Dead Cells Review

Platform: PS4

Symphony Souls: Return of Samus

Dead Cells feels like a really good game made by what you assume is a small team that is actually a much bigger team (the credits went on forever). We’re at that inevitable point of nostalgia saturation where even large companies won’t ignore the potential for retro style games to move large amounts of units. And so that’s why the first description anyone gives about Dead Cells is that it’s a Metroidvania. For a game that’s as good as Dead Cells is, it sucks that the best descriptor is a combination of two games that haven’t had a 2D system release for twenty years (handhelds, remakes and multiplayer aside).

And so I enjoyed Dead Cells. A lot. My bell-weather for a good game is not if I’m willing to play it for 5 hours straight (because I’ll hate everything by that point, including myself). It’s if I choose the game over Netflix, Hulu, HBO NOW, and all the other 8 pm to 10 pm time wasters at my disposable. And in that sense Dead Cells is an objective success. I loved every hour I spent scaling that citadel.

At its core it’s built as rogue-like, which means rinse, die and repeat. And this puts the exploration into direct conflict with the impermanence of the surroundings. Add in a few questionable design choices (unlocking certain things can harm future runs), and you have an amazing early game, that eventually turns into speed running and repetition. That doesn’t take away from the early hours, when the citadel seems alive and changing, and each playthrough is different. It just meant that when I was done, I was done.  

Review: 4 stars (out of 5)

Lords of the Fallen Review

Title: Lords of the Fallen
Platform: PS4

Today’s Bubsy

Dark Souls must be to the 2010’s, what anthropomorphic mascot platformers were to the 90’s. Every game has to pitch itself as some version of Dark Souls-like, Dark Souls-lite, Dark Souls-esque. Which is really just a way to say: difficult, abstract and with a roll-dodge. Hell, even new Dark Souls games, try to sell how Dark Souls they are. Which is all sort of sad for me, because there doesn’t seem to be any love left for Demon’s Souls, which was the game that caught me like a left hook 10-years ago and made reevaluate what a videogame could be.

I really wanted to like Lords of the Fallen. I don’t have the focus right now for a Souls game, so I figured a game shamelessly ripped (I’m sorry, inspired) by the source-material would be a nice compromise. But it’s not. There are some positives: the environments are beautiful, a couple boss battles are memorable (the graveyard one comes to mind), and it’s easy to play in short bursts. But each one of these is paired with crippling flaws: the enemy models are muddy and generic, the combat consists of spamming roll-dodge, and being able to pick up and play is a result of how linear the game is. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the wooden characters, glitches and a general feeling of wasted opportunity.

There are some good things here, but it’s hard to appreciate any of them when the product feels 80% done. Which is sort of a parable for life. Enjoyment doesn’t seem to be linear (80% done doesn’t equal 80% enjoyment), but exponential (80% done is equivalent to 23% enjoyment). Look at the second season of True Detective as proof of that (which is indefensible except to say that there are glimmers of brilliance in there).

Review: 1 star (out of 5)

Grand Kingdom Review

Title: Grand Kingdom
Platform: PS Vita

For People Who Eat at Denny’s

This is another example of how biased and shitty these reviews are. But that’s the point, on a purely technical level Grand Kingdom is a much better game than I’m giving it credit for. But it still sucked away 6 hours of my life with very little to show for it, and that’s unforgivable.

Part of why Grand Kingdom is hard to critique is because it’s pretty much everything I asked for when I was young. That was back when the idea of dropping sixty hours into a game was a good thing. But now, if I’m going to do that, it has to trick me into it like Nier: Automata. Doling our little bits of dopamine like bread crumbs in the woods. Instead, this is the videogame equivalent of quantity over quality.

And the characters have to be better. I respect that much of the game is voice acted. But it’s a moot point when the dialogue is written by people who watched Mad Men, but clearly walked away with the wrong message about Mad Men. If you’re going to make your characters misogynists, it better serve a purpose. But here, it makes the endless narrative mistake of confusing misogyny with being cool, which reeks of desperation.

To highlight the positive, the battles and the board are pretty fun. And there are some incredibly creative community aspects to the game that run very deep (like I said, it’s everything I asked for when I was young). Although this is only when you’re not staring at the ceiling because of load times. And so in the end it starts to become an optimization of speed, instead of tactics, because you want to save as much of your life as possible.

And that’s how I knew I needed to turn it off.

Review: 2 stars (out of 5)

Kentucky Route Zero; Act 1

Driving into the Dark

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.

It’s Moments Like This When You Know Things Will Dissolve

The Wolf Among Us Review

Title:  The Wolf Among Us
Maker:   Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Platform: PS Vita
Cost: $30

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.
Grendel
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.
Choices
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.

Review: 5 stars (out of 5)

Memory:  The End

The Banner Saga Review

Title:  The Banner Saga
Maker:   Stoic
System: Mac
Cost: $25

A display piece

When you see screenshots of the Banner Saga it looks beautiful.  In motion, it doesn’t quite hold true.  This encapsulates most of the game- a series of ideas, all of which could be magnificent, but in reality never come together.  This feeling stretches throughout.  The caravan you drag along serves as nothing else but a glorified high score.  Combat is a cake walk until a massive difficulty spike at the end (hope you didn’t spread your levels).  “War” events don’t seem to serve a purpose, and new character development is heavy at the beginning and nearly non-existent by the end.

The-Banner-Saga

The game is the first of a trilogy, and it’s easy to use this as an excuse for lack of execution.  But anytime you pay $25 on Steam, you expect it to be self-contained.  As it stands it’s less than half-realized.  You could also make a case for the game being too short, but why fault a game for removing the padding?  The pace is brisk, with little fluff, and to it’s credit it’s easy to sink yourself in.

The story remains the high note, and the dialogue is decent but forgettable.  Much has been said about the moral ambiguity the game provides, and while it’s revolutionary next to the black and white morality of Shin Megami Tensei or Mass Effect, most of the time it feels arbituary.  You make a decision and just wait to year if the wheel stops in your favor.

In the end, it’s clear that what was written on white boards in development sessions became to much in execution, and needed to be paired back considerably.  A reduction isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is when compromised versions of the original ideas are left in the game.

Review: 2 Stars (out of 5)

Memory:  The setting.  I want more games with Nordic influence.

Opening a PS Vita (the Non-Review)

I thought I was really clever. Since Soul Sacrifice came out I’ve been having my eye on a Vita.  I asked a few people about a price drop, and the consensus was that since they didn’t declare it at E3, it probably wouldn’t happen until the PS4 releases. So when I saw a sale last weekend at Target I scheduled a grocery run to get me close enough to pick one up. It turns if I had been slightly patient I could have picked the thing up with Telltale’s Walking Dead and a memory card this week for the same price. Therefore, less than a week after the purchase, this review is partially obsolete.
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When the clerk hands me the box the first thing I notice is how small and light it is. The cardboard is thin and it seems more like a box for a knock-off retro console, than a legitimate system.
Outside
Opening it up there’s not much inside. But it’s compartmentalized pretty well, almost like the original wii’s bento box appeal. Inside I’m surprised to find a pack of AR cards, not that I ever used them on the 3ds, but its a nice touch.
Inside
I loved my PSP.  The thing was beautiful and slick, and in my opinion the most underrated system since the Saturn.  But the initial setup was a horror (and it happened every-time the battery completely drained). So I’m shocked when I turn on the Vita and I’m through the setup, including wifi and my PSN account, in 2 minutes. The screen is also beautiful and movement fluid. It’s only now that the little thing starts to impress. Logging into the store and finding all the Playstation Plus titles for download is easy, significantly better than the process on the PS3, which is plagued with long load times and convoluted menus. However, when I go to download it freezes on the “Preparing to download” screen. A quick Internet search reveals this happens ALOT. Literally hundreds of people are complaining about it. I have to power it down twice before it finally downloads everything on the third try.
As for holding it in my hand, it doesn’t fit quite as naturally as the PSP, which had the analog stick perfectly placed on the left and the four Playstation buttons on the right. On the Vita the dual sticks seem to sit low, and the back touch pad remains a novelty. But all in all, its a hell of a lot more comfortable than the brick that is the 3DS.
Really, my biggest complaint, is the complaint that has always existed with Sony. The characters and the voice that guide you along lack the personality of a Nintendo system. A door opens, and a small orange stick figure walks through. Is he supposed to be my guide? Why would I bother with this? Then I notice that the tutorial considers itself enough of a game to have a trophy set.  Ok, maybe I’ll give it a try.
Conclusion- All the strengths and weaknesses of the Vita are evident the moment you open the box. The system is beautiful, well designed, but horribly neglected. Flimsy packaging, an unsolved critical but easily identifiable download problem, and just a general lack of games, shows how little attention has been paid to the thing. I think it has the potential to be a tremendously enjoyable system, like the PSP, but will inevitably be underrated and underutilized.

Spec Ops: The Line Review

Title:  Spec Ops:  The Line
Maker: Yager
Publisher: 2K Games
System: PS3
Cost: $50

White Phosphorus – This stuff is grizzly

I certainly wouldn’t have picked up Spec Ops if I wasn’t aware of it’s concept.  But it was billed as Heart of Darkness set in Dubai.  Ok, I can get into that.  And it’s reference to the source material aren’t subtle, but they’re appropriate.  You’re on the hunt for a man named Konrad, pronounced the same as Joseph Conrad.  And as you push deeper into Dubai, things unravel further and further.

The setting is cool.  But ironically, you rarely feel that you’re marching through Dubai except when you’re out in the open sands.  The buildings, what you assume would make for the most interesting environments, are usually the most forgettable.  The indoor settings are extravagant but seem to also conjure up colors from the 60s-70s, just in case you were to miss the Heart of Darkness references, they can hit you with Apocalypse Now.  And maybe that’s the biggest complaint you can make against the game:  that with the occasional fourth-wall breaking, and the Vietnam War style radio stations, all in an effort to show callousness, they sometimes push so hard that it pulls you out of the game.

But this is a small complaint to make. Many things about it are spot-on.  The voice acting is solid, from the Dennis Hopper radio DJ (an Apocalypse Now reference that hits the mark), the main characters, and especially Konrad.  Konrad’s look and sound is about as perfect as you can hope for.  The charters repeat phrases in fire fights, but it doesn’t detract as they usually reaffirm the players mental state.

As a game it plays acceptably.  A little too much stop-and-pop, and lacking some polish (trying to run from a grenade is way more difficult than it should be), but as you continue to play things meld together and on a second play through you’ll find yourself covering huge parts of the game rapidly.

And that’s really the thing about it.  The initial experience is a solid three stars.  But it demands a another play-through.  The second time is better than the first.  The pace of the story makes it difficult to appreciate everything the first time.  On the second you find things more enjoyable, it moves briskly, and all the implications bear themselves out.  Foreboding hangs over everything, and you realize it from the very beginning.  One scene in particular is amazing, and having missed it the first time, that alone validated the return.  The second play-through is enough to make the game worth another star.

Review:  4 stars

Memory:  Difficult because most memories are spoilers.  A safe one- Viciously beating someone to death with a rifle butt when they startle you.

Jikandia Review

Jikandia: The Timeless Land

Platform (Format): PSP (UMD)

It looks pretty cute, right?  The outside is charming enough I bought the game for $10 before a flight to Europe.  As an iOS game I would still consider it quite unpolished.  The characters and story are generic, but have the potential to bring the whole thing together into something worthwhile, but sadly they are the most unbearable part.  The fact that the translation was run through something like babelfish acts as a constant reminder while playing how much of your time you’re wasting (much like an iOS game).

The gameplay is enough of a grind that you develop a routine after the first few levels (go in for a few minutes, die, reequip and gain bonuses from meeting goals, go back in for longer and beat the boss).  Even on an Atlantic plane ride I couldn’t bring myself to play it longer than a couple hours.  Although I can’t help but feel it might have been pretty funny in it’s original Japanese.

Rating: 1 star