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Review: Celeste

What separates Celeste from masochistic games like The End Is Nigh is that it’s not bleak or unyielding.

4.5

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Celeste
Photo: Matt Makes Games

In Celeste, a girl named Madeline climbs a mountain, and for reasons unknown. If it’s not readily apparent from the moment she peers into a mirror and spars with an evil materialization of her psyche, the mountain is a metaphor. Each new section of her climb forces Madeline and those she encounters along the way to confront the things that hold them back: poor familial relations, an inability to let go of the past, or the all-encompassing fatigue of a dogged depression that follows quite literally in one’s footsteps. In that struggle, though, hope is made manifest: that if we throw ourselves into an activity long enough, honing our skills, we can eventually rise above our problems. Those tantalizing strawberries that dot the game’s landscapes, making an already difficult obstacle course even more challenging, are the fittingly sweet reward that comes from exerting a little extra effort.

Building from the most difficult portions of Guacamelee! but operating with the graceful minimalism of Super Meat Boy, Celeste builds a complex world around three basic skills: a jump, a stamina-based wall cling/climb, and an aerial dash. The environments modify how these skills operate: twilight passages accelerate your movement through one end to the other; twinkling gems refresh your ability to dash (normally you must first touch the ground); prickly cilia extend from walls and floors that you’ve touched before, forcing you to plan new routes; and various orbs and feathers grant you temporary flight. With the exception of one poorly conceived area that trades in the precision platforming for a dimly lit maze of corridors that lean too heavily on trial and error, Celeste amps up in difficulty by forcing players to execute those basic skills on increasingly complex combinations of objects.

What separates Celeste, even at its hardest, from masochistic games like The End Is Nigh is that it’s not bleak or unyielding. For one, its characters are comic and encouraging, suggesting that they want you to succeed. And the game is often surprisingly colorful, especially after dawn breaks and the music is more hopeful than ominous. There’s even an optional assist mode that allows you to rejigger the timing or stamina loss from screen to screen. Celeste is supposed to feel challenging but not impossible, and developer Matt Thorson—taking obvious cues from Super Mario World—intentionally sets apart the most brutal components (remixed levels and a bonus world set within the mountain’s molten core) so that everyone can experience the story.

In the end, the mountain at the center of Celeste isn’t just a metaphor for Madeline’s struggles, but for our own. Each in-game death is both frustrating in of itself and a representation of that frustration. Throughout, your failures are opportunities for improvement: to overcome a digitized representation of the things life puts in your way. What distinguishes Celeste from other games is the way in which those struggles pervade every element of the gameplay experience, from the muffling of the soundtrack as Madeline plunges underwater to the way in which frustrations inventively spring to life in the environment. Clutter and disarray rise up against you within a haunted cliffside hotel in which contact with the black-and-red demonic trashbag-looking blobs that drip from the floors and walls must be avoided at all costs. The pink crystal mazes of the forested crags match the color of Madeline’s hair, which is as tangled as her psyche. A beautiful sunrise is marred by harsh headwinds that quite literally hold Madeline back, and only the stubborn determination of her air-dash is powerful enough to overcome it.

For those who remain unconvinced of how much Celeste’s connective tissue of a plot adds to the campaign, compare the game to its PICO-8 original version, which can be unlocked in-game. In the original, the girl has no name, no purpose, and certainly no one to help her, and throughout, the mountain remains only a technical obstacle. Climbing it feels like work, even though some of the basic platforming is the same as in this new and greatly expanded version of the game. It’s the reflection within the 2018 Celeste that gives each leg of the climb context and weight, through which this game ascends to be more than just another incredibly precise platformer. As it turns out, motivation is the fine line that crosses between stubbornness and determination, and leads to a more fulfilling sense of accomplishment.

Developer: Matt Makes Games Publisher: Matt Makes Games Platform: Switch Release Date: January 25, 2018 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Alcohol Reference, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: Metro: Exodus’s Evocative Open World Starves for Nuance

The game ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.

3

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Metro: Exodus
Photo: 4A Games

Previous Metro games found texture through their limited scope. As seen through the eyes of Russian soldier Artyom, people in the subway tunnels beneath an irradiated Moscow cobbled society back together from the ruins of the old world while dealing with mutants, sickness, and rival factions built on all-too-familiar forms of extremism. 4A Games’s epic Metro: Exodus expands the series beyond those familiar claustrophobic tunnels, placing Artyom’s gaze firmly on the horizon as he and his companions journey across Russia by train, searching for a new home free from the ravages of humanity.

Appropriately, the game’s metaphor for its expanded world is to make parts of it literally open for the player. Artyom is now free to roam wide-open spaces—to peek into desolate houses for abandoned supplies and scout points of interest from a distance. All around you, mutants search for food, and bandits survey the wasteland from within ramshackle fortifications. The game is still driven by story segments, many of which fall back on the Metro series’s familiar brand of desperate survival horror; players creep around in the dark to conserve resources before a firefight breaks out or before massive spiders skitter through the rays of a draining flashlight. Other segments, though, take advantage of the world’s openness by providing multiple routes to do things like infiltrate a train yard, one of which might bypass a cluster of zombie-like humanoids entirely or drop Artyom right into their toxic nest.

The series is, as always, evocative in its atmosphere and the interactions it affords the player, such as allowing you to wipe the condensation off your gas mask with a press of a button. And Exodus’s open areas only enhance this specific sense of place. They even carry the occasional emergent thrill, like stranding you in a rowboat while a winged demon dives from overhead, forcing you to paddle to safety on land and take refuge in what turns out to be a populated bandit camp with a towering mutant shrimp in pursuit. But Exodus struggles to incentivize exploration of its world. You grow accustomed to the rusted, landlocked boats and the anonymous houses that dot the landscape and contain, if you’re lucky, an audio diary or a new attachment for the game’s robust weapon customization system. Most of the time, though, you’ll just find the same crafting materials when you explore the wasteland.

Unlike many crafting systems, Exodus’s never has you create anything new so much as replace what you’ve used up: things like bullets, gas mask filters, and medkits consumed either in missions or, paradoxically, in the very act of scavenging materials. When playing with some measure of stealth (which the game encourages) and keeping an eye out for materials on the way to (as well as during) missions, you’ll rarely struggle with the resource scarcity that might actually require a risky journey out into the world. Exodus is most successful elsewhere, in one forested area that provides an open-ended approach to a fixed destination. Its environments and encounters are more authored than the bland open world, and its scavenging is purposeful because it’s the only way to prepare for the encounters ahead.

The game’s open world feels like little more than overly elaborate wrapper for an underwhelming story that loses much of its drama to an awkwardly silent protagonist. Though Artyom narrates loading screens, he expresses himself in-game primarily by waving his hands around, as if miming because no one can hear him under a gas mask. His wife and his other companions refer to character traits we never see, alleged goals and ambitions conspicuously jammed into lengthy dialogue sequences. He’s supposed to be a dreamer. For one, the idea of a world beyond the metro is Artyom’s, yet none of that passion or hope ever comes through.

Not that the game thinks much of those apparent hopes, of course. The series’s typically dim view of humanity is on full display for much of Exodus’s length, as Artyom and his companions encounter terrible new societies birthed in distant parts of Russia. The game depicts people as easily subjugated when society breaks down, clinging to whatever is offered to them. Despots prey on desperation and fear, offering hope through perversions of community, religion, or protection. Violent forces upend what seem to be safe havens.

Exodus’s sweeping critique of humanity is practically nuance-free. Here, dissent among followers is rare, cultists are unquestioning fanatics, and cannibals screech “MEAT!” and jot the word down in unintentionally hilarious diary pages. Even slaves uniformly cower before their masters, weeping and begging for sympathy. Despite introducing an open world, the game is very much a forward journey, barely spending enough time in one place to inject any complexity to its exploration of how society claws its way back from the brink. You’ll hear the leaders of each group speak but seldom the people who follow them. They have no more voice than Artyom, no more interiority. Just as Artyom is essentially an anonymous pair of floating hands, the people that his party encounters often represent little more than simplistic avatars of a post-apocalyptic society gone mad. Exodus ultimately seems less interested in the process of how humanity breaks down than its grisly end results.

Developer: 4A Games Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PS4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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Review: Kingdom Hearts III Is a Pedestrian Trip Down Memory Lane

The little that’s good here isn’t enough for one to shake off the faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.

2.5

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Kingdom Hearts III
Photo: Square Enix

The Kingdom Hearts series takes a simple fan wish-fulfilling premise—an action adventure featuring popular Disney characters who become friends with your hero—and complicates it with an unnecessarily dense and largely incoherent backstory concerning multiple generations of protagonists, a time-traveling puppetmaster, and an organization of possessed bodies in ornate trench coats. Despite more than 13 years having passed between the last numbered sequel in the series and its current installment, little has changed when it comes to the Kingdom Hearts formula. Savant Sora returns with his casually abusive pals Donald Duck and Goofy to journey through the worlds of various Disney feature films, all leading to an ultimate confrontation with the evil-or-not Xehanort.

In terms of gameplay mechanics and level design, Kingdom Hearts III has evolved so little since its forebearers that it feels less like a product of its time than it does a PlayStation 2 remaster. Each level consists of blocky open areas that your mostly pushed through in linear fashion, though the characters occasionally stop to fight enemies in arena battles before proceeding onward. The combat has been reworked (here it’s mostly the same as that of Kingdom Hearts 0.2: Birth by Sleep – A Fragmentary Passage), but the clunky, chaotic, seemingly unending battles favor endless button-mashing over precision. Nearly every skirmish is a mess of hard-to-follow on-screen activity, with dozens of same-y foes and effects flying in your face. Perversely, though, Kingdom Hearts III seems to be aware that its gameplay is a chore, allowing most combat sequences to be avoided by simply running past them.

The game is notable for the inclusion of levels inspired by recent Pixar and other Disney 3D films, but almost none take advantage of their source material in any meaningful way. The levels inspired by Frozen and no one’s favorite Disney outing, Tangled, serve up nothing but unvaried landscapes and gameplay. Worse, when Kingdom Hearts III specially references notable sequences from these films, such as Elsa’s showstopping “Let It Go,” the game does so with clumsy, overlong cutscenes, leaving us to imagine what it might have been like to actually take part in the action—to, say, have been invited to control Sora and interact with the ice castle as Elsa creates it from the ground up. Which is unfortunate, since that invitation to engage with Disney’s film art was one that was gladly extended to the player by Kingdom Heats II, most memorably in its inventive black-and-white world of “Timeless River” (based on Walt’s classic Steamboat Willy) and the Tron-themed “Space Paranoids,” which was set inside a server where the protagonists fight programs and compete in Light Cycle battles.

It’s only late into Kingdom Hearts III’s campaign, around the time that the worlds of “Keyblade Graveyard” and “Final World” are introduced, that the game begins to take its action in interesting directions, and just ahead of tying a bow on the overarching story. Here, Kingdom Hearts III somewhat successfully merges disparate, convoluted plot points from the entire series into an almost comprehensible whole, though that’s not enough for us to shake off the depressingly faulty nature of the game’s narrative and thematic machinery.

Consider the frustrating treatment of love interest and series favorite Kairi, who’s damselled as part of a disappointing trend of rendering Kingdom Hearts’s female characters helpless. Worse, protagonist Sora is an idiot in the Monkey D. Luffy mold: childish, stupid, and largely useless if not for him being an all-powerful “chosen one,” and not for any narratively or thematically justifiable reason. (The game seems aware of his generally pathetic nature, based on how often other characters insult and degrade him.) Sora is the embodiment of a participation trophy. Not that the others in this Calvinball soap opera hold much value either, as they speak entirely in empty platitudes and meaningless catchphrases, frequently distilling any narrative action down to the clumsiest metaphors about the power of friendship.

This is ultimately the biggest failing of Kingdom Hearts III, a game pitched as the finale to a series so many have grown up with but one that hasn’t matured with its audience or video games as a medium. It pretends to have something consequential to say in its bombastic conclusion but delivers only the most childish of dogmas. To the very end, the game’s subtext-free lore remains intentionally impenetrable, if for no other reason than to give the impression of actual depth. At the same time, Kingdom Hearts is in total adoration of itself as a concept—a brand and a commodity to sell. Kingdom Hearts III literally begins with two trailers for itself, a title card, then another trailer for itself and another title card, followed by another title card as a self-referential jab at the nonsense naming conventions of the series (“KINGDOM HEARTS II.9”) and finally a fourth title card two hours later. (It’s worth noting that these trailers feature much more stylistic and interesting combat sequences than anything you’ll stumble upon in the game proper.) Kingdom Hearts III offers a rote experience that rarely rises above mediocrity, failing to deliver on the promise of its lengthy campaign or as a meaningful conclusion to the dozens of games in the series that have preceded it.

The game was reviewed using a retail Xbox One copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Square Enix Business Division 3 Publisher: Square Enix Platform: Xbox One Release Date: January 29, 2019 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Resident Evil 2 Brilliantly Crafts an Atmosphere of Tension

The game assures that the malicious ideas that guided Resident Evil 7 may become the governing principles of the series moving forward.

4.5

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Resident Evil 2
Photo: Capcom

It’s evident almost from the start of the Resident Evil 2 remake that whatever creative spirit guided the masterstroke of Resident Evil 7: Biohazard continues to grip the developers at Capcom. This remake more than just puts a moody coat of paint over the original game; it’s an assurance that the maliciously novel ideas that guided Resident Evil 7 may very well become the governing principles of the series moving forward.

All that really remains here of the Resident Evil 2 that was released way back in 1998 is the general setup and story beats. A few months after the events that occurred at the Spencer Mansion in the first Resident Evil, the infamous zombie-making t-Virus has spread to the general population, laying siege to Raccoon City, right as rookie cop Leon Kennedy shows up for his first day on the job and college student Claire Redfield arrives on the scene looking for her brother, series protagonist Chris Redfield. The two of them link up, and end up taking refuge in the same place: the Raccoon City Police Department, a converted art museum hiding more than just a few fancy paintings or sculptures in its basement and attic.

Regardless of whether you play as Claire or Leon, you start the game with a pistol, a few bullets you have to make count, and one vague goal that lies in a part of the police station with no power—just a whole lot of splattered blood and grotesquely detailed dead bodies. You then meet your first zombies, and they’re still of the shambling, George Romero variety, which works in your favor since it’s relatively easy, given enough space, to stay out of their range. The upshot is that these ghoulies are frighteningly resilient. Unless you’re lucky enough to land a critical hit where the head explodes, your average undead Joe will have to take three or four point-blank shots to the dome before it even staggers back.

Unlike previous games in the series, slipping into another room just means you have about five seconds before whatever’s chasing you breaks down the door. There’s never any guarantee in Resident Evil 2 that a downed zombie won’t get right back up, which makes even stepping around corpses on the ground a potential gruesome death waiting to happen. Your characters’ recycled voice lines—stating shock and surprise about the zombies not staying down—can get monotonous over time, but, really, it’s not like Claire or Leon’s disbelief is unwarranted.

Resident Evil 2 builds hours upon hours of nerve-wracking tension on the realization that guns, grenades, and ammo aren’t only scarce, but having them isn’t going to guarantee your security. In the end, you’re better served by hiding from your enemies, running from them, and using your immediate environment to impede them. Going for the kill each and every time is more likely to end with you firing an empty gun at the worst moment imaginable. The elaborate design of the hallways gives the designers leeway to hide all sorts of bloody horrors where you least expect them. Later, the blind Lickers suddenly transform Resident Evil 2 into A Quiet Place: The Video Game, as you attempt to control how much sound your footsteps make around them, hopefully avoiding their erratic attack patterns altogether.

Eventually, the player will also have to contend with Mr. X, who represents all of the game’s ubiquitous dangers wrapped into one massive, trench coat-wearing behemoth, and is easily the most unrelenting and terrifying video game monster since Alien Isolation’s preternaturally vicious Xenomorph. Even before Mr. X shows up, virtually every step you take involves some measure of risk assessment, from waiting for visual confirmation, to availing yourself of the game’s incredibly expansive and nuanced soundscape, to learning to fully utilize the game’s impressively informative map and your own carefully curated inventory.

Particularly agonizing is how the game has you figure out how to act through clues in the soundscape. If you want to stay alive, you’ll have to determine which direction the ever-stomping Mr. X is moving in, and how many rooms away he is. Elsewhere, you learn how to discern the distinct growls of nearby Lickers within the din, and whether or not these baddies even sense your presence for one reason or another. A small mercy is how carpets can silence your own footsteps, as is learning where and how you should fire your guns.

This would all be for naught if the game didn’t also deliver on reasons to press on beyond your own survival, but Resident Evil 2 is able to take the 1998 game’s premise and imbue it with some surprising and engaging storytelling. Claire’s innate concern for an Umbrella scientist’s little girl blossoms into an effective little running thread about a broken family. Leon’s own tale of survival mutates into a horror-infused conspiracy thriller. Much of the first half of the game is spent watching a wounded cop’s health deteriorate into nothing, and the way that thread culminates at the worst possible moment is perfectly organic in its plotting.

Had Capcom given into fans back in 2002 and remade Resident Evil 2 immediately on the heels of the GameCube remake of the first title, we’d have gotten a game that was undoubtedly pretty but still held fast to all of the series’s safest and unimaginative tendencies. Instead, this remake we’ve just been handed is something altogether fearless and perpetually full of surprises—a near-immaculate piece of survival horror willing to always put pressure on the player. Resident Evil 2 forces you to use all of your cunning and caution to figure out how best to handle its cavalcade of horrors, even as it never puts you at ease that all your bravery, all your weaponry, will ever be enough to take down what’s waiting for you in the dark. And how it sustains that tension allows it to surpass even the triumph of Resident Evil 7.

The game was reviewed using a retail PS4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 25, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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