Not A Hero feels good, like Hotline Miami. And when the game works best, you’re in a grotesque dance of muscle memory, puzzle solving, and luck. When it’s at its worst, you fall into a tedium where one level blends into the next. Thankfully, that’s rare.
Bunnylord, your giant pink rabbit boss talks like a Hunter S Thompson mad lib. Inserting borderline psychotic adjectives, mangled together at random, to coach you along. All and all, it’s short, addictive, and causes your controller to merge into your hand. It also knows not to outstay its welcome (which is more often the problem than a game being too short).
When I play a bit of the old ultra violence, I often wonder what kind of effect it has on my karma. And then I wonder if I believe in karma. And then I correct myself and say psyche. The effect on my psyche. Where as in the past I would mow down wave after wave of bad guys like spring loaded flopping machines, it doesn’t quite roll off the controller like it used to. And by the time I’ve gunned down that mental rabbit hole, I’m usually able to side step my feelings with the absurdity of what I’m witnessing. Because the game knows it’s a joke, and wears its heart on its sleeve.
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), 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.
I’m left asking myself, “who green-lit 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 mesmerizing book: humanizing Germans, shitting next to each other in trenches, hanging out with French girls, the atrocities of war perpetrated on and by teenagers. Side-side-note, 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 the hell of it? Maybe it was just a bunch of WWI nerds who wanted to spread the word about how insane this nearly forgotten nationalistic macho-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 Saturday morning cartoon 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 grotesque 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 loss of life in WWI, but then why wait until the end of the game to show something so savage? 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.
Dandy dungeon is the best type of free to play game: the type where you forget that it’s a free to play game. Which then makes you wonder, how much better would it be if it were just a normal game: balanced drops, fewer and more discrete weapons, laser focused purpose? Because the biggest sin is that like almost all commercially relevant f2p games it throws everything and the kitchen sink at you in an ever increasing world that’s made to suck quarters like an Altered Beast cabinet at the hat-shaped Pizza Hut of my youth that eventually when out of business and became a Chinese restaurant. Because if you can’t make money slinging dough, canned tomato sauce and cheese to Americans, that’s not America’s problem, that’s yours. And then America’s 20 years later when obesity has quadrupled.
But that’s Pizza Hut, and this is my iPhone, the epicenter of f2p. And I don’t like myself on f2p. I can’t consume a game that’s dripped out to me slowly. My life is such that I have to play in a fat time slot on a Friday night after half a bottle of wine. Every time I download a f2p game I tell myself it will be different, I can quit it whenever I want, and then I wake up in the morning thinking, fuck yeah, I can play for 15 and a half more minutes. All of this could be mitigated by paying $7.95 to unlock some unlimited package that would break the game in half, but then it’s the same question, why even bother? Paying in a f2p leaves me with the same guilty feeling that I got from plugging in my Game Genie.
All that to say, Dandy Dungeon is as good as they come. Even if it leaves a sticky garlic taste in the back of my throat like all f2p.
Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Title: Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End
Maker: Naughty Dog
The Lovable Kind of Sociopathy
Let’s start with the facts- Nick Drake and everyone he associates with is a sociopath. If you don’t dwell on that too much, there is much to be enjoyed in Uncharted 4.
To start, it’s easily one of the most beautiful games ever created. Ever locale is special, and each one builds upon the previous, until you’re actively excited to see what the game will throw at you next.
There is also considerable time and energy put into the character development. Not just through dialogue, or story arches, but actual investment by the player into these characters. The game asks you to go through the mundane necessities of day-to-day life that are required in building a close relationship with someone (before then asking you to go rampaging across the world with them). It’s in these moments that you develop the sincere feelings that carry you through the entirety of the game. As further testament to the writing, each section is stronger than the last, and each moment with the characters builds upon what has come previously
But in the end, it’s impossible to fully invest in the characters, as a result of the moral contradictions presented through the gameplay. You will mow down literally dozens of people on your adventure, only to show sensitivity towards deplorable antagonists. The game would be better served to have protagonists that avoid killing almost entirely, or are more authentic in their willingness to commit violence.
With all of that in mind, it was built from the ground up around the story and character development. While not as haunting as The Last of Us, you will find it lingering, for different reasons, days after the music has stopped playing, and all you’re left is the opening screen of a skeleton in a gibbet.
Cleaning out a closet I found an old Game Informer list that I had torn out of the magazine. It gave the top mobile games of 2013. On the list in the one-two spot is Year Walk (pretty cool) and Ridiculous Fishing (legitatemly awesome). After that it’s a bunch of Star Wars, infinite runners, and adventure games that could have been something if they weren’t redundant. Towards the bottom of this rudandant list was a game that pulled me in with a straight forward name: “Slayin”.
And the name is accurate. It’s simple, short, and a little sweet. It lasts a few sittings, and by the time you’ve beaten it, you feel you’ve seen everything it can offer. But to its credit, it asks very little in return. Its appeal is limited, but it wears it on its sleeve, and how can you blame a game like that?
It’s not a terrible game, it’s just not much of one.
Review: 2 Stars (out of 5)
Memory: The music would randomly stop, but I could never figure out the trigger.
Maker: From Software
Making it to Morning
What should be said about Bloodborne, that hasn’t already been said? Well a lot actually. There are so many steps forward, and so many steps backwards, that’s it’s nearly impossible to tells who’s coming or going.
Let’s start with “who’s coming”: The story and the setting is so significantly improved it’s staggering. After three outings, the Souls games had started to rest on their laurels. Not Bloodborne. I don’t know if they had a whole team of writers that ate, bathed and slept together for months, or if they had one half-insane screenwriter channeling the ghost of HP Lovecraft, but whatever they did, it’s brilliant. How you can keep all that in your brain without losing it baffles me. The Gothic motif, also allows it to give life to images that normally have no place in games. It’s well orchestra genetic disgust when you meet gigantic bugs with piercing shrieks, or tentacle face brain suckers. It’s also more cinematic. The story still doesn’t hold your hand, but does use beautiful cutscenes, instead of a complete reliance on dialogue. An improvement that I’ve been waiting for since the first Demon’s Sous.
Add in a solid combat engine and this is a 5 star game, except for one massive glaring “going”. They recycle the same enemies, like an 80’s button masher, simply increasing their stats and experience. For a game that rests on combat, this is a huge issue, because the same enemies you’re fighting at the beginning, you’re fighting at the end. What this effectively does is skew the difficulty curve to the beginning, when you’re still learning how to stun-lock enemies, and first memorizing their patterns. By the end, you’ve seen them enough that no amount of extra health and damage is going to take you down. It’s understandable why this was done, the designs, and the enemies; they’re all details and cost a ton to create. But it’s a huge step back from the Souls games in this regard.
Other than these two main points, it’s minor incremental plusses and minuses. Pros: Beautiful graphics, well thought out warp system, cool-dual weapon system, great endings. Negatives: Repetitive boss battles, terrible healing system (forces grinding), and obfuscating environments.
It’s clear From Software set out to make a game that’s different than it’s predecessors, and stands on it’s own merits. In that, they have objectively succeeded.
Review: 4 Stars (out of 5)
Memory: Everything about Rom, The Vacuous Spider (especially the name)
Title: The Wolf Among Us
Maker: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platform: PS Vita
Much More than the Sum of Its Parts
Pop culture references the Walking Dead so incessantly, that I could never play the Telltale versions. They looked fine enough, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, even though I have the series sitting in Steam from a Humble Bundle. The Wolf Among Us is so enjoyable that it makes me want to go back and give those early games a try.
The story and universe carry the most weight. The game does a tremendous job of weaving actual fairy tales into scenarios. For example, in a rage, you’re given the option to rip off the arm of a character named “Gren”. Once you realize it’s Grendel, the homage becomes clear. When TWAU is at its best, it forces your hand in split second decisions. The options provided are often true to the situation, yet uncomfortable. As many games as I’ve played I would assume I’m desensitized to violence, but it turns out I can’t tear someone’s head off when given the choice.
The biggest problem is that it’s glitchy as hell. It’s not clear if this is all versions, or just the PS Vita one. As testament to this, it’s the first game that has actually crashed my Vita and forced a hard reset (the error screen that appears is terrifyingly similar to the blue screen of death). Even when it’s running normally there are long loading times, stuttering between scenes, and a few points that require closing and reopening the application.
However, it’s well worth the bugs and the minor character inconsistencies, to have an experience in Fabletown. No single episode (of the 5) is nearly as powerful as the story taken as a whole. They’re made to be played together. And it’s this consistency and patience that elevates the package to something special.
Title: Dragon’s Crown
Platform: PS Vita
Enjoyable Bursts of Style Over Substance
There’s was a time half a decade ago when Vanillaware was killing it. It had developed Odin Sphere, which was gorgeous, had great reviews, and sold enough to warrant a “Greatest Hits” rerelease. But the reality was that while Odin Sphere was gorgeous, there wasn’t much too it. It plays it’s hand early, which makes it a chore to see it through to the end.
Fast forward a few games, 6 years, and we have Dragon’s Crown. It’s graphics also received a tremendous amount of publicity, but more in the NSFW category. The graphical style itself hasn’t changed that much since Odin Sphere, only now every man and woman is hyper sexualized. It’s an odd choice that’s more awkward than sexual (see below for a few of the less cringe worthy examples):
So what kind of game is Dragon’s Crown? Here’s the run down:
-Is the story any good? What story?
-Is the battle system improved on Odin Sphere? Memory is fuzzy from that part of my life, but I would say negligible.
-Is the game world more engrossing? Less than their other titles.
-So what does it get right? Three things: On screen mayhem. A quest system that encourages quick play. And gameplay which grows in enjoyment as you learn the system and your character becomes a beast.
In the end, it’s a beautiful game of limited scope. A single town, few NPC characters, limited differences between classes, and a shortage of levels, all betray that it’s a minor game. But it’s a minor game where you’re going to have more fun the final time you play it than the first.
Title: Gargoyle’s Quest
Publisher: Armor Games
Cost: $3.99 (on Nintendo eShop)
AKA, the “Nonexistent Difficulty Curve”
I’ve wanted to play Gargoyle’s Quest ever since I found the Nintendo power card with Firebrand (Red Arremer if you’re a stickler) on the front of it. Described to me as mix between an RPG and an Adventure game, it seemed to straddle that “Zelda 2” spectrum of early Ninentdo games. And while you do walk around in an overview, and there’s a few command prompts, it’s really an action game through and through.
I loved my first gameboy. It was my first videogame system, and I literally played it until it died. But even as a child I knew the controls weren’t the most responsive thing in the world. There’s a button-input delay, but I didn’t care. And usually it worked out alright, because most games worked around it. When making Gargoyle’s Quest, they either didn’t realize this or didn’t care. It requires pin point precision in parts that can be absolutely infuriating. This means that in classic Ghost & Goblins tradition, the first tower is ridiculously hard. It wouldn’t surprise me if three quarters of the players dropped right there.
However, despite this early difficulty spike, the game becomes significantly more enjoyable as Red’s abilities start to increase. For example, the hover ability at the beginning is more a hindrance than a help. However, later on you can float in place and pick off enemies one by one. Play towards the end gives that same feeling as a powered up Mega Man X with a bunch of E-Tanks in reserve. In fact, most of the abilities in the game: floating, clinging to walls, power-ups, are prescient of what would become staples in later Capcom classics.
So in the end, alls well that ends well.
Review: 3 stars (out of 5)
Memory: It’s the only game I can remember that doesn’t provide development credits at the end