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Review: Unravel

The game earns its beauty, though the narrative isn’t always as tightly knitted together as it needs to be.

4.0

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Unravel
Photo: Electronic Arts

Yarny, a red cotton figurine spun to life out of an old woman’s misplaced memories, at first seems like a flimsy hero for a video game. And yet, he proves to be as durable as the real-world locations that make up Unravel’s backbone; he’s a spark of whimsy and artistry that enlivens every aspect of this platformer. The physics-based environmental puzzles aren’t just a matter of simply pushing, pulling, and swinging on objects, but of learning how to outwit snappy crabs and greedy gophers with contextual objects like oysters and mushrooms. Unravel also benefits from Coldwood’s Pixar-like storytelling, which uses homespun, childish constructs to maturely depict an entire woman’s life, from first love to “last leaf.” It’s a game of childish wonders but adult gameplay, and the surprising difficulty curve makes sense given one level’s epigraphs: “Can you truly appreciate how special or beautiful something is if you don’t know what it took to get it?”

Unravel earns its beauty, then, though the narrative isn’t always as tightly knitted together as it needs to be. One sequence, which takes place in an industrial dumpsite, is closer to environmental activism than Yarny’s personal quest to recover its owner’s missing memories. This zone is a gorgeous wasteland that requires Yarny to float corroding batteries across toxic pools, but without a strong emotional connection, it comes across as gimmicky and perfunctory—gameplay for its own sake. And that’s a bit of problem, considering that Unravel’s photorealism can sometimes make it difficult to identify interactive objects, or to clarify which things Yarny can use his string tail to pull, as opposed to simply rappel down or swing from.

Thankfully, Unravel isn’t too beautiful for its own good. The majority of its puzzles are logically tied to the real-world environs, and the more abstract ones can be brute-forced, thanks to the linear structure of the game. Yarny’s limited range of motion—he can only go so far between fresh skeins of yarn—is actually a boon, for it ensures that players are never stuck for too long. Any remaining knots of frustration are quickly pardoned by the beauteous sight of moose grazing in the unfocused background, or the gaping span of two train rails. (Besides, those rare exceptions where the game remains unfairly deceptive are all for optional secrets.)

Unlike Nintendo’s stitchcraft adventures, which delightfully appropriated Yoshi and Kirby, Unravel is also resolutely its own thing, playing closer to Bionic Commando or Indiana Jones’s swinging sections than anything before it. Yarny’s palm-sized scale also puts a unique perspective on familiar settings, such that the displacement of a few pebbles threatens to become a disastrous landslide or a reclining lawn chair can serve as a makeshift catapult. Yarny is incapable of violence, but uniquely susceptible to it, which only makes the player feel more protective of and invested in the character as they seek out roundabout ways to avoid a field full of peckish crows or to shoo away a room of tenacious termites.

As the game wends through each of the four seasons, new obstacles continue to present themselves, from using a displaced plastic bag to descend from the treetops to rolling up acorns into snowballs that can float across half-frozen pools of water. Despite the title, then, Unravel isn’t a stitched-together game in danger of falling apart, but a well-constructed and surprisingly emotional platformer. There’s a logical progression to the game, and by the time it reaches a blizzard-struck cemetery, the frigid finality calls Journey to mind. The hero this time around isn’t nothing more than a rogue, frostbitten spool of yarn, but a metaphor for threads that tether us to life, and there’s no reason Yarny’s struggle to roll on can’t be both whimsical and uplifting.

Developer: Coldwood Interactive Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 9, 2016 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Hypnospace Outlaw Is a Lament for the Wild West of the Early Net

The game masterfully uses its microcosm of the internet circa 1999 to examine the way society functions when it’s extremely online.

5

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Hypnospace Outlaw
Photo: No More Robots

The technology at the center of Hypnospace Outlaw sounds futuristic: a headset that lets you access an online community while you sleep. But it’s also 1999, which means your brain-beaming helmet displays the limited color palette and grainy, pixelated artwork of an early internet, cursed with horrendous fonts that mingle with faintly terrifying 3D image renders and cursor trails. Nothing quite compares to the gaudy Wild West of the early internet, and Hypnospace Outlaw mines that eye-searing kitsch for pages upon pages of vivid, outrageous comedy as you dream-surf a privately owned net.

Throughout, you marvel at unfortunate interests like fan pages for rap-rock groups and chain letter-esque images that promise to ward off evil. You click through personal blogs and projects and advertisements grouped into zones according to shared subject matter. That’s the job, after all, since you play the game as an “enforcer,” a newly assigned moderator to the Hypnospace community. A purveyor of banal justice, you seek out unapproved commerce or strike down images and links with the divine hammer of copyright infringement.

In Hypnospace Outlaw, you’ll page through the teen zone and the conspiracy theory hub, but the game simulates more than just a web browser; an entirely customizable desktop runs the programs you find and opens downloaded documents. You can’t send email, but you’ll receive it. As you’re assigned more cases, the scope of the detective work begins to incorporate these other elements, requiring you to scan for references and redirects to pages tucked out of plain sight, accessible only through backdoor links, search keywords, or outside software that’s just as clunky to use as something from the early net era might have been.

The game could easily sustain itself on no more than this conceit, the base investigation and ironic appreciation of a World Wide Web still full of strategically deployed “under construction” banners. Instead, it uses those elements to build something both stranger and more ambitious, weaving a world of staggering consistency. Designers of HypnOS—the headset’s operating system—hang around their creation, and so do their commercial partners. You begin to pick out business strategies and creative decisions, to spot revealing nuances in page design, some as small as whether or not they redirect back to the home page.

The more zones you gain access to, the more familiar you grow with Hypnospace’s own terms and trends. Its users post images en masse to protest copyright removal, support underground music like “coolpunk,” or supposedly insulate themselves from “beefbrain.” Others make pages that recount the deepest cuts of a comic book bull’s history, link to spooky interactive fiction, discuss the nuances of “trennis,” and recount the erratic career trajectory of The Chowder Man, an aging rocker turned corporate sellout. Some of the autoplayed page jingles—all of them specifically, hilariously designed for the game—get stuck in your head regardless of how much they sound filtered through a tin can. Though Hypnospace Outlaw’s clear reference point is the early internet as we knew it, the game is more about exploring the developers’ own unique spin on the web pre-Y2K, which is so distinct that it never devolves into a round of spotting real-world references. Hypnospace, after all, is a world of its own.

To a point, the game is about pointing and laughing at the outdated presentation of user-created web pages, but it’s careful not to fall into easy parody. Hypnospace users are totally sincere about their creations, or totally sincere in their insincerity. They live in their present, and that present is one where every page hosts disastrous touches like an eyesore font or a 3D emoticon with a terrifying rictus grin. While you become accustomed to, and begin to appreciate, such idiosyncratic Hypnospace trappings while you moderate content, the web pages seem to build partial portraits of the people behind them: thoughtful writers, edgy teens, misanthropes, simpering wannabe cool kids, myopic control freaks, and people who feud through amateurish MS Paint-like art because they see too much of themselves in each other. Snippets of real life peek through every page’s design choice and written word.

You never directly converse with these people, but you come to know them by their work. They maintain their own projects and pages, displaying personas that are deeply personal because everything had to be built by hand. Hypnospace Outlaw functions as a kind of goofy lament for a personality that’s been diminished in the decades since, as social media corrals us into an infinitely more homogenous personal space. But the game never feels limited to its chosen era, as its depiction of obsessive personalities, crowd mentalities, and people who look for meaning by carving out a space online resonates all the way through to the present day.

For as much as the game pays tribute to the spirit of the early web, Hypnospace is certainly not a utopian vision. Even between the content you’re supposed to scrub, the place is absolutely ravaged by commerce and capitalism. Such a space must, of course, be monetized as much as possible. The desire to be recognized and heard by literally anything or anyone, to feel like more than voices that cry out into an online void from small towns where they don’t fit in, is exploited for corporate gain. Companies cash in on trends, marketing to children in their sleep. They pay people like you, volunteer enforcers of dubious corporate norms, in currency that can only be spent in Hypnospace. The company town has gone digital.

None of this stops Hypnospace Outlaw from being hilarious (one child’s drawing is too poor to qualify as copyright infringement), but it situates the game on the thread that connects comedy with tragedy, and endearing eccentricity with outright toxicity. The pain seems funny until you recognize that it’s real, learn that there are people behind those screens. The game is a monumental achievement, not just for its detailed rendering of another place and time but for the observed humanity of its writing and the things it has to say about the intersection of capitalism and art. Hypnospace Outlaw’s surprising thematic sweep transforms an already wondrous internet simulator into a striking commentary on the development of movements and communities even in the intervening decades, using this microcosm of the internet circa 1999 to examine the way society functions when it’s extremely online.

The game was reviewed using a code provided by No More Robots.

Developer: Jay Tholen, Mike Lasch, Xalavier Nelson Jr., ThatWhichIs Media Publisher: No More Robots Platform: PC Release Date: March 12, 2019 Buy: Game

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Review: With Devil May Cry 5, a Series Is Back to the Old-Time Rock-n’-Roll

The game is a near-endless buffet of innovative options for turning enemies into mincemeat.

4.5

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Devil May Cry 5
Photo: Capcom

Not only a return to form for the Devil May Cry series after the lethargic Devil May Cry 4, Devil May Cry 5 is also something of a restatement of intent for the original numbered series after the woefully underrated DmC: Devil May Cry’s detour into more grungy terrain. Devil May Cry is now back to the old-time rock-n’-roll for Dante, reverting to much of the trashy anime swagger of the first four games, emphasizing style over anything resembling substance. And yet, there’s still a touch of the reboot’s madness floating around in here, which keeps the game from falling back on some of Devil May Cry’s worst habits, while also advancing the series’s past ideas with great zeal and imagination.

As one might expect, considering that Devil May Cry 4 was released 11 years ago, Devil May Cry 5 represents an enormous jump in visual complexity for this series. Beyond the incredible fine detail in every humanoid character’s face and performance, the landscape marries realistically rendered European cities with a stomach-turning sebaceous mess, borne from a demonic tree that leaves a sort of hellish insectoid apocalypse in its wake. In terms of actual game design, there’s nothing terribly audacious going on here, with sometimes too-tight linear corridors leading to wide-open kill zones. But the this isn’t a game about what you plan to do about a problem, but how ridiculously elaborate and flashy you can do that thing, and the game is a near-endless buffet of innovative options for turning enemies into mincemeat.

Every move that’s ever been a part of Dante and Nero’s repertoires in the past is an option here. Nero is all about hard single strikes, and figuring out ways to maximize them each and every time. He’s aided by the Devil Breaker system, which builds on Devil May Cry 4’s main gimmick. In that game, Nero could grab or slam anything from long distances with his demonic arm. In Devil May Cry 5, after the arch-demon Urizen rips off that arm, Nero now has a set of disposable cybernetic replacements that can do anything from blasting nearby enemies with lightning, to being able to temporarily stop time. The upshot is that the arms are fragile, and will break if you get hit while using their special functions. It’s a careful balance that teaches players to respect the immeasurable power at their fingertips.

Dante, on the other hand, is all about the right tool for the right job, and the four styles returning from Devil May Cry 3 and 4—Trickster, Gunslinger, Swordmaster, and Royalguard—combine with an expansive, devastating arsenal that changes function whenever those styles change is legitimately daunting at first. Experimentation is welcomed more in this game than the others, especially thanks to a new long-overdue practice space called The Void. However, it doesn’t take long to find a set of moves you’re comfortable with, and once you’re ready, there’s a formidable list of skills to unlock in order to take your repertoire to the next level.

The wildcard here, however, is the addition of a new character, V, a demon conjurer who fascinatingly resembles a frail, underfed, Uncanny Valley version of Adam Driver. He doesn’t fight himself, but instead summons three demonic familiars—a panther, a wise-cracking talking raven, and a massive golem—to do his fighting for him. The slower, more deliberate gameplay in his levels is a strangely captivating contrast with the typical Devil May Cry style, if not entirely successful since you’re issuing commands second-hand.

V’s mechanics feel like they were built for a JRPG that never happened, rather than for a series built for speed. Yet it’s such a unique moveset for this type of game that it’s hard not to admire Capcom’s bravery for even trying it here. More than the developer’s typical method of ratcheting up the difficulty in the series’s traditional Dante Must Die mode, V’s stages require players to truly study their prey, to think 10 seconds ahead at all time in order to avoid V getting hit before the familiars can take out the closest enemy. Playing as V requires considering the opening created by every move instead of wailing away at a ragdolled demon. These levels truly force the player to consider and respect their enemies, something none of the previous games can really allow given that they’re all about making Dante and Nero look unstoppable in combat. V never does, and it’s an intriguing breath of fresh air.

Devil May Cry 5 executes this rowdy stage-destroying romp with all the glee that was missing in the fourth installment, making the real difference between the main series and DmC abundantly clear. Most players would like to pretend that Devil May Cry is all about being stylish and cool, but the truth is a bit more complex. Because, as far as what’s legitimately popular and edgy in the 2010s, DmC had its thumb right on the zeitgeist, with its EDM-kid Dante, its beautiful graffiti-infused aesthetic, tipping its nose rather unsubtly at the loneliness and teenage abuse that create alt subcultures in general. Arguably, Devil May Cry 5 is more successful as a traditional Devil May Cry game for not trying to follow the zeitgeist and instead existing permanently in the one it created back in 2001—one that revels in recent-past hallmarks of cool like Scrooge McDuck taking a bath in a bin full of ‘90s arcade tokens.

On the surface, Devil May Cry’s aesthetic appeal conforms to a sort of goth-Eurotrash John Wick chic: wearing a trench coat, doing death-defying acrobatics wielding dual pistols in ways that would make John Woo proud. This is the window dressing for what is—and, in retrospect, always has been—a collection of mechanics, character beats, and elaborate flourishes that thrives on self-awareness and arch camp more than the series’s severe and grim premise lets on. DmC leaned into that severity and grimness with great seriousness, whereas Devil May Cry 5 gave us a climax involving a character becoming a divine creature of retribution by literally giving a middle finger to heaven itself. It’s enough to wonder why nuance and social relevance would ever want to become part of this series’s narrative vocabulary?

If anything, Devil May Cry 5’s success stems from embracing that camp with greater vigor than the series ever has before, if not as wholeheartedly as its estranged cousins, Bayonetta and Bayonetta 2. However, there’s no greater embodiment of Devil May Cry’s entire ethos as a series than Devil May Cry 5’s newest and absolute best character: Nico, a chain-smoking, biracial cowboy hipster gun nut engineer-slash-arms dealer who’s into lo-fi hip-hop, built her workshop into the back of her van, and cartoonishly drives into any situation to sell our heroes weaponry like a deranged version of the Kool-Aid Man.

An entire review could almost focus on Nico as the perfect encapsulation of the game as a whole, but the one scene that says it all is right at the start: After arriving on the scene by mowing down an entire crowd of demon ants with her van, Nico steps out to face one of the survivors, a cop who’s still dumbstruck that the demon apocalypse is even happening and his friends and colleagues have just been burned or eaten alive in it. Nico, on the other hand, is the one fully human character who’s seen that angels and demons exist and that a bunch of goth pretty boys are the only ones capable of stopping them. She plops down next to the cop and tells him to sit back, chill out, and enjoy watching Nero whup ass. Which they—like anybody who sets eyes on Devil May Cry 5—can’t help but do.

The game was reviewed using a retail PS4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Capcom Publisher: Capcom Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Strong Language, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Dead or Alive 6 Is a Soft-Core Fighter Stacked on More of the Same

Throughout, you may be gripped by the feeling that you’ve seen all that there is to see in the fighting game genre.

2.5

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Dead or Alive 6
Photo: Koei Tecmo

As you play the fifth sequel in the Dead or Alive series, you may be gripped by the feeling that you’ve seen all that there is to see in the fighting game genre. Sure, Dead or Alive 6 offers up features that are new to the series, like blood effects and a super meter, but those are bells and whistles culled from a decades-old industry playbook for games of this sort. Meanwhile, the most distinguishing factors of the Dead or Alive franchise—from an emphasis on counters to its interactive stages—have long lost their luster or, in the case of their sexily dressed female characters, curdled into predictable fetishism. If the goal of Dead or Alive 6 is to appear over-familiar, this entry is a roaring success.

If you’ve never played a Dead or Alive game, there are few fighting styles and moves here that don’t bring to mind other 3D fighters, such as the titles in the Virtua Fighter and Tekken series. Developer Team Ninja surely knows this is the case, and so it attempts to woo its predominantly male audience with a cast of mainly young female martial artists, some of whom, based on their playful attire and attitude, feel as they’ve been pulled from a daddy/daughter fetish porn. While Dead or Alive 5 added visible sweat to character bodies, Dead or Alive 6 opens up the possibility for dirt to accumulate on the skin and attire of its fighters. One might say this addition reflects the consequences of battle, but once you see, say, a very young and coquettish woman with soiled stockings, it’s clear that the game is primarily aiming to titillate by serving up a lite version of mud wrestling.

One of the defining concepts of the Dead or Alive series is a button that allows you to reverse the various melee attacks of your opponents. The idea behind this mechanic is to give the player a toolkit that can stop competitors from spamming kicks and punches. In theory, dedicating a button to counterattacks encourages an evolution of action, forcing rivals to mix up their combinations and approaches to avoid being stopped. But rather than lean into or reimagine this standby, Dead or Alive 6 includes an additional special button that plays off the Break Gauge, essentially a super meter. As in many fighting games, the gauge fills up as you inflict and take damage. When filled enough, the gauge enables you to initiate offensive and defensive techniques with the special button. But at this stage in the genre’s history, the meter and its associated moves feel less like an innovative wrinkle to a formula and more like a capitulation to a trend popularized by Capcom’s Street Fighter series.

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of Dead or Alive 6 is its stages, specifically their different environmental effects. One level has scattered explosives waiting to be triggered. Another boasts an electrified barrier. In a particularly entertaining arena, you can smash your opponent into a giant egg that inspires a mother pterodactyl to snatch and drop the unfortunate recipient of your blow. Yet even this one clever moment carries a hint of staleness, as it’s quite reminiscent of the disruptive dinos on a similar stage in Dead or Alive 4.

In line with its predecessors and some of its contemporaries, Dead or Alive 6 lets you juggle opponents in the air after you knock them off their feet, but the game demands virtually no skill for its ridiculous displays of unanswerable hits. Eating away 30-to-50 percent of a foe’s health bar with juggles here is only slightly more complex than dialing a phone number. Contradicting the franchise’s dedication to counters, the game’s juggling mechanic leaves your victims completely helpless. It’s another reminder that running old tricks into the ground in order to reward the fanboy’s thirst for domination, and in unchecked fashion, will be the legacy of Dead or Alive 6 and so many other fighting games.

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

Developer: Team Ninja Publisher: Koei Tecmo Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: March 1, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Language, Sexual Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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