negative review

Bloodborne Review — Another Soulless Franchise

by Jed Pressgrove

Bloodborne, which would have been called Dark Souls III if it were honest, comes one year after 2014’s Dark Souls II. Usually when a video game sequel gets a follow-up this quickly, you’ll see some critics lament this age of rapid-fire franchises. Not so with Bloodborne. Even David Thier’s complaint reads like a glowing endorsement: “Bloodborne deserves all the praise it gets.” Director Hidetaka Miyazaki sidesteps the franchise stench of his latest game with a different title and a switch in currency from souls to “blood echoes.” (Instead of Bloodborne II, perhaps the next title will be Rotgut and require even more intestinal fortitude.) Miyazaki’s references to the red substance may inspire a few theories, but the focus on blood mostly plays into a decades-old desire for video games to gain notoriety via body fluids. Game culture is in a sorry state in which superficial darkness gets hailed as part of an artistic triumph rather than a bankable ploy.

Notwithstanding the gaming world’s deification of Miyazaki, Bloodborne is a hack’s version of Dark Souls. The former is noticeably faster due to the increased speed and stamina of the protagonist. Despite this quicker pace, the addition of a gun, and a rule where you gain health back if you attack an enemy soon after it attacks you, Bloodborne retains the awkward timing and constant threat of death from Dark Souls, coming off like a less graceful Devil May Cry. In another way, Bloodborne turns its heritage into Looney Tunes. In Dark Souls, sneaking up on a black knight is a welcome discovery and builds mystery about the creature. In Bloodborne, stealth is expected, instructed, and even unintentionally humorous as you turn a sword into a big hammer and, as a depressing Foghorn Leghorn, smash the giant stone end of the weapon into enemies who might as well be sleeping dogs.

Miyazaki’s imitation of his previous work raises the question of how anyone familiar with Dark Souls can say with a straight face that Bloodborne is frightening, as if it represents the franchise’s first horror aspirations. Bloodborne’s standard Dark Souls tone isn’t served by allusions to the villagers from the campy Resident Evil 4 (critic Zolani Stewart wasn’t far off when he said “Everything is Resident Evil 4”). More importantly, the Dark Souls style is now too predictable for greater suspense. It’s an ingrained drill at this point: Church is evil. Resist overconfidence. Through death, learn enemy patterns so that you know when to strike and counter. Tread carefully because something all new and powerful can kill you with a couple of blows. Devise ways to tease out single enemies from groups so that you stand a better chance (and since Bloodborne’s enemies are more stupid, this doesn’t require that much imagination). Sure, this drill benefits from the fact that the sight of most creatures is impressive, but locking onto them (as in 3-D Legend of Zelda games), evading them, and attacking them make for D-grade horror at best.

Bloodborne forgets what made Dark Souls interesting. The nervousness and giddiness of exploring a strange world are reduced by Bloodborne’s generic structure. Bloodborne trades Dark Souls’ bonfires, which suggested questionable rituals as much as they relieved players, for lanterns that transport you to an agreeable hub called the Hunter’s Dream, a setting that pretends to be meaningful but feels like a pit stop that one often finds in mission-based games. In Dark Souls, discovering an item seller called for celebration because you had no idea what lurked in that world, but in Bloodborne, buying items is a given from the start thanks to the Hunter’s Dream. Bloodborne also takes a page from the juvenile Killer Is Dead with the inclusion of The Doll. If the sexual connotation isn’t obvious in how she’s introduced (“You’re welcome to use whatever you find”), The Doll’s voice sensually babies you, and when you use her to level up, she, of course, bends down (“Let me stand close. Now shut your eyes …”). Dark Souls’ subtlety takes a backseat to Bloodborne’s proven advertising. Still, Miyazaki throws in little twists, such as not being able to level up your character initially, so that players can pat themselves on the back when they inform others of these meaningless inconsistencies. Contrast Bloodborne’s sleight of hand with Castlevania III’s unapologetic conviction, which didn’t offer pretenses of accessibility or petty deviations from formula.

The biggest misconception about Dark Souls lies in a preoccupation with difficulty that is uninformed by video game history. A lot of the praise for Bloodborne continues this peer-pressure parade about accomplishment: beat this, and you’ve really done something. Nonsense. There are innumerable tough challenges in gaming, from topping high scores in Centipede to defeating a Street Fighter IV opponent who has always gotten the best of you to overcoming the trials of Contra 4. Dark Souls’ uniqueness comes from the emotional interpretation behind it. When you go back to Firelink Shrine and hear the violins, a bittersweetness accompanies the joy of hearing music again. In no other game will you feel the exact hopelessness that follows an accidental killing of a blacksmith. Bloodborne is just an enticing package whose next-gen visuals — which remind me of wet, slicked-back hair — are kept in check by absurd loading times, whose contrived gothic locations reject the more naturalistic habitats of Dark Souls, and whose “Prey Slaughtered” tagline confirms the curses of the Resident Evil 4 knockoff villagers. This poorly cloaked sequel is a disease.

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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?

Silent Hill 2 Review — Horrible Survival

by Jed Pressgrove

Pay Your Respect

Very few video games command as much reverence as Silent Hill 2. Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, a critic known for negative reviews of popular games, said Silent Hill 2 was evidence that “gaming is still worth defending” (a paranoid sentiment, but that’s beside the point). Not even Resident Evil, a substantial influence on survival horror, gets as much respect as Silent Hill 2. People often praise Capcom for releasing updated versions of Resident Evil. But when I asked if I should play the HD version of Silent Hill 2, the answer was strictly “No.” The implication was that great art should not be defiled.

Despite this reputation, playing Silent Hill 2 for the first time in 2015 hasn’t given me a greater appreciation of survival horror. Silent Hill 2’s supposed focus on survival is pretentious, as survival is an old idea in video games. One could call Space Invaders, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, or Dig Dug “survival games,” so it’s a no-brainer that survival is more of a “horror” with counter-intuitive design. Compare survival horror’s tricks with 1993’s Doom, which doesn’t rely on clunky controls to be exhilarating and even frightening.

Silent Hill 2’s cheap scares are stuck in 1996 anyway. Like the original Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2 thinks a human should control like a tank from Atari’s Combat, despite the fact that the Playstation 2 controller has analog control. Like the original Resident Evil, Silent Hill 2 tries to exploit you with bad camera angles, such as when you walk through a door to be attacked by enemies you can barely see. Silent Hill 2 does allow you to strafe and to reposition the camera at times, but other games had better execution of these ideas before 2001, Silent Hill 2’s year of release. But that’s survival horror: take things from games and do them worse (and be hailed for this lack of imagination).

As outdated as the controls are in Silent Hill 2, the game has a surprisingly strong commitment to the Second Amendment and healthcare. Health and ammo seem to be around every corner. I killed almost every enemy in Silent Hill 2 to avoid the inconvenience of dealing with obstacles while going back and forth in halls. You become unstoppable after you collect all of the weapons, none of which are hard to find. Once you have everything, all you have to do is blow an enemy to the ground with the shotgun, then switch to the giant sword and swing as the enemy stands up. Silent Hill 2 gives you so much healing and killing power that the sight of a monster is merely monotonous.

Many suggest Silent Hill 2 isn’t about combat like Resident Evil 6, but that’s baloney. Silent Hill 2 is a lot like Resident Evil 6, only more repetitive. Silent Hill 2 even tells you how many enemies you killed and how much time you took beating everything. Given its pretension, the term “survival horror” doesn’t have much use here. Silent Hill 2 isn’t a survival horror game. It’s a horrible survival game.

Atmosphere Is the Buzzword

Silent Hill 2 is often mentioned with that cloudy word “atmosphere.” If one says “Silent Hill 2 does atmosphere very well” while standing in fog during a pitch-black night, the phrase becomes quite appropriate. In Silent Hill 2, atmosphere is darkness and/or fog.

I exaggerate to an extent. Anyone can understand the praise for Silent Hill 2’s atmosphere when you enter a trashed apartment as foreboding industrial music breaks the silence. One such apartment is inhabited by butterflies. When you examine the bedroom, the protagonist James remarks about a single dead butterfly, evoking a memorable sense of futility. Later in the game, you walk down an almost laughable amount of steps before jumping into one hole after another, not aware of what’s coming next yet knowing there’s no turning back. Does the game end in Hell?, you might wonder.

But in many cases, the atmosphere of Silent Hill 2 amounts to poor visibility due to overuse of fog and darkness. The most challenging part of the game is squinting to make sure you’re not missing any of the game’s essential items. This visual tedium trumps the feelings that producer Akihito Imamura wants to convey.

When Story and Levels Clash

As much as I’d like to believe Silent Hill 2’s greatest character is the town, as Croshaw argues, the game is a series of simple levels with an absurd number of broken door locks. And while the tradition of linearity and boss fights doesn’t suggest an issue by itself, Silent Hill 2 doesn’t serve its story with this approach. As a result, Silent Hill 2 struggles to maintain a serious tone, filling its levels with risible dialogue and boneheaded violence.

For example, look at the apartment level. Some would rather refer to the name of the apartment buildings, but it’s an apartment level. As James, you’re searching for your wife Mary in Silent Hill, but monsters start attacking you on the street, and you find the apartment level. Once you get to the apartment level, James won’t let you leave it, even though he has little to no reason to believe Mary is in the apartment level (in a letter, Mary clearly says she’s waiting for him in their “special place,” a hotel). Alright fine. A traditional game in disguise. But the apartment level, outside of an occasional memorable scene like the butterfly apartment, is incredibly silly.

The level could pass as a parody of a reality show called Apartment Hunting in Hell. In one apartment, you examine a dead body in the kitchen. James wonders “Who could have done this?” Hmmmm … perhaps the monsters you’ve been whipping with a nail board. In another apartment, James catches a glimpse of the monster Pyramid Head. Then in another apartment, he meets Eddie, some random guy throwing up in a toilet. James proceeds to ask Eddie if he is “friends” with the “pyramid guy.” Yeah, Eddie and Pyramid Head are drinking buddies, and Eddie just can’t handle his alcohol as well as Pyramid Head. James leaves Eddie behind, knowing that Eddie could be killed. This lack of concern for Eddie suggests that James really wants to find his wife, right? Yeah, the wife who is obviously not in the apartment building! (You later face Eddie in a boss fight. Just save your rifle ammo and heal often, and Eddie isn’t a problem. After you kill Eddie, James says, “I … I killed a … a human being … a human being.” William Shatner couldn’t have said it better). In any case, the apartment level climaxes with a Pyramid Head encounter, a play on the boss fight tradition. To win, you run around in circles until Pyramid Head walks away, which wouldn’t be remotely stressful if not for the knockoff Resident Evil tank controls.

You could theoretically write off any of this nonsense as part of a surreal nightmare scenario (bonus points if you mention David Lynch). Indeed, Silent Hill 2 is very happy to tell you about an imaginary relationship between grief, mental illness, and sadism. A document in the hospital level — as if any health institution would buy into this drivel — speaks of an illness that can afflict anyone, that can drive you to “the other side” where reality and unreality meet. Silent Hill 2’s link between violence and mental illness is impersonal and out of touch compared to Remigiusz Michalski’s The Cat Lady. Even Edgar Allan Poe’s relatively primitive understanding of madness comes from personal experience. Silent Hill 2’s dime-store psychology doesn’t say anything meaningful about humanity and therefore doesn’t excuse levels that waste time with banalities about locked doors and deranged killers.

Great Ending, Though

Some claim Silent Hill 2 has the best ending in video game history. I agree if by “ending” we mean voice actress Monica Taylor Horgan’s reading of Mary’s full letter to James. Horgan’s passion underlines the truths in Mary’s letter, which portrays both Mary and James as flawed, believable human beings: “I was so angry all the time and I struck out at everyone I loved most. Especially you, James. That’s why I understand if you do hate me.”

Before Horgan reads the letter, Silent Hill 2 portrays James as a confused party before employing that “The protagonist is actually the killer” cliche. As James wanders around Silent Hill bashing and shooting feminine creatures, the game does a disservice to the reality it tries to convey: a wife and husband struggling to reconcile their feelings about permanent separation. The violence emphasizes mindless sadism and unfair punishment to scare players, but these concepts hold little insight about the complex relationship of Mary and James. Horgan’s sincere expression of complicated adult life exposes the combat as contrived game lengthening.

Several hours of flawed game design for one brilliant moment of artistry. That is Silent Hill 2.