Month: November 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns Review — Not So Lonely

by Jed Pressgrove

Like the 1991 Game Boy game it’s based on, Metroid: Samus Returns emphasizes the bounty-hunter aspect of its protagonist. As in other Metroid games, you have to gain powers to overcome recurring obstacles, but the focus is tracking down Metroids and eliminating them in order to move to a new location on the planet SR388. This modern interpretation of Samus’ hunt is a pretty good action game, packed with power-ups and backgrounds that bring considerable atmosphere to the side-scrolling experience. The catch is you rarely feel lost or threatened on SR388 due to the wealth of powers, a forgiving checkpoint system, fast-travel points, and repetitive Metroid fights.

At first, Metroid: Samus Returns seems emotionally antiseptic. The first level doesn’t have the intriguing backgrounds of later areas, and Samus’ new parry technique boringly recalls numerous recent hack-and-slashers. Soon, however, the game gets rolling, especially when the Metroid indicator on the bottom screen of the 3DS starts beeping and blinking, taunting you to find the nearby alien and take care of business.

You’ll also get acquainted with an irritating slew of enemies, several of which can’t be killed quickly until you get very souped up. Suitably, the most fascinating of the bunch are the Metroids themselves. For a decent part of the game, these creatures reward your searching, with subtle changes to their abilities that can catch you off guard. The most enlivening version of the titular foe is the kind that, after taking a particular amount of damage, burrows into another hall, forcing you to find it again. Not only does this form of the enemy effectively delay gratification, it reinforces the feeling that Samus’ calling is to hunt destroyers.

After observing certain patterns again and again, though, the annihilation of the Metroids becomes a reliable outcome, particularly in a dull sequence where you can dispatch nine in a row, one by one, by freezing and shooting one super missile at each. Sure, this scene leads into a more substantial threat, but it’s a far cry from the tension of the final stretch in Metroid Prime, where the Metroids served as a mighty frustration as you attempted to jump to higher and higher platforms.

Really, the game hits its high point at the end of the sixth level, when your wits and reflexes are put to the ultimate test against the ever-changing tactics and weak points of the Diggernaut. That battle should go down as an all-time classic. Afterward, the game never quite recovers, as evidenced by the last segment when the script, following the 1991 original’s lead, gets preposterously sentimental with a baby Metroid joining Samus and helping her defeat the final boss. That last adversary is tedious not because of difficulty but because of shoehorned cutscenes and the low accuracy required to emerge the winner. And with that victory, Samus flies away with her adopted Metroid, a corny picture of motherhood that doesn’t feel earned.

Doki Doki Literature Club! Review — Male-Pattern Horror

by Jed Pressgrove

Developer Dan Salvato wants to upend lighthearted cliches with Doki Doki Literature Club!, a visual novel in which you play as a boy who joins a high school lit club comprised of four girls. If you’re familiar with anime or manga, the character types, such as an overtly shy girl, will be instantly recognizable, but it doesn’t take much knowledge of Japanese cartoons to see through Salvato’s basic gimmick: get the player to grind through loads and loads of cutesy dialogue so that when things like suicide and profanity come into the picture, the player will be shocked.

Salvato’s failure as a writer is two-fold. First, he insists on rejecting anime/manga cliches with other cliches, the biggest of which is the idea that girls — or does Salvato think or say “females” in that male taxidermist way? — are crazy, dangerous bitches who can’t control their attraction to boys (for more sexist perspective, play Sam Barlow’s overrated Her Story). Regardless of whether you give the protagonist a male or female name, you see the events of the game unfold as a boy observing the insanity of the opposite sex. But Salvato doesn’t treat this standpoint as an aspect of immaturity or growing up. Instead, he presents his narrative as an adult story, with unexpected darkness designed to make hipster gamers go “Whoa,” and I’m being kind with the use of “unexpected”: the game literally tells you it’s disturbing before you even start playing, thus defeating its whole (admittedly shallow) purpose.

The second limitation of Salvato’s approach is a trendy reliance on meta nonsense, such as rewinds, save-file shenanigans, glitchy visuals, and more. Doki Doki Literature Club! features such things to amplify the uneasiness of the player, but indie trash like Pony Island and Undertale regularly utilizes the same or similar devices. Doki Doki Literature Club!’s fashionable trickery is especially unimpressive in light of Yoko Taro’s 2017 masterpiece Nier: Automata, which uses game-isms like new game plus and “buggy” static to illuminate the horror of two factions on the brink of genocide.

Video-game discourse often misses the fact that independent developers, despite being removed from a mass market that specializes in objectionable content, are just as capable as any of propagating longstanding prejudice. With Doki Doki Literature Club!, it might be tempting for some to dismiss this concern as heavy-handed; they might say Salvato is doing all of this in the name of horror. If that really is the case, I wonder how anyone could be scared of familiar, self-commenting filth.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy Review — Thief’s Real End

by Jed Pressgrove

For the first few hours of Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, it seemed the amoral Uncharted franchise turned to spiritual inquiry, aligning itself with the most profound aspect of the original Indiana Jones movie trilogy. By game’s end, the script rejected its own promise; protagonist Nathan Drake’s deception and immaturity were, again, sentimentalized. Uncharted: The Lost Legacy does the opposite with Chloe Frazer’s character, though from a more secular angle. For half of the game or so, the proceedings seem to be Uncharted by the numbers, with Chloe following the lead of Nathan as a “selfish dickhead,” to quote Chloe’s reluctant partner Nadine Ross. But before and after the climactic train-based action sequence, Chloe gives up her thieving instincts and injects moral conscience into the story, proving that you need goodness, not just a gender switch, to save a lost series.

There is a hint of Chloe’s better humanity in her first scene in The Lost Legacy. Before enacting the initial steps of a profit scheme to locate and steal the storied tusk of the Hindu deity Ganesh, Chloe interacts with a little girl running a store in a marketplace in India. Not content with a single transaction, the child keeps thinking of ways to extend time with Chloe. Chloe humors the kid as much as she can, and eventually the girl’s stubborn desire to befriend Chloe leads her into potential danger. No harm comes to the girl, but Chloe, forgetting her egotistical mission, is visibly concerned about what could have happened.

From there, Chloe teams up with ex-mercenary Nadine, who has no interest in doing business with two-faced people. Nadine’s frustration with Chloe’s half-truths comes to a head when Nadine learns Chloe’s been working with Nathan Drake’s brother Sam the entire time. After a period of separation, the common threat of death at the hands of an insurgent group led by Asad, who wishes to find and trade the invaluable tusk of Ganesh for a bomb, brings Chloe and Nadine back together. Riding a young elephant the duo saved, Nadine drops the “selfish dickhead” label on Chloe, who, in accepting Nadine’s usage of the male-evoking insult, starts to realize her lying ways hurt any chance of sisterhood she has.

The two, along with Sam (who, in his quips, is almost endearingly true to the douchebag legacy of the Drakes), manage to attain the tusk — but not before Asad has already traded the relic for an explosive that he intends to detonate in the middle of a city to ramp up the revolution he believes is just. Chloe feels an urge to do something when she learns about Asad’s plan, while Nadine and Sam both point out that the political conflict isn’t hers, that she accomplished her mission and can now benefit from the sale of the tusk. It’s a dilemma with the weight of a pop franchise behind it, as Nadine and Sam represent the questionable but alluring status quo of the entire Uncharted series.

But Chloe doesn’t ignore her new moral compass, saying “This isn’t our fight; it’s my fight.” What follows is something you might see in any Uncharted game — an extended scene of vehicle chases, gunfire, explosions, and other near-death experiences — but, finally, with humane conviction behind it. In this climax, The Lost Legacy becomes the game Uncharted should have been from the beginning, notwithstanding a reliance on tired action tropes.

The coda that interrupts the end credits confirms Chloe’s legacy isn’t shallow. As Chloe, Nadine, and the Indian girl from the beginning of the game eat pizza to M.I.A.’s “Borders,” Sam tries to appeal to Chloe’s former greed, explaining that a plan to give the tusk to a ministry of culture isn’t necessary. The child puts Sam in his place: “Don’t ruin the moment.” As her appearances in previous Uncharted games demonstrate, Chloe’s surface strength lies in both her ability to match the ambition of men and her sexiness (the sweaty strands of hair that stick to her neck and face through most of The Lost Legacy more than prove the latter). But more significantly, this latest (last?) sequel proclaims she can be a good person and influence, and for that to show up in the fifth entry of a modern big-budget action game is, well, damn-near miraculous.

The Offense of Criticism to a Shill

by Jed Pressgrove

Last week, critic Yussef Cole offered a historical analysis of the animation style that StudioMDHR mimicked in its hit shooter Cuphead. Although Cole wasn’t the first to point out that the game’s early 20th-century aesthetic is associated with racial caricatures, his essay had an unforeseen level of detail, fairness, and insight. Every sentence of the article is measured. As a writer, it’s hard not to notice the craft in his criticism.

Enter Brandon Orselli, who responded to Cole’s piece with “Stop Trying to Be Offended at Every Video Game.” Taken at face value, Orselli’s title is a silly exaggeration. Cuphead doesn’t represent “every video game.” More importantly, Cole doesn’t appeal to emotion in his essay. He only mentions that as a black man aware of animation history, he doesn’t have the “luxury” of viewing Cuphead from an ahistorical lens. Even Cole’s title, “Cuphead and the Racist Spectre of Fleisher Animation,” is restrained; the use of “spectre” doesn’t suggest a visceral reaction but rather a careful observation, as ghosts are hard to see.

But I’ll throw Orselli a bone, albeit a small one. The title “Stop Trying to Be Offended at Every Video Game” could be clever hyperbole if I had been born yesterday, the very day his article was published. Orselli might also say his article wasn’t a direct response to Cole. I would reject that as a lie. Although he also references a Kotaku article, that Ethan Gach piece is a simple and brief regurgitation of Cole’s argument that is meant to generate traffic, not add to the argument. Furthermore, Orselli is definitely lying when he says Cuphead “has been the subject of multiple attempts at baseless attacks via the collective mainstream gaming journalism world.” For one thing, if you look at mainstream reviews of Cuphead, you will not see much discussion in the line of Cole’s criticism. What’s more, Orselli knows he’s trying to deceive people with that sentence about the mainstream. After all, in the next paragraph, he implies Cole is one of many “no-name bloggers.”

This is the truth: the offended party here is Orselli because he is a shill. He labels his article an editorial, yet his final two paragraphs — precious real estate for an editorialist to drive home a point — are only used to market Cuphead and its creators. “I can’t wait to see what they put out next,” he says of StudioMDHR. “[T]he game sold over 1 million copies,” he says of Cuphead, as if sales indicate quality and/or represent an argument against critical perspective. (Does Orselli also champion how many burgers McDonald’s sells?)

Orselli is free to counter any criticism of a game, just as we all are. Dishonest responses like “Stop Trying to Be Offended at Every Video Game” are worthless, though. As a critic, like Cole, I have also been accused of simply being “offended” by a game, no matter how articulate my criticism is. But it’s not a coincidence that these accusations often come from people like Orselli; people who like the criticized game in question; people who care about sales figures as if their bills won’t be paid unless a game that they like sells well.

Shills don’t understand that although offense can inspire criticism, not all criticism, as written, drips with offense. If shills want to know what offense looks like, they might go into their bathrooms, where their superficial complaints can be flushed, and stare into a mirror.

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus Review — The Guilty White Resistance

by Jed Pressgrove

The vision of resistance to world-ruling Nazism in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus is as stupid and disingenuous as neo-Nazis who use terms like “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” Like its 2014 predecessor Wolfenstein: The New Order, the game attempts to make you think you’re experiencing more than mind-numbing ultraviolence. Take one of the first cutscenes that delves into the past of protagonist William Blazkowicz (who, despite being half Jewish, wears the stereotypical white hero profile like a glove): young Blazkowicz and his mother suffer the racist wrath of Blazkowicz’s father after it comes out that the boy likes a black girl. The scene moves on to a manipulative and preposterous sequence where the father tries to force the boy to shoot the pet dog, as if the writers weren’t sure if the preceding physical abuse and racial slurs would communicate that daddy’s a giant asshole. This kind of extreme drama is what Wolfenstein II passes off as human-centered storytelling, yet as you survive suicide mission after suicide mission as the Terminator-like Blazkowicz, you realize he’s as inhuman as the Nazis, just in a different way.

If you really want to know the true maturity (or lack thereof) of Swedish developer MachineGames, look no further than Wolfenstein II’s pregame menu that asks players to choose a difficulty level. As you scroll from setting to setting, a picture of Blazkowicz changes to convey what you’d be getting yourself into. Put the cursor on the lowest difficulty (insultingly titled “Can I play, Daddy?”), and Blazkowicz becomes decked out with a bonnet and pacifier. This image is not just a cheap joke but rather points to one of MachineGames’ biggest influences: preening and gore-filled 1990s action games (including, of course, Wolfenstein 3D) that desired to flip the birdie to parents and politicians.

But, even with the game’s over-the-top bloodiness, the outdated adolescent politics of Wolfenstein II can be hard to dismiss or identify because of a veneer of sophistication. In one scene, Blazkowicz calls the Nazis “monsters,” and resistance leader Grace Walker corrects him with “Not monsters. Men.” It’s a profound line that’s never realized, as the game constantly portrays Nazis as monstrous fodder. Irene Engel, the main villain, wastes perfect opportunities to eliminate Blazkowicz for good as she parades around like a hateful cartoon. Adolf Hitler shows up in the second half of the game, pissing and vomiting, and can even be killed; it’s a lazy Quentin Tarantino-inspired appearance that lacks the irony of Charlie Chaplin’s brave satirization of Hitler in 1940’s The Great Dictator and the humanism of Bruno Ganz’s disturbingly real performance as Hitler in 2004’s Downfall. The only Nazi that reflects Walker’s insight is Engel’s daughter Sigrun, but then again, Sigrun quickly betrays her mother after being introduced in the story, indicating that she’s not meant to reflect the depths of the elusive Nazi soul.

The superficiality and gall of a Tarantino-like mind shows up several times in Wolfenstein II, muddying the game’s potential as a commentary on race and politics. During one part before Blazkowicz goes on a routine Nazi-killing spree, the hero shouts, “White-ass fascist Nazi pigs!” The “white-ass” descriptor is laughably out of place given Blazkowicz’s identity, but the contrivance echoes Tarantino’s deceptive white guilt, a wish to be recognized as an honorary person of color.

In another segment, two KKK members, white hoods and all, can be seen walking on a sidewalk in Nazi-occupied America. Although the real-world Nazis did admire racial hegemony in the United States, the KKK robes function as cheap shock value in Wolfenstein II’s alternate-history universe. Not only would there be no reason for the anonymity of such attire in a Nazi-ruled place, but Nazis would likely prefer their own imagery to be displayed among the populace, regardless of whether they’re white supremacists. The KKK members go on to have a conversation with a Nazi, who keeps correcting their horrible attempts to say German phrases. In Tarantino fashion, Wolfenstein II makes easy comedy out of subjects that evoke great pain to this day.

The most juvenile ode to Tarantino, however, is saved for one of Wolfenstein II’s last scenes, where Anya, Blazkowicz’s pregnant partner, strips off her upper garb and guns down Nazis, afterward turning to her man with her swollen torso soaked in blood. In this attempt to champion the equality of women, the game further confirms a lack of relatable vulnerability among its main characters, from Fergus’ Dr. Strangelove-knockoff mechanical arm to the piss-poor hit detection as you fight as Blazkowicz (many times you will be unexpectedly killed because the game does such an amateurish job of telling you when you’re taking damage; talk about fake difficulty).

What’s more shameful is that this game wastes genuine human moments, as when Blazkowicz has flashbacks to when he spent time with Billie, the black girl his dad hated. When the two children first meet, they articulate why they should keep their distance based on the discriminatory views of their parents. After they accept that they want to be around each other, they happen upon a drowning rat, and while Blazkowicz laughs and says the predicament serves the rat right, Billie is horrified. At the last second, Blazkowicz saves the rat, that which he doesn’t think deserves life. In a later sequence, mercy reappears when the adult Blazkowicz approaches an unaware Nazi. Because there’s no mission-related reason to kill the Nazi, Blazkowicz tells the man to run off.

Wolfenstein II could have been great if such complicated scenarios were its driving force, but these sensitive pieces ultimately seem accidental. The first-person shooter’s typical thrill of the kill reigns supreme, regardless of how much Blazkowicz’s body is annihilated. In the game’s closing credits, an anachronistic death-metal cover of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take it” plays, and some members of the press have suggested it’s a horrible final note to a good game. That’s not the truth, though. A game as violent and trendy as Wolfenstein II deserves such a ditty.

Pyre Review — Revolution by Sport

by Jed Pressgrove

I can’t recall a sports video game that captures the feelings that develop before and after a team-based contest like Pyre does. Although the rules and intricacies of Pyre’s fictional sport are fascinating, developer Supergiant Games’ greatest accomplishment lies in how it subverts role-playing game conventions to up the emotional ante and affect roster options, as when two party members, due to bad blood, refuse to compete at the same time. By the conclusion of this game, you take away a deeply personal win-loss record that can have world-altering effects on Pyre’s fantasy setting, including one possibility that speaks to a compelling type of political resistance.

As the mysterious Reader (think head coach), you lead a group of exiles on a mission to win Rites, three-on-three competitions where the object is to throw an orb into the opposing team’s fiery goal until the fire is extinguished. Every so often, a team member has an opportunity to return home to the Commonwealth, a place of prosperity, by winning what the game calls a Liberation Rite. Once a character is freed from exile, he or she is effectively retired and can no longer play on your team.

The catch is that only characters who have been leveled up a particular amount can be eligible for liberation. This rule means that if you stick to a favorite trio to increase your odds of winning Rites, you will have to do without a preferred athlete permanently if you are the victor of a Liberation Rite — an ingenious punishment for following the old RPG standard of leveling up with abandon. This set-up creates questions about how your strategy must change after you lose an essential piece of your team (a parallel might be losing, say, Kevin Durant to season-ending injury). Pyre forces you to learn how to use characters who seem less appropriate for your system. As such, the game works as a believable simulation of maximizing talent as a coach, with all the pride and frustration that comes with the job between significant matches.

At the same time, you are not required to win matches in Pyre. Here, the game deviates again from the norm: in most RPGs, losing a battle means you can’t progress. But Pyre continues even when you lose, which can set up a variety of emotionally charged situations. Before one Liberation Rite, one of your team members may plead with you to allow the opposition to win, as her sister plays for the other team and has an opportunity to be forgiven of her past misdeeds. In another case, if you win and choose to liberate a character before he has an opportunity to fulfill a promise to friends, you will be told about his guilt, so losing in that case might seem more fulfilling. Or what if you win every Rite with the exception of contests against a specific team? You then become acquainted with a nagging status that the New England Patriots must bear: a dynasty that nonetheless can’t defeat its archenemy (in the Patriots’ case, the New York Giants). With a storytelling fervor inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, Supergiant Games homes in on the friendships, rivalries, and other connections that make sports a lesson in theater and psychology.

Prye’s emphasis on motivation and ego shines the brightest with a character named Volfred Sandalwood. At first, Volfred seems like nothing more than an intelligent control freak, as he goes on and on about you and your team fitting into a plan to overthrow the powers that be in the Commonwealth, so that no other person will have to suffer the injustice of being exiled. But as your journey develops, Volfred develops humility under your authority. By game’s end, you can choose to set Volfred free, and if you do, the Commonwealth undergoes a nonviolent intellectual revolution. This fantasy scenario stands opposed to the adolescent hero-ball resistance presented in Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, showcasing how rules-based competition can change society via individuals who inspire unity by speaking truth to power.