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E3 2011 Press Conferences: The Biggest Loser

Compared to other mediums like film and television, video games are relatively young, and the industry is still trying to figure itself out.

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E3 2011 Press Conferences: The Biggest Loser

Widely regarded as the most important trade show for the video-game industry, the Electronic Entertainment Expo brings developers and media every year to the Los Angeles Convention Center, giving large hardware companies space to show off consoles and innovations, and publishers an opportunity to parade new games and reveal future software lineups. There’s an enormous show floor where trailers are screened and upcoming games can be played, but for the gaming press E3 is mostly about running back and forth between live demos, presentations, and press conferences. These conferences have become so prestigious that they can now be streamed live over the Internet, giving gamers the chance to experience new announcements at the same time as the media.

Two thousand eleven is an important year for video games. Compared to other mediums like film and television, video games are relatively young, and the industry is still trying to figure itself out, struggling to adapt and survive. Just years ago it would have been unfathomable that a graphically underpowered movement-controlled “gimmick” device would outsell mainstream games and consoles, yet Nintendo’s Wii annihilated its competitors in sales, carving out an entirely new audience separate from core gamers. Ditto the rise in mobile games and Apple’s handheld devices as exceptionally popular—and exceptionally profitable—gaming platforms. Trying to rationalize these changes and simultaneously appeal to a core and mainstream audience is the problem faced by the holy trinity of industry juggernauts (Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo) as well as the hundreds of publishers and developers struggling with the rising costs and team sizes required to create games. Games themselves present a series of quandaries, with so many different platforms and genres and budgets, from mobile games to big-budget blockbusters to smaller indie and arcade games; achieving success and profit can involve walking a fine line between familiarity and innovation, but neither originality or pre-established interest guarantee success in the current difficult market.

Although estimates of a console’s life cycle are fairly pointless (e.g. the decade-old PS2—and its games—are still selling, and well), we are undeniably past the halfway point for the current generation of console hardware: Wii game releases are somehow more scant than ever before, and many of the mainstream console’s biggest franchises have ended or are building toward the release of “final” chapters over the next 12 months (Halo, Mass Effect, Uncharted, and others). All three major players had a new hardware release since the last E3, and all three were failures. Sony and Microsoft released their motion controllers, the Move and Kinect, respectively, both with limited software lineups (and even less quality releases), and Nintendo released its 3D-touted handheld device, the 3DS, in a wildly unsuccessful launch due to a limited software lineup. With this, and many other factors in mind (such as the astonishing PlayStation Network security breach), we were all set for a series of interesting and tantalising briefings addressing the future of video games, including the potential announcement of future consoles; unfortunately, the end result was just as scattershot, confusing, and bewildering as ever, with mistakes destined to repeat themselves and a surprising lack of things to look forward to.

Konami Pre-E3 Press Event

Everything got off on the wrong foot with Konami’s malnourished pre-E3 press event, filmed prior to the expo and distributed online before the weekend. Konami revealed spectacularly little in the way of announcements and new products, revelling instead in a masturbatory celebration of its own past library, an approach that would be consistent across all of the press events. In a similar vein to the rabid demand for remakes by movie studios, desperate to create films with pre-established audiences and thus guaranteeing financial returns, Konami announced three HD collections: Zone of the Enders, Metal Gear Solid, and Silent Hill, the latter two missing pivotal first-series entries. This is especially confounding considering that a very good-looking version of the original Metal Gear Solid was created for the GameCube, Metal Gear Solid: The Twin Snakes, which wouldn’t be too hard to give the HD treatment—and the very aged PSX classic Silent Hil also demands remake, if only because it’s a bloody good game. The trend of HD remakes has become commonplace to the point of nausea: While it makes sense to make an HD package out of the brilliant Ico and Shadow of the Colossus, two games whose graphics haven’t aged well and few have played, there’s little reason to remaster the Metal Gear Solid or Silent Hill series when one can already upscale them on the PS3 or 360. Desperation and greed are also consistent themes across the briefings.

Upcoming releases from Konami include NeverDead and Silent Hill Downpour, two underwhelming games announced previously and previewed at the pre-event with little new information, as well as enigmatic self-congratulation over Metal Gear Solid: Snake Eater 3DS. The choice to remake this game on handheld is puzzling. Metal Gear Solid 3: The Snake Eater and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are two of the finest video games ever made, and both are getting 3DS remakes. But when the majority of gamers own sizeable HD devices, why would one possibly want to play such important and influential games on a screen smaller than their fist? This was a problem faced by the Sony PSP, which attempted to sell itself as a portable device that could play games akin to those on its home-console brethren, despite the fact that no one wanted to play those games on a handheld. Silent Hill 0rigins, for example, loses all of its impact played on public transport, but is a surprisingly potent entry in the series when played on a large screen with surround sound. Conversely, the Nintendo DS, with its innovative touch screen and implementation of unique experiences suited for a handheld device, flourished by giving us games that could be played in short bursts. Considering the laughable and pathetic battery life of the 3DS, a better alternative already exists to attempting 30 hours of either 3DS remake, and that’s playing those games on current consoles in one’s house on an HD screen.

An amusing Mega64 skit proved to be the only real highlight of the entire pre-show event. The poorly named and misspelt concept of “transfarring”—that is, being able to play the same game across home and handheld consoles—was introduced in the most embarrassing way possible and was later quickly devalued when other companies announced the same thing, solidifying the fact that such “innovation” was inevitable and not really innovation at all. Ultimately, embarrassment is exactly what the Konami pre-E3 press conference is going to be remembered for, assuming it will be remembered at all.

Xbox 360 E311 Media Briefing

Monday morning brought the first real press event of E3, the Xbox 360 E311 Media Briefing, which was spoiled ahead of time when Microsoft updated their website a few hours too early. In our Internet age, it’s impossible to avoid information being leaked early (anyone invested in the industry knew well head of time about the PlayStation NGP and the new Nintendo console Project Cafe), but with barely any announcements as it was, the early release of information rendered the press conference even more worthless.

Opening with a lengthy demo for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3, the briefing was divided into three equally disappointing parts. The first demonstrated games that had already been previously announced: Tomb Raider, Gears of War 3, Ghost Recon: Future Soldier, Forza 4, and Mass Effect 3. Gears of War fans might angrily remember how the amazing second game was partially spoiled by an E3 demo that played through much of the finale, specifically the fall of Jacinto; similar stupidity was in full effect here, wherein exciting and important parts of the games are demonstrated to pointlessly incite interest where interest already exists, ultimately doing little but spoiling games that fans are guaranteed to buy anyway. It’s also worth noting that every one of these games is a sequel—not a promising sign in regards to original titles and new franchises.

The second part was dedicated to the Kinect, the motion controller that so many bought and then had only one game (Dance Central) to use it with. Call this “Wii Syndrome,” a particularly apt moniker considering the long lineup of awful Wii-like shovelware that was subsequently demonstrated. Consider Ryse, a Crytek medieval fighting game set on rails, or Star Wars Kinect, which looks similarly atrocious, or the shameless Disneyland Adventures, a disconnected collection of awkward mini-games set in Disney theme parks. Cheap products like this offer little to anyone. Ditto a baffling on-rails version of Fable: The Journey, and the superfluous addition of Kinect capabilities for Mass Effect 3’s conversations and combat. (In addition to BioWare having designed the game to be perfectly intuitive with a controller, rendering such implementation moot, I have serious doubts as to whether the Kinect can do what was claimed during the exhibition: The player tells the other characters where to go and what to do during a battle, activating dialogue options during conversation. The Kinect voice command is so limited that English speaking countries with different accents can’t use the functionality yet, for fuck’s sake.) What should be an impressive, innovative demonstration of new technology instead comes off as desperate, and dedicating such a large portion of the conference to games of no interest to the core audience effectively snubs the vast majority of the people viewing the conference, especially when there are few other games to announce and show for the core gamers.

It’s important to note that negative reception to the Kinect isn’t in any way a blanket condemnation against causal games or motion controls in general, rather a response to the poor software offerings for the new technology. On the other side of the coin, Dance Central 2 shows that Harmonix is as on top of their game as ever, improving and building on their already phenomenal franchise. The always fantastic Tim Schafer demonstrated Double Fine’s Sesame Street: Once Upon a Monster, which appears to be a game with mass appeal: the graphics are gorgeous and accurate to the source (they managed to get Cookie Monster’s googly eyes just right), the silly gameplay will appeal to players of all ages, and the sense of humor is perfect. For Double Fine, this project is a labor of love, and Schafer amusingly recounted his pleasure in being able to make this game for his own family; this would have been the correct path for something like Disneyland Adventures, as Double Fire proves that motion games (and licensed games) don’t have to be shameless cash grabs. The Kinect exhibition concluded with a series of intriguing tech-demos called Kinect Fun Labs—now actually available on Xbox Live to sample. This is one of the few high points of the Xbox 360 briefing, an additional level of interactivity for those outside of E3, as it gives those who invested in the Kinect something to try until more software comes out—in so many months.

The final part of the briefing demonstrated a new Kinect-based dashboard as well as the YouTube and Bing integration no one in their right mind wanted. I, for one, can’t wait to stream low-quality video through my HD console to my HD display, and use Kinect to search on Microsoft’s horrid Bing search engine. An astonishingly pointless UFC application was demonstrated in which all the features UFC fans can and do get elsewhere can now be acquired on a gaming console. Finally, a Halo HD remake was announced, and the Halo 4 teaser closed out the conference, promising a new Bungie-free trilogy that does away with the satisfying conclusion offered by the remarkable Halo 3. But that isn’t the real problem; the issue with the teaser is that it was awful. Poor CG, bad voice acting, shitty editing, and awkward music amounts to the opposite of the great teaser trailer Bungie produced for the series, now no longer theirs and existing solely to make Microsoft money.

EA and Ubisoft Press Conferences

Following Microsoft, EA and Ubisoft both had press conferences. EA’s was dominated by introductions to upcoming games, including the promising Mass Effect 3, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Battlefield 3, but little else.

Need for Speed: The Run was demonstrated, merging Hot Pursuit’s gameplay and Autolog with blatantly moronic QTE on-foot chase sequences that couldn’t be more out of place if they were Manhunt executions in Disneyland Adventures. SSX is rebooted and Kings of Amalur gets a kind-of release with the standard-looking, single-player action-RPG Reckoning. EA also talked about Origin, a new website for information about their games unlike all of the other websites that have information about their games. (Wasting the audience’s time instead of announcing new games is another running theme of these briefings.)

Ubisoft’s flaccid press conference is best summarised by the video above, a compilation of the atrocious “Mr. Caffeine,” who was brought in for the conference and was later killed in the backlot. Among the unexciting game announcements: the prequel Rayman Origins, Borderlands-by-way-of-Tarantino Brothers in Arms: Furious 4, a new Kinect-supported Rabbids game (Alive and Kicking), and the completely redundant Rocksmith, a music game “featuring a real guitar” (finally!). But at least Ubisoft had plenty to show; even known quantities like Assassin’s Creed: Revelations added to the variety of their presentation. For some reason it seems that most of these briefings were more interested in pointless spin, feebly justifying new hardware instead of actually announcing and showing products. The number of titles Ubisoft showed was substantial, whereas every other press conference barely scraped a dozen.

Sony Press Conference

The first critical sin of the Sony press conference was not to acknowledge the damage done by the security breach and subsequent removal/rebuild of the PlayStation Network. A suitable apology was required of Sony here at the first major press event since the breach, and what was given was pathetic. Referring to the weeks-long incident that affected millions as a diminutive “outage” was disrespectful to their core fanbase, who had suffered plenty already, and to the third-party companies who incurred major financial losses, of whom SCEA President Jack Trenton didn’t even apologize to directly, instead working irritating and pointless statistics about the PlayStation’s success into his opening speech. If you disagree with what I’m saying here, go back and watch it again. There’s no acknowledgement that Sony did anything wrong, not with the way their data—our data—was insecure and not encrypted, not in the way they chose not to reveal the extent of the breach to their consumers, not in any way at all. It’s damning. Further missing was an actual substantial guarantee that such a breach would never happen again (as unrealistic as such a claim might be, at least it would have been a sign of good faith), and that precautions had been taken in the weeks since the incident took place. No doubt we have heard these things prior to the conference, and the premise of the conference was to look toward the future, but to gloss over the breach is pitiable.

Beyond the expected unspectacular videos of Uncharted 3 and Resistance 3, Sony’s press conference primarily focused on the genuinely embarrassing Move software. NBA 2K12 showed exactly how one can combine a lightgun game with sports “so that anyone can play it”—which is why they needed pro-basketballer Kobe Bryant onboard for an unreal demo, producing nothing but unintentionally awkward hilarity. Then, in an attempt to one-up the embarrassment of Microsoft’s mostly awful Kinect lineup, there was Medieval Moves, a frankly discomforting rail-shooter that has one swing the Move controls around to simulate melee attacks. The game’s graphics, like its controls, recall the Wii; this is exactly what the Move needed to avoid, and for such awful shovelware software to appear on the PS3 may prove to be the nail in the coffin for the already failing Move controller.

The best part of the Sony press conference, and potentially the entire E3, was Ken Levine’s startling BioShock Infinite teaser, which promises a genuinely fresh and unique experience—exactly what new games should be looking to offer. But at this point it’s a known quantity that everyone is already excited about; Sony lacked new game announcements, with only Star Trek standing out, a game that looks suspiciously similar to Mass Effect—which, if you think about it, is already a Star Trek video game. Also dominating the conference was the announcement of the PlayStation Vita, the next-generation handheld with all the trappings of a mobile phone (when Kaz Hirai announced they were partnering with AT&T, the audience groaning was enormous) while carrying on the foolish PSP agenda of bringing next-gen console gaming to a portable. Sony wins for persistence (demos of Uncharted, ModNation Racers, and Street Fighter x Tekken showed just how great games will look on the Vita, but they all look better on a regular console. I’m not prepared to write off the thing just because of this, but that’s all they really had to show, and it isn’t anything new or impressive, and it was exhibited for a long long time. Further tech demos padded out the endless conference until the expected self-congratulatory wank finished out the day. (Incidentally, the press in attendance was then invited backstage to a wildly inappropriate party featuring Jane’s Addiction, burlesque dancers, and vintage softcore. Hoo-fucking-ray for Sony.) With little to offer the core audience outside of pre-announced titles and a painful dependence on new and unimpressive hardware, Sony’s presentation was just as disappointing as Microsoft’s.

Nintendo Press Conference

But all other press conferences paled in comparison to Nintendo’s, which opened late with a horrible-sounding orchestra and industry legend Shigeru Miyamoto making a merry idiot of himself. It’s the 25th anniversary of The Legend of Zelda, see, an event worth bringing out a new game for—or, alternatively, remastering a previous game for the nth time and bringing it to a handheld, the place where it can be enjoyed the least.

The big announcement of the Nintendo press conference, and perhaps the entire show, was the next Nintendo console, the Wii U, a machine capable of handling the same graphics as other current consoles and featuring a lot of the same games. The crowd cheered, specifically for the notion that this would be a Nintendo console that would have non-Nintendo games for it. (Finally, Army of Two on Nintendo!) That this should be an actual selling point is sad and pathetic. Worse, the initial thrill of something like Arkham City being released on this brand new console coming in 2012 wears off the second you realise its release will be months, possibly over a year, after every other console has had the game, and subsequently after anyone with any investment in games has played it.

Worse is that it’ll be playable on the new Wii U controller, possibly the worst controller design in the history of video games. The demonstration revealed how Wii U games can be played both on one’s HDTV, and also on the touch screen on each controller—a novel concept, to be sure, without taking into account how ridiculous holding these new controllers is. The demonstrations make the handheld, which is the size of a book or small laptop, seem misleadingly comfortable to hold. Try doing this right now and see how long your hands can bear it; tablet computers are not designed to be held like a handheld console when in use. Controllers are designed to fit the contours of a person’s hands, to be unnoticeable when in use; compare this box-shaped thing to Sony’s superb PS2 DualShock, which set the industry standard. Furthermore, consider that the two analogue sticks that are standard for video-game controllers—essential for controlling first- and third-person games on a console—are replaced by two awkward circle pads identical to those encumbering the 3DS. Bewildering. This is the original Xbox Controller debacle on a grand scale; there is no way that playing a game like Arkham City will be enjoyable with this controller. Any innovation using a touch screen in a game, or using the touch screen alongside the game (like Kaz Hirai’s hilarious suggestion using a PSP as a rear-view mirror in Ridge Racer some years ago) is going to be stunted by how awkward using this controller is likely to be. Worse is how this draws attention away from what essentially undercut the life and quality of the Wii: actual quality releases over unsustainable gimmicks. As nifty as the idea of launching throwing stars from your tablet controller at your TV might be, do you want to do that while playing Mass Effect 3 or any game that actually matters?

With the failure of the 3DS release, now was the time for Nintendo to talk about further support for the handheld, and this was done with the same sad modus operandi we’ve come to expect from Nintendo. All of the old franchises are wheeled out again, with some new ones: Luigi’s Mansion 2, anyone? The follow-up to the GameCube launch title that no one in their right mind wants joins Super Mario, a 2D/3D hybrid platformer that looks fine but doesn’t excuse Nintendo’s refusal to make a proper 3D game on their handhelds (consider how quickly and early in the DS life Super Mario 64 was ported over, then wonder why this has never been followed up on). Furthermore, a perplexing remastering of Star Fox 64 with 3D-killing tilt controls and no reason to exist is shown alongside a new Mario Kart, which reuses old tracks and ignores the possibility of making a more skill-based, tight, and enjoyable Mario Kart game than the clusterfuck that is Mario Kart Wii. Hey, at least there will be a portable Smash Brothers.

This is classic Nintendo. In order to avoid the platform falling victim to the Wii’s problems, third-party support must be sought and sustained, otherwise the initial sales will drop and drop further. The Wii U’s lineup is at least a step in the right direction, despite the new console appearing to be a total disaster, and I can’t wait to play several of those games (on my 360, in a couple of months). And thus it ends, again with masturbatory commendation and the declaration that “innovation” is the constant with Nintendo, where the winning combination would be “new games and innovative experiences, not fucking retreads.” Thanks for nothing.

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Review: In Wide Ocean Big Jacket, the Magic Is in the Smallest of Details

The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

4

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Wide Ocean Big Jacket

Turnfollow’s Wide Ocean Big Jacket gains so much of its character from the little details: the radio playing when Uncle Brad buys a pile of wood for a campfire, or the glow-in-the-dark skeleton that he and Aunt Cloanne use to mark their campsite. Their tent is a two-roomer, and Cloanne explains that they, veteran campers that they are, usually set up a little table in the additional space, for reading indoors in the middle of the outdoors. On this trip, though, the other room belongs to Brad’s 13-year-old niece, Mord, and her best friend who’s now her trial boyfriend, Ben. The kids aren’t totally sure about relationships, as they’re still in that phase of life where relationships aren’t a “real” thing yet—more of a distraction and a declaration than a commitment. But they’ve decided to give it a try.

Mord explains this relationship to Brad while they’re setting up camp, telling him that, as a way of acceptance, Ben had said it doesn’t sound “too scary.” Backstory is delivered this way throughout the game, through simple dialogue about what’s already happened. Instead of outright flashbacks to past moments, there’s only the now, the little snapshots of time the characters spend talking in their wooded setting, or the next one, or on the beach. Wide Ocean Big Jacket is broken up into 20 such vignettes, often swapping between perspectives as the characters amble around these tiny areas with their shuffly gaits that have a pleasantly jerky quality reminiscent of hand-drawn animation. Sometimes they have actions to perform, like when Cloanne watches birds through binoculars or Mord cartwheels across the sand.

Other times, you just page through the dialogue (or, in one case, the narrative of a trashy paperback) from an observer’s perspective, seeing what the characters have to say around the campfire and look at their expressions. The dialogue unspools in small snippets on simple black screens, below black-and-white drawings of the characters’ heads. Though the portraits are totally static, the screens convey a lot through simple tone and those unchanging expressions: Mord’s dead-on stare informs her quirky personality, and Ben has the bashful demeanor of a kid whose eyes you can’t quite see behind the reflection of his glasses. What might have felt limited instead seems specific, even affecting.

Turnfollow does so much with so little. Despite its unassuming art style and brief length—a little over an hour, if that—the game suggests so much beyond itself, through the lyrical cadence of the dialogue, the charming specificity it brings to the characters’ lives, and the way it cuts out of dialogue to reveal scenes like how Mord is standing on a picnic table. The characters are so vividly defined that you get the urge to play according to their behavior, whether it’s deciding which bush to pee in or whether or not to cook a whole mess of hot dogs at once on the same skewer. Wide Ocean Big Jacket bottles small moments and makes them feel important, not because they speak to some world-ending conflict, but because they’re formative: a kiss, an argument, a sighting of a pretty cool stick to wave around. The game captures place and feeling through honing in on things that are singular, small, and warm.

The game was reviewed using a digital Switch copy purchased by the reveiwer.

Developer: Turnfollow Publisher: Tender Claws Platform: Switch Release Date: February 4, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Crude Humor, Language, Sexual Themes, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco Buy: Game

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Review: Lair of the Clockwork God Is a Fine-Tuned Comedy Machine

With their latest, Dan Marshall and Ben Ward successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres.

4

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Lair of the Clockwork God
Photo: Size Five Games

“Why play only one genre of game when you could be playing two slightly different ones at the same time?” That’s a somewhat misleading tagline for Lair of the Clockwork God, as you never simultaneously control the game’s self-aware protagonists, Dan and Ben. Rather, you swap between them, as well as control schemes.

Dan is a platformer enthusiast who refuses to interact with objects, while Ben is a stubborn LucasArts point-and-click adventure junkie who doesn’t care to jump. Figuring out how to use the skills we associate with their favorite genres of game to navigate through a Peruvian jungle, apocalyptic London, and an alien spaceship results in a game that’s fresher and more innovative than yet another standalone platformer or adventure game would be. Lair of the Clockwork God is an exciting way for creators Dan Marshall and Ben Ward to not only set it apart from their prior Dan and Ben titles (Ben There, Dan That and Time Gentlemen, Please), but to successfully extend their lovingly parodic style to a much broader range of genres.

The game is a gold mine of comic scenarios in which the fictionalized, fourth-wall-breaking duo at its center solves novel puzzles using an intentionally haphazard control scheme. Dan’s refusal to interact with even basic objects like a light switch results in gloriously convoluted workarounds, like the one where Ben must find a way not only to reactivate a drone, but to somehow make it glow in the dark. As the game points out, Ben is essentially Dan’s platforming gimmick; instead of Dan having to seek out skill upgrades, Ben combines items from his inventory into accessories that allow Dan to double-jump or hang from walls. Lair of the Clockwork God’s hybridization of platformer and adventure conventions is more than just a successful approach to everything that Ron Gilbert was trying to do with 2013’s The Cave; it’s also a simultaneous homage and critique of the conventions of various genres, with the two protagonists mercilessly commenting on how games have evolved—or not.

Lair of the Clockwork God’s central conceit is that Dan and Ben must teach a faulty A.I. how to re-empathize with humanity. They do so by entering “constructs” (self-contained levels) that represent feelings like Grief or Fear, and each area is “beaten” once the duo has done enough to sufficiently model that emotion to the game’s titular god. This focused, vignette-like structure also allows Marshall and Ward to quickly bounce between concepts, the result of which is a game that pokes fun at everything from visual novels to virtual reality, with plenty of righteous indignation left over for walking simulators and monetization options.

Ironically, the one thing Lair of the Clockwork God doesn’t have much to say about is other platforming games. One of the 11 constructs, Anger, does a fine job of channeling through Dan the sort of curse-spewing, controller-flinging rage that those who’ve played masocore games like Super Meat Boy will instantly relate to. The rest of Dan’s platforming sections feel secondary to Ben’s adventuring. Whereas the inventory puzzles are given new life by Ben’s outsized attempts to puzzle his way past obstacles that Dan can simply jump over, Dan’s largely dialogue-free acrobatics feel like the interstitial stuff you have to complete to get to the next clever puzzle or bracing joke. Dan’s the straight man who sets up the jokes, as when he mantles over some ledges so that he can pop the balloon holding up a dead clown aloft. But it’s Ben who lands the comedy of those moments; his ability to Look at objects or to Use items on them provides the literal observational wit and shock humor needed to push these scenes over the edge: “I feel like pissing on a clown’s entrails wouldn’t be funny somehow.”

Everywhere else, though, Lair of the Clockwork God has plenty to say, with each new area finding a clever way to demonstrate a particular emotion. Joy, for instance, manifests for Dan as a Sonic-like Green Hills Zone filled with floating beer caps and frothy alcohol waterfalls for him to run and jump through. By contrast, Ben’s never happier than when he sets about dismantling the bureaucracy that governs the way a platformer respawns upon death.

Regardless of whether you share Ben and Dan’s nostalgia, their emotions are infectious. The scenarios they face are absurdly over the top, but their actual responses are all too relatable. Most remarkably, however, is that the game can troll players with levels like Confusion and Disappointment and lull them into thinking that Hope is nothing more than a stinging punchline, only to at the last minute show up to the table with the unexpected sincerity of Regret. As it turns out, Lair of the Clockwork God is less about teaching an A.I. what it means to be human than about providing players with examples of how to be better people.

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

Developer: Size Five Games Publisher: Size Five Games Platform: PC Release Date: February 21, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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Review: LUNA The Shadow Dust Is Visually Dazzling but Succumbs to Monotony

Its point-and-click adventure elements eventually feel alternately rudimentary and more than a little tedious.

2.5

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LUNA The Shadow Dust

Presented in a beautiful hand-drawn style with detailed animation and a soft color palette, LUNA The Shadow Dust suggests a storybook come to life. The main characters, a cat-like creature with a shadowy face and a boy who wears a rabbit-eared hood, wordlessly make their way through a mysterious tower. Its rooms are full of puzzles tied to intricate devices and murals from long ago, depicting patterns to follow that will let you unlock the next door. But despite the game’s considerable visual panache, its point-and-click adventure elements eventually feel alternately rudimentary and more than a little tedious.

Throughout, you control the characters separately, initially needing one of them to complete a simple task on one end of a room that will have some effect on the other side. As the game continues, you begin to split the characters up even further, moving them into entirely separate spaces. The creature, for example, may need to stand in some ethereal void filled with trees, while the boy pulls a lever to cycle the void through different seasons. Though the initially basic puzzles grow somewhat more challenging and satisfying to complete with this degree of separation added to the mix, monotony takes hold as you watch the characters laboriously shuffle from one end of the screen to another.

The game is at its best early on, as a kind of visual tour that demands minimal effort from the player, where the puzzles are a largely inconsequential barrier to seeing the sights. The puzzle rooms’ initial layouts are economical, with small areas that hold some obvious visual clue for how to proceed. Such simplicity makes those first puzzles feel a little rote, but they’re the most effective, unintrusive vehicle for simply appreciating LUNA’s artistry.

As the game wears on, though, it introduces the aforementioned complex spaces, requiring the characters to separate for longer periods and trek up and down stairs as well as in and out the same doors. Combined with the sluggish walking cycle, the backtracking can often feel like outright punishment for not solving the progressively more involved puzzles on the first try. The very space that once seemed so breathtaking becomes easy to resent. As some of the animations and actions repeat for no discernible reason (one cart ride to gather books needs to be done a baffling four times), the gorgeous, otherwise relaxed experience begins to grate.

The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Application Systems Heidelberg Software GmbH.

Developer: Lantern Studio Publisher: Application Systems Heidelberg Buy: Game

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Review: Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics Takes Path of Least Excitement

The uninspired material is unable to elevate the game’s moth-eaten ramblings about good and evil.

2

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Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics

The draw of a game inspired by The Dark Crystal and indebted to Final Fantasy Tactics is easy enough to grasp. Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance Tactics offers fans of Jim Henson’s 1982 fantasy film and Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance the chance to see Rian, Brea, and Deet—characters from the Netflix series—engage in tile- and turn-based combat. But it’s difficult to imagine anyone being elated by BonusXP’s game, as the paper-thin quality of its story is as undeniable as its mechanics are behind the times.

The gameplay loop of Age of Resistance Tactics is beyond familiar. You select different points on a map to initiate battles with bad guys—in this case, everything from the Skeksis, the main antagonists in the The Dark Crystal franchise, to giant worms. As in chess, you move your characters to different tiles in order to control key segments of territory, set up combination attacks, and so on. The objectives of war range from wiping out every enemy to moving a set number of characters to an exit. After victory, you gain experience points and gold, which can be spent on equipment that increases your power, defense, and other attributes.

Oddly enough, you rarely acquire enough gold to buy much of anything for a party that eclipses 10 members, but it doesn’t matter. You can get by with substandard weapons and armor in Age of Resistance Tactics because the battles don’t demand any unusual strategic thinking. Enemy groups tend to be small, the environmental elements are unthreatening (gusty winds, for one, can be avoided or ignored with little repercussion), and the character techniques fail to fall outside of what one would expect from a tactical game of this nature. The melee techniques, buffs, projectiles, and magic attacks at your disposal recall the player’s combat options in everything from Into the Breach to Fire Emblem: Three Houses.

The developers at BonusXP try to spice up the affair with tiles of different heights and a job system that allows characters to combine disparate abilities. Obviously, then, they believe that emulating the well-executed concepts of Final Fantasy Tactics is a sturdy enough foundation, and to their credit, the results are serviceable. You certainly can’t sleepwalk your way through Age of Resistance Tactics and fail to, say, increase the adaptability of your party by making offense-dominant characters adopt healing skills from a defense-oriented job. And you can’t truly take advantage of the soldiers with ranged attacks unless you pay attention to height dynamics. But these gameplay elements are integral to more than a few titles from this subgenre of game, and BonusXP mostly just follows a well-tread formula.

Take away the characters, myths, and other connections to the Dark Crystal universe and it’s easy to see that Age of Resistance Tactics has no real identity of its own. Outside of the occasional comic-book cutscene, the story is largely relegated to a small handful of lines of dialogue before or after battle. The plot is easily digestible but with the anonymous quality common to something made by committee, as in the way the heroes have to exterminate pests before a community will guide them to a new location. And such uninspired material is unable to elevate this fantasy game’s moth-eaten ramblings about good and evil.

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

Developer: BonusXP Publisher: En Masse Entertainment, Netflix Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 4, 2020 ESRB: E10+ ESRB Descriptions: Alcohol Reference, Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition Is a Magisterial Elegy for a Nation

Kentucky Route Zero is about America in a way few games aspire to be and fewer still succeed at.

5

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Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Had Kentucky Route Zero been released for the first time this year, it would have been easy to mistake its concerns for being entirely contemporary. When we talk about recent art that addresses the many injustices of capitalism and widespread disenfranchisement, there’s a tendency to frame such discussion in the context of the 2016 election. Rising discontent, widening income gaps, and chosen ignorance in the face of ecological devastation have further popularized stories to voice our collective anger, usually with subtext about eating the rich or gazing upon the end of the world. The setting of the five-part episodic adventure game fits right into such an atmosphere of resentment: a ravaged, mysterious Rust Belt stripped for parts and left to rot, its people displaced and indebted yet doing their best to scrape by.

But this towering masterwork from the three-man development team of Cardboard Computer stretches back further, taking a much longer view of things past than what might simply be described as “post-Trump.” Though the first part, Act One, came out in 2013, the game’s weariness and outrage extend beyond even the late-2000s financial crisis that inspired it, cutting to the very bones of moral compromise that make up the United States. Kentucky Route Zero is about America in a way that few games aspire to be and fewer still succeed at, as its deceptively quiet story gives way to something odd, sad, and brimming with humanity.

Though the game begins with Conway, an old man who drives a sputtering delivery truck for a floundering antique store, the cast gradually expands with each act. Shannon Márquez repairs old television sets in the back of a bait and tackle shop and is the cousin of the enigmatic Weaver, who tends to appear and disappear through pirate TV signals. Ezra, introduced in Act Two, is a boy who lives with a giant eagle in the Museum of Dwellings, a housing display over a razed neighborhood. First seen in Act Three, Junebug is a robotic musician in punk attire, originally designed to clear the old mine but now making her own way and her own sense of self alongside Johnny, another mechanical worker. To some degree, you control all of them, moving them around the screen in different scenes, but mainly you choose their dialogue and decisions.

Spilling out in a script-like format and typeface, the words of Kentucky Route Zero are numerous, the majority of the game predicated simply on talking to people and visiting dreamlike places. Though it superficially resembles a point-and-click adventure game, there aren’t really any puzzles, just choices to navigate the locations and the dialogue paths. A few of the choices matter, though most are flavor; for one, Conway’s dog can be a male Homer, a female Blue, or have no designated name and gender. Mainly, you pick the direction of conversations, defining what the characters might say and what they fixate on, who speaks and who stays quiet as the other choices often melt away, the dialogue having flowed in one direction instead of another.

This is, then, a game that asks you to inhabit multiple perspectives rather than consider them from a fixed distance, absent the artifice of world-defining choices. You consider personalities and states of mind, discovering the characters through half-remembered snippets of stories and the way they speak to each other, the way they think, the way they interact with the world. The game develops its own unique rhythms of easygoing movement and gradual exploration, a gorgeous synthesis of sound, image, and text that gets to the heart of how it feels to be out in the night air, to inhabit space along country roads and woods and fields. This is a twilight drive made physical, evoking the imagery of abandoned places and husks of human habitation often only through the words of characters who speak in the over-sharing cadence of the lonely and lost.

Here, you don’t poke around for collectibles or experience so much as a general sense of discovery, the urge to take your time and drive through the darkness for the simple sake of finding weird, pretty scenes dense with metaphor. One of the most impressive things about the game is how it has evolved, growing more ambitious from one act to the next while remaining remarkably cohesive. Later acts switch up camera angles and dialogue presentation without uprooting what’s come before, without diluting its power; some of the most affecting moments are still the early ones that eschew the simplistic graphical style entirely, leaving you only with the text interface and the brilliant sound design of ethereal music, chirping bugs, and dripping water.

Kentucky Route Zero is a game often content to remain as mysterious as its namesake, an underground highway seemingly unbound by physical laws. Any fights, between unions and predatory companies, have already happened or doubtless will happen again. Instead, it explores the aftermath of cultural devastation, of how people survive in the ruins of the American experiment and how they build atop (or beneath) that wreckage, with the strange reality meant to represent what capitalism has done to the world. The magic is there, only contained and warped by the society that has grown around it.

The characters’ paths narrow as the game continues, as the fist of an unfeeling system closes and people are overwhelmed by weaknesses; you drift from the role of driver to the person being driven to a simple observer of what’s to come. The people you encounter are refugees of greed and exploitation and obsolescence, and there’s a sliver of hope as they defiantly continue, finding pleasure in creation and companionship. They write, they compose, they perform, and they record, inspired by past struggles and a world content to forget its own history beyond facile preservation attempts in arbitrary little museums. After seven years, this visionary masterpiece concludes, an impressionist portrait of people doing what they can in a world that will never recover.

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

Developer: Cardboard Computer Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: January 28, 2020 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Language, Use of Drugs Buy: Game

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Review: Reality TV Strikes Back in the Darkly Satirical Ministry of Broadcast

The game does a fine job of narratively showing the way in which a person can be broken down and made to believe anything.

3.5

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Ministry of Broadcast
Photo: Hitcents

There’s always been something fatalistic about video games, the way in which, once you’ve selected your playable character, you’re locked into a specific role. As much as certain games might emphasize personal choice, like Mass Effect, or navigational freedom, like Skyrim, they’re ultimately offering little more than the illusion of control.

The darkly satirical Ministry of Broadcast doesn’t wait for some late-game BioShock-like twist to reveal that your character has never been—and never will be—more than a cog in the machine. The reality television program The Wall Show, filmed in what appears to be a repurposed Siberian prison, serves as a framework for a game that can’t help but emphasize just how scripted everything is in its world. Even in the opening title sequence, which shows your character blithely jumping out of the back of a speeding truck that’s just gorily flattened a janitor, the game is gleefully explicit about how your progress comes entirely at the expense of others, even going so far as to point out your complicity in all of it. What won’t you stoop to as this unnamed, ginger-headed competitor in the latest season of a dystopian country’s reality program, hoping to win the right to cross the wall and reunite with your loved ones?

Though this shoeless, put-upon protagonist believes himself to be an unsorted contestant, one without a clearly defined role in the competition, it quickly becomes obvious that Shoeless is being molded into the exact sort of player that the regime ruling the country he calls home demands its citizens to be. Resistance isn’t just futile, it’s not even an option. This is the flipside of what happens in Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, where saving your colleagues simply requires additional puzzle-solving. Here, you absolutely cannot progress if you’re not willing to repurpose your comrades as fleshy bridges over spiked pits, or as distractions for feral dogs.

At first, this violence is explained away by The Wall Show as being staged: Nobody’s really dying, thanks to absurdities like puncture-proof clothing. And Shoeless’s belief in that allows him to absolve himself of guilt. For players, the pixelated aesthetic and comic tone of the game are similarly distancing: They downplay the goriness—and finality—of some of these later encounters, as if a person is any less dead if they’ve been cartoonishly impaled on a zeppelin, sucked into a drainage pipe, or consumed by an alligator. But though your character escapes angry enforcers, collapsing structures, and radioactive rooms, the game itself never lets you get away from the consequences of your actions. Regardless of the nature of any episode’s violence, it always ends with your protagonist having to trudge back through the prison-like facility’s basecamp, passing the baleful stares of his unhappy fellow contestants.

While Ministry of Broadcast does a fine job of narratively showing the way in which a person can be broken down and made to believe anything—the game’s creators cite George Orwell’s 1984 as an inspiration—the gameplay often feels out of sync with that storytelling angle. For one, the limited control scheme only lets you jump directly up or across and makes it difficult to position yourself by the ledges you’re trying to climb. Making Shoeless’s actions so laborious feels incongruous with the game’s central premise: that Shoeless is all too easy to control, that he doesn’t struggle or think twice about killing his companions.

It’s one thing to be inspired by the classic mechanics of cinematic action-adventure games like 1989’s Prince of Persia and 1991’s Out of This World, but it’s another to be unnecessarily beholden to them. Indeed, Ministry of Broadcast’s allegiance to those games’ clunky controls is especially odd given that its artistry is miles away from the drab, pixelated graphics of those older titles. This is a game that knows how important it is that players feel the full illustrative soullessness of all those snowy exteriors, graffitied corridors, red-lit bunkers, and empty warehouses that make up the barbed-wire-ringed confines of The Wall Show.

But if you can get past its unnecessarily irksome controls, there’s a lot to enjoy about Ministry of Broadcast. While it remains a platformer throughout, the game’s various episodes offer different takes on the genre, from the emphasis on stealth during a prison break, where you walk around wielding an imaginary finger-gun, to a surreal horror sequence in which you stumble around the dark depths of the facility where The Wall Show is filmed, led by a talking, glow-in-the-dark crow. One day you’re participating in a (rigged) election between the colors Red and Blue, and the next you’re in the middle of a war movie, diving desperately into bunkers as you flee an enemy nation’s aerial bombardment.

The only constant throughout these settings is the way in which you’re being conditioned. Just look at the way each episode’s name riffs on the Kübler-Ross model, shifting from the “Celebration of Denial” to the “Repression of Depression” before ultimately ending with a fatalistic choice in which you either accept what you’ve done, or you die. Or to frame it as Ministry of Broadcast does, sometimes a game simply isn’t winnable.

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

Developer: Ministry of Broadcast Studios Publisher: Hitcents, PLAYISM Platform: PC Release Date: January 30, 2020 ESRB: T Buy: Game

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Review: Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Is a Bloated Serving of More of the Same

The world here is littered with side missions out in the wild, and most of them amount to uninspired fetch quests.

2.5

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Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot
Photo: Bandai Namco

With over nearly 40 years of material to draw from, for any Dragon Ball video game to retell the story of the first Saiyans to arrive on Earth and Goku awakening to his lineage is as lazy as a Star Wars game going to Hoth. And yet, that’s exactly the story that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot tells, without doing anything new to make it worth telling.

It’d be nice to say that Kakarot at least represented a sea change in telling that story as an RPG, but “DBZ as an RPG” has also been done to death, even done quite well a couple of times. And, for what it’s worth, Kakarot isn’t even remotely the worst example of a Dragon Ball RPG: For that, look no further than the awful, throwaway card-based games.

Visually, this game is largely on par with 2018’s stellar Dragon Ball FighterZ. The combat, while extremely simplified, does capture much of that trademark DBZ flash and destructive flair. And quite a bit of work has gone into recreating the show’s TV-style presentation through interstitials, narration, and music, bringing back the playful tone of the original Japanese production (every version of the show broadcast in the West tries to introduce an edginess that isn’t there in Japanese cuts). The best thing about the game is that it’s the most faithful adaptation of the saga, but that also happens to be the worst thing about it.

The anime was notorious for padding out each episode and each story arc with startling amounts of filler material. That included special attacks that would literally take multiple episodes to charge and fire, slapsticky interludes involving characters light years away from the main action, and, at times, characters just standing around waiting to continue a fight.

There’s a sequence early in the DBZ metaseries where Saiyan baddies Vegeta and Nappa face off against Earth defenders Piccolo, Krillin, and Gohan, but when they sense that Goku—killed in a previous battle with his brother, Raditz—is being resurrected, they literally stop the fight to wait for him to arrive. There’s legitimate reason for that on the show—the anime was in production while the manga was still being drawn, which left the animators stalling for time—but, for reasons beyond explanation, this and other excruciating wheel-spinning has been replicated perfectly in Kakarot. And there’s easily over 25 hours of that sort of scene here. Indeed, this is an RPG that won’t allow the next major story beat to be advanced until you’ve done unrelated busywork to stall for time. What should be rousing nostalgia for the early days of the DBZ series ends up bringing back painful memories of playing Anthem.

What makes Kakarot particularly egregious is how much its padding issues apply to its design. This is, ostensibly, an open-world game, abundant in massive countrysides and cityscapes, but these environments are largely empty. The world here is littered with side missions out in the wild, and most of them amount to uninspired fetch quests. There are cooking and fishing mini-games, though neither of them are as crucial to the plot, character development, or your survival as similar mechanics in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild or Final Fantasy XV.

In Kakarot, you can fly around collecting orbs that can be spent to unlock new moves, which is fun but not nearly enough to justify all that empty, unused space. There are training grounds scattered across the game’s open world where you can defeat random characters to learn new moves, and there are stores that sell healing items to use during battle. These are both useful resources, but they’re tiny points of light across what’s otherwise miles and miles of nothing.

Though Kakarot comes alive during combat, that’s also not without its flaws. You can perform all manner of light-show-inducing Super Moves by holding the left shoulder and pushing a button. However, as long as you can maneuver properly and you’re stocked up with enough healing items, you can so very easily cheese your way through the entire game by just spamming your most basic attacks. Super Moves wind up being for your own satisfaction than a vital cornerstone of a fight. That’s despite having an entire Final Fantasy-style grid/job system meant to provide enhancements to your team of fighters, and the lack of tension or challenge from fights provides you with absolutely no urgency or incentive to use it.

Kakarot’s overarching problem is one of focus. This is a game made with all the resources necessary to create a great Dragon Ball title, and no small amount of affection for the universe. It also has no ambitions of being more than a set of weak, timewasting barriers between you and witnessing a storyline that fans have seen recreated dozens of times before. Even the folks behind the anime knew there was room to reduce the story to its strongest elements, which is how the abbreviated Dragon Ball Z Kai came about. It’s not certain who exactly needed Dragon Ball Z regressed to its most bloated form, but it does this story no favors.

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

Developer: CyberConnect2 Publisher: Bandai Namco Platform: Xbox One Release Date: January 17, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Mild Language, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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

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

2

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Journey to the Savage Planet
Photo: 505 Games

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: SELF Nightmarishly Grapples with Our Vanishing Sense of Self

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

4

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SELF
Photo: indienova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3

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Lightmatter
Photo: Aspyr

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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