Month: May 2016

Uncharted 4 Review — Thief’s Glorification

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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

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Dark Souls III Review — See Monster, Kill Monster

by Jed Pressgrove

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

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

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

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

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