Month: December 2019

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2019

by Jed Pressgrove

In my list of the 10 worst games of this year, I revealed my distaste for 2019 from a historical standpoint. But even during a year that caused me to question why I continue to spend so much time on gaming, my love for the art form remains strong. The following 10 titles spoke to me in very different ways. Several of them are tied to genres that typically fail to spark my imagination or maintain my interest. No matter the year, there are always miracles, there is always magic. Don’t give up.

1. Shenmue 3

Every aspect of Shenmue 3 is personal and relevant to the philosophical values that power the creative mind and, I believe, the heart of Yu Suzuki. Shenmue 3 shows us by example what pop gaming has gotten wrong. In Suzuki’s world, there are no false promises of freedom, there are no lazily crafted NPCs, and there are no systems that seem tacked on in order to cash in on the capricious desires of a restless audience. Instead, there is a morality at play in Shenmue 3. Suzuki reminds us, whether through mechanics or dialogue, that dignity, patience, and interpersonal interaction give life richer meaning. 2019 saw no greater moment in games than when Ryo and Shenhua learn that they were often the same type of kid growing up despite their ethnic differences. With this scene, Shenmue 3, which takes place in 1987, recalls how pop artists, from Prince to Michael Jackson, once propagated the notion that nothing should separate us. You may call Suzuki’s humble recognition of common humanity corny. I call it real and necessary in a cynical world that wants us to segregate ourselves.

(See full review of Shenmue 3 here.)

2. Dirt Rally 2.0

Developer Codemasters’ simulation of rallying here is special, not to mention electrifying and nerve-wracking. By enhancing how the player senses disparities in road conditions, Dirt Rally 2.0 opens the average person’s eyes to the outstanding bravery and determination of athletes who don’t get the universal credit they deserve. The challenge of this game could break the will of many a From Software worshiper. I’ll never look at competitive driving the same way again.

(See full review of Dirt Rally 2.0 here.)

3. The Stillness of the Wind

The Stillness of the Wind continues to whisper to you long after its emotionally complex ending. A spiritual experience, this effort from Coyan Cardenas avoids a pandering, sentimental approach as it depicts the rural existence of its elderly female protagonist. Equal parts haunting and inspiring, The Stillness of the Wind counters the immature fantasy of Stardew Valley and asks us to consider the paradox of living a convicted life of labor.

(See full review of The Stillness of the Wind here.)

4. Lonely Mountains: Downhill

The first word of this game’s title gets it all wrong: there’s nothing lonely about exploring the natural world on one’s own terms. The bicycling of Lonely Mountains: Downhill is dangerous fun, as well as stunningly tactile. The photo modes of your favorite open-world smorgasbords can’t teach you how to appreciate the exciting yet unforgiving quality of an untamed landscape like this game (hilariously) can.

(See more thoughts on Lonely Mountains: Downhill here.)

5. Fire Emblem: Three Houses

Figures that the most morally complicated Fire Emblem of the decade gets overlooked by many end-of-year award panels. Admittedly, Three Houses is almost epic to a fault, but its larger sociological point — that social institutions and movements drive individuals to violence against each other — carries undeniable weight. With the video game soundtrack of the year and passionate voice acting, Three Houses effortlessly conveys the gravity of its characters’ tragic hopes and dreams.

(See full review of Fire Emblem: Three Houses here.)

6. Islanders

The stripped-down city building of Islanders registers less as easy escapism and more as a logical exercise in efficiency. Like any good builder, this game is full of decisions and long-term consequences; the whole affair is simply presented with a coherence and simplicity that should make any developer jealous of GrizzlyGames. The intense focus of Islanders is like that of an arcade game, but somehow this simulation also manages to be relaxing.

7. Pathologic 2

One could argue that the nightmare logic of Pathologic 2 should be interpreted as misery porn. But hidden in the oblique dialogue and bleak imagery of this game is a lesson about the folly of pride and assumption. As one grapples with the intended difficulty setting of Pathologic 2, the harsh proceedings should raise questions about the intentions of the protagonist and the player. What are we trying to prove when we step in to save the world, especially when we take too long to take on the responsibility?

8. Baba Is You

Not since Scribblenauts have I found that a failed attempt at solving a puzzle can be just as enlivening as arriving at the solution. Unlike Scribblenauts, Baba Is You doesn’t allow one to fudge their way through anything. To advance in Baba Is You is to have a deep appreciation for logic, language, and patience.

(See more thoughts on Baba Is You here.)

9. Ape Out

Its hero is both violent and sympathetic. Its music is both entrancing and distracting. Its visuals are both minimalistic and over the top. Ape Out operates like an accident, yet it demands precision. A shell shock of a game.

(See full review of Ape Out here.)

10. Battle Planet: Judgement Day

Battle Planet: Judgement Day more than lives up to its ridiculous title. This deceptively simple shooter literalizes the concept of a lone force that can take out every threat in the world. An amusing mixture of twin-stick shooting and Super Mario Galaxy, Battle Planet: Judgement Day is far smarter than it appears in how it requires the player to think about when to use power-ups, which can be saved for later waves of enemies, and to maintain the stability of the planet by defusing bombs. Act without a multi-layered strategy, and your silly goal of being a one-person wrecking machine will swiftly end. For sheer kinetic thrills, Battle Planet: Judgement Day has few peers in 2019.

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Games of 2019 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

2019 was the most regrettable year for pop games, at least based on my experiences with the world’s biggest hits throughout my life. Other years have perhaps featured more bottom-of-the-barrel releases, but 2019 defeats all when it comes to setting a low standard for overall quality and artistic expression. During the majority of 2019, no matter what kind of game it was, from Dead or Alive 6 to Wilmot’s Warehouse to Death Stranding, I felt as if I wanted to spit the lukewarm out of my mouth.

Two years ago, I started the Play Instead part of this annual year-end list. The idea is simple: for every bad game, I suggest one you should play instead for whatever reason. The catch is “play instead” choices don’t have to be great or even good games. While this list follows that same logic, keep in mind that we really shouldn’t, outside of comparisons for argument’s sake, settle for less than good. Video games can be, and have largely been, better than the offerings of 2019.

1. Resident Evil 2

If the 2010s proved anything, it’s that Capcom has embraced the absolute worst version of itself. The original Resident Evil 2 is an imperfect but fascinating and discomforting game. Here it is transformed into the most agreeable ride imaginable. Gamers, you’ve nothing to worry about. Papa Capcom’s gonna take care of you — and take your money while he burps you.

(See full review of Resident Evil 2 here.)

Play Instead: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain

Developer Yuke’s does the opposite of Capcom. It makes Earth Defense Force even tougher and more thematically incisive than usual … until Iron Rain seems to give up on level design and satire more than halfway through.

2. Hypnospace Outlaw

Yet another independent title that presents tedious desk work as insightful entertainment. I’d rather peruse MySpace than spend another minute with Hypnospace Outlaw.

(See full review of Hypnospace Outlaw here.)

Play Instead: Nauticrawl

From developer Andrea Interguglielmi, Nauticrawl is like going to work but having no idea what you’re supposed to do to finish the job. Tinkering with switches, buttons, and levers in a mysterious machine makes for a solid puzzle. Bonus: No smug indie pretension to be found.

3. The Outer Worlds

The brighter colors, the humorous descriptions, the almost identical perks, the inelegant slow-motion action. All of it points toward a development team whose only goal was to produce a neutered version of Fallout 3, which was a neutered version of its predecessors. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone remakes The Outer Worlds with a different name.

Play Instead: Outer Wilds

If The Outer Worlds is a lesser version of Fallout 3, Outer Wilds is a better version of No Man’s Sky.  Yes, I know that’s not saying much, but we’re reaching the outer limits of good taste.

4. Control

As Matt Paprocki suggests, Control wants to be a left-wing statement of resistance in a most irresponsible, dimwitted way, but players don’t mind or notice because they’re conditioned to enjoy guns (even if they don’t own or use any). Control is Doom 2016 all over again: shoot fast and keep moving. Who knew political critique could be so formulaic?

Play Instead: Void Bastards

The title and gameplay loop of this brilliantly animated game appear to satirize people who find meaning and purpose in terrible things. Void Bastards is smarter about its lack of seriousness than Control is.

5. Devil May Cry 5

After one hour of playing the original Devil May Cry, I was intrigued by its counterintuitive adoption of Resident Evil’s changing camera angles and by the kinetic potential of its marriage of melee techniques and frantic gunplay. After one hour of playing Devil May Cry 5, I was tired of douchebag characters trying to look and act cool, as every time the fighting was about to take center stage, another cutscene would interrupt the action. Capcom sucks now.

Play Instead: Katana Zero

Like Devil May Cry 5, Katana Zero has its share of played-out ideas. Despite its limitations, Katana Zero reveals the fundamental loneliness of its protagonist in quiet scenes that recall the contemplative minimalism of the 1967 film Le Samourai.

6. Blair Witch

The real title of this game is Blair Glitch.

(See full review of Blair Witch here.)

Play Instead: Devotion

Just kidding. You can’t play it. But I managed to. It’s better than Blair Glitch. Its jump scares and hackneyed first-person haunted-house style also teach us a valuable lesson: banned art isn’t always good art.

7. Contra: Rogue Corps

Konami turns Contra into an arena shooter for modern audiences. Would probably be more popular with critics if it took shots at Donald Trump.

(See full review of Contra: Rogue Corps here.)

Play Instead: Sunless Skies

Unlike Contra: Rogue Corps, Sunless Skies is a sequel that understands where it comes from and where it should go. Although it ditches the lovable pirate-like dialect that energized the text of Sunless Sea, its more understated use of language is still a hoot: “He’ll receive the care of Magdalene’s finest. At least, Magdalene’s finest with a sense of charity, given that he has nothing on him to pay for their ministrations.”

8. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

The subtitle for Sekiro should have been “Shadows Die Countless Times,” as there’s nothing new about dodging and parrying boss attacks a la Dark Souls, and stealth tactics make most of the proceedings a cakewalk. Notwithstanding the incoherent claims of brainwashed From Software diehards, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games are now more predictable than they are difficult.

(See full review of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice here.)

Play Instead: Vane

Though it lacks combat, Vane is closer in spirit to Dark Souls than anything Miyazaki has produced after 2011. Both puzzling and ambiguous, Vane technically collapses before it ends, but what a memorable failure it is.

9. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Earlier this year, I played Star Wars: Dark Forces. It’s a great example of kinetic art that not only takes inspiration from but also builds on the work of a source (namely, the original Doom). Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order’s more plagiaristic approach is unimpressive, if not unacceptable.

(See more thoughts on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order here.)

Play Instead: Slay the Spire

Plenty of games copy and paste the turn-based combat systems of the past. But Slay the Spire’s card-deck-building premise, which will punish those who don’t pay attention to mathematical detail, brings a reasonable amount of creative forethought to a well-worn idea.

10. Neo Cab

Neo Cab often preaches about the inhuman qualities of corporations and technology, but so many of its features seem robotic rather than authentic, whether it’s the ever-shifting eyes of its protagonist, the out-of-place soundtrack, or the silly mood bracelet that restricts dialogue options. Humorless and dull, this game lacks the humanity that Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai captured in 2015’s Conversations We Have in My Head.

Play Instead: Disco Elysium

The dialogue of Disco Elysium can feel contrived from time to time, but its illustration of psychological struggle is more convincing and dynamic than Neo Cab’s forced stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Death Stranding Review — More Stupid Than Weird

by Jed Pressgrove

The landscape of pop games is in dubious shape. There are many reasons to reach this conclusion, from the prevalence of open world ideology to the way developers flatter audiences with made-to-order remakes. At first, Death Stranding appears to avoid the cliches we’re all used to seeing, as it involves a protagonist, Sam Porter Bridges, whose main skill is carrying cargo on his back, arms, and legs. At one point, Sam bluntly explains, “Killing monsters and terrorists, that’s not what I do.” The line almost sounds sanctimonious when one considers how often “ambitious” games boil down to boneheaded violence. And yet, Sam shares this observation about himself not too long after he obliterates a phantom squid with grenades made from his own piss, and moments after uttering this dialogue, Sam can barrel through bandit-filled territory and punch the lights out of every last person who tries to steal the packages off his body. Director Hideo Kojima, famous for the Metal Gear Solid series and often pitied for his messy separation from Konami, has all the creative freedom in the world, but he can’t stop sabotaging an interesting premise with banal and laughably contradictory moments.

With Death Stranding, Kojima takes a page from modern independent first-person adventures like Proteus in which walking, as opposed to puzzle solving or combat, is the main type of action. But in a stroke of genuine design genius, Sam has it much harder than his counterparts in other traversal-focused releases. He must organize packages on his body in a manner that reduces the likelihood of him stumbling and falling as he treks across treacherous territory. If he starts to sway to the left or right, the player must shift Sam’s weight in the opposite direction to achieve balance. There’s also a stamina gauge to worry about, a meter that depletes rapidly when Sam trudges through a deeper part of a river. If you lose your footing in that situation, Sam will have to paddle himself to his feet and frantically attempt to recover goods the river has claimed. The potential for embarrassing ambulatory disaster is almost endless. With each step comes an appreciation for Sam’s immediate surroundings, whether they’re as intimidating as a steep mountainside or as seemingly innocuous as a jagged medium-sized rock on the ground.

In theory, Death Stranding is the most original and uncompromising big-budget game in a long time. This notion doesn’t hold, though, when you tally the common pop game problems that show up yet again in Death Stranding. The first and most obvious issue is unnecessary length and bloat due to a tremendous lack of editing, which has plagued games as different as Persona 5 and The Witcher 3. Kojima includes a number of missions that do nothing more than serve as contrived tutorials. Why does the simple idea of 3-D printing a bridge, for instance, have to come with its own mission that the player must find by holding down (rather than just pressing) a button near a terminal in order to open a hard-to-read menu from which you can initiate said mission? Kojima also peppers the game with cinematics that have no kinetic or thematic purpose. Why do you have to skip — which can be done by pressing the start button, then selecting “Skip” — three or four cutscenes just to accelerate the process of taking a shower? Why does an activity as boring as a shower even need a single cutscene?

Any sense of basic, decent storytelling is annihilated by Kojima’s idiotic commitment to video game norms. The main theme of Death Stranding is reconnecting a post-apocalyptic United States. To do this, Sam must visit an array of marked locations on a map and talk to holographic images of people. These individuals, with few exceptions, say pretty much the same thing — wow, I haven’t seen items like this in a long time, Sam, you’re a true legend, nothing here looks damaged, blah, blah, blah, blah. The experience is a lot like finding Toad at the end of every stage in Super Mario Bros. and being told the princess is in another castle. The main difference is Super Mario Bros. never claimed to be cinematic or a commentary on the state of a nation. What’s more, Super Mario Bros. didn’t include repetitive messages to massage your ego but to challenge you to keep going farther. In contrast, Kojima doles out titles like “Elite Handler” after a successful mission. One’s sense of self-worth would have to be beyond low to stomach such nonsense.

The nauseating ego-stroking element of Death Stranding is not an accident but a sincere part of its design. The game features a social media component wherein players can help each other by leaving behind ladders, lockers, and other tools in the wild, rugged world. From a mechanical standpoint, Kojima is clearly building on Dark Souls’ weakest concept, but he also nods to both Mark Zuckerburg and Jack Dorsey, as gamers can “like” conveniently dropped items from other gamers. In addition, Death Stranding’s fictional characters will give you “likes” for accomplishing missions. In the right hands, Death Stranding could somehow work as a satire of how neurotically obsessed our culture is with fleeting external validation, even as civilized culture crumbles around us, but Kojima plays it like a nincompoop would.

Kojima’s childish sense of reality is confirmed by how he frames the Kumbaya politics of Death Stranding. Throughout the game, Sam (whose last name is Bridges) works for a company called Bridges to connect the disconnected citizens of the former United States of America with digital and literal bridges. Yes, Kojima’s having fun with the dumbest wordplay in video game history, but there’s also no indication that he questions the simplicity of Death Stranding’s proposed political philosophy. Kojima’s outlook on existence itself, as expressed in Death Stranding, suggests that he does want us to grasp for any positive feeling, however silly. “Once there was an explosion,” the game states, referring to the Big Bang, and later on, another line declares the world could experience an explosion “that would be our last.” When presented with this godless and shallowly nihilistic viewpoint, it becomes harder to blame Kojima for encouraging players to cling to Zuckerberg- and Dorsey-endorsed methods of interaction. But to praise this grade-school level of thinking is far more troubling than gazing at the scorched imagery of this turgid stupid game in art-school clothing.