Month: October 2016

Oxenfree Review — Dial-Up Horror

by Jed Pressgrove

Oxenfree writer/director Adam Hines makes caring about people in a horror story too difficult. Piss-poor aesthetics is the primary major problem, which you can see right off the bat when the game introduces its main characters — Alex, Jonas, and Ren — riding a boat to a deserted island. The three teenagers look like unimaginative Xbox 360 avatars that have found themselves in a nice painting, and different-colored word balloons pop up every time they speak, further clashing with Heather Gross’ superior surrounding art. With this goofy, nagging mismatch of visual styles, Oxenfree appears to be stuck between a hope to be quirky and a desire to make audiences consider the ghosts that haunt human relationships.

For the first half of the game, you might wonder why you should care about the tension between the three teens and their two friends, Nona and Clarissa. Most of the interpersonal issues result from the fact that two of the characters are annoying and one-dimensional: Ren is always bouncing off walls, while Clarissa seems to harbor negativity for no good reason. This limitation is especially problematic given that you are supposed to rescue these two misfits after Alex, urged by Jonas and Ren, opens a triangular portal in a cave, transporting the teens to different parts of the island. The prospect of having to listen to Ren or Clarissa again does not serve as motivation to solve Oxenfree’s easy but tedious puzzles, which mostly amount to tuning a radio with an analog stick until the controller starts vibrating.

Until Oxenfree requires you to grapple with the death of Alex’s brother Michael (who dated Clarissa) and to consider how you should treat characters while trying to escape the island, the bits of dialogue that you choose as Alex seem inconsequential. In fact, since the game doesn’t force you to do anything when a dialogue choice appears, I sometimes didn’t select a response because the conversations tended to float around the trivial, such as whether a tree looks interesting or not. Even worse, the voice acting and avatar movements often come off as too calm and restrained during crucial emotional moments, such as when two of the friends watch someone inexplicably commit suicide. During a large part of Oxenfree, the cast acts like it is auditioning for a Wes Anderson movie, giving off a privileged, blasé attitude that runs counter to the notion of empathy.

In the second half of Oxenfree, when the characters start behaving more like people who have seen triangular portals, ghosts, and other unexplained phenomena, you start to feel something as the one pulling some of Alex’s strings. Unfortunately, Clarissa’s emotions, which drive so much of the dilemma in the story, are not explored enough despite the fact that I, by chance, triggered a revealing conversation between Alex and Nona about Clarissa’s sweet side. If anything, perhaps Oxenfree should have been about the player assuming the role of Clarissa, not the consistently straightforward Alex. The choice to make Alex the star points to this idea that female characters shouldn’t be complicated, and if they are, you should not comprehend their feelings. For playing it safe with Alex, and for not establishing aesthetics and dialogue that directly connect the audience to an uneasy realization about the effects of death on human interaction, Oxenfree is just another island to get stuck on.

Mafia III Review — Fighting Racism with Stereotypes

by Jed Pressgrove

Mafia III is the most pretentious game of 2016, opening with a few lines about how it takes racism seriously but operating like a Grand Theft Auto clone that uses violent superficial visions of minorities like countless other crime stories. Although the game admits its setting is a fictionalized (read: BS) version of 1968 New Orleans, it seems unaware of its many other facades, including the unconvincing conscience of a minister.

Director Haden Blackman and writer Bill Harms so casually display moral cowardice and contradictions in their messaging that you have to consider the possibility that Mafia III has an unpleasant gimmick: exploiting current U.S. racial tension for dramatic intrigue, regardless of whether anything pressing or meaningful is communicated. You play as Lincoln Clay, a black veteran of the Vietnam War on a quest for vengeance against the Italian mobsters who killed his family. As its introductory statement implies, Mafia III doesn’t shy away from racial slurs directed toward Clay and other black characters, but that the story takes place in the late 1960s both makes the game more politically correct (hindsight is 20/20) and lets audiences, both conservative and liberal, off the hook for present-day racism. After all, who would want urgent moral consideration to get in the way of enjoying Mafia III’s serviceable (but historically unimpressive) driving, shooting, and stealth sequences?

At first, Mafia III appears to want to shed a sympathetic light on oppressed people of color who are driven to extreme actions because of their circumstances. Clay shares an observation about Vietnamese soldiers that Mafia III intends as a parallel to black Americans: “You put people against a wall, they will do anything to survive.” The problem is that Mafia III, much like the sci-fi film District 9 that a lot of white people loved, portrays droves of darker-skinned people as inherently violent rather than recognizable human beings. Before Clay is betrayed, he is shown and described as a natural killer, and the game wants you to get off on not only this idea but also insensitive perspectives on ethnic groups, as demonstrated in the mission titled “Kill the Haitians.” By trying to make violent black stereotypes fun, by juxtaposing its understanding for Vietnamese people with the usual crime-fiction disregard for Haitians as a group, Mafia III shoots its claim about good intentions in the head and robs its revenge story of the intended moral outrage. (Imagine the conservative commentary that might come after the “Kill the Haitians” mission: “All of that black-on-black crime.”)

In every attempt to provide moral commentary, Mafia III comes off as hypocritical or amoral. The game offers Father James as a character with a conscience about Clay’s path. When Clay informs Father James he intends on killing everybody in the Italian mob, Father James says killing anyone beside the leader would be immoral and inadvisable. Later, Clay tells Father James that his “turn the other cheek” philosophy doesn’t work in the real world, but this debate is laughable given that Father James endorses murder as long as it’s controlled and in the best interests of one’s family or community. One of the game’s endings even confirms that Father James has little moral or spiritual conviction.

Mafia III believes that it can be serious about historical discrimination without acknowledging how racial and ethnic stereotypes in crime fiction might confirm long-standing prejudicial views and assumptions. The Italians in Mafia III don’t just illustrate the notion of white violence against blacks; their one-dimensional characterizations conform to the caricature of the Italian criminal. But this sort of cliched writing is a logical antecedent to a wealth of missions involving racially and ethnically charged violence that is supposed to be pleasant. Those who criticize Mafia III’s action as too repetitive might miss a larger point: the creators of Mafia III are all for cyclical violence because, as the Grand Theft Auto series has demonstrated, that type of rush sells more often than articulate, compassionate, and self-reflective discussion on race. As long as Mafia III convinces people of color that it cares and white people that they don’t have to feel as guilty anymore, it will appear to transcend its genre’s typical lack of originality and sensitivity.

Mighty No. 9 Review — A Dashing Idea

by Jed Pressgrove

Conceptualized by Mega Man artist/producer Keiji Inafune, Mighty No. 9 does what Mega Man and countless other home-console platformers have failed to do: marry the motivation to complete all levels with the urge to achieve a high score. More than enough satisfaction can be had by beating Mega Man, Super Mario Bros., Castlevania, or Ninja Gaiden, and if you are going to do anything more, speed runs and finding secrets tend to be more attractive than engaging with these games’ scoring systems. Not so in Mighty No. 9, where trying to create an endless combo (and add to your high score) gives you bonuses to help you through lengthy but imaginative levels, such as a military base in which you must climb on and dodge boxes that fall off various conveyor belts.

Ingeniously, Mighty No. 9 ties its high-score focus to the dash, a descendant of Mega Man 3’s evasive slide that did away with the stricter trail-and-error positioning of the first two entries. To start a combo in Mighty No. 9, you must first shoot an enemy enough to stun it (different foes take different numbers of shots for stunning), then you must absorb the enemy by dashing into or near it, whether in midair or on the ground. However, you must use the dash quickly after the stun, or the absorption won’t register as part of a chain and will end the combo. Thankfully, if you recognize your dash will be too late, you can keep a combo going by avoiding the stunned enemy altogether or blasting it until it disappears.

In addition to stretching out combos, absorbing enemies grants power-ups, such as increased speed and health tanks that can be consumed during a level. One of these effects, stronger firepower, brings a dilemma. This power-up stuns enemies faster, which can be a blessing when your health is low, but it also makes your shots pass through multiple characters, meaning that you might accidentally stun an enemy that is too far away for combo linkage. Because of these situations, you sometimes have to play counterintuitively to get the best combo and high score, such as waiting until multiple enemies separate enough so that you can jump between them and fire only toward those you can absorb fast enough.

The goal of a long combo doesn’t just inspire otherwise illogical behavior, though; it also encourages stunts with the protagonist’s flexible dash. For example, you can stun an enemy floating high above a death pit by jumping in the air and shooting them once, then, while in midair, you can transition into a dash after the shot to absorb the enemy, and then, instead of falling to your death, perform another dash (or multiple dashes) to reach a ledge. Because you only fall slightly between midair dashes, you can skip portions of levels by doing the move over and over, but certain levels, such as the brilliant White House-like setting that involves tracking down a propaganda-spewing sniper, can punish you for spamming the dash and not paying attention to how it can throw you into enemy fire or an instant-death trap.

The dash even has an unusual role in boss fights. Each boss has a health bar that is split into segments. You decrease a segment by shooting the boss, then you must try absorbing the boss to permanently erase that segment of health (and potentially continue a combo). If you don’t do this within a certain period, the boss will regenerate the entire segment. This rule forces you to consider ahead of time how you and the boss will be positioned as you fire away.

While Mighty No. 9 has very noticeable flaws like weak-looking explosions, some terrible voice acting, and a rambling story, its fascinating take on the combo and dash makes it the most underrated Mega Man game (in spirit). Popular commentary has failed to recognize the ingenuity because too many critics and fans are obsessed with prerelease hype and gossip. Just ignore the Kickstarter groupies. It’s actually fitting this game released within a year of Mega Man Legacy Collection: the series’ legacy would be greater if it showcased more daring, well-executed tweaks on the formula like Mighty No. 9.

Firewatch Review — Cynicism Simulator

by Jed Pressgrove

In applying the “walking simulator” label, the gaming press and gamers miss what Firewatch is (a mystery/drama) and what action it emphasizes (hiking and conversing). If you wanted to be just as clueless as those labelers, you could call Firewatch a “hiking simulator,” as such a marketing term would overlook that the game barely tries to simulate what it feels like to traverse the wild. But the biggest failure of Firewatch involves its soap-opera view of humanity’s interaction with the natural world, a new form of the facile darkness that creators Jake Rodkin and Sean Vanaman pimped out in Telltale’s The Walking Dead.

You walk and talk as Henry, a middle-aged man who takes a job as a fire lookout in a national forest to escape the difficulty of dealing with his wife, who has developed early-onset dementia. You take orders from and report to supervisor Delilah, who also expresses a sad jadedness about the toughness of real life. As natural as the voice-acted dialogue can be between Henry and Delilah (especially when they trade sarcastic remarks), their eventual romance is hard to buy for the simple reason that you never see the two together. This limitation seems irrelevant, though, when you consider the dreaded purpose of Firewatch: dragging the player into a fatuous underbelly.

The story seems petty early on when Delilah, with little evidence of professional insight in her direction, tells Henry to chase off a couple of belligerent teenagers. He attempts to give orders to the teens, they run away, and on a later day, Delilah reveals the teenagers are missing. Later, Henry finds evidence that someone, maybe multiple people, is spying on him and Delilah and recording their conversations. Preposterously, all these weird details become tied to a former fire lookout who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the Vietnam War. With this relevation, it’s clear Rodkin, Vanaman, and the rest of the story/direction crew seek to dumb down an important history of human struggle for the sake of character reflection, but only a cynic would think Henry has to be scared by such an exaggeration to consider the responsibility of being a husband.

Although Firewatch has been compared to Alfred Hitchcock more than once, no Hitchcock film ever moved as slow, but that’s by design. Developer Campo Santo intends to create an illusion of exploring nature the old-fashioned way, requiring you to hold up a compass and map rather than view a convenient map screen. Yet you’re confined to particular preset paths and will run into many invisible, illogical walls if you venture too much. The forest is thus unconvincing, and it’s almost a joke when a character uses the word “hike.” This detachment from sincere feeling and experience receives its trashiest expression with the disposable camera, which the developers want you to use so that you can sentimentalize their depiction of nature rather than understand why people get sentimental about nature. Firewatch may not have any zombies like The Walking Dead, but that only means it’s a more subtle version of a mindless doomsday vision when the big fire takes over the pretty sights at the end.

Assault Android Cactus Review — Emotional Arenas

by Jed Pressgrove

The arena fights in the new Doom are often preceded by an opportunity for preparation and scouting, decreasing the chances of the combat intimidating you. Outside of a tutorial stage, you will not find similar complacency in Assault Android Cactus. The hundreds upon hundreds of enemies for each arena fight in Assault Android Cactus, along with the need to recharge one’s battery in order to survive, bring greater pressure than what you will experience in Doom, and with that comes greater elation when you finally obliterate the opposing forces and hear that dizzying melody that kicks off the stage-clear theme.

You would be hard-pressed to name a better twin-stick shooter than Assault Android Cactus. Developer Witch Beam channels the oddball joy of classic works by Treasure (Gunstar Heroes, Dynamite Headdy) and, more importantly, establishes a compelling set of rules to assist and concern players during the mayhem-filled fights. Each character has a primary standard weapon and a secondary power weapon that has to recharge after each use. In most cases with the latter, the character will perform a dodge before and after the shot is fired — a quirky update to 1942’s innovation in bullet evasion. The majority of the characters have the firepower (e.g., seeker missiles, shotgun, etc.) that you would associate with a “shooter protagonist.” But a couple of the heroes fall well outside of such expectations, such as the woman whose primary weapon is a boomerang and whose secondary weapon is a black hole, creating what feels like an iconoclast’s take on the twin-stick shooter framework.

Assault Android Cactus is also a race against time. Each protagonist is powered by a battery that decreases over the course of battle; taking hits from enemies depletes the battery as well. The trick is killing enough enemies to attain a battery power-up before time runs out. You can gain boosts to speed and firepower and paralyze enemies via other power-ups, but such effects must take a backseat in moments during which your battery meter is flashing red in a crowded arena. The new Doom does not have anything like the suspense of the battery, instead encouraging players to engage in “Glory Kills,” which drop health and ammo for you. In Assault Android Cactus, none of your kills carry any sort of pretense of pride like Glory Kills, yet carrying out a streak of 150 consecutive kills is far more pleasurable, not to mention more eye-catching and varied, than Doom’s  mini cutscenes of enemy destruction.

The arena design in Assault Android Cactus exposes most levels in twin-stick shooters as lazy and boring. In some cases, it’s not even accurate to call the battlegrounds “arenas.” In one level, you move through corridors as enemies try to push you back. In another level, the floor and walls collapse and come into place based on where you move. Even when a level is more like an arena, there can still be strange things to account for, such as a deadly laser that routinely sweeps through the entire level, forcing you to hide behind crates or enemies at the right time.

Given this constant intensity, it’s not shocking when you go through Assault Android Cactus’ final boss, which involves enough transformations to rival the concluding multi-stage battle in Treasure’s Sin and Punishment: Star Successor. But truth be told, no action game has ever so surprisingly registered as pure camp as Assault Android Cactus. When your battery runs out, you hear an auto-tune voice woefully sing, “I’m just another android, and my battery’s running low.” The synths of this tune recall the ominous keys of A Clockwork Orange, bringing an undeniable gravity to what would otherwise be interpreted as an easy joke. After the entire song, after you hear the android singer proclaim “can’t feel my feelings,” the tone is more sensitive than humorous, more resonant than smart-assed. It’s difficult to imagine bolder expression upon defeat in a well-tread shooter subgenre.

Dear Esther: Landmark Edition Review — Stupid Letters

by Jed Pressgrove

In no way does Dear Esther’s mixture of first-person movement, voice-overs, and music justify the new arrogant subtitle “Landmark Edition.” Now available on PS4 and Xbox One, this game is more of a poorly written road map on how to convey emotion in a story of a man who writes letters to his dead wife. As you listen to the widow (played by Nigel Carrington) read his ostentatious thoughts, you might wonder whether Dear Esther intends to represent that most irritating type of academic, the one who can’t express himself in a concise, understandable, and honest manner.

In Dear Esther, you activate different readings by the protagonist based on where you walk on an island. While many gamers have sneered at Dear Esther’s lack of traditional video-game activities like solving puzzles, the problem here is not with intent but with execution. (This very point also eludes the game critics — some of whom probably identify with the snooze-worthy ramblings of the main character — who think Dear Esther is historically significant.) The majority of Carrington’s voice acting lacks passion and points to a person who likes stringing flowery words together. As such, it’s difficult to believe the character is even reading letters to his departed wife. This disconnect is more than noticeable when you consider Monica Taylor Horgan’s reading of a letter, from a dying wife to a troubled husband, at the conclusion of Silent Hill 2. The vulnerability of Horgan’s character comes with the delivery of the lines. Without a better actor, Dan Pinchbeck’s script in Dear Esther struggles to remain engaging on a basic level.

Sometimes the limited appeal of Dear Esther has less to do with the academic language and tone and more to do with how elements of the game fail to play off each other in a compelling way. Jessica Curry’s score, for example, can tug at superficial feelings with a simple piano riff and suggest something deeper with violins, but this effect often clashes, for no apparent reason, with Carrington’s emotional opaqueness. On more than one occasion, I thought Dear Esther was shameful for wasting Curry’s compositions on wannabe humanistic commentary, but on the other hand, at least there was one thing in the game that felt consistently human.

The game design can prevent one from comprehending the messages of the husband. Depending on the path you walk in Dear Esther, you might activate voice-overs in an order that makes some musings indecipherable and thus meaninglessness to the story you are piecing together. This approach seems to suggest that developer The Chinese Room wants the player to go through Dear Esther more than once to get a proper understanding of the story. Replaying Dear Esther is far from an inspiring thought, as the pace of the character’s gait is slow.

Many have compared Dear Esther to Proteus, but the latter first-person game is full of life: you can inexplicably run up a hill, you can put animals in motion, and you experience the tones of the seasons before being lifted into the heavens, a suggestion of spiritual transcendence. Dear Esther merely revels in spiritual incoherence when you happen upon part of a dilapidated ship that looks like a cross or when you spot two books on the ground, one a religious text and the other a science book, with no comment from the protagonist. You will also see random white paintings and phrases, one of which alludes to the conversion of Saul from the Bible: “a light from heaven shone around him and he fell to the ground.” With these details, Dan Pinchbeck panders to the idea of being deep and spiritual, though he would probably not write a game called “Dear God” because, based on Dear Esther and the more recent Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, he is resigned to using the Lord’s name in vain.