To say that Kentucky Route Zero is beautiful is an understatement. In it’s own unique way, it might be one of the most beautiful games I have ever seen. And it uses aesthetics like a puzzle, twisting itself as the camera pans to change the meaning of what you’re seeing, without changing what you’re seeing. It’s a quietly terrifying experience. Even though you never feel the characters life is in danger, as there appears to be nothing that threatens it, it is the danger of unhinging. Dying is the least of your worries, because it’s unclear if this world is bound by death. Whatever the character is experiencing, it feels lonely and metaphysical, and if you try to hold onto anything it slips away from you.
Act 1 set the stage, with little in terms of narrative coherence. The game asks constant questions of you, and it’s unclear if your answers mean anything outside of your own internal reflection. And that reflection could be enough.
Title: Super Mario Run
I never understood the beauty of Super Mario Run until I played it with my daughter.
My first impression two years ago was that it was cute and serviceable enough to distract me from my crippling jetlag. This time around, when my daughter saw the instantly recognizable Mario icon in my phone, I understood why it exists- it is impressively simple. You push the screen and Mario (or flavor of your choice) jumps. That’s it.
It’s virtually impossible to die on the first level, and given Mario’s self-propulsion, you don’t even need to press forward. As a result, you set your own personal goals. My daughter played the first stage over and over, each time getting a few more coins. Eventually she felt brave enough to venture out into harder courses, only to come back again to the first level. Aesthetically, it seems to borrow the most from Super Mario World (my personal favorite visually), but the mechanics are a grab-bag, even digging into black sheep like Super Mario Bros 2.
The game is not unique in its simplicity, but it’s also Mario, and there’s something that bridges a lot of gaps as a result of that.
Review: 4 stars (out of 5)
Title: Valiant Hearts
Valiant Hearts is an odd game.
I’m left asking myself, “who greenlit this”? Is it an educational game in disguise, made to secretly teach teenagers about the atrocities of WWI, much like my 9th grade reading assignment of All Quiet on the Western Front? (Which is a memorizing book: Humanizing Germans, shitting next to each other in trenches, hanging out with French girls, the atrocities of war perpetrated on and by teenagers, & no escape. It has a rating of 3.9 on Goodreads. Moby Dick has a rating of 3.5 on Goodreads. The current New York Times bestseller, Leverage in Death by J.D. Robb, has a rating of 4.5.)
Or is it a puzzle game with some light action rammed in for hell of it? Maybe it was just a bunch of WWI nerds who wanted to spread the word about how insane this nearly forgotten nationalism/machismo-fest really was. And good for them if that’s the case. There were parts of France that experienced so much death that it salted the earth. And then in less than one generation, a new war was raging in those same places.
So how would you present this unprecedented level of pointless death and destruction? Again, the game doesn’t seem to know. It oscillates between a Saturday morning cartoon caricature villains and hidden violence (when you throw a grenade into an enemy embankment, they throw their hands up an run off the screen comically before it explodes), to scenes that are so violent that you’re hiding behind mountains of corpses, as French soldiers are being ripped to shreds all around you. These scenes are over-the-top, and intentionally so given the fact that this is WWI, but then why wait until the end of the game to show something so grotesque? Yes, the Neville offensive was a huge waste of life, but there were over a million casualties in the Battle of the Somme alone (one of a dozen other ugly battles you’ll march through), none of which are presented with as much butchery.
It does have a nice feature where you can collect little artifacts around the level that give you information about WWI living conditions. Normally these types of search quests would be a drag, but it’s pretty seamlessly integrated, and never overly frustrating. I enjoyed it enough that I went back and found them all when the game was done.
As a game, it’s not much. As an educational game, it’s admirable. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt that it’s the later.
Review: 3 stars (out of 5)
Title: Dandy Dungeon
Wonder Boy: The Dragon’s Curse is the best remake I’ve ever played. Mostly because it’s not a remake. Instead it’s an audio and visual reskin, that can be flipped seamlessly. Press a button and it converts from heavily-layered HD graphics to the bright spartan 8-bit predecessor. Press another button and see how the reimagined audio compares with the beeping original. It’s fluid, and even works with shop NPC’s.
Cool gimmick, so what makes it work so well? Because this type of remake has the dual benefit of denying you the ability to claim that the original was better, while still being able to layer on new personality and depth. Which Lizardcube does well though it’s labor of love, right down to the childhood pictures of the team at the date of the game’s original release in the credits (1989).
I was born in the 80’s so I’m in the prime nostalgia demographic. And if the targeting took a few cues from Wonder Boy, it would feel less vacuous than it normally does.
I hear a piano version of the Pixies’s, Where is My Mind. It’s not the first time I’ve heard the song, and every time I hear it it brings a slight clench to my throat. And then I realize that the song was the reason I bought Uncharted 4 to begin with:
The irony, is that the trailer isn’t really an accurate (or inaccurate) representation of the actual game. It’s simply a different feeling entirely. That being said, the trailer is beautiful, the game completely different but wonderful, and enough of an enjoyable experience that I’ve gone back and played the earlier Uncharted’s (starting with “2”), that I had skipped the first time around. That makes the trailer worth noting, as it was capable of bringing interest to something that I had ignored three times before.
Title: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Maker: Naughty Dog
Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Memory: The writing throughout.
After completing Blood borne the first time, I felt a strong urge to go back and replay the entire game. Even if it wasn’t as memorable for me as the first Demon’s Souls or Dark Souls, there was something about that weird Lovecraft nightmare that I had to see through to completion. Even with the Witcher 3 and Uncharted 4 burning a hole in my stack of games, I went back and beat Bloodborne two more times. Weirdly, this was something I never did with any of the other Souls games. I think I made it half way through a couple, but then quickly moved on to something else.
If I was to play wannabe psychiatrist on myself, I would say that the story of Yharnam and the Hunter’s Dream, found echoes in my current life. Which is why when I completed Bloodborne for a third and final time, and I choose the simplest ending, it is the most appropriate. *minor spoiler- I watch in relief as it all comes to an end, and the character awakes to a sunrise and the long awaited promise of a new day.
The night has come to an end!
This is a sad post. Sort-of.
As much as I love vidoegames, it’s comparatively rare for me that a game has the same emotional impact as cinema or literature. There are some exceptions, Spec Ops: The Line, was bizarrely tight in it’s descent into madness, and Thomas Was Alone, made me feel for simple shapes, but in general it’s hard for a game to nail the emotional side when there is so much else to do and focus on.
The Souls games always were head of the class when it came to interjecting intricate easy-to-miss stories, but it’s Bloodborne that actually makes you care about them. However, there is one story that has stayed with me longer than the others, even though I finished the game nearly a three months ago: The story of Father Gascoigne.
There are about a million little bits than I can’t cover here from this single story or it would explode in size (the game is ridiculously detailed). But to give a quick overview: Early in the game you meet a little girl hiding in her home, she’s terrified and you offer to help her find her mother and father, which you eventually do. However, you find her father has lost his mind, her mother is dead (unclear if he was the cause, or this was the catalyst for his madness), and you’re forced to kill Gascoigne, her father. Without given away too much, from here, every action you take to rectify the decision continues a spiral of death and degradation.
The beautiful part is that all of this is missable. In fact it’s designed to be missed, but if you look hard enough, you can see the destruction and personal toll that this event has taken on a single family. It’s comparable to The Shinning, in that you watch a family not only tear apart, but also abandon and turn on the most delicate things that they should innately want to protect. There is something truly terrifying about that, and that is why Bloodborne is a masterpiece in storytelling.