THE ROAD TO TAHITI: LOOKING BACK AT DUTCH VAN DER LINDE


THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR READ DEAD REDEMPTION AND RED DEAD REDEMPTION 2.


 

Hero, villain and tragic figure of Rockstar’s world-renowned western franchise, Dutch Van Der Linde arguably has just as much right to the claim of “main character” of the Red Dead series than John Marston, Arthur Morgan, or that other one from the first game that nobody remembers.

But the funny thing about Dutch is just how much talk he inspires from the series’ fans. Established protagonists Arthur Morgan and John Marston aren’t two-dimensional by any means, but their needs and desires are largely quite simple – protect people they like, acknowledge that the world is moving on, maybe try to ease up on quite so much senseless killing; a chore list we can all get behind.

Dutch, on the other hand, is a lot harder to pin down, especially when looking at what he actually wants and what might be driving him underneath everything else. We’ve seen him go from a caring, heroic father figure to an unrepentant, self-satisfied murderer, compromising nearly every ideal he claimed to care about from the beginning of Red Dead Redemption 2.

It doesn’t even help when you look it what he says, because his general life philosophy seems a little vague. For somebody who never shuts up about freedom, liberty, the hypocrisies of civilisation and the beauty of the “savage utopia”, pulling anything concrete from what he says is a lot harder than you’d think, and that’s definitely by design. Rockstar clearly put a lot of hundred-hour weeks into making Dutch as charismatic as possible, but as time progresses we get the sense that a lot of what he’s talking about might just be hot air, a load of high-minded rhetoric that’s lacking in any real substance.

Maybe this is why he’s also a character defined by contradictions and double-standards. He’s openly cynical about Saint Denis, yet fits in perfectly at one of their illustrious high-society parties, laughing with a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other. He’s filled with contempt for civilisation and the lies it tells, yet wears slick, stylish clothes, constantly cons people, carries personalised weapons and practices inspirational speeches when he thinks nobody is looking. And, of course, he kills strangers one moment, yet shows unbridled compassion the next.

So what is at the core of Dutch’s character? Anarchic, uncaring evil? A romantic spirit warped by a world it doesn’t fit into? A poet, a warrior, a leader? No, of course not. These aren’t actual personality traits, these are images Dutch projects to cover up or even hold up the real core of his being: Ego. Sure, anybody who plays either game for more than ten minutes can tell you that Dutch’s sense of self-worth could rival Kim Jong-Un’s, but I suspect it goes deeper than just another character flaw, the root cause of his ideals, his motivations and eventually his downfall.

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A man with weapons, a god-complex, a disinterest in law, utterly devoted followers and a major chip on his shoulder. What could go wrong?

Let’s take a step back. We know that Dutch Van Der Linde was raised largely by his mother but left home at fifteen, forming a friendship with Hosea, a friendship of some sort with Colm O’Driscoll, and developing an ideology (of sorts) based on personal freedom and unconstrained anarchy. Later on he split from O’Driscoll after some bloodshed, and formed his own gang, placing himself at its centre and framing it around the aforementioned ideology. There’s clearly something of the religious cult leader about him, talking about a promised land – Tahiti, or maybe Australia – as well as giving passionate speeches that sound good until you start thinking about them. And of course, constantly telling his followers and friends to “have faith.” Dutch says that one so often it would be on his business cards if he had them.

But honestly, I suspect that Dutch is working backwards to feed his sense of self-worth. The paradise that Dutch pushes often has a worrisome air of “survival of the fittest” about it, but then again, why would that be a problem to him? He’s charming, handsome, intelligent, surprisingly educated, an expert fighter and master gunslinger. In a world where power is rewarded – such as the brutal chaos of the Wild West – Dutch reaps the rewards more than anybody. No wonder he developed all that pride. He’s practically the gold standard for Western outlaw heroics, and the people around him noticed that.

Problem is, the encroaching civilisation doesn’t work that way. As the West was slowly tamed, Dutch saw a vision of America coming where all men became quiet cogs in a grand, grey machine, and this terrified and revolted him. If he was made to be like everybody, he would suddenly be a nobody, the worst thing possible for a man like him.

So he builds up the Van Der Linde gang, with a sexy Robin Hood image and non-specific utopian ideals, dedicated to showing up the hypocrisies and failings of this new America. Obviously he’s the protagonist of this story. His supporting cast embodies the forgotten people, those who suffer from prejudice or never had the chance to make anything of themselves. Every job they pull is a strike against the establishment, and it adds to his infamous reputation…

… And then it all starts to come slowly crashing down around his ears as events makes it clear that however hard Dutch pushes, America can push back even harder. Dutch’s original goal seems to be to hit a bunch of valuable targets representing the establishment – banks, trains, corporations, oil wells, big business and those damned fat cats, etc – before making off with these riches to some distant land and setting up their own paradise, designed specifically to be this new America’s opposite. Lush, primal, simple, free, a final spit in the eye of Uncle Sam.

It won’t work. Dutch’s thinking is innately old-school and he wants to win on those terms, but the rules have changed and now he’s struggling to keep up. It’s implied that in the old days that when the heat got too much you could just keep going westward, running past the frontier into the wilderness, but that doesn’t work when civilisation stretches from one coast to the other. It’s not just a few dusty sheriffs pinning ten dollar bounties on the jailhouse wall, now it’s organised law enforcement and federal agents with money, manpower, and a jurisdiction that spans the whole country. Robberies and heists become harder to pull off, and even when they succeed, like the train robbery early on, they have lasting consequences that they can’t easily escape. The law is everywhere.

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Dutch stands with his friends – but also a little in front of them.

All these things make Dutch feel small and insignificant, which is why the few victories he can claim – an escape from a botched job, a piece of untouched countryside to settle in, or manipulating a group of Native Americans to attack the army later on – all of these things make him feel like he has a chance of winning, and give him the satisfaction of damaging his enemy, whether it actually helps his gang or not. They make him feel big, but the failures far outweigh the successes, and the pressure starts to mount on him, psychologically and socially.

So what we have here is a man who has convinced himself that he can win an impossible fight and has staked his self-worth on the outcome, as well as the lives of about twenty people who are all starting to notice that he’s not as infallible as they thought. When he keeps barking at them all to have faith, it’s a sign that his ego is taking a pounding and he just wants them to go back to the blind obedience they always had. He insists that the gang’s troubles aren’t his fault, it’s their fault for doubting him, because how could he ever put a foot wrong? If they could just believe in him as a saviour again, this would all start going back to how it should.

It won’t, obviously. Dutch soon begins to crack under the strain, especially after the heist at Saint Denis and Hosea’s death, and starts shedding his principles as dead weight, killing innocent people and beginning to look at his friends with distrust and resentment. But at the same time, he needs them, because if they won’t love him and call him their saviour, what’s been the point of all this? It’d be another failure for the list.

Compromising his ethics one after the other, Dutch doesn’t so much change as he is reduced down to the simplest version of himself: an egomaniac who wants to be lionised by the world, and eager to hurt the civilised part of it that makes him feel small and insignificant. He’s not entirely without morality, at least not yet, but it’s only a matter of time and the few good urges he has left feel more like a disguise than a real part of his being.

Which brings us to Micah, the moustachioed menace who purrs poison into Dutch’s ear and pushes him to more dangerous extremes than ever. Had Micah been acting this way to anybody else, Dutch would’ve likely seen him for the self-serving monster that he is, but flattery gets you a lot when it comes to a man who seems to need praise more than oxygen. Micah is certainly more cunning than people give him credit for, recognising the god-complex inside Dutch where Hosea and Arthur either don’t see it or don’t want to, and he uses this to manipulate him, telling him that every dark impulse he has is the right one. He feeds Dutch’s ego to bursting point, telling him the thing he wants to hear most: anybody who disagrees with you is wrong, and everything you say is right, simply because it was YOU that said it. Sure, Dutch probably knows on some level that this is bullshit, but admitting that would mean cutting his last lifeline for validation. Not only that, but the little rat is encouraging his pointless war with Modern America, making it Dutch’s highest priority. But while Dutch does it for deep-seated psychological reasons and a paper-thin ideology, Micah simply wants to make money and indulge his love of killing.

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Dutch’s desperation drives him to extremes, which only makes his many failures sting all the more.

The big turning point is when Dutch refuses to rescue John Marston from prison, seemingly for no reason. It’s surprising to say the least, because this should be exactly what Dutch would normally want, right? A dynamic outlaw adventure that tweaks the nose of Johnny Law, sends ripples out across the State and cements their ideals of brotherhood and unity. But instead, Dutch retreats back from the opportunity, uncertain and tentative, telling them to wait before they do anything, that he has to think of a plan first.

We never get a firm explanation as to why Dutch keeps dragging his feet here, especially when he was so gung-ho about reuniting the gang in the face of the early Blackwater debacle. Who knows, maybe Dutch was beginning to suspect John was a traitor and wanted him to suffer as revenge. Maybe Dutch wanted John to die so that the gang would rally in anger and see the law as Dutch does. Maybe he really was trying to come up with that perfect plan, and just needed a little more time to make it.

Perhaps it’s all of these, or none of these. Nonetheless, I suspect that the main reason was that Dutch had begun to suspect he wasn’t going to win this one, and the thought of losing yet again was terrifying to his ego. Problem is, it’s also humiliating to see his gang shouting at him to do something, so he can’t win either way. He’s sold himself for decades as “the guy with the plan,” but now he has no plans, his stock as a leader is in freefall, and law is closing around them. So when Arthur and Sadie go behind his back and rescue John anyway, it’s a sign that they’ve lost respect for his leadership – and boy, does that just ruffle his soul patch, especially coming from Arthur, now his oldest living friend. In his mind, it’s the ultimate betrayal.

And of course this leads to Dutch abandoning Arthur to his death during the raid on the oil fields,  followed by the awkward ride back home when Arthur ends up surviving. Dutch is being forced to choose again and again which matters to him more – his comrades, or his pride-fuelled vendetta, and he keeps picking the second option, pushed on by Micah, struggling to square in his own head the clear, depressing difference between what he started as and what he’s become.

It’s all too much by the end. Dutch sees a suit-and-tie-wearing world rallied against him, the corruption beginning to touch even his oldest friends. He makes further trouble by shooting Leviticus Cornwall, a pointless, gleeful strike against the fat cats that only makes their situation worse. Finally the gang implodes in a heady mess of blood, gunpowder and tuberculosis, and Dutch vanishes into hiding, at least until John, Charles and Sadie go hunting for Micah and discover that he and Dutch are still working together. Micah takes Sadie hostage, the Mexican stand-off kicks in, John appeals to Dutch’s long-dead nobility, and in a moment of shock, witnesses his former mentor turn on Micah and shoot him in the chest, saving Sadie’s life.

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High ideals are thrown away for base feelings and urges, but Dutch is determined not to realise this, and that the mangoes of Tahiti are getting further and further away.

This might sound like a heroic thing to do, and it largely is, but it’s worth reminding everybody that Dutch has been riding with Micah for a while, a man who had been reportedly slaughtering families without a problem. In fact, I suspect that Dutch killing Micah is less about the heroic angle as it is about something Micah says moments before the event. When John accuses him of murdering Arthur, Micah simply scoffs and says “it’s a new century!”

It’s the worst thing he could have said. Dutch sees Micah for what he is, sees how low he’s fallen to be working with somebody like that, and sees a person holding an injured woman hostage for his own ends, all while justifying his actions because of the march of modernity. Nothing could’ve been more abhorrent to the younger Dutch, and so he blows a hole in Micah’s torso before leaving the Blackwater fortune to his former friends, a last act of heroism before we see him again in Red Dead Redemption.

Sadly, several years later, Dutch’s honour meter has taken a turn towards the red, murdering innocents without a thought and tormenting John for fun. There’s even a moment in which Dutch holds a woman hostage at gunpoint, just like Micah did. He uses a modern semi-automatic pistol, a gatling gun and a typewriter without recognising or caring about the irony of it all. He’s become the thing he hated the most, and he can’t even see it.

John nearly gets to live out the true American dream – hunting down and murdering your boss – only for Dutch to trump him at the end by throwing himself off a cliff and committing suicide, though not before a little gunpoint monologue (boy, Rockstar loves having its characters speechify with a pistol shoved up their nose) in which the old man comes the closest he’s ever been to seeing the truth of himself and his pointless, painful predicament.

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“We can’t always fight nature, John. We can’t fight change. We can’t fight gravity. We can’t fight nothing. My whole life, John, all I ever did was fight. But I can’t give up neither. I can’t fight my own nature. That’s the paradox, John. You see? Our time has passed.”

In the heyday of the Wild West, Dutch Van Der Linde was a leader, fighter and rogue. And under that heady spell, thought he could take on the might of decadent, civilised conformity and win, then make his way somewhere truly free with pockets full of money and friends beside him.

He couldn’t. Nobody could. And the more he failed, the angrier he got. He made compromise after compromise, leaving behind his ideals, his friends, his morality and finally his sanity, certain that he could win next time, that a legion of bowler-hatted bureaucrats couldn’t hold him down forever, that he’d become the hero of the West he knew he was. That delusion was the last thing he let go of, moments before he took his own life rather than be captured and letting the government beat him one last time. What Dutch wanted never really changed, but a long time ago he decided he’d rather be victorious than be noble, the true tragedy of his character. His anger came from fear, his heroism came from self-obsession, and his vision, tragically enough, came from delusion.

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DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB REVIEW

THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR DOKI DOKI LITERATURE CLUB, AS WELL AS REFERENCE TO PLOT, CONTENT AND HUMOUR SOME READERS MAY FIND DISTRESSING OR DISTURBING.

I know, this one seemed so outside my particular comfort zone that it might as well have been written in actual Japanese kanji for all the connective tissue between me and it, but I’ll say that the only reason I tried out Doki Doki Literature Club is that I was told that there was a meaty plot twist, ahem, hanging around to surprise the player, a twist so meaty as to be, oh… a hundred and twenty pounds heavy? Maybe one-fifteen if her shoes fall off?

Blimey, that one was dark even for me. Regardless, I downloaded it for free off Steam, and as I loaded it up I couldn’t help but stare contemptuously at the main menu, full of pastel colours, bouncy pink font, chirpy music on a distressingly short loop, and four girls who were clearly so underage that I found myself wanting to apply a short, sharp spray of mace to my own eyeballs.

Fine, I thought bitterly. I’m hungover, the flat’s cold and I’m badly losing in my current game of Civilisation V. If there was ever a mood in which I was primed to go for the jugular, this was it.

 

“WELCOME TO THE LITERATURE CLUB!” – The Plot

It’s worth clarifying that Doki Doki Literature Club has no gameplay to speak of, bar a couple of puzzles which range from the unchallenging but conceptually interesting, to the unchallenging and conceptually UNinteresting (largely the latter) so what this game is selling itself on is the plot, and on that basis it will be judged, whether it likes it or not.

Of course, the first thing I did was pick a name for my avatar, and being an uncooperative sort even at the best of times, I scribbled the label “Bumflaps” on my hypothetical name badge. Turns out that ol’ B-Flap is a generic anime protagonist living a generic anime high school life with a generic anime girl-next-door romance potentially brewing, and this leads me to my first and most major criticism of DDLC: yes, this is a game that’s building up to parody and horror (of a sort), but it’s so committed to its disguise that it maintains the illusion of being a chirpy visual novel for several hours, and does so with impressive accuracy.

Consequently, it’s fucking insufferable during this section. No exaggeration, I was writhing in my chair in actual discomfort from how much I hated this part. Because even if Mister Bumflaps, Esq. had gotten a nicer player who’d named him Konfident Q. McMagnificent XII, it still wouldn’t make him any more tolerable to be around. He’s annoying in that most typically anime manner, a limply-passive Mary-Sue who wobbles between infuriatingly naïve to acting like he’s seen all this before. Kudos to the creators for catching that famously corrosive tone just right, but I’m reluctant to say I admire or appreciate that work when I had to put up with Bumflaps pussyfooting his way through the plot for the better part of my Saturday, when I could’ve been doing something important like playing with the latch on my suitcase or just eating my own lips straight off my face.

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Bumflaps’ initial odyssey through high school takes a sudden turn for the uninteresting and stays on that path for a painfully long time.

But whatever you call him, Protagonist-sempai makes his way into a new school year and immediately finds himself peer-pressured by a friend to join the freshly-formed Literature Club, the other four members of which are all ostensibly attractive girls of the sort who look like they’ve just been torn off the front of a love pillow. In fact, considering they’re always shown as flat images who don’t animate, that might be true for all I know. And though things change later, to start with they all have a single personality trait that defines each of them, and these vary from annoying, to irritating, to aggravating, to boring. Very boring. In fact, most of them are boring. Boring to the point that I can barely remember half their names even on the same day as having played it. I remember that they all had statistically and biologically improbable hair framing a set of near-identical faces, but that just sounds like the characters of South Park, and I don’t want the task of seducing them either.

And what doesn’t help is the game not-so-subtly engaging in a bit of meta-commentary,of the type that is quickly beginning to get on my nerves in a lot of indie games, because nine times out of ten it’s never as smart as it thinks it is. “Boy,” loudly exclaims one character early on, who’d clearly have been waggling her eyebrows if the budget could’ve stretched to a second five pound note. “Isn’t it interesting how a writer can play with an absolute IDIOT’S lack of imagination, subverting their expectations to do stuff you wouldn’t expect, hmm? Hmm? HMMM?!”

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Prolonged sequences describing the eating of a cupcake had the distinct effect of making me wish I was staring at a blank screen instead.

So that began to wear on me within the first fifteen minutes, which was a shame, because that was about one-twelfth of the way into the syrupy, fetishistic quagmire of “vis-nov” nonsense that I normally wouldn’t go near without a hazmat suit. The only bits that kept me going were the occasional hint or foreshadowing of what was supposed to come, which admittedly works quite well when it’s not being too meta, played just about straight and subtle enough for you to be uncertain whether this just a failed attempt by the writer to be cute or emotional.

For example, about midway through this nauseating candyfloss maelstrom of a plot, the shy one abruptly tells you that she collects knives and loves how sharp they look, which is one of those suck-air-through-teeth moments that would make any normal person be taking a subtle step back towards the exit. The loud girl drops hints towards a very nasty home life, the school idol seems to know more of the other’s secrets than she has any right to, while the one living next door mentions that she suffers from crippling depression.

And it’s the last one of these that’s actually written with genuine skill and heart. You’ve got this really well-constructed presentation of somebody undergoing a very human, heartfelt suffering, and what I thought was poignant about it was that her pain felt beyond my control. She’s clearly been going through some very hard-hitting issues for a very long time, now too heavily ingrained to be solved miraculously by a pretty-boy haircut and the occasional fumbling, “comical” accident that ends with your face buried in her chest, like a creepy middle-school adaption of The Benny Hill Show.

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Though seemingly inane at first, the group’s poems shared in the early game hint at the darker, somewhat more nuanced material coming later.

So that part has some well-written stuff, and this all reaches a sad, agonising peak when that girl commits suicide, ostensibly at a time where (according to the tepid rules of manga and romance, at least) she should’ve been at her highest point. And whilst I won’t call it horror, it is startlingly affecting, a genuine tragedy that woke me up out of my boredom, made feel really quite mournful, and helped me realise just how well her character was developed in the course of the story…

And then the game pissed all that good effort away again as the horror rolls around in full force. Sigh.

To begin with it seems interesting enough – right after her death the game forces you to restart the plot, only this time the depressed girl is conspicuously absent from proceedings and nobody will acknowledge that she ever existed in the first place. But then things begin to get wearisome as the story becomes more about video games as a medium than any of the characters. So suddenly an emerging plot point about the game’s files being rewritten means that all continuity is thrown out the window, and everything’s fair game now, with any symbolism and nuance vanishing in a puff of nonsense. Bleeding from the eyes? Throw it in there. Having the character suddenly jump towards the screen like a startled house spider? Eh, go ahead. Graphical glitches that distort the images? Sure, why not? What does it matter? This isn’t a complex character drama lampooning an intolerable genre style anymore, this is “HORROR!” Not horror, but HORROR! i.e., silly, scary things happening frequently and without much justification, because… well, that’s HORROR!

It’s an important distinction. Alien is horror. The Shining is horror. But YouTube comments about ghost girls killing the people who don’t copy-paste their story to three more videos with cats on them is “HORROR!

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Late-game attempts at horror frequently fall flat, despite starting strong with a tragic character focus and having some ostensibly interesting ideas to work with.

And what really got on my plums is that this element began to intrude retroactively upon the stuff I liked before, including an infuriating moment where Mary Jane Watson’s suicide is written off as part of the villain’s scheme. Oh, she wasn’t really depressed, she just had her code altered to make her a gloomy Gus. For fuck’s sake, the one thing this game does really well and now it’s trying to go back and ruin it. After impressing on you how unsolvable this problem is without serious effort over a long period of time, the game then tells you it can be solved with minimal effort very quickly, because you have the cheat codes to the universe.

That being said, there is one good puzzle at the end that I alluded to earlier, which involves actually quitting the game, going into the files and deleting the right one. That’s actually quite innovative, though DDLC seems terrified that you won’t pick up on what it’s telling you. “BOY,” says the villain, also wishing for some of that eyebrow-wiggling budget that didn’t exist. “IT’S SO EASY TO DELETE CHARACTERS BY GOING INTO STEAM, RIGHT-CLICKING THE GAME, SELECTING ‘PROPERTIES’, BROWSING LOCAL FILES AND- BWUHHH?! WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING?! I NEVER THOUGHT YOU’D ACTUALLY TRY IT ON ME! NOOOOOOOO!!!”

 

“NANI?!” – The Conclusion

Despite being implemented rather scrappily, there some really good ideas here, and overall I wish there’d been more of that creativity on show. It’s why I don’t hate Doki Doki Literature Club, because the makers clearly have some talent, with stuff like “Girl-Next-Door’s” very human depression and the rather clever puzzle concept at the end, followed by a finale that I actually found quite interesting. Even the early high school visual novel stuff shows skill, because it successfully keeps up the façade of such a game for long enough that anybody who hadn’t read a review like this one would probably be quite shocked by the sudden turn of events. Sure, that early part made me want to bury a spoon behind my eyes and lever them out onto the desk in front of me, but all visual novels do that, so it just meant the disguise was working.

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Despite some admirably strong and emotionally poignant moments that really made my heart go out to the characters, they feel like an underutilised minority in a game that would seemingly rather be courting the “Let’s Play” market.

But it’s not enough to really justify the experience in my eyes, even with the fact that it is free. About half the game had me crawling up the walls trying to electrocute myself on the lightbulb fittings, with writing that manages to feel sub-par to Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties at the worst bits, with the better stuff coming around only just in time to stop me giving up on it altogether. But then that only lasts for about half an hour before the eye-rolling internet HORROR! tropes roll up in such force that it’s a wonder the final villain isn’t flanked on both sides by Slenderman and Freddy Fazbear.

The upshot of this is that when the game ended, I felt very, very certain I’d seen all I needed to see. Then I discovered that you could play around with the files for even more variations on the story and… And actually I’m good, thanks. No, really, I’m good thanks. I’m so full up on Doki Doki Literature Club that I couldn’t take another bite, and I really might get a bit cross if you try and feed me any more, got it?

 

COMPARATIVE RATING: LIKE READING TWO COLLECTIONS OF A SUB-PAR HIGH-SCHOOL MANGA, TWO PAGES OF AN EXCELLENT CHARACTER DRAMA, AND TWO HOURS OF CREEPY-PASTAS IN A SINGLE, DRAINING AFTERNOON.

 

THE FAILURE OF ROLE-PLAYING GAMES

Why do so many people hate Fallout 4? If you ask the players, they’ll say it’s because it went from a true RPG to a more shooter-inclined runny-gunny-crafty affair. And whilst I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad game, I do understand the problem that people have with it, what with it being marketed as the next installment in a chain of (now classic) role-playing games, not the exploratory shooter that it really happened to be.

And yet I ask them this – whilst Fallout 3 was indeed the superior game, especially in comparison to the time it emerged, was it really so good at the role-playing element? Oh, it’s better than most games in that respect, no question there. But did you ever really feel like you were playing anything more than a simple caricature? Trying to play a traditional hero is just about dropping all your points into healing and picking the selfless options in dialogue for a lot of games. Likewise, the inclusion of a karma system tends to make these characters feel more simplistic and mechanical than ever.

To my mind, this sort of thing rarely works, mainly because role-playing in games is limited largely by two things – context and mechanics, though to what degree you find yourself experiencing problems changes on a game-by-game basis.

Context is all about what the game tells you regarding your character, and everything you’re told is something that you don’t get to decide for yourself. For example, I can’t play as British aristocrat Lord Montgomery Fotherington-Mayfield in Fallout 3. It just doesn’t fit the story, because the game tells me in great detail that I was born and raised in Vault 101, that my dad is Doctor Liam Neeson and that my character is big on BB guns and cockroach killing. All these things make for interesting stories and characteristics, but they’re limiting my options as to what I can decide for myself. And I can’t pretend it’s not the case, as ignoring the context isn’t really the point when the world and its ongoing history is the main thing I’m here to interact with.

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Actually, this example may be a little too on-the-nose.

Mass Effect is probably the biggest example of this problem, but you can also see what it’s done to try and compensate. Shepherd has to be something very specific in order to fit within the plot – a tactical genius with a vested interest in saving the world – but that information is going against the RP in RPG. It’s pretty limiting from the start, and the best Mass Effect can do is to give us control of his/her appearance and methodology on route to that goal.

It’s true that context is a difficult balancing act to get right. You have to give the player the power to create their own experience, but crafting lots of options takes time and the player is incredibly likely to ruin a carefully-crafted story if given the chance. Going-off script usually goes poorly, because the script is where all the effort and intelligence is found. Hence why most quests tend to have two possible paths, good and evil, with maybe an additional neutral route if they’re putting the effort in.

As we move on to the limitations of mechanics, which to my mind is the bigger problem. Like I said before, there’s only so many routes and roads to endgame that a designer can think of, and as a result they tend to be… Broader, I suppose, but less impressive for that reason. With only the budget or time for about three paths per quest, most designers tend to default to that good/neutral/evil combination. And that makes sense to characterise those approaches with broad ideas, but any nuance, detail, or finesse – the stuff that makes a character seem realistic – gets lost in the process. Hell, we all know that evil choices usually default to a cackling, gleefully malevolent devil in human form.

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Pick your dialogue from the following: 1. Hello, fine friend! 2. I acknowledge your presence, functional companion. 3. Bow down before me, pathetic automaton!

But surely there’s more kinds of monster than that? What about the dark, silent, threatening figure who cuts people down without pomp or ceremony? What about the weak-willed coward who can’t quite bring himself to do the right thing, or the silver-tongued liar who tries to weasel his way through every situation? I’m not saying that there aren’t games that feature these options, but I doubt there’s many that feature all of them.

And the limitations of mechanics don’t stop there. If I’m riding the prisoner cart in Skyrim and I decide I want to play a legendary swordmaster who irked the Empire once too often, I do bump against the problem of my “One-handed” stat not even being high enough to worry the average rabbit. Playing Hatori Hanzo feels a bit out of the question when my stats tell me I can barely deduce which end of my blade is the dangerous one.

But alternatively, what about methods that the game doesn’t recognise? Video game, today I feel like pretending to be some dirty, underhanded fighter who doesn’t play by the rules and uses whatever tactics guarantee their survival in… Eh? You mean I can’t throw sand in my opponents’ faces or kick them in the ‘nads when they’re not expecting it? Guess that character concept is thrown to the wind with so many others, when all I can do is generically slash at people.

And of course there’s the problem of obvious mechanics that the game doesn’t take into account. Maybe I’m just a prude with an overdeveloped sense of privacy, but why is that after escaping the chopping block in Elder Scrolls, I can rock up at someone’s house at two in the morning to hand in a quest, shaking them awake whilst wearing only my underwear and a dragonbone helmet, and they don’t have a word to say about it? This might sound like a silly complaint, but role-playing lives or dies on immersion, and the fact that a world can and will function so weirdly breaks that immersion. Wait a moment, I’m not a wandering hero looking for the next paying job. I’m a poorly-shaved geek looking at a computer screen, and the person we’re addressing is just a stack of programmed data and carefully crafted textures.

Curse you, real life. You just love to ruin everything, don’t you?

Look, I’m not saying that the designers aren’t doing a good job, but they’re fighting a losing battle. A few gigabytes can’t match up to the breadth and depth of the human imagination, and as a result there’s something lost in the attempt to bring a fully developed human being to life in this way. It’s like cooking some humungous seven-course meal, only to find out that most of your guests have some kind of allergy or eating restriction. By the time you’ve cut out everything that can’t be used, it’s only dry rice and water.

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Greetings, sentient wood carving! Pull up a chisel and tell me what brought you here.

Fortunately, there are places to be found that role-playing thrives, namely the tabletop role-playing games of olde, a la Dungeons And Dragons, Pathfinder, Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Traveller, Mutants And Masterminds, and so on. It’s a little easier to play a character when you’ve got somebody tailoring the experience to you, and it’s a lot easier when the whole adventure is designed with you in mind. One of the most role-play intense experiences I ever had was a one-player/one gamemaster series of adventures in the cyberpunk world of Shadowrun, where everything that happened was about my character and how the world related to him, adapting and developing in the wake of the actions he performed, and the people he blew up.

Perhaps D&D and its ilk have spoiled me in this regard, and I admit that I wouldn’t be surprised to see games stretching themselves to provide more and more options as time goes on. But true role-playing can only be limited by imagination, and a game can’t really accommodate all of human ingenuity. Besides, players live to ruin things for the person running the game. Any experienced gamemaster will tell you that.

FIREWATCH REVIEW

Walking simulators are always slightly odd, aren’t they? To my mind they feel eerily reminiscent of the old point-and-click adventure games, only without the pointing and clicking, which ironically was usually the worst bit of point-and-click adventure games. You didn’t spend two hours bumbling around Monkey Island trying to work out how to combine some aspect of the landscape with a packet of breath mints and a dented spade for your own enjoyment. There was always way too much trial and error to get any pleasure from it all, not to mention that the LucasArts and Sierra games treated logic and common sense like something that was only weighing them down.

No, you put up with all this rubbish because you got the reward of story and dialogue at the other end, with the possible addition of a pixelated set of breasts if you were playing Leisure Suit Larry, you loser. But walking simulators – sorry, interactive narratives – seem to have just cut out the middle-man, edging ever closer to that fine line which separates a video game from just being a DVD with a really detailed menu screen.

Whatever. It seems that large, open-ended maps with somebody talking in your ear is now a genre in its own right, and whether that genre lives or dies depends on the conversation skills of the ear-dwellers who accompany you. The Stanley Parable and The Beginner’s Guide were solid because of their writing, but in these games if there’s any time that somebody isn’t talking at you, it all becomes increasingly dull, mainly because you have less power to affect useful change than the average horse. Check out Proteus for an example of that experience, one that’s like being suffocated to death with a particularly vibrant pillow.

So the pressure was on Firewatch to pull its finger out and really show all those bigwigs and AAA jocks from the football team how good narratives are done. Not that those jocks could give a festering ham slice for the quality of their own stories, having multiplayer and gameplay to fall back on; but I suppose we work with achievable goals or else we go mad, right? Hell, that’s why I’m giving up smiling next year.

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“This is Rubber Duck to Feather Duster. Come in, Feather Duster… And what are you wearing, by the way?”

And for what it’s worth, Firewatch’s story is good… Mostly. We begin with an effective introduction sequence that details the life and loves of Henry, a middle-aged, bearded everyman that grows guilty and panicked in the wake of a tragedy he feels he can do nothing about, and literally flees into the woods to escape, signing up to become a lookout in a national park for several months. And within ten minutes he’s started a weirdly personal relationship with Delilah, another lookout who he never actually meets, but maintains near-permanent radio contact with as the game goes on.

What I like about Firewatch is that it’s fairly coy about its intentions for the whole first act. Several story threads sprout like beanstalks almost immediately, and it’s difficult to guess whether you’re going to experience horror, comedy, drama or what-have-you. Which doesn’t mean that the story is indecisive, only that it’s so humanly chaotic that it really does feel like it could conceivably go anywhere.

But for those who want some indication of what to expect, you’re basically in for a character drama, which then starts to lean towards a psychological thriller in the second half. And both of these work pretty well. Henry and Delilah are both compelling, likeable characters with good chemistry between them, and the game’s main mechanic of rewarding exploration with more dialogue is pulled off superbly, purely because it’s nice to hear them bounce off each other in yet another light-hearted conversation that clearly has more significance than either of them would like to admit. The first act (and most of the second) is basically the story of their blossoming friendship, and this means that we have a very firm grasp of their characters when the thriller plotline rolls around, and as thriller plots go, it’s a goodie. I won’t spoil, but Henry makes a discovery that throws all his time there into doubt and suspicion, whilst a mysterious third party toys with them from the shadows. It’s pretty killer stuff, and the further I got into the mystery, the more I was hooked. It even gets genuinely intimidating at times, stumbling through a dark forest when you know that there are probably eyes trained on you – but god knows where from, or who’s watching.

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Well, at least Jack Torrance lasted longer at the Overlook this year.

“But Joel,” I hear you ask, “if Firewatch does all these things right, then why did you preface your Pulitzer-worthy analysis by saying that it was ‘mostly’ good?”

Well, person who just offered that question to a computer screen, I’m glad you asked. Partly because we now know you’re unstable and can avoid you at parties, lest you strike up a chat with the television, but also because it leads into my primary criticism of this ‘ere game.

For Firewatch, having really grabbed my attention for most of the main story, then turns around and craps itself in the last forty-five minutes. The thriller plotline, having been all onions and gravy so far, is then required to deliver an explanation for the mystery in order that we may bring this saga to a satisfactory close. Sad to say that onions and gravy don’t last for ever, and we’re left with dry bread to chew on until the curtains fall.

For the mystery’s conclusion has all the impact of a dead bee falling into a swimming pool, as the writers picked out the flattest, least interesting answer and just offered it up to us without any real panache. I won’t say it doesn’t make sense in context, but it feels unworthy of the set-up and doesn’t appear to have any real weight. Hell, even if it turned out that Q from Star Trek had been screwing with us the whole time, it would’ve made for interesting conversation, despite being bonkers. But we don’t get that here, just something that feels small, cheap, easy and unremarkable. And though the absence of other people is good for setting up the atmosphere early on, in those last sequences you can feel the game straining for reasons to keep you isolated.

Look, I don’t want to make suppositions about projects that I wasn’t involved with. Who knows what happens between that first pitch and final result, right? For that reason, I’d never say that Firewatch is a game that had the first two acts written in a burst of excited inspiration, before the writers then realised that they had no idea what it was all building up to. I wouldn’t say that, I don’t know what the truth of the matter is…

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It looks like I took a wrong turn on the way to Albuquerque! Neheheheheh!

…But it wouldn’t surprise me at all if that were the case. And now I’m on this well-trodden path of negative thought, it’s also worth acknowledging that the park itself starts to get a little dull to walk through after a while. It’s certainly very beautiful, with a slightly stylised look that promotes bright colours and changes naturally between environments without ever feeling like we’ve just jumped between two Minecraft biomes, but the park is smaller than it seems and ends up becoming less explorative and more of a commute. Using the map and compass to find your way around is a rather nice feature, though. I suppose that’s more gameplay than most of these interactive narratives will usually offer.

Do I recommend Firewatch? I suppose I do, yes. It’s only a few hours and doesn’t offer much in terms of replayability, but the first two acts are strong enough to be a real guide on how to do these kinds of games well, even if the ending evokes the image of somebody using up all their inspiration too soon and having to weakly bring the whole thing to some sort of technical conclusion. I hear there’s something you can take for that, but if you find yourself still writing after four hours than you may want to book an appointment with an editor.


 

7.5/10

Firewatch aims higher than most walking simulators, with a deeply-personal story that organically expands into a larger mystery with intriguing stakes, but then decides it’s not as brave as it thought it was and throws out a paper-thin ending to mollify the audience. That said, three-quarters of the story is more than solid, and the environments are nicely designed, if a little too small.

DRAGONBALL XENOVERSE 2 REVIEW

Nobody was more surprised than me to find out that they liked Dragonball Xenoverse. Why would I like it? I don’t much care for anime, I flat-out dislike Dragonball, and fighting games were never much my bag either. No Street Fighter obsessive, nor weeaboo hugging his Android 18 body pillow to be found here, I’m afraid. I’m too busy playing Dungeons and Dragons to engage in such loser hobbies.

So when I realised that Xenoverse was a very solid combat game that really leant into the power fantasy of it all, I suddenly realised I was having a whale of a time. Yes, the story is fanservice nonsense that wouldn’t pass muster in a third-grade writing exam, but it doesn’t intrude on gameplay much and allows you to rocket around the sky kicking aliens without issue. God bless the skip-cutscene button, a function that served me even better than the pause menu.

Which left the player free to indulge in high-octane lunacy, as you fire various beams of energy at improbably resilient foes, who all fly around smacking each other like a civil war broke out on Krypton. And the game rewarding you with new fighting techniques and characters to play as means that it all feeds nicely into itself. Colour me excited for Xenoverse 2, then.

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Joelku’s back, bitches! And this time, his dress sense is worse than ever!

But the problem is that I did something before playing Xenoverse 2 that I suspect the developers were hoping I hadn’t done recently: I played Xenoverse 1. And this, as I would soon come to realise, was a major problem.

Because Bandai-Namco’s new anime odyssey isn’t really a sequel, it’s an upgrade. It’s not like buying a new phone, it’s more akin to updating the software, and the number of assets, mechanics, powers, ideas and locations that have been copy-pasted from the first Xenoverse to the second is pretty unimpressive. I wasn’t hoping for a complete overhaul of the system, but you’re more likely to come across old content than new content as you power through the campaign in “Dragonball Xenoverse 1.5.”

But I must say that there was a rather neat function whereby you can import your created character from the first game into the second, where he then becomes an NPC that features in the story. The former protagonist has now become a de facto legend and high-ranking member of the rather scrappy and slightly stupid Time Patrollers, the recurring organisation of weirdos who go around making sure that history doesn’t change too much in the wake of irresponsible ruffians like Doctor Who, the little fez-wearing bastard.

The above premise isn’t a terrible one, but it’s not handled particularly well and the story can’t quite figure out what it wants to be, other than a Dragonball Tribute Band. For one thing, it never becomes clear why changing history is such a bad thing, especially when you choose to do so at one point in the narrative and nothing bad happens as a result.

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Pew pew pew! Take that, Vegeta! How dare you try to overshadow the far-less interesting protagonist! How dare you go through an engaging character arc!

Not to mention that the undisciplined, clubhouse feel of the Time Patrollers is a genuine plot flaw that only becomes more notable as you progress through the story and see just how slapdash this whole thing seems to be. I practically expect to hear that old joke being shouted out:

“What are the patroller’s coordinates?”

“Sir, I’m afraid he’s uncoordinated.”

I can’t remember where that line is from (and that’s been driving me nuts for weeks), but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t apply to the Time Patrollers. A band of well-intentioned and overpowered mooks sit on a giant island floating somewhere outside of reality, with no real rules or even method to their madness. And all of these super-bozos are being led (rather frighteningly) by a cast of oddballs that include Hitler The Elderly Aubergine, Manic Pixie Dream God, and a mopey idiot with a large sword and out-of-season overcoat. Seriously, if I got a penny for every time that Trunks screws up over the course of the game, I could buy his mother’s company three times over. Ooh, look at me picking up knowledge of the world as I play. If I keep this up, dear reader, you have full permission to blow my head off.

‘Cause I ain’t here for story, partly because it’s the same plot as last time. Some ruffian is going through history and trying to change it by granting extra power to old villains, and you drop in with your create-a-character to show them what-for, ensuring that all the established canon remains canonical. Because god forbid we do anything daring, like play with the stories a bit and see what new material we could draw from them. Did everyone just forget how cool it was when Arkham City did that?

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Oh god, I HATE when this shit happens in anime and cartoons! Stop laughing, it’s so creepy!

But much like the first Xenoverse, it’s clearly a game made for fans, by fans. You want to help Goku beat up Frieza? Done. You want to read somebody’s power level? Just slap on a scouter. You want to perform every move and ability demonstrated in the show? They’re all waiting to be unlocked. You want to collect the Dragonballs and make a wish?

Ooh, hell yes! Can I ask for immortality?

Er, actually not. We had to remove that option to prevent the game from being broken, but look! You can get a giant radish as a cosmetic item instead, gifted to you by the mighty Shenron and his universal omnipotence! Hooray for magical root vegetables!

… Mister Critic, Why do you look so angry?

Beyond that, the mechanics are pretty similar to the first game. You fly around arenas performing combos on goons with a bunch of stats and superpowers backing you up, balancing ki and stamina meters as you do. And frankly, it all works well. It was fun before and it’s fun now, but the thing that Xenoverse realised early on, as mentioned, was that the best reward for killing goons is more ways to kill goons. Most missions give you a new move or technique when you beat them, and you can swap out the attacks you know for different ones, Pokémon style. And whilst most of the abilities available here are imported from the previous game, there’s enough additions to the roster to keep things somewhat fresh.

That being said, the combat does feel a bit… Stickier than before. There’s a few new forms of basic attack to play around with that makes things more organic, but the game as an odd habit of making your character stop moving after certain attacks, whereupon somebody covered in particle effects comes around and kicks your head in. And whereas before now, when punching an enemy across the map caused you to teleport cleanly after them, now the player characters fly in a locked route to pursue them as part of the attack animation, which means you get stuck on the geometry of the world really easily, flying into mountains or buildings that were uncooperative enough to be standing there.

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“Wow, this guy tripped and fell really hard.”

Oh, and there’s a few more problems that weren’t solved from the first game. Keeping secondary objectives as a secret until the player solves them makes less sense than a warm-hearted Tory, and the fact that certain items and skills are given to you randomly at the end of each challenge is a right pain in the bum. When I power through a mission and manage to reach a perfect score, only for the game to spin a roulette wheel and decide that I don’t deserve anything better than a participation award, that’s some serious crap that no game designer should’ve been happy to sign for. Especially when I know, deep down, that some other dope has muddled through with a piss-poor performance and still been given all the planet-busting super moves. Not cool, Xenoverse.

But let’s move on. One of the big new changes is the hubworld, which the advertising boasted as being seven times larger than the one in the last game. Is it wrong to admit that I don’t care about this? The hubworld is just a place to pick up missions, it doesn’t need to be bigger than a single room with a sign-up sheet pinned to the wall. And hell, the last game’s base of operations was too big already, so I don’t know what the developers thought they could achieve by doubling down on that.

This problem of size is alleviated by two solutions. The first is a little hoverboard that you can beetle around on for increased speed, and let’s be clear about this – that stupid machine sucks more arse than the average colonic. It controls badly, goes alternatively either too fast or too slow, is constantly overshooting because of momentum, and if you bump into something there’s a brief, unskippable animation where your character clutches his head and wonders about the choices he made in life. The amount of times I’d be scaling the long staircase up to where the story missions are kept, only to shoot off the end of them and come crashing back down to the ground level again… Yeah, to hell with that bloody Marty McFly contraption.

The form of hubworld movement is introduced about a third of the way into the game – just let the players use their flying ability like they do in combat. And because flying is fast, easy to control, allows you to scale heights without issue and just lets you go straight over any obstacles in your path, there is never a reason to get out the hoverboard again. One wonders why we couldn’t just fly from the beginning, and the only reason I can think of is that the developers wanted to annoy me. Perhaps there is a different explanation, but I can’t think of one.

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Wait, you think I need a haircut? But I kinda like this “Sonic The Hedgehog” look!

By the way, anybody signing up for online play might find themselves getting impatient as they stare at loading screens and empty lobbies. The final thing that got carried over from the first game was the occasional crash and poor server quality, where being kicked from your match halfway in was less of an exception and more the norm. Even as I was writing this, a notification popped up from the publishers telling me that trying to use the Dragonballs in a public server was pretty likely to freeze the game, and that I should refrain from doing so if I wanted the best experience. Maybe they could’ve told me that a couple of days earlier, when that exact thing happened to me. Low effort, must try harder, etc etc.

Oh, and one other thing: Remember how certain characters could teach you their trademark moves if you beat them up for a bit, and occasionally joined you in missions if you were playing badly? They’re back, and ‘ere you resent this game for having them spawn and despawn randomly like they did in the first one, this time when they appear somewhere they have the common decency to stay put. That’s definitely an improvement, but like the ability to fly between missions, cutting out some of the RNG was a decision that didn’t feel anything less than blindingly obvious. It would’ve been an embarrassment if they hadn’t done that.

Dragonball Xenoverse 2 is indeed better than its predecessor, but not by much. A couple of stumbling steps forward does not imply some great leap of evolution, nor does it warrant forty pounds from those who already own the previous one. If I wanted to pay money to go in circles I’d charter a party bus and load it with prostitutes as we drive around a roundabout, because I’d have a better time and certainly a fresher experience.

That being said, I did just admit that Xenoverse 2 is a superior form of Xenoverse 1, a game that I like. And I probably would recommend the sequel to anybody who doesn’t own the original, because it’s a fairly enjoyable experience, but that doesn’t change the fact that I do feel a little sour about all this. It’s another time where the Steam refund policy looks like it could use a change, because it took me longer than two hours to realise that I was playing with the first game in a slightly shinier dress, all because those first two hours are mostly cutscenes and tutorials.

Those of you who are unsure about buying it should probably wait for the price to drop. Those of you who loved the first installment are getting more of the same, so you’ll probably be happy. On the other hand, anybody who isn’t big on games like the Naruto Shippuden franchise isn’t likely to be very happy. Being an unappeasable critic, I haven’t been happy since 1998, but Dragonball Xenoverse 2 did occasionally prompt some stirring of emotion that might approximate to approval. If you ever wished you’d bought the original, shell out for this extended cut. If you weren’t won over by the previous entry, this isn’t going to change your mind.


 

6/10

Dragonball Xenoverse 2 picks up where the old game left off, and very decisively chooses to stay there, making very little progress and refusing to develop itself beyond a few fringe aspects to gameplay. Why should you buy this when the original is still there? I’m not sure, I’ll tell you when I’ve thought of a reason.

PONY ISLAND REVIEW – “MOUTH LASERS ARE NOT ENOUGH”

I have a soft spot for indie game development, as everybody who reads my work knows. I tend to be kinder in my reviews, more encouraging in my feedback, and more willing to part with my money when it comes to that final choice of buy/deny.

And that’s because indie game development is very important to the gaming community, perhaps more so than the big AAA stuff that gets the most attention. Gaming was founded on small projects made by people working out of their homes and universities, and even now the indie stuff feels like the most creatively liberated section, willing to take risks and make artistic statements – so good on them.

And because of that, I was approaching Pony Island with a certain amount of hope and expectation. After all, the information I picked up was certainly positive, and it all seemed to gel with the sort of things that I like. Classic arcade gaming with a subtle depth beneath it? Intriguing. Subversion of traditional visuals by infusing them with a darker edge? That can certainly work. Shooting Jesus in the face with a laser made of Matrix code?

… Well, now I’ve got to try it, right?

So Pony Island is a very short game that uses fourth-wall humour and underlying metacommentary in the main story, with a deceptively cheery old-style arcade game appearance presented as a façade over the whole thing. The façade falls away as we progress through the game, and as it becomes more clear that certain forces, both good and evil, are trying to manipulate you into performing actions that will have far greater consequences than achieving a new high score.

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BLAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAActually, this rather hurts my throat to do.

Now, I double-checked the timing on Pony Island’s release, and saw that it came out only three months after Toby Fox’s modern classic, Undertale. So I certainly won’t say that Pony Island was made out of some rushed attempt to leap onto an existing bandwagon, because most game development takes longer than three months. And like I said: it’s indie development. I want to be kind here.

But if it’s not guilty of being a copycat, it may be a victim of unfortunate timing. It certainly hits a lot of the same notes as Undertale. There’s a villain who seems exaggeratedly cute at first, there’s retro-gameplay altered in theme to meet modern sensibilities, excessive levels of games-talking-‘bout-games and even the same ending as Undertale, with one of the characters speaking directly to the audience and asking them not to player the game anymore.

An instruction I was all too happy to follow, as this is the question that was plaguing me throughout the two or three hours necessary to win: if Pony Island is a spiritual successor to Undertale, why do I love the latter whilst finding this new pretender rather insufferable?

It might be because the story feels a little bit too much like a gimmick, and doesn’t really know what to do with the good ideas it does have. To begin with, the game is way too excited about throwing away the initial illusion of cutesy “My Little Pony” visuals, which barely lasts five minutes before we get the darker stuff overriding it. We’re not even half an hour through before they’ve broken out the demonic pentagrams and creepy music. Oh look, a game about unicorns jumping over gates is actually a scam utilised by the Devil himself to gather souls. Man, that’s not something I’d expect Uncle D to be using. What? No, I’m not yawning. I’m, uh, silently gasping in terror. Yeah, let’s go with that.

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Lovey the Flower! No, hold on.

Which brings me to my second point – shouldn’t the antagonist be more threatening? Shouldn’t I feel more of a motivation to win? Undertale made me scared of a smiling yellow flower, and Reigns was clever enough to make a lovable dog seem unaccountably creepy. But the devil here just feels like an annoyance, something that throws a multitude of inconvenient (but by no means concerning) obstacles in your path. It’s like trying to write an essay, and every couple of hours somebody pops up and deletes a random sentence. Pretty weak stuff, I think you’ll agree. And with no real characterisation for either the player character or the NPCs, I never get the sense of anybody actually being in danger or grief. At one point the player is allegedly sent to sleep and trapped for three centuries, but so what? We see no consequences; we don’t become bothered by anything. We just sit back down and keep playing. Why is this supposed to concern me?

And the metanarrative is just as shallow, highlighting why such ideas can either turn out as gold or mould. Maybe I should stop belabouring the point, but Undertale was wise enough to initially keep its bigger ideas in the background as underlying subtext, and then had them emerge forward as the game progressed. So it starts off by drawing us in with characters, then doubles down by connecting the more philosophical stuff to the main plot later on. It also had much more interesting ideas than this game. What would the ability to save and repeatedly reload your life do to a moral mind? How would the ideas of grinding for experience or trying to reach total completion look in a real-world context?

Pony Island doesn’t seem to have any thoughts on that level, or even any real thoughts at all. There are moments where you step away from the fictional arcade machine you’re playing, and bits where you get on the developer’s nerves by cheating or playing unfinished levels, but there’s no deeper meaning to any of it. It’s just… There. I guess it’s meant to be funny, but I didn’t find myself laughing – the ultimate nail in the coffin of the comedy game.

Which isn’t to say there aren’t parts I like. Or perhaps I should say part, singular. It’s just one scene, but it’s a very clever scene where you have to keep your eye trained on a certain entity to see how it changes, and the game tries everything it can to distract you, to make you look away. I won’t spoil what happens, but needless to say that the game really does pull out all stops and makes it near-impossible that first time you try, utilising the kind of tricks I’d never expect, yet somehow manages not to feel cheap in its tactics. There’s no deeper meaning behind it, but that doesn’t mean the basic idea in that scene isn’t clever and well-made, so due respect there.

Because it’s better than the gameplay, which was definitely getting to be a chore by the end. I suppose it’s in keeping with the joke that this is silly, shallow arcade gameplay, but let’s remember something – you’re still making me play a shallow arcade game. For lengthy periods of time. That might not have been the smartest move to perform on somebody who’s already losing patience with your creation to begin with.

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Don’t let me type stuff into video games. That never ends well.

There are two forms of core gameplay: the platforming sections and the hacking sections, and they both suck. The former is briefly entertaining until the developers run out of abilities to give you (two), having you jump over obstacles and blast enemies with your mouth laser in 2D side-scrolling perspective. But once it’s gotten those bits out the way, the game has nothing more to offer action-wise, except for the occasional alteration in who you fight. But considering Code Genie, Angry Flying Skull Thing and Lord Giant Boss Demon Monster Sr. all go down with a hearty dose of tonsil beams to the face, there’s no real change that comes across as significant to the player.

But it’s better than the hacking, which is represented by that age-old pipe-water game AGAIN. The game does its best to hide it by adding a heavy computer-code aesthetic, but it’s still steering an object around a grid by swapping out directed sections of a maze. Pony Island, we talked about this just a few days ago. I know Bioshock was an incredible game, but it’s now widely accepted that hacking the vending machines was the one element that sucked more cock than a hungry leech in a chicken coop. Out of all the Bioshock aspects you could’ve taken inspiration from, why that one? It’s like deciding that the best part of National Lampoon’s Vacation is that racist scene in the city slums.

I’m torn on to whether to recommend Pony Island or not. On one hand, it is incredibly cheap at only four pounds, and some people do really seem to like it. Not to mention that if I’m going to give my money to anybody, I do want it to be small-scale artists trying to succeed with creatively interesting ideas.

But on the other hand, I don’t like this game! Four pounds isn’t much, but paying any amount of cash for an unenjoyable experience is wrong. That’s why going to visit distant relatives for Christmas is so utterly depressing, and why you usually bring heavy amounts of booze to compensate. But I didn’t have any alcohol to hand with this one, and when my flatmate asked me to help her tidy the kitchen, I was only too pleased to escape.

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OH GOD NOT AGAIN

Though I did get to what seems like the canonical ending of Pony Island, the achievement list does suggest more gameplay and narrative hidden in there somewhere… But I don’t care. My work is officially over when the credits start rolling. If you want me to play more than that, you need to seduce me with some good material, and you can consider me as dry as a nun on this one. Maybe give it a try if you like your fourth-wall humour, or have just taken a great deal of drugs and need something entertaining in the background.


4/10

Pony Island has high ambitions, honourable intentions and even a few good ideas – but none of them ever amount to much. Generally inoffensive but nowhere near as original as it believes it is, the game becomes boring and eventually meanders into the frustrating.

WHAT WOULD JOEL DO… IN THE DISHONORED FRANCHISE?

Dishonored (which I will always maintain is spelt wrong, America) was one of those games which has received both too much and too little praise. This first-person stealth game was a critical darling upon release in 2012, achieving a stream of awards and much slobber from the online websites, even BEFORE most of them had been paid to like it.

And though audiences were positive and no real complaints were raised, the game faded in the minds of the public, likely due to the lack of multiplayer, the focus on a complex setting, a sense of genuine challenge and the fact that no gender controversies were made about it. These are all things that make it work in my mind, but that’s me – always bucking the trends to look cool. And people say critics don’t represent the people! To that I say: of course not, who the hell would want to? In the ancient Caddyshack war of Snobs versus Slobs, I stand firmly with Ted Knight against the invading forces of Rodney Dangerfield.

But I’m getting off-message. Dishonored was a good (if somewhat flawed) game, and with a sequel scheduled for release in November, I took it upon myself to consider how a potential follow-up might work. The answer? Well, read on, you lazy goose. I’m not going to do all the work for you.


STORY

Let’s consider things in reverse to what we did for Zelda (where we decided story should inform gameplay), because here we actually do have an excellent template for what a Dishonored sequel should be like: the Boyle Masquarade Ball in the first game. The absolute highlight of the whole affair, and a good blend of gameplay, world-building, organic side-quests, physical and social stealth with multiple solutions to a single problem: how do we work out which of the creepy women in wolf masks is our target, and how do we guarantee that she’s never seen again after this night?

And one of the things that made that mission work was that it was when the game suddenly had a lot more character. Thus, I would make our hero something very different to the silent, staring Corvo Attano in the first game. In this instalment the protagonist (we’ll call him Monty, purely because I like the name), is a charming raconteur and daring wit, the cream of high society… And also an accomplished cat burglar, going under the suitably thrilling name of “The Fox” when it comes to the popular press.

Bam. A solid set-up for a stealth game (yes, I know it’s similar to Thief, but there hasn’t been a good Thief game for ages, so I’mma take it), with bona ride reasons why our hero can sneak around at a professional level, not to mention why he’s breaking into places right from the start. When he’s seen trespassing, his mask covers his face and identity, and when he’s hiding in plain sight, he takes off that mask, and just goes around looking innocent and putting up a façade of endearing buffoonery. Basically, he’s a combination of the Scarlet Pimpernel and Batman, with all the delightful fun that implies.

Then we need some inciting incident, after a couple of tutorial missions where we just pinch large diamonds and so on. To my mind, two things would happen in tandem – Monty would steal something that’s much more valuable and important than he immediately realises, and simultaneously be visited by the ghost of Edward Cullen (aka, the Outsider), to be given a stack of magic powers to do with as he wishes.

And everything then happens at once. Monty makes a few selfish decisions regarding the mysterious item (i.e., keeping the damn thing), resulting in a friend of his being hurt/killed by somebody who’s intent on taking it back. Monty decides he’s not going to stand for that, and works to discover the true purpose of his new toy whilst looking to get revenge on the faction that seeks to take it from him, a la The Count Of Monte Cristo. Oh, did you see what I did there?

As he does so, he finds that he’s being pursued by a deadly assassin that is more reminiscent of Daud and Corvo from the previous game, a symbol of Dunwall’s grim past that needs to be overcome and left there, in favour of the lighter, more merciful approach that Monty embodies. Along this journey he’ll come to understand that his actions have consequences and that he must learn to think about others… But that doesn’t mean he can’t pinch a couple of rare baubles from blustering nobles now and then. Got to have some fun, right?


SETTING

This one is tricky. Partly because Arkane Studios did such a good job of crafting the city of Dunwall the first time around, that it’s hard to think of specific areas where it can be improved. I know that the main characters in the first game seemed to lack the depth and substance of the world they lived in, but that’s one of those things that you can assume gets fixed for this one, like bringing your car in for a tire change and assuming that the tire will actually be attached to the car when you leave.

The real problem here is one of tone. Corvo’s grim saga of betrayal, revenge and revolution was a good fit for a city where everything seemed to be going wrong on an hourly basis, including an attack of zombie plague and a militant fascistic movement taking people’s liberties like one takes Twiglets from the bowl.

But the initial cheerfulness of The Fox’s life feels like we’re in a far lighter story, especially considering his own attitude. And whilst I suppose the city wouldn’t have to be Dunwall, it does feel cheap to move away from it purely for that reason.

So we’ll stick with the same city, but we’ll approach it in a time of relative prosperity. It’s not perfect – one of the likely themes considered would be the disparity of the poor versus the wealthy – but it’s doing well enough and doesn’t seem to need immediate saving from anything at the time. It’s like Gotham City between issues of Batman, whereas Dunwall previously felt like Gotham City in the third act of a major Batman arc – namely, completely buggered to hell. We navigate bustling cobblestone roads, cane tapping cheerfully as we glide between street urchins and market vendors. Then, when nobody’s looking, we duck into an alleyway, put on the mask of The Fox…


STEALTH AND COMBAT

… And the challenge begins anew! First of all, I should urge that I like the idea of Monty being a legitimate inventor, crafting strange and wonderful devices to help him accomplish his burglaries. To my mind he would make a good descendant of Piero, the brilliant but uncomfortable man in the first game – maybe a grandson? Ah, doesn’t matter too much.

So we have a combination of gadgets, black magic and natural agility working to ensure that the bad guys get bonked, the jewels get jacked and the guards stay unguarded. And the next priority is to clearly categorise these abilities and their purposes.

I’m thinking that black magic and Outsider powers should relate to mobility and interaction with the environment, and be the cornerstone of “I’m stealthing around, and I’m staying that way.” We keep the teleport “blink” power and X-Ray vision because they’re awesome, but we also add powers like levitating objects, sealing certain doors closed, making unconscious bodies invisible and triggering sounds at a distance to distract people.

By the way, hiding bodies is now more important than ever. For Monty is a thief, not a killer, and he does NOT leave a bloody trail behind him. He knows how to use his reinforced cane for self-defence and he knocks people unconscious when he has to, but he doesn’t skewer them like kebabs and doesn’t summon hordes of rats to eat them alive. This might seem discordant after the potentially apocalyptic death count of the first game, but even then you were subtly praised for staying your hand and utilising non-lethal approaches. Besides, this is a new age for Dunwall, and moving past the darkness of what it once was is a key element of the story here. It’s also undeniable that Monty would seem slightly twisted if he kept a sense of humour alongside his blood-stained dagger. Uncharted proved that the lovable hero becomes a lot less lovable when he starts breaking necks like a turkey farmer approaching Thanksgiving.

So you do have to be sure that nobody’s going to find the sleeping guards, because you can’t just turn them into dust when you’ve finished hacking them pieces this time. And It’s going to be harder than ever to keep them hidden, because one very valid criticism of the first game was that the guards were incredibly easy to navigate. They’d walk across a room, pick their nose for a bit, then walk back to where they were and repeat the whole process. No chance of being surprised by somebody taking a long circuitous route, which is usually where the average stealth game is at its most interesting – having to improvise in a heartbeat.

Beyond that, the original game doesn’t need excessive revitalising. The stealth worked then, still works now, and is made more enjoyable by the scope of options given to you. Admittedly, I would like to see more of a use to the environment other than platforming. Maybe killing the lights by finding switches in the basement, or sneaking up behind goons to put sleeping powder in their hip flasks. But Dishonored did that sort of thing fine, so I won’t say that it needs fixing, only emphasising the strong points. And then there’s something that does not need emphasising at all.


COMBAT

Look, I know Dishonored 1 proudly tells you to play it your way, but that leads to a lack of focus and a fundamental problem: if I’m just trying to get to the end of the game without much thought to specific tactics, why wouldn’t I just load up my pistol and grenades (something most enemies drop after being murdered), and hack through everybody who comes into my sight line? Dishonored’s swashbuckling was fun, but ultimately easier to do than sneaking if you were happy to go lethal, especially when certain powers only had capacity for loud, lethal means.

Here that doesn’t fly anymore. I said The Fox was a good fighter, but there’s a reason he doesn’t charge in and turn a burglary into a robbery – the odds of survival rapidly diminish as more enemies get involved. Fighting one dude? Yeah, should be fine as long as he’s not a real expert. Two guys? Bit tricky, but not terrible. Three? Well, now things are getting problematic.

This is where the gadgets and toys come into play – they provide means to escape or to end combat quickly when somebody advances on you with a sword. Tranquilliser darts, smoke bombs, flashbangs, and the steel walking cane for when you need to parry a cutlass strike or smack somebody in the chops. Maybe add some fun toys to that roster, like rope traps that’ll drag an unsuspecting thug into the air, but on the whole your various gadgets are to be used in the event of an emergency.

The reason for this is that combat is going to be a genuine problem, something that you really might not survive, with reinforcements charging in all the time to back up their friend. Anybody would call for back-up after being attacked by a man with a large walking stick and a selection of steampunk James Bond gadgets.


CHOICE

And now we come to the heart of the matter. Dishonored’s original choice system doesn’t really work, for a number of reasons. The deceit of “play it your way” means either taking the easy, evil option or the difficult, more merciful path, and that in itself is a problem. It’s well recognised at this point that most “evil endings” equate to a weak-willed game over screen, feeling ultimately cheap and unrewarding after hours spent striving to accomplish something.

But for this game we’ve shifted the focus more firmly onto stealth, and removed the option to slit the throats of people who treat you with disdain. And whilst I’m happy to keep a reactive gameplay experience, it can no longer be to who you kill and who you spare.

No, the game should be altered by your methodology and approach, something the original did do right to a certain degree. Maybe you find the location of a target or rare item by conversing with the chatterboxes in a crowd, or maybe you break into a guard’s office to see where the hired goons seem to have been assigned to, and peak in through the windows to see what’s inside. The approaches you take will affect future missions, with those who decipher your tactics taking steps to prevent them, and those who are on your side trying to support you accordingly. If you kill the power to a building so that you might blend into the shadows, the next one you go for will have the fuse box under lock and key, because they heard about what you’re up to, you rogue. Of course, if you really work hard and take extra risks, you could conceal your approach after everything, and get to use it with hindrance again next time.

The social stuff also has a good template for how to converse and persuade others – the dialogue minigame in Deus Ex: Human Revolution, one of the best means of approaching persuasion in video game history. It would be easy to reimagine reading people as an Outsider power, and the rather terrifying Heart from the first game would actually have a use in the secrets it told you.


CONCLUSION

Like Zelda, Dishonored is a good game that doesn’t need a complete overhaul, just recognition of what work and what doesn’t. But whereas Zelda’s problem comes from a distinct reluctance to change or innovate for the better, Dishonored is too young a series to be guilty of that. What it needs is urging on for the stuff that it has already worked out how to do right, and the sense of discipline and focus to pick out what works and what doesn’t. Maybe the sequel next month will be good, maybe it won’t. But Arkane Studios, just remember that I’m happy to do some work for the next game, hmm? I’m the only freelancer who’ll take his hourly rate in Cadbury’s, you know.