Month: January 2018

Celeste Review — The Whiniest Platformer

by Jed Pressgrove

With heavy references to depression and anxiety, Celeste seeks to depict a psychological struggle that many teenagers and adults can identify with. So it’s particularly egregious that developer Matt Thorson decides to infantilize his audience within the first few minutes of the game. As characters talk to each other in the intro, you hear this childish and grating gibberish as a stand-in for actual voice acting, similar to the dialogue in the throwback 3D platformer Yooka-Laylee (another “difficult” game that nonetheless seems like it was made for toddlers). Thorson’s appeal to an unassuming kiddish perspective doesn’t end there: the pixel-art character models speak to blind nostalgia for childhoods spent with 1980s game consoles, as the sprites are ugly (and they only get uglier when the camera zooms in on them for cheesy dramatic effect). This presentation sets the stage for yet another extreme trial-and-error platformer, where it’s not unusual for players to die hundreds of times over the course of one or two levels. As a familiar gauntlet of player error, Celeste hardly resembles a fresh, mature take on tortured life.

In Celeste, you play as a young woman named Madeline who wishes to climb the intimidating Celeste Mountain. It soon becomes apparent that Madeline suffers from some type of mental illness, so her journey up the mountain involves her internal demons as much as it does external obstacles. At first, you only have to worry about jumping, climbing, and dashing around hazards like spikes, but soon a “bad” part of Madeline manifests as a ghost-like copy of herself, and if this apparition touches you, you die.

This mental-health dynamic amounts to a patronizing theme. While IGN’s Tom Marks insists that the game features “important conversations that games don’t often have,” Celeste is one of many recent games that involve depression and/or anxiety (Elude, Depression Quest, Actual Sunlight, The Cat Lady, to name a few). Viewed from a lens that acknowledges this clear trend, Celeste seems like an effort to be fashionably relevant given its lack of insightful handling of the subject matter.

This trendiness comes through in a conversation between Madeline and her friend Theo, an insufferable hipster who won’t shut up about taking selfies (like millennial caricatures, the duo is more interested in themselves than they are in the grandeur of nature). When Madeline has a panic attack at one point, Theo tells her to close her eyes and concentrate on a feather. The player then sees a feather and must manipulate it so that it fits into a box for a period of time. If the player succeeds with this task, Madeline’s panic attack stops. This seconds-long mechanical expression, however, doesn’t capture any recognizable complication of overcoming anxiety, and feathers show up again in the platforming sections of the game as a way to make Madeline fly, trivializing the idea of hard-fought recovery as a generic power-up.

Similarly, the aforementioned “bad” version of Madeline can be written off mechanically as an evil shadow obstacle, reminiscent of Cosmic Mario in Super Mario 3D Land. Other games have attempted and executed far more original and evocative concepts. Though only a text-based game, Depression Quest communicates the effects of depression through dialogue options that won’t work (when selected by the player) due to the protagonist’s state of mind. Even more illustrative is the case of Elude, a platformer that taps into the sinking-down feeling of depression through how the protagonist controls. Celeste, with its tedious emphasis on death and perfunctory item collection, lacks the focus of such efforts.

I could excuse Celeste’s failures and embrace it as a serviceable series of challenges if it weren’t for the whiny tone of its narrative, which can’t be skipped. In later parts of the game, Madeline speaks in an altered form of infantile gibberish when she gets very upset. She sounds like a tiny crying mouse in these segments, underlining Thorson’s pandering to exaggerated millennial fear. In trying to pass off this self-pitying nonsense as cute and edifying, Celeste is an insult.

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Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders Review — A Breakout Success

by Jed Pressgrove

Retro fans may not want to read this: Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders, a phone game, is better than both of the popular arcade staples it’s based on. With numerous characters to play as, varying objectives, a time limit for every level, and continually evolving threats, this amalgam functions as a hyperactive puzzler, where reflexes and accuracy must drive strategic solutions. The varied challenges and the unrelenting pace of the action (just skip the story) make even the most exciting versions of these classics, including 2008’s Space Invaders Extreme, seem cautious and unimaginative.

Developer Taito borrows more from Arkanoid for the premise: at the bottom of the screen, you control a paddle-shaped ship that can reflect bullets from enemies. With a slide of your finger, you can move the ship anywhere on roughly the bottom third of the screen — a departure from Arkanoid’s single-plane, left-right restriction. This new level of spatial freedom, combined with the ease of the finger-slide controls, gives Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders a distinctive frenetic feel.

Indeed, part of the challenge is not letting the effortless movement of the ship distract you from the importance of careful positioning. To beat a level in Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders, you must accomplish a specific objective, such as destroying all invaders or destroying all blocks, within a set time (typically 30-60 seconds) by reflecting alien fire toward the middle and upper part of the screen. Depending on where a bullet hits your ship, the trajectory of the reflected shot will be altered. Thus, if you have one invader to destroy and only two seconds to do so, your last-ditch bullet reflection will need perfect accuracy, whether that translates to a straight-ahead shot or an angled shot that ricochets off the left or right wall in such a way to hit the final target.

The proceedings are loaded down with a variety of interesting variables. As you reflect bullets, a bar fills up. Once the bar is full, your paddle is temporarily replaced with a giant bow and arrow. After you fire the arrow at a chosen angle, it becomes a super shot that will bounce off multiple blocks/enemies until the aforementioned bar depletes, but you must reflect the shot with your ship if it travels to the bottom of the screen. The super shot is essential to success, as it freezes the time limit for the level, and certain levels seem impossible to complete without this advantage.

The other variables allow you to play the game with a specific style. After you complete a world (which consists of 15 levels), you can unlock new characters with points that you accrue. Each character has a special type of skill that can be used when your ship touches an “S” icon. For example, certain heroes can slow down time (including the level’s time limit), while others can temporarily shoot missiles. Sometimes the key to advancing in Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders is knowing how to exploit these different advantages.

This system also encourages experimentation after failure. When you don’t beat a level, the game sends you right back to the screen where you can switch protagonists. Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders has well more than 100 levels, and the challenges become trickier puzzles as you enter new worlds. In one later level, the mission is to destroy two main switches, but they are located at the top of the screen with a lot of blocks between your ship and them. The issue is that some of the blocks encasing the objectives are indestructible unless you hit two secondary switches, which can’t be reached with bullets until certain blocks move on their own to open up enough space for an angled shot. The final kicker is you need bullets to break through the blocks, but enemies are limited, meaning that a poorly aimed reflection can lead to a dead invader and fewer bullets to beat the timer.

This brand of devious level design threatens to catch you off-guard several times throughout the game. Given the various obstacles that might be at play in a given level, choosing the right character to execute a plan can be a daunting but very rewarding hurdle to clear. And because no level lasts long thanks to the time limit, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders operates under a fun type of pressure — one that can demand sharp precision without weighing down the player with a monotonous time commitment. That’s the arcade way, and in this modern age of unending content, Arkanoid vs. Space Invaders is a great representative of articulately designed, bullshit-free action.

Gorogoa Review — Picture-Book Blues

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s a magic to playing Gorogoa at first. The game opens with no instructions, and there is a square in the middle of the screen where you can manage up to four pictures. By decoupling images, experimenting with picture placement, zooming in on details, and more, you solve puzzles and trigger new animations that advance a story. Developer Jason Roberts’ striking art is complemented by hypnotic audio effects, like crickets chirping and sounds of the beach, and music that quietly arouses wonder.

Yet a question never left my mind as I got deeper into Gorogoa: why should I care?

Gorogoa has the charm of a storybook that doesn’t know how to tell a story. In the animations, there is a boy who walks around with a bowl, but I have no idea why he’s interesting or important, and his lack of emotion leaves one cold. There are mystical symbols and imagery, but I have no idea why they’re significant. At the beginning of the game, there is a creature that inspires the boy to go on his quest for meaning, but I completely forgot about the creature after a few puzzles into the game. Thus I never cared about the very thing that started the journey in the first place. At best, Roberts evokes feelings of exhaustion and perseverance in depictions of the boy as an adult, who remains deep in thought about the mystery driving his life.

Although the puzzles in Gorogoa lead to all kinds of beautiful things in motion, from the rolling wheel of a cart to a moth attracted to a light, the game, like the boy, is prisoner to a sort of repetition. Unlike the case in more dynamic puzzlers like Scribblenauts, the Professor Layton series, and The Talos Principle, you always work on one solution at a time in Gorogoa, and when the answer isn’t obvious, you may have to resort to rearranging the pictures and zooming in on their details to a monotonous extent — all just to move a vague and dispassionate story forward.

Even the cleverest aspects of Gorogoa get stale. For example, watching a scene expand after you merge the imagery of two ostensibly disparate pictures is intoxicating, but this type of step in solving a puzzle becomes an expected mechanic rather than an amusing revelation well before the conclusion of the game. Too much of Gorogoa’s strength lies in illusions coming to life, so when the affair starts to feel like clockwork, the magic is gone.

Observer Review — Son of a Glitch

by Jed Pressgrove

Despite having one of the dumbest-sounding monikers among developers, Bloober Team delivered a visually dynamic punch with Layers of Fear. In that 2016 game, you explore an ever-transforming family home, which represents the mental and emotional instability of the husband/father protagonist. Observer, Bloober Team’s latest effort, features similar tricks — corridors that morph when you turn around, doors and cabinets that open by themselves, and so on — as you traverse people’s minds as a detective of the future. But while the setting of Layers of Fear effectively puts one in the shoes of a frustrated male artist, good luck feeling like an investigator of a fresh case in Observer, as much of the imagery you scan is hackneyed and contrived.

In Observer, you play as Daniel Lazarski, a cyborg policeman who searches brains, not just crime scenes, for clues. After receiving a distressed phone call from his son, Lazarski finds a decapitated body in his son’s apartment and sets out to explain this murder and locate his missing offspring. From here you question a variety of tenants, many of whom are on drugs. Here and there, you must pop a pill yourself to correct Lazarski’s vision, which starts glitching after a certain amount of investigation. Drug dependence, a common neo-noir topic, paints the hero as a vulnerable figure in a decadent society.

As in Metroid Prime, technology allows you to to view your surroundings via different lenses to detect important details, but Observer wants the trips you take inside of people’s heads to carry the most weight. In this respect, it’s understandable that Bloober Team presents the mind as a messy place where memories and insecurities translate as strange and shifting sights to Lazarski. Observer is at its best when Lazarski’s own history influences what he sees and hears in another person’s brain — when the human condition conflicts with the goal of objective observation.

The problem is these psychological dives often come across as assembly-line horror. With many scenes that recall the hallways in Layers of Fear, Observer gives off the vibe of a cookie-cutter sequel rather than that of a distinct story. The worst decision by Bloober Team is the inclusion of stealth segments that bring to mind a number of survival-horror titles, such as Outlast 2. These sequences suggest journeying into a mind is the stuff of cliched trial-and-error game design, not to mention that they seem irrelevant to the story Observer wants to tell.

Game-breaking bugs on the PlayStation 4 worsened my experience with Observer considerably. Within a few hours, the screen froze twice, and more than once a glitch rendered an essential puzzle-solving item unusable. I’ve observed enough: if a sci-fi game has something to say about the effects of technology, the least it can do is work right.