amazing princess sarah

Axiom Verge Review — Retro Dope

by Jed Pressgrove

Axiom Verge functions as a temporary cure for retro withdrawal, which affects critics as much as it does anyone, regardless of whether they grew up with the Nintendo Entertainment System. Thomas Happ is a talented developer and does manage to make a more impressive game than Phil Fish’s Fez, the corniest Nintendo nostalgia ever peddled. Even so, Axiom Verge’s impersonations mostly add up to a walk we’ve taken too many times. It’s no secret the gaming world has blue balls over the anticipation of another entry of Metroid, the franchise that serves as Axiom Verge’s primary influence. This yearning is evident in the hoopla over watered-down versions of Metroid, commonly referred to as “Metroidvania” games (the “vania” comes from gamer obsession with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, a Metroid-esque disaster with countless useless items and a fake ending). To Happ’s credit, Axiom Verge showcases some ideas that are more inventive than the norm. At the same time, this love letter to 8-bit classics will be seen as a Messiah simply for filling a Metroid-sized hole.

From the beginning, Axiom Verge struggles to create a dramatic identity. The game opens with a comic-book cutscene, a device used extensively in Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden trilogy on the NES. Whereas Ninja Gaiden uses such scenes between stages to add melodramatic weight to its swift and linear action, Axiom Verge abandons this style in favor of dialogue boxes that interrupt its exploration. Through dialogue Happ attempts to establish a conflicted protagonist in Trace, who has one funny observation: “The whole ‘chosen one’ story doesn’t inspire much confidence.” With a name that suggests incompleteness, Trace takes orders from sentient, motherly machines to put an end to an unethical science experiment. The closer you get to the end, the more evident it becomes that the storytelling is hamstrung by tradition. Trace might bemoan violence here and there, yet his dry nerd-turned-badass language trumps moral consideration. Trace doesn’t have the believable confusion and anger of Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa. And do players really care about Trace’s tangential moralizing as they blast away at every form of life that stands in their way? Sure, it’s interesting on the surface when you literally trade places with a creature being obliterated by a gun-toting hero, but that’s more of a cute deconstructive trick than meaningful commentary, no more profound than how the broken English of the feminine guides evoke a fanboy’s delight in poor translations of old games. Axiom Verge is a playground, not a philosophical text.

Axiom Verge’s emphasis on reexploring places to find new paths and items is a very familiar Metroid routine that goes like this: as you advance, you notice that you can’t travel all paths because of your limited ability and equipment. You start to recognize specific obstacles as they reject your desire to explore. While on the main story path, you stumble upon an ability that is designed to pass a certain type of blockage, but despite this obvious practicality, you have to retrace your steps, going through the same doors and the same environments again and again and again until you get every last damn thing you can on the map. The repetition of backtracking is somewhat tailored by abilities that allow you to move in different ways (for example, teleportation vs. jumping).

If you’re willing to accept this routine on its terms, the appeal of Axiom Verge ultimately lies in Happ’s execution of the form, which is mixed. Happ is at his most creative when it comes to the abilities and equipment for overcoming obstacles to further exploration. In contrast to Shovel Knight’s mindless pandering, Axiom Verge doesn’t mark walls for easy destruction. You have to poke around with a drill on a mad treasure hunt, and when you finally see a wall start to give, the result is legitimate excitement. Even more interesting is the drone that you shoot out and then control in claustrophobic areas that the hero can’t traverse. As the drone (which features Happ’s best sound design), you have adventures that go beyond the boundaries of single rooms. These segments have a sneaky determination that gives a needed break from the wandering hero bits. Happ’s most provocative contribution to the formula is a gun that can hack enemies and parts of the environment. While sometimes the hacking is merely a stylish way of blowing away pixelated crap, the ability does bring surprises with its effects on enemies. Still, compared to the game-altering possibilities in the otherwise mediocre Hack ‘N’ Slash, Axiom Verge’s hacking gun is quite limited and serves as another reminder of retro withdrawal with its NES glitch allusions.

The biggest shortcoming of Happ’s Metroidvania riffing is a problem that the superior Magicians & Looters avoided: the pointlessness of so many items that, in turn, raises the question of why anyone would want to find them in the first place. Axiom Verge has an appreciable number of weapons, but the Kilver, perhaps best described as an electrifying shotgun, renders almost every other gun a waste of space. The Kilver comes early in the game and not only destroys enemies quickly but also shoots through platforms and walls. When you reach a particular boss that constantly shields itself, you can make short work of it by running straight through the shield (taking damage all the while) and firing the Kilver nonstop. While the health enhancers are more useful than the obligatory guns, Axiom Verge fumbles again by pretending that random back-story notes reward exploration. I’m starting to believe that not even a prison sentence would discourage developers from hiding fragments of a weak story and presenting them as trophies to be won.

Despite the flaws, there’s nothing revolting about Axiom Verge. There’s also little that’s special about it. The hype behind Metroid wannabes reflects the low bar that game culture sets for everything and a dreadful memory (after more than 12 years, Metroid Prime is still better than the imitators). Axiom Verge will receive Game of the Year consideration just as Shovel Knight did last year, which will further propagate the clichĂ© that all games are influenced by others and that’s it’s all about execution, with few reflections on why influences matter or what we value in the execution of ideas. This boring echo chamber overlooks Amazing Princess Sarah, Shutshimi, and other games inspired by classics that go beyond gentle homage, acceptable pastiche, and momentary cessations of retro cravings. The Verge writes “Axiom Verge feels like a brand new Metroid.” So what?

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Pregnancy Review — A Game That Should Have Been Aborted

by Jed Pressgrove

“Who the fuck are you?”

Lilla, Pregnancy’s 14-year-old protagonist, directs this question to the player early on, but she should have posed it to her developer, Locomotivah. Lilla has become pregnant after being raped, and you are her guide of sorts, clicking away at dialogue options. After she asks the above question, you can choose to tell her you’re an adviser, a friend, or her conscience. It doesn’t matter. Locomotivah’s goal is profoundly banal, the latest attempt to one-up Telltale Games (The Walking Dead, The Wolf Among Us) on player choice/agency. Whereas Life Is Strange tries to top Telltale by maxing out the latter’s methods like an amateur, Pregnancy has a more savage ploy: using in-detail rape to hook you into a shallow lecture on abortion debate.

You have to wonder whether Locomotivah or Kotaku’s Mike Fahey, who laughably said Pregnancy “is a harrowing journey that countless women go through every year,” ever played or heard of Choice: Texas, which expresses the life politics of abortion though the dreams, strengths, and insecurities of different women. Pregnancy just goes for the gut. Background pictures accompany the game’s text, and you soon see two big hands wrapped around a girl’s throat, the image static but with a haze effect. Locomotivah draws out the scene with choppy descriptions like “A lot of pain. Inside.” and “A cry. Mine. He laughs.” This scene might trigger people who have been been sexually assaulted or make others uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean it’s meaningful communication. The sexual violence horror merely sets up the pins for Locomotivah’s focus on player ego and, later, lukewarm political bowling.

The fourth wall is shattered as you talk to Lilla, who even prompts you to type your name — anything to reinforce an illusion of player importance. Eventually you respond to Lilla’s pro-life and pro-choice suggestions. Based on how you guide her, Pregnancy flips the script at the end when Lilla announces that she can make her own choice. As if this conversation with a conscience couldn’t be any faker, Lilla adds “I feel plenitude” when making the decision that is the very opposite of your supposed advice. Locomotivah wants to let you down gently with this closing text:

“Note: Hey, please don’t get mad at Lilla … In this game Lilla’s final decision will always be the opposite of what the player allegedly wants. There are valuable arguments on both sides of the discussion.”

Pregnancy then goes full Telltale with post-game statistics on the decisions of players. The final cherry on top is a list of links to pro-life and pro-choice websites. Locomotivah tells us what we already know: an abortion debate exists.

Nothing valuable precedes that stupid ending. At best, everything about Pregnancy amounts to bland acknowledgement of reality. Like Pregnancy, Choice: Texas illustrates a pregnancy due to rape with the character of Leah. Choice: Texas emphasizes how social institutions play out in rape’s aftermath, as Leah seeks guidance from her pastor while facing judgment from certain church members. Pregnancy merely pushes spiritual tokenism when Lilla asks you if you believe in God before dismissing her own belief about providence with as much attention as she gives The Hunger Games and Jennifer Lawrence. This approach favors a perspective based on secularism and an all-powerful consumerist identity. While Leah in Choice: Texas implicitly faces spiritual hardships based on her interactions in society, Locomotivah has Lilla mention God and hypocrisy for an appearance of depth.

Immature “hardcore” gamers will mock Pregnancy for all the wrong reasons. The cursive pink title font, the mawkish piano, and the impersonality of player advice are only symptoms resulting from a more significant problem. Indie trash like The Walking Dead, Gone Home, and Always Sometimes Monsters want to drive discussion on human nature in specious terms. Pregnancy’s mockery of personal experience and player choice is a response to this miserable canon. Shock and trickery are the new empathy.

Game Bias’ 10 Best Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

There is no critical value in hyping any conception of “video game,” traditional or otherwise. The following works simply accomplish their goals, modest or not, better than the numerous other 2014 games that I played.

Note: You can check out my 10 worst video games of 2014 here.

1. Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk’s emphasis on derailing plot, a cue from the Marx Brothers, turns video game campaigns and side missions into farce. (People who pontificate about “narrative” or “gameplay” might be too jaded to laugh, though.) Developer Necrophone Games’ dedication to irreverence outplays Obsidian Entertainment’s adolescent marketing and genre triteness in South Park: The Stick of Truth. Jazzpunk never gets haughty about the artificiality of games and takes joy in the absurd possibilities of the form.

(See full review of Jazzpunk here.)

2. Choice: Texas

Some say “every game is political” and others say “keep politics out of games,” but I often get the sense people are talking more about how game content either massages or insults their partisan egos. The life politics in Choice: Texas reject partisanship to explore practical, emotional, and spiritual concerns. Text-based second guessing conveys how policy, family, religion, school, and work can lead pregnant women to visit and revisit decisions that are as sociological as they are personal.

(See full review of Choice: Texas here.)

3. Talks With My Mom

Unlike Mountain, Talks With My Mom is a masterpiece of minimalism. The game’s focus on mother and daughter confronts the anxiety of raising children and growing up gay, trumping the lack of sociology and dignity in Gone Home’s horror cliches. Even if someone says “not a game” in regard to Talk With My Mom’s ultra-simplistic clicking (which allows the player to punctuate mood and control pacing), developer Vaida’s statement on identity and gender is undeniably mature, non-judgmental (the mother isn’t presented as a mere bigot), and clear.

(See full review of Talks With My Mom here.)

4. The Talos Principle

If it were only a collection of puzzles, The Talos Principle would be impressive and worthwhile. The puzzler further distinguishes itself by addressing the voice of God and the voice of reason. Avoiding propaganda, The Talos Principle magnifies the human vulnerability and intellectual conflict within the Garden of Eden story, an account that is usually analyzed from one-dimensional viewpoints. The smattering of philosophical texts might be tedious, yet this bombardment captures the challenges of thinking in the (Mis)Information Age. The game achieves the most clarity in connecting deity and human as players. The urge to solve puzzles, to be a creator of order, explains more than The Stanley Parable’s smug and obvious design lesson.

(See full review of The Talos Principle here.)

5. Beeswing

One can almost see the human hands that crafted the art and music in Beeswing, but the result still seems magical, particularly during the best video game song of 2014 that dares to express the alienation of the elderly in nursing homes. Beeswing’s checklist of activities represents what a person hopes to accomplish going back home rather than the common attempt in games to glorify content. Even among provocative work like Sluggish Morss: A Delicate Time in History and Will You Ever Return? 2, this is Jack King-Spooner’s masterpiece.

Full disclosure: I backed the Kickstarter for Beeswing, but only at the level that allowed me to download the game. Moreover, I do not plan on backing another Kickstarter for a video game. The whole process annoys me.

6. Amazing Princess Sarah

Just ignore how developer Haruneko advertises this game as yet another breast-obsessed adventure on Xbox Live Indie Games. Not satisfied with retro sentimentality like Shovel Knight, Amazing Princess Sarah expands the strategic possibilities and challenges of Super Mario Bros. 2’s enemy throwing. This platformer also gives the “new game plus” concept memorable purpose, outdoing the beat-it-twice legend of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. The rule changes in each version of Amazing Princess Sarah can make difficult sections easy and easy sections difficult, inspiring new appreciation of the game’s five levels.

(See full review of Amazing Princess Sarah here.)

7. Shutshimi

The direction of Shutshimi borders on the avant-garde. The alternating 10-second bursts of shooting and power-up selection defy conventions, especially when you’re forced to choose from power-ups that are almost certain to lead to your death. The narrative of a fish defending his home is punctuated by constant human bicep flexing that recalls the homoerotic overtones of Cho Aniki. Neon Deity Games has created the wildest shooter of our time: a high-score exhibition that celebrates and parodies masculinity.

8. Broken Age Act 1

Tim Schafer’s direction in Broken Age Act 1 is virtuosic. The two stories tie together brilliantly in terms of theme and plot. The voice acting blows away the amateurish efforts of countless bigger-budget games. Although some puzzles might require backtracking, Broken Age is designed to allow a much faster pace than most point-and-click adventures. Broken Age always seems one step ahead with its punchlines, inviting the player to goof off as much as advance.

9. Replay Racer

Mario Kart 8 might have helped make 2014 a banner year for Nintendo banality, but that latest entry of an overrated franchise can’t match the innovative fun and challenge of Replay Racer. Developer Chris Johnson turns every completed lap into a juggernaut that you have to avoid and outrace. By the sixth and final lap, you’re competing against five of your own Frankensteins. If arcades were still respected, Replay Racer would be a hit.

(See full review of Replay Racer here.)

10. Temporality/Snot City/The World The Children Made

Cheat Code: Allow Three Choices for One Spot. Down, Up, Down, Up, Enter.

These three games from James Earl Cox III weren’t released as a trio, but they stand out together in 2014. Temporality gives a more respectful and thoughtful tribute to what is lost in war than Ubisoft’s Looney Tunes/Pokemon treatment of World War I in Valiant Hearts. Snot City exposes formulaic item collection as juvenile horror. Finally, The World The Children Made is a timely adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s short story, warning millennials and their offspring of the potential dehumanization of technological convenience and privilege.

Game Over Breasts — Amazing Princess Sarah

by Jed Pressgrove

The promotional art of Amazing Princess Sarah recalls the silly boob adventure games on Xbox Live Indie Games. The actual game has little in common with this vapid subgenre. Whether out of desperation, cynicism, or ignorance, developer Haruneko promotes his great platformer as something that values breasts over game, when in fact the opposite is true: Amazing Princess Sarah redefines “new game plus” — one of the most stagnant, masturbatory ideas in games — as a seven-part rite of passage for the protagonist, updating the “beat it twice” legend of Ghosts ‘n Goblins. Amazing Princess Sarah isn’t for satisfying lust; it’s for the reward and fun of discovering and overcoming challenges.

In every game within Amazing Princess Sarah, the central idea is picking up dead enemies and throwing them as weapons. Initially, one might compare Amazing Princess Sarah to Super Mario Bros. 2, but this comparison doesn’t account for the new problems in the former. Super Mario Bros. 2 was far more straightforward: jump on top of an enemy, press a button to pick it up, then throw it as a weapon. In Amazing Princess Sarah, you first must kill the enemy with either your sword or a thrown enemy/item (each stage has a few items you can pick up). Then you must pick up the dead enemy, meaning that you have to kill enemies in such a way that you can get to them (e.g., you don’t want them falling on spikes). In many cases, you have to avoid other enemies as you pick up dead enemies since one hit from a live enemy will make you drop the dead one (not to mention that Sarah lets out an insufferable, morale-killing yelp when she gets hit).

Although enemies generally follow predictable patterns (for example, the biggest enemies rush you when they face you), Haruneko has designed the stages in such a way that the preset quirks of the enemies can drive you mad as you jump from platform to platform to pick up dead ones. Balancing out the treacherous one-two punch of the level design and enemy patterns is the fact that thrown enemies have different trajectories and effects. Learning the proper distances and heights from which to throw specific enemies can mean the difference between a breezy or frustrating section of a level. The plentiful enemies in each stage also enable different playing styles. Some players will prefer a fire effect over an arrow effect during a particular chain of attacks, as fire travels across floors while arrows go up a bit and then rain down through floors and walls.

Even though Amazing Princess Sarah has Super Nintendo looks, the game doesn’t play politics by appealing to retro sentimentality while conceding to modern notions about “fair” game design (though the game has checkpoints and leveling up, the latter hardly makes a difference between life and death). Rather, completing the game’s five stages with different rules becomes a mantra of tension and triumph. The “new game pluses,” such as Angry Princess Sarah and Cursed Princess Sarah, neither champion simple difficulty increases nor stroke power fantasies. What’s easy during one “new game plus” is difficult during another and vice versa, inspiring new appreciation of level design and perspective. For example, by the time you get to Bat Princess Sarah, you are very knowledgeable about the game, but your primary weapon, a sword, becomes ineffective against all enemies, with the exception of bats. Throwing dead bats thus becomes essential to killing stronger enemies, but the increase of bats throughout the stages also means you have more obstacles to avoid during tricky platforming.

As suggested by my comment about the cover art, the sex-centered marketing of Amazing Princess Sarah is misleading at best and distracting at worst. Moreover, the mindless achievement of reaching level 69 belongs in a Bill & Ted game. Interestingly, Haruneko makes wet dreams into more than a marketing ploy. In the penultimate “new game plus,” Sarah is naked and has no sword. Upon seeing you as a nude warrior, most enemies stop in their tracks, entranced by Sarah’s muscular physique. The lack of a sword creates an interesting dynamic: you’re no longer able to kill bats with one strike, and although you charm most enemies, you have more trouble killing them with your bare hands. It’s more of a unique challenge than a nude fantasy (the “nudity” is blurred).

OK, one could still say the game is juvenile. Yet the simple creativity of Haruneko’s stages and enemies cannot be denied, and the interplay between the different rules of the “new game pluses” is something to behold. In most games, “new game plus” is actually “old game plus.” In Amazing Princess Sarah, every new game is another part of a journey. Despite a disappointing end boss in the final stretch, the game of Amazing Princess Sarah deserves more credit than the body parts its creator uses for marketing.