Unlike the majority of today’s popular long-running shōnen anime and manga series, Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece has, by and large, escaped widespread negative criticism. This is primarily due to its one-of-a-kind art style and sly subversion of overused action-adventure tropes that continue to devalue the likes of Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto and Tite Kubo’s Bleach. However, when it comes to One Piece’s video-game adaptations, the results have been far less satisfactory (think Dragon Ball Z, only worse). Following the disastrous One Piece: Pirate Warriors and its 2013 sequel, One Piece: Romance Dawn is the latest attempt to bring an interactive One Piece experience stateside, porting a 2012 PSP title to the Nintendo 3DS. Grievously, on all fronts, developer Three Rings refuses to do any sort of meaningful updating to the product, presenting an aesthetically revolting, monotonous, franchise-forsaking endeavor that should have Oda-sensei throwing a temper tantrum in response.
Even before delving into young, straw hat-wearing buccaneer Monkey D. Luffy’s quest to become the Pirate King, Romance Dawn fails in its visual interpretation of the source material, implementing lusterless dialogue boxes and elongated waves of text combined with square character portraits to tell the story. Without any voice acting, trudging one’s way through the loose translations of major plot points from Oda’s works quickly becomes a test of self-discipline; dozing off may be a common side effect of playing Romance Dawn, a game so uniformly lifeless that it bares scant tonal resemblance to the high-energy antics on display in many a One Piece chapter adorning the pages of Weekly Shōnen Jump.
Describing the game’s battles and stock dungeon-crawling sections as mundane is an act of tremendous generosity; Three Rings seems to believe that slapping on a no-frills, copycat RPG structure to a cherished property is enough to satiate the appetites of fans. Everything here, from the hackneyed AP-based attack and XP-gain procedures to the lazy application of abilities and collectables, is sophomoric in design and execution. Artificial intelligence is also a massive annoyance, as CPU opponents don’t appear to be penalized for the same battlefield blunders that players are, avoiding turn-ending consequences because of boundary-crossing support maneuvers. So many aspects are tacked on that’s it’s difficult to keep a running tally, like the dull item crafting and skill-expansion systems, which are woefully short-sighted in their efficiency, offering very few instances of genuine character enhancement.
If nothing else, Three Rings could have put in the extra man hours to salvage Romance Dawn from the germinating trash heap of poorly actualized One Piece games by at least paying tribute to Oda’s spirited creation. Yet, since they abstain from doing so, apparently with almost every fiber of their being, they’ve put forth a product so systematically undercooked as to make even the most unflappable One Piece zealots question their faithfulness.
Developer: Three Rings Publisher: Namco Bandai Platform: Nintendo 3DS Release Date: February 11, 2014 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Cartoon Violence, Mild Language, Partial Nudity, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco 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
Review: Need for Speed Heat Revs Up with Ridiculous Action but Real Stakes
To the game’s credit, the police presence on the track feels less like a hook than a genuine menace.3.5
Racing games benefit from a hook, and police interference has always filled that role for the Need for Speed series. And to the credit of Need for Speed Heat, the police presence on the track finally feels less like a hook than a genuine menace. That presence is baked so deeply into the game’s atmosphere that even when the cops aren’t actively in pursuit, you can still sense them, sometimes literally so, as in the way the borders of your nighttime route pulse with the electric red-and-blue glow of a police siren.
Here, too, the force of the law is both intense and immediate. Indeed, there’s nothing game-y about the way the very first mission in Heat ends with your initial player character, Joe, quitting racing entirely after a crew of over-empowered police officers nearly kill him. Sure, this is what opens the door for your nameless, customizable character to take his place—his loss is your gain—but the moment is a good reminder that your gains are easily lost.
In a nod to the way the series once allowed players to swap between cops and racers, Heat allows your character to experience two versions of Palm City, a fictionalized version of Miami. By day, you’ll drive professional organized races, earning bank without fear of reprisal from the police. And by night, you’ll race on the underground circuit to earn street rep, which serves to unlock new missions, races, and upgrades. The longer you race at night, the higher your heat level rises, but the harder it becomes to escape the police. The race may end when you cross the finish line, but the cops will keep deploying cars, choppers, spike traps, armored Rhino SUVs, and more at you until you’ve either shaken their pursuit and returned to a safehouse or you’ve been busted, which breaks your heat multiplier and takes a hefty percentage of your money. Need for Speed Payback may have been set in a fictionalized Las Vegas, but Heat’s nighttime racing, especially the high heat variants of each course, are actual gambles.
Progression through Heat, particularly under the hood, is also much improved over Ghost Games’s last few titles in the Need for Speed series. You’ll still be grinding out cash and reputation in individual events, but unless you keep losing all your money to the police, the various circuit races, off-road rallies, online time trials, and drift duels provide more than enough variety to keep your vehicle tuned up. There’s also more room for customization, as every vehicle lands somewhere on a matrix of race/drift and on-road/off-road performance, and you can swap out tires, suspension, and gears until you find a fit that works for your playstyle. You can even earn cars and parts by gathering collectibles across the game’s 18 districts, which not only gives players more of a reason to roam free across urban streets, industrial docks, a mountainous observatory, an abandoned spaceport, and a skidding swampland, but makes equipment feel earned as opposed to simply bought.
Of course, some of these more realistic touches feel a bit at odds with the game’s over-the-top arcade racing and all the goofy physics that come along with it. However high the stakes may be, they’re tempered by the knowledge that if you slam into a truck head first at 150 miles an hour, that’ll only slow you down for a few seconds. You can technically damage your car enough that you get busted, but so long as you don’t cross that threshold, driving off a cliff remains one of the most effective ways to evade the police. The AI also blatantly cheats, and while that’s expected in a racing game, it’s infuriating to watch the cops spawn reinforcements out of the blue. Then again, the way in which Heat accurately represents police as an unfair, often unfun, and sometimes frustrating force may just be its most impressive feature.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.
Developer: Ghost Games Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 8, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence, Language Buy: Game
Review: Luigi’s Mansion 3 Is a Blast of Slapstick Hilarity and Cooperative Play
Luigi might be luckless, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with across this, the most variety-rich Luigi’s Mansion game to date.4
Poor, hapless Luigi. While his heroic mascot brother goes on interplanetary adventures and builds entire worlds, Luigi is trapped in dusty old buildings exorcising aggressive spirits. It’s been nearly two decades since Luigi’s Mansion dropped on the GameCube and he still can’t catch a break: In Luigi’s Mansion 3, a vacation away from the Mushroom Kingdom to a seemingly glamorous hotel goes south when Mario and his friends are kidnapped from their beds by King Boo and imprisoned in portraits, leaving Luigi to rescue them with the help of mad scientist E. Gadd and his spectral dog, Polterpup.
As in prior entries in the Luigi’s Mansion series, the core gameplay here is very much indebted to Ghostbusters: Luigi is kitted out with E. Gadd’s supernatural vacuum cleaner called a Poltergust that neutralizes and sucks up ghosts and also destroys most of the environment. It’s a thrill to smash up rooms and suck up items throughout the haunted hotel, and in no small part because the mayhem that Luigi causes across the campaign as his Poltergust feasts upon loose paper, bedsheets, furniture, and ghosts alike is rendered in vivid detail.
No less satisfying is the game’s gentle subversion of standard video-game power fantasies through its focus on its protagonist’s feelings of inferiority as he explores the hotel, moving from floor to floor to banish the spirits and find his missing kin. Luigi, afraid of his own shadow, slowly walks on his tippy toes, scared to look around corners, stammering sadly to himself over his unlucky state of affairs. But he cuts an almost mean image whenever he busts out his tricked-out vacuum cleaner, stunning enemies with a flashlight before trapping them.
At first glance, the game’s stationary camera angle, though consistent with previous titles in the series, feels old hat. But this turns out to be an effective artistic choice, as it evokes early horror classics like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, where fixed camera angles allowed the developers to rely on cinematic framing in order to create the sort of meaning and atmosphere that would be impossible if the player had control of the camera. Mainly, the stationary camera paves the way for the deployment of jump scares, where enemies materialize suddenly into view from the sides of the frame, further disempowering Luigi. Luigi’s Mansion 3 freely indulges in these types of scares, albeit in a family-friendly manner. After all, the game is primarily a comedy where the slapstick humor is at the expense of Luigi being frightened.
Luigi’s Mansion 3’s most notable upgrade to the series formula is the introduction of Gooigi, an ectoplasmic clone of Luigi that emerges from his backpack. Throughout the campaign, the player gets to switch between controlling Gooigi, who’s extremely weak to water but can move through grates and small spaces to access new areas and engage in light puzzle solving. Gooigi is also a great introduction to cooperative play in the game, though this isn’t the only multiplayer component here, as there’s also a Mario-Party-lite mode called “ScreamPark” and a fully-fledged four-player online mode called “Scarescraper,” which has four Luigis co-operating to complete unique tasks across the hotel on a strict timer. These modes stand on their own, separate from the main game, by offering unique spins on the franchise’s mechanics, either by pitting players against each other as Nintendo characters in the haunted setting or by having them, respectively, work together in frantic co-operative challenges.
The further Luigi explores the hotel, the stranger the setting becomes and the more weirdly creative the ghosts get, with trickier puzzles and bosses requiring extra steps to take down. Fortunately, the game never becomes overly difficult like Luigi’s Manion: Dark Moon, and it features frequent checkpointing, thus ensuring that you won’t be redoing too much of a level following an untimely death. By its conclusion, Luigi’s Mansion 3 has well and truly deviated from the chateau settings of past games in the series, with the upper floors of the hotel getting especially weird. (Why would a hotel contain, of all things, a castle?) But even as the game delights in bizarre wonders the likes of which the series has never seen before, it never loses sight of either its core theme—of the underdog overcoming adversity—or its enjoyable vacuum-powered comedy of destruction. Luigi might be luckless, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with across this, the most variety-rich Luigi’s Mansion game to date.
Developer: Next Level Games Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game
Review: The Outer Worlds Sticks It to the Man at the Expense of Humanity
The game is so zany and so mired in its traditional progression systems that it ceases to say anything of note.3
In space, everyone can hear you spend. Walk up to any of the vending machines run by the corporations ruling the Halcyon star system at the center of The Outer Worlds and their jingle will play; for one, the Walmart brand equivalent with the moon-headed mascot chirps, “It’s not the best choice, it’s Spacer’s Choice!” Unlike their recent old-school computer RPGs, Obsidian’s latest game builds from their sterling work on Fallout: New Vegas, which added a messier set of choices and a stronger sense of place to Bethesda’s initial blueprint. A similar skewed sense of humor is on display here, with the Fallout Vault Boy mascot now an equally meme-able moon man and the setting no longer a nuclear wasteland but a capitalism-ravaged outer space where colonizing corporations own your ass so thoroughly that suicide is considered “damage to company property.” Next of kin gets stuck with the fine.
The first-person scavenging mechanics of those latter Fallout games are also present here. Throughout The Outer Worlds, you roam planets, moons, and asteroids, opening every container and picking up every object highlighted in blue to either sell later or scrap for parts to repair your equipment. You gradually acquire better guns and better skills, and you’re compensated in money and experience points for labor on story quests, killing hostile creatures, and discovering new locations. Experience is doled out for finding, say, a set of ruins or a bandit camp, but most importantly, you get it for finding more stores, more vending machines, and more places to spend cash and sell hoarded junk.
Of course, most role-playing games work this way; the sense of progression keeps you pressing forward, and it’s why so many other genres of video games long ago adopted the superficial siren call of a climbing progress bar. But such mechanics sit awkwardly next to the anti-capitalist caricatures of The Outer Worlds, where the primary antagonist is a company collective called The Board. The way to progress here is by essentially climbing the corporate ladder, indulging in the consumerist need for more stuff. Happy with your laser gun? You won’t be once you see the damage numbers on the new model—Plasma Carbine 2.0 makes the original Plasma Carbine look like last year’s iPhone! There are upgrades to find and money to spend to make yourself a better, stronger, faster engine of corporate dismantlement, though you can choose to be a corporate stooge, too, because games of this sort are all about options.
Throughout, the game’s mechanics are satisfying in a compulsive sort of way: Items make a pleasing thud as you stuff them into your inventory, and the guns chatter violently as bullets and lasers fly through the air and toward their targets. But the normal difficulty mode becomes quite easy under such a comedically huge deluge of content and consumption; enemy encounters grow trivial, and you’re so inundated with junk that the game becomes more about managing a useless pile of consumables and an arsenal with a limited shelf life. There’s even a button to helpfully break down the umpteenth outmoded pistol in the umpteenth locker so it can at least be useful as spare parts. The biggest challenge here is, it seems, learning to not grab every single object in a room, because while it may feel good to pick up that temporary stat-boosting box of tarmac and cheese, you don’t really need it. (You have five already, damn it, and an inventory limit to think about.) Better to leave the empty space for something really shiny. What if, for example, there’s a Plasma Carbine 3.0?
On some level, Obsidian has succeeded at rendering a hellscape of vapid consumerism through the mechanics of the Bethesda scavenge ‘em up, but the game’s anti-corporate ideals clash with how the only way to move forward is to indulge in all the excesses of that hellscape. Being swept up in that system has no adverse effects on you, after all, because you’re special. People are worked to the bone under the boot of capitalism, then buried in a hole as long as they’ve paid their graveyard admission fee, but not you, because you’re a climber. You get the big life-and-death choices, such as the ability to decide whether to ally with the insidious Board or the revolutionaries who say all the right things but inevitably hide some dirty secret. As the player character, you’re the portrait of exceptionalism, a CEO-in-waiting, a person infused with the divine right to step on the little people. You seize the means of production and then, most importantly, collect the cash and the experience points for doing so. It’s revolution for people who think cooperating within the system is the only way to affect change.
Which isn’t to say that The Outer Worlds is ineffective or unfulfilling as a role-playing game, as it’s often a pleasure to bask in its sly writing and dense world-building, in occasionally talking your way out of conflicts rather than blasting your way through them. But it’s tiresome to watch the game continuously dance, and with such a mercilessly wacky tone, on the edge of some self-aware revelation about its own mechanics that never comes.
The best storylines here actually step away from the overt satirical skewering of corporations, building your companions into richer characters than any of the dull quest-givers that inhabit the rest of the game. It’s only in those storylines that The Outer Worlds slows down long enough for someone to express a human feeling. Simply spending time with members of your party, like the vicar who’s done prison time or the excitable engineer who has an adorable crush, feels far more meaningful than any of the ostensibly massive decisions that put the lives of anonymous colonists into the hands of the all-important player. The people whose lives you alter are relegated to hapless bystanders when they’re not the butt of jokes for being face-deep in the corporate Kool-Aid. The game is so zany and so mired in its traditional progression systems that it ceases to say anything of note. The human stakes too often buckle beneath its comedic broadness, feeling as remote as corporate overseers in their ivory towers.
Developer: Obsidian Entertainment Publisher: Private Division Platform: PC Release Date: October 25, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game
Review: Overwatch’s Switch Port Is Great on the Go but Not at Home
On the Nintendo system, the game will fare its absolute best with the uninitiated.3
There are no surprises in Overwatch on the Switch, at least not for anyone who’s played enough ported games on the system, or played enough of Overwatch on any other one. Beyond the inherent benefit of the Switch letting you take the game just about anywhere, the only major change is the addition of gyroscopic controls, which work better as an augment for precision shooting rather than a default way of looking around the game world. Veterans will be able to simply pick the game up and go to town, but those are also the players most likely to be aggravated by all the ways that this port feels so inferior.
On the Switch, Overwatch will fare its absolute best with the uninitiated. This impeccably crafted game has always been tailor-made to be immensely accessible and friendly to those who don’t normally cotton to multiplayer FPS titles, and Overwatch comes to the Nintendo system as a complete experience, with 30 characters and all the tweaks and adjustments the game has seen in the past three years. It’s even launching right in the middle of the current Halloween-focused special event, which is probably confusing as hell for anyone coming into the game completely blind, but it’s at least a prime opportunity to see one of the, honestly, infrequent moments where Overwatch uses its mechanics to break from formula.
That formula is, generally, that of a team-objective game that has two teams of six attempting to either capture specific control points on a map or escort a payload from one end of that map to the other. There’s nothing terribly innovative to that approach on the surface, but the beauty of the game is in the details. Overwatch is, above all else, a game about superheroes from all over the world coming together to work toward a common goal and, in so many ways, its strength is in its diversity. Indeed, from a strictly mechanical standpoint, there’s very little overlap in how each of its 30 characters operate, to the point that handling each one will make you feel like you’re playing a completely different game every time.
Soldier 76 is the archetypical assault rifle-wielding entry-level shooter avatar, but you also have more intricate characters like Sombra, a Mexican hacker who can render herself invisible, as well as hack and disable an enemy’s special abilities. There are also oddities like the super-intelligent hamster who drives a cybernetic hamster ball into battle, and can latch onto surfaces to swing himself around like a wrecking ball. Even for those who don’t do well with killing and precision in these types of games, there’s a whole range of ways to support your team without ever needing to fire a gun. That diversity is equally reflected in the excellent, and eye-catching, character designs, and to the point where it’s honestly baffling that Marvel didn’t go to someone with this concept first, using its most famous characters to fill a roster.
There’s not much story that actually happens during the course of day-to-day gameplay, but the expanded story material is out there and freely accessible in various other media. Think of it as a sort of Watchmen-lite tableau of superheroes being made illegal and rallying to action once the world goes sufficiently to hell. But that’s still a fairly empty framework, given that we don’t actually see our heroes do a whole lot of fighting against injustice.
Despite the extensive amounts of mid-match chatter delivered by the characters, as well as between them, there’s nothing you can do in-game to the same level of heroism as, say, saving civilians, stopping a natural disaster, using a public platform to show support for people living in a civil rights crisis, risking your livelihood to stand up against an unjust employer, or not being afraid of the financial blowback of upholding the values of the country in which you reside. Here, there’s only the option to work with others to move payloads or capture points—all in exchange for cosmetic loot boxes and the self-satisfaction of victory. And in regard to those loot boxes, thanks to outcry early in its life, Overwatch is fairly generous with them before you need to break out your wallet, though the game still wouldn’t mind if you did.
That emptiness doesn’t necessarily preclude Overwatch from being an absolutely engrossing experience in the moment, and as much work as has been done by the game’s developers at Blizzard Entertainment to make its 30 disparate experiences mesh in the field, equally tough and admirable effort has been devoted to squeezing it all onto the Switch. Nonetheless, while everything great about the game is still on display here, it’s all been pared down on the technical side: 60fps knocked down to 30, fewer environmental details, mild but frequent performance hitches, and so on. This version of Overwatch may be the only one you can take with you on the go, but it’s definitely not the best version you can play at home.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Blizzard Entertainment.
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment Publisher: Activision Platform: Switch Release Date: October 15, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Use of Tobacco, Violence Buy: Game
Review: Disco Elysium Is a Shrewd Whodunit and Marvel of Open-Ended Design
The game offers one of the most fascinating, unique, and fulfilling portrayals of the human mind.4.5
The first dialogue exchange that occurs in Disco Elysium isn’t between you and another person, but with yourself. More specifically, it’s with “Ancient Reptilian Brain,” which speaks in a husky, swaggering snarl in an attempt to lure you back to the depths of being blackout drunk. Eventually, your limbic system chimes in. Even after you open your eyes to find an amnesiac old detective with a ghastly fashion sense staring in the mirror, you never stop talking to yourself in Disco Elysium. This is an extremely insular game, devoting as it does vast amounts of text to your internal thoughts, and in doing so it offers one of the most fascinating, unique, and fulfilling portrayals of the human mind.
On the surface, playing the game seems traditional enough. It’s presented as a top-down role-playing game where you wander around the city of Revachol and, on its outskirts, a snowy coast with a ramshackle fishing village and an abandoned church. You, the detective, are in town to solve a murder as well as (hopefully) the mystery of whatever prompted you to go on a catastrophic bender, which blasted all memory of everything and everyone from your brain (dialogue options include asking about things like the concept of money). As in a pen-and-paper RPG, the detective’s various skills are measured against certain actions; for one, a high Endurance gives a better percent chance of not vomiting at the scent of a rotting corpse.
And the skills have voices, too, that nudge into your conversations and internal thoughts. They’re always bouncing around in your head, some skills louder and more trustworthy than others, to offer commentary and observations or even give advice; a high enough Empathy skill means you pick up on facial expressions and infer emotions, which can then inform your dialogue choices in a conversation. The Authority skill helps boss people around but also demands petty displays of fealty and respect for your occupation, while the Inland Empire skill dispenses nonsensical feelings and hunches that tend to make sense down the line: “Love killed me,” says a decomposing corpse if you pass the Inland Empire stat check to carry on a conversation with it, and hours later, further investigation reveals it to technically be true.
Playing Disco Elysium feels like having an angel and a devil on your shoulders, only you’re not sure which one is which and there’s so many of them that you don’t have nearly enough shoulders to contain them all. Maybe they’re all devils. Perhaps inevitably, the game’s pace can lag as you sort through various thought processes. There’s no traditional combat system, and much time will be taken up by simply carrying on conversations or going through actions like procuring a necktie from a ceiling fan. Things frequently spiral out of control as conversations devolve into a hilarious soup of skills screaming at you alongside a list of dialogue choices you’d rather not say—barring, perhaps, a lone thought that may go something like, “These are all ridiculous, and I don’t want to say any of them.”
The player character is an abject disaster of a human being, a man who has essentially melted his personality into primordial ooze only to have it unceremoniously cobbled back together in some vague shape of a person. Part of the fun here is failing certain skill checks, or the sense of just skirting by based on some absurd hunch. And the type of disaster you play is open to multiple interpretations. For one, apologizing to everyone for drunken behavior might label you as the dreaded Sorry Cop, one of many equippable thoughts that provide additional effects or increase skills. And sorting out the Communism thought and equipping it will provide bonus experience points when choosing left-wing dialogue options.
Of course, you don’t have to be Communist, nor do you need to be sorry all the time. The game is a marvel of open-ended design, where one set of skills might net a wholly different outcome or provide additional context. The system of skill checks and dialogue choices is always branching off in different directions, and it never feels like you’re missing opportunities so much as forging a new path; a character built around physicality, for example, may traipse through entirely different dialogue options and actions than one made to visually dissect crime scenes. Rather than some jack-of-all-trades route that lets you be the boss of everything, there’s instead an ever-unfolding series of alternate routes and methods of expression.
Disco Elysium feels almost futuristic in its design, eschewing so many of the typical story and design hang-ups of video games. It’s a bold, ambitious work that’s stripped of world-ending conflicts, while taking place on a dense yet relatively small map. Despite all the different pathways and the 30-hour playtime, it’s content with interpersonal relationships, moments of shared history and pain rather than scores of bodies left in your wake. The characters are as memorable as they are varied, from your put-upon but encouraging partner, Kim Kitsuragi, to a mysterious person known only as “the Pigs,” to the 12-year-old drug-dealing hellion throwing rocks at the corpse outside the hotel where you sleep.
Disco Elysium’s tone is relentlessly sardonic, as a reflection of its setting and the characters who inhabit it. The game is snide about everyone and everything, and sometimes it can feel aimlessly unpleasant, as in the aforementioned child whose vocabulary seems mainly devoted to (censored) homophobic slurs. But when everything clicks, it makes for an odd combination of sadness, beauty, and humor. The places you visit in Revachol are still torn apart by a long-past war, ravaged until there’s nothing left. The ideologies have fallen away and there are only disaffected people scrambling through the ruins of a society reticent to commit to anything anymore. It’s a desolate maelstrom where you learn, slowly, to exist again among people and their flaws, searching for mutual understanding with voices outside your own head.
The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Dead Good PR.
Developer: ZA/UM Publisher: ZA/UM Platform: PC Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Game