Month: May 2017

What Remains of Edith Finch Review — Everyone’s Missing … Again

by Jed Pressgrove

Like Gone Home and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, the premise of What Remains of Edith Finch involves walking in a particular area and learning why no people are around. This time you control Edith Finch, a woman who returns to her childhood home where various relatives were locked away in their rooms as part of an effort to avoid a family curse. While developer Giant Sparrow gives the game some distinction with a wide variety of flashback sequences — each detailing the demise of a different family member — the experience often feels contrived given the familiar setup, repetitive narrative, and shortchanged characterizations.

Whereas Gone Home pretended to be a horror story and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture feigned spiritual significance, What Remains of Edith Finch is upfront about its intention to thrust the player into a series of tragic deaths. Well, perhaps “thrust” isn’t accurate; the game takes its time to get going, thanks to Edith’s slow walk and throat clearing as the narrator. Director/writer Ian Dallas explains Edith’s gait with the revelation that she’s pregnant, but from a writing standpoint, there’s no excuse for a lot of the exposition, as when you examine the Finch family history to learn of a consistent theme of misfortune, only for Edith to chime in afterward with “Whatever’s wrong with this family, it goes back a long ways.” It doesn’t help that voice actress Valerie Rose Loman sounds as if she is somewhere between bored and too matter of fact about such dark origins.

Eventually, though, you are able to activate flashbacks without much delay between them. During each of these scenes, the player controls a soon-to-be-dead family member, from a former child star to a young man who works at a cannery, and walking about is no longer the driving force of the game. For example, in one sequence, you assume the role of a little girl who imagines herself as a cat, owl, shark, and tentacled monster, and you get to play as each thing. Another episode turns the game into an interactive horror comic book, complete with a new narrator with a despicable timbre to his voice.

These vignettes are often visually stunning. While playing as a boy on a tree swing, you reach new dizzying heights, allowing you to see the Finch’s yard from peculiar and mesmerizing angles. As the aforementioned worker at the cannery, you become immersed in an alienating routine of chopping off fish heads while, on the same screen, guiding a legendary ruler through forking seas. But these amazing sights can’t make up for several wasted opportunities to get into the minds and hearts of certain characters. For instance, while you are told the former child star’s life is tough, this character’s emotions are cheapened by the Jazzpunk-esque flashback where she comically uses a crutch to whack at things. Another relative amounts to nothing more than a paranoid twit in a basement.

As such, it’s difficult to grasp why one should care about the Finch family in general. I give credit to What Remains of Edith Finch for attempting to share a life-affirming message during its conclusion, but the sentimental tone is off-putting and unearned given the nonstop parade of death that precedes it. If you can imagine the absurdity of a new entry in the Final Destination film series that asks the audience to keep tissues nearby, that is the bizarre type of empathy at work in this game.

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ATV Renegades Review — Keep It Simple and Stupid

by Jed Pressgrove

Too often games are praised for having a lot of “content,” a word that hatefully reduces ideas and work to the stuffing of a product. ATV Renegades, an update of the Nintendo DS and 3DS game ATV Wild Ride, rejects the trend of cramming everything you can into a game, sporting a workmanlike, bare-bones approach that recalls the great shooter Earth Defense Force 2017. On one hand, ATV Renegades doesn’t come close to the multifaceted brilliance of 2001’s ATV Offroad Fury, which did as much justice to stadium races as it did to outdoor roaming. Yet it’s fun to play a game that modestly and humorously knows its place in 2017, the year of overblown pop epics (The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Horizon Zero Dawn).

Although developer Renegade Kid (now defunct) could be criticized for not including an exploration mode that recognizes the idle-play culture that surrounds four-wheelers, ATV Renegades works fine as three racing modes: Free Race, World Tour, and Time Trial. World Tour is the best, with each tour lining you up against five other ATV riders on four tracks across the globe. To advance to a new tour, you have to accumulate enough points to attain first place at the end of a tour, a la Mario Kart. The tracks cover countries ranging from Russia to England, with scenic features (snow, castles, etc.) making each national spot distinctive and other sights, like a rusty ship and jet streams, bringing general life to the proceedings. With reverse versions of both regular and extended tracks, ATV Renegades does a good job of keeping you off-guard throughout the tours despite only six countries being represented.

One of the keys to winning lies in the relationship between tricks and nitro boosts. All of the tracks will send you flying via ramps at some point, and while in midair, you can perform a short, medium, or long trick to fill up your nitro-boost bar to varying degrees. Learning what type of trick you have time to do is essential, as you only have three laps to complete on most tracks; any devastating crash or well-timed boost can mean the difference between 10 points (first place) and no points (fifth or sixth place). Risks must be taken because if you aren’t doing tricks (each one only takes one press of a button), you will more than likely hear an opponent yell “Whoooo!” as they zip by you during his or her own boost.

You also aren’t going to win if you don’t take turns as close to the corners as possible, but taking this risk means you have to avoid losing momentum by running your four-wheeler up a hill or, worse, ramming into something hard and flipping over. Another challenge is steering your four-wheeler while airborne when you see that the track is turning so that you move with the road after you land, as opposed to crashing into a wall. Even though the steering in ATV Renegades isn’t as tight as it was in ATV Offroad Fury, the more arcade-like style is exciting and funny, especially when you watch computer-controlled riders make seemingly human mistakes, such as failing to steer away from other landing riders and causing nasty collisions (the sound effects are laughably loud and generic).

The different ATVs have their own handling, top speed, and acceleration, but the riders you choose are only diverse on the surface and have no backstories. Their trite monikers — Simon Jeremy, Travis Wylde, Jose Lopez, Lily Sage, etc. — give a comedic slant to the races. It’s unusual such things would motivate one to play more, but after all, who wants to lose to some dolt named Simon Jeremy while listening to crappy punk and nu metal? ATV Renegades’ dubious appeal, along with its sheer simplicity, makes for a purer thrill than counting all the hours one spends with a game that desperately hopes all the crap it throws at audiences will seem profound.

Cosmic Star Heroine Review — Turn, Turn, Turn

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s a reason Cosmic Star Heroine has an uncomplicated, unpretentious, unemotional spy plot: developer Zeboyd Games sees turn-based combat as an artform that can almost single-handedly justify the existence of a game. Sure, Cosmic Star Heroine has an interesting cast (the 11 playable characters include a nature-loving private eye, a robot who hits on both sexes, and a bounty hunter who recalls Final Fantasy VI’s Shadow and the Japanese movie alien Zeiram), as well as some well-designed settings enriched by HyperDuck’s catchy soundtrack (like the night-club location that benefits from this pop smartbomb). But all of these things ultimately amount to gift wrapping as Cosmic Star Heroine zips toward the next series of fights that demand a unique type of forward-thinking play.

On the surface, Cosmic Star Heroine is a Chrono Trigger wannabe, as seen in the way the characters run, the style of the overworld map, and the enemy encounters. The latter element in particular is a necessary rather than nostalgic design choice: unlike a traditional Final Fantasy, which randomly transports you to a stage for battle, Cosmic Star Heroine always allows you to see your foes, and once you get too close to them, you transition immediately into combat mode — your immediate surroundings are the arena. This borrowed concept complements the fast pace of the story, which, in one wittily frantic sequence, has you fend off a bounty hunter right before battling a huge mech that you then pilot to kill a city-threatening monster.

Following the lead of Zeboyd’s previous games (the best of which was Penny Arcade 3), Cosmic Star Heroine streamlines the typical turn-based RPG experience to make it more urgent and less repetitive. There are a limited number of enemies, characters automatically heal after victory, opponents become more powerful with each new set of turns, and so forth. Cosmic Star Heroine takes its predecessors’ groundwork to another meticulous level, however. Most actions, whether a simple physical attack or a healing move, can only be used once before the player is forced to defend and recharge all abilities. In order to win efficiently (which is a concern given enemies’ ever-increasing strength), you not only have to think ahead but also remember the single techniques you’ve depleted.

The need to think of your moves as perishables puts Cosmic Star Heroine on a rare strategic plane given that turn-based RPGs, even with the variable of magic/ability points, tend to encourage players to spam the most effective techniques. Zeboyd’s complication of the formula doesn’t end there. In most cases, you gain “style” as you perform moves. Because style gradually increases the effectiveness of your actions, it could be smart to avoid unleashing certain weapons until later in the battle. Characters also become “hyper” on specific turns, during which you receive a significant multiplier effect. There’s always risk with these bonuses, though, as waiting for extra attack power can be deadly if you’re fighting an enemy who is already extremely strong and will only grow stronger with each new turn.

This system is even more ingenious thanks to the numerous abilities the 11 heroes gain as they level up. In addition to the ever-present defense/recharge option, each character can only “carry” seven unique moves into battle, so your party members can serve very different purposes based on what abilities you assign. And the abilities themselves may come with catches, like a more powerful physical attack that causes you to lose a turn, a buff that goes into effect for only one turn, or a party-replenishing heal that kills the user. Integrating the various strengths of individual allies with consideration to style and “hyper” turns, while also remembering to recharge abilities and eliminate threats before they are too overpowered, shows a brand of orchestration that Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, Zeboyd’s two main influences, don’t come close to touching.