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Game Bias’ 10 Worst Games of 2019 and Play-Instead List

by Jed Pressgrove

2019 was the most regrettable year for pop games, at least based on my experiences with the world’s biggest hits throughout my life. Other years have perhaps featured more bottom-of-the-barrel releases, but 2019 defeats all when it comes to setting a low standard for overall quality and artistic expression. During the majority of 2019, no matter what kind of game it was, from Dead or Alive 6 to Wilmot’s Warehouse to Death Stranding, I felt as if I wanted to spit the lukewarm out of my mouth.

Two years ago, I started the Play Instead part of this annual year-end list. The idea is simple: for every bad game, I suggest one you should play instead for whatever reason. The catch is “play instead” choices don’t have to be great or even good games. While this list follows that same logic, keep in mind that we really shouldn’t, outside of comparisons for argument’s sake, settle for less than good. Video games can be, and have largely been, better than the offerings of 2019.

1. Resident Evil 2

If the 2010s proved anything, it’s that Capcom has embraced the absolute worst version of itself. The original Resident Evil 2 is an imperfect but fascinating and discomforting game. Here it is transformed into the most agreeable ride imaginable. Gamers, you’ve nothing to worry about. Papa Capcom’s gonna take care of you — and take your money while he burps you.

(See full review of Resident Evil 2 here.)

Play Instead: Earth Defense Force: Iron Rain

Developer Yuke’s does the opposite of Capcom. It makes Earth Defense Force even tougher and more thematically incisive than usual … until Iron Rain seems to give up on level design and satire more than halfway through.

2. Hypnospace Outlaw

Yet another independent title that presents tedious desk work as insightful entertainment. I’d rather peruse MySpace than spend another minute with Hypnospace Outlaw.

(See full review of Hypnospace Outlaw here.)

Play Instead: Nauticrawl

From developer Andrea Interguglielmi, Nauticrawl is like going to work but having no idea what you’re supposed to do to finish the job. Tinkering with switches, buttons, and levers in a mysterious machine makes for a solid puzzle. Bonus: No smug indie pretension to be found.

3. The Outer Worlds

The brighter colors, the humorous descriptions, the almost identical perks, the inelegant slow-motion action. All of it points toward a development team whose only goal was to produce a neutered version of Fallout 3, which was a neutered version of its predecessors. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone remakes The Outer Worlds with a different name.

Play Instead: Outer Wilds

If The Outer Worlds is a lesser version of Fallout 3, Outer Wilds is a better version of No Man’s Sky.  Yes, I know that’s not saying much, but we’re reaching the outer limits of good taste.

4. Control

As Matt Paprocki suggests, Control wants to be a left-wing statement of resistance in a most irresponsible, dimwitted way, but players don’t mind or notice because they’re conditioned to enjoy guns (even if they don’t own or use any). Control is Doom 2016 all over again: shoot fast and keep moving. Who knew political critique could be so formulaic?

Play Instead: Void Bastards

The title and gameplay loop of this brilliantly animated game appear to satirize people who find meaning and purpose in terrible things. Void Bastards is smarter about its lack of seriousness than Control is.

5. Devil May Cry 5

After one hour of playing the original Devil May Cry, I was intrigued by its counterintuitive adoption of Resident Evil’s changing camera angles and by the kinetic potential of its marriage of melee techniques and frantic gunplay. After one hour of playing Devil May Cry 5, I was tired of douchebag characters trying to look and act cool, as every time the fighting was about to take center stage, another cutscene would interrupt the action. Capcom sucks now.

Play Instead: Katana Zero

Like Devil May Cry 5, Katana Zero has its share of played-out ideas. Despite its limitations, Katana Zero reveals the fundamental loneliness of its protagonist in quiet scenes that recall the contemplative minimalism of the 1967 film Le Samourai.

6. Blair Witch

The real title of this game is Blair Glitch.

(See full review of Blair Witch here.)

Play Instead: Devotion

Just kidding. You can’t play it. But I managed to. It’s better than Blair Glitch. Its jump scares and hackneyed first-person haunted-house style also teach us a valuable lesson: banned art isn’t always good art.

7. Contra: Rogue Corps

Konami turns Contra into an arena shooter for modern audiences. Would probably be more popular with critics if it took shots at Donald Trump.

(See full review of Contra: Rogue Corps here.)

Play Instead: Sunless Skies

Unlike Contra: Rogue Corps, Sunless Skies is a sequel that understands where it comes from and where it should go. Although it ditches the lovable pirate-like dialect that energized the text of Sunless Sea, its more understated use of language is still a hoot: “He’ll receive the care of Magdalene’s finest. At least, Magdalene’s finest with a sense of charity, given that he has nothing on him to pay for their ministrations.”

8. Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

The subtitle for Sekiro should have been “Shadows Die Countless Times,” as there’s nothing new about dodging and parrying boss attacks a la Dark Souls, and stealth tactics make most of the proceedings a cakewalk. Notwithstanding the incoherent claims of brainwashed From Software diehards, Hidetaka Miyazaki’s games are now more predictable than they are difficult.

(See full review of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice here.)

Play Instead: Vane

Though it lacks combat, Vane is closer in spirit to Dark Souls than anything Miyazaki has produced after 2011. Both puzzling and ambiguous, Vane technically collapses before it ends, but what a memorable failure it is.

9. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order

Earlier this year, I played Star Wars: Dark Forces. It’s a great example of kinetic art that not only takes inspiration from but also builds on the work of a source (namely, the original Doom). Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order’s more plagiaristic approach is unimpressive, if not unacceptable.

(See more thoughts on Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order here.)

Play Instead: Slay the Spire

Plenty of games copy and paste the turn-based combat systems of the past. But Slay the Spire’s card-deck-building premise, which will punish those who don’t pay attention to mathematical detail, brings a reasonable amount of creative forethought to a well-worn idea.

10. Neo Cab

Neo Cab often preaches about the inhuman qualities of corporations and technology, but so many of its features seem robotic rather than authentic, whether it’s the ever-shifting eyes of its protagonist, the out-of-place soundtrack, or the silly mood bracelet that restricts dialogue options. Humorless and dull, this game lacks the humanity that Deirdra “Squinky” Kiai captured in 2015’s Conversations We Have in My Head.

Play Instead: Disco Elysium

The dialogue of Disco Elysium can feel contrived from time to time, but its illustration of psychological struggle is more convincing and dynamic than Neo Cab’s forced stream-of-consciousness narrative.

Tekken 7 Review — Kissing Capcom’s Ring

by Jed Pressgrove

After playing various iterations of Namco’s Tekken series for more than two decades, I couldn’t have predicted that Capcom, responsible for the Street Fighter series, would keep coming to mind during Tekken 7. While Capcom has held the most influence on the fighting game genre since Street Fighter II became a pop sensation in the 1990s, and while there was a Street Fighter and Tekken crossover title (Street Fighter X Tekken) released in 2012, Namco’s franchise has always had its own legacy (though 1993’s Virtua Fighter certainly opened the door for the original Tekken in 1994). But in too many ways, Tekken 7 is a shameless continuation of Street Fighter IV, as evidenced by its multi-angle super moves and the inclusion of Akuma, the one-dimensional, fireball-throwing Street Fighter villain who just won’t go away.

On a fundamental level, Tekken 7 will be quite familiar to anyone who has spent a considerable amount of time with any Tekken game, especially if your favorite character is still in the mix. For example, I’ve been using Paul Phoenix throughout the series, and while his repertoire has a few new wrinkles, he retains the moves and strengths that have made him a standout contender. For many long-time players, Tekken 7 is welcoming in this respect. At the same time, the lack of risks with the game’s general design draws even greater attention to the changes Namco does make, and these additions show little imagination despite how cool they might look on the surface.

One of the major additions is what the game calls a “Rage” technique, which can be done when a character has lost almost all health. Each character has two different kinds of Rage moves, and one type, the Rage Art, is a bastardized version of the Ultra Combo from Street Fighter IV. Like the Ultra Combo, the Rage Art is designed to reward people who have taken too many hits (i.e., people who more than likely deserve to lose). When successfully landed, the move triggers a series of blows that can take off as much of a third of the opponent’s health. These combinations are automated (meaning they take virtually no skill to complete), have considerable priority (meaning they will usually go through an attack of the opponent), and can be initiated, in some cases, by only pressing two buttons together (at least Street Fighter IV consistently required more input for such a cheap tactic). The Rage Arts utilize various camera angles to accentuate over-the-top martial arts; while the combos may look neat, Namco is just stealing presentation tricks from Street Fighter IV.

Another “new” mechanic in Tekken 7 is the Power Crush, which involves a character absorbing blows (and taking damage), as opposed to being interrupted/countered, while landing a powerful attack. This addition shows, again, that Namco is too in love with Capcom, as the Power Crush recalls the Focus Attack from Street Fighter IV. The main difference between the two is that the Focus Attack offers more variety of play. You could perform Focus Attacks of various power levels (they can become unblockable), you could cancel Focus Attacks by dashing backward or forward, and you could cancel special moves with a Focus Attack, setting up a variety of strategic possibilities. In contrast, the Power Crush in Tekken 7 is all brawn. Just do the move and watch the idiotic fireworks.

The stupidest decision by Namco, though, is allowing Akuma to be a playable character in Tekken 7. For those unfamiliar with Akuma, he has always been an overpowered Ryu/Ken clone in the Street Fighter series, and Capcom keeps putting him in games as if he adds anything to the proceedings other than a superficial air of menace (Akuma’s defense has traditionally sucked). But Akuma’s presence is even worse in Tekken 7. Whenever he’s in a match, he’s clearly out of place, hurling fireballs and jumping with the fluidity of a 2D fighting-game character. Like the evil Akuma, Namco has lost its soul.

1942 Review — The Laziness of Shooter ‘History’

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: This review is based on an emulation of the 1984 Capcom arcade game at game-oldies.com. The emulation was played using the analog stick of an Xbox 360 controller.

Recent accounts about 1942 have zero insight. Whether dull or facetious, these writings fail to consider the gravity of packaging great spectacle in unimaginative propaganda. Designer Yoshiki Okamoto is a video-game genius for his work in not only 1942 but also Street Fighter II, the rightful benchmark for fighting games. But genius should not be divorced from responsibility. 1942 is a significant entry in a trend of naive history that continues to this day (see 2014’s mediocre Wolfenstein: The New Order and its lazy moral superiority to imaginary Nazis).

In 1942, you control a World War II American fighter plane on a virtual solo mission to destroy every Japanese plane you can. This theme deviates from that of vertical shooters like Space Invaders, Galaga, and Xevious, but it doesn’t deserve exaggerated praise like the following: “1942 sets itself apart with extremely balanced gameplay and a real, historical situation as opposed to the then-cliche space shooter scenario.” This nonsense misses that 1942’s lone-wolf grind is far from “real” and “historical” despite its pandering WWII heroism. (At least Street Fighter II’s ethnic stereotypes speak to the fighting pride of multiple nations.)

Okamoto does place 1942’s masturbatory premise in a technically outstanding frame. As in Xevious, the enemies in 1942 fly in at specific cues, but their flight and fire patterns during these cues can vary from game to game. 1942 also excels at enemy entrances. While enemies fly in from the top and sides of the screen as they did in previous vertical shooters, 1942 sends slow but sizable enemies at the rear of your plane from the bottom of the screen, which explains why your plane can’t fly to the very bottom — a logical reprieve from cheap, instant death. Before you play 1942 enough to memorize its enemy cues, the entrance of large planes introduces a considerable element of surprise and requires you to coolly fly out of the way and develop a new strategy for avoiding fire and taking down enemy craft, all the while dealing with the fact that you can’t fly on most of the top half of the screen. The large planes from the bottom of the screen eventually start shooting bullets at regular intervals, so you have to wait in safe parts of the screen and anticipate these bullets for evasion before flying below the ships to take them out as they deliberately rise to the top of the screen. The smaller, more common enemies in 1942 are comparable to the pests in Galaga that circle you when you don’t destroy them on first sight. When 1942 sends waves of these familiar planes from the top and sides of the screen along with bigger planes from the bottom of the screen, your patience and nerves are tested the most, which also means the potential for kinetic art is at its highest.

Weaved into 1942’s straightforward shooting — there are no enemies on the ground as in Xevious, Dragon Spirit, and TwinBee — is Okamoto’s articulate emphasis on maneuvering. The primary button in 1942 shoots; the second gives you temporary invincibility, sending your plane in a looping pattern. This evasive tactic can only be performed three times for each life (more opportunities can be gained through power-ups), but the beauty is that you can still control where the plane flies during the maneuver, which creates one of the most exciting illusions of flight and handling in vertical shooters. This brilliant stroke from Okamoto demands care, though: you must become aware of how long this evasive tactic lasts, as your plane can drop directly into enemy fire once the maneuver ends, meaning that you can die immediately if you don’t carefully place your reentry to the normal field of play.

This intoxicating design is ultimately a distraction from 1942’s incoherence. The soundtrack trades the alarm of Xevious for a sense of duty. The percussion and whistling in 1942 evoke a soldier rightfully taking orders. This righteous tone raises the question: is the WWII theme only a commercial ploy, or does the lone American hero against the Japanese horde reflect any of Okamoto’s feelings on his country’s part in the war? Considering 1942’s bland history references, it would be foolish to assume how Okamoto feels. At the same time, the game provides no convincing reason as to why it takes place during World War II. That war was not black and white, yet 1942 registers as mindless propaganda where destruction of a past political enemy is exaggerated. At best, the use of history is superfluous, as the game could have worked the same with simple allusions to military technology. For those who want to talk about marketing, let’s do it: 1942 and its ilk offer a knucklehead’s history.