Way of the Passive Fist Review — Countering Monotony

by Jed Pressgrove

Whether the game is Double Dragon or Castle Crashers, the appeal of the 2D beat ’em up has remained the same for decades: clobbering gangs of adversaries with one’s fists, feet, and weapons. Way of the Passive Fist doesn’t subvert this approach so much as change the focus from offense to defense, requiring the player to anticipate and react to every single attack from foes. While this shift comes with the contrivance of bad guys attacking the hero one at a time, developer Household Games brings an unforeseen type of intensity to the genre with its greater emphasis on hand-eye coordination.

As beat-’em-up custom dictates, you walk from right to left in Way of the Passive Fist, and the scrolling only stops when the game sends a group of enemies for you to dispatch. But unlike the usual routine, you can’t proactively punch your targets into submission. Instead, you must tire your opponents out with parries and/or dodges before shoving them to the ground. As in rhythm games, there are degrees of timing here. If you barely counter an attack within the window of opportunity, you lose a slight bit of health. If your timing is good or “perfect,” you not only keep all of your health but also increase a combo meter that, once filled to certain levels, can allow you to perform a single offensive move, such as a body slam that hurts nearby foes in addition to the one being slammed.

This combo dynamic, in addition to encouraging an aesthetically appealing type of play, reveals the unique strategic identity of Way of the Passive Fist. Since you gain experience points (which unlock new abilities) the faster you defeat your opposition, the best strategy is to build defensive combos to unleash techniques that topple multiple enemies. This goal is easier to state than execute, as enemies have a variety of attacks to throw off your timing. The game starts off simple with its lessons: parry slow punches, dodge grappling moves, and catch projectiles to throw them back at their sources. After you advance to later stages, your defense must account for more complicated patterns, such as double projectiles and six-hit combinations. One mistake — from a missed dodge to an unnecessary parry — resets the combo meter. Way of the Passive Fist pushes for restraint, careful observation, and accuracy within a genre that usually rewards spamming and aggression.

To a large degree, Household Games mixes up the obstacles enough to keep you alert throughout Way of the Passive Fist. As you fight faster opponents later in the game, it can be jarring when an earlier, slower kind of threat returns to the fray, as sudden decreases in speed can disrupt your regular rhythm. Initially, the game also introduces environmental factors to compromise your comfort during battle. For example, in one early stage, you have to fight in sand storms that make it harder to see your adversaries’ nonverbal cues, which are critical when it comes to knowing what kind of counter you need to perform.

To its detriment, the game largely abandons environmental dangers about halfway through. There are 10 levels in Way of the Passive Fist, and each one has numerous waves of baddies, so a greater variety of traps and distractions could have reduced the repetitiveness of the proceedings. The final boss is disappointing as well: his pattern is too predictable, and he conveniently places himself in front of you after you fill up your combo meter by blocking his combinations. Despite these shortcomings, redirecting momentum as a defender in Way of the Passive Fist is a distinctive kinetic pleasure in a gaming world full of copiers and clones.


Flinthook Review — Randomly Passable

by Jed Pressgrove

Flinthook has some of the ingredients for a good 2D action game: an engaging set of mechanics, a compendium of interesting foes, and a rousing soundtrack. These strengths are sadly counterbalanced by poor fundamental design from developer Tribute, making Flinthook little more than a curious footnote in an oversaturated market of wannabe pixelated classics that treat randomly generated levels as the Gospel.

The kinetic possibilities of Flinthood are impressive, going well beyond the grappling-hook dynamic referenced in the game’s title. To survive, the player must creatively integrate the protagonist’s abilities (hooking, jumping, shooting, slowing down time) to dismantle and avoid ever-changing obstacles. Using the grappling hook in particular is adrenaline-charging: after hooking to a diamond-shaped metal ring, the hero automatically flies toward and past the target, meaning that you have to guess where momentum will take you, lest you run into an enemy or trap.

The game’s aiming system is a head-scratcher, though. As in Contra, you aim and move with the same stick, but Contra never felt this clunky. At times, I would aim up, and the character would end up shooting at a diagonal angle. Given the difficulty of the game, these puzzling moments of inaccuracy are unacceptable. The aiming problem is at its most irritating when you intend to grapple onto a specific ring but instead connect with another nearby ring that results in damage or death. Although the game does give you the option to lock the protagonist in place and aim (like Contra III: The Alien Wars), you have to earn and equip a perk to even use this basic ability — a pointless bureaucratic nuisance that is indicative of the modern action game’s awkward obsession with RPG/adventure elements.

The personality of the various enemies might make you forgive the issues with the control. You fight everything from suicide-bomber ostriches to squeaking puffer creatures that expand and shoot spikes upon death to teleporting, rocket-launching menaces who suggest a gene splice of a lizard and mangy cat. The bosses are real barnburners, too, requiring patience and precision as you hook yourself away from multiple types of projectiles and trap-ridden floors. While the prospect of offing all of these adversaries is appealing and rewarding, Tribute’s insistence on arena-fight cliches, randomly generated rooms, and item collection sucks the excitement out of the game.

Following the lead of games like The Legend of Zelda and The Binding of Isaac, Flinthook traps you in certain rooms during pivotal fights with regular enemies. While such isolation can increase drama and suspense, Flinthook telegraphs so much of its danger that the action comes off as blandly constructed. For example, a humongous red exclamation point signals when random enemies are about to appear in waves. Defeat one wave, and another one begins, but as in 2016’s Doom, you can briefly see where enemies will materialize before they start attacking or moving, depriving the environments of a lived-in quality that could have conveyed a compelling sense of place. The contrived randomization suggests Tribute took the easy way out with level design, especially when you enter rooms that seem no different from previous ones.

Like the obligatory perk system, the paths to the scintillating boss fights amount to another dull excuse to include an extra layer of bureaucracy. To encounter a boss, you must collect items from a series of various ships that you select from a menu. If a boss slays you, you have to start over and wade through another series of procedurally generated ships. Tribute’s reliance on randomness is an effort to keep players from getting bored, but the experience feels like you’re forced to endure sloppily designed, unremarkable levels just to get back to the most inspired conflicts of the game. Unlike contemporaries such as The Binding of Isaac and Downwell, Flinthook shows limited evidence that randomly generated trials can make for electrifying art.

Florence Review — It’s Not About Love

by Jed Pressgrove

If you go by many articles written about Florence, you’d think it’s focused on love. These articles merely barf up the game’s marketing line. Yes, the story features a bout of puppy love that anyone who has been fooled by feelings will recognize, but more importantly, developer Mountains illustrates the maturation of its titular protagonist into a person who finds that life is as good as you make it.

Florence is a young woman who is stuck in a repetitive job and who finds talking to her mother an annoyance, given the parent’s unending curiosity about whether her daughter will find a mate. But after a bicycle accident, Florence meets Krish, a cellist. From here on in this mobile-phone game, which uses a comic-book aesthetic and a chapter-by-chapter frame, you see how Florence and Krish get closer, move in together, and, finally, fall apart.

One of the more brilliant chapters of Florence simulates the common experience of growing comfortable with someone you like. In this segment, the game presents an oval-like space where you must fit in puzzle pieces to make Florence “speak” to Krish. At first, this scene feels like an excuse to throw in a mechanical device, as even a dull mind can see how to connect a six-piece jigsaw. Then, as the “conversation” continues, six pieces turn to three, and three pieces turn to one, indicating that Florence’s reservations and nervousness have fallen to the wayside. In any other game, such a scene would be a case of a puzzle becoming inexplicably and pointlessly easy, but in Florence, it’s a deft way to convey how increasingly natural a new connection to a lover can feel.

Of course, this sort of gradual comfort characterizes relationships that may end badly, and Florence is a better game for not forgetting that. The newness of a bond can cause humans to overlook obvious imbalances that are not so obvious at first. In Florence, the lopsidedness of the affair is apparent in how much more Florence pushes Krish to realize his dreams. Another sign of the relationship’s unbalanced nature is revealed in the chapter titled “Exploration,” in which the two explore more things that are specific to Krish’s life (family, music, etc.). The irony of this chapter drips as Florence gazes at Polaroids of the experiences, with nothing but a smile on her face.

Soon the puzzle-piece dialogue dynamic comes back in a negative context. Florence increasingly finds it easy to have a yelling match with Krish. When Krish moves his stuff out of her place shortly after this fight, Florence can’t seem to live without thinking of Krish.

The story moves well beyond Krish when Florence rediscovers her love of painting (ironically, this new life begins with a cheap art set that Krish gave her). Florence finds herself, so to speak, and in doing so, her perspective on life broadens. She no longer hates her job as much, though it remains monotonous. She no longer treats her mother as a nuisance, instead opening up to her. By the end of the game, the only trace of Krish is a photograph Florence puts in a box. While the piano- and cello-based soundtrack might be sappy, the message of growth, perhaps toward actual love, is unquestionably adult.

Top 4 Reasons Commentary on Kingdom Come: Deliverance Has Been Abysmal

by Jed Pressgrove

1. The Historical-Accuracy Claim

Following the lead of Kingdom Come: Deliverance director Daniel Vávra, critics and gamers are throwing around terms like “historically accurate” and “medieval life simulator.” Such absurd descriptions don’t reflect the truth but rather play into a marketing scheme, and that historians were consulted for the game is irrelevant (Hollywood filmmakers, notorious for historical inaccuracies, have consulted historians for decades). You could reject the historical-accuracy claim with a number of different points, but all you have to do is listen to the characters speak English in Kingdom Come, which takes place in 15th-century Bohemia, and realize you’re being pandered to on a basic level. Kingdom Come does achieve a degree of realism or verisimilitude, especially if you compare it to fantasy games, but that’s not historical accuracy.

2. The Tokenism vs. Erasure Debate

Contrary to popular belief, the prerelease debate about the lack of black people in Kingdom Come: Deliverance didn’t have two sides. It only had one side: stupidity. This discussion, if you could call it that, featured one argument that seemed to advocate for token black characters in the game for the sake of “historical accuracy,” a term that, as shown above, is dubious at best in this context. In this argument, I saw little concern for how black characters might be portrayed in such a game; the prevailing upshot was simply that black characters needed to be in a game that nobody had played yet. Another argument, started by Vávra, implied that no black people ever set foot in medieval Bohemia. This hypothesis is an exaggeration, and it was enough to inspire others to claim, idiotically, that no black people were in medieval Europe at all. Not only does this debate continue to distract people from the game itself, but it shows that many critics and gamers, no matter their worldview, enjoy forming reactions to games before playing them based on some half-assed political orientation — a sign of both intellectual dishonesty and deep-seated insecurity.

3. The Failure to Grasp the Connection Between Technical Expression and Style

When playing Kingdom Come on the PS4, I had not seen a game so technically inept since last year’s Troll and I, and I played dozens of new games between the releases of Troll and I and Kingdom Come. My review of Kingdom Come was met with some negative feedback that suggested it was unfair to focus on the game’s technical flaws, but how can a game be stylistically realistic if it does not technically function in a way to reinforce a sense of realism? The positive reviews of the console versions of Kingdom Come have not answered this question.

4. Game Critics Refusing to Be Game Critics

Both Waypoint and Giant Bomb declined to criticize Kingdom Come: Deliverance upon its release. To simplify, members of both publications said they didn’t want to cover the game because of Vávra’s connection to Gamergate. Taking this excuse to its logical conclusion, if critics work on the basis of whether they find creators morally objectionable, a majority of criticism would cease to exist. I find it incredibly hard to believe that no other game covered by Waypoint or Giant Bomb has ever had a developer who sympathized with some aspect of Gamergate. So I challenge Waypoint and Giant Bomb, right now, to go down the list of every game they’ve covered and prove that none of them involve artists who have said, supported, or done despicable things. If they accept this challenge, I believe both publications will find that reviewing games, not declining to review games because you find certain people deplorable, is the point of game criticism.

Topsoil Review — The Order of Disorder

by Jed Pressgrove

In Nico Prins’ Topsoil, you play as a farmer with only 16 tiles of soil at your disposal. Each tile can accommodate one type of plant, and for the best score, you must keep the same kind of plants next to each other. As in so many puzzlers (from Tetris to Dr. Mario), the goal is to avoid disorganization, which inevitably leads to a cluttered screen and failure. What separates Topsoil from its predecessors is an underlying sense of peace that typifies the pleasure of interacting with the natural world. This serenity flows through the entire game despite being juxtaposed against the randomness of nature that spoils one’s best-laid plans.

Topsoil is a game of turns. During each turn, you must set in place three randomly generated plants, then you must harvest crops. Harvesting is how you score points. Plants of the same type can be removed with a single harvest, provided that the plants sit either above, below, or to the side of each other. The more plants you harvest in one turn, the more points you score. Certain plants are worth more points, but such plants take multiple turns to grow and can only be harvested when fully grown. Thus, they take up precious real estate as you attempt to keep the garden tidy and organized. But if you plan carefully and get lucky, you can achieve a series of successful harvests, and when you pull up a bush or tree or flower that has a bird on it, you not only receive extra points but also get to hear chirping and wings flapping — signs of simple life that beg to be appreciated in a game without a soundtrack.

Every satisfying harvest comes with a price, though. Each time you remove crops, the color of the soil changes. Evoking terms like the “circle of life,” blue soil turns into yellow soil, yellow into green, green into blue. So in addition to trying to position similar plants by each other, you must think about how harvesting can affect the probability of your survival as a successful farmer, as you cannot harvest, say, three adjacent pine trees if they are on differently colored soil. Because each turn requires you to set in place three randomized plants, your game is over if you only have one or two empty tiles left at the beginning of a new turn.

The cycle of Topsoil becomes more unforgiving as you advance, mimicking how the real world becomes more complicated as you get older and how nature has plenty of tricks up its sleeve (as sports analysts often say, “Father Time is undefeated”). At first, you only have to organize three types of plants, which means you can more easily cover up mistakes. The 16-tile board is made up of four columns and four rows, so at the beginning of the game, it’s mathematically impossible to have a four-tile row made up of four different species. After a few turns, however, the game gradually introduces new plants, forcing you to think of how placing a single plant may prevent you from aligning a group of uniform crops on like-colored soil.

Topsoil can seem especially unfair when it randomly gives you a disproportionate amount of plants that take multiple turns to grow. How can you plan when tiles upon tiles are unusable as seeds take their predetermined number of turns to transform into something that can be harvested? Still, Topsoil is never frustrating, thanks to the lack of a time limit, the lack of music that ramps up when you get close to failure, and the delightful “plop” and “tick” sounds that accompany even the paltriest of harvests. Topsoil is a mature puzzler where incoming failure mirrors my dad’s cold but comfortable refrain, “Everyone’s gotta die.” You can start to see the end in Topsoil well before it happens and at your own pace — disappointment tempered by calm knowledge and soothed by the order of the natural world.

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy Review — The Indie Ego Saga Continues

by Jed Pressgrove

Getting Over It with Bennett Foddy comes from that type of game developer who desperately needs you to think he’s smart and aware.

The game takes a classic challenge (climbing a mountain), makes it ironically difficult (you play as a guy in a pot who can only use a hammer to swing and push himself to new platforms), and taunts players with patronizing songs like “Poor Me Blues” and “Whoops a Doodle” when they lose progress.

Foddy himself speaks to you along the way. He opens with some talk about the “intensity” of starting over, such as having to redo one’s homework after accidentally deleting it, to prepare you for the ordeal he has created. “Feel free to go away and come back. I’ll be here,” Foddy says.

In terms of mechanics, the developer takes his inspiration from a Jazzuo game called Sexy Hiking, and he points out that some players never get past Sexy Hiking’s first obstacle, a dead tree. He then shares this view:

“There’s a sense of truth in that lack of compromise. Most obstacles in videogames are fake — you can be completely confident in your ability to get through them, once you have the correct method or the correct equipment, or just by spending enough time. In that sense, every pixelated obstacle in Sexy Hiking is real. The obstacles in Sexy Hiking are unyielding, and that makes the game uniquely frustrating. But I’m not sure Jazzuo intended to make a frustrating game — the frustration is just essential to the act of climbing and it’s authentic to the process of building a game about climbing.”

Here, Foddy pretends that he and Jazzuo know something intimate about climbing. It seems Foddy has never known the pleasure of, say, climbing a tree as a child, which can be challenging without being frustrating. The frustration of these games is that they transform climbing into something that is strange at best and idiotic at worst.

Who knows whether Foddy’s observations are sincere, but they’re certainly annoying in their oversimplifications. In another bit, he philosophizes about “trash culture,” i.e., the idea that the Internet churns out material that we’re ready to throw away within seconds, all so we can go on to the next trivial bit of content. This culture welcomes “friendly” games, but Foddy points out that games were once more demanding. “Players played stoically,” he says, “Now everyone’s turned off by that.”

With that quote, Foddy romanticizes the past and denies part of the present. Has he ever watched the Angry Video Game Nerd, a satirical YouTube sensation that represents the rage of many youngsters who threw their controllers during the 1980s and 1990s? And has he seen the influence of Dark Souls in modern gaming?

Foddy’s lack of historical credibility recalls Davey Wreden’s insufferable commentary in 2015’s The Beginner’s Guide. Wreden, Foddy, and others (like David OReilly and Toby Fox) represent a wave of smart-assed artists whose contempt for the status quo leads them to create games that would be better off as show-and-tell projects in game-design class. If there’s anything the indie gaming world needs to get over, it’s these guys.

Celeste Review — The Whiniest Platformer

by Jed Pressgrove

With heavy references to depression and anxiety, Celeste seeks to depict a psychological struggle that many teenagers and adults can identify with. So it’s particularly egregious that developer Matt Thorson decides to infantilize his audience within the first few minutes of the game. As characters talk to each other in the intro, you hear this childish and grating gibberish as a stand-in for actual voice acting, similar to the dialogue in the throwback 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee (another “difficult” game that nonetheless seems like it was made for toddlers). Thorson’s appeal to an unassuming kiddish perspective doesn’t end there: the pixel-art character models speak to blind nostalgia for childhoods spent with 1980s game consoles, as the sprites are ugly (and they only get uglier when the camera zooms in on them for cheesy dramatic effect). This presentation sets the stage for yet another extreme trial-and-error platformer, where it’s not unusual for players to die hundreds of times over the course of one or two levels. As a familiar gauntlet of player error, Celeste hardly resembles a fresh, mature take on tortured life.

In Celeste, you play as a young woman named Madeline who wishes to climb the intimidating Celeste Mountain. It soon becomes apparent that Madeline suffers from some type of mental illness, so her journey up the mountain involves her internal demons as much as it does external obstacles. At first, you only have to worry about jumping, climbing, and dashing around hazards like spikes, but soon a “bad” part of Madeline manifests as a ghost-like copy of herself, and if this apparition touches you, you die.

This mental-health dynamic amounts to a patronizing theme. While IGN’s Tom Marks insists that the game features “important conversations that games don’t often have,” Celeste is one of many recent games that involve depression and/or anxiety (Elude, Depression Quest, Actual Sunlight, The Cat Lady, to name a few). Viewed from a lens that acknowledges this clear trend, Celeste seems like an effort to be fashionably relevant given its lack of insightful handling of the subject matter.

This trendiness comes through in a conversation between Madeline and her friend Theo, an insufferable hipster who won’t shut up about taking selfies (like millennial caricatures, the duo is more interested in themselves than they are in the grandeur of nature). When Madeline has a panic attack at one point, Theo tells her to close her eyes and concentrate on a feather. The player then sees a feather and must manipulate it so that it fits into a box for a period of time. If the player succeeds with this task, Madeline’s panic attack stops. This seconds-long mechanical expression, however, doesn’t capture any recognizable complication of overcoming anxiety, and feathers show up again in the platforming sections of the game as a way to make Madeline fly, trivializing the idea of hard-fought recovery as a generic power-up.

Similarly, the aforementioned “bad” version of Madeline can be written off mechanically as an evil shadow obstacle, reminiscent of Cosmic Mario in Super Mario 3D Land. Other games have attempted and executed far more original and evocative concepts. Though only a text-based game, Depression Quest communicates the effects of depression through dialogue options that won’t work (when selected by the player) due to the protagonist’s state of mind. Even more illustrative is the case of Elude, a platformer that taps into the sinking-down feeling of depression through how the protagonist controls. Celeste, with its tedious emphasis on death and perfunctory item collection, lacks the focus of such efforts.

I could excuse Celeste’s failures and embrace it as a serviceable series of challenges if it weren’t for the whiny tone of its narrative, which can’t be skipped. In later parts of the game, Madeline speaks in an altered form of infantile gibberish when she gets very upset. She sounds like a tiny crying mouse in these segments, underlining Thorson’s pandering to exaggerated millennial fear. In trying to pass off this self-pitying nonsense as cute and edifying, Celeste is an insult.

Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders Review — A Breakout Success

by Jed Pressgrove

Retro fans may not want to read this: Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders, a phone game, is better than both of the popular arcade staples it’s based on. With numerous characters to play as, varying objectives, a time limit for every level, and continually evolving threats, this amalgam functions as a hyperactive puzzler, where reflexes and accuracy must drive strategic solutions. The varied challenges and the unrelenting pace of the action (just skip the story) make even the most exciting versions of these classics, including 2008’s Space Invaders Extreme, seem cautious and unimaginative.

Developer Taito borrows more from Arkanoid for the premise: at the bottom of the screen, you control a paddle-shaped ship that can reflect bullets from enemies. With a slide of your finger, you can move the ship anywhere on roughly the bottom third of the screen — a departure from Arkanoid’s single-plane, left-right restriction. This new level of spatial freedom, combined with the ease of the finger-slide controls, gives Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders a distinctive frenetic feel.

Indeed, part of the challenge is not letting the effortless movement of the ship distract you from the importance of careful positioning. To beat a level in Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders, you must accomplish a specific objective, such as destroying all invaders or destroying all blocks, within a set time (typically 30-60 seconds) by reflecting alien fire toward the middle and upper part of the screen. Depending on where a bullet hits your ship, the trajectory of the reflected shot will be altered. Thus, if you have one invader to destroy and only two seconds to do so, your last-ditch bullet reflection will need perfect accuracy, whether that translates to a straight-ahead shot or an angled shot that ricochets off the left or right wall in such a way to hit the final target.

The proceedings are loaded down with a variety of interesting variables. As you reflect bullets, a bar fills up. Once the bar is full, your paddle is temporarily replaced with a giant bow and arrow. After you fire the arrow at a chosen angle, it becomes a super shot that will bounce off multiple blocks/enemies until the aforementioned bar depletes, but you must reflect the shot with your ship if it travels to the bottom of the screen. The super shot is essential to success, as it freezes the time limit for the level, and certain levels seem impossible to complete without this advantage.

The other variables allow you to play the game with a specific style. After you complete a world (which consists of 15 levels), you can unlock new characters with points that you accrue. Each character has a special type of skill that can be used when your ship touches an “S” icon. For example, certain heroes can slow down time (including the level’s time limit), while others can temporarily shoot missiles. Sometimes the key to advancing in Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders is knowing how to exploit these different advantages.

This system also encourages experimentation after failure. When you don’t beat a level, the game sends you right back to the screen where you can switch protagonists. Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders has well more than 100 levels, and the challenges become trickier puzzles as you enter new worlds. In one later level, the mission is to destroy two main switches, but they are located at the top of the screen with a lot of blocks between your ship and them. The issue is that some of the blocks encasing the objectives are indestructible unless you hit two secondary switches, which can’t be reached with bullets until certain blocks move on their own to open up enough space for an angled shot. The final kicker is you need bullets to break through the blocks, but enemies are limited, meaning that a poorly aimed reflection can lead to a dead invader and fewer bullets to beat the timer.

This brand of devious level design threatens to catch you off-guard several times throughout the game. Given the various obstacles that might be at play in a given level, choosing the right character to execute a plan can be a daunting but very rewarding hurdle to clear. And because no level lasts long thanks to the time limit, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders operates under a fun type of pressure — one that can demand sharp precision without weighing down the player with a monotonous time commitment. That’s the arcade way, and in this modern age of unending content, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders is a great representative of articulately designed, bullshit-free action.

Gorogoa Review — Picture-Book Blues

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s a magic to playing Gorogoa at first. The game opens with no instructions, and there is a square in the middle of the screen where you can manage up to four pictures. By decoupling images, experimenting with picture placement, zooming in on details, and more, you solve puzzles and trigger new animations that advance a story. Developer Jason Roberts’ striking art is complemented by hypnotic audio effects, like crickets chirping and sounds of the beach, and music that quietly arouses wonder.

Yet a question never left my mind as I got deeper into Gorogoa: why should I care?

Gorogoa has the charm of a storybook that doesn’t know how to tell a story. In the animations, there is a boy who walks around with a bowl, but I have no idea why he’s interesting or important, and his lack of emotion leaves one cold. There are mystical symbols and imagery, but I have no idea why they’re significant. At the beginning of the game, there is a creature that inspires the boy to go on his quest for meaning, but I completely forgot about the creature after a few puzzles into the game. Thus I never cared about the very thing that started the journey in the first place. At best, Roberts evokes feelings of exhaustion and perseverance in depictions of the boy as an adult, who remains deep in thought about the mystery driving his life.

Although the puzzles in Gorogoa lead to all kinds of beautiful things in motion, from the rolling wheel of a cart to a moth attracted to a light, the game, like the boy, is prisoner to a sort of repetition. Unlike the case in more dynamic puzzlers like Scribblenauts, the Professor Layton series, and The Talos Principle, you always work on one solution at a time in Gorogoa, and when the answer isn’t obvious, you may have to resort to rearranging the pictures and zooming in on their details to a monotonous extent — all just to move a vague and dispassionate story forward.

Even the cleverest aspects of Gorogoa get stale. For example, watching a scene expand after you merge the imagery of two ostensibly disparate pictures is intoxicating, but this type of step in solving a puzzle becomes an expected mechanic rather than an amusing revelation well before the conclusion of the game. Too much of Gorogoa’s strength lies in illusions coming to life, so when the affair starts to feel like clockwork, the magic is gone.

Observer Review — Son of a Glitch

by Jed Pressgrove

Despite having one of the dumbest-sounding monikers among developers, Bloober Team delivered a visually dynamic punch with Layers of Fear. In that 2016 game, you explore an ever-transforming family home, which represents the mental and emotional instability of the husband/father protagonist. Observer, Bloober Team’s latest effort, features similar tricks — corridors that morph when you turn around, doors and cabinets that open by themselves, and so on — as you traverse people’s minds as a detective of the future. But while the setting of Layers of Fear effectively puts one in the shoes of a frustrated male artist, good luck feeling like an investigator of a fresh case in Observer, as much of the imagery you scan is hackneyed and contrived.

In Observer, you play as Daniel Lazarski, a cyborg policeman who searches brains, not just crime scenes, for clues. After receiving a distressed phone call from his son, Lazarski finds a decapitated body in his son’s apartment and sets out to explain this murder and locate his missing offspring. From here you question a variety of tenants, many of whom are on drugs. Here and there, you must pop a pill yourself to correct Lazarski’s vision, which starts glitching after a certain amount of investigation. Drug dependence, a common neo-noir topic, paints the hero as a vulnerable figure in a decadent society.

As in Metroid Prime, technology allows you to to view your surroundings via different lenses to detect important details, but Observer wants the trips you take inside of people’s heads to carry the most weight. In this respect, it’s understandable that Bloober Team presents the mind as a messy place where memories and insecurities translate as strange and shifting sights to Lazarski. Observer is at its best when Lazarski’s own history influences what he sees and hears in another person’s brain — when the human condition conflicts with the goal of objective observation.

The problem is these psychological dives often come across as assembly-line horror. With many scenes that recall the hallways in Layers of Fear, Observer gives off the vibe of a cookie-cutter sequel rather than that of a distinct story. The worst decision by Bloober Team is the inclusion of stealth segments that bring to mind a number of survival-horror titles, such as Outlast 2. These sequences suggest journeying into a mind is the stuff of cliched trial-and-error game design, not to mention that they seem irrelevant to the story Observer wants to tell.

Game-breaking bugs on the PlayStation 4 worsened my experience with Observer considerably. Within a few hours, the screen froze twice, and more than once a glitch rendered an essential puzzle-solving item unusable. I’ve observed enough: if a sci-fi game has something to say about the effects of technology, the least it can do is work right.