Month: October 2017

Golf Story Review — A Conflicted Birdie

by Jed Pressgrove

When Golf Story focuses on golf, it’s one of the best games of the year — and not because of reverence for the sport it depicts. While Sidebar Games does pay tribute to the fun and reward of, say, chipping in a shot from a bunker of sand, the developer has also crafted a whacked-out vision, complete with balls strategically bouncing off turtle shells peaking out of the water and the freedom to tee up wherever you want and aim at whatever (or whomever) you want. This creative design renders a sport that most people find boring an electric concept full of possibilities. But when you must, for example, literally run around in a circle just to advance the story, Golf Story forgets why anyone would want to play it.

You assume the role of a young man trying to become a professional golfer. He wants lessons, but the coach he needs doesn’t seem interested in teaching him (partly because of the young man’s weird swinging motion), so the protagonist must prove himself worthy of the sport. This goal sets the stage for an unusual role-playing game experience, where relevant quests might have you driving a ball farther than an opponent or attempting to make the ball land on a small, circled-off spot on an island despite incredible wind. And as you complete these challenges, the denizens of Golf Story’s world begin to accept that, yes, you deserve a chance to compete with the best.

The catch is that many quests must be completed to open up the game’s world. If such requirements involve golf, they serve as necessary practice. You must learn different adjustments that can help you make good shots on the game’s eight major courses, which have different environmental threats, from the normal (areas with thicker grass) to the bizarre (moles that will pick up your ball and move it).

But when Golf Story requires you to engage in non-golfing activities, the game can become mundane and aimless. Some characters will demand you to fetch items within a time limit, which amounts to running toward red circles along a predictable path. Then there’s tripe like the Pac-Man-style mission where you collect balls in a maze while avoiding enemies with all-too-obvious walking paths. The dullest task comes when you must mine minerals by pressing a button, at least a dozen times or so, right as a cursor touches the same segment of a pop-up bar.

These distractions thankfully don’t change the fact that Golf Story, like no other video game, simultaneously draws attention to the beauty and absurdity of golf. The game’s strong sense of place — like Earthbound, the game utilizes almost every inch of its relatively small map — peaks at a setting called Tidy Park, a course that resists modern flash and style. The peacefulness of this location is infectious, with bird song and serene bagpipes, old men taking their time with every swing, and a more naturalistic type of landscaping.

Tidy Park also signals the point when Golf Story’s hints at golf’s exclusionary nature blossom into satire. As gorgeous as Tidy Park is, you can’t help but feel the uphill climb a lower-class outsider must perform for acceptance, particularly when your coach flatly states, “You’re on your own.” You then must befriend a lot of pretentious, stubbornly old-school fools while distancing yourself from where you came from.

Golf Story’s final location, the pro-tour course, adds insult to this social progression. Trash talk, envy, and competitiveness can color any sport, but Sidecar Games puts golf in a particularly unflattering light when all sorts of people, from players to media, accuse you of cheating your way to the top, despite all your hard work and the stupid hoops you had to jump through to “turn pro.” It’s a ridiculous status-based accusation that makes the final victory all the sweeter. The conclusion, like a great deal of the game, is accompanied by energetic and hopeful music, but it’s clear this optimism is a fantasy, and that’s why Golf Story resonates like few other sports games.

Advertisements

Nier: Automata Review — Near Genocide

by Jed Pressgrove

Nier: Automata concerns a war between androids and robots. Because these battling groups have human characteristics, much has been and will continue to be said about director Yoko Taro’s story as a statement on existence. But the game’s most fascinating, effective, and relevant theme involves something that Taro suggests will survive beyond humanity: discrimination.

You start Nier: Automata as an android named 2B. She is part of a military group charged with taking back Earth, which has been overrun by robots that drove humankind to the moon. Your companion is 9S, who supplements 2B’s great combat skills with hacking. As you guide 2B through the first few missions, it is clear these androids don’t just believe in duty; they hate machines, as indicated by derisive comments.

Eventually, 2B and 9S witness, in a scene both disturbing and fantastic, a horde of machines giving birth to two very human-like characters. After almost killing one of these unusual progeny, 2B and 9S have no idea what has transpired. 9S, unable to focus on his duty, asks 2B why machines would try to look like humans—a delicious irony, given that androids are essentially human-looking beings. But with one of the game’s most politically powerful lines, 2B shuts down the conversation, stating there is no point in considering “unsolvable problems.” Here, Taro illustrates what makes real-world bigotry tick: a cold denial of even exploring the possibility of common ground.

From there, 2B’s discrimination is challenged by a variety of facts, such as a village of peaceful and kind robots, a faction of subjugated robots within a violent machine cult, and, most emotional, her partner 9S being forced to transfer his data, his consciousness, into a robot. After 9S speaks to 2B as a hulking bot, they touch each other with relief, the awkwardness of 9S’s now-huge hand notwithstanding.

At this point, Nier: Automata seems to end, suggesting that 2B and 9S have implicitly realized that they are not that different from those they have been called to destroy. But the game invites you to play again, and you assume the role of a small robot who wishes to restore life to one of his “brothers.” As you try to finish this quest, the focus shifts to the perspective of 9S, who watches and mocks the robot’s sensitivity from afar. In this incredible scene (which carries more power as an intro to a “second game” than it would have as a flashback), Taro has you identify with a machine’s feelings before placing you in the shoes of a familiar, hateful bigot. The hope of the game’s first ending, where 9S looks like his supposed enemy and yet retains his feelings, is unexpectedly dashed.

Playing as 9S, you get to feel the coldness that makes discrimination work overtime. When 2B dies later in the game, 9S becomes even more disgusted with robots, as he partly blames them for 2B’s demise (despite the fact that the android military group made a strategic error in trying to end the war quickly). Because the player by this point has seen, objectively, the similar humanity—the hope, the fear, the drive, the confusion—within the androids and robots, destroying machines as 9S depicts an original vision of genocide, where visually exquisite explosions of nuts, bolts, and parts scream injustice.

9S’s childish fits of anger also show how Nier: Automata functions as revealing camp, especially after 9S learns two things: (1) humanity, what he supposedly fights for, is actually extinct and (2) his kind comes from the cores that power machines. This first revelation might disturb players, as we are human, but that 9S and his victims aren’t biologically human allows us to see how a cycle of ignorance can live without us. The second revelation reinforces how individuals, for generations, may harden their hearts to carry on a legacy of exclusion. 9S, in his stupid rage, cannot accept the implications of these data, so he becomes a comical yet all-too-real portrait of a bigot.

The real kicker is how Taro bravely puts 9S in a sympathetic light. Between the scenes of 9S annihilating robots, he must face personal horrors. In one scene, he is forced to fight against multiple copies of 2B, the android—the woman—we know he loves. One might wince at 9S’s hatred, but anyone can understand the trauma that emblazoned his existing favoritism for those like him. For that reason, Nier: Automata is a cautionary tale that no one of any political persuasion in 2017 can run from once they experience and recognize it.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider Review — Bankable Juvenility

by Jed Pressgrove

With Death of the Outsider, the Dishonored series finally gives up its charade about morality. In the first two games, players could either kill or not kill on their stealthy journeys, but killing would bring about more inconveniences, such as an increase of deadly bloodflies, in addition to impacting the (emotionally vapid) story. Killing an enemy in Death of the Outsider, however, can be consequence-free if you avoid detection. Developer Arkane Studios even tosses in self-recharging superpowers so audiences can more comfortably lap up Dishonored’s newfound juvenile honesty.

But Death of the Outsider still has story elements to choke down or ignore, including poorly illustrated comic-book scenes, incessant collectible notes, and voice acting that sounds like a rushed second reading of a script. Between missions you still have to walk about a lair and get into a carriage before any action can start. Even worse, protagonist Billie Lurk is both dull and laughable with lines like “You want to kill a god?” and “I’m ready to rob the bank.” It’s as if the writers don’t realize that video games have pushed godless and wannabe-badass junk for decades.

Although using the superpowers, like the out-of-body experience that allows you to scope out areas that you want to infiltrate, and setting foe-snatching hook mines can be entertaining, Death of the Outsider is largely a seen-it-all-before affair. Clunky and unimaginative melee combat keeps it from being a good action game, while the stealth comes with all the usual baggage, whether it’s the dumb one-liners of enemies, the disposal of limp bodies, or the pop-up meters that let you know whether you’re about to get caught. Death of the Outsider isn’t drearily moral like its predecessors, but it’s just as emotionless, sticking to commercial formula with the faith of a child.