Month: March 2018

Biased Notes Vol. 1: A Way Out

by Jed Pressgrove

You can read my full review of A Way Out here.

1. Video games tend to demonstrate the usefulness of a shotgun at close range. Real shotguns are indeed scarily devastating up close. But a lot of developers seem to assume the shotgun can’t put someone down at a distance, even though the actual weapon can still be a force to be reckoned with at 50 yards (and in some cases, 100 yards or more). A Way Out doesn’t hold this absurd assumption, and I find that interesting given that the game’s focus isn’t shooting. This is not to say I was particularly impressed by the shootouts in A Way Out from a kinetic or mechanical standpoint. The game’s gunfights are part of director Josef Fares’ larger goal to deepen the bond between players, and this emotional purpose makes the climactic battle that much more affecting.

2. Although Fares’ first game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons was great overall, it did feature one extremely tired and stereotypical idea: the spider woman. A Way Out has its own cringe-worthy flaw. At one point in the game, you visit a trailer park. For the most part, the residents of the park are depicted as everyday people, but an optional little story at the location involves a man cheating on his woman. This man’s name is Cletus, and that silly name, along with his dialogue (“I gots to go”), indicates that Fares, as much of a humanist as he generally is, is not above resorting to a lazy caricature for a laugh. Some might wonder why I didn’t mention this scenario in my review, as I have taken other games, such as Resident Evil 7 and Mafia III, to task for using obvious stereotypes. Here’s my explanation: while games like Resident Evil 7 and Mafia III rely on stereotypes to exploit fears and prejudices that people may have, A Way Out simply slips up during one moment that some people may not even see. That the stereotype in question is, like me, a rural white man doesn’t change this point.

3. A Way Out features the best game within a game since The Mercenaries (from Resident Evil 4): Grenade Brothers. This gem could warrant its own review. It’s essentially a strange volleyball game that is reminiscent of Pong from a visual standpoint. Unlike volleyball, there is a wall behind you, and you can legally deflect the ball off the wall. You can also volley to yourself as many times as you want before sending the ball over the net. I was immediately taken by the concept (side note: my friend on the couch didn’t stand a chance against me). Perhaps more significantly, this competition foreshadowed the 180-degree turn toward the end of the game.

4. If you like movies, Fares’ pulpy but moralistic approach in A Way Out is reminiscent of Samuel Fuller’s work. Moreover, the game’s emphasis on masculinity brings to mind directors like Sam Peckinpah and David Ayer.

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Games and Guns: A Game Bias Special Report

by Jed Pressgrove

Here at Game Bias, we take games, as well as biases, very seriously. Not to be outdone by U.S. President Donald Trump, we also take the association between games, guns, and real-life violence very seriously, despite the fact that Trump seemingly took those things very seriously first, well before the publication of this article.

People might look to 90-second videos and scientific studies for guidance on the connection between games and guns, and that’s fine. That doesn’t mean they’re bad people or even incredibly stupid people. It just means they’re people without firsthand knowledge of how games and guns can spontaneously intersect.

Lucky lucky you, I happen to have such knowledge to share. It’s time for you to listen to me.

Last year I had an accident. I stepped on my PlayStation 4 controller, rendering it inoperable in key ways. To make matters worse, I was in the middle of playing a game for a review that was near deadline, so I had to shell out $60 for another PlayStation 4 controller right then and there.

Not a happy occasion, as you can imagine. I hated the fact that Sony would make such a sensitive controller, and I hated the fact that Sony would sell extra controllers for $60. Additionally, I hated the fact that I hated these facts, as the hatred ended up making me fairly bitter about the whole situation.

I did the only thing I knew that could make me feel better: I went back to the woods where I grew up to fire holes in the broken PlayStation 4 controller with my Ruger .357 revolver. Here is select documentation of that cathartic event, starting with the controller’s placement into a gap of a dead tree:

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As you can see, when games and guns collide, you can have one helluva mess.

Way of the Passive Fist Review — Countering Monotony

by Jed Pressgrove

Whether the game is Double Dragon or Castle Crashers, the appeal of the 2D beat ’em up has remained the same for decades: clobbering gangs of adversaries with one’s fists, feet, and weapons. Way of the Passive Fist doesn’t subvert this approach so much as change the focus from offense to defense, requiring the player to anticipate and react to every single attack from foes. While this shift comes with the contrivance of bad guys attacking the hero one at a time, developer Household Games brings an unforeseen type of intensity to the genre with its greater emphasis on hand-eye coordination.

As beat-’em-up custom dictates, you walk from right to left in Way of the Passive Fist, and the scrolling only stops when the game sends a group of enemies for you to dispatch. But unlike the usual routine, you can’t proactively punch your targets into submission. Instead, you must tire your opponents out with parries and/or dodges before shoving them to the ground. As in rhythm games, there are degrees of timing here. If you barely counter an attack within the window of opportunity, you lose a slight bit of health. If your timing is good or “perfect,” you not only keep all of your health but also increase a combo meter that, once filled to certain levels, can allow you to perform a single offensive move, such as a body slam that hurts nearby foes in addition to the one being slammed.

This combo dynamic, in addition to encouraging an aesthetically appealing type of play, reveals the unique strategic identity of Way of the Passive Fist. Since you gain experience points (which unlock new abilities) the faster you defeat your opposition, the best strategy is to build defensive combos to unleash techniques that topple multiple enemies. This goal is easier to state than execute, as enemies have a variety of attacks to throw off your timing. The game starts off simple with its lessons: parry slow punches, dodge grappling moves, and catch projectiles to throw them back at their sources. After you advance to later stages, your defense must account for more complicated patterns, such as double projectiles and six-hit combinations. One mistake — from a missed dodge to an unnecessary parry — resets the combo meter. Way of the Passive Fist pushes for restraint, careful observation, and accuracy within a genre that usually rewards spamming and aggression.

To a large degree, Household Games mixes up the obstacles enough to keep you alert throughout Way of the Passive Fist. As you fight faster opponents later in the game, it can be jarring when an earlier, slower kind of threat returns to the fray, as sudden decreases in speed can disrupt your regular rhythm. Initially, the game also introduces environmental factors to compromise your comfort during battle. For example, in one early stage, you have to fight in sand storms that make it harder to see your adversaries’ nonverbal cues, which are critical when it comes to knowing what kind of counter you need to perform.

To its detriment, the game largely abandons environmental dangers about halfway through. There are 10 levels in Way of the Passive Fist, and each one has numerous waves of baddies, so a greater variety of traps and distractions could have reduced the repetitiveness of the proceedings. The final boss is disappointing as well: his pattern is too predictable, and he conveniently places himself in front of you after you fill up your combo meter by blocking his combinations. Despite these shortcomings, redirecting momentum as a defender in Way of the Passive Fist is a distinctive kinetic pleasure in a gaming world full of copiers and clones.

Flinthook Review — Randomly Passable

by Jed Pressgrove

Flinthook has some of the ingredients for a good 2D action game: an engaging set of mechanics, a compendium of interesting foes, and a rousing soundtrack. These strengths are sadly counterbalanced by poor fundamental design from developer Tribute, making Flinthook little more than a curious footnote in an oversaturated market of wannabe pixelated classics that treat randomly generated levels as the Gospel.

The kinetic possibilities of Flinthood are impressive, going well beyond the grappling-hook dynamic referenced in the game’s title. To survive, the player must creatively integrate the protagonist’s abilities (hooking, jumping, shooting, slowing down time) to dismantle and avoid ever-changing obstacles. Using the grappling hook in particular is adrenaline-charging: after hooking to a diamond-shaped metal ring, the hero automatically flies toward and past the target, meaning that you have to guess where momentum will take you, lest you run into an enemy or trap.

The game’s aiming system is a head-scratcher, though. As in Contra, you aim and move with the same stick, but Contra never felt this clunky. At times, I would aim up, and the character would end up shooting at a diagonal angle. Given the difficulty of the game, these puzzling moments of inaccuracy are unacceptable. The aiming problem is at its most irritating when you intend to grapple onto a specific ring but instead connect with another nearby ring, resulting in damage or death. Although the game does give you the option to lock the protagonist in place and aim (like Contra III: The Alien Wars), you have to earn and equip a perk to even use this basic ability — a pointless bureaucratic nuisance that is indicative of the modern action game’s awkward obsession with RPG/adventure elements.

The personality of the various enemies might make you forgive the issues with the control. You fight everything from suicide-bomber ostriches to squeaking puffer creatures that expand and shoot spikes upon death to teleporting, rocket-launching menaces who suggest a gene splice of a lizard and mangy cat. The bosses are real barnburners, too, requiring patience and precision as you hook yourself away from multiple types of projectiles and trap-ridden floors. While the prospect of offing all of these adversaries is appealing and rewarding, Tribute’s insistence on arena-fight cliches, randomly generated rooms, and item collection sucks the excitement out of the game.

Following the lead of games like The Legend of Zelda and The Binding of Isaac, Flinthook traps you in certain rooms during pivotal fights with regular enemies. While such isolation can increase drama and suspense, Flinthook telegraphs so much of its danger that the action comes off as blandly constructed. For example, a humongous red exclamation point signals when random enemies are about to appear in waves. Defeat one wave, and another one begins, but as in 2016’s Doom, you can briefly see where enemies will materialize before they start attacking or moving, depriving the environments of a lived-in quality that could have conveyed a compelling sense of place. The contrived randomization suggests Tribute took the easy way out with level design, especially when you enter rooms that seem no different from previous ones.

Like the obligatory perk system, the paths to the scintillating boss fights amount to another dull excuse to include an extra layer of bureaucracy. To encounter a boss, you must collect items from a series of various ships that you select from a menu. If a boss slays you, you have to start over and wade through another series of procedurally generated ships. Tribute’s reliance on randomness is an effort to keep players from getting bored, but the experience feels like you’re forced to endure sloppily designed, unremarkable levels just to get back to the most inspired conflicts of the game. Unlike contemporaries such as The Binding of Isaac and Downwell, Flinthook shows limited evidence that randomly generated trials can make for electrifying art.

Florence Review — It’s Not About Love

by Jed Pressgrove

If you go by many articles written about Florence, you’d think it’s focused on love. These articles merely barf up the game’s marketing line. Yes, the story features a bout of puppy love that anyone who has been fooled by feelings will recognize, but more importantly, developer Mountains illustrates the maturation of its titular protagonist into a person who finds that life is as good as you make it.

Florence is a young woman who is stuck in a repetitive job and who finds talking to her mother an annoyance, given the parent’s unending curiosity about whether her daughter will find a mate. But after a bicycle accident, Florence meets Krish, a cellist. From here on in this mobile-phone game, which uses a comic-book aesthetic and a chapter-by-chapter frame, you see how Florence and Krish get closer, move in together, and, finally, fall apart.

One of the more brilliant chapters of Florence simulates the common experience of growing comfortable with someone you like. In this segment, the game presents an oval-like space where you must fit in puzzle pieces to make Florence “speak” to Krish. At first, this scene feels like an excuse to throw in a mechanical device, as even a dull mind can see how to connect a six-piece jigsaw. Then, as the “conversation” continues, six pieces turn to three, and three pieces turn to one, indicating that Florence’s reservations and nervousness have fallen to the wayside. In any other game, such a scene would be a case of a puzzle becoming inexplicably and pointlessly easy, but in Florence, it’s a deft way to convey how increasingly natural a new connection to a lover can feel.

Of course, this sort of gradual comfort characterizes relationships that may end badly, and Florence is a better game for not forgetting that. The newness of a bond can cause humans to overlook obvious imbalances that are not so obvious at first. In Florence, the lopsidedness of the affair is apparent in how much more Florence pushes Krish to realize his dreams. Another sign of the relationship’s unbalanced nature is revealed in the chapter titled “Exploration,” in which the two explore more things that are specific to Krish’s life (family, music, etc.). The irony of this chapter drips as Florence gazes at Polaroids of the experiences, with nothing but a smile on her face.

Soon the puzzle-piece dialogue dynamic comes back in a negative context. Florence increasingly finds it easy to have a yelling match with Krish. When Krish moves his stuff out of her place shortly after this fight, Florence can’t seem to live without thinking of Krish.

The story moves well beyond Krish when Florence rediscovers her love of painting (ironically, this new life begins with a cheap art set that Krish gave her). Florence finds herself, so to speak, and in doing so, her perspective on life broadens. She no longer hates her job as much, though it remains monotonous. She no longer treats her mother as a nuisance, instead opening up to her. By the end of the game, the only trace of Krish is a photograph Florence puts in a box. While the piano- and cello-based soundtrack might be sappy, the message of growth, perhaps toward actual love, is unquestionably adult.