A Note on the Lack of Game Bias Reviews

by Jed Pressgrove

You might have noticed that after my review of Doom at the beginning of June, Game Bias has been dead. This was not my intention. In the early summer, I tweeted that I would be working on reviews of Kirby: Planet Robobot and a couple of other games for Game Bias. The delay on these reviews has a very simple explanation: I lack both time and resources in 2016.

My divorce is the major reason. Economically, I’m not where I was the last couple of years when I was able to write articles for Game Bias regularly. I no longer have my own PC, and that has made writing difficult, as you can imagine. Although I plan on getting a PC as soon as I take care of other concerns, I can’t say when that will be. Until then, when I do get to a PC I can use, I’m usually writing reviews for Slant, not Game Bias. Slant provides me review copies of games, so that’s where my priority has to be. On top of that, there was also a significant death in my family recently, as well as signs of another divorce, and my day job has become much more demanding. All of these things have cut away at my opportunity and, hell, some of my motivation to write.

I debated on whether to write this entry at all. The reason I ended up doing it is that I appreciate everyone who reads my work a great deal, and I feel you deserve an explanation, even if you were never wondering.

I’ll end on some good news: my review of Kirby: Planet Robobot will be coming to Game Bias soon. I hope I can say the same for other pieces. As always, thank you for reading.

Doom (2016) Review — Fear No Evil

by Jed Pressgrove

The firefights in the new Doom have something to share: Hell has little suspense. Thanks to music cues, checkpoints, “Gore Nests,” and more, you almost always know when you’ll be fighting waves of demons, who continue to appear out of nowhere, but in an orderly fashion, as you kill off their kin. Doom, like the 1993 original, is faster than the overwhelming majority of first-person shooters, but the pace elicits superficial excitement rather than tension because you’re rarely caught off-guard and because ammo and health are plentiful.

Although this entry features expendable characters, irritating voice-overs, and too-easy satire about corporate marketing (“Weaponizing demons for a brighter tomorrow.”), the point hasn’t changed since the original Doom: kill demons on Mars and in Hell. With scenes dedicated to the silent protagonist’s brutish approach (such as when he forces a drone to give him a weapon upgrade), Doom is unapologetic and witty about its brawniness, making it more fun than the pretentious Dark Souls III. The shooter’s cause is also helped by developer id Software’s superior weapon design that includes two modifications that can be leveled up for almost every gun. Since you can switch between a gun’s normal and modified fire during battle, the strategic and kinetic possibilities are immense, surpassing the amount of styles enabled by power-up selection in the 1989 vertical shooter Blazing Lazers. The gun offerings in Doom also confirm the embarrassing lack of imagination in Wolfenstein: The New Order, another Bethesda-published title.

Doom’s tactical variety and breakneck pacing don’t make shooting the star of the game, though. The irony here is explained by a standardization of danger. As far as combat is concerned, you’re usually only threatened when you enter one of the game’s many arena fights, which are imposed by mission objectives and suddenly locked doors. In these arenas, there is often an object, such as a Gore Nest, that you have to interact with before a variety of demons pop out of thin air, so in these cases, you have the luxury of scanning the area for hideaways, power-ups, ammunition, and so on before the battle starts. After you initiate the fight, it’s best to attack the enemies as they enter the arena; their starting positions are projected by red energy patterns. Because enemies can materialize all around you, the “keep moving” principle largely guides success, as does performing melee finishers (“Glory Kills”) on stunned enemies for health pickups and using your chainsaw on enemies to replenish ammo. With some practice (and you’ll get plenty of it), you can see the odds are stacked in your favor, and if you die, checkpoints ensure you won’t be far from the arena.

As such, this is the first time in the Doom series where you can operate with negligible fear. The less respected Doom 3 had fewer enemies on the screen at a time, but it produced more suspense because demons could come out of a hiding spot in any hall or any room. You could justify the new Doom’s arena repetition by saying it’s adopting a different paradigm, but the result is not as exciting as Masanobu Endō’s 1982 classic Xevious, which combined predictable enemy entrances with some random variations in enemy type and attack style.

The inclusion of Glory Kills in Doom says a lot about id Software’s decreased emphasis on unpredictable horror. When you perform a Glory Kill, the game temporarily takes control away from you so that you can watch the protagonist’s armored hands and feet rip and pulverize different parts of enemies. Even though these finishing moves vary according to enemy type and player position (e.g., you get a different finish if you’re behind an enemy), you see them so many times that they become like ordering a Classic Single vs. a Classic Double at Wendy’s. From a practical standpoint, the Glory Kills can give you much needed health in a pinch. At the same time, the imagery of Glory Kills — hell, the very name — evokes this illusion of masculine invincibility that is in line with many pop action games and is another reminder that some developers can’t leave the blood pornography of the 1990s behind. The violence in the original Doom was more about complementing atmosphere, tone, and theme rather than showmanship (as in the gore of Mortal Kombat). The new Doom rejects this significant historical distinction.

The best part of this Doom has nothing to do with violence. As critic Patrick Lindsey once said about the original Doom, “The secret is that Doom is not actually about the shooting.” Here, Lindsey pointed to the lack of precision aiming and emphasized the importance of movement. I want to borrow this point about movement but flip it away from the idea of putting oneself in the best position for killing enemies. The most interesting parts in the new Doom involve exploring every corner of a level for tucked-away items without falling to your death. When you fall, there is no Glory Kill or chainsaw kill or “Berserk” power-up to bail yourself out. When you fall far enough, you’re dead. That’s the tension that a title like “Doom” entails.

Uncharted 4 Review — Thief’s Glorification

by Jed Pressgrove

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is by far the best Uncharted game. That’s not a surprise since the series is largely mediocre, but this fact doesn’t take away from Uncharted 4’s almost-perfect opening chapters that change protagonist Nathan Drake from an opportunistic douchebag “related” to Sir Francis Drake to an individual beset by familial, spiritual, and instinctual pressures. This conflict, which appropriately references the crucifixion of Jesus and the two thieves, loses its potency and its point when directors Bruce Straley and Neil Druckmann seem to go out of their way to recycle action concepts and arrive at a non-messy, amoral ending.

The previous Uncharted game, Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, attempted to draw the series closer to the mythology of the Indiana Jones films with its flashback of a young Nathan Drake getting a lesson in thievery from veteran Victor Sullivan (adult Nathan’s partner). This flashback resembles what a young Indiana Jones experienced in The Last Crusade when he got his fedora from an older, better man, but Uncharted 3’s secular lightheartedness and lack of family ties spoil the Indiana Jones comparison and show a specious understanding of juvenile development. Uncharted 4 corrects this mistake with flashbacks depicting young Nathan’s rejection of religion — the game’s best visual is when Nathan sits on a bed as a nun remonstrates him, the lighting on the boy bringing out the preciousness of his soul — and the influence of his big brother Sam.

The present-day journey in Uncharted 4 takes off when Nathan learns Sam, thought to be deceased for years, is alive and needs help finding treasure to pay off a crime lord. Due to guilt over the fact that he once left his brother for dead on an ill-advised quest for fortune, Nathan lies to and leaves his wife Elena to accompany his long-lost mentor sibling, but the script also implies Nathan is starved for violence. This yearning shows up in an earlier segment when Nathan, retired from adventuring, rolls around in his man cave and shoots targets with a toy gun, as if to combat withdrawal. When Nathan later lies to Elena again in order to buy more time to assist Sam, the shot of the wife on the phone dissolves into a shot of the Madagascar wilderness (where the brothers think they’re hot on the trail of treasure). This cinematic technique powerfully communicates screwed-up priorities: the thrill of danger first, family second. Sullivan, often a comic-relief character, even highlights Nathan’s dubious motivation: “I thought this was about saving Sam.”

The deeper you get into Uncharted 4, the less concerned it is about morality and the more determined it is to run the player through a gauntlet of unexciting or overused ideas. Ledges breaking. Tediously easy puzzles. Characters boosting each other up to places where ladders should be. Pushing boxes against walls so that you can reach a higher platform. Triggering mummy bombs. Uncharted 4 is another case where good editing seems off the table in the AAA business meeting that says quantity equals quality. The more responsive melee combat, greater emphasis on stealth, and addition of climbing tools are fine, but the more suspenseful and dynamic sequences, such as the clock-tower climb and the elevator gunfight, should have made up the majority of the game, as they could have given the action a consistently engaging identity.

Even the once-complex cast peters out. Elena does show up a couple of times to make Nathan question his intentions, but soon all the characters agree the suicidal mission should be completed. The earlier allusions to the penitent thief, who confessed his sin to a dying Christ, are forgotten. By the end, the greed and irresponsibility of Sam and Nathan result in everyone’s dreams coming true. The sentimentality is at its grossest in the epilogue, which showcases Nathan and Elena’s privileged daughter edging toward the same path of materialism disguised as adventurism. This unironic ending proves the subtitle “A Thief’s End” is bullshit.

Dark Souls III Review — See Monster, Kill Monster

by Jed Pressgrove

Dark Souls is a great horror game for injecting new drama into the traditional video-game challenge of methodically dispatching enemies and traversing dangerous places. In Dark Souls, the bonfire’s dubious salvation — restoration and growth in exchange for the regeneration of all vanquished foes — might inspire a game critic to write an analysis on death, learning, and repetition, but more inspiring than that is the undulation of suspense and relief (unique from the game’s ancestors, Castlevania and The Legend of Zelda). With Dark Souls III, discovering or using a bonfire means much less. Director Hidetaka Miyazaki and other leads at FromSoftware have allowed the standards of many other (more banal) games to invade: convenient hubs, easy-to-find merchants, more safe spots, fast travel, explicit warnings about danger, more linear level design, enemies that are easier to sneak up on or avoid altogether, and so on. Dark Souls III is about as mysterious as a McDonald’s on a street corner.

The title screen music, composed by Yuka Kitamura, suggests an epic spiritual crisis, but neither the introductory cutscene nor the ensuing journey earn the various emotions of the song. In the intro, a voice-over tries to put a different spin on the Dark Souls tradition of struggle with “And so it is, that ash seeketh embers,” yet the game actually amounts to “Hey, you need to kick these guys’ asses; use an ember to boost your health beforehand.” The brawniness of Dark Souls III would be better without the existential posturing.

The best thing that can be said about Dark Souls III is it doesn’t look as bad as Miyazaki’s recent hit Bloodborne. The player avatar and various physical structures in Dark Souls III do not blend together as they did in Bloodborne, which stupidly wasted its Gothic architecture by ignoring the importance of an illusion of depth. But like Bloodborne, Dark Souls III can’t buy scares with its cheap Resident Evil 4 homages, such as the Undead Settlement and enemies who get taken over by what looks like a demonic virus. Dark Souls III also makes ideas from Dark Souls less captivating from a visual/spatial perspective; Dark Souls III’s perching dragon, for example, doesn’t cause as much anxiety as its Dark Souls counterpart that stared players down from the opposite side of a long bridge. Similarly, the Anor Londo location returns from Dark Souls but with little of the awe.

Considering that so many ideas return from previous entries, the more straightforward pathfinding in Dark Souls III doesn’t serve it well, as dying again and again allows more opportunities to confirm the general lack of startling or curious concepts. Being able to veer more often from the standard path would have at least delayed this realization. FromSoftware attempts to spice up the proceedings with weapon skills, yet all you really need to do is dodge and attack without overextending, and unlike the case in the more fascinating Golden Axe: Beast Rider, there’s little work in countering besides memorizing enemy patterns and locking on to targets.

It can’t be denied that some of the adversaries in Dark Souls III are hard to forget, from the spastic bird people to the tubby undead evangelist women to the Abyss Watchers that hilariously kill each other as you fight them. Since these quirky creations are the main reason to play, one could view Dark Souls III as a streamlined monster mash, yet it still has tons of useless items and pointless texts (juxtapose this flirty storytelling with Planescape: Torment’s clear commentary on the human condition with its descriptions). People often describe Dark Souls games as vague and open to interpretation. That’s Miyazaki and company’s greatest swindle: convincing people that “see monster, try to kill monster” sequelitis is profound. Take the unfamiliar monsters away, and you have one boring-ass game in Dark Souls III.

Dark Souls, Difficulty, and Accessibility

by Jed Pressgrove

Ignore the Souls fanboy hype: Dark Souls is not uniquely difficult. The discussion on whether Dark Souls should have an easy mode might make you believe otherwise. Both sides of the debate seem to suggest that difficulty and accessibility have an inverse relationship: the easier a game is, the more accessible it is, and the harder a game is, the less accessible it is.

Video game history does not confirm this suggestion. Tetris and Pac-Man are two of the most accessible games ever; neither is easy. Last Action Hero on the Nintendo Entertainment System is not hard to complete, but its miserable combat is not very appealing to a general audience.

A certain type of difficulty could affect accessibility. That Dark Souls has a more uniform hardness (rather than the gradual difficulty of Tetris) could mean fewer people will enjoy it. But being consistently and mercilessly difficult didn’t hurt Flappy Bird’s wide appeal.

This fact leads me to think that some do not want to judge Dark Souls based on its design. Every element of Dark Souls that could be called inaccessible — including the laughably ambiguous and drearily metatexual storytelling that some would like to subject themselves to in an easy mode — follows the intention of the developers, who are very much aware of the vague and unforgiving nature of a sizable chunk of games for the Atari 2600, Nintendo Entertainment System, and other consoles. (One of modern game criticism’s biggest shortcomings is the frequent lack of comparison between Dark Souls and Castlevania. Most commentators haven’t noted Dark Souls resembles Castlevania II in 3-D form in some ways.)

The Dark Souls easy mode debate often overlooks two other things: (1) it’s perfectly fine to hate a game’s design, and (2) Dark Souls 3 represents an easy mode. The second point is very important, as the developers have made an effort to make Dark Souls more accessible via reduced damage, fast travel, a hub — they’ve even thrown in messages that tell you to turn back from particularly dangerous paths. But is Dark Souls 3 all that interesting? And is this effort to please the audience enough?

Based on the easy mode debate, the answers to both questions are “No!” This realization comes back to the Souls fanboy’s insistence that Dark Souls is uniquely difficult, a claim that anyone who knows their history knows is false at worst and dubious at best. We should refute claims that ignore history and question the instant-gratification fairy tale of an easy mode making a game better and more accessible.

Until Dawn Review — Trite Choices

by Jed Pressgrove

Critic Cameron Kunzelman called Until Dawn “genre-changing.” I think “genre-degrading” is a more suitable phrase. Until Dawn reflects the mentality that horror movie should mean terrible movie, as opposed to bringing to mind work like Kuroneko, White Dog, and Pan’s Labyrinth. One more time, we’re supposed to be amused by jump scares, false signals, middle-class assholism, and irritating women (sexism, not homage). Until Dawn apes cabin movies, Saw, Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and The Descent with no point other than allowing the player a say in character deaths. The Butterfly Effect is cited to suggest unpredictable consequences, but only Rumpelstiltskin wouldn’t be able to figure out that director Will Byles and writers Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden are doing the approved Telltale Games player-choice dance. Peter Stormare, the best actor in Until Dawn, offers camp that is meme-worthy, not praiseworthy (the latter adjective describes Vincent Price’s superior role in House on Haunted Hill). Impressive animation and sharp integration of quick-time button presses allow Until Dawn to rise above Telltale and its imitators, but let’s face it: a good arcade game has more interesting on-the-fly choices to make than this latest narrative-driven product.

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2015

2015 had a significant share of bad games, so the following works, particularly the top two, deserve much credit for carrying the torch of superior design and execution. You will also notice that a few of these selections are updated editions, which shouldn’t be excluded if they substantially improve on good work. (For more reading, check out the top 10 best games of 2014 here.)

1. Off-Peak

Off-Peak doesn’t amount to “environmental storytelling” hype and displays a conflicted perspective about creation that should inspire a rejection of Davey Wreden’s tabloid-like excrement in The Beginner’s Guide. Developer Cosmo D avoids both sentimentality and trendy Marxism by showing how people take pride in their work despite their economic exploitation. With subtlety that still carries a punch, Cosmo D utilizes artificiality to communicate his more critical observations. Seemingly like many video-game sights, the animation of the dancing man in the suit cuts corners to make a world quasi-alive, but its purpose is to express, entertainingly, the preposterous relationship between art and commerce. With this scene and more, Cosmo D translates his personal reaction to art under capitalism into a simple and powerful technical achievement.

(See full review of Off-Peak in issue 58 of Unwinnable.)

2. Downwell

The relentless kinetic art of Downwell has no peer in 2015. Ojiro Fumoto creates tension between the goals of survival and high combos with one simple rule: as you plunge into the well, you can’t stomp red enemies without taking damage. When trying combos, at first you might find that the randomly generated levels place more importance on luck, but the deeper you drop, the more you realize this isn’t true, as Fumoto includes destructible items that keep you bouncing, a wall jump, and methodically placed time suspensions. Your choices in Downwell — regarding weapons, health, ammo, and various types of upgrades and styles — must reconcile  different advantages in timing and endurance. The final group of levels brilliantly marries surviving to the combo before you face one of the best designed bosses in the 21st century.

3. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D

The 3D doesn’t matter, but this redone version of the second Nintendo 64 Zelda game does show that the polygons of some classics could stand to be updated. More importantly, Majora’s Mask reflects a recognizable world-weariness that makes hope all the more necessary — and localized, as implied by the protagonist’s transformations into different community heroes. Although certain things like the mini-games and fairy companion are uninspired and tedious, the game’s three-day cycle speaks to the human conditions of anxiety and perseverance, allowing you to uncover the habits of the townspeople and manipulate the world in ways that surpass the ho-hum possibilities in the limited Chrono Trigger.

(See full review of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D here.)

4. Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition

The definitive edition of Three Fourths Home. Zach Sanford’s family drama requires the mother-and-daughter epilogue, which nails the conflict between baby-boomer and millennial mindsets while detailing the almost universal anxiety of making it in U.S. society.

(See full review of Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition here.)

5. Crime Is Sexy

Crime Is Sexy adopts David Hasselholf’s “True Survivor” as its score to lampoon gung-ho consumerism that celebrates getting ripped off by the gatekeepers of digital games. Developer Jallooligans mocks signing agreements, sharing personal information, and creating profiles with Steam et al. as an absurd commitment to playing games. The biggest laughs, however, come when you scroll through 1,000 games, including Existential Futility Statement, Middle-Class Inferiority Crisis, Minority Inadequacy World, and, in reference to one of the worst games of 2014, Fantasy Life: The RPG. Such a collection paints a future where we celebrate our disconnection from hope and the idea of owning nothing, making Crime Is Sexy the most provocative 2015 statement on game politics (i.e., more valuable than Undertale’s fatuous meta-morality).

(See full review of Crime Is Sexy here.)

6. Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut

While Bethesda had a tough time figuring out which video-game trend it wanted to copy the most in Fallout 4, the director’s cut of Wasteland 2 mixed good-guy camaraderie with pulpy humor for a three-dimensional commentary on the intentions of armed forces looking to keep order. The combat, based on taking cover for bonuses, is electric, but even better is the suspenseful lead-up to combat, when you manipulate the camera to look out for ambushes. Most importantly, Wasteland 2 doesn’t trivialize moral/political conflicts with abstractions like reputation points or tutorial-like announcements about consequences.

(See full review of Wasteland 2: Director’s Cut here.)

7. Conversations We Have in My Head

Whether Conversations We Have in My Head is autobiographical is immaterial. Developer Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai’s imaginary convo has more believable rhythm and pathos than stilted Telltale and BioWare dialogue, which serve a player-choice ideology rather than a story. Conversations We Have in My Head tackles queer themes in down-to-earth terms and wittily conveys how humans deal with change and attempt to relate to each other, with each replay strengthening one’s understanding of the two characters.

(See full review of Conversations We Have in My Head here.)

8. Westerado: Double Barreled

Along with Shutshimi, Downwell, and Gaurodan, here’s more evidence that the most interesting shooters as of late have been non-3D. When it comes to pacing, this extended version of Westerado makes most open-world games look amateurish. Although the story fails in its lazy final attempt to be moral, the draw-cock-fire-reload system and murder mystery are as engaging as the lack of inventory junk is refreshing.

9. Cibele

Cibele’s non-vindictive message on romantic confusion trumps the cliched she-villains in Her Story. Some argue Nina Freeman’s game could have been an ego trip, as she plays herself both in voice-overs and on video. Yet Freeman possesses an attractive, humble warmth on camera when you’re not searching through computer files or playing an online RPG as her titular counterpart. Even though clicking enemies to advance the story can be dull, the depicted online relationship carries a believable self-awareness about the blurring between virtual and actual worlds. Blake, the immature boyfriend, sums up a theme that is contemporary in one way but timeless in another: “I don’t know about real life.”

10. The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

You have to forgive The Witcher 3’s miserably uninspired combat and all of the banalities within its overlarge world (bombing monster nests should be prescribed to people with insomnia). But as critic Ian Williams suggested in Paste, the game’s immense dedication to the human condition in what would normally be considered superfluous side quests is nearly unparalleled. Only Planescape: Torment does as well in this regard, but the visuals of The Witcher 3 go further to capture the vulnerabilities and inner strength in human faces against the backdrop of a precarious wilderness.

A Parting Note on Rocket League

It is more exciting than sports games that try and pretty much always fail to be realistic. I’d even say that the accessibility and subtleties of the contests in Rocket League remind me of Street Fighter II. Having said that, I wouldn’t feel right praising it too much because I’ve yet to play, from the same developer (Psyonix), Supersonic Acrobatic Rocket-Powered Battle-Cars. While the title itself may not suggest greatness, it appears to be the first game to combine racing and soccer. The praise surrounding Rocket League hasn’t touched on this very much, so I would like to investigate before evaluating Rocket League’s significance.

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Video Games of 2015

by Jed Pressgrove

2015 has been a banner year for bad games. Even though one could easily riff on the top 20 (or more) worst games of 2015, this list is limited to 10 and two dishonorable mentions for the sake of brevity and good cheer. (For more reading, check out 2014’s top 10 worst games.)

1. Game of Thrones

This HBO show wannabe provides the strongest argument yet against the televisionization of video games. It’s downright insulting how Telltale’s episodic player-choice hogwash continues to lead to poorly drawn fantasy with “shocking” gore. Game of Thrones wants to manipulate you by torturing likable characters and barely attempts to disguise this old trick as cynical commentary on political history. Even if you can excuse the further debasement of pop culture, good luck trying to find good design in Telltale’s action sequences. Press this button at this time to dodge left. Press this button at this time to dodge right. Press the power button now to make yourself happy.

(See full review of Game of Thrones here.)

2. Pregnancy

Pregnancy is the worst Telltale-inspired game yet, outdoing its idiot cousins Life Is Strange and Until Dawn. Unlike last year’s stellar Choice: Texas, developer Locomotivah fails to convincingly illustrate the psychological and sociological challenges that can come with unexpected pregnancy. Beginning with rape and ending with toothless political commentary, Pregnancy is wasted labor.

(See full review of Pregnancy here.)

3. The Beginner’s Guide

With The Beginner’s Guide, developer Davey Wreden expects players to have more respect for him than he does for them. Maybe Wreden’s condescending style could be occasionally forgotten if he had one decent point to make. The passive-aggressive saga of Wreden the narrator and Coda the friend doesn’t say anything genuine about art, the audience, or criticism. Admittedly, The Beginner’s Guide could have been a halfway entertaining toilet read as an article in an indie-gamer tabloid.

(See full review of The Beginner’s Guide here.)

4. The Old Man Club

Has developer Michael Kolotch ever read Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea (snarky online summaries don’t count)? The question must be explored after playing this homophobic, racist, and anti-spiritual joke. Leave it to the alternative press to praise this bogus men-hating adaptation.

(See full review of The Old Man Club here.)

5. Fingered

Misanthropy and trial-and-error design make an irritating couple. Developer Edmund McMillen skates around the issue of injustice just so he can say he made a new game. Perhaps Fingered could be tolerable if the jokes were impressive for a 13-year-old or if McMillen could see the irony in his own bigotry.

(See full review of Fingered here.)

6. Undertale

One might say Undertale’s pacifism/genocide/neutrality oversimplification could be a lesson for kids, but we wouldn’t want younger generations to think meta-nonsense should be celebrated or tolerated. Desperate fans argue one must “complete” this role-playing/shooter bastardization more than once to get the point. Nope. The evasive heart avatar would have lacked kinetic vitality in the 1980s, when classics like Xevious, 1941, and Blazing Lazers took dodging enemy attacks to new heights, and moral consequences mean nothing when you’re dealing with beyond-stupid monsters and the dullest protagonist in recent video-game history. Prayer in Undertale is only a culturally hollow means to jump one of developer Toby Fox’s tongue-through-cheek hurdles. Prayer in Earthbound, Fox’s main influence, showed what faith can mean to people all over the world — what it can mean to us. Undertale might seem good if I forgot decades of history.

(See full review of Undertale here.)

7. Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

Dennaton Games continues its non-commentary on violence with this long-winded sequel. Perhaps we’re supposed to ignore the phoned-in Cold War politics in the fragmented story, but how can you ignore that Hotline Miami 2 even lacks the juvenile charm of 1995’s Loaded? Despite its inclusion of high scores, this pile of crap favors gore-ridden surrealism over arcade populism. Play Gain Ground instead.

(See full review of Hotline Miami 2 here.)

8. Her Story

Given the appeal to found-footage movies and wronged-male horror, one wonders why Sam Barlow didn’t go with his basest instinct and call his game The Blair Bitch Project. Her Story is addictive with its Google and YouTube evocations, but playing with a contemporary interface under the pretense of a 1990s setting is silly in hindsight. Lady-psycho and insane-twin cliches say nothing about the human condition.

(See full review of Her Story here.)

9. Bloodborne

Director Hidetaka Miyazaki doesn’t make video-game blood rise above its predictable pornography. You’ll see claims that Bloodborne expands on H.P. Lovecraft’s stories (Sunless Sea actually resembles the author’s work), but this pathetic Dark Souls sequel has more in common with Castlevania, superficially evoking horror to give its methodical action some edge. While director Hitoshi Akamatsu peaked with Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, Miyazaki turns into a hack with the shiny, flat-looking Bloodborne.

(See full review of Bloodborne here.)

10. Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture

Developer The Chinese Room desperately wants to comment on what binds humanity together but forgets the little things that make people alive and unique. This oversight means Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture misrepresents religion and science, not to mention simple signs of existence. On top of that, The Chinese Room cares too much about the “walking simulator” insult directed at similar first-person games and unintentionally parodies artsy-fartsiness with a sprint button that results in what could not be reasonably called a sprint.

(See full review of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture here.)

Dishonorable Mentions

Life Is Strange

Let’s place aside Life Is Strange’s allegiance to player-choice marketing and pick-who-dies banality. We’re left with the walking cliche of a sweet bookish girl who meets preposterous people during a series of preposterous events to make white liberals feel mushy and superior.

(See review of Life Is Strange Episode 1 here.)

Sunset

Through bad writing, bad voice acting, or a combination of both, Tale of Tales’ Sunset has inspired me to share another list.

Top 5 Unintentionally Hilarious Lines in Sunset

1. “Burning plants to inhale them. It’s kind of gross. But kind of mystical as well.”

2. “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. Kennedy said that. Just before they killed him.”

3. “The bath is a hole in the ground. Like a grave.”

4. “Ortega has more books than furniture.”

5. “The demons are gathering at the table, and the angels are nowhere to be found.”

undertale

Undertale Review — Progressively Pointless

by Jed Pressgrove

If you kill just one monster that threatens you in Undertale, at the end you will be asked, “Is killing things really necessary?” This question isn’t morally serious, as developer Toby Fox’s message goes on to explain that playing through the game again without killing anything will give you a “happy ending.” This awkward moment confirms Undertale as little more than an obstacle course posing as an aspiring pacifist’s wet dream.

Though not marketed to children, Undertale often resembles a patronizing lesson for kids. When monsters start fights with you, you can either kill them to become stronger (the traditional role-playing game outcome) or make them lose their will to fight by talking to them, flirting with them, and so on. For one monster, you can select “Don’t pick on,” and the monster feels much better about itself and can be spared. For another monster, you have to laugh after it tells a joke in order to make peace. However, some enemies must be attacked until they’re too weak to continue, so the “merciful” path isn’t necessarily obvious. Ultimately, showing mercy is another turn-based routine that can be tedious, raising the question of whether it’s violence or monotony that prevents audiences from caring about throwaway characters.

The flaccid stakes in Undertale highlight the lack of a significant message in the killing/mercy dichotomy. Fox wants players to think twice about killing enemies while largely reducing the latter to unfunny punchlines, as when two dark knights finally realize they’re into each other or when a flamboyant robot turns into a pop star diva. Undertale’s depiction of humankind is even shallower despite the trusty find-a-way-back-home plot. Take a long look at the protagonist. The flaw isn’t the lack of next-gen polygons; it’s the absence of soul. (Undertale’s rambling about the souls of humans and monsters doesn’t make up for this limitation, either.)

The off-putting vacancy in Undertale’s main face is especially puzzling given Fox’s schmaltzy attempt to undercut typical turn-based combat. Almost jokingly, you dodge the attacks of enemies in real time as a heart avatar. Does Fox think the mere shape of a heart can be a stand-in for human depth? If the little snot you play as is supposed to comment on a hollowness about previous role-playing games, Fox takes the lazy route. The silent protagonist cliche, already parodied well by Super Mario RPG, does not complement any inventiveness Fox squeezes out of the monster encounters. And if the hero is meant to resemble a dead fish to show that “anyone can be a hero,” Undertale should come with a bucket to vomit in.

Undertale seems rather desperate when you enter a church and are told “You will be judged for your every action.” After a laughable sermon about RPG design (“[EXP] stands for execution points.”), you are instructed to think about your actions in Undertale. But what’s there to contemplate? Either you managed to spare a goofy-looking thing that attacked you or you didn’t. Unlike Jack King-Spooner’s Beeswing and Brian Fargo’s Wasteland 2, Undertale pushes make-believe morality — a sort of BioShock bullshit — as opposed to situations that get to the essence of life and struggle.

There’s a part in Undertale where you can pray to remind an enemy of its conscience. Such flippant moments suggest that Fox misinterpreted Earthbound, Undertale’s biggest influence, as merely quirky. Earthbound was strange, but its spiritual consciousness and emotional warmth were striking and genuine, especially in the prayer-centered climax. The final fight in Undertale doesn’t have much to show other than creepy sadism. Before the concluding battle, the game literally turns itself off, and it will turn itself off again if you happen to lose. If you win, the binary choice returns: kill or have mercy. If you want to be “good,” you have to pick mercy over and over and over before Undertale almost shuts up. Fitting that the big bad guy at one point says, “You idiot. You haven’t learned a thing.” That’s a perfect encapsulation of how pointless Undertale’s wannabe progressivism is.

On the Significance of Mega Man 3

by Jed Pressgrove

The release of Mega Man Legacy Collection raises an old question: “What is the best Mega Man game?”

For years, this question has inspired a strand of criticism known as the overly sentimental Mega Man 2 review, which, if nothing else, matches the overly sentimental tone of the game. Mega Man 2’s intro enshrines its protagonist as a defender of justice standing on the top of a building, the wind blowing his hair. Takashi Tateishi’s music starts slow and romantic before awkwardly speeding up to make the cliche of a hero watching over a city seem significant and exciting.

Mega Man 3, the greatest entry of the prolific series, sets a far different tone with its more straightforward title screen. It’s immediately apparent that Yasuaki Fujita is a more sophisticated composer than Tateishi and Manami Matsumae, who scored the original Mega Man. Fujita’s opening notes are bittersweet like the blues (it wouldn’t take much of an imagination to visualize a harmonica), and when the song changes tempo, it forms a sudden yet natural-feeling crescendo, avoiding the contrived anticipation of Tateishi. In Mega Man 2, Tateishi’s music speeds up to get you pumped up. Fujita’s opening music in Mega Man 3 accomplishes the same while carrying a hint of sadness.

The level select screen of Mega Man 3 builds on this complication. In contrast to the boring level select screens from the first two games, Mega Man 3 puts the protagonist’s face right in the middle of the screen, his eyes moving with the cursor as you browse the robot villains. This anticipation might have been nothing more than a presentation trick if not for complementing elements. Mega Man’s frown is a departure from his usual blank expression, suggesting a weariness about his robot vs. robot fate. The level select screen’s music (the best track of any Mega Man game) supports this interpretation. The lead melody, while catchy and upbeat, evokes tragic possibilities. The music of Mega Man 3’s predecessors was never this ambiguous, and it wasn’t until Mega Man 6 that the series would try to replicate this pathos at the level select screen.

The emotional framing of Mega Man 3’s title and level select screens instills the ensuing action with a sense of rugged duty. After you defeat a robot villain, the weapon-gaining segment recalls the hero’s conflicted seriousness. This effect deviates from Mega Man 2’s funky and tedious post-level sequences, which become especially ridiculous when Dr. Light shares vague references to items. Compared to the original Mega Man (which didn’t waste time with such scenes), Mega Man 2 doesn’t value simplicity. Mega Man 3 redeems Mega Man 2’s approach with style and substance.

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Mega Man 3 would only be half as remarkable without superior action and weapons. Mega Man 2 often receives credit for surpassing the original and making movement a little less slippery and the journey more forgiving. Yet the protagonist in Mega Man 2 still pointlessly slides forward a bit if you don’t release the directional pad through a jump, contradicting the requirement of precision landings. Mega Man 3 corrects this issue and adds an actual slide, a maneuver that, once performed, brings about the realization that Mega Man should have always had this dynamic capability. In lacking this move, the first two Mega Man games ask for more memorization of levels and enemy attacks so that you don’t find yourself out of position. Mega Man 3’s slide represents an extra reflex, allowing the possibility of a skillful evasive reaction. The tactic may seem minor, but unlike Mega Man 4’s charged shot, the slide can’t be removed without rendering the proceedings awkward (as demonstrated by its absence in the beginning of Mega Man X).

The other small tweaks in Mega Man 3 combine for a considerable improvement in pacing and aesthetics. The hero climbs ladders faster, and there’s a shorter delay when the game scrolls from screen to screen as you advance. These two changes sharpen the kinetic rhythm of the series — one of the best sensual pleasures of Mega Man 3 occurs when you scroll up or down a screen while climbing a ladder. It’s the difference between being propelled and being dragged on a dull ride.

The most obvious attraction of Mega Man 3 is a selection of weapons and items that doesn’t inspire head scratching. Mega Man 3 has no lazy missteps like Mega Man 2’s Time Stopper, which runs out of energy so quickly that it resembles nothing more than a throwaway power-up. The laughably named Item 1, Item 2, and Item 3 from Mega Man 2 get replaced by different forms of Rush, Mega Man’s robot dog. Unlike the case with Items 1-3, you can fire your standard cannon while using Rush. This change isn’t about fairness so much as keeping the action logical and appealing. Mega Man 3’s Search Snake trumps its predecessor’s Bubble Lead, which, curiously, wasn’t bubble-like and, absurdly, required to defeat the final boss in Mega Man 2. Mega Man 3’s most experimental weapon (by the series’ standards), Top Spin, illustrates again a subtle attention to detail. Depending on how carefully you initiate contact with an enemy, Top Spin can be a frustrating energy drainer or a unique way of handling problems. Top Spin, like the slide, enriches the grammar of action in a way that only Mega Man X’s wall scaling and dash jumping can rival.

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Mega Man 3 is more epic than Mega Man 2, but of course the former has the enviable position of coming after the latter. This advantage shines when Mega Man 3, while revising four of its primary levels, reuses the eight robot villains from Mega Man 2, forcing you to cycle through weapons to pinpoint weaknesses before being annihilated. These trials emphasize another minor yet major difference between the two games: in Mega Man 3, your standard weapon doesn’t hurt bosses as much as it did in Mega Man 2, creating especially suspenseful moments when both you and the enemy are on the brink of destruction.

As we all know for various reasons, greater length doesn’t always mean better. Some of Mega Man 3’s later challenges may remind you of this maxim. The fight with sea turtle robots is surprisingly innocuous. Although Mega Man 3’s version of the Yellow Devil results in a less monotonous battle than in the original game, its inclusion implies the production team was too comfortable with old ideas. While the concluding bosses are more interesting concepts, that you can use Top Spin to eradicate the final enemy in one hit is a design flaw that encourages know-it-all gamers to feel good about themselves.

These observations play off the notion that other games are closer to perfection than any Mega Man entry. Mega Man 3’s addition of a mysterious family member, Proto Man, can’t match the understandable melodrama of the father-son relationship in Ninja Gaiden (1988). From a standpoint of action, the gymnastics of the original Ninja Gaiden trilogy outweighs anything that the Mega Man franchise can muster. Mega Man, as a shooter, can’t compete with the traditional Contra series. And if we consider games that involve gaining the abilities of enemies, Kirby’s Adventure is a more consistent masterpiece. But Mega Man 3 is still a better action game than most, and its dramatic kineticism transcends the modest foundation laid by its ancestors. For that, it’s worth remembering.