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Review: In Blair Witch, There’s No Greater Horror than That of the Glitch

Not only does the game cheapen the idea that a dog is man’s best friend, it also falls apart like a cheap chew toy.

2

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Blair Witch
Photo: Bloober Team

Many a video game has capitalized on our connection to dogs, though few have grappled with the complexity of that relationship. From Secret of Evermore to Fallout to Call of Duty: Ghosts, the loyal canine typically exists in the world of games to sniff out hidden items and attack their owners’ enemies. Blair Witch tries to break from the ranks of such titles by foregrounding the needs of a German Shepherd named Bullet, who requires regular attention from his master, Ellis, and keeps the former cop from going insane during a rescue mission in the woods. The potential for the player to feel a unique kinship with Bullet is certainly there, but the pooch too often functions as nothing more than a tutorial-like guide—and that’s assuming one of the many technical flaws that plague Blair Witch don’t get in the way of him doing the bare minimum of leading you through the game.

Like Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project, the game centers around a mysterious force haunting the Black Hills Forest. Developer Bloober Team introduces the psychologically unstable Ellis, a man dedicated to his search for a child, Peter, who disappeared in the woods. In flashbacks, we catch a glimpse of Ellis raging against his girlfriend when she seeks his attention and love. As such, when he disregards the orders of those in his search party due to his obsession with finding the lost boy, one senses that he’s trying to redeem himself for past failures. At the very least, there’s more emotional intrigue hiding behind the game’s premise than there was behind the 1999 film.

Ellis’s backstory, though provocative on the surface, isn’t particularly enriched by the man’s interactions with his trusty canine sidekick. Through an abrupt pop-up message, Blair Witch announces that the status of Ellis’s fragile psyche is linked to how close he stays to Bullet as you scan the woods for clues about Peter’s disappearance. You’re also informed that if you don’t consistently pet Bullet, something unfortunate might happen. So, pet you shall, with each touch activating a generic mini cutscene of Ellis rubbing Bullet that, at times, is preceded by a seconds-long glitch, thus giving the false impression that Ellis is hesitating to reach out to the dog. Indeed, the prescribed, awkward nature of the petting sequences fails to establish any sense of an authentic bond between human and animal.

Ellis and Bullet also seem emotionally disconnected from one another as a result of the latter’s mechanical function. If the player doesn’t know where to go, Bullet can be called to go on a search for items that can put him on Peter’s trail. For much of the game, you simply follow Bullet like you would a tutorial arrow. Unlike the pet-like griffin Trico from 2016’s The Last Guardian, the dog’s behavior is simply a convenience. Trico’s scattershot obedience—as when, by design, the griffin becomes perturbed by a foe and fails to pay attention to the player’s commands—made it appear like a genuine living thing in video-game form, whereas Bullet suggests little more than a computer program that helps one complete tasks.

That contrivance is only magnified by a variety of technical issues that undermine the game’s ability to immerse players in its atmospheric woodland setting, much less in the relationship between Ellis and Bullet. During my experience with Blair Witch, Bullet once glitched out of one part of a chapter in which he was supposed to be present—as was subsequently confirmed by a reloading of the chapter. Even when important characters don’t inexplicably vanish into thin air, the game’s framerate is rarely consistent, no matter what the scene is or what graphical setting you select. But the biggest problem here is the possibility of a game-ending crash, which occurred multiple times during my playthrough, effectively cordoning off a significant portion of the story. Which is to say that not only does Blair Witch cheapen the idea that a dog is man’s best friend, it also falls apart like a cheap chew toy.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by ONE PR Studio.

Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Bloober Team Platform: PC Release Date: August 30, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: With Gears 5, the Quintessential Dudebro Shooter Series Grows Up

Gears 5 is the first time the series has made the brutality of its combat feel captivating and disturbingly intimate.

4

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Gears 5
Photo: Xbox Game Studios

While it’s not as drastic a reinvention as 2018’s God of War, the latest title in the Gears of War series is a striking course correction. Actually, it’s just Gears now, thank you very much, and with this new streamlined name also comes quite a few other signifiers of refinement and maturity. That feels like a Herculean feat considering how gleefully dumb Gears of War has always been. There’s still a little bit of that lunkheaded so-called charm in Gears 5, what with the campaign centered around hulking, armored Marines using their chainsaw guns to slice snarling lizard men in half, but it’s a game clearly made by people who’ve done some soul-searching, and actively looked for ways to break that certain toxicity that the games in this series have been enslaved to since the beginning

Right from the start, Gears 5 makes a concerted effort to open the series up to all, with new options like Boot Camp set up to teach players not just how to play the game, but offer a long-overdue rudimentary and forgiving primer on basic shooter-game strategy. It’s an appreciable effort on Vancouver-based developer the Coalition’s part to bridge the ever-increasing gap between those who want to play Gears 5 as a hobby and those approaching it as a job. You go from there to the campaign, which eases players in with a “Previously on Gears of War…” montage straight out of a primetime-TV drama. That leads into a couple of breezy, familiar hours strolling through fiery civilian war zones as J.D. Fenix, previous series protagonist Marcus Fenix’s cocky son. But this isn’t actually his story. Things take a dark turn when J.D. makes a tactical error that, in one of the game’s more harrowing sequences, costs innocent lives, and after a time jump, we take control of the game’s true protagonist, Kait Diaz.

We follow Kait, played with incredible depth of character by the always exceptional Laura Bailey, as she heads out into an expanse of frozen tundra looking for answers to the questions raised by Gears 4’s cliffhanger ending. The road to those answers has some effective, haunting twists and turns. Beyond Kait’s own problems as a soldier suffering from severe—and quite believable—PTSD, the search unearths some abominable truths about the wars that the titular Gears have been fighting for so long. And this doesn’t just concern the one against the Locust, but the past wars only vaguely touched upon in previous games in the series. The journey ends up being a grisly tableau of military atrocities, attempted genocides, abuses of power, Geneva Convention violations, and just plain old broken trusts and bitter betrayals. Surprisingly, no matter how much it undercuts the “oorah” bravado of the previous games as being a show of empty jingoism, the game’s recounting of these stories never flinches.

Fundamentally, though, this is still Gears of War, and the paramilitary darkness at the heart of this game is well balanced against the baser joys of making a Swarm head explode, and with a well-timed quip capping the carnage. And yet, the sense of Gears trying to grow up is pervasive, as evinced by the surprise reveal of two major chunks of the game which are semi-open world, traversable via land skiff. It’s akin to the wide open stretch of Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. There’s not as much to do here as there is in, say, your average Ubisoft title, and it’s honestly a bit of a relief. Gears 5 is a case of quality over quantity, and the side missions actually have the sense of urgency so many open-world titles lack outside of their main plots.

Across Gears 5, the gameplay feels far more cohesive and gratifying than it ever has in a Gears of War title. Swarm enemies remain strong, but they never feel like exceedingly boring bullet sponges, and there’s intelligence and cunning behind most enemy placements and strategies. Fortunately, you also have a new toy to play with: Jack, an intuitive floating robot companion who essentially acts as a one-stop shop for the game’s best new combat ideas. Jack is at once a spare healer, armorer, puzzle-solving mechanic, and guerilla fighter toolkit, offering a unique and intuitive range of new mechanics that finally put players on equal footing with the Locust/Swarm’s bag of technological tricks, instead of constantly at their mercy.

Anyone looking to go back to feeling woefully underprepared and outmatched at every turn, however, can find solace in the multiplayer, where always-enjoyable mainstays like Versus and Horde modes are joined by Escape, a sort of Gears take on Left 4 Dead. It sounds like a good idea in theory, but the tender loving care that obviously went into making the game’s campaign feel like a situation under your team’s control gives way to a stinginess of resources that makes most Escape matches feel like the worst examples of survival/crafting games.

Escape stands out in particular because of just how much work has gone into making Gears 5 otherwise accessible. The Gears of War series has been broken of its worst habit: trying to put up the front of being better or harder or more stoic than the rest, allowing the deeper implications of its lore to come to the forefront. Despite dropping “of War” from its title, Gears 5 is the first time the series has made the brutality of its combat feel not only bloody and cathartic, but also captivating and disturbingly intimate on a human level. The quintessential dudebro shooter has evolved with the times, and the world is so much better for it.

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

Developer: The Coalition Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Platform: Xbox One ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Telling Lies, for Better and Worse, Lets You Choose Your Own Interpretation

Without a sense of feedback or progress, the rambling, leisurely narrative of Telling Lies comes across as unfocused.

3

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Telling Lies
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

As a game, Telling Lies is an exercise in frustration, an objectiveless search through over 200 nonlinear full-motion videos that span a period of 15 months. But as an interactive narrative experience, a collection of intimate, slice-of-life moments in the vein of Steven Soderbergh’s Mosaic, game designer Sam Barlow’s latest is an impressive and defiant act of literal storytelling, a sort of choose-your-own-interpretation.

At the heart of Telling Lies is a mock operating system that’s running a program called Castle, which operates a bit like the logic-based OS from Barlow’s previous game, Her Story: Type in a word or phrase, and in return you get the first five videos, chronologically speaking. After five or so hours, you unlock an option to have the mysterious protagonist you’re controlling, who you can see reflected in the monitor at all times, do a WikiLeaks-like upload of all the footage viewed to date, and doing so triggers the game’s anticlimactic ending.

Whereas you view short clips throughout Her Story, Telling Lies, which is more than four times as long, has you view entire scenes, some nearly 10 minutes. Moreover, given that these scenes are only ever from a single camera at a time, hearing both sides of a long-distance Skype-like conversation doubles the time spent with each scene, assuming that you listen closely enough for the context clues in one side of the conversation that will let you search for and access the other side. Putting together these moments provides short-term investigatory goals, stymied only slightly by the refusal to let a player jump to the start of a video clip, forcing you to manually, agonizingly slowly rewind the footage from their search term.

More impressive in scope than Her Story, which played out over a few weeks and was driven by the format of a police interview, Telling Lies follows, over the course of 15 months, the various interactions that a man, David (Logan Marshall-Green), has with three women: Emma (Kerry Bishé), Max (Angela Sarafyan), and Ava (Alexandra Shipp). Players journey down a particular rabbit hole of search terms and videos depending on which moments interest them most. That may be the dramatic detailing of a murder, an espionage effort, or a planned act of eco-terrorism, or it could be video of a father bonding with his sleepy daughter over a loose tooth, a mother attempting to cope with her absent husband and overbearing momma, or a couple falling in love. The game doesn’t treat any of these moments—the majority of which are impeccably, naturally acted—as red herrings, and doesn’t judge you for how you take them in: as a voyeur, a family-drama junkie, or a political hacktivist looking for dirt on the government.

And yet, Telling Lies feels as if it’s missing a crucial element of gamification to unify these discrete threads, something of the way in which Tim Follin’s Contradiction or Rockstar Games’s L.A. Noire task players with carefully watching a person’s body language in order to suss out a lie and proceed through the game. Here, you can too easily accidentally stumble upon key bits of plot while searching single words as benign as, say, “deserve.” In the absence of goals, the post-game profile that summarizes what you found, how you found it, and what that says about your interests, almost comes across as the results of a BuzzFeed quiz.

Without a sense of feedback or progress, the rambling, leisurely narrative of Telling Lies comes across as unfocused. The game’s structure risks the most rewarding parallels between characters or connections between scenes being missed by players who simply never stumble upon them. Depending on your path through Telling Lies, the subtext of any given moment may lay fallow; for one, David’s two tellings of the story of Rumpelstiltskin to his daughter, eight months apart, could rightly be dismissed as 17 minutes’ worth of throwaway bedtime stories. Obfuscation is fine, up to a point, but when you don’t even know that you’re missing a needle, you’re just searching through a haystack for its own sake.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Sam Barlow, Furious Bee Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: August 23, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey Shows Players an Obtuse Age

Our ancestors didn’t have it easy, and that’s the for-better-and-worse message reverberating through every interaction in the game.

2.5

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Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey
Photo: Private Division

Our ancestors didn’t have it easy. That’s the for-better-and-worse message reverberating through every interaction in Ancestors: The Humankind Odyssey. From a design perspective, the first title from the Montreal-based Panache Digital Games brilliantly shows you firsthand, again and again, just how frustrating, difficult, and deadly life was for our hominid brethren some 10 million years ago in Africa. But everything that was frustrating, difficult, and deadly back then is what drags down the gameplay, which so rigidly commits to unevolved mechanics that Ancestors is often just a slog to experience.

Even on the easiest difficulty setting, death is permanent, and you can’t create multiple save slots. This feels especially punishing given how reliant the game is on trial and error, and how frequently those errors lead to death. In the game’s early hours, as you attempt to navigate your hominid from a third-person perspective through the perilous jungle, you’re likely to freeze during a chilling rain, bleed out after a saber-tooth tiger or eagle attack, starve, or, most embarrassingly, die of thirst or exhaustion because Ancestors doesn’t tell you how to drink water or sleep. This is a game that insists on obfuscation, and it isn’t shy about bragging about it. “We won’t help you much,” it declares in the introduction to its campaign.

Over time, you’ll come to realize that you can use your senses—sight, sound, and smell—to scan for objects, animals, and foods. This scanning of the game’s surroundings allows the player to separate things into two categories—things you’ve seen before, and things you haven’t—and the meat of the game is converting the latter into the former. And as Ancestors progress, players will also need to alter objects, either making them into tools that can then be combined with other items or into Minecraft-like stacks that can then be built on.

These initial discoveries can be exhilarating, but they’re also kind of arbitrary. If you time an alteration properly, you can strip the leaves off a frond, leaving you the stem, which you can use to interact with a beehive. But that’s the only tool you can use to gather honey; you can’t just plunge your hand into a hive, beestings be damned, or use a stick, even though it looks identical to a stem. Elsewhere, you can build a sleeping area by stacking leaves on top of one another, but this action isn’t made available to you until you’ve stacked five leaves in a pile.

When you successfully groom a fellow hominid, rhythmically plucking parasites out of its fur, a meter tells you that you’re bonding with it. But no such indication is given for stacking objects, or banging rocks together, which may leave you to maddeningly wonder if you just need to try something a sixth time, or maybe a seventh, or if Ancestors secretly requires you to sharpen that stick with a different tool. The game’s simple iconography goads you, suggesting that there’s another use for, say, a coconut, but damned if the folks at Panache Digital are going to hint at what you’re doing wrong each time you try to open it.

All of these frustrating elements are at least justifiable given the specific circumstances that Ancestors is emulating. (There were definitely no walkthroughs 10 million years ago.) But the game also artificially gates players, punishing you for knowing too much. There are no shortcuts for teaching your hominid things that you’ve already learned in a failed campaign, and even when you progress in the game by breeding children and choosing to advancing to the next generation, you can’t pass on all of your hard-won genetic abilities. You’ll have to relearn things the long way, such as scanning objects one by one until you’re at last able to unlock Form Recognition, which lets you identify multiple objects at once. Since you need to advance generations in order to bank your evolutionary experience, it feels as if Ancestors is constantly punishing your progression, pushing you back to the basic hook of looking, smelling, and hearing things in the environment and scanning every object.

What feels novel for a few hours of your first playthrough grows onerous with each new generation. You may not need to spend millions of years in real-time evolving your ancestors, but that doesn’t make Ancestors feel any less like an era’s worth of repetition.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tara Bruno PR.

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Review: Astral Chain Vibrantly Super-Charges the Same Old, Same Old

If you ask if something is possible for you or your Legion to do in Astral Chain, most of the time, the answer is yes.

4

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Astral chain

Platinum Games’s Astral Chain takes place in a post-apocalyptic future where much of the Earth is unlivable, and where what remains of humanity has huddled together inside a single megacity, the Ark. Which isn’t to say that life inside the Ark is safe, now that its citizens are being abducted or killed by interdimensional monstrosities called the Chimera. Which is where the city’s police force comes in. Its new sector, Neuron, seeks to combat the problem, and with a secret weapon that tethers police officers to a powerful half-breed Chimera known as Legion, harnessing each other’s powers and standing up against their common enemy. Throughout the game, you play as twin siblings—only one selectable and customizable at the outset—who seem to have a special connection with the Legion, and who’ve been reassigned to Neuron to help their police captain father fight the Chimera.

On paper, there’s complexity to be mined out of that premise, and the game’s world is striking enough to deserve it. Especially of note is the nightmare realm the Chimera call home, a dominion of shifting landscapes and foreboding architecture. In execution, though, Astral Chain’s narrative and design are rather juvenile. That’s to be expected considering how much of the game’s tone and aesthetic is informed by modern anime, particularly evident in the characters and secondary missions outside of the main plot. Still, it’s a genial and generally good-natured derivativeness, and the story isn’t without its occasional surprises and affecting character beats. Ironically, the weakest part of the game is the plot, which amounts to fairly typical “I will create the ultimate being” nonsense that isn’t connected to the characters in any meaningful way. It also doesn’t help that whichever version of the protagonist you choose is silenced for the rest of the game while the NPC sibling gets all the best dialogue.

Once you’re out in the field, however, things are decidedly less simple. Where NieR Automata went out of its way to delineate its styles of play throughout, Astral Chain is a wildly ambitious shotgun blast of concepts centered around the idea of having a companion constantly tethered to the player. Platinum’s deceptively simple button-masher mechanics are inextricably tied to the Legions, as the vicious biomechanical beasts are literally fused to your right arm. Combat and traversal require a sort of mental rewiring on the player’s part, because you have to think of yourself not as one person, but two, and work in synergy to do absolutely anything of note. Doing the most damage involves hitting a specific QTE prompt to command your Legion to get involved in the action. Obstacles may force you to yank yourself around corners where your Legion is waiting. The most unruly enemies will require being bound by the titular chain, with both your characters circling or clotheslining an attacker.

This isn’t the first game to try out something like this; most notably, Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons laid out a dual narrative using a single controller with subtle craftsmanship. Combat and traversal in Astral Chain dance astonishingly hand in hand, but it’s a dance that the Switch’s Joy-Cons can barely contain, and often don’t. Fighting with your Legion is fluid enough, though a few of the secondary attacks for each Legion type—which you will need to execute on the fly during heavy fighting—require you to stop, stand still, take aim and slash/fire. The Switch’s controls are highly versatile, and the gyro sensors picking up a bit of slack with the aiming helps, but there’s limits to that versatility before it becomes straight-up clumsy.

Still, any one of your powers with the Legions would be enough to anchor an entire game, and there’s literally dozens of them at your command that come into play in and out of combat. Much of your time outside of fighting is spent doing honest-to-god detective work, gathering clues, talking to citizens, and making conclusions, using most of those same mechanics to solve cases. A hellhound Legion can sniff out a perp’s trail, and a Legion with massive arms can punch blocks to complete puzzles. Your analysis computer can access a police database to figure out someone’s age on the fly, or figure out if they’re lying. There are so many different styles of play and ways you can utilize the tools at your disposal, it’s a miracle that the game doesn’t collapse under its own weight. And yet, each of Astral Chain’s mechanics adheres to the guiding principle for many of the Switch’s best exclusives: If you ask if something is possible for you or your Legion to do in Astral Chain, most of the time, the answer is yes.

On its surface, Astral Chain feels like a regression back to the same old same old of lightning-fast chaotic combat and anime tropes. But that’s just a small aspect of a game that’s trying and largely succeeding at doing so much more. Astral Chain’s narrative is straightforward, but it’s one that’s enriched by alluring character moments. Early on, you’ll find yourself flailing and button-mashing everything around you, until you’ve figured out how to integrate your Legion into your routine. And if the game’s platforming feels obvious at first, the tricky discovery of a shortcut—a power-up, maybe even the best way to escape some of your larger enemies—will change your mind. Once Astral Chain moves past its opening, a literal anime intro complete with electronic J-pop theme song, it reveals that the powerful creativity that gave birth to NieR Automata is still alive and running rampant at Platinum Games.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Golin.

Developer: Platinum Games Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Drug Reference, Language, Use of Alcholol, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan Is a Fun, If Slight, Party Toy

One hopes Man of Medan will function similarly to a mediocre TV pilot for a series that only later finds its footing.

2.5

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The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan
Photo: Supermassive Games

Working from the interactive, choose-your-own-horror-movie framework of 2015’s Until Dawn, Supermassive’s latest game opts for something smaller and shorter, as well as more easily replayed. The Dark Pictures Anthology: Man of Medan is framed through a man known only as the Curator (Pip Torrens), who’s seen walking through a hallway of moving pictures, a kind of spooky version of the Eyewitness educational series, before coming to rest in his library and pulling one book from the shelf. Man of Medan is meant to be the first of several such short stories, though it gets The Dark Pictures off to a choppy start.

The game’s setup—a group of young divers are kidnapped by pirates and taken aboard a wrecked World War II-era vessel—is an excuse for players to steer multiple characters through a creepy place loaded with jump scares. And despite some irritatingly stiff character movement in many tight corridors, Man of Medan is otherwise adept at dreaming up a miniature house—or ship, as it were—of horrors. With severed heads dropping from out of nowhere and mottled gray hands withdrawing from the foreground to a particularly jolting soundtrack cue, Man of Medan is very much in the mode of “fun” horror.

Graham Reznick and Larry Fessenden’s dialogue is hardly either of the two’s best work, though the filmmakers supply appropriately cheesy, if forgettable, lines to augment an atmosphere that might make you jump or hold your breath but is certainly never meant to be overpowering with real dread. The tone works to keep things entertaining, though a late reveal torpedoes much of the tension even as it invites you to change the way you interact with the game.

The formal multiplayer component is perhaps the best example of Man of Medan’s rather light ambitions; after assigning characters to different players, you take turns passing the controller around when prompted to explore an environment and complete quick-time events. The story will change, with some characters even dying outright depending on which rooms you enter, what choices you make, and whether you miss certain button presses. There are also options to go through the story alone or in online co-op, where another person concurrently plays through separate scenes as other characters for an outcome ultimately shaped by both players.

Man of Medan, though, is more functional than it is particularly clever about implementing different play styles and branching story paths. The intro feels especially slow in a social setting where other people are waiting their turn, and the game’s reliance on reading documents in small font to learn the ship’s backstory doesn’t feel totally suited for communal play. Other problems are more general interface foibles. For one, while the game is quite short and notes pivotal decisions as “bearings” in the pause menu, there’s no easy way to experience different story permutations short of playing through the whole thing again, unskippable cutscenes and all. Likewise, a screen listing character traits and relationships seems to imply that the way everyone behaves toward one another may change certain outcomes, but how (or even if) this takes place is so poorly conveyed that the screen feels totally arcane despite near-constant notifications that traits or relationships have been updated.

If Supermassive’s latest lays out a respectable template for future horror dramas, it hardly impresses with its execution. Anthologies are often inconsistent in quality, and where The Dark Pictures and its post-credits sequel tease are concerned, one hopes Man of Medan will function similarly to a mediocre TV pilot for a series that only later finds its footing.

This game was reviewed using a retail copy provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Supermassive Games Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 30, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: Control Serves Up Mind-Bending Thrills and Institutional Critique

The game is as much a thrilling paean to human curiosity as it is a warning of its numerous casualties.

4.5

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Control
Photo: 505 Games

The Federal Bureau of Control is officially unofficial, the kind of place that’s sanctioned and funded yet kept top secret. It has the flags, portraits, and other mainstays of banal government office life spread beneath stark fluorescent lights, except the bureau is headquartered within the Oldest House, an interdimensional construct of shapeshifting brutalist architecture. Few outsiders visit the clandestine FBC, and it can’t rely on help from other organizations if, say, a malevolent force runs rampant by warping its layout, possessing its employees, and releasing all manner of threats previously penned within a metaphysical prison. Such is the state of affairs that confronts players in Remedy’s Control, a third-person shooter with one of the strangest, most fascinating settings in the history of the genre.

In FBC parlance, “paranatural” is when our typical perception of reality has been altered by some extradimensional entity or the collective human unconscious. The bureau’s agents are sent out by its scientists in order to contain such events and bring back evidence for further study. It’s an almost ludicrously broad umbrella able to encompass all manner of strange phenomena, and the developers at Remedy Entertainment use it to let their imaginations run truly wild within the FBC’s confines. There’s an anchor that ominously floats in a gray abyss, an imprisoned refrigerator that must be constantly observed to quell its anger, and the telekinetic arsenal of Jesse Faden (Courtney Hope), a newcomer to the bureau. She arrives on the scene only to find the place locked down and in the middle of an extradimensional invasion, overrun by a strange force in the air that she names after its telltale noise: the Hiss.

The former bureau director, Zachariah Trench (Max Payne’s James McCaffrey), is dead, and by claiming his shapeshifting paranatural service weapon, Jesse becomes the de facto head of the FBC, newly in charge of the survivors and the search for a solution to the calamity. The various portraits of Trench hanging on the wall immediately morph into ones of Jesse, and from there, the game mixes the rhythm of Remedy’s other shooters—where characters have both strange powers and a lot of guns—with Metroid-esque exploration elements. New abilities and new keycards let her travel deeper into the strangest corners of the bureau, all of which are infested by Hiss-possessed FBC agents or other rampaging paranatural phenomena, like a wayward flying television or multicolored mold that mutates anyone who ingests it.

The boundless imagination of the bureau’s design is perhaps Remedy’s crowning achievement to date. Each of the FBC’s backdrops feels purposeful, all of them labeled and strewn with accompanying materials and documents that make as much sense as an interdimensional government agency possibly could. Rather than a bunch of laboratories filled with random test tubes and such, you find the remains of specific paranatural experiments; the department experimenting with the concept of luck, for one, is littered with horseshoes and four-leaf clovers and Japanese beckoning cat figurines to test their effect on a roulette table that, upon an unlucky spin, keeps making the fire extinguishers explode. One office has been sealed off to contain an epidemic of multiplying sticky notes, and a mysterious janitor keeps sending you after a disgusting behemoth he calls the Clog; other areas require Jesse to pull a light cord three times for transport to a mysterious empty motel that connects certain Bureau corridors.

The whole place runs on decades-old technology, because anything that’s too new tends to break or even explode upon entering the Oldest House (one document that Jesse discovers theorizes that the accelerated pace of technology prevents newer materials from shoring up a spot in our collective memories). Videos are shown on old projectors, while conversations or recordings from a late-night radio show about the supernatural are heard from reel-to-reel players. The official documents that you find lying around—with some of their details, naturally, blacked out—are across-the-board captivating for the breadth of stories they tell, informing the history of different objects around the bureau as though you’re piecing together tangential story threads that took place long before Jesse’s arrival.

The sheer detail of the game’s setting provides a stunning backdrop for its frenzied battles, because rather than seem like specifically designed gunfight locales, you fight off the Hiss in rooms and labs and offices with discernable functions. And in the ensuing violence, those functions are totally upended, lost in the explosions and telekinetic chaos wrought by the bureau’s myopic need to probe the forces of the unknown. Throughout Control, papers and desks are sent flying as battles leave the unmistakable marks of your passage, the lucky golden fish used in a probability experiment now ammunition against a Hiss gunner. The game encourages you to be constantly on the move; staying in one place for too long allows the Hiss to focus their fire or blow up your cover, and health can only be recovered by running over to enemies for the blue droplets that fall out of them upon death.

These fights don’t always go smoothly, not least of which because the framerate on a base PS4 tends to sag under the weight of all the explosions and flying debris. The health system, particularly when combined with some questionable checkpoints and long load times, can grow exasperating as the game piles on more variables for you to pay attention to, from airborne foes to invisible ones to whatever attack might knock out most of your health bar. But between such bouts of frustration, the battles are a deeply satisfying struggle of strategy plucked from chaos, as when you grab hold of some flying debris, levitate to circumvent enemy cover, and then telekinetically launch it at a cluster of exploding Hiss mutants.

And though Jesse’s journey might seem like a rote Chosen One arc, the game complicates matters purely through context. With so much detail in its writing and environmental design, Control provides a palpable sense of history, a feeling that the FBC functioned long before Jesse and might just as easily continue to do so without her presence. Here, it legitimately feels like Jesse has arrived at a place in the midst of something far larger than her, rather than, as in most video games, a space specifically tailored to her, her abilities, and her antagonists. Together with a faint metatextual awareness of tackling a sort of Chosen One scenario, Control becomes an alternately absurd, frightening, and hilarious critique of power and hubris, aided by the hard-boiled, paranoid ramblings of former director Trench on a paranatural hotline phone and the amateurish video presentations of the excitable Dr. Casper Darling (Alan Wake’s Matthew Porretta, who’s filmed in live-action segments).

While the game is clearly enamored with the bizarre wonders scattered around the FBC, it questions the institutions’s attempts at control at every turn by leaning into government sterility. The whole place, especially when ravaged by so much death and destruction, is a ridiculous juxtaposition of bureaucratic banality and the seemingly unknowable; indeed, no one here seems to truly comprehend the paranatural phenomena, but they certainly understand that everybody ought to file things alphabetically and work in cubicles and hang a flag on the wall, even when their potential annihilation sits in a closet just a few rooms over. With its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink imagination, Control is as much a thrilling paean to human curiosity as it is a warning of its numerous casualties.

This game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Remedy Entertainment Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 27, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Remnant: From the Ashes Mistakes the New for the Noteworthy

Even when the game isn’t actively shooting itself in the foot, it never entirely succeeds.

2

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Remnant: From the Ashes
Photo: Perfect World Entertainment

There’s a lot of deadwood, literal and figurative, in Remnant: From the Ashes. The literal kind stems from the plot, which tasks you with sending tree-like creatures known as the Root back into the dimension they were inadvertently, experimentally summoned from. And the figurative kind is just about everything else that stands in the way of this action shooter’s gameplay: three-player co-op with no means of communicating with your teammates; enemies that spawn directly over a downed teammate, keeping you from reviving them; and an as-yet unpatched glitch that may outright prevent you from seeing the ending.

Even when Remnant isn’t actively shooting itself in the foot, it never entirely succeeds. Melee combat exists but never feels viable against the many foes that fly, explode, or have status-afflicting auras. Because co-op unfairly increases the difficulty when a partner’s gear level is higher than your own, you’re better off tackling each region solo. And while bosses drop unique weapons, like black-hole generators and poison darts, or spell-like mods, such as summonable floating skulls and corrosion blasts, their appearances are randomized for each campaign, which makes getting what you want somewhat of a crapshoot.

When Remnant is considered in its approach, it’s compelling. Over the course of the game, you’ll unlock dozens of traits to upgrade, allowing you to customize your build far beyond the standard choice of hit points or stamina. You’ll face bosses in bespoke arenas, like Singe, a fire dragon that resides near an abandoned gas station, making the pools of oil on the ground especially hazardous, or the insectine Ixillis XV and XVI, who flutter about you as you attempt to cross a precariously narrow bridge, forcing you to make perfectly timed dodges. You’ll also travel to several diverse worlds, each with their own cultural nuances that you can suss out through too-rare scraps of lore and brief encounters with queens, rebels, and the undying.

All of this bright kindling is buried under the dross of a so-called “infinite adventure,” in which each playthrough generates different areas and bosses. But the developers at Gunfire Games mistake “new” for “noteworthy.” It’s true that no two sewers on apocalyptic Earth or caverns on swampy Corsus are identical, but it’s also true that there’s nothing to do in those dungeons. These superficially different regions are just semi-randomized pit stops between bosses. Occasionally you’ll stumble upon a variant—a pan-flute chime puzzle in the jungle world of Yaesha, a timed machine temple dungeon on desert Rhom—but for the most part, all that remains of Remnant are generic corridors and waves of foes.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications.

Developer: Gunfire Games Publisher: Perfect World Entertainment Platform: PC ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Violence

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Review: The Apocalyptic Roguelike RAD Is More Fun in Name Than in Action

The more often you get stuck with the same items and abilities, the more redundant and shallow the game feels.

2.5

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RAD
Photo: Bandai Namco

Did you know that “rad” is not just ‘80s slang for “cool” but a unit of measurement for radiation? The developers at Double Fine aren’t the first to make that connection, but they’re certainly the first to use it as the raison d’être for a video game. Right out the gate, the studio’s top-down roguelike RAD feels half-cooked and reverse-engineered from the title’s double meaning, in that every one of its aesthetic choices can be traced back to the ‘80s, and regardless of whether they make sense within the context of a story set after not one, but two apocalypses. Throughout, you’ll encounter magical keytars, a cult known as the Cathode Raiders that’s dedicated to old-fashioned televisions, and no shortage of classic arcade cabinets that you can’t interact with. Indeed, while playing RAD, you may find yourself wondering why a character wears a bicycle helmet in a world where bikes no longer exist, or why cassette tapes are used as currency and floppy disks as loot-unlocking keys.

None of the game’s stylistic trappings inform the overall plot, which pertains to your chosen protagonist—one of eight baseball-bat wielding teens that all handle the same—being sent into the irradiated Fallow. If anything, they’re at odds with the game’s use of advanced technology, like the transference gates that warp you between levels, or the Power Nexus that you’ve been sent to fix. After a while, you get the sense that the game’s world is broken up into a series of floating islands connected by underground tunnels only because Double Fine thought that might be, well, rad. And because nothing here takes on a deeper meaning, the game’s core exploration is a joyless chore. Why bother scrounging for monuments whose revelations aren’t of great consequence? (About the Hollow Forest, the second of its three zones, RAD says only that it was “full of life, but it was the scary, bitey sort of life.”)

The game, which lends itself to much punnery, at least keeps its ‘80s paraphernalia out of the path of its fast-paced run-and-gun mechanics. Throughout, you’ll have to slay toxically transformed wildlife—like the maullusk, the slamphibian, even your fallen former “muteen” friends—and absorb their radiation in the process. Gain enough of that radiation from foes, items, and mechanical contraptions scattered across each freshly generated map and your body will begin to mutate as it randomly acquires active (Exo) and passive (Endo) abilities.

Your head, arm, and body each get a slot for an Exo mutation, and as you continue to progress through the game, soaking up rads, you’ll start looking like a child’s three-paneled match-up book, where each pane has been flipped to create a new animal hybrid. This aspect of the game isn’t only aesthetically and mechanically whole, but also an utter riot to control. The diversity of your mutations is RAD at its most interesting. On one playthrough, maybe you’ll spit poisonous venom from your cobra head, throw your barbed armarang at foes, and safely burrow into the ground with your dungeness crab body. On another, you might be a completely different chimera, with your mind-controlling brain visibly atop your skull, a literal firearm (that is, a flaming arm that belches fire), and a horse’s fast-charging body.

As far as roguelikes go, the rest of RAD is disappointingly generic. There’s a main hub that slowly grows between runs, assuming you dutifully deposit tapes into ATMs, make purchases from the local shopkeep, and help Billy (the goat, natch) tend his farm. Additionally, the overall score from each run causes new items, artifacts, weapons, characters, and “quirks” (or difficulty modifiers) to spawn. But however diverse these new abilities might be, there are only three worlds in which to use them: the desert-themed highways of the Cracked Lands, the neon-verdant biome of the Hollow Forest, and the cybernetic region that is the Devoured Expanse. You’ll be visiting the same places and fighting the same foes with only the occasional change in weather to break up the tedium, and new content doesn’t unlock nearly fast enough. Per the game’s D&D-style composition notebook (the “Tome of the Ancients”), eight hours of play was enough to reveal 97% of the enemies, but only 33% of the mutations, and not a single one of the powerful combo abilities that the loading screens alluded to.

The more often you get stuck with the same items and abilities, the more redundant and shallow RAD comes to feel. And that sense is exacerbated after you conquer the game’s final boss. It’s then that your presented with a princess-is-in-another-castle-like tease: that you’ve only revealed the first of nine endings. Which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if each new run didn’t feel as if you were trapped in repeat mode. To put it in lingo that the cast of RAD might understand: The increasing normalization of each playthrough is totally bogus.

Developer: Double Fine Publisher: Bandai Namco Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 20, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Language, Mild Blood Buy: Game

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Review: In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, Morality and Tactics Walk Hand in Hand

Fire Emblem attains an especially epic, moral grandeur with this game’s focus on the interplay between education and religion.

4.5

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Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Photo: Nintendo

With Fire Emblem: Three Houses, a series known for its extravagant tales of power-grabbing attains an especially epic, moral grandeur with its focus on the interplay between education and religion. As Byleth, a sword-wielding professor on the continent of Fódlan, you must teach one of three groups of students about the art of war, all in the name of serving the Church of Seiros. Depending on which class of youngsters you choose to lead (the Black Eagles, the Blue Lions, or the Golden Deer), the game’s narrative, heroes, and villains change significantly. The meticulously constructed story, throughout which old friends wind up crossing blades, underlines the heartbreak that results from those who feel oppressed by the power of priests being at odds with those who can’t live without faith. In the end, the two sides develop respect for each other, but that doesn’t stop the spilling of blood.

Three Houses is far from the first Fire Emblem title to grapple with the influence of religion on the world. Just two years ago, the remake Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia showcased a clash between two distinct religions that complicated the link between lovers Alm and Celica. But an emphasis on education, both in its story and gameplay, separates Three Houses from every title in the series that’s been released in the United States. The students’ melee and magical abilities in combat are affected by how the player manages educational and training goals. The most powerful types of warriors can only be produced if you identify and grow the proper skills, making Three Houses as much about preparation as action.

This system amplifies the story’s drama. Viewing the proceedings of the game as a teacher who wants to help students succeed, you might feel regret upon seeing past classmates fight to the death. And when Byleth is forced to dispatch former students, it’s hard to derive much satisfaction from a well-executed military tactic. Few strategy RPGs are as self-critical as Three Houses. If you happen to choose a side that promotes the Church of Seiros, the story rarely gives one the sense that the church is justified in using soldiers to suppress rebellions. Similarly, the game’s atheistic movement subscribes to a dubious morality, as the non-religious decry the brutality of the church as they carry out their own brand of domination against those who disagree with their worldview. Three Houses recognizes that war, no matter the reason for it, isn’t about heroism but dreams of a better future after the violence ceases.

The turn-based fights in Three Houses take inspiration from Shadows of Valentia, avoiding the series’s well-known sword-axe-lance triangle system and instituting a time-travel mechanic that allows the player to rewind turns a limited number of times. The game further distinguishes itself with gigantic maps and a high number of enemies, both of which can make certain isolated skirmishes feel like dungeon-crawling expeditions. The larger levels reinforce the idea that you’re playing Fire Emblem with the highest of stakes. The final two battles, which can take multiple hours to win given the incessant wave of projectiles hurled at your troops from afar, more than confirm this notion. Because stages often feature surprise attacks and multiple pathways to reach enemy commanders, one’s strategic placement of individual characters on the tile-based battlefield—whether to absorb damage, block the trajectories of foes, or set up battalion attacks—has never been more critical in a Fire Emblem title.

The game’s audiovisuals are another high for the series. Not only is the animation extremely smooth, but unlike previous Fire Emblem entries in which only major cast members are spotlighted during battle, numerous infantry sprites fight alongside higher-ranking soldiers when the camera zooms in on the violence, further underscoring the more sprawling nature of Three Houses. But it’s the audio that’s the heart and soul of this game. The soundtrack morphs to reflect the emotional context of the narrative, as when the game’s main theme at the school transforms after Byleth’s father dies, with the soft and pleading piano and the ephemeral violins capturing the vulnerability and emptiness, respectively, that plague those who mourn. The shards of dialogue that are heard in battle, whether braggadocious (“See you in the eternal flames”) or existential (“I will not die here”), make up a moving and often hilarious tapestry of characters trying to find their way through bloodshed.

The work of one voice actor in particular, Chris Hackney (who plays Dimitri of the Blue Lions), epitomizes the ultimate theme of Three Houses. Dimitri, the son of a murdered king, initially seems like a well-meaning, well-put-together noble of the church who wants everyone to get along despite his participation in killings. But events cause him to reach a breaking point, and it’s at this juncture where Hackney’s genius comes into full bloom as he injects a distinctive type of campy despair and anger into Dimitri’s voice. The apoplectic evolution of Dimitri is a tragicomical take on how people hide their demons in trying to appear holier than others. That Three Houses can deliver such a powerful, simple statement about humanity, within an elongated structure that would weigh down the messages of other games, is extraordinary.

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

Developer: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: July 26, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Metal Wolf Chaos XD Plays Like a Vicious Indictment of Our Present

The game isn’t really supposed to be about anything, yet in that ambiguity it captures the specific madness of our present.

3.5

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Metal Wolf Chaos XD
Photo: Devolver Digital

Up until the release of this remaster, the 2004 video game Metal Wolf Chaos was a bizarre curio: not just for being a rare Japan-only exclusive for the Xbox (a console that’s decidedly unpopular in the country), but for having a concept that howls for an overseas release. After all, you play Michael Wilson, the 47th president of the United States, who pilots his personal presidential mech against the treacherous vice president and his military forces. As satire goes, the game’s concept is heightened to astronomical levels, so ludicrously broad that it cannot possibly land with any real impact. And yet over a decade later, as the game’s president engages in that distinctly American method of problem solving by shooting the absolute fuck out of everything, it lands with a sickening thud.

Though various cutscenes and in-mission dialogue allude to things like a propaganda news network and fossil fuel exhaustion, it’s difficult to call any specific part of the game an incisive critique of the United States, because there are no real specifics. Japanese developer From Software operates in a strictly cartoonish mode throughout. At one point, a journalist from news network DNN reports that “not even the Constitution” is a match for the evil of the terrorist president and his mech, Metal Wolf. No person in the game presents a coherent ideology, to the point where that’s the joke; there are no beliefs in the America of Metal Wolf Chaos so much as a collection of nebulous buzzwords, where Wilson bloviates about “following [his] own justice” and “the America that lives on in [his] heart.” Even the CNN-like logo for DNN sits in front of two rotating circles that simply repeat the words “freedom” and “justice.” These are politics as conceptualized by a fourth grader dozing off in social studies.

In an era where the country is ruled by a rambling, incoherent cretin, however, it’s this exact vagueness that’s so cutting about the game’s satire. Each day provides further proof that specifics don’t really matter to many of our politicians, who do little more than invoke the siren call of uncritical patriotism to win over people who want only to be assured that everything is all right. To debate means to parrot rehearsed talking points, to discuss mass shooting is to pivot to video game violence, and to address human rights violations is to get bogged down in the pure semantics of what to call a concentration camp. Metal Wolf Chaos isn’t really supposed to be about anything, yet in that ambiguity it captures the specific madness of our present, the vacuous anti-intellectualism that cultivates an atmosphere of complacency and inaction where nothing may be done except to offer thoughts and prayers.

The game’s surrealism is enhanced by its stilted presentation, with strangely phrased lines delivered by robotic voice actors. Prisoners of war, who are housed in cages scattered throughout each level, are broken up into the inexplicable categories of CITIZEN, SCIENTIST, and MUSICIAN. After-mission epilogues display text over an image of the Lincoln Memorial, their dramatic prose constantly threatening to turn purple: Resistance fighters have “alabaster souls,” and one character laments how “all of America and its freedoms were paved over by the thick, oppressive asphalt of tyranny.” From the dialogue’s constant stream of terrible jokes—“I’ll smash them faster than a Florida recount”—to the way the menu music’s repetitive guitar rock slowly devolves into an unlistenable squeal, Metal Wolf Chaos is often an absurdist masterstroke, a work that might fit neatly into a Tim and Eric sketch or a game by SWERY. It’s at once the clear result of an outsider’s teasing perception of American culture and some collective hallucination manifested by the country’s rotting, idiot soul.

Yet couched as it is in gun violence, there’s little thrill of having one’s views validated when playing Metal Wolf Chaos in the wake of multiple mass shootings. By dropping the president into a mech, the game reveals itself as a statement on the country’s worship of guns and violent intervention writ large, where the ultimate “good guy with a gun” rampages through the streets, unloading on everything that moves or seems likely to explode. It’s satire by way of total mortification, the kind that doesn’t make you pat yourself on the back so much as squirm when you recognize the seed from which its concept grew.

That Metal Wolf Chaos still plays well only adds to the discomfort. Weapon selection is cumbersome since the gun portraits all look too similar and you must unintuitively mash triggers to scroll between them, but on the whole, your Metal Wolf moves smoothly through the game’s environments, boosting through obstacles with ease. The arcade-y, mission-based structure provides environment variety while generous auto-targeting mostly leaves you to dodge and hit the buttons that fire missiles and bullets. It all feels satisfying, but it’s also sickening that the basic pleasure center of the brain is so readily activated even in this context, where the game’s satire is tightly wrapped around such a grave truth. Metal Wolf Chaos is near-unspeakably absurd, and that something so outlandish hits its mark 15 years later feels less like good-natured ribbing than a vicious, necessary indictment of the fact that, in those intervening years, we haven’t changed much as a country.

The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: From Software, General Arcade Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: August 6, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Mild Language, Violence Buy: Game

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