jazzpunk

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.

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South Park: The Stick of Truth Review — Product Loyalty

by Jed Pressgrove

The fact that South Park: The Stick of Truth doesn’t suck as much as previous South Park games (and other various licensed games) might seem impressive, but don’t be fooled by advertising that claims old jokes and substandard RPG design is an accomplishment.

In terms of creativity and humor, The Stick of Truth is amateur hour compared to Jazzpunk, which might have been more warmly received if it were based on a popular television show. The idea that Stick of Truth “looks just like the show” and is like “playing an episode” leads to gullible consumer logic: if one enjoys the show, then one must enjoy the game. In reality, the show is much more ironic than the game. I did laugh at some of the old jokes in The Stick of Truth (particularly the anal probing segment), but the constant referencing of episodes serves mostly as a reminder that, yes, many of us find these episodes funny. Do we have to play an overpriced game to know this?

Some might point to the “original” writing in The Stick of Truth. When the game isn’t revisiting popular concepts from the show, it jokes about video game conventions such as the overuse of zombies and the silent protagonist. While these moments can be funny, the game’s repetitious use of Nazi zombies doesn’t subvert anything, and Super Mario RPG’s play on the silent protagonist was more inventive in 1996. The Stick of Truth also has humorous descriptive text, but so did Fallout and Disgaea. Even Canada resembling an old-school RPG feels somewhat expected — Zeboyd Games already transported its protagonists to RPG antiquity in Penny Arcade 3.

The Stick of Truth’s window dressing can’t conceal the game’s lack of compelling design. The first time you take a shit works as a critique of quick-time events; the rest of the game’s button mashing is simply dumb. While the game’s environments are faithful to the show, they often make for dull exploration (appropriately, the journey into an asshole is an exception to the rule). The NPCs also seem relatively lifeless compared to the people you meet in Earthbound. The Stick of Truth does allow a good bit of interaction with special moves, but the game favors repetition over the rule-breaking mentality of Jazzpunk.

Substandard RPG elements make up the rest of the game. Obsidian Entertainment has created an awkward mixture of Super Mario RPG and Fallout: New Vegas. Instead of automatically receiving items after turn-based combat, you are forced to check the bodies of individual defeated enemies for items, even though there is no weight limit. The game’s implementation of Super Mario RPG’s innovative battle system is woefully behind the times. The combos are dull things to perform; apparently, Obsidian forgot about The Legend of Dragoon’s accomplishments. The game’s special moves are more interesting, but once you find a viable strategy, you can ride it the whole way — the enemies provide little variation in challenge. The game also lets you heal and attack in the same turn, so the combat pretty much lacks any semblance of drama. The most challenging part of the game is getting used to its awkward twin-stick fart magic.

Given its lack of great ideas, The Stick of Truth is absurdly playable. The game is a very shrewd cash-in on sentimentality for the long-running television show and RPGs. But it’s no better than the much cheaper and more profound Saturday Morning RPG. I would be surprised if The Stick of Truth is more fondly remembered than cartoons on a Saturday morning.

Jazzpunk Review: Are You Ready to Laugh?

by Jed Pressgrove

Sight gags, silly dialogue, running jokes, mindless destruction — no type of humor is too lowbrow for Jazzpunk. This approach rejects an overwhelming seriousness that threatens to stop video games from evolving as entertainment. Some critics may not realize it, but Jazzpunk is a challenge to jadedness and egotism.

Remember how Papers, Please evoked the Soviet era to incite misery and guilt? Jazzpunk’s mockery of intelligence gathering wishes to return us to higher spirits. The game’s irreverent take on globalism recalls the absurdity of the great Marx Brothers political comedy, Duck Soup. Rather than contribute to political or cultural malaise, Jazzpunk looks for every opportunity to cut up (notice that the game’s title reconciles two musical genres at odds). Despite its nods to the Cold War and other things of the past, the game is clearly a comedy for the present.

Before Jazzpunk, I would’ve been hard-pressed to recall a recent game that truly exercised the healing power of laughter. Games like Portal and Saints Row might be funny, but their humor is treated as secondary to gameplay expectations (in the end, no more profound than cute ’em ups like Star Parodier). If the puzzler and action mechanics of Portal and Saints Row had been unfavorable, those games wouldn’t have made much of an impact on gamers. In contrast, Jazzpunk will only make a significant impact if it makes you laugh, as it’s designed to make you laugh by any means possible. Jazzpunk’s story and gameplay are merely subservient, so the game’s success is partially based on whether one is willing to forget the pretenses of story and gameplay. Critics and gamers looking for a traditional or abstract story will be disappointed, and Jazzpunk’s “adventure” gameplay is only fulfilling when it helps make a good joke.

Though somewhat reminiscent of The Stanley Parable, Jazzpunk doesn’t pander to cynicism or self-congratulatory criticism, nor does it insult one’s intelligence by sharing obvious lessons about game design. Jazzpunk has fun at the expense of Street Fighter II, Quake, and the Virtual Boy’s Mario’s Tennis (among others), but it doesn’t dismiss the essence of these games, nor does it shoehorn references to pander to fans (unlike The Stanley Parable’s circle jerk with Minecraft and Portal). Never insistent, Jazzpunk allows you to wander or follow the main mission. Jokes spill out of the game no matter the playing style. The game only denies catharsis to those who don’t laugh.

Unfortunately, by not appealing to the ego of video game critics, Jazzpunk has opened itself up to some lame reviewing. Metro GameCentral complains about the lack of gameplay in Jazzpunk but also calls the more minimalist Gone Home and Stanley Parable “inarguably better games.” Polygon describes Jazzpunk as “a great first-person conversation” (whatever that means). Destructoid’s review says the game “just ends with no real resolution.” Unbridled levity is strange or sinful in a gaming world that often looks for reasons not to laugh.