God of War (2018) Review — Not Grown Up

by Jed Pressgrove

The latest God of War tries to sell an oxymoron, a sensitive beat ’em up. Paulmichael Contrera, a writer for enthusiast publication PlayStation LifeStyle, inadvertently exposes the con job: “This new narrative tone has heart, and serves to make Kratos much more relatable in his new role as protector, while remaining as brutal as past installments.” The story of killer dad Kratos watching over killer brat Atreus might seem to turn away from the murderous tone of previous God of War games, but its selective morality ultimately sentimentalizes the man-shaping glory of violence.

Many years after destroying the Greek pantheon, Kratos mourns the loss of his wife Faye, whose last request is for Kratos and son Atreus to throw her ashes off the highest peak they can find. The problem? Atreus is quite young and green. And so begins the saga of Kratos teaching the boy how to survive and kill — how to become a tough guy — through a plot that recalls the convoluted artifact logic and secret paths of The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure.

Director/writer Cory Barlog gets the action (i.e., the real reason most people are playing this) off to a rocky start when fellow god Baldur, who is supposedly unkillable, attacks Kratos before the familial journey begins. Baldur’s ambush leads to an overlong cutscene-ridden fight that is foolishly recycled for the game’s climax. It’s like a UFC match with too many rounds against a blabbering baboon who can’t get knocked or choked out. Baldur’s condescending exclamations of “This fight is pointless!” and “This again?” robs players of the lines they should be saying as they play. The monotony of battling Baldur multiple times, all as part of Barlog’s showy one-camera-take experiment, registers as desperate suspense at best: anyone with common sense can predict the eventual death of Baldur at Kratos’ renowned god-killing hands.

Outside of the miserable engagements with Baldur, God of War tends to be a good hack-and-slasher. Kratos has a new axe that can be used as a melee weapon or boomerang projectile (in an ingenious bit of design, the axe can be thrown with one button and will only come flying back with a different button). The bald and bearded hero can also perform combos barehanded and unlock special moves with a shield. While Atreus’ movement is controlled by AI, you can determine when he shoots arrows and summons animal spirits. All of these options (and more) give the player an impressive amount of strategic possibilities, and the game has plenty of weapon and armor customization for those who wish to bolster their strengths and hide their weaknesses.

Between fights, you listen to Kratos berate Atreus with a variety of overbearing maxims (voice actor Christopher Judge delivers Kratos’ words like a Keith David impersonator). Lines like “Do not be sorry. Be better” and “He [a corpse holding an item] can no longer use it. We can” will be treasured as pearls of wisdom by wannabe alpha males. Although Atreus sometimes pokes fun at Kratos’ everlasting cold demeanor, the game wants you to lap up its machismo. To heal, you don’t drink potions; you stomp them. There are special gore kills, a la Doom 2016. And in a pivotal conflict, you don’t listen to the cries of a woman who helped you. You ignore her concerns and fight on.

Perhaps none of these elements would seem out of place if Barlog didn’t intend for players to interpret God of War as some sort of empathetic fable. Kratos is depicted as a man who feels guilt about his violent history and who doesn’t want his son to follow in his footsteps. But the scenarios often amount to oversimplified moralizing.

For example, in a realm at war, Atreus implies that perhaps he and his father should do something about dark elves murdering light elves. Kratos, however, says they should stay out of it, as they are only seeing the end of a war and have no idea what the light elves might have done to inspire such violence. You wind up killing all the dark elves anyway, and after doing so, the light elves take back control of the realm, to the naive delight of Atreus. Kratos doesn’t say another substantial word about what happened, and later on, Atreus says he doesn’t regret killing the elves, as they were “dragging us into their little problems.” What is initially presented as morally ambiguous turns into a throwaway concern.

Kratos at one point criticizes Atreus for killing an already weakened god, but the script doesn’t delve into the spiritual implications of Atreus’ sin. Instead, the story focuses more on how the execution results in an inconvenience related to travel. The biggest missed opportunity, though, comes with the final scene featuring Baldur. Here, the game attempts to borrow the ethical dilemma faced by Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel, despite the fact that no one in God of War is in any immediate danger of being murdered by Baldur. This failed illustration of tough decision-making is a lot like Barlog’s mega long camera shot: flashy but devoid of depth.

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Loaded Questions Vol. 4

Loaded Questions is a new weekly 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

Daniel Cánovas: The “gaming is art” topic is becoming less interesting to me each day. Maybe only the act of creating them is art, but that’s not the question I want to ask you. Have you ever heard the expression “To read is to live twice”? With this expression in mind, I decided to compare playing to reading, and I ended up developing a short text that made me reappreciate visual novels. Do you think it’s valid at all to say, “To play a video game is to live twice”?

Jed Pressgrove: It’s possible I have heard someone say “To read is to live twice,” but my memory gets worse every year. Regardless, I am familiar with the sentiment behind that expression. There is a feeling among many readers that literature, more so than any other art form, allows one to tap deeply into the human condition and spirit. I don’t feel this way, mainly because a lot of literature is poorly executed.

That aside, my answer is straightforward: sometimes to play a video game is to live twice. I think of Vaida’s Talks With My Mom. Playing that game was like living in two ways that I’ve never lived. I’ve never had to experience the pressure of fitting into a heterosexual feminine category like the girl protagonist; I’ve also never felt the concern of a mother who just wants life to be traditional and simple for her daughter (and herself). In Nier: Automata, I got a strong sense of the hate, fear, and willful ignorance that can drive one to genocide, especially during the segments where I watched the bodies of robots explode due to the lethal combinations and hacks I performed as 9S.

On a final note, as great as “living twice” can be, I don’t think it has to be the ultimate goal of any game. People who expect games to be just like literature or movies or whatever are unrealistic and shortsighted. Games can be many things. They can be living twice, they can be sports, they can be puzzles. I try to appreciate and criticize them for what they are.

Question 2

Álvaro Rico: What do you think is the most important factor for you personally at the time of writing a good review?

Jed Pressgrove: Conviction. I have to believe in what I’m saying, even if no one shares my opinion. I have to be willing to put my thoughts and feelings out there. Style and technique are important, but if I didn’t have conviction, I wouldn’t bother writing reviews.

Question 3

Serge Soucy: After watching some footage of Detroit: Become Human, I began to think about choice in video games. I’m not talking about how a player would approach a situation (for example, “Should I attack a monster from afar or up close?”), I’m thinking more about games with morality systems that are designed to challenge players’ minds. What are some great examples of games where choices made have real implications that arouse emotions, and what’s the worse case of a game that tries to cash in on this idea but fails to do so?

Jed Pressgrove: To address your first question, the first game that comes to mind is Choice: Texas. In my review, I talked at length about the story of Leah and how the game’s presentation of choice emotionally transcended the dialogue that the United States was having about rape and abortion.

Another game that fits your description is the original Fallout. There are few games with Fallout’s level of freedom. During one game of Fallout, I decided to kill everyone, whether I would deem them bad or good. Just kill every last person I could find. What started out as an amusing diversion for a kid (I was in my teens at the time) ended up giving me an incredibly hollow feeling. It wasn’t just that I had made a complex game one-dimensional; the experience suggested that exterminating life can never satisfy a person.

You might also be interested in The Witcher 2: Assassins of Kings. A pivotal decision in its first chapter has an undeniably large effect on the game’s second chapter and how you perceive the different factions and individuals in the story.

As for your second question, I’d have to go with Telltale’s Game of Thrones. It is by far the best example of a game whose only purpose is to cash in on the idea of emotionally charged choices. Telltale’s work (and its influence) is largely a disgrace to storytelling and game design, and Game of Thrones’ mindless imitation of the HBO television show cannot be excused in any way.

Biased Notes Vol. 5: Sid Meier’s Pirates! (2004)

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Observations below are based on the 2004 remake of the 1987 original.

1. Meier’s revered simulation includes everything from sword fighting to treasure hunting, all in the name of building fame. What sticks out the most is the puerile focus on wooing governors’ daughters. A pirate game’s objectification of women is hardly surprising, but unlike The Witcher series, Meier emphasizes awkward courtship rather than lustful build-ups to sex. To have a chance at furthering a relationship with a governor’s daughter, you must engage in a ballroom-dancing minigame (after creating enough of a reputation so that the woman notices you in the first place). Interestingly, to succeed as the pirate, you must follow the lead of the daughter in the ballroom, clicking the correct sequence of dance moves as she moves faster and faster. The idea subverts the game’s main thrust as a male power fantasy. Plundering, sinking ships, and the like suggest domination through one’s strength and wit, but the ballroom scenes imply that you must be willing to be instructed to impress the upper class, or you can’t reach the ultimate level of fame. I could see this requirement being a turnoff to many wannabe alpha males. (Admittedly, I could also see any person being turned off by the contrived nature of the whole shebang.)

2. So many things in Pirates! are predictable to the point where it’s hard to feel like you’re on an adventure. If you can find one buried treasure, you will have a good idea of how to find more buried treasure (buy a map in a tavern, follow directions to the proper landmass, walk on land and find the treasure based on obvious landmarks). If you see one French governor, you’ve seen them all. And so on and so on. Thus, the details that make the world of Pirates! seem alive tend to stand out. For example, spice is a good you can sell to merchants for gold, but the going price for spice varies across cities, so it can be worth it to sail a little farther to make more of a profit in another place. This economic variation might not seem like much (it’s certainly not as exciting as the trade economy in the second world of Secret of Evermore), but I welcomed anything in the game that could make me think a little more about my decision-making.

3. I didn’t play Pirates! long enough to experience this (I only got to play it at a friend’s for a while), but as time passes, you become a weaker pirate, and eventually you must retire. Because the goal of the game is to accumulate as much fame is possible, this element doesn’t make the simulation any less of a power fantasy than, say, Far Cry 5, but it does make me wonder about the possibilities of an aging mechanic in action games. It could be interesting to see a developer tie this quantitative factor into more explicit storytelling.

Minit Review — A Link to the Trivial

by Jed Pressgrove

Minit doesn’t present itself as anything more than a gimmicky nod to the Legend of Zelda franchise. Like Fez, Shovel Knight, and other nostalgia-drenched fare, Minit reveals that the “indie” label often doesn’t represent independent creativity as much as dependence on the pop-game past. Developed by JW, Kitty, Jukio, and Dom, this title functions as a familiar action-adventure pit stop for fans starved for content (the most dreadful C-word in today’s world).

In Minit, the player only has 60 seconds to overcome as many Zelda-inspired obstacles as possible before dying and having to restart from one of several home bases. Textbook cliches like picking up a sword on a beach and finding a light for a dark cave take old audiences down memory lane and introduce new audiences to the fruit of lazy modern game design.

The 60-second limit might sound intimidating, but you don’t have to redo critical steps, such as obtaining items or fulfilling quests, so think of Minit as a game with selective autosaves. One could certainly imagine a more demanding and interesting approach to the premise. What if you actually only had 60 seconds to accomplish everything, with clever and absurd time-saving devices elevating a sense of frenzied fun? Instead, Minit delicately packages its central conceit as a series of amusing baby steps, but the overall experience is not all that amusing once you consider how safe and unimaginative it is.

Shrewd players will recognize Minit as a bite-sized version of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. The time limit in Majora’s Mask spoke to existential dread and hurried hope. The time limit in Minit is merely a cute twist that doesn’t always suit the expectations people have for a Zelda game.

Take the tried-and-true concept of a final boss. Minit’s concluding battle is hopelessly unexciting in that your progress is saved every time you destroy a weak point of the foe. If you die during this fight, you don’t even start over at one of the home bases. You respawn right there at the boss until you defeat it. After this battle, you flush yourself down a toilet, at which point the game invites you to go on a “second run” (an allusion to the post-game trick of the original Legend of Zelda). But as we all know, it’s better to let shit drain down the pipes rather than resurface for an extended visit.

Loaded Questions Vol. 3

Loaded Questions is a new weekly 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

Ryan Aston: What do you think is the all-time worst game you’ve ever had the misfortune of playing, and how far did you play through it? Articulate why you consider it to be the worst, be it unplayably broken, thematically offensive/incoherent, or whatever. Same question for all-time worst movie you’ve seen.

Jed Pressgrove: There are so many candidates for the worst game I’ve ever played. For instance, there’s Messiah the Healer, a free game at Game Jolt that trivializes the miracles of Jesus Christ. Then there’s Pregnancy, which, as I said in my review here, uses “in-detail rape to hook you into a shallow lecture on abortion debate.”

But the king of bad games is Ryan Lambourne’s The Slaying of Sandy Hook Elementary. To make a point about gun control, this game allows the player to assume the role of Sandy Hook murderer Adam Lanza and shoot as many kids and teachers as possible at the elementary school. Afterward, the player must start over and use a sword to try to kill the same number of people. The idea is that, naturally, you wouldn’t be able to kill as many people with a sword, thus identifying gun control as the answer to the issue. Lambourne doesn’t consider, however, that his point will be lost on anyone with a shred of respect for the real-life victims of the crime. What decent person wants to reenact real-world carnage and tragedy, especially when it’s obvious that Lambourne is pushing propaganda and hoping to be seen as an important game developer?

As for worst movie, that’s easy. I have to go with an atrocious Japanese film my friend got me to watch: Killer Pussy. The name says enough, but to go into more detail, the story concerns a woman with a parasite in her vagina that kills people. If the concept alone isn’t enough to disgust you, everything about this movie is terrible. The most laughable part of the film is the special effects. In certain scenes, the parasite is depicted with the worst CGI you can imagine. In other scenes, the parasite is a puppet. I doubt Jim Henson would be a fan.

Question 2

Erlend Grefsrud: Do you see games as expressions or contrivances? Elucidation: expression is “communicating an intelligible intent,” while contrivance is “struggling to cohere.”

Jed Pressgrove: My first instinct was to say that a contrivance can be an expression (a bad one). But based on the two specific definitions here, I’d say the majority of games seem more like contrivances than expressions. We can see this in the way games often awkwardly transition between cutscenes and actual play. We can see this in the way games frequently tutorialize, suggesting that developers struggle to present rules and ideas intuitively. I suppose I could go on and on. I feel a lot of my reviews have an underlying anger about contrivances.

There is one thing I want to point out in light of recent dialogue about Far Cry 5. I agree with the critics who suggest Far Cry 5 is a contrivance. At the same time, just because something is a contrivance doesn’t mean it lacks ideology. In addition to the right-wing ideology I discussed in my review, Far Cry 5 also pushes a conservative game-design ideology that favors contrivance over expression. It’s interesting to me that many critics who dismiss Far Cry 5 as a contrivance are willing to accept an ideology of contrivance in other games when it suits their desires and worldviews.

Question 3

Martina Eva: Do you think there’s any potential left in the classic graphic adventure format?

Also, where do you think game criticism is heading?

Jed Pressgrove: Yes, there is definitely potential left, but developers have to play a careful balancing act. Mere homage to the genre is not good enough anymore, and to play off the point about expression and contrivance above, special care has to be taken with how, for example, puzzles are designed. Tim Schafer’s Broken Age both illustrates the potential of the genre and the pitfalls that developers should avoid. Broken Age is split into two games. The first game (or Act 1), in my estimation, is fairly brilliant. Act 1 of Broken Age allows the storytelling to dictate the puzzles. This approach gives the game an organic quality, and because of this, the story in Act 1 is able to make a powerful statement about how gender and race can divide us and bring us crashing together when we least expect it. Schafer, unfortunately, pisses all this potential away in Act 2, which features one contrived puzzle after another. It’s clear that Schafer backed away from his more creative instincts when he made Act 2.

Your second question is tough! There are a lot of critics out there, so you never know who might capture people’s imagination. But right now, I fear game criticism is headed toward more deception and marketing. Specifically, I think you’re going to see a lot more critics who claim to be more analytical than the obvious game-enthusiast movement, but instead of catering to people who worship games, they will cater to particular political factions. Now, I’m not saying game criticism shouldn’t be political, but there is a difference between the following two things: (1) the personal politics of the critic coming out as part of their creative expression within the art form of criticism and (2) the critic functioning as a lackey for a particular political persuasion. A critic in either case can be “liberal,” for example, but the second type will almost always fall on the most obvious, pandering side of liberalism. The second type will also be far less willing to consider the artistic merit of work that doesn’t cater to their political faction’s whims. The disgusting part is that game companies are becoming increasingly aware of this unexamined bias, and they’re ready to exploit critics with politicized marketing. Look at how Bethesda’s marketing for Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus panders to the “Punch a Nazi” crowd. Look at how games keep overusing the word “resistance.” Look at how the developer of Kingdom Come: Deliverance implies that a lack of racial diversity automatically equates to “historical accuracy.” Instead of ignoring this type of marketing altogether, many critics want to be a part of the publicity, whether good or bad, and they’re ready to redraw the lines that divide us, all in the name of ego and success.

Question 4

Adam Eisentrout: Was there one specific game that made you want to be a game critic or write specifically about gaming?

Jed Pressgrove: If I must boil it down to one game, it would have to be Blazing Lazers. It wasn’t the first game I wrote about, but it was the one that made me want to be a dedicated game critic. I first played Blazing Lazers after I had become a bit jaded about video games, and its brilliance showed me that sometimes you have to search for greatness rather than expecting it to show up for you in the popular channels. On a very basic level, Blazing Lazers made me excited to write about games.

Biased Notes Vol. 4: Spelunky

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: Observations below are based on the HD version of Spelunky unless specified otherwise.

1. Spelunky is known as a game where you will die a lot. One of the main reasons for this reputation is that it takes time to get used to the game’s dynamic and brilliant use of physics. For example, in the mine stages, a trap will automatically shoot a single arrow at anything that moves in front of it. Many times this trap faces a gap that the player can drop through to get closer to a level’s exit (in Spelunky, the goal is to move downward). So if you run off a ledge without carefully surveying the area, you might get hit with an arrow in midair. Since this hit dizzies you, enemies can take off even more health after you fall to the ground. In some cases, you can be far enough from the trap to narrowly avoid the arrow after activating it, but many times you don’t have the luxury of distance, so you have to get creative with the physics. For safety, you can throw a rock in front of the trap to draw out the single arrow. If you don’t have a rock, some stunned enemies can be thrown, and in a crude twist, you can throw a damsel you’re supposed to save. I often find myself with nothing to throw, so I might drop a bomb in front of the trap. Here’s the kicker, though: if you jump down too quickly after the arrow has been successfully triggered, the arrow can still hit you (for less damage) as it falls down after making impact with something else. Such chain reactions place Spelunky in the same lineage as Boulder Dash (a 1984 classic developed by Peter Liepa and Chris Gray), despite the fact that the latter is a maze game, not a platformer like Spelunky.

2. The HD version of Spelunky has a fascinating soundtrack, but it also demonstrates how a good track might not be a good choice for a particular setting. To focus on the mine levels again, the HD tunes in the mine don’t fit the precarious atmosphere. Instead of evoking claustrophobia, danger, or ominous mystery, the primary tracks for the mine (listen to 1:52 through 5:01 here) bring to mind a developer who is in love with the synth-driven sounds of the 1980s. The single mine song for the original Spelunky doesn’t fare much better (start at 2:46 here), as its sustained notes merely recall nostalgia for 8-bit games like Mega Man. Going back to the HD soundtrack, it’s criminal that the main-menu music (listen to 0:37 through 1:08 here) wasn’t used in the actual game. At the very least, this track’s oppressive spookiness mirrors the devastation that players tend to experience when they start playing Spelunky.

3. One thing I prefer about the HD version of Spelunky is its more up-close camera, which makes the game more challenging and suspenseful. In the original Spelunky, you can see much more of the level layout on a single screen, including the floors below you, meaning that you can zip through the level knowing where you will land. The HD version requires more caution, as you frequently can’t see the floors below unless you hold the down button to shift the camera perspective lower. The HD version’s limited view often leads me to hang off ledges before dropping to another floor, which results in a greater sense of respect for the environment (and for the mechanics of the game).

Loaded Questions Vol. 2

Loaded Questions is a new weekly 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

Taylor Vaughn: What games handle religion/religious belief (either real or fictional) in an interesting way as part of the gameplay (rather than just a theme)?

Jed Pressgrove: There are three main examples that come to mind (from weakest to strongest): The Shivah, Proteus, and Earthbound.

The Shivah is a 2006 point-and-click adventure in which you play as Russell Stone, a Jewish Rabbi who has lost hope and made questionable decisions regarding his congregation. He becomes a detective of sorts when he learns that a former member of his synagogue has been murdered. As in many other point-and-click adventures, you engage in dialogue as the protagonist, and when it’s your turn to respond to a character, the game gives you a few optional lines, one of which is always labeled a “Rabbinical response.” Although I like what developer Dave Gilbert was going for here, this element, which results in a rhetorical question from Stone if I recall correctly, often comes off as contrived or merely amusing. Do note, however, that many critics went ga-ga over Mass Effect’s stilted dialogue choices, as if they were innovative rather than reductive, when it was released in 2007. The Shivah’s handling of this approach was superior to Mass Effect’s.

Many critics see Proteus as a “walking simulator” or “first-person walker” or “non-game.” These are childish labels that trivialize the spiritual daringness of the game, which uses walking and flying to situate the idea of being a Christian disciple and lover of creation in a mythical context (Proteus was the name of a Greek sea god). People frequently recall the main section of Proteus in which you interact with different forms of life on an island. But at the beginning of Proteus, you’re literally walking on water, just as Peter wanted to do with Jesus in the Gospels, before you get to the island. After you start traversing the island, you can eventually move time forward and experience all four major seasons. During the final season, you ascend to the heavens, which, in terms of play, is a major departure from the walking and running you’ve grown accustomed to. It’s an ending of joy that evokes the concept of eternal salvation.

Last but not least, Earthbound’s climax involves a worldwide prayer to defeat an enemy who seems unbeatable. As Paula, the lone female hero of the main party, you could always pray during battle for a random effect, in the game’s joking way. Thus, I never prayed as Paula because of the unpredictability. But when you reach the final battle, you throw everything you can at Giygas, the final boss, and he just keeps surviving and growing more dangerous. The first few times I fought Giygas, I failed because I assumed I could beat him through normal attacks. Then, during one session, it hit me: why not try praying with Paula? It was the only thing I hadn’t tried in previous attempts.

Initially, prayer only does a little damage to Giygas, but as you perform the action round after round, the game cuts to other places of the world where characters you had met sense that they need to pray as well, and the damage steadily increases. By the final time you pray, you’re inflicting massive damage to Giygas, who fades away. Through this unique take on turn-based combat, Earthbound suggests that spiritual unity can help humanity overcome its worst fears and obstacles.

Question 2

Jim Bevan: Has your opinion changed on any games that you were initially very positive or negative towards?

Jed Pressgrove: Yes. The best example of either case was my experience with Final Fantasy Tactics many years ago before I left home for college (I’m 33, for those keeping score). I remember trying to get into it twice and quitting out of frustration both times. Although I started playing turn-based RPGs at around the age of 7, I wasn’t as familiar with the turn-based tactical genre, and Tactics is unrelenting if you don’t think more defensively. I thought it was a miserable excuse for a Final Fantasy game. Thankfully, I tried it a third time and was blown away by everything you could do. I liked it so much that despite getting stuck at the save point right before you face Wiegraf/Belias (I didn’t have the right party to win the fight), I started the entire game over (a loss of 20+ hours) just to properly prepare myself for the Wiegraf/Belias fight. Beating that boss was a great feeling when it finally happened.

Question 3

Ian Mossner: What do you think about the timing of your reviews? For example, Kingdom Come: Deliverance recently got a patch. What if you had reviewed the game after the patch? Your review would have been entirely different.

Another example: upon release, Dragon Ball FighterZ was unfinished, but now that certain elements have been added, if you were to review it, the criticism of it being unfinished could not be repeated by you.

Another example: in your review of Iconoclasts, you mention a dialogue segment where soldiers engage in “locker room” talk, but that segment has been entirely changed based on my recent playthrough. So people who play it now will not experience what you did.

So I guess my question is how important is timing in your reviews?

Jed Pressgrove: It can be important because it can give me the opportunity to show my values as a critic and human being. One of my beliefs is that if you’re going to sell a physical or digital thing, it should be finished. Bottom line, end of story. I don’t care if you’re talking about a car, a song, a shirt, whatever. I grew up in a poor working-class family, so I know how precious money can be. People should finish their work before selling it to anyone. Otherwise, it’s a ripoff, and it shows me that you, as a creator, have little respect for yourself, other people, and the state of the working class.

Here’s one tricky part: what is “finished”? With video games, if the game is in an alpha or beta stage, it’s unfinished. I’m against playing and reviewing early-access titles for this reason. I don’t want to pay for or play anything unfinished, and I don’t want to encourage other people to do it, either, because early access is a bullshit trend that needs to stop.

Although Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn’t an early-access game on the day of its release, it might as well have been. I can forgive a glitch here and there. I can forgive some imperfections (though I can and will criticize those imperfections). But if just about every part of your game suggests that you didn’t put in the work to release the game in a state that wouldn’t rip off someone, you’re just as bad as the early-access grifters, and your game more than likely looks and plays like crap. And honestly, even though you mention a new patch in your question, I’m still not convinced my review would be that different. There was a patch for the PS4 version before my review was published, and the game still suffered from everything I mentioned in the review. That team of developers is so inept that I have no faith in the game.

But let’s assume Kingdom Come: Deliverance wasn’t the biggest technical failure that I played since last year’s abominable Troll and I. My review would have focused more on the game’s story and attention to realism. Based on what I could gather through my glitch- and bug-ridden experience, the game was still nothing to write home about on any front. From this angle, timing may not matter as far as whether I like the overall game or not, but it would certainly affect the thrust of my essay. Perhaps my review of Kingdom Come: Deliverance would have been more cultural or political in nature.

I haven’t played Dragon Ball FighterZ, so I can’t comment on it specifically. I will say that the trend for fighting games to be “live services” is annoying. The fighting game community never shuts up about tiers and unfairness, so as long as the cycle of player whining and patching continues, who knows what fighting games will look like. At the same time, I have played well more than 100 fighting games, so I can often spot a substandard example of the genre when I play it, even when it receives frequent patches, like Street Fighter V. With this in mind, timing of reviews might be less important for certain genres.

Your example of Iconoclasts is interesting and presents a different kind of potential dilemma. Changed dialogue can change one’s interpretation of a game’s theme or message. So timing in such a case could be extremely critical. Fortunately, that scene you’re referring to in Iconoclasts, if it is indeed different (I haven’t been able to confirm it yet due to my busy schedule), doesn’t play a significant role in my overall interpretation of the game. I just thought it was a fascinating scene that deserved to be mentioned in a largely descriptive sentence.

Monster Hunter World Review — Hunting For Dummies

by Jed Pressgrove

You might think a big-budget game about killing beasts and upgrading equipment wouldn’t bother with pretension, but Monster Hunter World immediately flaunts a brand of dignified bullshit with its title screen. The orchestrated music for this screen drips with sensitivity as if to suggest a deep respect for the natural-world imagery on display. It soon becomes clear that this dramatic frame is a misleading precursor, as the actual game amounts to little more than a cycle of anticlimactic action with no convincing emotional weight.

In the game, a governing agency named the Research Commission sends you on quests to exterminate creatures that supposedly threaten various ecosystems. Before going on a specific quest, you prepare yourself at a hub called Astera, where you can augment weapons and armor, take bounties, eat stat-boosting meals, and more. Once you activate a quest and get dropped into a locale, the typical goal is to track down a particular monster and slowly pick away at its life as it tries to defend itself and run away to hiding spots.

Despite the simplicity of this premise, I don’t have an issue with the aim of Monster Hunter World. Outside of eliciting pity for the monsters as they struggle to walk during combat, developer Capcom simply botches countless opportunities to lend gravity to the game. The developer’s first mistake is failing to make the game’s story halfway interesting or believable. For an organization dedicated to ecological management, the Research Commission doesn’t seem like a diverse team that takes its scientific and ethical mission seriously. Characters tend to speak with a one-dimensional kind of adolescent excitement, the music in Astera makes it sound like everyone’s getting ready for a lighthearted game of kickball, and, in the most infantilizing bit, the commission employs little cats as helpers.

The hunting itself is plagued by a hand-holding approach. By emphasizing footprints and other signs of monster activity, Monster Hunter World intends for players to feel that they’re tracking down targets in the wild. The problem is you barely have to be observant: glowing “scout flies” highlight the trail of anything you need to find, eliminating any sense of discovery or hardship. (Last year’s Metroid: Samus Returns did a much better job of making one feel like a hunter.)

Killing is also a neutered and senseless experience in Monster Hunter World. Although Capcom went to great lengths to give the creatures lifelike animations, the monsters too often behave as if they can’t see you. During one quest, I engaged a group of smaller reptiles, backed away to avoid their advances, and ended up killing an aggressive one that was a few yards removed from the others. The remaining lizards forgot I was there, so I ambushed them even though there was no good reason to believe I had the element of surprise.

The bigger monsters are not much smarter. These towering foes frequently get distracted by the protagonist’s little cat helper. When they aren’t trying to stomp the feline, they often look at spaces to the right or left of the hero and then charge at nothing. When they don’t lose track of you, their attacks are so telegraphed that there’s little reason to worry. The best strategy is to roll out of the way and attack again, giving the action little to distinguish itself from that of numerous other titles.

Given its lack of original or monster-specific tactics, Monster Hunter World favors tedium over kinetic drama. You might have to hit a beast hundreds of times to kill it, and when it runs away from you, all you have to do is follow the lit-up trail of the scout flies to resume the predictable attack-and-dodge process. The violence reaches the peak of its antiseptic quality after you deliver a fatal blow: you can cut the corpse of a giant monster multiple times to gather materials for improved gear, but when you harvest the body, you will see no blood, no gashes, nothing to show that you’re taking parts from the creature. Monster Hunter World is the dullest action game of 2018 thus far because it has no idea what hunting entails.

Biased Notes Vol. 3: Far Cry 5

by Jed Pressgrove

You can read my review of Far Cry 5 here.

1. The artificial intelligence in this game can be quite bad; many times enemies won’t see you if you’re in their line of sight. But it’s the AI of your allies that can be comically terrible. Early on, I destroyed a truck which started a fire, and my ally proceeded to run into the fire and call for help before falling to the ground. My ally would also frequently block doorways that I needed to walk through. My quick solution? Shoot them in the head, walk over their prostrate body, and revive them. It’s funny (and pathetic) that a big-budget title in 2018 would inspire me to do such a thing, when a game as old as Final Fantasy VI (1994) featured characters who would get out of your way.

2. The best part of Far Cry 5 is avoiding roads altogether and trying to drive, at top speed, through woods and hills. The arcade charm of this activity cannot be denied: the shrubbery and small trees that you can knock out of the way look like cheap assets from Cruisin’ USA. Driving in this manner recalls the classic rural pastime of being a fool in the middle of nowhere, and if you don’t collide with too many big trees or dive into gullies and water, it saves time when going from point A to point B.

3. Far Cry 5 has a so-called open world, but it can be hard to remember that during the scripted sequences. The cycle goes like this: once you build up a certain amount of “Resistance Points” in one of the game’s three territories, the villainous leader of the territory sends a group of hunters to knock you out and bring you in. You can’t stop this capture, which leads to a crappy mini level. What’s ridiculous is that this contrivance occurs multiple times for each territory. You would think that instead of waiting for someone to blow up cult property after cult property and kill cult member after cult member, the main villains would have hunters on your ass the whole time. Not to mention that the “Resistance Points” concept panders to trendy political audiences. At this point, “resistance” is nothing more than a code word for people who want to appear hip and active between bouts of retweeting media figureheads who have dollar signs in their eyes.

4. As far as I know, Far Cry 5 marks the second time in two years that a big-budget game has featured a black Christian minister who seems all too comfortable with violence (Mafia III did it back in 2016). This choice of character is sort of a super stereotype, as it suggests the inherent violent nature of black men wins out even among the leaders of a religion that bases itself on the nonviolent example of Jesus Christ. Ignoring race for a moment, such a character could also inspire a variation on the lyrics of that idiotic Eminem song: “Will the real Christian please stand up?”

Octahedron Review — Sexed-Up Mechanics

by Jed Pressgrove

Whereas the overrated Celeste is more interested in death and whining than creative expression, Octahedron can’t get no satisfaction with its basic idea of a hero creating temporary platforms to reach new heights. From level to level, developer Demimonde obsessively introduces wrinkles to his game, showcasing a thirst for change that recalls the passion of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis.

In Octahedron, the primary goal of every level is to reach the exit. You play as a blockheaded protagonist whose only power is to form platforms that disappear after a second or two. This premise somewhat recalls the 1986 classic Solomon’s Key, but Demimonde delivers a more urgent experience. To the textures and beats of a trance and house soundtrack, you can slide your temporary platforms to the left or right before they dissipate, allowing you to access the farthest corners of the game’s neon tunnels. All the while, you must keep count: initially, you can only create two platforms before needing to touch a permanent platform in order to recharge your precious ability.

The journey keeps morphing via a neverending well of rules, contraptions, and enemies. In one level, Demimonde gives you the allowance of 50 platforms that you can call into being before needing to land on solid ground, but this freedom comes with the price of having to navigate a maze of electrified walls while dodging the lasers of a stationary sentry whose counterclockwise rotations evoke a disco ball gone mad sniper. In another level, you can only create one platform at a time, unless you grab plus-sign power-ups in midair to add to your capacity.

Octahedron has no shortage of environmental puzzles that arrive with no detailed tutorial; Demimonde asks your lust for experimentation to match his. Thankfully, the ideas are as intuitive as they are stimulating, from pipes that suck you into different parts of levels to platforms that pop in and out of existence based on how far you move to the left or right. The affair becomes more complex when you gain the ability to conjure a second type of platform that shoots destructive beams from its bottom. This dominating power comes in handy when you must, say, deal with platforms that turn into bat-like pests once you get high enough above them.

Like many other platformers, Octahedron offers items to collect for a perfect performance. Unlike the case with Fez or Celeste, the collecting here feels orgasmic rather than constipated. Flowers bust out of light bulbs that you smash with your gliding platforms. Secret areas illuminate when you dare to go to precarious inches of the levels. Sometimes you pass the literal boundaries of stages. The fluidity and restlessness of Demimonde’s game is gasp-worthy.