child of light

Game Bias’ 10 Worst Video Games of 2014

by Jed Pressgrove

Game critics often subscribe to a narrow-minded view of “worst” that results in self-congratulatory dogpiling of games like Sonic Boom. The following list shows that games in “working order” can be far more problematic, where an illusion of technical and artistic superiority hides insidious marketing; ignorance of video game and art history; disdain for thoughtful communication and potential audience; soulless repackaging of banal features and practices; fragile and unenlightened creator egos; and misrepresentation of human experience and culture.

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

1. Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes

Inspired by dark and trashy television, Ground Zeroes is a sly press release for Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Hideo Kojima dresses his “stand-alone prologue” in 24 clothes, that is, Kiefer Sutherland and torture porn. Ground Zeroes’ rape-bomb combo is its answer to Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding and other “shocking,” “must-see” TV moments. Some call Ground Zeroes misogynistic, but the game shows contempt for everyone, not just women. For an appearance of real-world relevance, the game evokes Guantanamo Bay only to utter banalities about hopelessness. The stealth is also a joke, with trendy bullet time for those who thought the superior Metal Gear Solid 3 was unfair.  The incongruous side missions depict a stealth sitcom without the laugh track.

(See full review of Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes here.)

2. Mountain

Mountain wins the Most Insignificant Game with a Significant Amount of Press award. The game’s “novel” approach to simulation is presented as a cute and mundane mystery, complete with smart-assed messages and backhanded features that prod players as if they’re cattle. Confusing condescension with creativity, developer David OReilly has nothing to say.

(See a comparison of Mountain to the superior Temporality here.)

3. Fantasy Life

Don’t be misled by the “addictiveness” of Fantasy Life. It’s just an old drug that prefers advertising over truth. The game’s commitment to childish banter and meaningless checklists exposes its cited freedom as a lie. Fantasy Life is only acceptable if one forgets every simulator and role-playing game that has ever been created. If you buy into Fantasy Life’s drivel, walking through a doorway is a quest or work. Publisher/developer Level-5 should be temporarily imprisoned for wasting composer Nobuo Uematsu’s brilliance.

(See full review of Fantasy Life here.)

4. Always Sometimes Monsters

Developer Vagabond Dog’s world of “no right or wrong” is preposterous, yet we’re supposed to be moved by Always Sometimes Monsters’ immature understanding of human experience. This (no shit) feces-obsessed game suckered some publications into thinking its depictions of sexism and racism are profound, but no matter what gender, sexual orientation, or racial group you choose, the story doesn’t recognize the privilege of its whiny protagonist writer. Like the diverse cast of characters, spirituality and labor are tokens on Vagabond Dog’s “progressive” checklist, casually addressed but never detailed in sociological or believable terms.

(See full review of Always Sometimes Monsters here.)

5. South Park: The Stick of Truth

Obsidian Entertainment tries to fool you into thinking The Stick of Truth is a good role-playing game by demonstrating what the fanboy consumer calls “faithfulness to the source material.” Standards in game criticism are so pitiful that if a game can manage to look like an episode of a popular cartoon series, the release will be hailed as a breath of fresh air. In reality, The Stick of Truth offers recycled jokes from the television show and parodic role-playing games, as well as an amateurish combination of Super Mario RPG battles and Elder Scrolls inventories/quests.

(See full review of South Park: The Stick of Truth here.)

6. Child of Light

This Ubisoft swing at the “indie” market pretends to be sophisticated and hopeful, but only the sound design and music suggest talent was involved. With poetry and hip visuals (that is, an awkward combo of bland polygons and water color backgrounds), Child of Light announces itself as an epic. Too bad the creators’ (mis)understanding of rhyming poetry is disrespectful: the game treats the rhymes as a feature rather than as part of a classic artform that requires skill, timing, and inspiration. The role-playing aspirations are similarly out of touch. The battles rely heavily on a real-time helper gimmick, ignoring the variety of turn-based possibilities in Penny Arcade 3. All of this inept execution exposes Child Light as a cynical display of fairy tale marketing.

(See full review of Child of Light here.)

7. The Plan

This five-minute game thinks dreariness amounts to a worthwhile existential statement. The use of Grieg’s classical masterpiece “Peer Gynt Suite No. 1” merely makes The Plan’s pretentiousness laughable. The game’s biggest mistake is prompting players to type words at the conclusion and then sharing previous player-written text (“kkk” was among the stupid things I read last time I played). This ending of uninspired player quotes suggests developer Krillbite Studio is unaware of Chris Johnson’s Moirai (one of the best games of 2013), which used player-to-player text to illustrate moral consequences and misfortune.

(See full review of The Plan here.)

8. Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone

This game, recently praised in The New York Times, ensures its creator’s mystique at the expense of insight. Developer Porpentine deleted this Twine 24 hours after releasing it, with the idea that others would have to curate it to keep it alive (the deletion served as a forced metaphor for the loss of human life). The complexity of the subject matter, suicide and trauma, is equivocated by C-grade horror descriptions (“fridge dimension with endless icy corridors full of condiments and womens dead and mutilated bodies”) and a mathematical structure that requires hundreds (for some, perhaps even thousands) of tedious mouse clicks. The trapped feeling is no more than a wretched aesthetic, a tool designed to toy with your emotions rather than enlighten.

(See full review of Everything you swallow will one day come up like a stone here.)

9. Luftrausers

Not even the old-school shooter can escape modern game development’s condescending vision to tutorialize and reward every player (in)action. In Luftrausers, Vlambeer attempts to lend gravity to its mindless instructions via Nazi and wartime suggestions, but the result is too antiseptic to approach an aesthetic. Unlike the remake of Gauntlet by Arrowhead Game Studios, Luftrausers doesn’t understand the strengths and weaknesses of traditional OR contemporary game design.

(See full review of Luftrausers here.)

10. Residue

The intentions behind Residue seem genuine, which makes the game an honest mistake. Awkward movement and choppy animation do enough damage to the seriousness of Residue’s narrative, but the storytelling itself never rises above a hackneyed sense of futility. This game is one more log on the reductive “Middle East sucks” fire.

(See full review of Residue here.)

Dishonorable Mention:

The Wolf Among Us, Episodes 3 and 5 (see review of Episode 5 here)

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Child of Light: A False Prophet RPG

by Jed Pressgrove

As its rapturous title suggests, Child of Light is a cunning product for a gaming mainstream in need of hope. The game panders to the nth degree by throwing together a collection of enticing parts: the poetry, the “check me out” visuals, the Disney/Miyazaki allusions, the turn-based combat with “a real-time twist,” the crafting, the skill tree, the female protagonist, the puzzles. These trendy components help explain the cynical thesis of Arthur Gies’ review: “Child of Light is exactly the kind of game I never expected to play.” This remarkable level of cynicism implies that game things are only notable when they come from “AAA” companies with a bow on top.

I would like to agree with Jim Bevan’s in-depth, enthusiastic breakdown of Child of Light, but not even a connection to Joseph Campbell can convince me that I should ignore the shallowness of the game. Child of Light isn’t an inspiring hero’s journey so much as a lollypop coated in blissful immaturity. The game finds the blandest way to start a fairy tale in 2014, channeling the stylish prologue of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and landing in the death-centric fantasy of Pan’s Labyrinth. After Child of Light’s seen-it-all-before opening, you’re plopped into a dark forest that, despite the great technical development on display, showcases as much original thought as a new flavor of bubble gum.

The game’s ballyhooed visuals are there to impress, not elate. Child of Light is a visual downer compared to recent Rayman games, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons, Muramasa: The Demon Blade, and Mario Galaxy. Even if Child of Light’s world is theoretically beautiful, the mishmash of styles doesn’t make sense. The watercolors might be pretty, but the background art’s more traditional style and stillness make the modern polygonal creations look like litter on a painting.  The game’s inconsistent beauty comes to a head when you see rising lava that looks more like a solid floor than a depiction of nature that fits the framing of the world. This inconsistency isn’t much of a factor during the turn-based battles, but the magic attacks lack the visual charm of SNES-era spells. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that protagonist Aurora is dull once you get past her flowing red hair; as a visual personality, Aurora has nothing on the child protagonist of Lilly Looking Through.

The visuals are masterful compared to the writing. Instead of sharing poetry from the heart, Ubisoft uses poetry as a device to convince audiences that the game is cultured, funny, and epic. Child of Light wants you subscribe to the idea that as long as the words rhyme, the poetry is fine, even if it completely ignores the importance of rhythm. One might claim that Child of Light deserves credit for taking a risk with poetry, but this defense becomes ridiculous once you read the crap:

A lady waits,

Hair long as a forest stream,

With skin like moths and gleaming eyes.

A seer, she’ll know the way out of this dream.

Whether you read that quietly or aloud, the passage doesn’t flow. And this isn’t an isolated case. There is example after example of this “style”:

And zounds! The Dark Queen cursed ma kin to birds.

The Water of Lethe would cure ’em an’

I have to make the journey down.

But fear has — Poor man.

The “Poor man” comes out of nowhere for three reasons. First, it’s an interjection from another character. Second, it’s a sorry rhyme. Third, the stanza has no rhythm. But that’s not even the worst stanza:

Pleased to meet you, Sir.

Like weeds it is.

I am lucky to be alive. When at ma house,

Besides the bloomin’ apple tree in the forest I arrived, this whiz

Not even a highly skilled rapper could make those lines flow. You’re better off zipping through the poetry because the writing also fails to create meaningful relationships. The game tries to build camaraderie between the characters with silly rhymes and puns, but the writing is so god-awful that these “human” moments translate as nothing more than interruptions in the gameplay. The flimsy characterizations fall right in line with the death-centric premise of the game; a lot of the cast would be better off working in a funeral home than going on an adventure.

The gameplay mainly tells a so-so story. The game graciously allows the main character to fly, a major improvement over the lame platforming. Even with flight, the game still makes you solve puzzles that are puzzles in name only. Letting you control Igniculus is the game’s claim to fame and shame. As a souped-up version of Mario Galaxy’s cursor, Igniculus can blind enemies and heal you. The more you use Igniculus, the more you might recognize the poor design of the game. For example, Child of Light works like Earthbound in that you have to run into enemies to enter turn-based combat. If you run into enemies from behind, you get a surprise attack. However, given that Igniculus can blind enemies, surprise attacks outrageously become a norm.

Igniculus winds up being the real-time glue that holds the bastardized combat system together. The main concern of the combat is based on an uncommon but unoriginal idea: interruption of attacks. Igniculus slows enemies down when he blinds them, allowing the player to manipulate who gets to perform commands first and thus potentially interrupt enemies. However, if you see that an enemy will be able to attack before your character can perform a command, it’s best to defend, which allows your character to move faster in the next round. The real-time element and interruptions might trick you into thinking the battles are complex, but you’re better off playing Penny Arcade 3, another 10-hour RPG with an interruption system that offers far more attacks and possibilities than the insultingly paltry selection in Child of Light.

If it weren’t for the sound design and Cœur de Pirate’s soundtrack, Child of Light’s banality would be fully exposed. Unfortunately, I’m not sure the sonic brilliance of the game will keep me playing. I’m six hours into Child of Light, and there is nothing to suggest I will be saved from the tedious arrogance of the game. Child of Light thinks it’s the Jesus Christ of video games, but saviors don’t give you substandard versions of things you’ve seen before.

Note: Special thanks to Ray Valgar for sending me this game as a gift on Steam.