Month: April 2015

Resonance of Fate Review — Guns Over Swords, Laughter Over Tears

by Austin C. Howe

Note: If you are prone to motion sickness, you are not recommended to play or watch Resonance of Fate. More than one person has become motion sick as a result of watching the author play this game.

Resonance of Fate has possibly the best combat ever devised for a Japanese role-playing game. Very few complex systems are this elegant. Very few sets of choices are as self-explanatory. Very few sets of rewards for given actions are as clearly balanced against one another. And while every other thing in Resonance of Fate is an experiment with JRPG form that is as bold as its reinvention of combat, the results are incredibly mixed to say the least.

In battle, you inflict two types of damage in Resonance of Fate: scratch and direct. Scratch damage fills up quickly but cannot damage an enemy directly and, therefore, cannot kill an enemy. Direct damage can take out an enemy but builds up slowly. If this dynamic seems reminiscent of the relationship between magic and physical damage in Final Fantasy XIII, Resonance of Fate is like Final Fantasy XIII if the latter knew what it was doing.

This is the fundamental flow of combat: you use a “hero action” to send your scratch damage dealer, a party member equipped with submachine guns, running across the battlefield to fill up an enemy’s green life bar with blue, then you use another hero action to send a direct damage dealer, a handgun user, in similar blazing fashion to convert that damage into death. In this process, you’ll have spent two hero actions — out of a beginning set of three that expanded to around 10 in my personal endgame — and hopefully regained one action for killing the enemy, maybe two if you blew off the enemy’s armor in the process. Destroying armor and killing an enemy are the only ways you can refill the hero gauge, and if you fail to do either of those things quickly, you will enter Condition Critical where you take damage much more easily and, most of the time, lose the battle. In this way, Resonance of Fate is cutthroat. Early decisions more or less determine the course of battle. I often found myself making a mistake on the first turn, then immediately pausing the game and pressing “Retry” because I knew I had already lost.

Thankfully, good planning is rewarded with the opportunity to do even more damage and prevent that sort of thing from happening. The key weakness of your three-person party is that only one character can move at a time, while all enemies can move at the same time. Granted, this trade-off comes with the advantages of moving swiftly, jumping through the air, dealing highly concentrated damage, and avoiding attacks, but it also means your other two party members who aren’t trying out for the circus will inevitably take some amount of damage throughout the course of battle.

To subvert this weakness, you have to perform Tri-Attacks, which enable all three characters to attack together, but Tri-Attacks require Bezel points. When you move your submachine gun user across the line between your other two party members, you collect a Bezel point. When you send out your first handgun user and cross the path between the submachine gun user and the other handgunner, you collect another Bezel point. The only way to collect Bezel points is through these meticulously planned hero actions, taking stock of the battlefield and drawing routes in your head. Such thinking often resulted in me considering as many as three turns in advance. Managing Tri-Attacks is the only way to win most of the major battles in Resonance of Fate. I usually find myself opposed to systems that strongly dictate a single play style, but unlike the Dark Souls games, which present multiple styles even though only one is actually interesting, Resonance of Fate works hard to push you toward the only style that will allow you to beat it.

Sadly, the razor-sharp thought and design behind the combat does not come through in the plotting, character development, or thematics. Resonance of Fate replaces melodrama, one of many JRPG conventions that the game defies, with comedy. I have probably laughed more times while playing Resonance of Fate than during any other game that resembles it (or even just a video game in general). That said, far too many of the jokes rely on the mistreatment and objectification of Leanne. I laugh, but the laughs leave a bad taste in my mouth. In particular, Vashyron and Zephyr, both male characters, will often say things like “easy on the friendly fire” during combat to deride Leanne, but she is mechanically the same as both Vashyron and Zephyr, a glaring example of ludonarrative dissonance and misogyny that I’m surprised survived playtesting or script edits unquestioned, and that only reinforces how little thought is put into how women in video games are written.

The characters are generally undeveloped, which is a shame given their likability as a group. Vashyron is a military veteran who survived a botched operation, but his survivor’s guilt, his relationships with other soldiers, and his reason for sticking with Zephyr and Leanne are all left ambiguous to the point where I wonder if I’m meant to assume certain details based on his character stock type. Leanne has supposedly died and come back to life, but what her second chance has changed about her remains a mystery. Zephyr really gets a shaft: he massacred a number of people at the church in which he studied to be a clergyman. Zephyr’s murders are revealed in the game’s introductory cutscene, but the game treats this as a secret that Leanne slowly learns about, and her reaction to learning about the violence does little to alter her and Zephyr’s relationship, which is, in true anime fashion, a romance that goes nowhere. The plotting also spends an astounding amount of time in cutscenes with the primary anti-villain, Cardinal Rowen. Even though Rowen is a very interesting character, he takes little action that drives the protagonists’ actions. Rowen does not interact at all with your party until too close to the end, at which the writing flails with flaccid attempts to increase the stakes of the drama. Rowen creates next to no conflict.

Then again, taking the text as a whole, Resonance of Fate’s lack of conflicts is, to some degree, the point. The game intends to focus on the day-to-day lives of Vashyron, Zephyr, and Leanne as bounty hunters. My biases and taste may lean too heavily toward the social observations and protagonist-villain interactions that drive, for example, Xenogears. But Resonance of Fate tends to undercut its subtexts as well. Bazel, the world the game takes place in, has a clear gradient scale between the rich, middle-class, and poor as you move from the top of the structure to the bottom, yet that class aspect feels significantly unaddressed. Most of Bazel’s citizens express no displeasure for this class division. Some will even, for example, show empathy that a Cardinal’s wedding day has been ruined. The game also clearly structures its dominant social class, the Cardinals, after the Catholic church from which that term emerges. And while there is plenty of typical JRPG atheism and anti-theism on hand, there is very little discussion of this connection between faith and wealth, even though such a connection could be drawn easily. I don’t claim these things lightly: the intensely developed sidequests will have you visiting more or less every location in Bazel and talking to most of its inhabitants at least once. The lack of social and political awareness in Resonance of Fate is especially tragic given that the bottom of Bazel contains some of the best-photographed, most gorgeous, and most desolate depictions of urban dystopia in a video game since Final Fantasy VII.

Such is Resonance of Fate, a game brimming with confidence and not shy about being more than 50 hours long, yet somehow registering as incomplete. It’s frustrating how close Resonance of Fate comes to being a genre-defining masterpiece. Other games, particularly Xenogears, share its problems, but very few share its strengths: its humor, its unique gun-grey steampunk aesthetic, its shockingly casual soundtrack, its astoundingly complex combat. Despite those strengths, Resonance never manages to convince me of an imperfect-yet-undeniable genius that can be seen in essential games like Terranigma, Resident Evil 4, or Xenogears. The game often plays as a proof of concept that needs and deserves a good writer. As it stands, I’d recommend playing Resonance of Fate on the strength of its combat alone and approaching its other experiments with more distance.

Austin C. Howe writes the blog Haptic Feedback and does a weekly, public-radio audio criticism series called Critical Switch with Zolani Stewart, which you can support on Patreon. He is in the late drafting stages of his long-delayed book of essays on Final Fantasy VII, for which he is currently seeking a publisher.

Growl Review — Immature Ideology

by Matt Paprocki

In Growl, a pithy number of mammals are saved by sanctioned murders, a style of overboard slaughter that separates legs, arms, and heads, a spectacle of hypocrisy. Oddly connected to Taito, a Japanese studio known for chipper military games, run-and-gun espionage thrillers, and harmless alien fantasies, Growl is an outcast beat ’em up full of unapologetic political litter.

Around 40 animals are rescued throughout Growl’s 20 or so minutes of anti-poacher carnage: eagles, elephants, lions, deer, gorillas. Comparatively, hundreds of human lives are lost. Men in turbans are brutally kneed in the face. Others are stomped into the ground. Some drown. Women explode into chunks after grenades time out. Growl is among the earliest video games to feature women of color prolifically and blows them up at the hands of four “heroic” white men who make up the Ranger Corps. Growl is apathetic to all, because animals.

The graphic violence is not necessarily repulsive in and of itself (though Growl’s ferociousness was unorthodox in 1991). Rather, Growl chooses to be crude and reactionary, content that an audience willing to pour in quarters would accept such a heinous depiction of human execution. The imagery is outright vile. PETA could hand out Growl as a digital business card. Sympathy for poaching is inexcusable, but believing this to be a solution is equally grotesque. Growl is as effective in its messaging as a campaign yard sign.

Weirder still is Growl’s playfulness. Cartoon words across the screen — “Shboom!” — degrade the fiction to camp television standards, a display of artless cruelty. Colorful, comic words are no shield to Growl’s abhorrent bigotry. Fern Gully this is not.

Growl is among the more critically confusing mass-produced arcade games of its era. A rallying cry of “Defeat the evil hunters!” is swept away by the nonsense of its closing act in which a rogue clown sprouts a rocket launcher for a neck, tosses around a tank, and rips open upon defeat to reveal an alien worm who was controlling members of the villainous poaching squad. Preceding actions take on the connotation of an exploitative zombie movie, matching the B-level tonality of the trailer-esque intro screens.

Growl’s sci-fi horror only makes things worse. Body parts and blood remain — now of innocent people controlled against their will, not poachers. Aliens are comforting foes. Slithering, slimy. Green. They’re often vapid as villains, too. But what would an alien want with these animals? Growl has no idea. Neither will an audience. Growl becomes expressly salacious without reason.

As a surface allegory, Growl is partly caught in the limited narrative bandwidth of the arcade form. Instant gratification is of prime importance, not storytelling patience, so the game calls the poacher group RAPO. Underneath this lack of subtlety is a competent brawler. Punches are fired (and sound) like machine guns while mayhem is celebratory, a fireworks show of scattering intestines. Dull moments do not exist.

Certainly, the game stands in contrast to an industry feeding on low-grade Cabela-licensed hunting simulations that flagrantly use birds, cheetahs, and alligators as mere antagonistic filler. Taito’s Growl loves those animals, just too much so and it’s damned mean about it.

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 15 years. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can follow Matt’s body of work via his personal WordPress blog and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.

Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition Review — Home Work

by Jed Pressgrove

To treat Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition as a video-game outlier due to its seriousness — see Chase Ramsey’s dumbfounded opening “There is, like, a lot of drama in Three Fourths Home” — is to show an immature aversion to interpretation. Developer Zach Sanford doesn’t merely sell Millennial angst; he suggests there’s an overlooked spiritual connection between the generations of America’s past and present in a believable family context.

In the main part of Three Fourths Home, you play as Kelly who talks to her mother, father, and brother on the phone as she drives through a storm in Nebraska. You hold down a button to keep Kelly driving as you choose dialogue options that open or close further exploration of family concerns. Despite the contrivance of characters playing hot potato with the phone, the dialogue is authentically familial. “Doubt all you want, it’s the truth!” claims Kelly’s father in defense of his proactive protection of a tomato garden. The mother, Norah, and her husband show experience with their jabs at each other — they’ve been married long enough to know it’s better not to throw knockout punches. Kelly’s brother, Ben, has a form of autism, but rather than exaggerate this to make audiences feel culturally sensitive (and superior), the interactions subtly draw out the family’s acceptance of and continuing adaptation to Ben’s condition.

While your dialogue choices don’t alter the premise of Three Fourths Home, Sanford uses the multiple paths of the conversations to illustrate the universality of tough times in a fast-paced society. Each character faces distinct changes that range from social (Ben’s school issues) to physical (the father’s injury taking him out of work) to emotional (Kelly’s quarter-life sense of failure), with the underlying sense that family support is the main defense against financial uncertainty. Seeing the unideal through the eyes of Kelly, whose 20-something instinct is to run away from problems, can make Three Fourths Home seem like an unoriginal realization for the Millennial generation, but the storytelling leans toward a societal truth rather than mopey judgment. In one conversation path, Ben shares a short story he has written that evokes both Beowulf and the Book of Job in its yearning for a comfortable status quo. It’s to Sanford’s credit that this lamentation of American reality comes through the family dialogue within the isolation of Nebraskan corn fields, outclassing the anti-rural cliches in the cannibalistic Georgia farm from Telltale’s miserable The Walking Dead.

Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition says the most in its epilogue. In this segment, only Kelly and Norah converse as you move Kelly left and right on foot, a simulation of anxiety compared to the previous stiffness of holding down an accelerator to drive. The talk between daughter and mother can get very uncomfortable, such as when Norah calls Kelly an idiot for messing up grades in college. Yet the mother’s straightforwardness can be as profound as upsetting: “A grade is a grade. A job’s a job. My wisdom isn’t exactly the most creative.” Norah’s modest admission allows Sanford’s game to speak for generations beyond Baby Boomers and Millennials. This broad appeal makes the concluding image of Kelly’s home pulled out of the ground by the roots an expression of dogged resilience as much as sadness.

Belladonna Review — Rushed Representation

by Jim Bevan

Even though popular video games often lack positive LGBT representation, independent and alternative games have stepped forward to fill this gap, offering deeper, more personal stories that strive to make players empathize with LGBT protagonists. Admirably, Talks With My Mom places players in the shoes of a young woman coming out as a lesbian to her narrow-minded mother, while Dys4ia uses a series of mini-games as metaphors for the struggles of a transwoman. However, even the best intentions can suffer from faulty execution. There’s a difference between a complex narrative focusing on a gay person’s life and a trivial tale with a gay protagonist that doesn’t say anything substantial. Belladonna, the debut title from Swedish developer Neckbolt (Niklas Hallin), is regretfully in the latter category.

Belladonna is yet another game that has potential to tell an intriguing story but never manages to convey its ideas. It’s quite a pity as there’s a wealth of topics that could have elevated the game beyond a simple Frankenstein pastiche. In the short time I spent playing Belladonna, I learned about a marriage crumbling after the death of a couple’s infant son, a previously loving husband’s descent into an abusive, domineering maniac, his neglected wife’s turning to the affections of their maid to rekindle her appreciation for life, and a sad fate for all three once this clandestine romance is exposed.

This material could have made for a gripping character drama if I had been able to see it develop rather than learning about it after the fact. Belladonna shares the same significant flaw that hindered Gone Home — practically every important aspect of the plot is revealed through exposition. You never observe the von Trauerschlosses as a couple and are left to simply assume that Wolfram and Belladonna were madly in love before their son passed away. You never witness that first spark of desire between Belladonna and the maid Klara that rejuvenates the former’s spirit. There’s no montage of Wolfram slipping further into darkness as he becomes obsessed with his experiments and more paranoid that his wife is having an affair. Everything that is supposed to define these characters is merely spelled out in journal entries. Not even the epistolary revelation of the backstory is properly handled because of how ubiquitous these journal entries are. At least one page is located in each room, and at one point I found three in the same area. Such rushed delivery greatly hurts the pacing since there is hardly any time to absorb the information before dealing with another turn of events.

The story in the journal entries doesn’t even match up with how the game’s events play out. Belladonna’s notes suggest that she was madly in love with Klara, that she considered the young servant her true soul mate and didn’t care that the society they lived in would condemn their relationship. Yet when Klara finally locates her lover and restores Belladonna to life, there’s no sense of a deep connection between them. Aside from one or two hollow uses of “my love,” their dialogue is just more exposition. Nothing indicates that these two had been in a serious relationship. While this could be due to the fact that both women had returned from the dead, the lack of emotion between the characters makes no sense given Klara’s behavior after her resurrection; she shows some feelings, though usually it’s either a sense of confusion or curiosity. Why does the game heavily emphasize a forbidden love only to have it fail to manifest when Belladonna and Klara reunite?

The romantic subplot isn’t the only concept that needed more exploration. Near the end of the game, Belladonna reveals to Klara that she wishes to use her husband’s research to create a race of clockwork-powered undead, and that they will find their own home where they can be safe from the outside world. Is this supposed to be an allegory for the gay community feeling threatened by a society that ostracizes it, or is it a simple rehashing of a generic science-fiction plot?

Before embarking on this plan to create a new species, Klara confides in Belladonna that she fears the revival process has made her into a monster. Klara shares that she felt no guilt killing a cat that was guarding a key she needed, so she is concerned she is now devoid of a soul. Belladonna then confesses she had no qualms about murdering her husband (which is justifiable considering the hatred she felt toward Wolfram for killing both Klara and herself) and tells Klara to ignore her fears. Why ignore it? Why not discuss the nature of humanity and the possible existence of a soul? Why not examine whether Belladonna is unleashing an army of merciless killers upon the world or if they have some semblance of a conscience? But the issue is never again discussed: Klara gathers the parts needed to create a new patchwork corpse, she flips the switch to infuse it with electricity, and Belladonna declares “It’s alive.” With this unthinking ending, the game announces that it’s just the latest indie project with aspirations of high art held back by lazy design.

Bloodborne Review — Another Soulless Franchise

by Jed Pressgrove

Bloodborne, which would have been called Dark Souls III if it were honest, comes one year after 2014’s Dark Souls II. Usually when a video game sequel gets a follow-up this quickly, you’ll see some critics lament this age of rapid-fire franchises. Not so with Bloodborne. Even David Thier’s complaint reads like a glowing endorsement: “Bloodborne deserves all the praise it gets.” Director Hidetaka Miyazaki sidesteps the franchise stench of his latest game with a different title and a switch in currency from souls to “blood echoes.” (Instead of Bloodborne II, perhaps the next title will be Rotgut and require even more intestinal fortitude.) Miyazaki’s references to the red substance may inspire a few theories, but the change mostly plays into a decades-old desire for video games to gain notoriety via body fluids. Game culture is in a sorry state in which superficial darkness gets hailed as part of an artistic triumph rather than a bankable ploy.

Notwithstanding the gaming world’s deification of Miyazaki, Bloodborne is a hack’s version of Dark Souls. The former is noticeably faster due to the increased speed and stamina of the protagonist. Despite this quicker pace, the addition of a gun, and a rule where you gain health back if you attack an enemy soon after it attacks you, Bloodborne retains the awkward timing and constant threat of death from Dark Souls, coming off like a less graceful Devil May Cry. In another way, Bloodborne turns its heritage into Looney Tunes. In Dark Souls, sneaking up on a black knight is a welcome discovery and builds mystery about the creature. In Bloodborne, stealth is expected, instructed, and even unintentionally humorous as you turn a sword into a big hammer and, as a depressing Foghorn Leghorn, smash the giant stone end of the weapon into enemies who might as well be sleeping dogs.

Miyazaki’s imitation of his previous work raises the question of how anyone familiar with Dark Souls can say with a straight face that Bloodborne is frightening, as if it represents the franchise’s first horror aspirations. Bloodborne’s standard Dark Souls tone isn’t served by allusions to the villagers from the campy Resident Evil 4 (critic Zolani Stewart wasn’t far off when he said “Everything is Resident Evil 4”). More importantly, the Dark Souls style is now too predictable for greater suspense. It’s an ingrained drill at this point: Church is evil. Resist overconfidence. Through death, learn enemy patterns so that you know when to strike and counter. Tread carefully because something all new and powerful can kill you with a couple of blows. Devise ways to tease out single enemies from groups so that you stand a better chance (and since Bloodborne’s enemies are more stupid, this doesn’t require that much imagination). Sure, this drill benefits from the fact that the sight of most creatures is impressive, but locking onto them (as in 3-D Legend of Zelda games), evading them, and attacking them make for D-grade horror at best.

Bloodborne forgets what made Dark Souls interesting. The nervousness and giddiness of exploring a strange world are reduced by Bloodborne’s generic structure. Bloodborne trades Dark Souls’ bonfires, which suggested questionable rituals as much as they relieved players, for lanterns that transport you to an agreeable hub called the Hunter’s Dream, a setting that pretends to be meaningful but feels like a pit stop that one often finds in mission-based games. In Dark Souls, discovering an item seller called for celebration because you had no idea what lurked in that world, but in Bloodborne, buying items is a given from the start thanks to the Hunter’s Dream. Bloodborne also takes a page from the juvenile Killer Is Dead with the inclusion of The Doll. If the sexual connotation isn’t obvious in how she’s introduced (“You’re welcome to use whatever you find”), The Doll’s voice sensually babies you, and when you use her to level up, she, of course, bends down (“Let me stand close. Now shut your eyes …”). Dark Souls’ subtlety takes a backseat to Bloodborne’s proven advertising. Still, Miyazaki throws in little twists, such as not being able to level up your character initially, so that players can pat themselves on the back when they inform others of these meaningless inconsistencies. Contrast Bloodborne’s sleight of hand with Castlevania III’s unapologetic conviction, which didn’t offer pretenses of accessibility or petty deviations from formula.

The biggest misconception about Dark Souls lies in a preoccupation with difficulty that is uninformed by video game history. A lot of the praise for Bloodborne continues this peer-pressure parade about accomplishment: beat this, and you’ve really done something. Nonsense. There are innumerable tough challenges in gaming, from topping high scores in Centipede to defeating a Street Fighter IV opponent who has always gotten the best of you to overcoming the trials of Contra 4. Dark Souls’ uniqueness comes from the emotional interpretation behind it. When you go back to Firelink Shrine and hear the violins, a bittersweetness accompanies the joy of hearing music again. In no other game will you feel the exact hopelessness that follows an accidental killing of a blacksmith. Bloodborne is just an enticing package whose next-gen visuals — which remind me of wet, slicked-back hair — are kept in check by absurd loading times, whose locations reject the habitats of Dark Souls, and whose “Prey Slaughtered” tagline confirms the curses of the Resident Evil 4 knockoff villagers. This poorly cloaked sequel is a disease.

Axiom Verge Review — Retro Dope

by Jed Pressgrove

Axiom Verge functions as a temporary cure for retro withdrawal, which affects critics as much as it does anyone, regardless of whether they grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Thomas Happ is a talented developer and does manage to make a more impressive game than Phil Fish’s Fez, the corniest Nintendo nostalgia ever peddled. Even so, Axiom Verge’s impersonations mostly add up to a walk we’ve taken too many times. It’s no secret the gaming world has blue balls over the anticipation of another entry of Metroid, the franchise that serves as Axiom Verge’s primary influence. This yearning is evident in the hoopla over watered-down versions of Metroid, commonly referred to as “Metroidvania” games (the “vania” comes from gamer obsession with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a Metroid-esque disaster with countless useless items and a fake ending). To Happ’s credit, Axiom Verge showcases some ideas that are more inventive than the norm. At the same time, this love letter to 8-bit classics will be seen as a Messiah simply for filling a Metroid-sized hole.

From the beginning, Axiom Verge struggles to create a dramatic identity. The game opens with a comic-book cutscene, a device used extensively in Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden trilogy on the NES. Whereas Ninja Gaiden uses such scenes between stages to add melodramatic weight to its swift and linear action, Axiom Verge abandons this style in favor of dialogue boxes that interrupt its exploration. Through dialogue Happ attempts to establish a conflicted protagonist in Trace, who has one funny observation: “The whole ‘chosen one’ story doesn’t inspire much confidence.” With a name that suggests incompleteness, Trace takes orders from sentient, motherly machines to put an end to an unethical science experiment. The closer you get to the end, the more evident it becomes that the storytelling is hamstrung by tradition. Trace might bemoan violence here and there, yet his dry nerd-turned-badass language trumps moral consideration. Trace doesn’t have the believable confusion and anger of Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa. And do players really care about Trace’s tangential moralizing as they blast away at every form of life that stands in their way? Sure, it’s interesting on the surface when you literally trade places with a creature being obliterated by a gun-toting hero, but that’s more of a cute deconstructive trick than meaningful commentary, no more profound than how the broken English of the feminine guides evoke a fanboy’s delight in poor translations of old games. Axiom Verge is a playground, not a philosophical text.

Axiom Verge’s emphasis on reexploring places to find new paths and items is a very familiar Metroid routine that goes like this: as you advance, you notice that you can’t travel all paths because of your limited ability and equipment. You start to recognize specific obstacles as they reject your desire to explore. While on the main story path, you stumble upon an ability that is designed to pass a certain type of blockage, but despite this obvious practicality, you have to retrace your steps, going through the same doors and the same environments again and again and again until you get every last damn thing you can on the map. The repetition of backtracking is somewhat tailored by abilities that allow you to move in different ways (for example, teleportation vs. jumping).

If you’re willing to accept this routine on its terms, the appeal of Axiom Verge ultimately lies in Happ’s execution of the form, which is mixed. Happ is at his most creative when it comes to the abilities and equipment for overcoming obstacles to further exploration. In contrast to Shovel Knight’s mindless pandering, Axiom Verge doesn’t mark walls for easy destruction. You have to poke around with a drill on a mad treasure hunt, and when you finally see a wall start to give, the result is legitimate excitement. Even more interesting is the drone that you shoot out and then control in claustrophobic areas that the hero can’t traverse. As the drone (which features Happ’s best sound design), you have adventures that go beyond the boundaries of single rooms. These segments have a sneaky determination that gives a needed break from the wandering hero bits. Happ’s most provocative contribution to the formula is a gun that can hack enemies and parts of the environment. While sometimes the hacking is merely a stylish way of blowing away pixelated crap, the ability does bring surprises with its effects on enemies. Still, compared to the game-altering possibilities in the otherwise mediocre Hack ‘N’ Slash, Axiom Verge’s hacking gun is quite limited and serves as another reminder of retro withdrawal with its NES glitch allusions.

The biggest shortcoming of Happ’s Metroidvania riffing is a problem that the superior Magicians & Looters avoided: the pointlessness of so many items that, in turn, raises the question of why anyone would want to find them in the first place. Axiom Verge has an appreciable number of weapons, but the Kilver, perhaps best described as an electrifying shotgun, renders almost every other gun a waste of space. The Kilver comes early in the game and not only destroys enemies quickly but also shoots through platforms and walls. When you reach a particular boss that constantly shields itself, you can make short work of it by running straight through the shield (taking damage all the while) and firing the Kilver nonstop. While the health enhancers are more useful than the obligatory guns, Axiom Verge fumbles again by pretending that random back-story notes reward exploration. I’m starting to believe that not even a prison sentence would discourage developers from hiding fragments of a weak story and presenting them as trophies to be won.

Despite the flaws, there’s nothing revolting about Axiom Verge. There’s also little that’s special about it. The hype behind Metroid wannabes reflects the low bar that game culture sets for everything and a dreadful memory (after more than 12 years, Metroid Prime is still better than the imitators). Axiom Verge will receive Game of the Year consideration just as Shovel Knight did last year, which will further propagate the cliché that all games are influenced by others and that’s it’s all about execution, with few reflections on why influences matter or what we value in the execution of ideas. This boring echo chamber overlooks Amazing Princess Sarah, Shutshimi, and other games inspired by classics that go beyond gentle homage, acceptable pastiche, and momentary cessations of retro cravings. The Verge writes “Axiom Verge feels like a brand new Metroid.” So what?