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Review: Knack 2

Knack 2 falters when it stops reinventing elements from other games and starts cannibalizing itself.

3.0

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Knack 2

Out of all the many critics of Knack, which rushed out the door in late 2013 as a PlayStation 4 launch title, the harshest may be its sequel. Knack 2 is filled with acknowledgments of where Knack falls short, especially when it comes to combat. “It’s hard to believe you saved the world,” one character tells Knack before teaching him a new move. “All you know are three punches and a kick.” And the game’s director, Mark Cerny, is an obvious stand-in for Knack’s human sidekick, Lucas. When the action-packed narrative pauses, so as to give Lucas time to build a sturdy new vehicle out of broken parts, the scene suggests that the developers have been allowed to more than just learn from the mistakes of the past. Knack 2 may still be as derivative as the original, owing heavily to the Crash Bandicoot and Super Mario Bros. series, but the game, like Knack himself, is positively animated by the detritus it borrows and refines.

Ingenuity goes a long way toward masking the familiarity of Knack 2. In the original Knack, elements like ice and iron are used merely to bulk up Knack’s mass, helping him to grow from an adorably fragile doll-like golem to a Hulk-like behemoth that tops out at 32 feet. This time around, these substances are also used to solve puzzles. Knack can shed his ferrous outer layer to create a statue capable of holding down pressure pads; alternatively, he can drop iron bits like breadcrumbs so as to trace an electricity-conducting path between circuits. Ice obviously extinguishes flaming obstacles, but it also helps to freeze both foes and switches in place. Even Knack’s wider variety of attack moves find usefulness outside of combat. A hookshot can both unbalance foes and pull crates into position; a boomerang attack not only immobilizes enemies but can trigger far-off buttons and switches.

Knack 2’s platforming/transversal elements are also much improved by embracing Knack’s central mechanic: his two sizes. At any point—not just in his Stealth mode, or when taking damage—Knack can abandon his outer shell of artifacts and, in miniature form, find new paths through an environment. This is just an illusion of freedom, since the game often forces Knack to be a certain size in order to proceed. But it’s an effective design decision, as it adds a sense of scale to the game. Locked into his larger form, players might waltz right past a tricky set of platforms; only by shrinking down might players appreciate how Knack’s size helps to overcome such obstacles.

The new co-op mode leans into the game’s family-friendly design. Players control a version of Knack (red or blue), which means that those who find the game more challenging than its cuteness suggests can teleport directly to their partner (bypassing tricky platforming sequences) and can respawn if they die in battle (so long as their partner stays alive for long enough). Experts might not need this assistance, but they do gain the ability to make use of this second Knack to execute special co-op attacks. A heavy punch can launch your comrade into a foe for extra damage; a multi-punch combo turns one Knack’s body into ammunition for the other’s gatling-gun-like attack.

Where Knack 2 begins to collapse, however, is when it stops reinventing elements from other games and starts cannibalizing itself. This begins with a lazy, too-linear skill tree that adds little to the gameplay other than slight ability power-ups to grind away for. But things gets far worse when, after the first six hours, every clever idea is dragged up again through the mud as needless padding. The game’s undercooked story isn’t nearly creative enough to mask this self-deriving. Environments start to bleed together, whether it’s a jungle in the Highlands or the one protecting a secret island base. The game’s two nighttime infiltrations take place in wildly different locations—a fortress and a museum—that wind up looking and playing exactly the same. Each additional time that Knack flees a giant robot Titan or shrinks down to climb a series of clockwork cogs, it only cheapens the magic of those initial moments.

At least in these cases, Knack 2’s gameplay still has those first exhilarating moments to come down from. But the story has no such highlights. The villains here are so interchangeable that you’d be forgiven for missing the “twist” in which one replaces the other. Their evil plots are somehow even more generic. One of these baddies builds an Armageddon Machine, and when he’s accused of being mad (a thing not suggested until that point), he shrugs: “Yeah, I guess so.” Such one-dimensional plotting is anathema to the more carefully considered gameplay. Knack is very much a part of his environment, as his powers are used to explore, to fight, and to solve puzzles. Throw in his ability to change size, and he’s literally multidimensional. Take that meaning away and Knack 2 is just a collection of moving parts.

Developer: SIE Japan Studio Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 6, 2017 Buy: Game

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Review: In Wide Ocean Big Jacket, the Magic Is in the Smallest of Details

The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

4

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Wide Ocean Big Jacket

Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket gains so much of its character from the little details: the radio playing when Uncle Brad buys a pile of wood for a campfire, or the glow-in-the-dark skeleton that he and Aunt Cloanne use to mark their campsite. Their tent is a two-roomer, and Cloanne explains that they, veteran campers that they are, usually set up a little table in the additional space, for reading indoors in the middle of the outdoors. On this trip, though, the other room belongs to Brad’s 13-year-old niece, Mord, and her best friend who’s now her trial boyfriend, Ben. The kids aren’t totally sure about relationships, as they’re still in that phase of life where relationships aren’t a “real” thing yet—more of a distraction and a declaration than a commitment. But they’ve decided to give it a try.

Mord explains this relationship to Brad while they’re setting up camp, telling him that, as a way of acceptance, Ben had said it doesn’t sound “too scary.” Backstory is delivered this way throughout the game, through simple dialogue about what’s already happened. Instead of outright flashbacks to past moments, there’s only the now, the little snapshots of time the characters spend talking in their wooded setting, or the next one, or on the beach. Wide Ocean Big Jacket is broken up into 20 such vignettes, often swapping between perspectives as the characters amble around these tiny areas with their shuffly gaits that have a pleasantly jerky quality reminiscent of hand-drawn animation. Sometimes they have actions to perform, like when Cloanne watches birds through binoculars or Mord cartwheels across the sand.

Other times, you just page through the dialogue (or, in one case, the narrative of a trashy paperback) from an observer’s perspective, seeing what the characters have to say around the campfire and look at their expressions. The dialogue unspools in small snippets on simple black screens, below black-and-white drawings of the characters’ heads. Though the portraits are totally static, the screens convey a lot through simple tone and those unchanging expressions: Mord’s dead-on stare informs her quirky personality, and Ben has the bashful demeanor of a kid whose eyes you can’t quite see behind the reflection of his glasses. What might have felt limited instead seems specific, even affecting.

Turnfollow does so much with so little. Despite its unassuming art style and brief length—a little over an hour, if that—the game suggests so much beyond itself, through the lyrical cadence of the dialogue, the charming specificity it brings to the characters’ lives, and the way it cuts out of dialogue to reveal scenes like how Mord is standing on a picnic table. The characters are so vividly defined that you get the urge to play according to their behavior, whether it’s deciding which bush to pee in or whether or not to cook a whole mess of hot dogs at once on the same skewer. Wide Ocean Big Jacket bottles small moments and makes them feel important, not because they speak to some world-ending conflict, but because they’re formative: a kiss, an argument, a sighting of a pretty cool stick to wave around. The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

The game was reviewed using a digital Switch copy purchased by the reveiwer.

Developer: Turnfollow Publisher: Tender Claws Platform: Switch Release Date: February 4, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Language, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco Buy: Game

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Review: Lair of the Clockwork God Is a Fine-Tuned Comedy Machine

With their latest, Dan Marshall and Ben Ward successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres.

4

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Lair of the Clockwork God
Photo: Size Five Games

“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes.

Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres.

The game is a gold mine of comic scenarios in which the fictionalized, fourth-wall-breaking duo at its center solves novel puzzles using an intentionally haphazard control scheme. Dan’s refusal to interact with even basic objects like a light switch results in gloriously convoluted workarounds, like the one where Ben must find a way not only to reactivate a drone, but to somehow make it glow in the dark. As the game points out, Ben is essentially Dan’s platforming gimmick; instead of Dan having to seek out skill upgrades, Ben combines items from his inventory into accessories that allow Dan to double-jump or hang from walls. Lair of the Clockwork God’s hybridization of platformer and adventure conventions is more than just a successful approach to everything that Ron Gilbert was trying to do with 2013’s The Cave; it’s also a simultaneous homage and critique of the conventions of various genres, with the two protagonists mercilessly commenting on how games have evolved—or not.

Lair of the Clockwork God’s central conceit is that Dan and Ben must teach a faulty A.I. how to re-empathize with humanity. They do so by entering “constructs” (self-contained levels) that represent feelings like Grief or Fear, and each area is “beaten” once the duo has done enough to sufficiently model that emotion to the game’s titular god. This focused, vignette-like structure also allows Marshall and Ward to quickly bounce between concepts, the result of which is a game that pokes fun at everything from visual novels to virtual reality, with plenty of righteous indignation left over for walking simulators and monetization options.

Ironically, the one thing Lair of the Clockwork God doesn’t have much to say about is other platforming games. One of the 11 constructs, Anger, does a fine job of channeling through Dan the sort of curse-spewing, controller-flinging rage that those who’ve played masocore games like Super Meat Boy will instantly relate to. The rest of Dan’s platforming sections feel secondary to Ben’s adventuring. Whereas the inventory puzzles are given new life by Ben’s outsized attempts to puzzle his way past obstacles that Dan can simply jump over, Dan’s largely dialogue-free acrobatics feel like the interstitial stuff you have to complete to get to the next clever puzzle or bracing joke. Dan’s the straight man who sets up the jokes, as when he mantles over some ledges so that he can pop the balloon holding up a dead clown aloft. But it’s Ben who lands the comedy of those moments; his ability to Look at objects or to Use items on them provides the literal observational wit and shock humor needed to push these scenes over the edge: “I feel like pissing on a clown’s entrails wouldn’t be funny somehow.”

Everywhere else, though, Lair of the Clockwork God has plenty to say, with each new area finding a clever way to demonstrate a particular emotion. Joy, for instance, manifests for Dan as a Sonic-like Green Hills Zone filled with floating beer caps and frothy alcohol waterfalls for him to run and jump through. By contrast, Ben’s never happier than when he sets about dismantling the bureaucracy that governs the way a platformer respawns upon death.

Regardless of whether you share Ben and Dan’s nostalgia, their emotions are infectious. The scenarios they face are absurdly over the top, but their actual responses are all too relatable. Most remarkably, however, is that the game can troll players with levels like Confusion and Disappointment and lull them into thinking that Hope is nothing more than a stinging punchline, only to at the last minute show up to the table with the unexpected sincerity of Regret. As it turns out, Lair of the Clockwork God is less about teaching an A.I. what it means to be human than about providing players with examples of how to be better people.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Size Five Games.

Developer: Size Five Games Publisher: Size Five Games Platform: PC Release Date: February 21, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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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

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LUNA The Shadow Dust

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

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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

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Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics

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

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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

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Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

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

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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

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Ministry of Broadcast
Photo: Hitcents

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

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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

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Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
Photo: Bandai Namco

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

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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

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Journey to the Savage Planet
Photo: 505 Games

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

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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

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SELF
Photo: indienova

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

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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

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Lightmatter
Photo: Aspyr

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

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