Ninja Gaiden 3 is a blood-splatter simulator masquerading as an action video game. Team Ninja and Tecmo Koei’s notoriously difficult series has been neutered in its latest incarnation, with players no longer needing to learn any actual skills or intricate combos requiring persistence and a little bit of trial and error to master. Instead, the game’s six-to-eight hours of entertainment can be downright patronizing to longtime fans; players will feel little to no sense of accomplishment once they defeat the absurd, alchemy-worshiping terrorists in the game.
Games can be casual and contain plenty of fun; just look at the mobile-games industry for plenty of excellent examples. Lead Team Ninja designer Tomonobu Itagaki left Tecmo after the completion of Ninja Gaiden 2, due to a heated legal dispute, and his absence is felt here. Nobody enjoys frustrating difficulty levels, but Team Ninja gives us a laughable downgrade in both difficulty and playability. The game’s erratic camera system will make you queasy, and the plot and cut-scenes are nonsensical in a B-movie fashion. Ryu Hayabusa is only given his trusty ninja blade, some shurikens, a bow, explosive arrows, and one screen-clearing ninpo (a magical dragon that breathes fire over your enemies).
Hayabusa travels all over the globe—starting in London and ending in Tokyo—to try and quash a fiendish terrorist plot to take over the world in the same amount of time it was created in the Bible. Ninja Gaiden plots were never works of fiction, and the third installment doesn’t break that trend. In fact, it sinks to an interminable low. Dialogue between the main characters is stilted or recycled during boring combat sequences where you button-mash until the ground is soaked in blood. Anyone who’s played the Dynasty Warriors series will be familiar with this flat-lined gameplay. It’s as though Hayabusa travels to Antarctica during the course of the through line only so the game designers can pitch red paint all over a pristine white canvas.
Our protagonist may look the part, but the indispensable elements that make a good game aren’t present. The environments are shadowy and drab when the camera isn’t blasting you into the next carbon-copied villain or robotic boss creature. Treasure chests and collectables items are gone too. There’s no reason to explore these unattractive worlds, which makes their linear level designs even more like a chute toward a finish line greased up with human entrails. Hayabusa’s ability to collect souls after battles is gone as well, and the fact that there are no additional weapons is downright puzzling.
The thrill of actually being a ninja is sapped of all its badass nature when you have to proceed through countless enemy spawn points and from cut-scene to cut-scene. I never made an actual choice in the game, and on the lowest difficulty setting you can set down your controller and grab a sandwich while your character flips and dodges attacks for you. Ninjas were the James Bonds of feudal Japan, and yet Hayabusa feels like a nameless automaton that takes off his mask a few times to be all emo toward a girl that can’t speak after a tragic accident. This soul-deadening miscommunication could be a metaphor for Ninja Gaiden 3 itself.
There’s no method or finesse to these battles, and at every turn the game gives you maddening action prompts—even for moves learned during the first level. The game’s negligible redeeming factor is that it’s an unadulterated adrenaline rush. Cutting down waves of enemies is gratifying in a stress-relieving context, but exercising or punching your pillow can do the same thing for zero dollars. It’s a shame the delivery system is such a mess. The online co-op mode (Ninja Trials) adds a fairly robust combo meter (the single-player mode desperately needed this), but the Clan Battle is a rudimentary death-match mode for eight players. Fights are just as dizzying as the ones you’ll encounter in the story mode, and the novelty of leveling up is quickly extinguished.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a dated and dull entry in a coveted series. Quick-time events, bad cameras, buggy gameplay, zero replayability, and a patronizing difficulty system will rankle most gamers. Ninjas should be fleet-footed and sure. Instead, Team Ninja’s Hayabusa is a specter with no direction or authority. There’s no sense of agency for him or the player. The story moralizes on the subject of murder with a heavy hand and yet its main character cuts through each nameless person on screen without raising any valid questions in the process. Such cowardice isn’t acceptable for heroes or ordinary men.
Developer: Team Ninja Publisher: Tecmo Koei Platform: PlayStation 3 Release Date: March 20, 2012 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes 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
Review: Wattam Whimsically Tasks Us with Finding the Epic in the Mundane
Wattam communicates a poignant, refreshing, and all-too-necessary joy in the face of adversity.4
One of the characters you play in Wattam is the Mayor, a green cube with a little mustache. He wears a black bowler hat, and beneath it is some kind of regenerating bomb that sends him and anyone in his vicinity rocketing through the air with colored smoke trailing behind them. But this bomb isn’t a malicious weapon, as it acts as a sort of activity that the Wattam world’s denizens, an assortment of inanimate objects with faces and limbs, all crave, begging the Mayor to “kaboom” them into the air. Sometimes, after a particularly twisty kaboom, they’ll vomit little rainbows into the grass.
If everything I’ve described thus far sounds hopelessly weird and discombobulated, it gets even more so. But it also makes some measure of sense within the colorful, anarchic, kindergarten-evoking aesthetic of Keita Takahashi, who’s best known for creating the equally peculiar Katamari series. Wattam, though, is more free-form than those games, functioning like a playground for the various objects that the Mayor befriends through activities like kaboom-ing, climbing on top of characters to form a big precarious stack, or locking hands so their individual soundtrack themes layer on top of one another.
There’s almost a method to Wattam’s dream-logic madness, as the world has ended, and everything in it has been scattered to the void. The Mayor starts out alone on a grassy expanse, and across the game’s few hours you’ll rediscover that which was lost in a mysterious apocalypse. Sometimes the characters, like a tiny stone, simply appear as though they were there all along, but mainly groups of characters arrive through holes in the sky while riding on the backs of giant floating tables, chairs, and other things that latch onto the environment with their massive hands. A big table, for example, will drop off some sentient utensils, while a large toilet might arrive carrying another, smaller toilet. Everything is greeted with a “welcome back” message, in a little pop-up window for smaller objects (“Welcome back, fork”) and in huge, screen-filling font for big, flying transport entities (“Welcome back, table”).
With its themes of cooperation and putting the world back together, the game oddly treads similar thematic territory to Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, while its sprawling portrait of a universe at multiple sizes recalls David OReilly’s Everything. But as with Katamari, Takahashi’s gentle and simplistic style approaches these ideas in ways that are at once pleasantly straightforward and hilariously unexpected, providing missions that require you to harness the surprising abilities of the growing horde of people-objects who all have individual, mundane names like Charlie and Eric. Completing these missions prompts the arrival of more characters, who are attracted by the presence of the friends you’ve helped.
The missions divide Wattam into essentially a series of comedic vignettes, an assembly line of wildly differing abilities up through the end of the game. Though you’re free to, say, turn on the fan that blows away characters at any time after it’s introduced, many of the abilities are used once or twice before something new appears and the lovely, offbeat soundtrack changes according to the task. The whole experience is wildly unpredictable, with the occasional bits of repetition lulling you into a false sense that you’ve seen all of what Wattam has to offer. Every time the game seems close to running out of creative steam, it adds some ridiculous new wrinkle seemingly for the hell of it, like a bizarre cooperative boss battle or the disembodied mouth that transforms everything into sentient cartoon poop.
Though a lot of the comedy here is born out of how totally inscrutable the game is, with objects arriving according to no apparent hierarchy whatsoever (a camera, for one, might appear before an ice cream cone does), the themes of Wattam come through clearly. The game muses about how sad it is that we need some kind of catastrophe to appreciate what’s in front of us, asking the player to revel in the small pleasures of things that seem, at first, totally insignificant. Through deceptively simple mechanics, music, and art, Wattam communicates a poignant, refreshing, and all-too-necessary joy in the face of adversity.
Developer: Funomena Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: December 17, 2019 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game
The 25 Best Video Games of 2019
In 2019, the best games took the industry’s standard operating procedure and punted it out the window.
Although it was released in the doldrums of March, one title on our list of the 25 Best Games of 2019 could serve as the anarchic manifesto of the entire year in gaming. The brainchild of Finnish indie developer Arvi Teikarti, a.k.a. Hempuli, Baba Is You is, ostensibly, a very simple pixel-art puzzle platformer. But it’s also one that doesn’t give players the rules to beat it, telling them that every single one of those rules aren’t just made to be broken, but must be broken in order to persevere.
The spirit of 2019 in gaming was one of disruption, one that took the industry’s standard operating procedure and punted it out the window. Logic says that only a certain level of production can make the games people love, that only by following the rules of what sells can a game find an audience, that only one company can own the ideas behind an IP, and that only by squeezing players dry through additional purchases can a game be made that people will keep coming back to. But that logic was always faulty, and this year, it failed.
This was a year where the best Castlevania game in a decade didn’t have Konami’s name on it, where Bethesda had nothing to do with the best Fallout title to come out in twice as many years, and where the best Star Wars game does the exact opposite of everything its publisher had been doing with the license for five years. And that’s just what was happening in the AAA arena. Indeed, those who ventured into the realm of indie games glimpsed developers taking wild, bold leaps of faith, subverting every genre imaginable, and doing so with great success. This was a year where the fearless side of the industry showed itself, and these 25 games are the greatest victors, the ones that dared the most, and won big. Justin Clark
25. Slay the Spire
Slay the Spire’s deck-building mechanic guarantees that every run will be an entirely new experience. You’re bound not only by the types of cards you gain in each run, but the literal luck of the draw in which you pull them in combat. As a result, even the simplest encounter is bespoke, and every decision is a finely tuned risk-reward gamble. The spire’s branching paths lead to events with their own branching decisions, the results of which determine whether you can, say, afford the merchant or if you can forgo a healing snooze in order to upgrade a card. Slay the Spire, the brainchild of Mega Crit Games, guarantees nothing other than your character’s starting set of attack and defense cards (and perhaps a modicum of fun), so each new run forces you to be maximally clever in wringing bloody synergies out of otherwise rocky randomness. But as brutal as Slay the Spire may be, these runs ultimately come down to smart luck. The game gleefully telegraphs what each foe is going to do in combat, so if you die, it’s because you haven’t prepared enough. Shuffle up and deal with it, because there’s always another—and another, and another—try. Aaron Riccio
24. Sunless Skies
Sunless Sea, from 2015, had players chart a vast and perilous ocean into which London fell. That game’s follow-up, Sunless Skies, delivers yet another intimidating journey into the unknown, only this time with the player slowly combing an airspace littered by the remains of destroyed ships. The sounds of this game vivify the “Britain of the heavens” setting, with the hissing of steam, the ever-creaking machinery, and the distant noise of cannons serving as constant reminders of a dangerous and overindustrialized world. As in Sunless Sea, greed and a thirst for exploration function as a double-edged sword, leading players to the darkest corners of the map or simply death. Developer Failbetter Games has proven itself again a skilled purveyor of Lovecraftian suspense, where our curiosities get the better of us in gradual fashion, as underlined by blunt and wry writing that’s deliciously typical of a traditional British mindset. Jed Pressgrove
23. Void Bastards
A transport spaceship bearing an assortment of freeze-dried prisoners is stranded in a nasty nebula. There, pirates roam, monsters devour ships, and all the unfortunate citizens have been bizarrely mutated into murderous, foul-mouthed horrors. Once rehydrated, prisoners are shooed out into this unforgiving corner of space to scavenge derelict ships for parts until their probable death, after which the next unfortunate soul indicted for a comedically pedantic crime continues the work. And so on. The gears of capitalism turn even in these ruins of bureaucratic failure. As setups go, it’s a cheeky, immaculate framing device for a roguelike, and the amount of forethought that Void Bastards affords you is rare for this genre of game. It imbues the experience with a greater sense of consequence since you’re not at the mercy of randomization so much as your ability to plan and execute, as well as knowing when to retreat or when to avoid a ship entirely. An ideal run of Void Bastards is about planning, going on a run, and then having your plans upended by any of the different variables at work, requiring you to quickly adapt while coming up with a new plan. Steven Scaife
22. Untitled Goose Game
There’s an old Steve Martin quote about how comedy can be art, but anyone who deliberately sets out to make art through comedy has already failed. To that same point, developers House House didn’t set out to make a game with near-universal appeal with Untitled Goose Game—famously, the premise alone was a private joke shared on a Slack channel at work—but they stumbled upon it nonetheless. Untitled Goose Game is one of those rare experiences where it’s hilarious just existing in the world of the game, and in no small part for the way it plays it 100% straight, aside from a playful context-sensitive piano underscoring the player’s chaos. Just giving players the ability to waddle around a neighborhood and honk in people’s faces could’ve been the game by itself, but instead, it’s all about finding new, innovative ways to pull of various annoyance crimes within very basic but innately understood mechanics, and the payoff is almost always worth the effort. This is a game about true banal evil. So many so-called mature artists have attempted to edgelord their way into relevancy and found only a niche audience waiting for them, while House House’s Goose has managed to become the purest agent of chaos of our time, and managed to win the hearts and minds of the world. Clark
21. The Outer Worlds
Obsidian doesn’t stray too far from their roots with The Outer Worlds, an open-world first-person RPG reminiscent of Fallout: New Vegas. The socio-political commentary isn’t subtle, as the player character awakens from cryosleep to a futuristic world on the edge of the galaxy run by megacorporations that own workers as property and will happily let colonies of people die if it benefits their bottom line. But The Outer Worlds deviates from the modern Fallout formula by including a Normandy-style ship that allows you to travel to different planets instead of just one large open area, with a crew who can be taken on missions. Helping the rebellious mercenary Ellie recover from a disastrous attempt to reunite with her disapproving upper-class parents lets the player embrace their humanity by offering her support—or take to darker instincts and just gleefully murder the elitist pricks. As for helping shy mechanic Pavarti, an asexual queer woman of a color, prepare for a date she’s nervous about, the whole enterprise is delightful in no small part for how it taps into our sense of belonging. The Outer Worlds might take players to far-away planets to fight battles that reshape societies, but it’s heart ultimately lies in its more interpersonal moments. Ryan Aston
Review: Mosaic Gets the Feel of Monotony, for Better and for Worse
Did you know that corporations are bad? That the drudgeries of adult life are soul-crushing?2.5
Did you know that corporations are bad? That the drudgeries of adult life are soul-crushing? That doing the same thing at work with little variation can make you feel like a cog in a machine, and that there’s nothing you can do about it because the numbing routine of work and sleep is simply what you must do to survive? If you’ve somehow made it this far in life without learning such basic truths—and without having seen them literalized as some sort of gray corporate haze in a commercial for toothpaste or erectile dysfunction pills or something—Mosaic may prove enlightening. For everyone else, though, the aesthetics of this brief game from Krillbite Studios will seem mighty familiar.
You play here as an anonymous corporate worker whose apartment, clothes, and every existence have a sort of drab, DMV-esque color palette. You drag him around the screen and click on things to complete basic tasks like brushing his teeth, grabbing an umbrella before heading out the door, or pulling out his smartphone so he can stare at in an elevator. Much of Mosaic consists of intermittent snapshots of his work commute, where there’s a sense that something is wrong with the all-consuming corporate career and a passive society. Everyone seems to be fueling some mysterious machine here. At work, he sits at a computer clicking around some obscure, infernal contraption until he wakes up the next morning to begin again.
Bright colors mark the things outside this malaise: a butterfly, a bit of grass, a street performer, a goldfish that speaks and tags along in the breast pocket of the rumpled shirt draped over your bloated, TV dinner-fed body. The monotony, see, causes the protagonist’s mind to wander. He’ll imagine himself perpetually drowning, shrunken down to be crushed by the shoes of his co-workers, and fed into a machine to be squashed into a cube. With a striking low-detail look and fixed camera angles that create a backdrop of vast societal routine, where people on escalators crisscross in the background like spiderwebs, Mosaic’s imagery is often evocative. But it’s too often in service of such ludicrously trite material.
To some degree, what the game gets right is the feel of monotony. It presents the same apartment day after day, intentionally filled with the same tasks to perform. Eventually, perhaps, you just stop doing them. There’s no reason to tidy your hair when there’s no one around to impress, no reason to check the mail because the only people who care about you are the companies sending “overdue” notices, and no reason to even turn on the lights because you can see what you need to see just fine in the dark. So you stop, acclimating to a routine and streamlining wherever possible. It’s even a little sad.
Mosaic was originally released as an Apple Arcade game, and it feels strange outside that context, where it would otherwise be a functional, fleeting experience among so many others, a small diversion. The game seems tailor-made for that environment, not just because the PC controls are a little clumsy, but because its sleek aesthetics and simulation of banal, interconnected smartphone activities—a vapid clicker game, a Bitcoin-esque tracker, a heteronormative dating app where everyone looks the same—seem to directly critique the overpowering Apple ecosystem. But to consider Mosaic’s original context only makes it seem more toothless, as the game is a pretty, polite, and ultimately limp act of protest you can conveniently prod at between bouts of scrolling through social media feeds.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Raw Fury.
Developer: Krillbite Studios Publisher: Raw Fury Platform: PC Release Date: December 5, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, violence Buy: Game
Review: Shenmue 3 Brings Philosophical Depth to Video Game Action
The game fulfills a vision of steadfast humanity within the framework of a martial arts revenge tale.4.5
Today’s most popular video games don’t lack for comprehensive in-game instructions, waypoint-ridden maps, and streamlined actions, all of which can make players feel at ease and in control. Ignoring such conventions, Shenmue 3 often avoids explicit detail about its functions—one amusing line of combat tutorial text simply reads, “Just hit the [face] buttons”—and encourages the player to talk to individuals to get directions. This stripped-down approach recalls, to some extent, the way video games used to be made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the time period when the first two Shenmue entries graced the Sega Dreamcast. But it’s also representative of the artistic conviction of series creator Yu Suzuki, who uses deliberate pacing, down-to-earth character interactions, and mundane activities to fulfill a vision of steadfast humanity within the framework of a martial arts revenge tale.
Shenmue 3, which went through well more than a decade of planning and development, picks up where Shenmue 2 left off, with Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man hunting his father’s killer, joining forces with a Chinese woman named Shenhua Ling, whose own father is missing. In a departure from its predecessors, a large part of the game takes place in a rural area, specifically a Chinese village called Bailu. It’s there that Ryo and Shenhua learn how their fates are intertwined as they track down criminals responsible for attacks on the village.
It’s a straightforward setup, but it’s one that’s enriched by Suzuki’s unhurried style. As Ryo, the player very gradually visits every part of Bailu. A new section can only be accessed when the plot calls for it. In other games, this type of restraint on freedom of movement can be frustrating, but Suzuki’s laser-like focus on characterization and theme make the slow journey beautiful to undertake. Every aspect of the village is distinguished, from the settlement near a grove of sunflowers to the marketplace, and full of the most compellingly human-like NPCs since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The villagers vary significantly by age, appearance, and personality, and the most notable include Mao Yuefang, a middle-aged woman who can be generally helpful but makes inappropriate suggestions about and to Ryo and Shenhua; Jiang Ming, an old man who sits on a bench and comically misinterprets what Ryo says; and Shen Wei, a driven young woman who pours out thanks to anyone who will spar with her.
Like prior entries in the series, as well as the open-world games they’ve inspired, Shenmue 3 utilizes a day-night cycle. But whereas some developers seem to include this feature in their games just to fit under a particular umbrella of realism, Suzuki also sees the passage of time as the key ingredient for deeper relationships. Every night before Ryo sleeps, the player may initiate revealing conversations with Shenhua. The two can trade histories, remarking about the disciplinary styles of their fathers, their different childhood games, and the absence of their mothers. A flute melody, both wistful and utterly sincere, accompanies these talks, reflecting the scenes’ (and Suzuki’s) emotional maturity and unassuming B-movie sensibility.
Thematically, Shenmue 3 is fixated on the significance of patience and dignity, both in its mechanics and its story. Fighting as Ryo isn’t easy and can be quite awkward, so the game nudges the player to keep going to the dojo to build strength and technique through stances, timed attacks, and sparring. There’s a marked sense that Ryo feels shame when he loses a battle, as the people around him, including his opponents, will bluntly suggest he needs more discipline. In a rejection of popular video-game norms, Shenmue 3 doesn’t allow Ryo to barge into homes with closed front doors. It’s telling that Ryo refuses to even walk into Shenhua’s open room, and the game’s emphasis on respect is so great that when Ryo, in a moment of frustration, uses the mild profanity “hell,” you may find the moment genuinely surprising.
Just as Ryo is rewarded in the story for applying himself, your commitment to Shenmue 3’s mechanics over a period of time can bring greater appreciation for their design, as well as the philosophical relevance of those mechanics to the game’s narrative. In an understated masterstroke that prevents you from rushing through the game, Suzuki combines the protagonist’s health and stamina into one bar that can be refilled if Ryo eats. But food requires money, which means Ryo has to take work to get cash. One might sneer at the idea of having to split wood to subsist, but Suzuki turns the activity into its own spectacle of timing and judgment, with an upward-facing camera on the ground to emphasize Ryo’s crushing swings of the axe. An ode to the idea of careful diligence, this mini-game demands one to closely observe Ryo’s eyes so that the wood can be perfectly halved.
Anything Ryo does in Shenmue 3 entails hardship of a sort. In most 3D games of this vein, items can be grabbed with a quick touch of a button. In Shenmue 3, picking a plant requires a conscious change to first-person perspective before Ryo can be commanded to gather the resource. Clunky, perhaps, but in Suzuki’s hands, this layered action more effectively simulates the minor toil of having to bend down in real life in order to pick something up, further amplifying our perception of Ryo as a human being. Like the monks who urge Ryo to take his time developing his talents as a martial artist, Shenmue 3 asks a modern audience accustomed to instant gratification to contemplate the virtues of humbleness and persistence, regardless of whether Ryo’s task at hand is crucial or incidental to his ultimate quest for justice.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tinsley PR.
Developer: Ys Net Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 19, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence
Review: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Successfully Channels Dark Souls
Fallen Order is powerful in ways that Star Wars hasn’t been in video game form in over a decade.4
Just by virtue of being a single-player game, with no multiplayer, no online component, no microtransactions, and no planned DLC, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order feels like a relic from a more civilized age. The game hearkens back to the weird old days when former publisher LucasArts would just throw wild game concepts to the wall to see what sticks, often ending up with “It’s [blank] but with Star Wars” mash-ups of wildly varying quality.
In this case, the reductive elevator pitch is “Dark Souls but Star Wars.” And like most blatant Souls-likes, it’s fairly successful at aping the mechanics of FromSoftware’s titles. Death has consequences, and unless you can land a single strike against the enemy that kills you, your experience points are gone forever. Combat requires patience, and players must be smarter about how and when to strike at all times. Yet none of that is a surprise here. The surprise is that the game is often able to match up tonally with FromSoftware’s strongest efforts.
On the surface, Fallen Order is a glorified MacGuffin chase. The game takes place a few years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and our hero, Cal Kestis (Gotham and Shameless’s Cameron Monaghan) is a former Padawan who managed to escape the Empire during the Jedi Purge, cut off his connection to the Force, and now makes a quiet living stripping downed spaceships for parts. When Cal pops back on the Empire’s radar after using his powers to save a friend during a site accident, he’s picked up by Cere Junda (Debra Wilson), a former Jedi Master who’s also suppressed her connection to the Force for much more dire reasons, and Greez, an ornery pilot mostly looking to avoid some serious gambling debts by staying on the run. Cere tells Cal her plan to rebuild the Jedi Order with the help of an old artifact, called a holocron, which can locate Force-sensitive children across the galaxy.
It’s a relatively straightforward experience early on, with Cal slowly regaining basic Force proficiency, sneaking his way into grandiose temples across beautifully rendered, Empire-occupied alien planetscapes using feats of acrobatics, and solving large-scale physics puzzles akin to those in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. There’s more platforming involved, and developer Respawn’s endless, albeit welcome, obsession with wall-running has managed to wedge its way in here, but this is a game that has far more in common with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice than Titanfall. Landing blows requires a deliberate balance of parrying, relentless attacks at every opening, and careful utilizing the limited pool of Force powers.
That’s all rather tense and exciting when you’re fighting people and droids, less so against the various creatures of each planet, who excel at cheap hits and tend to attack in numbers. For much of its first third, it seems that Fallen Order might fall into an appreciable but basic rut of plotting and gameplay, and it’s right around that moment that the game narratively lowers the boom. The search for the holocron is, in fact, the weakest element in a much more intimate and melancholic tale of loss, and all the varying traumas that stem from it.
The Jedi Purge, which officially began with Order 66, has always been, essentially, the Star Wars universe’s thinly veiled Kristallnacht allegory, but no other piece of work in the franchise, not even the grim Revenge of the Sith, has ever delved as intensely as Fallen Order does into what living through such a thing does to a person. Exemplified by an outright bravado sequence where a frightened Cal and his Jedi master must escape execution when Order 66 is called in, it’s made obvious that all of Cal’s early swagger and Cere’s stiff-upper-lip determination reveal themselves to be Band-Aids over still-bleeding emotional wounds.
Survivor’s guilt plays a major factor in how this story plays out over time, with the plot holes inherent to the search for the holocron being addressed as both characters over-rely on the Force for protection, and have no choice but to confront their memories, their failures, and the consequences of their actions. The main villains—all former Jedi turned Sith Inquisitors through torture and intimidation—represent a true Dark Side, the anger and guilt turned outward. No one still alive to witness the Empire’s rise to power is drawn without a level of emotional damage, and it’s fascinating to watch that aspect of the narrative live side by side with gameplay that asks players to wield their power so carefully going forward.
All of those character elements are, however, dissonant with gameplay that does still rely on rewarding the death of one’s enemies. And unlike Dark Souls or Bloodborne, the world of this game doesn’t necessarily stand in judgment of the protagonists for their failures in that regard. But there’s still immense emotional gratification in watching each character rise above their failures, to come together with other broken people, to heal properly, to face the varied atrocities of the world and find a chosen family at the end of it all.
Fallen Order tries to have its cake and eat it too, giving players the power trip of the best lightsaber combat of this generation of games, while still delivering a deeply introspective journey of forgiveness and recovery along the way, and the twain don’t always meet. Still, that the game is even attempting to thematically go where it does is nigh commendable, and powerful in ways that Star Wars hasn’t been in video game form in over a decade.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.
Developer: Respawn Entertainment Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: Xbox One Release Date: November 15, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Violence Buy: Game
Review: Death Stranding Is a Surreal Elegy to the Work that Binds a Broken America
The most powerful statement the game winds up making is that work is worthwhile, even at the bitter end.4.5
“What does America mean to you?” It’s a question that comes somewhat late into Death Stranding, which spends its opening hours repeating that America is a fine place and worth fighting for. In context, it’s a question that emanates from a rather odd place, spoken as it is by a character, Fragile, who’s voiced by Léa Seydoux with her distinctive French lilt. And it’s asked of a man, Sam (Norman Reedus), who’s worshipped in much of the quote-unquote “real” America for his role in its most popular and unsubtly xenophobic television show on basic cable. Finally, it’s being asked in a game spearheaded by Hideo Kojima, that preeminent auteur game designer who will always come at such queries as an outsider. It’s a small, strange, and dissonant moment that would be off-putting and too on the nose if Death Stranding wasn’t a game that revels in strangeness and dissonance like absolutely nothing else in recent memory.
For this writer’s part, as a black man living in the America of the present, of all the complex thoughts I have about my country—good, bad, and indifferent—there’s one obvious and urgent image that instantly came to mind while playing Death Stranding: the moment, precisely three years before the day I loaded up the game, that Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States. It isn’t all the nauseating factors, psychosocial and otherwise, that played into the country’s decision that most sticks in my mind. It’s not even my wife’s midnight anxiety attack at the idea of what was to come. It’s the map, specifically CNN’s map of election results by district. It’s about how every major metropolitan area showed up as a deep vein of blue pockmarking a vast, sparse, but undeniable ocean of red. Especially for a black man raised in urban areas, whose blood pressure rises when he’s the only brown face in a room, let alone a town or state, that map was a manifestation of my deepest racial fears. When Fragile asks what America means, my recollection felt inevitable.
It’s with all that in mind that Death Stranding’s version of that map—all in futuristic, neon blue, dotted by white sparkles representing the last remnants of America—is the most frightening thing in the game. But the connective tissue of Death Stranding’s America was devastated by something much more bloodcurdling and coldly efficient than Trump. A dimensional cataclysm—the eponymous Death Stranding—has collided the land of the dead with the land of the living, demolishing the very physics of the world we know. The soil is rotten, the ground has gone black, the sun no longer provides warmth, and the rain ages and kills anything it touches.
Most chilling of all, the dead no longer move on, but become desperate, clawing ghouls whose attempts to reclaim their own flesh can cause atomic explosions called voidouts. Peoples’ main line of defense against them comes from stillborn and premature babies kept alive in pods only because they get fussy when an attack is imminent. Those people who remain alive have huddled into underground cities called Knots, with a few stray doomsday preppers and weird loners still trying to make it out there in the wasteland all on their own, across an American landscape that more closely resembles the alien marshes in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus than amber waves of grain. And it’s all brought to life with a photorealism unparalleled in the medium of games.
Death Stranding represents a rather powerful and unique display of apocalyptic world-building. And yet it’s hard not to get the vague sense of it as a convenient excuse for Kojima to not have to truly build or recognize an America resembling what it currently is, at least not in the way that a game like The Last of Us uses American iconography as its backdrop. But then, unlike most stories of its sort, Death Stranding isn’t really interested in the shorthand verisimilitude of America Without People than the damaged soul beneath. The cursed Earth between cities is truly cursed in this game, and Kojima and his band of developers have evoked rural America as a very real visual nightmare. This is a half-crazed tone poem about an isolated and hostile nation, clinging to concepts of what life means that should no longer matter in the wake of disaster.
To wit, it’s an appropriate, yet still bewildering, choice in the current gaming landscape that Death Stranding is, with all the subtextual flesh boiled off, a postal-service hiking simulator. You play as Sam, a taciturn delivery man, or porter, whose job it is to brave the wasteland on foot, carting supplies, communications, and creature comforts to and from cities and settlements. This is no Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture or Gone Home, though, and as breathtakingly detailed as everything in this game is, that detail is actively the enemy when it comes to the core gameplay. This is a game of constant, real-world concerns: How much can you carry while still being functional enough to walk miles across uneven, ragged terrain? How should you balance yourself? What supplies can you strap on? Will you be able to climb a steep cliff, or should you risk carrying a ladder?
All of those problems are just what players have to deal with in the best of conditions. When it’s less than ideal, the aforementioned rain problem can cause the packages you carry to rust and decay. The dead still float around waiting to take Sam under in chiral matter-heavy areas, and the game’s pedigree as the product of the Metal Gear Solid studio shows here in tense, effective little stretches where players must stealthily maneuver the territory of the dead, while overloaded with cargo, and avoiding the ghosts that scream for your flesh.
Death Stranding is built on complex systems designed to do the sort of simple things that are taken for granted in other games. Unlike something like Red Dead Redemption 2, however, those systems aren’t getting in the way of the action; they are the action. Death Stranding is less about creating a fun experience so much as a gratifying one, a meditative and repetitive proceeding where the satisfaction comes from finding ways to make the process more efficient. The game is never harder than in its first few hours, where Sam is essentially defenseless, and players have no idea how their next steps might affect their cargo.
The more Sam travels, the more he connects and opens up supply lines around the country, and the more comfortable the journey becomes. Scientists and engineers constantly work on ways to help Sam carry more, move faster, and defend himself against the dead. Death Stranding is also a game with a social contract. Taking it online allows players to build structures, leave helpful items, and pour collective resources into infrastructure allowing people to move safely and rapidly around the country. Even more than your average Civilization title, it’s easier here to notice and appreciate how many hands make for light work in America.
Still, if Sam being, essentially, a one-man FedEx wasn’t so deeply tied into the thematic structure of Death Stranding, the man who made his career on military stealth games making his magnum opus based around one-day delivery would feel like the ultimate troll, and it’s a known fact by now that Kojima isn’t above such a thing. But Death Stranding is also forcing players to truly think about the sheer logistical effort involved in a real-world task so commonplace and ubiquitous, something first-world people don’t do nearly often enough. Probably the closest Kojima truly gets to straight-up commentary is a tribe of NPCs made up of former postmen, put out of a job by automation, driven hostile and bitter as the human element of their jobs become suddenly relevant again and the government comes asking for their help. There are big deliveries that advance the story, of course: One city may need medicine and vaccines, while another may need experimental data about the dead things to maybe synthesize weapons. One of the biggest deliveries early on has you secretly delivering an extremely important corpse to an incinerator before it can cause a voidout.
It’s the smaller tasks that give Death Stranding its poignancy. The Stranding resets the hierarchy of needs for America in a hurry, and every delivery has a story—a history, a future, or an immediate deep-seated need. Sam’s journey brings him into contact with an America boiled down to its most basic desires, and they’re quite often heartbreakingly simplistic. It’s simultaneously depressing to posit that we’d need this enormous scale of loss to reach these moments of clarity, but there’s power in the simple human beauty of them.
But, of course, this is a Hideo Kojima game, as the credits are none too shy about reminding us. Dotted across Death Stranding’s every minute are the hallmarks of a director, writer, and designer who hasn’t met a wild urge he hasn’t moved heaven and Earth to indulge. This is, in execution, a game of dissociative identity, one that has a bleak, mournful, and spiritual allegory to tell, but also has a main character named Die-Hardman (Tommie Earl Jenkins) who wears a skull mask. Sam must drink branded Monster Energy to keep his stamina up. The entire story of Death Stranding is represented in his private room by a tiny diorama of army men. And every big-name director that Kojima admires has a role in the game. It’s absolutely corpulent with explanations, backstories, overlong cutscenes, and granular deep-dives into the science of it all. It’s hard not to stand in awe of the bravado involved in including all that ancillary material, but the game works perfectly fine without it.
As per usual, much of the optional reading material and winking references come across as endearingly nerdy, a sign of sheer passion and enthusiasm for these things than anything else. Much like Quentin Tarantino’s love of anachronistic film music and casting actors long past their heyday in major roles, Kojima has no interest in fully removing players from the mindset that Death Stranding is still a video game, despite couching its presentation in the entirety of cinema’s toolkit, including an impressive and singular collection of Hollywood faces from both sides of the camera in the cast. It’s a game that still includes space for fun and joy within that framework—there are several low-stakes tasks to take on, like delivering beer brewed by hops aged by the rain, and trips to meet comic-relief NPCs, among them Conan O’Brien’s otter cosplayer—and also like Tarantino, Kojima knows when it’s time to put away childish things to lampshade the mood.
But perhaps the most important question that ultimately matters here is what exactly does America mean to Kojima? Death Stranding has no interest in trying to replicate an American viewpoint on the end of America. His is inescapably a Japanese perspective on the matter, a point that becomes more and more blatant as the game’s true plot starts to resemble End of Evangelion more than a Cormac McCarthy novel. The America that Sam treks across is more of an abstract watercolor painting than a photograph, and throughout, Kojima draws on America’s fury. He has minor characters voice the idea that the government screwed it all up, that men need to provide for their families, the foreigners and the robots took our jobs, we lost it all because we lost Jesus, and so on and so forth. He draws on its infinite need for progress, that science is necessary, that marginalized populations matter, and may yet save us, as long as we empower everyone to succeed, without exception.
There are tiny, impactful allegories strewn all over the place in the game, particularly in a running plotline involving a former soldier, Cliff (Mads Mikkelsen), who’s forced to relive every American war in the afterlife. But Kojima’s interest in the minutiae of these things is small, something most egregious in his continued inability to write women outside of staid archetypes. But to his credit, the main female characters here are more nuanced and fascinating than usual for him—something no doubt hammered home by featuring massive talents like Lindsay Wagner, Léa Seydoux, and Margaret Qualley so prominently. But it’s still apparently difficult for Kojima to conceive of women having the same range of involvement in the fabric of America as men, and that weakness is more and more noticeable as the game starts to circle in on its ultimate thesis.
That thesis, as one might expect, is the idea that Americans have more that connects than divides them, which might ring alarm bells about the game possibly being a “both sides” narrative at the worst time in history for that mindset to be valid. But this isn’t a story willing to let everyone off that easily. Despite its problems, Death Stranding is ultimately a game about toil. (There’s a famous Scottish quote about working as if you live in the early days of a better nation that comes to mind here.) This is a game that values your work. It respects the people that each tiny sparkling dot on that cursed map represents, the need of those people to connect with others to survive, and the fact that that space between matters as well. It posits life as crucial and ultimately in service to other life, whether we want to be indebted to others or not. For all of Death Stranding’s surrealness, the most powerful statement it winds up making is that this work is worthwhile, even at the bitter end.
This game was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer.
Developer: Kojima Productions Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 8, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Strong Language Buy: Game