Almost inexplicably, the Hyperdimension Neptunia series has been gathering a considerable amount of mileage (and cultish fan support) from its silly anime antics parodying the console wars. The core JRPG mechanics have essentially gone unchanged since the property’s debut back in 2010, adding only slight refinement with each new title affixed to the canon. However, with Hyperdevotion Noire: Goddess Black Heart, the franchise’s second spinoff to arrive exclusively on the PlayStation Vita, developers Compile Heart and Sting have opted to finally shake up the established formula. Not only is the formerly primary goddess Neptune sidelined in favor of the more responsible Noire, but Hyperdevotion Noire represents a shift to the strategy RPG genre, and to mostly positive effect, it allows the retooled combat system’s multiple strengths to dull the impact of an otherwise mediocre central storyline.
Getting past the lame-brained introductory plotting is key to unlocking the hours of entertaining tactical role-playing goodness that Hyperdevotion Noire provides. The setup is simple: Noire’s influence in the world of Gamarket (an entirely separate universe from Hyperdimension’s Gamindustri) is put into jeopardy when a mysterious figure deceives Noire, causing her to erase her CPU shares, and thus limiting her hard-earned power in the modern steampunk-esque land of Lastation. The player then takes on the role of Noire’s personal assistant, managing the titular digital deity and her band of eccentric feminine computerized cohorts.
Like many a tactical RPG, Hyperdevotion Noire dedicates ample time to its outfitting stages, here a drawn-out process that eventually bogs down the remainder of the experience. Countless craftable items can be purchased with credits, which leads to the collection of Sim points later used to upgrade Noire’s digs from dilapidated living quarters to a domicile fit for a proud gaming industry divinity. Additionally, stat-boosting compact discs can be burned, and loot can be synthesized in a lab. All of this is similarly related in an unfortunate case of information overload, tempting to put a damper on the above-average SRPG merits.
Recruiting and implementing a customized team of quirky combatants is, unsurprisingly, the most rewarding aspect of Hyperdevotion Noire’s combat system. Unflinching video-game farce has always been one of the series’s hallmarks, and the tradition continues in earnest. Street Fighter, Metal Gear Solid, The Idolmaster, Dynasty Warriors, Resident Evil, and, of course, Final Fantasy are just a few of the popular franchises satirized. Characters representing each series (though not quite infringing on any copyright laws) use their signature skills on the battlefield to frequently hilarious outcome. Lip, for example, clearly inspired by Solid Snake, uses a mix of CQC, box tactics, and grenade launchers to dispatch her foes. Rotating in fresh characters becomes a secondary mission in itself, simply to see what kind of outlandish homage they pay to their inspirational source material. These parodies become the backdrop for action-oriented surroundings as well, incorporating concepts from well-known games into their designs, both environmental and enemy. For instance, the Metal Gear Solid operation involves defusing explosives and stealthily avoiding traps, while the Street Fighter-themed undertaking takes place in the middle of a giant electrified fighting ring.
Heavy-handed harem-centric fan service abounds in Hyperdevotion Noire. Lily Boosting is a contemporary stratagem that combines exterior conflict relationship-building with in-battle positioning. When two specific adjacent offensive units unify during movement, special bonds are formed, resulting in glossy transformation sequences and abilities granted to the player. These scenes often range from the supa kawaii to the downright perverted; if you’re just becoming acquainted with the overtly ecchi Hyperdimension approach, be prepared to possibly take offense.
Unexpectedly, given the game’s lighthearted tone, certain tactical elements can get relatively intense in the heat of a skirmish, like dealing with troublesome status ailments (turning into zombies, tofu, and 8-bit sprites being most memorable among them) and dodging numerous map-based obstacles (pitfalls, laser beams, rushing train cars, etc.) while planning the perfect final turn. Even though much of Hyperdevotion Noire is indeed unoriginal, with its countless caricatures of trendy gaming icons, there’s enough novelty and variety in its strategic battles to keep players, especially fans of the mainline series, interested for quite a while.
Developer: Compile Heart, Sting Publisher: Idea Factory International Platform: PlayStation Vita Release Date: February 24, 2015 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Language, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes Buy: Game
Review: LUNA The Shadow Dust Is Visually Dazzling but Succumbs to Monotony
Its point-and-click adventure elements eventually feel alternately rudimentary and more than a little tedious.2.5
Presented in a beautiful hand-drawn style with detailed animation and a soft color palette, LUNA The Shadow Dust suggests a storybook come to life. The main characters, a cat-like creature with a shadowy face and a boy who wears a rabbit-eared hood, wordlessly make their way through a mysterious tower. Its rooms are full of puzzles tied to intricate devices and murals from long ago, depicting patterns to follow that will let you unlock the next door. But despite the game’s considerable visual panache, its point-and-click adventure elements eventually feel alternately rudimentary and more than a little tedious.
Throughout, you control the characters separately, initially needing one of them to complete a simple task on one end of a room that will have some effect on the other side. As the game continues, you begin to split the characters up even further, moving them into entirely separate spaces. The creature, for example, may need to stand in some ethereal void filled with trees, while the boy pulls a lever to cycle the void through different seasons. Though the initially basic puzzles grow somewhat more challenging and satisfying to complete with this degree of separation added to the mix, monotony takes hold as you watch the characters laboriously shuffle from one end of the screen to another.
The game is at its best early on, as a kind of visual tour that demands minimal effort from the player, where the puzzles are a largely inconsequential barrier to seeing the sights. The puzzle rooms’ initial layouts are economical, with small areas that hold some obvious visual clue for how to proceed. Such simplicity makes those first puzzles feel a little rote, but they’re the most effective, unintrusive vehicle for simply appreciating LUNA’s artistry.
As the game wears on, though, it introduces the aforementioned complex spaces, requiring the characters to separate for longer periods and trek up and down stairs as well as in and out the same doors. Combined with the sluggish walking cycle, the backtracking can often feel like outright punishment for not solving the progressively more involved puzzles on the first try. The very space that once seemed so breathtaking becomes easy to resent. As some of the animations and actions repeat for no discernible reason (one cart ride to gather books needs to be done a baffling four times), the gorgeous, otherwise relaxed experience begins to grate.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Application Systems Heidelberg Software GmbH.
Developer: Lantern Studio Publisher: Application Systems Heidelberg Buy: Game
Review: Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics Takes Path of Least Excitement
The uninspired material is unable to elevate the game’s moth-eaten ramblings about good and evil.2
The draw of a game inspired by The Dark Crystal and indebted to Final Fantasy Tactics is easy enough to grasp. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics offers fans of Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy film and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance the chance to see Rian, Brea, and Deet—characters from the Netflix series—engage in tile- and turn-based combat. But it’s difficult to imagine anyone being elated by BonusXP’s game, as the paper-thin quality of its story is as undeniable as its mechanics are behind the times.
The gameplay loop of Age of Resistance Tactics is beyond familiar. You select different points on a map to initiate battles with bad guys—in this case, everything from the Skeksis, the main antagonists in the The Dark Crystal franchise, to giant worms. As in chess, you move your characters to different tiles in order to control key segments of territory, set up combination attacks, and so on. The objectives of war range from wiping out every enemy to moving a set number of characters to an exit. After victory, you gain experience points and gold, which can be spent on equipment that increases your power, defense, and other attributes.
Oddly enough, you rarely acquire enough gold to buy much of anything for a party that eclipses 10 members, but it doesn’t matter. You can get by with substandard weapons and armor in Age of Resistance Tactics because the battles don’t demand any unusual strategic thinking. Enemy groups tend to be small, the environmental elements are unthreatening (gusty winds, for one, can be avoided or ignored with little repercussion), and the character techniques fail to fall outside of what one would expect from a tactical game of this nature. The melee techniques, buffs, projectiles, and magic attacks at your disposal recall the player’s combat options in everything from Into the Breach to Fire Emblem: Three Houses.
The developers at BonusXP try to spice up the affair with tiles of different heights and a job system that allows characters to combine disparate abilities. Obviously, then, they believe that emulating the well-executed concepts of Final Fantasy Tactics is a sturdy enough foundation, and to their credit, the results are serviceable. You certainly can’t sleepwalk your way through Age of Resistance Tactics and fail to, say, increase the adaptability of your party by making offense-dominant characters adopt healing skills from a defense-oriented job. And you can’t truly take advantage of the soldiers with ranged attacks unless you pay attention to height dynamics. But these gameplay elements are integral to more than a few titles from this subgenre of game, and BonusXP mostly just follows a well-tread formula.
Take away the characters, myths, and other connections to the Dark Crystal universe and it’s easy to see that Age of Resistance Tactics has no real identity of its own. Outside of the occasional comic-book cutscene, the story is largely relegated to a small handful of lines of dialogue before or after battle. The plot is easily digestible but with the anonymous quality common to something made by committee, as in the way the heroes have to exterminate pests before a community will guide them to a new location. And such uninspired material is unable to elevate this fantasy game’s moth-eaten ramblings about good and evil.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by ONE PR Studio.
Developer: BonusXP Publisher: En Masse Entertainment, Netflix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 4, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence Buy: Game
Review: Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Is a Magisterial Elegy for a Nation
Kentucky Route Zero is about America in a way few games aspire to be and fewer still succeed at.5
Had Kentucky Route Zero been released for the first time this year, it would have been easy to mistake its concerns for being entirely contemporary. When we talk about recent art that addresses the many injustices of capitalism and widespread disenfranchisement, there’s a tendency to frame such discussion in the context of the 2016 election. Rising discontent, widening income gaps, and chosen ignorance in the face of ecological devastation have further popularized stories to voice our collective anger, usually with subtext about eating the rich or gazing upon the end of the world. The setting of the five-part episodic adventure game fits right into such an atmosphere of resentment: a ravaged, mysterious Rust Belt stripped for parts and left to rot, its people displaced and indebted yet doing their best to scrape by.
But this towering masterwork from the three-man development team of Cardboard Computer stretches back further, taking a much longer view of things past than what might simply be described as “post-Trump.” Though the first part, Act One, came out in 2013, the game’s weariness and outrage extend beyond even the late-2000s financial crisis that inspired it, cutting to the very bones of moral compromise that make up the United States. Kentucky Route Zero is about America in a way that few games aspire to be and fewer still succeed at, as its deceptively quiet story gives way to something odd, sad, and brimming with humanity.
Though the game begins with Conway, an old man who drives a sputtering delivery truck for a floundering antique store, the cast gradually expands with each act. Shannon Márquez repairs old television sets in the back of a bait and tackle shop and is the cousin of the enigmatic Weaver, who tends to appear and disappear through pirate TV signals. Ezra, introduced in Act Two, is a boy who lives with a giant eagle in the Museum of Dwellings, a housing display over a razed neighborhood. First seen in Act Three, Junebug is a robotic musician in punk attire, originally designed to clear the old mine but now making her own way and her own sense of self alongside Johnny, another mechanical worker. To some degree, you control all of them, moving them around the screen in different scenes, but mainly you choose their dialogue and decisions.
Spilling out in a script-like format and typeface, the words of Kentucky Route Zero are numerous, the majority of the game predicated simply on talking to people and visiting dreamlike places. Though it superficially resembles a point-and-click adventure game, there aren’t really any puzzles, just choices to navigate the locations and the dialogue paths. A few of the choices matter, though most are flavor; for one, Conway’s dog can be a male Homer, a female Blue, or have no designated name and gender. Mainly, you pick the direction of conversations, defining what the characters might say and what they fixate on, who speaks and who stays quiet as the other choices often melt away, the dialogue having flowed in one direction instead of another.
This is, then, a game that asks you to inhabit multiple perspectives rather than consider them from a fixed distance, absent the artifice of world-defining choices. You consider personalities and states of mind, discovering the characters through half-remembered snippets of stories and the way they speak to each other, the way they think, the way they interact with the world. The game develops its own unique rhythms of easygoing movement and gradual exploration, a gorgeous synthesis of sound, image, and text that gets to the heart of how it feels to be out in the night air, to inhabit space along country roads and woods and fields. This is a twilight drive made physical, evoking the imagery of abandoned places and husks of human habitation often only through the words of characters who speak in the over-sharing cadence of the lonely and lost.
Here, you don’t poke around for collectibles or experience so much as a general sense of discovery, the urge to take your time and drive through the darkness for the simple sake of finding weird, pretty scenes dense with metaphor. One of the most impressive things about the game is how it has evolved, growing more ambitious from one act to the next while remaining remarkably cohesive. Later acts switch up camera angles and dialogue presentation without uprooting what’s come before, without diluting its power; some of the most affecting moments are still the early ones that eschew the simplistic graphical style entirely, leaving you only with the text interface and the brilliant sound design of ethereal music, chirping bugs, and dripping water.
Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it.
The characters’ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of what’s to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and there’s a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.
Developer: Cardboard Computer Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 28, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game
Review: Reality TV Strikes Back in the Darkly Satirical Ministry of Broadcast
The game does a fine job of narratively showing the way in which a person can be broken down and made to believe anything.3.5
There’s always been something fatalistic about video games, the way in which, once you’ve selected your playable character, you’re locked into a specific role. As much as certain games might emphasize personal choice, like Mass Effect, or navigational freedom, like Skyrim, they’re ultimately offering little more than the illusion of control.
The darkly satirical Ministry of Broadcast doesn’t wait for some late-game BioShock-like twist to reveal that your character has never been—and never will be—more than a cog in the machine. The reality television program The Wall Show, filmed in what appears to be a repurposed Siberian prison, serves as a framework for a game that can’t help but emphasize just how scripted everything is in its world. Even in the opening title sequence, which shows your character blithely jumping out of the back of a speeding truck that’s just gorily flattened a janitor, the game is gleefully explicit about how your progress comes entirely at the expense of others, even going so far as to point out your complicity in all of it. What won’t you stoop to as this unnamed, ginger-headed competitor in the latest season of a dystopian country’s reality program, hoping to win the right to cross the wall and reunite with your loved ones?
Though this shoeless, put-upon protagonist believes himself to be an unsorted contestant, one without a clearly defined role in the competition, it quickly becomes obvious that Shoeless is being molded into the exact sort of player that the regime ruling the country he calls home demands its citizens to be. Resistance isn’t just futile, it’s not even an option. This is the flipside of what happens in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, where saving your colleagues simply requires additional puzzle-solving. Here, you absolutely cannot progress if you’re not willing to repurpose your comrades as fleshy bridges over spiked pits, or as distractions for feral dogs.
At first, this violence is explained away by The Wall Show as being staged: Nobody’s really dying, thanks to absurdities like puncture-proof clothing. And Shoeless’s belief in that allows him to absolve himself of guilt. For players, the pixelated aesthetic and comic tone of the game are similarly distancing: They downplay the goriness—and finality—of some of these later encounters, as if a person is any less dead if they’ve been cartoonishly impaled on a zeppelin, sucked into a drainage pipe, or consumed by an alligator. But though your character escapes angry enforcers, collapsing structures, and radioactive rooms, the game itself never lets you get away from the consequences of your actions. Regardless of the nature of any episode’s violence, it always ends with your protagonist having to trudge back through the prison-like facility’s basecamp, passing the baleful stares of his unhappy fellow contestants.
While Ministry of Broadcast does a fine job of narratively showing the way in which a person can be broken down and made to believe anything—the game’s creators cite George Orwell’s 1984 as an inspiration—the gameplay often feels out of sync with that storytelling angle. For one, the limited control scheme only lets you jump directly up or across and makes it difficult to position yourself by the ledges you’re trying to climb. Making Shoeless’s actions so laborious feels incongruous with the game’s central premise: that Shoeless is all too easy to control, that he doesn’t struggle or think twice about killing his companions.
It’s one thing to be inspired by the classic mechanics of cinematic action-adventure games like 1989’s Prince of Persia and 1991’s Out of This World, but it’s another to be unnecessarily beholden to them. Indeed, Ministry of Broadcast’s allegiance to those games’ clunky controls is especially odd given that its artistry is miles away from the drab, pixelated graphics of those older titles. This is a game that knows how important it is that players feel the full illustrative soullessness of all those snowy exteriors, graffitied corridors, red-lit bunkers, and empty warehouses that make up the barbed-wire-ringed confines of The Wall Show.
But if you can get past its unnecessarily irksome controls, there’s a lot to enjoy about Ministry of Broadcast. While it remains a platformer throughout, the game’s various episodes offer different takes on the genre, from the emphasis on stealth during a prison break, where you walk around wielding an imaginary finger-gun, to a surreal horror sequence in which you stumble around the dark depths of the facility where The Wall Show is filmed, led by a talking, glow-in-the-dark crow. One day you’re participating in a (rigged) election between the colors Red and Blue, and the next you’re in the middle of a war movie, diving desperately into bunkers as you flee an enemy nation’s aerial bombardment.
The only constant throughout these settings is the way in which you’re being conditioned. Just look at the way each episode’s name riffs on the Kübler-Ross model, shifting from the “Celebration of Denial” to the “Repression of Depression” before ultimately ending with a fatalistic choice in which you either accept what you’ve done, or you die. Or to frame it as Ministry of Broadcast does, sometimes a game simply isn’t winnable.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Hitcents.
Developer: Ministry of Broadcast Studios Publisher: Hitcents, PLAYISM Platform: PC Release Date: January 30, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game
Review: Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Is a Bloated Serving of More of the Same
The world here is littered with side missions out in the wild, and most of them amount to uninspired fetch quests.2.5
With over nearly 40 years of material to draw from, for any Dragon Ball video game to retell the story of the first Saiyans to arrive on Earth and Goku awakening to his lineage is as lazy as a Star Wars game going to Hoth. And yet, that’s exactly the story that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot tells, without doing anything new to make it worth telling.
It’d be nice to say that Kakarot at least represented a sea change in telling that story as an RPG, but “DBZ as an RPG” has also been done to death, even done quite well a couple of times. And, for what it’s worth, Kakarot isn’t even remotely the worst example of a Dragon Ball RPG: For that, look no further than the awful, throwaway card-based games.
Visually, this game is largely on par with 2018’s stellar Dragon Ball FighterZ. The combat, while extremely simplified, does capture much of that trademark DBZ flash and destructive flair. And quite a bit of work has gone into recreating the show’s TV-style presentation through interstitials, narration, and music, bringing back the playful tone of the original Japanese production (every version of the show broadcast in the West tries to introduce an edginess that isn’t there in Japanese cuts). The best thing about the game is that it’s the most faithful adaptation of the saga, but that also happens to be the worst thing about it.
The anime was notorious for padding out each episode and each story arc with startling amounts of filler material. That included special attacks that would literally take multiple episodes to charge and fire, slapsticky interludes involving characters light years away from the main action, and, at times, characters just standing around waiting to continue a fight.
There’s a sequence early in the DBZ metaseries where Saiyan baddies Vegeta and Nappa face off against Earth defenders Piccolo, Krillin, and Gohan, but when they sense that Goku—killed in a previous battle with his brother, Raditz—is being resurrected, they literally stop the fight to wait for him to arrive. There’s legitimate reason for that on the show—the anime was in production while the manga was still being drawn, which left the animators stalling for time—but, for reasons beyond explanation, this and other excruciating wheel-spinning has been replicated perfectly in Kakarot. And there’s easily over 25 hours of that sort of scene here. Indeed, this is an RPG that won’t allow the next major story beat to be advanced until you’ve done unrelated busywork to stall for time. What should be rousing nostalgia for the early days of the DBZ series ends up bringing back painful memories of playing Anthem.
What makes Kakarot particularly egregious is how much its padding issues apply to its design. This is, ostensibly, an open-world game, abundant in massive countrysides and cityscapes, but these environments are largely empty. The world here is littered with side missions out in the wild, and most of them amount to uninspired fetch quests. There are cooking and fishing mini-games, though neither of them are as crucial to the plot, character development, or your survival as similar mechanics in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Final Fantasy XV.
In Kakarot, you can fly around collecting orbs that can be spent to unlock new moves, which is fun but not nearly enough to justify all that empty, unused space. There are training grounds scattered across the game’s open world where you can defeat random characters to learn new moves, and there are stores that sell healing items to use during battle. These are both useful resources, but they’re tiny points of light across what’s otherwise miles and miles of nothing.
Though Kakarot comes alive during combat, that’s also not without its flaws. You can perform all manner of light-show-inducing Super Moves by holding the left shoulder and pushing a button. However, as long as you can maneuver properly and you’re stocked up with enough healing items, you can so very easily cheese your way through the entire game by just spamming your most basic attacks. Super Moves wind up being for your own satisfaction than a vital cornerstone of a fight. That’s despite having an entire Final Fantasy-style grid/job system meant to provide enhancements to your team of fighters, and the lack of tension or challenge from fights provides you with absolutely no urgency or incentive to use it.
Kakarot’s overarching problem is one of focus. This is a game made with all the resources necessary to create a great Dragon Ball title, and no small amount of affection for the universe. It also has no ambitions of being more than a set of weak, timewasting barriers between you and witnessing a storyline that fans have seen recreated dozens of times before. Even the folks behind the anime knew there was room to reduce the story to its strongest elements, which is how the abbreviated Dragon Ball Z Kai came about. It’s not certain who exactly needed Dragon Ball Z regressed to its most bloated form, but it does this story no favors.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.
Developer: CyberConnect2 Publisher: Bandai Namco Platform: Xbox One Release Date: January 17, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game
Review: Journey to the Savage Planet Gamifies What It Means to Critique
The game’s themes feel like facile wallpaper over mechanics that feed into the ideas being critiqued.2
In Journey to the Savage Planet, you work for Kindred Aerospace, a dubious space exploration company. At their behest, you’re dropped onto the uncharted planet AR-Y 26 with orders to explore, document, and ultimately plunder the place for resources. All the while, live-action videos of Kindred’s wacky CEO and audio commentary from EKO, the sociopathic ship AI, emphasize that this is all supposed to be comedic. By loudly depicting resource exploitation as well as general disregard for the environment, the company’s personnel, and any semblance of collateral damage, the developers at Typhoon Studios mean to send up colonialism and capitalism at large. (The “savage” part of the game’s title is satirical, or at least it’s supposed to be.) But like The Outer Worlds, the game’s themes feel like facile wallpaper over mechanics that still feed into the same ideas being critiqued.
Like so many modern video games, for example, you must engineer new equipment from whatever stuff you’ve scrounged from the environment. AR-Y 26’s system of branching paths, potential shortcuts, hidden health upgrades, and scan-able objects recalls Metroid Prime, only with the addition of alien alloys and mineral deposits to swat at for crafting materials. It plays like the standard-issue consume ‘em up, only with EKO’s snarky voice whispering in your ear to assure you that this is the point—that this is the commentary.
EKO jokes that your menial progression is incremental at best, and for a while, that’s true; it takes several hours before the game feels particularly satisfying to navigate, as you gradually invest in things like grappling hooks and jetpack boosts that provide double, then triple, then quadruple jumps. The combat never feels particularly good, either, since it demands too much aiming precision from what otherwise amounts to an undemanding series of dodges.
The game might have been onto something if its progression was appropriately banal or if your struggle for resources felt particularly disempowering, positing you as a lowly worker whose labor chiefly benefits someone higher up the ladder. But instead, the materials are your reward. You’re meant to comb the environment’s tall grass and hidden alcoves for any hint of more resources to vacuum up, because the allure of that incremental progress is your carrot on a stick. It’s a compulsive progression loop familiar from so many other games, where finding another orange goo or alloy chest pumps the good chemicals into the right part of your brain. The only difference is a thick cloak of irony that’s supposed to pass for subversiveness.
In a game like Subnautica, the exploration gives you a better sense of the world; it makes you feel small, makes you appreciate what you’re taking from it to survive. At its most intermittently successful, Journey to the Savage Planet is built with a thrilling verticality that might have achieved a comparable, if far less successful, effect. The outcrops of floating rocks are conducive to death-defying shortcuts and last-minute grapples, often letting you hop right off the edge of one area to immediately land in another far below.
But the game scarcely quiets down long enough to give in to these moments of wonder, undercutting any fleeting semblance of awe with obnoxious comedy. AR-Y 26 is a playground to be bulldozed, full of things to poke, prod, and jokily slaughter in Kindred’s name. It is, for example, reasonably humorous that your jetpack vomits out a conspicuous cloud of smug. But it becomes far less funny once EKO insists with a wink that, no, it definitely isn’t harming the environment. The whole game is like this. There’s no restraint or subtlety to the comedy, only loud and constant underscoring of the things that the writers (often mistakenly) believe to be funny, like an explorer log that details horror at encountering the “Valley of a Thousand Farts.” Titles and text entries are riddled with groan-inducing internet lingo, as one quest advises you to “kill it with fire” and EKO’s self-written encyclopedia entry opens with “It me.”
There’s perhaps a version of this game that’s content to shut up and let players get their colonialist kicks in blissful ignorance. Though it wouldn’t fix the problems inherent to the premise or video game progression systems in general, it would rouse a mere fraction of the irritation. But as is, so full of insistent and toothless satire, Journey to the Savage Planet is a monument to hypocrisy, content to gamify and reward the very things it means to criticize. The result is less an anti-capitalist statement than a statement that anti-capitalism is trendy.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 505 Games.
Developer: Typhoon Studios Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 28, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Crude Humor, Language, Use of Drugs, Violence Buy: Game
Review: SELF Nightmarishly Grapples with Our Vanishing Sense of Self
SELF rejects the power-building, level-gaining escapism that typifies the majority of pop games.4
Developer doBell’s SELF employs a storytelling mode that defies easy categorization. For one, you must play the game and see multiple endings in order to truly understand the nature of a young boy’s search for his missing dad in a world that scarcely comprehends him. The text-based narrative is, for no immediately apparent reason, presented as subtitles on a monitor that will often be overwhelmed by static at certain points. The game’s terse writing places your playable character in a dream of sorts, where the people closest to him avoid answering his questions and where everyone in the city he calls home can disappear in the blink of an eye. The effect is nothing short of nerve-wracking.
By repeatedly showing an image of cracked glass, where the diverging lines of the crack are explicitly characterized by the narrative as different pathways and destinations in the story, SELF encourages the player to restart the game after arriving at one of many endings. The proceedings concern a child named John who wakes up from sleep only to enter an obfuscating nightmare of an existence in which he cannot find his father. The fractured narrative is consistently fascinating to put together as a puzzle, even if does occasionally lead to tedium. Even though a helpful checkpoint system allows the player to skip parts of the story, you may still have to retread sections of SELF’s narrative that you recently finished reading, depending on which ending you’re trying to discover on a subsequent playthrough.
A bigger drawback of SELF, though, is its occasional reliance on the “bullet avoidance” of Toby Fox’s acclaimed indie Undertale. This type of gameplay is one-dimensional by design, as the player simply controls a powerless icon within a box and attempts to avoid contact with objects that move into the space. The largely mindless routine of moving a bland avatar—a heart in Undertale, a crudely drawn face within a square in SELF—away from easy-to-dodge projectiles becomes stale, and the action is even more unsatisfying in SELF, as objects entering the box have even more predictable trajectories than those in Undertale.
Luckily, everything else about SELF largely works and adds up to an unsettling and revelatory experience. John’s mother absurdly evades the child’s questions about the new status quo. Eventually, he’s able to leave the house for answers, but visits to an arcade, school, hospital, and bus bring more confusion before the player is able to discern exactly what has happened to John’s family. And along the way, any sense of calm in the story is challenged by a variety of sharp sound effects, from balloons popping to the high-pitched dinging of bells.
The game goes in different directions based on whether John wishes to “face” the truth during crucial moments in the story, and the various endings often transpire out of nowhere and vary in their emotional impact. In an unexpectedly comic turn, one ending brilliantly comments on the tale’s general sense of fatalism: At the very start of SELF, the player can choose to keep going back to sleep rather than get out of bed—one of gaming’s oldest clichés—and this decision brings you to “The Happiest Ending,” in which John never has to wake up to the disturbing dreamscape that awaits him otherwise.
Other choices reveal curious reversals of seemingly established facts. If you’re able to trigger particular memories within the dreamlike narrative, the text will sometimes read as if it’s written more from the perspective of John’s father. And deeper into SELF, the script implies that perhaps you’re actually playing as the father who imagines himself as the son.
Although the story certainly suggests that dreams contain hard-to-define approximations of reality, the ultimate theme of SELF is that you are whom you love. In a mind-blowing twist on the game’s primary visual conceit of a monitor displaying text, SELF redefines the screen as a mirror with nails in its corners. If you remove the nails and then the mirror, another mirror appears with a silhouette of a kid. From there, one by one, mirrors can be pulled away to reveal a larger shadow of a person. The tragedy of life, as SELF sees it, is the older we get, the more we grow, but this growth is offset by a loss of self via the deaths of loved ones. Far from an orthodox release, SELF rejects the power-building, level-gaining escapism that typifies the majority of pop games that audiences so casually, unassumingly embrace.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by indienova.
Developer: doBell Publisher: indienova Platform: Switch Release Date: January 16, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language Buy: Game
Review: The First-Person Puzzler Lightmatter Coasts on One Bright Idea
It can’t step out of the silhouette of its most brilliant predecessor, Portal.3
At the start of the first-person puzzler Lightmatter, within the mined-out heart of a mountain, an arrogant scientist, Virgil, is experimenting with ways in which to efficiently turn light into an energy source. Things inevitably go wrong, and soon your blank slate of a protagonist is stranded in the depths of the mountain, trying to follow Virgil’s caustic directions in order to safely evacuate a facility overrun with killer shadows. It’s a concept that turns everyday objects, from an overhead ceiling fan to a conveyor belt, into deadly platforming challenges, as the shadows they cast must be avoided at all costs.
At one point, Virgil directly compares this situation to the classic childhood game “The Floor Is Lava.” It’s a too-winking nod that calls attention to the carefully constructed nature of Lightmatter’s puzzles, which are better encountered as a naturally occurring part of a given area’s background, like the way in which a cubicle farm’s haphazard arrangement of desks and chairs damningly form a river of shadows that must somehow be forded. In such moments, the game hews closer to The Witness than Portal, in that the puzzles feel like natural extensions of the environment as opposed to artificially engineered test chambers.
The correct paths through Lightmatter’s once-generic office and cavern areas are deliberately engineered to have a single, tricky solution. But the game generally does well to distract the player from this contrived construction, wherein the path to the exit is always blocked by a broken light source but the moveable klieg lights and beam-reflecting photon connectors you’ll use to literally shine some light on the problem are always conveniently within reach.
It’s not until the last third of the game that the puzzles become jarringly conspicuous in their design. Until this point, the various contraptions found within the facility—like conveyors and light-activated switches—have a practical purpose, whether that’s for transporting quarried rocks or for testing and containing the lightmatter. Only a few of these machines felt like they served no purpose other than creating a puzzle, like an elevator that doesn’t normally travel between floors, requiring instead that you send it back to the first floor so that you can ride atop it to the third. In these final experimental labs, though, the rooms give themselves over to needless brain-teaser padding, as they serve no purpose beyond stymying players.
On a visual level, the developers at Tunnel Vision Games have done a fine job of translating the complexities of lighting into a puzzle mechanism. Going with a clean, cel-shaded look, as opposed to a more photorealistic aesthetic, ensures that the spotlight effects operate predictably in each environment, just as the game’s muted palette makes it easier to distinguish between objects. Perhaps taking a cue from Mirror’s Edge, the rare splashes of color—green plants, orange machinery sparks, red warning lights—help make even clearer what can be interacted with. And, incidentally, this streamlined aesthetic doesn’t lead to dumbed-down puzzles, as the complexity of each area stems from clever design as opposed to an excessive number of obstacles or a misleading series of visual cues.
Would that the game’s mad-scientist-run-amok storyline weren’t so derivative. There’s not a single transmission from Virgil that doesn’t bring the comically sociopathic ribbing of Portal’s GLaDOS to mind. (There’s even a reference to Aperture Laboratory and its cake.) Those lines can do little else, because Virgil is ultimately as much of a cypher as your own “persistent, replaceable, and silent” player character, whom Virgil identifies as a tourist, a safety inspector, a journalist, and, finally, a spy, as if trying to establish what the developers won’t.
This is a game that tasks you with trying to escape the facility in one moment, then with helping to shut it down in the next. And because your motivations are so ill-defined, it’s impossible not to see your character as anything but a vehicle for solving puzzles, ensuring that Lightmatter is unable to step out of the silhouette of its most brilliant predecessor. And that’s a damning thing for a game that’s all about deadly shadows.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Zebra Partners.
Developer: Tunnel Vision Games Publisher: Aspyr Platform: PC Release Date: January 15, 2020 Buy: Game
The 100 Best Video Games of the 2010s
Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward.
Comedian Kumail Nanjiani claimed some years back that video games are the only art form that got better solely because of technology. While that’s arguably been true for much of the medium’s history, it ceased to be the case in the 2010s. The decade in gaming didn’t lack for astounding technical achievements, but its arc was defined less by powerful technology than powerful ideas.
This was the decade that saw tiny studios, lone creators, and crazy concepts reign supreme. This was the decade that saw every platform become a viable place for ideas to sprout and bloom. The limits of the medium are seemingly bound only by the human imagination, and at every level, regardless of the horsepower needed, it now feels like anything is possible.
The decade’s best games took full advantage of that new freedom by pushing the envelope in every direction. Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward. Justin Clark
100. BioShock Infinite
BioShock Infinite is a visceral experience about an irredeemable psychopath murdering a city of despicable fundamentalists. Booker Dewitt is tasked with saving a reality-tearing woman from a floating white-supremacist paradise, leading to the interactive slaughter of its inhabitants; so much was made of the game’s violence that many overlooked that the repugnant brutality was exactly the point. While most shooters shy away from grue or any consequences to the player’s actions, BioShock Infinite vividly depicts these rippling across universes, where a single choice can carry disastrous results. This is an astonishing game that philosophizes on the human condition—consider that the opponents of Columbia’s segregation aren’t interested in equality, only in suppressing their suppressors—while critiquing its entire genre, concluding that the protagonist of a first-person shooter shouldn’t be allowed to live in any universe. Ryan Aston
99. The Norwood Suite
The public is more aware than ever of the infallibilities of well-known artists, and Cosmo D’s The Norwood Suite evokes the discomfort that many of us often feel when the dirty secrets of an icon are put on display. The setting here is a hotel that houses the legacy of a bandleader named Peter Norwood, whose exploitative relationships with other musicians come to the player’s attention via surreal trips down hidden passageways. Yet this building also bears numerous odd pleasures to behold, not least of which is a soundtrack that seamlessly morphs as you move from room to room. The characters are literally riffs in Cosmo D’s stupendous orchestration; different instruments and notes accompany different lines of dialogue as they appear on screen. The more you explore this strange location, the more you see the threat of commercialization in the form of corporate employees aiming to turn the hotel into a greater moneymaking scheme. Cosmo D gives no easy answers on how capitalistic culture can reconcile the sins of artistic giants, and that ambiguity makes The Norwood Suite a complicated and essential illustration of contemporary concerns. Jed Pressgrove
To make it absolutely clear that Overcooked isn’t your traditional cooking game, developer Ghost Town Games opens mid-apocalypse. A giant, ravenous beast—imagine the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man made of spaghetti and meatballs—threatens to consume your rooftop kitchen. The Onion King, cheering from the sidelines, implores you to fend him off by hastily preparing a soothing selection of salads; after you’ve failed, he transports you back through time, so that you can be a more seasoned chef next time. The subsequent missions, then, are less about tapping out increasingly complex orders, as with Cooking Dash and its ilk, or the exquisite, Zen-like Cook, Serve, Delicious. Instead, Overcooked keeps the recipes simple and the kitchens about as unconventionally chaotic as they come. At times, the difficulty can make this party game feel like a lot of work, although in fairness, the same can be said for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, another demandingly chaotic, but ultimately enjoyable, couch co-op title. The meat of the title—cooperative, chaotic cooking—is almost perfectly handled, as are the garnishes, from the catchy musical score to the delightful crew of unlockable animal chefs. By keeping the kitchens varied and the action constant, Ghost Town Games avoids the flavorless death known as repetition, and doesn’t overcook its premise. Aaron Riccio
Downwell is a quarter-eater without the quarters, an arcade game from out of time. As your character tumbles down an enclosed space, collecting gems and shooting bullets from his feet, the game feels like something you play as much as you give yourself over to. Each run demands split-second decisions. Do you go back for more gems, as a cabal of monsters closes in behind you? Do you risk a stomp attack that demands more precision but will reward you with a badly needed reload? Do you break the block for gems at risk of losing space to maneuver? Each run showers you in game-changing upgrades that introduce still-more variables to consider at a moment’s notice, while you continue blasting your way into the abyss. Like the very best action games, Downwell becomes its own trance state. Steven Scaife
96. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Prepare to die a lot. The modern gaming landscape is one littered with checkpoints, save states, and wonky AI. 2K Games’s reimagining of the XCOM strategy series harkens back to the cult classic’s unsettling gameplay and punishing difficulty. The rewarding sensation one receives after successfully commanding a squad out of a heated skirmish with strange intergalactic warriors is unparalleled in modern games. These tense battles eventually lead the player to actually form an emotional bond with your team members, which makes their inevitable demise that much more crushing. These interactive elements lend XCOM’s tense action an atmosphere that’s engrossing and wholly addictive. It’s easy to treasure an old-school counter-offensive game that understands the motivating power of fear. Kyle Lemmon
95. Deus Ex: Human Revolution
In the not-so-distant future, large corporations and multinational firms have developed their operations beyond the control of national governments, and human biomechanical augmentation is simultaneously rising in popularity across the world and being demonized for its role in changing humanity. Like the very best sci-fi, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about ethics and consequences; this is a game that asks what it is to be human. The game presents both the rise of biotechnology as a means to advance human ability and the human experience, and the subsequent consequences on the world. Its layered narrative matches its deep multifaceted gameplay, set in a rich and atmospheric universe that feels not too far away from our own. Despite a slow start and occasional missteps (the much maligned boss fights were “fixed” for DLC), Eidos Montreal has created an engaging, compelling experience that does justice to the critically acclaimed Deus Ex series. Aston
94. Death Stranding
Hideo Kojima’s first game away from Konami, Death Stranding, finds him tearing down the familiar structure of the open-world game and building it back up again as something weirder, more deliberate, and more honest about what it is. It transforms basic traversal into the entire conceit rather than more or less a time sink between story missions and side activities. It peels away the artifice of open-world structure, revealing the dressed-up delivery missions underneath while declaring that they’re a worthwhile pursuit in their own right. And once you’ve totally internalized that idea, the tools the game provides become enthralling revelations: You eventually build sprawling highways and ziplines that propel you across arduous terrain. You’ve worked for them. You’ve earned them. Death Stranding is an admirable experiment for big-budget game design, playing like one long, bizarre, and startlingly persuasive argument that the journey is fulfilling in its own right. Scaife
While Iconoclasts’s bright and imaginative 2D pixelated graphics would look right at home on a 16-bit console of yore, its themes and ideas are very much that of the modern day. The game’s silent protagonist, Robin, is trapped in a fascistic society ruled by fundamentalist dogma, where her skills as a mechanic are outlawed, positioning her as a criminal and counterforce in a setting that opposes scientific advancement and free-thinking. Robin’s journey to escape execution and expose the truth of her society’s dominating political organization aligns her with other well-crafted characters who oppose the tyrannical theocracy both in ideology and ability, and it’s through its characters’ unique facilities that Iconoclasts demonstrates a kind of Ludonarrative harmony, as the gameplay and themes are in lockstep, crafting an experience that tackles important issues of faith, religion, and totalitarianism. Throughout, Iconoclasts’s varied gameplay mechanics directly serve the narrative. Consider Robin’s special tool, an illegal wrench, and how it not only symbolizes suppression of science and personal freedoms, but is used as a weapon against enemies and a means of controlling technology and traversing obstacles, often directly modifying and rearranging objects in the world. It also pushes Robin toward her ultimate goal of fixing the broken world for good. Aston
92. Yakuza 0
This prequel faced the unenviable task of taking a decades-old abstruse Japanese series and making it accessible for the masses. Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, important underworld figures later in the series, are introduced to us as a low-level recruit and disgraced outcast, respectively, from different organized crime syndicates. They’re pulled into a conspiracy after Kazuma is framed for murder and Goro rejects an assassination job after finding out that the target is a defenseless blind girl. Their captivating narratives come together in a larger plot brimming with sociopolitical intrigue about property development and clan territory. Think of Yakuza 0 as noir through the lens of ‘80s Japan. Its gameplay simplifies the series’s complicated mechanics without limiting the player or compromising the variety in the details. One can take part in any manner of activities throughout the Tokyo and Osaka settings while progressing through the campaign, allowing the game to prove itself both as a compelling prequel to an ongoing series and as its own self-contained story. Aston
Arkane Studios’s Dishonored combines elements of other immersive sims, like BioShock and Thief, to create a mechanically enjoyable first-person stealth game that challenges your awareness and resourcefulness. While its narrative about betrayal and revenge is familiar, the game is enticing for the autonomy it offers players. Dishonored is very much a gamer’s game: It hands you a target—kill High Overseer Campbell, for example—before then turning you lose, giving you the freedom of the world and Corvo’s powers to deal with your target however you see fit. Though the end of every mission may resort to a binary lethal/non-lethal choice, the ways you can approach any mission are bountiful, making each run different enough to warrant multiple playthroughs. Jeremy Winslow
Review: Life Is Strange 2 Boldly and Directly Plumbs America’s Darkness
Living in America as a kid with brown skin has never been harder, or more frightening, and the game is a harsh primer in that fact.4.5
Just as it looms heavy over every other aspect of America in real life, the 2016 election wreaks havoc in Life Is Strange 2. When we meet this sequel’s protagonist, a Latinx high schooler named Sean Diaz, it’s late 2015. The first presidential debates have already happened and those blowing up his social media feed and text messages are angry and fearful. Trump’s threats to everybody who looks like him and his nine-year-old brother, Daniel, feel like an approaching storm. Ten minutes into the game, that anger and fear is palpable.
But the storm hits Sean a lot earlier than the rest of us. An altercation with the school bully living next door turns violent, the cops are called, and when Sean’s father tries to calm the situation down, he’s shot when he doesn’t get on the ground fast enough. Naturally, you can guess where this could be going from here. But this is the world of Life Is Strange, and the cycle of grief turning to anger turning to acquittals turning to fury turning to resignation is stopped dead when Daniel starts to manifest a particularly powerful, albeit unfocused, form of telekinesis which saves him and Sean from a jail cell, but at the expense of a few dead cops.
The realities of classism were mostly color and texture to the first Life Is Strange’s central missing-girl mystery, but they’re the bold-faced text of the sequel. Sean and Daniel leave their hometown of Seattle to go on the run after the incident—rather pointedly, the plan is to cross the border wall into Mexico—and it’s all the more frightening and distressing that they’re two Latinx kids now at the mercy of America at its best and worst. For every woke travel-blogging road-tripper willing to give these kids new bags and a hotel room for the night, for every aging yuppie trying their damndest to make up for their conservative, authoritarian past by helping the brothers keep tabs on the nearby police presence, there are legions of townsfolk with nothing to give these kids except for the side-eye. It’s as if Sean and Daniel’s mere existence has an ulterior motive. And Life Is Strange 2 doesn’t relent on portraying how suffocating such a life can be. You’re never not fully aware of who might be looking, who’s asking questions, who’s tensed up just by these brown kids walking into a white space, and if that sounds more like a horror game than a languid, delicate, sun-bathed point-and-click adventure, imagine living it in a world where there are no super powers to get you out of such a situation.
The living is the key here. It almost feels like a bit of a cop-out, pun unintended, when the game goes for tense Stranger Things-style action set pieces involving the police and the F.B.I. or America First xenophobes, because the situation is tense enough in the disquieting scenes of Sean and Daniel simply attempting to live in America without any of its social safety nets. Much of the gameplay, just as in the first Life Is Strange, is spent in dialogue trees. At any given moment, the brothers are trying to hide Daniel’s powers and their status as fugitives, or just plain hiding. This sequel is still a bit more kinetic and proactive than this style of adventure title typically is, but the puzzle-solving smartly takes a backseat to the building and maintaining of relationships. Creating a bond with anyone in the game while in a pressure-cooker situation is a risk, and the payoff isn’t always worth it, especially because of what it could teach young Daniel, who’s also affected by Sean’s choices, and whose morality can shift fluidly during gameplay. He could become this universe’s Eleven, or he could become its Tetsuo, and it all hinges on what he sees and hears from his big brother at any time.
That bond is the most crucial one in Life Is Strange 2, and ultimately the most powerful thing about the game. This is, above all things, a story of brotherhood, and it’s just as emotionally honest about two kids at different pivotal stages of their lives making the decisions that will define them as men as it is about the reality of living in America as an “other.” The choices aren’t limited to some clearly-defined “good” option in the dialogue tree either, with many of the things that shape Sean and Daniel’s relationship coming down to a simple choice between scolding Daniel, deciding to tuck the kid in bed as opposed to hanging out with new friends, or teaching him what faith and forgiveness and grace actually mean.
Yes, the bigger choices in Life Is Strange 2—whether to lie to Daniel about what happened to their father, whether to tell the kid to kill a wild animal threatening them at their hideout, whether to plow through a police barricade—make the expected huge shifts in the narrative, but it’s the cumulative choices that are most impressive. In the middle episode, “Wastelands,” Daniel will choose to help a new friend carry out a major crime whether you think it’s a good idea or not. And how that mistake plays out when it goes wrong is dependent on every way that Sean has previously interacted with Daniel—whether he’s shown Daniel that mercy is a virtue, that Sean’s word is his bond when he promises never to lie to him, and whether he’s shown Daniel that he trusts his judgment. Neither Sean nor Daniel have all the answers, but what few answers Sean does provide his brother significantly matter.
It’s still a long, excruciating march toward the Mexican border, but what keeps Sean and Daniel going—and the player by proxy—are the grace notes of interpersonal kindness, those moments where the two brothers stop to appreciate the beauty of the country they’ll probably never get to see again, and the warmth of the places they call home along the way, temporary though they may be. Living in America as a kid with brown skin has never been harder, or more frightening, and Life Is Strange 2 is a harsh primer in that fact. Nevertheless, there’s light and beauty in this journey, as this is a game that values the boundless hope of the two young men at its center, and without invalidating America’s darkness.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Square Enix.
Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: December 4, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol, Violence Buy: Game
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