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.

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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.

The New Most Overrated Game Ever

by Jed Pressgrove

The most overrated video game was once The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time for a simple reason: so many called it the greatest achievement in gaming without acknowledging its obvious flaws. The character of Navi, for instance, makes it almost impossible to take the game’s dramatic intentions seriously. Navi peppers the proceedings with unnecessary tutorial-like remarks, and her name, a condescending abbreviation of “Navigator,” symbolizes how many pop games since Ocarina of Time (released in 1998) have treated players like infants — a trend still going strong as we approach 2018.

For close to two decades, it seemed nothing could dethrone Ocarina of Time as the most overrated game of all time. Then the exaggerated hoopla over The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild happened this year. Within weeks of its release, many said Breath of the Wild had surpassed Ocarina of Time as the No. 1 game in history, and a segment of gamers expressed outrage when Breath of the Wild’s Metacritic score dropped one point, from 99 to 98, after all reviews were completed and tallied. During the summer, Edge revised its 100 greatest games list just so it could put Breath of the Wild at the top. I even saw more than one adult praise Breath of the Wild for having a jump button (did they really miss Zelda II: The Adventure of Link or any of the countless platformers out there?).

Why is The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild considered so outstanding, especially when its flaws undercut the potential of its open world? I have identified four areas where the game either falters to a significant degree or is clearly outmatched by other titles.

Storytelling

Breath of the Wild has a huge map and flexible mechanics so that fans do the heavy lifting when it comes to storytelling and so that Nintendo can get away with endless banalities. When people exchange tales about what they have done as players in a game, academics call it “emergent narrative.” Under this (snooze-inducing) framework, the variety of puzzle solutions and environmental factors in Breath of the Wild, for example, suggests the game allows the most potential for fun stories between audience members.

I’m not sure this is true. There are other games, such as Minecraft and Scribblenauts, that can lead to a wider variety of stories than Breath of the Wild. And is emergent narrative automatically compelling anyway? It might be neat that this guy uses Item A to alter Environmental Factor C to overcome Obstacle Z, but I doubt many of these anecdotes will stand the test of time, even as self-absorbed curiosities.

In any case, the greatest game of all time should not have a story as generic and monotonous as Breath of the Wild’s (see the seventh paragraph of my review here); its cast should not amount to little more than peddlers of Nintendo tradition and whimsy if the goal is indeed to depict an ostensibly living world. Just two years ago, critics and fans recognized The Witcher 3 for imbuing its many minor characters with unmistakable, striking humanity, yet Breath of the Wild gets a pass despite being filled with tired contrivances like superfluous side quests and throwaway caricatures of human beings.

The one-dimensional heroism of Breath of the Wild’s plot limits the philosophical possibilities of its world. Why does the press imply this game has the best open world when it completely lacks the morality variable that made Fallout, Planescape: Torment, and The Witcher 3 so vibrant and provocative? Is chopping down trees to create bridges and crush enemies that trailblazing in comparison to what these games did for storytelling?

Climbing

At first glance, it does seem significant that you can climb, without equipment, mountains and towers in Breath of the Wild. You might even say this feature gives Breath of the Wild a distinct identity as an open-world game. But compared to Assassin’s Creed Origins (also released in 2017), which allows you to scale myriad awe-inspiring structures in ancient Egypt with no need to worry about a stamina bar, Breath of the Wild appears quaint, unimaginative, and plodding. What’s more, Twilight Princess still has the most exciting climbing sequences of any Zelda game with its double-clawshot mechanic, which requires you to use the camera while hanging to reach greater heights.

Weapon Breaking

Because weapons break in Breath of the Wild about as often as an American politician says something stupid, out-of-reach treasure chests aren’t as tempting to pursue if you already have multiple arms in stock. If you know everything you find will soon disintegrate, why get excited about the prospect of new items? The weapon system, like the stamina system, doesn’t serve the exploratory focus of the game and points to a superficial kind of realism. Further, Muramasa: The Demon Blade’s weapon-breaking dynamic exposes Nintendo’s approach as amateurish. In Muramasa, swords temporarily break if you use them too much, forcing you to switch weaponry until the broken ones “heal.” This rule not only spices up the combo-heavy fights but also gives weight to the game’s conceit that swords are living beings. In contrast, Breath of the Wild seems to take place in a world where no one can make anything worth a damn, suggesting its weapon system is a parody at best.

Stamina

Breath of the Wild has the most pointless stamina system in recent memory. The most appealing part of the game is its invitation to explore a world, yet the invitation holds contempt for those who just want to run at a decent clip without having to worry about an indicator. Perhaps this contradiction could be overlooked if the stamina system made sense. You lose stamina for running, climbing, and gliding but not for standard melee attacks or jumping. Say what you will about the frustration of your protagonist becoming exhausted in Dark Souls, but at least that game applies the concept in a consistent, fair, and understandable fashion. Breath of the Wild’s pretense of realism is merely half-assed.

This flaw is even more egregious in light of Nioh, which was released a month before Breath of the Wild. Nioh reinvents stamina management, wherein a timed button press can save endurance and open up a variety of strategic options, from dodging to jabbing. Whereas Breath of the Wild’s stamina system doesn’t improve anything about the game, Nioh’s unique take on energy conservation sets its combat apart from every release before it. That the gaming world didn’t explicitly acknowledge Nioh’s superiority in this regard speaks to an ignorance surrounding the accolades for Breath of the Wild.

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2017

by Jed Pressgrove

2017 had plenty of good games compared to the last few years. But don’t be thrown off by the hype: several of the biggest releases were very flawed (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona 5, Yakuza 0) or downright terrible (Resident Evil 7, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Xenoblade Chronicles 2). The gaming world still has incredibly low standards, and many critics can still be indistinguishable from fanboys, but as always, the games themselves represent a vibrant art form.

1. The Norwood Suite

Cosmo D’s 2015 game, Off-Peak, was an audiovisual and thematic revelation. No other independent first-person game — not Dear Esther, not Gone Home, not Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture — had captured humanity in such provocative, comprehensible, and technically daring terms. Incredibly, The Norwood Suite doesn’t just match the effort of Off-Peak. It surpasses its predecessor’s use of sound, incorporating a larger, more emotionally varied soundtrack and making every character’s dialogue an instrumental riff within the sonic landscape. It complicates the theme of art under capitalism; whereas Off-Peak focuses on the diversity and struggle of artists in an exploitative system, The Norwood Suite covers a wider range of expressive individuals, including corporate sellouts, leading figures who abuse other artists in the process of creating iconic works (as exemplified by Peter Norwood), and more. Last but not least, The Norwood Suite confirms its developer’s distinctiveness as a surrealist. Some fans of Cosmo D compare him to filmmaker David Lynch. That’s an oversimplification. Lynch, who often serves up ominous abstractions, has never so blatantly called attention to cultural joy, sacrifice, and problems through a surreal lens, nor can he fully explore the possibilities of music within space. Cosmo D, like the people he portrays, is his own artist.

(See more thoughts on The Norwood Suite here.)

2. Nier: Automata

With some of the most resonant images, songs, and dialogue of the year, director Yoko Taro presents the bigotry of androids in Nier: Automata as a reflection of our own othering, which has no political boundaries.

(See full review of Nier: Automata here.)

3. Splasher

This platformer from developer Splashteam understands that “more” does not equal great design. That’s why Splasher’s unique kineticism thrives across 24 levels. There’s an odd humor in failing to rush through these intricate stages, as your fingers scramble to tap the right button for the right kind of environment-altering liquid. This dynamic makes Splasher an action masterpiece.

(See more thoughts on Splasher here.)

4. Little Red Lie

As the most cynical game of the year, Little Red Lie sometimes lays everything on too thick. At the same time, one would be lucky in 2017 to find more compelling writing, from a standpoint of form or unfiltered emotion, than Will O’Neill’s work in this game. Little Red Lie is an ominous statement on how individuals and society influence each other, but it also functions as a mirror. In highlighting all of the characters’ lies, which come in innumerable forms, the game asks us to take a longer look at our own words. The coda, which aggressively breaks the fourth wall, might feel like an accusation or an insult, yet I interpret it as a moral challenge, a chance to be honest with one’s self.

5. Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is the antithesis of Silent Hill 2. Its action is not fundamentally banal. It’s a focused, rather than inconsistent, metaphor. It doesn’t rely on a hackneyed “the protagonist is the culprit” plot twist. Even more, it ultimately presents the human mind as something to understand, not fear, with a universal message about overcoming hatred in all its internal forms.

(See full review of Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

6. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia

The combat of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is distinctively hard-nosed, avoiding the gimmicks of recent Fire Emblem sequels, and its time mechanic encourages experimentation in a way the series never has. Just as remarkable is the game’s story of two heroes, whose love can’t overlook the need to discover identity and destiny along separate paths.

(See full review of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

7. Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle

If Mario + Rabbids didn’t have a pointless story and so much inconsequential item collecting, it could have been the best turn-based game of the year. As it stands, movement within a tile-based system has never been this electrifying.

(See full review of Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

8. Super Mario Odyssey

There are two strange signs of Super Mario Odyssey’s greatness. First, the game manages to counteract its pandering nonsense — a photo mode, nostalgic and trite two-dimensional platforming segments, repetitive item collecting — with sheer ingenuity and humor. Second, we may never see another pop game that reveals the urge of so many different people to enslave, brand, and manipulate things for their own gain. Cappy is innocuously packaged as a friendly guide, but his popularity as a device for unbridled control speaks to a double-edged type of catharsis, where we see in each other a common dark thread.

(See full review of Super Mario Odyssey here.)

9. Pyre

Developer Supergiant Games goes beyond the norms of RPGs and sports games to show how sport connects and divides us. Unlike countless other games, Pyre sees potential for revolution, both personal and social, via nonviolent means. In today’s world, that’s a controversial idea, especially for those who only see sports as games.

(See full review of Pyre here.)

(See more thoughts on the game here.)

10. Torment: Tides of Numenera

Yes, I would have preferred this sequel to the unforgettable Planescape: Torment to stand out more visually and to distance itself more from the numbers obsession of many RPGs. But you also won’t find many games in 2017, or any year, this concerned with exploring the philosophies and sentiments of beings who may make you uncomfortable. Tides of Numenera is a call for people to leave their echo chambers and bubbles, even while the ghosts of history live on in startlingly destructive ways.

(See full review of Torment: Tides of Numenera here.)

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Video Games of 2017 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

Although 2017 has nothing on 2015 in terms of its overall share of terrible games, several works this year showed a special hatred for rural folk and places. This trend shelters the political egos of fools that think people who live outside of cities are largely deranged, clueless, and hopeless. The biggest monsters in one’s mind will always be the biggest monsters in one’s world, regardless of the diversity that spans all of humankind.

You’ll notice I’m doing something different this year with the list. For each of these reprehensible choices, I will suggest a game you should play instead. The catch is I’m only going to recommend alternatives that are far from perfect but nonetheless do more than enough things right to rise above the following junk.

1. Resident Evil 7

Many in the gaming world said this embarrassingly unoriginal sequel was a return to great horror for the Resident Evil series (note: Resident Evil has always been more corny than disturbing). More than one reason can explain why this questionable claim was made: virtual-reality hype; the bizarre sentiment that a first-person perspective is automatically revolutionary; and a conscious or unconscious feeling that we all should be very frightened of people who live in the country. Resident Evil 7 has sexist and racist ideas, too — just more crap often accepted as classic horror.

(See full review of Resident Evil 7 here.)

Play Instead: Prey

Like Resident Evil 7, Prey is a first-person shooter influenced by horror movies, but Prey has a less discriminatory perspective on humanity and, in stark contrast to the dull inventory of its urban-snob counterpart, features one of the most inventive weapons of the year: the Gloo Cannon.

2. Doki Doki Literature Club!

Dear Dan Salvato,

I realize you think portraying girls as out-of-control lunatics somehow subverts anime, manga, and dating cliches. Unfortunately, horror movies have been portraying the female sex in this way for decades. Back to the drawing board.

Sincerely,

Game Developers’ Favorite Critic

(See full review of Doki Doki Literature Club! here.)

Play Instead: Little Nightmares

While Little Nightmares doesn’t try to reject conventions or go meta like Doki Doki Literature Club!, it earns its tension more honestly with technically exquisite imagery.

3. Troll and I

The bugginess of Troll and I is what horrible legends are made of. Publisher Maximum Games should go to confession, if not to prison, for the monstrous sin of releasing this poor excuse for a game.

(See full of review of Troll and I here.)

Play Instead: Destiny 2

Destiny 2 waters down the very idea of shooting a target and trying out new firearms, treating almost every gun as an opportunity to make consumers feel comfortable and smooth. The jumping in the game feels like something out of a rejected Nintendo Entertainment System platformer. And its ramblings about Light make its morality more superficial than that of Star Wars. But at least the product works.

4. Outlast 2

Games can be understandably critical of religion (see The Binding of Isaac and Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia), but Outlast 2 hatefully portrays people of faith in incomprehensible, psychotic terms. The game’s shallowness is particularly noticeable given that the protagonist, despite having gone to a Catholic school, shares no clear opinion on matters of providence and religiosity. And of course, all of this madness is possible due to backward rural savages, including women who think murdering their children is righteous. What a shocker.

(See full review of Outlast 2 here.)

Play Instead: Stranger Things

This free mobile game, evocative of NES and SNES games, is little more than a nostalgic way to market a supernatural television show, yet it’s still more inventive and less reliant on trial-and-error challenges than Outlast 2.

5. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

This first-person shooter recreates adolescent 1990s ultraviolence, but it’s also a kind of political commentary that paints idiotic ideas, such as anonymous KKK members walking around in a Nazi-dominated society, as profound. Don’t be fooled by the blaxploitation stereotype, the naked pregnant woman gunning down bad guys, or the half-baked portrayal of a half-Jewish protagonist: this game upholds the indestructible white-hero formula with a degree of stupidity that must be seen to be believed. You certainly have the right to buy into the notion that Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus functions as some cathartic, telling spectacle, but you’re going to wake up the next day with the same level of insight into the world, and you can’t just shoot the troubles away.

(See full review of Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus here.)

Play Instead: The Surge

Both The Surge and Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus involve a hero leaving a wheelchair thanks to advanced technology. The difference is The Surge understands that competition, not phony-baloney heroism, drives the culture of capitalism, and that’s something we have to resist.

6. Night in the Woods

In a society where the gap between the rich and the poor seems to grow as we speak, the treatment of the privileged millennial protagonist in Night in the Woods is especially insulting. With a smart-ass vibe, developer Infinite Fall allows Mae Borowski, the central figure of the game, to go hog-wild in a deceptive depiction of a working-class community and attempts to pass off this story as indicative of something real. It’s one thing to examine an obviously flawed character; it’s another thing to try to make someone believe that almost everyone around the punk would ultimately put up with her. The implication of the grave-digging sequence — that no one would care about a boy’s corpse being defiled — shows a disgusting level of incoherent “progressive” cynicism.

(See full review of Night in the Woods here.)

Play Instead: Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Imperfect protagonist: Chloe Frazer > Mae Borowski. Believable outraged friend: Nadine Ross > Bea Santello.

7. South Park: The Fractured But Whole

If this game represents the satire of our time, may Jonathan Swift rise from the grave to mock us. South Park: The Fractured But Whole’s cowardly, trite approach to comedy is immediately apparent. The opening tries to make fun of the political framing of the Zack Snyder film Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, but the attempt falls flat because a superhero movie, of all things, has more to say about the current disarray of the United States than South Park creator Trey Parker, who helped direct and write this game. Even if you ignore the recycled shit jokes and lazy racial humor, this RPG fails to be engaging. As in the 2014 predecessor South Park: The Stick of Truth, exploration is a bore because the environment is too familiar and standardized. And if the combat in The Stick of Truth was an uninspired take on Super Mario RPG, the battles in The Fractured But Whole suggest an idiot’s perspective on tile-based tactics.

Play Instead: Dujanah

Jack King-Spooner has made far better games than Dujanah (Beeswing, Will You Ever Return? 2, Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History). Yet the fictional arcade within it alone is more clever than The Fractured But Whole, with experiences that effectively lampoon pop hits (such as F-Zero) and even a decent juvenile spoof called “Pie or Anus.”

8. Valkyria Revolution

If nothing else, Valkyria Revolution proves that a game can’t make a serious statement with flippant dialogue and incessant loading that destroys the drama and pacing of a story. This disaster by Media.Vision offers another lesson, too: if you forget video-game history, you’re unlikely to surpass or even match superior work. For anyone who has experienced the measured real-time action of the 1990s games Secret of Mana and Secret of Evermore, Valkyria Revolution’s cruise-control approach to battle is unacceptable.

(See full review of Valkyria Revolution here.)

Play Instead: Cosmic Star Heroine

This independent RPG knows history better than Valkyria Revolution. Developer Zeboyd Games acknowledges its influences and builds on them, delivering one of the most fascinating takes on turn-based combat this year.

9. Everything

David OReilly continues to pretend like he has a grasp on the nature of existence in Everything. And just like they did when OReilly released Mountain in 2014, some people continue to eat it up because they think whimsy equals wit and insight.

(See full review of Everything here.)

Play Instead: ATV Renegades

ATV Renegades shows that being down to earth, and making people laugh in the process, is underrated.

10. Tekken 7

No pop game confirms the sorry conservative state of fighting games more than Tekken 7. Namco’s allegiance to Capcom is obvious in the camerawork, the “new” mechanics, and the inclusion of boring bad-guy Akuma.

(See full review of Tekken 7 here.)

Play Instead: Arms

Leave it to Nintendo to try something distinct within the fighting-game genre. Even if the game isn’t always fair or focused, its weirdness is offset by how uniquely it articulates the importance of footwork and orthodox/southpaw dynamics.

Metroid: Samus Returns Review — Not So Lonely

by Jed Pressgrove

Like the 1991 Game Boy game it’s based on, Metroid: Samus Returns emphasizes the bounty-hunter aspect of its protagonist. As in other Metroid games, you have to gain powers to overcome recurring obstacles, but the focus is tracking down Metroids and eliminating them in order to move to a new location on the planet SR388. This modern interpretation of Samus’ hunt is a pretty good action game, packed with power-ups and backgrounds that bring considerable atmosphere to the side-scrolling experience. The catch is you rarely feel lost or threatened on SR388 due to the wealth of powers, a forgiving checkpoint system, fast-travel points, and repetitive Metroid fights.

At first, Metroid: Samus Returns seems emotionally antiseptic. The first level doesn’t have the intriguing backgrounds of later areas, and Samus’ new parry technique boringly recalls numerous recent hack-and-slashers. Soon, however, the game gets rolling, especially when the Metroid indicator on the bottom screen of the 3DS starts beeping and blinking, taunting you to find the nearby alien and take care of business.

You’ll also get acquainted with an irritating slew of enemies, several of which can’t be killed quickly until you get very souped up. Suitably, the most fascinating of the bunch are the Metroids themselves. For a decent part of the game, these creatures reward your searching, with subtle changes to their abilities that can catch you off guard. The most enlivening version of the titular foe is the kind that, after taking a particular amount of damage, burrows into another hall, forcing you to find it again. Not only does this form of the enemy effectively delay gratification, it reinforces the feeling that Samus’ calling is to hunt destroyers.

After observing certain patterns again and again, though, the annihilation of the Metroids becomes a reliable outcome, particularly in a dull sequence where you can dispatch nine in a row, one by one, by freezing and shooting one super missile at each. Sure, this scene leads into a more substantial threat, but it’s a far cry from the tension of the final stretch in Metroid Prime, where the Metroids served as a mighty frustration as you attempted to jump to higher and higher platforms.

Really, the game hits its high point at the end of the sixth level, when your wits and reflexes are put to the ultimate test against the ever-changing tactics and weak points of the Diggernaut. That battle should go down as an all-time classic. Afterward, the game never quite recovers, as evidenced by the last segment when the script, following the 1991 original’s lead, gets preposterously sentimental with a baby Metroid joining Samus and helping her defeat the final boss. That last adversary is tedious not because of difficulty but because of shoehorned cutscenes and the low accuracy required to emerge the winner. And with that victory, Samus flies away with her adopted Metroid, a corny picture of motherhood that doesn’t feel earned.