beat-em-up

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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Way of the Passive Fist Review — Countering Monotony

by Jed Pressgrove

Whether the game is Double Dragon or Castle Crashers, the appeal of the 2D beat ’em up has remained the same for decades: clobbering gangs of adversaries with one’s fists, feet, and weapons. Way of the Passive Fist doesn’t subvert this approach so much as change the focus from offense to defense, requiring the player to anticipate and react to every single attack from foes. While this shift comes with the contrivance of bad guys attacking the hero one at a time, developer Household Games brings an unforeseen type of intensity to the genre with its greater emphasis on hand-eye coordination.

As beat-’em-up custom dictates, you walk from right to left in Way of the Passive Fist, and the scrolling only stops when the game sends a group of enemies for you to dispatch. But unlike the usual routine, you can’t proactively punch your targets into submission. Instead, you must tire your opponents out with parries and/or dodges before shoving them to the ground. As in rhythm games, there are degrees of timing here. If you barely counter an attack within the window of opportunity, you lose a slight bit of health. If your timing is good or “perfect,” you not only keep all of your health but also increase a combo meter that, once filled to certain levels, can allow you to perform a single offensive move, such as a body slam that hurts nearby foes in addition to the one being slammed.

This combo dynamic, in addition to encouraging an aesthetically appealing type of play, reveals the unique strategic identity of Way of the Passive Fist. Since you gain experience points (which unlock new abilities) the faster you defeat your opposition, the best strategy is to build defensive combos to unleash techniques that topple multiple enemies. This goal is easier to state than execute, as enemies have a variety of attacks to throw off your timing. The game starts off simple with its lessons: parry slow punches, dodge grappling moves, and catch projectiles to throw them back at their sources. After you advance to later stages, your defense must account for more complicated patterns, such as double projectiles and six-hit combinations. One mistake — from a missed dodge to an unnecessary parry — resets the combo meter. Way of the Passive Fist pushes for restraint, careful observation, and accuracy within a genre that usually rewards spamming and aggression.

To a large degree, Household Games mixes up the obstacles enough to keep you alert throughout Way of the Passive Fist. As you fight faster opponents later in the game, it can be jarring when an earlier, slower kind of threat returns to the fray, as sudden decreases in speed can disrupt your regular rhythm. Initially, the game also introduces environmental factors to compromise your comfort during battle. For example, in one early stage, you have to fight in sand storms that make it harder to see your adversaries’ nonverbal cues, which are critical when it comes to knowing what kind of counter you need to perform.

To its detriment, the game largely abandons environmental dangers about halfway through. There are 10 levels in Way of the Passive Fist, and each one has numerous waves of baddies, so a greater variety of traps and distractions could have reduced the repetitiveness of the proceedings. The final boss is disappointing as well: his pattern is too predictable, and he conveniently places himself in front of you after you fill up your combo meter by blocking his combinations. Despite these shortcomings, redirecting momentum as a defender in Way of the Passive Fist is a distinctive kinetic pleasure in a gaming world full of copiers and clones.

Growl Review — Immature Ideology

by Matt Paprocki

In Growl, a pithy number of mammals are saved by sanctioned murders, a style of overboard slaughter that separates legs, arms, and heads, a spectacle of hypocrisy. Oddly connected to Taito, a Japanese studio known for chipper military games, run-and-gun espionage thrillers, and harmless alien fantasies, Growl is an outcast beat ’em up full of unapologetic political litter.

Around 40 animals are rescued throughout Growl’s 20 or so minutes of anti-poacher carnage: eagles, elephants, lions, deer, gorillas. Comparatively, hundreds of human lives are lost. Men in turbans are brutally kneed in the face. Others are stomped into the ground. Some drown. Women explode into chunks after grenades time out. Growl is among the earliest video games to feature women of color prolifically and blows them up at the hands of four “heroic” white men who make up the Ranger Corps. Growl is apathetic to all, because animals.

The graphic violence is not necessarily repulsive in and of itself (though Growl’s ferociousness was unorthodox in 1991). Rather, Growl chooses to be crude and reactionary, content that an audience willing to pour in quarters would accept such a heinous depiction of human execution. The imagery is outright vile. PETA could hand out Growl as a digital business card. Sympathy for poaching is inexcusable, but believing this to be a solution is equally grotesque. Growl is as effective in its messaging as a campaign yard sign.

Weirder still is Growl’s playfulness. Cartoon words across the screen — “Shboom!” — degrade the fiction to camp television standards, a display of artless cruelty. Colorful, comic words are no shield to Growl’s abhorrent bigotry. Fern Gully this is not.

Growl is among the more critically confusing mass-produced arcade games of its era. A rallying cry of “Defeat the evil hunters!” is swept away by the nonsense of its closing act in which a rogue clown sprouts a rocket launcher for a neck, tosses around a tank, and rips open upon defeat to reveal an alien worm who was controlling members of the villainous poaching squad. Preceding actions take on the connotation of an exploitative zombie movie, matching the B-level tonality of the trailer-esque intro screens.

Growl’s sci-fi horror only makes things worse. Body parts and blood remain — now of innocent people controlled against their will, not poachers. Aliens are comforting foes. Slithering, slimy. Green. They’re often vapid as villains, too. But what would an alien want with these animals? Growl has no idea. Neither will an audience. Growl becomes expressly salacious without reason.

As a surface allegory, Growl is partly caught in the limited narrative bandwidth of the arcade form. Instant gratification is of prime importance, not storytelling patience, so the game calls the poacher group RAPO. Underneath this lack of subtlety is a competent brawler. Punches are fired (and sound) like machine guns while mayhem is celebratory, a fireworks show of scattering intestines. Dull moments do not exist.

Certainly, the game stands in contrast to an industry feeding on low-grade Cabela-licensed hunting simulations that flagrantly use birds, cheetahs, and alligators as mere antagonistic filler. Taito’s Growl loves those animals, just too much so and it’s damned mean about it.

Matt Paprocki has critiqued home media and video games for 15 years. His current passion project is the technically minded DoBlu.com. You can follow Matt’s body of work via his personal WordPress blog and follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.