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Review: In Observation, the Ghost in the Shell Is the Player Itself

The setting of the game is the familiar stuff of science fiction, but the lens through which it’s viewed is not.

3.5

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Observation
Photo: No Code

The setting of Observation is the familiar stuff of science fiction: a space station dotted with airlocks and hatches and run by a voice-activated artificial intelligence. But the lens through which it’s viewed is not. You play as S.A.M., the aforementioned AI armed with a battalion of unblinking eyes: the cameras that line every one of the eponymous station’s hallways. Despite his constant watch, something has gone wrong aboard the station. The Observation has spun far off course, most of its crew is gone, and neither S.A.M. nor Dr. Emma Fisher, who appears to be the station’s only survivor, know what happened.

Besides observing, most of S.A.M.’s functions are doled out piecemeal for the exclusive task of progressing through the guided storyline. He can access things like laptops and terminals. He can open (and close) doors, and he can recite whatever data he’s been asked to find by Dr. Fisher to help unravel the mystery behind the station’s crisis. Though sci-fi connoisseurs may already have ideas about where the story will end up, Observation is, despite appearances, less a game about refusing to open the pod bay doors than cooperating with Dr. Fisher. S.A.M. isn’t one to cause problems so much as help solve them by dutifully performing different tasks.

If Dr. Fisher needs to broadcast a signal, for example, you’ll need to call up the ship’s map and access cameras in the room housing the astrophysics terminal. From there, you’ll use the terminal to look up the coordinates on a black-and-white image, send those coordinates to the communications screen, and then input the numbers manually. It’s not glamorous or even particularly challenging work, but neither is being a space station’s artificial intelligence; the game’s most complex tasks involve things like tracing a schematic for clues or piloting one of the spheres floating around the zero-gravity station to reach camera blind spots.

As rote and mechanical as these operations may be, they sink you deeper into your role as the AI. The game’s excellent interface design helps you feel at one with the environment through interactions that feel tactile. Adjusting camera angles is slow and accompanied by a faint hum. Spheres are likely to bump into objects since they’re a little unwieldy and don’t turn on a dime, and their camera view fizzles accordingly. Various text displays don’t look friendly, as a smartphone display might, so much as functional. They’re rendered in stark reds, whites, greens, and grays that evoke old technology—the loud clacking of keyboards, of numbers not entered so much as forcibly pressed in. The station isn’t exactlys old-fashioned, but its occasionally clunky software feels rooted in a tangible past, as if modernization has yet to erase the vestiges of technology conceived near the turn of the century.

And yet, playing as a computer isn’t the same as feeling like one. Engaging with the game means navigating its menus and devices by lumbering through human thought processes, relying on the inefficient motor functions of sausagey fingers mashing on controllers and keyboards. When moving inside a sphere, the labyrinthine station can be confusing to navigate without stopping to check a map, making it easy to float off down the wrong hallway.

To compensate for player awkwardness, Observation specifies that S.A.M. is too damaged to operate at full capacity, but it’s not quite enough to maintain the illusion. No machines ask you to interact quickly or skirt around a fail state. While this gentleness keeps the game humming along smoothly without constantly stopping to chastise players, it makes what are ostensibly the routines of a computer feel built to accommodate humans’ comparative sluggishness, preventing you from fully inhabiting a believable role. Frantic characters simply stand and stare while they wait for you to complete even the most time-consuming of tasks.

But the player’s presence isn’t a total loss since it gives the story room for subtlety. The development of S.A.M.’s emotions is understated and even totally peripheral to the central mystery because your personal reactions to characters, the solutions you uncover, and the attachments you develop stand in for what S.A.M. feels. Your emotions are his. As the plot escalates and the suspense grows, the momentum may slow as you fiddle with a door switch, but it never stops to explain character growth because you fill in the blanks yourself. S.A.M.’s development is almost taken for granted, allowed simply to be as a part of a larger story and compelling mystery buoyed by a unique perspective. There’s a ghost growing inside S.A.M.’s mechanical shell, and after just a few hours with Observation, it turns out to be you.

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

Developer: No Code Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: May 21, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: SWERY’s Deadly Premonition 2 Is a Janky, Navel-Gazing Exercise

Everything about your quest feels dragged out to mask how little substance there is to Blessing in Disguise.

1

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Deadly Premonition 2: Blessing in Disguise
Photo: Rising Star Games

Lise Clarkson’s body has been found after 14 years, her dismembered body parts pristinely reassembled and frozen in a block of ice, like something out of Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Every bit as striking as this opening to Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is the reveal that the prime suspect in Clarkson’s murder is none other than Francis Zach Morgan, the “metaphysical offender” who was at the center of 2010’s Deadly Premonition. But it quickly becomes clear that this game, both a sequel and prequel to the original, is largely unconcerned with taking Zach’s potential guilt seriously. It is, though, quite interested in waxing rhapsodically about the power of pizza, and having you bow down before creator and director Hidetaka “SWERY” Suehiro’s love of esoterica.

Indeed, Clarkson’s murder is just a bait and switch. You think you’re going to delve into the supernatural horrors surrounding her death, but instead you spend most of your time listening to characters quip about how a personal connection to the 1986 Sylvester Stallone film Cobra can help one to appreciate frozen pizza, or, in one of many fourth-wall-breaking moments, how by-the-book F.B.I agent Aaliyah Davis and her eccentric techie partner, Simon Jones, would be “the perfect stars for the latest video game.” These asides are endemic to Blessing in Disguise, the bread and butter of both the brief 2019 sequences and the remainder of the game, which transpires in 2005 in Le Carré, Louisiana and features Zach’s earlier self, Francis York Morgan. (If you haven’t played Deadly Premonition, this won’t make any sense, as A Blessing in Disguise can’t be bothered to bring newcomers up to speed.)

The game’s present-day timeline is little more than a non-interactive visual novel, as Aaliyah’s investigation is limited to her asking Zach about random objects, like a shrine of milk cartons, in his one-bedroom Boston apartment. The game never stops shunting the mystery to the side, but being restricted to Zach’s apartment at least keeps things somewhat focused, and because the action all transpires within a few hours, it at least has a feeling of immediacy. York’s 2005 case allows him to more freely, albeit sluggishly, roam through Le Carré, but he’s essentially going through the same rote click-to-investigate motions as Aaliyah, the difference being that the objects he interacts with are thousands of meters apart, a distance that he inexplicably chooses to cover on a skateboard he calls “my darling.” Like its predecessor, A Blessing in Disguise operates on a 24-hour schedule, and while you certainly feel the pull of time, you don’t feel the urgency to investigate the game’s various crimes, which take a back seat to your attempts to set high scores at barely functional minigames like rock-skipping and bowling.

Everything about York’s quest feels dragged out to mask how little substance there is to Blessing in Disguise. The game’s 24-hour schedule forces you to spend a good chunk of each chapter literally wasting time by smoking cigarettes and camping out in the street, waiting to trigger events that only occur at dawn or during an establishment’s business hours. But as empty as it feels to use inventory items to force time to pass, that’s still preferable to the other activities the game offers up: hunting squirrels, dogs, gators, and bees; foraging for items in dumpsters, mailboxes, and fields; and shooting mysterious miniature UFOs out of the sky.

Throughout, the materials you collect, or the stat-boosting charms you craft from them, are somewhat necessary, but the disappointing rewards further spell the game’s irrelevance. There are “realistic” systems in place to account for York’s hunger, sleepiness, body odor, and sobriety, but they’re barely connected to the plot. (Which is to say nothing of how questionably realistic it is that otherworldly monsters tend to drop fresh cups of coffee when slain.) And the meaningless of the game’s busywork is compounded by the poor frame rate and low-texture graphics that would’ve seemed cut-rate even on an early-2000s console.

Given the disconnect between the game’s various systems, it’s hard to view SWERY as anything more than an amateur auteur. He imitates others, but to what end? In the vein of Hideo Kojima, he suffuses his games with pop-cultural references but never shows poetic aspirations. He channels Suda51’s irreverence but not the satirical bite of No More Heroes. He even has Aaliyah indiscriminately quote Nietzsche, which would be a well-intentioned effort to guide players through a philosophical inquiry of crime and morality, if only these references connected in the slightest to the story at hand. Referencing hyperrealism and likening the way York’s hand transforms into a Psychogun as being like that scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome doesn’t make this game smart; it outs it as a spectacle of flimsy appropriation, which is evident even in the demonic “Pains” that York faces in the Other World, all inexplicably named after stock characters from commedia dell’arte.

This is also a game that mistakes character development for quirky things happening to characters or being done by them. In one scene, a family’s patriarch forces his son-in-law to feed his own arm to an alligator—a cruel moment that’s never acknowledged again. In another, a character delivers a five-minute-long monologue detailing all of the work he’s put into the ritual he’s about to enact, only to anticlimactically set his knife down, having changed his mind mere moments later. Rather than have to address the effect of these decisions, Deadly Premonition 2 generally just kills off its characters, a particularly maddening move when it comes to the game’s transgender character, Lena, whose efforts to settle things with her family would have benefited from even a superficial grasp of her emotions.

And that’s how the game treats its main characters, as the side ones are either stereotyped and saddled with tics that invite our laughter more than our empathy. There’s a crawfisherman whose most memorable feature is his dwarfism, a bartender who stands out only on account of his tight white underpants, and the employees at the hotel you’re staying at who are all the same person, each one defined by a different, terrible accent.

Ironically, by the time A Blessing in Disguise finally gets around to introducing monsters into the mix, you may find yourself longing for the quirkiness of its shallow caricatures of people. Not only do three of the game’s four chapters end in identical red-misted corridors with no distinguishing features or puzzles, they also recycle the same three enemy archetypes: a creature with giant scissors who snips toward you, a giant chained to a doorway who releases lock-shaped explosive crabs from his bindings, and a half-naked woman who slinks toward you, summoning tentacles. These survival horror sequences are neither scary nor fun, and the most challenging thing about them, beyond their forcing you to try to auto-adjust your aim in order to account for the stuttering lag in the frame rate, is how you have to push past boredom. Consider, then, these sequences not so much a premonition but a warning born of experience: Turn back all who enter here, for there is nothing good awaiting within.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Thunderful.

Developer: Toybox Inc., White Owls Inc. Publisher: Rising Star Games Platform: Switch Release Date: July 10, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Use of Drugs, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Ghost of Tsushima Lacks Ambition but Is Rife with Poetic Flourishes

The game has the look of a thoughtful samurai epic, but the façade flakes under scrutiny.

3.5

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Ghost of Tsushima
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

Despite the game being about as far as you can get from a story set in 13th-century Japan, there’s a quote from Mass Effect 3 that kept echoing in my head throughout the 40-plus hours it took me to complete Ghost of Tsushima: “Stand amongst the ashes of a trillion dead souls, and ask the ghosts if honor matters.” It’s a wonderfully poetic line of dialogue, from a game that’s every bit as concerned with how people fight a righteous war, and how much tradition and legacy and optics play a role in that.

Poetry can be wrung from human attempts to justify horrific but necessary actions—it’s just that, aside from the occasional line of dialogue like the aforementioned one, video games as a medium are often lunkheaded when it comes to deploying poetry. Bless Ghost of Tsushima, then, for trying to do so. Sucker Punch’s latest has a rich, painterly beauty that places a premium on silence, and on the way its systems treat swordplay, creating environmental systems that bring awe to even the most mundane scenes. And the game very much explores the relevance of honor in a world that requires the wetwork of bastards. Quite often, Ghost of Tsushima suggests poetry in motion, but it’s still playing in a space that relies too much on imprudence for mass appeal.

That foolishness was baked into Ghost of Tsushima right from the conceptual stage, as this is a game about Japanese culture and traditions that doesn’t have a single Japanese person credited as a writer or creative director. It’s a problem somewhat mitigated by how many Asian creatives were still involved in its making, but this is still a game that caters to players who’ve maybe seen Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and aren’t likely to do a double take while their character composes (largely meaningless) haikus some 400 years before Matsuo Bashō was even born, or being told that a particularly murderous Japanese woman had to teach the Mongols, of all people, how to properly use a bow and arrow. Nonetheless, if you’re willing to extend the good-faith exception to Ghost of Tsushima and judge it not for its historical accuracy, but for its true aim of delivering a lurid, pulpy tale of samurai vengeance set in one of the most strikingly beautiful open worlds ever crafted for a video game, you will find that it’s a ringing, if pointedly unambitious, success.

The game is set in 1274, as the Mongols, during their first invasion of Japan, raid their way across the tiny island of Tsushima. Our hero, Jin Sakai, and his uncle, Lord Shimura, are the first to try their hands against the invaders, but led by Khotun Khan, a soft-spoken but hulking, brutal warlord, the Mongols lay waste to the island’s best samurai—save for Lord Shimura, who’s held hostage, and Jin, who’s left for dead on a beach until a thief named Yuna nurses him back to health. Determined to get his uncle back by any means necessary, Jin adopts a few tactics frowned upon by proper samurai warriors, and makes a name for himself across the countryside as the Ghost, defending the weak and striking fear into the hearts of his enemies.

Ghost of Tsushima

A scene from Ghost of Tsushima. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

You could be forgiven for thinking that sounds more like the stuff of Batman than of the code of Bushido, but it’s difficult to deny that that game makes it feel really good to play as a samurai caped crusader. It’s gratifying to wander beautiful watercolor valleys and approach marauders with steel in the eyes and hands, taking them down with extreme prejudice. And, in general, the combat is exquisitely simple, for basically forcing players to match their sword style with that of their enemies at the push of a button, and for the way the game’s forgiving parry system leads you to harshly punish enemy mistakes. Ghost of Tsushima’s most thoughtful and well-executed element is its Standoff mechanic, where pressing a button within a certain distance invites a group of enemies to send their best warrior for a face-to-face quickdraw, which is quite literally predicated on the visceral release of tension, of letting go of the attack button and opening an enemy’s neck.

The game largely follows the open-world action-adventure playbook to the letter, with all the map exploration, base-clearing, and collectible hunting that implies. On its face, that’s disappointing, especially given that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was more ambitious on that front. But that’s also a game that breathlessly hinges on survival and has no interest in giving you power and exhilaration. Sekiro is out to kill you, whereas Ghost of Tsushima is literally and figuratively guiding players to follow where the breeze takes them.

Across this game, Jin takes up the sword not just for the scattered resistance fighters attempting to force the invaders off their land, but in the name of farmers in search of their dead families, warriors looking to avenge their fallen comrades, dying family members looking to clear the enemy out of their ancestral cemeteries, and just straight-up bloody revenge against a horde of bandits. Alluring little side stories dot your path to the next major objective, and as you’re constrained by the limits of having to travel such long distances by horseback, the game gives you plenty of opportunity to get lost—all the better to let its beautiful and tranquil approach to storytelling wash over you. The basic bones of Ghost of Tsushima are open-world tropes, but they hold up thrilling little dimestore tales that could have been pulled from a collection of Lone Wolf and Cub manga, and those tropes are executed with a deliberate elegance that’s rare in the big-budget game space.

It’s frustrating, then, how often the game pulls the reins back on our joy, to remind us that we’re somehow playing the role of a samurai wrong. As much as dissonant ludonarrative guilt usually grinds up against the sheer glee of stabbing an enemy in the back here, it’s especially unfortunate when one of the lovingly rendered assassinations triggers a cutscene with Lord Shimura reminding Jin how he promised never to do that same exact thing. But for what it’s worth, the best elements of the story also seem self-aware of such hypocrisy.

For one, the first samurai you ever see on screen attempts to face Khotun Khan face to face, with honor, and the warlord retorts by setting the man on fire. Later, when Jin finds himself playing dirty against Khan’s forces, resulting in an aftermath that would be horrifically grisly if it wasn’t against proven monsters, Jin proudly states that he did what had to be done to crush the enemy. Throughout, you probably won’t regret anything, and the story will, by and large, take your side over strict samurai doctrine. It’s made abundantly clear that this is a fight that requires monsters, and aside from two very story-specific missions, you’re allowed to confront the enemy in whatever way you see fit, with no long-lasting effects on the game world itself.

Ghost of Tsushima

A scene from Ghost of Tsushima. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Then again, why even attempt to instill guilt on the player at all if there’s no imperative to change the way you play the game? Even The Last of Us Part II has the sense to use the player’s own bloodlust against them, as a means of underlining how emotionally tiring and spiritually numbing it is. The guilt over becoming the Ghost, and all the grotesquery that implies, is the crux of Ghost of Tsushima’s story, but it’s a non-issue until the game sporadically decides it is one, admonishing us for using stealthy, ninja-like tactics but giving no impetus to want to stop doing so. It’s not until the emotionally complex epilogue that regret means anything for more than a few scant minutes at a time, and plopping the need for regret in the middle of the game’s most magnificent and cathartic moments of savagery comes across half-hearted at best.

That’s a byproduct of Ghost of Tsushima not pushing the envelope far enough away from its open-world ancestors. The things that would rush the game toward maturity—a firmer handle on history, a more in-depth exploration of the deeply stratified and elitist samurai caste system, or making Jin’s defiance of his uncle’s teachings a more proactive thing in the player’s hands—are largely left underdeveloped. Instead, like many big-budget prestige games, this one settles for “that primally satisfying violence you’re doing is bad.”

That Mass Effect 3 quote is a good summation of Ghost of Tsushima, but there’s a much more poetic one enabled right from the options menu: a visual filter called Kurosawa mode that renders the whole game in grainy black and white. You can even turn on the Japanese language track for an extra hint of verisimilitude, and some particularly strong performances from the voice cast. But no matter how excellent those performances are, or how much the visuals suggest deleted scenes from Rashomon, it’s hard to ignore that the characters’ lips are in sync with the English dub, and that the subtitles fail to convey what the Japanese actors are saying. Which is to say, Ghost of Tsushima has the look of a thoughtful samurai epic, but the façade flakes under scrutiny, revealing that it serves Western blockbuster tastes and tenets above all. It’s a game that so desperately wants to be 13 Assassins but more times than not ends up looking like The Last Samurai.

Sony Interactive Entertainment did not respond to our request for review code. This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Sucker Punch Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: July 17, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity Buy: Game

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Review: Paper Mario: The Origami King Is a Cut (and Fold) Above Other Comic RPGs

While a lot of care has gone into refining the game’s combat, there’s no shortage of things to do outside of battles.

4.5

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Paper Mario: The Origami King
Photo: Nintendo

Late in Paper Mario: The Origami King, Mario’s charming new origami companion, Olivia, thanks him for all his hard work in saving both her and the Mushroom Kingdom from her power-mad brother, Olly, and his Folded Soldiers. Though Mario’s efforts are credited to “the power of flat paper,” and Mario himself is a literally two-dimensional character, there’s nothing flat about this latest Paper Mario game, a delightful ode to craft and creativity that squeezes new possibilities (and puns) out of the beloved series.

Being a more-is-more game, it isn’t enough for The Origami King to have Olly’s evil henchmen be sentient art supplies, or have cleverly named attacks, like the bright and pointy missiles in Colored Pencil’s “art-senal.” Nor is it enough that each baddie has a vivid and comic identity, like the gangster Tape (“Stick ‘em up” indeed) or Stapler, an attack dog with metallic “teeth.” On top of all that, each boss fight is yoked to a unique gimmick, from Hole Punch taking chunks out of the arena to Handaconda forcing you to play a high-stakes game of Rock-Paper-Scissors mid-battle. Even after nearly 30 hours of immersion in this latest Paper Mario, which now brings massive open regions like the Scorching Sandpaper Desert and The Wind Waker-like the Great Sea to the mix, the game continues to surprise and delight.

Though based on a decades-old formula, The Origami King never feels like more of the same. A river-rapids minigame is followed by an in-depth trading quest within a Japanese-themed amusement park, Shogun Studios. A relaxing stay in the hot tubs of Shangri-Spa is first interrupted by a chase sequence involving a papier-mâché Chain Chomp and later by a Mario Party-like series of minigames on the game-show-within-a-game Shy Guys Finish Last.

The Origami King does feature traditional dungeons, but even here, the puzzles and themes remain wholly distinct; the closest overlap is between two types of sliding block puzzles. One, in the Water Vellumental Temple, involves moving slabs around to form a path. And later, in the Ice Vellumental Temple, you’ll have to find a way to hammer your icy floe from wall to wall across a slippery floor. And as for the game’s character work—well, let me just say that this reviewer didn’t expect to ever feel so much compassion for Bowser’s long-suffering magician, Kamek, nor to fall heartbreakingly in love with an amnesiac Bob-omb.

The game’s biggest change, though, is its spin—literally—on combat. Like most of the Paper Mario games, battles are turn-based, with Mario using various Boots and Hammers (and the occasional Fire and Ice Flower or Tail) to attack foes. Active timing is still key, with extra damage awarded (or blocked) if players press a button before each animated attack lands. But now, in addition to those components, each battle opens on a dartboard-like grid that’s divided into four circles and 12 slices. Players are given a limited amount of time and a set number of moves with which to slide or rotate enemies into place: Putting four enemies in a column means that Mario can hit all four with a single, down-the-line jump attack, and the proper alignment of all your foes not only awards bonus coins, but grants a damage multiplier.

As this long-winded explanation of combat suggests, regular encounters can sometimes get a little overcomplicated and tedious. But that’s almost apt given the game’s origami theme. After all, folding and creasing should be more complicated than the collage-like combat of Paper Mario: Sticker Star or the card-combining mechanics of Paper Mario: Color Splash. Moreover, it’s not just some slapdash extra feature. While bosses all require unique and specific interactions with the board, even regular enemies often gain an extra dimension from the ring-based arena, like vanishing Boos, whose positions must be remembered, or Lil’ Cutouts, whose intimidating paper-chain armies must quickly be spun back down to size.

While a lot of care has gone into refining the game’s combat, there’s no shortage of things to do outside of battles. Each region is teeming with hidden question-mark blocks and Toads that have been folded up into amusing new objects, and a “fax travel” system allows you to fairly quickly backtrack in your fight against “orgamized crime.” The Origami King has so much exuberance and confidence in all of its designs that even if you’re not completely sold on the combat—and there are modifiers that allow you to get rescued Toads to help solve it for you—the game will still win over all but the most puzzle-phobic and pun-hating players.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Golin on July 17.

Developer: Intelligent Systems Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: July 17, 2020 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break Is Irreverent Fun, Up to a Point

Make & Break is at its best when injecting variety into the campaign, not only mixing up the environments but the game modes.

3

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Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break
Photo: Modus Games

Julius Caesar. Genghis Khan. Queen Elizabeth I. Moctezuma. According to Chilean development studio ACE Team, these historical figures do battle according to a blueprint followed since the very beginning of time—that is, rolling huge boulders down a winding track, weaving between enemy defenses, and ramming castle gates, hoping to squish an opponent who will give a high-pitched squeal whenever a door is broken down.

The first Rock of Ages is one of the stranger games to ever receive multiple sequels, but Rock of Ages 3: Make & Break (developed in conjunction with Giant Monkey Robot) hardly alters the formula of its predecessors. You place trebuchets, towers, catapults, and other objects in hopes of obstructing and damaging the enemy boulder until it’s time to take control of your own, grappling with its considerable momentum to guide it to the target.

The concept has always felt a little chaotic and unrefined; the strategy portion is hardly unimportant, but the time constraints and the limited selection of units you bring into each battle give it something of a fevered, random quality. The boulder-rolling again seems far and away more consequential, dependent on who hits the enemy’s door first and hasn’t lost as much momentum along the way. But the chaos is certainly thrilling, too, as objects crumble beneath your boulder and you pick up potentially unwieldy levels of speed.

Filled with irreverent cut-out animations that depict things like the flying head of Elizabeth I shooting lasers, Make & Break has a blissfully goofy quality to it. Some of the obstacles you’ll place are whales or lions hanging from balloons, and the strange proceedings unfold against a soundscape of screams and incongruously stately classical music. Across the campaign, you’ll launch not only a variety of jumping boulders with faces at the enemy gates, but a snowball, a meatball, a wheel of cheese, and one rock shaped like a huge fist.

In short, to take the game with any particular seriousness, to regard it as anything more than exactly the madcap diversion it aspires to be, would be to miss the point. And Make & Break is at its best when injecting variety into the campaign, not only mixing up the environments but the game modes. Though each campaign location contains a classic “war” confrontation with some historical figure, activities like time trials, obstacle courses, and an all-defense mode against an onslaught of enemy boulders stave off any monotony.

But at their core, these are markedly repetitive games. In practice, the obstacles change very little of how you play, with one demanding a split-second jump rather than another that mandates you dodge to the side. And with that in mind, the level creator introduced here is hardly transformative; the environments of these games have always seemed vaguely interchangeable, and being able to design your own tracks only highlights the fundamental similarity between them. The series mainly distinguishes itself through its bizarre atmosphere, as well as its capacity to surprise by introducing new environments and characters, but remixing familiar templates in a level creator captures little of that charm.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Tinsley PR.

Developer: ACE Team, Giant Monkey Robot Publisher: Modus Games Platform: PC Release Date: July 21, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Cartoon Violence, Mild Blood Buy: Game

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Review: Polygon Treehouse’s Röki Barely Stands Apart in a Crowded Field

Few of the game’s problems would be insurmountable in the face of an engaging narrative.

2

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Röki

Magical creatures fill the corners of Polygon Treehouse’s Röki, many of them plucked from Scandinavian myth: the trolls under bridges, the miniature Tomte helpers that look like garden gnomes, the Fossegrim, the Nokken. None, though, occupy so large a space in this adventure game as the fabled Dead Mom, whose loss a human girl named Tove must confront while she searches the forest near her home for Lars, her missing brother.

The rhythms of Tove’s mission won’t be surprising to most players, as she combs the forest—and, then, a castle—for objects to stick in her inventory and later use to solve puzzles. But there are broader, and also familiar, shortcomings within the game. Solutions tend to come in the form of exacting and roundabout item combinations, such as one where you use a large bone as part of a torch rather than, say, any of the branches that litter the forest. And some solutions may elude the player altogether, as they’re not always noticeable even when you press the button that highlights an area’s interactive objects. Elsewhere, you’ll likely find yourself tackling puzzles through process of elimination, interacting with everything you possibly can until you find the solution, such as the seeds in a small puddle that apparently must be ground up in a mortar and pestle to grease some gears.

Though much of the game involves unlocking shortcuts between one area and another, they’re never so transformative as to dull the meandering puzzle design that favors backtracking. Worse, the interface always seems to require a few too many button presses to accomplish simple tasks: To pull a mushroom out of the soil, you must open the inventory and select the trowel and drag the image of the tool from your inventory bar onto the mushroom in the game world. Then you do it again, perhaps many times over if you don’t immediately notice the slight but important structural differences of the mushrooms in your inventory before you re-bury them elsewhere. Even the moments that confine you to a small area seem to take forever, as in one scene that finds you watching the same handful of slow climbing animations while Tove laboriously maneuvers around to place mirrors in different locations.

Irritating though they may be, few of these problems would be insurmountable in the face of an engaging narrative. But like countless other pretty games trading on emotion, Röki drones on about feelings, namely grief—all of it documented in Tove’s illustrated journal, and complete with occasional asides about Dead Mom or Sad Dad. Repressed memories, shadow selves, and mysterious environmental sicknesses rear their tired heads. Beyond the trappings of Scandinavian myth, there’s precious little to set Röki apart in an already overcrowded space.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Heaven Media.

Developer: Polygon Treehouse Publisher: United Label Platform: PC Release Date: July 23, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Rädical Rabbit Stew Is a Comic Medley of Things That Work

Metaphorically speaking, the developers at Pugstorm have left more than half the carrot buried in the soil.

3

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Rädical Rabbit Stew
Photo: Sold Out

Swedish-based developer Pugstorm’s Rädical Rabbit Stew doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but that doesn’t prevent this madcap arcade puzzler from being entertaining. Its nonsensical plot, involving a hungry and jealous Rabbit Queen abducting a bunch of intergalactic space rabbit chefs, frees up the gameplay to be equally ridiculous. And considering that the game already begins with the volume of its antics turned up to a 10, with your cleaning-boy protagonist figuring out the right angles at which to whack ravenous rabbits into cookpots, it’s impressive how much louder things get. Throughout, you’ll encounter bomb-filled pirate ships, slippery ice arenas, a dark cemetery haunted by ghostly bunnies, and a variety of tricked-out, gameplay-altering spoons for your hero to wield.

Rädical Rabbit Stew takes a lot of cues from games like Bugs Bunny Crazy Castle and Goof Troop, whose devious puzzles are covered by a veneer of comedy. The foundational gameplay is solid, with much weight placed on the jokes found across 60-plus levels—and they largely hold up. The first boss fight, for instance, is against a giant dog wearing an ill-fitting bunny costume. His name is Pugs Bunny, and you must defeat him by knocking his vegetable-laden model trains at him as they steam past. Familiar elements like pressure plates, moveable blocks, and slippery ice are all executed well, and the spoon-slapping mechanics occasionally offer novel ways to interact with such mainstays of puzzle games, but if wanton punnery isn’t your thing (Planky McBoatface, Lava Bunthedral, and Bunningham Castle are some of the level names), the game is bound to wear a bit thin. The general lack of difficulty might be a factor in that: While there are 69 (groan) optional medals, collecting them usually just requires that you notice a path hidden just out of camera range, not in solving any more challenging puzzles.

It’s a little disappointing, then, that the developers at Pugstorm didn’t dig a little deeper; metaphorically speaking, they’ve left more than half the carrot buried in the soil. One level introduces a super carrot that, when knocked into the same row or column as a bunny, causes enemies to crazily charge directly toward it, smashing through any obstacles in its path. This mechanic is never encountered again, not even in Rädical Rabbit Stew’s modest level editor. It’s sad enough that the cannon-like cauldrons that shoot you across gaps and the armored, knife-wielding bunny knights that pursue you are underutilized in the campaign, but it’s downright frustrating that you can’t use them in the level editor. The game’s local multiplayer is also similarly underwhelming, as there are only four timed stages, each of which revolves around vying with up to three friends to pot the most bunnies.

Considering that Rädical Rabbit Stew can be beaten in under an hour (though a first run will take at least three), it speaks to the quality of the level design that the gameplay doesn’t feel rushed. If anything, it’s stuffed with a wide variety of ingredients. A lot of care has gone into distinguishing enemy classes, like the unstoppable bombardier bunnies clad in aviation caps and goggles or bat-like bunnies that swoop toward you, as well as arming you with unique weaponry, which includes a grappling-hook spoon called the Helping Hand and an explosives-making one known as the Bomb Scoop. These creations are each well-defined and enjoyable, which makes it all the more frustrating that you aren’t given more time to play with them. As a result, Rädical Rabbit Stew sometimes feels like more of an appetizer than a main course.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Wonacott Communications, LLC.

Developer: Pugstorm Publisher: Sold Out Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: Amanita’s Creaks Dazzles by Foregrounding Its Seussian Spirit

The game is primarily a vehicle for Amanita Design’s brand of typically immaculate artistry.

3.5

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Creaks
Photo: Amanita Design

In Amanita Design’s Creaks, players will find a mansion situated somewhere inside the walls of a nameless young man’s house. Abiding by an almost Seussian logic, it’s alien and angular, its gargantuan rooms piled on top of one another. Amid all the levers and ladders that complicate your journey to the bottom are the creatures of the game’s namesake, who look like flying jellyfish and goats and dogs but, beneath the beam of a lightbulb, transform into furniture. A dog’s single eye will morph into a handle, its open jaw melting into an ordinary chest of drawers, never to move again until the light flips back off.

Rendered in a beautiful, spindly style by the developers at Amanita, the expressive characters move in skitters and shuffles. The hand-drawn art and its consciously restrained color palette evoke a children’s book, albeit one with detailed concentrations of lines that lend the game a faintly sinister, foreboding air. Silhouetted cutaway scenes even depict the protagonist’s various deaths at the hands of the creaks, who are hostile to varying degrees: The dogs give chase if you get too close, but the jellyfish only attack if you’re in the path of their floating patrol and the goats run away until you’ve cornered them.

Much of the game involves maneuvering through the mansion’s interconnected puzzle rooms by manipulating the creaks’ behavior, often by getting them to stand on switches or get out of the way long enough for you to, say, pull a lever that moves a bookcase or bridge blocking an exit. When the dogs chase you, for example, they will stop at the base of a ladder you’ve climbed for a short while, out of the way long enough for you to perhaps double back over the territory they guarded. They will return to their beds on little mats, but they know better than to cross any beams of light. That is, you must expose them by surprise, by flipping on a switch or moving obstacles that momentarily obstruct the beam. Though you sometimes progress by simply transforming creaks into static furniture to hold down switches, at other times you must take their full range of behaviors into account, when they’re free to roam around.

Across approximately five hours, the mechanics trickle forth gradually. Throughout, new ideas mingle with the old, as you’re introduced to the dogs, then the jellyfish, and then later a scene with both creatures that reveals the dogs to cower in fear of the jellyfish, clearing a path for you to slip by. Finding the puzzle solutions at all is generally the goal here, rather than performing precise actions; you’re given a generous amount of time to flip the proper switches and get into the right positions once you’ve figured out how to progress. And if you’re stumped, a few moments of experimentation with the levers and such tends to reveal the answer, and there are few instances where you can become stuck and need to restart a room.

As a result, the game does lack some of the sense of accomplishment and “ah-ha” moments of the best puzzle games. Reasonably clever though Creaks may be, it’s primarily a vehicle for Amanita’s brand of typically immaculate artistry, augmented here by the way the jangly music from composer Hidden Orchestra changes as the puzzle pieces fall into place. Though you encounter familiar configurations of levers and passageways and other obstacles, the mansion’s rooms all feel distinct, subtly interconnected in a way you likely won’t even notice unless you hit the load screen and see that every puzzle is coherently plotted on a zoomed-out side view of the mysterious mansion. Creaks hums along smoothly and pleasantly without calling attention to itself, to its sporadic detriment but mainly to its strength.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Amanita Design.

Developer: Amanita Design Publisher: Amanita Design Platform: PC Release Date: July 22, 2020 Buy: Game

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Review: Superhot: Mind Control Delete Takes Killer Aim at Gamer Expectations

The game feels like the brainchild of students who were into debate club as much as programming.

4

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Superhot: Mind Control Delete
Photo: SUPERHOT Team

When Superhot was released in 2016, much praise was heaped on its novel “time moves when you move” gimmick, though some criticized the game for its brevity. Superhot: Mind Control Delete, initially planned as DLC but now releasing as a standalone game that’s bigger than the original, is a brilliant rebuttal to that criticism. Whereas Superhot subversively riffed on the tenebrous nature of control, Mind Control Delete slyly questions the purpose of extra content and how long a game should or shouldn’t be.

Mind Control Delete at first appears to exist for one reason: to deliver more Superhot. The blinking red box that greets you each time you boot up the game promises as much. “MORE,” it reads, and that’s what the game delivers. And not just more of those first-person fights where you step between slow-motion bullets to punch a shooter, grab his weapon and use it to pick off a sniper, hurl it at another foe, and then jump-punch your way to another enemy.

To this already volatile mix, there are now more levels, more abilities, more enemy types, more story. In-game, “MORE” is repeated as much as “SUPER HOT,” and so much so that the word practically loses all meaning, which is when you begin to see the way the game serves as a critique of itself. “There won’t be any closure,” we’re warned, “just more senseless killing.” There’s a fine line here between entertainment and annoyance, and the developers at SUPERHOT Team ride it like they’re playing the nerviest game of chicken, pushing players to the point at which the joy of pulling off that perfect sequence perhaps begins to sour.

Though Mind Control Delete has clear intentions, it never resorts to cheap tricks to make players step back and realize that sometimes less is more. There are two new and improved endless modes, each of which can be tackled with a variety of superpowers and “hacks.” These abilities shake up the basic concept of Superhot, so while you’re still throwing objects or shooting guns at bright red enemies, carefully clearing a room of its foes, your options for doing so are broader. With the grenade.hack enabled, every once-innocuous item—be it a stapler or a billiard ball—now detonates when thrown. And if you utilize the recall.core, you can summon a thrown katana back into your hand, just like a Jedi.

Elsewhere, you’ll have to make use of new skills like ricocheting bullets and close-range invulnerability, because levels may now include explosive mines and spiky enemies that release shrapnel when hit. You’ll also sometimes be faced with unkillable enemy archetypes like the charging Dog, katana-master Nindza, and position-swapping Addict, each one reflecting a toxic aspect of the gaming community such as avarice, addiction, or anger.

Though it’s an intentional choice, players may find themselves missing the deliberate encounters of the original Superhot, which featured pre-set scenarios to fight your way out of. Mind Control Delete instead randomly generates most of its challenges. Players wander through an ASCII map of interconnected nodes, each one containing somewhere from five to 10 levels, all of which must be completed within a set number of lives in order to progress. Fail a node, and your next run may pull an entirely different lineup out of its pool of over 30 maps, some of which are noticeably easier than others. The Kitchen’s meat locker and the Prison’s guard station are easy to camp in, whereas the Disco and Dojo have dangerous wide-open spaces. Levels like the Yakuza hangout are filled with useful weapons, whereas the Library and Studio leave you with non-lethal books and paintbrushes.

It’s not uncommon to have a run cut short because of bad luck with the hacks you get, your starting locations, or even the spawn patterns of enemies within each level—and this can quickly get frustrating as players go longer and longer without the respite of a checkpoint. Still, this randomness does a fine job of amplifying Mind Control Delete’s message about meaningless violence, and if it’s a bit too pointed, perhaps that, too, is the point.

Mind Control Delete feels like the brainchild of students who were into debate club as much as programming. Each new layer of gameplay exists to both argue for and against its inclusion, right up until the final twist, which allows players to progress only by their being willing to give up some of their hard-won new abilities. Until this point, players have been free to do as they like, experimenting with all the different combinations of power-ups in challenge nodes that send infinite waves of foes at players. But to keep that freedom, and to not have to give anything up, players must stop progressing through the campaign. And it’s at that point that you must determine what you value more: the ability to play a game ad infinitum or the opportunity to reach the ending, even if that comes at the cost of your enjoyment.

This game was reviewed using a press key provided by Evolve PR.

Developer: SUPERHOT Team Publisher: SUPERHOT Team Platform: PC Release Date: July 16, 2020 ESRB: M Buy: Game

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Review: Iron Man VR Handles Great and Digs Deep into a Hero’s Roots

A successful tech demo that allows one to truly feel like Iron Man, the game is also a strong superhero narrative in its own right.

4

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Iron Man VR
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment

A successful technical demonstration that allows players to truly feel like the titular character, Iron Man VR is also a strong superhero narrative in its own right. Opening with a tutorial that creatively introduces the player to its various mechanics, the game offers a playground with which to become accustomed to Iron Man’s abilities. And once you’ve left the confines of Tony Stark’s luxurious Malibu mansion by the bay, you’re placed in a plane that’s being shot out of the sky by an antagonist who’s using Stark’s own weapons of war against him. But Iron Man VR isn’t solely content with simulating the experience of being an iconic superhero. Rather, this is a game that puts the player in Stark’s shoes in all facets of his life, across a narrative that challenges the problematic morality of the character.

The game’s virtual-reality experience is nothing short of phenomenal: From either seated or standing position, the player uses the PlayStation Move motion controllers as Iron Man’s thrusters and blasters, allowing for fast flight across impressive vistas, as well as aerial combat against drones and enemies, all seamlessly rendered and executed without causing motion sickness. Facing the controllers backward and pressing the triggers propels Iron Man forward, and facing them down thrusts him up into the air. At any point, the player can press a button to hover in place, or raise either controller to engage in combat, causing Iron Man’s open palms to fire blasters or his closed fists to shoot different missiles depending on your unique hand motions. It all feels instantly natural and easy to learn, though difficult to completely master. The movement speed might be unmatched for a VR title, as the game effectively simulates the sensation of being Iron Man, of staring through his helmet’s heads-up display (HUD) as you fly around large and detailed skyboxes, above cities, and through canyons.

The most well-known depiction of the Marvel character is Robert Downey Jr.’s lovable playboy from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. An argument could be made that this take on the character is so dependent on the actor’s charisma that it’s impossible for the fiction to truly engage with the comic character’s often antagonistic legacy, or the grim reality of such an individual. Contrast this with the different Iron Man comic runs that show him as an alcoholic misogynistic prick with daddy issues and a history of violence. (Iron Man is the villain in the Civil War comic crossover, after all.) A key thematic difference between the 2008’s Iron Man, the film that effectively launched the MCU, and Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight is that the former film believes that a wealthy neoliberal playboy emboldened with expensive gadgets and a penchant for violence is the solution for society’s ills whereas the latter doesn’t.

Iron Man VR isn’t sure either. Here, Stark has turned his back on selling weaponry. An emblem of pacifistic heroism, he’s nonetheless forced to fight enemies harmed by his business after his jet is downed by supposedly decommissioned Stark drones, putting love interest Pepper Potts in the crosshairs. From this point, the game splits into missions that send Iron Man around the globe attempting to stop attacks on cities and well-known Marvel locations like the SHIELD Helicarrier and sections where the unarmored Stark grapples with his history from within his mansion and, later, the dilapidated cave where his superhero identity was born.

While the game’s combat segments are visually impressive and a great deal of fun, with varied enemies and locations, sections where Stark is disempowered stand out for taking advantage of VR as a medium to tell the man’s story. A late-game stretch where Stark, trapped in collapsing subterranean cavern, has visions of those who perished because of his arms sales is unusually dark and mature for superhero game fare, taking advantage of mechanics popularized in horror titles like Until Dawn: Rush of Blood instead of mainstream VR titles.

Further, Iron Man VR smartly uses two B-tier villains as Stark’s nemeses. The first, Ghost, a victim of warfare disfigured by one of Stark’s weapons, wishes retaliation and control on the protagonist. She essentially represents Stark’s superego, while the second antagonist, Living Laser, is an id-driven monster empowered with the kind of technological abilities as Iron Man but with no moral center or humanity, lashing out at innocent people instead of coming to their aide. The game suggests that this is what an unchecked Stark could have become. The finale, a large-scale battle with the physical manifestation of Stark’s unchained ego, completes the trifecta, defining Stark’s greatest enemy as the war-loving individual he grew out of. Iron Man VR treats the character and mythos with an unusual level of respect and self-examination, rendering it more interesting than any of the Iron Man films.

Sony Interactive Entertainment did not respond to our requests for review code. This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Camouflaj Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation VR Release Date: July 3, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Violence

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Review: The Last of Us Part II Is a Gory and Complex Feat of Empathetic Storytelling

The game displays a thorough, haunted understanding of what cruelty for cruelty’s sake can do to the soul.

4.5

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The Last of Us Part II
Photo: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers.

The moment that Naughty Dog announced a sequel to The Last of Us, we knew a day of reckoning was coming. No matter how one felt about Joel, the grizzled protagonist of the 2013 game, it was inevitable that his actions—saving 14-year-old Ellie’s life at the expense of the human race—would have consequences. And the first and most expected of those consequences occurs not even an hour into The Last of Us Part II, when, four years after the events of the first game, a small militia manages to snatch Joel, and his surrogate daughter, after coming to his rescue, watches him meet a particularly grisly end.

Yes, of course, Ellie goes after Joel’s killers, a hunt that leads her—along with her ride-or-die girlfriend, Dina—to Seattle, where the militia is embroiled in a bloody civil war with an urban-agrarian pseudo-Christian cult known as the Seraphites. And all the while, the Cordyceps epidemic continues to roil, making new, hideous, screeching monsters by the day, and in even more horrifying, hard-to-kill forms than before. And, of course, the underlying message of the whole thing, belabored by so many zombie stories before this one, is that humans are the real monsters, and that it takes a certain innate viciousness to survive in a world of monsters.

Which isn’t to say that The Last of Us Part II gets too high and mighty about the ugly, gratuitous nature of revenge. If it was, the game’s violence wouldn’t be necessary, justified, or cathartic—and killing here is often all three of those things at once. This is a game that asks players to accept the multitudes of its heroes, its villains, and every other poor, suffering soul that Ellie and Dina encounter throughout their journey, about what it means to be another monster among monsters, and what purpose that grotesquery serves.

That, though, is still a hard ask for a game like this. As in the original, you sneak, scavenge, shoot, stab, and bludgeon your way through the world, and The Last of Us Part II is home to some of the most ferocious acts of sinewy, effective, and affecting violence in a video game, and they’re made all the more lurid and visceral by being rendered in unparalleled detail that’s consistent with the rest of the story. That’s even more egregious given that the story could have been just as effective without the game’s utter realism being an imperative by any means necessary, especially given the despicable, and well-documented, human cost of achieving that level of detail. And just like most of Naughty Dog’s forays into cinematic action games, what goes on in the cutscenes is only tenuously connected with everything going on in the rest of the campaign.

As a gameplay experience, The Last of Us Part II brings just the right amount of that Uncharted-like intensity into its every set piece. You’re still best served by sneaking around enemies instead of facing them directly, but unlike the first game, you’re also not utterly doomed by choosing to face them head-on. Being prepared and armed to the teeth is the real deciding factor here, and the player is given much more freedom to figure out how to best accomplish that. Do you take out your enemies with a shiv or a switchblade? Do you have the materials for a makeshift silencer? Are you so overloaded with ammo that you can afford to get loud? Or do you just make a mad dash for an exit, praying that the door isn’t blocked? Once you have set your goal, the overall approach to achieving it is up to you, and that’s a massive and welcome improvement over the first game.

The Last of Us Part II

Ellie and Dina in a scene from The Last of Us Part II. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Most of the gameplay takes place in a semi-open world that recalls that of Naughty Dog’s underrated Uncharted: The Lost Legacy. The starting and end points of any given area are largely set in stone, but you can wander the ruins of Seattle across a wide expanse, and there’s an impressive number of fully rendered and true-to-life locations that you’re free to explore. Entire neighborhoods feel like real, once-lived-in places, frozen in time, derelict and overgrown. An abandoned music store isn’t just a depository for ammo and health items, with a few records strewn around, but a place that felt as if it was desperately looted during an apocalypse and now has been overtaken by vines and serves as a sanctuary for those who should need it.

The closest that the gameplay comes to elegantly and seamlessly pairing with the overarching story occurs in such places, where Ellie and Dina feel safe enough to sing to each other, or talk about old movies, comic books they’ve found, their families, and the like. Respite and genuine engagement with the game’s morality is also offered up by the periodic flashbacks, which fill in the gaps of time in between our leaving Ellie behind in 2013 and our glimpsing the wiry, flint-eyed killer she became. These sections are all playable, and range from beautiful moments of wonder and curiosity, even laugh-out-loud humor, to devastating flashes of revelation, to the game’s biggest and most meaningful curveball, when the entire climax is put on hold while players step into the shoes of the girl, Abby, who killed Joel and is now Ellie’s ultimate target.

One might feel an understandable sense of consternation when this shift in perspective happens in the game, as Ellie’s story is already too long for its own good by the time it reaches its logical climax. But Abby, who’s built like a shot putter and commandingly voiced by Laura Bailey, is a beautifully imposing and undeniably captivating presence. But more than this, Abby’s story represents a crucial narrative shift for The Last of Us Part II, not in the sense that it humanizes the enemies that Ellie has been taking out up to this point, but for the way it allows the game’s actual theme to reveal itself. You start the campaign thinking that the story is about revenge, when it’s really one about mercy, of the meaning of sacrifice and letting go.

We learn about Abby’s connection to Joel early on during this shift in perspective, but much of her story is set in the aftermath of his murder, once Abby has returned to her Seattle militia, the Washington Liberation Front (WLF), whose members are also known as Wolves, and life goes on as usual. But that changes when her ex-boyfriend, a fellow soldier named Owen (Patrick Fugit), goes missing, and Abby goes AWOL in order to find him. And that journey leads her to Lev and Yara, siblings and former members of the Seraphites.

The closest that The Last of Us Part II gets to true villains are the Seraphites, and yet they aren’t seen as just outright evil. Hard and fast details about why this hyper-conservative order is the way it is are thin on the ground, but we know not to have too much empathy for them when you find out they’ve sentenced Lev to die for the “crime” of being transgender. The second one of these people deadnames the poor kid before trying to shoot him with a crossbow, Abby’s story very quickly becomes a roaring, bloody act of defiance solely to allow Lev and Yara—and, by extension, herself—the opportunity to live a life free of these horrors. You may feel conflict about how many Wolves need to die so Ellie can get her revenge. But you feel much, much less of that the more you realize how much the Seraphites hold Lev in contempt for just existing.

The Last of Us Part II

Lev in a scene from The Last of Us Part II. © Sony Interactive Entertainment

Even then, there’s a lot of blood spilled on the way to freedom, culminating on Abby’s side in one of the most breathtaking, anxiety-inducing action set pieces ever executed in a video game: a breakneck ride through a burning village that feels like the barbarous hate-child of Atlanta burning in Gone with the Wind and the single-shot warzone in Children of Men. Once again, there’s a faint sense in these scenes of the even stronger experience that could have been, of a story being truly told through gameplay, not cutscenes. A sequence where Lev has to coax Abby through her fear of heights to cross a man-made bridge between skyscrapers is maybe the second most tense sequence in the game, and there’s not a single Seraphite or Infected to kill in it. It’s hard not to see the frequent shootout sections as a crutch preventing the developers from thinking of sequences that are more like this one, places to give the player something more to do than engage in stealth action.

That’s despite the fact that the game is certainly aiming for more with the cinematics, and how it paints Abby and Ellie on opposite sides of a gory existential crisis, one where Ellie is blindly screaming and clawing for a life that has purpose, and Abby actually finding it. Where The Last of Us Part II leads both of them is quite haunting, a place where uneasy, wrenching questions are answered, such as at what point do we determine the cost of hate, chaos, death, and vengeance to be more or less than the cost of simply stopping?

The risk that came with making a sequel to The Last of Us was the possibility of rendering the great ambiguous ending of that game null and void. To their absolute credit, the developers at Naughty Dog have crafted a story here that walks right into that fire, and wrestles with the implications and consequences of Joel’s lie in full. It’s hard not to trace every human failure in The Last of Us Part II back to that lie, and the strongest, most special moments here are examples of unmistakably human grace transcending that self-interest, even when the game is at its darkest. It’s in Ellie seeking comfort in her girlfriend’s arms to calm her shaking hands, Lev slowly discarding the shackles of his old-time religion, but sharing the parts of it that mattered with a frightened friend. It’s in forgiveness and acceptance, in all its various, excruciating forms.

These moments are myriad throughout this sequel, and they’re so unlike what you find in a game operating on the AAA level. The Last of Us Part II is still sending a very awkward message about how much mercy truly matters when so many of the campaign’s most complex, graceful moments are out of the player’s control, but the vast majority of its moments of cruelty—thrilling and righteous though they can often be—aren’t. That’s a failure of the creative space the game inhabits as a big, expansive blockbuster more than a failure of the game itself. But most importantly, it’s a problem only because The Last of Us Part II is a game that displays such a thorough, haunted understanding of what cruelty for cruelty’s sake can do to the human soul.

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

Developer: Naughty Dog Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 24, 2020 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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