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Why Hours Played Is Virtually Meaningless

by Jed Pressgrove

A prevalent ideology in gaming suggests that everyone — whether you’re a drooling gamer like my friend down the road or a fart-sniffing critic like myself — should keep up with how many hours they spend playing a game. Similar to open-world ideology and consumer-review ideology, this perspective is deceptive and should be ignored. There are several reasons why.

1. Hours played has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.

Theoretically, you can enjoy playing a mediocre game for more than 100 hours. I did this with Street Fighter V, the weakest game in that series since the arcade original. The reason I spent so much time with Street Fighter V is that I am a very competitive person who has played every Street Fighter sequel. Similarly, most gamers can name an average or below-average game that they have played with friends for numerous hours. From such observations, we can arrive at another critical truth: enjoyment alone has nothing to do with a game’s overall quality.

2. Hours played often has little to do with whether we love or hate a game in general.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: in many cases, you must spend at least several hours with a game to give it a fair shot. This reminds me of my experience with Arkham Asylum more than a decade ago. I remember playing the first hour of Arkham Asylum at a friend’s, and I could not help but wonder why my friend thought the game was special. The opening was a bit tedious, and the mechanics seemed superficial when I was finally able to engage with them. A year or so later after this first impression, I ended up buying Arkham Asylum. After putting just a little more time into the game, I was able to understand my friend’s adoration (not that understanding someone else’s adoration is the point).

Once you grasp what a game is going for, though, you’re not going to change your mind about it with more hours played. To give a different example, I was annoyed by Persona 5’s approach to tutorialization and storytelling for the first 12 hours that I played it. After 70 hours, my opinions only became more crystallized. Why? Games are like pop song choruses. They tend to repeat themselves. As such, just as you won’t come to praise what you find to be a crappy pop song after hearing it 100 times, you’re not going to magically fall in love with a game after playing it for 100 hours. You might become more skilled after 100 hours, but you can be good at a game that you think is substantially flawed. It happens all the time.

3. Hours played often has little to do with finishing a game.

First we have to know what we mean with “finishing a game.” If we define it in the simplest way (i.e., if “finishing a game” means to view some version of closing credits), hours played before we finish a game can vary for multiple reasons. Existing skill and the time it takes to improve skill are obvious factors and can lead to fewer or more hours. Another variable is whether the gamer in question is a curious cat. Does this person like to meander about in virtual environments? Does this person, before finishing a story, like to screw around and find different tricks or glitches to “break” the game? Does this person always press any button they can to skip story-focused segments? Does this person get distracted by sidequests? We could ask such questions for a long time.

Others might define “finishing a game” as beating a final boss AND uncovering what they consider significant secrets or parts of a game. My personal interpretation of “finishing a game” is more straightforward: to me, you’re finished when you’re ready to move on from the game for whatever reason. Perhaps you’re not good at the game and wish to quit, perhaps you’re good at the game but find it uninspired and stupid, perhaps you’d like to keep playing the game but don’t have the time, or perhaps you’ve beaten the game 10 times in a row and want to experience something else. In any case, hours played doesn’t tell us why or if someone is finished with a game in the overwhelming majority of cases (exceptions include so-called narrative-focused games that require little, if any, skill to see the finale of the story).

4. Assuming that “finishing a game” means to see closing credits, this also frequently says nothing about whether or why we like the game in question.

The first time I played Castlevania was before the age of 10. Even though I found the game very interesting and was able to view the closing credits of other infamously difficult NES games of the era (such as Contra and Ninja Gaiden), I thought I would never get past the Grim Reaper boss on the fifth stage. It basically took me more than a decade of trying (with extremely long breaks, of course) to kill the cheap bastard and go on to conquer the rest of the game with no trouble.

I couldn’t begin to determine the number of hours I put into Castlevania before I “finished it” (I still play it to this day). Like I said in the title, hours played is virtually meaningless. Meaning is found in feelings: I thought Castlevania was a good game the entire time, and “finishing” it didn’t make it lesser or greater. It was always fucking Castlevania.

Like it or not, most video games are like Castlevania (exceptions include works that invite full readings without much skill, such as Off-Peak, Actual Sunlight, or Proteus). You know what you’re getting after several hours of observing the same kind of stuff. It’s as simple as that. (What’s more, the suggestion that games should only or primarily be played to be “finished” doesn’t make sense. Why would you want to spend hours and hours just for the closing credits of something you hate for 10 different reasons?)

Granted, if you want to talk specifically about the ending of a game, or its final level, or its climactic boss fight, and so on, yes, you should have seen the final credits or at least gotten close enough to them in order to make particular claims about any of these things. If I had reviewed the original Castlevania before beating Dracula, I could have reasonably called it a very good game, but I couldn’t have said, for instance, that Dracula is a great boss fight.

The truth is almost nobody seems to care if you’ve not beaten a game yet and you love it. But if you despise the game and haven’t beaten it, you’re tantamount to a corrupt dictator. My stance is that, unless you’re talking about specific things that occur at the end of a game, seeing the closing credits isn’t relevant to what you think about a game’s pop song chorus, if you will. And let’s not forget, too, that many of the greatest video games will likely never be beaten by anyone reading this: BurgerTime, Galaga, Xevious, Ms. Pac-Man, and on and on we could go. Gamers have a rich history of not beating games, only to hold and share passionate opinions about their qualities. It’s a tradition that I find instructive and significant from a critical standpoint, within reason.

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Resident Evil 2 (2019) Review — A Relatively Safe Space

by Jed Pressgrove

Like its predecessor, 1998’s Resident Evil 2 is pixelated, clunky, and full of cheesy voice acting. Despite often being ugly and awkward, the sequel is a memorable entry in the pop gaming canon because of its setting, an implausible police department (see Ed Smith’s interpretation) that contains a significantly higher number of zombies than Resident Evil’s mansion. The new Resident Evil 2, though, feels like an effort by Capcom to rewrite history in a way that flatters modern audiences as much as possible.

The basic premise remains: play as Leon, a rookie cop, or Claire, a woman looking for her brother. Solve puzzles, find items, kill and run from zombies, and uncover a ridiculous conspiracy. Gamers know the drill. But instead of dealing with the original game’s clumsy tank controls and ever-changing camera angles, you now benefit from a more convenient over-the-shoulder perspective, the same one introduced by Resident Evil 4. With this familiar viewpoint and a more intuitive control scheme, players can more easily take down common foes and run away from Mr. X, a monstrosity who chases you throughout the game. Every recurring enemy can be eliminated even if your aim is only decent, and because you typically hear Mr. X before he finds you, avoiding him tends to be a cinch. Even zombies that threaten to climb through windows pose little issue, thanks to an oversimplified window-boarding mechanic cribbed from the superior Nazi Zombies minigame in Call of Duty: World at War.

One’s progress in this Resident Evil 2 is rarely jeopardized for long. The updated pause menu is a textbook example of design that anticipates almost any hang-up a player might experience while navigating an environment. If you find a key that can fit multiple doors, a red checkmark will appear by the item in the inventory window once you use it on every door it can open. Players don’t have to wonder whether they’ve discovered everything in a particular room; the map window color-codes places that have been relieved of their secrets. A once-messy game has been transformed into a neat and tidy experience, guaranteed to continually satisfy those who just stick to it.

The overhauled graphics also suggest a more orderly work of art. Though you’ll see more believable human faces in The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt and Detroit: Become Human, the highly technical visuals have a spick-and-span quality to them (notwithstanding the constant blood-letting and an unsettling sequence that involves liquidized fecal matter). The jaggedness of the first Resident Evil 2 wouldn’t woo contemporary eyes, after all. It’s almost as if game history should be cleansed of products without polish, even if smoother-looking imagery lacks the surreal edge of many of yesteryear’s works.

The new voice acting in Resident Evil 2 represents an attempt by Capcom to create an illusion of tangible seriousness in a story that is about as impressive as a halfway dried-up mud puddle. Inexplicably, Leon Kennedy has become a dull character. Voiced by Paul Haddad in the original Resident Evil 2, Leon has never been a deep hero, but Haddad’s cartoonish delivery of Leon’s dialogue brings humor to the proceedings (Paul Mercier would make the cocksure officer even funnier in Resident Evil 4). Nick Apostolides’ more straight-laced interpretation of Leon in this remake fails to express much emotion outside of reserved resoluteness. Lines like “Chew on that, you overgrown son of a bitch” and “I didn’t realize you were keeping score” are intended to be entertaining breaks from the horror, but Apostolides says them with the conviction of a deacon who sleeps through church services. Claire’s new voice, provided by Stephanie Panisello, fares a little better, yet there is a tepid casualness to Panisello’s performance when she utters lines such as “It’s like the end of the world.”

This neutered version of Resident Evil 2 is actually preferable to the last entry in the series, Resident Evil 7, which is a disgusting retread of horror-movie stereotypes with snore-worthy action. This remake at least hints that there was something noteworthy about the 1998 sequel. The irony of a police department corrupted by external (as opposed to internal) forces holds up. Yet almost everything else in this version of Resident Evil 2 seems more normal and proposed by shrewd committee. If Capcom continues to take the series in this digestible direction, the legacy of survival horror, a genre that’s already more flawed than most, doesn’t stand to gain much from an artistic standpoint.

Loaded Questions Vol. 13

Loaded Questions is a recurring feature at Game Bias. If you have a question you would like to submit, please email it to pressgrove84@yahoo.com or tweet it to @jedpressfate. Questions can cover anything closely or tangentially related to video games or art, including but not limited to criticism, culture, and politics. Questions may be edited for clarity.

Question 1

Dylan Cornelius: What’s your opinion on the current state of game writing (criticism, reviews, etc.)?

Jed Pressgrove: This question has inspired me to write a three-part answer:

Superego

Everyone’s doing their best in a world where freelancers and contributors are paid jack squat on the whole.

Id

Let’s exterminate these fucking no-good piece-of-shit publications and give their readerships a swift kick to the crotch!

Ego

Intellectually challenging pieces are out there, but good luck finding most of them. At the same time, the state of game writing today is better than it was during my childhood. I say that despite my nostalgic appreciation for gaming magazines like Diehard GameFan and GamePro.

I still think it’s too difficult to find quality pieces. A few years ago, Critical Distance, a publication that collates notable gaming articles of the week, would lead me to some interesting posts and debate, but that site has become beyond predictable and one-dimensional.

There’s also something absurd about a game like Red Dead Redemption 2, one of the clunkiest and stupidest big-name titles I’ve played in the last decade, receiving nearly perfect marks from reviewers. It raises the question of whether most of these writers are brain-dead or removed from the concerns of an everyday person who expects a baseline level of execution from artists. It raises the question of whether some people are receiving favorable or manipulative treatment from companies to give high marks to hyped-up releases.

I don’t have all the answers, but I do know the overall state of game writing is profoundly unsatisfying.

Question 2

Serge Soucy: The other day I was thinking about Tetris. I thought of the seemingly endless array of choices and outcomes that the game presents even with such simple game mechanics. What are some recent games that are simple to understand and play but that offer an exciting variety of choices in the way that Tetris does?

Jed Pressgrove: With the exception of Dr. Mario, nothing captivates me like Tetris in this regard. One recent title that did come to mind is Topsoil. The choices of where to plant seeds and when to harvest crops continue to compel me. It’s devastatingly simple, and failure’s always around the corner. Yet unlike Tetris and Dr. Mario, Topsoil gives me a feeling of peace no matter what. Its serene vibe reminds me of the wisdom that you get when you accept that the cycle of life can’t be fully controlled.

Many people would not think of Tetris or Topsoil when it comes to player choice. There’s an ideology out there that says the most meaningful choices in games have to be related to a story involving characters. This ideology grew to an exorbitant size at the height of Telltale Games, a developer that should be criticized for its nauseating impact on the industry of games (one can also pity the company because of its 2018 closure — for all the good it would do).

I’ve observed more about humanity while analyzing the choices in a chess match than I ever have while reflecting on the options I selected from preset lists in a Telltale or Telltale-wannabe game. The decisions we make in “mechanics-driven” contests may point to fundamental truths about ourselves — how we react to pressure, how willing we are to take risks, how patient (or impatient) we are. Someone’s performance in such a game can also clash with their typical behavior outside of the game. A gentle giant in real life might be a conniving pest in chess; perhaps that says something about the person’s subconscious self.

Question 3

Serge Soucy: While recently replaying The Legend of Zelda, I was once again struck with immense satisfaction whenever I discovered an item or a dungeon that I had forgotten about or had stumbled into. What are some of the most memorable moments of discovery that you’ve experienced in games?

Jed Pressgrove: I’m mostly remembering different mechanical tricks that I figured out on my own. Here’s a few of them:

  1. In Super Mario Kart, you can use the feather power-up to jump onto a shortcut in the haunted house stage of the Mushroom Cup. As a youngster, I was thrilled when I experimented and found out that you can also make that jump by using a mushroom power-up and tapping the jump button in the middle of the boost.
  2. Between the ages of 7 and 10, I would play Fatal Fury 2 on the SNES with some of my close friends. I discovered an incredibly cheap tactic with Jubei, the old man. He has a dash-and-throw special move that happens to be unblockable. I learned that, with proper timing, I could throw my opponent with that special move right as they get up from the ground. I would do it over and over. You wanna talk about immense satisfaction.
  3. In the SNES version of Samurai Showdown, I happened upon an unblockable aerial technique with Ukyo. Ukyo has a midair special move where he executes a huge sweeping slash that sends out a diagonally flying fire bird. A standing opponent can block this move by itself, but if you jump at your enemy and execute a hard slash that they go on to block, you can immediately chain that blocked attack into the special move I described. Your opponent will get set on fire every time.

Question 4

Pablo Perez Lopez: What are your thoughts on e-sports? Do you follow any?

Jed Pressgrove: I fundamentally like the idea of e-sports, despite the fact that many popular games under this umbrella are viciously boring (League of Legends) or substandard in their design (Street Fighter V). I would enjoy e-sports more as a form of entertainment if it revolved around better games. This might be elitism, idealism, or lunacy, but the world would be a better place if Super Mario Kart (SNES original) were more of a focus than League of Legends. I do respect Overwatch as a phenomenon, though I haven’t paid attention to it in a good while.

Question 5

Pablo Perez Lopez: Have cultural barriers (such as lack of historical knowledge or context) ever caused you difficulty or significantly affected your perception when experiencing any work of art from a foreign country?

Jed Pressgrove: Without a doubt. I can’t even tell you how many times cultural barriers have guided my perception; these things work against us on a subconscious level. I’d say it’s impossible to completely measure our cultural biases. The critical question is whether our bias leads us to view human beings from other parts of the world in a condescending, unfair, or shallow fashion. Obviously there are other concerns (a lack of historical knowledge means you can’t spot particular distortions of reality), but we have a moral obligation to recognize the humanity (or lack thereof) in others through art. As a citizen of the United States, as a Mississippian, I may not grasp the intricacies of the Japanese language, but great artists like Akira Kurosawa have shown me the universal power of human emotion. For that I am most grateful and humbled.

Question 6

Ryan Aston: Do you think there is value in categorizing video games into genres anymore now that games cross genre lines so frequently? Think of how first-person shooters now include RPG elements and progression and how RPGs now frequently switch turn-based combat out for fast-paced action.

If you are for using genre labels, what do you think is the specific value in doing so? Consumers are more savvy and knowledgeable than ever, with a better idea of what they’re buying, so from an artistic and historical standpoint, do you think there is good reason to classify a game into one genre or multiple genres?

Jed Pressgrove: While you’re right that modern games often blur genre lines, this sort of cross-pollination has occurred for decades. Some of the best RPGs of the 1990s (Illusion of Gaia, Secret of Mana, Secret of Evermore) don’t feature traditional turn-based combat, and consider how 1996’s Super Mario RPG injects platforming and rhythm-based button pressing into the genre. The survival horror genre, which has been quite popular since the release of 1996’s Resident Evil, essentially combines elements of adventure, action, and puzzle games.

I won’t say you have to use genre labels, but from a historical standpoint, they can provide meaning. When we recognize that certain games tend to be placed within a particular genre, it can help us identify traces of artistic inspiration. Debates about genre — like “Is Zelda an RPG?” — can lead us to elucidating observations about design traditions and theory. In some cases, I am in favor of using more labels. Increased utilization of classic genre terms like comedy and tragedy could transform how we examine a title’s historical significance, both within the context of games and in the larger context of art.

You mention consumers. They do have an impact as far as how genres are popularly defined, but game critics have a bad habit of overstating the importance of consumerism. It gets to the point where writers would rather follow the money than any personal notion of the truth. I have zero interest in telling people what to buy (see my criticism of the consumer-review model), and I also don’t find consumers that savvy. If they’re so intelligent these days, why do they, in many cases, keep buying the same old crap? The day I allow the ravings of addicts to determine what I write is the day I should stop writing.

Question 7

Sidney Fussell: Why is Final Fantasy X-2 so overlooked when it’s so clearly one of the best games of its generation?

Jed Pressgrove: Years ago in this review, I explained why I thought Final Fantasy X-2 is a lesser game than Final Fantasy X, which is quite flawed by itself. I seem to remember you and I disagreeing about the game back then. But placing our difference of opinion aside, one would think this game would get more attention given Final Fantasy X’s fanbase. I honestly believe the awkward title of the game did no favors for it. It’s almost like “X-2” translates to “I’m a fake sequel!” or “I’m a mindless cash-in!” I also wonder if the concept of an all-female cast would be more popular today than it was in 2003.

Question 8

Doggie: Many people praise Uncharted, horror indies, and The Evil Within, but you don’t. What are the elements of bad video-game storytelling to you since many criticize you for condemning high-praised games?

Jed Pressgrove: There isn’t one storytelling mistake that every bad game makes. Since you mentioned both horror indies and The Evil Within, I will say horror games frequently use mental illness for shock value. It seems that horror games, for the most part, think the main goal of a horror story is to merely scare or discombobulate an audience, but most of these games don’t even come close to the level of tension in an Edgar Allan Poe short story. One reason for this is that horror games copy each other and horror-movie tropes to an absurd degree. You rarely see anything creative in a horror game. On a deep level, I disagree with the idea that a horror story must be stereotypical (see my review of the insanely overrated Telltale-wannabe game, Until Dawn). Many times when you criticize a horror story for being stereotypical, you’ll hear a common refrain: “But it’s horror. It’s supposed to be idiotic, graphic, and sexist. Haven’t you ever seen a horror movie?” I find this line of thinking foolish and circular — it’s why innumerable filmmakers can keep indulging in their fetish of vulnerable white female protagonists who are dumber than a sack of rocks. People need to expose themselves to actual great horror tales, like Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House or Sam Fuller’s White Dog.

Question 9

Brant Moon: With your broadening focus on other mediums, will you be continuing Loaded Questions (beyond this next installment)? And will you take questions about the other topics beyond games as well?

Jed Pressgrove: I will continue Loaded Questions if people express interest in it. You probably noticed that production on Loaded Questions came to a halt late last year. One reason for that was a lack of questions. By the time enough questions came in, I had lost some fascination with the concept. Long story short, if anyone reading this wants to see more volumes of Loaded Questions, consider doing a couple of things:

  1. Send me questions. Topics beyond games are fine, provided that I have some knowledge of the topics. Unfortunately, I won’t dedicate time to questions such as “What is your favorite color?” and “What would win in a fight: a panda or a koala?”
  2. Retweet or favorite my tweets when I share links to Loaded Questions. The more engagement, the better. More eyes and interest can lead to more questions.

 

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2018

by Jed Pressgrove

2018 could be the worst year ever for big-budget hits. A couple of months ago, Spider-Man would have made this list. After playing dozens of games since that time, I can’t give it a spot. The list now lacks any of the obvious choices that the gaming hype machine would endorse.

Fortunately, the state of mainstream gaming doesn’t have to be impressive in order for it to be a good year for games. The following titles hold their own against last year’s best.

1. Iconoclasts

In Iconoclasts, an intersection of faith and government keeps a population in check, and it’s up to Robin, a silent Christ-like figure, to upend the system. Featuring the most striking pixel art of the year, this game never lets you forget that its world is full of human beings with competing beliefs and experiences. The narrative, reminiscent of Final Fantasy VI’s theatrics, emphasizes how perspectives and goals clash to awaken a new world. Armed with a wrench that is even more versatile than Kratos’ axe, Robin solves mechanical puzzles as the melodrama of the story intensifies. Developer Joakim Sandberg articulates politics with a level of maturity that is rare in both games and our current mainstream dialogue.

(See full review of Iconoclasts here.)

2. Octahedron

No other release evolves like Demimonde’s Octahedron, which takes the platform-creating premise of all-time classic Solomon’s Key in an intoxicating direction. Level by level, the game suggests a yearning for personal and artistic change. Its constant mysteries, silky-smooth controls, heart-pounding soundtrack, and neon colors are entrancing. Sexiest game of 2018 by far and true platforming genius.

(See full review of Octahedron here.)

3. Legendary Gary

Notwithstanding its sarcastic title, Evan Rogers’ Legendary Gary is a revelation for having a non-snarky metatextual approach alone. Sensitivity abounds in this strange RPG in which a lazy young man must stop ignoring what’s important in life. Like many gamers (including game journalists who are supposed to have higher standards), the titular protagonist uses video games to retreat from reality, but Gary learns that the real world needs him more than he needs the virtual world. In the middle of this humanistic story is an innovative and comical combat system that subverts the notion of taking separate turns.

(See full review of Legendary Gary here.)

4. Subnautica

Subnautica is everything the overrated Abzû should have been and more. Its alien ocean suggests a paradoxical masterpiece: few settings in video games are as inviting, yet no other open world is as frightening. As a result, crafting has rarely seemed as essential in a game, as new technology gives you the privilege to survive the depths of the sea. And 3D game creators, take note: there’s no excuse for clunky underwater mechanics when developer Unknown Worlds nails them so well here.

(See more thoughts on Subnautica here.)

5. Guacamelee! 2

This game is a certified barn burner. It can be wild, as when you learn how to duke it out with bad guys as a small chicken. It can be avant-garde, as when you can only see enemies and splatter against a white background while you move on invisible platforms. It can be cathartic and shocking, as when you finally get your hands on a pesky, elusive wizard who, after getting caught, transforms into a large animal and swallows you whole like Jonah. Forget Red Dead Redemption 2, God of War, Yakuza 6, Dragon Quest XI, Monster Hunter World, Attack on Titan 2, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate. Guacamelee! 2 is the 2018 sequel that flexes real creative muscle.

(See full review of Guacamelee! 2 here.)

6. Into the Breach

Into the Breach’s turn-based battles carry a distinct kind of urgency and drama. Hit points are low, so every move could be your last. Defense matters more than offense, as the game ends when the buildings you’re supposed to protect sustain too much damage. And the large, pixelated sprites have a rough sort of menace to them (this game has the best B-movie vibe since 2013’s Gaurodan). No moment in Into the Breach lacks dire stakes, as suggested by this line of in-game dialogue that evokes the cynicism of war hawks: “We can postpone the discussion on where you got the weaponry until after you use it.”

(See more thoughts on Into the Breach here.)

7. Dandara

Multiple games on this list (Octahedron, Guacamelee! 2, Yoku’s Island Express) provide fascinating ways for the player to travel across and between platforms. Yet Dandara still seems strange because of its fundamental awkwardness — with no option to walk or run, you can only land on white surfaces by zipping to them in a straight line. We’re simply not accustomed to a game that places such a significant constraint on movement while demanding pinpoint accuracy. More so than any game in 2018, Dandara rewards patience with a unique and blistering form of kineticism.

(See more thoughts on Dandara here.)

8. A Way Out

With a nimble camera and a bizarre dedication to cooperative gaming (A Way Out is always two-player split-screen), director Josef Fares continues to push the boundaries of duo-centric play. But while his previous game Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons delves into the difficulties of coming of age, A Way Out flips friendship on its head after hours of bonding between two hard-boiled protagonists. The emotional aftermath of the game’s competitive twist cements A Way Out as one of the finest examples of pulpy storytelling in video games.

(See full review of A Way Out here.)

9. Yoku’s Island Express

Imagine Sonic Spinball as a semi-open world. That’s a simple way to describe how Yoku’s Island Express, developed by Villa Gorilla, stands apart in a year of groundbreaking 2D platformers. Navigating the game’s paddle-laden setting is intuitive enough to be relaxing and challenging enough to prevent boredom. It also helps that Yoku’s Island Express is an audiovisual feast: viewing the map is like appreciating a tapestry, and the sharp sound effects can linger in your mind long after playing.

10. Onrush

Onrush takes cues from several games (Burnout and Overwatch among them), but developer Codemasters’ commitment to structured chaos is undeniably distinguished. Whether convenient or not, Onrush ensures that you will be near vehicle-based war at all times. Completing laps ironically serves no purpose as you power up your automobile like a junkie. In an industry where fighting games refuse to move forward, Onrush is a refreshing and electrifying take on competitive combat.

(See full review of Onrush here.)

Honorable Mentions

Return of the Obra Dinn
The Gardens Between
Florence
Spider-Man
Plug Me

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Games of 2018 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

Welcome to this year’s list, which continues a feature introduced in last year’s round-up — the play-instead recommendations. For every entry in this list, I name a superior title. The catch is that a lot of these alternatives don’t approach greatness; they’re just competent enough to further highlight the ineptitude of the following titles.

1. Kingdom Come: Deliverance (PS4)

This RPG might be stripped down (no monsters, no spells) and might aim for a sense of realism (you must eat), but it plays like a college project gone wrong. The PS4 version (which I played at launch) is a technical travesty characterized by unresponsive button input, laughably repetitious townspeople dialogue, inconsistent visuals, bizarre bugs — I will generously stop the list there. Going by the “finished” product, Kingdom Come: Deliverance was made by people who have no respect for themselves, audiences, the notion of realism, or the art of video games.

(See full review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance here.)

Play Instead: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

While this sequel frequently scans as the work of depraved Resident Evil 4 and Uncharted fans who like to see dirt and blood on women, and while Lara Croft and her neck-beard-sporting friend Jonah are insufferable dullards, at least the game has the decency to function like it’s supposed to.

2. Red Dead Redemption 2

Go ahead, game industry whore. Excuse the lack of combat innovation, the unresponsiveness of basic functions, the numerous glitches, the contradiction between the focus on minute details and the overall lack of realism. Keep kneeling before the Rockstar executives and telling them that their game stuffing is different and competent. But if you’re going to take the extra step and claim that Red Dead Redemption 2 is a meaningful story about a gang of mythological outlaws being left behind by society, get off the game’s fake cinematic camera and sit down and watch the work of filmmaker Sam Peckinpah. Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch superbly depicts the gradual destruction of a nomad group of cowboys. In contrast to Red Dead Redemption 2, the film doesn’t pass off its tale as a kind of half-assed morality lesson. Instead, Peckinpah stares into the heart of violence and sees much of humanity. The gaming world’s ignorance of The Wild Bunch (and other great philosophical westerns) allows it to worship developer Rockstar one more time with zero self-reflection.

(See full review of Red Dead Redemption.)

Play Instead: Milanoir

Milanoir has much in common with Red Dead Redemption 2. It controls like crap, its cover-based gunfights are inferior to those of Gears of War, and it was developed by people who might very well believe a juvenile lens of the world is mature. Yet Milanoir doesn’t have a preposterous and outdated bounty system to bail you out. It actually sends the player to prison at one point, and you can almost taste the potential for a profound statement before Milanoir goes right back to its poorly constructed shooter sequences.

3. Chuchel

It’s clear that developer Jaromír Plachý wants to make a cartoon of sorts with Chuchel, but neither the subject matter (a chase after a cherry) nor the puzzle design is intriguing. Most of the time you just keep clicking on things until something happens, and the allusions to classics like Pac-Man are insultingly dull. Oddly, the protagonist resembles the golliwog racial caricature. If this artistic choice doesn’t point to any ill will, it definitely underlines the lack of intelligence in the overall design of the game.

Play Instead: The Gardens Between

Like Chuchel, The Gardens Between is not a mechanically complex game, but its puzzles, while simple, are much more engaging; the solution involving a suspended water drop ranks among the cleverest ideas in 2018 games. The Gardens Between is also a visual masterwork in how it links two characters’ childhood memories to level design. Every stage is an island that rotates as you move time forward and backward, resembling a hypnotic spell.

4. Donut County

It doesn’t matter that the apparent goal of Donut County is to make you smirk and giggle as you consume animals, bricks, chairs, cars, and more by moving a hole in the ground that grows every time it is fed. The game’s failure lies in its immediate loss of novelty. Developer Ben Esposito’s levels are largely the same exercise, requiring little imagination from the player and confining the action to extremely limited boundaries. Donut County’s redundant, brainless style recalls the numbing idiocy of Chuchel. The best thing you can say about either game is that they have the potential to reduce us to unthinking but amused participants. Just as eating certain foods can make you unhealthier, playing certain games can make you stupider.

Play Instead: Way of the Passive Fist

If you’re going to keep doing the same thing over and over again, the least you can do is have rhythm. Way of the Passive Fist turns the overdone beat-’em-up genre into a defensive exercise where timing is paramount for both survival and high scores. It’s very true this game should have been shorter to stave off a sense of monotony, but given that its challenges require great attention to detail from the player, Way of the Passive Fist doesn’t turn you into an easily amused automaton.

5. Paratopic

This release from the indie trash pile never comes close to matching its obvious ancestors (Silent Hill, Thirty Flights of Loving, Glitchhikers). Not scary, barely coherent, and unimaginatively surreal, Paratopic is all tone and no brain or heart.

(See full review of Paratopic here.)

Play Instead: Return of the Obra Dinn

In Papers, Please, Lucas Pope pretends he has a handle on politics, suffering, and humanity. He drops that act with Return of the Obra Dinn, a game that better communicates Pope’s pure interest in mystery. Unlike the case with Paratopic, superb audiovisuals allow Return of the Obra Dinn to tap deep into our fear of and fascination with the inevitability of disaster.

6. Celeste

Those who think this game has something interesting or important to say about mental illness are sadly mistaken. Celeste is the work of a manipulative artist (Matt Thorson) who thinks it’s insightful to reduce psychological difficulty to, say, an evil apparition that follows you around like Cosmic Mario. Ever notice how the praise directed at Celeste’s trendy narrative rarely mentions the historical accomplishments of other games that deal with similar subject matter? There’s also little novelty in the game’s approach to platforming. Dashing mechanics are a dime a dozen these days, and the reason players die so many times in Celeste is that the platforming is rigid and unimaginative. This title is just another superficial ode to climbing the literal and metaphorical mountain.

(See full review of Celeste here.)

Play Instead: Plug Me

The solutions to Plug Me’s platforming trials are admittedly as set in stone as those in Celeste. But the suggestively titled Plug Me doesn’t overstay its welcome. The game is a race against time, as each level’s primary platform burns out like a fuse. If this disintegrating platform reaches the end of the level before you do, you’re dead — an inventive premise that isn’t weighed down by offensively cliched metaphors about struggle.

7. The Banner Saga 3

Tolkien’s precious hope and George R.R. Martin’s enthusiasm for destruction collide in this slog of a turn-based tactical game. The previous two Banner Saga games were far from intelligent or daring, but developer Stoic reaches a new low with this concluding chapter. Hopefully, we will never see another confused, nihilistic march like this again.

(See full review of The Banner Saga 3 here.)

Play Instead: Octopath Traveler

It’s dull watching your lumbering army break through the defenses of your opponents in The Banner Saga 3. Octopath Traveler, on the other hand, effectively fetishizes the shattering of enemy armor with beyond-crisp audio. For all its flaws, Octopath Traveler knows how to utilize sound to help tell stories and immerse you in a variety of activities and settings.

8. Minit

Minit might be considered an independent title, but it smells like part of a larger marketing scheme to dumb down classic game ideas and package them as loving tributes designed to elate the common person, who would be better off playing Galaga or Ms. Pac-Man. A facile Zelda wannabe that really should have lasted 60 seconds.

(See full review of Minit here.)

Play Instead: The Messenger

The Messenger sure looks like a Ninja Gaiden clone, but the comparison doesn’t hold up as you learn how to sail around like a flying squirrel. This game is not always good (the metatextual humor is beyond irritating), but its unusual kookiness separates it from the crowd of indie darlings that simply bank on tradition and nostalgia.

9. Mario Tennis Aces

A lazy effort from developer Camelot, Mario Tennis Aces can’t even sniff the sweaty shorts of Mario’s Tennis on the Virtual Boy or the 2000 N64 classic, Mario Tennis. Not only does this pathetic sequel lack basic tennis options, but its new mechanics are for people who don’t value skill or perseverance. A grave insult to the sport of tennis.

(See full review of Mario Tennis Aces here.)

Play Instead: Laser League

Although this game isn’t based on a traditional sport, its use of short sets is similar to the truncated experience of Mario Tennis Aces. The notion of only needing a few points to win a set makes sense here, though, as each point of Laser League can go on for a good while as team members revive each other amid an onslaught of moving laser beams. The game betrays its own simplicity by giving certain characters cheap special moves, but I’ll take the negative aspects of this fictional sport over the head-scratching design of a once-entertaining series.

10. Mega Man 11

This latest entry in the decades-old series suggests it might be time for Capcom to give up. Mega Man controls like a gummed-up, outdated piece of junk in this sequel, and all you have to do to survive the levels is save up credits and buy lives and energy tanks. That this embarrassing chapter largely received a pass demonstrates the power of a brand.

(See full review of Mega Man 11 here.)

Play Instead: Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon

As unnecessary as Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon is (it’s like a poor remake of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse), it does handle as well as the NES games it emulates. Can’t say the same thing for Mega Man 11, which botches the smoothness of the slide from Mega Man 3.

Red Dead Redemption 2 Review — Say No to Rockstar

by Jed Pressgrove

Red Dead Redemption 2 is another glorified riff on Grand Theft Auto III, best enjoyed by those looking to control something of a juvenile delinquent in a sandbox. The game tries to gussy itself up as an immersive western with a world full of possibilities, but even a 10-year-old could make a grocery list of everything that developer Rockstar botches along the way.

The game’s “You can be a cowboy” conceit comes from its attention to the details of everyday life. You have to eat, but eat too much and you become overweight, which affects health and stamina. You have to clean your horse, as well as ride it for uneventful distances so as to feel the toil of travel. You have to take baths (or have, predictably, a woman do the scrubbing for you, with her hand seemingly going straight for the protagonist’s crotch when all you told her to do was wash one of your arms — an open world indeed!). One could go on and on. While these rote activities are neither fun, nor inventive, nor representative of everything that would need to be taken care of in a western setting, the intention is for players to lose themselves in some sense of realism.

Rockstar can’t sell realism however, as Red Dead Redemption 2 is the same game where if you’re on the run after committing murder, all you have to do is stay away from the red part of your map and, later, pay a bounty at a post office. Rockstar fanboys might quickly point out that the player could clear bounties in the first Red Dead Redemption, but once you stop pretending that you work for Rockstar PR and consider that this sequel obviously wants its western setting to be more convincing, you might realize that the entire game is not consistent or creative.

It’s also difficult to become immersed when you have to press and hold a button — as opposed to efficiently tapping a button once — to make your character hitch his horse and when your character doesn’t do anything for 5 to 10 seconds before awkwardly getting down and performing the action. (Note: This scenario assumes that when you approach a place to hitch a horse, the on-screen prompt to hitch your horse will appear, which doesn’t always happen.) The lack of basic responsiveness in the controls puts a spotlight on the fact that you are playing a 2018 game that feels clunkier than the average title. This is the same kind of problem that, earlier this year, prevented Kingdom Come: Deliverance from achieving a degree of verisimilitude on the PS4.

Let’s say we want to be 15 years old and think of an open world game as a place to cut up and be a depraved, no-good, piece-of-shit maniac. You can’t do it in this game. You can’t, say, kill your entire camp and forget about all of those generic missions they send you on. You can’t even draw your weapon in the camp. The game actually forces you to move slower in the camp, just to remind you that these people are your friends (even though, after eating some community stew, Arthur Morgan throws the bowl and utensil on the ground like an entitled 2-year-old). Red Dead Redemption 2 is too conservative to offer real freedom and meaningful consequences, unlike 1997’s Fallout.

The silliest thing about Red Dead Redemption 2 is how clumsily it strives to be a good western by evoking elements of popular western stories. Dutch, the leader of the gang of which Arthur Morgan is a member, recalls the voices of western actors Richard Boone and Powers Boothe but carries none of their palpable menace. A prominent fistfight in the mud during the game clearly wants to compete with a similar scene in the third season of Deadwood, but it can’t because it barely takes enough time to build dramatic tension before the fight and drags on anti-climatically as you grapple with the delay between when you press buttons and when your avatar moves. Dutch’s gang resembles that group of lawbreakers in The Wild Bunch, and as with that (in)famous squad in Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant film, their mythological way of life can’t last in an increasingly modernized world. But even though Peckinpah’s film displays some sentimentality for the loss of myth, The Wild Bunch doesn’t have a musing as corny as the one in Red Dead Redemption 2 that goes, “We’re bad men, but we ain’t them, so it’s ok.” That bit, along with another character’s patronizing white-guilt observation about the plight of American Indians (“Poor bastards … we really screwed them over down here”), epitomizes the phony maturity on display in Rockstar’s latest tired nod to formula.

Guacamelee! 2 Review — A Tremendous Step Forward

by Jed Pressgrove

As entertaining as the original Guacamelee! could be as a brawler-platformer and ode to Mexican culture, its imagination only went so far. You could see that in the patronizing and predictable reference to the falling-bridge dynamic in Super Mario Bros.’s Bowser battles; the very limited abilities of hero Juan’s chicken form (an inferior nod to Metroid’s morph ball); and the inclusion of a basic turbo meter in the Super Turbo Championship Edition of the game, just in case you couldn’t already imagine that the developers loved Street Fighter II.

Guacamelee! 2 doesn’t repeat these mistakes. The homages have become vehicles for increasingly complex mechanics and bizarre parody. Hilariously, the chicken form now comes with an intricate moveset that introduces new ways to extinguish enemies and land on seemingly out-of-reach platforms. And because you must switch dimensions as in the first game, Guacamelee! 2 presents numerous situations where you must decide which form will aid you the most as you try to keep up with the tests of ever-evolving level design. Not since Resident Evil 4 has a game maintained such a ferocious pace.

This sequel also sets a higher bar for video-game comedy. Although the game stumbles when it mocks turn-based combat (Jack King-Spooner’s Will You Ever Return? 2 features a more emotionally charged, not to mention more concise, takedown of such conventions), its humor is otherwise sharp and welcome, as when the entitled gamer mentality is satirized (“Is there a mod for removing the rubbish memes?”). In a send-up of pop gaming’s lack of proper suspense, at one point you come across at least five signs warning you of danger ahead on a path. And while Guacamelee! 2 centers itself on the idea of gaining new abilities, it also invites one to laugh at the overplayed obsession with becoming more powerful in games with nonsensical allusions to the protagonist’s newly gained “Fresh Breath,” “Papercut Immunity,” and “Stain Resistance.”

Since Guacamelee! 2 demands the player to integrate a wider variety of techniques, it can be a trial at times to play, as when you find yourself on a treadmill where you must strategically transform between human and cock to avoid being incinerated by moving walls of lava that speak to the game’s interdimensional madness. But there is not a more strangely cathartic moment in 2018 than when the game predestines the player to achieve a 600-hit combo as an overgrown chicken. If Guacamelee! shows that DrinkBox Studios merely adores the art form of video games, then Guacamelee! 2, like 2016’s spectacular dungeon-crawler Severed, proves that the developer is one of the most brilliant artists working in the medium.

Dead Cells Review — Moderation Is Boring

by Jed Pressgrove

I’ve seen more than one person say that Dead Cells is for people who dislike that type of game in which players must replay stages every time they die. But in pandering to such a close-minded audience, Dead Cells shows little conviction. When you die in this game, you do have to replay certain levels, but others may be skipped once you gain fundamental abilities. This arbitrary contradiction in design leaves me not wanting to play any of the game; Dead Cells’ lukewarm approach to levels reminds me of that silly moderate who condemns the atrocities of Hitler but always points out that the thin-mustached villain did some good things. It doesn’t help that its action is shallow and predictable compared to that of Guacamelee! 2, Spider-Man, and God of War; that its humor is as forced as Axiom Verge’s; and that its random item drops and occasional souped-up enemies suggest that developer Motion Twin has a superficial understanding of what made the first two Diablo games memorable.

Game Criticism Is Not Labor Rights Advocacy

by Jed Pressgrove

The role of a critic is to examine, interpret, and evaluate works of art after experiencing them. This purpose might lead a critic to champion an album for its exquisite instrumentation; reject a film for its shallow moral message; compare a painting and a sculpture that depict the same subject; or point out that a video game is politically irresponsible, for whatever reason, in addition to being a clunky, trite experience. The possibilities are innumerable, and the critic’s passion for art can sometimes lead to challenging ideas that stick in your memory like a pest. Criticism might even enlighten or elate us. Whatever the case may be, a critic talks about finished works of art and, in the process, should attempt to not sound like a commercial, a marketer, or any other horrible thing that attempts to exploit our impulses to buy or complacently enjoy what is peddled to us.

In contrast, a labor rights advocate looks for cases of exploitation in the workplace and puts a spotlight on terrible practices with the hope that workers’ situations will change for the better.

As someone with a functioning brain and a sense of decency, I don’t have a problem with criticism or labor rights advocacy. I do have a problem with statements that suggest that these things are somehow the same.

Recent stories about the production, not the finished artistry, of Red Dead Redemption 2 have led some to raise questions about whether poor labor conditions should factor into critics’ assessments of the game itself. Jessica Condit posits that labor conditions are directly tied to quality of the art: “However, talking about crunch can change how games like this are made. In fact, they can help make these games even better.” But where is the evidence for this well-meaning statement? How can one imply that better working conditions would produce better art when the examination, interpretation, and evaluation of art is in the eye of the beholder?

Earlier this year in reviews of Detroit: Become Human, some critics mentioned the sexism and homophobia that allegedly went on during the production of the game. It’s almost as if some critics would sometimes rather review labor environments than the games themselves. What’s particularly puzzling about this trend is that only certain games receive this level of scrutiny. It’s not like these same critics are performing active investigations of the production environments of every game they analyze. Indeed, that would be too much work for those looking to be conveniently self-righteous and progressive.

Criticism is a challenging activity because it requires one to ignore, look well beyond, or be wary of factors — whether advertisements, artist interviews, production stories (good or bad), and so on — that threaten to undermine one’s pure reaction to a given work of art. I reject the philosophy of critics who say otherwise and who rarely, if ever, seem to care about the labor conditions involved in all works of art, as opposed to a few that make the news here and there.

The Red Strings Club Review — Left-Wing Puppetry

by Jed Pressgrove

Don’t listen to the cries of narrow-minded fans: it’s fine for politics to be in games. But political expression should not be divorced from intelligence and context. With The Red Strings Club, developer Deconstructeam often presents a leftist viewpoint that is critical of corporations and patriarchal power, yet the game is content to fall back on wise-ass, pandering dialogue to share its perspective, as opposed to building a convincing narrative that compels the player to consider the validity of its biases.

The Red Strings Club takes place in a future where citizens can receive cybernetic implants that can do everything from increase their charisma to reduce their stress. Most of the story is set in the game’s titular bar, where you play as Donovan, a bartender who can mix drinks so as to manipulate people’s emotions and gain whatever information he wants. Along the way, you’ll also assume the role of Brandeis, Donovan’s hacker boyfriend, and Akara-184, an android that manufactures implants for a corporation called Supercontinent. The overall goal of the game is to stop Supercontinent’s plan to take control of people’s minds through a new program called Social Psyche Welfare.

Curiously, Jordi de Paco’s script reveals very little about the culture that is being threatened with Supercontinent’s scheme. With the exception of suggesting that people can better realize their dreams through technological modifications to their bodies, the story doesn’t highlight how the game’s fictional society is different than ours. Even stranger, despite The Red String Club’s preaching about the dubious intentions of corporations, the concept of class — the linchpin that connects leftists, and people generally, of all backgrounds — isn’t specifically addressed in the plot.

This oversight about class is particularly puzzling given that the principal characters seem to champion revolutionary behavior. In one scene, Donovan says, “Revolutionaries don’t live long,” and Brandeis replies, “But we do live intense.” But what have these people been fighting for? The impoverished? Oppressed groups? The script never says, even though the answer could obviously be tied to the malevolent actions of a corporate enemy.

At a pivotal juncture in the story, Akara-184 lays out several things that could be eliminated through Social Psyche Welfare: rape, suicide, xenophobia, homophobia. But when Akara-184 insists women are oppressed in the game’s fictional setting, something doesn’t line up, given that women don’t appear to be in bad shape within the game (Supercontinent’s CEO is even a 15-year-old girl!). If you, as Donovan, disagree with Akara’s assertion based on the game’s lack of attention to women’s plight, she will call you stupid, never offering any explanation of her righteous position. With this idiotic scene, Deconstructeam unintentionally parodies left-wing commentators who refuse to make a clear argument despite having a wealth of information at their fingertips. In resembling such insufferable, arrogant leftists, The Red Strings Club puts the “punk” in cyberpunk.