Cosmic Star Heroine Review — Turn, Turn, Turn

by Jed Pressgrove

There’s a reason Cosmic Star Heroine has an uncomplicated, unpretentious, unemotional spy plot: developer Zeboyd Games sees turn-based combat as an artform that can almost single-handedly justify the existence of a game. Sure, Cosmic Star Heroine has an interesting cast (the 11 playable characters include a nature-loving private eye, a robot who hits on both sexes, and a bounty hunter who recalls Final Fantasy VI’s Shadow and the Japanese movie alien Zeiram), as well as some well-designed settings enriched by HyperDuck’s catchy soundtrack (like the night-club location that benefits from this pop smartbomb). But all of these things ultimately amount to gift wrapping as Cosmic Star Heroine zips toward the next series of fights that demand a unique type of forward-thinking play.

On the surface, Cosmic Star Heroine is a Chrono Trigger wannabe, as seen in the way the characters run, the style of the overworld map, and the enemy encounters. The latter element in particular is a necessary rather than nostalgic design choice: unlike a traditional Final Fantasy, which randomly transports you to a stage for battle, Cosmic Star Heroine always allows you to see your foes, and once you get too close to them, you transition immediately into combat mode — your immediate surroundings are the arena. This borrowed concept complements the fast pace of the story, which, in one wittily frantic sequence, has you fend off a bounty hunter right before battling a huge mech that you then pilot to kill a city-threatening monster.

Following the lead of Zeboyd’s previous games (the best of which was Penny Arcade 3), Cosmic Star Heroine streamlines the typical turn-based RPG experience to make it more urgent and less repetitive. There are a limited number of enemies, characters automatically heal after victory, opponents become more powerful with each new set of turns, and so forth. Cosmic Star Heroine takes its predecessors’ groundwork to another meticulous level, however. Most actions, whether a simple physical attack or a healing move, can only be used once before the player is forced to defend and recharge all abilities. In order to win efficiently (which is a concern given enemies’ ever-increasing strength), you not only have to think ahead but also remember the single techniques you’ve depleted.

The need to think of your moves as perishables puts Cosmic Star Heroine on a rare strategic plane given that turn-based RPGs, even with the variable of magic/ability points, tend to encourage players to spam the most effective techniques. Zeboyd’s complication of the formula doesn’t end there. In most cases, you gain “style” as you perform moves. Because style gradually increases the effectiveness of your actions, it could be smart to avoid unleashing certain weapons until later in the battle. Characters also become “hyper” on specific turns, during which you receive a significant multiplier effect. There’s always risk with these bonuses, though, as waiting for extra attack power can be deadly if you’re fighting an enemy who is already extremely strong and will only grow stronger with each new turn.

This system is even more ingenious thanks to the numerous abilities the 11 heroes gain as they level up. In addition to the ever-present defense/recharge option, each character can only “carry” seven unique moves into battle, so your party members can serve very different purposes based on what abilities you assign. And the abilities themselves may come with catches, like a more powerful physical attack that causes you to lose a turn, a buff that goes into effect for only one turn, or a party-replenishing heal that kills the user. Integrating the various strengths of individual allies with consideration to style and “hyper” turns, while also remembering to recharge abilities and eliminate threats before they are too overpowered, shows a brand of orchestration that Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy VI, Zeboyd’s two main influences, don’t come close to touching.

Night in the Woods — Ode to Millennial Egotism

by Jed Pressgrove

As expressed in The Who’s pop masterpiece “My Generation,” most people don’t like their generation being outright dismissed or insulted. But if millennial gamers sing high praises for Night in the Woods, any defense of themselves will be hard to swallow. Writers Scott Benson and Bethany Hockenberry have created a puzzling contradiction with protagonist Mae and the small-town setting of Possum Springs: while the latter by itself has palpable authenticity, right down to the humorously varied “Get off my porch” dialogue from a grumbling male, Mae becomes more and more irresponsible as employed, stressed-out people allow her privileged behavior to grow to unbelievable degrees.

Simply put, Mae epitomizes the stereotypical millennial’s disconnection from traditional everyday toil, and the script of Night in the Woods pretends that working-class citizens would not call her out for mooching and breaking the law. In the story, Mae has returned to her hometown to live with her parents again after dropping out of college. From there, you guide Mae through a variety of self-absorbed, immoral activities that include tampering with crime evidence, shoplifting, and digging up the coffin of a boy, all with little or no consequence. Although the anthropomorphic cast of Night in the Woods gives the writers leeway to indulge in some cartoonish, unrealistic depictions, the story suggests the supporting characters have real-life concerns, especially pulling one’s own weight, that help the player suspend disbelief. Why, then, do these people — family members, friends, and hard workers — excuse, overlook, or laugh off Mae’s flagrantly selfish and stupid actions?

At one point, it seems Benson and Hockenberry will address this glaring question through Bea, Mae’s childhood friend who has been running a business ever since the death of her mother. Bea confronts Mae’s blase attitude toward dropping out of college: “I stayed here and got older, while you left and stayed the same.” Yet Bea inexplicably goes on to support Mae’s thievery and grave defilement (and for some unknown idiotic reason, the populace of Possum Springs doesn’t care about a decades-old corpse being disrespected). Bea’s dedication doesn’t get rewarded, though: in a late scene, Mae embarrasses Bea with callous disregard, which causes Bea to bring up how she wishes she could have had an opportunity to go to college like Mae, who can’t even offer her good friend a reason as to why she quit school. Bea eventually says Mae is “genuinely a good person,” even though the story has only shown evidence of Mae taking advantage of everyone around her, with no effort toward explaining herself or making a contribution to society.

Developer Infinite Fall also excuses Mae’s deplorable acts by gamifying them. Stealing, destroying property, and stabbing are presented as fun, throwaway minigames. This design choice, coupled with the townspeople’s bizarre lack of criticism for Mae’s egomania, implies that sociopathy should be celebrated, not examined. Even if Night in the Woods had a cogent point, Mae would remain an unflattering caricature of a millennial. Benson and Hockenberry’s writing is unacceptable in light of Three Fourths Home: Extended Edition, which demonstrates how the hardships of a capitalist society give millennials and baby boomers more spiritual connectedness than many realize.

Night in the Woods is at its most tedious when Mae drags all of her friends on a ghost-chasing mission, as it’s fairly obvious from the start that there are no ghosts. Benson and Hockenberry use this setup to reveal that Mae and a clandestine Republican-leaning cult are similarly insane. For connecting mental illness to murder (straight out of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”) and all sorts of other unsavory activity, Night in the Woods registers as pandering and cliched Democrat hate on one hand and a demented apology for millennial immaturity on the other.

Horizon Zero Dawn Review — Foregone Heroism

by Jed Pressgrove

Horizon Zero Dawn boasts yet another modern open world, but given the unquestionably moral protagonist and cookie-cutter quests (such as killing bandits and wiping out corrupted machines), it would be more accurate to say the game features a big world in which it’s fairly fun to shoot things with a bow. Due to her deer-in-headlights look during dialogue exchanges, Aloy, the red-headed hero at the center of it all, is more interesting for her combat skills than her personality. All of this ultimately makes Horizon Zero Dawn a straightforward action game where the goal is to take out a lot of bad guys as efficiently as possible. And while this simplicity is refreshing when compared to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s more intense pseudo-survival aspects (such as constant weapon breaking and stamina depletion), developer Guerrilla Games doesn’t do enough to ensure drama in the game’s many fight scenes.

With its warring tribes, light settlements, and abundant wildlife, the world of Horizon Zero Dawn recalls that of Far Cry Primal. The main difference is the role of technology: Aloy has a device attached to her ear that can scan her surroundings (think “detective mode”), and the most noteworthy animals in the game are 100 percent machine. Using both natural materials and components salvaged from the mechanical beasts, you produce ammunition for a variety of weapons, which range from a slingshot that fires bombs to a crossbow that slings down ropes that trap enemies. You also wield a spear for melee and stealth attacks, and you level up to activate all of Aloy’s capabilities, the best of which is an ability that slows down time when you aim your weapon while jumping.

Although this game, like Breath of the Wild, opens with tutorialization and exposition rather than a daring invitation to the wilderness, Horizon Zero Dawn surpasses the latest Zelda at keeping the protagonist in exciting motion. There is no stamina meter to distract one from the allure of kineticism, extra ammo can be crafted in the middle of a fight, and Aloy, unlike Link, has weight to her leaping (she can entertainingly scale some mountains in this way if you time and place your jumps well). Horizon Zero Dawn also has an exquisite arrow-shooting system: the longer you hold the fire button, the more Aloy pulls back the string of her bow (you can feel this difference as the controller lightly vibrates), which can improve the trajectory of your shots. Guerrilla Games does misfire by slowing your movement to that of a turtle when you use Aloy’s scanning device, but otherwise the action of Horizon Zero Dawn is allowed to soar.

It’s unfortunate, then, that Aloy’s advantages in combat turn Horizon Zero Dawn into sort of a comedy. The best way to defeat most enemies is to sneak to higher ground and jump and shoot (thus activating slow motion) again and again. This strategy has some challenges, such as anticipating your opponent’s movement and adjusting your aim so that the arrow strikes one of the enemy’s weak points in regular motion once the slow-mo stops, but once you get the hang of it, you are not likely to be taken down, especially if your medicine pouch is leveled up and full. At first, I was delighted to incessantly thrust the game into fits of crawling action, and the pleasure of hearing and feeling Aloy’s feet hit the ground after each John Woo-inspired mini-clip is unlike anything I’ve experienced.

Yet this approach takes the wind out of the game’s dramatic intentions, as the higher ground that you need for the slaughter can be, depending on the threat(s), something as short as a big rock. Watching vicious, technologically souped-up animals circle around a physical structure — one which they should be able to knock me off of — becomes an empty joy, as it exposes Guerrilla Games’ limited kinetic imagination. This problem renders the ho-hum, save-the-tribe story even more inert: in one main quest, you have to fight a giant corrupted machine at a fort, but I dispatched this guardian from a mountain ledge of barely moderate height, despite the monstrosity’s boulder throwing and before I even eliminated all the smaller foes. Aloy is too powerful and too casually heroic for Horizon Zero Dawn to register as anything more than a fleeting curiosity.

Everything Review — Nothing Upstairs

by Jed Pressgrove

At times you are told to press a button to “think” in David OReilly’s Everything. This command serves as a way for OReilly to smirk at video-game shorthand and offer trite existential dialogue (“Am I really controlling this?”). More ironically, the command is OReilly’s attempt to turn off the player’s brain, as anyone who doesn’t need to be told to think might see that this game, like Mountain, is an unfunny, unintelligent joke.

The premise of Everything is you can play as anything: animals, trees, rocks, grass, planets, and so forth. But you start off playing as one thing — in my case, a donkey. The donkey, like other animals, doesn’t walk as you might expect; it rolls thanks to extremely choppy animation with humorous intentions. So you roll to marked places in the world to talk to other things and learn new functions of the game, such as the ability to get similar things (in my case, other donkeys) to roll with you as sort of an absurd army. Along the way you unlock audio logs of philosopher Alan Watts, whose academic tone clashes with the idiotic sight of rolling donkeys and the game’s many silly and inconsequential lines, such as when a tree says, “I wouldn’t mind a nice jacket, though.” The tonal mismatch becomes even more embarrassing when you hear the pensive violins of the soundtrack.

If you actually listen to Watts’ words about all things being connected (it’s always tempting to turn off the audio logs), you might consider the notion that Watts watered down Buddhist concepts for pretentious westerners. At the very least, OReilly’s goofy vision, where anything from deer to rocks can procreate by dancing in a circle, muddies the contributions of the scholar. That everything in Everything seems to come with kindergarten humor suggests OReilly is hoping Watts can give some depth to an oversimplified portrayal of existence.

The closest Everything gets to genuine insight is how you can see the world from a different perspective depending on what thing, from gigantic to microscopic, you are. Perspective is not just about spatial differences, however. It’s also about different states and patterns of being. Thus, OReilly confirms his lazy intellectualism and design with the fact that animals in Everything travel and multiply in the same way that rocks do (was Watts ever this stupidly literal?). Everything could use the more distinct vantage points of Ryan Thorlakson’s Light’s End, which allows the player to assume the role of any person in the story, as in one memorable sequence where you, as a beggar, experience the prejudice of nonplayable characters. But like his condescending peers Davey Wreden and Toby Fox, OReilly knows it’s easier to create and sell whimsy than wisdom, so the superficial philosophy of Everything seems predestined.

World Heroes Perfect Review — Staying Humble

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review was inspired by the Switch version of the game.

Back in the 1990s, games like World Heroes made it easy to call a clone a clone. The two main characters in World Heroes, Hanzo and Fuuma, obviously borrow qualities from Ryu and Ken of Street Fighter II, right down to the white and red outfits and the special-move trio of the projectile, flying uppercut, and spinning horizontal attack. Even the theme of “World Heroes,” much more than the titles of clones such as Fighter’s History, trumpets Street Fighter II’s emphasis on geography and ethnic pride.

This clear debt to a recent ancestor gives a humorous edge to the last word in the title of the final World Heroes. If this game were perfect, its appeal wouldn’t be so reliant on the qualities of a monster hit like Street Fighter II. (Similarly, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild shouldn’t go down as a groundbreaking work given its liberal dedication to concepts from recent pop games.) Here, perfection merely amounts to a series-best effort in using logical, player-friendly rules: attack strength is determined by which buttons you press rather than how hard you mash buttons, you can block in the air, and so on.

Yet in some of its characters’ endings, World Heroes Perfect displays more humbleness about its limited aspirations than open-world adventures like Breath of the Wild and Horizon Zero Dawn (which, in some ways, offer far less freedom than the first two Fallout games, for instance). The most blatant evidence of World Heroes Perfect’s awareness comes in the conclusion for Fuuma, the Ken proxy. After emerging as a victor, Fuuma believes it’s time for him to go on a date to celebrate his success. But as in his ending in the original World Heroes, Fuuma instead finds himself tied to the monotony of office work. Ken, Fuuma’s inspiration, never faced such a banal finish. Never a real threat to Street Fighter II’s greatness, World Heroes Perfect at least playfully observes the tired maxim that applies to countless sequels and wannabe trailblazers: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Nioh Review — Somewhat Soulful Action

by Jed Pressgrove

The word out there is true: Nioh swipes a lot from Dark Souls. Enemies resurrect when you heal at a shrine (a parallel to the bonfire in Souls); you lose experience points (known as Amrita in Nioh) when you die but can regain them if you make it back to your point of failure without perishing; shiny objects on dead warriors attract your eye; and so on. But developer Team Ninja shifts the focus from deliberate horror to whip-smart action, similar to how Hideo Yoshizawa’s Ninja Gaiden (1988) revised Castlevania (1986), and avoids Hidetaka Miyazaki’s pseudo-existential, juvenile gibberish that made the latest Souls games (Bloodborne and Dark Souls III) case studies in pretentious pop gaming. The only catch is that, unlike Ninja Gaiden and its cutscenes, Nioh doesn’t understand how brief storytelling can supercharge spectacular martial arts.

When it comes to the spectacle and intricacies of fighting, Nioh is what Bloodborne should have been all along. Whereas Bloodborne neutralized its speed, its kinetic potential, with awkward risk-reward concepts (such as regaining health by immediately attacking enemies after taking damage), Nioh adds fresh nuance to the 3-D beat ’em up with the “Ki Pulse” move, which rebuilds your stamina more quickly when you tap the right shoulder button just as balls of light touch your character after you perform an attack. “Ki Pulse” is a rhythm game within the action that, when mastered, creates an unprecedented sense of stabilization and can work as a way to recover from combos, set up jabbing strikes, neutralize stamina-draining fields, or avoid a counterattack. (The flexibility of this system surpasses the color-coded defensive cues in the tragically underrated Golden Axe: Beast Rider.)

Nioh’s triumph over its obvious predecessors doesn’t stop there. You can take one of three stances (low, mid, or high) to improve evasion, counterattacking, or power. These stances also alter the normal and strong attacks of any weapon, granting the player artistic and technical license that make the stylistic flourishes in Devil May Cry, 3-D Ninja Gaiden (2004), or Bayonetta seem amateurish in comparison. As you go from boss fight to boss fight, Nioh forces you to grasp new layers of its complex combat. This approach is a far cry from the grinding that players often experience in Dark Souls, where luck can play as much of a role as skill. You are far less likely to be fortunate in Nioh; continued victory demands an articulate understanding of the game’s martial theories and practices, which emphasize the satisfaction, rather than the relief, of winning.

It’s a shame, then, that Nioh is a rambling mess otherwise. As if samurai protagonist William looking almost exactly like Geralt from The Witcher isn’t embarrassing enough, the narration in Nioh’s intro sounds like someone doing an exaggeration of William Shatner’s choppy delivery. And the cutscenes do not get more lively, outside of when bizarre animal spirits show up. Ironically, the most powerful text in Nioh is its message to you when you die (“Freed from this mortal coil”), which kicks off initially sorrowful music that morphs into something peaceful and content (a breath of fresh air after the dread of the Souls series).

In contrast to Nioh’s one-dimensional superiority over its influences, Ninja Gaiden wasn’t merely a better action title than Castlevania. It revolutionized storytelling in video games, allowing a concise narrative to bring a distinct emotional urgency that played off the speed of the hero. Thanks to protagonist Ryu Hayabusa’s pregame outburst about the death of his father, a fatal duel in an introductory cutscene drives every bit of the nonstop action in Ninja Gaiden. In Nioh’s first map screen, a duel is talked about casually, objectively. Yes, this duel involves only a sub-mission, but it’s a wasted opportunity to inject the human condition into the fighting, a missed chance to further enhance an already exciting kind of action, where rhythmic conservation reveals a blistering array of aesthetically sophisticated violence. Let raw emotion run through the entire affair — that’s what Ninja Gaiden on the NES tried to teach the pop video game world, and Nioh is yet another entry that doesn’t get it.

Resident Evil 7 Review — Make (Urban) America Hate Again

by Jed Pressgrove

One of the most superficial claims about Resident Evil 7: Biohazard is that it brings the Resident Evil series “back to its roots.” What this game, written by westerner Richard Pearsey, actually does is reuse anti-rural American horror cliches while sporting a “new perspective,” as if making a first-person title is revolutionary. With this in mind, Resident Evil 7 is most accurately described as a nostalgic survival-horror reboot for city snobs.

Set in rural Louisiana (again, not Resident Evil’s roots), Resident Evil 7 puts you in control of Ethan Winters scouring the home of a “hick family” (to quote condescending critic Simon Parkin) for his missing wife Mia. The proceedings get grotesque quickly: within an hour or so, you will be invited to eat maggot-ridden food and then chased around the house by drawling patriarch Jack Baker, a villain who recalls Nemesis from Resident Evil 3. With his own life on the line, Ethan must fight back with a standard array of weapons (knife, pistol, shotgun, grenade launcher, etc.) that feel like a sentimental regression from the superior combat options of Resident Evil 4.

Although Pearsey eventually provides an extraordinary explanation as to why this rural place and family are so decrepit, his script borrows heavily from American films like Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, Wrong Turn, and others that suggest rural people are backward. Pearsey’s co-opted vision reveals its contempt for country folk with ridiculous dialogue (“Welcome to the family, son.” and “Rise and shine, sleepyhead. It’s time for supper.”) and references to outdated items like VCRs (which doubles as a treat for nostalgia-obsessed nerds). The implication is that rural people already talk and live funny in their isolation, and when you mix this existing idiocy with nasty science fiction, you have what many critics and fans have called a return to scariness.

Only problem is you’d have to be oblivious to or willfully ignorant of the movies that Resident Evil 7 copies to find this garbage shocking. Even if Pearsey isn’t as snooty and resentful as his script suggests, you would think he, one of the writers of the deconstructionist Spec Ops: The Line, would be more aware of how unoriginal and cheap this horror story is. When you approach a refrigerator to read notes like “Male 20s Portly BBQ,” you have to wonder how anyone living in the Information Age could overlook the vicious repetitiveness of this rural cannibalism idea, which was also excused when it appeared in the second episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead. That critics like Parkin would compare this slasher-film crap to Truman Capote’s multidimensional brilliance shows you how delusional a city snob can be.

Curiously, this same type of audience, supposedly progressive, has glossed over the racism and misogyny of Resident Evil 7. The deputy David Andersen is a textbook example of a token black character who is only there to die. And not only does he die, but Ethan, upon finding David’s corpse in a dissection room, quips “Poor deputy.” In one stroke, developer Capcom gets in its minimal diversity quota, and in another stroke, the company implies the black guy doesn’t matter anyway. In another scene, you fight Jack’s wife Marguerite. Here, Pearsey confirms his unexamined urban bias with Marguerite’s line “There’s no escape, city boy.” This dialogue comes at about the time you discover Marguerite’s weak point: her exposed, corrupted vagina. It’s a shameful way of degrading an already-savage rural caricature.

Pearsey does offer Zoe, Jack and Marguerite’s daughter, as a counterexample to her family’s inherent backwardness. Still, Zoe seems like more of a plot device compared to how writer/director Eli Craig uses the character of Allison to show a genuine connection between rural and non-rural people in the sociological masterpiece Tucker & Dale vs. Evil. Craig’s film exposes Pearsey’s low standards for horror writing and raises legitimate points about how fear on both sides of the urban/rural divide results in destruction. Resident Evil 7 only offers longstanding stupidity to go along with its clunky action — a frightening combo for all the wrong reasons.

The Last Guardian Review — Bizarre and Cliched

by Jed Pressgrove

The resistance of Trico, a humongous griffin-like creature, makes The Last Guardian a satire of the virtual-pet and virtual-helper concepts. As the boy protagonist, you are called to work with Trico to solve puzzles, but Trico doesn’t always care about making progress, so you find yourself having to feed, pet, and shout over and over again at the beast, whose whims ironically become the whole point of the affair. With this capricious animal, director Fumito Ueda lays the foundation for one of the most emotionally complex games of the 21st century, yet this startling approach is somewhat undone by the predictability of the journey.

By pouring traits of our favorite pets into Trico (such as a cat’s tendency to raise a paw, pause, then slap at things), Ueda taps into humankind’s sentimentality for animals. Such fuzzy feelings are counterbalanced by the realization that a pet makes life (the puzzle) more difficult than it should be and by the fact that an animal is frightening under distress, best illustrated by Trico’s roaring and stomping after he smashes a foe. Because these sentiments happen in the context of a puzzler/platformer, The Last Guardian mocks convention when Trico doesn’t obey.

For example, sometimes the simple task of riding Trico as he jumps to a higher platform is mind-bogglingly slow compared to how such an action would go down in a traditional video game, where logical patterns dominate. Trico can be calm and positioned right in front of the ledge, with you stamping your feet on his head and pointing at the destination, but the animal might very well show no acknowledgement of the mission, obliviously staring and turning its head. To rub in this absurd lack of rationality, Ueda includes a camera that is baffling to deal with in 2016. The frustration of wrangling Trico in a smaller room can be compounded by the camera — in a strange interpretation of your analog-stick input — doing an illogical close-up of the creature’s feathers, closing off your avatar and the environment from sight.

Due to irritation, it’s hard to laugh at Ueda’s rejection of synchronization and flow, but in hindsight The Last Guardian is hilariously, ingeniously defiant. This obstinate quality means that when things do go right, the catharsis, the affection, is more powerful. At times it can seem like you’re spending minutes (rather than actual seconds) rubbing Trico’s body to calm him down, so after he finally stops going ballistic and shows an appreciative glance, you are moved by something unusual: the sweetness of a colossus.

This emotional purpose is cheapened by a lazy approach to plot. While it is relieving and terrifying watching Trico annihilate armored foes that were trying to kidnap you, Ueda often recycles this scene as if writing another scenario is pointless or impossible. This tendency to turn great ideas into cliches wears down the first half of the game, but excitement returns when the suspense heightens in a section where platforms collapse, kicking off a slow-motion free fall where Trico misses catching you with his mouth, only for his dangling tail to offer salvation. Then Ueda repeats that idea. It’s an unfortunate reminder that even a game-design genius can confuse more content with epic intentions.

The Folly of Consumer Reviews

by Jed Pressgrove

Many argue game critics serve readers via “consumer reviews.” The argument goes that everyday people don’t have the time or money to play all the new games, so critics do this and then write reviews suggesting what people should buy.

Here are four reasons one should reject this model:

1. Although the consumer review supposedly only gives readers an idea of what to purchase, the term implies we will and should consume. Consumer reviews are published right as games are released, suggesting the time to make a decision is sooner rather than later. This model puts pressure on readers to pay up to $60 for a new game and thus falls in line with what the game companies want, not what people should be doing with their money. For example, if a consumer review essentially says “Buy the new Resident Evil,” it assumes you have the $60 to spare, which may not be the case. This “timely” advice is more sensitive to the needs of the game publisher than it is to those of the reader, as companies will make more money per game sold near game release dates. People typically don’t call reviews published months after a game “consumer reviews,” even though it should go without saying that a consumer is better off spending less rather than more.

2. No game critic or so-called expert is qualified to suggest how to spend your money. The perceived objective quality of a game has very little to do with whether we should purchase it under whatever economic conditions we face. Critics would only be qualified to give such advice if they know your spending and saving habits and have your various personal needs in the forefront of their minds (which they certainly don’t). It is simply not logical to assume a critic should be telling working-class people what to buy, especially in cases where the critic doesn’t even purchase the game in question. (Catherine Vice, a.k.a. Indie Gamer Chick, nobly sidesteps this criticism by purchasing all games she reviews, but she also admits she is more well off than the average person.)

3. The consumer-review model implies games are little more than commercial products. If the purpose of a review is to help you figure out whether you should buy a game for any number of arbitrary reasons, you are less likely to gain insight into what a game actually is. Philosophically, journalism is supposed to be concerned with the truth. As such, a review should strive for truth, even in its most subjective forms. When a writer is primarily concerned with people’s purchasing decisions, the writer aligns more with the interests of companies than with the pursuit of truth. Thus, it’s not coincidental that the overwhelming majority of high-profile games will get at least 7-out-of-10 review scores, on average. The writer’s alignment with company interests explains the absurdity of certain “consumer reviews” that seemingly pick apart games but still give out scores above a 5. Because a 5 out of 10 naturally suggests average or mediocre quality, consumer reviews have offered us, for years and years, the highly questionable notion that most high-profile games are above-average products. But what is the truth about these games?

4. The consumer-review model rejects the review as a form of artistic or personal expression. A review can’t be expressive in this sense if the writer is concerned about what people buy. The model not only fundamentally constrains creativity and honesty; it frowns upon such things.

For these reasons, Game Bias will never publish a consumer review.

Dishonored 2 Review — Metal Gear Stolid

by Jed Pressgrove

The worst plague in Dishonored 2, a game full of rats and bloodflies, is the absence of emotional conviction. During the first mission of Dishonored 2, the script leads you to believe the two main characters, Corvo and Emily, are father and daughter, but the voice acting sounds like two disengaged performers reading their lines for the first time, and the dialogue (“Let’s see how quiet you are, young lady”) urges you to play along rather than understand the relationship. With a cliched pause in the story, the game asks you to choose to play as the father or daughter. Once you make this decision, the other character is turned into stone by a one-dimensional villain. Not only is this separation uninteresting given that Dishonored 2 fails to build a convincing human dynamic in the first place, but you might not care or remember family was involved in the setup by the third or fourth mission.

Just about everything in Dishonored 2 carries a slapdash, blase attitude. Take the cutscenes before the missions: sapped of color, they look like cheap themes for your console dashboard, and their snooze-worthy exposition could use a sudden noise, music cue, or facial expression (as in the NES classic Ninja Gaiden). Between missions you get on a boat and talk to a captain for no compelling reason, an inconsequential approach compared to how Titanfall 2 propels you to the next challenge through continuity of action. The faces of the characters, which often don’t even look halfway alive, reinforce a sense of detachment and reject the articulate humanity in the faces you see in The Witcher 3 and Beyond: Two Souls.

But Dishonored 2 assassinates its emotional potential the most with its lackadaisical execution of play concepts. The game claims you can “Play your way,” which is more honest than the original Dishonored’s bogus appeal to morality, but the options (for example, possessing a rat vs. turning off a machine) seem made for toddler brains compared to the world of possibilities of the first two Fallout games. More problematic, developer Arkane Studios doesn’t grasp the basics of stealth and playability. For example, you can sneak up on a guy resting in a chair, but if you are crouched directly behind the chair, you can’t execute a takedown. To do that, you must face the chair at an arbitrary angle.

Even worse, enemies show little evidence of consistent intelligence. In the first mission, I was able to run past a dozen or so soldiers and board a ship without much harm or commotion. At times, foes won’t notice you while you’re almost under their nose, and other times they can see through solid objects to detect your still presence in what the game laughably calls “stealth mode” (when you crouch to enter this mode, the edges of the screen go dark — who the hell are the developers kidding?). Even games not marketed as stealth titles, like Dark Souls and Far Cry Primal, feel more logical in what they allow the player to do around enemies.

Like Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Dishonored 2 tries to make up for its regressive understanding of stealth with an upgrade system. You gain superpowers by finding runes, which, idiotically, only show up when you equip a heart in your left hand, the same hand you need for teleportation, for instance. Essentially, the powers are there for you to revel in delinquency; you don’t need them, as you can easily take out enemies with a gun and sword, but the latter concept is so boringly designed that you feel like you need something to give you a jolt. After all, honor and its inverse have no meaning in such a cold, stupid game.