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Review: Spider-Man: Edge of Time

Bits of dialogue about a DNA chronal device, “quantum causality,” and “chronal energy polarity” are bandied about by Parker and O’Hara like they’re simple concepts to grasp.




Spider-Man: Edge of Time

After the unanticipated achievements of Batman: Arkham Asylum and Batman: Arkham City, you have to feel bad for other comic-book franchises. Where old superhero titles could coast by on average graphics and rudimentary gameplay, now gamers expect a higher polish when they suit up as their favorite DC or Marvel character. Beenox’s Spider-Man: Edge of Time has the unfair weight of the Batman franchise on its shoulders, but also the developer’s fan-favorite Shattered Dimensions from only last year. A hefty chunk of what made that game a stylish and engaging adventure for Peter Parker aficionados is washed away like a dusty cobweb here.

Thankfully, the visuals are still deserving of the franchise and the vocal talent has been improved as well. Christopher Daniel Barnes, who voiced Parker in Spider-Man: The Animated Series and Spider-Man Noir in Shattered Dimensions, steals nearly every scene. Josh Keaton (who voiced the Ultimate Spider-Mam character in Shattered Dimensions) also turns in a stellar performance as the present-day Parker. The secondary and tertiary characters are well done. Even Val Kilmer makes a cameo appearance as Walker Sloan.

The inane sci-fi plot is a head-scratcher though. The tale begins in the year 2099 as a dastardly scientist named Walker Sloan screws up the time stream. Instead of Shattered Dimensions’s four Spider-Men, we get two here, as a Spider-Man from the year 2099, named Miguel O’Hara, desperately tries to prevent Parker’s death in the alternate timeline created by Sloan. In that world, Parker works for the shadowy Alchemax Corporation instead of The Daily Bugle and the country is in a state of dystrophic collapse.

It’s a neat concept for a game, but Edge of Time is riddled with niggling plot holes, and the sci-fi mumbo jumbo that spews from the characters’ mouths can be hilarious. Bits of dialogue about a DNA chronal device, “quantum causality,” and “chronal energy polarity” are bandied about by Parker and O’Hara like they’re simple concepts to grasp. On occasion, they even poke fun at the time-traveling shenanigans. These are strong, funny characters that are given some really awkward tasks, even by video-game standards.

The story barely passes, and mos of the game’s combat also pales in comparison to that of Shattered Dimensions. The new chronal attacks you use are enjoyable, but are also overpowered. It’s easy to rack up huge combos by button-mashing. After knocking together some domes in the past, you will switch to the future, and the way that you’re shown how the past changes the future is a smart gameplay mechanic. As Parker defeats baddies and opens up new areas, a picture-in-picture portal into O’Hara’s world appears in the bottom right-hand corner of your screen. Once you’re done, O’Hara’s screen will expand to full-frame and you can take control of the 2099 hero.

You can brawl familiar baddies, such as Doctor Octopus, Black Cat, and Anti-Venom, throughout the extremely short campaign. (Prepare to only dedicate around six hours for the main story.) Unfortunately, during most of the game you battle against generic Alchemax goons that teleport into combat areas in droves. Some bosses are also needlessly difficult. During one particularly maddening boss fight, Spider-Man has to collect the big baddie’s DNA three times in order to complete a strand and eliminate him. (Yep, the ’ol video-game cliché is all over this game, especially during the banal tasks you have to deal with, and as such replay value isn’t high.)

There’s also little exploration in Edge of Time aside from unlocking an endless string of doors, and the web-slinging sequences are kept to a minimum. This could easily morph into an Iron Man or Superman video game and I wouldn’t bat an eye. The lack of identity is a shame, because previous Spidey games held such promise for the license.

All of these bothersome concerns add up to an inadequate experience. This is a moderately polished game when it comes to its graphics, textures, and sound design. It’s a shame that Beenox muffled a pretty engaging Spidey yarn with lackluster combat and insipid missions. There are thankfully more quality games being made for comic-book fans these days. Shattered Dimesions proved that. Edge of Time is just a washed out duplicate and an aide memoire of the genre’s rubbish track record pre-Arkham Asylum.

Developer: Beenox Publisher: Activision Platform: PlayStation 3 Release Date: October 4, 2011 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Journey to the Savage Planet Gamifies What It Means to Critique

The game’s themes feel like facile wallpaper over mechanics that feed into the ideas being critiqued.




Journey to the Savage Planet
Photo: 505 Games

In Journey to the Savage Planet, you work for Kindred Aerospace, a dubious space exploration company. At their behest, you’re dropped onto the uncharted planet AR-Y 26 with orders to explore, document, and ultimately plunder the place for resources. All the while, live-action videos of Kindred’s wacky CEO and audio commentary from EKO, the sociopathic ship AI, emphasize that this is all supposed to be comedic. By loudly depicting resource exploitation as well as general disregard for the environment, the company’s personnel, and any semblance of collateral damage, the developers at Typhoon Studios mean to send up colonialism and capitalism at large. (The “savage” part of the game’s title is satirical, or at least it’s supposed to be.) But like The Outer Worlds, the game’s themes feel like facile wallpaper over mechanics that still feed into the same ideas being critiqued.

Like so many modern video games, for example, you must engineer new equipment from whatever stuff you’ve scrounged from the environment. AR-Y 26’s system of branching paths, potential shortcuts, hidden health upgrades, and scan-able objects recalls Metroid Prime, only with the addition of alien alloys and mineral deposits to swat at for crafting materials. It plays like the standard-issue consume ‘em up, only with EKO’s snarky voice whispering in your ear to assure you that this is the point—that this is the commentary.

EKO jokes that your menial progression is incremental at best, and for a while, that’s true; it takes several hours before the game feels particularly satisfying to navigate, as you gradually invest in things like grappling hooks and jetpack boosts that provide double, then triple, then quadruple jumps. The combat never feels particularly good, either, since it demands too much aiming precision from what otherwise amounts to an undemanding series of dodges.

The game might have been onto something if its progression was appropriately banal or if your struggle for resources felt particularly disempowering, positing you as a lowly worker whose labor chiefly benefits someone higher up the ladder. But instead, the materials are your reward. You’re meant to comb the environment’s tall grass and hidden alcoves for any hint of more resources to vacuum up, because the allure of that incremental progress is your carrot on a stick. It’s a compulsive progression loop familiar from so many other games, where finding another orange goo or alloy chest pumps the good chemicals into the right part of your brain. The only difference is a thick cloak of irony that’s supposed to pass for subversiveness.

In a game like Subnautica, the exploration gives you a better sense of the world; it makes you feel small, makes you appreciate what you’re taking from it to survive. At its most intermittently successful, Journey to the Savage Planet is built with a thrilling verticality that might have achieved a comparable, if far less successful, effect. The outcrops of floating rocks are conducive to death-defying shortcuts and last-minute grapples, often letting you hop right off the edge of one area to immediately land in another far below.

But the game scarcely quiets down long enough to give in to these moments of wonder, undercutting any fleeting semblance of awe with obnoxious comedy. AR-Y 26 is a playground to be bulldozed, full of things to poke, prod, and jokily slaughter in Kindred’s name. It is, for example, reasonably humorous that your jetpack vomits out a conspicuous cloud of smug. But it becomes far less funny once EKO insists with a wink that, no, it definitely isn’t harming the environment. The whole game is like this. There’s no restraint or subtlety to the comedy, only loud and constant underscoring of the things that the writers (often mistakenly) believe to be funny, like an explorer log that details horror at encountering the “Valley of a Thousand Farts.” Titles and text entries are riddled with groan-inducing internet lingo, as one quest advises you to “kill it with fire” and EKO’s self-written encyclopedia entry opens with “It me.”

There’s perhaps a version of this game that’s content to shut up and let players get their colonialist kicks in blissful ignorance. Though it wouldn’t fix the problems inherent to the premise or video game progression systems in general, it would rouse a mere fraction of the irritation. But as is, so full of insistent and toothless satire, Journey to the Savage Planet is a monument to hypocrisy, content to gamify and reward the very things it means to criticize. The result is less an anti-capitalist statement than a statement that anti-capitalism is trendy.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by 505 Games.

Developer: Typhoon Studios Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 28, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Crude Humor, Language, Use of Drugs, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: SELF Nightmarishly Grapples with Our Vanishing Sense of Self

SELF rejects the power-building, level-gaining escapism that typifies the majority of pop games.




Photo: indienova

Developer doBell’s SELF employs a storytelling mode that defies easy categorization. For one, you must play the game and see multiple endings in order to truly understand the nature of a young boy’s search for his missing dad in a world that scarcely comprehends him. The text-based narrative is, for no immediately apparent reason, presented as subtitles on a monitor that will often be overwhelmed by static at certain points. The game’s terse writing places your playable character in a dream of sorts, where the people closest to him avoid answering his questions and where everyone in the city he calls home can disappear in the blink of an eye. The effect is nothing short of nerve-wracking.

By repeatedly showing an image of cracked glass, where the diverging lines of the crack are explicitly characterized by the narrative as different pathways and destinations in the story, SELF encourages the player to restart the game after arriving at one of many endings. The proceedings concern a child named John who wakes up from sleep only to enter an obfuscating nightmare of an existence in which he cannot find his father. The fractured narrative is consistently fascinating to put together as a puzzle, even if does occasionally lead to tedium. Even though a helpful checkpoint system allows the player to skip parts of the story, you may still have to retread sections of SELF’s narrative that you recently finished reading, depending on which ending you’re trying to discover on a subsequent playthrough.

A bigger drawback of SELF, though, is its occasional reliance on the “bullet avoidance” of Toby Fox’s acclaimed indie Undertale. This type of gameplay is one-dimensional by design, as the player simply controls a powerless icon within a box and attempts to avoid contact with objects that move into the space. The largely mindless routine of moving a bland avatar—a heart in Undertale, a crudely drawn face within a square in SELF—away from easy-to-dodge projectiles becomes stale, and the action is even more unsatisfying in SELF, as objects entering the box have even more predictable trajectories than those in Undertale.

Luckily, everything else about SELF largely works and adds up to an unsettling and revelatory experience. John’s mother absurdly evades the child’s questions about the new status quo. Eventually, he’s able to leave the house for answers, but visits to an arcade, school, hospital, and bus bring more confusion before the player is able to discern exactly what has happened to John’s family. And along the way, any sense of calm in the story is challenged by a variety of sharp sound effects, from balloons popping to the high-pitched dinging of bells.

The game goes in different directions based on whether John wishes to “face” the truth during crucial moments in the story, and the various endings often transpire out of nowhere and vary in their emotional impact. In an unexpectedly comic turn, one ending brilliantly comments on the tale’s general sense of fatalism: At the very start of SELF, the player can choose to keep going back to sleep rather than get out of bed—one of gaming’s oldest clichés—and this decision brings you to “The Happiest Ending,” in which John never has to wake up to the disturbing dreamscape that awaits him otherwise.

Other choices reveal curious reversals of seemingly established facts. If you’re able to trigger particular memories within the dreamlike narrative, the text will sometimes read as if it’s written more from the perspective of John’s father. And deeper into SELF, the script implies that perhaps you’re actually playing as the father who imagines himself as the son.

Although the story certainly suggests that dreams contain hard-to-define approximations of reality, the ultimate theme of SELF is that you are whom you love. In a mind-blowing twist on the game’s primary visual conceit of a monitor displaying text, SELF redefines the screen as a mirror with nails in its corners. If you remove the nails and then the mirror, another mirror appears with a silhouette of a kid. From there, one by one, mirrors can be pulled away to reveal a larger shadow of a person. The tragedy of life, as SELF sees it, is the older we get, the more we grow, but this growth is offset by a loss of self via the deaths of loved ones. Far from an orthodox release, SELF rejects the power-building, level-gaining escapism that typifies the majority of pop games that audiences so casually, unassumingly embrace.

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

Developer: doBell Publisher: indienova Platform: Switch Release Date: January 16, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Language Buy: Game

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Review: The First-Person Puzzler Lightmatter Coasts on One Bright Idea

It can’t step out of the silhouette of its most brilliant predecessor, Portal.




Photo: Aspyr

At the start of the first-person puzzler Lightmatter, within the mined-out heart of a mountain, an arrogant scientist, Virgil, is experimenting with ways in which to efficiently turn light into an energy source. Things inevitably go wrong, and soon your blank slate of a protagonist is stranded in the depths of the mountain, trying to follow Virgil’s caustic directions in order to safely evacuate a facility overrun with killer shadows. It’s a concept that turns everyday objects, from an overhead ceiling fan to a conveyor belt, into deadly platforming challenges, as the shadows they cast must be avoided at all costs.

At one point, Virgil directly compares this situation to the classic childhood game “The Floor Is Lava.” It’s a too-winking nod that calls attention to the carefully constructed nature of Lightmatter’s puzzles, which are better encountered as a naturally occurring part of a given area’s background, like the way in which a cubicle farm’s haphazard arrangement of desks and chairs damningly form a river of shadows that must somehow be forded. In such moments, the game hews closer to The Witness than Portal, in that the puzzles feel like natural extensions of the environment as opposed to artificially engineered test chambers.

The correct paths through Lightmatter’s once-generic office and cavern areas are deliberately engineered to have a single, tricky solution. But the game generally does well to distract the player from this contrived construction, wherein the path to the exit is always blocked by a broken light source but the moveable klieg lights and beam-reflecting photon connectors you’ll use to literally shine some light on the problem are always conveniently within reach.

It’s not until the last third of the game that the puzzles become jarringly conspicuous in their design. Until this point, the various contraptions found within the facility—like conveyors and light-activated switches—have a practical purpose, whether that’s for transporting quarried rocks or for testing and containing the lightmatter. Only a few of these machines felt like they served no purpose other than creating a puzzle, like an elevator that doesn’t normally travel between floors, requiring instead that you send it back to the first floor so that you can ride atop it to the third. In these final experimental labs, though, the rooms give themselves over to needless brain-teaser padding, as they serve no purpose beyond stymying players.

On a visual level, the developers at Tunnel Vision Games have done a fine job of translating the complexities of lighting into a puzzle mechanism. Going with a clean, cel-shaded look, as opposed to a more photorealistic aesthetic, ensures that the spotlight effects operate predictably in each environment, just as the game’s muted palette makes it easier to distinguish between objects. Perhaps taking a cue from Mirror’s Edge, the rare splashes of color—green plants, orange machinery sparks, red warning lights—help make even clearer what can be interacted with. And, incidentally, this streamlined aesthetic doesn’t lead to dumbed-down puzzles, as the complexity of each area stems from clever design as opposed to an excessive number of obstacles or a misleading series of visual cues.

Would that the game’s mad-scientist-run-amok storyline weren’t so derivative. There’s not a single transmission from Virgil that doesn’t bring the comically sociopathic ribbing of Portal’s GLaDOS to mind. (There’s even a reference to Aperture Laboratory and its cake.) Those lines can do little else, because Virgil is ultimately as much of a cypher as your own “persistent, replaceable, and silent” player character, whom Virgil identifies as a tourist, a safety inspector, a journalist, and, finally, a spy, as if trying to establish what the developers won’t.

This is a game that tasks you with trying to escape the facility in one moment, then with helping to shut it down in the next. And because your motivations are so ill-defined, it’s impossible not to see your character as anything but a vehicle for solving puzzles, ensuring that Lightmatter is unable to step out of the silhouette of its most brilliant predecessor. And that’s a damning thing for a game that’s all about deadly shadows.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Zebra Partners.

Developer: Tunnel Vision Games Publisher: Aspyr Platform: PC Release Date: January 15, 2020 Buy: Game

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The 100 Best Video Games of the 2010s

Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward.



The 100 Best Video Games of the 2010s
Photo: Cardboard Computer

Comedian Kumail Nanjiani claimed some years back that video games are the only art form that got better solely because of technology. While that’s arguably been true for much of the medium’s history, it ceased to be the case in the 2010s. The decade in gaming didn’t lack for astounding technical achievements, but its arc was defined less by powerful technology than powerful ideas.

This was the decade that saw tiny studios, lone creators, and crazy concepts reign supreme. This was the decade that saw every platform become a viable place for ideas to sprout and bloom. The limits of the medium are seemingly bound only by the human imagination, and at every level, regardless of the horsepower needed, it now feels like anything is possible.

The decade’s best games took full advantage of that new freedom by pushing the envelope in every direction. Wherever the medium goes from here, these are the games that point the way forward. Justin Clark

BioShock Infinite

100. BioShock Infinite

BioShock Infinite is a visceral experience about an irredeemable psychopath murdering a city of despicable fundamentalists. Booker Dewitt is tasked with saving a reality-tearing woman from a floating white-supremacist paradise, leading to the interactive slaughter of its inhabitants; so much was made of the game’s violence that many overlooked that the repugnant brutality was exactly the point. While most shooters shy away from grue or any consequences to the player’s actions, BioShock Infinite vividly depicts these rippling across universes, where a single choice can carry disastrous results. This is an astonishing game that philosophizes on the human condition—consider that the opponents of Columbia’s segregation aren’t interested in equality, only in suppressing their suppressors—while critiquing its entire genre, concluding that the protagonist of a first-person shooter shouldn’t be allowed to live in any universe. Ryan Aston

The Norwood Suite

99. The Norwood Suite

The public is more aware than ever of the infallibilities of well-known artists, and Cosmo D’s The Norwood Suite evokes the discomfort that many of us often feel when the dirty secrets of an icon are put on display. The setting here is a hotel that houses the legacy of a bandleader named Peter Norwood, whose exploitative relationships with other musicians come to the player’s attention via surreal trips down hidden passageways. Yet this building also bears numerous odd pleasures to behold, not least of which is a soundtrack that seamlessly morphs as you move from room to room. The characters are literally riffs in Cosmo D’s stupendous orchestration; different instruments and notes accompany different lines of dialogue as they appear on screen. The more you explore this strange location, the more you see the threat of commercialization in the form of corporate employees aiming to turn the hotel into a greater moneymaking scheme. Cosmo D gives no easy answers on how capitalistic culture can reconcile the sins of artistic giants, and that ambiguity makes The Norwood Suite a complicated and essential illustration of contemporary concerns. Jed Pressgrove


98. Overcooked

To make it absolutely clear that Overcooked isn’t your traditional cooking game, developer Ghost Town Games opens mid-apocalypse. A giant, ravenous beast—imagine the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man made of spaghetti and meatballs—threatens to consume your rooftop kitchen. The Onion King, cheering from the sidelines, implores you to fend him off by hastily preparing a soothing selection of salads; after you’ve failed, he transports you back through time, so that you can be a more seasoned chef next time. The subsequent missions, then, are less about tapping out increasingly complex orders, as with Cooking Dash and its ilk, or the exquisite, Zen-like Cook, Serve, Delicious. Instead, Overcooked keeps the recipes simple and the kitchens about as unconventionally chaotic as they come. At times, the difficulty can make this party game feel like a lot of work, although in fairness, the same can be said for Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime, another demandingly chaotic, but ultimately enjoyable, couch co-op title. The meat of the title—cooperative, chaotic cooking—is almost perfectly handled, as are the garnishes, from the catchy musical score to the delightful crew of unlockable animal chefs. By keeping the kitchens varied and the action constant, Ghost Town Games avoids the flavorless death known as repetition, and doesn’t overcook its premise. Aaron Riccio


97. Downwell

Downwell is a quarter-eater without the quarters, an arcade game from out of time. As your character tumbles down an enclosed space, collecting gems and shooting bullets from his feet, the game feels like something you play as much as you give yourself over to. Each run demands split-second decisions. Do you go back for more gems, as a cabal of monsters closes in behind you? Do you risk a stomp attack that demands more precision but will reward you with a badly needed reload? Do you break the block for gems at risk of losing space to maneuver? Each run showers you in game-changing upgrades that introduce still-more variables to consider at a moment’s notice, while you continue blasting your way into the abyss. Like the very best action games, Downwell becomes its own trance state. Steven Scaife

XCOM: Enemy Unknown

96. XCOM: Enemy Unknown

Prepare to die a lot. The modern gaming landscape is one littered with checkpoints, save states, and wonky AI. 2K Games’s reimagining of the XCOM strategy series harkens back to the cult classic’s unsettling gameplay and punishing difficulty. The rewarding sensation one receives after successfully commanding a squad out of a heated skirmish with strange intergalactic warriors is unparalleled in modern games. These tense battles eventually lead the player to actually form an emotional bond with your team members, which makes their inevitable demise that much more crushing. These interactive elements lend XCOM’s tense action an atmosphere that’s engrossing and wholly addictive. It’s easy to treasure an old-school counter-offensive game that understands the motivating power of fear. Kyle Lemmon

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

95. Deus Ex: Human Revolution

In the not-so-distant future, large corporations and multinational firms have developed their operations beyond the control of national governments, and human biomechanical augmentation is simultaneously rising in popularity across the world and being demonized for its role in changing humanity. Like the very best sci-fi, Deus Ex: Human Revolution is about ethics and consequences; this is a game that asks what it is to be human. The game presents both the rise of biotechnology as a means to advance human ability and the human experience, and the subsequent consequences on the world. Its layered narrative matches its deep multifaceted gameplay, set in a rich and atmospheric universe that feels not too far away from our own. Despite a slow start and occasional missteps (the much maligned boss fights were “fixed” for DLC), Eidos Montreal has created an engaging, compelling experience that does justice to the critically acclaimed Deus Ex series. Aston

Death Stranding

94. Death Stranding

Hideo Kojima’s first game away from Konami, Death Stranding, finds him tearing down the familiar structure of the open-world game and building it back up again as something weirder, more deliberate, and more honest about what it is. It transforms basic traversal into the entire conceit rather than more or less a time sink between story missions and side activities. It peels away the artifice of open-world structure, revealing the dressed-up delivery missions underneath while declaring that they’re a worthwhile pursuit in their own right. And once you’ve totally internalized that idea, the tools the game provides become enthralling revelations: You eventually build sprawling highways and ziplines that propel you across arduous terrain. You’ve worked for them. You’ve earned them. Death Stranding is an admirable experiment for big-budget game design, playing like one long, bizarre, and startlingly persuasive argument that the journey is fulfilling in its own right. Scaife


93. Iconoclasts

While Iconoclasts’s bright and imaginative 2D pixelated graphics would look right at home on a 16-bit console of yore, its themes and ideas are very much that of the modern day. The game’s silent protagonist, Robin, is trapped in a fascistic society ruled by fundamentalist dogma, where her skills as a mechanic are outlawed, positioning her as a criminal and counterforce in a setting that opposes scientific advancement and free-thinking. Robin’s journey to escape execution and expose the truth of her society’s dominating political organization aligns her with other well-crafted characters who oppose the tyrannical theocracy both in ideology and ability, and it’s through its characters’ unique facilities that Iconoclasts demonstrates a kind of Ludonarrative harmony, as the gameplay and themes are in lockstep, crafting an experience that tackles important issues of faith, religion, and totalitarianism. Throughout, Iconoclasts’s varied gameplay mechanics directly serve the narrative. Consider Robin’s special tool, an illegal wrench, and how it not only symbolizes suppression of science and personal freedoms, but is used as a weapon against enemies and a means of controlling technology and traversing obstacles, often directly modifying and rearranging objects in the world. It also pushes Robin toward her ultimate goal of fixing the broken world for good. Aston

Yakuza 0

92. Yakuza 0

This prequel faced the unenviable task of taking a decades-old abstruse Japanese series and making it accessible for the masses. Kazuma Kiryu and Goro Majima, important underworld figures later in the series, are introduced to us as a low-level recruit and disgraced outcast, respectively, from different organized crime syndicates. They’re pulled into a conspiracy after Kazuma is framed for murder and Goro rejects an assassination job after finding out that the target is a defenseless blind girl. Their captivating narratives come together in a larger plot brimming with sociopolitical intrigue about property development and clan territory. Think of Yakuza 0 as noir through the lens of ‘80s Japan. Its gameplay simplifies the series’s complicated mechanics without limiting the player or compromising the variety in the details. One can take part in any manner of activities throughout the Tokyo and Osaka settings while progressing through the campaign, allowing the game to prove itself both as a compelling prequel to an ongoing series and as its own self-contained story. Aston


91. Dishonored

Arkane Studios’s Dishonored combines elements of other immersive sims, like BioShock and Thief, to create a mechanically enjoyable first-person stealth game that challenges your awareness and resourcefulness. While its narrative about betrayal and revenge is familiar, the game is enticing for the autonomy it offers players. Dishonored is very much a gamer’s game: It hands you a target—kill High Overseer Campbell, for example—before then turning you lose, giving you the freedom of the world and Corvo’s powers to deal with your target however you see fit. Though the end of every mission may resort to a binary lethal/non-lethal choice, the ways you can approach any mission are bountiful, making each run different enough to warrant multiple playthroughs. Jeremy Winslow

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Review: Life Is Strange 2 Boldly and Directly Plumbs America’s Darkness

Living in America as a kid with brown skin has never been harder, or more frightening, and the game is a harsh primer in that fact.




Life Is Strange 2
Photo: Square Enix

Just as it looms heavy over every other aspect of America in real life, the 2016 election wreaks havoc in Life Is Strange 2. When we meet this sequel’s protagonist, a Latinx high schooler named Sean Diaz, it’s late 2015. The first presidential debates have already happened and those blowing up his social media feed and text messages are angry and fearful. Trump’s threats to everybody who looks like him and his nine-year-old brother, Daniel, feel like an approaching storm. Ten minutes into the game, that anger and fear is palpable.

But the storm hits Sean a lot earlier than the rest of us. An altercation with the school bully living next door turns violent, the cops are called, and when Sean’s father tries to calm the situation down, he’s shot when he doesn’t get on the ground fast enough. Naturally, you can guess where this could be going from here. But this is the world of Life Is Strange, and the cycle of grief turning to anger turning to acquittals turning to fury turning to resignation is stopped dead when Daniel starts to manifest a particularly powerful, albeit unfocused, form of telekinesis which saves him and Sean from a jail cell, but at the expense of a few dead cops.

The realities of classism were mostly color and texture to the first Life Is Strange’s central missing-girl mystery, but they’re the bold-faced text of the sequel. Sean and Daniel leave their hometown of Seattle to go on the run after the incident—rather pointedly, the plan is to cross the border wall into Mexico—and it’s all the more frightening and distressing that they’re two Latinx kids now at the mercy of America at its best and worst. For every woke travel-blogging road-tripper willing to give these kids new bags and a hotel room for the night, for every aging yuppie trying their damndest to make up for their conservative, authoritarian past by helping the brothers keep tabs on the nearby police presence, there are legions of townsfolk with nothing to give these kids except for the side-eye. It’s as if Sean and Daniel’s mere existence has an ulterior motive. And Life Is Strange 2 doesn’t relent on portraying how suffocating such a life can be. You’re never not fully aware of who might be looking, who’s asking questions, who’s tensed up just by these brown kids walking into a white space, and if that sounds more like a horror game than a languid, delicate, sun-bathed point-and-click adventure, imagine living it in a world where there are no super powers to get you out of such a situation.

The living is the key here. It almost feels like a bit of a cop-out, pun unintended, when the game goes for tense Stranger Things-style action set pieces involving the police and the F.B.I. or America First xenophobes, because the situation is tense enough in the disquieting scenes of Sean and Daniel simply attempting to live in America without any of its social safety nets. Much of the gameplay, just as in the first Life Is Strange, is spent in dialogue trees. At any given moment, the brothers are trying to hide Daniel’s powers and their status as fugitives, or just plain hiding. This sequel is still a bit more kinetic and proactive than this style of adventure title typically is, but the puzzle-solving smartly takes a backseat to the building and maintaining of relationships. Creating a bond with anyone in the game while in a pressure-cooker situation is a risk, and the payoff isn’t always worth it, especially because of what it could teach young Daniel, who’s also affected by Sean’s choices, and whose morality can shift fluidly during gameplay. He could become this universe’s Eleven, or he could become its Tetsuo, and it all hinges on what he sees and hears from his big brother at any time.

That bond is the most crucial one in Life Is Strange 2, and ultimately the most powerful thing about the game. This is, above all things, a story of brotherhood, and it’s just as emotionally honest about two kids at different pivotal stages of their lives making the decisions that will define them as men as it is about the reality of living in America as an “other.” The choices aren’t limited to some clearly-defined “good” option in the dialogue tree either, with many of the things that shape Sean and Daniel’s relationship coming down to a simple choice between scolding Daniel, deciding to tuck the kid in bed as opposed to hanging out with new friends, or teaching him what faith and forgiveness and grace actually mean.

Yes, the bigger choices in Life Is Strange 2—whether to lie to Daniel about what happened to their father, whether to tell the kid to kill a wild animal threatening them at their hideout, whether to plow through a police barricade—make the expected huge shifts in the narrative, but it’s the cumulative choices that are most impressive. In the middle episode, “Wastelands,” Daniel will choose to help a new friend carry out a major crime whether you think it’s a good idea or not. And how that mistake plays out when it goes wrong is dependent on every way that Sean has previously interacted with Daniel—whether he’s shown Daniel that mercy is a virtue, that Sean’s word is his bond when he promises never to lie to him, and whether he’s shown Daniel that he trusts his judgment. Neither Sean nor Daniel have all the answers, but what few answers Sean does provide his brother significantly matter.

It’s still a long, excruciating march toward the Mexican border, but what keeps Sean and Daniel going—and the player by proxy—are the grace notes of interpersonal kindness, those moments where the two brothers stop to appreciate the beauty of the country they’ll probably never get to see again, and the warmth of the places they call home along the way, temporary though they may be. Living in America as a kid with brown skin has never been harder, or more frightening, and Life Is Strange 2 is a harsh primer in that fact. Nevertheless, there’s light and beauty in this journey, as this is a game that values the boundless hope of the two young men at its center, and without invalidating America’s darkness.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Square Enix.

Developer: DONTNOD Entertainment Publisher: Square Enix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: December 4, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Drugs and Alcohol, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Wattam Whimsically Tasks Us with Finding the Epic in the Mundane

Wattam communicates a poignant, refreshing, and all-too-necessary joy in the face of adversity.




Photo: Annapurna Interactive

One of the characters you play in Wattam is the Mayor, a green cube with a little mustache. He wears a black bowler hat, and beneath it is some kind of regenerating bomb that sends him and anyone in his vicinity rocketing through the air with colored smoke trailing behind them. But this bomb isn’t a malicious weapon, as it acts as a sort of activity that the Wattam world’s denizens, an assortment of inanimate objects with faces and limbs, all crave, begging the Mayor to “kaboom” them into the air. Sometimes, after a particularly twisty kaboom, they’ll vomit little rainbows into the grass.

If everything I’ve described thus far sounds hopelessly weird and discombobulated, it gets even more so. But it also makes some measure of sense within the colorful, anarchic, kindergarten-evoking aesthetic of Keita Takahashi, who’s best known for creating the equally peculiar Katamari series. Wattam, though, is more free-form than those games, functioning like a playground for the various objects that the Mayor befriends through activities like kaboom-ing, climbing on top of characters to form a big precarious stack, or locking hands so their individual soundtrack themes layer on top of one another.

There’s almost a method to Wattam’s dream-logic madness, as the world has ended, and everything in it has been scattered to the void. The Mayor starts out alone on a grassy expanse, and across the game’s few hours you’ll rediscover that which was lost in a mysterious apocalypse. Sometimes the characters, like a tiny stone, simply appear as though they were there all along, but mainly groups of characters arrive through holes in the sky while riding on the backs of giant floating tables, chairs, and other things that latch onto the environment with their massive hands. A big table, for example, will drop off some sentient utensils, while a large toilet might arrive carrying another, smaller toilet. Everything is greeted with a “welcome back” message, in a little pop-up window for smaller objects (“Welcome back, fork”) and in huge, screen-filling font for big, flying transport entities (“Welcome back, table”).

With its themes of cooperation and putting the world back together, the game oddly treads similar thematic territory to Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, while its sprawling portrait of a universe at multiple sizes recalls David OReilly’s Everything. But as with Katamari, Takahashi’s gentle and simplistic style approaches these ideas in ways that are at once pleasantly straightforward and hilariously unexpected, providing missions that require you to harness the surprising abilities of the growing horde of people-objects who all have individual, mundane names like Charlie and Eric. Completing these missions prompts the arrival of more characters, who are attracted by the presence of the friends you’ve helped.

The missions divide Wattam into essentially a series of comedic vignettes, an assembly line of wildly differing abilities up through the end of the game. Though you’re free to, say, turn on the fan that blows away characters at any time after it’s introduced, many of the abilities are used once or twice before something new appears and the lovely, offbeat soundtrack changes according to the task. The whole experience is wildly unpredictable, with the occasional bits of repetition lulling you into a false sense that you’ve seen all of what Wattam has to offer. Every time the game seems close to running out of creative steam, it adds some ridiculous new wrinkle seemingly for the hell of it, like a bizarre cooperative boss battle or the disembodied mouth that transforms everything into sentient cartoon poop.

Though a lot of the comedy here is born out of how totally inscrutable the game is, with objects arriving according to no apparent hierarchy whatsoever (a camera, for one, might appear before an ice cream cone does), the themes of Wattam come through clearly. The game muses about how sad it is that we need some kind of catastrophe to appreciate what’s in front of us, asking the player to revel in the small pleasures of things that seem, at first, totally insignificant. Through deceptively simple mechanics, music, and art, Wattam communicates a poignant, refreshing, and all-too-necessary joy in the face of adversity.

Developer: Funomena Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: December 17, 2019 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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The 25 Best Video Games of 2019

In 2019, the best games took the industry’s standard operating procedure and punted it out the window.



The 25 Best Games of 2019
Photo: Hempuli

Although it was released in the doldrums of March, one title on our list of the 25 Best Games of 2019 could serve as the anarchic manifesto of the entire year in gaming. The brainchild of Finnish indie developer Arvi Teikarti, a.k.a. Hempuli, Baba Is You is, ostensibly, a very simple pixel-art puzzle platformer. But it’s also one that doesn’t give players the rules to beat it, telling them that every single one of those rules aren’t just made to be broken, but must be broken in order to persevere.

The spirit of 2019 in gaming was one of disruption, one that took the industry’s standard operating procedure and punted it out the window. Logic says that only a certain level of production can make the games people love, that only by following the rules of what sells can a game find an audience, that only one company can own the ideas behind an IP, and that only by squeezing players dry through additional purchases can a game be made that people will keep coming back to. But that logic was always faulty, and this year, it failed.

This was a year where the best Castlevania game in a decade didn’t have Konami’s name on it, where Bethesda had nothing to do with the best Fallout title to come out in twice as many years, and where the best Star Wars game does the exact opposite of everything its publisher had been doing with the license for five years. And that’s just what was happening in the AAA arena. Indeed, those who ventured into the realm of indie games glimpsed developers taking wild, bold leaps of faith, subverting every genre imaginable, and doing so with great success. This was a year where the fearless side of the industry showed itself, and these 25 games are the greatest victors, the ones that dared the most, and won big. Justin Clark

Slay the Spire

25. Slay the Spire

Slay the Spire’s deck-building mechanic guarantees that every run will be an entirely new experience. You’re bound not only by the types of cards you gain in each run, but the literal luck of the draw in which you pull them in combat. As a result, even the simplest encounter is bespoke, and every decision is a finely tuned risk-reward gamble. The spire’s branching paths lead to events with their own branching decisions, the results of which determine whether you can, say, afford the merchant or if you can forgo a healing snooze in order to upgrade a card. Slay the Spire, the brainchild of Mega Crit Games, guarantees nothing other than your character’s starting set of attack and defense cards (and perhaps a modicum of fun), so each new run forces you to be maximally clever in wringing bloody synergies out of otherwise rocky randomness. But as brutal as Slay the Spire may be, these runs ultimately come down to smart luck. The game gleefully telegraphs what each foe is going to do in combat, so if you die, it’s because you haven’t prepared enough. Shuffle up and deal with it, because there’s always another—and another, and another—try. Aaron Riccio

Sunless Skies

24. Sunless Skies

Sunless Sea, from 2015, had players chart a vast and perilous ocean into which London fell. That game’s follow-up, Sunless Skies, delivers yet another intimidating journey into the unknown, only this time with the player slowly combing an airspace littered by the remains of destroyed ships. The sounds of this game vivify the “Britain of the heavens” setting, with the hissing of steam, the ever-creaking machinery, and the distant noise of cannons serving as constant reminders of a dangerous and overindustrialized world. As in Sunless Sea, greed and a thirst for exploration function as a double-edged sword, leading players to the darkest corners of the map or simply death. Developer Failbetter Games has proven itself again a skilled purveyor of Lovecraftian suspense, where our curiosities get the better of us in gradual fashion, as underlined by blunt and wry writing that’s deliciously typical of a traditional British mindset. Jed Pressgrove

Void Bastards

23. Void Bastards

A transport spaceship bearing an assortment of freeze-dried prisoners is stranded in a nasty nebula. There, pirates roam, monsters devour ships, and all the unfortunate citizens have been bizarrely mutated into murderous, foul-mouthed horrors. Once rehydrated, prisoners are shooed out into this unforgiving corner of space to scavenge derelict ships for parts until their probable death, after which the next unfortunate soul indicted for a comedically pedantic crime continues the work. And so on. The gears of capitalism turn even in these ruins of bureaucratic failure. As setups go, it’s a cheeky, immaculate framing device for a roguelike, and the amount of forethought that Void Bastards affords you is rare for this genre of game. It imbues the experience with a greater sense of consequence since you’re not at the mercy of randomization so much as your ability to plan and execute, as well as knowing when to retreat or when to avoid a ship entirely. An ideal run of Void Bastards is about planning, going on a run, and then having your plans upended by any of the different variables at work, requiring you to quickly adapt while coming up with a new plan. Steven Scaife

Untitled Goose Game

22. Untitled Goose Game

There’s an old Steve Martin quote about how comedy can be art, but anyone who deliberately sets out to make art through comedy has already failed. To that same point, developers House House didn’t set out to make a game with near-universal appeal with Untitled Goose Game—famously, the premise alone was a private joke shared on a Slack channel at work—but they stumbled upon it nonetheless. Untitled Goose Game is one of those rare experiences where it’s hilarious just existing in the world of the game, and in no small part for the way it plays it 100% straight, aside from a playful context-sensitive piano underscoring the player’s chaos. Just giving players the ability to waddle around a neighborhood and honk in people’s faces could’ve been the game by itself, but instead, it’s all about finding new, innovative ways to pull of various annoyance crimes within very basic but innately understood mechanics, and the payoff is almost always worth the effort. This is a game about true banal evil. So many so-called mature artists have attempted to edgelord their way into relevancy and found only a niche audience waiting for them, while House House’s Goose has managed to become the purest agent of chaos of our time, and managed to win the hearts and minds of the world. Clark

The Outer Worlds

21. The Outer Worlds

Obsidian doesn’t stray too far from their roots with The Outer Worlds, an open-world first-person RPG reminiscent of Fallout: New Vegas. The socio-political commentary isn’t subtle, as the player character awakens from cryosleep to a futuristic world on the edge of the galaxy run by megacorporations that own workers as property and will happily let colonies of people die if it benefits their bottom line. But The Outer Worlds deviates from the modern Fallout formula by including a Normandy-style ship that allows you to travel to different planets instead of just one large open area, with a crew who can be taken on missions. Helping the rebellious mercenary Ellie recover from a disastrous attempt to reunite with her disapproving upper-class parents lets the player embrace their humanity by offering her support—or take to darker instincts and just gleefully murder the elitist pricks. As for helping shy mechanic Pavarti, an asexual queer woman of a color, prepare for a date she’s nervous about, the whole enterprise is delightful in no small part for how it taps into our sense of belonging. The Outer Worlds might take players to far-away planets to fight battles that reshape societies, but it’s heart ultimately lies in its more interpersonal moments. Ryan Aston

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Review: Mosaic Gets the Feel of Monotony, for Better and for Worse

Did you know that corporations are bad? That the drudgeries of adult life are soul-crushing?




Photo: Raw Fury

Did you know that corporations are bad? That the drudgeries of adult life are soul-crushing? That doing the same thing at work with little variation can make you feel like a cog in a machine, and that there’s nothing you can do about it because the numbing routine of work and sleep is simply what you must do to survive? If you’ve somehow made it this far in life without learning such basic truths—and without having seen them literalized as some sort of gray corporate haze in a commercial for toothpaste or erectile dysfunction pills or something—Mosaic may prove enlightening. For everyone else, though, the aesthetics of this brief game from Krillbite Studios will seem mighty familiar.

You play here as an anonymous corporate worker whose apartment, clothes, and every existence have a sort of drab, DMV-esque color palette. You drag him around the screen and click on things to complete basic tasks like brushing his teeth, grabbing an umbrella before heading out the door, or pulling out his smartphone so he can stare at in an elevator. Much of Mosaic consists of intermittent snapshots of his work commute, where there’s a sense that something is wrong with the all-consuming corporate career and a passive society. Everyone seems to be fueling some mysterious machine here. At work, he sits at a computer clicking around some obscure, infernal contraption until he wakes up the next morning to begin again.

Bright colors mark the things outside this malaise: a butterfly, a bit of grass, a street performer, a goldfish that speaks and tags along in the breast pocket of the rumpled shirt draped over your bloated, TV dinner-fed body. The monotony, see, causes the protagonist’s mind to wander. He’ll imagine himself perpetually drowning, shrunken down to be crushed by the shoes of his co-workers, and fed into a machine to be squashed into a cube. With a striking low-detail look and fixed camera angles that create a backdrop of vast societal routine, where people on escalators crisscross in the background like spiderwebs, Mosaic’s imagery is often evocative. But it’s too often in service of such ludicrously trite material.

To some degree, what the game gets right is the feel of monotony. It presents the same apartment day after day, intentionally filled with the same tasks to perform. Eventually, perhaps, you just stop doing them. There’s no reason to tidy your hair when there’s no one around to impress, no reason to check the mail because the only people who care about you are the companies sending “overdue” notices, and no reason to even turn on the lights because you can see what you need to see just fine in the dark. So you stop, acclimating to a routine and streamlining wherever possible. It’s even a little sad.

Mosaic was originally released as an Apple Arcade game, and it feels strange outside that context, where it would otherwise be a functional, fleeting experience among so many others, a small diversion. The game seems tailor-made for that environment, not just because the PC controls are a little clumsy, but because its sleek aesthetics and simulation of banal, interconnected smartphone activities—a vapid clicker game, a Bitcoin-esque tracker, a heteronormative dating app where everyone looks the same—seem to directly critique the overpowering Apple ecosystem. But to consider Mosaic’s original context only makes it seem more toothless, as the game is a pretty, polite, and ultimately limp act of protest you can conveniently prod at between bouts of scrolling through social media feeds.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Raw Fury.

Developer: Krillbite Studios Publisher: Raw Fury Platform: PC Release Date: December 5, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, violence Buy: Game

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Review: Shenmue 3 Brings Philosophical Depth to Video Game Action

The game fulfills a vision of steadfast humanity within the framework of a martial arts revenge tale.




Shenmue 3
Photo: Deep Silver

Today’s most popular video games don’t lack for comprehensive in-game instructions, waypoint-ridden maps, and streamlined actions, all of which can make players feel at ease and in control. Ignoring such conventions, Shenmue 3 often avoids explicit detail about its functions—one amusing line of combat tutorial text simply reads, “Just hit the [face] buttons”—and encourages the player to talk to individuals to get directions. This stripped-down approach recalls, to some extent, the way video games used to be made in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the time period when the first two Shenmue entries graced the Sega Dreamcast. But it’s also representative of the artistic conviction of series creator Yu Suzuki, who uses deliberate pacing, down-to-earth character interactions, and mundane activities to fulfill a vision of steadfast humanity within the framework of a martial arts revenge tale.

Shenmue 3, which went through well more than a decade of planning and development, picks up where Shenmue 2 left off, with Ryo Hazuki, a young Japanese man hunting his father’s killer, joining forces with a Chinese woman named Shenhua Ling, whose own father is missing. In a departure from its predecessors, a large part of the game takes place in a rural area, specifically a Chinese village called Bailu. It’s there that Ryo and Shenhua learn how their fates are intertwined as they track down criminals responsible for attacks on the village.

It’s a straightforward setup, but it’s one that’s enriched by Suzuki’s unhurried style. As Ryo, the player very gradually visits every part of Bailu. A new section can only be accessed when the plot calls for it. In other games, this type of restraint on freedom of movement can be frustrating, but Suzuki’s laser-like focus on characterization and theme make the slow journey beautiful to undertake. Every aspect of the village is distinguished, from the settlement near a grove of sunflowers to the marketplace, and full of the most compellingly human-like NPCs since The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. The villagers vary significantly by age, appearance, and personality, and the most notable include Mao Yuefang, a middle-aged woman who can be generally helpful but makes inappropriate suggestions about and to Ryo and Shenhua; Jiang Ming, an old man who sits on a bench and comically misinterprets what Ryo says; and Shen Wei, a driven young woman who pours out thanks to anyone who will spar with her.

Like prior entries in the series, as well as the open-world games they’ve inspired, Shenmue 3 utilizes a day-night cycle. But whereas some developers seem to include this feature in their games just to fit under a particular umbrella of realism, Suzuki also sees the passage of time as the key ingredient for deeper relationships. Every night before Ryo sleeps, the player may initiate revealing conversations with Shenhua. The two can trade histories, remarking about the disciplinary styles of their fathers, their different childhood games, and the absence of their mothers. A flute melody, both wistful and utterly sincere, accompanies these talks, reflecting the scenes’ (and Suzuki’s) emotional maturity and unassuming B-movie sensibility.

Thematically, Shenmue 3 is fixated on the significance of patience and dignity, both in its mechanics and its story. Fighting as Ryo isn’t easy and can be quite awkward, so the game nudges the player to keep going to the dojo to build strength and technique through stances, timed attacks, and sparring. There’s a marked sense that Ryo feels shame when he loses a battle, as the people around him, including his opponents, will bluntly suggest he needs more discipline. In a rejection of popular video-game norms, Shenmue 3 doesn’t allow Ryo to barge into homes with closed front doors. It’s telling that Ryo refuses to even walk into Shenhua’s open room, and the game’s emphasis on respect is so great that when Ryo, in a moment of frustration, uses the mild profanity “hell,” you may find the moment genuinely surprising.

Just as Ryo is rewarded in the story for applying himself, your commitment to Shenmue 3’s mechanics over a period of time can bring greater appreciation for their design, as well as the philosophical relevance of those mechanics to the game’s narrative. In an understated masterstroke that prevents you from rushing through the game, Suzuki combines the protagonist’s health and stamina into one bar that can be refilled if Ryo eats. But food requires money, which means Ryo has to take work to get cash. One might sneer at the idea of having to split wood to subsist, but Suzuki turns the activity into its own spectacle of timing and judgment, with an upward-facing camera on the ground to emphasize Ryo’s crushing swings of the axe. An ode to the idea of careful diligence, this mini-game demands one to closely observe Ryo’s eyes so that the wood can be perfectly halved.

Anything Ryo does in Shenmue 3 entails hardship of a sort. In most 3D games of this vein, items can be grabbed with a quick touch of a button. In Shenmue 3, picking a plant requires a conscious change to first-person perspective before Ryo can be commanded to gather the resource. Clunky, perhaps, but in Suzuki’s hands, this layered action more effectively simulates the minor toil of having to bend down in real life in order to pick something up, further amplifying our perception of Ryo as a human being. Like the monks who urge Ryo to take his time developing his talents as a martial artist, Shenmue 3 asks a modern audience accustomed to instant gratification to contemplate the virtues of humbleness and persistence, regardless of whether Ryo’s task at hand is crucial or incidental to his ultimate quest for justice.

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

Developer: Ys Net Publisher: Deep Silver Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 19, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes, Simulated Gambling, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence

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Review: Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order Successfully Channels Dark Souls

Fallen Order is powerful in ways that Star Wars hasn’t been in video game form in over a decade.




Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Photo: Electronic Arts

Just by virtue of being a single-player game, with no multiplayer, no online component, no microtransactions, and no planned DLC, Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order feels like a relic from a more civilized age. The game hearkens back to the weird old days when former publisher LucasArts would just throw wild game concepts to the wall to see what sticks, often ending up with “It’s [blank] but with Star Wars” mash-ups of wildly varying quality.

In this case, the reductive elevator pitch is “Dark Souls but Star Wars.” And like most blatant Souls-likes, it’s fairly successful at aping the mechanics of FromSoftware’s titles. Death has consequences, and unless you can land a single strike against the enemy that kills you, your experience points are gone forever. Combat requires patience, and players must be smarter about how and when to strike at all times. Yet none of that is a surprise here. The surprise is that the game is often able to match up tonally with FromSoftware’s strongest efforts.

On the surface, Fallen Order is a glorified MacGuffin chase. The game takes place a few years after the events of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and our hero, Cal Kestis (Gotham and Shameless’s Cameron Monaghan) is a former Padawan who managed to escape the Empire during the Jedi Purge, cut off his connection to the Force, and now makes a quiet living stripping downed spaceships for parts. When Cal pops back on the Empire’s radar after using his powers to save a friend during a site accident, he’s picked up by Cere Junda (Debra Wilson), a former Jedi Master who’s also suppressed her connection to the Force for much more dire reasons, and Greez, an ornery pilot mostly looking to avoid some serious gambling debts by staying on the run. Cere tells Cal her plan to rebuild the Jedi Order with the help of an old artifact, called a holocron, which can locate Force-sensitive children across the galaxy.

It’s a relatively straightforward experience early on, with Cal slowly regaining basic Force proficiency, sneaking his way into grandiose temples across beautifully rendered, Empire-occupied alien planetscapes using feats of acrobatics, and solving large-scale physics puzzles akin to those in Naughty Dog’s Uncharted series. There’s more platforming involved, and developer Respawn’s endless, albeit welcome, obsession with wall-running has managed to wedge its way in here, but this is a game that has far more in common with Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice than Titanfall. Landing blows requires a deliberate balance of parrying, relentless attacks at every opening, and careful utilizing the limited pool of Force powers.

That’s all rather tense and exciting when you’re fighting people and droids, less so against the various creatures of each planet, who excel at cheap hits and tend to attack in numbers. For much of its first third, it seems that Fallen Order might fall into an appreciable but basic rut of plotting and gameplay, and it’s right around that moment that the game narratively lowers the boom. The search for the holocron is, in fact, the weakest element in a much more intimate and melancholic tale of loss, and all the varying traumas that stem from it.

The Jedi Purge, which officially began with Order 66, has always been, essentially, the Star Wars universe’s thinly veiled Kristallnacht allegory, but no other piece of work in the franchise, not even the grim Revenge of the Sith, has ever delved as intensely as Fallen Order does into what living through such a thing does to a person. Exemplified by an outright bravado sequence where a frightened Cal and his Jedi master must escape execution when Order 66 is called in, it’s made obvious that all of Cal’s early swagger and Cere’s stiff-upper-lip determination reveal themselves to be Band-Aids over still-bleeding emotional wounds.

Survivor’s guilt plays a major factor in how this story plays out over time, with the plot holes inherent to the search for the holocron being addressed as both characters over-rely on the Force for protection, and have no choice but to confront their memories, their failures, and the consequences of their actions. The main villains—all former Jedi turned Sith Inquisitors through torture and intimidation—represent a true Dark Side, the anger and guilt turned outward. No one still alive to witness the Empire’s rise to power is drawn without a level of emotional damage, and it’s fascinating to watch that aspect of the narrative live side by side with gameplay that asks players to wield their power so carefully going forward.

All of those character elements are, however, dissonant with gameplay that does still rely on rewarding the death of one’s enemies. And unlike Dark Souls or Bloodborne, the world of this game doesn’t necessarily stand in judgment of the protagonists for their failures in that regard. But there’s still immense emotional gratification in watching each character rise above their failures, to come together with other broken people, to heal properly, to face the varied atrocities of the world and find a chosen family at the end of it all.

Fallen Order tries to have its cake and eat it too, giving players the power trip of the best lightsaber combat of this generation of games, while still delivering a deeply introspective journey of forgiveness and recovery along the way, and the twain don’t always meet. Still, that the game is even attempting to thematically go where it does is nigh commendable, and powerful in ways that Star Wars hasn’t been in video game form in over a decade.

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

Developer: Respawn Entertainment Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: Xbox One Release Date: November 15, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Violence Buy: Game

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