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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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JQXfSnnFr-g

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CblUvlZDio8

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sa1zo2V_rL0

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jso9r6DI9E

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4HvT5SJzS3w

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.)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ecffZBdhAUU

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtPjPvFu06E

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.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eniBUtc4Uws

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?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I-xVPaDUR18

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: Sea of Solitude Offers a Dreamscape Awash in Banal Abstraction

Its repetitive tasks are like the usual arbitrary gates to reach a cutscene in a mediocre video game.

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Sea of Solitude
Photo: Electronic Arts

An endless ocean submerges an orange-bricked German city, its rooftops drenched in sunlight or doused in rain as they poke through the watery barrier. The soft, cartoonish look of this place seems to deserve a word like “beautiful.” On the other hand, leading Sea of Solitude’s black-feathered, red-eyed protagonist, Kay, into collectible memories, which queue up wistful dialogue snippets from a life outside her metaphorical turmoil in the waterlogged city, might warrant something like “heartfelt.” The vocabulary for evaluating a game like Sea of Solitude, which is designed completely around emotions and various manifestations of mental health, may sound positive, but it’s also undeniably familiar.

Puttering across the sea on her tiny motorboat or hopping around sun-kissed platforms, Kay encounters literalized inner demons. Many of them are dark things to be avoided. Others can be led into the light that will destroy them. A monster in its shell blocks Kay’s path, and whispering, anonymous shadows follow her if she gets too close to them. Clouds of gloomy thought become actual baggage once Kay walks up to a glowing orange circle and the player presses the button that sucks those clouds into her ballooning backpack. The themes of loneliness and empathy are quite explicit here, and if familiarity and explicitness aren’t inherent problems, in Sea of Solitude they’re nonetheless the symptoms of the game’s difficulty envisioning a unified wrapper for feelings it wants to evoke.

The mechanical trappings of Sea of Solitude are basic to the point of feeling perfunctory, like mindless tasks to perform while each new floating orange circle spoons out dialogue for thematic context. It’s all mostly polished, of course; Kay flops around a little as she walks, and she visibly shivers at the whip-crack of thunder and lightning. You’ll jump, sail, melt ice, and illuminate shadowy figures, but the connection between these actions and the intended emotions always feels tenuous at best because they rarely have a discernible effect on or specific ties to the world in front of you. The dialogue colors in some world that’s conspicuously beyond Kay’s metaphorical dreamscape; though she claims to recognize certain places in the city, most seem indistinguishable from the last. All of these repetitive tasks seem more like the usual arbitrary gates to reach a cutscene in a mediocre video game.

There are fleeting moments of empathetic power over Sea of Solitude’s brief runtime, where the imagery and the action coalesce into some recognizable slice of Kay’s life. But so much of the game feels only slightly more cohesive than someone scribbling the word “depression” over, say, a picture of a person being eaten by a shark. Games like Psychonauts or The Gardens Between work a character’s personal details into the level design, while the horror game Devotion uses specific objects and actions to supplement the rising tide of memory. Sea of Solitude, however, is so blandly abstract that it loses any sense of specificity.

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

Developer: Jo-Mei Games Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Fantasy Violence, Language Buy: Game

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Review: Super Mario Maker 2 Joyously Puts Creation in the Player’s Hands

From the second you power on the game, its entire toy chest is open to you, no strings attached.

4.5

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Super Mario Maker 2
Photo: Nintendo

Like its predecessor, Nintendo’s Super Mario Maker 2 is predominantly what it announces itself to be: an extremely versatile creation engine allowing players to make their own side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. levels, using the mechanics, assets, and aesthetics of the series’s best games. The 2015 original for the Wii U had some strangely arbitrary limits and omitted elements, things that the creator community delighted in finding patchwork ways of recreating. Those creators will find that Mario Maker 2 has matched their ambitions. For one, you can now make slopes that Mario can slide down. And that terrifying evil sun from Super Mario Bros. 3 is now in the mix. Also, auto-scroll levels can be finetuned to change direction and speed at will. Whatever barriers to the player’s imagination existed in the first iteration of this game, Nintendo has torn many of them down.

That goes hand in hand with Mario Maker 2 opening up creative pathways left unexplored by the first game. You’re allowed to create levels that take place in a wide assortment of weather environments, with new chiptunes accompanying the creation of levels from the series’s 8-bit titles. Super Mario 3D World has been added as a visual/mechanical option, which allows for multi-level backgrounds and hazards, along with all the unique and delightfully adorable cat-costume shenanigans from that game. The conditions for clearing a stage can be changed to where just making it to the flag is far from enough. More ambitious is the option to switch any stage to a nighttime mode, which changes its physics. Ice stages are more slippery, and ghost houses have less visibility. Airship levels, in particular, are particularly awe-inspiring for their unique mood and texture, with rain, thunder, and lightning—conditions that allow for sea-based elements to float through the air—now standing in your way throughout.

The most blessed thing about the experience, though, is that aside from a couple of buried secrets, all these tools are all available to the player upfront. From the second you power on the game, its entire toy chest is open to you, no strings attached. Now, the only real barrier to immediate entry is that Course Mode’s user interface is still so heavily designed for a touchscreen. Using the analog sticks or a Pro controller isn’t impossible, but it’s drastically less intuitive than using the Switch’s touchscreen, while undocked, to build levels.

For those less inclined to just jump right in and start creating levels, not only is there an in-depth and endlessly amusing tutorial, where you’re taught by a woman and her talking pigeon companion, but a full-fledged Story Mode. Surprisingly, there isn’t even a Bowser-kidnaps-Princess conceit this time around: As a result of a complete accident, the hilarious particulars of which won’t be spoiled here, Princess Toadstool’s castle gets completely erased, and a small crew of Toads and Toadettes is tasked with rebuilding. The project costs money, though, and it’s up to Mario to go freelance, running through over 100 custom levels—explained here as “odd jobs”—to collect all the coins he can in order to fund the construction project. Somewhere in there is a sharp commentary on the dangers of gig economy, but more than anything else, Story Mode is a brilliantly tactile and immersive extension of the tutorial on how the myriad assets given to you in Course Mode can be utilized. You’ll leave more than a few courses with devious ideas, and that certainly seems intentional.

The possibilities are endless, and even a cursory glance at the game’s online community shows that those possibilities are being explored to their fullest, and that the limits of what this toolbox is capable of are being pushed. Indeed, some of the best stages currently out there shift Super Mario Bros. as a series of platformers into the far reaches of other genres, form spins on Pong to 2D versions of Mario Kart to elaborate facsimiles of Metroid.

Mario Maker 2’s sole problem is that it’s a fundamentally lonely game. You can share course codes, and follow your friends through their Maker IDs, and, of course, you can experience the worlds and challenges that others have created. However, the only substantive way to collaborate, compete, or build with other players is if they’re next to you on the couch. Designer and developer Shigeru Miyamoto may be a genius, but if there’s any one thing he’s been generous enough to hammer home over the years, it’s that given the option, he wouldn’t work alone. Right now, more often than not, players don’t have that option at all.

It’s still heartening to see Nintendo show the ultimate in respect to the poor, neglected Wii U by giving its best games new life on the vastly more successful Switch. Seeing Super Mario Maker enhanced to the point of becoming a straight-up sequel is magnificent, even as a few stray three-steps-forward-one-step-back decisions keep the game from true perfection.

This game was reviewed using a download code provided by Golin.

Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: June 28, 2019 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: Game

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Review: SolSeraph Makes You an Angel but Traps You in Gaming Hell

The similarities between SolSeraph and ActRaiser are unmistakable, but it’s a joyless facsimile that lacks a single spark of innovation.

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SolSeraph
Photo: Sega

Some time ago in the shallow world of ACE Team’s SolSeraph, Sky Father and Earth Mother drove back Chaos and created the Earth, before then vanishing from the planet, no longer directly meddling in the ways of mankind. But the void they left behind was soon filled by the Younger Gods of flooding, famine, and the like, who took it upon themselves to torment our nascent humanity. It’s finally left to the winged half-god, half-man Helios to defend mankind. Right out of the gate, the similarities between SolSeraph and the decades-old classic ActRaiser are unmistakable, right down to the hybrid action/strategy gameplay, but it’s an empty emulation, a joyless facsimile that lacks a single spark of innovation.

SolSeraph boasts five essentially identical biomes. Entering a region requires players to clear a menial combat section and to perhaps platform their way over a few bottomless chasms. After doing so, they’ll take an angel’s-eye view of a village and issue orders to the helpless human inhabitants who know how to forage and fight but would never think to do so without godly assistance. Periodically, as a town survives enemy waves and builds temples, monster lairs are unlocked: short combat arenas that Helios fights his way through. Finally, after clearing all of these, players can face off against the region’s animal-themed boss.

The game offers an insultingly reductive mix of resource management and tower defense. There are two types of food-producing buildings, one that increases population, and one for harvesting wood. They can be instantly demolished for a full refund of workers and wood and almost as quickly rebuilt, so there are never any shortages, and no long-term consequences for poor planning. Likewise, there are but four defensive structures: melee barracks, ranged archery towers, a laser-shooting magical hut, and a crowd-controlling bomb-shack.

Helios is known as the Father of Forethought, so perhaps the dearth of strategic options available throughout SolSeraph is an inside joke, albeit a poor one, on ACE Team’s part. After all, the demons are so monomaniacally fixated on snuffing out your central bonfire that they march right past all your other vulnerable structures. This allows players to forget their measly four tactical options, or the range-, damage-, and speed-amplifying dwellings. You can win simply by lining the road with archery towers. For even less of a challenge, players can divinely intervene, using Helios to summon thunderbolts and sun spirits.

That you only ever need to use about half of the buildings or skills exposes the game’s emptiness. Some structures are introduced with a one-note mechanic, like wells, which you can build in every level but are only required for the Sekh Desert, where they turn inhospitable sands into arable farmland. These tools also sometimes fly in the face of narrative sense: You can’t build farms in the Vale of Yeg, as it’s too cold there, but you can depend on livestock for sustenance, which may lead you to wonder what exactly your animals eat. After a while, it feels as if the game’s environmental challenges exist only to mask the tedious repetition of each level, and given how the problems you run across are so easily addressed (bridges and boats are automatically built for you) or beside the point (the Arunan Isles occasionally and briefly flood without affecting gameplay), they ultimately feel entirely cosmetic.

This same redundancy spills over into the combat sections of SolSeraph. You climb the trees of the Plains of Widhu as you do the cliffs of Mount Agnir, and every area has some kind of spider, flying bat, and club-wielding monster. Two of the bosses—a snowy owl and fiery dragon—fly about, but you can otherwise just stand next to all of them, hacking away. (Outside of a healing spell, Helios’s magic is superfluous.)

Even the game’s plot is redundant. Each village is led by a different elder, but they all offer similar platitudes about the various forms of faith and mankind’s resilience, things that the game’s active sequences consistently rebuke. There’s no insight to be gleaned here, and no meaningful interaction beyond clicking on the campfire to hear more dialogue. Helios may protect mankind’s free will and creativity, but he appears to have none of his own.

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

Developer: ACE Team Publisher: Sega Platform: PlayStation 4 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Fantasy Violence Buy: Game

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Review: Judgment, Though Too Reticent, Is a Worthy Yakuza Spin-Off

Where the game goes in-depth, and where it clearly feels most comfortable, is in its omnipresent brawls.

3.5

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Judgment
Photo: Sega

With Judgment, the developers at Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio turn their gaze elsewhere in Kamurocho, the fictional red-light district that serves as the stomping ground for their Yakuza series. Protagonist Takayuki Yagami (Takuya Kimura) isn’t one of the many manly gangsters who anchor the studio’s past narratives, but the current proprietor of the barely afloat Yagami Detective Agency and a disgraced former lawyer, having traded his businesswear for a punk jacket and a truly elaborate haircut that one guy alternately calls the look of a boy-band castoff or “a mop of pubes.” But if Yagami sounds like a big change for the series, fear not, as he has deep ties to the Matsugane Family, a knuckleheaded ex-yakuza of a partner in an exceptionally loud shirt, and an inexplicable mastery of martial arts that leaves him radiating red or blue energy just like any other Kamurocho tough guy.

There’s actual detective work in the game, to some degree. In his hunt for an eye-gouging serial killer, Yagami tails or chases suspects, questions witnesses, and even searches crime scenes for clues in a first-person spot-the-object sort of game mechanic. But Judgment never totally commits to these investigative wrinkles the way it does to the Yakuza series’s familiar combat mechanics, where each story thread tends to leave Yagami encircled by henchmen and where random punks roam open-world Kamurocho spoiling for a street fight.

Glancing around a crime scene is ultimately a simple matter of finding whatever you’re told to look for, and dialogue selections feel more like multiple-choice pop quizzes, the sort of thing a teacher might spring on students just to make sure they’re paying attention. Throughout the game, chase scenes are just auto-runners where you do things like press the triangle button to hop over a fallen bicycle, and the sluggish tailing segments prominently highlight whatever objects the player is supposed to hide behind. There are occasional glimpses of what might have been, when the game provides an objective that doesn’t outright tell the player where to go, or when it asks you to draw a logical conclusion instead of parrot information. It seems perfectly capable of taking these mechanics a step further, which makes it all the more frustrating to see Judgment so rigidly affixed to its investigative rails.

Where the game goes in-depth, and where it clearly feels most comfortable, is in its omnipresent brawls. Yagami’s non-yakuza profession hardly reduces the number of besuited bad guys out for his blood, though he’s a more acrobatic fighter compared to Yakuza’s beefy Kiryu, leapfrogging over opponents with ease. If the detective kicks off a wall, he can catch some unfortunate soul between his thighs and propel them with a devastating throw, perhaps into a store window or a nearby koi pond. It’s familiar stuff, even with Yagami’s multiple fighting styles (“crane” for groups and “tiger” for one-on-one), though it’s easily the most polished mechanic in the game, still satisfying even after so much use.

Judgment’s central mystery, too, features some of the most engaging storytelling in a Yakuza game to date, and it’s freed from any bounds of continuity. The entirely new cast here—disheveled dirty cop Ayabe, the team at Genda Law Office where Yagami once worked, and any number of silly citizens, such as a potion-brewing hermit and a doctor whose office is in the sewers—retains the series’s gift for endearing characters. Their sincerity and determination drive a plot with twists that feel purposeful rather than perfunctory; Yagami’s investigation uncovers unexpected layers to an initially straightforward problem, leading him to medical research facilities, real estate schemes, and organized crime.

There are faint noir undertones here and there to complement the game’s private-eye POV, as in Yagami’s haunted backstory or the layers of corruption that seem to close in around him. But Judgment is simply far too fond of its gooey-hearted crime boys to ever dwell on the depths of despair and moral compromise inherent to noir storytelling. The twisting mystery posits the denizens of Kamurocho as lost souls who have no more than the city and, if they’re lucky, each other, yet the story does little to ever muddy their path; its characters are as warm as they are secure in their righteousness. Foregrounding detective work over the power struggles of crime families (which do still figure into the plot) does, however, lead the series to rely less on a xenophobic fear of thinly characterized outsiders, even if stepping beyond its favored patriarchal organizations has done little to change the largely peripheral inclusion of women in the story beyond punching bags or objects to be ogled.

If the detective angle is little more than a mild seasoning sprinkled over the usual Yakuza beats, the two at least naturally complement one another in a thematic sense. Through its various side stories, the series has long emphasized the plight of everyday people as well as the empathy of stopping to help one another, and in Judgment, taking on such problems is outright Yagami’s job as a detective. The game even dots the main story with some of these side stories, which send Yagami after a lab coat-clad underwear thief called the Panty Professor or have Yagami’s partner, Kaito, babysit a kid who’s convinced that the burly ex-yakuza is secretly his favorite superhero, Captain Cop. Another mechanic encourages players to befriend various characters around town by performing small favors or just visiting them, and you get a little boost when greeting a friend on the street.

But Judgment is also a longer game than either of its immediate predecessors, Yakuza 6: The Song of Life and remake Yakuza Kiwami 2, which also have second open-world locations. In Judgment, almost all the action is confined to Kamurocho, where you’re often dropped on one end of the map only to learn you’re needed on the other. It all grows a little stale after a while, not just from repetition but from the knowledge that you can now interact (or are supposed to be able to interact) with the game in ways beyond simply throwing punches at a gaggle of yakuza goons. For as basic as the detective mechanics can feel, they actually harm the series’s reliance on various gauntlets of bad guys, because those fighting setups now signify the game avoiding other avenues of interaction in favor of what’s safe and familiar. Judgment suggests plenty of compelling new directions for the series to go, as well as an ultimate reticence to totally follow any of them. Yagami’s primary investigative tool is his fists.

This game was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio Publisher: Sega Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 25, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Intense Violence, Partial Nudity, Sexual Content, Strong Language, Use of Alcohol Buy: Game

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Review: Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night Is a Sign of the Metroidvania’s Bright Future

As varied and intriguing as the game can get on a conceptual level, it outdoes itself in the minutiae of traversal and combat.

4.5

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Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
Photo: 505 Games

After four years in development, Tokyo-based ArtPlay’s Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night arrives on the scene bearing more of a resemblance to Sonic Mania or Mega Man 11 than to Mighty No. 9. It’s an immense joy to have a true current-generation side-scrolling Castlevania out there in the world, and more than a little embarrassing for Konami that this game, which can stand proudly alongside Symphony of the Night in terms of quality and creativity, could’ve been theirs had they not been, well, Konami for the past decade.

And make no mistake: This is a Koji Igarashi Castlevania title through and through. This could have been a 20-hour game full of creative cheap shots—and, indeed, it isn’t above thumbing its nose at its spiritual predecessor with reckless abandon, with one particular NPC and his voice actor essentially walking right up to the line of blatant copyright infringement, which would be egregious if Igarashi hadn’t essentially created that character. But Bloodstained still has its own envelope-pushing identity. This is a game that feels like the sum total of lessons learned across Igarashi’s storied history as a series director and producer, while also a promising look toward a potential future for the whole Metroidvania genre.

Bloodstained distances itself from Castlevania most in its characters and narrative. The story involves alchemists rebelling against forced obsolescence due to the Industrial Revolution by unleashing arcane horrors upon the world using demonic crystal shards. Gebel, an orphan, was supposed to be a ritual sacrifice to Hell itself, but he survives and, in his rage, leads the charge from an eldritch castle. The world’s only hope is Miriam, another orphan whose mysterious childhood coma prevented her from being sacrificed but who’s still able to wield the demonic shards on behalf of a thinly veiled take on the Vatican until the day the crystals consume her. It’s such a fertile little story that it’s almost a shame the game doesn’t do more with it. Fortunately, what largely takes its place is enthralling in its own right.

There are a few moments of pure old-school gothic horror in Bloodstained—one particular boss is essentially Elizabeth Bathory taken to the utter extreme—and Michiru Yamane’s score spectacularly sets the stage for it all, but it’s by and large operating on a very different wavelength than grim moonlit vampirism. Perhaps informed by cel shading, the game displays a command for strange colors, aesthetic mash-ups, and lighting schemes that consistently unsettle the player at tense moments, making it seem less like Bram Stoker’s Dracula than Dario Argento’s Suspiria. And it does that without every losing its sense of play. It’s incredible how often one is legitimately surprised by what’s waiting in the next room. This is the type of game that will stun you by throwing indescribable behemoths at you in one room, then have you chuckling at the flying pigs puttering their way around the next.

As varied and intriguing as the game can get on a conceptual level, it outdoes itself in the minutiae of traversal and combat. The game’s opening hours feel instantly familiar. The castle is wide open for players to explore until they come across dead ends requiring as-yet-discovered abilities. The only new aspect early on is that Miriam is able to wield guns. Before long, it becomes clear that the player has never had more freedom to choose how to play this type of game. The initial Kickstarter campaign had Igarashi asking his audience via a website whether players preferred to use a sword or a whip in their Castlevania games, cleverly concealing the enormous number of options available to them in the final game. There are physical weapons above and beyond what’s ever been available in one of Igarashi’s Castlevania titles—everything from machetes, to shotguns, to lightsabers are options here—but it’s the shards that open up the player’s imagination, a mechanic that gives Miriam additional powers to equip and swap at will after defeating certain enemies, and the options seem just endless.

At one point, while fighting a two-headed dragon, each head wrapped around the outside of a clocktower, I ended up pausing the game just to marvel at the sheer lunacy that had just been playing out on screen. Miriam was calling up columns of hellfire against the dragon with one hand, slicing at it with a steam-powered greatsword with the other, while occasionally turning into a bunny woman devastating the beast with lightning fast kung-fu kicks. All these things are slotted to shortcuts in a shoulder-trigger menu, accessible at the push of a button.

There’s a freedom to how Bloodstained allows you to tackle any obstacle that many MMOs would kill to be able to replicate. But that freedom comes at a price. There’s quite a bit of random chance involved with collecting many of those crazy powers and weapons, with progression still working off of RPG-lite principles, this time with a bit of item crafting involved. But the system is forgiving and highly versatile, and it encourages experimentation, both through the ease of accessibility and a tough-but-fair difficulty curve that has no intention of letting players simply traipse through as unscathed as quite a few Igavania titles have in the past. There will be walls of difficulty here, and they’re quite welcome.

Less welcome is a certain lack of technical finesse that riddles the game with performance stutters, stops, occasional tanking framerates and unexpected load times. It’s nothing that breaks the game—though a treasure issue caused by the most recent patch at the time of this review came frighteningly close—but often enough to make itself noticeable, even on a PS4 Pro. Sadly, the poor Switch is even less capable of plowing through the problems, and coupled with the drastic visual downgrade, it’s a much less enjoyable experience than on PC or the other consoles. (Editor’s Note: 505 Games has since issued a statement that says these issues will be addressed in upcoming patches.) Still, those hitches feel like the cost of freedom for Igarashi and his ArtPlay team. It’s not hard to imagine a Bloodstained—or, more accurately, a Castlevania—made by Konami that ran flawlessly but was released in compromised form in the way so many of their titles have been. That is, compromised in the way that weak-sauce multiplayer experiment Harmony of Despair felt compromised. The occasional two-second load screen is a paltry price for experiencing a near-masterwork.

This game was reviewed using a retail PlayStation 4 copy purchased by the reviewer.

Developer: ArtPlay Publisher: 505 Games Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 18, 2019 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Violence

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Review: The Sinking City Doesn’t Earn Its Lovecraftian Credentials

Worse than the sheer tedium of shooting is the effect it has on the game’s atmosphere.

2.5

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The Sinking City
Photo: Frogwares

The life of a 1920s private investigator is hardly a convenient or particularly romantic one, at least to hear The Sinking City tell it. The game’s fedora-wearing protagonist, Charles Reed, owns a shotgun but has no access to a GPS, a minimap, or a little earpiece to talk to some computer-whiz partner who does all his research. Reed is on his own, tramping through the dilapidated streets of Oakmont, Massachusetts to the university library, the hospital, or some such place, combing through newspaper archives or police records based on scant clues. With the right information, he digs up addresses that must be manually marked on the map after consulting the labeled city streets. Reed becomes such a familiar sight to the librarian, whose mouth is sewn shut as a punishment according to “local custom,” that she later sends him a note asking for help. A private eye’s work is never done.

Such decidedly analog activities are one of the most engaging elements of The Sinking City; in an open-world game like this, they’re a slightly more involved alternative to the usual process of mindlessly following arrows to the next cutscene and accompanying action sequence. Here, you need to make deductions in order to figure out where you’re going, to decide which archive has the information you need and which combination of search criteria will get it. It’s a fitting accompaniment to the game’s myriad crime scene investigation sequences, where you’ll comb an area for evidence and then fit together clues to form new, sometimes differing, conclusions in the “mind palace” section of the game menu.

Developer Frogwares is best known for a long-running series of Sherlock Holmes games, and that influence is clear in their latest adaptation, which is based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft and his overarching Cthulhu mythos. Reed has arrived in Oakmont due to disturbing visions only to find the place devastated by a flood all but biblical in its proportions. And that disaster is decidedly ongoing; some ships have run so far aground that they block off parts of the city, and so many of the streets are underwater that citizens often travel by boat or on crude, makeshift wooden walkways. Thick crusts of barnacles seem to cake every surface, while hasty barricades wall off areas where the monsters are. Oakmont is a truly fascinating backdrop, where Lovecraftian horror has essentially become the new normal. Citizens simply step around the rotting carcasses of sea creatures that litter the streets of poor areas, and they’ve gotten used to weird new fauna like crustaceans that seem to wear dead cats like shells.

In a rather tenuous attempt to address Lovecraft’s virulent racism, fish-faced refugees from nearby Innsmouth are a common sight, minding their own business as they try to feed their own families like anyone else. The game specifies that they’re not all wrapped up in a Dagon-worshipping cult devoted to getting human women to birth fish-people, but so many of them are and the game is otherwise so disinterested in the average Joe Innsmouther (or even people of color) compared to the exploits of the white Mr. Reed that its journeying into race relations feels more like a perfunctory disclaimer. When it comes to Lovecraft’s metaphorical expression of his own abject horror at the Mixing of the Races, the game is largely uncritical.

You will, perhaps, take some of the in-game prejudice into account when you make your deductions. Is their cult, for example, really up to no good, or is the man opposing them just a racist? (Answer: It’s the former.) Based on such context, as well as other factors like your knowledge of the city itself or the personalities of involved characters derived from evidence, you piece together your own conclusions and make story decisions as a result. And although these investigations can feel a bit guided and simplified since there are only ever two real conclusions, they always leave a nagging sense that perhaps you were wrong.

Most of The Sinking City, though, is spent putting boots to ruined pavement in what feels like little more than busywork. Despite the presence of fast travel points, the process of running between crime scenes, archives, and the various characters grows tedious; for as interesting as the city can be beneath the surface, its grim, gray ruination makes for a rather homogeneous sight. Other activities, like putting crime scene events in order, similarly feel like time-wasters, though nothing quite approaches the drudgery of the game’s frequent combat.

Seemingly every crime scene, story area, and empty, side mission-hosting house with a similar layout is infested with fleshy gray abominations of inscrutable anatomy that Reed must shoot with a gun until they’re dead. Despite so much investigation, the game seems reticent to leave players alone with their thoughts for too long, opting to fill the spaces in between investigations with menial combat just in case you were getting bored finding clues. Loading screen tips advise that you flee when the opportunity presents itself, but the cramped environments and rudimentary stealth all but force you to make a stand over and over again.

Worse than the sheer tedium of shooting, however, is the effect it has on The Sinking City’s atmosphere; with the same four monster types lurking around every corner and conspicuous ammo crates strewn all over the place, there’s little dread to the experience of playing the game because you simply know what’s coming. The encounters are expected, and so is your triumph over them, which feels decidedly antithetical to Lovecraft’s favored themes of humanity’s insignificance and fragility in the face of forces it cannot understand. For what seems meant to be a horror game about piecing together clues and cobbling together what’s left of your sanity, long stretches of The Sinking City are inordinately concerned with killing the shit out of some monsters as a sort of Chosen One. With pistol in one hand, eldritch relic in the other, and fedora comfortably shading his white, stubbled face, Charles Reed looks and feels more like a mentally tormented Indiana Jones.

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

Developer: Frogwares Publisher: Bigben Interactive Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 27, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Suggestive Themes, Violence Buy: Game

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Review: My Friend Pedro Vividly Casts You as a Bollywood-Style Action Hero

Every shootout is an opportunity to execute a thoroughly balletic performance of sorts.

4

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My Friend Pedro
Photo: Devolver Digital

Bollywood’s charm lies in the sheer melodrama and absurdity of its films, which typically feature heroes taking arms against foes in lurid fashion. The industry’s influence on My Friend Pedro, a shoot ‘em up from Swedish developer Victor Agren’s DeadToast Entertainment, is certainly unmistakable. Indeed, you’ll feel like a Bollywood strongman as you mow down mobs of henchmen in spectacular ways as the game’s unnamed protagonist, with Pedro, your chatty banana companion, cracking wise by your side.

Each level of the game is presented as a 2D platformer, and there are unbounded thrills to be had in making it through each area, from ramming through a plate-glass wall into a room to gliding down from an overhead cable to the story below. As you caper across abandoned buildings and deserted rooftops with an array of firearms at your disposal, you’ll pump your enemies’ guts full of lead as the dizzying electronic soundtrack—redolent of a neo-noir film—slickly complements the carnage. And because you have to plan your moves in advance, it’s almost as if you’re choreographing that carnage. Every shootout is an opportunity to execute a thoroughly balletic performance of sorts. And with more points awarded for intricate stunts, there’s a huge incentive to bring as much pizazz to your violence as possible.

How you carry out all these stunts is dependent on your creativity and skill, with players equipped with an arsenal of Bollywood-esque combat techniques. Among these is a nifty trick called split aiming, which lets you wield a pair of guns and shoot two targets at the same time. You can also perform an elaborate somersault in midair, all while raining bullets down on the targets below you. Even conveniently placed objects, like a frying pan laying on the ground, can be used to pull off even more outrageous stunts. The pan, for instance, is an especially useful weapon against hard-to-reach mobsters: Kick it into the air and fire at it and your bullets will ricochet off its surface and right into nearby enemies.

In later chapters, My Friend Pedro points to a more profound narrative beneath its silly veneer, weaving in clues to the protagonist’s depression as well as a twisted backstory. There’s an entire chapter devoted to his crumbling mental state, with the player traversing through a hallucinatory dreamscape painted in pastel hues, all as quirky, floating figureheads and soft doughy clouds dance about. The shift in tonality is jarring, but there’s a pleasant self-awareness to My Friend Pedro as it shovels cartoonish levels of elegant violence at the player. Later chapters even see the game breaking the fourth wall to poke fun at you. In one instance, you’ll be laying siege upon a crew of white brutes known as hardcore gamers, whose soundbites consist of familiar gaming lingo like “Git guud noob” and “GG.”

Throughout, you can dramatically slow down the pace of combat, and you’ll feel like Neo from The Matrix as you leap off an impossibly tall skyscraper, fending off hordes of enemies falling alongside you. If the slow-motion gunplay makes such feats easier to pull off, there’s more challenge in mastering the controls that allow you to split aim, wall jump, and somersault. That gameplay may be limited in the end, but the violence in My Friend Pedro is so hyperbolic and varied—at one point, you’ll find yourself doing backflips on a motorcycle in order to avoid a barrage of bombs—that you’ll be gunning to repeat levels in order to best your high score. It’s mayhem that speaks so strongly in the language of the Bollywood action film that the only thing you may be left wanting for is the wisecracking Pedro to do a song-and-dance routine once the curtain comes down on your adventure.

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

Developer: DeadToast Entertainment Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: Switch Release Date: June 20, 2019 Buy: Game

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E3 2019: The Best and Worst Surprises

The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition.

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Devolver Digital
Photo: Devolver Digital

The 2019 Electronic Entertainment Expo presented an industry in transition. As the current console generation winds down and new hardware is still in development, the subject of how games will be played going forward has come into question, as the technology to stream games via the cloud supplants the need for consoles or PCs.

In a 15-minute presentation prior to E3’s launch, Google unveiled their cloud gaming service Stadia, a subscription-based service—for use on desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices—that allows high-end gaming without the need for expensive hardware. Supposedly offering computing power significantly stronger than that of the PlayStation Pro and Xbox One X combined, Stadia relies on Google’s own data centers, with the only real bottleneck being consumer internet speeds and bandwidth caps as the gameplay is streamed to the end user. Hands-on experience with Stadia has shown it to be incredibly impressive—provided one’s internet connection is stable and fast enough to handle the required download speed.

Even before the expo officially kicked off at the Los Angeles Convention Center, notions of “traditional” video gaming were being challenged. There was no greater sign of the shake up than the absence of one of the three major console makers: Sony. The company eschewed not only their usual press conference, but any showing at all. While many have suggested that Sony, who had informally announced their upcoming PlayStation 5 console earlier in 2019, wanted to benefit from Microsoft announcing what the target specs would be for the Project Scarlett, the simple truth is that Sony doesn’t have much to currently show to the public.

Only two of Sony’s upcoming first-party exclusive titles particularly stand out: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us 2, a known quantity which has already seen multiple previews, and Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding, whose trailer premiered shortly before the expo kicked off. In the end, releasing the trailer ahead of E3 was a smart move on the company’s part, as the ongoing enigma that is Kojima’s next title dominated discussion for days instead of getting lost in the sea of announcements after E3 was officially under way, and a solid release date is something that Sony can boast about in a year where their exclusives are scant.

EA also elected not to host their customary press conference, instead opting for a streamed video presentation similar to the Nintendo Direct broadcast. The company’s decision not to discuss anything about this year’s disappointing Anthem is damning, not only for the remaining fans of the game hoping to see the game properly supported moving forward, but for EA itself, whose frustrating trend of misusing developers they acquire has left BioWare on thin ice. As one live service game in an ocean, and created by a company with little experience making such games, Anthem was always destined to face an uphill battle; at this point, some four months after its release, turning the game around would require faith in the product and an evolving cycle of new content, both of which EA could have presented to the world here. And there’s precedent for this, demonstrated by the success of Destiny after its first tumultuous year. Alas, not even a mention across the entire show.

The main event of EA’s Play presentation was their upcoming Star Wars title Jedi: Fallen Order. Though the somnolent 14-minute video that capped the presentation seems to promise a cross between Uncharted and The Force Unleashed, hands-on time with the game reveals that its closest analogue is Dark Souls, given that it takes place across large open areas with bonfire equivalents the protagonist can meditate at, which inexplicably revives all enemies. The combat feels like that of Dark Souls, with the fast-paced lightsaber duels of something like Jedi Academy replaced by slower, more precise one-on-one battles where you must manoeuver around enemies to fight them individually, and in a manner that recalls other From Software games. Whether Jedi: Fallen Order will be as difficult as the Soulsborne titles remains to be seen, though one would assume EA would want the title to be accessible as possible, especially considering their recent and lousy track record with the franchise.

The first official E3 press conference was presented by Microsoft, which had a stellar showing of new games and announcements. New titles demonstrated include Outer Worlds, a Fallout-esque sci-fi action adventure game, a new Battletoads game featuring bright and colourful cartoonish graphics, the latest iteration of Microsoft Flight Simulator, the next chapter in the Gears of War series simply titled Gears 5, and survival horror outing Blair Witch. Microsoft’s next console, Project Scarlett, was broadly discussed as a technical powerhouse without mentioning any specifics, including price, as if to ensure Sony has no edge on the competition when their PS5 announcement finally comes. More interestingly, Microsoft presented their version of the cloud streaming gaming, the Microsoft xCloud service, which Phil Spencer was able to elaborate on during Giant Bomb’s Nite Two live show.

Spencer notes that while cloud streaming services are convenient, allowing gamers to play games anywhere, they’re to the detriment of consumers in terms of actually letting them own the games they buy. The Stadia pricing model includes not only subscription fees, but also additional prices on top for some games, which is troubling as purchasers will only “own” any game they buy as long as the service is active, or if they have an active internet connection. If Google, or any streaming service, pulls the plug, purchased products simply go away.

Which is why Microsoft is working toward a hybrid of cloud streaming services with traditional ownership models, where gamers will own their console and their games, but can also stream them to other devices to play games on the go using the cloud. Google’s Stadia offers something more akin to Netflix, and looks to suffer from some of the same issues as Netflix when it comes to content disappearing as licenses expire. Whether Microsoft’s model works also remains to be seen, but their excellent and inexpensive Game Pass service, which saw extension to the PC during E3, has demonstrated both the excellent value and the focus on services benefitting the end user that Spencer advocated for.

Bethesda was in full-apology mode for their first press conference since the disastrous launch of Fallout 76, bookending their presentation with saccharine, insipid videos about how they understand and like gamers, how they’re gamers themselves, and other such rigmarole. Bringing out Todd Howard to discuss said elephant in the room would have been a misstep had it not been for the announcement of the game’s Nuclear Winter DLC—a fresh take (currently available in beta) on the battle-royale genre—as well as a Fallout 76 freeplay period where anyone can play the game with the new content. Nuclear Winter is a surprising amount of fun, a squad-based battle royale allowing players to choose where they spawn on the map and then take advantage of classic Fallout devices while fighting to become the only survivor. For example, becoming invisible with a Stealth Boy offers a fleeting chance to get the drop on enemies or flee an area teeming with overpowered opponents, or jumping into a set of Power Armor gives more health but impedes player speed and is loud enough to give away player location. At time of writing, Bethesda have made Nuclear Winter an indefinite add-on for Fallout 76, which gives the populace at large a reason to try Fallout 76.

Standing high above Bethesda’s other announcements and demos, Doom Eternal looks to be a spectacular follow-up to the successful 2016 reboot, escalating on the core gameplay with new abilities including a combat grappling hook and a flamethrower, and an expanded narrative involving angels as well as the demons of Hell. Elsewhere, Square Enix’s press conference largely focused on the Final Fantasy VII Remake and concluded with a baffling look at Marvel Avengers, a game that probably should have been revealed back when Avengers: Endgame was still a part of the popular conversation but probably wasn’t given its ugly and bizarre character models. More notable, though buried within the conference, was the announcement of Dying Light 2, which looks to be an ambitious and sprawling follow-up to the original game. It boasts expanded parkour gameplay in a new environment that changes with player choice, promising to give fans a unique experience with each playthrough.

Nintendo Direct closed out the conferences, announcing two new Super Smash Bros. Ultimate DLC characters: the much-loved dynamic duo of Banjo and Kazooie and the not-so-loved hero from Dragon Quest. The Link’s Awakening remaster, which boasts frustratingly cutesy graphics that go against the original game’s theme and tone, was also exhibited; it’s as if the developers thought that the cartoonish look of the original 8-Bit Game Boy title was an intentional stylistic choice, rather than how Zelda games looked at that time, and that it was something that needed to be made cuter. It feels like a significant misstep, and one that’s bound to cheapen the surprisingly mature and thoughtful narrative. Nonetheless, it’s pleasing that this underplayed classic will find a new audience, and Nintendo’s diorama displays of areas from the game on the show floor were exceptional and gorgeous.

Finally, a new Animal Crossing was revealed, with a fresh island setting, new crafting gameplay, and the inclusion of fruit stacking. After sideline missteps like Pocket Camp, Amiibo Festival, and Happy Home Designer, a new Switch entry seems to be exactly the shot in the arm that this beloved series needs to get back on track.

Although E3 2019 demonstrated that there are major changes coming for the gaming industry, some things remain the same, even if it’s just Devolver Digital taking the piss out of, well, the big-budget press conference. Indeed, latest conference was as fresh, joyous, and deranged as its predecessors. The future of video gaming might be uncertain, but there’s still plenty to look forward to and celebrate, and this is something the folks at Devolver Digital are committed to proving year after year, and with a humor that could stand to rub off on the industry at large.

E3 ran from June 11—13.

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Review: Outer Wilds Is a Wondrous Maze of Infinite, Breathtaking Possibilities

This is a rare adventure game in which the journey is actually more of a reward than the destination.

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Outer Wilds
Photo: Annapurna Interactive

Mobius Digital’s Outer Wilds begins and ends with a quietly spectacular explosion. As a result of this open-world space exploration game’s time-looping mechanic, one of those explosions is the first thing you’ll see every time you reawaken, but it’s so far off in the distance—just a brief flash of rippling orange in outer space that’s overshadowed by the surface of a massive green planetoid—that it might take a few cycles before you actually notice it. And even then, its significance won’t become apparent until you’ve blasted off from your home planet and flown yourself out there to get a better look at the blast.

The understated appeal of the smartly designed Outer Wilds stems from its abundance of deliberate details scattered across its worlds, ever-nudging you toward understanding how various scientific phenomenon operate. This is a game so beautiful that you might spend hours taking in the sights before you start focusing on its loose, nonlinear plot. Despite taking place in a comparatively small six-planet solar system, the game’s open-galaxy design feels full of infinite possibilities, each excursion as fresh and exciting as the last, even hours in.

Should you survive for a consecutive 22 minutes, you’ll come across that second explosion. You’ll hear a sonic boom and, if you’re facing the right way, see a universe-engulfing tide of crackling blue energy coming your way, resetting the time loop and providing a fairly substantial (though never obtrusive) endgame, one in which you must find a way to prevent your sun from going supernova. But think of the solar system’s terminal diagnosis as less of an ending than a chance at a fresh beginning: carte blanche to try just about anything.

Even if there’s only one real way to “beat” it, there’s no wrong way to play Outer Wilds, and no barriers in your way. You don’t have to fight any enemies or level up—a tacit acknowledgement on the game’s part that the galaxy’s destruction can’t be prevented through brute force, only through the fearless act of discovery. For one, you’ll fly through a tangle of tornadoes on Giant’s Deep that are periodically thrusting the planet’s islands into orbit, and on Brittle Hollow, you’ll follow a precarious trail of gravity crystals along the underside of the planet’s exposed equator. You also don’t need to collect any items. Everything you need is given to you at the game’s start: a radio-frequency scanner, a launchable probe that takes pictures and measures surface stability, an auto-translator for alien languages, and a spacesuit capable of rocket propulsion. How you choose to use these items to do your first-person exploration is entirely up to you, and that freedom is a large part of the game’s charm.

Early on, you’ll visit a museum that outlines the history of the Outer Wilds space program, with exhibits that call out some of the unexplained quantum phenomena and gravitational distortions that your fellow explorers have found. You’ll later encounter many of these same exhibits in the wild, on a much larger and dangerous scale, but as the museum suggests, the game’s overarching theme isn’t just about encountering these things or exploring the many eye-catching, heart-stopping wonders of Outer Wilds, but appreciating how they work. You’re going to be eaten by a giant anglerfish, smashed by a rotating column of ash, engulfed by the sun, buffeted by heavy gravity, thrown through a black hole, electrocuted by a jellyfish. But you’ll also study the skeletal remains of that fish or the frozen corpse of a jellyfish and realize how to utilize them. You’ll marvel at what first seems like magic, and then you’ll pull up Clarke’s third law and exploit the technology or quantum physics behind it.

The game’s time loop allows players to harmlessly test lethal hypotheses, such as what might happen if you use a geyser to propel yourself to new heights, or mix two forms of warp cores in the High Energy Lab located on Ember Twin. Throughout, your ship’s log tracks the overarching goals via a digital corkboard web of rumors—concerning gravity cannons, missing escape pods, your fellow explorers, and the mysterious Quantum Moon—but it doesn’t explicitly ask you to pursue any of those leads. In fact, Outer Wilds never even warns you that your sun is about to go supernova or suggests that you find a way to stop it.

Repetition is often the bane of time-looping games, and this is where Outer Wilds benefits from its open galaxy setting. You can travel to anything you see, even if it’s not always apparent how to, say, land on a stray comet, or approach the tiny space station that orbits the sun without being pulled into a massive star. Moreover, each planet feels distinct: Your home world of Timber Hearth is a small region of geysers and massive oxygen-producing trees, which is a far cry from Giant’s Deep, a gas-giant-like planet made of fluid layers, and the dangerous Dark Bramble, what with its misty voids and treacherous anglerfish.

And these planets continue to change as time passes, which makes familiar locations feel new again, if visited later on in the game. Take, for instance, the two binary planets known collectively as the Hourglass Twins. As sand is gravitationally pulled from Ash Twin and deposited on Ember Twin, you’ll find that the latter planet’s caves fill, becoming inaccessible. By contrast, as Ash Twin is denuded of its sandy shell, entire towers are unearthed.

Elsewhere, as planets orbit closer to the sun, iced-over paths might melt open, revealing shortcuts through, say, deadly, invisible ghost matter. You might start out trying to access the Southern Observatory on Brittle Hollow, but along the way, you may discover the massive bridges leading to the Hanging City, get sidetracked by signage pointing to the Gravity Cannon, experiment with leaping between tractor beams that lead to a Quantum Tower, or simply stumble into the hollow planet’s black-hole core and end up teleported elsewhere. Or you might get struck by debris and die, resetting back to the game’s start.

Think, then, of Outer Wilds as a maze without dead ends, or like the Nomai language itself, which is depicted as a series of geometric spirals branching out from a fixed point. Each branch, no matter how small, offers up some sort of discovery, whether it’s just a breathtaking vista, a scientific model, a fossil, or a text log. The rare adventure game in which the journey is actually more of a reward than the destination, Outer Wilds delights in inviting you to spend a few minutes marveling at the sight of the galaxy as planets orbit balletically in and out of view. You’re not exploring a series of discrete worlds so much as you are engaging with one interconnected star system, constantly learning right up to your final expedition. That’s the brilliant hook that’ll keep you returning, loop after loop, not just for the chance to watch the dizzyingly beautiful (and angrily reddening) sun crest into view, but to better know why it does so. The real world is overwhelming and unmooring, but here, in 22-minute chunks, you can wrest back a sense of control and understanding of a momentous model galaxy.

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

Developer: Mobius Digital Publisher: Annapurna Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: March 30, 2019 ESRB: E Buy: Game

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Review: Warhammer: Chaosbane Is a Hack-and-Slash Adventure Without Purpose

Even the few inventive stretches of the game are ultimately driven into the ground by a punishing sense of repetition.

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Warhammer: Chaosbane
Photo: Eko Software

The opening cinematic for Warhammer: Chaosbane sets the tone for the game that follows. The series of crudely animated storyboard sketches describe a rather generic massive-scale war that’s just been concluded against the forces of Chaos and how your chosen protagonist bravely helped Commander Magnus to victory. What follows isn’t a hack-and-slash dungeon-crawler so much as a hack-and-slack time-killer, one that pales in comparison to the game that Chaosbane fruitlessly emulates: Diablo.

Chaosbane’s squandered potential is most evident in how the game mishandles its four selectable characters. Elessa, a wood-elf archer, is meant to use poisons and traps to keep enemies at bay, but those skills are never needed, as the game’s witless AI hordes are only too happy to serve as stationary targets for her arrows. The dwarven Bragi Axebiter uses a chain axe to grapple into foes, since his rage-based mechanic relies upon constantly hitting things, so it’s odd that many dungeons are filled with long, empty corridors that drain his rage meter. Konrad Vollen, a shield-bearing soldier gains extra strength when taunting or being swarmed by enemies, and yet outside of the co-op campaign, he seems rather listless, his status-boosting AOE banners largely going to waste. And then there’s the high-elf mage Elontir, who’s impossibly complicated to handle in the solo campaign. Indeed, the joy of finely controlling his spells is lost in the hectic rush of constantly teleporting away from foes.

The first few dungeons showcase Bigben Interactive’s latest at its best, as they at least offer the illusion of depth and variety. You’ll move from the green-hued sewers beneath Nuln to the ramparts above, and then through the grim, gray-hewn streets of the ravaged fortress city, all the while learning exciting new moves. (Never mind that the characters seem to have inexplicably forgotten all their heroic skills from that introductory cutscene.) But should you decide you don’t like Bragi’s fast-paced dual-wielding axes and want to shift to Konrad’s slower, more methodical sword-and-shield bashing, you’ll have to begin a whole new campaign, and it’s here that the game’s non-randomized levels come dully into view.

Even if you never restart and choose to stick with a single character, the rewards are quickly diminishing. You’ll revisit slightly different areas of Nuln’s sewers and streets throughout the first chapter, fighting, for the most part, the same types of monsters: some sort of swarmer, some sort of tank, a ranged unit, and perhaps a mounted creature. Your hero, limited to a single weapon type, only ever minimally upgrades his or her loot, and of those 14 active abilities and countless passives to equip, only a few builds seem viable or interesting.

The game’s main campaign is relentlessly repetitious. Dungeons are straightforward affairs, mostly linear corridors that are occasionally pockmarked with a treasure-filled cul de sac, though they offer no optional objectives or lore. There are no side quests, no interactions with townsfolk, not even a shop. There are only five or six NPCs, all of whom give the same fetch-quest variations, only with slightly different accents, and ultimately, whether they send you to the frosty trees of the Forest of Knives or the floating stone bridges of the Chaos Realm, the result is always exactly the same. While Chaosbane abounds in colorful background details—toothy red maws pressing out of the earth, tentacles flailing far beneath you—the game would have been better served by bringing more hazards to the actual forefront, so as to break up the monotony of just how easy it is to vanquish your enemies.

Even the few inventive stretches of the game are ultimately driven into the ground by that sense of repetition. Chaosbane’s four bosses are its strongest feature, given that they possess unique mechanics that you must learn to strategically overcome, from dodging a bullet-hell attack to baiting a laser away from the pillars that you’ll later need as cover. But replaying these encounters in Boss Rush mode quickly blunts the excitement of learning boss patterns, making these encounters as rote as any other enemy in the game. Increasing the difficulty simply allows enemies to hit harder and absorb more damage, which makes the game longer, not harder, and the post-game Relic Hunt mode’s random enemy modifiers do little to change this. To put it lightly, it’s a case in which nothing is adventured, and nothing is gained.

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

Developer: Bigben Interactive Publisher: Eko Software Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: June 4, 2019 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood and Gore, Violence Buy: Game

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