Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019

by Jed Pressgrove

In my list of the 10 worst games of this year, I revealed my distaste for 2019 from a historical standpoint. But even during a year that caused me to question why I continue to spend so much time on gaming, my love for the art form remains strong. The following 10 titles spoke to me in very different ways. Several of them are tied to genres that typically fail to spark my imagination or maintain my interest. No matter the year, there are always miracles, there is always magic. Don’t give up.

1. Shenmue 3

Every aspect of Shenmue 3 is personal and relevant to the philosophical values that power the creative mind and, I believe, the heart of Yu Suzuki. Shenmue 3 shows us by example what pop gaming has gotten wrong. In Suzuki’s world, there are no false promises of freedom, there are no lazily crafted NPCs, and there are no systems that seem tacked on in order to cash in on the capricious desires of a restless audience. Instead, there is a morality at play in Shenmue 3. Suzuki reminds us, whether through mechanics or dialogue, that dignity, patience, and interpersonal interaction give life richer meaning. 2019 saw no greater moment in games than when Ryo and Shenhua learn that they were often the same type of kid growing up despite their ethnic differences. With this scene, Shenmue 3, which takes place in 1987, recalls how pop artists, from Prince to Michael Jackson, once propagated the notion that nothing should separate us. You may call Suzuki’s humble recognition of common humanity corny. I call it real and necessary in a cynical world that wants us to segregate ourselves.

(See full review of Shenmue 3 here.)

2. Dirt Rally 2.0

Developer Codemasters’ simulation of rallying here is special, not to mention electrifying and nerve-wracking. By enhancing how the player senses disparities in road conditions, Dirt Rally 2.0 opens the average person’s eyes to the outstanding bravery and determination of athletes who don’t get the universal credit they deserve. The challenge of this game could break the will of many a From Software worshiper. I’ll never look at competitive driving the same way again.

(See full review of Dirt Rally 2.0 here.)

3. The Stillness of the Wind

The Stillness of the Wind continues to whisper to you long after its emotionally complex ending. A spiritual experience, this effort from Coyan Cardenas avoids a pandering, sentimental approach as it depicts the rural existence of its elderly female protagonist. Equal parts haunting and inspiring, The Stillness of the Wind counters the immature fantasy of Stardew Valley and asks us to consider the paradox of living a convicted life of labor.

(See full review of The Stillness of the Wind here.)

4. Lonely Mountains: Downhill

The first word of this game’s title gets it all wrong: there’s nothing lonely about exploring the natural world on one’s own terms. The bicycling of Lonely Mountains: Downhill is dangerous fun, as well as stunningly tactile. The photo modes of your favorite open-world smorgasbords can’t teach you how to appreciate the exciting yet unforgiving quality of an untamed landscape like this game (hilariously) can.

(See more thoughts on Lonely Mountains: Downhill here.)

5. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Figures that the most morally complicated Fire Emblem of the decade gets overlooked by many end-of-year award panels. Admittedly, Three Houses is almost epic to a fault, but its larger sociological point — that social institutions and movements drive individuals to violence against each other — carries undeniable weight. With the video game soundtrack of the year and passionate voice acting, Three Houses effortlessly conveys the gravity of its characters’ tragic hopes and dreams.

(See full review of Fire Emblem: Three Houses here.)

6. Islanders

The stripped-down city building of Islanders registers less as easy escapism and more as a logical exercise in efficiency. Like any good builder, this game is full of decisions and long-term consequences; the whole affair is simply presented with a coherence and simplicity that should make any developer jealous of GrizzlyGames. The intense focus of Islanders is like that of an arcade game, but somehow this simulation also manages to be relaxing.

7. Pathologic 2

One could argue that the nightmare logic of Pathologic 2 should be interpreted as misery porn. But hidden in the oblique dialogue and bleak imagery of this game is a lesson about the folly of pride and assumption. As one grapples with the intended difficulty setting of Pathologic 2, the harsh proceedings should raise questions about the intentions of the protagonist and the player. What are we trying to prove when we step in to save the world, especially when we take too long to take on the responsibility?

8. Baba Is You

Not since Scribblenauts have I found that a failed attempt at solving a puzzle can be just as enlivening as arriving at the solution. Unlike Scribblenauts, Baba Is You doesn’t allow one to fudge their way through anything. To advance in Baba Is You is to have a deep appreciation for logic, language, and patience.

(See more thoughts on Baba Is You here.)

9. Ape Out

Its hero is both violent and sympathetic. Its music is both entrancing and distracting. Its visuals are both minimalistic and over the top. Ape Out operates like an accident, yet it demands precision. A shell shock of a game.

(See full review of Ape Out here.)

10. Battle Planet: Judgement Day

Battle Planet: Judgement Day more than lives up to its ridiculous title. This deceptively simple shooter literalizes the concept of a lone force that can take out every threat in the world. An amusing mixture of twin-stick shooting and Super Mario Galaxy, Battle Planet: Judgement Day is far smarter than it appears in how it requires the player to think about when to use power-ups, which can be saved for later waves of enemies, and to maintain the stability of the planet by defusing bombs. Act without a multi-layered strategy, and your silly goal of being a one-person wrecking machine will swiftly end. For sheer kinetic thrills, Battle Planet: Judgement Day has few peers in 2019.

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Games of 2019 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

2019 was the most regrettable year for pop games, at least based on my experiences with the world’s biggest hits throughout my life. Other years have perhaps featured more bottom-of-the-barrel releases, but 2019 defeats all when it comes to setting a low standard for overall quality and artistic expression. During the majority of 2019, no matter what kind of game it was, from Dead or Alive 6 to Wilmot’s Warehouse to Death Stranding, I felt as if I wanted to spit the lukewarm out of my mouth.

Two years ago, I started the Play Instead part of this annual year-end list. The idea is simple: for every bad game, I suggest one you should play instead for whatever reason. The catch is “play instead” choices don’t have to be great or even good games. While this list follows that same logic, keep in mind that we really shouldn’t, outside of comparisons for argument’s sake, settle for less than good. Video games can be, and have largely been, better than the offerings of 2019.

1. Resident Evil 2

If the 2010s proved anything, it’s that Capcom has embraced the absolute worst version of itself. The original Resident Evil 2 is an imperfect but fascinating and discomforting game. Here it is transformed into the most agreeable ride imaginable. Gamers, you’ve nothing to worry about. Papa Capcom’s gonna take care of you — and take your money while he burps you.

(See full review of Resident Evil 2 here.)

Play Instead: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain

Developer Yuke’s does the opposite of Capcom. It makes Earth Defense Force even tougher and more thematically incisive than usual … until Iron Rain seems to give up on level design and satire more than halfway through.

2. Hypnospace Outlaw

Yet another independent title that presents tedious desk work as insightful entertainment. I’d rather peruse MySpace than spend another minute with Hypnospace Outlaw.

(See full review of Hypnospace Outlaw here.)

Play Instead: Nauticrawl

From developer Andrea Interguglielmi, Nauticrawl is like going to work but having no idea what you’re supposed to do to finish the job. Tinkering with switches, buttons, and levers in a mysterious machine makes for a solid puzzle. Bonus: No smug indie pretension to be found.

3. The Outer Worlds

The brighter colors, the humorous descriptions, the almost identical perks, the inelegant slow-motion action. All of it points toward a development team whose only goal was to produce a neutered version of Fallout 3, which was a neutered version of its predecessors. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone remakes The Outer Worlds with a different name.

Play Instead: Outer Wilds

If The Outer Worlds is a lesser version of Fallout 3, Outer Wilds is a better version of No Man’s Sky.  Yes, I know that’s not saying much, but we’re reaching the outer limits of good taste.

4. Control

As Matt Paprocki suggests, Control wants to be a left-wing statement of resistance in a most irresponsible, dimwitted way, but players don’t mind or notice because they’re conditioned to enjoy guns (even if they don’t own or use any). Control is Doom 2016 all over again: shoot fast and keep moving. Who knew political critique could be so formulaic?

Play Instead: Void Bastards

The title and gameplay loop of this brilliantly animated game appear to satirize people who find meaning and purpose in terrible things. Void Bastards is smarter about its lack of seriousness than Control is.

5. Devil May Cry 5

After one hour of playing the original Devil May Cry, I was intrigued by its counterintuitive adoption of Resident Evil’s changing camera angles and by the kinetic potential of its marriage of melee techniques and frantic gunplay. After one hour of playing Devil May Cry 5, I was tired of douchebag characters trying to look and act cool, as every time the fighting was about to take center stage, another cutscene would interrupt the action. Capcom sucks now.

Play Instead: Katana Zero

Like Devil May Cry 5, Katana Zero has its share of played-out ideas. Despite its limitations, Katana Zero reveals the fundamental loneliness of its protagonist in quiet scenes that recall the contemplative minimalism of the 1967 film Le Samourai.

6. Blair Witch

The real title of this game is Blair Glitch.

(See full review of Blair Witch here.)

Play Instead: Devotion

Just kidding. You can’t play it. But I managed to. It’s better than Blair Glitch. Its jump scares and hackneyed first-person haunted-house style also teach us a valuable lesson: banned art isn’t always good art.

7. Contra: Rogue Corps

Konami turns Contra into an arena shooter for modern audiences. Would probably be more popular with critics if it took shots at Donald Trump.

(See full review of Contra: Rogue Corps here.)

Play Instead: Sunless Skies

Unlike Contra: Rogue Corps, Sunless Skies is a sequel that understands where it comes from and where it should go. Although it ditches the lovable pirate-like dialect that energized the text of Sunless Sea, its more understated use of language is still a hoot: “He’ll receive the care of Magdalene’s finest. At least, Magdalene’s finest with a sense of charity, given that he has nothing on him to pay for their ministrations.”

8. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

The subtitle for Sekiro should have been “Shadows Die Countless Times,” as there’s nothing new about dodging and parrying boss attacks a la Dark Souls, and stealth tactics make most of the proceedings a cakewalk. Notwithstanding the incoherent claims of brainwashed From Software diehards, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games are now more predictable than they are difficult.

(See full review of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice here.)

Play Instead: Vane

Though it lacks combat, Vane is closer in spirit to Dark Souls than anything Miyazaki has produced after 2011. Both puzzling and ambiguous, Vane technically collapses before it ends, but what a memorable failure it is.

9. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Earlier this year, I played Star Wars: Dark Forces. It’s a great example of kinetic art that not only takes inspiration from but also builds on the work of a source (namely, the original Doom). Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order’s more plagiaristic approach is unimpressive, if not unacceptable.

(See more thoughts on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order here.)

Play Instead: Slay the Spire

Plenty of games copy and paste the turn-based combat systems of the past. But Slay the Spire’s card-deck-building premise, which will punish those who don’t pay attention to mathematical detail, brings a reasonable amount of creative forethought to a well-worn idea.

10. Neo Cab

Neo Cab often preaches about the inhuman qualities of corporations and technology, but so many of its features seem robotic rather than authentic, whether it’s the ever-shifting eyes of its protagonist, the out-of-place soundtrack, or the silly mood bracelet that restricts dialogue options. Humorless and dull, this game lacks the humanity that Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai captured in 2015’s Conversations We Have in My Head.

Play Instead: Disco Elysium

The dialogue of Disco Elysium can feel contrived from time to time, but its illustration of psychological struggle is more convincing and dynamic than Neo Cab’s forced stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Death Stranding Review — More Stupid Than Weird

by Jed Pressgrove

The landscape of pop games is in dubious shape. There are many reasons to reach this conclusion, from the prevalence of open world ideology to the way developers flatter audiences with made-to-order remakes. At first, Death Stranding appears to avoid the cliches we’re all used to seeing, as it involves a protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, whose main skill is carrying cargo on his back, arms, and legs. At one point, Sam bluntly explains, “Killing monsters and terrorists, that’s not what I do.” The line almost sounds sanctimonious when one considers how often “ambitious” games boil down to boneheaded violence. And yet, Sam shares this observation about himself not too long after he obliterates a phantom squid with grenades made from his own piss, and moments after uttering this dialogue, Sam can barrel through bandit-filled territory and punch the lights out of every last person who tries to steal the packages off his body. Director Hideo Kojima, famous for the Metal Gear Solid series and often pitied for his messy separation from Konami, has all the creative freedom in the world, but he can’t stop sabotaging an interesting premise with banal and laughably contradictory moments.

With Death Stranding, Kojima takes a page from modern independent first-person adventures like Proteus in which walking, as opposed to puzzle solving or combat, is the main type of action. But in a stroke of genuine design genius, Sam has it much harder than his counterparts in other traversal-focused releases. He must organize packages on his body in a manner that reduces the likelihood of him stumbling and falling as he treks across treacherous territory. If he starts to sway to the left or right, the player must shift Sam’s weight in the opposite direction to achieve balance. There’s also a stamina gauge to worry about, a meter that depletes rapidly when Sam trudges through a deeper part of a river. If you lose your footing in that situation, Sam will have to paddle himself to his feet and frantically attempt to recover goods the river has claimed. The potential for embarrassing ambulatory disaster is almost endless. With each step comes an appreciation for Sam’s immediate surroundings, whether they’re as intimidating as a steep mountainside or as seemingly innocuous as a jagged medium-sized rock on the ground.

In theory, Death Stranding is the most original and uncompromising big-budget game in a long time. This notion doesn’t hold, though, when you tally the common pop game problems that show up yet again in Death Stranding. The first and most obvious issue is unnecessary length and bloat due to a tremendous lack of editing, which has plagued games as different as Persona 5 and The Witcher 3. Kojima includes a number of missions that do nothing more than serve as contrived tutorials. Why does the simple idea of 3-D printing a bridge, for instance, have to come with its own mission that the player must find by holding down (rather than just pressing) a button near a terminal in order to open a hard-to-read menu from which you can initiate said mission? Kojima also peppers the game with cinematics that have no kinetic or thematic purpose. Why do you have to skip — which can be done by pressing the start button, then selecting “Skip” — three or four cutscenes just to accelerate the process of taking a shower? Why does an activity as boring as a shower even need a single cutscene?

Any sense of basic, decent storytelling is annihilated by Kojima’s idiotic commitment to video game norms. The main theme of Death Stranding is reconnecting a post-apocalyptic United States. To do this, Sam must visit an array of marked locations on a map and talk to holographic images of people. These individuals, with few exceptions, say pretty much the same thing — wow, I haven’t seen items like this in a long time, Sam, you’re a true legend, nothing here looks damaged, blah, blah, blah, blah. The experience is a lot like finding Toad at the end of every stage in Super Mario Bros. and being told the princess is in another castle. The main difference is Super Mario Bros. never claimed to be cinematic or a commentary on the state of a nation. What’s more, Super Mario Bros. didn’t include repetitive messages to massage your ego but to challenge you to keep going farther. In contrast, Kojima doles out titles like “Elite Handler” after a successful mission. One’s sense of self-worth would have to be beyond low to stomach such nonsense.

The nauseating ego-stroking element of Death Stranding is not an accident but a sincere part of its design. The game features a social media component wherein players can help each other by leaving behind ladders, lockers, and other tools in the wild, rugged world. From a mechanical standpoint, Kojima is clearly building on Dark Souls’ weakest concept, but he also nods to both Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey, as gamers can “like” conveniently dropped items from other gamers. In addition, Death Stranding’s fictional characters will give you “likes” for accomplishing missions. In the right hands, Death Stranding could somehow work as a satire of how neurotically obsessed our culture is with fleeting external validation, even as civilized culture crumbles around us, but Kojima plays it like a nincompoop would.

Kojima’s childish sense of reality is confirmed by how he frames the Kumbaya politics of Death Stranding. Throughout the game, Sam (whose last name is Bridges) works for a company called Bridges to connect the disconnected citizens of the former United States of America with digital and literal bridges. Yes, Kojima’s having fun with the dumbest wordplay in video game history, but there’s also no indication that he questions the simplicity of Death Stranding’s proposed political philosophy. Kojima’s outlook on existence itself, as expressed in Death Stranding, suggests that he does want us to grasp for any positive feeling, however silly. “Once there was an explosion,” the game states, referring to the Big Bang, and later on, another line declares the world could experience an explosion “that would be our last.” When presented with this godless and shallowly nihilistic viewpoint, it becomes harder to blame Kojima for encouraging players to cling to Zuckerberg- and Dorsey-endorsed methods of interaction. But to praise this grade-school level of thinking is far more troubling than gazing at the scorched imagery of this turgid stupid game in art-school clothing.

Disco Elysium Review — A Confounding Effort

by Jed Pressgrove

The most distinctive aspect of Disco Elysium is how it focuses on the mental. Although this odd RPG follows Planescape: Torment’s lead (see: the hero with amnesia, the heavy dialogue, the uneven point-and-click-based character movement), it emphasizes psychology over morality as it unveils a tale about a loser cop trying to solve a case after a nasty binge with alcohol. In some respects, Disco Elysium pulls off its intent quite well and in comical fashion, but the more one pays close attention to the script, the more one might tire of multiple limitations in the writing.

The protagonist of the story is an irresponsible, questionable, and sloppy gumshoe. Movie fans may recognize the character type as an extension of what Robert Altman and the Coen brothers respectively explored in The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski. Disco Elysium’s novel idea is to muddy up the text-based dialogue with voices from within the detective’s head. These voices show up more or less based on how the player distributes skill points. For instance, if you put a lot of points into “rhetoric,” the Rhetoric Voice promises to interject in more discussions to clue you in on what characters are actually saying with their words. The catch is if too many points are put into any single category, the related voice can become a hindrance to the officer’s investigation of murder and other crime, as it will always be battling for space, creating psychological noise.

Initially, this concept of competing voices impacting the flow of the game seems like nothing but a good thing because of its dynamism. It’s fascinating to see how specific attributes will result in chaos or, often unexpectedly, insight. Disco Elysium also offers specific thoughts, most of which are high concept or convoluted, that the cop can dwell on for skill increases or decreases (sometimes it’s preferable to have less of a skill, as previously suggested).

Disco Elysium couples all of this with the hero’s memory loss in order to produce as many hilarious moments as possible. To lead designer and writer’s Robert Kurvitz’s credit, Disco Elysium has its fair share of remarkable dialogue. The detective’s baffling responses are often comedy gold, such as the instantly memorable “What is money,” a phrase that parodies the conceit of a story featuring an amnesiac lead. The humor can go from absurd to vicious, as when the Conceptualization Voice says of Cuno, the profane child who throws rocks at a dead body: “If there ever was such a thing as an ugly kid, then this is it. He’s almost exquisite in his ugliness.”

The more I was exposed to this style, however, the more the act grew a bit thin. At times, these voices simply make a scene longer, and this is precisely when the premise of the game appears more contrived than inspired. In this way, the game’s greatest strength, randomness, becomes its most annoying feature. For instance, at one point the slimy union leader Evrart Claire says, “I’m just kidding, of course.” It’s immediately obvious Claire isn’t joking based on everything that can be observed about him. Unfortunately, the script, in its overanxious attempt to be clever, will rub this fact in one’s face based on a particular skill point distribution. After Claire’s lie, Authority Voice can chime in with “Is he [just kidding]?,” and then Rhetoric Voice can reply, “He’s not.” With two short lines, Disco Elysium calls more attention than necessary to Claire’s fundamental dishonesty, which had already been beaten like a dead horse.

This sort of repetitive writing raises the question of whether Disco Elysium represents a conscious attempt to create maximum potential for internet memes. (God knows that independent releases need all the references they can get. “Indie,” after a few years of receiving considerable attention from a curious public, has not been a fresh or even strong marketing label for some time, as big-name games like sequels, franchise spinoffs, and “new IPs” — that loaded bullshit term — from beloved companies continue to dominate the pop landscape.) Even though the psychology-based premise is innovative, comedic timing still trumps all. If the audience begins to predict the approach, the laughter won’t be there. This is the downside of tying the protagonist’s inner voices to the mechanics of the game. The dialogue should be unexpected when it is, in many cases, expected. This contradiction results in a significant number of weak punchlines.

More troubling is how the writing spoils its overall illustration of humanity’s struggle by drawing attention to Kurvitz’s confusing political perspective. Disco Elysium’s setting is a dangerous section of a city. The infrastructure is a joke, the population suffers from poverty, and the powers that be are corrupt. Not many trust or respect the cops, and the union is more of a criminal organization. The implication is this place suffers primarily because of structural, not individual, factors. Not only does this allow us to have sympathy for the characters, even if they’re destructive or unlikable, but we may also presume Kurvitz leans left.

This assumption is confirmed by an act of self-censorship. When Cuno, the aforementioned hellish brat, uses a slur against gay people, only the first letter is spelled out. This example by itself might beg for a tangential debate about what an artist should do or whether it even matters since we all know what is being said. But the incomplete word essentially repeats to us that, yes, the designer leans left. And yet, later on, Cuno hurls an uncensored racial slur at Kim Kitsuragi, the detective’s fellow officer. On the surface, it’s a technical inconsistency in the writing. In reality, it’s an oversight that underlines how hypocritical and pandering a progressive can be. The suggestion that certain slurs should be censored over others is one of the most idiotically distracting things I’ve seen in any work of art, and so, in line with the rambling style of this game, I’ll end on that red herring.

Ape Out Review — Hotline Miami Revised

by Jed Pressgrove

Early on, Ape Out seems to sell itself as Hotline Miami “if you were an ape,” mainly setting itself apart with a percussion-driven soundtrack that responds to what the protagonist does, such as barging into a room and smashing three or four gun-wielding humans into bloody flesh. A beat accompanies one’s successful kills. The way the audio punctuates the violence is at first attention-getting, even disorienting. The drumming in question is taut and crisp, superbly executed.

After some time the interplay between the music and the action doesn’t matter. Figuring out how to advance through the increasingly difficult stages becomes the point. The drums serve as redundant distractions from the split-second reactions that will keep the ape alive. This is not to say the music is an absolute gimmick; it’s just not as essential as the evolving score of Octahedron, a game where the marriage of sound and imagery is sexier, less contrived, and more fluid.

Once survival instincts and ideas dominate the thoughts of the player, Ape Out reveals itself as easily superior to its main influence Hotline Miami. Despite Ape Out’s graphic violence, it’s easier to sympathize with an escaped ape than with any character in Hotline Miami. That sympathy proves indispensable, as it makes the stakes appear larger and more dramatic. Ape Out’s man vs. nature theatrics are far preferable to Hotline Miami’s self-aware, unflinching cynicism, which is a repetitive nod to the rebellious knucklehead politics of 1990s fare like Mortal Kombat and Loaded.

Even though Ape Out has far fewer methods than Hotline Miami for inflicting lethal harm on opponents, the game demands one to do more with what’s there. During the beginning of the game, progress can often be made by simply punching threats as they appear and running for another room when it looks like the ape might get shot. A little later, such an elementary approach will get exploited by a growing number of gunmen, explosives, and dead ends. The ape has to start picking up enemies, throwing them, and using them as shields to account for the extra firepower of the men and the more maze-like structure of later levels.

The player learns quickly that the basic key to having a chance is keeping the mouse cursor near the protagonist. This positioning allows for quicker changes in direction, enabling the possibility of consecutive individual kills when one is surrounded. The throwing mechanic, however, works best when you move the cursor to the target to achieve maximum accuracy with the throw. Deeper into the proceedings, as the game calls more and more attention to the position of the mouse, as well as to the offensive and defensive opportunities presented by the whole bodies of still-shooting assassins and the scattered body parts of fallen foes, Ape Out achieves a blunt combination of brawn and brains that cannot be matched by many efforts this year.

Hypnospace Outlaw Review — Defunct Satire

by Jed Pressgrove

In Hypnospace Outlaw, the object is to scour and flag fictional web pages for violations such as content infringement, harassment, and obscenity. The game’s puzzles, if one can call them that, recall the desk work of a technical editor, and the audiovisuals evoke social networks of the 1990s and early 2000s. Think of this title, then, as Papers, Please meets Myspace — a combination that, on a basic conceptual level, reeks of tedium.

As an enforcer of Internet law in 1999, the player must grapple with an outdated interface, very noticeable loading times, less-than-ideal navigation, and the garish, cheapo imagery of web pages created by precocious children, jealous teenagers, overbearing Christians, douchebag rock musicians, clueless businesses, phony spiritual advisers, and other groups you’ve probably already laughed at while online.

In other words, Hypnospace Outlaw’s satirical vision would’ve seemed daring if it had been released about 20 years ago. Today, this game registers more as a mildly amusing representation of the early days of user-generated profiles on major platforms. Now that we are all used to slicker-looking and more intuitive social media, Hypnospace Outlaw encourages a type of nostalgic, smug laughter. We can cherish how lame we were a couple of decades ago and how much better we look now.

It wouldn’t have been impossible for developer Tendershoot, through reference to history, to say something relevant or, more wishfully, incisive about who we are as a modern online people. But Hypnospace Outlaw mocks the utter naivety of yesteryear too much to function as a commentary on our current struggle — namely, the modern Internet user’s willingness to knowingly reject their own interests in order to have convenient access to products. That we can play Hypnospace Outlaw on Steam, a platform that exploits our culture’s apathy and consumerism (as suggested by the 2015 satire Crime Is Sexy), tells us that the comedy has no fangs.

The Dreariness of Zelda

Note: This is an open letter to Chris Bateman. All responses are welcome. 

Dear Chris,

It’s been more than two years since I wrote my review of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, more than a year since you concluded a six-part series of articles called Zelda Facets (partly in response to my review), and a few months since I last told you that I would respond to your series. I can’t help but reflect on the time that has passed. You might be surprised to hear that I have not played Breath of the Wild to any meaningful degree during this period. I am not interested in playing it anymore, this game I wrote multiple articles about in 2017.

The truth, for me, remains the same. Breath of the Wild is too much of a buffet-style meal to be groundbreaking. As I argued in an essay on open world ideology, Breath of the Wild is not unique but rather part of a movement that prizes quantity (and our consumption of quantity) over all else.

Having said that, I respect your six-part series and am honored and flattered that my review helped inspire it. Your series focuses on fascinating topics, such as the definition of “avatar” and the evolution of horses in Breath of the Wild, that I haven’t addressed and couldn’t address as well as you. Because I like Zelda Facets a great deal, I have no interest in rejecting it on the whole or responding to all of its well-stated points, but I do want to share a few thoughts that you have sparked.

First, during the part of the series titled “Introduction,” you imply that Breath of the Wild uses an open world in “near complete ignorance” of Grand Theft Auto III’s legacy of play. We must agree to disagree. The fact that Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma claims to play few games is not enough for me to change my mind (on a side note, I do not rely on creators’ words because they, in many cases, either contradict what’s in the games or slyly discredit the notion of a player having their own interpretation of a given game). And while I concede to you that the Zelda series doesn’t have to follow trends in order to survive, I can’t ignore the isomorphic towers, animals, items, shrines, and so on in Breath of the Wild. In other words, theoretically you have a case, but the evidence I observed in the game doesn’t allow me to accept the claim that Breath of the Wild is not influenced by trends and that overarching force of open world ideology. (Your remark about Breath of the Wild’s in-game camera is fair. Wind Waker indeed featured such a camera first. Yet despite this chronological fact, it seems Nintendo leans hard into the precious trends of modern gaming with Breath of the Wild’s camera, with the possibility of multiple posed selfies from Link, for example. I don’t recall this form of nauseating patronization, which was not invented or popularized by the Zelda series, in Twilight Princess at the very least.)

My second observation ties into the line of thought above: I don’t believe the stamina variable in Breath of the Wild would have been included if not for the variable’s recent appearances in pop games. One reason I can’t see it another way is Nintendo’s blatantly unoriginal usage of stamina. It would be different if Breath of the Wild, like Nioh, had reimagined what stamina means in an action context. But it doesn’t. It’s there to annoy the player, and part of the reason it’s annoying is that it appears tossed in. Even if you are right, that Breath of the Wild was not significantly shaped by market influences, I expect more than a mechanic that seems utterly devoid of creative thought and purpose. I have always felt this way about stamina-related rules that add nothing to a game. In Spirit Tracks, I remember Link would get dizzy after performing multiple spin attacks. That was silly, too. Far less notable than how Dark Souls’ stamina variable would logically deplete after almost any action you perform—as opposed to the case in these unfortunate Zelda games—so as to heighten the sense of toil that typifies a world of ruin and exhaustion. Stamina in Dark Souls keeps you on your toes and reminds you of where you are. Stamina in Breath of the Wild merely irritates you within a world that is constructed for mass consumption. Aonuma can’t have it both ways. He can’t suggest to us that he is oblivious to the larger gaming market while clumsily juggling popular ideas. (Or maybe his juggling of these popular ideas is clumsy because of his overall obliviousness? I’m afraid this could become a dreadful rabbit hole.)

Third, the segment of your series titled “Hyrule” is exceptional. My only complaint is that the first two Fallout titles deserved more attention. I think those games were more “unlike anything we’ve seen before”—or seen since. Their structures were ridiculously open, exposing the Great Plateau as an inferior, less concise invitation to the wild.

My final point relates to Fallout 1 and 2 again. The last part of your series, titled “Zelda,” is an arresting analysis of how the princess character is utilized throughout the Zelda games. But even if I completely accept your interpretation of the story, I’m still left wondering how Breath of the Wild amounts to innovative storytelling in the grand scheme of things. You mention storytelling differences between Grand Theft Auto III and Breath of the Wild, but in either game, no matter how I play, I feel like I’m part of a preset story in one way or another. In Fallout 1 and 2, the storytelling possibilities are more provocative, unpredictable, and unstable. It’s because those games are more artistically committed to the idea of the open world, whereas Grand Theft Auto III and Breath of the Wild are too busy peddling criminality and good over evil, respectively.

As far as Zelda games go, I see Majora’s Mask as a more innovative and sophisticated story than Breath of the Wild. Has any other Zelda game so daringly asked us to understand the humanity of our enemy like Majora’s Mask? Has any other Zelda game captured a sense of world-weariness like Majora’s Mask? As I played Majora’s Mask, I could not forget about that moon and the dread it represented. As I played Breath of the Wild, I rarely thought about Zelda (outside of the times the game rammed her name down my throat) and what she represents. I thought more about the smorgasbord of content before me and the growing ineptitude of big-name games.

Sincerely,

Jed Pressgrove

 

Cuphead Review — Broken Homage

by Jed Pressgrove

As head-turning as its hand-drawn animation can be, Cuphead is one of the dullest pop shooters of the 21st century. Cuphead’s visuals clinically mirror the form of Fleischer cartoons in an apparent attempt to distract audiences from a lack of artistic conviction in the game’s overall design.

Cuphead is often said to focus on boss battles. The pitch is that Cuphead is an uncompromising experience. What fans don’t often say is that, in Cuphead, you must walk through an overworld and trigger boss fights by standing close to a particular spot and pressing a button. As the manual to Contra 4 might suggest, this overworld is the sort of cutesy nod to RPGs that has no place in a cutthroat action game. Cuphead also seems afraid or incapable of featuring an actual level. When you’re not killing bosses or traversing the contrived map, you’re trying your hand at Cuphead’s “run and gun” challenges, which amount to small and superfluous fragments of a level that register as a half-assed way to pay tribute to Contra, or you’re completing other one-off tests that revolve around a trendy parrying mechanic that has little bearing on a lot of the action in the game.

In Cuphead, imitation is the sincerest form of hackery. So many of the bosses are uninspired riffs on popular shooter trials (despite being packaged as sensational characters that evoke a bygone era). Take the horizontal shooter fights. These make for tedious encounters, with little danger, speed, or original attack patterns involved in the proceedings. The game’s lack of a dynamic power-up system raises the question of whether the developer even understands the appeal of a subgenre it supposedly admires. Indeed, the horizontally scrolling stages resemble mundane fare like Ordyne as opposed to superior classics such as Gradius and Lords of Thunder.

During the majority of Cuphead, I was unimpressed by its villains’ tactics and could envision how to dismantle the bosses based on my experiences with pests in the Contra series and Mega Man games. Cuphead’s lack of unique action becomes downright laughable when you lock horns with King Dice. One of Dice’s forms is a pathetic, nonthreatening clone of the Yellow Devil from Mega Man. As I watched this sub-boss ineptly and obviously mimic an old threat, I realized I was experiencing the work of cowards hiding behind an animation style.

Why Hours Played Is Virtually Meaningless

by Jed Pressgrove

A prevalent ideology in gaming suggests that everyone — whether you’re a drooling gamer like my friend down the road or a fart-sniffing critic like myself — should keep up with how many hours they spend playing a game. Similar to open-world ideology and consumer-review ideology, this perspective is deceptive and should be ignored. There are several reasons why.

1. Hours played has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.

Theoretically, you can enjoy playing a mediocre game for more than 100 hours. I did this with Street Fighter V, the weakest game in that series since the arcade original. The reason I spent so much time with Street Fighter V is that I am a very competitive person who has played every Street Fighter sequel. Similarly, most gamers can name an average or below-average game that they have played with friends for numerous hours. From such observations, we can arrive at another critical truth: enjoyment alone has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.

2. Hours played often has little to do with whether we love or hate a game in general.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: in many cases, you must spend at least several hours with a game to give it a fair shot. This reminds me of my experience with Arkham Asylum more than a decade ago. I remember playing the first hour of Arkham Asylum at a friend’s, and I could not help but wonder why my friend thought the game was special. The opening was a bit tedious, and the mechanics seemed superficial when I was finally able to engage with them. A year or so later after this first impression, I ended up buying Arkham Asylum. After putting just a little more time into the game, I was able to understand my friend’s adoration (not that understanding someone else’s adoration is the point).

Once you grasp what a game is going for, though, you’re not going to change your mind about it with more hours played. To give a different example, I was annoyed by Persona 5’s approach to tutorialization and storytelling for the first 12 hours that I played it. After 70 hours, my opinions only became more crystallized. Why? Games are like pop song choruses. They tend to repeat themselves. As such, just as you won’t come to praise what you find to be a crappy pop song after hearing it 100 times, you’re not going to magically fall in love with a game after playing it for 100 hours. You might become more skilled after 100 hours, but you can be good at a game that you think is substantially flawed. It happens all the time.

3. Hours played often has little to do with finishing a game.

First we have to know what we mean with “finishing a game.” If we define it in the simplest way (i.e., if “finishing a game” means to view some version of closing credits), hours played before we finish a game can vary for multiple reasons. Existing skill and the time it takes to improve skill are obvious factors and can lead to fewer or more hours. Another variable is whether the gamer in question is a curious cat. Does this person like to meander about in virtual environments? Does this person, before finishing a story, like to screw around and find different tricks or glitches to “break” the game? Does this person always press any button they can to skip story-focused segments? Does this person get distracted by sidequests? We could ask such questions for a long time.

Others might define “finishing a game” as beating a final boss AND uncovering what they consider significant secrets or parts of a game. My personal interpretation of “finishing a game” is more straightforward: to me, you’re finished when you’re ready to move on from the game for whatever reason. Perhaps you’re not good at the game and wish to quit, perhaps you’re good at the game but find it uninspired and stupid, perhaps you’d like to keep playing the game but don’t have the time, or perhaps you’ve beaten the game 10 times in a row and want to experience something else. In any case, hours played doesn’t tell us why or if someone is finished with a game in the overwhelming majority of cases (exceptions include so-called narrative-focused games that require little, if any, skill to see the finale of the story).

4. Assuming that “finishing a game” means to see closing credits, this also frequently says nothing about whether or why we like the game in question.

The first time I played Castlevania was before the age of 10. Even though I found the game very interesting and was able to view the closing credits of other infamously difficult NES games of the era (such as Contra and Ninja Gaiden), I thought I would never get past the Grim Reaper boss on the fifth stage. It basically took me more than a decade of trying (with extremely long breaks, of course) to kill the cheap bastard and go on to conquer the rest of the game with no trouble.

I couldn’t begin to determine the number of hours I put into Castlevania before I “finished it” (I still play it to this day). Like I said in the title, hours played is virtually meaningless. Meaning is found in feelings: I thought Castlevania was a good game the entire time, and “finishing” it didn’t make it lesser or greater. It was always fucking Castlevania.

Like it or not, most video games are like Castlevania (exceptions include works that invite full readings without much skill, such as Off-Peak, Actual Sunlight, or Proteus). You know what you’re getting after several hours of observing the same kind of stuff. It’s as simple as that. (What’s more, the suggestion that games should only or primarily be played to be “finished” doesn’t make sense. Why would you want to spend hours and hours just for the closing credits of something you hate for 10 different reasons?)

Granted, if you want to talk specifically about the ending of a game, or its final level, or its climactic boss fight, and so on, yes, you should have seen the final credits or at least gotten close enough to them in order to make particular claims about any of these things. If I had reviewed the original Castlevania before beating Dracula, I could have reasonably called it a very good game, but I couldn’t have said, for instance, that Dracula is a great boss fight.

The truth is almost nobody seems to care if you’ve not beaten a game yet and you love it. But if you despise the game and haven’t beaten it, you’re tantamount to a corrupt dictator. My stance is that, unless you’re talking about specific things that occur at the end of a game, seeing the closing credits isn’t relevant to what you think about a game’s pop song chorus, if you will. And let’s not forget, too, that many of the greatest video games will likely never be beaten by anyone reading this: BurgerTime, Galaga, Xevious, Ms. Pac-Man, and on and on we could go. Gamers have a rich history of not beating games, only to hold and share passionate opinions about their qualities. It’s a tradition that I find instructive and significant from a critical standpoint, within reason.

Resident Evil 2 (2019) Review — A Relatively Safe Space

by Jed Pressgrove

Like its predecessor, 1998’s Resident Evil 2 is pixelated, clunky, and full of cheesy voice acting. Despite often being ugly and awkward, the sequel is a memorable entry in the pop gaming canon because of its setting, an implausible police department (see Ed Smith’s interpretation) that contains a significantly higher number of zombies than Resident Evil’s mansion. The new Resident Evil 2, though, feels like an effort by Capcom to rewrite history in a way that flatters modern audiences as much as possible.

The basic premise remains: play as Leon, a rookie cop, or Claire, a woman looking for her brother. Solve puzzles, find items, kill and run from zombies, and uncover a ridiculous conspiracy. Gamers know the drill. But instead of dealing with the original game’s clumsy tank controls and ever-changing camera angles, you now benefit from a more convenient over-the-shoulder perspective, the same one introduced by Resident Evil 4. With this familiar viewpoint and a more intuitive control scheme, players can more easily take down common foes and run away from Mr. X, a monstrosity who chases you throughout the game. Every recurring enemy can be eliminated even if your aim is only decent, and because you typically hear Mr. X before he finds you, avoiding him tends to be a cinch. Even zombies that threaten to climb through windows pose little issue, thanks to an oversimplified window-boarding mechanic cribbed from the superior Nazi Zombies minigame in Call of Duty: World at War.

One’s progress in this Resident Evil 2 is rarely jeopardized for long. The updated pause menu is a textbook example of design that anticipates almost any hang-up a player might experience while navigating an environment. Similar to the original, if you find a key that can fit multiple doors, a red checkmark will appear by the item in the inventory window once you use it on every door it can open. What’s more, players don’t have to wonder whether they’ve discovered everything in a particular room; the map window color-codes places that have been relieved of their secrets. A once-messy game has been transformed into a neat and tidy experience, guaranteed to continually satisfy those who just stick to it.

The overhauled graphics also suggest a more orderly work of art. Though you’ll see more believable human faces in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and Detroit: Become Human, the highly technical visuals have a spick-and-span quality to them (notwithstanding the constant blood-letting and an unsettling sequence that involves liquidized fecal matter). The jaggedness of the first Resident Evil 2 wouldn’t woo contemporary eyes, after all. It’s almost as if game history should be cleansed of products without polish, even if smoother-looking imagery lacks the surreal edge of many of yesteryear’s works.

The new voice acting in Resident Evil 2 represents an attempt by Capcom to create an illusion of tangible seriousness in a story that is about as impressive as a halfway dried-up mud puddle. Inexplicably, Leon Kennedy has become a dull character. Voiced by Paul Haddad in the original Resident Evil 2, Leon has never been a deep hero, but Haddad’s cartoonish delivery of Leon’s dialogue brings humor to the proceedings (Paul Mercier would make the cocksure officer even funnier in Resident Evil 4). Nick Apostolides’ more straight-laced interpretation of Leon in this remake fails to express much emotion outside of reserved resoluteness. Lines like “Chew on that, you overgrown son of a bitch” and “I didn’t realize you were keeping score” are intended to be entertaining breaks from the horror, but Apostolides says them with the conviction of a deacon who sleeps through church services. Claire’s new voice, provided by Stephanie Panisello, fares a little better, yet there is a tepid casualness to Panisello’s performance when she utters lines such as “It’s like the end of the world.”

This neutered version of Resident Evil 2 is actually preferable to the last entry in the series, Resident Evil 7, which is a disgusting retread of horror-movie stereotypes with snore-worthy action. This remake at least hints that there was something noteworthy about the 1998 sequel. The irony of a police department corrupted by external (as opposed to internal) forces holds up. Yet almost everything else in this version of Resident Evil 2 seems more normal and proposed by shrewd committee. If Capcom continues to take the series in this digestible direction, the legacy of survival horror, a genre that’s already more flawed than most, doesn’t stand to gain much from an artistic standpoint.