating your way to the top, despite all your hard work and the stupid hoops you had to jump through to “turn pro.” It’s a ridiculous status-based accusation that makes the final victory all the sweeter. The conclusion, like a great deal of the game, is accompanied by energetic and hopeful music, but it’s clear this optimism is a fantasy, and that’s why Golf Story resonates like few other sports games.

Nier: Automata Review — Near Genocide

by Jed Pressgrove

Nier: Automata concerns a war between androids and robots. Because these battling groups have human characteristics, much has been and will continue to be said about director Yoko Taro’s story as a statement on existence. But the game’s most fascinating, effective, and relevant theme involves something that Taro suggests will survive beyond humanity: discrimination.

You start Nier: Automata as an android named 2B. She is part of a military group charged with taking back Earth, which has been overrun by robots that drove humankind to the moon. Your companion is 9S, who supplements 2B’s great combat skills with hacking. As you guide 2B through the first few missions, it is clear these androids don’t just believe in duty; they hate machines, as indicated by derisive comments.

Eventually, 2B and 9S witness, in a scene both disturbing and fantastic, a horde of machines giving birth to two very human-like characters. After almost killing one of these unusual progeny, 2B and 9S have no idea what has transpired. 9S, unable to focus on his duty, asks 2B why machines would try to look like humans—a delicious irony, given that androids are essentially human-looking beings. But with one of the game’s most politically powerful lines, 2B shuts down the conversation, stating there is no point in considering “unsolvable problems.” Here, Taro illustrates what makes real-world bigotry tick: a cold denial of even exploring the possibility of common ground.

From there, 2B’s discrimination is challenged by a variety of facts, such as a village of peaceful and kind robots, a faction of subjugated robots within a violent machine cult, and, most emotional, her partner 9S being forced to transfer his data, his consciousness, into a robot. After 9S speaks to 2B as a hulking bot, they touch each other with relief, the awkwardness of 9S’s now-huge hand notwithstanding.

At this point, Nier: Automata seems to end, suggesting that 2B and 9S have implicitly realized that they are not that different from those they have been called to destroy. But the game invites you to play again, and you assume the role of a small robot who wishes to restore life to one of his “brothers.” As you try to finish this quest, the focus shifts to the perspective of 9S, who watches and mocks the robot’s sensitivity from afar. In this incredible scene (which carries more power as an intro to a “second game” than it would have as a flashback), Taro has you identify with a machine’s feelings before placing you in the shoes of a familiar, hateful bigot. The hope of the game’s first ending, where 9S looks like his supposed enemy and yet retains his feelings, is unexpectedly dashed.

Playing as 9S, you get to feel the coldness that makes discrimination work overtime. When 2B dies later in the game, 9S becomes even more disgusted with robots, as he partly blames them for 2B’s demise (despite the fact that the android military group made a strategic error in trying to end the war quickly). Because the player by this point has seen, objectively, the similar humanity—the hope, the fear, the drive, the confusion—within the androids and robots, destroying machines as 9S depicts an original vision of genocide, where visually exquisite explosions of nuts, bolts, and parts scream injustice.

9S’s childish fits of anger also show how Nier: Automata functions as revealing camp, especially after 9S learns two things: (1) humanity, what he supposedly fights for, is actually extinct and (2) his kind comes from the cores that power machines. This first revelation might disturb players, as we are human, but that 9S and his victims aren’t biologically human allows us to see how a cycle of ignorance can live without us. The second revelation reinforces how individuals, for generations, may harden their hearts to carry on a legacy of exclusion. 9S, in his stupid rage, cannot accept the implications of these data, so he becomes a comical yet all-too-real portrait of a bigot.

The real kicker is how Taro bravely puts 9S in a sympathetic light. Between the scenes of 9S annihilating robots, he must face personal horrors. In one scene, he is forced to fight against multiple copies of 2B, the android—the woman—we know he loves. One might wince at 9S’s hatred, but anyone can understand the trauma that emblazoned his existing favoritism for those like him. For that reason, Nier: Automata is a cautionary tale that no one of any political persuasion in 2017 can run from once they experience and recognize it.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider Review — Bankable Juvenility

by Jed Pressgrove

With Death of the Outsider, the Dishonored series finally gives up its charade about morality. In the first two games, players could either kill or not kill on their stealthy journeys, but killing would bring about more inconveniences, such as an increase of deadly bloodflies, in addition to impacting the (emotionally vapid) story. Killing an enemy in Death of the Outsider, however, can be consequence-free if you avoid detection. Developer Arkane Studios even tosses in self-recharging superpowers so audiences can more comfortably lap up Dishonored’s newfound juvenile honesty.

But Death of the Outsider still has story elements to choke down or ignore, including poorly illustrated comic-book scenes, incessant collectible notes, and voice acting that sounds like a rushed second reading of a script. Between missions you still have to walk about a lair and get into a carriage before any action can start. Even worse, protagonist Billie Lurk is both dull and laughable with lines like “You want to kill a god?” and “I’m ready to rob the bank.” It’s as if the writers don’t realize that video games have pushed godless and wannabe-badass junk for decades.

Although using the superpowers, like the out-of-body experience that allows you to scope out areas that you want to infiltrate, and setting foe-snatching hook mines can be entertaining, Death of the Outsider is largely a seen-it-all-before affair. Clunky and unimaginative melee combat keeps it from being a good action game, while the stealth comes with all the usual baggage, whether it’s the dumb one-liners of enemies, the disposal of limp bodies, or the pop-up meters that let you know whether you’re about to get caught. Death of the Outsider isn’t drearily moral like its predecessors, but it’s just as emotionless, sticking to commercial formula with the faith of a child.

Persona 5 Review — Thou Art Immature

by Jed Pressgrove

Persona 5, cited by Famitsu readers as the greatest role-playing game ever, has enough stylistic flourishes for several games. From the visually dynamic menus to the finishers that leave enemies spraying arterial fluid, it’s hard not to feel a sense of coolness while playing Persona 5. Undoubtedly, director Katsura Hashino intends for players to be invigorated and empowered by how hip the game seems; after all, the very story involves a group of teenagers who shake off their insecurities and come into their own as secret superheroes. But the excitement that Persona 5 exudes is stunted by terrible editing, which leaves too much room for tired ideas, excessive tutorialization, and self-righteous morality.

As a reserved (rather than silent) protagonist, the player travels, with a team of misfits, to the Metaverse, a world that reflects the darkest desires of human beings, whether that be the lust of a high school coach or the greed of a CEO who exploits workers. Your party is known as the Phantom Thieves, all teenagers who have awakened powers they never knew they had, with the goal to change the hearts of wicked adults by fighting them in the Metaverse. Like the last two Persona games, you must also engage in life-simulator activities, such as studying for school and having get-togethers, on a day-to-day basis. This real-life facade doesn’t just make Persona 5 stand apart from most RPGs, though. As your character, for example, wakes up for the umpteenth time to a text message from a friend wanting to hang out, the daily grind shows a desperate need for editing, as it’s difficult to stay emotionally connected to writing that frequently seems copied and pasted.

You could make a frightening grocery list of occurrences, phrases, character beats, and plot contrivances that lose impact and meaning after appearing too many times in Persona 5. For instance, the story of the Phantom Thieves taking down corrupt adult after corrupt adult is framed as part of an interrogation. At first, this framing has gravity, as it invites you to consider whether the main characters are heroic or simply criminal. But after a few dozen hours, these sequences — punctuated by generic suspense-themed music — are annoying in that they interrupt your engagement with the tale at hand; restate things you already know from playing the game (such as one character serving as a computer genius); and reveal targets of the Phantom Thieves rather than letting the player become aware of these suspects in an organic way.

With such repetitive scenes, it appears that Hashino wants to make sure no one is confused during Persona 5. Admittedly, I was never lost during the proceedings, even when I took weeks-long breaks from playing. At the same time, getting into the game can be an awkward endurance test thanks to the tutorial messages that dominate anywhere from the first 12 to 20 hours of the experience. And even though these prompts appear less and less throughout, the game still bakes in hints and pats on the back for the player to a condescending degree. In more than one scene, you might solve an obvious puzzle only to be inundated by remarks from almost every main character about the solution. Persona 5 frequently doesn’t know how to shut up.

If only the game’s lack of editing merely translated into exhaustion. In addition to not wasting time, one should want to tell a story that doesn’t waste thematic potential, and a good editor can trim away contradictions to maintain focus. With an upbeat soundtrack, lines like “Your heart is steadily gaining the strength of rebellion,” and constant hand holding, Persona 5 celebrates the achievements of the Phantom Thieves (the player) so much that any of the script’s moral questions come off as accidental dots on a humongous canvas. What’s more, characters like Sae and Akechi who criticize the justice of the Phantom Thieves are portrayed as self-absorbed and unlikable, whereas the awakenings of the protagonists’ true selves drip with spiritual and sexual appeal.

Given how the Phantom Thieves reform a villain by meddling with his or her subconscious, Persona 5 seems to train one to think that the psychological trick of shaming people you find irredeemable is not only cool but the right thing to do. This type of indignation is perfectly summed up by the talking cat Morgana while discussing a person who kills animals: “I can’t ever forgive a human like that.” And so, like the social-media crusaders who dogpile sinners, the Persona 5 audience will likely not consider the God complex required to believe that you have the authority to change the spots of a leopard.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review — Against Self-Hatred

by Jed Pressgrove

In the so-called canon of great games, the sensitive Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice should replace the fear-mongering Silent Hill 2. Through the trials, tribulations, and redemption of its protagonist Senua, Hellblade flips the video-game script on psychosis with a tale that puts players into the shoes of someone who fights voices and visions in her head as she goes about life. Games like Silent Hill 2 make Hellblade’s statement necessary, as the former propagates the lie that high-quality horror is about scaring people. Silent Hill 2 and its ilk want us to be consumers who are frightened of mental illness (or, more directly, the human mind itself), but Hellblade’s horror asks audiences to embrace the challenge of overcoming self-hatred brought about by psychological struggle.

Developer Ninja Theory opens Hellblade with Senua in a canoe crossing a river to arrive at a hellish place, where the impediments to Senua’s happiness are quickly established for players. As a narrator whispers exposition, you also hear additional competing voices while Senua travels. Representing the internal dialogue of Senua, these voices are unnerving in their inconsistent messaging: lines like “Go back,” “You don’t know where you’re going,” and “That’s it, that’s it, that’s the way” are only a few examples of how Senua’s conflicting selves attempt to influence her mood and actions. And while this audio chaos is disturbing, the player, through pushing Senua to the next challenge, immediately grasps the strength of this character in how she can function despite the madness within her.

Soon, Hellblade becomes a game of puzzles and fights, with the former illustrating how someone with Senua’s condition sees the world differently (nature) and the latter representing the self-destructive fear and hatred that Senua developed because of her father’s abuse (nurture). The gradual reveal of Senua’s upbringing is especially illuminating: her father treats her inherited psychology as a curse that will destroy everyone around her, much like the events and notes in Silent Hill 2 speciously connect mental illness to automatic murder and tragedy.

Through Senua’s battles with male foes (undoubtedly visions connected to her brutal dad), Hellblade is the first game I’ve played since Golden Axe: Beast Rider that elicits gender-based intimidation in the heat of physical combat, though the nonverbal preening of Hellblade’s musclebound men is more subtle than the screams of “Bitch!” in Golden Axe: Beast Rider. This element begs for another comparison to Silent Hill 2, as that overrated game’s protagonist James can deal damage to ostensibly feminine foes, a supposed representation of James’ frustration with his dying wife. Whereas Silent Hill 2 revels in its depiction of misogyny without a clear lesson (multiple endings can kill thematic purpose), Hellblade’s climax, where players must literally stop killing the bad guys if they want to see the conclusion, leads to universal philosophical implications in a single, unforgettable coda.

The violent men that Senua dispatches throughout Hellblade emanate from Hela, a goddess that Senua sees as her ultimate opposition. But when you finally give up against the neverending male horde at the end, something incredible happens: Hela becomes Senua. This transformation rejects the intolerant feelings Senua has about parts of herself: at one point, she tells the voices in her head, “I didn’t ask you to be part of me.” But they are part of her, just as all humans have parts of themselves that cause guilt and fear. After Senua realizes she has ultimately been trying to destroy herself, she can start to appreciate the beauty of life again. In this way, Hellblade triumphs over the monotony of its combat and, hopefully, takes its rightful place above pop horror games that rarely edify us.

How Much Basic Knowledge and Dignity Does the Gaming Press Have?

by Jed Pressgrove

I am still stunned by the stupidity I witnessed yesterday when numerous readers and gaming press members suggested that Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was remarkably different for including the possibility of one having to start the entire game over if one died a certain amount of times.

Turns out, the game didn’t include that possibility, as reported here. This revelation in and of itself points to an embarrassment shared by both readers who had never played Hellblade and gaming press members who didn’t know what they were talking about despite having early access to Hellblade.

Amazing. (Let me say that once more before I go to the next point: Amazing!) But here’s the thing: even if Hellblade had actually included the possibility of one having to start the entire game over after dying a certain amount of times, there would be no compelling reason for surprise in the “online gaming community.” This situation raises significant questions about the basic video-game knowledge of many, particularly some members of a condescending gaming press that needs to set a higher standard for dialogue.

An obvious point is that, for decades, some games have featured the idea of lost progress after a Game Over (trendily called “permadeath”). Look at classic arcade games like Donkey Kong, look at old console games like Super Mario Bros., look at handheld games like Contra 4 (released only a decade ago), look at recent independent games like Downwell. There are plenty of examples of this phenomenon, yet if you visited, say, Twitter yesterday morning, it was as if all of these examples didn’t exist. Many gamers wanted something to be outraged about, for whatever reason.

But surely any member of the gaming press would know that to play into such outrage is immature and misleading, not to mention flatout stupid. When it came out that Hellblade doesn’t have “permadeath,” you could almost see the egg on the faces of the people who said otherwise.

Yet today, it’s back to business as usual. I don’t see many writers or editors talking about standards, whether related to basic gaming knowledge or journalism, the latter of which should be philosophically opposed to hearsay, rumor, and treating your readers like cattle.

And to think, some people act surprised when they hear of gaming press outlets closing down.