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.)

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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.

Doki Doki Literature Club! Review — Male-Pattern Horror

by Jed Pressgrove

Developer Dan Salvato wants to upend lighthearted cliches with Doki Doki Literature Club!, a visual novel in which you play as a boy who joins a high school lit club comprised of four girls. If you’re familiar with anime or manga, the character types, such as an overtly shy girl, will be instantly recognizable, but it doesn’t take much knowledge of Japanese cartoons to see through Salvato’s basic gimmick: get the player to grind through loads and loads of cutesy dialogue so that when things like suicide and profanity come into the picture, the player will be shocked.

Salvato’s failure as a writer is two-fold. First, he insists on rejecting anime/manga cliches with other cliches, the biggest of which is the idea that girls — or does Salvato think or say “females” in that male taxidermist way? — are crazy, dangerous bitches who can’t control their attraction to boys (for more sexist perspective, play Sam Barlow’s overrated Her Story). Regardless of whether you give the protagonist a male or female name, you see the events of the game unfold as a boy observing the insanity of the opposite sex. But Salvato doesn’t treat this standpoint as an aspect of immaturity or growing up. Instead, he presents his narrative as an adult story, with unexpected darkness designed to make hipster gamers go “Whoa,” and I’m being kind with the use of “unexpected”: the game literally tells you it’s disturbing before you even start playing, thus defeating its whole (admittedly shallow) purpose.

The second limitation of Salvato’s approach is a trendy reliance on meta nonsense, such as rewinds, save-file shenanigans, glitchy visuals, and more. Doki Doki Literature Club! features such things to amplify the uneasiness of the player, but indie trash like Pony Island and Undertale regularly utilizes the same or similar devices. Doki Doki Literature Club!’s fashionable trickery is especially unimpressive in light of Yoko Taro’s 2017 masterpiece Nier: Automata, which uses game-isms like new game plus and “buggy” static to illuminate the horror of two factions on the brink of genocide.

Video-game discourse often misses the fact that independent developers, despite being removed from a mass market that specializes in objectionable content, are just as capable as any of propagating longstanding prejudice. With Doki Doki Literature Club!, it might be tempting for some to dismiss this concern as heavy-handed; they might say Salvato is doing all of this in the name of horror. If that really is the case, I wonder how anyone could be scared of familiar, self-commenting filth.

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

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Offense of Criticism to a Shill

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pyre Review — Revolution by Sport

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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

Golf Story Review — A Conflicted Birdie

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nier: Automata Review — Near Genocide

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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