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The Alligators Have Good Graphics, Vol. 1: Beginning Game Criticism, Vol. 1

Looking at story, character and design while ignoring interactivity would be akin to analyzing a movie based solely on the script; the entire point of the medium would be lost.

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The Alligators Have Good Graphics, Vol. 1: Beginning Game Criticism, Vol. 1
Photo: Capcom

The Internet has been extremely successful in making things seem bigger than they are. If you judge by the Internet, you’d probably think film criticism, amateur and otherwise, is a healthy and thriving hobby that a large portion of society partakes in. We know that’s not really true, with most of society paying to see movie sequels where the only thing new are the articles that have been taken out of the title. But the Internet is still full of highly-read film, TV, music and literary criticism. Much of that criticism is good criticism. Decades of slowly evolving art criticism have finally given birth to a world where a large number of people do engage in meaningful discussion, by reading or writing, on a daily basis.

It seems strange, then, that the most technological of all entertainment forms, video games, has almost no criticism to its name. There are thousands of sites devoted to writing about games and hundreds of thousands of people talking about games, but almost no one is doing so from anything resembling a critical perspective. There’s the occasional exception, but most game writing is either industry analysis or qualitative reviewing (usually amounting to some variation of “EA (Electronic Arts) is evil” and “I can’t move and shoot…FAIL”). Video game criticism, as a form, just doesn’t exist.

Do a quick Google of “video game criticism” and the evidence is compelling. The first page results show one site devoted to the type of game “criticism” which spends its time praising the realism of alligators in Resident Evil 5, and nine sites lamenting the lack of quality in video game criticism. The first result, one of the lamentations, is Chuck Klosterman’s essential Esquire piece, “The Lester Bangs of Video Games,” where he concludes “there is a void, but there is still time to fill it. Somebody needs to become the first significant Xbox critic, stat.” It was written three years ago. We’re still talking about the alligators.

Now, to be fair, there absolutely are exceptions. Articles can be found that delve deeper, usually analyzing the game creation process or phenomena like sexism in gaming (Kotaku is especially good for these pieces). Video game reviews are also really good. They’re by far the most useful of all the functional media reviews. If you want to know what exactly a game contains and what does and does not work, you can’t do better than video game reviews. They’re a shopper’s best friend.

They’re useless, though, if we’re interested in something more, something deep and meaningful. A functional review is fantastic before I go to the store but largely useless after I’ve played the game. Unless I’m looking to disagree with someone or have my own feelings reinforced, reviews are best had as an appetizer. Good luck finding that post-game dessert.

But why do we even need game criticism? Because criticism enriches art. There’s something rewarding about watching a film, reading a piece of criticism, re-watching and the film and feeling like you get it. Likewise, there’s an immense pleasure in being a critic and unlocking a complex piece of art. Criticism is an empowering form. Which brings us to the main question: If criticism is so great, why is there no great game criticism?

This is initially a hard question to answer, largely because there’s no one place to lay blame. The blame lays everywhere, from the community to the industry to games as a medium. Game criticism doesn’t flow as naturally from film criticism as film criticism did from literary criticism. There’s a hurdle to overcome, because our interactions with a game are not the same as our interactions with film or music. The malleability of a gaming narrative makes it difficult to analyze in a traditional way. This requires extra effort. Criticism has to be forced out; there will be no Caesarean sections for game criticism.

This is where we encounter our first problem: the gaming community. In order for there to be game criticism, there has to be someone willing to work on it. That requires the gaming community to show an active interest in criticism as it develops. That interest is sorely lacking. Why? The easy answer is audience. The average gamer is a male between twenty and forty and he plays Grand Theft Auto and Halo. This is a stereotype, but even with female friendly consoles like the Wii, the majority of active gaming is being done by the male demographic. These are the kids who grew up with Super Mario. I’m one of them.

The Halo set, if we dare call them that, aren’t exactly prime targets for analysis. They’re largely equivalent to the mythic “average moviegoer” or that juicy TV “demo.” If they don’t want to read criticism, then it’s hardly surprising that hardly anyone wants to write it. Even the most selfless critics want some kind of audience.

But, this is the easy way out. Blockbusters can be discussed in meaningful ways. Blade Runner, initially a failure but now seen by millions, has a thriving fan community that tears the film apart and finds incredible secrets hidden inside. Academic works have been written about these fans. And yet, gaming fans seem different. A quick browse through a gaming message board or the comments section of a gaming blog, will show a strange preoccupation with brand loyalty and a tendency towards the type of qualitative arguments that reviews rely on. Discussions on the level of the meaning of humanity, a Blade Runner staple, rarely show up.

This disparity seems to have two causes. First, the gaming community is disadvantaged. Film fans have a massive body of criticism to model themselves after. When the internet came along, film criticism was already fully developed. Gaming criticism is a blank slate. It seems disingenuous to disparage “lolomfgisuck” or “xxXX_Insanities_Birth_XXxx” for not creating a new form of criticism. Second, the interest of fans is largely reliant on the games being produced. We can’t blame fans for a lack of serious analysis if the industry itself isn’t taking itself seriously as art.

(“Are games art?” is an entire discussion, or more, in and of itself. In lieu of that discussion, I’m just going to dismiss the debate outright. I’m not a fan of low or high art distinctions, and I’m also extremely leery when engaging in any type of “art” and “not-art” classifications. If games can provide an experience that is meaningful, either as entertainment or something deeper, I’m willing to engage them as art. I also suspect that after a decade or so of serious game criticism, we might see this debate become a relic of a naïve earlier age.)

I want to be careful and not paint all game developers as financially motivated, as I doubt the ratio of financially- to artistically-motivated developers is not that different than in the film industry. Most people, whatever their primary motivation, want to make something good. They want their work to be remembered. But gaming is a much less individual-driven medium than even other collaborative art forms like film or television. The average cost of games, at least until the XBOX Live Arcade/Apple App Store era, was exorbitant. Most games were developed by large companies. They were, by and large, blockbusters. There are indie games, but their average consumption is far less than many indie films. There are no second-run consoles focusing largely on indie games. Games are funded by big companies, and by and large, big companies care about money.

This severely disadvantages a game critic. Not only is the auteur theory rendered almost useless, but the industry is the equivalent of a library full of only Steven Spielberg films. There are brilliant gems, many of them rich and meaningful, but the general intent is one of entertainment. For every Schindler’s List there is a Lost World, while Sansho the Bailiff is nowhere to be found. There is great potential to analyze Spielberg, but his films often work on a mostly surface level. The advantages of engaging Spielberg critical are not as profound as the advantages of engaging Mizoguchi critically. (I should add this isn’t a qualitative statement, both filmmakers are indispensible to the medium.)

Likewise, as much as I love Super Mario Bros., the game doesn’t instantly lend itself to criticism. There are interesting discussions there, but my replay time is enhanced very little by a study of feminist archetypes in the Nintendo classic. It’s an interesting topic, but the Koopas don’t care. Many games do attempt to contain a somewhat richer intent, but by and large, these games are concerned with play experience and not theme. The men and women of Bungie may aspire to create a commentary on humanity and war, but Halo’s success is measured by enjoyment per frag, not intellectual stimulation. This cause isn’t helped by foul-mouthed teenagers who render the multiplayer experience nearly unbearable.

The industry needs to mature past these tendencies for criticism, if it develops, to thrive. Developers need to step up their game. While this seems unlikely—the current model is a cash cow—there is some motivation. The biggest boon to the “violent games corrupt our children!” argument is the relative lack of purpose to game violence. The more seriously games are taken, especially if taken as art, the less the industry will have to defend itself. There will still be battles, as we see in the film industry every so often, but the argument for games would be stronger. Everyone would be better off if people saw Grand Theft Auto as a comment on violence in society and not a murder simulator.

Which brings us to the one hurdle of game criticism that we cannot actively change: the nature of gaming. Auteur theory is not the only critical tool that falls by the wayside once the secret gaming weapon, interactivity, is introduced. The minute you give control to the player you encounter a plethora of problems. Roger Ebert went so far as to say, rather naïvely I think, that “art seeks to lead you to an inevitable conclusion, not a smorgasbord of choices.”

The problem with interactivity for a critic is that it defies traditional criticism. Most of our critical tools are geared towards analyzing a given text. The text may be of any of a number of varieties, but the text is, usually, the text. We can touch it, watch it, read it and analyze it. It may not be easy, but by and large, it is consistent. The blue key will always be the blue key, whether we comprehend its meaning or not. Mario, however, won’t always grab the same mushroom or play all the same levels. Niko Bellic won’t always beat up prostitutes. The text is ever-changing. Somewhere, physicists are laughing; quantum mechanics have finally found their way to art. Nothing is anything anymore. Instead, everything might be something. Or nothing. Or both.

We can’t simply ignore interactivity, either. Looking at story, character and design while ignoring interactivity would be akin to analyzing a movie based solely on the script; the entire point of the medium would be lost. To make it worthwhile, we need to analyze what the game allows the player to reveal. Be it a revelation about a player’s own tendencies in a given environment or a deeper thematic connection through immersion, game criticism needs to address how the player plays.

When we do this, we begin to lose interest in the artist and begin gaining interest in the player. There is little use in asking “What is the artist saying?” and every use in asking “What has this game helped me to say?” That type of change defies most notions of criticism, which is why gaming demands new forms. Our old standbys aren’t good enough any more. Game criticism needs us to go one step further.

Is it any wonder, then, that game criticism has taken so long to develop? The community is stuck in a Catch-22 of supply and demand, while the industry is being given little motivation to challenge the minds of its audience. Add to that the need to develop new techniques just to begin work, and it’s somewhat surprising that there’s any game criticism at all, however feeble. It’s hard. It’s different. It’s demanding.

So, if we’re serious about game criticism, where do we begin? I think if we’re going to give it our best shot, we should start with the games that take themselves seriously, games that challenge the player. There is value in Mario and Halo, just as there is value in Star Wars and Indiana Jones, but if we want more Sansho the Bailiffs we need to engage and reward those who attempt to reach those heights. Games such as Jonathan Blow’s brilliant game-deconstruction-as-game platformer, Braid, deserve serious criticism. Games that offer something more when understood on deeper levels will prove criticism, however hard, worthwhile.

We also need to really take a good, hard look at what interactivity means to individual games. It rarely functions the same way. We need to examine the player’s role in a story, and we need to be willing to offer different analysis for different players. The more we engage the interactive aspects of a game, the greater our toolset will be. If we’re starting nearly from scratch, then we need to dive in. If interactivity is our bane, then the more quickly we turn it into our boon, the better. Interactivity is what makes games special, and it is almost certainly what will make game criticism special.

Ultimately, though, we need to begin. We need to stop asking why there isn’t game criticism and start writing some. Maybe it will fail to distinguish itself. Maybe few games are ready for serious critics. We still need to try. If we don’t, then someone, sometime down the road, is once again going to ask why there isn’t any real game criticism. Meanwhile, the rest of us will be off discussing how realistic the alligators are.

Next time: A deeper dissection of Braid and what it has to say about interactivity.

Logan Crowell has a degree in film from York University. He is a lifelong gamer who has written for both print and online media.

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Review: Need for Speed Heat Revs Up with Ridiculous Action but Real Stakes

To the game’s credit, the police presence on the track feels less like a hook than a genuine menace.

3.5

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Need for Speed Heat

Racing games benefit from a hook, and police interference has always filled that role for the Need for Speed series. And to the credit of Need for Speed Heat, the police presence on the track finally feels less like a hook than a genuine menace. That presence is baked so deeply into the game’s atmosphere that even when the cops aren’t actively in pursuit, you can still sense them, sometimes literally so, as in the way the borders of your nighttime route pulse with the electric red-and-blue glow of a police siren.

Here, too, the force of the law is both intense and immediate. Indeed, there’s nothing game-y about the way the very first mission in Heat ends with your initial player character, Joe, quitting racing entirely after a crew of over-empowered police officers nearly kill him. Sure, this is what opens the door for your nameless, customizable character to take his place—his loss is your gain—but the moment is a good reminder that your gains are easily lost.

In a nod to the way the series once allowed players to swap between cops and racers, Heat allows your character to experience two versions of Palm City, a fictionalized version of Miami. By day, you’ll drive professional organized races, earning bank without fear of reprisal from the police. And by night, you’ll race on the underground circuit to earn street rep, which serves to unlock new missions, races, and upgrades. The longer you race at night, the higher your heat level rises, but the harder it becomes to escape the police. The race may end when you cross the finish line, but the cops will keep deploying cars, choppers, spike traps, armored Rhino SUVs, and more at you until you’ve either shaken their pursuit and returned to a safehouse or you’ve been busted, which breaks your heat multiplier and takes a hefty percentage of your money. Need for Speed Payback may have been set in a fictionalized Las Vegas, but Heat’s nighttime racing, especially the high heat variants of each course, are actual gambles.

Progression through Heat, particularly under the hood, is also much improved over Ghost Games’s last few titles in the Need for Speed series. You’ll still be grinding out cash and reputation in individual events, but unless you keep losing all your money to the police, the various circuit races, off-road rallies, online time trials, and drift duels provide more than enough variety to keep your vehicle tuned up. There’s also more room for customization, as every vehicle lands somewhere on a matrix of race/drift and on-road/off-road performance, and you can swap out tires, suspension, and gears until you find a fit that works for your playstyle. You can even earn cars and parts by gathering collectibles across the game’s 18 districts, which not only gives players more of a reason to roam free across urban streets, industrial docks, a mountainous observatory, an abandoned spaceport, and a skidding swampland, but makes equipment feel earned as opposed to simply bought.

Of course, some of these more realistic touches feel a bit at odds with the game’s over-the-top arcade racing and all the goofy physics that come along with it. However high the stakes may be, they’re tempered by the knowledge that if you slam into a truck head first at 150 miles an hour, that’ll only slow you down for a few seconds. You can technically damage your car enough that you get busted, but so long as you don’t cross that threshold, driving off a cliff remains one of the most effective ways to evade the police. The AI also blatantly cheats, and while that’s expected in a racing game, it’s infuriating to watch the cops spawn reinforcements out of the blue. Then again, the way in which Heat accurately represents police as an unfair, often unfun, and sometimes frustrating force may just be its most impressive feature.

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

Developer: Ghost Games Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: November 8, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Violence, Language Buy: Game

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Review: Luigi’s Mansion 3 Is a Blast of Slapstick Hilarity and Cooperative Play

Luigi might be luckless, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with across this, the most variety-rich Luigi’s Mansion game to date.

4

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Luigi's Mansion 3
Photo: Nintendo

Poor, hapless Luigi. While his heroic mascot brother goes on interplanetary adventures and builds entire worlds, Luigi is trapped in dusty old buildings exorcising aggressive spirits. It’s been nearly two decades since Luigi’s Mansion dropped on the GameCube and he still can’t catch a break: In Luigi’s Mansion 3, a vacation away from the Mushroom Kingdom to a seemingly glamorous hotel goes south when Mario and his friends are kidnapped from their beds by King Boo and imprisoned in portraits, leaving Luigi to rescue them with the help of mad scientist E. Gadd and his spectral dog, Polterpup.

As in prior entries in the Luigi’s Mansion series, the core gameplay here is very much indebted to Ghostbusters: Luigi is kitted out with E. Gadd’s supernatural vacuum cleaner called a Poltergust that neutralizes and sucks up ghosts and also destroys most of the environment. It’s a thrill to smash up rooms and suck up items throughout the haunted hotel, and in no small part because the mayhem that Luigi causes across the campaign as his Poltergust feasts upon loose paper, bedsheets, furniture, and ghosts alike is rendered in vivid detail.

No less satisfying is the game’s gentle subversion of standard video-game power fantasies through its focus on its protagonist’s feelings of inferiority as he explores the hotel, moving from floor to floor to banish the spirits and find his missing kin. Luigi, afraid of his own shadow, slowly walks on his tippy toes, scared to look around corners, stammering sadly to himself over his unlucky state of affairs. But he cuts an almost mean image whenever he busts out his tricked-out vacuum cleaner, stunning enemies with a flashlight before trapping them.

At first glance, the game’s stationary camera angle, though consistent with previous titles in the series, feels old hat. But this turns out to be an effective artistic choice, as it evokes early horror classics like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, where fixed camera angles allowed the developers to rely on cinematic framing in order to create the sort of meaning and atmosphere that would be impossible if the player had control of the camera. Mainly, the stationary camera paves the way for the deployment of jump scares, where enemies materialize suddenly into view from the sides of the frame, further disempowering Luigi. Luigi’s Mansion 3 freely indulges in these types of scares, albeit in a family-friendly manner. After all, the game is primarily a comedy where the slapstick humor is at the expense of Luigi being frightened.

Luigi’s Mansion 3’s most notable upgrade to the series formula is the introduction of Gooigi, an ectoplasmic clone of Luigi that emerges from his backpack. Throughout the campaign, the player gets to switch between controlling Gooigi, who’s extremely weak to water but can move through grates and small spaces to access new areas and engage in light puzzle solving. Gooigi is also a great introduction to cooperative play in the game, though this isn’t the only multiplayer component here, as there’s also a Mario-Party-lite mode called “ScreamPark” and a fully-fledged four-player online mode called “Scarescraper,” which has four Luigis co-operating to complete unique tasks across the hotel on a strict timer. These modes stand on their own, separate from the main game, by offering unique spins on the franchise’s mechanics, either by pitting players against each other as Nintendo characters in the haunted setting or by having them, respectively, work together in frantic co-operative challenges.

The further Luigi explores the hotel, the stranger the setting becomes and the more weirdly creative the ghosts get, with trickier puzzles and bosses requiring extra steps to take down. Fortunately, the game never becomes overly difficult like Luigi’s Manion: Dark Moon, and it features frequent checkpointing, thus ensuring that you won’t be redoing too much of a level following an untimely death. By its conclusion, Luigi’s Mansion 3 has well and truly deviated from the chateau settings of past games in the series, with the upper floors of the hotel getting especially weird. (Why would a hotel contain, of all things, a castle?) But even as the game delights in bizarre wonders the likes of which the series has never seen before, it never loses sight of either its core theme—of the underdog overcoming adversity—or its enjoyable vacuum-powered comedy of destruction. Luigi might be luckless, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with across this, the most variety-rich Luigi’s Mansion game to date.

Developer: Next Level Games Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Comic Mischief, Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: The Outer Worlds Sticks It to the Man at the Expense of Humanity

The game is so zany and so mired in its traditional progression systems that it ceases to say anything of note.

3

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The Outer Worlds
Photo: Private Division

In space, everyone can hear you spend. Walk up to any of the vending machines run by the corporations ruling the Halcyon star system at the center of The Outer Worlds and their jingle will play; for one, the Walmart brand equivalent with the moon-headed mascot chirps, “It’s not the best choice, it’s Spacer’s Choice!” Unlike their recent old-school computer RPGs, Obsidian’s latest game builds from their sterling work on Fallout: New Vegas, which added a messier set of choices and a stronger sense of place to Bethesda’s initial blueprint. A similar skewed sense of humor is on display here, with the Fallout Vault Boy mascot now an equally meme-able moon man and the setting no longer a nuclear wasteland but a capitalism-ravaged outer space where colonizing corporations own your ass so thoroughly that suicide is considered “damage to company property.” Next of kin gets stuck with the fine.

The first-person scavenging mechanics of those latter Fallout games are also present here. Throughout The Outer Worlds, you roam planets, moons, and asteroids, opening every container and picking up every object highlighted in blue to either sell later or scrap for parts to repair your equipment. You gradually acquire better guns and better skills, and you’re compensated in money and experience points for labor on story quests, killing hostile creatures, and discovering new locations. Experience is doled out for finding, say, a set of ruins or a bandit camp, but most importantly, you get it for finding more stores, more vending machines, and more places to spend cash and sell hoarded junk.

Of course, most role-playing games work this way; the sense of progression keeps you pressing forward, and it’s why so many other genres of video games long ago adopted the superficial siren call of a climbing progress bar. But such mechanics sit awkwardly next to the anti-capitalist caricatures of The Outer Worlds, where the primary antagonist is a company collective called The Board. The way to progress here is by essentially climbing the corporate ladder, indulging in the consumerist need for more stuff. Happy with your laser gun? You won’t be once you see the damage numbers on the new model—Plasma Carbine 2.0 makes the original Plasma Carbine look like last year’s iPhone! There are upgrades to find and money to spend to make yourself a better, stronger, faster engine of corporate dismantlement, though you can choose to be a corporate stooge, too, because games of this sort are all about options.

Throughout, the game’s mechanics are satisfying in a compulsive sort of way: Items make a pleasing thud as you stuff them into your inventory, and the guns chatter violently as bullets and lasers fly through the air and toward their targets. But the normal difficulty mode becomes quite easy under such a comedically huge deluge of content and consumption; enemy encounters grow trivial, and you’re so inundated with junk that the game becomes more about managing a useless pile of consumables and an arsenal with a limited shelf life. There’s even a button to helpfully break down the umpteenth outmoded pistol in the umpteenth locker so it can at least be useful as spare parts. The biggest challenge here is, it seems, learning to not grab every single object in a room, because while it may feel good to pick up that temporary stat-boosting box of tarmac and cheese, you don’t really need it. (You have five already, damn it, and an inventory limit to think about.) Better to leave the empty space for something really shiny. What if, for example, there’s a Plasma Carbine 3.0?

On some level, Obsidian has succeeded at rendering a hellscape of vapid consumerism through the mechanics of the Bethesda scavenge ‘em up, but the game’s anti-corporate ideals clash with how the only way to move forward is to indulge in all the excesses of that hellscape. Being swept up in that system has no adverse effects on you, after all, because you’re special. People are worked to the bone under the boot of capitalism, then buried in a hole as long as they’ve paid their graveyard admission fee, but not you, because you’re a climber. You get the big life-and-death choices, such as the ability to decide whether to ally with the insidious Board or the revolutionaries who say all the right things but inevitably hide some dirty secret. As the player character, you’re the portrait of exceptionalism, a CEO-in-waiting, a person infused with the divine right to step on the little people. You seize the means of production and then, most importantly, collect the cash and the experience points for doing so. It’s revolution for people who think cooperating within the system is the only way to affect change.

Which isn’t to say that The Outer Worlds is ineffective or unfulfilling as a role-playing game, as it’s often a pleasure to bask in its sly writing and dense world-building, in occasionally talking your way out of conflicts rather than blasting your way through them. But it’s tiresome to watch the game continuously dance, and with such a mercilessly wacky tone, on the edge of some self-aware revelation about its own mechanics that never comes.

The best storylines here actually step away from the overt satirical skewering of corporations, building your companions into richer characters than any of the dull quest-givers that inhabit the rest of the game. It’s only in those storylines that The Outer Worlds slows down long enough for someone to express a human feeling. Simply spending time with members of your party, like the vicar who’s done prison time or the excitable engineer who has an adorable crush, feels far more meaningful than any of the ostensibly massive decisions that put the lives of anonymous colonists into the hands of the all-important player. The people whose lives you alter are relegated to hapless bystanders when they’re not the butt of jokes for being face-deep in the corporate Kool-Aid. The game is so zany and so mired in its traditional progression systems that it ceases to say anything of note. The human stakes too often buckle beneath its comedic broadness, feeling as remote as corporate overseers in their ivory towers.

Developer: Obsidian Entertainment Publisher: Private Division Platform: PC Release Date: October 25, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Overwatch’s Switch Port Is Great on the Go but Not at Home

On the Nintendo system, the game will fare its absolute best with the uninitiated.

3

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Overwatch
Photo: Activision

There are no surprises in Overwatch on the Switch, at least not for anyone who’s played enough ported games on the system, or played enough of Overwatch on any other one. Beyond the inherent benefit of the Switch letting you take the game just about anywhere, the only major change is the addition of gyroscopic controls, which work better as an augment for precision shooting rather than a default way of looking around the game world. Veterans will be able to simply pick the game up and go to town, but those are also the players most likely to be aggravated by all the ways that this port feels so inferior.

On the Switch, Overwatch will fare its absolute best with the uninitiated. This impeccably crafted game has always been tailor-made to be immensely accessible and friendly to those who don’t normally cotton to multiplayer FPS titles, and Overwatch comes to the Nintendo system as a complete experience, with 30 characters and all the tweaks and adjustments the game has seen in the past three years. It’s even launching right in the middle of the current Halloween-focused special event, which is probably confusing as hell for anyone coming into the game completely blind, but it’s at least a prime opportunity to see one of the, honestly, infrequent moments where Overwatch uses its mechanics to break from formula.

That formula is, generally, that of a team-objective game that has two teams of six attempting to either capture specific control points on a map or escort a payload from one end of that map to the other. There’s nothing terribly innovative to that approach on the surface, but the beauty of the game is in the details. Overwatch is, above all else, a game about superheroes from all over the world coming together to work toward a common goal and, in so many ways, its strength is in its diversity. Indeed, from a strictly mechanical standpoint, there’s very little overlap in how each of its 30 characters operate, to the point that handling each one will make you feel like you’re playing a completely different game every time.

Soldier 76 is the archetypical assault rifle-wielding entry-level shooter avatar, but you also have more intricate characters like Sombra, a Mexican hacker who can render herself invisible, as well as hack and disable an enemy’s special abilities. There are also oddities like the super-intelligent hamster who drives a cybernetic hamster ball into battle, and can latch onto surfaces to swing himself around like a wrecking ball. Even for those who don’t do well with killing and precision in these types of games, there’s a whole range of ways to support your team without ever needing to fire a gun. That diversity is equally reflected in the excellent, and eye-catching, character designs, and to the point where it’s honestly baffling that Marvel didn’t go to someone with this concept first, using its most famous characters to fill a roster.

There’s not much story that actually happens during the course of day-to-day gameplay, but the expanded story material is out there and freely accessible in various other media. Think of it as a sort of Watchmen-lite tableau of superheroes being made illegal and rallying to action once the world goes sufficiently to hell. But that’s still a fairly empty framework, given that we don’t actually see our heroes do a whole lot of fighting against injustice.

Despite the extensive amounts of mid-match chatter delivered by the characters, as well as between them, there’s nothing you can do in-game to the same level of heroism as, say, saving civilians, stopping a natural disaster, using a public platform to show support for people living in a civil rights crisis, risking your livelihood to stand up against an unjust employer, or not being afraid of the financial blowback of upholding the values of the country in which you reside. Here, there’s only the option to work with others to move payloads or capture points—all in exchange for cosmetic loot boxes and the self-satisfaction of victory. And in regard to those loot boxes, thanks to outcry early in its life, Overwatch is fairly generous with them before you need to break out your wallet, though the game still wouldn’t mind if you did.

That emptiness doesn’t necessarily preclude Overwatch from being an absolutely engrossing experience in the moment, and as much work as has been done by the game’s developers at Blizzard Entertainment to make its 30 disparate experiences mesh in the field, equally tough and admirable effort has been devoted to squeezing it all onto the Switch. Nonetheless, while everything great about the game is still on display here, it’s all been pared down on the technical side: 60fps knocked down to 30, fewer environmental details, mild but frequent performance hitches, and so on. This version of Overwatch may be the only one you can take with you on the go, but it’s definitely not the best version you can play at home.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Blizzard Entertainment.

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment Publisher: Activision Platform: Switch Release Date: October 15, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Use of Tobacco, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Disco Elysium Is a Shrewd Whodunit and Marvel of Open-Ended Design

The game offers one of the most fascinating, unique, and fulfilling portrayals of the human mind.

4.5

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Disco Elysium
Photo: ZA/UM

The first dialogue exchange that occurs in Disco Elysium isn’t between you and another person, but with yourself. More specifically, it’s with “Ancient Reptilian Brain,” which speaks in a husky, swaggering snarl in an attempt to lure you back to the depths of being blackout drunk. Eventually, your limbic system chimes in. Even after you open your eyes to find an amnesiac old detective with a ghastly fashion sense staring in the mirror, you never stop talking to yourself in Disco Elysium. This is an extremely insular game, devoting as it does vast amounts of text to your internal thoughts, and in doing so it offers one of the most fascinating, unique, and fulfilling portrayals of the human mind.

On the surface, playing the game seems traditional enough. It’s presented as a top-down role-playing game where you wander around the city of Revachol and, on its outskirts, a snowy coast with a ramshackle fishing village and an abandoned church. You, the detective, are in town to solve a murder as well as (hopefully) the mystery of whatever prompted you to go on a catastrophic bender, which blasted all memory of everything and everyone from your brain (dialogue options include asking about things like the concept of money). As in a pen-and-paper RPG, the detective’s various skills are measured against certain actions; for one, a high Endurance gives a better percent chance of not vomiting at the scent of a rotting corpse.

And the skills have voices, too, that nudge into your conversations and internal thoughts. They’re always bouncing around in your head, some skills louder and more trustworthy than others, to offer commentary and observations or even give advice; a high enough Empathy skill means you pick up on facial expressions and infer emotions, which can then inform your dialogue choices in a conversation. The Authority skill helps boss people around but also demands petty displays of fealty and respect for your occupation, while the Inland Empire skill dispenses nonsensical feelings and hunches that tend to make sense down the line: “Love killed me,” says a decomposing corpse if you pass the Inland Empire stat check to carry on a conversation with it, and hours later, further investigation reveals it to technically be true.

Playing Disco Elysium feels like having an angel and a devil on your shoulders, only you’re not sure which one is which and there’s so many of them that you don’t have nearly enough shoulders to contain them all. Maybe they’re all devils. Perhaps inevitably, the game’s pace can lag as you sort through various thought processes. There’s no traditional combat system, and much time will be taken up by simply carrying on conversations or going through actions like procuring a necktie from a ceiling fan. Things frequently spiral out of control as conversations devolve into a hilarious soup of skills screaming at you alongside a list of dialogue choices you’d rather not say—barring, perhaps, a lone thought that may go something like, “These are all ridiculous, and I don’t want to say any of them.”

The player character is an abject disaster of a human being, a man who has essentially melted his personality into primordial ooze only to have it unceremoniously cobbled back together in some vague shape of a person. Part of the fun here is failing certain skill checks, or the sense of just skirting by based on some absurd hunch. And the type of disaster you play is open to multiple interpretations. For one, apologizing to everyone for drunken behavior might label you as the dreaded Sorry Cop, one of many equippable thoughts that provide additional effects or increase skills. And sorting out the Communism thought and equipping it will provide bonus experience points when choosing left-wing dialogue options.

Of course, you don’t have to be Communist, nor do you need to be sorry all the time. The game is a marvel of open-ended design, where one set of skills might net a wholly different outcome or provide additional context. The system of skill checks and dialogue choices is always branching off in different directions, and it never feels like you’re missing opportunities so much as forging a new path; a character built around physicality, for example, may traipse through entirely different dialogue options and actions than one made to visually dissect crime scenes. Rather than some jack-of-all-trades route that lets you be the boss of everything, there’s instead an ever-unfolding series of alternate routes and methods of expression.

Disco Elysium feels almost futuristic in its design, eschewing so many of the typical story and design hang-ups of video games. It’s a bold, ambitious work that’s stripped of world-ending conflicts, while taking place on a dense yet relatively small map. Despite all the different pathways and the 30-hour playtime, it’s content with interpersonal relationships, moments of shared history and pain rather than scores of bodies left in your wake. The characters are as memorable as they are varied, from your put-upon but encouraging partner, Kim Kitsuragi, to a mysterious person known only as “the Pigs,” to the 12-year-old drug-dealing hellion throwing rocks at the corpse outside the hotel where you sleep.

Disco Elysium’s tone is relentlessly sardonic, as a reflection of its setting and the characters who inhabit it. The game is snide about everyone and everything, and sometimes it can feel aimlessly unpleasant, as in the aforementioned child whose vocabulary seems mainly devoted to (censored) homophobic slurs. But when everything clicks, it makes for an odd combination of sadness, beauty, and humor. The places you visit in Revachol are still torn apart by a long-past war, ravaged until there’s nothing left. The ideologies have fallen away and there are only disaffected people scrambling through the ruins of a society reticent to commit to anything anymore. It’s a desolate maelstrom where you learn, slowly, to exist again among people and their flaws, searching for mutual understanding with voices outside your own head.

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

Developer: ZA/UM Publisher: ZA/UM Platform: PC Release Date: October 15, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: Ghostbusters: The Video Game Still Lacks Finesse in Remastered Form

The brunt of the work here has gone into raising the game’s resolution and frame rate, and implementing higher quality assets all around.

3

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Ghostbusters: The Video Game Remastered
Photo: Mad Dog Games

In retrospect, it was perhaps too much to expect that 2009’s Ghostbusters: The Video Game capture the lightning in a bottle that even Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters II couldn’t back in 1989. That was the state of things before Ghostbusters as a beloved property became one of the bloodiest cultural battlegrounds of the century, all thanks to the outrageous, unthinkable, dangerous idea that maybe, just maybe, women could be Ghostbusters. Now, in the wake of that little experiment failing to set the world on fire, Ghostbusters: The Video Game is back, theoretically representing exactly what the gatekeeping Übermensch fans of the franchise said they wanted, and loudly so, in 2016: the original cast, working off a script from Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd, with all the stuff they liked from the original, minus a Rick Moranis or Sigourney Weaver cameo or two. And 10 years have only accentuated everything that’s fascinating and frustrating about this approach.

Ghostbusters: The Video Game takes place in 1991, two years after the whole Vigo the Carpathian business from Ghostbusters II. When the story begins, a museum exhibit on Gozer the Gozerian sends out a pulse of energy that seems to bring a huge influx of new and old ghosts back to New York City. With the Ghostbusters’ mayhem now fully subsidized by Gracie Mansion, our heroes can afford to bring on some help. They do so in the form of a new, voiceless sap—that’d be your player character—who’ll be testing out some of Egon’s experimental gear while lending a hand cleaning up the town. That concept is sound, but the execution needs finesse that the game just doesn’t provide, even in its remastered form.

In particular, the mute player character is one of those gaming tropes that needs to go away forever, but even then, a lot could’ve been forgiven if you were allowed to customize your character in any way instead of being stuck with Generic Milquetoast White Guy #247916. It’s worth noting here that that’s a minor advantage that the Wii and PS2 ports of the game had over their big brothers: You couldn’t customize, but you could at least pick a female character. Those two ports also sported a more stylized cartoon aesthetic that actually made for a much more freewheeling and loose experience, where this version’s lackluster attempt at realism in the character models invites scrutiny that does the game zero favors. An option to switch between the art styles, if not a complete overhaul of the in-game graphics, would have made a world of difference in making this remaster feel like an expansive, all-encompassing archival effort. Suffice it to say, that kind of effort didn’t happen here.

The brunt of the work here has gone into raising the game’s resolution and frame rate, and implementing higher quality assets all around. That’s nothing to sneeze at, and there are plenty of environments like the firehouse, the famous Sedgewick Hotel, Times Square, and the ghost dimension that do manage to impress. But there’s only so much a developer can do to polish up elements that already looked mediocre in 2009 with a graphical boost. Ultimately, Mad Dog Games’s lack of extra attention to everything beyond aesthetics means that the gameplay has no choice but to shine. Which, surprisingly, it does.

If there’s any one thing that Ghostbusters: The Video Game got right from the day it dropped in 2009, it’s that all the bustin’ it has you do feels incredibly good. The core mechanics of laying into ghosts with a proton pack, sending out a trap, and wrangling a ghost into it is laid out in almost Gears of War-lite fashion. You just don’t get the comparative safety of a cover system or, really, much in the means of protection at all. You’re just some weak-chinned schmuck carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator. You can be thrown down easily just from a ghost flying through you fast enough, which does, admittedly, make for some cheap hits along the way, especially in a particularly aggravating stretch that takes place in a graveyard. But the game perfectly captures a crucial, under-sung element of the films: being a working-class nerd who, as part of a team, has to put actual strenuous effort into capturing ghosts.

Indeed, the game’s at its best when it leans into this just being another day, another dollar for the Ghostbusters, only with different ghosts, instead of trying too hard to live up to the player’s nostalgia with constant callbacks and references to the first film. The original cast is extremely present and doing heroic work trying to elevate the script, but so much of the game exudes a been-there-done-that feel. Whatever the problems with both Ghostbusters II and the 2016 reboot of the 1984 film, the one big takeaway is that the very idea of ghostbusters, as a premise to hinge an entire story upon, benefits from each new entry refusing to simply reiterate and regurgitate the iconic scenes and set pieces from the original film.

The stories we learn about the game’s ghosts through PKE scans are fantastic, nuanced, detailed tales that even weave in a bit of real New York City history and paranormal concepts (interestingly, both this and the 2016 film smartly use the idea of NYC’s grid geography to create ley lines). As such, it’s a bit of a shame how little the game does to make Ghostbusters’s lore into something different and better, which, actually does make the fact that the remaster does very little for the game as a whole pretty appropriate.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Sandbox Strategies.

Developer: Saber Interactive Publisher: Mad Dog Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 8, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Mild Blood, Mild Language, Mild Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: Ghost Recon Breakpoint Abounds in Mindless Fetch Quests and Dull Action

There are plenty of military engagements in Breakpoint, but none of them are particularly engaging.

1.5

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Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Breakpoint
Photo: Ubisoft

The last line spoken in Ghost Recon Breakpoint’s main campaign is meant to be a serious question: As your character, codenamed Nomad, looks out over the semi-liberated archipelago of Auroa, he or she asks, “All right, what’s next?” But, in reality, the question exposes how little there actually ever was to look forward to in Breakpoint. Players are as free to continue exploring Auroa as they’ve been from the beginning, so what’s next is the same as what’s been next for the previous 30 hours: more shooting and looting.

Despite the diversity of the 21 districts on Auroa and the various biomes you’ll encounter as you travel from flat swamplands to snowy mountains and deep jungles, Breakpoint adheres to a sadly repetitive structure. A target will be identified, you’ll locate said target, and then you’ll kill anyone who gets in your way. For a bit of variety, you can swap between classes, playing as a long-range Sharpshooter, stealth expert Panther, head-on Assault, or group-healing Medic, but because every mission can be completed the same way, it rarely makes a difference.

Even recon, which should be the bread-and-butter of this franchise, is taken scarcely more seriously than in 2017’s Ghost Recon Wildlands; the optional Exploration mode forces players to manually find each mission by following geographic descriptions. But once you’ve reached them, yellow dots pop up to show you exactly what you need to do, obviating the need for all that photographic intel you collect. Occasionally, you may have to leave one enemy alive as you infiltrate the area they’re stationed in, so that you can interrogate them for more information, but, in essence, the game’s core loop comes down to scouting, shooting, and salvaging. It’s a series of mindless fetch quests, punctuated by dull combat.

Where other open-world games deliver on the fantasy and immediacy of amusement-park rides, Breakpoint establishes the crippling logistics of visiting the theme park itself. In Just Cause 4, you get a physics-defying grappling hook and perform roller-coaster-like stunts; in Breakpoint, you send up your reconnaissance drone to mark all of the targets in an area and, only after planning everything, can you start the “fun” of killing them. In Far Cry New Dawn, you solve environmental puzzles and sometimes face the sort of disorienting designs you’d find in a funhouse; in Breakpoint, you emulate patiently waiting in line as you queue up the fast-travel menu to the nearest bivouac, set up a campsite, change your loadout, call in a vehicle, and drive to your next sortie. Red Dead Redemption 2 is filled with divertissements like hunting and gambling; Breakpoint, at best, emulates an arcade’s shooting gallery.

The first few hours of Breakpoint are its boldest, as your underpowered and outgunned character’s chopper is shot down over the archipelago of Auroa. There are immediate personal stakes, given that the mission appears to have been betrayed by a former ally, Lt. Col. Cole D. Walker (Jon Bernthal). There’s also a real element of danger in the arrival of Walker’s elite Wolves, whose high gear levels make this one of the rare times in the game which a stealthy retreat is recommended, and where you’ll want to drop to the ground and use stealth camo to hide from the tracking Azrael drones that occasionally fly overhead. After appropriating a vehicle, Nomad can use visual clues to reach the friendly base of Erewhon, where many of the locals hid following the private military coup that led to the techtopia of Auroa being cut off from the outside world (and your team being sent in to investigate).

But the nonlinear structure that follows from this point ensures that nothing is able to change from that point, either in story or core gameplay. The only character with a lick of development is Walker, who gets scene-chewing flashbacks meant to justify his hatred for a corruptible U.S. military. Defensive Mads Shulz and terrorist Haruhi Ito, the respective leaders of the island’s two resistance factions, exist almost entirely to dispense daily missions. And while one mission might take place in a coastal villa designed to attract elite investors while another might be set in an underground Cold War bunker retrofitted as a data-processing center, you’ll use the same tools to clear them. Progression can be oddly wonky as well. For one, you might find yourself being asked to return a citizen from an overrun camp, even if you just cleared it out minutes ago. And if you die, there’s no telling where you’ll reload, as it could be hundreds of meters away, or directly in a guard’s sights.

Breakpoint’s fixed nature is at direct odds with its open-world design, and ultimately results in a game that less about realism than it is about imposing limits. Only certain guards can call for reinforcements, and enemies that are “on alert” will continue to march directly toward the sound of gunfire, even if that means thoughtlessly climbing over the corpses of their predecessors, directly into a kill corridor. Worse, the game expects players to act as inorganically as the AI. The only way past a chainlink fence is with a craftable laser cutter, the final battle must be fought at close range, and should you dare to kill the sniper Rosebud from a distance, you’ll inexplicably fail on account of being too far from your objective. There’s no emergent gameplay here, there’s just a rigid set of often unseen rules, and while there are plenty of military engagements in Breakpoint, none of them are particularly engaging.

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

Developer: Ubisoft Publisher: Ubisoft Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 4, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Mild Sexual Themes, Strong Language Buy: Game

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Review: Destiny 2: Shadowkeep Is One Giant Leap for the Bungie Series

This expansion marks a sea change for the series, from one that keeps players begging for scraps to one that sets players up for a feast.

4

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Destiny 2: Shadowkeep
Photo: Bungie

With Bungie consciously uncoupled from Activision, and, reportedly, with no small amount of cheers and champagne from the developers, Destiny 2: Shadowkeep is in the unenviable position of having to assert a somehow “truer,” better vision of Destiny by taking full advantage of Bungie’s master-less status. That’s not necessarily fair to this expansion, which is, at the moment, content to represent just one more small step for Destiny as an ongoing narrative. The haphazard and daring house that is Destiny remains exactly that, but Shadowkeep has done some major and vital repairs to the foundation. Against all modern logic for this kind of game, and the last two years of Destiny 2, it seems as if Bungie actually intends for its players to—brace yourself—enjoy playing it.

Shadowkeep reflects a fascinating hyper-focus on the mistakes of the past, both on the part the game’s characters and Bungie itself. On the narrative side, the story has the Tower’s broody mystic, Eris Morn, sending up a distress call on the Moon, after stumbling across a pyramid buried beneath the surface. Once activated, the pyramid starts raising apparitions of long-dead friends and enemies across the solar system. Eris herself is haunted by the Fireteam that failed to save her before she was tortured and mutilated. You, on the other hand, are besieged by the ghosts of Destiny expansions past: Crota, Omnigul, the Fanatic, and more. All the while, the ghosts of dead Guardians float limply in the atmosphere all around the Moon, lamenting their fate, screaming for help, and calling for backup that won’t come.

That Bungie managed to make a haunted moon so incredibly unsettling, and in a world where “Moon’s Haunted” is a still popular meme, is impressive in and of itself. And that helps, given that it’s the framework holding together what’s essentially still the old Destiny song and dance of an NPC needing special artifacts from a deep, dark, and dangerously infested place, in exchange for, hopefully, better guns and armor. Bungie has always been good at that part—the very craft of putting us in daunting situations that feel exhilarating to fight our way out of using the fatal flash and flair at our disposal. Aside from some smarter enemy placement and a new finishing move system that’s mechanically reminiscent of 2016’s Doom in the best possible way, that’s the part where Destiny simply stays the course. It’s in being prepared to fight these fights and keeping them interesting hour after hour, day after day, week after week that Bungie has struggled. And it’s here that Bungie has done the most work on itself.

Shadowkeep completely overhauls and streamlines Destiny 2’s loot system, while breaking up the benefits provided by each piece of gear into easy-to-parse RPG stats, governing each aspect of your Guardian in combat. So much more of the power to build a character is now in the player’s hands as opposed to being enslaved to the lucky drop, which has been the bane of the Destiny franchise since day one. Now, enhancing gear is a matter of owning the modification you want, and having the pittance of Glimmer—Destiny’s simplest and long-neglected currency—required to apply it. Infusing is a bit more of an involved process, but now it’s centered around two easy-to-obtain ingredients instead of five annoying ones. Shadowkeep’s intent truly shows itself as you come up against the game’s current soft level cap of 900, which is typically the point where Destiny settles into an interminable grind until new content finally releases. In this case, however, this is the point where the game blossoms.

It needs to, in fairness, as Shadowkeep’s cinematic story content ends somewhat abruptly, albeit on a foreboding note. It feels like what Bungie was going for with the first game’s climax-but-not-really. After Shadowkeep’s ending, dedicated strikes against the undead bosses of old are unlocked. You obtain new challenges for exotic weapons that actually tell full-fledged stories about their curation or creation. A new public activity becomes available—complete with a beautifully terrifying cinematic that plays the next time you start the game—that has you fending off a Vex invasion, though unlocking that activity is the worst-explained part of the expansion. All of it is in favor of preparing you to face whatever may wind up emerging from that pyramid sooner than later, and the game does a grand job of not just showing you how to prepare but giving you good motivating reasons to do so.

The guiding principles behind every decision made in Shadowkeep keep players engaged not through monotony, but through legitimate engagement with a ridiculous bounty of options. One should hesitate to place the entirety of Destiny’s flaws on Activision, but without a doubt, this expansion marks a sea change for the franchise, from one that keeps players begging for scraps to one that sets players up for a feast. Shadowkeep doesn’t have a true ending, but it’s damn gratifying to know that, this time, it’s because the best might be yet to come.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by the Amplifier Group.

Developer: Bungie Publisher: Bungie Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 2, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Indivisible Conjures Up Nostalgia Without Being Derivative

Each part is so overflowing with jokes, ideas, characters, and charm that you won’t want to separate from the whole game.

3.5

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Indivisible
Photo: 505 Games

Ajna, the impetuous 16-year-old martial artist at the center of Indivisible, has an odd mystic power: She can absorb her allies and carry them around with her in her Inner Realm, so as to call upon them when needed for advice or aid in battle. The game itself operates by a similar modus operandi, in that it’s absorbed a variety of disparate elements, all of which the developers at Lab Zero Games have mashed together in an attempt to create something entirely new and somehow more than the sum of its parts. While Indivisible doesn’t always succeed at combining its RPG and Metroidvania elements, the developer’s attention to small details ensures that these pieces are always at least separately entertaining.

The many ways in which Indivisible builds upon the elements it borrows from helps it to conjure up nostalgia without being derivative. The combat, which assigns each of your party members to one of your controller’s four face buttons, stems from Valkyrie Profile but is more varied here due to the mechanically unique heroes—everything from a revolver-wielding marksman to a trap-setting ninja. Elsewhere, the game’s combo-heavy platforming calls to mind challenges from Guacamelee, only with an even wider variety of tools, like body-swapping arrows. And as for Hiroki Kikuta’s soundtrack, it evokes the calming rhythms of his classic Secret of Mana score but frequently moves in surprising ways. All of these things thematically link to Ajna’s own journey, in which she eventually learns to work with and grow from her friends, as opposed to always just brute-force attacking everything.

The world of Loka, like Indivisible, has a little bit of everything. For one, a Buddhist temple sits adjacent to an Aztec ruin, an Arabian oasis, and a contemporary red-light district awash in neon signage and drugs. Throughout, you’ll have to do a good deal of backtracking between these locations, as the platforming abilities required to complete one region are generally learned by progressing through another one. But the sense of repetition never really sets in due to the combat and level designs pulsing with so much personality and charm. That’s evident in the novel battle mechanics, like those of one character who rides a dive-bombing bird, as well as in the game’s visual flair, like a piece of fan art hidden in a nightclub owner’s office, and the comedic one-liners, like a milk-divining prophet’s insults.

But in trying to avoid repetition, especially with its large cast of playable characters, Indivisible sometimes gets needlessly gimmicky. For instance, if you put Lanshi in your party, you can pet him during combat to generate energy for the team. But while this works as an obvious nod to the popular Twitter account @CanYouPetTheDog, it’s not a particularly useful skill in combat, which largely revolves around chaining together direct attacks as opposed to idly generating buffs. By contrast, given that you’re simultaneously controlling four characters, the sporty Hunoch and his undead twin, Xiboch, require too much active attention, since they fight by rebounding a disc off of foes, Pong-style. Then again, with 20 characters to choose from, you’re never stuck with an uncomfortable playstyle, and one player’s gimmick might be another’s secret weapon. Tactical players may be drawn to Nuna for her botanical landmines, which sprout up to entangle enemies that step on them, while bruisers may stick with Shieldmaiden Qadira, whose bonus attacks allow her to single-handedly combo enemies.

Indivisible’s combat, story, and exploration are independently enjoyable, but they rarely feel like parts of the same game. Outside of a few boss fights that task players with dodging attacks in a platforming section before clashing in the turn-based combat, these two elements are largely disconnected, to the extent that there’s an entire dungeon consisting only of acrobatic leaps without so much as a single enemy encounter. And while it’s always fun to try out new characters, the game’s second half is so unbalanced and easy that there’s little reason to master their various moves when mindless button mashing works just as well.

This lack of cohesion, though, is disappointing only in regard to how it tears at the game’s larger thematic fabric. Ajna’s growth, after all, is all about accepting and incorporating all of the elements she’s absorbed, and Indivisible never really requires players to do the same. That’s because it leaps between great ideas, such that what starts out as an RPG with platforming elements later becomes a Metroidvania with turn-based battles. Thankfully, this shift in focus in no way diminishes either component. Each part is so overflowing with jokes, ideas, characters, and charm that you won’t want to separate from the whole game.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Wonacott Communications.

Developer: Lab Zero Games Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: October 8, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Fantasy Violence, Suggestive Themes Buy: Game

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Review: The Surge 2 Is a Blast to Play, Though It’s Prone to Hand-Holding

For all of the work that Deck 13 has put into creating an intriguing city, the actual exploration is sometimes marred by technical issues.

3.5

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The Surge 2
Photo: Focus Home Interactive

Players begin The Surge 2 in a deliberately disorienting fashion. Your character, a plane crash survivor, has just awaken from a two-month-long coma. A voice in your head warns that “they’re” coming to kill you, and with the use of two nearby defibrillator paddles as a makeshift weapon, you must immediately fend off sentry drones. But for both better and worse, the mystery behind your circumstances is quickly revealed, as the game uses friendly civilians to explain that you’re in the dystopian mega-city of Jericho City and that a nanotech plague has led to a quarantine. You always know exactly where you’re supposed to go, and why, and though the city is somewhat open for exploration, high-level enemies and pathways that require specialized equipment serve to funnel you through each area.

Although its precisely timed counter-heavy combat and interconnected, shortcut-filled exploration borrow heavily from the Dark Souls playbook, The Surge 2 is otherwise a significantly more straightforward game. In addition to your objectives being clearly recorded in your logbook, your character can equip a wide variety of cybernetic implants that make combat easier. If you’re having trouble reading your opponents’ physical cues, you can utilize an augment that adds a directional arrow to your screen to show you exactly where attacks are coming from. And if you keep hitting the wrong limb on an enemy, severing its chest when you’re trying to salvage an arm, you can also install a chip for that.

Even the game’s loading screen is profoundly helpful, as it displays a tourist’s map to the various districts of Jericho City. Since this is the image that you’ll be staring at each time your character falls in battle, death essentially helps to reorient the player. You can absolutely still get lost in the game’s tense, rhythmic battles or Jericho City’s labyrinthine alleyways and ruinous buildings, but for the most part, The Surge 2 provides clear, meaningful goals and a series of constant, albeit small, achievements that help to alleviate the punishing difficulty.

It’s this sense of making incremental gains that makes The Surge 2 such a blast to play. As is standard for hardcore Dark Souls-like games, when you die you drop all of your currency—here called scrap—and have one chance to make it back from your respawn point to your death location to recollect it. But The Surge 2 goes even further than its predecessor in adding quality-of-life improvements that help mitigate the risks you take: You can bank unspent currency at any MedBay, safely storing it for later; you can unlock an abundance of shortcuts, which helps to cut down on unwanted backtracking; and, most importantly, you can always use the game’s gory, slow-motion limb-severing mechanic to harvest new tools from your enemies, which ensures that you’re always getting something from even old foes. Dying is less of a failure if it nets you a new weapon, or allows you to gather schematics and raw parts. If your current equipment isn’t doing the trick, it won’t take long for you to mix, match, and upgrade to a new set of helmets, chests, arms, and legs that better serve your playstyle.

The Surge 2 also has a lot more environmental variety than the original game. Jericho City is filled with encampments of human survivors, each of which reflects a very different sort of response to the nanotech disaster. For instance, entrepreneurs eke out a living in what remains of the Seaside Court mall, doctors attempt to feed and clothe children in the tented evacuation site that rests atop an abandoned highway, and a bunch of rich, well-connected socialites host a decadent End of the World party in the swanky bar of a high-rise hotel. In addition to the checkpointed city streets, which are occupied by overzealous, trigger-happy soldiers, the waterlogged district of Port Nixon has been overrun by a religious, machine-worshipping cult, and the nature preserve at Gideon’s Rock is filled with opportunistic stealth-suit-wearing mercenaries looking to score a quick bounty or two.

That said, for all of the work that Deck 13 has put into creating an intriguing city, the actual exploration is sometimes marred by technical issues. The game’s a graphical mess, with textures failing to load, and a general fuzziness to everything when in the lower-resolution Performance Mode. (Even the upgraded PlayStation 4 Pro has trouble smoothly handling the better visuals of Quality Mode.) Certain environments, like the neon-irradiated gloom of a power plant that’s been transformed into a church, have an ambient glare that makes it hard to clearly make out one’s character in combat. Others, like the nanite-infested sewer tunnels, are too dark, even with your exosuit’s lights on. Worst of all is the game’s errant collision detection; occasionally, your character will get stuck against a wall and instantly die.

The further into The Surge 2 players make it, the more abilities they gain for navigating the city: an EMP blast opens electronic locks and restarts magnetic lifts, a grappling hook allows glorified zip-lines to be rappelled up and down, and fast travel is enabled between the non-combat regions. Inversely, the easier it becomes to get around, the less the game asks you to do so. Dedicated players can wander off the blinkered path, but the sidequests are neither compelling nor rewarding enough to encourage this. The last act of the game is literally a molten path of destruction painted across the city that strongly urges players to proceed directly to their final destination. The Surge 2 offers a temporary jolt of entertainment, but after a dozen hours, it’s a desperate sprint to the end before it runs out of juice entirely.

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

Developer: Deck 13 Publisher: Focus Home Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: September 24, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong Language Buy: Game

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